Truly good horror anime is hard to find. Anime tends to use many elements of horror, but it rarely adds up to something that’s scary.
When all that's left is dust
When I think about Boogiepop Phantom, I’m also reminded of other recent Madhouse anime, like Shigurui and Casshern Sins. Each has a strange aesthetic; seductive yet tinged by an under-lying sense of sadness and desolation.
It would be easy to categorise them as dark and depressing, but they are more complex than that. It’s not horror merely for the sake of mindless chills; it’s horror to serve a purpose, to weave a spell. Boogiepop Phantom is disorientating, Shigurui is grotesque and Casshern Sins is desolate, but each conjures an atmosphere potent enough to provoke difficult questions.
Instead of spending hours writing about just one series, this week I’ve dragged myself in the opposite direction and reflected on four of my current favourites. There’s no real reason for the Tekkon Kinkreet image above, except to say that it’s one of the finest examples of fan-art I’ve clapped eyes on; tobiee is an amazing artist, but I digress, on with the show.
Gundam 00 – I’ve realised something shocking; I like Gundam 00. Similar to my time with Toward the Terra, it took a while to get under my skin, but by now, I’m watching new episodes as soon as they’ve aired. Boasting a plot dense with mystery and a number of conflicting ideas about war, philosophy and religion, I’m anxious to see whether or not the intervention of Celestial Being will result in the evolution, or destruction, of the modern world. At times, it’s breath-taking, especially the spine-tingling conclusion to episode 15, but the character designs (and therefore, the character’s themselves) are too contrived.
Ookiku Furikabutte – I know nothing about baseball, but after a few pointers from my trusted colleagues, I started watching Ookiku Furikabutte last week, and already, I’m hooked. Like Fighting Spirit, regardless of game-specific quirks, it offers some quite heart-felt, relatable depictions of emotion, friendship and psychology. We’re granted profound insight into the thoughts of the players stepping out onto the hallowed turf, on the very brink of being consumed by worry and self-doubt. For example, protagonist pitcher Ren Mihashi begins as a Shinji Ikari-level introvert; annoyingly timid, but his transformation into a confident, happy butterfly will be an inspirational moment to behold.
Shigurui – An early start to this past weekend saw me devour the last two installments of Shigurui and while I was prepared for its abrupt finish, I’m frustrated that I’ll never know the outcome of Irako’s final battle. Still, Kogan Iwamoto’s death was mightily rewarding. In a story where every character thinks nothing of inflicting cruelty and murder, the old-man was the most vile of them all; poor Irako (blind), Iku (one-nipple) and Mie (insane) deserved that bloody revenge. Indeed, alongside Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen, this is one of the finest samurai anime I’ve seen. It’s violent, corrupt and without compromise.
Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji – What is there that’s left to say about Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji? Fact is, it’s awesome; everyone agrees; the end. In the most recent episode, our hero was shaken in despair and within millimeters of a mashed ear-drum, all courtesy of crusty old yakuza sporting healthy delusions of grandeur. It’s almost impossible for Kaiji to escape unscathed, and yet, even as I write this, I’m savoring his inevitable victory, the big fat red letters about to be scrawled over Tonegawa’s wrinkly forehead that read ‘o-w-n-e-d’. I mean, our hero can’t lose; if I have faith in anyone, it’s faith in Kaiji.
Music spotlight – Discovered at ‘Music For Robots‘ was this fun remix of the Mega Man 2 soundtrack by retro splicer Johan AgebjÃƒÂ¶rn (the fantastic video was authored by Lichterloh). I mean, platform games, don’t they look great? It’s probably the nostalgia speaking, but there’s something about these 8-bit remixes I just absolutely, totally, completely adore, even listening to the first few seconds will recall a pang of feeling or emotion from an era long since past. Enjoy the echoes of memory!
Jesus, it’s the end of another year. I’ve had fun in 2007; being a part of the anime blogging community and writing for you, dear reader. I’m not sure I’d last long if it wasn’t for your comments, but here we are, almost two years on and still talking, ranting, in love with anime. Back during September, I was wondering if I’d ever just suddenly grow out of all this, stop blogging and disappear, but deep down, the truth has never been in doubt; I’m an anime fan forever and you’ll take this passion, these feelings, when you pry them from my cold dead fingers. This review of 2007 begins now.
