Wednesday, July 6, 2011

32

Gungrave






Grade: C
Studio: Madhouse (Death Note, Trigun)
Writer: Yousuke Kuroda (Trigun screenplay)
Genre: Crime, Sci Fi
First complete run: 2003-2004
Regular episodes: 26









I'm not sure what I expected from an anime based on a video game. The game is a third-person shooter, so I guess I thought the anime would be a good old-fashioned shoot-em-up. The show's plot seemed interesting enough. It follows two street thugs, Harry and Brandon, as they work their way up through the ranks of a crime syndicate called Millennion. The show takes place in an early 20th century fictional town full of tommy guns, hitmen, and lawlessness. It's a show about ambition, power, and life on the streets. As the series opens, we learn that Brandon has been betrayed by Harry and subsequently resurrected, hunting and literally living for revenge. Brandon version two, who becomes known as "Beyond the Grave," giving the show its name, is the protagonist of the eponymous video game. It sounded like a recipe for vicarious run-and-gun action. Boy, was I mistaken.

Beyond the Grave is quickly introduced in the first episode of Gungrave, then disappears as the show flashes back to Harry and Brandon's youth together. The burly gentleman on the cover who looks like he's ready to kill vanishes forever in favor of a pair of very unremarkable street thugs. Harry and Brandon, as they are for the vast majority of the anime, are not interesting at all. And there's basically no action. Most of the anime very dully plots their advancement through the ranks of Millennion, featuring boring dialogue and petty crime. Two thirds of the way through the anime, the plot gets a little bit more complex and engaging, but only slightly. By that point, to be honest, you'll just be ready for both of the protagonists to die and get it over with. The animation, script, and score are absolutely commonplace. Seen better, could practically write better, I fell asleep in front my of computer screen.

Now here's the catch. Maybe 3 episodes before the end, Gungrave gets pretty good. It takes most of the anime for the flashback to catch up to the original story from the pilot. Which means Brandon is only truly Brandon for a tiny portion of the anime. Far from being a televised version of the video game's action, the show is almost a prequel to it. And by the end, you're about to pretend like you are in the game and take a gun to the tv. Snore. Gungrave contributes nothing to the anime genre that hasn't been done twenty times better already.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

31

Mushishi







Grade: C+
Studio: Artland
Manga author: Yuki Urushibara
Genre: Mystery, Supernatural
First complete run: 2005-2006
Regular episodes: 26








Some anime are primarily plot-driven, focusing less on the individual personalities of their characters and more on the macrocosmic and usually epic events taking place around them. Other shows take little interest in a contiguous plot and instead focus primarily on the personal developments of their main characters. The very best anime generally manage to do both. Mushishi, oddly enough, does neither.

Mushishi takes place in a world which humans cohabit with primordial beings called "mushi." Mushi and humans rarely interact; in fact, mushi are invisible and thus beyond the awareness of most humans. Only specific people who are gifted with a kind of second sight recognize mushi for what they are. Thus, the rare interactions between mushi and humans are treated as psychic or supernatural phenomena, rather than the coexistence of two species. Mushishi's protagonist, Ginko, is a "mushishi," or a traveling seer dedicated to investigating and resolving human drama caused by mushi. Mushishi has no continuous plot at all; besides possibly the first episode, you can watch the show in any order with no loss of meaning. In fact, the 26-episode anime is actually composed of selected volumes from the much larger manga series. The world does not change in the slightest from episode 1 to episode 26. Ginko makes no headway in resolving these supernatural phenomena. And he does not progress as a character in the slightest. Shōnen fans beware: nothing happens in this anime, quite literally.

That said, the show's solid production value makes it a reasonable pleasant experience. The animation is colorful, smooth, and very mild. Mushishi's score only serves to reinforce that sensation. There's very little suspense and minimal conflict; the show's mood never gets tense for very long. The Mushishi experience is like easy listening; it's pleasant, there's just no spice, no excitement. It's a tough anime to hate, since each episode tells a quaint and sufficiently unique story. Ginko, likewise, is a bit dry, but he's a decent investigator and a nice enough guy. Nothing to love, nothing to hate. Just a lingering sense of being underwhelmed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

30

Noein




Grade: B-
Studio: Satelight
Writer: Hiroshi Ōnogi
Genre: Adventure, Sci Fi, Romance
First complete run: 2005-2006
Regular episodes: 24




Noein: To Your Other Self is an extremely well-intentioned anime that for me fell short of the mark. The show inhabits a universe where parallel worlds (an infinite number of past and future timespaces, to import the anime's quantum motif) tangibly exist. This makes for an interesting twist because many of the main characters exist in both high school and adult forms and can actually converse and fight with their other selves thanks to the show's laws. Noein's plot, in fact, is so Sci Fi heavy, the arch villain is actually a timespace which is pugnaciously devouring other timespaces.

This anime, which sounds so fascinating in theory, failed at implementation. The plot is not very carefully delivered especially early on when it's easy to get confused between different characters. So, I spent many of the first episodes feeling confused. Then the show gets very technical with its sci fi lore and quantum physics allusions, which left me bored and in a haze through much of the show. Noein's first episode introduces a pretty interesting version of sci fi combat that diverges from the giant robot theory substantially. But the rest of the show has too much talking, specifically jargon-driven discourse, and too little ass-kicking. The visuals were similarly unpolished, incorporating 3D elements at times but in an embarrassingly clunky display for 2005. Likewise, the vocals and score were nothing to write home about. To its credit, Noein's ending was far superior to the endings of many anime which are much better than Noein, in my opinion. But the anime, which tells an original animated story not based on a manga, squandered its creative origins with genuinely dull screenplay.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

29

Samurai Champloo




Grade: B
Studio: Manglobe (Ergo Proxy)
Manga author: Shinichirō Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop)
Genre: Adventure, Samurai, Comedy
First complete run: 2004-2005
Regular episodes: 26





I really wanted to like Samurai Champloo. And I still think it has a lot going for it. The anime has a really unusual mixture of many different elements that you really never see together anywhere else. It's like a (much less cool) cross between FLCL and Rurouni Kenshin. But ultimately, the show just put me to sleep by the end.

Samurai Champloo tells the story of an adventurous journey between two ronin and a young girl named Fuu, set in the early days of the Meiji, the dying age of the samurai. But this anime, aimed at a more seinen audience, is far from historical fiction. Borrowing its unbelievable score from the Japanese hip-hop producer Nujabes, the anime relies on a deliberately anachronistic blend of present and past. Mugen, the scruffier of the two samurai, can break-dance. Jin, the more elegant of the pair, sports a pair of suspiciously chic looking glasses. During their travels, the protagonists come into contact with rappers, beatboxers, and the like. The combination of contemporary music and plot elements give the show a really fascinating, fresh feel. Its smooth, realistic character designs just reinforce the idea that you are not watching your typical samurai tale.

