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Three Kinds of Awesome

After finishing up Durarara!, in the process of roughing out a proper review I had one of those moments where I found neat, oversimplified boxes into which to artificially categorize the world, which is a personal hobby of mine. In this case, my tidy categorization is one prefaced by “There are three kinds of awesome things in anime:”

Note here that I’m talking about the colloquial kind of awesome, as in “Dude, that was awesome.” Whether you talk like that or not, you probably know the feeling I’m talking about here.

This does not count, of course, many things I love because of their artistic vision or unbridled imagination and craftsmanship—most works of Miyazaki, for example, or films by Makoto Shinkai. Those are great artistic works that tickle a different part of my brain; I’m talking about the things that  get my fanboy love of anime going, and make me want to buy cels or rant to friends about how much fun they are.

So, my three categories: Things that give me exactly what I want, things that give me what I didn’t know I wanted, and things that make me ask for the unlikely (or impossible), then give it to me.

The first group is obvious—anime that give me exactly what I’ve always wanted to see. For example, I’ve often mused that it would be awesome to have a story in which the mastermind villain was a good guy. Code Geass: Boom, awesome (leaving aside R2 sawing its own legs off). Or, being an avid paper-and-dice role player, I’ve long loved the idea of a character with the stats of a barbarian but trained as a mage (a friend of mine actually played one once). Rune Soldier Louie: Boom, awesome.

The second group is sort of the opposite of that—shows that give me something I didn’t think I would be interested in, but turns out to be awesome in execution. Spice and Wolf tops this list. Fantasy about a wayward wolf god and a merchant wandering around a mundane fantasy world? Might be interesting, but sounds boring and depressing at worst and melancholy at best. In reality? Awesome.

Daphne in the Brilliant Blue: Oh, great, yet another sci-fi show about a bunch of overarmed, over-violent, over-endowed women doing odd jobs and blowing stuff up. With an amnesiac protagonist for bonus generic anime points. Probably not even worth a shot. In practice, so mercilessly vicious it’s awesome.

And then there’s that third category, which I hadn’t put my finger on until Durarara! Specifically it’s when a show—good or bad—introduces some character or concept that causes you to muse “Wouldn’t it be awesome if that happened?” while in no way expecting the writer to actually go there, because that’s just too wacky or uncommercial or against-cliche or whatever. And then having that be exactly what happens.

Ultimate case in point: Celty. “Okay, there’s a headless harbinger of death riding around Tokyo on a possessed motorcycle doing odd jobs, and she’s a good guy? That’s pretty sweet, but wouldn’t it be awesome if she were a main character?” With the implied follow through”…but no show would actually do that.” Bam: The closest thing the show has to a main character through the whole first season. Awesome.

Other, less-extreme examples (these are pretty much all big spoilers, by the way):

Mission E. Code E was pretty entertaining, but somewhere in the back of my head was the musing “Wouldn’t it be awesome if Chinami went on to become a superhero?” I of course would have expected some sort of transition, but regardless, Mission E: Chinami, badass superspy. Whatever else the series did right or wrong, that’s pretty darn awesome.

Full Metal Panic, which had me saying, “Fun, sure, but it would be awesome if they just cut out the drama entirely.”  Fumoffu—bingo, awesome. Ghost Hound—creepiest therapist ever, who seems strangely helpful. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if he turned out to be a good guy?” Answer: My favorite character in the show.

Of course, that last category overlaps a little with the other two, but whatever. There are also dozens of examples I can think of of things that have me thinking the same thing that don’t follow through on it, but I suppose that’s what makes it so satisfying those rare occasions when something does.

Dragon Ball Kai Thoughts

[Note: This blog entry contains spoilers for both Kai and the original Z anime series]

The Dragon Ball franchise enjoyed immense popularity in Japan in the 80’s and 90’s and then went into a sort-of hibernation while the franchise started gaining serious traction in the west. It’s only natural; if you combine all the episodes from Dragon Ball and Z, you get 444 episodes. If you wanna factor in Dragon Ball GT, that boosts the number up to 508, plus all the specials and movies and whatnot. Much like creator/author Akira Toriyama, Japanese people just got burned out on Dragon Ball.

Thankfully the franchise has proven to have staying power. A brand-new 30 minute feature was created and not long after that Dragon Ball Kai was announced. On paper, it sounds like the ideal interpretation: take DBZ and boil it down to the animation that corresponds to Toriyama’s manga, remaster it in high definition and voila! A brand new viewing experience. I’ve watched up to episode 48 so far, which features Goku turning the tables on Freeza after having just turned into a Super Saiyan. In the original Z series, this would have occurred well after 100 episodes. 

