Month: September 2014

Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom

Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom

phantom

  • Trailer: English dubbed version
  • What it’s about: The criminal organisation “Inferno” is looking to expand its operations to a global scale. And it’s making rapid progress, in large part thanks to its policy of assassinating the heads of other crime families – a task it delegates to the mysterious “Phantom”. One day, a Japanese tourist is caught up in one of Phantom’s missions, and shows enough aptitude to be given an ultimatum: train to kill the enemies of Inferno, or be killed and discarded.
  • Why you should watch it: The central question posed by the show is this: How much of your own soul are you willing to sacrifice in order to survive? At what price freedom? It’s a fantastic story – the writer (Gen Urobuchi) spins out an expansive plot filled with backstabbing, plotting and murder, and fleshes it out with characters that are both self-aware and with rational motivations. Phantom leans heavily on its action-packed assassination missions for exciting the audience, but it doesn’t neglect development of the arcs of even of the secondary characters. Everything has a cost in the world of Phantom, and nobody gets a happy ending.
  • Caveats: I feel personally that too much focus was given to introspection – while not full-on wangsty, it edges towards it at some points. The characters are all far too young for what they’re supposed to be doing, to the point of breaking suspension of disbelief. This wouldn’t be so bad if you could be left to imagine that they’re all *really* in their mid-twenties, but the show rubs your face in it towards the end. Adding to the “suspension of disbelief” factor is the “action hero” nature of the characters, who are able to walk through a hail of bullets without being touched.
  • Themes: Guilt, indoctrination, the cycle of violence.
  • Similar works: Psycho-pass explores several of the same ideas, particularly with its idea of “enforcers”. Speed Grapher and Darker Than Black are also of a kind, though they’re superpower shows at heart. Outside of anime, the first half of the show resembles Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series, with elements of Besson’s Leon the Professional thrown in for good measure.

Spice and Wolf

Spice and Wolf:

spice and wolf

  • Trailer: English dubbed version
  • What it’s about: Kraft Lawrence is a travelling merchant making his living by trading between towns in a facsimile of medieval Europe. One day, as he passes through one of his regular stops during a traditional festival, the local harvest deity (a “wolf-goddess” named Holo) uses the opportunity to take her leave. The show follows Holo and Lawrence as they engage in a series of mercantile adventures while making their way north to Holo’s homeland.
  • Why you should watch it: Generally it’s sold as a “slow-burning romance” but, honestly, it’s more about relationships in general. The protagonists act like a bickering/flirting married couple from the start; it’s not a “When will senpai notice me?” dynamic. Faithfully adapted from a hugely popular series of Light Novels, Spice and Wolf’s heart is in the friendly banter between Holo and Lawrence, and seeing each of them play off the other never fails to entertain. The show takes an unusual approach to establishing the necessary tension and excitement for the episode-to-episode storylines. Where many anime fall back on swords and shouting, the conflicts of Spice and Wolf arise from Lawrence’s life as a merchant – impressively, it manages to make the concepts of short-selling and arbitrage both interesting and relevant to the plot.
  • Caveats: While many enjoy learning basic economic theory, it’s not for everyone. And if, after two or three episodes, you find that you can’t stand either of the two protagonists, drop the series. They’re the core of the show and if you don’t like them, you’re not going to enjoy the rest of it. While it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger as such, the show is deliberately left open-ended to encourage watchers to pick up the light novels (which are highly recommended).
  • Themes: Trust. Relationships, both business and personal.
  • Similar works: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha has the same director, similar setting and theme, and even uses the same two actors for the lead roles.

Tokyo Ghoul

Tokyo Ghoul

tokyo ghoul

  • Trailer: PV Trailer
  • What it’s about: There is a dark underworld hidden from the civilians of Tokyo – a subspecies of “ghouls” who, while human in appearance, are possessed of decidedly inhuman strength and cannibalistic urges. After a run-in with one such ghoul, Kaneki Ken wakes up to discover that the operation that saved his life has partially transformed him into a ghoul himself. Stuck half-way between the two worlds, Kaneki must face up to his new reality, without losing his grasp on his former mundane life.
  • Why you should watch it: It’s gory, dark, and absolutely riveting. Horror is a very hit-and-miss genre for anime, as the abstraction of animating a scene often lowers the visceral impact of the visuals. Tokyo Ghoul somehow manages to walk the line, using gore and suspense without falling into self-parody. The voice actors are excellent and the world itself is very well-painted. the soundtrack is decent, though not mindblowing. In all, it’s definitely worth a watch if you’re a fan of horror and haven’t found much in anime to suit your tastes.
  • Caveats: The big one here is the level of censorship. I’d say roughly half the time, they get away with it relatively well, using the show’s already dark palette and some stylish angles to obscure the big black blobs that are only going to get revealed in the BD release, or using the simple expedient of inverting the colours to get around the restriction on showing blood. However, there are quite a few shots where it just doesn’t work, and you’re left with characters reacting to things that are hidden from the audience. Secondly, while the anime version works very well as a standalone, there is a substantial amount of background stuff that’s been cut out of the original manga material in the interests of time.
  • Themes: Guilt and self-hatred – finding the monster within oneself and making peace with it. Persecution of the “other”, and the cycle of violence that ensues.
  • Similar works: ParasyteDarker Than Black, Hellsing Ultimate.

