Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Reverse Thieves Secret Santa 2014 - Barakamon

Following on from my viewing of Log Horizon, this year's Secret Santa pickings have turned out to be a great opportunity to watch recent shows that I'd hoped to catch but never got around to, and thus my second selection for 2014 was Barakamon.

Out of nowhere, this seemed to be a series which built an impressive amount of hype from those watching it as it aired, although in this case the hype may have done it a disservice by frequently involving the phrase "it's like Yotsuba&!"  Allow me to begin by saying that Barakamon cannot hope to occupy the same planet as Yotsuba, let alone the same strata of entertainment.

The series tells the story of a young, ambitious calligrapher named Seishuu Handa, who finds himself disgraced on account of punching an old man with a stick who also happens to be a big name in the calligraphy world himself - an attack predicated upon said old man suggesting that his work might be lacking in any real sense of self (a common theme that runs through anime as commentary on Japanese society, no doubt - see this series and the currently airing Your Lie in April).

In the wake of this attack, Handa finds himself shipped off to a remote island in the hope calming him down, offering him a period of self-reflection and, perhaps, an opportunity to discover a previously hidden side to his artistry. For Handa's part, he doesn't mind his exile so much, as surely it'll give him the peace and quiet he needs to work doggedly on his calligraphy.

Of course, this proves to be anything but the case, as Handa instead finds himself constantly bothered by overly helpful neighbours and, more frequently, a group of kids led by the loud and excitable young girl Naru. This offers countless distractions and irritations that Handa could really do without, but perhaps these distractions and his being forced into the bosom of this village's society is exactly what he needs to truly find himself.

If all of that sounds rather predictable, then... well, it is. Thankfully, Barakamon is a series more interested in the journey rather than its character development, and so any kind of narrative arc to the series can take a back seat for the kind of comedy manga adaptation fare you might expect. As these kinds of series go, Barakamon is largely pretty mediocre - it has its funny moments but they're relatively few and far between, particularly in the early running of the series which feels like it's trying way too hard to force the issue in terms of both characterisation and making its gags hit.

Thankfully the series does at least calm down, find its footing and ultimately get into the groove of what it attempts to offer, and with that new-found confidence comes more good jokes and one-liners, more enjoyable character interactions and some saccharine yet sweet moments that provide an enjoyable pay-off (even if one or two missteps arguably hijack what should have been some of the better scenes). It still isn't hilarious, nor does it have anything approaching the charm of Yotsuba (while we're making such comparisons), but it's broadly fun and feels better paced, and with some solid animation to keep it trucking the overall experience is a decent one.

Ultimately, my opinions of Barakamon could be seen as a case of "damning with faint praise" - I simply can't get excited about the series, nor can I reel off hysterical moments, because it never moved me to any great degree beyond the occasional laugh or smile. Its relatively unique setting and premise allows it to stand out from the ever-crowded pack of anime comedy, and it's certainly competent at what it does, but I suspect if you removed the "calligrapher on a remote island" angle this show would have been forgotten about no sooner had it begun.

On another day this may have been one of the better comedies on the block, but in a year which brought us Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun and Sabagebu, as well as less overt comedies like Shirobako, it's hard to give it a look-in when it comes to 2014's final reckoning.

Reverse Thieves Secret Santa 2014 - Log Horizon

This 'blog may be defunct but its writer most certainly isn't, and who would turn down the opportunity to spend their December being forced at gunpoint (okay, I may be exaggerating here) to watch anime that some random stranger thinks you might like. Probably. Maybe. Possibly. If you're really lucky. Yes, that's right, I threw my hat into the ring for the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa jamboree again this year, and this marks a brief return to the site after a six month hiatus. Heck, it is Christmas after all...

While it seems like almost everybody I know spends every single episode of Sword Art Online poised to tear it apart at the slightest misdemeanour (as well as a fair few major ones, admittedly), I've broadly found myself enjoying that series' sense of place and world-building, and of course its whole "living, breathing people trapped in a video game" scenario is clearly what led my Secret Santa to one of their selections for my perusal this year - Satelight's adaptation of light novel series Log Horizon. Given that its been recommended to me many a time before, I of course jumped at the chance to finally sit down and watch it in its entirety.

