The final death throes of the Tokugawa Period as seen through the eyes of a doctor and samurai. Ryoan Tezuka, a well-meaning and occasionally lecherous medical practitioner who've embraced the advancements of Western medicine, and Manjiro Ibutani, a staunch traditionalist indoctrinated in the way of the samurai, whose ascetic lifestyle and approach in upholding Japan's core values are placed in jeopardy as the world continues to march forward without him. A healer of life and one who takes it. A career path whose future prospects can only point towards exponential growth, while the other finds itself in a precarious predicament, where decades of peace have ... not only dulled the blade of its forces but, in the face of the Industrial Revolution, which has not only disrupted the conservatism that defines the ethos of the land but outright threatens to replace it altogether, marks the beginning of the end for many ways of life as it had been known for centuries. It's a showcase of class struggle and personal beliefs set against the weight of a nation in transition; for the land of the rising sun, it would mean the last glimmering light of an old era as it sets to give rise to one better equipped for the uncertainties of the century ahead.
There's a patience and considered approach to Hidamari no Ki that feels last century, where most of its character interactions and narrative development occur at a pace befitting the material it's set in, where the period piece it's covering is made to be equally as important as the way they choose to let it unfurl. An art of storytelling that's mostly lost in the streaming era, where expedience takes precedence. It only makes sense then that this title is all but forgotten. So quaint that for many viewers, it may just be knocking at the door of antiquation. That being said, there's still a good deal that it has to offer, with its softer impressions reminiscent of World Masterpiece Theater content and means of conventional storytelling, which at this point has been mostly phased out to where, in hindsight, feels slightly unconventional when viewed through a modern lens, not only granting it a second wind but making it passively enjoyable, in a lazy Sunday kind of way. I'm not sure you can even market something like this today and expect, with any good reason, that it will be successful; however, that doesn't mean there isn't something here worth discussing. That something is less about what it chose to cover and more about how it does it.
Unlike most historical anime, many of its chronicled events tend to occur at the periphery of our characters' lives or, in some cases, absent from their direct involvement with it, largely due to the fact that these leads aren't major historical figures. There are only a handful of proceedings where they have hands-on involvement. And because it covers so many key incidents that occurred during this time, if someone were unaware of the specifics, it creates a baseline unpredictability with its narrative direction. Unlike narrative fiction, real life is often disorderly, lacking the poetics and theatricality of fictionalized drama. Of course, the show still relies on these storytelling tropes to weave in-between the spaces that are propped up by these significant landmark moments of history, but because these occurrences have already existed and can't be ignored, at best, its author Osamu Tezuka, could only reverse engineer the minutia surrounding each crest and trough of documented happenings. Long story less long, Hidamari no Ki can often be a slice-of-life thr(ch)ill ride.
On top of that, their plausible involvement never extended beyond what their professional placement or personal upbringing would allow. Significant historical events may alter the overall paths of their lives, but the day-to-day conflicts, ambitions, and small victories remain immediate and personal. For Ryoan, that meant dealing with the antipathy of Eastern medical practitioners whose unscrupulous political maneuvering and xenophobic stance towards vaccinations and other Western practices meant his physician father, Ryousen, and other like-minded pro-western medical activists having to navigate the inherent dangers presented by being outspoken at a time when American merchant ships that docked the shores were viewed by many as a corruptive force, threatening the preservation of the country's cultural purity. It also meant witnessing his metamorphosis from a more chipper, womanizing, wayward personality to someone who would acquire far more discipline and commitment to his craft when faced with the realities of his profession and what it means to be a doctor; to hold someone's life in your hands. As for Manjiro, the intrigue of his character arc and involvement with the story, besides the obviousness of cool-ass samurai action, is that, as a viewer, I sympathized with what ultimately drove his character. While both men stood as analogs for the show's themes of inevitable change in the face of stubborn, prideful stagnation, his story was unequivocally the more tragic of the two. His pride in his country and its culture wasn't based on bigotry but on pure intent. He can relate to the average Japanese of that time because he was one of them. As Hidamari no Ki, Tree in the Sun, stood as a metaphor for this long-lasting period of prosperity and pride for one of its most significant eras, Manjiro ostensibly came to represent its last hopes. A dying remnant that kept fighting, clinging on desperately. To preserve an era defined for its prosperous economic growth and relative peace for its citizenry. An era often romanticized, but understandably so. As we witness his growth and journey through the military ranks, the unavoidable changing of the guards, as already marked by history, means either surviving by severe compromise to his core beliefs or trying desperately to uphold a way unsustainable in an age of revolution.
This approach ensured that both lead men and their supporting cast remained endearing throughout, a rare, mostly-adult cast at that, which reflected in its sensibilities and handling of the content. Content that was so considered that some of its most impactful instances had little to do with the history around them and more with the quieter, "insignificant" moments, such as a family member passing away from old age or convincing a pedestrian to get vaccinated. And because almost all the characters in the series were adults, it opened the door to more meaningful topics. Commentary that's self-critical to its country, in a way many anime would advert from, not because it disparages outdated social customs, but because it presented it in a way normalized for its time. Sexwork accepted as a transactional exchange, like any other part of daily life, yet the glass ceiling placed upon its female participants meant limited career mobility; often, at best, becoming the den mother or, rarer still, head of their own pleasure quarters. The delicate political dance carried out between men with power, often full of pride, and allowed to carry swords; the outcome inevitable. You really feel like you're witnessing the passage of time between real people's lives. And in circumstances where a side character may not be as detailed, their stance is at least documented.
Hidamari no Ki tells a story of a Japan ravished by civil unrest and disease but also pauses and looks around long enough to appreciate the ephemeral beauty that has made the Edo period so iconic in pop culture's lexicon. It feels lived in, and with a steady hand, traces the various characters and locations it brings to life, making for a soothing, bittersweet story of decay. The Tree in the Sun, proud and graceful, comes to an end, but its heritage lives on.
Aug 23, 2021
Could content made by the original creator still be classified as fan fiction? Well, technically no, but leave it to Hideaki Anno to make the impossible, possible.
The Evangelion Rebuild films aren't so much about telling their own story or introducing new audiences to the world of Anno's Evangelion as it is about Evangelion itself. Not Evangelion the original series and film mind you, but what it's come to represent in the collective minds of all those who've ran away with romantic notions of its placement as a bedrock of their youth. If there's anything "existential" here it's in a generation's obsession with iconography, the hive-minded ... fan-culture that surrounds it, and ultimately, the commodification of these attributes by celebrating the steadfast loyalty of continuous consumer support, well into adulthood, because after all, Evangelion helped you cope as a teen, right? Well, at the very least, that's how I choose to view these gussied-up Rebuild celebrations because if viewed as actual films, they're a mess.
Gobbledygook that borders on self-parody—congratulatory about using metacontextual frameworks to aid in its commentary as if the Japanese New Wave of the 60s didn't already came and went. The Evangelion rebuild films are at best, well-intentioned nonsense, and at worst, try-hard nonsense. The kind of neurotic patch-job of "this would look cool" storyboarding decision-making blended with a cocktail of Terrence Malick-isms via insular logic. It's its own religious institution, built inside the pop culture echo chamber that houses it—don't expect common sense to make any appearances here.
Philosophical word vomit, fashion accessory human trauma, comically nebulous dialogue, and superfluous worldbuilding are all the name of the game when discussing these films. What's important is that you "feel" it or whatever that means. But honestly, it's about audience participation, your willingness to ignore all prior convictions for perceived issues you've lobbied at other creator's art before, and instead, choose to see the sincerity in what's essentially "Gurren Lagann but pretend it actually makes sense logistically" all without a hint of self-awareness, irony, or acceptance of the fact that this works because it's inherently childish. Kids playing with their toys: Smash! Grrrr! Pow!, robot go BOOM! PEW PEW!
These installments, and Thrice Upon a Time especially, are about these dreamt-up escapist scenarios. Expanding the lore of Angels, Seele, vague prophecies, Eva units, and other tidbits that at one point were just tertiary mechanics in exploring the characters themselves. For as high as the stakes and situation were for the original Evangelion tv-series and subsequent film, it was never actually about those things. The spectacle was grand, but ultimately, the intent was intimate. It was about dealing with depression, imposter syndrome, parental (ir)responsibility, the inherent ugliness, and beauty that came hand-in-hand with growing up. Navigating the uncertainty of adulthood. It's about everything else that the cool-looking mecha series came to inhabit. Evangelion was the title, but ultimately, not the point.
The same can't be said about these rebuild films. Exploitatively mining these aspects, yes, but now it's about pre-established value, no different than what the Star Wars property has become over time. In a way, that's commendable, that an anime property outside the behemoths of Gundam or whatever long-running shounen is airing at any given time, that what was at once a cult-classic, has now grown to a size capable of supporting such an excursion by its head architect. An adoration not even George Lucas was able to maintain.
But if you're not a subscriber that deifies this creative and everything they attach their name to, it becomes harder to justify any of it. This is a film that makes broad emotional story beats, patting itself on the back for taking what iota of characterization exists in its current state and proceeding to overanalyze it, making supposedly "profound" discoveries, despite having to rely entirely on the audience to at least have a cursory knowledge of the original material to make any of these epiphanies stick because otherwise, they don't. If viewed independently, they're all facsimiles of the content they came from. Personalities robbed of nuance, where it expects the audience to fill in the gaps with what they've gathered prior to viewing it, as well as whatever projection already grafted onto the material from years of germinated love for their status symbols. Whatever brief moments of cleverness or insight that these Rebuild films end up landing on are continuously thwarted by excessive, unchecked indulgence.
In a way, this film is reflective of that infamous scene in The End of Evangelion, where we, the audience, get the privilege of being the bedridden Asuka, while the film itself is Shinji, hovering over us with its seed in its palm. You'll either relish the opportunity to be the object of your cult leader's affection or just find the whole thing incredibly awkward.
These films aren't necessarily for fans but more so for diehard fanatics. And you know what? That's fine.
What a colorful, sincere shit show.
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Jan 28, 2019
Spellbound in a whirlwind of love, sex, desire, and disaster, Belladonna of Sadness is a blistering wound of emotions and vices. The nature of sin and excess; the act of wanting too much without understanding the cost. A cautionary tale of indulgence as showcased by an unnamed kingdom positioned in the Middle Ages. The unfortunate recipients of which are Jean and Jeanne, a couple young in love in a world far too cutthroat to accept the purity of their union. Their honeymoon, a nightmarish event, forever tainted by the cruel actions of an aristocrat drunk with power. Deflowered and battered, Jeanne, a victim of the ... worst kind of atrocity, is left a wilted rose in her husband's arms. A newlywed couple demoralized by the ones appointed by God to reign over them. Betrayed by those in power and emotionally abandoned by her husband, Jeanne is left to pick up the pieces. With nothing but time to keep her company—misplaced guilt far too stifling to forget, and an act of selfishness far too wicked to forgive—she searches for solace away from society's pitiful gaze. For a way to regain some semblance of self after being deprived of her womanhood.
And in this moment of weakness, desperate and defeated, whispers of vengeance caress her ear, the temptation of which becomes far too alluring to ignore. These sweet whispers are made by a demon, one conjured up by the smoldering embers of spite ignited in place of the self-pity that occupied her idle mind. A chance to strike back at the ones that robbed her is offered. A doleful plea made in the stillness of night, she succumbs to the opportunity, accepting the help of the phallic spirit that appears before her. A decision this trickster demon revels in, as he obtains another fresh prey to sink his fangs into. Her future regret providing a source of nourishment for his mischief, as the slow grooming process begins. A pact was now made with the Devil, signed with the ink of atrocities yet to come and regrets yet to manifest.
This is the world stage that Belladonna of Sadness creates, the means in which it's brought to life sharing equal importance. Watercolor brushstrokes wisp across the curvature of Jeanne's delicate frame, her fair skin left bare, absent of pigmentation. Color pencil outlines contort around landscapes, containing greenery, houses, citizens and wildlife alike; everything encased in its perimeters. Even abstract expressions aren't forgotten; moments of doubt, corruption, depravity, and envy illustrated by ink bleeding in all directions across the canvas. Brittle charcoal lines trailing right behind it to further emphasize the spread of these ideas and emotions.
Oil pastels, watercolor paint, charcoal, color pencils, graphite pencils, stencil outlines; all these utensils used for expression cascades towards a singular vision, harmoniously melding together to bring the story to life. Influenced by the art styles of Harry Clarke, Gustav Klimt, and many others, Belladonna is given a gothic-like expressionistic visual portrayal. Lengthy body postures with spindly limbs. Decorated clothing that hugs their bodies like a second skin. Every bit of it giving birth to a timeless look. Something like a rediscovered tapestry that was lost to the Dark Ages.
Even the namesake of Belladonna helps define the film. Belladonna, a toxic berry also referred to as deadly nightshade, or "bella donna" as derived from the Italian phrase meaning "beautiful woman"—essentially, a deadly beauty—was a plant used throughout history as either a cosmetic accessory or an instrument of death. The film doesn't shy away from this as well, as the Black Plague parallels are just as self-evident here as it is in films like 1957's The Seventh Seal. The biggest difference between the two being the person that serves as arbiter of judgment. Instead of Death himself casting a shadow on all those he encounters, the role is personally taken on by the Devil. He brandishes death in one hand while dangling false hope in the other. That false hope coming in the form of his future mistress-to-be, Jeanne; something we're made privy to as the story slowly unfolds. It's a fate unwillingly bestowed onto her but one she will come to embrace, for better or for worse. It's the birth of a deadly beauty, of belladonna itself.
