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For this week’s Why It Works article, I shamelessly embraced the conclusion of Game of Thrones to try and trick people into watching a bunch of really good anime. My means may have been duplicitous, but my intentions are good, which I feel is at least honoring the spirit of our fondest Westerosi friends. Any opportunity to rep Shinsekai Yori and Bokurano feels like a net positive to me!

Five Shows to Scratch that Game of Thrones Itch!

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Today on ANN, I reviewed a show that I fell in love with just a couple years ago, Crest of the Stars. Approaching the space opera genre with thoughtfulness and a clear character-first focus, Crest of the Stars is basically the perfect combination of Legend of Galactic Heroes and Spice and Wolf, a show both staggering in scope and rich in intimate character moments. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend giving it a shot. Here’s my review!

Crest of the Stars

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Hell yes folks, we’re back to Scorching Ping Pong Girls! Among the many excellent shows you readers are currently steering me through, Scorching Ping Pong Girls is almost certainly the most dedicated Fun Things Are Fun production, and I truly love it for that. Ping Pong Girls is the kind of show Tsutomu Mizushima likes to make – a loving genre riff defined by consistent high energy and a keen understanding of dramatic fundamentals. Conceits like the various characters’ visual motifs play into the show’s overall sense of genre-savvy irreverence, but Ping Pong Girls isn’t self-aware in order to parodize; it understands the dramatic appeal of great sports drama done right, and it’s here to provide.

With last episode essentially serving as a twenty minute hype session for this episode’s match, I’ve been sitting on my hands and grinding my teeth ever since I finished that one. Ping Pong Girls’ matches have consistently demonstrated a great talent for grounding their drama in clear tactical variables, and the show’s fluidity of action cuts has regularly impressed me as well. With Agari and Kiruka about to clash paddles, let’s dive right back into Scorching Ping Pong Girls!

Episode 5

Alright, episode title is “I Want To Feel My Heart Race With You.” My point blank prediction is that this title implies Agari will lose, Koyori will fight Kiruka in her place, Agari will start to feel jealous of Koyori potentially finding a new sparring partner, and Koyori will reassure her with something close to that title line. Let’s see how wrong I am!

We flash back to when Kiruka first joined the team, two years ago. It seems like the club was much more casual back then, with Kiruka’s determination to make it to nationals causing some muttering in the crowd

And yet, the last shot belongs to Munemune. That could imply we’re getting a little closer to her perspective this episode; hanging the final shot of your cold open on your new focus character is a convenient way to create an audience expectation that you’ll return to them, essentially using the length of the OP to create anticipation. Foreshadowing doesn’t have to be clever or hidden to smooth an audience’s reaction to a shifting narrative

We’re back to the match! Hokuto likes her cat ears

The peanut gallery offers some commentary, before Munemune shushes them, centering the focus on herself right before the match begins. So I’m guessing we’re building up Munemune’s relevance because she’ll be the one providing the commentary that explains Kiruka’s strength – as Agari wilts under some tactical attack, Munemune will reveal the secrets behind it

Agari is actually taking this match seriously, as a chance to ensure she’s on the team play roster

“There’ll be lots of great players at Nationals, and I’ll get to feel my heart race even more!” Yep, we’re seeding Koyori potentially separating from Agari specifically

As expected, Munemune is the commentary lead, highlighting how Agari’s loop drive is an effective counter for Kiruka’s chop. If I’m parsing both techniques right, I believe I can see why – the chop is a drop shot designed to kill the ball’s momentum, whereas Agari’s loop drive is inherently designed to drag balls upward, countering the chop’s intent and restoring the ball’s spin

“There’s more to Kiruka than her chops.” Munemune starts to get into the secret she was concealing, Kiruka’s “iron defense.” As I’ve noted, this episode has not only been building up this match, but also specifically building up Munemune as the guardian of Kiruka’s tactical secrets, largely through subtle tricks of visual emphasis. Creating a show like this, which has such a strong sense of forward momentum and dramatic flow, necessitates careful attention to things like this. Even if you weren’t consciously picking up on the way this episode was using Munemune, this would still feel like a dramatic payoff, a secret revealed

And now we’ve created a little narrative for Agari – she needs to gain confidence with her forehand smash, because the backhand won’t break through Kiruka’s defense

But she’s already learned it! Agari actually counters the commentary itself, confidently rallying back with a forehand smash. She’s grown since fighting Koyori

Munemune reveals that Agari asked to practice the forehand smash “to be a better rival for Koyori.” Oh my god, could there be a more dramatic confession of sports-love than that. Lovers are cool, but nobody shares a closer bond than Destined Rivals

“Koyori! Keep your eyes peeled and watch me!” Agari stop, the girl’s heart can’t take it

And Agari gets her point, her victory captured in Scorching Ping Pong Girls’ signature sweat-o-vision

Nice little cut of Kiruka’s “wall” crumbling. Her impenetrable defense is a less visually compelling conceit than something like Hokuto’s calculations, but still pretty distinctive

They’re really hanging on Nationals as a concept. I guess Koyori’s path to finding her own motivation outside of Agari could hang on this point

Koyori finally drops the title line, and Agari goes Full Tsun

“The only one you’re allowed to lose to is me. So win, no matter what!” Agari, it must be so stressful to live like this. Just hug the puppy, christ

We start the next match in Kiruka’s perspective, leaving me to assume that Koyori is about to undergo an intimidating level-up. Match sequences like this generally settle the camera on whoever’s about to be challenged/surprised, keeping the audience where the tension is

And yeah, Koyori’s very quickly pushing her back. The posture of Kiruka’s returns clearly emphasizes how she’s consistently off balance, and only just managing to return these shots

