Mushishi Zoku Shou: Drops of Bells

8UVg2gdOur journey with Ginko, which started in 1999, draws to an end with an adaptation of Suzu no Shizuku (Drops of Bells), the last arc of the acclaimed Mushishi manga by Yuki Urushibara.

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 life around that area. Choosing a human as a lord is an unusual move, however. Such a task is usually delegated to animals since they live with fewer emotional attachments.

Several of the introspective themes that were explored in previous arcs 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 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 is that we should appreciate what we have, and not cling when the time comes for us to move on.

The second half concludes this story without quite concluding the series. The ending leaves some of the questions that were raised in the previous arcs unanswered, but it ties up enough to provide a mostly satisfying conclusion, which I’ll refrain from detailing here. It’s something that really should be appreciated without any spoilers.

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’ve been since the first season aired in 2005; the character and special effects animation are fluid and precise; and the soundtrack features the subdued and ambient melodies that have become hallmarks of the series.

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 impatient, thrill seeking, 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 remarkable experience.

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Wolf Children

6711A person falling in love with an attractive werewolf or vampire is a familiar theme in shapeshifter stories. What’s less familiar is for this story to extend beyond the relationship, and detail the hardships of raising “half breed” children in a prejudiced society. 

On the surface, such a premise may seem absurd, but Wolf Children works thanks to the decision of writer/director Mamoru Hosoda to take a fantasy story and package it as a coming-of-age drama. There’s a lot of wonderful humor here, but the characters and their experiences are taken with the utmost seriousness. 

Hana is the quintessential altruistic mother who’s always acting for the benefit of her lover and children. When she has time to herself, she spends it idly and alone. There’s a niceness and a sadness to this. It’s nice how helping others seems to be her biggest motivator. However, it’s also sad since she does so little for herself. 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, and Ame, the boy, is introverted and quiet. Over the course of their upbringing, Yuki is encouraged to be more girly, and Ame is encouraged to be more confident. Since Yuki is the more fun 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 abrupt and overdramatic. 

Visually, Wolf Children is clean. Characters are drawn with thin outlines, and animated with generous inbetweening. The designs are neither cartoony nor realistic; they’re a mix of the two, leaning slightly more toward realistic. Background characters are in 3D with cel shading, and the background art is detailed without calling too much attention. The score is comprised mostly of gentle melodies played with piano and strings. 

Wolf Children seems to aspire to the greatness of a classic Studio Ghibli film. While it doesn’t quite reach this level, it comes extremely close. There are some aspects of Wolf Children that could be nitpicked, and some aspects that could even be considered troublesome, but the general experience remained a powerful one that I felt long after the ending credits rolled. This is an anime that I won’t soon forget. 

Non-Japanese Anime Characters

Yes, I know Japan is 98.5% Japanese, but it still irks me when I’m watching an anime about the entire world and everyone in the world looks the same. I also think that including characters of non-Japanese cultures could open the doors for a lot of creative story telling possibilities.

A work in progress…

Afro Samurai (black)
Anne no Nikki (jewish) +
Baccano! (several) *
Basquash (black)
Berserk (middle eastern)
Black Butler (indian)
Black Lagoon (black, columbian, chinese)
Bleach (latino, south asian)
Blood+ (?)
The Book of Bantorra (dark skinned)
Cowboy Bebop (black, turkish, native american)
Deadman Wonderland (?)
Durarara (?)
Eden of The East (black, white) *
El Cazador De La Bruja (?)
Emma: A Victorian Romance (indian)
Eureka Seven (several) +
Excel Saga (columbian)
Flag (several, ?)
Freedom (black) +
Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood (several)
Gangsta (?)
Gankutsuou (catalan)
Genesis of Aquarion (hispanic)
Gokudou-kun Manyuuki (dark skinned)
Gosick (arab, mixed)
Gungrave (black?)
Hunter x Hunter (black)
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (2012) (many races)
Jormungand (black) *
Kaleido Star (?)
Memories (german)
Michiko to Hatchin (black, latino, white) +
Mobile Suit Gundam Seed (black, portuguese) +
Monster (german)
Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit (several)
Nadia: Secret of Blue Water (black, atlantian)
Noein: To Your Other Self (dark skinned)
No.6 (many implied)
Phantom Memory Kurau (central american)
Planetes (indian, south asian)
Please Save My Earth (mixed)
Pokemon Best Wishes (black)
Robotech (black)
Rocket Girls (solomon islander)
Rockman.EXE Stream (native american)
Samurai 7 (black or iranian)
Shoujo Kakumei Utena (?)
Space Brothers (several) * +
Taiyou no Ko Esteban (?)
Tamako Market (pacific islander)
Tenjou Tenge (black)
Terra e… (black) +
Tenpou Ibun: Ayakashi Ayashi (aztec)
Tiger & Bunny (black) +
Turn A Gundam (dark skinned)
Yugo the Negotiator (pakistani) +

+ best examples
* some racial stereotyping

Sources:
Characterization Society
ColorQ World
Nerdy•But•Flirty

Style ≠ Animation

Here’s a brief overview on the difference between animation and style, and good vs. great animation.

