Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti)

Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti) 2010

Before Hiromasa Yonebayashi became a founding member of Studio Ponoc, he was working at Ghibli on a lot of their blockbuster films. Arrietty was his debut as director, with a screenplay that Miyazaki adapted from The Borrowers. (Another example of his interest in storytelling from the UK).

This one is not in my top five Ghibli films, but I do prefer Arrietty to Yonebayashi’s other feature for the studio, When Marnie was There.

Ultimately, what keeps this one from climbing up the ranking in my mind, is the ending, which felt a little flat compared to the rest of the film… but I won’t try to claim that it’s a bad ending, because that’d be an exaggeration, I reckon.

What I loved most was the clear ‘world-within-a-world’ that existed in the film, with the borrowers having not only their own home and cast-off possessions, but that different perspective on human homes.

It’s a warm, intimate world where little is wasted and ‘simple’ tasks take on more epic dimensions – like that first quest for sugar. (Those scenes show the same beautiful attention to detail Ghibli is known for, mirrored in the natural world too, but for me I think of the house most whenever I remember Arrietty.)

I won’t ramble on much longer, but the tension between the Arriety and Sho’s storylines eventually meeting is great, and I always find it sad but sweet when he tries to switch the kitchen around. But of course – in the end, he cannot help Arrietty and her family, as the power of one small boy cannot fully stand up to the cruelty of the adult world.

Still, Arrietty isn’t a tragedy, so there’s an ultimately uplifting ending in store if you’ve never seen this one 🙂

4 Stars

Gangsta

Gangsta (2015)

Mafia-style stories can be an incredibly hard sell for me in many ways, since I tend not to enjoy the idea of glamorising career-criminals via entertainment media.

But Gangsta isn’t a straight-up crime drama either because there is a little something more going on – namely the human experiment angle, that and the fact that one of the lead characters is deaf, which was a welcome change from typical action heroes.

Having said that, this series still features vaguely super-hero style fights at times, so typical action conventions definitely dominate. Nic and Worick are memorable leads, and while they don’t get a chance to be fully developed, I think it’s clear they were going to get even more dimensions – even, or especially – Alex, who does function as more than eye-candy sometimes.

The villains are fairly strong too and the setting is distinctive – or at least, I enjoyed its general Italian-look for sure. I think you could argue that the super-human ‘Tag’ aspect to the world-building was going to escalate far too quickly for the pacing of a story that definitely needed more than one short season to tell. For me, that meant that some of the action-sequences and associated tension tapered off because characters seemed a little overpowered for so early on.   

But basically, I was pretty happy to see something a little different in this unfinished story from Manglobe and Shūkō Murase. I know that Gangsta sometimes comes with a little asterisk next to it, as ‘the series that no-one liked and which killed Manglobe’ but of course, that’d be a little simplistic. Manglobe certainly did close up shop [a few details here] and some of the vitriol directed to this short series is due to the ‘ending’.

And if there had been a second season, this would be a cracker of a cliff-hanger… but alas, it was not to be.

Like the majority of anime out there, there is a manga luckily, and so if you wanted to keep reading to catch more of the storyline then you’re all good. However, as usual with me, I’ve written about the anime since that’s all I’ve got 🙂

4 Stars*

*This might be me being my usual generous, uncritical self, but since the Gangsta anime is a truly unfinished story, I wanted to add this note about the lack of resolution, since I’m certainly on record as saying that endings are vital.

The selective colouring in the opening I liked a lot.
There’s probably a touch more sexualised stuff and violence than in typical shounen anime, so it’s more firmly in the seinen age-bracket.

Ghost Hunt (Gōsuto Hanto)

Ghost Hunt (Gōsuto Hanto) 2006

Time for more supernatural anime!

Aside from that category, to my eye Ghost Hunt fits firmly in the YA genre (to use the literature terminology). There are things like the ‘absent parent’ trope, a focus on first love and our young heroes take centre-stage (in generally believable ways).

