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Haibane renmei (2002)
10/10 from a bitter atheist
Let me start by explaining that I am not a religion hater, but I have had several bad childhood experiences involving threats of Hell and general hatred. So, when I saw this anime described as a 'Christian fairytale', I sighed and decided to forget about it...And yet, half a year later, I realised just how wrong I was.
It is difficult to pin a genre on Haibane Renmei - it begins in almost Kafkaesque fashion, with a young girl falling through the air. Then a group of angel-like creatures, the Haibane, find a cocoon growing in the basement of their sprawling old-fashioned residence, with the girl inside. She hatches into a world surrounded by walls, populated by Haibane and humans, and run by a race of untouchable masked beings. She grows her wings, receives the name Rakka ("fall"), ponders her origin, befriends endearing but mysterious Reki, and, in her first winter, suffers a sad loss. Thus begins her journey, and the viewer's, to understand those recesses of our minds we are sometimes afraid to know.
Haibane Renmei's success lies in its depiction of human emotions. There are no guns, explosions, annoying voices and large breasts here. The viewer is simply invited to clear their mind and watch as the lives of the Haibane unfold against a backdrop of a town pleasantly embedded in the past but holding its own secrets. The joy of friendship; the pain and guilt of losing a loved one; the quest towards finding one's identity are the predominant themes of Haibane Renmei.
Another great success is the openness for interpretation. Although the story can be seen as religious, it never preaches, never attempts to convert, and ensures that 'sin', 'heaven', and 'salvation' remain only particular words chosen to describe universal concepts. Certain questions pertaining to beliefs are intentionally left unanswered. What lies beyond the walls? Where do the Haibane eventually fly to? And, most importantly, what are the Haibane and what is their purpose?
Although the first few episodes seem innocent enough, Haibane Renmei quickly becomes deep, dark, and sometimes filled with nightmarish imagery and symbolism. There is also a subtle, but definitely present theme of suicide and self-injury (both physical and psychological) that is more disturbing than most 'horror' anime. Add to that the slow storyline, and lovers of light entertainment will certainly not find much in Haibane Renmei, unless of course they are willing to look.
So, my advice to potential viewers: approach this beautiful series with an open mind, and a willingness to do some soul-searching. At times, Haibane Renmei does leave one feeling like a soul trapped in an endless painted tunnel. But be willing to see the light at the end of this tunnel, that is what Haibane Renmei urges the viewer. Be it faith in a higher power, be it faith in humanity, be it faith in a specific person or be it faith in oneself, the light never truly fades.
Extremely dark, but beautiful.
Why is it that anime always sounds so much worse than it really is? You may think you've seen it a hundred times before: a group of teenagers being stalked by a murderous supernatural entity. But believe me, you haven't.
'Boogiepop Phantom' tells the story of the most ordinary group of high-school students whose lives are all changed by a series of grisly murders (the suspect is Boogiepop, a modern Angel of Death) and a mysterious light appearing in the sky. That is all I can say without giving away too much. The plot twists and turns fiendishly, constantly challenging the viewer's brain. Perhaps that is the series' downfall: it is at times very confusing, and the non-linear narrative takes some getting used to. I have heard of a live-action prequel, but I am not the only one who cannot even dream of finding something like that in their country. However, those who do not mind giving what they're seeing some thought won't have too much trouble.
However, where 'Boogiepop Phantom' truly excels is in its handling of its predominant themes, the first being death. Virtually all the main characters have in some way been touched by it, and Boogiepop herself is a personification of it. Yet she is far from evil: at one point, a seemingly happy girl muses something along the lines of, "I hear it comes for special children. I wish it would come for me too." This may sound a touch overly pessimistic, but such is these children's desire to be 'special'; as well as to simply escape reality.
Which brings me onto the second theme: that of growing up in an entirely adult-orientated world. The way this series depicts the pains and joys of adolescence is simply a wonder to behold. All the issues modern teenagers have to contend with (from sex and drugs to schoolwork, from friendship and love to continuous pressure to excel) are shown as vivid, sometimes heartbreaking metaphors: a girl who can grant wishes becomes enslaved to her brother's destructive impulses; a girl who fails a piano exam is magically given innocence and happiness, only to commit suicide on seeing her piano. The world of 'Boogiepop Phantom' is a dark and cruel world: a world where the only true escape may be death.
