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Anime That Gets Under Your Skin

It’s usually pretty easy to tell whether or not you liked something you just finished watching. Since I write anime reviews, I also put some effort into figuring out why I felt the way I did. Aside from something more interesting to say than “thumbs-up,” I think it’s important because I want to be able to make a distinction, as much as I can, between things that I connected with on a narrow, personal level because I relate to the material in some way, and things that I just liked because they’re good. Or, alternately, things that grabbed me in some way but I did not necessarily like, perhaps for some personal reason despite objective quality.

Since I’ve decided to toss stuff about process into this blog, I thought I’d put together a few posts based on thoughts knocking around in my head about the different, specific ways in which anime works for me (or doesn’t).

So, to start with: You know that feeling when you finish watching something and it just won’t let you go?

Some anime quite literally keeps me up at night after I watch it, because my brain just won’t leave it alone—those are the shows that I know have something special about them, be it good or bad. That kind of gut-level reaction is interesting to me, and it’s one of the ways I separate simple entertainment from things with more to them—my subconscious doesn’t care that much about fluff.

On account of a couple of things I watched recently I’ve been thinking about those rare cases that it goes a step farther—anime where something hits me on a deeper level. Things that get under my skin in a visceral way, things that I feel for days after I’m done watching them.

They’re not always the things I enjoyed the most, and the emotional reaction is as often bad as good, but I find it intriguing to try and figure out why, exactly, those few things affect me that way. Following are some examples, from which I picked out something of a pattern in how my psyche works. These are all pretty large spoilers for the shows in question, so beware if you’re averse to those and haven’t seen one. It’s also extensive, navel-gazing self-analysis—you’ve been warned

Shadow Star Narutaru

This show has some stuff in the closing episodes that is deeply disturbing, and I found myself being… unsettled by it for quite a while after it was over. Now, in this case, the show has major objective quality issues (bargain-basement animation budget, pacing similar to watching grass grow, stops halfway through, and the author probably has bigger issues than Amano). I didn’t like it all that much, and I certainly didn’t enjoy it (not that you were supposed to). So this was a show that affected me—I expect in the way it was intended to (if you weren’t supposed to be skeeved out by it, I have no idea what the intended effect was)—but wasn’t in any way a pleasant experience.

The why is relatively obvious—you have sympathetic, fragile characters who have horrible things happen to them, and one of them, instead of pulling through, snaps and does even more horrible things to other people. It’s particularly unsettling because most of the bad things—abusive parents and extreme bullying—can and do happen in real life all too often. Even more so because the Carrie reenactment is the sort of revenge fantasy a lot of otherwise decent people harbor, but (thankfully) lack either the will or ability to carry out.

In particular, I think the thing that pushed it past just unsettling and into something disturbing to me on a deeper level was the combination of the reality of the horror and the prospect of salvation being so close, but failing to materialize.

So from an objective standpoint, my reaction means the show was quite successful at what it set out to do, but whether that’s a good thing is a matter of taste. Overall, though, this one would be disturbing to just about anyone with some humanity, so it’s not as interesting in terms of self-analysis.

Spice And Wolf

This show got to me in the good way. In particular, the second season’s first-story-arc dramatic break after Holo’s freak-out had me crawling in my skin wanting to know not just how it was going to play out, but terrified that they were going to screw up a series I so much adored. Which didn’t happen, leading to my reaction at the end of the season’s low-key final moments—what happens next?!

So in that case the melancholy that overtook me after the end of the season was related just a bit to the somewhat ambiguous end, but mostly to really loving the story and characters, both of which had plenty left to do. The question was why I liked it that much—was it a Tokyo Godfathers or Baccano! thing (meaning, I love it because it’s awesome), or was it more personal? In this case, I had to admit a lot of it was personal, because for whatever reason, I simply cannot get enough of Holo and Lawrence, and I do so love improbable romance (because that’s the story of my life). Best I can figure, their interactions remind me of an idealized version of myself and my wife (the demure-to-everybody-else, sharp and sarcastic to me part, with occasional bouts of condescension and childishness).

Therefore, in this case, while I could say with some confidence that it’s a wonderful series riding entirely on those two characters, it’s not going to connect with most people as strongly as it did with me. More a case of straight fanboyish-ness—I want more!

