Toradora

toradoraNote: this series has been dropped at episode 14

Unlike the main protagonist of this anime, I do not have much strength to withstand torture. Put me in the clutches of a diabolical serial killer/torturer, and I have no idea what I’d do. Ryuji, our hero, is one of a kind. Bards should sing about him in taverns all across Tamriel. For 14 episodes, he stands Taiga’s relentless abuse with a smile.

In one of the greatest songs ever written, the extremely white lead singer of the Smiths sings about how it’s so easy to laugh and so easy to hate. Kindness and gentleness are difficult, and I do agree with him. That said, I wonder if the band and their fanbase would change their mind if they saw the anime. Actually, considering how huge this anime is, becoming iconic in the school genre – I think they won’t.

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I’m a defender of the school genre. Many rant about how immature and derivative it is, but few people didn’t go to school. A lot of things happen in school and you meet a lot of people, so it’s a place rife for stories. Its low-key and stable environment actually makes it excellent for stories driven by characters. Conflicts will have to rise from within and not an external UFO coming to wreck the party. These shows rely heavily on their characters, and it’s enough to have a decent, odd cast – see Haganai – to make something decent. Toradora is a major failure because of how insufferable its cast is.

Since we’re talking about symbols and not actual human beings, I need to find a way to explain why and how disgusted I was with them and how that lead me to conclude this anime is horrid crap. Many a great story are about horrible people. In fact, one of the best novels ever is about such a terrible murder. It’s their darkness, their psychology and reasons for being so that makes them so intriguing. How frightening these characters are because we understand them and see us in them. Part of our obsession with villains and their backstories, or with serial killers’ childhoods is because we want to know why they’re like this.

Everyone in Toradora is a bit of an asshole. Actually, only two characters are but they’re so dominant that it’s easy to forget about the rest. Taiga is the big problem, since she’s both the main character and the worst. Tsunderes can often seem creepy, sometimes borderline Gacy-like sadistic. None of them are as bad as Taiga.

The archetype can be funny. Tsunderes’ appeal is their insecurity, how they address the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – we put up a front in every social interaction, putting a different front in different places. The best Tsundere, Neptunia‘s Noire is all about this. Humor never comes from her being violent – she’s rarely is – but how hard she works on her image.

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In contrast, Taiga is nothing but violence. She reacts to everything with violence, like a 10-year-old playing Elder Scrolls and thinking that it’s supercool to kill every NPC. She may not kill anyone, let alone essential NPC’s but it doesn’t make it any less creepy. In every episode, she beats up people at least 5 times. Her reactions are always with force, causing clear pain to the other characters. I’d expect anyone to beat her in return the first time.

The fact Ryuji stays there is flat-out creepy. Moreover, she treats him with pure condescension. Rarely, if ever, she addresses him in a way that’s not hostile. Early in the series they make a pact to help each other, but Taiga doesn’t actually help him until the middle of the series. All the episodes are about the characters doing stuff and Taiga beating people up. The anime never answers why, exactly, Ryuji puts up with so much physical abuse.

Yes, ‘abuse’ is the only word that can describes their relationship. Switch the sexes. Imagine if Ryuji was constantly beating up Taiga, calling her ‘bitch’ and so forth. It’s nothing but sick. You can only watch it for so long before getting tired of this torture porn thing. Not only Taiga is violent to everyone, she also has a weird entitlement problem. She expects Ryuji to take care of her and do everything for her. She never asks, demands with the expectations that Ryuji must do it for her.

In the end, she’s nothing but a horrible person who beats up everyone but also thinks everyone owes her everything. Now, a character being a terrible human being isn’t enough. How their actions are framed is important and now we get to the main problem. Taiga is framed as okay.

A backstory occasionally rears its head, feelings of insecurity do show themselves. None of is it actually dark, none of it gives us a glimpse into a troubled psych that can only react with violence and cannot connect to people. The backstory may justify anger, but the anime never acknowledge how bad Taiga’s case is. No one around her also reacts like they should. They treat her like she’s a quirky friend, someone who occasionally goes off, like that friend who swears a lot. This is a person who’s in desperate need of help and a lawyer. It’s no longer a person having anger issues but a criminal that everyone tolerates because the plot demands it.

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Such light framing of dark material is unforgivable. Humor doesn’t have anything to do with it, but how the frame never addresses the darkness of it. Physical abuse leaves people with trauma. People react harshly to physical abuse. If people stay for a long time with a physical person, being nice to them and doing what they want it means they got issues of their own. I can’t stress how dark this material is, yet the light framing is disrespectful to anyone who went through physical abuse.

