Grant was born in the shadow of the Cold War and raised on a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons and violent anime VHS rentals. After a deadly laboratory accident in the mid-2000s left his face permanently scarred from repeated slice of life shows, he has returned to the fandom with sinister intent. His master plan - to make a lasting contribution to the discussion of anime that goes beyond superficial hot-takes.
Yet again, I have been somewhat absent here lately. Life! It happens to the best of us.
But in the mean time I have also written a guest piece over at Wave Motion Cannon. I cover Gundam’s core themes in the context of Gundam Build Fighters. Feel free to check it out, and all of the other fantastic work they do over there:
So I have been a bit MIA here the past few weeks due to real life shenanigans weighing me down (work! fmeh!). But in the interim I did have a chance to write a guest article for one of my favorite blogs, and truly one of the best anime resources on the net – Zimmerit.moe
I penned a quick piece about what the Zaku II from Mobile Suit Gundam continues to be a beloved character after so many decades. Check the link below and do yourself a favor – check out the rest of the site, it’s absolutely worth your time.
Seldom do we find something truly unexpected and exciting in a new season. Certainly there are programs that are exciting because of their animation style, subject matter, or links to other works, but it is rare that a show comes along that can invoke a literal double-take. Thunderbolt Fantasy is one such work.
The premise is well-worn ground at this stage. A vaguely medieval fantasy land, the pursuit of a legendary weapon, ancient dark forces threatening to return, characters with ulterior motives, a quest to save the world… Yes, we have seen these things before, perhaps more times than can be counted. But the truly original and shocking element of Thunderbolt Fantasy is that this show is entirely done with puppets.
Thunderbolt Fantasy is a cross-production between Japan and Taiwan. Often retelling historical tales, legends, and folklore, glove puppetryis a long-running tradition in Taiwan. With writer Gen Urobuchi at the helm and the unique presentation of puppetry in lieu of animation or live actors, Thunderbolt Fantasy is a surprising production even with its standard fantasy milieu.
Practical Effects – The greatest strength of Thunderbolt Fantasy is the use of practical effects. The puppets themselves are absolute works of art, being hand-carved wooden dolls clothed in some outlandish costumes. Sets are spacious and feel fully stocked, no empty wastelands or barren battlefields to be seen. Interior and exterior locales both work equally well, and have an appropriate sense of scale. Even minor details are handled with great care, whether it is the spread of a large dinner table or the debris of an outdoor battle. The show looks superb, and the fact that all of the characters and items in the show are both real and crafted give the viewer a greater sense of appreciation for the effort involved.
Action – The action sequences in this series are a real delight. The practical effects give the movements of the characters a sense of weight and heft, making the conflicts feel more impactful. Computer generated effects are also in play, but are more for flashy special moves and particle effects than anything else, which amplifies the fantastic spectacle of these sequences. Though it would seem that since the characters are all puppets their fights would seem awkward or constrained due to the limited range of expression, this is not the case. In fact, the battles are some of the standout moments of the show. For all the fireballs and over the top spells, these moments often feel more authentic than some of the interpersonal character scenes.
Music – Hiroyuki Sawano does phenomenal work with the soundtrack. The music is unmistakably his – driving rhythms, blaring trumpets, mellow downbeats followed by pure bombast almost without transition. While the music feels a bit too familiar at points for fans of say, Gundam Unicorn, there are enough differencws here to help it stand on its own merits. Sawano’s work fits the work perfectly and enhances it, adding to the emotional impact and drama at the high points while providing momentum during the slower segments.
Names – There really cannot be a discussion about Thunderbolt Fantasy without bringing up the issue of names. To put it bluntly, it is impossible to remember anyone’s name in this work. The Romanized names in the subtitles are still in the original language, but voice actors use the Japanese versions instead. Given the cooked-in difficulty of pronouncing the translated names and the lack of any sort of audio support for reference, this means that western viewers are basically flying blind when it comes to what anyone or anything is called. In order to help your viewing, I provide my own made up names to assist in your viewing experience.
Thankfully, characters do begin to pick up more interesting titles as the show goes on such as The Enigmatic Gale, Screaming Phoenix Killer, etc. However, by the time this becomes the norm for the majority of the characters, far too much of the show has already gone by. It’s a real testament to the strength of the voice cast and the distinctive look of the puppets that the characters are so memorable, because their names are an active impediment to telling them apart.
Predictability – You could probably guess most of the story beats from the first introduction to the characters, perhaps even earlier. A wandering warrior with a mysterious past who appears to be uncouth and low-born? Hrm, I wonder if he might shock the uptight nobles he travels alongside with martial skill and hidden virtue. A legendary blade sought by an evil group of bandits? Hrm, I wonder if the blade is the key to some dark force that will lead to terrible power beyond the ken of man. Even though there are a few delightful surprises, most of the work is pretty by the numbers and telegraphed far in advance, and the surprises take up too little real estate to have much meaning beyond their initial shock value.