In my opinion, the show's originality seriously backfires though. The characters, who behave in a chill, nonchalant manner for most of the show, often just sound and feel bored (in both English and Japanese). The plot, which is supposed to be driven by the trio's quest to locate Fuu's father, frequently diverts into dumb side plots (75% of which are to search for or steal food). Samurai Champloo tries to avoid the overexcited, energetic pomp of a typical shōnen, but it does so at the expense of being interesting at all. The show is clearly well thought out; its characters are carefully developed and their interactions put a unique stamp on each protagonist. The score is an absolute pleasure to listen to and I highly recommend acquiring the OST. But the show just doesn't make you care. And its ending is one of the most anti-climactic, trash ends to a 26-episode anime you'll ever see. Samurai Champloo is a cool series with a lot of appeal to today's youngest hip-hop generation, but particularly in the case of this anime, unique doesn't necessarily mean fun to watch.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

28

Avatar: The Last Airbender



Grade: B
Studio: Nickelodeon Animation Studios
Writers: Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Shōnen
First complete run: 2005-2008
Regular episodes: 61





A lot of people will tell you that Avatar isn't really an anime at all. I'm on the fence about it. I think it's pretty obvious that it's supposed to be an anime. It's just not necessarily a very good one. Representing one of the US's rare encroachments on the anime style, Avatar is an all-English animated cartoon whose lore draws more from Aristotelian science than Japanese mythology. It takes place in a parallel Earth which is controlled by four distinct Nations corresponding to the classical four elements: Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. Each nation has its own culture, and trains a group of people called "benders," wizards who can manipulate the elements of their native land. The "Avatar" is a permanently reincarnated figure who uniquely can control all four elements, representing the need for balance between the four elemental Nations. At the start of the anime, we learn that the Fire Lord has waged a war in order to subjugate the other Nations and claim supremacy over the globe. The Avatar's current incarnation, a boy named Aang from the Air tribe, is charged with defeating the Fire Lord and restoring balance. The anime chronicles Aang's journey to train and one day defeat the Fire Lord, Ozai.

Besides the fact that it was written in English, it's very apparent that Avatar is not your typical anime. The characters look more like Peter Pan than they look like Goku. The dialogue at times feels frustratingly like a cartoon, probably because, well...it is one. Avatar feeds on a very juvenile blend of humor and adventure. But the humor isn't *doh!* kinds of moments like you would expect, it's more like *waah, waah, waaaaaah.* The characters just act silly and their behavior forms the basis for the show's jokes, but they literally always act dumb so it feels more like their personality than an attempt at comedy. This show makes your garden variety shōnen look smart. With the exception of a few characters who are a tiny bit more complex, the people are emotionally shallow to a point. You could stop a given episode 10 minutes in and write the other half yourself, they're that predictable at times. And the acclaimed 4-part series finale...dull and anti-climactic, in my opinion. A real snooze.

Admittedly, it's a reasonably fun ride anyway. The show is a respectable 61 episodes, it's just 61 episodes you'd probably be better off spent watching something else. But if you're sick of the genre, Avatar can be a nice break from more mainstream anime. Sometimes it's nice to watch a show driven by the Western legendary, rather than focusing on yoki and inner strength. Avatar has a decent balance between humor and seriousness, even if the seriousness won't exactly make you cry. It's an easy anime to watch and a good gateway series for American viewers, especially children, who are unused to reading subtitles or intimidated by the Japanese style. Just don't expect to be blown away.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

27

Princess Mononoke


Grade: B
Studio: Studio Ghibli (Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away)
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away)
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Release date: July 12, 1997
Runtime: 134 minutes



When you commit yourself to watching a movie by acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki, some things are practically guaranteed. The world will be enchantingly beautiful. The plot will be complex and meaningful enough that you won't be able to chat your way through the film. The ending will be an epic explosion of action and plot resolution. There will be some Captain Planet style environmentalism thrown in. And the whole ordeal will take a solid two hours and change.

With the exception of a trademark flying scene, Princess Mononoke fits every element of Miyazaki's formula. The film follows a guy named Ashitaka, a prince from a secluded village in the hills. As the film opens, Ashitaka, a skilled archer, defends his people against an invading demon. During the battle, Ashitaka's arm is infected with the demon's curse, forcing him into exile, where he wanders the forest in search of a spirit who can cure him before the demon's magic kills him. The "princess" of the title is not really a princess at all, but a feral child who was raised by the forest spirits named San. Much of the film is spent by Ashitaka and San playing the role of defenders of nature against an onslaught of human industrialization.

Princess Mononoke isn't one of Miyazaki's bestselling works, but it has a substantive following in the anime community. It's a little darker than most of his films, a little more mature in its feel. But for me, it wasn't fantastic. As with many of his films, I lost interest for a while during the middle of this 134 minute monster. The movie is an entertaining ride guaranteed to leave with some kind of lesson. But if you haven't seen a Miyazaki yet, start with Spirited Away.

Also, the English dub isn't too bad.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

26

Rurouni Kenshin






Grade: B
Studio: First 66 episodes: Studio Gallop (Yu-Gi-Oh, Eyeshield 21)
Remaining episodes: Studio DEEN (Vampire Knight, Ranma 1/2)
With SPE Visual Works
Manga author: Nobuhiro Watsuki
Genre: Adventure, Samurai, Shōnen
First complete run: 1996-1998
Regular episodes: 95





Rurouni Kenshin is undoubtedly one of the staples of 1990s anime. The franchise has been extremely successful in both Japan and in the US. And with good reason; it's a colorful, charming piece of animated historical fiction. But, despite its appeal, the anime was very so-so for me. It tells the story of a samurai named Kenshin, who wanders Japan during the early Meiji period, as samurai and the nation's feudal culture were dying out in favor of firearms and a culture bent on Westernization. It's roughly the same time period as the movie The Last Samurai. Years before the anime begins, during the Bakumatsu War, Kenshin was known as one of the legendary "manslayers" of the Battōsai. Imagine if the anime's 95 episodes followed Kenshin while he was one of the most feared assassins in Japan. But by the time the show begins, Kenshin has sworn never to kill again, and wanders Japan helping people in order to atone for his wartime sins. There's still plenty of fighting in the anime, especially since samurai from his past frequently haunt Kenshin and his new beau Kaoru, it's just not what it could be.

Even if his guilty conscience puts a serious damper on the action in the anime, Kenshin's character has really impressive emotional depth. He is constantly wracked with grief over his actions as a manslayer. At times he is sorely depressed and wishes to be killed in order to release him from his conscience. At others, Kenshin's regrets manifest as iron determination not to let another life be harmed by anyone. All in all, like a good shōnen, the anime effectively handles his flexible personality while producing some meaningful moral inquiries. The show's score and visuals, like Kenshin's character, are impressively beautiful and serene at times but capable of accommodating some intense action at others.

But this anime just didn't do it for me. The 95 episodes felt impossibly long. When the action in an arc is at its height, the show flies by. But much of its excessive length is occupied by downtime in which Kenshin's romance with Kaoru lugubriously blossoms, sedating the viewer into a deep, deep, boredom-induced coma. Kenshin's character is cute but really predictable. His emotions are complex but his pledge to save lives is very straightforward and he always acts on it. He delivers simple lines in an accent so annoying you'll miss Yoda, and completes his samurai maneuvers with an animation scheme that whites out his best moves with camera flashes. What at times feels like such a cool idea for an anime will put you to sleep at others. If the show was half as long, Rurouni Kenshin would merit a significantly higher score. But as is, the anime is simply too lengthy to accommodate its repetitive, predictable turns of fate.

An aside: a spinoff OVA series called Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal serves as a prequel to the anime by telling the story of Kenshin's life as the Battōsai. Those who wanted more action out of the show should definitely check it out.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

25

Revolutionary Girl Utena
少女革命ウテナ







Grade: B+
Studio: J.C. Staff (Excel Saga, Azumanga Diaoh)
Manga author: Chiho Saitō (Kanon)
Genre: Shōjo, Surrealist/Metaphysical, Romance
First complete run: 1997
Regular episodes: 39










In my opinion, Revolutionary Girl Utena is an anime you have to be constantly thinking and pondering about throughout in order to fully appreciate. For some, that'll make it an instant classic; for others, the anime's almost academic engagement with metaphysics, criticality, psychology, and epistemology will just weigh it down. And to be honest, if you don't appreciate at least some of what's taking place symbolically, the show is pretty lackluster. It is only in its blend of philosophy and fun that this anime truly shines.

