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Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

gsnk

Today, some confessions are in order. I’ve always known that I don’t deserve to call myself a diehard anime fan, not because I don’t love anime deeply, but because I simply can’t afford the time to watch as many classics as I’d like, or follow as many new shows as I’d like. College life is stimulating but heavy-going; much of it is to do with the nature of my course, but it’s more to do with my (note: entirely personal) belief that my academics take priority. The result is that I’m ill-disciplined about finishing must-watch series which I’m simply not in the mood for, and that also means that I usually miss the hype-train long after I actually get around to finishing something amazing. So thankfully, the stress of reading too much has recently spurned an insatiable craving for comedy anime. “I just finished Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun!” I proudly told my fellow anime-fan friend a month or so ago. “Oh my gosh, you’re SLOW!” she replied immediately. (Shrugs) I don’t deny it, but hey, better late than never, right?

Nozaki-kun aired in 2014 (I know, I know, that was last year, I’m so late to the party), and follows the merry misadventures of a group of high school students at Roman High. More specifically, it’s the story of how second-year Chiyo Sakura decides to take the brave step in confessing to her long-time crush Umetarou Nozaki, and winds up discovering that he’s got an alter ego as a popular female shoujo mangaka. Nozaki mistakes her infatuation for fangirling, and ropes her in as his newest assistant, tasked with inking in the beta portions for his work. As the series progresses, Chiyo encounters more of Nozaki’s guy-friend assistants, all of whom are also students at Roman High; and all of whom have their own problems, which usually relate to girls in one way or another. Nozaki himself, who has no real experience with affairs of the heart (despite the ironic nature of his work), pounces at every chance to observe the workings of real-life relationship mishaps, and incorporate them into his newest plots.

Nozaki-kun is a comedy – to be exact, it’s a parody of the shoujo genre. For that reason, I’m not certain it’s readily accessible to everyone and anyone unless they’re at least familiar with standard tropes. I watched it with my sister, who’s more used to watching shounen with me, and I had to explain things like how riding bikes and sharing umbrellas are standard facets of shoujo romance, and especially how the different backgrounds in manga contribute to different atmospheres (for example, the black and white swirls denoting fear, intimidation or gloom). But at the end of the day, we both enjoyed it thoroughly – so I think it’s a safe bet that most people can still catch a good portion of the jokes, even if the best of the “inside jokes” are inevitably lost on the completely uninitiated.

Humour is, of course, entirely subjective – but that said, the good thing about comedy shows is that out shows from all other genres, I can gauge a comedy’s appeal based on the sheer number of times I’m willing to re-watch it. When it comes to Nozaki-kun, don’t ask me how many times I’ve re-watched some episodes. It’s a downright hilarious show; I’ve split my sides laughing at every turn. So what’s so funny about Nozaki-kun, you ask?

Well, explaining that requires a little background. See, Nozaki-kun is a parody of shoujo plotlines and elements, but in the wider scheme of things, it’s a show about the reversal of stereotypical gender roles. There’s already an excellent article on how Nozaki-kun does this, so please go check it out. The upshot of it all is, Nozaki-kun is funny because you’re laughing at characters who seem to “get their roles all wrong,” but what makes it so easy to laugh is the fact that all of them are so comfortable being who they are, you ultimately realise that you’re just laughing at your own subverted expectations of gender archetypes. Take for example, Kashima, who can’t seem to understand why her beloved Hori-senpai is completely unimpressed by her heroism and princely charisma. Her frustrations are the most adorable thing I have ever seen – but no way would I ever want Kashima to give in to playing the damsel-in-distress. She’s absolutely confident the way she is, and that’s how she’s should stay.

Comparisons will inevitably be made between Nozaki-kun and Ouran High School Host Club, another comedy which is known for its gender-bending premise. Flame me if you will, I can’t help but love Nozaki-kun’s approach so much more than Ouran’s. A lot of the “aww” factor in Ouran is seeing Haruhi give in to traditional “girliness” by having her wear a dress, or freak out over a thunderstorm – a guilty pleasure, no doubt, but one that reinforces gender stereotypes more than it addresses them, no?

Anyway, back to Nozaki-kun. Nozaki-kun marks the first time that I am madly in love with every single character in the main cast. Usually it’s the main characters who are outstanding and supported by their peripheral friends, or it’s a hugely compelling villain that steals the show, or some side character like Hatake Kakashi/Captain Levi will ooze coolness and sell merchandise by the millions. But Nozaki-kun doesn’t exhibit this phenomenon; every single one of the seven leads are downright entertaining to watch. Whether it’s the bashful Mikoshiba, or the soft-hearted athelete Wakamatsu, or the crass Seo – they’re all wonderful. Again, a lot of their likeability is to do with the fact that none of them are afraid to break gender norms. The boys are often vulnerable, or put into humiliating situations; the girls are far from coy and subservient…and it’s all great fun to watch. For the sake of maintaining my commonly poised and mature image, I shall reserve fangirling over my favourite character for the postscript.

A lot of the comedy is pulled off through the artwork and style. Shoujo manga is typically overflowing with flowers, sparkles, and other shimmery effects – but while these are used to evoke the reader’s normal reactions for a romance, Nozaki-kun pretty much desecrates all that by using them to comedic effect. The hilarious juxtapositions are also well-supported by some really simple but effective expressions from the main cast.

Also, the soundtrack is glorious – it switches between serious and light-hearted so as to pull off the punchlines with perfect timings. It helps when you use familiar classics like Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Bach’s Air (my all-time favourite classical piece) to build up the pretence seriousness, before lobbing in some gag music and dropping the ball on the characters and the audience. I would also mention the OP, but there’s just so little to talk about which hasn’t already been mentioned out there (somewhere). Suffice to say that I listen to it in the mornings when I wake up, and at night when I sleep, and whenever I do my work in between, and I’m still not sick of it.

Also, I mentioned in my Saekano write-up, that my own funny bone is set off by funny voices. I think that the voice acting in Nozaki-kun, was the real thing that sealed the deal on all these characters. Many of these characters have double sides to their personality, and this is carried off well by their seiyuus. For example, Kashima has a deep, alluring tone when she’s being romantic, but the moment she’s frustrated or upset, it mellows into a really kawaii voice that makes me just want to hug her. And Nozaki, well – he’s usually calm and stoic, so watching him get the slightest bit worked up or excited over something is just worth its weight in gold.

Now, I admit that I didn’t find everything about Nozaki-kun funny – not all the jokes worked, and none of the non-high-school characters (like Ken, Maeno, and Miyako) were all that entertaining for me. But hey, that’s the nature of humour; not everything works for everyone, so the idea is to have a variety of tricks up your sleeve, so that there’s widespread appeal. But then again. I wonder, though, if that’s really why I’m so taken in by Nozaki-kun. I mean, I was laughing throughout it all…but why was I so happy laughing?

Which brings me back to what I talked about, all the way at the start. Gender roles. Subversion. I’m sharing this as a purely personal experience, but hear me out on it. See, I read a lot of feminist literature at A levels. Enough to last me a lifetime. Feminist poetry, feminist critiques, stories of the “female” experience, books shaming “patriarchy;” I have read a lot of those. But maybe I still haven’t read enough, and I’m sure that’s partly the case. Because after having trawled through so much, I’ve never found myself particularly “entertained” by any of it. Enlightened, sure. Profoundly and deeply affected, definitely. But I’ve never actually read a book, or watched a movie, where I’m laughing myself silly and thinking, this one’s got it nailed. Girls aren’t just X and boys aren’t just Y – people are people, plain and simple!

