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"Did you know? Whenever a star falls, it means one of them has died…" - Secret Santa #1: Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop’s influence on Darker than Black aside, I got absolutely nothing out of it except for maybe a new loathing for Watanabe. While Tensai Okamura has worked extensively on it and Wolf’s Rain had the makings of the anime he wanted to do (like Taniguchi’s original works pre-Geass), DtB has Bebop written all over it. Just look at the shooting stars thing to see what I mean! Or the leaving the syndicate thing! You can’t unsee it now.

(On that note, the only thing which Bebop has that is better than DtB is that they didn’t make a second season of Bebop!)

More importantly, I could never enjoy Bebop on the level that I enjoyed most things, which I suspect is because halfway through watching it I had a little chat with jpmeyer about Watanabe and his style in general—I got the diagnosis that I was taking it too seriously, which could be for a lot of things, but mostly because the bounty is just a bounty when it comes to the episodic posts.

Or, “It’s all surface,” which is was what I was told, which help me appreciate it a lot better after that, but mostly on an intellectual level. You see, Bebop appears to be “aged” if we assume that its cool trappings assume any sort of emotional depth—it barely even registers as so, choosing instead to focus on that pastiche thing which left barely anything with which to identify with.

"It’s all surface" makes Bebop better, but not by a lot. It’s fine if you want to see cool people doing cool things—which in terms of trope equivalence makes it the same as K-ON, which is cute girls doing cute things—but the journey isn’t worth it. It got better towards the end, mostly because the parts involving Julia and Spike’s past with the, uh, syndicate made things come together cohesively and made the point of the cast of four something more than people randomly thrown together, which was something I saw in Samurai Champloo and wasn’t really interested in.

I’d also put it down to the time in which I’ve seen about 200+ anime towards ruining the experience for me. As I said in my previous post, it’s not that Bebop does anything wrong—god knows it doesn’t—it’s that sometimes, a bounty is just a bounty. There’s no subversion at work, no reversals, no clichés used in a renewed way, no nothing. Unlike, say, Mushishi which had things like THE BRIDGE IS MADE OUT OF PEOPLE or HIS WIFE IS A BAMBOO TREE or HER SISTER HAS BEEN TRAVELLING THE MUSHI-NETWORK FOR YEARS or GINKO IS MADE OUT OF FISH there just wasn’t anything to be surprised about. The bounty was WYSIWYG.

But that’s the problem with pure surface, I suppose. Ten years ago when this was out I would have had no problems with digesting it, accepting it for what it is: a quick romp in the hay. As it is ten years on it’s become the sort of cultural monster that people are quick to defend, shy to attack, and too obfuscated by nostalgia and memory to realise that not all of us look for things only ankle-deep sometimes, even if they’re “cool”. It’s become part of that canon thing, and rolling my eyes at people on Twitter only made it all the more amusing.

Soundtrack-wise I can’t tell if Kanno has actually gotten better or worse, since if we disregard the excellent Julia leitmotif and acoustic guitar tracks it’s about middling at best. No emotive pieces, but the soundtrack has one thing going for it—it stands alone in a way that no other soundtrack of hers probably has (probably has since I actually listen to the soundtracks after the anime, not without ever having seen it), and as a result when I finally got to listen to the pieces in context as it were, they didn’t feel all that great, or maybe I just had problems fitting them into the actual context, as opposed to the one I had in mind while listening to it.

I still think people who listen to soundtracks for shows they haven’t seen are pretty lulz, but eh, whatever. Yes, anime is serious business, and I watch anime for its deep characterisation and complex plots, when I’m not watching a skinflick. It’s pretty ironic how what is supposed to be ZOMG TEH BEST EVAR has never clashed more deeply with what I consider to be the strengths of the medium, but there you go, Secret Santa. I hope you’re happy.

(Source: big-big-truck.com)

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(click on the picture for a full-sized version)
I had the chance to watch Cowboy Bebop back in 2000 when I was what, 14? I’m pretty sure I would have appreciated it then—my mind was a fresh slate, easily impressionable, without the weight of a decade of rich stories weighing on it. Too bad I didn’t, I’m sure I would’ve liked it a lot more then.
It’s been ten years since, though, and all I can note is how much anime has grown since then—how this particular work has stood still in comparison. It was significant for its time, I’ll give it that much. It’s anything but timeless, though. There are no twists, no subverted tropes, nothing to work with in this post-post age of tropes and archetypes and clichés. Not even served on the rocks, but neat.
Such is the fate of fans whose tastes are firmly rooted in the 00’s, but the last thing I’d do is pretend that I’m actually enjoying this so far—it’s the world’s most vanilla vanilla ice-cream, which is great if you like vanilla, but that episode with the fucking blob and the lobster and the fridge left a bad aftertaste in the mouth. Me? I like chocolate mint, and pistachio.
There will be a proper Secret Santa review when I’m done with the other half, but in the meantime, you over there frothing at the mouth that I don’t like the great majestic grand stupendous wonderful amazing fantastic critically acclaimed masterpiece a thousand times over ever that references a million things? Bite me.
(allusion means it’s good! like The Book of the New Sun, and American Gods! storytelling is overrated! we just need a slick edgy style with a cool soundtrack and they will love it. cart before the horse works every time.)

