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Exceptions to the Rule

so far its already won the award for the most retarded full title in spring 2011

[C] #1

Faithful readers of this blog (if there are even any) wouldn’t be so surprised that I am making my debut blogging a full TV series with Kenji Nakamura’s latest offering [C], which had just aired last week on Fuji TV‘s well-liked anime block noitaminA. I’ve long been a fan of Nakamura’s since 2007’s Mononoke, and as such a new anime project coming from his hand is always welcome news. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from this latest effort of his. Striking visual presentation and cool directing are the sort of hallmarks of Nakamura’s, and I wondered where he will go next after 2009’s Trapeze, which was in itself a bit of a departure from the loud artfulness of Mononoke and into newer, more psychedelic territory.

Ever since I’ve watched the second and more substantial trailer of the show a few weeks back, I began to have doubts about the eventual quality of the show. It didn’t look and feel like a Nakamura anime at all–far from it, even. Gone were the constant barrages of color and shapes arranged in a loud, expressive way, and here come normal anime backgrounds–complete with really ordinary-looking anime-styled people–something I’ve never expected to appear in his shows, of all things. The trailer looked frankly, quite pedestrian. So with a cloudy mind and decreased expectations, I went into episode 1 a few days back, and watched it again today for good measure.

Now, episode 1. I came away from [C]’s first episode feeling both hopeful and deflated. It turned out that I was right; the show almost completely removed all the things that made Nakamura’s past shows so catchy and signature. If it weren’t for a few hints and tips here and there, I would never have guessed that this would be by the man’s hand. You don’t have the inventive artistic visualizations filling every inch of the screen like in his past shows, and that in a way, made me feel disappointed. I guess it is still a commendable effort in that he did away with what people expected of him and tried something new. It is a good thing, since it prevents stagnation, and keeps viewers on their toes. My big issue was that, the show just looked and felt too ordinary. There was this feeling I got that it was a step back, that they tried to be more subtle with the visuals and ended up looking not too different from the rest of the other anime. To be fair, this is only episode 1, and that there is still enough room for the series to grow and develop, so I wouldn’t be too hasty in calling it. All that aside, the ep was still highly watchable, just not in a way that I expected it to.

My hopes for this show were restored in the avant, even though I’ve heard a lot of negative feedback about the events that happened in it. In that sequence I saw glimpses of the artistic direction I knew and became a fan of Nakamura for, with the washed-out backgrounds bathed in a sea of pure white and red. It’s not as unhinged and in-your-face as the past two shows, but instead it’s more toned down and subdued here. Save for the few landmarks where there’s a few instances of color (which are themselves flatly done), it’s all low-key and quiet. I don’t know if I’m really digging their choices for the art direction of the series, but at least I saw that the signs are there. Just not as flashy as expected.

As I expected, there weren’t that many shots of pure sensational movement in terms of the animation in that fight sequence, rather it was carried by the visual presentation of the battle. It had this unique quality in terms of how the scene played out (like the numbers, the credit cards, and the giant red sword), which gave the scene its own flavor. It wasn’t watchable because of the motion itself, but it was watchable because of the interesting ideas inserted into it. I’m guessing that’s where the problems people had with the ep came from. Nakamura’s past series didn’t have amazingly sensational animation at every turn, but they had the incredibly bright visuals to back up the occasional bursts of good animation there was, to exhilarating effect. It was a deadly combination. The more laid back visuals of [C] highlighted the whole stillness of the scene, which I guess threw off some people, complaints about the actual idea of the fight aside (proxy battles in my economy anime? god forbid it actually happens).

I assume Kenji Nakamura himself did the storyboard for the first half of the episode, and not coincidentally, that’s where his presence is most felt. From the many quick cuts to realistically drawn inanimate objects (print ads, and such) to how some scenes were composed (the man jumping in front of the train), his touch is present there. His style always felt a bit detached and more spatial to me, and that he has a way of presenting the feeling of presence and space that just feels real. The second half of the episode, on the other hand, was similar to the first in the overall way, but there’s a few differences here and there. It felt more like a usual episode of anime in its pace, and in its composition, which isn’t really that bad. I just wonder why Nakamura only handled storyboard for this ep (and only for the first half at that), and not actual directing. I thought the series director usually takes care of those jobs in the first episode or even the first two. I think he’ll have an episode or more in the next few weeks, so I’m curious how he goes about that in collaboration with this admittedly newer stylistic approach. That aside, I liked the way they inserted voice-overs by putting the actual text on the screen in a black background, like a video game. A scene transition also dissolved into place through that method. It really gave the ep a more futuristic and modern vibe, and it’s quite unique. It’s safe to say we’re going to see more of that in the future.

