Kino no Tabi – it’s old but is it gold?

Alternative title Kino’s Journey
Studio A.C.G.T.
Genres Drama, Slice of Life
Source Light novel
Episodes 13 + OVA + 2 films
Season Spring 2003
Director Ryuutarou Nakamura
Music Ryou Sakai
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    Why do people create imaginary worlds and stories? The answer would be because they think our own world lacks something. It might be that a person just wants to experience an alternative choice in his life or to see what would happen if some specific conditions would be provided. It doesn’t change the fact that even those stories that have very little in common with the everyday world are still built upon the rules that we know – sometimes they are altered, sometimes completely broken or created anew, but the fact persists. Then a person (other than the creator) who wants to experience such a new world needs to know what are the rules there. And because our world inevitably is the reference, the imaginary world by default works just like our own, unless stated otherwise. And that’s a statement I want you to remember because this time let’s delve into the world of Kino no Tabi (the old one), similar and yet vastly different from our own.

     The basics of an adventure story is to make someone travel somewhere and encounter some interesting people along the way. Kino no Tabi plays right into this vein – the protagonist Kino spends her time visiting various countries and noting their differences. The creator of the original light novel series Keiichi Sigsawa loves to travel himself and usually does that on his motorcycle so inevitably his heroine Kino does the same. The unusual thing is that Kino’s motorrad Hermes (yep, that’s how it’s called) talks from time to time. I don’t know how it’s portrayed in the light novels but judging from the anime, there’s a possibility that Kino’s wrong in the head (no wonder concerning her troublesome past) and because of that she imagines a completely normal machine talk. Sure, it’s only a minor possibility, but I can’t remember any scene where Hermes would have said anything important to any third party that Kino couldn’t. It’s never directly addressed, so think what you will. Still, Hermes only exists to keep company for Kino. To some extent it was a smart choice to have a talking motorbike – in this way Kino has someone to talk to but on the other hand Hermes doesn’t look like anything human so in that sense Kino still travels alone, so generally Hermes is there just to make Kino talk and express her opinions.

    As the story is episodic, the characters constantly change so it’s crucial to form a bond with anyone featured more prominently in order to connect with the show. Apart from Kino there’s only Hermes that may remotely be called a character. And it’s a talking motorbike, yeah. Even then Kino remains a mystery to me. Many people have compared Kino no Tabi to Mushishi and not without a reason. In both series the protagonists mainly act as lenses to enable the viewers to see their respective worlds. Sure, there’re huge differences as Ginko tries to help people while still hiding his personal thoughts and Kino usually is just an observer, trying not to interfere with anything. To measure anything you inevitably need to interact with it and as Kino usually avoids that, I’ve only gathered the tiniest and often contradicting impressions of her. One time Kino may ponder if it’s alright to kill some rabbits in order to feed a few famished travelers, a bit later she can actively make dozens of people (and maybe more) fight in a death match, so I just couldn’t form a consistent opinion on her – does she value life? Why is she behaving the way she does? Only a few times Kino formed a connection with other people and I can assure that during these times she was the most relatable and human. And I rather watch a show about humans and not some undefined entities that only observe. Especially if what they observe doesn’t really make sense more often than not.

      Now we come to the main point I have against Kino no Tabi – there’s not enough proof that all the different countries in Kino’s world work otherwise than countries in the real one (and why is that). You come expecting normal people who are able to think and come up with logical answers to their problems but it isn’t the case. People in Kino’s world are prone to be extremely oversimplified or just transformed in such a way that for me most of time they’re not even recognizable as people that I could relate to or care about their stories. And that’s even worse than, say, in a typical harem anime where no character can break from stereotypes. Kino typically spends an episode (or even less) in one country but in each and every one of them apart from one or two forgettable supporting characters other people make up a mob, a mass, devoid of personality and smarts. The simplifications of people, employed to act as devices for portraying specific ideas, don’t allow a single person from the mob to behave the tiniest bit differently compared to the majority. I don’t think it’s very realistic to travel to, say, Sweden and find that everybody is named Olaf, likes to play ice hockey and has a pet squirrel named Thor. Even worse, the mob usually acts in unbelievably dumb ways. For example (and beware of spoilers), two countries decide that rather than warring between themselves they would save some lives by regularly massacring a third underdeveloped country as a kind of sport. That way, everyone is said to be happy in these two countries because no more people are killed in war and they’re able demilitarize quite a bit. Why doesn’t anyone remember the land that the countries initially quarreled for anymore, why neither of the countries takes an opportunity to destroy the other one if the opponent’s power is diminished, why the people of the third country simply endure being massacred and neither retaliate nor leave is beyond me. And wasn’t a more simple choice JUST TO MAKE PEACE? It’s probably the worst I’ll remember about Kino no Tabi, but it’s just plagued by such more or less illogical complications that sure, do serve the exploration of thought provoking ideas, but on the other hand throw away all the relatability and realism. Maybe I’m an idealist, but come on, people can’t be THAT retarded, can they?

   Another interesting aspect of Kino’s world is that it’s very segmented. There’re practically no ties between the countries. It’s quite strange to have countries with hover-boards and also countries where a mere wish to invent something is frowned upon. Well, our world isn’t that different at a first glance, but I guess even someone living in the farthest corner of the world has heard that planes do exist. Technology usually like to spread, countries also tend to conquer as much territory as they can but in Kino no Tabi the countries are rather more like city-states that have no plans to expand, open trade routes or just explore further from their thresholds. I find that strange and it only adds to my confusion that Kino’s world initially seems just like our own but is certainly not. I guess if an animal has cat ears, cat nose, cat paws and even behaves like a cat, it should be a cat but in this anime even an object having all external human characteristics feels nothing like human.

    Sometimes it’s clear that the anime was adapted from a light novel, even if at the time light novels weren’t as popular as they are now and the market wasn’t oversaturated with similar stories with little artistic quality. Why does Kino always have to ask if she can ask a question? It’s pretty annoying to say the least. Annoying as well are the questions exactly repeating the statements (just like “I’m a plumber” – “Oh, you’re a plumber, right?”). It might work to start conversations in the light novel but in the anime it definitely feels wooden or at least outdated. After all it’s sort of understandable since at the time typical anime used to be that much slower paced.

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Excerpt from the OST: some track featuring Pachelbel's Canon in D

   Kino no Tabi also definitely looks like it was made quite a while ago. The visuals do nothing but scream about belonging to early 2000s. Character designs can be very simplified, as much as something come straight from some Masaaki Yuasa work, only the animation isn’t as impressive. Kino herself looks very bubbly and gender neutral (which has some point), far from Kino in this new ongoing reimagining of the story where the protagonist didn’t manage to withstand the attack of moe. Having nothing but pastel colors and especially many browns might make the old Kino look muddy but usually the show just feels cozy. Well, mostly color-wise, because there definitely are some unsettling stories. Still, the overall aesthetic is a consistent one, and that’s for the best. If we discount that weird scanline filter. You know what I mean.

   Moving on, it’s difficult to say anything about the soundtrack because it hasn’t been released for some reason. Yep, there’re some bits and pieces scattered on the Internet but even so I’m not inclined to spend time looking for it. As far as I recall, the soundtrack was good in a sense that it seamlessly fused with the stories, that is it wasn’t noticeable at all. On the other hand a great soundtrack should be able to stand its ground alone and be an equally important part of the story, and I can’t say that about Kino no Tabi. The single memorable scene sound-wise was when the famous Pachelbel’s Canon in D was used. That music may suit pretty much any non-action scene anywhere so it fit here well also. It’s just funny that a single more prominent track wasn’t made by Ryou Sakai who’s responsible for the whole soundtrack.

    If you haven’t seen enough of Kino, it’s not over after the TV series – there’s also an OVA and two films (each half an hour long). The OVA is half an episode long and feels different from the main show only because of that. Just like the creators at the last second found out that what they had made doesn’t extend to the full length and then nobody had any idea what to do with the remaining time. The first film defers from the usual formula by being sort of a prequel. Remember girly Kino with long hair and a dress? If you liked that, the first film is a must. It’s interesting to see how Kino started travelling but as with the TV series (as well as the OVA), the mob just isn’t smart at all. It’s nothing but annoying when people are so pedantic that a problem (that can be lethal to someone) isn’t dealt with properly with only because some in this case ridiculously unimportant rules say so. The second film signified the first time when Kino no Tabi left its initial studio – it was produced by Shaft and it feels hardly like a Kino. The character designs are updated (Kino’s coat is very battered for example) and Kino looks far more mature. The story also isn’t anything to write home about. It has some interesting elements but in the end it’s unfinished and feels just like the rest of unsatisfying episodes of Kino. As you probably know the ongoing reimagining of Kino no Tabi is also an option, but at least for now its quality doesn’t feel that satisfying.

