Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Two: 2015

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Two: 2015

Let’s jump forward 23 years (to what is now nearly 5 years ago actually) and land in 2015 for the proper adaptation of Ushio and Tora.

And I say ‘proper’ not due to any perceived importance placed on the notion of fidelity to source material, but because this adaptation is a complete story. There’s a beginning with increasingly mysterious set ups offered to the audience, a middle with a few dire moments where the hero seems defeated and also an ending, where plot threads are brought to a conclusion.

Ushio and Tora in 2015 is also far prettier and the action sequences more satisfying, benefiting greatly from modern animation techniques and palettes (though I do have a soft spot for the more muted colours often found in the 1990s). The 2015 version also dials up the ante when it comes to pacing, humour and vastly expands the scope of the saga that’s being told.

What it does maintain from the past is what I guess you’d call an ‘old school’ feel to not only the story beats and characters but also the visual style – you’ll doubtless notice that the hatching is often retained, which I thought was really interesting.

While at first the story focuses on getting to know characters within the framework of the ‘monster of the week’ it quickly expands the scope and the episodes begin to reveal arcs. As with the 1992 OVA, the strengths are the classic things that won’t convince folks who aren’t fans of shonen – action and humour.

But again, the interplay between Tora and Ushio as they gradually become friends is why you keep watching, I reckon. A lot of the humour is also derived from their relationship, which is very ‘buddy-cop’ in many ways, with Tora being the grumpy one.

Ushio one the other hand is a quintessential shonen hero, determined and kind, and like with most YA fiction, there’s a lot of ‘absent parent’ stuff going on at the start to give him a chance to land in hot water, though his father and mother both have significant roles to play. (Speaking of fathers, the screen time and tone of Asako’s father is pared back this one).

Due to the 39 episode count (compared to only 10 in the OVA) there’s a lot more time to get to know the secondary characters and sub-plots too, and while I really enjoyed 90% of them I think the best thing was probably being given time with the main villain – without which, an action text/heroic journey can too often fall flat.

If only you could hear the creepy sound in this scene 😀

And Hakumen no Mono is a memorable and menacing villain indeed – not in the least due to the voice acting of Megumi Hayashibara (no doubt recognisable as the voice of, among many others, Rei Ayanami, Faye Valentine and Atsuko/Paprika). Here, she delivers a rasping, unhinged performance that is miles away from the smooth tone of characters like Faye. It was a real highlight – though in terms of voice acting I occasionally heard Ushio as ‘older’ than his character, which pulled me out of the universe momentarily.

To wade a little further into the aspects that didn’t work for me I have to mention Nagare Akiba – I suspect compared to the manga, his storyline was compressed too much. This meant that his motivation for some actions seemed a little underdeveloped and then, his defining moment maybe didn’t play out so well.

Similarly, I found myself growing impatient with a ‘no-one’ remembers sub-plot because it broke momentum and bugged me a little, not in the least since it erased a whole lot of important character development but also because it felt like an unneeded way to extend the series.

However, when the show took time to step away and reveal back stories of other characters I was usually on board 100% –  especially with Hyou, his was one of my favourite aspects about the series. It’s probably only topped by Tora’s history too, his flashback episodes really land at a great time and provide extra emotional impact.

So, what’s left to say?

Well, I guess I’ll try a recommendation – Ushio and Tora should be a hit with fans of shonen and/or seemingly ‘oddly paired’ heroes, along with people who dig shows that go for (and achieve) a retro-feel.

Ushio’s ‘classic’ outfit doesn’t appear for a good while from memory

The supernatural themes are a really big part too, but at least for the first two-thirds the comedic parts are also important. I guess if you like light harem aspects then you’ll enjoy Ushio and Tora for that focus also. (And to sneak back the OVA – maybe, give it a shot if really want to compare the two).

5 Stars

Oh, I couldn’t leave the review without sharing this – Tora has to operate as Mayuko’s doppelganger at one point and it’s a highlight 😀

Part 3 (the comparison) is due tomorrow!