Well, Nozaki-kun is the first piece of literature which has given me that pleasure. Sure, maybe it’s because of the characters popping into chibi mode, the exaggerated flowers and sparkles which plain text can never replicate – I’m still entertained, all the same. The way it’s handled is just so balanced – Wakamatsu thinks that basketball is cooler than drawing shoujo, Nozaki respectfully thinks otherwise; on another occasion Wakamatsu cries, Nozaki comforts him, and it’s all so natural and likeable, plus we actually get bonus laughs out of these exchanges! There’s just so much to love about the spirit of this whole show. It’s a shining example for all other comedies to follow, and excuse me if I say this unashamedly, but I’d put this on a list of “feminist” works if I could. 9/10 for dorky shoujo parodies, and the purest of all my love…goes to none other than…

 [Warning: Next section may be uncharacteristic of the author]


Hori

P.S. I think Suzaku is in danger of being dethroned, because Hori-senpaaai

His rolled up sleeves his tie in his pocket his gelled-up bangs his hidden acting skills his spatial awareness his random outbursts arghhh too much doki-doki feels for my heart to take. Surely a real-life Hori-senpai is not too much to ask for?

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Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend

Saenai

No anime is perfect, but there are two ways for a show to win me over completely. The first kind of show demands a certain maturity, a certain positivity. These shows typically portray people going through challenging, everyday situations, and then demonstrate how individuals can overcome all obstacles through strength and resilience. Silver Spoon, Bunny Drop, the recent Shirobako; I can’t watch any of these without tearing up on instinct…they all make me feel warm, fuzzy, inspired. The second type of shows, on the other hand, are what I like to call the “they’ve-got-it” shows. These shows go the opposite route, and portray challenging, everyday people…being people. They’re typically far from perfect, far from simple, but in a way…they wind up being both, somehow. An example? Oh, I don’t even have to say that one (it comes up far too often for my liking, just look at my last post), but a milder counterpart would probably be Golden Time, just because it’s a show that explored relationships and got it. And yes, Saekano happens to fall into this very same category.

I wonder, though, if Saekano even deserves an intro that sounds so promising. Because let me undo some damage and correct your expectations, this show is a slice-of-life harem comedy, about a high schooler who decides to create his own doujin circle. After mega nerd Tomoya Aki experiences an epiphany of a romantic encounter with a girl in a white beret, he gets inspired to create a visual novel starring himself as the hero, and the unwitting girl in the white beret, Megumi Kato, as his heroine. He goes on to rope in his affiliates to fill in key roles of his team – social elite cum closet otaku Eriri Spencer Sawamura as the main artist, brains-and-beauty Utaha Kasumigaoka as the key writer, and uh, liberal cousin Michiru Hyodo as his soundtrack composer. With such a talented team of individuals coming together, it seems almost odd that the biggest problem lies in Kato’s complete inability to be the charming, lovable heroine that the game is based on. Well, okay, it’s the biggest problem, if you don’t count the elephant in the room – Tomoya Aki’s episodic crisis of attempting to disentangle himself from the clutches of each and every beautiful girl who floats his way.

I said that Saekano is a slice-of-life harem comedy, but that was the simpler way of introducing the bare plot. Truth is, it’s actually more accurate to describe Saekano as a metafictional slice-of-life harem comedy. Because it knows its audience, it knows what they expect, and it plays to all the stereotypical tropes that every harem comedy is obliged to churn out…before waving its magical wand of subversion, and laughing at the audience’s reaction. Geeky main protagonist Aki frequently waxes lyrical about the dos and don’ts of crafting a masterful doujin work, particularly in the area of heroine etiquette; as he chastises Kato, main heroines don’t tarnish their own appeal by going out with their cousins. Any audience familiar with the style of the harem genre would readily nod profusely…yeah, you tell her, family or not, all them girls in the harem genre can’t fall for anyone other than the main protagonist! But as Kato constantly muses, the rules don’t make any sense…and that’s Saekano’s entire point.

Saekano is self-aware but subtle, and it is absolutely unafraid to call its characters out on their nonsense. What hits home hardest, is that we’ve most certainly seen these characters before, and will most certainly see them again. From the get-go, Eriri’s the unmistakeable tsundere – scripted to toy with the protagonist by bullying him mercilessly, then strategically exposing flashes of her softer side. The dramatic twist comes when she’s ready to drop the tsun and flaunt the dere; unlike every other main protagonist that has come before him, Aki chooses to call her out on her fickle-mindedness, and puts his foot down – no getting away with the dere until you’ve apologised for bad behaviour! Not that Aki himself is immune from faults…and it’s up to boring heroine Kato to point them out…and make him account for it.

In addition to awareness, Saekano calls for integrity. It deconstructs the fan-fuelled world of doujinshi, using the earnest, passionate character of Aki to bring out some of the problematic kinks in its mechanics. It calls attention to the relationship between creator and audience, encouraging honesty on the part of creators to stick to outcomes they genuinely have in mind, as well as honesty on the part of the audience to be sincere about criticism. With all this sharpness and intelligence that it has going for it, what’s best about Saekano is that it’s genuinely funny. As more and more unspoken truths about the otaku-dom are thrown up before us, the execution makes our instinctive reaction be to burst out laughing…and screenshot scenes for Tumblr posts with the caption “this”. Really, I rarely laugh this much with a show…and one that pokes fun at me, no less!

There’s only one character whom I feel deserves some in-depth discussion. She’s none other than Megumi Kato, the titular heroine of the show. With Kato, one can easily explain why she’s not a heroine, yet one cannot truly explain why she is. As part of her “outsider” identity, Kato is deliberately prevented from falling into any of the common stereotypes – she’s repeatedly described as “boring”, her relationship with Aki is labelled as furatto (“flat”), and as the series progresses it’s pretty clear that she’s not there to play mind games with anyone. Unlike the rest of the girls, she neither worships nor abhors anime culture, and unlike the rest of the girls, she’s not constantly thinking about the best way to flash some skin for the camera…or Aki. She’s nice and kind and good in the most boring way possible…and I’m sorry to Aoi Miyamori fans, but Kato is the best girl of the season.

Now, despite Saekano being done by A-1 Pictures, it’s weird that the entire montage has an extremely Studio Shaft feel. In the same way that Shaft enjoys calling attention to particular scenes through changing the art style or employing blown up head shots, Saekano has a particular quirk of inserting scenes where outlines are in any colour but black. It gives the entire sequence a filtered, artistic look. Which builds onto the fact that even when it’s behaving normally, Saekano is very pretty to look at. Ufotable may be reputed for its masterful use of contours and gradients, but watch out, A-1 Pictures is fast catching up.

I also have nothing but praise for the background music. It does what all background music has to, by evoking the right reactions to the scene in front of you; and since Saekano is a comedy, its comedic music hits the nail on the head almost every time. The music is always used in just the right proportion, and played at all the right times, and never fails to make me burst out laughing. Both the OP and ED are perky J-Pop pieces that start and end the show well.

But man, the real strength of the show is in its voice-acting, particularly for the lead voice of Aki. Full credit goes to voice actor Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, for delivering one of the best performances for a harem comedy, in…I don’t know, years? I’ve already said that I find this show funny at least three times, but let me say it again – this show is funny. Remember that? Funny? Real, genuine humour that wasn’t all about the “lucky pervert” jokes, and instead is about the fact that lucky perverts are staple jokes in the first place? And well, as the character unwittingly forced into the role of the lucky pervert, Matsuoka delivers every shout and wince and groan to absolute perfection. Granted, though, this is probably because my funny bone is best set off by funny voices – which would explain why Kaito Kid’s itchthyophobic reactions can send me guffawing for hours. Aki aside, the voices for the girls are equally well-performed, making every dialogue-heavy banter session excellent pieces of entertainment. I find it especially funny how Kato’s voice is as airy and serene as someone like Sakura Matou’s (from the Fate franchise), but while Sakura’s innocence annoys me to no end, Kato’s pleasant sing-song timbre is instead used to deliver witty comebacks that could rival that of Monogatari’s Senjougahara.

No, really, Saekano is a funny, smart show. It showed hints of that in episode 0, but of course everyone was distracted by the excessive fanservice and in media res approach to introducing the plot. Which is one of its many shortcomings. It took a risk in beginning its run the way it did, and the risk didn’t pay off for an audience which was going to follow it during its broadcast run (though if you go back and watch episode 0 after completing the whole thing, you get a better sense of why they did what they did). And even throughout the first few episodes, the plot itself is easy to understand, but the underlying otaku inside jokes are hard to pick up. The pacing is occasionally slow, some episodes are dialogue heavy, some people might take issue with the dodgy shots, and I also admit that I especially dislike the way Michiru was introduced…though maybe it’s also because I especially dislike Michiru herself.