Updated Kino from the Shaft film

    It’s immeasurably hard to tell a story that has some philosophical elements that would be thoroughly examined only in one episode, a decent wrap up and relatable characters included. Probably each episode of the series could be extended to its own separate show because the ideas behind are truly capable of that. Now it’s sadly quantity and not always quality. For me simply abstract ideas weren’t enough – they only can reach a viewer when they are organically embedded into the world of the story, and that’s precisely what I feel the anime lacks. Almost every episode I can summarize in a way of “Oh, that’s a rather interesting thought… but why the hell is that person so dumb?..”. I guess if Kino had been less of an enigma and the inhabitants of the countries had been less simplified, it would’ve been a show to my liking. Still, I must acknowledge that there’s a gold nugget in probably every episode, only it’s covered with a huge layer of dust. It’s up to you whether you have enough commitment to find it and not be too judgmental about the dust.

    I believe, this anime

 1

Could’ve been worse

     I think Kino no Tabi is worthy to be experienced. Sure, there are many more enjoyable shows but if you find yourself drawn to some deeper stuff and have some free time  – do try out the show. Despite my rather harsh opinion many people appear to have enjoyed Kino no Tabi quite a bit, so at least in order to broaden your general knowledge of anime the show is recommended.

     Have you seen the old Kino no Tabi? Are such older shows able to stand the test of time? How do you think the old show compares with the new anime?

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Aoi Bungaku – can old literature be adapted into an anime?

Alternative title Blue Literature
Studio Madhouse
Genres Drama, Historical
Source Novels
Episodes 12
Season  Fall 2009
Directors Morio Asaka, Tetsurou Araki, Shigeyuki Miya, Ryosuke Nakamura, Atsuko Ishizuka
Music Hideki Taniuchi, Shusei Murai
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     It’s often hard to get a satisfying manga adaptation, and light novels regardless of their quality may prove to be even a harder original source to tame. Still, out of everything that can be printed on paper probably the hardest is to take a conventional novel or a short story and reshape it into an anime, and Aoi Bungaku tries to do exactly that. The catch is that it’s not contemporary stuff it’s trying to adapt, and not even a one novel. Aoi Bungaku actually is something like an anthology of various stories written by famous Japanese who created their now classical works in the first half of the 20th century. For someone like me saying “he’s an extraordinary writer” doesn’t say much (quite shamefully) because sadly I lack that aspect of knowledge about Japanese culture. Still, such name as Osamu Dazai probably is known by many because his fame often seeps into anime and manga as a cultural reference – remember for example the recent Tsuki ga Kirei. All the stories originally were created having in mind a vastly different audience and not only because of a different time period – I guess such genres as a high-school comedy would’ve been inconceivable then. Because of that, adapting long-ago written stories may prove a particularly challenging task. How does Aoi Bungaku cope with that? Well…

Not the most expected OP

      First of all, the structure of the show needs some explanation. Aoi Bungaku is split into 6 completely different stories (though the last two have an artificial connection), and the differences are even more pronounced since each segment was created by different crews. Because of that it’s entirely possible to watch the show any way you like and skip any story you don’t like. Also, it’s uncommon that the show doesn’t have an OP. In its place in a documentary-like segment an actor Masato Sakai (remember the name) introduces the author and some details about a particular story. As for someone with virtually no prior knowledge about the cultural and personal circumstances of the stories, his comments were very helpful and insightful.

     The first story, the longest and in my opinion the most powerful one, is the swan song of Osamu Dazai. No longer human (Ningen shikkaku) tells a tale about sorrows of a man with little social abilities. Youzou gets what he doesn’t need but doesn’t manage to achieve what he really craves, if actually there is something he desires. Constant war with inner ghosts that manifest very powerfully and struggles to decipher if he really is a human and whether he should strive to be one makes it a very personal and engrossing story. A whole new view opens when you learn that Ninegen Shikkaku is the last work of Osamu Dazai right before his suicide. As if it’s not enough, some striking similarities with Youzou’s and Dazai’s lives make it an almost autobiographical and very personal work, a sad confession of a pitiful life. You just can’t sit without thinking “Oh poor poor Osamu…”. The visuals also are one of the strongest in the whole show. It’s not really a surprise, since it was Takeshi Obata of Death Note and Bakuman who provided character designs (he also did that for the third story). To be frank, the very first seconds of the show gave me the idea that it was made by good old Madhouse at its peak, and during all the four episodes the standards weren’t lowered a tiny bit. Every scene conveys the mindset of the protagonist and sustains the heavy atmosphere. Although it’s hard to make a convincing horror anime, Youzou’s inner demon looks terrific. There probably wasn’t a better way to start this show as strong.

      The second story deeply contrasts with the first one in many ways. I guess Tetsuro Araki is more suitable for making action flicks and not philosophical and deep stuff. From the first few seconds it’s clear that Ango Sakaguchi’s  In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom (Sakura no Mori no Mankai no Shita) isn’t going to be a very serious story. The art (character designer Tite Kubo of Bleach) as well as some additions to the story rather look like something Studio Trigger could’ve made and certainly not as a story of an acclaimed 20th century Japanese writer. There lies the biggest problem because I don’t think that was the right direction to take. Sure, some comedy is never a bad thing but particularly in the context of the other stories this one sticks out like a sore thumb. I wonder who thought that a talking boar or such anachronisms like cell phones in a medieval period would be a good addition. Thus such comedic moments completely overshadow the main story which itself doesn’t feel satisfactory. As I haven’t read the original work I can only hope that there were enough explanations why, for example, a rough bandit was so enchanted by a random woman to carry out every single of her sometimes ridiculous orders. Also the central idea of the story that sakuras may be a source of terror in the anime was just left hanging with no reasoning why.

     Next story Kokoro was written by Souseki Natsume. As far as I know, the anime takes some liberties with the story but in the end it pays off. Kokoro is about a friendship of two completely different people and what happens when their interests (of course involving a woman) collide. The first episode dedicated to this story felt too crammed and it seemed that only a surface has been scratched. The interesting part is that the second episode retells the same story, only this time from the perspective of the other friend. It turns out that pretty much everything actually had a different meaning. It’s not only the same situations that can be interpreted in a different manner – the two versions even contradict one another at some points. It’s quite puzzling but also interesting to try to trace everything as it really happened because even the second story that seems to be far closer to the truth may not have been told entirely without any changes. It may not hit right in the kokoro (hehe) but compared to the second story it shines very brightly.

     Then we have yet another work of Osamu Dazai, but this time far more cheerful, though not without some emotions and pain. In its essence Run, Melos! (Hashire, Melos!) is quite simple – it’s following a playwright as he’s tasked to adapt an ancient Greek story to a play. The story concerns two friends, one of whom was sentenced to death but manages to postpone his sentence by giving his friend in as a hostage. The struggle begins when he must return within three days in order to be executed himself and to set free his friend. It turns out that the playwright himself has some experiences that almost completely mirror the story and his memories prove to be too vivid for him to be able to work as always. Despite the simplicity of the story it tackles some fundamental values and shows that the same things that were important to the Greeks haven’t lost their significance. Ryosuke Nakamura’s direction again rises a question why he hasn’t been at the helm of more productions. At least he quite recently got Grimgar.

    The final two episodes are devoted to Ryuunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories The Spider’s Thread (Kumo no Ito) and Hell Screen (Jigoku Hen). The first one concerns a bandit whom a spider tried to save from hell. I think it’s a very common story, at least I have heard it many times before even knowing that there was such a writer. The second is more interesting as it discusses the actions of an obsessed artist to whom no sacrifice seems too painful in order to complete his painting. The stories at their core are very simple, but the director Atsuko Ishizuka of No Game no Life (that’s why there’s pretty colors everywhere) decided to join them together so that they would happen in the same mini-world. To some extent it pays off but in the end there are some inconsistencies left. The first Akutagawa’s story is far more fairytale like and its compatibility with the second one may be questionable. Moreover, the emperor in the first story is held to be the nicest guy in the world but in the last episode this notion just vanishes without a trace. The stories don’t have the complexity of the other ones but their core ideas are still relevant. Also, the first episode provided some nice trippy imagery of hell but the ending of the last story was just an animation fest.

     An interesting thing is that Masato Sakai (remembered the name?) acted as a protagonist or an important character in 5 stories. On one hand, it’s a common thread that unifies the stories. On the other, it wasn’t really necessary. Moreover, having a guy with a melancholic voice voice-act a rough and tough bandit gives not the most convincing performance. Still, more times than not he as well as other VAs did a good job trying to sound not like some anime character but real people. Serious emotions were certainly here and I can ask no more than that.

Excerpt from the OST of Ningen Shikkaku by Hideki Taniuchi

     The soundtrack was composed by two guys – Shusei Murai (episodes 9 and 10) and Hideki Taniuchi (the rest). There’s only a little more that I can say about it because in a very curious way the soundtrack apparently was never released. After some search I found that Hideki Taniuchi was charged with carrying some marijuana and we all know how strict Japanese are with such things. Of course it’s just a supposition that these facts are related and I may never find out why there was no release. Anyway, it’s very unfortunate because the soundtrack wasn’t a bad one. There are some reconstructions of the tracks taken from the series themselves scattered throughout the Internet but it’ll never fully replace nor quality nor quantity of the official release. The soundtrack mainly stays in the background but some of the more lyrical or upbeat themes find their way to the surface. The purpose of accompanying the stories and enhancing the atmosphere are accomplished and while it’s hard for me to recall anything substantial, the soundtrack accomplished its task without any major flaws. Probably the most impressive tracks belong to Ningen Shikkaku since it’s the longest story and has far more contemplative and emotional breathing spaces than any other.

