Akemi's Anime World

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Initial Impressions of Code E, Gargoyle of the Yoshinagas, Ergo Proxy, Ariel

Ran through a couple episodes each of a bunch of random stuff to see what to put on the list next, so a few notes:

Code E: Set in (at least initially) a pleasant, realistic near-future Japan, starring a pleasant girl somewhat traumatized by her being a walking EMP weapon. Whenever she gets emotional—good or bad—she essentially blows up anything electric or electronic in a ten meter radius, which in a realistically high tech country makes you rather unpleasant to stand near, and has her parents moving around repeatedly whenever people start to get suspicious of why their cell phone goes out every time she’s in the room. Thus far she’s a very likable character—afraid of her own shadow; somewhat depressed about having to move around constantly, avoid getting too excited, and never stand near electronics, yet trying her best to be cheerful; and relatively believable for the superficially quiet-girl-with-glasses moe type. Her slightly quirky parents are pleasingly not-absent. The first episodes are low key, but have some great bits of her walking around taking notes on what rooms not to get too close to and looking longingly at a cell phone store—great body language. Also like that it’s constantly tossing off technology going on the fritz every time she walks by—everything from the electronic blackboard to soda machines. I like things that mix slice-of-life and fantasy/sci-fi elements smoothly like that—reminds me of Dennou Coil, except cute and funny instead of creepy and adventurous. Geeky, crazy “science can fix this!” romantic interest looks to be one direction its going, but there’s obviously going to be more—looking forward to seeing where exactly it’s headed (particularly since the sequel jumps ahead four years and apparently changes things up a lot). I also like the soft art and character animation, though her mom lacks a nose except in profile.

What’s up with the intro, though? The soundtrack is in the funky, high-energy Read or Die/Baccano! vein, but the visuals are completely mundane and just as completely unrelated.

Gargoyle of the Yoshinagas: So far, this series runs entirely on Norio Wakamoto’s trademark overdramatic acting. You’ve basically got a somewhat crazy family (mom at one point suplexes the daughter, which scored points with me) who ended up with a sentient gargoyle statue  guarding their house. What makes this particularly funny is that A) The gargoyle is chatty and voiced by Norio Wakamoto, and B) While it can teleport at will, speak to (and translate for) animals, and shoot various destructive beams from its eyes, it is not animated—it’s completely static. The camera also almost never shows it teleporting. This leads to great scenes where someone will turn around and, boom, there he is—on a bed, behind them, wherever. Mix of mildly creepy and hilarious. Additional humor from his complete, honorable commitment to his duty to guard them despite at least the daughter not wanting to be guarded at all (he keeps frying the paper boy)—he’s Norio Wakamoto, who of course does not take “please stop” for an answer. It appears to be setting up a superhero team of sorts, consisting of inanimate superpowered gargoyle who can teleport anywhere in the city and rage-prone middle-school-girl who cannot.

The mix of crazy characters, bizarre setting, and unexpectedly not-bizarre drama (first episode features a seeing-eye dog and a girl realistically traumatized by the dog’s apparent inability to protect her from kidnappers) brings Kazoku Kyouran Nikki to mind, though this series isn’t anywhere near that crazy, or that caffeinated. (Also appears to have a somewhat younger age target, though it might just be the youthful-looking, Geobreeders-esque character designs making me think that.) Still, the premise and execution is funny enough I’m definitely willing to give it a few more episodes.

Ergo Proxy: Looks to be something like a cross between Witch Hunter Robin and Blade Runner, with some Ghost in the Shell mixed in. One of those dripping-with-style, oh-so-dark stories with a plot built around a huge, convoluted conspiracy. About a dystopian future, with the well-connected but low-ranking young female protagonist stumbling into a plot related to some kind of crazed superweapon creatures called Proxies, all of which is shadowy and involved enough that it’s entirely unclear what’s going on yet. Plusses are that it’s gorgeous—expensive, fluid animation, punchy action scenes with just a touch of Matrix style, involved backgrounds and well-lit-yet-somehow-dreary settings, and the distinctive goth-y style of the protagonist (I was surprised with how much I liked the execution of her heavy eye makeup—somewhat unusual look even for this sort of anime). Also like her personality—blunt and somewhat angry, but also human, including signs of emotional weakness that a stereotypical take on the hard-edged girl wouldn’t go near (when she has a frightening run-in with a monster, she doesn’t break down, but she is terrified). I love the assistive robots that are everywhere; the protagonist’s helper, Iggy, has no face or expressions, but the speech patterns and personality of a friendly, pleasant 5o-year-old woman… despite having a huge, muscular-looking masculine body and definitely male voice. Even better when at one point he’s instructed to turn off Turing Mode, at which point he immediately switches to simple monotone statements with no personality at all. On that note, the Japanese dialogue is well-written, and I like the acting so far.

