Kino’s Journey (Kino no Tabi)

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This anime is also known as The Good Mushishi. I almost wish it wasn’t so. While that descriptor is true, its existence points out the anime’s shortcomings. For all its imaginative moments, it settles into a pattern early on and never deviates. Even the last episodes which aim for some harrowing ends up slotting nicely without breaking up picture.

It’s almost like reviewing Mushishi all over again, but the bigger scope makes Kino’s Journey better with more apparent flaws. Some anime can make it through with a narrow range of emotions, especially if they’re short. Narrow focus on themes is often the source of fantastic exploration of them. By nature, this anime has a wide scope. It follows a person through various countries, each one dominated by a theme.

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This anime sets itself up to be big no matter what. The stories aren’t small and intimate. They’re more about big issues like war, fate, religion and technology than personal issues. A single character from a country may stick out, but everyone in it are mostly the same person. Such shallow characterization can work, but you need someone to react to this symbolism.

Character’s views and reactions are integral to exploring themes. It’s not enough to just have ‘fear’ or ‘technology’ as a dominating presence in your story. You need to connect it to the human condition. You need to show how it affects the people, how they react to it and live with it. The best stories show us characters in such crises, gain their emotional punch from a meaningful struggle.

Kino is better than Ginko, but she shares more with him and not just a similar name. There are literally less than 5 moments in which some kind of personality is hinted at. Mostly, Kino does nothing but observe. When she acts, she’s pure convenience. She helps characters solve their problems by being nice, but what’s Kino’s stake?

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Decisions are another way in which we learn about characters. Decisions that relate to themes are even more meaningful. They illustrate a viewpoint and demonstrate it. Kino makes no choices. She comes to a country, observes what’s going on, does the thing that causes the least conflict and moves on. It’s hard to remember what exactly was Kino’s role in many of these stories. In the last episode, she’s interchangeable with any passer-by. Nothing about her is important to that story, only her role.

That’s a problem you encounter with shitty role-players. A character is far more than their little role. If characters are symbolic of human beings, then human beings have various roles depending on who you ask. Even a soldier trapped in the army will have more roles than just a soldier. He’ll be someone’s good friend, perhaps the commander’s most hated and so on. Kino is defined only by her role as a traveler and does nothing else.

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A role can be a part of the personality, but we need to see how Kino views traveling. A soldier can be patriotic or just in it for the money. Both are different takes on the same role that leads to different characters even if they do the same thing and come from the same background. The anime never provides a view about traveling. There’s something vague about how the world is both ugly and beautiful and this grey area is appreciated, but what else? What do we do about the grey?

Grey areas are difficult and I don’t expect answers, but great storytellers show me how they wrestle with the themes. If you can’t answer any questions – and you shouldn’t, because there are no definitive answers – at least throw something. A question shouldn’t drag itself for 10 episodes. The series barely asks a question, let alone provides angles to look at it. Asking questions is fairly easy. The difficult part is trying to find the answers. That’s when you deal with the ramifications. No question has an effect until you check the possible answers.

Some episodes provide moral choices for Kino to make. They’re generic, morally clean choices. They don’t reflect a coherent moral worldview. Kino only chooses the least offensive path. She doesn’t even struggling with these decisions. Remember that this character has been around the world and to many different countries. Traveling and experiencing new worldviews should either give birth to a new, original one or leave you confused and full of doubt. Kino acts instead like a cliched ‘wise Zen master’, viewing things mostly through indifferent eyes. It’s believable, but only if there was a worldview behind it.

The series is capable of darkness. An early episode shows the humanity of slave merchants. Even if it ends by vilifying them, it shows how they can enjoy family and raising kids and company just like us. It’s odd that in under 20 minutes they create simple but lively characters. Nothing about the slave merchants is particularly unique, but the juxtaposition of their ‘good’ and ‘evil’ side is effective for side characters. Kino never gets such interesting characterization. In the arena episode, she always offers her opponent a chance to surrender. Why?

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The slave merchants aren’t the only memorable characters here. This is where the series trumps Mushishi. Its side characters are driven, sometimes flawed and sometimes immoral. Many of the stories cannot be re-modeled for Mushishi since they deal with humanity’s dark side. The variety in characters and themes also lead to a variety in tones. Although the series is often stuck in its ‘contemplative’ atmosphere – a style which, except for Haibene Renmei, always comes off as pretentious – it experiments with tragedy, satire and adventure. The anime doesn’t dig deep enough. It offers themes but rarely shows their complexity, but the sheer variety of them makes the surface attractive enough.

Some have pointed out that Kino’s Journey is very obvious in its themes. Often characters say exactly what the story is about. In one episode, it’s cringe-worthy. An oppressed tribe literally admits to killing people for the sake of revenge, because oppression. At this point, it’s the artist’s critique of an ideology sneaking up into the character’s mouth. Imagine if a Nazi in a story admitted how wrong Nazism is, but they have to do it because of economic hardships. It’s a lone case. The anime is all surface anyway. The only reason to put things under the surface is because your surface is already full, but Kino’s Journey already has little to say. Such an anime shouldn’t make the viewer put effort. It’s a wise decision to reveal everything, since it prevents an unpleasant air of pretense.

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The art is decent, with strong backgrounds and decent character designs. The character designs are distinctive enough. Town folks get different looks and important side characters look like they can be main characters in their own show. It’s minimalist almost to a fault – the lack of details don’t do anything – but it finds variety in things like mouth size and eye shape. The backgrounds, while similar, capture a unique feeling. A running theme is the idea of the world being ugly and beautiful at the same time. The backgrounds use a mix of bright colors and pretty shapes with a darkened atmosphere to achieve is. It’s not particularly impressive, but it’s nice to see colors that fit the themes.

