Are the burdens of being special greater or lesser than the burdens of being ordinary?
Academy City is a city that thrives on those who are espers -- who are special -- whether they already have powers or are trying to attain them. Everyone is reaching towards their ideal self, but some people don’t care what methods get used. The pursuit of the “next level” is absolute. If our limitations only exist so we can surpass them, should there be a limit to how far we can go to get there?
Toaru Kagaku no Railgun, or A Certain Scientific Railgun, follows the events around Misaka Mikoto
and her core group of friends and their exploits within the City. They are students, aiming to better their powers as espers. But in a city with a concentrated amount of people with special abilities, it’s only natural for the criminally-minded to try to carve out their own bit of power at the expense of others. To combat such an element and maintain civil order, the organization Judgment exists. Having a free-willed, ace-in-the-hole player like Misaka who keeps people in line all by herself doesn’t hurt either.
Misaka (affectionately dubbed “Biribiri”) is one of the most powerful espers in Academy City. Her ability to generate and manipulate electricity makes her a force that most overconfident thugs learn too late shouldn’t have been reckoned with. Kuroko is her best friend, a crazy and hyperactive girl whose yuri-obsession with her beloved “Onee-sama” is hilarious despite constant rejection. Teleportation of objects (herself included) is her esper proficiency, making her one of the more menacing opponents to come up against, despite the diminutive and cute appearance. Uiharu is the demure techie: easily embarrassed, but a wizard at hacking or culling information from any network. As a member of Judgment, she is often the “eye-in-the-sky” for Kuroko when they take action.
In a place brimming with espers, Saten is the most fascinating of the four. Her official designation is Level 0. She has no powers at all. Nevertheless, she attends classes and learns all there is to learn about being an esper. The teachers explain to the Level 0s like her that it’s possible to reach Level 1… but Saten always has a wistful look when the topic comes up. It’s clear she doesn’t have that kind of optimism. What does it mean to be that kind of outsider looking in? And how much worse is it to be in the middle of this incredible city, surrounded by so many exceptional people she’d love to be?
Academy City is almost a character in itself. It’s hard not to fall in love with it. Clean, stylish, dotted with wind generators, a near-futuristic center of learning and advanced scientific research, all the while supersaturated with technology. The juxtaposition of seemingly sentient trash-collector robots and soda machines that only work if you kick them appears to point out that we’ll always have some low-tech around.
Railgun fixes most every glaring problem that tripped up Toaru Majutsu no Index. Gone are Index’s occasional -- albeit entirely useless -- scenes where those involved in the higher echelons of running Academy City were up to some sinister, boring machinations. Fortunately, Railgun is much more down-to-earth. It also wisely limits the amount of talking that occurs during fight sequences. The action is left to unfold naturally, instead of cramming in reams of idealistic soliloquies that the Index villains probably weren’t even listening to. Finally, it does away with Index’s tendency to tell one mini-arc, followed by another mini-arc, followed by another mini-arc… ad nauseam that tended to make the show’s overall narrative out of focus and its pace too breakneck.
The structure of this show, however, is a bit of an odd thing and does deserve to be mulled over. It begins largely episodic with only a scattering of episodes focused entirely on the more serious arc that concludes at the halfway point. The second half is much the same. I say ‘odd’ because it’s a unique structure I’ve rarely come across. Most non-episodic anime tend to follow the same format as any other narrative medium: an identifiable conflict or targeted goal at the outset; gradual complications along the way; an ending with the inevitable climax and resolution.
Railgun mostly ignores that age-old wisdom. Twice.
The four or five episodes that precede each climax are strong, focused, and exciting. So if the creators were so capable, why not follow the arcs in every episode? Simply put, it seems to be a stylistic choice -- and one that is as refreshing as it is surprisingly effective. It frees up the story, allows our perspective of Academy City to expand by degrees and the characters a chance to breathe. The importance of the latter cannot be stressed enough. After all, our heroines are living here primarily to learn. It’s a given that attending classes and socializing are going to make up no small portion of their day-to-day lives.
That said, Kuroko and Uiharu’s work at Judgment comprises the larger portion. Most of the fun is watching them work on cases and hunt down perpetrators. Even though Misaka isn’t a part of Judgment, she often forces herself into the role of unofficial member. That she has this proclivity for beating up criminals isn’t so much that she’s a do-gooder, but rather that’s how she finds it easiest to protect her friends. She has an active investment in their well-being and specific meaningful relationships to lose if something goes wrong. This is, of course, all to say that it’s vastly more engaging to watch her and her cohorts, as opposed to a certain bed-headed, misfortunate guy with a chronic Helper Monkey Complex.
I usually don’t mention voice acting, but the consistent excellence is such that I can’t avoid it. Toyosaki Aki easily hits her highest note yet here and in one pivotal moment gives an amazing, touching performance. Even the always-talented Tanaka Atsuko creates a character that is very special. So to avoid a laundry list of names, let me simply say that if some of your favorite seiyuu are involved, it probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to urge you to check it out for that reason alone.
The OPs are as highly-charged as Misaka’s railgun and the EDs are catchy outros after all the excitement. In fact, the songs that bookend the show’s second half are as good as -- if not better than -- the first half’s. And here I thought it was some sort of sadistic tradition in anime for second-half OPs and EDs to be lacklustre.
The overall soundtrack is just as fantastic. Not only the music itself, but also its skillful use. At one point, a solitary piano begins playing, making us realize that since the episode started there hasn’t been any music. Instead of merely reinforcing the mood, it becomes the subtext that the characters can’t say. Later on when they connect to each other, a similar piano begins. As they are finally able to talk, more and more instruments are woven into the song as they become more and more desperate to express everything they wanted to say earlier.
Sound effects are another design element that truly shine. There is something so perfect in the execution of Biribiri’s electricity and Kuroko’s teleportation. It isn’t that Index’s sound effects for these abilities were bad at all, but rather that in Railgun they have been refined enough to be a little addicting to listen to. Likewise, the action of the fight scenes is as much aural as it is visual. Impact is visceral, whether against concrete or someone’s face.
