Tag Archives: Review

Thunderbolt Fantasy Review

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.

kermit
Not those, but close. Maybe just, like, 30% more fabulous.

Thunderbolt Fantasy is a cross-production between Japan and Taiwan. Often retelling historical tales, legends, and folklore, glove puppetry is 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.

What Works

setting
Human hands built this! Behold!

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.

 

What Doesn’t

please-stop
I actually understand less now than before you started talking.

 

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.

14172_weblogo
Fancy Puppet Theater

 

ryu
Ryu
belt-neck
Belt Neck
ay-girl-ay
Ay Girl Ay
young-thirsty
Young Thirsty
witchy-witch
Witchy Witch
hawkeye
Hawkeye
darth fabulous.jpg
Darth Fabulous
nails-on-fleek
Nails On Fleek

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.

Overall

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.

Advertisements

Same Song, Second Verse

I have seen Robotech more than twenty times.

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

krillin
Too soon, man.

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.

TCDGESM EC006
It wasn’t a total loss.

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.

bebop
I want my MTV!

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!

otaku
Let none doubt the strength of my fist!!!

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.

Anime Review – X: The Movie

X is a film not much talked about these days.  Probably because the franchise has been out of the limelight since Clamp put the manga on hiatus way back in 2003, so the film, released in 1996, has had only its reputation to live by — and not a particularly good one.  Upon its US release, fans felt, at best, ambivalence towards it, or, at worst, outright antipathy.  I don’t necessarily intend to argue otherwise — it is indeed a critically flawed film — but, sixteen years later, there’s a lot to admire that was once taken for granted.

The film begins with our protagonist Kamui returning to Tokyo after a long absence.  He’s come to the home of his two childhood friends Fuma and Kotori, but their reunion is cut short by ambassadors from two factions fighting to determine the fate of the world: the Dragons of Heaven, who wish to save humanity, and the Dragons of Earth, who wish to destroy it.  Kamui, wanting only to protect his friends, will be forced to choose a side in the conflict, one that will determine the fate of the world.

When put that way, it sounds simple enough.  Problem is, X has a prodigious cast of seventeen characters and a story that spans volumes and volumes of manga.  Condensing it all into a single, self-contained film was never going to work.

In an interview given to Animerica magazine, Director Rintaro hinted at a few of the difficulties.  According to him, the original screen play written by Mami Watanabe (best known as scriptwriter on Record of Lodoss War) was repeatedly revised by Clamp’s head writer Nanase Okawa.  Finally, it was decided that with only 90 minutes to work with, there was little choice but to anchor the story around the climactic final battle.  Rintaro focused on getting the major scenes right, while Okawa worked to come up with a proper ending for the film.  Subplots by necessity were cut and character introductions were kept short or absent altogether.

x_movie_characters
Some of the characters you won’t get to know while watching X.

For the first time viewer, it’s a bewildering experience akin to watching the final act of a Greek tragedy play out with no knowledge of the previous parts.  “What the hell is going on?”  “Who the hell are all of these people?”  “Why should I care about any of this?”  Are some of the questions you’ll ask as the world of explodes before your eyes in ever more dazzling ways.

The film has so much to juggle — seventeen characters, world building, flashbacks, conflict, and so forth — there’s little time left for crucial character development.  Only the main trio of Kamui, Fuma, and Kotori receive any real attention, mainly through flashbacks from childhood, but even they suffer from a script with out sized ambitions.  As for the other fourteen cast members, forget it; the audience is forced to glean what little it can from their dialogue, look, or demeanor.

Thankfully, the film has a lot more to offer.

Inspired by works like Devilman, Clamps X manga deftly balanced shocking violence alongside startling beauty, and Rintaro’s film follows suit.  It’s very first scene sets the tone: after informing him of his fate, Kamui’s mother disrobes, pulls a blade from her womb, hands it to her son, and then explodes into bloody pieces.   Expect apocalyptic visions, surreal dream worlds, gruesome violence, and a grand tragedy.  And Rintaro works zealously to sell the ensuing drama using all the skill, technique, and know how he can muster.

Technically, the film is first rate.  Shot composition is effective, occasionally inspired.  The editing is seamless.  The visuals stunning.  Yet despite these heroic efforts, the tragedy unfolds without the desired impact.  But given that the script’s deficiencies undercut the drama at every turn, the film is more effective than it has any right to be — a testament to the talents of the director and the rest of the staff.

x_movie_gif2
X is a dark film filled with theatrical violence, arresting imagery, and lots and lots of cherry blossoms.

