Anime Reviews

Watching people destroy their happiness in NANA

One of the saddest things about NANA is that its creator Ai Yazawa (who has been fighting against an unspecified illness since 2009) hasn’t been able to finish it. NANA is a story of dreams and ambition, and the characters have struggled too hard and for too long to be left hanging. I hope Yazawa rediscovers her desire to finish it.


Hataraki Man – Entering the hard boiled wonderland

While the spring season blossoms with new anime, I’m still frozen in winter wonderland with Hataraki Man. This is another show that, for whatever superficial reasoning, I had managed to avoid until this past weekend. Fate conspired to bring us together. These are my thoughts so far, but be warned, Hataraki Man is a (rather nutritious) slice of life anime; a genre that I’m well aware inspires as much boredom as it does admiration.
Adapted from an original manga by Moyoco Anno (wife of Gunbuster’s deranged genius Hideaki Anno), the main character is 28-year-old Matsukata, a sex-starved weekly-magazine editor who devotes 99.99999% of her life to slaving away on her next big feature. Between the long hours spent writing, interviewing ungrateful celebrities and hanging around with the office crowd, her social life and relationships have faded. The conflict central to Hataraki Man is Matsukata’s constant striving for a so called “normal” home life when she desperately craves success as a writer too. She could just take it easy, turn up at the office and work a regular joe 9 to 5 shift, but she wants to create something special; something to be remembered by.
Matsukata’s lofty ambitions are nothing new (especially to us Shonen Jump enthusiasts!), but to be a fiery female in modern day Japan (where the still-prevalent gender roles for a woman of her age dictate she should be a house-wife) gifts Hataraki Man a refreshing sense of gender role reversal. Indeed, even the title is an ironic twisting of words, given the “Hataraki Man” is actually a woman.
I’m making an issue of the sex politics, but the truth is that this is simply where Matsukata as a character is either coming from or fighting against, the show itself is tightly laced with the kind of sharp tongued and bitter sweet humour that wouldn’t feel out of place in your average sitcom.
Of course, there is more than one character — in fact, most episodes are scattered glimpses into the fractured lives of Matsukata’s colourful co-workers – take for example Fumiya Sugawara, a pissed off 30 something photographer who’s job it is to track down the dirt on celebrities and capture their scandals on camera. The man hates his job, is paranoid about people looking down on him and so, in his spare time, takes to snapping beautiful sun-lit landscapes. Despite his apparently shady and hectic job, that he still has the chance to capture something so calm, natural and endless is enough to keep him going.
Since it’s inception in 2005, the noitaminA anime block in Japan has set out to push the boundaries of TV anime beyond the teenage (boy) audience. As a twenty-something male, I can confirm they have succeeded. With the likes of Honey & Clover, Paradise Kiss and now Hataraki Man, noitaminA have more than proved themselves capable of deftly producing affecting adult drama that, while occasionally romantic, raises questions relevant in a young adult’s life. I think that’s why I’m enjoying Hataraki Man— being early 20s myself, anime is mostly a visual experience, I may enjoy something like Naruto because of the action, but when I find a show with characters I can empathise with on such a tangible level, it means that much more to me.


Nodame Cantabile – Big fluffy clouds and endless blue sky

Honey & Clover was a great show, and a cherished, personal favourite of mine. That was what first attracted me to Nodame Cantabile. They share the same animation studio, director and character designer; a.k.a winning formula. I’m trying to emphasize that expectations are a bitch, and this time the benchmark was set particularly high; so I’m happy to proclaim then that against all the odds, I’ve just finished the first four episodes of Nodame Cantabile and really enjoyed them.
I like that the main character, Shin’ichi Chiaki, is at once a heartless bastard and helpful friend. He furiously berates Nodame for her poor attention to hygiene, but he still cooks her dinner and cleans out her apartment. His life and personality are somewhat frustrated, caught between his heart and brain, he can be harsh and push people away, but still recognises when they need help.
“Nodame” Noda has no brain, just a big fluffy cloud and endless blue sky. Driven by instinct, ignoring rules and following her heart, Nodame is a polar opposite to Chiaki – she leads her life and plays piano as freely as a bird, unburdened by worry, while he is often lamenting the future; his dream is to one day be a world-class Orchestra conductor, I don’t imagine Nodame’s vacant mind extends beyond a few hours day dreaming.
Nodame Cantabile frequently slips into bouts of slapstick humour but I’m not watching it to laugh. The show can be funny and the music school is an refreshing setting, but this is undeniably a slice of life anime, looking at how people in creative environments deal with talent and ambition, how friendships, rivalry and admiration can inspire confidence and breathe new life into tired hearts.


