Welcome to the NHK! (NHK ni Youkoso!)

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Here it is, people. This is no hyperbole. NHK is the worst anime of all time. It is one of the worst pieces of media you can conjure. A reality show about the Kardashians must be better than this. Pathetic YouTube parodies are better than this. In order to make something worse than this, you’ll need to let Ian Watkins brag about his pedophilia in the Lostprophets album that was never made.

There is no correlation between artistic quality and morality, as Lostprophets have displayed. Yet, you have to wonder what kind of awful person would subject the world to this. Worse, what kind of person would make an anime whose purpose is to make fun of anime watchers? Imagine if your ordinary school bully made an anime. There is so much wrong that I want to rant about it, shoot up heroin and watch Texhnolyze. That one was also bad, but it looks like a better version of Digimon Tamers over this, and Digimon Tamers is already brilliant.

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I’m not sure where to start with this mess, so let’s get with the art style. Art style is important. If not, you wouldn’t use a visual medium. Why, then, are the artists so unimaginative? Something makes me worry it’s on purpose, like those East Coast rappers who are so afraid of sounding ‘not real’ their beats barely have a drum. Everyone in this series is black haired and has no distinct facial features.

This may sound realistic, only it isn’t. People in real life actually look distinct. Even if you eschew wacky hairdos, your characters must not look like they came out of the assembly line. There are no odd touches to the hairstyle, different body structures, or an arrangement of facial features that stick out. In fact, the artists are so unimaginative that they can’t come up with a basic sexy design. Our main characters work on an eroge, and the design they come up with can barely touch the most obscure visual novels. Even when they could use anything in the artist’s arsenal – twintails split into 4, floating hair, purple lips – they still end up with a dull design. It’s worse than visual novels that have ‘same face, different hair syndrome’ because at least Da Capo’s girls have pretty hair.

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Everyone in this show is also fit and quite hot, despite being hikkies. Satou spent days in his room doing nothing (literally nothing, he’s not aware of the existence of porn). He doesn’t cook for himself and drinks a lot of beer. If you expected an overweight dude who looks like George Martin, you’re bound for disappointment. Satou looks more like Brad Pitt in his Fight Club era with a shirt on and a less aggressive stare. If these guys opted for anything realistic, we would’ve seen the consequences of isolation on Satou’s body. Instead, he looks like a side-character from Free!.

As for the story itself, don’t expect any understanding of what pushes people to be hikkies. Don’t expect a deep, dynamic psychology that reacts to the environment and is an active agent in the story. Any comparisons to WataMote are null, since this is the complete opposite. Tomoko struggled. She was lonely but she had to act and do things. We saw her failures, saw her difficulty and it made it so dark. What Tomoko goes through is our every social awkwardness, only every day.

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Satou doesn’t really have to struggle. In fact, he’s not much of a character at all. He has no desires, no life outside the story. He exists so others could pop at his door and force him to get help. It’s not much of a struggle if all you do is react to situations. Sure, it’s not enough to just be offered sex. You also have to go through the dilemma whether to say yes or no to that.

These are two different struggles. One man struggles with getting something, the other is being offered something and needs to accept it or reject it. The creators aren’t aware of the difference. They don’t know how to let a character drive a story, so they offer external conflicts he has to solve. The dilemma of whether to choose yes or no is hardly there, because the anime relies on events and not characters. If Satou chooses ‘no’, nothing actually happens. He doesn’t have a personality to move on from that ‘no’.

Satou, as a character, isn’t an exaggeration. He’s inconsistent. Despite spending years locked in his room, he doesn’t know anything about video games or internet porn or, well, anything. Keep in mind Satou isn’t an Unabomber-style hermit. Hikkies tend to have a hobby that keeps them in the house. Satou should’ve done something during all this time, should’ve gained some knowledge even if it’s only about non-canonical Star Wars planets. He’s completely ignorant of culture that it’s most likely he spent the entire time staring at a wall.

