Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Anime Mop Up - First Half 2008

The Garden of Sinners

Here are notes on a few additional current or recently finished anime that I've been neglecting. I've been thinking of going back even further to write up some of the winter shows, as well, but most of the worthy ones have been licensed for release in the U.S., and I might as well hold off until I've had a chance to check them out on DVD. For me, the highlights from the January crop were Shigofumi - Letters from the Departed (voyeuristic and unsettling urban horror), Spice and Wolf (cheap-looking but charming Renaissance road story) and True Tears (taut, sharply-animated school romance).

Kara no Kyoukai - The Garden of Sinners
(The Edge of Emptyness - The Garden of Sinners)
Genre: modern horror, action
Overall Rank: A
MJ Rank: A+

ufotable is a relatively young production studio that is rapidly making a name for itself: they don't have a lot of throughput, but they do interesting, quality work. Their first original production, from 2006, was Coyote Ragtime Show, a messy pastiche of various space adventure anime from the '80s and '90s, that in spite of some glaring flaws managed to look great and entertain consistently. The studio first made a serious impression on me with another original story, last year's Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight!, a slice of life story that wasn't anything particularly weighty, but stood out with an engaging sense for character development, as well as rich and innovative visuals.

Starting late last year, ufotable began releasing what will eventually be a cycle of seven theatrical films: Kara no Kyoukai - The Garden of Sinners, based on novels created by Type-Moon, of Fate/stay night fame. Four installments have appeared so far, with a fifth premiering this month.

Kara no Kyoukai chronicles the life of Shiki Ryougi, a young woman with a mysterious past, whose worldly possessions consist of a kimono, a leather jacket, and a really vicious looking knife. She uses the knife to dismember dangerous supernatural entities, and possibly, the occasional human, too. In the first movie Shiki is working for a spiritual detective agency, trying to stop a string of suicides associated with an abandoned building. The next few movies in the cycle examine Shiki's earlier years, when she was, if possible, even more disquietingly eccentric than she is in the first installment.

In Manabi Straight, ufotable used obsessively detailed animation with a rich, dark color scheme to set a comfortable, homey tone; in Kara no Kyoukai they turn the style up a few notches to produce a remarkably moody, uneasy atmosphere. The characters and dialogue have the same sort of feel as the animation, if that makes sense: not exactly pleasant, but completely engrossing. The music is outstanding as well, and some sequences may even achieve that hairs-on-back-of-neck-standing-up effect. Kara no Kyoukai is probably the best new anime that I've seen this year; it gets my highest recommendation, and I hope someone brings it out in the U.S. before I decide to blow the rent on import DVDs.

Genre: slice of life, martial arts
Overall Rank: A-
MJ Rank: A-

Shinkurou Kurenai is a high school student living in an old-fashioned boarding house a la Maison Ikkoku (complete with overpowering but, probably, well-meaning housemates), with a part time job as a mediator for conflicts of the type that involve guys with tattooed backs and missing pinkies. His most difficult assignment yet comes in the form of Murasaki Kuhouin, young daughter of a rigidly traditional and absurdly wealthy clan, who has been taken from the Kuhouin inner sanctum, and will be using Shinkurou's rundown apartment as a safe house.

Kurenai is a funny mix--part fighting anime and part understated, old school harem anime--that manages to work far better than it ought to. It looks absolutely gorgeous for TV animation, for one thing, and the martial arts sequences flow with the choreographed grace of the better Hong Kong action movies. This meshes so seamlessly with a thoughtful, humanistic story that even its strangest conceits (such as the Kuhouin bodyguard who does all of her fighting in stiletto heels and Clintonesque pantsuit) seem natural and unaffected. Kurenai is arguably the best TV anime of the spring season.

Soul Eater
Genre: shounen fighting
Overall Rank: B+
MJ Rank: B

Maka Alban and her pals Death The Kid and Black Star are training to be Weapon Meisters, who use partners who can transform into blades or guns to hunt down those humans whose souls have become corrupted, and are in danger of becoming legendary monsters called Kishin.

Soul Eater is studio BONES' 10th anniversary project, and comes six years after RahXephon, the original production that first brought the studio to the attention of many fans (time flies...). Soul Eater is the first foray by BONES into the world of lengthy shounen fighting manga adaptations, but one expects them to handle it with their trademark combination of workmanlike consistency and above-average craftsmanship. The show oozes style, with quirky designs and settings, fluid motion and much use of exaggerated perspective. I'm pretty burned out on the genre, but Soul Eater has piqued my interest, and even if I probably won't follow it for long myself, it's clearly going to be a moderately big deal, and it would not surprise me at all if it showed up in slightly sanitized form on Cartoon Network next year.

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