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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Kamen Rider Gaim.


Kamen Rider Gaim.



When I saw the first pictures – shot on someone's phone from behind and afar – of Gaim, I assumed he was a local hero, not a Kamen Rider, in large part because I couldn't quite imagine Kamen Rider doing fruits as a theme, and also partly because it was that time of year where you usually get rumours like 'Double will be water themed and have a transparent dolphin suit.'

I was, as we know, mistaken, and that's all that's really worth saying about the theme: That he isn't a transparent dolphin costume.

Let's move on.

Kamen Rider Gaim, penned by fan-beloved anime writer and Kamen Rider Ryuki fanboy Gen Urobuchi, is the story of Kazuraba Kouta, a young man who has quit his hobby of dancing in order to grow up, citing a need to 'transform' and a more pressing need to not starve. When his best friend vanishes, leaving behind only a mysterious belt and one of the padlock gadgets used by the local teen dance teams for their wacky Pokemon battles, he becomes Kamen (or Armoured, whatevs) Rider Gaim and is drawn back into the dance world. Also, the world of conspiracies, parasitic megaflora, and deities. That world too. He's drawn into it.

Joining him are a host of other riders, including traitorous grape enthusiast Kureshima Micchy, Objectivism dancer Kumon Kaito, and, operating from the shadows, stoic businessman Kureshima Takatora, as they attempt to discover why this giant plant world is trying to kill them.

Pictured: Team Evil, Mark Something-or-Other.

It's a curious one, Gaim. Breaking from a formula that's been in place since Kamen Rider Den-O, the show eschews episodic storytelling almost entirely, instead having a wholly serialised format with a massive ensemble cast of characters, including the most Riders of any Kamen Rider series (the final number, including films, comes to eighteen or nineteen) and no shortage of non-Rider characters as well. Which is refreshing: Ensemble casts are always fun when done well, and not every series can pull off the monster-of-the-fortnight thing. Gaim's immediate predecessor certainly couldn't.

Another noteworthy thing about Gaim is that it's comparatively more mature next to Wizard. Not dark, or grim, or heaven forbid Miller-esque, although there has been no shortage of people breathlessly rhapsodising on how it's just like The Wire and should air on HBO alongside Game of Thrones and reruns of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. This isn't, despite what people might say, a dark show, even by the standards of children's programming.

Kaito, why do you only have the red Inves, seriously.

I say mature because there's a depth of theme here that, while not unheard of in Kamen Rider, with shows like Double and (someone is going to stab me for writing this) Fourze having a similar depth in different ways, is still fairly uncommon. Urobuchi knows what message he wants to send, and he's fairly single-minded about sending it, and the result is a show which had people flooding to forums to discuss character motivation, motifs, and speculations for the future.

One character motivation often discussed was Micchy. I'm not sure there's ever been quite a controversial character in Kamen Rider, as the character progressed from somewhat creepy Nice Guy (with fandom divided between 'how suspicious' and 'Mai owes him, heavy breathing') to treacherous toerag (with fandom divided between 'Micchy take off the Christmas sweaters' and 'Mai owes him, heavy breathing') to delusional lunatic (with fandom divided between 'Are you okay, Micchy' and 'Micchy has never done anything wrong') and finally to semi-redeemed functional human being who really needs therapy (with fandom divided between 'He should still just die', 'Poor Micchy', 'Zack should ask him out', and 'Mai owes him, heavy breathing').

I could be cynical and say that a large part of why so many people leapt to Micchy's defence even at his most evil was because they somewhat identified with a boy being silently but dangerously obsessed with a girl, and I am cynical, so I am going to say exactly that. Another large part of it, though, is probably that Micchy is a very human character. He is deeply flawed, and not heroic, and kind of deluded, and sometimes he tries his best and sometimes he's just spiteful and manipulative and controlling. That kind of less than ideal humanity isn't often seen on television in general, let alone in tokusatsu, and while not everyone is like Micchy, probably everybody has met people who have shades of him.

Either way, I'm not sure any other character in the franchise has generated quite so much debate. In general, I think it's been a while since any series in the franchise has generated so much interest, debate and new fans. Some of that is that having Gen Urobuchi's name attached – and given the man's increasing and public irritation over his fans, it's really only a matter of time before he vanishes mysteriously at the same time that a mysterious new anime writer called Homura Ichuboru appears. A lot of that is the aforementioned depth of theme and serialised nature.

Some of it is that everyone likes seeing Kouta cry.

But a fair amount, too, is that it's a good series, and those almost always prompt discussion, just because people are enthused. It's not perfect, but it's tightly written, well-acted (the Gaim cast is one of the most consistently good casts I've seen, with some particular standout performances from Mahiro Takasugi, Aoki Tsunenori, Yuki Kubota and Tomomitsu Yamaguchi. That's no mean feat for a show which also has a very large cast), and usually (although not always) very well-directed.

I'm kind of sitting here staring at this document, because there's so much I could talk about, and we would be here forever if I did. I could talk about how I liked Kouta as a protagonist, and that his do-gooder-y ness endeared him to me rather than being grating. Or I could talk about how annoyed I was that people kept breathlessly gushing over the Kouta/Mai/Kaito/Micchy love quadrilateral, when I could see nothing to remotely suggest that Kouta and Mai were interested in each other at all, save that they're main characters and that's apparently just what you do, and nothing to suggest Mai was interested in Micchy. I could definitely talk about how Oren made me very uncomfortable at points, and how relieved I was when he evolved into a mentor role. I could talk for a very long time about how the treatment of women and LGBT people in this show compares with Gen Urobuchi's record in those regards, and I probably will in an editorial. I could talk about how, by and large, I hated the Rider suit designs, every last one of them bar about three, one of which only appeared in the finale.