For all of my excitement, I have to confess that my first impressions of Log Horizon were... less than glowing. Visually, the series has a decently broad aesthetic and imagines its world - where 30,000 MMORPG players suddenly find themselves trapped in a very real version of Elder Tale, the game they've been engrossed in thanks to the release of a new expansion pack - rather nicely. However, the animation quality itself leaves a lot to be desired and certainly feels cheap, especially compared to the obvious budget afforded Sword Art Online. More egregious for me in its early running is that Log Horizon simply doesn't care about the origins of its premise, spending no time at all thinking up a plausible reason why people would suddenly be transported and trapped in a video game world and waving away any questions about that fact as far as it possibly can. Yes, people are upset at this jarring change in their circumstances, but that lasts for all of five minutes before everyone simply gets on with their new lives as if it was nothing unusual at all.

Thankfully, as the series progresses it becomes clear that there is method to this madness - yes, Log Horizon doesn't give a monkeys about why humans have been dropped into a video game world, but what it does care about is what happens when this occurs. In fact, it cares a great deal about this, and the show's greatest joy is watching its cast, led by the tactical genius Shiroe, come to understand the socio-economic and political impact of the descent of 30,000 new (and not to mention immortal) full-time residents of Elder Tale upon its world. At this point, the series morphs into how you'd imagine things turning out if Spice and Wolf author Isuna Hasekura wrote Sword Art Online, as the show explores the newcomers relation to the world's now-sentient NPCs known as the People of the Land, examines the impact of realising that there are opportunities beyond the mechanics everyone is used to from their time in Elder Tale as a mere game, and plenty more besides. This is blended with just enough action and set pieces along those lines to keep people on that side of the fence happy, without ever losing what is certainly a fascinating and thoughtful treatment of its subject matter.

This is all helped along greatly by the show's main cast, a growing motley crew of individuals who all bring something unique to the table yet interact in a believable way. Admittedly not all of the cast get the character development they deserve (Akatsuki, I'm looking at you), but with so much else on its plate its actually impressive how much Log Horizon manages to cram in on this level alongside its broader strokes that effect the whole world.

After that auspicious start and a fair number of episodes of doggedly trying to convince me of its cause, Log Horizon finally succeeded in winning me over to its cause. How much so, you ask? So much so that I've now caught up with and am watching its currently airing second season each week, that's how much. It might not manage to avoid all of the typical light novel tropes - Shiroe can be a self-insert character with the best of them at times, complete with a small but passionate harem that grows around him - but it still offers up perhaps the most unique take on the otherwise tired "trapped in a video game world" story I've seen, even offering a twist on the question of what happens when players die in that world. Its insistence upon viewing its concept in decidedly original ways is ultimately its biggest draw, and the fact that it manages to do so intelligently yet charmingly is why Log Horizon turned out to be very much my cup of tea... and there's nothing better than a nice cup of tea on a cold Christmas Eve, right?

Monday, 30 June 2014

The end of an era...

When I fired up this 'blog on a whim at the start of 2008, the world was a very different place - Crunchyroll and legal streaming were still largely irrelevant (particularly to someone based in the UK such as myself), fansubs still ruled the roost, and Twitter barely existed in anything like the hugely popular form that it does today.

It was that environment that led to the creation of this imaginatively titled affair - put simply, I had nowhere else to talk about the latest anime, or to store my thoughts in a manner that I could easily refer back to for my writing work elsewhere when circumstances demanded me to recall some forgettable series that somebody had unfathomably licensed for home video release. Although this was a place for public consumption and discussion, my aims were always personal; I just needed a repository for my stream of consciousness, so that I could easily grab an image for a series or remember that episode x of series y was a particularly good one.

Although having this information to-hand is still undeniably useful to me, times and circumstances have changed. The UK now gets to enjoy the vast majority of content legally streaming online, and material that doesn't stream to the west at all is becoming rarer and rarer - this in turn gives me an outlet to write about the latest anime both in my capacity for the UK Anime Network, and also now in a regular monthly streaming anime column in MyM Magazine (which you can buy and read on iOS devices too, don't you know).