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That’s not impossible, but shouldn’t such a person be affected with a major disorder? Shouldn’t that disorder affect every aspect of their life? Socially, Satou is perfectly fine. Whereas Tomoko struggles every second, Satou is relatively confident. The only time social weakness rears its head is when the creators need him to scream for comic effect. Oh look, a hikkie yelled bullshit and emberassed himself! That’s some high-class humor!

The anime isn’t really about the pains of being a shut-in. The conflict is solved in a few minutes around episode 23 – no psychology, no development. Suddenly there’s a problem, so Satou walks out and he’s no longer a hikkie. Rather, it’s about the joys of conformity, how the world is a beautiful, welcoming place and you all should stop watching perverted anime and get in line. That’s ironic, coming from a country where people ‘conformed’ and let the military run the Rape of Nanking and Unit 731.

The ‘highlight’, if you can call it that, is the anime’s treatment of suicide. The idea life may not be worth living crosses the mind of the creators for no more than 5 seconds. Except for a brief moment, the creators go hammer about how irrational it is. The people in question have their reasons, but it’s pushed aside using ‘irrationality. At the end of the arc, some dude goes hammer about how their suicide will harm others and so they should stop. What an original argument. All of the philosophy behind is being shattered to pieces the size of the atom. Too bad the logic that fuels it can also be used to coerce people into rape, but better shut up before the thought police come.

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Darkness does exist in this anime, but it’s either skimmed over or played for laughs. Misaki’s and Yamazaki’s darker sides exist, but Misaki’s is barely allowed to surface. By the time it does, it reaches its expiration date and Misaki is the redemption. Her dark side never truly hurts Satou. The monologue that supposedly exposes her is to exaggerated, too comical to be a true confession. Like any other piece of darkness, it’s more funny and has zero insight.

Black comedy shouldn’t just have unpleasant topics. It should illuminate them. If you’re going to laugh about sensitive subjects, you need to do more than be funny. So WataMote put us in Tomoko’s shoes, dissecting her failures into little details, showing the absurdity and the pain. Even Borderlands takes violence seriously. Some of it is commentary on how lightly we take violence. By shocking us with how casually the characters treat violence, it gives us a mirror.

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Yamazaki is a lonely dude who’s inept with women. You don’t see his failures, or the pain of rejection. You see him spit monologues about how awesome 2D girls are. It’s quirky, funny and makes you feel good about yourself that you’re not such a loser. Satou’s inner monologues aren’t unhinged enough to show a mental instability, but also not coherent enough to show deep thought behind them. It’s funny that he ‘hallucinates’ weird, Doby-like things. Perhaps the voice actor is to blame. Satou reacts mostly by screaming, but that’s once in a while. In general, he functions well enough.

When they fail, it’s always because they were too weird. The world is mostly benevolent, with the occasional schemer here and there. A few scenes comment on the isolation of the modern world, but it’s always implied the characters brought themselves to this eternal isolation. It’s such an optimistic view, a ‘pull yourself by the bootstraps’ crap people tell others because they think luck doesn’t exist. Characters rarely deal with failure that’s caused not necessarily because they’re to blame, but because that’s how the world works. Things just sometimes don’t work.

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Based on Satou’s situation, he could’ve easily grabbed to Misaki and use her to increase her social skills. As a later character displays, in this world you can do anything if you only try. Said character starves from shutting himself in, so he crawls out and immediately finds a job. What a friendly world that is, where people walk to your door and offer to develop your social skills and where you can apply for any random job and be accepted.

is a ridiculously optimistic anime that refuses to acknowledge the world isn’t a happy happy joy joy place. Characters who feel bad are mocked or written as irrational morons. As we know, everyday other people walk to others’ doors and offer help. What? It didn’t happen to you? That’s odd. Perhaps this anime isn’t so realistic. Perhaps what makes something truly unrealistic is not things that cannot happen. Rather, it’s when the meaning underneath the symbols – in this case, the optimism – is completely detached from reality.

0.5 out of 5. I don’t come up with a unique phrase for this crap

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

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

Paranoia Agent

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Bla bla bla this is experimental you won’t know what’s going on it can mean anything therefore it’s brilliant and not stupid like school harem fanservice bla bla

Now let’s get to the actual review

This anime is, first and foremost, about the atomic bomb. It’s also about a bunch of other stuff, mostly actual psychology. By that, I mean the anime is deeply concerned with humans, their emotions and how they view the world. It doesn’t stick philosophical jargon in the dialogue or has trippy imagery in order to insist how important it is. The situations demonstrate ideas, and psychology rears its head in character actions and thoughts.

