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

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Mashiro-Iro Symphony

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Why is it so hard to produce a decent harem? If harems were pointless excursions, it would’ve been fine. If they were unpleasant, completely generic without a hint of originality than fine. Then it’d be easy to review them and dismiss them. It’s rarely the case. Often the anime hints it could be something fun, even as a light drama. All it would take is a little more character development, a few more quirks and a little more conflict.

Mashiroiro Symphony perhaps deserves credit that its path is less common in the harem genre. The harem aspect is the only thing in it that makes it male-friendly. Anything else is so gentle, so fragile and cute that it fits the negative usage of the word ‘gay’. Nudity and sexuality are mostly absent. Hairstyles are all over the place, complex and detailed. Even Miu’s hair, which goes straight down has a unique shape. Each piece of hair has its own curve.

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It’s refreshing, since darkness is a persistent feature in fiction. Stories are rooted in conflict and changes, but the serenity of Mashiroiro Symphony is convincing. Many things point towards it – the characters’ fairly pleasant nature, the gentle art style. Its limit shows quickly, but I doubt the limit is in the style itself. Rather, the creators stopped at creating a unique atmosphere and everything else is lifeless.

Our tsunderes (yes, there are two of them) are out-of-place, especially Sana. Airi’s insecurities become integral to development, but when Sana gets into tsundere mode she makes sure to kick the main character because she saw it on other harem shows. Somehow in a world where’s little conflict and everyone’s nice to each other, nobody points out how violent she is. Kicks to the face are quite serious.

Other characters fare better, but their ideas don’t work. As a male lead, Shingo is a little better. Then again, his competition isn’t difficult. Not being a pervert or a dense idiot aren’t praiseworthy qualities. You’re praising him for not being something. What he is, is a tired character type that was done well one in big series but then everyone failed with it. Shingo is the good guy. He reads everyone, knows what they want and take every bad thing people throw at him with a smile.

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You might remember this archetype from the Ender’s Game series. Ender wasn’t just a good guy, though. The psychology of it was apparent. Being such a person means containing others, understanding them and putting them above you means pushing yourself to the side. Humans are inherently selfish, so any effort to understand others won’t be easy. Any sacrifice we make for others will affect us. Shingo’s never really affected by all the good deeds he does. He faces the tsunderes like a Charizard facing a Rattata. Laughing it off once is fine, but every episode of self-sacrifice should take its toll. Shingo is just as dull as any harem lead.

The other characters fare a little better, but only Miu is actually interesting. The creators had no idea what to do with the serene atmosphere, so characters end up either incredibly dull or pointlessly wild. Ange decides her sole purpose is to be maid, and what do you make of that? It comes off like a psychological problem, but the anime is too bright for this. As a funny personality it doesn’t work since the world is too serene for it. Only Pannya (an adorable furball that should’ve been Maromi famous) and Miu are interesting. In fact, Miu’s personality is directly related to the show’s nature and it gains steam when it starts exploring it. By the time it arrives we’re at the last episodes, and there isn’t time to explore it.

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The basics of a decent harem is here. It’s not annoying, and it focuses more on character interactions rather than embarrassing situations. The romantic conclusion is actually fitting. The two lovers have a clear basis for their relationship and if you seen it coming, that’s only because it makes sense. It’s all just a surface, a pleasant one but that’s it. There isn’t even surprise character deaths or a big explosion to notify you it reaches the climax. How bad is it to be stuck in the position of being pleasant, but not getting much of a reaction?

Pannya is awesome though.

2 pannya’s out of 5

Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE!

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I’m glad this exists, but not sure how I feel about it besides that.

We need an anime like this. Everyone talks about how the male point of view is dominant in media. Earth Defense Club provides plenty of fanservice for females. It’s a gloriously feminine anime, all hearts and hot boys. It also has a wink-wink satirical element, which often goes against it.

The attempt at being gloriously feminine is fantastic. It’s not even moe. The character design is useful to note the difference between male power fantasies, and females’ fantasies about guys. Ultra-mascular guys aren’t fanservice for females, but for males. The strength and endurance they show isn’t automatically sexually attractive, but something males wish for themselves.