The art is crisp and beautiful. The visual design is such that your eyes get drawn in, from a particularly huge parfait to some spellbinding fight choreography. Some close-up expressions of the characters are priceless. Unfortunately, certain distance shots of them can dip in quality. It’s a pity given the polished look of everything else around them, but comparatively speaking it’s easy to forgive as it doesn’t occur often.
Railgun is an anime that starts with a cast of memorable characters, tells a very entertaining story, and has the privilege of doing so with laudable production values. The questions it raises are thought-provoking and relevant. Even when the story meanders into a stand-alone episode that has no real bearing on the plot, it is always with a sense of how it fits into the overarching frame. Like its characters, the story breathes. At times it runs; at times it walks. And yes, also like its characters, sometimes it takes that random detour and ends up discovering something wholly unexpected. While science plays a large role in the show, all its elements end up filled with quite a bit of magic.
And that’s a certain kind of awesome.
Jan 5, 2010
Do we change our nature or does our nature change us?
In the town of Misaki, where last year’s so-called ‘Vampire Murders’ took place, a curse is manifesting itself by degrees. Anxiety is growing among the townspeople. Rumors start to spread that the serial murders are beginning anew. The sweltering heat and bits of bad luck that keep happening to people seem like innocent, mundane problems. Sion, however, knows all too well that this is merely the prelude to a far worse climax.
As a sequel to Tsukihime, there’s a great deal of back-story that comes with the territory. Depending on which adaptation you’re familiar with, ... the starting point may or may not reflect the ending you remember. Think of this as the Best Case Scenario’s next chapter. Every significant character from Tsukihime returns in one form or another alongside a few new additions -- including our new protagonist.
One worry when a new main character is added to a solid, preexisting cast is compatibility. In the absolute worst instances they feel extraneous. Maybe they seem a pale imitation of one character we already know and love or an amalgamation of several others. Not so with Sion Eltnam Atlasia. She easily holds her own with the current heroines and, as far as depth is concerned, possibly rivals them.
Melty Blood is ultimately her story. It is predominately told from her perspective, filtered through her fears and hopes, framed by her limitations and talents. Hailing from Alexandria, the great center of learning in antiquity and the present day location of Atlas Academy, she is a powerful alchemist. As an alchemist, she possesses no aptitude for magic whatsoever. However, her genius-level of intelligence and use of technology more than make up for this deficiency.
Sion is a scientist and a loner. She’s selfish and calculating, constantly taking anything she considers valuable that might benefit her research. At the same time, she’s very socially awkward. The fact that her fellow alchemists in Atlas have avoided her like the plague has clearly stunted her emotional growth. Add to that the further isolation she imposes on herself by ignoring them altogether and you have a girl who doesn’t intuitively understand how to interact with others.
To her, people are tools at best… but usually just dead weight.
Thanks to her self-absorption, she possesses some striking mental abilities. By quickly analyzing a given situation, she creates predictive models for all likely outcomes, then adapts her actions to ensure the best possible solution occurs. It’s something akin to logical foresight on a grand scale. This is further aided by the fact that she can actually partition her mind to allow multiple thought processes to be performed at once. Being such a clever concept, I’m dumbfounded why no major cyberpunk works have done anything remotely similar.
Shiki Tohno has the second largest presence in the manga. His affectionate and friendly temperament is the perfect counterpoint to Sion’s own standoffishness. It’s something that gets under her skin, mostly because it confuses her so deeply. Why does he help someone when it profits him nothing? Why is he so reasonable? So understanding? So kind?
Sion can successfully predict his movements in a fight, but hasn’t got a clue why he would extend a helping hand to a defeated opponent lying on the ground.
Sadly, all the other characters exist too much in the background. Aside from two of them, everyone else pretty much just pushes the action forward without playing any significant role at all. In fact, the subplot that rears its head halfway through feels similarly out of focus. While it becomes the main plot in the less-serious Melty Blood ACT:2, here it comes off a little shallow and just an attempt to add some mysterious overtones. This doesn’t in anyway detract from the quality of the story, but it certainly keeps the manga from reaching the epic feel of its predecessor.
Fighting is at the heart of Melty Blood and always looks magnificent. The kinetic force behind each impact is as apparent in the victim as it is in the environment. Some of the most climactic battles leave enough scars on the land to keep the rumormongers busy for weeks. As with the diminished presence of the secondary characters, the earlier fights can feel a little pointless in retrospect. Yes, their battle was wicked, but did they really have to fight? The resolution seems forced. If both parties were really out for blood, it’s strange that they would talk to each other so rationally afterwards. This simply seems to be a holdover from the fighting game the manga is based on and, again, not a huge problem.
Overall, the art is of high quality. The environments are creative, reasonably memorable except for a few generic settings. Pacing and transitions are spot on. During fights, the special powers that get employed lead to some truly spectacular images. Full page (and even half-page) spreads are glorious. The attention to detail paid for character emotions is something I can’t praise enough. From start to finish, each page is visually engaging.
What with the wealth of awesome background material, it’s really hard to suggest this manga to anyone unfamiliar with all things Tsukihime. The first chapter alone is Downtown Spoiler Central. And yet, if that doesn’t bother you, I think this might be a fun way to enter that world. Sion is herself an outsider and although knowledgeable of this place and its inhabitants, she’s experiencing it for the first time too.
Towards the end of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir notes that “The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener.” This embodies Sion wholly. She is so locked into her familiar world and way of thinking that she overlooks the most obvious truths about her existence. She scrutinizes and cares for only herself to such an extent that she is tragically oblivious to her essential nature. Sion strains against fate. Sion slams her fist against logic. Sion misses the point entirely.
Melty Blood starts and ends with a question. Whether it’s the same question is debatable, but Sion risks everything in pursuit of the answer. The extent to which she succeeds or fails is certainly the focus, but the stubborn journey she takes to get there is what makes her stumbling so meaningful.
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Dec 31, 2009
How could a show with ravenous cyberdogs and rocket-propelled moon-skiing be anything other than great? I guess when the story is less about those novel ideas and more an epic tale of Proletariat v. Bourgeoisie in Space.
