Danganronpa: The Animation

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I could’ve written this review without watching the anime. For all its twists and turns, Danganropa works like you’d expect it to. Even the claim that it’s not as in-depth as the game doesn’t feel relevant. It’s a darkly humorous anime filled with hilarious characters. There isn’t much psychological depth, but everyone is memorable and no one gets demonized.

Danganronpa understands why Death Game scenarios work, and what are its strengths and weaknesses. These scenarios rely on a fairly unpredictable out come. We know the main character wins, but not always who will be his final match. The most important part is the characters. Their personality modify their interactions, the methods they use and how the ‘matches’ go.

By abandoning any characterization, you’re left with emptiness. All you will have is a show of violence, which can only be entertaining for so long. Thankfully this isn’t BTOOOM!. You can tell by just looking at the brilliant character design.

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Every character has a distinct look. No character is allowed to look like another. I haven’t seen a cast with this much effort put into the design. Everyone sports different hairstyles, outfits and even shapes of the eyes. The differences are more than just to tell apart the character. Each detail helps to point to the personality of the character. This is how character design should be – expressing the character using the visuals.

They are not psychological portraits. They are a collection of quirks, but these quirks never point to some realistic personality. The characters are, after all, chosen more for their skills rather than their personality. Normally this would lead to perfect, boring characters. In this guys, the talent points more towards some personality that’s exaggerated and made to feel alive, if not realistic.

It’s not that these are shallow without hope. There is hope for some depth and the show occasionally taps into it, but that’s not how we get to know the characters. We know them like we know our classmates – we know their patterns and learn to laugh about it. Even without the psychological aspect, it’s a vivid, entertaining cast.

They’re so entertaining that even the dullest characters (Who are for some reason the main ones. Someone was taking crazy pills) are entertaining. Neagi and Kirigiri are archetypes without much blood in them. The former is normal and means well. The other is a cold girl who always runs off to the writers, who tell her how to solve the mysteries. They never reach the heights of Fukawa or Junko or pretty much anyone, but they’re a cut above characters in the same style.

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The best of them all is Monokuma. He’s the embodiment of the series and why it works. If the premise and the characters don’t look weird enough, we also get a talking teddy bear that runs the school. He treats the violence and absurdity flippantly, as if it’s normal.

Isn’t this how comedy works? It presents an absurd situation where no one recognizes the absurdity. Although Danganronpa‘s story is a mystery, all the techniques are comic. It puts more emphasis on weird situations than a coherent puzzle. The mysteries aren’t exactly cleverly built. They’re messy and require some leap of faith, especially as the series goes on. The final twist is pure comedy.

Good mysteries are more than just predictable. They have an interesting structure and don’t rely just on the outcome. Absurdity is one way to do it. Even if Danganronpa‘s structure is fuzzy, it’s never boring. Every mystery is unique and memorable.

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The comedy also works because of its darkness. This is another case where darkness isn’t used to minimize the horror but amplify it. The bear is cute and the academy looks pretty, but it’s a cruel way of life. There seems to be no other solution than dying or killing, and yet the series knows this isn’t a good reason to sacrifice absurdity or characters. Just because a situation is harsh doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a funny side to it.

There is almost something meta about Monokuma. That route is never explored, which is a shame. It could’ve lifted the anime a little higher. Monokuma keeps telling the students to kill each other so he won’t get bored watching them. Isn’t this why you watch the anime? You watch it to see them kill each other. Wouldn’t be boring if the students decided not to kill each other, but just to kill time with each other?

The anime explores this question a bit, but not enough. Extending the time where the characters just being themselves could’ve put these two next to each other – School Life and Mystery – and we’ll have to ask ourselves what we prefer and why.

It doesn’t suffer from the over-abundance of ideas like its sister anime, Future Diary. In that one, ideas came and went. There were a lot of hints they could be explored but then they were dropped. While Danganronpa has these routes, it knows it can’t explore all of them in 12 episodes.

