One of the biggest surprises of the summer season has been Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse. A name as bad as that is enough to scare away most, but that this is both a mecha anime and a bloody brutal one at that is stranger still. Whether it can live up to the intensity of these first two episodes is another question entirely, but right now, it’s just nice to reflect on a job well massacred! The root cause of it all? Aliens, of course! Earth’s invaded, humanity’s out-matched and Japan’s moe legions are our first line of defence. Would you feel confident?
I have many a faint and fond memory of Eureka Seven, but wasn’t sure how to feel about news of its sequel. It ended with a quite profound sense of finality, after all. Everything that needed to be said, was, and underscored with probably the finest insert song ever used in anime, too. I’m using a lot of absolutes in this post because that’s just how I feel about Eureka Seven. Holland, Talho, Dai Sato, Supercar and Denki Groove. It was a great series.
It’s been a while since my last post. Around a month, in fact. Through-out February, I took something of a break from anime. I’ve been keeping up with One Piece, but that’s about it. This wasn’t a planned thing, either. I just stopped watching anime.
Winter hasn’t helped, either. Although a notoriously poor time for anime anyway, there’s usually something to keep me ticking over until April. Last year, it was Madoka, this year so far, there’s simply nothing of that calibre (a high bar, admittedly.) I’m vaguely interested in Nisemonogatari, but until I’ve seen Bakemongatari, I’m stuck.
All I’ve been left with, then, is long-shots. I’ve heard a lot about how Mouretsu Pirates is decent, but nothing about it so far has caught my eye. And with Noitamina continuing to shit the bed, that was me done with anime in February.
I’m sitting here today, though, intending to write about Rinne no Lagrange. Not exactly the season’s critical darling, but then, I’m quite liking it.
So, old friend, let’s get started, shall we?
To be honest, I doubt there is much I can say that will convince you to take a look at Armored Trooper Votoms. It’s an old series, with a heavy emphasis on war. Chirico is no Kamina. The characters are gritty and unrefined. When it can be hard to sit through just the 1 episode, 52 feels impossible, so I couldn’t blame anyone for not seeing in this series what I do, because it is most definitely an acquired taste; it’s just that I have acquired it.
Mecha anime has always been a bit hit or miss for me. I’ll often find that I’m not as attracted to the mecha as I am to the science fiction stories they inhabit. That is to say, I enjoy a lot of good mecha anime because I enjoy a lot of good science fiction. I suppose it was inevitable, then, that I would eventually stumble over the works of a certain Ryosuke Takahashi, one of the founding fathers of the ‘real robot’ genre. In recent times, he has directed the likes of Blue Gender and Flag, but the majority of his most influential anime was created during the Eighties, one of which happens to be ‘Blue Comet SPT Layzner‘ (1985).
As of this post, only 9 episodes have been fansubbed, but I liked it enough to have watched them all this past weekend. I wish I could say that I’d always planned to watch Layzner, but the truth is that the recent batch torrent attracted my attention because the series has a cool name. The same thing happened with ‘Legend of the Galactic Heroes,’ too, for shame!
The problem with writing an anime blog for any length of time is that I’m prone to repeating myself. I’ve had this ache to write about something, anything, over the last month or so, but there are only so many times I can say “this is good, that is bad” without feeling as though I’m running in circles, writing about anime for the sake of being an anime blogger. I don’t want to go down that road, I want this to be like a natural impulse, something that I’m compelled to do by an honest desire to share my enthusiasm with you. Nothing else.
That is why this post exists. I haven’t stopped watching anime, or anything as dramatic as that, it’s just that my mind has been blank. I’ve been waiting for something to shake me out of that apathy, and it turns out that that something is Xam’d: Lost Memories.
It’s not just that the animation is superb, or that the soundtrack is evocative, or even that the characters are great. It’s everything. The world-building, the whimsical adventure, the sudden bursts of brutality. I adore it because it reminds me of Eureka Seven and Nausicaa, that it makes clear nods towards Miyazaki’s synthesis of nature and fantasy, the sweeping landscapes and complex technologies of a strange new world. It’s so nostalgic for me; a story I can’t help but treasure dearly.
