Hajimete No Gal Review/Existential Crisis

GalI would like to start with the following disclaimer: that this review will be far more hyperbolic and vulgar than my usual reviews. I tried to think of a measured way to review Hajimete no Gal. But it’s impossible to review it while pretending that everything is alright – that I had not just seen a festering pile of fecal matter, passing itself off as “entertainment.” And mind you, my issue is not that Gal is ten episodes of titillation and gelatinous breasts. That’s all fine and dandy. My issue is that a show thinks it can get away with being so bad.

Another quick disclaimer: I did not watch the show in its entirety. I watched enough to know I wanted to write this angry rant, and then watched a bit more, so I could properly write said rant. So who knows –I could have missed a scene that redeems the show. Maybe the characters developed awareness and try to escape their poorly animated reality, only to realize they’re trapped and collectively lose their minds.

Yea, that would explain a lot.

The problem is, I want anime to improve. But that can’t just happen from the top. A handful of “masterpieces” each year is meaningless when everything else is so careless. Now, someone could say
“who cares that my harem anime is poorly animated, paced, and written? Boobs are still boobs.” But there is no reason for things to be this bad. The beauty of good animation, direction, and writing is that they are non-intrusive. If any of these aspects distracts from the plot (or the “plot) then they’re not being handled well. And that is the case with No Gal.

And the fact of the matter is, a harem anime can be competently written, directed, and animated, and the experience is better for it. Just look at Monster Musume. Early on, the show establishes that sleeping with a monster girl would be a diplomatic incident, and lead to the arrest of our protagonist. Now, do I actually believe no one is sleeping with monster girls in this universe? Hell no. But I believe the dual threat of arrest and death by monster girl is enough to deter this particular protagonist. It’s a small thing, but we have an in-universe explanation for why our hero remains virginal. But what is No Gal’s excuse? That our hero is cowardly and sexually uncomfortable?

Just because a show is “low brow” does not mean that it can avoid continuity and internal logic. We need a reason for our hero to not make a move – a reason women find him so irresistible. They don’t have to be good reasons, just something that helps us make sense of it all. After all, the purpose of these shows is to self-insert into a world or cleavage and panty shots. If the world makes no sense whatsoever, the immersion is broken.

No Gal does the fundamentals poorly, which is bad enough. But what about that aspect specific to its genre – titillation? It somehow messes that up too! But this comes as no surprise, since conveying an idea depends on having a strong story. Even if that idea is something as simple as “boobs,” you need good writing. If a show is not going to commit to being porn, it needs to meet the standards of longform TV. Something needs to lead up to “boobs.”

So what does No Gal do, when it’s not shoving boobs in our face? It mostly focuses on main guy’s friends, since it needs to fill up its runtime somehow, and doesn’t have any better ideas. But seriously, is this the best they could come up with? I understand that these scenes are supposed to be funny, but they’re not. And on top of being unfunny, they demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the show’s purpose.

The idea of these shows is to show off cute, cartoon women. So why does a good chunk of the show have no female characters whatsoever? Why the perpetual sausage fest? Not to put too fine a point on it, but the male characters are creepy weirdos. Who wants to watch that? Not the target audience of a harem anime. But No Gal has little choice, since the female characters lack any depth – they can’t fill a twenty-minute episode, even when there are four of them.

These characters do not need to be entirely realistic or complex. All they need is a guiding principal. The aforementioned Monster Musume is a good example of focused characters. The girls are all very simple, but this works to their advantage. They’re easy to understand. In any given situation, it’s clear how each would react. All you need to do is introduce a setup and watch them do their thing.

No Gal is lulled into a false sense of security, but the mere existence of boobs. Surely those will overwrite the horrible animation, plot, and characters. But the fact of the matter is, anime boobs can be found without sitting through twenty minutes of mediocrity.

But I want to be clear, my point is not specific to harem anime. No anime is above (or below) functioning as a narrative. No matter the goal of an anime, it benefits from a solid story – from strong characters and clever directing. Even harem anime. Anyone can draw bigger boobs, but it takes talent to draw out a personality. A climactic showdown only works when we care about the characters. A romance only moves us when it speaks to life. A joke only elicits laughter when it follows some sort of established logic.

In short, no show has any business being as bad as Hajimete no Gal. No genre is exempt from a bare minimum of quality, no matter how “trashy.” No Gal lowers the bar on all fronts. It looks horrible, the characters are boring, and it forgets to do the one thing it exists for – be bad soft-core porn. We wouldn’t accept this level of terribleness in other genres, so why accept it here? I fear a hierarchy of genres is forming, where we accept that some genres can get away with being worse than others. A drama or psychological thriller must be well done to get any attention, but a harem or Shonen can get away with being truly bad. Every story benefits from care and quality – we should expect better from our anime. Even the lowbrow ones.