The plot may or may not be interesting; too ill-explained to know yet. It is doing a decent job of keeping the viewer clued in about what they’re supposed to be picking up about the unfolding conspiracy, by using the protagonist’s internal monologue and relatively straightforward analysis of things (she mercifully stays away from vague dialogue). Weaknesses are frankly hard to tell; the story isn’t immediately gripping, and it’s deliberate and dark enough not to appeal strongly to my personal taste, but it’s interesting enough to watch more of, and it’s one of those series you don’t can’t tell whether it’s going somewhere interesting or not until you’ve seen a good chunk of it.

Ariel: Not Deluxe; turned out that there are two episodes preceding Ariel Deluxe, both of which were also translated by USM way back when and never made it to DVD. Again the series has all the components for a really great, Shinesman-style underhanded parody: Underfunded corporate alien invasion terrified of the prospect of an audit, three sisters piloting the giant robot who really don’t want to, a competent-but-crazy grandfather who built the way-too-feminie thing (there appears to be robotic camel-toe on the box cover, though I’m hoping it’s just an odd angle), and several scenes of his not-quite-all-there applications of super technology. Having a harrier pick them up at home was a nice bonus touch—it’s not like they’re hiding their side-job as planet-savers.

And, again, the execution just isn’t quite there—the whole thing feels weirdly low-energy and way too slow, lacking almost any sense of comic timing. Yes, the humor is supposed to be deadpan—I love that sort of thing—but it feels like half the show consists of dead air between lines. Not for lack of budget, to be sure—the animation is expensive and fluid, especially so when you consider the vintage and detailed linework.

Still kind of enjoyable, but fails badly to capitalize on a hilarious concept. The jokes are right there, it’s just not delivering them right. I’d love to see a remake of this show with a director who knew what he was doing.

Aoi Hana Manga vs. Anime (as of Book 5)

Despite the anime being a huge letdown at the end (or rather because it was), I read through the Aoi Hana/Sweet Blue Flowers manga version to see where it might be going.

The 11 episode anime (weird number—I can’t think of anything else that’s below the standard 12-13-episode-long season range) follows the first 18 chapters (three books) very closely. Through about 17 it’s practically line-for-line the same (the anime actually adds a little more to some conversations, and in fact one of my favorite little bits was barely noticeable in the manga). The final episode of the anime somewhat rearranges the sort-of-montage wrapping up the remainder of the school year in the last couple of chapters, but even that is pretty close.

There are only two plot changes.   The smaller is that one chapter of the vacation interlude (ch. 15) was removed entirely (or rather mentioned but not shown).  This segment mainly served to introduce Kyoko’s apparently severe family problems. I can see why it was skipped; though it sets up the beginning of a very slow build into her backstory/problems, it would have made it even more obvious that the story wasn’t finished yet, while the end of the anime as-is could theoretically stand on its own as an end, albeit one that leaves things frustratingly unconcluded. The omitted section could also easily be moved to later if a second season is produced (even put in the right spot chronologically via flashback—the series does that occasionally with other things within its own main timeline).

The other change is more major, but I assume was done for the same reason—to set the anime up such that it could theoretically stand on its own if a second season is never produced, and set the final couple episodes up as more of a finale. In the manga, Fumi realizes (and mentions) that Akira was her first love much earlier, rather than at the very end. The manga also only does a bit with Fumi’s sort-of-jealousy about Akira going shopping with Kou, using it to introduce the idea that Akira wasn’t just her first love, but someone she still feels for (it doesn’t even bother to show the follow through of it indeed being nothing—Fumi’s assumption of such is enough). The anime, in contrast, plays the event through to a happy conclusion, and uses that as the prod that reminds Fumi that Akira was her first love.