Tasting the forbidden fruit, what started out as an earnest plea for help quickly spirals into madness, as the payment levied for her request is paid by body and soul. Jeanne gets her vengeance but at a cost that far exceeds what she had expected. Everything is brought to ruin. Her head rests in the crook of her arm, smeared tears coagulate, glistening off her cheek as she reminisces about a simpler time before her decision. But despite her best attempts to return to the beginning, her repentance falls on deaf ears. The outcome only worsens. And so she accepts her role.
We see the depravity of mankind depicted as social tact is abandoned. When people are stripped naked of society's robes and gives into their deepest, darkest desires. Jeanne becomes their catalyst to indulge. Her soul no longer in her possession. Her flesh, an instrument of pleasure. She loses all fabric of her being, and in the process, becomes a force much greater than herself. Like mother nature, she takes her seat among urban legend. A succubus. A pariah. An enchantress of the night. She is lust. A wielded weapon in Lucifer's arsenal.
She sought out revenge from those that used her only to gain the power to harm them through the act of being used. A cruel irony—God isn't the only one with a sense of humor.
It all culminates in the throws of a hedonistic free-for-all. Sex partners made of noblemen and street peasants alike. A ceaseless indulgence as bodies melts into each other, creating an ungodly form, no trace of decency surviving the transmutation. A distorted representation of sin incarnate. Sodom and Gomorrah birthed anew. The Devil's latest atrocity. He sits their satisfied, looking on at the banquet hall of the finest assortment of human perversion. And positioned squarely at the other end of the table sits his finest creation. A mother of scorn. Jeanne joins him hand-in-hand, unafraid of the consequences anymore. The road towards humanity has long been lost in the shadows as she steps closer to the realm of Gods and Demons. Female empowerment has never had a more terrifying representative. Her wrath is as unwavering as her seduction is lethal. And this is what we're left with.
There isn't a happy ending here. Just another chapter where mankind loses. Whether it serves as a sobering reminder of humanity's inevitable self-destruction or just a matter-of-fact depiction of death and sin with parallels of the Great Plague, it's up to you to take what you will from it. As for me, it's a fascinating film that I always find myself revisiting. Each recounter rekindling my love for it or gleaning something new to cherish. It may not have been a commercial success, but as an artistic statement, its efforts were admirable, sustaining a legacy for all those it has gone on to influence.
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Apr 11, 2018
Tinseltown has been coming under fire as of late. Celebrities' misdeeds are being exposed publicly on a weekly basis like a new sporting event. The #MeToo movement giving a platform to voice sex scandals that have gone unnoticed for far too long. Scrolling through your timeline, plastered on the TV screen, announced over the radio during daily commutes, the subject matter of countless memes, the focal point of water-cooler conversations; no matter where you turn, there it is. Accusation after accusation. Transforming popular figures into pervert pariahs overnight. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman, Brett Ratner, James Woods, Bryan Singer, Casey ... Affleck; an endless potpourri of bigwigs—the 21st Century witch hunt in full swing. No one is safe.
And while all of this is going on, halfway across the globe, there's Citrus, minding its own business as it idly trolls along turning sexual assault into a provocative byproduct of step-sisters "bickering." While people are pooling together with torches and pitchforks in hand, shining a light on any sexual misconduct occurring in the dark recesses of the entertainment industry, Studio Passione persists with the biggest "whatever bro" shoulder shrug. What the rest of the world concerns itself with isn't going to stop them from showing girls casually molesting each other on their scheduled programming. It's actually pretty impressive. Fucked up, but impressive nonetheless. I guess you could extend that sentiment to Japan in general. Creating "fucked up shit" in a carefree manner has become something like their calling card:
Has mass shootings and domestic terrorism been a hot-button issue? Well here, have some Inuyashiki. Concerned with gender politics? Don't worry, we got you covered with Skirt no Naka wa Kedamono Deshita. "If you want it, we got it." seems to be the motto, as they peddle anything and everything in the endless pursuit of creative freedom. Which brings us to the latest foray into the "fucked up shit" unofficial canon, Citrus.
From the land that gave us distinct high-school dramas like Orange, we're handed Citrus, the undesirable fruit.
The anime tells the tale of– oh, who are we kidding? It's about sexy-time with female characters. It's all lip service unless it "services the lips" of the females involved.
It's pretty average-looking too, the ugly kind of average-looking.
Hoards of CGI models in green linen jackets. Flat buildings without detail, walls bare of personality. Real-life-inspired locations washed of any distinct features. Stainless steel structures, straight shapes stretching on endlessly without purpose, without care. Floorboards and walkways copied and pasted into an endless loop of lethargic worldbuilding. A kind of artificial sheen to everything. Devoid of human touch, the undeniable look of computer-generated polish. Clinically sterile and evenly lit. The feeling of being done to the bare minimum. Uninspired. Uncaring. Unconcerned with anything unless it's "sexy-time," and even then, it's barely a passing grade.
Everyone has dark hair and moves forward in a unified step as if puppets to their boring world. A lifeless march towards an all-girl school, a place where our Yuzu would be attending. Yuzu Aihara is the rowdy rebel, our ball of "life" in a world lacking it, and unfortunately our main lead as well. The unlikable side character in any other show given a chance to take center stage to problematic results. Makeup caked on, strawberry blonde hair puffed up, cleavage out in the sun, skirt hacked up, buttermilk tan, all manner of frilly things, school outfit altered beyond recognition, a personality as loud as her appearance; a self-proclaimed gyaru and a shameless attention-seeker at that—this is "much deep" cuz spunky gurl in a world of conformists.
And standing as her polar opposite, there's Mei Aihara, a soon-to-be molester dressed up as a Mary Sue. She suffers heavily from PerfectGirl-syndrome: honor-role pupil, top of her class, student council president, poised, admired by everyone, the chairman's granddaughter, built like a walkway model, good at literally everything she does. She probably farts out Chanel No. 5 too. You get the drill, she's as interesting as wallpaper. Perfect to a sickening degree. Well, that's all before she decided to turn her new step-sister, Ms. Rowdy Rebel, into her personal play-thing.
And who better to bring this together than Takeo Takahashi, a man that's equally known for his hentai contributions as he is his "safe for work" content.
Citrus certainly has that kind of attribute to it. That sort of sleazy undercurrent that flows throughout every moment, well-intention or otherwise. Camera-panning that ogles the female form without concern for respecting boundaries. Narrative threads meant to help audiences relate to the cast quickly expedited to get to the next sexual encounter. Endless monologues for every characters' dilemma—subtlety isn't allowed in this universe. A sense of objectification, even if it's in regards to actions expressed with consent. Nothing is ever pure. Everything smeared with the fingerprints of hedonistic high-gloss.
Even smut like 2017's Scum's Wish, at the very least, had small spurts of respect displayed for its cast, occasionally loosening its vice grip to allow a chance to express feelings openly. By comparison, everything in Citrus feels bought off. An act of slave-like procurement over the characters' bodies that's too readily apparent to ignore. Awkward half-chubs spurred on by involuntary stimuli. In a meta-sense, we're also made victims of visual misconduct (go figure). It's the kind of eroticism that arrives quickly and leaves you feeling dirty.
An anime that will have a heated shower scene where non-consensual groping occurs, then follow it up with this dialogue exchange:
"No!"–Yuzu pushes away in abject horror– "Why are you doing this!?"–her eyes closed, as she stands there naked and vulnerable.
Mei innocently answers back without hesitation, a tone of motherly matter-of-factness:
"Because you looked like you wanted me to touch you."
The scene ends, never to properly address the disturbing exchange again.
As long as the money shot was secured and a few man-tents were pitched, nothing else matters.
This is the kind of "feeling dirty" I'm referring to.
I love perverted content as much as the next guy, but sometimes, what Citrus attempts to do is genuinely off-putting. Sexual harassment shouldn't be confused with love. And if it is, a level of accountability needs to be put in place to avoid idealistic handwaving. But this is a show that thinks that if it holds a "this is wrong" PSA after it indulges in sexual misconduct, that it's suddenly not culpable of wrongdoing. An anime that sells Stockholm syndrome as a shot of Cupid's arrow. Where fighting sexual harassment with sexual harassment is treated as an actual solution. Serious issues trivialized to create marketable eroticism and comedic gags.
Any act of earnestness is completely lost in a title devoid of finesse. After a while, you sort of just roll with it. Jokes at the expense of serious issues. Illogical reasoning made by characters to justify their actions. You might even buy into the lack of audiovisual effort as a part of the "theme" to contrast everything against Yuzu's personality. Of course, you'll be wrong, as even her living quarters and look has been rendered flaccid, lacking in any sense of creative vitality or noticeable effort. It's all very surface-level. Pedestrian sleaze that isn't arousing enough to keep the Kleenex nearby nor respectful enough to genuinely stimulate discussions regarding the content on display.
And that's perhaps this show's biggest downfall in a nutshell: it's vanilla, but a souring type of vanilla.
A type of middling existence occupied by works of far more distinction than itself. If you're interested in the taboo themes that this anime addresses, there's no need to compromise with inferior goods to get your fix. There are better alternatives out there for those actually seeking integrity (Koi Kaze) or far more titillating eye-candy (Scum's Wish). Why settle for vanilla in a world full of flavor just waiting to be discovered? Is Citrus entertaining? Sure, at times. But when 17-minutes of content is glazed over just for 3-minutes of "sexy-time," and the "sexy-time" itself is neither well-animated or concerned with addressing the elephant in the room that surrounds its content; at that point, what you're left with is a show whose sole purpose for existing is left dead in the water from the moment it dives in.
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Apr 4, 2018
There it is, a body on display, delicate fabric hugging its frame as if a part of its existence from the very beginning. Porcelain skin adorned with silk, the material complements the complexion. The figure stands there without concern for the wondering gaze of any passersby, a translucent wall erected between it and the endless faces. Society is kept at bay. The soft glow of light dancing on the surface of the sheet of glass serving as its imprisonment. It shimmers ever so slightly, creating prisms of color in the endless shuffle. The rays of light trails over the delicate frame of the figure. Beauty ... blossoming from a thing of tertiary value.
But this is not Violet Evergarden I'm describing.
Look beyond the object, beyond the fabric; zoom pass the crystalline glass wall, and suddenly, the true image of my purple prose takes shape. There it is, coming into focus, a JC Penny's mannequin positioned at the window front of a shopping mall district. The dancing lights, nothing but the cheap glow of neon signs from neighboring competitors adjacent to it. The wondering gazes, nothing but customers with money to spend.
If embellishments for something so minuscule is all you need to be entranced by the item being described, then Violet Evergarden will not bother you. However, if you desire content equally as deserving of the words being used to describe it, then it might benefit you to move on to greener pastures, because like this opening paragraph, so too is the material on display hyper-stylized rendering of a truly insignificant thing. The main difference being the tool; flowery words traded in for audiovisual frontloading. Layered color gradients supplemented in place of proper diction. Lots of icing, very little cake.
But it's not all a lost cause. VE's story is one of relation. Or rather, everything surrounding it facilitates sentiments easy to relate to. One that practically writes itself. A person used as an instrument of war attempting to find ways to rekindle their lost humanity. An appointed position that gives opportunities to do just that. A girl disciplined in strict military decorum. A puppet with its strings cut loose, unsure as to what to do with her newfound freedom. She's a lost child, forgotten by society, forced to start from scratch. A holdover from a wartorn nation whose usefulness is brought to a crossroads. The story ends with the closing of one chapter, as we begin the journey of another. The journey is that of recovery. A journey aided by the guiding hands of someone not there in the flesh. Efforts made from beyond the grave for her betterment. One that will serve as her driving force towards improvement as well as the source of her grief as she draws closer to the answers she seeks.
Through her, we're introduced to this world. One made up like a quilt of different time periods and cultural influences, all stitched together to create something new. Victorian-era structures serve as the city skyline while the undeniable look of early 20th-century technology takes the form of motor vehicles, as well as a wide assortment of widgets and trinkets littered throughout the environment. Our person of interest, Violet, equally as blended. Her appearance is that of an unassertive young woman, while her mechanical limbs tell a different story. A story of violence and darkness. This temperament reflected in her personality. She only sees things in utilitarian ways; typewriters are weapons, school is a mission, her job becomes headquarters, saluting whenever given orders, requesting permission for all her actions. Social graces are completely lost on her. Her upbringing robbing her of the privilege to decide. There was only ever one path for her to take. Until recently, her actions were that of a blade, sheathed, just waiting for the time that its usefulness was required once again. An instrument of death whenever its wielder sees fit.
Her new job changes that. She must write for others as an "Auto Memory Doll," a profession where she's tasked to transcribe the feelings and thoughts of others, giving a voice for those that have trouble doing so on their own accord. A job where recorded sentiments are captured in a letter. A chance for an emotionally stunted girl to learn what feelings are. A "doll" wanting to become a doll, when in fact, the act of becoming one is what brings her closest to humanity.
