Death Note

I’ve been woefully neglectful of Anime over the past few years, having watched just a few isolated movies here and there. The time commitment for series, especially long series, tended to make me shy away from Anime for a while. However, I’ve been watching more television series lately, and when I heard Don and Mike talking about the first few episodes of Death Note over on the Radio Free Echo Rift podcast, I knew this was something I wanted to check out. There are some things about the series that are really engaging and interesting, though I think it did ultimately run out of steam towards the end.

The story begins in the realm of the shinigami, a race of supernatural beings that survives by killing humans to extend their own lives. This sort of existence is apparently not all the exciting, though, so one of the shinigami, named Ryuk, decides to make some entertainment by sending an extra “Death Note” (the device shinigami use to kill humans) to the human world, just to see what happens. Enter Light Yagami, a very intelligent young man who is well on his way to becoming a police detective. He is motivated by the seeming lack of ability among the world’s formal justice systems. When Light discovers the Death Note (and verifies that it actually works), he develops a plan to kill all the criminals in the world, thereby creating a utopia in which he is considered a god. However, when Light sets his plan in motion, various police organizations begin to notice patterns in the mysterious deaths, eventually attributing the deaths to a murderer they call Kira. The police hire the most famous detective in the world, a mysterious man known only as “L”, to hunt down Kira. L is able to immediately deduce the general location of Light/Kira as well as the operation of the Death Note (even though he doesn’t know how Kira is killing the criminals, he can deduce how it operates), and thus begins a battle of wits that will drive most of the series.

Ryuk the shinigami

Ryuk the shinigami

At this point, I should mention the rules of how the Death Note works. The Death Note is a simple notebook, and on it are listed 5 rules:

  • The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die.
  • This notebook will not take effect unless the writer has the subject’s face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
  • If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.
  • If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
  • After writing the cause of death, the details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

There are a lot of other rules that are revealed as the series progresses. Light spends a fair amount of time towards the beginning of the series experimenting with the Death Note, discovering that, for instance, a piece of paper that is removed from the death note will still retain its murderous capabilities.

The rules actually represent what is best about this series. From a relatively simple set of rules, the writers manage to wring out amazing amounts of suspense and plot. They really put the rules through the paces, and the series is actually very entertaining as a result. I’m reminded of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, in which he devised three simple rules, then went about subverting them in several novels. Similar feats are abound here, and the series also does a good job of escalating the stakes or even just evolving the stakes so that the series takes on a different tone. There were two or three times when I thought the writers had cornered themselves, but actually came up with some sort of ingenious plan to evolve the series into something slightly different.

Spoilers aho, fun ahoy! I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, but it’s hard to write about the series without mentioning some broad, high-level spoilers.

For example, at one point, it becomes clear that there’s actually a second Death Note and what’s more, the Kira who is using that death note apparently doesn’t need to know someone’s name. This changes the whole dynamic of the series for a few episodes, and just when you think the series is about to wear out its welcome, it switches gears again, reversing sympathies back to Light.

Speaking of which, one of the difficulties I have with the series is that it’s generally told from the perspective of Light Yagami, who seems like a well intentioned sorta guy, but is ultimately the villain of the piece. As the series progresses and you see the lengths which Light is willing to go to protect his selfish vision of the future, he becomes less and less sympathetic. He kills literally thousands of people in the series, sometimes even innocent characters, people you grow to really like. I was intrigued enough by the pyrotechnics of subverting a powerful rule set that this wasn’t a huge problem, and you might be able to guess the way the series ends, given that Light is actually a pretty evil guy…

I'm not evil!

“I’m not evil!” – Light Yagami

His counterpart, in the form of “L”, initially seems like the antagonist, but as you lose sympathy for Light, you start to see L as the true protagonist of the series. At the beginning of the series, L is basically represented by a disembodied voice, but eventually you get to meet him, and it turns out that he is also a young man. He’s delightfully eccentric and goofy, always snacking on sweets, holding objects from the top, and giving goofy smiles, all while representing a worthy foil for Light/Kira’s villainy. He’s a fun character, one of the more interesting detective characters out there, and definitely the strongest character of the series.




L, the world’s greatest detective

Clocking in at 37 episodes, this may be the longest single series I’ve ever watched. Unlike a lot of longer series I’ve watched, there really isn’t a ton of filler material here, though I guess a lot of that is a matter of interpretation. You could argue that the entire series is nothing but filler, an exploration of what kinds of tension you can extract from a simple rule set. Indeed, the throughline of the series is really driven more by the exploration of the rules than anything else. There’s a sort of duel of wits between Light/Kira and L, but that is really just fertile ground for more rule exploration. Ditto for the sudden shifts in narrative, which are executed well, to be sure, but which are really just ways of enabling the writers to play around with more rules.

I’m actually impressed with how well they were able to craft the series. Something built around a limited set of rules can’t last forever, and they really are able to wring a lot of juice out of that setup. The series really only starts to stumble when you get to the last 5 or 6 episodes. They just struck me as one shift too many. That last run starts with a really shocking event, something that saddened me greatly, but which I thought could have been a worthy plot development. Instead, the series just introduced some new characters and jumped ahead a few years. It gives the end of the series a sorta tacked-on feeling. It all works well enough, but by that point, the machinations of the plot were getting a little tired. It just started to seem a little arbitrary towards the end, as if the writers didn’t really care about character so much as they wanted to make the plot as byzantine as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of byzantine plotlines, and I think that’s a big part of why the beginning of the series worked so well, but I think they just tried to stretch a bit too much towards the end…

