Rune Soldier Louie

(24 episodes, 2001)

My previous exposure

It’s one of the various shows I tried out for my “Spring 2001 in review” thread. The first episode was fun, so I marked it down for further watching. (There’s at least one other such show coming up soon-ish.)

What’s it about ?

D&D-inspired fantasy comedy show. The all-female team of Melissa (not-that-uptight cleric), Genie (amazon fighter) and Merill (short thief) were looking for a magician to complete their adventuring party ; alas (and fortunately for our zygomaticus muscles), they can only get Louie, a definitely male (aside from that one episode) and burly magician… who ain’t even much good at magic (he often tends to run towards the enemy fists first).

It’s striking how tabletop-RPG their adventures are, down to the character of Louie’s maybe-girlfriend Ila, who hands out quests, rewards, plot hooks and exposition (while being completely useless in a fight) like the best of NPCs. (It makes me wonder whether Louie’s player was the GM’s boyfriend that she added to the table against her players’ will…)

This is a very episodic series, with just 4 episodes actually dealing with the “main” plot (although there’s obviously a lot of setup for it hidden in the other episodes).

What did I think of it ?

Well, it’s very funny indeed, although some of the running gags maybe have been a tiny bit overused (especially Melissa’s “against my will” catchphrase). My favourite character would be Merill, whose constant unashamed greed is a sight to behold (and the great, late Tomoko Kawakami really gets to show off her range in some of the later episodes). The rival team were always welcome, thanks to being actually somewhat competent and sympathetic (and the Melissa/Isabel rivalry led to consistently great interplay, although the punchline was obvious from the start).

So, it’s great fun. The problem is that there’s not much beyond the surface, I presume on purpose : neither the characters nor the setting show much depth, and the various attempts to give some of them a more serious backstory (I’m looking at you, Genie) just fall flat. The series is at its best when it relishes in its stupidity and how much the characters act like PCs. Which it fortunately does frequently.

There very little ambition here besides having fun with a tabletop-RPG setting. It works, but nothing more.

via [LTTP/WIW] Various anime from the 00s and beyond – Page 5.

Haibane Renmei

(13 episodes, 2002)

My previous exposure

The second series I watched that was suggested by this thread ! And, er, that’s it : your descriptions didn’t give me much of an image of the show, and I tried to stay as unspoilt as possible anyway.

What’s it about ?

In what looks like a rural European city (but could really be anywhere), lives a small community of winged teenagers and kids (the titular Haibane, or “Grey Wings”) who hatch full-grown from eggs, get jobs helping around the villagers if they’re old enough, and eventually “fly off” when it’s time for them to move on.

The series follows the viewpoint of Rakka, the latest hatched Haibane, who thus gets to learn the strange customs and rules of the community and grow familiar with the other Haibane along with the audience.

What did I think of it ?

It’s been two weeks since I’ve watched this, and I’m still not sure what I thought of it.

Part of the problem comes from the initial episodes, where some of the Haibane’s customs (as well as the false impression that there are only female Haibane) leave a strong bad taste of Patriarchy. Now, further episodes makes it clear that’s not the case at all (there ARE male Haibane, who are treated exactly the same way ; and the few old men in charge of the system are all but stated to be failed Haibane who try and help the new ones), but that was still not the best first impression for a series to start off with.

Obviously, the series is a blatant metaphor for purgatory, what with the otherwise useless wings/aureolas that the Haibane have, and the general theme of moving beyond one’s past issues in order to go forward. Heck, the climax even deals with a Haibane who committed suicide in her previous life. The symbolism couldn’t be more obvious.

But I don’t particularly care about that. Fortunately, the show also works on a more prosaic level – a newcomer entering a community and progressively blending in, despite learning that she’ll have to go eventually. The slice of life episodes about each girl’s job are my favourite, as are the bits explaining how the community actually works. Who the Haibane were before and where they go after is mostly irrelevant (besides the way it affects their personalities), and I kinda get the feeling that the show agrees with me (what with never showing any of it, or the general message of “you need to get past it”).

