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Monthly Archives: November 2010

zeroes and heroes

One of these days I should get something to remind me to read more manga. I feel as if I’ve neglected the medium in favor its animated counterpart, and I don’t think it’s that good of an idea. It is also sort of unfair to focus on anime and ignore manga altogether, when there are a lot more manga compared to the output of anime in a given period. So again, on a whim, I picked out another manga that I’ve left sitting for so long and read all two volumes of it. While I wasn’t really crazy about it, I thought it was pretty good, and therefore worth typing out a few words about.

Sports manga have always been a sort of a fascination of mine. This genre is where the abilities of artists get tested–in the way they translate movement into such a static medium, and in the way they represent the numerous ups-and-downs sports inherently entail. A lot of mangaka also made their name with sports manga–Koichi Takahashi with Captain Tsubasa, Yusuke Murata (who is, in my opinion, the best artist in Shonen Jump right now) with Eyeshield 21, and of course Takehiko Inoue himself, a confessed basketball fan, with his almost legendary Slam Dunk. While the series I mentioned above relied on the conventional tropes of the genre, this one is different. It presents boxing from an interesting perspective, and that’s what I liked about it.

Taiyo Matsumoto’s boxing manga Zero offers a small glimpse into the world of boxing through the eyes of a definitely interesting character. It’s in the same genre as say, Ashita no Joe and Hajime no Ippo, but I feel as if it really can’t be compared starkly with these two.

I confess. I haven’t been exposed to Matsumoto’s works aside from his collection Brothers of Japan, which I didn’t like that much. However, I’ve heard great things about the creator of Tekkon Kinkreet (which was adapted into a movie by Studio 4c), and numerous other acclaimed titles, thus I’ve put him in my checklist. Brothers reminded me of Usamaru Furuyas early work, namely Palepoli–which I’ve read only a day prior to Brothers–in the way it presented its admittedly crazy ideas. However I felt it was inferior to Palepoli, simply because Palepoli was just an explosion of creativity and an infusion of crazy ideas and inspired art. (I sure wish Furuya would create another manga like that–his current works are pretty good, but they lack what Palepoli had.)

Now then, onto the good bits.

Art – What’s really impressed me about Taiyo Matsumoto is his art. He has a knack for drawing realistic characters while using an unconventional art style. I saw it in Brothers, and again in Zero. There’s an edge to his drawings rarely seen in manga today. He stands between the realist mangaka such as say, Inoue and Kentaro Miura, and the ultra-fancy ones, such as Furuya and even Igarashi Daisuke. Matsumoto also boasts flexibility, as is shown by what I’ve seen of his latest output Takemitsu Zamurai. Comparing the two, one could hardly guess that both of them were drawn by the same artist.

In Zero, Matsumoto shows his realist side. Characters are drawn without the conventional tropes of manga character design, and they also give off a feeling of rawness, which I like. His panel composition is also quite unique, but not quite as odd-ball as Brothers. Like I said, the abilities of an artist gets tested in sports manga, and Matsumoto undergoes the same in Zero.

Action is one of the biggest things in sports manga, and I say Zero passes it. However, it doesn’t pass the test with flying colors like Slam Dunk’s latter chapters in terms of pure movement. Sometimes I even feel as if Matsumoto’s style doesn’t really suit the more intense bits of Zero, and that the benefits of realism don’t really get translated into the fights that well. The composition and fight choreography can get confusing at times, and I wasn’t able to follow the action with the exactness that I liked. Zero has a nice sense of paneling, though, and Matsumoto’s use of interesting perspectives gives the fights enough dynamism and sense of movement to last me through all 12 rounds.

Story – Zero isn’t just your ordinary boxing manga, and I like it for that. While other such stories revolve around an underdog attempting to go from Point A to Point B–with point B being a championship belt–with all the conventional tropes of the genre infused into it, such as romance, friendship, effort, and guts, Zero is widely different. Instead, it takes an already established boxer, Goshima, and his mindset and view as to what boxing means for him, and lays it on the table.

The manga takes its name from the main character, Goshima, who was nicknamed “Zero” because of his undefeated streak through his ten-year boxing career. Not coincidentally, his monstrous skills in the ring also take him to the Middleweight World Championship, which he holds throughout the manga. Goshima is feared all throughout the boxing world, and alongside that fear is the desire for his fellow boxers to unseat him and finally take away his nickname “Zero”.

