Goodbye Otaku Bait

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Yesterday marks the end of my interest in a lot of anime because Into The Spider-Verse swung through my apartment that morning and seized it. After seeing such an intricate and assertive work, dressed by a colorful array of characters, styles, and backdrops, I can’t go back to watching tame manga ads that are confined to ethnically uniform classrooms.

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Haruka and the Magic Mirror

Haruka and the Magic Mirror is a 3D computer animated movie based on a Japanese legend of a trickster fox who collects people’s forgotten belongings. When Haruka, the plucky 16-year old protagonist, loses a precious mirror that her mother gave her as a child, her search for it leads to Oblivion Island, a hidden world full of magic yielding creatures and gorgeous scenery porn.

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In this hidden world, Haruka meets Teo, a rabbit-like youngster who’s part of a large group assigned with the task of retrieving items from the human world. Teo woefully under-performs, and is mocked and bullied by his peers for his lack of prowess. Everyone here is at the service of a dictator known as the Baron, a burly and effeminate character who lives in a flamboyant airship that hovers over Oblivion Island. The Baron has an invested interest in collecting mirrors—particularly the fine one Haruka possessed—as they’re said to embody great powers.

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There are a lot of strong feelings about the use of computer animation in anime. Some people hate 3D with the passion of a thousand suns, while others don’t care, or may not even notice how it differs from traditional mediums. Typically, hand drawn animation reflects the personal and inexact touch of a human artist, while computer animation combines art with technology to potentially create detailed and photorealistic imagery. In recent years, toon-shaders, a rendering method that strips down lighting details to emulate a 2D look, have gained popularity.

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For Haruka and the Magic Mirror, Production I.G.—under the supervision of writer, director, and video game developer Satou Shinsuke—went for a more complete 3D look. The characters are fully shaded with soft shadows and indirect lighting, and their mouth movements are synced to the syllables of the Japanese voice acting. The environments and vehicles of Teo’s world are an assemblage of the countless items taken from the human world, creating a really cool patchwork aesthetic. The backgrounds have a unique quality to them as well, and appear to have utilized a mix of hand painted and 3D techniques.

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Haruka and the Magic Mirror is a family movie with a simple story and characters that are fitting for its target audience. There are some dark moments that could be troubling for a pretween, but there’s no strong sexual or violent content. The finale went a little overkill on the action; this wasn’t necessarily an issue for me personally as I kind of enjoyed the mess. On the whole, the fantastic art direction, wild action set pieces, and a sweet story about family, friendship, and gratitude provided adequate entertainment value.

Mushishi

When I started watching anime again in 2014 after a long hiatus, I saw fans of a series called Mushishi praising how it was “beautiful” and a “masterpiece.” In these same discussion threads, there were also critics arguing that Mushishi was actually “pretentious” and “boring.” Seeing such strong and opposing opinions, I opted to see for myself how good—or bad—Mushishi truly was.

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About a quarter way through the first episode, I was already siding with the critics. The central character, Ginko, who appeared to be a kind of paranormal investigator, is seen traveling deep into an unusually vibrant forest. He’s headed to the home of a child living there to investigate a strange ability that he’s said to have. When they meet, perplexing conversations ensue, which, at the time, I found difficult to follow, and not particularly interesting.

The second episode frustrated me even more. For most of the first half, I grudgingly stared at these two kids sitting in a dark room discussing something pertaining to eyelids; keeping my own eyelids open was a struggle. Before I could get to the second half, I stopped the episode, and concluded that this series just wasn’t for me.

As I befriended more people in the anime community, I noticed that many of those who shared my interests also thought highly of Mushishi. I wondered, “Why do these people with such excellent taste (lol) love such a dull series? Maybe I missed something?” So, I attempted to give the second episode another try, this time approaching it as I would a meditation—or a tedious assignment. I turned down the lights, cleared my mind, relaxed my face and shoulders, took a deep breath, and gave it my undivided attention.

