Monday, May 7, 2007

May 07 - What's On My Mind Right Now

Just a quick update because I'm in the middle of a big post on character archetypes and I don't know when it'll be done. Anime and Manga reading has contracted some as the weather has improved and Real Life (tm) has intervened.

Anime first:

We're four shows into the most recent adaptation (13 episode series) of Takahashi's Mermaid Saga (titled Mermaid Forest). It's quite faithful to the manga, and to the earlier OVAs, and milady generally likes it. I've always liked this story best of Takahashi's work (but haven't yet read Maison Ikkoku, so it's possible my opinion will change). My one complaint so far is that while there's gore and violence as there should be, I'm distinctly missing Yuta's melancholy. Likewise, Mana's character seems to have lost some genki somewhere along the way. The OVAs had a genki (and younger-looking) Mana playing against a melancholy (but cheered by Mana) Yuta, and it worked pretty well. We'll see.

Hataraki Man has been on hiatus because milady has been requesting Simoun every night. I must admit that this development pleases me. The last Hataraki Man we saw featured Hiro's masseuse and dealt with themes of compromise with corporate goals while still managing to have a sense of worth and accomplishment. I rather liked it. As I've said before, I think we in the west suffer from not getting more workaday anime and manga here. The Japanese spend a lot of their lives at work, and their fiction that touches on this is usually worth attending. That said, Simoun is just plain deeper and more complex.

Before e-chan goes to bed we often give him some anime for a half-hour or so. Since we haven't started Uchuu Senkan Yamato 2 yet, he's been getting Binchou-tan. He loves it. I like it. Even milady, who is a hardened cynic where kawaii is concerned is affected. This show may just be the ultimate weapon of chibi-kawaii. Drop it on an al-qaeda hideout and listen to the simultaneous 'awwwww!' (or whatever they say in Arabic).

And that leads us to the meat and drink of evening anime lately: Simoun. I'm probably going to burn some more electrons on this later, but we're over halfway through the show now, and I have to say that I'm siding with the rabid fans on this one. That said, it's like a shinkansen - the pace gets fast and furious, but it needs a few kilometers of straight track to really get moving.

One thing that milady noticed that hurts the momentum early on is the show length. She commented that the shows seem to come in pairs. I agree. We started watching two a night, and it flows a lot better. The plotting suggests that this was meant to be 13 one-hour shows instead of 26 half-hour shows. If you watch the first two hours of Simoun in two sittings instead of four, everything makes sense a lot faster, less forgetting happens, you learn the cast faster, and you get into the real meat of the plot faster. All good. It also makes Neviril seem like a lot less of a whiner.

By this metric, the plot really starts doing stuff during hour three, and you probably are going to be surprised by your first plot development around hour four.

Oh well, if the only slot they could get was a season of 1/2 hour showtimes, I'm still profoundly glad they made it.

Another thing that hurts the early shows: it has a Fruits Basket problem. By which I mean that there's a large cast of characters, they all have distinct personalities (good character design - they're all visually distinct, and are credible as people), and they all advance the plot in their own ways, so it behooves you to pay attention to them all. Yes, the guys in the hats, too. This means you're going to be confusing people for a while. Don't worry too much about it - as long as you pay attention, you'll have everybody straight in your head by the time it becomes really important to understand who's motivated by what. I'll warn you of this, though: Download and print this spoiler-free character list (from Hashime's blog) for reference in the first few eps. It'll make your life better. Also: stay away from the wikipedia article which is pure spoilers, and will reduce your viewing pleasure. Once you're about six eps in, you can check out this amusing Simoun Relationship Chart, from Kurogane's Blog. I may be sounding fanboyish here, but I think I'm in good company...

Good thing: They don't waste recap time. There's a little recap when they jump right back into the plot, but it usually contains a little new dialog along with the old, and maybe a reverse-angle shot (often with useful information in it) of the conversation you saw at the end of the last show. It's a great idea, and it works well at keeping you glued to the screen even though you just saw that conversation.

Another good thing: The soundtrack. I like the OP song OK, (but wish they'd kept the mournful a-capella sound instead of going with the drum-machine overlay), and like the ED song a little better (milady likes it less). The actual soundtrack music (all composed specifically for the show) is a wonderfully eclectic mix of orchestral music, dance music (including a very tasty tango), some synth work, and even a couple of pretty 'traditional' tunes (one a hymn, one a lullaby sung by Rodoreamon). It's just all so good. Sahashi's work is as good as any I've heard in anime for any sized screen (and that's high praise from a music snob like me).

We watched the, um, 'trip to the ruins' show (ep 17 and 18) last night (he said, carefully avoiding spoilers), and I'm here to tell you that I was honestly surprised by two plot developments in that 46 minutes of TV. I don't remember the last time that anything on TV really surprised me - thought I'd seen every 'creative' plot twist that had been tried. Heh. Y'all can keep Lost. I'll stick with Simoun, thanks.

It's going so fast and furious right now that I think the wheels are about to come off. But then I thought the wheels were going to come off at ep 10, and again at ep 14, and the train just kept going faster. It's masterful plotting. Now I'm wondering how they're going to wrap it all up neatly in the remaining four hours (which are actually about 46 minutes each).

My greatest sadness is that it's only 26 episodes. My greatest fear is that they'll try to do a sequel and ruin it. I think it's like Serial Experiments Lain in (only) one way - it is about something, and when it finishes talking about that something, it will be done and will exist as a perfect thing in itself.


