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Eden of the East Movies and Fridge Rage

I watched the Eden of the East TV series a while ago, but it was a while before I got around to first spending the money to buy both follow-up movies and then actually sitting down to watch them.

Having finally done so, while the overall series (meaning the combination of TV and movies) was certainly entertaining and well-produced, I can’t say I ended up being happy with how it came together.

On general principle I’m not a fan of “concept” stories—things (usually seinen manga or anime, it seems) based on some contrived set of rules and/or conspiratorial power structure designed to function as an allegory.  Like, say, Death Note with its notes, Eden of the East with its Seleção game, Gantz with what it is, or, to a slightly lesser extent Code Geas with its geases or Kaiji with its gambling thing.  I’m obviously in the minority, since those things seem to tend toward exceedingly popular, and I do like them sometimes, I’m just not fond of the base structure.

So, that was a strike against Eden of the East based on concept alone—near-magical phones given to twelve apparently random people dubbed Seleção (because these things always have to have some random terminology) by someone mysterious that allow them to request just about anything and get it, limited only by a total budget of ten billion yen.  How do they work?  Why do they work?  Who is behind it all?  Watch, and they just might get around to telling you.

Or not.  Spoiler:  On the plus side, the show and particularly the movies do a good job of having the characters work quite hard to pull back the curtain, find the wizard, and break the game.  They eventually expose a lot of what’s going on behind the scenes and do, in fact, mess it up pretty badly.

On the negative (again, spoiler), the story is set in the very near future and mostly goes out of its way to be very realistic, except they never even slightly attempt to explain how the mechanisms they establish to be behind it all occasionally perform acts that are functionally reality manipulation. They show us specifically that they’re big supercomputers and have to use hacking—including tapping into the characters’ own crowdsourced Eden system—to do things.  No problem so far.  Mind-wipe programs, getting pretty extremely sci-fi, but again, the implication at the end is that that worked because the originator implanted something in their brains to enable that as part of the endgame.  But occasionally you have things like making the wheel fall randomly off a truck driving down the highway with almost no premeditation or transforming somebody’s clothes into hand grenades while sitting in the back of a taxi cab—things that you simply cannot hand-wave away as anything but magically altering physical reality.

I was hoping they would at least give a nod to that at the end, but, nope, nothing at all.  That really annoyed me, especially since it really wasn’t necessary to the plot—they could have kept it to a slightly more realistic level and never brought the questions into it in the first place, and it wouldn’t have hurt the story at all or made getting the characters from point A to point B any more difficult.

Getting back on track, the TV series was a good balance of fun, adventure, conspiracy theory, entertaining characters, and bits of action.  The budget was obviously huge, the production values are through the roof, and it even has actual Americans voicing the walk-on roles when the characters are in the US at the beginning—no ridiculously unconvincing English accents in sight.

It also has about the best hook you can picture—an about-to-graduate-from-college Japanese tourist runs into a completely naked guy with a funny-looking phone, a pistol, and amnesia standing in front of the White House.  The Secret Service is not amused.  That’s hitting the ground running in the right way, and while it isn’t quite that off-the-wall for the most part, it does maintain plenty of momentum right up to the end.

But that’s the problem: Toward the end of the TV series it starts to set up what could have been a series-finale, but the “game” isn’t over yet, the villains are still on the loose, and they haven’t even identified several of the participants.  Then they drop the lead-in for an obvious sequel to follow through.  Second season, no problem—plenty left to do, lots of potential excitement.

Except, oh wait, there isn’t a second season, there are two movies instead.  Not side stories, two movies instead of a second season.

Well, now I’m feeling a little bit ripped off having to buy two movies instead of a big juicy chunk of TV for about the same price (probably less at Funimation’s price for big-name shows like this), but oh well, I can live with that.

