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Indie Anime Notes: Coffee Samurai

I love the concept of indie anime, so when something makes it to a commercial format, I usually buy it, going all the way back to a VHS copy of II: Prologue.

Hence, I picked up the CoMix Wave two-for of Coffee Samurai and Hoshizora Kiseki from Sentai Filmworks. It’s not an outrageously expensive DVD, but when you figure that you’re getting two 30-minute short films for about what Funimation charges for two seasons of a TV series, it is a little on the spendy side.

Regardless, some notes on Coffee Samurai:

I was surprised that this one is actually a Korean production (particularly due to the samurai thing). I don’t understand any Korean (though I did notice the word for part-time job is the same), but I figured it was an opportunity to experience anime the way a non-Japanese speaker would when watching a subtitled show. Not a big deal, though I did find myself wondering if the translation was accurate in terms of nuance, with no way to check. The language is irrelevant to quality, though.

And boy is this a weird short. The plot sounds good from an absurdist comedy standpoint—a warrior who, in his last moments, wishes he could be reincarnated in a body of iron. Which actually happens, except he’s reincarnated as a coffee machine. Then other warriors from his past who have also been reincarnated (as amusing things) start showing up and trying to kill him. And he of course falls in love with a girl who in a drunken stupor decides that the drink machine looks lonely so drags it home.

It’s actually weirder than it sounds, not so much because of the premise, but because of the incredibly low-key, deadpan delivery. There are very funny bits here and there, but most of it is so straight-faced that I honestly wasn’t sure if it was an absurdist comedy done as a sort of art-house film, or if the filmmakers just had a really, really funky sense of humor. If the latter, that’s fine, but it just didn’t work for me. Who knows, maybe it’s a cultural thing (although apparently Korea looks remarkably similar to Japan—if it hadn’t been for the language and signs, I might not have even noticed).

It has some remarkably spiffy action scenes, and the art gets points for not just blatantly trying to look like classic-Japanese-style-anime; it feels familiar enough that the look isn’t jarring, and I think it counts as anime, but is pretty unique. A little annoying, though, was that it seemed to waver back and forth between being literal in terms of its world—some of the time things would be very specific and realistic (which worked well for the absurdist humor), others it would wax fanciful, like a sequence when the girl catches a ride on top of the flying drink machine.

It sort of felt like it couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a conceptual art film or something that’s funny because it’s so down-to-earth despite the wacky premise. I prefer the latter by a wide margin, and either way I don’t think they go well together in the same production. Kind of like if in Neo-Tokyo the Labyrinth and Order to Stop Construction shorts had been the same story.

The pacing, similarly, seemed a little too slow; it could have been entirely intentional, as a part of the deadpan humor, but it felt a little too much like that art-house short film thing where the slower and more silent the film is the more artistic it theoretically becomes. It could also have just been an inexperienced production team being too loose with the editing and pace. At least it didn’t feel short, which is a good thing when you only have 30 minutes in which to tell an entire story.

The acting sounded kind of flat to me, but it’s possible that it was just deadpan and I’m not used to hearing the language; lacking substantial emotion, it’s hard to tell. One definitely bad thing was in a few sections when they’re screaming during a battle; the screaming was fine, but the mic levels were apparently maladjusted during recording, causing that too-loud-for-the-recording distortion. That was a pure technical mistake, and disappointing—you really have no excuse for that in even a high-level amateur production, let alone something that must have had a reasonable budget based on the quality of the animation.

(Aside: Since a huge amount of in-between animation in Japanese productions is already farmed out to Korean studios because it’s cheaper, you wonder if domestic productions don’t have a real advantage in terms of available, inexpensive talent. Kind of like how US studios would farm out cheaper stuff to Japan way back when, and those studios eventually grew into their own industry.)

Overall not exactly a failure, but just too weird to work for me—I kept wanting it to go a bit broader with the comedy, and it was a little too slow for my taste.

Last Exile: Fam, The Silver Wing Notes

This is a show that had me both excited and nervous. Excited because I loved Last Exile (musket lines on airships? You just can’t beat that), and the prospect of more wild, beautiful Gonzo mechanical design and aerial action combined with interesting characters and plot is hard to overlook. Nervous because Last Exile had a satisfying, rather final end, and it is way too easy to screw up the sequel to a great show—there’s nowhere to go but down.

