The Big O II – Acts 21 to 26

January 31, 2005 on 9:07 pm | In The Big O | Comments Off on The Big O II – Acts 21 to 26

My excuse for the lousiness of this entry is my inability to process the events it concerns. Also, after a while, I just want to kick writing out of my computer so I can do something good.

For years, I have watched “difficult” anime – serial experiments lain, Evangelion, FLCL – and understood them, or at least came to my own understanding of them. The Big O II, however, is confusing. This is practically unprecedented.

The Big O II is very different to the first series in that every episode is pertinent to the collective pasts of the main characters, which means that the days of negotiations are at an end. Roger Smith now negotiates not for the people of Paradigm City, but for his life!
The interesting thing that must be noted is that Big O II, being the second half of a series, has no time for any introductory guff. That’s why, when you watch this, you get thirteen episodes of heaviness. It’s hard enough watching this series three months after watching the last, so it must have been even worse to wait three years between series.

There are many excellent episodes on offer here, which add up to a confusing whole. The first confusion comes in the form of English that we probably weren’t meant to understand: the film that shapes Dan Dastun’s life shows up again, but this time there is a movie poster for it. The movie is promoted as “starring Dan Dastun”, which makes no sense. It’s possible that this was deliberately designed to confuse, to emphasise Dastun’s crisis of identity. That was in itself a good story line, with Dastun fighting his conflicting emotions about the Big O doing all of his work and about the impotence of a police force under the thumb of Paradigm.

Dorothy is, sadly, thrown pretty much to the side as this second series is about Angel. Angel is the latest in a long line of tragic characters, and the largest source of confusion in the entire program. What is her origin? What is anyone’s origin? What is Paradigm City? So many questions! People can make up their own answers, because there are very few here.
Angel’s character, although not really in anyway explained, is shown as having a great deal of pain. Perhaps her past isn’t that important, as her confusion adds to her drive to discover … absolutely nothing.

The action sequences are excellent, and the fight between Roger and Alan Gabriel has an outstanding conclusion. The rest of it is well done, but it’s hard to go into much more detail than has been already. It feels like these final six episodes are about obfuscation, so not a lot can be said. Roger – what is Roger? Why should we have to ask what Roger is? Argh!

The Big O, overall, is an entertaining series. There is a distinct difference between the two series: the first is largely about entertainment, and the second is about trying to solve a mystery of forty years. This would almost have happened were it not for the ultimately confusing finale. The Big O II is still recommended for its parts, but it does not have the same flawless lustre as its predecessor: what we’re left with is a bigger mystery than that with which we began. Despite that, the note that it ends on is not conducive to a sequel. There are no plans, and nor do I think there should be, for The Big O III.

City Hunter 2 – episodes 14 to 20

January 30, 2005 on 1:09 pm | In City Hunter | Comments Off on City Hunter 2 – episodes 14 to 20

While this group of seven episodes starts with one of the stupidest in City Hunter history, the rest are pretty good. Four of the episodes are two parters, which are the way to go to make quality episodes of this series most consistently.

Episodes 15 & 16 are the excellently titled “Don’t Die, Umibozu!”. Umibozu episodes are among the best because Umibozu seems to be the only character who has a past. Short of the occasional mentions to Makimura, Ryo’s origins remain a mystery. Umibozu is a gentle soul, not only because he is terrified of cats. This giant assassin cares a lot more than he would like to let on, but his constant blushing gives him right away.
Any failure of Umibozu’s is going to come back to get him – but because of the kind of guy Umibozu is, his failure tends to be killing everyone but the most important person in a raid. This episode, littered with excellent names, features “Dandy Jack”, who has trained the daughter of Umibozu’s first and last partner to assassinate the man in green. Kaori gets some good material in about what it means to be a partner – and that does not mean sacrificing one’s self for the sake of a mission, allowing the other to get off scot free.
Also of note is that Ryo and Umibozu actually kill people in this episode, and in the next, so some of the blood is coming back into City Hunter.

Episodes 17 & 18 are yet another “foreign beauty” episode, wherein a politically important woman from one of those made up countries. While this features the questionable plane hijacking weapon of the grenade, it also featured spies pretending to be gay lovers in the love hotel and the unorthodox plot of Ryo using service to distract his assailants rather than the other way around.
The idea of this episode is supposed to be about “Yamato Nadeshiko” (traditional Japanese woman), but what it really means in the end is that Ryo gets to kiss an octopus. It’s a pretty good double, with one of the most credible examples of a client falling for Ryo yet seen.