Death Billiards

Death Billiards

death billiards

  • Trailer: PV Trailer
  • What it’s about: Two men – one old and one young – arrive at a mysterious bar, neither of them with any memories of how they got there. The bartender informs them that they will not be allowed to leave until they play a game of pool against one another, and hints darkly at the possibilities should they lose.
  • Why you should watch it: Death Billiards was one of the handful of finalists that qualified for the annual “Young Animator Training Project”. Submitted by Madhouse, the animation quality is excellent. The story is dark, but relatively brief – this is a half-hour short, after all. Nonetheless, the story told is the perfect length, giving enough hints to backstory to keep you interested without spinning it out too long. A good, short work.
  • Caveats: None, really, except that there isn’t going to be any sort of follow-up. It accomplishes everything it set out to do, and leaves the viewer to decide for themselves what to take away from the work.
  • Themes: Passing judgment.
  • Similar works: If you enjoyed this, try out some of the other shorts from the same competition, such as Little Witch Academia and Mechanized Faeries

Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online

sword art online

  • Trailer: English dubbed version
  • What it’s about: A new fully immersive virtual reality “Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game” (think World of Warcraft, if you’re not familiar) is launched. Players logging in for the first time are having a lot of fun with the fantasy realm until the creator of the game reveals that nobody who logs into Sword Art Online can log out again, and anyone who dies in-game will die in in reality as well. Only once all one hundred levels of the game have been completed will the players be released. The story follows Kirito, an early-access player who leads the charge in defeating the game’s bosses and steadily progressing to get home again.
  • Why you should watch it: Sword Art Online was massively hyped upon release and remains very popular today. The animation and soundtrack quality is top-notch, and the battle sequences never disappoint. It’s an exciting action-filled romp with enough of a continuing story to keep you interested as it explores the ramifications of living in a video game world where death is truly final.
  • Caveats: The most common complaint about the show is that character development is rather shallow. Also, the series takes a dramatic swing half-way through and there’s an almost universal consensus that the second half is noticeably weaker than the first. That said, it’s still entertaining and its flaws do not outweigh the good aspects of the show.
  • Themes: Virtual/Reality divide. Fear of mortality. The second season switches things up, instead asking about living with the choices you made in the past.
  • Similar works: DanMachi. The idea of “Virtual world as real world” is getting kind of popular in anime, but every show takes a different approach. Log Horizon is a simultaneously more comedic and more strategic than SAO, Overlord follows a “villain protagonist” as he tries to conquer the world, while works like Accel World or the //.hack series have their own ideas about such a setting.

The Animatrix

The Animatrix

animatrix

  • Trailer: Official English trailer
  • What it’s about: Nine animated shorts created as side-stories and back-stories for the 2001 blockbuster The Matrix. The highlight is without a doubt “The Second Renaissance”, but most of the other stories are really, really good too.
  • Why you should watch it: The Wachowskis drew a lot of inspiration from anime, so they returned the favour by bringing together a star-studded crew of directors and animators – Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop), Mahiro Maeda (Gankutsuou), Takeshi Koike (Redline), the list goes on and on. Each vignette is markedly different from the others, spanning a wide range of genres, settings, and styles. there’s something for everyone here.
  • Caveats: You do need to be familiar with at least the original Matrix film. If you’re not, you might want to see about fixing that anyway. The opening segment, “The Final Flight of the Osiris”, was picked as the lede because of what was at the time a groundbreaking quality of CGI. But that was over a decade ago, and now it really doesn’t showcase the rest of the shorts all that well. Skip to “The Second Renaissance” if you don’t care much for what you see in Flight.
  • Themes: Transhumanism, xenophobia, the struggle for greatness – each of the shorts has a different message, so it’s hard to find an overarching theme.
  • Similar works: The Matrix Trilogy, obviously. In anime, look to Ghost in the Shell or Darker than Black.