For all my hyping of Bokurano, the anime adaptation ended up being woefully mediocre. Much like their similarly soulless treatment of other good horror manga like Gantz and Hellsing, Gonzo’s vision of Bokurano was poorly animated and depressing, almost completely lacking in the "beautiful tragedy", truth and innocence that permeates Mohiro Kitoh’s brilliant original story. For an anime studio capable of producing epic series like Gankutsuou and Last Exile, 2007 was an utter failure for Gonzo, but don’t worry, Afro Samurai 2 will be here soon; that’s going to be good, right?
Claymore is an inferior clone of Berserk. The Awakened Beings are Apostles, Isley looks a lot like Griffith and Rigardo is a replica of Zodd. That being said, I like dark fantasy and Claymore was good enough on a superficial level to entertain and occasionally capture my imagination. It was violent and harsh, but I rarely felt like I cared about the characters, and by the end, the rushed climax had further degenerated into a predictable sequence of grunts and power-ups. Berserk is amongst the finest anime of all time, this isn’t.
I really want to love Mononoke; it’s beautifully animated, artsy and daringly creative, but still, I find it somewhat elusive. I feel like it exists simply to be as elegant, surreal and weird as possible; 23 minutes later, the episode has finished and I’ll move on to something else. It’s a lot like Mushishi; episodic and few-to-none recurring characters, but where that’s magical, reflective and relaxed, Mononoke is an ultra-violet and ambiguous puzzle.
10. Darker Than Black
Nothing’s worse than wasted potential. For Darker Than Black, Studio Bones reunited a lot of the staff involved in the mesmeric Wolf’s Rain, including maestro Yoko Kanno and director Tensai Okamura, but other than brief glimpses of former glory, this was just another "good" series which never really found it’s own identity. The story arcs would pointlessly leap between hard-boiled drama, stupid comedy and comic-book horror, but without any of the comradery or personality seen in the likes of Cowboy Bebop, it regularly came across as false and ultimately, a forgettable disappointment.
9. Code Geass
I’m a tad embarrassed to admit I enjoyed watching Code Geass. Let’s get something straight, it’s an utter mongrel of an anime series ripe with cliche fan-service, mecha and an anti-hero ripped straight out of Death Note. Hell, it’s even sponsored by Pizza Hut. With all that said, I won’t deny that this show had me riveted from start ’til end; much like watching a giant train wreck, I simply enjoy seeing it all go off the rails (that’s a metaphor, I don’t actually watch footage of train wrecks). No doubt, Code Geass is a sensational failure, but sensational none the less.
8. Genshiken 2
I’ve always liked Genshiken. It’s perceptive and funny, and certainly fits being labeled as "slice of life", as it’s also meandering and aimless. Its quality and its failing is that it’s a quite literal depiction of otaku life, and in general, life is aimless and meandering; there is no grand design we’re all following (if you haven’t guessed, I’m not especially religious), we simply are, and that’s it. Genshiken 2’s beauty is in depicting this transience, there is a palpable realization amongst the characters that they’re growing apart the way we all do; they are prepared for it, this parting of the ways, but it’s sad to see none the less. You won’t quit on me yet, guys?
7. Seirei no Moribito
The third episode of Seirei no Moribito is probably the singe best episode of anime I’ve seen all year. The action, intensity, music and animation were all top notch, but gradually, everything slowed down and the story moved in a completely different direction. Within ten episodes, we had traveled (quite literally) from an utterly compelling sequence of cool action scenes to something more akin to an intimate family drama. Of course, Seirei no Moribito remains a beautifully animated fantasy, but it feels over-long and ultimately, strikes a slightly uneven balance between big explosions and quiet sentimentality.
The thought of violence in anime almost immediately conjures fountains of bright red blood and contorted screams, yet there is little in the way of genuine sadism. Step forward Shigurui; a series that takes pleasure in lingering on impact, ensuring we flinch with every punctured eye-ball and severed nipple. This is animation madly in love with the human body and almost sadomasochist in its intent to contort, scar and rip the flesh. Set in a time when traditions and morals were twisted and forced, it’s hard to recommend something as outright disturbing and serious as this, yet it’s so fascinating and meticulous; humanity at its basest level.
Anime tends to specialize in characters and relationships, but the pleasure in watching Baccano! is simply in seeing a particularly intricate story gradually reveal its labyrinth of secrets. Every episode is consistently dense with mystery and intrigue as we are dragged back and forth in time to reveal untold depths of supernatural power and immortal betrayal. The rather slapstick humor is often at odds with surprising levels of cruelty and gore but best of all is an exciting sequence of action escalating on-top of a moving train.
