Room 208

Elaborate Burn

Posts from #review

Shows I thought were cool in 2015

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.

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

  1. You might remember that the second season of the Psycho-Pass TV series was basically narratively inconsequential. Since 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. EGOIST’s “Nameless Beasts” really is a great song.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Seven is a great number to end on, don’t you think?

2014 anime, the less-bulleted edition, part 2

Part one’s not too far away.

Ping Pong

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 dubbing sessions.)

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.

Postscript

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!

Golden Time

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.

Madoka: Rebellion

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 good hands.)

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.

Stay tuned for part two. Or don’t. Your loss.

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