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Some Quick Thoughts on FMAB

fmabSince its release in the mid 2000’s, Fullmetal Alchemist has held a special place in the hearts of anime fans. The community rarely agrees on anything, given its varied taste and priorities, so it’s fun to see something so unilaterally loved. But despite all the love, it receives very little critical attention. There is some, certainly – YouTube has a sprinkling of video essays on the show, such as one about the use of eyes in the show. But FMAB is rarely mentioned in videos and essays that are not about the show itself – at least, not as frequently as other anime juggernauts, like Evangelion or Hunter X Hunter. For a show so influential and loved, it rarely works its way into any kind of criticism.

So what is it exactly, that makes FMAB tick? This has been something I have struggled with for a long time, given my complicated relationship with the show. It has truly awe inspiring sequences, and after a certain point, is impossible to stop watching. For me, that point was episode 14. Episode 14 is an important dividing line, as it separates two distinct sections of the series. Up to this point, the series is mostly episodic. But from here on out, the plot never stops. And I mean never. FMAB has one of the most relentless, tight, and well paced plots on the planet. Every scene is in direct service of it, setting up the next action – the next domino in line.

But having having a plot is nothing new, so what makes FMAB so special. Well, most plots are like constellations. There is the central story arc that drives the story, like defeating the demon king. But then there are also smaller plots that revolve around it. We may take a break from our quest –  spend an episode saving a peasant girl from a bunch of bandits. Or maybe we get a flashback episode about a character’s tragic backstory. But after episode 13, FMAB does not get these kind of episodes. There is no constellation – only the main plot.

The easiest way to see this is by comparing FMAB to the original. In both, Scar is responsible for killing Winry’s parents. In the original, we see Scar’s interactions with his brother, his Brother’s sister, and all that leads up to the murder. In FMAB, we see far less. Mostly we’re just told that he killed her Parent’s. After all, the important part is that he did it, and what that means for the plot. It gives Ed a reason to go after Scar, and Winry a reason to nearly shoot him. The details are not important. The same can be said for Ed and All’s mom, who does not get a lot of development. We are shown she was there mom, and that she died. This takes less than five minutes. Meanwhile, the original explores her complicated relationship with her children, her husband, and her sadness. But I’m not arguing that the original did it better – only that FMAB is so ruthlessly efficient. Where most shows would flesh out characters and dig a little deeper, FMAB marches forwards.

This may be one reason the show is hard to discuss out of context. After all, context is everything. It’s hard to discuss any character or episode without addressing the overarching plot. Only the first twelve or so episodes can be discussed in isolation, but sadly, they’re pretty bad. Part of the problem is that the source material was all episodic during this period and does not cater to FMAB’s plot oriented approach.

But I honestly cannot think of a show more efficent and plot focused than FMAB. And if there is, I can hardly imagine it’s any good. Too much plot can lead to rushed pacing and shallow characters. But FMAB keeps its characters interesting by focusing on their choices. In most shows, if you want to develop a character, you show you a bit of their life – take them away from the main plot and give them their own spotlight. But in FMAB, most development comes alongside plot. We learn about characters based on the choices they make. The show is full of forks in the road, where the plot could go in one of two irrevocable directions. And the characters get to choose – which path will they take? It’s these choices that develop the characters.

If anything, this piece is a prelude to my discussion of FMAB, which I hope tackle in earnest this month. It really is a daring show. It’s lack of surrealist elements or slower moments make it feel less experimental, but it’s actually quite out there. For fifty episodes, it’s a mad dash without any breaks – a veritable plot marathon. No show since has really managed to recreate this approach, Perhaps this is why FMAB is hard to compare to other anime. In the end, it’s deceptively unique. And over the month, I hope to parse out some of what makes it so distinct.

Direction in Owarimonogatari

more owariAs promised in my review of Owarimonogatari, I hope to unpack it further throughout the week, explaining just what made it so satisfying. And in search of someplace to start, I decided to look at other reviews of the series, including a review on Wrong Every Time. I’ve always enjoyed the material on Wrong Every Time, and I know its writer is a huge fan of the Monogatari series. So I was surprised to detect a tone of disappointment in his review. He was generally quite positive, but he was distinctly let down by the visuals – “its aesthetic failings.” Meanwhile, I found visuals better than ever before. So, I thought I’d weigh in, and explain why I find the new visuals for Monogatari impressed me , while they may be underwhelming to others.