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We need to talk about the bomb first. The general stort you hear in the West is that America is Big Bad mostly because it’s powerful and has a lot of money (As much as I love Star Wars, people watch it too much). Therefore, if they dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese then the Japanese are automatically innocent. They haven’t done a single bad thing in the war but were hapless victims of humanity’s worst weapon.

Of course, that’s not the actual story. Read about the Rape of Nanking, about Unit 731 and the Kamikaze. Japan was one of the main reasons why that era is humanity’s darkest hour. Thanks to the atom bomb, though, Japan could feel like a victim for a while. Victims don’t bear responsbility. They’re passive. Things are being done to them. The atom bomb saved Japan from the position of villain they might’ve been placed in once Unit 731 and Rape of Nanking were exposed to the world. Sure, you can buy books about these subjects but what do you hear about more – the Holocaust or these incidents? Germany was the loser, but Japan was the victim.

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Shonen Bat and his victims mirror this. Notice how American-looking Shonen Bat is. The baseball bat is a distinctively American symbol, belonging to the country’s most beloved sport. The manner of his dress – the hat, the hoodie is also more common in American than Japan. Furthermore, he has a peace sign on his hat (which was originally the anti-nuclear symbol). How he acts is by targeting people who are cornered, some innocent and some are not. By beating them up, they become victims. He releases them from that stressful position, whether it is being a bully, juggling identities or a big debt. Oh, and his name is very similar to ‘Little Boy’.

Maromi symbolizes Japan’s obsession with cuteness. Many took it as a criticism of that. Supposedely after the war the Japanese escaped to these cute cartoons and figures. They rely on them for solace and escapsim. Its type of cuteness is called ‘yurui’, which tends to mean bumbling and mild. Japan was turned into ‘yurui’ after being devastated by the war. All the people who got beat up become like this. They become passive, smiling, mild and without much content. They vanish after Shonen Bat releases them from their victimhood.

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Maromi isn’t a total rejection of that aesthetic. In the last episode Maromi fights Shonen Bat. Maromi represents hope. It may be false one, but it’s some kind of hope. He came from a pet dog. Shonen Bat, on the other hand, is a weapon whose purpose is total erasure. These are two different things.

Cuteness isn’t just an escape. It’s a total rejection of war and its stomping aggression. The problem isn’t in cuteness itself but how it becomes a slave to the technological aggression. By that, I don’t mean that Paranoia Agent is luddite and that it takes an anti-technological, nature-only stance.

It does take a look at how a deeply technological society, how humans’ attempts to build their own worlds cause isolation. The show opens with dozens of people rejecting others using their phone. The origins of Maromi are in the death of a dog by a car – a device integral for big city life. The work and school complexes put big pressure on their subjects. A failure at work doesn’t get help in improving himself, but his superiors constantly bully him instead of letting him go. A kid who’s used to being number one can’t imagine being anything else. The atom bomb wouldn’t be possible without a huge military complex.

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It’s not impossible to use technology and cuteness for connection. The only people Shonen Bat rejects are a group of suicidals who meet thanks to the internet. It’s their connection that keeps them from being cornered. The possibility of suicide sets them free, and it gives them a better escape than anything Shonen Bat does. They work for their death and find human connections through it. Everyone else is trapped in systems they can’t exit.

Maromi isn’t free of the work system. It has appropriated him, turned him into another device. Now the people behind Maromi puts tons of pressure on Tsukiko to design another character and for the producers to get the show on time. The people behind the symbol don’t follow its idea. Neither the consumers – they storm the stores, instead of relaxing with the little plushie they have.

Such ideas about the nature of work and how it leads to pressure may promote laziness. The anime doesn’t. Work is necessary, and we do see the police officer who works two jobs so he’ll wife will be okay. Here’s why Shonen Bat doesn’t go after him. Like the suicidal three, the police officer has a way out. He forms connections with both his co-worker and has a wife to come home to.

