13 Reviews
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N.H.K ni yôkoso! (2006– )
25 August 2010
Being a sociologist by qualification and living in Japan, the hikikomori phenomena really makes me think. For that reason, and for actually tackling the issue as the main plot device, NHK got me very interested very quickly.

I finished it in a week, which is very fast for me. I thought it was excellent for the most part, although what initially interested me in the show was not fully treated in the way I would have liked it to be.

Story 8/10 What is a hikikomori? No-one in Japan I've spoken to seems to know, and nor does this anime. It's something of a shame for something so brave as to brand its lead with the affliction, but NHK ni Yousoko can't decide if being a hikikomori is to be lazy, uninitiated, spoiled or a victim of circumstances.

What could have been a very intelligent and still witty expose of the hidden Japanese lifestyle becomes at worse a farce, at best a vivid depiction of the mind of a slovenly, shy person. But that's the problem. I don't think that a hikikomori can be characterised so simply into feelings that the majority of us can easily slip into.

Our hero seems to eternally live in the world of the teenager coming to age. His parents send him money to continue living that lifestyle; so he does. I, for one, certainly went through a phase where staying inside smoking and drinking, playing computer games and watching anime seemed a marvelous way to spend the rest of my life. What happened to me, and pretty much what seems forever inevitably happening to the lead in NHK is that I got bored of it. It was unsatisfying and produced nothing.

For this very reason Satou-kun embarks on various projects to create something; anything. He makes friends (and does so a little too easily to really convince me he is a hikikomori at all), or meets old ones to help him on his way. And they have their problems too, which are certainly not without their charm. The tough issues of the other characters are excellent, and the actually quite dark treatment of several of them cuts like a knife. The lack of 100% happy endings for some is also a brilliant and unpredictable flare of originality.

However, like with a lot of anime, the setting and palate somehow don't quite match the mood for the difficult moments in the series. Apart from the soft and quiet night-setting for the troubled Nakahara-san, and the strained and ultimately horrible but nicely crafted worlds of pyramid schemes and suicide-pacts, the series strays too far from its psychological basis (in plot and design). It also has a tendency to peek behind doors to places it isn't equipped to handle, and is ultimately forced to resolve those plot-lines with below par and unconvincingly pleasant outcomes. That's a bit of a shame, but the strengths elsewhere make it excusable.

Animation 7/10 To add to what I mentioned about the palate and setting, the animation is sometimes very poor. Whether that is deliberate stylisation, or I just had the raw TV version, I don't know.

However, the character designs are nice, and the backgrounds and locations are well rendered and believable.

Sound 7/10 Nothing particularly special here (other than the mighty Odoru Dame Ningen): familiar voices which do a decent job (Japanese), and fairly standard OP and ED. I did like the OP's pleasant balance between Belle and Sebastian and BoA, but it was nothing to skype home about.

Characters 9/10 Satou is clearly the most important character. Maybe I'm missing the point and he isn't even supposed to be a hikkikomori. Maybe that's just his excuse for being so lazy or how he rationalises his lack of social zeal. Whichever way you look at him, he's incredibly interesting. Other characters remain excellent varied creations riffing on the ideas of loneliness, troubled pasts and awkward life-situations. Interestingly the most grounded character, Yamazaki-kun, is the one with the biggest obstacle to overcome - the impossible to over-play pull of Japanese familial responsibilities.

Overall 8.8/10 It's pretty clear from the space given to it above that the story is the most important and significant aspect of the show.

Reading back though it seems as if I haven't really given credit where it's due. The series was exceptional in many ways - in addressing the issues it did (which is a very un-Japanese thing to do), being so left-of-mainstream when doing so, and in its murky yet hopeful perception of the world. I loved it, really, which is very rare for such a bitter and horrible person as myself :D Even when it abandoned the main thrust of the story, took little walks along the beach and played with other peoples kids in a kind of uncomfortable way, afterwards I couldn't help but forgive it. Gonzo created a world so intensely forgivable that it stole my heart. I wanted more but I wasn't angry about it, and that's so close to the ideal way for a series to end that... well, what more is there to say?
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Ghost Hound (2007– )
Excellent departure from mainstream anime
27 June 2010
Story 8/10 Only on the penultimate episode did I discover this series was penned by Masamune Shirow. It doesn't really show, although as it originated in 1987 it isn't so surprising. Why it took 20 years to make such a great anime is anyone's guess.

Anyway, the story is very good. A dark and moody tale at heart, this anime mulls through the lives of its protagonists and a semi-real world of astral projection and spirits. It does so in a way immediately attributable to Nakamura Ryuutarou's (Serial Experiments Lain) direction. I enjoyed SEL's rasping static sensory deprivation, and I love it here too. The bassy atmosphere death rattles the viewer through several inter-connected disturbing backstories, and brings the plot round to booming shadows hanging heavily from it's lead characters.

The subject matter is part mystery, part science, and comes together in the lives of juniour high school students. This is perhaps one of the small blemishes on the series. While the "difficult past and large responsibility on young shoulders" plot element is powerful despite it's regular use in anime, I think the children retained a little too much of their childish appearance during the progression of this series.

