Mushishi Zoku Shou: Drops of Bells

8UVg2gdOur journey with Ginko, which started 9 years ago, draws to an end with an adaptation of Drops of Bells (Suzu no Shizuku), the last arc of the acclaimed Mushishi manga by Yuki Urushibara.

In the first half of the story, 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, most notably interconnectedness, the indifference of nature, and 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 Drops of Bells 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.

The art and animation have remained remarkably consistent over the years. The backgrounds in Drops of Bells 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. 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. 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, but it’s less familiar for the story to extend beyond their relationship and tell the story of their children, detailing the hardships of raising “half breeds” in a prejudiced society adverse to the unordinary.

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 to be found in this film, but the characters and their experiences are taken completely seriously.

Hana is the quintessential altruistic mother who’s always acting for the benefit of her lover and her 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, but it’s 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, as a result, 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 very clean. Characters are drawn with thin outlines, and they’re animated with generous inbetweening. Character designs are neither cartoony or realistic; they’re a mix of the two, leaning more toward realistic. Background characters are in 3D with cel shading, and the background art is detailed but understated. 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 very-very close. There are some aspects of Wolf Children that could be nitpicked, and some aspects that could even be considered troublesome, but the overall experience of this film remains a powerful one that lasts long after the ending credits have rolled.

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 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, part one of the Monogatari Series, is essentially a metaphor for the way problems grow beyond our control when we aren’t aware of them, or try to ignore them. In this story, unsolved problems culminate into apparitions that can handicap, possess, and even attack people. This metaphor 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 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. When people refer to “Shaft style”, “Shaft head tilts”, and so on, they’re really referring to the aesthetics developed by Shinbou. His distinctive use of lines, shadows, minimalism, and off-centered shot compositions are in full effect here. There are a couple of scenes that are likely just meant to look cool, but generally the visuals have purpose, and avoid garishness. They’re motivated by clear ideas that establish tension, distance, and other emotional tones.

The 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 go through the fourth wall to make the viewer apart of an exchange.

The Monogatari Series would be appreciated by most people who don’t mind fan service, and enjoy sleek art, witty dialog, and the supernatural. 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.

Mardock Scramble: The First Compression

26215l“I wish I was dead.”

These are the opening words of Mardock Scramble, spoken by 15-year old prostitute Rune Balot, that set the despondent and existential tone for the rest of the series.

The story is set in Mardock City, a futuristic 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.

Homicide has become so rampant that the government has authorized a controversial procedure to resurrect victims so that they can testify against their assailants. Many concepts in the series are unusual, and perhaps implausible, but they’re presented with such assertiveness that it’s easy to suspend disbelief.

The main plotline, which is essentially about Rune’s revenge, is likely just a catalyst for weightier themes. There are some fantastical action sequences, but the series feels more like a psychological character study than an action series. Arguably, the most intriguing thing about Mardock Scramble are the deep conversations between the characters. A wide range of topics are covered such as the nature of memories and regret, free will, finding purpose in life, and rebirth.

There’s a lot of hidden symbolism to keep your mind busy if you choose to look for it. Several egg references appear throughout the story. 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 one of the main characters is named “Oeufcoque”, which is French for “soft-boiled egg.” What all these egg references mean, I’m not sure.

Mardock Scramble is different from the typical anime. The physical features of the characters are naturalistic rather than exaggerated, and their personalities are introspective rather than frantic. It has an electronic and ambient music soundtrack that’s devoid of catchy pop rock singing or guitar riffs. There aren’t any slapstick gags or spit takes. And there isn’t a high school classroom in sight.

If you like science-fiction, fantasy, stylish art, and good animation, and don’t have a problem with scenes featuring graphic violence, mental or physical abuse, and nudity, you should watch Mardock Scramble. If you haven’t read the synopsis yet, don’t. Avoid the trailers, too. The less you know going in, the more surprised you’ll be.

Anne no Nikki

qnLXtGsAuIIlH6pASsAq9aJcqG1In case you’re one of the few people on the planet who doesn’t already know of Anne Frank, she was a young Jewish writer—born 10 years before the start of World War II—who was forced to live in a cramped hiding area with her family to avoid persecution by the Nazis. During her stay there, she documented her life in a now famous diary, which has since been adapted into movies, plays, and even an anime.

Anne no Nikki was brought to my attention by a fellow MAL user. I was surprised to hear that an anime of Anne Frank’s diary had been made—by Madhouse, nonetheless, one of my favorite studios. I’d known about Anne Frank’s story for awhile, but I avoided it because I feared it might be too depressing for me to handle. However, as a Madhouse fanboy, curiosity regarding this version got the best of me, and I relented and watched it.

As expected, this movie was difficult to watch, and often stressful. Even the peaceful moments had a melancholic undertone that keeps you from feeling completely happy about anything. The presence of the Nazis encroaching the lives of Anne and her family is always felt even when they’re not seen.

On the visual front, the animation—which wasn’t rotoscoped—was outstanding. Character movements were nicely detailed, and most inbetween frames were done on twos resulting in a fluidity not common in the typical anime. The character designs matched their real life counterparts, and the soundtrack beautifully complimented the imagery. A lot of care was put into this production.

The characters had realistic and subdued personalities, and little was exaggerated or played up for dramatic effect. I appreciated the subtlety of the directing, but the sedate pacing may be trying for less patient viewers. It’s not a perfect movie, and there’s an occasional tinge of melodrama, but its heart more than compensates for its flaws.