So to switch back to anime vocab for a moment, this is a great shoujo series that I wished had been given another season. Maybe like so much anime out there, was it always partially meant to be a gateway to other media forms, or maybe – more likely I think, it just wasn’t popular enough for JC Staff to afford another season? I’m finding it hard to find much in the way of contemporary reception for a ‘non-landmark’ show from 2006.

But I guess you could say that I have a soft spot for JC Staff productions, and this feels like one of their stand-outs. Based on a series of light novels from (you guessed it) the 1990s, Ghost Hunt was an anime I stumbled across during a bit of a supernatural binge I was on a fair while back now.

And I was quite happy to find Ghost Hunt, since it featured comedy and drama while being genuinely creepy at times. I wanted to take a moment to talk genre too, because it’s very much ‘suspense’ rather than horror, so depending on your tolerance, even if you don’t like shows that are meant to be scary, I’d say that Ghost Hunt is most often ‘spooky’.

Part of what keeps the tone generally lighter a lot of the time, is the focus on humour, with banter and ribbing between a large team of characters (folks who do care for each other) as they work to solve paranormal mysteries.

I think I was especially drawn to the folklore and mythology aspects too, plus the occasional historical storyline. The season only covers a handful of ‘cases’ but the pacing is taut enough that you’re pulled along through the various 3 or 4 episode-long arcs quite nicely, I reckon.

Visually, I certainly have no complaints and Mai and Kazuya are engaging characters, probably exactly what you’d expect for leads in the age-group, but the supporting cast I enjoyed as much. There’s even a Catholic priest from Australia, John Brown, who uses the Kansai dialect. I’m not sure if I’m remembering this correctly from other shows, but it seems that because the dialect is maybe a bit ‘broader’, then it is sometimes used for AU and UK characters in anime?

Not sure how good my memory/understanding is there at all – in fact, if anyone knows I’d be interested in your thoughts 🙂

To finish at last, this is a fun suspense anime with a bit of folklore, comedy and romance mixed in. Like so many series, sadly, it never gets a chance to reveal all its secrets in regards to a certain key character, since there was no follow-up season and thus you might finish it feeling a little short-changed in some ways.

3.5 Stars

There was the occasional use of old school techniques like this or the split screen, which I liked.

Dragon Quest : Your Story (Doragon Kuesuto Yua Sutōrī)

Dragon Quest: Your Story (Doragon Kuesuto Yua Sutōrī) 2019

Being a fan of JRPGs, I found myself waiting quite keenly for the Switch edition of Dragon Quest XI and really enjoyed playing it last year.

Flash forward to now and I was happy to stumble across Your Story.

It’s a classic fantasy, adventure film that adapts the storyline from the fifth Dragon Quest game, blending action, humour and magic nicely to my eye. Again, I’m on record plenty of times as being wary of CGI and anime, but everything looked top-notch to me and perhaps I was less inclined to feel like it didn’t suit, because I associated everything here with the game visuals rather than 2D anime.

On that note, I’d argue that you can definitely watch this film without being familiar with the game series – and a point of interest for me was that the narrative spans a fair few years, and more than one generation as well, but does so in such a way that doesn’t make things feel disconnected either.

Quite thrilling for me, as a fan of DQXI, was hearing the game’s OST in the film, and each instance certainly fit the storyline. Also appearing in were the now-classic ‘slimes’ and other creatures – and though the usual look of other Akira Toriyama character designs didn’t appear in the same, distinctive way as in the games perhaps, they still worked for me.

I will just note that maybe, if you’ve played any of the games, you might get a few more references or easter-egg kinda things, but again, it should still be enjoyable for someone who isn’t necessarily a fan of the series too. (I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say it’d be suitable for little kids… but it’s probably aimed somewhere between tweens and adults perhaps).

4 Stars

Arte

It feels like only a few folks are talking about Arte (or I’m just missing the discussions) but I’m glad I stumbled across this show! (I’ve been watching episodes of Arte between Black Lagoon stints, and the contrast is vivid :D)

Arte 2020

Arte is a seinen series that should appeal to folks who like historical fiction too and coming of age themes in any other genre, but also visual artists themselves. Obviously, setting a show in Florence during the 16th century means (High) Renaissance but in Arte it’s not a drama about the masters, but a coming of age story that focuses on apprentices – chiefly Arte herself, of course.