Animation 8.5/10 Simulteneously beautiful and slightly wrong. The quality is very high, as you would expect from Production I.G. But perhaps the tones and designs of the children, again, bring the show down slightly. The atmosphere created by the backdrops, creatures and settings throughout was exceptional, but the flat-coloured characters distracted slightly from that and just felt a little out of place. A few bad choices were also made during astral projection. The initial "baby" characters look a little too silly, as do some of the later apperitions.

Overall, though, the designs and smoothness need some applause for their left-of-mainstream quality. Very well put together; sometimes even creepy.

Sound 8/10 Like SEL, one of the things that brings the atmosphere and animation and script together is the sound used to bind them. The fuzz, the buzz, the scrapes, the dinks - all work fantastically with the mood and direction. Although you could argue that the general impression is almost too similar to SEL, it works very well regardless. OP is also well suited. Japanese VAs are good, and mild-mannered enough to pull off the roles very professioanlly and convincingly.

Characters 8.5/10 Excellent, though perhaps more so in personality than design. The very believable story behind what is something of a fantastical show in exposed beautifully through the main cast. Common personality types crop up but remain under-done to perfection, easily escaping the horrible tendency in anime to ham-up emotions. The leads are well defined and maturely designed. There could be a little more conflict in there, and some things perhaps shouldn't go quite as smoothly as they tend to do for those characters, but I was very satisfied with the way things turned out. All but one or two characters are important in their own way, and most hold themselves together well and deserve their screen time.

Overall 8.5/10 With such a good all round score it's tempting to go even higher with the overall mark, but all I'll do is recommend this to anyone who enjoys a more mature anime. Though the series runs for 22 episodes there were no points when I felt cheated because of that. There's no filler in here. The fascinating story unfolds generously, without recourse to distraction. Although I felt a couple of things could have been explained a little more, the ending was a satisfactory finish for what is literally a one-in-a-thousand anime.

Now to hunt out the next classic hidden within swathes of soggy cardboard and freaky pillows.
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8.5/10 - satisfying
27 June 2010
I watched Evangelion as a teenager and liked many aspects of it. However the series was very weak and repetitive in the middle and clearly suffered production difficulties near the end. The movies didn't do much for me after the initial epic-scope aesthetics of End of Evangelion had worn off. Now more than 10 years later I'm pretty happy that things have been reordered and re-rendered to make the series into what it should really have been in the first place.

I don't like the fact than Anno Hideaki has been able to milk the somewhat unfinished series for so much cash and so many editions (not to mention pachinko machines) so far, but taking 1.0 and 2.0 as stand-alone works (and ignoring their pretentious titles) is pretty satisfying.

Story 8/10 Good: much more than a rehash of the series. The story is fleshed out in some of the most necessary places and feels so much tighter and more concentrated than anything that has come before. Some awesome new snippets of what is to come later in the series add some satisfying excitement.

However, there is still an element of "here comes the next baddie" which gets a little tiresome. It is dealt with much more effectively here than the series, but it's still predictable. Nevertheless, despite giving the impression of being about to enter the full-on "monster of the week" barrage, it never really does, which is a blessed relief. The interactions of the characters are becoming more believable, and individual personalities are being better exposed and explained.

But, and it's a necessary but, what's the deal with the fan-service? Come on, man. Take yourself seriously, won't you? Animation 9/10 Well, it teetered between absolutely superb and a little disappointing. The budget was clearly insanely high. Action sequences are fantastically detailed and choreographed for the main part, although suffer from gratuitous flailing of limbs and ridiculous acrobats which unfortunately dumb it down a little. Backgrounds are simply amazing. The detail and range is incredible. The failings lie in the characters. Sometimes character faces and expressions look out of place by their simplicity. The broad pen pines and over-simple shading are a bit of a let-down.

Sound 7.5/10 Not particularly amazing. Again we see the technique of using a mixture of classical and children's music for depth and vulnerability. I'm surprised at some of the choices though. For example, one of the children's songs used is very popular in Japan and often used in elementary schools. The manner in which it is normally used makes its appearance in the film almost comical; which can't have been the intention. Not really knowing many Japanese people who care that much about anime I haven't been able to ask what they though, but it seemed a bit silly to me.

The Japanese people speaking English throughout the film are incredibly embarrassing. What a huge mis-calculation. How hard is it to train people to say a small number of lines in a natural way? Characters 8.5 Although some of the characters (particularly Asuka) seem to have become even less likable, for the most part the big-hitters have only improved. Although there is little time left for the minor-characters to develop or even really be involved, the well-developed personalities of the leads take somewhat new directions in their relations to one another. The relationship between teen-sap Shinji and his father has a more satisfying and somewhat relatable edge to it now, and Rei's annoyingly hyperbolic meekness has been flatted out to something more forgiving. All in all, satisfying.

And the new lead, Mari, is much better than (at least I) predicted. She has a very interesting relationship with herself, and pain. I am definitely looking forward to her future development.

