Saturday, November 24, 2012

11/23/12 -- Butlers vs. M@sters

Back in action after an overstuffed Thanksgiving. Luckily I didn't gain too much weight, as my punch-lines alone burn off twenty calories at a time.

Anyway, this week we're looking at iDOLM@STER Xenoglossia, The Idol Master, and Hayate no Gotoku: Can't Take My Eyes Off You. How did they shape up? Check it out after the break.

iDOLM@STER: Xenoglossia

Okay, I'm cheating with this week's edition in a way. See, even though I sort of stopped watching anime around the time Idolm@ster came out, I'm still very familiar with the source material. THE iDOLM@STER is a part-rhythm, part-simulation series of arcade and console games in Japan. The game hit arcades in 2005, but it wouldn't get a console release until a 2007 game for the Xbox 360. The game is supposedly so popular that it made japan's ratio of Xbox live subscriptions to consoles sold ratio the highest in the world. All for a game about managing a girl's pop career. As bad as the Xbox was doing in Japan at the time, I guess some game had to do it.

God knows Tales of Vesperia wasn't going to do it. "Best in the series" my ass...
Anyway, we'd never see it in the west, as the concept of "idols" as they exist in japan is extremely foreign to us. The closest things to idols we have in the states have a bad habit of going on coke binges or throwing up onstage.
If JBiebs did coke even once, he would die... Because he's not a real rock star.
But Bieber is actually a good analogue for what the idol concept really is. They're immensely popular, have throngs of screaming fans, and usually begin their careers at a young age. The only thing missing is the glow sticks and sweaty men (and even then...). Actually, the more I think about it, our idol concept is an inversion of what I see in Japan. In japan its usually girls onstage with a male audience, but here in the states, it's all about keeping the tween girl demographic entertained by the latest heartthrob music act. That's how I see it. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.

Point is, all of this went over so well in japan that an anime adaptation was inevitable, and in 2007, it came to pass that an iM@S anime would be a real thing that exists. What wound up happening, though, was... strange...

See, even a scarce number of the promotional images available even hinted that it would be a giant mecha show. The rest are pretty generic images of the girls standing under cherry trees or wearing school uniforms.

That's the best summary I can give for this show. It's just plain weird. It's a small thing to complain about, but seeing these characters in a future world full of mechs and high-tech elements (even for Japan) is extremely jarring and really takes you out of the story as you try to wrap your head around it. I've always been pretty good about suspension of disbelief (Hell, I loved the first three Paranormal Activity movies), but this one didn't sit well with me.

Anyway, the main character of our little drama is Haruka, who we see auditioning for something called the "Idol M@ster" project. She's in front of a camera, doing... something... This show does a really good job of that, by the way. They don't show anything really happening, and you're forced to infer that something happened by what happens in the next cut.

In this case, we cut to Haruka opening something in the mail. It's an approval letter. Apparently her try-out went well, because she excitedly talks about how she's going to Tokyo. A mysterious object falls out of the envelope that looks like either a new-age egg timer or one of those things that you use to cut gift wrap for Christmas presents (Just a month away, folks!).

We smash cut to Azusa at some kind of grave, and then she says something that no normal human being would say. You know, anime stuff.

For brevity's sake, I'm going to skip ahead to when stuff actually starts to happen. See, the B-plot in this episode revolves around a meteor about to hit Earth. This show takes place in the future, where an asteroid belt has formed around the earth. To stop this meteor, a secret military organization deploys a giant robot, called an iDOL, to destroy it. The iDOL is piloted by Makoto, one of the idols from the video game.

Here's my main problem with this show. Other than the characters, this show has NOTHING to do with iM@S in any way. Even the title is misleading. You've probably figured it out by now, but in this show the iDOLs are the giant robots and their pilots are called M@STERS. The girls themselves are the iDOLM@STERs. As opposed to the game, where you are managing a girl's singing career, hence the title. It still makes sense in its own way, but you have to remove yourself from anything you may know about the source material, because there's nothing familiar here.

And Albedo is the M@sterest iDOLer of them all.
Makoto and her iDOL punch the asteroid into oblivion, causing a meteor shower on earth that Haruka and Yukiho admire from the seaside. Again, the seagulls choose not to cry, leaving me unfulfilled. This next complaint is a nitpick, but a legitimate complaint considering my science background. Haruka and Yukiho talk about how the asteroid belt around Earth was the result of a huge space rock being destroyed. The rock was called "The Moon".

At some point the moon exploded, and for some reason the tides as we know them still exist. Without the moon, everything we know about certain atmospheric conditions go out the window, and the only repercussion in this show is that there's heavy magnetic interference from space sometimes. I'm pretty sure the moon doesn't even have a magnetic field.

But what do I know about magnets? Scientists aren't even sure how they work!
Actually, this brings up an interesting implication. This show and Gurren Lagann premiered at around the same time. Since that story arc didn't happen until later in the series, and the asteroid belt in this show is the remains of the moon, iDOLM@STER Xenoglossia technically punched the moon before Gurren Lagann ever did.

