Thoughts – Blood Blockade Battlefront Episode 6

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[Not spoiler-free]

So far: This week, Leo makes an unexpected friend in the form of a mushroom creature called Nej. Nej loves Jack Rocket cheeseburgers, but dare not step into the humans-only zone of Ghetto Heights, where the only Jack Rocket chain in Jerusalem’s Lot exists. So he gets a pair of human thugs to buy them for him, and hardly minds when they practically double the price of the cheeseburgers for their courier services. Leo, who rightfully finds the whole rip-off ridiculous, starts to buy Nej the cheeseburgers at no extra cost. While their friendship grows, the thugs discover that Nej, when stressed beyond an intolerable level, is capable of releasing spores that cause retrograde amnesia for all those for breathe it in…and that’s when they plot to exploit it for their own gains.

A short post for a short statement – this week, Kekkai Sensen made me cry.

Discrimination happens to all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways. The Jerusalem Lot aliens are not a class of slaves; we saw in the first episode that diplomatic agreements have been forged between their very articulate representatives and the human politicians that run Jerusalem’s Lot. But they’re marginalised in minor ways – kicked and punched by strangers, perceived as immune to pain, denied entry to the “humans-only” zone for fear that their slobbering Neanderthal ways would lower the quality of brands like Jack Rocket.

But empathy and non-discrimination isn’t a new thing in literature, either. Outside of anime, I have a deep and relentless love for anything by Orson Scott Card, who is most famous for writing the novel Ender’s Game. Ender’s Game in itself is a great story about rethinking aliens; its follow up novel Speaker for the Dead takes this concept to a whole new level. I even mentioned Ender’s Game before in my Gargantia review, another lovely anime series that again brings up the whole idea of aliens as equally worthy of love and respect as the next human. So no, the anti-discrimination message in this episode of Kekkai Sensen was not new. But it still made me bawl. Why, Matsumoto, why…

This week, the “why” is in the direction. All of it. I guess you can call me lazy for not spelling out what’s so good about it, but that’s because you probably should watch the episode for yourself, if you haven’t already. The framing of the “Don’t Forget Me” poster, the sequences of Leo and Nej eating burgers and the accompanying soundtrack, the recurring appearance of the Johnny Rocket wrapper, and the final explosion of red in the city…this week I’m convinced once again that great friendships can be conveyed with minimal words…and great direction. Despite the painful gore and brutality that I’ll have to sit through, I think I’ve found my new Ballad of Fallen Angels – ie, that one standalone episode that’s worth the re-watch on its own. Well done, Kekkai Sensen…what an unexpected surprise!

P.S. I feel distraught that we’ll probably never see Nej again. I love him so much.

Thoughts – The Heroic Legend of Arslan Episode 6

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[Not spoiler-free]

So far: The chants from the Lusitanians reach the Parsian slaves, who rebelliously attempt to open the Ecbatana gates before they are quelled by Marzban Garshasph, another King Adragoras might-is-right archetype. Sensing real danger, Queen Tamahenay escapes from Ecbatana by diverting attention with a doppelganger, whom Gieves is paid to escort out the city through the sewers. But these same sewers are used as infiltration points by Kharlan and Silvermask, who kill the Queen’s doppelganger and began a full scale invasion of the city. Arslan and Co make plans to leave the safety of their cave, and head to Ecbatana.

This was the best episode of Arslan Senki to date.

It was lying dormant for the past few weeks, potentially snuffed out by time constraints and Arakawa’s revision, but this episode, we finally start to see the true strength of Tanaka’s writing. He has a way of presenting competing ideologies in both their strengths and weaknesses, so you’re never committed to any one view of things – it’s never really what you believe in, but how you carry it out. The Lusitanians present an attractive idea of egalitarianism, but their barbaric methods and sadistic threats of “convert or be decapitated” are far from enlightening. And the Parsians are definitely archaic from a modern point of view, seeing how most modern states did away with slavery quite some time ago. But let’s not be too eager to blinker ourselves to the “slavery is bad because it’s slavery” message, since if so, there’s nothing more for Arslan to teach us.

