Saturday, October 11, 2008

October Anime Worth the Watching

After Hokuto no Ken Raou Gaiden: Ten no Haou proved to be a bit of a turkey, you might think my mood for watching new anime currently airing in Japan as we speak would be far from my mind. Indeed, much of my time watching anime is spent watching shows from a year or three ago, as there's such a vast and fascinating wealth of titles available in Japan that "staying current" is less important to me than finishing off shows I'm genuinely interested in. So let all the cool kids drool over the first episode of Mobile Suit Gundam 00 Season 2. It'll still be there when I'm done watching Harmageddon, Moetan, Mnemosyne, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and Souten no Ken.

Yes, yes... a day late and a dollar short is my life story. But at least I didn't watch 52 episodes of Gundam Seed Destiny only to later scream about how much it sucked, now did I?

Still, this season seemed designed to captivate my imagination, and as such there's a trio of first episodes I've watched that are worth getting excited about. It's early, so I can't say if these shows will peter out into nothing in no time or keep me excited from start to finish, but I can say that I'll be very curious to see where all three of them are headed.

Obligatory Public Service Announcement: Fansubs are good and all, but if you like the show, buy it on DVD when it gets released in your local area. It's the only way to show the artists that make animation that you enjoy their product and would support more in the future. I know only a pitance of that ever gets back to Japan, but that's better than simply stealing it and calling it even.


1) Shikabane Hime Aka (屍姫 - Corpse Princess Illumination)


Did anyone out there watch BLOOD+, the bastard psuedo-sequel to the Blood: The Last Vampire multimedia franchise started by Mamoru OSHII? Well, this is what that show always should have been.

A teenage boy who grew up at an orphanage moves out to get a job and begin his life as an adult, but not before having inadvertantly peeked in at the start of a ritual that the priest overseeing the place performed on the heavily scarred body of a pretty young girl. Thinking little of it, he continues on his day, never thinking that the recent crime involving a charismatic young hustler and his harem of girlfriends would have anything to do with the extra-cirricular activities of his Priest...


Despite young and unafraid-of-death Ouri playing the role of the narrator and "normal" anchor meant to ease viewer into the strange and somewhat dangerous world, the real star is the so-called Corpse Princess herself, a trigger happy and slightly sadistic little thing who takes pleasure in striking fear into the hearts of the supernaturally powered Corpses she's ordered to take down. Aiding her in this are a pair of sub-machine guns, with the only caveat being that she doesn't have clearance to strike down anything that isn't already dead. The show has its' share of violence and potential emotional weight, but the tongue is still firmly in cheek, which makes the transforming villains and somewhat goofy down-time all the more forgivable.

As the show manages plenty of property damage and dismemberment of monsters crapping their pants, I don't think that caveat will keep the show from being a lot of fun.


It's inevitable that I compare this first episode to Blood+, since they're both about an unconventional family pitting a schoolgirl against blood thirsty vampires. The big difference is that while Blood+ was a thuroughly boring and mediocre production that would, occasionally, redeem it's generally derivative and awful self by eating someone's face off with a midget vampire or raping a 12 year old boy, Shikabane Hime Aka is... well, fun. The banter between the kids is pretty run of the mill stuff, but the action sequences are all rather over the top and full of flashing lights and exaggerated faces, whilst the monster of the week is drawn in a totally separate "scratchy" (by which I mean Anti-Spiral) style from the rest of the cast. These little touches keep the show engaging for the duration of the episode, so with any luck-and Gainax' general track record- it may only improve from here.

