[LTTP/WIW] Various anime from the 00s and beyond

Jhiday

Unrepentant Froggie
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Now and Then, Here and There (Ima, Soko ni Iru Boku)
(13 episodes, 1999)

My previous exposure

This is the first review I'm doing because it's been recommended in this thread. Beyond that, I don't know much about the series, aside that (1) it's grim, and (2) the main villain has been compared to Fractale's.

What's it about ?

Shu, our protagonist, was just an ordinary middle-schooler until he met bizarre blue-haired girl Lala Ru. Before they can have a proper conversation, though, they're transported into another world and captured by soldiers from Hellywood, the main baddies of the series.

To say that Hellywood is a hellhole is an understatement. This desert fortress is ruled by Hamdo, a raving madman, and ultra-professional yes-woman Abelia. They replenish their army by raiding the villages around them and enrolling the boys by force. (They also take the women and girls for, er, a more long-term approach.) They seek Lala Ru because she holds the power of creating water out of nowhere, which is obviously a hot commodity on this dying desert world.

Other major characters include Sarah, an American girl Abelia mistook for Lala Ru and captured before noticing her mistake ; and Nabuca, the kid leader of the brigade Shu is thrown into after interrogation.

Production Values

I had to double-check the date of production, as the artstyle and character design are something I associate much more with the early 90s or earlier than 1999 (it certainly doesn't look like any other late-90s show I've ever watched). But then, that's probably the point : it lures us into a false sense of security by looking like "safe" children's entertainment before wheeling out the torture, mass-slaughter and rape. It takes some getting used to, but the animation is perfectly okay.

The soundtrack comes courtesy of my favourite composer, Taku Iwasaki (you should have told me !). While it's way too early for him to be randomly inserting rap lyrics everywhere, he's still very recognizable thanks to his reliance on big sweeping violins numbers and those weird water-y percussions that should be familiar to any watcher of Witch Hunter Robin or Read or Die. It's sometimes a bit clumsy, but his brillance at establishing mood was already clearly in effect.

What did I think of it ?

Well, this is certainly a grim series. My DVDs include an interview with the director where he states he was inspired by documentaries about African child soldiers, and it certain shows. All of the ways Hellywood perpetuates itself and the cycle of violence are distressingly realistic, and the series doesn't shy away from explaining the specifics, up to and including institutionalized rape (although it stops just short of depicting it graphically). No character escapes unscathed...

... With the exception of Shu, whose boundless optimism and energy staggers disbelief. (Climbing up ventilation shafts just after being tortured and shot twice ? Uh ?) I can't complain too much, though ; without him around to protest about how horrible this world is, and actually trying to make things better, the series would fall into an inescapable pit of despair. (Lala Ru's pretty much resigned herself after thousands of years of being fought over, and Sarah, while perfectly capable of saving herself on her own, was well on her way to join the circle of violence if Shu hadn't stepped in.) His presence, however implausible his resilience, is the catalyst for change.

And this is where we hit the series' weakness : while it's very good at depicting this hellish world and characterizing how nearly everyone is part of the problem, it doesn't offer much depth beyond that. The whole narrative is subservient to its "war is hell" message, and however good a rendition it is, it doesn't manage to really rise above it. The issue may be with the characters, who remain mostly one-dimensional throughout.

This is certainly a show worth watching ; but its shortcomings prevent it from really winning a place among my favourites.
 

Jhiday

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Haibane Renmei
(13 episodes, 2002)

My previous exposure

The second series I watched that was suggested by this thread ! And, er, that's it : your descriptions didn't give me much of an image of the show, and I tried to stay as unspoilt as possible anyway.

What's it about ?

In what looks like a rural European city (but could really be anywhere), lives a small community of winged teenagers and kids (the titular Haibane, or "Grey Wings") who hatch full-grown from eggs, get jobs helping around the villagers if they're old enough, and eventually "fly off" when it's time for them to move on.

The series follows the viewpoint of Rakka, the latest hatched Haibane, who thus gets to learn the strange customs and rules of the community and grow familiar with the other Haibane along with the audience.

What did I think of it ?

It's been two weeks since I've watched this, and I'm still not sure what I thought of it.

Part of the problem comes from the initial episodes, where some of the Haibane's customs (as well as the false impression that there are only female Haibane) leave a strong bad taste of Patriarchy. Now, further episodes makes it clear that's not the case at all (there ARE male Haibane, who are treated exactly the same way ; and the few old men in charge of the system are all but stated to be failed Haibane who try and help the new ones), but that was still not the best first impression for a series to start off with.