So, at the end of the day, there are a lot of things to complain about. But Saekano is still one of those rare shows for which I’d go out of my way to look up interviews with the director and visual novel writer. Because like Hideaki Anno and Evangelion, there’s this curiosity that arises in me – did the creators know that they were making something so self-aware and provoking? Did they know that they were making a show which would make its viewers henceforth question the stereotypes in every harem comedy that is going to come after it? Maybe yes, maybe no…and perhaps that’s part of the charm. With every episode, there’s at least one scene where I’m either laughing myself silly and saying, “man, they’ve got it!”, or at least one scene, like that one in the original Evangelion where Asuka kisses Shinji, where I stare at my screen in silence, and think…man, they’ve got it. It’s not a deep show, it’s not a perfect show…it’s exactly what it says on the cover. A slice-of-life harem comedy. But one of my personal favourites in years. 8/10 for best girl Megumi Kato!

Death Parade

Death Parade 2 [Death Billiards, Death Parade]

Shows nowadays will do anything and everything to come off as deep and edgy – if it’s not excessive amounts of gore and bloodshed, then it’s got to be horrible childhoods and traumatic pasts…anything, just anything, to make an audience sit up and take it seriously. Suffice to say that whenever something unforgiveable like Psycho-Pass 2 graces the screen, it’s time for me to rest my head in my hands and go, “Enough, no more Elfen Lied, no more Future Diary, no more of these exploding bodies and bad parenting, I want Monster and Evangelion back!” So many anime nowadays love making that desperate attempt to squeeze themselves into that whole category of “psychological thriller”, by having a show that encompasses “the human condition” as one of its dominant themes. Most make it way too obvious that they are trying too hard. Some, on the other hand, have instead mastered the skill of pulling it off to perfection…and Death Parade is a shining example of that.

Death Parade takes place almost entirely within a single room, otherwise known as the Quindecim bar. A pair of elevators open, out tumble a couple of confused persons (of any age, gender, and background), and a lone bartender greets them at the counter. He then tells them that they must participate in a game, with their lives on the line, and neither can leave the bar until the game is over. Normally, most of the confused, befuddled couples turn angry…before, of course, realising that they don’t have many other options of escape, and eventually agree to play a randomly selected game of billiards, darts, air hockey, twister, old maid, and what have you. And why are these unfortunate souls subjected to this treatment? When it comes to Death Parade, the less you know the better, and here’s your chance to go watch it with all immediacy and come back later.

If you’re stubbornly refusing to be intrigued, then okay…here’s the hook. Quindecim doesn’t exactly exist in the world of the living. And the bewildered, lost souls are just that – the freshly deceased who now face judgment on whether to go to heaven or hell, or, in the terminology of the show itself, Reincarnation or the Void. Of course, they don’t know this – which allows them to play the games under the illusion that their lives might genuinely be at stake. The point of the games is, incidentally, to bring out the strongest, darkest emotions lurking within the participants, allowing the bartender Decim, or, as he’s called, the “arbiter”, to get the full picture of who they are, and to pass judgment accordingly. With each week, we are treated to new guests, each complete with a mysterious past, and of course, an unknown future beyond the Quindecim bar itself. Does our guest deserve Reincarnation or the Void? It’s entirely up to Decim, of course, but don’t be fooled into thinking that he’s the only one preoccupied with judgment.

Because of course, everyone has opinions of their own. If the guest shows up as an arrogant salary man, there’s scope for believing he must be a selfish, stuck-up prick; if it’s a timid high schooler, then he’s probably too innocent to deserve a tragic fate. Judgment doesn’t stop with first impressions – as the life of each participant is revealed in a montage of flashbacks, the viewer becomes rife with mingled sympathy and disgust. He didn’t understand his stepmother at all! She completely misunderstood her husband! It wasn’t fair of her to treat him that way! He shouldn’t have given up! Everyone behind the fourth wall has a different perspective to contribute to the discussion…and the more one delves deeper into the exercise, the more you realise that the show intended it all along.

See, this story. It’s nothing short of brilliant from start to finish. On a superficial level, it’s pure fun to dissect and scrutinise the episodic characters that come and go as quickly as though they were moving on a conveyor belt. But on another dimension, the fact that conclusions are so hard to reach shows us miniscule cracks in the entire exercise of judgment itself. Does a pressurising game bring out the worst that exists within someone, or does it in fact create the evil that manifests? How does someone ever judge another if they have never been in their shoes, or, as is the case with arbiters, if they don’t even possess human emotions? Above all, why would any player be so desperate to win that they resort to underhand tactics that expose their less-than-admirable sides? Maybe it’s a sheer desire to escape and return to something…to someone. Regardless of how pathetic their lives might have seemed, and regardless of how they actually passed away, there isn’t a single guest who dares to honestly say that living was so meaningless he or she still believes himself or herself is better off dead. Everyone is suffused with feelings and desires, and if they don’t realise it before, they sure do by the end of each game. Now, I believe enough gushing has been done, and before I start on another round of it, here’s your second chance to go watch Death Parade immediately. No more chances will be given after this.

Back already? Okay, let’s talk about our two main characters, Decim and Onna. Decim’s a lovable dummy, who represents the unfairness and questionability of the arbiter system. Although possessing far more compassion and empathy that his grouchy counterpart, the arbiter Ginti, Decim’s still fallible – he’s incapable of ever giving full regard to the human spirit that some of his guests exhibit; though, as we’ve just established, it’s an impossible feat for anyone, anyway. And it’s Decim whom the audience is invited to observe, because it’s Decim whom his supervisor Nona has chosen to endow with the seedlings of human emotions…which means that it’s ultimately Decim who first “awakens” to the absurdity of his own job.

Catalysing this “awakening” is none other than Decim’s human assistant, Onna. It’s short for Kurokami no Onna (“The Woman With Black Hair”), since she goes nameless for a good majority of the series. Onna was a guest who accidentally showed up at Quindecim with the full knowledge that she already departed the living world; prompting Decim to suspend her judgment by wiping her memories, and keeping her as a temporary partner of sorts. In between berating Decim for his shortcomings, Onna packs a neat little mystery of her own – who was she, and how did she die? Clues, such as a picture book, are sprinkled across the series for us, but at the end of the day, what’s more important is how her story ties in with the overarching message of the show. As the main recurring characters, both she and Decim complement each other to perfection in guiding the audience in exploring the themes of the plot.

The art and animation was handled by, arguably, my personal favourite studio of all time – Madhouse. I like Madhouse for a number of reasons, but their biggest strength lies in doing shows which are NOT RUBBISH – and by NOT RUBBISH, I mean, anything which doesn’t compromise their dignity, anything which has substance. But anyway, speaking of Death Parade as an isolated work – is anyone going to oppose the view that Death Parade looks fantastic? It’s not pretty, of course, but that’s the last thing you want in a show about the dead – and it artfully steers clear of the other extreme of being all film noir and gritty, like most depressing sci-fi and horror shows. None of that dark and eerie atmosphere in Ergo Proxy, xxxHolic, and Girl from Hell – instead, I think Death Parade is a downright classy show.

By the end of the first episode, or alternatively, by the end of Death Billiards, it’s no longer a secret that we’re dealing with the dead. But here you have a dimly-lit bar with blue and purple lights deflecting off polished countertops and wine bottles, and anyone viewer would get the sensation that this looks like “just another casual night out.” Despite the heavy nature of the show’s themes, the art and atmosphere never engineer our moods so as to prepare us for an emotional rollercoaster. We’re allowed to begin each episode with a calm and relaxed state of mind, and put our focus on the real meat of the show – the characters.