(It’s comforting that, even if a third season never gets greenlighted, the novels are getting translated, so I can find out one way or another. Note, also, that I was tempted to use “moar” above, but then I’d have had to cut my own pinky off in shame.)


This one is manga, and not of the sort I usually talk about here (I do intend to write up a quick review at some point), but I thought I’d throw it in because the last couple of volumes have left me with a lingering feeling of gloom. In this case the reason is entirely obvious: Few things I’ve read have had such an overwhelming sense of impending—yet nonspecific—doom. Doom, further, of the tragic, real-world type. You don’t know what’s about to go wrong, but you know it’s going to be very, very sad, and it’s getting ever closer (vol. 8 is the final one, so presumably it’s just about here).

The reason that the foreshadowing impacted me so strongly, of course, is because I really got into the characters. Given the subject matter, I probably wouldn’t give specifics even if I did know what about them grabbed me, but (fortunately?) I don’t have any idea. I certainly don’t associate with anybody, I’m just unusually interested in what happens to them.

A factor, I’m guessing, is the confident emotional strength in the face of physical fragility and, though we don’t know what specifically, some very major past tragedy—again, the theme of overcoming things.

Persona: Trinity Soul

My reaction to this one surprised me quite a bit. The plot wasn’t the reason—that was plenty unsatisfying, but didn’t do more than disappoint me. Instead, I found myself actually feeling depressed for quite some time after Morimoto dies late in the series. Now, her death was hardly a surprise—she was utterly doomed from the start. (Though I admit she was out-doomed by Ryo—if you thought the competent older guy who keeps stepping in to thwart the villains was going to make it through the series you probably thought Dumbledore was going to survive, too.) It was, however, deeply yet understatedly tragic; rather than sacrificing herself, which is your normal heartstring-tugger, she had already made it, in terms of working out her demons—twice. She had already come out the other side, so to speak, only to have fate quietly take away the life she’d won.

Further, the way the series handles it is exquisite. Kayano’s reaction and instruction to Shin—“There’s no time to explain why, just find her and be with her.”—exchange weepy melodrama for a practical response and a touching understanding of what, in someone’s last moments, is most important. To complete the image, it adds her return to her “childhood” safe place for a twist of innocence and the long, quiet shot of the falling snow not melting on her skin next to Shin’s warm body to drive the point home with no screaming or orchestra necessary. It even knows to cut away at the moment disbelieving realization crosses Shin’s face, not after, like most things, which cut on the stock pan to the sky while the surviving character emotes loudly. Powerful stuff. But then, since the entire series was fundamentally about loss and grieving, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it knew how to present it in an affecting way.

Persona DVD 3 Cover

This looks like a sweet image until you see the episode, at which point it becomes one of the most cruelly tragic box covers ever.

All that came together to hit me on a more visceral level than I was expecting. In this case the tragic presentation itself was only part of it; I also liked the character a lot. Can’t say I’m sure why; I expect the combination of her being quiet and reserved, rather than as fragile as she looked at first, and her twice-over surmounting of significant inner demons. (Semi-literally—after the addiction episode, I commented to a friend who hadn’t seen that far yet that she had problems, which turned out to be minor compared to her actual problems.) All helped by uncommonly attractive character design. Toss in a touch of unlikely romance given her “condition” to complete the reasons it made me sad to see her die.

Now, in this case, because of the sort of series Persona is, my reaction was unpleasant but not negative, and it spoke well of the emotional effectiveness, but in analyzing the show I did need to factor in that my personal attachment to that character (and several others, but that was the one that “stuck”) wasn’t going to be anything like a universal for other people. The dramatic presentation, however, is objectively almost perfect so far as you can say anything objective about art.


This is a series I did not think was going to have that much of an effect on me (heck, any effect on me—I’d written it off based on superficial appearance), and it’s what got me started on this introspective analysis. See, for a full week after I watched the end I could not get the damn thing out of my gut, and, even more maddeningly, I couldn’t figure out why. Heck, I’m not even sure how much of my reaction was positive or negative, which is kind of ridiculous. Normally it’d be bad enough to be bugged that severely by something you can’t put your finger on, but I can’t very well write a review and close my mental file on the  show if I can’t even figure out why or how much I liked it, much less why it drove me crazy for days.