Eva designs seem to have changed slightly around the waist which was a curious choice, and doesn't add much to their attractiveness. In contrast, the Angels have been changed for the better. The old, sometimes Ultraman-ish designs were sometimes a little... Ultraman-ish. The reduced number and better designs have helped things along well.

Overall 8.5/10 Overall satisfying. For me the film didn't quite have the intensity ascribed to it by others, and the ending I thought actually lacked a little emotional attachment. I also thought that the amazing animation and choreography discussed above wasn't nearly as good near the end as it was earlier in the feature. But despite this, as a whole this movie blows the series out of the water. So much which was unsatisfactory is now shiny and new. Whether or not I would feel this way about the film without having seen the rest of the franchise is anyone's guess, but I really enjoyed it. Good work, keep it up.
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Erufen rîto (2004)
Why so popular?
25 January 2010
I have a theory that most people who love this are either a) very young, and/or b) inexperienced when it comes to anime.

Elfen Lied is a harem anime featuring a collection of bulging-eyed stereotypes (including incredibly pathetic women) crossed with extreme violence to the point of perversion. If this sounds like it may appeal to you then you certainly aren't alone.

Story 5/10.

A young, horned girl breaks out of a secure facility by killing everyone. Of course, she is completely naked. She then runs away and turns up on the beach to be picked up by this guy. Only now she has turned into a pathetic little fool who can't say anything except the grating-cute "nyuuuuuu!". She also doesn't know anything about anything and ends up sat in a puddle of her own urine. But it's all very cute and erotic and lalala. Then the girls take off their clothes and have a bath. Then the guy gets in compromising situations with the annoying exhibitionist in front of his cousin (who incidentally fancies him) and its all so very charming and stereotypical hahahaha.....

Then people get brutally murdered again and chicks get naked again. Repeat, repeat.

I think the horned-people want to rule the world, or something. They hate humans because they pick on them and kick their puppies etc. So if humans won't accept them, then they must "make a world for themselves". What that means isn't explained, but I guess it has something to do with removing humans from the picture. The rest of the plot is nonsense filler about the characters and their history, including a totally implausible "we knew each other as kids" back-story, and a "revelation" which I want so badly to shout about because it is so stupid, but don't want to 'spoil' for anyone out there who can't work it out from the heavy-handed hints throughout the short series.

One of my major issues with this anime is the liberal use of nudity. Worse, child nudity.

Warning: this series contains many, many shots of 13 year old girls in the buff. In fact, it shows just about as graphic scenes of child porn as is (for some reason) allowed by the censors.

We're talking full groin shots on all fours.

What's more messed up is that that is the most sexual of all the nudity in the series. Every episode (and the entirety of the opening and closing credits) bulges with breast and groin shots, but they are so badly drawn as to not have any effect on anyone over 12. However, when the young-guns come out, the poses and situations get more and more perverse. I know 13 is technically the age of consent in Japan, but come on.

Towards the end the series is plagued by bawling sentimentalism. It manages to convey at least some feeling, and does feel like it picks itself up a little. But it is ultimately too little, too late. It was interesting, however, and the only time when you are actually asked to consider the characters as the children they are instead of just hard-ass emotional wrecks.

Animation 6/10.

Considering the hype there always was around this series, it is strange to see how low the animation quality is. The frame-rate is not good at all, the designs are sloppy, and the locations are severely limited/similar (though often nicely detailed).

Characters 5/10.

Tired stereotypes by the bundle. Huge, plump eyes even grace the male lead; bad hairstyles in stupid colours too. All very nice and cute, and clearly intended to be in juxtaposition with the bloody violence. However, rather than working to make it all the more powerful, it just looks wrong. It doesn't work. The violence is more like a sexual perversion in this setting.

And just when you thought all the characters were present and accounted for, there's the guy with the spiky black hair and the very reflective glasses. Oh, and what's he doing? He's pushing those glasses up his nose with his middle finger while giving the camera a slightly sideways smirk. I promised that I would kill a man if I watched another anime featuring him, but when it comes down to it all I want to do is kill myself.

The harem is an often-referenced bad point of the show, and I won't disagree. And as if two sworn enemies would live together. One has her arms and legs cut off by the other, then agrees to live with her. Whatever. The harem-hotel is where the series abandon's all sense of seriousness and becomes more like a gory Tenchi Muyo.

I guess the main theme is stigma, but I'm confused. The pathetic "nyuuu" chick is apparently some kind of anti-hero. It seems like we are supposed to feel sympathy for this girl who indiscriminately kills people. The cast seems to manage it. At one point a very young "Nyu" gets bullied, so she kills all the kids bullying her (otaku revenge anyone?) and then goes on a rampage killing families. There is little about that that says "victim". Certainly nothing balances how damn annoying she is in every scene. I suppose we should believe that she cannot control her power, but without something likable is it almost impossible to feel any balance.

Also, why the hell don't the girls in the series kill each other? They have an inexplicable tendency to push each other about and/or give each other a slap. You want them dead, so use your silly arms and kill them!

