Friday, January 30, 2015

February 2015 Announcement

Hello there

Well I must make an adjustment to my February schedule for reviews. As usual, it is covering anime centered around character relationships and dynamics.

2/7: Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions

2/21: Strawberry Panic

See you all next Saturday ^_^

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Anime Review No. 93 (Sakura Wars)

“With Fiery Passion!”
Sakura Wars TV (2000)
Director: Ryutaro Nakamura
Writers: Hiroyuki Kawasaki, Kunihiro Okajima, Yoshimi Narita, Katsuhiko Takayama, Kenichi Kanemiki, Gou Tamai, Sachiko Doi, Takao Yoshioka, Tatsuya Suzuki, Ken Abe, Kazuharu Sato, Takao Yoshimoto
Studio: Madhouse

Ok, so now we are at another important title, at least in my development of being an anime fan. Around 2009, I had come across this on the shelf at Best Buy when I was at college in Virginia. This was actually one of the early complete collection sets I gotten, the first one being Evangelion Platinum Edition back around 2006. That show being, as you expect, is Sakura Wars. Please note that I am only really talking about the TV series here. Yes I am aware of the games, manga, OVAs and the movie but my focus will rest with the 25 episode TV series that aired in 2000. So what’s it all about?

Well Sakura Wars (Sakura Taisen in Japanese) is the story of Sakura Shinguji, a country girl who ventures to Tokyo to become part of the Imperial Combat Troupe-Flower Division, a part of the defense force defending the capital from the denizens of evil. Although at first, she is a bit out of her depths when dealing with the other team members, both during and outside of combat and training. Of course, in the process she becomes part of the team both on the battlefield and on the stage. All set with a backdrop of alternative historical 1920s, steampunk-esque Tokyo where advanced mecha technology converges with dark mystical power.
The story of this series rests on the hands of three men: Ohji Hiroi who developed the original manga and acted as creator/producer for the franchise, Satoru Akahori.the head of the writing team (series composition) and finally Kosuke Fujishima who along with Hidenori Matsubara handled the character designs which you tell as the character designs closely resemble those from the contemporaneous Ah My Goddess the Movie. And they managed to succeed in forging a franchise that persists for several years. Sakura Wars is a brilliant meld of Super Sentai, Japanese historical fiction and nice character driven storytelling.

Of course, the series itself is drawn back from being truly great and that is for two BIG reasons. The first reason is that the story takes a very ‘long game’ approach to the storytelling. Which means for one thing it takes time for the show to get really great, like in halfway through I would say. But once it does it becomes easily one of the most interesting and entertaining anime ever. A colleague of mine once told me that he tried watching Sakura Wars but couldn’t get past episode 7 or 8 and I can understand in that leads to my other reason: The cast starts off very unlikeable or very shallowly developed, with a few that come across very stand-offish or straight up loathing. But thanks to the ‘long game approach they do get appropriate development as they are shaped by the events that occur and their interactions with each other and others is really compelling for the last few episodes.

The animation is well, alright and functional. Granted this was done by Madhouse before they were particularly well-known for the quality work that they are known for nowadays. It also falls in that same category of previously reviewed anime like Nadesico and Silent Mobius where the meld of traditional cel animation and digitally painted cel animation/CG. This does make the anime look a bit rough around the edges but by the final few episodes the production look a bit more even. What works great in the show’s favor is the soundtrack, with music done by the legendary Kohei Tanaka. The OP as I have mentioned before is one of the best OPs I have heard-an all time favorite.

Now for the english dub. Oh boy, what an uneven jumble. Of course, this dub is brought by the now long defunct Monster Island Studios, the secondary studio in Austin that ADV ran from 1998 to 2005. This is the same group that dubbed stuff like My Dear Marie (my favorite and only recommendable dub from this group), Eden’s Bowy, Zaion and heck Wedding Peach. What hurts the dub is several things. For one thing, it starts off not really good, sort of directionless with either too much hammy overacting or too little effort put into the vocal performances. Most of the supporting cast sound alright, but the main cast aren’t all that good starting off, no surprise that aside from a few (Larissa Walcott and Samantha Inoue-Harte), this was the one and only project that they were involved with. Worse still most of them employ rather obviously fake accents. Though to be fair, they do grow into the roles by the end, though its too little too late.

So overall Sakura Wars is an example of a rather interesting premise that gets fudged up by production troubles but its still impressive given the effort and work that went into it. I would add that the TV show serves as a good primer for the whole franchise. My opinion of it might have soured against it recently, but the series hold some significance to me regardless.
Speaking of significance, the next series I am reviewing is also another real important show for me…..

Til next time, dear readers

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Anime Review No. 92 (Martian Successor Nadesico)

'You Get to Burning!'
Martian Successor Nadesico (1996-97)
Director: Tatsuo Sato
Writers: Hiroyuki Kawasaki, Miho Sakaki, Naruhisa Arakawa, Satoru Akahori, Shou Aikawa, Takeshi Shudo
Studio: Xebec

So, the new year is abound us. The holidays were nice on me, got to see my family along with grandparents for the first time in a few years and it was all nice and calm. Now then onto the first review of 2015, a look at a show that I have been meaning to get to, and that is…. the space opera Martian Successor Nadesico, an adaptation of a manga series by Kia Asamiya, who was also the creator behind Silent Mobius. .