The protagonist, Utena, is a hot tomboy attending a particularly prestigious middle school, Ohtori Academy. The entire show takes place at Ohtori, more or less. Utena is a "duelist," one member of a student group engaging in swordfights during their free time. The sword matches make up a larger tournament in which the winner wins an engagement to a girl called the Rose Bride, as well as the power to revolutionize the world. The anime chronicles Utena's battles on behalf of the Rose Bride, with a fair amount of Harry Potter-esque social minutiae on the side. She develops personal relationships with the Rose Bride, the other duelists, and the school's chairman.

But the show's surface level plot is only a small portion of the viewing experience. The students don't "live" in a normal world. A lot of what happens in the show are not real events, they're symbolic transgressions that are made to look like part of the real world through the screen. It is never quite clear what in Revolutionary Girl Utena is really happening to the characters, and what events take place only in the imaginary or on a symbolic level. So, beneath the anime's bland exterior dwells an unbelievably complex world which calls into question what it means to be, pushing at the boundaries of the human from a variety of critical angles.

At times, the show's critical nature is its downfall. To make the confusing transitions between theory and reality more seamless, certain scenes or sequences are re-used from episode to episode as epic formulae. Each time the same scene reappears (and each formula will appear up to 40 times over the course of the show) its meaning to the viewer shifts slightly. If you're watching very closely, the rifts from one formula to the next will help coordinate between the show's plot and thematic developments. But if you aren't a PhD, it can make for a really repetitive experience. To be honest, I think RGU should have been a 26 episode miniseries, rather than the longer 39 episode length. If you're in search of an intellectually demanding anime, look no further, as Revolutionary Girl Utena is a philosophical thriller like no other. But casual viewers beware: it may feel like a long journey.

24

Vampire Hunter D
吸血鬼ハンターD






Grade: B+
Writer: based on the novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust)
Genre: Horror, Sci Fi, Romance
Release date: 1985
Runtime: 80 minutes







Vampire Hunter D is one of those obscure movies whose absurd, exotic animation is made that much cooler because it's all in Japanese. It was one of the first anime movies to leave Japan, and in my opinion, it is still one of the best. Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which humans are oppressed by vampires, Vampire Hunter D has a really cool blend of sci fi and horror elements. It follows a young girl named Doris Lang, who has been bitten by the local "Count," a noble vampire of old and powerful origins. The Count, who plans to make Doris his bride once she has transformed into a vampire, plays the part of arch-nemesis. Doris, in retaliation, hires a traveling hunter named D to kill the Count. D and Doris develop an increasingly romantic relationship as the movie progresses. If the hunter can slay the Count before Doris has fully transformed, she'll be lifted from his magic and able to ride off into the sunset with her new champion. If.

As corny as the plot sounds, this animated film is psychedelic enough to be part of Pink Floyd's The Wall. The entire world of Vampire Hunter D is dark and shady, with a score to match. This eerie, perpetually dark atmosphere makes for a really genuinely spooky experience. In some ways, the film's lack of realism contributes to the surreal level of spookiness. The monsters' character models are grotesque and frightening. When something dies, its blood and guts splatter with a revolting exaggeration characteristic of Mortal Kombat. The show's primarily black picture is broken up only by artistically selected splotches of color. Vampire Hunter D is a fully functional horror. Its sci fi elements are a little hindered by its antiquated animation; the frames move very choppily at times, leaving a little to be desired in the action scenes. But each fight is different, and this well-rounded film will satisfy its viewer with a morbid mix of sci fi, horror, and romance stuffed into an 80 minute package.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

23

Spirited Away
千と千尋の神隠し



Grade: B+
Studio: Studio Ghibli (Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke)
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke)
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Shōjo
Release date: July 27, 2001
Runtime: 125 minutes



Spirited Away tells the fantastic story of a young girl named Chihiro. Driven to an old fairground by her parents, Chihiro becomes trapped in the spirit world when the fairground is taken over by spirits. Having lost contact with her parents, who are transmuted into pigs, Chihiro and her new friend Haku travel the spirit world in search of a way to return the girl to the real world. Haku helps her to find employment at a spirit bathhouse owned by an evil witch, at the expense of giving up her identity and becoming a maid named Sen. The film's title, "Spirited Away," derives from Chihiro's coming-of-age quest to leave her spirit prison, regain her identity, and reunite with her family. The best known of Miyazaki's masterpieces and the highest grossing film in Japanese history, this shōjo tale is a kids' classic on par with Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

I won't tell you it's the best film I've ever seen. As entertaining as it is, Spirited Away may not be appealing to mature audiences. There is little action and the movie's themes, while impressively complex, may feel corny to a more mature viewer. The movie moves at a slow pace that, with over two hours of runtime, can drag on after a while. But it's a fun journey with appeal to a pretty broad base. The spirit world is colorful and the animation is completely unique, giving the film an unusual, surprisingly real feel. Technically, Spirited Away will not disappoint with its masterful visual style, well-constructed plot and effective score. The film may not keep an older audience glued to the screen as well as you might hope. But especially younger viewers, prepare to be dazzled.

Monday, July 26, 2010

22

Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen



Grade: B+
Studio: Studio DEEN (Rurouni Kenshin, Vampire Knight)
Manga author: Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2)
Genre: Adventure, Samurai, Seinen
First complete run: 1999
OVA episodes: 4




Also known as Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, this anime OVA is a really intense two hours. It features Kenshin Himura, the protagonist of Rurouni Kenshin, years before the original anime takes place. This prequel inhabits an earlier period during the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Kenshin has not yet given up his violent past and transformed into the reticent, pious young man of Rurouni Kenshin. Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen provides fan service in the form of an expanded explanation of Kenshin's personal background. But it also constructs an original story which is far more dramatic, far more rapid paced, and a lot more violent than the main show. This four-episode OVA is a dark and gripping story set in a time when samurai from all over Japan were being mobilized against each other.

Stylistically, Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen is very old school, almost like the '80s animation of Vampire Hunter D. In contrast with the longer anime, Tsuiokuhen's visual style is gritty and extremely graphic. The tone of the OVA is eerie enough to verge on horror. Its characters exist in a morbid, hopeless world whose realism gives them an empathetic quality that Rurouni Kenshin fell short of, for me. While not as easy to watch, the OVA is also far more fast-paced, providing more action and less fluff. Tsuiokuhen has a level of somberness and thus realism which the regular show never reaches.

A worthy addition to the show, even for viewers who got impatient with Rurouni Kenshin's artfully lugubrious pacing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

21

FLCL (Furi Kuri)
フリクリ







Grade: B+
Studios: Gainax (Neon Genesis Evangelion) & Production I.G. (Ghost in the Shell) & Starchild Records
Manga author: Hajime Ueda
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Seinen
First complete run: 2000-2001
Regular episodes: 6







FLCL probably takes the award for weirdest anime ever. If it makes complete sense to you, you probably need to get checked out. It's that insane. The name, Furi Kuri, is Japanese slang for the act of fondling a woman's breasts. And that pretty much sums up the show. But I don't mean that in a bad way. It's one of the most unique, hysterically funny anime you'll ever come across. And it's only 6 episodes long.

