The other day I finally finished watching what was a rough yet ultimately gratifying experience in the name of Texhnolyze, that one Madhouse show I’ve seen (make that read) people heap quite a lot of praise on for its unflinching grittiness and hard-boiled nature both in terms of narrative content and aesthetic stylization. On the one hand I feel that the show deserves what’s been said about it, as it indeed was tremendously consistent and unrelenting when it came to the ebbs and flows of its story, but on the other I feel that it was a bit too hampered by the uneven state of the visual quality, something I guess is to be expected in a TV production, but in here is just a tad too disconcerting. But that’s not to say I wasn’t moved by the gut-wrenching turn of events in the string of episodes comprising the final arc (from, I guess, episode 17 onward). They did a marvelous job of making me feel like the absolute dregs of humanity until the ending credits rolled in episode 22. I’ve been pondering for a while now whether to write some sort of a comprehensive write-up about the series as a whole, but doing that would mean me going back and looking over each episode again which, frankly, isn’t the most exciting prospect in the world. And there’s already been a lot said about the show, so I don’t want to add any more. So I’ll just make do with this (hopefully) quick run-down.
Texhnolyze the series was directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki, the same guy who handled the unabashedly bloody and violent Shigurui (also by Madhouse) and is currently in the driver’s seat of White Fox‘s TV show Steins;Gate. I haven’t watched the former show in full, but I’ve already mentioned watching the latter show (10 eps, at least). His distant style of using minimal sounds, interesting angles and screen textures is something I liked, but I find that it works better when he himself is the one behind the wheel. Steins;Gate, in particular, seemed quite tedious to watch in some episodes, as I just couldn’t muster enough interest to care about the characters and what’s going on around them (though I admit thinking that recent developments have been very cool). Another thing I have with him is that (in the context of both Steins and Texh) his work tends to shine more with a brighter script work driving the other storytelling gears. In Texhnolyze‘s case, the man in charge of writing for the show is none other than Chiaki J. Konaka, the guy who’s been involved with more cerebral anime fare such as The Big O, SE Lain, and Ghost Hound (the latter two shows directed by Ryutaro Nakamura).
There are some anime which shouldn’t be strictly watched for the animation, and Texhnolyze is one of those shows. It is an anime which places the art and animation on the back seat and bends them to the will of the narrative threads spun around by the script, which in most cases tend to fall under the denser, more brainy types. While I don’t necessarily think these kinds of anime are my cup of tea, because most of the time they give me the impression of trying too hard to put forth some sort of abstract meaning and doing too much just to sound clever, but I also appreciate them when they do succeed. Which is the case, I should say, for Texhnolyze. In this show he’s written what must be, at least for me, his most deceptively straightforward and broadly ambitious piece that doesn’t pull its punches and shines above the admittedly less-than-stellar aesthetics of the series itself. He doesn’t fall back into needlessly complicated terminology and abstractions that are too vague for me to enjoy, much less understand (yes, I’m an idiot), rather he deftly presents his meanings and explores his themes under the various details that dot the plights and circumstances his characters undergo throughout the course of the series. Of course he’s written simpler stories for more enclosed gigs such as his episodes of Mononoke (the Umibouzu arc [eps #3-5] and the Nue arc [eps #8-9]), but those are only bits and pieces. It’s in Texhnolyze that this would be shown at its fullest.
But still, powerfully dramatic and layered script aside, I oftentimes found myself wishing that the animation or at least the quality of the drawings consistently matched it in every episode. Anime–TV anime, in this case–is primarily a visual medium after all, no matter how limited it may be, so it’s still important to use sharp images and worked animation to express whatever it is the staff wants to express in the production. I may just be looking too much into things here, since the show as a whole was pretty damn interesting despite those inconsistencies, but there’s just this nagging feeling I’ve had that Texhnolyze could have been much more impressive as a show if it had more consistency in terms of the drawings in combination with the good work being done in the directing/writing department. In an episode, the characters may look particularly good, but in the next, they could be off, cheap and even perhaps sloppy. Apparently much of the episodes of the show weren’t done in-house but were outsourced to outside companies (mostly Korean studios), so that goes to explain how these differences came about.
One of the other reasons I have these petty gripes about the art/animation of the show is the fact that the original character designs were created by no less than Yoshitoshi ABe, whose great work spans Lain, NieA_7, to the also-masterful anime Haibane Renmei. This is probably the second time ABe had worked on a Konaka-scripted show, the first one being Lain. Anyway, my problem is that Texh didn’t at least match the quality of ABe‘s original drawings, since not only are they highly pleasant to look at on their own, but the drawings also strike me as being pliable and workable enough to make the transition to animation reasonably well. Observing ABe’s individual art reminds me of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, for some reason. Sadamoto‘s original artwork has that specific personal touch and look that’s all his own, and that signature touch of his incredibly gets retained when the designs are ported off into animation, despite them being passed around other people. No matter who draws Shinji, for example, the result would still look distinctly Sadamoto. Maybe it’s his own background as an animator that’s got most to do with it. In Texhnolyze, though, I found the drawings seemingly off and not worked enough to do justice to ABe’s simple designs. Though in all fairness, it’s not too jarring when looked at as a whole, but only when watching one episode after another do the differences become stark.
