Shadowy syndicates, superheros and melancholy characters – tick, tick and tick!
Darker than Black (Dākā Zan Burakku ー Kuro no Keiyakusha) 2007
I feel like Darker Than Black walks a line between drama for characters who are under-powered and drama for characters who are over-powered.
And of course, while I use the word ‘superhero’ I don’t mean it in the Marvel sense. This is quieter stuff, but powers and the impact on both the people who use them and the overall storyline are definitely still the main focus.
Having said that, I was perhaps most compelled by the slow-drip of back-story for Hei/Li. That and the central mystery in terms of the gate disaster, especially since the setting and its implications really unified the episodic mysteries, in addition to fuelling that back-story.
It was also fun to see a structure of connected episodes that weren’t always finished in one 20-minute span. Not a whole lot felt rushed until maybe the ending of the series, though that’s perhaps debatable.
Now, it feels cruel to say that I have some fav episodes, since the others aren’t bad ones at all, but here they are anyway!
The Fallen Star of a Contract The Scent of Gardenias Lingers in the Summer Rain The White Dress, Stained with the Girl’s Dreams and Blood A Heart Unswaying on the Water’s Surface A Love Song Sung from a Trash Heap
I know I mentioned ‘melancholy characters’ earlier but the tone of the show is hardly morose. Elsewhere, for instance, Gai and his sidekick Kiko offered some lighter moments for contrast.
And while Amber perhaps ended up being a bit underdeveloped for me, I see why she had to remain at least somewhat mysterious. Hei was a great lead character – he was also quite the actor when it comes to faking shyness to fool those around him, and Yin has an interesting, slowly developing mini arc that was probably my fav aspect overall.
Classic stuff from Bones and folks behind shows such as Wolf’s Rain or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex among others, and including a distinctive Yoko Kanno OST.
Despite not enjoying the ending as much as rest of the series, I finished Darker Than Black without any desire to see the second season, which tells me that I obviously felt there was enough of a satisfying resolution to season one.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Kaubōi Bibappu: Tengoku no Tobira) 2001
Another powerhouse film from the dawn of Bones as a studio.
Back when I was reviewing the Escaflowne movie I was reading about Bones using certain scenes to showcase the animators and I wonder if that holds true with the Cowboy Bebop film?
The opening credits come to mind or the smash-up in the convenience store (“You take too long in the toilet!”) where things are very self-contained, serving as both a reintroduction to some of the cast, and as its own little mini story.
In any event, it all looks pretty ace and not just the fight scenes – but plenty of the scenery and montage moments too. The team themselves also look great with all that extra detail and narrower aspect ratio, which did take me a bit of time to adjust to, actually.
A note, this won’t be a detailed analysis, it’s just going to be me skipping through a few things I liked 😀
So, if you loved the series but for some reason have never seen the film, will you like it? Surely yes.
This time, the gang have to deal with a terrorist with the skills to actually bring about some serious destruction, choosing the chemical warfare path. Vincent is a pretty good villain, menacing and understandable if not someone I’d actually empathise with perhaps.
Of the new characters showcased in the film, Eletcra is easily my fav – fitting nicely into the ‘girls with guns’ mold, but great hand-to-hand skills are also on display with the that fantastic ‘Clutch’ fight against Spike.
The OST is another triumph of versatility from Yoko Kanno (even with the uncredited Sugababes cover), with What Planet is This?!and Time to Know being my favs, and of course, havingTime to Knowlinked to Ed and Ein’s search is obviously perfect.
There are too many great scenes to highlight of course – and so beyond the two I’ve already mentioned above, I will also say the super-dramatic introduction to Vincent is great, especially with the depth of field tweaks.
Speaking of Vincent, I’ve always wondered about his almost half-hearted attempted rape of Faye. Is it meant to illustrate his disconnect with reality or was it ‘just’ fan-service?
If it is supposed to show Vincent as dehumanised (which fits) I find it hard to believe he’d bother, he’s so apathetic – yet at the same time, desperately focused on a singular goal to the exclusion of everything else.
(Sometimes the film is described as a long episode of the show, and that feels right but not in a disparaging way, I hope. Cowboy Bebop’s episodic storytelling often had more content and stronger resolutions in 20-odd minutes that plenty of feature films).
But to return to the film now and also wrap things up – for me Cowboy Bebop The Movie lives up to the series, and exceeds it visually, and even though Jet is a little side-lined throughout, it’s still one of my fav anime films.
I’d always considered the Escaflowne movie as only vaguely related to the series but now that I’ve re-watched both recently, it’s even more obvious that the movie is not meant to be considered a ‘re-telling’ at all.
The shift obviously plays out visually and via a new tone to both storyline and characters, but something I hadn’t known until checking out the special features, is that director Kazuki Akane very deliberately made those changes.