While Gainax's (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Abenobashi Mahou Shougentai) output has been increasingly variable in the last decade, with roughly one and a half to two totally average shows per one actual masterpiece, the first episode of Shikabane Hime Aka strikes me as better than its' contemporaries like Bleach and Blood+, but perhaps a bit too conventional to appeal to the masses outside of those who like monsters and girls with guns. Not that this is a bad thing: not only is this an adaptation of a pre-existing work, but not every Gainax show has to re-invent the wheel. Sadly, you rock the world with Neon Genesis Evangelion once and if you turn in something one or two steps less than perfection the world turns its' back on you as having sold out and lost your edge... it's hardly fair. But then one could argue that He Is My Master and This Ugly yet Beautiful World were hardly fair, either, so it's a two way street.

[Lunar]'s translation is nice... flowed well and was mostly happy to use English words like "Priest" and "Vampire" instead of keeping them in Japanese and insisting on using translator notes. The only odd exception was Shikabane (which just means 'corpse' or 'cadaver'), and "en", which if I'm not mistaken was used as a "bond", keeping her life force into her otherwise dead body. In effect, the lead calling herself "Shikabane Hime" means no sense unless you already know it means Corpse Princess, but at least they didn't piss me off by explaining things I already know... more on that later.

I wouldn't have minded a bit more gore and the focus to be shifted onto the title character, but it's made a good first impression.


2) Ga-Rei -zero- (喰霊 -zero-/Entrapped-Soul Zero)


A friend of mine recommended the first episode. Gave no other endorsement other than "watch it". I'm not one for blindly grasping at straws, but I trust his judgment on these sorts of things, so I figured it was worth a download.

It's worth so much more, though. Imagine if Ghostbusters were a straight up Sci-Fi/military action show set in Tokyo and you've got an inkling of what Ga-Rei has to offer. Holy water canons and blessed sutra bullets are the weapon of choice for the show's serious take on the Men In Black, an elite team who clear the streets of dangerous spirits and giant monsters that tear through the town, invisible to the naked eye. The team's effectiveness is quickly put to the test by a Soul Eater, effectively a giant hungry turtle, which they're forced to tackle underground... but the past of the team's shaken leader, Tooru, may be more deadly than any kaiju.


With spectacular art design and frantic animation from Madhouse (Shigurui, Death Note), the show certainly makes a good impression, though the straight up storytelling may inevitably make or break the show as it continues: Tooru's tragic past continually sifts into the present, both driving him as a character and having direct consequences in the present day events that we're dropped into the middle of. The first episode ends on perhaps the most drastic note imaginable, however, so either the show will only get more bizarre from here, or all of those plot threads could have been window dressing that'll go nowhere. The thick atmosphere of the show has me hooked either way, and I fully intend on watching this through to the end. The action sequences are also incredible, being completely over the top without actually feeling comical. Yes, you will see a pretty girl Falcon Punch a ghost with her motorcycle. And you'll love it!

[sMi] get proper credit for what looks like a decent translation of the episode, but they lose several points for utterly abusing the notion of translation notes. When you feel the need to point out who Led Zepplin is while the episode plays, you're underestimating the audience's power to use The Google. I know, most anime fans aren't even old enough to shave their pubes, but that's no excuse to hold them by the hand. Had it been Crystal King or some equally obscure Japanese band that no American viewer would have ever heard of, I'd buy it, but... Led Zepplin? Does The Venture Brothers stop mid-episode to point out who the founding members of the band were? No? Then why should Ga-Rei?


I'm getting off track, though.

Amazing show. Watch the first episode. Unless you absolutely hate excitement and monster fighting gold, you won't regret it.


3) Casshern Sins (キャシャーン SINS)


In a crumbling world, both humans and robots live day to day, watching their planet sink into an abyss of total ruin. At the center of this ruined planet is Casshern, an amnesiatic cyborg hunted down by the remains of a great robot army who believe that eating his body will end their inevitable destruction. Hot on his tail is a woman who knows his story, and trying his best to avoid him is an old man acting father to a little girl who knows enough to outwardly despise him. All he knows for sure is the face of a lady named Luna, and the fact that he was responsible for her death...