As I said, the show writes itself.
A self-oscillating arbiter of "good content" for anyone wanting to express why it's "good content." The mere act of explaining its basic premise does the legwork for them. Except for the fact that when the content is lifted from the pages of its screenplay and brought to life by the magic of animation, it's equally as flaccid as the diegetic information would have you believe when following a character of such stunted social growth. It's a show perfect for overthinking, perfect for negating any naysayer, where issues are fended off as "it's meant to be that way." Subject matter created to facilitate a drab character doing things in a drab fashion. A machine-like girl with mechanical limbs given a task to emulate empathy. Her stilted, often wooden personality is accounted for by her upbringing. She's that way because she's SUPPOSED to be that way. It's all very self-serving. "To wear one's faults on their sleeve" taken quite literally.
It would have worked too, had there been no viable means to circumvent such insular logic. But here's where knowledge supersedes those counterarguments. Where one's experience can allow criticism to stick. This isn't the first anime to house such themes. And of those that did so before it, there are definitive examples of "better" out there disallowing the open acceptance of wooden behavior solely for the fact that the character's given circumstances allows it. Humans aren't that flat. To enable such simple-minded evaluations in place of spotting genuine issues is to trivialize the complexities of the human race altogether.
We already know what it would be like for an apathetic person unable to function without the strict regiment of paramilitary life because we've seen it done with a pedigree of writing befitting the serious subject matter. People that carry the baggage of their actions, the haunting memories of the things they've seen, unable to let go, to fully allow oneself to be integrated into society. We know what this looks like because well-developed personalities like Kazuki Fuse from Jin-Roh exists. Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell exists. Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist exists. PTSD is not a scapegoat for underwritten performances, and it should never be accepted as one.
These issues are made visible by VE's very crowning achievement. Pristine art and animation that ends up highlighting the thin veneer of its inherent value. The undeniable look of sterile sleekness. The artifice of humanistic warmth made bare by the prim and proper order towards everything on display. Everything and everyone is made beautiful. Age, circumstances, genetics; none of it matters. Mandated aesthetics dictate this world. You die beautifully. You get angry beautifully. You get beaten up with style. Even tears are delivered with streams of diamond-like orbs, with the owners' faces made for the camera. Everyone in this world like that of runway models, all given a chance to play civilians. Realism made implausible when all inhabitants look like they should be doing photo ops for H&M brochures. Any attempt at realism placed further on cease-and-desist when glimpses of battles are depicted with shounen-like fight sequences. A place where even the grim outcome of war must be performed with a sense of commissioned poetics, all done to appease the vision of a director too busy with their pursuit for a particular aesthetic to let the content speak for itself. Content that effectively gets in the way of its own vision because it's never granted the chance to breathe.
Natural light emulation that aims for Call Me by Your Name but lands somewhere along the lines of The Visit. How an anime could suffer from overexposure is beyond me. Goes to show you that when you emulate without understanding, the issues are copied as well. Time-lapse photography used in every episode, not for any purpose other than to show off. Lens blur effects used for flashbacks and present-time, not because there's a reason to but because the director can. Everything is in service of this perfectness. This very unnatural attempt at being "natural" utterly self-defeating of its intentions.
This is equally true for moments underlined with genuine character outbursts.
Silence is powerful. Playing music over every scene is amateur. Words drowned out by plucked strings, the steadily held notes of a violin, piano keys dolled out just as quickly; all of this without concern for what the characters are saying. Entire dialogue exchanges where silence is appropriate is washed out by a wall of sound. It doesn't compliment the material; it hijacks it. There's a time and a place for everything, this anime never come to realize that fact.
It may take drowning out its content before one take notice of what good is there, but in that regard, Violet Evergarden is not without merit. Our protagonist may be an empty vessel with flickers of humanity tucked inside, but thankfully we're not made hostage by her presence, as every chapter in VE is in service of someone else. People of far greater interest than herself. Their emotional range not limited—even when presented with the same aesthetic brushstrokes that everything is painted in—their humanistic tendencies find a way to radiate outward. And as a vessel, Violet is given a chance to charter her clients' emotions to those on the receiving end of the expressed affection, and through that task itself, is able to find a way to expound upon her own feelings in return. The broad spectrum of accumulated emotions serving as the proxy towards finding her own. The idea itself is very appropriate. I would even go as far as saying that it's thoughtful. It also operates with a pace befitting the subject matter, even if that pace is considered to be a problem to some. These things need time to happen. Thankfully, Violet is alotted that.
It's all told through carefully selected vignettes, being brought together by motifs relating back to nature, its seasons, and the various foliage that comes to represent them:
▸The story of Iris, a girl named after the flowers in bloom in her small village, seeking out an existence away from her meager upbringing. Unwilling to accept rejection, an act of stubborn pride catalyzes her steps forward.
▸The story of Luculia, a pleasant disposition befitting the flower she's named after. She puts the feelings of her loved one ahead of herself. Hoping for their eventual emotional recovery from a tragedy that robbed them both of normalcy.
▸The unofficial sigils of two kingdoms: one a white rose, the other red. Lovers-to-be and penpals brought together by political circumstances, but share a love that aligns beyond the expanded power and peace of their union.
▸The final days of a mother, the autumn leaves fall as a countdown to her departure from the land of the living, wanting nothing more than to find a means to comfort the daughter that she's leaving behind.
▸The blanket of snow that covers a warring nation in frozen stasis. People refusing to move forward. Like their winter surroundings, they too remain cold towards each other, leaving their country in a state of civil unrest.
And then there's the story of Violet herself, named after a wildflower in bloom; she's plucked out of the custody of a heartless man and into the care of one that sees beyond her reduced form. A disheveled mess, only treated as a tool, one meant to be used and later disposed of; the man sees differently. He wants her betterment at any cost, even if that means paying the ultimate price.
There is a beauty here when you view the intentions behind every chapter. The problem stems from the execution itself. Beautiful on paper doesn't translate to well-done in reality. Funny enough, the doll-like nature of the protagonist and her initial attempts at writing serves as a sort of meta-commentary for the content on display:
Her intent is earnest, she wants to understand the expressions and feelings being directed her way, but like her mechanical limbs, so too is the show written with a sense of artificiality. An emulation of real-life that can't muster up to being anything more than that.
Violet Evergarden is a beautiful plastic rose with stuck-on water droplets. It's well-kept. Never finding the beauty in decay. Never needing to accept the full spectrum of life simply because its creators are wholly content with being "perfect." True beauty is found in the blemishes. Within the scuffle of humanity's futility towards greater ambitions. True beauty comes from the majesty of life itself making mankind a mere moment in a pool of infinity. True beauty is humbling.
It's through the imperfections that true beauty is emitted. Violet Evergarden is pretty to look at, but with the absence of this understanding, it could never be the real thing, it could never be "true beauty."
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Mar 2, 2018
Genres combined, high fantasy and sci-fi stitched into the fabric of a sword-and-sandal epic, creating a sense of fullness. Something lavish. A sense of scale, setting, space, and tangibility. A tapestry woven together from the scraps of many different influences. Some recognizable, others just on the tip of the tongue. A made-up culture that's deep-rooted in particulars of a far-off period. Fauna that adds domestic quality. All these attributes joggled simultaneously, the likes of which can be drastically altered in the absence of finesse. There's a culminated purposefulness to Panzer World Galient. A chemistry of fine-tuned planning stripped away of any additives that might dilute ... the formula. A formula that was unfortunately rushed, the unforeseen tampering of corporate mandate. The kind of external meddling to a precise algorithm that causes genuine harm to the work in question yet still plays a vital role in its inherent ability to fascinate the unexpected viewer.
For behind this tarnished work, the gem of what could have been still managed to shine through—a textbook diamond in the rough. Unpolished and forgotten by many. Buried. Just another date on a calendar. Another entry of yesteryear. But thankfully, one still worth unearthing, for Panzer World Galient has an advantage not allotted to other works. It isn't just the brainchild of a nobody. Galient was the work of an industry veteran, guaranteeing that one day, no matter if that day was undetermined, It would be rediscovered by devotees. Steadfast followers, driven by an unspoken understanding that anything orchestrated by this man would yield an interesting artifact. Even if the title in question has suffered from deep-rooted issues—this one certainly has its fair share—the end result would still spark one's imagination.
That man in question is Ryosuke Takahashi, an auteur within the industry who's held a steadfast existence within the realm of name relevancy and the thin membrane that makes up the cult fanbase that religiously consumes his works.
For those familiar with his trademark style, a penchant for mechanical detail and world functionality is a must. A kind of hyper-obsession that leads to fantastical constructs. Environments and characters that are highly rendered—tactile. This is a constant for Takahashi, almost done on impulse; OCD-like even. The kind of obsession he's demonstrated with the lesser appraised "big 3" of the mecha genre, Armored Trooper Votoms, and even more so with his smaller passion projects. From hard sci-fi like Flag to the mystical political drama of Gasaraki, when it comes to methodical plotting, in-story elements that maintain constant plausibility, and malleable characters that retain believable attributes, there's not that many that could rival him. He's a mad scientist toiling away in his lab. And this time around, the result of his tinkering bears something that's unlike his usual outing.
Panzer World Galient is an anomaly in Takahashi's canon.
Transient glimpses of Tolkien rendered topography flickering through in the way it builds upon itself. A world seemingly grafted by stepping forward in any direction. The kind of storytelling where landmarks and casual name drops sweeps over every corner of the foreseeable map, each feeling every bit as significant, whether it has immediate ties to the plot or not.
Takahashi's work is usually composed of stark realism and hyper-world functionality; a well-oiled machine with characters equally adjusted to operate within it. Seeing his type of penmanship homogenized into a genre that requires flexible renditions of escapist elements makes for an interesting watch. A painterly looseness, the boundless freedom of coloring outside the lines. Magic, fatalism, pure imagination; core aspects that grant high fantasy its freedom to operate like a lucid dream.
It's a kind of lackadaisical sensibility that goes against the grain of everything Takahashi stands for. And yet, here it is, the tangible form of what is in all likelihood the mixture of oil and water. Only bested by Mamoru Oshii's ability to pendulum swing from the casual lightheartedness of the Patlabor TV series, to the muted cynicism of the film installments that proceeded it. Thankfully, the collision of these two worlds was met with success. A collision that I find intriguing, not only as one of the aforementioned devotees of this creator but equally so as an avid fan of the medium. Because for all intents and purposes, this was a precursor project to the much more appraised Turn A Gundam and Escaflowne, or for those stuck on the hamster wheel of seasonal viewing, Rage Against the Bahamut. A true patriarch. Panzer World Galient, or Galient, as I'll refer to it going forward, was one of anime's first successful mixtures of high fantasy, mecha, and sci-fi.
Planet Arst, home to a civilization stuck in the Middle Ages, comes face-to-face with a foreign enemy; their technology otherworldly, their invasion methods ruthless. A destructive force governed by a tyrannical ruler named Marder. A man every bit as mysterious as the weapons he deploys. It's the natives vs. the colonists. Historically, the colonists are usually victorious, for the people of Volder's kingdom, their first encounter against Marder and his empire was no different. They stood there, transfixed in the face of utter defeat. Twelve years later, Marder still sits on the iron throne; his reign met with contempt. Jordy Volder, the forgotten prince of the fallen kingdom of house Volder, fights back. The fate of Arst held in the balance, while a bigger truth looms over it all.
Kunio Okawara and Yutaka Izubuchi are mecha experts. They give life to Takahashi's vision. Frankenstein mixtures of inhuman steel giants and fable-inspired entities. They don't take long to make their debut. In only a few minutes we're greeted by Marder's steampunk jousting centaurs; bodies coated in titanium, lances in hand, they gallop through the night like apparitions of an oncoming apocalypse. Swarming behind these imposing mechanical beasts are Marder's army; hooded figures donning executioner masks, mounted on the backs of armless velociraptors, electric battle axes in hand—a mixture of primitive and futuristic. The robust tank-like motion of a pitch-black battle armada leading the charge, standing several stories high, a monolith that shakes the earth around it—this is only the teaser for things to come.
A storm of metal, exhaust smoke, and bloodlust—their target, the common folk. Poorly armed farmers. Men with secondhand weaponry. Wooden bows and arrows, medieval swords, shields made of flimsy iron—child's play. A one-sided battle. Their determination to win being their only true asset, as steel meets with even harder steel. Fighting fire with fire proven futile when it's a flamethrower pitted against a candle flame. But victory isn't Marder's, not as long as Joldy is around to deny him the satisfaction.
For Joldy stands as the child of myth. A descendant of Homer's Greek epics, birthed from the sands of Arst and ancient literature. His name and presence itself is a story simply waiting to be told. The honorary prince, protector of the weak, strength of his people. A pupil of sword-and-sandal adventures. Piloting a mech perhaps more distinguished than himself. A holdover from a forgotten time, hidden underground, only awakening from its slumber for a moment like this.
