Rewatching FLCL (and the K-On! Movie)

I’m amazed that I’ve seen FLCL so many times that it now feels like the most clear-cut, easily-understood thing in the world. I couldn’t write about it now the way I did three years ago even if I wanted to, because back then I was just realizing and rationalizing everything; whereas now, it all feels obvious. Back then, I felt like I was explaining something in dense detail. Now, I fear I’d take too much of what I already know for granted.

It’s like I’m watching a stripped-down version of the series. I still see it as an incredibly dense show with meaning in every moment; but without the mystery to untangle, I can look at each moment and think about what they mean to me directly, instead of what meaning I need to find in them.

One of the great things about seeing this in FLCL is that I’ve watched it more times than any other show. Besides Cowboy Bebop, there’s no show which I’ve loved for a longer time (meaning from a younger age). When I was thirteen, Ninamori made about as much sense to me as real girls my age did. Now, I see the meaning behind every piece of dialog and facial expression that she makes like it’s written in text on the screen. Even three years ago, I don’t think I completely understood Mamimi—whereas now, I just get it.

I watched the K-On movie today, which is good timing, because I’m making an effort to rewatch some of my favorite anime. What’s interesting is that I now watch K-On much in the same way that I watch FLCL. Both of them are dense shows in wholly different ways. Whereas I couldn’t always see to the full depths of FLCL’s mass, I can now see it as well as I can the depths in K-On (which are far more transparent and, if I’m being completely honest, less deep. But I don’t want that to sound as obvious as it probably does.)

How Studio 4c Impacts the Style of Berserk

[EDIT: This post was done under the false presumption that the original Berserk anime was made by Madhouse, when it was actually made by Oriental Light and Magic. Please ignore all the stuff about Madhouse.]

I wish I knew more about the changing states of anime studios. In the past few years, many studios have undergone many changes, and it’s gotten hard to keep track of who’s where and what impact any of it has. This post concerns itself with two studios that have been particularly confusing as of late: Studio 4c and Madhouse.

Madhouse has been around forever, and for the longest time, their touch on a show was unmistakable. They worked in many different genres, but always had a certain way with character design that I can best describe as “solid” or “grounded.” They’ve always been the only studio that can do right by CLAMP designs, and even though those designs are wholly different from the styles of shows like Hajime no Ippo or Rainbow, all of them share that solid, grounded feeling.

Madhouse shows are usually high-quality, and if the animation doesn’t exactly shine, it doesn’t mean that the show isn’t a big undertaking. I once asked the studio head, Masao Maruyama, at a Q&A, about how the studio’s budget is divided among the many shows that they create at once, pointing out that one of the shows they were doing, Souten Kouro, seemed to get the shaft in the animation department compared to their other shows. Maruyama simply corrected me by pointing out that Souten Kouro requires drawing large numbers of men in very detailed armor, and horses and shit, which makes it still a lot of work to draw, even if the movement isn’t as smooth.

This is how I would describe the original Berserk anime produced by Madhouse. There are a lot of shoddy animation and off-model moments, but the show was cel animated with shitloads of large battle pieces full of armor-wearing dudes, and the character designs were incredibly complex. A lesser studio couldn’t have made Berserk even as good as it was, which was about as good as it feasibly could’ve been at the time.

After fifteen years of only getting more popular, Berserk is now seeing a new set of movie adaptations. I’ve heard that apparently they’re supposed to adapt the entire manga eventually, but my sources are iffy at best. I have no idea why Madhouse can’t or won’t do these movies, nor indeed what the hell is going on with the studio. I’ve been told that a lot of their staff has left, which would explain why the’ve been doing little other than shitty comic book adaptations for the past year and a half. I’ve also heard that some of the staff went to TMS Entertainment, which would explain why that studio is doing The Woman Called Fujiko and Zetman, which look like Madhouse shows.

But again, my sources are secondary. I just don’t know what’s going on.

Then we have Studio 4c, which is even more of a conundrum. 4c used to do almost nothing but ultra-artsy shorts. They did a lot of music videos, short films, and joint projects with Madhouse and Production I.G. Years ago, I read an interview with the head of the studio, wherein they stated that 4c only took on projects that it was interested in, that the core of the studio was very small, and that they did a lot of small projects at once, usually working with different directors who came up with the ideas. I have no idea how much of this remains true.

Even though Studio 4c and Madhouse used to collaborate frequently, and both enjoy artsy projects, the studios are almost opposites in terms of style. 4c usually has more fluid designs, in contrast to Madhouse’s solid. Even when Madhouse would go more fluid with a show, like Kemonozume, it still feels more grounded than something like Mind Game or Tweeny Witches from Studio 4c.

However, in the past few years, there’s been a surge of 4c doing stuff that seems more up Madhouse’s alley—and totally failing at it. They did an anime accompaniment to Street Fighter IV (2009) which was absolute shit, precisely because big muscly dudes aren’t something 4c are good at. Read this Ogiue Maniax post for more on how the studio was switched to Gonzo for the anime accompaniment to Super Street Fighter IV, what with Gonzo being second only to Madhouse at animating solid, muscle-heavy characters.