He mentions that a key audience for the series, ninth-grade girls, would have grown old enough to reach college or join the workforce and “hit various roadblocks and probably have a lot of worries”. Upon reflection, he felt that due to making a film for them, that “the story couldn’t help but become more serious and dark.”
This idea that, four years later, teens who loved The Vision of Escaflowne series might be struggling with disappointments in life really does play out on the screen, not just via Hitomi’s listless, depressed temperament, but the darker, angrier more viscous action that has all but replaced the romance and intrigue from the series.
At first I’d thought that this had been a shift toward the clichéd things sometimes aimed at teenage male audiences, but the comments from Akane really put the film in a new light for me.
The changes that obviously matter the most to fans are around character, and some I really love. It’s nice to see Millerna happy, and while Allen is now under-utilised, at least Merle is no longer tediously jealous. I’m in two minds about Van, whose bloodlust can be a bit overdone, whereas folks like Jajuka have less time onscreen… but he certainly has an interesting role still.
Biggest among the adjustments, and perhaps most divisive among viewers, is Hitomi, who changes from decisive and ultimately positive, to listless and depressed. She might even take on the damsel role a little here but I feel like it mostly worked in the context of the movie – she doesn’t get a lot of time to adjust to being thrust into a terrifying new world.
Many of the character designs were changed for the film too (still by Nobuteru Yūki*) and some of them I like a lot, or at least can appreciate re: how they suit the film’s darker mood. First among them could be Jajuka, but Allen is ‘tougher’ now (same with Van) and Folken has gone from a vaguely Bowie-ish hairstyle to full on Labrythin-era locks.
I won’t go over the plot now, but it’s a classic portal fantasy with ‘save the world’ stakes – instead, I’ll mention a few other things I really enjoyed. Of course, the music by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi is great once more, especially everyone’s favourite piece Sora. (Okay, maybe it’s not your favourite but the constructed language is haunting and the little homage to Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie is tops too).
Masahiko Minami and co had only just left Sunrise to form Bones when they did Escaflowne and the studio really pulls out all the stops here.
I’ve read that a few sequences were also doubling as showcases for animators and so if you liked the work of Yutaka Nakamura in things like Sword of the Stranger then the you’ll enjoy the action here – most of all perhaps that opening fight sequence. It’s a real high point, especially due to the non-conventional lighting and colour. [Spoilers in the next paragraph].
Now I’ll switch to a couple of criticisms.
In an echo of the television series, I didn’t feel that Folken’s motivation was shown all that well. However, probably my biggest issue with the storyline is probably his final encounter with the heroes. On one hand it satisfies due to a certain character striking the killing blow. Their motivation is strong, even with no more than single piece of foreshadowing.
But on the other it was surprising than neither Van nor Hitomi actually play a role in that ending. In a way, the climactic action scene is actually the mech fight between Van and the cool, calm and collected Dilandu.
Of course, the finale of a film doesn’t have to include a fight (action-genre or not) for me to enjoy things. But I’m sure the trade off disappointed some people with Folken’s last scene, as that moment of surprise comes at the cost of some emotional impact, I reckon.
In the end, this might appeal most to action and fantasy fans rather than romance viewers. Perhaps treat the Escaflowne film as something quite unlike the series, and let it stand ‘as is’ – a beautifully animated, dark action film that mixes fantasy and a little mecha with only slight touches of romance.
*Probably one of my favourite character designers, who has also worked on things like Kids on the Slope,The Weathering Continent, X, Record of Lodoss War, Battle Angel Alita and RPGs like Chrono Cross and Seiken Densetsu 3.
TheVision 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!).
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.)
No preamble here, just two (and a half) reasons on why this short series joined my top ten the other month.
Kids on the Slope is a great romance with very few instances of manufactured drama, which is really nice in a genre that sometimes suffers from such contrivances. In a way, the series is almost about the cruelty of youth, where the sweeter, coming-of-age elements are contrasted with the mistakes that are all too easy to make when you’re trying to figure things out.
I found myself quickly invested in the lives of Kaoru, Sentaro and Ritsuko, and I wanted them all to end up happy. (I was even able to almost remember how it felt to be that young and unsure).
The second reason will probably be no surprise: the music – both literally, and the way it forms part of the storyline and a bond between characters. If you enjoy jazz, especially (but not only) Hard Bop or the Cool sub-genres, along with the piano of Bill Evans, this will definitely appeal. And yep, Kids on the Slope is another collaboration between Shinchiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno, but the OST isn’t as eclectic as say, their work on Cowboy Bebop.
