Un-Go (2011)

Un-Go (2011)

This series was fascinating.

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.

Secrets upon secrets

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.)

The show often gives little name flashes as reminders when we first see a character in an episode.

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 😀

3.5 Stars  

B: The Beginning

Perhaps a quick warning – this review is even more rambling than usual, so if you’re looking for a plot summary maybe click here first 😀

So! There was a whole lot I liked about B: The Beginning (and it’s nice to know there is a second season in production) but one thing that bugs me is that the working title was Perfect Bones – which is far better than the generic final title, right? Is it just me? Perfect Bones* clearly links to the meat of the series in a subtler and more satisfying way and again, is far less generic than… well, anyway, I enjoyed this series!

And that’s partly because of the odd mix between aspects that are quite at home in a CSI/Criminal Minds cop team (featuring an uneasy genius and a taciturn leader) and the supernatural, the teen angst, and some horror and occasional bits of comedy too. At first I thought there were too many disparate parts, but the series mostly brought it all together, definitely enough for me to suspend disbelief and want to see how it ended.

(However, keep in mind that I do enjoy genre mash-ups a lot and so I have that bias).

The story follows twin, converging storylines which are both engaging for differing reasons and while it seems one has more action (young Koku’s search for a lost love) and one more investigating (Keith Kazama Flick’s search for a killer), the division isn’t always clean cut.

Both stories essentially offer plenty of both action and intrigue, delivered with the fairly ‘slick’ modern animation that’s always pretty impressive if not always distinctive, but then, you don’t always want distinctive. Sometimes you want reliably enjoyable, I reckon. And I don’t mean for either of those descriptions to come off as put-downs either, so hopefully they don’t do that.

Aside from those aspects it was probably the characters and the mythology that the series created and wove in and out of the story that I found most enjoyable. In terms of character, I think it was Keith and Lily’s relationship, which has an abrasive mentor/rival/student thing, that I enjoyed the most – her earnestness is endearing and his drive is too. On the note of the mythology, I’d actually have loved more of that (perhaps over the boarding school flashbacks – though they certainly served a purpose) and maybe season two will do just that?

Despite my enjoyment of Keith and his storyline, the slapstick sometimes seemed oddly out of place and to some extent, the Koku character is reasonably standard, but again, that’s not a deal-breaker for me as everything lifted up the more conventional aspects; slick, vivid animation, some great villains, a few twists and real comedic moments were joined by interesting mythology and an Italian setting, so yeah, I was a pretty happy viewer 🙂

And the ending theme is another highlight, both the credits sequence itself and the moody song – which fans of Megadeth might be interested in, as it’s performed by Man with a Mission in collaboration with Marty Friedman.

Back in 2016 when Netflix were making those early pushes into anime this show was announced as: “the first ever original anime title to debut all episodes simultaneously in 190 countries around the world” and so it was clear they wanted it to succeed, and partnering with Production I.G on this 12 episode series was a pretty great first step.

Obviously a big distribution deal, an average title and a great ending theme song aren’t enough to make a killer series; it’s everything in between that we’re interested in – but for me the separate elements added up to something memorable. Having said that, I suspect if you watch a lot of US crime shows or anime in general, Perfect Bones B: The Beginning won’t be surprising but it hit a lot of the notes I was looking for.

*And yeah, I understand that the visual representation of the ‘B’ itself is also important to the story but still, Perfect Bones would have been better 😀

A.I.C.O. Incarnation

A.I.C.O. Incarnation (2018)

Netflix has allowed me access to a few newer shows in a timeframe that’s about 50% faster than my usual average of something like “2 years after a series even hits DVD” – and so this time around it’s nice to only be about 1 year (give or take) behind everyone else 😀

And thus, I’ve now also seen A.I.C.O and a few others on the platform and they’ve each been typically high quality in terms of animation (and this one by Bones is no exception there) but the series didn’t blow me away.

Nor did I feel it was ‘bad’ at all. There were a few elements that maybe didn’t match the level of the animation for me, but the show was still compelling and even tense, at times. (They even split the fan service kinda evenly across the male and female characters).