The fan service quotient is definitely upping itself – episode 15 begins with Ryo chasing a giant woman in lingerie, who fondles her own breasts in anticipation of him. This may seem risque, but episode 17 features the best Saeko service ever! Ryo should shoot off people’s tops more often, I say. While by today’s standards this is tame material, this was very dangerous stuff for 1987.

There’s an episode where Kaori takes the client that works in the way that all episodes in which Kaori goes it alone work. That is, Ryo silently assists her. The episode gets off to a bad start with a perverted old man, but he turns out to be a pretty nice guy, and the dynamic of Ryo and Kaori’s relationship is stated subtly.

Most episodes give a good idea of their theme, but none have been so literal as episode 20: Kaori gets amnesia. It is surprising that the writers would have gone for such a clichéd plot device, but at least Kaori’s line of work has a feasible way for her to lose her memory. This is a good relationship episode that allows Ryo to show more of his serious side, and also features the traditional “confession of something obscured by sound of explosion” technique.
This was a good episode, and allowed Ikura Kazue to use a normal voice (they claim that before Kaori met Ryo, she was a normal person. Considering that at their first meeting, Kaori was dressed as a man with a false moustache, I question this). It was interesting to see that with retrograde amnesia Kaori did not know that her brother had died. So much has happened to her since the amnesia that it would have been cruel to rebuild her memory.

City Hunter 2 is liberally sprinkled with two parters, and the extra time afforded for these stories allows it to work best. Among the one offs there are still some good materials, and it looks like the writers are gradually cutting out the “baby-sitting” jobs.

Street Fighter II V – episodes 8 to 18

January 28, 2005 on 9:06 pm | In Street Fighter | Comments Off on Street Fighter II V – episodes 8 to 18

In many ways, this series rocks. Not least of these ways is its simplicity; there’s not a lot of stuff like this out on the popular market. Street Fighter II V has, for a globe trotting anime, a distinct focus. The series has been set into story arcs, but they are logically connected. As in many good series, every episode contributes something to the whole while being able to almost – almost – stand for itself.

The writers again give major signals to show that this is not, in fact, strict Street Fighter II. This is in evidence when Ryu gets imprisoned in Thailand and goes to the same gaol as Sagat. Followers of the games will know that Ryu defeated Sagat in the (by all accounts horrible) Fighting Street, making them lifelong enemies.
Here, Sagat and Ryu earn each others’ respect in the ring. Highly unorthodox, but definitely within the scope of this television series. Amazingly, Ryu’s time in Thailand both plays up to and dispels stereotypes: Ryu falls victim to the country’s harsh drug penalties and is beaten by the police after his arrest. However, the head of narcotics wants to help Ryu rehabilitate.
These Thailand episodes send so many mixed messages about society and foreign cultures, but there is some good character work involved. Not only is this story arc a good example of Street Fighter II V‘s independence, it’s also a healthy reminder that the viewer has to be aware of the slight ridiculousness of many of its set ups.
Ryu’s “it wasn’t me, it was the man with the scar on his face!” is even worse than the old “one-armed man” excuse.

Because this is only a 29 episode series, and not the infinity of DragonBall Z (keeping in mind that one battle in that program lasted 33 episodes), events are pretty sharp and fast in their turnover. Ryu and Ken’s visit to Dhalsim in India was good because it did not go the “cackling old man” route. Cackling old men treat their apprentices cruelly, only letting them know that it was all a test at the end. Dhalsim creates tests, but he’s not a bastard about it. He’s a very serious man, allowing Ryu and Ken to know that while he can take care of all situations, he would like to see them try.
Although the time when Ken and Ryu fought each other without realising it was quite stupid, this is somehow forgivable.

What looks like the final arc comes into place at 14. It probably won’t be final, as much as looks like everything will very directly lead into everything else from this point. It is important to note that in between the Japanese and English versions, there are several name differences.

In Japan’s Street Fighter II games the leader of Shadowlaw was named Vega, the masked cage-fighter Balrog and the boxer M Bison. This was a little too obvious, especially as Punch-Out! had to be re-issued, and to avoid legal hassles, there was a triangular movement. The dictator became M Bison, the cage-fighter Vega and the boxer Balrog. Somehow, this all seemed to work. In this, and any subsequent Street Fighter II V coverage, the characters will be referred to by their Japanese names. It should not be hard, from context, to sort all of this out.