If I talked about everything I want to talk about, though, this would be ten thousand words long and large chunks of it would just be devoted to personal crack theories, like 'God Mode Kouta was the one who opened the portal for Regular Kouta to travel to Wizard Crossover Monster World at the end of the last series' and 'Sagara was created by the Presenters from Fourze, and/or the Presenters from Fourze are literally Kouta and Mai'. That will probably be an editorial too. There's going to be a few Gaim related editorials coming up, believe me.

You don't have to look so upset about that.

What I'll do instead, then, is give my recommendation: You should watch this series. If you've never watched a Kamen Rider series before, watch this one, and stick at it past the first twelve episodes or so (which I personally really like, but some people didn't). I won't say I haven't met anybody who didn't like it, but I will say that I excised those people's details from my memory because I did not find them to be beautiful, so there's that. I personally adored it.

From next week onwards we have Kamen Rider Drive, which will also be my next ongoing, alongside Doctor Who. So that'll be – interesting, if only because I've never done an ongoing series of reviews that's longer than twelve posts before.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Doctor Who S34E6: The Caretaker.


Doctor Who
Series 34 Episode 6
The Caretaker.



We are now halfway through this series. It's a little shorter than most Doctor Who series, twelve episodes instead of thirteen, and I do wonder why, although the answer is almost certainly 'scheduling blocks are not always the easiest things to work with' and not anything more interesting and sinister than that.

This episode is also, as the preview probably told you, focused mostly on the Clara and Danny romance subplot, which is not my favourite subplot. Not because I dislike Clara, not because I dislike Danny, nor even because I dislike them together, but because Steven Moffat is not good at penning romances. He keeps doing it, and god only knows why, because the man is incapable of writing a compelling romance without relying on destiny and the major plot points of Audrey Niffenegger books.

I was not predisposed to like this episode, and yet, the romance is not my most major problem with it. But before we get started, let's look at last week's bingo:



Okay, that will – a few more spaces will be filled in this episode, I'm sure of it.

In this episode, Clara, already struggling with balancing her regular life as one of the most overworked and derided professions in the UK (what up, Michael Gove) who's also carrying on a romance, and her less regular life of travelling time and space fighting crime, is alarmed to learn that the Doctor has turned up at her school, posing as a new caretaker, to take down an alien menace who looks suspiciously like Davros crossed with that one Russell T. Davies monster from that interactive special. What will Clara do when – you know, I can't complete this summary in a way that sounds remotely interesting, this episode was just too frustrating.

Okay, review over, go home.

… Not that you're not – I mean, if you're at some kind of internet cafe, maybe … Look, maybe just switch tabs.

I am a highly professional reviewer, you see, you see.

… Right, okay, yes, more – more reviewing.

Where do I even start. This is a premise that has potential: The Doctor blurring the lines between a companion's regular life and their life with him, and the ensuing problems with that, have been a staple of New Who. Moffat tends to devote slightly tedious episodes to it, but it was a running theme in Davies' series as well. It recurs in large part because there's a lot you can do with it, and it contextualises just how alien the Doctor is.

Note that I'm saying 'alien' and not 'racist', as the latter was what I got from the episode, not the former.

There are many unfortunate implications with the Doctor's recurring insistence that Danny must be a PE teacher, not a Maths teacher: The implication we're supposed to take from it is that the Doctor thinks Danny is stupid because he's a soldier, because – I don't know, soldiers don't regularly work with complicated equipment and machinery?

But here's an experiment. Detach it from the Doctor's random rants about soldiers so far this series, and what are you left with? Yes. An elderly white man refusing to accept that a black man is an intellectual and instead insisting that he must be a knuckle-dragging idiot. Golly. That's a bit awkward.

You know what makes it more awkward? Courtney. Courtney, the young black girl who gets no characterisation other than being called a 'disruptive influence' and which the Doctor snidely implies is a shoplifter.

So what we're left with is an episode where, among other things, an elderly white man calls a young black girl a shoplifter and implies a black man is stupid. Are you okay there, Moffat?

I mean, apart from being so misogynistic you can actually prove it
through science, Moff.

But fine, fine. I can judge an episode on the merits of its non horrifyingly unfortunate implication sections. So what is the rest of this episode like?

Frustrating. Incredibly frustrating. Frustrating.

I am frustrated.

Here's a suggestion for the episode: Have Clara just tell Danny what's going on, in the first thirty seconds. How weary I have grown of the 'lulz we have to keep it a seeeecreeeet from our loved oooones' plot, having seen it in every comic book, vaguely supernatural television series, and film produced since before my birth. In this case, there's no good reason not to tell Danny: They live in a world where aliens are common knowledge, and it's not as if him knowing will put him at risk. Just do it.

Instead, what proceeds is a tangled skein of bad lies that eventually culminate in some of the most poorly written conflict I've seen in literally two or three weeks, as the Doctor casually mentions that he's aristocracy and Danny flies off the deep end. Speaking of, Doctor, the Time Lords are the standing military of Gallifrey, you are an ex-soldier.

Also, the Brigadier. The Brigadier, the Brigadier, the Riedagirb, the Brigadier. I will keep mentioning him every time the Doctor raises his dislike for all things soldier, because Moffat appears to have forgotten he existed.

