Sunday, February 10, 2013

February 10, 2013-- Girls! Girls!... Girls?

And I'm still carrying on my proud tradition of referencing sitcoms from the late 70s/80s because I know that anime fans are usually also huge fans of Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life.

We're back with week two of my look into winter 2013 premieres! Last week was somewhat discouraging, but they can't all be three-minutes long, right?

This week we're looking at Amnesia and Love Live! School Idol Project. Only two shows? Is this a regular thing now? Surely I wouldn't do that, right?


Finally, my prayers have been answered! An anime adaptation of one of the finest horror games ever made. Surely it will feature beautiful bishounen Daniel trying to run from horrifying monstrosities as he battles terrifying otherworldly forces in a decrepit castle that seems to be in constant flux between our own mortal world and the spiraling depths of hell. And anime Tobuscus can be the narrator.

Oh... Or not...
Nope. Apparently this is actually a show based on an otome visual novel that happened to share a similar title with one of my favorite games. The game was released in Japan for the PSP in 2011, and is widely praised for it's shocking revelation: Namely that PSP games are still being made. The game was made by...

... Oh hell no. This is gonna suck isn't it? I'm not going to talk about my dislike for Idea Factory, because we'd be here all day if I did, but I will show you these and let you make up your own mind.

The show begins with an intro sequence set to a fairly bland song entitled Zoetrope. It's not bad, though it's nothing memorable. Hey, at least I get an intro in a premiere episode for once. The sequence prominently features the main character falling upside-down through a cosmic void (which is appropriate considering that's what it feels like to play a game by Idea Factory), though I will give it credit for being a visually stunning sequence without seeming too busy or saturated with bright patterns. There's even a cool zoetrope effect that is implemented quite well in the sequence, so if nothing else I recommend watching the intro.

We meet our heroine passed out on a couch. Her name is... um... she can't remember, actually, and we don't find out what her name is during this episode. It'd be cool if they kept this up for the entire show, because that's actually a really nice touch. I'm a sucker for little things that indirectly reference source material. These sorts of games have nameless protagonists to encourage you to make it your own story. That they're trying to pull this off is kind of cool.

The first of many vacant expressions
So this is our female lead (on the right). The anime wastes no time getting to the point, because she just woke up on a couch and can't remember anything that happened before August second. Her design is simple but effective. I'll admit that I'm not the intended audience for these types of shows, but I do appreciate that the female lead is beautiful in a way that isn't trying too hard. I mean, at least she looks something like what an actual human being would look like (anime style notwithstanding). Too often these shows have odd character proportions or strange color patterns that look like the character designer has never seen a person before, but this show seems like it will take a more grounded approach to character design.

... Or not... Dear god... Look at it! It looks like Shugo Chara had a baby with the fabulous men of Vampire Knight and then raised them on a steady diet of cabaret and harajuku fashion magazines. Something that might not be immediately apparent about the designs are the eyes. Every character except the heroine has these upsettingly dichromatic eyes that make no sense! They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and this soul is apparently astoundingly stupid.

Some fabulous, stupidly-dressed men show up and begin to express concern for the heroine's condition. Apparently they know her somehow. She continues to wonder who they are when they offer to take her home. All the while some sort of ghost keeps giving her advice on what to say. Even though she has no idea who these men are, she allows them to take her back to her house (though that isn't so stupid when you consider that even though she has no idea who they are, she does have the ghost to guide her decision-making... Never mind, that still sounds kind of stupid, actually.)

They get her back to her apartment and leave her at the doorstep, but of course, she doesn't remember the code to get into her apartment. I guess the ghost helps her remember her code, because we then cut to her talking the the ghost about her situation in her apartment. She finds out that the only way to rid herself of her amnesia is through social interaction. The more she experiences, the more her memory will start to slowly come back to her through the experiences she shared with others. Okay, I can buy that. It means that this show is at least pretending to be about character depth and evolution. It can be a thoughtful, emotional journey through the eyes of a girl who is desperately trying to reclaim her identity...

Or, you know... that could happen. You know, most workplaces would consider that sexual harassment. Oh wait, I forgot. He's hot. If it's an attractive person doing it, then it's romantic and touching. At this point, I should mention that the Heroine works at a combination Maid/Butler cafe. Sort of like the host club but with female employees, though she seems to be the only girl there, or at least the only one worth showing.

