One Piece – High gears, high drama and why Sogeking is the coolest

Prior to this evening, it had been nearly two months since I last sat down with an episode of One Piece. I’d finally reached the promised land of the Enies Lobby arc but some what worryingly, it wasn’t clicking with me. I found the plot was becoming fairly predictable and excruciatingly slow, while even the soundtrack was still rehashing the old favorites we first heard way back in Alabasta. I felt like I’d seen all of this before; I was bored and needed a break from the Straw-hat gang. Well, now it feels like I just got back from vacation!
It’s ironic that I stopped watching at episode 271, right before Luffy unveils his sensational evolution and goes bad-ass on Blueno from CP9. I loved the moment of his victory; the sudden realisation that he has knocked his opponent out cold. Luffy’s new technique was cool and bad-ass, but then, the rubber-man has always been cool and bad-ass anyway.
The real reason why I’m writing this is that I wanted to comment on the end of episode 274. Having fought their way through literally thousands of marines, the Straw-Hats (including Sogeking) find themselves at the top of a tower directly facing Nico Robin. They walk to the edge and stand in-line with Luffy, looking across the island right into the eyes of their broken comrade. Combined with the swirling and theatrical background music (a new song too!), this is a life affirming and symbolic moment for Robin; perhaps once and for all putting to bed her superficial attempts to escape her friends in order to save them. When Robin shouts across "Leave me alone, I want to die", Luffy simply retorts "if you want to say those words, come over here and say them with us". Us; your friends.
What I love about this scene, aside from what I’ve mentioned above, is that we have characters like Usopp and Nami there too. Luffy, Zoro, Chopper and Sanji are all on another level, they can stand there without feeling consumed by fear and doubt. Usopp and Nami are different though, they must know they have no chance in a fight, but they’re still there anyway, standing tall on the edge of the building, risking it all to win back their lost friend. In this scene, that’s why Sogeking is the coolest and bravest of all. And that’s also why I love One Piece.

A few of the manliest death scenes EVER

Fair Warning: This article contains spoilers for Gurren Lagann, Fist of the North Star, Transformers: The Animated Movie and One Piece (Drum Island).
In light of Kamina’s abrupt demise, I can’t help but ponder how his influential example would fair in a list of the manliest death scenes EVER!
So what makes an every day murder-death-kill manly? Essentially, you must have the constitution to look the Grim Reaper bang in the eyes (of course, that’s assuming the Grim Reaper has eyes) and laugh; you do this despite having been impaled by arrows or stabbed by something sharp and pointy. Of course, your death must be a glorious moment of self-sacrifice too, with bonus points for heavy handed (crucifixion) religious symbolism.
If we’re talking MANLY, I would be condemned to Hell (featuring Shinji Ikari) for not mentioning the many compassionate hearts that shine in Fist of the North Star, and though each of them twinkle with pride and brute strength, no one has more honour than the mullet-king himself, Shu. Here are some facts:

  • In life: Rather than follow brutal tournament rules and murder his brave opponent after victory is achieved, Shu goes ahead and rips out his own eyes instead, forever condemning himself to giant facial scars, and oh yeah, blindness too! What a sacrifice.
  • In death: Having been easily defeated by the maniacal villain Souther, the heavily wounded blind man is forced to drag a giant rock to the very top of a newly built pyramid. Shu completes his journey (to the after life) when he receives several arrows to the chest and eventually, a spear to the heart. However, in his final moments, god has mercy and he is granted one last wish, to be allowed to look upon the heroic face of Kenshiro one more; yes, he was the opponent Shu saved all those years ago. The circle is complete.

Often the most memorable deaths are delivered at the most unexpected moments. Transformers: The Animated Movie taught me a lot about life, like how to use curse words, but most of all; mine young self learnt that even the greatest of heroes can die.
Of course, I’m leading up to the demise of Optimum Prime; an indestructible icon to kids growing up in the 1980s, Prime and Megatron ended up killing each other in a take-no-prisoners fist fight to the death – Prime finishing the battle with his trademark two-handed uppercut only to later die from gun-shot wounds, but not without regaling his brave robotic comrades with one last emotional speech.
Try to imagine growing up believing in the power of good over evil, trusting in the knowledge that a good heart will always win, only to feel those beliefs crash down to reality as you look upon the lifeless corpse you once described as a hero. On that day I ceased being a boy and became a MAN.
"When does a man die? When he is hit by a bullet? No. When he suffers a disease? No. When he ate a soup made out of a poisonous mushroom? No. A man dies when he is forgotten!
For all their glory, the impact of the above fatalities are lessened by their overall presentation; what I’m trying to say is, Fist of the North Star and Transformers aren’t exactly good, in fact, they are pretty bad. Sorry fan boys, it’s the truth.
The above rhetoric is quoted courtesy of the tragic Dr. Hiluruk, a character who lit up (quite literally, since he exploded himself!) One Piece for a short time during Chopper’s heart-breaking Drum Island arc. The thing about Dr. Hiluruk’s manly end is that it tremendously affected me; the Ave Maria song playing in the background, his romantic and philosophical dialogue, his good nature and most of all, what he meant to little Chopper. Hiluruk’s death was the ultimate; he died smiling, sacrificing himself for another and inspiring countless others to rebel against Drum Island’s fat slob of a King.
Only time will tell whether Kamina’s concluding chapter will live on in the hearts of otaku. I was tempted to include more in this list; the likes of Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist and Last Exile contain their fair share of smiling tears, but I was looking for that rare epic quality in which one man’s demise inspires the ultimate victory of good over evil!
(Also, I feel bad for not seeing enough giant robot / mecha anime (recommendations of manly anime are welcome!))