And that’s where the best of Madhouse’s animation kicks in. What every viewer is consistently trying to do, is get a full picture of the humans behind the screen. So every subtle reaction, from momentary smirks, to furrowed eyebrows and widened eyes, right to the many, many scenes involving the human equivalent of Niagara Falls…they all matter. And boy…what more can I say? Madhouse delivers time and again each and every episode. Action scenes are few and far in between, but the studio does those excellently, as well. And cheers to my favourite sequence of the entire show, which appears in episode 11 – if you’ve seen that episode, then maybe you know what I’m talking about.

Like I said, Death Parade doesn’t beat its viewers over the head with forced emotions, so the music also accompanies the serene, calming atmosphere of the bar. There are quiet piano pieces, quiet harp pieces, anything, just anything to make you keep quiet and listen to what’s going on. And where the serious stuff kicks in, where flashbacks ensue, then that’s where it ups the “feels” notches by introducing heavier pieces, adding more instruments to the concoction – a bit more strings, a bit more woodwinds. Was there anything else about the music which I forgot to mention? Oh, right. The OP sequence. How many more times will I say that I love the whole idea of subversion? And how many times will I say that Death Parade’s OP is the embodiment of that? It’s so oddly fitting; it reminds me of Foster the People’s Pumped up Kicks – here you have a serious show, with a deceptively light-hearted façade. Enough said. I’ve played the OP sequence so many times I’ll probably get sick of it in the next hundred years.

What’s there to dislike about a show this good? Well…unexpectedly, I’m at a loss for words on this one. No, really, I admit that certain episodes felt slow, or rushed, or generally out of place – but it’s really nothing to complain about once you’ve seen the bigger picture. Death Parade proves that episodic shows can be entertaining in standalone arcs, but still add up to something larger than the sum of its parts. At the end of the day, Death Parade delivers a powerful message about life itself – life is precious, treasure it, don’t waste it. It’s not an easy message to pull off, and Death Parade does it so, so well. Some people complain about the over-dramatic nature of its delivery – eh, really? Sure it could be cringe-worthy, but I think that’s entirely the point – we’re meant to feel tickled and disturbed by characters who act exactly like us in our moments of frustration and desperation. Hang on. I know this sensation. Deceptively innocent start…messed up humans…overblown tears, snot and angst…kinda reminds me of a franchise that starts with an E and ends with an N…

But, okay, even after 12 solid episodes, Death Parade feels incomplete. As the plot gains momentum in its middle portion, mystery is built up around the core mechanisms of the arbiter system itself. We want to know what’s Nona’s deal, we want to know who Oculus really is, and we want to know what becomes of Decim after he starts to gain human emotions. Many of these questions remain unanswered, and while it means that the show’s ending doesn’t give us wholesome closure, it also means that Madhouse ought to flout its integrity for once and give us a second season. And that leaves Death Parade as complete, but not quite…although what we do have is nothing short of ovation-worthy.

Death Parade is a stunning example of what anime can, and should be. It reminds me of the first season of Code Geass, in the way that it looks and feels like a typical anime, what with the bizarre designs, fantastical premise and all that. But it uses the imaginative medium of anime, to communicate a story which is mature, sophisticated, and ultimately very uplifting. No need for a larger-than-life setting involving wars and galaxies, no need even for sadistic villains and shocking brutality. Most anime go out of the way to create that from scratch, without realising that the most haunting experiences lie within the viewer’s own life. Death Parade is profoundly intelligent in having picked up on that, and developing a full-blown study of it. So everybody, put your hands up, if you think this show deserves a 9/10 AND a second season…

Your Lie in April

Your Lie in April

[Spoilers for Bunny Drop ahead]

I seem to be on a trend of having to eat my own words. See, eons ago, in my Anohana review, I made the statement that I generally have little patience with tear-jerking romances – particularly those which play all the cliché tricks in the tear-jerking romance book (which I won’t mention, because of spoilers). To some degree, this statement still holds true; I have no love for Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimetres Per Second, although that’s a story for another time. The point is that I used to regard myself as emotionally immune to all shows of this type and nature. But of course, then came along a show which fits the tear-jerking-romantic-high-school-melodrama description to a tee…and I actually chose to watch it instead of avoiding it like the plague.

Your Lie in April (hereafter known as Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso, or KimiUso), is a story about the return of pianist prodigy Kousei Arima to the music scene. As a kid, Kousei’s piano prowess was seemingly exploited by his terminally ill mother cum piano teacher, leading him to develop a flawless but mechanical style of playing, and earning him both high praise from critics…and the cruel nickname “Human Metronome” from his audience. Following a series of tragic events, Saki Arima passes away, son Kousei suffers a nervous breakdown during a performance, and for the next few years, he languishes in stagnation, unable to hear the piano despite not actually being deaf, until he meets a fellow teenage violin prodigy, Kaori Miyazono, who looks game to change his life forever…

I don’t get why people insist on comparing this show to Nodame Cantabile, because if one were looking for a music-themed story about the tension between technicalities and freedom in the musician’s philosophy, then the lesser-known movie, Piano no Mori, is a much better predecessor for comparison – but an inferior one, in my opinion. Which goes to show that KimiUso is considerably good at what it does; it explores the competitive, rigorous nature of the music scene, by portraying the nerves and stress leading up to a recital, but it also shows us the wonder and beauty that comes through a heartfelt performance. It’s a story about a musician’s motivations. It’s a story about musician’s aspirations. Oh yes, and of course, it’s also a story about relationships…a lot of messy, complicated relationships.

So let’s first talk about our main character, Kousei Arima, as well as his messy, complicated relationships. I’ll be frank, Kousei is everything I want in a main protagonist – he’s troubled, traumatised, confused, clueless, unconfident, he actually grows phenomenally in the course of the show; I might even say he’s a startlingly accurate depiction of your typical 14 year old, if your typical 14 year old could play like Mozart and lived with an abusive parent. Do you know who Kousei reminds me off? I’ll take the plunge and say it – if Shinji Ikari had dropped cello and taken up piano instead, and if Second Impact had never come, the two might have met at a piano competition and would either have become best friends or worst enemies. Seriously – mummy issues, girl issues, self-esteem issues, Kousei is Shinji with some ounce of self-control over his own tear glands and vocal chords.

Since I’m aiming for depth rather than breadth, only two other characters will be mentioned – the characters of Saki Arima and Kaori Miyazono. With regards to Saki Arima, boy…I’d go so far as to say that her haunting presence is the jewel in this show’s crown. In fact, the broken mother-son relationship that she and Kousei share is so phenomenally good, its absence in the show’s second half is what actually killed the plot for me. At first, I thought it was amazing how both Saki and Kaori serve as foils of each other – both expressing their love and encouragement towards Kousei through vastly different ways, and only one getting it right – but then I took a step back and thought…hang on, something’s not quite right.

See, I simply don’t understand how Kaori, as much as her analogous factual circumstances permit, fills in the gap that Saki leaves behind. She’s simply not Kousei’s mother. (And on that note, neither is Hiroko, although I feel that the writers could have done more with her if they had tried.) But hang on, you say, who’s telling this story, anyway? What’s wrong with Kaori being who she is – and influencing Kousei in her own way? What’s wrong with Saki’s maternal presence fading into the background, with the romantic thrust of the story starting to take centre stage in KimiUso’s second half? Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, and at best, I simply have to admit that I didn’t get it. Because like I said, a broken mother-son relationship was the hallmark of the show, and when something is broken – a good narrative offers the juxtaposition of a functioning, working version of said thing…or at least, a different version of it.

The best example I can think of isn’t from an anime, it’s from one of my favourite classics – Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. But since not everyone will have read Wuthering Heights, here’s an example from modern anime to help you see what I’m driving at. As much as I bash on Fate/Zero at times, I have to admit that it does have consistent themes which are well explored. Like the theme of kingship. Since that’s one of the selling points of Fate/Zero, we have three different Servants having three different takes on the subject of kingship – for reference, watch episode 11, Banquet of Kings. Rider thinks a king needs to instill confidence in his people by appearing strong and untouchable, Saber comes off as the goody-two-shoes ruler who wants to save everyone, and Archer is just bigotedly forcing everyone to worship him, or something. Once you start comparing like with like, you better appreciate the merits and defects of each object of comparison.