Don’t mistake me, I’ve enjoyed watching this show ; I have a thing for slightly off-kilter slice-of-life/drama, Kana’s job pleased my tech geek side, and I enjoyed those characters’ company. But the heavy-handed symbolism didn’t quite click for me, which prevents the series from entering my hall of favourites. Still, I don’t regret buying that boxset sight unseen.

Now and Then, Here and There (Ima, Soko ni Iru Boku)

(13 episodes, 1999)

My previous exposure

This is the first review I’m doing because it’s been recommended in this thread. Beyond that, I don’t know much about the series, aside that (1) it’s grim, and (2) the main villain has been compared to Fractale‘s.

What’s it about ?

Shu, our protagonist, was just an ordinary middle-schooler until he met bizarre blue-haired girl Lala Ru. Before they can have a proper conversation, though, they’re transported into another world and captured by soldiers from Hellywood, the main baddies of the series.

To say that Hellywood is a hellhole is an understatement. This desert fortress is ruled by Hamdo, a raving madman, and ultra-professional yes-woman Abelia. They replenish their army by raiding the villages around them and enrolling the boys by force. (They also take the women and girls for, er, a more long-term approach.) They seek Lala Ru because she holds the power of creating water out of nowhere, which is obviously a hot commodity on this dying desert world.

Other major characters include Sarah, an American girl Abelia mistook for Lala Ru and captured before noticing her mistake ; and Nabuca, the kid leader of the brigade Shu is thrown into after interrogation.

Production Values

I had to double-check the date of production, as the artstyle and character design are something I associate much more with the early 90s or earlier than 1999 (it certainly doesn’t look like any other late-90s show I’ve ever watched). But then, that’s probably the point : it lures us into a false sense of security by looking like “safe” children’s entertainment before wheeling out the torture, mass-slaughter and rape. It takes some getting used to, but the animation is perfectly okay.

The soundtrack comes courtesy of my favourite composer, Taku Iwasaki (you should have told me !). While it’s way too early for him to be randomly inserting rap lyrics everywhere, he’s still very recognizable thanks to his reliance on big sweeping violins numbers and those weird water-y percussions that should be familiar to any watcher of Witch Hunter Robin or Read or Die. It’s sometimes a bit clumsy, but his brillance at establishing mood was already clearly in effect.

What did I think of it ?

Well, this is certainly a grim series. My DVDs include an interview with the director where he states he was inspired by documentaries about African child soldiers, and it certain shows. All of the ways Hellywood perpetuates itself and the cycle of violence are distressingly realistic, and the series doesn’t shy away from explaining the specifics, up to and including institutionalized rape (although it stops just short of depicting it graphically). No character escapes unscathed…

… With the exception of Shu, whose boundless optimism and energy staggers disbelief. (Climbing up ventilation shafts just after being tortured and shot twice ? Uh ?) I can’t complain too much, though ; without him around to protest about how horrible this world is, and actually trying to make things better, the series would fall into an inescapable pit of despair. (Lala Ru’s pretty much resigned herself after thousands of years of being fought over, and Sarah, while perfectly capable of saving herself on her own, was well on her way to join the circle of violence if Shu hadn’t stepped in.) His presence, however implausible his resilience, is the catalyst for change.

And this is where we hit the series’ weakness : while it’s very good at depicting this hellish world and characterizing how nearly everyone is part of the problem, it doesn’t offer much depth beyond that. The whole narrative is subservient to its “war is hell” message, and however good a rendition it is, it doesn’t manage to really rise above it. The issue may be with the characters, who remain mostly one-dimensional throughout.

This is certainly a show worth watching ; but its shortcomings prevent it from really winning a place among my favourites.

via [LTTP/WIW] Various anime from the 00s and beyond – Page 5.

Honey & Clover

(1st season : 24 episodes + 2 specials, 2005 ; 2nd season : 12 episodes, 2006)

My previous exposure

None whatsoever, beside being aware that it’s an adaptation of a josei manga that aired on noitaminA. (And that there’s also been at least one live-action TV series of it.)

