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

Gude Crest – The Emblem of Gude (Onna Senshi Efe & Jīra: Gūde no Monshō)

Gude Crest – The Emblem of Gude (Onna Senshi Efe & Jīra: Gūde no Monshō) 1990

Gude Crest is a JC Staff one-shot OVA.

It’s based on the high fantasy novels of Hikawa Reiko (Onna senshi Efera & Jiriora, 1989 -) and at 45 mins it really zooms through the story, so that’s a plus if you want something fairly old-school that is fast-paced.

On the other hand, Gude Crest wasn’t blessed by a big budget.

You’ll get a fair few pans across stills to establish the location and even a few repeated shots, though overall it’s not miles behind the studio’s Ellcia (released couple of years after). To my eye, care has mostly gone into character design and some of the fight sequences.

What I found most enjoyable was the characters and the world itself, since everything is presented pretty boldly, which makes sense given the running time.

In a way, the heroines Efe and Jīra aren’t too far removed from say Charlies Angels or even the Dirty Pair, since their dynamic is pretty similar. You can see that mismatched partners/buddy-cop feel to their interactions at times, though the bickering isn’t always funny so much as just ‘on-screen’.

(I did notice the direction at times, there’s some great use of perspective or framing, like here with the candles in the temple)

Elsewhere the dialogue can be exposition-heavy and I suspect that’s partly because the adaptation starts more ‘in the middle’ of a book. Instantly, the characters are already well-defined but in contrast, there’s a lot of contextual info that seemed to be missing.

Still, it’s a short, fun fantasy story.

And somehow, though it is less complex than say Ellcia, I think I enjoyed Gude Crest a little more. Even with a fairly anti-climactic finish in some ways, it just had more exuberance overall.

3 Stars

Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba)

Demon Slayer Kimetsu no Yaiba (2019)

If I reduce shonen (at least in a partially tongue-in-cheek way) down to “shouting and fighting” then I’ll end up side-stepping the range of genres, storylines and characters that occur within the boundaries of the age bracket – although with Demon Slayer you’re definitely going to get those things in heavy doses, so if you’ve never come across the series then GET READY!

Still, just as important to shonen tends to be the idea of resilience and self-improvement and again, Demon Slayer has a focus there too.

In fact, much of our hero Tanjiro’s appeal comes from that archetypal hero: he hates the idea of giving up, is principled, loyal and also kind. It’s a nice mix when you’re tired of morally grey protagonists and his quest to save his sister reveals that side of him fairly often, even if the show sometimes seems to get distracted by ‘upgrading’ our hero (and yeah, we need to see that stuff for sure but I missed that core motivator sometimes).

The main draw for folks who’ve seen a heap of shonen anime is probably going to be the visual elements, since they’re pretty wonderful and at times, dazzling. And not just the fighting, the costuming is pretty ace too – right down to Tanjiro’s hanafuda earings.

Obviously the ‘great wave’ style of his swordplay is also pretty vivid, along with the reds and golds throughout. The show uses a lot of muted backgrounds to nice effect here too, giving those fight scenes effortless high contrast. (The early parts set in snow are just as effective too.)

As usual I haven’t mentioned much of the plot but it drew me in quick enough and while it didn’t keep up its tautness the whole way through, my main gripes tended to be with characterisation – especially the failure to use Nezuko as a character (and to a lesser extend, what felt like a bit too much recapping).

But there’s another character that I want to mention. Anyone who has seen the show probably knows exactly where I’m going with this too: Zenitsu.

Cripes.

I really wish there was a way to trim out some of his incessant screaming. That (and his cowardly nature) is usually played for comedic effect and to contrast when he does do something impressive (like his spider fight) but woah, it wore thin pretty quick for me.

It’s not a deal breaker though – I’ll still watch the movie and any other series, but it does negatively impact the pacing for me and add little to his arc. Having said that, I think it’s clear there’s a chance of him having a character-development path at least.

Finally, it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that the main antagonist* Muzan is essentially Michael Jackson circa Smooth Criminal. Okay – costume-wise, at least, rather than mannerisms etc but I found it fascinating and odd, even though I was still able to put it aside and enjoy the show.

4 Stars

(*And for now, I’m including most of those damn puffed-up hashira in that category.)

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Seirei no Moribito)

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Seirei no Moribito) 2007

I suspect some folks would have felt that Moribito was a slow series but I’m pretty comfortable dismissing that notion – character development doesn’t equal ‘slow’ for me 😀

In fact, there are plenty of fight sequences and interesting magic too, along with enough secrets and character conflict to keep things engaging all the way through. By the end, I found myself pretty disappointed that the second novel hadn’t been animated too, actually.

Should you end up hunting this one down, I think it’ll be clear that series is adapted from a story written by a novelist – as the overarching storyline, sub-plots and character development are all handled so well. Having said that, I would have loved a bit more time spent on a few characters but that’s the nature of switching mediums – some things have to be changed.