Nadesico is the story of Akito Tenkawa, a young man who while yearning to be a cook, is instead roped into joining the new crew of a new starship the Nadesico. There he is joined by a crew of veritable oddballs, be it sexy helmswoman Minato, the stoic child genius Ruri, the fanboy pilot Gai and the young captain Yukari who might be someone from his blurry past. Together, they journey to Mars to discover some rather unsettling things from humanity’s past, possibly relating to invaders from Jupiters and their Chulips and also to have some hijinks of the slice-of-life and romantic varieties.

One of the things about I like about the show is how transitional, but then again that is part of the times. The Mid-90s sci-fi anime scene was dominated by one giant show: Evangelion which to this day still has an influence stretching to the present day. Nadesico, in many ways, was the next big game-changer for sci-fi anime. Though more for the space opera subgenre whereas Evangelion was a grand turning point in giant robot genres. Of course this show is mostly forgotten, but in many ways I find that Nadesico works a lot better then Evangelion.

Now why’s that? Well, for one thing Nadesico has a better and more likeable cast of characters. Granted, some of them are based on archetypes of the genre (young male pilot, the captain, the helm crew, the child prodigy, etc) but they have enough quirks and eccentricities that ultimately make them charming. And each of the them gets their episodes to focus on them individually and how they worked together as an ensemble. While Akito is a main character of sorts, pretty much all the other major characters get their own character arcs that are for the most part very satisfying. I see Akito as an improved version of Shinji from Eva, in more ways then one. He at least has some sort of spine.

For another thing, the story is much more interesting and yet takes risks to explore new areas in its home genre. It takes place in a future much like Star Trek, where humanity has combined their efforts to explore the stars. Only not so optimistic, with the world controlled by the all-powerful military and corporations that seek nothing more to fuel the engine of war even at the expense of life and peace. At yet our intrepid crew, when a big story twist comes in halfway through the series,  seek out the truth and hope against hope that someday peace and reconciliation. Like Evangelion, though they do some psychological introspection but thankfully it is kept to mostly one episode with a few other scatterings as the series progresses. No, what the show is really about is learning to overcome differences and make it better for the next generation. There is a vehement anti-military, anti-war streak in the ‘shades of grey’ morality and there’s a good reason for that, being head writer Shou Aikawa who would go onto do Neo Ranga and FullMetal Alchemist ‘03 and those share that similar moral trend. But it doesn’t come across as preachy, and that’s by giving the other side fair and equal treatment, something which not many anime accomplish successfully. The sci-fi elements, be it the Nadesico spaceship, the concept of space travel via the means of the Chulips and the effect of time dilation are very well-thought out. And then the movie happened, and well if you want my thoughts on it, see my review on that back in January 2013.

Of course, the story is without its visual presentation. However, like Silent Mobius which I talked about back in October, this show runs into the fact the show came at a rather awkward time.The production does show signs of digital techniques and CG intruding into a mostly solid and well-done hand-drawn cel animation. Fortunately, it isn’t so obvious here as it is in Silent Mobius. In fact, recently RightStuf released the series and movie remastered. I however have the old ADV 3-2 disc sets from back in the day. In part because I feel its best to see it as it was, even it is imperfect. The show director is Tatsuo Sato, who after this show, would go on to have a career mainly helming solid and entertaining or interesting sci-fi series (Stellvia, Lagrange, Bodacious Space Pirates). Also the opening song, You Get to Burning, is freaking awesome and is one of my favorite opening songs of all time. The rest of the music is done by Takayuki Hattori (Slayers and Gundam Origin OVA among others) and it’s amazing and really powerful full-on orchestral music. Its really good stuff.

Now for the english dub. It is solid if a little uneven, much like the show itself. Produced in 2000-01, its a dub of its time, that being the ADV Greenfield era. I say this as the first era of Houston english dubbing, from 1995 to roughly 2001-03 when Matt Greenfield was the main director/writer for ADV dubbing (Amanda Winn Lee and  Tristan MacAvery were also directors/writers as well, heck Steven Foster’s career goes back to this era). Of course, it is also a very transistional dub, featuring veteran 90s ADV talent like Spike Spencer, Tiffany Grant, John Swasey, Rob Mungle, Brett Weaver, Marcy Rae alongside newer talent like Kira Vincent-Davis, Jenny Strader, Jay Hickman (and Monica Rial in a small blink and you’ll miss it part). It takes a part of time to get good, but when it does it gets really great and ultimately makes the show all that more charming and fun.

It's kind of a bummer that this show has been largely forgotten and thrown aside. Despite the fact hasn't really aged all that well, its a very underrated gem from an era that is slowly fading into obscurity. Speaking of obscurity (or not).....

Til next time dear readers