Kuuchu Burnako (Flying Trapeze)

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Often you’ll hear how being unique isn’t enough to make a good anime. That’s not entirely true, since being unique is overall a good trait. Why would you want to sit in front of a screen, watching the same thing over and over? What these people do get right is that mere uniqueness isn’t enough. Although in the end, all great works of art are unique and highly original, not all original works are great works. That’s because true greatness which comes from true uniqueness isn’t just a unique art style or a cool storytelling method, but a thematic depth.

All the problems with this anime are in this sector. It’s eccentric and utterly bizarre. Better anime don’t break their conventions like this, but in the end it’s all just quirks and a unique style that don’t reach any profound conclusion. As an aesthetic experience, it’s awesome with how wacky it is. As for its narrative, it’s just there.

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The narrative is fairly empty and the symbols, while cool, don’t mean anything. Having a psychiatrist and people with psychological disorders isn’t an automatic ticket for actual character psychology. The anime mistakes exaggeration for madness, like a 16-year-old kid who thinks a Facebook cover photo with blood shows how ‘crazy’ they are.

The anime deals with the old notion of ‘crazy’, something that I think the mental health institutions abandoned even before Thomas Szasz took an axe to their heads. Here characters don’t struggle daily with a disorder. The problem isn’t present in every fabric of their existence but, rather, explodes out of nowhere. Most of these characters lead normal lives until something triggers them.

Now, it’s true that a lot of mentally ill people function day-to-day, interact with people and buy eggplants without causing a massacre. Notice how their normality is only something we experience. They don’t. Someone who is suicidal (A major problem that the series oddly avoids) is always suicidal. Some days it hurts less, some days it hurts more. However, the normality is only an external thing.

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Inside, everything pushes him towards death. For the depressed person, every thing demands extra effort and the question of ‘why go on?’ is always present. That’s why mental illness is such a problematic thing and a lot of philosophers had to step in to redefine it. Mental illness is not a wound, it’s not a specific area of the body we can target and diagnose and seperate. Mental illness is an integral part of being. Depression isn’t a distortion of reality but a part of someone’s personal reality.

The characters here aren’t even reduced to their mental illness. They’re reduced to their onsets. Although we see them do ordinary stuff like jobs and family, we rarely get insight into how they exist with this. It’s all just build-up until the dude panics over not being sure if the stove is on. This prevents the show from having any serious psychology. In order for it to be truly psychological, it needs to present these people as whole human beings and it needs to show how the illness relates to the whole.

In truth, these aren’t really characters. Their disorder defines them more than anything. Most of the differences between them comes from that. The show belongs to the tradition of a main character who’s a vessel for other stories. In general these type of anime have a cool style and an empty narrative. It’s not just because there is no major conclusion – although it tries for something sappy like how we need to listen to others. Their problems are also very illness-orientated.

If mental illness was so exaggerated and obvious, we would’ve had an easier time dealing with it. We don’t. The problems these characters face tend to be only their illness. How it relates to other problems is unclear. Sure, it disrupts their day-to-day life but that’s not enough. How does it affect sexuality, social interactions, worldviews? The series loves to portray extras as cardboard, but in truth no one is cardboard for people. Our ilness and these passerbys are part of our lives. The anime treats mental problems like an obvious wound.

It doesn’t help that most of the stories involve OCD. I’m sure it’s a common disorder, but where’s schizophrenia, depression, bipolar? Perhaps because OCD is far easier to exaggerate. It has onsets, things that are easy to transmit visually. Depression is harder since depression is everywhere, showing itself in every action and relates to a person’s inner life. You have to show a worldview in order to portray depression. That’s why its status as an illness is such a problematic issue. Eventually, all these people with OCD blur into one another. The only thing that changes is how it works.

When a different illness comes, they fail to show its psychology. A person’s narcissism ends up being monotonous. The big problem isn’t narcissism, but a dude who can’t stop smiling. The whole agony of living in the past, in glory days that are never to return and trying desperately to re-create them isn’t there. Rather, it’s just a person repeating his shtick over and over. It’s an excellent example of how they take a serious issue and reduce it to a single symbol, stripping it of any depth.

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The surrealistic, bizarre art and storytelling also leads to an air of self-satisfaction. It’s not as bad as it looks from the outside, but it’s there. Nothing is particularly funny about these jokes, since they don’t point to any absurdity and hardly a taboo. So the psychiatrist gets off on vitamin shots. That’s kind of odd and amusing, but not out of place. Early on the anime establishes how wacky it is with these colors, so this is fairly ordinary. Irabu is also not really funny, just quirky and high-pitched. There’s also a sexy nurse who thankfully has little screen time. Her role is mainly to inform the viewer that the makers are totally fine with ultra-sexy yet placid women, some pathetic symbol of ‘sexual strength’. I don’t know. Nothing about her is interesting, including breaking into live-action. Overall, the series sets itself up as weird, but can’t ever up the weirdness.

