Casshern Sins

347549-casshern_sins02“Ruin is the salvation of man and machine.”

Beneath the flamboyant exterior of fast action fight scenes and fancy shot compositions are some deceptively introspective conversations and themes. The director of this series, Shigeyasu Yamauchi, also headed Kimi no Iru Machi, which stylishly explored the psychology of love. In Casshern Sins the central themes are death and hope.

The first episode establishes the premise with a satisfying level of badassery. In the distant future, Robots have evolved sentience, and can feel emotion 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 life until they knew that they’d die. Having been immortal up until the Ruin, knowing 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 their interests. 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—so to speak—to seize an opportunity to regain their immortality.

By the halfway point, listening to bleak soliloquies on death, hope, and hopelessness became mildly taxing. To an extent, this is forgivable considering that death is a new experience for the robots. For beings abruptly faced with inevitable annihilation, a persistent trepidation is a natural reaction. Humans, despite experiencing death for around 200,000 years, still widely suffer from denial and death anxiety.

The sentimentality and melodrama are usually complemented with slow strings or an acoustic guitar. The action scenes are scored more aggressively, often utilizing tremolo strings or heavy horns like those heard in 90s historical-action. Sometimes there’s no score at all, and the scene is simply textured with the ambient sounds of wind, rain, or debris.

The overall style is retro by 2016 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 empathetic viewers. The one prominently featured 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 repetition, occasional missteps in characterization, and some massive 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.

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High School DxD New

High_School_D×D_NewA more fitting title for this anime would have been High School BEF—BEF for boobs, exposition, and fights. The first word spoken in the first episode is “oppai” (breasts); some stuff is explained, usually with boobs in the frame; then a long fight scene soon followed, with boobs. Repeat ad nauseam.

On the plus side, the fanservice was impressively gratuitous and occasionally diverse (needed more Souna and less Gasper though), and the artwork was better than average for an ecchi anime. The gainaxing was sometimes animated with surprising realism, and the perverse attention to pantsu details was commendable; it looked like some girls had a different pair for each episode.

Disappointingly, the lukewarm characterization and story made it difficult to engage with anything. Issei, the main male character, had a personality that volleyed unconvincingly between lusting pervert and nice guy. His shtick, which hadn’t evolved since the first season, is beyond stale at this point. And the girls in Issei’s harem are still shallow archetypes with little agency to reach outside of their designated roles.

These faults could have been overlooked if the story hadn’t taken itself so seriously with abrupt asspulls to justify its game-esque action sequences. With the exception of some chuckle-worthy moments scattered about, the brief attempts at humor often stemmed from cliché overreactions and yelling.

High School DxD New had the potential of joining the ranks of Bakemonogatari and To Love-Ru as one of the few non-crappy ecchi-harem anime. With less contrived drama, more surprises, and better comedy, it could have been more consistently entertaining.

Robot on the Road

tumblr_nvkw4ni72M1r3rdh2o1_1280Hiroyuki Okiura, the director and master animator responsible for some of the most beautiful and hyper realistic scenes in anime, has apparently turned to the dark side. After working on such classics like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh, and Paprika, Okiura has written and directed what could be arguably classified as an ecchi anime.

With the exception of Bakemonogatari, Prison School, and a handful of other titles, ecchi anime are often produced with tight budgets, have average or below average art and animation, and their stories are rarely good enough to warrant a rating over a 6. While the story in Robot on the Road is about a low 7, the art and animation are exceptional, and are the main redeeming value of this 10 minute short.

Character designs are crisp and clean, similar to those used in A Letter to Momo, which was also written and directed by Okiura. Moreover, as is the case with much of Okiura’s work, the art and animation quality is often so good that it looks rotoscoped. When the female protagonist gestures quickly or jumps, not a motion in her hair or breasts is overlooked. When the camera cuts to a close-up of her underwear, every detail is drawn out for maximum awkwardness.

The fanservice and gags are propelled by the antics of a perverted, cowboy hat wearing robot. The female protagonist spots him hitchhiking on the side of the road, and she picks him up because—hey, why not? Very little that follow makes much sense outside of ecchi comedy logic, but it’s probably not meant to since it is a comedy afterall.

You can watch Robot on the Road on animatorexpo.com. An option for English subtitles is available on the page. NSFW: contains nudity.

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.

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.

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.