Kiruka’s cat ear gag actually gets better over time, as the overt rationale for the gag fades, and we’re just left with a commentary gallery who are all wearing cat ears for no apparent reason

Koyori takes it! The girl has no mercy

I’m still very much enjoying this show’s use of Dezaki style picture postcards for dramatic character moments. There is basically nothing about this show’s genre or tone that echoes Dezaki, but that doesn’t matter – this is just a good, effective visual trick, and more shows should use it. You don’t have to echo Dezaki (or your aesthetic influences more generally) as closely as something like Simoun or Ikuhara’s works to make use of an effective visual technique

So Agari and Koyori win early placement on the team’s roster, which makes sense. It’s already clear they’re the best players, there’s no real suspense-related reason to drag this out

Aha, I love this superdeformed embarrassed Koyori with her hair basically melting into her head

Hokuto Still Likes Cat Ears. I like this personal gimmick a lot more than her panties-related one

These girls constantly blowing smoke out their ears with embarrassment feels pretty true to the junior high experience

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MAKE WAY CLEAR A SEAT IT’S TIME FOR NANOHA WE’RE STARTING THE SHOW. After our last episode so rudely dangled a potential full-scale battle before our faces, only to spend its full running time detailing the leadup to that battle, I feel I am basically owed an awesome fight sequence this time. Yes, Nanoha has always done that weird thing where its cold opens act as spoiler-heavy previews for the episode to come, but you can’t end a cold open on a fight pose, name your episode something like “New Powers Activate!”, and then regale us with… a perfectly reasonable but decidely non-action packed episode of character setup and exposition.

Grievances about that bait and switch aside, Nanoha A’s has by now established a sturdy platform for faceoffs between our young heroes and these Velka knights, while maintaining a great degree of mystery regarding these knights’ motivation, as well as their relationship with Hayate. My assumption all along has been that unlike Precia, these knights will end up having a pretty reasonable motivation, to go along with their clearly loving counterpoint to Nanoha’s found family. Nanoha’s first season illustrated the diverse potential influences of families in pretty stark terms, so I’m interested in seeing if the show is attempting to illustrate a more subtle distinction this time, or use its general family theme to tackle some other subtopic entirely. With so many characters in the cast at this point, it’s taken a little longer to get through initial setup, but I think A’s is ready to spread its wings. Let’s see some sparks fly!

Episode 5

We open with yet more fond domestic scenes over at the Hayate household. Hayate and Vita basically act like sisters, and even share a bed

“It was only a small wish… to have quiet, uneventful days… to have every day come one after the other in peace….” Hayate’s monologue acts as a clear mirror of Nanoha’s early monologues from the first season, further establishing her personality while through its structure emphasizing her role as a foil for our heroine

“I don’t have power or anything. It’s just that, I wish you’d all stay by my side. That way, I’d protect you. There are times when our feelings might have missed each other, but even so…” Another slight edit of a familiar Nanoha refrain, as her reaching out to Fate was often framed in terms of “our feelings reaching each other”

We pan in on the city at night, unaware of the battle to come. The deep sea blue-green of the city structures is as vivid as ever

Another emphatically domestic sequence with our villains, as Hayate and Shamal go grocery shopping. It seems that Hayate doesn’t actually know what her friends are up to when they’re away from home – this might be one of those classic “we’re working to save her secretly, because she’d never accept what we’re doing otherwise” scenarios

Hayate says she “was alone to begin with,” which makes me wonder if she herself is a living magical artifact, or directly connected with the book in some way

“It Was A Small Wish.” Looks like we may well get Hayate’s origin this time

Fate says they’re only here to learn what the Velka are doing, and Vita responds with the theoretically reasonable “don’t come loaded with weapons if you say you want to talk”

Vita is a very convenient character to place on the enemy team – not only is she hot-headed and very likely to violently escalate situations, thus helping keep these two groups at odds, but she manages that while also remaining utterly transparent and kinda charming in an emotional sense. A charmingly belligerent enemy is a very good way to maintain conflict while also keeping the villains sympathetic

Aw, they’re pairing off all the fighters. I was kinda hoping for a wild, chaotic melee, not three simultaneous duels

A’s indulges in a quasi-Obari pose for Nanoha first loading her wand-gun. Though I suppose it’s not a true Obari pose unless your stick is raised towards the top left corner

Her weapon doesn’t look half as cool as Fate’s wicked revolver-staff though

Signum adopts a classic knight’s stance, shoulder forward and sword held straight up. I really appreciate the flush of new fighting styles offered this season

And then we get a striking shot of all of them taking flight, where just the colors of their energy trails rise like fireworks. Nanoha is very good at conveying a sense of imposing scale – these powers feel genuinely intimidating

Oh right, I forgot Vita’s weapon was actually a croquet mallet. Brilliant

Vita’s croquet mallet grew an engine, and then started spinning her in circles while she angrily shouted “EHHHHHHHHH.” I’m sure this is supposed to be intimidating, but it’s extremely adorable. She’s like an extremely grumpy terrier

Nanoha’s “Axel Shooter” fires out around a dozen separate energy balls. I guess we’re paying off the training this season seeded right at the beginning, using a known power (“Nanoha can control one energy ball”) to convey the scale of her weapon upgrade (“now she can control a DOZEN”). “I powered up” doesn’t really mean anything in the abstract, and “my lasers are stronger now” isn’t really a tangible change, but this shift in one of her base attacks makes the upgrade clear

Nanoha has gotten pretty fuckin’ scary, huh?

