No Game No Life

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12 episodes of praising Instrumental Reason doesn’t make for good fiction, but it makes it clear why the anime blew up so much. Popularity is never a result of quality, but of fitting in with the zeitgeist, the common biases and worldviews of an age. That’s why Game of Thrones is so popular since it shows a masculinity that’s dark, therefore intelligent instead of the happy-go-lucky nonsense of 80’s action films. As for this anime, its popularity comes from how blatant it is in showing Instrumental Reason to be the supreme reason. Imagine those vegans or marijuana advocates who think that their pet issues would solve all the world’s problems.

Before we discuss why this anime is so bad, let’s clarify what I mean by ‘Instrumental Reason’. I capitalize it because it’s a useful term. To use Charles Taylor’s definition, it is reason which is about efficiancy and problem-solving. It asks how fast we can solve a problem, what is the best way to solve a problem.

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Take the case of a busted wheel. When your wheel’s gone bust, you don’t ask what it means, what ramifications it will have on pop culture or on our perception of gender and reality. All that matters is that we change tires as quickly as possible, and that the tire will be good enough to last as long as possible. While there are theories dissecting the meaning behind games, when we play chess we don’t think what the game means. Rather, we asks how we beat the game.

In contrast, there is what I’d call ‘reason of meaning’. By that, you ask what is the nature of things. We don’t just ask how to end racism and poverty, but what exactly is racism and poverty. We’re interested in understanding these issues, defining them, understanding what is bad. Instrumental Reason leads to a lot of money for hi-tech buffons, but it cannot solve all problems since it doesn’t tell you what the problem, or the meaning of things is.

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Sora and Shiro are one pair whose world is in Instrumental Reason. While games have meaning, the meaning is related to the mere act of playing. We don’t question whether or not we should win a game and what is the nature of winning chess – the rules decide that. The world of Disboard is a world where every problem isn’t just solved by games, but by Instrumental Reason.

That means it’s a world that doesn’t have any meaning at all. The nature of any problem doesn’t matter, since there will be an arbitrary equation that must solved. Once we solve this equation, the problem ends. The anime tells the story of a megalomaniacal brother-and-sister who beat people in games, gain power and minions and occasionally pay lip-service to morality.

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Now, if the series was an examination of such Instrumental Reason, it would’ve been fine. If Instrumental Reason was merely a dominant storytelling tool, then it could still have a decent story. By that, I mean that the show works similar to Death Note and Code Geass. The story moves mainly by challenges facing the characters, and the characters need to solve them. The viewer gains pleasure from trying to solve the riddle along with the characters. However, the meaning of these challenges isn’t important.

Instrumental Reason is so dominant in this anime that these challenges don’t even pretend to have meaning. Death Note may have been a series of riddles, but underneath it there was supposed to be a story about the morality of executing criminals. It failed because it didn’t create situations where we examined the issue, but rather only asked ‘who will win?’. In similar fashion, the only question this anime asks is ‘how will Sora and Shiro win?’.

As a storytelling tool, it’s incredibly boring. It’s essentially watching a staged game. The whole thrill of watching sports is that you don’t know who will win and nothing is decided until the last moment. Stories which use Instrumental Reason make you watch a man playing chess against himself, only with more narrative fluff and (in the case of anime) pretty visuals.

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So as a story, this is a complete failure. Really, it’s about nothing. Only near the end it says something about the nature of games, but the whole thing happens in an alternative reality. Once the characters are thrown into it, no mention of the real world. Without admitting there is a real world where not everything is a game, it cannot explore the nature of games. Many throw the word ‘escapist’ around and it’s always debatable how escapist a show is, but can anyone debate this? The characters literally escape the real world so they could play forever.

If the story is an absolute failure, at least it could do well in other aspects. Sadly, it’s all bad except for the art. The art is easily some of anime’s best. It’s such a shame that a highlight in anime art is glued to a horrible story. Look at those vibrant colors, how every scene doesn’t have so much a depth of detail but a depth of color. It creates the feeling of a truly fantastical world. It applies to character design, too. While the series is shameless in fanservice, each character gets its unique touch, unique eye shapes and hairstyles. Shiro isn’t the best design, but her design is a good case in point. Her hair isn’t just long but has a distinct flow to it. Jibril is another excellent case. For a character who floats around half-naked, they sure thought about a lot of unique touches – the asymmetrical gloves, the gardient in the hair.