And she’s an endearing heroine whom I wanted to succeed, kind and determined, classic seinen stuff. Having been extremely lucky to have once visited Florence (and Venice) I was enthralled by the setting as much as the storyline, due to the beautiful detail. [As a side note, I did also like seeing the canals so clear and sparkling in the anime :)]

Arte isn’t an episodic anime, as it is building to two key moments that do pay off, and while the individual storylines and characters were definitely enjoyable for me, I think the mentor stuff around Arte and Leo were my favourite aspects, aside from learning more about the specific labour that went into the art world back then.

I only had one gripe, which was the amount of time the story spent in Venice, though that wasn’t because things suddenly became worse, but more because I wanted to see her grow more under Leo’s guidance and he wasn’t in those eps, lol.

On the extremely low chance of a future season, I guess that could still happen. The manga certainly has plenty of issues available for Seven Arcs to draw from 🙂

Part of me wants to say ‘5 Stars’ because I enjoyed so much about the show but I think it’s a fairly niche series in some ways, so I don’t want to potentially mislead anyone reading this. However, if you like the visual arts or the genre, or historical Italy, then I think you’ll enjoy this a good deal indeed.

4 Stars

Katarina has quite the introductory episode
Perhaps the only time Leo smiles from memory
I should have tried harder to find more pictures like these

Planetarian (ONA)

Planetarian

Planetarian is melancholic but still soothing somehow – gentle rain, soft colours in blues and greens, even ‘washed out’ as many of them are, all to really effectively show a city left behind. In fact, the setting is probably my favourite thing about the series but that’s probably just me – what most folks will (rightly) enjoy more is the character development, I reckon.

Watching Planetarian recently, as right now our own society slowly shuts down for the most part, added a bit of extra eeriness to some of the scenes, something I wasn’t quite ready for. On the surface, this short ONA series is a post-apocalyptic story about a scavenger in a ruined city – evocatively named a Sarcophagus City – but the main focus is more the way he must reluctantly open up to an abandoned robot who cares for the Planetarium.  

The story is bookended by two action scenes – with the second being the most high stakes, but as I mentioned above, the structure gives far more time to the ‘Junker’ and his cooling toward the poor robot, who at first, doesn’t quite seem to realise how lonely she is. Without drifting down the path of spoilers, I’ll say that her quest to put on a special presentation about the stars is definitely tinged with pathos but it’s not a relentlessly bleak series either.

There’s also a follow-up film with some repeated footage that I haven’t finished at the time of writing this (but I will finish), however you will get a complete story if you only end up viewing the ONA. So, Planetarian is definitely recommended if you’re after something atmospheric, or downbeat, but something that is also sweet at times.

I’m having a moment of regret re: using a star rating for these reviews – I liked this adaptation and I was caught up for sure, I felt for the characters. Maybe the pacing slowed a few times but that isn’t worth me knocking a star off, I reckon. And so ‘3 Stars’ doesn’t seem right and ‘4 stars’ is probably closer, even if I suspect some folks might not enjoy the moe aspect.

3.5 Stars

Sands of Destruction (World Destruction: Sekai Bokumetsu no Rokunin)

Sands of Destruction (World Destruction: Sekai Bokumetsu no Rokunin) 2008

Anime adaptations of games seem generally fraught with risk in my mind – and yet I can’t actually think of a tonne that I’ve seen and disliked, and instead, one obvious success seems to come to mind whenever I do think of games and anime, Steins;Gate.

But I’ll get to Sands of Destruction now.

So, even if individual elements didn’t always feel top-notch, I definitely enjoyed the anime and like other reasonably episodic shows, I was able to watch an episode here and there between other titles and not miss a beat.

