USS Clueless - Otaku Forever!

Stardate 20040712.1426

(Captain's log): I continue to be fascinated by anime, Japanese animation. I am continually amazed by the variety, the vitality, the quality of work I have been finding. There's a lot of crap, of course; there's imitation, and exploitation, and one has to pick and choose. But it's really astounding how much good stuff is out there.

And it's astounding how much of it I've ended up buying and watching. About a month ago I went bozo and loaded up. I picked up the first two volumes of the series Full Metal Panic at a video store, and ended up ordering the rest of the series by mail order. Then I ordered another series I'd read about, Chobits, and about that time I found myself at Fry's in the DVD anime section (at gunpoint, I tell you, at gunpoint) and ended up with a pile of other stuff. The heap of DVD cases building up in that shopping basket started looking a bit scary, and I finally exercised a modicum of self-restraint and headed for the checkout.

So here's what I've been watching lately, written to avoid spoilers as much as possible:

Sakura Wars

The Specs: 25 episodes on 6 DVDs.

The concept: In an alternate reality, in 1920's Japan, the capital is under assault by mystical forces. The primary attackers are called Wakiji, and they are partly mechanical, partly biological, and partly magical. They are also virtually invulnerable to conventional weapons which the military tries to use against them, and can only be defeated by rare individuals who have very strong spirit power and who can learn to control it.

They can use their spirit power with weapons such as swords or even pistols, but with sufficient training, they can also use their spirit power to move armored suits called Koubu, which are far more powerful. But that is very difficult. And there are four special enemies, particularly powerful and particularly menacing, who show up now and again who are not so easily defeated. Nor do the defenders know why the city is being attacked, or what the attackers hope to accomplish.

A small number of young people identified as having the greatest potential spirit power are collected together, in the desperate hope that they will master their power and bond as a team in time to be able to fight and defeat the enemy before its plan is completed. As an aid to development of discipline and teamwork, they operate as a theater company. But the enemy plan continues to unfold, and the team doesn't seem to be pulling together. Time is running out.

Sakura Shinguji is the last girl to join the group, and she is potentially the strongest of them all, for she carries the blood of the destroyers of evil, as her father did before her. The series begins as Sakura arrives in Tokyo to join the company, and culminates with a climactic battle between the Imperial Flower Division and the mysterious enemy seeking to destroy the capital, which can only end in total victory or complete defeat.

General comments: My first exposure to Sakura Wars was the movie, which I really didn't like at all. It concentrated heavily on whizbang computer graphics, but was weak on characterization, motivation, logic, or compelling story telling. I found its setting both preposterous and offensive. I decided that the series on which the movie was based was probably a waste of time.

But in May I picked up the Sakura Wars OVA collection on a whim while at a video store. And in fact I enjoyed it immensely. So I made a mental note to watch for the regular TV series as a potential future acquisition.

It turns out that the movie, the OVA ("Original Video Animation", which means it was developed to be sold on DVD and VHS without being broadcast first) and the TV series are all in a sense related, but not really very closely. They all use characters which look the same and have the same names, and the basic scenario in each case is about the same, but they each tell different stories about what are actually different characters. Effectively, the way to think of them is as three attempts to tell the same story, as if three authors worked independently from the same basic starting concept. The differences between them are more important than the similarities.

The first OVA DVD covers about the same material as the first two-thirds of the TV series, but not really. Both tell the story of how the team comes together and how they develop their powers. But the characters are different, and the story arc is unrelated.

The movie could be interpreted as being a sequel to the TV series, but only very loosely so. For all practical purposes, the movie and OVA and TV series should not be considered unrelated.

And for all practical purposes, you should shun the movie like it was covered with anthrax dust.

I really liked the OVA, but the TV series was even better. Several of the characters were much more vivid and believable in the TV series, especially Ri Kohran, who was wasted in both the OVA and movie. I was surprised by the fact that the TV series had a much darker feel to it. There's a sense of dread, of foreboding, as the series goes on.

The good: Characterization. The TV series concentrates much more on the characters and how they interact than either the OVA or movie, in part because it has the luxury of time to explore those things more fully. Some of the characters are so different as to be unrecognizable in the TV series compared to the first OVA. Sakura, the protagonist, is a vastly more interesting character in the TV series.

Iris Chateaubriand, the little blonde French girl, was entirely different, and at the beginning of the TV series she is a very troubled little girl. It is wonderful to watch as she begins to come out of her shell, and eventually becomes an essential part of the team.