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part One: 1992

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part One: 1992

Time to review one of my favourite shonen series: Ushio and Tora! (Buckle up though – because it’s gonna be three posts worth of rambling :D)

Okay, so I’m starting here with the OVA from the 1990s and then I’ll go on to the 2015 series, which is a far more complete adaptation, and then I’ll finish with a visual comparison (since I got a little ‘screenshot happy’ last week.)

Ushio and Tora is classic shonen, fitting neatly into the Supernatural sub-category. You can see the imprints of common themes and tropes that came both before the show and after it – but the buddy cop relationship between protagonist (youngster Ushio) and the (mostly) antagonistic Tora keeps the framework interesting for me. Both series are based on Kazuhiro Fujita’s award-winning manga but the OVA didn’t get a chance to go very far, sadly.

I like the attention to detail here, despite a smaller budget than modern anime – this tear drop appears during the stone oni episode

I’ve tried (and failed) to research why – maybe the audience response at the time wasn’t there, maybe the studio only ever planned to make a few episodes in the first place? In the early 1990s Inuyasha hadn’t exploded yet, and a few of the other big supernatural shonen action series not yet started… but maybe the first Ushio and Tora just wasn’t as clean-looking as the series that followed?   

My personal, utterly unfounded theory is that a failure to introduce the Big Bad soon enough might have impacted audience enjoyment because there was no large scale conflict yet… BUT, shonen and action anime often live and breathe ‘monster of the week’ formats – so I don’t know if that’s on point either.

In any event, the OVA doesn’t get a chance to show how expansive Ushio and Tora’s story is, nor that some of the characters we meet across the early episodes are definitely going to come back and have an impact on events. I feel sad that when the switch between studios/production teams happened between those last few episodes, it’s clear there was a plan to finish the saga, because the new intro foreshadowed a lot of big things that they never got to animate.

But what about the actual show?

Well, it’s the regular mix between comedy and action, with supernatural (even horror elements at times) mixed in. As I mentioned before, the tension-filled interplay and growing relationship between the two leads is the main draw, but the creatures and supporting cast are good too. Overall, the OVA is rougher than the 2015 adaptation but it’s also a bit bloodier too. For me, I felt that the humour landed a little better in the new series too (though Asako’s dad was probably funnier – if odder – here).

One thing I suppose I preferred in the OVA, was that the episodes don’t cover enough ground to reveal the harem-like aspects of the storyline, it’s almost there with the vague love-triangle between Ushio, Asako and Mayuko, but that’s probably a minor quibble. There’s still a lot to like with this series because the key stuff is in place and it’s darker visually, more rough around the edges perhaps but at times, I preferred some of the direction.

And yet I think most folks will prefer the modern show: the action scenes are bigger and better, the setting is far more developed with more characters etc, and the pacing is generally spot on – and of course, best of all, it tells a complete story. (I know it’s cruel to compare an unfinished series to a completed one but I kinda have to :D).

3.5 Stars

I also noticed that while both OVA and 2015 series have fairly similar episodes and ordering, the water-wheel demon episode is unique to the OVA – as I don’t think it appears in the manga either. It’s a fascinating episode that forces Ushio to confront his feelings about Asako and includes a cute flashback too.

A lot of teeth in this show – actually, this is probably works as good shorthand for the show’s tone

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo)

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo) 2011

I think Children Who Case Lost Voices stands out in Makoto Shinkai’s filmography as the one with the biggest scope. To date, it’s also his last ‘adventure’ story perhaps, since the movies that followed put relationships in the foreground.

Children Who Case Lost Voices is far more ‘sweeping’ with multiple storylines and various players engaged in big conflicts – though the narrative does mostly zoom down to focus on schoolgirl Asuna as she tries to uncover the mysteries of Agartha – the land of the dead. I’ve simplified the plot there but despite the fantastical elements, it’s still a story of very personal stakes for the lead characters.

