Review: Fafner in the Azure: Exodus (Seasons 1 and 2)

It's always this lighthearted. I pro--who am I kidding?

It’s always this lighthearted. I prom–who am I kidding? It’s downhill from here.

Background

Studio Xebec.  There’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.  Let’s face it…it basically became, for a long time, the name associated with mediocre series.  Heck…a long search of their credentials few noteworthy series in the last 10 years.  The last “popular” one might be Shaman King.  Past that?  Some occasional moderate successes.  Some underrated series.  But nothing really spectacular or groundbreaking.  Or really “great” for that matter.  Throw the 2004 series Fafner in the Azure as part of that.  Reasonable and decent plot but suffering a bit of a budget issue and some pacing problems (10 episodes are only worth watching upon second viewing), in addition to some complaints when Hisashi Hirai basically recycled the same character design templates (themselves already questionable to some fans)…and things went a bit off the rails.  But I liked it.  It’s kind of interesting and a bit of a Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion hybrid.

Colour me surprised as this series slowly plods along for the next decade.  It gets a prequel OVA, Fafner in the Azure: Right of Left, a movie sequel, Fafner in the Azure: Heaven and Earth,…and, around 2013, announces a sequel series.  More shockingly though comes news that Xebec, which hadn’t done a lengthy standalone series in years (at least something over 6 episodes), produced the entire series under the new name Xebec Zwei.  Also, and this is even more shocking, the attached name to the project doesn’t include three words after the colon: Fafner in the Azure: Exodus.

Story

Welcome to this version of Earth.  About 2110 AD (give or take.  Memory is pretty bad on the exact date), a series of aliens eventually named Festum make contact with Earth.  They begin what can only be described as a horrific assault.  The world as we know it falls to pieces as these aliens, apparently silicon-based, begin attacking.  Each live in packs led by a Mir and tend to form more inquisitive thoughts than the standard invading alien.  Their standard attack is announcing into your mind the question “Are you there?”.  It then attempts to read your mind and assimilate your mind and body simultaneously.  This wave of offence pretty much destroys much of the world…Japan and much of China sink into the ocean outright.  Escaping Japanese civilians are apparently all sterile. Did I mention that the Festum also come in a wide variety of lovely shapes and sizes?  And they fly?

Braaaaains

They’re pretty much zombies. Golden, Angel-esc, mind destroying zombies.

But one floating centre of Japanese culture survives.  Tatsumiya Island.  It is a cloaked, mobile island which spends its days living a much less bleak life.  Children go to school, people have routine worries, and there are even happy cafes still in operation.  Why?  Well, they harness the power of teenagers and mecha.  That is…they genetically engineer children with the ability to fly mecha known as Fafner.  The ones on this island, currently in production as of the original series, provide a combat efficiency unparalleled across the Earth.  That is to say, they win battles.

Now, this is where many series diverge.  Fafner falls into a pretty cynical category.  Things rarely go smoothly for the pilots.  Death exists all over.  Multiple pilots die in the original series and mecha routinely end battles trashed.  The original series goes as far as to make a single Festum a challenging enemy.

The original series introduces Tatsumiya to the world.  Namely that they not only hid from the Festum but from humanity.  The rest of the world formed under the Neo UN, an apparently more effective and militant version of the UN we know today.  They fight the Festum at an international level with their own line of Fafner.  Poorly.  Anyways, the existence of Tatsumiya comes as a great surprise to them.  They routinely attempt to pull the island into greater conflicts in the original season.  They also present a threat in the movie Heaven and Earth as they slowly fall into more extreme measures when fighting Festum.  In fact, Exodus begins with a nuclear strike against an exceptionally large Festum walking over the island of Hawaii.  Which fails to do anything.

Exodus picks up four years after the original series and continues to show this arms race between Festum and humans.  The Neo UN finally develops a line of Fafner which actually compete with the even evolving Festum…which now have trump cards in the size of exceedingly powerful individual Festum (known as “Azazel” type Festum.  Get used to a lot of terminology if you watch this series).  They still get crushed and lose their base in Hawaii.  It’s quite odd as, outside of the events of Heaven and Earth, Festum rarely act in such an organized manner. A small splinter group of the Neo UN, led by General Wiseman-Bose, eventually flee and end up making contact with Tatsumiya.  Long story short, the general plans to end this war by having a citizen from Tatsumiya who is capable of speaking to the Festum accompany him so they can find a way to co-exist with the Festum.  They agree and things go on from there.  The narrative follows two groups: one which follows the General on his trip to India to seek out this possible end to the war and one which stays on Tatsumiya and defends it from Festum attacks which are spiking in both size and ferocity.

