Mardock Scramble

“I wish I was dead.”

Spoken by 15-year old prostitute Rune Balot, these are the first words that set the dispirited tone of the anime movie trilogy Mardock Scramble. The story is set in Mardock City, a cyberpunk world where the skyline is filled with skyscrapers, cars glide on fluorescent green roads, and everything sparkles like champagne. It’s a stunning place to look at, but it’s also a savage place where cruelty and crime are often left unpunished.

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Homicide has become so rampant that the government has authorized a controversial procedure to resurrect victims from the dead to help track down and testify against their assailants. This is one of the several unusual, and perhaps implausible, concepts in Mardock Scramble, but it’s presented with such conviction that it’s not too difficult to get caught up in the moment and suspend disbelief.

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The central plot-line, which is essentially about Rune’s revenge, is likely just a catalyst for weightier themes. There are some fantastical action sequences, but the series tends to be more of a character study than a typical action-adventure. The conversations are philosophical, covering a wide range of topics such as the nature of memories and regret, free will, finding a purpose in life, and rebirth.

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There’s a lot of hidden symbolism to keep your mind busy if you choose to look for it—such as the egg references that frequently appear. The doctor who performs the resurrection procedure is named Dr. Easter; “scramble” is, of course, one of the ways in which eggs are cooked; and there’s a yellow shapeshifting mouse named “Oeufcoque”, which is French for “soft-boiled egg.” What all these egg references mean, I’m not sure.

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Mardock Scramble has a consistently abrasive aesthetic. The art is usually intensely bright, shrouded in shadows, or textured by noise that must’ve been hell for the video encoders to deal with. GoHands doesn’t appear to have cut any corners or expenses with the animation, which, especially in the action sequences, looks painstakingly detailed. And an electronic and ambient music soundtrack rounds everything off.

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If you like science-fiction fantasy with a psychological twist, strong and stylish animation, and don’t mind scenes with graphic violence, mental and physical abuse, and nudity, you should definitely check out Mardock Scramble. If you haven’t read the synopsis yet, don’t. The less you know going in, the more surprised you’ll be. Just sit back and get pounced by it.

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Anne no Nikki

46771lOn June 12th, 1929, about ten-years before the start of World War II, Annelies Marie Frank was born to parents Otto and Edith Frank in Frankfurt, Germany. Rendered stateless by the Nazis in 1941, and without any means to flee the country, Anne and her family were forced into confinement for two-years in a cramped attic to avoid persecution. While staying there, Anne documented her life in a now famous diary, which has since been adapted into movies, plays, and even an anime.

It was surprising to learn that an anime of Anne Frank’s diary had been made—by Madhouse, no less, one of my favorite studios. I’d known about Anne’s story for a while, but I avoided it because I feared that it might be too depressing for me to handle. Regardless, my curiosity for this especially unique adaptation eventually got the best of me, and I relented.

As expected, this story was difficult to watch. Even seemingly peaceful moments are underpinned by anxiety and melancholy that keeps you from ever feeling at ease. The presence of the Nazis encroaching the lives of Anne and her family are always felt even when they’re not seen. And Anne and her family weren’t the only victims of this time. There were countless other families and individuals across central-Europe who were made to endure similar struggles. It all ultimately begs the questions: Why did this have to happen? How could such paranoid hatred develop?

A lot of care was put into the production of Anne no Nikki. The character designs matched their real-life counterparts, and the animation was often inbetweened on twos, resulting in a lifelike fluidity atypical of anime animation. The soundtrack was minimalist, lightly enhancing the atmosphere of particular moments without being a distraction.

Furthermore, I appreciated the subtlety of the directing. People are portrayed as historical figures rather than as characters. A naturalistic approach is taken that resists the temptation to exaggerate for the sake of dramatic effect. The sedate pacing might be trying for less patient viewers, but a more energetic portrayal wouldn’t have rung true to the actual events that this adaptation drew from.