 

The few themes that appear – despair, violence, friendship – are used to spice up the story. The story is slightly shallower, but it’s also more organized and better paced. I’m sure the visual novel has more ideas, but in 12 Danganronpa manages to tell a hilarious mystery and not get sidetracked.

It’s in no way just advertisement for the visual novel. It’s a very entertaining anime filled with vivid characters, weird situations and a funny mystery. The approach to the genre is different, but better than the common one. It may lack substance, but it makes up for it in being entertaining. You don’t need a lot of episodes and fights that last for hours to be entertaining. You just need characters and situations that are odd enough to be memorable. You don’t need punchlines to be funny, you just to find the funny in already existing situations/characters.

3.5 upupupupupu out of 5 upupupupupupu

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Mudvayne – L.D. 50

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Nu Metal always had its weird side, and Mudvayne are trying to take it to the extreme. “Dig” was an obvious single, but Mudvayne’s quirks are there. The hook is a catchy chant, but behind the chanting the band just beats the sound to the ground. There’s a messiness and intensity to the riffs that doesn’t match other Nu Metal bands. More is going on besides noise or groovey riffs.

The bounce of “Internal Primates Forever” only confirms Mudvayne are on to something special. The “jump!” screaming adds some fun to song that tries so hard to be complex. For all of its shifting part and Patton-esque vocals, it’s a fun rocker. Both of these songs are brilliant because the band sounds like they can do anything and still make it accessible and intense and moshpit-friendly. It’s a more complex but organized version of Slipknot’s early output.

The next two tracks are okay, but it’s hard to find the difference between them. The band had a great sound, but all of their ideas were done in the first two songs and “Under My Skin” which only arrives at the end.

What went wrong? There are interesting moments. The tempo shifts in “Death Blooms” are effective and the band sounds good in a more funky setting. The melodic beginning of “-1” isn’t catchy, but it’s an addition that still contributes and adds contrast. The band never sounds tired.

It’s so boring, though. It’s hard to make a loud album that wants to literally break ground with its anger. Some did it, but not like Mudvayne. Glassjaw had heartbreak that made every song stick out. My Ticket Home’s album was short and catchy. Nine Inch Nails made it an EP. Even Slipknot couldn’t drag this for a whole album. Melody made their music heavier, but they still ran out of steam at the end of Vol. 3.

It’s somewhere around “Cradle” that the album loses all potential of a masterpiece. The song doesn’t end where it should but literally restarts. It exhausts all of its ideas and restarts anyway. Worse, it’s not very different than what came before.

It turns out Mudvayne don’t do much with their intense sound. Most of the songs consist of the vocalist screaming while the band pummels in the back and being loud. Catchy hooks and funky breaks are rare, and they’re always too short and too late to save the song.

The attempt at rapping in “Under My Skin” is a blessing. It doesn’t matter whether the label ‘forced’ them to make it or not. You can actually find traces of Hip-Hop in previous songs, anyway. It’s a lighter, catchier and more organized songs than everything around it. The band finally sounds experimental as they want to be. Being experimental isn’t just removing hooks. It also offers the guitarist to play other riffs besides slow sledgehammers.

L.D. 50 deserves some credit for making interludes sound like a good idea. The interludes scattered around the album (which also steal all the best song titles) connect to the songs, and the weird electronics offers a nice respite from the chaos. “Dig” sounds more effective if you have the build-up of “Monolith”. If only Mudvayne used these electronics to create actual songs. Maybe we could have had a nice contrast of cold electronica and chaothic Nu Metal. There’s some fun to be had here, but it’s a band being ambitious without any idea what to do.

2 doses out of 5

Psycho-Pass

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Criminals who babble philosophically will always be present in fiction. It’s an acknowledgement that mere sadism isn’t enough. Even if a person is a sadist, there is more going on than plain cruelty there. If we can answer what makes a man start fires, maybe we won’t need fire extinguishers. Too often these stories are too fascinated with the idea of the underdog taking revenge at society. He may lose, but awareness that he’s wrong doesn’t make it any less of an escapist fantasy.