Excerpt from Hashire, Melos!. Animation by Kenichi Shimizu.

     In the end Aoi Bungaku turns out to be a very mixed bag of everything. In principle trying to revive some classics and give them a new coating, maybe tweaking a little bit one detail or another to suit the change of the medium is a very commendable act. Yet, that’s only theoretically since even without the knowledge of the source material it’s obvious that not everything may be translated into animation well in the first place, so inevitably there arise some hard decisions to be made, and not all of the results seem to be on the same level as the original sources. Despite quite huge ups and downs, the positive (without, of course, getting to know about some influential literary works) is the possibility to choose what you wish. If a  full-cour-length show messes up its story, it feels way more important and a sour feeling will mar the whole show but with such a format as Aoi Bungaku chose you can pick up the better bits and come out of it quite satisfied.

    I believe, this anime is

 2Decent

      If you’re still pondering whether to engage Aoi Bungaku, please do yourself a favor and try Ningen Shikakku, that is the first four episodes. If you feel like it, you may check out Hashire, Melos! and maybe Kokoro. For sakuga fans the second half of the last episode is advisable. The whole 12 episode package has some unsavory parts but cherry-picking is of course allowed and you definitely have my recommendation for that.

     Have you watched Aoi Bungaku? Are you familiar with any of these literary works? Do you think it’s possible to have novels (not light novels) adapted into an anime in a satisfying way?

 

Little Witch Academia (I+ II) – more than Harry Potter: The Anime

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Studio Trigger
Genres Action, Drama, Slice of Life, Supernatural
Source Original
Episodes 1+1 (both OVAs or films, or whatever)
Season Winter 2013 + Autumn 2015
Director Yoh Yoshinari
Music Michiru Oshima

     My case with Trigger anime has been quite a weird one. At first  I was very annoyed by the countless ads of World Trigger anime on Crunchyroll – at some point it seemed that there were virtually no other ads out there. It’s quite a shame that I managed to confuse a name of an anime with an entirely unconnected name of a studio. The ads certainly didn’t pique my attention, but then I learned of Kill la Kill, and that did. Yet, I researched it rather poorly (at first confusing it with Akame ga Kill, dammit) and stopped after quite quickly getting an idea that it’s only a weird ecchi show that doesn’t interest me at all. Knowing that Trigger branched of Gainax did give some brownie points but experiencing a short by Hiroyuki Imaishi in Nihon Animator Mihonichi (ep. 14) I was just disgusted by the sheer vulgarity of it. Despite all these things eventually I decided to try some rather neutral Trigger stuff, as Little Witch Academia has been praised by a lot of people and it seemed no way that it could be a hentai. Yet…

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     Just kidding. It’s definitely not a hentai (though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has made some hentai after LWA). Stupid jokes aside, to clear some points, this post concerns only the original LWA as well as its successor LWA: Mahoujikake no Parade and not the (currently airing) TV series. Now fairly popular franchise began with “Young Animator Training Project” (aka “Anime Mirai” at some point), which also was the reason for Death Billiards (and consequently Death Parade) among other stuff to come into being. As it was a success, a launched Kickstarter project – pretty unusual for an anime, eh? – became funded in no time (to be more precise under 6 hours) and so we got a sequel to the first OVA. And even later came the TV series, but that’s not the topic today. Why is LWA interesting? For starters, there aren’t many anime whose stories have so little in common with anything Japanese. Name the heroine otherwise and you have a script for a Disney production. Well, if you can imagine the world of Harry Potter genderbendered and made into an anime, you would get the general atmosphere pretty well. To be frank, even some story elements have similarities – for example the adversary of the good kids is a white-haired person from a family with a long lineage. It’s not only that. Near the end of the second LWA there is something straight from Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. The creators themselves acknowledged that they had various influences that made LWA what it is. Should it bother a random viewer? Definitely not, as even if LWA isn’t the most original piece of art (though such a story in anime is pretty novel), it was made with love and watching it is nothing but fun.

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What is it about then? A young girl Akko after seeing a really impressive (no kidding) performance of magic by one particular witch, becomes infatuated with the stuff you can do and energetically (as always) decides to go to a magic school. Her problem is that she has no knowledge and obviously isn’t as skilled in all of the witch-y things. Getting a protagonist to overcome such problems is a basic premise of many shounen anime, but what makes LWA stand out is the execution. Especially the first OVA is incredibly tight paced – every single frame is thought out and couldn’t be removed by any means. The creators already confessed having to cut lots of stuff due to the expected limited length. Still, the OVA doesn’t last even half an hour (which passes in an instant) but you feel that the material could have been spread out into a full feature film using a more relaxed and therefore probably less charming approach. The second film continues the doings of Akko and her friends, expands the universe, but isn’t as entertaining as the first one. The story becomes less tight, there are fewer new exciting locations, the characters start some inter-conflicts and that slows down everything quite a bit. After all, it’s almost inevitable that a sequel isn’t as unique as the original material. Still, even if it doesn’t manage to reach the heights of the first LWA, for every fan of the franchise (and not only) it’s much recommended.

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    About the characters of LWA I have written a bit here. To think about them in a broader scale, they don’t really stand out. Especially in the first film, when the pacing lefts almost no space for a breather, the girls are presented really quick and then only their actions speak for them.  You have the enthusiastic Akko, who loves magic with every cell in her body but often screws up only because, being from a non-magician family, she has no idea how things work. Akko’s sidekicks Lotte and Sucy, being a normal girl and a pretty typical witch respectively, provide some character dynamics and catalyze some drama in the second film. Diana, whose family is apparently very proud of their ancestry with many generations of witches, acts as an antagonist in the first film, but sadly doesn’t retain any more prominent role in the second, which is a shame. The second film also introduces three more girls that have some minimal impact on the story, but don’t do anything special. When you think about it, the character aspect of both shows may be a bit lacking, but after so much that happens you just don’t care about it. Also, another perspective was provided by the director himself – Akko symbolizes a new animator coming into the business, without a clear vision of the real work he has to do, and that not always is as interesting and easy as he thinks. Everyone, with Diana acting as an embodiment for them, despises such a carefree attitude, but ultimately Akko finds her place in the community. Sure, this allegory isn’t apparent if you don’t know about it, but it‘s a nice little touch, giving the franchise a new meaning.

Excerpt from LWA: Mahoujikake no Parade; animation by Yuuto Kaneko

    Doubtless the animation is the most enjoyable part of both of the films. You can only wonder how much passionate work was put into every single scene and how effectively everything came out to be. The director Yoh Yoshinari is known for being a perfectionist to the bone so working under him probably wasn’t the least stressful work on Earth, but despite that the end result is nothing but gorgeous. It’s easy to recognize Studio Trigger behind the work because of the character designs and especially character animation. Such exaggerations in it not always work well with me, but this time I was only astounded how well it reflected the characters and their emotions. Forget the usual anime trend of only lips flapping – there everything is moving and characters are as expressive and dynamic as anywhere. You can probably make a whole sakuga guidebook just from the first LWA. The animation wasn’t the only thing to stand out in the department of visuals – Studio Pablo did a wonderful job (as always) providing backgrounds – vibrant, colorful, and beautiful beyond any doubt.

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     The soundtrack is another aspect linking LWA to the Disney productions very tightly, and at the same time being close to Ghibli soundtracks. That’s no wonder since the composer is Michiru Oshima, who usually handles orchestral music very effectively. Just look at her portfolio that contains FMA (the first one), Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei (that is Tatami Galaxy) or Akagami no Shirayuki hime. Orchestral pieces provide an airy atmosphere with enough quirks to mirror the misadventures of Akko. Having a full orchestration also gives a feeling of something removed from your daily life, just like a fantastic fairy tale with a usual “once upon a time”. A more minimalistic soundtrack (maybe just usual piano and strings) would have made everything look way more familiar, but now there’s a sense of wonder and also curiousness how anime girls can be mixed with classical Disney atmosphere, and the most important thing is that the mix really works.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Chariot's Theme' by Michiru Oshima

    At this moment the new TV series is still ongoing but I think it’s safe to say that the short length of the previous installments to the franchise was a positive attribute. Of course, there have been many anime shorts that waste the time they’re given, but LWA is not the case. When the creators have thought out the universe and the story that they want to tell really well, and it turns out to be longer than intended, as painful as it might be, generally cutting some material works way better than having to stretch everything out. Also it’s notable that TV series has a whole different timetable so not very satisfying strategies as outsourcing become inevitable. I guess it’s just my slight concern that the TV LWA so far isn’t doing anything more impressive than its predecessors (though it also has its moments). Knowing that the first and second LWAs look even more beautiful, full of freedom and devoid of limitations makes them a really enjoyable experience.