I'm alarmed too, suspiciously familiar but not technically recycled monster.

But it's okay! With some well-placed somersaulting, that time honoured method of conflict resolution (Sano Gaku is highly sought after for Northern Ireland police work), an agreement is come to, because it turns out that what each of our grim male characters want is for the other to treat Clara proper. The Doctor gruffly nods, his eyes alight with the 'treat her wrong and I'll gut you' schtick. Danny wraps Clara in his strong, muscular arms, rants at her for about sixty minutes about how she's a liar and that's terrible, before telling her to tell him to go talk to him if the Doctor ever gets too pushy.

It's like a WH Smith romance novel, except not entertaining. This, incidentally, is why I finally deigned to cross off 'misogyny' on the bingo, despite holding back on that thus far. Because two men gruffly fighting over the safety and happiness of a woman without ever actually taking said women's feelings into account, asking her what she thinks about this, or in any sense seeking her input at all except to clarify certain factual points? That's pretty misogynistic by my standards.

Especially when it's in the same episode as the Doctor humiliating Clara in front of her class. Remember, there is nothing more brutal and ruthless than children trapped in an enclosed space for a day with authority figures telling them what to do.

This has knocked the first episode off its throne, and that isn't an easy task. It is the worst episode this series.

Ugh. Here's the bingo: 



If you're wondering why 'mysterious mature female character who wants the Doctor's D' is crossed off, it's because Missy showed up again, if only for a second. We already know that she fits that square like a glove, it's just that she hadn't appeared from the third episode onwards.

Next week, we're on the Moon. Should be fun. Like the Moon.


Saturday, 27 September 2014

Psycho-Pass


Psycho-Pass.



Am I doing the original series or the re-edited version, though? Oooooh, aaaaaah, you'll never kno – kind of both, actually. Mostly the edit, because I watched that more recently, and I think that if I tried to comment on the differences between them, I would inevitably screw up somewhere.

Psycho-Pass, from the ever delightful brainmeats of everyone's favourite anime writer Gen Urobuchi, is a cyberpunk noir story set in a world in which everyone's psychological state is constantly being monitored by a supercomputer. In this world, criminals are arrested (or sometimes just killed) not based on committing crimes, but on whether the supercomputer, Sybil, judges them to have sufficient potential to do so. In this regard, Sybil's agents are the MWPSB, composed of inspectors, mentally healthy people who act as handlers for their enforcers, and the enforcers, latent criminals turned police hunters.

Akane Tsunemori, a newly minted inspector, arrives on the scene of her first mission, and is introduced to gruff enforcer Shinya Kogami. From there, the series spirals out to cover their missions, the strange world they live in, and their pursuit of Makishima Shogo, an erudite terrorist who Sybil is incapable of judging.

Look at these competent professionals.

In conversation with people before, I've compared Psycho-Pass favourably with other pieces of dystopian fiction (because make no mistake, the world of Psycho-Pass is a dystopia), including The Hunger Games and Divergent, because unlike those two it portrays a dystopia which you can see happening. The roadmap there is clear.

Part of that is that The Hunger Games and Divergent both play off a problem which is very real, but also very current: The baby boomer commodification and dehumanisation of young people, an Irigayan ideal of commerce in which an empowered generation does violence to its children for the sake of sexual satisfaction.

… Incidentally, one of the things I studied at university was dramatic theory and social anthropology. Just – in case that last paragraph didn't make that entirely clear.

But, yes. The problem which fuels those two books – or at least their resonance with young readers - is manifestly real, but also finite. It is limited to one space and one span of time, at least in how it relates to young people: That ideal of commerce has been something ethnic minorities and women have had to cope with for a very, very long period of time.

In Psycho-Pass, women sometimes have to deal with having oddly
shaped eyes, too.

Which kind of leads me into talking about Psycho-Pass' ideal of a dystopia, because that draws off a problem that is as enmeshed into our society as the treatment of women and ethnic minorities: Our treatment of the mentally ill. As societies, we tend to demonise the mentally ill, casting them as violent fiends who, even if they seem safe, could snap at any time and murder everyone around them, despite the fact that the person that somebody who's mentally ill is most likely to harm is themselves. In a strange kind of twist, though, despite constantly claiming that the mentally ill are a massive threat, the services we have set up to help them are often maligned, underfunded, improperly vetted and ineffective.

That's the world of Psycho-Pass, if you turned that up to eleven. There is not a single enforcer – and they are all meant to be just one alarming moment away from committing some kind of horrible crime, if the non-enforcer cast are meant to be believed – who is a danger to people at large. Kogami, the only one who has any interest in committing a crime, is specifically focused on a single person. In contrast, Makishima Shogo, our main villain who murders, assaults, incites crime in others and is noted several times to have limited self control: Well, he's not a latent criminal. He's mentally healthy.

The world of Psycho-Pass is absurd, but also very real. It's ridiculous that a society so obsessed with mental health would have therapy centres set up with poison gas emitters that are so bad at treating people that they're noted more than a few times to make people worse – but ask anyone who has been through the mental health system, and you'll find no shortage of people who've been made worse by it. It's utterly absurd that a society would have no way of punishing people who have actually committed crimes, and that you'd have police officers standing around worriedly talking about how they don't think it's possible to prosecute someone based purely on evidence: But look at things like the trial of George Zimmerman, or the fact that Darren Wilson still hasn't been arrested, and tell me that we do a good job of prosecuting people based on the evidence against them.