The person’s actions should follow his worldview. If they contradict that, then this contradiction must be addressed. People are messy so of course they will contradict themselves. If they do so in the story, it’s because the author made it so. If he made it so, he needs to connect it. Don’t put contradictions where they don’t belong. People don’t always contradict themselves.

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There’s a scene where Makishima gets into a fight and we see he’s a professional. It’s like before he went to star in Psycho-Pass, he stopped at Naruto and learned the ways of the ninja. I was supposed to be impressed, though. Not only is Makishima pretty and can predict people’s actions, he’s a champion at MMA.

It’s hilarious. It reminded me how Lisbeth solve an equation in the middle of the climatic fight. It’s so easy to give your character skills. You just look up the cheat codes, write the lines that say “add 50 points to Melee Skill” and you’re done.

Just because your character is skilled at a lot of things doesn’t mean the author is skilled. Character skills are often substitutes for personality. Makishima is your stereotypical Pseudo-Philosophical Villain. Forget about how the series quotes a lot of books. None of Makishima’s speeches are related to his actions.

All of his actions involve death and destruction. He gives people who want to hurt others the means to do so. When Makishima does something of his own, it’s also to cause hurt. The dominating theme is hurting others. He gives them the freedom to hurt others, but that’s as far as it goes.

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For freedom to be a theme, it needs to be expressed in different ways. The only freedom people gain is to hurt others. The violence is more varied. The characters include a bullied man, a girl sucked in her art and a person who loves the thrill of the hunt.

Makishima is not very differernt from the Jigsaw Killer. Despite talking about appreciating life, his traps were so dangerous (some can’t be complete without somebody dying) that it’s obvious he doesn’t value these people’s lives. Makishima babbles about freedom and the prison of the Sybil System, but he’s fine with killing an innocent person. There’s no worse way of ripping freedom from someone than killing them.

It’s all shock value without substance. The result is entertaining at first, but goes downhill fast. The anime goes south when it expected me to stare at a helpless, half-naked woman begging for mercy and take the villain seriously. It’s not dark, because true darkness is understandable. A villain whose motives we can comprehand and find reasonable is scarier.

If Makishima tells people to live free or die, how much of a choice is it?

What a shame. The series never chose whether it was a thoughtful story or a wild, exciting one. Either of these would’ve been fine. Being pretentious is the valley between the two.

The other side of the horseshoe fares better. The Sybil System is questioned, but it never becomes a strawman. The System is totalitarian, but it’s not an evil regime bent on oppressing everyone so the protagonist will have something to fight. Every system of government comes to power because it benefits someone.

The System doesn’t just benefit the Rich & Powerful. It benefits the simple people. The society has order, but it’s good order that leaves a lot of room for joy and wonder. Creativity may be restricted, but creativity isn’t everything. The artist may want to draw violence and the rocker wants to tell everyone to fuck off. Some would prefer to have a steady job and enough money to go for drinks with their friends.

The System also presents an alternative moral system to current society. We live in a society that praises people for getting money, having a lot of sex and being physically fit. Somehow all these promises of sex and money don’t prevent the high rates of suicide. So Sybil is not very friendly towards outcasts and has less room for creativity, but what if it’s a price worth paying for mental health?

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It’s a society where you see advertisements for ways to improve your mental health. Everyone is talking about their Hue and Psycho-Pass. If you think this is going too far, then take a look at our own society. We do the same only for physical health. Physical health is a giant industry of protein shakes, gyms and promises of social status.

No system exists without its outcasts, and Sybil has its own. Only how it casts out people isn’t so different than ours. We rage against models who aren’t stick-thin, as if being fat is a moral offense. Later, we’ll hang out with sexual harassers just because they’re charismatic. Sybil is harsh to the mentally ill, but forgets about the actions.