Earth hasn’t been the happiest of planets these days. Lacking sufficient energy and dealing with increased pollution meant we had to look outside our pale blue dot to survive. Fortunately (or unfortunately as Dallos shows) that last hope happened to be a little dusty ball orbiting roughly a quarter-million miles away.
Sometime in the 21st century, the Moon was heavily colonized and turned into the biggest mining operation this side ... of the solar system. Things are finally getting better on terra firma, its inhabitants able to regain the idyllic days they used to know. Life on the Moon could hardly be worse. The Lunarites used to be hailed as heroes back home, but now everyone is so used to the return to prosperity that no one pays them any heed. Worse still, the ruling party on the Moon itself is treating them like worthless insects. So what is a subjugated group supposed to do?
Apparently if you’re not part of a union, it’s best to grab a gun.
Which is just about where I start asking little logical consistency questions I probably shouldn’t. Why are there any sorts of armaments on the Moon to begin with? Certainly there were no indigenous tribes of lunar rocks that needed quelling. That whole ‘vacuum of space problem’ necessitates that a strong infrastructure be developed before a single person is living lunarside. So wouldn’t you just arm your law enforcement with batons or cattle prods and call it a day? Aren’t you worried that a stray bullet or laser rifle pulse would blast a hole in the city’s protective dome and vent everyone faster than the air escaping this plot? And why the devil do you need fast hover cars with retractable stilt-legs when the population’s preferred form of locomotion are feet and the subway. And you do know where the latter stops occasionally, don’t you?
Characters also take a backseat in Dallos’ plot-driven narrative. It’s all about the struggle of the rebel workers against their overlords. Everyone is merely an archetype: the impressionable youth, unsure which side is right; the rebel leader with his insistence that the Lunarites deserve independence; the villain who must confront these rebels and a growing suspicion that the establishment may be unjust. While there are moments when they are conflicted as individuals, there is hardly much proof that they are anything other than pawns in the story’s telling and are ultimately interchangeable.
Even the plot feels strained. Granting that the present situation is sensible without argument broaches the question: why is this happening? Is there any benefit to the maltreatment of the Lunarites? How are they being hurt? All the men have barrel-chests and forearms as big as thighs, so they are obviously not being starved. There isn’t much romance going on, but there is nothing pointing to the fact that people are forbidden from falling in love and starting families. As best I can figure, the Lunarites just aren’t allowed to go back to Earth, but no one really seems to want to other than the nostalgic elders pining for halcyon days. This lack of concrete evidence really hampers one from hating the ruling body or cheering on the rebels.
Since this has been dubbed the very first OVA, I feel like I’m treading on hallowed ground and to be critical is to be sacrilegious. The plot and characters are shallow. That much is clear. The technical and artistic production, however, is fantastic. The animation is surprisingly fluid and the action constructed better than shows that were made a decade later. It’s violent, without being graphic. People die, but the carnage is understated. Costume design is… a little absurd, but forgivable.
Only in the 80s can you still get away with giving a girl a pink spacesuit without being laughed at or having your face slapped.
Instead of a desiccated series of moonbases on the lunar surface, the inhabitants live in built-up craters encased in bubble domes. There’s a breathable atmosphere, blue sky and clouds, and homes erected all along the inner walls that look like adobe pueblos out south-western America. Call it terraforming on a tiny scale, minus the greenery.
There really is a Man in the Moon too. For some reason, left unexplained, a mechanical face rests at the bottom of one particular deep crater. The Lunarites think it might be a god. Despite the mystery we never learn much about it, although I will say that it results in maybe the single coolest visual change to occur in an OP. Great imagery is the best Dallos has to offer. At one point we see a statue depicting a host of people either climbing towards, or being crushed by, the Moon. Even the lunar graveyard is hauntingly poetic, impotently staring at the planet it cannot reach and unable to turn away due to synchronous rotation.
The music is so totally 80s. You just can’t not love it. From the grand sweeping orchestration of the OP with its violins and flutes to the slightly-poppy synthesizer bits throughout. It makes you wonder why dramatic moments in today’s shows always have to sound so, well, dramatic. Where has the sense of fun gone? Why can’t action have a happy theme song?
Dallos stops short of being a space-based rumination on communism, but it also stops short of a lot of things. What moments of poetry and introspection exist are not woven into a pleasing whole. I can’t recommend it, but I can’t dissuade you from it either. If you’d like a quick two-hour hop into an action-centric show, you’ll probably be entertained. Anyone searching for further depths will only find the cold depths of space.
Explore at your own risk.
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Dec 30, 2009
When the dust and ashes of global war finally settle, a man-made utopia emerges from the shadows and unifies the broken world. It is a grand project over a century in the making, peace its ultimate aim, but it isn’t long before there’s trouble in paradise.
Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires are stuck, wedged in the cracks of the war’s aftermath. They spend their days in a crumbling ghost-town, salvaging supplies, cut off from the rest of the world and unaware of how the conflict has proceeded without them. Once they are rescued from the wasteland, they find that Olympus -- this manufactured utopia -- is ... more like a benign-looking powder keg.
We begin with the pair’s acclimation to this topically peaceful setting, their characterization strikingly represented in their inability to relax. After spending so much time out in ‘badside’ (the word inhabitants of Olympus dub the war-torn wastes), they are instinctually suspicious of the clean streets, the beautiful arcologies, and even the promised safety of warm beds.
One strong choice Shirow has made with respect to their relationship is to force them to be apart at times. As lovers and a natural two-man team, this allows them to grow in their new roles as ESWAT members and also to cherish their time together all the more. This is not to say they don’t work alongside each other; their teamwork in ESWAT is easily the most engaging part of Appleseed. Rather, the interchange between the needs of the job with the needs of their romance provides their struggles a more meaningful emotional punch.
Beyond our protagonists -- Deunan’s bratty hot-headedness and Briareos’ cyborg cool-mindedness -- it is very difficult to discuss the other characters. In the first volume, we meet a host of lively people: Hitomi, the girl who tracked the two down in the first place; Yoshi, her mechanic boyfriend; and key players in the government to name just a few. They all have agendas and seeing their machinations is definitely a pleasure. But as we get further into the following volumes, the cast of characters explodes in a bad way.