The first movie, King of Eden, feels exactly like the TV series—same visuals, same quality of animation, same writing, same storytelling style.  That’s not really a complaint—the TV series was so expensive-looking and polished that it easily works as theatrical animation, and the speed and mood being so similar made it segue seamlessly from one to the other instead of feeling like “Okay, now we’re in a movie, everything is different.”

And then it ends on a cliffhanger that feels, frankly, like the halfway point of a movie or a mid-season finale.  Like, basically, they had one movie worth of plot but split it into two to milk it for more money.

Or really, like they had about six more episodes worth of plot but mashed them into a couple of movies instead for the same reason.

But, hey, let’s see what the second movie,  Paradise Lost, can do.

Not all that much, it turns out.

It’s a much lower-key movie, focusing more on Takizawa’s backstory and finally finding out who the man behind the game is.  Which was welcome—I’m always happy to see emotional drama and answered questions—but it still feels like it leaves out several important logistical points that I wanted answered.

Mostly, though, was the end—instead of a big, flashy finale, like the TV series ended with, or a somewhat flashy finale, like the first movie, it puts a low-key period at the end, then adds two more periods and a question mark. I understand that a story about how to save Japan can’t have a clean ending—that’s fine—but it’s unsatisfying, open-ended, and predictably sets up a sequel, if they feel like making one.

A lot of the series, and particularly the second movie, was about either piecing together who Takizawa was, or rebuilding his character from nothing.  Then it ends up deciding not to really commit to anything—he remains more of a symbol than a person.  And in a series where the rest of the cast felt quite human and real, that really stuck out—his motivations never did end up coming together as part of a coherent person, which was annoying to me.

But that wasn’t my real beef with the whole thing, which comes back to the title up there, Fridge Rage.  Fridge Brilliance and Fridge Horror (warning: those are TVTropes links—if you click through and waste half your day, I’m not responsible) are well known—when you watch something, and then, a while later, you’re getting something out of the fridge, and it suddenly hits you, “Wait, that was brilliant!”  Or some fact about the story that you hadn’t realized before suddenly clicks into place after you’ve finished watching it and you realize that that makes the whole thing horrifying.

Well, there may be a proper trope name for it (I’m not going to burn a day of my life finding out), but I’ll add my own Fridge Rage to that—what happens to me when I watch something that I more or less enjoy, but then a while later (in my case usually laying in bed that night) I’m sitting there thinking about it and suddenly I realize that something about it really cheeses me off.

An easy example would be Howl’s Moving Castle—it’s easy to get swept up in the magic while watching it, but the more I thought about it afterward, the angrier I got that it was such a narrative mess for no good reason.

Well, Paradise Lost is a prime case of Fridge Rage.  The movie was a bit disappointing for its anti-climax and lack of exposition, but while actually watching it I was more or less enjoying it.

Then, a while later, it hit me:  You know what?  Those two movies were a total cop-out. They set up this big, fancy conspiracy and multiple antagonistic goals, had one big, indirect, flashy showdown in the TV series, then set it up for an even bigger showdown in what should have been a next season.  And then they cranked out two movies that, instead of following through, did essentially nothing with that, and ended by saying “Whelp, good show, that was fun, let’s call it a draw!” and then functionally hitting the reset button on the main characters yet again.

Or the whole subplot about Takizawa being installed as the son of the former Prime Minister.  It spends one and a half movies setting it up, then does absolutely nothing with it, one way or the other—it ends up being irrelevant to the plot and just sort of tossed aside.

You could argue that it was all a backhanded message—we look like enemies, but really our goals are the same, and who we were doesn’t  matter, or something like that—but even if it were true, that’s not much of an excuse.  You’re talking about a movie that people either payed money to go sit in a theater and watch or, in my case, payed around fifteen bucks to own on blu-ray and got a complete non-end out of.

And in reality, it has all the hallmarks of writers who either didn’t know how to pull together another big-bang finale, or didn’t have the time and budget to do so, and opted to just call it a day, throw something open-ended at the viewers, and go home instead.