Yeah, those two things vex me too, Makishima.

That's what makes the show compelling as a dystopia: Because it doesn't require an apocalypse. If we had the technological means, a world like the one shown here might not be that strange at all.

I've rambled a lot about the world here, but that's fine, it's important for both cyberpunk and dystopian fiction. But this is also noir, and noir has its own set of rules, much more to do with characters.

(The series looks the part, by the way: It's beautifully animated in those very cyberpunk-y shades of cool blues, greys, and purples. It's also very fanservice-y, but only for one character in particular: One unbreakable edict handed down to the animators was that they shouldn't try to include skeevy fanservice of Akane, and that any fanservice, any at all, should be directed at male main character Kogami instead. Oh, how the animators did run with that: Kogami loses his shirt more than James T. Kirk at a beach, but more than that, every frame that he's in is drawn to somehow accentuate one of his physical features. Many are the shots that pan up his long legs, or linger enthusiastically on his neck. It's as if they went 'Make all fanservice of this one character? We'll show you fanservice.')

So, yeah, random cagefighting scene, that happened.
Okay, I joke, that did actually have a point.

The characters are all drawn squarely from noir fiction. Kogami is the archetypal hard-boiled detective through and through, Masaoka's grizzled worn-down policeman could have been ripped straight from the pages of a noir novel – we even get a femme fatale in the form of enforcer scientist Karanomori Shion.

The combination of genres plays out a little strangely, with these very noir characters often seeming to fit in poorly with the very cyberpunk world they occupy. That could very well be intentional, though: Unease with the world is a major theme of the show, and gosh, don't they want you to know it.

I say that with some sarcasm, because the major, critical flaw of this series – the only one I can really think of – is that the pacing will often grind to a screeching halt. I've said before that pacing can be difficult: This is not a case of the difficulties of pacing creating problems. This is a case of people sitting around and talking about nothing.

At one point, Kogami has a discussion with someone about Foucault. At another point, Makishima discusses the advantages of paperback books over e-books. At one point in the edited version, half an episode passes in which people discuss literature, social theory, and history. There's no movement of the plot. It just happens.

I know why. It builds on what we know of the characters, and it builds on the themes of the show. But you haven't known pain unless you've watched two people sit in a cafe discussing paperbacks for five minutes.

Psycho-Pass has a sequel that'll begin airing soon, aptly named Psycho-Pass 2. I expect it to be a very different beast to Psycho-Pass, not just because it has a new writer, Tow Ubukata, but because at the end of the series the state of affairs had changed massively, and that's necessarily going to alter the dynamic of the show.

Still, I am looking forward to it. 

Friday, 26 September 2014

Zankyou no Terror


Oh, hey, non-techno versions of the Aldnoah.Zero soundtrack. Neat.

And now, to review that one anime about cyberpunk police.


Zankyou no Terror.


[Warning: Contains spoilers.]


I feel personally victimised by this anime. Personally victimised.

It's a good old fashioned Shakespearian tragedy, except unlike in tragedies, I actually cared about the characters here. But I want to take a moment, before we push on with this review, to properly clarify what a tragedy is like.

Ahem.

Aristotle describes tragedy as the 'imitation of a noble and complete action […] which through compassion and fear produces a purification of passions.' In short, tragedies are plays which revolve around a single, noble action – often doomed to failure – and by the audience's engagement with the character, their fear for said character, and their sorrow at the usual outcome, are given a catharsis.

It would be the Romans who would later adapt the tragic form into a morality play of a sort, in which a hero would be struck with some moral failing and find himself railroaded towards certain doom. While Roman tragedy (and Greek tragedy) often used revenge as a theme, the idea of the revenge tragedy exploded with popularity in Renaissance Britain, with The Revenger's Tragedy by (ostensibly) Thomas Middleton and Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

In the Renaissance tragedy, noble action and fatal flaw were one and the same – in the tragic hero, they are found inextricably tied together. Hamlet's noble pursuit of justice for his father's murder is tangled up in a base desire for revenge that plays at his sanity and ruins the people he loves. In The Revenger's Tragedy, Vindice's noble desire to avenge his beloved's death at the hands of the diabolical Duke cannot be separated from his treachery. Even in Macbeth, Macbeth's murderous ways, his madness, his utter obsession with personal power, stems from the basis of his being a noble lord and soldier who loves his wife and his country.

What a charming young woman.

Zankyou no Terror, firmly in the last of those styles, is the story of two teenage boys, Nine and Twelve, who have become terrorists, launching bombastic and sinister attacks against the nation of Japan. Rescuing a girl, Lisa, from one of their attacks, they inform her that she is now their accomplice. Meanwhile, Shibazaki, a detective from Hiroshima, seeks to uncover the two's identities. But as time goes on, it seems more and more like Nine and Twelve have a deeper goal, and are seeking revenge on some greater figure.

It's a typically Renaissance tragedy, because Nine and Twelve's noble pursuit of justice is tied up in their critical flaw: Naivete. What makes this story tragic – more tragic than Hamlet, even – is that their entire plan ultimately amounts to a shout into the void. Everyone who suffered at the hands of their enemy is dead. They are dying, and nothing can stop it. Everyone who could be punished for it, who they could seek justice against, is past the point where it would matter: They are either dead, or old and sick and bitter with life anyway. From the moment you know the boys' plans, it becomes inescapably clear that their noble and complete action is pointless.