The film’s wonderful animation, a feast for traditional animation lovers, is another highlight.  Individual tiles slide off rooftops.  Concrete cracks and ruptures.  And in scenes reminiscent of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, skyscrapers explode and crumble, raining down iron and steel, as gigantic plumes of smoke and debris fan out across Tokyo.  Meanwhile, characters’ leap, hover, or fly from one toppled — or soon to be toppled — building to another, pausing only to attack with psychic energy, ki, or the elements.   The resulting images are fluid, detailed, and occasionally mesmerizing.  A lot of talented animators worked on X, and it shows.  Everyone from Madhouse alums like Takeshi Koike, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Yutaka Minowa to even Yoshinori Kanada who animates the battle between the cosmic dragons in typical Kanada fashion.

X_Movie
A really cool cut with a final slash that I suspect to be the work of Yoshiaki Kawajiri.

The Art direction by Shuichi Hirata, who also worked on Rintaro’s stunning Metropolis, is no less impressive.  The background artists render incredible cities, apocalyptic landscapes, and a bevy of other battered environments.

x_movie_background

x_movie_background2

The character designer on was Nobuteru Yuki.  While known for his character design work on stuff like Battle Angel, Record of Lodoss War, and Yamato 2199, Yuki is equally adept when working on Shoujo works like Escaflowne, Paradise Kiss, and Kids on the Slope. On X his familiar style is subdued in service of matching Clamp’s original designs, which he modifies ever so subtly, imbuing them with just a dash of his own sensibilities.  His new designs are slightly more masculine, angular, and less ethereal than the originals, yet still suitably elegant –-in short, they’re beautiful.

The original Clamp designs are also worth noting.  Good designers understand instinctively how designs may substitute, like a type of visual short-hand, for character writing.  Think of how, at a glance, a character’s clothes, hairstyle, or demeanor can instantly express their personality, status, or values.  Clamp’s original character designs operate exactly in this way.  For example, Sorata is all flash, with a bright yellow jacket, sunglasses that look like swimming goggles, and a traditional Buddhist necklace.  His outfit reflects his outgoing personality, while his necklace provides insight into his background and origins.  Other characters receive similar attention, and this attention to detail, at the design stage, does compensate, if only a little, for some of the script’s inadequacies.

x_movie_designs
Sorata and Arashi

Another aid to the film is the voice talent.  The performances are solid across the board and the many parts are well cast.  When characters speak for the first time, you’ll think “ah, of course, that’s how they sound” without giving it a second thought.  Tomokazu Seki, playing Kamui, really gives it his all, but I especially enjoyed Sorata, voiced by Koichi Yamadera, whose voice, when he deems it, just oozes cool.

Rintaro has stated that he thinks the music can have just as if not more impact on a film than the script.  That may be right, but it requires the right type of score.  Knowing that, the completely non-traditional score for X, composed by Yasuaki Shimizu, who often scores for live action, is a puzzling choice.  More concerned with creating frightful soundscapes, mood, and tension than trying to match the bombast of the visuals, the strange, atmospheric score Shimizu creates largely dispenses with melody or memorable themes; instead, he uses an assortment of instruments: drums, bells, chimes, the traditional Japanese flute, and the saxophone, along with occasional synths and choral work, to create an eerie, low-key score that mostly bubbles just under the surface.  It’s more keenly suited to the film’s many surreal dream sequences than its other parts, and, for the most part, it barely makes itself heard.  An odd choice.

x_movie_gif1
An inventive scene transition that looks quite stunning.

Rintaro as a director is often said to have as many hits as strikes.  X is definitely a strike but only just.  Given the restraints, the film was likely doomed from the start — how exactly does one cram that much story into a single ninety minute film?  The fact that the film engages at all is the remarkable thing; it’s thanks largely to the sum of its other parts: the capable direction, the gorgeous artwork, the fantastic animation, the arresting visuals, and sheer spectacle of the destructive conflict.  X may be a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess.  Remember Steamboy?  For all its faults, it’s still a pleasure to behold.  X isn’t nearly as grand as that film, but it’s a veritable showcase nonetheless, a feat of pyrotechnics that scratches the same itch.  The appeal is simple: sometimes, like a kid with a firecracker, we just want to watch stuff explode.


Links:

Legend of Galactic Heroes – Dawn Review

Logh
So it begins – the great war of our times.

Legend of Galactic Heroes – often referred to by its common acronym LoGH – is one of the great pillars of Japanese science fiction. Created by Yoshiki Tanaka in 1981, Legend of Galactic Heroes is a seminal work that has had long-lasting impacts in the genre since its inception. Spanning eight novels, Legend of Galactic Heroes would later go on to be adapted into manga, anime, OVAs, and films. Today we will be looking at the first novel in the series, Dawn.

