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Allison and Lillia: Crash and Burn

This series (really two related series—it should have been Allison and Will then Lilia and Treze, like the books) deserves a full review. Some notes after finishing the final episode:

The first season is more or less unreservedly good; pretty, lilting intro, interesting WWI-era technology European-styled alternate world with plenty of interesting stuff going on, loads-of-fun characters, high adventure, and a dose of drama without too much serious. Allison (it is named after her, after all) steals the show as a heroine with far more guts and drive than brains who drags the somewhat resigned-t0-his-fate Will along for the ride on all manner of crazy adventures.

That said, it’s really an ensemble show, with several other characters (all of them older than the main duo) having plenty of significant stuff to do. They’re a little older than they seem, by the way—I’d have guessed 15, but based on the ages mentioned explicitly later, they’re probably 16 at the start working their way up to 18 by the end.

The stories are told in 4-episode arcs (presumably corresponding to the light novels it’s based on), which keeps things lively and compartmentalized. All three in the first season are fun—some mystery, some characters-trying-to-figure-out-what-the-scheme-is sleuthing, sufficient action, and a bit of drama and character development.

It goes out of its way to stay fun and “gentle”, with a very low body count and the main characters working very hard at not killing anybody (and the series going out of its way to help them). Which is why it seems rather weird to throw in a violent bit of character revelation toward the end which I can’t mention in any detail whatsoever without blowing a major plot point. Still trying to figure out how to go about that with a full review.

The flaws are that the animation is occasionally noticeably weak, once in a while it goes a step too far in cleanly wrapping things up, and the final episode pulls a major character change that may or may not make sense—it skips 4 years—but either way we’re not given anywhere near enough information to have it make any sense at all. It also totally gyps the viewer out of the big kiss in the next-to-last episode, but that I can I suppose forgive (though it seemed completely unnecessary).

The second season, set 19 years later (15 after the last episode) and following Allison and her teenaged daughter is almost as good. Almost because it’s still got fun, adventure, some action, relatively involved plots, and though Lilia isn’t quite Allison since she seems to have inherited the worst parts of her parents’ personalities (dad’s tendency to panic and mom’s crazy streak and lack of brains) she’s plenty of fun. Treze is a little too competent to be as much fun as Will, but he’s got a good reason to be.

Fortunately Allison and the rest of the crew are still around and making a reasonable amount of trouble, so it’s not all about the kids. Also, Allison is a fantastically bad parent in just about every department which is somewhere between fun and making you feel sorry for Lilia. Again I’m not sure how to even discuss it without totally blowing a bunch of stuff plot wise, but there are major secrets about Lilia’s heritage that basically EVERYBODY but her are in on, and for no particularly good reason.

However, the series a couple of times whips out major “murky morals” reveals that don’t directly affect the plot in ANY way, but change major characters from being sympathetic to borderline evil. For NO reason I can figure. Now, I can fully understand “bound by duty, even when it is difficult”, but these go WAY beyond any of that as far as the series explains and into “Ok, that’s pointlessly heartless for NO reason at all.” territory to the point that it half-ruined it for me by sapping all sympathy from otherwise likable characters.

Even if I write that off as a bungled novel-to-anime adaptation issue or terrible writing, though, the last episode is one of the worst story-satisfaction disasters I have ever seen. And I’m an anime fan—we practically expect series to go to hell at the end.

Basically it tosses a significant and basically pointless reveal in toward the end for no reason, COMPLETELY skips at least one major character development point that had been set up from minute one of the season, and the end just plain doesn’t make sense. It could make sense, if they explained to us what the hell happened, but they don’t. In a series that is basically defined, plot-wise, by setting up involved plots with multiple parties working toward multiple ends and the main characters (and viewer) trying desperately to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late.

I literally couldn’t believe that there wasn’t an extra scene waiting after the credits that was going to have the end make at least some degree of sense, but no.

Such a disaster of jettisoned sub-plots I have not seen since Lain, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a series that left me so angry at the lack of a simple explanation for what happened off screen.

Still a lot of fun, but I almost wish I’d have just stopped watching at episode 12 of season 1—it’d have all been fun and satisfying then.

Code Geass Midpoint Notes

Code Geass is one of those series that you know exactly where it’s going from minute one: Everybody is going to die, horribly, after having been utterly destroyed mentally, unless continuing to live is more tragic than dying. Since the end is more or less visible, part of the fun, at least to me, is trying to guess how, exactly, the characters will be broken.