Yeah, it feels like we’re almost more in Vita’s perspective, as she realizes she might be terribly outgunned

And a lovely transition to Fate and Signum’s fight, as their lights dance and clash between the buildings. Though A’s lacks a fair share of the first season’s visual identity, I continue to be impressed by how well it uses this city backdrop to create evocative compositions. Here, their movements come across like colored lightning splashing over the dark blue backdrop, like a moving abstract painting

The sharp-angled character designs also work well here. The characters’ eyes and swords are constructed of similar angles, resulting in angular, jagged closeups full of angry visual tension

Fate also has some sweet new tricks. Her lightning lances now collectively track her opponent

Signum’s weapon isn’t JUST a gunsword, it’s a segmented whip gunsword. Why not

Bardiche thanking Signum for calling him strong is weirdly adorable

While Nanoha never really naturally wants to fight, Signum and Fate both enjoy a good battle

HELL YEAH, ARF KICKING ASS

The characters’ movements feel far more weighted in battle this season. Last season mostly just made distinctions between various beam attacks, but we’ve got lots of neat physical choreography this time

Chrono attempts to arrest Shamal, but is kicked in the back by a new arrival

This new arrival is..

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The first image of Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes features protagonist Hachimaki in a bulky space suit, staring up at nothing, standing on nothing. The earth lies vast and silent beneath him, but his eyes are drawn upwards, towards something we cannot see. Without the earth in frame, the scene would feel almost peaceful; in light of its presence, Hachimaki seems terribly vulnerable, as if he’s suspended on a glass surface over an endless abyss. The shot is likely Planetes’ most defining image; a composition that simultaneously conveys the vastness of space, our fragility as we hang in its grasp, and the mundanity of turning this inspiring, terrifying expanse into your garbage removal workspace.

It was wonderful to return to Planetes, having already fallen in love with the property during my thoroughly documented run through the anime. Yukimura’s story combines the thoughtful, character-first approach of a personal drama with ferocious sociopolitical commentary, consistently capturing the often unspoken costs of human progress. Even the manga’s fundamental premise speaks to its understanding of the consequences for our ambition. Having flooded space with trash in our rush to claim the stars, Planetes’ concerns itself with the plight of those left to pick up the wreckage, both in a physical and metaphorical sense.

Though much of the story’s structure is changed, both manga and anime open with the same key flashback, a sequence that immediately sets the stakes for Hachimaki’s labor. Space trash isn’t just a telling reflection of humanity’s nearsightedness and greed – it’s a genuine threat to the future, a vicious and utterly ruthless killer. Even the smallest scrap of a derelict satellite can destroy another ship, causing a chain reaction of cascading destruction. We aren’t just obligated to clean up after ourselves; we must pay for our past mistakes, or risk losing the future as well.

Of course, who actually pays for those mistakes is a key question, and one of Planetes’ core themes. The manga’s second chapter introduces us to Harry Rolland, a man who Hachimaki’s superiors describe as a genuine hero of space conquest. And indeed, Rolland seems to embody the spirit of a hardscrabble adventurer, urging Hachi to buck up and talking about how much harder they had it back in the old days. That pep talk comes only days before Rolland’s own death, as he trudges out to meet his maker on the lunar slopes. A lifetime sacrificed to the glory of conquest, and Rolland is ultimately used up and discarded, one more cog in a much greater machine. While other space journeys focus on ace pilots and captains and kings, Planetes concerns itself with the rank-and-file, the workers of the world. Its heroes are the people who fight every day to hopefully earn a slice of glory, but whose fate is to be used like Rolland, consumed until they are gone.

It seems appropriate that a manga so concerned with illustrating the true nature of human ambition within a capitalist system would fill itself with such vast, overwhelming visual compositions. The thematic smallness of its characters is illustrated through sharp visual contrast, as they are constantly transposed against the endless dark all around them, or depicted staring out into the great beyond. With Tanabe apparently making a much later appearance in the manga than the anime, it falls to the veteran Yuri to act as the story’s conscience, resulting in a far more contemplative, tonally ambiguous experience. While Tanabe is the plucky young rookie, Yuri begins the series working in tribute to his absent wife, giving these early chapters a heavy sense of solemnity, and even futility. Yuri’s stoic grief, self-deprecation, and preoccupation with his own purpose are all beautifully captured through Yukimura’s careful shading, and give the manga a keen sense of philosophical restlessness.

On the other hand, there’s Hachimaki. The manga reaches key beats of Hachimaki’s story with incredible speed relative to the anime, meaning even its first chapter features him dreaming of owning his own ship. Hachimaki’s fundamental nature is to be the kind of person capitalism needs in order to keep running – he is the dedicated worker bee, happily plugging away at his daily chores, certain that hard work will eventually lead to a reward from the system. And yet even he can’t help but steal glances at the hopelessness of it all, the structural obstacles standing in his way, or the impossible distance between his daily efforts and any sort of meaningful success. When he joins a new friend on the vast lunar sea, he can’t see the glory she does – he only sees a desert.

Planetes does not counter its critique of space colonization with any intellectually convincing argument. Its assessment of how capitalism and space flight will align isn’t cynical – it’s just true. Colonizing new lands will just exacerbate the existing economic hierarchies of earth, and picking up the pieces will be left to underappreciated classes who are ultimately discarded for their efforts. There is no “and yet” that will mitigate all of those cruel truths. What we have instead are two characters coming to peace with their lives in their own ways; Hachimaki through embracing the urge to strive he sees as the core of his identity, and Yuri through recognizing that he doesn’t need a greater purpose. All he needs is to work with people he cares for, and through doing so live with dignity and joy. Even within this manga’s very first chapter, we see the symbol that draws Yuri back from the brink, the symbol that will inspire Hachi at his worst moments – human hands reaching for connection, finding common warmth in the coldness of space.