The show's protagonist is an adolescent boy named Naota, who is perfectly normal...except, when he has a prurient thought, giant robots pop out of his forehead and begin making mischief. And where there are vampires there must be vampire hunters, right? In the first episode Naota meets Haruko, a traveling woman armed with a vintage bass guitar, who takes it upon herself to exorcise the robots from Naota's brow. Since she takes up work as Naota's family housekeeper, Haruko has ample opportunities to flirt with him and elicit the giant protruding robots-zits. Most of the anime focuses on the resulting love triangle between Naota, his father, and Haruko, as well as the mysterious mechas.

FLCL has been an extremely successful anime probably because its insanity is well supported by quality production. The show's animation style is almost like a comic book, rough and super exaggerated. The ecchi humor is absolutely hilarious. The score compliments it perfectly, a punk rock blend of perverse adolescent and determined adult. The action is surprisingly intense at times. And the plot is certainly interesting, but viewers shouldn't expect any kind of resolution. FLCL makes about as much sense when it ends as it does when it begins. But this one is all about the ride, and it's a fun, one-of-a-kind two hours of anime.

Friday, July 23, 2010

20

Full Metal Panic!
フルメタル·パニック!





Grade: B+
Studio: GONZO (Rosario + Vampire, Strike Witches)
Writer: Shoji Gatoh
Genre: Action, Mecha, Romance
First complete run: 2002
Regular episodes: 24




Full Metal Panic! is a difficult anime to place. It does many things well but nothing great. The show, set in contemporary Japan, focuses on a boy named Sousuke, a member of an anti-terrorist group called Mithril. Sousuke, a talented pilot of "Arm Slaves" or mechas, is charged with protecting a rich girl at his high school named Kaname. It's like Agent Cody Banks but with no Hilary Duff and a lot better anyway. The anime has a really pleasant blend of solid action scenes and comedic romance. Sousuke is as talented with an Arm Slave as he is inept at handling Kaname's advances. The action is accomplished with a lot of Sci Fi: Arm Slaves are plausibly explained and during combat they have all kinds of high-tech systems that kick in and malfunction and help to explain what is going on without resorting to fantasy. On the other hand, the romantic interludes are pretty amusing and provide comedic relief to break up the often very intense action.

"Pleasant" is a good description of Full Metal Panic! The score is fun but not great. The characters are amusing but nothing an experienced anime fan won't have already seen before. The various diverse elements of the show's plot are accomplished well, with some depth, but without any sparkle. At only 24 episodes, Full Metal Panic! goes by fast. Its solid blend of action and romantic comedy makes it an easy anime to watch and gives it a broad appeal to people of all ages. Unless you despise mechas, it's really unlikely that you won't like this one. But I'd be surprised if you love it.

Side note: Full Metal Panic! has spawned two short spinoff series. Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu focuses more on the romance between Sousuke and Kaname, for those that like that sort of thing. Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid provides a more direct sequel to the original series.

19

Hellsing




Grade: B+
Studio: GONZO (Full Metal Panic!, Strike Witches)
Manga author: Kouta Hirano
Genre: Action, Supernatural
First complete run: 2001-2002
Regular episodes: 13






It is tough to find fault with Hellsing. Set in 20th century England, this show focuses on the Hellsing organization and their efforts to defend Queen and Country from the forces of evil. In a world threatened by vampires and heavily inspired by Dracula, Hellsing exists to fight off the vampires, ghouls, and other supernatural creatures. The anime splits its attention between the subtle conspiracies facing the Hellsing organization, as well as the imminent threats. In the process, this short 13-episode show follows Hellsing's higher-ups as they go about resisting the forces of evil. Hellsing's muscle, especially the vampire Alucard, employ a variety of holy weapons in order to gun down the opposition.

More important than Hellsing's charming if clichéd lore is the anime's incorrigible sense of style. There is nothing exceptionally unique about this 13-episode run-and-gun, but it really sells itself as a cool show. The animation is smooth and colorful, but without any of the melodramatic, distracting moments you might experience in other anime; Hellsing is just a generally smooth, pleasant visual experience. Like the animation, the score, primarily of the rock and metal genres, imposes an air of "cool" without obstructing the developments of the show itself. The show's short length excuses its serious lack of character depth, while its plot takes advantage of the short length to develop in lightning fast increments. As such, this really action-packed show really crams in the action, plot, and mystery; the result is a fast-paced, pleasant but shallow viewing experience.

P.S. To its credit, the show is far too short to satiate its viewers; for those wanting more, I have been told to try the 10-episode spinoff Hellsing Ultimate.

18

Elfen Lied
エルフェンリート






Grade: B+
Studio: ARMS
Writer: Lynn Okamoto
Genre: Drama, Psychological, Seinen
First complete run: 2004
Regular episodes: 13







Elfen Lied is a deeply traumatic 13 episode experience. Let me be absolutely clear: if you're squeamish, or easily bothered by extremely graphic scenes of violence, rape, and torture, you should stay away from this one. Elfen Lied is, in my opinion, a relatively well-made anime, but it can only be appreciated when contextualized for a strictly seinen audience. The show takes place in an alternate reality in which a new, genetically engineered strain of the human race called "Diclonius" have emerged. Diclonius look like humans except for two horns coming out of their head. Additionally, the Diclonius females have an extra set of arms called "vectors," which are transparent, telekinetically controlled arms that can cut anything within their reach. Frequently tortured, persecuted, and sexually assaulted, the Diclonius are deadly killers with a grudge against humanity. The conflict between the Diclonius, especially a powerful girl named Lucy, and the scientists responsible for the mutation forms the crux of the anime.

Elfen Lied does everything you could ever want horror to do, and then some. It asks deep philosophical questions about the meaning of humanity, and it doesn't exactly spoon-feed you the answers. The anime will frighten you, shock you, and offend your deepest sensibilities, but it usually feels like the violence has a thematic purpose, and isn't just for the sake of shocking you. The drama is tense and suspenseful at times, sickeningly accompanied by comedy at others. The Ring doesn't even come close. And of course, with all the murderous horned girls running around, an interspecies romance involving Lucy is inevitable. Technically, the anime is very sound. The dialogue and plot structure are always fluid and not clumsy, weaving a careful and valuable story. The accompanying score is also wonderfully done. Interestingly, the Elfen Lied incorporates the OP into the story; the song has a thematic purpose in the anime as a whole. If you can stomach it, Elfen Lied is an extremely well-constructed story about brutality, love, and what it means to be human.

One stipulation: the ending blows. The anime diverges from the manga a little bit, particularly towards the end of its short length. It tells a complete story, it just feels rushed at the end in a way that the more slowly developed manga does not. For fans of the anime, I strongly suggest reading the manga to do justice to the dramatic end to this franchise.

17

Pokémon
Pokémon Advanced
Pokémon Diamond & Pearl
ポケットモンスター






Grade: B+
Studio: OLM, Inc. (Steel Angel Kurumi, Berserk)
Writers: Satoshi Tajiri & Ken Sugimori
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Shōnen
First run: 1997-ongoing
Regular episodes: 656+




Scoff if you will, but if by some miracle you've never seen an episode of Pokémon, you should. The anime has been running for 13 years and over 600 episodes, split into three continuous "series:" Pokémon, Pokémon Advanced, and Pokémon Diamond & Pearl. Compare its 650 and counting to 291 episodes of Dragon Ball Z. Along with TV specials and 13 movies, Pokémon is the longest anime I know of at over 200 hours. And it's been an incredibly influential work for the shōnen genre as a whole. The plot is simple, the world is enchantingly fun, and each episode follows the show's formula to the letter. Pokémon chronicles the journey of Ash Ketchum, a young Pokémon "master," as he strives to gain fame and recognition for his Pokémon "training" skills. Pokémon, the critters which inhabit Ash's world in place of animals, fish, or insects, are primarily cute creatures whose only form of speech is to repeat their own name. Ash travels with his pet Pokémon, Pikachu, along with some friends who vary from season to season. The focus of the show is on Pokémon "battling," an activity in which two Pokémon fight one another, using a variety of fantasy-themed abilities in order to knock out the opposing Pokémon. By catching and training his Pokémon, Ash hopes to become the world's premier battler.

