Sunday, February 24, 2013

Anime Review No. 51-Spice and Wolf Season 1

"It's About the Journey, not the Destination"

Spice and Wolf, 2008 TV Series

Studio: Imagin, Director-Takeo Takahashi

Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Romance

Well, February ends with a review on another series I like: Spice and Wolf. I watched this back in college when it first came out. Around Christmas 2010, I got some money to spend and after going to FYE, bought the whole first season on DVD. Unfortunately, I have yet to get the second season mainly due to it being only available on Bluray/DVD combo. So this review will focus on the first season.

Anyway, Spice and Wolf tells the journey of Kraft Lawrence, a traveling merchant in a world not much different from Medieval Europe. One day, while at a village, he runs into Holo, a wolf goddess who can take human form. She yearns to go back home to the northern lands, as the villagers have grown tired of the old pagan ways and are moving towards the all-powerful Church. So, Holo enlists Lawrence in joining her on the journey as she needs a companion after being lonely so long.

Now, based on that premise, one would swordplay and fast adventure in a fantasy world, would you not? Not really, as the focus of this series is on ECONOMICS, ECONOMICS, ECONOMICS!! Mostly it involves characters talking about and doing economic activities, including trade deals and doing networking with other people. Thus, the main drive of the series comes from dialogue and characters' interactions, as opposed to action which when that occurs, it is sweet and succinct. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, as the attention to detail with regards to historical detail makes the world of Spice and Wolf rather believable.

This leads to the other draw that this show has for me: the characters, mainly Kraft Lawrence and Holo. Kraft Lawrence is a very complex character. Being at times confident and brave to being angry and defeated. But, the highlight character for me is Holo, who practically steals the show every scene she is in, which is most of them anyway. She's feisty, sarcastic, energetic and prideful on the surface, but there's also a lingering sad softness underneath. I like that. The supporting cast are mostly one-off characters that are a bit one-note, with a few exceptions (Nora the shepherdess for instance).

In terms of production, it is very solid across the board. Animation is very nice-looking, with some quite lovely backgrounds and consistent character designs. Music is traditional Medieval music, mostly strings and percussion. Not too different from what one would hear from a Ren. Fair. I especially like the ending song, which is a jolly energetic and all-engrish music. The english dub is done by Funimation, who do a very job with it, as usual. J Michael Tatum and Brina Palencia, as Lawrence and Holo respectively, are the knockout V.A.s for the dub. The rest of the dub is filled with Funimation regulars which upon hearing some of them you will recognize at an instant.

So, all in all, Spice and Wolf is a very good fantasy series. I highly recommend it.

Next time is well, back to Saturdays.

March 2nd is the next review, I am keeping it a surprise. See you then!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Anime Review No. 50 Valentines Day Special-His and Her Circumstances

"Journey and Love of Kindred Spirits"

His and Her Circumstances

1998-99 26 episode TV series

Studio: Gainax

Well, hope everyone had a good Valentine's Day. Yeah, I know its two days past that I'm posting this review but I still think it counts. Also, I have reached my 50th review. Wow, it took me a year and a half to get to this point. Figured since I started this with a Gainax production, "Otaku no Video", I will talk about another Gainax production, "His and Her Circumstances". Full circle and all that jazz...

"His and Her Circumstances", or Kare Kano, was an original manga by Masami Tsuda. It tells the story of Yukino Miyazawa, a HS freshman student at Houkei Prefectural School. She may seems to be a model student: delicate, ladylike, always willing to help people out. But, it is all an act as she is very proud, obsessed with grades and appearance and strives to become the "The Ultimate Queen of Vanity". But, one day she meets Souchiro Arima, another perfect student. But, she later finds that he is also a fake, but for entirely different reasons, tying into his rather unpleasant past. Soon, the two fall in love and strive to "live for their true selves". Of course that's just the beginning.

Of course, you would know of this much if you have even glanced at this show, as it goes out of its way to dump this info through all the episodes, an exposition overload as you will. Every episode has at its start a recap of what happens in the show. Old-fashioned you say, I say product of the times: It was a weekly show, and internet replay was practically non-existent.