So what we’re left with is a very good series. Compelling, exciting, and interesting, but perhaps a bit on the arbitrary side of things. I really love the exploration of rules and the way the writers were able to extract so much interesting television out of them, but it starts to feel a bit hollow towards the end of the series. There is, perhaps, a reason for that that is more personal than not, but I will say that none of my complaints ruined the series for me or anything. I actually did find this to be one of the most interesting Anime series I’ve seen, and would recommend it to people who like this sort of focus on plot machinations. I just wish I could have been a little more satisfied with that ending…

Anime Movie Corner

I have been woefully neglectful of anime over the past year and a half or so, but I’ve still occasionally taken in a movie here or there, and after this year’s very nice The Secret World of Arrietty, I threw a few Anime movies I’ve been meaning to catch up with in my Netflix Queue. Here are some assorted thoughts on each:

  • Summer Wars – From the team that brought us The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, I had high hopes for this one, and for the most part, it hits the mark (the Otakusphere also seems pretty enamored with it). It certainly inherits the former film’s knack for good pacing, and it displays a good balance between simple, heartfelt drama and more fantastical framing elements. In this case, the drama is derived from our math nerd hero Kenji and his schoolboy crush on Natsuki. When Natsuki makes a cryptic request for help during summer vacation, Kenji jumps at the opportunity. It seems Natsuki is from an influential, if not particularly wealthy family, and they’re all gathering together to celebrate the matriarch’s 90th birthday. Natsuki wants Kenji to pretend to be her fiance in order to please her grandmother. This side of the story makes for a sorta comedy of errors, with a stack of misfortune continually piling up on Kenji, until he starts to fight back.

    Natsuki and Kenji share a moment

    The more fantastical element of the story is a ridiculously connected social network called Oz. It is very reminiscent of Stephenson’s Metaverse from Snow Crash, though I guess you could say that Oz is what Second Life wishes it could be… and it’s also an object lesson on why such a centralized system is improbable and foolish. As portrayed in the movie, Oz has over billion users, and the system provides an infrastructure for all aspects of life, from commerce and banking to socializing and gaming to government services. It’s a comprehensive network, and it can be accessed from just about anywhere (i.e. computers, phones, televisions, other appliances, etc…). And it’s centralized, so when something goes wrong, things get reallly hairy out here in meatspace.

    The crux of the story arises when Kenji, who spends his free time as an admin in Oz, gets a mysterious message consisting entirely of a sequence of numbers. Being a math nerd who is clearly in over his head when pretending to be Natsuki’s fiance, he relishes the opportunity to solve a more orderly problem, which he does. But then, something bad starts to happen. It seems that the problem he solved has allowed someone to start hacking Oz accounts… using Kenji’s avatar (I won’t discuss exactly who this is, but I will say that it fits with the Japanese relationship with technology… and in this case, of course, it’s all the fault of Americans). This does not improve his reputation with Natsuki’s family.

    A look inside Oz

    I won’t get into more details after that, but it’s a really fun story. If, that is, you can get past the absurdity of Oz’s overly-connected monopoly on life. I have to admit that the premise of Oz bothered me at first, but once I got past that, things proceeded well from there. We’re treated to a very nice family dynamic, including the wonderful grandmother character, who utilizes her own low-tech social network to bring her family (and perhaps the country) together during a crisis. The romance at the heart of the story is well done, as is the conflict in Oz. Visually, it’s a gorgeous and inventive movie, and that certainly helps with the pacing. Overall, it totally won me over, despite some misgivings at the heart of the premise. ***

  • Sword of the Stranger – This is a movie that I don’t really remember adding to my queue (nor where I saw the recommendation, as it’s not typical Otakusphere material, and thus I can’t find any real references to it there), but I’m glad I did, as it ended up being a very entertaining, if a bit harrowing, experience. The story is rather simplistic: a young Japanese boy named Kotaro is being hunted by a group of Chinese swordsmen for mysterious reasons. While fleeing, Kotaro and his dog run across a nameless Ronin, and a… fatherly? brotherly? relationship develops between them. The Ronin is quite talented, but is haunted by a life of violence, and does not want to fight. As the villains close in on our heroes, he has to make a choice: flee or fight?

    Sword of the Stranger

    So it’s a premise that isn’t expanding any horizons, but the visual style of the film and the way the action sequences are constructed certainly make up for any shortcomings on the story front. That being said, I did find the villains interesting, as well as the nationalities of various characters. There are Chinese in the film, and I believe they’re speaking in both Mandarin and Japanese at times (not really that familiar with either language, but that’s the impression I got), and then there’s the “Western” swordsman who travels with the villains. He’s a force of nature, taking on all comers, but often bored by their paltry resistance. His goal seems less focused on hunting down the child than on finding a worthy opponent (which he does, in the form of the aforementioned Ronin). Again, not sure what the significance of all these nationalities means, but I feel like there’s probably something there. It is quite a graphically violent movie, bloody and grim at times, especially towards the end of the film, but the movie does an excellent job establishing stakes and putting our heroes through their paces. ***

  • Paprika – Another movie that doesn’t seem to appear much in the Otakusphere, and again, I don’t remember where I found the recommendation. I have mixed feelings about the movie, and I have to admit that I may not have given it an entirely fair shake. I watched it in two sittings, with the first one being late at night when I probably wasn’t in any condition to give the film the level of attention it warrants. It’s basically about how a new psychological device allows people to enter into one another’s dreams, and then how that technology starts to break down. Paprika is one of the characters avatars, a redheaded superhero in the world of dreams, but a straightlaced psychologist out here in the real world. The film is visually spectacular, but the blurry line between dreams and reality gets to be a bit bewildering. You can almost never tell where you are or what’s really going on. Again, I feel like this is a movie that demands multiple viewings (or at least, a more attentive viewing than I gave it) in order to break down what’s really happening. My initial reaction was one of interest that was ultimately not very well fulfilled. I enjoyed my time with the movie and was never bored, but I wasn’t particularly blown away by the story, which seemed fragmented and unclear.