The design of the guys here isn’t macho. It’s pretty in a distinct females’-fantasy way. There is elegance and softness to their looks. It is not genderbending. The looks simply have sex appeal and confidence to them, but also a naturalness. A developed body like in JoJo clearly shows the person worked on it. An effortless body like of these characters points to superior genes. These looks are also friendly, which is necessary for sex appeal. For a change, the male design is meant to appeal to females.

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It’s also good when you don’t consider this factor. The purpose of character design is to express the characters’ traits, and they’re all designed according to their personality. Yumoto’s carelessness and love for cuteness is in his wide-eyes and childish hair. Yufuin has the indifferent eyes of a lazy person. Since everyone is meant to be sexually attractive, there’s no variety in body structure. However, even a small difference in the eyes – order-obsessed Kin’s narrow ones, beauty lover Akoya’s feminine ones – tell us enough.

Once you go past the visuals, it becomes unstable. Is it a satire of magical girl? Or does it take the female catering of the genre to its extreme? It cannot decide between the two. It cannot decide whether it wants to reveal the absurdities, or have fun with the cliches.

Both elements fight, and often negate each other. The enemies are too silly to take seriously, but they’re never wild enough. They’re wild enough to be considered ‘satirical’, but it’s mostly tokenism. The transformation scenes are fantastic and well-done. After they end the characters have to get self-aware about their customes.

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It’s confusing. Am I supposed to enjoy the hot-boy-and-love world, or to mock it? This balance between satire and tribute is nearly impossible. There is a way to accomplish it, but that means not being satirical. You take the genre’s cliches and push them to the limit in order to see how much Coolness Factor you can gain. This approach must never become self-aware. The appeal of it is that the creators don’t care about how ridiculous they get.

Earth Defense Club cares too much about how cool it is. Its detachment also harms the character development. At their core, they’re great. After a few episodes, you notice that half of them don’t offer much beyond their hobbies. Some are well-written, with interests that match their personality. Yumoto, Yufuin and Ryuu don’t just name-drop their obsession. They have their own unique reactions to every situation (Yufuin’s indifference, Ryuu’s aggression). Naruko, for the most part, doesn’t do anything but reminds the viewers he’s into money.

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The enemies often have an inner conflict, a motivation that makes them evil. This is the basic and brilliant approach to creating antagonists. The show never builds on it though. Besides ranting for a while, they don’t do much. Their monologues aren’t funny or have any insight into why they became monsters. At first, it’s exciting how every villain of the week has clear motivations. It doesn’t manner when they end up functioning in the same manner – rant for a while and then get Love Attacked.

The last episode contains a cool twists. The creators use it like a person who just won a million dollars buying 1000 bottls of craft beers. Craft beers are awesome, but if you won a million dollars there are better ways to spend it. The twist is cool, and made the wink-wink satire makes sense. However, they literally do nothing with it. It’s revealed there was something bigger than conquering the earth, power up and defeat the big bad.

The mere existence of the show is enough to make it worthwhile. Not everyday you see an anime about hot magical boys. It had a chance to do something new, to show a gloriously feminine show and be as fun as JoJo. Sadly, in the end it’s still insecure about hearts and pink and love and hot boys. The novelty value is enough to carry it for 12 episodes but I can’t imagine this working as a second season.

2.5 hot boys out of 5

Hyperdimension Neptunia: The Animation

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The problem with Neptunia isn’t that the source material doesn’t translate well to anime. The problem is in the process after translation. The content translates smoothly, but there’s just too much of it and the creators can’t make sense of it.

They did make some brilliant decisions. The anime jumps headfirst into the story without exposition. It doesn’t need to. Introducing characters is pointless. If your characters are developed enough, just show them walking around, talking and doing things. We will learn about them as the plot goes on.

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That movie is brilliant and works. The cast is wonderful. Most of them are archetypes, but they’re deliberate. The key to making these archetypes work is how they relate to their environment. Blanc is your flat-chested stoic girl, but in a happy-go-lucky world she sticks out. Vert’s breasts are an extension of her motherly persona, which sticks out when everyone around her are children. Neptune is the embodiment of the franchise and, in a satirical way, the audience. She’s a lazy airhead who just wants to play games and can’t take anything seriously.