So I kept kicking theories around in my head.

Part of my reaction was positive—the substantive romance in the final episode was far more than I was expecting from the series. Further, I liked the way it smoothly added a romantic, physical component to what had been an entirely practical relationship up to that point. I always like it when a series takes a superficially shallow character like Aisaka (or Ryuuji, or his mom, or Minori), and then lets on that there’s more to them than that, even more so when something takes relatively asexual characters (again, Aisaka and Ryuuji) and lets you know that, actually, they are real people with physical desires. In Aisaka’s case, taking her from an angry hothead to something much more functional, and then adding a (lightly) sexual component to her and Ryuuji’s “dry” relationship (not to mention doing a proper onscreen kiss, something so rare in anime) was unexpectedly satisfying for the romantic in me. (Aside: yes, I know anime fans will sexualize anything; I’m talking about their personalities and presentation, Rule 34 aside.)

But that wasn’t most of what was gnawing at my subconscious for a week.

A big factor was a significant personal connection to the situation that somehow didn’t even register until I really thought about it—I do happen to be married to a very short Japanese girl with an ornery streak and a generally sappari way of relating to people (a good Japanese word—used for food it means something like “clean finish” or “light”; with people it is the opposite of clingy). Moreover, I made similarly major life commitments at a similar age, and in a similarly logical, “this just works” manner,  so there was the angle of “Hey, for once a romantic profession that relates to my life experience!” (It even so happens that, in my case due to circumstances and immigration law, I was mostly separated from my wife-to-be for two years between the making of commitments and married life proper.)

So, although it took me a while to realize it, part of what was “bugging me” was a powerful sense of nostalgia; that would be positive, but in a very personal way that only applies to me.

The other factor seems to be a combination of the last-episode separation and where it ends. From a purely narrative perspective, the end makes complete sense, and it would have taken serious contortions to get it to fit together any other way without completely jettisoning Aisaka’s parents from the equation.

As a result, I didn’t immediately realize that it was missing something substantial.

See, we had been personally introduced to her dad at length and her mom briefly (I really liked that Aisaka had previously claimed she and her mom got along great, which was suspect but the series didn’t even hint was a lie until the very end when her mom shows up in person). Further, her abysmal parenting was the core of her entire character, and overcoming it what half the series was about. So, while I can understand the decision to show that she’s developed to the point she’s ready to take an active role in working things out, then hand-wave past the actual messy stuff offscreen in an effective epilogue, that was a bit unfair—we already knew all the players, so I feel some entitlement to details on how, exactly, they work things out. If Aisaka’s parents had been offscreen concepts, it’d have been different, but they most definitely weren’t, and we did get to see Ryuuji and his mom get their issues worked out onscreen.

I’m also not quite sure how much sense Aisaka’s running off to clean up her childhood before moving on as an adult makes within her character. Again, from a narrative standpoint, it was important to have her stand up on her own while trusting Ryuuji to wait for her, but I’m not positive it aligned with where she’d developed to as a character by that point.

I’m pretty sure that dissatisfaction is a major component of my nebulous… thing about the end, but I think the bigger part is that after all it had done to develop and advance the characters, it owed us a little more about what they were going to do with their lives. Had it been about childhood promises and whatnot, the “what they do after graduation” epilogue is unnecessary. In this case, however, it was about making lifelong commitments, so at bare minimum I think we were owed some info about what Ryuuji planned to do (college? straight to work? house husband?), not to mention what happened to Ami and Minori post-dustup. Minori, in particular, seemed a jettisoned plot thread—most of the second season was about her cracking around the edges, but then (unlike all four of the others) they never did tell us exactly what makes her tick, or what she’s going to do with life. Allowing herself to cry once is not sufficient—there was clearly way more going on than that (some of it apparently bad) and after that many episodes hinting at it leaving the details out is bad form.

I also really wanted to see at least a little of how Aisaka and Ryuuji run their lives once they’ve made their big decision. Since their relationship was already pretty domestic, it would only have taken a bit of screen time to show in what subtle ways their day-to-day life changed once they added a romantic component.