Overall 5/10.

Some anime forces you to look beyond the stereotypes and tired themes for the real story. I tried that with Elfen Lied and all I got was this lousy review.
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Môsô dairinin (2004– )
Not very good
13 January 2010
It's a mystery to me why Satoshi Kon's animated Dolmio puppet designs get such a positive reception. His reasoning for making half his characters look like disturbing cast offs from glorified passatta adverts is anyone's guess, and for me personally his stories lack the depth that is so often accredited to them. Paranoia Agent is a good example of this kind of over-hype.

A similar thing occurred to me when I watched Perfect Blue on its release. For the life of me I couldn't work out exactly what it was I supposed to think was so very good about it. The story didn't add up, was impossible to substantiate in a believable universe without attributing dementia to everyone within it, and had character designs far more disturbing than it's own leanings towards controversy. This is exactly the same as Paranoia Agent.

Story 5/10

The series starts out rather promisingly. The albeit very bland (frankly pathetic) main character gets attacked by what becomes know as "shounen bat" or "lil' slugger", or various other things. Struck down whilst under severe pressure at work (she is a character designer who has only had one idea since she was a little girl), she begins a trend for such attacks on similarly distressed people. There is some promise there, and I admit to having been intrigued enough to have higher expectations than before starting the series. After that it completely falls apart. The series is barely held together through its loosely connected and tiresomely formulaic middle-episodes which ultimately amount to an "etc" to what has gone before.

I read an interview with Satoshi Kon which described the 'budding idea' of Paranoia Agent as a collection of ideas left over from his films. Well, that explains a lot. A lot of disjointed concepts in one place, in quick succession, lacking, in my view, any charm or appeal.

Characters 5/10

The characters introduced in the first half of the series are interesting despite their looks. They have at least some level of on- screen charisma, unlike the leading lady whose unspoken pondering on self worth is tedious to the point of embarrassing. The shounen bat character itself is one of the big letdowns of the series. Visually unappealing and lacking in personality. The diversion into preposterous fantasy that his arrest leads to is also one of the worst writing choices made in an anime, from my perspective. Later characters have little to offer. Some are even as boring and faceless as the lead (can you tell I didn't like her?).

Maybe I'm being too harsh, but I'm completely sick of this kind of pathetic female anime lead. The limp-wristed, downward looking mute. Rei Ayanami's with no moments of relief. And this character in itself is supposed to carry the series into the brackets of "psychological", or "mindf___". It is far, far too readable to succeed.

Animation 7/10

Apart from the hideous cross between the Wind in the Willows and King of the Hill that are the character designs, the animation quality is generally very high, if (contrastingly) nondescript. Nothing in the mes en scene makes it stand out from other recent series. In later episodes it does experiment with more interesting (though not wholly original) concepts such as animating the backing sheets minus cells, and using a version of puppet theatre to describe a man's ideal world. Whether I am just a sceptic or they were solely used for budget reasons rather than anything artistic I don't know. In any case it has been done before, though I did like the puppet world.

Sound 6/10

OP is nice the first few times (as is the sequence), but gets old. Incidental music is nothing special. Not good, not bad.

Overall 6/10

There's nothing here to bring me back, or anything much that I will remember. Having said that the scenario with the disgusting toad-like old man and his daughter was well put together.

In sum it was not much fun to watch this. In fact in places I wanted to just delete the damn series (relentlessly bad swordplay episode anyone? ). In a way I am glad I finished watching it, though perhaps not so glad that I started it.

To be fair, the last episode was a lot better than I had expected. The story was not surprising in contrast to what several reviewers have said (sorry!), nor was it powerful or did it carry an important message. BUT, if you liked Perfect Blue and similar series/movies, you may well like this too. Plus, it is only 13 episodes long. You could do worse things than watch this.
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Stylish and faithful to the original manga
27 July 2008
Black and White live in a clapped out Fiat 500. They are orphans, and White is retarded. Black looks after White in the dangerous Treasure Town, stealing to keep them both alive and eventually escape. When the Yakuza plan to take over the city and rid it of the verminous street-kids, Black must fight to protect White and claim the city as his own.

Imagine my delight at learning of the existence of this film. I read Black and White in the much-missed 'adult manga' magazine Pulp in the late 90s. A touching, stylish and original manga, it sat well in Pulp, and well on my bookshelf.

This adaptation has a lot to offer as well. Overall I don't think it was quite as powerful as the manga, but it certainly has visual flair in surplus. Michael Arias' use of computer graphics is second to none. The beautiful, even romantic cityscapes revolve in glorious vibrancy. Like Katsuhiro Ōtomo's, Taiyo Matsumoto's designs turn mundane concrete and metalwork into true spectacles; bathed in colour, intricacy and poetry. For me, that is surely the essence of anime; one which is often spoiled by splicing-in out of place CGI (Ghost in the Shell: SAC take note) or relying solely on it (Final Fantasy, Appleseed etc). Arias succeeds with his own programming, created specifically for such a task. The result is not a video game, nor a collage of unrelated media: it is simply a 3D anime.

