Fantastic Children

(26 episodes, 2004-2005)

My previous exposure

Suggested in this thread.

What’s it about ?

Random young children all of the same age have pulled a disappearing act, suddenly turning albino and deciding to wear creepy dark cloaks. And it’s not the first time this happened, as similar disappearances happened every few decades for several centuries… and the children always look the same. Detective Cooks, officially in charge of investigating one of them (but really following up on his journalist grandfather’s investigations a century ago), follows their trace and discovers a mysterious government conspiracy that has figured out the kids are periodically reincarnating themselves, and is now trying to reproduce their death-defying technology. Said conspiracy is of course headed by yet another albino young man…

Meanwhile, the purported protagonist of the series, an athletic boy called Thoma, helps a young girl named Helga escape from her orphanage, and they loiter around on an island for a while. The link between this and the main plot is that the “fantastic children” are looking for Helga (actually another reincarnating-through-the-ages person), but they do such a crap job of it that it takes half the series for both threads to rejoin together.

And then we get the actual explanation for all this : all the reincarnating people are actually aliens, with the “fantastic children” being a team of scientists who sent the princess into Earth’s afterlife in a bid to save her after an assassination attempt, and are now trying to get her back to their princess. The albino dude masterminding the government conspiracy really works with the alien king’s evil brother. And so on.

What did I think of it ?

Oh, dear. How did this series manage to go so horribly wrong ?

Actually, no, I don’t think it went wrong. The problems are so deeply ingrained into the plot that it must have been planned that way from the start. Which boggles the mind, but it happens.

Let’s start with the positive : it’s a gorgeous series, with some spectacular work on the settings and very fluid animation. There are also nuggets of fascinating characterization for the “fantastic children”, struggling between the memories of their century-long mission and their latest upbringing as normal children. (Although having them fight actual monsters from the afterlife whenever their resolution falters is a bit too heavy-handed a metaphor.)

But whatever ambiguity the series had managed to build up in its first few episodes is destroyed by the reveal of the very simplistic backstory (to say nothing of the suspension-of-disbelief-killing decision to make Helga a bomb for the main bad guy to fight over). This is a very black-and-white series (in the sense that it has irredeemable bad guys, and good guys making obviously-wrong decisions that come back to bite their ass later). You’d think the taboo scientific field of exploring the afterlife would provide interesting conflict, but it quickly becomes an afterthought, a plot device for people to fight over (or whine that they should never have become involved in it).

The confused structure of the first half of the series exemplifies what’s wrong with it. Thoma, our supposed protagonist, gets into wacky hijinks with the orphanage escape that seem transplanted from a much more carefree story, and are frankly quite boring. The “fantastic children” do nothing besides running around ineffectively (and it quickly becomes obvious that they’ve been doing so for centuries). Detective Cooks’s thread is by far the more interesting, but it’s mostly a vehicle for exposition and just stops abruptly at the mid-series mark (his few token scenes after it just emphasize how irrelevant he’s become).

Darn, the premise sounded really interesting, but this show clearly had a completely different (and much more boring) story to tell. Too bad.

via [LTTP/WIW] Various anime from the 00s and beyond – Page 6.

Shion’s King (Shion no Ou)

(22 episodes, 2007-2008)

My previous exposure

None, besides having heard of the basic premise.

What’s it about ?

Eight years ago, the parents of Shion got brutally murdered in front of her eyes, leaving the poor little girl traumatized and mute. One of the only clues is a “King” shougi piece (apparently the murderer somehow decided to then play a game with the six-year-old). Now, Shion (who was adopted by her loving uncle, himself a pro shougi player) is a middle-schooler on the verge of entering the pro shougi circuit. She’d obviously rather forget all about her traumatic past, but the high-stakes tournament organized by the current champion’s brother is about to dredge all kinds of bad stuff back up to the surface…

Also quite important to the plot is Ayumi, a high-school dropout who crossdresses because he thinks it easier to make money fast on the female shougi circuit (since his mother is tremendously ill and the hospital bills need getting paid). Not at all important to the plot (despite being featured prominently in the OP) is Saori, another up-and-coming young female shougi player.

What did I think of it ?

First things first : the OP sequence is absolutely ridiculous, with every single cast member desperately trying to look badass or menacing. It’s completely different in tone from the actual show, which is way more sedate and less gritty (count all the sequences where Shion has hilariously exaggerated reactions !). I really wonder what the producers were thinking… although I did find it perversely entertaining enough not to fast-forward through it, so mission accomplished, I guess.

Also very misleading is that scene in the first episode where Saori looks like she’s actually a ruthless mafia daughter and orders minions to investigate her opponents’ backgrounds… but everything after that shows that she’s actually just a mostly nice girl (and her minions must be shit, because Ayumi hasn’t really thought his deception through). I wonder whether earlier drafts of the plot had Saori actually mattering to the plot…

Now, on any other series I wouldn’t be able to get past such bullshit plotting, but this one manages to strike a perfect balance between standard “tournament show” sequences and the convoluted mystery hovering on the edges of the plot. Separately, they wouldn’t be of much interest : the shougi matches are drowning in exposition, and the mystery is pretty crap (there aren’t many suspects, and the murderer’s motive only makes sense if you’re insane). But the prominence of the shougi competition allows the mystery to stay in the background so that its flaws aren’t too noticeable, while the mystery gives a lot of edge and suspense to the shougi matches.