Kino’s Journey isn’t brilliant. Its popularity has more to do with it not being traditional, rather than quality. Some people are just dying for something without fan service. I’ve seen anime with weirder premises, deeper psychology and better art. Still, the variety in stories and the thematic focus makes it a show that’s worth most of its running time. No one yet knows how you achieve the greatest heights in art, anyway.

3 talking motorcycles out of 6

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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

(hed) pe – (hed) pe

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All this time, a great rock album was a click away.

(hed) pe are extremely talented and completely stupid. Their singer is versatile, capable of doing anything with his voice and has plenty of personality. His lyrics are often so misogynistic that listening to Lostprophets is more comfortable. They were a band Nu Metal needed. Nu Metal had plenty of weird bands, but it needed someone to go full retard. Bands flirted with genres, but very few threw themselves with conviction. No surprise the genre spat out a bunch of decent, but fairly one-dimensional bands. In the end, the experimentation was used mainly to drive angry and catchy rock tracks.

How can such a difficult task be done so well on the first outing? (hed) pe are genre-benders and you’d think they’ll need experience before dropping a classic. Yet here they’re fully formed. Everything you want in a Nu Metal album is here whether you’re looking for noise or experimentation or fun. It even beats Lostprophets’ debut (which doesn’t count thanks to Watkins) and Slipknot’s self-titled. It has consistent songwriting, variety and little of the misogyny that plagued later records. All this time I’ve been dying for them to drop a classic and here it was.

It’s a dizzying, confusing album. No album destroys the claim that “Nu Metal was generic and whiny” like this one. (hed) pe don’t even have to experiment with critic-approved genres like Deftones to gain credibility. Nu Metal, at its best, was about making the best Faith No More album that never was. Mike Patton was too preoccupied with being weird which took away from the song. King For a Day is an impressive album, but it’s more about the Jazz in “Star A.D.” and the screaming in “Cuckoo for Caca” than a good hook with a sound that makes it more fun.

The band creates a unique sound for each track, but it’s rarely tokenism. Their pool of influence may be more limited – primarily Hip-Hop and Punk Rock, but it allows them to explore these influence more deeply. You don’t bend genres by simply dropping a rap verse there and screamed vocals in the next song. You have to integrate it into your overall sound. Sometimes they isolate elements, like in “33” or “Firsty”. Mostly, the genres blur into each other. Even on Punk songs like “Circus” you’ll get a few rapped lines here and there.

It’s the sort of album you have to go song-by-song to express how varied it is. There’s the vague Heavy Psych of “Hill”. “Ken 2012” leans towards G-Funk. “Serpent Boy” is a straight-forward Rap Metal track that puts Rage Against the Machine to shame. “Ground” has a Punk-Pop chorus to it which makes it the melodic anchor of the album. There’s another ingridient that’s necessary for the perfect Nu Metal album – a mix of fun and anger.

Another unique aspect of Nu Metal was that it was both angsty and fun at the same time. Bands who didn’t borrow Hip-Hop beats still had its party attitudes. Many songs would sound great whatever mood you are in. That’s one reason no other Rock genre has yet to replace it. Punk-Pop was too silly. Grunge was too depressed. Metalcore and Thrash are so serious it’s funny.

(hed) pe perfectly captures the fun-yet-angry mood of Nu Metal. “Firsty” is the definitive angry song full of shouting about not giving a fuck. Its lyrics are full of refusing to be what people tell you to be. “Ken 2012” has macho bullshit and bragging, only to go full Metal in an angry, but still cocky hook. “Hill” is the only track that sinks to self-pity with the inspiration of Sisyphus. It’s actually out of place – it’s a slow, sad rocker in an album full of ‘fuck you’ Punk songs and ‘I’m awesome’ Rap songs. By the time it arrives you’ve gotten so used to genre-hopping that it fits the mood.

The ultimate highlight must be “Darky”. It’s pretty long, but only because it aspires to be the best Nu Metal song ever. The rapping is surprisingly competent. The beat is funkier and the bars are busier. The chorus has pseudo-Deftones whispering and atmospherics and it ends with talking about dropping bombs and telling someone to fuck off. It’s a song you can’t comfortably slide into any genre. In general, the band is more comfortable and forward-thinking in their Rap songs. It’s bizarre they bragged about being Punk Rock when it’s the rap songs – “Ken 2012”, “Tired of Sleep” and “Serpent Boy” where they play with structures and elements. The band became incredibly stupid later, but still talented. You can’t reconcile their overall stupidity with such sophisticated songwriting.

(hed) pe is an experimental, angry, fun and catchy album. If this doesn’t convince you Nu Metal is worthwhile, then nothing will. Then again, why would someone who’s into loud balls out rock wouldn’t like this? It has Nu Metal’s fury without the whiny-ness and stupid lyrics. It has Rap’s macho bullshit attitude without boring Boom Bap. It’s experimental without resorting to tokenism, creating a sound that’s both diverse and consistent. Such albums can’t be debut. It’s supposed to take great skill and musical knowledge to produce such an album. From here it was all downhill, but at least (hed) pe dropped this before becoming insufferable douchebags.

4.5 fucks that were not given out of 5

Muse – Drones

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This is a joke, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 drones out of 5