Shangri-La

I was drawn to this anime at first because it looked like Last Exile. I enjoyed that anime’s art so I gave Shangri-La a watch…I made it only halfway before I just gave up. Looks  can be deceiving.

The world is undergoing a global warming crisis. The governments of the world shift their stock markets to trade only one thing: carbon.  Japan is hit by a biblical earthquake. Despite the devastation the carbon trade isn’t lifted even a hair on Japan. Mind you, countries are charged for every CO2 emission, even from a lowly wood stove. Somehow the UN tracks everything. Anyway, Tokyo is transformed into a weird killer jungle that absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. Japan starts Project Atlas, a giant lofted city that will replace Tokyo, but it can only house a certain number of people. Shangri-La follows the people who live below Atlas in a city surrounded by that killer jungle.  The main characters, Kuniko, Nagiko, and the transsexuals Momoko and Miiko become part of a resistance movement against Project Atlas. The movement is oddly called Metal-Age.  (No, the series doesn’t have any metal theme songs or anything.)

Aww. Isn't she cute? Just don't lie to her. She will CRUSH you.

Mixed into this overarching plot are economic hackers,  Mikuni (a little girl who crushes  liars to death with her telepathy), and other characters I couldn’t really care much about.  The story was a very strange, disjointed blend of sci-fi and fantasy elements…I had no clue what was going on after 12 episodes. The only part of the story I understood was the people on the ground wanted to live in Atlas. Metal-Age wanted to live there too…only not under the current government policies.

Kuniko was a likeable spunky girl, but why adults would look to a teenager as a leader of an anti-government organization made no sense to me.  She spent 2 years in a prison at the young age of 13..but shows no negative side effects. Curious. Kuniko was a very confident character, yet at times she would reveal a vulnerable side. She cared deeply her body guard Momoko. Momoko was kind of a father/mother figure as well as a friend. Although his/her constant transsexual reminders got old pretty quick.  Someone’s sexuality and gender really has less bearing on who they are than Momoko would make you believe.  His/her S&M references just dragged on the story. I guess that was my entire problem with this anime: the characters did little to drive the storyline forward. The sub characters did a better job of story development.  The main characters were…just schizophrenic with their bouncing between silly, goofy, and melodramatic.

Momoko's character? Transsexual. Not much personality beyond his/her sexual identity and S&M enjoyment.

The world of Shangri-La was rich, but I just couldn’t get into it with bland characters and a story that never really progressed. Yes, I know I only made it halfway, but after 12 episodes I should have felt something for the characters.  Mostly I just felt annoyance and boredom.  The general concept of carbon markets having a profound effect on citizens was interesting.  We all product CO2 with our modern lifestyles so an economic system that measures every little output would directly influence all of us. It was just unrealistic to have the carbon hackers (who didn’t really fit well in the main storyline really) profoundly affect the economic health of a nation.  Red flags would shoot up if suddenly a country’s entire economy dived.

It’s unfortunate Shangri-La’s story was so terrible. The animation was nicely done, and the general concept was quite unique.  There was just enough elements that didn’t make sense even for a science fiction anime…like Kuniko controlling the carbon market with her mind.

This anime was just plan bad. Suspended disbelief can only go so far. Pass on this one.

 

L’Arc~en~Ciel

L’Arc~en~Ciel ( The Rainbow in French) is a Japanese rock band that formed back in 1991. The band has seen many changes across its long career: it has changed its bassist and drummer, but the core has remained the same.

L’Arc~en~Ciel is operatic with their sound. Instrumentals are excellently dark and dramatic. Hyde’s (the lead singer) vocals are top notch. Hyde’s notes are crisp and resonate well with the punchy rock beats. The band has a metallic ring to them that seems to come up from a dark alley. Their musical cloth is varied and richly detailed. That isn’t the say everything they do is dark rock. Some of their tunes are pretty upbeat and hopeful.

Their rhythms are very American. They are not as hard as Disturbed or Metallica but you can feel the similarities. Some of  L’Arc~en~Ciel performances remind me of the over-the-top 80’s hair metal bands…only without the hair and the gravel voices. The band is at their best with their reflective dark songs like Forbidden Lover.

My only gripe is how Hyde can the same throughout an album. Of course some of that is how record labels clean up the voice cracks and other emotional nuances.

Here is the excellent Forbidden Lover from one of their live concerts.