Balrog is a deliciously insane opponent. He is the sort who, in preparation for a fight, licks his claws. He then licks his blood off the claws. Balrog could come across as a bit of a nancy, so they make him very masculine, deep voiced and in love with Chun Li. Love, amongst delusional cage-fighters in love with their own vanity, of course means drugging. Chun Li has an ethereal beauty while drugged, which is a strong warning sign.

The important part, not just the fact that Balrog’s battle lasts some time, is the introduction of Vega. Vega in his present incarnation is far too bulky. He has the hugest chin ever. There is some unintentionally humour in his dialogue. When he is overtaken by his amazing “Psycho Power” and holds Chun Li until her body goes limp, he “wakes up” and says “Have I done it again?”. Sure, it doesn’t sound funny, but there’s something about it that tickles the funny bone.
Vega, when he gets his red clothes on, will likely become the loveable general known all around the world.

Really, these are fairly compelling episodes of Street Fighter II V. The series is just so sincere you can’t help but like it. Although there are about three minutes of wasted animation at the end of episode eighteen, involving an hypothetical assassination, Street Fighter II V is a highly enjoyable series.

I am kind of ashamed of myself for trying to come off as a Street Fighter II historian. I was never good at the game, but sometimes I’m a fan of important cultural history.

The Legend of Black Heaven

January 27, 2005 on 6:10 pm | In Black Heaven | Comments Off on The Legend of Black Heaven

“HARD ROCK save the SPACE” proclaims the English subtitle to The Legend of Black Heaven. Somehow, this is really all that needs to be said. Another late night anime of the “how did they get viewers” variety, Black Heaven is less sci-fi than it is an examination of domestic life, salary working and reviving lost dreams.

Oji is in his late thirties and works as the assistant head-manager at faceless firm of salary-men. It is never clear what his job is, but this scarcely matters. Oji’s watershed moment is when he realises that his wife has thrown out his last guitar, which symbolises to him that his past is truly gone. On the very same day, Yuki Layla begins to work at the company. That night, Oji goes out to get drunk and is joined by this beautiful woman. She offers to take him to Heaven – which turns out to be the bridge of an alien spaceship. Her plan is to get Oji to play his guitar as he did fifteen years ago in his band Black Heaven, in order to defeat the aliens’ enemies!
Oji puts it down as a dream, but soon enough he realises that he has been given the opportunity to play the guitar again – even if he initially thinks that he’s just playing at an elaborately conceived live-house. Over time, Oji acts to reform the band to defeat the aliens, becomes closer to his son, has a rocky relationship with his wife and more all in the course of his metaphorical affair.

The Legend of Black Heaven (AKA Black Heaven, Japanese title Kacho Oji or “Assistant head-manager Oji”) is an interesting series in that it is firstly about such an old and “boring” lead character. Characters who are thirty five plus are rare in primary roles, especially when all they do is work in an office. It may sound as if the whole “music to fight in space” idea is derivative of Macross, but science-fiction is not important. In a bold move, Oji is the most important part of the series. The war is so obviously a back drop that the preview for the final episode concedes that it is never explained who the villains are. They don’t matter at all.

Oji is an excellent character, who becomes gradually revitalised and more enthusiastic about everything as he continues to play. Initially, his playing is selfish. One day he has to take care of his son, Gen. Watching Gen run to the park, Oji realises that he knows nothing about him. Oji is then called out to play his guitar, leaving Gen all alone. This is bad parenting! But when Gen gets into trouble, Oji realises that he can’t think only of himself and through his actions begins to involve Gen – as well as getting involved in Gen’s life as well. Perhaps more importantly, Oji feels like he has a purpose in life. His saving of Gen coincides with his realisation that he’s fighting a war, and this empowers him further. It’s a double hit of reality for him.

It is difficult to understand why Oji remains married to Yokko. Married people may understand the sacrifice involved, but over the years she has thrown out Oji’s records, his amp, and all of his guitars. Out of necessity, she says. Yokko’s actions are essentially what robbed Oji of his identity and made him into the gormless lump of the series’ beginning. Their union does not make a lot of sense, anyway. She used to be a groupie, but you would never think it. With so little sympathy, and so much disappointment in her husband.
People likely have their own reasons for these things, though, but Yokko seems far too angry a character for anyone to stay with.

