2014
08.21

Pity it was only one ball.

As the show has previously shown, Nanami is the school bitch. She has her own posse, makes plans to humiliate Anthy, and really wants to get in the most popular guy’s pants. She’s like Libby from Sabrina, but with 20% more incest. Even in moments of seeming kindness, Nanami makes a point to ruin it within a second, and this episode is her moment to shine in that regard. Sure, the school bitch trope has become a tired cliché in fiction. Every work of fiction that involves school-aged characters will have some popular girl who reads off smug putdowns that have been passed down from MySpace to FaceBook and beyond, with no real character other than to serve as an easy excuse to introduce an antagonist. Only recently is backlash towards this archetype becoming more prominent with criticism towards Pacifica from Gravity Falls and a huge sigh of relief that Lottie from Princess and the Frog wasn’t one.

But this wouldn’t be Utena if Nanami could only be described with a couple words. A few glimpses of her personality are revealed here, with her intense paranoia that Touga’s out to kill her based on him talking about pest control. You could take that as her own realization of her personality. While she might believe herself to be “stylish and cute and popular”, there’s an implication running deep when she thinks everything’s trying to kill her. Does she believe that others will treat her the same she treats them? In fact, you could possibly chalk up her abrasiveness as a form of emotional insecurity. For the supposed school queen, she could be much less proud of her position than previously thought.

And that could possibly be why of all the men who could be run to her defense, it has to be an elementary school kid. She’s unable to handle a relationship with men her own age, so her abilities are limited to manipulating a kid who can barely reach four feet. I would love to see how this relationship progresses in the show so I can make a random thesis about pedophilic Oedipal complexes, but at this point, that’s trying to make an abstract painting out of a can of tomato paste. Instead, the kid Tsuwabuki has the simple dream of wanting to be a big brother, someone who can protect others with his charm and strength. After all, a brother would never do anything cruel to their little sisters, could they?

This episode sets up the theme of the brother complex that will run throughout the show, where the pressures of reality challenge the ideals of supposedly strong men. And through Tsuwabuki’s fight with a trio of confused suitors, the show wants to discuss the worth of being someone who could protect others. In being pummeled by men twice his age, he didn’t gain Nanami’s respect or anything that will benefit him in the long run. He served primarily as a shield, and nobody looks at that armament with the honor that a sword offers. In that scene, the show makes us ponder on the value of a thankless effort, where your benefactors take and never give for one’s hard work. But as always, whoever heard of equivalent exchange in a fairy tale?

2014
08.14

Back when neck tilts were normal.

Back to what I said about desire, desire does not always have to come from wicked or even merely questionable intentions in order to be a destructive force. Here, Miki’s fight with Utena is driven out of a desire to free Anthy from the shackles of being a Rose Bride. Abolition? That ranks highly among noble goals, but good will doesn’t immediately translate into good actions. This seems to be what Ikuhara’s doing in this two-parter by showing that someone like Miki can be just like Saionji if given the right push. Good and evil are two sides of the same coin, and you could probably find so many examples in your life where bad people did good things and vice-versa.

For Miki at least, Ikuhara focuses on the notion of purity when looking at the multiplicity of human emotion. The student council members like Juri and Touga see Miki as their strength of purity, even though he sees it as a lack of perfection. The meaning here leads to how being perfect means having nowhere else to go in terms of ability, while being pure means you have nothing to hinder oneself from potential. Where Saionji and Nanami have let their flaws be their undoing in past episodes, Miki is brought down by his idea of purity not intersecting with others’ interpretations. He wants to talk tough by wanting the dissolution of the student council and being able to finally acquire what he’s wanted for so long, but that purity of his means that his mindset hasn’t been filtered through everyone else’s ideas. He might want to free Anthy, but Anthy never asked that from him. From that, his purity becomes misguided. He’s pure in the same way a child is pure, without bias but without wisdom either.

And due to his youthful naiveté, he searches for what can remind him of his childhood. Subjects from his actual childhood have been ravaged in his eyes, with the sister he idolized in this episode—as the sweet little girl with whom he composed ballads—portrayed as another woman that Touga pulls the old in-out in-out with. With his sister having become corrupted in his eyes due to sex, he can no longer recognize her as something nostalgic. It seems a bit simple-minded to think “my sister had sex with one of my friends? What a slut”, but you can imagine that coming from a boy who still obsesses over his younger years than what’s up ahead. Such a longing only becomes hollow when his sister reveals she couldn’t care less about the piano anyway. But he can’t see that, because purity often means being blind to reality.

