Sunday, February 23, 2014

Anime Review No. 75-Utena Movie

"For the Revolution of the World"
Revolutionary Girl Utena The Movie

1999 Movie

Studio-JC Staff, Director-Kunihiko Ikuhara, Writer: Yoji Enokido

Ah yes, the conclusion of February reviews, which have been mainly covering series about love or relationships. To cap it off, I saw take a look at Revolutionary Girl Utena The Movie. One can view the movie as a remake of the original TV Series or a slightly abridged version of the events in the TV Series. I am on the fence about this, for one reason: Of course, keep in mind I have yet to see the original TV Series. It has been a show I have been meaning to watch at some point, but never really had the chance to.

So, a brief summary:
Utena is a new student at an elite academy which seems to be rather strange place. She is on a quest to find her prince, which is probably a red haired dude at the school. On the way, she meets with Anthy (a dark skinned damsel) who is the 'Rose Bride'. The rings make duelists for the fight for the Rose Bride, which are done by sword duels. Theres duels, dealings and backstabbings and lots of sapphic love. Of course, the first two-thirds of this 87 minute long film are coherent at best. Past that point, I gave up on trying to summarize this fecking movie.

This is in part is due to the writing. One trait of a Yoji Enokido script that I have noticed is the use of spectacle at the expense of common sense and/or logic. It is light on character and plot but big on spectacle. Of course it isn't just in here, but also in other shows Enokido has written, like Diebuster and FLCL, even his more current stuff like Ouran (to a point) and Star Driver. The last third of the movie kind of follows this; a flurry of scenes that do bring some sense to story elements but in the end are glossed over  in favor of 'Oh, let's do something totally outlandish and crazy'. Fortunately, Enkido's writing is complemented by Ikuhara's direction which seeks to emphasize this point fully alongside being well very cinematic. Oddly enough, this is the best animated portion of the film (of course the movie on whole is glorious to look at).

For the most part, the Utena movie is about its characters and their relationships, be it Utena and Anthy, Touga/Utena/Shiori, Miki and his sister, Anthy and her brother prince, Miki/Juri and Juri/Shiori...... god one needs a fecking chart on all the relationships here. Granted, most of them are rather problematic relationships to say the least. This leads the movie to be a bit unsettling at times to watch, but I think that's part of the point. There exist brief moments where it seems like they are referencing the TV show (the scene with cow and elephants for instance). Fair amount of WTF abounds as well, especially in the finale.

Of course, not all relationships are problematic. The one that works, and dare I say, survives into tomorrow is....lesbian love? Yes, Anthy and Utena do make a cute couple, even if it starts off as somewhat sudden and forced. I also think that Utena and Anthy serves as an early iteration of the typical yuri couple: one being prince, tomboyish and 'bi-fauxnen' while the other is soft, demure and feminine. But we as the audience spend enough time with them during the course of the movie that by the finale, we root, nay cheer for their victory!

Of course, the animation has less problems than the writing, that's for sure. It is rich and colorful setting, an exquisitely shot production by JC Staff. In short, the animation is quite astounding and artsy. Artistic symbolism abounds in the movie: roses, the prince's ring (Mark of the Rose), sword fights, even the whole ending sequence is one extended symbolic metaphor in of itself.

Lastly, the English Dub is serviceable though it hasn't aged well. This, along with the TV Series, were dubbed and released by US Manga Corps back in the day. US Manga Corps dubs that I have looked at in the past tend to be hit or miss with me. With me, the dub for this is spotty at best. Standout performances from Rachael Lillis and Crispin Freeman are there to be sure. However, the rest of the cast seems either dry/stiff or OTT. Though I wouldn't rag on the dub too much as Ikuhara-san did supervise the dub himself, as documented on the behind the scenes video included on the DVD.

Overall, the Utena Movie is rather interesting. Granted, this is an opinion based on me not having seen the series itself, so I might find some character and plot details a bit fuzzy, but the animation of the sheer spectatle makes up for it in the end. I will make a point of watching the Utena series and maybe perhaps my opinion of the movie will change somewhat.