It should be clear, even before I begin going into analysis of the series itself, that there’s a massive learning curve.  There are 26 episodes and 1 movie’s worth of plot worth knowing before getting started.  It’s worse than a series such as Dragonball Z since many events in Fafner‘s prequels directly affect this series’ events.  It’s simply more than knowing the characters’ names and falls into directly understanding events from the series in question.  And making it worse is the seeming love of technobabble.  There are terminology for locations on Tatsumiya and components of Fafner that I’m still not familiar with after 22 hours of this series.  Little of it holds much impact to the series but just get used to it if you watch.

For all this though…it’s quite the payoff.  It’s very evident, even if the structure of the two released seasons didn’t make it clear (Winter 2015, Fall 2015), that both Exodus seasons linked together for an overarching season.  The narrative mostly builds for the first 13 episodes but picks up an incredible amount of steam around episode 16-17 (if you count both seasons as a single 26 season series) and never looks back.  It plays out with suspense and slowly reveals each and every secret which surround the season all while retaining top-notch mecha battle sequences.  I’m not sure what it is about Tow Ubukata.  He’s traditionally struggled when handed an established franchise and is currently the internet plaything for blaming the failings in Ghost in the Shell: Arise and Psycho-pass 2.  But Fafner?  No complaints here.

I’ll start with the aforementioned narrative.  It’s difficult to really piece together the overarching plot from an omniscient perspective until the final episodes.  Any returning Fafner fan will likely spot the Festum as almost radically different from the original series.  They’re no less terrifying but act completely different.  A viewer may see this type of plot point as trivial but such details play into the complete narrative by series’ end.  A viewer who catches such details may begin asking why the series shifts the Festum’s behaviour so significantly.  The series resolves such points but only as it closes out.  It’s incredible to have such details hidden so well, leaving the audience guessing about the exact plot, yet also retain a plot which plows forward.  I’d argue it’s almost perfect how well it plays with the audience and lures them to the exact spot they want the viewer for the knockout episodes.

The narrative itself?  It’s fairly grim.  You’ll find comedy but it’s stretched thin.  The main thrust throughout is that we all have limited time and we should impact the world while we have time…which means a lot of death and a lot of despair.  Power comes at a price.  And nobody’s nice to each other.  Kind of what you’re expecting when my best description is “real robot Evangelion without the mind screw”.

Though I'm pretty sure this guy is pretty much an angel.

Though I’m pretty sure this guy is an Angel.

And none of this is to say that there aren’t heartbreaking moments.  Far from it.  One of the series’ most poignant and memorable moments come with several shades of “ow, my heart”.  Character death almost instantly invoke this instead of the character going out in a blaze of glory.  Which is quite strange as many characters die while heroically exerting themselves in a fight…but the series instead casts each death as tragic.  And I really feel this is one of Fafner’s standouts…especially when it gets mixed with the ongoing feeling of “anybody can and will die”.  Some characters die quick.  Some die suddenly.  Some die in a prolonged fight and have some touching moments.  It almost entirely throws out the notion of predicable character death (outside of some obvious death flags actions).

This genre of anime lends itself greatly to action scenes and Fafner doesn’t struggle with these.  They are elegantly choreographed in most instances and well executed.  It’s a major upgrade from the combat sequences provided in the mid-2000 series, which were a few steps behind fight scenes of the era, and the CGI heavy 2010 movie.  Actually, I’m sure this one heavily relies on CGI as well but it does a far, far better job masking in as time goes on.  I reviewed the earlier episodes and realized how incredible the final episodes become as CGI I found effective in the early episodes become far, far more obvious.

The biggest shock to most mecha fans will likely be Fafner‘s lack of fear in having its mecha routinely destroyed in battles.  Repairs are apparently really cheap and you’ll constantly see characters beat up hard.  Arms lopped off, pilots out of fights entirely, events which really look like death (and traditionally are in mecha series).  Heck, the first battle using any of the characters from Tatsumiya have a character’s mecha lose an arm and, as pain extends to the pilot, they disconnect him from piloting further.  I cannot think of a single character not impaled by something, killed, or in extreme pain at least once throughout the entire series’ run (including its old series and movies.  This combined with the above notes about character death create some pretty tense scenes as life and death come pretty much at the will of the seemingly unforgiving plot.