The most interesting criticism I encountered was about the final two sections of Owari – “The following two arcs are significantly more conservative, leaning heavily on still mid-distance shots and lacking much visual experimentation.” Owarimonogatari is undoubtedly more conservative than its previous iterations. All you have to do is think back to the days of Monogatari, when a conversation would be accompanied by highly experimental visuals. For instance, in the very first episode, we get a strange image of Araragi’s head being broken open, and pasta spilling out. Or in Hanamonogatari, monologues are accompanied by clips of the shore, of tops spinning, and of the sunset. Historically, the visuals have been like a modern art exhibit – a series of marvelous images that are beautiful in and of themselves. However, these visuals were often unrelated to the content of the scene. They would help establish tone, but often they could overpower the dialogue. It was as if the director was conscious of the fact that dialogue is boring, and added in crazy visuals to keep us distracted.

I’m not saying the visuals of Monogatari have been bad thus far – they have been gorgeous and evocative, and help established the feel of the show. But sometimes it felt like there were two ideas at work – what was being said, and what was being said. But Owarimonogatari has harmony between dialogue and visuals. As a result, the visuals may be less strong on their own, but they are better integrated into the story.

One of the best examples of this conservative, yet more focused style is in Gaen’s final scene. The scene start with a shot of Gaen, with a spiral green sky above her. Throughout Monogatari, this signature sky pattern has appeared above her, giving her an almost god like presence. The sky always gathers right above her head, centering her. Additionally, there are arches made of lamps on either side of her, further centering her in the shot. It’s a classic shot of gaen – in control, in the center of things. Also, her eyes are closed. Throughout the series, she’ll avoid eye contact, which adds to her condescending nature. It’s as if she’s looking down on you by not looking at all.

But then we get a single, brief shot of her looking up, focused in on her eyes, and then a shot that reveals Shinobu and Araragi. This entire time, Gaen is speaking non stop, condescending to them. Telling them that they’re making no sense whatsoever – “If there’s some rationale behind this, I’d like to know.”

And those are her last words. As soon as she finishes that line, we get a quick shot of Shinobu turning to her, and then music starts playing. As Shinobu speaks, we’ll get brief shots of her eyes, turning to and glaring at  Gaen. But as we zoom out, we notice that she’s only looking at Araragi. Just as Gaen would do, Shinobu is giving no eye contact. The shots of her glaring show that her words are targeted, perhaps malicious, but she’s not actually looking at Gaen. She is ignoring Gaen, as does the very scene itself. We don’t see and hear Gaen. The only reminder she exists is the occasional sideways glance from Shinobu. For the first time, Gaen has no power in a scene. She becomes a third wheel, completely ignored.

Gaen only reenters the scene briefly, when Shinobu mentions the chance that Araragi could remain human. After this line, we see a close up of her eye, blinking. It’s a quick shot, but in my opinion, a powerful one. Gaen is a complicated character – she can be cruel and condescending, even aggravating, but she tries to do the right thing. This single blink shows her vague hope that maybe Araragi will remain human. That he’ll do the sane thing. But then Araragi speaks, and it’s clear he feels the same way as Shinobu. We then see a brief shot of Gae’s feet, turning around.

Araragi and Shinobu are now talking to each other, forgetting that gaen is even there. The last shot we see of Gaen is her walking away, taking her green, spiral sky with her. There’s a palpable loneliness, as we contrast Gaen, alone, with Shinobu and Araragi embracing. Gaen may always be right, but she’s right alone. Araragi and Shinobu may be wrong, but they are wrong together.

So while Gaen has never shown any real emotion, we can sense a real sadness to her character. And at the same time, it is a satisfying comeuppance. After looking down on everyone for so long, she is the one being looked down on, quite literally. Shinobu and Araragi tower before her. Through a few very simple, but well placed shots, Monogatari gives closure to a very complicated character.

Another complaint that I’d like to adress is about the music. To be fair, Wrong Every Time me was not saying the music was bad – simply unexceptional. And music will always be subjective. But there are some points he mentioned that I would love to address –  “Owari S2’s music is similarly middle-of-the-road – there are some fine orchestral tracks and reasonable electronic melodies, but nothing that actually drives the narrative or sets the tone on the level of Kaiki’s theme.” While nothing will match the strange perfection of Kaiki’s theme, the music did a lot for me in Owari. For instance, there is the scene I just discussed, with Gaen and Shinobu. The music kicks in just as Gaen is done speaking, marking a distinct shift in the scene.

Another great use of music comes at the very end, as Hitagi calls Tsubasa by her first name. This is a small gesture, but a meaningful one. The swelling music (coupled with Shaft style head tilts) emphasizes just how triumphant this moment is. Then the music ends, only to come back, strings replacing brass. As it does, Ougi passes by. But for some reason, she looks different, as she stumbles down the stairs – the same stairs Araragi ran down in episode one, as he chased after Hitagi. It’s a fitting farewell to his childhood. Through the music, we can feel both the melancholy and triumph of growing up.

