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]

Jeeves and Wooster, full series

[Screenshot]I first encountered this charming little bit of British TV in the company of my high-school girlfriend (I also encountered Doctor Who for the first time then, and I’ll admit I didn’t and still don’t quite get the appeal there). I liked it well enough then, but I don’t think I really appreciated its excellence until much later, after reading some Wodehouse and appreciating Fry and Laurie on other shows (particularly Blackadder) and returning to watch all four seasons. It is about as good an adaptation of Wodehouse to the screen as one could ask for. The dialogue between the two leads crackles with personality, as it ought to, and some care has been taken to translate into dialogue and mannerisms the inimitable narrative voice of Bertie Wooster from the original stories. The supporting cast is mostly one-note but they deliver it well, and the locations are really quite well-done (shot on location in London and in a number of British Stately Homes).

The New York segments are the weakest, in my estimation, although I think that’s in no small part because of the source material; Wodehouse was better at writing British folks at home than expatriates, I think. All in all, though, it’s a quite faithful adaptation, and conveys the tone and style of the original works quite effectively. Fans of Wodehouse will generally like it; people who can’t stand Wodehouse (which I can certainly understand, as I like his style but can reasonably sympathize with those who find it indigestble) probably won’t. If you don’t actually know if you like Wodehouse, well, a few episodes of this series are as good an introduction as any, and they’re largely stand-alone so there’s not too much of a buy-in. I think the second season is the strongest in many ways, but not so very much better than the first season that it’s worth breaking the (loose and easily ignored) chronological ordering of the stories.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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.

Alice

[Screenshot]I’d picked this up out of a certain piqued curiosity: despite my frequent disappointment with adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s stories, I remain hopeful that someone will do one authentically good and true to the style of the original. And Netflix mentioned that it starred Tim Curry, so I was hopeful.

Alas, this SciFi orginal series (which probably should’ve been a warning, but Netflix didn’t mention that), is, as far as I can tell, a completely non-Wonderland-relevant story with Wonderland names tacked onto the characters. Really, the Queen of Hearts could’ve been Darth Vader and the Mad Hatter Han Solo and you’d have gotten a story with as much thematic relevance to its source material (maybe more relevance, since the rebels-against-an-evil-empire part is at least there). The story itself is passable but nothing that hasn’t been done before and done better, and it’s got a high-fantasy epic questiness that’s wholly mismatched with the light fantastic satire of the world it’s coopted.

Oh, and Tim Curry? He plays the Dodo, who keeps a library and who the Hatter goes to for help. He’s on screen for, like, 5 minutes. Curse you, Netflix!

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The Wire

[Screenshot]Once upon a time, a former Baltimore Sun reporter named David Simon decided to bring his experience of Baltimore, and in particular of the criminal and police interactions, into every home in America on the small screen. Thus was born one of the primary bar-raisers in police procedurals, Homicide: Life on the Street. Today, Homicide is still quite respectable, but it lacks the punch it did back in the 90s, because several other shows have adopted its realistic style. So it was high time when Simon returned to the Baltimore crime drama in the 21st century with The Wire. Except, this time, it was on HBO, which let him get away with a lot of crap which you can’t do on a broadcast network.

Some of what he was free to do was the usual broadcast/non-broadcast difference in decency laws: he was now free to write a scene consisting of nothing but people saying “fuck” (gimmicky but OK once), pepper the street slang with uses of the word “nigger” (appropriate realism), and include occasional onscreen simulated copulation (acceptable but rarely actually necessary). But where he really had a free hand was in pacing, plotting, and explanation to the viewer. The first episode does little to draw you in: it spends a lot of time on bureaucrats and gangsters shouting at each other in jargon and very little explanation of what’s going on. On a network, that would be an unmitigated disaster. On HBO, it’s just 1/13 of the intended first-season story arc. And by the end, a viewer who’s been paying attention will understand a lot of what’s going on (just in time for the second season and a return to complete ignorance of what a ‘RO/RO’ is or how the docking seniority system works). It
s compelling and gritty, and full of lots of characters. It’s not patronising (but one sometimes wishes it would be, just a little), and it doesn’t pull its punches. It has a (seemingly appropriate) cynicism about politics, bureaucracy, and race relations in the city. Other, better reviewers than myself have enumerated the series’ best points, so I figure I’ll just present my (extremely subjective) rundown of the seasons from best to worst.

Third season: There are about a hundred plots in this one, all of them interesting and none of them underdeveloped. The breakout from the level of the street to the upper echelons of the police force and city government is well-handled, and there’s astonishing long-term plot progression and character development. The series could even have ended with this one and it would be strong.

First season: Where it all started. There’s one plot and it’s hammered hard. The multiple facets of the principal characters of the next several seasons are exposed with subtlety and skill. The street-level realism and interpolice bickering are developed to just the right level to not feel gimmicky, and the end of the arc provides effective partial closure.

Second season: Neck-and-neck with the fourth season; the prison subplot’s more absorbing than the elecvtion issues, but the dock is a marginally less interesting environment, and more removed from the main focus, than the inner-city schools. It’s a nice contrast to see some white people on the criminal end of things, but this season has the disadvantage of having fewer characters who tie into the long-term story.

Fourth season: See above with respect to plotting. On other points, the school plot is a bit darkened by hobby-horse cynicism, but even with such imbalance, this remains an enjoyable and enlightening set of episodes. The political elements drag a bit, thoguh, especially on the points which are far removed from the police-hierarchy issues.

Fifth season: Where David Simon gets really cynical, I’m afraid. He’s a bit too close to the Baltimore Sun to be objective here, and he spends a lot of time developing “good guys” and “bad guys” in the newsroom. He can see shades of gray everywhere but at home, I guess.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

北へ。: Diamond Dust Drops

[Screenshot]If one were to take, say Macross 7, Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Diamond Daydreams and ask a random American which one is based on a videogame, probably none of them will choose right (unless they’re an even incidental anime buff, in which case they’ll already be intimately familiar with the first three and choose the fourth by process of elimination).

It’s actually a pretty clever approach to repurposing a property. Take a dating sim, remove the (necessarily cypheric) protagonist, and what do you have left? A context and a bunch of well-characterized women. That actually works astonishingly in Diamond Daydreams, shifting the genre from romance to slice-of-life realism. The underlying schtick is that the story is set in various Hokkaido locations. It’s a change of pace from anime which are usually either set in Tokyo or in ill-defind rural areas. Various Hokkaido communities are lovingly recreated in detailed backgrounds, with their own individual local geography, character and individual complications for the characters who live there. This is a series with a low barrier to entry for someone who’s not an anime buff: the whole series is only 13 episodes, but more to the point, the two-episode story arcs are each standalone — there’s even fairly minimal character crossover, and no plot crossover. As a result, there’s a certain “light snack” quality to the stories; they’ve got some drama, but they are all more-or-less resolved after 40 minutes (the closure is often only partial, which is presumably to lend verisimillitude). The characters are likable (OK, except Kyoko), and their crises are believable and sympathetic.

The only real downside of this is that the series may seem a little colorless and lacking in intensity, but, hey, it doesn’t always have to be about the world-shaking and world-ending struggles of titans, does it? Oh, and the fact that the opening animation (and awful poppy accompanying music) has essentially no thematic or plot compatibility with the series as a whole.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network.