It’s been too long, but I don’t really have much to say, so let’s have
another list like I did two years ago.
Maybe this time with some more words.
In approximate order from best to even better.
Your Lie in April (Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso). The premise invites
comparisons to Nodame Cantabile, which I think do this show a
disservice — it never professes to be as mature or as musically
rigorous, and holding it to that standard is rather unfair. While
the dramatic turns do sometimes get predictable and circuitous, the
show’s most beautiful moments make up for that. Yes, the intense
swells of the score help.
Prison School. On the flip side, this is a series that no one in
their right mind would take seriously at first glance. If you can
get over its unabashed attachment to the lowbrow, though, you’ll be
floored by how tightly the narrative is constructed, how the
characters play off each other, and how the lewd, lurid, and
juvenile actually fit into a plot where everyone seems to be a
chessmaster. Prison School is the sort of work that lulls you into
low expectations before proceeding to ambush you with competence.
Or, as I put it on
some anime are junk food, this is Alton Brown teaching you how to
Noragami Aragoto. Where the first series is overly focused on the
whiny teenage rebellion of Yukine, played a bit too pitch-perfectly
by Yuuki Kaji, the sequel gives us the shounen battles of wills
that we waited a whole season to see. The evolving rivalry between
Yato and Bishamon serves as the foundation for the rest of the
show’s events, and it gives us a great sense of scale as other
conflicts around them get broader and nastier. My only
disappointment is with the ending theme, which isn’t quite as good
as the last one. Alas, you can’t win ’em all.
My Love Story!! (Ore Monogatari!!). It’s what love would be like
if love were about being as masculine as possible while
simultaneously being as shoujo as possible. This sounds clearly
self-contradictory, but much like with Monthly Girls’ Nozaki’s
anarchic approach to shoujo clichés, it’s why the show works. The
more ridiculous moments, like the protagonist saving his girlfriend
from a literal falling I-beam by just holding it up, give the
romance room to breathe without suffocating on an excess of
self-seriousness. At the same time, My Love Story!! never stoops
to mocking its characters — it really is just love, with a good old
infusion of very hot blood.
Shirobako. It’s an anime about anime, which could have been a
horrible exercise in navel-gazing, but ends up being the closest
thing to genuinely fun edutainment that the medium has given us
since Moyashimon. (If only the word “edutainment” didn’t sound so
stupid.) We get an only-moderately-exaggerated sense of how the
sausage is made, while P.A. Works gets in a sly wink and a nod about
the foibles of themselves and their competitors. Seriously, did
anyone not immediately think of Akiyuki Shinbou and Madoka?
Working!!! Just as fun as the first two seasons, except things
actually happen. I’d ordinarily shy away from spoilers, but come on,
we all know who’s finally shacking up. The important part is that
the warm, fuzzy moments come without betraying the adorably neurotic
personalities of the characters we’ve come to love. Or at least
laugh at in twenty-four-minute increments.
Owarimonogatari. I’ve mentioned before that my ability to
objectively evaluate the quality of any Monogatari Series
installment has probably long been compromised, but this installment
really does strike me as another high note, after the mildly muddled
mess that is the Tsukimonogatari miniseries. Marina Inoue, mostly
known for playing boisterous characters like Minami-ke’s Kana,
balances out her performance as Sodachi Oikura with a remarkable
vulnerability and nuance. The show’s second arc doesn’t shine quite
as brightly, but still brings enough twists and turns to keep us
wanting more — and, of course, that typographically-endowed flair
isn’t going anywhere.
See you in 2017! You should watch Erased, because unless it totally
squibs its ending, it’s going to be on this list then.
Also, I guess I lied about not having much to say.
Whoever wins, we lose
Good mystery is all about the why. Through the eyes of our detective, we
probe the culprit’s motivations and the environment that shaped them. As
the audience, we’re made to understand the compelling logic of the
crime, even though we find it reprehensible. It may be a distorted
reflection, but we recognize what we see in the mirror the story holds
up to our faces.
Ranpo Kitan is all about the why, too, but in a different way, namely,
“Why didn’t anyone realize this show was a bad idea?”
The show purports to be a loose adaptation of several works of Edogawa
Ranpo, an early twentieth-century Japanese mystery novelist, in a more
contemporary setting. This is already treading on thin ice, but it’s not
a guaranteed recipe for failure. UN-GO, after all, threw an author
from the same time period into an unrecognizable world, but its mildly
dystopic war-torn future was constructed well enough to stand up on its
own next to Ango Sakaguchi’s inspiration. Unfortunately, Ranpo Kitan
brings no such thoughtfulness to the table, electing to instead pile on
layer after layer of cartoonish caricature.