Again, the biggest weaknesses of the writing lie in its assumptions.  You really must know the previous content, of mediocre nature in my opinion, to really develop an understanding and feeling for this series.  That is an absolutely massive time investment (~12 hours) and many viewers might find this too large a gamble, even for the huge payoff.  Furthermore, the narrative is relentless and unforgiving at points.  Simply just not understanding a sequence may completely throw you.  There are sequences, even entire episodes, which reveal major plot points and not being on top of your game comprehension wise can leave you steps behind and playing catch up once again.  A bit of a standard drama series issue…but it goes double when you have technobabble to deal with.

One issue I have looking back is the obvious sequel hook.  The series leaves off much the same way as the original series did and ends with questions about the remaining plot line.  The mysteries end up solved, yes, but what happens from here remains up in the air.  I mean, it’ll be clear at the end of the series that this isn’t the finale.  No.  There remain “things to do” as the term goes.  But the adventure continues on a later date…one I’m not sure Fafner will ever get due to some pretty low viewer numbers.

I would also watch out for on-the-nose characterization.  That is, character stating exactly what they’re thinking to develop character as oppose to showing the audience such traits.  This stems primarily from the series’ unwillingness to use internal thought processes but sometimes creates some awkward dialogue.

Characters

Honestly, incredible character use probably ranks as the top reason to watch Fafner.  The series routinely works to develop characters, make you like at least part of the ensemble cast, and then pick away until they end up killing someone you liked.  They’ll die.  Or give them a nice heaping of mental trauma.  Or maybe just almost kill them.  Or have family issues.  Or just not want to die as piloting in this series slowly kills the pilots.

Christ, they broke Maya so hard.

Really, this will be your standard response to later episodes.

The primary protagonists are Kazuki Makabe and Soushi Minoshiro.  At least they are in theory.  You only spend half the time with the two as they lead the same episodes, episodes which only constitute about half the series.  What you’ll really find is that Fafner becomes much more of an ensemble performance; every character gets a little time in the spotlight and finding out a little about them.  The basis of the series in this regard becomes fairly simple, often boiling down to either character moments, narrative moments, or action.  There are a few points in time where the series combines two of the three but it often move itself in only one of three directions.

It’s difficult to really go further into the series without emphasizing how much character development plays into the series.  Much of the series emphasizes the growth and development of each and every character.  Virtually none of the pilot characters remain static (though it’s worth noting that many side characters remain extremely flat).  They’re not necessarily the deepest characters nor do they have the same level of unexpected surprises that you’d find in a Persona type of production…but they change.  That is to say that events ultimately change the characters and Fafner emphasizes these developments and often places them at the forefront.  As an example, a few of the more naive characters from the “Exodus” party end up fairly traumatized.  They end up suffering greatly and the series provides screen time to these characters grappling with this new reality.  Part of the franchise involves developing an emotional attachment to the character and ultimately feel emotionally with them as they go through their trials and tribulations.  It’s very evident in the series’ newest cast additions as you’ll spend extra screen time with them.

Part of the reason having background in this series becomes critical is because of this character driven element.  It’s certainly possible to view the series from this angle without knowing the previous elements.  The series, at the most basic of levels, even provides enough background for you to do this and spends a lot of time in the first couple episodes explaining the situation to viewers.  The overall effect is much weaker, however, as you don’t have the exact same context.  I would almost chalk it up to a similar effect as the live action series The Walking Dead in the sense that you could probably start watching either partway through their intended order…it just makes certain scenes a bit weaker and some nonsensical.

These characters ultimately sell me on the franchise and provide a major drive for my sentiments to the series.  It’s a fairly unique series in the sense that every reasonably major pilot grows.  I again emphasize that this certainly fails to hold up when looking at the supporting cast, which is a bit of a disappointment since it makes the world seem just a little flatter and less dynamic.  Nonetheless, the characters slowly mature and develop new outlooks on the world.  The growth and transition period for some of the cast from unwitting teenagers to full-grown adults occurs over the span of 20 hours of viewing time and feels quite natural due to this extreme length of time.  Developments within the franchise of Exodus itself are not complete turnaround developments and thus feel more natural than some other series.  As an example of the hastened version of character change, I think of the often utilized tsundere archetype character.  There are some franchises out there which have this character really turn around from the aggressive personality to the more caring and loving character within two or three episodes…leaving as little as an hour for us to understand this character and then appreciate the meaningfulness of these personality change.  It just sometimes doesn’t work because of this haste.  But I find Fafner deals with this fairly well.  Characters change either from extreme circumstances (and have very jarring shifts in personality to accommodate this) or develop slowly and in manners that the audience appreciates.  It’s very applicable that the characters “earn” their growth.

