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

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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

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