What’s nice about Zero is its not-so familiar main character. Goshima isn’t the standard protagonist who just wants to win through effort and guts, in fact he destroys his opponents left and right, but he’s the silent brooding type who is in a crossroads. He was already 30 years old in the manga, arguably past his prime, undergoing a dilemma common to all famously skilled athletes–to keep on fighting, or to finally lay down his gloves and retire. Goshima’s personality also throws a nice twist to things. He is an eccentric person, who knows nothing else aside from boxing. All he desires is to fight, and the way the manga handles that facet of his problem is quite effective. It shows how his innate competitive nature leads him to a final confrontation, in which his dilemma could be solved.

The manga also gives a nice glimpse into the sport of boxing itself. Sports manga generally don’t delve into the business side of the sport, but Zero does just that. The president of Zero’s gym is given the generic materialistic corporate boss slant, but it’s handled interestingly enough not to make him an annoying bastard, but rather a stoic businessman. In the end, he even gives Zero what he ultimately wanted, although under the pretense of a “last hurrah” kind of thing.

Zero is ultimately an introspective manga with bits of intense action here and there, and it does the first part quite well. Goshima’s motivations and his overall viewpoint is interspersed with good timing into the action parts, and it gives each match of his a personal edge. I felt as if the matches were slowly showing glimpses of Zero’s ultimate desire, and the entire manga does a great job at building up into a very intense climax.

However, I had a problem with that. The manga does a very good job of building up into a memorable finish, but ultimately it falls flat. The result of Zero’s final match didn’t have a lasting effect, nor did it rouse any kind of emotion at all. I thought it wasn’t handled that well, and I felt that the end result of everything did not match the overall narrative content and the finish it was reaching. The whole thing reminded me of Naoki Urasawa‘s works–both Monster and 20th Century Boys had tremendously awesome beginning and middle parts, only to fall short in the ending. (And it could be argued that Pluto also shared the same fate.) Maybe the 2-volume constraint limited the story in whatever way, but deep down I knew it could have been executed in a much better manner.

*My desired scenario would have been a bit melodramatic, but Zero deserved a more energetic ending than what happened.

Characters – All that aside, I found the characters of Zero another of its strong points. Aside from Goshima, the characters around him were given development and personality. Their interactions with Zero in terms of boxing and outside it were believable, and matched the eccentricity of the manga quite well.

One of the characters I took special note of was Takada, one of Goshima’s co-boxers. He was a young spunky kid, with overflowing confidence, and considerable skills to match. He exuded the air of a young challenger, poised to finally dethrone the powerhouse who has dominated his field for a decade. Even if he is portrayed as an arrogant and cocky kid, he doesn’t come off as an insufferably annoying brat. In fact, I sensed that his personality and his actions were rooted in his deep respect for Goshima, and not just baseless overconfidence as it seemed at first. In the end, Matsumoto’s impressive handling of that contrast really told me of his skill at characterization, and I liked it.

Zero’s own coach/trainer, Araki, was memorable himself. Being known as the “father” of the monstrous Goshima, he displays hesitation and a bit of restraint in his dealings with the current champion. He knows what Zero wants, but he is torn by the business side of his sport and the wild personality of his talent. It isn’t exactly easy leading someone with an oddball nature into the peak of success, and sustaining it for ten years, and the manga shows how it has taken a toll on Araki with its introspective bits. Araki is deeply committed to Goshima, and I felt that Matsumoto gave him a believable reason to be like that.

Goshima’s eventual rival, Toravis, didn’t strike me the same as the previous two however. He seemed like an arbitrary rival put in there to finally give Zero the conflict it needed to drive it to the finish line. Skill-wise, he’s arguably even better than Zero, given his age–he was 19, Goshima was 30–and he was hyped as being a monster as well–he was rumored to have killed a man during a sparring session. Toravis’s transformation from a bright and fun-loving kid into a fearsome monster is done believably enough, however, but the overall disappointing ending shortchanged him. He was the boxer Takada could not become, and he really did deserve a better ending.

Verdict – Two volumes of boxing goodness were put on display by Zero. Taiyo Matsumoto’s skill came through in all the important facets, and excuses whatever flaws the manga had. It felt limited at some parts, but overall it is a good boxing manga worth reading. The art is drawn by a clearly skilled artist and does justice to the important things in sports manga like this one, even if it the skill itself somewhat hampers it. Story-wise, it was a decent, if not great ride through the twilight of an aging champion’s career. Even if the ending was a bit lackluster to my tastes, the manga had a slew of interesting and human characters that gave it a refreshing edge and a breath of fresh air into the world of sports manga. I say Taiyo Matsumoto’s Zero deserves a read–it’s only two volumes anyway–and should serve as a good gateway into his other works (as a gateway, this was better than Brothers).