Gurren Lagann – 8 – Spoiler warning

It’s not fair.
Amazing episode, amazing animation and amazing twist. I can’t believe we’ve just lost such a great personality. Gutted. I want to say more but there is no point, just watch this episode and you’ll understand this vast sense of emptyness. Where the hell does Gurren Lagann go now?!

Gungrave, last three episode of. Recommended times infinity.

Now that Harry’s henchmen have been all but vanquished, Millenion’s stranglehold on the city has crumbled into nothing but dust. Looking to avenge his old friends and settle old scores, the scarred and tired Brandon is left searching deserted streets for his arch enemy, while Harry scrambles from place to place, trying to regain control of his “family”; no doubt, it’s a futile effort from a desperate man.
Between all these movements, Millenion’s old guard are planning to oust Harry and wrestle the organisation (a.k.a. mafia/yakuza) from his control; they’ve found a way to fight his supernatural org-men — and so Harry’s last pillar of power begins to shake.
Ultimately, he’s finished. All that’s left is Brandon; his greatest enemy and his best friend.
It’s taken me nearly 7 months to write this review. I love Gungrave, but it’s an emotionally draining and hard boiled series. I first watched it back in 2003 and certain scenes remained with me; namely the horribly fractured, life long bond shared by Harry and Brandon. After what happens in the first episode, you know that at some point in the future, Harry is going to kill Brandon, and yet still, when it finally happens, it’s an utterly gripping and shocking tribute to Harry’s developing inhumanity.
The rest of the series, despite occasionally over-indulging in some comic book silliness with the whole necrolyzation theme, steadily builds up to these last three episodes; essentially the reunion of Harry and Brandon. In a series that’s all about family and life-long friendship, I suppose it’s a little too easy to expect a simple revenge. Brandon comes face to face with Harry, the man that ‘killed him’, and despite all that’s happened, despite knowing Harry is a murderer, Brandon still can’t pull the trigger on his friend. The beauty of this scene is best emphasized by Brandon’s own touching confession; realising that Harry would destroy it all, he still chose him over Millenion.
At this moment, Harry is suddenly overcome with grief and regret; realising that he killed his best friend for nothing at all. And so the two men who once held the world in their palms find themselves back where they started, completely alone and on the verge of death – yet friends again, smiling together; they pull their guns and point at each other, trigger fingers strong. This time they are going to do it.
And then that’s it, the end of Gungrave. One of the best anime conclusions of all time; we never see how Harry and Brandon finished, and indeed, one could argue that they somehow survived, but the truth in my mind is that they finally died — with their grudge lifted, they are finally able to pass away.
What more is there to say about Gungrave; I adore it. It’s a tragic, moving and life affirming story. I’m glad Harry didn’t become a necrolyzed monster, that he remains a man, consumed by ambition and dragged to brink of madness allows his character to retain a strong resonance with the viewer. He isn’t a "villain", just a man who lost control and by the end, has paid the price with his increasingly detached and violent life.
Tsuneo Imahori’s musical score holds up wonderfully, echoing the tragic drama unfolding on screen, while Madhouse contribute animation that is as consistent as ever. Nothing wrong with these three episodes at all; they verge on perfection.
In Summary
The story of Gungrave unfolds over an entire life time; we see Harry and Brandon rise to the top of the world, only to descend into the flames of hell. Being character-driven and intensely focused on meaning of true friendship, Gungrave’s strongest appeal isn’t so much its over-the-top zombie aesthetic, instead it shines as a heart fluttering drama that is all at once tragic and uplifting. Recommended times infinity; buy this now.