The conversations between Sam and Garshasph and Queen Tamahenay were outstanding. As Karl Marx says, history is one of class struggle. It’s no different today (as some very *recent* elections *ahem* might suggest), but the only difference between the slaves of yesterday and the working class of today, is that slavery is now illegal and being poor is not (broadly, broadly speaking). Parsians of history believed that people could be property, and of course we don’t believe that anymore, but people are still slaves to circumstances – going hungry when there are no jobs, driven mad by high property prices etc. My point is, the struggle today is as real as ever, and Marx warns that the working class will soon discover that this mode of capitalism is unbeneficial to them, and they will stage a revolt.

And as Arslan shows us, that’s exactly what you get when you attempt to keep things status quo for too long. When foreign ideas start to seep in and the notion of power and equlity becomes a realistic prospective, anarchy breaks lose. And so as to prevent said anarchical descent, “Andragoras should have freed the slaves.” Yes, Narsus, we get it. But now it’s clear that it wasn’t entirely a moral idea; it was a pragmatic one, too – Narsus predicted that the very existence of the Lusitanian thinking was a threat to the ignorance of the Parsian slaves.

If there’s one thing that Arslan makes painfully clear time and time again, it’s that the intelligent will be the ones to survive. This is one big game of wits and smarts, with meatheads like Andragoras painfully losing out in the preliminary rounds of the tournament, and pretty boys like Narsus and Gieves taking home the gold. Masters can’t afford to rule by force – for if they do, their slaves will come to harbour nothing but resentment against them; and slaves can’t afford to be dim-witted, or they end up being exploited by their self-interested rulers. The good thing is that being smart has a lot to do with being good – so if you work towards being both at the same time, it’s a huge bonus. Narsus is one such guy; being a gifted strategist but a forward-looking humanitarian at the same time. That’s why Elam chose to stay on with him – loyalty and subservience isn’t a bad thing at all, people simply want to give it to others out of their free will. Arslan’s fortunate to be in the company of such people…he’s a good kid, but he could do with more brains, so more chess games with Narsus are in order.

Seeing how nicely Arslan is moving along, there’s just one gripe I have at this point, and it stems from yet another unnecessary but self-indulgent comparison with Gineiden (here we go). I wish we could have more emotional investment in characters from the Lusitanian side. So far, we have Silvermask and Kharlan, both of whom are as treacherous and barbaric as their armies. There was that kid from the first episode, but he only shows up as a still shot in the EP, so I don’t expect much for now. It’s easy for the Lusitanians to chant equality at the Parsian gates, but it’s harder to feel for their stakes when it’s all just copied and pasted faces screaming murder through chainmail armour. We have enough characters from the Parsian side, but I’m not even sure that all of them are fully committed to any particular ideology of rule, whether it be Parsian or Lustianian or a mix of the two. All we have is Narsus cryptically going “Andragoras should have freed the slaves,” and Arslan getting on Elam’s nerves about slavery.

Like I said last week, Arslan 2015 beats out the OVAs in making us invested in the characters, but you know what Gineiden did? Making us invested in both the characters and what they were fighting for. And believe you me, characters in Gineiden could be equally righteous, despite fighting for the exact opposite things. So, more ideological debates, please. Nevertheless, I still call this the best episode of Arslan Senki thus far – and seeing how this show keeps improving with each week, it’s a very good sign.

Thoughts – Plastic Memories Episode 6

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[Not spoiler-free]

So far: It turns out that last week, Tsukasa pulled the trigger on Marcia and destroyed her. And Isla, who was partially caught in the cross-fire, now undergoes maintenance – although she is otherwise fine. While recovering from the tragic events of the fiasco, Tsukasa visits Souta and tries to make amends, while Isla starts to observe Tsukasa and realises that he’s “always smiling”. Her preoccupation with Tsukasa prompts Michiru and Eru to help her on her quest to discover more about him as a potential, um, partner. Not of the work sort. And Kazuki talks to Tsukasa about Isla’s shortening lifespan of one thousand hours, and he firmly rejects the offer to find a new partner (of the working sort), declaring that there can be none other than Isla for him.

