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Munto: Two Unrelated Shows in One

I bought Munto a while ago based entirely on the fact that the box looked vaguely interesting and it was dirt cheap. Just got around to watching it, and that was certainly not what I was expecting.

It’s not based on anything, and is written, directed, and has character designs by Yoshiji Kigami, so you know it’s one of those labor of love things that is entirely spawned from one guy’s head. I haven’t seen the second OAV (they’re each pretty long at 50 minutes or so) yet, but the first one is downright bizarre. Not bad, just… fractured.

See, there are two different things going on: A wild fantasy story about a floating world of magic fighting an apocalyptic battle against its neighbors over diminishing magic power (aka fossil fuel allegory), and a touching little slice-of-life story about a trio of adolescent friends, one of whom is planning a very small-scale romantic quest with her boyfriend while the other two try to make sense of it. They have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with each other, apart from a very vague symbolic coming-of-age connection and the fact that one girl in the latter is (completely arbitrarily) the key to saving the world in the former.

What would possess you to try and stuff both of these stories into the same show is somewhat baffling to me; the scale and mood are so utterly opposite, and they are so completely unrelated, that it’s nothing but confusing to have them mashed together. Or not mashed together, really—there’s no connection or overlap between them apart from the protagonist occasionally spacing out while someone from another dimension talks to her and her friends worry.

I actually really liked the romantic little real-world tale; it’s sweet, touching, and a bit unusual, with a very nice symbolic finale and some memorable but down-to-earth characters. It could have easily stood on its own as a 30-minute story with the rest cut out, and with a little fleshing out to movie length (or even just an hour) could have made for a very nice, low-key slice-of-life adolescent drama.

The fantasy story, on the other hand, has a whole lot of imaginative imagery, but spends most of its time in confusing backstory exposition about the history and mechanics of a world with nowhere near enough viewer connection to care the least bit what happens to it. There are potentially interesting people—the amusingly blandly-named Gus (a foreign god of some sort with a cheerful sidekick fighting against armies to protect his adopted homeland), the enemy leader fighting against Gus (who apparently has history with him), and a seer who (we see in brief flashback) gouged out her own eyes so that she could see the future path to saving her world. Then there’s title character Munto, who has no personality whatsoever apart from looking grim and being haughtily blunt the few times he talks. And that’s it—potential with no emotional hook. At all. The big, dramatic, world-saving finale at the end of part one is painfully cheesy—“Yes, I’ve accepted my unexplained responsibility so I can now use my hidden power to save the world.” Like we haven’t seen adolescent girls droning on about that one twenty times already, and it wasn’t even interesting the first time.

Now, even this story has enough imagination evident that it could have been spun into something interesting given sufficient time. Here, though, it’s almost comically rushed.

This is one of the few times when I’d love to read an interview with the writer/director—the only thing I can figure is that he had two completely unrelated ideas kicking around in his head, and when given the chance to animate one he couldn’t resist trying to get both on the screen.

Either idea alone is the kind of thing indie auteur Makoto Shinkai built his reputation on—big ideas with a core nugget of emotion that snaps into sharp focus at the last moment, with rich visual language and a sense of l0w-key normalcy with an undercurrent of nostalgia or melancholy. It’s certainly a beautiful-looking show—fluid, big-budget animation and lovely scenery in both the real world and the fantastic fantasy kingdom in the sky. And with the down-to-earth half of the story he actually comes close to the sort of thing Shinkai pulled off in 25 minutes with Voices of a Distant Star, which is saying something.

It’s just that the fantasy story is so simplistic, hollow, and full of confusingly random backstory it sort of overwhelms the emotional truth in the other half, and adds nothing other than the visual hints of what could have been so much more.

The result isn’t exactly bad, just… confusing, I guess. I’ll reserve judgement on a full review until I sit down to watch the second half (I finally got a copy off Amazon), which it was at least promising enough to want to watch (and was thankfully dirt-cheap).

Obviously somebody saw the potential in the idea, though, since it was resurrected five years later (which is to say last year) as a sequel/expansion TV series and manga adaptation. I’m very curious to see if it works given a full TV series to flesh things out, or if the emotional core just gets diluted—going to have to track that one down.

Sundome Finale Comments

My preordered copy of the final volume of Sundome arrived in the mail the day before yesterday, and despite a great deal of hesitation—I knew it was going to be depressing—I of course couldn’t resist reading it the moment I walked in the door. Bottom line is that while it loses just a bit of its steam toward the end, and the conclusion is somewhat disappointing for its lack of detail, it’s certainly consistent in what it is and what it’s saying right up to the last page, there’s a heck of a final full-team adventure, and for something that’s outright porn by almost any standard, emotionally powerful stuff. Certainly, on the whole, one of the more intriguing and disturbingly alluring series I’ve ever read.

I’m going to cut loose with the spoilers for the rest of this, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want to blow any surprises, just stop here.

