Escaflowne (Esukafurōne)

Wow, talk about a shift in tone!

Escaflowne (Esukafurōne) 2000

I’d always considered the Escaflowne movie as only vaguely related to the series but now that I’ve re-watched both recently, it’s even more obvious that the movie is not meant to be considered a ‘re-telling’ at all.

The shift obviously plays out visually and via a new tone to both storyline and characters, but something I hadn’t known until checking out the special features, is that director Kazuki Akane very deliberately made those changes.

He mentions that a key audience for the series, ninth-grade girls, would have grown old enough to reach college or join the workforce and “hit various roadblocks and probably have a lot of worries”. Upon reflection, he felt that due to making a film for them, that “the story couldn’t help but become more serious and dark.”

This idea that, four years later, teens who loved The Vision of Escaflowne series might be struggling with disappointments in life really does play out on the screen, not just via Hitomi’s listless, depressed temperament, but the darker, angrier more viscous action that has all but replaced the romance and intrigue from the series.

At first I’d thought that this had been a shift toward the clichéd things sometimes aimed at teenage male audiences, but the comments from Akane really put the film in a new light for me.

The changes that obviously matter the most to fans are around character, and some I really love. It’s nice to see Millerna happy, and while Allen is now under-utilised, at least Merle is no longer tediously jealous. I’m in two minds about Van, whose bloodlust can be a bit overdone, whereas folks like Jajuka have less time onscreen… but he certainly has an interesting role still.

Biggest among the adjustments, and perhaps most divisive among viewers, is Hitomi, who changes from decisive and ultimately positive, to listless and depressed. She might even take on the damsel role a little here but I feel like it mostly worked in the context of the movie – she doesn’t get a lot of time to adjust to being thrust into a terrifying new world.

Many of the character designs were changed for the film too (still by Nobuteru Yūki*) and some of them I like a lot, or at least can appreciate re: how they suit the film’s darker mood. First among them could be Jajuka, but Allen is ‘tougher’ now (same with Van) and Folken has gone from a vaguely Bowie-ish hairstyle to full on Labrythin-era locks.

I won’t go over the plot now, but it’s a classic portal fantasy with ‘save the world’ stakes – instead, I’ll mention a few other things I really enjoyed. Of course, the music by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi is great once more, especially everyone’s favourite piece Sora. (Okay, maybe it’s not your favourite but the constructed language is haunting and the little homage to Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie is tops too).

Masahiko Minami and co had only just left Sunrise to form Bones when they did Escaflowne and the studio really pulls out all the stops here.

I’ve read that a few sequences were also doubling as showcases for animators and so if you liked the work of Yutaka Nakamura in things like Sword of the Stranger then the you’ll enjoy the action here – most of all perhaps that opening fight sequence. It’s a real high point, especially due to the non-conventional lighting and colour. [Spoilers in the next paragraph].

Now I’ll switch to a couple of criticisms.

In an echo of the television series, I didn’t feel that Folken’s motivation was shown all that well. However, probably my biggest issue with the storyline is probably his final encounter with the heroes. On one hand it satisfies due to a certain character striking the killing blow. Their motivation is strong, even with no more than single piece of foreshadowing.

But on the other it was surprising than neither Van nor Hitomi actually play a role in that ending. In a way, the climactic action scene is actually the mech fight between Van and the cool, calm and collected Dilandu.

Of course, the finale of a film doesn’t have to include a fight (action-genre or not) for me to enjoy things. But I’m sure the trade off disappointed some people with Folken’s last scene, as that moment of surprise comes at the cost of some emotional impact, I reckon.

In the end, this might appeal most to action and fantasy fans rather than romance viewers. Perhaps treat the Escaflowne film as something quite unlike the series, and let it stand ‘as is’ – a beautifully animated, dark action film that mixes fantasy and a little mecha with only slight touches of romance.

4 Stars

*Probably one of my favourite character designers, who has also worked on things like Kids on the Slope,The Weathering Continent, X, Record of Lodoss War, Battle Angel Alita and RPGs like Chrono Cross and Seiken Densetsu 3.

(I had to share the horse laughing, even though my screencap is obviously a little ‘off’ here :D)

Kai Doh Maru (Kaidōmaru)

Kai Doh Maru (Kaidōmaru) 2001

I got the sense that Kai Doh Maru (and its focus on incorporating CGI into the storytelling) was somewhat connected to the same Production IG approach and era that included Blood: The Last Vampire.