And wow, the imagination on display here is so fantastic – I remember being so excited at the time, in part because the film was another ‘original concept’ work and I’d love to see more of them, as opposed to mostly watching adaptations. If you’ve never come across Children who Chase Lost Voices then my mini rave about the imagination of the film – things like the creepy Izoku, the Quetzalcoatl or the Ark of Life – won’t appear as more than a list of empty nouns, but so much about the story strikes a great balance between familiar and unusual, especially in regard to the setting of Agartha itself.

The flipside to all the immersive world-building is that the audience doesn’t always know what means what, when certain events happen or why characters act a specific way, and at times, rather than create a pleasant sense of anticipatory curiosity, that can set you adrift. You don’t necessarily always want to be spoon-fed as a viewer, but nor do we always want the opposite either. That happened for me at times but the visuals and the pacing kept me going and usually, within a few scenes the film gave me the context I needed.  

As with most Shinkai films, there’s a careful focus on how light appears in the natural world

Possibly my favourite Makoto Shinkai feature film but I haven’t had a chance to see Weathering with You yet so I guess I’d better reserve judgement for just a little longer!

4 Stars

Random sidenote: Not sure if I’m way off now, and I’m having to rely on my memory of the time – but I think the film comes right after emo culture peaked in many places, and to some extent the angst and deep discontent of that sub-culture seems to have fed into characters within Children Who Case Lost Voices. Again, maybe I’m reaching with that claim but I’m thinking of Shun here at least.

I think it’s also easy to see where a certain amount of anime aesthetic fed into the emo scene and vice-a-versa too, though no single culture lives in a vacuum of course. I wonder if I should do some real research and try to see if there’s anything there… perhaps one day.

No Guns Life (Nō Ganzu Raifu) (4)

No Guns Life (Nō Ganzu Raifu) 2019

The fourth of my ‘not an episode review’ posts focusing on this series:

I’ve only seen 1-7 now but the last two episodes definitely upped the ante. Happy to get some backstory for Olivier and also receive a few more answers re: Tindalos too.

Despite the deepening intrigue I think it’s the action that took up the bulk of my attention here, the struggle between Juzo and Mega Armed especially being great stuff – not in the least, when Juzo goes a little berserk there 🙂

I will say that it’s been so long for me between episodes that for a moment I thought Pepper was Karen, but I finally figured it out. That’s hardly a flaw in the show however, as much as the nature of watching something week-to-week and at the same time, watching so many other things. (I also see that Gondry will remain a pawn and that the ‘bigger bad’ is still a corporation rather than an individual.)

Big finish to episode 7 too, perfect cliffhanger really.

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (Kumo no yō ni Kaze no yō ni)

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (Kumo no yō ni Kaze no yō ni) 1990

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind has a bit of a history as a ‘mistaken Ghibli film’ and if you’ve done any reading about it you’ll be aware that Katsuya Kondō’s memorable character designs were a part of that misconception.

And while the animation quality is probably higher than for some OVAs of the time (especially the action sequences) I suspect where the film reveals some real flaws is in the adaptation – as it becomes extremely rushed at one point. As I’ve said about a few films here and there in my reviews, this would have been a great mini-series. Based on a historical/romance novel from the year prior, it’s a story set in the 17th century and follows a young girl who seeks to become a wife (concubine, really) of China’s Emperor.

Ginga is that young girl, and she’s a plucky lead with enough spark to be engaging. At times, the supporting cast is as good but with such a compressed running time, not many characters get a chance to be more than their single role. Worse than that, is probably the last third of the movie. After a good build up, establishing some intrigue and conflict, the film just hits fast-forward.

Events that should have massive impact on Ginga are just glossed over in a rush to the ending, which is kinda anti-climactic after the first two-thirds. I was pretty disappointed and maybe my rating reflects the hope that I’d had for Like the Clouds, Like the Wind but I do think a lot of viewers would have a similar reaction. It is really interesting to see such a cosmopolitan court featured in the film, though that aspect isn’t supposed to be the main draw.

