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

RahXephon

[Spoilers abound!]

RahXephon (2002)

Today I’m starting with a thank you to In Search of Number Nine because I think that without these great posts, I would not have been introduced to a classic mecha show that I’d somehow missed over the years 🙂

As fans of RahXephon certainly already know, narrowing the series down to just a couple of genres, say ‘mecha’ or ‘science fiction’, clouds the fact that the anime is one of those killer shows with variety – and it’s happy to slow down and explore its characters through romance, intrigue and betrayals.

Now, I know I was already pre-disposed to enjoy RahXephon because I like Chiaki J. Konaka’s writing a lot, but also because this series has a mystical/ethereal feel, and I think those elements are pretty interesting to see in mecha. I was quite transfixed by hints of mysteries not explained in the narrative too.

One of the other aspects I really enjoyed was the tension-building throughout – which, unsurprisingly, is linked to the characters, many of whom have motivations that are kept from the viewer for many episodes.

Thinking about the series now, months after I finished that first time, I realise that as much as the action sequences do stand out in my memory (for their otherworldly nature especially) they’re mostly memorable due to how connected they are to the characters who go through them.

Here, I guess I’m thinking mainly about Hiroko’s death or maybe Elvy’s dogfights or even when Haruka is trying to defend and impress Ayato in those opening episodes, because especially upon second viewing, these moments with her strike me as quite sad. It feels like everything she tries in order to recapture the past just falls so flat.

RahXephon can feel down-beat – but there are moments of levity and action and mystery to go with it; and also some great detail to the Mu and the connected world-building. It’s exactly the kind of series that I reckon you’d enjoy even more upon a second viewing.

As I sometimes do, I want to quickly jump to some random dot points:

  • In a great cast, I found Ayato’s mother to stand out – especially when she was speaking the Mu language, as it’s this really disconcerting mix of unnerving and soothing.
  • The Futagami reveal was cool; I should have known he’d be a ‘higher-up’ 😀
  • I’d have loved a bit more time spent expanding upon the villains, as their role in the ending wasn’t quite as impactful, perhaps. On the other hand, it really allowed some of the main cast to take on highly antagonistic roles too.
  • Maybe all of Quon’s dialogue doesn’t land for me… but it’s still an important part of the show’s tone.
  • The design of the RahXephon is one of my favourite mecha designs out there, and the dolems are striking too. Related, I thought the use of song/voice added to the eerie nature so well – those first couple of episodes, where the viewer is just cast into conflict with little idea of who is who, one of my anchors was just how different it all was.
  • Loved Ayato’s 1970s-style outfit in the abandoned department store.
  • The ending theme perfectly evokes the feel of the show and it was always interesting to hear the variations.
  • Useless trivia: My DVD set has really nice illustrations (likely by Akihiro Yamada) on each disc, ones that I think were taken from earlier single-disc releases or maybe posters? But sadly, because my copy is an ‘ex-rental’, glue from the stickers that the store had used on the discs was jamming up my player. I had to use the ‘orange’ cleaner that folks in the retail industry might recall – it’s strong but not insanely so, and deals with sticker residue really well… when used on plastic surfaces, that is. When used on printed discs, it can erode some of the image itself, so a few of my discs now have what look like ‘scrape marks’ 😦

In terms of the production context, obviously Bones was a fairly new studio around 2001 – but having evolved from Sunrise, they had plenty of expertise to draw upon.

RahXephon was maybe their third TV series and they’d had a few films out already, one of which was the Cowboy Bebop movie, so it certainly feels like things were going well. The anime is also the only one (so far) to be directed by Yutaka Izubuchi, who was well-known as a designer. I really wish he’d direct again/be given the chance to direct again – but I’m glad they gave him the chair in those early years.

Back then, Bones had two teams, but I don’t know if any of the current five teams have made anything quite like RahXephon? But that could well be my ignorance at play – and in fact, if anyone knows of something approximately similar from Bones, I’d love to hear about it! [I’ll quickly add that maybe Un-Go and probably more so Xam’d are vaguely close].

