Don't give up: dying in pursuit of change and The Sky Crawlers

Mamoru Oshii doesn’t make forgettable anime. Be it Ghost in the Shell or Patlabor 2, the man injects so much personality into his films that it’s impossible not to recognise his touch. There is, of course, his famous basset hound, but there’s also a poetic side that transports this viewer into the ether. I can’t tell if it’s just that his films are ageing like fine wine, or if I’m now of an age where I’m better able to appreciate what he’s trying to say, but whatever the case, he’s now one of my favourite film directors.
I watched The Sky Crawlers for the first time last night. With Kenji Kawai and Production IG alongside him, it’s a film as thoughtful as it is beautiful. Set on an alternate Earth, the ageless Kildren (“kill-dolls”) are fighter pilots forever clashing amidst the clouds in a war that is at best extremely vague and at worst totally pointless. The story exists in a place that’s like Neverland gone bad, where the children’s only escape from the endless cycles of war is heavy drinking, sex and suicide: the sheer monotony of their lives is reflected in the film’s subdued colour palette, everything is so hazy and drained: an apt worldview for a doll. A doll isn’t alive. A doll doesn’t have memories. A doll is content with its place in the world because it knows no better.
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My name is Squealer

The end of a season is a bittersweet time for anime fans, as the joy of seeing a series reach its climax is undercut by the knowledge that this is the last hurrah for a story we’ve grown attached to over time. Such is the case with Shin Sekai Yori (From the New World,) a series that had me under its spell from the first episode on. Unpredictable, challenging and artistic are but three ways to describe the experience of watching it. Indeed, it has all the things that critics like me love to see in anime, but more importantly, this isn’t merely a cold essay on human nature, it’s emotive, and ends beautifully, with a trademark mix of the horrifying and hopeful.
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After Life, Angel Beats! and anime blogging

After Life, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, is one of most interesting films I’ve seen. Set in an (unspecified) purgatory, it’s about dead people choosing one memory (and one memory only, the rest fades) to carry with them into (an also unspecified) eternity. Upon choosing, that memory will be recreated on a film-set and recorded with you as the star. You take the resulting VHS with you. The recreation is a massive team effort, with actors, props and all kinds of film-making devices.
If you can’t choose a memory, or simply refuse to, you become a part of the staff at purgatory, helping others to move on. One man has trouble choosing his memory, and so is given a big box of VHS tapes (containing his entire life) that he spends his time pouring over, trying to remember the things he did in his lifetime. Searching for something big and meaningful, eventually, he just chooses a memory with his wife and him; an old couple, sitting on a park bench, talking. The small things can mean so much.
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In which I contemplate One Piece (and nothing less than the meaning of life)

One Piece begins with the execution of the Pirate King, Gol D. Roger. His death was intended to symbolize the power of the World Government, but had the opposite effect instead, conceiving the Golden Age of Pirates!
One Piece is full of mythology. What happened in the Void Century, anyway? What about the meaning behind the Poneglyphs? Gol D. Roger plays a massive role in this same mythology and is regarded more as a deity than as the fallible man he actually was. His first mate (Silvers Rayleigh, in episode 400 of the anime) provides us with a differing account of the Pirate King, a perspective not as much concerned with the legend as the man himself.
We learn that Gol D. Roger was dying of an untreatable disease at the time of his execution. He wasn’t caught in the prime of his life, but rather, just wanted to go out with a bang, in the words of Rayleigh, “In the last moment of his life, he (Gol D. Roger) turned his fading “flame of life” into a huge fire that enveloped the world.
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Casshern Sins: You looked as if you were dancing

It’s hard to explain how I feel about Casshern Sins. It’s way beyond anything else I’ve seen this year. More than just another good anime series, more than just entertainment, I find it is engaging, evocative and inspiring, perched somewhere in-between the surreal, fable-like quality of Kino’s Journey and the philosophical melancholy of Mushishi. After every episode, I’m excited, my mind is filled with possibilities and ideas, and I really feel like I’ve just seen something wonderful. I can only hope that I’m capable of relaying those feelings to you. For over two years I’ve been writing on this anime blog, all for anime like Casshern Sins.

Thoughts after: Episode 6

Venturing deeper into the dystopian, decaying depression of Casshern’s strange situation, those that surround him are petrified of dying, but without knowing death, can one ever feel truly alive? Just like how a flower so pretty can only be that way in comparison to an ugly weed, one can only grasp the value of his life after realizing that, some day, he will die. After all, without death, life has no meaning, thus, regardless of Luna’s end, and whether or not it was against her will at all, by dying, she has seemingly graced her people with a gift so precious, mortality. Suddenly, the immortal feel a thirst for life and a desperation to live, and this, I think, is the point of Casshern Sins. It can be so sombre and nostalgic, but it’s hard to deny that the end of the world has rarely looked as beautiful. Ironic, really.