The story is Matsumoto's, and is interesting and charming though perhaps not fantastically original. The conveyance of emotion is strong; Black's emotional breakdown is touching.

Character designs are fabulous and original, though their animated versions remind me Belleville Rendez-Vous (The Triplets of Belleville in the US), released three years previously. In itself that would be a bad thing, in my view, but in reality the quirky designs contribute towards the charm of the film; and the costume design builds upon that very well.

It gets a bit odd towards the end, and the ability for the children to perform fantastic acrobatics throughout is a little strange. But anime can take such liberties. However, what's the deal with the line "I gotta say I never met a tall guy worth a shít"?
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Cheaply animated, slow, poorly voiced and brilliant
22 July 2008
Lain, the lonely little girl stood on the bridge watching those she knew better than was known by, removed from the memory of, is extraordinary. There must be something about her that is enough to captivate herself, but for some reason it is too difficult to share it. Ever felt like that?

Sounding pretentious yet? Well that's no big deal. There's something in this series that speaks volumes.

SEL is cheaply made, somewhat poorly voiced (English dub), and was broadcast at 1.30am in Japan. It was, however, a surprise hit. It's not difficult to see why. Critics point out a similarity to Neon Genesis Evangelion's later episodes, and do so with some foundation. Perhaps part of the success was due to the stupendous NGE wave, but SEL is very good regardless.

Lain Iwakura is a young schoolgirl with little interest in technology. Her friend's introduce her to the Wired – an alternate internet – and she quickly becomes obsessed. She finds an outlet for her bottled up persona in the faceless world of online interaction. Things become more complicated with a string of suicides. Online presences claim to be the deceased, and encourage others to free themselves of their material existence to run free in the rhizome of the collective consciousness. Lain delves deeper into the Wired, exploring the tenuous gap between real life, and the network.

It's certainly not an untouched subject in anime or other media, but SEL captivates well. Similar to Hideako Anno's work not only in approach to mental strife, but the use of interesting angles, simple designs and excruciatingly slow pace.

When I first watched this series, about six year ago, I must have been a massive stoner because I had no idea what was going on, and stuffed it in the back of a drawer somewhere. On second viewing there was a lot in there to think about. Very interesting issues are, if not discussed, exposed. "You don't have to remain a wretched human being forever" - the world is but a physical representation of the information flowing through the Wired, given presence merely to verify its existence - very Ghost in the Shell, perhaps.

It also comes out with some seriously dark matter: "So you want to hurt too, do you? Do you want your heart to feel like it's been scraped across with a rasp? If you do, don't look away, whatever you do," opens episode 8. Creepy.

At times it does feel as though it is a bit full of itself, and reluctant to give away what the hell it is essentially banging on about (though nowhere near as bad as, for example, Lost). The tiny budget doesn't help this along – there are many single-cell moments and count-the-frame animations.

However let's forgive it, because it is clever, and it's okay to know that you are clever sometimes.

The ending wasn't quite what I'd hoped for, though I did like it. The message to take away, though, is that your life comes down to what you believe it to be, and what you want it to be. If you are not remembered, you never existed. If you do not share knowledge, then you may as well not have any. There is one truth, that is the truth, and that is you and what you do. Something like that.
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Japanorama (2002– )
Very, very good.
15 July 2008
I love Japan. I've never been there, but I have loved what I have vicariously experienced through the media since 1994, when I was 10. My interest has recently culminated in acquiring a job in Iida starting in 2009. In preparation for this I have been reading and watching as much material as I can get my hands on.

I found season two of Jonathon Ross' Japanorama, and thought it was worth a try. Like most people, I had previously though Ross to be a complete prick. However, this series is surprisingly fantastic.

There's something about Ross' frankness about his own obsession with Japan, mirroring mine so well, that relieves from his usual facade: "If you strip away the contact lenses, the clothes, the £500 haircut, and the endearing speech impediment which I have so carefully nurtured over the many years I have been on television, you would see the otaku lurking within". It's almost as if as Ross has made this show for himself as much as for the audience. That's most likely not the case, but any presenter who can promote that feeling is a true professional.

The series deals with some interesting aspects of non-mainstream Japanese life; from the predictable – anime, manga, garage kits, CosPlay and robots, to the radically alternative. Though I doubt they are truly underground, some of the cultural suggestions Ross gives are enlightened, and have introduced, at least to me, many artists and directors previously unknown.

Not only is his knowledge of different media on display, but his skill as a showman and interviewer is clearly evident – much more so than in his trashy talkshows – it is clever and often witty. Sometimes hilarious, helped along by his ability to laugh at himself.

Featured personalities include Mori Chuck, the ridiculous yet hilarious Hard Gay, Nigo, Junku Mizuno, Tadenobu Asano and Ichirou Mizuki – all worth investigating further.