I’ve spent this last week navigating my way through all 26 episodes, and even then, I must admit, it has been difficult to follow. Considering its strange terminologies and complex foreign cultures, this has to be the hardest fantasy anime I’ve seen since Seirei no Moribito, and without ever pausing for reflection, it forges ahead breathlessly with the story. There is little time wasted on explanation or flashback, we’re just dropped right in to the centre of a world war and expected to keep up. In its slower moments, characters dream of their past adventures, regret old battles and wistfully sigh over lost loves, but all we have to go on are painful scars, a name or a place. That’s the thing about Xam’d, really, almost as if it has invented its own language, it speaks in riddles and poetry, and like the best of fantasies, it feels deep. One might compare it to a glass of vintage wine, a subtle taste nurtured over years of careful fermentation. Xam’d is a story in a bottle, a history fermented over thousands of years, a bitter-sweet taste.
It’s bitter because there is no easy way to save the world. Things like religion get in the way. Racism, child soldiers and suicide bombings. All of these things lead to tragedy. There is no escaping the fact that a lot of people die in this show; they inflict horrible wounds on each other and die in gruesome ways, and for 26 episodes straight, there is no end to it. Friends become enemies for stupid, petty reasons. Resentment and hatred boil to the surface. There is no logical reason for it, and only chaos that follows it.
Yet, it’s sweet because there are still people around with the heart to smile. Against all the odds, Akiyuki and Haru fall in love and are reunited, while, time and time again, Nakiami throws herself in harms way so that others may live. This one particular scene is stunning; Akiyuki’s mother runs and runs down the street, scraping her bare feet on the pavement, desperate to catch one last glimpse of her departing son.
There’s so much hatred in Xam’d, but so much love too. It’s vibrant and full of life, just look at how it has been drawn, it’s beautiful. Pretty like a fairy tale.
Should I say Xam’d: Lost Memories is good? It’s better than good, and I know it’s not enough to say just that, but I have to be careful. Because I’m about ready to explode. Yes, there’s too much to say. This is what anime is capable of; it’s why I’m writing an anime blog. Ironically, I’m on the brink of incoherence, but I need order, I need someone to understand something; that Xam’d: Lost Memories is good and that I think you might like it too. But that’s still not enough.
Where to begin? How about the trailer. I’ve been admiring this series since reading the trailer’s subtitle of “A nostalgic SF by Studio Bones”. Of course, a lot of anime is nostalgic, but it’s typically nostalgia for youth, for young love. Xam’d is nostalgic for science fiction. Our heroine Nakiami recalls both the rural appearance of NausicaÃƒÂ¤ (of NausicaÃƒÂ¤ and the Valley of Wind) and the emotional ambivalence of Eureka (of Eureka Seven). So, right off the bat, those are two of my favourite anime. It seems I was fated to adore this show.
The direction has an air of confidence, the narrative flows naturally, the plot is slow-building and consistent, the characters are light hearted and funny, some concealing their insecurity with a spunky attitude, others with sarcasm, none of it feeling artificial or calculated, just natural, normal. By the time the action kicks in, about three quarters of the way through the first episode, I was immersed, lost in the fantasy, in the characters, their lives about to be torn apart.
The school bus explodes, it’s a suicide bombing. Terrorism. Fear spreads. The twisted wreckage of what’s left behind is more like an open ribcage, bloodied, facing skyward. The seats have a bubbling, organic texture. Strange flying machines float high over-head, launching their organ-like pods of insectiod attackers into the city below. Akiyuki’s arm swells and twists with a strange, alien infection, his trembling body is no longer his own.
It’s a shock to transition so violently from this sleepy, easy-going slice of life into a terrible, chaotic war, a situation that reflects our own fears of terrorism and paranoia of aggression that is indiscriminate and seemingly aimless.
Akiyuki’s mum is a part of an ensemble of likable and interesting personalities. Her marriage is falling apart, but she maintains a strength of character, humour and dignity that’s really quite admirable. Akiyuki’s dad is a workaholic; a popular doctor with time for his patients but none for those most important to him, his family. They both care deeply for their son, but show it in different ways. When he goes missing, they both go looking for him, but at different times. They understand each other, but pretend not to, neither willing to compromise with the other. Little do they know, Akiyuki has embarked on a nostalgic adventure.
Flying high in purple skies, I’m happy just watching this story unfold, like some long lost fable, it’s beautifully drawn, sometimes poetically so, dream-like and awe-inspiring, a world worth exploring, with its many strange cultures, creatures and technologies. It is a fantasy in the truest sense of the word, a world of fantastic imagination, dark and light, nostalgic and exciting, would be perfect if there wasn’t so much rust in the water.