So, I feel like romance is the cheaper substitute for the best of what KimiUso had to offer. It’s a little like what happened with Bunny (Usagi) Drop and the manga’s second half – “wow, look, what a great father-daughter relationship we had going on here, now let’s turn our focus onto a romantic relationship in order to complete the story!” [SPOILER’S FOR BUNNY DROP] Of course, what’s more unforgiveable about Bunny Drop is the fact that both types of relationships are between THE SAME TWO PEOPLE, and thankfully KimiUso doesn’t go that far. But still. We have lots of romance in anime – anime has no lack of cute romance, and when KimiUso gave us Saki Arima, I thought it had struck gold. That’s not to say that they didn’t get the romance right, because everything in the last two episodes is brilliant all the way – and at the end of the day, I can forgive the direction the plot took, by virtue of the direction (pun not intended) of the series itself. Which, of course, brings me to a few thoughts about the art, animation, and sound.

Come on, everyone, this is A-1 pictures. There’s little I can say, with my limited vocabulary, other than the fact that everything looks absolutely gorgeous. The entire show is a montage of breath-taking scenery – both in the real world, and in the mind of the performing musician. The beauty of the real world is depicted in lush cherry blossoms and twinkling stars; and every on-stage performance is a kaleidoscope of melted pastels and artful lighting. Animating a musical performance is demanding by virtue of how picky some viewers can get about the integrity of the notes played – and on that front, fret not, you are indeed looking at what you’re hearing; and even where the budget can’t give us nimbly-moving fingers, the audience is instead distracted by gorgeous watercolour still-shots interspersing the animated scenes.

Said scenes are complimented, of course, by gorgeous classical music. I’m certainly not the best person to give a dissection about the significance of each piece, and I’m not going to try. But I’ll say this – to the layman who knows just enough to recognise the names Chopin, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, KimiUso certainly gives due respect to every bit of music that it incorporates. Some might find this statement a little confusing, given the number of elderly judges who frequently rise in indignance because “he’s desecrating Chopin by not playing according to the score!”, but I think those characters are there to be disagreed with, since the best of performances are the ones where the character deliberately infuses the piece with his or her own emotions. Also, props to this show by accommodating the untrained ears, by providing just enough background commentary from the watching characters, to guide the viewer’s perceptions of the performance. Gradually, though, by the last episode, there’s no longer any need for such commentary, and the final performance is testament to KimiUso’s ability to communicate without words.

All OPs and EDs are, as one would expect for a show about music, really good – and one simply has to watch the first OP, Hikaru Nara by Goosehouse, in order to get a firm sense of KimiUso’s flavour, and what it is about. The voice acting for a show like this (which attempts both humour and drama) is rather well done, and is complemented by a few nice pieces of background music. So nothing to complain about there.

If I had to express what I feel about KimiUso as a whole, I certainly couldn’t do it in eloquent language or through performing a sonata – instead, being a math geek at heart, why don’t you plot a y = |((x-1)^2)-5| graph for the range of 0 to 5 and see how my love for this show took a nosedive halfway through, before picking up again towards the end. There’s so much to like about this show – it’s a killer on all technical fronts. But writing wise, arrrrrrrgghhhhhhhh, this show is frustrating! Prior to the last few episodes, the middle portion was so bad that I was considering relegating the entire show to the scrapheap of untouchable titles. To today, I can’t even put my finger on what I disliked so much about episodes 14 to 19. The absence of Saki Arima was one thing. The appearance of Nagi was another. The random bursts of bad slapstick humour. The fatally pretentious writing that Nicholas Sparks is infamous for (“And in that moment, my heart was overcome with sorrow and emotion./ Underneath the twinkling stars, I called out your name and you turned around and looked at me, and I wished that we could continue like this forever and ever and ever and ever until eternity.” Yes, I made these up – but I kid you not this show’s writing occasionally sounds exactly like that).

At the end of the day, my problems with KimiUso can be distilled into one word – overkill. It’s an overly ambitious show, and while “too much” comes off as a good thing in terms of the artwork and music, it doesn’t come off as a good thing story-wise. It has too many characters, too many subplots, and way too little focus. It would have worked well had it been a character study about musicians – the way Ping Pong was a character study about athletes. Unfortunately, KimiUso can’t do that – because it chose not to. It didn’t stop with the stories of Kousei, Emi, and Takeshi, the latter two of which weren’t exhaustively done anyway – it went on to give screen time to the story of a non-musician peering into the world of performers (yep, I’m talking about Tsubaki), and diluted the power of that subplot by meshing romantic undertones into it. On the other hand, if it had been a pure melodrama featuring a love quadrangle, then Nagi must have been inserted at the insistence of some moe-holic writer during production, because seriously…why have Nagi at all?

That brings me to the final question – is KimiUso still worth the watch? Ultimately, I can’t help but say yes. Because after getting side-tracked and meandering aimlessly, it eventually pulls itself together and gives an ovation-worthy conclusion. And no, the triumph of KimiUso’s conclusion isn’t about the art, or the music, or the tears. Rather, I love the ending for its attitude and message. When the final credits began to roll, I thought back on my frustrations that Kaori couldn’t live up to Saki Arima, and decided…in the grand scheme of things, I think I can overlook the fact that Kaori’s no maternal substitute. Because in the end, what’s most important is Kousei’s resolutions as a person, regardless of the means taken to achieve them…and gosh, Kousei’s final resolutions are what made this show for me. Years ahead from now, I daresay I will look back on KimiUso, and remember it with fondness for the hope and positiivty that its final scenes gave me. And that means 7/10 for a tear-jerking-romantic-high-school-melodrama that did so many things wrong…but many more things right.

Darker than Black

Darker than Black

[Darker than Black: The Black Contractor; Darker than Black: Gaiden; Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor]

Normally, it doesn’t mean anything for me to review a show – it’s simply a matter of watching it mainly for entertainment, but also thinking about its strengths and weaknesses whilst I’m at it. The thing is, most of the time, I’m comfortable admitting that there are shows which are very flawed, which I still prefer over other objectively “flawless” shows – but it’s these shows which escape the list of reviewables, simply because it’s impossible to assess personal all-time favourites critically. So today’s review of Darker than Black is significant, because for me, it marks the complete end of an era where it once upon a long time ago occupied that number one spot in my top anime list.

I first watched Darker than Black: The Black Contractor close to five years ago, and have rewatched it just about three to four times since; I’ve watched Gemini of the Meteor about twice, and…I’ve probably watched the OVA series more times than I can count on my fingers. Darker than Black is another one of those shows which can’t be understood based on a straightforward summary – when I first watched it on Animax, all my TV told me was to “join elite contractor Hei and his friends, as they unravel the mystery of Hell’s Gate!” And I had this impression I was going to get a show about construction sites and dark magic. Instead, I got this jazzy film noir piece of art featuring a spanking hot enigmatic Chinese Electric Batman, his sidekicks the grumpy uncle and emotionless doll, as well as his talking pet cat and occasional policewoman fangirl. Really, the best way to understand Darker than Black is either to watch the first few episodes for yourself, or if you’ve watched shows like Witch Hunter Robin and Cowboy Bebop, then yeah…think Witch Hunter Robin and Cowboy Bebop.

But if it makes any difference, Darker than Black presents a world where beings known as Contractors have emerged – humans who disregard emotions in favour of acting on pure rationality and logic, and who exhibit supernatural powers (like invisibility or flight) at the cost of paying Obeisance, which is, simply put, an involuntary habit which the Contractor engages in whenever he uses his powers. It’s kind of like experiencing an impossibly mad urge to smoke, after you freeze people to death. Existing alongside Contractors are emotionless, mannequin-like creatures known as Dolls, who are able to send spectres through material objects in order to gather information. How these beings came about is a mystery, but the closest answer lies in the appearance of two chaotic spatial radii in both North America and Tokyo, where physical laws cease to apply – the former dubbed “Heaven’s Gate”, the later dubbed “Hell’s Gate”. The Tokyo government has built an entire wall around Hell’s Gate, and stations the research facility PANDORA at its perimeter. Apparently, Contractors and Dolls draw their existence from this massive blob of an area, and tampering with it jeopardises their survival…hence the creation of the Syndicate, an organisation which looks out for the interests of Characters and Dolls – and the very organisation which hires our protagonists for episodic missions. Make sense? No? Oh, just go watch the first six episodes…it’ll get clearer.