(click on the picture for a full-sized version)

I had the chance to watch Cowboy Bebop back in 2000 when I was what, 14? I’m pretty sure I would have appreciated it then—my mind was a fresh slate, easily impressionable, without the weight of a decade of rich stories weighing on it. Too bad I didn’t, I’m sure I would’ve liked it a lot more then.

It’s been ten years since, though, and all I can note is how much anime has grown since then—how this particular work has stood still in comparison. It was significant for its time, I’ll give it that much. It’s anything but timeless, though. There are no twists, no subverted tropes, nothing to work with in this post-post age of tropes and archetypes and clichés. Not even served on the rocks, but neat.

Such is the fate of fans whose tastes are firmly rooted in the 00’s, but the last thing I’d do is pretend that I’m actually enjoying this so far—it’s the world’s most vanilla vanilla ice-cream, which is great if you like vanilla, but that episode with the fucking blob and the lobster and the fridge left a bad aftertaste in the mouth. Me? I like chocolate mint, and pistachio.

There will be a proper Secret Santa review when I’m done with the other half, but in the meantime, you over there frothing at the mouth that I don’t like the great majestic grand stupendous wonderful amazing fantastic critically acclaimed masterpiece a thousand times over ever that references a million things? Bite me.

(allusion means it’s good! like The Book of the New Sun, and American Gods! storytelling is overrated! we just need a slick edgy style with a cool soundtrack and they will love it. cart before the horse works every time.)

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Little Sister

Little Sister

Artist: Rufus Wainwright
Album: Want Two

Hanamaru Kindergarten can get tiresome at times, but only when it’s about Satsuki, Tsuchida’s younger sister. What is it with her that actually prompts her to get on my nerves? Her performance is horribly overwrought to a point I never thought possible. Why’s that so? She’s too damned self-aware is what.

Satsuki is, after all, everything bemoaned about anime and manga, to some lesser extent. The imouto archetype is now a stereotype, a cliché, and maybe good for a few weak laughs after which its status is relegated to that of a running joke gone stale, a dead horse, or even that cruel joke you bring up at parties to gain laughs at the expense of a friend.

What really bears mention, though, is that the archetype has a reasonably realistic basis for its conception. Those of you with little sisters should already know this, but most, if not all of them grow up and lose the attachment they have to their older brothers once they hit puberty, a far cry from their behaviour before that.

The now-overused stereotype specifically addresses this point, artificially elongating the period of dependence and closeness of the little sister to the point where it seems outright unnatural to those not well-versed in its pseudo-/incestuous connotations, which brings me back to Satsuki—she is irking in the same way that movies whose plot you can predict without having set foot in the theatre are irksome.

Ultimately, it all boils down to how much self-awareness you can tolerate in a given work. My tolerance varies from work to work, and while I was able to accept preternaturally mature preschoolers or unnaturally dense teachers, Satsuki just left a bad taste in the mouth through how she seemed so determined to stick to the book. It’s nothing I hadn’t seen before, but frankly, when you’ve seen this much anime (almost close to 200 series completed), you tend to long for more than just the basics.

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Kobato - Angels’ Beat.

This post contains spoilers for Kobato and Chobits, and lots of post-hoc reasoning™.

I finished Kobato on the first of October, almost a year since it aired, and what it left me with by the end of it all was a sense of being incomplete, something that proved to be true enough, as the Wikipedia article lists a whole lot of things I missed. Way to go, CLAMP, now I’ll have no choice but to read them all in order to get every single reference you threw my way, won’t I?

It’s fitting, then, that I only realised exactly how different the anime was from the manga in terms of design, which led to this post. I mean, just look at this, or this, or this—and then look at this calendar, which faithfully reproduces what I’m guessing is the style of the manga.