Let’s start with the ostensible protagonist, Kobayashi. Now, the first
character we meet doesn’t always have to be likable, but they should at
least be someone whose perspective we can assume to ease ourselves into
the proceedings. Ranpo Kitan, on the other hand, strains to make its
version of Kobayashi as obviously unhinged as possible. His enthusiasm
for the morbid murder cases he’s presented with ends up being less
disturbing than pathetic, as if being deliberately contrary to
expectations is the only interesting thing about him. On top of this,
the adaptation exaggerates the feminine features of Edogawa’s original
character, which mostly came in useful for disguises, into, well, a
stereotypical trap that has all the clichéd characteristics you’d expect
to appeal to people who use words like “trap.” Kobayashi’s girlish looks
serve no narrative purpose in Ranpo Kitan; they’re just there for
occasional awkward moments between him and his male best friend Hashiba,
which we’re presumably supposed to find funny.
Akechi, Kobayashi’s reluctant mentor and boy-genius investigator, is a
more promising candidate for an audience proxy, and the show does start
to make overtures in that direction about halfway through. His
introversion is more suited to the pace of a script heavy on interior
thoughts, and his weary cynicism is at least more believable than
Kobayashi’s irrational exuberance. Ranpo Kitan manages to sink his
chances at relatability too, though, first by giving him virtually no
development throughout most of the series, and then saddling him with a
ridiculous heroic backstory in the closing episodes.
All of this is dropped into a stew of metaphysical mish-mash that counts
for the show’s philosophical underpinnings. Ranpo Kitan starts out by
thinking up the most generic of justifications for its criminals’
actions, and then gives up on even that in its latter half by focusing
on a series of copycat crimes. The dramatic presentation seems to
suggest that we’re exploring the depths of human depravity, but the
villains offer nothing to shake us to the bone. Most of it is just a
rehash of the old refrain on the place of vigilantism in the face of
injustice. What’s left are tedious attempts to shock us with
out-of-place bit characters like one imprisoned acquaintance of
Akechi’s, a literal masochist who contributes very little to the story
except for gratuitous bondage imagery.
In spite of how self-evidently crazy this all is, Ranpo Kitan spends a
lot of time trying to take itself very seriously indeed. Director Seiji
Kishi’s flair for the absurd and darkly comic, put to such good use in
Humanity Has Declined, only compounds the problem here. Each murder
victim’s autopsy, for instance, is presented by a gag character who
looks like she’s taken a wrong turn on the way to her audition for a
Japanese variety show and otherwise plays no role in the story – until,
of course, in a “shocking” twist, she does. Was anyone asking for this?
The show’s sole saving grace is its fantastic opening and ending themes,
which thankfully have little to do with the rest of this mess.
Don’t watch Ranpo Kitan. Seriously. Life is too short.
Disconnected thoughts on the Psycho-Pass film
You might remember that the second season of the Psycho-Pass TV
series was basically narratively
its release schedule suggests that it was being worked on in
parallel with this movie, I’ve long suspected that this was a
deliberate decision by the writers to keep plot contradictions from
popping up. The film does nothing to disabuse me of this notion,
since it seems content to proceed as if virtually all of PP2 never
happened. Which is perfectly fine by me, since the behavior of the
Sibyl System is core to the movie’s plot, and PP2 made it too
subject to the whims of individuals to be truly menacing.
Speaking of which, fansubbers, it’s spelled S-i-b-y-l. As in, you
know, the Sibyls of Greek
myth. Not S-y-b-i-l. The correct spelling is onscreen more than
once, for crying out loud.
There is a lot of badly-pronounced English in the movie, which isn’t
really necessary. I suppose it’s a reasonable choice of language for
a multinational union of Southeast Asian countries, but it’s still a
little hard to sit through the Japanese voice actors’ middling
inflections. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for an official version
that splices together the Japanese and English dubs, though even
then they’ll all sound like Americans and not real Cambodians or
Thais or Malaysians or what have you. Oh, well.
EGOIST’s “Nameless Beasts” really is a great song.
Mika, Akane’s junior colleague as Inspector, still has her air of
superiority about her, but given that she only has a handful of
lines in the movie, I’m willing to forgive the lack of development.
If it hadn’t been for the awful way she was handled in PP2, I
doubt many people would give her behavior here a second thought. The
rest of the characters introduced by the previous season basically
only exist as extras, which isn’t much of a change from before, come
to think of it. Maybe a third TV series would do them some good.
There’s a lot packed into the film’s 114-minute runtime, and as a
result some major plot threads are resolved only hurriedly in the
end, perhaps a consequence of the definite tilt towards explosive
action sequences and visceral hand-to-hand fights. This is nowhere
near the triumph that Gen Urobuchi’s earlier work on Madoka:
Rebellion was. Still,
though, the movie manages to do what PP2 couldn’t and extend the
world to a new setting, new characters, and new conflict. We learn
much more about what the Sibyl System was designed to protect its
citizens against. We realize that systems, like humans, seek their
own survival. And we feel that slight allegorical twinge, as if the
contradiction of violence for peace were an important question on
the minds of Japanese viewers right this very moment.
Seven is a great number to end on, don’t you think?