It’s not all bad though. In fact, in its format, the anime is quite excellent. It’s the old format of a single main character whose a narrative device to show the lives of various characters, like Kino’s Journey or Mushishi and it does it so much better.

First off, merely dealing with mental disorders – an integral part of the experience of being – gives these stories a more emotional, personal angle. Already here it lifts itself up above the aforementioned anime. Unlike them, there is some sort of humanity here. It’s exaggerated, caricature-esque and shallow but it exists. The main driving symbol has a far more personal nature so the stories are by their nature more emotionally engrossing. The distance that harmed Mushishi is mostly absent.

There’s also concern and empathy for these characters. For all its exaggeration, the series has some awareness that underneath it all there should be humanity. The tone is not mocking, something that the aesthetics and the ultrasexy nurse hint at. Rather, it’s empathetic towards these little lost humans and their madness. Episodes don’t end with a complete return to normality, but with a way to cope with the madness.

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It’s this vibe and demeanor that prevents the anime from being only an exercise in aesthetics. There is a clear meaning underneath some of these symbols, like how cardboard-like people merely means these aren’t important characters. The mental conditions are caricatures, but at least they make sense – extreme worry is a problem. Even if the series isolates these parts, it does fit with the style. In a way, the series never pretends to actually be psychological. From the start it’s concerned more with flash than substance, but it has just enough substance and humanity to prevent it from being vapid.

As for its aesthetics though, they’re fantastic. It’s true there isn’t an anime quite like this one. You might compare its surreal style to Tatami Galaxy, but that one had an overbearing, total aesthetic. Here they take a realistic art style and utterly distort it, creating a weird clash of realism and cartoon. The storytelling is knowingly expressive, so much so that sometimes things don’t have meaning. There are polka dots everywhere, but then again why not? It’s self-awareness which doesn’t try to be clever. Knowing that none of it is real, they let themselves go with wacky, memorable images. It’s a style weird enough to hold on for 12 episodes even if there isn’t much variety among them.

Utterly bizarre and original, yet its lack of depth prevent it from being one of the greats. It had the premise and the aesthetic boldness, but it’s also satisfied in just being fun. Often we talk about how ‘just fun’ shows need to be unoriginal, yet this anime demonstrates you can have fun without aiming too high. Set expectations about how mind-blowing this is, and you’ll be disappointed. This is just another in the long line of episodic anime with a wide cast, but its one-of-a-kind style breathes life to the format.

3 crazies out of 5

Kaiba

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Great works of art are not easy to review. They are not common like the cesspool of bad art. Bad art is easy to deconstruct, to show how pathetically horrible they are. “So bad it’s good” exists because these works are so bizarre, so extraordinary that they become unique. Bad art is never unique its badness. In contrast, great works of art always end up redefining what ‘good’ is, so any review of a masterpiece will never be analytical and conclusive. It always end up chasing something that we can only grasp a piece of, like a poet looking at a beautiful line he wrote and knowing he can never write a worthy poem of it.

Kaiba is one of those artworks. I say it deliberately. Judgment of it is not confined to anime. It transcends media, reaches something so deeply human and awe-inspiring that it becomes a part of you. Do not expect a rational explanation of why this anime is better than pretty much anything. If we understood completely why it’s so good, we’d have masterpiece dropping from the skies. I can try, though.

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The key to understanding Kaiba is understanding how it tells a story, specifically how it takes advantage of the personal nature of fiction. All art, including fiction, is personal. It is a product of human thought, a translation of your entire Being – your experiences, philosophy, unconscious, passions – into some kind of experience that another being can take on. Kaiba is a ridiculously expressive work. Every scene is imbued with emotion. Every object says something about what it represents. It’s so emotionally draining because of that.

Memory is the big topic, but Kaiba isn’t just about memory. In a cliched way, it’s existentialist, asking what we are. Its answer is memories, but memories are also information. The anime explores this intersection of information that defines us. Notice the symbols. When memory isn’t converted to information, it is organic and free – it is lifelike memory eggs. These are also tiny, fragile and fleeting. The memories float away and are easily lost.

The roe is us, so they use to show how tiny we are when death strikes. When a character dies, their bodies become liquid and vanish completely. The ‘self’ becomes just a bunch of yellow pieces floating way. It expresses the loss of death, how death completely erase us and we become nothing. The memory chip – a drill-like thing – can also die so easily, if it’s lost it’s gone forever. Sure, we can try to capture those roe or to protect the chip, but it’s so difficult. It’s an expression of how fragile we are.

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Yet converting ourselves into information makes us so much easier to control, and easier for us to control others. Altering other people’s memories is a sci-fi trope, but this anime is concerned with how it affects everyone, how it affects our personal lives. We see the small results of this – how erasing someone’s childhood erases who they are and they end up becoming nothing but a memory. How this power to change personal reality blurs into thinking we can change reality itself – a direct link to megalomania and tyranny.