All this on the manga, and I still have barely touched on Yukimura’s terrific art. Yukimura’s style is well-suited to a story like Planetes, balancing resolutely plain character designs against their intricately detailed mechanical cradles. Mundane character designs are the perfect choice for this story; these characters aren’t supposed to be heroes you can pick out of a lineup, they’re everyday people working everyday jobs. And yet, Yukimura is still able to draw great emotional range out of these designs, using detailed shading to pull nuance out of Yuki, Hachi, and their captain Fee. You really feel the profound intensity of Yuri’s grief, or the manic force of Fee’s anger, but even more mundane moments like Yuri being caught while lost in thought are articulated with uncommon grace.

And in contrast to these plain-faced protagonists, the borderline of space and human invention is illustrated in the most detailed and resonant of terms. The intricate details of ships and antennae naturally imply the fragility of their situation, and the collaborative force of human effort that got them here. While Planetes’ overt narrative often concerns itself with the terrible cost of the capitalist machine, its incredibly well-illustrated ships naturally imply the glory of contributing to something greater than yourself. Hachimaki’s belief in this dream may be misguided, but in the face of such marvels, you can absolutely see the appeal.

Planetes’ first volume ends on a validation of that dream, as Hachi’s fears of failure are swept away by the magnificence of mankind’s most advanced engine. Like his father before him and his brother after, Hachi and the grand quest are indivisible – as he lives, he must strive to go further, reach higher, see more. The fact that any such striving necessitates a platform, and that any such platform will be built on the suffering of many who will never be given a similar chance, does not mitigate the ache in his heart, the idea that he is incomplete unless he is moving forward. Hachi is a simple man, and explicating the geopolitical costs of space travel is perhaps not the best way to reach him. Perhaps Yuri has the right of it – philosophical disagreements aside, both of them are still human, and humans need each other. As his friend reaches out towards that blinding light, Yuri offers the prayer that has haunted human history, the encapsulation of our philosophical dividing line. “Don’t forget about us, okay?”

This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.

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Well shit you guys, the season’s halfway over. Traditionally, this would be the time where instead of offering reflections on this week’s episodes, I rank the overall field of everything I’ve watching. However, once I started cutting down my seasonal watch schedule to only the shows I was genuinely loving, that became a pretty meaningless exercise. I could rank my viewing schedule, but everything I’m watching is something I’d highly recommend, so what would be the point? In light of that, I instead started to simply summarize my overall impressions of each show so far – but as one commenter pointed out, you can already get a pretty clear view of my overall feelings on a show from my weekly commentary. Given all that, today I’ll be offering… an entirely normal installment of the Week in Review! Yes, that’s right folks, we’ll be celebrating the seasonal halfway point by doing exactly what we always do. I can tell your excitement is already at a fever pitch, so I’ll wrap this intro up now, as we dive into one more extremely normal Week in Review!

This week’s Carole & Tuesday was the closest thing the show’s had to a transition episode, which in Carole’s case still meant we had a clear episodic conceit and brilliant performance highlights, but also there was a bit more talking and exposition than usual. Watching Carole, Tuesday, and Angela’s managers and producers all negotiate for their stars’ big breaks certainly gave the episode a sense of narrative coherence, but was less inherently engaging of a concept than something like “the gang makes a beautiful, terrible music video.” That said, I did enjoy getting a bit more insight into Tao’s character, and both of this episode’s music sequences were a treat.

Carole and Tuesday’s first official performance in particular might have been their best song yet, with the smoky, familiar tone of the music perfectly echoing the golden lighting and their cozy club environment. When they played their first song, I sorta assumed these girls would be sticking to pretty mundane pop tunes, the kind of songs I could actually imagine two talented but not truly brilliant teens would cook up. Instead, the show seems to demonstrating their propulsive evolution as songwriters and collaborators one song after another, with their melodies, structures, and vocal interplay improving all series long. It is a unique and incredibly rewarding thing to see these young protagonists quantifiably “level up” in terms of something as complex and personal as songwriting, and I can’t wait to see their talents continue to grow.

Demon Slayer at last escaped the strict template of its Shonen Jump forebears, as Tanjiro’s first job lent the narrative some mystery and thriller undertones. The process of hunting down his first demon reminded me a little of Inuyasha, of all things, while the show’s insistence on foregrounding Tanjiro’s local contact once again gave this episode some immediate emotional bite, like with the testing grounds battle. Demon Slayer’s character writing isn’t so deft that I’d call its focus on the human consequences of these demon attacks a genuine “strength” yet, but it’s still something that sets Demon Slayer apart, and which could bloom into a real dramatic asset over time.

As for this episode’s battle, both the pluses and minuses of ufotable’s digital animation approach were in full display. On the positive side, the clarity of framing and sturdy CG mapping of this village meant there was a clear sense of physical space and consequence to Tanjiro’s fight; you could really relate to Tanjiro’s awareness of his surroundings, and understand the consequences of his active range. On the minus side, the largely digitally designed backgrounds of this village possessed almost no sense of lived-in texture or detailed visual embellishment; everything looked like a pretty low-budget movie lot. Ufotable have been good about balancing their digital work with beautifully detailed background art in Demon Slayer’s wilderness settings, so I hope they eventually bring that same sense of beauty to its towns and cities.

Meanwhile, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure offered an actual transition episode, with both Doppio and Bucciaratti’s party spending most of it in transit to what will presumably be this arc’s natural endpoint, the Roman Colosseum. In the meantime, we received an explanation I never actually expected – the extraterrestrial origin of Stand powers. To be honest, I’m not really sure why Araki offered this explanation in the first place; Stands are an inherently absurd and explanation-averse concept, and their origins will never feel any more substantive than the standard “a wizard did it.” Still, the franchise has been building on the lore of the Stand-awakening arrows each season, so I suppose moving a step back and learning their own origin was going to happen eventually. Meanwhile, Doppio continues to be a brilliant addition to Golden Wind’s cast, coming off as simultaneously humorously ridiculous, menacing, and vulnerable enough to actually feel emotionally invested in. Not a highlight, but a perfectly reasonable episode, and one that’s set us up for a uniquely compelling Stand battle next week.