That does provide a vague sort-of-conclusion, instead of the very definitely not-yet-finished sense of unease that following the manga more closely would have ended on. Not much of an improvement, but a little. It’s certainly not enough to satisfy me, though, and I’m rather glad the sense things were just getting going was right. For that matter, the message, if left there, would be “adolescence is sometimes fun, but nobody you love will love you back (and the resulting depression will creep into every area of your life).” Not exactly… romantic. Something you might write a story about (it may well still be where the whole thing is going—not sure yet), but not romantic, nor something I particularly enjoy stories about.

(Non-sequitur side note: Emma, now that’s real romance, in a deep, involved, substantive way even with all the avoidance, hurt feelings, and drama.)

Where was I… As for the manga, books 4 and 5 initially appear to slip a little at first when it leaves the whole Sugimoto thing on asomewhat unsatisfying note and adds several new characters (particularly a very energetic new first-year student starting at Fujigatani, Ohno Haruka). It initially jumps around enough to make me feel like I was losing a bit of a grasp on who all was who (several of them look similar enough that, combined with slightly loose page layouts and unfocused word bubbles, I occasionally lost track—probably wouldn’t be a problem in anime due to somewhat more solid art and voices making it easy to tell who’s talking).

However, once Fumi confesses that she’s still got feelings for Akira things rapidly get interesting again, enough that I was willing to forget my dissatisfactions with the vague end to the whole Sugimoto arc. Even more so when, as hinted early on in a flashback of her relationship with Chizu, she tells Akira that she is most definitely not talking about idealized hand-holding puppy love. As with coming right out with the L word I was pleased to see the comic go there in no uncertain terms. (In a way escalation of things makes sense, given that the characters are moving quickly toward adulthood, though of course Fumi’s physical relationship was when she was significantly younger, not to mention with someone significantly older and a relative on top of it, adding an additional layer of impropriety.) The drama looks to be getting meatier, the stakes upped, and generally speaking it seems to be going somewhere interesting.

Which does leave me wondering why it took so long to get there; I feel like it was a little too leisurely through the first year of school, when there was time and room for either more to happen or it could have been shortened to something a little more punchy. The anime, likewise, could have easily been much shorter without losing anything, though to get to a stopping point at the end of the first season I can see why you’d want to drag your feet through year one, as it’d be almost impossible to find a satisfying might-be-the-end spot anywhere past there.

(Come to think of it, maybe that’s where the weird 11 episode length came from; there flat out wasn’t enough material to pad it for another episode.)

My main complaint, though, is that the increasing number of girl-interested characters is pushing it back in the opposite direction from the relative realism of the first three books, over toward Maria Watches Over Us territory. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but after establishing a comparatively realistic setting and some straight characters it just seems to be overloading the sapphic end of the spectrum—if everybody is a lesbian it sort of deflates the social awkwardness of it and impact of coming-out and such. This perhaps annoys me in particular because I don’t like soap operas.

To define, I mean I prefer stories focused on a small group of characters in more depth, so the more people that get added on as potential romantic interests the closer you get to the character overload and tangled mess of plot that ends up (in my mind) sinking so many long-running comics and TV series. Books 1-3 of Aoi Hana didn’t feel that way, 4-5 seem to be threatening, though not yet nearly enough to stop me from wondering what’s going to happen next (and in general it’s doing a good job of keeping me guessing as to how things are going to play out).

Part of what gives me that feeling are some brief “bonus” chapters showing fragments of story from the pasts of other, peripheral characters (for example, Sugimoto’s sisters). There’s nothing wrong with these, but frankly they add nothing to the main story and break up the flow by distracting you with unrelated things and a bunch more characters to keep track of. I’m all for substantive backstory, and I’m in no position to complain if the author feels like drawing up some of the events of the past with the other characters she’s created, but from a narrative standpoint they feel pointless. (They’re also a little bit disorganized in terms of narrative flow, feeling like truncated excerpts more than side-stories.) I suppose I should probably just skip them, since they’re not at all important (at least thus far) to the main story.