In some ways, the anime is successful for the same reason the game is: the world is irresistible. The Pokémon range from cute and cuddly to modestly big and scary. There are hundreds of distinct species and the show does a good job of slowly introducing the viewer to each new type of Pokémon. Battling the Pokémon looks like so much fun that the anime is a really cathartic experience; it provides better visuals of the action than the video game series it's based on, and it really makes you wish you were there. Ash is clever and talented at times, stubborn and stupid at others, and it's generally entertaining both to watch him triumph and to laugh at him fumble. The voice acting is solid in both English dub and subtitled versions. But the Pokémon are the true stars of the show, and there are few franchises in existence whose characters are more colorful, diverse, and adorable to watch.

The show's biggest drawback is its repetitiveness. The actual Pokémon battles themselves have a surprising amount of variety, and Ash faces a new and challenging "gym leader" every 10 episodes or so. But the individual episodes themselves can get old because the plot is, to put it lightly, not very deep. A simple conflict arises within the first five minutes of each episode. In the next five to ten minutes, the conflict deepens, and Team Rocket is implicated. In the final five minutes, the conflict is resolved along with Team Rocket's inevitable defeat, and the show picks up where it left off. A major change in the cast of main characters or in Ash's Pokémon collection take place only a few times each season. For young viewers who won't feel hindered by the show's formulaic structure, Pokémon is an unbelievable shōnen journey in a one-of-a-kind universe. And for the older guys, well, the anime's serious lack of plot may actually be a good thing. Watch a season or two, and you'll understand why this enjoyable franchise continues to be one of the biggest names in animation.

16

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
天元突破グレンラガン







Grade: B+
Studio: Gainax (Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL)
Writer: Kazuki Nakashima
Genre: Adventure, Mecha
First complete run: 2007
Regular episodes: 27







Gurren Lagann has one of the most fascinating settings I've seen in an anime, and the show's lore paves the way for an incredibly fun-filled ride. The anime takes place in a future in which human beings have been forced to live in isolated, underground villages. Humans are hiding in these primitive villages because the surface of the Earth has become dominated by a race foes called "Beastmen" who pilot powerful mechas called "Ganmen." As the show starts, the main characters Kamina and Simon find a small Ganmen named Lagann buried underground and use it to escape to the surface of the Earth. Combatting the Beastmen in order to survive, they capture a second Ganmen named Gurren. The show's name comes from the Power Rangers style combination of the two Ganmen, a new Ganmen formed by attaching Kamina's and Simon's rides into the new, all-powerful Gurren Lagann.

I must stipulate that the anime series is broken down into very two distinct arcs separated by a period of several years. The first arc was one of the most fun 15 episodes I've ever experienced in an anime. Gurren Lagann has an incredible blend of hilarious comedy and serious drama, making the show a journey that will leave you shaking with laughter after one episode and clinging to your TV with suspense after another. The characters are charismatic and enjoyable to watch, the action scenes are fun, funny, and exciting, the motto is fun fun fun. Then the second arc happens...and it sucks. The show totally loses its comedic feel and slips into a pathetic shadow of what it once was: all drama and no laughs. The unique lore that formed one of Gurren Lagann's best qualities disappears in favor of what is basically junk Sci Fi. The clever twists and turns of the anime's plot are left behind for a dull, uninteresting journey whose plot is unpredictable only when major dei ex machina are employed. And they're used so often in the last few episodes that the show actually regains some of its hilarity...but only because it's so bad.

I'm not really sure what to do with an anime like this. I would recommend watching only the first arc and then stopping, giving Gurren Lagann the honorable burial it deserves. But the first arc is so enjoyable that you won't want to take my word for it, you will insist on seeing the carnage firsthand. So love the show, love the first half...and appreciate how much more incredible it feels after you've seen the second.

15

Blassreiter






Grade: B+
Studios: GONZO (Full Metal Panic!, Rosario + Vampire), Nitro+
Manga author: Noboru Kimura
Genre: Action, Sci Fi
First complete run: 2008
Regular episodes: 24





I watched Blassreiter while trudging through Gintama, a massive episodic wonder rich with satire, social criticism, and humor. Enjoying the show but eager for the intensity of a short, plot-driven miniseries, I turned to Blassreiter; suffice it to say, the anime did not disappoint. Blassreiter takes place in futuristic Germany, a world filled with killer robots, elite police units, and the show's trademark combat motorcycles. Though its style is unique enough, the viewer will barely appreciate it at first as the show launches you into action from the first instant and virtually refuses to let you come up for air until the midpoint in the series. It features a combination of run-and-gun action, high speed chases, and modest philosophical quandaries. All in all, just the relief I needed from Gintama's plodding pace, and a sure thriller for fans of the intense, action-centered miniseries.

Stylistically, Blassreiter is all about the bikes. The show uses a semi-3D graphical style to make the most of its vehicular fetish, and the result is pretty smooth visually. The score is fast-paced and accompanies the action well; I truly found the show's first half to be heart-pounding visual and intellectual masterpiece. The latter half is not a disappointment per se, but it is harder to love. As the show winds down, its unique aspects--the 3D graphics and bike chases--gradually give way to more generic action and plot scenes. If I enjoyed the entire show as much as I did the first arc, it would have undoubtedly cracked my top 10. As is though, Blassreiter is a gripping Sci Fi thriller with an above average plot progression: a short one well worth the time.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

14

Legend of the Galactic Heroes
銀河英雄伝説







Grade: B+
Studio: Kitty Films (Ranma 1/2)
Based on the novels by Yoshiki Tanaka
Genre: Sci Fi, Military, Space Opera
First complete run: 1988-1997
Regular episodes: 110








Throughout this 110 episode odyssey, my opinion of the show (and the grade that I was planning on giving LOGH) fluctuated wildly. At times, the anime was a lightning fast thriller -- blending military fiction, sharp political commentary, and an unparalleled cast of characters. At others, Legend felt more like a documentary than a show designed to entertain. LOGH tells the story of a distant future in which the known universe has been divvied up into two nation-states: the Free Planets Alliance and the Reich Empire. The majority of the anime chronicles the gradual takeover of the universe by the Emperor Reinhard over the Alliance's strategist Yang Wenli.

Stylistically, the anime is a character study. Think There Will Be Blood. Throughout the anime's duration, the universe faces complete upheaval, but the plot developments move far too slowly to form the show's focus. Far more important are the developments in the incredibly large, diverse, and highly detailed set of characters on both sides of the battle. Watching LOGH entails watching its characters mature, and in their maturation the show's thematic purpose comes to the surface.

In terms of theme, LOGH is all about historicity. The show is almost viewed in retrospective. Each decision the main characters make affect millions of lives and can change the course of the intergalactic battle. The cast is acutely aware that their decisions are going to be viewed in historical perspective. The gap between the characters' experience of the present tense and how they imagine themselves in past tense is omnipresent throughout. Thus, the show's engagement with historiography constantly raises questions of what precisely the characters are fighting for, what they are accomplishing, and what is lost through the passage of time. LOGH's heavy use of military protocol serves to situate its characters within this pseudo historical fiction which is thematically interesting.