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 I believe, this anime is

 3
Good

     I think that for any anime fan LWA (especially the first one) is a must watch. I can’t remember when was the last time that so much fun was so tightly packed and delivered with amazing animation. Well, it’s Trigger at its best. If you have been burned out because of too many boring anime or just want to reignite your love for the “Chinese cartoons”, LWA is as good an option as you are ever going to find.

Orange – a mixed bag of everything

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Studio Telecom Animation Film
Genres Drama, Romance
Source Manga
Episodes 13
Season Summer 2016
Director Hiroshi Hamasaki
Music Hiroaki Tsutsumi
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      There are anime that by the majority of the viewers are believed to be outstanding in each and every aspect (Cowboy Bebop probably won’t receive much objections) or conversely just don’t have any redeeming qualities (Mars of Destruction, even less objections). Yet, only a handful of shows tend to be well-balanced in all of their departments – for example having a good soundtrack sadly doesn’t automatically grant a good story. For instance my experience with Makoto Shinkai’s films (yet to see Kimi no Na wa.) has been rather ambiguous – the visuals are breathtakingly amazing but the stories often seem quite lacking. In this context Orange looks like a particularly diverse show – the story alone sometimes makes you laugh (sadly, unintentionally) and other times it surprises with wisdom. Other aspects also can be very polarizing in terms of execution. Let’s dig a little deeper and find out about the goods and the bads of this anime.

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    Orange starts with a very fantasy-like event – a high-schooler (how else?) Naho gets a letter from her future self, telling about various regrets she came to have. The letter pleads Naho to experience a bit different life – to alter some of decisions that her future self made. Thus Naho would avoid frustration that many times is centered on her relationship with a new transfer student (again, how else?) Kakeru. As you see, the suspension of disbelief must be employed right from the start but hope that everything will be explained later on gives the story a little head start. Yet, in this very place the problems started. As I wrote in my remarks about Boku dake ga Inai Machi, an explanation to some supernatural phenomenon usually is wanted by the viewers but no explanation generally is a lot better than a bad one. And writing stories that involve time travel you have to put a damn much effort to think of at least a bit plausible and believable mechanism. Of course, Orange isn’t a story centered on time travel and it’s just a plot device to get things moving, but the writer looks to have wanted to include an explanation at all costs, and it did cost quite expensively. All the build-up of emotions and the tranquility of the relationships between people get thrown out of the window when Orange tries to invoke all the means that sci-fi can offer – Bermuda Triangle, parallel Universes and stuff – to justify the premise and just wastes time making an effort out of a situation with no possible favorable outcome.

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Another quite huge plot convenience was Naho’s way of reading her letter. It seems that she didn’t even thought of reading the letter whole to the very end once she got it. Yes, Naho herself was troubled for some time thinking that knowing what will happen in the future isn’t right and it only steals the joy of making various decisions but in many instances some drama and uncertainty could have been easily eliminated if only she had had some brains to read everything. Also, it seems like the letter was deliberately made ambiguous with some information withheld and only to be thrown in at the last second. I doubt if anyone truly wanting to give exact instructions how to do something would be so imprecise and wouldn’t think at all about the problems that might arise (and do arise) for the person reading the letter and trying to behave according to the instructions. By the way, why Orange? Why not, say, Banana or Rhubarb? It looks like the author just thought about a cool sounding title and only then was reminded that a title should have some connection with the creation itself. Sure, there is one scene where Kakeru buys Naho some orange juice as she asked when Kakeru was buying things for the whole group, but it’s a one-time-only motive that has no lasting influence.

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     You can think what you want about the achievements and shortcomings of the story, but the characters do deserve appreciation. To think about it, barely anyone of the main cast is strong enough to carry the show or to be interesting by himself/herself, but it’s actually the whole ensemble of them that provides the best moments. Naho as a lead character is rather dull and could probably be best described as just a normal sweet and hard-working girl. Apart from her failure to read the letter whole from the very start, some pondering about the possibilities and outcomes of changing the future and general concern for her friends, she doesn’t appear to be exceptional in any way from a typical supporting character. Suwa, a sports guy with enough optimistic attitude to be someone to lean upon if necessary, Azu, your pretty much typical genki girl with a knack for making jokes of another guy in the group – not that sporty Hagita – who doesn’t really mind and looks to be enjoying that, and Takako, who usually remains in the background and doesn’t do anything special apart from just being there – that’s the group of Naho’s friends who together make one of the most well-made friend units that I can remember in anime. There are many scenes where nothing special is happening and all the group just talks about nonsense, small things, or just teases one another. You get the feeling that they are really comfortable together and if need be, would do anything to offer any possible help. Then there is also Kakeru, a darker person (well, not only by his appearance), who is instantly picked up by the group and only by his own worries and insecurities doesn’t immediately become one of them as if he had known everyone for all his life. Kakeru has problems, and the show treats them very carefully and respectfully, pointing that in the real world such things are no joke and you may need all your abilities and more to help a person as troubled as Kakeru is.

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Excerpt from the OP

    The animation is probably the weakest part of the show. The studio Telecom Animation Film previously hasn’t done much worth noticing and worries of many people proved to be justified as the season went by. If the OP of a show gets the best sakuga moments of the show it’s no big deal but when you notice that during the later episodes the OP becomes the only place to look for anything decently animated, there’s a problem. Using slow pans, lots of close-ups and barely anything moving eventually become a standard to be expected of the show and it’s a shame because the story really deserved better. Painfully CG-ish students, sometimes strolling across the backgrounds don’t offer much help, either, as well as characters shamefully appearing off model way more than I’d find acceptable for no apparent reason save lack of time and money. Looking on a brighter side, the visual concept of the show appears to be not that standard. I don’t know how common green jackets are in Japanese high-schools but these, paired with very whitish and washed-out environment, create a noticeable contrast and a memorable atmosphere. The pale surroundings remind me of another show that had quite a similar visual concept – Stein’s;Gate. Oh wait, it turns out that rather coincidently both of the shows share the same director – Hiroshi Hamasaki. I won’t say that otherwise Orange would have been a terrible show, but the presence of this man certainly did a huge favor for the visuals even with the very limited means that were available.

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    Speaking about the soundtrack, I must return to the OP. As Orange was the show I started my summer season with, I was thirsty for something exciting and this OP just blew away all my expectations with immeasurable energy and sense of joy with some fleeting moments of sadness. For me Yu Takahashi’s song paired with the storyboarding and directing by the director himself somehow made this OP one of the most memorable of the whole year. The rest of the soundtrack, composed by Hiroaki Tsutsumi, doesn’t contain anything as striking, but as a background music it works really well. I don’t think I’d ever listen to this soundtrack as a piece of art, but sometimes when you just want to create some peaceful slice-of-life-ish atmosphere, many of the tracks work perfectly. As usually in such a show a piano and strings make up the largest part of the sound, also usually supported by guitars and an occasional violin solo. Looking to the soundtrack as a part of the anime, I can confirm that it blends well with the general atmosphere, usually remaining cheerful and managing to offer some seriousness during more emotional scenes.

The OP: 'Hikari no Hahen' by Yu Takahashi

     Orange is a really mixed bag – when it’s good, it’s truly emotional and beautiful, and when it’s bad you just want to drop it and never think about it again. Yet, the show certainly has character. I think the friendship was portrayed very well – the group of friends has a great chemistry, feels very genuine, lively and real, as if you could easily belong to it yourself. The quality of the visuals didn’t do justice for the story and even the story has many things to be criticized for, but it might not always be the case – there are opinions that all the parallel universe stuff could be thought of as a daydream of Naho, and in this way many unsatisfying things would nicely fall into places, but it’s your own choice to think what you will. Of course since there probably are more plot holes in Orange than in a typical colander there still would be things to be disappointed about but at least for me the positives of the show had more weight to keep me watching.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Yell' by Hiroaki Tsutsumi

I believe, this anime is

 2Decent

    Despite all the shortcomings I still think Orange is worth giving a try. Maybe not anime but the original manga, but if you are able not to be bothered too much by all the dissonance of the sci-fi element  (among other things) with the whole mood of the show you could certainly get an enjoyable experience, enriched by moments that call for more thought about living your life in such a way that your future self won’t have to judge your present self too harshly.

Scattered Thoughts – Usagi Drop and My Girl

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     A single man starts looking after a little girl, ponders about his romance perspectives and woes of a single father. The bond between the man and the girl becomes stronger and stronger, both of them also make a friend of a boy whose family circumstances are complicated. Now please guess which manga I’m talking about – Usagi Drop by Yumi Unita or My Girl by Mizu Sahara (yep, the pen name’s pretty hilarious, isn’t it?)? As this is more of an anime blog and Usagi Drop is fortunate enough to have received a brilliant anime adaptation by Production I.G (by the way, Usagi Drop is one of those rare cases when fans after receiving an incomplete anime adaptation remain more content than not, but more about it later), this may be your answer but actually the premise holds for both of the manga. Even some situations encountered by the characters are coming close to being identical. Yet despite striking similarities, My Girl and Usagi Drop remain vastly different.

