Saturday, October 18, 2008

Mōryō no Hako Episode 1

Oh my gosh, it snowed last night!! XD Technically, I only saw a layer of frost on one of the lawns across the street from my dorm by looking out the window, but still!! I'm from south Florida, and the only time that I've seen "snow" before was a layer of frost in my great aunt's backyard in Washington D.C. when I was 10. So for me, this is a big deal (if only because I'm looking forward to more snow). Anyway, on to my gushing review.

Any fan of horror, mystery, CLAMP, or dark, cerebral anime in general (a la Serial Experiments Lain) should view this. Yes, the character designs are done by CLAMP, the animation is by Madhouse Studios (of Death Note fame), and the story is based on a novel (an adult-oriented, literary novel, not a light novel) by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, whose novel The Summer of the Ubume, is due to be published in the U.S. in August next year. Additionally, the screenwriting and series composition was done by Sadayuki Murai, who wrote the screenplays for Boogiepop Phantom, Perfect Blue, Cowboy Bebop, Millenium Actress, Kino's Journey, and Bubblegum Crisis: 2040 (among numerous others). Few series have such a mouth-watering pedigree.

And so far, Mōryō no Hako is living up to its promise. The artwork is lush and stylized without sacrificing animation frame rate, and the foreground-background integration is flawless.The animation boasts high quality control, and I never noticed any obvious short cuts being used. Even for a series with very little action, every character gesture, or rustle of clothing and hair, has been rendered as smoothly as one could hope for from a modern anime studio working on a television series. The rich, yet not overly bright or glossy color palette and masterful lighting does an excellent job bringing each scene to life, and the backgrounds are realistically yet artistically detailed, without betraying the overly polished, obviously computer animated look found in some series that opt to juxtapose hyper-realistic backgrounds with anime character designs.

The prologue begins with a man sitting alone on a train. He notices a stranger sitting across from him holding an ornate box, which he opens to reveals the head of a teenage girl surrounded by flowers, still alive.

With our interest piqued, the story moves to a town in post World War II Japan, in which two high school students, Yoriko Kusumoto and Kanako Yuzuki, meet who come to become deeply enamored with each other while believing that they are each other's reincarnation. I won't spoil the end of the episode, but it's a nail-biting cliffhanger. :)

Alongside the beautifully executed romance between the sophisticated Kanako and more down-to-earth, middle class Yoriko, there are numerous other cryptic plot developments, like another man shown toward the end riding a train in which the windows become smeared with the bloody hand prints of his deceased war comrades.

Despite the far-fetched mystical elements, the tight story writing and editing keep the story flowing smoothly, with empathetic, intriguing characters serving as the story's backbone. All of this, combined with the animation, gives the series a dualistic atmosphere of dreamy mysticism alongside down-to-earth historical realism.

But enough of my effusions about how good this episode is. ^^ Every anime fan should at least try it, if he or she wants to view something different from the norm.

Overall Episode Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (not perfect, because I want to see how the aftermath of the "nail-biting cliffhanger" will be handled in the next episode.)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mōryō no Hako: Anticipation of Awesomeness

Ding! Ding!! Ding!!! We have a WINNAH!!! While reading Carlo Santos' review of the first episode of Mōryō no Hako on Anime News Network's Fall 2008 Anime Preview Guide (after Casey Brienza's excellent review), I came across this all too brief yet telling passage: "Mōryō no Hako's first episode is 15-20 minutes of the most heart-achingly beautiful yuri ever animated, bookended by some ... other things, like plot developments. Yes, those developments are probably the important part going forward—a decapitated head in a box in the first scene, a creepy doll that shows up midway, a tragedy that destroys a friendship in the finale—but the stuff in the middle is what will stick long afterward."

I am there. Screw La Corda D'Oro and Haruka Naru Toki no Naka de (another title I've begun casually viewing, based on a renai computer game aimed at girls/rip-off of Fushigi Yuugi). Enough with the insipid, saccharine, fan pandering bishonen fests. This is the friggin' real deal, and I look forward with the anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve to the first episode of this delightfully twisted looking anime horror tale (with yuri as icing). ^^

I plan to watch the first episode of Mōryō no Hako tomorrow, as I have a test tomorrow that I'm going to begin studying for in a few minutes. (Viewing this series will be my reward. :) )

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fall Anime Season/Vacation

Fall Break sure has been funnnn!! ^__^ On Saturday I went with my friend Laura to the nearest mall (it's in another town... ;_; ). It was fabulous (splendid, superb, delightful, etc) finally going to a mall for the first time since I left Florida! XD My college is located in a college town in Massachusetts. While there is some good shopping here, there aren't any malls. Selection aside, I just really dig the atmosphere of malls. The sounds of people buying and selling, the smell of different stores (like Hallmark as compared to, say, Borders, or Express, Macy's, Victoria's Secret, Bath and Body Works, etc), and the fun of shopping with a friend. ^^ (Although sometimes I like shopping alone too.)