Speaking of manga, this is how it begins, I think. #1: The appeal of a CLAMP work doesn’t lie in their story. This may very well be contentious at best, since my contact with their works are admittedly limited to a few, well-known ones that I’ve read: Cardcaptor Sakura. Miyuki-chan in Wonderland. Angelic Layer. Chobits. However, it’s safe to say by way of analogy that most people (their target audience) aren’t reading their stuff for the sake of the compelling characterisation, just like how fans of nakige aren’t playing them for the same reason.

Why would the story matter anyway? Look at X, Legal Drug, and Clover. They stand alone, albeit in an incomplete manner, but it’s not like their publication being disrupted threw a wrench in CLAMP’s production—they’re not starving artists who’ve dedicated themselves to their craft. In other words, their raison d’etre for creating isn’t because they want to tell a story—there’s been plenty of other CLAMP works since then, which brings me to my next point:

#2: CLAMP’s forte lies in their art. Yes, it’s very pretty, but what does it do? Forget about that way of thinking. It’s too utilitarian, and in the case of CLAMP, their impossibly thin and beautiful characters aren’t merely means to an end; I’d say that their refined aesthetic formed over the decades is the end in and of itself, and that the story is merely an excuse with which they use to present their characters.

Look at it this way: Pages upon pages of drawings alone won’t sell. Neither would compiled artbooks that comprise of said drawings, unless you’re an established artist who can sell a work on the strength of your name alone. If CLAMP was as dedicated to their story as they were to their art, why would they leave X as it is? In the case of Clover and Legal Drug, it’s understandable since there’s been barely a handful of volumes out, but X? X had eighteen volumes published.

I just can’t comprehend why they’d just abandon such an extensive work, but if you look at it not from the story-told-with-artwork perspective but that of a story-is-a-means-to-show-off-artwork one, it all makes sense. It wasn’t that the story couldn’t go on, it’s that they didn’t think they could draw anything else to hedge in to that particular story, and decided to move on instead.

You must be wondering where I’m going with all this right now. Here it is: #3 CLAMP truly shines when cruel things happen to beautiful people.o This may seem all too obvious at first, but a cursory glance doesn’t reveal much about the recurring themes in their work. Chobits? Possibly-incestuous android daughter dies from heartbreak (or something like that, it’s been ages since I read it), is sealed away in her sister’s mind, and then thrown away in the garbage.

Of course, there’s a bit of fanservice here and there, something ultimately trivial in the bigger picture of things, but then you have the child genius who’s built an advanced android in the image of his late sister, and an extremely pretty baker who’s mourning the death of his ex-wife, yet another android, and apparently one of the very first android marriages in the country. If that’s not simultaneously creepy and heartbreaking, I don’t know what is, but you just might be able to see the connection with Angel Beats now, because…

#4 …CLAMP is to manga what Jun Maeda is to visual novels. I bet you saw that coming. I don’t think for a moment that Jun’s forte lies in his particularly original stories—his twists, maybe, and the emotions evoked upon revelation of said twist, most likely, but “story” when viewed separately from the other elements? Not a chance.

However, this analogy doesn’t translate to an anime adaptation all that well. You have visual novels, a medium practically like a low-budget version of an anime for what it’s worth: voice acting, detailed backgrounds, sprites expressing emotion, music, an OP and ED.

Then you have manga, where #5 CLAMP’s art-as-tragedy is lost in translation. Jun Maeda’s, however, is not. The difference between mediums here is key—it’s easy to mark the beats in a scene, the carefully structured narrative that leads right up till the point where a sad girl in a field disappears and the protagonist bawls his eyes out. The tragedy lies in that climax that the story has been leading up to all this while, and, if halted, wouldn’t be as much of a downer as it would be something that makes no sense whatsoever.

Visual novels, however, are shipped as a complete product—manga, on the other hand, is published on a weekly/fortnightly/monthly basis, during which time the manga-ka has to continually justify her existence in the publication, with no exception being made for trivial things like story. My guess is that CLAMP knows exactly how that plays out and consciously decides to go for a more disposable form of storytelling, one practically unaffected by a halt in publication. They’ll just move on to another work, after all, it’s no big deal. Plenty more of where that came from.

With that in mind, #6 Kobato is a significant work in CLAMP’s repertoire. I’ve always thought that they’ve been working towards a balance of cruelty/beauty, and Kobato achieves this by blunting the cruelty with cute and fuzzy visual euphemisms. Ioryogi and his companions aren’t punished outright, merely turned into soft toys/animals and set down to earth to bake… baumkuchen as penance. A bunny is a grim reaper who passes judgement from God by way of a… flower. Kobato doesn’t bear the typical signs of a dead person, either—the halo I was expecting to see was replaced by a floating crown.