Legend of Galactic Heroes is basically a story about three societies caught up in the tides of war. The Empire and Free Planets Alliance are warring for control of humanity’s destiny through conflict on a truly staggering scale. These societies engage in battles involving starfleets with ships numbering in the tens of thousands. As titanic battles stretch across the stars, Phezzan acts as an intermediary between the two powers and is the true financial power of humankind. Phezzan fund both sides of the conflict and have just enough power of their own that, if they were threatened by one side, they could ally with the either and tip the scales. Throughout all of this we follow the two primary characters – Reinhard of the Galactic Empire and Yang of the Free Planets Alliance – as they rise through the ranks and test their wits against one another on the battlefield.

LoGH_Overture_to_a_New_War
It’s always awkward watching two lovers embrace in the midst of a space battle.

What Works

Setting – The setting that Yoshiki Tanaka creates is large, detailed, and interesting. The particulars of starship combat, communication technology, civilian life, and national politics are all fully-realized for the reader. There is a definite sense of verisimilitude as Tanaka discusses the various gears that make this setting turn. Each piece feels well thought out and understandable, and the reader really gets a sense that they are viewing a living, breathing world, and not just a fictional space. There is an attention to detail that is very much in the mold of classic science fiction, where the author wants to display a working fictional world as much as interesting characters or plot developments.

Scale – Legend of Galactic Heroes is a big setting, and not just because space is the backdrop. Hundreds of billions of people live in these warring societies, with millions of soldiers and fleet personnel waging war for domination. The fleets which engage in this conflict are incomprehensibly large, with both sides deploying tens of thousands of vessels, each carrying hundreds of crew and support craft.  While most science fiction stories with a military or governmental angle might have a few political characters, Legend of Galactic Heroes has dozens in all three nations with specific titles and pay grades. Nothing is small or insignificant in this world.

294px-Hyperion_(BD)
This is just, like, a routine patrol fleet.

Core Characters – The two primary characters in the Legend of Galactic Heroes saga are easily its strongest selling point. Count Reinhard von Lohengram of the Galactic Empire and Yang Wen Li of the Free Planets Alliance are the protagonists of the story, each taking up a prominent role on opposite sides of the conflict. Each of these soldiers is uniquely characterized with their own delightful supporting characters that play off of their unique strengths and weaknesses. Reinhard’s hunger for power and savvy political maneuvering through the Empire’s courtly intrigue is juxtaposed against Yang’s attempts to find peace and calm through the shifting currents in Alliance politics. The strengths and weaknesses of autocratic monarchy and popular democracy are explored on the grand scale as the reader is drawn into the deeply personal struggles of these two power players.

What Doesn’t Work

Pacing – Legend of Galactic Heroes is a slow burn, to put it mildly. Everything from the battles to the intrigue seems to move ponderously. Even when events seem to be moving quickly, there is little in the way of dramatic writing or witty analogies. Much of the prose is very matter-of-fact in setting the scene, and there is little in the way of colorful turns of phrase or snappy dialogue. Battles between sixty thousand starships are glorious in the mind’s eye, but feel rather dry on the page. In fact, the battles have a lot more in common with horse and musket conflicts than anything out of Star Wars or Mobile Suit Gundam. Fleets move in unwieldy formations with little to no terrain (it’s space, which is pretty empty) and almost every engagement turns into a slugfest.

Dialogue – The dialogue in Legend of Galactic Heroes is… odd. Now, this may have to do with cultural preferences, decisions in translation, or just the simple fact that thirty years ago science fiction did not feel the need to “pander” by having witty dialogue. Whatever the case, sometimes the way characters interact with one another just does not sound like people having a conversation. There is a stilted, almost robotic quality to how they interact with each other. No character seems to have much in the way of a unique voice or recognizable flourishes that make them stand out. None of it is confusing or unclear, but if you were to read the characters’ speech out loud… let’s just say most people do not speak that way.

x240-mo6
Just try reading something like this out loud.

 

Every Other Character – This is by far the biggest problem in the book. Most characters in the first book are absolutely terrible. Not in a moral sense, but in the sense of having depth and dimension. While Reinhard, Yang, and the three or four characters that commonly interact with these two are well done, just about every other character in the book is boring, poorly written, or both. To call them one-dimensional might be an offense to one-dimensional characters in other works. The most egregious archetype is the “stupid commander,” which is used by Tanaka for every single leader that is not Yang or Reinhard. Time and again these goofballs charge headlong into obvious defeat, ignore sound intelligence from underlings, and generally spend their time getting killed or embarrassed.