Honey & Clover II – Wallowing in the aftermath

It was always going to be one of those dreaded moments when Honey & Clover finally finished up – an empty feeling, my mind swirling in miscellaneous doubt and irritating confusion. What do I watch now?
I had my ups and down with this second season, perhaps borne from episode after episode of frustrating romantic cliff hangers, but sooner or later it will be worth coming back and watching the whole show again, from start until finish — I say "start" and "finish" as if to suggest there is a definite beginning and end to the adventures of Takemoto and his merry band of buddies, that’s wrong, because life goes on, round and round.
If Honey & Clover is the beginning and end of anything, it charts the spark of close friendship, our gradual parting of ways, and the birth of meaningful, affecting memories. I’m glad with how it’s ended — half expecting a sickly Hollywood climax; we’re left instead with the bitter sweet taste of a hopeful future. True to its base human empathy, Honey & Clover ultimately leaves these characters free to chase their dreams and open new chapters of their lives, having lost innocence but gained an important wisdom; basically, all grown up.
At times threatening to become an inverted male harem (with no less than three dashing heroes chasing one fair maiden), Hagu makes the right choice to stick with Shuuji; of all the characters, Shuuji most desperately needed Hagu – the idea of them eventually "hooking up" is more than a little unsettling, but their relationship is more like kindred spirits than any physical attraction. Truly they need each other to survive, while Takemoto and Morita are strong enough to move on — their dreams and ambitions lay elsewhere.
Taken a whole — including the first season, Honey & Clover has been a joy to watch. Symbolic, philosophical and moving, it’s not without faults but that’s not really the point. Watching this show forces me to look within myself, to think about life. You can’t really ask for much more than that, to be engaged on such a personal level is rare indeed and the whimsical Honey & Clover will always have that extra something special.


Honey & Clover II – 7 – Bleeding with a flickering hope in life

As far as hyperbole goes, this was quite possibly my favourite episode of Honey & Clover II. No doubt I could say that after every episode- but this seventh instalment particularly deserves praise for violently jamming the second season in a completely different (and darker) direction.
It’s not that I was getting sick of the likes of Yamada angsting over the same old melodramatic things, instead I’m simply enthused to see an episode more akin to the first season- a somewhat sad story filled with life-affecting, thought provoking symbolism and philosophy.
Tatsuo cuts an absolutely ambiguous character; morally what he does to Tsukasa Morita is wrong, yet his sympathetic envy is so well emphasized through the use of some touching symbolism. His best friend can fly, so why can’t he? What makes him so damn special? As individuals we’re all brought up to feel one of a kind, destined for greatness. But when the harsh reality of life kicks in, and we find ourselves stuck in the shadows of others, how should we react – after all, realising you live a mediocre life sucks.
Typically the ever changing colour scheme and art work for this episode matched the muted, sombre tone with such whimsical aplomb. My favourite scenes included Tatsuou and Kaoru’s walk through an open expanse of beautiful golden fields; such expressive, emotive style bleeding with a flickering hope in life.