Run for your lives, the nightmare of episode three has returned!

I kid, it didn’t reach the same levels of cringe-worthy that Tsukasa flashing his solid six pack managed to achieve – but that was for two reasons; one, it’s Isla doing the flirting this time, and anime regularly makes their females humiliate themselves with blushing, so it wasn’t all that abnormal. (Yuki Nagato’s already taking home the gold for that this season.) Oh, and two, Isla flirted by proxy, so if anyone’s leaving a bad impression on us it’s Eru, and she’s a side character – most of whom are used for the raunchy jokes.

Anyway, this was a pure Isla-Tsukasa episode, with the basic premise being: how can someone manage to smile all the time, despite bad things that have happened? In other words, help me, why is Tsukasa such perfect boyfriend material? In a way, the writer seems to be making every conscious effort to redeem what standing Tsukasa lost in the midst of courting a girl who previously had him in the friendzone. In this episode, not only is he sensitive and kind; he’s honest and accountable towards a client whom he failed, he’s dedicatedly staying up just to keep a comatose Isla company, and he says no to alcohol and peer pressure. It’s amazing, really. Plus that whole scene with Kazuki…man.

Oh, and speaking of Kazuki – this week we see flashbacks of her past working relationship with Isla, and it’s confirmed again that they genuinely did share happier memories, until something went wrong…and it’s definitely because of that whole episode with Michiru’s dad. We also learn that Tsukasa’s family friend was the one behind the R-Security intervention, once more suggesting that SIA management doesn’t have clean hands. Any other side characters that got their screen time? Oh yeah…Yasutaka was in the episode. It was much anticipated.

I can well see myself bashing on this episode for its complete change of tone from the last one, or the troll cliff-hanger from last week’s what happened to Isla that became oh she’s fine within a matter of seconds, or simply for the jokes which really weren’t funny (maybe except the post-credits gag). But it’s hard, because I’m honestly in this for the romance. And no matter how forced, how cheesy, how unoriginal it can be at times – it’s still entertaining to watch. Shows like Plastic Memories work because you’ve already accepted that they can’t be anything more than mediocre. Which isn’t a bad thing, right?

Thoughts – My Love Story!! Episode 5

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[Not spoiler-free]

So far: Takeo and Rinko are still navigating the awkward first stages of their relationship, where each person has different desires and assumptions about where the barriers of physical intimacy should lie. Meanwhile, Suna’s older sister shows up, and indirectly declares herself as Rinko’s official love rival, as she sets out to investigate the dynamics of the new couple, and to dig up any secrets that Takeo’s new girlfriend might be hiding.

I feel horrible saying this, but I’m getting a tad concerned for this show.

Yes, a lot of it is to do with the fact that they’re regressing back into park dates. But it’s more than that. It’s taken me five episodes to realise that things have the potential to go seriously wrong…so before anything bad happens, let’s just act fatalistic and point out all the problems, so that we’re prepared for the worst. Ready? Okay, here goes.

Right, so let’s assume that everything was fine and dandy at the end of episode three, where our lovable couple got together. Amidst the blushes and giggles and awkward misunderstandings, we’re still melting because aww, this is the honeymoon phase of their relationship. Couple selfies and emoticons; go figure. Up until episode three, there was a consistent focus on the main trio – who are all equally likeable in their own ways. Then there came episode four, which showed us just how special and not-superficial Rinko is, as well as how selfless and pure Takeo is. And now, episode five, where the love rival is introduced.