Even Hamlet eventually gets his man. Vindice murders the Duke and reveals to the world the man's excesses. By the end of Nine and Twelve's story, they have almost nothing: Just one man and one young girl who recognise that they were alive. The story ends with the question of whether that's enough, and it doesn't even try to hint at an answer.

Nine is the only person who has ever looked good in a baseball cap.

Mechanically, the anime is gorgeous. The washed out greys, beiges and browns of the characters are set in stark contrast with almost sickly bright backgrounds: The daytime shots are nauseatingly bright, giving an impression almost of delirium. Even the night-time shots are marked by bright lights everywhere. The animation is smooth, clever and always striking. The soundtrack might be the best of the season, warring with Aldnoah.Zero for that goal – those two might even be some of the best soundtracks of the year, although I can see Nobunaga the Fool having something to say about that. The episodes are well-paced, too: I harp on about pacing a lot, primarily because it's important, difficult, and when it's well done, often isn't noticed. Zankyou no Terror nails its pacing.

(Note to either the writers or Lisa: Iceland is not that cold.)

The plot is excellent, but there is a period around the middle where it starts swinging off the rails. The introduction of Five, Nine and Twelve's evil fellow super-genius, was not a well-handled move: While the injection of a genuine threat to Nine and Twelve was what the show direly needed at that point, Five is played up as a cartoonish supervillain, to the point where if she had broken out a giant evil robot and gone rampaging through Tokyo I would have just accepted it with a faint 'huh' and continued on. She also dies in a strangely abrupt fashion – abrupt and, to be honest, a bit out of character. While the show slides back into greatness in its final through episodes, there's a chunk of about four episodes where it seems to abandon any sense of tone and restraint.

Five is also 50% more anime than anyone else in this anime.

Lisa, too, is a little odd. I like the character, and her backstory is set up well: But she never does anything, except for becoming a damsel-in-distress at one point. While that leads to one of the best scenes in the series, Lisa's primarily role seems to be to serve as witness to Nine and Twelve, and Shibazaki serves that role more than adequately. While I wouldn't want Lisa to be removed, I would have liked her to be a more active participant in her own destiny, especially as her relative passiveness (and tone breaking cooking shenanigans) creates some unpleasant implications when 'passive, good Lisa' is contrasted with 'active, make-up wearing, evil Five'.


I might be being a bit niggly there, but I'm okay with that. This was an anime that deserved a perfect execution, and it didn't really get that. It was still a great one, though, undoubtedly one of the best of the season (I will fight anyone who claims otherwise). 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Free! Eternal Summer.


Oh, hey guys, check out this post on Final Fantasy XV over at Nine Over Five. Because gaming news is a) Interesting, and b) Outside my remit.

Onwards to the review about that one anime about terrorists.


Free! Eternal Summer.



This series made me cry six times.

Six bloody times.

I hadn't even planned on watching it, you know? It looked good, but it wasn't my thing, but I thought 'hey, maybe watch the swimming anime and see if I want to review it' and then it was thirteen episodes of pain and heartwarming moments and people exuding water from their face and I was exuding water from my face and it was all very upsetting for everyone involved, and what I'm trying to say is don't watch this anime, it will ruin your life.

I mean, maybe watch it a little. With a healthy supply of tissues.

'The Mikoshibas are minor characters, why do you like the - ...'
You are a minor character.

Free! Eternal Summer is the second series of Free! Iwatobi Swim Club, an anime whose roots were one company doing an animation showcase and then a bunch of people leaping on it and running with it so much that eventually said company made it into a series. It revolves around the swimming teams of Iwatobi High School and Samezuka Academy as they progress through the end of their school years, struggling with swimming competitions – with particular focus on the medley relay as an expression of friendship and teamwork – the uncertainty of the future and their own personal problems.

I hadn't watched Free! Iwatobi Swim Club, and I still haven't, and while I probably will go back and watch it at some point, I'm glad I hadn't, if only because any sequel should manage to stand on its own merits without requiring prior experience of the series to enjoy. This will be the critical test that Psycho-Pass 2 faces when it starts airing very soon.

Free! Eternal Summer manages that really well. It doesn't spend much time recapping what happened, and it doesn't need to: It establishes the basics that you need to know very quickly and very smoothly, and then progresses from there into a new storyline which, while it's certainly linked with the first series, doesn't rely on it.

Also, there are new characters, like Sousuke.

The plot is actually a prime example of fiction that lacks an antagonist, but still manages to create conflict. There are no antagonists in this series: The closest you get is well-meaning but occasionally gruff and intimidating eyebrow-fiend Sousuke. The conflict instead firmly stems from the reactions of good, but flawed and human characters to the stresses pressing in on them – whether those stresses come from the inevitability of having to grow up, parents, their own expectations for themselves, or mistakes they've made in the past.

(The conflict does, however, have a tendency to build in tension over long strings of episodes. It's effective for building atmosphere and getting an audience invested, but it doesn't exactly lead to a fun watching experience. Six times, people. Count 'em. That's nearly a 1:2 ratio of crying to episodes.)

Gou, having emotional turmoil on the audience's behalf.

So, it's a very character focused piece, which means that you need to have strong, engaging characters – that's an essential for any story, but here there's absolutely no way this anime can survive without that, because it has literally nothing else (bar the basic mechanics of some very good animation and a great soundtrack) to distract you if it doesn't. But as you've probably guessed, because I would have dropped this series like a hot … egg … thing … about three episodes in if it wasn't up to snuff, the characters are really good. They're anime archetypes, that much is obvious, but none of them are two-dimensional, and all of them have hidden depths (one of the funniest moments in the series, for me, was quiet and affable Makoto turning steely manipulator on Rei) and notable flaws. They're very real characters, and you find yourself rooting for all of them – and that's probably a decent amount of why this series is so popular.