While not exactly a knock0ut, Zero keeps your interest for 11 out of 12 rounds, and I know I’m going to dive into Taiyo Matsumoto’s catalogue sooner rather than later.

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Rose-colored glasses and watercolor

On a whim,  I watched an old anime film today due to a certain itch. The said film was released in 1973–the year after Go Nagai‘s legendary mecha anime Mazinger Z was shown on Japanese TV; coming off the heels of Mitsuteru Yokoyama‘s Tetsujin 28-go. During this time, the industry wasn’t as booming as today, with a slew of Super Robot shows churned out by Sunrise (they were still known as Nippon Sunrise back then) and some other shows by Toei filling the airwaves. There was still no GhibliMiyazaki and Takahata were still known for the Lupin III anime series; there still was no Mobile Suit Gundam. Osamu Tezuka was busy putting out work after work after work, Nagai as well. Manga during this period saw the rise of the gekiga: gritty adult-themed manga telling dramatic stories of Japanese life and other things. Pioneered by the likes of Sanpei Shirato and Yoshihiro Tatsumi, this genre of storytelling lasted until the late 90s. Personally I thought that the range of anime during this specific timeframe was limited. Just goes to show how little I really know.

I actually put off watching this film for who knows how long. Part of it was due to lack of interest maybe, and part of it was also lack of knowledge about the people behind it. However, as clueless as I am on the nature of the industry during this era, I decided to dive into it today. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. This was something extraordinary–not quite a masterpiece, but an exquisitely produced piece of work regardless.

Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi no Belladonna) was the third part of the Animerama trilogy produced by Tezuka’s own Mushi Productions, following The 1001 Nights and Cleopatra. Belladonna was the only film out of the three not to have been written and directed by Tezuka himself. But even without the legendary master at the helm–Tezuka left Mushi Pro in 1971 to focus on manga–the film still is a strong testament to the capabilities of the medium of animation even despite the relatively low technology creators had at their disposal. Some of the staff involved in the film also had a hand in other great classic pieces of animation–at least those I can recognize anyway. I myself have not watched the prior two films in the trilogy, but I’m planning to check them out soon. Belladonna was also an adaptation of  La Sorciere, an 1862 novelized history of Satanism and Witchcraft in the late Middle Ages, written by Frenchman Jules Michelet.

Of the said staff involved in the film, I’m only sure of Osamu Dezaki. He was a very prolific animator and director back in the 70s, credited for his work on classic anime adaptations such as Chiba Tetsuya’s Ashita no Joe and Buichi Terasawa’s original Space Adventure Cobra TV series. Dezaki was also at the helm of a few classic shojo series back then, namely the iconic Rose of Versailles, also Oniisama E… and Ace wo Nerae–which Hideaki Anno and the guys at Gainax would parody later on in their own OVA series Gunbuster. Here in Belladonna he was credited for key animation, but my untrained eye can’t spot his work here. Dezaki was also part of the original founders of Madhouse, but my memory could be failing me.

Another noteworthy person in the project is Gisaburo Sugii, who was in charge of the original 1963 Astro Boy series. Another classic shoujo series was produced under him, Glass Mask. But perhaps he is most remembered for his movie Night on the Galactic Railroad, which supposedly inspired Leiji Matsumoto’s own Galaxy Express 999. In Belladonna he was credited as the animation director. Eiichi Yamamoto returns for another directorial spot in Sadness, after his work on the second film in the Animerama trilogy, Cleopatra. Yamamoto was also involved in past Mushi Pro series, namely Jungle Emperor Leo.

Perhaps the most surprising mention I’ve seen in the credits would be Seiichi Hayashi. I never would have thought he would also be working on animation in the past, as I only recognize him as the author of the manga Red Colored Elegy, which has earned a lot of high acclaim since. As it turns out, he was mentioned as one of the animation assistants in this film, and was also director of the Elegy OVA which I didn’t know even existed. Recently I found he was also an animator in Kihachiro Kawamoto’s Winter Days film, and I haven’t heard of him since then.