For those not aware, noitaminA is a well-reputed TV timeslot that’s known for airing (1) adaptations of josei (female adults) manga (which is quite rare in anime) and (2) ambitious and/or artsy series. Both of which are perfectly up my alley, so it might surprise you that the first noitaminA series I watched was… last year’s Kuragehime. Since then, I’ve made a point of at least checking out every new show of theirs, while also going through their back catalog. Hence me now watching the series that started it all… and there are more of them in my to-watch list (I’m open to suggestions).

So far, only one show has been particularly outstanding (Eden of the East), and there’s been some misfires (Fractale, [C], most probably No. 6), but even those were at least interesting to watch, and the baseline quality of what I’ve seen has been quite good indeed : noitaminA really deserves its reputation.

What’s it about ?

A group of students at an art college who share a low-rent house. There’s Takemoto, doormat supreme, our de facto point-of-view character ; Mayama, the neat-freak who’s slightly more mature than the others ; and Morita, the money-grubing asshole who shares his time between cartoony antics and being away on mysterious, well-payed but tiring jobs. Also part of the main cast are Hanamoto, a young teacher of theirs that they’ve become quite close to ; Hagumi, Hanamoto’s cousin who looks like a child ; and Yamada, a girl who pins for Mayama.

While there’s a lot of slapstick humour, the main focus is on the various romantic subplots : both Takemoto & Morita are pinning for Hagumi, but the former’s too shy and friend-zoned, while the latter doesn’t think he deserves her (and I kinda agree) ; meanwhile, Yamada’s love for Mayama is mostly one-sided, as he’s stalking Rika, a close friend of Hanamoto who never quite recovered from her husband’s death.

What may be surprising is that none of these subplots make much progress over the 38 episodes and 5 years the series spans ; sure, the characters grow up quite a bit, but none of those relationships really goes anywhere (aside from Rika partially accepting Mayama) ; and despite frequent rejections, the characters can’t really move on. (The ending scenes suggest they do move on a bit eventually, but not that much.)

I’m treating both seasons as one because they’re really the same show with a six-month hiatus two thirds in ; there’s no real point in separating them.

What did I think of it ?

Well, it’s certainly an interesting watch. The first impression is that nothing much happens, with none of the romantic subplots making much progress over the course of the series ; which is compounded by the show averaging 4 episodes per in-story year until it finally slows the heck down and devotes a third of the first season and all of the second one to the fifth and final year. As a result, it’s not a show about people slowly discovering their love for each other ; it’s a show about people in (one-sided) love getting bluntly and repeatedly rejected, and learning to come to terms with that. Only Mayama gets some level of success in his romantic pursuits, and even that’s debatable. But then, there’s something grounded and realistic in how those classic rom-com archetypes (Takemoto the Nice Guy, Morita the Charismatic Jerk, and Yamada the Violent Tsundere) fail and it’s the Creepy (But Handsome) Stalker who “wins”.

You’ll notice I’m not talking much about Hagumi. That’s because she’s mostly an object of desire for other characters. We barely ever get into her head, and our perception of her is mostly filtered through Takemoto, Hanamoto and Morita. (And I get the feeling that Morita doesn’t understand her.) Sure, we don’t get much into Morita’s head either, but he’s easier to get a handle on (especially as the second season develops his backstory), and he’s not objectified to the degree Hagumi is. I do think Morita’s a horrible human being who wrecks everything and everybody around him, but at least he mostly feels real. Hagumi doesn’t, and her way too youngful appearance doesn’t help ; the only time I manage to take her seriously is when the camera is framed to make it less obvious.

So, we’ve got a love triangle centered on a non-character, and meandering romantic subplots that never go anywhere for much of the series. Does that make the series a wash ? Well, no, because occasionally there’ll be absolutely brillant melancholic sequences that will just break your soul. Especially striking were Episode #1-05, where Takemoto’s uneasiness with his new stepfather hit way too close to home ; and #1-06, where Hanamoto explains Rika’s circumstances (but there are a lot of those throughout the series). Moreover, I’ve grown to really enjoy the company of those characters (well, mostly Yamada, Hanamoto & Mayama, however much I joke about the latter’s “creepy stalker” behavior). They do feel like a tightly-knit group of friends (plus Morita), and I’m going to miss watching them, however rote some of their slapstick and infuriating their hopeless romantic pursuits are.