In simplest terms:
– Animation is about movement.
– Style is about character design, colors, anything not related to movement.

One thing that differentiates good animation from great is the level of detail that’s put into those movements. When the character walks, is their motion limited to simple arm and leg swings, or did the key-animators draw out the motions for their shoulders, torso, hair, and other parts as well? Really skilled animators, if their schedule and budget will allow it, will even add subtle movements to the fingers and face.

An example of great animation that I like to use is this scene from Sleeping Beauty (1958). The level of detail is insane. Everything, the hair, clothes, fingers, feet, everything is moving. And on top of that, their mouths were also animated to match the dialog and lyrics.

Another thing that makes animation look nice is when it’s done on 1s or 2s instead of 3s. Film plays back at around 24 frames per second, and, to save money and time, studios will sometimes only do 8 frames of animation for every second, and then play that animation back at third-speed so it’ll fit the 24 frame space. This is called animating on 3s, which often results in choppier playback than animation done on 2s (12 frames of animation for every second / half-speed playback) or 1s (24 frames of animation for every second / full-speed playback). Sleeping Beauty was animated on 1s and 2s, and most TV shows and anime are animated on 3s.

On a personal note: I think Disney did some of the best animation in history, but anime has far more interesting styles and stories. I’d much rather watch Death Parade again than Sleeping Beauty.

Bakemonogatari

Hitagi1There’s some debate about whether or not Bakemonogatari (pr. bah-keh-moh-no-gah-tah-re) is an ecchi-harem. A mere six seconds into the first episode, one of the female leads is introduced with a panty shot, and several shots of panties, boobs, and butts are dispersed throughout the series. Aside from two other characters that appear in a few episodes, Araragi, the main character, is the only male, and he’s usually surrounded by females who’ve developed a fondness for him after he helped them in some way.

Is it an ecchi? Most likely. Is it a harem? Probably. Nevertheless, what distinguishes this series from other ecchi and harem anime is that this one could still be entertaining without the ecchi and harem elements. It’s not an ecchi with some story, but a story with some ecchi.

Bakemonogatari, the first anime adaptation of Isin Nisio’s Monogatari novel series, can be summed up as an allegory for how problems grow beyond our control when we don’t tend to them. In this story, unsolved problems culminate into apparitions that can handicap, possess, and even attack people. This premise was likely derived from the Buddhist concept of the āsavā, which is defined as an influence or mental bias that binds people to their desires and attachments; various types of mental binds are illustrated in this story through the lives and interactions of the characters.

This series was headed by veteran director and animator Akiyuki Shinbou, whose style has become synonymous with the Shaft animation studio. His distinctive use of lines, shadows, and off-centered shot compositions are in full effect here. There are some scenes that are likely just meant to look cool, but, generally, the visuals have purpose, and avoid garishness. The visuals are specific, and help to establish tension, isolation, and other tones.

The true highlight of Bakemonogatari is the Tarantino-esque dialog written by Isin Nisio. When the characters converse, they’re not simply saying things that’ll move the plot forward. They’re having in-depth conversations, free of restraints, that seamlessly transition between topics as conversations do in real life. However, that’s not to imply that the characters take themselves seriously. It’s quite the contrary. The characters often tease and challenge each other, and sometimes break through the fourth wall to make the viewer a part of an exchange.

The Monogatari Series would be appreciated by most anime fans who enjoy sleek art, witty dialog, the supernatural, and don’t mind some fanservice. If you decide to pick it up, I suggest watching it in the order that it was adapted: Bakemonogatari, Nisemonogatari, Nekomonogatari: Kuro, Monogatari Series: Second Season, Hanamonogatari, Tsukimonogatari, Owarimonogatari, Kizumonogatari.

 

Texhnolyze

roT0fQITexhnolyze is a show about heavy breathing, grunting, and a pissing contest between a group of gun and sword wielding alpha males in suits who speak in bad mob movie cliches. If you force your imagination enough, you may be able to find something deep in the recesses of this art, but the same could be done if you stared long enough at the textures on a rusty frying pan.