So far I’m relatively impressed with the series; the buildup to the crushing tragedy is nice and slow, and the first season even sneaks in a couple of unexpectedly playful episodes of schoolyard romance and mild hijinks to keep it from being a total downer (plus the Shakespearean happy-tragedy cadence).

Lelouch is an interesting antihero main character in that he is calculating, supremely confident, and absolutely merciless in his plotting (which in and of itself is a refreshing difference from standard sappy moralizing and uncertain heroes)—to him the ends most certainly justify any means—but he’s also far from perfect. His elaborate plans are impressive but he deals very badly with unexpected developments throwing a wrench into them, and he’s not an ultimate mech pilot—in fact he routinely gets his ass kicked, and very specifically lets other, better pilots take the cool badass mechs so he can pull strings from the rear lines. It’s also fun to see him squirm when everyday life throws him schoolyard hijinks-style curve balls.

The series also distinguishes itself for being notably brutal—in the first episode, this hero uses his newfound power (he can issue one absolute order to anyone that they will obey) to command a group of soldiers to kill themselves, which they promptly do. It pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to both general cruelty of the Britannian empire and with the main characters doing what they must to fight these oppressors. Certainly sets up moral ambiguity that actually works—the heroes are brutal and cruel, but then the Britannian empire is so bad that it’s hard to imagine any other strategy bearing much fruit. This is of course where Lelouch’s foil, a goody-two-shoes kid with a big uber-nasty mech comes in—he thinks he can change the Empire from within, but is basically a tool of theirs not doing much different from the rest of them.

As of just past the end-of-season-1 halfway point the series is holding my attention solidly; Lelouch’s battle plans are involved and intelligent enough to keep that end of things interesting (it’s the planning and execution that are the focus of the action more than the flashy mech fights, though there are a few of those), the human drama is predictably dark but still well characterized and engaging, and Lelouch continues to be a likable anti-hero. The rest of the ensemble cast—though he’s definitely the focus—is varied and interesting, and are only beginning to be set up for their individual and inevitable catastrophic falls into their personal hells. That they’re mostly likable enough for you to wish it wasn’t going to go oh-so-wrong for them makes the tragedy sweeter and the story interesting

Perhaps a bit surprisingly for such an extreme shoujo series there are no hints of yaoi at all, though there is a pointed bit of lesbian desire. The one relatively graphic scene used to illustrate it (I assume it was cut for the US TV broadcast—I have to wonder how much else they edited) caught me by surprise, though I didn’t like the dark overtones. Maybe that’s just me projecting, though—as usual with anything lesbian in anime that doesn’t take place in a Christian girls’ school it has “tragic end” written all over it, but everything in this series has tragic end written all over it, so maybe that scene just felt dark when it could have been taken straight. Regardless, I did like that it unequivocally brushed aside the sort of platonic romance cop-out that a lot of yuri-overtoned stuff seems to take. And either way, she’s a very minor character in the grand scheme of things.

There is one other weird thing about the series (I’ve been watching fansubs, not whatever ended up on US TV, so I have no comparison there); the episodes are numbered logically, which is to say that the periodic recap episodes—of which there are an unusually large number—are numbered as “half” episodes, making them easy to completely skip (which we have, given that there are so many of them).

There are also some  radio-drama-style “bonus” in between episodes that I assume were tossed in as a DVD extra or something; they’re voice only with a few still images to illustrate but no animation, and are numbered appropriately to fit in between main episodes (0.5, 6.75, etc). What’s interesting is that the conversations in them often reveal relatively useful bits of information about the characters or backstory or such that make the following episode(s) make more sense (particularly the one at the beginning), but for the most part the visuals are absolutely shameless fanservice—so dirty, though there’s technically no detailed nudity (technically). Meaning they’re actually interesting to watch from a story standpoint, but make me feel sleazy for watching, and kind of cheapen the drama of the rest of the series. Does make for a break from the crushing tragedy, though, and there are a few very good jokes in them.

We’ll see how season 2 goes now that things have kicked into high gear with the tragedy and systematic destruction of the characters. So far so good.

Coyote Ragtime Show Notes

This looked like about as blatant a ripoff of Cowboy Bebop as you could possibly make. Retro-future, outlaws, musical genre in the title, if they’d been trying any harder they’d have just called it Kowboy Hiphop.