The other thing that Oji has to learn is that dreams can be shared, but not always acted upon by everyone. When he reforms the band to drink, he invites them to save the universe – but they can’t leave their jobs and families just to do this made up thing. There is a difference between drunken bravado and reality, and when the band members think it would just be playing, they can’t bring themselves to do it.
Dreams of grandeur becoming reality is a very confusing thing to deal with indeed.
It works the other way, too; the aliens use Oji at first only to utilise his groove. To encourage him, they pretend that they care about the music. Over time, they realise that the music is pretty rocking and become genuine fans. This idea hits Layla the hardest, and the metaphorical affair frequently comes dangerously close to being a real affair.
The affair is the weirdest part of the series; while one wants these characters to be happy, it should not come at the expense of others. As a result, the ending is definite and yet in some regards ambiguous.

The production smacks of AIC, and was their 1999 attempt at digital animation. Despite a couple of moments of click and drag, they had the whole process pretty much down-pat. The characters look like standard, if rather normalised, AIC fare. All of the Japanese people have brown or black hair, and Layla, who is transitionary normal is blonde. The three characters who make this most AIC, are the blue, purple and green haired characters who act as comic relief and present the previews. The series could have done without them, but it’s for the look of the thing, you know?

The opening song is John Sykes’ “Cautionary Warning”, which is promoted on all of the packaging. The song is nice, and grows, but the opening animation is grotesque: it is rotoscoped footage of a John Sykes concert, and is quite freaky. People have been put off this anime on the OP animation alone. The ED is more generic bizarre J-Pop, more notable for the fact that it is accompanied by shots of the three girls sleeping naked.

The Legend of Black Heaven is recommended anime not only for middle-aged people but for anyone who is at a turning point in life – or has been. It may bore some, but the target audience is broad. It would be wise not to forget this.

Street Fighter II V – episodes 1 to 7

January 23, 2005 on 1:36 pm | In Street Fighter | Comments Off on Street Fighter II V – episodes 1 to 7

“They go to meet the mighty”. Often you can get a feeling for an anime series by the way the previews are signed off. Many, such as Rurouni Kenshin, have the generic “please look forward to it”. Evangelion memorably had Mitsuishi Kotono promising “Next time, service service!” each week until that became grossly inappropriate for the series. City Hunter 2 has Kaori delivering a different threat each week: “don’t watch it and get the hammer” eventually becomes “if you don’t watch it, you’ll get the death penalty!”, and then “If you don’t watch it, someone will look at your panties!”.
So, when you finish an episode of Street Fighter II V and the legendary Ohtsuka Akio signs off with “They go to meet the mighty” in a serious passionate voice, you know you’re in for something good. That simple phrase encapsulates the essence of this anime.

Street Fighter II V is a rare example of good fighting game anime. This is because it does not really treat itself as such: fighting game anime tend to have overblown and/or flatly ridiculous plots (Invisible dinosaurs, anyone?), but Street Fighter II V is really a buddy world-travelling anime, a quest for self-improvement in the form of martial arts.
Ryu works as a tree-feller on an island in Japan. One day he receives a letter from his old training partner Ken, containing money and air tickets and the message “Come to America”. And so Ryu goes to America and reunites Ken, the best American who ever did live.
In a bar fight, Ryu is knocked out by Sergeant Guile. Ken goes to Guile’s airbase, and is also knocked out. Realising that there are people in the world who are stronger than them, Ken and Ryu embark on a mission to travel the world and fight them. Their first stop is Hong Kong, where they meet Chun Li. It looks like their involvement with her is going to be important, as it has gained the attention of Ashura, the evillest of all drug-smuggling units in the Asian region. Foreshadowing at this point suggests that Ashura is working for a familiar organisation. Familiar, that is, to Street Fighter fans.

The adventures that Ryu and Ken get into are fun, and this is largely because they are such good friends. They never get too serious about become the ultimate fighters, as what they really want to do is have a good time. If that involves beating people up, so be it. Chun Li is not too ditzy, and the three of them have good times together. When the series gets a little serious, it doesn’t take it too far. That makes all the difference. It could be forecast that there will be some sort of spiritual commentary involved later on, but Street Fighter II V is directed with a steady hand. This makes it difficult to be concerned about its future.

