Akatsuki no Yona (Yona of the Dawn)

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Describe the structure of this anime, and you’ll get a shounen. Add the genders of the characters, and it’ll read as if this anime tries to deconstruct both Shoujo and Shounen for some grand statement about anime, sexuality and the target audience. Watch it, and it’s just a simple story about collecting plot coupons in the shapes of handsome guys which all happen to be engaging characters. It’s odd how Yona opted for doing a simple adventure story when it could do so much more.

It’s not bad, just bizarre. Most anime – or stories in general – that aim for a simple, exciting adventures  have low aspirations. They aim for a bit of fun, some wacky designs and battles, a few dramatic mission statements and a big explosion to signal the climax. Yona has all the ingredients to uplift this formula to something serious, yet it’s content in basic storytelling. At least it has a good reason. As an example of adventure stories, Yona is fantastic.

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The first thing a storyteller must decide is what’s the meaning of his adventure. This meaning doesn’t have to be explored with all its philosophical layers and references to dead white European males. Rather, this meaning will serve as an emotional core, to make us care about what’s going on. We always care about things because they mean something, anything.

Yona starts with emotional hooks and never lets them go. A common mistake is turning your adventure into a set of obstacles to overcome using skills and badassery. Yona, instead, has a running theme connecting all these stages. What’s dominating is a specific type of coming of age. It’s not just about learning about the world outside, but realizing how different the bubble you were in is to the world.

What makes characters interesting and meaningful is what they do with their circumstances. Yona’s bubble doesn’t just burst. Rather, she doesn’t give up on her bubble but tries to reform it. In every place she goes to, she uses the lessons she grew up on – love, comfort, and softness – and bestows it upon the people. Her battle against the trafficking of women isn’t plain morality. Yona aims for a specific type of world, some kind of replica of what she used to live. Notice her treatment of the dragons. She never demands that they’ll join her moral crusade. She reacts in the same way her father did, she hopes they’ll join them of her own will. Her gang is designed like her father’s world, where everyone is nice to each other.

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As a female character, Yona is fascinating. On the surface, she’s a weak female character who needs her guys, weapons, and a shorter hair for validation. That’s because we’re so used to aggressive personalities. Even if our women aren’t warriors, we expect strong characters to shout and care nothing at all about others.

Yona may be feminine, but it is hardly a weakness. She has a worldview that guides her, that is uniquely hers. The actions are never convenient and her moral system isn’t a simple case of doing good. Beyond that, everyone actually relies on her. The source of meaning isn’t just a way of moving the plot. The dragons don’t join smoothly, and each views their situation differently. Nevertheless, Yona is the ultimate guide of the gang. The meaning of the journey, of remaking the world as a softer, more comfortable place to live comes from her.

Although she rarely takes active, aggressive action she always remains dominant. That’s because every conflict is an examination of her personality, and she changes. Everyone else just helps her with the technical details of getting food and scouting.

The anime also treats its antagonist well. Soo-won is a character of contrasts. His presentation is always a flip of what we before. It goes beyond the beginning, where he’s a smiling angel who turns out to be murderous. In two episodes, he’s the main character. We see how he runs the kingdom, what his views are of how it should be. It’s a shame the series is so short and doesn’t give him enough screen time. He’s a cold, calculated person who’s a fantastic actor. He also, when choosing a purpose, pursues it aggressively.

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An aggressive personality doesn’t necessarily translate to a cruel reign, but an efficient one. In a few instances, the anime is an excellent exploration of a benevolent monarchy. Although Soo-Won is cold, his aggressive pursuit brings him to a lot of victories. He manages to lift up a situation that King Il couldn’t, and without aggression he couldn’t do that. It’s a shame he has little screen time. The creators use the screen time to display both sides, but they never clarify the connection between them.

Each arc stands on its own, carry its own meanings, main characters and tones. The anime borders on experimental, with one arc flirting heavily with horror. The result is that despite having a structure of plot coupons, it never feels this way. Yona needs to collect all dragons to cash them in for End of Plot, but each tale of getting the coupon stands for itself. The stories are so different. One is about a comically religious village. Another is about an underground village living in constant fear. Another is about overthrowing the asshole ruler. Separate these stories from the big picture, and they stand on their own. A formulaic structure doesn’t matter so long as the parts are good, and this anime is a clear proof of this.

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That’s why although its ending is one of the worst in the style of ‘no ending’, it’s still great. Many complain about anime that don’t really end, but often they do conclude their small arc. Yona is one of the few that builds up to a big conflict and never gets to it. It doesn’t even use its final arc to conclude all the ideas that happened before. The anime doesn’t set itself up as an episode in a gigantic story – like, say, Attack on Titan – but a straightforward adventure where we expect the hero and the villain to meet at the end for some milk, cookies, philosophical discussions and an exchange of blows. It ends by collecting all the coupons and never cashing them in. Since everything that happened before is good enough, it doesn’t ruin the anime but it’s still disappointing.

The art style is delightlyfully shoujo. The eyes are quite big. Yona is feminine, with a red hair that’s not just red, but sore red. It’s the kind of red that you don’t wear to your workplace because it’s too attention-grabbing. The guys are also all handsome. While the designs are appealing, few are distinct. Yona is beautiful, but that’s expected from a shoujo anime that doesn’t think feminine is an insult. As for the other characters, only Soo-Won has an interesting design. His soft side is expressed in his long, bright hair and warm expression that has a long, rather than wide smile. Everyone else fits their characters, but Hak’s rugged look is typical dark short hair. Yun is another honorable mention. As an attempt to make a pretty boy, it’s excellent. We never see much of this handsome male look. We see male characters who are handsome, but not those whose looks is a major selling point.

Yona is a straightforward adventure anime. What it aims to do isn’t special, but what makes it special is how well it understands the adventure story. It manages to overcome a non-existent ending, and you can only do that by having separate arcs which still gel together, by having characters that breathe life to these arcs. Occasionally, it shuffles the pieces around but it’s more for entertainment effect rather than subversion. Still, if you want to experience pure storytelling, this is it.

3.5 dragons out of 5

Sundays Without God (Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi)

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This is such a bizarre anime. I’ve seen anime and movies with trippy imagery. I’ve read stories with pages of gibberish, yet few works of fiction left me with a sense of culture shock like this. Such anime are so original it’s hard to make them truly terrible, since the novelty value is there. Creators also tend to be as confused as the viewer, so they rarely reach their full potential.