In such a relaxed state, I usually feel a peaceful indifference. Watching the second episode again, I wasn’t as impatient during the first half, but I wasn’t quite enjoying it either. However, I was more receptive. I initially took notice of how ubiquitous the environment was. A scene would often open with or cut to an intricately detailed—and admittedly beautiful—slice of nature. It was around this time that it dawned on me—nature itself is actually a character in this story. There’s Ginko, the various people he meets, and nature. Nature is sometimes the protagonist; other times it’s the antagonist; but it’s not an entity that acts with bias. Nature, and the “Mushi”, which are a supranormal extension of nature, just are. In this context, everything started to make more sense.

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When I finally saw the unexpectedly creepy second half of the second episode, my attention was firmly hooked. As I progressed to the next episodes, another thing that became apparent was how the problems and concerns of the characters mirrored our own, providing an opening for us to relate and emotionally connect. Each story guides us through the mental, physical, or sometimes moral process of trying to solve a particular issue. But people’s plights aren’t sensationalized. Mushishi doesn’t seek to make you feel angry or depressed. While there are moments that could make you feel that way, it doesn’t indulge in negativity or drama.

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I was later impressed by how much ground Mushishi could cover in just 23-minute episodic intervals. The directors, under Hiroshi Nagahama’s supervision, did well in balancing the elements of Yuki Urushibara’s award-winning manga. The studio, Artland, didn’t cut corners on the production either. The art and animation quality exceeded that of a typical television series, sometimes reaching the levels you’d expect from a feature film. A traditional and occasionally haunting soundtrack underpinned the visuals.

Mushishi is infused with subtle, and easily overlooked, commentary on the ways in which we’re connected with each other and the world around us. Thinking back, it’s amazing the difference eased expectations and a little patience can make. With that said, such an approach can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to like anything. Sometimes you’re just not compatible with something, and that’s perfectly fine, too. In my personal case, I was more compatible with Mushishi than I’d thought as it has since become my favorite anime.

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Aoi Hana

There’s no shortage of anime with apparently gay characters and pairings, or “yuri/yaoi bait” as it’s sometimes called. In many—perhaps most—cases, these characters exist as comic relief (‘Yuru Yuri’), fanservice (‘Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid’), or their romance is “implied” (‘Hibike! Euphonium’), meaning they’ll occasionally act super gay, but actually aren’t.

Aoi Hana does something that’s quite rare for an anime to do. It attempts to portray non-straight characters openly and legitimately, without invalidating their sexual orientation as a perversion or passing phase. It tells a story that briefly touches on significant issues like the social expectations placed on them, and even the struggle of coming-out.

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In the opening episode, we meet the principal characters: Fumi Manjome, a tall yet timid girl who recently moved back to Kamakura after being away for 10-years; Akira (Achan) Okudaira, a spunky longtime resident of Kamakura; and their respective families. Both girls are due to start their freshman year at closely neighboring schools—Fumi at the prestigious Matsuoka Secondary School for Girls, and Akira at the historic Fujigaya Girls Academy. The two were classmates and best friends in elementary school until Fumi moved away. After a tearful goodbye, they promised to write each other, but neither ever did.

Fumi is visibly downcast when we first see her. She developed strong feelings for an older cousin, Chizu Hanashiro, who didn’t take things as seriously as she did. Already marred by regret over some of the choices she made, Fumi’s depression is exacerbated further when she learns that Chizu is getting married soon. To cope, she takes refuge in books, and distances herself from social contact. Conversely, Akira doesn’t appear to have much interest in love or romance yet, but can envy people who do.

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Yasuko Sugimoto, a popular senior at the Matsuoka Secondary School, takes an interest in Fumi. Her personality is similar to that of the character Saint-Just from the classic 1991 anime ‘Onii-sama e…’, of which ‘Aoi Hana’—among many other shoujo-ai—could be considered an offspring. Like Saint-Just, Yasuko has a more traditionally masculine demeanor, and is deeply admired by her fellow classmates. Initially, it’s unclear what Yasuko sees in Fumi, or what her intentions are. Maybe she’s attracted to Fumi’s coy disposition; maybe she’s just appeasing her own ego; or maybe it’s something else entirely.