(An equally decent amount is that it has a lot of scantily clad young men being very gay at each other. No, you cannot convince me that anyone without the surname 'Mikoshiba' is straight in this show. I would go so far as to say that acting like there's any ambiguity about it, when certain pairings of characters will stare longingly into each other's eyes and whisper names, or jealously remark on how 'taken with him' they are for someone else, or outright say that they're jealous. If you're trying to claim that the main characters aren't romantically interested – within certain pairings, obviously - in each other here, I'm going to claim you're delusional and question your motives.)

Is Haru's dream to be a chef or a dolphin? I don't know.
Neither does he, judging by the wider plot of the series.

As I mentioned before, there's some gorgeous animation – truly, the animation team has turned the rendering of moist, muscular young men into an art form – and a great soundtrack. It's not the best soundtrack I've heard this season, but it's competing with Aldnoah.Zero, Zankyou no Terror, Psycho-Pass EDIT and Sword Art Online II, so the odds are stacked against it. In any other season, it might have been.

Also, it has animal motifs. I like animal motifs. Although if they were being strict to them, Haru would probably be a serial killer and Makoto would be a hyper-intelligent troll with sociopathic tendencies. Let us be glad that they didn't stick closely to what said animals are actually like. That would have been an entirely different anime, and I'm not sure Nagisa would have survived that one.

Just, you know. If you ever want to write an AU. Someone write that AU.

Not pictured: Nagisa, because Makoto has eaten him.

So, overall, I enjoyed this anime about stupid awkward fishdorks, and I'm really glad I decided to watch it. Rest assured that when I get around to watching the first series I'll be reviewing that, although in the meantime I'm going to be slightly sad that the chance of a third series seems to be precisely zero. Not too sad: The series had a fine ending, and you probably shouldn't over-egg the swimming pudding, but a little sad.

Six times, guys. Stupid fishdorks.



Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Editorial: Ten Anime Murphy Definitely Won't Be Reviewing This Fortnight.


Ten Anime Murphy Definitely Won't Be Reviewing This Fortnight.

I'm reviewing a lot of anime this fortnight. Perils of the end of the summer anime season.

Okay, five, I'm reviewing five. Also, two tokusatsu series. Also, one Objectified Scotsman Drama. Given that I do six reviews a week, only five of which are open slots right now, that's still quite a lot.

So, in celebration of the one day for the next two weeks that I don't have something planned for, here's the ten anime I definitely won't be reviewing this fortnight.


Break Blade.

This was only on last anime season, yet already does it fade from my memory. What would I even say about it, guys. When I get the chance to review something that's aggressively bad, like anything written by Andy McNab, I whoop for joy, because bad things are interesting to write about.

You know what's not interesting to write about? Boring things. There are only so many different ways you can sigh about how there's absolutely nothing noteworthy about a thing, and there is absolutely nothing noteworthy about Break Blade. It's not even decently middle of the road bland, it's like someone took something that was middle of the road bland, washed it in beige, set it in a bloody desert of all places, and then imported the plot from that far-too-long arc of Digimon Frontier in which the kids are just getting beaten every single episode in more or less the same ways.

It's that dull. There are weekly twenty minute gaps missing from my memory from that time, guys.


Gekkan Shoujo no Nozaki-kun.

I do, in fact, mean to watch this and review it. It looks funny, interesting, well-animated and generally like a good twelve episodes of fun, and I'm always down for that. It's just not going to happen this week or next, because marathoning twelve episodes of an anime all at once is going to end in disaster, especially when I'm already busy these two weeks.

Look out for a review of this in the not-too-distant-future, though.


DRAMAtical Murder.

I tried, guys, I really did. The promise of murder, cyberpunk, and the heaving bodies of nubile young men, their eyes lidded with heady desire – all these things made me think 'Hey, DRAMAtical Murder, that'd be fun to watch.' It wasn't fun to watch. It was really boring, I didn't even get to the second episode.

How does an opening episode manage to have that focused a concentration of nothing? You should be brimming over with stuff! Murder! Romance! Romantic murder! Drama! But the only thing I took away from the first episode was that the main character is very sensitive about his sensitive hair, and also quite boring.

Maybe one day I'll go back and watch it. I won't, though, I'm just saying that, I will never go back and watch any of it. Ever.


Princess Tutu.

I actually thought I had already reviewed this, but it looks increasingly like I didn't.

I should get on that.


Naruto Shippuden.

Whenever I think about watching Naruto, I see just how many episodes it has, and my heart is gripped with terror. In my youth, I might have marathoned it in a matter of days. Now, though, I just sit and decide that there is absolutely no way that I will be able to watch all of it. It would take me years. Around me, generations of my family would rise, grow to the winter of their lives, and die. Civilisations would fall and spring up about me. Still I would watch a poorly animated orange ninja being the least stealthy person in all of anime.

How do people do it? How do people manage to wade their way through it?


Akame ga Kill.

I will review this at some point, but it turns out it's not actually split course, so expect that review at the end of the Autumn season of anime. Wait, did I refer to it as 'Fall' earlier on? I need to go check that, that cannot be allowed to stand.


Tokyo Ghoul.