There’s a subplot about “texhnolyzation”, a procedure to repair or upgrade a person using technologies such as mechanical limbs. The transhumanist ideas herein, which have potential, are unfortunately enveloped in a lot of empty atmosphere. Most scenes are comprised of long shots of nothing, sound effects that were ran through one too many flange filters, and cryptic dialog that’s just later reiterated in dull exposition.

The tone is reminiscent of the cheap drawings an angry teenager would sketch up after being sent to his room for cursing out his mother. There’s hardly any diversity among the characters; they all share the same stern facial expression, and communicate by either mumbling or shouting.

Episodes 19 – 22, though still reliant on exposition, are admittedly fascinating as they focus on the aforementioned subplot. With that said, I’m not entirely sure the ending was worth sitting through the preceding 6 hours of tedium. If this show had been around 10 episodes instead of 22, it could have been good, maybe even great.

Mushishi and Patience

687474703a2f2f7777772e6861707079736f64612e636f6d2f77702d636f6e74656e742f75706c6f6164732f323030372f30382f6d757368697368695f6d6174613530302e6a7067When I joined MyAnimeList in 2014, I saw admirers of a series called Mushishi raving about how it was the “best slice of life ever”, using words like “beautiful” and “masterpiece” to describe it. In response to this praise, there were those criticizing it as “pretentious”, and going as far as calling it the “most boring series ever.” With such strong opinions coming from both sides, I wanted to see for myself whether or not Mushishi was as good, or as bad, as people were saying.

At the first episode, I was already siding with the critics. Ginko, the main character, meets with a boy living alone in the woods to investigate a strange ability he has. A perplexing conversation ensues that made me feel like I was back in a college with a professor throwing information at me for an upcoming test. “Are they really expecting me to keep up with all of this?”, I thought.

Then I got to the second episode, which frustrated me even more. For most of the first half, I grudgingly stared at these two kids sitting in a dark room talking about something pertaining to eyelids.

I concluded that this series just wasn’t for me, and I dropped it halfway through the second episode.

As I met and befriended more people on forums, I noticed that many of those who liked the same anime as I did thought highly of Mushishi. I started to wonder, “Why do these people with such excellent taste (lol) love such a bad series? Maybe I’m missing something, and should try watching one more episode.”

I took a deep breath, stilled and cleared my mind, sat back, and attempted to watch the second episode again.

During the first half of the second episode, I felt indifference instead of anger this time because I was in a calmer mental state. I didn’t like what I was watching, but I didn’t hate it either. Then the second half—which I hadn’t seen yet—happened, and everything changed. I’ll explain.

In the first episode, you get a crash course on what Mushi are. It’s not a terribly exciting episode, but it’s a necessary one as it establishes the world you’re about to enter. In the second episode, you see how Mushi can incapacitate people. It starts slowly, as the first episode did, and then—without spoiling anything—all hell breaks loose. I was sucked in.

“Alright, you got me. I need to know more. What are these Mushi?”

Now that the series had my attention, I began to appreciate many things I had overlooked. On the surface, Mushishi seemed like a story about a paranormal investigator who goes around helping random people. As I followed the Ginko on his essential journey—you learn why he can’t stay in one place later in the series—I realized something. The people that he meets aren’t irrelevant characters. They’re us. They’re people modeled after you and me, and their problems are the kinds of problems we’ve all experienced.

Each episode presents a character with a problem we can relate with, and then it guides us through the mental, physical, or sometimes moral process in trying to solve that problem. The stories are blended with subtle commentary on the ways in which we’re interconnected with each other, and with nature. Nature plays a central role in Mushishi, and could be considered a character itself. Sometimes it’s the protagonists; sometimes it’s the antagonist; but it’s never portrayed as an entity that acts in a deliberate way. Nature, and the Mushi that are an extension of it, just are.

What Mushishi managed to accomplish in just 23-minute intervals most series struggle to do over the span of an entire season. I was surprised something so philosophical and unorthodox was adapted into an anime. Artland, the producers, didn’t cut any corners either. The art and animation quality exceeded that of a typical television series, and often reached the level of a feature film. The imagery is enhanced by intricately detailed backgrounds, and a bewitchingly solemn soundtrack that doesn’t call too much attention to itself.

By the end of the series, Mushishi had become my favorite anime. For nearly 13 years, since 2001, Spirited Away had been favorite. Its narrative and visuals were so imaginative, and Miyazaki‘s writing was so sharp, that I never thought another anime would equal it. I went into Mushishi not expecting much, and I didn’t like it when I first tried to watch it. After giving it fair consideration with a calm mind, I also saw how ”beautiful” it was.

It’s amazing the difference a little patience can make.