Euphemisms help lessen the blow of what would otherwise be an all-out miseryfest, as is the case in Angel Beats, where the sadness is glorified in every flashback, every tear and cry of a character a moneyshot. Is guaranteeing that a dead girl—whose soul is granted a temporary existence—will be erased should she not satisfy the contract cruelty in its own right? Not if her achievements are measured in the form of konpeito, glowing spiky candy that materialise in a tiny glass bottle covered with what looks like the Twitter mascot, and most definitely not if the punishment’s carried out by a mute plush toy bunny wielding a daisy.

Kobato is like Angel Beats in that they are the sum of everything their authors have been trying to achieve, that particular work that’s given special weight by virtue of what has transpired before it. In order to consider Angel Beats you have to first think of Kanon, Air, and Clannad; in the same way too should Kobato be considered with the full weight of every work that CLAMP has ever produced where broken yet beautiful people were not characters presenting a story but rather, presented as characters through a story.

We’re still talking cruelty here at the end of the day, though, so what better way to exhibit this vested interest throughout the story than to make Kobato herself go about “healing the hearts” of people she meets? In this respect it’s more alike to the Mushishi tradition of the blank-slate protagonist that helps different characters on an episodic basis, something that, I might add, suits CLAMP’s purpose of the beauty/cruelty duality in Kobato.

Last but not least, #7 Kobato (the anime) is not the same as Kobato (the manga), and I wouldn’t discount the possibility on following up with the manga in the future, at any rate. As I mentioned earlier, the disparity between the style of the manga and the style of the anime is just too great—there’s a soft, pastel, ephemeral quality to CLAMP’s art that they’ve perfected that just isn’t possible to replicate in anime, not satisfactorily at any rate. What the anime is when the focus from the art’s taken away is that of a story described as adequate at best.

There’s always been this dichotomy of “the journey” and “the end” when it comes to describing most stories out there—if it isn’t the time spent getting towards the end it’s the end itself. I’m not sure if CLAMP embraces this notion that I’ve exhaustively outlined above entirely, as evidenced from recent works such as Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic, but the notion of a trichotomy, or “the art”, doesn’t seem to be that far off.

Tags   #anime   #manga   #Angel Beats!   #Angel Beats   #Kobato.   #Kobato  
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The Panda Neko is brilliant in its simplicity—it doesn’t claim to be more than a vehicle for expression in the Hanamaru-verse, giving characters a chance to interact or otherwise behave in a kooky manner more suited towards their real age—all this while having an incredibly catchy and memorable tune.

I’m not sure if this is some sort of non-canon representation of the eponymous dance (if it is, what are they doing there?) but for what it’s worth, it captures the personalities and seemingly pointless nature of Hanamaru Kindergarten so well. Be it timid Koume, genial Anzu, or reticent Hiiragi, in 90 seconds we’re treated to a Cliff’s Notes version of their range of emotions throughout the series.

The lack of pretension is probably what makes Panda Neko’s presence in Hanamaru feel so natural. Let’s take a panda, and add cat ears to it, slim it down a little, grant it an anthropomorphic appearance… and there you have it, instant mascot. What’s it for, you say? What’s the story behind it? Why bother with such complicated matters when you can just beat around the bush and, by selectively choosing what to display of it, utilise it as an effective mascot-cum-motif?

The playfulness of the Panda Neko belies the fact that it is, for all purposes, a sign of infinite possibility. Its design screams “Look, I’m a cat and a panda, because I’m just that awesome!” and its presence in the OP signifies everything but the kitchen sink—boundless imagination, fleeting fancy, wishes, hopes, and dreams. Infinite possibilities.

(Source: starchild.co.jp)

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ジーザス・クラウド

ジーザス・クラウド

Artist: 石井妥師
Album: DARKER THAN BLACK-流星の双子-オリジナル・サウンドトラック

Last regrets? I have plenty. To be honest, I wouldn’t know where to begin with my disappointment with Darker than Black 2’s soundtrack, if not for the occasional gem it spits out, the fleeting diamond in the rough that wasn’t blatantly hamfisted techno suckage that was the soundtrack.

It’s not that Yasushi Ishii did anything wrong with the tracks that weren’t the techno shit, mind you. It’s that he didn’t do enough. It’s painful to see tracks like this, the arbitrarily named Jesus Cloud and its instrumental counterpart, go down the drain like so, awash in a sea of failure to comprehend Darker than Black as being something more than just your typical action flick. His work exhibited actual promise, nevermind that he was no Yoko Kanno—sometimes not being good is fine. Not being enough, however, is something else altogether.