If you can remember three of their names by the end of the manga: my congratulations. You’ve got a better memory than this poor reviewer.
By the halfway mark, it really becomes impossible to characterize anyone other than the main characters. Everyone talks in the same voice. Rather than fully-realized characters, they are weak functionaries: tech-jargon talkers, plot-exposition advancers, dialogue-bubble fillers. I confess that last one was a little mean… but that’s what it feels like! Having all these unidentifiable people running around definitely instills in you the verisimilitude of Olympus, but only at the dreadful cost of character depth. Perhaps that would be okay if focus was completely on Deunan and Bri. Unfortunately, we get so wrapped up in sociopolitical maneuvering by the end that they disappear from sight for longer stretches of time than they should.
This problem is somewhat reflected in the overall narrative itself. The first volume is dedicated to introducing Olympus in an Olympus-centric world, the next to expounding its systemic problems, the following to international conflict, and the finale to extended sociopolitical intrigue. Our worldview increases to such an extent that the original excitement starts to wane. The truth is that watching the stability of Olympus fought for outside its borders is hellishly boring compared to seeing its struggles within. Suddenly it’s all about covert ops and what the remaining nations of the world are trying to do with Olympus -- and behind its back. This expansion of focus somehow misses the elegant simplicity we see earlier and comes off a little anti-climactic despite its significance.
Technology is where Appleseed shines all the way through. As Deunan sees what is now possible, she notes that science is “the new black magic.” Olympus is self-sufficient, powered by clean energy, and consults with a godlike computer on matters of importance. It is filled with giant mobile gun platforms, hover cars, and landmates. The latter are of particular interest (see also: Rabid Mouth-Frothing Obsession) to Deunan. Landmates are high-performance exoskeletons that allow their wearers to wield powerful weaponry and perform awesome feats of strength. With this equipment coupled with her combat experience, she is quite the ass-kicker.
Speaking of ass-kicking, the extended fights are a double-edged sword here. Some are choreographed impeccably, memorably so, with landmates pounding against each other until the bitter end. One of the great stylistic touches is the cutting away of a landmate’s ‘chest’ to see the expression of the person inside. Conversely, others battles are drawn in such a way that they are muddled and their transitions just downright confusing. This really makes it hard to discern who is beating whom. At those times, it’s best to roll with the punches instead of endlessly scrutinizing each panel.
Stasis and renewal are at the forefront of the thematic duel. Olympus is peaceful. At what cost? The populace is flooded with opportunities for happiness, but their overseers fear a near-future hardening of the arteries. There isn’t enough give in the system and sooner or later the current genetic stock won’t be good enough. Perfection was taken too far and is now dangling on the brink because -- surprise, surprise -- people aren’t perfect. So if a good society can only result from good people, what the heck is a utopian society to do? Were they wrong all along for using technology in the manner in which they do now?
The fact that their computer, Gaia, becomes paralyzed by a similar question seems a punishment analogous to the punishment Prometheus suffered for stealing the fire of the gods.
Despite the rough edges, Appleseed is a fascinating look at mankind’s attempt to create a world without borders, where the nation-state is as old-fashioned a concept as feudalism. Is Olympus a utopia? Or is it just another seat for the gods to sip ambrosia while the world dances into oblivion? Since the leaders are actively trying to sustain the state and everlasting peace, I suspect it’s neither. It’s an ideal bastion: a place everyone would like to help build. But maybe saying that is the real idealism. Instead of modeling themselves on this society, the existent post-war nations are more interested in toppling it so they can reclaim their own lost powers.
Apparently a world without war does not equal a world of peace.
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Dec 29, 2009
“… but now it’s time to cast off all restrictions and shells, and shift to a higher-level system…”
Ghost in the Shell is a work constantly asking what comes next. Whether it’s the next potential move of a cyber-terrorist, the next iteration of technology and weaponry, or the next step in the evolution of mankind. We know where we are right now, and we think we might know where we could go, but… what comes next?
It is the year 2029 in Newport City, Japan. Section 9, a branch of Public Security, has recently been founded as a unit specialized in counter-terrorism and anti-cybercrime. When necessary, they ... also act as oversight against government corruption. Towards those ends, their ranks are filled with an awesome group of highly-proficient individuals.
Major Motoko Kusanagi is the assault leader. A savvy smart-ass with skills in hacking few in the world can compare to. Batou is the powerful fist even without weapons; Ishikawa the tech expert; Saito the sniper; Togusa the rookie former-policeman; Boma the demolition specialist; Pazu the jack-of-all-trades; and Chief Aramaki the brains behind them all. Watching them work together is the best part, but sadly some don’t really have much presence. We spend little time with Ishikawa, Boma and Pazu -- and beyond Motoko, there are no real character development arcs.
Thankfully, their fights are further augmented by the crazy fuchikomas. I say ‘crazy’ in the most affectionate way possible. Depending on how their silliness strikes you, it will probably be love at first byte. A fuchikoma is a think tank, an AI-controlled armed robot that can either act independently or be entered by a controller and used as a vehicle. They look something like cute, pudgy, mechanical spiders. Much of the manga’s humor comes from the quips of these curious, sometimes recalcitrant, automatons.
Though more often than not it’s the Major’s own defiance towards authority that gets the biggest laughs.
The world of Ghost in the Shell is awash in technology. It’s everywhere you look. Usually where you don’t look too since it’s so prolific. People have begun casting away their flesh and organs in place of cybernetic enhancements or even full cybernization. Cyborgs are a norm. Motoko herself looks no different from an average, fully-human girl you might encounter beating criminals senseless while packing Seburo-style heat. Only when you get a little closer, lift up her hair, you see the ports on the back of her neck for hardwiring into a computer terminal or for direct connection to another cyborg.
