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. 

Monday, 26 December 2016

バケモノの子 / Bakemono no Ko / The Monster’s Child / The Boy and the Beast

Kimi no Na Wa has changed a lot of things in the anime scene. Until it took Shinkai Makoto to his new elevated place as the perceived successor to Miyazaki Hayao, it was Mamoru Hosoda who looked to be able to take that title, and indeed remains in my view the more established and consistent of the two.

And while not the smash hit of Kimi no Na Wa, this movie made a big stir in Japan. It was well-marketed and well-received, with strong box office figures and positive critical response. It also seemed like my sort of movie, a coming-of-age tale about an acerbic young lad taken in by a monster to train in martial arts.

Yet it didn’t have the resonance that Kimi no Na Wa is enjoying, nor was it a breakthrough. Anime fans enjoyed it, but it didn’t go much beyond that. And having seen it now, I think that’s appropriate. There’s a lot here that works very well, a lot of heart and a lot of imagination, but it falls well short of Summer Wars and remains too distant and too by-the-numbers to inspire love from a wider audience.

The story is simple – little 9-year-old Ren runs away from home after his mother’s death. His father is missing and he dislikes his guardians, so becomes homeless. Fortunately for him, he’s spotted by Kumatetsu, a powerful but irresponsible beast creature, and taken in on a whim as a disciple. Taken in as a lonely human in a world of beasts, with a monkey and pig advising him and giving something of an echo of Journey to the West, Ren is given the new name Kyuuta and eventually becomes formidable. Unsurprisingly, he’s not the only one with a similar background, though, and might have to confront the darkness in the hearts of others.

The core of the movie, the squabbling, eventual respect and finally strong bond between Kumatetsu and Ren, works very well. They argue, come to understand one another, and finally rely on each other to be complete. Unfortunately, the rest of the story hung around this core doesn’t cohere nearly so well. The love story is tepid and slow, Kumatetsu’s rival doesn’t get the development he needs and the antagonist is much too remote and peripheral to carry a meaningful climax to the story. There’s also no big pay-off here: it essentially feels like Ren ends up turning his back on everything that makes him who he is, and there was way more scope for examining how he could find a unique place in the human world afterwards.

Ultimately, unlike Summer Wars or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and even more so than Wolf Children, the film doesn’t manage to clearly stamp its identity throughout its running time, and thus falls short of hitting hard and being truly memorable. If he wants his Studio Chizu to be a new powerhouse, Hosoda is going to have to up his game – especially with Shinkai now a few steps ahead.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

ハイキュー!! / Haikyuu!! Season 3

Given how much can be covered in an entire series of an anime, it feels almost redundant to write about 10 episodes of a sports anime covering just one volleyball game. The previous seasons have been 25 episodes, so this felt more like a series of specials than a full season. However, following the underdogs as they go up against the formidable Shiratorizawa was certainly fun.

Tragedy hit the series as Tanaka Kazunari, voice actor for coach Ukai, passed away during the production of this season. He delivered some fantastic final lines and his replacement of course doesn’t sound quite as he should, and it’s a poignant note to remember this production by.

This season is focused on the single game, but succeeds very nicely in the two core strengths of Haikyuu – bringing new light to the established cast, and introducing some highly compelling oddballs on the rival side. The intrigue of Shiratorizawa comes not through the powerhouse giant Ushijima, but the bizarre-looking jester-like Satori. Sports anime and manga have long thrived on being able to pitch the heroes against oddballs, be they the super-powered children of Inazuma 11 and Saki or the tactical mind-game masters of Hikaru no Go.

But this season is effectively Tsukishima’s time to shine, which is great to see. From detached, sarcastic cynic too afraid to commit his all, he’s become the team’s strategic cornerstone. It’s pretty great to see that change, while retaining his bluntness.

Hinata remains the reason I watch the show, though. With his boundless enthusiasm, determination, ability to shock and occasional blind luck, he’s what gets under the skins of the opposing team and what makes Karasuno an oddball team. He’s everything I want from a shounen protagonist and I have to say that I can’t get nearly as interested as the rest of the fandom in all these random captains and setters when they just don’t seem nearly as compelling as what’s at the centre of this story.

Catchy opening and ending songs, solid production, a pretty aesthetic and very strong vocal performances made for ten enjoyable episodes that are guaranteed not to be the last in this story. And I’m very pleased by that.