Obviously, the series is a blatant metaphor for purgatory, what with the otherwise useless wings/aureolas that the Haibane have, and the general theme of moving beyond one's past issues in order to go forward. Heck, the climax even deals with a Haibane who committed suicide in her previous life. The symbolism couldn't be more obvious.

But I don't particularly care about that. Fortunately, the show also works on a more prosaic level - a newcomer entering a community and progressively blending in, despite learning that she'll have to go eventually. The slice of life episodes about each girl's job are my favourite, as are the bits explaining how the community actually works. Who the Haibane were before and where they go after is mostly irrelevant (besides the way it affects their personalities), and I kinda get the feeling that the show agrees with me (what with never showing any of it, or the general message of "you need to get past it").

Don't mistake me, I've enjoyed watching this show ; I have a thing for slightly off-kilter slice-of-life/drama, Kana's job pleased my tech geek side, and I enjoyed those characters' company. But the heavy-handed symbolism didn't quite click for me, which prevents the series from entering my hall of favourites. Still, I don't regret buying that boxset sight unseen.
 

dshaffer

Pervy Catgirl Fancier
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Have you watched Angel Beats? It's a recent series, so I never listed it, but I think it'd be an interesting comparison to Haibane Renmei's themes/mood.
 

Jhiday

Unrepentant Froggie
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Have you watched Angel Beats?
Yup. As I've said in the opener to this thread, if it aired in 2010-2011, there's a very good chance I saw it as it aired (or already went back to it).

The comparison with Angel Beats never arose to my mind, despite the similar themes, because they're so entirely different in tone. AB's constant mood whiplash between high-energy slapstick and intense melodrama is the complete opposite of HR's low-key, slow and deliberate approach.

Not that I disliked AB (although I'm not among those who thought the series would have been improved by being longer), but I have trouble even envisioning the two shows on the same plane. They're just so different...
 

Jhiday

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Rune Soldier Louie
(24 episodes, 2001)

My previous exposure

It's one of the various shows I tried out for my "Spring 2001 in review" thread. The first episode was fun, so I marked it down for further watching. (There's at least one other such show coming up soon-ish.)

What's it about ?

D&D-inspired fantasy comedy show. The all-female team of Melissa (not-that-uptight cleric), Genie (amazon fighter) and Merill (short thief) were looking for a magician to complete their adventuring party ; alas (and fortunately for our zygomaticus muscles), they can only get Louie, a definitely male (aside from that one episode) and burly magician... who ain't even much good at magic (he often tends to run towards the enemy fists first).

It's striking how tabletop-RPG their adventures are, down to the character of Louie's maybe-girlfriend Ila, who hands out quests, rewards, plot hooks and exposition (while being completely useless in a fight) like the best of NPCs. (It makes me wonder whether Louie's player was the GM's boyfriend that she added to the table against her players' will...)

This is a very episodic series, with just 4 episodes actually dealing with the "main" plot (although there's obviously a lot of setup for it hidden in the other episodes).

What did I think of it ?

Well, it's very funny indeed, although some of the running gags maybe have been a tiny bit overused (especially Melissa's "against my will" catchphrase). My favourite character would be Merill, whose constant unashamed greed is a sight to behold (and the great, late Tomoko Kawakami really gets to show off her range in some of the later episodes). The rival team were always welcome, thanks to being actually somewhat competent and sympathetic (and the Melissa/Isabel rivalry led to consistently great interplay, although the punchline was obvious from the start).

So, it's great fun. The problem is that there's not much beyond the surface, I presume on purpose : neither the characters nor the setting show much depth, and the various attempts to give some of them a more serious backstory (I'm looking at you, Genie) just fall flat. The series is at its best when it relishes in its stupidity and how much the characters act like PCs. Which it fortunately does frequently.

There very little ambition here besides having fun with a tabletop-RPG setting. It works, but nothing more.
 

ru

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Heh. This was one of my favourites, back in the day. I never liked the ending, though, which so obviously left everything hanging for a second season - which we never got.
 

JELEINEN

Sizzler Black Squadron
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Louie is part of the Lodoss setting, so that would explain its resemblance to a tabletop RPG.
 

Dawgstar

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Louie is part of the Lodoss setting, so that would explain its resemblance to a tabletop RPG.
"You rolled 18 for your wizard's strength? Do you wanna reroll?"
"Nah, I'm good."

It was a fine show for keeping things even in the cast, as I can recall. Louie had his thing, but the girls had their specialties and nobody seemed to get the short end of the stick.
 

