Read or Die (OVA)

Read or Die (2001)

Other names tend to grace lists of ‘favourite/best studios’ more often, but maybe it’s easy to forget that Studio DEEN can certainly pull out all the stops too.

And Read or Die has some cracking action sequences indeed.

On that note, everything really did feel fluid and vivid to me, with scenes usually full of exciting near-misses. I was usually glued to the screen, partially due to the direction, but also since ‘The Paper’ is a less typical heroine when it comes to action leads.

Her ability to use paper as both protection and weapon was fascinating, and that’s another aspect I really enjoyed. Her fights were less about brute force and more problem-solving, in a way. And the anime really casts an unreservedly wide net for its historical villains and their powers too – more unconventional stuff that was most welcome, especially if you’ve seen a whole host of classic choices for weapons or powers.

Now, if you haven’t seen Read or Die (as I hadn’t until quite recently) and you’re getting a superhero vibe from that previous paragraph, then that’s not precisely inaccurate, but ‘secret agents with super-powers’ is probably better. Here and there, I was put in the mind of other action shows but rarely enough to pull me out of the storytelling.

I will note that at times, Yomiko sounds like a lost lamb, which you could argue is meant to link to her role as a ‘bookworm’, and it’s an interesting contradiction to her character. She’s pretty cool under pressure but kinda goes to pieces over books – something which is usually played for laughs, but the OVA does feature a certain book as a MacGuffin to kick things off too. So literature is not just a comedic element.

As is my way, I haven’t said much about the premise or plot, but it’s very much classic ‘save the world’ stuff but with fantastic animation and very few ‘stock’ characters or settings. There’s also a fun steampunk aesthetic – something else I loved a lot about Read or Die.

Decision time?

Well, if you want to see Mata Hari, Genjo Sanzo and Ludwig van Beethoven (among others), battling it out with secret agent heroes with inventive powers, in an easy to digest 3-part OVA, then this is worth finding.

5 Stars

Jin-Roh (Jinrō)

Jin-Roh (Jinrō) 1999

Jin-Roh is another film that ticks a lot of boxes for me, but if you’re unsure about watching this lesser-known classic, keep in mind that I have my biases and I probably enjoyed this more than folks who maybe consider themselves ‘general’ action fans.

I say that because one of the things that I’m predisposed toward enjoying is an alternate history story and that’s definitely one way to describe Jin-Roh. And based on the pacing alone, perhaps don’t go in expecting a blockbuster-action movie.

Jin-Roh is a little more measured and could be described as character-focused, without being ‘slow’ either, I reckon.

Set in a troubled postwar Japan, with the 1950s rioting as part of the backdrop, there’s a lot of what I think is period-appropriate detail to the setting, contrasted with the almost futuristic armour worn by the Kerberos Panzer Cops. Our hero is Corporal Fuse, a member of the elite anti-terrorist force trained in the use of such heavy-duty armour. His story begins when he fails to shoot a young terrorist beneath the city.

And since the film uses a few thriller conventions, where everyone around Fuse is suspect, I won’t go into much more plot detail than that, and instead switch back to some of the production stuff that I tend to enjoy. Jin-Roh is based on a Mamoru Oshii work and was released post-Ghost in the Shell and so it feels like, to some extent, the team at Production I.G were still riding high and had a good budget too. The film definitely plays out that way, with high quality art and animation and a focus on character as much, or even more so than the action.

I’ll quickly note that action scenes aren’t absent either – and it can be quite ferocious, considering the Kerberos’ preference for those serious machine guns, but there’s time for Fuse to reflect and think about who he can trust too.

There’s even a lot that’s poetic about the film, from the faint ‘glow’ to some scenes, to the fatalistic attitudes of a lot of characters, or the way the Little Red Riding Hood nursery rhyme is used. In fact, in my obsession with seeking intertextual elements, I wonder if one of Fuse’s dream sequences doesn’t include a nod to a film I’ve mentioned before Don’t Look Now with the gate (and the girls themselves)?

But I’d better switch back to the visuals for one more point before I finish up, because I want to mention both the muted colour palette and how well that fits the setting, and also draw attention to the character design. If you’ve been exposed mostly to modern anime you might not be used to the realism common to various Hiroyuki Okiura designs, but I really enjoyed the variety from the director.