This is what Takahashi brings to the table: discipline, foresight, systematic control. A sense of causality for the usual carefree nature of high fantasy sagas. A fixation for detail demonstrated in the battle tactics adopted by the people of Galient. An unnecessary amount of planning to the way widgets function. The anatomy of machines. The habits of creatures that call this world home. The backstory to things not needed to be seen. Lively personalities, warriors and citizens, friends, and enemies alike, adapted to the machinations of their surroundings, each serving their purpose. Each comfortably fitting within their world—details matter. Context matters. Subtext matters. Motivations matters. Worldbuilding matters. Setting matters. Characterization matters. Nothing is shortchanged. Excuses are not acceptable when you enter this man's lab. This is the discipline of a creator that understands that art without purpose is no better than highly-rendered vandalism. And it's precisely because of this fixation—this commitment—that Galient was granted the chance to be seen in a whole new light when compared to its contemporaries.
All of this and I've only scratched the surface. Only addressed a handful of encounters for a story that spans into the stars. An epic, not only by name but by actual content.
Galient has a bigger truth hidden. The observable universe hinted at from the very beginning, expanding outward. People that treat this gargantuan war for Arst's future as a mere skirmish among ants. The world: their microscope. The war: the insignificant struggle of germs on a petri dish. World-theater reminiscent of Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arrival, or any piece of fiction where mankind is observed, but with intentions far less caring. Far less honorary. When higher evolved beings, Gods in their own right, have to oversee worlds far beneath it, the act itself can become a chore. Their power is ever-present. Unable to be challenged intellectually or technologically, eons of peace came at a high cost; complacency was inevitable. Individuality breathes conflict, it's the cyclical nature of sentient beings. These advanced species abandon it willingly to maintain their superiority; The people of Arst don't.
The common hubris of "being too big to fail" is only supported in the basic sense of the underdogs prevailing. Simply placed there to reveal the bigger truth of the matter; when removed from the high fantasy genre, when reality is given a door to seep in, more often than not, the ones with the "bigger gun" do indeed win. And with that truth in mind, the ideological framework of what high fantasy treats as its bread and butter has now effectually been called into question, an action that's pivotal to the kind of creator that Takahashi is. A man that favors stark reality, even when the lighthearted nature of the world it takes place in says otherwise.
In spirit, Galient was a product of its time, but one that was cognizant of what creates a timeless piece of fiction. It's the reason why Homer's epics are still discussed today, why Shakespeare's influence still permeates in works of literature hundreds of years later, why Tolkien is still cited as a source of influence for so many. Panzer World Galient was, and still is a work of understood legacy, a work of lineage. One that understands and homages the greats that came before it. Whether the public or the few that saw it are aware of it or not, this hidden gem will always hold a role—no matter how small—in the medium's ongoing pantheon.
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Feb 8, 2018
Plumes of smoke rise out of New York City's skyline as three soot-covered firefighters hoist the American flag out of the World Trade Center's rubble. Political tension pervades Tiananmen Square; pedestrians look on with bated breath as a man turns himself into a human blockade, denying passage to a line of tanks. A devoted monk sits in a meditative position in the busy streets of Saigon, consumed by a raging fire, silently protesting as civilians and civil servants gather around. At the end of World War II, a sailor embraces a woman, locking lips in the middle of Times Square amongst officers and citizens as ... they celebrate a momentous victory.
These are all instances captured on film, images that could convey meaning, regardless of personal connection or circumstances.
"A picture is worth a thousand words."
It's amazing what one snapshot can do. With just one image, our attention can be purchased back from the chaotic shuffling of everyday life. Something that could temporarily snap us out of our daily stupor; our focus readjusted. It could be something simple that resonates with us on a personal level or perhaps a quick glimpse into a truth that we abandon simply out of its inconvenience to our day-to-day lives. Confined within its framed border, a picture could tell a tale, capture an emotion, embody the essence of the period it was taken. It could be all that's needed to encapsulate a fleeting moment in time, preserving it for posterity, where it can live on in the memory of the next pair of eyes to gaze upon it. Whether on celluloid or pixelated, what matters, in the end, is its ability to grab the viewer's attention. And perhaps no better example of that are moments captured amidst human conflict.
For at the heart of the matter lies a common understanding that we can all share. Something that supersedes religion, race, ethnicity or any sociopolitical borders set in place to keep us apart. Through it all, the right image has the power to stir up an emotional response that takes far more than words to express. They become calling cards for truths. A way of giving tangible form to nebulous ideas. It’s for that reason that we continue to rely on them. Their ability to speak to us is timeless, even if the world around it continues to march forward.
And when it all boils down to it, it’s this rare phenomenon, this occurrence, that Flag attempts to capture. But perhaps more important than that is the way in which it goes about obtaining it. A way that’s surprisingly underutilized, both in its presentation decisions and subject matter.
Documenting the civil war of a fictional country named Uddiyana, the show centers around a mission to retrieve a flag that’s become a symbol of peace, not only for the country’s residence but also the international community at large, after a photo was taken of it that immortalized its status as such. And while this retrieval mission is carried out by a small military unit in accompaniment with the same photographer responsible for giving the flag its fame—being brought onboard to help chronicle the mission’s success; the bigger truth for the mission’s significance gets unearthed in the process, as the agenda of all sides involved in the conflict—both domestically and on an international stage—slowly makes itself known to the people involved. What had started off as a straightforward mission for an idealistic cause was effectively turned into a labyrinth maze of political shuffleboarding. A maze that our characters find themselves becoming involuntary pawns in, as it slowly divulges into an elaborate zero-sum game.
By using the framework of this image phenomenon as its central premise, Flag crafts a narrative around a point of view that's usually gone unaccounted for, yet plays the most vital role in the reason these powerful photographs come into existence, in the first place. Here, we follow the brave men and women that are constantly seeking out the fringe to capture that perfect shot; the kind of picture that finds its place in the pages of historical texts. Whether the journalists in question are using this as a means of income or have a genuine desire to reveal the truth, Flag uses this kind of occurrence as an opportunity to view concepts far less vague than the sentimentality behind what they come to represent. A tale that takes on broad implications, yet, surprisingly enough, remains intimate. A type of intimacy that can only be birthed from the cold cynicism of politics once we discuss the presentation being used to contain it all.
What should be understood right up front is that the intended countries being emulated to create this fictional land is of little relevance, as the real importance here is how it will come to represent attributes of everyday conflict seen whenever bigger governing bodies meddle in the domestic dispute of smaller nations. Flag slowly unveils all the chess pieces involved by situating its focus with people who find themselves being designated as the middlemen of public awareness and what occurs at ground zero.
To traverse this story, we follow Saeko Shirasu, a young photojournalist whom, unlike her peers, isn't interested in publicizing truths of some country’s conflict, but instead, uses this opportunity as a chance to carve out a purpose for herself through the photos she takes. Despite gaining recognition amongst her colleagues and media outlets for the famous image she captured regarding the civil war, there’s far more fueling her to undergo the mission to help retrieve the flag than anything described as “noble.” For Saeko, this is a task meant to help her find who she truly is. In many ways, the story is every bit about Saeko as it is about the political climate she finds herself navigating across. Something that the show wastes no time in establishing with what’s arguably its biggest draw.
The anime shows everything in a POV (point of view) perspective. Well, to be more accurate, all the events are documented through recording devices located throughout the series. Diary vlog entries made by Saeko herself, the accumulated recordings of her handheld camera. Photographs and video recordings taken from other colleagues, footage gathered from implanted security cameras located in military vehicles and buildings. News coverage broadcasted over the airwaves and amateur videos taken within the city. Every method of data capturing is account for, each going towards creating the "bigger picture"; Flag changes how we perceive this world by turning it into instances stockpiled and fine-tuned through our very own viewfinder. Our method of seeing this world becomes a "lens" within itself. There’s no cheating with elaborate aerial shots intended to enhance the action. Nor are there moments that make you question “Who’s filming this right now?” No, the creative minds behind this series treat their subject matter with respect, never giving into the temptation of excessive theatrics to heighten its drama. If it can’t be realistically captured, it does not get occupied space in this screenplay. This is what grants the show that coveted intimacy that many other creators would kill for. That feeling of isolation and immersion with the people we follow. The viewer isn’t granted a chance to become omnipresent, to shift through scene transitions or have everything laid at their feet through verbal narration. The only knowledge we acquire comes from events we see happen at real-time with the people we follow or come in the form of visual archives stored by multimedia devices that are offered to us to dissect whatever we will from it.
By doing this, the show can keep everything up close and personal, something that’s made all the more impressive given the all-encompassing nature of the civil war set on center-stage.
POV shots in storytelling isn’t a novel idea, but despite that, the way Flag goes about repurposing it to tell its story feels entirely fresh. This is something that could be attributed to the obsessive nature of Ryosuke Takahashi, one of the anime industry’s most overlooked auteurs. A man whose insistence for detail and distinct vision of warfare can be seen from his more commercial works (Blue Gender / Armored Trooper Votoms), to his pet projects (Gasaraki / Panzer World Galient). There’s always a general sense that the functionality of his works is something he keeps to the forefront of his mind whenever he’s constructing it. Nothing just happens for the sake of creating a great moment. Instead, great moments are created because what is happening onscreen doesn’t feel that far-off from whatever future-reality it might be channeling. And it’s this commitment towards plausibility that makes following Saeko and the military unit she partnered up with feel every bit as real as any journalist special that may be found time-slotted in CNN’s regular broadcastings.
There’s an understated cinematic fervor to the way the camera locks in its characters in this tumultuous experience. It has the biting grit of a TV series commissioned in the same stylistic vision of Oscar winners like Syriana, Black Hawk Down or The Last King of Scotland. This is seen with the key mechanics of the characters, as we track their involvement within the story. The way events play out in the absence of our protagonist’s view of it. The grainy shot of surveillance footage that’s juxtaposed to the crisp rendering of an expensive handheld camera. Camera panning that continually leaves the audience anticipating what will be shown next. These things that might be interpreted as minor flourishings to the untrained eye is ultimately the secret ingredient that helps this anime piece together a cinematic blueprint of its own. Giving a “bigger than the frame can contain” feeling to everything presented. A kind of cinematic engulfment that gives a feeling of involvement to everyone, even those living on the outskirts of the events taking place. It’s a show that offers a platform for those directly caught up in the conflict as well as the civilian bystanders that simply wish to maintain their way of life.
It doesn't just stop at seeing life through the lens but follows the men and women that directly and indirectly help in orchestrating the type of environment that will give birth to the kind of photographs our protagonist just so happen to capture. An idea in documenting what goes towards the photo’s origins, both for the viewer and in this rare case, the taker of the image, creating with it a new way of soul-searching that comes as a direct result of these two worlds intermixing.
All of which starts off with the famous image that carries the narrative from its beginning to its inevitable end. An image that is every bit as iconic as any real-life examples I’ve given at the beginning of this review:
A blue flag waves across the sunburnt landscape of this far-off country, as the armed resistance of the people raise their hands and weapons in triumph. War-torn pieces of their homeland are left ravaged by a domestic dispute. Ancient Greco-Roman pillars of a forgotten time positioned firmly in the ground, as light cascades through its columns. The silhouette of women praying amidst this small celebration, forever immortalized with their figures embedded in the sunlight and the iconic fabric in mid-wave.
It’s a powerful photo that manages to invoke both the strength of the people united and the hopes they have for peace going forward.
A photograph that will go on to become the calling card of the people, as well as a political asset for those operating with hidden agendas. Pretenses are forged behind it to justify political subterfuge, and while talks of peace are held in the open with smiling faces, bureaucrats and fanatics alike are busy thumbing away at the chance to set their plans into motion, as they masquerade behind falsehoods conjured up to win the trust of the people.
But where other shows would treat this as an opportunity to take a stab at the political system at large, here, it doesn't chastise the men and women of the army that fight blindly to the political agenda of those in charge. Nor does it make it its intent to oversell the ugliness of these high-ranking figures' actions. Instead, Flag chooses to stand at the wayside, taking in all facets of the ongoing conflict and designating the characters in it as mere vehicles to see how each person chooses to deal with the situation at large. This gives us an angle that’s rarely explored in stories... well, at least never in this exact light.
In most forms of storytelling media, reporters and journalists are usually just there to fill in the role of expository footnotes to the audience. Very rarely do these shows stop to get these people’s perspective, let alone follow them for the duration of its story, which is fascinating in and of itself when you stop to think about it. Here are people whose job it is to project a decorum of professionalism regardless of personal bias or situation. An act that’s all the more alarming when you get behind the lens, where the ones that capture random acts of violence towards others don’t even intervene, and in fact, are encouraged not to. People responsible for bringing humanity closest to the truth yet never get involved in it. A level of emotional withdrawal not only from oneself but humanity as a whole, yet at the same time, it’s these very same people that are expected to practice transparency once the greater powers at be decided what angle they will choose to approach the entire situation with.
And for a young woman who is still piecing together who exactly she is in this big, crazy world, that kind of responsibility–no–that kind of willingness to participate must take a mental toll on her, whether she’s fully aware of it or not. She may appear cheerful, flashing a smile to all those gathered around her, but when no one's around, we see the full picture. We see the pensive expression of someone searching for answers and only finding more questions. And it’s this very mental battle of uncertainty that’s captured with pinpoint accuracy as she literally and figuratively look in the mirror, snapping a photo of herself, yet unable to recognize the person looking back in the cold, unfeeling reflection.