I suspect it was meant to be more along the lines of a historical romance, as per the novel, but with only 80 minutes I just think there wasn’t enough time to show the audience everything they needed to see, especially in terms of character relationships.

2.5 Stars

A Wind Named Amnesia (Kaze no Na wa Amunejia)

A Wind Named Amnesia (Kaze no Na wa Amunejia) 1990

As part of my recent Hideyuki Kikuchi kick, I finally watched A Wind Named Amnesia and found it really compelling.

If you’ve read any of my reviews here at the Heap you’ll know I tend to be a bit of an ‘ideas-man’ – sometimes over their execution, though perhaps that implies I think the film failed in that respect, which it didn’t.

Maybe it wasn’t the perfect balance between concept and narrative but again, it worked for me as the central mysteries pulled me along. And the premise is definitely interesting – an unfathomable wind has removed the human race’s memory of everything, leaving them in a primitive state.

When Wataru, our hero, is granted speech, he has to navigate humanity’s struggles to rebuild – joined by the mysterious Sophia on a dangerous cross-country road trip. At times they’re chased by an obsessed killing machine and at other times the film is more episodic perhaps, as they encounter and try to help the humans they meet.  

It’s there that the mix between blockbuster action film tropes and speculative fiction might clash for some folks, but the sequences are all great even if the animation isn’t consistently top notch; I’d argue the direction easily makes up for what some might feel is lacking when compared more modern animation techniques – there’s still genuine tension in the scenes.

And what holds it together is Wataru and Sophia’s relationship – while he’s a bit slow to ask her important questions, I think the film wants you to have the jump on him in that respect. And why not? He’s not long regained the ability to think, speak and operate on more than instinct alone.

Be prepared for some violence and nudity but nothing you wouldn’t find in an old school action blockbuster actually – in fact, I think Wataru’s character design is meant to channel Rambo in some ways. Elsewhere you might pick up on perhaps a criticism of primitive life but it’s not an entirely bleak film either, with some hints of optimism throughout at least.

4 stars

Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago)

Mamoru Oshii is quoted as saying that Angel’s Egg “kept [me] from getting work for years” and that makes me kinda sad to read even now, years after his career skyrocketed.

Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago) 1985

I do see why it freaked out the studio suits – but it’s a beautiful film that deserved to be made, I reckon. And in an utterly non-controversial way, I reject the idea that something is only good if it is wildly popular and makes a lot of money – but that’s an aside, I guess, let’s get back to the movie.  

Angel’s Egg is fascinating to me and I found it deeply immersive; there’s so much atmosphere built in to every moment, from the dissonant opening to the way the rest of the movie builds and reveals detail about the dystopian-like setting and its lonely characters.

If you’ve read much about the film you’ll know it’s not praised for its narrative but that isn’t to say that Angel’s Egg is without story or events; there’s a lot going on but so much rests in subtext, leaving us to infer things like motivation, consequence and purpose. In a way, the film is almost a study in animating water, light, shadow, in visual storytelling.

Of course, it’s more than those things but Angel’s Egg is also so much like traditional visual art. The composition and framing of so many shots as the Girl moves through the seemingly empty city with her egg, is relentlessly striking. It’s also exceptionally minimalist (dialogue-wise especially) in terms of palette – covered in blues, greys, blacks and whites for the most part. It’s ghostly, moving.