It’s now been 18 years since RahXephon was released, and 25 since Neon Genesis changed so much about the genre, and I know the two shows are often compared. There are obviously aspects that are similar in tone and character but I never felt like I was watching a cut-rate clone. And in my reading for this review, I found that other folks mention Megazone 23 and Brave Raideen (1975) as being closer.

(And Yutaka Izubuchi feels the same about Brave Raideen, about wanting to bring a different sense back to the landscape of giant robots.) So naturally, I’m now curious to see a few episodes but that’s a long-term project. My knowledge of 1970s-era anime is pretty much limited to Lupin, Space Battleship Yamato and a handful of films.

Anyway, getting back to RahXephon I’ll try to finish this one with a recommendation. I think, if you’ve seen other works penned by Chiaki J. Konaka then you’ll enjoy this for sure. If you like post-EVA mecha stories with a bit of angst, then yep. Also maybe, if you’re the kind of fan that follows studios, and maybe have a soft spot for ‘early Bones’ productions, then take a look at RahXephon.

And finally, if you’re the kind of viewer who likes to be left with a few questions at the end of a series, then definitely watch this one – not sure who is streaming it at the moment, but it’s still around I’m sure!

5 Stars

Gallery time! I took around 300 screencaps and of course, have had trouble deciding which pics to highlight. Here’s some with the occasional thought here and there in the captions:

We see two shots with a lot of space between characters fairly often, from memory – and it certainly suits all the secrets it seems everyone is holding.
I like the ‘beehive’ kinda look to the edges of Ayato’s vision when he’s piloting.
There’s another shot of Quon which has me half-convinced that they gave her the umbrella (in part) because it would add to a distinctive silhouette.

And finally – the costume I mentioned earlier, which I liked well-enough for a temporary outfit, but Haruka did not:

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

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho)

[A couple of spoilers in this one]*.

There are a few Makoto Shinkai works I haven’t seen so far but I’m still comfortable placing this film somewhere between ‘not my favourite of his’ and ‘still beautiful’ though I’m not sure how useful those descriptors are re: ranking.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho) 2004

And maybe they’re not at all… so I’ll be more specific – basically, I was transfixed chiefly by the visuals and the use of that ‘soft’ colour that makes Shinkai works so recognisable, and the fantastic detail that really sold every single frame, in terms of the ‘alternate Japan’ setting.

After a bit of reflection I suspect what I didn’t enjoy as much was the integration of the fantastical/mystical perhaps, that and the pacing – or maybe I should say the ending. And even that’s a bit misleading, because what I wanted more of was time for the discovery, destruction and aftermath of the tower. It’s so central to the story but the climax is completed reasonably quickly compared to what I was hoping for.

On the other hand, cinematically it’s great to see the change in colour and intensity in those moments, actually. I also really liked the design of Hiroki and Takuya’s airplane and maybe that (and the science-fiction(ish) elements of this film) will bring Voices of a Distant Star to mind. In a similar way, I think if you’ve not seen this one, the downbeat, bittersweet tone of Shinkai’s first feature film will be familiar enough if you’ve seen his others.

And to compare The Place Promised in Our Early Days to Voices… once more, one of the things that is so impressive about this movie is that Shinkai was involved in so many aspects in terms of conception and production. This time around it’s not quite a one man show but wow, it’s abundantly clear that he is one talented artist and filmmaker.

Definitely worth watching if you’re a fan of Shinkai and haven’t seen this one yet but if you’re new to his films then this is not the best entry-point I reckon.

3 Stars

*I’m a little pressed for time lately so I wasn’t able to go screencap happy today, and instead sourced these images from google.

Tokyo Godfathers Review [Collaboration with Curtis from Iridium Eye Reviews]

Greetings! Today I wanted to share my first collaboration post – Curtis and I have teamed up to review and discuss Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers 🙂

It was heaps of fun to work together on this and I hope you’ve got a few mins to take a look – and if you’ve never seen the film, I do recommend hunting it down, something that should be easy enough with a new dub on the way I hope.