I did like the parallel struck between the first and second halves of the episode, as seen in Kimimaro’s scenes in the convenience stores. They were practically composed the same way; the differences being the location of the characters and the insertion of more movement in the second version. These scenes gave the ep a feeling of unity and cohesion, in a simple manner, much in the same way that information in this ep is presented. It’s vague, spare and slow in its storytelling, dropping mere hints of what’s to come here and there, establishing a hook for people to stay tuned every week. I’ve heard people complain about this, but I think it’s a good thing, myself.  [C] is another  technically adventurous anime, in that it employs a vast array of in-universe terminology all set across a backdrop of economics. It’s hardly a unique thing, story-wise, since that style has been used in many an original series, but that’s where Nakamura excelled before. Mononoke wasn’t anything beyond a supernatural detective story, but it’s Nakamura’s adept, skilled hands that turned it into an exciting and demanding show overall. Trapeze dealt with more serious matters, but it was also presented in a very humorous and off-center way that it almost became something else entirely.

One thing I also noticed while watching the ep were the different looks of many characters. Takashi Hashimoto wasn’t the original character designer this time, as the job for [C] went to mebae, but I still noticed a bit of his own original drawings in the other sub-characters, like the convenience store guy and the salaryman in the ep’s fight sequence. They really stood out within mebae‘s set of pretty, anime-styled characters which made for funny viewing. It’s fun seeing that kind of difference in drawing style in one ep (and that I would have preferred the original char designer to still be Hashimoto, anyway). Some of mebae’s characters looked a little flat in some parts too. I don’t think it’s essentially Hashimoto’s fault, though, and I think they’re going to do a much better job at that in future eps. Other notable animators in the ep include explosion master Hideki Kakita (who also appeared in Mononoke) and Yasunori Miyazawa (whom I last saw in Fractale). Ryochimo also appears to have worked on the OP. It just shames me to say that I can’t pinpoint which parts of the ep both Kakita and Miyazawa did. There’s this very short cut of the salaryman charging towards his enemy which really stood out from the rest, so I’m guessing that’s one of Miyazawa‘s work, and there also a bit of dense smoke when the bee thing dropped on the goat man, which I’m guessing is one of Kakita’s. There’s also a nice bit when the bee thing is killed, and I wonder who did that.

Much to my surprise and delight, Taku Iwasaki (ROD, Gurren Lagann, Rurouni Kenshin OVAs) got tapped to do the music in this show, and he delivered some pretty promising tunes. I didn’t like his soundtrack work much in Gurren Lagann, but I think he’s off to better stuff in [C]. My favorite stuff from him was in his ROD-Kenshin days (his work on Trust & Betrayal was excellent), for the record. He’s the first popular anime musician/composer to appear on a TV anime in a while, I think, so it’s a pleasure seeing–er, hearing–him again.

The future episodes should be able to clear up all the vagueness in this ep, as the pilot episode served mainly as a hook and as a base to establish the basic plot pillars, which it did, quite well in fact. I like that the ep took its time with the exposition, and only dropped a few pieces and scattered them every which way. Not only does it keep people on their toes, but I think it also gives enough room for the visuals and the directing to breathe and strut their stuff–which is paramount in a Nakamura show. I am still far from sold on the new stylistic approach chosen by the staff for this series, though; I hope it becomes more interesting  in the next weeks. By far, [C] is off to a good, watchable start in episode 1–nothing mind-blowing yet–but it served as a strong foundation for the series to eventually build itself on, guided by Kenji Nakamura’s steady hands.

On a slightly unrelated note, I also watched [C]’s partner show for spring noitaminA, Ano Hana (the full name is really long), and I found it to be a very impeccably produced ep, as expected from A-1 Pictures, if a bit lacking. Tatsuyuki Nagai apparently also directed Honey & Clover II which didn’t do much for me until the end (I prefer Ken’ichi Kasai’s work on s1), which I guess is part of the reason. The ep had really good production values, but not much else. It didn’t have the same amount of sophistication, the tightness in presentation, and the smooth flow of information that Hanairo ep 1 had (if I had to compare it to another show). Instead I came away feeling like it was going to be yet another over wrought and highly theatrical dramatic anime that’s simply geared to get buckets of tears from the viewers. It’s still too early to tell, however, so I’m hoping the next episodes do better.

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