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Sadly, this is where the positives end. Some of the characters are good, but they need a different setting and a different storytelling method. Stephanie Dola could’ve been a light in the dark, a contrast to the world. Her emotional reaction actually could’ve added some ‘reason of meaning’, show us a character who thinks about other things besides winning. Too bad her role is to be slapped around, sexually humiliated and generally used as a tool. If so far you were convinced my rantings about ‘Instrumental Reason’ was just cranking about, here’s the final nail. The anime takes its one character who has a different view than constantly puts it down.

Sora is tied to this problem, and to the misogyny problem. He’s a 20th century masculine stereotype. Writing about transformation of masculinity in fiction is incomplete without him. We see how once the manly hero packed guns, now he’s shagging women and is being a conniving, selfish asshole. What defines Sora isn’t heroism like those in the 80’s movies, but his pure ‘Instrumental Reason’. All that matters to him is winning, all he can think about is winning.

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Occasionally he displays some moral code about being nice to those he lose. We never see the general ethics that guide him, though. Since he’s comfortable using everyone as pieces, he’s more like a Wolf of Wall Street, doing everything to win and using people as means to an end. It fits with the zeitgeist. Go to school, and they will teach you how the only important thing is making loads of money. Whatever technology you invent, whatever content you produce, it doesn’t matter so long as you get money. No surprise our politicians are so corrupt.

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Using people as means, besides pissing off Kant also gives the whole anime a strong misogynistic bent. You don’t just see women in sexy situations, but often humiliating situations. Stephanie gets the most of it. An episode is dedicated to treating her like an animal only to teach her a lesson. He also takes pictures of her nude without consent and there’s the whole ‘laughing at flat women’ thing. I don’t see anything funny about humiliating a girl, taking nude pictures of her and generally framing her as inferior and dumb. Worst of all, we’re meant to cheer for Sora and the characters eventually come to like him. I don’t see how his rise to power demanded treating Dola so awfully.

Contrary to the creator’s idea, I would rather have a beer with Stephanie Dola and not just because she’s a woman. No Game No Life is pure escapist fantasy for the hi-tech age. In an age where we want to just solve problems instead of thinking about their nature, it’s the ideal anime. I’m reminded of a story where some government officials asked how to lower the amount of poor people. Onc offered to change the definition to the American definitions, and then there will be less poor people on the count. Notice how the numbers change but no one asks what exactly poverty is and what’s the actual problem. It’s a comfortable mindset, but we don’t live in Disboard. Our world isn’t clean and ordered where each problems have clear laws. In this world, you have to ask what is the problem, what it means and the whole shebang. Also, you can’t go around treating women like Sora treats Stephanie. Somebody might come and get all 80’s Action Movie on your ass.

1.5 misogynists out of 5

Another

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What we have here isn’t so much an anime, but an experiment. At least I hope it’s an experiment, because as an anime it’s quite an atrocity. It deserves a place in the bottom of the barrel, not because it’s awful in a unique way. There’s no content, nothing particularly offensive that stick out. It’s just a series of mistakes piling up on one another.

If this is an experiment, it’s an interesting and important one. In fact, as an experiment it deserves the attention of all literary scholars. Finally, a piece of fiction tries to answer the age-old question of what is more important – execution or the idea. Since the end result is closer to vomit caused by excessive drinking (which itself was a means of coping with an awful party), the answer is execution.

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“Execution” is an ironic word to use in the context of this crappy anime, both because a lot of characters die and the anime ends up killing its brilliant premise. Most creators don’t have any idea what ‘horror’ actually means. They think we experience horror when someone holds a knife against us and we need to fight them, but that’s not it. A dangerous situation where there are a few predictable outcomes, some of them bad is thrilling and causes adrenaline but it’s not scary.