Even though I love reading, anime and manga, etc, etc, it's also just nice to spend a fun, brainless afternoon at a mall, especially if it's around the holidays. I primarily looked for winter jackets, and even though I found one I liked, I decided to wait a little more for there to be more selection. I did get a copy of Shojo Beat magazine at Borders and some make-up at Sephora. I was pretty tempted to pick up some anime at Best Buy, but I didn't have any cash on me and decided to wait until the next time I go (soon) when I'll bring some expressly for that purpose, instead of charging more to my credit card.

As far as new anime series airing this season, I am definitely following Vampire Knight: Guilty (of course :) ), Rosario+Vampire Capu2 (silly, brainless fun, just like the first season), Kuroshitsuji (granted, I'm a little disappointed that *SPOILER* the butler Sebastian didn't actually kill the sleazy Italian guy who he trapped in a burning oven; seriously, how did he survive? *END SPOILER*), and Toradora (this is how you do a romantic comedy competently). I'm tentatively following To Aru Majutsu no Index (so far it has managed to be sufficiently entertaining; I'm just not sure how long it can stay interesting by rehashing psychic/magic user anime plot cliches in a way that feels fresh and stylish, with incredibly cool fight scenes) and Earl and Fairy.

Vampire Knight Guilty: Unequivocally my favorite anime premiering this season.

Kuroshitsuji: Tiding over my need for Victorian-influenced supernatural horror in between new episodes of Vampire Knight. Seriously, this is good stuff. It makes a certain other 19th century anime premiering this season (see further below) look like crap. I just wish I had a better picture.

Rosario+Vampire Capu2: Normally, this would be the kind of series I love to hate (a harem romantic comedy with fan service). Surprisingly, for me, it's a refreshingly brainless/funny take on the vampire/horror theme, and evil Moka rocks every scene she's in (the silver-haired girl). Not the most literate show, but each episode is fun to watch. :) (Besides, at this point I'm pretty desensitized to the fan service.)

Toradora! : One of the best series premiering, and certainly one of the funniest, most well-executed romantic comedies I have seen in anime, as of the past two episodes I have viewed. The series follows Ryuuji Takasu, a boy who everybody assumes is a delinquent because he inherited his yakuza father's beady eyes (even though he is actually a kind-hearted softie with a crush on a girl in his class), and Taiga Aisaka, a petite girl with a strong personality and a hair-trigger temper known as the "Palmtop Tiger." When they find out that they each have a crush on the other's best friend, they agree to help each other get together with the person they like. Ryuuji and Taiga play off each other brilliantly, and they make a great duo. Thankfully, at least so far, there isn't an inkling of romance between them, just a refreshing "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" friendship that works beautifully.

Earl and Fairy: This screencap pretty much summarizes the point of the show.

This too.

I was completely ready to hate/be amused by Earl and Fairy when I began watching it. Honestly, it's about a 17 year old girl named Lydia Carlton living in 19th century Britain (fine so far) who works as a fairy doctor(!) and lives with a talking fairy cat (groan), and while voyaging towards London to meet her father, she gets kidnapped by a dashing bishonen with ambiguous morals (he's suave and gentlemanly towards her, but is shown killing a man who tells him about Lydia in the opening scene) who asks her to help him obtain some fairy sword that will let him enter the land he inherited from an ancestor in the Fairy Nation. Follow that?