If I had to dig deep for a flaw, I’d say that there was an occasional tinge of sentimentality, which, considering the strong emotions that were already present, didn’t feel necessary. Despite this, the heart and salient moral lesson that Anne no Nikki paints more than compensates for any apparent flaws.

Agent Aika

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Agent Aika opens with a leisurely tour of the waters that are now covering Saitama. This Japanese city—along with 95% of the world’s land—was submerged after a worldwide disaster twenty years ago. Salvaging work to recover valuable goods and data from these abandoned areas has become a booming profession.

An attractive fighter and submarine pilot, Aika Sumeragi, and her spunky megane partner, Rion Aida, pursue salvaging work at the K2 Corporation that’s headed by Rion’s father, Gozo Aida. Rion is frustrated with her father’s overly generous business practices that have lost profits for the company. Through Aika’s intervention, they agree to a shady business proposition to collect data on a new energy source being developed called Lagu. Unbeknownst to them, Rudolf and Neena Hagen, siblings who were contracted by the military to research Lagu, also have a vested interest in this energy source, and they’re willing to kill to obtain it for themselves.

The fanservice, which—let’s be honest—is the whole point of this series, is brash by the more restrained standards of modern anime. I often see people today complaining about small bits of service that pale in comparison to what this series defiantly shovels into your face. Gratuity aside, I couldn’t help but appreciate the inventiveness of the choreography and shot compositions. The fight scenes are practically balletic in their staging, accented by service that isn’t confined to comedic or sexual situations. The camera itself turns the viewer into a voyeur, giving you a sleazy first-person view of the “action.”

The non-service cinematography was also done well. By episode five, the series starts to demonstrate an impressive play on perspective and depth of field as typically seen in live action crime thrillers.

For a series that likely started as an excuse to fill the screen with panty shots, the animation is surprisingly detailed. The characters are proportionally realistic, and, for an ecchi anime, the premise is appropriately simple. With the support of an eccentric array of characters, my interest was sustained outside of the service.

Agent Aika was clearly a labor of love, something that the creators believed in, and wanted to see for themselves. Many of the people producing anime nowadays—and media internationally in general—don’t seem to have this kind of passion. They simply paint by the numbers laid forth by focus groups, steering clear of anything that could be considered too weird, offensive, or unprofitable. Agent Aika on the other hand didn’t give a damn. It did what it wanted to do, how it wanted to do it, and it did it with style.

Koi wa Ameagari no You ni

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Adapted from the seinen manga by Jun Mayuzuki, After the Rain (Koi wa Ameagari no You ni) is a tender-hearted romance about a bold high school sophomore, Akira Tachibana, who develops strong feelings for the charming middle-aged manager, Masami Kondou, at the restaurant where she works.

A story that should’ve induced endless cringe was somehow realized into an uplifting slice of life. It certainly helps that Kondou, colorfully performed by the resonant Hiroaki Hirata, isn’t the one doing the pursuing. When Tachibana’s feelings for him become evident, he reacts responsibly. He’s fully aware of the ramifications of dating a teenager at his age, and is understandably resistant to the idea.

Tachibana, voiced with a quiet sharpness by Sayumi Watabe, is surprisingly insistent when it comes to what she wants, though guarded enough to not share everything about herself. Her apparent coldness frustrates Haruka Kyan, an old track partner who longs to rekindle the close camaraderie that they once had. Tachibana, who was—and still is—an exceptional runner, opts out of competition due to an injury, and seems quite content with spending the bulk of her social time pursuing Kondou. She distances herself from Kyan, perhaps because they’ve grown apart, or because Kyan brings back memories that she wants to forget.