Discovering Eureka Seven; mecha and dehumanisation

In my previous E7 article, “Discovering Eureka Seven; subtext and pop culture“, I briefly touched on the pervasive themes of war laced through out the series, going so far as to compare it to Akitaro Daichi’s post-apocalyptic (underrated) masterpiece “Now and Then, Here and There“.
As a genre, we’re conditioned to believe animation is for kids, hence, it’s a medium synomonous with innocence. Even as a seasoned fan and knowing full well a lot of anime is intended for adult eyes too, I expect a certain degree of naive optimism. It’s the same with Eureka Seven; we’re seeing this world (largely) from the perspective of two adolescent protagonists, and because they aren’t jaded and don’t understand the reasoning of adults, they have a clear view of life; enemy or not – they see blood, they jump. Eureka Seven explores the exploitation of innocence, showing how children can be used as fearsome weapons simply because they don’t understand the impact of their actions. Up until a certain age, I suppose we all view life as a game to be won; Renton’s happy “playing mecha” until he discovers the mashed up remains of one of his opponents.
Mechas role in dehumanisation
In Eureka Seven, the mecha have two arms, two legs and “bleed” red engine fuel, so it’s fair to assume that they have been shaped in the image of man. Except they aren’t human, they aren’t alive and they don’t feel pain, therefore its just-fine to dismember them limb by limb. Forget the pilots inside, it’s okay to kill something provided it doesn’t look or seem alive.
In the previous article I cited an interview with Dai Sato, in which he reveals one of the major influences behind the war-torn landscape of Eureka Seven was Tibet’s national policy of allowing young children to join the military. The ultimate concern is that if a child is brutally conditioned to believe their targets are “sub-human”, any kind of “normal” moral development is thrown out the window and we end up with a bunch of care-free mass murderers on our hands. Obviously the mecha bleeding, as any “normal person” would, is an ironic jab at the militaries collective attempts to dehumanise the enemy.
Moral horror lies beneath the veneer of innocence
As noted above, we are seeing the world through the eyes of an innocent boy like Renton. Everything looks so exciting and new to him; piloting a mecha is like a dream come true. Of course, such a personal high is violently contrasted with the harsh and disturbing reality of Gekkostate’s true position as airborne terrorists. This shift in mood and the gradual realisation of moral guilt is best emphasized in the changing face of Eureka herself, originally an attractive and healthy looking young girl but now scarred and fragile. No doubt, this sense of exploitation and loss of innocence is the most chilling quality at the heart of E7’s allegoric narrative.
With all that said, one should keep in mind that this is essentially a kids TV show. Characters in E7 still find the time to smile, joke around and be stupid. In reality, that prevalent and undying sense of optimism and hope is rare and extremely valuable.
(NOTE: This was written having seen up to the 22nd episode of Eureka Seven, I’m still enjoying it just as much!)

Seirei no Moribito – Rocks like a bears back

It’s been a few years since I last enjoyed a Production I.G. TV series. The "mega-hit" Blood+ was a safe and predictable action series, while the elegant period setting of Le Chevalier D`Eon was dull and uninspired. All that is to say, I suppose I was expecting to be bored when watching Seirei no Moribito (a.k.a Guardian of the Sacred Spirit); it’s funny how wrong one’s expectations can be, and it’s subsequently great to be proven so profoundly wrong.
Based on the first of 10 fantasy novels by Shihoko Uehashi, Seirei no Moribito follows a precocious female warrior turned bodyguard called Balsa. The story so far is that it’s her job to protect the young Prince Chagum, a kind hearted member of the Royal family who has been "possessed by a water spirit" and since targeted for assassination by his own father (the Emperor). Amidst flames and confusion, Balsa flees the royal palace with Chagum in tow, hunted by the Emperor’s finest warriors.

Let’s get this obvious fact out of the way; Seirei no Moribito is a gorgeous example of high budget animation. With Production I.G., you expect lavish and detailed background art, but rarely do you see such objective, rural beauty in an anime TV series. Only Mushishi comes close to this obsessive reflection of nature. The art director is Yusuke Takeda, who was also behind both the stylised look Gankutsuou and the grandiose feel of Giant Robo. Takeda’s got talent.

It’s obvious that Seirei no Moribito is based on a novel, not only is the story deceptively straight forward and unconcerned with pointless details, the characterisation is striking and unique; the product of a seasoned and talented writer. Chagum isn’t the stuck up prince we expect him to be and Balsa isn’t a cold and efficient killer either, their personalities feel essentially human, different to what we expect.

It’s hard to write a review when you enjoy something so much, but stick with me; I’m not saying all this just to fill time. The director is Kenji Kamiyama, he of Stand Alone Complex fame. Indeed, Kamiyama is a steady and assured hand, never attempting to impose a distinct style on the narrative, preferring instead to let the story unfold at a natural pace.

No doubt, the soundtrack is my favourite of the spring season. It’s composed by the world famous Kenji Kawai, revered for his work on the Ghost in the Shell movies. Here his ethereal, emotional music bleeds into the animation, giving absolute life and emotion to the landscapes and wildlife that surrounds the characters. It’s particularly notable when Chagum scales a slippery, dangerous cliff. At the top, he finds a wolf; the background is filled with rain and lightning, the fearsome animal stands there starring at him, then just turns around and walks back down the cliff. The music during this moment is a heart stopping and tense epic; I need the soundtrack now!
I’ve saved the best for last; the action. I thought Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann had some fluid hand to hand combat, but episode 3 of Seirei no Moribito rivals the famous "rain" episode from Samurai Champloo. The warrior costumes, their unconventional weapons (spears!) and the actual battle choreography is absolutely electric. There is no real "style" or posing to speak of; it’s real fighting, skirmishes that are often over within 10 seconds, but what a 10 seconds!

It’s hard to summarise a series I’ve enjoyed watching as much as the first three episodes of Seirei no Moribito. It’s already licensed by Geneon in the US, so expect a DVD release state-side soon enough, and the actual novels are going to be published too (in North America by Scholastic). Since Seirei no Moribito is simply the first book, I can only hope that this is the beginning of another big franchise for Production I.G.