Saturday, April 28, 2007

Spring 2007 Anime Rundown

Busy, busy, busy. I’m going to try something a bit different this spring, and choose seven representative anime to review, out of the 50 new TV series. These seven are more or less the ones I intend to follow myself. I’ll briefly mention some others that I’ve seen, where they seem to fit in. Reviews are based on only the first two or three episodes of each show, and so will undoubtedly contain some misapprehensions.

Bokurano (Our)
There seem to be more than the usual number of Evangelion-inspired (to put it charitably) sci-fi anime out there this season, but for me, Bokurano has been the one that stands out. A group of 15 middle and elementary school students on a class trip to the seashore meet an absent minded professor-type named Kokopelli, who signs them on to try a “game,” where they will defend the Earth from a series of 15 attackers, using a giant robot. Of course, the robot and the invaders turn out to be real (as near as the viewer can tell, so far), and after showing them the ropes, Kokopelli leaves the students and their robot to fend for themselves.

I haven’t read the original manga, but it’s clear from the first two episodes that Bokurano is going to be bleak stuff: there are strong and early hints that the use of the robot comes at a high price. The robot itself is half a kilometer tall, a mountain of black armor atop impossibly thin legs, and it gives the simultaneous impressions of having an ethereal, dreamlike existence, and also of being tremendously dangerous. It’s almost like something out of Mamoru Nagano, but nastier, and thoroughly inhuman. Also memorable is the robot’s control room, which consists of a circle of assorted tag-sale chairs floating in the center of a projection of the outside scenery (best new cosplay idea for the spring: 15 friends and 15 mismatched chairs).

I’m intrigued by Bokurano: it’s got a great setup, a unique visual style, lots going on beneath the surface, and an opening that might have been the best of the season, if it wasn’t up against the unholy power of the Lucky Star OP. It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles its large cast, and lack of an obvious main character, though one possible strategy is suggested at the end of the second episode… As with other Gonzo productions, I’m also concerned about how well the animation quality will hold up. While the OP is impeccable, the CG robot action within the show is a bit clunky.

Other Eva-ish robot options this season include Idolmaster: Xenoglossia, which is recommended in spite of—or because of, according to taste—the fact that it seems to involve neither idol singing nor Pentecostal ritual. There’s also Gigantic Formula, a humorless hash of G-Gundam and several other better super robot shows.

Set in an alternate medieval Europe, where monsters called yoma feed on hapless villagers, and Spandex was invented 500 years early, Claymore chronicles the travels of a monster hunter named Clare. Clare is a Claymore, half human and half yoma, who is able to detect yoma and fight them on equal footing. She’s too late to save one boy’s family in the first episode, though, and winds up taking on young Raki as a cook.

Blood-soaked seinen (young adult male-oriented) action ahoy! Dark and violent, Claymore invites comparisons to Berserk. It’s more action-heavy, though, and I suspect it won’t have the same depth of character development, or the slowly building sense of supernatural dread, that distinguished Berserk. On the plus side, Claymore does look like it’s working with a reasonable budget, unlike the anime version of Berserk.

For more young women killing stuff left and right, you might check out Murder Princess, an amusing new OAV, probably more comparable to Bastard!! than Berserk, which delivers—wholesale—exactly what the title would lead you to expect it to deliver. On the TV front, Kaibutsu Oujo (Monster Princess) follows the queen of the monsters as she battles rebellious former subjects, with the aid of a schoolboy she brings back from the dead, and, if the opening is to be taken literally, a chrome-plated chainsaw(!!). Also, Bee Train has produced another conspiracy-riddled girls-with-guns semi-sequel to Noir, called El Cazador de la Bruja (The Cazador of the Bruja*). Help yourself, as the New York Times TV reviewers used to write about movies they didn’t care for, but felt were good examples of their genre.

Hayate no Gotoku! (Hayate the Combat Butler)
Through various unlikely circumstances, the impoverished Hayate Ayasaki winds up working as the butler/bodyguard for young heiress Nagi Sanzenin, who is beset by a constant stream of kidnappers, assassins, and runaway military robots. Hilarity ensues, Shounen Sunday style.

I contend that it’s impossible to go too far wrong with an anime titled Hayate the Combat Butler. The humor in Hayate is somewhat scattershot, but the show throws out so many jokes per minute that there’s bound to be something going on to keep you amused at any given point. Highlights from the anime’s numerous running gags include regular breaks in the fourth wall, Hayate’s dubious original theology (featuring Santa as conscience and Lord of Creation), and Norio “Coach” Wakamoto—one of the most recognizable voices in anime—playing the Voice of Heaven. Glancing at Wakamoto's profile on ANN just now, I see that he used to work for the Tokyo Riot Police, which seems reasonable: if you were rioting, and Norio Wakamoto asked you to stop, you probably would.