When you have a unique premise on your hands that doesn’t owe anything to any tradition, there are two ways to go about it. You can either go full retard, mine the premise for anything it has and throw the kitchen sink along with everything. Since you have no idea how your anime is supposed to work, all you can do is try everything and hope something sticks. There’s a famous anime who did this and it’s called Future Diary.

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The other route is the safer one. You let your story flow, but you never try too hard to understand it. You let characters interact and explore your world, but you refrain from anything too attention-grabbing. The anime will narrow its focus. Its structure will become almost RPG-like, giving the protagonist a basic objective to complete and finish it off.

Sundays Without God takes the latter route, but the result isn’t a complete failure. Despite not playing with the structure, its setting and premise are so weird that the feeling of culture shock is persistent. The stories that make up the anime are also good enough on their own and take advantage of the setting. You cannot tell them in any other context. Still, something feels off. It’s not completely weird, not completely normal and leans towards the weird without mining it too much. The result is anime that’s enjoyable like an ordinary anime while feeling weird.

The best thing about the anime is it unique setting and tone. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t need a lot of details to create a unique world. The world here is simple. God is gone, no one can get born and dead people don’t really die. It’s apocalypse in slow motion. We’ve had a lot of stories about what happens after the apocalypse and we tend to imagine it as something swift and fast. Here, the world is in the process of ending.

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Human beings are resilient things, though. Even if the sun will explode, we’ll most likely try to save something. Survival instinct is so strong that it defies rationality and free will. In this case, the world isn’t ending so much as life reaches its epilogue. Life isn’t bad, but it keeps moving in an ordinary pace towards its ending.

What do you do when you’re the last generation? The anime is essentially about this, but it seems so weirded out by its premise it doesn’t really explore it. The first stories deal directly with these themes – one character is about to be the last of the last generation, which is the worst isolation you can have. The city of the dead is an interesting expressions of the Metaphysical Rebellion – how we can rebel against our circumstances and reject them.

The structure doesn’t prevent exploration of these topics, since many shows used shorter length with depth. The method of storytelling gets in the way. There’s an objective to solve, and the characters spend more time trying to solve it. While the pacing isn’t thriller-like, it’s too fast for such a premise. It doesn’t slow down enough to show how characters exist outside the story.

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Characters’ existence outside the story is one of the best ways to convince us they’re real, to make us care about them and see their humanity. Stories are something humans create and we don’t live in just one. A focused storyteller shows snippets of other stories the characters can have, but then goes back to the main one. A master storyteller can imply these side-stories and connect them to the main plotline. The anime doesn’t do this. Its focus is too narrow.

It’s a shame, because the storytelling is quite excellent. The format is familiar – we have a good, well-meaning character visiting people and helping them. Ai isn’t just a vehicle to tell the stories of these people. Her personality and position is directly tied to her role. In a world where everyone’s ready to die or desperately fighting death, she’s a piece of light. She’s the youngest person alive, a possibility that there might be a future.

She’s not a lantern, though. When things go bad, Ai doesn’t say some nice things and the story ends. Often, she gives those pep talks but stumbles. The world is, after all, ending. Problems still exist and are hard to solve. Ai may be an optimist, but she’s a struggling optimist. We see her doubts, how much she tries to cling to her optimism despite everything.

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This is where the anime’s faults lay. Although this is an excellent usage of such a character, they don’t take it far enough. Ai struggles, but the creators put her so much in the role of problem-solver she doesn’t have time to ingest the struggling. There’s no time to see how the possible failures affect Ai’s psych. Stories don’t always end just like she wants them to, and that should influence her worldview. How do you stay optimistic when things don’t go as expected? Do you blind your own eyes? Do you become pessimistic, or do you accept things as they are? The anime never addresses these questions.

The themes of wishing does make its appearance, but the creators aren’t sure what to do with it. People wish for things. Sometimes they come true, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they come true but the result is painful. It speaks volumes when a messy anime like Big Order addresses these themes better. They’re present, but wishing is not a plot device here and there aren’t enough angles to explore this topic from. It’s just there.

The art style continues the weird nature of the quality. The character’s looks are distinct and memorable enough, but the art style itself isn’t. You can put these characters in a school anime and they wouldn’t feel out of place (except for the outfits). There’s variety in how everyone looks and the school arc lets them show off their designs, but nothing connects it. Characters shouldn’t just look distinct but there should be a style that connects them, quirks that make the design memorable and make you wonder what else you can do with it.

On the other hand, the color schemes and backgrounds are beautiful. The anime finally fulfills potential. The colors are balanced. Light and dark tones are mixed. A burning red or a cold blue is are the dominating colors, and they have just enough brightness to make the world seem normal. There’s also a little darkness in them that reminds you that the world is dying. It’s a balance that’s hard to get. You can easily find yourself in bland colors, but here they’re the perfect mix of darkness and lights that fit the weird tone of the series.

Sundays Without God is a flawed anime, but nevertheless an anime like no other. Its failures hold it back from greatness, and but their nature prevents them from being offensive. When it falls, it’s not because it does stupid things. Rather, it’s too afraid to play with its ideas. They stand on their own, and even as basic storytelling it’s good enough. Someone might one day run away with these and render this irrelevant, but until then it’s worth your time.

3.5 sundays out of 5

Makai Senki Disgaea

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Without even trying, Disgaea steps over all those anime about a hero who Wants to Become to the Best. It’s not a deliberate, focused exercise in style or cliches. The only idea behind it is to deliver a simple adventure about becoming an overlord. This form will never die and that’s okay. You can fit many ideas into it. Somehow, Disgaea manages to get it right without fitting any ideas.

Other great works in this style – JoJo and Kill la Kill – have a bigger purpose than simply telling a story. One was about testing the limit of how macho you could get. The other comes from the head of Imaishi, and that guy never stops hallucinating. After all, we’ve seen this pattern of Hero Defeats Enemy plenty of times. Relying on it means falling back on cliches, and cliches are always terrible when they’re crutches.

