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Today marks the climax of the sixth annual Reverse Thieves Secret Santa project; through which a bunch of anime bloggers trade secret recommendations in the months leading up to Christmas, and then all of the participants publish a review of their shows on Christmas Eve. As the rules go, each blogger is recommended three shows that they’ve never seen before with the stipulation that they be twenty-six episodes or less, and they must watch and review at least one of those shows by December twenty-fourth. Being the kind of guy that I am, of course I always try and watch all three of my recommended shows, so what follows are my impressions on each of the ones I was given. Firstly, Nagi no Asukara.
Oddly enough, I actually watched the first episode of this series six months ago on someone else’s recommendation, and decided that it wasn’t my thing; but I forgot to mark it as dropped on My Anime List, so it ended up in my recommendations again. I was okay with this, since I’d heard a lot of good things about the show and I didn’t expect it to be bad or anything, but after fourteen episodes, I once again decided to drop the series on the grounds that it still was very much not my thing.
I wanted to like NagiAsu, because I admire the way that P.A. Works continually puts out original anime with high-quality artwork; but for some reason the studio seems fixated on generating teen melodramas, which are just about the least interesting genre in the world to me. I’ve always found it difficult to invest myself in a conflict that will probably resolve itself by the characters aging a couple of years unless I’m interested in those characters as people; and in fourteen episodes of NagiAsu, I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of these kids.
I’ve noticed a habit in shows written by Okada Mari (which also surfaced in the other two shows that she wrote this year, M3 and Selector Infected WIXOSS), in which she tends to have the characters care very strongly about something, and then sort of assume that the viewer is going to care because of how much the characters care. Throughout the early part of NagiAsu, the only thing that I knew about each of the characters was who they had a crush on, which is like a double-whammy of not caring when both the character I’m meant to root for as well as their crush have no real personality outside of their attraction to someone.
I do understand why many viewers will find this show easy to engage with. The artwork is beautiful and the animation is consistently fluid, though personally I didn’t care for any of the character designs and found their weird plastic eyes a little off-putting. There’s this whole thing where all the main characters are from an underwater city but go to school on land, and I guess the underwater city is cool, but we don’t actually learn a whole lot about it and its history outside of things that are relevant to the plot of their conflict with the surface dwellers. (At least, not in the first fourteen episodes). I never felt any grand sense of what life was like for these underwater people, other than that they have a couple of unique customs and abilities. Besides that, they just act like regular people, making the whole underwater city thing feel pretty arbitrary.
I guess you could wrap up a lot of my feelings by saying that the show felt hollow. I didn’t feel connected to the city underwater nor the one on land, I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters or their relationships, and everything felt totally inconsequential. Halfway through the series, there’s a major plot twist that ostensibly changes all of the characters and their relationships, but it actually feels more like the show just started over again from the beginning, while making the exact same motions that it was making before, just in a slightly altered context. The big twist didn’t make me care any more about anything than I did before, so I read some spoilers for the rest of the show to confirm that it was going where I thought it was going, and dropped it there.
To give NagiAsu a bit of credit, there was one plot thread which grabbed my attention around episodes three and four, which was that of Akari’s relationship with a surface-dwelling family that she wanted to become a member of after the death of their wife/mother figure. There was a pretty neat interplay between how Akari’s village, as well as the daughter of the guy she was seeing, were rejecting her relationship, even though Akari and the daughter had previously been friends; and how Hikari comes of age in the process of trying to help Akari through this conflict, while the daughter matures in her feelings towards both Hikari and Akari in order to complete this family unit. All of that was pretty interesting, and it did well to utilize the idea that the surface people and underwater people didn’t get along by using it as context for a smaller human drama.
Unfortunately, this subplot exhausts all of its interesting thematic ideas in the span of two or three episodes. After that, we just watch the characters go through the motions of the story, recanting the same speeches about how everyone just needs to get along, and the conflict between the two cities quickly becomes overblown, impersonal, and hammy. Also, there’s a point where it gets really weird because the underwater people are going into hibernation to avoid what they believe to be the end of the world, and they make it out like telling the people of this one city is akin to telling the entire surface population that they’re all going to die. Even once they do tell them, it doesn’t result in any action on the part of the surface dwellers, which was just strange. It really felt like the show didn’t want me to think about it.
Anyways, ultimately NagiAsu wasn’t a bad show, and I could see others getting into it easily if they can buy into the characters and setting more than I could. The same could also be said of my next recommendation, Hyouka.