They have done many anime theme songs including “Ready Steady GO” from Fullmetal Alchemist and “DAYBREAK’S BELL” from Mobile Suit Gundam 00, “Lost Heaven” from the Fullmetal Alchemist movie and others.

The band’s image is an interesting mix of modern grunge and music videos that look at home on an opera stage.

L’Arc~en~Ciel has an alter-ego called P’unk~en~Ciel. The band shakes itself up for a more punk sound. Hyde snags the guitar. Tetsuya, normally the bassist, takes the vocals. The result is a faster, harder and more Green Day feel. P’unk~en~Ciel loses the rock opera feel of L’Arc~en~Ciel. It feels like a completely different band. Tetsuya is a good vocalist in his own right. They lose the old fashioned costumes for more modern rocker get-ups in their performances.

It is easy to see how L’Arc~en~Ciel has remained popular since 1991 with their versatility and sound.

They have a place on my playlist, but I prefer more upbeat and happy songs. Some of their P’unk~en~Ciel versions are alright, but I prefer their moody dark works.

Blind Beast

Blind Beast” has to be one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen.  It follows the story of Aki, a successful if controversial model, who is abducted by the blind sculptor Michio and his mother.  The pair take Aki to Michio’s warehouse studio, where things really start to get weird.  See the walls are covered with sculptures of body parts: eyes, ears, arms, legs, lips, and breasts.  Not to mention there are giant sculptures of nude female bodies rising out of the floor.   Michio explains that he has brought Aki there to make a sculpture of her, because her body is the most unique he’s come across.  He goes into a lot of off putting things about the wonders of touch and tactile stimulation.

Trust me the movie only gets weirder from there.  Two “s” words I never thought would go together collide during the course of the movie: Stockholm Syndrome (a hostage falling in love with their captor) and sadomasochism.  It descends into a bizarre love affair between captor and captive.  At first Aki tries to seduce Michio to escape but then eventually falls in love with him for real…

…which is when the first “s” word gives way to the second.  I won’t go into any more detail other than to say what follows is utterly shocking and creepy.  Some of the creepiest stuff I’ve seen in my entire life.  Even more amazing?  The creep factor is only achieved by hints and suggestions.

In fact that is the way the entire movie was filmed: hints and suggestions.  It rarely came out directly and said anything, yet oddly at the same time didn’t beat around the bush either.  There is no graphic gore or sexuality: only enough to make the viewer incredibly uncomfortable. There is nudity, but really only soft core nudity.  No it is the ideas that the movie puts forward, these ideas of the world of touch, that give it its power.  It gives the barest glimpse into a world most of us never explore, even in our most adventurous moments.  In a lot of ways this movie reminds me of Hellraiser, although Hellraiser was more in your face about the sexuality and gore.  Both movies had similar themes though: exploring the edges of human experience

I heartily recommend this movie to the horror fanatic.  It’s bizarre, creepy, and just plain unsettling through and through.  This isn’t a gore fest, nor is it a movie that will likely keep you up for nights on end.  But what it does do is shock, even if subtly, and leave you very, very uncomfortable.  I can almost guarentee when the end credits roll you will think:  “What the Hell did I just watch?”

And isn’t that the hallmark of any good horror movie?

TOKYOPOP Closing in the US

TOKYOPOP is shutting down their US division May 31st. In recent years the publishing company has fallen on tough times, like much of the manga market. Since February, TOKYOPOP has limped along with just 6 employees after a series of layoffs sparked by the Borders bankruptcy.

TOKYOPOP has brought manga  to the US since 1997 with hits like Sailor Moon and Chobits. They also introduced the more traditional right-to-left reading style.

So what does this mean for manga readers?

Manga will still be available through Del Rey, Viz and Bandai so it’s not like manga will disappear from the US. Manga lovers should take this shutdown as a warning. Manga publishing is almost as precarious as the newspaper business. With the proliferation of piracy, scanlations, and other means of reading manga, publishers are finding it harder to turn profit. No profit means no new manga.

The best way to reduce the chance of manga disappearing from the US is to purchase manga instead of reading scanlations. Yes, I know this is expensive for those of us who are manga addicts, but money keeps the mangaka fed and books printed.

