Kai Doh Maru (Kaidōmaru)

Kai Doh Maru (Kaidōmaru) 2001

I got the sense that Kai Doh Maru (and its focus on incorporating CGI into the storytelling) was somewhat connected to the same Production IG approach and era that included Blood: The Last Vampire.

The visual style of Kai Doh Maru is striking in a different way however, thanks to the washed out or water-colour look, an aesthetic the team use to evoke a historical feel. And it is distinctive, but watching it now… the early 2000s CGI is quite dated, at times reminding me of old architectural software, due to that flatness.

On the other hand, direction of the sharp action sequences feels great – and when colour appears it really stands out. I also liked both character design and the soundtrack but overall this isn’t one of my favourite OVAs.

The main issue I had was with the pacing and plot. Since Kai Doh Maru is around 40 minutes long, and takes on a pretty large story, there are a lot of gaps in what occurs onscreen. If I knew the Heian period and stories around the Shitennō well, maybe I’d have followed better – especially in regard to what I’d consider an abrupt ending. (And so maybe that’s not a fault of the storytelling truly, but a deficiency in my knowledge.)

Further, I surely missed many subtleties throughout due to that. I did pick up on the heavily restrained romance between Lord Raiko and our heroine of course – but having said that, the focus is on war, politics and historical details. There’s also a supernatural element too, but I won’t spoil how it’s used.

I certainly don’t see Kai Doh Maru mentioned much, even among older fans, but it’s memorable even if I don’t precisely think I enjoyed it from top to bottom.

2.5 Stars

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.)

Pumpkin Scissors (Panpukin Shizāzu)

Pumpkin Scissors (Panpukin Shizāzu) 2006

Pumpkin Scissors is a sadly unfinished series that seems often to be recommended to FMA fans, though there are obvious and clear differences.

Still, if anime featuring teams of military heroes, state secrets, mysterious powers, conspiracies and a vaguely WWII-era European setting sounds like your thing, then I think you’d enjoy Pumpkin Scissors a good deal.

Maybe so much so that, like me, by the end of the season, you’ll be disappointed that so much is left unexplored. Because while Pumpkin Scissors has a clear and satisfying ending, a second season (or more) would have been ace, allowing Alice and her company to uncover so much more!

In terms of production detail, I don’t know whether Gonzo had plans for another season… As ever, maybe the show just wasn’t popular enough, or maybe it was always meant to lead people to the manga… but I did find some trivia re: licensing costs for the US. (You can compare a few other shows here) but Pumpkin Scissors cost ADV around $780,000 by the looks of things.

Again, I definitely don’t have a comprehensive understanding of what any given show would cost a company generally, but it’s interesting to assign their (possible) expectations around the success of an anime back in 2006, based on those figures.

Okay, so I should backtrack to the story itself – the anime follows a small military section (Section 3) focusing on ‘post-war’ recovery, in a time of great hardship. Yet, as you will see in more than one episode, the ruling class certainly has less of a hard time than the ‘regular’ citizens of the nation.

To make things a little more complicated, fieldwork undertaken by Section 3 is led by a noble herself, Alice Malvin, and a certain amount of the series follows her struggle to deal with dual responsibilities and self image, as someone who believes nobility should help people.

She’s joined by other young officers, and while you do get time to know them – especially Oreldo, most of the focus there is on the mysterious Corporal Randel Oland and his past as an anti-tank trooper. And ‘anti-tank trooper’ is pretty much exactly as impressive as it sounds – foot soldiers who take out armoured tanks with a serious-looking handgun, and a little help from something we get hints about, but no true answers.

And boy, there’s a lot hinted at across the episodes, but again, to my disappointment, it’s mostly still hidden by the end of the anime. However, you know that this gentle-giant type character has been scarred heavily by the war will easily infer from what has happened to other soldiers, that Oland had been experimented on.

Other than the grim subject of war and intrigue, along with some great, explosive action sequences or fantastic duels throughout, there’s room for comedic moments in Pumpkin Scissors too. A lot of the lighter stuff comes from the chipper Lili and her messenger dog Mercury, but there was a running joke in regards to Oland’s size that was handled pretty nicely with props.

If you seek out Pumpkin Scissors (it might still be with Funimation) there is an ending to the season, despite me noting that I would have loved more.