Finally, Sarazanmai offered some desperately needed narrative progression this week, while still being somewhat hampered by its usual structural issues. At this point, I feel confident saying that I’d like this show a lot more without all the kappa and otter stuff – their contributions are incredibly repetitive, and their only purpose in the narrative is to clumsily reveal new secrets that would probably land with more impact if they cropped up during natural conversation. That said, I was very happy to see Kazuki’s Sara ruse finally get revealed, as well to learn exactly how Haruka got his injury. Basically all of Ikuhara’s stories are obsessed with families and finding a place where you belong, and Kazuki slots neatly into a lineage formerly embodied by great characters like Penguindrum’s Ringo. Frankly, my favorite thing about this episode was the real Sara’s very silly “sarararara” chant as she turned into a kappa and melted her way out of a variety of improbable containers. More strong personal drama and creatively goofy nonsense, less bank footage please.

Actually, you know what? Even more finally, let’s talk Game of Thrones. People have been asking for some GoT reflections here on my curiouscat, and considering my reaction to this last season seems pretty different from the internet at large, I suppose it’s worth breaking down my position.

On the whole, I’ve been loving season eight, and have found it to be the most satisfying season since the show was genuinely in its prime. My perception of “in its prime” might account for some of my current enjoyment, though – in my opinion, Game of Thrones lost any aspirations to being genuinely “great media” somewhere around when Ramsay entered the scene. That was the point where it started to go dramatically off-books, and to be honest, that’s also the point where the books themselves started to lose focus. As a result, every season since has operated on a much lower level of narrative invention and poetry of dialogue. What crimes this season presents in terms of narrative feel like crimes I accepted and forgave around five years ago – I never expected GoT’s conclusion to somehow return the series to greatness, and have instead been greatly enjoying all the long-awaited payoffs that this season can’t really help but indulge in.

Of course, there are glaring issues with this season, though I don’t see as many as others seem to. Pacing is definitely a problem; for the last two seasons, there hasn’t been enough time for any character turn to feel first seeded and then earned, making narrative shifts like the Dany-Jon romance, Dany’s descent as a leader, and Varys’ death feeling rushed and unsatisfying. Additionally, the show never found a satisfying counter to the dragons, and never found a good use for Euron – the scorpions have always been an arbitrary dramatic device, and Euron basically only existed to act as their emotionally inert master.

All that said, in terms of both broad narrative strokes and execution, I feel this season has been doing a tremendous number of things right. The Long Night stunned me; I thought its color work, composition, pacing, and narrative progression were all truly phenomenal, and have no patience for complaints about the tactically preferred response to fighting an ocean of zombies. Game of Thrones has never been about nitty-gritty battle tactics – that’s the stuff Tywin cares about, while Game of Thrones itself cares about the human cost of battle. The battle was meant to feel like being swept over by a horrifying elemental force, and it did; focusing on tactics would have made it the kind of punchy, dramatically energetic battle that it was absolutely not intended to be.

This goes double for The Bells, which felt like the only way for both Daenerys and the show’s final battle overall to end. I feel like many people have been viewing this show’s drama in terms of the show’s title quote – “when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.” It’s a Cersei line, and it’s a belief both her and Daenerys have absolutely internalized, but it’s not really the show’s own thesis. The show’s actual thesis comes from the book’s other use of that phrase, courtesy of Jorah: “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.”

Game of Thrones has always understood that war is ugly and senseless, and so it ended on the most ugly, senseless war possible. If this battle had come down to a fevered, desperate contest between Daenerys and Cersei, it would have been betraying everything this story stands for – instead, it was ugly and brutish and utterly one-sided. Neither Daenerys nor Cersei were operating from positions of strength; they are both women who have been forced by circumstance to fight furiously back against all those who would challenge them, and who have at last come to a point where one of them must utterly crush the other, or be crushed themselves. The show has made it easy at times to root for Dany, but she’s always been incredibly proud, headstrong, vindictive, rash, and convinced of her own heroic destiny – this is just the final result of all those qualities, at last aimed at an “enemy” that we haven’t been dramatically framed to dehumanize, and with the human cost actually depicted. To end on either compromise or heroic combat would be a betrayal; instead the show ended where it must, on brutal slaughter that makes us question what it was all for.

I feel similarly about complaints regarding some specific character arcs. I don’t think Cersei needed to demonstrate some new strength or personality in this season; she is the cumulative result of all her choices, she has dragged herself up to the highest point she possibly can, and the hollowness of that victory was absolutely the point. We’ve been getting a lot of dramatic vindication through all of this season’s reunions, but Game of Thrones is in large part about inevitable tragedy, and so choices like Jaime returning to Cersei didn’t feel like a “betrayal” to me – it felt like a statement that in spite of all our growth, we can still in some ways never escape ourselves. These children of horrors have witnessed terrible things, and been changed by the process, but not all growth is good, and even positive growth won’t necessarily save us. The show’s execution of these choices might be clumsy at times, but the choices themselves all feel right to me.

When you couple that with my generally lowered expectations in terms of dialogue and narrative twistiness, you end up with a season that’s offering me pretty much everything I could have asked from it, while also being stuffed with incredibly fan-pleasing character moments and stunning visual setpieces. All in all, I’m having a pretty great time.