Surprisingly enough, it’s not actually a shameless ripoff at all. In fact, other than the retro-future setting (which isn’t even particularly close to Cowboy Bebop’s), it’s a lot more like a short string of caper flicks with a decent sci-fi polish and some over-the-top action (not, however, John Woo overload—more just the modern bulletproof hero leaping off things overkill sort of stuff).

The music is acceptable, but isn’t a big deal and doesn’t try to be; I wonder if they didn’t toss the Ragtime into the title to capitalize on the Bebop phenomenon. In fact, I don’t think that word is ever mentioned during the series. (They’re called Coyotes, hence the other half of the title. Well, and it’s a show, but that goes without saying.)

Geeky note: I got a new sound rig about halfway through watching this series so I ended up using it to tune the thing so the dialogue sounded ok.  I learned: the 5.1 channel sound is decent, but center channel is rather quiet even with a properly adjusted system, meaning either it’s hard to hear or the music and a few of the sound effects are really loud from the surrounds.

Where was I.  The capers are fun even if a few really don’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it, and the action is also fun so long as you don’t get too excited about the good guys speechifying while surrounded by a dozen bad guys with machine guns blaring away.

Its biggest draw, though, is that the characters are adults. Like, real, live, don’t-even-remember-puberty adults with grey hair and everything. Yes, there’s a cute little girl in it, but not only is she not particularly competent, but the main character, Mister (I have no idea what they were thinking with that one), probably in his 50s but he’s not, I repeat, not fading away as the next generation steps up. Quite the opposite, in fact—he’s the one stepping up to fill the recently-deceased outlaw-of-outlaws’ shoes. Given the youth-fetish of most anime (and Japanese culture in general in a lot of ways), this alone was practically worth the price of admission.

There are also a dozen goth/goth-loli (depending on age) cyborg (I think—if they ever made it clear they were or weren’t robots, I missed it) sisters who serve as the scary bad guys. As usual with this sort of thing they’re annoyingly overpowered and can kill anyone who’s not a main character with whatever is at hand in a second and a half flat, but that’s more or less stock for the overkill type of story this is, so love it or leave it. On the plus side, a couple of them got at least a little personality

Other than the cool-overload, the thing that bugged me the most was that when it gets to the end there were two or three relatively major sub-plots that were pretty much jettisoned. At least it didn’t ham-handedly wrap them up—just dropped them entirely (the backstory of the main villain and her relationship with Mister is the big one, but there’s some other stuff with Mister, the betrayal that cost the previous ultimate outlaw his life, and a bunch of background with the Sisters and their repairman that never went anywhere). Wide open for a sequel, though it doesn’t look like the sort of series that will ever have one made (and it’d be hard to top this one).

Other distinctive feature is the politicking that’s going on behind the scenes, which the main characters are aware of but mostly uninterested in. Made the world feel more realistic, although that in turn exposed some of the more extreme “we’re so badass nobody can stop us!” stuff.

Oh, and I must note poor Swamp. He’s got one of the craziest intros ever—he’s an only-partially-reformed outlaw currently operating as a Gospel preacher, so he’s introduced via a nice lively church service complete with gospel choir. Again, he’s a main character well into middle age (though he, unlike Mister, has some “I’m gettin’ too old for this.” in him), and he’s black without being a total caricature (no more than anybody else, anyway), which is rather uncommon. What’s sad, though, is that despite being in the series as one of the main cast from beginning to end, and doing plenty of stuff important enough to qualify him as one of the central cast, he is completely left out of the intro animation.

One of my friends was absolutely convinced he wasn’t going to survive more than a couple of episodes because, well, he’s not in the intro! Obviously not a main character, right? Given who else did show up in the intro, leaving him out felt like some kind of weird slight for no apparent reason.

Oh, the end animation is sort of stiff claymation. Yes, claymation. That was just sort of bizarre.

Last note, the animation is of wildly varying quality. Sometimes it looks very slick, other times noticeably crude, both in terms of frame rate and quality of character animation. The art is more consistent, but odd that the budget wasn’t spread out more evenly. Maybe one of the studios doing work on it just wasn’t up to snuff or something.

Overall enjoyable. Not particularly original, not quite my thing, but fun and there’s enough going on and enough ornery banter to keep my attention.