These opportunities have also brought me to a realisation - that to properly facilitate my work for those publications I need to work smarter, which ostensibly means watching more, writing less and making what I do write cover the latest anime in a broader sense. In other words, episodic blogging simply doesn't make sense to me any more, nor is it a good use of my time when I can throw some images and comments into storage elsewhere ("the cloud" is a dumb buzzword but cloud storage is a beautiful thing), offer up some immediate thoughts via Twitter and then save my full musings for writing about batches of episodes or series as a whole elsewhere. Worse still, at times over the past year in particular I've found myself not watching particular shows simply because I don't think they'll be interesting to write about episodically - a corruption of my enthusiasm which I'm sure you'll agree is fucking insane.

It's a harsh reality that I've been pondering for a couple of months, but now seems like the time to stop prevaricating, make my decision and retire Hanners' Anime 'Blog with immediate effect at the end of the spring season, having completed writing about every spring show (apart from M3, but fuck that series).

The site will stick around forever, of course (by which I mean until Google go bankrupt in some kind of fireball of a technology bubble bursting or something), and it might even spring back into occasional life if something which doesn't legally reach the UK absolutely demands that I write about it, but to all intents and purposes this is the end of a journey that began over six years and 3,800 posts ago. For those of you who followed my musings, be it casually or regularly, thank you all for reading - if you feel even the slightest inkling that you might miss all of this nonsense as much as I'll probably miss vomiting it into a WYSIWYG interface, then you should probably follow me on Twitter or keep up with my long-form writing at those links further up the page.

Love Live! School Idol Project Season 2 - Episode 13 (Completed)

The Love Live is over (and there are no prizes for guessing who won), which leaves just the small matter of graduation to be tackled by both third years and the student council alike.

As you might imagine, Honoka's attempts to write a graduation speech to deliver as student council president proved rather torturous and led to some last-minute panic, but otherwise everything is in-hand and organised, leaving Honoka free to offer some comforting words to Eli before delivering that graduation speech, which of course actually turns out to be a graduation song instead.

With all of that done and dusted, there are still some final things to tidy up - literally in Nico's case as she packs up her club room paraphernalia, but also figuratively as the Idol Study Club now needs a new leader... a role to which Hanayo seems perfectly suited despite her protestations.  A final tour of the school for the graduating girls takes in all of their familiar haunts - the stage, the alpacas (who have a surprise of their own, it seems), and of course the rooftop that turned from makeshift practice arena to the group's home from home.  Saying goodbye to all of this is a sad moment, but Honoka eventually realises that, just as she promised at the start, she and her friends followed through on their dream to the very end.  But is this end though? Not when there's a bucketload of cash to be made from a Love Live movie it isn't... place your bets on what that will involve, but my money is on an international Love Live tournament.

So ends (for now, anyway) Love Live - I know I've compared it to K-ON a number of times over this second season, but it certainly sits in a similar position for me as a light and fluffy story with a decent dose of comedy that can nonetheless tug mercilessly at the heartstrings when it really wants to. The proof of quality for a show of this ilk is in its emotional payload, and although it never quite reaches K-ON's level is certainly delivers surprisingly well in that regard in its later episodes including this finale, while still piling up the colourful fun and frolics leading up to those moments, even as someone who doesn't care all that much for the show's music. In other words, even putting aside the obsessive aspects of its fan base, it isn't too hard to see why Love Live has been a major success even in an ever-more crowded market of idol-based anime.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Mekakucity Actors - Episode 12 (Completed)

Now that Momo and company have been rescued, it's time for the gang to make good their escape and take on the "final boss" in this finale of Mekakucity Actors.

With the entire cast assembled, the group has no shortage of special powers to use to get to where they want to go, whether it's Takane's hacking ability (and not an iconic cap in sight) or... well... Takane's abilities with a gun in her hand. Eventually, and again thanks to a spot of special power utilisation - this time from Hibiya - the group finally find what they're looking for in the form of Mr. Tateyama's lair.

Although Tateyama - or at least the entity controlling him - wasn't expecting visitors so soon, he was expecting them regardless, and it seems that he has a few tricks up his sleeve to boot. For starters, he's quick to indulge in spilling the beans about Marry's true nature, suggesting that she's trapped within a cycle of despair that is triggering this entire series of events because of her desperation not to lose her friends. What's more, Tateyama also spies an opportunity to take on the body of the indestructible Haruka to further his plans yet more - however, it seems that he's reckoned without the power of Marry and her friends to remain steadfast in ensuring that his plot can't possibly succeed.