It’s obvious that noitaminA has been getting more hit or miss lately –
outside of Silver Spoon’s second season, Ping Pong is probably the
only show that aired in the block’s 2014 schedule that’s really worth a
watch. If you need a forceful case that the glory days aren’t totally
over yet, though, this is it. The most obvious highlight is Masaaki
Yuasa’s stylized visual treatment, which bursts with an unrestrained
energy that The Flowers of
Evil’s quivering linework
only wishes it had. Like the best of sports shows before it, Ping Pong
spends as much time getting us inside the characters’ heads as it does
showing actual play, especially in the case of the show’s dual
protagonists. And its Chinese cast members are actually portrayed by
Chinese voice actors, one of whom is also fluent in Japanese! Seal of
approval right there.
Tonari no Seki-kun
You might think that getting heavy hitters like Kana Hanazawa and Hiro
Shimono to do a seven-minute comedy series whose premise can be summed
up as “high school kid builds crazy things at his desk” is excessive,
especially given that one of them never actually speaks at all. Tonari
no Seki-kun, however, is one of those shows that lives or dies on its
execution, and the investment demonstrably pays off. Maybe it’s because
Hanazawa has been in every show from here to nigh eternity, but her
exaggerated reactions to the title character’s antics make a terrific
stand-in for our own bewildered amusement as the viewers. As for
Shimono, meanwhile, you’d be surprised how expressive a few well-placed
grunts and sighs can be. (He was apparently really pumped up during the
Monthly Girls’ Nozaki
Yes, I’ve saved the best for last. It’s hard to describe what makes a
funny thing funny without destroying the experience altogether, of
course, but if I had to boil down the essence of Nozaki’s success, it
would be its refreshing confidence in its own humor. There are no sly
winks and nods attempting to make up for lackluster jokes, no lazy
archetypal gags, and no phoned-in characterizations. It’s just a show
that clearly enjoys itself, and earnestly wants you to join in on the
fun. The gentle shots at shoujo clichés are icing on the cake.
Ari Ozawa’s performance as our main heroine Chiyo (that’s her in the
orange there) deserves special mention. Ozawa put in a lot of voice
acting legwork to keep the fast-paced bits hanging together, often
moving from starry-eyed fascination to illusion-free sarcasm in the span
of a line or two, and the results speak for themselves. It’s these
unpredictable turns from her and the other cast members that keep the
show so consistently fresh.
Monogatari Series turned in another pair of solid entries last year.
I’ve long given up on being able to judge the franchise on objective
merits alone, but if you’re anything like me, Hanamonogatari and
Tsukimonogatari are still the old friends you’ve come to cherish.
Shirobako and April Is Your Lie, two shows that started in 2014, but
won’t end until this spring, are sitting pretty on my current list for
2015. Watch this space.
2014 anime, the less-bulleted edition, part 1
Here are some more words on things I liked from the year just gone by.
Last time, I remarked that
nobody reads long posts. I’m getting around that this go-round by
splitting this one up into two parts. Ha-ha!
I won’t deny that Golden Time doesn’t make that great of a first
impression. The premise of the romance drama reads like a gimmick, what
with the main character having amnesia, and the first few episodes stick
more or less to the fish-out-of-water formula. If I’d seen Toradora!
earlier, too, hearing that both series shared an original author, Yuyuko
Takemiya, would have set off more alarm bells in my head. It’s a good
thing that didn’t happen, though, because Golden Time is one of the
better entries in the genre to come around in a while, taking full
advantage of its emotionally fraught setting to draw out memorable
performances from Yui Horie and Ai Kayano. And hey, it’s good to have a
show in this genre where the cast are all more or less adults for a
change. Well, college students. Close enough.
I already wrote quite a bit about the theatrical sequel to the original
Madoka TV series in a spoiler-filled
review back in May. For those
of you who don’t want to have the movie ruined, though, or just don’t
like reading too much, here’s a summary: stunning animation, a
spellbinding score by Yuki Kajiura, and tremendous writing out of Gen
Urobuchi – the last of which is all the more impressive given that the
ending of the original series didn’t leave much apparent room for a
sequel. (If only Psycho-Pass
2 had been in similarly
Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s new films
The inimitable filmmaker behind Time of Eve struck again twice last
year, and lo, it was good. Patema Inverted was easily the bigger of
the two efforts, and it shows in the scale of the world that Yoshiura
builds in the film, a (kinda) half-underground half-dystopia that is
wholly impressive. The extroverted nature of action adventure isn’t
quite to the usually more introspective Yoshiura’s talents – the lead
antagonist is nothing if not cartoonish in his villainy – but what
separates Patema from, say, Makoto Shinkai’s venture into similar
territory with his Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is
that Patema holds on to a genuine sense of awe and wonder. It’s a
great all-ages film, on top of all that.
Flying further under the radar was Harmonie, a thirty-minute short
produced for 2014’s Anime Mirai. A concise love story, Harmonie plays
more to Yoshiura’s traditional strengths while displaying an atypical,
but well-executed, sentimentality. If nothing else, it has one of the
more ingenious twists I’ve seen on the old trope of fated encounters.