Disgaea has no such lofty ambitions. It doesn’t push the monomyth further, or tries to get more steam out of its formula. In fact, it has no ambitions besides telling a fun story about an exciting adventure. Unambitious anime are rare, and often terrible. Plenty of time anime fail despite having big aims and trying hard. There was a lot less effort put into Disgaea than other shows, but the result is great.

That’s because telling a simple story isn’t that hard. You just need to remember your story is simple. The problem with doorstop fantasy series and long-running anime is that their size comes back to bite them in the ass. If your story is only about adrenaline and a few oddballs, why stretch it to be as long as life itself?

Free of these limitations, Disgaea lets loose with its wacky world. How it compares to the original game, I have no idea. As an anime, it gets everything right. The focus is both on memorable characters, unique set-pieces and a story that’s bigger than its initial premise. Although it’s mostly comic and light-hearted, it has its powerful emotional moments. It’s another anime that proves that if you make your characters feel alive enough, we’ll be swept away by their troubles.

The characters of Disgaea aren’t psychological. They’re of the grand-mythic type, but even there it’s in a basic form. A megalomanic, a pure-hearted angel and a conniving demon. These templates still work because the characters have an inner drive. Each of them reacts to the situations in their own unique way. Even if their personalities aren’t the most original or developed – they’re never as bizarre as Kill la Kill – they’re still lifelike.

The wacky nature of the world adds excite to the adventure. It’s a free-form world. There’s no internal logic to it. Hell is a bizarre place where weird stuff happens. If that makes the world shallow, these lone set-pieces still achieve the lifelike quality of the characters. The pacing is focused. Each episode stands on its own and has its own arc.

It’s important for your story to consist of such arcs. Stories that only build up put all their eggs in one basket, and can easily fall apart (Especially if your adventure goes on for a lifetime or two). Disgaea‘s adventure is fun because every moment is meant to be fun. In fact, the series often puts its big climax on the afterburner. It’s more focused on what happens now.

These set-pieces are often bizarre and silly, but why shouldn’t they? Adventure stories are that their best when they’re wild. We’re attracted to adventures because the events are often bizarre in exotic places. The silly nature of Disgaea‘s world makes it both more lifelike and more immersive than any WHOA WORLDBUILDING work by Western fantasists. Sure, Maritn filled with world with details and names. He never made something as attention-grabbing as the Prinnies.

Looking back, the expansion of the climax isn’t so unexpected. The hint that the show is more than Laharl becoming overlord are at the very beginning. It’s still a great decision. When the climax arrives, it’s huge. One climax leads right into another, but it never overloads. Every episode has its own inner story. Thus the climax doesn’t explode from too much content. Rather, it’s divided up and allowed to build tension.

While it gets the basic formula right, Disgaea is still an unambitious anime. That’s the flaw that follows it in every episode. It doesn’t feel like only an advertisement, but the art and the basic nature of things point to an unambitious team. The art is great, but the animation quality is fairly low. It’s not a minimalist art style yet the lack of details in the background make it feel like the creators didn’t think it deserved it.

The character design is also great, but everyone on the side is piss-poor. One episode has a one-time antagonist that looks like it was designed in one minute. The creators are clearly capable of great character design and good background. The visuals drastically improve in the climax (The Prinny redemption episode is especially beautiful). Until then though, it looks so basic and uninspired it takes you out of the anime. Animation quality isn’t everything and art style is far more important. Here, though, the animation quality affects the art when the character design is boring and the backgrounds aren’t as wild as they should be.

The story is also, in the end, about nothing. As the mighty Digimon Tamers proved, an adventure story can definitely be full of meaning. Disgaea doesn’t even try although it’s capable. The Prinnies are a brilliant creation. They’re hilarious and an episode proves they can be emotionally powerful. The series never plays around that. The series never pays too much attention to Laharl’s psychological development although it could. It’s not pretentious. It simply doesn’t try to add psychological depth or even cover it up. I don’t know what is worse – not trying, or covering up.

The flaws prevent Disgaea from being great, but it’s highly enjoyable as a light adventure. Many anime can still learn from this – the characters have inner drives, each episode is focused on a single arc and the climax is bigger than the synopsis says. There really isn’t much to dislike here, although some will be turned off by the lack of ambition.

3 Prinnies out of 5

Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas

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Is this really the person who wrote The Wasp Factory?

You can feel it’s the same mind for a while. Banks’ world is weird and unstable enough. The basics of it are simple at heart, focusing more on cool ideas rather than an abundance of details. Often, there are bits of madness that bring the world to life like the small tribe arc. The prose is worse than stiff though. It’s so invasive it literally turns a rollicking adventure with great characters into the word ‘kilometer’ placed between references to violence.

the story isn’t a dull travelogue with Banks showing off his worldbuilding skills. Banks uses the smart technique of showing bits and pieces, emphasizing the size of the world rather than just writing an encyclopedia. The structure is a simple one. Man goes on a mission, things go wrong and he has to solve the problems. Each problem is different and each setting is different. Even without character development the novel could give you a good time.

The prose is closer to the horrifying George Martin prose. Saying it’s better doesn’t say much. While Banks isn’t as offensive (and the story is overall better), it’s hard to ignore how crippling the writing is. The third-person omniscient writing is so detached. The epilogue features some dry history about the world. That section is more interesting since such writing fits when you look at things from a distance.

The story is an adventure. Why does Banks tell it like it’s a history book? It sucks out all the excitement and it’s more offensive when the story is very close to being fun.

The distance ruins any character development Banks was attempting. They never become psychological or grand-mythic, but even a little personality injects life. There’s something about Horza being a badass, Wubslin being an obsessed engineer and the drone being unpleasant to everyone. I’m not sure what it says about the novel when only a drone has unique reactions to things.

How characters react to the world around them is too generic. One is a little more apathetic. Another is more confident. There are no quirks, no special modifiers to these reactions. Unimaginative authors should at least be capable of repetitive archetypes. Banks’ characters don’t even qualify as that. If one character had a trait where they’d swear more than everyone, they’ll be more lifelike than everyone else.

Banks also has a weird obsession with exactness. The world ‘kilometer’ repeats itself often. The exact measures and structures of everything will haunt you in your sleep. Not only Banks is into writing history books, he also enjoys writing instructions manuals on how to build a ship.