Returning to direction, I love the scene where Hitagi calls Tsubasa by name. Again, the direction is simple, but there is a lot going on. Hitagi is greeting her boyfriend, and yet, he is entirely ignored. When Hitagi says hello, we get a shot of Hanakawa chiding her, for not calling Araragi by his first name. Hitagi greets him properly. We see Hanakawa again, smirking. The whole scene is a series of shots and reverse shots, between the two women. Araragi only appears for brief flashes, as a single, blinking eyeball.

After being romantic rivals, Hanakawa and Hitagi have moved passed it. Araragi becomes an afterthought, in a scene where he is being greeted. This mirrors earlier conversations where Hanakawa and Hitagi would not mention Araragi at all, even when clearly focused on him. 

I’ll stop here, since I run the risk of going overboard. Given the time and attention span, I could probably write a book on this last season alone. The direction in Owari is a bit more modest, even conventional, but it is also more focussed than ever before. I’ll probably discuss something different next time, to avoid needless rambling, but I’m glad to have gotten to ramble a bit on Owari. In a generally dry anime season, it’s nice to have something to discuss.

Owarimonogatari 2017 Review

owariOwarimonogatari is truly a challenge to discuss. The series is tricky enough to being with, being a remarkable show with plenty of flaws. It can be hard to strike that balance between being enthusiastic about the show, while also admitting  that yes, the dialogue can drone on and yes, some of the arcs are not perfectly paced. But Owarimonogatari is hard to write about because (at risk of over hyping it) it’s a masterpiece. Episodes like these only come around every so often. So while I originally wanted to write about Owarimonogatari the day it released, I decided to give myself time, to do it justice.

The first thing that jumped out of me was the music. As much as I marvel at good writing, a show is only as good as it sounds, and that’s especially true for monogatari. Shaft gets away with the constant exposition because you can stop paying attention at any time, and just listen to the voices, to the camera flashes that accompany every blink, or to the “whooshing” sound that comes wrok the panning shots. The show just sounds nice. And the way those sounds synch up with the visuals is half the story. Even when I start to zone out of the conversation, I can still understand the feeling of the scene.

At its core, Monogatari is like any show – a series of cool ideas, connected by plot. But I can’t help but marvel at how many ideas it manages to fit in. Each shot is either a unique visual gag, a bit of tricky wordplay, or perhaps just a beautiful image. Even if you don’t care for Monogatari, the effort is evident. It’s the sort of show that invites close attention, full of footnotes and references. But if you’re not in the mood for that, you can just sit back and let the visuals and music wash over you.

Other incarnations of Monogatari didn’t quite work this way. The visuals were interesting, but dialogue was dominant. And yes, dialogue is a near constant in Owarimonogatari too, but it’s the first time that I found myself forgetting to read the subtitles, becoming completely caught up in the scene.

And in the moments where dialogue does vanish, Owari is still stunning, with Araragi and Hitagi’s date standing out as particularly gorgeous. Some complain that this relationship is unrealistic, but given my own experience, it’s far closer to romance than most anime get. The lovers can be insecure, they miscommunicate, and for all their love, they have their own lives. But we need more of this in anime. Anime is so concerned with idealization, that it often forgets to give us a complicated and believable love.

While all three arcs are strong, Owari hits its stride in the third. Unlike most monogatari, which is buildup to brief and beautiful scenes, Owari is just one great scene after another, all in rapid succession. It’s the end of the series, so there is no more buildup to be done – nothing but payoff and satisfying moments to be had.

We get the simple joy of Hitagi calling Kyomi and Tsubasa by their first names. Or there is that moment at the end, where Koyomi and Shinobu finally accept their fucked up relationship. Or best of all, we have every confrontation between Koyomi and Ougi, each more tragic and surreal than the last. The sheer consistency of memorable moments pushes Monogatari to new heights.

In the near future, I hope to do a more measured analysis of Monogatari. But before that, I wanted to take take the chance to acknowledge Owari. This is some of the best anime of the year, perhaps the decade. It can be funny, tragic, triumphant, and all the while it looks and sounds amazing. My main frustration is that you have to watch seventy plus episodes to fully appreciate the ending. Is that worth it? Well, not really. The conclusion does not singlehandedly justify the rest of the series for those who don’t already enjoy it. But for those who have followed the series, Owari serves as a near perfect send off. A bizarre end to adolescence that rivals even the likes of FLCL.

 

Some Thoughts on Lain

LainWhile Serial Experiments Lain is considered a classic, it’s also been branded as esoteric and even pretentious. And while I want to love the show for all that’s right with it, I must begrudgingly admit – it is more clever than it is entertaining. Even other “artistic” anime, like Evangelion or Utena, have time for humor and simplicity. But for all the show’s problems, Lain herself is one of the most memorable character I’ve ever come across. While the specifics of the show quickly faded from memory, I found myself thinking back to lain. There is something eerie about her, but at the same time relatable. And so, years after my initial viewing, I went back and tried to answer the question, “what makes Lain so memorable?”