While this does serve to make Reinhard and Yang look more competent, the problem is that both of the stars are really not all that innovative. Their plans are just basic tactics – Yang says that aloud on more than one occasion – which makes them seem less interesting. It’s like they are the only halfway competent commanders out of millions of soldiers, while everyone else is a drooling halfwit. Non-military characters are just as prone to completely idiotic decisions. In fact, most situations not involving Reinhard/Yang play out something like this:

An important decisions looms, and those in charge gather to make the call.

Important Person: There is only one course of action – obviously stupid plan!

Advisor: But Important Person, what about all of the data that says otherwise? All of the intelligence we have gathered that suggests another course of action? Have you considered that your obviously stupid plan is morally reprehensible, and does not even begin to make sense?

Important Person: Quiet! Just because you are an advisor, you think you can give me advice? I will never listen to you, because I aggressively believe that my obviously stupid plan will work! Now be gone from my sight, I am tired of your prattling!

Advisor exits the scene and obviously stupid plan is put into action. The plan immediately begins to fail because it was so obviously stupid.

Important Person: What? How could this be? I am truly shocked! Who could have foreseen this? I have no choice now but to double-down and charge headlong into even worse results, because I am so embarrassed by my current level of failure!

Important Person ruins all the things and is killed/replaced/removed.

The worst thing is that this sort of scene happens over and over again. It is very taxing to read, and makes the book difficult to read for longer periods. Even if this is the point that Tanaka is trying to make, that people in power often make terrible decisions and will not change their ways, it still is far too overused to have any effect.

logh_02_f
Those rascals! Always charging into a fiery death.

Verdict

So while I did go on for a while about its flaws, I will still go with a recommendation for Legend of Galactic Heroes Dawn. Even with its problems, overall I did enjoy the book and will be going on to the next in the series. Yang and Reinhard really are the stars of the story and I want to see how their respective arcs play out. The clash of civilizations and ideas is also very well done, to the point where some of the political scenarios in the book have almost occurred beat-for-beat in the current election cycle here in the U.S. The detail of Tanaka’s world is a joy to read, and the thoughtfulness put into every aspect of the setting gives everything a feeling of consistency and reality.

However, the lack of other strong characters is really disappointing and the overused tropes are off-putting. This is only the first book in the series, so there is plenty of time for Tanaka to right the ship as it were. Perhaps this is just the phase where these characters are being cleared out and new, more competent threats will emerge for Yang and Reinhard to battle against. Similarly, the issues with the dialogue will hopefully fade away as time goes on. As long as the series shows some upward movement in those areas, then these early missteps can be forgiven.

The reader has to be aware that they are in for a slower-paced story with lots of detail and intrigue that moves with more purpose than speed. If that is the case then they will most likely enjoy Legend of Galactic Heroes Dawn.

Legend of Galactic Heroes: Dawn is available at major bookstores such as Amazon.

 

 

Anime Review – Kyousougiga

Since the Thieves and I mainly review films and OVAs on the podcast, I will be using the blog to occasionally review full anime series as I complete them. Just like when we review normally, these reviews will attempt to educate on some of the creation process behind the work, provide a detailed analysis of its various elements, and provide a simple recommend or not recommend in lieu of stars/thumbs/points/etc.

For today’s review we will be talking about Kyousougiga.

Kyousougigacover

Kyousougiga is a 10-episode show from 2013, directed by Rie Matsumoto and with animation by Toei. This work is based on the 2012 manga by Izumi Todo, which is itself inspired by the ancient Choju-giga scrolls. However, beyond the manga there is really no other merchandising linked to the property. Without much in the way of action scenes, no fan service to speak of, and the fact that this was released the same year as Kill la Kill – it all becomes quite clear as to why this was not a runaway smash hit.

Synopsis – Kyousougiga is not the easiest show to unravel, but simply put it focuses on how a priest/god (Myoe) and a living drawing (Koto) start a family together. With their three children, two of which are drawings (Yase and Kurama) and an adopted son saved from near death (Yakushimaru), the setup is not exactly traditional. These two lovers are breaking all social norms and conventions by being together and playing house, so they create a special dimension called Looking Glass and run away to live there. After many years of bliss, the two lovers leave Looking Glass to handle tasks that need attending so that their children can continue to live on in blissful peace. They tell their children that one day they will return. After waiting for what seems like an eternity, things are further complicated when a young woman (also Koto, but not the same Koto) shows up wielding a mallet of incredible power that can tear the fabric of their little world apart.