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Today on Why It Works, I used the reveal of Toi’s backstory as a jumping-off point to explore the searching for a home that dominates all of Ikuhara’s anime productions. It’s nice to be able to put all those hours spent exploring and detailing Penguindrum’s themes to good use, and always a treat to revisit the art design of Ikuhara’s works in general. Here’s the piece!

Searching for Home in the Anime of Kunihiko Ikuhara

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Folks, I am very happy to be returning to Girls’ Last Tour! The show’s first episode was equal parts charming slice of life, and, er, I guess more contemplative slice of life? It was essentially a post-apocalyptic travelogue, a subgenre that actually boasts a whole bunch of top-tier anime. Kemono Friends and Kemurikusa both fall in a similar space, while both Haibane Renmei and Sound of the Sky, though they don’t have a specific focus on journeying, capture a similar combination of warm slice of life contrasted against a majestic yet fading larger world.

Slice of life and post-apocalyptic despair might not seem like a natural combination, but the pairing actually makes a lot of sense to me. There are no longer any battles to fight in these worlds – whatever some action hero might have been able to accomplish, their deeds are no longer relevant, as the world has already arrived at its end. Instead, those who survive must focus on what they still have – and in any world, the one thing a broken civilization can’t take from us is each other. In a world gone to ruin, the comfort we can provide each other becomes all that much more crucial, and a natural symbol of how human kindness is ultimately undefeatable. Even in a world in decay, two people can still care about each other, and find comfort in each other’s presence.

Resonant premise aside, Girls’ Last Tour is also just a lovely aesthetic object in its own right, full of evocative backgrounds and tied together with incredibly precise sound design. Let’s see what adventures these girls get up to in episode two!

Episode Two

We open with a shot establishing the vast scale of the environment they’re traversing, but it’s a top-down shot onto a snowy field. As opposed to illustrating ruins in the distance to naturally imply adventure or a destination, this shot implies homogeneity – they’re crossing a vast expanse of the exact same white sheet

That homogeneity is immediately disrupted by the girls’ play, as we see they’ve been idly packing snowballs

This show’s soundtrack is so dang good. This combination of strings and flute falls somewhere between a winter jingle and a religious hymn, precisely the combination of playfulness and solemnity, as well as a general “wintery” sound, that they’re seeking

“Maybe we’re actually already dead, and this is the pure-white world of the afterlife.” Right, I forgot how randomly heavy this show can get. But it makes sense – their playful behavior is partly a performance they put on to feel less aware of the fact that they are perpetually surrounded by death

Yuu making a snowman on Chi’s head with a bullet for a nose is an extremely Girls’ Last Tour image

Also reflective of this show’s general sense of humor; it doesn’t craft strict setups and punchlines, it just lets Yuu’s natural behavior result in lots of deadpan comedy. A nice way to keep the tone light without actually disrupting the overall atmosphere

That’s actually a point worth considering – different genres and atmospheres are better suited to different styles of comedy, and whatever your personal preference for comedy is, the tone of a particular work should generally take precedence over the strength of any one joke

“Did you know that the afterlife is supposed to be really warm?” Their idle conversations reflect how their circumstances have forced them to develop a familiar relationship with death

Oh man, I totally forgot about this charming OP

This blizzard is pretty handy for masking the CG

Chi almost falls asleep in the cold. They really are just barely holding on

The girls arrive at a power plant, though they can’t actually read the letters. An interesting choice; because they don’t know the language, it feels a lot more like they’re exploring some truly ancient and unfathomable civilization

The girls start shooting at a pipe that seems to contain hot water. I think Chi would generally see this is a really dangerous plan, but they’re both way too cold to care

Chi ends up using her shoulder to steady Yuu’s shot, a nice reflection of their collective strength

Oh no, their blob bodies are dissolving in the water!

They say they’ve had “three baths since leaving Grandpa’s.” Worldbuilding so slight it’s more like texture

Chi describing this as “paradise” once again brings up the subject of death. You really get the sense they’re both hyper-aware of death’s nearness, and also somewhat numb to it

And the answer, of course, is solidarity. The moment ends on them sharing their laughter

Interesting. Chi’s journal demonstrates that she does actually know a written language, but it’s a very different one from the Japanese characters of the power plant. Lots of nice, subtle hints of worldbuilding

Yuu apparently can’t read or write, and clearly feels left out as Chi catalogs their journey

“Memories fade, so we write them down,” contrasted against this simultaneously beautiful and harrowing shot of two rifle bullets in front of the dancing fire. The hope of preservation layered against the end of society

OH MY GOD, YUU THREW ONE OF THE BOOKS ON THE FIRE. What a goddamn heinous thing to do. She didn’t do it intentionally, but I don’t think that would stop me from killing someone who just burned one of my four remaining books

“Whatever. I said I was sorry.” And Yuu is not making this better. Her slight bitterness at being excluded robbed Chi of one of the four stories she still has left. It was an incredibly hurtful thing to do, but Yuu can’t really parse why, and that just makes Chi even more angry. It’s a frustrating thing, not being able to convey just how hurtful something was

A mid-distance shot holds steady as Yuu restlessly moves around the fire, emphasizing her loneliness and sense of guilt

They keep doing these odd sequences that seem to briefly tonally imply Yuu is just going to lose it entirely – pointing the gun at Chi in the first episode, holding Chi’s journal directly over the fire here. I’m not really sure where they’re going with that, because Yuu’s actual personality is incredibly transparent

The sound design once again takes center stage, as we spend some time simply listening to the creaking of snow against the old building overnight

“Chi, are you still mad at me?” She’s like a puppy who chewed up your shoe

Yuu’s “apology” is drawing Chi’s face in the journal with an “I’m sorry,” indicating she actually heard some of Chi’s speech about preserving important things. A very cute resolution

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Toradora’s third episode is largely dedicated to Ryuuji having his preconceptions about his classmate Minori forcefully challenged, first through Taiga’s defense of her close friend, and then through confessions by Minori herself. Trapped in a tool shed with a distressed Minori, he learns that the strength and energy which he sees as an effortless component of Minori’s base nature is actually anything but. Minori isn’t naturally confident or naturally strong; she simply plays the part, putting on an appearance of strength in order to inspire real strength.