The Twelve Kingdoms

The Twelve Kingdoms

12 kingdoms

  • Trailer: Fan-made trailer
  • What it’s about: The Twelve Kingdoms starts out as your standard High Fantasy novel – an unhappy high-schooler and her friends are whisked away without explanation to a new world. Chased by deadly monsters and with no idea whats going on, the trio have to adapt to survive, all the while trying to discover the reason behind their journey.
  • Why you should watch it: The highlights of the series are in its worldbuilding and character development. By the end, none of the protagonists end up resembling anything like what they were at the start of the story, and the world itself is intriguingly different to the Earth we know. The story also doesn’t end at the usual height of the “Hero’s Journey” arc. Once their “destiny” is fulfilled, there’s still over half the story left to spend exploring what happens afterwards, as they settle into their new lives. As a nice touch, the language barrier that you’d *expect* to be an issue with world-hopping is actually made a plot point here.
  • Caveats: The protagonist is almost unbearably whiny for the first few episodes. Its a believable reaction to her circumstances, and she does snap out of it, but that doesn’t make it any more fun to watch. The animation is *just* on the edge of starting to look dated.
  • Themes: Leadership, privilege and responsibility.
  • Similar works: Seirei no Moribito, Romeo x Juliet

Kaiji

Kaiji

kaiji

  • Trailer: No good ones. The intro is something, at least.
  • What it’s about: Kaiji is a degenerate, down on his luck loser. As it turns out, his luck is worse than he thought – his former room-mate defaulted on a loan that he co-signed, leaving him to pick up the tab. The Yakuza offer him a way out: a one-night gambling cruise where the winners walk away debt-free. Who knows what happens to the losers, though…
  • Why you should watch it: Kaiji is…oddly compelling, series and character alike. The show is famous for its twists and turns, the mind-games that are played from start to finish. It’s the only series I know that makes Rock Paper Scissors not only central to the plot but interesting, to boot. It’s a gripping story, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why.
  • Caveats: The character designs: that nose. You do get used to it, but it’s going to be the first thing anyone comments on so it might as well be brought up. There really aren’t any interesting characters in the show other than Kaiji himself – they’re all rather one-note with little development. The show is best watched in short bursts; too much and it gets a little same-y.
  • Themes: Game theory (inextricable from the plot). Altruism, and how easily it goes by the wayside when your own future is on the line. That while evil men will do evil things, it is generally the individual who is the architect of their own demise, through procrastination, laziness, short-sightedness and greed.
  • Similar works: Akagi and No Game No Life. Outside of anime, Liar Game is a fantastic manga that follow much the same course.

Pale Cocoon

Pale Cocoon

pale cocoon

  • Trailer: English subtitled version
  • What it’s about: History has ended. Humanity has lost all hope in the face of environmental collapse and has retreated underground, pressing farther and farther as the lights go off above. Ura works in the increasingly irrelevant Excavation Department, tracking down and analysing fragments of the lost past, hoping to find something – anything – that frees his mind from the drab monotony.
  • Why you should watch it: Pale Cocoon is a brooding, atmospheric work. Despite its short run-time (23min) it draws the viewer into its world with its fantastic animation and its mystery. If you’re in the mood for a relaxing drama, tt really is worth committing a half hour to watching.
  • Caveats: The director seems to be trying to emulate Makoto Shinkai, but doesn’t quite have the same toolset. It’s a slow, slightly philosophical work. Not a great deal actually happens.
  • Similar works: Patema InvertedTime of Eve is by the same director and studio and shares a very similar aesthetic. It’s a good deal more upbeat, though.

Attack on Titan

Attack on Titan:

attack on titan

  •  Trailer: English subtitled version
  •  What it’s about: Humanity is no longer the dominant species. Several hundred years ago, a horde of gigantic, carnivorous, but thankfully unintelligent giants appeared with no explanation, killing everyone in their path. The only survivors huddle fearfully inside gigantic walled cities with a tech level somewhere between the Renaissance and Steampunk. Fighting back simply isn’t an option. Until, one day, the Titans break through the walls, and they are left with no other choice.
  • Why you should watch it: Attack on Titan is probably the most hyped show of the past couple of years and, honestly, it deserves most of it. The soundtrack is utterly fantastic, the action sequences (featuring the steampunk equivalent of soldiers equipped as Spiderman) are breathtaking, and the animation in general is gorgeous. On top of that, it’s actually a good story, and has one of the strongest set of opening episodes that I’ve ever seen in an anime, managing to get the audience pumped up right from Episode 1.
  • Caveats: The weakest point of the show is in its lurching pacing. After the adrenaline rush of the opening episodes it falls into a lull, followed by a brief explosion back into action and then it drags again. And so on. I would have absolutely hated to have tried watching this week-by-week, but most of the weaknesses are mitigated simply by binging through – something that’s all too easy to do.
  • Themes: Living under terror, the horror of war. Also the standard shounen themes of believing in one’s friends and trusting in one’s self.
  • Similar works:  The Spirits Within and Knights of Sidonia both have similar premises and themes.