If we aren’t careful manga may be only available (once again) online.  Pleasurable confusion about right-to-left reading  could very well become a memory. This isn’t to be a fear monger or anything. There is the same danger with traditional newspapers and other printed works. I, for one, prefer the feel of flipping pages and real ink over clicking and screens.

Besides, manga looks good on the book shelf.

 

Yonna in the Solitary Fortress

Yonna in the Solitary Fortress is a fully computer animated short film that tries to create a soft storybook feel. It doesn’t work. The show comes off as just creepy looking. The story is nonsensical but here is a sketch: Yonna and her brother are driven to live in a fortress alone because thye have magical powers. The monarchy that governs the planets have sent agents to try to get them to work for the monarchy. Her brother, Stan, protects her to the point she is actually a prisoner. Yonna realizes this and follows the agent out of the fortress after Stan tries to kill the agent and make her stay.

That’s pretty much it.

The animation is unfortunately stiff and doll like. The facial expressions gave me the willies. They just didn’t look or move right. The show really doesn’t fall into the “uncanny valley.” (The point when something starts to bother us because it looks like it should be human, but something is off ) The characters are too stylized for that. They just look like animated dolls whose hair doesn’t move. Still shots from the film look good, far better than when the characters start to move.  Joint seams often show up when the camera angle is just so. The camera angles are nicely done and so is the lighting at least.

Yonna has many scenes that look lifted straight from a Final Fantasy game

Realism is tough to pull off in computer animation. Too realistic and they often come away looking like moving corpse or, in this case, dolls. Both just unsettle the viewer and distract them from the story….as much story as Yonna has anyway. Computer animation is best suited to cartoon effects or realistic stylizations like Final Fantasy: Advent Children. Speaking of that, the creator of the film, Kengo Takeuchi, worked on Final Fantasy: The Movie. You can see the similarities between Yonna and Spirits Within. It is unfortunate that these scenes break down as soon as the characters start to move. CGI is a tough thing to get right.

Save yourself the 30 minutes and skip this one unless you are a Computer Animation student.

School Days

I’ll admit that I like to watch an occassional romance. When I saw School Days, I thought I’d give it a watch since it’s been awhile since I saw a romance. The anime starts up like one…

Makoto Ito begins as an innocent and naive guy who many girls crush on. He has a crush on Kotonoha Katsura, a reserved shy girl who rides the same train to high school.  Sekai Saionji sits beside Makoto and decides to help him out with meeting Kotonoha.

All pretty standard romance. As one would expect, things get complicated. Sekai starts to fall for Makoto but doesn’t wish to break up the new couple. She continues to help the clueless Makoto with what girls want from  a guy…

It’s hard to review a romance without giving too much away. Only School Days isn’t entirely a romance. As the anime continues, things shift from relationship hijinks and teenage confusion to darker strains of sexual addiction, manipulation, insanity, and violence.

Hormones really rage through this anime

Makoto is a dumbass in the beginning. An innocent dumbass that makes me angry as a male. That angry only gets worse. His drastic character change through the story is extreme and rather unbelievable.He becomes downright evil.

School Days is a dark satire of more traditional romance. Makoto begins as the typical leading male character but shifts to a parody of sexual impulsiveness and manipulation. He doesn’t see anything wrong with it either. The women in the show are …extremely sexual… and use their bodies to get who they want. The anime examines what happens when impulses are thoughtlessly followed.

Situations just keep getting worse until the screwed up cresendo.

The animation quality was noticably lower than what I am used to. Backgrounds were generic, and characters often lacked detail. However, sometimes the quality and camera angles were very well done. This mostly appears at the latter half of the anime.  The ending sequence was especially creepily well done.The first half of the anime strives to be generic all around it seems.

School Days has an equally dim view of both males and females. The males are perverts and sex addicts. The girls are slutty and manipulative. I guess the anime can serve as a warning about following impulses, but it is so extreme the characters are unbelievable and flat. Sekai and Konoha were the only characters I could feel anything about…for awhile. I just wanted to strangle Makoto for emboding the degrading male stereotypes out there.  The entire flow of the anime makes sense when I found it was based on a visual novel with various endings.

School Days leaves the viewer feeling degraded and even a little dirty. There isn’t any balancing influences: no parents, teachers, or families. There is just one bad decision after another. School Days doesn’t really leave the viewer with anything at the end: only a messed up final scene…

…and a general bad taste in the mouth. It really is an unpleasant anime.