This same emotional appeal drives quite a bit of payoff as well.  At least, the parts where you don’t find action based payoff for this series.  It’s very much, and I hate to use the term since it might not make sense to all readers, a “feels” series.  That is, the series puts negative emotions onto its viewers through the character.  That you feel for the character’s on-screen pains.  Many episodes use this to cap off the events of the episode…there’s a buildup of action, emotion, intensity.  Then pain and the episode ends, leaving questions about how the series progresses from there.  It may be something of a simple formula but Fafner plays this card quite well.  It used the same points in the original series and replays them with improved precision.  It’s very difficult to not end up heartbroken at the end of each episode in the second season (where death becomes increasingly rampant).  Even episodes without death start dealing with lots of drama and stress on the characters.  Again…it’s not a nice world.  There are typically problems or plans just plain go wrong.

And sometimes people just get assimilated and you have to watch.

And sometimes people just get assimilated and you have to watch.

One oddity in this franchise I must mention: few characters actually drive the plot.  Most end up as soldiers or present themselves as representations of the “feels” driven appeal.  Yet few of them actually move the plot along and instead just accompany certain positions such that there are entire squads of combatants that you care about.  It sometimes feels strange and you might end up wondering why certain cast members exist for this reason.  I know I did (though I really can’t say much without spoiling who lives and who dies)…but this is at least my interpretation.  That, and some characters must continue to exist as they survived previous iterations of the franchise and their death would serve little purpose as well.

Another interesting aside about the characters: very little romance exists.  You might want to find something else if that’s a major issue.  Major characters rarely deal with each other in a manner beyond close friendship.  I’m not sure if it’s a writer problem or just a desire to not introduce undue romance when it’s not really needed…but characters almost never have romantic ties.  Comparing other well know mecha franchises…and this concept is almost foreign.  It’s part of why the series ends up so dark…there’s so little positive emotion to fill this void.

As seems pretty obvious, I struggle to find real negatives in the character aspect.  Some side characters end up flat for sure and that hurts the world building.  The series underutilized some characters and underdeveloped others…making their plot lines feel almost hallow.  But it’s almost overwhelming covered up by the development from other characters.  That is to say that the sum of the parts outweighs its negatives.  Just stick with it until the end as much of the payoff comes in the second season.

Animation

Maybe I’m just old.  Maybe I don’t watch enough modern anime.  Maybe I’m just a little crazy.  Whatever it is though…I really love Exodus’ animation.  Battle, drama, whatever.  It is just beautiful.

Let’s start with combat sequences since they impress me the most.  Exodus is one of the rare series which seem to effectively integrate CGI into standard animation.  It’s alright in the first season.  Some of the more foreign Festum and some points in the Fafner animation are obvious CGI.  Planes are extremely obvious.  But the second season begins hammering this out and the sequences become elegant interplay of effective CGI in animated backgrounds.  A comment I’ve heard about CGI often comes in the statement “CGI is only bad if you notice that it’s CGI”.  Anime production typically uses it as a cost saving mechanism and it typically comes off as bad CGI.  Fafner sometimes falls as this but has quite a few moments where it’s clear that, for the sake of the artist, they had to use CGI…but it doesn’t visually register as such.  I mean, the above Festum are almost always CGI.

And then there's this.  Which is pretty blatant CGI by Exodus' standards.

And then there’s this. Which is pretty blatant CGI by Exodus’ standards.

There also an extremely large number of sequences I can rattle off where there is extremely elegant background scenery.  Pausing and marvelling at the background almost qualifies as a hobby.  Again, I feel like I might have missed something as I haven’t watched many recent anime but the sheer amount of detail is…well, it’s breathtaking in its own regard.

And then there's this almost alien visual.

There’s this almost alien visual.  Did I mention Festum explode into purple…things…upon death?  I meant to.

There are, of course, episodes with decreased budgets.  That much is always clear and Fafner is no exception.  There are some fairly obvious episodes where the animators needed a break and just used further distance shots…or repeated the use of the same low-cost plane animation.  Or just hid a lot behind stills.  I find it typically happens in episodes where the series just needs to advance its plot to the next major point.

