Death Note – 15 – It's been all sorts of fun, L

It’s around about now that we realise Death Note is becoming more than a very good anime series. It’s becoming one of those “OMFG-WTF-CLIFFHANGER!?!” types. I can feel the hysteria surging within me. 15 episodes in and the twists and turns of the story are still as unpredictable as ever. Watching it makes me a frustrated anime fan. More, more, more, I feel like I need to consume it all at once, knowing full well its immediate beauty is the element of surprise. I have to ask questions, but don’t want the answers.
Episode 15 was a brilliant tease, much like a game of tennis – it swings one way then the next, the crowd silent in awe of the battle, the point eventually won with a deft touch from L, the ingenius bastard having risked it all on pure instinct alone – he who dares wins, or so they say?
L has been a loveable oddity up until now, but his heartless interrogation of Misa introduces shades of grey to his personality. Despite being the supposedly good guy, that he’s willing to squash others if it means getting to Kira leads us to question the value of his crusade to halt "evil", given his own methods can be as barbaric as his prey. This scene was outstanding; it instantly subverts everything we assumed was good or noble about Death Note’s police, any concept of moral favouritism goes out the window along with Misa’s innocence as we watch the naïve become degraded and exploited.
The intricacy of the scheming in Death Note never lets up, at one point in this episode I was ready to witness the death of L, and moments later I’m grinning ear to ear as he’s somehow turned it all around and virtually caught Light. It’s been absolutely thrilling so far, I’m surely addicted.

Another new blog layout, Rock Lee style

It’s been nearly four months since I last tinkered with the layout, but last week I caught the designers bug again (*sniff* along with a cold too *sniff*), and so… this is the result! Of course I hope you like the fresh new look, I have to admit it’s a little more ‘accessible’ than my last (decidedly pink) effort, and besides it has awesome characters in the banner, albeit in a grungy stained style; naturally Rock Lee needed to appear on the blog before the second series of Naruto begins.
Anyway – irregular service will resume shortly. If you have anything to say about this new layout, like it or loathe it, I’d love to read your comments.

Japan's increasingly superficial pop culture?

Superflat is a new phrase I have discovered today. It sounds like an obscure 60s rock band but is actually a growing artistic movement subverting, rejecting and critiquing Japan’s increasingly superficial pop culture; often by lampooning it with artwork that features the cute, smiling face of a young anime character surrounded by or oblivious to a grotesque or hard hitting monstrosity.
Of the paintings I’ve seen online, the best of “superflat” is both funny and provocative; an important parody of (particularly) the moe aesthetic that current dominates Japan’s (and increasingly, the world’s) otaku and does well to highlight the hollow soul at it’s centre – in particular, the way fawning otaku can escape or gloss over an often disgusting or unsettling reality simply because a certain character looks cute. The old fashioned style of narrative story telling is dying, apparently the character (designs) are all that matter.
It’s interesting to consider works by the likes of Studio 4°C, Hideaki “Evangelion” Anno and Satoshi “Perfect Blue” Kon are often regarded as “superflat” simply because they have created anime that snub, rather than pander to, the ever demanding otaku crowd. Generally “superflat” is just another way of saying “original”, but today it’s becoming ever more important to make a distinction between the mass-produced barrels of fan service and genuine artistic endeavour.
Recommended articles on Superflat
Superflat on Wikipedia
Superflat Japanese Postmodernity
Superflat by Artnet

Berserk – 3 – The Hawk that soars ever higher

The moustache twiddling decadence caused by extended aristocracy is an issue central to the narrative of Berserk. Regardless of social standing, we all like to dream that we are destined for greatness, to achieve something worthwhile. Aristocracy exists to elongate wealth and protect respect no matter what the cost, and that often includes suppressing the common mans talent to protect one’s position.
The beauty of Berserk, and especially the Band of the Hawk, is that these are classic underdogs who dare to have ideas above their stations, chasing their dreams, doing something important with their lives. The truth, as Berserk is clearly documenting, is that anyone can do anything with their lives provided the right amount of skill and desire. It’s such a romantic concept.
Griffith, the symbolic wings of the Band’s hawk, is talented and has an unquenchable desire to conquer. Despite his peasant roots, he is the future, he is brave enough to fight for his dreams, and others are attracted to that, feel inspired by it or fear it. Most are just content to jump on his back and enjoy the flight; the Hawk that soars ever higher, the view from up there is beautiful, but Guts is different, even now it’s clear that he is a punk, and like Griffith, can never be tamed.
Guts and Griffith are at once the same and totally different, they enjoy true social freedom and unerring self belief, but Guts is a blood thirsty warrior, only looking at what stands in front of his sword, while the elegant Griffith conducts his army like one would a game of chess, his mind calculating ten moves ahead. The early fight in episode 3 between these two is particularly revealing, especially in Guts case – he is completely direct, willing to throw mud, bite, kick and punch his way to victory. He refuses to give up, and in the end Griffith is forced to dislocate Guts shoulder to win the fight, Guts could have surrendered, but replies “Go to hell”. Win or bust.
Episode three marks the end of the beginning, Guts finally joins the Hawks and we are treated to their comradery. The Band of Hawk isn’t simply a group of mercenaries looking for a quick buck; they are friends fighting for each other, dreaming of a better future, this all comes across really well in episode three. As does Susumu Hirasawa’s excellent score, combining his surreal industrial style with authentic medieval instruments and chants – the tracks “Forces”, “Guts” and “Earth” are all used during the episode, and all are essentially brilliant tunes, ever complimenting the poignancy of experiencing the journey of a lifetime.

