Maya Kitajima would love nothing more than to be someone else. At the opening of Glass Mask, though, her options for escape are quite limited. She works in the same Chinese restaurant where her mother slaves away, lives with her in a single-room apartment, and with her lousy grades and unfocused work habits she’s most likely headed for a life of minimum-wage drudgery — just like Mom. Small wonder Mom’s an embittered woman with no expectations for her daughter other than mediocrity at best and abject failure at worst.
The only thing Maya can do is dream. When she does, she dreams vicariously — through the characters she watches longingly on her favorite TV dramas and on the big screen. Like someone afflicted with Stendhal Syndrome, the mere sight of acting sends her into a rapture. This is the way out. Small wonder she delivers a ridiculous number of meals over the course of an evening for the chance to snag a spare ticket to a stage play. (When said ticket blows out into the bay, she throws herself into freezing water to rescue it.) She doesn’t just want to watch such a performance, either: she wants to do it, to step out in front of an audience and become someone else again and again.Read more
The fan in me wants to rave and drool. The critic in me will be more modest but still enthusiastic. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo uses the Alexandre Dumas classic as raw material for a story that spans lifetimes and solar systems, and the end result is an explosion of creativity that’s almost intimidating. The story’s been reinvented, not just retold, and everyone — from the writers to the design directors to the voice actors — has brought something new to the material. This show’s a bar-raiser.
What’s best is that as flashy as Gankutsuou looks — and most of the critiques I’ve read of the show so far revolve mostly around its visuals — it’s not just a graphics showcase. I ended up watching the entire series not once but twice, once for the plot and again for the nuances and characterization. It holds up well enough on repeat viewings to convince me it’ll be a perennial, one of those titles that is always in print somewhere. Shows like this are the whole reason I started watching anime in the first place: to see something new. Read more
The opening scenes of Ichi, and indeed most of the first hour of the film, are so well-assembled the film itself seems to be holding its breath. A woman swathed in heavy furs stumbles her way through falling snow thick enough to drown in. She stumbles, and loses her cane, and from the way she gropes for it we can see that cane is her lifeline — not just in this storm, but every other time as well. She’s blind.
Next shot. She stands at the door of a house — an inn, maybe. She plays her shamisen, waiting for someone inside to hear. They open the door. They squint at her. Shoo her off. Slam the door in her face. She stands there for another long moment before dragging herself off into the snow again. This movie, I thought, is in no hurry: it’s willing to linger and make us feel what this woman feels.
And so the first half or so of Ichi unfolds, with the care and patience of a great samurai-era character study like Kurosawa’s Red Beard or Takashi Miike’s Sabu. Everything, from the elegiac and beautiful score by former Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard to even the abrupt bursts of violence (they’re the punctuation, not the sentences themselves), seems just right. Maybe this would turn out to be the samurai story that they never quite seem to be able to make as of late. Then the movie begins to walk backwards in its own steps, to retreat from being really great and settling instead for being merely pretty good. But hey, that’s a lot more than we end up with most of the time. Read more
sa·mu·rai n. 1: military nobility of feudal Japan; from verb meaning to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society
cham·ploo n. 1: Okinawan term for “something mixed”
Attitude. Amazing how so much meaning can be soaked up into a single word. When someone says samurai attitude, or hip-hop attitude, you know what they mean. The former is Forty-Seven Ronin and Rising Sun and Shining Steel. The latter is Jump Around Y’All and Up In This Beeyotch and Cash Rules Everything Around Me. The two barely belong in the same sentence, let alone the same show. Well, here they are. Deal.
Samurai Champloo is all about how attitudes collide, how cultures and sensibilities mix and create something new. It is itself a whole great big jumble of things: a road movie, an anti-romantic triangle (most of the main characters can’t stand each other, hilariously so), an experiment in combining past and present aesthetic sensibilities, a period samurai adventure, a comedy, a drama, a stone cold classic. And it gets all the better each time you come back to it — deeper, smarter, and funnier. It’s not just a gimmick showcase.
Watch a DJ at work: he drops the needle seemingly at random, backs up, overlays beats from two records you’d never think to play on top of each other. The same thing happens here right from the first episode, where we start with an execution in progress and then jump back 300 years — er, 24 hours — to see How It All Got Started. And it starts almost like a setup for a joke: These two guys walk into a bar … Read more
There are few things in this job better than starting a series you know nothing about, and quickly realizing it’s a winner. So it went with The Story of Saiunkoku’s first set, and so it has gone with the full nine-disc coffer of the first season, courtesy of the good folks at FUNimation. What might seem from the ad copy and the design work to be pure romantic fluff is anything but. It has the depth and complexity of an epic novel: it keeps you absorbed all the way through, and when it’s done you want more. (Anime: Drugs Would Be Cheaper.)
Set in a fictitious country patterned mainly after Imperial China at its most colorful and turbulent, Saiunkoku’s main character isn’t a warrior or a king — rather, it’s the daughter of a once-great family that has since fallen on hard times and disfavor. Her name is Shurei Hong, and she’s been put into the difficult position of having to keep the domestic wheels turning in lieu of her hapless father. Money is tight, opportunities scarce, and options limited — especially for a woman in a society largely dominated and steered by men. Small wonder that when she’s offered a chance to better herself, she leaps for it, and ends up vaulting clear over the rooftops. Read more
Daisuke Aurora’s a lanky blond-haired fellow with an easy smile and a knack for being able to fall asleep on any soft horizontal surface. His partner, J, is an android, a synthetic creation somewhere between John Connor’s hacked T-800 and the robot detective R. Daneel Olivaw in Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories. They’re detectives, sort of — partners in a new experimental law-enforcement program where human officers are paired with androids, each filling in where the other falls short.