In the interest of full disclosure: the anime is ninety percent dialogue. War never really ceases during the show, but it is usually in the background. Even the actual battle scenes rarely involve action, instead relying on the individual characters' decision-making as the basis for its excitement. At times, particularly when there are lulls in the warfare, the show's plot can slow to a near halt. Viewers must have ample patience and try to genuinely engage with the characters, their hopes and ambitions, and their incredibly lifelike emotional composition. This show is a true animated masterpiece when understood in that light. But on the whole...a little boring at times.

13

Grave of the Fireflies
火垂るの墓





Grade: A-
Studio: Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away)
Writer: Based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka
Genre: Drama, Anti-War, Semi-Autobiographical
Release date: April 16, 1988
Runtime: 88 minutes





Without a doubt, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the saddest anime ever. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of two children struggling to survive in World War II Japan. Seita, a teenage boy, is left to care for his younger sister Setsuko after their father dies in the war and their mother is killed during Allied firebombing. The two are left to fend for themselves in a chaotic wartime environment rife with desperation. Setsuko becomes ill, and Seita is left to provide food and shelter for the siblings in a country which has become unsafe with crime and sustained bombing. Viewers need not be Japanese or particularly anti-war to feel the unbelievable power of this film. It does not focus on the war at all, rather, its meaning focuses on the personal experiences of Seita and Setsuko and the inability of wartime Japan to protect them from tragedy. In all likelihood, Grave of the Fireflies will make you bawl on the ground.

The film's beauty lies in the incredibly human way it captures the lives of the two siblings. Its ability to deliver solid meaning is hindered by the clunky 1980s animation it was created with. The characters and their environment don't particularly look real at all, but miraculously, they feel not only true to life, but in some ways more real than a videotaped film. Very little happens in the anime; there is virtually no action, and the plot advances slowly and deliberately, despite a short 88 minute runtime. But no second is wasted. Every single emotion, every line of dialogue between Seita and Setsuko imparts a whole range of what it must have felt like to live in wartime Japan. A delicate score helps to round out the film's deeply meaningful, symbolic use of visual imagery. All in all, Grave of the Fireflies is a traumatically real depiction of a terrible time in Japanese history. Its ability to captures such emotional depth from a real historical period makes it undoubtedly an animated masterpiece.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

12

Beast Wars: Transformers
ベイストワルズ






Grade: A-
Studio: Mainframe Entertainment
Writers: Bob Forward & Larry DiTillio
Genre: Animated Sci Fi
First complete run: 1996-1999
Regular episodes: 52






WTF? Computer-generated imagery on an anime blog? Beast Wars may have been produced in a Canadian studio, but for me it's a quintessential favorite. The second series in the larger Transformers franchise, Beast Wars chronicles part of the struggle between two warring factions of "Transformers," the Maximals and the Predacons. The franchise's enigmatic characters provided the inspiration for the 2007 film: Optimus Primal the leader of the Maximals, and Megatron the leader of the Predacons. Crash landed on a strange planet, these Transformers and their minions take the forms of various wildlife nearby, alternating between beast and robot forms in order to wage war on each other.

Graphically...let's be fair, it's 1990s animation. The figures look cool but their movement and interaction with the environment are very clunky at times. In general though, the CGI gives Beast Wars a fun, Sci Fi feel that makes the action scenes a little more engaging than firefights in classic anime. The show is clearly marketed towards a younger audience so you won't find any deep, intricate plot that spans from episode to episode. But, Beast Wars has a surprising amount of adult content; every episode is guaranteed to have some humor that young kids would definitely not understand. And the Transformers actually have an unexpected amount of emotional depth, giving the show a serious, philosophical feel at times that you might not expect from 1990s CGI. Sometimes it's nice to watch an animated show that isn't totally deride of meaning, but whose episodes aren't contingent on complex plot developments spanning across multiple arcs. Beast Wars is that show; pick it up, watch a few episodes, and I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

An aside, in case any of you are truly offended I put a Sci Fi show on an anime blog: Beast Wars is the second series in the Transformers tetralogy. The fourth and final series in the franchise, Beast Wars II, is a true Japanese anime.

11

Yu Yu Hakusho
幽☆遊☆白書




Grade: A-
Studio: Studio Pierrot (Bleach, Saiyuki)
Manga Author: Yoshihiro Togashi (Hunter x Hunter manga)
Genre: Martial Arts, Shōnen
First complete run: 1992-1995
Regular episodes: 112





Yu Yu Hakusho is one of the absolute best of the shōnen style. Despite its young target audience and old school style, Yu Yu is a timeless classic. The show chronicles the adventures of Yusuke, a juvenile delinquent who dies and is reborn as the illustrious "spirit detective" working for the prince of the underworld. As the spirit detective, Yusuke seeks out and combats evil spirits and apparitions who are wrecking havoc in the human world. Like the Dragon Ball series, the show borrows heavily from Bangsian fantasy. The afterlife is very intimately connected with the normal human world, and select demons and spirits can freely travel back and forth. The lore, combined with the anime's emphasis on fighting and martial arts, place it in a category with Dragon Ball Z and other shōnen favorites. And in some ways, the show is hindered by its aged feel; the episodes may feel repetitive and the lengthy show can drag on if the viewer loses interest. But Yu Yu Hakusho is arguably the best ever of its genre.

Everything you would expect from a show like DBZ, Yu Yu does and does well. The characters are diverse and amusing, in both English and Japanese audio. Yusuke is a lovably pig-headed boy whose fiery personality carries the anime. Even though a hundred episode anime about martial arts is always going to have some repetition, the combat scenes in Yu Yu have a nice and at times unpredictable variety. And the truly unique world of Bangsian fantasy facilitates casual interaction between human and "spirit" worlds, which helps to set the anime apart. The show features several distinct arcs, each one of which expands on the lore of its predecessor enough to keep the viewer interested. I'm not a huge shōnen fan, but Yu Yu Hakusho's 112 episodes went by lightning fast for me. A great anime for young kids, and perhaps an even better anime for adults hoping to recapture their youth.

10

Fullmetal Alchemist
鋼の錬金術師






Grade: A-
Studio: Bones (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Eureka Seven)
Manga author: Hiromu Arakawa
Genre: Adventure, Sci Fi, Steampunk
First complete run: 2003-2004
Regular episodes: 51








You don’t quite realize how popular Fullmetal Alchemist is until you’ve seen the show. Suddenly, all of the weird symbols and creepy drawings you see emo kids playing around with on the weekends will come into sharper focus. This show has a really intense cult following, probably because it's an anime targeted at a really unusual audience. Fullmetal Alchemist follows the journey of two young "alchemists," Edward and Alphonse Elric. They live in a pre-industrial world in which "alchemy" is the pinnacle of modern science, a tool used for transmuting some objects into different objects. In practice, alchemists are sort of like wizards with some Sci Fi-esque limitations on their powers. At a young age, the brothers conduct an alchemy experiment which backfires so strongly that they lose parts of their bodies; Edward is left with a metal arm and leg, and Alphonse is transformed into an empty suit of armor. The anime chronicles their attempts to reconstruct their lost bodies using alchemy.