I finished Bokurano this weekend, just as planned. 24 episodes in 5 days isn’t bad at all, as I’ve never been one to enjoy marathoning through anime. After all, I ended up needing nearly 2 whole years to catch up with 300+ episodes of One Piece, so, starting and finishing Bokurano in a matter of days is something of a surprise to me, but also a credit to its quality, in that it managed to keep my interest piqued for hours on end.
As I mentioned last week, I think Bokurano is a fascinating story. 15 children are mysteriously tricked into piloting this giant robot (called ‘Zearth’) to fight off a string of ‘alien invaders’. If they choose not to fight, Earth will be destroyed. If they lose their fight, Earth will be destroyed, and after they win, the pilot selected for that one battle will die. It’s a rigged game with no winners and the children have no hope of escaping this fate, so inevitably, their lives take on a new meaning. Knowing full well their days are numbered, they are forced, perhaps for the first time in their young lives, to find something worth living for, or rather, something worth dying for.
These children are not your cliche anime characters with green hair and big eyes. They are normal, almost dull-looking teenagers. They have parents too. I’ve noticed that, for whatever reason, parents don’t often play a big role in anime. From Code Geass to Macross Frontier, there is always a convenient excuse contrived to explain away why parents are absent. I suppose teenage megalomania wouldn’t be quite as enthralling if our mini-Machiavellis had to be in bed by 10pm because it’s a school night. What I’m trying to say is that, in this way, so much anime is an adolescent fantasy of independence, far removed from reality, but Bokurano is a satire, an unflinching critique of modern life. It doesn’t pull punches.
One of the most memorable arcs is that of the unfortunate 7th grade girl, Chizuru Honda. She falls into a love affair with her handsome school teacher, who also happens to be a paedophile. He exploits her naivety and seduces her, sets-up hidden cameras in his apartment and posts pictures of them ‘doing it’ online. All this and he starts dating Chizuru’s older sister too. So, when it’s her turn to pilot Zearth, Chizuru guns straight for her school and the bad teacher, but just as she is about to stomp him into the ground, her sister jumps in. If killing the teacher means killing her sister, Chizuru can’t do it. That, ultimately, is her reason for fighting; when she wins, and therefore dies, it’s all for her family. Moments after her death, it’s revealed that Chizuru was pregnant.
It’s not a story that shies away from controversy or taboo, but not every character arc is as tragic or as dramatic as Chizuru’s was. Some are saccharine to the point of nauseam, others are uneventful, or mundane. Such is life; people have their own ways of finding value and beauty, often in obscurity. As much as Bokurano is rife with social commentary and attacks on commercialism, that these children find real reasons to live, and die, is important.
When they are first contracted as Zearth pilots, it’s worked so that their favourite chairs are placed in the cockpit. Each chair is unique to that pilot, built in a way that’s so personal and symbolic of its owner’s personality. Plastic, artificial and rigid, or small, soft and humble. Apparently, you can understand a lot about someone just by examining their favourite chair; it’s a quaint, lovely touch. Likewise, each child faces an alien mecha that’s designed to look more like a moving Rorschach inkblot; a visual interpretation of their innermost fears and anxiety. That, really, should say all that you need to know about Bokurano, it’s the kind of science fiction that works best as symbolism and morality, about trying to find worth in living, and dying, as a completely normal, insecure, fragile, imperfect person.
When it comes to reviewing anime, one of the most frustrating tasks can be screen-capping. Sometimes you’ll remember the cool scenes, jump straight in and snap away. Job done. But with FLCL, it’s not that easy; everything looks cool. So, when I skipped through the first two episodes, I finished up with 89 separate images! Some heartless deleting later (with emphasis on heartless), the count is down to 24. Frankly, I can’t bear to discard any more than that. Writing this now, I’m reminded of people (some of them anime fans) who will often say that watching these funny Japanese cartoons isn’t “hip”, isn’t something to be proud of, but watching this show, I’m ready to call that bull-shit. Anime can be stylish, hip, cool, fun, trendy and everything else under the sun, and guess what, FLCL is my proof.
“It’s FLIctonic KLIpple Waver Syndrome. An adolescent psychological skin hardening syndrome. A common affliction where children grow horns from trying too hard. Okay, I lied.” — Haruko.
