Agrento Soma (Arujento Sōma)

After a slow start that wasn’t actually slow – I was transfixed.

Agrento Soma (Arujento Sōma) 2000

Argento Soma feels like a bit of a rare story for me, where the pay-off definitely matched the mystery and tension that had built across the previous episodes. And in an industry littered by the cast-off bodies of so many unfinished shows only given a single season, it’s nice to come across a story with a conclusion.

In regard to the pacing, what was ‘slow’ for me was warming to most of the cast.

Without Commander Ines and Sue or Michael (and to a lesser extent Hattie), I wasn’t invested in anyone’s outcome precisely. At first. Actually, unless you were to count how much I came to want Ryu to fail, to receive his just desserts.

Instead, it was the central mystery of why the aliens attacked earth, why they continued to seek the mysterious Pilgrimage Point, that kept me going until I warmed to the cast.

Right off the bat I knew Ryu was a jealous loser, and even when he became tolerable later on – usually at the cost of the emotional well-being of others – I don’t think I actually wanted him to succeed. He was a fantastic character in that respect. Not quite anti-hero, not quite antagonist, and amusingly absolutely utterly unaware that he was not the hero of the story*.

*Trying to paraphrase something iniksbane brought to my attention with that last sentence – and also, thanks heaps for the recommendation 😀

So, now that I’ve got all that out of the way – what’s the anime actually about? Well, it’s about people trying to defend the earth from aliens. And:

[From MAL] In the year 2059, the earth has been plagued by aliens for several years. In an effort to learn more about these aliens, Dr. Noguchi and his assistants Maki Agata and Takuto Kaneshiro try to revive the professor’s experiment, a large Bio-Mechanical alien named Frank. During this process the alien comes to ‘life’ and the lab is subsequently destroyed, leaving Takuto the only survivor and the alien disappearing into the wilderness.

And further, there’s mecha, mystery, science-fiction and drama aspects all neatly woven together as events expand from the premise above – even a bit of mind-games, especially when it comes to Ryu and Mr X, whose scenes together often have interesting staging and lighting, really selling the duplicity.  

If you like to compare things (as I do), there are clear classic science-fiction themes, something of a War of the Worlds feel here, and for some fans no doubt you’ll find that Neon Genesis comes to mind also, especially with the escalation of alien attacks used for some of the anime’s structure, but Argento Soma still stands quite apart from the two texts I mentioned.

Some of what differentiates the show for me is because Argento Soma feels a lot like a character study before anything else, a vehicle for Ryu to become a better person – and it’s a long redemption arc too (if you’d want to go that far). And while most events and other characters often serve that purpose, Argento Soma shows a wider cast that is notable in its own right. (A shame that Sue’s past only sneaks into the OVA, however).

Another thing that I think separates Argento Soma from any cries of ‘Eva-clone’ might be the classic, big science-fiction ideas most commonly seen in 20 Century science-fiction cinema… but I won’t spoil them here.

I will say that the somewhat nose-less designs (courtesy of one of my fav directors, Shukou Murase) took me a little while to acclimatise to, but it’s definitely memorable. And also in regard to design, I definitely felt that Frank’s look was top notch. It had a less organic but more human feel compared to the other aliens, to my eye.

Bob Newhart cameo!

In addition to the above quibble, I will note that Ryu spends most of the show as a terrible person – not just ‘flawed’ but really, a bad dude. This means he abuses everyone around him, especially women, both before and after the tragedy that inspires his childish (but not surprising) drive for revenge.

But as I said before, he does (for the most part), have a redemption arc, and in the context of the whole series, his shitty behaviour is not front-and-centre. For instance, you’re not going to be confronted with an endless parade of graphic psychical or verbal abuse, but just be aware that he’s no hero.

(Also, Hattie can be a bit shrilly repetitive).

But finally, is this anime for you?

In short, if you want a twentysomething-year-old mecha show focused on adults, on revenge, with a great cast and a lead character that is far from ‘clean-cut’, then this could be for you.

It also has a deeply satisfying conclusion to its central mystery – another reason to give it a shot if you can find it.

4 Stars

Finally! My first review in over a month 🙂

The Big O (Za Biggu Ō) [Boxing Day Review]

The Big O (Za Biggu Ō) 1999

You can no doubt predict exactly what I’ll say about episodic storytelling by now, right?

This almost sums up the palette used throughout.

I’m definitely a fan of it – but The Big O ticks a lot of boxes for me outside its mostly episodic structure too.

First, there’s the slowly unfolding mystery in an unsettling but familiar city, then there’s androids, revolving villains, a dramatic multi-genre OST and finally; retro-looking mecha placed within a very 20th Century aesthetic – the mash-up is fantastic.

Having said that, if you don’t enjoy (almost) madcap mixes of conventions and genres, you probably won’t end up liking The Big O too much.

Despite the strong Batman/James Bond feel to the series, and despite the noir detective stuff happening on the surface, I still think that there’s enough dissonance and enough of the philosophical maybe, to deter folks who prefer a focus on a single genre or tone.

