You can no doubt predict exactly what I’ll say about episodic storytelling by now, right?
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.)
Kicking off this review with some useless trivia – I had actually arranged with my local cinema to maybe screen Children of the Sea back in January but the bushfires prevented that – and obviously, I didn’t want people to risk their lives on entertainment stuff at that point, but I was pretty excited to finally see the film last night.
And if I was rating Children of the Sea only on the visuals and animation, it’d be 5 stars no sweat, everything really is stunning.
However, the narrative lost enough of its momentum at one point, that I know I’ll end the review at 4 Stars. Does that matter? I mean, do star ratings (or even opinions) mean much? Not really – everyone has to decide whether they’ll watch something based on their own markers, but what I’m trying to say is that I loved the look of this movie, right down to the pencil-stroke aesthetic for the character faces.
I’m probably more familiar with earlier Studio 4°C works like Spriggan and Memories but I am now really looking forward to their next release, Poupelle of Chimney Town. However, to actually get back to Children of the Sea itself, I thought Ruka was a great leading character and I was quickly invested in her struggles, thanks to a clever opening. Umi is my second favourite of course, though the boundary-challenged Sora is kind of jerk 😀
Before a significant shift, and one that surprised me, the tone of the film strikes a balance between mystery, wonder and social isolation. It’s all brought together by the visuals, which are ultimately very realistic for most of the film, but can be more vividly presented, and even slightly magical.
I won’t share the premise or too much of the plot here, because while on the surface Children of the Sea still looks like an aquatic-themed fantasy adventure film (mixed in with some coming-of-age stuff) there are two genres that are perhaps more apt when I think about the film now, because the preview certainly gave me one impression…
But I think that magical realism is more accurate than a general fantasy tag – and if I say too much about why I believe that to be the case, I might inadvertently spoil stuff. To circle back to what I mentioned re: that shift in tone, there’s a point where the movie becomes extremely metaphysical and it was there that, while the visuals remain entrancing, the storyline stalled.
Again, in the end I didn’t mind so much, and I look forward to watching Children of the Sea for a second time one day, but be prepared to go beyond the realms of what you might have first expected, if you choose to watch this!
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Excited to (finally) get my second OWLS post up and running – we’re looking at ‘Folklore’ and the Supernatural for August – thanks again to the team for the opportunity to jump in 🙂
Witch Hunter Robin (2002)
Witch Hunter Robin was released right around a ‘heyday’ for live-action Supernatural television. In the late ‘90s, shows like Sabrina,Charmed, Buffy, Angel and the X-Files were reigning kings here (doubtless in the US too) and I think traces of those shows are clear in this series.
On the other hand, in anime, the Supernatural sub-genre has probably been more consistently popular, independent of US trends, but Witch Hunter Robin has plenty of European mythology and ‘US crime show’ mixed into its Japanese setting. You could argue, perhaps that it’s a bit like another Sunrise anime, Cowboy Bebop, in that respect (only).
And there are definitely a few production aspects that lock Witch Hunter Robin into that time-period too, but while one of them is a mark against the show, I’m considering most of them as drawcards, rather than issues 😀
Okay, so here’s a tiny note on the premise: the series follows young witch-hunter Robin of Italy, as she adjusts to the STN-J, a sophisticated and powerful organisation tasked with capturing rogue witches… and innocent people who have yet to manifest their powers.
Now, since I tend to think of myself as maybe slightly favouring Concept over Execution, I really enjoyed the PKD ‘pre-crime’ aspect to Witch Hunter Robin. And while what happens to witches and ‘seeds’ in the series is sadly similar to what authoritarian governments continue to do to minorities, I’d have loved a bit more critique of that system… still, it’s hardly glossed over.*
Visually, the anime makes me think of a slightly grimier noir. It’s an aesthetic that I could maybe argue that Grunge helped popularise, and which extended into the 2000s… or perhaps I’m reading too much into that, and it’s more apt to consider it as something director Murase Shukou likes to use?
In any event, if you enjoyed that and certain other things about his works (like Ergo Proxy, Gangsta and even Genocidal Organ) well, they also appear to varying extents here in Witch Hunter Robin. Especially I think, a fondness for shadow, of dark coats, mysteries and ‘slow’ pacing.
So, I just alluded to the pacing, and in terms of the ‘main’ storyline – you will have to wait a bit for it to really kick-in. There’s a fair establishing phase where ‘monster of the week’ plots provide the action and world-building, and only small hints of the big picture, interspersed with quieter moments for Robin and other characters.