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     Let’s begin with Usagi Drop. The story follows 30-year-old Daikichi, who after his grandpa’s death decides to take in Rin, grandpa’s illegitimate child. The situation seems awkward since Rin despite being 24 years younger than Daikichi in theory is his aunt. The confusion doesn’t appear that important after all – Rin quickly adapts to her new life, as well as Daikichi. The story then revolves about everyday life of the new family, with some more interesting elements added, such as Daikichi trying to investigate Rin’s mother’s identity or the family making acquaintances with Kouki, a boy of Rin’s age, and his single mother. Some of the most heartwarming moments come from this cohesion of the two incomplete families, affirming that through empathy and care even broken things don’t have to feel broken. All the sweet stuff goes on for 4 volumes, as much as the anime has covered (and that’s the reason why it’s so good). Then the story takes a huge turn, introducing a 10 year time leap to the period of Rin being a high-schooler (with some flashbacks to Rin being in a middle-school) which corresponds to the volumes 5-9. The time leap isn’t bad in itself but it almost completely negates the premise of a father and daughter relationship told from the father’s perspective, as Rin (and Kouki) more times than not assume the position of POV characters. Later on, and that’s probably the main reason of the disfavor of many fans for the later part of the manga, a certain character pairing is introduced and some social inconveniences are removed in a very deus ex machina way. The last volume covers some untold side stories from the whole time period. Seeing Rin as a child again feels refreshing but at the same time a bit pointless because knowing all that’s yet to happen to that lovely family later on adds some bitter taste.

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     My Girl begins in quite a similar way. Much younger (than Daikichi) Masamune, sometimes struggling office worker, suddenly finds out that his long gone ex-girlfriend Youko died in an accident and that for Masamune, who still harbors feelings for her, it’s some devastating news. Even more unexpectedly it turns out that Youko had had a daughter Koharu by him without his slightest knowledge and now as the child somehow manages to find Masamune himself, he decides to fulfil his responsibility to Koharu, to Youko and to himself. The 5-volume journey of My Girl doesn’t take any twists and turns as Usagi Drop did and even if Koharu is shown to grow, the story (also being shorter) doesn’t expand more than a few years which are more due to the different tales to be told rather than to be the focus of the change in the child and her needs. The only complaint I could have about Koharu would only be that she appears to be a tad too mature despite her age. Sure, traumatic experiences may hasten the process but to hear such deep things that Koharu sometimes says from a girl who’s not even a middle-schooler yet requires some suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, it accompanies the general mood of the story which takes a more emotional route than Usagi Drop which before the time twist was centered mainly on not so dramatic events.

 photo U1_zpsg39ospem.jpg      To start comparing things in more depth, in Usagi Drop Daikichi always remains the adult. Sure, later on Rin sometimes may hold the initiative, but at first every important decision must be carried out by Daikichi himself. Daikichi’s parents as well as the rest of the family in the beginning treat Rin like a very uncomfortable and irritating thing, almost not even a person so the responsibility from the get go is Daikichi’s alone. Later on seeing how adorable Rin is everyone warmed up but the center of Rin’s family world remained Daikichi. Masamune is far more inexperienced in such matters and when Daikichi tries to think out everything by himself, Masamune doesn’t shy to seek help from his parents and Youko’s mom. The family in My Girl look more cohesive and everyone tries to help Masamune in every way they can, even so when Koharu just like Rin wins everybody’s hearts. Another vast difference lies in the dissimilar romantic situations of the both of the fathers. Daikichi seems to be the embodiment of a middle aged man who still tries to get a partner but more and more just because of the social standards than from the actual need. When Kouki’s mom appears in the horizon Daikichi sure doesn’t remain indifferent but let’s leave the spoiler field untrodden. On the other hand, Masamune remains very strongly attached to Youko and is unable to move on by any means.  photo M1_zpsexn4iwej.jpgHis parents find that a bit troubling and try to take some measures but ultimately it remains Masamune’s decision to make.
As Daikichi (sadly) doesn’t go through any more significant transformation (even if Usagi Drop tells a longer story), Masamune’s character arc of constant struggle whether to keep his heart for Youko forever or to change something makes him a very compelling, relatable and realistic character to read about. This also leads to Masamune’s discomfort of not being able to offer as much time to Koharu as he wants (and she needs) and provide so important maternal care. Daikichi doesn’t have such big a problem since Kouki’s mom usually isn’t that far away and is able to give help and also receive some fatherly help from Daikichi to her son.

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     Going to a different level of comparison, I think the artstyle definitely favors My Girl. Of course that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with Usagi Drop. There everything is kept fairly simple and minimalistic, which in turn adds to the light-heartedness of the general atmosphere early on. Character face expressions may not be the most complex ones but they convey the message pretty clearly and more times than not it’s enough. Also, it’s told that Daikichi himself isn’t the most handsome man and the depiction of him clearly shows that. For the other characters sometimes relatively ungraceful hands may not seem very appealing but that’s coming too close to nitpicking. On the other hand, My Girl can definitely be proud by taking an extra mile and making the characters look as realistic and compelling as its gets in manga. Sure, it may be just the matter of preference but Mizu Sahara (or however you find her signing as) holds the second place in my favorite mangakas (by artstyle) list only after Inio Asano. The only slightly weird feature I found in the art of My Girl is that the ears of the characters sometimes stick a bit too much for my taste. As well as emotions are portrayed in Usagi Drop, having a much wider variety of them as well as making the faces of the characters far more detailed, gives more points to My Girl. When emotions are involved, subtler facial differences make the characters more relatable, and more simple designs that fit well with comedic moments aren’t able to hold their position as well in this case.

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     Well, after all I would gladly recommend both manga to read. Usagi Drop is a bit trickier because for anyone who expects only a father and daughter relationship of the manga the second half may be hard to stomach. Yet, even the high-school drama should be easier to take than in most cases because at that point the reader already knows the characters and is invested in them. As far as the ending goes, I can only say that with a pinch of tolerance and open-mindness it’s serviceable. You may not like it as much as the first half (practically my case) but that can be treated just as a possible scenario. Not very probable but still possible. After all, life doesn’t always go the way you want. Anyway, if you don’t feel brave enough, the anime is always a safer route so you should check it out in any case. Yet, I feel that My Girl comes only slightly but still a bit better off – probably more relatable and emotionally affecting situation with a struggling protagonist who feels a lot more thrown out of balance because of the taking in of the girl and looks more accomplished by the end of the manga. Anyway, both manga provide slightly different perspectives of a father and daughter relationship and though they share many differences, I think and hope that both are worth your time and fingers crossed they would provide an enjoyable experience.

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Kokoro ga Sakebitagatterunda – Mari Okada, obsessed with eggs

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Alternative title The Anthem of the Heart
Studio A-1 Pictures
Genres Drama, Romance
Source Original
Episodes 1  –  it’s a film after all
Season Summer 2015
Director Tatsuyuki Nagai
Music Masaru Yokoyama and Mito

     Probably anyone who considers watching anime a hobby has heard of Mari Okada or at least of her more famous written shows like AnoHana or Toradora!. These and some others tend to bring division between the viewers as Okada’s style or just some similarities among the shows she’s worked with aren’t something that everyone could have the same opinion about. Personally I can’t say much as I haven’t seen that many of Okada’s works but I find the melodrama element (especially when it’s teen problems we are dealing with) to be a bit too exaggerated for my taste. Anyway, Okada justly is one of the most prominent anime writers and anything she’s attached to is fated (pun intended since she also wrote the script for Deen’s Fate/stay night) to receive some attention. Especially when some key staff members of the production of AnoHana (and some of them also having worked with Toradora!) are involved, the project they all decided to work on is bound to be waited for and thought to be at least decent. The film Kokoro ga Sakebitagatterunda (which I’d rather call by its English name The Anthem of the Heart because the Japanese title was already difficult to write only once) manages just that – it’s certainly above mediocrity but if it achieves more than being decent is probably up to the enjoyment of the style Mari Okada is famous for.

Excerpt from the film

   The film wastes no time and introduces Jun, a girl living a colorful and happy life. Everything looked very shiny and cheerful until, well, it didn’t. Frankly it was my problem for not reading the synopsis of the film properly beforehand so the events of the first few minutes looked quite shocking and unexpected, so in other words it was done well. All in all, Jun got burned so much because of her loose tongue that an imaginary egg (a bit random, isn’t it?) helped her to close her mouth (literally) almost permanently. Some years later, Jun, now known as a girl who can’t mutter a single word, and three other kids – a good girl Natsuki, pretty bland Takumi and a baseball ace Daiki – are forced to start organizing an event for the local community. The event ends up being a musical so every little detail has to be prepared for and worked out from scratch. Cooperation is a must and all the four are forced to organize everything together and become more open between themselves, some more willingly than others.  Of course there evolves an element of romance in the film – the writer was Mari Okada after all.