But there’s a whole lot to compensate: the beautiful colour palette used throughout, the vaguely familiar ‘historical’ setting and costuming, the music which was equally stirring and haunting, and some really sleek battles too.

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to really remember scenes that feature somewhat lesser known weapons, and here in this case, the spear fighting really caught my eye, it seemed like a perfect mix of drama and realism.

And though Moribito features a female lead don’t expect fan-service – Balsa is more like a mix between stern warrior and parent-figure, one who undergoes some soul-searching about her role in life as she strives to protect the runaway prince.

Watch this if you’re interested in a historical action/drama anime with supernatural elements and a pretty moving story – especially that ending.

5 Stars

Tales from Earthsea (Gedo Senki)

As much as I enjoyed many things about Tales From Earthsea when I first saw it back in 2007, it took me six years or so to watch it again.

I put it off a few times (though I’m curious to watch it again now, which oddly enough – is about six years later once more!) Even though I remember enjoying the usual beautiful Ghibli colours, especially in Hort Town, which is wonderful, I didn’t rush back.

tales-from-earthsea1

Tales from Earthsea (Gedo Senki)
2006

However, I also loved Cob, both the way he was animated (in each stage of his character development) and the fantastic performance by Willem Dafoe.

Almost as much as this, I enjoyed Sparrowhawk’s calm manner and the scenes at the farm, but in the end, this was a film that never quite came together for me. I guess that’s clear by the way I’m once again highlighting disparate, enjoyable elements rather than rhapsodising over the whole, right?

And that reason was one of the protagonists, Arren.

Unfortunately, the film introduces him in a manner which ensures he is a completely unsympathetic character. From that point on (and this is very early in the film) I didn’t care about him as I should have – mostly because any motivation for his actions were not addressed until late in the film, and by then it was almost a moot point. I’d already made up my mind about him.

Which is a shame, because I understand that the direction of the film was fraught with tension, which doubtless contributed in some way to the issues as I see them. And it’s heartbreaking that Goro’s first film directing for Ghibli, wasn’t as strong as his follow up From Up on Poppy Hill (which I loved), and because it was sad to see a son strive and perhaps fail to meet his father’s expectations.

And for those curious about how the author of the Earthsea books, Ursula K. Le Guin, felt upon seeing the film – here is an interesting read. I feel like an author responding to criticism/adaptation of their own work is often risky, but she is of course both eloquent and respectful.

So, to sum up I guess – for me, an almost tragically flawed film with some wonderful elements.

3 Stars

(Still hoping to watch this again and then update this review)

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba)

Compared to my last Ghibli-related post, this time I’ve chosen a film not directed by Miyazaki (though he did write the script) but instead by Yoshifumi Kondo.

Whisper of the Heart is another Ghibli adaptation, this time of a manga written by Aoi Hiiragi. While Whisper of the Heart has less action than early Ghibli works, it is full of conflict – and not simply the cliched teen angst to be found in many works aimed (unfairly?) at younger audiences.

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba)
1995

Instead it focuses on the conflict of the writer which immediately hooked me of course, or perhaps, the conflict of the creative person – whether it’s main character Shizuku (who desperately wants to be a writer) or Seiji, her love interest, who is striving to become a violin-maker.

Most of the film focuses on the struggle these characters go through, trying to please themselves, take their dreams seriously, to work for them, while also trying to accommodate their families’ wishes and deal with their feelings for each other.

Woven within the film’s central narrative are smaller stories, the mystery of the cat Muta, the story behind the fantastic statue ‘The Baron’ and his lost love Louise, and the story young Shizuku is writing (starring the Baron), and finally the struggle to produce a complete draft that she is happy with.

Any writer or creative person should be able to relate to her frustration and excitement. On one hand, she can’t wait for someone to read it, on the other she’s convinced she’s not good enough yet. I definitely relate, and it’s part of why the movie appeals to me so much, I reckon.

Whisper of the Heart also features a classic country song written by John Denver as something more than simply soundtrack – throughout the film Take me Home, Country Roads is rewritten and performed by Shizuku, and also by Shizuku and Seiji in addition to appearing over the opening sequence – I’ll got youtube links for each (John’s version, the very earnest Olivia version and the English dub of Shizuku and Seiji on vocals and violin).

And before I wrap up the review – I should mention the ending – apparently some folks feel the proposal scene is a little too much, and years ago I remember thinking I was in agreement… but I since the, I’ve come to feel that it was meant to be a sweet (perhaps somewhat naive) gesture, which suits youth pretty well.

And here’s Miyazaki on the ending (taken from Nausicaa.net):

Q: Wasn’t Seiji’s proposal a bit too sudden?

Many thought so. In the manga, Seiji merely says “I love you”, but Miyazaki changed it to “Will you marry me?” Miyazaki defended his position by saying, “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen’.”

5 Stars

Ah yes, the terror of asking someone to read your work for the first time.