Pacing – The show is generally brisk, but slows down in odd places. The final episode in particular feels like everything gets wrapped up a bit too fast and tidily for the magnitude of the events that are happening. This is only made worse when considering that the show just finished a multi-episode castle sequence with a lot of back and forth that is more tedious than compelling. There are also times when the show moves so swiftly that it seems to rush right past potential character moments or world-building opportunities that are never fully realized. For example, Young Thirsty and Ay Girl Ay have an important connection, but most the screen time is spent exploring his idealism and how it relates to Hawkeye’s more practical view of the world/heroism. Ultimately this may be more a product of the 13-episode constraint, but it is still noticeable.
Thunderbolt Fantasy Fancy Puppet Theater gets a strong recommendation as a watch for just about any viewer. It is a classic tale that may have few major twists, but is a delight to watch on the strength of its incredible effects and attention to detail. This is one of the most unique looking shows of the season and demonstrates the power of using physical models as a means of telling a story over animation. The fact that it has been given the green light for another season is just icing on the cake, and hopefully future seasons will take more risks with the narrative while continuing to amaze with its visuals.
This is not an attempt at braggadocio, some vain attempt to impress you with my “old school cred.”
This is not an exaggeration of the truth to make it seem as though my knowledge of a show or the weight of my opinion is vastly greater than anyone else’s.
This is a simple statement of fact. Over the years I have watched Robotech more than twenty times. I love to watch that show, and I revisit it regularly. Even now I am watching Macross in the original Japanese for the second time through, both as a message to Amazon that this sort of content will get them views and also as part of my love of the work.
What is even worse is that this is not the only anime I have seen more than a few times. I have seen Ashram stand atop the burning castle on at least a dozen different occasions. I have walked the claustrophobic corridors of the Star Leaf in search of the invasive blob monster more times than I can count. I have mouthed the words “Ally to good – nightmare to you!” with such regularity I wonder if I really have lost a mondo cool friend in a past life, and am just reliving those final moments like echoes in the timestream
I have rewatched a lot of shows. Why is that, you might ask. Mainly because, in the era before streaming content, we were forced to do so. Fans of anime often could not afford or find everything that they wanted to watch. As such, the tapes (and later DVDs) of shows or movies that you did have were often watched on constant repeat.
Toonami certainly alleviated some of that burden. Here, finally, was a show which brought new anime with some regularity. But Toonami was not always around – I distinctly recall the excitement I had when we even got Cartoon Network in my home town, meaning I no longer had to watch Nic-at-Nite after 7:00 p.m.
Furthermore, anime on television was not exactly flush with new content. Toonami often replayed shows on heavy rotation – and later adult swim would do so as well. Cowboy Bebop was the background to my early 2000s in the same way that MTV was to the 80s generation.
What I think is important to realize though is how much joy it brought me to rewatch shows I enjoyed. I already knew that I liked them, and could appreciate these works by seeing them over again. Instead of part of my mind being taken up with curiosity or tension at what would happen next, I could focus on smaller details, references, and brilliant flourishes. Rewatching good anime deepened my appreciation for what made those shows so good and why I liked them in the first place.
In 2016 the idea of rewatching a show seems almost ludicrous. “Who has the time?” we all ask, frantically speed-watching dozens of shows each week to keep up with the rapid pace of social media. “I have to know what every funny gif is about! I have to be a part of the conversation!” we tell ourselves. If we find ourselves three weeks behind on a particular show it causes anxiety, a fear of being found out, a sense of nagging doubt. People will think I am a fraud because I am not keeping up!
Is it worth it all? I mean, really, is it? When we force ourselves to incessantly chase the new hotness, to try and keep up with dozens of shows each season, are we really enjoying ourselves? Sure, we find charming new works with surprising animation and twists, but just as often we find ourselves trudging through the mediocre crud that is par for the course these days. We’ve seen it before, we’re not impressed, but we press on anyway.
No wonder people burn out of the anime hobby in such a short time. We have convinced ourselves that peak fandom is half-watching sixteen shows at once whether we like them or not. “But if I don’t watch it now, people won’t be talking about it when I do watch it!” Is that really the strongest argument for forcing ourselves to watch things we aren’t enjoying? If the shelf life for a show is only four months, maybe the show was not even worth watching in the first place. Let’s be honest, even if we could stick to our self-imposed viewing schedules we still could not keep up with the sheer amount of shows coming out each year. Dozens and dozens of programs slip right through our fingers each season and yet we still – by some miraculous event – manage to live another day and still consider ourselves anime fans.