There are several key differences between Street Fighter II V and the video game that spawned it. The desire to not emphasise fidelity to its roots is something that liberates it from any doldrums. The first hint is that Ken has red hair rather than blonde. This is not a particularly revolutionary move, but it’s important enough to note that all of the characters’ backstories are not strictly the same as in the games – or that because the characters are only teenagers, they don’t have to worry about some of the terrors that have befallen them in their pixellated forms.
While I am familiar with the ideas behind Street Fighter II (note: only II, I don’t go in for all this “third impact” or “alpha” or “EX2” junk or whatever), I can’t say if a hardcore fan would like this series: that’s the beauty of it, there’s no need to have any sort of familiarity with the core influence. The only real question is why someone would let their seventeen year old son tour the world to get into fights: Ken and Ryu probably should have been aged a year. This, however, is a quibble.

The production values are relatively good, with Ken and Ryu probably at their best ever in anime. There has been a lot of ugly Street Fighter anime through the years, and while their eyebrows might stick out a little too far from their head they still look just fine. Chun Li looks attractive for once, and is in no way disproportionate. The only problem is with a few of the one-shot characters who did not have much thought put into them, and there are a few times where Ryu and Ken fight twins – therefore magically halving the character design requirements for a scene! Despite budget constraints, most battle scenes are fluid and enjoyable.
The in-show music is excellent to the highest degree. That is not to say that these are quality compositions, but they are so full of energy and add to the program’s enjoyment factor. The biggest disappointment comes not from CAPCOM’s treatment of the series, but rather Manga Entertainment’s. For a Manga Entertainment production, these DVDs are surprisingly good looking. What is unforgivable, however, is the fact that Manga saw fit to edit out both the OP and ED, replacing the OP with its own mixture of animation and set to some ultra-dramatic inappropriate composition by “Mike Egan and Critter”. The music is not terrible, but it definitely does not fit with the light-hearted nature of these early episodes.

Street Fighter II V makes liberal use of shorthand, sometimes blatantly obvious and others so blatantly obvious that they go unnoticed. Take the character of Ken: Ken lives in a mansion, surrounded by acres and acres of rich forest. When Ryu arrives in San Francisco, Ken’s parents are out to dinner with the President. Ken’s mother is Japanese, and so when his parents return home in their private jet, his father is wearing a tuxedo and his mother a kimono. She’s Japanese, you see.
The ridiculous nature of Ken’s richness is compounded when he goes to a hotel and orders the $20,000 Penthouse, that has its own heli-pad. That seems kind of dangerous, and could lead to kidnappings, but in such instances sense is not needed, only implication.
In the episode featuring Fei Long and Ken in a ridiculous outfit, there is a director character. He is not introduced at any point as a director, and it takes a few minutes to realise that the reason that you recognise him as such is because he is short, wears a beret, vest and sunglasses, has half a moustache on either side of his nose and waves a megaphone. This is a simple technique, but it is subliminally effective.
Despite all this, somehow it manages to get away without any cultural stereotyping – other than the obvious and necessary idea of Ken living the life of the inexplicably rich American.

Street Fighter II V is rare: it’s an enjoyable fighting game series. What this is is refreshing, possibly the definition of entertainment. You can’t go far wrong with this anime if you want light fun.

The Big O II – Acts 14 to 20

January 11, 2005 on 6:49 pm | In The Big O | Comments Off on The Big O II – Acts 14 to 20

Acts 14 to 20, you say? The Big O II continues the numbering from the first series, because what The Big O is a 26 episode program that just so happened to take a three year break in production. The Big O II was made due to American fan demand, co-produced by Cartoon Network. This is one of the best actions that fandom has had on the industry, because this series really did not do well enough in Japan to justify SUNRISE making a continuation.
Some have accused the involvement of American companies as being a blight on the anime industry, an attempt to make anime more homogenised and evil! Some people just love to listen to the sound of their own complaints.

The Big O II is such a continuation of the The Big O that it picks up exactly where its predecessor left off. Concessions are made to the gap of three years, like an increase in flashes to past episodes. This is because the mystery of Paradigm City and the lost Memories are beginning to come together and all clues are alluded to once more.
This series is more of the same, but is also different in a way (and not in an “Americans have ruined anime!” way). This is due to the infusion of more money, the desire to reveal more secrets and also the need to bring back Beck and cause pain to viewers.

The 14th act of The Big O II sets a precedent for the series: the first episode to include “psycho-drama”, the sort that seems to happen only in a character’s mind. Roger’s look into the pre-amnesia time of his psyche is interesting, not just because it features Mister Beck but because it also has creative cinematography. The use of a theatre is admittedly not original material, but it comes across well – as is presenting all of the characters in silhouette, at least facially.
The use of symbolism has also increased, and one has to wonder what the red balloon means. This sort of writing and presentation is delicious.