For a    series where mental health is a big issue, it’s surprising how lacking it is in character development. A flashback tries to develop one character. All it tells us is that she used to play guitar. Why did she take a different road than her friend? Why are their worldviews so different?

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Akane gets some development, but she’s an archetype they play with rather than a psychological portrait. Ginoza is slightly better, but everyone else spits exposition without modifying it. There’s a wild card, a bisexual analyst, a cliched noir dude who remains tough and an old geezer. Their personalities clash more than your average detective story, but there aren’t even hints towards a psychology they didn’t have time to develop.

Psycho-Pass has interesting ideas and a pretty fun story, but it has Makishima. It’s a pin in the tire that let all the air out. The ideas are too undeveloped and there aren’t enough of them to make up for this. It’s not a case of a series that’s too short, but a series that focuses on the less interesting parts.

3 dominators out of 5

WataMote: No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!

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If you live under a rock, you’re probably impressed by Family Guy‘s and South Park‘s ‘dark’ humor. They show you people suffering, dying and cursing. They expect you to laugh because people are dying, suffering and cursing. You’re supposed to be shocked that the creators don’t mind putting these characters though such a pain, but that’s not a major achievement. Terrorists do it all the time, but it doesn’t make them comedians.

A truly dark comedy is not that one avoids that darkness. It’s one that forces us to confront the darkness of it and still laugh. Even Borderlands, where the whole joke is that everyone thinks dying is a joke has insight into violence and how we perceive it. It’s an exaggeration of the flippant treatment most video games have for violence. Likewise, WataMote is an anime that stares into the eyes of the abyss that is being socially retarded

WataMote is a dark comedy. It’s far darker than any so-called ‘for adult’ cartoons from the West. It doesn’t create a bunch of punchlines and try to make the premise fit the jokes. It’s aware of the how crippling Tomoko’s situation is, and it tries to find humor among all the darkness. It uses humor not to downplay the darkness, but as a means of coping.

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Shyness is cute when you look at it from the outside, but so is a panda bear caged in a zoo. Tomoko has the privileges of the Western world, such as running water and food. How much of a consolation is it when you have no way to relate to the world?

Human beings are social creatures. Isolation is one of the worst type of punishment you can bring on one. That’s where solitary confinement comes from. Without feedback from others to keep us in reality, it can feel like it’s slipping away from us. A similar process can happen with sensory deprivation.

This is what happens to Tomoko. There is a gross contrast between how she views herself and the world, and how it really is. The world outside is not very hostile. In high school, the popular kids are too busy having fun to bully you. People will talk to you if you initiate. At worst, they’ll be indifferent.

Indifference isn’t harmful in and of itself. It doesn’t target you. When that’s the only feedback you get, it becomes scary. Tomoko barely spends any time in the real world. We spend most of the episodes inside her head. In her inner monologues, she talks fast, with a steady pace and a hard voice. She’s full of energy and life.

Then she opens her mouth and barely a word comes out. The people often react in confusion. You can’t expect them to react in any other way to a person who can barely utter a phrase. Since it’s not complete approval, Tomoko’s dualistic worldview sees it as negative and she runs away.

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That dualistic worldview is another aspect of being a social retard. Tomoko sees things in black and white. There are popular kids, and losers like her. In her eyes, Yuu turned from a loser geek to a ‘popular slut’, although all we see is that Yuu developed breasts and dyed her hair. Tomoko tries a little to fit in, and when it doesn’t work she throws the bathwater with the baby.

The absurdity of social anxiety is that it makes you fail in basic, day-to-day interactions. Tomoko’s failures wouldn’t bother and otherwise well-adjusted person. People say embarassing shit all the time. Most of them say so many things that one failure doesn’t bother them. Tomoko always bets all her money on one single moment.

The comedy comes from the darkness itself, from how absurd it is. We’re talking about a barrier that doesn’t exist physically. Nothing prevents Tomoko from talking with people but herself. She’s fighting a shadow. Seeing a person fight something invisible is both sad and funny at the same time.

