Scattered Thouhgts – why did Gyo fail?

     First of all – why is Gyo important? It isn’t, really. Still, there are a number of reasons why Gyo is worth investigating. For once, Junji Ito is a name you probably encountered if you’ve had any opportunity to familiarize with horror manga. Despite being popular, the only Ito’s work that has received an anime adaptation remains Gyo (which is interesting by itself), and Ito’s relation with anime remains relevant because of the new adaptation of some of his stories that has been announced some time ago. Returning to Gyo, its anime adaptation was made by ufotable, and that’s another interesting fact since at the time it was made the studio was just starting to build up its fame – Kara no Kyoukai movies weren’t as known and Fate/Zero had started half a year ago, but in times of Steins;Gate it was crucial not to be a studio known only for one good anime. Other ufotable’s projects had been even more obscure, so Gyo was a perfect opportunity to show off technical capabilities and affirm the name of the studio as one among the best in the industry. Still, the result seems to be rather frowned upon, so there arises a question – who’s at fault – Junji Ito or ufotable?

The former dental technician - sensei

     Junji Ito is an acclaimed mangaka and arguably one of the best in making horror stories. To be frank, that’s not really the truth. The truth is that Ito is incredible in thinking up how to mess with everyday world in order to bring horror elements and create an ominous and very unsettling atmosphere. His realistic and detailed drawings (especially all the unnatural and monster stuff) make every story far more disturbing. Still, the problem is that even if Ito knows how to get everything started, it seems like he has no idea how to conclude anything. More often than not the horror elements are so powerful that they sweep the ordinary world away and we get effectively an apocalypse. The characters usually are just left hanging with no clear conclusion when the things get so bad there’s no way of returning to at least a partially normal living conditions. On the other hand, Ito’s short works tend to stop right after the climax and thus leave some space to ponder what happened and what might happen next. It turns out that developing a story and providing a resolution sometimes is a worse choice than leaving an open ending exactly after the big reveal or a strong horrifying moment.

A walking fish?..

     Gyo in this context isn’t an exception. I guess the mystery of what exactly the horror elements are in this case is explained right away so it doesn’t really count as spoilers, does it? Anyway, you have been warned because the pleasure of seeing dead fish walking on seemingly mechanical legs is a pleasure you can’t miss. Ito has confirmed that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws had been a huge influence on him. Ito just came to think that a more terrifying thing than a shark in a sea would be a shark that can walk on land. And walk on land it does. A story seems pretty basic as a couple of tourists in Okinawa (at first) – Kaori and Tadashi – start observing weird things and how they get out of control in a true Junji Ito fashion.

...yup, this walking shark...

     Why Gyo fails as a satisfying manga mainly rests on the choice of trying to explain the strange phenomena. It could be argued that characters also aren’t that good, which is quite true, especially in Kaori’s case. The girl mainly spends time in a neurosis state arguing with Tadashi quite annoyingly. Yet, I think that it at least gives some uniqueness as a fighting couple isn’t what you usually get as the main characters in any manga. Especially when things escalate you can’t really accuse anyone of acting the way they do – human tolerance to weirdness and horror isn’t infinite after all. Still, let’s leave the characters aside because the pseudo-scientific explanation that hardly feels plausible with the best wishes overshadows everything else. Of course you have to have germs that were secretly cultivated for military purposes. Even if that was an alright explanation, there’re still many things left in the dark – for example how does the gas produced by the germs can make dead bodies move in a non-random way and pursue people? Do the mechanical legs multiply? The story finally lost its momentum near the end when a totally bizarre and pretty random circus scene was inserted that doesn’t really feel like being from the same story and that is another recurring flaw of Ito’s manga.

...and a walking arm?

     Ito usually gets inspired by random daily events that are only a bit unusual or unexpected, be it a thought he had, a shop window he saw or a woman that looked in a particular way. Ito then takes these elements and works them into being more unsettling, not necessarily trying to make a horror manga. Such stories sometimes form larger narratives but as the mangaka doesn’t usually try to think particularly good ways to connect them, the end product might become anything from the cohesiveness of Uzumaki’s everything encompassing spirals to disjoint and having very little common elements stories like Black Paradox or Gyo itself.

The quite famous Amigara fault

     To go off on a tangent a bit, there are two short stories included in the published Gyo volumes. The Enigma of Amigara Fault is probably the most well-known and regarded  as one of the better of Ito’s works, examining the claustrophobia and at the same time morbid fascination with confined spaces. The story also can be a perfect example of Ito at his best – not trying to explain stuff too much and just leaving everything at the climax. Nevertheless, it’s the other story that appealed to me almost infinitely more than Gyo itself – The Sad Tale of the Principal Post spans only 4 pages and is impossible not to spoil but it shatters all of reader’s expectations and masterfully provides a totally unexpected conclusion which by its ridiculousness is able to overcome its unbelievability. It’s only 4 pages, please go and read it.