    The film was apparently a big influence on Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and there may be some common DNA between the two films, but Paprika’s dreams are decidedly more dreamlike (i.e. uncanny and shifting and strange). There are some visual motifs that probably demand some sort of symbolic analysis, but again, I wasn’t really up to that task upon first viewing. Again, we’ve got a story that explores Japan’s uncomfortable relationship with technology, a theme that seems to run across a lot of postwar Japanese films and television (for obvious reasons, though this movie doesn’t resort to direct mushroom cloud symbolism or anything). Ultimately, I’m not entirely sure the film worked for me, but even if it didn’t, I’m still impressed by the ambition here. Call it an interesting failure at worst, and it may be even better than I’m making it out to be. It’s certainly a movie I’d like to check out again sometime… At the very least, they tried to do a lot of interesting things!

And that about covers it for now. I have a few series in my Netflix queue, but I’m not sure if or when I’ll get to them. The only one I see in my Watch Instantly queue is Samurai 7, which has been on the list for a while and appeals to my love of the original Seven Samurai (and the many riffs on the same story).

Animovie Double Feature

A couple more quick reviews of Anime movies I’ve seen lately.

  • The Girl Who Leapt Through Time: This film opens by introducing us to Makoto, a young girl who doesn’t seem exceptional in an obvious or traditional way, but during the course of a particularly clumsy day, she accidentally gains the ability to time travel. At first, she uses this extraordinary ability for superficial reasons: she skips back a day so that she can do better on a test, she skips backward to continue singing karaoke with her friends Chiaki and Kousuke, and so on. Naturally, things become more complicated. There’s an element of the monkey’s paw here, in that one should be careful what they wish for… even superficial uses of her new power can turn out to have wide-ranging consequences.

    Makoto and friends

    The movie doesn’t get carried away with this though, and one of the things I really like about this movie is that it doesn’t let the fantastical elements detract from the human element. It’s not a science fiction story – the time travel isn’t particularly well established (and there are some open questions in the end) – but it uses those elements as more than just window dressing. At times if feels like more of a high-school comedy, albeit one that grows more serious as the story proceeds. Dramatic elements are intersperced as well. The typical high-school subjects of love and confusion about the future are explored a bit. I’m not entirely sure about the ending, but I liked spending time with these characters so much that it worked well enough for me.

    Makoto Leaping Through Time

    The pacing, more than anything else, is what keeps this movie on track. The introduction sets the stage well, and just when you’re starting to wonder where the story is going, the time travel elements are established. This leads to a wonderfully light-hearted exploration of Makoto and how she copes with her new powers. And just when that starts to get cloying, the story shifts again as Makoto realizes that her new powers have impacted her relationships with friends and family. In particular, her friends Chiaki and Kousuke seem to be affected, and she just wants things to go back to normal. Interestingly, the time-travel is probably superfluous here – this is exactly the sort of thing that teenagers go through all the time. It all leads up to a climax that was much tenser than I would have ever expected at the beginning of the film. But it mixes all of this together rather well. There are still some open questions and potential plot holes in the end, but I have to admit to having a ton of fun with this movie. Recommended! ***

  • Whisper of the Heart: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time enjoyed pretty favorable reviews in the otakusphere, but Pete wasn’t too impressed. He says “If anyone wants to see a much better movie about the same thing, watch Whisper of the Heart.” So I threw that in my Netflix queue and just watched it today.

    It’s another school movie following a quirky girl and the people around her. Young Shizuku has been reading books at a voracious pace and she notices that every book she gets at the library has been previously checked out by the same boy… Despite Pet’es recommendation, I found it to be very different from The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. While I thought that The Girl Who Leapt Through Time had great pacing and was able to balance between it’s various disparate elements well, Whisper of the Heart doesn’t really have great pacing… because it doesn’t need to. As a story, it’s much more seamless and doesn’t require any sort of balancing act. Now, I do think it’s a bit too long, but in the end, it’s a wonderful story. If the elements of the fantastical in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time bother you, then you probably would enjoy this movie much more. It’s a much more grounded film, and everything in the movie falls neatly into place by the end.

    Shizuku and a very fat cat

    The thing I liked most about this movie was the way it captured the tentative nature of young teens as they try to figure out what they’re going to be doing with their life. Even those who know exactly what they want to do have a certain hesitancy and insecurity about their future, and this movie really nails that feeling. I suppose it helps that

    Hayao Miyazaki was writing the screenplay, and you can certainly see his hand at work here (especially when you find out about the Baron). All in all, it’s a very good movie, and one that will probably stick with me (though I suppose only time will tell).

This was an interesting duo to watch in close proximity. Strangely, I probably enjoyed watching The Girl Who Leapt Through Time more, but Whisper of the Heart is probably the better overall movie and it seems like the one that would stick with me longer. I think both are certainly above average features and well worth a watch, even if they’re not really in your wheelhouse (I have to admit – the school drama has never been one of my favorite genres, even back when I was a student…)

Nanoha A’s Ends

I finished Nanoha A’s about a month ago, but have neglected to post about it until now. I don’t have much to add to my previous posts on the subject, but I do want to comment on one thing that I wrote a while back:

Ultimately, I’m glad I’m watching this series, but I think I’ve discovered a strain of Anime that I know I want to avoid in the future. The whole lolicon business is frustrating, especially since you can go a few episodes without it and just when I’m getting used to a normal story, I get slapped in the face with a creepy transformation deck or something. I don’t really have that much of a problem while watching the show, but I can already tell that this is the sort of series where my opinion will degrade over time because the most memorable part of it is something I find annoying and creepy.