To digress, who are certainly not worth further investigation, however, are dull, frumpy, hippy flannels The Magic Numbers. Why this band's supporting tour of equally awful Franz Ferdinand was deemed suitable for inclusion is anyone's guess. "Ary ga toe Japan" blurts out frontman Paddington Bear. What a nonce. "There's 9000 people here to see the rock concert of the night," he says before the show, "so might as well get backstage and get ready". How? By ironing your duffle coat? Stay off my television you overweight flower-sniffing arsehole.

Aside from that feces, the majority of the season was very, very entertaining. The tidbits of Japanese customs from Madame Shirota add the chance to laugh at another culture whilst at the same time realising how stupid our own is as well.

Essentially, this is very good entertainment, but should certainly not be considered a guide to the Japanese way of life. These light-hearted glimpses at the other side of the world are just that, and that is why they are so good.
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Poetic, snappy, and so much better than Robot Carnival
14 July 2008
I really enjoyed this. It had everything that Robot Carnival did not – vibrancy, humour, charm, originality, and something interesting to offer. It also does not make the mistake of being too long. Though I wouldn't really call the majority of this OAV "experimental", this style of films, with quirky, avant-garde direction tend to get boring and repetitive over time. The three shorts that make up this collection keep it snappy, and sacrifice none of their brilliance for doing so.

The opening feature, directed by the infamous Rintaro, sets the scene for a child's fantasy, only to twist in a morbid direction near the end to present the following two, darker tales.

What is it about cats and anime/manga? They must surely be the most common animal/sidekick. The fat black example in this piece reminds me of the bad-ass star of the Legend of the Galactic Pirates, not to mention the brilliant What's Michael manga by Makoto Kobayashi. The piece presents a dreamy neko-fantasy world of childhood imagination and modern art. I was reminded of more of Rintaro and Madhouse's work, for example Doomed Megalopolis or CLAMP's Tokyo Babylon. I liked it a lot, though it did almost seem out of place in light of the second two episodes.

The middle piece is easily the weakest, though not without it's charm. A well-used scenario in manga and anime forms the basis of Yoshiaki Kawajiri's (The Cockpit, Barefoot Gen) effort – high-speed, deadly races. Think Battle Angel Alita/Ashen Victor, Venus Wars, etc. It is good, however. In fact it is almost terrifying in places. The plot revolves around a seasoned pilot of superstar status. He has stayed alive longer than most, and suffers terrible stress as a result. He also just happens to have extraordinary mental abilities. The idea is stupid and the plot is tired, but bear in mind that this is more than 20 years old now, and the scenery designs are poetic Japanese visions of the future at their best. Characters resemble the best aspects of The Legend of the Four Kings or Golgo 13, and the music is fitting, and good.

Katsuhiro Ōtomo's short finishes the OAV. A lot of people go mental about this film from what I've read. It is indeed good, but comments like "a shorter Akira!!!" are wrong. The only real similarities are in the designs, and that's what happens when an anime director makes two films, dumbass.

The Order to Stop Construction, as it is called, concerns another well used concept in Japanese media – the tool becoming independent. Robots are employed to construct an immense complex in inhospitable climes, but someone gets their wires crossed (get it?) and the robotic interpretation of commands is not up for negotiation. Again, the scenery designs are fantastic – intricate and gritty in typical Ōtomo style, and the characters and robots also carry his trademark blocky look. Scenes of rainforest are not often featured in Ōtomo's work, preferring as he does visions of the concrete jungle, but here they are beautiful, and sit comfortably with the huge structures of the project as the endless process of growth and regrowth characterized by the dumb robots as well. So beautiful, in fact, that I'm reminded of Kunihiko Yuyama's awesome Windaria. No small praise indeed.

I was reminded of the existence of Neo Tokyo whilst researching Robot Carnival. Both are supposed to be "experimental anime" of a similar variety. That is wrong. The only thing the two anthologies have in common is the involvement of Katsuhiro Ōtomo. Robot Carnival sucks.

Something else which Neo Tokyo achieves which Robot Carnival cannot, is that it hasn't aged. Whilst Robot Carnival had a soundtrack of 80s disco and designs of frumpy 80s Japan, Neo Tokyo has managed to avoid such rubbish, despite being made before the former. One thing it didn't get right, or rather we in the West didn't, was the dubbing. It's bloody awful, and I was thankful for the dual-language file. The acting is bad, and the actors are miscast. Douchebags.
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Very good, though not faultless.
14 July 2008
I'm quite a big fan of Masamune Shirow, though I haven't seen much of his recent work. I was first exposed to his intelligent and mildly titillating style in 1994 with Dominion: Tank Police. What was great about that series was the comedy, aesthetic genius and hot chicks. Ghost in the Shell came out the following year and was incredible work. Though a bit complicated for the youngster I was at the time, there were at least loads of tits.

This latest and third movie is pretty damn slick. I haven't watched the Stand Alone Complex series', but the story was engaging and thought-provoking regardless.

I'm really interested in concepts of the cyborg, and visions of the future. I'm not convinced by the idea of downloading a personality into a computer, but most of Shirow's work makes interesting observations of the social problems which would accompany such a move.