But again, that’s one of my favourite aspects of The Big O – that and the stylish character designs and art deco visuals.

I’ll take a shot at exploring the premise just quickly:

Roger Smith is a negotiator/investigator living in Paradigm City, known as the city of amnesia (for reasons which I won’t spoil). There, he is eventually pulled into the mystery of whatever event wiped everyone’s memory forty years ago, aided by former client, Dorothy – an advanced android.

To hopefully evoke a sense of tone here, I want to mention one person involved in the production – Chiaki J. Konaka. As with all collaborative arts, I think it’s cruel to point to only one person, especially in a review, but I think if I mention Chiaki then that might give a few clues as to the tone and direction of this series – especially the second season.

If I step away from my rhapsodising about the series for a moment, I’ll maybe get enough distance to point out some things that I didn’t love. Firstly, Roger is kind of a jerk and essentially mistreats Dorothy for nearly the whole series. And speaking of Dorothy, if you take a look at what she can do in the first two episodes for example, she is truly under-utilised by the story.

I believe more than a few people agree that Season 1 tends to be stronger than Season 2 (actually, I only took screencaps from S1 mainly due to time).

Three or four years later and the animation quality does get a boost for the sequel season, but for me, the powerful mysteries established in those first thirteen episodes aren’t all answered as satisfyingly as I’d hoped. (I also wished that Swchartzman got a little more screentime somehow, as I tended to really enjoy him and his monologues!)

In contrast to my comparative disappointment with the second season, there were still plenty of things that I continued to think about afterward. More, the audience does get a few answers in time, along with one reveal that had nearly as much impact as the stunning ending of episode 13, for me.

Okay, so now that I’ve finally reached this point in the review, I think it’s time to wrap things up – until my next post, where I want to try a bit of visual analysis on episode 3 of The Big O.

In the meantime, I hope I’ve made you at least a little curious about this ‘old’ anime! (It’s been in my top ten for a long time and I don’t see it leaving any time soon, but it did slip down a rung on the ladder at one point.)

5 Stars

(A few images to follow)

A merry time was had by all.

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

I think you could argue that some classics hold their status by virtue of reaching certain storytelling spaces early, by being perhaps more influential rather than brilliant in their own right.

I’d argue that the 1988 OVA adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga fits that mold pretty neatly, since so many tropes, settings and ideas have carried forth well into the present, yet the film itself has its limitations.

Of course, the Appleseed manga is probably more key in terms of the influence I’m talking about (and obviously Akira before it) but the OVA is still part of the storytelling tradition that puts certain conventions and characters into the fore.

And while there’s certainly cyberpunk elements re: technology, rebellion in oppressive societies and augmentation, the film reads more like a Hollywood action blockbuster if you strip away those typical cyberpunk or science-fiction elements.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, that’s part of the fun for me when I watch it – it’s not unlike Lethal Weapon set in the 22nd Century!

So for me, what can I say represents Appleseed’s best parts?

Maybe the ‘time-capsule’ aspects – that ‘old-school’ anime character design which was usually a little rounder of face, with visible noses and sharper use of shadow, along with what I consider the wider, more generalised US influence – the big hair, 1980s workout-costuming, a montage sequence and a saxophone and light synth-soundtrack.

Add to that robotics, guns and explosions and a clear, linear ‘police-hunt-terrorists’ storyline and you’ve got Appleseed. Even Briareos and Deunan have a bit of a buddy-cop dynamic going on – though any such character interactions/development (or exploration of the social system in Olympus) tend to take a back seat to the action and tech. (There’s bits of humour here and there too but again, it’s not the focus either).

In fact, another joy for me tends to be seeing how the future is imagined both in terms of how society is organised and how technology might evolve – and Appleseed has both fascinating ideas and amusing moments common to a lot of 80s and 90s cyberpunk: especially when it comes to the office settings or communication technology.

Here, computers are massive, police still print on paper and phones have only reached ‘video’ and yet military tech and cybernetics are light years ahead. Audiences probably appreciate a good deal of familiar things in future-settings though, and predicting the future must be so, so very difficult. I tend to think speculative fiction writers do get it right pretty often too.

Where the OVA suffers in my opinion is due to some truly clunky dialogue and the missed opportunities to reveal more detail about the world and characters, something a series might have solved, but the movie still packs a lot into its runtime and I tend to prefer it over say, the 2004 adaptation, though nostalgia clearly plays into that feeling.

If you’re curious about the film’s place in the timeline of cyberpunk or maybe Shirow’s work in general, then you’ll probably pick up a few familiar themes and ideas – I remember feeling like the multi-leg tank was a clear precursor to GITS’s spider tank.

And speaking of that robot design and influence, I think some Boomer designs from Bubblegum Crisis might be a nod to Landmates and other robots in Appleseed, which is the kind of detail I tend to enjoy noticing because it reminds me just how interconnected storytelling tends to be!

4 Stars