Moving on, Belladonna of Sadness really is a strong film, both in terms of visual production and narrative. It is an artsy film, relying on striking visuals to enhance the effects of the narrative, and to incite in the viewers a sense of wonder. However, it doesn’t completely avoid the problems commonly faced by this type of film. The film isn’t easily accessible, and the art and animation at times detract from the progression of the story. Despite that, Belladonna still is a relevant piece of animation, even during the relatively different climate of the industry these days.

Breaking down the film, I hope this would be a good enough rundown of the whole movie.

Art – Perhaps this is the strongest aspect of the whole production, if not the whole trilogy. This anime is set to beautiful backgrounds done in watercolor, and the art fits the situations presented in the film almost perfectly. While there is hardly any movement in terms of technical animation, it makes up for that using its gorgeous art design. And, whatever movement exists is done well, with just enough technique and style to enhance the art. The story of the film is told mostly by pans over interlaced stylish still frames. Complicated it may seem at first glance, the sheer beauty of the structure of the layouts actually doesn’t hinder viewers from understanding what the film tries to put across. They are all positioned simply enough to help people get what it says, apart from the narration. In a sense, it avoids the common pitfall of having the visuals overpower the narration, making an otherwise simple story needlessly muddled and complicated.

The character designs in this film are also quite praiseworthy. Jeanne, the titular Belladonna, totally reminds me of the old Hollywood leading ladies in her design. She looks very classy, and her overall look exudes a sense of nobility. I was happy to see this, as the common designs of anime characters in general certainly do not fit here. The other characters are ugly, but in a good, realistic way. Design-wise, they are realistically drawn. The drama therefore comes off very convincingly–the Baron gives off an aura of dread and a tyrannical nature; the Mistress an elegantly terrible strictness, and Jean a wretched and pitiful form.

The eccentric visuals also heighten the already high level of eroticism the narrative contains. Numerous shots of very symbolic artworks litter the screen from time to time, and not only do they come off as superbly artsy, but they also achieve a very visible and tasteful feeling of sexuality and eroticism. Sex scenes are abound in the film, and some of the scenes remind me Yuasa’s own work on Mind Game/Kemonozume–except Belladonna pulls them off with a much more creative and artistic flair. It pulls off sexual symbolisms quite impressively.

In the animation front, the film is also very impressive. The effects were beautifully crafted, and the character movement is also well-made. The moving parts seamlessly mesh with the expressionistic art, expertly taking advantage of animation’s ability to portray form and motion in interesting ways. One part I especially liked was the forest scene, where Jeanne makes her ultimate decision. The whole scene in the snowy mountains until the aftermath was well done. The ever-changing pastel background effects in the aftermath was gorgeous. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen during that sequence. The ending scenes were also marvelous; the fire effects were solid–just with enough style to give off an artsy flair. I just wish I could name who did what bit.

Sometimes, however, the montages of weird, eccentric symbolisms and art detract from the whole narrative. I felt that some of them ran for a few minutes too long, hindering my enjoyment of the whole thing, if only for a bit. What was supposed to be only an hour and thirty minute long film felt like it was tacked on an extra hour or two. Looking at the whole weird watercolored backgrounds were fun, but some shots felt old after a while. It’s quite common problem in these kinds of films, and it’s sad to see an otherwise masterful film fall prey to the same faults.

Story – Belladonna of Sadness tells a story about a woman, in the film called Jeanne, actively pursuing her happiness by marrying the man she loves, called Jean in the film. I wouldn’t know the exactness of the adaptation from the novel, as I haven’t read it. In any case, I’d only be talking about my impressions of the film. Anyway, Jean and Jeanne run into a bit of trouble with the governing persons in their village–the Baron and the Mistress. Being poor, Jean could not pay the tremendous tax the Baron imposes on him for his marriage to Jeanne to be recognized. To complicate matters, the Mistress compounds the problem even further, by having Jeanne be raped during a banquet guised as a celebration. Eventually this splits the once happy couple apart, and the rest of the film deals with Jeanne awakening her hidden lustfulness, and going down the path of withcraft.

Jeanne’s descent into witch-hood is told through a series of montages, involving sexually charged imagery. In the film she meets the Devil, who is less a mythical figure than a purely internal manifestation–something that is brought out of a person by severe hardships. The Devil isn’t strictly the devil people commonly imagine, and only the temptations he brings root him in myth. His attempts at provoking Jeanne into finally becoming a witch can be taken both ways, both literally and metaphorically. He may also be the coping mechanism Jeanne resorts to after suffering so much.

