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.

150th Review: The Vision of Escaflowne (Tenkū no Esukafurōne)

The Vision of Escaflowne (Tenkū no Esukafurōne) 1996

I want to quickly preface my [spoilery] review today with a link to a post from ThatRandomEditor, Where are the Shoujo Anime? which I think is a great question, because for me, I don’t think I’ve really seen an action-kinda shoujo for one, in a fair while (or maybe I missed them?)

The Vision of Escaflowne is a classic and one of my favs, which ultimately suggests to me that I should probably spend a lot more time on the review, but I think I generally ramble on long enough as it is.

Firstly, I think portal fantasy is probably still holding onto a recent ‘boom’ right now, but if you’ve already seen all the new isekai out there and still want more, then look no further! Even more so if you’re also craving shoujo, because The Vision of Escaflowne will meet both of those needs nicely.

The same goes for the bishonen character design, and while I always appreciate the 1990s and characters with visible noses, the slight Pinocchio-feel took a bit of getting used to at first. Elsewhere, there’s a focus on graceful lines, and not just due to our winged heroes or the knight-like mech, and I’d argue that none of it comes at the cost of variety either.

That diversity is also featured in the range of new lands and peoples that Hitomi must navigate, aided often by Van or Allen (who tend to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to Dornkirk and his plans for world domination). But Hitomi is no flailing damsel either, and her visions and her speed as a member of the track team save the day more than once. I enjoyed the Tarot as well, which I hadn’t realised was quite popular with girls in Japan at the time, according to my Blu-Ray’s special features.  

And perhaps the audience is firmly meant to be shoujo, but I read that there were twin manga produced, one with more shounen conventions and the other more like the anime, which does have its share of a complex love triangles. In a way things seem ‘softer’ on the surface, with plenty of glistening eyes etc but The Vision of Escaflowne doesn’t shy away from heartbreak and repressed, unfulfilled desires either.

In addition to those romantic elements there are enough battles and duels to satisfy action fans too, I reckon. It’s an at times grim world with an interesting mix of fantasy and science fiction clear in the settings and characters. Having said that, the Dilandu encounters for one, became a bit repetitive for me. I found myself keen for Van to finish him off more than a few times, but having the invisibility aspect certainly kept suspense high, which I loved.

Okay, so I can’t wrap things up here without exploring some criticism, and while there were a few things that struck me, I’ll mention two below:

Sisters Eriya and Nariya – there’s a scene that I wasn’t sure how to read, especially in the way it was shot. Was it just meant to be run of the mill fan-service? Sapphic? Incestuous? I dunno, maybe I misread the scene but it never seemed to gel with their backstory or present storyline. Was it actually a missed opportunity to explore themes around sex and trauma?

And quickly now, by the end of the series I don’t know whether Folken actually earns his redemption arc for me, even if visually, one particular scene was fantastic.

Again, that could be a judgement call and I’m being a little hard on the guy but I dunno… He certainly helps our heroes out, but that whole mass-murderer thing keeps him firmly in the camp of villain, I reckon, even if he sees the light in time.

Nevertheless, The Vision of Escaflowne is an old favourite with a whole lot of stuff I loved, and one that I really enjoyed re-watching, but I can’t decide between 4 Stars and 5 Stars

… actually, it probably should be 5, especially with that killer Yoko Kanno OST.

(And I’ve also finally finished my second A-Z title now!).  

Poor hopelessly jealous Merle.

And there it is, the 150th review for the Review Heap!

(At least, I’m fairly sure it is – I counted, but may have missed a few, as it’s the 229th post but obviously not every post here is a review :D).

 

(I forgot to add – I usually take a lot of screenshots myself but this time my discs were playing up but I found a superb resource (qtpiecaps) which you can visit right here – it has a great list of shows available too.)

OWLS: Folklore Blog Tour – Witch Hunter Robin (Witchi Hantā Robin)

OWLS is a group of content creators who promote acceptance of all individuals regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. We emphasize the importance of respect, kindness, and tolerance to every human being. Every month we discuss real-world topics through online tours, sharing personal experiences and analyzing pop culture, literature, and other forms of media.