The visual style of Kai Doh Maru is striking in a different way however, thanks to the washed out or water-colour look, an aesthetic the team use to evoke a historical feel. And it is distinctive, but watching it now… the early 2000s CGI is quite dated, at times reminding me of old architectural software, due to that flatness.

On the other hand, direction of the sharp action sequences feels great – and when colour appears it really stands out. I also liked both character design and the soundtrack but overall this isn’t one of my favourite OVAs.

The main issue I had was with the pacing and plot. Since Kai Doh Maru is around 40 minutes long, and takes on a pretty large story, there are a lot of gaps in what occurs onscreen. If I knew the Heian period and stories around the Shitennō well, maybe I’d have followed better – especially in regard to what I’d consider an abrupt ending. (And so maybe that’s not a fault of the storytelling truly, but a deficiency in my knowledge.)

Further, I surely missed many subtleties throughout due to that. I did pick up on the heavily restrained romance between Lord Raiko and our heroine of course – but having said that, the focus is on war, politics and historical details. There’s also a supernatural element too, but I won’t spoil how it’s used.

I certainly don’t see Kai Doh Maru mentioned much, even among older fans, but it’s memorable even if I don’t precisely think I enjoyed it from top to bottom.

2.5 Stars

Update Quest 2020 (2)

As I mentioned with the first one of these posts, I’m heading back to old reviews and expanding/updating/adding things to them – mostly (but not exclusively) pictures as it turns out.

I have a few more of these posts to complete, but not sure when the third one will be ready at this stage.

In any event, here’s the second batch, some of which I have actually added text to as well:

Ghost in the Shell: Innocence
Children of Whales
Paprika
My Neighbour Totoro
Eureka Seven AO

Update Quest 2020

For the next month or maybe more, I want to go back to my old reviews and expand/update/add things to them. Mostly, that will be pictures I think – but sometimes I’ll add a few more bits and pieces to the actual reviews as well.

Especially if I’ve changed my mind about something.

But I think for the most part, it’s going to be pictorial updates – so if you’re bored and wanted to browse, here are the first five reviews from the Heap, which I’ve just finished updating 🙂

Spirited Away
Claymore
Green Legend Ran
Battle Angel
Whisper of the Heart

Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko)

Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko) 2019

I watched Children of the Sea a little while ago, and afterwards I stuck with the aquatic-theme for a couple more films. One of those movies was Ride Your Wave* while the other was obviously Weathering With You, which I’ll write about now 😀

I’m also going to kick off the post with something different compared to my usual review structure, and share this from director Makoto Shinkai:

“I thought, ‘Should I make my next film so that I don’t anger more people, or should I make a movie that angers them further?’ And I chose the latter.”

Here, he’s talking about Weathering with You as per a quote that appears in this Variety article, and I was really interested in the context around that statement… but I’ll actually come back to it later. I guess I’m raising it now to frame the idea that Weathering with You is maybe more reactionary than a lot of his previous work – and that’s probably not a surprise, considering the enormous success of Your Name.

If you haven’t come across Weathering with You yet, it’s a teen drama/romance-fantasy told in a wonderfully ‘saturated’ way, and I didn’t really mean for that to be a pun.  

I guess what I mean is that Shinkai’s fascination with and also his devotion to water, light and colour certainly continues: everything looks so beautiful, whether it’s CGI or traditional animation. In fact, you could argue that it’s crushingly beautiful, and the detail – the atmosphere, the way you really sink into the setting, it’s all quite dream-like in a way.

[Spoilers from here on] For me, the visual elements are enough to compensate for what seemed like a slightly less cohesive story overall. Something about it didn’t quite pull together as neatly as say, Your Name (or his older films) and I wonder if I needed just a few more scraps of info re: what main character Hodaka was running from, for one. Feeling suffocated by a place – I buy that 100%, but maybe just a little more on specifics at home?

I also craved some extra follow-up on a few threads by the end and I’m not sure Hina turning her back on all technology for three years feels right? Related, would Hodaka not have attempted to contact her in some way (and vice-a-versa)?

Apologies, but I’m going to jump around again as I want to mention some other things that I enjoyed, before eventually circling back to Shinkai’s quote.

Firstly, I thought it was fun to see Mitsuha and Taki from Your Name – they don’t show up in flashy, attention-grabbing cameos, it’s far more low-key and maybe somewhat connected to the Variety quote above. 

Suga and Natsumi were actually my fav characters in Weathering with You, especially Natsumi and her motorcycle, but in contrast, one of the more serious moments I enjoyed was when poor Hodaka is making his earnest promises in the hotel. Moments like that in the film, when you’re young and your conviction is stronger than your ability to make things happen, I thought were nicely done.