Selling one’s soul to the devil is detailed in the film as an elaborate process, but metaphorically it speaks of liberating oneself. Jeanne liberates herself from the shackles that bound her, and the people around her–the Baron’s oppressive rule, lust hidden away through a noble exterior, and an inquisitiveness to the nature of people and the world around her. This is shown many times in the film, but it is encapsulated in the latter stages of the movie. Jeanne establishes a communion with nature, and uses her knowledge to help the townspeople, much to the chagrin of the Baron.

The film itself is full of symbolisms, much of them sexual. Its narrative takes and uses them to progress the story in a radical manner. This approach to art and storytelling surely was rare back then. Supposedly the film was geared to expand the medium of animation to older and more mature audiences–together with the previous two Animerama films. And I would say it succeeded, although Mushi Pro went bankrupt a few months after Belladonna.

Belladonna gives off strong feminist vibes, but in my view it is more than a feminist film. I would say it is more of a human story about the tough times in the Medieval period–especially considering the source material. While it attempts to defend the rights of the woman, in this case Jeanne, it is also simultaneously a commentary on the limits of their society. The liberation of sexual libido (which is arguably the facet of the story given the most focus), the independence of the human spirit, a symbiotic relationship with nature and the innate human inquisitiveness–while highly valued today–only gets released in the film via a deal with the very personification of evil itself. In the end these things all lead into Jeanne being labeled as a witch, before and after she exacts a measure of revenge on the ones who wronged her.

Becoming a witch here in the story isn’t about gaining supernatural powers, but rather a move towards going outside the conventions of Medieval society. In a sense, the movie succeeds in that department.

The only problem I can find with this is its accessibility, even if that is already a common problem with artsy films. Even if the story itself is very simple and easy to grasp, the visuals and the methods of storytelling present viewers with difficulty getting into the swing of things. The film itself is a great piece of work, but sadly only fans of such stories and presentations would readily get into it, leaving ordinary viewers in a daze and confused.

Characters – Aside from the story and art of Sadness, I feel that the characters themselves are memorable. While some of their actions can come off as cliche and predictable, they still are interesting enough to warrant paying attention to. The villains are stereotypically evil, and Jeanne at first is a typical good girl. All things considered, Belladonna’s characters are innately interesting despite the cookie-cutter personalities.

Character development in the film is also well-crafted. Jeanne isn’t the only one descending into madness, but Jean is also ensnared by the anguish brought about by their suffering. His ascent from being a lowly peasant to a high ranking noble through Jeanne’s help is believable at least, and the reversal of his fortunes even more so. In the end he receives rightful retribution for everything he did.

The Baron and the Mistress themselves embody the stereotypical evil villain, but they’re still memorable. Their designs could have a hand in that. The Baron is the source of all Jean and Jeanne’s grief, aided by the Mistress. They remain what they are until the end, but the Mistress gets what she deserves in the end. I find it funny that only the female villain gets her comeuppance; perhaps it could be one of the film’s moments of misogyny.

Jeanne, though, shines brightest among all of them. Her transformation from a sweet and loving wife into a worldly and seductive witch is pulled off effectively. She keeps to her nature even through undergoing her change, harboring the feelings she has for her husband until the end. Jeanne displays a strength of will despite all her suffering, and throughout the Devil’s advances. Even with the Devil eventually succeeding, Jeanne’s character isn’t necessarily destroyed, rather it keeps to her original nature–just with the added sexuality and worldly knowledge. She doesn’t turn evil at all, contrary to what the film says.

Verdict – Belladonna of Sadness is  a very exquisite film, a radical approach to animation in both design and storytelling rarely seen in its time. Anime was still in its growing stages at this point, but the film, no, the entire Animerama series I should say, was a needed jolt to show people the true range and capabilities of the medium. Though it led to Mushi Pro’s bankruptcy, I say some of the film’s methods and stylistic approaches were carried over to today’s era, however rare those said products are.

Sadly, the film could only be appreciated by fans of quirky and strange pieces of animation–just as it was back then. I would still suggest at least giving this a shot, as it is an excellent artistic work. Not necessarily a masterpiece–there are better films than this–but still a wonderfully put-together production that deserves at least third looks. Watching a unique anime once in a while could only be a good thing.