One thing about episode four and five, is the way in which the conflicts are introduced – by using characters who are terribly, terribly unlikeable. Polar opposites from our main cast, if you will. Rinko’s friends were absolute pricks, and now, Ai’s just stirring trouble with her rather mean suggestions that Rinko’s being unfaithful. So what if it might be true? Girl, you really didn’t have to say that out loud. Not to Takeo. Not even to Makoto. Already, despite whatever good intentions Ai might have, she is most certainly not leaving a good impression on the audience – and based on this episode alone, she’s out of the viewer’s running for becoming a real rival.

Now, what’s the issue here? On a surface level, it’s a little miffing to think that there’s such a huge gulf between the “nice” characters and the “not nice” ones. It’s almost like the inadequacies of the latter group are there to bolster the likability of the former, and the virtues of the former group are there to put the latter group in an even worse light. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t believe that this was the only way that the story could have done it. In fact, it seems to me to be a rather lazy way of writing characters so as to evoke the right responses. But I can turn a blind eye to a problem like that, because hey, it’s actually pretty traditional to do it this way in a romance. You wouldn’t want your audience to accidentally get attached to the third party instead, now would you?

But here’s the even bigger problem. Episode four was almost like one big test for Rinko – will the words of her friends taint her and bring her down to their superficial level? And episode five challenges Takeo in a similar way – will he begin to doubt the integrity of his girlfriend? Now, we’ve ended episode five with a neat mystery – so, what is Rinko fretting about? Is it the fact that Takeo won’t kiss her, or could it actually be that Ai is right, and that Rinko is not as innocent as she looks?

So…the question is. What if it’s the latter?

Take two steps back…what if, in episode four, Rinko had remained silent when her friends teased Takeo? That she’d showed signs of considering him to be admittedly, um, unconventional, as a boyfriend? What if Takeo had doubts about rescuing the girls who had made fun of him? Or, in this episode, what if Takeo had taken Ai seriously?

Answering any of the above potentially invokes a disappointment for the audience – a response of “NOOOOO, he’s starting to shows FLAWS.” And, in the context of Rinko, who is particularly vulnerable here, “NOOOOO, she’s starting to look just like ANY OTHER GIRL IN THIS SHOW.” So far, awkwardness and misunderstandings aside, Takeo and Rinko are not letting up with any one of the more irritating problems that all the other side characters (who, note, are all female…) seem to possess. And that’s the issue I have. There is such a wide gulf between the two categories of characters, anytime they interact, it’s almost like Takeo and Rinko are being dared to stoop to their level.

But why should My Love Story!! worry about this? There’s really nothing wrong with allowing their main characters to be unlikeable…or, in other words, to be real. To be selfish and untrusting, to be prideful and to hurt others. But the bar seems set far too high at this stage – they’ve all already proven just how alien the world of the selfish, gossipy side characters seems to them, and the higher the climb, the harder the fall. What we’re potentially left with, is a show that can’t let its virtuous characters fail too badly – and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Now, if characters like Ai weren’t in the picture; that would be all well and fine – because My Love Story!! would simply be a cute, innocent show – which could break out of that mould if it so wished. But she is here to stay, and all that brings about is a perpetual challenge for Takeo and Rinko to resist her evil influence.

Like I said, this is just me preparing for the worst. It’s made me realise just how important Suna is – the glimmering hope in an increasing cast of easily detestable characters; the guy who’s the last bit of proof that you can have supporting characters who don’t need to be horrible in order to show how the main characters are not. And that concludes my very long, pessimistic rant on my worst fears for My Love Story!!. Someone, ANYONE, return Ai to the closet of retired side characters as soon as possible…

Thoughts – Sound! Euphonium Episode 5

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[Not spoiler-free]

So far: In this week’s episode, we witnessed the Kitauji band train their way through a hurdle of marching exercises under the scorching heat, all for the sake of proving themselves at the SunFes!

Euphonium: its plot is predictable; its level of external drama kept firmly reined in. It’s deliciously boring.