Really, the only character that did get completely addressed was, somewhat ironically, Kitamura, who did his emotional thing earlier; that gave us enough of a picture to know where he was going from the brief epilogue note about going to America (which I really appreciated). The fact that some of the video game adaptations, at minimum, offer an epilogue with the main couple having children shows that I’m not the only one who thought closure of that sort was necessary.

So I’m thinking that in addition to romantic nostalgia, my feeling was a general dissatisfaction with what was omitted from the end in order to wrap up the narrative in a tidy fashion. Since it would have been difficult to do otherwise, I can’t exactly blame the series for most of this; rather, I feel like I want a sequel OAV or TV season along the lines of New KOR—something that tells us more about where things end up. Come to think of it, given the parallels between KOR and Toradora, this isn’t entirely surprising, as that series really wasn’t complete until New KOR, even though it superficially looked like it (and it also continued into their adult lives in the novels).

I wonder if the Toradora light novels did more with Minori and Ami, and/or give some more details about life-after-school.

In Closing

There was an obvious pattern I noticed in these examples; the things that really got under my skin all featured characters I got attached to in one way or another, and all related in some way to either people confronting and overcoming major personal issues, unlikely romances, or both. The former is no surprise—apart from hard sci-fi or action, most things we watch are really about the characters. The latter presumably speaks to the kind of stories I like most on a gut-level; I’ve had an admitted fondness for unlikely romance for a long time, while my penchant for traumatized characters pulling themselves together was something I didn’t realize explicitly until more recently.

Finally, I’ll add that I have one additional reason for analyzing why the things that affect me the most deeply do: when I’m writing a story myself, if I could manage to get even one person to feel as strongly as I did in these cases (hopefully the positive examples) I’d consider it a success, so I’m interested in what works.

Persona Midpoint Notes

Persona is taking a while to get going, but having passed the halfway mark of the two seasons, I’m actually liking it more. It initially looked to be very moody, somewhat repressed, and sprinkled with incongruently-shounen-action in the form of  mecha-like summoned creatures.

Two ghostly Personas getting ready to fight

Battles like this may be pretty unusual in terms of the avatars being ghostly and weird-looking, but they still seem kind of out of place.

Then there were some episodes around the middle of the first season that added more personality to the kids, but also seemed to add elements from a lighter sort of series sort of weirdly out of synch with the rest of it. In particular there’s an episode to humanize the man-in-black older brother that seems to be out of a less-serious show. It’s been hammered as hard as possible to fit the realism and mood of the story, but it still feels like something from a significantly broader show hammered into place here. (Then again, the creepy, dispassionate MIB in a bear suit is a memorable image, and I’m a little impressed that Persona was willing to go there.)

On the plus side, apart from that and a couple of a-bit-too-anime-standard other things (obligatory haunted school episode, which is admittedly rather creepy), the strong focus on interpersonal drama and downplaying of monster-summoning has me surprised and pleased. Further, the kids for the most part are doing what they should—trying to figure out what’s going on, experimenting a bit, and—shock—sharing notes. If there’s anything we’ve learned from watching anime, it’s telling everyone else what you know and what you think is going on is a good idea, and keeping things to yourself either leads to tragedy or taking way, way too long to get to the point. Despite rather taciturn characters, for the most part these folks do, with the exception of the older brother, and not talking about anything is sort of his schtick.

In fact, while it’s never once mentioned any kind of moral about teamwork or talking to your friends, it’s done a remarkably good job illustrating (subtly) that when you don’t talk things over and get organized, bad things happen, and when you do, things work out better. Unfortunately for the protagonists, the bad guys are better at talking and teamwork…

I’m also liking the cast a lot. The middle brother is a little low on personality—I’m sort of guessing video game protagonist effect, but hard to say—but otherwise decent, his Nabeshin-relative friend is colorful but believable, the two girls are likable and have some substance to them, and youngest brother Jun is steadily edging into creepy territory.

Two female characters from Persona

Maybe it's just my taste, but these are some of my favorite character designs, period.

On the same note, I really like the character designs and character art—even the Nabeshin-lookalike is growing on me. The two girls in particular remind me of toned-down takes on Yasuomi Umetsu’s style, which is a high complement as I think his character designs are some of the most attractive in anything, period (too bad his stories are what they are—best-looking action-porn you’ll ever see).