Sometimes the comedy is just from Tomoko’s failures. Thankfully, the creators are imaginative enough. They make these realistic failures, rather than inserting a poop joke or a sex joke like a lot of Western comedy does. There is also a powerful use of silence. It’s another way of pointing out the joke, but it lets the situation stand on its own. Besides, it’s a more realistic reaction to absurdity. Something absurd is something we don’t know how to react to. We may need time to think it over.

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Tomoko would’ve nothing without her voice actress. It’s a brilliant performance. She has to play different characters. Tomoko is a megalomaniac world-dominator in her monologues but a coward when she speaks. Her voice actress doesn’t just capture this World Dominator in her speech, but she performs it with chinks in the armor. She exaggerates the confidence so much that it’s clear Tomoko tries hard to convince herself. As for how she does Tomoko’s stuttering, I doubt any person can replicate it so well. The fact a dub was even attempted is a brave, but probably an Icarian feat.

The character design fares a little worse. Tomoko isn’t really ugly. She looks odd and a distortion of the Moe design. Her eyes are huge, but have a darkness in them that looks frightening. Her figure or facial features aren’t special enough to cause any shock. She looks likes she’d rather listen to My Chemical Romance and Avenged Sevenfold rather than look for a boyfriend.

The state of comedy is a poor one. Too many comedies are references to sex and shit in-between random words. It’s hard to find a comedy that understands comedy’s purpose – finding humor in the absurdity of life. If it can find humor in the darker parts, then all the better. Whatever you think of anime in general, WataMote is a great work of comedy.

4 anxiety fits out of 5

Mirai Nikki (Future Diary): Redial

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The original series had a lot of great ideas that weren’t enough for 26 episodes. What a surprise that this OVA has more ideas that can fit in 30 minutes. Redial doesn’t feel like an epilogue. It feels like a sketch for the third season.

The obligatory beach section rears its head, but it’s not here for fanservice. Once again, the franchise takes a trope and plays by its own rules. The jokes and the focus is on the cast, which is as lively as ever. The ecchi moments don’t feel like tacked on but emerge organically. They involve only the characters who will deal with sexual confusion at that stage in life.

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The re-appearance of the diary holders has the same vivid characterization as the original. My theory was true. Each time a diary holder is allowed to do stuff, their personality comes alive. The 12th remains a hilarious, energetic presence. Everyone is crazy, but he’s so far out there that everyone else backs away.

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The 12th gets the most development, but others get some development. John Bacchus gets a few jokes of his own. The humor here stems from the characters themselves, rather than specific punchlines. Such comedy is more than funny, but builds the character. The impression these scenes leave is that Future Diary could develop a Slice of Life anime with its cast.

Things get fuzzier when Redial goes back in touch with the plot. It tries to develop the romance concept, but it ends up being confused on what it wants to say. The original was satirical about it. It presented an intense love, but showed its danger. Yuno’s obsession with Yuki isn’t healthy or productive, and the original knew that.

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The conclusion hints at a love-conquers-all message. The original always dealt with extremes, so a love that defeats such barriers isn’t out of place. It doesn’t align with the satire, though. As an exploration of Yuno’s psych, it’s too short.

The changes in the new world weren’t enough to change everyone completely. Rei still has a sadistic side to him. Expecting Yuno to be psych-healthy is ridiculous. Psychological problems often take time until they manifest. Give this a few episodes, and you could get a true psychological series. A psychological story doesn’t need a seriel killer. It’s enough just to follow a character, and this OVA hints they could do that.

Even Deus and Uryuu get some development in their brief appearances. 30 minutes aren’t enough to develop all of these ideas. It’s a nice addition and it’s great to see these characters in an alternative setting, but that’s it. There’s so much steam left in this franchise, it’s odd nothing else came out. Attack On Titan is getting so many spin-offs it might as well be a carousel. As good as that one was, it doesn’t have Future Diary‘s lively madness.

Hopefully, someone will pick this franchise again one day and give it a new spin.