The animation was utterly mediocre, although (of course) the character designs were pretty (but I don't care too much for the eyes). I found myself sniggering quite a few times at the scenes that were meant to pass as ravishingly romantic (like when the dashing, morally ambiguous bishonen, Earl Edgar von Something, waxes on about Lydia's eyes, or when the camera lingers on him in graceful bishonen mode, sparkles and all). I love cheesy bishonen behavoir, as shown in Revolutionary Girl Utena and Ouran Host Club, but those series do it in a satirical, tongue-in-cheek way. Earl and Fairy, sadly, plays it completely straight. Alas, shows like Ouran wouldn't be around if it weren't for self-important tripe like this. As it is, it still entertains me, and, unless it simply becomes tedious, I'll continue following it, gleefully mocking it all the way in between watching good series like Vampire Knight and Toradora.

Observe my mad fairy skillz.

Is that Herbal Essences, milady?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Five Series With Rockin' Female Leads Part 2

This time I'm going to focus on series that are more off the beaten path than the ones I listed yesterday. Everyone knows Utena, Ghost in the Shell, and NANA (if you don't, a pox on thee!), and enough people know about Rose of Versailles that it shouldn't be any surprise to see it listed. Here goes...

6. Creamy Mami: Surprise! I approached this title with a lot of skepticism, partly because of the title (really, go up to someone and tell them you're watching a show called "Creamy Mami") and partly because it's a 52 episode old school magical girl show (o_o). After getting past the first episode, however, the show proved why it's such a classic in Japan (it was even referenced in Gainax's Otaku no Video!). For a 10 year old kid, the main character, Yuu, is noticeably more competent and mature than your typical female lead (why wasn't Sailor Moon's Usagi like this?). Short story: Yuu finds and enters an alien spaceship (filled with trippy imagery) and saves the aliens from a dragon. (?? Somehow, it works.) The aliens reward her by giving her a pendant (sound familiar? This is pre-Sailor Moon.) that will allow her to transform into a pretty 15 year old girl (pretty for back then, at least. Her hairstyle looks very 80s.). Within a few episodes she gets recruited to be an idol and has to deal with maintaining her double life, even as the boy she likes develops a crush on her older, idol self, who she names "Creamy Mami." Honestly, I'm not finished watching this yet, but so far it's been a very entertaining ride. The entire cast really works well together, and each episode has a unique story line (no tired monster-of-the-day formulas). I highly recommend it!

7. The Story of Saiunkoku: Set in a fantasy world resembling medieval China (a la Fushigi Yuugi), "Saimono", as its fans call it, follows Shuurei Kou, the only daughter of the Kou clan (one of the two most powerful clans in the empire). As her clan (which is composed of she, her father who works as a librarian in the imperial palace, and their retainer Seiran, who Shuurei regards like a brother) has fallen on hard times, she is compelled to accept an offer to live with the Emperor as his consort for six months to teach him how to be a good ruler. If she succeeds, she will receive a large financial reward. Nothing tawdry happens, the emperor is a kind-hearted bishonen, and Shuurei more than holds her own in the men's world of the court. Honestly, before I looked up her age, I thought she was 18 to 20 (she's actually 16!). I've just become accustomed to 16 year old characters who act (and sometimes look >_<;;) like they're 12. -_-;; So yay Saimono! ^^

8. Read or Die (OVA and TV): The three episode OVA follows Yomiko Readman, a bibliophile/substitute teacher and agent for the Special Operations Division of the British Library known as the "Paper." She's a Paper Master, meaning that she can manipulate paper (i.e. making nearly impenetrable shields, paper sheets that cut like daggers, etc). Along with other agents, she solves crime and terrorist cases against the British empire. Fast forward to the TV series. Five years after the incidents of the OVA, Yomiko has gone missing and her best friend Nenene Sumiregawa, a bestselling Japanese author with a delightfully acrimonious attitude, is waiting for her. Nenene is saved from a terrorist in Hong Kong by the Paper Sisters, three Paper Masters who work together under the British Library, but who have never heard of Yomiko. They go back with Nenene to Japan to work as her bodyguards, and gradually uncover the truth about what happened to Yomiko and the machinations behind British Library. All of the characters (ALL of them!) are excellently portrayed, the writing is intelligent, and the plot has more twists than a Twizzler factory. As icing on the cake, the music fits the series to a tee, and the animation is about as good as anything you'll find in an anime (especially the action scenes! Oh my GOD!!!).