I like his acoustic guitar work—闇枯れ草 (Yami Karekusa), Gemein Shadow, the aforementioned Jesus Cloud (instrumental) all show great technical proficiency and a ear for the foreboding mood that made Darker than Black stand out among its peers. They show real promise and complexity on a scale most anime music composers don’t seem to have, and Ishii probably mistook the need for variety with a need to pound each nauseatingly techno track (and there are a lot of them) into each battle scene.

I’m really, really sorry if techno is your genre of choice, but it wasn’t meant to be in this case, I’m afraid. As penance, I shall get Yoko Kanno to play the world’s smallest violin for you, and it will sound good. That’s how great she is. Ishii, on the other hand, will probably pepper the whole thing with some disco-electronica variation so that you won’t be able to hear the violin for the beats.

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NieA_7 - The Poverty of Silence

Thanks, schneider. It’s safe to say that episode seven is indeed significant in how the tone abruptly—maybe even jarringly—shifts from that of a previously low-key, down-tempo sort-of-comedic ensemble to that of a painfully slow yet effective slice-of-life. Was that even a proper genre when this aired? Well, don’t let silly things like backdating works with conventional terms get to you, I guess.

But that’s neither here nor there. It’s almost beyond me at this point in time to engage in that much loathed anime pareidolia by claiming patterns where they’re none, yet the concept of NieA, under seven seem to fit the abrupt shift in tone. The focus wavers, and suddenly what was a previously viable (only if you liked that sort of thing, though—I’m hard-pressed to recommend NieA_7 to even the most hardcore of comedy/slice-of-life fans) premise seems almost trivial in light of how events are presented.

It’s probably still pareidolia when all’s said and done. That the split in ‘arcs’—inasmuch as there can be said to be some sort of coherent separation of content within NieA_7—comes before and after the seventh episode is more likely to be coincidental than anything. The term ‘Under Seven’ is more like a pejorative than it is a taxonomy of the antenna-wearing aliens, and more important is the change that takes place post-episode seven, something so subtle it might escape most viewers.

What is this change anyway? Episode seven’s focus is solidly on Mayu’s state of poverty and how it affects her to the point where she turns down her friend’s invitation to one of those quaintly Japanese meetings among teens for the purposes of hooking up with the opposite sex; nothing is the same afterwards.

The internal chronology of the episodes changes dramatically. Watching this show in brief spurts at the beginning might not have been the best strategy, but toughing it out towards the second half was definitely the right choice, for one of the directorial choices that takes place is to feature a day in an episode for each episode, right up till episode eleven.

It’s no coincidence then that the pacing takes on a deliberate, plodding tone that makes the latter half a right torturous thing to watch. Pre-episode seven, the episodic focus of each post makes for a trivial experience; post-episode seven, the way in which each episode built on the previous one by virtue of merely being set back to back—continuously referring to the episode before it—made for a richer, more atmospheric narration.

The usage of silence is one such device. I’m loath to claim that the use of prolonged silences in movies are a Japanese thing, but it seems to be the rule rather than the exception in most arthouse-y films from Japan that I’ve seen—silence is primarily used to set a mood, to help the viewer focus on a character, to assist in internalising a character’s thoughts. After episode seven, the use of silence becomes significant, almost tangible in its motives.

What use could silence possibly have in an anime, though? My guess is that the perpetually noisy story, in which scenes are intermittently peppered with random, outlandish gags, requires some sort of anchor if it wants to achieve anything out of the ordinary. Mayu is that anchor, and without it NieA_7 turns unremarkable real quick, for the way in which silence is used to shift our attention to her is commendable, to say the least.

More importantly, while Mayu’s poverty is evident throughout the anime, it is only during episode seven that we are truly and painfully aware of how it affects her. Things are never the same—her relationship with NieA becomes painfully distant. She becomes visibly depressed to the point that numerous side characters remark on it. There are gaps in the episodes where the camera lingers on each shot; no music plays, conversation is kept to the bare minimum, and for a significant amount of time all we see is Mayu about her daily business in a state of disquiet.

Things just aren’t the same without NieA around. Not only does her absence underscore the state of poverty in which Mayu is mired, it also makes us realise just how important NieA is to Mayu, dysfunctionally parasitic as their relationship may be. Being in a state of material destitution is one thing, but having to weather it alone is another, and Mayu’s previously tolerable situation looks all the worse for wear once her days are reduced to a routine tinged with melancholy.

That isn’t to say that watching the latter half of NieA_7 was any easier than watching the former half. It’s the antithesis of what I value in anime in that it wasn’t so much entertainment as it was a bleak introspective into the nature of daily life, and having to see on screen what I already knew to be true in reality made things all the more worse—it’s a pity the execution wasn’t as good as the concept itself.

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