Makai Senki Disgaea

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Without even trying, Disgaea steps over all those anime about a hero who Wants to Become to the Best. It’s not a deliberate, focused exercise in style or cliches. The only idea behind it is to deliver a simple adventure about becoming an overlord. This form will never die and that’s okay. You can fit many ideas into it. Somehow, Disgaea manages to get it right without fitting any ideas.

Other great works in this style – JoJo and Kill la Kill – have a bigger purpose than simply telling a story. One was about testing the limit of how macho you could get. The other comes from the head of Imaishi, and that guy never stops hallucinating. After all, we’ve seen this pattern of Hero Defeats Enemy plenty of times. Relying on it means falling back on cliches, and cliches are always terrible when they’re crutches.

Disgaea has no such lofty ambitions. It doesn’t push the monomyth further, or tries to get more steam out of its formula. In fact, it has no ambitions besides telling a fun story about an exciting adventure. Unambitious anime are rare, and often terrible. Plenty of time anime fail despite having big aims and trying hard. There was a lot less effort put into Disgaea than other shows, but the result is great.

That’s because telling a simple story isn’t that hard. You just need to remember your story is simple. The problem with doorstop fantasy series and long-running anime is that their size comes back to bite them in the ass. If your story is only about adrenaline and a few oddballs, why stretch it to be as long as life itself?

Free of these limitations, Disgaea lets loose with its wacky world. How it compares to the original game, I have no idea. As an anime, it gets everything right. The focus is both on memorable characters, unique set-pieces and a story that’s bigger than its initial premise. Although it’s mostly comic and light-hearted, it has its powerful emotional moments. It’s another anime that proves that if you make your characters feel alive enough, we’ll be swept away by their troubles.

The characters of Disgaea aren’t psychological. They’re of the grand-mythic type, but even there it’s in a basic form. A megalomanic, a pure-hearted angel and a conniving demon. These templates still work because the characters have an inner drive. Each of them reacts to the situations in their own unique way. Even if their personalities aren’t the most original or developed – they’re never as bizarre as Kill la Kill – they’re still lifelike.

The wacky nature of the world adds excite to the adventure. It’s a free-form world. There’s no internal logic to it. Hell is a bizarre place where weird stuff happens. If that makes the world shallow, these lone set-pieces still achieve the lifelike quality of the characters. The pacing is focused. Each episode stands on its own and has its own arc.

It’s important for your story to consist of such arcs. Stories that only build up put all their eggs in one basket, and can easily fall apart (Especially if your adventure goes on for a lifetime or two). Disgaea‘s adventure is fun because every moment is meant to be fun. In fact, the series often puts its big climax on the afterburner. It’s more focused on what happens now.

These set-pieces are often bizarre and silly, but why shouldn’t they? Adventure stories are that their best when they’re wild. We’re attracted to adventures because the events are often bizarre in exotic places. The silly nature of Disgaea‘s world makes it both more lifelike and more immersive than any WHOA WORLDBUILDING work by Western fantasists. Sure, Maritn filled with world with details and names. He never made something as attention-grabbing as the Prinnies.

Looking back, the expansion of the climax isn’t so unexpected. The hint that the show is more than Laharl becoming overlord are at the very beginning. It’s still a great decision. When the climax arrives, it’s huge. One climax leads right into another, but it never overloads. Every episode has its own inner story. Thus the climax doesn’t explode from too much content. Rather, it’s divided up and allowed to build tension.

While it gets the basic formula right, Disgaea is still an unambitious anime. That’s the flaw that follows it in every episode. It doesn’t feel like only an advertisement, but the art and the basic nature of things point to an unambitious team. The art is great, but the animation quality is fairly low. It’s not a minimalist art style yet the lack of details in the background make it feel like the creators didn’t think it deserved it.

The character design is also great, but everyone on the side is piss-poor. One episode has a one-time antagonist that looks like it was designed in one minute. The creators are clearly capable of great character design and good background. The visuals drastically improve in the climax (The Prinny redemption episode is especially beautiful). Until then though, it looks so basic and uninspired it takes you out of the anime. Animation quality isn’t everything and art style is far more important. Here, though, the animation quality affects the art when the character design is boring and the backgrounds aren’t as wild as they should be.

The story is also, in the end, about nothing. As the mighty Digimon Tamers proved, an adventure story can definitely be full of meaning. Disgaea doesn’t even try although it’s capable. The Prinnies are a brilliant creation. They’re hilarious and an episode proves they can be emotionally powerful. The series never plays around that. The series never pays too much attention to Laharl’s psychological development although it could. It’s not pretentious. It simply doesn’t try to add psychological depth or even cover it up. I don’t know what is worse – not trying, or covering up.

The flaws prevent Disgaea from being great, but it’s highly enjoyable as a light adventure. Many anime can still learn from this – the characters have inner drives, each episode is focused on a single arc and the climax is bigger than the synopsis says. There really isn’t much to dislike here, although some will be turned off by the lack of ambition.