Fullmetal Alchemist is probably so popular because it has something for everyone. Alchemy really drives the show. Sci Fi fans, even those not accustomed to the anime genre, will find an exciting world which purports to be rigidly bound by the laws of science and equilibrium. Fantasy lovers or viewers who are used to a more traditional shōnen style will think alchemy is basically a more annoying version of magic or chi. But it's fun to see the characters use it, and the show plays up the drama a lot. Fullmetal is also one of the very few animes for which I prefer the English dub over the subtitled version. The voice acting is solid in both English and Japanese, but the English voices are really cute and charismatic and pull you into the show. Even though it's far from a typical shōnen tale, Fullmetal Alchemist can be frustratingly juvenile at times. The Elric brothers combat the same villains time and time again because the villain makes up some excuse not to kill them or they are unwilling to kill the villains. Think Team Rocket from Pokemon. The show is fun throughout, but if my Pokemon reference didn't deliver the idea that it can get repetitive at times...well, it can. An excellent and unusual anime for young audiences, and a sufficiently fun journey for older viewers too, provided you have a little patience.

Just to be clear, Fullmetal Alchemist is not a prequel or sequel to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. This anime is an original story set in the world of the manga but never printed in it. Together with a follow-up movie, Fullmetal Alchemist is a complete story. Brotherhood, also produced by Bones, provides a video interpretation of the first few volumes of the much larger manga.

9

Trigun
トライガン







Grade: A-
Studio: Madhouse (Death Note, Ninja Scroll)
Manga author: Yasuhiro Nightow
Genre: Adventure, Space Western
First complete run: 1998
Regular episodes: 26









The mere fact that Trigun is a space western does not account for its innovative and ceaselessly amusing anime. But it certainly bears noting! For me, space western is one of the most interesting and incredibly rare genres out there; noteworthy exemplars include the Sci Fi series Firefly and the anime Cowboy Bebop. Trigun is a very deserving member of that group. Set on a far off planet, the show follows the life of an outlaw named Vash the Stampede. Vash is wanted for the destruction of a major city which takes place prior to the anime's pilot. But he's not a heartless criminal, he's a good natured cowboy who goes around gunslinging for justice and preaching pacifism wherever he goes. No joke. He is frequently preyed upon by government officials who recognize his mug, as well as goons who are after the huge bounty on his head. The show is absolutely full of humor; Vash is so much more competent than his pursuers it's literally laughable.

Trigun's entertaining blend of humor and action is a major selling point for this 26 episode miniseries. It goes by in an instant. It engages with some deep philosophical themes concerning life and death on a level that most shōnen anime fail to reach, but it does so in a light and humorous way. Trigun is like the antithesis of Neon Genesis. Vash and the various peripheral characters he meets in his travels are bright and funny people to watch. Sometimes, of course, things do get quite serious and suspenseful. The world of Trigun faces serious problems, but even the show's darkest elements are tinged with a comedic feel that doesn't trivialize them, but makes them easy to handle. It isn't the most powerful work of all time, but it can fulfill a viewer's thirst for space westerns, and it certainly is one of the coolest.

8

Cowboy Bebop
カウボーイビバップ





Grade: A-
Studio: Sunrise (Code Geass, Gundam)
Director: Shinichirō Watanabe (Samurai Champloo)
Genre: Space Western, Drama, Comedy
First complete run: 1998-1999
Regular episodes: 26




Cowboy Bebop is one of those rare shows whose genre in and of itself provides a sufficient reason to watch it. Space Westerns blend futuristic setting (and thus the themes of post-modernity and hyper-modernity) with Western style (roping in simpler, romantic conflicts between man and society). So as the show reflects how far humans have come in colonizing Mars, it also represents how little we have changed. Bebop's production fits into a rich time for Space Westerns, in between Trigun (1998) and Firefly (2002). Masterfully done, Bebop has its own unique contribution to make to the genre.

This anime is about the crew of a bounty hunter starship called the "Bebop." The bounty hunters, or cowboys, number between 2 and 5 at different points in the show as the characters fade in and out of focus: 2 men, 2 women, and a dog. The cast is superbly illustrated and well-defined; each protagonist has a unique set of motivations and attributes, and everyone feels very real. Cowboy Bebop is not very plot driven, rather, it is primarily an episodic retelling of the bounty hunters' attempts to make a living as interstellar mercenaries. The harsh realities of vigilantism frequently clash with a kind of liberated, absolute freedom. And this familiar Western juxtaposition takes place artfully on the terrain of a new/old, utopian/dystopian future. Cowboy Bebop is a Space Western at its finest.

The show sets itself apart from other Space Westerns with an especially grungy feel. Its score employs some Western and Folk music as well as some new age metal. The characters are without any fantasization at all. They are real people, making real and often regretful decisions. People die. And, tragically, the world goes on. So, while the characters may not be as likable as Firefly's majestic ensemble, the crew of Cowboy Bebop have certain charms. And they exist in a world which has problematized the themes of the Space Western genre more than any other show I've seen. It's real, it's grungy, and it's philosophical. Despite being produced years before Samurai Champloo, Watanabe's other famous work, Cowboy Bebop has a kind of polished appeal which was totally lacking from the former. Fans of the genre should like pretty much everything about this one. I know I did.

7

Fullmetal Achemist: Brotherhood






Grade: A-
Studio: Bones (Fullmetal Alchemist, Eureka Seven)
Manga author: Hiromi Arakawa
Genre: Adventure, Science fantasy, Steampunk
First complete run: 2009-2010
Regular episodes: 64







It is impossible to discuss Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood without discussing the franchise's first and namesake series, Fullmetal Alchemist. While the original anime told an original story, Brotherhood is more faithful to the manga, sticking to the written story. The two anime take place in parallel universes, essentially. Brotherhood shares the same main characters, the alchemy-wielding Elric Brothers, who were maimed as children during a failed transmutation. Like Fullmetal Alchemist, Brotherhood tracks the Elric Brothers as they journey to restore their original bodies as well as fight injustice more generally. The anime's lore is essentially fantasy with sci fi element; the characters' powers have some "scientific" limits but not many.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood differs in numerous ways from its predecessor. After the first ten episodes or so, the plot diverges wildly from the original show. The show features the same basic characters, and while some of them are almost identical to their 2003 equivalents, others hardly resemble the same person. Likewise, the two anime rely on similar setting, but the "rules" of the world change significantly in Brotherhood. In other words, don't be fooled: FMAB is genuinely its own show.

Not only that, it's a damn good one. Brotherhood is paced much quicker than its predecessor, spending less time explaining things in detail and less attention on minute developments in its characters. In some ways, Brotherhood relies on the fact that its audience has probably seen the original show, and doesn't explain many of the same elements. The show does not build on Fullmetal Alchemist directly, but it incorporates some information from the original anime in order to deliver a more compact, lightning-fast story. As a result, Brotherhood has great pacing and doesn't have any real lulls in the action; it's 64 episodes of enchanting and smoothly progressing action, for the most part. True Fullmetal Alchemist fanboys might dislike Brotherhood's lower resolution, but it makes for a very comprehensive tale which is every bit as high quality as the original.

6

Neon Genesis Evangelion
新世紀エヴァンゲリオン





Grade: A-
Studio: Gainax (FLCL, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann)
Manga author: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
Genre: Mecha, Apocalyptic, Psychological
First complete run: 1995-1996
Regular episodes: 26





An action-packed mecha anime may seem like the last place you’d find a deeply troubling psychological tale of loneliness, isolation, and metaphysics. But Neon Genesis Evangelion successfully blends complex emotional, psychological details with incredibly suspenseful mecha fiction. The result is a sad, depressing anime whose darkness is only barely overpowered by its intrigue. For some viewers, this controversial show’s uniqueness also proves to be its downfall, an action anime too dark to be enjoyable. But Neon Genesis’s rabid cult following is also a product of its one-of-a-kind style. It’s not an easy ride and it may leave you in tears at times, but in my opinion it’s a ride well worth taking.