A month after finishing the series, and I have to say that my opinion has indeed degraded over time for the reasons described above. Much of what I remember about the show are the creepy lolicon overtones and a bunch of nitpicky complaints.

The overall stories of both series are reasonably well done, and I do like the way stakes were raised in the second series. For a quasi-inanimate object, the Book of Darkness makes for a good villain, and I like how it meets its match in a young, crippled girl who has seemingly endless reserves of good will and optimism. The way the protectors bond with that girl is touching and further reinforces the “empathetic villain” motif of the series.

There’s a twist later in the series which is reasonably satisfying, though not entirely unexpected. As soon as a second masked mystery man showed up, it was almost immediately obvious who they were and why they were helping the Book of Darkness.

The battles in the series are certainly bigger and our heroes’ power certainly seems to be growing, but this does represent something of an issue with Magic. I had mentioned before that the series doesn’t get too carried away with the Magic, but in hindsight, I think it might suffer from the typical magic trap of ever-escalating power. There don’t appear to be much in the way of limitations to magic in the universe of this show, and that does begin to sap the show of some tension.

But all of that is beside the point. In the end, I simply can’t deal with the creepy lolicon stuff. There isn’t that much of it in the series, but it’s about evenly spread throughout, so that every time I felt myself getting comfortable with the story, they’d throw a creepy transformation deck at me and I’d be right back where I started. It’s a good series, but I find it hard to overcome the things I don’t like about it. As I mentioned above, it’s only really gotten worse over time, to the point where things I didn’t mind much now feel like negatives. I’m glad I watched it, because I now know to steer clear of anything with even a whiff of lolicon, but that’s a bit of a shame because I did enjoy some aspects of the series quite a bit. I’m a little comforted by the fact that the folks who recommended this series to me don’t seem to like the whole lolicon business either, but while they were able to tune it out, I just wasn’t able to do so… I’m told that the sequel to this series takes place when Nanoha and friends are in their late teens (something we get a glimpse of at the very end of this series… and I wish that’s how the series had started), which sounds promising, but at the same time, I’m not exactly in the mood to chase down the series (which hasn’t been released yet in the US).

Up next in the Anime queue are a pair of movies – Banner of the Stars III (technically an OAV) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (which I apparently had in my Netflix queue, probably added due to Otaku Kun and the rest of the Otakusphere).

Nanoha Ends and A’s Begins

I finished off the first season of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha last weekend and moved on to the first disc of the second season, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s. As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, the first season was slow going at first, and I had some major problems with a few things, notably the age of the characters combined with the fan service (apparently the specific term for this is “Lolicon”, something I’d like to avoid from here on out). But behind all that stuff was a pretty good story, and I suppose I’m glad I stuck it out. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, but there are some things I want to talk about that require them, so there.

I’ve already gone over the basic plot of the series:

The story concerns a young girl named Nanoha whose life is changed when she runs across a magical ferret who gives her a stone called the “Raging Heart” (there seems to be some confusion in translations here, it sometimes being referred to as “Raising Heart” – I gather there’s some sort of story there, but I don’t want to read too much about it until I finish the series). The stone unlocks Nanoha’s magical powers and she decides to help the magical ferret recover powerful but unstable Jewel Seeds (magical artifacts from another dimension). Soon it becomes apparent that they’re not the only ones after the Jewel Seeds, and Nanoha gets caught up in the middle.

It turns out that the relationship between Nanoha and the other girl who is going after the Jewel Seeds (named Fate) is an important part of the series. It’s pretty clear that Nanoha and Fate are only superficially opposed to one another, and Fate’s mother is the real villain of the series.

This brings up something I did like about the series, which is that first impressions of characters, especially the villains, are often wrong. There are three primary villains in the series. There’s Fate, but she’s only following her mother’s wishes and eventually you grow to like her. Aruf is Fate’s familiar, and she’s especially mean to Nanoha and Yunno. But then we see how well Aruf treats her master and I think she ended up being my favorite character in the series. Finally, there’s Fate’s mother. She is pretty thoroughly evil, but we find out later why she’s doing what she’s doing, and it’s a legitimate motive, even if her methods are detestable.


The turning point of the series is when the Space Time Administration shows up. The universe gets fleshed out, and we start to get a better idea of what’s going on. A few additional interesting characters are introduced and the story starts moving quickly. There are some things I found a bit odd though. At one point, the captain of the Space Time Administration ship comes down and talks to Nanoha’s parents, explaining that Nanoha needs to go away for a while and that things might be dangerous… but there’s no explanation of why Nanoha needs to go away. Her parents don’t know about magic or Jewel Seeds or anything… and yet they still agree to it. The fact that no one in Nanoha’s original circle of human family and friends knows about her magical qualities seems a bit odd to me. I keep expecting the other shoe to drop, but it hasn’t happened yet (even 5 episodes into the second series). Everyone has such a cheery attitude about a 9 year old being put into a dangerous situation (and that includes Nanoha, which leads to strange cognitive dissonance for me while she’s in a battle). Like I mentioned in my previous post, this sort of thing makes no sense to me. In an email response to my last post, a reader explained that a lot of other cultures have a recent and celebrated history of children soldiers, which does make a sort of sense. I guess my western sensibilities just aren’t tuned right for this series, because stuff like this keeps tripping me up.