Taiga and the framing of her behavior towers over the anime, so everything else ends up pointless. No matter how hard they try, the creators frame Taiga as quirky and cute. Nothing can salvage the anime, but then again it doesn’t seem they try. There isn’t much in the way of stories or characters. Ryuji is like that dude from Haganai only not as hot. Somehow he manages to be perfect and eventually the center of the harem because he’s nice to everyone and doesn’t have wants of his own. To the anime’s credit, the secondary male actually has a purpose here and he’s a bit hot, but besides being a more energetic nice guy there’s nothing to him.

Other females consist of a wacky redhead who’s entertaining for five episodes and then becomes tiresome. As for Ami, she’s another generic asshole who’s overall unpleasant without the darkness. Like Taiga, she treats people like crap but the cruelty is never meant to shock or make us reflect. Funniest thing is how the anime passes her off as sexy. Not only the characters can’t drive a story, but they look bad.

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Art style is another problem the anime suffers from. No one has a distinctive look. School anime, at worst, create pleasing to look at characters. You may not experience anything profound but there is aesthetic value in the designs, in understanding human beauty. Designs don’t have to break boundaries, but little touches like Sena’s butterfly and deep eye color make an anime more pleasing to look at.

Toradora does nothing like this. Taiga does have a weird hairstyle, but Minori isn’t memorable at all. She has huge eyes and short red hair. End description. Worse offender is Ami who is meant to be the sex symbol. To express this, they gave her a longer hair and slightly bigger breasts. Unlike shows where the characters are actually sexy, her figure isn’t defined or emphasized – which is necessary if the character’s beauty is important to her personality. Her hair is just long without hairstyle quirks. Look at any anime that has a character whose beauty is important and you can always spot details expressing it – just as I described Sena in the above paragraph. The designers decided to do the bare minimum.

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Character designs are integral to how we view them. How people look is a part of them. It doesn’t mean characters should all be sexy (that’s actually quite odd) but their looks should somehow find their way to their personality. If your character is meant to be beautiful, make them beautiful. Toradora is satisfied with just sending the signals, mistaking low effort for minimalism. Minimalism is when you have few details but these details are important. Ami’s design and everyone else’s has no effort put into it. A simplicity that has no elegance, that emphasizes no details is just a product of no effort and laziness.

Maybe the anime drastically improves. I have a hard time believing it. Watching this anime became painful. Witnessing the abuse Taiga inflicts on everyone, and expecting to be entertained and amused by it is too much. Torture porn at least acknowledges its characters suffer even if it expects me to find entertainment in pain. This anime pretends physical abuse doesn’t cause any pain. Truly, it’s objectionable almost on a moral standard.

1 abusive partners out of 5

Code Geass

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First off, this anime ends horribly. People talk about anime suddenly ending with no resolution. Sometimes they overreact – Deadman Wonderland and Attack on Titan end an arc but keep the big story unfinished. It’s frustrating, since the arcs are integral to a bigger story and don’t stand on their own. Code Geass, however, simply ends. Worse, it ends on a cliffhanger. I know there’s a second season, but you don’t separate seasons (Or episodes, or books) for the sake of it. You separate them because they’re different stories. This one’s unfinished and this is a huge blow.

More news at 11.

At first, it’s tempting to view the anime as exploration of Japan under Western influence. World War II wasn’t so long ago, and we all heard about how the Japanese are poor victims. This story is false, and bones have a way of digging themselves out. Japan was an aggressor in WWII and responsible for some true horrors. So seeing a story in which they are oppressed can be bizarre – you have to wonder whether in the world of Code Geass they found the bones in Shinjiku. The big Western oppressor this time is the UK, whose main contribution to the world after WWII was Big Beat and Dubstep.

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It’s not about politics. The Geass is a physical manifestation of power. The creators wisely chose to never talk about how it actually works. There’s no D&D-esque magic system behind it, only a few limits to help us understand power better. A Geass is limited, because power comes in different forms. A Geass can also be used once, but can consume you.

Power doesn’t just come in isolation. Something drives power. The user wants to achieve something with that power. We hear about how some people just want to feel powerful, but why do they want to feel powerful? Powerful is ability and security. Power cannot be an end. If it is an end, it is only because power is the means to get many ends. Power never stands alone.

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Here’s your main problem with the anime. Power here stands alone. Excluding Euphie, the story is an ordinary one about oppressed people rising against their overseers, but so what? What does the British empire stand for? What do the Japanese stand for? You cannot just kill the tyrant but have to replace it with something. A person once said that anarchy is a ‘tyranny of people with guns’. Since humans are pack animals, leaders come by naturally and can be good for us. Leaders work differently, though even when they seem similar. Both the Nazis and the Japanese did unethical human experiments, but for different ends.