There are worse ways to feel about a series, aren’t there ?

via [LTTP/WIW] Various anime from the 00s and beyond – Page 4.

The Vision of Escaflowne

(26 episodes, 1996 + 1 movie, 2000)

My previous exposure

This seems to be the first anime series I ever watched in full, as it aired on French TV in the late 90s. I hadn’t rewatched it ever since, so I thought it’d be interesting to revisit it.

I’d never watched the movie until now, which allows it to barely squid under this thread’s mission statement.

What’s it about ?

Hitomi, an ordinary high-school girl with a gift for fortune-telling, gets suddenly brought by accident to the parallel world of Gaia (a blend of med-fan and steampunk) by Van Fanel, who was busy fighting a dragon as a rite of passage for becoming king of his country. Before anyone can settle down, said country gets destroyed by the big bad empire of Zaibacher, whose stealth mecha are way too powerful for the defensors to handle. So Hitomi and Van are on the run aboard Van’s super-duper-special mecha Escaflowne (whose very existence was the reason Zaibacher attacked for the first place). Along the way, they gather a ragtag group of allies, most notably the litteral knight in shining armor Allen Schezar (and the crew of his flying ship).

This being at least partly a shoujo show, we get lots of Hitomi hesitating whether to pursue a romance with either Allen or Van. Gripping stuff.

The REAL plot of the show involves Zaibacher actually being a tool for Isaac Newton to create a big machine that alters fate and will allow him to recreate Atlantis. No, seriously. The series never quite recovers from that reveal, sadly.

What did I think of it ?

I have mixed feelings about this one.

At the heart of it is a very well-constructed, 16-episode-long chase scene. Despite being a bit repetitive (“Van & Hitomi arrive somewhere, they aren’t really taken seriously, Zaibacher suddenly attacks and our heroes narrowly escape, usually with some more allies in tow” happens, what, five times in a row ?), it manages to showcase some interesting worldbuilding, develop the characters properly, progressively increase the stakes and build towards the big reveal. The fight scenes are mostly well-staged (except Ep #13, which is a bit of a mess), and made all the more thrilling by the top-notch soundtrack (probably the second-best Yoko Kanno has ever composed). It’s hard not to get enthralled when the choirs start going “Es! ca! flow! ne !”…

And then the story stops dead on its tracks with the big reveal. Never mind that it’s very stupid indeed ; that’s not the problem, and to be fair the show had spent a lot of effort before that point to foreshadow it and make it somewhat believable. No, the big issue is that the story loses all momentum. Zaibacher stops being the implacable assaillant it’s been up to now. Our heroes finally find a safe base or operations, just because (which is made worse by it being a place they’ve already visited and found hostile). The show never quite recovers from this, and ends on a whimper. (The climax includes a Van/Allen fight that just feels gratuitous and contrived.)

One subplot I find emblematic is Dilandau’s fate. He’s a great villain in the first half, chewing scenery with gusto and providing the heroes with somebody to fight. Then comes the progressive reveal that he’s actually Allen’s sister manipulated by Zaibacher’s fate-altering machine… and okay, that mostly works in context, despite depriving us of a fun villain. But the finale has him reverting to the original with no memory and no real consequences (aside from setting up that half-assed Van/Allen fight), which just feel like a cheat. This lack of followthrough is pervasive throughout the last few episodes of the series, which alas contribute to bring the whole thing down.

There’s a lot I like here… but I have this nagging feeling that a lot of it comes from the first-class soundtrack elevating it above what it really is.

What about the movie ?

The good part : it does away with most of the series’ most questionable aspects. They’ve managed to completely write Zaibacher out, which is quite an achievement. Dilandau stays who he is throughout. The Van/Hitomi/Allen love triangle is completely absent (Allen has a smaller role, overall).