Now, such manuals have no room for exciting or beautiful prose. Their purpose is to give the exact details. How exact can you be with fiction? Banks forgets something crucial. All these ships and planets aren’t actually real. Describing their exact size doesn’t make then any more so.

We don’t experience the world in measuring units. First of all, we perceive things as ‘big’ or ‘small’, as ‘long’ or ‘short’. Fiction is human thought and it should connect our thoughts. You use descriptions to make the reader understand what it feels like to witness the destruction. Some authors use a pile of details for this, but the good ones never gain their strength from being exact. Shopping list as a writing technique is about creating a variety of images.

The writing isn’t shopping-list style. It simply relies on being very exact. All it does is making you either feel confused (Because the exactness doesn’t give a proper image of what it feels like) or sucking out the life out of the prose. I’m not sure which is worse and it often happens at the same time.

The epilogue is perhaps the best part of the novel. Although it’s dry history, the prose works there. Maybe Banks is more interested in huge stories thna small adventures. After all, this series became huge. Sadly he was too scared to write a full book in this style and instead we get this dry adventure.

If you’re into shenanigans about traveling in outer space, explosions and weird cultures there’s fun to be had here. It’s buried under layers of dull prose. Nothing about is offensively bad. I never got the urge to put it down but I never got much of one to pick it up. Make of that what you will.

2 kilometers out of 5

Ergo Proxy

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If to be great is to be misunderstood, then Ergo Proxy is truly one of the greatest anime ever. It’s second only to Future Diary in how everyone misinterprets it, both the fans and the haters. Some of what you heard is true. It’s experimental, bizarre and sometimes a little too vague. Yet no one talks about how it’s not experimental in the conventional, silly way. No one mentions how human the story is, or how traditional it is at the same time.

Somewhere at its heart is a very traditional story. It starts off with a mystery and later becomes a journey of self-discovery, a wild adventure with stand-alone set-pieces. Being experimental isn’t denying common structures but creating your own. The weirdest anime have a familiar side. They distort common tropes and structures and build something new out of them.

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The anime makes its intentions very clear at the beginning. You know this is a deep sci-fi story because there’s no info dumps. Techno-babble is common in sci-fi and its antithesis. Sci-fi is about exploring the implications of technologies and possibles futures. How exactly a technology will work is work for scientists. The purpose of storytellers is to try to predict how it will effect us psychologically and philosophically.

Human relying on intelligent robots is familiar, but the anime is more focused on what it means. Machines are just advanced tools. Humanoid robots aren’t meant to be actual humans, but serve various factions. How far does a tool advance before it stops being a tool? The companion model is important. Tools are supposed to solve technical problems – they help us build, repair and cook. Yet here’s a tool whose purpose is to address a psychological problem.

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Psychological problems are bigger than technical problems. The toaster is either broken or fixed and, in general, doesn’t have a will of its own. Psychology leads to wants and needs. Psychology is dynamic and is constantly changing. A tool that cannot solve a psychological problem without having long-term effects.

Intelligence is also important for the development of psychology. The more complex the problem, the more complex the tool has to be. Eventually we develop intelligent tools, but intelligence leads to psychology, to asking questions. But the AutoReives don’t have to ask too much. The main philosophical question – why live? – has been answered inside their programming. The designer of the tool decides its purpose. It designs the tool for a specific problem.

In a way, this is the argument for the non-existence of a God or for an indifferent God. Human beings don’t have their reasons of existence written in their code. The only humans who do are humans born in artificial wombs. Vincent is the prime example of the Absurd Man. If you’re confused over what happens to him, that’s okay. He’s just as confused like most people are. Unlike the AutoReives, he has to put conscious effort, to break out of his comfort zones to find meaning.

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Even the pre-programmed people aren’t safe from the nature of reality. Intelligence is only useful if it’s able to develop on its own. An intelligent tool has to continue to learn, or else it’s not intelligent at all and can’t deal with the most complex problems. Either reality shifts and make us question our purpose, or our intelligence develops and leads us to these questions. That’s what the Cogito virus really is, isn’t it? That’s Pino’s arc. She starts off pre-programmed with a clear purpose. As she gathers experience, she develops a worldview, wants and needs. The line isn’t between men and machine. It’s between men and tools.

Ergo Proxy is mostly about the search for meaning. It’s appropriate because the anime sometimes can’t hold on to that. The conclusion it reaches is a familiar one, but I don’t think anyone has yet to supply a better answer. We cannot stop the search. Romdeau may be sealed and ordered, but the Cogito virus still exploded. People still wondered what’s going on, and Lil Mayar found a purpose of her own besides merely existing. Human connection is also important. When everything falls, there are still people to hold on to.

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The anime mirrors the characters and humanity in general. It bumbles from style to style. The atmosphere is fairly consistent with the anime mainly borrowing from genres rather than jumping into them. Still, the theme is either pushed too upfront with name-dropping of philosophers or hidden in episodes that don’t relate to this. That’s why being aware of traditional storytelling is useful. Merely rejecting them is silly when they’re a useful crutch.

In general, falling back on tropes is a bad sign. Cliches without verve are offensively boring. Ergo Proxy‘s case isn’t giving up. Rather, it focuses on having a surface as attractive as its depths. There’s no reason to cover up a deep story with a boring surface, anyway. The mystery and the adventure are just as intriguing. While the tonal shifts aren’t huge with few moments of lighthearted fun, there’s variety in the set-pieces. It especially improves when the anime slides into its adventure arc. The set-pieces are varied and often bizarre. Episodes are told in different ways, and are often self-contained.

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Sometimes it feels like you missed episodes, but only because the focus is on making the episode an individual creation. The connection to past events is made later. The focus is more on the story. That’s another thing people miss about the anime. For all its talk about philosophy, Ergo Proxy isn’t a collection of weird images and stoic phases. It’s heavy on storytelling, on characters interacting and things happening. It rarely, if ever, stops to inform the audience on its philosophical nature. When the AutoReives cry for their ‘raison d’etre’, it’s more because this term is common in the world rather than trying to impress the viewer with jargon.

