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

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

Ergo Proxy

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If to be great is to be misunderstood, then Ergo Proxy is truly one of the greatest anime ever. It’s second only to Future Diary in how everyone misinterprets it, both the fans and the haters. Some of what you heard is true. It’s experimental, bizarre and sometimes a little too vague. Yet no one talks about how it’s not experimental in the conventional, silly way. No one mentions how human the story is, or how traditional it is at the same time.

Somewhere at its heart is a very traditional story. It starts off with a mystery and later becomes a journey of self-discovery, a wild adventure with stand-alone set-pieces. Being experimental isn’t denying common structures but creating your own. The weirdest anime have a familiar side. They distort common tropes and structures and build something new out of them.

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The anime makes its intentions very clear at the beginning. You know this is a deep sci-fi story because there’s no info dumps. Techno-babble is common in sci-fi and its antithesis. Sci-fi is about exploring the implications of technologies and possibles futures. How exactly a technology will work is work for scientists. The purpose of storytellers is to try to predict how it will effect us psychologically and philosophically.

Human relying on intelligent robots is familiar, but the anime is more focused on what it means. Machines are just advanced tools. Humanoid robots aren’t meant to be actual humans, but serve various factions. How far does a tool advance before it stops being a tool? The companion model is important. Tools are supposed to solve technical problems – they help us build, repair and cook. Yet here’s a tool whose purpose is to address a psychological problem.

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Psychological problems are bigger than technical problems. The toaster is either broken or fixed and, in general, doesn’t have a will of its own. Psychology leads to wants and needs. Psychology is dynamic and is constantly changing. A tool that cannot solve a psychological problem without having long-term effects.

Intelligence is also important for the development of psychology. The more complex the problem, the more complex the tool has to be. Eventually we develop intelligent tools, but intelligence leads to psychology, to asking questions. But the AutoReives don’t have to ask too much. The main philosophical question – why live? – has been answered inside their programming. The designer of the tool decides its purpose. It designs the tool for a specific problem.

In a way, this is the argument for the non-existence of a God or for an indifferent God. Human beings don’t have their reasons of existence written in their code. The only humans who do are humans born in artificial wombs. Vincent is the prime example of the Absurd Man. If you’re confused over what happens to him, that’s okay. He’s just as confused like most people are. Unlike the AutoReives, he has to put conscious effort, to break out of his comfort zones to find meaning.

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Even the pre-programmed people aren’t safe from the nature of reality. Intelligence is only useful if it’s able to develop on its own. An intelligent tool has to continue to learn, or else it’s not intelligent at all and can’t deal with the most complex problems. Either reality shifts and make us question our purpose, or our intelligence develops and leads us to these questions. That’s what the Cogito virus really is, isn’t it? That’s Pino’s arc. She starts off pre-programmed with a clear purpose. As she gathers experience, she develops a worldview, wants and needs. The line isn’t between men and machine. It’s between men and tools.

Ergo Proxy is mostly about the search for meaning. It’s appropriate because the anime sometimes can’t hold on to that. The conclusion it reaches is a familiar one, but I don’t think anyone has yet to supply a better answer. We cannot stop the search. Romdeau may be sealed and ordered, but the Cogito virus still exploded. People still wondered what’s going on, and Lil Mayar found a purpose of her own besides merely existing. Human connection is also important. When everything falls, there are still people to hold on to.

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The anime mirrors the characters and humanity in general. It bumbles from style to style. The atmosphere is fairly consistent with the anime mainly borrowing from genres rather than jumping into them. Still, the theme is either pushed too upfront with name-dropping of philosophers or hidden in episodes that don’t relate to this. That’s why being aware of traditional storytelling is useful. Merely rejecting them is silly when they’re a useful crutch.

In general, falling back on tropes is a bad sign. Cliches without verve are offensively boring. Ergo Proxy‘s case isn’t giving up. Rather, it focuses on having a surface as attractive as its depths. There’s no reason to cover up a deep story with a boring surface, anyway. The mystery and the adventure are just as intriguing. While the tonal shifts aren’t huge with few moments of lighthearted fun, there’s variety in the set-pieces. It especially improves when the anime slides into its adventure arc. The set-pieces are varied and often bizarre. Episodes are told in different ways, and are often self-contained.

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Sometimes it feels like you missed episodes, but only because the focus is on making the episode an individual creation. The connection to past events is made later. The focus is more on the story. That’s another thing people miss about the anime. For all its talk about philosophy, Ergo Proxy isn’t a collection of weird images and stoic phases. It’s heavy on storytelling, on characters interacting and things happening. It rarely, if ever, stops to inform the audience on its philosophical nature. When the AutoReives cry for their ‘raison d’etre’, it’s more because this term is common in the world rather than trying to impress the viewer with jargon.

Its only flaw is its messy nature, but that’s forgivable. Any time that explores its themes so well, that plays both the philosophical angle and the storytelling angle is bound to be messy. It’s not even lying big themes on a traditional story. Ergo Proxy constantly breaks, constantly bounces from one thing to the next. The verve is engrossing, but the anime is also confused. Since it’s not a complete experimental work and not an adventure with psychological portait, it should be in the middle. A anime that’s at once traditional and experimental should be brilliant, but that’s too much to ask for. Still, it doesn’t matter if Icarus burned when he flew to the sun. The wings still worked.