I must admit, a major failing this series continues throughout the franchise is its difficulty distinguishing characters (made even worse by the fact that characters often change appearance between different series).  Character A looks a lot like character B which looks a lot like character C.  A visual heavy viewer might have difficulty understanding motivations and development when they can’t even remember which character did what action.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Fafner routinely uses an orchestral composition…which makes sense, as memory serving, they used the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in the original series.  I found myself constantly jotting down notes when they utilized this grouping for slower or more emotionally charged segments.  The soundtrack didn’t add much in combat sequences and simply stand to “do their job” (though they did bring back Opening of Nightmare’s Gate for a couple sequences…an excellent piece from the original series).  Really, expect it to get you from set to set unless you’ve in a very dialogue heavy segment.

The two seasons contain two openings and two closings…though not split as you’d expect…changing over around the 17th episode mark.  angela performs all four pieces and it’d be no stretch to say that atsuko’s voice adds a lot of the franchise with this mark of consistency; Shangri-la and Separation, the opening and closing pieces for the original series, are probably the most recognizable aspects of it.

The first opening, Exist, introduces you to the nature of its first few episodes.  A mix of angelic chanting and some pretty haunting lyrics, the animations continually flip you through characters and provide viewers with a bit of background on each character.  It’s very much an opening which eases viewers in.  The first closing, which I probably would translate as Anya koro, is a pretty simple ending piece.  Very little animation, a “cool down” type of piece, and overall something very easy to skip.

Things really get interesting as the series switches over to its second set of opening and closing pieces.  The second opening, Dead or Alive, is one of my favourite openings (and would probably adjust my rankings from the previous list I completed on this matter).  Another mixing of angelic chanting and lyrics, this opening takes multiple improvements over the last.  There is far greater coordination between animation and lyric.  The music is a major improvement in my mind with rapidly changing tempo, extremely unusual lyrics (which also combine aspects from previous songs of this franchise), and an incredible tie-in with the previous series of this franchise; the opening presents a litany of characters, including those long dead as if to claim that nobody forgets any sacrifice or loss of life.  It’s quite stirring.  Finally, the animation calls strongly back to the original series by animating many of the stills used in the original series’ opening of the characters happily enjoying their younger years.  Well, except for poor Canon.

Though I'd argue she makes up for it in pure cuteness.

Though I’d argue she makes up for it in pure cuteness.

Another unique aspect of these last few episodes comes in its ending song, Horizon.  It is not much of an upgrade in the visuals department…but the musical piece is far more uptempo and heart racing than you’d expect.  The musical piece sets the stage for the almost non-stop train ride from the 17th episode to the series’ conclusion.

I find it difficult to recommend anything but subbed here.  Mainly because the option of viewing this series in english isn’t here.  The series is free subbed on Crunchyroll and you don’t even need to worry about losing time waiting for a translation if you view it subbed.  I would recommend subbed either way as the dubbed version are alright.  At best.  Voice acting talent is all over the place.

Synergy

Everything runs in and out of the characters.  Why do you care about the battle?  Your favourite character is fighting it out in a series where you know they could easily die.  What’s going on with the plot again?  How could it affect all the characters?  How is [x] changing due to all this?  It’s actually a unique run with this level of viewer interest in characters and character development.

Why to Watch

This series…I can’t say enough good things about its emotional torque.  It’s absolutely incredible for setting you up, getting you to feel a specific way, and then playing with your emotions until you start feeling for the characters on-screen.  It is an incredible mix of emotion and action…both being incredible.  It’s a terrific lesson in what well utilized CGI looks like and how to create battle sequences.  And finally, the characters grow at a seemingly natural rate…or at least more natural than other modern anime which often need to fast track characters given the short episode runs.

Why Not to Watch

Do you dislike decade old mediocre anime (or dislike having to roll with whatever they’re saying about the older characters)?  Do you dislike having your favourite character killed?  Do you dislike the creeping notion that someone is doing to die and you won’t be happy if it’s a specific character?  Do you really dislike having no clue what technobabble does and just “having to roll with it”?  Really, those are the main reasons to avoid this series.

Personal Enjoyment

Fafner is a series I’ve felt pretty unappreciated.  The original series was alright but presented a unique change on the real robot genre.  The movie was fair for the time but its use of CGI makes it struggle a little.  Either way, I was pumped to hear Exodus and honestly am glad I can see more of this franchise.