If you expect to see any romance between Akira and Fumi, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This adaptation only covers the first 18 chapters of the manga, which centers primarily on Akira and Fumi attempting to rekindle their friendship, the relationship between Fumi and Yasuko, and the love interests of some of the supporting characters. Two complaints I sometimes hear about this series is that it has a somewhat abrupt, read-the-manga, ending, and the pacing is very relaxed. My own criticism would be of the sexual assault in the first episode that’s used as a catalyst to reunite Fumi and Akira. I wish they could’ve been brought back together under better circumstances.

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Aoi Hana was animated with a tranquil pastel pallet by JC Staff (‘Shoujo Kakumei Utena’), and masterfully directed by Kenichi Kasai (‘Nodame Cantabile’), who brilliantly captures the non-verbal cues and body language of Takako Shimura’s bold manga. If you’re looking for a mature, unusually nuanced, LGBT anime, I highly recommend Aoi Hana. If you enjoy it as much as I do, you may want to consider buying the recently released Blu-ray from Nozomi/Lucky Penny Entertainment; the English title is ‘Sweet Blue Flowers.’ Apparently, Aoi Hana didn’t sell well in Japan when it was originally released in 2009. To have more series like this, it helps to support them.

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Akanesasu Shoujo

In the hopes of escaping to a new, possibly better, place, the girls of the “Radio Research Society” meet under the sacred tree to perform the “4:44 Ceremony.” According to an urban legend, performing this ritual at 4:44pm, while listening to radio static tuned to just the right frequency, will open a gateway to another world. It’s a premise we’ve seen in similar forms before.

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Of the five members in the club, most of them don’t expect the 4:44 Ceremony to actually do anything, and only participate as a fun social activity. Asuka, a cheerful girl who dons a big red hair ribbon, has the most faith that the ritual will eventually succeed. Yuu, the reason-oriented president of the club, and Asuka’s closest friend, is the most skeptical. All of the girls like each other to some extent, establishing a welcoming vibe to the group.

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Chloe, the modest one who—for some reason—peppers her speech with French phrases, finds a crystal near the sacred tree. When she places it in a specialized radio, she finds an odd sound at the 0633.1 AM frequency. The group elects to perform the ceremony at this frequency, and unexpected things start to happen—including the emergence of some suspicious snow bunnies, and, most surprisingly, another Asuka. The cheerful Asuka playfully nicknames this other Asuka “Seriouska”—a portmanteau of “serious” and “Asuka”—due to her more serious demeanor.

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When the 4:44 Ceremony succeeds, all five girls are transported together to another world, and the one wearing the headphones merges with a version of themselves in that world. This provided some of the most interesting and often humorous moments, particularly when Asuka and Seriouska were involved. We see each of the principle characters live through another version of themselves, and confront the choices and regrets of that other self. This aspect of the story gave an otherwise familiar premise some psychological weight.

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Hostile forces from a “Twilight” realm trail them, antagonize them, and create turmoil for everyone in its wake. It’s believed that a king in this Twilight is the root cause. Initially, the group tries to avoid this king, but they soon realize they have no choice but to confront him (her or it) to protect themselves and the inhabitants of these other worlds. Honestly, I would’ve preferred less emphasis on these parts, and more emphasis on the main characters confronting their other selves. But I understand that taking such a route may not have been as entertaining for a lot of people.

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Two little-known studios, DandeLion Animation Studio and Juumonji, did a really nice job on the production. Aside from one or two wonky frames here and there, the 2D art and animation was mostly polished, and the 3D computer animation for the action scenes wasn’t too jarring when it appeared. There’s still that moment when you go, “Oh, it’s in 3D now.”, but it doesn’t take too long to adjust to the transition.

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My interest in this series was initially piqued when I saw clips of the gloriously over-the-top action scenes going around on Twitter. My expectations started at, “Maybe I could watch this as a filler show between JoJo episodes…”, and ended at “That was actually fun!” If you don’t mind seeing some things you may have seen before, and aren’t bothered by the occasional fanservice, you could have a good time with Akanesasu Shoujo.