This seems to be a very uneven series from my perspective. There are a lot of little things I don’t like about it, but there are also a lot of little things I do like. Some of the side characters are great (Aruf in particular, though I also have a soft spot for Amy). The sense of technology that drives the magic is actually very well done, and it kept the series from getting to out of hand with powerful magic (in the way that, say, Hellsing did). This is important because it means that there actually are stakes in the series, and that when a battle happens, I don’t always know the outcome. There seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that physics are still important, even if they can be stretched a bit. Visually, the series does have an interesting look. Often, the animation is done to imitate camera styles – for instance, there are scenes which look like they were “filmed” with a handheld camera. It’s not something I noticed much in other series, and it works really well here. Lighting effects are also well done. The music isn’t especially my taste, but I suppose it works well enough.

The ending of the first series is reasonably well done. There are some specific revelations that are surprising, even if the general plot is a bit predictable. Nanoha and Fate become friends in the end, and Nanoha A’s picks up right where we left off. This time, a powerful magical faction has appeared on earth, attempting to use another unstable horcrux artifact called the Book of Darkness. Things haven’t evolved very far just yet, but the pattern of villains with understandable motives seems to be holding up. As previously mentioned, the whole thing still has a vaguely Harry Potterish feel to it, which is unfortunate because I probably enjoyed the Harry Potter books more than this series.

Ultimately, I’m glad I’m watching this series, but I think I’ve discovered a strain of Anime that I know I want to avoid in the future. The whole lolicon business is frustrating, especially since you can go a few episodes without it and just when I’m getting used to a normal story, I get slapped in the face with a creepy transformation deck or something. I don’t really have that much of a problem while watching the show, but I can already tell that this is the sort of series where my opinion will degrade over time because the most memorable part of it is something I find annoying and creepy. Honestly, I struggled even writing this post, but I figured that I started writing about it and it wouldn’t be fair to stop in the middle. Probably one more post when Nanoha A’s ends. Anyway, lots more screenshots and comments in the extended entry.

Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha

A while ago, Steven recommended that I check out an Anime series called Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s. It turns out that it’s a sequel to the original series. Opinions differ on whether or not to start from the beginning, the crux of the matter being that the start of the first series can be a bit of a difficult watch. However, I’ve found myself to be something of a completist these days, and prefer to start from the beginning (this also holds true for Crest/Banner of the Stars – I’d recommend people to start with Crest even though Banner is the better series overall.) So while I was recommended the second series, I decided to start with the first.

This is probably a good topic for another post, but I’ve found this completist impulse to be interesting because I can remember when I was young and had no problem turning on a series or a movie even when it had already started. I’m not sure if it’s just because I take the idea of watching a movie more seriously these days or what, but I rarely put on a movie that’s already begun (unless it’s something I’ve seen before). When it comes to series, a big part of it would have to be that when I was young, most series didn’t feature an overarching story arc, instead consisting of mostly one-off episodes. That sort of series is obviously much easier to start watching than something more tightly plotted like the shows common today. Technology may be part of it too, as devices like my DVR or services like Netflix make it easier to watch a series or a movie from the beginning. But I digress!

Having just finished Disc 2 of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, I have to say that despite some major reservations after the first Disc, the show has really turned the corner and become something I’m looking forward to finishing. Indeed, when I got home tonight and put in Disc 2, I had only planned to watch 1 episode. 4 episodes later, I hopped on my computer and pushed up Disc 3 in my Netflix queue and then started writing this post.

The story concerns a young girl named Nanoha whose life is changed when she runs across a magical ferret who gives her a stone called the “Raging Heart” (there seems to be some confusion in translations here, it sometimes being referred to as “Raising Heart” – I gather there’s some sort of story there, but I don’t want to read too much about it until I finish the series). The stone unlocks Nanoha’s magical powers and she decides to help the magical ferret recover powerful but unstable Jewel Seeds (magical artifacts from another dimension). Soon it becomes apparent that they’re not the only ones after the Jewel Seeds, and Nanoha gets caught up in the middle.

A sizeable portion of the premise feels a lot like a Japanese version of Harry Potter, what with the young protagonist and the discovery of a magical world, but despite the sometimes fluffy tone of this series, it does seem to delve rather frequently into darker territory. Indeed, while Harry Potter never really had a choice but to confront his destiny, people like Dumbledore at least attempted to protect him. Nanoha, on the other hand, seems to freely choose her fate. Yuuno, the magical ferret, seems to feel bad that he got Nanoha involved, but doesn’t really do much to discourage Nanoha. I found this a bit odd, but then again, Yunno is apparently around the same age. For that matter so are Fate and Chrono.

I’m not necessarily opposed to a story that features young characters in such a way (for example, I like Enders Game a lot), but given the dark nature of the story, it’s hard to imagine this appealing to young children. In particular, there’s a scene where Fate meets with her mother that is brutal. I guess I’m just not sure why the characters aren’t older (I speculate below, but I find that reason kinda creepy). There doesn’t seem to be any story-related reason for it, and it can sometimes lead to rather odd tonal shifts. These tonal shifts didn’t impact me nearly as much as they did in Trigun and indeed, seem to be something common in a lot of Japanese entertainment (I’ve also seen a few Yakuza flicks lately that feature this sort of thing, and certainly Kurosawa was no stranger to it either – this, too, is probably a good topic for a separate post).