Thanks to the approximate J-simulcast on Hulu (so nice to see companies finally starting to get that the best way to avoid piracy is to just give us an easier, better alternative), we’ve been watching this one as it comes out in my weekly anime get-together. So far, it’s… well, really close.

Visually, it’s all there—gorgeous animation and art, wonderful mechanical design, generally stellar action, near-seamless 3D work integrated with topnotch cell art. But then, it’s Gonzo, and those guys know what they’re doing.

Story-wise, almost all there—we’ve got a big evil empire with a relatively believable smooth despot holding the reins for a powerless child leader (good change-up from the loony villainess in the original), several other factions, sky pirates, a displaced princess, wild adventure, some scheming on both sides, humor, backstabbing, and more. The fact that there’s a lot of show left makes it unfortunately obvious that the big plans early on are going to go horribly awry, but no big deal. Lots of characters—a number of returnees from the original cast and even more new ones, plus some work put into developing the politics in the empire as well as the people on the battlefield.

There are a few somewhat incongruent bits here and there (particularly a comedic bit of sort-of-fanservice-or-parody-thereof) that seemed a little too targeted at fanboys rather than in service of the story, but not a deal breaker at all, and pretty low key. I could have done with the not-quite-16-year-old protagonists being a little less able to take down entire battleships with just a little help (I really liked that Claus and Lavie were skilled, but wildly outclassed by the older, professional-soldier pilots), but again, big adventure, so I’ll forgive.

Music wise, confusing—the background score is great, bringing back the same blend of chipper, energetic, sort-of-jazzy-celtic tunes and winsome vocal bits. The opening, however, is hugely disappointing; it’s decent J-pop, but it’s still J-pop instead of the creative, unusual opening to the original show.

As a sequel—hmm. I absolutely love getting to see so many familiar faces, and big yay for vague-yuri ice-queen pilot Tatiana back promoted to vanguard spy-ship captain with her copilot close by. Lots of little nods here and there to things existing fans recognize, but enough its own beast that you could watch it without knowing anything about the original (though I wouldn’t recommend it—it’s very directly connected to what we find out at the end of that series). But the lack of any immediate explanation to what we saw in the last scene of Last Exile, and leaving (so far) out a lot of interim stuff, I feel like it doesn’t quite fit. (I haven’t read the fill-in manga yet, personally, and I’m just watching the anime so I shouldn’t have to.)

That could be remedied, but basically, Dio. He’s back. No surprise, I’m sure a lot of fans loved him (not my thing), and he was undeniably colorful. Except he was not only mind-wiped and driven insane, then mentally destroyed on top of it, but all-but-the-body dead in no uncertain terms. Heck, as abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying as it was, he had to die to properly close out that plotline. And here he is alive and well, if as sad as his bat-poo crazy demeanor allows.

Now, if you’re going to kill a character off just before the finale, and not in any way hint that he is not dead (apart from a postcard bonus insert in the DVD case, which does not count), you have some serious explaining to do if you’re going to resurrect him, which it hasn’t so much as hinted at. New viewers won’t care, but I do, and it’s bugging me severely.

Also a little annoyed that the main characters are all new. New blood is good, but frankly it would have been cooler to have the main characters of the previous show a few years older, rather than new 15-year-old-prodigies. Yes, I’m over 30, so I actually like the occasional story about characters old enough to get a drivers’ license in my country, and frankly the show seems targeted at a mature enough audience (and has enough adult secondary characters—most of them, in fact) that it could’ve done without. But, hey, Japan has a deeply ingrained culture of youth-worship, so oh well. One can dream (and watch Black Heaven or Spice and Wolf).

Oddity—there is an interim recap episode stuck between episodes 9 and 10. What the heck is that doing there? We’re only nine episodes in, and already you’re doing a recap? It’s not like it’s after a break between seasons to get people back up to speed, or even recapping the important hidden stuff (a la Trigun)—it’s three quarters of the way through one season, and half the stuff they’re recapping just happened. Weird.