Not long into the manga, there is a particularly profound section where Motoko observes the creation of a cyborg. An entirely biomechanical cyber-body is split open at the back of the neck, awaiting the only original organic material left of the woman to be cybernized -- her brain and spinal cord. Is this what our individual consciousnesses can be reduced to? Our bodies, like a two-meter high block of flesh and blood instead of marble, carved down to this small yet significant bit?
It is no wonder that the Major often wonders about the nature of her ‘ghost’. In a body 90% manufactured, it is hard to be sure what is really ‘her’ and what is not. Is there a ratio of human-to-machine where Motoko’s identity disappears and ‘she’ becomes something else entirely? And would ‘she’ know the change even occurred? At one point, she jokes that maybe only two brain cells remain the ‘real’ her.
Shirow plays this concept of identity like a violin.
It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to our sense of self. Our bodies support our brains; our brains give rise to a consciousness. We are our bodies. However, in this new world there are hackers that would change this would-be permanence. Now cyberbrains can be infiltrated and implanted with false memories and personalities or be hijacked altogether and controlled remotely like a puppet. The main story arc involves such a character: The Puppeteer, a wizard hacker that can crack the strongest ice barriers and use people as pawns. So the question becomes not how we can retain our identity, but whether it’s even possible.
Although steeped in deeper philosophies, Ghost in the Shell is primarily an action-packed gunshot. Whether using a thermo-optically camouflaged fuchikoma to sneak around, hunting down a wanted target or busting onto the scene full force, Section 9 and the Major take you for a ride. Even when the build-up of the story is gradual, there is a great sense of anticipation of the payoffs to come. Shirow’s drawing is fluid when it comes to this tension-and-release, creating dramatic moments one after the other. A firefight may take only a few pages here or there, but it’s elegant and bloody and satisfying. And when the barrage carries on for page after page, better hold on!
Whether the technical prowess of Shirow’s art is greater than his creative choices is an academic question. Both are married perfectly. He makes Motoko look cool visually and adds to that coolness with the fact that she is a cyborg. So too is Newport City a fascinating place for both the way he makes it look and the futuristic technology he decides to fill it with. His ideas and execution are amazing. At times even prescient, given that this was first published in 1989. As with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, I guess there’s just something in the cyberpunk water.
To ask what comes next is to invite change. “Change is the only constant.” It feels pedantic to say that. It’s one of those simple truths that stretch from the cosmological to the infinitesimal. And there we are right in the middle of it. I’ve changed while I’ve written this sentence. You’ve changed while you’ve read this one. Our cells replenishing themselves, dividing, dying. Admittedly, those are tiny changes. Motoko herself confronts a great change head-on, the “what comes next” of our development as a species. It’s only one of many possible paths we could take, I imagine. It’s possible we’re well on our way, walking in her footsteps and mustering up the courage to do the same. Hell, we might have already made the decision.
Motoko talks about her ‘ghost’. It’s the last bit of her identity housed within the cybernetic shell of her body. It whispers to her, guides her, offers as much assurance as it can even though she fears it might not even exist. Housed within a life of constant change, what permanence can we find?
Maybe just those changes that birth a new future… and being lucky enough to witness them when they come to pass.
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Dec 22, 2009
Sometimes more of the same is exactly what you want and the best you can hope for. Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human-Error Processor proves that that is sometimes good, sometimes bad.
Things have settled down in Section 9 since the Puppeteer case ended. Major Motoko Kusanagi has disappeared. Batou has stepped up to fill her role as assault leader. Togusa is now partnered with the sharp-nosed Azuma, their newest recruit. The rest of Section 9’s crack team remains as quick-witted and kick-ass as ever.
We open the story in the middle of a new case involving a cyber-criminal disturbingly similar to the Puppeteer. Someone has hijacked ... the dead body of a prominent businessman and is remote controlling him to appear alive. Now that the Major has merged with the Puppeteer, the unspoken question is whether or not she might be the perpetrator.
Human-Error Processor presents four so-called ‘lost stories’ in the series -- which is really just a fancier way of saying they took over a decade to be translated into English. Whereas the original manga and Man-Machine Interface bookend this work with their own full arcs, GITS 1.5 is more modest in scope. Each story is basically stand-alone, culminating only in its own climax without the broader narrative scope seen in the other two.
The one thematic motif running through the whole is that of self-sustained systems that survive beyond an individual’s death. How does the next generation survive as the previous generation ends? Can one’s lifetime achievements continue to replicate themselves? When does the cycle of the “sins of the father” finally cease? Towards the very end, Chief Aramaki and Batou confront this problem in a brief but striking exchange.
This is perhaps the perfect focus given Motoko’s departure. She was the best they had, so how do they survive without her? Immediately the answer is seen in Section 9’s composition itself: exceptional parts creating an exceptional unit. However, that fact seems too easily arrived at. Motoko was a superlative, integral part of that unit. Why does the fact that she is gone not bother anyone? It certainly bothers me. She was our protagonist for the entirety of the first manga and yet no one comments on the hole she left behind. In fact, it appears she left none at all. Everyone carries on with hardly a word.
I don’t mind that Motoko herself is almost entirely absent. The mind-bending sequel is dedicated to what she’s been up to post-Puppeteer-merge after all. It just feels like Shirow missed out on some amazing dramatic tension by paving over what ripples her absence would have created if, indeed, she was so important a person. So while all the gun-toting, cyber-hacking action is beautiful and engaging, it all lacks emotional resonance. Yes, it’s cool, but so what?
Azuma himself is symbolic of this problem. Rather than adding anything significant to the story or cast of characters, he’s relegated to the role of comic relief, Togusa’s foil, or someone who will provide some exposition. It works in terms of pacing, but is incredibly lacking in effect. We’re told his specialty is a keener sense of smell than a trained drug-hunting dog, yet he doesn’t seem to use this ability more than once. In fact, more often he complains that he’s reluctant to use it around foul odors. Really? You’re employed as Public Security and yet you won’t add your unique perspective to help with a case because you might smell, what, some stale urine or a moldy bento?
I honestly have no idea why he exists. If Section 9 is an elite force composed of personally selected individuals, it really begs the question if Azuma is really the best out there. A crazed fuchikoma with a buggier-than-hell AI would be more entertaining than a guy who is useless at best and unsavory at worst.