He even thinks of Anthy as that “shining thing” he’s been looking for, like a baby looking for something sparkly to grab onto. I’m not trying to belittle his character or anything, but that seems to be what the show’s approach to him is. The student council represents corrupted desires, with Saionji’s abusive yet genuine desire for Anthy and Touga wanting someone to be his princess. Miki’s desire may be the least cruel, but it’s still just as unsighted as his fellow council members. Future episodes will help clear the matter up, so maybe I’m just making wild guesses from selective reading.

Also, I like how Ikuhara had Miki played by Sailor Mercury’s actor and Juri played by Sailor Moon’s actor. It’s always fun to go against typecasting like that.

2014
08.07

Today's ingredient is...

I’m reading a book right now called Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, a re-imagining of the Faustian legend by making the person who sells their soul for more power a piano composer instead of a sorcerer. It goes further into the concept of sacrificing one’s essence for talent, and showing that we wish for can disrupt what we already have, like relationships with other people. The change that Mann makes by replacing Faustus’ alchemic circles with Leverkühn’s piano keys begs to the mind the parallels between music and magic. For some people, being able to play the piano is just a decent talent with nothing that stands out. Some people play instruments for fun, for money, or something between the two. But for a few, playing music is their way to connect to something they cannot grasp through other actions.

That connects to this episode through Miki Kaoru’s use of the piano. He doesn’t compose, but he’s certainly adept with the keys. Such effort contradicts his nature to other people, where he’s submissive and more focused on setting his stopwatch than any personal interaction. One quick look at him, and he seems like the opposite of Saionji from a few episodes back. But remember that he’s also part of the student council, and the members of that group are culpable for some of the mysteries going on in the show. As musical instruments can be the key to one’s desires, so can it be a person’s way to express their true self. You could interpret that as being similar to a savant. Miki shows far more potential when giving a piano or a math problem to calculate instead of a live human being, and very little can make him be just as ruthless with people as he can be with symphonies.

Except love, of course. Love is always the breaking point for some people, and the show illustrates that through an in media res opening where Miki prepares to duel against Utena for the Rose Bride. Instead of a “Who does Utena fight this time?” scenario, it’s more of a “How does Utena come to fight this person?” story. Unlike Saionji, Miki’s far from abusive and has little interest in the duel. But this episode slowly gives us his motive for fighting, out of a crush for Anthy and a longing for something that can make him whole again. Desire is what turns the meek into savages, and no desire strikes that chord more than the lust for a woman.

Further to that point, the episode examines how people can wear masks contrary to their innate personality. Miki can act reserved to others, but is meticulous in his abilities. Nanami can seem charming on the surface, but turns into a raving bitch when left to her own plans. Then, apply it to other characters like Anthy. By the patterns listed here, Anthy cannot merely be the sweet, helpless damsel that these past episodes have portrayed her as. Like Miki and Nanami, she could be wearing a fake persona hiding her true intentions. And if we hide behind instruments, then is Utena merely an instrument to Anthy?

2014
08.05
HARSH SURF AHEAD.

Its Nihongo for "Abandon hope!"

Legend has it that there was once an animation studio called Toei Doga which was the finest in the land of the Rising Sun. Stuffed with funds from the booming Occupation-era bubble economy, they produced such classics as Hakujaden, Animal Treasure Island, and their all-time classic Puss in Boots. Yes it truly was the golden age of Japanese animation.

…yeah we don’t know what happened to that company either.

Since at least 1971, Toei Animation has been the absolute toilet of the industry, applying the sensibility of “faster, cheaper, cheaper, faster” to its overall product (live action doesn’t get it any easier but that’s an article for another website). Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of a major reorganization in 1968 after the elongated production of the film Hols: Prince of the Sun (one of the earliest Seinen anime) chewed up three years of production time. The makers of that film (a rather obscure duo named Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki) were expelled from the company and have since faded from history. We can only imagine what could have been…

Krillin speaks for all of us.

1080P-u.