Undecided—yuri undertones. The story centers solidly around cheerfully crazy pilot Fam, her soft-spoken navigator Giselle, and displaced, out-of-her-element princess Millia. Early small-scale emotional drama is that Fam and Giselle are close, but when Fam goes all-in on helping princess-in-need Millia, Giselle gets jealous. There was already plenty of precedent—the original show had vague-yuri piloting duo Tatiana and Alister plus all-but-the-kiss Yaoi duo Dio and Lucciola, and some very low-key romance between the two straight pilot protagonists, as well.

So it’s unavoidable to start reading a low-key yuri love triangle into the three girls’ relationship (particularly if you were just watching Strawberry Panic). The question is if it’s going to eventually play it as full-on romance (presumably low-key, since the musketeer and the captain were the only ones in the original show to really have any romance), leave it as the close friendship it in all honesty could be if you’re not an anime geek looking for more, or be all vague-yuri and let the fans decide without having to make any commitment yourself.

None of the above would be really disappointing, but I would very much like to see it at least commit, one way or the other.

Current opinion: Looking very promising, and I’m enjoying it plenty, but depending on how it eventually ties itself in to the previous show—particularly that very last shot of the folks at home in a wheat field, which by age of child should be after the events of this show—could knock itself down a couple rungs for sequel-mangling.

Strawberry Panic Notes

I am back from an extended hiatus caused by a combination of the extended US Holiday Season, the first real vacation I’ve been able to take in quite some time, some medical stuff, and assorted other life things that happen. Also working on a new project, but not quite ready to start boasting about it yet.

There are a number of new full reviews backlogged in the pipeline, but having just finished watching the low-rent Maria Watches Over Us ripoff Strawberry Panic, I wanted to jot down some thoughts. I intend to write a full review of this one (I’m about to embark on a yuri review bender, since it’s an underrepresented genre I like), but in the mean time…

The show is, basically, not very good. It ends up a lot better than it starts, but the path there is kind of a mess, and it’s particularly frustrating because it eventually reveals that there are some good ideas in there, it just completely failed to make something of them until way late in the game.

Watching it goes kind of like this: The first couple episodes are just weird; a mix of frilly Catholic girls’ school cliches, adoring, sparkly-eyed girls staring at uber-girl Shizuma, and weird pseud-sexual things where Shizuma keeps making wildly inappropriate moves to kiss the ditzy protagonist Nagisa. Those are uncomfortable, and they’re supposed to be (sort of), but that then settles down for a while.

From there through episode 6 is boring unless you love silly girls-school stuff and unfunny light comedy. Then episode 7 finally breaks out a secondary romance and a bunch of intra-school drama involving scheming evil lesbian student council members (essentially everybody in the show is at least mildly inclined toward the same gender, but these two are the only ones depicted doing anything seriously physical). And then… nothing really happens for the next several episodes, so it’s back to boring through episode 11.

Episode 12 finally drops a drama bomb—among other things we’re shown that the intent of the romance isn’t all teary-eyed smiles and hand-holding, in no uncertain terms—and makes things interesting from a character standpoint with the main couple. 13 is slow, but adds another big dramatic twist with the secondary set of romances.

And then, in season 2, it again fails to take that momentum anywhere. Now that the drama and stakes are closer to the surface, I at least was paying attention, but in place of boredom is frustration—it drags out and obfuscates what should have been interesting all the way through episode 18; that one at least has some big stuff, but is mostly botched and still drags painfully.

Then comes episode 19, which is solid backstory, and really good. Shockingly good. It’s not spectacular—we’re still dealing with broad-stroked yuri romantic tragedy—but it flows well, is touchingly and convincingly romantic, has a beautifully tragic crescendo, and even does a good job of tying itself back to the present at the very end.

The thing that’s so disappointing about this is that that one episode showed that the series had interesting, or at least entertaining, things to do, it had just completely failed to pull them off for about 15 of the preceding 18 episodes, and in a single episode it got more emotional response than in the entire series combined to that point. (Heck, it’s backstory so you don’t need to know the characters, so you could just watch that single episode standalone and probably enjoy it as its own little tale.)  It sure grabbed my interest, though, and got under my skin in the way a good romance (or tragi-romance) should.

The remainder of the series is better, at least, but even then it drags things out so laboriously that it got pretty maddening by the end, not helped any by the fact that it had screwed up so spectacularly before that I had little faith in it pulling off a decent end. Thankfully, the very end, at least, is romantically satisfying, so at least it wasn’t a total waste. It does, however, have one of the most ridiculously contrived plot twists I have ever seen, and in the last couple episodes—it had me shaking my head that it actually went there. In the “No, even this show wouldn’t do something that stupid… wait, yes, it would.”