Jhiday

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Shingu - Secret of the Stellar Wars

Shingu : Secret of the Stellar Wars (Gakuen Senki Muryo)
(26 episodes, 2001)

My previous exposure

It's another of the many series from Spring 2001 I checked out in this previous thread. The first episode was so bizarre I knew I had to view it in full eventually.

What's it about ?

The year 2070. It turns out that a little Japanese town has been a hub of alien activity for thousands of years, with numerous "diplomats" (read : spies) lounging around conspicuously. The reason for this is Shingu, a huge mecha-like weapon of tremendous power hidden there, that obviously everyone and their mother would like to get their hands on (or at least not to fall into anyone else's hands). The biggest faction around is the Galactic Alliance, who have made sure to keep Earth as a "primitive reserve" with no public alien presence for so long, although obviously that status quo won't stand for much longer (especially after the big showy alien incursion defeated by Shingu in the first episode).

Our point of view character is Hajime, a middle-schooler whose family has been living in the small town for a few years (so he isn't initially aware of the ancient conspiracy). Other major characters include the members of the Absurdly Powerful Student Council, who are not-so-coincidentally this generation's Shingu controllers (the previous generation got wiped out 11 years ago in an incident nobody likes to talk about), and especially Nayuta, the tsundere vice-president who does the actual controlling.

Oh, and there's this Muryo dude, who comes from another village with its own ancient alien conspiracy, is better than everyone at anything, seems to know a lot more than he should, and still remains annoyingly affable about it. I can't fault people like Nayuta finding him unbearably frustrating. And his sister is even more annoying (I've never seen super-speed used more effectively to needle people on playfully).

There are basically two major parallel story threads interwoven together : the kids having a (nearly) normal school life and occasionally fighting stuff (also : angst ! but only for a few of them...), and the adults discussing stuff diplomatically and providing the required exposition about the context needed to understand the actual plot. They're mostly disjointed from each other, mostly because the complex diplomacy stuff is way over the kids' heads.

What did I think of it ?

This is a very bizarre series. Objectively we've got a complex and convoluted plot with tons of factions that don't trust each other one bit, some very violent (and well-staged) fight scenes, some very high stakes indeed... but most of the screen time is shared between (1) inoffensive school hijinks and (2) people politely discussing the plot over a cup of tea. Indeed, most of the action sequences are preludes to bringing one or more parties to sit down and calmly discuss matters. (The exceptions are usually morons making a hasty attack and getting crushed for it.) As a result, the overall mood is very sedate indeed.

For once, I (mostly) approve of the complete name change by the US localization. This show is definitely completely about Shingu, while Muryo mostly stays on the edges of the story and barely ever contributes anything to the plot (the story may even work without him being there at all). And that's a deliberate choice on his part in-story, too. This series is full of very powerful (and backstory-important) characters who prefer staying in the background so as to not wreck the carefully-established equilibrium, only stepping up when needed. It could be infuriating, but the show mostly pulls it off.

There's definitely a charm to it, as one easily gets involved into the growing Hajime/Nayuta relationship (or even Kyoichi/Harumi - I'm a sucker for awkward characters voiced by Tomokazu Sugita). On the other hand, it's hard to really get into the complex diplomatic talks, because so much of it happens off-screen and makes it impossible to guess exactly what's happening (one particular very belligerant faction gets no explanation whatsoever - everyone's puzzled as to who they might be, and they get obliterated too early in the climax to get relevant). Most of the characters play their hand very close to the vest, hiding whatever they're up and whoever they're really affiliated to under layers of deception. (The king of this being Ziltosh, the loud and affable Hawaian-shirt-wearing alien who seems to be working for everyone at once.) I sometimes felt like the show wasn't really playing fair with this, as a lot of it consists of red herrings hiding the actual climax brewing.

So, does it work ? Not entirely. It certainly gets points for attempting something completely different with the "mecha fights off alien invasion" genre. The characterization work is impressive : most characters (including the aliens) feel very human indeed, with one glaring exception (Muryo, who stays an enigma throughout). But there are definite pacing problems, from awkward "did I miss an episode ? Ah, no, here's a flashback to fill me on this pointless in media res opening scene" moments, to a not-so-successful handling of rising tension (which sometimes deflates far too quickly). And while a lot of it is quite funny, there are a good number of jokes that feel entirely alien. And I'm not convinced the ending really works.

There's a lot to like here, but the show doesn't manage to strike the perfect balance. Nice try, though.
 

Aikireikinu

Tsundere Cat
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Re: Shingu - Secret of the Stellar Wars

I like to think of Shingu as a "Slice of life alien invasion story". It has such a relaxed pace and I think it intentionally works to deflate its own tension, making it quite the odd beast indeed. It's an oddly gentle story, given the subject matter.
 
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