The show ends with Haruka accidentally summoning a super mech called "Prometheus-1". Then Chihaya summons a mech called "Prometheus-3", which means that Ridley Scott still has two more movies to make.

Prometheus 3: More idiot astronauts touch things that they really shouldn't.
This show is just boring. For a giant robot show, there's not a whole lot going on. I know it's only the first episode, but even the lesser Gundam series had the decency to provide some decent action in their premier episodes. Big O had plenty of action and intrigue in its first episode. Anime studios need to realize that you can establish your setting and still have a story that goes somewhere.

After what just happened, do I even want to see this? It's a really bad sign when the promotional image is just a bunch of girls being cute. It usually means that something bad is about to happen in terms of pacing, characterization, and storytelling. But I swore off pessimism. I don't want to be cynical anymore. Every show deserves its fair shake, even ones that trigger Lucky Star flashbacks as badly as this one does. Let's see what the damage is.

You guys. I've finally found it. I've finally found another slice of life anime that is actually good. The approach this series takes in adapting its source material is very tastefully handled, and I'm happy to say that I enjoyed this episode.

Now it's a slice of life show, so a detailed plot synopsis isn't really appropriate. As I've mentioned before, shows of this type either make or break themselves by the characters they follow. It's really a sum-of-the-whole type argument, so I'm going to start with the little things I noticed about this show that made it so charming.

First of all, as sort of a nod to the source material, this episode is told through the perspective of a cameraman who is shooting a documentary of the production company. As such, all of the filmmaker's dialogue is represented in unvoiced onscreen text. This of course references the fact that the main character in iDOLM@STER is a silent protagonist that is supposed to represent the player.

The mockumentary-style presentation of this episode is genius. It allows the show to introduce its characters in a way that I wish more shows in this genre would take advantage of. Unlike Working!! where we only really got to know three of its characters, this show gives fairly equal screen time and dialogue to all of its star cast. This is especially important when you have as many characters as this show does. Idol Master has a central cast of twelve characters, and after one screening I was able to remember more about all twelve girls in this show than I was able to remember about three in Working!!. The fact that I can actually refer to them by their real names (vs calling them "Punchy") is further testament to this show's handling of its characters.

Pictured above: Individuality. Also that's the producer in the lower-right, not an idol. Nice try.

Haruka, Yukiho, Iori, Azusa, Chihaya, Miki, Makoto, Ami, Mami, Hibiki, Yayoi, and Takane. Boom. I can associate names with faces too. Give me some flash cards. Let's go. Right now.

Anyway, remember how last week I said that Punchy was the only character that gave the appearance of any sort of depth. In this show, there's actual groundwork laid that pulls you in to the extent that all of the characters become interesting to you. It isn't all through mysterious backstories and secrets that characters keep, rather this show takes the bold step of actually showing the characters practicing and getting better at the thing that is theoretically interesting about them.

What!? You mean we actually have to play these things!?

I know. It's hard to believe, but this anime actually wants to tell a story! Throughout the episode, we watch these girls try to advertise themselves. They go to auditions. They take voice lessons. There's character building happening right in episode one. Again, these are small aspects that mean next to nothing on their own, but they way they come together enhances the presentation of iDOLM@STER to make it something that doesn't feel worn-out. It still relies on a few cliches, but it earns that by having characters that you'll care about. I think that Iori was the only one who didn't really have anything interesting about her, but she's voiced by Rie Kugimiya so that's to be expected.
The fact that she doesn't have twin-tail hair will confuse the hell out of many a pervy otaki.

At the end of the episode, we find out that the cameraman filming the documentary is actually a new producer that hopes to make big stars out of the production company's idols. This brings the reference to the source material full-circle, as he was the main character of the original game. See what they did there? They managed to work in the silent protagonist from the game into the anime before finally giving him his voice. Pretty clever, if I do say so myself.

The Idol Master is a good show that I would strongly recommend to anyone out there who may be hurting for a good slice of life anime. The characters are memorable, the art and animation is top-notch (particularly during song and dance numbers), and it's just plain fun to watch. I'll definitely watch more of this when I get the chance.

Aw yeah! Hayate and the gang are back for a third series! This is going to be the least objective and professional "review" you'll see here because I have a soft spot for Hayate the Combat Butler. I started reading the manga back in '07. Back then they would come out every three months or so, but now we're lucky if we get two of them a year.

Anyway, I would inject this series intravenously if I could. It's a perfect combination of compelling characters, a strange-yet-familiar setting, and a sharp sense of humor that made me fall in love with this series. How much do I like it? Rie Kugimiya is in the anime and I don't particularly mind. Yeah. I think she does a great job portraying Nagi. There, I said something nice about Rie Kugimiya. It's a good show. You could say I "Can't Keep My Eyes Off Of It". I'll stop now...

Anyway, I'm excited for this. I liked the first anime, and I loved the second one. Surely this one will be even better!