Honey & Clover II – First and fleeting impressions

Honey & Clover is said to epitomise the ambiguous “slice of life” genre – a typically slow, ambling style of story telling with no true narrative direction. Indeed, Takemoto’s impulsive journey around Japan is all about finding a definitive meaning to his existence only to discover that ultimately, there is no set path for us all to follow; that life and youth is random and fleeting; about searching and wondering, rather than knowing it all.
If Honey & Clover was thick with such philosophical commentary but lacking in conclusive fulfilment for the viewer, then it’s sequel is the opposite; Honey & Clover II has almost done away this cloud glazing ponderment and locked in on the various love triangles that make up its cast. Now it is very much a case of wondering who will end up with whom and sometimes (and even Mayama admits this) suffers from being bogged down with hammy dialogue and a sickly sweet sentiment.
The truth though is that Honey & Clover (I & II) is surely the essential anime for our generation. In being made now, it has captured and expressed every young adult’s profound worries and nostalgic thoughts about life and love in such a contemporary, trail blazing style. The wistful animation is ultra expressive, fluid and engaging while the longing soundtrack is raging with a burning emotion. This is a great series, that should become one of the greats.


NANA – 3 – Broken Social Scene

Nana K is living an easy life as a student until her three closest friends decide that they are going to go to study art in Tokyo. It would be harsh to say Nana is untalented, but she isn’t good enough for university yet; and so she faces a future without her friends, on her own again.
This was a really great episode, perhaps too dramatic in places, but ultimately that’s what we expect from NANA.
It begins with Nana K back to her old self; completely reliant on other people, acting like a spoilt kid. It ends with her having made some important realizations about herself, notably her feelings for Shoji but also that she has so far gone through life almost exclusively depending on others. When her friends turn around and talk about leaving for Tokyo, it’s obvious she has no ambition of her own and despite desperately trying to follow them, Nana is forced to confront this fact.
It seems this was the conclusion to the Nana K backstory and it ended well, at an imporant turning point for her life.


NANA – 2 – Make up the breakdown

An episode I enjoyed much more than the first, NANA episode 2 is a much needed dramatic and character-driven piece. I remarked after the first episode that Nana K is a ditz, implying that basically she is a superficial person with her head in clouds, in love with the idea of being in love.
With episode two, we begin to get under her skin; we see that her typically naive and innocent personality is slowly wearing her down, making her more and more self conscious, afraid of both being alone and getting hurt. Through a string of relationships, everyone of which she makes the earth-shattering claim of love, she evidently puts in so much effort and still- they still end with not an explosion of passion, rather a wet whimper. To say she is emotionally fragile is an understatement, in one particularly painful scene, a fun night out drinking with some new friends transforms into an emotional break down.
This was an important episode for Nana K and I’m pleased to say it is as dramatic as I had hoped NANA would be. Of course, the series is still as fun and quirky as you would expect of any slice of life show- but now we have the character drama to match too.


NANA – 1 – Sisters are doing it for themselves

Setting the scene
Nana has plans to move to Tokyo and live near her boyfriend. On the train journey there, she bumps into another woman called Nana; who also happens to be 20 and is planning to live in Tokyo too. Their fashions and personalities strike such a strong contrast, like night and day; Nana 1 is a sugary sweet and innocent girl, while Nana 2 is a brooding and well, gothic woman. These pronounced differences are no doubt why the two immediately bond and form a natural friendship.
Life’s not going to be easy for Nana 1 in Tokyo though; her boyfriend shows her little sympathy- so it’s either get a job and find your own apartment or go back home. And so life in the big city begins.
My impressions
Before viewing this episode, NANA was my most anticipated show of the spring season. The pre-production art struck me as an admirable attempt at originality and basically, the show looked sophisticated enough to set itself aside from the teen-angst brigade.
I tentatively enjoyed episode 1; clearly, this is a series aimed at young women and while I can appreciate the art and enjoy the super-deformed humour, there is only so much interest I can glean from what is basically a “sisters are doing it for themselves” kind of story. And that’s basically what NANA is right now, it’s about two young woman learning to rely on themselves. The atmosphere is fun, and kooky, and the melodrama is thick with earth shattering narration, though I really need to see more before I can grasp any true direction.
The artwork and animation is very reminiscent of Paradise Kiss, but it’s not as over the top and “camp”. Like-wise, the character designs are attractive and pretty; particularly the females, who all look very glamorous and caked with makeup.
NANA has started out in promising fashion, and has set the scene well for future adventures. It’s pure slice of life and gooey melodrama, and as long as it doesn’t descend into the realms of manicures and hair cuts, I’ll be watching!