People are afraid of walking alone in the streets and of being on the stage, yet no one is going to kill you if you deliver a speech (Unless you’re a politician). The common ground between two is the unknown, and more importantly a fairly hostile unknown. Horror is effective when we know or speculate there is something hostile there and don’t know its nature. The best of horror is striking a balance – having a good enough idea what kind of danger there is, but not enough.

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Horror fiction often features weak protagonists. In order to effective, the protagonists need to know little so they won’t really have a way to defeat the Big Bad. Stories are the scariest not at the climax – it means very little in this genre. Experiencing the unknown is what’s important. A shot of Michael Myers standing outside the house is scary, because we don’t really know what Myers is except the fact he kills people for some reason. More than any other genre, Horror isn’t about a tight structure but strong, atmospheric moments emphasizing how the characters view the world.

The creators commit the horrible mistake of thinking that what works in video games also works in fiction. So the main character isn’t actually a human, but a distinct organism only found in shitty stories called Plotus Moverus. Exploring a mystery on my own is one thing. Merely watching someone else do it is something else. Shows on TV that show you how to cook things have more narrative thrust, more personality. People actually remember all those dudes in TV who talk about food, yet I’ll only remember Kouchi because he starred in this horrible anime.

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Kouchi gives a point of view with less personality than a Wikipedia article, so already we lack any kind of framing for this town. Look at this as a self-insert character, and you get zilch. If Kouchi had a psychology or a personality that would react to the horror, then I could insert myself into him and feel like I’m experiencing the same thing. I could use this story not only to explore the nature of horror but how we can react to horrifying things. Kouchi only gathers data.

The scenary is now responsible to frame this story as scary, and at the beginning it’s actually quite good. People criticized it because ‘nothing happened’, but they just misunderstand the genre. Things don’t have to happen and it may be for the best if they won’t. What should go on is atmosphere. The art and especially the background is fantastic. The colors are varied, yet there’s a slight dark tone to everything – not enough to make it monochrome, but enough to hint there’s something bad going on underneath. This balance is difficult to attain but the series does it. Every scene in the beginning is imbued with uneasiness, empty streets of a small, isolated town and a dark shade over thing because disaster can strike at any moment.

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An episode which takes place at the beach is a perfect example of how well the atmosphere works. There is silence and uneasiness all over it. Every interaction is a bit more hushed. A game of fishing ends with people capturing nothing interesting but kelp and a blowfish. Romance is right around the corner, but everyone is too preocupied with the horror to go with it

Here you get why the premise is so brilliant. By its very nature it’s horror, it’s a premise where people know disaster strikes but not really its nature or how to stop it or how exactly it will affect. Reduce the genre to its bare bones and you get that. Now all you need to do is let the characters do their thing. Let them react to the situation with their personalities. Let it affect their relationship, the structure of the town. Show us the effect of death and the unknown on us, tickle our sense of empathy.

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Mentioning the Saw film at this point, because they’re an example of how this anime failed. The first Saw film featured two dudes locked in a rusty bathroom which is quite frightening, but that’s also because of the mystery – what the hell is that bathroom? The anime does contain a mystery, but instead of letting it be one they solve it in – get this! – one episode. No, really, there is no build-up or any psychological thrust to the discovery. One day a character info-dumps the whole equation. Now the characters only need to find the X, literally.

Remove the mystery and the psychology and all you have left is a dull process of elimination. The side-characters are slightly better than Kouchi but even they don’t do much. The last episodes consist of fire and brimstone and that hardly makes for an effective climax. As an action scene it might serve, but its main role is to revel and swim in the blood of the characters.

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What it reveals is what I tried to suppress all along – that the mystery isn’t actually a symbol for our fear of death, but a plot tool to kill characters. Instead of experiencing this anguish and angt, understand the meaning of fear and trembling and reflect upon the nature of death you enter a guessing game. Every episode is a game of ‘who dies next?’ until it ends with a massacre that might’ve been effective with a different build-up. Too bad it’s just has everyone smiling psychotically while chanting the same sentence.