To read the review jump over to Iridium Eye Reviews 🙂

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo 2004

It must be daunting to take on such a classic – often adapted and widely revered, the Alexander Dumas novel is perhaps the ultimate story of betrayal and revenge.

How’s that for a quick introduction for a change?

So, if you’re familiar with the specifics of the novel then you’re up to speed with the plot in the anime… for the most part.

There’s a few significant changes overall – for one, Gonzo set this version well into the future with space travel and war-suits, though aesthetically it remains very lavishly European in terms of costuming and character. Teens take centre stage here too, which is perfect in terms of keeping the viewer one step ahead of the main character but still one step behind the antagonist/hero. Elsewhere there are hints of vampirism and alien or demonic forces at play, but with or without any of those things The Count of Monte Cristo is still a gripping drama that will feel a lot like the original story.

Most people discuss the visuals of this series and it’s clear why – they are astounding as well as, at times, utterly exhausting. It’s such a forceful and impressive blend of Gustav Klimt, typical anime aesthetics and Ukiyo-e that you’ll be both dazzled and confused at times, I reckon. For me, I couldn’t look away but the first few episodes were truly difficult adjustment periods. (Here, I tried not to share too much but also failed to capture what it’s really like – especially when all those clothing patterns move :D).

Beyond the art there’s a lot of angst and bitterness, but also perhaps a lot of nobility. At times it’s easy to get frustrated with young Albert’s naivety but he’s not the only character with something at stake here, so you’ll get to know other folks. For instance, I think most people would accept that Franz is just as important as Albert and the Count, along with the romances. In a way, it’s a large cast and you do get a bit of time with everyone.

While it’s mostly a story about the way Albert is manipulated into a role within the Count’s long revenge, the other plots are woven through the story neatly and toward the end, in impactful ways. [Spoiler here] In fact, for me the duel between ‘Albert’ and the Count is actually the high point in terms of drama, probably because you’re meant to be well-aware of what’s really happening. After that, the ending didn’t quite pack the same punch – and related, I would have loved something different or possibly more visceral for some of the revenges Edmund took.

I know there’s some discussion out there re: the ending of the anime vs the novel and each viewer will have their preferred approach but I wasn’t aghast by it or anything. Throughout, Gankutsuou will push you toward sympathising with the antagonist – and again, I’m reserving the word ‘villain’ for other characters here in some ways, but it takes a while before you’re given much of the Count’s back-story for context around his actions. From a storytelling point of view I think that makes a lot of sense, considering how well-known the source material is.

I know earlier I mentioned a large cast and I’ve touched upon a few of the bad seeds but there are bright moments (such and the purity of Valentine and Maximilien) but switching back to a more morally grey character, there’s one of my favs: Peppo who has an important role even if the screen time might not suggest it, precisely.

In terms of audience, note that themes of revenge, betrayal, incest and abuse are front and centre, and so despite the pretty exterior the series does a great job of revealing the depths of human villainy and weakness. In fact, when the visuals lean into the gaudiness I think it becomes at least partially a comment on the excesses of the nobility; that glittering veneer of honour that is so easily tarnished.

5 Stars

The CGI could be out of place but it often seems to fit the plastic/superficial world of the nobles in some ways.
I remember getting some Baz Luhrmann ‘Romeo + Juliet’ vibes from this scene.

Venus Wars (Vinasu Senki)

Venus Wars (Vinasu Senki) 1989

Post Akira fame, I suspect studios felt that there was definitely room for more futuristic dystopian stories with cool bikes and teen rebellion on the big screen.

Maybe that helped Venus Wars get the green light back in the late 1980s but setting that aside, I think the manga must have been strong too because I think its detail and characterisation remains visible in the anime, even with a lot of focus on animating exciting chases and battles.

‘Determination’ expression close-up time here

However, Venus Wars was not well-received at home and it took a few years for the film to be released and then gain traction overseas too. I wish I could learn a little more about that reception specifically, as I’m only able to find a few quotes on retailer websites. In the same places you’ll probably come across this from author and director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko:

“Thirty years ago, I was a loser. Because of the humiliation and the irritation to myself, I decided to seal this film…Now I want to apologize to the film and everyone, and I sincerely hope you watch this film pulled from the time capsule with the eyes of the contemporary age.”

which struck me as really sad, because when I watch Venus Wars now I don’t see the work of a loser at all.