Where Sundome was going was a little uncertain for most of the series—somewhere dark for sure, but just where wasn’t specific. Later it became pretty clear that the destination was Sahana’s death from her illness, and indeed that’s exactly where it ends. Interestingly, it never really does open up as to what all is going on around her; we never do find out who exactly the older man is (other than that he’s her doctor, which you could’ve guessed relatively early), or what specifically happened to her family (other than that they’re dead, which was implied early, and that she was apparently in an orphanage previously), or get any specific comments from her personally (past what she said to her fish and “I’m not taking you with me”) about what’s really going on in her head with her “plan” for everything.

This is both a plus and a minus. On the plus side, there’s never any exposition or dramatic reveals; we only know the most important little bits—that Sahana has a powerful bond with Aiba, but has no intention of opening up to him about her past or family. One could assume it’s too painful for her to think about, or perhaps it’s just that she wants Aiba to have no connection to her past at all, given their… unusual relationship, and that she’s not trying to hold him back, but to make him strong in her place. (I’m assuming here that the people we saw from the train were at the orphanage she was in; nothing else makes sense in context.)

On the minus side, after so many hints dropped and so many musings in Aiba’s head about what’s going on with Sahana and her past, I really wanted to know a little more about the backstory—even if he never got it, I wanted at least a bit in the way of specifics about just what kind of catastrophic tragedy put her where she is at the beginning of the story. (And actually, since he ends up working for the mysterious doctor, Aiba presumably does find out at least some of that eventually.) Most disappointing to me was that she never explained what she had originally meant when she asked Aiba to take her to the seaside; while it became a final adventure in the last moments of her life culminating the story, it wasn’t clear if she had originally intended him to take her ashes to be buried there, to take her to visit the orphanage, or something else. I’m assuming the former, but had that been stated explicitly it would have tied the final story together with more than just the implication that what had been a tragic request about death became an affirming quest about life.

Points, certainly, for not going through the expected series of dramatic reveals or info-dump at the end, though. The unwavering focus on the tiny world of the Roman Club and the core emotional bond between Sahana and Aiba was an interesting way to approach the whole story, and certainly left the entire thing with an air of mystery and unease.

Interestingly, the final volume does absolutely everything it can to make a story about an obsessed and devoted kid trying to take a dying 15-year-old-girl on one final adventure uplifting and upbeat. Which, frankly, doesn’t help that much—it’s still depressing, though certainly affecting if you’ve gotten caught up in the characters. And it’s no secret to anyone in the club by the end that she’s dying, and its quite satisfying in how the story eventually reveals that they all “get it” without going into any details or unnecessarily drawn-out drama—there are no big weepy scenes, no screaming, just commitment, teamwork, and Aiba’s increasingly unhinged devotion.

There are even some subtly powerful moments, top among them a shot of Sahana so weak she can barely move, lying in an ICU clean room, but having put her clothes on in preparation for Aiba coming to break her out for their final trip—emaciated and with her face not visible, capturing her isolation and weakness, yet showing her complete faith that he will come for her. There are a number of other poignant moments digging deeper into her, her way of thinking, and what the two of them mean to each other, but that particular image was the one that stuck with me. It also follows through with her already increasingly bony body, which was unsettlingly fragile even at the start—she isn’t just dying, she looks like it. That she can barely stand, yet has complete control over Aiba, is potent stuff.

Speaking of getting farther into Sahana’s head, there was one very important thing about her relationship with Aiba that I realized abruptly during the final volume that I was surprised I didn’t earlier; I’m not sure if this is because I’m dense, or if we weren’t supposed to get that until the end. It had already been established in book 7 what she was doing; being an ephemeral nobody herself—her parents were dead, she had no relatives, no friends, and no future—she was taking a nobody and building him from a weak child into somebody—a man with the strength and commitment to do anything. And, further, a person onto which she had indelibly imprinted her existence—someone through whom her influence would live on after she was dead and, to all the rest of the world, vanished. Aiba was, in essence, a statement (explicitly at the end of both of the final two books, and reiterated by the doctor)—“I existed.”

But what I hadn’t understood was why, earlier on, she established so clearly that she didn’t belong to him, only the other way around. At first I took this to be a sort of generic statement of domination, but the lack of commitment seemed weird given how obvious and powerful her love for him is by the end. Of course, it actually makes complete sense—she knew she was dying, so she would not commit to giving him something she could not. He was not allowed to “own” her, because he couldn’t—she wouldn’t be there for much longer, and he needed to live on after she was gone. So it was a combination of kindness to him and preparation for the inevitable—impressively nuanced stuff, and actually quite affecting when you think about it (a sentiment that may come from having a wife much older than I am who I will almost certainly watch die some day with much of my own life left). She even worked in the threat—temptation, really—of taking him with her, but then let go, telling him that he was not allowed to follow her, even if he wanted to. In essence, “I own you, and I will let you go when the time comes, but I do not belong to you, so you cannot stop me from leaving you behind.”