Its only flaw is its messy nature, but that’s forgivable. Any time that explores its themes so well, that plays both the philosophical angle and the storytelling angle is bound to be messy. It’s not even lying big themes on a traditional story. Ergo Proxy constantly breaks, constantly bounces from one thing to the next. The verve is engrossing, but the anime is also confused. Since it’s not a complete experimental work and not an adventure with psychological portait, it should be in the middle. A anime that’s at once traditional and experimental should be brilliant, but that’s too much to ask for. Still, it doesn’t matter if Icarus burned when he flew to the sun. The wings still worked.

There’s no reason to pass off on this anime. It’s bizarre, messy, intelligent, emotionally engrossing and accessible. It’s far-out, so I can imagine plenty disliking this. Still, this isn’t the impenetrable Texhnolyze or Serial Experiments Lain. In fact, its awareness of traditions actually makes it more bizarre. It’s truly unusual in a way that few fictional works are. If I have to present anime to an outsider, this is one of the first I’ll think of.

4.5 autoraves out of 5

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders I

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The glass ceiling shines gloriously bright here. Isn’t the trouble with glass ceilings that they’re invisible? Yet the flaws here are so obvious. The series is no major experiment. Creators who fall to such obvious flaws often can’t get the basics of storytelling. I haven’t seen an anime that gave up so miserably since Sword Art Online. There’s no other way to describe what happens to the series halfway through. You literally see the band members running out of ideas, but the concert is still rocking.

It’s not a major disaster like Sword Art Online because the nature of giving up is different. That anime hinted at psychological and philosophical insight only to deliver a boring monomyth about an asshole and a helpless princess. Stardust Crusaders simply gives up on pushing its idea further. It’s content with sitting in the same place, offering good variations but never breaking out of the mold. I’m not sure what it says about the creator that they managed to create 10 episodes that barely add anything, yet are still a lot of fun.

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The improvement over the first installment is that this one lives up to the title of ‘bizarre’. The previous season gained its energy from pushing archetypes to the extreme. Nothing about it was weird, thought. It was all archetypical, tough guys posing and using battle startergies. Stardust Crusaders throws the same passion for archetypes into bizare-ness.

There are about 15 villains of the week here, and each of them is a puzzle in its own. Anytime you think they ran out of ideas, something new comes up. No villain is truly like the other. The creators use this to play with genres and story types. You get the dream narrative, the killer car, the hostile creepy-looking town and the ghost ship. It’s a prime example of why people who whine about good guys winning miss the point. Of course the good guys will win – there’s no reason for them to lose unless ‘the world is unjust’ is something you explore. The fun thing about these stories is how they solve the puzzle. Just like the first series, it’s never about shouting and brute strength. Each villain is a puzzle to solve. In a way, it’s a mish-mash of mystery and battle shounen.

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Yet this successful formula is exactly what keeps the series down. The series’ ideas never progress. There’s no gradual change in tone or characters. Events happen, but they’re too self-contained. It’s a heroic journey that’s told as a Slice of Life anime. The disconnection between the events lowers their meaning. An anime about a band of heroes fighting a different enemy every time can be fine, but it clashes with what the series is at heart. The result is something that’s stuck in-between. It’s too Slice-of-Life for the journey to feel like it actually progresses, and too journey-like for the episodes to truly deviate from each other.

It doesn’t help that the series gives up at some point. What’s worse, sitting comfortably behind your limits or trying fruitlessly to break them? The Stands eventually lose their meaning. They carry Tarot card names but their powers have little to do with it and the creators don’t even try to come up with names. What started off as using Tarot and colors as inspiration for villain was dropped in exchange for weird superpowers. They’re entertaining superpowers, but it only reinforces the disconnection between the events.

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The series stops halfway through the actual arc. You’d think that would be a problem, but the lack of conclusion comes more from the format rather than splitting up the series. It’s these aforementioned flaws that make the last episode feel anticlimatic. All these events and enemies, and in the end nothing changed. Our heroes arrive in Egypt, so what?

Stardust Crusaders is never bad. What’s frustrating is that it always threatens to be way better than its predecessor. The characters are way better – distinctively quirky and silly. They each contribute something to the group but have enough agency to create as much conflict as they solve. The focus also never locks in on one character. They each have equal screen time. It’s so balanced it’s easy to forget Jotaru is kind of meant to be the main character. Both the enemies and the characters are more bizarre, sillier, more mythic and lifelike than the predecessor. The art is also more colorful and varied. While it doesn’t play so much with colors, the scenery is varied and the characters suffer less from Same Face Syndrome.

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The glass ceiling is tough to break. Maybe the series didn’t even try, but chose to sit under a different ceiling. It’s still recommended to anyone who’s into fighting and macho dudes. The genre hardly gets better than this unless you’re going full retard with Kill la Kill. It dodges all the problems long-running shounen shows have – there’s focus, no babbling, no info dumps and it actually ends. Despite doing pretty much everything right, the result is only a good anime and nothing beyond this.

3 stands out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

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Imagine if Dragon Ball Z was actually good, or if Kill la Kill wasn’t so weird.

I feel sorry for this anime. It takes a stupid, pointless idea and makes the best of it. The world has dozens of stories about macho dudes beating up other macho dudes because they don’t agree with their morals. In the worst cases, these stories are filled with overcomplicated fight systems nobody cares about, and silly monologues.

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The world of macho dudes who never really die, where time doesn’t exist is a bit tired now. Franchises like Naruto, One Piece and Dragon Ball will outlast the heat death of the universe. It’s bizarre how no author of these mangas pulled a Robert Jordan, but nothing is as bizarre as this anime.

Macho-ness, like most tropes, is bad because it’s boring. The problem with using tropes has nothing to do with sophistication. It’s just that after seeing the same technique for 100 stories, you get bored. You become like JoJo and can predict their next sentences. Bad cliches are used by storytellers who don’t know what kind of story they want to tell. Is it an epic adventure? A silly show about silly people beating each other? An examination of good an evil?

JoJo‘s strength is the focus, unlike all these shows. The anime makes it clear what it wants to be early in the beginning. Then, every single thing that happens connects to that. JoJo wants to deliver a simple story of good and evil. The bad guys are really, really bad. The good guys are really good and charming. If the fate of the world was really in the hands of a macho dude, we’d all be filled with adrenaline. When it’s a bunch of colors on the screen, you need more than this.