But in the midst of it all, love and innocence still survive. Such gems as the previously mentioned boy carving a charm for his sister, nearly moved me to tears. Or, in one of the final episodes, three of the characters who played a key role in the unfolding of the events settle down to write their final exams. Without any bells and whistles, this bittersweet episode strikes just the right chord: we all have to grow up, but how much of our childish hearts we retain is up to us.
Add to that some philosophical questions such as 'What is consciousness?', 'What is reality?', and 'Why are we alive?', and you get a truly magnificent narrative.
Lastly, there is the style. Some reviewers have criticised the dark palette, but in my opinion it suits the dark, creepy atmosphere perfectly. Please note, however, that 'Boogiepop Phantom' is not horror per se. There are several bursts of truly shocking violence, but these only serve to emphasise the internal anguish of the characters.
In conclusion, I recommend this series to anyone with an open mind and a willingness to think. The series is more geared towards adults, but who knows, perhaps teenagers would understand it even better. This is, after all, a far better reflection of their lives than High School Musical.
Erufen rîto (2004)
Beautiful, haunting and sad.
First of all, I must say that I am no anime expert. My entire knowledge of the genre is limited to the more famous Miyazaki films, 'Ghost in the Shell' and its sequel, and now the beautiful, dark, tragic 'Elfen Lied'.
The story centers around Lucy, a girl born with a genetic mutation which gave her horns and 'vectors' - powerful telekenetically controlled arms. The first time we meet her, she is cold-bloodedly killing soldiers and office workers in what appears to be a strange research facility. A sniper succeeds in shooting her in the head, ending her rampage. However, he fails to kill her: she falls into the sea surrounding the facility, and is later found washed up on the beach by two cousins. However, this is not the Lucy we saw spilling so much blood - the shot left her with severe amnesia, turning her into the innocent, childlike Nyuu. When an assassin and later another being of her kind are sent to destroy her, we witness the murderous Lucy emerging once more, only to transform back into Nyuu once the violence is over. As the series progresses, we gradually learn about Lucy's horrific past, finally leaving us with the dilemma: Were her brutal actions perhaps in any way justified?
Elfen Lied is dark, that I will not deny. Lovers of light, happy entertainment will be disappointed and very likely offended. The series deals with all the darker aspects of humanity: the practice of alienating those who are different, murder, cruel experimentation, sexual abuse, sadism, torture, and even genocide or 'purifying the earth'. As the story progresses, we find that virtually all the main characters have experienced one or more of these, and much of the series focuses on their attempts to somehow cope with the trauma; to pick up the pieces.
Which brings me on to the violence. Elfen Lied is decidedly not a series for the faint-hearted. We watch bodies being torn in half, children being dismembered, and one scene of horrific animal cruelty. However, throughout the series, I do not remember one act of violence that seemed in any way 'trashy' or unnecessary. This is no gore-fest made to entertain teenage males. What is often even more disturbing than the violence itself, are the emotions attached to it. Also, some of the most violent scenes are rather surreal: think characters being tortured to eerily beautiful Gregorian chants.
The major characters of Elfen Lied are highly memorable: sinning and sinned-against Lucy and her touchingly loving alter ego Nyuu; endearingly awkward Kohta who continuously battles his feelings for her but has painful repressed memories; his cousin Yuka who many reviewers have branded as 'irritating' but is really a somewhat unsettling reflection of the jealousy that turned Lucy into a killer; lovable Nana who is basically Lucy without the violent side; and Mayu, the abuse victim whose story of recovery is one of the most uplifting in the series. I would also like to mention Mariko, a minor character but still my personal favourite: she is a young girl who has the same mutation as Lucy, who does horrific things to people with the air of a child burning ants with a magnifying glass.
In conclusion, Elfen Lied is a mature and deep series which can be enjoyed on so many levels: from an action horror story to a philosophical debate on what it means to be human. The execution is exquisite, with images that linger in the mind for a long time. All in all, I recommend Elfen Lied to anyone with an open mind, a strong stomach, and a willingness to try something different.
Les triplettes de Belleville (2003)
French jewel in the rough
This animated film is truly a piece of minimalistic art.