But to call Minori’s actions “playing a part” implies she’s doing something disingenuous, or shielding herself from true emotional honesty. And to be fair, masking your true self is something pretty common to character dramas, but that’s not what Minori’s doing. Instead, Minori is practicing something all of us must embrace at times – putting on the appearance of a greater self not to trick others, but to eventually internalize that aspirational behavior, and make it true.

Trying to grow as a person is a process that demands active effort. Though we all grow naturally through experience, meaningful self-improvement often demands willfully changing your behavior in ways that don’t actually feel natural. In time, willful behavior can eventually become habit, and habit can eventually become truth. Minori is acting confident because she wants to become a person who embodies that confidence; while her classmates fret about being embraced for their “true selves,” she’s already embarking on a process of transformation more common to post-high school young adults.

Toradora’s sympathetic depiction of this process speaks to its generally insightful approach to characterization. As demonstrated through Minori, Toradora understands that no person is any one thing, and no personality is truly stable. Every single person is a person “in progress,” and we are all slowly transformed by both our own choices and the environment around us. And when a story embraces that truth, the results are spectacular. Over time, Toradora’s characters will not just come to care about each other, but actively grow and change both due to their own willful decisions, and due to the transformative friendships they’ve fostered.

But while Minori is already pretty far along on her path to self-actualization, Ryuuji and Taiga still have some ways to go. As we enter the show’s fourth episode, a visit to Taiga’s apartment ends up revealing her collection of blurry, altogether indecipherable photos of Kitamura. Though she’d like to have a nice photo of him to obsess over, her inability to keep calm around him has tragically resulted in a lengthy series of fuzzy portrait blobs. And so Ryuuji offers to take a photo for her, setting this episode’s rambling capers in motion.

The next day at school, Taiga greets Kitamura with an overloud, extended “Ohaaa!!”, mortifying herself until Kitamura unexpectedly returns the gesture. It’s a funny, awkward scene in its own right, but it also speaks to Toradora’s general embracing of conversational awkwardness, which is actually something key to its dramatic strength.

For most types of stories, it’s not really that dramatically useful to include all the awkward points of misunderstanding, random pauses, and misspoken phrases that tend to crop up in actual human conversations. Including them is like making sure to indicate in a scifi opera where all the spaceship bathrooms are – yes, you are technically enhancing the “realism” of the narrative, but in such a way that adds nothing to the show’s actual goals, and actually detracts from its overall focus. But in a story that’s actually directly about adolescent miscommunication and the difficulties of coming to understand each other, Toradora’s attentive focus on the slight hiccups inherent in human communication is a welcome choice.

Toradora’s conflicts and stakes are arranged such that miscommunications like these lie at the core of its emotional drama. Because of this, Taiga making an awkward conversational faux pas feels like a genuinely meaningful conflict. And in response, Kitamura returning the gesture feels like a genuine dramatic victory, one solidified when he actually embraces Taiga’s weird greeting and uses it on someone else. This, in turn, echoes Toradora’s generally sharp eye for character and perspective. To Taiga, Kitamura’s actions are just an inexplicable source of relief – “oh thank god, he for some reason didn’t find that weird.” But for us in the audience, Kitamura’s actions speak to his own social grace, and his apparent investment in making sure Taiga always feels comfortable.

Unfortunately, Taiga refuses to ever be comfortable, ever. A trip outside for the morning announcements introduces us to the school’s student council president, who lays down the law as vice president Kitamura whispers corrections in her ear. Incensed by this display of closeness, Taiga starts a fight pretty much just because she can, only to be defeated by Kitamura literally lifting her off her feet. It’s an extremely Taiga sequence, and speaks to the contradiction at the core of her personality – she likes having actionable, immediate targets to hit, but can never actually be honest about her intentions.

This contradiction is understandable, particularly for a person like Taiga. It’s very discomforting to think that our potential ability to date our crushes ultimately rests on a coin flip of “do they like me or not.” We’d rather be able to steadily work towards achieving a specific goal, secure in the knowledge that our efforts are actually meaningful. Taiga isn’t truly angry at the student council president, but “I have all this rage and she started it” is something she can actually act on, an emotional conflict she can theoretically resolve through action and willpower. Outside of her inability to confess to Kitamura, Taiga embraces direct, blunt action in every way she can – even her moping is the Most Moping, a testament to her straightforward strength.

Taiga’s amazing moping posture highlights another of this anime’s great strengths – the fluidity and elasticity of its animation and character designs. Masayoshi Tanaka’s character designs pretty much always hold to this rounded, blobby, almost jello-like fluidity, naturally lending themselves to pleasingly cartoonish character acting and great expression work. In Toradora, the strength of those designs is embraced through a wide array of flavorful, exaggerated expressions, along with goofy animation beats like Taiga’s jump here. Taiga’s body language often makes it seem like she’s literally melting into the floor, a charming articulation of her usual combination of scheming, entitlement, and despair.

Ryuuji and Taiga ultimately end up sharing their lunch break with Kitamura and Minori, in a sequence that once again demonstrates Toradora’s unique talent for natural, dramatically effective dialogue. This sequence in particular rides heavily on the mundane yet naturally flowing arc of Kitamura’s conversation. Kitamura Taiga’s lunch, asking a question that is then redirected to Ryuuji. Ryuuji stammeringly answers the question, and Kitamura picks up on one detail of that answer, asking a relevant followup that brings the whole table into the discussion.