The series has an arc and resolutions to certain plotlines, but it does feel like a first novel in a series, the one that sets everything up: revealing that there are more villains lurking further in the dark. Villains you won’t get to meet properly, unless you pick up the manga however.

Still, Alice’s final stand-off in the ballroom is a high-tension duel indeed, and a satisfying big finish.

While Oland’s hesitance in these episodes kinda bugged me, it makes sense and the character development is welcome at that moment. If I had to find another fault… I don’t know if I can! I liked pretty much everything about Pumpkin Scissors even the ending theme, which at first seemed to clash in tone, but it’s nice to have an oddly-comical ‘company song’ instead of something super-dramatic.

4 Stars

RahXephon

[Spoilers abound!]

RahXephon (2002)

Today I’m starting with a thank you to In Search of Number Nine because I think that without these great posts, I would not have been introduced to a classic mecha show that I’d somehow missed over the years 🙂

As fans of RahXephon certainly already know, narrowing the series down to just a couple of genres, say ‘mecha’ or ‘science fiction’, clouds the fact that the anime is one of those killer shows with variety – and it’s happy to slow down and explore its characters through romance, intrigue and betrayals.

Now, I know I was already pre-disposed to enjoy RahXephon because I like Chiaki J. Konaka’s writing a lot, but also because this series has a mystical/ethereal feel, and I think those elements are pretty interesting to see in mecha. I was quite transfixed by hints of mysteries not explained in the narrative too.

One of the other aspects I really enjoyed was the tension-building throughout – which, unsurprisingly, is linked to the characters, many of whom have motivations that are kept from the viewer for many episodes.

Thinking about the series now, months after I finished that first time, I realise that as much as the action sequences do stand out in my memory (for their otherworldly nature especially) they’re mostly memorable due to how connected they are to the characters who go through them.

Here, I guess I’m thinking mainly about Hiroko’s death or maybe Elvy’s dogfights or even when Haruka is trying to defend and impress Ayato in those opening episodes, because especially upon second viewing, these moments with her strike me as quite sad. It feels like everything she tries in order to recapture the past just falls so flat.

RahXephon can feel down-beat – but there are moments of levity and action and mystery to go with it; and also some great detail to the Mu and the connected world-building. It’s exactly the kind of series that I reckon you’d enjoy even more upon a second viewing.

As I sometimes do, I want to quickly jump to some random dot points:

  • In a great cast, I found Ayato’s mother to stand out – especially when she was speaking the Mu language, as it’s this really disconcerting mix of unnerving and soothing.
  • The Futagami reveal was cool; I should have known he’d be a ‘higher-up’ 😀
  • I’d have loved a bit more time spent expanding upon the villains, as their role in the ending wasn’t quite as impactful, perhaps. On the other hand, it really allowed some of the main cast to take on highly antagonistic roles too.
  • Maybe all of Quon’s dialogue doesn’t land for me… but it’s still an important part of the show’s tone.
  • The design of the RahXephon is one of my favourite mecha designs out there, and the dolems are striking too. Related, I thought the use of song/voice added to the eerie nature so well – those first couple of episodes, where the viewer is just cast into conflict with little idea of who is who, one of my anchors was just how different it all was.
  • Loved Ayato’s 1970s-style outfit in the abandoned department store.
  • The ending theme perfectly evokes the feel of the show and it was always interesting to hear the variations.
  • Useless trivia: My DVD set has really nice illustrations (likely by Akihiro Yamada) on each disc, ones that I think were taken from earlier single-disc releases or maybe posters? But sadly, because my copy is an ‘ex-rental’, glue from the stickers that the store had used on the discs was jamming up my player. I had to use the ‘orange’ cleaner that folks in the retail industry might recall – it’s strong but not insanely so, and deals with sticker residue really well… when used on plastic surfaces, that is. When used on printed discs, it can erode some of the image itself, so a few of my discs now have what look like ‘scrape marks’ 😦

In terms of the production context, obviously Bones was a fairly new studio around 2001 – but having evolved from Sunrise, they had plenty of expertise to draw upon.

RahXephon was maybe their third TV series and they’d had a few films out already, one of which was the Cowboy Bebop movie, so it certainly feels like things were going well. The anime is also the only one (so far) to be directed by Yutaka Izubuchi, who was well-known as a designer. I really wish he’d direct again/be given the chance to direct again – but I’m glad they gave him the chair in those early years.