The series is soaked by the theme of power. The position of every character is established quickly, and is an important part of everyone’s lives. Notice how Rivalz is obviously inferior to Lelouch, how no woman swoon over him and he’s mostly just there. During high school scenes, we follow the most powerful people – the student council whose head is the daughter of the principle. Lelouch is a person who lost his position of power and that’s the same story for Jeremiah. Cornelia’s and Euphemia’s relationship isn’t just about protecting the little sister – one is clearly more powerful than the other.

It’s a fantastic stage to test what drives power and they squash it. The two sides fighting stand for nothing. Many stories use the typical Hitler-esque tyrant, which is cliched but at least something. Here, the British Empire only protect its own existence without ever answering why it exists in the first place. The Japanese want to free themselves, but they only free themselves into a vague ‘equality’ thing.

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Then again, it’s not a story of simple evil vs. simple good. Many scenes show us the Britinnians, their lives and how they’re actual human beings. The inclusion of school life comedy is brilliant. It shows us there are people behind the oppressors who might be used to their lives of privilege, but they’re still people. When everything falls apart, there’s no sadism but empathy towards the upper class.

If the creators can write vibrant scenes about everyday life, why can’t they imbue their characters with motives and ideologies? Relationships with the same structure work differently. Both Lelouch and Cornelia protect their little sisters, but Lelouch is the soft warm protector whereas Cornelia is the condescending one. A small character arc involving Jeremiah – a clear villain and an asshole – shows us the pain of falling from a position of power. Even while the series sides with Lelouch, it doesn’t shy away from how his power can hurt his enemies.

The ‘Grand Purpose’ is integral to any piece of art. Everything connects to it, and it makes the flaws more understandable. Without the grand purpose, there is nothing to review. Even shows whose only purpose is to show big boobs have this purpose. Often, average shows swing between two such purpose and commit. Code Geass doesn’t even swing between purposes but simply doesn’t have one. It goes through the motions, provides good storytelling that leads nowhere.

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Credit must go to the designers. The series sports one of the best character design I’ve seen. As pure beauty few anime match it. In fact, the characters are so beautiful that it feels like a plot point. Everyone radiates sex appeal, but somehow no one has sex with anyone. The overly-slender bodies do contrast with this. They’re not just thin but long, but every face is plastic-surgery perfect. Every stare is full of confidence with sensual lips. Even the voice-actors give a sexual smugness to it all. CC and Milly always sound teasing, like they’re just about to invite you to their rooms. It’s nice, but sometimes bizarre.

It’s also fairly expressive. Notice the contrast in design between Lelouch and Suzaku. Suzaku has a softer, cuter look with the curly hair. Lelouch has sharp eyes, black hair that falls in spikes. These designs amplifies their personalities. Rivalz is being stuck with a goofy blue hairdo. The decision to give characters similar but different hair colors is meaningful. Euphy’s pink is brighter than Cornelia’s purple, just like their personality.

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The gigantic robots don’t fare so well. The action scenes are a constant thorn in the anime. Although there are emotional moments in those scenes, they take the chess game technique to the extreme. They become more about Lelouch’s genius rather than the characters. Imagine JoJo but with giant robots. JoJo was nice, but its storytelling was built for shallow stories driven by excitement. Here, the storytelling always aims for something deeper. If the robots had a cool look to them, then fine. The designers went full lazy and just had gigantic hulks of metal with arms and legs. None of the imagination that fuels the character design (A character who appears for a barely a minute looks better than most anime characters) reaches them.

Contrast this anime with Future Diary. It’s another overly ambitious anime with so much going on it couldn’t flesh it all out. When Future Diary tackles an idea, it does so with full conviction. It may need more length, but when it’s about comedy it’s all about comedy. When it’s horror, it’s all horror. More importantly, Future Diary wasn’t about build-up but about arcs. Each arc had its own style. All of the elements in Geass aren’t spread evenly but crammed together into one gigantic arc that builds up to a huge climax. There is very little resolution in this anime. Some may enjoy the cliffhangers, the ‘what’ll happen next?’ but that’s boring. The most exciting anime are those that are exciting because what’s happening, in the present tense. They’ll keep you coming back.

Code Geass fails only because what it set out to do is be the best anime ever. It’s overall a good show with a dynamic story and a wide cast, each with their own point of view. Although it slips often to cheap thriller mode, the characters’ personality dominate it more than conventions. Even if it’s not the best anime ever, most creators can’t even attempt something this ambitious.