My reaction to Hyouka can only be called a very rare case of extreme frustration. NagiAsu may have been a show that I wanted to like, but with Hyouka it was more like my dislike of the show outright baffled me. I would more or less consider myself a fan of Kyoto Animation, given that they’ve produced some of my alltime favorite anime, but more than that I’m a fan of high-quality production in general; and Hyouka is some seriously next-level shit.
Like… Jesus Christ, has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do more look like? I wracked my brain trying to think of a two-cour animated series with better production values, and I couldn’t come up with anything–and that’s what makes it endlessly frustrating that the show is so god damn boring.
Who was it, at what stage of production, that suggested, “hey, we’ve got a show about characters standing and sitting around talking nonstop episode after episode, so how about we give it the biggest budget ever and show off our production quality constantly?” Do you see how that kinda sounds weird and backwards? Like, okay, I get that the idea here is that if you’re going to have a show about characters sitting around talking, then you might as well make it pleasant and exciting to look at so that it can hold your attention; but could you imagine if that talent had been applied to, like, ANYTHING ELSE?
See, what grinds my gears about this, is that in spite of the lusciously detailed production, Hyouka is still boring. All of those insane camera angles that make me wonder how they were even able to animate something from that perspective; all of those visualizations that punch through ten detailed illustrations at once like it’s nothing; none of that stuff actually feels warranted by the narrative. It feels tacked-on and unnecessary, if not outright distracting, in that I get caught up thinking about the ridiculous things happening on-screen instead of processing the endless rambling dialog.
Additionally, I kind of hate the way this show is directed. Every scene is full of constant hyperactive cutting, which often puts the camera in wildly different, even nonsensical places, as if the proverbial cameraman is getting bored of filming this conversation and just starts dicking around to see what kind of cool shots he can get. I’m sure it’s entertaining from the perspective of an animator, but the whole thing feels like a visual mess with no sense of cinematic cohesion.
And while this is even more of a personal hangup, I also don’t like the show’s overall aesthetic. Everything is purposefully made to look dull, drab, and ultra-normal, to reflect the bored nature of the protagonist–who by the way is the most boring character you could possibly ask for. His schtick is that he hates wasting energy, so he tries to do as little as possible, and his character arc is all about slowly coming out of his shell and engaging with life. Great, so until then I’m stuck with his frowny-ass, who-gives-a-fuck attitude as the lense through which I’m meant to view the narrative; it’s no wonder I can’t bring myself to care!
Before I rag on this show any further though, let me stop to clarify that I could easily recommend it to most people. I’ve read a lot of analytical posts on this series, as aggregated by Frog-kun in an excellent post which I’ll be linking in the description, and I get why other people like the show. I also get that plenty of people who were ambivalent towards it in the beginning were later able to enjoy it, and sure, maybe if I finished the show, I’d find something to like. I’m not willing to sit through another seventeen episodes to find out if that might be the case.
To be more analytical about it, the appeal of Hyouka up to this point as I see it is that of human curiosity. Hyouka is kind of a mystery show, but really it’s more like a show about Chitanda having her curiosity piqued, and then trying to satisfy that curiosity. Conversely, I have never liked mystery shows, and I have never found myself willing to watch an entire series out of curiosity alone. If I don’t care about what’s going on, then I’m not going to form any connections with the series, and I’m going to move on to the next one. My desire to know what everyone loved so much about this series was very quickly eclipsed by my frustration at the thought of watching any more of it, so after five and a half episodes, I finally gave up.
Which leaves me with one final recommendation in the form of Jin-Rou the Wolf Brigade. If my yet-unidentified secret santa has been made sad by my reviews up to this point, then hopefully I can take this chance to save Christmas, because I actually enjoyed this film!
I’ve known about Jin-Rou for about as long as I’ve been watching anime, and most of what I knew about it was that it’s both very good, and very, very slow. Having consumed a number of other works by Mamoru Oshii, I had no reason to doubt either of those claims; but I suspect that my lack of impetus to hurry and watch this film was more out of fear. Whenever I know that a film is simultaneously divisive as well as critically well-liked, I find myself really wanting to like it, while also really afraid that I might not–which makes it difficult to approach.
Luckily, there’s a fantastic review/recommendation of this film by fellow anime youtuber Demolition D+, which gave me some tools to be ready for it, and which I highly recommend checking out. Demo says pretty much anything that I’d want to say about the production, background, and overall general appeal of this film, so I’m not going to reiterate any of his points; but what I will do is supply my own analytical interpretation of the film’s message. This could very much be considered SPOILER TERRITORY, so if you haven’t seen this film yet, go watch Demo’s review and decide if it seems like your thing–and if it is, go ahead and watch it before continuing with this post.