In the beginning of the anime Stephen King is dropped, a popular writer with great ideas and horrible execution. Even he wasn’t that bad, but the series is loyal to his style. It took an idea so good you can use it to explain the nature of the genre and turned it into a who’s-gonna-die game. The final twist isn’t that surprising either and doesn’t add any meaning, although it could’ve lead to a powerful character moment if Kouchi had something resembling a personality. Write off the popularity of this anime as pure shock value.

1.5 spooky stuff out of 5

Code Geass

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First off, this anime ends horribly. People talk about anime suddenly ending with no resolution. Sometimes they overreact – Deadman Wonderland and Attack on Titan end an arc but keep the big story unfinished. It’s frustrating, since the arcs are integral to a bigger story and don’t stand on their own. Code Geass, however, simply ends. Worse, it ends on a cliffhanger. I know there’s a second season, but you don’t separate seasons (Or episodes, or books) for the sake of it. You separate them because they’re different stories. This one’s unfinished and this is a huge blow.

More news at 11.

At first, it’s tempting to view the anime as exploration of Japan under Western influence. World War II wasn’t so long ago, and we all heard about how the Japanese are poor victims. This story is false, and bones have a way of digging themselves out. Japan was an aggressor in WWII and responsible for some true horrors. So seeing a story in which they are oppressed can be bizarre – you have to wonder whether in the world of Code Geass they found the bones in Shinjiku. The big Western oppressor this time is the UK, whose main contribution to the world after WWII was Big Beat and Dubstep.

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It’s not about politics. The Geass is a physical manifestation of power. The creators wisely chose to never talk about how it actually works. There’s no D&D-esque magic system behind it, only a few limits to help us understand power better. A Geass is limited, because power comes in different forms. A Geass can also be used once, but can consume you.

Power doesn’t just come in isolation. Something drives power. The user wants to achieve something with that power. We hear about how some people just want to feel powerful, but why do they want to feel powerful? Powerful is ability and security. Power cannot be an end. If it is an end, it is only because power is the means to get many ends. Power never stands alone.

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Here’s your main problem with the anime. Power here stands alone. Excluding Euphie, the story is an ordinary one about oppressed people rising against their overseers, but so what? What does the British empire stand for? What do the Japanese stand for? You cannot just kill the tyrant but have to replace it with something. A person once said that anarchy is a ‘tyranny of people with guns’. Since humans are pack animals, leaders come by naturally and can be good for us. Leaders work differently, though even when they seem similar. Both the Nazis and the Japanese did unethical human experiments, but for different ends.

The series is soaked by the theme of power. The position of every character is established quickly, and is an important part of everyone’s lives. Notice how Rivalz is obviously inferior to Lelouch, how no woman swoon over him and he’s mostly just there. During high school scenes, we follow the most powerful people – the student council whose head is the daughter of the principle. Lelouch is a person who lost his position of power and that’s the same story for Jeremiah. Cornelia’s and Euphemia’s relationship isn’t just about protecting the little sister – one is clearly more powerful than the other.

It’s a fantastic stage to test what drives power and they squash it. The two sides fighting stand for nothing. Many stories use the typical Hitler-esque tyrant, which is cliched but at least something. Here, the British Empire only protect its own existence without ever answering why it exists in the first place. The Japanese want to free themselves, but they only free themselves into a vague ‘equality’ thing.

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Then again, it’s not a story of simple evil vs. simple good. Many scenes show us the Britinnians, their lives and how they’re actual human beings. The inclusion of school life comedy is brilliant. It shows us there are people behind the oppressors who might be used to their lives of privilege, but they’re still people. When everything falls apart, there’s no sadism but empathy towards the upper class.

If the creators can write vibrant scenes about everyday life, why can’t they imbue their characters with motives and ideologies? Relationships with the same structure work differently. Both Lelouch and Cornelia protect their little sisters, but Lelouch is the soft warm protector whereas Cornelia is the condescending one. A small character arc involving Jeremiah – a clear villain and an asshole – shows us the pain of falling from a position of power. Even while the series sides with Lelouch, it doesn’t shy away from how his power can hurt his enemies.