On the one hand, the key to a strong character is simplicity. Part of what motivated me to finally write this was a video essay on Avatar the Last Airbender. I appreciated how the video focussed on the small things – how a few lines of dialogue can tell us more about a character than five minutes of exposition or an elaborate metaphor. But Lain is not much of a talker, so she had to be developed in more experimental ways. While Lain didn’t need to be as unorthodox as it was, that’s because most experimentation was for its own sake – they took the road less traveled because it was scenic, not because it got them where they were going. But Lain herself is an odd character – one who warrants a more unorthodox approach.

Part of what’s immediately striking is how the story is first person. When Lain hears voices on her train ride to school, we hear them too. And later, when lain is hallucinating, we see the same visions. Even the way we see them is from her vantage point – we look down and see smoke pouring out of your fingertips, or look up and see the the blackboard blur. It’s clear that we’re not seeing this world from just any perspective, but from inside Lain’s mind.

Most TV is from the third person, or only occasionally puts us in a character’s headspace. Usually perspective is mobile, moving from character to character, following the action. But the perspective in Lain is fixed, only following Lain, even when her story is not very interesting. We walk down the street with her, we see her fall asleep, and we even wait with her as she sits in her room, doing nothing. As a result, we develop a certain subconscious intimacy with the character. We literally live a day in her shoes.

While this first person approach is not particularly common, it is not very innovative in and of itself. Once could even argue that it’s a lazy way to develop empathy for a character. After all, all we’re really doing as a viewer is following this character, seeing as much of her life as possible. Familiarity breeds affection. Spend enough time with anyone, and you’ll develop some level of caring for them. But most skilled writers establish characters through a few well placed lines, or a distinct moment.

What makes Lain’s character development pay off it how our expectations are subverted. We follow Lain home, watch her hang out in her room, then she her slowly fall asleep. And we’re also there the next morning, when she wakes up. We’ve literally spent every waking moment of the day with her. But then at school, Lain overhears rumors that she was at a club last night. But we know these rumors can’t be true, since we were asleep last night. We saw lain, lying in bed.

But then we learn the truth – that Lain had been at that night club. But we don’t see much of what happened, other than a brief clip of lain turning around to the camera, saying “go away.” In one fell swoop, the illusion of intimacy is broken. We realize that Lain had snuck out of her room, almost as if she were sneaking away from us. And for the first time, Lain looks at the camera, breaking the illusion of intimacy. We go from sharing her first person experience, to staring her straight in the eyes.

Feeling betrayed by Lain, and pushed away from her preservative, we start to see the perspective of other characters. For the first time, we focus on scenes with other characters. And for these characters, Lain is a foreign entity. She perhaps scary, perhaps an object of unrequited love. She may be many things. But just as we are starting to understand lain from a third person perspective, we get a very curious scene. Lain’s friends call out to her, and she turns to greet them, only to have another Lain shove her aside and run ahead. I always found this scene particularly powerful, because of how the story is developed. We have felt exactly what lain is feeling in this moment. That horrible sensation thinking we are Lain, only to realize that’s not true. There is another, true Lain out there, one we don’t understand.

And now we realize, perhaps we never left Lain’s perspective. Not feeling like Lain – seeing another Lain rejecting us – is what it’s like to be Lain.and as the story develops, and we realize that Lain is omnipotent, we realize we truly never did leave her perspective. Following other characters’ stories was simply experiencing Lain’s omnipotence. And yet, at the end, we have no concrete idea of “what is Lain?”

This strange connection to Lain – this simultaneous distance and intimacy – is part of what makes her character so incredible. She exudes such a strong sense of loneliness. But beyond the narrative trickery, there’s a lot else that makes her character work. For one, her interactions with others are uncannily realistic. Her school bullies don’t torment her. They’re not even malicious. But there’s a subtle meanness to them, one that I’ve seen in schools myself. Also, Lain’s thought process is all too familiar. She seems unemotional at first – bland. But we find out she has ambition, malicious thoughts, and she can pretend to be “normal” when it suits her. She can even rage. It’s a very simple thing, but all too often, characters lack a full spectrum of emotions. They don’t get angry or sad in believable ways. Lain isn’t crying or shouting because someone died or the world is about to end. She does so because she’s human, and that’s a very stressful experience.

As I mentioned, Lain is hardly a perfect show. I would even call it pretentious, not a word I use lightly. But Lain herself is a captivating character – she can feel so real, and yet so incomprehensible. She is a brilliant example of the frigidity of identity, and an impressive feat of surrealist writing.