Obviously, the movie is not without flaws (perhaps the pacing at times for me) but it’s really impressive. The world-building shows a grimy, oppressive Venus; the detail on the bikes and tanks, the ships and the buildings, it’s all great. The action sequences are fluid and usually filled with tension – and perhaps most of all, the characters are believable and engaging even with a reasonably large cast and a short (compared to a series or manga) running time.

Things that deserve emotional impact are rarely rushed through and the tension grows beyond the war itself, as our battle bike heroes find rebellion has a cost – and at the same time, the viewers are reminded that the people who suffer in a war are rarely those at the top. Aside from those smaller moments re: the politics, Venus Wars devotes a bit of time to romance too, and in that respect its ability to bring the conventions of many genres together makes it feel a bit like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Switching to the visuals a moment, I really liked the use of reds, greens and shadows within Venus Wars. The palette really sells both the ‘other planet’ setting and the war itself, also feeding into the grimy look and giving even the buildings an unhealthy pallor. And if the character designs at times bring to mind Mobile Suit Gundam then that might be because Yasuhiko was responsible for both works 😀

I do have a few quibbles with the movie, one being story-based and another perhaps more of a note about the visuals, I guess – but first, I wanted to quickly mention the ‘Earth reporter’ Sue. At first, I read her as unsympathetic, despite her bravery and drive.

Chekhov, right?

Established as a reporter who is kinda hungry for war (because it would give her a scoop of course) I was ready to write her off but she does have something of a redemption arc, though it’s not presented that way because I don’t think the film sees her goals as questionable. Still, she’s important and gets more screen time than say Miranda, which is a shame because she’s far cooler 😀

Aside from perhaps a bit too much time spent at the race track early on, the other pacing issue seems to be the inclusion of a few scenes with the gay soldier (Chris) – he must have had a meaningful role in the manga, but in the film his scenes are just there to operate as jokes or something? So that’s a mark against Venus Wars for me.

Gary has a mentor role so he ended up as one of my favourites 😀

Elsewhere there are some heavily filtered ‘live action’ moments that are used to represent Sue’s camera footage – a choice I really like intellectually but seeing it, despite being integrated fairly well, I didn’t actually enjoy that much.

Overall, I think Venus Wars is definitely worth seeing for science-fiction anime fans, especially if you’re interested in fairly big budget, high quality ‘old-school’ animation or works that owe a little something to Akira.

4 Stars

I also went a little overboard on the screen caps here:

The framing here and below are a couple of examples of the camera really placing you right ‘in’ the scene
‘Venus Wars’ has a bit of fan service but doesn’t go overboard
Safety first

The Sacred Blacksmith (Seiken no Burakkusumisu)

The Sacred Blacksmith (Seiken no Burakkusumisu) 2009

Lots of tropes here!

But did that ruin the series for me?

No, yet on a related note, if any of the following items bug you, then perhaps don’t rush to The Sacred Blacksmith: classic good vs evil plot, moe character designs, a jerk-ish male lead, a fairly absent villain and finally, pretty clumsy fan-service re: its delivery in general but also our leading lady, who is meant to be a klutz.

Having outlined those issues as I see them, there’s a great story that pushes through. I also found myself engaged by the leads; there’s character conflict both internal and external, and the show is happy to spend a bit of screen time there, which is welcome in my books 🙂

Most of the action sequences seemed good too but again, I think I kept watching mostly for the characters, both to learn their secrets and see them finally fess up to each other about the emotional things they were dealing with. The world presented is typical of dark fantasy traditions and had some fun aspects re: the demon swords, but overall it isn’t so grim that there wasn’t room for comedic moments or episodes.