The story in this installment is particularly interesting, and follows an attempt by a person or persons unknown to solve political and social problems by manipulating cyber-brains through the global network. Far too complex to waste time explaining, it makes for a great 100 minutes.

The animation is superb, on the most part. The characters and backdrops are awesome, yet occasionally suffer from blatant CGI-ness. Smooth and beautiful it may be, but like the second Appleseed film, it just doesn't look right. Animation is not live action or CGI or any combination of the two, and a degree of difference is what makes each media interesting and fluent. For me, that aspect of this feature was whack, and distracting. Also, CSI-style shaky-cam in anime?? Rubbish.

The music is very good, though not quite as good as the first film, and there is a diabolical song in the first 10 minutes that made my arsehole close-over. Otherwise, the awesome Yoko Kanno (Macross Plus) goes beyond mood-music and achieves an awesome synthesis.

There's a reasonable helping of Shirow sexiness, though not enough. Needs more greased up babes. His trademark cool style in mecha and costume design remains strong, without succumbing to Matrix-style pansy over-styling. The film could have done with more comic relief, however. Shirow is a very funny guy, and this series of films has never really allowed that to find a place. Shame.

The direction is good, though makes obvious what an influence Mamoru Oshii's (Patlabor, Jin-Roh) personal style had on the direction and attitude of the films. That's no bad thing, as he is one of the all-time great directors. It would, however, have been nice to have seen some more impressive personal touches from Kenji Kamiyama.

Essentially very good, though perhaps too engorged with the intellect of the last two films, and trying just that little bit too hard to be cool.
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Less a horror flick than an entertaining comedy
7 July 2008
World Apartment Horror comes with big names attached. Directed by Katsuhiro Ōtomo (Akira, Steamboy), based on a story by Keiko Nobumoto (Macross Plus, Fly Peek!, Tokyo Godfathers) with a screenplay by Satoshi Kon (Paprika, Perfect Blue), high expectations are understandable.

To an extent it satisfies. It was interesting to see how a crew of anime staff produced live action – the camera angles and aesthetics in places are visibly reminiscent of anime productions, but certainly not limited by them. The characters are entertaining (Ita's attempt at Yakuza suave is straight out of Dance Till Tomorrow or Black and White). It is a good film.

Briefly, Ita is a young Yakuza pimp given the job of evicting an apartment block of its foreign tenants. The job sounds easy enough, but unfortunately for Ita most of the residents know little Japanese, and communicating who he is and what he wants becomes a losing battle. He tries several techniques to get them to leave – including racism, sex with the door open and karaoke (nerds like me will recognise the Urusei Yatsura TV series theme) to no avail. He winds up playing mah-jong with them, defeated. Then weird things start happening to the room he is staying in, and himself. Now, only a huge black American can save him... or can he???!?! The film is less a horror flick than a simple comedy with interesting undertones. The clear theme of racism, which is apparently particularly bad in Japan (a country which only opened its doors to outsider trade and immigration a couple of hundred years ago), is tackled well. I particularly enjoyed the simplistic yet succinct retaliatory comment made by one of the Koreans: "Japan is rich, don't be cheap". Our global society works, and has done for a long time, as a playing field of prosperity and poverty, where players move according to their needs and opportunities. And why not? The horror aspect is weak and simple, though entertaining... for a while. The style resembles an (unfortunately) watered down version of Ōtomo's brilliant Domu manga and Rintaro's Doomed Megalopolis, but the film seems to peter out towards the last 40 minutes. The skill in, and the charm of, the movie is in the comedy, and when that moves aside for the terror aspects the whole clearly suffers. A better film would have managed the two together, light-heartedly.

The script and acting are of a high standard (with the exception of one or two of the English-speaking cast), but the set lighting seemed to me a serious flaw in design. Many scenes are so dark as to make it almost impossible to see what is going on. Perhaps it was the VHS copy I was watching, but YouTube DVD trailers make me doubt it. In this way it is visually reminiscent of many impressive HK flicks, such as Wong Jing's To Live and Die in Tsim Sha Tsui or Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together. Unfortunately this doesn't sit well with the script.

However, overall it delivers pretty well and is entertaining and original. A decent film.
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Robot Carnival (1987 Video)
Not so great
3 July 2008
There's something about voiceless or semi-voiceless films that just doesn't feel right. Charlie Chaplin was successful because his actions spoke more than he ever could have. Here, the animation doesn't really manage that. The result is awkward-moving over-acted characters. Robot Carnival is weird.

This anthology is a collection of short animated films concerning various robot-related scenarios. Some are better than others, but overall there isn't a great deal to be said for any of them. It took me two attempts to get through the whole film, and if it wasn't for a pre-existing interest in concepts of the cyborg then I may not have at all.

Stylisticly, on the plus side, some scenes and designs remind me of Battle Angel Alita, Wind of Amnesia, and even Naüsicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Not coincidentally, as Miyazaki's key animator Takashi Nakamura is on the direction team).