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     Now, as random (and spoiler-y) as it is, let’s talk about eggs. In itself, an egg is a perfect symbol and in this case it represents all the things that Jun locked inside herself so she wouldn’t make any more mistakes by talking too much. The continuous cracking of the egg accompanies Jun’s efforts to speak and slowly grow her relationships. Eggs also appear as something Takumi encounters on the day of forming of the group of four and work as a catalyst of Jun’s infatuation with him. Also, in retrospect the scene near the start when Jun’s mother tries to silence her by feeding her a bit of an egg gains some symbolic significance – it was mainly the mother’s influence that lead towards Jun’s closing off – it’s as if the mother herself started growing an egg-shell around her daughter’s expression of emotions. Everything’s so far all good and well but let’s think about how actually the symbol of an egg connects with the story. Why it was namely an egg Jun imagined that closed her lips? Why this story should feature eggs at all? To me it feels like the story was written and then someone just randomly thought about adding some symbolism. Symbolism and metaphors are an excellent thing in storytelling but I believe they should flow from the story, be an integral part of it. In this case the story barely changes if we omit the egg element.

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     Moving on, the ending wasn’t to my liking. The climax was as emotional as it should be but after that things got a bit out of hand. I still think that the main point of the film was to show Jun’s transformation and other aspects should just accompany it. Yet, the ending featured implied romantic futures for all the characters and I doubt the film would have lost much without it. Especially one pair felt very forced as the characters got only one scene in which they were alone and the scene itself hardly hinted any future developments between the two. Yes, some character growth can happen outside the scenes we see but the goal of pretty much any film is to show some developments happening and the viewer, seeing gradual journey of the characters, can be rewarded by the payback when the journey, whose vague direction was visible beforehand, finally reaches its end. Seeing something like two people having a conversation and then starting dating after a while isn’t going to bring any joy of accomplishment.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Tsunagatteiku' by Masaru Yokoyama

     At first glance the main characters couldn’t be more clichéd. Apart from the fact that Jun has a (quite) objective reason to be mute, she basically falls into the category of cute little clumsy moe girls who because of their shyness are able to converse only by sending text messages. By the way, Jun grew attached to her new friends so soon that I began to wonder why she hadn’t started making friends earlier. With her enthusiasm even conversations via text messages seem a pretty possible way to communicate. Natsuki of whom we learn a bit less behaves mostly like a typical tsundere and her other traits like being able to lead people are not that explored. Takumi is just your average protagonist who tends to be dull and reminds me only of Oreki from Hyouka but probably only because of his hair. Only his ability to play the piano gives him a trait that makes him different from any secondary character. Daiki is a usual huge sports guy with a tendency to be blunt and sometimes aggressive. The biggest development throughout the film is seen in Jun as her struggle to convey her feelings (and thus becoming more socially open) through song and word become easier and easier albeit feelings are not that a simple topic. Daiki undergoes a transformation from a hard-headed dude to someone that recognizes others as also having some talents. Also, it was quite unexpected for me to find out that Daiki (as well as all others) was a pretty decent singer – quite unusual for a sports guy unless the things in Japan are really different from over here since when I was at school, I couldn’t expect at least half of my class to be able to or to be bothered to sing not half bad. Takumi and Natsuki achieved far less since the film’s main focus is set on the character arc of Jun.

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     As it’s usual with films, the visuals are way more polished than in your average TV series. Also, it’s A-1 Pictures who despite some people not being content with their working style and the stories they choose to portray keeps a pretty consistent reputation of being good at production. The Anthem of the Heart is no exception. Sometimes during the watch I just had to stop and take some time to appreciate the backgrounds – vibrant colors and many details make every scene outdoors look very alive. Character designs don’t stray much from usual anime material. I only have one nitpick – lower parts of the eyes of the characters have particularly bright light reflection zones so almost any time they seem to be on the verge of bursting into tears no matter what. I guess for a film with drama elements it might be appropriate but at least for the neutral scenes the brightness could have been reduced a little bit as it becomes distracting.

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     The Anthem of the Heart revolves around making a musical so it’s nothing exceptional to have a soundtrack that is a bit different than usual. The parts of the film that doesn’t feature the actual musical performance (or preparation for it) are accompanied by simple and relaxing music, no different from other shows that have some slice of life moments. While watching, everything seems alright as the music works well with the developing story, however, the released tracks are a bit underwhelming – not many of them are long enough or feature something worthy to be constantly listenable. Yes, it’s warm and pleasant but beside its background purpose the majority of the soundtrack is not very distinguishable or far from being serviceable. On the other hand the musical part is far more interesting. The characters decided to choose already composed music and only add their own lyrics. The arrangements ended up being pretty enjoyable. How else if the featured music involves Gershwin’s Summertime or Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique among others.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Hikari no Nai Heya': arranged  by Mito,
originally composed by George Gershwin (Summertime from Porgy and Bess)

     All in all, did I have a good time watching The Anthem of the Heart? Yep, mostly. From the start it’s clear that the main focus of the story will be Jun’s recovery from her muteness and that she will probably overcome it but it’s still worth to experience the journey. Of course there are some drawbacks such as not having enough time to spare for each of the main four characters, a bit forced resolution of all the characters’ relationships or just the egg element, which in itself being very interesting and thought provoking, didn’t blend that organically into the story. Nonetheless, other things like quite well incorporated music elements, Jun’s moe-ness and the emotional payback makes up for that.

     I believe, this anime is

 2Decent

     The Anthem of the Heart isn’t a very exceptional film, though some of its elements are impressive and I believe most of people shouldn’t be very disappointed if they choose to invest their time into watching this anime. Tugging of your heartstrings is not guaranteed though likely enough.

Boku dake ga Inai Machi – hardships of living up to the hype

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Alternative title Erased /
The Town Where Only I Don’t Exist
Studio A-1 Pictures
Genres Drama, Mystery, Supernatural
Source Manga
Episodes 12
Season Winter 2016
Director Tomohiko Itou
Music Yuki Kajiura

     Boku dake ga Inai Machi was probably the most notorious anime of Winter 2016 season. Sometimes it just happens – a story that clearly has potential gets an anime adaptation by a famous studio, the staff also seems to be at least decent or even very good (yes, it’s especially Yuki Kajiura I’m speaking of), some people become interested and that gives a chain reaction so that the hype climbs sky high. Yet, some viewers cool off very quickly and even start to despise the show, while the majority still retains the opinion that it’s really great. Come to think of it – Boku dake ga Inai Machi is truly well made, but still some details restrain me from calling it superb.

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     The first episode wastes no time and introduces us to Satoru, not the very brightest or that successful 29-year-old guy, who has to work as a pizza delivery man because of being unable to start a profitable enough mangaka career. What’s so interesting about him? Well, he appears to have an ability to travel back through time a few minutes and change his behavior so that some ill fortune would be evaded. That’s what became clear after the first episode and sadly even after the last one we don’t know virtually anything more about this ability. There are some implications that it may activate when Satoru becomes very shaken emotionally but that’s the most what can be speculated about it. Of course, it’s a better choice to leave it at that as sort of a natural thing and don’t pursue any half-baked explanations but I just would have liked to know at least Satoru’s own ideas about why does he have such a power and what exactly it is. Now it remains only on a level of quite a cheap plot device that activates when it’s convenient. Not to mention that one day Satoru’s ability unexpectedly throws him back to his school days when he was only 10 years old. Now in a kid’s body, Satoru decides that this means that he must save his classmate Kayo who was kidnapped and murdered at that time to prevent the cause of why his ability activated (ooh, it’s difficult to evade spoilers). Well, it sounds alright, but when you think of it, if Kayo was so important, why didn’t Satoru’s ability activate earlier so that he wouldn’t need to live pretty much useless two decades? On the other hand, Satoru could have gone just a few minutes back through time in the first place to avoid that certain event that started everything. Not to mention pretty unjustified notion that it’s namely Kayo’s fate that Satoru needs to change.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Reasoning'

Anyway, our protagonist ends up being a kid and having to befriend Kayo and in this way save her from the murderer. Because of his ability, Satoru is not just a child, but a child with a mind of an adult, though that is handled in a pretty heavy-handed way. One second he may use his life experience to think of ways of dealing with the murderer and then another just start asking his teacher some advice how to become friends with people. Come on, you are a 29-year-old guy, dammit! Also, Satoru is portrayed as having at least a bit infatuated with Kayo, on the verge of it being romantic, and I really don’t feel very comfortable knowing that a 29-year-old guy stammers and blushes and goes on a date while holding hands with a 10-year-old girl. I didn’t really appreciate the composition of the show either. All the stuff to do with Kayo went on for the majority of the series but when that arc wrapped up, Kayo was just packed away to appear only in the very end. Well, I think that the developing connection between her and Satoru (well, not the romantic side of it) was one of best things in the show and it would probably have been better to either extend this arc to the whole season (and opt for another one to deal with the rest of the story) or shrink it somehow because after Kayo left the spotlight, Boku dake ga Inai Machi just lost a lot of its appeal to me. Yes, the story went on, but it was nowhere near as impactful as Kayo’s part was. Apparently original manga version tackles this and other issues a way better, but sadly the anime didn’t profit from cutting much of the material. Another thing connected with the composition is multiple time-travels. I guess if you add such an ability to the story, you try to use it as much as you can, but this time it felt like it broke the already established continuity and added very little to the plot. Speaking about the ending, it felt quite anticlimactic. As this is apparently more of a mystery anime, the true killer was actually pretty easy to determine and when the main guys have also done it, everything just ended without much emotions or consequences.