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Since JoJo knows its purpose is to deliver excitement, it will do everything it can to raise the stakes. Bad guys don’t come back after being defeated just because you can milk the show a little more. They come back because it raises the stakes, makes us wonder how they can be defeated. The anime establishes that everyone knows what everyone’s next move is, which is exciting because we wonder when will one of these will fail.

Battles in anime always have pre-determined results. Every battle in anime is a man playing chess against himself. So a battle is only as exciting when the writers can challenge themselves, when they find ways to overturn their own schemes. The set-pieces drive the battles, not just meaningless shots of people using fists. Each battle is a progression of moves. It’s an odd way to describe a fight but they’re like a chess game in how every move has a clear influence on what happens next. There’s something thrilling in seeing a person trying hard to beat himself up in chess.

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It’s not the animation that sparks up the battle, which is weird. Most of the time, exciting fights are well animated. They have fluid movements that create a kinetic energy. JoJo opts for more still shots, but its set-pieces and beautiful progression saves it.

The art style itself is very old school and gloriously macho. It’s so old-school it’s jarring at first. Everyone has a Schwarznegger build and dangerously low amounts of fat. Even characters who don’t fight look muscular, with square faces and bodies of an endomorph. This style can be ugly. It does suffer from Same Face Syndrome, but they make up for it in other ways. Where it fails to dazzle in character shapes, it succeeds in customes and hairstyle. Every important character has a unique, often elaborate dress style.

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In fact, beyond the endomorph build, JoJo‘s version of macho is unique. Perhaps it was common in old times, but today it’s rarer. We now love our heroes rebellious, slightly selfish and enforcing their morality in brutal ways. We want Deadpool and Iron Man, heroes who are only good because the plot requires it. The macho-ness of JoJo is the ‘respectable gentleman’, a man who respects even his enemies. The first part drills this the most, but even the second arc with the rowdy second JoJo has it. Wham is an honorable villain. JoJo duels him fairly and with respect, rather than with malice.

So the characters don’t look gritty and tough. Rather, in the language of 12-year-old kids, they look gay. Their customes are elaborate and decorative. They look like men who are so sure of their macho-ness that they don’t mind looking so ridiculous.

The female design also enforces this weird form of macho-ness. JoJo doesn’t downplay the female’s femininity. In fact, it shows it with all the glory. Although there are no ecchi moments, the female characters look distinctly feminine – lipstick, eyelashes, gentle features. A common problem in battle shounen is that everyone is so macho, the show is afraid of femininity. So besides having longer hair and breasts, the females look like men. JoJo doesn’t need sexuality to remember its female characters are female. It’s a macho series that doesn’t view femininity as a weakness.vlcsnap-2016-03-05-23h15m50s208

For all its fun (and it’s a lot of fun), there’s a glass ceiling it cannot break. It’s a great macho adventure about saving the world, but that’s all there is. It does a lot with its style, but it’s always limited by it. Dragon Ball Z looks pathetic next to it, but JoJo is overshadowed by Kill la Kill. For all of its weirdness and energy, it never becomes as absurd Kill la Kill. It aims there and it succeeds enough to not become useless. I’ll definitely check out the sequels, but Imaishi’s cartoon prove there is so much more you can do with macho bullshit and saving the world. The fact JoJo keeps up with it and and is still worthwhile is a point for it.

JoJo is excellent at what it does. There are plenty of silly people who think there’s no value in adventure stories about saving the world. It may not be Kill la Kill, but it gets everything else right – the pacing is focused, the art is beautiful, the fights are coherent. It’s the sort of thing that inspires a lot of anime that can’t measure up to it.

6 skedaddling out of 5 here

 

John Green – Paper Towns

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You can trace growth if you follow Green’s novels in the order they came out. In Alaska, he used literature as a way to live his fantasies. On Stars, he used literature to come to terms with a devastating experience. Paper Towns is a direct response to Alaska. If that one was wish-fulfillment, this is about bursting the fantasy.

Only Green can’t completely abandon it. The similar cast isn’t because of a lack of ideas. It’s the same story as before but it’s told differently. This time everyone is more flawed, slightly less quirky. The teenagers are no longer a bunch of outcasts who conquer the world because outcasts are charming. They’re a bunch of losers who know their place and try to break away from it.

It’s more realistic in places. Being an outcast is only fun if you have a huge group of it. You still wish you were one of the popular kids who have more fun than you. You still have the same desires for women and big social events. These desires of wanting to break out add a degree of realism that’s important. Green blurs a little the duality of the Cute Nerds and Asshole Jocks.

Then he completely slides into wish-fulfillment fantasy again. Asshole jocks get their payback, and there’s a little sympathy but mostly sadistic glee. A complete loser whose  one major achievement is blending in with the cool boys somehow wins the heart of a hot girl. Our protagonist, who’s mostly an unpleasant loser too wins the heart of the ultimate girl.

If only Green could see through it all. Margo is better than Alaska, but by not much. The main idea behind her is ripping off the curtian of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Quentin is John Green when he lusted after that girl, only Green now knows that women don’t exist to bring excitement into men’s worlds. They’re supposed to be flawed human beings like us.

How flawed is Margo though? It’s clever how Green rarely shows her good traits. We get them mostly second-hand from Quentin, emphasizing that it’s just his perception. There isn’t enough of the counter story, or the counter story doesn’t match the novel’s concluso.

Margo is a spoiled brat, a horrible person, the sort of person who’ll fall in love with an abusive rock star and justify it. We’re meant to think she’s flawed, but Green is unaware of how terrible she is. She’s an angsty teenager with no reason to be angsty. Her only problem in life is that the world around her is ‘fake’ or some bullshit philosophy like that.

What’s so ‘fake’ about the suburbs, though? Margo actually leads an exciting life in Orlando. She has everyone wanting her. She has the guts to take trips and midnight drives. Her environment doesn’t really confine her, since she could still go through all kinds of adventures while still studying and graduating. Margo’s myth is questioned, but not her desires. Her desires are just every silly teenager’s fantasy.

Only the jocks and the nerds are mature enough to understand you can’t live your life as a constant, glorious adventure. Humans are social animals and you have to be a part of the community even if only for your own good. Green never looks at how ridiculous and self-centered this is. He’s willing to admit women don’t exist for men’s pleasure, but he’s still selling us the fantasy of the Ultimate Girl.