9. Simoun: As Theron Martin, a reviewer at the Anime News Network put it, "This may have started out as a yuri sci fi series, but by the end its yuri component no longer registers; it is simply a wonderful sci fi series, and that's all that truly matters." I can't really say it any better than that. This series takes place in a world in which everyone is born female, and, in Kyuukoku, the country the protagonists inhabit, everyone chooses their gender in a special ceremony at age 17. Kyuukoku possesses sacred aircraft called Simoun that are used to trace light patterns in the sky that destroy enemy air ships. Outside nations wish to possess the technology of Simoun, and are willing to wage war on Kyuukoku. The Simoun are piloted by priestesses, who are allowed to refrain from choosing their gender until the war is finished (people who have chosen cannot remain priestesses or pilot Simoun). The two leads, Neviril and Aer, are priestesses; Neviril is the head of their squadron who takes the duty of priestess seriously, while Aer just wants to fight in the war. Neviril and Aer, as well as the rest of the cast, are incredibly well-rounded and developed over the course of the series, and it's fun trying to guess which gender the priestesses will become. ^^ (And yes, Neviril and Aer count on this list because they choose to remain women.)

10. Ouran High School Host Club: Currently a fan favorite, Ouran is one of the funniest, most sharp-witted comedies to come out in the past decade. Haruhi Fujioka is a high school student from a lower middle class background attending the ridiculously elite Ouran Private Academy. Since uniforms there are expensive, she has to wear a regular sweatshirt and slacks. That, combined with her short cut hair makes other people mistake her for a boy, even though she's famous as the top student in her class. One day, looking for a quiet place to study, she enters the Third Music Room where she encounters the Host Club, a group of six attractive male students, each of whom plays up to a bishonen stereotype (the gregarious "prince" Tamaki, the faux-yaoi twins Hikaru and Kaoru, the cool, silent one Mori, etc) to entertain and charm the female students for profit. As Haruhi makes her hasty exit, she accidentally knocks over an 8,000,000 yen vase (roughly $80,000). To pay off her debt, she has to work as a host. By the end of the first episode, the Host Club finds out that she's a girl, but she still has to work for them anyway, pretending to be a guy. lol This series is freaking hysterical!! It pokes fun at shoujo and yaoi cliches and stereotypes (and even a couple of episodes that poke fun at Maria-sama ga Miteru), and it manages to balance comedy, drama, and a wide-ranging cast of characters while making it look effortless. If you want to check out a new comedy, you can't go wrong with this series. Oh, and why is Haruhi on this list? Just watch the series.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Five Series With Rockin' Female Leads Part 1

Writing about Mnemosyne yesterday made me start thinking about which anime series have strong, uber-competent female protagonists without screwing them over like Mnemosyne does. To qualify for this list, an anime series has to star a strong, competent woman/girl who isn't moe or "endearingly" idiotic or air headed. I will post five series each day until I run out of eligible choices.

1. Revolutionary Girl Utena:
Shocking isn't it? Chiefly because of Utena and Juri for their pure, concentrated sword fighting awesomeness and Anthy, for subverting the subservient housewife/damsel in distress stereotype so effectively. Heck, all of the characters rock, even the ones I hate (because they're the kind you have fun hating! :) ). This is my favorite series, so I'm biased, but, as any reputable review site will inform you, this visually inventive shoujo fantasy is a must-see.

2. Rose of Versailles:
This influential 70's gem (it influenced Utena!!) is still being shown in re-runs throughout Japan today for good reason. Oscar, a woman raised "as a man" who serves as bodyguard to Marie-Antoinette, is one of the most memorable, interesting characters I have come across in an anime and, like RGU, there aren't any "weak link" characters in this series.

3. NANA:
Nana Oosaki, one of two protagonists who are both named "Nana", forms the backbone of this series as the chain-smoking, no nonsense lead singer of a punk band trying to catch a break in Tokyo. The other Nana, Nana Komatsu, is more of a typical shoujo lead: bubbly, rather ditzy and boy-crazy, hailing from a stable background (unlike Oosaki). The two play off each other brilliantly, and Komatsu turns out to be not as typical a lead as she appears.

4. Ghost in the Shell SAC:
I've only seen a few episodes from various points in the series on Adult Swim, but from what I've seen, Major Motoko Kusanagi fits the requisites for this list to a tee, in all her gun-toting android glory. ^^

5. Blue Drop:
The protagonist, Mari Wakatake, isn't a punk singer. She isn't a duelist, a French army officer, or an android. She's just an ordinary student (with an alien girlfriend) who just doesn't take crap from anyone or act "endearingly" ditzy, while still being entertaining and likeable.