With their feature film ambitions dismantled, Toei plunged head long into television delivering slews of scifi and robot shows in the 70s and 80s. The notable thing about these shows is that they frequently seem like they were made 30 years before the time they actually aired. This is no doubt the result of the very poor quality 16mm stock Toei was using for their shows up until they switched to digital in the early 2ooo’s (even by anime standards, Toei stock is noticeably inferior, so much that they had to DNR Dragon Ball Kai to hell and back just to make the footage look even), and sound that frequently seems as if the microphones used to capture it were stuck in an overflowing bathroom drainpipe. But what’s truly egregious was, and remains to this day, Toei’s lack of quality control when it came to the actual animation itself.

TOOOOO NAMI!

KILL IT WITH FIRE

On average a standard anime series will go off model or suffer some sort of “fatigue” about 7 or 8 times over the course of five or six shows. On average, a typical Toei show might go off model as many as five or six times AN EPISODE.  And this isn’t just like some background poorfag from Maduca Meguca being unfinished, this is litterally stuff that could have been caught by any director or editor if they actually bothered to watch what they put out but obviously that’s just not the Toei way is it? No! We have twenty more shows to make this week and every second counts! Now start drying you pathetic worm! WHIP! WHIP! Probably the worst offender in recent memory was last year’s Kyosougiga. A show whose character designs were so awful it seemed like they were done precisely to not to have to be on-model in the first place!

Kyosou-Egaaaah!!!

Naota-kun ain't happy.

.Another frequent problem is not so much off-model animation but lack of animation all together. Basically Toei just cuts from one still background to another with some lip flaps to make it seem like you’re trying…yet failing… Now you can apologize all you want on a show like Mononoke where its a “intentional artistic effect”, but I ain’t no fool, and I’ve seen enough Toei in my day to when they’re half-assing this shit. Even worse is their endless recycling of animation. Transformations for magical girl shows like the Sailor Moon and Precure franchises are the chief offenders in this department as they can chew up upwards to 2:30 of screen time that Toei could be spending on other things. But that’s not the worst of it. How many times can you remember Goku having the same damn angry stare at Frieza during the Namek fight? That’s because they simple changed backgrounds and didn’t reanimate the rest. Way to go!

No excuses

THE NEW SAILOR MOON IS SO EXPRESSIVE MIRITE?!?

So is there an upside to this? Not really… Occasionally the production limitations have their benefits like on Fist of The North Star where the production team literally mangled their cells to get those cool death effects.  Now they also make movies as well, but those are basically just glorified tv episodes for the most part and frequently suffer the same problems. Hell even when its NOT a tv show adaptation like the Toei Key Visual Arts movies, they can somehow manage to look even worse for no apparent reason.

Miss KyoAni yet?

I'd say she's Fubar'd but then again its Nagisa...

So basically, the long and short of it is Toei is a terrible studio and they have shown no desire to change that for decades. The name itself is poison and any anticipation nowadays is not generated by the show itself but how the studio will somehow fuck it up. Still… could be worse…

2014
08.02

One of my least favourite things in animation and entertainment in general is when something with a lot of potential fails to meet even a fraction of the greatness that I personally feel is meant for it. In fact, shows with missed potential irk me more than just plain bad series; it’s easy for me to chuckle and move on from the Breadwinners or Fish Hooks of the world, because I don’t expect too much from them and don’t feel the desire to look at them beyond surface level. But then there are shows like Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Legend of Korra. As a beautifully animated action-adventure series with elegant use of color and brilliant implementation of martial arts, Korra is one of the best-looking shows on American television…and during the Fall of 2013, one of the most frustrating to watch. After a mundane first season, what the crew needed to do was deliver something grand enough to make us remember that this is a follow-up to one of the most beloved cartoons of the last decade. Instead, what we got was subpar writing, obvious plot twists, and a polarizing season finale. And with myself being unwittingly indoctrinated into the Animation Revelation team despite still questioning whether the others see me as more than a joke, my first major assignment comes in the form of taking over the duties of blogging the show’s third season from Marquis. Moving forward, I’ll be covering Book Three in two major parts, with the remaining television run being one half and the new internet run being the other. There will also attempt be a small diatribe about Nickelodeon’s treatment of its programming to serve as a bit of a commercial break between them, since Korra‘s move from television to internet opens the door for much-needed analysis. So with that overly long introduction out of the way, let’s tackle the first eight episodes of season three, shall we? Ready, set, go!