Where A.I.C.O. Incarnation drops a little for me is the lead character Aiko’s passivity – to some extent, she’s kept in the dark for a lot of the series (so the audience can be placed in a similar position of course) and though she’s generally cheerful and at times full of resolve, it was a shame she didn’t get to take control much.

There were a few times where I imagine the manga did a better job of introducing some of the supporting cast and world-building, and perhaps there was also missed opportunity to go a little further into the central conflict of personhood.

On the other hand, aside from the great animation, Aiko herself has a design that seems usually reserved for antagonists/creatures, with her red eyes and dark hair, which was an interesting tweak I thought. The other stand out for me was the Beetle, which is pretty ace – the design of most of the vehicles has a really flexible sorta structure actually, which is a nice bit of attention to detail re: the kind of terrain the characters must traverse in order to save Japan from the encroaching ‘matter’ that threatens them all.

In the end I thought A.I.C.O had a great mix of moe elements, action sequences and twists but also character/weapon/vehicle design, so it’s a good near-future sci-fi if that’s your kinda show.

3 Stars

(Director Kazuya Murata has been involved (in one way or another) in a fair few great projects over the years, from Ocean Waves, Beserk, Eureka Seven, FMA (2011), Porco Rosso, Gunsmith Cats, Xam’d and even Shemnu II for the Dreamcast :D)

Summer Wars (Samā Wōzu)

Summer Wars (Samā Wōzu) 2009

One of my favourite things about this film (which is suddenly ten years old!) is that it manages to tell a really compelling family drama at the same time as its external ‘plot-based’ action storyline.

Of course, the two do intersect but it’s always impressive to me that Hosoda found time in the film to charactarise a good portion of such a massive cast. And maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, considering the budget and talent behind it – I remember some of the hype leading up to its release actually.

No doubt that after the success of The Girl who Leapt through Time Madhouse was happy to give Hosoda and writer Satoko Okudera a fair bit of leeway 🙂

There’s a lot going on with our team of ordinary heroes (math-nerd!) trying to take out a rogue AI that wreaks havoc in the real world via the internet, including redemption arcs, first love, jealousy, death, defiance and comedy – in a way, it’s very much a family movie, since it never stretches beyond the bounds of the PG rating, as much as it’s a science-fiction film. And like most big budget anime films, the art is beautiful and vivid – especially setting of the Jinnouchi estate itself.

Although, part of the fun upon watching Summer Wars after its release can be seeing how accurate some of the predictions from the writing team were about the near-future – though what I tend to think of most when I put the film on now, is the way that while action and fighting feature in the final battle, part of that struggle is actually played out via a game of Hanafuda, which enabled the film to not only channel Yu-Gi-Oh etc but also to tie it in with the traditional aspects of the Jinnouchi family.

As with almost all Mamoru Hosoda films, there’s a couple of parts where you might tear up and a few good laughs as well, great pacing and plenty of surprises too.

5 Stars

Fractale (Furakutaru)

Fractale had some interesting concepts and nice animation… but really wildly inconsistent tone and approach to some of the themes.

Fractale (Furakutaru)
2011

At times there were nice dashes of humour (and you can see the fingerprints of Laputa and Nadia Secret of Blue Water here) but the flickering from violent to moé elements, to super-creepy then high-spirited adventure, and then philosophical… it was really jumping around too much for me.

I have read that director Yutaka Yamamoto (the guy who has been quoted as saying adult anime fans who were obsessed were ‘handicapped’) claimed that he wanted to “overthrow the ‘moé anime Yamamoto Yutaka’ image” and it seems the director felt pressure to do just that… and maybe that’s why the series really missed the mark, for me. Supposedly he’s retiring again this year?

I don’t think Fractale pulled off that true sense of adventure or the gradual reveal of the darkness either – even the ultra bright colour palette seemed to clash with the more mature moments.

Anyway, I’m not sure I could recommend Fractale for fans of those other texts I mentioned in the end… because it seems that those comparative aspects were meant to function more as a cloak for the attempt at deconstruction.

I do think that Fractale had some genuinely funny moments and I did like a lot of the character design but ultimately, too many great ideas just weren’t explored deeply enough for me, or worse, were sadly mishandled.

2 Stars

Perhaps the best shot in the series for me.