3 sexy homosapiens out of 5

Haibane Renmei

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Death and suicide are the ultimate questions. Anyone who writes them off as a first world problem doesn’t interact with human beings. Humans are the only organism that’s aware their life will end someday. We make a mostly conscious decision whether to live or die, and that includes people in war torn countries.

Death is so confusing though. Can you imagine the complete ending of all of your consciousness, all of the data inside your head? That’s why I can’t blame Haibene Renmei if its exploration of themes is fuzzy. If someone couldn’t climb Mt. Everest but still took a picture of a summit, that’s something.

The portrayal of common concepts such as purgatory, heaven and hell are slightly modified. They make a big psychological difference. Almost by accident, Haibane Renmei comes close to understanding the suicidal mind. This is a great achivement. Years of research and everyone is still stuck at ‘suicide is irrational’ and then wonder why people kill themselves.

The most radical approach of the show is how it overturns the communal argument against suicide. The communal argument is one of the few argument that are valid against suicide. It points out that since the person is a part of a community, the community owes them and the person owes the community. The result is symbiosis, a ‘no one gets left behind’ approach that forces people to comply but rewards for being a part of society.

Yet the community of Giles is different. It’s meant to allow people to tie up loose ends and exit painlessly and cleanly. At the same time, the person is obligated to contribute to this society in order to make their exit. If they won’t, they will be doomed to a long life of isolation – a common complaint of suicidal people.

This ‘painless clean exit’ is important. Notice how the characters whose view is negative have a different exit. They hate themselves and are filled with guilt. The only exit they can imagine is a violent one. Yet the source of their guilt is causing harm ot others, which is exactly what they’re doing. The harsh suicide causes a paradox. Both parties refuse to accept and forgive.

We also get a harsh view of the people left behind. Suicide prevention is, by nature, selfish. People who stop people from killing themselves only do it to benefit themselves. In a moment of suicide, all the good attributes that Rakka mentions are good ones. She can tell the person how they benefit the world, but that’s the only thing she experiences. She doesn’t experience how the suicidal person experiences themselves, the inner demons of guilt and self-hatred.

This is just one interpetation. In many places Haibene Renmei suffers from the same flaws of Texhnolyze and Lain. It’s rich in symbolism and clear signs of depth, but it’s vague. Even if suicide is made slightly obvious by the end, it’s still hard to connect every thread to it. Nevertheless, the slight vagueness isn’t a problem this time around. The anime is deeply humane.

Nothing in serenity or in the Fantasy genre prevents it from being character driven. It may be serene for most of its first half, but every character reacts to the situations in their unique way. Their personalities are established quickly and stay consistent. Their character design is according to their personalities.

ABe is mostly a dull designer and not good at creating the unique touches that make each face different. Here his style works for him. It’s still subtle and minimalist, but meaningful. Rakka’s messy brown hair fits her confused persona. Kana’s more muscular look fits with her rougher nature.

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The setting of the series also gives him more to do. While the color grey still dominates, there are contrast to it. It’s not the barrage of grimdarkness that was Texhnolyze. There is warmth in those greys. The peaceful setting and characters make the grey slightly gloomier, but it still looms just like death. The animation is sometimes too choppy, but such technical difficulties can be forgiven when the art is so beautiful.

ABe needed a balance between life an death in the art. Haibane Renmei is dominated by characters who are clearly alive and feel real. The events are often cheery and carefree. The contrast between the greys and the cheerful part isn’t obvious. It’s not a bad thing happening after a good one. Rather, the two opposites are right next to each other. We see the good times the Haibene experience, we see the kindness of the people next to the caging walls.

It’s so lifelike that despite the vagueness, it’s a powerful drama story. The emotions run deep with living characters and setting. The Fantasy setting is taken advantage of – it’s fantastical, clearly symbolic and not just a set of rules. There a lot of confusing anime which are confusing on purpose, just to look cool. If Haibene Renmei is confusing, it’s only because of how original it is. I hope to return to it soon with more to say.

4 angels out of 5

Hal Gold – Unit 731: Testimony

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In the anime Paranoia Agent, the state of victimhood rescues people. People suffer from all kinds of stress – sometimes personal, sometimes moral – and and an American-looking dude hits them with a baseball bat. Once they get hit and fall unconscious, no one really cares about their past life. It’s all about helping the poor victims.

I don’t know how much the creator knew about Unit 731, but that anime is obviously tied to the atom bomb. Saying the atom bomb rescued the Japanese from admitting their war crimes may sound obscene, but isn’t there some truth to that? How many people know about the atomic bomb and how many know about their aggression in China in general? For example, in Israeli history students learn about the atom bomb but not one thing is said about the rape of Nanking or Unit 731. We see movies about the Holocaust often. Is there an internationally recognized day for the victims of Japan?