Anime is a very diverse medium of art, and Belladonna of Sadness is just one of those anime that define that statement.

*In my very first post, I posted links to popular manga/anime resources, but I’d like to refrain from that now. After all, if you’ve watched more than a handful of anime or read more than a handful of manga, you would know where to look.


Good vibes, good vibes everywhere

Good lord, I am on a roll. This should be my second post in two days. Yesterday I made a sort of advertising post for one of my favorite manga–Memories of Emanon. Hopefully, some people were swayed by that and decided to take a look at it themselves–I’d be really glad. While I’m finally getting the hang of this blogging thing, I decided not to stick strictly to plugging manga. This time, I’d like to shine the spotlight on the works of one of the best anime creators in today’s industry–Masaaki Yuasa.

I’m sure you already know or at least have a general idea of who Yuasa is. His works were all well-received in fan circles, and a lot of people can identify him based on his wacky, unusual, and highly creative–some would say even downright ugly–style; which he also shares with some other animators/directors. He’s been active in animation for a long time, doing work in some OVAs/TV anime as The Hakkenden, and the crazy popular Crayon Shin-chan. He shared the load with director Tatsuo Sato for the massively trippy Cat Soup produced by JC Staff, but he’s almost only known today by his directorial work on Studio 4C‘s mind-blowing movie Mind Game, which also happens to be one of my favorite animated movies of all time. His other works at 4C include Noiseman Sound Insect, and the Happy Machine segment of the first Genius Party collection (I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten other ones, so bear with me here). Now he has directed three equally great TV series at Madhouse studios, which are:

  • Kemonozume (2006)
  • Kaiba (2008)
  • The Tatami Galaxy/Yojou-han Shinwa Taikei (2010)

Masaaki Yuasa has proven time and again how going against the standard anime norms can oftentimes produce great, if not utterly amazing works. What follows next is a (hopefully) brief rundown of his works post-Mind Game.

Kemonozume – Yuasa’s first directorial stint on a TV series yields a simple, yet quite weird production about romance in the heat of conflict. It bears what I should say are hallmarks of a Yuasa production–romance and cool animation. Oftentimes the show is described as a crazy version of Romeo and Juliet; a description which I can hardly disagree with.

Kemonozume takes a family of demon hunters and pits them against the Shokujin-ki(Flesh Eaters) as they continue to wreak havoc in otherwise peaceful nights. But a freak parachuting accident is bound to change the fates of the Hunters’ eldest son and a female Flesh Eater, setting them on a journey to realize their burning passion amidst the conflict of their respective clans.

The show shares a lot of the visual tricks and quirky direction of Mind Game, although it is toned down in here. It still retains that weird charm which has been the trademark of a Yuasa show for sometime now. However, not many can appreciate the playful and overly stylish animation of the show–see episode 8’s Chair Kung-Fu–but the style is unmistakably creative. What’s also nice about the show is the way it handles passion and sexuality. For the first 5 or so episodes, there is a sex scene between the two main characters, but they do not come off as vulgar or crass. In fact they exude a certain kind of class mixed in with high amounts of eroticism. Yuasa manages to bring out the passion of those said scenes, just as he did in Mind Game–just without the highly abstract effects.

Story-wise, Kemonozume is a solid action-romance show for the first few episodes, but it gets into funny territory as it progresses. Enough of the backstories are explained to give the viewers the reason for many of the characters’ actions. However, many of those characters get the shortest end of the stick, and get payoffs they did not deserve. It could be chalked up to the antagonist’s villainy, but it doesn’t justify why the characters get that way at the end. In my view, many of them deserved better. Despite all that, however, the show doesn’t get into a bad and grim ending, which is nice.

And who can forget those introductory shorts before an episode? They never fail to make me laugh.

Kaiba – Yuasa’s 2008 release is a bit of a deviation from the sketchy, and unusual style fans have known him for since Mind Game. Boasting Nobutaka Ito character designs that are reminiscent of the late Osamu Tezuka’s art style, Kaiba again is a show displaying Yuasa’s flair for the creative and quirky. Don’t let the cutesy characters fool you, though; Kaiba is a legitimate take on a very interesting and broad theme–the subject of memories.

Kaiba is a fantasy story set in a universe where memories can be manipulated at will. They can be erased or modified at a whim of anyone. Good memories can be downloaded to replace bad ones, and bad memories can be deleted as if they never happened at all. The main character, Kaiba, is found lying alone, with a hole in his chest and without memories on Issoudan territory. The only clues he has to his own identity is a locket around his neck. Kaiba is then taken on a journey to reclaim his identity and to shape his world’s destiny.