Speaking of the little devils, they are all but non-existent aside. We learn that they are having technical issues with their AI units, but beyond that nothing more. As the primary source of hilarity previously, their cameo roles make Azuma’s near ubiquity all the more depressing.
Admittedly, those points only hold the manga back from the greatness its prequel and sequel achieve, rather than detracting away from the story’s enjoyment. Seeing our favorite characters back in action and solving grisly crimes is what this is all about. Both Batou and Togusa do a great job filling the ‘Motoko-void’ and are immediately suitable protagonists. The dialogue is engaging, the fighting fierce, the mysteries intriguing. Those who have seen Solid State Society will be very interested to see how the source material was adapted. Perhaps this is a brief ride on lightning, but it’s a ride nonetheless.
Shirow’s artwork has the same incredible attention to detail as with the original. The characters are completely submerged in their busy metropolis and it’s easy to get lost within a single panel absorbing everything. There is painstaking effort behind presenting Ghost in the Shell’s setting: from building architecture to semi-futuristic vehicles, high-tech hospital interiors to centimeter-scale insect robots. Action is frenetic, bloody, and choreographed in style. What few pages are fully colored are gorgeous to behold and grab your attention at the outset.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Shirow creates a world.
Ultimately, it feels almost unfair to level certain criticisms at this work. It is definitely incomplete. At the same time, it was only ever supposed to be extra material. A dessert to the main course of Ghost in the Shell. In some understated ways, it is actually a subtle preface to the sequel, Man-Machine Interface. So, having accomplished a view into further Section 9 assignments (albeit in bite-sized form), is it enough? Maybe. So many fascinating ideas are brought forth… only to fizzle out before much can be made of them. This is a manga desperately crying out for a centralized narrative to tie it all together. While not every part of the original manga was Puppeteer-centric, there was still a sense that one thing led to another, and that the conclusion was in some ways inevitable given Motoko’s curiosity, concerns, and general bad-assed nature.
More of the same and fun for fans, certainly, but everyone else should be warned lightning hasn’t struck twice here. If it did, it did in the sequel. Here there is only some residual sparking.
And that’s only enough to power a single fuchikoma’s smart-alack wisecracks.
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Dec 19, 2009
Fantasy is all about adventure. It’s about going outside of your comfort zone, seeing a new place and a new facet of yourself, and being changed by the time you return home. Anime like that is filled with believable cause and effect. And then there’s The Sacred Blacksmith.
The series opens with Cecily Cambell, a newly trained knight charged with the protection of the Third Independent Trade City. She is an excitable girl, stubborn, and full of bravado. She wishes to help people, but has little actual competence. The broken sword of her family is as much a symbol of her own need to be tempered ... as anything. Towards those ends she pursues the services of Luke Ainsworth, a standoffish blacksmith with little patience for Cecily’s immaturity. Joining them are Lisa -- Luke’s pint-sized and spunky assistant -- and a woman with a mysterious and tragic past named Aria.
Dark events soon push them together as tenuous companions. Some figure in the shadows is collecting Demon Swords, powerful remnants from the great war that ended forty years ago. The City is threatened and Cecily and Luke have their own reasons to stand against it.
The setting and plot sound clichéd because they are. This is well-trodden ground. The first few episodes promise to offset that imbalance with the characters, but sadly that’s where things start falling apart. As our protagonists quickly find themselves thrown headlong into one problem after another, their relationships become secondary. Instead of friendships blossoming from shared duress, they just seem to ‘bond’ because they shared the same scenes.
Part of the problem is in Cecily’s characterization, which puts light on the deeper issue of Sacred Blacksmith’s incorrect focus.
Two of my favorite moments are when Cecily realizes that her desires and willpower are not enough to become the best she can be and then, later, when she uses that deficiency to overcome a seemingly insurmountable object. That was when the story shined and I thought “yes! -this- is what this show is supposed to be.” Cecily is our protagonist in all her inept glory. Watching her stumble towards being a skilled knight is where the show -should- be focused, how each tiny victory and tiny defeat magnifies her growth.
Admittedly, there are times when Cecily sheds her armor and shows some vulnerabilities in a realistic light, but usually she merely sheds her armor so someone can joke about how wonderfully large her breasts are. I like running gags as much as anyone, but Sacred Blacksmith never really earns the right to do so. They would be complementary features in a series less problem-ridden; instead they merely draw attention to themselves and make it difficult for a reviewer to be objective and not single them out for one whole paragraph. It gets to be a little bothersome when they just pop up out of nowhere.
And, no, that wasn’t a boob joke.
It isn’t that the foundation here is weak, but that it’s uneven. There are some really exciting and insightful moments and yet they are surrounded by plodding uninteresting plot and cloying melodrama. It sometimes feels like a writer du jour was invited on board each week to pen the script. The story is disjointed, populated with mini-arcs that hardly elucidate the main arc at all. Challenges seem incidental. Character development unearned. And then everyone dresses up like a maid.
If that last sentence seemed to come out of nowhere and confused the hell out of you, it was supposed to. That’s exactly how I felt.
The most irksome problem is pacing. The main story arc only gets underway late in the series, ending up rushed. Halfway through the series our cast of characters effectively doubles, but we have no time to get to know them beyond their two-dimensionally flat personalities. Worst of all, two battles are halted in their tracks while our heroes take a break to lollygag. Oh, I mean, “work slowly at making a weapon to continue the fight after all the scene’s original tension has been obliterated”. It felt more concise to say lollygag, though.
Aside from that specific editing choice, the battles are actually engaging. In fact, my greatest praise is what weaponry gets used. For all the adherence to the conventions of the swords-and-sorcery genre, there are some uncommon armaments here. I can’t describe enough how visually refreshing I found this, to see different weapons and fighting styles. Like all the other good bits in the show this too doesn’t last long, but it helps break up the “This is a fantasy; we need more swords!” mentality that plagues the genre.