For some reason I’ve ended up reviewing Weathering with You before Your Name. And while the order of reviews hardly matters, I think it’s hard not to compare Weathering with You to his older work – either as a progression or a reaction.

I’ll try to expand on that – when I think about colour and tone here, it seems there’s a growing warmth clear to Weathering with You and Your Name, especially visible in the extra moments of levity and hope that I see onscreen, but which don’t appear as often in prior works perhaps.

For instance, The Garden of Words and The Place Promised in Our Early Days are obviously still beautifully coloured, but they feel more melancholy overall. (And certainly Children Who Chase Lost Voices strikes me so).

…or maybe I’m remembering the colours wrong?

In any event, I’m finally getting closer to that quote (I promise) with a note about the ending first. Here’s a quick summation of the film’s conclusion:

After Hina chooses to sacrifice herself in order to save Tokyo from drowning, Hodaka fights his way above the clouds to see her, eventually bringing her home. With her return comes rain that, over the next three years, displaces millions (maybe kills folks too?), and changes the entire city. Hina seems to have been praying, trying to stop it – maybe the whole time – whereas Hodaka reflects that change is inevitable. After this, the two get a personally uplifting reunion.

Now, what I haven’t been able to decide is whether the ending is nudging us toward letting him off the hook re: taking responsibility for changes to the city and all the displaced people? Because there is a bit of time spent on that reflection, time that I took as Hodaka justifying his choice to himself (and maybe us too) via words that others had offered.

Obviously, it’s not so simple – because Hina deserves life too; and it’s a rotten choice he’s faced with.

Doubtless we’re meant to tackle the theme and decide for ourselves, what should Hodaka have done? (Even Suga goes back on his bitter wish).

And perhaps, if real life is about meeting challenges (and not being able to ‘magic’ them all away) then does the ending constitute a bit of authorial messaging? I think it’s clear that Shinkai wanted to bring attention to rising sea levels, and so what seems like a sad ending is probably the only way Weathering with You could have concluded.

So, thinking of Shinkai’s quote and his desire to anger people again – I wonder if this overt message at the end is two things: a sincere concern about climate change, but also a reaction to some criticism aimed at Your Name, where folks** didn’t like the idea of a natural disaster used for entertainment?

Because here is an even bigger natural disaster that is also used in the plot of a teen romance, and maybe within that choice, there’s some hope that in such a popular film, a lot of people will pay attention to the problem being raised… almost like a gauntlet being thrown down?

Ultimately, I hate to drift too far toward autobiographical criticism, nor assign motive to someone else’s work, but in this case I feel like there’s room – especially with that quote and having a little bit of context around Your Name.

4 Stars

* Sharing another collaboration soon! 🙂

** Wish I could find specifics on the response.

I feel like I’ve seen awesome close-ups of writing in more than a few Shinkai films now 🙂

Cyber City Oedo 808

Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990)

This is a classic (and fairly violent) OVA series and one which I suspect most cyberpunk fans are at least aware of, but is definitely worth watching if you like the genre but have never had the chance; it’s probably online somewhere by now but I’m not sure who streams it.

For me, so much of Cyber City Oedo 808 feels wonderfully connected to the 1980s (no surprise considering the release dates) whether it’s the assumption that floppy disks will be part of the future or the big hair and heavy metal theme song, or the old school blue palette used for night, it has so many things that I tend to be fond of.

At the same time, in terms of plotlines, the anime is a little more fantastical, even mystical – considering the way machines and computers infiltrate humanity, but especially when I think about episode 3 (Crimson Media) which features the ‘vampire’ storyline.

But in all the big ways it’s definitely science-fiction.

For one, there’s a crime-ridden, megacity-setting where the power of technology is used to both monitor and maim. Cyber City Oedo 808 also makes extensive use of futuristic weapons, equipment and vehicles, and conventional ideals of what it is to be human are abandoned. It’s not a long exploration of those issues though, since the focus is firmly on action, technology and sometimes the gore (directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri)… so the anime is not setting out to be philosophical perhaps, but I felt like there was plenty of room to consider those aspects if I wanted to.

Cyber City Oedo 808 follows three convicted criminals who have been offered the chance to commute their sentences by hunting down and executing other criminals. Each lead basically gets their own episode, though they do operate (somewhat grudgingly) as a team at times.

I quickly alluded to this before, but as a Yoshiaki Kawajiri film, there is a bit of fan-service when it comes to the detail on the violence, but in a way, it seemed like both less and more than what you’d see in things like Wicked City or Ninja Scroll.