This series is following some of the examples set by the first, with Norman’s concern for the state of dinner being well recognised. The butler also gets to come into his own, driving a motorbike that shoots missiles from the sidecar and a memorable use of a kitchen cupboard.
Angel, the character who was infuriatingly mysterious in the first series, is given a real opportunity to reveal herself. The scenes between her and Roger are among the best and most romantic. The moment of realisation at the beach is one of the best dramatic moments produced for either series. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of the relationship of Roger and Dorothy, who get precious little shared screen time. Dorothy appears to want to act independently, which is good for her but takes away one of the more enjoyable dynamics of the series.

The rest of these episodes take a distinctly religious stance, such as in the case of people singing in church for comfort, and the coming of an angel down to Paradigm City. There are excellent episodes on human and robot equality, a subject that always makes the characters wonder how the two got along before amnesia. Whatever it was that hit Paradigm City got the androids, placing everyone on equal footing.

The only exception to the enjoyability is the totally random episode 18, which features a Japanese company. The Japanese businessmen are represented as short, bucktoothed and camera-happy. This sends a very mixed message. The whole episode is out of line with the rest of the series, using a bizarre mix of American and Japanese animated humour techniques. The episode begins with Roger’s narration, then a “bouncy” effect to reveal that he is actually still in bed (the implication being that he is a lazy sod). Later on, Dorothy makes a joke in bad taste. This causes Roger to fall down! One wonders, what is going on here, exactly. It’s capped off by a sentai fight – a parody of sixties designed robots (ie Big O) versus the seventies designed combining robots. This part is actually pretty funny, but this is not like an episode of The Big O. The fact that Japanese tradition continues in an American city (one of their banks is “Your Financial Institution, Anytown USA”) boggles the mind entirely.

The Big O II‘s score is excellent; powerful, moving and dramatic. Whatever the occasion, the music matches the scene perfectly. This is particularly noticeable a lot of the time. The action sequences are excellently choreographed, and there is a lot of creative camera techniques involved. A dialogue between Norman and a guard told largely by their hands is fascinating to watch.

More money seems to have allowed The Big O II to have more colour than its predecessor, and this is really its only flaw; it is too bright. By 2002, most anime productions had moved into a completely digital world, and occasionally this series suffers from soft-focus as a result. It could be sharper, but overall this is still an attractive series – and somehow Dorothy looks cuter, so it’s all good.

The Big O II is a worthy successor to The Big O, with its enlarging of themes and creation of themes anew. Apparently it gets deeper and more confusing here on out. Somehow, it all feels worth it.

City Hunter 2 – episodes 8 to 13

January 10, 2005 on 9:16 pm | In City Hunter | Comments Off on City Hunter 2 – episodes 8 to 13

City Hunter 2 continues to run the gamut of City Hunter-ness; the cool, the stupid, the funny and the pointless. One could say that this series has it all and they’d be just about right.

The biggest problem with this series is that too many episodes start with Kaori advertising Ryo’s services. He’s an underworld bodyguard, dangit! Keep him a damned secret! However, the shopping district always happens to be a good place to meet new clients. When Ryo acts as someone’s fiancée after being picked out , this gives birth to hilarious police comedy involving Ryo borrowing a police car. It also shows that sometimes concerned fathers are just concerned parents and not trying to ruin their daughters’ lives – and this episode also shows the only act of violence against a woman Ryo has ever committed (the other time it was technically against a transsexual).

In Ryo’s other adventures he gets official police dispensation to grope an officer, we learn that it is every man’s dream to “mokkori with a noble”.
There is a country in this world where peeking is punishable by death, which is quite cool. This leads us to another “internationally flavoured” episode of City Hunter. Guests from overseas in City Hunter are inevitably princesses or prodigies from non-existent Middle-Eastern or Teutonic countries. Salina and Alma, in this case, are a princess in disguise as a lady-in-waiting and a ten year old lady-in-waiting with an IQ of 250 (this facet of her character is introduced quite an awkward fashion) pretending to be the aforementioned princess. This two parter, about noble aura preventing mokkori, proves that everyone comes to Japan in order to be targeted for death and saved from horrible fates. That’s just the way it goes.
Despite any foregone conclusions that can be drawn, “Mokkori Killer” had a very sweet ending.