Instead, I think Yoko Kanno looks after most of the incidental music and motifs, whereas a pair of young (certainly back in 2012) musicians perform the jams and standards. And the rotoscoping really shows fantastic fluidity in the performances – I’ll share one of the highlights at the end, but maybe if you want to see this series skip the youtube clip because it’s far better in context. (Elsewhere, the story really captures what it’s like to play in a group, another memory the anime managed to activate for me.)
And finally the ‘half’ reason!
Most of what I’ve talked about seems to be nostalgia, but it’s not just my own I guess – Kids on the Slope takes in a historical setting: sea-side Japan in the 1960s, and is fairly dripping with a nostalgia that I obviously cannot truly experience, but which seems to be captured so well in the settings.
With so much of the Cowboy Bebop team involved here I felt exactly zero seconds of doubt in terms of whether I’d enjoy Wolf’s Rain.
Of course, that shouldn’t be enough by itself – execution matters, right? But Wolf’s Rain definitely works and it’s a great series despite the inclusion of four recap episodes.
And while recaps can obviously be useful both from a production standpoint and for the viewers, I was thrilled to be able to skip them 😀 (Supposedly the recap episodes had to happen due to production delays re: the SARS scare or perhaps more likely(?), just a temporary budget problem and Bones didn’t want to ‘waste’ the slots they’d already lined up during broadcast).
Well, whatever the reason – you can safely skip the recap episodes and still enjoy a pretty ace show. It covers a lot of ground, dystopian science-fiction, fantasy, action and romance, and looks great, though viewers raised on modern anime might consider the animation dated – though to my eye, it’s pretty much as great as Bebop.
To sum up the story in an incredibly short (and not at all uanced) way, Wolf’s Rain follows a small pack of wolves (and the humans who help and hinder them) as they search for a legendary Paradise.
It’s a nice simple premise that allows the ‘quest’ element to shine through, as the wolves slowly come together and learn to trust and work with each other, hounded at times by human hunter Quent, or the menacing all-powerful Nobles, or even their own internal conflicts.
If you’re familiar with Keiko Nobumoto’s writing style then you can expect a certain amount of sacrifice and tragedy even, so get ready for the heart strings to be manipulated throughout – especially toward the end, though the epilogue should please some viewers at least. You can also probably expect a few surprises about your favourite characters or even the villains, some of which are foreshadowed really nicely too… but I don’t want to spoil any of them here!
aspect I really enjoyed was Yoko Kanno’s OST – which is overall really quite
lush and orchestral, and one of the recurring themes I especially liked:
Stray shows her ability to once again
work with typically western pop sounds, with that 1980s-era Genesis feel to the
song, and where the chameleon that is Steve Conte provides another great vocal
(with more Tim Jensen lyrics, to reunite the classic Cowboy Bebop musical team).
I know some folks do consider this series ‘slow’ (and even at times dismissive of some its background plot-threads) but I didn’t have that problem myself, nor did I really focus much on the allegorical aspects re: Christianity, they didn’t add to the series nor distract me, as they’re pretty subtle – it’s not like Neon Genesis for example, where it’s very upfront.
With a series like Wolf’s Rain I think the main aspect I really appreciated, aside from the characters and mythology it built (and everything I’ve mentioned above of course) was the fact that Wolf’s Rain was an original idea. Now maybe that word is a misnomer here, but I mean, as opposed to being an adaptation, or being set in a school or having only teen leads, which is a nice change compared to a lot of anime.
(If you’ve never seen this and you do give it a shot, you’ll probably recognise Mamoru Miyano’s vocie (who plays lead wolf Kiba) as ‘Light’ from Death Note or ‘Ling Yao’ in FMA: Brotherhood or maybe where I realised I’d heard him before, as ‘Rintarō Okabe’ in Steins;Gate.)
For me, this is the greatest soundtrack of any animated series – no hyperbole at all there, right? 😀
Seatbelts,Cowboy Bebop (1998)
Case in point is probably the theme Tank! – where the hard bop just leaps out of the gates with its Latin percussion and Masato Honda’s wild alto solo that I never get tired of hearing, not to mention Rush or Too Good Too Bad… and I could go on.
As a jazz fan I guess I’m pretty biased (and I really like progressive big band too so that’s another tick) but the Seatbelts are such versatile players that this OST is never boring. They cover a lot of ground here; the Latin-influenced hard bop, the space-like saxophone ballads or sparser songs like ‘Waltz for Zizi’ which is both bittersweet and relaxing.
Most fans of the anime will know that Yoko Kanno (composer, piano) is behind the incredible breadth of music in Cowboy Bebop and while some of the other soundtracks from the TV series feature heaps of real standouts (like Elm or Call Me, Call Me) that are missing here, the self-titled OST is the more jazz-focused of them all and I reckon even ‘general’ jazz fans would find a lot to enjoy.
Usually the CD import has a fairly steep price-tag attached and I’m not sure re: streaming, but if you like Jazz you’ll probably like this.