In terms of story, this series shines quite a lot. I can say that most current romantic comedy slice of life series in anime are very dull. Focus is on how the main couple gets together, fraught with misunderstandings and contrived obstacles (cough Toradora, cough Love Hina, cough cough etc.). Thankfully, Kare Kano doesn't have that problem. It deals with how Yukino and Arima get together, sure, but then goes into how their relationship shapes up, with all the lows and highs, and how that influences their daily lives. Even when it isn't focused on the main couple, the stories of the supporting cast (Shibahime's changing family life for instance) are still interesting, touching on issues of family, relationships and love. I'm hard pressed to find that in most current rom-com anime, sorry to say.

Characters are similarly strong. Everyone in the cast is very interesting, even side characters (like the main couple's family members or other classmates) that don't get much screentime. They are all in their own way compelling, from Asaba the playboy-best friend to Arima even to Yukino's two younger sisters Tsukino and Kano.

Animation is a different matter. Studio Gainax produced the animated adaptation of this manga, directed and written by Hideaki Anno who also helmed the previous Gainax production Evangelion. The look of this show can be best described as 'postmodern mish-mash'. Take the animation style of the last two episodes of Eva and apply it to a rom-com anime, and tada! Kare Kano. Lots of still shots, storyboard drawings, SD chibi, real life pictures coupled with competent animation all strategically placed together to create a rather unique look overall. Anno at the same time reined in a lot of the psychoanalytic babble that plagued the last third of Eva, and that's for the best in regards to this show.

But, partway through production, Anno left the project and unfortunately it shows in the later episodes: Animation gets a bit inconsistent at times and the series suffers for that. Still, the animation is competent given the low budget that this production had. Cheap yet charming applies wholly to this series.

Lastly, the English dub is very good. This was a NY-based dub, so V.A.s like Veronica Taylor, Jessica Calvello, Megan Hollingshead, Rachel Lillis, Liam O'Brien, Lisa Ortiz, etc are featured in this English dub. Most of them do a good job, which coupled with a good adaptive script by Crispin Freeman, make me recommend strongly that one watches Kare Kano with the English dub.

Now, I have read some criticism directed towards this series. First off, is that the original mangaka disparaged the show as being too comical and not enough romance. To that I say, bull-pocky. The show has the right balance between romance/drama and comedy. Sure the comedy is wacky surreal OTT Gainax for the most part, but that's Gainax for you. Also, in every adaptation stuff will change-get used to it. Secondly, the Gainax ending doesn't actually come into play here. The series was canned after only one season. It doesn't so much as end as it just petered out. Which is a shame as towards the end it seems to pick itself up and getting ready to move forward then just stopped. What a bummer.

Final word: I recommend that everyone should at least check this out, even if you are not a fan of romantic comedies or jaded/indifferent by Gainax productions recently.

Next review is on Spice and Wolf Season 1, to be released on February 24.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Anime Review No. 49-Sakura Wars Ecole de Paris

Title: Sakura Taisen-Ecole de Paris

2003 OVA, 3 episodes

Produced by Red Entertainment/SEGA

Licensed and Distributed by Funimation in USA

Genres: Adventure, Action, Mecha

So, this series of reviews on anime sequels ends on this: Sakura Taisen-Ecole de Paris. Sakura Taisen, also known as Sakura Wars, is a franchise that has been around since the mid-90s. It has a manga, a TV series, movie, and several OVAs, all based on a series of video games. Its creators are Ohji Hiroi (Virgin Fleet), Kosuke Fujishima (Ah My Goddess and You're Under Arrest) and Satoru Akahori (KO Beast, Maze OVA, Sorceror Hunters). It tells the adventures of the Imperial Floral Assault Team, a group of female mecha pilots, who protect 1920s Tokyo from evil hordes. The 26 episode TV series is actually very good, with the right balance of action, drama, character development and comedy I've seen in a mecha series. It's on my list of 10 Favorite Anime series I posted over a year ago and included its opening song in my list of Favorite Anime Opening Songs a few months ago.