Back then, Bones had two teams, but I don’t know if any of the current five teams have made anything quite like RahXephon? But that could well be my ignorance at play – and in fact, if anyone knows of something approximately similar from Bones, I’d love to hear about it! [I’ll quickly add that maybe Un-Go and probably more so Xam’d are vaguely close].

It’s now been 18 years since RahXephon was released, and 25 since Neon Genesis changed so much about the genre, and I know the two shows are often compared. There are obviously aspects that are similar in tone and character but I never felt like I was watching a cut-rate clone. And in my reading for this review, I found that other folks mention Megazone 23 and Brave Raideen (1975) as being closer.

(And Yutaka Izubuchi feels the same about Brave Raideen, about wanting to bring a different sense back to the landscape of giant robots.) So naturally, I’m now curious to see a few episodes but that’s a long-term project. My knowledge of 1970s-era anime is pretty much limited to Lupin, Space Battleship Yamato and a handful of films.

Anyway, getting back to RahXephon I’ll try to finish this one with a recommendation. I think, if you’ve seen other works penned by Chiaki J. Konaka then you’ll enjoy this for sure. If you like post-EVA mecha stories with a bit of angst, then yep. Also maybe, if you’re the kind of fan that follows studios, and maybe have a soft spot for ‘early Bones’ productions, then take a look at RahXephon.

And finally, if you’re the kind of viewer who likes to be left with a few questions at the end of a series, then definitely watch this one – not sure who is streaming it at the moment, but it’s still around I’m sure!

5 Stars

Gallery time! I took around 300 screencaps and of course, have had trouble deciding which pics to highlight. Here’s some with the occasional thought here and there in the captions:

We see two shots with a lot of space between characters fairly often, from memory – and it certainly suits all the secrets it seems everyone is holding.
I like the ‘beehive’ kinda look to the edges of Ayato’s vision when he’s piloting.
There’s another shot of Quon which has me half-convinced that they gave her the umbrella (in part) because it would add to a distinctive silhouette.

And finally – the costume I mentioned earlier, which I liked well-enough for a temporary outfit, but Haruka did not:

Windaria (Douwa Meita Senshi Uindaria)

Windaria (Douwa Meita Senshi Uindaria) 1986

Time for another classic!

I want to start off by saying that there is a FAR better film hidden beneath the one that I saw, but my version was clouded-over by a misguided English-language script.

Sadly for me, this edition was surely not the version that Kunihiko Yuyama and Keisuke Fujikawa had in mind. As some of you will already know, Windaria has been released in several versions over the years, with most folks steering clear of the ‘Harmony Gold’ cuts.

And Windaria did go through a few cuts; chiefly to some violence and nudity, when released for the US market, along with a new script for the dub*. Now, the new script itself obviously made sense (for the most part) but it did do some ruinous things to characterisation and world-building, in its effort to make the film more ‘kid-friendly’.

I actually have an Italian release of the DVD, which happens to include the English dub – but remains visually uncut, so I’ve seen the full film in some ways, but didn’t get the real story. Later, I checked out a fansub and wow, there’s some serious differences between the two versions, especially when it comes to conveying character motivation.

Because in the dub there are some extreme left-turns for characters that have almost zero foreshadowing and a real dearth of detail in other scenes. Overall, I think it’s clear that the original is a tragic cautionary tale, told on a fairly epic scale, but the new script really makes the cast – especially Izu – seem unbelievable in key moments.

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy despite those problems. I feel like I’m being a little hard on Windaria, because it’s still worth seeing for the visuals alone. It’s a beautiful and detailed film, with sweeping vistas and great character design too. In a way, it has a very vague Castle in the Sky feel but it’s not an adventure film with that sort of violence and a happy ending.

Instead, as I mentioned above, Windara is a cautionary tale.

It focuses mostly on the ‘star-crossed lovers’ trope, and pitches them in the middle of war, politics and tragedy (of course). There are even a few protagonists almost masquerading as heroes too. Again, it’s still a bright fantasy film from a real golden age of anime, so it’s clear, and nearly everything feels high-quality in terms of production. (In particular, I loved the way they portrayed water in the film – especially in the scenes around the city of Itha.)

