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Swing and a Miss

looks like eight years later, LOLGONZO is still LOLGONZO

Last Exile -Fam, the Silver Wing- #1

Thanks to Animax Asia (here’s your clue to finding out where I am) seemingly being Gonzo’s number one fans, and thus reviving their same-day fully subbed simulcast of a selected TV anime in Japan–they started last year with FMA: Brotherhood but fizzled out after Maid-sama–I was able to watch the first episode of Gonzo’s effort at resurrection, the continuation of one of their most beloved original anime, Last Exile. The eight years that had passed between the first anime and this one saw many changes to the studio, ultimately ending up to their one-year or so sabbatical. Studios such as David Production and Studio Gokumi have since then split up from them and have gone on to produce their own TV anime, with varying success. And now, this new foray into an old series is the studio finally proclaiming, announcing to the world that they’re now back. But are they, really?

 

If you asked me, though, I’d say they’re not quite there yet. The first episode pretty much boasted most of the hallmarks that had made the first installment of the series as entertaining as it was–the fantastical world settings, the imaginative mechanical designs, the cute character designs–but I found it failed to capitalize on those elements as fully as I’d hoped. Thanks to the rather slipshod and spotty work done in terms of both the visual output and the episode composition, I was unable to appreciate those same things I did like in the first anime, which in itself was far from a perfect show, but was at least a cut above average. If there was an anime that you could use to prove the skill that lay within the hallways of studio Gonzo, Last Exile would be one of them (the rest, in my humble opinion, being Blue Sub 6, Gankutsuou and some other stuff). Which was why I felt deflated while, and after, watching the first episode of Fam. It seemed to be a step back, a flat showing, in what was supposed to be the studio’s big re-entry in the anime scene. Definitely not a good sign. I wouldn’t want to think they hadn’t changed a bit in the eight years between Last Exile s1 and Fam.

The first episode abruptly drops viewers in the middle of a steadily escalating major conflict between some kingdom or other, featuring a slew of new characters, with some old hands mixed in (Dio). In spirit, this was the next logical step, as inserting new places and characters introduce a refreshing jolt of newness into the familiar trappings of the series. It’s just that, the episode with which these new stuff was inserted was a bit too fast, aimless and awkward to be totally entertaining. We’re hardly given enough breathing space to process the successive appearances of some characters, and this speed skews the ep’s sense of direction, as I found that it didn’t know which of the smattering of characters to focus on in spots, and for how long. It strays off the line, almost going all over the place. The events zip by a little too fast that I had to struggle trying to care about what they were–some war or other, I don’t know. As a result, I wasn’t able to immerse myself in any degree on the episode, and instead I only let the story pass over me and I waited until the episode was over.

The use of the music contributed to the sudden shift in tone in the early parts of the episode which I found jarring. After the ascendant, celebratory mood evoked by Fam’s victory in battle, the music quickly switches gears into the more somber, solemn territory with some ritual ceremony performed by the other new characters, Milia and Liliana, in a very abrupt manner that shoves the viewer into a new scene without warning, instead of guiding them seamlessly into the transition, as what good usage of music normally does. It gives the impression of the episode being spotty, and quite awkwardly put-together. The flow from one scene to the next, I found, didn’t have that cohesive tightness that makes the whole thing smooth and fluid to the action that most talented directors can easily achieve. Add to that the rather shoddy visuals, and it all adds up to an unimpressive start to the series.

I guess I shouldn’t rail on the visuals too much, especially on the spots with the aerial battles, since it would have been too much of a pain drawing all those highly detailed ships plus the people moving within them, hence the lavish use of 3DCG. But I have never found Gonzo’s fondness for 3D, and the aesthetics born from that preference, to be appealing or pleasurable to watch. They’re the embodiment of the reasons I think 3D in anime hasn’t worked very well–the movements are clunky, the drawings clash with the scenery and the characters, the images look like they were merely pasted on the screen rather than parts truly operating within the three-dimensional space. Even the FX don’t look that good, and for some reason, they drew one cut of an explosion traditionally (as shown above). If they were going to do it all in 3D anyway, then they should just have done everything in 3D. At least it would have been more uniform. Maybe it’s just another proof of the aimlessness of the pilot episode. Too bad. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to recall Makoto Kobayashi (Osamu Kobayashi’s elder brother) doing the mecha designs for the first Last Exile series, yet I haven’t seen him credited for the job in this show. The aircraft designs of the series is one of its main selling points, aside from Range Murata’s character designs, and I’m just glad that they kept the basic look of the various mechas in this new show. Studio regular Range Murata comes back to provide the character designs, as he did in the first series. He’s the only guy I know working on that studio, so it’s kind of nice seeing him back to work on their latest offering.

All this leaves me wondering, though. What in the world has happened to Mahiro Maeda? Wasn’t he the main creative guy that was the driving force behind the studio’s artistic direction since they split from Gainax in 1991-92, or was I just mistaken? I thought Maeda was supposed to be one of the head honchos in the studio–if he wasn’t that man already. His work on their 1998 – 2000 OVA Blue Sub 6 was good, entertaining and competently handled (horrendous 3DCG aside)–he was able to tell a self-enclosed story within 4 episodes, and he did it rather capably too. That OVA also seemed to be the clearest and largest indication of where the studio wanted to go artistically at the time, creating the sort of original, fantasy anime that not only boasted creative world design, but high entertainment values. And to that end, the OVA even boasted an array of the best animators at the time (and at present), ranging from Takeshi Honda, Toshiyuki Inoue, Shinji Hashimoto. I think even Kanada was there, and unbelievably enough, they even managed to wrangle a few shots of animation out of Koji Morimoto, who’d already virtually retired from animating at that point. Years after that, Maeda worked on Gankutsuou, the anime whose stylistic approach preceded that of Kenji Nakamura’s Trapeze by more than two years. Personally, I have not watched it, but based on the style alone, I knew that it was an extremely accomplished production, based on one of the most famous novels of all time, no less. But after his involvement in Studio 4C’s Genius Party (his part being Gala), I haven’t heard a lick about him. Did he retire or what? It’d be too bad if he did. At least give him a major production before letting him walk away.

Watching the first episode of Fam only drove home to me that they should have gotten Maeda to direct this show, instead of the guy they’ve got at present (I can’t be bothered to look up who he is). He could have brought enough skill, experience, and talent to make this show more of an experience rather than a simple TV anime. This type of anime would have been a great platform for the guy to show off his creative sense of style and capable and wise directing. It’s right up his alley, if you ask me. I’m not going to say that the director they’ve hired for Fam is a hack or something like that (he drew the storyboards for episode 1), but if the studio or the production committee on the whole really wanted to make a big splash with this reiteration of an in-house series, I believe they would have been way better served if they’d just gone ahead and availed of the services of an immensely talented and proven director such as Mahiro Maeda. Episode 1 would have turned out exponentially better than it did.

Still, I guess Yasuhiro Aoki has it better. At least the guy’s still doing work in anime, even if he was sent back, for some magical reason, to doing normal animation work on a couple of shows, rather than finally getting bumped up into directing an actually substantial anime. Both anime he’s done work on as an animator were produced at Madhouse (Blade #9, Hunter x Hunter OP), incidentally. Does this mean he’s left 4C and joined the studio? If he did, it’s incredibly weird for him to get pushed back to doing grunt work like this. You’d think a studio like Madhouse would have already given him an anime of his own to handle, considering the quality of the work he’d tucked under his belt. But then again, Madhouse seemingly has a lot of talents that could use a big break of their own–Akitoshi Yokoyama, for one. I just wish they’d finally get their shit together in the near future.

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