Enough of that, for today I am talking about one of the spinoffs. See, the popularity of the game series prompted SEGA/Red Entertainment to go out and make a few spinoffs of this series. This one is set in Paris during the mid 1920s, and there is also another spinoff set in 1920s New York City. Anyway, this 3 episode OVA, made back in 2003, concerns the formation and initial adventures of the Flower Division in Paris. It actually serves as a prologue to the third game of the Sakura Taisen series, which makes some sense.
Episode 1: Flowers at Daybreak

January 1926 starts us off. It starts French? A bit odd, but well done by the English dub cast.
A Flower Division is formed in Paris during the heights of the Roaring Twenties. I love the attention to detail to make this so. The first character we are introduced to is Erika, the readhead who is a bit of a sleepyhead (reminds me a bit of Sakura from the TV series). She acts a bit like a Catholic nun, always doing a prayer and talking about devotion and such. She comes across as being naive and not too smart but good-hearted and kind, much like Sakura in the TV series. The music is very 1920s Francophone with accordion and jazzy/serenading instrumentals.

Of course, Erika runs into Glycine Bluemer, the rich bitch, though not as bitchy as Sumire in the TV series, but certainly comes close. She is stern, aristocratic, a tad snobby and somewhat annoyed at Erika's sillier antics. Some another characters are introduced: Lobelia, a femme fatale thief whose the only one with a proper accent; Hanabi, a young woman with a dead lover and finally Coclequit, a younger girl who works at a circus as an acrobat.

So, the basic plot and premise is established with this first episode. The Flower Division is starting to come together. And, to add to this, Ohgami (the only dude in this series) is coming to Paris to help train this new group. Hurrah! Let's continue!

Episode 2: The Black Cat and the Bad Girl

Here, the focus is on Lobelia, the mysterious glasses, white-haired thief. She is a femme fatale and resident 'bad girl'. By this time, The Flower Division has 4 members: Erika, Gycline and Coclequit (little circus girl) and Ohgami. Just as in Sakura Wars TV, Ohgami is still the most bland and uninteresting character in contrast to the female characters. Thankfully his time in the OVA has been small, for now.

Meanwhile, a mysterious adversary, named Jester who looks like a female Pierrot Harlequin character. Apparently, this is the bad guy. Ok, cool, as this keeps in line with how the rest of the show. Strange occurrences happen which may or may not be linked to Jester.

Something of note:

Each of the girls have specific 'spirit powers' which are more latent here than in the TV series. There, all that meant was that they pilot the Kubos, but here they can do a bit more with their powers, like in the case of Lobelia who can literally bend fire to her will which she uses to outsmart the Flower Division's attempts to catch her.

After a rather lengthy but very good action sequence, Lobelia is finally caught and recruited into the Flower Division. This is a very good episode with plenty of action and excitement to be enjoyed. Let's see how this all ends up!

Episode 3: The City of Love

It has been three months since Ohgami has been in Paris, getting a rude awakening from Erika one morning which I chuckled at I'll admit. The episode goes through a sequence of Ohgami interacting with each of the girls one at a time.

First, Gycline is doing some sword training with Ohgami. She's extremely prideful but reliable with what "The honor of the aristocraticy" bit she keeps going on about.

Next, he's hanging out with Colcequit, who is the little circus acrobat girl. It is a very nice and soft conversational moment. There is a lingering inner sadness to her character, but sadly it isn't fully explored here.

Next, Ohgami is watching Hanabi perform on stage. Hanabi doesn't have much screen time, but the bit of time she is portrayed as a quiet and demure girl who is still moving on from her dead lover.

Finally, he is playing cards with Lobelia. She is expanded upon here, being reckless, morally ambiguous and stubborn. "Last thing I want is a peaceful Paris" very succinctly sums up her character.

Now, to cap off this part of the episode, we get a scene of the four girls in round-table conversation. This is quite entertaining, reminding me of group dynamic displayed in the TV series. I'll admit I smirked at this bit.

Now, we go from that to some government stiffs talking about remote controlled submarines. The Jester takes one and mucks around with it. It then goes about Paris starts causing some havoc.

This prompts Erika and Ohgami to go out in their Kubo units and fight. This is admittedly the best part of the OVA, where the production pulls off all the stops. This action scene which feel and looks like a video game (not surprising), with a nice blending of CGI and cel animation (even for the time it was made).

But, it all ends on a slightly unresolved note. A shame, as this is really good. Best part of this, you can watch this and not lose much aside from Ohgami but that's fine. Overall, this is very well done in terms of whole production (animation, sound, etc). Funimation does a good job with the English dub. Bummer that they couldn't spring enough money to get the second OVA of this, but whatever. As a final note, I highly recommend this.
Next Review: His and Her Circumstances (Valentine's Day Special) to be released February 16th.