Kyoukai no Kanata (Beyond the Boundary)

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At some point, someone had a vivid dream with a lot of cool visuals. He pitched them to a studio with a lot of budget and they said, yeah, we’ll run with it. Perhaps some asked about character design and plotting and symbolism, perhaps not. If they did, the production committee just said ‘oh, what the hell’. They hoped that by the force of sheer charisma and some visual inventiveness, it’ll be easy to miss how empty the whole thing is

What producers miss about anime like these is that you can’t mask emptiness. Great anime with great visuals who do bizarre things but somehow succeed don’t rely on a single element. Grand experiments like Future Diary work because they leave no stone unturned, and no element unfocused. That anime wanted the whole thing – psychology and philosophy and character development and action and romance. It wasn’t successful, but it was brave and that made it exciting.

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Beyond the Boundary doesn’t seek to replicate this specific method. Rather, it tries to impress by sheer volume and energy. Wackiness is the essence and it works in some places. The dreamshades never look like ordinary enemies. An arc concludes in a surreal fight which includes a train floating in free space. In the climax, there is some kind of paralell world floating above ours. Inside it there’s terrain that’s always shifting. The main antagonist trap himself and another person inside empty white space. That’s quite cool, at least visually.

Our characters, in the beginning, are given more than stereotypes. Slight differences in dialogue, like how the little sister’s insults tend to drag on – add life. Even quirks that have nothing to do with personality, like Mirai collecting bonsais helps to add life. These tiny details are the differences between actual human beings. Usually, adding quirks without connecting them to a personality is a sign of sloppy writing. The series finds ways to balance those, with Mirai’s collection only cropping up occasionally – enough to show us he has interests outside the story, not enough for the quirk to beg for importance.

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Then it’s over. Nothing happens to these characters across 12 episodes. I didn’t expect deep psychological portraits, but I expected versatility. A one-dimensional character isn’t one with one trait. Rather, it’s one that reacts in a predictable, repetitive and almost mechanical fashion. If a character uses the same sentence in each situation, it’s one-dimensional.

Now, catchphrases can be fun but the characters have nothing but catchphrases. Once they stick to a quirk, they never let go of it. In the early light-hearted moments, the right comic timing makes these invisible. This flaw is more apparent in the last, ‘serious’ part of the series. The world is about to end, people might die and we still get the old joke about how Hiro’omi loves little sisters. In the midst of the apocalypse, characters still kick the silly woman

A character doesn’t have to change through the course of the story. What must happen is revelations. The new events need to reveal something new. Even if your character is defined by one trait, different events should show different sides of this trait. When the apocalypse finally kicks in, everyone behaves in exactly the same way as in the first episode. The only difference is that they’re slightly more serious. I know about Hiro’omi in episode 1 just as much as I know about him in episode 12. In fact, I actually know less.

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The Serious Turn is a problem for many such shows. You’ve seen it in High School DXD and in Big Order, where an external enemy comes in and everyone works together to defeat it. The laziest storytelling is to give the hero some external thing to do, some sidequest and have them perform it. You don’t have to be bothered with writing a personality. Just have the dude solve the murder or help the girl. Your typical airplane detective novel features such characters.

When the Serious Turn arrives here, the anime loses all its vitality and quirkiness. Suddenly there’s a whole conspiracy in the works that doesn’t add anything. Characters become forgotten, vanishing for scenes and showing the authors had no idea what to do with them. They couldn’t imagine how their personalities would react to the gigantic enemy, so they just have them stand there. If they move, it’s because everyone needs to gang up on the bad guy.

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Our hero also loses his quirks and saves the world because he doesn’t want his loved one hurt. What the Serious Turn shows us is how empty these characters are. If the quirks were connected to something bigger, the climax would’ve been vastly different. Every character would have a unique way of reacting to it. The anime got me when Akky decided the world isn’t worth living without the person sacrificing themselves to save the world. This cliche is only acceptable in ultra-ridiculous heroic stories. If your stories are ultra-ridiculous, your characters will be too and they’ll actually react to events in ridiculous, memorable ways instead of convenient ones.

Only Mirai rises above the mire. She could’ve been better, being pushed towards either the psychological direction or the ridiculous direction. As it stands, she’s a beacon of charisma in an otherwise empty cast. She has a personality that adjusts her reaction. The clumsy, hesitant and bumbling persona isn’t the most original. Mirai’s at least a convincing portray of it. When the climax hits, she’s still a mess, still uncomfortable in her own skin. Her personality might not be particularly original, but at least it exists and affects her reactions. It makes her the most alive character in the anime.

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She’s also the only one blessed with a good character design. It’s bizarre that in an anime with perchance for odd imagery, everyone will look ordinary. Akky looks slightly better than most harem protagonists, but he has nothing going for him besides blonde hair. Hiromi has a nice bowl for a hair and that’s where the distinctive details end. Some characters look so dull that it’s a wonder they still put effort into giving them voice-actors. I don’t expect them all to be as iconic as Mirai. As an expression of personality, Mirai’s design was is fantastic. At least give me something to look at.