Even when characters are similar to each other, there are differences. Uni  is a tsundere like Noire, but she doesn’t have her position of power. So she’s more friendly and easier to get along with. These personalities constantly clash and interact. Although the anime throws all kinds of external challenges at our cast, it never feels like they drive it. Every line of dialogue, every act is modified by the personalities.

That’s why the move to more serious ground isn’t stupid. You don’t need realism for effective drama, but characters who feel real enough. The cast of Neptunia is strong, but the poor pacing throws drama way too early.

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As developed as they are, we still need some time to get to know the cast. There are about 8 characters so, and you can’t make the audience know them in just 6 episodes (especially when there are plenty of action scenes). Already around episode 5 or so, we get dramatic scenes, the world on the brink of extinction and nobody laughing.

The drama is ineffective both because of its placement, and how it’s handled. The drama is too serious for its own good. The creators forget they’re dealing with a world inspired by gaming consoles. It’s not like the introduction of seriousness also comes with extra thematic depth. If your drama doesn’t add any depth, just make it as over-the-top as the show itself. It also appears too early, way before the viewer can get a basic understanding of these characters.

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A departure scene later in the series is great, but that’s because it doesn’t rely on the characters being serious. By the time it arrives we know the characters much better. We saw them on various adventures and learned how their relationships work. It’s also more subdued. The previous drama scenes were overly serious but not over-the-top. Since this one is more subdued by nature, it can tone the ridiculousness down without losing any effect.

The franchise’s premise doesn’t sound like it’ll be friendly with tonal shifts. Still, it’s easier to make you care about a bunch of weirdos than it seems. The pacing is too brisk though. The show keeps throwing events and interaction and jokes at you and there’s never time to take it in.

There are no build-ups. The story doesn’t build towards a single conclusion. Rather, it follows a collection of arcs that end with the a Huge Dangerous Object. If the series built up towards that conclusion, then the fast pacing would have been easier to take. Since the arcs aren’t really connect, it’s like a show is constantly on fast forward, jumping from one idea to next and showing only beginnings and conclusions.

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The brisk approach also works against the aesthetic. Neptunia‘s style is cutsie and bright, sometimes too much. The voice actors, especially Neptune’s/Peashy’s/Abnes’ are trapped with a pitch that’s too high. Their performance is suited well to the characters, but plenty of times I wished they’d put on some effect to lower the pitch. It was too much on the ears. Blank and Plutia are a blessing just because they speak in a calmer manner. If the series was a little slower, then the voices wouldn’t feel like an assault. It does get better in the second half though.

Despite this small bump, the aesthetics are still one of the franchise’s strong points. The character design is astounding. Every character looks distinct. Even characters who are meant to be similar have their clear and subtle differences which make them unique. The show is moe, of course, but it finds so many variations on it.

There’s also the aspect of fanservice. While there are a few uncomfortable moments, the fanservice is well-integrated most of the time. The character design is beautiful, and but the series rarely slows down just to remind us that. It always constructs scenes and shots that both advance the story/characters and let us enjoy the view. It’s also never too profane. The sexuality is elegant, never shoving itself in your face. The characters just happen to look good. The ‘fanservice episode’ is a great example how they do it, and also of the self-aware humor.

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One thing the anime lacks, compared to the source material is the self-aware humor. It surfaces occasionally and it’s always better than expected. The fanservice episode was great, poking fun at tropes but integrating the personalities into the humor. There isn’t enough of it though. I understand the fear of breaking the fourth wall. It can easily slip into trying too hard. Just look at Deadpool. Neptunia doesn’t have Deadpool‘s macho bullshit, though. It never pretends to be cool (It disregards coolness completely. That’s why everyone is feminine but also sexualized), so it can run wild with the self-awareness. It’ll just be a part of the general absurdity.

It’s a curious thing. Here in the West we want our heroines gritty and tough. We love Furiosa and Rey for how macho they are. They scream at men to stop holding their hand and don’t wear skirts. Yet here we have Neptunia, which is a big franchise where all the heroines are unbashedly feminine. There are no apologies here. How can they create a diverse cast of females with both great looks and great personalities while Hollywood directors struggle with one heroine? It’s so pathetic to praise Black Widow when we have the whole cast of Neptunia.

The anime is fun, but it feels like there’s more to do with the franchise.

3 plushies out of 5