The bad part : it replaces it all with a by-the-numbers plot with nowhere near the same ambition as the original. To accomodate the plot, Hitomi starts off a lot whinier. And the worldbuilding is much less interesting, with the only flashes of interest coming from leftovers from the series.

But then, there’s only so much you can do with a 95-minute movie. Unlike, say, RahXephon or TTGL, this movie doesn’t even try to cover the same story as the series, and I can’t really fault it for that. It’s a pity it doesn’t manage to build anything really worth watching instead, but I can’t bring myself to hate it. It ain’t horrible : the production values are obviously higher (although the character design has taken a turn for the worse – poor Merle !), the music is still ace, and the plot actually makes more sense… but at the cost of being very generic indeed.

via [LTTP/WIW] Various anime from the 00s and beyond – Page 3.


(26 episodes, 2007)

My previous exposure
None, besides the notion that it’s supposed to be a very depressing story. Well, they weren’t kidding…

What’s it about ?

15 children attending a summer camp get invited by a shady scientist dude to “play a game” that involves using a giant robot to fight similar-looking invaders. Except it’s not really a game at all, and the dude disappears right after the demo fight.

There’s a helpful little flying mascot called “Dung Beetle” who gives the kids some tips, if by “helpful” you mean “relentlessly abusing them verbally”, and by “tips”, “misdirection and outright lies”. Progressively, the ground rules become clearer : one kid at random (or is it ?) is selected for the next battle. If they lose, the Earth is destroyed. If they win, the kid dies because their mech used up their life energy. There are 15 enemies to fight in total, which makes it clear that the whole thing is a complete screwjob. (Oh, and that’s without counting several of the later plot twists that make it even more horrific.)

This being on the more deconstructive side of storytelling, the authorities do take notice of the events and move in to take matters in hand, with various degrees of helpfulness and usefulness.

What did I think of it ?

Finally this thread reaches a series I genuinely enjoyed watching throughout, with barely a few nitpicks here and there. (Although, technically, it’s the first one I finished watching – I saw it during my pause in the middle of Michiko e Hatchin.)

I like a lot of the visuals here, too. Particularly, the recurrent chair motif is very inspired indeed : it’s otherwordly, it offers quick insights into each kid’s character, and mostly it’s just darn creepy. The mecha fights are a lot of fun to watch too, as great care was put into showing the effect of the physics-defying mecha’s battles on the cityscapes they took place in. The scale and the absurdity of the conflict are sold very well, even before the stakes keep being raised.

The overarching plot may actually be the weakest part of the series. It’s well-paced and there are a lot of fun twists along the way, but the “political conspiracy” thread completely peters out after a point… to say nothing of the huge plot holes along the way. (To be blunt : despite the children being supervised by the military, they’re under ridiculously little oversight, especially after their handlers start going rogue.) But it doesn’t really matter, given than it’s a structural framework for what the series really is about : a set of character pieces about how kids from completely different backgrounds react to this blatantly absurd set up where they have to sacrifice themselves to save the world.

And on that level, it works perfectly. Oh, sure, it soon becomes obvious that when the focus fall on a particular kid, they’re doomed to die by the end of the episode : points to the writers for playing with it a bit, but mostly for making it the core of the show : it doesn’t matter when a kid is set to die, but how they cope with the advance knowledge of it. Do they go mad with the revelation ? Get overcome by denial ? Become plagued with apathy ? Try to do the “right” thing ? Make as much of their remaining time as possible ? Try and take advantage of their position ? Try to find a way to avoid their fate ? The whole gamut of possible reactions gets examined. It might strain disbelief a bit that nearly all the kids are crippled by personal and/or psychological issues, but then there are a few that seem mostly normal… and their own episodes are mostly opportunities to get the main plot moving.

This isn’t a happy series, and the ending is a pyrrhic victory as best (although cheers for what happens to Dung Beetle – that asshole deserved it), but I still got out of it with hope for mankind… And that’s key to why the series works so well.

via [LTTP/WIW] Various anime from the 00s and beyond – Page 3.