The new Kaori with her red-shirt...I mean red-skirt...
anyway, it's the new Kaori with her new friends

     Let’s now leave the manga and jump right to its anime adaptation, though in some respects it can hardly be called one. The first minutes of the anime already present plenty of differences – Kaori is the only main character (Tadashi’s left in Tokyo which means we hardly see him at all) and it’s two of her friends that the girl starts experiencing the fish attack. As the story moves on, it becomes clear that for the most part Kaori’s and Tadashi’s original roles are swapped. The couple’s struggle to survive gets transformed into quite a simple story of Kaori trying to find her boyfriend in all the confusion. Along the way she’s helped by a random journalist because you can’t have a story without a male lead, can you? Naturally you begin to wonder why there’re so many changes introduced. To some extent it’s understandable because having a strong female lead usually is commendable but the way it affected other parts of the story makes it barely Ito’s Gyo. And all these changes just seem pointless. Why would you introduce new characters and split the original experiences of Kaori and Tadashi when there was a completely normal and reasonable story in the manga? Also, the anime tried to appeal to all sorts of audiences, and that means that the horror isn’t the only thing you get in Gyo. The thing is that the anime in the beginning didn’t shy away from including fanservice, and fanservice of the most ridiculous level – Gainax jiggles, obligatory pointless sex and a woman getting undressed while trying to escape some nasty pursuer. Moreover, the said woman (try to guess which of Kaori’s friends she is) was just an original character made specifically for that purpose and Junji Ito could never have drawn anything like that. But even fanservice isn’t consistent – the creators forcefully added new scenes but somehow missed a shower scene in the original manga, and that scene even had some justification for being there.

Run, Forrest, run!

     When you watch the anime, you find some certain elements of the manga or scenes that clearly were inspired by the original Gyo, but in any case it remains only elements and the essence is lost. In such a case a walking octopus among all these fish becomes a pretext to introduce a tentacle scene. You know, tentacles? Any spirit of the manga and any element that makes Ito’s works recognizable as his own just simply vanished. At least in one respect the anime was equal to its counterpart – the questions concerning the mechanism by which the fish can walk, some other over the top moments involving the gas and a seemingly incomplete (although completely different) ending leave a lot to be desired.

Ito's stories never end well, do they?

     The animation belongs to an interesting period in ufotable’s history. Character designs try to be somewhat close to original manga ones but ultimately they end up being far more simplified and vastly different from the beauty of Ito’s art. At least usual Ito’s same-face-syndrome has been taken care of. The designs also are quite fluid – one moment you can even start guessing whether some rotoscoping was involved and other times you can wince uncomfortably at the seemingly unfinished product. Anyway, the designs come from a period when ufotable still cared to draw not as-pointy-as-you-might-prick-yourself (Tales series) noses, if any noses at all (Fate series). The backgrounds signify the point when the studio started moving to its present aesthetic, that being 3D more times than not, and that 3D looking quite lifeless and at odds with the 2D characters. Some 3D elements in Gyo look surprisingly well-made, as ufotable’s 3D department in general is quite adept at what they do, it’s just that it doesn’t really mesh with the 2D stuff. The studio might be excused because at the time of making Gyo the 2nd season of Fate/Zero was also in works but that’s only a fool’s argument. Even if 3D was done far better, I still think the story of Gyo was just more suited to be told in manga form. Bright colors clearly doesn’t retain the same ominous atmosphere that a usual black and white manga panels are able to achieve.

Psychedelic, but not that disturbing after all

As you see, Gyo is plagued by all sorts of trouble, and some of them came from Junji Ito himself while others were added by ufotable. Ito’s prime concern is to create unsettling imagery and what becomes of it and how it can be incorporated into a story (that should have an ending) seems to be of no bigger concern to him. It’s as likely as not that the longer stories of his will feel cohesive and finished and that is the main problem with his manga. Ufotable changed quite a lot in its anime adaptation and few of these changes were for good, or at least necessary and logical to begin with. From a historical perspective it was quite fun to see how a transition from the old ufotable to the new glossy aesthetic plagued by post-production gradients looked at some point. But yeah, Gyo makes little sense and even somehow you became interested in this cheap horror flick, go read the manga, especially the short stories.

     Have you ever encountered Gyo at some point? What do you think about Junji Ito’s storytelling and current aesthetic of ufotable?