Summary

I’m not exactly sure what I want to say about Fafner: Exodus.  It’s good.  I mean, really good.  Memorable, well executed, and visually beautiful.  Something for anybody who enjoys these somewhat darker tales of mecha.  Well, except decent levels of romance.  I can’t stop saying good things about the series and really feel that the disparate score on many aggregate sites (that is to say that it’s often rated higher than series with comparable reviewer bases) reflects its quality.  But it’s also a series that has a lot of background work.  An old series and a movie are very much required to get a full experience.

I really want to suggest it to everybody but its a series which I’m sure not everyone could get into.

Overall Rating

Fafner in the Azure: Exodus has a 7.86/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this is one of the higher scores I’ve been able to give.  The comparable review score I’ve given on this blog is Boogiepop Phantom (7.89).  I would recommend this to anybody who has the prerequisites I’ve listed in previous sections.

Characters, as should be extremely obvious at this point, carry the score immensely.  The review sheet had consistently high ratings here.  Many other categories had high scores though some categories dropped the average quite a bit.  Narrative, as much as I love it, ended up with the lowest score.  It’s not really an indictment of any major flaws with the series itself but a note that the series leaves a hook for a sequel and this doesn’t provide a natural conclusion to the series…an issue seen before in this franchise.

Review: Persona 4: The Animation

Just a typical day in the life of Yu Narukami.

Background

Persona 4: The Animation is one in a long, long line of game-based anime.  The base of the narrative, Persona 4, is an excellent JRPG and many argue it as one of the few recent JRPG games to meet critical praise in and out of Japan (side note: I highly recommend playing Persona 4 Golden if you are one of the six or seven people on earth with a Vita).  In fact, it launched the Persona franchise into mainstream popularity out of Japan despite the reasonable popularity from Persona 3.

So I guess the obvious happened: AIC, best known for adapting anything and everything under the sun (I went half crazy reading the number of “based on” and “adapted from” on their anime list), brought it to the animated scene.  It’s not like they were taking chances here as they’ve got a good number of hits.  Heck, they even grabbed Seiji Kishi almost right after his adaptation of Angel Beats! and gave him the exact same role as director.

Story

Welcome to the quiet town of Inaba in some unspecified rural part of Japan.  Almost nothing of relevance happens here.  Murder count is at a nice fresh zero most of the time.

In comes Yu Narukami.  His parents, for reasons unknown, send him to live with his detective uncle in Inaba for the year and have him attend the local high school, Yasogami High.  The next day, things go from boring to horribly confusing for this sleepy little town as police find Mayumi Yamano, a newswoman recently finding herself in the headlines for cheating with a councilman, dead and hung upside down from a telephone wire.

Oh shut up, spoiler freaks. This happens almost right away.

Not exactly her best day.

Another murder occurs soon after.  Same style of death: hung from a telephone wire.  This attracts the attention of all of Japan (at the least), leaving the small Inaba police department scrambling to solve and close this case ASAP.  Parallel to their investigation comes the adventure of Narukami and his friends.

At the same time all this occurs, Yu finds out that he can enter a different world.  One that he can only access through TVs.  For some reason.  He can’t understand why either.  I promise it gets explained…kind of.  Anyways, one thing leads to another and he finds out, along with his classmates Yosuke Hanamura and Chie Satonaka, that the pair of murders directly tie into this other world.  But that’s not all this “TV world” offers them.  In that world, they gain the power to generate supernatural creatures…avatars…things called persona.  The exact nature of these personae are not explained, but they enact the will of their controller, or something.

Though Izanagi is still impossibly badass. No matter what it is.

Tell you what: you find a better description and I’ll use it.

One sticking point on those persona though: only those who face and accept their shadow may wield one.  What’s a shadow you ask?  Well, continuing with their Jungian philosophical tour, a shadow is an aspect of the self that the conscious self doesn’t recognize.  The series takes it a step further though and the shadow of an individual is a different physical entity than themselves.  This world takes the part of the mind that they don’t recognize, that they don’t associate with themselves, and makes it a living creature. And this creature hates its lack of recognition.  It tortures and accuses its creator, telling them things they do not wish to hear.  And upon seemingly inevitable rejection, it turns violent.

Characters gain their persona only after defeating a shadow (read: beating it over the head with personae) and having the creator accept that the shadow is a part of themselves.  I know the rules of this universe are a lot of take in…but basically it comes down to: person sees a physical representation of themselves they don’t recognize, person refuses to acknowledge that it’s them, the other part of them attacks, loses, and person gains the ability to wield a persona.  It’s got very loose ties to Jungian psychology if that helps.

I should use this time to mention that shadows range from creepy to weird. Very weird.