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     I already addressed my problems with Satoru being an adult and a child at the same time. Well, it can be argued that all his life Satoru remained pretty childish – to the extent of running away when not knowing what to do, even if it works against him and could have easily been solved just by talking. Most of the other characters cause far less problems, being pretty much normal kids and adults. Apart from Satoru and Kayo I don’t think anybody received many developments, though that wasn’t something absolutely necessary. Yes, there is that one ridiculous and very random backstory element when a wife left her husband because of an allegedly stolen chocolate bar, but everything else makes more sense. That is till we encounter the villain and his motivations. That is if he had any. Some explanation is given about some hamsters and stuff, but does it feel satisfactory? Clearly nope. It almost looks like the villain’s motives were left to be included for the last second and that was done with the mindset of “oh bugger, no time for anything decent so this will make do”. Another probably more personal dissatisfaction was caused by the way the show treats the characters, more precisely all the numerous red herrings scattered here and there. I believe a good mystery can use them, but only in order to weave a number of possible strings of motives and actions of several different people that would enable to list them as suspects. The joy then is to find false leads and one after another eliminate them. In this case all the red herrings we get are limited to a single scene, say, a shot of an ominously enlarged knife next to a person who might be not that clean. And after that? No elaboration whatsoever, all those scattered scenes just suggest a suspect once and that’s the end of the story. Why would you waste a shot to tease the viewers with some sinister glance and then practically forget that?

Excerpt from the anime; animation by Takahiro Shikama

     What A-1 Pictures really can do is to deal with all the artistic elements. And here? Well, it kind of worked out. For me character designs needed time to settle in, especially Satoru’s mother’s lips – it was a very long time since I could overlook those giant things that were looking almost like a moustache. Apart from that, everything looks quite polished most of times, though there were moments when far standing characters’ faces looked more like quickly drawn sketches and not finished products. More people versed in cinematography pointed out numerous scenes that had some metaphorical meaning, but you don’t even need that to simply appreciate the looks of the show. Interestingly, segments when Satoru was in his 10-year-old self were made to be in a ”letterbox” way. I believe it was a nice decision as it showed another overarcing theme of films as memories as well as the caged world between the stripes of black showing that Satoru himself is not comfortable in that time and place and has to deal with some serious problems. That’s all good and well, but what the show lacks is subtlety. I understand a wish to show some color symbolism but it’s a bit too much when every time someone acts like villain, their eyes just turn red. The main antagonist, once revealed surely must don his typical villainous smile, how else we would know he’s a truly bad guy? Even if the name of the OP song shown as a graffiti on a wall in the last episode is a nice touch, I doubt it should have taken the spotlight so much. All the already mentioned red herring stuff also adds a bit to this argument.

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     Yuuki Kajiura was responsible for the soundtrack and that says a lot. Being quite a fan of her I just wished her music would have had more time to emerge from other background sounds and talks. There clearly were some shiny tracks but much was left covered with many layers of other stuff. Not knowing that it was her I would probably have not noticed the soundtrack at all for the most part of the show. Still, the composer knows how to create a very suspenseful atmosphere (basically similar to Kara no Kyoukai films). In that regard the soundtrack is definitely good, but it clearly doesn’t go very far beyond just being functional. The opening deserves a special mention for its song was Re:Re: by Asian Kung-Fu Generation. I’ve known the band for some time but namely this opening lead me to investigate them a bit more and oh well, I’ve got another band to add amongst my favorite ones. Check the band out if you will.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Only I am missing'

     All in all, I think Boku dake ga Inai Machi at least deserved all the fuss around it. Production quality was good more times than not (no wonder when the director has worked under Mamoru Hosoda if I’m allowed not to mention his job with Sword Art Online), the premise was pretty unique, even if less time jumps would have been sufficient. It’s interesting how after this show the amount of anime with time travelling elements appears to be increasing so we can talk about some influence. Nonetheless, series composition, numerous conveniences, problems with subtlety and generally unsatisfactory ending drops the enjoyment not that high after all. Many people think the show’s great and it probably did a splendid job adapting all the material with all the means available. That said, all the nitpicking thoughts somehow prevented me from getting invested emotionally very much and while I certainly appreciate all the effort, I can’t say that my opinion of the show is very high.

     I believe, this anime

1

Could’ve been worse

     I guess you should check the show out (though most likely you have already have – Boku dake ga Inai Machi can boast higher popularity than such grands like Trigun or Mononoke Hime). Don’t believe that it’s the best mystery, time travel or drama ever and you’ll probably have a good time for the most part of it. A-1 Pictures assembled some very talented creators but the end result wasn’t as good as it might have been, but it’s still worth a watch. Unless you haven’t seen Trigun or Mononoke Hime.

Momo e no Tegami – almost Studio Ghibli-esque, but..

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Alternative title A Letter to Momo
Studio Production I.G
Genres Drama, Slice of Life, Supernatural
Source Original
Episodes 1 –  it’s a film after all
Season Summer 2011
Director Hiroyuki Okiura
Music Mina Kubota

     Anime industry just loves adolescent people. Why? Partly because they comprise a huge chunk of the audience so self-inserting is easier that way, but that’s probably not all. Young people are more interesting in a sense that they encounter many problems for the first time in their lives and deal with them in ways that sometimes are very creative. Also, during that age a person shapes his personality that probably won’t change that drastically for his whole life. Considering all that, it’s nothing strange that many anime stories deal with coming of age themes and necessity to adapt to difficult, unexpected and often unwished changes. As there is no shortage of such tales, naturally some are better than others, some lack some specific ingredient, some manage to resonate well with the viewers, others – not that much. Knowing all that, where does Momo e no Tegami stand– a film whose technical details may catch the eye right on?

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     The story isn’t complicated at all – you just have an ordinary girl Momo, whose shyness gets in a way of making friends, moving with her mother to the country because her father died. Momo doesn’t feel very comfortable there, even if her grandparents try to be as hospitable as they can and some local kids would like to know a new person a bit better. And then Momo begins seeing youkai. If that doesn’t sound the least bit of Studio Ghibli-ish, I don’t know what would. A girl as a protagonist, ended up in a place where the forces of nature are very strong and even the spirit world becomes graspable by hand. I don’t even know how many Ghibli films would fit this description. Still, whether Ghibli youkai would be friendly or not, mysterious entities or just cute little thingies or beings of awe, they always seem to be otherworldly, something entirely different and incomprehensible to humans. Here, however, youkai look far down to earth – it would probably have worked as well with some human characters, weird as they were. Apart from having ability to be invisible and kind of helping Momo in the end (I guess it can be argued that the help wasn’t that crucial), all three of them remain just supporting characters, nothing more. This may be a very long shot, but I’d have probably liked the film more if there were actually no youkai. If executed well (and I know that the director is certainly capable of that) the film would have been a realistic, mature and possibly sad story about a girl trying to solve her problems. Now apart from some pretty flat comic relief and the ending that wasn’t really called for, the youkai side of the story doesn’t look that absolutely necessary. The ending itself was not really to my liking either – I can deal with suddenly going from the climax to the resolution without a clear understanding how exactly everything played out, but the final need of the film to leave absolutely no loose end nor any ambiguity and bring a totally happy ending looks quite childish. Some things just can’t be amended and as sad as it is, it’s for the good of the characters and their growth, even if the story doesn’t continue to that point.

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     As the story can be thought of as a tale of maturing of Momo, she gets the majority of the development, but that isn’t anything ground-braking, just usual better understanding of herself and her family (in this case, her mother and her way of dealing with Momo’s father’s death), befriending other children of the neighborhood and understanding that you should think everything through before you say anything. Apart from Momo (and her mother), other human characters pretty much just were here to give a background and illustrate the peaceful life of a small town. The whole mood reminded me of Mamoru Hosoda’s films, and Momo herself gives the vibe of Makoto from Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) and I’m not even sure why. The three youkai of the film are a different sort of creatures.  I understand that they are supposed to be mischievous, selfish and mean, but I just can see barely any redeeming qualities of them. You can have many flawed characters and usually that’s a good thing, but even then they should be at least a little bit sympathetic or pitiful (like the whole cast of Neon Genesis Evangelion). Here I just see a bunch of random guys that do nothing until they come into trouble themselves. Maybe their incompetence was meant as a joke, but I’d rather look elsewhere – without atmosphere braking farting jokes. Probably the best I can say about them is that one of the youkai looked like a twin of Gollum form The Lord of the Rings, and another probably was some long lost cousin of Kimura from Azumanga Daioh.