The first season, The Black Contractor, unfolds in two-by-two episode arcs, with each arc focusing on everything and anything relating to Hell’s Gate – a story about the aforementioned emotionless Dolls, a story about Moratoria (quasi-Contractors with uncontrollable powers), a story about Regressors (ex-Contractors who have given up their powers), a story about PANDORA…and so on. At its core, it’s a tale about how Contractors attempt to fit within society, end up failing miserably, and wind up being hunted down by the local authorities. Put in another way, it’s a tale about a society coming to grips with radical foreigners. As the episodes go on, the plot thickens, the conspiracies and secrets just get dirtier and messier, and then it pulls an odd climax, and Gemini of the Meteor picks off from where it left off. Except, of course, that Gemini of the Meteor drops the entire “episodic arc” approach in favour of a continuous 12-episode adventure, and basically answers next to nothing, while throwing up a whole myriad of its own questions.

It’s the general consensus that Gemini of the Meteor ruined everything about Darker than Black; and it’s my humble opinion that it didn’t, because everything bad about Gemini of the Meteor was either already in The Black Contractor, or simply bad in a superficial sense. And I’ll explain this in a step-by-step approach, so…it’s time to first address the plot. Now, like most anime, if you want to enjoy the story, Darker than Black requires the viewer to simply accept some things without asking questions – for instance, to accept the fact that the real stars became replaced by fake stars (even though nobody knows how or why), or that Contractors are compelled to pay Obeisance because they just are (again, nobody knows how or why). In Gemini, this happens all over again – although admittedly, the things one has to accept grows increasingly outrageous; so please accept the fact that the end of the world was prophesied in some unexplained documents, thank you very much. There are two reasons why Gemini was such a let-down to many – firstly, it was confusing and incomplete; second, it was nothing like The Black Contractor. You can easily solve the first problem by watching the OVAs before continuing onto Gemini, and you can solve the second by being aware that it’s going to be different, so you don’t have unnecessary expectations.

I also think people adored The Black Contractor because HEI, and by that I mean, Chinese Electric Batman; nothing more needs to be said. Hei is basically a consolidation of the female otaku’s fantasy, created by distilling a concoction of all that is deemed sexy into a single character. He’s physically attractive (has amazing collarbones), can perform martial arts and electrocute his victims, and has a cheerful, innocent alter-ego that only serves to reinforce his underlying cold and ruthless nature (they really hit it out of the park with this one). He’s even a chick magnet, who artfully avoids both the extreme of being so oblivious it’s frustrating, and the other extreme of being so aware that he turns manipulative. The biggest problem with Hei, is that he was so perfect, it actually backfired when he got real character development in Gemini at the expense of all this coolness…and to this day, I will never understand the superficial hatred for Hobo Hei, who, in my very unpopular opinion, is a solid expression of his otherwise unarticulated feelings towards one my favourite female anime characters of all time…

Who is none other than Yin, the kuudere Doll. Everything about Yin blew me away when I first watched Darker than Black – and because I had never seen Evangelion or Haruhi Suzumiya prior to this, in that moment Yin was such a novel character. Of course, now I understand that kuuderes are, like tsunderes, reusable archetypes…but still. The appeal of kuuderes is the notion of the natural mystery that surrounds them, by virtue of their inability to express themselves – so you can prod some semblance of character out of them by simply giving them one rare moment to smile or blush – yeah, and Haruhi decided to make a whole movie out of that, didn’t it? For Yin, glimpses into her character are provided through music, through poetry, through a heart-melting fingersmile, through an entire ED sequence…no, nothing can take away my love for Yin.

The rest of the characters are unique and interesting in their own right, and very much likable – if they’re not cool, combat-proficient Contractors like Hei, they’re goofy side characters like who provide the comedy of the show, or even the mandatory mysterious types (hey, Amber). The only other character I’ll mention is Misaki Kirihara, the Chief of the Public Section Bureau’s Foreign Affairs Section 4 – and who, in a nutshell, is tasked with tracking Hei down. If the series starts to get confusing, remember to turn to Misaki as your anchor-point, because she’s basically as clueless as we all are…and is usually the one giving the piecemeal answers through her sporadic narration.

Set in a dystopic Tokyo (and subsequently a wintry Russia), Darker than Black tends towards a film noir palette of blacks, greys, and whites, and recreates a city teeming with a denizen underworlds lurking in the shadows. There’s always a pervasive sense of being watched by someone, somewhere – and there’s always the terrible vibe you get that someone, somewhere, is not going to make it to the end of the episode.  Animation wise, Bones does a great job as usual – being clean and fluid with their actions scenes, and meticulous with most every other detail in between, and suffice to say that Darker than Black has enjoyable visuals.

The music for The Black Contractor was done by Yoko Kanno, who is (as will be said over and over) the very woman who did the soundtrack for Bebop itself. Bebop’s jazz and blues have actually been translated into The Black Contractor, and so we get entire chase scenes fuelled by funky brass instruments and a catcalling saxophone, and comedic hilarity buttressed by low, snazzy tunes you can actually snap your fingers to. Since its Yoko Kanno, expect diversity while we’re at it…and so we also have the flagship piece of the entire franchise, Yin’s Piano, which is, as the name suggests, a piano piece. Which you should listen to…now. Because it’s gorgeous.

The music for the OVAs and Gemini was done by Yasushi Ishii, who, despite not being as well known, did his own fantastic job on the second season – although it’s clearly not as appreciated. Gemini’s music instead consists of techno and bass, so the quirky and classy Yoko Kanno has been replaced by something more rash and rebellious. Not everyone can accept that Kanno’s beloved jazz went out the window; to me, it’s really just a matter of perspective – since I personally think that Ishii’s music for Hei is a far better fit than Kanno’s…flame me if you will, all I’m trying to say is that each composer simply had a different interpretation of the material, and both interpretations have their merits.

Having watched Darker than Black in both Japanese and English dub, I would say go for the Japanese version, because Darker than Black just is that kind of anime. It’s a sensory show, not an intellectual one, which means that you don’t follow the dialogue for its content, you listen to the emotions in the voices. And ha, for a show about emotionless people…it’s particularly hard to tease that kind of thing out, and the original Japanese version gets it right on most counts. So, if you can, watch it in Japanese, because it’ll probably make the experience better.

So…I guess I have to conclude by explaining myself, somehow. Why was Darker than Black once my all-time favourite anime, and (you’re probably wondering simultaneously) do I still like it now? Of course I do, and it’s not entirely because of nostalgia. Darker than Black is…special. As forcedly illogical as its very premise might be, somehow, somehow, it’s still thought-provoking without ever bordering on pretentious. And here’s why. It’s not uncommon for anime to discuss the ever-engaging concept of the pros and cons of having “emotions” and “feelings” (CLAMP is particularly guilty of this), and Darker than Black takes that task head on. Like I said, it’s a tale about a society which has rejected these anomalies called Contractors…and the repercussions of that choice. What becomes of these wandering souls? Some bide their time doing what they can to earn a living, others rally in unison as terrorists…but whatever the path each Contractor chooses, whether they be hero or villain – through flashbacks, moments of irrationality…we’re always drawn back to this idea of the human lying dormant within the shell. Perhaps, just perhaps, none of them are beyond redemption…?