Overall, the art and animation is of consistently high quality. The city is a vibrant place. Manglobe’s attention to detail in creating a living, breathing setting is laudable and effective (something I personally found lacking in their earlier work, Ergo Proxy). There’s an idyllic peace in the city when all hell isn’t breaking loose and a gritty immediacy when it does. That the city is built at the foot of a mountain covered with an ominous and never-moving cloud is a fantastic addition. The characters too are well-designed and have outfits that are intriguing albeit sometimes impractical. If only they were as cool as they look.
I couldn’t help thinking back to last season as I watched this. CANAAN showed how to put together a compelling ensemble cast, while Spice and Wolf II showed how to dramatically weave the complexities of a relationship about two protagonists. Both lessons are lost on Sacred Blacksmith. There is neither a group dynamic nor a fully realized pairing. The one great friendship we do have between Cecily and Aria gets lost in the shuffle of events and hardly has the emphasis it deserves.
What disappoints me most is what Sacred Blacksmith fails to do. It fails to do anything exciting with fantasy. It fails to test its characters’ resolve with any meaningful challenges or anguish. It presents so much magic… yet fails to capture any wonder. Once we understand more of Aria’s nature, for instance, a wild world of possibilities opens up. How does her nature impact the way she interacts with the city she lives in? The people she calls friends? Her own inner turmoil? Instead, her character development seems to have the same tedious trajectory that everyone else has: at least one episode devoted to mental struggles, a resolution easily attained, and a sanguine outlook the rest of the time.
The music is a good analogy for the show as a whole. The OP starts strong, is rather catchy, reasonably dynamic technically speaking. The score of the series is standard fare medieval fantasy (recorders, lutes, tambourines, and the like) and other more traditional orchestrated pieces that are apt, but not spellbinding. Finally, the ED is the most randomly bright and unbelievably saccharine thing you have ever heard. While I freely admit my personality isn’t morning glories and sunshine, this outro is so distinctly misplaced and just one more example of Sacred Blacksmith’s disjointed elements.
So who is this anime for? More forgiving viewers, I imagine. The series isn’t high art and let’s face it: it’s not trying to be. It doesn’t want to be a humble, little fantastical tale, but a brief little epic about a lot of different things. About companions trying to help each other, faltering romance, sociopolitical intrigue, freaky monsters, black villains, sleeping horrors. By including too much its scattershot attention span shows, but if you can overlook that and the other systemic problems, want a light-hearted romp with a peppering of drama, or happen to be a fantasy junkie, you might have fun with this.
If there is a second season I can only hope they strip away the extraneous parts, peel back the deeper layers, and leave what remains proudly exposed and naked for all to behold.
And, yeah, that was kind of a boob joke.
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Nov 3, 2009
There is a world supersaturated with technology without any foreseeable boundaries. No more is there the question as to the link between man and machine; it is the foregone conclusion. We stand at the edge of an ocean of change and somewhere deep, down in those unlit and unfathomable dark places, it must be awaiting us. So where do we go from here? Such is the world of Ghost in the Shell. Such is our own.
If the original manga stood us on a hill overlooking this ocean, Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface places us firmly on the shoreline where the waters swell and ... recede. Motoko Kusanagi ended the first manga with a next step towards humankind’s transcendence. In this work, she takes the second.
Nearly five years have passed since she merged with the Puppeteer and left Section 9 to venture out into the Net. But while she now acts as head of security for Poseidon Industrial, she’s almost a different person. Even more skilled in cyberwarfare, much more self-confident, more the business woman than the smack-talking assault girl. And yet she clearly has lingering connections to her past, seen in her current name: Motoko Aramaki.
The theme of identity is much unchanged since Masamune Shirow’s first treatment. If anything, it shows how much Motoko’s sense of self has blurred and the extent to which she is willing to preserve -- or even discard -- it. Throughout the story, she ends up using over half-a-dozen different prosthetic bodies. While at times she will be physically recognizable to fans, her ‘main’ body is not one we’re familiar with.
She switches forms with such ease that it begs the question: who is Motoko now? It’s a fascinating question and one that receives an equally thought-provoking (see also: mind-blowing) conclusion, but it is also the first stumbling block that may irk lovers of every other GITS adaptation.
It cannot be stressed enough that this is not a direct extension of the original. Oh, it’s definitely the “what comes next” of the original plot, but don’t expect more of the same. Motoko isn’t entirely the Major you’ve come to know and love; Section 9 isn’t even in the background, instead vaguely on the periphery elsewhere. So you probably won’t be seeing your favorite characters -- and you definitely won’t be seeing them team up to take down cyber-terrorists and preserve public security.
Shirow himself penned a preface to this manga, amusingly (and appropriately) entitled ‘Warning: Read Me First!’, saying much the same. He warns us this is something new. He tells us this isn’t what we expected. He even apologizes for this fact and hopes we’ll give it a chance!
And if hacking cyberbrains, beating the crap out of cybernetic bodies, and watching the lovely, battle-hardened Motoko dish out that action is your idea of a good time: you really, really should.
To say the artwork here is beautiful, breath-taking, and Shirow’s best work yet is almost an insult. Such superlatives cannot describe how staggeringly amazing each panel looks. 200 pages (that’s two-thirds of the entire manga!) are fully colored. Color explodes off the pages. Quite literally bleeds into and out of black-and-white panels -- transitions that are themselves artistic in purpose. And this isn’t just Shirow painting inside the rich lines of ink. This is Shirow using digital imaging and blending it seamlessly with his always-great drawings. It’s the same vibrant burst of life as seen when Kurosawa finally made the transition to colored film -- the same expected greatness, but with a new spell-binding visual wonder.
Like Motoko, give him the chance and he will dazzle you.
The fanservice is -- as you might already suspect -- pervasive, extensive, and many other adjectives probably currently racing through your mind. Few pages go by without a carefully angled shot of a posterior, bust, or nether region. In cyberspace, Motoko appears more often than not fully nude -- minus the naughtier bits detailed. At first, this omission can potentially seem like a distraction, but instead this choice emphasizes the form, rather than function, of Motoko’s body. It becomes a work of art in itself, not just a biological machine. And yes, I am using the term ‘biological’ very loosely here.