Kamiya Akira really can’t be praised enough for his work in City Hunter. A lot of the dialogue is boring, but the way he delivers makes it funny. “Oh! Weapon Attack! No!” is only hilarious when you actually hear him saying it. Otherwise, it would simply be dull and flat. A lot of his work was likely hell on the throat, particularly with the extremes of smooth to un- in the space of a sentence.

Anyway, City Hunter 2 is pretty damned funny. Not just because of its corrupt business-men jumping from exploding boats and miraculously surviving: it is actually getting more daring in its visual representation of jokes. Although there are very few serious, or indeed actual clients any more, there’s still enough entertainment here.

Cautionary Warning

January 10, 2005 on 8:23 pm | In Site News | 3 Comments

Hey guys. I don’t normally talk much about the site but I’m saying now that it is going to become, for a while at least, imageless. This is because I appear to have violated some sort of terms of service of my image host, which they weren’t actually nice enough to tell me and just put up the huge “picture unavailable” images all around.
You’ll have to read my site for the sparkling wit and insight contained within, until I reach my own domain/hosting!
I’m doomed.

Studio Ghibli Collection: The Cat Returns

January 6, 2005 on 10:06 pm | In The Cat Returns | Comments Off on Studio Ghibli Collection: The Cat Returns

The 2002 Studio Ghibli film The Cat Returns is the first that is in no way related to Miyazaki Hayao or Takahata Isao. It looks, and feels, the least “Ghibli” of all of the efforts. Yet this is still an enjoyable adventure.

Based upon Hiiragi Aoi’s manga and using two of the characters introduced in Whisper of the Heart (in very different ways), The Cat Returns is about high-school student Haru. One day as Haru walks home from school, she sees a cat about to get hit by a truck. Running onto the road, she saves the cat with her lacrosse stick. The cat stands and thanks her, before running off.
That night, Haru is visited by a procession of cats. It turns out that the cat she saved was Prince Lune. The king of the Cat Kingdom wants to personally thank her for this, and gives her many rewards. When Haru learns that the king wishes to marry her off to Prince Lune, she seeks the aid of Muta and Baron of the Cat Business Office. Still, she is whisked off to the Cat Kingdom and begins to turn into a cat. In order to avoid succumbing, Haru must somehow find herself!

This is not an actual sequel as it simply shares two characters from Whisper of the Heart. As such, the cat is not returning from anything, and the title should be read as “The Cat Returns the Favour”. As a stand-alone feature, this film is flatly excellent. Of special note is that at 75 minutes it is the shortest Studio Ghibli film ever. At the sixty minute mark it runs clean out of material to use, but this is remedied by the fact that fifteen minutes is enough for an escape scene and a conclusion to Haru’s adventure.

The Cat Returns is a small film but frequently hilarious in a way that most Studio Ghibli productions are not. The time spent in the Cat Kingdom is essentially a large series of jokes, and really quite funny. The time when the cat king is trying to get Haru to cheer up is almost tear-inducingly good and not the sort of thing one would expect.

The only real problem with The Cat Returns is the need for Haru to have learned something from it all. There were no real difficulties in her life or about her character, short of waking up late, that needed to be remedied by a visit to a magical realm. The idea “to prevent becoming a cat, you must find yourself” seems to be contrived simply so there can be some variety of positive message sprung from this film. When Haru lists all of the things that she’s done as a learning experience, this grates with what is really a simple adventure film. Self-improvement is all well and good, but not strictly necessary in every instance.

This is a Studio Ghibli film that pays attention to the small stuff, such as Muta and Baron preparing whipped cream to eat with a cake, and then decorating it. Muta wielding a whisk and Baron using an icing pourer is simply excellent.
For those who have seen Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns may be difficult to watch. This is because Kondo Yoshifumi did not design it, and Baron’s design has been watered down a little bit to make him easier to animate. This is fair enough, and eventually one gets used to it.
The biggest failing in the design, then, is that Haru does not look like a Ghibli heroine. Studio Ghibli films have instantly recognisable characters thanks to Miyazaki and Kondo having the same aesthetic feel. Not so here, which differentiates the movie further from its studio roots. Studio Ghibli’s trademark simplistic charm is nowhere in evidence, and the characters look much rougher.

Still, the film is amazingly creative; the procession of cats initially looks awkward as they walk bipedally, but then the cooler cats come into play. The variety of cats is a large source of delight: the body guard and executioner cats are hilarious. Of particular note is that the Cat King’s court is attended by cats of all cultures: Ancient Egyptian, middle eastern, and Tudors, of all things.
Nomi Yuji’s score is not as memorable as his work on Whisper of the Heart, but the film ends on a soothingly bouncy song proving that all is right with the world.