Now, I’ve been saying this for four weeks straight now, but this fifth episode has given me all the more reason to say it once again – this is a really good show. Or let’s put it in a new way: this is a really good exercise of looking into the head of a typical teenage high schooler and her daily life at school. Watching Euphonium each week makes me feel like I’m watching an episode of The Truman Show. It’s every little detail of high school life, high school friendships, high school frustrations, distilled into 24 minute episodes. At this rate, the only unrealistic things about Euphonium are the proportions of all the band members. Remember that I lived on the music group corridor for four years, I would know – neither choir nor band attracts girls and guys who look like their 2D incarnations would sell figurines.

Okay, so this is the episode where Kitauji takes a step out of the confines of their school grounds. But before they do that, they’re stuck practicing marches in the sun. Again, it’s relaxing to just sit back and observe all the details that the writer has been able to capture – the bothersome nature of working under the hot sun, the fastidiousness of measuring the lengths of one’s own steps, the careful stages in which the juniors learn to march, the nitty-gritties of transporting instruments, returning seniors being taken care of (it’s all real, trust me). There’s also much to be said about the dynamics of leadership qualities and personalities. The feisty, charismatic Asuka was a popular favourite for the role of President, but she chose to decline it…why? That’s life, I guess, we don’t necessarily jump at the chance of doing things that we appear to be good at.

Then there’s the SunFes itself! It’s nice to have a short glimpse of Kitauji’s competition, who, thankfully, aren’t the exaggeratedly mean rivals that typically get introduced in dramatic fashion. No gossiping, no slamming, just normal school bands with a long-ingrained culture of diligence. And still, there’s a hushed, palpable anxiety that arises within Kitauji prior to their performance; the all-too-familiar kind of nerves that strikes at every group who is accustomed to seeing themselves as the underdogs. Their victory is an appropriately minor but important one – a good performance sparks the beginning of recognition from the general public. The climb to greater heights is nicely paced.

As one might tell, I’m normally forgiving of shows with poor visuals but strong substance, and absurdly mean towards shows with excellent visuals but content that rubs me the wrong way (cough, 5 Centimetres). But with Euphonium, having KyoAni as the studio in charge of animation seems to be doing everything to make it five times better than it already is. I must admit, the KyoAni staff know how to animate human movements – they have a keen eye for realistic hand gestures and facial expressions. That’s why watching Euphonium is like enjoying a re-submersion into reality, albeit in a 2D medium…if you get my drift. It’s so deliciously serene and calming…which I why I stayed. Of course, for everyone else on whom its realism is completely lost, KyoAni still offers you this.

Reina

Thoughts – Blood Blockade Battlefront Episode 5

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[Not spoiler-free]

So far: Leo’s pseudo-girlfriend White is giving him the cold shoulder, and he can’t figure out why. Meanwhile, a crazy pink haired girl going by the name of Aligura the “Queen of Monomania”, is wreaking havoc in the city – because she wants to get her beloved boyfriend out of prison. And get this, her wonderful boyfriend Deldro Brody wasn’t good-looking enough for her, so she churned him up and fused him with a hottie extraordinaire called Doug Hammer! Libra gets Doug/Deldro on the job to stop her…while Aligura kidnaps Leo and tries to teach him a thing or two about love.

Okay I have to admit that this was the first Kekkai Sensen episode I genuinely, genuinely felt a real connection to. There was so much in it that appealed to me! The jokes were laugh out loud funny, like the one where Leo coughs violently as a sign of protest, or the Heinz ketchup sequence that plays as Aligura delivers her blood-curling explanation of what she did to Deldro.

And boy, do I love Aligura. It’s rare that I like cute characters, but when I do, they really do need to be as charming as Nia Teppelin from Gurren Lagann (whom, by the way, I can listen and look at all day long). Aligura’s adorable voice grabbed me from the moment she first appeared on screen, and her little tirade with Leo, although admittedly nonsensical and irrational (someone explain why she’s so preoccupied with him?), was nevertheless fun to watch. As usual, my fear for this show will be that a character like Aligura won’t show up again for the next few episodes…but ah wells, we got what we got this time round, and it’s deeply appreciated.