The sound design is equal parts haunting and dissonant – from metallic sound effects to softer rain, to the unearthly choirs, there’s a darkness there too. In fact, shadow is probably the key element to Angel’s Egg, how it moves, conceals or contrasts is constantly explored by Yoshitaka Amano and Mamoru Oshii. The closest comparison I can make to the style is probably the way German Expressionist film can be said to focus on the following:

  • Mise-en-scene and heavy atmosphere
  • Long shadow effects
  • Details of sets used to evoke emotion or provoke thought
  • Camera set in unexpected angles
  • Mystery, hallucinations
  • A slower pace than other movies

Expressionism does explore other things in different ways too but I think that Angel’s Egg is what you’d get if Anime met Expressionism, and it had me enthralled – glued to the couch, as it were. And while it all sounds bleak perhaps, I think the movie does explore hope (and maybe offers some too), though that can be a bit buried – at times the darkness and even the surrealist touches take charge; there’s even echoes of the Venice seen in 1973’s horror classic Don’t Look Now.

Related to above, there’s an aspect that I don’t want to spoil and which somewhat sums up the idea of surrealism in the film – it’s both moving and kinda sad, purgatory-like in a way – but again, I won’t mention specifics in case those of you reading have never seen the movie. In a similar way, I won’t ruin the final, chilling shots but I will circle back to my word choice of ‘purgatory’ because Angel’s Egg does have a strong focus on Christian symbolism, even if it’s not a film anyone would call ‘preachy’. Lots of room for the viewer to decide what they felt about the movie and the characters here.

Once more, I’ll repeat that I don’t think everyone will enjoy Angel’s Egg (which is normal and valid of course) but I think it’s worth watching at least once for the visual elements alone, and for how very non-typical the film was for the anime world.

A classic but not everyone’s classic 😀

5 Stars

Okko’s Inn (Waka Okami wa Shōgakusei!)

Okko’s Inn (Waka Okami wa Shōgakusei!) 2018

I want to call Okko’s Inn a sweet film but I feel like I’ve used that descriptor far too often lately, and somehow ‘charming’ seems to have subtle hints of condescension? Equally, I reckon ‘lovely’ isn’t quite right either but if you can imagine a word that somehow evokes all three, you’ll have an idea of what I’m going for!

Kirato Kosaka directed the movie and his Ghibli-pedigree is noted on my DVD and I think I do see his influence on the character design but I haven’t checked the manga or novels to see if that’s true. And there are some clear parallels to Spirited Away with Sen working in a bathhouse and helping spirits, while here Okko works in a hot spring-themed inn and helps spirits and human guests – but I think Okko’s Inn is more a film about grief and community.

And like most modern anime, it’s beautiful and vibrant – it especially feels like extra attention to detail on the settings and costumes was clear but I guess if I had to note a quibble then it might be on some of the character design, as the kids seemed to almost too cute? Having said that, it does work – they’re cute for sure. And the story is definitely moving, with the drama taking a bigger role than the comedy or supernatural aspects.

In a little interview included as part of the special features I saw Kosaka mention that it was hard to choose and then merge a range of storylines that the novels, manga and TV series had covered, and ultimately the ones used all feed in to Okko’s emotional journey but I think I wanted a little more of some aspects and less of others… but this is not to say the movie is chaotic because it’s not. In fact, my favourite aspect aside from the main storyline was probably the side story of Okko and Glory, as I’m always a fan of mentor-like relationships.

If this sounds like your sort of genre and you’re looking for what’s probably a compressed version of Okko’s story, then this is definitely worthwhile, even if it’s a familiar tale of determination and compassion (in some ways).

4 Stars

Kurogane Communication (Kurogane Komyunikeishon)

The first thing that struck me about Kurogane Communication was how clearly it evokes great robot-focused films of the past. There’s obviously a nod to Terminator in the form of Reeves (and maybe Robocop for Honi) but Ghost in the Shell is probably the text that’s referenced most often – from Major to the Puppet Master and even to the OST at times (maybe no surprise considering Kenji Kawai was involved there).

Kurogane Communication (Kurogane Komyunikeishon) 1998

Yet Kurogane Communication is probably pitched at a younger audience – it’s far brighter visually and fairly optimistic tone-wise, and most of the violence is centred around robots. (Somehow, the show evokes Astro Boy, though perhaps only vaguely). Most interesting to me, in terms of pinning down the target age group, is the fact that each episode is around 15 minutes (a little less without opening and closing). For me, that sorta had two effects – one was to give the impression of a show built for pre-teen audiences and their (perceived) shorter attention spans and the other, it seemed to compress the storytelling really well.

