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.

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.

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.

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.

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.