The Cat Returns is unique fare; it’s not like anything Studio Ghibli has done before, and not really like anything that’s been placed on the market in the last decade. If it weren’t for its message, this would be the perfect brief adventure film.

Studio Ghibli Collection: Whisper of the Heart

January 4, 2005 on 9:28 pm | In Whisper of the Heart | 3 Comments

Excellence resides in the hearts of the animators at Studio Ghibli. Whisper of the Heart (literal title: If you listen closely) is the Studio Ghibli film not directed by Takahata Isao or Miyazaki Hayao. Kondo Yoshifumi took control of this project, and would have been likely to produce more excellent works had he not passed away three years after the completion of this one.

Whisper of the Heart is one of those brilliant films for which no description comes easily. Tsukishima Shizuku is about to enter high school. When she “should” be studying, she reads books. Shizuku notices that someone named Amasawa Seiji has borrowed many of the books she reads before her. In Shizuku’s mind, Amasawa Seiji becomes an idealised model of dreaminess.
Shizuku comes to meet a boy who turns out to be Seiji but neglects to mention this fact for some time. Seiji is dedicated to the creation of violins, and wishes to go to Italy to apprentice and find if he has talent. This inspires Shizuku to write a story based upon Baron, a cat doll from the antique store owned by Seiji’s grandfather.

Shizuku’s struggle is likely to resonate with people who have attempted self-expression. She is an “unpolished precious stone”, with the film revealing the encouraging message that not everything has to be perfect right out. Mastery can take years, and instead of frustration one should feel pride in their work. This is an important message, and encouraging. It is certainly better than telling children that they “ain’t got nothin’, so don’t bother tryin'”. It’s not really moralising, so much as it is character building. While characters sometimes complain about their preaching, nothing really comes across as annoyingly preachy.
The film is capped by a ridiculous, overly ideal ending, but this does not matter. The point at which it leaves is quite beautiful, in a nice way. It is unbelievable, but this is in no way an issue. The joy that it instills in the heart of man is well worth it despite any impracticalities associated.

Miyazaki scripted Whisper of the Heart, but Kondo is given more than ample space to express himself. This feels like no other Studio Ghibli film, despite their uniform character design. Shizuku is a character that tries to throw herself into stories, such as following a stray cat in the hope that it will lead her to a new world. In a way, it does: she discovers the World Emporium, a shop that is practically overflowing with inspiration.

Kondo has no difficulty in letting big moments carry the viewer away; there is a whole segment devoted to singing the movie’s theme that starts out uncertainly and grows and grows until there is some sort of magic in the air, and it’s almost sad to see it end. This scene prospers due to a lack of editing and the characters’ refusal to be shy. This is definitely a highlight of the film.

There is another point where-in the World Emporium owner fixes a “Porco Rosso” clock and takes the time to tell Shizuku the tale behind the clock – interesting stuff not related to the plot but somehow still an integral part of the film. Due to the focus on Shizuku at all times, this does not bear the burden of making the film too sprawling and hard to follow. If anything, it becomes more personal.

Kondo has some interesting visual ideas, particularly the best symbol of death ever that doesn’t actually end with a death. The story that Shizuku writes based around Baron shows up in several scenes, and not only is it an interesting story but it is presented in an incredible way, like a sort of jewelled version of the film. As excerpts it works really well, not having much to do with the story at hand, but frequently giving Shizuku inspiration which is quite elating.

The film’s theme is “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. It gets the movie off to a bad start – Olivia Newton-John singing an anime theme, man! – But as Miyazaki transforms the song into Japanese, and the lyrics more appropriate to teenaged girls, it becomes personal and a huge part of the film’s feel. There’s also a cynical version of the song named “Concrete Roads” that seems quite funny coming out of the mouth of a teenaged girl but would sound really quite bad coming from Miyazaki himself. Times like these make one glad for ciphers. Nomi Yuji’s score is practically never ending, and really quite inspirational every step of the way – a real companion for Shizuku.

Whisper of the Heart is an easy film that promotes a feeling in the end. It’s very hard to come out of it not feeling good, due to its delightful resonance.

Studio Ghibli Collection playing at the Valhalla and Chauvel cinemas until January 16 2005.

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