In Defense Of Bleach

Bleach

I remember when I first read about Bleach – an article about how this fresh new anime, named after a common cleaning agent, would soon take the world by storm. I was understandably skeptical. But for years I would hear murmurings, and could sense the Bleach fandom swelling. Then I finally got around to watching it, only to find myself sorely disappointed. And in the coming years, many have adopted a similar skepticism. For the upcoming Olympics in Japan, both Goku and Naruto will serve as Mascots, while Ichigo is noticeably missing. And whenever someone needs an example of a bad shonen anime, Bleach seems to be the default. But just as the world seems to tire of Bleach, I’ve come around to it.

I think the problem has to do with our criteria for judging a show, or any story for that matter. We all seem to have this built in checklists of elements that make a good story. “Good character development?” Check! “Diverse and well paced plotting?” Check! “Elaborate metaphor for universal truth about life?” Check! My problem with this approach is that it disregards the intent of the story. We modify somewhat, forgiving comedies for a lack of overarching plot, or dramas for a lack of wit, but the criteria is generally rigid. Yes, Bleach’s plots are recycled and it’s characters are simple, but that’s not the point. Bleach is a showcase of cool and creative moments. Just because something is “cool” does not make it lowbrow. Unlike anger, sadness, or fear, cool is a concept exclusively human – it must be created, never occurring naturally.

But how does Kubo create a sense of cool? If I had to classify his writing, I would call it  “the art of the anti climax.” To understand this approach, it helps to look at Kubo’s favorite scene from Dragon Ball Z – the confrontation between Future Trunks and Frieza. For those wondering, it took our heroes 30 episodes to kill Frieza the first time. Now he’s back, with robotic enhancements and his dad, King Cold, ready to exact his vengeance.

But what should be a 50 episode fight last minutes, as Trunks dispatches the father son team with ease. There is something remarkably satisfying about this moment – a warm, exhilarating feeling I can only describe as cool. It’s that same cool you feel when Indiana Jones shoots the sword ninja, or when one Bond Villain is exposed as the pawn of an even greater villain. We see some of theses moments in western cinema, but most movies go with a conventional climax – build a character or moment up, then deliver on the hype. But subverting that hype can be even more effective. For instance, in One Punch Man, characters are built up to be all powerful, only to be obliterated by a single Punch. But even in anime where it is less obvious, the power of the anti climax is key. For instance, all shonen have that moment where our hero charges up their all powerful finishing move, only to have it easily deflected by the enemy. Or the most powerful good guy (usually some kindly old guy) fights for the first time, only to lose. These moments are basically a must in shonen anime, and demonstrate the power of an anticlimactic cool.

But I would argue that no anime, let alone show, has examined anticlimax more thoroughly than Bleach. Yes, the overall plot and characters are straightforward, but the progression is less so. For instance, in Bleach’s third arc, we come across a new kind of antagonist – the Arrancars. They’ve been hyped up as wildly powerful, and soon invade the human world. One of those invaders actually appeared at the end of the manga’s third volume, so his introduction is literally years in the making. And …

He instantly loses to Rukia. Not only is his loss a subversion of expectation, but so is Rukia’s win, as she’s been completely powerless thus far. And then, another Arrancar appears and just as easily beats Rukia. A complaint I’ve heard is that Bleach is predictable, and that once you expect the “unexpected,” it’s no longer surprising. But down to its last arc, I had a hard time knowing where Bleach was going. I thought I saw familiar patterns – for instance, in both the Arrancar and Quincy arcs, the villains have a squad of all women – basically rehashes of the same characters. But the way it plays out in each arc is entirely different, and legitimately surprising. Basically, Bleach is a game of avoiding expectations.

Of course, this game gets harder as the years go on. A show like Bleach is hard to maintain because the patterns become more predictable – even breaks in patterns can be parsed out.

But at the end, for all its flaws, I enjoyed reading Bleach. Whereas the end of Naruto felt tired and uninspired, Bleach still felt highly imaginative. The powers were interesting, the characters were zany, and the internal logic was unique. While I don’t like to use this word (as it has esoteric connotations) Bleach is quite avant garde. It builds expectation and hype, only to redirect it at the last moment. “You thought this guy was going to be scary? Well, what about the guy who came in and kicked his ass before he could even do anything?” Or perhaps a character who wasn’t built up at all comes out of nowhere and dominates for ten whole chapters.

So much of storytelling is about buildup and release, but anime  breaks this golden rule. Buildup can be a dead end, or there can be a last minute detour. Or perhaps you won’t get any buildup and the stakes will escalate without warning. While Bleach is certainly flawed, it’s a good showcase of Anticlimax, and a good example of how anime breaks the mold.