For me the greatest suprise and pleasure was Ri Kohran. I hardly even remembered Kohran from the movie. In the OVA she is primarily used for comic relief. But in the TV series she is a complex character, and an extremely important one. It would not be going too far to say that she is the single most essential member of the team. She probably helped Sakura more than anyone else did, in terms of developing and mastering Sakura's spirit power, and in terms of becoming comfortable with herself.

Kohran also had the single best character moment in the entire series, which I must describe in only the most general of terms in order to avoid spoilers. Her self-confidence gets shattered by a certain revelation, and someone takes advantage of extremely unusual circumstances to come to her in heavy disguise in order to help her in the depths of her despair. It was amazingly well handled, and I am still in awe of the audacity of the concept involved. I made a wrong guess, and I was pleased when Kohran made that same guess, and then decided it was wrong. The writers anticipated my guess and wanted to disabuse me of it so I wouldn't be distracted. After that, neither Kohran nor I had any idea who it really was until the very end of the conversation. Yet once I learned who it was, it suddenly became obvious that it could not have been anyone else. I'm hard pressed to think of a more amazing character moment in any of the series I've watched.

The bad: As always, I watched the series with the original Japanese dialog and subtitles. The sound track loudness varied wildly and apparently randomly, forcing me to constantly adjust the playback volume when it suddenly became much louder or much more quiet.

At a certain point while watching the series I found myself muttering, "Shut up, Sumire!" a couple of times per episode. Sumire's "issues" were the last to get worked out, and in terms of the overall plot arc it pretty much had to be that way, but in terms of viewer discomfort I wish she had dealt with them earlier, so that I didn't have to suffer from them quite so long myself.

The ending: is extraordinary. The whole series is a unified plot arc in a sense, but the final sequence covers the last four episodes, all of which are on the sixth DVD. Things get really bad for the group, and it's looking damned dicey for the good guys. In the end, they have to go for broke and gamble everything on a single battle, where they will either win it all, or lost it all. Many, many people make incredible sacrifices simply to get the six of them to a certain place where they will have a chance, just a chance, of redeeming the situation and preventing catastrophe.

It's not really a spoiler to reveal that the good guys win in the end, of course; this isn't the kind of series where that's in doubt. But until the last instant we don't know how they will win, and there is definitely no confidence that they will pull it out. When they actually did, I was bubbling inside and I felt like cheering.

The judgment: This series is excellent. But it is not for children. There is a lot of graphic violence, and there are many character moments which would be much too intense for children. That's especially true since some of the most intense character moments happen to Iris. She is much younger than the other members of the group and it would be natural for kids to identify with her, which would amplify the terror and the pain Iris experiences.

But for anyone above about age 13, this is superb. It's actually difficult to put this into any single genre, but in a sense it's kind of a cross between science fiction and gothic horror, and it induces the same kind of dread as gothic horror, except that it doesn't have a tragic and horrible ending.

Full Metal Panic

The Specs: 24 episodes on 7 DVDs

The concept: It's a "fish out of water" story. The core tale is the developing romantic involvement of the two primary characters, both of which are very distinctive and unique.

Kaname Chidori is a 16 year old high school student in Tokyo. She is gorgeous and stars nightly in the wet dreams of every boy at the school. She's also got a sharp tongue and a vicious temper and doesn't put up with crap from anyone.

Sousuke Sagara is also 16, and is a mercenary soldier who works for a rather mysterious organization called Mithril. He's also a damned good one, despite his young age. His face is scarred and he is in superb physical condition. Mithril becomes aware of a very serious threat to Kaname and sends three people to protect her: Sergeant Sagara, Sergeant Kurz Weber, and Master Sergeant Melissa Mao. Kurz and Melissa are much older; Kurz is a blonde German and Melissa is Chinese-American. Sagara is Japanese and the right age, so he is given forged papers and enroll in Kaname's high school to serve as "inside man" to protect her.

But Sagara has never known anything but war. He's been a soldier since he was eight years old. He did not have a normal childhood and doesn't know how to operate in the real world. At the high school, he is on a hair trigger and overreacts to harmless things which his instincts tell him are potential threats to Kaname. She abuses him for it, verbally and physically, but at the same time finds herself intrigued by him. He's a mystery, he's a challenge. She finally decides he's a military otaku, someone who is obsessed with study of military affairs and imagines himself to be a soldier. But when she is kidnapped, and he rescues her, she finds out that he's the real thing. And the hair trigger which had caused so much trouble at the high school saves both of them time and again when the bullets start flying.

But when the situation becomes most desperate, strange images begin to flow into her mind, and she tells him things over the radio that he needs to know to stay alive and to save her, things she herself doesn't even understand.