Excerpt from the film; animation by Akira Honma

     The visuals is probably the strongest part of Momo e no Tegami – Production I.G again shows what they are capable of. The director Hiroyuki Okiura previously worked on Jin-Rou, as well as done some key animation under Mamoru Oshii and Satoshi Kon to name a few. Character designs were also done by him, so the quality and his realistic style were apparent. The backgrounds didn’t leave a lasting impression, nor did everything provide that sense of direction or carefully and masterfully built world that Ghibli films do. Nonetheless, even quite bland scenery had its moments and basically stayed just a scenery to give all the spotlight to the characters, whose movements, while nothing ground-braking, were perfectly smooth and, well, beautiful to watch.

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     The soundtrack, as the visuals, prefers to stay in the background and just give some light and often unnoticeable touches to convey the mood. Listening to the music alone was a very pleasant task and I was quite astounded how many of the tracks were just too faded in the film to be noticed. It’s very difficult to single out anything as pretty much the whole soundtrack remains very homogeneous, calm and soothing. The composer Mina Kubota specializes in exact same airy and atmospheric music where piano usually gets the leading role, so I have no complaints, except maybe the lack of something truly memorable and outstanding.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Shio Machi no Shima e'

Excerpt from the OST: 'Mimamori Gumi no San nin'

     Unexpectedly through the whole writing I have mentioned many an anime, and to think about it, it’s quite natural – Momo e no Tegami is no bad film by all means, but it just hasn’t got strong enough voice to become truly exceptional. Everything is just good – the story and the characters and the soundtrack and everything else – but not something you would remember for a long time. Yes, emotions were portrayed very well, the director has seen to it, but some nitpicks here and there don’t let me think of this film as something that can seriously rival Studio Ghibli production.

     I believe, this anime is

 2Decent

     If you need a not too complicated film that the majority of the time stays lighthearted, and can overlook some random and not that sympathetic youkai, you came to the right place. The film is not perfect, but for a lazy, relaxing and unimposing Friday evening you could chose far worse anime to watch than Momo e no Tegami.

Suisei no Gargantia – a mix of everything that, well, quite works

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Alternative title Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet
Studio Production I.G
Genres Action, Drama, Sci-Fi, Slice of Life
Source Original
Episodes 13
Season Spring 2013
Director Kazuya Murata
Music Taro Iwashiro
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     Would you be hyped if Production I.G announced a new anime that has a giant robot? Not enough? What if the composition of the series and some scriptwriting would be done by Gen Urobuchi? I believe many, if not the majority of anime viewers would at least check it out. Yet, the spring season of 2013 also had Shingeki no Kyojin, Hataraku Maou-sama! and Oregairu to offer among others, so it’s not really a surprise to see that Suisei no Gargantia hasn’t created a large fanbase and isn’t the show to be talked about very frequently. So, is it worth checking out?

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     Behind the two lead characters in the key visual of the series looms a giant robot so naturally many people  thought that Suisei no Gargantia would definitely be just another usual mecha show, maybe, knowing Urobuchi’s involvement, many characters will die horrible deaths. The first minutes of the show didn’t surprise anyone – massive space battle where no viewer can understand what’s going on wasn’t offering anything new. Well, at least the animation was decent – it’s Production I.G after all. Nonetheless, as our main character soldier Ledo woke up from artificial sleep after some trans-galactic travel (the battle didn’t go very well), all the mecha-ness disappeared. By the end of the first episode Ledo finds out that he and his robot Chamber have arrived to planet Earth – long lost to the civilization that Ledo is from.  The Earth is quite flooded – everyone lives in fleets made of many connected ships and boats. So ended the first episode that managed to unnerve many people – some loved the first part with the mecha battle and complained about nothing happening towards the end of the episode. Others conversely preferred that more peaceful and atmospheric part while murmuring about almost senseless beginning. It turned out that as the parts of first episode looked like day and night, the whole series also had some segments that screamed of either slice of life or action. Slice of life segments came first, as Ledo (and Chamber) tried to adapt to the living in the fleet named Gargantia, while trying to grasp the differences between his own very organized and strict civilization and this happy-go-lucky style of life that local people like the lead heroine messenger girl Amy led. At first it may seem quite pointless to throw away precious time that could be used for mecha fights and stuff, but in the end the peaceful time spent on Gargantia was crucial to Ledo’s decisions in the later episodes when all the action and drama began. It could be argued that even in terms of slice of life the show uses its time inefficiently – there is an episode (and a bit of another one) that is just filled with mild fanservise. It’s possible to think that it was meant to show Ledo’s development from a Rei Ayanami type of person to a more humane one, who is able to feel at least something when some girls start dancing in the attire that is quite revealing. Everything just boils down to personal preferences, but clearly the amount of fanservice was a bit bigger than the plot needed. That aside, a big praise must be given to the creators who thought that after Ledo arrived to the Earth he would need some time to learn the local language. Such details really add to the realism of the whole story. The later part of the series focuses mainly on action with some twists, but it’s nothing really Urobuchi-like as the amount of dead characters doesn’t reach your typical Urobuchi level. It isn’t unheard of to make a story that doesn’t belong to just one genre and changes throughout the season, yet it isn’t such an easy job to make everything run smoothly. I believe the transition from the first action sequence into the peaceful slice of life environment was done pretty well, but the opposite didn’t look that effortlessly to me. Still, both parts were quite enjoyable and, even if some things in the story aren’t that original or unguessable, everything was executed pretty well.

     As far as the characters go, the cast isn’t that big and diverse. The main focus of Suisei no Gargantia is to show Ledo’s development from soldier that knows only war and drill to a decent and humane person. Also, there is Chamber. Normally a robot wouldn’t be considered a proper character, but it just happens to grow and change throughout the series as well as his pilot does, even if it’s barely noticeable. There’s nothing really exceptional about all the supporting characters (who actually look pretty flat and aren’t that developed through the series, though it doesn’t really grab much attention as a negative trait and sometimes might even work as a contrast to Ledo’s changing) – we have some girls (suitable for fanservice, how else?), some wise old men, just everyday workers and one particular character who caused me many a headache for being an idiot. Well, I can believe that in the whole enormous fleet there should be some idiots around but when the idiot starts giving orders out of the blue that go against the basic common sense and everybody has absolutely no problem with that and just happily complies, I start to lose patience. Also, there’re some inconsistencies like changing the view whether killing could be justified, or simply conveniently forgetting that people that didn’t mean anything good at first place later shouldn’t be trusted.

Excerpt from the ED; animation by Yoshimichi Kameda
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     If there are some problems with the story and characters, there hardly could be any complaints about the visuals. The character designs look really refreshing after all the high-school stuff that just overflows the market. The colorful clothing that sometimes resembles some Native American trends, sometimes goes with the full Hawaiian look, looks well with the whole setting and vibrant backgrounds. If I have to condense all the artstyle into just one word, it would definitely be ‘colourful’. Sometimes bashing almost all the colors together looks like a true nightmare, other times it can turn into the absolutely amazing gem that Mononoke (not that Princess one) is. Suisei no Gargantia manages to use all the means and effectively make a pleasant almost heaven-like atmosphere. When it wants, it can transform and do a great job representing darker themes and more complex character emotions than just happiness. Still, at times I just began to ask how the same show can capture such a great shot one time and some episodes later look like there was no effort put in drawing faces. Nonetheless, more times than not animation was done really well as far as I can tell. The Mecha parts (yes, there are some, but clearly not enough to call the show full-mecha) done by CGI also didn’t look like abominations from hell, and that is something even in this day and age.

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     Another thing that is crucial to the success of the show is music, though sadly it is often overlooked. Even when the story of Suisei no Gargantia wasn’t going that well, the music kept me just glued to the screen (well, actually to the headphones). Taro Iwashiro, who hasn’t done that much anime work, managed to capture the right atmosphere perfectly, be it a battle theme or just a calm breeze of the wind. Not to mention that a symphonic orchestra used to its full potential is a rear sight in the fields of anime soundtracks. I believe that the music of Suisei no Gargantia can rightly be called the best part of the whole show, and would not be shamed after comparison with even the best live-action film scores or works by Yuki Kajiura or Youko Kanno.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Before Proceeding'
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Excerpt from the OST: 'I Like the Ocean Breeze'

     Gen Urobuchi’s name attached to the show may have done more wrong than right, as this isn’t your normal UroButcher series. Suisei no Gargantia tries to combine slice of life elements with some action later on and even if has some mecha elements, they are really not the center of the story. After all, it was quite a fun ride, not to mention that it was wrapped pretty well, and even if the show isn’t flawless and pacing clearly isn’t the strongest part, Suisei no Gargantia was entertaining enough, and in the end that’s all that matters.

     I believe, this anime is

 2Decent

     There are shows that are certainly better. Also, the themes and the whole changing of the style thing might not be for everybody, but I think it’s worth checking out, at least for the soundtrack and beautiful scenery.