With each episode, the storytelling is really focused; I felt like I was in good hands when it came to info around setting and character motivation too, and I hadn’t realised that Akinori Endo also did screenplays for Armitage III and Battle Angel, which was cool.

I love each storyline and so it’s hard to choose a stand out without going into spoiler territory, but since Benten is my favourite character, I reckon I have to go with the menace of Crimson Media, complete with its quieter moments. (You can also see a real echo of Benten’s own temperament in ‘villain’ Media, but again, I don’t want to drift into spoilers here!).

5 Stars

Tension stays pretty high in part due to these ‘kill switch’ collars that ex-convicts must wear.
This guy always makes me think of Vic Rattlehead.

On Liking (Nearly) Everything

If you’ve seen any of my reviews over the last year and a bit here at the Heap then you might have noticed that there aren’t a whole host of 2 or 1 star scores. (And thus it probably seems like I enjoy everything).

In a way that’s true – because if I’m not enjoying something, I probably won’t finish it, or sometimes won’t review it. I also don’t seek out things I suspect I won’t enjoy, and thus, when I do review a film or a series it’s mostly getting 3-5 stars because I’m only writing about stuff I liked.

In addition, I’m quite easy to please when it comes to the media I consume 😀

So to counter this, I’ve rustled up some reviews that are actually lower than 3 stars, just to… prove to myself that I don’t like everything?

And so here they are, the lowest rated anime titles I’ve mentioned here at The Review Heap (so far…):

Fractale

Wildly uneven tone on what was almost a magical adventure (as I saw it).

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind

If this hadn’t been so rushed near the end I would have loved this for sure!

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise

Worth seeing… maybe, even if the lead is kinda terrible (in more ways than one).


And there we go – only three so far, but I do have one coming up that I think will be 2.5 so one day I can update this post, I guess!

Update – found one more!

Children of Whales

GunxSword (Gan Sōdo)

GunxSword (Gan Sōdo) 2005

The taciturn hero* is certainly one of my favourite types, so having ‘Van of the Dawn’ fit that mould was nearly all I needed to confirm that I’d enjoy GunxSword – that, and this post from Scott at Mechanical Anime, which got me interested in the first place 🙂

This anime is one I missed when it was ‘current’, and it lands during what I think of as one big wave of anime popularity in the mid-2000s, back when things like Bleach and Naruto were dominating.    

But this isn’t as neatly defined as those shows. GunxSword is hard (but fun) to categorise, and I’m not sure I’ll manage it fully but I think it combines action, mecha, western, science-fiction and comedy in a fairly wild, ‘try anything’ approach, with the episodes held together by a strong quest narrative.

Two main characters, unlikely duo Van and Wendy, are searching a semi-dystopian world, looking for ‘Claw’ – the silver-tongued manipulator and psychopathic villain. Van for revenge and for Wendy, it’s more of a doubt-filled search, as she struggles to learn why the shadowy Claw has abducted her brother.

These twin threads pulled me through the episodic and the connected episodes alike. Hints and clues were spread out nicely, interwoven with character-building episodes, as the cast expanded quite steadily. And GunxSword becomes a real ensemble by the final confrontation too, which is something I loved because I like to see heroes bounce off those different character types.

Even though the story is ultimately serious and at times basically adult rather than aimed at teens perhaps, there’s a lot of oddball, even goofy stuff. More, the mix of mecha and gunslinger feel allows a heap of classic western/samurai tropes to sit along side the huge struggles of huge robots**.

I think of this especially with the range of characters that Van and co encounter on their travels, like Captain Kaiji, or the mafia don’s kid (and that car!), even Wendy’s turtle or Carmen99’s yoyo are small examples that would sell the idea of the show as a comedy – well, those and above all else, the moustache-fetish guys.

(But when you look at the relationship between the lead characters, the series is a bit more like a drama, and most folks are perhaps ruled by their doubts or their flaws, but somehow manage to pull together.)

Now, it’s hard for me to be certain of this, but fifteen years ago, it seemed that studios and other backers were a little happier to take risks on works that weren’t adaptations. Not sure if that’s a fault of my memory, or a lack of wide viewing habits on my part, but I don’t know if anything quite like GunxSword would get a twenty-six episode run today. (Maybe it’d be more of a single cour, a ‘see what happens before we commit further’ kinda thing?)

GunxSword is often compared to Trigun and there are definitely similarities in setting, and in the wandering, the episodic feel and at times goofy humour, but the tone and use of technology are certainly different here. (The OST is also more varied too).