There’s no reason to pass off on this anime. It’s bizarre, messy, intelligent, emotionally engrossing and accessible. It’s far-out, so I can imagine plenty disliking this. Still, this isn’t the impenetrable Texhnolyze or Serial Experiments Lain. In fact, its awareness of traditions actually makes it more bizarre. It’s truly unusual in a way that few fictional works are. If I have to present anime to an outsider, this is one of the first I’ll think of.

4.5 autoraves out of 5

Big Order

 

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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

Cowboy Bebop

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Since being a critic means writing tons of words, people often think of us as pretentious assholes who can’t have fun. Some critics swallow that crap and then write meaningless bullcrap instead of admitting they enjoyed a stylish, flashy story. The easiest way to recognize it is when a series is said to be about ‘existentialism’. That’s so general, but so useful. After all, that stream of philosophy is huge and you can insert anything into it.

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Since I don’t care about my image, I’m not going to claim Cowboy Bebop is about ‘existentialism’ when I can’t back it up. I have no shame in admitting I love a story that’s all about flash, action and amusing characters. That’s what Cowboy Bebop is and it’s proof that mere storytelling is an art too. There are a few touching moments and the last episodes push for something more profound, but until then there isn’t any depth. Why should it have any when “Mushroom Samba” is one of the best anime episodes ever?

Watanabe taglined the show as “a new genre unto itself” and later called it an exaggeration. That’s like the fastest runner in the world saying he’s slow. Cowboy Bebop never runs out of steam or ideas. It always has a wide-eyed sense of wonder and always excited what other stories it can tell. Many of the tropes are recognizable, but nothing is a missed chance.

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The approach is akin to a band that tries a new genre with every song. People who complain about the episodic nature miss the point. The series has a wider reach than nearly every anime out there. Pretty much every episode is a whole different genre. The characters and art style are the same, but even the color schemes change. “Mushroom Samba” and “Cowboy Funk” are experiments with Comedy and have brighter colors. “Toys in the Attic” experiments with horror and is noticeably darker.

Even pacing and side-character design changes. The aforementioned “Mushroom Samba” has far wackier character design than “Speak Like a Child”, one of the more introspective episodes. The series doesn’t simply borrow a lot from Western fiction but distills it to one show. It had mass appeal because it had a wide reach – whoever you are, there’s something to like her.

Convincing the viewer that the world in your anime exists is difficult. Calling things ‘realistic’ or ‘unrealistic’ isn’t enough, since you first have to know what reality is (or, more correctly, how people perceive reality). The solid blocks don’t define reality. Spaceships and cities on the moon aren’t automatically ‘unrealistic’. If you told people from 1000 years ago that anime will exist they’ll think you’re possessed by a devil.

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Reality and real life go deeper than this. Reality is, among things, confusing and has a lot of sides. If it didn’t we wouldn’t need to create art. The most realistic anime are the most far-reaching ones. An anime is more realistic the more it can contain different moods and different people. It doesn’t matter whether you live as a drifter or in a small community – life has all kinds of things going for it.

The show has bounty hunters in space, loud gunfights and a failed experiment that learned to fly. It’s still more realistic – and thus more alive than most anime out there. The variety in mood and texture of the events brings it to life. I couldn’t imagine a show having a fat balloon assassin feeling realistic.

The cast is also a prime example of how to have an ensemble. Spike isn’t the main character. They’re all are. Their personalities aren’t simply different but connected, there is chemistry here. Jet isn’t just a contrast to Spike’s apathy, but a more warm figure for the damaged Faye and the young Ed. Spike’s apathy and cockiness is what puts him at odds with Faye but their greed is what they share and what unites them. Ed herself is a sun in the group of depressed individuals. The characters don’t act out of convenience but on their inner drives, and each of their reactions is uniquely theirs.

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Variety itself isn’t enough, of course. You need more than the basics of having different episodes with different styles and moods. The narratives are always tightly focused. The world is full of great anime, but few deserve the award of ‘no useless shots’. Except for the plot-heavy episodes (which don’t really work anyway), every shot equals progress.

It’s worth noting that Cowboy Bebop isn’t a dialogue-heavy show. It borrowed this from the film noire genre. Unlike noire’s bad side, Bebop doesn’t rely on dark shots to let you things are dark. Rather, it doesn’t use a lot of dialogue because it doesn’t need to. The shots are informative enough, and so are never boring.

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The series’ only flaw is the grand story behind it focusing on Spike’s past. The series doesn’t exactly lose focus, but confidence. Up until then the defining trait was elegance. Everything was small, but it was enough that counted for a lot. Suddenly we have this huge backstory of broken hearts and smoking guns and overthrowing a criminal syndicate. The last two episodes, while having decent actions, end up mostly as a collection of serious dialogue and dark staring. It survives only on the show’s natural charm. This is one route that demanded a whole new way of storytelling. It’s nice of Watanabe to try but it didn’t work.

Cowboy Bebop is a great anime not because it’s philosophical, influential or borrows a lot from Western fiction. It’s brilliant because it’s a masterpiece of pure storytelling. There are no useless parts in these 23 or so episodes. Each story is different both in events, pacing and mood. People who are uncomfortable with this will make stuff up about ‘existentialism’ but it’s their loss. Regardless of who you are, there’s something to enjoy here.

4.5 trippy mushrooms out of 5