General comments: The first three episodes concentrate on Sagara's misadventures as a high school student in Tokyo, and are main intended to introduce us to the primary characters and to set up their relationship. By the end of the third episode, Sagara has totally alienated Kaname and is royally on her shit list.

Just about the time I began to get tired of watching Sagara screw up, they changed gears entirely. The kids from the high school plan a trip to Okinawa, and the bad guys hijack the jet in order to kidnap Kaname. The resulting action sequence covers four episodes and is riveting. It also completely changes her feelings about him, as she realizes that she had utterly misjudged him.

Most of the series turns out to be action, and I was thankful for that because it meant I didn't have to squirm in discomfort as I watched Sagara screw up.

The action sequences also make clear that Kaname has guts, which surprises no one more than she herself. She adapts to Sagara's world much better than he does to hers. There are three more major action plot arcs, and Kaname is pulled into two of them. The one she isn't part of (the third of four total) is very intense and fills in Sagara's back story.

It also hurts a lot to watch. It was supposed to, because it helps us to understand why Sagara is the way he is. I'm glad I watched it, but it's the part of the series I'm least inspired to watch again.

The last action sequence of the series is the longest, and by far the most desperate and intense. Kaname and Sagara end up working together closely without being able to communicate well with each other, and they only are able to do what they do because they trust each other and understand each other's moves.

The good: The primary characters are extremely well conceived. There is strong comic potential because of Sagara's hair trigger, his general cluelessness about normal life, and his stoicism. But there's also dramatic potential for the superb action sequences when she enters his world. Everyone else clearly sees the romantic sparks flying (and nearly all of them approve). But Kaname is strongly conflicted about Sagara, and Sagara doesn't even recognize his feelings for Kaname as they begin to develop.

They're both extremely likeable. They're both quite believable, although they're also both unique. And the romantic sparks between them are completely believable. Watching Kaname wrestle with her mixed feelings and confusion about him, and watching Sagara wrestle with having those kinds of feelings for anyone for the first time in his life, is wonderful.

And the action sequences are all excellent.

The bad: The villain is not believable at all. Obviously, I'm not supposed to like the villain, but at the very least I should understand him and believe in his character and motivation. But I didn't believe in this guy at all, for several reasons (which I won't go into). Frankly, he's the weakest part of the series. He's a caricature, not a character.

The ending: It doesn't end. It doesn't even feel as if they're through with the beginning of the series. At the rate they're unfolding the underlying plot, this series will run longer than Dragon Ball Z. These 24 episodes feel like the first chapter in a very long book.

Which, it turns out, is not far from the truth. It seems to be based on the first part of a manga which is very long and has been going on for years, and is nowhere close to finished. In fact, my comparison to Dragon Ball Z is pretty accurate. The last action sequence in the anime is excellent, and there's definitely a feeling of catharsis at the end. But none of the major mysteries raised in the series get answered, and the romance story line is left totally unresolved.

The judgment: If you don't mind the fact that the long term story arc isn't resolved, this series has much to offer. The action sequences are superb, and it's fun to watch Kaname and Sagara interact and to watch Sagara as he starts, slowly to gain experience in socialization. At one point, Kaname talks quite frankly to someone else about herself and her life, and in the end says, "As long as Sousuke settles down, I'll have no complaint."

"Is Sagara-san bothering you that much?", she is asked.

She replies, "He's pretty bad. Because he has no common sense, he is always causing trouble. I understand that he doesn't mean it though. It makes things even worse. He's awkward, but trying hard. I can't leave him alone."

That pretty much summarizes their relationship, and it's fascinating to watch how it fares in peace and in war.

Dirty Pair: Flight005 Conspiracy

The Specs: It is a one-hour OVA movie on one DVD.

The concept: Yuri and Kei are two top operatives working for the WWWA, a trans-stellar law enforcement agency which gets called in to deal with extraordinary situations. They have been extremely successful, too, but they also have left an amazing trail of death and destruction behind them. The WWWA central computer has invariably determined that it wasn't their fault, so it continues to assign them to new missions. But they are also notorious and are known far and wide as "the Dirty Pair", a name they resent.

In this movie, an interstellar passenger liner explodes in space, killing everyone on board. The company which owned it has made a claim for insurance money, but no one seems to have asked for any insurance for the 300 passengers on board. There is also a separate problem relating to a missing scientist, and the WWWA central computer seems to think the two cases are related and assigns Yuri and Kei to solve them both. There are the usual brushes with death, and violent combat sequences, and there is a satisfying amount of destruction, all of which is either not their fault or is totally justified (as always).

