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.

Akanesasu Shoujo

In the hopes of escaping to a new, possibly better, place, the girls of the “Radio Research Society” meet under the sacred tree to perform the “4:44 Ceremony.” According to an urban legend, performing this ritual at 4:44pm, while listening to radio static tuned to just the right frequency, will open a gateway to another world. It’s a premise we’ve seen in similar forms before.

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Of the five members in the club, most of them don’t expect the 4:44 Ceremony to actually do anything, and only participate as a fun social activity. Asuka, a cheerful girl who dons a big red hair ribbon, has the most faith that the ritual will eventually succeed. Yuu, the reason-oriented president of the club, and Asuka’s closest friend, is the most skeptical. All of the girls like each other to some extent, establishing a welcoming vibe to the group.

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Chloe, the modest one who—for some reason—peppers her speech with French phrases, finds a crystal near the sacred tree. When she places it in a specialized radio, she finds an odd sound at the 0633.1 AM frequency. The group elects to perform the ceremony at this frequency, and unexpected things start to happen—including the emergence of some suspicious snow bunnies, and, most surprisingly, another Asuka. The cheerful Asuka playfully nicknames this other Asuka “Seriouska”—a portmanteau of “serious” and “Asuka”—due to her more serious demeanor.

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When the 4:44 Ceremony succeeds, all five girls are transported together to another world, and the one wearing the headphones merges with a version of themselves in that world. This provided some of the most interesting and often humorous moments, particularly when Asuka and Seriouska were involved. We see each of the principle characters live through another version of themselves, and confront the choices and regrets of that other self. This aspect of the story gave an otherwise familiar premise some psychological weight.

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Hostile forces from a “Twilight” realm trail them, antagonize them, and create turmoil for everyone in its wake. It’s believed that a king in this Twilight is the root cause. Initially, the group tries to avoid this king, but they soon realize they have no choice but to confront him (her or it) to protect themselves and the inhabitants of these other worlds. Honestly, I would’ve preferred less emphasis on these parts, and more emphasis on the main characters confronting their other selves. But I understand that taking such a route may not have been as entertaining for a lot of people.

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Two little-known studios, DandeLion Animation Studio and Juumonji, did a really nice job on the production. Aside from one or two wonky frames here and there, the 2D art and animation was mostly polished, and the 3D computer animation for the action scenes wasn’t too jarring when it appeared. There’s still that moment when you go, “Oh, it’s in 3D now.”, but it doesn’t take too long to adjust to the transition.

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My interest in this series was initially piqued when I saw clips of the gloriously over-the-top action scenes going around on Twitter. My expectations started at, “Maybe I could watch this as a filler show between JoJo episodes…”, and ended at “That was actually fun!” If you don’t mind seeing some things you may have seen before, and aren’t bothered by the occasional fanservice, you could have a good time with Akanesasu Shoujo.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.