They say Japan has a high suicide rate and puts a lot of pressure on their students and workers. That doesn’t sound like a culture that follows the ideas in cuteness. If the above statement is true, Japan isn’t one big child. Rather, it’s a man whose had so much pressure put on him that only a state of victimhood can give him escape. It’s not just a mirror to the atom bomb, but how the Japanese culture is too harsh on its subjects and encourages them to be victims.

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The world in Paranoia Agent isn’t full of privileges, with problems existing only in the characters’ heads. It paints the modern world as claustrophobic. Social circles trap you in their gossip. Workplaces beat you when you fail but don’t let you go. Even the glory of being the best is trapping. In a society that has few options, victimhood is a way out. That’s very similar to war. If you can’t win, at least be a victim. It’s better than to lose.

You’ll hear often how weird the anime is, but that’s beside the point. Yes, the anime isn’t exactly linear. It blurs the lines between fantasy and reality in the last episodes. It’s never from a conscious desire to be weird. The anime locks on its themes. By the time episodes with unrelated characters arrive, it doesn’t feel out of place. Since the episodes are connected themetically and progress the ideas, they feel like necessary part. Paranoia Agent doesn’t rip the traditional structure for the sake of it. It has a structure of its own because that’s how it expands on its themes.

is the sort of brilliant narrative that doesn’t just define why anime is a worthy medium. It’s a brilliant piece of hard that’s worth your time regardless of what you like. It may be deeply concerned with the Japanese experience, but the atom bomb is a subject that should touch all of us. We’re talking about the worst weapon in the history of humanity. It also connects this to the universal human experience. Don’t let the tags of ‘experimental’ scare you. It’s accessible as it is brilliant.

5 plushies 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

STARDUST
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

 

 

 

 

 

Big Order

 

Big Order poster
Sakae has a bizarre, messy mind. For all the flaws in Future Diary, it’s a masterpiece. The low points – and there are many – are there because there’s few anime like it. Future Diary had no main tradition to draw from, no main road to follow. A lot of great anime follow clear traditions, building on obvious flaws and emphasizing strengths. Even the abstract Serial Experiments Lain belongs warmly in pre-millenium tension art.

It’s hard to decide whether Future Diary falls more on its good side. Expecting Big Order to fulfill that series’ promise is silly, since there can never be another one like it. If the premise sounds familiar to you, you’ll be disappointed. The structures aren’t similar at all. Still, the little you can expect is that the anime will fail in a spectacular fashion.

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The crucial flaw in Big Order isn’t the lacking characters or the plot. The bad traits of Future Diary are amplified, but at least they have the same energy that one had. The problem is that the core of the anime is generic. Remove the layers, the odd designs, the violence and the messy plot and you’re left with some kind of a battle shounen about saving the world for this one person we love so much because we’re related to them by blood.

I never wanted to say this about a work by Sakae. Big Order is normal. Everything good about is just a cover on a generic story.

The beginning is good enough. The power of Orders is close to be symbolic rather than battle skills. There’s a little exploration about the nature of wills, how our wills are limited and they could even do something the concept of losing loved ones. Two characters get completely different wishes despite losing their family. The conflicting nature of wishes is addressed and by the time the antagonist is revealed, he’s given some time to express himself.

The character design isn’t as expressive, but Sakae still goes wild with it. There’s a nun with bunny ears, a twintailed girl with a flower in hair, two long-haired dudes and a square guy. Everyone wears weird outfits and the design plays with body structure and size. Characters who appear for barely 10 minutes in the whole show get a memorable design.

The highlight of the show is DAISY, a bizarre creation that deserved a better anime or at least a cameo appearance in the revamp of Future Diay, whenever someone gets around to make it. That little touch of having her hang upside down adds a lot. It emphasizes the distance she views humanity from. Although she’s meant to be a fairy who grants wishes, she’s always distant and slightly cynical towards the whole thing. It gets nowhere, but every time she appears she injects some life.