2

What Works –

Art – The most obvious draw for Kyousougiga is the incredible art. Not only is it technically impressive in that things look pleasing and are well-animated, but there is a very strong sense of style and flourish. Characters are very distinct while not being too abstract, landscapes are understandable but very evocative, and little flourishes are added to every scene let the viewer spend some time hunting for points of interest in every shot. The world of Looking Glass has a very unique feel, much of which is brought to life by the incredible design aesthetics. Every aspect of the show is just soaked in artistry – from the way the civilians are basically monochromatic geometric figures with checkered patterns, to the visual of the city itself as a bland uniform square with a rickety red tower jutting from the middle. Even the little touches are great, like young Koto’s mallet being clear but full of a field of stars, or the pixelated swirls that dance in the air during most shots.

hqdefault
Shockingly, this little guy IS capable of making quality animation.

Characters – This is largely a character-driven show about exploring the show’s primary themes through personal interaction, and that takes a strong cast. Thankfully Kyousougiga has that in spades. All of the characters are interesting and multi-layered, but not so bizarre that they are not relatable. It is hard not to feel for some of their struggles and insecurities as you journey through the series. Ultimately they are the main impetus of the show, and exploring their feelings about events is where the show spends the majority of its time. As wild as the context for the story is, the engine underneath is an emotional human drama grounded in real experiences.

Themes – The show relies very heavily on themes of abandonment and social possibility. Almost every character is dealing with abandonment in some way, whether from parents, siblings, or a sense of opportunity. How they approach their feelings of being left behind and what coping mechanisms they use to deal with their emotional turmoil is where a lot of the run-time for the series goes. The other theme is of possibility in social spaces, or fighting against established cultural norms and rules. Many of these changes would benefit everyone except the rule-makers, but as always there is a cosmic catch to breaking laws. There is a lot here to digest about what people are willing to do for love, how the rules of the cosmos are ultimately unjust, and the importance of letting go of the ways in which we halt our own progress.

horriblesubs-kyousougiga-10-1080p-mkv_snapshot_12-07_2013-12-20_15-42-29

What Doesn’t Work –

Structure – There is a definite sense of “clumping” in how the show is structured. The first episode is a whirlwind of activity and exposition. Then the next six episodes are almost entirely character-driven, with lots of small moments and interesting world-building but no real forward momentum. Then the last three episodes deliver an almost relentless stream of exposition and information about the world, in some cases literally having the characters walk around explaining everything to each other. It feels like this could have been more evenly spaced out so that the viewer has the plot slowly revealed to them over time, rather than spending most of the show knowing so little and then having a dump truck full of factoids dropped on them.

Opportunities – While the character development is really strong and well-thought out, there are a few missed opportunities with how characters are utilized. The two older siblings, Yase and Kurama, each get a complete episode dedicated to their unique perspectives. The problem is that, beyond these two focus episodes, they do not really contribute much to the story. Neither seem to do much in the way of contributing to the events which are occurring around them, and at one point even admit as much to their younger brother Myoue. There also feels like there could be more world-building along the lines of the station/garbage episode. The way they weave the aspects of “How is garbage handled in Looking Glass?” with the emotional impact it has on the characters is brilliant, but it is a shame that the show never really does anything like that again. All of the other world-building is pretty explicitly explained through long strings of dialogue.

“God” – This is more of a cultural issue, but I feel like there is always a bit of confusion when the word kami is translated as God for western audiences. Even though it may seem like a minor gripe, I feel like that having some characters referred to as “God” carries a certain amount of baggage/connotation for a western audience that can make it difficult to parcel out exactly how the cosmology of the world works. I think just leaving them as kami makes more sense, or perhaps something less weighty like “spirit” or “being.” Even if the show does flirt with a mixture of Judeo-Christian/Buddhist cosmologies, this feels like something that will perplex western audiences who – regardless of belief – are probably quite familiar with a very particular way of understanding the word God.

rel0001-kai
I’m an enigma wrapped in a riddle, served with a side of confusion.

Verdict In the end, I would give this a hearty recommendation for any general fan of anime. This show is very much a work of art, and it aims for some pretty lofty goals. It may not achieve every one of them, and like most art is a bit messy in certain parts, but the complete work is incredibly strong. Ultimately, for those of us who want anime to be taken seriously as an artistic endeavor, as something that has value as a tool for expression, Kyousougiga is the kind of work that we need to be encouraging. It may not be perfect, but this show exists largely free of any commercial goals, exploitative content, or meaningless violence. This is a story about people dealing with relatable human struggles in a world which can only be expressed through the delightful visual language of anime.

Alright Rogues Gallery, what do you think? Has anyone else seen Kyousougiga? Do you plan to check out it now? Let me know in the comments below.