Some Thoughts on One Punch Man

OneI was originally a skeptic of this show, worried that it would become derivative and predictable. Introduce a threat to humanity, showcase its devastating powers and elaborate back story, and then have it lose at the hands (or rather, fists) of a dorky looking dude in spandex. The premise is simple. Perhaps too simple, better suited to a one time gag than an entire show. For the first few episodes, One Punch Man remains entertaining, but mostly on account of the remarkable animation, not the story. But in its original form, One Punch Man is a crudely drawn webcomic that relies on the strength of its ideas and story, not production value. And as the anime went on, the strengths of those ideas became clear.

I think the biggest misconception about One Punch man is that it’s about a man who can singlehandedly beat any opponent with one punch. Well, it is, but it’s also about how we can have such an absurdly powerful character and still have a story. Ultimately, the main joke of One Punch Man is not about “Bald Cape” and his supernatural strength, but about bureaucracy. The more I grow and the more I experience the “adult” world, the more poor organization I encounter. I’ve come to realize that success has more to do with likability and networking than pure talent. And One Punch Man uses this fact to great comedic effect.

For instance, My favorite character is King – the man who made his way to the top through pure bullshitting. Just as our hero is grossly underappreciated for his talents, King is greatly overestimated, put in a position he is simply unqualified for. Given current political events, it’s a timely commentary. But skirting past politics, King is a very relatable character. He finds all kinds of creative ways to convince people he’s strong, and I find myself thinking what I’d do in the same situation. But what really makes King’s act work is how others see him. Once we have an impression of someone, it’s hard to counteract. Once I see someone in a position of power, I assume some level of competency. When I see someone working a less desirable job, I find myself assuming it’s due to lack of talent. But in the end, where we land is all rather random. King is funny because all this is true – like any good joke, he’s true to everyday logic.

For instance, when King dominates in a high stakes video game competition, no one assumes it’s because he spends all day cooped up, playing games and watching anime (which is exactly what he does) . They just assume he’s good at them because he’s King – what wouldn’t he be good at? Or when King’s power level is calculated as inconclusive, there are two explanations – that he’s too strong or too weak. But of course, given his reputation, everyone assume he’s that unfathomably powerful.

But while it’s the setup of a joke, the bureaucracy of One Punch Man is well thought out. Those who can manipulate the system rise to the top, while the rest are forced to extreme measures. Beyond being funny, this set up is widely engrossing. Ranks and power levels are good entertainment. But I’ve never seen them scrutinized as well as they are in One Punch Man. Part social commentary, part comedy routine, and part action adventure, One Punch Man is actually quite clever. Yea, it starts as a guy in a cape punching things. But ultimately, I see it as a different kind of humor. It’s not funny because he can win any fight in seconds, but because that doesn’t seem to matter. At the end of the day, One Punch Man is about the nooks and crannies of an absurd bureaucratic system, and the people within it. 

 

Kakegurui Episode 1

gamble

If anime has a single, unifying purpose, it’d be infusing anything it can with coolness. From school sports to writing in a notebook, just about anything can be made cool – just add a bit of visual panache. As such, gambling battles are nothing new for anime. The first to come to mind is Kaiji, which incorporates many of the same gambling games as Kakegurui. But what separates Kakegurui from the crowd is a focus on characters. I’m not saying it’s a nuanced character study, or that it’s characters have much depth, but they’re colorful, distinct, and tons of fun.

While Kaiji spends its first few episodes exploring a special version of Rock Paper Scissors, Kakegurui introduces a similar game, resolving it in a single episode. Kakegurui is clearly less concerned with the game itself than the personalities of its players. And unlike most gambling anime, where the hero wants an assured victory, Kakeguri is about physiological endurance. Can you keep from cracking under the pressure? Can you revel in the risk?

If I had to make a comparison to something other than Kaiji, I’d say Kakegurui is like Death Note. Everything is exaggerated and dramatic – decks of cards don’t just drift to the floor. They explode into the air. Chips don’t just fall, but slam on the table like heavy hale. People don’t just smile maniacally, but unhinge their jaw and expand their mouth to three times its normal length. But unlike Death Note, Kakegurui knows it’s a fun ride. It’s “hero” doesn’t pretend to be a good person, and it’s not going for any “moral ambiguity.”

If you strip away everything, leaving just the fundamentals, Kakegurui is a bunch of busty women losing their shit. That’s it. But that’s a noble pursuit in my book, and Kakegurui does it well. As far as an introduction goes, this first episode is promising. Crazy faces, funky jazz, and cute school girls – anime in its purest form.

 

Attack on Titan Season 2 Short Review

Titan

Aside from the hoard of holographic dinosaurs, which were confusing, I found myself excited – Attack on Titan’s new opening was all I could hope for, with parkour pants, mid air acrobatics, and over the top music. What more could I want? You can’t beat the simple pleasure of an adrenaline rush – of a high octane battle with over the top animation.