This hasn’t stopped 4c from continuing down this path. Last year, they worked on Asura’s Wrath, which was a game wherein every character looks like Akuma from Street Fighter. Asura’s Wrath mostly consists of interactive cutscenes, which are about giant dudes beating the piss out of one-another in incredibly over-the-top fashion. Lots of people enjoy it for this—meanwhile I found the cinematics to be poorly directed, uninspired shitpiles from the ones that I saw. 4c is also doing the new Thundercats cartoon for US TV, which is again a show primarily concerned with masculine characters, and which also looks pretty damn awkward because man IT’S STUDIO 4C.

Once more, I don’t know if Studio 4c has majorly changed and become a studio that’s all about muscly dude animation now. What I do know is that they are the ones making the new Berserk movies, and while they haven’t fucked the first one up anywhere near the kind of way they fucked up Street Fighter IV, it still feels a bit strange.

Berserk is a fantasy manga, and it really comes through in Kentaro Miura’s art. He draws whispy, fantastical lines, sometimes hard-edged for gritty pulp fantasy, and other times light and feathery like a fairy tale. In the early part of the manga, though, which was adapted in the anime, it was mostly the former.

Madhouse captured this brilliantly. Their character art was rough and gorgeous just like Miura’s, and the hand-drawn aspect served to fuel it as well. More importantly than anything, Kobayashi Shichiro’s superb background art brought the fantasy world to life in its rustic, old-school way that he still brings to everything he works on to this day.

The new movie does not have this. Everything is very clean and polished. Everything is in CG and modern, the opposite of the anime’s rustic feel. The characters are still gorgeous, but they are not harsh or edgy. The world looks more expansive and more real than ever, but it does not look like fantasy.

And this aspect, more than anything, is what bothers me about the Berserk movie. As a Berserk fan, I already know the story and characters, so missing things here and there is no problem. The movie is amazingly faithful to the original anime, so aside from missing some pieces that I really would’ve liked to see (what happened to the first major battle Guts fights with the Band of the Hawk?), the portrayal of the story is solid. I love that the movie brings new realism and better fights to the franchise—but I hate that it isn’t merged with the visual fantasy that gives the series its tone.

[NOTE: For what it’s worth, it’s not as though the Studio 4c manly show trend is out of nowhere. Studio 4c did Spriggan in 2002, which is probably the best thing of the sort that they’ve done, though it still isn’t as good as Madhouse could’ve done the same movie. I think it should be more indicative of their style that when they and Madhouse both did shorts for Batman: Gotham Knight, Madhouse did it in ultra-masculine comic book style, while 4c did it in the whispy style that they’re best known for.]

A Battle of Giants in The Raid: Redemption

More so than any other movie described as such (besides The Protector), The Raid: Redemption is a truly non-stop action piece. It begins when a twenty-man police force raids a fifteen-story gang hive, quickly realize that they’ve been set up, and more than half of them are eliminated. Those who remain struggle to escape. Virtually everyone dies in the process.

In most action movies, the main character is crazy powerful. We know that even if everyone else dies, this guy will make it out because he bulldozes everything. For instance, in The Protector, the odds are constantly stacked higher against Tony Jaa’s character, so that we can watch him do increasingly badass things. He takes out guys on motorcycles, extremely skilled fighters, guys with guns, hordes of men attacking at once, and, towards the end, a small gang of giant men.

Without question, Tony Jaa is the biggest badass in the movie. No matter what the odds are, he always emerges as champion. The Raid: Redemption flips this on its head, even as it plays it straight.

The main character, played by Iko Uwais, begins as a lion in sheep’s clothing. Though the movie doesn’t have much to go on, he is remarked as being the newest member of the team, and others see him as a liability. It doesn’t take long for him to emerge as easily the most powerful and intelligent member of his team, nor does it take long before it becomes apparent that if anyone besides him were to survive, they’d have him to thank for it. He bulldozes most of the minor adversaries, but somehow doesn’t seem all-powerful.

That’s because the bad guys are stacked like crazy against him and the rest of the raid group. Most of the group is eliminated almost effortlessly by enemies who are better-prepared and more skilled in general. Uwais’ character doesn’t simply destroy everything, but has to hide and tactically plan his way around. Moreover, the idea of doing what he came to do is quickly rendered obsolete. He does not brave up to go take on the final boss despite the crazy odds. As a matter of fact, he isn’t even really there to do that in the first place: he actually came to try and retrieve his brother, who works for the enemy. When his brother refuses to leave with him, it’s still a matter not of fighting to the top, but of trying to escape with as many of his living teammates as he can.

To stack things even better, the villain’s right-hand-dragon is actually exponentially more powerful than Uwais or anyone else in the movie. In his establishing fight, this guy forces the police squad leader into a room at gunpoint, then willingly disarms himself so that they can fight hand-to-hand. Not only is the squad leader armored, but he’s nearly two feet taller than the dragon (as I will call him from here on out). After a lengthy and intense fight, the dragon emerges victorious.