Red Garden – Only in death do they find true happiness

I’ve been an advocate of Red Garden since the first episode, but until this past weekend I hadn’t seen beyond episode three. Red Garden isn’t easy to watch – if the characters aren’t paralysing my brain with screaming, tearful grief, they start singing instead. I like that the show is trying something different with the insert songs, but put simply, it doesn’t sound good, it feels awkward and out of place.
Regrettably the horror element is fairly dull too – the episodic monsters are just bland zombies, minus the gore. The girls fight them off with wooden sticks and baseball bats; what happened to the samurai swords? This is Japan after all. We want severed limbs, decapitations, blood squirting from major veins, all that good stuff. If GANTZ has three good things going for it, it is imaginative monsters, big guns and exploding heads. Red Garden could be cooler with a little bit more of the old ultra-violence.
That said I’ve now caught all the way up to episode 12. I’m watching for bald sensation Dr. Bender (nice name), only kidding – but the characters, and especially the four central girls, are interesting personalities showing some important social development. Kate was hopelessly isolated by her own perfection, Rachel consumed by a superficial life of fashion and parties, Claire needlessly pushing others away to prove she can live on her own terms and Rose was locked down by a broken home. In each of their own ways they were lonely and ironically, only in death have they found the true friendship they so desperately needed. Their apparent misfortune has become an escape from the prison of their regular lives. To see them change over the first half of the series has been a worthwhile journey, sometimes hard-going and slow, but none the less heart warming. The real test will be when they have to choose whether or not to return to their old bodies. Red Garden excels outside of the horror angle, and is just much more riveting as character drama. The character designs are still as beautiful as ever (I love how they change costume from episode to episode too, every episode is refreshingly different; this is a rare thing for a viewer as entrenched in Naruto style same-clothes-every-day-every-year as myself).
So despite the singing sucking, the horror being dull, Red Garden is proving itself a brazen, involving character drama. And the yuri fans have GRACE.

One Piece Movie 6: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island – This will scare kids

Shonen Jump movies aren’t exactly known for their quality; they usually amount to little more than 1.5 hours worth of fan-servicey filler, but when I discovered none other than Norio Matsumoto animated "One Piece Movie 6: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island", I just had to check it out. For those who aren’t aware, Matsumoto is an amazing action animator capable of capturing some stunning movement — he was the guy behind those episodes (30, 133) of Naruto.
So I sat down to this movie expecting great animation and hoping for a fun story, what I got far exceeded my expectations. This was a great movie, the last 30 minutes of which were an explosion of post-apocalyptic scenery and nakama-love, Luffy style. The Straw Hats come within whisker of dying, and in an outstandingly cool scene Luffy is almost crucified when impaled by dozens upon dozens of arrows. It looks breathlessly stylish, is undeniably darker than the TV series and like the best of One Piece, shows real heart.
For all its action-packed gusto, One Piece’s greatest strength has always been the steely bond of comradery between the Straw Hats. I could sit through hours of One Piece fillers just to see the characters interact and mess about. Movie 6 understands this, and what this results in is an almost heart-breaking tribute to Luffy’s loyalty to his nakama. Some of it borders on outright horror — during one especially grotesque moment, the Straw Hat pirates (excluding Luffy) are squished together and mutate into a kind of slimy, fleshy plant stalk that grows out of the deranged villain’s shoulder; it looks disgusting. In another shocking scene, Luffy has arrows shot through his hands and feet, blood pours from the wounds. He is in pain. You know it’s bad when Luffy is writhing in agony. This will scare kids.
Given my love of Matsumoto’s art, it should go without saying that Movie 6 is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The finale is an absolute tour-de-force of high budget Shonen Jump action — hand to hand combat, big open spaces, lightning quick movement, crazy special moves; arrows cloud the sky, Luffy’s gomu-gomu attacks have never looked as good.

Running in at a mere 90 minutes, this is essential viewing for One Piece fans. You just have to see the last half.