I should use this time to mention that shadows range from creepy to weird. Very weird.

Anyways, the point being that it’s up to Yu and his group of friends to go to school, solve the murder mystery, and defeat shadows along the way.  All while hiding the detection of the police, who would probably frown on the idea of people investigating a mystery for them.

On one hand, the narrative is very good.  It reveals itself in manners which hide the deepest secrets until the final episodes (and extra episode in releases).  Minor twists and turns keep the narrative progressing at a fairly brisk pace.  Coming in with a completely blank slate creates quite a fascinating and gripping narrative in this sense.  There are very few “pauses” in the flow of the story (whereas you could have weeks in story (hours of gameplay) between points in the story).  Those which do exist often come in the form of amusing comedic adventures also known for populating the Persona universe.  This aspect certainly becomes more of a mixed bag as the side events sometimes carry a small bit of narrative, making all the filler episodes difficult to miss for fear of losing out on part of the mystery, but also generate tedium if your goal is squarely on a mystery.

I mention it previously but it deserves multiple statements: this narrative is fascinating if you walk in without spoilers.  This is a surprisingly difficult task as Persona 4‘s popularity breaks internet searches and litters fan forums and other such sites with walking spoilers.  I’ve tried to avoid such a problem myself but I might slip one or two in by accident.  Regardless, I again should describe this nature of the narrative that works well here: the progress despite continual restarts.  The mystery aspect finds an extremely small niche of playing both the frustration of having to begin again, a notion seem several times throughout the narrative, and slowly diminishing the list of possible suspects.  It espouses tenacity and optimism.  It’s not difficult to spot either of these as a primary motif of the narrative boils down to turning away from the ugly reality versus facing it head on.  Well, kind of.

Finally, as mentioned above, there are filler episodes.  They are probably some of the funniest and entertaining parts of the series.  It inadvertently pulls the same humour strings as the game by typically drawing humour on more of a slice-of-life level.  Focus on character exaggeration is the order of the day.  It’s a nice break from watching these characters trudge through a serious series but it’s certain that it won’t fit the desires of all viewers given this major genre shift.

Given all this though…I’ve got a serious love-hate relationship here.  On one hand, this story quite faithfully follows the narrative of the Persona 4 game.  It’s intriguing, full of some obvious (and not so obvious) turns, and has an ending you probably can’t predict.  There is high calibre material without a doubt.  So why the love-hate instead of pure affection?  Well, it breezes by at such a fast clip at times that major plot points do not receive proper treatment nor do certain aspects really build up.  This sometimes comes from just a failing of the series as a whole; Persona 4 did not adequately explain several plot points even in-game and this simply transfers over to the anime adaptation.  It simply becomes something that you must accept of the world you’re watching.  The series ties up most loose ends by series end, but you have to scour every single line very carefully to make sure you catch it all.

To further this, the comedic effect sometimes contrasts far too greatly with the serious character side.  This often funnels back to the commentary I stated I’d later give on Yu alone but it stretches into each character at some point or another.  Serious scenes inexplicably become comedic.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it just falls flat.  For example, there’s an entire episode which feels like it should be serious but gets played for a string of laughs.  And this sometimes drains the fun out of the episode as it certainly got the “serious” treatment in the game (for the most part).  An excellent description I heard of the animation is that “every character is now the comic relief”.  A thought which is mostly true the more I think about it.

Probably the most egregious issue stemming from both the anime and the game is serious lack of development for the final antagonists.  The antagonist is hinted barely in the game…it’s very easy to forget that the reference even happens.  In the animated version?  Even worse.  This might be because the series intended for a single ending (whereas this unhinted antagonist comes from one of many endings in the game)…but it still feels strange watching the bonus episode since it comes out of nowhere.

Ultimately, Persona 4 is optimistic.  The mystery gets solved, etc.  It’s neither dark nor gritty and you shouldn’t go in expecting such a piece.  I guess though that this is typical given the narrative focuses on high school students who are solving mysteries the police can’t.

Characters

The series focuses around Yu Narukami and the friends he gathers along the murder investigation.  It’s very difficult to distinguish between characters and plot spoiling at this point so I’ll focus more on the series’ effectiveness in expressing characters.

Personally, this area is a strength of the series.  It’s certainly much, much compressed (and I’d even say to a slight detriment of the series) but some key aspects get by which make interesting characters within the realm of the world they inhabit.

