ゲド戦記/Tales from Earthsea

[Screenshot]I’ve been mourning the decreasing involvement of the elder Miyazaki in recent Ghibli productions since, well, at least when I reviewed Ponyo. This work is not actually a Hayao Miyazaki film; it’s made by his son Goro. I tried not to let that color my judgment too much, but the fact of the matter is that this movie doesn’t have a lot to set it above the crowd. On a technical level it’s quite good, particularly in backgrounds. The character-designs seem in some ways cruder than the Ghibli standard: maybe greater stylization and simplicity? They’re still quite good, mind. I listened to the Japanese dub enough to determine that it was passable, and then switched over to English, since Disney’s voicework for Ghibli localizations is usually excellent. They got good people doing good work this time too, but I think maybe someone told Timothy Dalton (who I honestly did not realize had done anything else after his stint as James Bond) “sound as much like Ian McKellan doing Gandalf as you can”.

So technically Earthsea is quite good, but realistically I expect nothing less. What brings me back to Miyazaki’s work is creativity and thematic strength, and on those fronts this story feels a little flat. I’ll admit the only book of the source material I’ve read is A Wizard of Earthsea, and except for a few side references to the larger world this story didn’t particularly resemble anything I read there, although I’m given to understand it bears a closer plot similarity to some of the later books in the series. In one particular, of course, it’s conspicuously different: I’m pretty sure Earthsea’s not supposed to have that many white people (where “that many” in this context happens to be “everybody”).

A lot of what I got from AWOE was about personal responsibility and the limits of personal power. Sparrowhawk fucks up horribly and then cleans up his mess, becoming a stronger person and gaining a greater appreciation for his own limitations in the course of his redemption. Power unchecked is somewhat a theme in this film, but without too much of a connection to personal limitations: there’s a great deal of nattering about The Balance of Nature and suchlike which all ends up mostly irrelevant to the actual confrontation and the villain’s plans. I’m not such a purist as to insist that an adaptation needs to be compatible in themes or plot or even characterization with its parent work, but where it cuts the original work out, it needs to put something else in its place, and even considered as a standalone work Tales is problematic. A lot of plot threads end up dropped abruptly: there’s no reason to suspect, for instance, that the blight on the land is connected to Cob’s machinations.

It’s a very pretty film, but left me with little to hang on to. Ponyo at least had charm, but this felt at least as unfocused and without cute fish. Of course, a girl does fly in it. Evidently producing films about flying girls is a genetically heritable trait.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, Nausicaa.net.

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巌窟王/Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, full series

[Screenshot]A lot of basic information about this series was written up in my review of the first four episodes and then my review of the next four episodes. I’m stepping back from partial-series reviews these days because they leave me with less and less to say by the end. Certainly this series is no exception. The visual style continues to be fantastic and somewhat unnerving: it really is a love-it-or-hate-it effect for the most part. The use of textures is getting steadily less restrained near the end of the series, with more garish and violent combinations of texture and color. That may (or may not) be intentional. I was mildly disappointed by the increasing role of CG effects in the later parts of the series, though: as background decoration they’re brilliant, but as foreground elements they clash badly with the texture-wackiness. Also, the CG gives them an excuse (or perhaps an obligation) to do mecha battles, which I at least could have done without.

The Japanese dub is quite good; the American dub is passable modulo some peculiar design decisions: there is one character who always speaks in French in the original dub, and his dialogue is translated to English the same as everyone else’s in the American dub. While the original decision was a bit peculiar (having exactly one character speak in French, uncommented on by everyone else, in a story set in a futuristic France in which everyone else speaks Japanese is more than a little peculiar).

So, I’ve gone over the technical aspects, but I’m not sure what to say about the plot. It’s deeply divergent from the original story, which is not necessarily a problem: it’s a pastiche built over the characters and motivations of the original work, changing things liberally to fit the story desired (Franz is a much larger character than in the novel; most of the Morrels are absent completely and the few who remain have a considerably diminished role). Peppo, who I adored in the first four episodes, remains lamentably underused, but reamis a ray of sunshine occasionally brought out to play. The final showdown between Morcerf and Dantes felt weak and a bit problematic, but much that led up to it was in fact excellent.

I’d cautiously recommend this one — up to episode 17 it is absolutely fantastic, and from there on it depends a bit much on flashy CGI and lets the plot grind down, but even up to the 22nd episode it remains riveting and interesting. The last two episodes are a bit of a mess, but not in, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion territory. If you liked Dumas’s novel but not so much that you see a disordered recapitulation of its themes and characters as a travesty, then you might well like this series as I did.