3 Prinnies out of 5

High School DXD

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There’s an art to the ecchi genre. Sexual appeal may not require brains to react to, but it requires skill. Not everyone can be a stripper or a sexy dancer even if you have the right body. A good ecchi show would know symbolism and psychology aren’t part of the genre. It would know that it uses sexuality and energy to tell a fun, ridiculous story. High School DXD knows this, but doesn’t work on it.

The characters embodies the strengths and the weaknesses. Rias is worth all the hype and posters they made. You need more than big breasts to make a sexy character. Rias is sexy and not just because of her figure (which isn’t easy to design. See also: Divergence Eve). It’s also little touches like the hair, which is deliberately red. Red is both the color that attracts the most attention. Rias isn’t just meant to be pretty but she symbolizes sexuality.

Her posture, behavior and personality also help express this idea. She’s not a caricature nymphoniac who’ll be a sex slave for our main character. Rather, she’s comfortable in her sexuality. She doesn’t mind being seen naked. She’s in a position of authority that gives her a lot of power but she’s not drunk with it. Power is sexy, but being able to control it is harder and sexier.

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She’s a charismatic, powerful presence that holds the series despite the fact everyone around her is barely half as interesting. What’s weird is that all the failures are females. They’re supposed to be just as attractive as Rias, but they’re dull.

It’s hard to see something in them beyond archetypes. Rias was an embodiment of an idea. Everyone else is a dull archetype. Asia is the complete opposite of Rias, which is something. It’s not used to its advantage. The contrast between the two never appears. We know she’s a nice girl but we only know it. We rarely see it happen. Akeno has no personality whatsoever and Koneco is a quiet loli, which was always a terrible idea and doesn’t improve here.

The designers do have talent. Later in the series a rival group is introduced, and they all have more imaginative designs than the main characters’. It’s almost as if they had two different designers, and the less creative one punished the other. Things in the rivalry team include spiral twintails, X-shaped twintails, a bikini armor and a masked figure. Even at their worst, there’s more spark to their design. Why do the main characters get the generic long hair of Akeno?

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The male characters are actually more entertaining this time. They’re often mindless perverts or boring good guys in such shows. Issei is a combination of both, but it’s one that works. He has these attributes not because it’s convenient to the story but because they can create a personality out of it. Issei becomes both an overblown moral hero who’s just as selfish and horny as the person he goes against.

There’s irony there. It flips the story where two people beat up each other because they disagree and somehow their strength proves their idea right. I wish the irony was more developed though. Issei knows he’d like to be that asshole he’s fighting, the guy with the harem. The anime doesn’t take a step back to laugh at this, at least not enough.

The problem is that it’s not enough to just know you’re making an ecchi series. You still need direction, you need to aim somewhere. What prevents the series from becoming really enjoyable is its lack of direction. Is this about how stupid but kind of cute we are in high school when hormones drive us crazy? Or is this about a hero that’s going to push himself over the edge for a girl because he’s hungry for sex?

If the series would’ve chosen to alternate between the two, it would’ve been fine. Instead, it jumps back and forth between the two. It only gets focused at the end, where it sticks to the epic fight and nothing else. At least it’s victorious there. The fight is well-animated and has a pretty enough scenery to make it exciting. The exaggeration of the characters is also believable enough to make the final conflict feel epic enough.
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The fantasy element is one of the good parts. It’s a cute spin on the Devil/Angel dichotomy that doesn’t pretend to be profound. The idea of devils doing services for people is rife for potential comedy. They play around with it a little and then abandon it. The epic battle was fine, but it was more fun to see Issei trying to do things and being a loser. It’s an opportunity to create odd side-characters who can have their ideas summed up in one episode. There are more seasons and I hope they play around with this more.

Now comes the fatal part, where humiliation is passed off for sexiness. I don’t mind the camera finding its way to changing rooms or how clothes get ripped off during battles in sexy ways. What I don’t understand is, is it necessary to have the characters strip others naked against their will for our enjoyment? It’s not sexy and it’s not humorous.

High School DXD knows what it isn’t, but it also doesn’t know what it is. There is heart here. These people really wanted to make an anime that will capture the fun spirit Ecchi can have, but they didn’t know how. Maybe the next seasons have more focus. I hope so. Rias is too much of a fun character and Issei is a rare Harem protagonist who actually contributes to the story. It’s a fun show, but as crazy as it sounds I think we can do more with Ecchi.

2.5 devils out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

Cassandra Clare – City of Bones

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Other reviewers listed the stories that this novel borrows from. Characters are, apparently, plucked from someone else’s movie or book, given a different name and a slightly different attire. I’m not familiar with the Big Things of teen fiction. I’ve never watched Buffy and never immersed myself in Harry Potter. This still felt so derivative.

This is another book that came out of fan fiction. You’d expect it to have more verve, more energy. Copy your favorite story, but at least show the passion you have for it. If the novel had the rabid energy fans express over Harry Potter or Star Wars then the unoriginal story wouldn’t matter so much. It’d at least have excitement.