The series does build up to something big, but depending on your general familiarity with science-fiction and supernatural tropes, I think you’d see most of those things coming. But I was hooked on the characters and the tensions between them so that was no problem for me.
Most folks in the team have their secrets and even some of the minor characters too, and so there’s definitely time spent there, which I liked. In fact, my favourite episode or moment was probably the one focusing on ‘Master’, the cafe owner – and if I think about it now, he probably makes a bigger impact than a few of the leads.
So, as I sometimes do – I’m switching to dot points in a hopeless token gesture toward brevity:
Unpacking and dealing with some of the issues and discoveries Robin and her partners faced did seem compressed toward the end, and so I can see that as a flaw, even if it didn’t bother me too much personally.
Robin herself is kinda morose, though she’s not without spark. But her (maybe) obvious depression is sort of echoed elsewhere in the series, and so I definitely consider it a feature rather than a bug.
It’s interesting how little in the way of dialogue Robin has in some episodes, you have to read into a lot from her expressions, which are also repressed.
While this isn’t a typical action anime, I noticed that the animation for those scenes at times didn’t always feel fluid compared to other shows.
CGI. Above any other issue here, I suspect a modern audience might have trouble with this one. It definitely adds to the general grimy and downbeat tone of the series, though most of it has aged quite poorly. Just two years later, things would be looking better in say, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, but neither anime resembles a new series with a high budget. Maybe it’s part of the charm for me, but it’s fascinating to note this would have been cutting edge in 2002. How fast technology moves, right?
The aspects around witchcraft, folklore and lineage was something I would have liked more of, and maybe that could have happened with a second season… but on the other hand, I like where Witch Hunter Robin ended too.
Character design stood out for me, as did costuming – even Robin’s courier moments. Mostly, I suspect I enjoyed all the ‘coats’ – not just your classic dark trench for the STN-J, but Robin’s more complex outfit or Nagira’s white fur, which really catches the eye.
Nagira himself quickly became a fav too, especially when Amon seems to occupy the role of ‘jerk’ for a little too long.
The opening song was pretty ace, very much of the era, and within the series itself I liked the sombre piano to Robin’s theme. While I mostly remember that piece, there’s also Flame which is plenty dramatic.
And finally, it’s recommendation time!
You’ll see that I’ve rated it the series a ‘5’ but that’s me – if you’re not me, which is pretty likely, then you might not enjoy this as much as I did.
Especially if you have trouble with old CGI or pacing that’s more Mystery than Action, or if you are drawn to more upbeat lead characters. However, if you like other works of Murase Shukou, noir-influenced supernatural shows, leads who are not precisely ‘open books’, then this might just appeal.
*[Bit of a spoiler perhaps] Nagira, who appears as the Yakuza lawyer, and who operates essentially as a criminal, is the one advocating for and protecting ‘seeds’ in Witch Hunter Robin.
And in an all too common reflection upon real life – you have a large corporation with government-level surveillance and a militant arm, which is obsessed with order and control, and thus ‘becomes’ the true villain.
And while Robin at first works for them, and maybe believes in their mandate, she eventually comes to rail against it all, with Nagira’s help.
Here’s a few examples of where the CGI reveals its age:
And now a few extra shots because I wanted to add them, basically 😀
Here we go again with a new ‘Abandoned’ post and my usual disclaimer that I might come back to these one day!
I think I liked the concept better than the approach when it came to Shigofumi. Like many of the shows I mention in these posts I don’t think I’ve ruled out finishing this one day, however.
Shigofumi follows a ‘girl’ named Fumika who delivers after death letters and again, the premise I loved, but part of my issue was the structure. Now, as I type this I know I’m ‘on record’ as saying I love episodic shows and it’s still true, however for at least as far as I watched here, these episodes generally moved between unconnected cases.
Now, for a crime series that’s very, very normal and no problem at all – but the draw there is often the detective, I reckon. You get to know and spend a lot of time with the person solving problems in those instances. Here, Fumika is fairly passive and the mystery around her world (and her role) was offset by not really getting to know her soon enough. That meant that for me her (almost) cameos in the episodes just weren’t enough.
2. Penguin Highway(2018)
Looks great and has what sounds like a fun mystery for kid protagonists to solve – penguins randomly appear in their village.
Now, I haven’t finished this quite obviously, but Aoyama seemed equally obsessed with breasts as he did the mystery of the penguins and I assume it was meant to be cute but it struck me as odd.
Definitely haven’t ruled it out but I’m not rushing back just yet.