This isn’t about whether America should’ve bombed Japan or not. It’s an interesting, difficult discussion we mustn’t avoid – but it belongs in a different book. It’s about understanding what can drive people to do such horrors. The book doesn’t relish the gore on display. there are some juicy details – babies being bathed in frozen water, a person being constantly executed and somehow never dying, diseased people forced to have sex and then give birth. The point is more about shocking you that yes, people can do these things.

Haven’t we learned this lesson from the Nazis? Yes, we did. The difference is, the Nazis were losers and were the villain. Stories about the Holocaust may horrify us, but we often distance ourselves by painting the Germans as a bunch of villains smokin’ cigars and laughing maniacally. Japan were supposed to be victims. When one country – and the losing country at that – does it it’s just villainy. When a people that are supposed to be victims do it and the winners sweep it under the rug, it becomes scary.

When people object to the ‘tyranny of science’, they may sound like a bunch of crazy luddites. The scientific theory is one of the integral pillars of civilization. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without science. No idea is safe from corruption, though. The idea of people torturing and inflicting pain in the name of science may seem like recipe for a cartoonish villain in a Hollywood movie.

That’s reality, though. One reason Unit 731 was allowed to remain hidden was because the data was precious enough. The scientists were given immunity if they handed over all the information they received. Many of them went to acquire high positions in Japan, especially academic positions. Even the history of something as great as science is stained by blood.

It’s a perfect example of how horrible war is. Since the data from Unit 731 was pretty useful for biological warfare, many of the masterminds could go on with their lives, being scientists if they handed their data. In a way, they got redeemed because of the action that demands redemption. Imagine if Dr. Mengale was given a high position in a university because he made some scientific discoveries.

The history is fairly brief, since the main role of the book is to deliver the testimonies. It’s a good piece of history, but not a very detailed one. As an introduction into the topic though, it’s good enough. The writing is precise, not too filled with jargon and the story is fairly easy to follow. The book creates a unique niche of itself in the literature of Unit 731 – by providing an easy introduction and a more personal look.

As for the testimonies themselves, what Gold says in the introduction is true. They’re messy, sometimes a bit incoherent. That’s okay since they’re speeches by people who are trying to remember a horrible event from a long time ago. The messiness of it also comes from how the people in the unit didn’t know what they were doing. The testimonies come mostly from low-level workers. The masters weren’t going to risk their position in Japan.

Some testimonies are better than others, but I understand the inclusion of them all. Unit 731 was destroyed. Everything was blown up and footage and pictures were hidden or destroyed, too. We will never have access to the full story, so we must make do with the little we have. Don’t expect to get a coherent story out of these. It’s a collection of anecdotes, but fascinating ones.

They’re presented with a minimalism that’s frightening. Imagine if Raymond Carver wrote a collection of short stories about people in a laboratory conducting these experiments. Then again, what other way is there to tell these stories? They’re blunt. Details aren’t gory, they’re just there. Some horrors cannot be painted with any language. You cannot express being horrified and you can’t tell the full details. Just saying they forced diseased people to have sex is enough to cause a shock.

It’s soaked in pain. Reading this book is both easy and difficult. The language is as minimalistic as a hard-boiled thriller, but to know so much pained was caused by human beings can be too much. As harsh as they are, we need these stories of pain. This book is an anti-war book. If there was no war, it’s possible Unit 731 wouldn’t have existed.

Now, I don’t think we can just lay down our arms and war would be over. Both sides need to lay down their arms for this to happen. Yet what will cause them to do it? At some point, I don’t think ideological or territorial conflicts matter much. We need to stare at the abyss without blinking, without romanticizing it or dramatizing it. We need the cold, hard facts of how much pain war causes. It really doesn’t matter whether Japan should be hated for what they did, or be forgiven because they got the atom bomb. What matters is we humans are capable of producing such pain, but no one wants to suffer through this. Until all of us – and I’m including every single continent, since the narrative is of ‘Evil West’ is too easy to swallow – are horrified by war, it won’t stop.

Reading about Unit 731 is essential. This far into human history, it’s time to know exactly how much pain war causes. War doesn’t only result in people shooting each other. Civilians are murdered in their homes. Great ideas like science are being abused. Schools today preach a lot about the glory of programming and getting your own start-up company. I don’t think this is what will prevent another Unit 731.

4 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

Big Order

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 floating girls out of 5

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