Sunday, March 29, 2009

Check out my writing on TokyoMango!

I decided to try my luck by entering a writing contest. Turns out I won! The contest called for an Onion-style article that had something to do with Japan. I had a lot of fun writing it and I'm glad to see someone else enjoyed reading it. You can find my entry by following the link below.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Open Mouth. Insert Foot.

Episode six of Dollhouse was awesome. Go watch it on Hulu. It's called "Man on the Street."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Perfection: Casshern SINS Episode 18

I just finished watching the most perfect character-development episode of anime I have ever seen.

The entire 22 minute episode takes place within a dream sequence from Lyuze's perspective. (For those who aren't in the know, she is the lead female character in the series. Lyuze has been following Casshern since the first episode and since then has revealed that he caused the death of her older sister.)

In a series of surreal scenes that alternate between Lyuze's childhood and adulthood, she is forced to confront all of the mental and physical conflicts that have plagued her since the ruination began.

Lyuze's sister constantly appears, as does Casshern, which forces Lyuze to pick between the two most influential people in her life. On one hand, her sister was an early role model and a reminder of what the world used to be, while Casshern represents the new world that she is forced to live in. The childhood flashbacks take place in flower fields, while the others place Lyuze in the ruins of the current world.

Her sister is often out of reach, obsessively repeating the fact that what Casshern did ruined everything for everyone. Still, Lyuze tries to rationalize his actions, repeating that he was unaware of his sins and even unaware of himself. At the end of nearly every dream sequence, mistaking Leeza for Casshern, Lyuze ends up shattering the image of her older sister.

While trying to figure out what it is she truly desires, Lyuze finds herself in a strange vision where a human pins her against a wall and tells her he can make her wish come true. At first, I considered this sequence to be the only weak point in the episode, but after having more time to think about it, it is far less disturbing than I originally found it. Moments after walking away with this stranger, we see her lying naked on a stone slab and a splash of blood fills the screen. When she stands, the faded outline of the man lies in a puddle of his own blood, and Lyuze walks away, realizing that what she wants has nothing to do with forming a sexual relationship.

In the understated climax of the episode, Lyuze crouches down, shaken by the realization that she cannot kill Casshern because she feels a deep connection with him. For the first time, a robot expresses a wish to be human, as Lyuze wonders if a human would be better able to comprehend what she is feeling. The moment is profoundly deep, as it takes a character who has been cold and conflicted and gives her a heart.

The longer the dream lasts, the less sway Leeza holds over Lyuze. Leeza's final appearance is to tell Lyuze that she needs to accept the tragedies that have occurred. Even with her death and the world falling to pieces, Leeza tells her younger sister that all of these events have allowed her to meet Casshern, which has resulted in her gaining an emotion that she has never felt before: Love.

Instead of shattering, Leeza fades into the distance, and Lyuze experiences a new sense of self-worth and direction. She casts aside her inevitable mortality due to Casshern's ruination of the world and instead finds herself satisfied with being able to be near him.

Lyuze has always been my favorite character in the series. While Casshern is a sympathetic character, Lyuze is perhaps even more so: Her one desire is to kill Casshern, which she knows she can never accomplish. Instead, she forces herself to follow him, waiting for a moment of weakness. What she finds is a man (robot) who has a conscience. He knows what he has done and he wants to find a way to set things right. This kills her desire to kill him, as he is no longer a one-dimensional villain. And while I suspected the revelation was a long time coming, she had never spoken of falling for Casshern the way so many female anime characters tend to do. The creators took a "show, don't tell approach" for so many episodes before finally confirming what everyone should have figured out.

Another factor that makes Lyuze's character so entrancing is her design. So many current female anime characters are male fantasies taken to the extreme, both in body and in mentality. Lyuze is not all perfect curves. in fact, her body is extremely angular--even more so than Casshern's. This makes the typical camera shots less focused on making her a sexual object and more about creating a unique artistic decision. Yes, there are shots that exclude her face and focus on her mid-section, but it does not seem to follow the usual association of the camera with the male point of view as it scrutinizes a female body. Instead, it is how she moves when she fights that lends a feminine grace that is missing from her anatomy. It is odd to see a character's sex best expressed while she brutally tears others to shreds, but it is oddly unique.