Man-Machine Interface is a heady work. It is intelligent yet confusing, exciting yet difficult. Cyberwarfare battles drag on for pages upon pages, filled with enough techno-jargon to require patience, careful thought, and multiple readings. Some sense gets lost. Likewise, the story rarely takes time to breathe and even when it does what has happened -- or is happening -- is not always clear. It’s a work that asks many questions and forces the reader to figure out the answers, even when those answers are staring you straight in the face. There’s a dense, almost opaque, realism here: all the characters understand the world and its workings, but that hardly means you will.
In the end, that will either alienate or captivate you. But that seems to be the point. There’s a concept called the ‘technological singularity’: the point at which our normal paradigms break down and new models are required in order to understand the current, new paradigm. Yet, ironically, that new understanding is beyond our intelligence. Like showing a movie to a Neanderthal or describing a computer to an Elizabethan, there is simply no reliable frame of reference to impart the total understanding that you have of these things to them.
That ‘lost in translation’ feel permeates this work and is at the heart of Motoko’s struggle to rationalize the man with the machine. The question is in the subtitle. “Man-Machine Interface.” What is that interface? Is it the gateway to the Net? Is it just the synthesis of cyborg body with human mind? Is it Motoko herself?
Still we stand, our feet in the ocean. We know it’s possible, but can we change? And what does it mean to transcend ourselves? Would we know what to look for? Would we even recognize ourselves? Motoko refuses to say. But in her journey, in that refusal, she seems to be beckoning us to be ready. To wait for when the tide rolls in. To listen for a great wave to rise up. To do then what we do best when we cast aside the limits of our shell.
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Oct 17, 2009
What place does food have in your life?
This is the question at the heart of Tachiguishi Retsuden, a question at once simple and yet surprisingly deep. Absurdly deep it turns out. Some of us eat just to survive: mealtime being the minimum effort required to replenish energy. Some of us eat for love of food: taking the time to savor new flavors, new dishes, new culinary adventures. Most of us probably find a balance between the two. But only an elite caste has refined Food into a true philosophy, an affirmation and definition of self, an art form: the Fast Food Grifters.
They look like you ... and me. They enter restaurants, they order a meal, they eat, but the similarities end there. Each has a special technique for fleeing the scene without paying for a single crumb.
Hamburger Tetsu orders literally hundreds of burgers from a burger joint, choking its supply and demand infrastructure until it collapses. Foxy Croquette O-Gin uses her feminine charms to distract the owner of a food stall, sometimes forcing him into a variant of Jan-Ken-Pon (Fox-Hunter-Farmer); if she loses, she has to flash the patrons as payment for the meal, if she wins… well… her grift is set up in such a way to be a win-win scenario. And Moongaze Ginji sees a mundane bowl of soba as an artistic landscape, complimenting the cheap noodles initially only to discover that they taste awful, thus shaming the owner to tears while he walks away in contempt.
The Grifters are the ultimate moochers.
Presented as a mockumentary, “The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters” studies these individual cases of grifting in order to understand the mindsets of those involved, whose exploits are as crazy as their names. The animation style is easily the most striking feature, consisting of photographed characters pasted atop two-dimensional paper cutouts in a relatively three-dimension world. This technique, dubbed “superlivemation”, will be familiar to fans of Oshii’s film Avalon. The majority of the scenes are thus quite static, interspersed with periodic moments of frenetic movement, and depending on one’s level of patience this may prove frustrating. However, when little is happening the scene always appears as though a slowly-moving photograph -- proving both beautiful and oddly calming.
As one would expect Kenji Kawai’s music is quite apt, at times reinforcing the dramatic bits, but usually playing against them to comedic effect. The subtle, atmospheric background music -- a forte of Kawai -- is easily the best. Even so, the soundtrack isn’t entirely memorable and you probably won’t feel an inclination to hunt it down. But in overall context, it is enjoyable; there’s a pervasive sense that the music is hardly taking the subject matter seriously. Heightening of absurdity? Check. And with the always engaging Kouichi Yamadera playing the part of the narrator, the sound is as much a feast as the visuals.
The deeper meat here is a social critique of Japan’s changing palette over the decades, post World War II to present, as it becomes progressively less traditional and more influenced by foreign tastes. But the attack isn’t blistering. It’s more of a playful nudge, like an amused mother chiding her fussy, suspicious child into trying a new dish. It really is delicious. You really will like it.
If a definition of absurdism is “people doing meaningless things in meaningful ways”, the Grifters are absurdists extraordinaire. What they say and what they do create the most hilarious moments and yet there is something so compelling about their food-stealing methods. Any idiot can run into a market, swipe a loaf of bread, and escape without punishment. A real artist does it with style, grace, and in plain sight. Oh, they’re amazing, these Grifters, they’re the anarchists of nourishment, the terrorists of sustenance!
There might not be much dialogue from them, but that minimalism gives each of their lines a greater punch. Their stories act as punctuation marks to the narrator’s own tale, side dishes that become the meal itself. Each act of grifting is both a method for obtaining food and a view into each character’s approach to life. Moongaze Ginji, who bookends the story, is looking for a full stomach as much as he is searching for something artistic. In fact, it’s arguable whether food is the main motivation for any of them or if it is merely an excuse to satisfy a deeper hunger, be that social recognition or otherwise.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this is a nearly two hour Wall of Text. Even Oshii lovers will find this his least accessible work: even shorter bursts of action, even longer stretches of introspection. But that isn’t a damning critique. This is a documentary after all and, silly though it is, it still adheres to the typical conventions you would expect. Those without a taste for such may wish to skip this.
But there are always those of us hungry for new, even bizarre, experiences and to such adventurers I say: “You will be satisfied.” It’s crazy. It’s different. It’s not even close to the kind of anime you watch regularly, but it is one you won’t forget. Afterwards, you won’t look at your restaurant bill the same way -- and certainly not without a knowing smirk.
So should you ever find yourself eating alongside a Tachiguishi one day, don’t worry, they’ll pick up the tab in their own way.
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