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Hand Shakers – “I can” doesn’t mean “you should”

Studio GoHands
Genres Action
Source Original
Episodes 12
Season Winter 2017
Director Shigo Suzuki
Music GOON TRAX
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     When Hand Shakers aired, it was more than clear that the show was a serious contender to be elected as the worst anime of the season if not of the whole year. Yet, when the show ended, no one seems to remember it anymore. On one hand it barely deserves to be remembered, particularly so when far better shows are becoming forgotten so soon after the end of their airing. Nonetheless, even if you despise Hand Shakers with your whole heart, the show might have some interesting quirks that should be mentioned. Just for the sake of curiosity let’s try to find some good in this mess.

Is it a cooking show?

     And a mess it really is. Hand Shakers is an original series but, as many have pointed out, it’s mind boggling that originality isn’t one of its distinctive aspects at all. Hand Shakers rather feels like yet another light novel or computer game adaptation, just because of the unending feeling that there should be some coherent story around, the world should be interesting but it just can’t escape its embryo stage. Everything begins with the main guy Tazuna whose only characteristic besides being the main character and having appropriate to this rank plot armor is that he can fix things. Tell me it isn’t similar to Shirou Emiya from Fate. Anyway, Tazuna manages to inadvertently awaken a certain girl named Koyori from coma and it just happens that the two of them now become Hand Shakers. That, as an annoying but very convenient scientist dude explains, means fighting other Hand Shakers. The best pair is said to get an opportunity to ask a god (oh well, that escalated pretty quickly) a wish to be granted. It’s not all, sadly. At first it’s told that because of some circumstances Koyori mustn’t let go of Tazuna’s hand because then she’ll die. Oh well. So yeah, we just have a death-game scenario that doesn’t feel that different from shows like Mirai Nikki or the same Fate franchise. The clichéd premise is only the top of the iceberg as Hand Shakers never tries to move anywhere from it. The concept of Hand Shakers themselves is never expanded that much after the initial info-dump as if it was the least important thing in the story. The whole season is spent fighting pairs of villains, defeating them (how else?), then somehow befriending them, spending some time just randomly chilling out and moving on to fight another pair. I’d guess that if everyone would be so thrilled to get their wishes granted, every other episode shouldn’t be about cooking but that’s not the case. There’s even more stuff that is painful to remember – apart from the story that doesn’t try at all to make sense there’s some sisters crazed for their little brothers, bizarre superpowers, characters even more boring or annoying than the main guy – you name it. I can almost bet that any single trope you despise about anime in some form or another is embedded in Hand Shakers.

Where is the focus in this scene?

     Characters definitely aren’t an aspect Hand Shakers can be proud of. As I’ve already said, Tazuna is noticeable only because of the screen time he gets. Tazuna’s partner Koyori is even worse. She starts as a doll character, for some reason unable neither speak nor do a single thing herself. Her main accomplishments through the series seem to be learning how to make a conversation and eat some ice cream. Watching our main pair is as exciting as looking at a robot taking his dakimakura for a walk. Probably the next important character is the scientist guy. Apparently his personality should be akin to Okabe the “Mado-scientisto” from Steins;Gate but the attempt only proves that Mamoru Miyano has a voice and personality so unique that any copycat is destined to fail from the very start. The temporary antagonists sometimes provide a glimpse of some interesting story (for example about an idol that has to deal with the fact that she doesn’t have any audience) but as with everything else, the execution isn’t competent enough. The show just fails to provide a believable world by making pretty much everyone silly or mentally challenged. I doubt that normal parents would gladly approve of their son bringing home a random girl saying “Hey, it just happens that I can’t let go of her hand, so she’ll live with me”. The sense of humor is also questionable. Just take a look at a screenshot below, explaining why the main pair has to help a school festival by making some food.

Whut?