However, the easiest test is just to watch the first episode. If the art style puts you off, no amount of intrigue and drama will really counter that. If you find the art fascinating or alluring, it’s probably worth your time at least for the first half.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

スクールデイズ/School Days, full series

[Screenshot]There are three important things to know about School Days. First, it’s based on an eroge*. Second, the eroge it’s based on is infamous for having really bad endings. Third, the anime series is based on one of those bad endings.

I don’t play eroge, but I get the impression a bad ending is usually “you don’t get laid”, or perhaps “you get laid, but skeeve people out to the degree that the epilogue makes it clear you’re not getting laid again any time soon”. School Days has these, apparently, but it also has really, really bad ones. Think about the worst relationship you ever had. This is worse.

I forget who recommended School Days to me, but they clearly hate me and wanted me to suffer, because this is an an enticing horror, like a car wreck. It’s actually a fairly seductive work, particularly because for three episodes it really is kind of sweet, with a pleasant Cyrano de Bergerac-flavored love triangle shaping up. It has a low-level pervasive lechery in its dialogue, but watching teen anime one kind of tunes that part out. Somewhat more distressing is its awful male-gaze shot-framing, where I keep expecting the female characters to break their dialogue to inform the animators that, no, their faces are actually about 2 feet higher up.

And then at the end of Episode 4, it all starts to go downhill, and gets really skeevy really fast. But by then it’s drawn you in enough to want to see the fate of these people. In fairness, I went in mildly spoiled. I knew (or thought I knew) what happens, but didn’t know who did it, and as the series progressed, I got an idea for who it was (I was wrong, BTW). So I wondered at first, “how are things going to get that dysfunctional?” but around episode 7 was wondering, “how do they keep from getting that dysfunctional for a whole 5 more episodes?”. Around episode 9, however, the producers evidently realized that for a series based on an eroge, there hasn’t been a lot of sex, so over the course of the next two episodes, Makoto fucks all but two of the named characters, including a character whose entire plot up to that point has basically been about being into a guy who is not Makoto. By the time the big Game Over was rolling around, I was actually cheering for it to happen, because he’d gone from being a sweet naïf to a thoroughly unlikable character. It was very cathartic but there wasn’t much time to enjoy the catharsis, because fuck me there’s the second ending nobody warned me about and ow good God I think I didn’t need that.

This is a series which is bad for your soul. It will draw you in with its innocent charms and then blast your psyche at close range with vile characters doing awful things to each other. And you won’t even want to look away. I warn you for the sake of your own sanity.

Of course, with a warning like that, how can you resist the urge to watch? It’s insidious how it works. But if you must watch a series based on a dating sim, could I instead suggest the mostly inoffensive and pleasant Diamond Dust Drops?

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

* For those not acquainted with the many names for varieties of computer games in Japan: an “eroge” or “H-game” is a dating sim with explicit sexual content. A “dating sim” is a visual novel whose main plot involves finding romance. A “visual novel” is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure with pictures. [back]

ウィッチハンターロビン/Witch Hunter Robin, full series

[Screenshot]So when I saw the first five episodes of this on Netflix, I shrugged, gave it a lukewarm review, and figured that while it had promise, my queue was very deep and I didn’t really have the slots to spare to finish it out. But when a bunch of discs from it showed up in a $3 bin, I figured it was time to get and watch the damn things.

It is better than my initial impression. i wouldn’t rate it as a fabulous series, because structurally it falls into a kind of overdone territory where the good guys, doing their good work, turn out to be working for a shadowy conspiracy whose motives are much less pure. It’s a bit of an overdone plot, but it marks an encouraging shift in the series’ plot: at first it had seemed rather monster-of-the-week, and while the monsters of the week keep showing up, there’s also a plot running behind it, and some decent character development. What exactly Amon’s deal is never quite comes to light, despite mysterious portents suggesting there is a Big Story there which is to be revealed. A lot of the secondary characters (particularly Dojima and Karasuma) get fleshed out better, and all in all the series rises above both its seemingly repetitive beginning and its rather cliched twist on the virtue of doing moderately interesting things characterwise and with the underlying mythology (for instance, the complicated and somewhat conflicted role the Catholic Church has with STN-J as a whole, and Robin in particular, is a nice touch).