There is one thing that really did bother me about the series though, and that’s the fan service. I’m sure there’s probably another name for it, but a show that features fan service with 9 year olds is pretty emphatically not my thing. I’m not a big proponent of fan service in general, but I can tolerate it in something like Ghost in the Shell, where it’s pretty tame. Here it’s just creepy. In particular, there are scenes where Nanoha transforms from her regular clothing to her magical armor, and the transformation is just disturbing. I seriously considered stopping the series after the first disc because this made me so uncomfortable. At this point, I’m glad I continued, but it’s enough to hold me back from truly loving the series.

I suppose it helps that the creepiness factor seems to be waning a bit since episode 5 (the one with the hot spring). There have even been a few transformation sequences that aren’t cringe-inducing, so perhaps it’s something that will lessen as the series goes on (which may be too much to hope for, but still). Also, it seems that Yunno and I have pretty much the same reaction to these types of scenes.

In any case, I’m looking forward to how the first series ends, and I recognize that the second series is what I was really recommended, so I’m looking forward to that too. More thoughts (and screenshots) to come once I’ve finished the series.

Update: More thoughts here.

Banner of the Stars II

In Crest of the Stars, we were introduced to Lafiel and Jinto (and they are introduced to each other), the main characters of this series. They are almost immediately embroiled in the outbreak of a major war and are very nearly trapped behind enemy lines. However, they manage to escape to safety and join the Imperial Star Forces (which is their duty, as Jinto is an Imperial noble and Lafiel is a member of the royal family). During the course of the story, Lafiel and Jinto become good friends and in Banner of the Stars, they are reunited on the Basroil, a rather small assault ship in the massive Imperial Navy. While Jinto and Lafiel are still key characters, that series takes a much broader view of the war, often focusing on the strategic decisions made by various Admirals (one of whom is Lafiel’s father). Banner of the Stars is an excellent story of military combat, and part of the reason it works so well is that it focuses on both the strategic and tactical perspectives. You get a feel for the overall war in the scenes with various Admirals, while you get a good idea of what it’s like on the front lines in the scenes with the Basroil.

With Banner of the Stars II, the series returns to its more personal roots. It is more like Crest of the Stars in that it is much more concerned with Lafiel and Jinto than the overall war effort. There are, of course, some establishing scenes featuring Admiral Bebaus and later in the story, Admiral Spoor pitches in, but the overall story is tightly wound around Lafiel and Jinto.


At the end of the first Banner, the Abh was victorious. In the sequel, Admiral Bebaus is leading the effort to reclaim the planets initially lost during the war with the United Mankind. His fleet is moving quickly, and as each new system is reclaimed, a Territorial Ambassador is left behind to manage the planets. Lafiel is assigned as Territorial Ambassador to the Lobnas system. This sort of duty is usually described as tedious and boring, but in this case, things become interesting when we find out that Lobnas was used as a giant prison, with millions of prisoners inhabiting the only island on the planet. There are guards, but things escalate quickly when some prisoners and guards request emigration.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the actual conflict, but I will say that I enjoy stories like this, where something seemingly simple turns out to be much more complex than initially thought. The characters who represent the various factions in the conflict are surprisingly well drawn considering how little screentime they have, and the relationship between Lafiel and Jinto is fleshed out more as a result. We also see more interaction between Lafiel and Admiral Spoor, and in an amusing turn, Admiral Abriel lays the smackdown on the Admiral Bebaus. There are less battle sequences here, but what battles do happen are pretty intense. It’s also interesting to get a peek into the internal workings of the prison planet as well as the Abh government and how they treat conquered planets (just a small part of the impressive worldbuilding the series engages in). At one point, we also get a rather disturbing glimpse of how the Abh regard the faithful execution of revenge (something they attempt to use as a deterrent, which is an interesting conjecture).

My initial thought was that the series had seriously decreased the stakes, which was almost disappointing. Crest was the story of two characters escaping the enemy, while Banner raised the stakes considerably. The interstellar war portrayed in Banner was filled with tension and suspense. The outcome was by no means guaranteed, and the fate of the Abh empire hung in balance. So became a little confused when Banner II focused on such a seemingly insignificant planet of no strategic value. However, as the series progressed, I found myself drawn into the fate of those on the planet and more importantly, I realized that while the stakes were not on a galactic level, they were still high due to the emotional investment we have with the main characters of Lafiel and Jinto. Furthermore, the series is tightly plotted. There’s no filler here, and while things may start a bit strangely, the tension builds steadily. Crest lagged a bit in the middle, but Banner and now Banner II are very well constructed.

In the end, I breezed through the 10 episode series rather quickly and very much enjoyed them. Each of the series tells a somewhat independent story, and Banner II is no exception, but I’m betting that some of the emotional impact is lost on someone who hasn’t seen the previous two installments. And for the record, I also recommend watching Crest of the Stars before the first Banner. In any case, Banner II is a welcome addition to the series and well worth a watch if you enjoyed the first two series (especially Crest)…

Due to Netflix’s semi-permanent “Very Long Wait” status on the last disc, I had to torrent the last three episodes, but it was easy to find and I even managed to use a media server to stream it to my PS3, which worked better than I expected. Next up is Banner of the Stars III, which to my knowledge has not been released in the US yet, but the torrent is available… As usual, more comments and screens below the fold (actually, not as many as usual, but a few).

Anime Future Series

A few years ago (has it really been that long), I asked for some recommendations for anime series to watch. While I haven’t completely exhausted the list, I have seen a good portion of them and I’ve started to get other recommendations. It’s getting hard to keep track of them all, so I figure I should create a list of future series (not unlike some other folks’ lists). The idea will be to maintain this post going forward, unless a better way of maintaining the list becomes available later. Before I list the series, some general info about what I’ve seen and what I’m looking for:

What I’ve seen: The Anime category archive contains all my posts covering the grand majority of the anime that I’ve seen so far. If you want a more concise list, I created one on ANN here (it can be sorted, though I’m not used to their rating system so some of them might be a little different). I’d recommend looking at the sorted ranking and if you’re curious about why I liked (or disliked) a given series, check out the category archive for full posts.

