Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Spring 2012: Finally Something Worth Watching

It’s been a while since I had something really interesting to write about in the world of currently airing anime.  I was starting to think that I was actually becoming a jaded, grumpy old man about anime and manga and maybe I needed to take a break from it.

Luckily, I was wrong.  I’ve found some new manga that have me once again eagerly awaiting the next scanlation release, and, finally, an anime that has succeeded in surpassing my expectations and has me simultaneously anticipating and dreading next week’s episode.

I’ll address the anime in this post:
黄昏乙女×アムネジ(Tasogare Otome x Amnesia) Twilight (or Dusk) Maiden × Amnesia
I actually haven’t finished last season’s Another yet.  Frankly, I got bored with it.  I suspect I’ll finish it up after Dusk Maiden is done, but this story is both better plotted and just plain more interesting.

I’m a tough customer where horror is concerned.  The last couple of shows that managed to tweak my horror receptors to any significant degree were Ghost Hound and Mononoke – both quite a few years ago.  I hoped that Another, with its good production values might do the trick, but the war of attrition format was in the foreground and character development was given short shrift.  It’s hard to care if somebody comes to a bad end if you have seen him only once before he dies.  Slasher movies have always been a fail for me for this reason.  Likewise, I regard gross-out horror as a cheap gag used by those who can’t or won’t bother to build empathy and tension in the reader/viewer (I’m looking at you, Stephen King).

Cover of manga vol 6
I took a look at Dusk Maiden mostly because of the title.  I somehow (luckily, I suppose, given the quality of the anime adaptation) missed the source manga entirely, which is a little surprising as it has been in scanlation since 2010.  The first few episodes of the show reminded me a lot of Natsu no Arashi, which is a fun (two season) romp, involving (generally) benevolent ghosts, a tsundere reverse trap, and titillation of adolescent boys, but definitely not horrific in any significant way.

Accordingly, I introduced it to milady, who also found it pleasant, harmless slice-of-life bedtime show starring the ditzy, ubiquitous, voluptuous ghost of 15-year-old KANOE Yuuko ( ). Kanji note: Kanoe refers to the seventh month in the Chinese calendar; these kanji for Yuuko are probably best read as something like ‘evening child.’  The ‘-ko’ ending on many traditional Japanese female given names usually is ‘child,’ and has fallen out of favor in recent years.

Arashi-san with her magic navel, for comparison
As in Natsu, there were flickers of dark/supernatural stuff here and there, but I wouldn’t be writing about the show now if all it had to offer was the retelling of Natsu no Arashi suggested by the first five episodes.  Now for the good news: those first five episodes, while having the appearance of harmless slice-of-life, also happen to be chock full of character development for the four principal characters.  By the end of episode five, the viewer has replaced tropes with unique character identities for three leads, and is probably willing to let the fourth slip by on well-established behavior patterns.  If the show continued with another seven episodes of the same stuff it would probably get quite dull.  At this point, I guess I should admit to being a Kirie fanboy, but then I always did like strong-willed tsundere types. 

Natsu DVD Vol 2 Cover
It’s probably worth mentioning that the director of Dusk Maiden has also worked on Now and Then, Here and There, and  ef memo (yes, source of the most dramatic voicemail in anime), and was series director for both seasons of of Natsu no Arashi.  Likewise, the screenplay author also did all of Natsu no Arashi, and both ef series. If there’s some look and feel carry over, I think we can guess why.

Visually, the first five episodes are pretty, but nothing exceptional.  The animators have aged the characters up a bit in appearance from the manga.  In the first chapter of the manga it’s made quite clear that the male lead is a first year middle school student, which would make him age 12 or so.  Yuuko died when she was 15, and they’re both drawn reasonably credibly for their ages in the manga.  By appearances in the anime, you’d likely assume that it’s a high school and they’re both three years older than they really are.  If you mentally age the characters down to middle schoolers their actions (and an algebra test question we see at one point) suddenly make a lot more sense. 