And my favourite girl White came back! We now know that she’s not a ghost, unless the doctor she was talking to is one himself…but, unlikely. Her development with Leo is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been waiting to see for a long time from this show, and the way the entirely movie date was delivered, from the journey on his bike right to the end cut with the flowers in the foreground, was absolutely superb. There’s something mysteriously attractive about White, and as the show introduces more of her unknown relationship with the other two blond boys, it’s all slowly building up to something great…I can feel it. But for now, I guess this was a purely sweet episode in terms of pushing Leo’s courage, and her reciprocal vulnerability. There’s a connection between the two that just works.

As for Doug/Deldro, thinking about how they came to be already weirds me out enough, so I’ll just leave it there. Poor Aligura, though. Yanderes never have it good. Nevertheless, insane as she may be, here’s hoping that we get more of her in the upcoming episodes…and judging from the ED, it’s nice to think that she’ll be dragging Femt back into the spotlight while she’s at it.

Thoughts – The Heroic Legend of Arslan Episode 5

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[Not spoiler-free]

So far: Arslan and co have retreated to the caves, and all they can really do there is predict the developments of the ongoing siege by the Lusitanians against the capital of Pars, Ecbatana. In barbaric, sadistic fashion, a Lusitanian priest parades a Parsian captive, Captain Shapur, outside the Ecbatana walls – and threatens to inflict grievous torture on him as penance for his refusal to worship their Lusitanian deity…whose name I won’t even try spell. But Shapur is spared the pain when a skilled archer, the travelling musician cum professional conman, Gieves, brings his life to an end. In a bid to force the gates of Ecbatana open, the Lusitanian army appeals to all slaves within the walls to rebel against their masters.

We have a new character again! His name is Gieves, and he spouts the most flowery romantic nonsense I have heard in a long while…but don’t mind if I take some notes from him. Ahem. He’s probably going to join Team Arslan at some point down the road, and it would be interesting to see how and why, since it’s likely to involve some chance encounter and immediate (or not) chemistry with the other members.

Gieves aside, this week we’re back to ideology and strategy, and what better way to play that out than with a full-fledged invasion of the capital city! I must confess that at this point, I’ve already watched a bit of the old Arslan OVAs, and because the Shapur scene was done really, really well in the OVAs…watching the modern version admittedly did feel a bit “eh.” Somehow, Arslan 2015 doesn’t pull off the serious stuff well. In the old OVAs, Shapur’s torture was presented in a series of silhouettes, that stood out because of the stark black and white contrasts. It’s not that it’s badly done now, but it sure doesn’t match up to the creativity and intensity of the old OVAs, and that’s a shame. Also, I can’t take the armies seriously when all the soldiers have the same face with the round eyes and flat noses.

So, presentation aside, what did I think of the content? I guess it’s interesting to see how a group of people can believe so much in equality, yet become utterly barbaric against their enemies for reasons pertaining to religion. Of course, the idea of equality and the freedom of conscience are, technically speaking, two very separate things…but to develop a capacity for one and completely ignore the other, is a little unrealistic to me, though granted, that’s probably because the Lusitanians believe in their religion above all, and “equality” is but a rule to follow (maybe?). I’m also intrigued as to how a whole army managed to yell out a coherent message over the walls. Because if you’ve ever heard crowd cheers, however well-coordinated, I’m sure you’ll know that it’s ridiculously hard to discern anything remotely comprehensible from the cacophony of voices.

What I’m trying to say is, episode 5 of Arslan is doing exactly what I want it to be doing…it’s building the core characters, developing ideological conflicts, and using battle strategies as part of the overall fun. But it can afford to push itself further, that’s for sure. Just needs to be a little more convincing at times. Ah wells…it’s still a fun watch!

Oh, and P.S., I still think Arslan 2015 is better than the OVAs…not because of the direction (which the OVAs do much better), but because Arslan 2015 creates a better connection with its characters, especially ones like Prince Arslan. So stick around with this one for the time being.