Even if they were both human, they couldn’t be less alike. A good day for Daisuke means hanging out with the girls down in the sleazy part of town, slacking off on typing up his progress reports, and sleeping in as late as humanly possible. J, on the other hand, was programmed to be a dyed-blue-in-the-wool cop, something that just makes Daisuke roll his eyes at first. Then they go outside and pound the pavement (in J’s case, it’s quite literal), and the underworld of the city-state of Judeau trembles.
With a story summary like that, I’m actually rather surprised Guy J turned out to be as good as it was. Where it starts out — buddy cops, near-future quasi-dystopia, etc. — isn’t also where it ends up, because the folks who put it together ensured that everything unfolds in a strongly character-driven fashion. Motives are important. People and their personality quirks get the attention they deserve. I was actually reminded of another, more recent show, Darker than Black, where the premise was simply a springboard off which we were bounced to bigger and greater things. Read more
Call it CLAMP: The Remix. Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE is one part original adventure and one part spirited romp through the gallery of CLAMP’s characters that have accumulated over the past two decades. You don’t need to be a CLAMPophile to follow along, but a) it makes some of the plot transitions a little less jarring and arbitrary, and b) you can play spot-the-cameo and put one over your less clued-in friends.
The most crucial characters in Tsubasa are lifted straight from Cardcaptor Sakura: Sakura herself and Syaoran, albeit older than they were in that series and placed in a completely different setting. She is a princess, he the son of a prominent archaeologist, and they live in a desertlike land entirely different from the original Cardcaptor world (and, for that matter, from our world as well). One day they’re inside one of Syaoran’s father’s excavations when there’s a curious supernatural accident: Sakura’s memories are stripped from her, transformed into a flurry of feathers, and scattered across any number of different worlds. The two of them must now leap from world to world to reclaim what she has lost. Read more
Burst Angel is aptly named: the girls look great, but the story pops like stale gum. It’s a chicks-with-guns action vehicle bolted together out of parts recycled from a dozen other places — the kind of show you watch in the background while doing something else, because the more attention you give to it the less you get back.
Call it another “mid-Pacific” production — a work calculated to appeal as much to the export market for anime, maybe even more so than the domestic market. The problem is such projects often end up being terribly bland, a mixture of cynical second-guesses about what’ll appeal to a demographic instead of a story with confidence in its own narrative.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Angel was assembled from notes left behind by someone who never lived to see the project completed. But this wasn’t a salvage job, and that makes it all the more depressing. Ugetsu Hakua (of Tower of Druaga fame) contributed classy-looking character designs, and veteran mecha designer Koichi Ohata (Gunbuster, Blue Gender) took the director’s chair and added some equally striking 3D CGI machinery to tear things up. All they forgot was a screenwriter, and a tale worth spinning. Read more
Behind one of the odder titles in recent memory lies a very good show, if not quite a great one. Pumpkin Scissors has a flawed final stretch and some elements that don’t quite work, but put those aside and what’s left is really original and endearing. It’s not about ludicrous magic powers or giant war ‘bots; it’s rooted in something resembling our world, and so there’s that much less distance between you and what’s going on.
The setup: The “Royal Empire” (an allegorical variant of post-war Germany, or maybe post-war Japan itself) has lost a war to one of its neighbors, the Republic of Frost. The shooting has stopped, but the Empire is still a wreck. Jobs are nowhere to be found. Hunger and despair are on every face, black markets are legion, and what’s left of the native army has lost its morale. To fight this grim picture, the army has established a special public-relations unit, the “Pumpkin Scissors” — but they’re widely regarded as a cheap publicity stunt, not an effective military unit.Read more
Sometimes you’re better off dumping all pretenses of being a critic and just coming out and saying you like something a whole lot. So it goes with Shonen Onmyouji, because, well, guilty as charged: it has a bunch of things in it which I like a whole lot. It’s set in ancient Japan, with elegance and mystery to spare; it has courtly intrigue and diabolical magic aplenty; and it moves at a decent pace and actually feels like it goes places with its story. Triple play.
Much like the little beastie that sits on the hero’s shoulder throughout this series, there’s been this devilish whisper in my ear the whole time I’ve been pounding out this review. Sucker! You’re only saying nice things about it ‘cos you’re a pushover for historical fantasy, hissed that voice. Fine, smart guy, have it your way. I pushed right over for Otogi-Zoshi, even though technically that was only half a period piece. It was also, and more importantly, a killer show that I would gladly watch again any day of the week.
I also pushed over for Hakkenden, and Moribito, and Requiem from the Darkness, and Blade of the Immortal — although I’d opine those are all good-to-great shows by most any standard. Onmyouji’s a bit closer to the middle of the road — it’s definitely not as thought-provoking as Moribito or as atmospherically lush as Otogi-Zoshi — but I walked in skeptical and in the end was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Read more