Lyuze has a dark stoicism that is so well executed I doubt I will ever see it in another character. She is not emotionless (a pitfall the girls in Claymore tend to encounter). Instead, she takes on an air of thoughtfulness, because every waking moment she has spent with Casshern is a contradiction of what she set out to do.

This dream episode is a wonderful exploration of Lyuze's psyche, which culminates in a moment of self-discovery that few anime characters are ever shown to experience. It is a masterpiece of animation, illustrating an unparalleled pinnacle of character development.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Best of the Best:: Casshern SINS

Every couple of years, I'll find a show that leaves me breathless.

Last year, it was Ghost Hound--the combination of a trio of mentally troubled friends and a sprinkling of psychological horror made it a show I HAD to watch every week. Even though the ending stuttered and stumbled, I still found a lot to like about it.

This time around, I've become completely enamored with Casshern SINS. The premise is simple: in a world populated by robots and (a lingering population of) humans, Casshern has killed a goddess and doomed his world to ruin.

Casshern takes to wandering his planet, trying to recover fragments of his broken memory. He knows that he has killed Luna, but he cannot remember why. As he travels, he encounters the struggling survivors who are left. Upon witnessing these robots and humans desperately clinging to any shred of hope they can find, Casshern begins to realize that even if he cannot remember his reasons, he is the cause of everyone's suffering.

As the survivors grow more and more desperate, a rumor for gaining eternal life spreads to every corner of the world. The method? Kill Casshern and eat him.

Casshern is completely consumed by guilt--every line he utters drips with it. He himself has become immortal, while everything around him decays and rusts. Friends are hard to come by, too, as everyone he encounters either blames him for the ruin or seeks to devour his flesh.

With a main character as emotionally tortured as Casshern and a world that has become a brittle shell of its former self, it would be easy for the show to become monotonous. Instead, Casshern SINS uses every other element to turn what might have been drab into something hauntingly beautiful.

The scenery--even the abandoned cities and the dying deserts--is gorgeous. Pale blue waves lap up against lone rocks on a coast that goes on forever, flowering plains have constant showers of petals, crystal hillsides shatter beneath footsteps, and crumbling towers lean against empty skies.

The love that went into designing this world shows in a way that is reminiscent of 5 cm per Second, but where that was a feature-film, Casshern SINS has 24 installments.

Fight scenes are never dull, either. The battles play out like ballet, as Casshern floats, spins, and adds an unprecedented beauty to acts of violence that should otherwise be disturbing. Every fight plays out in a unique fashion: animation sequences never repeat, the same move is never used twice, and there has yet to be a battle that did not surprise me with a new camera angle. Most fights end with a "wow" escaping from my lips.

Posting still shots cannot do any justice. You have to see everything in motion and then you will understand. I'm planning on doing a follow-up article once the series has ended. If you haven't been watching Casshern SINS, you are missing out on one of the few pieces of anime that truly elevates the genre from a mere story-telling medium to full-fledged art.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Few Thoughts on FLCL

I have seen a lot of anime. I have seen very few, however, that rival FLCL in terms of timelessness and symbolism (Texhnolyze and Haibane take second and third place).

While many dismiss FLCL as random, there is a lot of symbolism to be found in the series that helps keep the narrative glued together.

When I was still in college, I wrote up a (very) brief set of notes on some of the major symbols that appear. From time to time I've gone back to tweak a few things, but here's what I've got so far:

Canti: Naota's reliance on Canti represents his reliance on his (now-absent) older brother. In many respects, Canti replaces Naota's brother, starting with simply being another person in the house. During combat, however, Naota does not rely on his own strength (at first), but the combined strength of himself and Canti. As the series progresses and Naota believes in himself more and more, his power evolves. In the final episode, he finally steps out of Canti's frame (his famous brother's shadow)and finds a strength even greater than his best when combined with Canti.