3 blind men out of 5    

Vacation (2015)

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The film opens with a series of photos from a family vacation. Something wrong goes in most of them, something that is supposed to be funny. ‘Going wrong’ here means things like a horse urinating, or a child seeing animals having sex.

I don’t go to movies to look at hot women. If I wanted hot women, there’s plenty of places to see them without distractions. In fact, whenever a film tries to dazzle me with how beautiful the actress is, I get the urge to message a philosophical question to a friend so he’ll entertain me. When I find myself enjoying the presence of a hot woman in a film, it’s clear it has nothing else to offer.

Vacation also has Chris Hemsworth showing off his muscles and lack of fat. I appreciate this stab at equality, but I’m not sure it’s worth sitting through an hour and a half of terrible jokes for. Couldn’t they just shot a short video of him flexing and put it on his Facebook page?

There’s an attempt here to make a dark comedy, only it’s not really dark. Like a lot of shitty comedians who use ‘shocking’ content, they’re afraid of going all the way. They gross you out, but it’s just unpleasant.

There are two ways to go about it. You can either go complete light and pretend it’s not dark. That’s hard to pull off, but it worked brilliantly in Borderlands. You can also confront the darkness. Use the jokes not as a way to cheapen the darkness but to magnify it. Make it both dark and funny. That’s why Catch-22 and the anime series WataMote are funny.

The creators put the characters through a lot of hardships, but none of it is meaningful or interesting. They bath in raw sewage, which goes on for 3 minutes. Someone actually thought that extending that scene to 3 minutes was a good idea. It was kind of funny at first when they didn’t realize it, but the scene goes on and on. We see them rubbing shit over themselves for a few minutes, which feel like they’ll never end. How does that extra length contribute to anything? Even splatter films don’t linger so much on the ugly details.

Some people die in this film, which is supposed to be funny. I’m not sure where the joke is in the scene with the suicidal guide tour. He kills himself after his fiance breaks up with him which is pretty sad, but where’s the joke? Wikipedia has a list of unusual death which is both hilarious and terrifying. What’s funny is not that these people died, but that their circumstances are so absurd.

No situation here even tries to be absurd. Things just go wrong. They want to go to hot springs, and they end up in raw sewage. Debbie tries to prove she’s wild at heart but she vomits pitcher of beer she just downed. The older brother finds a pretty girl and along comes the dad to make things awkward.

What defines absurdity is that it’s unpredictible. How funny can you be when every joke is so obvious? It would be easier to stomach if it wasn’t so cruel, though. When your jokes are cruel but lack wit, you just come off as a sadistic bully. Vacation is no different from the Saw films in that aspect. You see characters having a hard time and trying desperately to get out of it.

There’s no joy in here, no pain. They can’t even rely on joyful/depressing contrast to make jokes. The creators are so cruel they don’t allow the characters even a small victory. At least the Saw film have a unique visual style and a killer soundtrack. Vacation can’t justify all the pain it inflicts on its characters.

Ed Helms tries hard to make something good out of the material. Maybe that’s the joke. Maybe I was supposed to laugh at him trying to be funny with such weak material, but at this point I’m sad. The guy stayed for three Hangover films. Can the Coen Brothers take him to one of their movies now? There’s an almost effective scene where his characters break down. Helms tries to inject a little darkness to that scene. Seeing a character breaking down would’ve been truly shocking, but you can hear one of the executives telling him to stop. We’re here to gross out the audience, the executive says. Then Helms walks away like he should’ve done long ago and the car blows up. That’s a clever metaphore for his career.

There’s no reason for this film to exist. The kid behind me laughed a lot, but I also used to find shit and sex funny when I was younger. Now, I found life to be much more crazier and weirder than just these two subjects. Sex and shit can be funny. I have a personal anecdote involving shit, but it’s not just the shit that itself is funny. Mainstream comedy is just as terrible as it always was.

I can’t believe my friends chose this over Inside Out.

1.5 suicidal guide tours out of 5