But season two starts to show cracks. Part of the problem is that Attack on Titan is something of a one trick pony, with “epic” as one of its only high points. It has other emotions, but mostly just “epic and sad,” “epic and angry,” or for special occasions “epic and passionate.” Whatever other emotions there are, they are subordinate to the show’s hype, and dependent on it. Attack on Titan has a hard time holding my attention without that signature rush of adrenaline. Also, the very best scenes stand uncomfortably above most others. I often find myself wading through a series of subpar scenes, waiting for an amazing one in the last few minutes – the TV equivalent of living for the weekend.

Furthermore, the show shifts from conflict with the Titans, to conflict with other humans. The issue is that the politics of Attack on Titan are not particularly compelling or realistic. Normally, what makes a climactic scene work is the buildup and stakes. But Attack on Titan tends to sidestep this rule, relying on the moment itself rather than context or stakes. This is an ever more popular approach, in a world of YouTube videos and gifs, where the most successful shows are those that can exist as smaller moments.

While watching Attack on Titan, I can’t help but feel that the best three to five minutes of each episode make up 90% of the appeal. In a way, this review feels like an “I told you so” moment, as a show I was always skeptical of wanes. And yet, I take no pleasure in being negative. The frustration is that Attack has wonderful moments – some of the best in this year of anime. I just wish these moments existed in other shows. There are many anime that have the opposite problem – plenty of strong character development and build up, but payoffs that fall flat. In terms of constructing a single moment of pure exhilaration and grandeur, Attack on Titan has few equals. Many anime should try and learn from it.

 

My Hero Academia Season 2 First Half Review

Hero

For me, the second season of My Hero Academia is a chance for redemption. It’s initial run was fun, colorful and at times, truly epic. But like most hero sagas, the first season was set on being an origin story, more setup than the main story itself. The problem is that Deku, our aspiring hero, is so simple minded. As such, twelve episodes feel excessive for telling his backstory. To put it in perspective, the first season amounts to roughly four hours of content, totaling two movies worth.

Thanks to Marvel, we have seen many origin stories, in half the time, and even that can feel too long. The issue is that season one knew where it wanted each episode to end. This approach led to some fantastic climaxes, but left the middles feeling stretched out. As such,  a lot of the show felt empty. At first I thought this emptiness was a result of the content, but it later occurred to me that the problem was with the presentation. For a show with such simple ideas and high energy, Hero Academia plodded along too slowly.

I appreciate that the first season did not try to outsmart its genre by being overly subversive. But I also found myself longing for more strangeness. It’s cool to see an homage to the textbook, “coming of age” hero story, but it doesn’t need twelve episodes. Again, most of my issues come back to the pacing. For instance, the entry exam did not need to take a whole episode, nor did Eraserhead’s physical exam. 

Season two has felt more appropriately paced, with most episodes introducing, resolving, and exploring a particular conflict. The stakes are far lower than season one, but this has been a welcome improvement. In season one, it’s clear that Deku will not be expelled, that his friends won’t be murdered by villains, and that everything will work out. The stakes have declined substantially, but as a result, the outcome is uncertain.

Additionally, this season does a better job of navigating its sprawling cast. Tournament arcs are effective because they offer a way to showcase each character’s personality and powers, while giving the show a way to structure itself. And rather than split various plot points and conflicts over multiple episodes, season 2 stays mostly compressed. Even climactic, centerpiece fights get resolved in a single episode.

Hero Acadamia’s strength is ultimately its light heartedness. In a world full of subversive and self referential television, My Hero is not trying to outsmart itself – it is not concerned with showing off how clever it can be. Sometimes it’s nice to focus on the fundamentals, like high budget action scenes and crazy characters. While the characters are not particularly complex, most have enough charm or zaniness to carry them through. Also, there are about a thousand characters, so each carries a small amount of narrative weight.

Ultimately, My Hero Academia is fun because it’s simple and honest.  When everything is trying so hard to be profound, it’s nice to watch something that prioritizes fun and entertainment. The only drawback is that Hero Academia can lack the strangeness of many anime. I often go to anime for something different, so in a world of Marvel films and superhero oversaturation, My Hero rarely doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

My Hero is ultimately hard to evaluate because it’s simply solid. When a show is either amazing or offensively bad, a review practically writes itself. My Hero is tricky because you could go without watching it, but there’s hardly any reason not to. I’ve enjoyed each episode, but once it’s finished, it goes away. I don’t catch myself thinking about it a week later, or ever being particularly surprised or awestruck.

The first half of season two is fun, and at times beautiful and high octane. It doesn’t distinguish itself, but sometimes that is refreshing. Sometimes something simple is what I need.