Anime of Tomorrow
Tag Archives: philosophical
Summer 2004 (13 episodes + 1 OVA)
Off the shores of Kamakura is a secret island that conducts research on the cutting edge of human evolution. Called the Diclonius after a type of dinosaur, this genetic offshoot of humanity is distinctive by two small horns protruding from the sides of the head. The other quality that makes them worthy of scientific research is the female’s destructive psychic capabilities.
The first and most dangerous specimen named Lucy breaks her bonds and after an ensuing bloodbath manages to escape the facility. But not before suffering a massive head wound that splits her personality between a dangerous beast and a helpless child. She is discovered on Enoshima beach by Kouta and his cousin Yuka who take her in and decide to shelter her from her shady pursuers. But when Kouta notices her horns, he senses there is a frighteningly deep connection between him and his new dependent that he must remember at any cost.
Elfen Lied and I have a bit of history that needs to be fully explained before I can go into a proper review of the title. Back in 2004, I was still a wide-eyed 18 year old, fresh out of the nest and learning to fly solo at college. At this point in my life I had only watched three anime that I actually knew were anime—Escaflowne, Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion. I’d also seen Tekkaman Blade, Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, Digimon and Pokemon as a kid, but I thought those were American series at the time so in my mind they don’t count (more on that some other time).
I had just joined my university anime club because I wanted to learn more about this genre and by some chance of fate the club president recommended Elfen Lied, which was still airing on Japanese TV. Horror and R-rated media were things I’d never really been introduced to at the time, which gave Elfen Lied the privilege of relieving me of my innocent naivety. It was such a shocker it felt like I’d been hit by a bolt of lightning (thinking back on it now, that metaphor is so apt it’s kinda scary how green I was back then). I’d never experienced such an incredible emotional response in my life and I became immediately aware of something—I wanted more. The rest they say is history because I’ve been hooked on anime ever since. No other medium has been able to illicit such a heartfelt passion in me as anime and I foresee this to be one of my lifelong hobbies.
As I’ve matured over the past 8 years, my adoration for Elfen Lied has been tempered slightly. I’ve come to realize it has a few flaws that can’t can’t fully be ignored and I may have been initially oversold on this anime’s shock value. The years have also not been kind to its super large-eyed character style that is getting dated and was very indicative of the previous decade even at the time this series was made. It also hurts its own potential with over-the-top violence and blood—important as that may be to its success—and lets us down with deceivingly simple writing about an exceedingly complicated story that needed a lot more time to be properly told (to be fair, there was a lot of contention within the staff to push this series into a longer run).
However, I continue to maintain that Elfen Lied is an excellent model for how to properly use nudity as a storytelling device. Whether it’s to accentuate Lucy’s animalistic savagery or Nyuu’s childlike innocence, what’s very clear by its direction is that this is not fanservice. There aren’t any random panty-shots or views of cleavage made possible courtesy of deliberately maligned camera angles—every instance of the female form works to support the plot.
It’s a story that raises all sorts of philosophical issues about the nature of humanity—namely what constitutes being human. Is it kindness, pure altruism and our ability to forgive past transgressions? Is it nothing more than genetics? Is it emergent in our sophisticated intelligence? Is it our resourcefulness and ability to adapt to whatever circumstances we find presented to us? Is it willingness to do whatever is necessary to survive? Or is it the simple quality of possessing immutable instincts that go beyond mere desire for simple survival? All of these themes and more are touched upon if ever so briefly in this anime and the only disappointment is that there wasn’t time to explore them more thoroughly.
Sadly, Elfen Lied is probably one of the most contentious, misunderstood and quite often underappreciated anime of all time. Despite how well it reviews statistically, I suspect that like my younger self it gets a big boost from its emotional impact. I hardly ever hear very much praise for it from a technical standpoint. Ironically, it’s almost as if, in its attempt to reveal the intricacies of human nature, it was able to expose the superficial shallowness of the average person who so quickly and easily discredits it without making any attempt to reach for a deeper meaning. However, the fact that it’s still capable of firing such powerful emotions eight years later is a testament to the kind of response it generates in its viewers. As much as I can try to guide people on how to interpret the value of this show, it is ultimately going to be an exercise for the individual to undertake.
To this day I continue to hold the position that Elfen Lied is one of the best examples of an anime that not only deserves a sequel but NEEDS one. What anime have you watched that had an open-ended or cliffhanger finale that you think requires a second season to properly wrap up the rest of the story?
Final impression – not a second wasted (10/10)
Winter 2012 (8 episodes) (TV series)
It’s the first day of junior high school and Mato Kuroi decides she’s going to be friends with the gloomy girl who has a funny name, Yomi Takanashi. The two soon discover they have a shared love of a children’s storybook and it looks like they’re going to get along great. But when Yomi’s spoiled, childhood friend Kagari butts in to push them apart, Mato isn’t going to just give up accept this bleak turn of events. She makes it her mission to liberate Yomi from Kagari’s possessive personality. But doing so will have greater consequences than she knows. In another world, the girls’ voiceless souls are fighting their own, very real battle with life and death on the line. And when the results of their battles become reflected in the real world, it’s going to change the course of their lives in ways they cannot possibly anticipate.