And there are a few moments where the true nature of the tragic circumstances shone through the dub, and without spoilers I’ll say one moment above the others was focused around poor Marin, great writing and visuals there.

Okay, so finally now – would I suggest that everyone should try to track down Windaria?

Maybe if you can get the uncut, original version. Even if maybe you don’t watch a lot of fantasy-themed anime or generally watch work from the ‘80s, the production values are high and there is a more complex, rewarding story there, it just wasn’t the case for the script that I saw.

3 Stars

* The Harmony Gold director did mention that, as was perhaps not unusual for the era, that they weren’t given a translation or notes to work from, so I suspect they did their best. And it’d be a tough job! What I guess I didn’t agree with, was pushing the story toward PG territory.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho)

[A couple of spoilers in this one]*.

There are a few Makoto Shinkai works I haven’t seen so far but I’m still comfortable placing this film somewhere between ‘not my favourite of his’ and ‘still beautiful’ though I’m not sure how useful those descriptors are re: ranking.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho) 2004

And maybe they’re not at all… so I’ll be more specific – basically, I was transfixed chiefly by the visuals and the use of that ‘soft’ colour that makes Shinkai works so recognisable, and the fantastic detail that really sold every single frame, in terms of the ‘alternate Japan’ setting.

After a bit of reflection I suspect what I didn’t enjoy as much was the integration of the fantastical/mystical perhaps, that and the pacing – or maybe I should say the ending. And even that’s a bit misleading, because what I wanted more of was time for the discovery, destruction and aftermath of the tower. It’s so central to the story but the climax is completed reasonably quickly compared to what I was hoping for.

On the other hand, cinematically it’s great to see the change in colour and intensity in those moments, actually. I also really liked the design of Hiroki and Takuya’s airplane and maybe that (and the science-fiction(ish) elements of this film) will bring Voices of a Distant Star to mind. In a similar way, I think if you’ve not seen this one, the downbeat, bittersweet tone of Shinkai’s first feature film will be familiar enough if you’ve seen his others.

And to compare The Place Promised in Our Early Days to Voices… once more, one of the things that is so impressive about this movie is that Shinkai was involved in so many aspects in terms of conception and production. This time around it’s not quite a one man show but wow, it’s abundantly clear that he is one talented artist and filmmaker.

Definitely worth watching if you’re a fan of Shinkai and haven’t seen this one yet but if you’re new to his films then this is not the best entry-point I reckon.

3 Stars

*I’m a little pressed for time lately so I wasn’t able to go screencap happy today, and instead sourced these images from google.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka)

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) 1988

I wanted to watch this again before writing a new review… but I just couldn’t manage it, the story is too harrowing.

And I guess, due to that fact, I believe the film does work as an anti-war statement – despite that not being the intent of the movie. (Director Isao Takahata mentioned that he does not see Grave of the Fireflies that way and I certainly won’t argue that he also succeeded in critiquing the follies of pride so, so well).

5 Stars

Violet Evergarden (Vaioretto Evāgāden)

Violet Evergarden (Vaioretto Evāgāden) 2018

Hopefully the awful news from Japan about Kyoto Animation isn’t the only reason you’ve heard of this series (or any of their other works for that matter) but it’s hard to talk about Violet Evergarden without the spectre of tragedy looming over – especially as much of the show itself already deals with loss and grief.

And I’m not really able to avoid it myself of course – I could have reviewed Violet Evergarden months ago but I put the review aside and have come back to it only now, not long after the attack… so I can’t help feeling like my timing has ended up being quite poor. Still, I don’t want to avoid talking about the series now because there’s a tiny chance someone who hasn’t already heard of Violet Evergarden might hear about it from this review and want to check it out.

So here we go – what kind of show is Violet Evergarden?

In brief, it’s an episodic drama interspersed with action and war flashbacks. More than that, and its core, I think it’s a love story, though one that is more married to Violet’s struggle to understand and reinvent herself, rather than a love story where two characters fence or fumble with their feelings.

In fact, Violet is a lot more robotic (at first) than you might expect from a typical leading lady but there’s a reason for that of course. And while seeing her learn how to be human again is kind of the main draw, she is at times needlessly submissive, as her ghost-writing job lands her in the role of maidservant a few times. And yet, due to her sense of duty and (generally) accommodating temperament, the series seems to romanticise that submissiveness. Maybe it’s just me? Maybe it’s the vaguely WWII-era setting that has her merely fitting the role women were forced into for much of the time.