Okay, to try and control my tendency to ramble, I wanna now switch to some dot points:

  • I needed to spend more time with the villain as he remained nebulous a little too long for me, only really beginning to evoke visceral responses at times in the final two episodes.
  • The series pacing was kinda shot for me when the story introduced Charlotte, (the Lisa-clone, small and blonde, moe etc). Worse, since she first appears as a brat antagonist the series then has to spend far too much time rehabilitating her. Part of me thinks she was only added in so they could undress her retainers for the obligatory hot springs/bathing scene.
  • The main storyline didn’t get a chance to expand, which was a shame because the bigger picture was really starting to build pressure on the characters and I would have watched another season, especially considering there are plenty of light novels. Doubtless the debt-ridden and bankrupt Manglobe means there’s no chance of any further seasons.

Okay, so due to the things I’ve brought up it maybe sounds like I didn’t enjoy The Sacred Blacksmith at all, but that’s not true – I mean, I finished it and I wanted the story to continue.

And again, it was the character development that kept me on board as much as anything – for instance, our secondary hero Luke has as much or more growth than heroine Cecily and at times, the humour was great (I’m mostly thinking head maid Fio here) so The Sacred Blacksmith is by no means something I loathed.

But there is better fantasy anime out there – which is maybe a bit of an empty statement perhaps, I mean, for every genre only a few things are at the top 😀

3 Stars

*Oh, and if I can borrow a drinking game approach from Irina, then if you want to get trashed, take a drink every time the characters discuss Cecily’s breasts. For alcohol poisoning, add in Each Time the Shot is Framed to Keep them in View.

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) 2016

It’s always exciting to see animation helmed by folks from beyond Japan and the US, since those are the two production locations I’ve been most exposed to.

Having said that, Studio Ghibli is a co-producer but the look and feel of this feature film definitely reveals more of Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit’s hand, and an overall European aesthetic. For me, with my limited knowledge of animation in the wider world, I saw hints of Herge in the character designs but that’s not really important.

I’m trying to be brief for a change (hahaha), so instead, let me leap to a bit of plot – this is a fantasy, but chiefly a drama about a man stranded on an island and who encounters a curiously belligerent (it seems) red turtle. (Thematically, it’s more nuanced than that however).

Switching to the tone of the story I think you can’t go wrong by saying that it can be described as a cross between Castaway and a fairy tale. Yet The Red Turtle is ultimately more uplifting than the Tom Hanks film. Still, it’s fairly downbeat – but I remained enthralled by the visuals once a central mystery was resolved perhaps halfway through.

Focusing on the visuals, aside from the ‘line and dot’ look of a lot of the film, it’s an explosion of light and colour without being gaudy; it remains so natural, becoming almost hyper-natural in some ways. From the sand, water and forests, it’s like a work of art. There’s also a lot of dramatic composition too, with wide and sometimes extreme establishing shots to really drive home the idea that humanity is just one part of the world. Yet it’s hardly a preachy film, considering one feature is a lack of dialogue.

Very much worth seeing if you’re a fan of the art of animation.

4 Stars

Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai)

Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai) 2011

One day I’ll run out of shows I’ve seen and then I’ll have to focus more on new stuff – but until that moment, here’s another ‘older’ series. And for a change, I’ll try and keep this review succinct!

Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day is a definition tearjerker, so if that’s not your thing steer clear perhaps. Otherwise, if you’ve never seen this one get ready for a fairly full-on drama that follows young adults as they struggle to come to terms with the death of a childhood friend from their past, Menma. On the surface it sounds like a straight forward drama but there’s a few supernatural aspects, since Menma is kinda haunting the main character of Jinta in the present-day.

Of course, she generally does it in a cute way – except for in the first episode. I nearly gave the show a miss because for some reason she’s shown grinding on Jinta over breakfast? That bizarre attempt at fan-service(?) aside, the story is a good mix between mystery and character, with some truly antagonistic friends coming together to try and figure out the right thing to do. And yeah, as expected, super-bittersweet ending – even melodramatic, but still overall a good series.  

Clannad is mentioned a lot in terms of a general comparison to Anohana, so that might be another marker to help decide whether to watch. As I’ve said many times about most modern productions, visually everything is bright and clear and the character designs are distinctive enough, which is always welcome.

But the real highlight is probably the charactarisation for me.

4 Stars