Okay, so until “A Breath of Fresh Air” aired, The Legend of Korra never really hit the level of quality that was expected of the follow-up to what is heralded as one of the greatest pieces of action-animation to air on American television in the last decade. It was just an okay action/adventure romp with enjoyable characters in its first season and an awkwardly rushed tale with those same characters turned irritating in its second. It had yet to feel like it deserved the pedigree of being in the same franchise of the cartoon that brought us episodes like “Zuko Alone” or “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” and it was beginning to feel like it would never be able to earn that same amount of respect. However,  the crew over at Nickelodeon Animation seems to have gotten over whatever issues they had prior, and as a result, were able to put their best foot forward to start writing a story that actually manages to be quite interesting. The basic premise for this entire season is established really quickly: the merging of the human and spirit worlds during harmonic convergence at the end of Book Two caused a shift in the balance and allowed several individuals across the globe to gain the ability to airbend; including the head of a group of dangerous criminals who wish kidnap Korra and do something yet unexplained with her. As a result, Tenzin and the Korra gang must now deal with integrating all these new airbenders into Air Nomad society while a maniac is busting his friends out of jail and putting together a plan to find and capture our heroine. And for the first time in the series, they manage to make the basis of the season’s arc clear to the audience without anything feeling rushed or lacking. As someone who has been keeping an eye on this show since it was first announced as a miniseries back at 2010’s San Diego Comic-Con, I am overjoyed that the writing team has finally returned to the level of excellence that I and many others expect of them.

Beyond plot setup, our fair writers have begun bringing new depths to the characters in such ways that you no longer require audio commentary to figure out their intentions. Korra has become more rational and aware of her actions since the Harmonic Convergence; while she is still quick to anger, there is a level of clarity in her character that now allows her to look back and understand what she’s done right and wrong in her role as the Avatar. Once again, the first episode excels in showing this growth marvelously with a scene that has Korra talking a man down from suicide by apologizing for how her decision to combine the spirit and human worlds has effected everyone, and explaining that she’s also fearful of all the change that such a risky move caused. At that very moment, you can see that Korra is slowly but surely becoming a young adult ready to take responsibility for her actions. Likewise, you witness Mako in a place of weakness where he doesn’t quite know how to feel around either Korra or Asami after failed relationships with both of them, and as such, he once again closes himself off emotionally from them. The episodes “The Metal Clan” and “Old Wounds” have Lin Beifong reluctantly coming to terms with her past before finding the strength (literally and figuratively) to reconcile with her sister after 30+ years of silence, while Bolin starts to gain self-confidence upon entering into a relationship with Lin’s niece, Opal. After a season where it appeared as if the characters were incapable of learning and developing, it was refreshing to witness character interactions and moments that you’re now aware will build up into something greater. Unfortunately, Asami still remains as an individual who, while also learning more combat techniques and becoming intriguing in her own right, just appears to be there and has no major impact on any of the events so far. When a pet fire ferret has more pull on the story than a principle human character, there’s a serious issue, and that issue one of the few that I have with the show at this moment in time.

