Saturday, December 1, 2012

12/1/12 -- I Finally Get to Watch Something Dramatic

Finally! After weeks of slice-of-life shows, we're ramping up to watch some big-boy anime. I can't tell you how excited I am, mostly because something bad always happens when I talk about how excited I am about something.

This week we're getting serious with Durarara!!, Sword Art Online, and a mystery show! Enough of this patter, let's get to the platter!

Okay, if you have any taste at all, you've at least heard of Ryohgo Narita. Essentially, he's the Japanese version of the writer that I pretend to be when I'm not wasting my life with anime or video games. He's a novelist who wrote a fantastic piece of work called Baccano! which was made into an anime back in '07. From my understanding, he also wrote Baccano! while he was in college, a fact that was tailor-made to make me feel inadequate about my own creative writing talents.

Hey, it's really underground now, but someday people
are going to love my stories about ponies who solve mysteries.
Point of it is, Baccano! was really good, and it makes me wish that some kind soul would translate the novels so that I could read the full story, not just the three or four story arcs that were adapted for the anime. It was only natural, therefore, that Brain's Base and Narita would team up again to adapt another of his light novels, Durarara!!, into an anime.

Hey! I finally get to watch an anime opening as well! I should retroactively review the openings for all the shows I watch that decide not to have an OP sequence for their first episode. In a very Baccano! style, the opening consists of a very catchy song set to an animated sequence where the characters are introduced by name. I've always liked it when shows did this, as it not only lets us know who our star players are going to be, but also gives us a little peak at their personalities. It's the anime equivalent of a pre-reading activity or anticipatory guide.

... Unfortunately, the place I get my subs doesn't subtitle the opening sequence or anything contained within, so all their names are incoherent squiggles. I guess I got spoiled by the English names of Baccano! characters.

A deceptively large amount happens in this first episode, and the short version is that it was very well done and definitely intrigued me enough that I want to watch more. Lord knows that it'll make the wait for new Hayate episodes bearable. Unfortunately, those of you with short attention spans won't like the pacing very much. This is a show based on a novel and it has a novel-like pacing to it, with a slow build-up to what is sure to be an interesting series of events.

I'd like to start by praising the visuals, particularly the art direction that I saw on full display in this episode. The use of light and shadow within Ikebukuro was as striking as it was menacing, and the subtle shroud cast over the crowds of the city helps give you a feel for Mikado's situation. He's the new kid in an unfamiliar town. It's presented as daunting, and that's exactly what it is for our young hero.

I haven't posted a picture with jokes for a while, and in fact there isn't much for me to joke about. I thought this show handled itself tastefully and to an extent, it stayed away from the more goofy things that tend to happen in anime. Granted, this is only the first episode. There's plenty of time for this to go from Animated Series Batman to Adam West Batman, but still...

We get a pretty good introduction to the main characters of this production, too. This episode focuses on Ryuugamine and Kida, the former of which would have the goofiest anime name I'd ever heard if Battler Ushiromiya hadn't locked that one down two weeks ago.

"Only the chess pieces understand my ennui."
Perhaps the most important player we meet, though, is the mysterious Black Rider, an entity that rides a terrifyingly jet black motorcycle. It's a vehicle so terrifying that it's shadow at one point turns into a really spooky horse, a nod either to the horsemen of the apocalypse or the headless horseman... I honestly can't pick a favorite. Either way, that bike is now the scariest vehicle in show business.

To be fair, though, the black bike can't pick out the perfect 50s
rock and roll soundtrack to your untimely death.
There's something else unsettling about the rider. This might be considered a spoiler, but you'll notice I referred to it as an entity and then referenced the Headless Horseman. You can probably fill in the blanks from there. This thing wears an adorably felinesque motorcycle helmet to conceal it's nonexistant head. As the helmet is knocked off, shadows begin to pour out of it's... neck... hole? Anyway, it then cements its place as the angel of death by summoning a giant scythe it uses to mow down its victims (who, at least in this case, deserved what they got).

I'm not supposed to know as much about Madoka Magica as
I do, so I'm legally prohibited from making the obvious joke.
This show is visually appealing and has an interesting story to match. I'm definitely interested in finding out more about the central cast, intrigued by the mystery of the headless rider, and anxious to meet the rest of the supporting cast. If you're looking for a solidly written show with good production values and a clever sense of humor, you can do no wrong with Durarara!!.