Yuuko sings the blues well, but she has had 60 years to practice...
A feature that is exceptional is the Opening (OP) and Ending (ED) songs, which are both quite good and thematically appropriate.  Notably, neither is sung by a seiyuu in the anime.  I’m glad that somebody is still willing to get professional singers to do the singing for anime – the simple fact is that most professional seiyuus are adequate singers at best, and many can’t carry a tune in a bucket (OOKUBO Rumi’s ED for Acchi Kocchi comes to mind here).  Kudos, therefore, to the producer of Dusk Maiden for leaving the music to the professionals instead of the seiyuus or some generic nominally-pubescent boy band.

Another interesting feature of the OP and ED is that they’re ‘sung’ by Yuuko.  That is, they both make sense from her point of view and she is shown singing the lyrics in what look like two slickly-produced, self-contained anime music videos that happen to be at the beginning and end of each episode.  It works very well and I hope it catches on.  Or maybe I don’t, because I suspect that it wouldn’t work well at all with, say, HIRANO Aya doing the singing. 

Of the two performances, the ED has the weaker animation, but the better music – OKUI Aki’s workmanlike performance leaves no complaints.   Teenage newcomer SUZUKI Konomi’s performance of the OP mostly shows that she isn’t done growing yet: she’ll be a fine mezzo soprano once she fills out and her voice settles into its adult register.  Now, however, she’s reedy in the upper midrange exactly where she needs to be able to belt out pure tones for a power ballad like Choir Jail (and no, I don’t know what Choir Jail is supposed to mean).  HIKASA Yoko could have done it better.  The OP animation with a falling maple leaves motif, however, is beautiful to watch and does a fine job of covering up the weakness in the music, which, despite my criticism I will happily affirm does not suck, unlike a simple majority of Anime OP songs these days.  What is most notable about these two performances is what is missing: there’s no obvious voice post-processing – no excessive accutune, no vocoder, no false chorus.  It’s just good music sung by good singers with none of the techno crap crutches so often used by J-pop producers to cover up the technical weakness of the ‘talent.’  I haven’t been this nice to anime OP and ED music since my glowing review of the ED of The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi.

Enough about the bread on either side.  What about the middle of this ectoplasmic sandwich?

Meet KANOU Yuuko

Anime Yuuko
Ghost or not, she’s obviously constructed on sound principles.  As I mentioned above, the characters have been aged up in appearance from the manga.

Manga Yuuko
In the manga, Yuuko’s busty for a 15 year old, but is anatomically possible.  In the anime, not so much.  Sure there’s some basic shounen titillation going on here, both for the target audience and for the male lead.   I’ll admit to preferring the navel fetish quirkiness of Natsu no Arashi, but yes, this works too.  And in both Dusk Maiden and Natsu there’s a plot requirement: Yuuko must be a) appealing as a romantic prospect to Male Lead, and b) physically distinguished (and presumably more appealing than) her theoretical competition among flesh-and-blood girls in the story.  We seem to be stuck with implausible body compositions in anime for the forseeable future (and for the record, no, I have never seen nor heard of a 15-16 year old Japanese girl built like Yuuko, certainly not one who grew up during and after WWII!), so I can’t really single this show out for being more farfetched than, say, R-15 for example.  Yuuko theoretically has not one but two competitors for the male lead’s attention, so must be visibly different from both, one of whom is on her family tree.  Her bust and hair do the trick.

Yuuko has no memory of how or why she died.  She also seems also to have little interest in learning about it except as a hook for the male lead’s attention.  She haunts a private middle school on top of a mountain which has stood for many years.  As the town grew, so did the school, so there are twists, turns, and disused buildings throughout.  She seems almost aggressively happy and optimistic, which, if you consider it, is rather peculiar for a ghost.  The show does accept the common cultural memes requiring some unhappy/unnatural death as a cause for a haunting. Yuuko is happiest when she can interact with living people – most people can’t see her, and so it has obviously been a rather lonely sixty years.  She’ll happily talk to anybody, but she’s happiest snuggling and talking to the male lead.

Meet NIIYA Teiichi (新谷 )

Teiichi's character design sheet
Yup, he’s the one defined male character in the show.  His name translates as something like most righteous/upright/constant of new valley.  Teiichi is also the thinnest character in the show.  He’s as pure hearted as his name suggests, and he’s kind to a fault, but we know basically nothing else about him beyond these characteristics.  I have the feeling that this is intentional to make him a more perfect shounen everyman, but boy does it stand out against the depth of characterization of the three other principals in the show.