The backgrounds are beautiful, too—I particularly like the pervasive sense of season—winter, cold and snow in the first season, heat and summer in the second. The character animation isn’t quite as good as the art, but still above average, and the little bursts of action look good.

The youngest two of the three brothers in Persona

Even when nothing notable is going on, the backgrounds are often remarkably pretty.

It also seems to be doing particularly well when it gets into emotional drama—mostly some of the darker corners of the two girls’ lives. An episode casting friendly soul-gnawing in the place of drug addiction is in structure pretty much the classic addiction story, but manages to stay clear of “This week, on a very special episode of Persona…” territory through the combination of raw emotion and a strong overlay of sexuality and cheerfully willing debasement to the addiction theme (it’s portrayed as much as desperate nymphomania as chemical addiction). I also like the fact that the character in trouble is sort of quiet and fragile-seeming, but has been dropping unsettling hints the whole time.

That episode showed that the series can do emotional drama well, which made me wish it had been doing more with the other opportunities—I wanted to see some of the previous plots dug into with that degree of uncomfortable frankness, and less of the vague “something dark and creepy is going on under the surface” moody atmospherics. I’d also like to see a little more discussion and investigation of what all is going on, but that’s probably asking too much in a series trying to draw the mystery out over two whole seasons. (Speaking of which, it’s not often a show makes it well past the first season without mentioning anything specific about several major background points.)

It’s also doing better, rather than worse, with the creepy stuff as it goes on—that’s pretty unusual. Definitely liking that—even the “haunted school” episode twists a standard anime theme into something lower-key, yet still decidedly unsettling. Come to think of it, the hotsprings/vacation episode is so not a hotsprings episode I didn’t even initially realize that it probably qualifies as one.

I’m still not convinced that it needs two seasons to tell its story—there’s an awful lot of atmospheric filler that could have been compressed—but better slow than rushed. Only remaining complaint other than that is I keep wanting a little more chit-chat about what’s going on and a little less exchanging-of-knowing-looks.

So far better than expected overall. Also, firing up a Funimation DVD reminded me of how awesome NIS’s truncated lead-in is—after being forced to watch 10 seconds of unskippable FBI warning, a title switch, a full 30 seconds of unskippable logos, another title switch, and then a trailer (which at least can be skipped), that 12 skippable seconds and then straight to the show is refreshing.

[Addendum: Full review now available.]

Toradora and Persona Premium Editions

NIS America, the game publisher that finally brought the Sakura Wars franchise to North America (among various other console games) is getting into anime. They were nice enough to send us copies of their first two releases, “premium editions” of Persona: Trinity Soul and Toradora, to check out.

I took some photos, so you can get an idea what these look like past the marketing shots you can find elsewhere.

The Toradora Premium Edition Box

Now that is a nice box. Having the image vertical is an additional stylish touch.

What’s most interesting about these two releases is that they’re explicitly accepting that both series are widely available fansubbed, so they’re trying to give people buying legit physical copies something extra. I like this in concept; it’s smarter than playing an impossible game of whack-a-mole with streaming/torrent sites, and it rewards people paying with something other than a slightly higher quality copy on disc (or, if you’re torrenting HD fansubs, lower quality). The pricing is reasonable—competitive with more expensive TV releases without the extras and not too much more than, say, Sentai Filmworks’ recent budget-priced season-in-a-set releases.  The only oversight, in my view, is not having an ad-supported streaming version of their own available to pick up some business from the cheapskates (Funimation seems to be the only company that really gets this one), but it’s only a first release.

So, the price is reasonable, but do you get your money’s worth?

The spine of the Persona Premium Edition

Check out how heavy-duty that box is--sturdier than the shipping box the thing was mailed in. The DVDs are on top, the artbook below.

Yes, with a design caveat. The box sets are very slick productions. Each set ships in an uncommonly sturdy artbox/slipcover with attractive matte finish cover art all the way around—nice enough looking you could prop it up like a small poster. These contain a hardcover, glossy, full-color guidebook with character and episode notes and a bunch of nice illustrations, plus two DVDs in thinpack-style cases. The artbooks are nice, the boxes are some of the nicest I’ve seen, and the DVDs, having watched a couple episodes on each, are well above average (I’ll come back to that later).