Well, it's about time I strapped in for some high adventure. Sword Art Online is one that I've seen around lately, and thus feel obligated to watch. This is the obligatory "show I'm nervous" about for this week, as it has all the symptoms of a show that might push my patience. I'm not exactly the biggest fantasy fan in the world, especially of the Final variety, and fantasy anime especially has a bad habit of getting on my nerves.

It also gives me an excuse to post this picture of a thing that happened.
I don't know what happened to me that made me this way, but even Lord of the Rings doesn't entirely interest me. It's not just the crap like Tower of Druaga, it's actual good fantasy fiction that bores me as well. Give me Wing Commander Privateer over Skyrim any day of the week.

And we're back to no intro. Honestly, I'm starting to feel like the biggest jackass in the world with the amount of wrong I've been in the past few weeks. My anime barometer is skewed so horrendously that any mainstream anime (if such a thing can even exist) makes me uneasy and judgmental in a really unfair way. It's as though at any moment I think that a show with promise is going to turn into some kind of exploitative romp through plotless fanservice doubtless to be redeemed for filthy lucre by Japanese suits.

I'm not an anime cynic anymore by any means, but some habits die hard, I suppose. Anyway...

Unlike Durarara!! this show gets right to the point almost halfway through the first episode. It begins in the pretty grand .Hack tradition of presenting a world in the not-too-distant future that has a fully realized virtual world in an online game, the eponymous Sword Art Online. It's the hottest thing around, and our main character was one of the beta testers for this wonderful fantasy adventure. The cool thing about this one, though, is that it is played with a virtual immersion device called the NerveGear, which puts you directly into the game by reading impulses from the nervous system, translating them into movements in the game. I wonder what kind of cool games I could get into using this sort of setup. 

Soon, my beloved. Wait for me.

Our hero, Kirito, is a bit of a loner. Like myself he longs for things like solo XPs, high adventure in a world where football players don't beat you up and call you names just because you like "fag" stuff like reading and games that aren't about looking down the barrel of a gun and other character traits that I've assigned to him because nobody respects me and I just want someone to value my creative ambitions but since I don't write about pokemon and Naruto like everyone else on the internet... What was I talking about again?

Oh right, SAO. He makes friends with this guy Klein, and together they take to the fields so Klein can learn the ropes of the game.  They battle it out with some wild boars until Klein has to leave so that he can eat. However, they immediately notice something... unusual, and if you've read or watched anything similar to this sort of thing you've probably already guessed where this is going.

There's no logout button. "That's weird," they remark as they try to contact the GM before instantly being teleported back to town. The sky shifts to red as an ooze starts to drip from the sky, forming into a giant cloaked figure: The visage of Akihiko Kabaya, the creator of SAO. He informs the players that their imprisonment in the game is quite intentional and that there is only one way out for its players.

There's no way to log out, and anyone who attempts to force disconnect will have their brain nuked by the NerveGear system. Likewise, if you die in the game you get microwaved like a cup of Easy Mac with no chance of recovery. The only way out is to play the game and win by conquering all 100 floors of SAO's massive world. It seems Akihiko wanted to make a world that he himself ruled over as a pretend God, much like in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

"What does God need with thousands of sweaty nerds in a gaming coma?"
As a gift, every player is given a mirror by the GM, and their forms immediately revert to what they look like in the real world. Their player avatars are replaced in a darkly humorous scene playing off the fact that nobody in the virtual world is quite what they seem in real life. Except for me. I'm a sexy, 5k running devil.

Girls turn into guys, handsome guys turn into less-than-handsome guys, and Kirito actually looks better than his game avatar. I don't know about that. Anyone who puts as much time into a game as this guy does should end up looking less like this:

And more like this:

Speaking from personal experience. But again, I'm very good looking. I look like young Jude Law and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Both of them. At once. Not a combination of the two but actually both of them.

Where was I again? Oh right, the ending! Anyway, Kirito isn't pleased about this and sets off to conquer SAO and escape from the game, but unfortunately Klein doesn't join him, as he has his own friends that he can't leave behind. Tearfully, Kirito sets out to face the dangers alone, vowing to beat the game and escape with his life.

