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.

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Kaichou wa Maid-sama! – overlong example of broken storytelling

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Alternative title Maid Sama!
Studio J.C.Staff
Genres Comedy, Romance, Slice of Life
Source Manga
Episodes 26
Season Spring 2010
Director Hiroaki Sakurai
Music Wataru Maeguchi

      It feels a bit strange that my history of watching anime which heavily relies on romance and comedy motives is rather ambiguous in a sense that I usually have no idea if a certain show for me will be a hit or a miss. Such flagship of romance like Toradora! left me with a very sour aftertaste (and that’s probably the biggest difference I have with the public consensus about any more popular show) while Nodame Cantabile felt really sincere and heartwarming. Of course every show uses just a bit different combination of ideas but in my case it feels wrong but I appreciate Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo for its depiction of a struggle to get a future that you want or Ore Monogatari!! for its comedy rather than the romance aspect of both of these shows. In this perspective comedy causes even more trouble for being a very personal preference and that’s obvious enough not to need any more elaboration. Pondering these things I decided to try some Kaichou wa Maid-sama! that appeared to have some fan following as well as be mildly funny after seeing some random clips on YouTube.

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     The premise of Kaichou wa Maid-sama! is a bit unusual and definitely plays a major role in catching an eye of a potential viewer. Not always do you get a random girl who tries her best (well, a shojou protagonist) while living almost a double life – being a school council president and a waitress in a maid café in her spare time. Of course Misaki, that being the girl’s name, is very flustered and ashamed about the situation and tries as best as she can to avoid her school and part-time job worlds to have the slightest common points. Of course it proves to be impossible when Misaki is spotted by the shoujo protagonist, Usui, who in terms of being perfect could almost rival Sakamoto from Sakamoto desu ga? and if you watched that anime you know it’s a big deal. It wouldn’t be a shoujo series if Usui hadn’t started frequenting Misaki’s café and tried to get close to her. Even if it looks like I just described a premise, actually that’s basically everything I could say about the plot even after all the 26 episodes. Well, apart from the fact that (oh, spoilers) Misaki and Usui very unexpectedly ended up together. And that is the biggest problem of the show – apart from having quite an unusual beginning, it does nothing interesting – all the characters just fool around, sometimes getting an episode centered around them (that hardly expands their personalities) and very huge part of the show feels like a filler. It’s not unusual to get the main couple together by the end of the season but when the development during the last episode pushes the story forward just as much as all the rest of the episodes combined, I’m not that content.

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There is also another thing that proves the shortcomings of the story – tell me, what is the point of introducing an osananajimi character when only just a few episodes are left and hoping that the viewers would believe he has  the slightest chance of stealing Misaki from Usui? Well, if you have 2 people featured on a cover of the show and you constantly see those people, what are the chances that some random dude could get between them? By the way, everything ended even more hilariously (spoilers) – Usui got the main girl while the osananajimi ended up with… a tree. Yep, that’s correct. Just like this thing, the majority of the content felt very pointless and more interesting moments could have easily been reduced to a 1 cour anime, or even a film. The show even managed to give a whole episode adaptation of a totally unnecessary manga special that just had me thinking “get on with it already” all over again and again. Come on, that’s why we have a thing called OVA. Heard of it?

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     To be frank, the show has only one character, and that is Misaki. She may not be the most exceptional shoujo protagonist but seeing a person who tries her best at every situation, has a strong relationship with her friends and is ready to do everything she can for them, you can’t at least a little admire her. Sure, there are other character aspects that make her less attractive (like overdoing her feminism activities) but that’s only human. The leading guy on the other hand for me looked like a perfect antagonist and I was very confused if the show really wanted me to like him. Well, sure, Usui has good looks and can do just about anything when the plot requires it (playing chess or volleyball like a pro, acting like a perfect waiter, rescuing Misaki from all kinds of situations – you name it). His perfectness in itself sometimes becomes annoying but that’s only a tip of an iceberg – Usui also among other things treats Misaki pretty horribly forcing her to the situations she doesn’t like, stalking her, being selfish, rude and arrogant so Misaki’s description of him as an “alien pervert” basically fits.  Both of the ED’s try to hint something of a backstory of Usui but that’s too vague to hold any meaning. And that’s a shame because for the whole anime Usui receives no development at all – he remains exactly the same during all the 26 episodes. Well, it’s not a development heavy show but even Misaki’s character got a bit softened during all this time. I can understand that there can be people like Usui and they themselves can be not fully aware of their flaws but making such a person a lead guy in a light-hearted show is beyond me. The supporting cast is pretty dull – usually arriving only when there is nothing else to do but to be targets of some unfunny jokes. A bit of an exception could be Misaki’s sister who has a very weird quirk – an ability to win every lottery she participates in. Some other characters also appear to be not that common in anime – a crossdressing guy, a guy who generally behaves and looks pretty girlish… Oh wait, it’s just a bunch of slightly improved bishounens. Oh shoujo manga, you got me again.

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Excerpt from the anime

     Visually the anime looks dated. I couldn’t believe that it was aired only in 2010 because it looks way older. On the other hand, J.C.Staff isn’t a studio you would remember thinking about amazing visual achievements. Aqua color backgrounds add much of slice of life feeling but that also makes things that get animated very easy to spot. Character designs are straight from shoujo manga – ok but nothing impressive, just as the animation. All this mix makes me wonder what force transported this show some 5 years in the future form the time period it should belong to. Well, the story didn’t require any special effects or performances and the occasional appearance of chibis (comedy time, how else) brought some variety to otherwise really average and unimpressive visual aspect of the show, so I guess the quality of the story correlates with the quality of the visuals.

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     The soundtrack as everything else is a bit of a mixed bag. Some themes, especially those that are associated with Misaki’s café, give an appropriate Victorian feeling by being more of a classical style, just what you need thinking about aristocrats, maids and stuff. Some other themes are also quite catchy but for a 2 cour show there could have been more variety – even the most beautiful tracks could come on the verge of being annoying if you repeat them over and over again. Still, apart from some more interesting pieces of music the majority of the soundtrack remains easily forgettable and that again corresponds to the overall quality of the show.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Odayaka Hoshi Hana Koukou' by Wataru Maeguchi

      Overall as you can see I didn’t particularly enjoy Kaichou wa Maid-sama!. Generally it’s not a bad experience to see how it’s possible to play with various shoujo scenarios and how everything is affected by not that usual setting. Still, for me there are far more interesting shoujo anime or at least some that are able to achieve similar goals but using given time more efficiently. Also, the structure just screams “it’s a manga adaptation” and many actions of the characters happened just because the author wanted. Even when the confession happened (I doubt it’s a spoiler because of course it had to happen) I felt more relieved that it finally did more than being happy for the characters. It’s just the type of anime you have to enjoy (if you can) for the ride and not for the results.

 I believe, this anime

1

Could’ve been worse

     Should you watch it? Well, if you are a fan of romcoms that dwell on the feel-good side of things and don’t bother too much with an advanced story and characters, you certainly can check it out. Otherwise for someone like me who doesn’t have enough tolerance towards such things and looks at Kaichou wa Maid-sama! as something quite predictable, overlong and infested with silly humor, there are far better options to choose deciding what to watch next.

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.