Yuuko and Teiichi
He seems to have no personality quirks at all beyond seeming to prefer the company of a well-endowed ghost girl to the flesh and blood kind.  Teiichi is a first year middle schooler (yes, he’s age 12), is slight and short of build, and is obviously neither the brightest in his class.  He addresses Yuuko as Yuuko-san.  Given that she’s about 60 years his senior and was a third year when she died, that’s probably the respectful thing to do even if she’s mentally more similar to a ditzy child much of the time.

Kirie-senpai gives Teiichi the lowdown
And in the other two corners we have two other female protagonists.  Kanoe Kirie ( ) and Okonogi Momoe (小此木 もも).  Kirie is Yuuko’s great niece and her grandmother’s memories of Yuuko shape her expectations of the ghostly lead.

...but is not always so confident
Kirie is pensive, decisive, determined, a little high strung, and easily spooked.  She’s also not entirely honest with herself.  She can see and interact with Yuuko, but is initially very cautious about doing so.  Her given name translates as something like ‘misty bay.’

Momoe is a guileless first-year
Momoe (her whole name translates fairly close to ‘this little peach tree’) is genki (‘lively’ is about as close as English gets), clueless, loud, a first year like Teiichi, and completely oblivious to Yuuko as anything other than the focus of the school’s ‘seven spooky mysteries.’  She thinks ghost stories are great fun and the idea of going around the school investigating them with Teiichi even moreso.

Your first clue that this isn’t just another cute school comedy romance involving a ghost comes in episode six.  It’s set in the schools bunkasai (usually translated as ‘cultural festival’) and involves lots of really cool formalist animation and even more mass psychosis.  It’s downright scary in spots, and does a fine job of letting you know that you’re not watching Natsu no Arashi anymore.

If you started episode seven expecting things to go back to normal, you’re in for a shock.  Nope, the nebulous romance comedy is replaced by something decidedly serious. 

Episode six takes a somewhat darker tone...
This is where the plot starts moving quickly, and where the stuff you were  expecting in a “drama, horror, mystery, psychological, romance, supernatural” (animenewsnetwork.com) anime series starts to happen.  We had episode nine last week as our usual bedtime viewing and it bothered me enough that I slept badly that night.  The teaser right before the end credits suggests that I won’t be electing to watch episode ten at bedtime either.  Fortunately, there’s stuff like Acchi Kocchi and Gallery Fake for that slot.

Plot development comes fast and furious
The difference between Dusk Maiden and Another is striking – Another has significant character development of exactly two characters and starts killing other people (who don’t get a lot of character development) as soon as the plot allows.  Dusk Maiden doesn’t even threaten to injure anybody until episode six, so when the possibility appears, you’re suddenly very surprised and very interested.  You’ve also developed an expectation of ‘normal’ for each of the lead characters.  Accordingly, when any of them starts behaving differently, the viewer notices immediately and is alert and interested instead of just adding up the new body count tally.

This is the advantage of a small cast in a small setting.  We don’t really know anything about anyone else in the school beyond the four members of the occult investigation club.  When someone does intrude on the main characters, the intruder is drawn just deeply enough to be credible.  All the other screen time and character development goes to the core cast.

Yuuko sings alone, haunting the one setting
It is also the show’s big weakness.  The school is the only setting – Teiichi, Kirie and Momoe’s homes are never seen.  The four characters are the only real people in the entire show.  It’s almost as though the story was written as a stage play for a small theatre and ensemble cast.  This show, sadly, does have the ‘Fruits Basket floating world problem.’

But most of the time you just don’t care.  At any particular instant either Yuuko is cavorting, Momoe is spazzing, Kirie is shouting or quivering in a corner, or something spooky is happening.  It’s well plotted and constantly entertaining.  The manga, interestingly, actually is better plotted in some places than the show.  In other places, the advantage of showing over telling wins out.

In any case, it's better than anything else I've seen this season, or last season for that matter.  Enjoy.

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