Our memories are our personality. Once we control them, edit them, change them all lines break down. The world of Kaiba looks funny by design, but that’s because how the people experience it. People can also put their memories into a whole new body. In one episode this results in a world where bodies are manufactured like clothes. Its reality is grotesque, a mass of weird shapes that’s disorientating. Somehow we ended up creating a more chaotic reality than nature.

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Leaning towards a socioeconomic critique of society, the anime shows a world in which memories – selves – become products. So a character sells her own body with hopes that her memory will be kept. Selves are no longer precious. This society isn’t painted with strokes of black to show you how evil rich people are. Rather, to illustrate the chaos of it, we see selling your own body and putting yourself in a chip is no guarantee. You’re relinquishing control of yourself, your grip on the world.

Yet this ‘information’ is never just ‘information’. Consciousness was the result of accumalating all these pieces of data and connecting them. So we’re never really dead, and using memories this way is using people as objects. The anime is deeply concerned with living things. In a gallery of memories, the people who own these memories cry out to be released.

Everyone’s concerns are always personal. Although the characters are simple, they have motivation and a humanity. A sheriff who really wants a girl at first seems like a greedy bastard, but he’s a person. That’s his wants, and when we see this want doesn’t make him just an asshole but a good person we’re encouraged to sympathize with him. In the end, he’s a ‘human’ being – with people he loves, things he wants, and dreams lost when death comes.

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Although there are antagonists, the series always reminds us that they’re people in the most simple way. People want power, but not because they’re evil. They want it because they’re human beings, so we see the ringleader of the resistance crumbling to tears when he realizes what he’s done. He had to erase memories that painted him in a bad light, but the result was losing a friend.

This anime is in the end about treasuring people. The idea of memory is just a tool to show us how we can lose people, no matter how hard we work to keep them. We put their identity, their whole being in a chip but then that chip is lost. We sell a loved one’s body, hoping the salesman will keep the information in a chip. A friend blocks our ambition, so we erase some memories only to realize the whole person is gone. Eventually this anime reaches an important conclusion about being – we need each other, we’re social animals, power doens’t make up for it.

The castle of Warp is a lonely place. The only person he has is an all-seeing robot. He’s not happy and the only thing he can talk about are who to execute. He may be the king of memories, but these are his own memories. What good are they? In a beautiful scene Popo and the resistance at the palace, and it has a huge opening to a black void. That’s the height of power to you, a lonely high place looking out into nothing. The only thing that’s there are themselves, yet they’re craving control.

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The romance between Neiro and Kaiba isn’t a symbol for romance, but what’s really important – connection. Even during oppression, they found something of their own, a precious shared memory that’s enough. Separate yourself from the struggle for power. The privileges of the rich to put themselves in memory chips and live forever aren’t that worthwhile in the end. Every world touched by this is grotesque, people are lost yet they are still people.

You cannot talk about the art without mentioning the Neverhood, which seems like a direct inspiration for the anime. Both endings and beginning borrow from it. It opens with a man seeing an unknown, bizarre world. The ending includes a darker version of the hero and a gigantic, self-sacrificing robot. Like the Neverhood, the design is cartoonish, nonsensical and imbued with meaning and emotions. Look at the planet where the only thing that matters is the story of two old people. The planet itself is nothing but their tower. The underworld is almost colorless – but almost, since it still has some life in it. The club is colorful and weird but has a dominating shade of purple – a disorientating effect. Vanilla looks like what we expect from an asshole with the fat belly and aggressive face (Only his character later proves to be more). There is even a creature who flies by a propeller and doesn’t speak – like the sidekick from old video games. It’s as unrealistic as you get, but no scene is without emotional overtones just like life – and that makes it far closer to reality than anything else.

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Likewise the soundtrack couldn’t be better, a collection of gentle electronic sounds. It fits with the slightly childish designs, but it has the same fragility of the world. A lot of it sounds like Boards of Canada, only it takes it to less nostalgic tones. The soundtrack mostly expresses a reflective, introspective atmosphere, one of both awe and terror. Some tracks are colder and harsher that reminds us that this world is still harsh, a world where selves can be sold. Some tracks have beautiful, intimate melodies to go along with the theme of connection.

There is no other anime like Kaiba, an anime so expressive, where every shot is charged with emotion, wonder, terror and humanity. ‘Depth’ isn’t the right word. It’s not an intellectual, symbolic exercise like Paranoia Agent or a psychological exploration like Digimon Tamers yet it’s somehow better than these two. Perhaps because it takes anime to the origin of art – the expression, not explanation, of human experience. Nothing I could write would do this anime justice.