Artistically the foregrounds are often a bit stiff and character designs never seem quite naturalistic, but the backgrounds (and integration into same) are good, and they play nice games with tone set by coloration and incidental music. The series has generally an uneasy atmosphere of foreboding throughout, and it works, even if the art isn’t perfect.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

夢の仕掛人、因幡くん登場! ラムの未来はどうなるっちゃ!/Urusei Yatsura: Inaba the Dreammaker

[Screenshot]This is what I get for neglecting my queue. Something like this floats to the top. I’m not sure why I even added it — it’s labelled in Netflix as OVA 1, so I guess I hoped it’d lay some groundwork for Beautiful Dreamer, but that was second in the theatrical sequence.

Anyways: things to be said about Inaba the Dreammaker: it’s basically a cute frame story around some alternative-world imaginings of Urusei Yatsura, so not a wholly unworthy idea. It’s got 80s-Japanese-animation production values (and no English dub, so I can’t comment on that). It’d be a fun thing to watch if you’re already a fan of UY, and if you’re not already a fan there are bits that might not make sense in this riffing on established traits (not that UY’s characterization is that deep: Ataru’s a lecher who likes to think of himself as a womanizer; Lum’s his possessive violent alien girlfriend; Shinobu’s his tsundere ex-girlfriend who pines after him but resents his bad character. Now you’ve got all the characterization you may need).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

崖の上のポニョ/Ponyo

[Screenshot]Another day, another Miyazaki. I fear the Miyazaki clan (and Hayao himself is moving into an increasingly advisory role) is a bit past their golden years. So, despite the generally high production values and empathic characters, Ponyo as a whole left me kind of cold. I think a lot of it was the messiness of the plot, and the lack of any actual antagonist: the King of the Sea is a control freak and the obvious obstructionist, but he just doesn’t rise to any sort of effectual antagonism, nor do his actions make a whole lot of sense. It felt like it fell into an uncomfortable space between being wholly antagonist-free (like, say, Totoro), and having a credible, believable malign force bearing some responsibility for the hostility of nature (like, say, every other Miyazaki film). There’s plenty here that is good: as always, the art is lovely, with a special emphasis on aquatic scenes this time. The human characters are generally lovable and realistic. The dub seems pretty good, but Disney generally does a good job there (although whoever decided to fold a rap into the already-insufferable ending music should probably bew banished to projects where they can do no harm).

I din’t think any girls fly in this one. But Ponyo swims a lot, which is kind of like flying, only underwater.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network.

新世紀エヴァンゲリオン劇場版 Air/まごころを、君に/The End of Evangelion

[Screenshot]Good news: I am running out of Evangelion-related media to plague you all with my reviews of. In fact, this is the last one for a while.

So, End of Evangelion. The justification for this work is noble enough: the last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion were among the most pointless and incomprehensible thing ever to be graced with the name of “animation”. In addition, Hideaki Anno wanted to do it because he was getting death threats, which is good customer service but bad counterterrorism (if we send Anno enough death threats, maybe he’ll make End of Kare Kano, too!).

The first half (as seen in Death and Rebirth) actually slots pretty well in where Episode 25 was, with all of the characters more or less in the right psychological states and with the plot progressing along lines which more or less make sense (obligatory shocked comment: “Oh, Shinji, you didn’t.”). The SEELE assault seems pretty unmotivated, but, hey, they had no apparent motivation for the first 24 episodes; why should they start now? Most of what happens in this part actually works well, since there is minimal incomprehensible weirdshit and some authentically powerful scenes (Misato’s farewell and Asuka’s triumphant return particularly worked for me). So the first part (often called “Episode 25′”) worked, from where I stood. It was long on action and emotion and short on handwavy mindscrew.

But then there’s Episode 26′. And there it all goes to shit, diving headfirst into a tremendous amount of Jewish and Christian symolism as filtered throguh the sensibilities of people who subscribe to neither faith. Everyone natters about Adam and Lilith and Third Impact and Rei Ayanami, and then a giant squishes everybody into orange Tang. I felt like I needed better subtitles, or maybe an instruction manual. It’s monologuey and incomprehensible and surprisingly boring for an apocalypse. It’s still far better than the actual Episode 26, although some of that can be accounted for by the wise decision to actually animate people’s lips this time around.

Visually both episodes are spectacular, but I expected nothing less, really. The English dub is halfway decent. The actual film, however, is still kinda crap. There’s a no-win situation here: Death and Rebirth has the actually good parts of this but no closure; End has the closure but you almost wish it didn’t (Rocks Fall! Everyone Dies!).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network.