Next review, well, its this:
Surprise Trailer

'Til next time, dear readers

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Anime Review No. 74-Ef a tale of melodies

"I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!"

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Gustav Mahler Ruckert Lieder, 1901

Ef: a tale of melodies

Fall 2008 TV Series

Studio Shaft, Director-Shin Oonuma, Writer: Katsuhito Takayama

You, know its an interesting tale of how I got this series. Well, last summer, I went to a local anime convention for a day. While there, I saw a few vendors selling some anime and took a look. One that caught my eye was Ef: a tale of memories on sale by a significant bargain. Also, I saw Ef: a tale of melodies as well, right next to it. At first I picked up the first season, then later that day I decided 'what the heck?' and pick up the second season as well. For that, I am entirely grateful as the second season is exceptional.

First off, I shall talk about the setting a bit. There are two towns named Otowa: one in Japan, one in Austraila. One was afflicted by an earthquake, we are not shown only through brief flashes. Essentially, there are twin cities on opposite sides of the globe: same climates and time zones but different seasons naturally. I only bring this up as it seems a bit confusing in the context of the story, hence why you should re-watch this show at least once. Though, to be fair, I do like the little touches they add into the setting for the sake of world building.

Anyway, the story with Season 2 is rather similar in structure to Season 1, with the multi-tier story lines following different characters. However, whereas Season 1 took place entirely in the relative present, Season 2 takes place in both the relative present and past. Story A involves Yuu Himura (the weary priest) and Yuuko Amamiya (the mysterious nun) and the relationship and life they shared back in high school. They both knew each other, though at first both were hesistant. But, due to situations, Yuu becomes becomes a protector for Yuuko. There is also a love triangle of sorts between Yuu, Yuuko and Nagi Hirono, making it similar to Hiro's story in Season 1 but certainly a bit more complex. For one thing, there is an antagonist, an obstacle to their relationship, which happens to be Amamiya-sensei, the school's art teacher and Yuuko's adoptive brother/adult figure. It turns out he isn't such an upstanding guy, as one episode midway through certainly demonstrates. Granted, Yuu is no saint either and that leads into something that I quite like about this series: it has a very grey but human sense of characters. There exist no heroes or villains, just human characters living out to the best of their abilities. Anyway, Yuu and Yuuko do fall in love yet tragedy strikes again and that's what shapes Yuu in the present. Granted, the Ef series is fraught with emotional and pyschological drama, even angst at moments, but it doesn't wallow in. It knows the pit, doesn't spend any time more then necessary in digging down the pit, but rather seeks a way out of the pit.

Story B, meanwhile, focuses on Shuichi Kuze and Mizuki Hayama in the present. Kuze is a friend of Renji's and Yuu's, a world known violinist though a bit of a playboy/womanizer. Mizuki is a friend of Kei Shindou and cousin of Renji and is your typical perky and happy high school girl. This story is striking similar to Renji's from Season 1 but gender-flipped in that the girl meets a guy with a tragic secret and wonders on whether to help or not. Except, things are not so clear. Kuze is basically a lost cause, he views life as a calculated risk, one that he is not willing to continue with. Yeah, I got to say Kuze is really the only character I can actually relate to in any fashion. Luckily, with support of his friends Nagi Hirono and Yuu along with Mizuki, Kuze seeks to live life to the fullest even if it will be short-lived. I must say it is very life-affirming and positive, even in the midst of the darkness that life sometimes run into.

This in turns leads to another strong theme that runs in the show; the notion of unconditional love as being the most brutal and honest form of love there is. It is certainly not 'Love conquers all' mentality akin to many romance stories but more along the lines of 'Love helps us out when in despair or trouble.' Where it be Yuu loving and accepting Yuuko for who she is or Kuze realizing it helps to have a loved one there to hold and comfort you at your worst hour, that is what this series basically boils down to.

Sidestory elements include the characters from Season 1 as they come back on occasion. It shows how the characters from Season 1 have grown and gone about their lives. A masterstroke, in my opinion, was to have the Shindou sisters reunited, which was a heartwarming moment of 'DAWW'. In the end, its Yuuko that ties everyone in the series together, a beacon of hope to all of humanity. The final episode is one of the best I have seen, with it all's right with the world mood and ends on scene so tremendous that it defies commentary but so full of emotions it brought me literally to tears.