Quality in writing is often not about a story’s content, but about how well that story is told. Sometimes the best plot is the simplest and Black Rock Shooter tells a fabulously creative adventure about the subtleties of relationships and how the most well-meaning intentions can have unexpected, unintended consequences. It’s a wonderful metaphor about allowing ourselves to be close enough to our friends that we can fight with them honestly and without inhibitions. We must accept that we occasionally hurt people and that we are hurt by others; how we deal with that pain shapes our character and the ultimate fate of our relationships. Balancing this emotional drama between real people and their actions mirrored by their duplicate selves locked in gallant combat is a poetic dichotomy flooded deeply with incredible metaphors. Kana Hanazawa is perfect in her role as Mato Kuroi, depicting her exceptional personality and growth from naivety to strong, determined young woman. But what’s most amazing about Black Rock Shooter is that it probably would never have existed if it wasn’t for the Vocaloid song by the same name, popularized by casual anime fans who wanted to know the story behind the music. For something so spectacular to come out of simple fandom and not from a novel, manga or video game is truly remarkable.
Final impression – pretty but unpolished (6/10)
Autumn 2011 to winter 2012 (22 episodes)
In 2029 an outbreak of a mysterious disease known as the Apocalypse Virus hit Tokyo causing cancerous crystals to emerge from people’s bodies, reducing them to dust that blew away in the wind. Now it’s 2039 and much of Japan’s policies are under the control of the GHQ—an organization devoted to researching and preventing another pandemic. However, under the guise of public safety, the GHQ restricts the freedom of the Japanese people, which naturally makes them rather unpopular. To counter this stifling new branch of government that sometimes descends into spontaneous martial law, the terrorist group Undertaker seeks to liberate Japan using covert, guerrilla tactics. Shu Ouma is just an average high school student living in Tokyo who laments the current state of affairs and feels there’s nothing he can do to change things. But he gets thrust into the heart of the conflict when his path crosses with the indie singer, Inori Yuzuriha. On the run from the GHQ, she entrusts him with delivering a stolen package to Undertaker. But an accident along the way imbues him with the power to change the course of fate.
Guilty Crown is very beautiful both in its crisp drawing style and harmonious music, which create a terrific setting with awesome potential. This optimism further gets bolstered by the growth of Shu’s character as he goes through a transition of ordinary to mighty, then misguided and finally culminating in noble selflessness. The flow of his personality follows an organic development that is as natural as it is elegant. But looking past the artfulness and the excellent character development of Guilty Crown, the writing of this anime is thick and muddy. As much as it wants to be epic and tell an amazing story of realizing your own weakness and overcoming your preconceived limits, it fails to accomplish this goal eloquently. Whether it’s relying on misplaced tropes like a swimsuit episode, contrived plot points such as reviving a character who was supposed to be dead or some overused quasi-romantic sort of martyrdom, there’s plenty of wasted potential. To its credit, Guilty Crown never goes so far as to allow its clumsier episodes to break up the flow of the plot. But some of the characters’ motives are so unreasonable that it feels like they’re puppets of the writer rather than real people with free will and personalities. So while Guilty Crown is easy on the eyes and ears, its story is frustratingly forced and rushes to finish in its shorter-than-average run.
Final impression – satisfyingly philosophical (8/10)
Winter 2012 (11 episodes) (title literal translation – Impostor’s Story)
A short time after the events of Bakemonogatari, Koyomi Araragi’s life is beginning to return to normalcy. He’s studying hard for college entrance exams, playing games with friends in his free time, trying to impress his overbearing girlfriend and being a generally annoying, but loving brother for his two younger sisters, Karen (火憐) and Tsukihi (月火). But things are not going so smoothly at the junior high where his sisters go to school. Calling themselves the Fire Sisters because their names both contain the kanji for fire (火) they’ve made it their personal vendetta to find out who has been spreading curses and rumors among their classmates. But ultimately, it’s going to be Koyomi who will have to make sure their mission of justice isn’t something that is beyond their capabilities.
First off, don’t watch Nisemonogatari without first watching Bakemonogatari. The masterpiece’s sequel includes little refresh time to get new viewers up to speed and there’s a few points where you’re going to be lost if you just jump right in. Second, while it follows the gorgeous, intellectual writing style of its parent series, the pacing is not as good as the original. Where Bakemonogatari was focused and Koyomi was always on a mission to help someone, Nisemonogatari is more of a fluid, slice of life story. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a very different tone. But one of the less understandable attributes of the sequel is the degree to which it was touted as the adventures of Karen and Tsukihi and how little emphasis is given to them. All in all, it feels more like an epilogue than a sequel because there’s never a big climax to accentuate the plot and in some ways that’s a very refreshing way to compose a follow-up series. So while Nisemonogatari may not be quite as powerful as its source material, it’s a nice follow-up companion that will satisfy fans of the original series.