The Toradora Premium Edition Artbook

You can see the quality here--heavy hardcover with a pleasing matte finish.

The Persona bonus book contains character profiles, an episode guide with plenty of illustrations, and a couple of four-panel comic strips poking a little fun at each episode (interestingly, these could actually be cannon—the only thing they break is the mood). Additionally, when you flip it over, you get the illustrated children’s story A Whale’s Feather, which makes an appearance in the series itself. That last one is a particularly cool little tie-in (although the story is weird).

The inside of the Persona Premium Edition artbook

Illustrated character profiles and some nice, large pictures are some of the things you'll find inside the Persona book.

As for Toradora, its book is a little thinner and quite a bit different; it features an episode guide as well, but with a lot of fancy diagrams illustrating the various character relationships, plus sidebars on some of the key (or completely random, but amusing) things you’ll see in the show. To fill it out there are also a selection of interviews with the creative staff.

Toradora Premium Edition artbook, inside example

There aren't that many characters, but there are plenty of lines connecting them.

Only two complaints, one of which is a nitpick, and the other a lifestyle thing.

The nitpick is that both sets are labeled “Volume 1,” which is really a misnomer, as they contain a full season (as in a dozen episodes) of a two-season TV show on two discs. Given that “Volume 1″ usually means “4-5 episodes of a 3-8 disc season,” I incorrectly assumed that you were getting a lot less actual anime for your money. It’d have made much more sense, both logically and from a marketing perspective, to call it either “Season 1″ or, if they thought that was too confusing, “Box Set 1″ or something like that.

As for my complaint, it might seem a little odd: Where the heck am I supposed to shelve these things?

See, the boxes, being a little taller than a DVD and quite long, certainly aren’t going to fit on a DVD shelf. They also won’t fit comfortably on a bookshelf among normal taller-than-they-are-wide artbooks, unless you put it upright, which is unsatisfying to the OCD Monk fan in me. Further, if I put it on my bookshelf, then the DVDs are in the wrong area of the house. I could put the DVDs on my DVD shelf and the book and box on the bookshelf, but then the box has an unsatisfying gap where the DVDs belong. And the box is far too nice to consider it just packaging to toss, then separate the book and DVDs in their respective media homes.

The contents of the Persona Premium Edition

See the problem here? No way that's going to fit with the rest of my DVDs.

What would have made much more sense, from a shelving perspective, would be what Honneamise did with their Freedom Project and Jin-Roh blu-ray releases: Make the book roughly DVD case dimensions so that the box set fits nicely on a media shelf, book alongside the DVDs. It admittedly wouldn’t have looked quite so snazzy (and certainly a lot less memorable), but at least I’d know where to put them.

As for the DVDs themselves, they’re great, and not for the usual reason. They’re sub-only, the subtitles are reasonably accurate (with some fan-Japanese left in—“aniki” goes untranslated, for example), and they look nice on my TV (although there is apparently some sort of mastering issue—they’ve already announced a replacement program for early buyers—I didn’t actually see anything so far; still, kudos for stepping up so proactively). All that’s fine but unremarkable.

What’s remarkable is that you stick the disc in and after a single 12-second chunk of skippable copyright and company logos, the disc starts playing. At first, I was annoyed—I don’t care if there are no language options, give me my menu! And then I realized there was no unskippable FBI warning. After being forced to sit through countless unskippable legal warning screens (the only one of which I’ve ever bothered to pay attention to was the brilliant Ilpalazzo Is Watching screen on Excel Saga), trailers I have no interest in seeing (which half the time I’m also not allowed to skip—thanks, Disney), company logos, and more, all of which are on separate titles with the associated title-switch delay, this was a breath of fresh air. Having a single 12-second track with three and a half seconds each of copyright info, NIS America logo, and Aniplex logo, which I’m actually allowed to skip, saved a minimum 30 seconds of fiercely annoying wasted time usually lurking when I stick a DVD in.

With discs like that, you’d think that NIS America actually likes its customers or something. (You listening, Sony? People like it when you don’t treat them like criminals or a captive marketing audience.) Good job, guys—I’m looking forward to seeing future releases from this company.