I still can't get over the artwork. How is it that everybody in the show except for the main character looks completely ridiculous? The picture above is from the game, and I'll admit that Ikki (the gentleman giving our heroine a reacharound-- sorry, a private lesson on the finer points of dessert crafting) looks marginally more like a human being in the anime, but the scene is still kind of stupid. Come on, anime! Step up your game.

After she cuts her finger on broken glass, Ikksy bandages her finger up and leaves to continue work. We are then introduced to a new character, Kent, who--

Oh for the love of god.

Fine, I'll go with it. Kent shows up and tells her that she is like Wolfgang Pauli, because women love to be compared to mid-20th century theoretical physicists. He then tells her that cutting her finger puts her at risk for a bacterial infection and that she should go home.

Is this really one of our love interests? He clearly has no idea how to talk to girls. She politely declines and continues her day, and as she gets more and more attention from Ikksy, some women in the back of the cafe start to look a little... perturbed.

Bitches get stitches...
She ends her workday with not much happening. This is shaping up to be kind of a boring show, which sucks because it has a fairly interesting concept that it just handles with a lack of grace. You know, like an Idea Factory game. The character designs are silly, with the exception of the heroine, and even she looks kind of stupid when she's not wearing her work uniform.

I'm a girl! I like flowers!
So yeah, this show plays around with some fun concepts, and the art (though ridiculous) shows polish, but nothing really makes me want to--

Uh oh...

Uh oh...

That can't be good. Maybe she should've tied some string around her finger.

Love Live! School Idol Project

Okay, so it doesn't sound promising, but I have been pleasantly surprised by a show about idols in the past. Maybe this one has potential.

Okay. I've now watched episode one of Love Live! and I'm... torn.

The short-form review was that Love Live! was actually a good show that was competently handled. This show was based on a multimedia project started in Dengeki G's Magazine in 2010. The magazine story is unique in that it has featured reader participation events where readers can have input into certain aspects of the series's production. The series has spawned music videos, CD albums, and a manga adaptation started in 2012. So this show started essentially as an actual idol project based around music videos.

Fun fact: The magazine holds character popularity polls that directly influence how characters are lined up in music videos. Finally, a use for character popularity polls! After all, if you were really running a company of idols, you'd want to feature your most popular act more prominently, right?

The premise of this story is that Honoka, our main character, just discovered that her school is being shut down, owing to the insufficient enrollment of new students. Honoka REALLY likes her school and doesn't want to see it shut down even though it wouldn't affect her, as all the classes in the school will still graduate, but new enrollments wouldn't be accepted. Eventually the school would just run out of students, and Honoka would still be free to enjoy high school life.

So I suppose it's a little far-fetched that any high school student would care that much, particularly somebody who doesn't study very hard and isn't affiliated with any school clubs.
Then again, attending that high school is apparently something of a family tradition, as her mother and grandmother also graduated from that school.

When she finds out that the school her younger sister is applying to has its own school idol group, she does some research and finds out that school idols are apparently a big deal, and the schools with the most popular idols have very high enrollment numbers. Because this is literally the most complicated way a person could try to save their school from closing, she decides that their best bet is to try to start a school idol group, and together with her friends, she sets out to start their team of idols.

Of course their application gets rejected. They only have three founding members, and as we all know, you need five founding members to start a new school club. It's Japanese law.

This doesn't stop Honoka, and the episode ends with her maintaining her resolve to save her school that manifests in...

Dancing in traffic apparently. Whatever gets you off, I guess.

And that's where I start to have problems. Despite the outlandish nature of the plot, the show is handled reasonably well, and it's technically a good show. Tonally, though, it's very inconsistent. It can't really decide if it wants to be silly or dramatic. Perfect example: One scene has Honoka looking through her mother's graduation photo album. It is a great dramatic scene that gives us insight into her family's history at the school and her motivation for wanting to save it from closure. Later in the episode though, you have a comedic scene about one of the characters trying to practice archery but getting distracted by the thought of wearing frilly outfits and spouting ridiculous idol catchphrases.

Take also a scene where Honoka is practicing idol-style dance moves and is struggling to do the moves right without falling over and hurting herself. It's not a comedic scene, but it shows that she is willing to work through her inexperience and do what is necessary for her school. Then we get to the end of the episode where she flawlessly performs a choreographed dance sequence with her friends, a sequence that takes place in the context of the world around them. It's not an opening or ending sequence removed from the events of the episode, this day ends with her dancing in traffic and singing with her friends.

You can't have it both ways, Love Live!.