Placing those aspects aside, I still enjoyed Violet’s trials and the colourful range of characters and places she encounters and wow, the art is so beautiful throughout; it’s clear Kyoto wanted to have the settings be just as romantic as the storylines. I’ll watch the show again just for some of that scenery (and costuming) – which I’ve not really been able to capture here but I’ve given it a shot!

Having Violet work as an Auto-Memory Doll (essentially an ‘on demand’ letter writer) was an interesting sub-plot, not something I’d seen dozens of times by any stretch, and it allowed for an equal amount of comedic and sweet moments throughout the series. At times, Violet’s personal search for her lost love wasn’t actually as compelling to me as the problems of some of the other characters she helps, but if you feel like you need a bit of action and violence to go with the drama and personal discovery aspects, then Violet Evergraden will deliver there too.

4 Stars

Xam’d: Lost Memories (Bōnen no Zamudo)

Xam’d: Lost Memories (Bōnen no Zamudo) 2008

This series from Bones & Sony seems to have had a pretty big budget – possibly in part because it was launched as part of the Playstation Network’s video downloading arm.

And so, no doubt everyone involved really wanted it to succeed – and while Xam’d felt visually impressive and is definitely a really distinctive show complete with compelling characters, it doesn’t feel like it’ll ever become a ‘classic.’

Doesn’t mean I though Xam’d was bad either, but some of the elements have never really come together for me.

Mainly, I feel like the main antagonist/destructive force was not foreshadowed (or even introduced) early enough and afterwards, I was left with little knowledge or kinda even little interest in the creature. The human villains were more interesting, as were there heroes – but a touch more on that below.

The other aspect that felt underdeveloped was the grounding of most exciting events that take place in the story; there’s war and religious conflict chugging along in the background but with little to contextualise it in place or the history of the world, even (for the most part) when the main cast brushes up again/is pulled into those struggles.

Aside from that I enjoyed the variety of the cast, the setting and the magic – along with the oft-times disturbing ‘humanforms,’ creatures which all benefit from imaginative and bold designs.

Probably above and beyond that, there were a lot of intersecting character storylines that kept me going – main character Akiyuki’s personal struggle with being thrust into a role he didn’t seek of course, but the story between his parents or the shifting loyalties amongst his friends, and the mysterious past of Ishuu and her ship’s crew (she’s a somewhat acerbic character whose role hovers between ‘postal delivery captain’ and ‘smuggler’).

Worth watching if you’re happy to let yourself be swept up in the visuals and the characters I reckon, but not a series where you’ll be stunned by big reveals or a thrilling plot, because despite the complexities of the storylines, there’s just something missing for me when it comes to tying everything together.

3 Stars

Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyū)

Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyū) 2002

I still feel sad that fans will never see another Satoshi Kon film – but at least I can always re-watch the ones he made.

Millennium Actress is one that’s sometimes described as a mirror of Kon’s far darker Perfect Blue, but this film is not really a stroll in the park either, as it’s quite sombre, even at times heartbreaking.

Millennium Actress is a drama that doubles as a sort of love-note to cinema itself (and especially Japanese cinema).

It has love, jealousy, bitterness and desperation mixed together, presented via a blend of reality and a seamless integration of clips from films that feature actress (and main character) Chiyoko, whose search for a lost love spans decades across the course of the film.

The way her recollections and stories bleed into the present and then in turn incorporate the interviewers as well, is awesome.

If you enjoyed the uncertainty of ‘what is real’ from Kon’s later film Paprika then you’ll probably like Millennium Actress too, though it’s not science-fiction/thriller.

In fact, if you don’t like dramas/films that have a deep focus on character/are heavily intertextual*, then you might not like this at all, now that I’ve started on the comparisons 😀

This is also the first to feature Susumu Hirasawa on the OST of a Satoshi Kon film (a relationship that continued for several collaborations) and introduced me to his work. One of my favs from the film is below:

5 Stars

*Heaps of the references were well beyond me, but if you’re a student of the film history of Japan, you’ll probably recognise some parallels with the lives of actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine.