After all these years, I still love watching Naruto. I’ll place it on hiatus every now and then, but it still is, and always will be, one of my biggest favourites. This past weekend marked the end of my latest break from Shippuuden, but already, here I am again; writing away. I couldn’t let this feeling pass without trying to convey it, this sense of being an anime fan and seeing something so great it can’t be contained by just me alone; I have to share it with you.
Something that ‘outsiders’ probably don’t realise about Fullmetal Alchemist is just how grotesque and disturbing it can be for mainstream shonen; it has never been a story that shys away from death, even when the victims are cute little girls and their pet dogs!
This lurched back into focus during episode 20 of Brotherhood, when Ed, in-between bouts of throwing up, exhumes the remains of what was supposed to be his half-transmuted mother. While the act of digging up a long-buried grave is, in itself, a stomach-turning thing to do, after Ed looks at the remains, a plot twist even more disturbing is revealed, that the body they pulled back from ‘the other side’ wasn’t their mother’s at all!
Who’s body was it? And why did it appear in place of his mother’s? The story continues to raise these dark questions, and with no comforting, morally-sound answer in sight, I really think that FMA is overlooked as horror. Scenes like these, as well as the twisted fate of characters like Martel, are as cruel and disturbing as anything I’ve seen in anime.
A tribute to Soul Eater 18
It’s been a long time since my last foray into Soul Eater. Too long, really. And it’s easy to forget just how fun it is, how exciting, how damn awesome.
I mean, there are certain things that will always stick out, launch it above other series, and these two episodes were no different. Consider the dark, gothic architecture of Shibusen. The landscape has a palpable character, the shade and colour emphasizing a constant, lively feeling. An emotional container for these bizarre eccentrics, this is a world I can feel a part of, along with these characters and their adventures, so colourful and thrilling.
I suppose I’m really just in awe of this show, as the bright sparks fly and the awkwardly dressed kids dance. In that moment. Memories. These episodes, in particular, just really capture that feeling for me, that transient, simple, joyful sense of being young and stupid. If just for a dozen or so minutes, it’s fun, and happy, and perfect.
Then Medusa attacks.
Sometimes it’s easy to take Soul Eater for granted because every episode is so consistently and stylishly animated. But like I said above, I’ve been away from this series for too long. When I finished these two episodes, I really had the urge to just race through the rest right there and then. But you see, I want to savour it, this feeling, this excitement. It’s wonderful, and rare.
There is no denying it; for Soul Eater and me, it was love at first sight. Bursting with an adorable “look-at-me” style and eccentric attitude, it’s probably the coolest looking anime I’ve clapped eyes on since Gurren Lagann. 6 episodes in and every single one of them has been weird and wonderful, just one surreal trip after another, and naturally, being such a shameless action junkie and all, I’ll never tire of seeing such beautifully animated battles. Considering its over-the-top, scythe-swinging choreography and fun-loving attitude, there’s no denying I’m extracting some immensely good, hot-blooded entertainment from Soul Eater, but still, and it’s important to note (because I know this is a big issue for some), this series is (traditional) shonen fighting anime. There, I said it.
It may look unconventional, but if you can’t enjoy the likes of Naruto, Bleach, One Piece or D.Gray-man, you won’t last long with this either. Soul Eater could be construed, at least at first, as a parody of those other anime; Black Star is probably the most blatant joke; he is a complete rip-off of the original noisy ninja, Uzumaki Naruto. But it’s clearly a loving parody, like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, because as much as it is knowingly poking fun at the cliched ‘shonen fighting’ anime, it obviously wants to be taken seriously as ‘shonen fighting’ anime too. Interestingly, this is another point of comparison with Gurren Lagann, because, early on, it was just as self-aware and over-the-top, being so referential of the mecha (super/transforming robot) genre. Starting a story with these archetypal ‘raw materials’ is very much akin to planting flower seeds and waiting for them blossom, as with every passing episode, the archetype, by virtue of its own experiences, takes root and grows into a unique personality. Already, Black Star is Black Star.
Soul Eater is, in many ways, very superficial. At this point, it has been looking great, the jokes are quite funny and the characters are likable, but there has been no real conflict. What I really love about a lot of my favourite shonen anime, like One Piece, is the heart-warming, strong bond of friendship shared by the characters, and we see, time and time again, that they will sacrifice everything, or die trying, to protect that bond. I’ve been looking for signs like that in Soul Eater too, something that suggests these relationships between meister and weapon amount to more than just plot convenience, and indeed, when pushed to their limits, I think there is definitely that kind of sentiment between Maka and Soul. I’m reflecting on a certain moment in episode 5, when the defeated Soul senses danger and covers Maka’s body with his own, growling “I won’t let you lay a hand on my Technician!” It just goes to show that there are deeper feelings there; that Soul Eater isn’t just parody and action, but has something quite inspiring to say about comradery and sacrifice too. I think that’s important, or at least, it is for me.
If MyAnimeList has taught me anything, it’s that for every merely-good new anime series airing right now, there are many more excellent but old (and therefore, forgotten) gems just waiting to be found. Since I joined that site, I’ve spent countless hours trawling through their hefty archives of anime, trying to build up a well-structured list of everything I’ve ever wanted to see. And now, as of speaking, there are 87 TV series, movies or OVAs on my official back-log; scary, but as long as I’m an anime fan, the list will never drain.
Building such a resource is a daunting task, but at the same time, it provides me with a useful reference for the future. If I’m looking for some comedy, or action, or drama, all I need to do is consult my list. For example, I doubt I’d even think to watch something as obscure as “Animation Runner Kuromi” had I never bothered to note it down on MAL, but I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be an entertaining little comedy about the anime industry, helmed by one of my absolute favourite directors, Akitaro Daichi, he of “Fruits Basket” and “Now and Then, Here and There” fame. Discovering that, amidst everything else that’s supposedly vying for mine anime-viewing attentions, was well worth the effort.
I found the anime of this blog-post, a certain Great Teacher Onizuka, for the same reasons. I’ve often read mentions of GTO, but up until the end of 2007, I’d always ignored it. However, since the dawn of the new year, I’ve been feeling tired after work and regularly struggle to keep my eyes open long enough to get through even one episode of so-called thinking-man’s anime (because, you see, thinking is too much effort). I suppose big, dumb Great Teacher Onizuka looked like the perfect antidote, and indeed, I was right; light entertainment for the win.
Great Teacher Onizuka’s real name is Eikichi Onizuka. He often introduces himself as a 22 year-old bachelor looking for lurrrv, but his blonde hair (quite rare in Asia, apparently!) and hot-blooded, aggressive attitude fails to conceal his history as the legendary leader of one of Japan’s most violent motorcycle gangs. Indeed, he only starts teaching because of the many “hot girls” at school, but quickly realizes his passion for setting straight an abusive class of misfits; themselves more than willing to squish his fledgling career.
That’s all you need to know about the plot of GTO, it’s that simple. Onizuka isn’t like other teachers; he isn’t up-tight, strict or serious, he’s the opposite. He’s a punk, irresponsible, easy-going and up for laugh; consider that he wins the admiration of one student by asking him for porn, while he punishes bullies by hanging them upside-down from trees.
So much of the fun is in seeing how Onizuka’s lack of regard for social boundaries (e.g. spanking a female student) knows no limits; the bemused reactions he forces from parents, teachers and students alike are priceless. You know they’ll never defeat Onizuka, but the bigger the bastard, the harder they fall. Of course, there are the obligatory slips into serious drama too, but it’s apt, and in some cases, heart-rending. In one particular arc, there is a rather-weak boy that’s being bullied by a group of girls; he considers suicide. It ends when he strips down naked in front of a packed hall of PTA members to reveal the extent to which his body has been battered and bruised.
With the animation from Studio Pierrot, the studio behind the likes of Bleach and Naruto, GTO is a fairly standard looking anime from 1999, but some of Onizuka’s facial expressions are hilarious; it’s like he suddenly tenses every muscle on his face to emphasize the sense of embarrassment or confusion he’s started feeling. It’s really unique and amusing to see, and was apparently based on the actor who played Onizuka in the live action drama.
Talking of Pierrot, they also curse GTO with their other major affliction, ridiculous random filler episodes. It’s not as bad as Naruto though, well, not as obvious, anyway, considering Onizuka proves himself capable of sitting an exam with a gun-shot wound to the stomach; no-one even notices until he passes out! You can’t really get more ridiculous than that, right? Besides, GTO has no plot to speak of, it’s just Onizuka rescuing the hearts and minds of a group of kids who, at some point or another, lost faith in school.