To toss in some more technical notes, the artwork features sparse, airy linework, but unlike a lot of shoujo manga it has detailed, concrete backgrounds in most scenes (the process of collecting photos of Kamakura and its environs are discussed in some author notes at the end of each book). There’s an acceptable sense of realism to the character positioning, and I can see how that could have translated into the wonderful character animation of the anime. Speaking of which, the character designs (and background art style) are as faithful to the comic as everything else in the anime.

Bottom line, I’m looking forward to book 6, and if the series sticks to three books each for years two and three of high school and stops there, rather than trying to spiral into something epic and out-of-control in college and beyond, it may well add up to a satisfying whole. Here’s hoping that, at minimum, they animate another three books’ worth into a second season, as it’d be wonderful to see the new material onscreen, particularly if the character animation, mood, and treatment is kept to the same level.

Valkyria Chronicles Post-viewing Notes

Boy did they screw this show up.

It had a somewhat shaky start, but was looking pretty good around the midpoint, during the liberation of Fouzen. Different from the game’s plot, but the ways in which it fleshed out things with Zakka and Rosie was a strong point. Turns out that was pretty much the strong point. Everything from there until the final two episodes is a rapid slide downhill into angst-overkill, uncomfortably slow pacing, overblown histrionics, and weak characterization for pretty much everybody but Faldio. Oh, and a complete lack of action outside the wicked (yet wickedly spoiler-riffic) second-season intro. The last two episodes do finally pull it together somewhat on all fronts, but it’s too little too late.

It’s telling—and saddening—that there are exactly four specific things that the anime did better, or at least as well as, the game’s plot sections. It’s tragic that the game is between somewhat and vastly superior in pretty much every other detail and general metric of quality storytelling—narrative flow, pacing, dramatic tension, character development, action, logic, emotional impact, twists, and “big” scenes around which a plot is built. When you take into account that the game is, by definition, broken up by hour-long strategy/action gameplay portions and much of the plot consists of dialogue with character headshots, nothing more, it’s both impressive how good the game’s story was and how badly the anime flubbed an adaptation of it. Really, when an illustrated radio drama of the same material is kicking your butt in terms of dramatic quality, you’re doing something very, very wrong.

The good areas were: The final denouement of Maximillian and fate of Faldio were cleaner and more logical in the anime (that was really the only flaw in the game’s last few chapters—it worked dramatically in concept, but felt contrived). There was some cool stuff with the tank in the very early episodes. Faldio’s character, and the romantic angle with Alicia, is more fleshed out. And the liberation of Fouzen had some interesting additional angles between Zakka and Rosie.

I suppose if you want to be generous you could also say that Jager and Selveria get some additional fleshing out, though both of their characters stopped making much sense late in the story and of course Jager never actually does anything but look cool in the anime (also, what’s with the random shot of Jager wandering by in the epilogue?).

Everything else is a laundry list of what not to do, particularly since there’s such a clear example of how the exact same material should have been done. There’s the whole Alicia/Welkin romantic tension thing—it spends way too long dragging the angst out (nearly the entire second season), and when things finally do come together for them it’s got nowhere near the impact of some of the beautifully romantic—and emotionally potent, not to mention visually beautiful to boot—scenes late in the game.

Character-wise, there’s Welkin, who goes from a quirky but capable commander who pulls miracles out of dark situations with a combination of clever strategy and crazy plans in the game (and early part of the anime) to a bland foil for Faldio who really doesn’t do much of anything for half the series, nor give any indication why people would be so willing to follow him unwaveringly. Alicia is better, but also sort of a slave to the plot late in the anime, in comparison to the much less overblown, but also more engaging, treatment of her newfound abilities in the game’s story. Adding in that the game is hamstrung somewhat by the need to keep her at a reasonable power level for gameplay purposes and it’s particularly glaring how much worse the anime feels in contrast. Selvaria is better, but even her characterization sort of falls apart, in comparison to the much more sharp construction of the tragedy of her fate in the game.