The ‘Grand Purpose’ is integral to any piece of art. Everything connects to it, and it makes the flaws more understandable. Without the grand purpose, there is nothing to review. Even shows whose only purpose is to show big boobs have this purpose. Often, average shows swing between two such purpose and commit. Code Geass doesn’t even swing between purposes but simply doesn’t have one. It goes through the motions, provides good storytelling that leads nowhere.

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Credit must go to the designers. The series sports one of the best character design I’ve seen. As pure beauty few anime match it. In fact, the characters are so beautiful that it feels like a plot point. Everyone radiates sex appeal, but somehow no one has sex with anyone. The overly-slender bodies do contrast with this. They’re not just thin but long, but every face is plastic-surgery perfect. Every stare is full of confidence with sensual lips. Even the voice-actors give a sexual smugness to it all. CC and Milly always sound teasing, like they’re just about to invite you to their rooms. It’s nice, but sometimes bizarre.

It’s also fairly expressive. Notice the contrast in design between Lelouch and Suzaku. Suzaku has a softer, cuter look with the curly hair. Lelouch has sharp eyes, black hair that falls in spikes. These designs amplifies their personalities. Rivalz is being stuck with a goofy blue hairdo. The decision to give characters similar but different hair colors is meaningful. Euphy’s pink is brighter than Cornelia’s purple, just like their personality.

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The gigantic robots don’t fare so well. The action scenes are a constant thorn in the anime. Although there are emotional moments in those scenes, they take the chess game technique to the extreme. They become more about Lelouch’s genius rather than the characters. Imagine JoJo but with giant robots. JoJo was nice, but its storytelling was built for shallow stories driven by excitement. Here, the storytelling always aims for something deeper. If the robots had a cool look to them, then fine. The designers went full lazy and just had gigantic hulks of metal with arms and legs. None of the imagination that fuels the character design (A character who appears for a barely a minute looks better than most anime characters) reaches them.

Contrast this anime with Future Diary. It’s another overly ambitious anime with so much going on it couldn’t flesh it all out. When Future Diary tackles an idea, it does so with full conviction. It may need more length, but when it’s about comedy it’s all about comedy. When it’s horror, it’s all horror. More importantly, Future Diary wasn’t about build-up but about arcs. Each arc had its own style. All of the elements in Geass aren’t spread evenly but crammed together into one gigantic arc that builds up to a huge climax. There is very little resolution in this anime. Some may enjoy the cliffhangers, the ‘what’ll happen next?’ but that’s boring. The most exciting anime are those that are exciting because what’s happening, in the present tense. They’ll keep you coming back.

Code Geass fails only because what it set out to do is be the best anime ever. It’s overall a good show with a dynamic story and a wide cast, each with their own point of view. Although it slips often to cheap thriller mode, the characters’ personality dominate it more than conventions. Even if it’s not the best anime ever, most creators can’t even attempt something this ambitious.

3 sexy homosapiens out of 5

Shinsekai Yori (From the New World)

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This is a story where the antagonists are the main characters. Either that, or it flips up the romanticized notion of revolution. Wouldn’t it be awesome to just go guns ablazing into Washington DC? Wouldn’t it be fun to kill all the powerful people that dehumanize us, make us work in low wages and study in their jails called schools? Only we forget powerful people also bleed. Beautiful people suffer from rape, and famous actors develop anorexia.

If only we could change.

Our relationship with beauty is odd. Although political bands make money off hating rich people, beautiful people may have more power. That’s thanks to the Halo Effect. If we perceive a good quality in a person, it makes all other qualities look better and the bad qualities look a little worse. Throughout the anime, we see a bunch of pretty kids/teenagers do their stuff. They fall in love, they have a lot of sex and they have fun out in nature.

Compare them to the queerats. It’s not that they don’t look human. They look ugly. They’re desexualized, have rough voices and do manual work. Surely, such stupid and ugly creatures deserve their place. When hundreds of people die, we can’t help but despise them. It’s not like the people of the villages are evil. They’re perfect, stick-thin intelligent people who care for the order of society.

“but they all forget somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets” – BioShock.