This is the obligatory part of the review where I write a brief plot synopsis and you roll your eyes in boredom, but as FLCL is far too punk rock to bother with such standard fare, any attempt on my part to summarise the story would be utterly futile too. For what it’s worth, these few words might help: bored, head, rock, horn, girls, cigarettes, surreal, pain, mecha, pathos; repeat times infinity. If you really want to know what FLCL is, the above quote is the best possible explanation I can offer. It is an experience, on its surface illogical, yet subconsciously profound. Pure animation in the sense that, just like you can’t really relate to the pain of a gunshot wound until you’ve felt it yourself, you’ll never really understand the mad brilliance of hurricane FLCL unless you’ve seen it in motion for yourself.
If we’re talking about motion, then we’re talking about animation. For me, this is GAINAX’s finest production, better than Evangelion, Gunbuster and even Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. No other animation studio in the world could come out with something like this, it’s so unique. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s character design is simply wonderful, but then, the entire production aesthetic is too, which feels so seamlessly tied into the hormonal narrative themes that you might get more sense out of it by watching without the dialogue. I made a point there to specifically say ‘dialogue’ because I’d hate for you to miss out on the soundtrack. You see, the music is almost entirely composed of The Pillows grungy, delirious, hot-blooded rock sound that, again, is a perfectly fitting conveyance for FLCL’s rallying cry against bored, sub-urban apathy.
A favourite scene of mine appears in episode 2. The air-headed, pink bomb-shell Mamimi is wasting time playing with a stray kitten when something catches her eye in the golden, grassy field ahead. It’s Canti the robot wandering around aimlessly. She follows “him” until they happen across a half burnt down, old elementary school. The sky darkens with black rain clouds and hungry crows perch on the surrounding landscape as Canti climbs onto the roof and, quite literally, takes flight. It’s an amazing, baffling moment. The sun shines through the clouds as Mamimi stares on, birds aflutter, wonderstruck. Through-out this sequence, The Pillows song, “Hybrid Rainbow”, is rising in the background, the chorus hits crescendo just as Canti flies away. It’s a spine-tingling, rousing scene, seemingly random and superfluous, but completely worthwhile.
You could say FLCL depicts that painful transition between late adolescence and young adulthood; a time when you’re too old to do kid things and not old enough to do adult things. Characters, failing to understand or grasp new emotions and burgeoning sexuality, are confused and lost, as if unable to make sense of the reality that surrounds them. They can lash out, or retreat, and yet, back then, life was so colourful, new and exciting too, as if a sudden revelation could unlock a new, brilliant dimension of reality. That is, ultimately, FLCL’s crazy point of view, an unpredictable, wonderful stream of consciousness, so frenetic, surreal and fun, like stepping into a long forgotten, lost dream.
Not sure how I missed this, but the full soundtrack for Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was released recently; that’s 51 tracks of epic, exciting, heavenly music, and even better, it contains the one song I’ve be longing to hear since late-July. I’m talking about track 13 on Disc no.2; the translated title is “The Days Become a Traveller of a Hundred Generations”. For such a haunting, ethereal tone, it’s heard only once in the anime itself, during the first half of episode 18, but this single sequence, just a mere few minutes in length (may as well be an eternity), and the awe-struck feelings it conjured inside me, have long since remained close to my heart.
We begin around the 5:40 mark. Simon’s in the Gurren-Lagann, frantically searching for Nia. Before he can launch into the neon-lit sky-line of Kamina City, he’s curtailed by (the now-teenaged) Darry and Gimmy in their colourful Gulaparl mecha. They try to persuade Simon from needlessly worrying the citizens by flying around in the iconic Gurren-Lagann, its heroic image having come to represent the desperation of humanity’s recent past. In response, he just separates from the larger Gurren and brashly explodes into the clouds above, continuing his search for Nia regardless of their complaints.
The atmospheric music really kicks in as Simon tours the sprawling Kamina City, its concrete streets and sky-scraping buildings bathed in the warm, comforting glow of electricity. The architecture is strange and fascinating, having been influenced by the Gunmen style of design, strange faces; giant and carved from stone, protrude from the buildings, expressions half concealed by shadow. The Spiral King’s huge fortress, the smiling Dekabutsu, overlooks the rapidly developing city below, as worried search-lights scythe through the starry night sky.
The thing about this sequence and why it sticks in my memory isn’t anything to do with the characters or drama. It’s the clash of TTGL’s surreal reality with our conflicted, modern world. The way everything looks so familiar and yet, it’s dream-like too. The oppressive stature of the city, the huge stoney faces passing judgement on and manipulating the residents below. We immediately sense dystopia; a city that’s grown cold, twisted and without feeling. Suddenly, this is a world that’s alive with texture and detail. The song speaks of those feelings, a kind of knowing, regretful, beautiful sadness.