It’s powerful moments like these that truly elevate Flag to a place beyond boilerplate fiction. Here, this title manages to obtain sticky instances of pathos that finds itself slowly taking ahold of you the more you let the content settle in. And personally, for me, it’s these kinds of moments that keep me constantly returning to the anime medium. It’s one thing to give birth to this phenomenon with real-life actors and actresses in a live-action feature, but it’s a complete other when the already thin membrane of suspension of disbelief for watching an animated title still manages to dupe the audience into forgetting that realization. By effectively obtaining that same level of human intimacy, despite the fact that it’s animated—even if the illusion only happens for a split second—Flag proves that there’s more here than merely mimicking documentary-style storytelling. And this is something the show manages to do on more than one occasion, crossing this threshold into realism effortlessly. This makes it a feature deserving of far more appraisal than its meager existence as a mecha variant to the higher-budget alternatives. With everything considered, Flag is one of the medium’s more realistic utilization of mecha, politics, and human conflict in a not-too-far-off future, and it’s high-time it gets the proper recognition for that.
Admittedly, the show has its faults. Like anything else made around a specific time, what may once have been considered suitable, or in some cases, expected for certain features, can later run the risk of being viewed as an antiquated element, even going as far as being scorned in retrospect. And in the case of Flag, that aspect was easily its musical selection. Taken as a whole, the soundtrack of Flag demonstrates its fair share of musical highlights, but equally so, a noticeable number of pitfalls for those well-versed in warfare-focused stories. The opening song, to put it lightly, is very clichéd, and stands as a microcosm of the problems that occasionally show up in the soundtrack itself. The over-emphasized yodeling of a middle-eastern woman accompanied by grand orchestral gestures and tribal drum renditions, at this point in the world of storytelling, has been done ad nauseam in war movies and TV series alike. It’s the equivalency to every depiction of High School containing the popular girl with her two lesser-attractive sidekicks cat walking down the hallway as the main protagonist looks on in admiration. A kind of cliché that runs the risk of parody for anyone seriously thinking of incorporating it today without finesse.
Thankfully, the intent behind these musical embellishments felt like it came from a place of earnestness and not a result of studio mandate. Anyone familiar with Takahashi’s directorial style or Yoshihiro Ike’s musical output would find it easy to forgive this treatment, and what I’m assuming would be the majority case, wouldn’t even have registered any of this as a problem at all. Given music’s subjectivity to the ear of the listener, this can simply be chalked up as a personal gripe derived from perceived oversaturation of a musical fallback for anything depicting a third world country.
But regardless of this personal gripe, Flag has become a title I find myself wholeheartedly cherishing for everything it brought to the table. Not only does it stand as a unique entry for anime in general, but beyond that point, it stands as a pillar of legitimacy that naysayers unfairly attempt to rob from the medium. An animated emulation of real-world conflict can stir up an emotional response with the best of them. It can still stand for something bigger than itself. It can still drive its message home with the same level of poignancy. But most of all, it’s deserving of the same level of respect allotted to features that occupy the big screen. And for that, Flag is an anime that earns its keep as one of the medium’s best-hidden gems.
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Sep 30, 2017
-Minor plotting events will be addressed and forwarned in advance-
It's easy to point the finger at Boku No Hero Academia and label it as just one and the same as any other shounen that populates the medium. To make broad statements about the characters themselves being repackaged personalities with only a fresh coat of paint and appearance to their name. Or something to the effect of its story being recycled. And if you were to choose that stance, defendants would be hard-pressed to argue against it. But if you did decide to adopt that approach, that then calls into question the very essence of critiquing ... a shounen in such restrictive terms, to begin with.
If a shounen isn't allowed to be about the fundamental fight between good and evil, with said fights being carried out through the proxy of colorfully decorated personalities, then at what point does it cease to make sense for it to even be made at all? Or better yet, why bother to scrutinize it for doing what that genre has been predicated on since its inception? At what point does valid criticism capsize towards the side of pointless nitpicking? You won't always discredit comedies for having situational humor nor will you shame an action movie for delivering on its promise of cool fights and chase scenes. So why then is that benefit not allotted to shounens for being just that; a shounen? What I’m trying to say, in more words or less, is if a shounen isn't allowed to be a shounen without being reprimanded, what purpose does it even serve anymore?
With all that being said, couldn't a shounen that operates within the realm of its genre commonalities be allowed to revel in it, even if it may air on the side of self-indulgence at times? I say it should. Not every shounen could escape its role to become Fullmetal Alchemist nor should it be required to. In the same way, not every action film is expected to be a seminal game-changer in the way The Matrix did for bullet-time effects and stylized violence or Inception for its audiovisual craftsmanship and technical proficiency. Sometimes, being the byproduct to ride the wave of other tentpole entries is just fine. And in that regard, Boku No Hero Academia has proven to be a steady entry in the ever-expanding superhero/shounen canon, and I see no reason to ostracize it because it isn't overly ambitious.
What can and will be critiqued, however, is the mechanics of its universe and the functionality of all the moving parts—characters and their purpose notwithstanding. No matter the demographic or genre it services, poor writing isn't autonomous to critique, and in my opinion, that’s the space where a reviewer is needed to occupy. The utilization of literary devices is something all storytelling media shares, and it’s in this truth that we can adequately gauge quality control in a fair manner. We don’t need critics to tell us that “SPOILER ALERT, shounens have very simple themes.” Anyone with a modicum of common sense could do that on their own. But what’s usually beyond the general knowledge of the viewing audience is the inner-workings that drive the content they consume. Basically, how well does the title in question use the tools at its disposal? And with that in mind, Boku no Hero Academia has some kinks it needs to iron out before it occupies any shelf-space alongside the genre’s cherished entries. Thankfully, this 2nd season shows promise of that possibly coming to fruition if they handle the content properly moving forward.
But before we open that can of worms, let’s get everyone up to speed.
Coming off season one's finale, our group of young heroes finds themselves becoming in-house celebrities on their school's campus, and for good reason. They fought against real-world villains, a situation that's already rare enough for students but made all the more alarming given that the face-off took place on school grounds. This places everyone on high alert as they move forward with the calendar year. And as new challenges emerge to face them, this period of their lives will serve as their first jumping-off point into finding out what it truly means to be a hero.
This set of challenges first starts off with a genre staple, the tournament arc. And let's just be honest here, this 1st arc is only paying lip service to having a plot while the true intent is allowing physical alterations to happen, and that’s fine. Of course, the writers conjure up a reason to justify this event, and wisely, they made sure their pretext reflected in the show’s in-world rationalizing as well, taking the edge off for anyone that may have noticed it for what it was. Since being a superhero is its own profession in this world, many agencies choose this event to scout new talent, which also doubles up as a national sporting competition for regular civilians to enjoy. Which I must add is a far better excuse for this setup than what most people would give it credit for. And while this arc came with all the bells and whistles that make any shounen tournament fun, it was also the weakest part of the 2nd season for the reason that’s pivotal to making the whole thing work.
The thing that plagues this portion of the show’s run was something I praised the 1st installment of getting right the first time around. And no, it has nothing to do with the self-evident cliché of the arc’s existence. As I mentioned earlier, a shounen doing “shounen shit” is not my concern here. You don’t need me telling you how overused tournament arcs are, that point will already be reiterated to death by every pseudo-critic that will see this as an opportunity to attack “low-hanging fruit.” Instead, what I plan to address is the functionality of the show’s premise in this arc. And to address that, what needs to be called into question is something that’s perhaps the easiest for everyday viewers to comprehend: proper buildup and payoff.
The idea is simple, throughout the show, the creators will attempt to build up several things—whether it be story or character-centric—and then proceed to pay off their efforts through the natural metamorphosis of the narrative. That “payoff” can either be the central climax of the story or just the resolution of a subplot within it.
To get a sense of this idea in action, let’s take a look at the following scenario:
Let's say there's a superhero introduced who's explicitly stated to have the power to spawn water cannons from their arms. With the explanation of that character's ability made clear, it’s reasonable to expect that the buildup will probably revolve around the use of said power or the resolve of the character being tested at a crucial moment. Whether used against someone in specific or an event that calls for their particular ability, as long as that hero accomplishes or fails whatever the writers pit them against, it will serve as the payoff for their prominent introduction and highlighted power.
This doesn't always mean that there needs to be a payoff right away, but if the story dedicates time away from its central focus to build up something or someone else, it's usually meant to foreshadow a future event later down the line where that knowledge the audience is given will be reincorporated. Pretty self-explanatory, right? Now, let's look at an example of that being done correctly in the 1st season of Boku no Hero, most notably with our protagonist Midoriya. He's shown as an astute kid that studies the anatomy and abilities of other heroes. This has become so synonymous with what defines him as a character that it’s even caught the attention of those around him. The buildup established has constantly been paid off with every physical altercation Midoriya finds himself in, as he’s continuously shown using his opponent’s strengths to his advantage, while also working with the limitations of his own power.
The buildup: his excessive studying.
The payoff: his tactical prowess on the battlefield.
Now, this is where a problem rears its ugly head in this season. Throughout the entirety of the tournament arc, almost every buildup that doesn’t revolve around Midoriya or Todoroki, significant or otherwise, was poorly delivered upon, and in some cases, completely abandoned altogether. And no, this has nothing to do with antiquated terms like Chekhov's gun, but more so an inability to reconnect with things previously established.
To help you spot this on your own, I will highlight a minor event in season 2 episode 3. Obviously, if you haven’t seen up to this point, there will be light spoilers ahead. Skip these two merged paragraphs if you want to avoid them.
In episode 3 at around the 4-minute mark, characters Kirishima and Tetsutetsu are shown crushed under a gigantic robot, something that both characters ended up walking away from unscathed, thanks to their quirks. One could harden like a rock while the other hardens like steel, a quirk that makes them both the ultimate armor against things that would usually cause harm, or in some cases death, to any other student that found themselves in the same predicament. What’s important here is that the show took time to pause during the tournament arc to specifically highlight this, subconsciously signaling to the audience that it will come into play later on.
Not even a full 7-minutes later into the same episode, at around the 11-minute mark, the show introduces an obstacle for the students to get through. This obstacle is a minefield covered with non-lethal explosive charges, a fact the announcer reinforces. It can harm the students but not to the point of endangering their lives. Now, this is very important to note, because like we already established 7-minutes prior, two students survived what would in any other case be life-threatening injuries to other students without a quirk specifically designed to counteract it. So it stands to reason, this obstacle would be perfect for two students who can quite literally become armor, right? Wrong, because as far as the show is concerned, the only characters that matter, at this point, is the three main ones. And even without zeroing in on those two characters in specific, everyone else, from the likes of Uraraka who’ve been shown to defy gravity to Hatsume who had gadgets made specifically for courses like this, are all left not using their advantages to overcome the obstacle.
And this kind of logic occurs throughout the entire runtime of the tournament arc. Where the 1st season paid extra attention to its characters' quirks and how they can be utilized in combat, in this arc, these secondary characters are now just used as dick-measuring extras to place the main ones on a pedestal. What I just highlighted was only one of several times this occurred.
With that kind of reasoning, it would be like if the water cannon superhero previously mentioned were to end up finding themselves in front of a burning building, but instead of using their Quirk to put out the fire, they just stood there looking at it instead. If framed in the mindset that Boku no Hero does with its supporting cast, they would do nothing as the building catches ablaze, not out of negligence but out of failed returns on initial investment towards the character's introduction and buildup.
Thankfully, the 2nd half of this season balances the power mechanics again. Something that’s complemented further with the far more exciting scenario they’re placed in.
What gives intrigue to the 2nd arc of Academia is how it chooses to challenge the notion of justice in a world overpopulated by Quirk users. If 80% of the world has Quirks, how can there be any stability in the superhero job sector? Well as it turns out, the answer to that question has already been pre-written into the show, but it’s only now that the idealism of the classroom environment has been traded out for the reality of the world they live in that we get to see the answer. Just because someone could run doesn’t automatically qualify them to be an Olympic athlete. In the same way, their Quirks, the one thing they thought made them unique, doesn’t matter all that much if its usefulness becomes pigeonholed to limited tasks. So beyond the students being challenged to use their skills in inventive ways in season one during all their physical exams, what the school environment was really prepping them for was adapting to a world that doesn’t always play to their strengths. And this kind of thing can lead to compromise, and sometimes that’s not for the best.
This realization made by those with an advantage could breed vanity, while others that need to compromise may grow resentment towards those at the top. So in that sense, justice in a world full of superheroes like this one could just amount to a rat race to profit and self-benefit. The idea of standing for what’s right could become lost in a world where the bottom dollar might be all that matters for some. A diluted cesspool of what it means to be a “hero” has effectively worked its way into the mix. And in a system where the good guys can become no more distinguishable from a business person thinking with a capitalist mindset, radical ideas of reform can begin to emerge. Ideas that may be voiced by a fanatic but may still contain some semblance of truth behind it. Not all "villains" are birthed from wickedness, some might just be disenfranchised, which is an interesting commentary that could just as easily be applied to everyday life. This is something that seems to be interwoven into the subtext of this 2nd arc while all the hero shenanigans happen on the surface. And perhaps a glimpse of future storylines to come. Either way, what’s important is seeing all the students hone their skills while realizing there’s much more to becoming a hero than what presumptions they may have had prior.