One of the strongest points of the show, though, is the music. Understated and subtle as it is, the music work in this show is commendable for providing more texture to the bleak and flat backgrounds and visual schemes of the show and successfully evoking a sense of atmospheric tension that gets under your skin. It may only consist of seemingly random guitar riffs or underplayed piano or cleverly placed electronic sounds, but they give any particular moment of the show a very real and palpable sort of immediacy or emotion. And they’re obviously not just some soundtrack fodder, either. They serve a primary function of layering the events taking place on the screen. Some of the pieces do a fantastic job at taking the viewer off-balance as well. The ones to thank for this job are Hajime Mizoguchi and Keishi Urata. Mizoguchi has worked with Yoko Kanno (his ex-wife) before on Escaflowne, for which he composed some songs for the soundtrack, and he’s done what was arguably his signature musical work in anime on Jin-Roh. Keishi Urata himself worked with Mizoguchi on the movie, namely as a performer on the film’s main (and ending) theme, which gives me the idea that he’s also part of the cast of musicians who’d worked with Kanno in the past. As a contrast to Kanno’s work, the duo’s contribution to the music in Texh doesn’t provide nearly as much outwardly crowd-pleasing stuff in the show. Nothing like Call Me, Call Me or whatever.
Alongside the great work in the musical department, there’s also some nice work that was done in the directing department. If Texhnolyze was uneven in the basic drawings of the animation, it was also quite stable–if not stubborn–in how the episodes were presented and in how their scenes were arranged. Episode 1 had the most stylized episode of the series, from its almost incomprehensible barrage of images that never explained themselves to the ever-changing colors and textures of the scenes ranging from black to its other shades and rough static that underlined some of the scenes in the fight pit to the overbearing lack of dialogue. People always say that the first four episodes of Texhnolyze are the hardest of the lot to get through, and I have to say they are right. The subsequent episodes directly following the leader have markedly and gradually eased off on those extreme stylistic choices, but they still retain that mysterious, vague and stubborn flavor of the first episode. And those group of episodes set the tone for the rest of the series, relying more on the dark, gritty atmosphere and the slow, almost meandering pacing of the scenes to interpret the script. And as the show eventually reached its depressing climax, the series also fell back on graphically disturbing images to further make an impact. The images themselves are not as graphic as you might think, but the way they’re placed in a shot or the components of the drawings themselves or how the specific scenes slide into them do the job of freaking the viewers out, so to speak.
The ending of the show, and the episodes that led up to it, were quite possibly few of the most depressing stuff I’ve seen in anime lately. There’s this increasing sense of hopelessness and tragedy steadily looming over the characters that’s really visible under the crawling pace of the episodes. What’s worse is that alongside those heavy feelings, there’s also the belief that maybe things will work out for them in the end, and it stays with you even as the situation gradually grows worse and worse until there’s no choice left but to accept that things won’t get any better for anyone. The final two episodes for example, where the story comes to a head, are great examples of the sheer brutality and the unforgiving bleakness expressed by the series. By the time ep 22 has its credits rolled, I was motionless in my seat the whole time. People who were interested enough to stick with the series have a tremendous pay-off waiting for them.
While the show may get tedious at times (which was the reason I put it on hold any number of times), there were spots of good work dotting the series in some parts. I suspect that these better episodes were handled by Sayo Yamamoto, who’d storyboarded/directed her fair share of episodes in this show. She also did storyboard for the ED, but it wasn’t anything remarkable. I remember these eps (which I presume were her work) to be crisply presented, without any jarring breaks in the progression and flagging of interest from start to finish, and having a steady, fluid rhythm that tells the story well and without becoming boring. I’m not really sure if Yamamoto was employed at Madhouse at this time, but I assume that this was her last work on a TV series before jumping to manglobe in 2004 to work on Samurai Champloo, until her debut as a series director on the same studio’s latest original show Michiko e Hatchin in 2008. Takayuki Hirao, who I think was director of ufotable’s popular movie series Kara no Kyoukai was also on hand for some episodes, but I can’t remember which of them they were. I also haven’t seen his work on the aforementioned movie series, so I’m just going to go by hearsay as to whether he’s really good or not. Well, people seem to like those movies, so he must have done a good job on them. Then, coming off as somewhat of a surprise was an appearance by Takeshi Koike himself, who did some animation on the first episode (I’m too lazy to check the episode now, but I think his part may have been some shots in the fight pit, with Ichise punching out somebody). The final episode also had people like Naoyuki Onda as one of the animation directors, with Tadashi Hiramatsu, Hiroyuki Morita and Hiroshi Hamasaki as part of the animators. Though for the life of me, I could never see where Hiramatsu’s part was. Maybe he did the cuts with Ichise’s face distorting. I have missed a lot of others, to be sure, so feel free to correct me or whatever.
Texhnolyze, as rough as it was, was still eminently watchable despite its many shortcomings. I didn’t mind the slow pace and the oppressive tone too much, but I can see how it might turn off any potential viewers interested in the show. And enjoyment of the show in the first place lies quite heavily more on the viewer’s side rather than the series’. For the series doesn’t make an overt effort at hooking the viewers with its content, in fact it does the opposite. It depends more on the viewer’s willingness to accept what it’s giving, and I understand if people don’t like it because of that. The show doesn’t compromise on anything. It’s either you like it or you don’t. And if you’re one of the people who do, then you’re in for one hell of a ride. Not a very smooth ride, but a definitely interesting one for sure.
As an aside, one of these days maybe I’ll do some posts on more currently airing shows, provided I’m interested enough to do so. So far, I’ve had Penguindrum locked down, but I’ve been mulling over a few others too. Well, it’s not as if I’m the most sought-after and most popular anime blogger out there in the world, so I can just rest easy and wait for the juices to start flowing again. And if nothing comes around in anime, then I might just as well go back to manga. I’ve forsaken it for way too long now. I’ve read some fairly interesting ones in the past day or two, including one from perhaps one of my favorite manga artists, so if there’s any reader of mine out there, you can look forward to that one soon. Soon-ish.
Oops, I’ve made this post run a little too long, it seems. And I was trying to keep things quick.