Again, Fridge Rage.

Also, that totally did not have to be two movies.  The second  movie was paced very leisurely, which I have no issue with in general, but could have easily been trimmed up a bit in order to add it to the first movie, in which case the whole thing wouldn’t have felt like such a rip-off—at least there would have been a semi-finale in the film that way, and I wouldn’t have payed twice for one movie’s worth of story.

No, six episodes worth of story, because that’s what these two movies really are—half a TV season.  And I want the other half.

Not saying I wouldn’t recommend the series as a whole—it’s still overall a lot of fun, and the TV half of it was roundly entertaining in all but a few spots—but do not come expecting a satisfying end of any sort, or even much of a climax at all.

Summer Wars Notes

Back from vacation, during which I had the opportunity (among otherwise non-anime-related activities) to watch the large-ish budget Madhouse film Summer Wars.

I bought this movie mostly on the marketing stuff RightStuf kept sending me, something I rarely do—the synopsis didn’t tell me anything one way or the other, and the box didn’t, either.  Having actually watched it, it turned out to be solidly entertaining—a bit like a lighthearted mix of Omoide Poroporo and WarGames (and yes, about as weird as that sounds). It actually reminded me a bit of the late, great Satoshi Kon’s more upbeat films—it has a somewhat similar sense of offhanded humor, and lots of fast-moving, fluid, natural banter.

Almost the whole film takes place in a beautifully rendered countryside estate filled with a lively family of colorful, chatty folks who get along in that believably argumentative way that anyone who has a family with large numbers of cousins and aunts will probably recognize. The dynamics of the group are what the whole movie is built on, and where it’s at its best—they’re well acted, well animated, well written, and fun to watch.

The nominal protagonist—a shy math geek—is a bit spineless, but it’s actually more of an ensemble piece than I was expecting—he provides us the uninitiate’s window into this chaotic family dynamic, but isn’t in the spotlight unnecessarily, and the film is happy to let other people share the screen through much of the second half. He also doesn’t spend an undue amount of time whining or being a wimp, which was welcome. The girl who drug him into the situation is colorful and fun while seeming quite real, and doesn’t actually get much more screen time than the rest of the family, which was sort of nice—the romantic angle is there, but not really a major component of the plot. It’s really about family, and sticks to its guns well.

It also has a possible global disaster resulting from a massive virtual world (Second Life meets Facebook meets the internet in general) getting hacked that the unexpectedly-well-connected family ends up working together to fight back against. That angle was fun as well, and provided some nice external conflict and almost as much humor as drama. It also let the animators do some flashy battle scenes with the digital avatars duking it out.

What’s amusing is that the action looks good—it’s Madhouse after all—but to me I was far more interested in watching the wonderful character animation on the normal people walking around the house than the flashy digital rabbit-samurai flying around doing improbable super-martial-arts. A bit was fine, but honestly I didn’t care much about watching the outcome; I’m not sure if it was more to do with the fact that the style didn’t do much for my head, or just that I was more attached to the human characters, so the avatars meant nothing to me emotionally.  Only the result of the battle meant anything, so basically watching the person at the keyboard sweat was more dramatic than the avatar getting beaten up.

The other problem was that it went kind of overboard with a big, flashy virtual reality hanafuda match at the end. A bit was fine, and of course having seen video mahjong I’m sure that’s what it would look like, but it really wasn’t necessary and broke the mood and momentum.  I suppose the animators figured that, being a theatrical movie, they wanted to give people something big and flashy to  justify paying for tickets, and maybe I’m just not the type that appreciates it, but I think it would have been better left to a minimum or if we’d just seen her sitting in front of the computer rather than from the flashy VR avatar perspective.  After all, WarGames managed to pull off its big finale with Matthew Broderick talking to a disembodied voice with nothing but a giant checkerboard for a visual aid.