To me, the ultimate purpose of Jin-Rou was to portray a sort of mechanical, instinct-driven world of beasts, against which one all-encompassing existential question is posed: why?
It may seem odd to portray the words “mechanical” and “instinct-driven” as being similar, but in the same sense that a mechanism is something which operates through systematized logic, the core of all the thoughts and actions of living organisms also operate on the basis of such logic. How this logic manifests itself can be different for different organisms, which is explained by one of the military dudes towards the beginning of the film when talking about how the rebel forces operate under a different kind of logic that makes no sense to the police.
There are pervasive themes throughout the film about going through the motions, taking the easy way out, and operating as a matter of course. Fuse is constantly criticized for not taking the correct course of action when he neglected to gun down the suicide bomber at the start, and even Fuse admits that he had intended to shoot the girl if not for the question that entered his mind at that moment, of, “why?”
Why does this girl operate this way? Why does Fuse operate this way? Why does the world operate this way? Why does he have to shoot her, and why does she have to die? The answer is that this is the way things work. It’s a self-perpetuating machine, which is why the film ends in exactly the way that it constantly tells us that it’s going to end. The wolf must always eat red riding hood, because that’s what the wolf does.
Fuse is constantly told by everyone else that he is nothing but a beast; but really, everyone in this film is a beast that operates wholly on instinct. When Kei breaks down and yells that she wished that she and Fuse could have killed themselves together, she is lamenting that she couldn’t take the easy way out–to follow the course that felt natural. The girl who blew herself up did so because it was the way that she was programmed. When Fuse explains why he joined the special forces, he says that it was the first time that he felt like he fit in somewhere–it was something that came naturally to him, which he could do without question.
I think it’s important to realize that Fuse never had any romantic feelings for Kei, and that Kei’s romantic feelings for Fuse are most likely born strictly out of desperation. Fuse knew from the beginning whom Kei was, and that eventually he was going to have to kill her. When he envisions this eventuality, he sees himself as the only human, surrounded by wolves. He sees an eventuality that he wants to stop, but knows that he can’t do anything about it. Fuse’s desperation to not have Kei killed is less about her, and more about his own existential dread at the realization that he can never escape this system that forces him to kill people who don’t need to die. His crisis is that he cannot stop the natural, instinctual flow of the world around him.
Fuse shoots Kei in the end because he knows that someone is going to do it either way. Kei wants Fuse to love her out of desperation, because she knows that the she’s going to die unless she can escape the system. In the end, the idea that these two could ever escape is an impossibility, and Fuse is left with his existential dread forever.
Having seen a lot of Mamoru Oshii’s work, I think it’s interesting how most of his stories center on bouncing one very broad and straightforward philosophical question against a much larger and more complex story and setting. You can see this in its rawest form in Angel’s Egg, wherein the only dialog in the entire film is one very brief existential conversation; and the theme of trying to question or escape a systemized existence also drives the narrative of The Sky Crawlers.
While the theme of Jin-Rou is ultimately pretty simple, it’s presented in an interesting and engaging way which got me thinking, and for that I think it’s a worthwhile experience. I could easily see watching it again for its unique atmosphere and incredible action directing, which utilizes tension and dispersal perfectly both in the framing and timing of its imagery. I actually found myself enjoying this film more than Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell adaptation, and I want to now plunge into the careers of everyone involved in this film to see what other gems I’ve missed out on. I saw that Kenji Kamiyama, director of Stand Alone Complex, was the animation director for this movie, so that was pretty cool too.
Anyways, that wraps up my secret santa reviews! Even though I only came away enjoying one of the three recommendations, I found this to be an interesting and enriching experience on the whole. Ordinarily, I have a tendency to drop shows very quickly if they don’t click with me from the get-go, so it was fun to spend a little more time with Hyouka and NagiAsu to really dig into the bones of what I found so off-putting about them; especially considering that both were really well-made and critically well-liked shows. Plus, it was nice to finally get Jin-Roh off of my plate. I’ll be excited to participate in secret santa again next year, and I hope whoever they are, that my secret santa has a happy holiday!
Learn more about the secret santa project here: http://reversethieves.com/secret-santa-project/
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Frog-kun’s aggregate analysis of Hyouka: https://fantasticmemes.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/a-database-of-curiosities-a-hyouka-literature-review/
Demolition D+ on Jin-Roh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIc1Nt7wZjw