4. Death Note
I sat down with Death Note having carefully avoided the manga spoilers for what felt like an eternity and was rewarded with a thrilling and addictive story that’s constantly asking questions of its viewers. Between his infamous games of brinkmanship with L and the rest, we’re regularly questioning Light’s motives for using his Death Note. Though he’s striving for, and even getting close to world peace, does that justify his mass-murdering spree? Or rather, is he just another sly megalomaniac enjoying his pointless power trip? It’s a great feeling to discover a story like this, something that’s still capable of creating new ideas and playing with our concepts of justice and heroism without ever resorting to a tacked-on happy ending. Light is the main character, yet he is a villain; an insane bastard who’s playing with lives simply because he’s bored. He deserves his end, and yet, when everything inevitably crashes down, I feel pity, I don’t want him to die. I liked the second opening, too!
3. Toward the Terra
I never really expected to like (let alone love) Toward the Terra. Though I’m always willing to give honest science fiction a fair crack, this didn’t have the best of starts. I stopped watching Heroic Age because it was stupid and boring, but around about the same time, my opinion of Toward the Terra was changing; perhaps it was the use of time-leaps — we see these heroes and villains grow over time, how they change from whiney children into strong and conflicted adults; with each passing episode, there is a sense that we know these characters, understand their grief and desires. Aside from some positively epic genocide (exploding planets), the heart of what’s great about Toward the Terra is this compelling battle of wills between Jomy and Keith, we’re constantly wondering whether or not Keith can cast aside everything he’s been taught and embrace the Mu for what they are, while Jomy continues to struggle with his thirst of revenge and perpetuating the cycle of violence. Toward the Terra has a lot to say about racism and discrimination, but it’s also exciting, action-packed and riddled with tragedy; a great story, set amongst the stars, that plays out over decades of time.
2. Dennou Coil
Good animation goes a long way to attracting my interest in a series and what’s immediately apparent about Dennou Coil is that it’s vibrant and full of life. It’s like everything moves, everything is considered, and you’re watching someone literally imprint their thoughts and dreams onto a frame. At its best, that’s how it feels to watch Dennou Coil, it’s like someone’s vivid memories of childhood suddenly sprung to life, the neon colors and honest fun of those days, the half-formed hints of emotions fraying between friends and mingling with some pointless adventure. There is that sense of not really being able to express yourself, despite everything about you; the way you look and the way you sound, even the way you stand, making it seem so obvious how you feel.
1. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
To be honest, it seems like everyone loves Gurren Lagann, and though I didn’t want this countdown to be that predictable, the truth is that, almost from the first episode, I was head over heels in love with this show too. No other series would so consistently leave me burning with passion after every episode; leave me feeling like I just had to write about it, as if it were my duty to report how I felt. All you need to see is that opening minute of the first episode, "so all the heavenly lights are the enemy?" This one moment encapsulates so much of what’s good about Gurren Lagann; the impossibly epic scale, the insurmountable odds facing the Gurren-dan and Simon’s brash, unbeatable confidence. It’s mind blowing, and just seeing that, I knew I’d love this series.
I’m desperately trying to keep this short, but there is still so much to say, like how "Libera me from Hell" is such a weird yet great song, or how the story delivers heart warming ideas of friendship, comradery, love and even sacrifice. It ends perfectly, too; bitter-sweet and sad, time having taken its toll on our heroes, yet it just feels right, like everything that needed to be said has been screamed from the highest mountain, and now it’s time to step back, stop fighting and embrace the future. Gurren Lagann is, by far and away, the best anime series of 2007.
Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of “fluffy” anime; series with heart-rending love stories and elegant ballet dancing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but from time to time, I like to taste the other extreme too; I mean a bit of the old “ultra violence”. It’s natural, then, that Shigurui fits the bill; the kind of anime many of us like to pretend doesn’t exist. So, before going any further, please note this post is heavy on images of an “adult nature”; though I understand many of you might be unsettled by such blunt depictions of sex and violence, the truth of Shigurui lies not in words alone, but its unrelenting presentation of old Japan’s institutional depravity. Basically, you’ve been warned.
With September in full swing, we find ourselves on the verge of the 2007 fall season. What? Already? I’m not prepared for any of that new stuff yet; it’s still too early for all these fall previews, autumn can go fuck itself. On the other hand, I’m still hopelessly devoted to a number of currently running series; hence this post, so end intro and cue this countdown of my favorites.