Finally, I want to mention the brooding soundtrack from Hajime Mizoguchi, which is another element that really sells the sombre mood of the film. In fact, it can be almost bleak and our lead is a little morose but I think, if you finish Jin-Roh you’ll see why. He is at least a little torn between his desires but it’s a very much internal struggle that is rarely played out upon his face.

So, to quickly sum up I believe this is a bit of a ‘must’ for fans of Mamoru Oshii but if you’re also interested in alternate history or a bit of subterfuge with your action then you might well enjoy this at times sombre movie.

4 Stars

(The colour of red itself runs through the whole film, with varying degrees of subtlety, but always feels effective to me)

Stein’s Gate (Shutainzu Gēto)

Stein’s Gate (Shutainzu Gēto) 2011

Game adaptations that work exceptionally well as film or longer narratives feel rare to me – but maybe that’s a reflection of my limited knowledge of animation that falls into that range?

Either way, I think this series is outstanding.

It’s rightly considered a classic of speculative fiction and anime; it features a compelling cast, premise and execution – and I mention that last aspect because for me, I can enjoy a show with fascinating ideas and give it a bit of a pass if the execution doesn’t quite match up, but I know not everyone is as forgiving as I am!

However, I don’t really feel Stein’s Gate has too many flaws – I mean, it panders with the harem aspects and main character Okabe has a moment of rage that stretched my ability to go along with him, but other than those two aspects I think the series will be well-regarded for decades.

Here’s a quick Wikipedia plot summary:

[Stein’s Gate] follows Rintaro Okabe, who together with his friends accidentally discovers a method of time travel through which they can send text messages to the past, thereby changing the present.

So, with that simple description comes a whole lot of tension and trauma as Okabe finally finds meaning through his discovery – only for his obsession to quickly pull his friends into life and death situations that soon keep compounding until Okabe is driven right to the very edge in his frantic efforts to right the wrongs he’s largely responsible for.

And yet, there is romance, friendship, comedy, conspiracy and alternate timelines aplenty, twists and welcome surprises too – all explored in a very intimate setting that is beautifully realised; the Akihabara, Tokyo that it depicts seems to strike a perfect balance between hyper-realistic and anime-romanticised.

The writing too I found to be top-notch – it’s self-aware without bludgeoning the viewer with the fact, generally where Okabe’s friend Daru takes the lion’s share of the one-liners or general wit. In fact, more often than not we’re encouraged to laugh at Okabe and his delusions of grandeur, something that will either become a source of fondness if you make it through the whole series, or which will drive you batty and force you to maybe walk away too soon, as I nearly did.

Having said that, I think that the science-fiction elements are both front and centre, but it’s still a drama and boy, at times it really made me feel for the characters. Okabe certainly puts himself through the ringer and part of the cleverness of the writing is that one of his friends, Mayuri, is such a sweet girl that his fear of making her suffer becomes a powerful storyline indeed.

Perhaps it’s not a revolutionary move in terms of storytelling – I mean, I don’t care so much if a villain suffers – but she’s so without guile that Rintaro’s mistakes really pack a bigger emotional punch than they otherwise might.

Anyway, enough rambling – I’ll close with a note that I think if you like time travel, drama or romance you’ll enjoy Stein’s Gate a lot, but a quick note: my dvd came with an OVA but presented it as episode 25 and to be honest, I don’t think it has the same impact as a final episode. If I was able, I’d jump back a bit in time and not actually watch it 😀

5 Stars

Psycho-Pass (Saiko Pasu)

Psycho-Pass (Saiko Pasu) 2012

I thought I’d try to avoid a long, rambling preamble for a change and instead take a shot at summing up my response to the show in a few words – disturbing, fascinating and mostly compelling.

While it actually took me months to finish Psycho-Pass (usually watching one or a few episodes at a time only) that’s not an indictment on my enjoyment of the series and I think it’s easily one of the best cyberpunk/futuristic dystopian shows around.

Obviously on several levels it’s a procedural/mystery/thriller with all the conventions that go with them but the setting really elevates Psycho-Pass beyond and it was probably the most engrossing aspect to me as a viewer. The characters ranged from utterly engaging to tedious and even criminally under-used I feel – but I want to stay with the setting a touch longer before I get back to the characters 🙂

To understand the Japan featured in the series, which falls into the ‘dystopia masquerading as utopia category’, I want to quote from the wiki entry:

Psycho-Pass is set in a futuristic era in Japan where the Sibyl System (シビュラシステム Shibyura Shisutemu), a powerful network of psychometric scanners, actively measures the minds and mentalities of civilised populations using a “cymatic scan” of the brain. When the calculated likelihood of an individual committing a crime exceeds an accepted threshold, he or she is pursued, apprehended, and killed if necessary by police forces.