Final impression – a magnificent, philosophical escapade (10/10)
Summer 2009 to spring 2010 (15 episodes) (title literal translation – Monster Story, English synonym – Ghostory)
During spring break of his final year of high school, Koyomi Araragi had an encounter with a vampire. Fortunately, he was able to mostly restore his humanity through the aid of the supernatural specialist Meme Oshino, who was able to intervene before things got worse. As part of a way of thanking the man who saved him from becoming a vampire himself, Koyomi has begun helping people he encounters rid themselves of their unnatural afflictions. And it’s a good thing he retains some of his vampiric traits, because most curses are not willing to go down quietly.
Bakemonogatari is an amazing masterpiece of wordplay. I’ll come right out and say that if you don’t like dialogue-heavy anime you’re not going to enjoy this series because its strongest attribute is the way it twists language and and plays with our perceptions of humanity. But if you revel in the intellectual—the sociological—then you’re going to have a hard time finding anything better than this. And the awesomeness doesn’t stop with its writing. It has a great cast of voice actors including Kana Hanazawa and Yui Horie who are masters of their craft and depict their characters’ personalities perfectly down to every nuance. Then, if you thought my praise was over, the music is absolutely spectacular with a fresh opening theme for each of the female protagonists, sung beautifully by their skilled voice actresses. Dealing with such topics as love, hopelessness, responsibility, desire and lust, Bakemonogatari is passionate and insightful. If you let yourself get caught up in its pace, your blood will start to boil with the brilliant energy radiated by this incredible anime.
Impression – straightforward, yet philosophical
Autumn 2011 to winter 2012 (more info)
As good as the Persona 4 video game was, I wish its anime series would deviate more from the default script or fill in some more fine details that have thus far flown under the radar. Arguably, fans of the video game are going to be the primary fanbase of the anime, but if there are no surprises for us we’re not likely to give very good opinions to more casual viewers who may only have a passing interest. So the plot of Persona 4 is stuck in a weird catch-22 where it needs enough new material to keep the old fans interested but it also needs to stay true to the original story. In some ways, it’s suffering from some of the same problems as Fate/Zero. But it’s more than worth it to watch Persona 4 just for the killer music and sharp art style that is an intrinsic quality of Atlus. One of the things the anime does get right that is a perfect mirror of the video game is the pacing of events to match real dates and create a tangible passage of time. And while the story may have felt more natural in video game format, it’s still totally awesome. Its best points are a cast of varied, loveable characters, a good sense for spinning elaborate mysteries and an overarching theme of emphasizing the importance of the bonds we share with our friends. When you think about it like that, there’s not much else to be desired.
Final impression – spectacularly human (9/10)
Autumn 2011 (12 episodes) (alternate titles – C^3 – C³ – C Cubed)
When Haruaki received a mysterious package from his father, he should have guessed it might turn into a girl. Fear-in-Cube is a cursed torture device that has accumulated centuries of hate and death, allowing her to manifest as an intelligent being in her own right. She was sent to live with Haruaki so that she might escape the cruel destiny that has compounded into the misery of her existence. But that’s not going to be easy when the slightest trigger of violence can send her into a blood frenzy of flying guillotines. On top that, she’s the target of underground organizations of all colors. Some see her as an abomination to be destroyed while other seek out the power she possesses to use for their own misdeeds. Either way, she’s going to have to depend on wise-beyond-his-years Haruaki to make sure she stays true on her path to rehabilitation.
When I started to brainstorm for my review for C3, my first instinct was to start with something defensive that made an effort to excuse some kind of shortcoming. But then I realized that the brilliant composition of this anime needs no excuses to protect it from simple-minded twits who only want to focus on perceived shallowness when all they’re really seeing is the reflection of their own bias on the surface of a vast, deep ocean. And C3 is splendidly deep. It is a story about the human qualities of our tools—the extensions of ourselves we create in order to enhance ourselves to either our benefit or our detriment. When we use a tool long enough we often start to apply human characteristics and personality to it as it becomes an augment of our bodies; even taking on a share of our own souls. Thus are our tools extensions of our own creative or destructive tendencies.
The theme of C3 is societal responsibility—we must clean up our own messes as well as the messes that happen to cross our paths rather than pass the blame or hope someone else picks up the slack. It’s an uplifting triumph of chivalry and of people who genuinely wish to make the world a better place. Additionally, Haruaki is one of my favorite male characters in recent anime because he’s not perverted, introverted, spineless or shy around women. The overused trope of the weak male lead finally gets tossed out and that makes me incredibly happy. Given this anime’s style, I could very easily have seen it devolve into some ecchi harem show like Mayo Chiki or Boku wa Tomodachi. But C3 decidedly stays away from that territory and keeps things classy, even avoiding an obligatory swimsuit or onsen episode that populate so many anime that seem to lose their creative sparks halfway through.