The anime is, at its heart, about power imbalance. Its way of exploring this idea is by deliberately making the powerful people sympathetic and appealing. There are two reasons for this. Evil people don’t really exist. There’s a coherent theory behind the oppression of the queerats. Also that often we won’t rise up against powerful people because we love them. It’s easy to hate the rich fat dude, but what if it was a beautiful women who enslaved people or send them to the gas chambers?

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The faction you side with tells a lot about your preferences. The story is the basic old tale of the oppressed rising against their oppressors. If you’re siding with the villages, then maybe justice isn’t in your priorities. The villages are more appealing, more like how we want to be. If you side with them, you just might be a victim of the Halo Effect.

If you hate the humans and relish all the death and destruction, then you also missed another point. There’s no difference between dehumanizing people for being powerful and dehumanizing them for being ugly. The anime makes the villains appealing both to reveal how the Halo Effect can make forgive terrible things, but also how people who do terrible things have their reasons for doing so.

Underneath all these philosophies of power there’s also an emotionally engrossing sci-fi story. Shinsekai Yori is a great argument for how sci-fi can be about human relationships and drama, not just showing off about possible technologies. Sci-Fi isn’t about predicting possible technologies – how a car works isn’t a story. It’s about how our society might look like if a certain technology emerges.

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It’s about what would happen if we’d become too powerful for our own good. If I were an expert in Japanese culture, I’d say there are parallels to the atomic bomb. The Cantus is a genetic mutation that gives human beings ridiculous amounts of power, but you can replace it with any possible mutations – super-strength, super-intelligence – that will cause a power imbalance.

Every human in the villages is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Despite the peaceful exterior, danger is ever-present. It can coming from inside – one of us loses their mind and goes berserk. It can also come from above. The masters can take you away because they consider you a danger.

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We humans have a hard time building an honest society. We feed our children a lot of things they later have to unlearn – there’s no tooth fairy, the people in TV aren’t your friends and schools don’t teach you anything. The ‘growing up’ the kids do is realizing that the world isn’t peaceful and cannot be. The Cantus is part of human nature. Reality is hostile from every direction – your servants can rise up, one of you can go berserk and someone from above can erase you from reality. You learn similar lessons when you grow up – the job market is cruel and being a programmer isn’t enough, rapists can be sexy and you might get sent off to war.

Like any other organism, we’re constantly trying to remake the environment in our own image. By constructing a peaceful environment, we could ensure our survival. Utopian fiction often portrays these environments as a jungle of machinery and wires. So the main lesson we learn is that technology is evil, savages are noble and we all should be one with nature. The villages are ‘one with nature’. Technology hardly exists there yet the world is still hostile. Cantus isn’t just a genetic mutations. It’s a physical manifestation of the power we hold over each other. Organisms by nature are dangerous. No amount of sex or being one with nature or creating a class of ugly people can solve it.

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Shinsekai Yori is so good that talking about the technical side is pointless. It’s fantastic in how it explores its themes and anime like this are why I put so much effort into writing reviews in the first place. Every year a thousand works of fiction come out, and books or live-action movies may seem more mature but I doubt many come close to the lows of this anime. It’s at once simple, emotionally engrossing and explores its themes to the fullest. There isn’t a reason for anyone to skip this.

If only we could change.

4.5 Queerats 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

 

Kemono no Souja Erin (Beast Trainer Erin)

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It’s a curious thing. Good stories tend to come when the creators know their limits and strengths. You cover up your weaknesses and emphasizes your strengths. Some stories know their weak point and still find a way to get around them. Erin is an anime that’s often focused on its weak parts, yet aside from a weak patch in the middle it’s fantastic.

The strength and weakness is in Erin herself. She’s not a psychological portrait but a mythic one. The whole story is, in fact, more mythic than psychological. Characters aren’t complex or odd, but have very specific role they fill.

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It can sound limiting, but it’s not. Giving your characters a certain role gives you focus. Since the series never pretends to be a deep psychological examination of these roles, they manage to breathe life into them in other ways. Sometimes, two characters have the same role but act on it differently. Jone and Esal are two very different kind of teachers.