What I’m looking for: I want to watch a series, but not something too long. I don’t want to have to wade through 18 DVDs or anything absurd like that. In fact, I tend to prefer 13 episode series, though I can accept 26 episode series as well (generally, I feel 26 episode series have too much filler. This isn’t that bad when I like the characters, like in GitS, but it’s really bad when I don’t, like in Trigun). The series should contain a full story arc (i.e. no Twelve Kingdoms). In general, I prefer a good story to things like character studies or narrative wanking. In the past, I’ve asked for action packed and fun. While I certainly enjoy that, I’m not opposed to other genres. However, some things I’m not interested in at the moment: downer endings, post-apocalyptic settings, incomprehensible or severly obtuse plots (i.e. Serial Experiments Lain) and steampunk. Some things I do like: Science fiction, action, suspense, thrillers, horror, good stories and twists. Nothing comprehensive about my likes or dislikes, but I thought it might help. The series must be available via Netflix. Bonus points for a series available via Netflix Instant Streaming or Blu-Ray!

Currently on the list: Based on recommendations from my first Anime post as well as stuff I’ve picked up on later posts and elsewhere. Taking my cue from Steven’s list, I’m labeling each one:

Yes – Means I’ll probably watch it

No – Means I probably won’t

Maybe – Means I’m unsure or not yet ready

Unsorted – Means I haven’t looked into it at all

Obviously this is very subjective activity. I’m not as allergic to recommendations as some folks, but that doesn’t mean I’ll watch anything! Anyway, here’s what’s on the list right now.

  • Banner of the Stars IIYes – I loved Crest and Banner of the Stars, so it makes sense to watch this. The only major problem right now is that disc 3 is on semi-permanent “Very Long Wait” status at Netflix. Perhaps I can find an… alternate… way of viewing those episodes.
  • Samurai 7Yes – I like the original Kurosawa movie (and some of the remakes and updates), and this got a recommendation in the last post. Also, it’s one of the few Anime series available on BD.
  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’sYes – The big question here is whether or not I need to watch the first Nanoha series. Author asked the same question a while back and the consensus seemed to be to watch from the beginning (Ben also recommends starting with the first series). But then I’ve heard that the first few episodes of the first series are hard to watch and atypical of the series as a whole. Still, I tend to be a completist, so I’m leaning towards watching the whole thing (for the record, I’m in the camp that would recommend watching Crest before Banner, even though I did the opposite).
  • Someday’s DreamersYes – Based mostly on rave reviews and recommendations. Also, I could go for something “brain engaging” as someone put it.
  • Shingu: Secret of the Stellar WarsMaybe – Based mostly on high ratings of everyone else, I need to look into this one a bit more.
  • Irresponsible Captain TylerMaybe – Recommended by my friend Roy, it seems like a bit of a farce. Not sure I’m in the mood for that right now, but the premise of the series does seem kinda fun.
  • Samurai ChamplooMaybe – Another earlier recommendation. It’s made by the same folks who did Cowboy Bebop. Now, I enjoyed that series, but the ending was a bit sour for me (though it didn’t hit me nearly as hard as SDB). This series also seems generally different than CB anyway, so I want to find out a bit more before committing to it.
  • Divergence EveMaybe – I have to admit that the fan service seems a bit strange, but I’ve heard it’s got good story, so there’s that.
  • Neon Genesis EvangelionMaybe – Supposedly a “classic” but I’ve been warned not to watch it until later, something that I’m inclined to agree with.
  • Excel SagaMaybe – I get the same vibe from this that I get from NGE above… so perhaps too early to watch this one.
  • Great Teacher OnizukaUnsorted
  • Darker than BlackUnsorted
  • Black LagoonUnsorted
  • GantzUnsorted
  • Elfin LiedUnsorted
  • GungraveUnsorted
  • TexnolyzeNo – Post apocalyptic
  • Ergo ProxyNo – Post apocalyptic
  • Last ExileNo – Bad reviews from Alex, Fledge and Shamus.

Well, that about covers it for now. Recommendations are welcome, as are comments about the movies on the list right now (particularly the Maybe and Unsorted ones).