And yeah, a lot of this is based on conjecture, but going off the clues that the show keeps hinting towards, I wouldn't be surprised if the future installment of this series finds itself tackling the same sociopolitical dilemma that other superhero stories like Concrete Revolutio and Samurai Flamenco attempted to highlight. Either way, the future is looking bright for Academia if it manages to pull it off.
Of course, I don’t have to tell you that the art and animation look greats; it’s Bones, good art, and animation is within their wheelhouse. If you liked the comic book apparel of the 1st season, this season just doubles down on that. I could go on and on about how much fun the fights were or how catchy the soundtrack is but honestly, you don’t need me to tell you that, the work speaks for itself. But what I do want to get across is that this season seems to show the efforts of its prior storylines finally starting to pay off. Where the 1st installment helped set up the world and characters that live in it, here, all that establishment is finally being used to craft something far more interesting than the sum of its parts.
So no, I don’t think Academia is quite at that level to be celebrated just yet, but the groundwork has certainly been laid for future installments to come in and shake things up. But until that time comes, let’s just enjoy a shounen that’s comfortable in just being itself.
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Jun 17, 2017
Blistered, sunburnt skin adorns them, the lumbering thud of footsteps echoes louder with each passing second, their eyes set on a village lying dormant up ahead. Exposed flesh shifting between the woods, no expressed interest for the plant life or animals grazing at their feet. Warped facial expressions, a thousand-yard stare, distorted features, twisted limbs; an ungodly creature, a true force of nature. Deformed giants with one thing in mind.
Beady eyes stare back at the impending danger, irises frantically shifting from each other to the threat slowly approaching with each step, the military cradled behind stone walls planning their first strike. In the dead of ... silence, every sound amplified. Every second longer than the last. A cacophonous mixture of bated breath, the clanking of metal harnesses strapped to their bodies, housing blades and gas canisters that will eventually propel them towards the enemy. Cold sweat rolls down their cheek, hanging off the chin with nervous anticipation. Faces to the left and right, the unspoken acknowledgment made by brothers-in-arms that this will probably be their final resting place. Too late to back down, too late to think about it. The giants draw near, young scouts fall into dead silence, the slightest whimper exposing their position, sweaty palms firmly gripping their weaponry's handles, blades erected waiting for the signal to go. The longest minute of their lives.
The signal is given, piston-propelled grappling-hooks pierces its way through a firm surface, a loud unified roar ushering them into battle — "Attack!" — Humanity's final defense catapulting through the sky, wings of freedom crest embroid on their backs, as they stare down the mass collection of imposing figures. The battle begins, blades being embedded into the necks of targets as they fall to their knees. Men carelessly swinging into the jaws of another, blindsided in the fray as the Titan crunches down, blood confetti sprays out, showering the field with the unholy reality of the situation at hand. Human debris piles up next to the simmering sounds of corroding titan flesh. Steam billowing out bloated corpses as it blankets the field, men and Titan alike stuck in the disarray of a free-for-all. Fear and adrenaline push men forward where their bodies refuse to budge, while others cower in defeat, accepting the grim outcome of their faith. An insatiable desire to consume keep Titans swarming where an absence of "self" resides. The fight rages on.
There's no chess game at play here. No battle of wits. No war cry to rally any remaining fighting spirit. All that's left in the midst of chaos is an animalistic drive to kill or be killed. Men swinging their blades frantically, bodies jettisoned by wire towards the unknown hidden behind plumes of smoke. Uncaring giants solely driven by a gluttonous appetite, grabbing at any signs of human life, unfazed by the burning ash of their reduced numbers laid to waste by the prey they feast on. All concerns are eclipsed, all formalities discarded, idealism abandoned, time holds still, the nightmare stretches on endlessly... until there's no one left to keep it alive.
Scattered limbs litter the ground with no owners to claim them. The earth soaks up the battered dregs of human remains, leaving only remnants to be discovered by those unfortunate enough to stumble upon it. Regurgitated balls of bodily fluids perched on top fallen victims, disfigured men trapped inside, destined to stay nameless. Steam gently ascends to the sky, departing from the mass graveyard positioned below. Men on horseback approach the sorrowful sight, disgusted but desensitized to what's become far too common of an occurrence in their day to day lives. A ghoulish figure hunched over, tearing into the flesh of a nameless scout, unconcerned with the men gathering around it. Quickly being dispatched by them, they see no triumph in their action, only another hopeless notch under humanity's belt. Their time for peace has long departed, leaving it its place a constant dread of the unknown. From the sporadic home invasions of Titans to even the secrets concerning the walls themselves. Things that were once thought of as reassurances now only add to the anxiety pending up with each violent encounter.
When your home turf is compromised, where else can you turn? When your overseers keep potentially harmful secrets from you, who can you trust? The mystery compounded, the fights more brutal, and the stakes set higher than ever. This is the kind of world Attack on Titan gives birth to. A place dictated by stonefaced laws of Darwinism in every regard. A place that's adored the world over by the audiences that flock to it.
Attack on Titan left big shoes to fill since its 2013 debut. Almost overnight, it became one of the most popular anime titles of all time, effectively surpassing the glass ceiling set over the medium at large to become a noticeable player in the stratosphere of everyday pop culture. Even if that success was to a lesser degree when compared to the likes of "the big 3" and the Dragon Ball franchise that made its way out as well, its impact was still noticeable, both domestically and overseas. This, alongside works like Sword Art Online, has positioned it as one of the poster-child images of what "anime" is to non-anime fans of the 2010s. Occupying shelf space in your local Hot Topic, being mentioned in passing by those oblivious to the entire culture at large, a conversation starter to introduce others to an active community that bubbles on the surface but never making enough big waves to become acknowledged on a mainstream level. The show's relevance in recent years cannot be understated.
It's a new footnote that continues the narrative, helping push the medium and partakers of it a step closer to accessibility in other avenues of a broader mainstream culture. Because of its exposure, for many, Attack on Titan became their initial gateway title into the anime medium. And as such, a milestone entry when searching for that same thrill that it offered up on its initial encounter. For better or for worse, AoT shaped the landscape of future anime entries, many of which seeking to retain the newfound fanbases that sprouted because of it. And while there was a sleuth of cheap knock-offs offered up to keep the flame burning since then, nothing was capable of whetting the appetite in the same way it did.
4-years and many cheap imitations later, AoT has reemerged once again! But the question is, is it 4-years too late? 4-years may not seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things, but for media, it's practically a millennium. A lot could happen in 4-years. New emerging trends develop, talented figures could make their debut appearance, a shift in the landscape in favor of real-world sociopolitical events could occur, and most importantly, the demands of people can evolve as they foster different tastes and interests.
You don't have to look far to see these occurrences happening. In the movie industry, more specifically, tentpole blockbusters, superhero films have effectively become the new age westerns, to the point where watching them becomes a ritualistic event shared by a mass majority, making those that don't participate outsiders to watercooler conversations. In music, the new "wave" in the past few years has been trap-inspired production and dancehall-influenced rhythms, a transition that's proven to be so successful that even megastars that dominate the pop charts are flocking to get in on the action. Even in our own backyard, in the world of anime, creating "subversions" or reimaginings of established formulas, from the likes of MMO-inspired premises to superhero stories, is the popular thing to do at the moment, with many recent hits owing their success, to some degree or another, to that directional push.
Media is a beast that's constantly shifting in order to appease the masses, unless the pedigree of the product in question is of a high caliber, expecting it to stay still until your return is foolhardy, and from a marketing standpoint, a huge risk to take.
So, did Attack on Titan's gamble pay off? Well, it all depends on where you stand as a viewer.
Fortunately for Attack on Titan, the efforts of its bottom-rung imitators served a purpose. Like the MMO and superhero shows that dominate the current landscape in anime, post-apocalyptic stories are still in high demand as well. The manner in which it is received, however, is a completely separate issue. You see, within that 4-year period, those rose-colored lenses that many fans may have had during its initial run may no longer be there, or at the very least, those "lenses" have since been washed out to something closer to transparency, as it usually does when someone grows older and become accustomed to certain things. Where they could have been hoodwinked with a few plot twists and shocking moments before, the chances of that level of susceptibility dwindles as time passes. With every encounter made with something employing the same general gimmick, the magic is now met with a response succumbed to apathy. Each time something that appears novel makes itself known, the next encounter of the same content slowly morphs into a future cliche in the making. It's the gift and the curse that comes with transitioning oneself towards a more seasoned mindset. There still may be an eager audience waiting to see the story unfold but that's usually accompanied with a higher level of skepticism, making the work of any follow-up season that much harder to live up to the initial "hype" that came with its debut. It's for that reason that the infamy of the "sophomore slump" exists, and to no one's surprise, Attack on Titan's 2nd season is met with a divisive mixture of applauds and woes.
So, reader, do you gawk at the attempts made by the 2nd season to employ the same bag of tricks, or do you approach in a way that many veteran viewers do when watching something as flamboyant as Attack on Titan? If you're reading this review, I'm going to make the assumption that you're not comprised of the mass majority that doesn't care either way. As far as your viewpoint goes when discussing AoT after finishing this review, I leave that bit of trivializing up for you to decide. Everything moving forward is just me pleading my case and my stance on the matter, so take from it what you will.
The reception I have for AoT's 2nd season is pretty straightforward, I love every minute of it! It's just as nutty, over-the-top and gratuitously violent as I remembered. It's a show that brings me back to a simpler time in my life, where excessive violence and theatrics were the only things that stimulated my viewing habits. A time in my life where movies like The Matrix and Equilibrium were as coveted as holy scripture and any verbal disapproval of it was treated like sacrilegious acts.
Attack on Titan 2nd season is just awesome! Schlocky, cumbersome, inconsistent, poorly-written, overacted, exploitative, childish, melodramatic, hammy, riddled with plotting and tonal issues... BUT still fucking awesome! And while I do love it wholeheartedly, those issues I mentioned don't just magically go away, and seeing that this is a review and not a drunken get-together with friends where we scream "FUCK YEAH!!!" at the top of our lungs, as we view the poor inhabitants of AoT being chomped in half by giant nake people, I will judge it accordingly.
What a pleasant surprise. I think I express the sentiments of many when I say that I approach most sequels with a great deal of apprehension. More often than not, sequels tend to disappoint and for understandable reasons when examined. If it follows the 1st installment verbatim, it's simply seen as a rehash, if it veers off course too much then it runs the risk of not capturing the essence that made the 1st great. It's that old adage expressed by many “You’ve got your whole life to write your first record, and only a few years to write the second.” So when I sat down to be immediately met with the familiarity of AoT's flare for the dramatic still intact, I was more than pleased. Even after the first season, where I felt that the show may have exhausted every possible gruesome fatality or creative action scene in its arsenal, this follow-up season somehow managed to ratchet up the stakes and tension, while keeping the locations and bloodbath battles fresh and exciting.
The spirit of AoT was carried over seamlessly and with its usual offering of plot twists and shock factor moments being placed center-stage, there was never an episode that passed where I wasn't enjoying myself.
This consistency stood true for the art and animation as well. With new locations and settings being introduced, the expansion that was already given from season one is further complimented here. Employing the same European-like building structures and familiar environments, marathoning both seasons would yield very little in the way of distracting changes. It's fresh but familiar. Changing things up when necessary but never to the point of alienation. Although, there was an issue present that might turn some people off. The usage of CGI is far more prevalent this time around, and admittedly, lazily implemented at times as well. For example, there are scenes of men on horseback at some point, during which, when the camera pulled back for an aerial shot, you could see them galloping above the surface of the ground, giving this look of a 3D rendered image being dragged across a landscape in post-production. This hovering effect is amateurish for a studio that's usually praised for doing above average in the visual department. Where it set the standard in season one, in season two, it's barely maintaining it. The CGI used for the giant titan was also distracting. Not for the actual look of the Titan itself but for the framerate, which wasn't succinct with the animated shots of characters around it.
Other than the issues found with the CGI, the rest of the production was very appealing. I am slightly disappointed though, knowing that with 4-years given to create a stellar product, Wit Studio ended up shortchanging themselves. And it's not like they had to touch up on their skills in this department, they've already proven that they're capable of meshing CGI with 2D animation just fine with their bootleg Titan show, Kabaneri, of last year. So to give their main cash-cow second-class treatment seemed like a huge disservice. Whatever the reason behind the copout service may be, here's hoping it doesn't continue with future installments.
Thankfully, everything else was up to snuff, making those blemishes far more palatable than it would have been otherwise.
The story continues off with the discovery of new mysterious events that slowly makes itself known to the viewer. Everything has been called into question, as the Titan face exposed from within the wall at the end of season one plunges everyone into deeper secrets surrounding the church and the following occurrences that led up to the aftermath of Annie's capture. Tensions rise, as paranoia slowly seeps into the Scout regiments. No one could be fully trusted. With Annie being a Titan, the possibility of more traitors in the mix becomes a high possibility. The war has shifted on both sides now, with Titans moving in headfirst and the fear of more enemies hidden within the ranks just lurking out of focus.