There’s even some quite clever plotting, especially around the “sponsor” dude who has a vested interest in making the match-ups as dramatic as possible to generate maximum publicity. (And since he’s a complete neophyte to shougi, he’s helpful as someone to be exposited to.) I’ve grown quite fond of him ; Hiroshi Kamiya is very good at striking the right note between slight sliminess and just pure cluelessness. (Nice touch of having him voice the advert announcements !)

Overall, this is a fun, if heavily flawed, little series.

via [LTTP/WIW] Various anime from the 00s and beyond – Page 6.

Shingu : Secret of the Stellar Wars (Gakuen Senki Muryo)

(26 episodes, 2001)

My previous exposure

It’s another of the many series from Spring 2001 I checked out in this previous post. The first episode was so bizarre I knew I had to view it in full eventually.

What’s it about ?

The year 2070. It turns out that a little Japanese town has been a hub of alien activity for thousands of years, with numerous “diplomats” (read : spies) lounging around conspicuously. The reason for this is Shingu, a huge mecha-like weapon of tremendous power hidden there, that obviously everyone and their mother would like to get their hands on (or at least not to fall into anyone else’s hands). The biggest faction around is the Galactic Alliance, who have made sure to keep Earth as a “primitive reserve” with no public alien presence for so long, although obviously that status quo won’t stand for much longer (especially after the big showy alien incursion defeated by Shingu in the first episode).

Our point of view character is Hajime, a middle-schooler whose family has been living in the small town for a few years (so he isn’t initially aware of the ancient conspiracy). Other major characters include the members of the Absurdly Powerful Student Council, who are not-so-coincidentally this generation’s Shingu controllers (the previous generation got wiped out 11 years ago in an incident nobody likes to talk about), and especially Nayuta, the tsundere vice-president who does the actual controlling.

Oh, and there’s this Muryo dude, who comes from another village with its own ancient alien conspiracy, is better than everyone at anything, seems to know a lot more than he should, and still remains annoyingly affable about it. I can’t fault people like Nayuta finding him unbearably frustrating. And his sister is even more annoying (I’ve never seen super-speed used more effectively to needle people on playfully).

There are basically two major parallel story threads interwoven together : the kids having a (nearly) normal school life and occasionally fighting stuff (also : angst ! but only for a few of them…), and the adults discussing stuff diplomatically and providing the required exposition about the context needed to understand the actual plot. They’re mostly disjointed from each other, mostly because the complex diplomacy stuff is way over the kids’ heads.

What did I think of it ?

This is a very bizarre series. Objectively we’ve got a complex and convoluted plot with tons of factions that don’t trust each other one bit, some very violent (and well-staged) fight scenes, some very high stakes indeed… but most of the screen time is shared between (1) inoffensive school hijinks and (2) people politely discussing the plot over a cup of tea. Indeed, most of the action sequences are preludes to bringing one or more parties to sit down and calmly discuss matters. (The exceptions are usually morons making a hasty attack and getting crushed for it.) As a result, the overall mood is very sedate indeed.

For once, I (mostly) approve of the complete name change by the US localization. This show is definitely completely about Shingu, while Muryo mostly stays on the edges of the story and barely ever contributes anything to the plot (the story may even work without him being there at all). And that’s a deliberate choice on his part in-story, too. This series is full of very powerful (and backstory-important) characters who prefer staying in the background so as to not wreck the carefully-established equilibrium, only stepping in when needed. It could be infuriating, but the show mostly pulls it off.

There’s definitely a charm to it, as one easily gets involved into the growing Hajime/Nayuta relationship (or even Kyoichi/Harumi – I’m a sucker for awkward characters voiced by Tomokazu Sugita). On the other hand, it’s hard to really get into the complex diplomatic talks, because so much of it happens off-screen and makes it impossible to guess exactly what’s happening (one particular very belligerant faction gets no explanation whatsoever – everyone’s puzzled as to who they might be, and they get obliterated too early in the climax to get relevant). Most of the characters play their hand very close to the vest, hiding whatever they’re up and whoever they’re really affiliated to under layers of deception. (The king of this being Ziltosh, the loud and affable Hawaian-shirt-wearing alien who seems to be working for everyone at once.) I sometimes felt like the show wasn’t really playing fair with this, as a lot of it consists of red herrings hiding the actual climax brewing.

So, does it work ? Not entirely. It certainly gets points for attempting something completely different with the “mecha fights off alien invasion” genre. The characterization work is impressive : most characters (including the aliens) feel very human indeed, with one glaring exception (Muryo, who stays an enigma throughout). But there are definite pacing problems, from awkward “did I miss an episode ? Ah, no, here’s a flashback to fill me on this pointless in media res opening scene” moments, to a not-so-successful handling of rising tension (which sometimes deflates far too quickly). And while a lot of it is quite funny, there are a good number of jokes that feel entirely alien. And I’m not convinced the ending really works.

There’s a lot to like here, but the show doesn’t manage to strike the perfect balance. Nice try, though.

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