So, is this one for you?

Hard to say… if you prefer dead-serious kinda mech anime than probably not, but if you’re after something fun, this might be worth chasing down.

4 Stars

* Having said that, Van can be a straight up jerk too, and it can take him a little long to see beyond his pursuit of revenge.

** On that note, I really liked the way Gorō Taniguchi revealed the scale of the robots/armour throughout too, especially via choice of angle and camera position in many of the battles.

Ah, Michael revealing his true colours.
Classic design

Anime OP-ED (October 2020)

Number two! The first post for my OP-ED monthly thing can be found here, but I want to jump right into things tonight with these two, both a little newer than last time around:

‘Kaen’ by Queen Bee (Dororo, 2019)

I really enjoyed the range in Kaen. And the singer’s falsetto surprised me (in a good way), as I wasn’t expecting it at first. The pensive beginning has a great shift to an almost EDM feel, but almost before you know it but there’s another shift AND third one, as the song moves smoothly through the genres and moods.

“Fantasy” by LAMA (Un-Go, 2011)

This one struck me first because piano takes the lead, but the song isn’t a ballad nor a jazz piece. It’s also got an ethereal yet snappy feel at the same time. Finally, I really enjoyed the way the song built a little with the alternating vocals that eventually come together for the ending (fits the tone of the anime perfectly too).

Okay! The second Anime OP-ED post is complete – next time I want to go ‘back in time’ a little with the songs, but I’ll save that until November.

Dororo (2019)

There are a few gaps when it comes to my knowledge of Osamu Tezuka’s works beyond Astro Boy, which is something I’ve been wanting to fix for a long while.

Being well-aware of his other stories but only having having seen a few or just bits and pieces over the years has been kind of frustrating, especially when it comes to finding a copy of Phoenix 2772 🙂

However, when I started Dororo I didn’t realise that the anime was the second adaptation of Tezuka’s manga, so that was a fun surprise! And even through the grimmer, more splatter-filled 2019 series probably doesn’t look like it on the surface, I think there are both character design and story-telling aspects that reveal the source material.

Dororo is a classic underdog story, with both Dororo and Hyakkimaru up against a harsh, unforgiving world – and that’s just the humans. The demons are bad news too, but the duo prove to be a match for the things they face. And while what they face can be, at times, a monster of the week, Hyakkimaru’s quest to restore himself provides a narrative link looking forward, while Dororo’s past offers a similar thread of consistency.

Perhaps the injustice Hyakkimaru must face, and one that certainly had me onside with him right away, was the nature of his birth. After all, not only does his father sacrifice his organs and senses, almost his entire body, in exchange for prosperity, but nearly everyone around Hyakkimaru chooses to overlook the father’s cowardice, instead turning their blame on a more convenient target.

Part of why I watched 4 or 5 episodes each night (more than I’d planned :D) was that injustice, but knowing Osamu Tezuka’s storytelling, there’s no simple answer. There is a cost to Hyakkimaru’s restoration, so Dororo has more than one good moral dilemma.

Reading up on the reception, I see that one criticism aimed at this modern adaptation is that compared to the manga, ronin Hyakkimaru has so little dialogue that it is harder to connect with him as a character. I half agree. On one hand, it meant that the ending had a little extra impact, on the other, it meant that I missed out on hints of how he was dealing with everything.

To compensate, we learn a lot about Dororo throughout – so I was happy with the trade off, myself. In terms of the ‘modern’ violence, I did take a quick look at the manga in an attempt to compare and maybe it’s partially colour, movement and sound that makes the show feel more violent?

But getting back to the anime, I wanted to quickly share a few favourite aspects – one being the pre-Jaws moments but I also really enjoyed what felt like a nod to the ‘hidden Ainu treasure’ trope, along with Izume or Jukai as characters. ‘The Story of the Jorogumo Silk Spider’ was another favourite; it had a few twists and a non-typical ending perhaps.

I suppose that in some moments, the character design might bring to mind that late 1960s look, especially with Mio and the golden horse to give two examples, and I wondered whether they ‘fit’ the grimmer aesthetic of things elsewhere, but I can’t really complain since I liked it all.

Oh, and when folks joke about Hyakkimaru being the original ‘demon slayer’ there will be aspects that appeal to fans of both shows, at minimum the historical setting and the slicing up of monsters, however the two are obviously different in a lot of ways.

Really enjoyed Dororo and I’m keen to find the first anime one day too.

4 Stars

Review count: 151 (Dororo was the ‘runner up’ in the little vote I had for the 150th review)