A consequence of this system that I didn’t quote above is that while people generally tend to lead safe and calm lives, it is at the cost of much autonomy in terms of deciding the path of those lives. The tension there tends to be the cause of most crimes the characters must solve in the series, and it’s probably the main theme for both the heroes and the villain – so, classic stuff, which I was really happy about.

Psycho-Pass also definitely kept me guessing at times and while it is equal parts thrilling and interesting, I’d like to warn folks that some episodes can be seriously disturbing. And it’s not just the violence, but the way society reacts to violence – and without spoilers, I’ll just say that part of what makes it chilling is the seemingly very real possibility of a similar society rising in the future.

Now, finally to the characters – for me, a few pawns used by the key antagonist were a bit dull but leads Akane Tsunemori and Shinya Kogami more than made up for it, with the tension between idealistic and cynical playing out in an interesting way by the end. The supporting cast were great too, but now I want to circle back to my ‘mostly-compelling’ comment and pair it with my ‘criminally under-used’ comment.

Yayoi Kunizuka.

For whatever reason, she was hardly used despite being one of the more interesting supporting members of the team – and yet, the series took time to devote an entire flashback episode to her punk rock past… but then just never came back to it. Even by the end of the first season there’s no sense that she’ll be given a chance to get the closure other characters were afforded. It thus became a kind of odd detour that interrupted the pacing and dissolved perhaps too much of the building tension.

Of course, there’s two more seasons of the show but here’s where I finally get around to ‘mostly-compelling’. I kinda have no desire to keep watching – which sounds odd, because I enjoyed Psycho-Pass. BUT enough of the main plot threads were resolved so that for me, there’s not enough to keep going. Well, that and the fact I want more from another certain other character not featured in the next seasons!

Still, season one had a really satisfying finish on many levels – but I want to quickly mention how much I appreciated the colour and light in the wheat fields; it really stood out compared to the night and neon that dominates the rest of Psycho-Pass, so I thought that was a great contrast.

Brilliant science fiction but probably not for everyone, I reckon.

5 Stars

As a tiny postscript, at times I felt like a few action sequences were a little less fluid than I was expecting and I’m not sure if that was due to the temporary studio switch or a desire for more realism in combat.

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 😀

Iria: Zeiram the Animation (I.R.I.A. Zeiramu Ji Animēshon)

Iria: Zeiram the Animation (I.R.I.A. Zeiramu Ji Animēshon) 1994

This short OVA series serves as a prequel, kinda, to the sci-fi/comedy/action film Zeriam from 1991.

Based on my quick comparison via youtube (which was not at all comprehensive btw) the 1991 film has a vague Power Rangers feel, though it’s not pitched at young folks either.

The OVA is probably closer to sci-fi and action (with some light horror aspects), and being free from the constraints of early 1990s special effects, has aged far better in my opinion.

Now, for folks looking for heavy gore etc you won’t get that here, despite the seemingly immortal Zeiram having a penchant for human innards, but there’s a relentlessness to the thing that should at least have you concerned for the characters. (Having said that, fans of Alien might actually like this).

Iria is a good heroine too and the supporting cast are memorable, especially Fujikuro, and there’s enough twists and turns to the plot to keep you entertained if you’re a fan of the genre. For me, the biggest thing I enjoyed (aside from some excellent character design and great range of gadgets and weapons) was the setting.

Myce and the other planets are shown to be earth-like but perhaps a little more of a combination of new and old, of futuristic and nomadic, even. Sometimes I thought there was a faint south-east Asian feel to some of the settings and even vehicles but I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly why that is beyond the shapes and some of the tropical aspects?

Either way, it’s nice to see something different in what is a really, really well-explored sub-genre 🙂

So, if you’re looking for a science-fiction/action series that tends to be overlooked perhaps, then this is probably one worth giving a shot. (Further, if you’re feeling ‘time-poor’ then there are only 6 episodes here too.)

4 Stars

(A quick final note – the opening theme song (which I still like) always struck my as oddly out of step with the show, yet also completely and utterly on point for early 90s cyberpunk-ish OSTs)

And a second final note – I always thought Zeiram and Gime (from Battle Angel) could have been pals due to their shared love of wide-brimmed hats.