The relatively brisker pace actually works fine. Pretty much all the story from the manga was animated so with careful editing nothing feels missing or skipped over. The progression of the story feels natural and logical. Unfortunately this means some worthwhile anime-only (filler) material has been excised. DBZ’s filler material can be excruciating (Garlic Jr. saga, ‘nuff said) but is also often worthwhile. Some filler episodes feature character growth not found in Toriyama’s manga. For example, Vegeta and Bulma’s relationship is given additional growth and context in one episode and Gohan’s birthday episode is rather endearing. 

Unfortunately, what truly holds this interpretation from being definitive is at least in part due to how much more conservative Japanese television has become. Dragon Ball Z had some graphic violence at times but was broadcast in an early-evening timeslot. Dragon Ball Kai has a similar timeslot and has to make concessions in the violence it depicts. For example, the sequence in which Piccolo blasts Goku and Raditz with the Makankosappo left a gaping hole in Goku’s stomach that bled out in Z. In Kai, it’s just a big burn mark. The violent sequences in Toriyama’s manga were actually even more graphic than the original anime, so it’s disappointing to see the violence toned down yet again for Kai. I think Toei missed the mark by not including the sequences uncensored on home video.

The look of the show is also flawed. Toei decided to remove all the film grain for the remaster, and that leaves the animation looking a little flat and lifeless. Though it has it’s moments, the 16mm footage doesn’t look as good as other classic anime titles remastered in hi-def, including Yu Yu Hakusho, which was a ratings competitor to DBZ back in the day. There are a number of instances where the film footage couldn’t make the jump to the HD remaster, so the animation for those scenes is re-traced and colored in digitally. This gives Kai a highly inconsistent look not seen since the late 90’s when shows were still traditionally animated but switched to digital coloring for special effects shots. 

The biggest problem with Kai is the music. Kenji Yamamoto composed and arranged the score and the choices he used feel weird, especially at the onset. I eventually got used to the music, only to find out most of it had been plagiarized from Hollywood movies. Ouch. Since that nugget of info came out, the Japanese broadcast went back to Shunsuke Kikuchi’s original score and FUNimation’s latest Blu-ray set also features the original music. Setting the plagiarism aside, Yamamoto’s music doesn’t always work as well as Kikuchi’s. Having recently watched Goku’s iconic Super Saiyan transformation, the sequence lacked the same punch for me that it did before and I really think the music was the cause.

Thankfully the voice acting is familiar territory. Most of the principle voice actors reprise their roles and while some of the actors can’t play the characters exactly the same way they used to (Masako Nozawa is over 80 years old), it’s close and the cast is clearly in familiar and comfortable territory. I don’t care for some of the new voices, such as Mr. Popo, but they’re easy enough to ignore. I don’t want to get into the English version right now (maybe in a future blog entry) but despite issues I have with the naming conventions and some voices that I am never, ever going to like, FUNimation’s Kai dub overall actually feels like a real dub this time. 

After all the talk of Dragon Ball Kai being a closer adaptation of Toriyama’s manga, the series does not cover the entire story. The series caps off at 97 episodes, ending with the defeat of Cell, thus the Majin Boo storyline falls to the wayside. This is leaving many wondering why Kai ended “early”. I don’t think Kai is ending early, however. The episode count quoted ever since Kai was announced was 100 episodes. 97 episodes is close enough to that number. Unless multiple people severely misjudged the math, I think this is all Toei ever planned to adapt. 

I suspect at least part of the reason why is because the manga and anime-only content for the Boo arc is more closely tied together. For example, Gohan assumes the identity of the superhero Great Saiyaman in the anime, which did not happen in the manga. However, when the characters are entering the latest Tenkaichi Budokai where they meet Kaioshin, which did happen in the manga, Gohan is seen in his superhero getup. Unlike the previous story arcs it would be harder to divorce the filler material and when factoring in the high cost to remaster and re-edit DBZ’s footage to make Kai, they probably just decided not to bother. I personally think that’s a shame because there’s good material in the Boo arc. Maybe if FUNimation has an interest in seeing the Boo arc adapted they’ll contribute some money to make it happen. 

All my criticisms of Dragon Ball Kai probably make it seem like I don’t care for it. That’s not true, however; I’m enjoying Kai quite a bit. For all it’s flaws Toriyama’s original storyline is enjoyable to watch and the characterizations are as fun as ever. The strengths of the original series make the translation and the content still feels fresh to me despite my familiarity with the previous incarnation. Even if Kai stops before Toriyama’s manga, I’m interested in seeing it through to the end.

Isekai no Seikishi Monogatari: Weirdly entertaining mecha harem

Been watching an episode of Isekai no Seikishi Monogatari here and there with some friends, and I must admit, I’m enjoying it more than it seems like I should be.

It’s a fairly hardcore fanboy-type show—a lengthy series of hour-long OVAs (boy, you never see that anymore) with surprisingly high production values, a blatant harem premise, and a boatload of fanservice.