     Say what you will about the generic story and characters but what really sets Hand Shakers apart from other forgettable shows is the visuals. There’s no doubt that much work has been put into assembling the series but sadly it looks like the team consciously thought of every possible way of making the experience less enjoyable. Hand Shakers can be distinguished by constantly and needlessly moving camera (especially in the first part), causing serious disorientation to the point of some people complaining about headaches. Each and every surface, be it a character or a background element, looks very glossy and constantly reflects light rays that sometimes move even when the camera doesn’t. The colour scheme is all over the place – you can expect countless colors, hues and shades at the same time, so it’s even difficult to say what is the most important element in a particular shot (in other words, the staging is virtually nonexistent). To some extent the coloring problem had to be expected since it’s not the first time that GoHands plays with this fire – Mardock Scramble trilogy already showed the root of this disaster. You can have insane amount of colors but it works only in rare cases such as my favorite example Mononoke. The same glossiness also creates a cold atmosphere and characters look more like they are fully CG. And CG itself is also a problem because there’s plenty of it, and it’s not good. The moving chains from the first episode is probably the worst thing in the show you can experience in terms of both making sense and appealing visually. The problem of CG not “meshing” (to quote the show itself) with 2D is also aggravated by the moving camera. The characters, CG objects and backgrounds all create a dissonance between themselves, and that may be even worse than the infamous Deen’s dragon. To return to the character designs, I can call them everything but pleasant. The glossiness doesn’t help, but even without that the same (and bland) face syndrome isn’t a disease GoHands if free from. Much attention was payed to the eyes (it’s an anime after all) but it doesn’t help at all sympathizing with the characters. Koyori rather looks like she could easily be taken as a blind person in another show. If I had to say one good thing about the visuals, some crowd scenes were surprisingly lively. Of course it was just a rare occasion before moving to static crowd shots but when it worked, it seriously looked good.

Excerpt from Hand Shakers

     The music is an interesting thing to talk about because it’s probably the only thing about the show that can’t be bashed right away. More interestingly, the credit for the soundtrack is given to GOON TRAX but its site says that it’s a label, so I can’t even name a single human being who’s responsible for the music in Hand Shakers. The soundtrack itself is composed of tracks that make not the worst playlist to listen to when you do something else. Usually there’s some relaxed piano over a background beat, just the thing you’d expect from, say, a music in the background of some YouTube video. The problem is that there’s nothing more to the soundtrack than these laid back tracks. When the show delves into its more slice of life segments (where nothing happens) such a music fits quite well. On the other hand when pretty much the same tracks are played over more serious battle scenes, it doesn’t “mesh” at all. Overall the soundtrack leaves an impression of being absolutely bland and uninteresting as an integral part of an anime series. At least the ED was quite nice, even if I didn’t care about a sad girl that doesn’t know how to do anything.

Excerpt from the OST: 'There's No Way' by GOON TRAX

     What can I say? For the majority of people Hand Shakers is a “burn it with fire” show, others (for the most part myself included) may find some entertainment for the “so bad it’s good” factor and probably no one will find it enjoyable enough. The story is pretty much garbage but it still has the gall to try to tease a second season by the end. Hopefully that won’t be realized any time soon. Or ever. To think about it, a studio that spends so much time for details and unconventional animation techniques just got incredibly unlucky because of the incompetence to play to their strengths right. Such detailed backgrounds by itself look pretty good, and I think a more experienced studio like ufotable wouldn’t be embarrassed to use such art of such level for their productions. To continue the comparison, ufotable also likes to use some CG space and where the action happens (for example Kara no Kyoukai 5 or Tales of Zestiria the X) and while their CG for me isn’t something that seamlessly harmonizes with 2D stuff, ufotable knows far better when to use their arsenal of means. Employ someone who understands what color design is, don’t be that ambitious, and you might become a half decent studio, GoHands. A writer also wouldn’t hurt.

How about no?

     I believe, that you should just

0

Don’t bother

     I can’t in good conscience recommend the show to anyone unless you’d like to laugh at its incompetence and bad choices everywhere. Even then it might be a very difficult task to endure all that Hand Shakers has to offer. Better stay away from it.

     Did you watch Hand Shakers? Can you think of a single positive point about the show?

Scattered Thoughts – laughing at Kite Liberator

 photo KiteLiberator_zps3nsjfato.png

     Western audiences seem to enjoy an OVA from 1998 called Kite. Technically, it’s a hentai, but there exists a shorter version (approximately 45 min long compared to 60 min) that has all that risky stuff cut out. The shorter version somehow ended up being on Crunchyroll, and there’s where I watched it, so don’t expect me to talk anything about hentai stuff. Just for the record, as far as I know from little research, plotwise (not “plot”-wise) the shorter version is as good, and might even be better without mostly unnecessary 15 additional minutes. Well, it depends on your view towards hentai, but that’s not the aspect I want to discuss now.