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

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

Serial Experiments Lain

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I don’t get it. Maybe this is just a relic from a time before we talked about the Singularity and before the internet.

The anime clearly strives for something. It has a lot of philosophical quotes. Characters say things like “what isn’t remembered never happened”. There is typography on the screen, references to Roswell and Jung and the theme of ‘identity’ (Why do I always roll eyes when I see this?).

Now, it’s not just a collection of anime-style drawings stuck together in a pretentious and unbearable form. Lain doesn’t just copy the form of ‘intelligent’ storytelling. There is always a drive behind it. It feels more like the writers have a lot to ask and to say. They’re so excited by it that they will use all these techniques with hope of transmitting it to the viewer.

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Too bad it never really gels. It asks questions about identity, but how? How is having different versions of Lain automatically question the theme of ‘identity’? Couldn’t they think of a less predictable and perhaps more meaningful way to do it?

It’s almost as if the themes are expressed and name-dropped, but not actually demonstrated. Having people mention God and omniscience doesn’t mean you explore the theme of theology. You need to show how it affects characters’ lives and perception of reality. You need to show what effects such a God would have if it existed.

It’s not enough to just have characters with multiple identities. You need this to blend into the story. You need this to be a meaningful story element first of all. Themes shouldn’t just be talked about. You need moments that demonstrate the effect of these ideas. Only complete morons think philosophy is solely for discussions. We constantly act on our philosophies.

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This attitude towards philosophy is perhaps what fuels the anime, and what ruins it. It’s a shame because there’s more drive than pretense, more desire to explore than to look smart. Lain never feels like more than an armchair exercise, a ‘what if?’ thought experiment that has profound words but lacking conclusions.

Often, there are moments that point to a brilliant anime. The anime isn’t a monochrome grimdark piece of crap. Even if the mood is generally gloomy, it’s not afraid of showing the sun or the occasional smile. Its setting is believable enough psychologically. It also has a clear aesthetics and knows how to express it. Still shots of wires appear often, but ever enough to become distracting. They add some atmosphere and go away. Artificial light also gets a lot of focus, but never too much. Plenty of times, it’s just another element in the show. Unlike its little brother Texhnolyze, the anime’s scenes always have more than one purpose.

Its sense of style saves what could’ve been hilariously bad scenes. There are almost whole episodes dedicated to info dumps about certain topics. They’re entertaining though. The combination of imagery with the electronic soundtrack fits the mood. Since exchanging information is a big theme, this technique of info dumps actually fits themetically too.

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This sort of ‘experimental narrative’ isn’t too original if you watched a film like Pi or Eraserhead, but the creators know it’s not enough. You need to do more than just rip off the conventional story structure. So by replacing it with odd imagery that’s always loaded, the anime is amusing enough. It never just tells you how it intelligent it is. It tries to make you involved in the imagery, in its meaning and emotional implication.

All this effort is wasted, though. In the end, the story is too divorced from reality. It gets lost in its experimental narrative and weird imagery. It’s as if I was too busy figuring out what’s going on, what it expresses. It was too distant. It was too experimental, as if I’m busy figuring out the anime rather than thinking about the themes. I’m not interested in pounding my head to understand a cryptic philosophical quote. I want a statement so profound I could connect it logically to a hundred subjects. Crypticness isn’t profound. A wide-eyed approach is.

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I can imagine this story working if only the creators scaled back a bit. Have a little more dialogue. Have a little more exposition. Tone down the weird imagery a little. Focus on asking whether the ideas are clear, and less on weirding the audience out. Think, first of all, why theology and identity and communication matters. Only then set out to explore them. If you can’t convince me the theme is important in the first place, I’m not interested in thinking about it.

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Of course, I’m not writing it off as just a bunch of pretentious dudes patting themselves on the back. It’s a, well, failed experiment. It kept me curious enough that I enjoyed it even while being utterly confused. It does have a conclusion that ties it together. It has a purpose, but I wasn’t sure what it is. Hopefully someday I’ll know.

It’s better than Texhnolyze, at least.

Post-Script: This review has been written a long time ago and I’ve been wary of publishing it. The anime isn’t confusing in the traditional, ‘I don’t know what’s happening so it’s good!’ way. It’s too stylish for me to write it off as pretentious doodle, but it’s too abstract to explore its themes in a satisfying manner.

I’m reminded of abstract stories like Paranoia Agent and Pi. These stories relied more on meaningful scenes than coherent storytelling, but exploring their ideas was their primary focus. They never get unnecessarily weird. It’s easy to follow the abstract parts because the themes are established and followed. Lain dives headfirst into the surrealism with so much conviction, it’s as if the excitement over being experimental overtakes the desire to explore ideas.

I consider this my most inconclusive review so far. I’ll need to watch this again soon to determine whether it’s just pretentious doohicky or if it really went over my head.

3 boxes of cereal out of 5

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