Berserk – 2 – Sparks fly as the wheels of fate spin

Episode two introduces us to the important characters that make up the “Band Of The Hawk” – in other words, the personalities that dominate the rest of Berserk. The dark-skinned Casca is an exceptionally talented swordsman who just so happens to be a woman. That she commands so much respect amongst her comrades suggests that her power is second to only one man. The white haired Griffith is the leader of the Hawks and a lethal warrior; his strength and ability with a sword matched only by his elegance and charisma. Men follow Griffith because they can see he is destined for greatness, he shines so brightly – the Hawk is a legend waiting to happen.
Between Casca, Griffith and Guts, you will discover the soul of Berserk, the way they talk to each other, the tense body language and variable facial expressions; it all makes for such riveting viewing. Even during this early episode, sparks are flying between Casca and Guts. I should point out that Casca is deeply in love, bordering on obsessed with Griffith – she cannot stand to see his attentions elsewhere, and every second Griffith spends talking with Guts is like another small tear ripping through her heart. She hates Guts because Griffith likes him; basically, she is jealous.
It’s obvious that Griffith is special. During his exchanges with Guts, he talks like an ageless poet. There is no doubt in his voice, no fear, just the unrelenting calm of a man who could be very well be cradling the fate of the world in his palms. Most people are in awe of Griffith, but Guts would happily spit in his face. That’s what fascinates Griffith and infuriates Casca. Guts is an enigma and uncontrollable, a man who only feels alive in the heat of battle. Nothing else matters to him. And as it turns out, nothing else matters to Griffith either, but in Guts he finds a kindred spirit.
I’ve harped on about character relationships in this post but I don’t want anyone to think Berserk is just some boring period soap opera. It can be extremely gory and exciting, as the amount of severed limbs will attest. My favourite berserk moment in this episode comes right at the beginning as the young warrior Guts stands facing a bear-like beast of a man called Basuzo, who is wielding an axe and boasting about having killed 30 people in one battle; Basuzo stands a few yards in front of Guts, mocking him about being young, small and weak. Guts simply straps on his helmet, puts his head down and smiles. It is the grin of a man filling with excitement, starring death in the face, and running head first straight into it. That is Guts and that is Berserk.

Global culture infects the generations (with hip-hop)

Later today I’ll get to watch some raw anime — episode one of Afro Samurai. And this time the Japanese can fansub it. A perverse notion if ever I’ve heard one, but quite clearly Western culture is directly infiltrating (a nicer way of putting it would be influencing) Japan’s anime industry, inevitably resulting in an odd fusion of cultural trends — the very name “Afro Samurai” is an obvious reference to this colourful clash of styles between traditional East and contemporary West.
Our natural reaction is fear, "please don’t change our anime" — but then the archetypal genre formulas are becoming tiresome. Once you’ve been around for a few years and seen Evangelion, Naruto and Azumanga Daioh, you’ve basically seen it all. Of course there are a few exceptions to this rule, but the fact is that the majority of anime is just recycling the same old ideas over and over again.
This cross-pollination of traditions and culture then, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing after all. The very idea of an afro’ed samurai is absurd to the point of insulting in a traditional sense, but it’s still refreshing and original none the less. It sounds fun, which is a lot more than I can say for Kanon. No, a remake of Kanon. Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Samurai Champloo all take their cues North America, fuse the complex characterisation, stylish animation and moving drama of Japanese anime with North America’s pop culture to great and lasting effect.
It goes the other way too, but with not quite the same outstanding results. Cartoon Network is brimming with new productions that borrow the cliche visual style of anime but alas fail to capture the blatant essence of it; simply cartoons that don’t condescend, that don’t feature faultless personalities and aren’t boring moralistic treacle. I doubt it will stay this way for long — the spread of fansubs, the expansion of anime into households, it can only be a good thing. Kids in their ever increasing numbers will grow up with anime, be inspired by it (like we all are now) and become the next self-made Makoto Shinkai. Audience and range of influence is no longer limited by physical plain or birth origin, everything is right here on the internet. A global culture is fast approaching.

MP3 Spotlight: Conquer the world with Death Note

I’m sitting here feeling like I can take on the world, I’m listening to the Death Note soundtrack. This is the music that makes Light scribbling in his notebook"¦, hell, eating a packet of crisps, rock us like it’s an earth shattering moment. Understand then that this music is overblown and melodramatic, and love it for that.

I’ve only had this soundtrack for a few days but I’m already in-awe of its grandiose foreplay. The instrumental rock tunes were created by Hideki Taniuchi, while Yoshihisa Hirano composed the prayer-style orchestral themes. Atmospheric, haunting and ambient — I’ve been totally sucked in by Taniuchi’s first half, drowned under waves of distorted electric guitar and pin-point melody. This is instrumental music suggesting of imagery and emotion, almost totally separate from Death Note — only during Hirano’s somewhat formulaic second half of operatic guff are we reminded that this was indeed attached to an anime series.
At the risk of sounding painfully impulsive, this is the soundtrack of 2006 and I only picked it up 2 days before the end of the year. Even if you’re not into Death Note but consider yourself a rock expert, give this one a listen. Just don’t be surprised if it inspires you to do something positively epic, like let’s say, scrub the world of all evil (or write a melodramatic blog review)!