Lucky Star
Those with an interest in, or at least a tolerance for, low key, character-based Japanese humor, small slice-of-life stories, and pastel anime girls, will do well to check out Lucky Star, the latest from production house Kyoto Animation. My other reader(s?) can skip a couple of paragraphs ahead, where I’ll list some alternatives.

Here is how Lucky Star works: high school friends Konata Izumi, the Hiiragi sisters, and Miyuki Takara go about their somewhat funnier than ordinary lives for a while; one typical and instantly famous/notorious scene consists of the girls talking at length about what they’re having for lunch. Then, a bitter and lethally sarcastic teen idol, Akira Kogami, and her long-suffering co-host, show up and discuss the episode for a few minutes. Next, the credits run, with Konata singing an obscure Nixon-era anime theme behind the closed door of a karaoke box. Finally, you feel compelled to start the episode again and watch the OP—which is the audiovisual equivalent of crack cocaine—over and over until you pass out.

Lucky Star is not really laugh-out-loud funny most of the time, nor is it trying to be, but the characters are engaging, and their antics are sure to keep you smiling. It’s arguably pretty lightweight stuff, though Cruel Angel Theses points out a possible feminist interpretation of the show’s undeniably subversive take on traditional gender roles. That might be reading too much into it, but it’s worth pondering. The simple, cartoony (as it were) animation in Lucky Star is not exactly what people have come to expect from KyoAni, but it fits the story, and is spot-on where it needs to be: character movement and facial expressions are superb. All in all, Lucky Star will be a most excellent way to spend Monday evenings for the next 21 weeks.

The following shows are radically different from Lucky Star: Darker than Black, a sci-fi/occult thriller from studio Bones, has a fantastic setting, great music (by Yoko Kanno) and cool action sequences, though the whole thing is a bit on the bloody-minded side. Over Drive is sports anime about a guy who starts off not even able to keep a bicycle upright and, you have to assume, ends up turning into some kind of ultra 2-times Lance Armstrong. Romeo X Juliet, studio Gonzo’s stab at adapting Shakespeare, is fairly enjoyable if you forget everything you know about the play. Done and done.

Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS)
Nanoha has become something of an institution among post-millennial anime fans. Earlier Nanoha series are well regarded for their dramatic plots, in which fundamentally decent people are forced into conflict by cruel circumstance. The franchise is also noted for its explosive magical girl-on-magical girl combat. Nanoha Takamachi’s most basic spell, Divine Buster—the spell she would hypothetically use to open recalcitrant jars of pickles—unleashes a veritable fire hose of million-degree plasma (image). Million-degree plasma and justice. Being a decent person, Nanoha stages her big battles out at sea, well away from any vulnerable island nations.

StrikerS is set 10 years after the events in the previous installment, M.G.L.N. A’s. Nanoha and friends, now magical women, are working as full-time mages, with Nanoha training new recruits for the time-space cops. The previous two series managed a steady increase in animation quality over time, and Nanoha StrikerS continues this happy trend. It does, however, seem less focused than the earlier series, in part because it has accumulated a very large cast of characters, who all need air time. There’s also a certain amount of tasteful fanservice in the new Nanoha. The franchise has always been pseudo-shoujo anime—with the form of a magical girl show, but aimed at an older anime-fan audience—but prior to StrikerS things were kept squeaky-clean. None of this is putting us off of StrikerS here at Moetic Justice, mind you; we’re made of sterner stuff than that.

Viewers interested in checking out some true shoujo anime this season are advised to try Lovely Complex, a romantic comedy set in Osaka, and loaded with Kansai region local color. I’d like to see more anime set outside of the confines of metro-Tokyo, in general, and working-class Osaka in particular is a city that interests me (I spent a few weeks there, years ago).

Yorito Morimiya is up and about before dawn, preparing to take pictures of the sky at sunrise, when he runs across Matsuri Shihou, who is struggling with a malfunctioning vending machine. Matsuri vanishes before Yorito can free her canned soup from the machine. We learn that Matsuri is actually some sort of supernatural entity, and that she’s being hounded by other creatures of the night. Soon enough, she’s taking refuge in Yorito’s house, creating awkward situations with Yorito’s human girlfriend, and horrifying the mundanes with her questionable preferences in clearance-sale instant noodles.

Sola is being released as a nearly simultaneous blitz of manga, anime and game, so there’s no pre-installed fan base for it to rely upon. It seems to be catching on quickly, though, at least in part because of original character designs by Naru Nanao, the divine empress of moe illustrators. Matsuri herself is so moe, one suspects she’s secretly taking some kind of supplement made from ground-up mascot characters from old magical girl anime, in addition to whatever unspeakable nourishment she derives from the avocado ramen she consumes on-screen. Story-wise, sola is not terribly original, but it’s handled well, with an appealingly somber tone, broken up by periodic light-hearted moments.