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Oddly enough, the most normal creations in the anime are the main characters. People who wanted a Future Diary copy were disappointed. In fact, it often feels like the anime tries too hard to distance itself from its big sister. Why is that? Future Diary is unique enough to be worth revisiting. If Sakae wants to do something new so much, why is he falling back on cliches?

Yukki/Yuno were deeply flawed human beings. People disliked them for their nature, but they missed the point. They were supposed to be imperfect. Everyone in that series was imperfect, was full of desires and selfishness. This gave them humanity and made it believable at its most surreal. Eiji is a likable guy who only wants to live happy with his sister, but he has no desires, no motivations whatsoever.

He’s responsible for humanity’s worst horror, and that concept of guilt is explored for a while but abandoned. Scenes showing how much everyone hates Eiji are that type of deep moments Sakae can conjure. How everyone gathers around televisions, how they wallow in their hatred for this one person is frightening. Even if he is that horrible, what about this hatred? It’s the cult of anti-personality, and even if you think it doesn’t exist just look at how everyone reacts to Trump or Hitler.

Since Eiji is, at his heart, a generic moral hero who only wants to defend his loved ones this means nothing. His only drive in the series is protecting his sister and the guilt kind of drives him, but was it necessary? He’d want to keep his sister safe even if he didn’t cause a great destruction. We never see the psychological effect of guilt, of knowing everyone hates you. Occasionally there are hints Eiji is actually working alone, but that’s never expanded upon. The whole ‘one man and his sister against the world’ could work even just as a fun show, but it never goes there. The guilt is just another element in the many tired speeches about protecting Sena.

As for her, she’s an object. Everyone cares deeply about her happiness, but why? Her connection to Eiji is only by blood. It’s not that we don’t know how their relationship is. It simply doesn’t exist. Whenever they interact, she’s simply being cute and he’s being nice. If her cuteness was integral, if that charm was emphasized, exaggerated and played with then fine. She’s never portrayed as a character that captures people’s heart. Rather, it’s the lifeless trope of hapless girl who’s convenient to rescue.

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It doesn’t help that the few times we get insight into other characters, it always has to do with protecting loved ones. The Future Diary had the ‘dark past’ cliche, but at least each character had a slightly different past and reacted to it different. Characters may have different Orders, but they all wish they could’ve rescued their friends or family and they don’t gain different conclusions out of the loss.

Loss is one of the worst experiences you can go through. If we all experienced in the same way though, it wouldn’t be so harrowing. Misery loves company, and by listening to how others felt when their parents or friends or spouses died would’ve helped us through. Loss is such a harrowing thing, and how you lose someone affects how you react to it. Big Order only plays with the emotional weight it has. It gives the characters a convenient excuse to do what they do. That’s better than making them plain evil, but it’s not enough to make them wholly human. They’re not given motivations, but batteries in different colors.

The only thing the show has going for it is Sakae’s wild imagination. The little he had left was for wacky set-pieces. There are odd situations and turns all over the anime. Gates open to mental spaces, characters become pregnant by touching their ears, an obstacle course – somewhere here an incredibly fun anime is hiding. But Big Order doesn’t have the conviction Future Diary had.

That one jumped from genre to genre, but it approached each with so much conviction you could create 10 seperate anime out of it. Big Order is more scared of becoming a clone, so it does away with anything resembling Thriller, chucks away most of the romance and piles on the action. There aren’t many tonal shifts and doing away with the death game scenario looks silly with what you have left. If it concludes with people sacrificing themselves to make a non-character happy, what’s the point?

There’s energy and verve here, but Big Order is a mess without directions. Notice the use of plural form. If it was an amalgam of genres that didn’t gel, it would be brave enough to be interesting. Instead, it’s too scared of its big sister. So it pushes forward, one wacky set-piece after another. Without a core, or multiple ones to rely on all it has is cliches. This is a perfect examples of when tropes are a bad thing. The anime uses them only because it has nothing to say, because it’s too afraid to explore its themes and too afraid to pile on the ideas. So yes, there’s a Rock God and a pentagram of some sorts and gates and an upside down fairy, but it’s just another story about protecting the little sister. Try BioShock instead.

2.5 floating girls out of 5