Truth be told, I really need to rewatch Kaiba in order to fully grasp what it was saying, and to refresh my memory of the hard specifics. But what is clear here is that it was a show which explored almost the full spectrum of memory. From episode 3’s dramatic punch up to the plot-centric episodes, the show has tackled what it’s like to live in a world wherein memories and the overall mental faculties of a person can be tweaked intentionally. And it does it all with a slight hint of romance as well. Kaiba’s past relationships get revealed as the show progresses, and they also give him the motivation he needed to put the show’s ending in motion. As much as I would like to discuss its themes and messages in detail, I don’t have the space and the memory needed for it. So let’s just leave it at that.

Visually, Yuasa does not disappoint here. His usual energy and charm is present in Kaiba, even with the brooding atmosphere the show’s premise expects. The cutesy art design serves as a great complement to the sometimes depressing and dark direction the show takes. Kaiba’s animation is good, if not great; one could never tire of looking at Kaiba and friends journey through the diverse universe it’s set in.

And while I mentioned depressing, the show itself has a pretty happy ending. Yuasa is known as a positive guy, and he shows it here, even after what some characters have gone through. Some fans consider the latter plot-centric episodes as a let down and preferred the early episodic format, but I think they both complement each other well. Kaiba was always a journey from point A to point B, in my opinion, and I’m glad it went that way for the whole 12 episodes.

The Tatami Galaxy/Yojou-han Shinwa Taikei – While the prior two series have all been original Madhouse productions, this one is Yuasa’s return trip to adaptations since Mind Game. Adapted from a novel, Tatami ventures into a topic which is easily accessible for youths today. Part of why it’s acclaimed in the fandom as one of the best anime series in 2010 is its accessibility and the manner in which it is presented. It is a show which delves into the realm of fantasy and co-exists with the harsh reality of college.

*It is probably important to note that Tatami Galaxy is the first Yuasa show to be aired in Fuji TV’s noitaminA timeslot, and was also the show that saved it from its ratings slump during the Spring anime season.

University life and its trying times has always been a point of interest for me, and I was glad to see Tatami Galaxy do something with it and then some. It pits the protagonist, Watashi (I think he was supposed to be a nameless protagonist, but he was credited as Watashi in the ED credits), against the rigors and obstacles university life lays down on him. He is in pursuit of the so-called “rose-colored college life”, and he enters a lot of clubs in order to find one for himself. Unfortunately, fate isn’t as cooperative as he’d hoped, and he fails to reach his goal each time. However, a chance meeting with a fortune-teller gives him a chance to reset, and enter another club. Yes, this show has elements of Groundhog Day, and the infamous Endless Eight in its narrative. What stays the same for Watashi are the people he meets, namely Ozu and Akashi. His journey to find his happiness is the driving force behind Tatami’s plot, and is ultimately what makes the show great.

Mind Game and Kemonozume display Yuasa’s sketchy and abstract style, while Kaiba and Cat Soup are more grounded and traditional. Tatami Galaxy, in my opinion, sits in the middle point between both contrasting approaches. And needless to say, it works regardless. The simple character designs set against toned backgrounds are reminiscent of the flamboyant Mononoke, and it works here in Tatami. Ozu’s character design is an exception, I daresay, as his design fits his flexible character–you’ll see why later on. Akashi is lovely in her simplicity, and Maaya Sakamoto’s great VA work gives her another edge.

Given the show’s outlandish narrative style, it doesn’t come off as a show which tries to give an illusion of depth, but it otherwise tells a fairly simple story of a young adult male’s pursuit of happiness. Of course, the show itself gives a lot of food for thought for viewers, but in its heart the show is down-to-earth. As is common with a Yuasa show, the series has a very happy ending, and it also is the most dramatic of them all. Tatami Galaxy episode 11 is the best episode of anime I have seen in 2010, and it is just one of the many reasons the whole show itself is a contender for Show of the Year.

With all of that said, here’s to hoping Yuasa’s next project does not disappoint.

*Want to watch them all? Well, all of the anime I have mentioned can be found in the usual sites, provided you know them. Happy Hunting~


Page-turner

So, here we are with my very first blog post in my very own site. While I still don’t know what the hell this blog is for in the first place, I figured I might as well post something worthwhile to justify creating one. Here goes.