There are plenty of other bishoujo anime to choose from, if sola isn’t your cup of tea. Touka Gettan (“Standing in Awe of the Moon, Under the Peach Blossoms,” is I think sort of what the title implies, maybe) holds some interest, but is mysterious to the point of leaving you wondering if it is about anything, other than beautiful young people standing around in storms of pink petals. Nagasarete Airantou (Castaway on Airan Island) is a harem comedy about a boy who finds himself stranded on an island with a 100% female population. As a biologist, I have some questions about the feasibility of that premise, but this post is getting too long as it is.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (Heavenly Breakthrough Gurren Lagann)
With Gurren Lagann, studio Gainax returns to the robot anime genre on broadcast TV, for the first time in 12 years. Protagonist Simon seems doomed to live out his days underground in a claustrophobic subterranean town, until, while going about his job of drilling out new living space, he finds a robot. Simon, along with his ne’er do well pal Kamina and the trigger-happy Yoko, make their way to the surface using the robot, and begin their adventures in a new world without sheltering walls.

A frequent running theme in previous Gainax works has been: real men and real women breaking out of their fated roles, and fighting the powers that be. In Royal Space Force, the antagonists were bean-counting politicians; Gunbuster pitted its heroines against the avatars of an incomprehensible, indifferent cosmos; in Evangelion the oppressor was, basically, God. More recently, FLCL started off with rebellion against the petty tyranny of ordinary day-to-day life, then moved into a cosmic struggle of almost Gunbuster-like proportions. Gurren Lagann looks like it will fall into the FLCL pattern (the director, Hiroyuki Imaishi, was an animation director for FLCL), with foreshadowing of epic space battles right from the first episode. The visual style of Gurren Lagann is also very much in the FLCL tradition, with simple designs, animated in a fluid, dynamic way, and chock-full of Freudian symbolism.

Gurren Lagann is shaping up to be a fantastic show. It’s not quite a return to the golden age of Gainax anime, but it’s a big step in the right direction. Let's hope that a messy online squabble between Gainax staffers and faceless whiney dorks ("fair and balanced" is our motto at M.J.) doesn't cause the studio to retreat from potential sources of future controversy.

Other sci-fi offerings this season include Rocket Girls, a light drama about a near-future project to create a manned Japanese space program. The emphasis in Rocket Girls is on realism (it’s the sort of show with space agencies listed in the credits), with minor concessions involving form-fitting spacesuits and 17-year-old pilots. For bombastic mythological space adventure in the tradition of 1930s pulp magazines, check out Heroic Age. The robot animation in Heroic Age looks a lot like Makoto Shinkai's works, which is not a bad thing.

There’s a glut of good stuff out there this spring, but I’ll more or less be confining myself to the seven anime reviewed above. I guess I’m feeling especially enthusiastic about Lucky Star and Gurren Lagann. On the horizon for the summer, I’ll be looking forward to Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai, as well as the anime adaptation of Moetan, which has up to this point been a series of English language study guides** for the otaku generation.

Here is one more chance for the Lucky Star OP to violate your cerebral cortex, on YouTube’s dime, and with stop-motion Gundam models instead of animation: Lucky Star OP, Gun-Pla Version.

*My Spanish is, if anything, even more hilariously inadequate than my Japanese.
**Given rather broad definitions of the terms “study guide” and “English.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Vegetable SOS Brigade?

So, does this photo of a South African desert plant bear a resemblance to the final frame in the ending animation of a certain Kyoto Animation production, or is it just that my brain's been addled by borderline obsessive viewing of the Lucky Star OP?For reference, here's the grand finale to the ED sequence from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (YouTube)...
The plant in the photo is Dactylopsis digitata, a deeply peculiar native of the quartz flats of the Knersvlakte region of western South Africa. It's in full bloom and quite healthy, just a bit wilted and yellowed as it begins a long summer dormancy. The photo was taken by DJ Ambient, while he was visiting Mesa Garden, in June of 2005. DJ Ambient--who I know through botanical channels--emailed it to me out of the blue, simply because he thought I'd be interested in a good image of a plant that almost nobody cultivates. He noticed a funny resemblance to people dancing, but certainly knew nothing of Haruhi. The image has been 'shopped, but only in order to remove a busy background (the original can be seen here).