 photo Kite3_zps6ibkk1b3.gif

     It’s plain to see why Kite managed to earn some fan-following. There’s a certain charm that 80s and 90s OVAs have – that of dark settings, lots of violence, and, in this case, girls with guns. The animation itself with its roughness gives a nostalgic feeling, something distinct form that lighter computer-enhanced art nowadays. And Kite in all these respects feels very much a child of its time, especially knowing that certainly not all old OVAs were good. The idea of having an assassin girl stuck with some pretty bad people might have been developed into something meaningful, but Kite rather spends time for the content that got deleted in the shorter version. Certainly the OVA doesn’t just state the fact “the protagonist Sawa is a killer” and illustrate it with buckets of blood – there’s some stuff to make you think, but in the very end I don’t find it that satisfactory. Why a girl that can shred her opponents to pieces would do nothing and keep getting used in all sorts of ways for some years only to rebel at a random moment? It might have been an interesting character study, but Kite doesn’t bother to offer the slightest idea what really happens in Sawa’s head.

 photo K_zpssi8jhsah.png
And then, 10 years later, there comes a sequel of sorts. Kite Liberator is another OVA, also about an hour-long, but its essence is completely different from its predecessor. Well, I might end up only reciting all the weird plot elements, but as there’s little to talk about characters or themes and I don’t recommend watching it in the first place, I guess it’ll be fine. The director Yasuomi Umetsu probably wanted to make the sequel more diverse to capture more audiences, and in the true 80s and 90s fashion he chose to add some space adventures as well as some cute girls because that’s what people like now. You won’t be the first to question whether space and assassin girls really complement each other that well, but apparently at the time nobody objected.

 photo Kitey_zpsctzstvwj.png

     Going on a little tangent, the animation actually might be the best part of the OVA. Some CG space stuff was so incredibly animated that it can easily best many anime projects that use CG even now, almost 10 years later. Even a Hollywood production might get away using something of this caliber. 2D stuff also most of times worked well, action scenes were done at least competently, though for instance two guys shooting at each other dozens of bullets while being completely unshielded and not even grazing one another is a bit annoying. The character designs are clearly aimed at being as moe as possible and it was also more or less a success. On the other hand, there are some definitely weird cuts that feel like they came from a completely different decade compared to the incredible CG.

Excerpt from Kite Liberator; animation by Keita Matsumoto

     But most of times it’s not the animation that the sequel fails at. As a successor to Kite, the later OVA also features a killer girl, and one that looks somewhat similar to Sawa of the original. Sadly, Monaka of Kite Liberator doesn’t have even the implied depth of Sawa. Can an assassin that appears at the right second to save someone from getting killed be taken seriously knowing that other times she dons her dojikko personality and trips and stumbles and falls down a lot while playing a good student as well as a part-time employee at a maid café? Does killing people during spare time and getting embarrassed over being asked on a date by a policeman twice as old seem normal? There’s a scar shown on Monaka’s back while she changes (the only scene to feature the tiniest bit of nakedness), but that as well as the key question of why did Monaka became a killer in the first place never gets any explanation or even a slightest mention at all.

Excerpt from Kite Liberator

     All the maid stuff and playing clumsy has some charm, and some credit definitely should be given for that because in its own right the cuteness and some light comedy aren’t the worst. But does it mix with assassin stuff well? Definitely not, as neither the space stuff does. In its own right it feels a bit ridiculous, but that’s only the top of an iceberg. It’s known that zero gravity and just the general conditions in a space station affect human physiology, causing some bone and muscle atrophies among other things. So that’s no surprise that some special food forms are being developed to counter that. And then there’s the best part – some specially enhanced curry, paired with the effects of solar radiation have a pretty bad effect – some crew members transform into giant bony killing machines! It just happens that one of them is in fact Monaka’s father! And, of course, he ends up travelling back on Earth only to meet his daughter who has been instructed to kill that weird monster! She succeeds in the end, but wait, no, the dad regenerates, and… that’s the end. Oh boy…

Excerpt from Kite Liberator; animation by Nozomu Abe

     I don’t even have the words to explain how weird, nonsensical and laughable this mess of Kite Liberator really is. The ideas on their own can work, as the original Kite has more or less shown, but one can only guess what food poisoning made the creators make such a mishmash of a plot, mixing every possible idea that can be “cool”. Kite Liberator  for me doesn’t make the slightest sense no matter how I think about it. Also, why name such a project a sequel to the original Kite in the first place? The only thing that connects them is a gun both Sawa and Monaka use. It can be argued that a coworker of Monaka might actually be Sawa, and one policeman also might be a certain reappearing guy but that’s just a random theory from someone who believes that a project and its sequel should have some common points even if they have absolutely no effect on the story.

 photo Kite 2_zpsqgqo0iep.png

     Kite Liberator is one of its kind, and thank goodness that it’s only one. I don’t deem its predecessor particularly good but this OVA is just ridiculous. Watch it only if you aren’t afraid to lose an hour of your life in exchange of the possibility to get some laughs at how incompetent a story can be.