And the rest of the story effectively follows a barrage of plot twists one after the other, of which, any type of hints would effectively spoil the surprise, so I'll leave that bit of discovery up for you to witness yourself. AoT does what it's best known for, delivering on nail-biting cliffhanger moments one after another. There's never a shortage of reveals being discovered here. Some that's a bit obvious for those paying attention and others that are completely left-field if the anime is your only exposure to the material at hand.
Accompanying men into battle, we're given a fantastic musical backing, with thunderous drums, booming brass sections, and blood-curdling violin chords, all being wrapped up and carried off by the unified echo of a haunting studio choir; all of this crashing headfirst with electrifying musical underpinnings, creating a futuristic orchestric sound. And in the heat of battle, this soundtrack does an amazing job at giving everything a vintage feel while positioning it firmly in the 21st century. It's a clash of classical meets new that's unified under the sound of constant dread and ascension.
This makes it one of AoT's best highlights. Despite the shortcomings of the show's characters and storytelling, this aspect remains a spotless feature, something destined to age incredibly well for years to come.
And since I just mentioned it, and there's only so long that I could dance around the subject matter before pointing at obvious pressing issues, time to discuss the aspects that constantly keeps AoT from reaching the ambitious heights that its universe desperately attempts to cling to.
First and foremost, Attack on Titan's screenplay is written as if the Caps Lock key was left on the entire time.
If this review was written in the way the characters were made to emote, EVERYTHING WOULD JUST BE WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS JUST LIKE THIS SENTENCE. And I'm sure I don't need to express just how distracting or ridiculous that could get for those wanting something a bit more serious. Couple that constant barking with some overexaggerated facial expressions, where the characters are given their best "rape face" expressions, and you will be none the wiser had you just seen a clip and thought you were looking at an anime parody of shounens. Truth be told, part of the reason why I enjoy AoT has to do with this very feature. That schmaltzy level of overacting has always been something I found amusing, but unfortunately, that's not the show's intent, as it displays no comedic bone in its body for any of these exaggerated scenes. This isn't Jojo's Bizarre Adventure where everything hints towards a tinge of comedic self-awareness—no, in Attack on Titan, everything is played seriously, causing it to come off like a circus performance where everyone is dressed in all leather.
This can make some dramatic moments hard to invest into. And it's for that reason that I ask how you're consuming Attack on Titan. Because if your approach demands no room for levity or laughter, chances are, many scenes here may make you want to gouge your eyes out. Anyone that could view an armless Eren beating the living snot out of someone with his arm stumps, while foaming at the mouth like a rabid animal, rapey-face set to maximum, and STILL take it seriously, despite all this, has my admiration. I keel over in laughter seeing moments like that. It's a show that can't escape the innate hilarity of some of its content. For me, part of the fun of AoT is seeing that constant struggle to capture authenticity and seriousness, despite the content suggesting otherwise. Viewing it in this way may not be the original intent of the staff and creators, but it's entertainment at the end of the day, how I choose to enjoy it is entirely up to me.
Which brings me to the other issue that the show can't shake: poorly written characters.
Armin is the only character in all of Attack on Titan with a proper character arc. There's no arguing this, no IFs ANDs or BUTs, this is just a fact. Out of everyone presented, he remains the only member of AoT's cast that was given any sort malleable personality, an internal reflection, and eventual growth that STAYED that way. For everyone else, Eren included, there's only a phantom resemblance of a character arc, but in reality, their constant dominating character traits actually cause them to have the adverse effect. Instead of showing character development, they end up going through character regression instead. For the easiest example, let's take a look at Eren.
In the 1st season, they made it a point to show that he's a hardheaded young man who's willing to throw himself into the heat of battle whenever someone or something agitates him. Constantly short-tempered and outspoken, he's made out to be a very unlikable person to many around him. His hostile behavior usually led to him getting into physical brawls with older authority figures and even his fellow peers. Understandably, at first, he only had a few friends that took to his side, those being Mikasa and Armin respectively. And even then, it could be argued that during that time, those two friends were only earned due to certain circumstances. Because of Eren's pivotal role in Mikasa's past when they first met, she felt a sense of obligation and appreciation for his actions, which eventually led to an appreciation for him as a person as a result. And after being placed under the same roof, it was easy to nurture a relationship, given that they got time to know each other on a day-to-day basis. In Armin's case, Eren represented the bravery he lacked in himself, as he constantly stood up for him when he couldn't bring himself to do anything but cower at any bully that enters his space. He basically saw him as the big brother he never had. In both cases, Eren's pigheaded resilience and loyalty to those he cares for were what won them over. And so, a rebellious character trait was quickly established. One that led to positive outcomes in very limited situations.
Later on, as the series progressed, he was placed in circumstances where that very personality was used as a catalyst for his growth, more specifically, when he was placed in situations where his pigheaded attitude endangered the lives of people around him. The biggest highlight of this comes with the time he spent under Levi's camp, as well as his transformational moments as a Titan. long story short, his outbursts began to affect more than just his pride, it caused several irreversible incidents where his actions were directly connected to the issue at hand. This eventually culminated, to what looked at the time, like Eren turning a new chapter in his life. He's now more calm, even mindful of the ones around him. He understood that his behavior isn't doing anyone any good. And as his bandaged body sat upright in bed with Mikasa staying by his side comforting him, Eren's journey in the first season came to a reasonable point of conclusion.
Fast forward to the second season and all of that was immediately flushed down the toilet for an instant character reset. Any semblance of growth shown was immediately replaced back with the same hot-blooded behavior and hammy overacting he was notoriously known for. This form of character regression isn't excused as someone stuck in their old ways, it's the act of behind-the-scene creators understanding Eren's marketability as an angry youth. People are weary of any kind of change and so Eren was forced to remain two-dimensional, regardless of any personal revelations he may have had.
And before there's confusion on what qualifies as growth, no, receiving a backstory isn't it. A backstory only helps when the character in question grows further from the present day acquaintance with which we first encountered them.
The rest of the characters can effectively be boxed into neurotic personality traits or future cannon fodder. It's the type of show that relies on the ensemble cast to carry the personality that any given individual may lack. Think of it like colors in a rainbow, everyone involved is basically an individual color, making them basic when alone but exciting when placed together. It's a common trick to use when there are too many characters involved and not enough time dedicated to any of them.
And speaking of the narrative, possibly the biggest complaint launched at Attack on Titan ties into this.
Honestly speaking, AoT has very little in the way of a well-written story. It's a show that's overly reliant on over-the-top plot twists, mystifying everything as to appear purposeful, and a gratuitous about of shocking deaths and revelations made at the drop of a hat to keep audience attentiveness. And as it is in the case of the overacting, this too is something I enjoy about the show. It's like a constant wack at a visual piñata, with each hit revealing something unknown inside. To me, that's the reason AoT is such an entertaining piece of media, it's its ability to constantly unveil new, and often ridiculous, plot revelations. Each time you return, it has something new to offer, regardless of how familiar it may get to other moments prior.
But again, that's just the way I choose to consume and enjoy the show. As for the pedigree of writing on display, it's absolutely abysmal. It's a show that's reliant on your acceptance to a myriad of plotting inconsistencies, excessive mental gymnastics in regards to many of its plot twists, and a high suspension of disbelief for the mechanics of its universe. If you're an astute viewer, there would be many times when you're forced to call into question the validity of the events playing out. And if you choose to take the show seriously and hate it as a result, you would completely be entitled to do just that.
I usually distance myself from the community and their consensus in regards to any show when I'm working on a think-piece about it, but with Attack on Titan, that's proven to be virtually impossible, especially for someone like myself that's made it a habit to publicly airing out my opinions. Several people approached me with their thoughts on the show and after awhile, I began to notice the thread of a narrative taking form, which admittedly, affected the way I approached this review as a result. And for the sake of bringing clarity to what I think has become a misinformed argument that's been generated towards this second season, I will address that general complaint here and now.
If you felt like the quality of this season has significantly dipped since the debut of the 1st, please rest assured that it haven't, it's you as a viewer who's grown beyond the content at hand. All these complaints launched at the show now are just as applicable to what was given from the very beginning in 2013. Season one had just as much diluted plotting, expository verbal dumps, long periods of substance-less content and character victimizing. It's only now that you're older does those issues become more apparent. 4-years is a long time, and in that time, you're bound to grow up as a viewer, even if you still find yourself indulging in the same kind of content. Your awareness of it has simply matured since then. Quality-wise, both seasons of Attack on Titan are on the same level. The only difference found are minor and not worth elevating the first installment leagues ahead of this follow-up.
And with that being addressed, it's time I wrap this review up.
If you were to ask me what my favorite anime viewing experiences were based solely off of entertainment value and absolutely nothing else, Attack on Titan would easily rank up there with Death Note and Kaiji. As an overblown piece of media, the show is a constant roller coaster ride of violence and plot twists, all beautifully set to a great soundtrack and nice visuals. Content-wise, it has very little to offer, and honestly, without the constant barrage of bloody fatalities and sensationalized violence, I would probably get bored with it. But as it stands, this anime represents "hype-inducing" content for me in the truest sense of the term.
It's a hammy, grindhouse-inspired work of artistically shot ultraviolence. Like a big lovable oaf, a show oblivious to just how ridiculous every situation presented is. It's pure spectacle, plain and simple. It's one of my favorite pieces of schlock of all time and a show I will revisit many times to come because of that.
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Mar 30, 2017
When someone considers themselves or others to be connoisseurs of any storytelling media, there are specific prerequisites expected from that individual that's usually understood without the need to outright state it. These factors can include being well-versed with different genres within the medium in question, to more demanding things, like understanding the construct in which the medium expresses its ideas. But out of all these unspoken base requirements, I think the most important one is something that's usually acknowledged but often taken for granted. That something in question is a hands-on understanding of the subject matter itself.
Without that attribute, an exhausted catalog of ... literary knowledge and understanding of narrative tools is rendered almost pointless. Being book smart amounts to nothing without practical experience, or at the very least, first-hand encounters. Think of it this way, knowing about an archetype or trope is only as valuable as understanding what worldly influence caused it to exist, to begin with. Anyone can comprehend a creator's intent all day, but without an inkling of relation to it, all diegetic information could only be taken for what it is at face value.
Now, with that in mind, it's time to take a quick litmus test; ladies and gentlemen, Kuzu no Honkai (Scum's Wish) is average.
Quickly, what was your initial thought after reading that statement? Did you think that was an outlandish claim to make? That Scum's Wish is far from average and that the claim made was purposefully contrarian or, for the lack of a better word, attention-seeking? How can an anime that explore sexual decadents with such unfiltered restraint be considered "average" by any means? Most relationship anime don't even get past first base, so how can that claim be justified?
If you've already come to a similar conclusion regarding Scum's Wish before reading my statement, bear with me, as for everyone else that possibly rattled off something similar to the aforementioned thought process, time to explain why.
One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, The O.C, Dawson's Creek, 90210, Pretty Little Liars, Gilmore Girls; what do these live-action TV shows have in common? Well, for one, they're centered around teens or young adults dealing with relationship drama in very exaggerated ways. And secondly, and perhaps more important as well, they're usually understood by most astute viewers to be conventional television programming. No critical thinker or demanding viewer worth their salt is singing high praises about these shows. The reason why is pretty simple, apart from being well-cultured in several different mediums that is. The discernment for shows of this ilk ties back to that essential requirement I mentioned: having hands-on experience.
If your firsthand encounter with the drama Scum's Wish wraps itself up in is close to none, praising it becomes easy to do. However, if you've ever been involved in any relationship, where you and the party in question were mutually in it for sexual gratification, then what Scum's Wish tries to depict gradually gets more juvenile and diluted with each passing episode. Anyone of the bottled off sexual/sensual encounters it indulges in can be believable on its own, but when meshed together to the degree in which every single character in immediate circles in the show is involved in a daisy chain of intimate depravity—at that point, it becomes wholly unrealistic; almost approaching the point of midday soap opera levels of contrived. This is sensationalized TV drama 101; the quintessential reason for why the phrase "sex sells" remain relevant for mainstay media.
Simply put, Scum's Wish is an animated version of your typical live-action teen/young adult drama TV show.
Now, before we go on any further, let's make this clear, teen/young adult drama shows themselves aren't inherently devoid of substance. There are live-action TV shows like Friday Night Lights and My So-Called Life, and even animated titles such as Nana and Beck that receive widespread critical acclaim for the same kind of things depicted in Scum's Wish. But instead of sensationalizing the subject matter for the sake of capturing audience attention, those shows decide to represent the relationships of the characters in naturalistic ways. The key takeaway here is that those shows did NOT rely on sensationalizing its content. That's the difference between media that use sex in an exploitative manner, and those that incorporate it as just another facet of life in the narrative at hand. Having relatable scenarios don't amount to much if it's unrealistically presented in the confines of the story. The show takes itself seriously, but the situations themselves are vapid at best.
And that isn't even to say that theatrically sensationalized programming doesn't have its place in storytelling media either.
There's no shortage of TV shows that use sensationalism to its advantage; such is the case with TV series like Shameless. A show that purposefully acknowledges the fact that it's all about sex, violence, drugs, and mayhem. And if the namesake didn't already make that clear enough, it "shamelessly" uses these aspects to tell its story. But that's the difference between something that's purposely sleazy like Shameless and the likes of Scum's Wish. One show is self-aware of its overblown content while the other operates with an aura of conceit and pretension.