Much like the first season, the dialogue is rather lyrical and poetic. Animation is scenery and atmosphere, pervading the series all out. At times it verges on the line between the stock standard and the experimental. For instance, use of sepia-toned film stock to the animation for the flashbacks is a nice touch. A single melody by solo violin dominates the BGM for this series: a sad late romantic style solo, reflecting the show in tone and mood, to say nothing else about the rest of the music which is just as good as in the first season, if not better. Finally, the opening songs for both seasons are both excellent and a rare example of engrish done right.

Lastly, the English dub is utterly fantastic, even more so this season. Granted, this season the main cast has mostly veteran voice talent behind the mic (David Matranga, Illich Guardiolla, Allison Keith, Hillary Haag, etc) delivering some truly excellent performances. Even the newer talent (like Carli Mosier and Josh Grelle) manage to stay their own with the veterans. Josh Grelle, voicing Amamiya-sensei, does an excellent job and should be taken notice as the guy got some impressive range.

Overall, the Ef series is a fantastic entry in terms of visual novel adaptations, certainly better then some of the Key adaptations. I also consider a masterpiece of romantic drama, when it comes to anime anyway, with interesting and strong characters alongside a nuanced, multilayer story. A solid effort in nearly every section of production, be it animation, sound design, voice acting, etc.

So, what's up next on the platter for me? Well, its an anime movie, certainly one involving roses, lesbians and a mind-screwing finale where love does indeed conquer all......

'Til next time readers.....

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Anime Review No. 73 Ef a tale of memories

"We have all forgot more than we remember."
Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

Ef: a tale of memories

Fall 2007 TV Series

Studio Shaft, Director: Shin Oonuma, Writer-Katsuhito Takayama

Well, it's February again and that means time for looking at romance-oriented shows. Way back in 2012, I took a look at several shows with the primary focus being relationships (Oh My Goddess, Legend of the Labyrinth, My Dear Marie). Last year, I took a look at Kare Kano, an ultimately great show containing both romantic comedy and drama and yet somewhat underrated. But, is there a 21st century equivalent in anime when it comes to romantic comedy and drama? And what if this show was handed to the great experimentalists at Studio Shaft, under guidance by their grand guru of postmodernism? Well, I believe that I found that: The Ef: A Fairy Tale of the Two series. For this and the next review, I will be covering both seasons of this series. First, off Ef: a tale of memories, which begs the question: What's this show about?

Well, that's a bit of a tough task. See, this is one of the first shows that I have looked at with multiple storylines/narratives. At a basic level, it is about the lives and relationships surrounding a group of high school students and young people in a town called Otowa. But, instead of dividing the series' run of 12 episodes in half focusing on one story at a time, it focuses each episode as a somewhat even split of focus of the stories. I think this works well as the show makes you pay attention to what is doing.

The first season has 2 stories, intersecting into each other and weaving in and out. Story A concerns the love triangle between Hiro and the two girls who love him: Miyako and Kei Shindou. Hiro is a manga artist who, one Christmas, runs into Miyako, a perky and care-free girl but with a hidden fear and the two start a relationship. However, he has to deal with Kei, the female childhood friend/tomboy who is a bit jealous and unwilling to move on. In addition he must overcome his own indecision regarding his life, you know as most teenagers do and can attest to.

Now, I want to like this, but Story A is rather weak, though it has a great payoff so it is certainly worth it. It is a little awkward at times, mainly due to it wavering between nice high school slice of life and romantic melodrama moments. Plus, it doesn't help that Miyako is roughly unrelatable and annoying at moments, though I want to relate to her sad back story. It culminates in the second half of episode 7, which has to go down as one of most harrowing and ultimately depressing moment I have seen in an anime, the closest I get to feeling sorry for Miyako's plight. Add to that the animation becomes so stark that the bleakness of the sequence is magnified tenfold emotionally. Of course, Kei and Hiro aren't exactly saints either; Kei is stubborn and obsessive to the point of being a bitch, and Hiro is so indecisive that I wanted to yell out 'Oh come on guy do something. Pick an option and stick with it!' at certain points. Maybe that's because I find myself still like Hiro, or at least once was me. Luckily, it ends on a happy ending for all, even Kei who hooks up with Hiro's friend Kyosuke which I find a nice touch. Love triangle stories typically end with the couple met and the other jilted and alone, so Ef gets some kudos in that department.