City of Bones feels tired all the way. It’s written by an amateur author who has little experience with what stories can be. It never imagines stories can do other thing than just become more convoluted. We all had this phase when we thought that plot twists was proof the writer was clever, but I thought we’d outgrown it. Surely, even the overrated Nolan proved thrillers have more than just “Surprise!”.

Clary does nothing. Calling her a ‘weak female protagonist’ would at least means she has some sort of role. A female whose role is only to help the main male character at least does something, active in some way. Clary is an observer. She stands around and things happen.

It’s amazing how many events rain down the characters and how little of them are instigated by them. It’s not the examination of “life is out of control” idea. The events have nothing to do with the characters and Clare doesn’t examine their reactions. She introduces a conflict, the characters solve it because of brute force and then they wait until something else happens.

If Clary helped solving the cases, it’d add some intensity. She tends to sit back and look at everyone do their thing, Shadowhunters shadowhuntin’.

There’s something tempting about such protagonists. They’re easy to write and they give the reader (or more important, the author) a hole to insert themselves in. This way, you can watch the story happen through someone’s eyes.

This character is never actually a part of the story though. The camera is never a part of the film’s plot. Some stories deliberately create such characters, but this ‘observer’ nature is addressed in the story and a part of the personality. Clary’s personality is never meant to be a shy observer.

Perhaps she’s meant to be some sort of sassy heroine. She sometimes slap people or gets mad at them, but that’s not enough for a character. A character’s personality is established by multiple incidents that can be connected. More importantly, how the character reacts needs to be connected to the personality. Even if all your characters are cruel, they each need to do it in their own way (something Future Diary does well, for example). Clary just gets angry.

The other characters don’t have much going for them. The other female is supposed to be much prettier (although Clary gets the red head), there’s a gay dude who could have been interesting and the Nice Guy/Brooding Assole dualism. Is daddy issues a new thing in this type of fiction?

You know these characters are different because the characters themselves say it. Somehow, they see things that Clare didn’t write or left off. Everyone talks in the same way. Everyone makes the same sarcastic jokes. I know sarcasm seemed like the newest thing when you’re at your teens but isn’t it a little old? So the books are set at a time when sarcasm is still new. There’s no way everyone is witty.

Her world borrows every fantasy staple. She adds nothing we haven’t seen before and none of the staples she uses are interesting. Vampires still suck blood and have pale skin. Werewolves learn to control their shape-shifting, mostly because one of the good characters is a werewolf and that would be inconvenient. Warlocks are more interesting. They’re hedonistic party animals who dress like they’re in a rave. Here’s a way to modernize a fantasy staple. Too bad that the warlock only appears for one scene and his role is (like everyone else’s) to give us more exposition.

It always happens with such books. The side-characters end up being more interesting because they’re more conflicting. Even Alec, who gets little page-time is a more interesting idea. He’s a gay who’s into a straight dude. That’s a worthwhile situation to write about, but that would require focusing on psychology and character interaction. Such a story couldn’t rely on events just happening.

Using Biblical names and fantasy staples doesn’t make your fiction fantastical. The world here is so familiar, so ordinary and I’m not even well-versed in fantasy. I also watched High School DXD while reading this and the whole devils ‘n’ angels things kept getting mixed up. The difference between the two is that Clare has no purpose for what she does. DXD knows it’s just an overblown ecchi show.

We also get an evil character who wants to purify the world and kills what he considers bad. As Fallout 3 displayed, this idea is still worthwhile. It can be used to explore racism and bigotry by giving the bigot some reasonable basis for his beliefs. Clare had a potential here because the creatures the bad guy wants to kill are a bit in the morally grey area.

Instead of showing the issue from different perspectives, we just have the bad guy laugh maniacally and dream of strength. Then again, halfway through the book or so it’s revealed the series is named after a series of plot coupons.

Clare’s writing isn’t too dense, but it’s also not smooth enough. There are a lot of similes, many of which are pointless. Clare doesn’t overdo descriptions. She lingers on the odd details, the type that stick out to the eye. Her description of a party room is great, pointing out all the colors and odd shapes.

Her way of writing is devoid of personality. The smilies are random, exists mainly because Clare can’t think of describing something without a simile. At first, the huge variety of them is fun. After about fifty of them it gets tiring. It’s a sign Clare has no interesting way of looking at things or of writing about them.

The novel relies mainly on things happening. Werewolves arrive, parties are getting rocked, someone turns into a rat, swords clash and blood pours. This can be exciting even if your characters have no reason to exist but enact these events. Clare’s writing isn’t exciting. It doesn’t drag the scenes down but doesn’t add energy to them because she has no interesting phrases. The event themselves can’t stand on their own. It’s mostly blood pouring and swords clashing.

There’s some fun to be had in this novel, but I expected more. Even as just a Young Adult adventure about hot brooding guys, paranormal beings and saving the world this could’ve been more fun. Clare writes like she’s just trying to please herself. I hope she’s passionate about generic werewolves and passive heroines because it sucks to write about things that bore you. Still, if only a little passion leaked to the page it’d elevate the story. The only remarkable thing about this is the controversy surrounding it.

2 cities out of 5 bones