Maybe I could’ve bought it if Margo was genuinaly weird. She’s not. She reminds me a lot of a certain person. It’s the sort of privilege that gives birth into hedonists with expansive vocabulary. Margo may read literature and use big words but in the end all she wants to do is have fun. She’s a kid who refuses to grow up. When her parents express disdain I was told outright how terrible they are. All I really thought was, they’re right. Margo is horrible. There isn’t enough psychology to her to make that horrible-ness interesting, so I just wanted for somthing bad to happen to her

The storytelling is often more convinient than realistic or weird. The characters are quirky in charming ways, not in odd or conflicting ones. There’s a brief rift in the friendship between Ben and Quentin which is the most exciting part of the novel, but it only lasts for a few pages.

During these few pages Green proves he can be a good writer. He can ask questions and not just emotionally manipulate. It’s a fight between friends, the kind that throws in their face the fact they’re changing. Bubbles bursting are always exciting because that’s when our worldview changes, when we’re in an emotional storm. Green just writes it away so quickly.

The novel could’ve easily taken a better route. What if instead of it being about finding Margo, Green made it about growing up and realizing how stupid our teenage dreams are? What if it’s about realizing there’s no Ultimate Girl, that the jocks are people too, that hot girls can have a personality and that we have to live with rejection?

The ending isn’t too happy, but the kissing was forced. There’s no reason for Quentin and Margo to be together. Quentin is an observer protagonist whose main trait is that he’s a self-centered asshole who only cares about his own fantasies (That’s not addressed). I already commented about Margo. I don’t think ‘unpleasantness’ is the sort of trait that makes for romantic relationship. Since when did hedonistic girls like Margo have long crushes on boring, timid guys like Quentin?

Green’s prose is good though. It flows quickly and he has a better tone here. It’s more sombre and reflective which fits with his desires to question his fantasies. The banter remains out of place, though. Only Ben’s wisecracks have anything to do with his personality. Quentin suddenly becomes clever for a second and then goes back to being Shinji Ikari without the psychology.

The theme of suicide also crops up in a few instances, but then it comes back to the hole. Sometimes the novel is on the verge of understanding it. The cliches of how you should never give up don’t appear. Anytime he comes close to saying something interesting he chickens out. He wasn’t ready for this yet.

It’s a decent novel and Green is an expert in manipulating emotions. It’s almost commendable and I’m sure I’d eaten this up if I was in high school. I’m no longer there and I see through my fantasies. There are a lot of good moments and good writing, especially in the middle. Green’s strength in at least capturing how teenagers feel like is here. It’s sad that he uses this mostly to wallow in his own fantasies. He can write insightful. He can write a Young Adult novel that will crack open the genre but this is not it.

2.5 manic pixie dream girls out of 5

Digimon Tamers

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It boggles the mind why so much anime try to prove their maturity by using bleak colors, adult characters and realistic design. Digimon Tamers has none of that. On the surface, it’s a child-friendly battle shounen about kids and their cool pets.

A surface is easy to copy, though. Putting things beneath the appearance is harder. Like Medabots, Digimon Tamers is a subversive, original and challenging work that doesn’t think children are stupid. This is not the dull Adventure, which was just about beating bad guys. Evil is not being fought here. It’s an anime that imbues its adventure with ideas and emotions, rather than just telling us the bad guy is powerful. It constantly raises questions and it stares suicide, depression and death in the face.

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A truly meaningful and engrossing journey would not consist of only victories. What makes adventures so exciting is because they’re supposed to be a roller coaster of emotions. Tamers uses the adventure not just to have the characters beat up the bad guys by powering up, but by seeing how they cope with breakdowns. In fact, no bad guy is actually being beaten up here.

Every character has a clear worldview, and they modify each scene they’re in. It’s not just the main characters who have differing views on what they should do with their Digimon. The brilliance is not even in how they bring to life side-characters like Kenta, Kazu and their parents. The show’s treatment of its so-called antagonists is where it shines.

Yamaki is first presented as a stereotypical antagonist. He wears a suit, sunglasses (even when inside) and works in a government agent. He’s out there to destroy the Digimon, but he’s not an attempt to sell DVD’s by hating the government.

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Yamaki is a real person. He’s a man of control, who loves order and wants to bring it to the world. We don’t get the false dichotomy of joyful chaos and depressive order. The Digimon who bio-emerge into the real world are causing destruction and mayhem. The children may enjoy their cool pets, but the world suffers because of that. Yamaki isn’t an antagonist but a person with a reasonable worldview. He, like any other character, reaches his breaking point. It’s not a complete 180-turn. Since the show knows that humans are only rational with what they got, Yamaki adjusts and improves his worldview. He doesn’t simply switch sides but becomes a better version of himself.

Impmon is even better. To have such a character in a kid’s show is brilliant. He’s a perfect example of an Antichrist Superstar. Impmon rejects society, which also rejects him. Yet, he can’t truly exist outside of it. He relies on feedback from people, even if the reaction he wants from them is fright.

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He wants to subvert and change things. He needs to power to do that, but his power becomes his objective instead of means. Power alone can’t make him feel any better. You don’t fix a car by just having a wrench. So he goes around, demonstrating how powerful it is only to realize he’s leaving worlds destroyed. Society can reject you for being weird, but it will only hate you and actively try to destroy you if you try to harm it. All his power and data he loaded only worsened his troubles.

It’s all very impressive, but none of that compares to Jeri’s story.

Death, depression and suicide are all connected in a sick cycle. They cause peolpe to question their whole existance. Just read Dylan Kebold’s mother’s essay. How to cope with death, or with your own desire to die is perhaps the greatest philosophical question.

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The D-Reaper is not just a personification of death. He’s a standing symbol for suicide. His whole program exists to reach the conclusion that death is better than life. It was initially meant to get rid of excess data, but any desire to ‘get rid’ can get out of control when no one’s watching.

The D-Reaper distorts every emotion it encounters to turn it into an argument for death. Love is a weakness. It makes us rely on people and we get sad when they go. Hate is terrible. It just makes us want to hurt other people.

The problem with suicide and depression is that almost anything can be distorted to fit the conclusion. Some people complain that a friend is sexually attracted to them. Even such a positive thing can be turned into a nail in the coffin.