Each episode is a tightly constructed with a distinct problem being introduced and solved but slowly the bigger picture is also revealed and by the last act it’s a single, larger issue that faces the team. The show does squeeze in some characterisation too, and while the leads generally embody famous archetypes, there’s an interesting touch to some of them for sure. Part of the draw for me is the post-apocalyptic aspects and the mystery there – I think I am a little obsessed with imagingings of the future, and stories where humanity manages to persist in the face of its own grievous errors.

At times I think it was clear the anime didn’t have enough screen-time to set everything up, and if you give this show a shot, you’ll noticed a fair few things that feel like plot holes or unexplained conveniences. For one thing, for a while there the plot only moved forward if Haruka just ran off into danger despite solid reasons not to – but I was able to look beyond those problems easily enough. I will say that the anime worked the ‘accidental pervert’ trope far too hard for a young lead and the other bits of fan service didn’t seem to fit the tone of the show or the given scene.

Still, despite those things Kurogane Communication has heart; Spike is cute and the ending is sweet and welcome, there’s some touching moments throughout, a compelling setting, a steady pace and Angela’s backstory was a real highlight – in fact, I’d be more than happy to see a spin-off series about her life as a duelling robot 🙂

3.5 Stars

Trigun: Badlands Rumble (Toraigan baddorando ranburu)

Trigun: Badlands Rumble (Toraigan baddorando ranburu) 2010

I’m sure I’ve led a review with something like the following statement before, but I imagine following up on a classic, even with the same team, must be both exciting and daunting. For me, I feel like Trigun: Badlands Rumble had a lot of the familiar elements I was hoping for, along with some fun new stuff too. Ultimately, it’s unfair to compare a single movie to a series but I imagine fans of the original will still enjoy Badlands Rumble without being necessarily over the moon about it – and I myself liked it plenty 😀

The film opens with a great, self-contained prologue that has tension, comedy and action in typical Trigun fashion. It works as a great reminder for (or introduction to) folks about the tone of the storytelling and the setting too – along with doing a great job highlighting Vash’s trademark goofball pacifism.

The story is essentially about catching a thief but there are a few players whose hands are not revealed too quickly, and a lot of competing interests which kept me guessing at times. I believe in the lead-up to release of the film there was some talk of the movie being ‘Vash vs Wolfwood’ but that’s not the meat of the story at all. It’s also still firmly a western but includes those sneaky sci-fi aspects too.

Obviously, as a feature film the budget and animation quality is higher than the TV series (which predated the movie by 12 years) and it’s a welcome update for sure, but the characters were the main draw for me going in.

In terms of character, when I saw Badlands it was a lot like that ‘meeting up with old friends’ cliché and so it was hard to untangle nostalgia from the experience. But still, Wolfwood’s appearance is a great little surprise, and while I’m always craving more time for he and Vash to interact, the film widens the scope beyond the usual team to give thief Gasback (one of the main antagonists) and bounty hunter Amelia more screen time, which I really enjoyed because it expanded the world of Gunsmoke nicely.

One thing I wanted to also quickly mention was the ‘sympathy for the devil’ trope that’s pretty popular across all entertainment mediums – I always consider it a bit manipulative on the part of the writers, since it makes it easy to forget that the character it refers to is actually a bad chap or chapette. Of course, it’s also a sign of more nuanced characters so that’s always a plus.

It was also really nice to have Tsuneo Imahori responsible for the OST again, as I really loved Sandstorm for one, but it’s equally gratifying to see the original voice cast reunited too – as ever, I reckon Masaya Onosaka kills it as Vash. (Oh, and for an idea of the increase in production values check out the saloon rumble!)

4 Stars  

Where’s Wally – or Vash, anyway