The match isn't exact--Dactylopsis Kyon and Koizumi are facing the wrong ways, and there's a blurry extra stem behind Dactylopsis Haruhi--but it's pretty close. It's more convincing, I think, than the water-stain Marian apparitions that reporters puzzle over on slow news days. What are the chances that five stems on the plant would grow that way, that someone would take a picture at just the right stage of the plant's senescence, and that it would get emailed to a person who would understand its significance, two years later? The mind boggles. I'm converting to Haruhi-ism.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A History of Fansubbing

Part 3: Early Digital Subtitles.

This April, we continue a series of articles on the history of fan-subtitled anime in the English-speaking world, with a discussion of the almost forgotten early days of digital fansubs. In the early- to mid-1990s, growing fan dissatisfaction with analog media for exchanging anime, such as Video Home System (VHS) tapes and crude homebrew laserdiscs (LDs) fashioned from Tupperware and aluminum foil (see Part 2) led a small group of pioneers to experiment with distribution schemes for digital video. The internet did not exist as such at the time, however, and existing technology such as magnetic core memory proved too bulky and unstable to physically ship between fans. A high-tech solution for the distribution problem was offered by the invention, in 1992, of the punch card (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Legendary fansubber Bryce Carson edits his latest project (ca. 1993).

Punch cards are light and able to store large amounts of data, up to 6 kilobytes in a standard 25 kilogram carton of cards. Early fansubbers, often impoverished college students eager to save on postage, created an innovative compression method called American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) art, in order to pack as much anime as possible into a shipment of cards. Sophisticated subtitling groups such as the Urusei Yatsura Project (UYP) drew full-color ASCII art representations of every frame of animation, by hand, then applied nearly professional-quality subtitles, based on translations by members who had become fluent in Japanese by listening to weekly Nippon Housou Kyoukai (NHK) news broadcasts on shortwave radio (Fig. 2). Dialogue, music and sound effects were represented by rich, life-like 3-bit digital sound.

Fig. 2. Frame from the 1994 UYP subtitle of Top o Nerae! Gunbuster, ep. 3.

Other fansub groups, such as Polar Animation, focused less on the technical excellence of their subtitles, and more on translating large amounts of anime. Polar was able to release full runs of several dozen series, including Kimagure Orange Road (Fig. 3), by employing a cutting-edge automated program to rapidly generate ASCII video. This program ran on top-of-the-line Amiga computers, reported to be on loan from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Early Polar subs were subject to some artifacting from the ASCII compression process, and sported translations that were often less literal than hardcore fans demanded, but most observers feel that these difficulties were adequately addressed in the group’s later efforts (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. Earlier Polar Animation subs lacked refinement. (Frame from Kimagure Orange Road, ep. 17).

In spite of advances in compression technology, distribution of digital subtitles by mail remained relatively expensive and slow. A single 25-minute TV episode, which could be stored on about 80 kilograms of punch cards, would have cost $1.25 to ship from Utica to Bangor in 1994, or approximately $420.00 in 2007 dollars. With a shipping time of 3-4 business days, the postal method achieved transfer rates of only 0.000000088 kilobytes per second (kbps).

Fig. 4. Sample frame from a later Polar Animation subtitle (Maison Ikkoku ep. 62).

Resourceful fans living near estuaries developed a clever method of transferring fansubs via laminated punch cards, carried by the ebb and flood of the tides (Fig. 5). Multiple fans could take part in distributing a video file, with individual users retrieving cards from the water, duplicating them, and returning cards to the current for others to share. This method was called bit torrent (BT), and could reach transfer speeds of nearly 0.00000046 kbps. A related technique, direct download (DDL) was even faster, but was practical only in urban settings, where cartons of punch cards could be gravitationally transferred from a sender on the upper floors of a building, to a receiver (or “leecher”) at ground level. New York University students, in December of 1996, used DDL to transfer the entire Patlabor TV series—on 11.4 metric tons of punch cards—from the top of the Chrysler Building to viewers at street level. The students managed to record, at the moment of file receipt, a data transfer rate of 438 gigabytes per second, which is impressive even when compared to the speed of present-day cable modems.

Fig. 5. Bit torrent file transfer in progress at Hell Gate, New York, ca. 1996.

But even at the height of the first digital subtitle boom, the days of watching anime recorded on punch cards were numbered. Production of new digital subtitles was dealt a serious blow in February of 1997, when the entire Polar Animation staff died in a tragic Feng Shui-related accident, while attending a party in a dormitory lounge furnished in a catastrophically unharmonious manner. VHS tape, despite markedly inferior video quality, made a temporary resurgence. The final blow to punch card fansub distribution was delivered by the internet, which was invented on March 4, 1999, by Al Sharpton.

Please look forward to part 4 of A History of Fansubbing, titled “HD-VCD: The Future of Anime?” It’s coming soon, and will be made available on bit torrent.