I cannot cure the glut of content. I cannot wave a magic wand and make it so that there are only four new shows in the spring and we can all take a break. But I can recommend something that might actually make you have fun watching something again – go rewatch an old favorite. Pull out that tattered VHS and plug in your VCR that has been collecting dust for years. Find that prized DVD on your shelf that you payed a premium for and give it another watch. Look through your account history and find the stream for that show you just went gaga for two years ago and see if it still holds up.
You might find that you actually enjoy watching anime all over again.
For today’s jukebox installment we feature the theme from Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger.
This is the opening theme song to the show which formed the basis for the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The show features five warriors from the ancient past engaging in battle with Bandora the Witch using the mighty Guardian Beasts who combine to form Daizyuzin – the physical embodiment of the God of their ancient tribes.
The theme itself is a real delight. The early rhythm is low and and steady, building in intensity before strings come to aid the crescendo. Then blaring trumpets reset the pace just before the real theme starts in with lyrics, which takes on a joyous feel with a hint of melancholy as the lyrics weave over a subtle layering of strings and keyboard. Much like the show itself, it is clearly for a childrens’s show(it repeats the show’s name dozens of times) but shows the kind of texture and complexity you would not normally have in this sort of programming (the bridge section has haunting polyphonic chants followed by violins). Like the show itself, this theme really stands out as one of the greats. After two listens you will be humming it to yourself for the rest of the day – you have been warned.
In preparation for the impending Power Rangers film, I will be writing this series on the long running series. Monday I laid out a basic primer in tokusatsu terminology, and for part one of our series I will be discussing the basic background of Power Rangers as a franchise.
No discussion of tokusatsu and worldwide fandom would be complete without Power Rangers. Based on and using footage from Toei’s long-running Super Sentai series – specifically the Zyuranger team – it effectively brought the Japanese style of superheroes into mainstream US consciousness, and later the world. Because the Super Sentai suits use full face-covering helmets, the American producers dubbed English dialogue over those scenes. Any plot points or situations involving Japanese actors was cut, and new footage was put in its place with the American cast.
To say Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was a success would be an understatement. It was the property of 1993, and continued to grow until it even landed a Hollywood movie in 1995… though by that point its star had already begun to wane. After stretching Zyuranger to its absolute limits, having Toei shoot brand new footage, cannibalizing elements from Kakuranger, and various other methods, by the end of the third season MMPR finally began to follow its source material and introduce new suits and themes with seasonal regularity. Power Rangers may not be the all-encompassing cultural force that it was twenty three years ago, but it has continued to run almost without stopping in the intervening years.
Having watched a fair amount of Super Sentai and Power Rangers, it is not hard to see that the former is generally of a much higher quality. If you were to pick a random episode of either and compare them, there is a good chance Super Sentai is just a better put together show than Power Rangers. On the basic tenants of how we usually judge the media that we consume, Power Rangers comes out looking the worse for wear. Whether it’s plot, set design, character development, you name it, Super Sentai is usually a more solid program.
However, Power Rangers is not without its merits. To completely disregard Power Rangers because it is typically inferior to its older sibling is not entirely fair. Power Rangers has immense personal and cultural significance. Next time in part two I’ll go into why this show made me into the fan I am today.
Tokusatsu is an enormous component of worldwide media fandom, and its visibility has increased drastically in recent years. Before I get into some more US-centric news in upcoming posts, I want to lay down a few key terms that run through tokusatsu so that everyone is on the same page.
Tokusatsu – A term that essentially means “special filming,” and roughly refers to anything that involves special effects and would be categorized in the west as science fiction/fantasy. For most people, tokusatsu is “live action things which are exciting and cool.” If you watch an eastern program that has live actors and some things that you want to own a toy or figure of, then it is probably tokusatsu.
Daikaiju – This basically translates to “great monster” or a rough equivalent. This is explicitly referring to film series like Godzilla, Mothra, Gamera, and other giant monster movies. In the west we often simply say kaiju, though in Japanese that term is broad enough to encompass any monster from a werewolf to King Ghidorah.
Sentai – This term means “task force,” and the is part of the title of Toei’s long-running series. This basically refers to the familiar teams of primary colored spandex superheroes.
Henshin – This can mean “transformation” or “metamorphosis” and refers to any hero switching from their normal form into a their hero mode. The ultimate example of this trope is Kamen Rider, who shouts henshin before changing into his heroic self.
With our vocabulary lesson finished, here is a ridiculous video to whet your appetite for more spandex, explosions, and monsters – the glorious train-themed Ressha Sentai ToQger.