Tuesday, 21 March 2017

King of the Hill: season 6

While it continues to be strong, season 6 shows Kingof the Hill just starting to run out of ideas. Some held in reserve are at last dealt with, like a Boomhauer episode fleshing him out to finally give him another dimension, and Dale deciding Joseph isn’t his biological son – though of course assumes he’s half-alien.

Strong new characters include Dale’s father, who forces the gang to contemplate homosexuality – which they do in typically childish but thankfully non-vicious fashion – and a silly turn for Alan Rickman as a king at a renaissance faire. The Rickman episode is about as absurd as King of the Hill should ever get, still being in the realms of the feasible, where going to Japan to discover Hank has a half-brother, Luanne being suckered into joining a cult, Bill stealing an army tank for a drunken rampage and Hank being honoured as the token white guy in an Asian golfing country club all go a bit too far. Peggy, previously the believably self-centred yet insecure centre of the funniest episodes, has some episodes where her self-regard goes a bit ridiculous. I can accept her accidentally taking home a Mexican child, but pretending to be a nun or taking Hank to a nudist colony was just bizarre.

Some episodes stretched too far at the end, like Hank extinguishing the Olympic torch in front of news cameras but them accepting it being relit by a cigarette on Bobby’s testimony, or Peggy falling for a scam but putting together a double-bluff at the end that goes perfectly.

Bobby and Connie are probably the most believable and relatable part of the series at this stage. I still want to watch more, but the show is losing its natural edge. I hope the next season is a bit more down-to-earth, but it will need some fresh ideas. 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

ユーリ!!! on ICE / Yuri!!! on Ice

Perhaps last year’s biggest anime, there was no getting away from Yuri!!! on Ice hype, especially if you have a predilection for this kind of homoerotic, overly passionate sports anime, as I do – for whatever reason. As moé fizzles out and straight male anime fans begin to tire of idol shows, this style of female-targeted anime only grows in prominence.

Certainly, homoerotic sports and games shows are nothing new. Prince of Tennis had many of the same tropes, and the underlying passionate rivalry is what made me love Hikaru no Go so much. Haikyuu!! is incredibly popular just now, and with a long list of basketball, soccer, cycling and imaginary card game-based manga and anime provide more and more fodder for the ladies of Ikebukuro Animate. Arguably, Free! brought the subgenre more to the fore, mixing atypically good art with homosexual overtones. So the path was clear for an anime like Yuri!!! on Ice.

The choice of figure skating was no surprise. Japan has for a few years now been giving a lot of attention to Hanyuu Yuzuru, a slim, pretty-faced young figure skater who won gold in Sochi. He won hearts with his optimistic attitude and love of Winnie the Pooh, and has since gone down the usual ‘talent’ road with photo books and acting appearances. While it would be a bit much to say he’s single-handedly responsible for the current prominence of figure skating over here, he’s certainly a central figure. Thus the choice of skating for last season’s homoerotic sports anime came as no surprise.

Indeed, the main problem here is that nothing was a surprise. There was a sense that this was a groundbreaking show in some way – for example, there was some fuss over a moment that was maybe-or-maybe-not a kiss. And then the main pairing exchanged rings that could have been a platonic symbol or could echo engagement. They bathed together, lived together and often drove one another to tears. And I guess there were a lot of people in the audience thinking boundaries were being pushed for a mainstream anime. After all, Free! never went this far. But for me, I kept thinking of No.6 and how much more realistically and respectfully it portrayed a gay relationship in an relatively mainstream Noitamina anime.

Not that the anime needed to be groundbreaking to be enjoyable. With good characters, compelling pacing and interesting relationships, it could have been great fun. The problem was that for me, I didn’t connect with any of the characters, find them realistic or likeable. The main character, Yuri, struck me as self-pitying, judgemental, unkind and ungrateful, which was bad since he was meant to be the heart and soul of the piece. His enigmatic mentor and love interest, Victor, did what he was meant to do, being an impetuous, compelling, often bizarre selfish genius type – he was what he was meant to be, but that doesn’t mean I like that kind of character type. Then there was the other Yuri, young Russian Yuri Plisetsky, who is a skinny, feminine, totally beautiful 15-year-old Russian boy. His appearance is cute but his personality is harsh and cruel, and though his tsundere side occasionally makes him more sympathetic, he was still a totally unlikeable brat. Most of the other characters are the kind of total oddballs that often populate sports anime, though mostly a little too exaggerated for the overall tone.

The only characters I actually liked were Phichit from Thailand, who strove to please others and whose main fault was just being dull, and Kenjirou, a chirpy younger skater who idolises Yuri, does the cutest skate of the series and then gets relegated to the cheering division for the remaining episodes.

