Innocence / Evolution

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Innocence is a coming-of-age mystery film by writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic. At an unsettling all-girls boarding school, a new girl, Iris, is born from a coffin that arrives. Each girl has a distinctly colored hair ribbon that’s passed down to the next youngest in line. Since Iris is now the youngest occupant, she receives the red ribbon. The eldest, Bianca, receives a special purple ribbon from someone who’s no longer there. Iris grows fond of Bianca, and has a lot of questions: Will they receive visitors? Why can’t they leave? Where does Bianca go at night? What’s beyond the wall that surrounds the grounds? Where are they?

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Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s follow-up film, Evolution, also has an opening scene where we see someone, through their eyes, submerged in water. Like Innocence, the story is told primarily from the perspective of children, and the adults are suspiciously aloof. While out swimming against his mother’s wishes, Nicolas finds the body of a dead boy. He reports this to his mother, and she tells him that he didn’t see what he saw. At home, she feeds him an ugly green food, and gives him a strange medicine to drink each night. Nicolas’ life parallels the lives of the other boys in a lonely seaside town.

Evolution wasn’t as ambiguous as Innocence, but both films shared a Lynch-ian creepiness with Malick-ian montages through nature. If I had to guess, Innocence is about womanhood, and Evolution is about parenthood.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!”
— Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

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.