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.

5 Stars

*[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 😀

The ‘album cover’ or promo shot for a crime show maybe 🙂

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 😀

Short Peace (Shōto Pīsu)

Short Peace (Shōto Pīsu) 2013

The most recent anthology-style project from Katsuhiro Otomo is Short Peace. It was released a few years back now and it’s conceptually a little different from previous ones (like Robot Carnival or Memories) in that it includes a PS3 game released in conjunction. But since I’ve never played Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day I’ll have to stick with the short films here.

Okay, so this collection is made up of four shorts and again, not every piece will suit every viewer but generally speaking most critical response has focused on the excellent Possessions and Combustible. That doesn’t mean that the remaining two are bad however. I’ll quickly talk about each but drop a little warning now that I’ll have a spoiler in regard to the final short: A Farewell to Weapons.

Opener Possessions was nominated for an academy award and I can see why – heavy with atmosphere but not without humour, it has fantastic use of colour and the CGI is generally super-cohesive. The lead character is a traveller caught in a storm and the empty shop he takes refuge in is kinda infested with tsukumogami. Yet the way he solves the problem is interesting, as it’s not a typical response to fear. At times, I wasn’t sure he moved through the setting in a wholly integrated way but this is still my favourite of the four.

Next up is Combustible which continues with the historical settings via a story that is probably a smaller-scale view of the Great fire of Meireki. The visual style evokes woodblock printing too and appears perhaps muted at first… but doesn’t stay that way. I think you could argue that this one is also an abbreviated love story though I think what interested me most was the way fire-fighters were represented: I hadn’t realised that tattoos were common for the era when it came to labourers and fire-fighters. And while my country burns as I type this now, I realise Combustible hit home a bit more. (I was aware that tattoos in Japan have not always been welcome but I found this link explored some specifics, and I thought it was really interesting).

Now to the final two (latter para has the spoiler) starting with Gambo, which also uses a historical setting. Gambo explores a classic samurai trope – that of the terrorised village in need of help. Yet the hero is not a swordsman, and beyond that tweak, there are some other surprises too. It’s also the far more graphic and disturbing of the four.

Finally, A Farewell to Weapons which is a detailed, tense war-story that visually made me think of Western warfare in the Middle East. But it is a futuristic setting in terms of the robotics and so that aspect kinda puts the last short at odds with the rest of the anthology. For me, the only real downside to it was that within a few moments I knew exactly how it would play out and how it would end – with all the characters dead, of course (I think some of the team even talk about retirement in the beginning and if that’s not a narrative invitation to death then I don’t know what is), but I wouldn’t skip this one, that’s for sure.

I’ve definitely said this a few times before here but my vote is always for Memories as the stronger anthology helmed by Otomo, though I probably prefer this over Robot Carnival.

4 Stars

Note: I shouldn’t overlook the fact that Hajime Katoki directed A Farewell to Weapons actually, as he is one of the key mecha designers in the Gundam universe 🙂

Twitter Meme “Anime I…”

So, this was just a fleeting but fun meme doing the rounds on Twitter the other day but I didn’t end up posting there because I was too slow but also because the platform is rather ‘cramped’ when it comes to sharing reasons behind your choices 😀

And so, here’s that meme – the bare list first and then a few thoughts to go with it:

Anime I hate: I have no pithy answer here – so I’ll start with a nice ‘N/A

Anime I think is overrated: Anything that has 200+ episodes

Anime I think is underrated: Mushi-Shi

Anime I love: Nadia Secret of Blue Water

Anime I secretly love: Steins;Gate

Favourite anime of all time: Cowboy Bebop

Firstly, I don’t have much to report on the ‘anime I hate’ section because anything I haven’t enjoyed enough to continue watching… I didn’t continue watching, and so don’t have that much to say. I did do a short ‘Abandoned’ post a while back but I didn’t care enough to hate any of those shows, that’s for sure.