These aren’t roles that limit characters. They are never moral ones, of villains and heroes. They give them agency and define who they are. The story is often more than about Erin. There are many episodes in which she barely appears. Other characters star them and their viewpoint is explored.

Excluding one power-hungry villain that only reveals himself in the end, Erin is a series full of shades of grey. Almost any character that is introduced as villainous is immidiately revealed have a logical viewpoint. Even when their intentions still side against Erin, the anime expects us to understand them. This goes further than grey morality. Erin is clearly a moral hero, yet we’re expected to understand her enemies.

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As for Erin, she’s a great example of how a moral hero should be. She’s not defined by her morality. Her moral behavior comes from somewhere, specifically her fascination with nature which her mother gave her.

This is also where the series, despite not being psychological manages to accurately display what growing up is. Like any good story for children, it deals with the themes of childhood. Erin has the natural curiosity of a child. The difference between her and others is that her mother encourages it. As Erin grows up and meets more mentors, they keep on encouraging it rather than discouraging for some bizarre reasons that create the contemporary education system.

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When Erin starts to display extraordinary abilities, it’s not a case of Mary Sue-ness. Erin is a moral hero who represents curiosity, and curiosity naturally leads us to develop our skills. Curiosity is also what what makes us reach towards others and understand them.

That’s its answer to the main conflict. The show doesn’t have a central theme but it builds towards an epic climax that’s expressive, rather than a placeholder. The central conflict between the two populations is simple. It doesn’t rival the complexity of real life conflicts and it doesn’t have to.

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Political ‘intrigue’ is often a crutch authors rely on, killing characters off to surprise (Game of Thrones still suck). The root of many conflicts is in disagreements, and violence is what we use when we don’t try or think we can reach out to the other side.

As the best episode displays, it’s easy to love one another when you agree with that person. It’s harder to still love them they take a separate path from yours. The episode that chronicles this divide between two brothers is easily the best one of the show.

While the lack of a central theme and psychological exploration don’t harm the series, they do take its toll on the middle part. It’s almost neglectful of a traumatic experience and the pace grinds into a halt.

It doesn’t replicate the serenity of Mushishi. The view of the natural world is different. Rather, the show gets stuck, recycling the same ideas (Erin’s curiosity) and adding characters who only become fleshed out later on. There are worthwhile moments there, but about 8 episodes could have been cut.

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There’s also the odd technique of repeated flashbacks. While some are well-placed, showing them over and over first makes them lose their impact. Then it comes off as lazy and just trying to kill time. The big traumatic event’s repetition is especially bad. Since the series isn’t psychological, the flashbacks don’t make sense and they just make it lose its impact. That said, when they do return in the last arcs of the series they retain their impact.

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The series also teases too much in these episodes about characters who become fleshed out later. Since the series is static during that section, it’s not a slow build-up. Rather, the series feels shy at throwing itself at something greater. What’s weird is that anytime it does become ambitious are fantastic. Nearly every dramatic moment is powerful regardless of Erin’s age. The line “Don’t harm these people with the same hands that can play such a beautiful song” is more profound than any time with realistic design and adult characters wearing suits.

The art style is excellent and beautiful. It’s ‘childish’, but in a good way. There is a simplicity and elegance to it like a children’s drawing. The backgrounds are where the series does it best. They often have a sketchy look to them, relying more on basic shapes and colors to create an atmosphere. It’s not chaotic, though. The sketchiness creates a bare background which fits with the sombre atmosphere. When the series gets dark, it stands in contrast.

 

Erin doesn’t justify its length. It lags in the middle and has too many repeating flashbacks. The varied cast also don’t the development they clearly can. While these flaws can make it tedious at times, the improvement at the second half saves it. From then on, as an example of how deep and emotionally engrossing children’s stories can be it’s perfect. It may focus on a single heroine, but it’s a world of shades of grey, with only one truly villainous character who has a purpose anyway. It fell off the radar because it’s not immediate, but it’s worth pushing through its weak parts. At its best, it’s almost the best anime ever.

4 lizards out of 5