After a few hours of brainstorming and trying to find out what to post, I stumbled upon this quite underrated gem I’ve read a year or so ago. I loved this one so much, that I figured more people should be able to read this–hence why I’ve put this one for the special first-ever blog post.

It’s entitled Memories of Emanon, based on a novel by Shinji Kajio, and with art by Tsuruta Kenji. From here you should be able to use your google-fu to get this one, but I’d like you to stick around while I rant about it.

Now, first things first.

 

Art – One of the strong points of Emanon is the art. Every panel has generous amounts of detail, which gives the impression that a lot of effort has been put into it. The two-page spreads exemplify that aspect, with a smooth clean look with plenty enough details to complement it. Details, in my opinion, should serve to accentuate the overall art design of a manga and Emanon demonstrates that quite well. Some other series put too much detail and color to a page, which then serves to take away the attention of the reader from the big picture. Kenji Tsuruta’s simple yet superb character designs mix well with the backgrounds, and that’s a big plus in my book. The panel composition itself is quaint, but it has a smooth flow which makes for easy reading. Plus you get to admire Tsuruta’s talent in every panel.

It’s definitely one of, if not the best-looking manga I’ve read in the past year.

Story – Now to the nitty-gritty. The reason I regard this book highly isn’t just the art. True, the art is very good and Tsuruta is clearly very skilled, but the main draw for me concerning Emanon is the story, or should I say the premise. Emanon tackles a very common theme in manga/anime–at least from those which I’ve seen/read–which is, the subject of memories. It’s a bit comparable to Masaaki Yuasa’s Kaiba (also one of the best anime series in 2008, in my opinion), but this manga takes a more down-to-earth approach to everything. Few might say that the story is too simple for such a complex theme, but I say it works perfectly.

The story is set in Japan 1967, inside a ferry carrying our nameless protagonist–a man won a journey to heal his heart from a series of painful rejections. Accompanying him in his return trip is a mysterious woman who appears to be wandering aimlessly. The two eventually come into contact, and we learn the woman’s name: Emanon. As their conversations grow, the man gradually learns what Emanon’s true nature is. It turns out that she has a 3 billion year old memory–she can remember everything that has happened since the dawn of life itself. Confused but intrigued, our SF fan of a protagonist then experiences a night he can never forget.

What happens in the story is the smart exploration of the meaning of memory in people’s lives. Emanon’s presence is engraved in the man’s head, as seen at the conclusion of the story (he also learns of another facet of Emanon’s ability then). It asks how it must feel like to remember everything, from the first animals, the first humans, down to each tragedy that wiped a lot of them out. MoE also tries to cover the pros and cons of having such an ability. The manga isn’t bogged down from extremely long-winded monologues and lengthy dialog as well, but rather takes a snapshot of two persons’ lives and creates something rather unforgettable through them, if only for one night. Simplicity gives the story more impact, in my view, and gives everything an even more memorable effect.

Characters – While our nameless SF fan-protagonist is himself a good character, it is ultimately the titular one, Emanon who shines brightest. Through her the story progresses, and our hapless SF fan is left to understand her. Emanon is a mysterious and fun character, who can capture readers’ hearts in the first few pages of her entrance alone, as she did with the MC. Possessing an extraordinary ability, her adaptation to it from billions of years ago until the present is presented in a smart and natural way. Eventually, the true nature of Emanon’s ability is brought to light, but even then she still retains her playfulness and charm even as a lot of time has passed. This is also why the character of Emanon is quite unforgettable. Her nature and personality still retain their basic features, no matter what time period she is in. She is one of my favorite female characters in manga/anime, and I don’t think it will change anytime soon.

Overall, Memories of Emanon has become one of my most loved manga because of its stellar art, its simple narrative, and memorable character/s. More people should read this one and appreciate what the medium of comics can really do given skilled creators. It is rare to find such good reads, and even rarer to find one such as this–which I can confidently say is quite similar to a Jiro Taniguchi manga.

So, before I sign off, here are some very useful links for those of you who want to read this too.

http://www.bakabt.com/150093-memories-of-emanon-omoide-emanon.html

http://www.mangaupdates.com/

http://www.mangatraders.com/

http://gotlurk.net/ (This one requires an IRC client)

…and of course, your own local bookstore if and when it does get licensed outside Japan.