I could complain about a handful of cartoony bits of character animation in the non-virtual parts, but those were forgivable.  I will complain a bit about the voice cast, which is almost entirely made up of novices or live-action actors. The main guy, Kenji, is voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki, the same actor as Sho in The Secret World of Arietty, and while the casting is fine he just comes across as a bit underpowered in this film—there’s so much energy onscreen he doesn’t quite have enough personality to keep up. His love interest is better, at least, and most of the rest of the cast is colorful, memorable, realistic, and lively.  Kazuma, the 13-year-old online gamer nut, however, is unfortunately voiced by Mitsuki Tanimura, who would have been doing a perfectly fine job if she’d been playing a 16-year-old girl, but just plain does not sound like a boy at all, which kind of blows that character.  On the positive side, the two that stuck out to me were aging fishmonger Mansuke, who’s voiced by the always-reconizable Ichiro Nagai (Cherry from Urusei Yatsura, Happosai from Ranma 1/2, D’s hand, and the doctor, professor, or weird old guy in just about everything you can think of) and Shouta, the hotheaded policeman, who I would have sworn I recognized the voice of but turned out was voiced by Yutaka Shimizu, who has only ever done live action work apart from this.

Overall the movie felt like it was shorter than it actually was, which is almost always a complement—it was paced well, fun, had a good sense of humor, and plenty of subtly beautiful background and nice character animation. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but I had fun, and even Akemi, who’s brutally picky, didn’t mind it.

Thoughts on Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works

Note: The second paragraph contains spoilers for the movie. I’ve colored the text for the spoilers white so it will not show up unless you highlight it.

I watched the BD for Unlimited Blade Works recently and I was surprised how much I ended up enjoying it. The first act of the film is pretty choppy. Basically it’s “ya’ll remember the Holy Grail Wars, right? Yeah? Good.” Then it kind of feels like a video game, where characters are progressing to the next level, contending with low-level enemies in order to make it to the boss. I was pretty tepid on the movie until it entered the second act and started slowing down. After that UBW started to feel like an actual movie and I was entertained.

That’s not to say there aren’t still big gaps in the narrative, such as Shiro suddenly becoming a kickass fighter with some slick moves and superhuman agility, despite continually getting his ass handed to him prior. Also, how exactly did everyone know Shiro becomes a legendary warrior? Maybe I missed something but I don’t see how they were able to determine Archer was Shiro. Getting back to Shiro’s fighting ability, I did find it very satisfying to see Shiro finally realizing his potential and actually winning fights. The TV series merely flirted with the idea but ultimately favored Shiro being a useless clod who kept getting in the way and didn’t contribute anything of real value, much to my frustration. However I didn’t care for the scenes that showed Saber looking, shall we say, compromised and submissive. I don’t remember if that was in the TV series or not but it did a real disservice, considering how strong her character is otherwise. 

Unlimited Blade Works a fine looking movie with lots of crisp detail and fluid animation. The production staff at Studio Deen was able to choreograph the fights in ways the TV series wasn’t able to and I found those scenes exciting to watch. And I’d be remiss not to mention the nice artistry of the backgrounds, particularly the surreal environment of Archer’s Noble Phantasm. I also liked the dub; it’s been awhile since I’ve seen the TV series but the cast didn’t sound like they were stumbling due to the long break and Michelle Ruff was a good replacement for Saber. Liam O’Brien and Sam Regal were solid as Archer and Shiro respectively and I rather liked “Tomokazu Seki”* as Gilgamesh. 

In all, it’s a movie with problems inherent to covering a large amount of material in a 100 minute runtime but I found myself fairly happy with what I saw when the credits rolled. It you like the Fate/Stay Night series, or better yet if you’re familiar with the game it’s based on, Unlimited Blade Works is worth the time investment. 

*The English voice actor credits on Sentai Blu-ray are a little strange. A couple of the actors in Bang Zoom’s dub decided to go uncredited so Sentai substituted the Japanese voice actors for those rolls during the English credit scroll.