The shifts aren't restricted to the show's mood either. The animation style shifts constantly, but not in a way that shows like Hayate or School Rumble experience shifts, which generally have a purpose and make sense in the context of an episode. The musical numbers in this show use a combination of traditional and 3D computer-generated animation. You'll see Honoka doing some basic step movements or put her hands on her hips, and then the show immediately cuts to a CG model of her doing the actual choreography. I get why they would do this, but it's very jarring to watch, particularly when iDOLM@STER used traditional animation in their dance numbers to great effect.

See for yourself. Which one of these sequences look better? This:

Or this:

See, you may not be able to capture the motion the same way as you could with a computer model, but the effort you put into it makes the end product seem more genuine and look more human. So the motions of the 3D models are technically more fluid, but something about the way they move doesn't feel right. Consider it an extension of the uncanny valley, even if by definition they don't look close enough to the actual human figure to run afoul of the valley itself.

What I'm trying to say is that the show struggles to find its identity, and that prevents it from being excellent. In it's defense, it manages to avoid a lot of the crap that plagues most shows of this type, but the curious contradiction of a shoujo moe anime turns out to be nowhere near as delicious as it sounds.

And I know a thing or two about delicious contradictions.

So that's it. I'm left with two fairly mediocre shows to close out my week? No. This winter anime season has been nothing but disappointment and ennui so far. I want to watch something great. I want to watch a classic. It's not ending like this.

Kino's Journey

Now that's more like it. Kino no Tabi -the Beautiful World- (or Kino's Journey: The Beautiful World) is based on a series of light novels.

It seems like every anime I watch is either based on a series of light novels, visual novels, or is Hayate. Either there are no original ideas for animation in Japan or I have very narrow tastes in stories.

The story centers around Kino, an androgynous-looking young girl who travels the world with a talking motorcycle named Hermes. I actually missed this one when it came out back in 2003 for whatever reason, though I've heard nothing but good things about it since then. Also, I'm not 100% sure I'm supposed to know that Kino is a girl. Is that a spoiler? Like is it a big reveal? I think that knowing Kino is a girl makes the show that much cooler. There are so few badass female characters in anime that aren't turned into fetish material all the damn time. The closest thing we had for a while was Samus and well...

Yeah, that turned out to be a bust.

What sets Kino apart from other badasses is her willingness to only use violence as a last resort. She's trying to learn about the world around her and she has no interest in starting fights. She adopts a sort of prime-directive mentality, opting to learn about the different cultures in the various countries around her truly gigantic world without interfering in their affairs.

While she travels, she ponders deeply philosophical questions about life and the world in which it resides. In one episode, she happens upon a group of travelers who have been stranded in a giant blizzard for months and offers to help them by finding food to help them survive the last few days of winter. As she hunts rabbits, she questions whether her actions can be considered good or bad. On the one hand, if she hadn't found the people, they would have surely died of starvation in the frigid conditions. On the other hand, if she hadn't found them, the rabbits wouldn't have had to die. No matter the outcome, three lives are taken from the world, and it raises the question of what dictates whose lives are truly important.

It's philosophical without coming across as pretentious. Kino doesn't know the answers to these questions, but she's willing to ask them and consider their implications. She travels because these ugly truths are what makes the world truly beautiful.

Kino is a nihilist in the purest sense. "The world isn't beautiful, therefore it is." There's no true meaning behind life, so we might as well make the most of it and learn what we can without hurting others.

Just because she chooses not to fight, though, doesn't mean that she isn't a capable fighter. She stays up late at night and wakes up early in the morning to practice her quick draw, and she keeps several combat and hunting knives on her person at all times. She has a revolver that would make Dirty Harry blush and she knows how to use it. Never cross Kino or you'll be dead before you can blink.

Kino is one of the most complex and interesting character's I've encountered in a long time. She is charmed by the ugliness of the world in a way that allows her to find beauty in its flaws. She's a realist who isn't cynical, an observer who wants to see what life has to offer, distant yet warm.

I'd recommend watching it. You owe it to yourself. The first two episodes of the English dub are on Hulu, but they interested me enough to buy the DVD, which has dual audio language tracks. The dub is pretty well-done, though, particularly Kelli Cousins's performance as Kino. Hermes's English voice acting is kind of spotty, but it's an overall quality product.

Kino is a winner. I'm glad that I finally found a story about a cool girl that didn't take place in a high school.

Pictured above: A real thing that exists.

Oh for the love of god.

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