Darkly funny, original, bizarre, moving and satirical, it tells the story of a selfless grandmother and her obese dog to free her 'champion' grandson from the clutches of the Mafia. Through very minimal use of dialogue (mostly in television and radio commentaries)and a plot that is more concerned with characters' interactions with their environment than with complicated stories and adventures, this film still manages to slide like a hyperdermic needle right under the skin of society in two very different countries - namely France and the USA.
The animation in itself is unique, resembling especially harsh political caricatures more than anything else. The humour is mostly delivered visually, and will appeal to lovers of dark, satirical comedy. There are few crude jokes or slapstick here - this is one of those rare comedies that treats the audience as thinking beings. Also, this film will certainly offend some viewers through its harsh stereotyping and shameless exposure of the problems of society. But in an eye-opening way, nonetheless.
However, amidst the humour there is a prevailing sense of the repetitiveness of life; of giving up hope for a better place. From the dog that barks at every train to the simulated biking course to the identical Mafia agents, the atmosphere is that of lives going about in circles, never reaching any kind of destination. And the drab browns and greys of the cityscapes make them seem like some dreary, ongoing dream.
But through this darkness glimmer rays of hope and resourcefulness: the ability to eek out a meaningful life under these circumstances.
All in all, do yourself a favour - ignore the negative criticism (most of it caused by the lack of a complicated plot - but the film more than makes up for this in other aspects), and give this unique film a chance.
Brilliant, deeply symbolic sci-fi
I usually take books far more seriously than the films based on them, especially books as deep and poetic as 'Solaris'. But for me, this film is a complete exception to the rule.
This film is an intriguing odyssey into the depths of the human soul - the isolation aboard a space station orbiting a mysterious planet with a single jelly-like organism covering it, is a metaphor for places within ourselves where we do not dare to tread; our deepest, darkest secrets and desires. Throughout the film, we watch characters searching for a purpose in their lives, then settling for an illusionary one should they find none. The subtleness of the story means that it may take multiple viewings to understand, but in the end creates a haunting, deeply unsettling masterpiece.
Haters of this film have pointed out that it has a very slow pace, and I must say that this is true. But the quiet scenes have a remarkable beauty and symbolism - perhaps the ten-minute scene of a car on a highway represents a loss of purpose and meaning in life? In this age where whole worlds can be created and destroyed via computers, the effects are also slightly less than stunning. So, not to sound patronising or judgemental, but if you like action and effects, go watch Star Wars or Speed Racer and stay away from this film. If you like deep, thoughtful, symbolic and minimalistically beautiful films, please do yourself a favour and watch this piece of art.
It may be true that the only similar film I have watched is 'Sprited Away', but I think I can still say that 'Princess Mononoke' is something worthy of being called art.
The plot simply glitters with such complexity, thoughtfulness, maturity and action, that makes even the best of Western animation seem like child's play. The story carries a powerful, yet not preaching, ecological message, asking the question of why the human and the animal worlds cannot live in peace with one another. And what is remarkable, is that there is no true villain: all the characters, as well as the storyline, are very ambiguous. Some of the film's beauty also lies in the fact that the action is NOT non-stop: it is often the quiet, tender scenes that capture the viewer's attention.
The animation, being of course chiefly hand-drawn, is nothing short of exquisite. From the calm beauty of the forest pools to the smoke and grime of the iron factories, not a single minute detail is overlooked. The characters, be they humans, stately animal gods, cute but eerie tree spirits, hate-filled apes or simply mice, insects and raccoons, all possess a certain beauty and credibility that is not always easy to come by in this day and age.
The soundtrack is spine-tinglingly beautiful. And oh, the power of the silence as the Forest Spirit approaches, plants springing up in his wake...
However, I must add a word of caution: this film lives up to every ounce of its PG-13 rating. The story and visuals are dark, violent and disturbing at times: People and animals alike are slaughtered in vast numbers with arrows, rifles, hand cannons and mines; profusely bleeding giant boars are invaded by tentacled demons. Death, as well as rebirth, and the horrors of war, are recurring themes. And the film is over two hours in length, so some children may become bored and confused by the plot.
But do not be put off by this: 'Princess Mononoke' is pure brilliance from start to finish.