And while we’re discussing characters, Book Three brings a number of new ones to the table; not only the aforementioned villains and Lin’s half-sister and niece, but also a young thief by the name of Kai and the tyrannical Earth Queen. In regards to the villains, Zaheer and the Red Lotus add more world-building and back story to the mix, which I’m quite fond of. As it turns out, shortly after Korra was discovered to be the new Avatar as a toddler, they attempted to storm the training facility in the Southern Water Tribe and kidnap her. Naturally, they were stopped and locked away separately at four different points across the world. Now that they’re back, it’s uncertain as to what they plan to use a now teenaged Avatar for; that is, whether their goal to “end the Avatar” means to kill her or if it is something much greater. Zaheer and his cronies come across as more intimidating than last season’s Unalaq; though Korra’s uncle was manipulative, he was shown to be a pawn to a greater villain. Zaheer is not only a powerful and intelligent foe, able to create his own spiritual connections and master airbending in a short period of time, but he answers to no one but himself. He’s the one that runs Red Lotus, and the plan for Korra was devised solely by him and comrades with no outside help from some evil spirit. In this way, the Red Lotus recapture the dangerous air that surrounded Amon in the first season and carry the atmosphere of intrigue that Unalaq and Vaatu lacked in the following. When these characters are on-screen you know that things are going to escalate and you want to watch every second of it. On the other side of the spectrum is the character of Kai, an annoying little thief whose sole purpose is to be Jinora’s boyfriend. While he is the catalyst for Mako and Bolin to reunite with their father’s family and Jinora’s first act of teenage rebellion against her father, I feel like the writers could have found other ways to make those events happen without creating a character that feels like a middle finger to everyone who thought that Mako was a terrible character. This character’s appearance sapped all the joy I had when watching the season premiere back in June and it was a relief when I discovered that he wouldn’t make an appearance in every episode. Opal, in a similar vein, is a welcome yet almost pointless addition. Her main function to-date is to be Bolin’s girlfriend, and while she fills that role well as someone to boost Bolin’s sense of self-worth and vice-versa, it is almost as though Bryan and Mike remembered Jin from Zuko’s Story in “Tales From Ba Sing Se” and endeavored to bring the atmosphere of that one-off character back. That isn’t a bad thing, but like with Asami, it would be nice if she could do more for the plot at-large beyond occasionally saying some words of encouragement. As for the Earth Queen? Let’s talk locations.

After episode one, most of the major plot relevant events take place in the Earth Kingdom as an outcome of Mako receiving numerous leads about airbenders in that nation. Episodes three and four take place in the City of Ba Sing Se, which reverted back to the corrupt government that was in place seventy years ago, albeit with the Earth Queen herself coordinating the Dai Li rather the chief of the organization. This time around, instead of political dissidents being captured and brainwashed, the police are capturing airbenders to train as soldiers, leading to an entertaining prison break scene headed by our heroes. While returning to this location was nice, the events that happen here feel as though they are a rehash of similar events in The Last Airbender‘s second season. Episodes five, six, and eight take place in the Zaofu, a lotus-shaped township founded by Lin’s half-sister Suyin and regarded as the safest city in the world. It’s here that the previously mentioned moments of character development happen for both Lin and Bolin, along with the first attempt of Red Lotus to kidnap Korra and the discovery of more corrupt government officials. As a wholly new location, Zaofu gives the vibe of a New England college town by way of a land-locked Dubai thanks to the emphasis on learning and the allegedly low crime rate, respectively. The bulk of episode seven focuses on the Western Air Temple, as Tenzin struggles to get new airbenders interested in his culture while Red Lotus gets ready to go after Korra after learning her location. It is as much of a breather episode as you can possibly get with this cartoon, as we’re back to familiar territory to get up to speed on our other main characters. After spending most of last season in the spirit world and the tundra, a move to more temperate climates is appreciated.

On the technical side of things, it goes without saying that Book Three is beautifully animated and a vast improvement over Book Two. For those who aren’t aware, the animation duties of the second season were originally given to Studio Pierrot due to Studio Mir (which did Book One) wishing to pool all their resources into animating what ended up being a disappointing season of The Boondocks. However, after some begging and the Korra crew showing studio CEO Jae-Myung Yu the work that the animators behind Naruto: Shippuden turned in, Studio Mir instantly got back onboard halfway through the season to finish everything up. The result was an almost schizophrenic level of quality, with the polish of Mir desperately trying to offset the sloppy looseness of Pierrot from episode to episode. This is no longer the case, as Studio Mir has signed on to do all animation work for Books Three and Four, to the relief of both fans and Nickelodeon artists whose lovely artwork and designs suffered under subpar animation work. Thanks to Studio Mir, everything moves quite smoothly, characters and objects are drawn with impressive detail, and Bryan Konietzko’s in-depth knowledge of colour theory shines throughout very scene. The Legend of Korra is inarguably inspired in-part by Japanese animation, and it’s pretty clear when you look at how the art directors handle the use of colour for the characters. In modern Western television animation, character designs are generally kept far more simple than in Eastern animation. For example, even comedy series such as Bobobo-bo bo-bobo or Sakura Trick make heavy use of lighting and shading on their characters in a wide variety of situations; meanwhile, programs like Adventure Time or Phineas and Ferb tend keep things a bit more flat and simple, using such techniques sparingly. Western animation also tends to go for bright, eye-catching colour palettes while Eastern works tend to keep it low-key with more earthly, natural colours. The Legend of Korra shares those two pillars of Eastern animation and art in their design, and it makes for an enchanting show with a unique balance of Western and Eastern culture in its DNA.