In technical terms, the anime had some nice fluid skating animation, but often looked scrappy or made bizarre decisions in terms of camera distortion, especially when it came to Swiss Christophe’s ‘sex appeal’ skates. I can’t say I felt strongly impressed by the skating animation, and it often looked awkwardly rotoscoped.

Certainly the show was light and often funny, and some of the cross-cultural observation was insightful, and I’ll probably watch a continuation if and when it appears, but overall I have to say I felt Yuri!!! on Ice was mediocre even in the fujoshi-bait world of homoerotic sports anime. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

夏目友人帳 伍 / Natsume Yuujincho Go

Quietly, without causing many ripples and certainly without grabbing the attention of the Western anime scene, Natsume Yuujincho has become one of the most important and successful animes of the decade. Last time I was in Animate, Ikebukuro, the café was themed for the show. I probably see Nyanko-sensei charms hanging from young people’s bags more than the mascots of any other show – though it’s possible some were bought without actually knowing the character, just as a cute cat. But the anime keeps getting renewed, almost to the point of being a long-runner. The fifth season ended a few weeks back, and the sixth is already announced for April. It’s also one of the very few shouji titles where there are plenty of figurines available – usually it’s only the extremely homoerotic shows like Free! and Kuroshitsuji that get figures.

I have no complaints. I really enjoy this show. It was more of the same, with a few more kernels of information about the wider society of exorcists and a bit of backstory for Natsume’s adoptive parents, and some kind of season finale rather than a slow ‘Natsume gets sick and the ayakashi contemplate how ephemeral human life is’ episode would have been nice. I was also a little sad the whole season went by without an episode with the Little Fox, the show’s most adorable character, but Natsume himself had plenty of adorable moments.

Perhaps the cutest episode centred on a little girl youkai searching for a man who was kind to her fifty years earlier, another iteration of the show’s recurring theme of time seeming different for beings who exist for millennia. There are also several funny and memorable youkai this time, from a funny babyish giant bird to little rabbit-type spirits and a funny stubborn mushroom with big dreams. One nice episode focuses on a youkai trying to blend into normal human society, though of course it’s never quite possible.

The pace remains slow and the show always subtly celebrates a traditional, unhurried, community-based Japanese lifestyle, which really helps give a feeling of softness and warmth to everything. Natsume himself is certainly a feeble and unthreatening protagonist, but it’s hard to dislike him. If anything, he makes people want to look after him.

Slow, soft, enjoyable but sometimes hilarious, Natsume Yuujincho is a show I’ll watch as long as they keep making it. 

Friday, 17 February 2017

星を追う子ども/ Hoshi-o Ou Kodomo / Children who Chase Stars / Journey to Agartha

I mentioned in my thoughts about Bakemono no Ko that Shinkai Makoto has seemingly become the ‘New Miyazaki’ with his smash hit, Kimi no Na Wa. It also came as a surprise to me, given that his other films have been rather oblique, artsy and inaccessible. I didn’t get on with Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place, and Voices of Stars was more of a technical achievement than a truly impressive piece of filmmaking. I’ve still yet to watch 5cm Per Second, but given it’s a short film in three distinct parts, it’s hardly a mainstream movie, and nor is the 46-minute Garden of Words.

So really, it’s this film, Hoshi-o Ou Kodomo, which bridges the peculiar gap between Shinkai being a quirky outsider auteur in the same vein as Yuasa Masaaki and all of a sudden being the new mainstream darling after Kimi no Na Wa. And I have to say, it makes perfect sense. I don’t think this is a particularly good movie, nor is it essential anime viewing, but as a milestone in a director’s career it is highly significant. Essentially, this is Shinkai’s devotional tribute to Ghibli, especially classic Ghibli. It’s almost a flat derivation of the studio’s art style, tropes, callsigns and character types.
Like most imitative works, it’s a little soulless and insubstantial. I really doubt it will go down in history as well-loved. The characters never really fully develop and the world is not clearly-defined. But it certainly has its moments of beauty.

Young Asuna uses a crystal radio given to her by her late father to listen to strange music. Little does she know the crystal inside will link her to a new world. A boy from the mysterious land of Agartha saves her one day from a strange monster, and soon she is drawn into a hidden world of magic, otherworldly creatures and rumours of the resurrection of the dead.

The echoes of Ghibli movies are very clear and direct. The Quetzalcoatls are halfway between the robots of Laputa and the night walker of Mononoke-Hime. Shin slashes his hair like Ashitaka and clings to Asuna as they fall like Pazu. Morisaki-sensei has a good deal of Muska about him, while Shun smiles a lot like Howl. The Izoku share qualities with various creatures from Mononoke-Hime, while Mimi the cat-creature and Nausicaa’s Teto are far from dissimilar.