Again, something I do plan to watch, sooner rather than later.

I watched the first episode, and while it was undeniably beautifully animated with a very interesting premise, I could quite sustain my interest in it. But that's not unusual: I struggled with keeping up my interest levels in the first episode of Argevollen, too, and I enjoyed that once I managed to push on with it.

Tokyo Ghoul seems to be pretty adored by fans, and there's usually – not always, but usually – a good reason for that, because despite what certain people will tell you, people aren't mindless sheep who will enjoy anything you put in front of them. I'd be a fool not to go back and check it out again at some point.

So while I'm not promising a review of this, I'll definitely try. Just not in these two weeks. Seriously, I do not have the time to marathon an anime. I'm not even sure if it's finishing this season.


Sacred Seven.

Does anyone remember Sacred Seven? Probably not, it wasn't very good. The story of a young man named Alma Tendouji who becomes a gemstone powered henshin hero with the help of his tiny and horrifyingly young looking love interest, Sacred Seven was the kind of aggressive mediocrity that sapped my energy even while I was watching it, and which makes the prospect of trying to rewatch it to write a review on it about as appealing as goring myself on the antlers of a wild moose.

But you know, it did have a great soundtrack. In the last episode, as Alma fights the giant diamond final boss, a lovely piano version of the theme tune plays, and I've never been able to find that. If you know where to find it, please say so in the comments, and if you've successfully found it for me, I will do a review of your choice. That's how much I want to listen to it: Enough to write for an hour or so.

If that's not commitment, then what is. What is.


Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.

I saw a really good AMV for this once. After that, I'm just not sure the actual series can live up to it.

Here's the AMV, by the way:



The Irregular at Magic High School.

This is another one that I kind of considered watching and then didn't. I might in future, but it's not as set in stone as the other two I-sorta-almost-watched ones on this list. From what I gather, Irregular is a pretty safe, middle of the road, predictable fare, and while that's fun enough if it's done well, it's not going to be on top of my list of priorities unless it's a very slow season for anime this Autumn.



Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Aldnoah.Zero


The first of several anime reviews this week, let's look at popular swimming anime:


Aldnoah.Zero



I actually nearly did this as an ongoing. The stars weren't quite right for it, I fear. They might align for the second course, who knows.

This was an eagerly awaited series for a lot of people: Gen Urobuchi was behind the show's concept and several episode scripts (although people kept assuming he wrote the entire thing. He did not), Katsuhiko Takayama did the majority of the scripts, Ei Aoki was directing and the ever beloved Hiroyuki Sawano was doing the OST. It was pretty much guaranteed to be an instant popular success.

As for me, it had my attention from the end of the first episode, because it's hard not to be enraptured with an anime that does this:

Written as kind of a response to other mecha anime, Aldnoah.Zero is set in a world where Mars was colonised after an ancient hypergate was discovered on the Moon. Now an 'empire' with access to alien technology, Mars' princess Asseylum descends to Earth on a peace trip, only to be abruptly assassinated by her own people as a pretext for war. As war breaks out, with the Martians vastly outmatching the Terrans, a high school boy finds himself pulled into the war, and called upon to use his scientific knowledge and tactical thinking to survive.

Well, and his mates. 

So, this is an interesting one, seeking to combine the super robot genre with the real robot genre, while at the same time setting up a rather Gundam inspired plot about colonists versus Earth and alien princesses and the like. That last is rather to be expected: While Takayama is behind most of the scripts, the basic concept is Urobuchi's, and his fondness for pastiche genre pieces is, between magical girl drama Madoka Magica and blatantly film noir inspired cyberpunk that borrows heavily from from Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein Psycho-Pass, well established.

It's also a series for which fan expectations were high, not least because of some rather lofty remarks from Aoki. Did it meet them? Well. It met my expectations. Others, I know, were less enamoured with it, although I've yet to encounter an anime that people haven't loved to pile complaints onto.

If it was intending to subvert the standard formula of mecha dramas, then it failed, but it does provide an interesting twist on them, with our protagonist placed in the vastly inferior mook mecha and going up against the various sleek, powerful super mechas of the Martians. The series has some interesting messages to impart on the nature of war, culture, and politics, but it ultimately does work best if you take it as an explodey funtimes action series with occasional twists and turns.

(Speaking of twists and turns: That twelfth episode, man.)

This is a beautiful robot and I will fight you if you disagree.

It fulfils that role pretty well. It has an interesting cast of characters, some excellent action, some great mecha designs, and an amazing soundtrack to go with the beautiful animation. People who were primed by Aoki's comments and Urobuchi's involvement to expect the mecha equivalent of Psycho-Pass are going to be disappointed – although the lack of lengthy discussions on paperbacks vs e-books is much appreciated – though, because it's a fun series, but it's not very deep. The protagonists are, by and large, chirpy and optimistic people, with the exception of dour veteran Lieutenant Marito, and the villains are all moustache-twirling wrong'uns, with the possible exception of slightly more sympathetic (although still rather cackling-tying-maidens-to-train-tracks-I-would-have-gotten-away-with-it-if-it-hadn't-been-for-you-meddling-kids Vaudeville antagonist) main villain Saazbaum. The human cost of war is mentioned from time to time, then hastily stowed away in time for the next fight scene.

I admit, I also derived a certain joy from what I'll rather misleadingly call The Bleach Effect, in which I was waiting with baited breath to see what the different abilities of all the different Martian robots were. It was a bit of a shame that only about six showed up properly in series (nine if you include brief cameos) – but there's another twelve episodes due soon, so I'm sure enough four to six will appear then.