This anime could’ve been a lot of fun. It does start off wild, with a wacky fantasy element and total disregard for making sense. Sadly, the creators didn’t have the gusto – or the imagination – to fully go there. If it would’ve been a nonsensical mess, it would’ve at least been bizarre enough to ponder. Instead, it’s another anime that settles on everyone being nice, saving the world from a dude who pushes up his glasses.

2 people who got lost beyond 5 boundaries

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

Muse – Drones

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This is a joke, right?

So the previous Muse album was funky and had dubstep. Now they’re going ‘back to basics’ with a straightforward rock sound, keeping the progressive structures and with a concept to boot. The concept is important. It’s about a man who gives in to the mind-controlling government, becomes a ‘drone’, a killing machine only to revolt thanks to the power of love.

I didn’t know 16-year-old angry guys with eggs for brains were a great audience. This whole thing tries so hard to impress them, to give them a soundtrack to reading God Delusion and hating America. There will be no experimentation, no creativity and definitely no dubstep or any of that dancing crap. Dancing is for drones. You’re a teenage angry atheist who isn’t a big fan of government and now knows what life is about.

This is escapism. You do not bring new ideas to your audience and challenge the ones they hold. You flatter them. You tell them what they already think and assure them they’re right. It’s best that you do this without asking why they think what they think. Antichrist Superstar targeted those kids who are nothing, want to be something and can’t decide if they hate themselves more than the world. I’m that target audience, but Manson explored this state of mind from various viewpoints.

Antichrist Superstar (and if we’re going there, Downward Spiral) were inner journies. The reason they come off as vague and analysis of them tends to be slippy is because their stories don’t chronicle solid events. They chronicle how a person’s views and emotions changes, where a certain worldview can lead you. Drones is a blockbuster.

Drones details no personal journey. It’s about a guy who eventually revolts and defeats the government (with the power of love). So, it’s your typical action blockbuster with no personality. You can’t even compare it to good action films. There is music here, but it tends to be bombastic noise. The most interesting idea is the choir thing at the end, which is a worse idea than recording your own farts. The most fun thing here is “Dead Inside”. It also happens to bang in the whip.

When I was young I used to admire musicians for talking about ‘current events’ and ‘problems of the world’. Then I grew up a little, got interested in other forms of art (and became a drone of the whole ‘medium is the message’ thingie) and turned around. It also had something to do with all these musicians hating women, but all these political lyrics ended up meaningless. (hed) pe cared more about fucking. Chuck D’s main message is that he’s a great rapper. Rage Against the Machine were against the government because they’re not buying their records.

There is the occasional Heroes of Hiphoprisy, but music is a pretty awful way to deliver intellectual content. It’s a medium of the hearing sense. It deals with emotions, with what things feel like. Downward Spiral isn’t an intellectual exploration of ‘becoming a machine’ but an emotional one. That’s why Reznor has all these machines banging in the background.

Muse doesn’t even offer an ideas of what it feels like to be a ‘drone’. They’re not considered with sharing emotions but by telling a story. That’s why the album is so blunt. You get both a Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant and lyrics that tell you “I could use someone like you/someone who’ll kill on my command”. What’s hilarious is that Muse felt the need to include both, as if the drill sergeant interlude wasn’t enough. There is no subtley, no humor, nothing. Muse doens’t show but explains, over and over. There’s none of the humor that made the first half of Full Metal Jacket so powerful. The song itself is mishmash between Antichrist Superstar and Pale Emperor. How can you sound like Marilyn Manson and be boring?

Saying over and over that the government is bad and that the military is terrible does nothing. All you do is create an ‘unknown enemy’ with no motivation but pure destruction and death. This is what people hate about America, that the American government is supposedly creating an enemy with no motivation but killing and getting money. It takes one to know one.

The true punchline is how love is going to save us all on “Aftermath”. You have to remember the words of Mike Skinner to understand it. Muse sell out stadiums. They’re rich and they play guitar. They probably have threesomes everyday. If I were in their place, of course I’d believe that love is going to save us all. Sadly, I’m not that attractive and I see a lot of people fighting over love. Maybe it’s better to be a psychopathic killer than crazy for a person, but that’s a disucssion for a different day.

There is music here in the narrative, but it’s not very interesting. The awful concept is far more fun to talk about. The music is very loud but very pleasant to the ear. It’s great if you want to feel rebellious at school, but also intellectual. We all know that when Manson screams it’s pure stupidity, but the falsetto of “Mercy” is intellectual. There’s a dubstep rhythm to “The Handler” and I already talked about how “Dead Inside” bangs, but that’s it. “The Globalist” borrows ideas from Morricone and stretches to 10 minutes while doing nothing. No one really expected an album with titles like “Dead Inside”, “Psycho” and “Revolt” to be good, right?

2 drones out of 5