In and of itself a remake of the 1974 anime Shinzo Ningen Casshern(
新造人間キャシャーン), this new version takes its' visual style and overtly apocalyptic storyline in no small part from the 2004 live action film, simply titled Casshern*. While I was quite nice to it on this very blog ages ago, time has withered my opinion of Kazuaki KIRIYA's film... not dramatically, but trust me, the first film you see after live action Devilman will be so much better in every way that it'll be like you're eating steak burgers with Jesus on the moon. The 2004 film, while a visual masterpiece and containing a lot of really fascinating elements, is just a little bit full of itself and overlong (something I recognized then but was more willing to ignore). The anime version seems quite frantically paced, so I doubt it'll dig its' heels in and refuse to move forward just to show off pretty locations, but it is just a bit guilty of intentionally making the viewer feel like an idiot.


With an alinear plot fueled by an amnesiac hero, you'd still expect the first episode to make some effort to explain what the hell is going on. But no, Casshern Sins decides you can wait. If this sort of subtly manipulative and wide-eyed angst spiced storytelling turns you off, you may not like the vibe that the show is literally caked in, like so much dystopian filth. Sometimes it irks me, too, but the fact that several characters around Casshern do know the score, and the fact that there's a good reason he may not remember anything (based on the 2004 film) makes me think that anyone saying the show is just refusing to show its' hand to be "arty" could be jumping the gun and not letting the show wallow in its' own atmosphere before it worries about the confines of a narrative structure. 'Course, the plot may still all fall apart and be shit in the end, but at the very least we can be sure it'll look great doing it.

A different friend of mine (who's just a time-to-time synic) noted that the show doesn't have great animation, just great editing and special effects that when combined look like great animation. Well, if that's the case, keep it up Madhouse. There's an awful lot of extreme close-ups and objects being "dragged" across the screen, staples of other low budget fighting based anime, but I'm hard-pressed to think of any other show like this that doesn't instantly look cheap once the time to throw-down has arrived. Casshern might all be smoke and mirrors, but we should be so lucky to be treated to such a fantastic gallery of limited animation all the time. I'm looking at you, Girls Fighting Shows Everywhere**...


As you can see the show has a bit of a classic meets modern angle, too, with fluffy hair and warping anatomy that looks not only like the vintage 70s animation it shares its' roots with, but also 80s shows which have likely given more inspiration for the visuals than anything Tatsunoko animated in 1973.

[Shinsen-Subs] hasn't let me down yet. All I really feel I need to say.


Casshern Sins, of these three titles it's the show I'm most excited about. Ga-Rei is the most accomplished and worthy of the three, but let's face it, I'm the kinda' guy who prefers The Mutilator to Halloween, despite knowing there's zero reason to justify such a stance. Shikabane Hime Aka is fun, and while that doesn't make it nearly as awe-inspiring as the other two, it means it can be enjoyed without a healthy dose of empathy and grit that the other two literally require. There's still more anime to watch premiring over the next several days, and of course dozens of titles I simply haven't watched yet (and may never), but it's nice to know that I can get excited over new shows and wait with anticipation to see the next installment.

If you'll excuse me, the second episode of Casshern Sins is available, and all things considered I'd rather watch it than continue talking about it. I'd suggest you all do the same.

*IF you want to watch Casshern, skip the Dreamworks DVD like you'd skip herpes. It's cut by nearly half an hour and has incomprehensible subtitles that don't translate all the dialog, making an already fragmented film ten times worse. Buy the cheap R3 Universe DVD from Hong Kong, or go whole hog and buy the subtitled R2 from Japan. You - and Casshern, more or less - deserve it!

*
*Why yes, I bought Witchblade as singles, and will follow suit for the Ohata directed Ikkitousen sequels, if given the chance. So what, I can't enjoy shit from time to time? Air Master, for the record, is the only "girls kick each other's ass" show with some spunk and decent animation. A shame everybody looks like a jewish hawk knife... if only the character designs had been sexy instead of funny, it'd be worshipped in America.

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