Punchy 2: Electric Boogaloo
That wasn't a "this is awful" punch in the face. I actually liked this show, but it definitely took me by surprise. They've changed the art style yet again, and I'm not sure that I care for the new look. The redesign of the Sanzenin Mansion feels jarring and unnecessary, making what should be a series staple feel unfamiliar. Not a good thing to have if you want to appeal to old fans, though the new elements that the show introduces should make this series more approachable to newer fans.

My gripes with the art style are almost inconsequential, however, as the animation is gorgeous to look at and reflect some serious production values. The music video that makes up the end credits is a perfect example of the visual strengths this series presents. Even if I don't like some of the characters' hair or think that Nagi's too tall or feel like some of the characters are a little off-model, I feel like that's just me being a snob who's used to the manga.

And it's not fair to compare it to the manga. It looks like they're taking this series in a different direction from the manga. This is a storyline unique to the anime (which means I can watch it without spoiling the manga for myself!).

It begins with Nagi stranded in the Nevada desert in a wrecked car. She's groaning about how she's about to die, lost and alone in an unfamiliar land. The handkerchief she draped over her face to shield herself from the sun is blown away by the wind and gets caught on a cactus. Nagi proceeds to yell at the cactus, chastising it for stealing her hankey. How come whenever she yells at inanimate objects, it's funny, but whenever I do it I get arrested?

Fire hydrants are historically racist. I was just telling it what I thought about its bigotry.

The scene gets into more slapstick. Nagi absently touches the surface of the car she's in and burns her hand, running and screaming in pain before running into the cactus face first. She begins to cry out for Hayate to save her, but says that he won't because he isn't her butler anymore. SAY WHAT!? Talk about putting the "no" in "Hayate no Gotoku" am I right? Right?

Sorry. I love puns.

Then the series decides to rewind back to an unspecified time, wherein Nagi is being lazy in her mansion, complaining about the end of summer vacation. Hayate tries to convince her that getting back into school life isn't such a bad thing, but immediately loses Nagi's attention when she sees a trashy shockumentary about aliens at Area 51. Nagi is immediately taken with what she sees, engrossed in "alien autopsy" footage... Wait a minute... Are they sure this isn't just an anime adaptation of "The Pandora Directive"?

"The lady hit hard, but her butler hit harder. As the taste of copper filled
my mouth, I briefly wondered if I would ever be kawaii desu ne...
Nothing a glass of top-shelf bourbon won't fix."
Anyway, Maria shows up as Nagi watches the documentary. By sheer coincidence, she just got a call from the Nevada police department informing her that the belongings of Nagi's father have been located and that they have ten days to pick them up before they get rid of them. Nagi sees an opportunity to investigate Area 51 and pretends to care about her dead father in order to convince Maria and Hayate to let her go to Nevada. Way to be classy Ojo-sama.

Her maid and butler are adamant that she not miss school, insisting that she remain in school until silver week (which I've never heard of), when they'll venture out to pick up the belongings.  Nagi storms out of the house in a huff and Hayate goes out in pursuit.

She wastes her day, but realizes as the sun begins to set that she left her money and her cell phone at home. She begins to panic, as she's wandered into a less-than-savory section of town. Luckily, Hayate finds her and tries to take her home. She refuses to go with him unless he can drink a can of spicy red bean drink that she accidentally bought. Hayate is interrupted in his pursuit of beverage supremacy by a mysterious girl with upsetting purple hair.

Seen here being upsetting.
She starts acting mysterious, like she's Zero from Code Geass or something, but Hayate immediately shames her by calling her a little girl and asking if she's lost. She freaks out, then informs Hayate that Nagi's been kidnapped, which she has while Hayate's back was turned.

She has an internal monologue about saving Nagi and claiming a rich reward, but Hayate goes into beast mode and steals her bike to save Nagi. From there it's a repeat of the very first episode of Hayate. Nagi gets kidnapped, Hayate borrows the nearest girl's bike, and he chases down a car to save Nagi. Just add in a girl with upsetting purple hair and you've got this show.

Hayate saves Nagi and takes her home, but the girl follows them back to the mansion. She finally introduces herself as Ruri Tsugumi, and claims that she is Nagi's long-lost sister. And that's how the episode ends.

Ruri, I have a feeling I'm not going to like you very much.

I'm definitely interested in where this show's going, but since it was a Hayate series I was pretty much guaranteed to watch every episode anyway, even if I hadn't liked my preview. Despite my initial hang-ups, it was a good show that laid out the ground for what looks to be a very intriguing story for a show based on a gag manga.

The characters behave a little differently from the way they typically have been portrayed in the past, and this episode wasn't as funny as past incarnations, but I'm interested to see how they're able to balance comedy with what looks like a darker and more bizarre turn of events. Hata always has done a remarkable job with balancing a lighthearted attitude with serious character-development, and I'm a fan of his work because of it...

Or maybe those darker overtones in this episode were all part of one big joke, and I'm the fool by talking about them right now. Nonetheless, this is a show I'll be keeping my eye on... so to speak.

Until next week, everyone!

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