For the second item on the list I imagine you can guess the kinds of shows that I don’t have time for (literally and figuratively). If I’m feeling a bit grumpy I might even adjust that number to 100+ and yeah, I’m sure if I looked I’d find some exceptions quite easily… but for me, the risk to reward ratio is way off. More, the way a story ends is so, so important and obviously I hope, a show that eventually becomes more of a cash-cow* than an endeavour to tell a story, tends to dip sharply in quality all too soon and worse, fails to actually have an ending at all.

Now, in some ways calling Mushi-Shi ‘underrated’ might be a bit inaccurate as it’s highly regarded really, but certainly it tops few All-Time lists out there. I love Ginko, Yuto Nakano’s performance too and all the folktales woven throughout the episodic narrative. There’s a sombreness to the show too, which can even bring me down a little at times. Still, it’s my clear pick for the third item on the list.

For the ‘anime I love’ slot there are dozens of shows I could have included but today I went with Gainax’s lesser-known precursor to Neon Genesis – namely: Nadia and the Secret of Blue Water. No doubt I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m a sucker for both the Adventure genre and Coming of Age stories too. I’m also sure at least a few anime fans are aware that Nadia has more than a few very obvious and painful filler episodes – but I’m able to both overlook and skip them. Eventually, I’ll do an episode/arc-based review on the series but for now, I’ll say that the slow reveal of the true darkness of some characters and the drip-feed of truth when it comes to their world really balances nicely against the optimism and determination of the young heroes.

‘Secretly’ isn’t quite right here but I chose Steins;Gate simply because I haven’t reviewed it yet (though I will sooner or later) so that’s as close as I could manage to a ‘secret’ show I love, I guess – though if I can come up with something that fits the implied criteria of embarrassing I’ll update this list 😀 In any event, Steins;Gate can really put you through the wringer – it’s got time-travel, drama, comedy and romance, all pluses!

And finally! I have to go with what some may well consider a boring choice here and go with Cowboy Bebop… mostly due to all the reasons in this post (and more reasons I haven’t got around to sharing yet!).

Update: Forgot to do this yesterday:

*Cash-cows serve that secondary purpose (financial security being the main) even if they become dull shows, because the money they earn a studio can then be used to produce works that are still great but might not appeal as widely, and also might not have ever been made without that income.

Steamboy (Suchīmubōi)

Katsuhiro Otomo’s next film after the monster that was Akira took ten years to produce and the staggering care and attention to detail clear in the Victorian-era settings and its marvellous machines is undeniable (along with a lot of the action sequences) but the film is not so beloved as Akira.

Steamboy (Suchīmubōi)
2004

Obviously, different genres, different times – but I also think that there’s something missing from the storytelling in Steamboy and I wasn’t able to put my finger on it until all these years later.

In a way, the film really whips main character Ray from one calamity to another at a brisk pace.

It might sound like I’m claiming that there’s no time to catch your breath at all, and that’s not my intent, but what I think I wanted as a viewer was more time for reflection from Ray. On both his situation, and in terms of his confusion in dealing with the people surrounding him.

I found myself seeking that time for character development because Steamboy explores inter-generational conflict (in an action film, which feels somewhat rare) – and I was thrilled to see that.

All the way through, poor Ray is torn between trusting his grandfather and his father – both mechanical geniuses, and both seeming to have noble goals. Of course, there the audience faces similar doubts, but for such an important conflict, I wanted more of it on the screen.

Where I wanted more from that aspect, the film gave me a lot to enjoy when it came to the visuals and the animation itself. Even with a reasonably muted palette, the detail on the setting and machines was beautiful, and the large scale of the inventions are just as striking.

Steamboy really does feel like a triumph, visually and I don’t think I can do it justice in the review of course, since the stills can only tell so much.

But if you like classic steampunk (or have always wondered about Katsuhiro’s other major works) and haven’t seen this one yet, I think it’s worth finding for sure.

4 Stars