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.

03.png

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.

04.png

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.

01.png

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.

05.png

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.

02.png

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.

Advertisements

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.

A.I.C.O. Incarnation

Is it ethical to clone a human being? Would anything—or anyone—have to be sacrificed? How far should one go to save a life? A.I.C.O. Incarnation asks these questions in the aftermath of a biological experiment gone horribly wrong.

The year is 2035. A team of scientists inadvertently create a massive and lethal organism that has infested a region of Japan. To gain a better understanding of this “Matter”, as it’s called, special-op “diver” teams are sent into quarantined areas, usually at the behest of a secretive client, to investigate and retrieve samples.

09.png

The main characters are 15-year old Aiko Tachibana, a charming high school student, and Yuya Kanzaki, a diver with a mysterious past. Yuya, who looks slightly older than Aiko, has a laser-like focus on what he feels must be done to remedy the current situation. His aloofness and knowledge often arouse suspicion from those around him. Conversely, Aiko’s life hasn’t been as mission oriented. Still recovering from the events that took the lives of her parents and younger brother, she’s bound to a wheelchair as she’s rehabilitated at a hospital near her school. In the face of these tragedies, Aiko has maintained her humanity.

three_stitches_700px.png

One of the several notable supporting characters in this world is Dr. Kyōsuke Isazu, voiced by the legendary Takehito Koyasu of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure fame; he played Dio in the 2012 adaptation. Dr. Isazu is the head of the hospital that oversees Aiko’s rehabilitation. His own daughter, Yuzuha, is in a coma. Finding a cure for her is always in the back of his mind.

A revelation sets Aiko and Yuya on a dangerous mission deep into the Matter. They’re accompanied by a team of divers: scientist Haruka Seri; rambunctious and agile Kaede Misawa; electrician Kazuki Minase; stern ex-military fighter Yoshihiko Sagami; mechanic Maho Shiraishi; and their leader Daisuke Shinoyama. Personally, I really liked Maho. She was an anchor for the team, and instrumental in helping Aiko adapt to her new role. My least favorite was Kazuki. He wasn’t unbearably annoying, but his interest in Aiko added extra tension to an already tense situation.

02_700px

Exchanges between the characters were often steeped in jargon. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t verify the accuracy of all the exposition. Regardless, I chose not to worry too much about it. Scientific accuracy only truly matters in real life. In a story, it doesn’t hurt to take some liberties—as long as they aren’t too obvious or distracting—to enhance the intrigue. Would it be possible, with technology 20-years from now, to create a rampant biomass that’s impervious to most forms of attack? Who knows. But is it cool to see one in an anime? Hell yeah!

Visually, the diver suits were an immediate standout. Instead of taking the easier route with 3D graphics, the suits were hand drawn with a real sense of weight that you felt as they zipped through the hallways in the opening scene. And when there was 3D, the shading and frame rate closely matched the 2D. The creators didn’t overlook the small details, and were sticklers about consistency—even if it caused some “panchira.” Such shots, however, avoided excess, and were always the natural consequence of physics, which, for me, is preferred over “magic skirts” that unnaturally defy gravity and shape shift. In short, the animation makes few compromises. Everything looks great, and moves as you’d expect it to. Netflix must’ve given BONES/Project A.I.C.O. a generous budget.

ezgif-5-a6eaab6396ca.gif

I briefly listened to the English dub track to hear how it sounded. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the male actors were uninspiring, and the female actors sounded like adult women trying to imitate the tone of young girls. If you struggle with keeping up with info dumps, which are abundant in this show, I’d recommend the dub. Otherwise, in my humble opinion, in this case, the sub is better.

A.I.C.O. reminded me of the live-action movie Annihilation (2018). It raised stimulating ideas as it took us through menacing environments populated by peculiar forms. The director, Kazuya Murata (Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet), did well in bringing so many pieces—maybe too many—together into an engaging story with an impactful ending. Some people will surely disagree about the ending, preferring something happier, or something more tragic, but I felt that an appropriate and satisfying balance was found. The story wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking, and it was occasionally difficult to follow, but it certainly wasn’t dull, and, at times, it was quite brilliant.

Mardock Scramble

“I wish I was dead.”

Spoken by 15-year old prostitute Rune Balot, these first words 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.

001.jpg

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.

005.jpg

The central plot-line, which is essentially about Rune’s revenge, is likely 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.

004.jpg

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.

002.jpg

Mardock Scramble has a consistently abrasive aesthetic. The art is usually intensely bright, or 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. The visuals are rounded off with an electronic and ambient music soundtrack.

007.jpg

If you like science-fiction fantasy with a psychological twist, strong and stylish animation, and don’t mind 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.

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

aika post

Agent Aika begins with a leisurely boat tour along the flood waters now covering Saitama, Japan. Twenty years after a worldwide disaster submerged 95% of the world’s land, salvaging work to recover valuable goods and data from the abandoned cities below 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 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. Aika intervenes and convinces them to agree to a shady business proposition to collect data on a new energy source called Lagu. Unbeknownst to them, Rudolf and Neena Hagen, siblings who were contracted by the military, 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 socially considerate standards of modern anime. I often see people today complaining about small bits of service that pale in comparison to what Agent Aika defiantly shovels into your face. Excess aside, I couldn’t help but appreciate the inventiveness of the choreography and shot compositions. The fight scenes are practically balletic in their staging, and consistently filled with service shots that aren’t confined to comedic or sexual situations. The camera itself turns the viewer into a dirty voyeur, giving you a sleazy first-person view of the “action.”

The non-service cinematography is noteworthy as well. By episode five, there’s an impressive play on perspective and depth of field akin to a live action crime thriller. For a series that likely started as an excuse to fill the screen with panty shots, the visuals are surprisingly detailed and thought out. With the support of superb artwork and 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 likely wanted to see for themselves. This kind of passion is rare. Typically, studios play it safe, and 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 any fucks. 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

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.

03.png

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.

06.png

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.

09.png

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.

07.png

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.

08.png

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.

05.png

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.