The good: Yuri and Kei are as much fun to watch as always. They banter with each other in a way which reminds me of Kelly and Scott in "I Spy". The story is good, and develops nicely. (And they're both babes.)

The bad: Alas, there's essentially no fan service this time. (I also have, but have not yet watched, the other two OVA movies, and reportedly "Project Eden" more than makes up the fan service deficit.)

The ending: Like any action story, what you want in the end is the good guys in deep trouble, with time running out, and lots of stuff blowing up. And that's what you get.

The judgment: It's a good escapist action story about two characters I really like a lot. That's all it is, but that's still worthwhile if you like that sort of thing, and I do.

Ghost in the Shell

The Specs: 82 minute feature film on one DVD

The concept: With all cultural and technological developments, there also appear new kinds of crime and new kinds of law enforcement and crime investigation. As prosthetic technology continues to improve, eventually nearly any part of the human body can be replaced with a prosthetic device which is actually better than the original. This even includes the brain, and some people retain essentially none of their original flesh. But how do you know who you are, if everything making up your body has been replaced? How can you be sure of anything, if someone else can remotely hack your brain and alter your memories?

General comments: The primary story is about two characters who are "full-replacement" cyborgs. One is a man and one is a woman, and they are close to each other. They work for a special government agency that specializes in high-tech cybercrimes, and engages in other "special" missions now and again. One particular case which comes their way in the end changes one of them forever, and leaves them both uncertain of who they really are if, indeed, they are actually anyone at all.

This is one of two "essential movies", or so I've heard, that every anime fan has to watch eventually, so when I saw it at Fry's I picked it up. I gather that this is one of those cases where everyone has a strong opinion; either they love it or they hate it. I thought it was superb. Visually it is marvelous, and intellectually it is very challenging. It works very well as an action movie, but it also has a deeper message (which caused me to write this after I watched the film).

The good: The characters are excellent, and the vision of the society they live in is consistent and believable. The story is well crafted and told well; the art is superb.

The bad: I don't think there really was anything bad about it, but I can see how others would be repelled by it all.

The ending: In a good story, at least one character should face a life crisis and emerge from it changed forever. That happens here, and in the end that turns out to be the story told by the movie. But afterwards, we are also left with questions about just what changed, and what the change really meant. In a sense, the entire movie is one big thought-problem which asks us to consider what it really means to say "I".

The judgment: It's another one which isn't appropriate for children. I'd put the age line at 16 this time. For anyone older, it's outstanding and a good demonstration of just how serious, important, and effective anime can be at telling stories.


The Specs: 124 minute feature film on one DVD.

The concept: There are some things man was not meant to know. What if he learns them? What if we access the power of gods before we have become gods?

In 1988, Tokyo is totally leveled by a huge fireball. It is not clear what caused it; it doesn't seem to have been a nuke, for instance. 30 years later, Tokyo has been rebuilt, but it is no utopia. The streets are dirty, there's constant unrest and lots of crime. The protagonists in the movie are what my parents referred to as "JDs", juvenile delinquents. They're in high school and are members of a motorcycle gang, and spend a lot of time rumbling with other motorcycle gangs, doing drugs, getting lucky (if they do), and ignoring the teachers at the school they attend. But they get caught up in larger affairs, and one of them begins to change. Akira seems to be calling to him, but who is Akira, and why is he calling?

General comments: This is apparently the other "essential" anime movie, which also inspires only strong opinions. I wouldn't quite call it "post holocaust", but it certainly borrows much from that genre. There are a lot of things going on, and some very puzzling people with odd abilities who start showing up and participating in events as they unfold.

The good: Yet another visual extravaganza. The story hangs together well, and it is very gripping as it unfolds. This movie doesn't really leave you full of questions and doubt like Ghost in the Shell, but it does offer ideas and images which I hadn't encountered before in quite this form, which meant that I was challenged by the movie as I watched and tried to figure it out.

The bad: It's easier to get pulled into a movie if you can like and begin to identify with at least one character in it. But the protagonists in this movie are all lowlife scum and are presented unsympathetically. Nor do they really expose much of a noble side, or become more sympathetic, as the film proceeds. The two most important characters are driven and determined, but neither is admirable.

The ending: I thought it was excellent. But I really can't talk about why without giving away a lot of things. I didn't come away full of unanswered questions, and I thought that the ending was not contrived.

The judgment: This movie is also definitely not for kids. I think I might actually put the age line at 18. It is extremely violent, and much of the violence is very graphic and explicit. I definitely agree that this is a must-see movie for anyone trying to understand the kinds of things which can be done with anime.

I've got three more titles to discuss, but since CityDesk tells me I'm at 4000 words now, they'll have to wait for another post.

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