As Yin herself says, “It’s sad that I’m not sad.” There’s an awareness that each of them have lost something, and it’s not even explicit that they’re actively searching for their lost humanity, or anything like that. There’s little true character development where this show is concerned – if anything, many of the Contractors and Dolls are shadows of their former selves; Bertha was once a mother who killed her own child by accident, Mai was a girl who tragically misunderstood her father’s intentions towards her, Huang was once a man who tasted a fleeting moment of true love, Yin was once a girl plagued by remorse and regret. But these characters, like all others, are so distanced, yet so near to our hearts – tell me, who hasn’t met people hardened and disillusioned by the adversities of life? Aren’t we all a little like that ourselves?

I’ve since grown up a bit, and now I find myself more attracted to shows which are uplifting and encouraging…but that’s not to say that Darker than Black isn’t like that. Granted, it’s a sad show, and coming out of it makes me more depressed than watching Evangelion (honest); but then again, it subtlety places slivers of hope here and there, all at the same time – in the moment Kenji’s Doll smiles at him, in the moment that Shihoko places Huang before herself, in the moment that Suou Pavlichenko expresses herself towards Hei, in the moment that Hei makes his choice in the finale of The Black Contractor…I guess it just goes to show that broken people still find a way, right? In the end, Darker than Black is an experience. You can watch it for the cool fights and mysteries, and it will deliver; but I’m here to tell you that it’s so much more than that, and it offers something that I find hard to articulate. I owe this series a colossal debt for sparking that urge in me to quit watching anime with half my brain switched off…and to tell the truth, if it weren’t for Animax showing this thing, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into many other more mature shows. So 8/10, and tell me, how long do I have to suffer until I get a season three?

Amagi Brilliant Park

Amagi Brilliant Park

Even within the anime community, there are often sharp divides between the old-fashioned “I-only-go-for-substance” elites, and those who chant “bring on the best girl wars” – one camp berates the other for being shallow, the other lambasts the former for being picky…with few realising that the core of the debate essentially boils down to a matter of taste. Or maybe not even taste, but mood. I mean, I readily admit that most of the time, I’m more inclined to watching something brainy, with lots of plot twists and witty dialogue; but I have my dog-tired days as well, and those are usually the days I want to watch something a bit more…brainless? And when I do, it’s usually something by Kyoto Animation.

Because as far as I’m concerned, KyoAni is to anime what Cartoon Network Studios is to Western cartoons – the studio you usually count on to make silly but entertaining stuff. And Amaburi is no exception – the story follows a cynical high schooler called Seiya Kanie, who gets coerced by a mysterious classmate called Sento Isuzu into becoming the manager of a dying amusement park. The brilliant twist comes in the form of a seemingly impossible challenge – if Kanie can’t get the park to attract 250,000 visitors within 3 months, the park will be forced to close. And dooming the park necessarily means dooming the lives of its inhabitants – the fluffy magical creatures who rely on magical energy from their visitors for survival.

Amaburi is set up as an episodic show with unlimited boundaries, making it hard or even meaningless to predict where the show wants to go next. It’s got an abundance of attractions to explore, an assortment of adorable cast members to develop, and because of its tie-ins with high-school and fantasy settings, the writers are basically given free rein to pick the multiple sources of Kanie’s job frustrations. Most of the fun lies in seeing how Kanie responds to the various dilemmas with confidence and authority, doing the most outrageous but (often) sensible things like shutting the park for clean-up, and then making entry free for the public…anything that gets you genuinely intrigued to find out where he intends to go with all of it.

Because this is a fun show, expect for problems to be waved away in illogical fashion – here’s a tip for when your park runs out of money because of non-existent entry prices; you simply have to battle pirates from a magical realm and conquer their loot, and all your financial problems will be solved! That kind of thing is all fine and good, to be honest; after all, this is not a show about real estate management, and thank goodness for that. What’s less easy to gloss over is the fact that the show seemingly sets itself up to achieve certain ends, and then…changes tack drastically. For example, resident park princess Latifah aids Kanie in his quest by bestowing on him the power to read-minds. Now, using this power in silly ways and for illogical outcomes is what I’d call “all fine and good”, not using it at all, on the other hand…not fine and good.

Also, I confess I had an immediate attraction to this show because of my love for Disneyland and all things theme-park. Very simply, what I love about theme parks is their ability to brighten the day of a single guest – which means that I sort of expected the focus of the show to be about bringing that kind of joy to the droves of guests coming to the park, with attractions and cast members gradually being improved for the sake of this goal. Somewhere along the line, making up the numbers becomes the main focus, and the whole spirit behind the amusement park itself just…seeps away. Oh well. Seems like I got the whole direction of the show completely wrong.

But hold on, let’s not get too carried away about these sort of nit-picky things – Amaburi is all about fun and entertainment, so if you’re entertained, then it really shouldn’t matter. Even if the plot didn’t always entertain me, the characters certainly did – after all, this is KyoAni, master of pandering…and look at what a spectrum they gave us here! Kanie himself is a glorified egocentric slave-driver whose charisma makes his on-screen presence a real treat every time, right-hand woman Sento is an adorable tsundere, Princess Latifah is an adorable moe, and the four fairies are kind of there to fill in the gaps…with best girl award going to wind fairy Sylphy, for practically setting a precedent for the stereotype of the ditsy airhead.

If you’re into token plushies, Amaburi has plenty of those, too – for a large majority of the cast are actually anthropomorphic animals in the guise of costume-donning mascots…although it’s soon apparent that precious few of them are as innocent as they pretend to be. Park mascot Moffle is a violent grouch with a fair bit of, uh, uncle issues? The fluffy violinist sheep Macaron makes some horrifically ugly faces when he’s riled up (which is not uncommon), and the (cat? Dog?) flower fairy Tiramie is…uh…not the best role model for young, impressionable teenage boys. Also not the best companion for young, impressionable teenage girls.

But why should you watch this show? Because it has the kind of art and animation only KyoAni can give us, that’s why. Whoever designed the park needs an award, or any other form of recognition of some sort – everything looks absolutely gorgeous, and it’s hard not to feel a maddening urge to visit Amagi Brilliant Park myself, if it actually existed. It’s almost as if the artists drew inspiration for the art scheme by eating skittles all day long – it’s all bright cheerful colours from start to finish, and animation wise, everything moves so fluidly, like the park is truly alive and kicking. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s on the same level as Spirited Away and its feudal Japanese theme park – but for a 13 episode TV series, it’s a force to be reckoned with.

A happy show deserves happy music, and Amaburi has a few, not outstanding, but fairly memorable theme pieces that are reserved for introducing the humdrum and bustle of the cast and their working lives. There’s a dreamy song for use where magic and mystery is involved, and there’s a more reflective piano piece for the serious bits – although I confess I have no idea why any music in Amaburi has to be heavy at all. Is there something I’m missing out on? Oh yeah, go watch the OP sequence. Given the context of the show, it’s probably my pick for best OP sequence of 2014. Trailer and show-starter all in one.

The voice acting for this show is curiously good – and I’m not really talking about stuff like the arrogance that resonates through a voice like Kanie’s, although now that I mention it, yeah it’s pretty good. I’m talking more about the voices for Moffle, Tiramie and Macaron, who, as I mentioned, are not exactly creatures you want to cuddle and embrace. Their ‘normal voices’ creates the opposite effect from hearing something like Alphonse Elric’s spoken voice for the first time – instead of having your heart melt, you’re given a rude slap in the face. You’ve been sucker-punched, this fluffy pink (cat?) dog speaks in the voice of a 40 year old alcoholic!

So…what’s the verdict on Amaburi? Well, I thought it was great fun. Mind you, I watched this show expecting to ogle over the art, the cute mascots, the egotistic park manager…and KyoAni delivered, it really did. I’d safely recommend this show to anyone who is looking for an entertaining 25 minutes to end off each sluggish day. Granted, I do think that it didn’t live up to my expectations in terms of coherence and potential – with a setting so astronomically extensive, there were so many other ways the plot could have chugged along, and that was disappointing to a degree. But then again, how can you really find fault with something that so earnestly and successfully brings out the excitable little kid in you? I mean, really, a whimsical show about a magical theme park with rainbow colours and dancing fairies? Featuring a stuck-up high schooler, his trigger-happy aide, and a trio of innocent-looking anthropomorphic men-children? Admit it, 7/10, KyoAni has done it again.