Shinkai aims for an epic feeling, and with Asuna seems to be going for the cute, spunky female lead of classic Ghibli. The problem is a lack of human feeling. We see Asuna is plucky, vulnerable and good-hearted, but very little unique or really identifiable about her. Shin is introduced late and has some heroic moments as well as looking cool, and has one brief but sweet moment of vulnerability, but we learn very little about him. Shun’s motives are a mystery right to the end. And Morisaki-sensei is basically two-dimensional. I’ll always remember how the climactic sword-fight Shin has to really get centre-stage is to some random goon who still manages to put the poor kid down completely.

There’s very little driving the quest beyond Morisaki’s determination, but the dilemma at the end happens without enough build-up and seems like a problem tacked on at the end to give a strong climax. Too much of the invented world is murky pools and sheer cliffs, so the movie rather lacks in wonder. And the tugging-at-the-heartstrings moment mostly feel too manufactured and obvious to actually affect the viewer.

Certainly, this is a beautiful, well-made and polished movie, but it’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of ideas derived directly from the Ghibli storybook. But I earnestly think that Shinkai had to try his hand at this style of movie before turning to the more everyday and relatable – paving the way for Kimi no Na Wa. Undeniably, Shinkai has come a long way from She and Her Cat.

King of the Hill season 5

Most of my reviews of King of the Hill seasons point out that while the show was designed to be played in any order, there were a lot of continuous storylines and character arcs that transcend the purely episodic.

Season 5 seems to cement that, with lasting developments in the subplot of Nancy Gribble’s affair with John Redcorn, and their son very abruptly and very noticeably growing up and hitting the awkward stage of puberty – while quirky Bobby Hill is left behind.

While this season has some of the highlights of the run, with great episodes centred on Hank’s feelings for his dog (and his truck), interesting examinations of attitudes to sexuality in conservative America and Cotton actually showing some humanity by working demeaning jobs to support his new child, there are also some of the biggest misses so far. Cotton’s scheme to assassinate Castro reminded me of when The Simpsons changed Mr. Burns from a cruel, rich boss to a monster who would gleefully murder a child, and was a step or two beyond what King of the Hill ought to be. An episode centred on a prostitute had some very fun moments but was a bit too far-fetched for the tone of the show. The same could be said of when Bobby becomes a ventriloquist. There’s also a bit too much foregrounding of guest voice actors, which gets jarring.

But the show remains consistently funny, clever and smart, with Peggy and Luanne increasingly becoming the funniest characters. Dale and Bill get some highlight episodes and the show continues to have fun skewering both leftist and rightist thought.

Well worth continuing with. 

Monday, 23 January 2017

King of the Hill season 4

Though there are episodic elements to King of the Hill and just about any episode can be watched in any order (though even in order, Luanne’s hair regrowth was a bit random), this season made it clear that there are larger, overarching story arcs to be followed. In particular, the final episodes set up a change in the relationship between the Gribbles and John Redcorn. Dale will probably always be oblivious to the affair going on, but it’s taking its toll on Nancy and John. John Redcorn. They never just say ‘John’, haha.

There are also big development moments for Bobby in his relationship with Connie from next door. Watching the show in any order would see some strange jumps in their feelings for one another, and it’s a well-judged puppy love relationship.

But the most interesting thing about this season is that it seems like there’s a shift similar to The Simpsons' change in focus from Bart to Homer. They play out most of their good ideas for their main character early, and some secondary characters seem to take over for the best episodes. In this case, it’s Peggy, whose self-regard, low abilities and perfectionism make for a very amusing character to deflate.

All in all, King of the Hill remains a very clever and enjoyable show at this stage, and well worth continuing with. 

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

There was quite a lot of marketing for The Secret Life of Pets in Japan, and I was tempted to go, but ultimately it wasn’t a must-see, so I let it pass me by. It wasn’t even a priority film to watch on the plane – it only made it to my return journey! Still, it was a fun, simple animated movie that followed a formula and had some entertaining moments.

The plot is more or less Toy Story with pets. When the owners are out, the pets will have fun gatherings and parties. Chubby-faced Jack Russell terrier Max loves his owner very much, though. When a big, tough, brash new dog arrives on the scene, he’s very jealous. That jealousy leads to the two getting lost together, having a lot of scrapes, meeting a lot of rejected pets and ultimately learning to love one another. Yes, the parallels to Toy Story are hard to miss.

Otherwise, it hangs on its characters. Silly fluffy pom Gidget comes close to carrying the movie, by turns adorable, insane and hilarious, but the central duo are mostly on the dull side, the comedy tough-guy rabbit is an overdone joke by this stage and the funny old Pops was an enjoyable character but very one-note.

The film stays entertaining but never tugs at the heartstrings or evokes more than a small chuckle. Bland, derivative and thoroughly mediocre, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a refreshing, inoffensive watch.