I especially want the three who appeared as cameos to show up. At least one of those looked really cool.

"It's not what it looks like!" But it is. It is what it looks like.

It feels like the biggest and most gaping problem with this series, however, is length. There's a lot of information, themes, and giant robot battles that they tried to cram into twelve episodes here, and I suspect the next twelve episodes will be much the same – and it isn't helped by the fact that there are a few episodes where the pace lags a fair bit. The series might have been better served by being fifty episodes, with the split being a twenty-five/twenty-five divide. Double the length, more time to hack out an interesting plot, more space to take breathers without badly impacting the pacing for your entire series.

(I'm sure that, had they the opportunity, they would have made it fifty episodes. Alas, time, money and scheduling blocks are nobody's friend.)

The role of scheduling blocks will here be played by Evil Count Saazbaum.

I've been watching a lot of anime this season – more than I watched during the Spring season, that's for sure, and probably more than I'll be watching in the Autumn season – but Aldnoah.Zero is definitely one of my favourites, even if it is an imperfect work. It's my Nobunaga the Fool of this anime season: Flawed, but beloved nonetheless, and I can't wait to see its twelve episode continuation come January.

I just wish it was, you know. Sooner.


I mean, seriously, what the hell. That ending. What the bloody hell. I am an alarmed Murphy.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Doctor Who S34E5: Time Heist.


Doctor Who
Series 34, Episode 5
Time Heist.



Moff is writing a lot of episodes this series, isn't he? This is the fourth one he's written so far, out of five episodes, although two of those he co-wrote with other writers, I'll grant. We have Moff co-writing again next week, and he's writing the last two episodes, meaning that when all is said and done he'll have written or co-written seven out of twelve episodes this series. That seems far more than usual – and, to be honest, I think we can all agree it is to the detriment of the series.

With that in mind, let's glance at last week's Moffat Bingo:



As you can see, a lot of spaces are filled, but the number of spaces filled each week becomes less and less largely due to so many of them being filled. If we were including the first three episodes, all of the spaces would be filled by now. Alas, we are not, and so the dinosaur space might never be filled.

So how was this episode?

Er.

Okay, not bad, actually. Maybe even – good? Probably the best of this series so far, but like all the others, it's never going to go down in history as one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever. It has a genuinely original concept, though, something that was noticeably absent from three of the four previous episodes, and for that I am eternally grateful.

After answering the TARDIS phone, the Doctor and Clara find themselves suddenly in a dark room, having suffered from a memory wipe. They've been given a mission by a mysterious man calling himself the Architect: They are to rob the Carabraxos Bank, the most secure bank in the universe, with the help of two similarly memory wiped comrades.

Definitely looking the part. I don't think any group of people in
a bank has ever looked more like bank robbers.

Doctor Who does Hustle – and that is exactly what it is, right down to cribbing Hustle's cinematography quirks – is a pretty fine idea for an episode, although the execution is a bit off in some places. Moffster's issues with telling instead of showing are back in full force in this episode, as we are repeatedly informed of the Carabraxos Bank's excellent security but, with the exception of the Teller, never really shown what makes it so impenetrable, thus failing the first and most basic hurdle for a heist storyline.

If I'm being honest, the heist element of the story is easily the weakest part of it, but the episode is bolstered by having several very entertaining side characters. Mrs. Delphox makes an excellent villain/fire starter Pokemon, with Keeley Hawes putting in a performance which is both sinister and businesslike. The Doctor and Clara's fellow bank robbers are well-acted, engaging characters too, with their own agendas that are a little broadly sketched out (although what can you really expect, it's a forty-five minute episode with a lot going on in it) but nevertheless very believable.

I'm glad said supporting characters didn't die, either. One thing that Doctor Who in general has a tendency to overuse – and Moffat in particular has this problem, but he is by no means the only one, and Russell T. Davies was terrible for this – is the Minor Character Death. It loses its meaning if it's done too often, so A++ for not stepping into that particular trap this time.

(Side note: Doctor, you've seen Clara wearing heels before, why are you so confused about it now?)

This pose is called 'alluring IT support'.

The monster of the week – thankfully not a recycled one this time, and yes, I know, the last one wasn't either – had an interesting design, and the idea of a monster that feeds off guilt was a good one. That said, God knows I grow weary of the 'evil humans enslaving a poor, telepathic creature' storyline. We saw it with Planet of the Ood and I'm ninety percent sure we've seen it a few times since, and while I wouldn't go nearly as far as to say that this story is a rip-off of that one (it's not, by any stretch of the imagination), and while that story was a while ago, the 'enslaved telepathic creature that just wants to be free' thing is still starting to feel a shade overdone.

I call this 'prison church chic'.

Overall, a strong episode, especially by this series' perhaps rather lagging standards. Like Robot of Sherwood, it's good, easy fun, very watchable, and I wouldn't balk at the idea of watching it again. We even managed to avoid most of the misogynistic bull. So good job on this one.

Now, let's check the updated bingo:



Only three filled in! Like Robot of Sherwood, we're looking at mostly the more innocuous ones filled in this week, too, although seriously, B Plots. B Plots serve an important purpose.

Next week, the Doctor becomes a caretaker at Clara's school – why he doesn't just become a teacher, I don't know – and we might finally get to have Danny find out about the whole time travel schtick. Which he should have found out about last episode. I mean, really.