The set-up is yet another insulting Tenchi Muyo spin-off not involving the actual Tenchi Muyo characters fans from the old days love. Here we have Kenshi Masaki, another Tenchi look-alike (though at least he has reason to, being a half-brother, unlike GXP‘s pointless-clone protagonist) getting sucked into yet another alternate world where he’s surrounded by oodles of attractive women with an inexplicable interest in him, plus some wacky magic-powered fantasy mecha to supply the action. About the only way to make it more generic would be if he had amnesia.

The series is certainly good looking; a wide range of memorably attractive character designs in the large harem cast, a decent amount of alternate-world architectural flavor, quality art, and relatively high-budget animation. And the world—which is either set in another time and place in the Photon universe, or borrows nearly every name in that show as well as the Ryo-ohki-substitute Koro designs—has plenty of interesting cultural twists, including a passably plausible reason for a large group of women being abnormally interested in one guy.

So that helps. It also starts out quite well; rather than the standard “guy gets sucked into alternate world on his way to school” setup that these things almost always have, it starts out from the perspective of the natives, who run into the transplant kid when he shows up working for the villain. That works because a) for once the hero didn’t just stumble into the good guys’ castle, and presumably had no idea that who he was working for was the villain, b) the world feels more “real” because our point of view starts there, while the Earth-kid is the one who feels out of place, c) it bypasses the whole “I’m in some crazy alternate dimension” section that we’ve already seen way, way too many times, and d) the hero is introduced right off the bat as being a serious badass and none too happy about what’s going on. He doesn’t even need some inexplicable reason for being really good at mecha piloting—he’s been here for a while, and presumably already got sufficient instruction added to general non-mecha-specific prowess.

So that’s a good start. Also breaking with tradition for a harem show is that Kenshi has more personality than the friendly everyguy intended to serve as a mental placeholder for the viewer usually does. He’s also anything but an average Joe—being from the Masaki household (and not female), he’s hyper-competent in pretty much every possible way. For once you can see why so many women would take notice of him.

He’s a badass both inside and outside a mecha, he cooks, he cleans, he builds, he hunts and gathers (yes, seriously), he’s polite, he’s relatively intelligent, he’s a fast learner, and he’s a dangerously good masseuse. A significant portion of the humor comes not from “what situation has the loser gotten himself into now” but the other characters wondering if there’s anything he’s not absurdly good at. I liked a hugely self-sufficient hero who is in no way unsure of his abilities for a change—sort of the anti-magical-girl. Him being a bit feral (Tenchi’s profession was a farmer, after all, so there’s precedent) is a nice touch, and he even unapologetically kills small animals with his bare hands because they’re tasty.

But that’s not really what’s most unusual about the series, either. What’s really surprising is that nothing happens. After the relatively dramatic, action-heavy first-episode, the next four—and that’s four hours of anime—consist of nothing but Kenshi getting familiar with a boarding school for the world’s rich and powerful and learning about the culture, or at least as much of it as pertains to their ritualized form of warfare based around ancient magical mecha.

There is essentially no action—a few sparring matches here and there—and the “plot advancement” consists of somewhere between 30 and 45 seconds of the pleasant teacher-with-secrets talking to subordinates about some plan he has that the viewer knows absolutely nothing about. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest, either—easily less than a minute per episode, which does nothing at all but remind you that there will, presumably, be a plot eventually.

And that’s why I’m so surprised; despite nothing happening but a mix of education and rampant fanservice, I’m actually rather enjoying it. (And no, not because of the fanservice—I’d have liked Kanokon and Popotan if that had anything to do with my criteria.) I’m guessing it’s because I’m a fan of well-realized alternate worlds, so I don’t really mind getting to experience this one in no particular hurry, and the general schoolyard hijinks/infighting/politicking is handled in a casual, consistently entertaining way. Come to think of it, the casual slice-of-wacky-life sections are one of the reasons I love the Tenchi OAVs so much, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. Fans of plot-driven anime would probably hate it, though something will presumably happen eventually on that front as well.

One other strength as a Tenchi spinoff: While half of me is annoyed that they stuck what is a completely unrelated story nominally as a branch of the Tenchi-verse, it drops a handful of very good in-jokes when Kenshi mentions his upbringing. Specifically brief mentions of his various sisters, and the fact that he was pretty frail growing up “compared to his family,” despite being obviously borderline-superhuman. That crew would make just about anyone feel frail. Also some funny offhanded comments when he suddenly realizes that, actually, space ships don’t exist in his world… so why did he grow up around one and didn’t think anything of it? The shadowy implied answer is rather hilarious to the Tenchi fan viewer, of course.

Anyway, the fanservice is pretty shameless, but it’s still entertaining enough to keep watching, and while the jokes are rather obvious there are still a number of good laughs.