Initially, I didn’t quite understand why Tachibana would be attracted to someone as old as Kondou. It wasn’t until around the fifth episode, when we get a glimpse of Kondou’s personal life, that it started to make sense to me. Outside of work, Kondou lives a modest life as a bibliophile and single father. He’s a caring parent to his young son, Yuuto, and maintains a comfortable home when the two of them are together. Tachibana likely sensed this kindness from her time with him, and thus sought him as a refuge after losing motivation for most everything else.

Director Ayumu Watanabe, who also helmed the anime classic Space Brothers, brings an understated sophistication to the performances and atmosphere. After the Rain doesn’t fear placidity. Scenes often break from the commotion to dwell with the surroundings, which are typically dressed with a relaxing ambience and rain covered petals.

The biggest negative for me was Ryousuke Kase, a character who appears in the fourth episode. In total contrast with Kondou, Kase has a lustful and self-serving interest in teenage girls. With near supernatural ability, he finds a way to interject himself into Tachibana’s life, and even gain leverage over her. Thankfully, the adapters realized that this character was about to break everything with contrived drama, and they quickly pushed him to the side; we don’t see much of him thereafter.

There was a moderate amount of what some academics have snidely deemed as “male gaze”, where the imagery is seemingly framed from a straight-male perspective. In the case of this anime, the camera occasionally gives the viewer an alluring close-up of Tachibana’s modelesque demeanor. Seeing as this is a seinen targeted to teen and adult males—or anyone who appreciates a nice story—some light fanservice should be expected. Personally, I felt that these visuals aptly supplemented the sexual undertones of the material.

Animated with dazzling finesse by Wit Studio, After the Rain is a portrait of two people, initially separated by a generation, who are drawn together by intersecting circumstances. The overall emphasis, for better or worse, is more on the everyday character situations than on the romance. Ultimately, the story is an exploration of the efforts that we take to reconcile the loss of the things that we cherish—whether it’s an old friend, or the dreams that we strive for. If you’re looking for something sweet and innocuous with a dash of poetry, you may find satisfaction with After the Rain.

My Favorite Anime

  1. Mushishi
  2. HaibaneRenmei
  3. Seirei no Moribito
  4. UchuuKyoudai
  5. JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken (TV)
  6. Oniisama e…
  7. Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei
  8. Eureka Seven
  9. Aoi Hana
  10. Kiss x Sis

In most previous renditions of this list, since around 2014, the top three have remained unchanged. One of the criteria for a favorite is how much of an immediate impact or lasting impression it has. Undoubtedly, the top three have had the strongest emotional impact of any anime I’d seen—or have seen since. Mushishi and Haibane Renmei in particular hit me on such a personal level that I tend to avoid casually talking about them.

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Seirei no Moribito is like a rare star alignment of story, character, animation, and sound. Every aspect was clearly and skillfully crafted, creating a wholly immersive world and mythology that I still reflect on. Eureka Seven is similar in this regard, though perhaps not as thematically complex. The animation in Seirei no Moribito, which really shines in the action sequences, was produced by Production IG (Jin-Rou), and the soundtrack was scored by the inimitable Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell).

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The characterization in Uchuu Kyoudai (Space Brothers) may actually be more impressive. Even the supporting characters have weight and motivation. My attention span is embarrassingly fragile, and most 12-episode titles end up becoming a struggle for me to complete. Regardless, I breezed through all 99 episodes of Space Brothers with minimal fuss. The times that I did fuss was usually when I had to sleep or work, and couldn’t watch Space Brothers.

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It was fucking hilarious how unapologetically manly and ambiguously gay JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken (TV) was. If I remember right, I binged JoJo TV over the course of a few days so that I could watch Stardust Crusaders as it aired. JoJo TV, along with the two seasons of Stardust Crusaders, were the most fun I’ve ever had watching an anime. If a show can routinely make your stomach tighten from laughter, and make you say “oh shit!” out loud, it deserves to be ranked as a favorite.