Perhaps my dislike is a cultural product: the DVD never got an English release, though it was apparently shown on the Sci-Fi Channel several times. For this reason I had to put up with a terrible fansub version which managed to turn most of the very few spoken sentences into garbage - "sometimes I will be jealous strongly of her" and "I have never get mother love" are two random samples. Funnier still was the curious incidence of subtitling the English-speaking character in A Tale of Two Robots. "Next time, you will see my electric self-propelled artillery" becomes "Next time I'll come with automatic robot!".

One story which did stand out was Cloud, directed by Mao Lamdo. Animated very simply with what looks like a pencil, there was a certain charm to the piece. Although much too long, there was an element of robot and human philosophy there which I couldn't help but appreciate. The robot child walking endlessly, unchanged, through major world events, catastrophes and conflicts, oblivious, head down and braced against the wind is powerful. Its later transformation into an alive, sensuous human being, suddenly aware of its surroundings and able to transform them, is a hopeful outlook for the cyborg man, if somewhat unrealistic.

The comments made by the Madonna-lookalike android in Presence were also noteworthy. "I know myself very well... what is my purpose?" It seems that the android has exactly what we lack – a vision of itself and its surroundings that is completely objective.

The rest of the segments have little merit other than the big names of some of the people involved in their conception. How is it that a gifted person such as Kōji Marimoto (Fly Peek!, Animatrix) can produce something as boring as Franken's Gears? And why would someone involved in mega-hit (though I'm not a fan) Mobile Suit Gundam (Hiroyuki Kitazume) produce shōjo trash Star Light Angel? Having said that, Katsuhiro Ōtomo's opening and closing scenes were well designed and animated, and somewhat interesting, too. These are the parts of the film that make best use of the decadent budget and unusually high animation quality (Presence is especially notable for the quality of animation, where Yasuomi Umetsu (Kite)'s style is clear and vivid).

Lastly, for a film so ostensibly dependent on the soundtrack, it was curious to find most of the OST to consist of the most decade-limited music known to man – 1980s disco. The animation, too, had a very 80s anime feel. Having been made in 1987, I suppose this is excusable (the animation, not the music).

All in all, not really worth it.
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Koi no mon (2004)
Surprisingly good
1 July 2008
Koi No Mon is an eccentric romantic comedy. Romantic comedies are predictably rubbish, but this Japanese effort is surprisingly good. The use of vibrant colours, much like Jean-Pierre Jeunet's work (shamelessly ripped off by 'Wacky Show' Pushing Daisies), avoids the pastel shades and dreary atmosphere of the typical English-language RomCom. The acting is, perhaps due to its nationality, much more interesting, and director Suzuki Matsuo (whom you may recognise from Iichi the Killer) does an entertaining job; also appearing as passion-competition Marimoda. Also of note is the abundance of celebrity cameos. One of my favourite Manga authors, Naoki Yamamoto (Believers, Arigatou) makes an appearance, as do legendary anime staffer Hideaki Anno and the world-famous Takeshi Miike.

The plot concerns strangely attractive virgin Manga nerd Mon Aoki and mental CosPlay fanatic Koino Akashi. Mon is a confused artist who is bent on artistic merit over marketability; thus doomed never to achieve Mangaka fame. Koino is just weird, and claims to have made 10 million Yen (something like £100k) with her girlie Manga. The two meet, get drunk and fool about. Mon wakes the next day dressed as a character from Soul Caliber 2 and duly vomits. The rest of the film follows his efforts to succeed at love and Manga.

Deadpan acting and a plethora of Manga jokes makes the film, whilst the jibber-jabber of the love story bobs to the surface only when necessary. RomCom it may be, but it certainly isn't Shōjo (specifically for women and feminine males), so I can forgive it.

The comedy style reflects Hunyunyuu's original Manga and as such is unsurprisingly very Japanese. Comparisons can be made with Naoki Yamamoto's brilliant Dance Till Tomorrow Manga in terms of comedy style, and Mon's house-mates bear some relation to the residents of Rumiko Takahashi's seminal Manga RomCom Maison Ikkoku.

The set-piece song and dance at the end is a mixture of a West-End musical and a YouTube parody, but it all works quite well. Nevertheless, the last two or three scenes did make me feel kind of guilty for enjoying the film at all. The jump from the almost first-person, self-conscious style of storytelling to the misty-eyed dishrag outlook was a bit nauseating. The film purports to not take itself too seriously - there are several references to its own cheesiness - but at times it still feels like a film for flannels. Is that a bad thing? Well, yes. But it's still much, much better than any RomCom Richard Curtis has come out with. Whilst Curtis will pretend until the stupid finale that the happy ending isn't coming, and then make a massive show and dance of the Big Kiss between the Successful Composed Woman and the Total Incompetent Tosser of a love interest, the outcome is always obvious here - what is exciting and entertaining is the decoration of the given plot-path. The relationship of the two leads is typical Manga - head scratching and awkward bumblings on behalf of the virgin male - and is more of a background, perhaps, to the talented storytelling and acting, the cameos and very funny moments. Pretty good.
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