Though it’s low-brow and stupid, Great Teacher Onizuka is entertaining and likeable. Sometimes, that’s all I need; nothing too intelligent or opaque, but just wholesome, good-hearted fun. I doubt I’ll ever watch it again, but I’m glad I did. Now, back to the back-log, any suggestions?
Kiba – 7 – Hollow Defeat
As insane as it may sound, the last two episodes of Kiba were actually quite good! If you then stop to consider that they also didn’t feature its main character, there is something undoubtedly wrong.
To keep me interested, a show has to have an interesting, involving and immersive story; Kiba doesn’t have that. Likeable and unpredictable characters can also help too; no such luck for Kiba here either, we gleaned some of these elements in the previous two episodes, but now we are back to Zed’s gladiatorial timeline any semblance of potential has flown out of the window.
Mindless, derivative action is about the only way I can describe this episode. As much as I wanted to see Kiba retain last week’s promising conclusion, I can’t hide from the fact that Zed and his general story is so incredibly cliche, predictable and hollow that watching Kiba is good for only one thing; reminding me how important genuinely innovative and creative anime actually is.
Kiba – 6 – The price of freedom
It’s easy to take kids anime for granted, but compared with Western cartoons aimed at the same young viewers, the difference in conviction and themes is exceptional. Through out episode 6 of Kiba, several (old and young) characters die. It’s not gory, but the intent to kill is clear from the outset. There are no last minute resets, no brave super heroes to save the day; that’s not to say there aren’t characters with good intentions, but (as this episode suggests) sometimes good doesn’t always win out.
Frankly, I was really impressed with this episode. As cliche as Kiba has been up until now, I never expected to see the characters battle like they did here. It was shocking to see Noa envelope an entire town in flames, shocking to see old buddies like Kis and Gale impale each other with their swords.
Episode 7 promises a return to the dumb-luck of Zed and his boring face off with Dumas, but taken as their own separate story, both episode 5 and 6 represent an emotional and unpredictable high point for this series, where the ideology of short sighted adults collides with the untainted vision of youth. I’m in no doubt now that Noa will eventually turn bad and come to battle Zed, but with this kind of compelling back story, who could blame him for giving up on society?
Kiba – 5 – Swings & Swords
At a time when Kiba was in real danger of drowning in the true depths of unsalvageable mediocrity, an episode like this comes along and suggests that the story may well have some mileage after all.
Tellingly this was an episode free of Zed; rather the story follows his bespecled old buddy Noa who also seems to be teleporting about the various lands of Kiba. He ends up in a country (Neotopia) governed by the iron fist of a militaristic government where young men are being conscripted into the army. Being as it is an honour to become a soldier, most kids end up willingly leaving, while (much to the obvious distaste of the passionate locals) others would rather stay.
This episode was surprising in the way it handled what would inevitably be a sticky situation; best friends torn apart by war, one wants to fight while the other just wants to have fun, their polar opposite choices inevitably lead to conflict and the way it’s presented here was surprisingly well done; it managed to capture both the innocence and subsequent corruption of idealistic kids. A much improved instalment of Kiba, though this arc’s ultimate success rests on it’s conclusion next week.
So today I had to choose one of three episodes to watch. I could have gone with Studio BONES’ latest masterpiece Jyo-Oh-Sei, the utterly artistic new arc of Ayakashi or be content with the generic shounen delights of Kiba. If you’re reading this, you already know which episode I plumped for! I feel so dirty.
Zed hears about a joust contest and in his typically gung-oh style, decides to enter. It’s a competition that pits one shard caster against another in a gladiatorial arena, minus the death.
As if Kiba wasn’t already reminiscent of the tried and tested shounen action template, this episode sees us revisit the classic tournament format. Yawn indeed, but the thing about Kiba is that the story moves at such a brisk pace, so while this kind of set-up in Naruto would consume say 10 episodes, Zed and company remarkably battle it out in seconds. The episode ends on a cliffhanger with Zed about to unleash hell (in the final, of course) on camp pretty boy Robes and I must admit I’m looking forward to seeing how it all ends, both characters could use a good kicking.
Zed’s still an abject arsehole, but Kiba remains just good fun to watch. The soundtrack is attractive and dramatic, the landscapes are vast, bright and colourful and the animation is fluid enough to cover the action with a enough adrenaline. The story and general intelligence of writing continues to leave a lot to be desired; stuff is just happening with little or no prompting, but irregardless, you can’t underrate enjoyment; that’s the most important part.