But enough with the long-winded preamble, let's discuss what the show is all about. Short answer: yearning for others and sexual depravity. Long answer:
For as long as she could remember, Hanabi "Hana" Ysuraoka has been infatuated with her neighbor, Narumi Kanai. Due to their single parent upbringing, from a young age, they had quickly established a sort of family bond with each other, with Narumi becoming a frequent guest in Hanabi's household, to the point where she refers to him as her "big brother." Eventually, this infatuation Hanabi shares for Narumi slowly turn into a romantic interest. And as is the case with any story scenario of this nature, that love goes unnoticed as Narumi has his eyes set on someone else. That someone being the alluring music teacher and predestined rival, Akane Minagawa.
Being the object of affection to any guy that attends Hanabi's high school, Akane has no shortage of men fawning over her at any given time. With her strawberry blonde hair, alluring smile, and an aura that just permeates femininity, Narumi became yet another lovestruck male caught up in her presence.
With Akane and Narumi both being teachers, Hanabi's standing as a student further widens the gap between her and the one she loves, as she watches with each interaction they share slowly chipping away at her chances of ever having him to herself. Left in a state of emotional limbo, unable to do anything but watch as he gradually slips further out of reach; it's here, in this place of solitude that she finds out that she's not alone. A pair of eyes fixated with a familiar saddened gaze reflected in them stare at the cheerful adults as well. His name, Mugi Awaya. She may not know him personally, but that familiar bitter tinge of unrequited love that they mutually share leaves her a small glimmer of reassurance—"I don't have to suffer this alone." And so a pact is made by the pair, one signed with only physical comfort in mind. Sexual relief, mutual resentment, a promise of no strings attached; emotions left harbored off from each other for that promised day. Friends with benefits with only one intent in mind, to eventually gain the affection of the person they truly yearn for.
A tragic, bittersweet, ill-fated romance. A setup that could take on so many avenues of exploration and be successful at all of them if done right. It doesn't have to do much, just simply show the consequence of that kind of entangled emotional dependence as it affects the characters involved. Anything that toxic and shortsighted is bound to cause psychological scarring to anyone that participates. A dangerous game that some of us may have personally felt the backlash for at some point in our lives, after foolishly thinking that we were above the consequences. That somehow the end-result that many faced before wouldn't apply to us. A foolhardy belief that we could handle it where others weren't capable.
A continuous physical/sexual dependence on others will always come with a steep price of admission, whether it's immediately realized or comes on later in life during a silent night laying in bed, as thoughts of it creep in, festering in your idle mind. The foolishness of our now bruised ego, as we reflect on the stupid decisions of our past selves. Hubris in its purest form, with humility being the bitter pill we're made to swallow.
And to the show's credit, it does a good enough job depicting that inevitability. The problem is that it doesn't just stop there, as it decides to go the whole nine yards, and then some. Instead of just settling with a believable depiction to carry this core message, Scum's Wish is too greedy to call it quits. It doesn't just want to depict that scenario; it wants to portray everything under the sun, exhausting every possible love/lust situation imaginable in an attempt to make every possible outcome into an attention-seeking circus act of sexual decadents. And it's because of this, what once started out as a reasonably believable scenario, has now been turned into a ludicrously overblown orgy fest.
Without getting into specific names or details, I'm going to describe the general plotting of this show. And no, I'm not exaggerating here, this is what truly happens:
Person A wants to be with person B, but person B wants to be with person C, and person C only desire attention, and person D wants to be with person C but settled for person A, while person E wants to be with person D, and person F wants to be with person A, and person G wants to be with person F, and person H wants to be with anyone who's willing, and person C uses person H, while person D uses person E, while person J and D use each other, and person A uses person F, and person H tries to use person A... and so on and so forth.
And again, this isn't an exaggeration, this is what actually happens when you sit down to map out the plot for each episode. To say this story is insanely contrived would be an understatement. There are shows with fatalism in it that manage to feel less artificial. Any character that's recurring or has a name in this story is actively trying to bone each other.
There is absolutely nothing realistic about this toxic nonagonal love-web. And it's this web that actively defeats any victory laps the show achieves with any one of the individual stories stuck inside it. This show does have genuine character beats and arcs, but when all that's mired in content that's essentially one big exploitative fuck-fest, it's hard to take any of it seriously.
But to the show's credit, it does dedicate a decent amount of time framing the characters' mindsets so that the audience has an understanding as to what makes them tick, as well as why they carry themselves in the way they do. This is made all the more commendable given that a majority of them have despicable personalities. You don't necessarily have to like them, but you do understand how their thought process operates under certain circumstances. This is the definitive attribute it has over its much more cruddy sibling, School Days, where no time or effort was dedicated to any of the main lead's concubines. Scum's Wish, at the very least, gives the illusion that the characters presented are their own person, as with School Days, they were all just assembly-line fuck buddies. Not that it isn't the same case with Scum's Wish, in due time, they're all just reduced to sexual encounter cannon fodder as well. But with the time given beforehand to at least probe their psyche and reasoning behind their actions, they could still be considered to be "characters" by the end of it.
And speaking of School Days, not surprising enough, this sleazy brainchild was also penned by the same scriptwriter as well, Makoto Uezu. The man tends to over exaggerate everything he writes, and where that proves successful with his efforts in comedy-centric shows, for dramas, they have the adverse effect, as demonstrated here, in Arslan Senki, Akame ga Kill and of course, everyone's favorite, School Days. Adequately written drama is not the man's forte.
And speaking of dramas that became unintentionally funny or embarrassing, Scum's Wish is also plagued with random "comedic" cutscenes that began and ended with no discernable reason or benefit for the tone of the series. This usually occurred after an emotionally heavy scene, having the same terrible effect in the way Akame ga Kill would randomly cut to comedic hijinks after someone gets brutally murdered. Whether we could pin this similarity as another fault of Uezu is unknown, as this might just be a result of what the manga does than what the adaptation might be responsible for. Either way, it's a lousy attempt at levity that comes across as awkward the first handful of times it's used.
Other than that, the actual art and animation of the show demonstrated some thoughtful consideration of how it was constructed. By incorporating panel strips to make scenes flow together—visually emulating manga image tiles—Scum's Wish was able to convey more information by not only accounting for the character's reaction towards a situation but also drawing attention to certain critical moments as they pertain to the people involved within the frame. This allowed the audience to get a general sense of the mood or mindset that's being conveyed by placing a fixated point of interest with things boxed off within the manga panel tiles as it relates to the overall scene. The talented duo behind this thoughtful bit of storytelling was Yukie Oikawa and Masaomi Andou, who's past collaborative efforts together created the technical wizardry demonstrated in Gakkougurashi, where they both made their best Satoshi Kon impression.
Capitalizing off that, the art department showed a keen eye for color placement as well, with cool and warm colors striking a delicate balance, bringing with it visual chemistry on screen. Nothing overpowers the other unless it's done to insinuate a particular mood. An example of which is when they purposely chose to plunge the entire palette in monochromatic blues and dark purples to help give a feeling of isolation, only to use that same coloring technique with soft touches and color highlights to be used for times of intimacy. It's this firm grasp the creators had over color theory that allowed for selective color choices to serve dual purposes under the right guidance.
They also used splodges of ink and watercolor paint during cutscenes to represent a myriad of emotions and ideas, like lustful desire and deflowerment. While done with no subtlety whatsoever, it was still a nice touch. And even when everything was more than likely digitally colored in, they didn't use that for shorthand around adding personal touches, often giving things soft pastel-like textures and occasional color-penciled-in still shots placed throughout for good measure. Even the character designs are an excellent standout, having anatomically believable body proportions that help the viewer buy into their placement as people within the story.
With sharp edits used to juxtapose certain situations and letterboxing being applied to convey certain pivotal moments, every idea here was given careful consideration. Yukie Oikawa's acquired abilities from early documented work on Noir up to now has made this a show with a steady hand for cinematics, even if only on a smaller, manageable scale. And to be honest with you, this overall care given for its presentation might be the most significant saving grace for this show. Without it, the show's gimmicky content would be way more apparent than it is now.
Well, at least for everything within the show, as for the opening and ending themes, however, things couldn't have been more ridiculous had it tried. Starting off with a goofily blaring vocal performance and a flurry of rose petals, the imagery and song throughout the opening were pretty overblown; especially when it hammered home symbolism that felt tacky in comparison to what was presented in the show. But to its credit, the tune wasn't bad on the ears if you just let it play out absent-mindedly. As bad as it may have gotten at times, it doesn't come close to touching the ending theme's issues.
The ending theme's visuals were so blatant and try-hard that they actively made me cringe. It reminded me of Zayn's "Pillowtalk" music video, which is never a good thing since that was basically the equivalent of someone screaming:
"Get it BRUH? The FLOWERS represent VAGINAS and WOMEN'S WOMB... and like SEX and stuff, ain't I clever fam?!"—like no, just stop, you're embarrassing yourself and society. It's the kind of imagery a 15-year-old going through their "emo phase" would create, as they wear their Sid Vicious necklace and blast Linkin Park and Pierce the Veil in youthful revolt. By using a mixture of kaleidoscopic visuals to create phallic images, the whole thing aims for contemporary sex appeal along the lines of an FKA Twigs music video but ends up falling incredibly short. It had the tone of a former Nickelodeon child star trying desperately to break free of their kiddie image by being super raunchy.
Having "mature themes" and being "maturely handled" aren't the same thing. And when it comes to Scum's Wish, this is an applicable distinction to keep in mind, as the show crosses the line thinking they're one in the same on several occasions. And it's perhaps this issue that's the show's greatest downfall, as it relates to one of the bigger pending problems that need addressing; the character's awareness of themselves and each other.
The characters all have this uncanny ability to not only know the inner-workings of their own thought process but also that of everyone around them as well, like if they were all psychology majors. The internal reflection was appreciated, but knowing the mindset and framework of everyone else was a bit ridiculous. Realistically speaking, there should only be two characters in the entire show with that kind of mental capacity, and that were the adults. As a teen, one's ability to discern self and the disposition of others are only achievable on a superficial level. This isn't an "opinion," this is a scientific fact.
I've been in similar situations before as a teen, acting on sexual impulse, but was I fully aware of my decisions to the point of self-reflection? No, because I was horny, not some man musing about life and his choices. This anime treats teens like adults. The phrase "young, dumb and full of cum" isn't just passed around to describe youths for a good laugh, it's an expression born from the fact that during that turbulent time of change in your life, teenagers are shortsighted and driven by impulse. You don't start truly thinking with your prefrontal cortex—the rational part of your brain—until you've hit your early to mid-20s when it has fully developed.
Whenever the characters experience emotional woes regarding their actions, that's natural, and again, commendable for the show for trying to depict that. But it's the moment they all become Dr. Phil that it loses touch with itself and reality.
And I think I've danced around this long enough.
I'm trying my best not to state the obvious here, but fuck it, time to state the ugly truth of the matter. If your closest thing to intimacy is the love you received from your family, with little to no experience in an actual relationship, then what Scum's Wish depicts may come across more realistic to you than what is actually true. If you only watch anime and haven't ventured out to other mediums, then Scum's Wish offerings may also seem more novel than what it is. However, if sexual relationships—especially in the form of "fuck buddies" that this title plays with—are something you've had some passing experience with or hell, if you've seen/read enough other media centering around the subject, then chances are, what Scum's Wish offers to you may be nothing more than animated sleaze.
This anime's value could easily sway in either direction given the experience of the viewer that looks at it. As such, it's a show that's bound to cause contention among those that adore it and others that mock it. Of course, all of this doesn't even matter if you just want to be entertained, because if that's the case, there's nothing here worth reading that would dissuade you in the slightest. But if for some reason you happen to fall into that small camp that dissects and discuss the content they watch, this show would be met with coin toss results.
Your level of acceptance for what the show depicts depends entirely on your tolerance or love for certain narrative decisions. As for me, I don't see any reason to get up in arms about it. If you see it for what it is, there's no reason to get upset.
Scum's Wish lives in a vacuum. Real life is never so perfectly contrived. So instead of focusing on what it mirrors from societal norms, what should be looked at is what it does within the confines of its narrative. And when seen for what it is and not what outside influence it is not, the answer derived is pretty clear; Scum's Wish in its rudimentary form is quite literally animated smut. Meaningful at times but smut nonetheless. That age-old adage "sex sells" that's expressed by everyone, from your critics to your everyday viewer, isn't one to easily shake off. It's a commonly known truth for a reason. Sex in and of itself is not a bad topic to center around. It's a natural act we partake in. The issue is when sex is reduced to nothing more than a meal ticket to get audiences through the front door. At that point, any kind of message the show may have had becomes null and void.
In the end, what saved me from entirely dismissing Scum's Wish was the overall care given for its presentation, the extra time dedicated to at least exploring the characters involved, and the fact that content of this perverse nature is easily digestible on a basic entertainment level. As far as anything content-wise is concerned, it falls incredibly short of any meaningful passages in its narrative, save for the individual pockets of occurrences that get drowned out in all the clutter. When everything is said and done, Scum's Wish is a pretty porcelain vase; something beautiful to look at for a while but when peered into, just turns out to be a hollow shell.
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