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If you like shoujo-ai, you should thank Oniisama e as it’s the spiritual grandmother of the genre. Its direct influence is visible in the classics Maria-sama ga Miteru and Shoujo Kakumei Utena. Aesthetically, Oniisama e is more appropriately categorized as fine art. The hand drawn renderings, done with painstaking detail under the disciplined direction of Osamu Dezaki, are accentuated by a moving piano and orchestral score. It delves into heavy and taboo themes, and was consequently banned in some countries at the time of its 1991 release. There’s some humor, but the subject matter is taken completely seriously, never using its gay characters as props or fanservice. **Aoi Hana** could be considered a lighter version of Oniisama e.

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Lastly, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei and Kiss x Sis, two anime that couldn’t be more different from each other, and yet are similar in that they are both unafraid of pushing boundaries, and doing the unexpected. The former does so with design and narrative, and latter does so with ecchi and crass humor. My favorite kind of shows, movies, and so on are generally the kind that take risks, that aren’t afraid of being different, or dangerous. I’m a simple man. Keep surprising me, I’ll keep watching.

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Casshern Sins

347549-casshern_sins02“Ruin is the salvation of man and machine.” 

Deceptively complex themes hide beneath a flamboyant exterior of fast action fight scenes and fancy shot compositions. The director, Shigeyasu Yamauchi, who has a propensity for psychological studies and aesthetic stylishness, uses Casshern Sins as an opportunity to deconstruct death and hope in a visually arresting way. 

The first episode establishes the premise with a satisfying level of badassery. In the distant future, Robots have evolved sentience, and can feel emotions like humans can. A global “Ruin”—with a capital R, implying that it’s more than an action—was prompted when Casshern, a highly skilled and gaudily dressed fighter, “killed the Sun named Moon.” Now both humans and robots are on the brink of extinction. 

The robots hadn’t appreciated their lives until death became a reality for them. Having been immortal up until the Ruin, being confronted with the realization that their existence would soon end terrifies them. For some, particularly the humanoid robots, this fear is quelled by love, community bonds, or passionately engaging in an interest. For others, this fear is expressed violently through random acts of desperation and senseless cruelty. 

Everyone except Casshern is affected by the Ruin. As the bodies of the other robots quickly deteriorate, Casshern’s body remains new, and regenerates when it’s damaged. There’s a rumor that the one who “devours” Casshern will become immortal. Consequently, when many robots encounter Casshere and learn of his identity, they have no qualms with abandoning their “humanity” to seize an opportunity to regain their immortality. 

By the halfway point of this series, listening to bleak soliloquies on death and hope—but mostly hopelessness—became mildly taxing. To be fair, the trepidation expressed by these robots is understandable when we consider how new of an experience death is for them. Humans have had over 200,000 years to develop coping and denial mechanisms for death anxiety. On this level, it’s not difficult to feel some pity for the robots. 

There’s the occasional melodrama and sentimentality, which is effectively scored with slow strings or an acoustic guitar. You can see the emotional chords that they’re trying to pull, but it doesn’t take much effort to go along with it if you withhold cynicism. The action scenes are scored more aggressively, often utilizing tremolo strings or heavy horns like those heard in 90s era historical-action films. Sometimes there’s no score at all, and the scene is simply textured with the sounds of wind, rain, or debris. 

The overall style is retro by modern standards, which is to be expected from a director who’s been in the anime industry since the 80s. Unfortunately, this old school style is accompanied by some unflattering old school stereotypes that may annoy some viewers. The one unambiguously black character is a lustful degenerate, and the leading female characters are either manipulative or easily love struck. Even Ringo, an overly cute loli robot who looks like a 4-year-old, fawns over Casshern when she first meets him. 

Casshern Sins has brilliant ideas and beautiful animation that are hampered by some repetition, occasional missteps in characterization, and what some might consider plot holes. The faults aren’t enough to Ruin the viewing experience, but they do hold it back from being the psychological masterpiece that it could have been. With all that said, I still recommend this series if you’re looking for something dark and thoughtful to watch.