3. Tales of Zestiria the X (2016)
I stopped Tales… a while ago now and just haven’t come back, and for a change I know exactly why.
In the beginning, I was enjoying the action, adventure and magic, along with the ‘King Arthur’ feel. There were mysteries and other things that had me curious, along with some great settings that I wanted the characters to explore… and maybe you can see where the ‘based on a video game’ aspect comes in 🙂
But around episode 6 or 7 the narrative leaps away from characters I was beginning to become invested in to settle in with other folks who I just didn’t care about. And perhaps due to that, and not knowing when the focus would return to the ‘proper’ main characters, I just haven’t gone back.
Now, I’d argue it’s really hard to tell an expansive story without jumping between viewpoints of a large cast but where I stopped, I think it had been a couple of episodes without even checking in on the main team and so I just kinda moved on to other stuff.
One day I want to try this again, just not sure when.
It’s hard for me to accurately describe why I found it so – probably because of the contradictions within.
On one hand Un-Go feels like an uneven detective series and on the other it feels like an uneven philosophical text… and on the other hand it’s aesthetically pleasing, even stylish at times. On the fourth hand that I apparently have, it’s one of those shows that appears not quite able to add up to more than the sum of its influences, yet manages to become compelling.
Now, maybe I’m in a bit of a minority here with Un-Go but by the end I was ready for more cases and more of the interplay between detective Shinjuurou and his ‘boss’ Inga. The series is short (eleven episodes), with one double-episode length OVA as a prequel. I’d like to come back to that OVA actually, but for now I’ll mention that there is an overarching story that I preferred to some of the episodic parts.
While some cases felt rushed into single episodes, once Un-Go passed beyond that establishing phase the multi-part mysteries let the storytelling breathe a little, especially the final half dozen. In addition to what I consider an uneven start I feel like the pacing encourages the viewer to gloss over some plot holes or uneven character beats but the mysteries of the setting, the cases themselves and most of all, the exact nature of the contract between Shinjuuro and Inga were the main draws for me.
Un-Go is pretty good at drip-feeding it’s secrets too, and that’s another aspect that kept me watching – as did the oddness of Inga, who is basically a mix between Ed from Cowboy Bebop and Harley Quinn but it kinda worked. The anime takes on some big topics (albeit too briefly) around autonomy, privacy, war and finding purpose, and is far more adult in nature than say, Full Metal Alchemist. How’s that for a segue? I mention FMA because Un-Go is helmed by Seiji Mizushima and features Shō Aikawa in the writing chair.
However, I hope I haven’t misled anyone into thinking I believe FMA shies away from difficult themes, but its tone is a fairly different to Un-Go. And related to the question of tone – if you’ve seen this series and notice a reasonably pessimistic streak running throughout, then it might come from what is (to some extent) the source material.
Ango Sakaguchi was a post-war writer who seems to have been understandably struck by strong disillusionment, and one of his works Meiji Kaika Ango Torimono-chō, is the base for Un-Go’s lead, Shinjuuro who can appear to have lost hope at times. (But I think that’s about all that’s used from the source, since among other differences, the novel is set in the Meiji era and the anime is futuristic/alternate Japan.)
Finally now, I’m returning to the prequel I mentioned earlier.
The prequel is the most compelling of all the episodes in the series and perhaps even has slightly higher production values too, if that sorta thing matters to you. It also adds a bit of clarity to some of the Buddhist hints throughout.
But more important for me, was that Inga Chapter offered a lot of answers. Earlier I mentioned how I thought the show did a great job of maintaining my curiosity and it was pretty high by the time I saw the prequel. However, there’s a bit of debate out there as to when you should watch it – either before you begin the series or after episode eleven. On my DVD the OVA is on the final disc and so that’s how I saw it, and I liked that approach because it was enjoyable to finally get some back story for the lead characters and solve a few mysteries that had been hinted at since that tiny glimpse at the beginning of episode one.
(As a quick aside, the air date of the prequel was actually during the series itself, which is interesting.)
It’s clearly too late for me to watch Un-Go any other way ‘for the first time’ now, but if you’ve decided to hunt this show down then I guess consider what kind of viewer you reckon you are.
If you don’t mind having secrets held back for a long time, so as to build anticipation, then watch the prequel last.
If you suspect you might be a bit annoyed by a series that takes its time to return to the main concern, or if you like being one step ahead of the main characters and catching all the little hints they sometimes miss, then maybe watch the prequel first.
Okay, another ridiculously long review! Next time, I’ll aim for a shorter write up 😀