Pretty short list right now - I've been reading Ai Kora/Love Collage (by Inoue, who did Midori no Hibi, which remains my all-time-favorite shounen romance). Ai Kora isn't as good, frankly, but it's not terrible, either, and I'm hoping that he has an idea how to wrap it up neatly when the time comes. Right now (I've just finished vol 4) we're kind of stuck in character non-development limbo, but there are signs that this might change. I'll say this - Inoue-sensee is willing to do anything to get a laugh, and I still like his page design, plotting, and character design as much as ever.

His and hers bedtime reading is still Fruits Basket. Now that we've (finally) introduced all the juunishi, the plot is (finally) pleasantly humming along. We're into Tooru's second year in HS, and this is when all the fun starts to happen. Probably the last big plot hurdle is developing the student council characters, but these are vital to Yuki's plot arc, so I'm trying to keep milady from getting too annoyed at having yet more characters show up to be distinguished from each other. I've done a great job concealing the crucial spoiler about Akito from milady, so I hope it'll bop her right between the eyes just like it did me when I read the manga. She has developed an appropriate loathing for him, so all's going well so far. I have not yet read the last chapter (Sephie published it) but I have a pretty good idea where it is going, since I read through about chapter 128. Oh, and BTW, it appears that Tokyopop rethought their butchery of the US release and hired new translation staff for the manga. So the last few volumes should be good - just all the earlier ones will suck. Sadly another case where fan scanslation is better than commercial scanslation.

I did read the last two chapters of Kare Kano. Ha! the gag in the last chapter got an actual laugh out of me. Completely in character and exactly the sort of puckish humor a mature Yukinon would pull on Arima. I still found myself completely unmoved by the whole pop band story arc, and regarded it as being sillier and more marginal at +16 years than it was originally. Oh, and does this mean that love is fated, or just that Asaba was always a latent lolicon? Oh well, after the whole Maho-and-her-dentist plot, we know that Tsuda-sensee doesn't have problems with playing ball if there's any grass on the field at all. I can't say that anything surprised me, but it was a pleasant ride. Overall, Kare Kano gets a B+, which ain't bad for a shoujo romance manga that runs over 100 chapters. I'd give Furuba a B by comparison, mostly because the art and page layout aren't as good, but also because the character development isn't as detailed as in Kare Kano.

Other stuff in the can: Got hold of the Japanese raws for Chobits finally, so can at last check out some translation questions I had. Re-read Ai-Ren. Got teary-eyed again. I have some one-shots in the can suggested by smart people over at mangaforums. Maybe this weekend.

[post-weekend update]

I read up through the currently-translated chapter of Ai Kora (no big changes, except that we now know how many parts Hachibe can obsess over thanks to a diagram of his brain) and we watched up through ep 22 of Simoun, which finally had its first schmaltzy moment, but was bearable. I think I see where the big arc is going now, and I suspect that the plotting-ignorant fanboys/fangirls generally don't like it at this point, but it's necessary to slow the train down before it pulls into the station. Of course, there may be another huge plot twist yet (I'd write one in, and I see a couple of possible ones). I think Checkov's gun is still hanging on the wall from about ep 6 (in the form of something that used to belong to Aaeru's Oji-chan), and I suspect that it's about to be taken off the wall.

The bulk of Sunday's post-yard-work TV watching was the Elsa arc in Gunslinger Girl. I admired the job they did with it. That manga chapter brought tears to my eyes and I was both dreading and looking forward to seeing it in the anime. Apparently I wasn't the only one so affected - the Anime production staff did a beautiful job on it and stretched it into a three-episode arc. Milady kept justifiably admiring the scenery. Among other things, the anime is a fine tourism advertisement for Italy both urban and rural. Certainly Sicily never appealed to me as strongly as a destination before Giuseppe and Henrietta visited it, even with the purse-snatching scooter bandit. I'm sad to say I was completely oblivious to the "Roman Holiday" references in the earlier Henrietta episode, and only twigged to them when I read it in a blog entry somewhere.

I felt like the plotting and pacing on the whole arc was pretty close to perfect. Certainly the payoff scene (which I was dreading, and stone-facedly refused to spoil in spite of all of Milady's questions and conjectures) had all the emotional freight of the manga. It sparked an interesting conversation between milady and me about Giuse's burden because of the the metric ton of emotional anvils that 'Etta dropped on his shoulders when she smilingly uttered her "but I wouldn't do that because you treat me so well!" line.

I twitched and shuddered at the thought of being Giuseppe. He's simply never allowed to have a bad day around Henrietta - he's the totality of her universe, and her happy little applecart stays upright every day only because he's nice to her. Rico is happy to be alive and whole, Triela wants a supportive friend more than an obsessive onii-chan. Henrietta, however, is incapable of being happy unless she thinks Giuse is pleased with her. And we see just what are the consequences of an unhappy Henrietta in Elsa's story. The episode works even better because they immediately preceded this scene with the conversation between 'Etta and the female section 1 agent about how being a little girl cyborg assassin just isn't 'normal.'

Milady had a...less cheerful childhood than mine. She simply can't imagine why anybody would sign up for Giuse's job with its inevitable painful emotional freight. My response was obvious (to me) both because I'd read the manga (which includes Giuse's back-story) and because I think I'm more than a little like his character: "Because you know that somebody's going to do it, and probably wouldn't do it as well (as compassionately, in this case) as you could. These girls have such a terrible, brief existence that there's a moral imperative to palliate it as much as one can." She completed my sentence for me (some days, I think she really does understand me). And then said that she just doesn't emotionally understand noblesse oblige, which is how she defined my reaction.

Behold the power of good anime made from good manga. It causes people whose brains have not yet been rotted by US network TV pablum to have interesting conversations about relevant topics. How different might the current Battlestar Galactica have turned out if the writing staff had been forced to sit down and watch Gunslinger Girl instead of Desperate Housewives, or whatever dreck caused them to come up with season 3.

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