Story B, meanwhile, is by far better to Story A. It concerns Renji, a young man who meets Chihiro Shindou, a young, shy and meek girl with an eye patch (which turned into a thing, who knows why). But, she holds a hidden sadness due to a particular condition. Both of them are aspiring novelists and with that seek to write a novel together. In the process, the relationship develop despite the hardships and obstacles. Of course, the novel ends up being a subtle autobiographical piece about Chihiro. I feel for Chihiro and Renji as it is very heartwarming and saddening at the same time. Chihiro is essentially the link between the two stories, with a childhood incident as the pivot point; No further spoilers on that. Suffice to say, a happy ending is afforded to them because they struggle. There is also some neat commentary on the nature and process of storytelling thrown in for good measure.

A side-story involving Kyosuke, Hiro's school chum and member in the Photography/Film Club. It is mildly interesting, but only because it is tied slightly to Story A and in ways mirrors that story. Kyosuke deals with indecision, and interacts with Hiro and Kei in different respects.

There are some supporting characters: The weary priest and the mysterious nun (more on them in next series), Mizuki (Kei's female friend more on her later) and the rather frank Shuichi Kuze (family friend to Renji more on him later) and Renji's mom. I said more on them later as they form the main cast of Season 2, so details on that to be discussed in that review. I will say that the mysterious nun in Story A and the Priest in Story B have rather similar mentor roles to the main cast and it is hinted at that the two know/knew each other. Again, more on that later.

Theme of memory prevades the show, be it Chihiro and the retention of memory or Miyako and her slipping out from Hiro's memory. Other themes include regret and loss and how one moves on from it, in both the healthly and not so healthly methods.

The animation is top-notch Studio Shaft work here. Shin Oonuma directed this, but with Akiyuki Shinbo as supervisor, his trademarks are all over the place. Be it use of text on screen, abstract backgrounds, or the studio's personalized head tilt, it works on an experimental level in places to compensate for the low budget, but its look gorgeous nonetheless. Presentation and content are congruent is what I am saying. In fact, Artsy and symbol-heavy is the best word to describe the animation. At moments, it seems akin to a more polished version of Gainax's Kare Kano adaptation from the late '90s. For example, Chihiro's chains preventing her from leaving her state of being along with the second half of episode 7 with the way Miyako's desperation is presented. Music is very good and suitable to the mood, filled with lots of soft strings and piano music, much of it ambient yet tinged with melancholy and sadness.

Now onto the English dub, which is a selling point that Sentai Filmworks added to the DVD set. And good thing too, as it is the easily the most definitive dub from Sentai Filmworks. Chris Ayres directed and wrote this and it is packed to the brim with talented voice talent. For this season at least, voice actors/actresses such as Greg Ayres, Clint Bickham, Luci Christian, Monical Rial and Brittney Karbowski are in it and all are doing what have to be the best performances they have done ever. As stated before in my reviews for Bodacious Space Pirates and Dusk Maiden of Amnesia, I like Chris Ayres as ADR Director; he's one of my favorites working today for anime dubs. Chris Ayres brings two essential things when it comes to english dubs: pitch-perfect casting combined with strong vocal performances and writing. This show, along Bodacious Space Pirates, helped me to watch more Sentai Filmworks releases.

Overall, the first season of the Ef series is good, but miss the mark at points at being great. Granted, its got a decent story and characters, fitted within an excellent visual presentation with a very good English dub. But, it is with the second season that it starts to get great maybe even a masterpiece. Thus, that will be the subject of my next review: Ef, a tale of melodies.

Til next time, dear readers.