Maybe this was obvious to other people, of course—I’ve been known to miss really blunt things on occasion. It didn’t, so far as I could interpret, explain the whole “no sex” thing; maybe just an extension of the same possession issue, but there was the hint of something else there that I, at least, failed to pick up on.

I’ll close by commenting that the last issue does contain the only time that the sexual content seemed to get in the way of the emotional story rather than enhance it. While I can completely understand why Okada decided to put some sexual content into the final scene—it would have seemed out of character if he hadn’t—it just felt like the relative violence of it clashed with the otherwise beautiful imagery of stars, darkness, waves, and the two of them completely alone together. Perhaps that was the point, and it certainly didn’t ruin anything, but I fet like it didn’t quite mesh with everything else up to that point—the bit earlier that got him arrested in the ICU was plenty to get roughly the same point across (of him belonging to her and desiring her completely no matter what condition she was in). It wasn’t even that it seemed to be graphic sexual content for the sake of it—if anything it was restrained compared to a lot of other parts.

That was still a very minor blemish on an otherwise uniformly gripping, powerfully sexy, occasionally hilarious, darkly emotional, and all-around intriguing series. The sort of genre-warping thing you just plain don’t see pulled off very often, and almost never so well. I’m now curious to see what Okada is working on next, and if he can pull off something that unusual again.

RightStuf Annual Christmas Blowout

Not sure this is the kind of thing anybody cares about, but since I manage to bankrupt myself on RightStuf’s big 12 Days of Savings Christmas sale every year, and this year is no different, I thought I’d point out a few of the best deals they’ve got running.  As usual, they’ve extended the sale through December 23, so you’ve got over a week to either buy yourself or your loved ones Christmas gifts without getting out of your chair, or just stock up on a number of great series at great prices. Also, if you buy through the links here, you help support AAW without it costing you anything, which is good for one of us. As always, if you spend at least $50 and aren’t in a hurry, USPS economy shipping is free.

My personal favorites, many of which I bought (or already own):

Eden of the East complete set on blu ray or DVD.

Toradora season 1 box set (our review) for $35.

All things Slayers TV: best bet is a set of the first three seasons for a paltry $28, plus seasons 4 and 5 together on Blu-ray for $60 (they also have a set of all five seasons on DVD for $80, or seasons 4 and 5 individually for about $30).  I took advantage of this to replace my old Software Sculptors box sets with Funimation’s newer edition.

The entire 4-season box set of the yuri classic Maria Watches Over Us for $85, which I bought myself.

Armitage III, either both movies together for the ridiculously low price of $7 or just Dual Matrix for $3.50. If you haven’t seen Dual Matrix, add this to your order—it’s one of my all-time favorite action movies. Need to write a review of that, come to think of it.

EVA fans can pick up the complete platinum edition box set (that’s the remastered director’s cut version of the TV series) for $35, which is a very good price even if I’m not the biggest fan personally.

Battle Angel is yours for only $8, which you should buy if you don’t have it already—it’s one of the best OVA series there is.

Mahoromatic seasons 1 and 2 are only $13 each, which is a pretty good price (reader review).

The complete Azumanga Daioh thinpak set for only $25 (review) is hard to beat.

You can grab the OVA My Dear Marie and Cosplay Complex 2-pack for only $8; My Dear Marie is somewhat obscure, out of print, and quite entertaining (review). It’s ironic, because I bought this exact collection not two weeks ago off Amazon for $11 plus shipping through RightStuf’s Amazon Marketplace clearance outlet.

Castle of Cagliostro DVD for $8—if you don’t have it, get it (review).

The entire remastered Irresponsible Captain Tylor TV series (review) for a paltry $25—I very nearly replaced my 1st edition set with this just because.

The very snazzy special edition box set of the first Silent Mobius movie for $15 (review), which includes it and the soundtrack CD in a cool metal box. I paid nearly that much for the same thing used earlier this month, and am kicking myself for it.

The whole Kujibiki unbalance TV series for $15, which is crap but comes with the Genshiken OVAs, and therefore is worth it.

And, finally, the weird but entertaining Maria Watches Over Us meets Alien Invasion show Blue Drop for only $15, which I’ve been enjoying recently.

Also, if you’re a Blu-ray fan, they have very good deals on a bunch of different sets: Samurai Champloo, Xam’d collection 1, Basilisk, Claymore, Afro Samurai complete series, The Conqueror of Shambala, Tsubasa, RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE 2-season pack for $35, Gunslinger Girl season 1, Trinity Blood, Guyver, Ouran High School Host Club, Black Blood Brothers, Origin, Shigurui (this is a great deal at $15), D.Gray Man season 1, and Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles.

RightStuf also has a Geneon sale currently going, though I didn’t see anything wildly exciting in it.