When plotted out like this, point-counterpoint conversations like this seem incredibly basic, but many anime forego this naturalism to instead embrace familiar, prewritten conversational beats. Countless romantic comedies rely on dialogue that either feels transposed from other shows in the same genre, unrelated to the cast’s current situation, or which all possesses the same highly specific authorial voice. These styles of conversation are familiar enough to not feel abrasive, but that very familiarity means they are often incapable of telling us anything genuinely new about their participants. Instead, Toradora embraces the fact that all four of these characters are entering this conversation from different points of personal familiarity and different comfort levels with idle conversation. There’s a lot more jostling between conversational threads and mundane comments, but that’s how actual conversations play out, and depicting these conversational negotiations in all their messy glory is a key part of Toradora’s emotional appeal.

After demonstrating just how awkward they are around their crushes, Ryuuji and Taiga spend most of the rest of this episode being extremely comfortable with each other. Led by the guiding conflict of Taiga’s quest for pictures, we see by Ryuuji’s expressions that he actually enjoys getting caught up in Taiga’s capers, and being relied upon. As I will continue to reiterate, Toradora’s most..

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This season gets pretty lean when it’s time for a JoJo recap episode, huh? With Bucciaratti’s boys stuck reliving all their most recent traumas, it fell to my other three ongoing productions to keep the peace this week. Fortunately, all three of those shows are pretty darn good, so I wasn’t really left wanting for entertainment either way. Demon Slayer continued to stick to its familiar narrative template, but also persisted in bolstering that template with lots of phenomenal art direction, as well as some theoretical thematic substance. Sarazanmai also stuck to its regular formula, but did a terrific job of fleshing out Toi as a protagonist. And Carole & Tuesday basically shored up any deficiencies in the other two, offering yet another ridiculously charming and far too short collection of capers. All this at greater length, as we break down the highs and lows of another week in anime!

Demon Slayer continued to stick pretty closely to shonen training fundamentals this week, but managed to give those fundamentals more of a novel twist than the last couple episodes. The key choice here was the first half’s focus on the actual history of Tanjiro’s opponent, as Demon Slayer worked to humanize a theoretically unforgivable killer. Family is clearly key to Demon Slayer’s perspective, and the tragedy of demons turning on their families was immediately contrasted against the Buddhist view of reincarnation, with the demon slayers themselves seemingly working to counter cycles of violence with more positive cycles of reincarnation.

The rest of the episode mostly just hurried us through the end of Tanjiro’s training, but Demon Slayer’s vivid visual strengths once again made this familiar material surprisingly rewarding. The focus on CG arenas that has given Demon Slayer’s battles such a clear sense of physical space also seems reflected in the show’s non-CG compositions and backgrounds, with the show very consistently creating a strong sense of depth through the layouts and layers of its compositions. Demon Slayer’s scenes possess a tactile physicality that consistently makes me feel like I’m right there with Tanjiro, and as long as the show is able to keep up that level of profound visual engagement, I’m happy to let it find its feet in terms of its narrative identity.

In terms of its own unique content, this week’s Sarazanmai was fairly engaging. Toi is definitely one of the most intriguing and unique characters in Sarazanmai, and this week’s revelations about his family situation went a long way towards solidifying him into a coherent, sympathetic protagonist. The evolution of his perspective towards justice was illustrated beautifully through his naturally escalating responses to his brother’s actions, as the simplistic idealism of childhood eventually morphed into a tempered determination to at least be his brother’s protector in an unfair world. Sarazanmai is also stronger for having established casual relationships between its main leads. The incidental, character-based drama of stuff like Kazuki begging Toi to help him pull off a kidnapping is exactly the emotionally resonant stuff this show needs, a necessary counterbalance to all the cryptic symbolism and repeated refrains.

On the other hand, I’m frankly getting pretty fatigued with the symbolism and repetition. I’ve fallen out of love with “uncover the clues to discover the message!” storytelling for a while now, and generally find it less effective for conveying a point than dramatic clarity. If your theme is so obscured that it demands careful interpretation of a rich symbology to divine, then I don’t think your story’s message will reach anyone except those specifically fascinated by puzzle-box storytelling. But that stylistic preference is far less of a problem than the plain fact that basically every second episode half of this show has been the same exact sequence so far, barring the specific details of whatever secret that episode is revealing. I left my chair to go refill my water during this week’s otter dance, and again to go pee during its final “battle.” Twenty minute episodes shouldn’t feature eight to ten minutes of total visual/dramatic repetition, and when you combine that with the generally slow pacing of this story so far, you end up with a production that’s beginning to feel a lot like work.

Finally, Carole & Tuesday continues to make this shit look easy, offering another twenty minutes of beautiful, funny, and deeply engaging band journey mishaps. With a great deal of the show’s central variables already established, this episode was able to make terrific use of the contrasting personalities of our two heroines, Gus, and Roddie, with Gus’s ex-wife Marie making a very welcome surprise appearance. Marie’s conversations with Gus went a long way towards selling him as a sympathetic lead within this production, while her own story of remarriage continued this season’s theme of unabashed and naturally integrated representation.

Meanwhile, this episode’s overt narrative caper was as silly and entertaining as they come, mining strong characterization and comedy out of the filming progress, and ending on the hilarious and reference-laden video itself. Carole & Tuesday combines Watanabe’s profound strengths as a director, strong connections within the industry, and reverence for music with many of the slice of life and character drama conventions that make anime a uniquely appealing medium for character-focused stories. It consistently feels like one of anime’s greatest directors directly celebrating that which is most unique and engaging about his medium, and I feel like I love it more every day.

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