Episode 7

Somewhere in-between this endless expanse of desert and open blue sky is a place without rules and purpose, it is where we find the woman of the tall tower. She wants to think that in this place, in this dying world, her aimless life is still worth living. She rings her bell, where the view is wonderful and the Earth is really pretty, and it resounds with her will to live, as if screaming, “Look at me! I am alive!” Like an artist, she has built this expression of her spirit on the horizon, it’s her tower, the proof of her existence for all to see, and it’s wonderful that people may finally understand that feeling, that this dying world is still beautiful.

Episode 8

When life is tough, to hope and dream can be the hardest thing, yet all it takes is a passage of writing, an episode of anime or a two-minute song; such a tiny moment in our lives, so fleeting, yet it can unleash such a potent feeling. Do we all have a reason to live? And a dream to follow? Like a theatrical performer, Casshern elegantly runs, jumps and dives through an army of hopeless fiends, inspired to protect someone precious, the singer Janis. People wait in the music hall to be inspired, for just a few minutes, to escape into imagination and to dream of an exciting future. Her performance is art at its most vital, more than mere entertainment, to be inspired is to find nothing less than a reason to live.

The world is not beautiful, therefore it is; introducing Kino's Journey

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I quite like subversive fairy-tales; the suggestion that there is something ugly and unknown shifting beneath a veneer of superficial beauty. This is precisely why I so admired Princess Tutu, because lurking behind that familiar style of magical girl characterization was insecurity and doubt; supposed heroes and villains stalked by emotions betraying their cliche destinies. Kino’s Journey is much the same in the sense that its own depiction of beauty is often offset by a harsh reality. Supposing that one extreme of feeling cannot be defined without the polar opposite, Kino simply muses that “the world is not beautiful, therefore it is”.
3D-Fansubs recently released 2007’s “Kino no Tabi Movie 2”, also known as “Kino’s Journey -The Beautiful World- The Land of Sickness -For You-“. I still remember how I felt when I first discovered Kino’s Journey. Shocked? I had no idea of what to expect, I’d never even heard of it before, I simply got hold of the DVD and pressed play. Since then, I’ve always loved the show, it’s the quintessential unknown, underrated gem; serious, subversive and philosophical. The original TV series (13 episodes) appeared during 2003, but apparently, no-one noticed it. This is your chance to make that right.

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First off, the new movie is animated by SHAFT; everyone loves them, right? After all, they’ve produced recent favorites like Hidamari Sketch, Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei and even Ef: A Tale of Memories. As expected, they’ve actually done a pretty fine job, most notably, the previously androgynous Kino is starting to look and sound inexplicably female; now she’s suddenly paternal and caring, but still distant enough to avoid breaking her 3 day rule.

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You see, the twist of Kino’s Journey is that she’s a globe-trotting traveler who spends no more than three days in any one country, and her only companion is Hermes, her talking motorcycle. Kino may look like a frail young lady, but her seemingly weak appearance belies a great talent for pistol shooting and a rather ambiguous morality; basically, she’s capable of, and does commit, murder at the drop of a hat, but only tends to act when forced into a corner. Through out her various adventures, she travels from country to country, tasting various cultures and technologies, looking at everything from an objective point of view, much like a scientist observing an elaborate social test. She refuses to pass judgment on anyone, or feel either elation or horror, despite almost constantly facing strange circumstances.

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As you may have guessed, Kino’s Journey was an episodic TV anime, and this second movie is no different. It’s completely self-contained and runs a measly 26 minutes, essentially, it’s just another installment to add to an already impressive inventory of bizarre adventures, with the ever-chirpy Hermes in-tow. You can easily watch it without having seen the original TV series. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of the show is directed by a certain Ryutaro Nakamura, who’s most famous previous work is the similarly discordant and thoughtful Serial Experiments Lain (and as of writing, he’s also directing one of my current favorites and arguably the best series of the fall 2007 season, Ghost Hound).

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The basic plot of the “movie” goes something like this. We begin, as ever, with Kino and Hermes entering a new country; this time, it’s the worryingly named “Country of Illness”; a technologically advanced settlement purposely separated from the outside world due to the various illnesses and diseases affecting its peoples. To what depths is the country willing to sink to in order to find a cure? Are a few healthy lives worth sacrificing if it could mean salvation for hundreds more? Hell, what gives mankind the right to give or take life, even if it’s in the name of scientific advancement?
Kino herself refuses to ask these questions and considering her quiet apathy, we have no moral compass to blindly follow. There is no emotional music with its virtual “cry here” pointers seen in so much anime; you are expected to think, and feel, for yourself.

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It’s interesting how the sickness is largely represented by a helpless, cute young girl, the likes of which we’re used to seeing in moe anime like Kanon and sola. We’re being pushed to feel pity for her, yet her precious existence is only possible with the sacrifice of countless others. Our endearment to her innocence and beauty, much like the superflat movement, is intentionally subverted by the corpses propping up her health. Again, Kino reminds us that the world is not beautiful, therefore it is.