Neon Genesis chronicles the efforts of a paramilitary group, Nerv, to defend the Earth against titanic alien invaders called “Angels.” Nerv’s primary weapon against the angels are mecha called “Evangelions,” giant high-tech robots piloted by teenage children. The main character, Shinji, is one of the Evangelion pilots. The anime follows Shinji in his efforts to fight the Angels, often resulting in painful and traumatizing defeats which leave him feeling hurt and useless. The latter half of this 26 episode miniseries drifts away from the anime’s intense action scenes and focuses more on Shinji’s inner trauma. As amazingly suspenseful as the action is, Shinji’s metaphysical pondering also has a certain captivating draw, if you can stomach his hopelessness.

So it’s a tough anime to sell. But technically, Neon Genesis is absolutely superb. Its characters express deep, complex emotions and the show’s grittiness is really a product of its unwillingness to shy away from the harsh realities of life. The anime’s suspenseful plot is incredibly fast-paced, stopping only to reflect on what the ongoing reality of the show is doing to its characters. The lore and setting of the show is as unique as its smörgasbord of thematic elements. The anime will lift you up and beat you back down from start to finish with power that is really remarkable for a brief animated series. Not for the faint of heart, but Neon Genesis is truly a tragic masterpiece.

Viewers should be aware that the show’s ending has been redone several times with alternate endings. A remake of the entire show including the ending is also in the works.

5

Hunter x Hunter
ハンター×ハンター








Grade: A
Studio: Nippon Animation
Manga Author: Yoshihiro Togashi (Yu Yu Hakusho manga)
Genre: Adventure, Martial Arts, Shōnen
First complete run: 1999-2001
Regular episodes: 62 (Plus 30 OVA Episodes)








Hunter x Hunter is one of those shows whose anime barely scratches the surface of its manga. Far from being a complete story like Death Note or Code Geass, Hunter x Hunter’s universe is humongous; the manga has been in production since 1998 and is still ongoing. The anime, with a set of highly recommended OVAs which continue where the anime left off, leave the viewer unsatisfied and just about ready to pick up a manga volume. It doesn’t even attempt to give you some closure; there’s no alternate anime ending, no cute good bye, the arc simply ends and the credits roll. Nonetheless, Hunter x Hunter is one of the more memorable anime series you will ever see.

This shōnen anime focuses on a young boy name Gon Freecss, whose father is a legendary hunter shrouded in mystery. A “hunter” in this anime refers to a special group of licensed professionals. Any person, good or evil, can pass an intensive examination and become a hunter, part of an important organization which lends reputation, resources, and a nifty badge to its members. The show traces Gon’s journey to become a hunter, as well as his adventures in pursuit of his father. True to its genre, Hunter x Hunter places a reasonable emphasis on fighting and martial arts, accomplished using the supernatural power of “Nen,” which is basically chi. It may sound generic, but this anime contains an incredible variety of dynamic characters whose allegiance and full range of abilities are always in flux. Becoming “stronger” in Hunter x Hunter means a whole lot more than simple physical training, it means the development of awesome powers which differ radically on a character-by-character basis.

That said, the characters, and not the fighting, form much of Hunter x Hunter’s powerful allure. Gon is a determined, strong-willed person whose admirable qualities don’t deter from the feeling that you are watching a real boy. The other hunters and villains in the anime are equally charismatic. Combined with the fact that it is never quite clear whose side each character is on, everyone is so fascinating that the viewer is frequently left wondering who to root for. Hunter x Hunter is a colorful, fun anime that doesn’t feel kiddy for an instant. The 92 episodes, in total, feel barely longer than a 26 episode miniseries, and more importantly, I enjoyed each arc better than the last. Shōnen fans will experience a wonderful ride from this coming-of-age tale of friendships, martial arts, and fantasy.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

4

Vampire Knight
Vampire Knight Guilty
ヴァンパイア騎士
ヴァンパイア騎士ギルテイ








Grade: A
Studio: Studio DEEN (Ranma 1/2, Rurouni Kenshin)
Manga author: Matsuri Hino
Genre: Romance, Supernatural
First complete run: 2008
Regular episodes: 26









Vampire Knight is almost like Harry Potter with a twist. The anime is set at a boarding school run by a retired vampire hunter called Cross Academy. At this school, humans and vampires unknowingly coexist; the humans take class during the day and return to their dorms for the evening, while the vampires study during the evening and sleep during the day. The prefects act as guardians for the humans, ensuring that the orderly setup of the school is maintained. Cross Academy becomes an entertaining, politically charged environment as larger conflicts in the vampire and vampire hunter worlds begin to invade the school. The prefects and main characters, two humans whose pasts are scarred by vampires named Yuki and Zero, become increasingly entangled with the mysterious "Night Class" students as the plot erupts. Zero is involved because he hates vampires for what they have done to him, and Yuki because she is falling in love with one.

Admittedly, this anime is a little girly. The show is very dialogue heavy, and a lot of the dialogue hinges on the odd love triangle between Yuki, Zero, and a vampire named Kaname. Vampire Knight falls well within the bounds of shōjo anime. Sometimes it feels more like an episode of The O.C. than a true animated adventure. But make no mistake, Vampire Knight is suspenseful throughout; once you start the anime it really tempts you to just watch all the way through. Many different plot strains often develop at once, between Yuki and Zero's troubled pasts, their current involvement with the vampire students, the larger political manipulations taking place, and the variety of colorful and engaging peripheral characters involved. The characterization in Vampire Knight is phenomenal; each character has a distinctive personality and their interactions are extremely cathartic, tugging on your heart strings when they feel pain and elating you when they are happy. While the manga is still ongoing, the anime is a 26 episode miniseries that will feel like it is over before it has started. Viewers should be prepared for a psychological and romantic journey that takes a few episodes to get off the ground. Then expect to be carried away by Yuki and Zero and never look back.

Monday, July 19, 2010

3

Death Note
デスノート



Grade: A+
Studio: Madhouse (Ninja Scroll, Trigun)
Manga author: Tsugumi Ohba (Bakuman manga)
Genre: Mystery, Psychological Thriller
First complete run: 2006-2007
Regular episodes: 37


Death Note is truly an anime like no other. Even people who are not fans of the genre are likely to love this deeply psychological mystery. Set in contemporary Japan, Death Note follows the life of Light Yagami, a teenage genius with a strong sense of justice. Light finds a notebook called a "Death Note" lying on the ground one day; turns out, the notebook belongs to a shinigami, and if Light writes a person's name in the notebook, they die. After using the notebook to punish criminals and other wrongdoers, some worship Light as a god of justice, others as a cold-blooded murderer. In order to catch the genius killer, a suitably genius detective, named L, is dispatched to the case. The conflict between Light and the authorities forms the majority of this riveting whodunit.

Death Note does an amazing job making the invisible visible. The inner thoughts of the characters are expressed through voice acting which is very high quality in both English and Japanese audio. The viewer is given some insight into the characters' minds, forcing you to simultaneously follow both the subtle plotting taking place and the actual events on the show. No anime pulls you in and makes you feel a part of its world the way Death Note does. Its unique and carefully done visual scheme accentuates the inner conflicts at work, giving it an even more engaging feel. For an anime with a lot of thinking and dialogue, Death Note isn't boring for a second. The show is rife with complex philosophical themes and ceaselessly fascinating mystery. A thrilling experience for all audiences which I highly recommend, even to inexperienced anime viewers.

For those of you who are dissatisfied with the ending or left wanting more, I suggest consulting the manga. It may provide some additional closure.