Production I.G must have faced a fair amount of restriction in terms of what they could do because the series had to be linked to the DS game, but I thought the humour usually worked and while the setting and storyline is very much ‘classic fantasy’ (with an oppressive society for the characters to rail against) that was certainly enough for me 🙂

There were a few surprises and the pacing of each story drew me along nicely – one stand out was the ‘Dr Elephant’ episode, but overall the scene-stealer was usually Toppy. A tiny, teddy-bear-looking, monologue-ing hero, he was pretty great, I reckon. Toppy also scored a lot of great lines and moments, and to my surprise, the character-affectation of adding ‘kuma’ to the end of every single sentence was not as annoying as I thought it would be.

Eventually.

At first it bugged me a bit.

Elsewhere, I enjoyed the non-human character design more than the human design for the most part, and I felt like I was craving a few extra threads from the main plot to appear earlier than they do, but maybe it’s a minor quibble. The animation wasn’t always knock-out stuff but nor was it poor – at all.

I believe that if the show’s style of humour works for you then that will be enough to lift other elements that will probably seem a little standard. If not, you might not enjoy Sands of Destruction that much.

3 Stars

Outlaw Star (Seihō Bukyō Autorō Sutā)

Outlaw Star (Seihō Bukyō Autorō Sutā) 1998

Space Opera is one of my favourite genres so I was already pre-disposed toward enjoying Outlaw Star before I saw it, I must admit.

And it’s definitely what I was looking for: a fast-paced space adventure that mixes the episodic with over-arching plot but spends a nice amount of time on comedy too – and occasionally, the melodrama that comes from the ‘opera’ part of the genre. Like so many anime, Outlaw Star is based on an existing manga, but unlike a fair few of them, Sunrise had a full story to work from when they started (I’m pretty sure), so if you come across Outlaw Star you’ll get a series that has a beginning, middle and end. Sweet deal, huh?

And like every adaptation out there, it’s easy to argue that certain elements needed more or less screen time, but I had no problem with the overall mix of comedy/action/adventure.

In terms of structure, what I did wish for was a little more of the main concern threaded into the background of those first episodic installments, the ones appearing right after the Hilda arc. The next few chapters have great internal structure and an equal share of comedy and action as you meet and then get to know the people Gene and Jim end up adopting as part of the Outlaw Star’s crew, so it doesn’t feel like wasted time of course.

That central plot (featuring the mysterious Melfina and her origins) being sidelined at times is actually worked into the story and Gene’s character – he’s the cocky but good-natured bounty-hunter type that will, for some folks, bring Spike Spiegel to mind, I guess.

And comparisons to Cowboy Bebop sometimes pop up with Outlaw Star and it’s fair in some ways – they share a production company and both shows feature futuristic settings, space battles, bounty-hunting (ish) but being broke and a cocky male lead supported by a mismatched crew… yet tonally they’re very different. Outlaw Star focuses more on comedy and adventure, while Bebop is ultimately a sombre series*.

Brings to mind ‘Ballad of Fallen Angels’ a little

But they’re similar also in the fact that most folks seem to care for the characters by the end of the respective shows and while Gene and Aisha are probably common favs, I think the square(?) within me identified most with Jim. Poor Jim, who along with the ship’s computer, was the level-headed one cursed with putting up with Gene’s pig-headedness 😀

At times the character models seemed inconsistent but the designs (of ships and stations also) are distinctive so I got over that issue, and it wasn’t ‘off’ very often either. Cool opening song too but I’ll add that another way that Outlaw Star differs from Cowboy Bebop is their approach to fan-service. Bebop is occasionally more subtle about it but wow, the ‘hot springs planet episode’ in Outlaw Star is way over the top. So much so that it’s doubtless a self-aware parody of the whole idea of a fan-service episode. And while there’s no plot-based reason for Melfina to be naked while helping pilot the ship, the show does undress Gene a fair bit too.

So, finally to some sort of recommendation, right?

Well, keeping in mind that I’ve mentioned my biases… this is worth seeing if you’re a fan of any of the genres I’ve mentioned above or interested in Sunrise during the 1990s, and while it’s not flawless it is fun, I reckon.

4 Stars

* I wanted to note that on the off chance you come across (misguided) folks looking down on Outlaw Star as knock-off of Cowboy Bebop, you can remind them that OS started screening a couple of months prior and wasn’t cancelled during its original run 😀

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

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