Or how about the failure to build drama. By not taking the time to elaborate on the history of Gallia and the Darksen Calamity, the eventual reveal relative to reality-versus-history-books doesn’t have anywhere near the impact it could have. Same for the reveal with Alicia—it was already hinting blatantly at that early on and the second-season intro completely blows it, whereas the game did a very good job of keeping its cards close to its chest, in particular putting the revealing bits out-of-sequence so you only saw them after the reveal.  From “Ooh, surprising.” and “Clever way of laying out the story segments.” to complete dramatic giveaway.

Same goes for the aftermath of her transformation—the angst is drawn out so long you stop caring. In fact, despite you only hearing about it in the game, there’s more impact when she talks about how some people are worshipping her as a god and others are afraid of her than the anime manages in several episodes of hammering it in. (Of course, since they almost completely failed to set up the quasi-religion surrounding the Valkyria in the anime, they didn’t exactly have the option…)

Even the handling of Isara’s sudden death seemed less abrupt and wrenching, though I’ll admit that might have been because I knew it was coming. The aftermath initially started out looking like an interesting version of coping for Welkin, but went on too long and then stumbled at the end with unnecessary histrionics. (Honestly—crumpling in a heap sobbing is more dramatically effective than slightly-overacted screaming.) Worse was that it had set up Welkin’s deadness as a contrast to his usual cheerful demeanor, except after that point he continues to act rather similar—which is to say boring—for the remainder of the series.

Then there’s the total lack of action for the entire second season. Yes, it’s drama, but it’s also a war. Frankly, after the first half-dozen episodes (where there’s some nifty tank combat), there’s almost nothing at all until very late when there’s some superpowered Valkyrian fighting and one bit with Faldio doing some actual battle strategy. “War” sequences consist of people crouching behind cover talking, and occasionally firing some shots at inspecific targets… and there are barely any of those. Honestly, it’s based on a strategy game—you could at least make the effort to have the tiny amounts of combat in a war story look a bit more realistic. There’s a serious lack of any sense of competence in the battles, and way too much emphasis on anime-cliche screaming. The last couple episodes finally equip people with some more appropriate weapons and let them do a little real combat, but even there it’s on the awkward side. No tanks to be found anywhere, either, which was sad since the animators obviously knew how to do that right.

Most glaring on the action front was the big fight between the two Valkyrians—the game’s short cinematic was flat-out spectacular (heck, it’s what would be a boss fight, except you’re just watching instead of playing… and it’s so cool I didn’t mind), particularly the character animation of the barely-conscious Alicia staggering out onto the battlefield. That was a fantastic moment in the game, from the sense that Alicia really is just barely able to stay on her feet to the short-but-awesome fight that follows. The anime tries to do something similar, and while it’s not bad, it’s also not anywhere near as memorable. Well, that, and that the second-season intro was by far the best action scene in the entire series—it goes and gets you primed for something it never even considers delivering on (nor does anything even close to the scene depicted ever happen).

And if you want singular images, everything from the drawbridge battle, to the big kiss, to the bittersweet romantic moment shared in Bruhl, to the spectacular rescue at the end tying Isara back into things was just plain far better in the game’s version. The only one the anime didn’t flub was the attack of the Marmota on the Gallian capital, which they had the good sense to pull almost directly from the game. Oh, and the epilogue was drastically better in the game.

Other frustrations: They picked an odd set of specific characters to be the core Squad 7 members—Edy and Homer, I understand, but what is 12-year-old shock trooper Aisha—one of the few borderline-silly characters in the game, and the closest thing it even has to a “moe”-type— doing in there? Not to mention the background buzz-cut guy who’s so forgettable I can’t even remember his name. But what really doesn’t make sense is that, despite having 26 episodes with plenty of extra time—the whole second season seemed to drag—they offer essentially zero backstory or side-stories for any of them. Heck, you learn more about their personalities and backstory from the single page of descriptive text and their random comments during battles that the game provides than the anime bothers with. Even an episode of 5-minute vignettes about how each got into the militia would have been an improvement. (I’m also moderately enraged that Jane never shows up—heck, even in-joke character Vyse gets a cameo.)

The bottom line is you could take the major plot sequences of the game, string them together and edit it down to 26 half-hour episodes, and it’d have been better in almost every way but amount (not quality) of character animation than a medium-budget 2-season anime adaptation. Disappointing to put it mildly.