So you have, roughly, 11 episodes of boredom, two interesting ones, another 5 of frustration, one really good one, and a mix of decent (mostly 25, which follows up on what 13 started and it immediately screwed up), frustration, and embarrassing for the remaining 7.

Here are the three things that struck me most about the show:

One, it does a miserable job of setting things up. The entire first season utterly fails to foreshadow later events or make the actions of the characters make sense, so when the big backstory reveal comes, it doesn’t feel like “Oh, now I understand.”—the good feeling you get when secrets are revealed. It’s more like “Oh, that explains what they were trying, and failing, to do with all those previous plot points.”—just made clear how awkward all the plot progression had been up to then.

Two, the characterization is really, really weak. Characters start to make sense in the second half, but most of their actions seem either random or blatantly plot driven. Lacking any internal logic, there’s nothing to get attached to as a viewer. The contrast is made all too clear by episode 19, which does make sense—you get what’s going on, the characters do things that make sense, and you can get an emotional handle on them. After that things improve somewhat, but even then it’s awkward.

Three, following from two, chemistry. The main couple completely lack chemistry for most of the series. With enough chemistry, you can overlook almost anything, but without it a romance has nothing to stand on (and this series certainly wasn’t substituting plot). Again drawn into the starkest contrast by episode 19, which in just a few minutes establishes powerful, believable chemistry between the same character and her previous love, which makes the whole thing work (heck, it’s so effective you can almost get into her as a character after that). They’re two people who aren’t just smiling at each other, aren’t just kissing, they’re physically hungry for each other. It doesn’t need to tell you how in love they are, because you can feel both affection and passion just from the way they look at each other.

Contrast the actual protagonist, who’s lively and cheerful, but nowhere near enough so that she seems at all believable to catch the eye of Shizuma; together they have no chemistry at all that you can feel until near the end, and even then it’s relatively weak. Given how she’s supposed to be the chosen savior of the despondent lover, you need a lot more than “Generically chipper schoolgirl” to sell that.

Other notes: Production: The art swings wildly between nice and poor, the backgrounds are relatively pretty, the character animation is abysmal with occasional flashes of merely passable, the soundtrack does quite well with just a piano and violin, and all but the lame second end theme are surprisingly good generic darker J-something-pop. The setting is as narrow as it could possibly be; only two bits take place off campus, we never see a single male onscreen, and there are only four adults I could count who ever appear, none of them more than rarely (a teacher we see briefly once in a while and a scary nun who stops showing up after the first few episodes, plus a choir director and a doctor who are in maybe a couple shots and don’t even have lines). That last bit makes the school seem a little Lord of the Flies due to inattentive staff.

Symbolism: It tries to use red symbolically but mixes its metaphors, it clumsily tries to use falling water metaphorically throughout, and sexuality is treated as the villain up until the endgame, where it reverses course abruptly (and thankfully at that—until then the lesbian villains are the only two who seem to have a reasonably normal relationship for late-teens involved with each other). It goes ridiculously overboard to use a school ceremony to elect a representative and her partner as a wedding analogy, which falls apart the second time it comes up if you spend any effort thinking about it.

Content: The message (secondary to the romance) part is about healing from losing loved ones, be it to death or someone taller and better looking than you. The emotional drama is, with few exceptions, about people with a best friend who is a little too attached to you (varying degrees from vaguely romantic to blatantly so) and is sad and/or jealous when you get the hots for someone else, making your romance awkward. When it finally gets to the actual emotional drama it does passably well, it just takes way too long and keeps interspersing it with out-of-character stuff.

Position in yuri spectrum: Soft yuri that goes fairly hard without bringing up the L-word or social reality at all; largely cute, but a few times genuinely romantic, and leaves no room for misinterpretation about the physical nature of the major relationships or the long-term commitment of them.

Anyway, it has enough decent bits here and there, one good episode, and a satisfying enough end, that I don’t feel like watching it was a complete waste, but boy did it take its time getting there.  You could probably just watch episodes 1, 12-13, 18-19, and 25-26, and it’d be a decent show.