The D-Reaper has no choice, though. He’s a program. Humans, at least according to many are not just programs. We have free will. We can distort every good thing to give us a reason to die, or we can hold on to its beauty. It’s no easy to task. Jeri fights hard, but even she couldn’t do it alone. Tamers doesn’t provide an easy, comfortable answer. Yes, we should look for the good things in life, but we should also help each other to do so.

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D-Reaper shares common elements with Terminator‘s Skynet. Both are ways for us to look at ourselves, our self-destruction and question it. Like Skynet, D-Reaper is so frightening because he’s logical. It’s not destruction for its own sake but from a coherent philosophy. A villain is only effective if we understand him and recognize that a part of us is in him/her/it. The D-Reaper is not something from outside that comes to wreck our world. It’s a thought many people have.

There are things to talk about, like animation, pacing and all that fun stuff. Yet none of that is as interesting as what I’ve just described. It’s better in every aspect than the first Adventure. Even the Digivoltuion sequence aren’t as annoying as before. They’re more dynamic now, coming off like a cool music video. The action is still not much to talk about, yet the only two serious fights are driven by their meaning and not movement. Who cares, though, when you got all that D-Reaper symbolism?

It’s worth mentioning that the design of the Reaper and all his agents is also brilliant. They’re similar to Evangelion’s Angels. They look completely alien, but the creators found a different enough style that separates them. Each of the agents’ design is unique and beautiful in a grotesque way. As for the Reaper himself, if I will ever be able to design such a thing my life will be complete.

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The few flaws, like some episodes dragging feel like nothing. A brilliant show is one that overcomes its flaws. Talking about a dull action scene or an unnecessary episode feels pointless when you could instead discuss the characters, the brilliant design of the Reaper and the meaning underneath it all.

5 reapers out of 5

Digimon Tamers – The Hypnos Arc

The D-Reaper is where it’s at. It’s a personification of death in a children’s show. After the disappointment of the first Digimon Adventure, I just hoped this will be good enough until that arrives. I did not expect it to be this subversive, well-written and exciting early on.

The original Digimon Adventure was very basic. It was all about becoming more powerful to defeat a senseless enemy that wants to destroy in order to destroy. They somehow managed to drag it for 50 episodes. It’s a remarkable achievement for such a thin premise where even the action is unexciting. Throughout the first arc, Tamers constantly questions it.

We get Villains of the Weak whose sole purpose is to be defeated, but they are not the center. It’s Yamaki and Impmon – two characters closer to being antagonists – that define this series.

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Yamaki is first seen as an evil, detatched Government Agent who wants to destroy Digimon because he’s cruel and wears a suit. Very early though, it’s shown he’s more than that. Yamaki is not villainous. He’s a person in need of control, but because he sees what chaos does. The Villains of the Weak wreck havoc and cause nothing but panic. It’s only logical to want to stop them.

He’s not like the kids, who got their Digimon and felt like their dream was coming true. He views things from a wider, but more detatched angle. He sees all the havoc that’s going on and doesn’t mind to hurt a few kids’ feeling if it means peace to everyone else.

But Yamaki is a person who wants control so much that this desire controls him. He tries to tighten his control more and more, moving from observing to trying to destroy to trying to eradicate all Digimon. Yet his own technology spins out of control, just like the Digimon are a technology that’s gone out of control (doesn’t it happen all the time?). Yamaki eventually breaks down and even gets a little violent. But what makes it so powerful is not because his violent reaction is cruel (it’s not), it’s because we’ve come to see Yamaki is like us when things go out of our control.

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Impmon is another case. Impmon is a person who found out he doesn’t fit in society. He had his chance, but he couldn’t do it. So now he tries to live outside of it, bragging about his independence and not being a slave like all the Digimon.

He’s like that kid who made fun of you for being a slave for Pop music, when his whole existance is letting people know how special he is. Impmon doesn’t live outside of human society because he relies on their feedback. He pulls pranks and scares them for fun. Without humans to be scared of him, he’s nothing.

He’s an Antichrist Superstar, a person who couldn’t fit into society yet can’t live outside of it. Like Manson’s character, this leads to a desire for power to overcome this. Impmon can’t help but feel weak. His pranks are nothing but a nuiscance. As the series goes on, Impmon realizes how pointless his whole quest is. He’s starting to reconsider his worldview, but not his hatred for humans.

He sees the hero’s Digimon evolving defeating enemies, and he mistakes that for success. Since he has no alternative to society, all he wants is to destroy. This is developed further later in the series, but it’s hinted at early on. Impmon isn’t a buried gun that plays in the background until the series needs him. His downward spiral already beings.

These are the first of many breakdowns that this series will feature. It’s shocking at first to see it in a kid’s show. That’s why it’s brilliant, though. It creates characters and puts their worldview through challenges. Call Mushishi mature all you want because it doesn’t have fighting, but Mushishi never puts his characters through these breakdowns.

The whole idea of power, which the original Digimon and many shounen shows rely on is put into question. Digivolution is not plain getting stronger. The power it gives the Digimon is violent and destructive, and you can’t stay indifferent to it. I remember the first time I held a gun and how it felt.

Power does change people. We all think of changing our environment, but when we’re given the means to do it that’s when we start taking it more seriously. The series gives us three different viewpoints. Takato is a naive kid who, if he’s going to fight will do it for fun. Henry is a pacifist who can’t unsee the harm violence does to others, even when they’re enemies. Rika is a subversion of the Shounen hero. Ash Ketchum wanted to be Pokemon Master. So does Rika, only for Digimon. It’s a violent path to mastery.

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Gargamon’s Digivolution illustrates this best. It’s a shocking episode, one that takes the first series and flips it on its head. Getting stronger, instead of solving the problem creates a worse one. Gargomon has a great design. He’s cute and cuddly, but instead of arms he got two revolver barrels. The series acknowledges these weapons were meant to hurt. How many shows question violence like this?

While these characters don’t experience the serious breakdowns of Impmon’s and Yamaki’s, their viewpoints are constantly being challenged. Henry’s pacifism, Rika’s bullying ambition and Takato’s naivety are all put under constant testing. This will get more serious as the show goes on. Already in the beginning, though, Tamers is brilliant. It makes it look so easy. You don’t need realistic art or no fighting to have a ‘mature anime’. Just continue to test your character’s worldview.