The end result of these eight episodes is something of a return to greatness for the franchise and I think that everyone feels it. Big things are happening, and unlike last season in which I more-or-less tuned in just out of habit, I truly care about what is going to happen in these next few episodes as Korra and friends continue to deal with the threat of Red Lotus. But before I write about the final five episodes of the season later in the month, I want to give you guys an insanely technical look at Nickelodeon scheduling and the evolving landscape of television. After all, in the time it took me to sit down and start writing this, Nickelodeon moved the show to a pure-digital format, and that’s the sort of thing that requires its own article rather than a single paragraph in a larger piece. I’ll be seeing you guys in two weeks and remember: stay in school, get a job, don’t do drugs, and never stop watching cartoons.

2014
08.01

Utena High School Host Club

I remember citing repetition as the chief reason why I dropped this show a few years ago, of the opinion that marathon viewing doesn’t combine well with scenes that appear every other episode such as the story of the orphaned Utena. Then again, the show was made before producers knew about marathon viewing. The DVD market wasn’t even alive, and it seemed impractical for a decent amount of people to buy a crateful of videotapes just to watch all of them in one day. And I guess progress made in that area was what made the recap episode and other expository fare more rare in anime nowadays. It’s still there, of course, but for shows made for the casual audiences rather than the people ready to dedicate half of the day to watching a series. Instead, the clip shows are reserved for compilation movies where audiences can watch repeated clips without it getting in the way of a show’s run. Plus, it gives the studios an extra buck for minimal work.

But from what I’m told to expect of Utena, this repetition of information could be a little handholding for the first episodes before the plot really goes underway. On the other hand, that could possibly be why you don’t hear of this show’s infamy more than Evangelion’s. People expect something mind warping, but that happens later in the show rather than the “Anthy slap and duel of the week” events in the current arc. Evangelion’s first arc may not hold a candle to what happens in the second-half of the show, but you still get the sense that something’s quite off with the world. But here, Utena’s atmosphere at the third episode seems a bit rosier than the reputation it has formed. It doesn’t help that the imagery used brings more to mind the eye-winking world of Ouran nowadays than the theatric framing Ikuhara’s trying to accomplish.

Even then, this does feel a bit like an Ouran episode, doesn’t it? Party events are going on, with the more privileged students trying to have their way with the commoners. You can probably argue that Haruhi is a slightly less ambitious Utena when you put it to mind, same with Tamaki and Touga. They both want a princess out of a woman who refuses to be bound to gender traditions, loving a fellow student out of their personal image of the person in question rather than who they actually are. While I may nitpick about the storybook prologue, it does pull attention to Touga’s relation to Utena. The two apply the rules of fairy tales into their lives, but do so through conflicting interpretations. They both want to be the mighty prince of their own kingdom, but one prince-to-be wants the other to settle down from that dream.

And to pull a young lady away from her desires wouldn’t be very princely, wouldn’t it? Thus, Touga’s introduced as the wolf in sheep’s clothing, being able to sweet-talk Utena into wearing a dress out of a desire for her to submit to society rather than to ascend from it. Behind charm lies an agenda, where a manipulator can pull out a nice smile on a whim to suit their needs. That thread connects both Touga and his sister Nanami. They are both vipers trying to bite into the Utena/Anthy dynamic, as well as some foreshadowing for some future revelations that I’ve only been given hints for.

Speaking of the relationship between Utena and Anthy, it gets an extra layer from why Utena and Anthy go to the party. Utena wants Anthy to find some friends, but she has to go with her while wearing a light pink gown. The embryonic state of love they’re going through requires sacrifices, but it seems to indicate that love means having to abandon your ideals. There’s never a win-win situation. And the moment Utena throws her dress away and gets back to her uniform, she proceeds to dance with Anthy while no one moves with them. She takes back what’s hers, but at the cost of giving Anthy something she finds just as important. Could it be a realization, or could it be unrealized selfishness?