Truly in keeping with the rest of this series, nothing made much sense in this final episode of Mekakucity Actors - it felt like key plot points were missing entirely, with a series that has been dragging its feet for much of its running time suddenly having to race through things at a deeply unsatisfying pace to the point where even its (lazy) resolution felt like an afterthought.  The real shame is that there were brief flashes of what this series might have been on show in this finale - when the Mekakushi-dan are working together as a team it's actually pretty entertaining to watch, and that it's taken twelve episodes to reach that point is just one damning aspect of a show that has made a complete shambles of telling anything approaching a coherent story.  Is Mekakucity Actors the biggest disappointment of the spring?  You know, it almost certainly is.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Knights of Sidonia - Episode 12 (Completed)

Taking the fight to a massive Gauna hive was always going to be a "do or die" mission for Sidonia's Gardes, but as the situations worsens it seems as if only the "die" part of that statement has any chance of coming true.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with Benisuzume scything through the platoon and an anti-planet missile well on its way, the decision is made to blow a whole in this Gauna hive using Sidonia's Super Hyggs cannon. The only question is whether anybody will still be alive at that point to take advantage of the route this should open to the hive's "master" Gauna, and with this in mind Nagate offers himself up to take on Benisuzume to give what remains of his platoon an opportunity to defeat the Gauna and escape the onrushing anti-planet missile.

Even for a pilot at skilled as Tanikaze, taking on this monstrous enemy with so much "borrowed" knowledge from Hoshijiro, and it all seems about to go awry as he's knocked unconscious in the eschewing battle. Enter a terrified Izana to come to the rescue before he meets his certain demise, only for Izana's craft to be knocked out into space in the resulting chaos. With ammo out, the game looks to be up for Nagate... except he has one last trick up his sleeve, provided to him in the hope that he might exact vengeance in the place of one of the Honoka clones.  Thus, victory belongs to Sidonia as the Gauna is destroyed in the wake of Tanikaze's personal victory, ensuring the safety of those on-board once again and giving Tanikaze an opportunity to try and make peace with Kunato in particular. Even more dangerous threats remain however, which is one way of saying that a second season is on the way later in the year.

If last week's episode of Knights of Sidonia was all about white-knuckled tension, the series finale was far more about balls-to-the-wall action - something which wasn't quite as gripping as what came before but fare that was deftly accomplished all the same with just enough moments of peril and drama to work into the ultimate triumph which bookends the series. These final instalments are also a study in just how far this series has come from some faltering beginnings - its initial episodes were clumsy at setting up its major characters (although admittedly they did a great job of world-building instead), but somehow events have organically ensured that putting these characters in danger elicits exactly the right emotions from the viewer, and coupled with what feels like some major improvements to its animation quality and a narrative that grew stronger by the week, we've been left with a terrific series which I'm more than happy to know there'll be more of.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Mekakucity Actors - Episode 11

Last week's episode taught us a lot in terms of filling in the gaps within Mekakucity Actors (aside from the most important gap of all, of course, that being the reason why this show is garbage), so now that we have our "bad guy" in sight what's next for the Mekakushi-dan.

The most pressing issue however is to prevent Hibiya from doing anything foolhardy, and eventually Momo and Kido catch up to him and manage to persuade him that he's best served working with them - a thought that itself takes a back seat as all three of them end up being captured by... I dunno, people, I have no idea who they are or what they're doing.

Meanwhile, returning to flashback-land, we square the circle of Ayano's fate as we learn that her demise was a deliberate decision to thwart her father, or at least that of the entity possessing him, as preventing him from using the source of her power would theoretically put a stop to his plans. It's a theory that seems to be unfounded, but perhaps her sacrifice isn't such a final one after all, and Shintaro certainly seems to have a plan to bring her back having learned much of the truth himself. Now that Takane has her body back (how this happens is glossed over), the others all race to the aid of Momo as she uses her ability to make her current predicament known to all and sundry by singing like a Vocaloid.

Even by the already poor standards of Mekakucity Actors this week's episode was an absolute mess - an episode that felt like a number of disparate scenes had been accidentally dropped onto a cutting room floor and then pasted back together in a hurry with little regard for whether all of the pieces had even been picked up, let along stuck together in the right order. This inattention has turned a dull, poorly executed series into one bordering on laughable, and I for one really can't wait for the final episode simply so that I can be rid of it as soon as possible.