"It's not just a game anymore!"

Okay, I have to admit this show is a very smart and sophisticated mix of sci-fi and fantasy elements. Kirito's character is complex, and we're left to wonder to what extent he secretly enjoys the situation he's unwittingly trapped in. He likes who he is online, and is more confident in the fantasy world than he seems to be in the real world, so it stands to reason that a part of him actually enjoys this. I guess that's something that I'll have to learn for myself in future episodes.

I'll say it again: This is a smart show. Smarter than stupid sexy me. I underestimated it and I hope it can forgive me.

Are you excited for the mystery show? You shouldn't be. It's nothing exciting, and it's a source of some personal shame.

Allow me to explain. I made a huge mistake right off the bat in making this blog. My very first set of reviews contained a critical error that unfortunately changed the nature of some of the opinions that I expressed. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart and a considerable dread...

That I must return to Wagnaria.

Here's what wound up happening. I knew the title of the series was Working!! right? Turns out I was only half right. When you watch anime, particularly one that is divided into multiple series and seasons, you start to encounter some unusual naming conventions. Hayate no Gotoku! gave way to Hayate no Gotoku!! in the same way that K-On! begat K-On!!. That sort of thing is what I'd gotten used to.

What I wanted to watch was this:

What I wound up watching was this:

See the difference? That apostrophe meant the difference between two seasons, and it renders my complaints about the show irrelevant unless I watch it from the beginning. Of course the episode I watched wasn't clear to me. Of course all of the characters didn't get a fitting introduction because I jumped into the series thirteen episodes deep. In order to rectify this I must start afresh, and I know just where to look.

Let's go back to work!

Apparently NIS America licenced the subbed version for distribution under the title Wagnaria!!, a name that means nothing to anyone unless they've seen the show. That's my complaint going in.

Having now seen the true first episode of Working!! I can say that it's... not as bad as I originally said. Let's start with the fact that the characters are adequately introduced. That complaint no longer stands because I got a pretty good idea of who our central cast was and the character traits that define them.

That said, they're all still  pretty generic. Nothing about them really stands out except for the physical characteristics of the characters. Popura is short, Inami punches men, what's her name has a sword, and it's all entirely superficial. They're quirky, but not interesting. It's the anime equivalent of a Zooey Deschanel sitcom.

Actually, New Girl is basically just a live-action version
of a fairly bland anime.

This show violates an important rule of fiction, and that's "show, don't tell." You can find ways to introduce characters without them having to make declarative statements like "I like cute things" or "she doesn't like men". The closest the show came to handling this competently was when Sota called the manager old (she's 28, but in anime land apparently anyone who you can legally have a relationship with is considered an old maid) and she responded through actions, not words. They used Sota's statement as a setup for the punchline of Kyoko giving him the work schedule from hell.

That's a strong point for this show. It really is quite funny. It's nothing brilliant or transcendent, but now that I have a good understanding of the show's foundation, I can enjoy the humor. It's gently allowing me to enter the world of Wagnaria and understand how the coworkers act towards each other and it makes the jokes easier to appreciate. It did a good job of setting up the premise for the show. Unlike Lucky Star's approach of saying "Here's four girls. You like them. Any questions?"

Lastly, having seen the first episode from both seasons, I don't see a lot of difference in the way the characters act. This makes it consistent, but it has bad implications on how this show handles character development. It's disheartening to know that everyone acts basically the exact same way after thirteen episodes to grow from their work experience. Sota still compares young-looking girls to insects and comes across as a creepy pedophile (you know, anime) and Inami still beats the stuffing out of any man she comes into contact with. There's not even any subtle differences. I'm not asking for a major personality change, just show me some sign that these characters lives mean... something.

Oh, and at the end of the episode, they play the opening theme. Kind of a weird place for it.

That's all I've got for this week. Much like Sword Art Online, I have a problem that I can't easily escape from. Much like Durarara!! the problem arose slowly over time culminating in something quite alarming. And much like Working!! it's largely unfulfilling in the long run. Come back Wednesday to see what's on the menu for next week!

This is Jake O'Jack reminding you to stay in school and keep your room clean.

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