A couple quick reviews of Anime movies…

  • Ponyo – The first new Hayao Miyazaki film since 2004, this one is probably an improvement over Howl’s Moving Castle (which had a great first half, but fell apart in the final act), but it does not approach the top of his oeuvre (which consists of classics like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro). Fortunately, this still makes for a pretty darn good film and something that tops most animated releases this year (though Up certainly stands on its own). The film has a great opening sequence, free from dialogue but expressive and visually striking. The story concerns a fish creature who escapes from her father, the lord of the sea. Young Sosuke, who lives in a house on a cliff by the sea, discovers the sea creature trapped in a bottle. He frees the creature and names it Ponyo. Thus starts their relationship, and when Ponyo’s father eventually catches up to her and brings her back home, she spouts legs and arms, essentually turning human (an ability she gained from her contact with Sosuke). Her second escape causes some commotion in the underwater world, eventually flooding Sosuke’s town, prompting Sosuke and Ponyo to take a magical voyage accross the flooded town to find Sosuke’s mother. This ending portion reminded me a lot of My Neighbor Totoro, which is a shame, because that is clearly the superior film. The ending was somewhat anti-climactic to me, and anyone prone to thinking through the consequences of certain choices might be a bit befuddled. Still, the film is well made, visually interesting and certainly worth a watch. The one caveat to the current theater experience is that they are showing the dubbed version of the film, featuring the likes of Frankie Jonas, Noah Cyrus, Tina Fey, and Liam Neeson. They do a fine job, to be sure, but I would be interested in hearing the original version as well… Anyway, good stuff, though not Miyazaki’s best. *** (3 out of 4 stars)
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society – It appears I’ve finally reached the end of Ghost in the Shell, a set of movies and series that I have thoroughly enjoyed. This is a feature film that follows the two Stand Alone Complex tv series, and as such, it hits on similar themes. In this instance, much more so than the 2nd Gig series, the focus is on how an individual can make a difference in the world. At the start of the film, it appears that the Major has left Section 9 to pursue her own goals. Interestingly, Togusa ends up taking over as the head of Section 9, and Batou, perhaps missing his friend, seems kinda forlorn. It doesn’t take too long for the Major to reappear, however, and things get going from there in typical GitS fashion. I don’t really have a ton to say about it at this point – if you’ve gotten this far in the series, you’ll probably like this movie. The animation style and art is a little better than the two series, but not as good as either film. The story is byzantine as expected, though perhaps not so much as the series. Like with the GitS: Innocence movie, I missed the Major, though at least she does show up for a good portion of the film this time. Again, if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll like this. *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Incidentally, when the hell are they going to release the original Ghost in the Shell (and the 2.0 remake for that matter) on Blu-Ray? Why did they release the sequel first (which admittedly looks gorgeous on BD)? In general, Anime seems to be pretty weakly represented in BD. Where’s my Cowboy Bebop? Or any Miyazaki films? Gah.

Noir Ends

In my first post on Noir, I kinda made light of the body count that our two heroes were racking up as well as the fact that French society never seemed to notice when a few dozen nameless hitmen are discovered in a park or abandoned building somewhere. I was making a joke of it, but it always sorta bothered me. There are a few hundred people who die during the course of this series. While they’re all portrayed as mostly nameless, faceless victims, I couldn’t help but wonder what the consequences of their deaths were. Were they married? Did they have kids? Friends? And so on. Warning: The rest of the post contains major spoilers!

One of the things I wondered about was how well Mireille and Kirika were able to deal with the amount of death and destruction they were doling out. For the most part, they seem to deal with it remarkably well. Kirika seems to be more affected by it than Mireille. As the series goes on, she seems less and less enthused with what she’s capable of doing…. but there’s something off about her reaction that took me a while to place. I finally realized what it was – it reminded me of Crime and Punishment (I suppose I should note spoilers for that novel as well), in particular, this paragraph (page 623 in my edition) where Raskolnikov laments his punishment:

… even if fate had sent him no more than remorse – burning remorse that destroyed the heart, driving away sleep, the kind of remorse to escape those fearsome torments the mind clutches at the noose and the well, oh, how glad he would have been! Torment and tears – after all, that is life, too. But he felt no remorse for his crime.

In essense, Raskolnikov felt no guilt or remorse for his crime, but that lack of feeling, that lack of guilt was just as horrible as he could have imagined. That’s very much how I thought Kirika felt during the second half of the series. In his take on the series, Steven Den Beste does an excellent job describing the duality of Kirika:

Kirika had two parts inside. One part was a killing machine. It was created by Altena through training and indoctrination, and once it seemed ready, Kirika’s memory was wiped and she was placed in Japan, so that she could begin to face the Trials which were required of all candidates for Noir to prove their fitness. Events after that point were not planned, because they depended on what Kirika herself did, and how she reacted to the process. Hints were left which might lead Kirika to Mireille, but if they had not, she would have faced her trials alone.

The other side of Kirika was a lonely girl, who wanted nothing more than a normal life, a name, a home, and someone to love and be loved by. The series shows us those two sides of Kirika, gradually building them up to tangible presences, and in episode #25 Kirika is forced to choose one over the other.

The killing machine part of Kirika’s personality was capable of evil, without remorse or guilt, but the human side of her personality recognized how horrible that was and the series is essentially about Kirika’s internal struggle. Mireille seemed to be much more neutral. The other piece of the puzzle is Chloe, who seems to take a perverse pleasure in what she is capable of, and as the series progresses, she becomes more and more creepy.

Kirika and Chloe

Kirika and Chloe

Ultimately, when Kirika is forced to choose between Mireille and Chloe, she chooses Mireille (who I guess is supposed to represent the human side of Kirika’s personality). As Steven notes, the series does not end there and neither does Kirika’s internal struggle. She is still capable of horrible evil and is not sure she could live with herself. Altena still attempts to appeal to killing machine portion of Kirika’s personality, but she ultimately fails, and Mireille succeeds in saving Kirika. At the very end, it’s clear that Kirika and Mireille will continue on together and that they love each other (like sisters). I am once again reminded of Dostoyevsky (page 630 in my edition – replace the male pronouns with female pronouns and this could easily apply to Kirika):

… at this point a new story begins, the story of a man’s gradual renewal, his gradual rebirth, his gradual transition from eone world to another, of his growing acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. This might constitute the theme of a new narrative – our present narrative is, however, at an end.

There’s a lot more to the ending of the series that I’m skipping over, but Steven’s post covers that in plenty of detail and I don’t see a need to repeat all that… It’s not a perfect series, but the ending did make it worthwhile for me. I wouldn’t say that I was as taken with it as Steven or Alex, but neither was I as disappointed with it as Ben. I thought the series was a bit too long (a little too much filler, perhaps) and unevenly paced, but the ending made up for any issues I may have had with the series.

As usual, more screenshots and commentary in the extended entry…