Cowboy Bebop

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This is not a review. I repeat, this is not a review of Cowboy Bebop. But don’t worry, it’s still a spoiler-free discussion about Bebop, written with those who have not watched it in mind. And if you’ve come here, wondering if you should watch it, then here’s the TL;DR: yes, you should watch it. In fact, you can go watch it now. One thing’s for certain, though, Bebop has a gargantuan reputation, and I’m not looking to fight it. I’m not looking to address the merits of the series per se. Rather, today I’m going to be delivering some of my thoughts on its popularity, and its significance to the anime medium.

It’s empirical fact that no anime has been as critically acclaimed as Bebop itself. It’s praised as a masterpiece of direction and music, hailed as a poignant exploration of human existentialism, and has been credited with triggering the second wave of anime popularity in the West. I don’t disagree with any of these points, but I think that newer anime fans should be very, very cautious about allowing such emphatic statements to raise their expectations through the roof. Often, I come across people who very honestly say things like, “Despite what I’ve heard others say, I watched the first 4 episodes of Bebop, and found them so boring I dropped the rest.” And cue the legions of fans who immediately say, “It gets really good from episode 5, it’s the best anime ever, go watch episode 5, go on!” Rarer yet, is the really, really honest person who goes, “I watched it all the way through, and don’t think it’s as good as people make it out to be.” And that’s when the fanbase turns aggressive, and goes, “You have bad taste. Your avatar is Yui Hiragisawa, your opinion obviously doesn’t count.”

Shake my hand, brave soul, because that was ME the first time round! I’ve said this a short while back, I watched Bebop in Japanese first, and then in English, and it was only until the second time I watched it, did I really appreciate it. Does this necessarily mean that Bebop will be amazing once you watch it in English? Or a second time? Well…no, and no. This brings me to several thoughts about Bebop, and why I think that despite people having legitimate opinions on why it is an enduring masterpiece, such opinions should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Firstly, Bebop’s narrative style is not what most people instinctively go snooping around for. Its plot moves along an episodic structure, which immediately turns some people off. Some people simply do not like to take what they can from isolated episodes; they come into anime looking for a giant, cohesive plot that gets slowly built up from the first episode to the last, preferably with tons of suspense in between. Let’s have a think about episodes like Jupiter Jazz and Pierrot le Fou, which give us intriguing side characters, who appear for the episode itself, and then disappear into the imaginary void of retired fictional characters. Not everyone likes to invest themselves emotionally into characters who will never be seen again.

In fact, I admit that I personally find it hard to understand why people adore Julia and Vicious, who (let’s be honest) do not show up for a good two-thirds of the show. I agree that with the limited screen time they have, there’s a very healthy air of mystery built up around them. But at the end of the day, Bebop is ultimately a sequel to their story, a story which we are only given sporadic jigsaw pieces to, sprinkled across selected episodes. We never see the full picture, and if you’re only staying for that, then every other episode could potentially feel like shounen filler.

Second, it is undeniable that Bebop targets a more mature audience. It has very mature themes, which most adolescents (who form a significant bulk of the anime community) simply cannot understand. It doesn’t deal with high school infatuation, it deals with subtle, fleeting moments of attraction towards people who are unexplainably undeserving of it, for one reason or another. It deals with the idea of one’s past, and how it shapes the present. It deals with the feeling of loneliness. Most of these things are explored through music, through metaphors, through references to icons of the 20th century. Every episode title is a homage to famous musical pieces or genres, like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, or Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic. But not everyone has heard Queen or Aerosmith. The occasional Bruce Lee poster in the background, would simply be lost on a younger generation who didn’t grow up watching Bruce Lee films.

What does this all mean? I feel that while there may be a temptation to conclude that Bebop will be less and less appreciated to its fullest extent as the years tick on, at the same time there is absolutely no reason to snub people who can’t appreciate it, simply because they don’t “get it”. Of course, it’s crucial for critics to pass judgment on it in the context of what it aims to achieve; as for the layman looking for an enjoyable time, don’t subject yourself to such pressure. There is no need to watch Aliens just so that you can better understand Toys in the Attic; but if you did, then good for you. For me, I just watched Bebop and had an untainted view of it, then went back and read a couple of reviews, and discovered that it was a lot deeper than I had ever thought.

Third, the one thing I do agree with, is that Bebop has something for everyone. It caters to the introspective, artsy types, by having larger, overarching themes that underlie the entire show. In other words, if you’re the type that likes to pick apart every last metaphor and pun and image, then you’ll have a spanking good time just dissecting Ballad of the Fallen Angels. If you like action, then Spike’s martial arts will have your eyes constantly glued to the screen. Or you may just end up like me, and love Bebop most for its witty dialogue and comedy. (And every episode that focuses on Faye Valentine, because I have an undying love for Faye Valentine.)

What most people praise as Bebop’s diversity, I might actually nitpick as its inconsistency; and this boils down to an issue of viewing method – I don’t think marathoning Bebop is the best way to go. See, you have a brilliantly funny episode like Cowboy Funk, with an egotistical Spike Spiegel doppelganger parading around the screen on a white horse, and before you know it, the next episode is Brain Scratch, a dark story about the illuminati. If you’re hot off laughing yourself silly, you might find this abrupt change of mood very hard to digest, and possibly frustrating. But, you know, if you watch a maximum of two episodes a day, chances are, you come with a fresh mind to each story, and it makes the experience a lot better.

In short, I don’t think anyone should feel expected to “love” Bebop; because at the end of the day, a personal experience is just that – a personal experience. And I don’t think anyone should feel embarrassed about finding it boring, if that’s the truth. Often, I highly suspect that Bebop gets away with attracting criticism, because criticisms directed against it can sound pretty shallow. Say it’s “boring”, and there’ll be fans pointing every last detail about its symbolism, references and epic direction; which somehow justifies why it isn’t boring. That’s fallacious. Feeling “bored” is not an emotion which necessitates much explanation.

Evangelion, on the other hand, is almost like Bebop’s Japanese counterpart, by virtue of its sheer popularity in Japan – but Eva gets a lot of love, as well as a lot of hate. Unlike Bebop, hatred against Eva is very, very easy to justify. Eva gets flak for being pretentious, convoluted, and above all, disappointing. Even as a rabid Eva fan, I don’t see any point in arguing against someone who feels that way. Some Eva fans make the mistake of seeing a need to do just that, which is why you get geniuses who counter forum comments of “Evangelion’s ending is the worst thing ever” with links to www.kanedatetsuo.com, begging haters to read the 78 page essay that explains everything (from a personal standpoint, nice essay, by the way). But seriously, why do that? If someone didn’t understand it while watching, that’s honestly Eva’s fault for not being easy enough for him/her to understand. Reading an essay afterwards that (supposedly) magically clarifies all confusion, does not change the bad experience the viewer had.

One’s personal experience with Bebop should be as honest as possible. So here’s me putting myself out on the line in saying this. Based on my most recent viewing of Bebop, I didn’t love every episode, and Bebop is not my favourite anime – it may not even be in my top 5 list, although definitely in my top 10. I don’t understand a lot of it, mostly because I’m far too young. What I do feel about Bebop, is that every anime fan should be proud of it. It’s more of a “moments” show than anything else, but the moments that shine are just so good that I can come back to them over and over, and still feel mindblown at how incredible the entire few seconds are. It’s the show you point people to, when they say that anime is nothing more than childish cartoons featuring cute girls in frilly dresses. It’s the show you point people to, when they say that they’d rather watch something mature and sophisticated, than watch anime. Will everyone like Bebop? No. Is it my all-time favourite anime? No. Is it the greatest anime ever? Let’s just say that if there ever was one anime that I’d pin down as deserving of that title, Bebop’s not that one. But hey, despite whatever I personally think, I’m pretty glad that Bebop’s generally recognised as one of the greatest anime series of all time. Because in all honesty, I don’t think the anime community could have a better title as its crowning glory.

[Tell me, how can I possibly give this show a rating?]