The Iron: Medical Mechanica's Iron represents adulthood. Whenever Naota finds himself in a sexual situation, the Iron produces steam and blankets the entire town (to Naota, it is his entire WORLD) in a confusing fog. Furthermore, it is noted that there are neither entrances nor exits to the Iron--one simply finds oneself inside of it. Amarao is terrified that the Iron might render the world flat and destroy an entire planet. Naota learns that he doesn't have to worry about being "run over" by adulthood at his age. He can let it lie still for a while. And maybe, just maybe, looming adulthood isn't as threatening as it seems.

Mamimi's Cigarettes: Imprinted with the slogan, "Never Knows Best." While more obvious than some of the other symbols, the cigarette slogan defines Mamimi's character. She means no harm, but her actions get out of control in the end. It starts with her physical interest in Naota, despite a very wide age-gap between them. With Naota's older brother gone (he left Mamimi when he left to play baseball), she shifts her sexual interests to the person who was most closely related to her ex-boyfriend. When Naota grows attached to Haruko, Mamimi tries to find another replacement, which ends up the Terminal Core. While she does let go of Naota's older brother by letting the Terminal Core devour her cell phone, she becomes wrapped up in the idea of revenge. Eventually the Terminal Core is beyond her control, due to the amount of electronics and vehicles she let it devour as part of her revenge. She is directly responsible for creating one of the beasts that is meant to grasp the Iron and level the town.

Baseball: Naota's older brother has a career as an athlete. Throughout the series, many references are made to baseball. The series opens with Mamimi instructing Naota how to properly swing a bat. Later on, Haruko and Canti join a baseball team. Haruko is the one who teaches Naota to swing his own bat. (Freudian? At times.) She teaches him that he can face a giant challenge on his own when she leaves him to swing at the giant satellite that is sent to crash into the town. While it is never stated outright, Haruko teaches Naota that wielding power isn't something he should be ashamed or afraid of. When the satellite turns out to be a little too much for Naota to handle on his own, Haruko steps up and helps him, letting him know that when a situation gets tough, he still has people who will back him up.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dollhouse, or "Fool Me Twice"

I would like to reference that old adage, "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Because when I think about what I have seen of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, it is the predominant thought that comes to mind.

I love Firefly. That being said, I do NOT feel let down by Dollhouse because I was expecting another Firefly. I feel let down by Dollhouse because Whedon walked right back into the same nightmare scenario Fox had set for him previously.

Bad omens were evident from episode one. Fox asked Whedon to scrap his pilot. That's where the big, red "DANGER" light went off in my head. Then, in the new premiere, instead of focusing on an over-arching plot, the first episode spent more time on Echo's one-shot mission with one-shot characters. (For further thoughts on one-shot stories, keep an eye out for my upcoming review of Nightmare Inspector on Manga Recon.) To keep things simple: any character that only exists for a single episode is going to wind up being forgettable.

The second episode brought some hope, as there were flashbacks regarding Alpha and his murder-spree in the Dollhouse. These were, however, forced to take a backseat to a (one-shot) take on The Most Dangerous Game. This also updated the "villain of the week" roster to two creepy men (week one was a teacher kidnapping a little girl, this was a man who brings girls into the wild and hunts them).

And then there was last week's episode. It was a disaster. My room-mates and I were mortified by the cliche-fest that occurred. EVERY trope imaginable was woven into the episode: the singer who is desperate for attention, the creepy stalker (thus continuing with the trend of male predators. I wonder who will be next week's villain? A boss who sexually harrasses his secretaries? A pimp? A MySpace user? There are just so many possibilities...), someone using the line "I want to live!"...the list goes on. For every glimmer of hope there was in week 2's flashbacks to Alpha, this episode had an equally awful moment to counter with. I'm not even sure how the crew could have performed it...the writing was embarrassing.

These self-contained episodes are mind-numbingly awful. Hell, even the actors say that the show is a mere shell of itself until the sixth episode.

You've been fooled by Fox twice, Joss. I'm sorry.

Monday, March 2, 2009

New Roundtable Discussion on MR

Hey everyone! Guess what? I've got something new up on Manga Recon. It's not much, as I joined the conversation a little late, but we recently debated the ups and downs of manga appearing on the Kindle. Some of my friends seem to think it's a bunch of crotchety-sounding old people refusing to embrace the future, but remember that we're all book reviewers...

Read the Roundtable!