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Mushishi Zoku Shou: Drops of Bells

After a 9-year run, our tour with Ginko through the supernatural draws to a close with a short film adaptation of Suzu no Shizuku (Drops of Bells), the last arc of the acclaimed young adult manga—Mushishi—by Yuki Urushibara.

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In the first half of Suzu no Shizuku, a girl leaves her family behind when she’s summoned to be the next lord of a mountain. Thriving lands, called “Rivers of Light”, require the presence of a lord to maintain the balance of the surrounding life. Choosing a human as a lord is an unusual move, however. Such a task is typically delegated to animals since they live with fewer emotional attachments.

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Several of the introspective themes that were previously explored in the Mushishi world are summarized here—most notably interconnectedness, the indifference of nature, and the necessity of letting go. All life—plants, animals, and humans—are dependent on each other, and are influenced by the ripples of cause and effect. Nature, which is personified in Suzu no Shizuku as the mountain lord, acts as the unbiased mediator. The overarching lesson seems to be that we should appreciate what we have, and not cling when the time comes to move on.

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The second half concludes the story without quite concluding the series. The ending leaves some questions unanswered, but it ties up enough to guide your imagination to where the stories and characters could progress into the distant future. I’ll refrain from deconstructing this any further. To me, Mushishi is more of a meditation than a conventional story, and is therefore best appreciated without excessive analysis.

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The art, animation, and sound design have remained remarkably consistent over the years. The backgrounds in Suzu no Shizuku are just as gorgeous as they were when the first season aired in 2005. The character and special effects animation are fluid and precise. And the subdued and ambient melodies that have become a hallmark of this series are present as well.

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When you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that Mushishi, which is essentially about life experiences and nature, was made with such a substantial budget in today’s hungry and impatient climate. I’m grateful that ArtLand was willing to take a chance on such an esoteric and spiritual story, and that it’s been successful enough to adapt in its entirety. It’s been a truly extraordinary experience.

Ookami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki

A person falling in love with an attractive werewolf or vampire is a familiar theme in shapeshifter stories. What’s less familiar is for these stories to extend beyond the relationship, and detail the hardships of raising “half breed” children in a prejudiced society. This is what sets Wolf Children apart from the rest of the pack.

On the surface, such a premise may seem difficult to buy into, but Wolf Children works beautifully thanks to the writer/director, Mamoru Hosoda, opting to tell this story as a coming-of-age drama. He balances the tension with delightful humor, embodied by characters who endure hardships we can relate with and take seriously.

Hana is the quintessential selfless mother who’s always acting for the benefit of her lover and children. When she has time to herself, she spends it quietly and alone. It’s heartwarming how helping others seems to drive her, but it’s also kinda sad how little she does for herself. While watching this movie, there were times I wished I could take Hana out for pizza or karaoke. My own sensitivities may be more of the issue here. Perhaps providing for her family is enough?

Hana’s children, Yuki and Ame, are opposites of each other. Yuki, the girl, is rambunctious and loud; Ame, the boy, is introverted and quiet. Over the course of their upbringing, Yuki is encouraged to be more feminine, and Ame is encouraged to be more confident. Since Yuki is the funner character, more screen time is spent on her, and, consequently, Ame isn’t as thoroughly developed. When Ame makes a personal choice later in the film, it feels a little abrupt.

Visually, Wolf Children is super clean. Characters are drawn with thin outlines, and the animation is generously in-betweened. The designs fall closer to the realistic side of the 2D animation spectrum. Background characters are 3D cel-shaded, and generally mesh well with the subtle details of the background art. The score is comprised mostly of gentle melodies played with piano and strings.

Wolf Children aspires to the greatness of a classic Studio Ghibli film. There are some aspects that could be nitpicked, but, frankly, the negatives I mention in this review should probably just be disregarded; they aren’t that important. Regardless of any supposed drawbacks, the general experience is undoubtedly powerful.