Uwais is not capable of killing this dragon. In the penultimate fight, Uwais and his brother  team up to fight the dragon, who is again shorter than both of them, and Uwais is still lightly armored. It remains a struggle even for both of them to take this guy out, and then it’s still a matter of escaping the place, aided by the clusterfuck it’s altogether become.

I found this interesting, because I think it’s the first time I’ve seen a main character who was genuinely less powerful than the enemies he was facing. I’ve seen many short guys fighting numerous, much taller dudes, but never has that been the bad guy.

This is part of how The Raid is so much about action with absolutely no frills. The movie has only enough dialog to establish context for everything that happens, which serves the purpose of fueling combat. While Uwais is heroic in trying to save his companions and not trying to escape on his own, he isn’t painted as a single giant hero taking on all the bad guys. Had one of them not been his brother, he would never have made it out alive, and almost no one else indeed does.

What Do We Stand To Gain From The Berserk Movie?

I’m drunker than glothelegend so bear with me here.

I’m extremely familiar with Berserk, having watched the (first half of) the anime and read the manga, then watched the anime again, so I know this story (one of my all-time favorites) like the back of my hand. Going into this movie, my expectations weren’t high. I’d seen previews and found the style of character designs awkward, and I didn’t understand why we were revisiting the Golden Age arc again. It’s already been done by the original anime, and people have wanted a continuation of the story forever.

But I’m not one to snub my nose at HD remakes. There’s nothing that a fan stands to lose from the existence of such things. Don’t like the remake? Well, the original is still there. Maybe just be glad that the new one has something you might like in it. I went into the first Berserk movie asking myself, what does this add to the franchise as a whole?

Because indeed, I don’t think this is a “replacement” for the anime or the manga. I would not recommend watching just the movies on their own. As a Berserk fan, there’s nothing to lose, but just as any fan of the anime should definitely read the manga because it has more of the plot, and any fan of the manga can do no wrong to watch the anime, if you watch this movie, you owe it to yourself to partake in the original anime and the manga, because the movie cuts too much out.

In just over an hour, this movie covers about ten fucking episodes of the anime (not including the first episode, which isn’t covered). I’m not sure how much of the manga this is, but it’s probably something like six volumes (we must skip the first three and a half because, again, those aren’t covered here). There’s certainly a lot of useless shit in the show, where episodes feel a little longer than they may have needed to be (usually while enemies talk about how awesome they are for minutes on end), yet this movie happens so fast that it doesn’t give time to endear one to the characters or get sucked into what’s happening, or get wrapped up in Griffith’s enigma.

But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve seen Berserk too many times, and am interpreting it as a fan would, not knowing how it would appeal to new hopefuls. Also, I was slamming shots the whole time, so I could barely even see by the end of it.

Anyway, there’s something to gain here. It’s in the massively enhanced realism. One of the biggest drawbacks of the original show is that the battles suck a fat cock. We just see a bunch of shots of dudes killing dudes, with spacial relationships constantly changing while people stand around talking about what’s happening. The new movies bring the world and the scenes to life better than the show or manga could. It has the sense of “if this had really happened, this is what it really would have looked like.”

I enjoyed this aspect a lot, because it seemed to fill in the gaps in my imagination about what had happened in the story. For instance, in both the show and manga, all we ever see of the first battle where Guts kills whats-his-fuck is the fight itself, whereas in the movie, we get a better idea of the fact that a whole battle happens, and there’s shit like siege weaponry employed.

That said, it’s not like the new battles are necessarily interesting. The movie has realism, but it isn’t well-directed or particularly interesting to look at outside of being a re-imagination of Berserk. Moreover, the entire movie is in CG. At first, I found this incredibly awkward, and I’m still not sure if I just got used to it, or got so drunk that it stopped being as apparent to me. The CG is what allows for these big-scale fights and for the realistic movements, but it is smack dab in the middle of the uncanny valley; weird as fuck.

Fans of the series probably won’t be impressed by this movie because all it adds is a small bit of visual enhancement while cutting even more from the story that had already been problematically cut from the anime. When I’d heard there would be three movies, I thought it would mean that they were going to cover everything, not that they were going to make the movies ultra-short, which makes no sense.

But again, I’ve lost nothing. At worst, I’ve gained. Just not a whole lot.

End of Utena: Apocalypse of Adolescence – Diary of an Anime Lived

NOTE: This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the Revolutionary Girl Utena movie. It is also slightly NSFW. A post in the Diary of an Anime Lived series.

End of Utena resonated with me in many ways. It’s message, it’s art, the lives of it’s characters – it did what made the series great and kept it more concentrated, poignant, and blatant, which I appreciated. It is a masterpiece, pure and simple, and I was glad that I could find a way to pay tribute to it’s art and message without sacrificing either. End of Utena will go down as one of my favorite anime, because it fills me with such a feeling that I cannot deny it’s impact. I hope that those feelings come through in this video.

I also wanted to make a special note of it’s ending. Was that the most awesome ending of an anime or what!? Hot, naked lesbians making out while laying on the back of a raging motorcycle? What more could I possibly ask for?