Persona 4: The Animation is by nature very focused on fleshing out characters; they have “shadows” which they reject and must accept in order to progress in narrative.  This exercise by definition pretty much requires exposition of character by a description of a shadow.  I’ll spoil part of Episode 2 to make an example: Yosuke’s shadow claims he absolutely hates his life.  He hates the fact that it’s boring here and went on this adventure because it was merely exciting.  Very basic application of the rules of the universe (pretty much presented during the monologue) means we learn something Yosuke.  Actually, the game and series both throw it pretty hard in the observer’s face that it’s part of the character they know.  So, naturally, we learn a lot through the initial shadow battles about the characters who witness their shadows.

But it certainly goes beyond that.  The characters themselves have subversion wired right into them, making a very unique experience.  Chie, probably the easiest to spot “tomboy” type of character you’ll see in a long time, is quite uncomfortable with that type of position.  And you find this lack of confidence permeates into other aspects of her personality even going as far as being surprised when everybody seems to agree on her theory being correct.  The design of the entire series focuses and highlights these striking distinctions between the character stereotype and the written personality.  This interesting and fairly unique decision (when mixed with the concept of shadows) provide a surprisingly deep set of characters in the length of time given for characterization.

Not only are the characters deep and subversive but they also deal with topics rarely seen in such anime.  I don’t want to ruin anything but later “shadows” deal with subjects rarely spoken of in such situations.  Almost everything in this regard becomes interesting and stand out very heavily because of it.

But unfortunately the series also suffers from lack of time, simply put.  Characterization is typically a Persona franchise strong point as the series gets older and older.  Starting with their third main game (that is, Persona 3), an element occurs known as a “Social Link”.  It’s nearly a dating game aspect where the protagonist (in our case, Yu) gets to spend time with other protagonists and NPCs.  A great deal of in depth characterization occurs in these events, often tying well in with the main theme of the game.  This is no different in Persona 4, where I’d argue is about half the game in a similar way to Danganronpa having half-Free Time, half-murder mystery.

I mention this aspect because Persona 4: The Animation attempts to replicate parts of Social Links to a net negative in my mind.  They often deal with one early Social Link (out of 10 stages) and one late stage event.  It is certainly ambitious to even consider adding these as they would consume great deals of time from start to finish.  However, the scenes rarely, if ever, hold the same weight or value as they do in game and is little more than time filler without the amount of interest or emotional investment.  I understand that they wanted to showcase the aspects shown in the game (I’m very partial to a couple selected scenes myself) but they come without warning or real context and the flow of the episode often shoehorns it into a side aspect of a greater episode narrative, making any character revelation secondary to the ongoing narrative.  As a result, it becomes little more than fan service for the fans of the game and little else to first time viewers of the animated version.

The other issue I have with the general tendency towards more exaggerated characters.  Characters in Persona 4 are more rounded and realistic than their animated selves.  This really does feel like an issue with the amount of time available as oppose to real director issue since there’s not enough time to keep the more subdued scenes in and more extreme characters results in more viable comedy scenes, something leaned on heavily in this adaptation.  This leads to more silly and over the top characters.  Like a version of Chie which seems to solve any problem by kicking.  Or a Yosuke which has no value other than comic relief whereas he acted as the strong secondary leader and an emotional driver of the investigation in Persona 4.  It’s less notable for viewers of the series only but may leave them confused as to why characters receive so much adoration for their game equivalents.

Boss needs beating? Galactic Punt. Yosuke bothering you? Galactic Punt. Yosuke ticks you off? Galactic Punt again. You get the idea.

Worse than this is the absolutely mixed situation of Yu Narukami.  Yu is, by nature, a silent protagonist in-game.  This lets you filter whatever personality you want into him and, by extension, let you immerse yourself through his eyes.  Parts of the personality are set but much of it open.  The animated Yu, on the other hand, takes on a whole new personality instead of adopting some bland presence.  He’s somewhere between socially awkward, eccentric, one step out of reality, and professional troll.  There’s no better way to describe him honestly.  He keeps a fairly deadpan personality yet makes constant confusion and humour.  He even pulls this card during the most tense situations.  It’s very much another case of extreme hit and miss.  He’s sometimes the funniest character on-screen and makes the scene incredibly funny.  Other times…no so much.  It’s not that his antics aren’t funny.  They typically are.  But he feels so far out of the world he’s in that he is basically an imported character from another series; it’s easy to lose your sense of immersion due to this character.

Animation

I…don’t want to put it this way…but I don’t think I have any other option.  The animation for this series is heavily inconsistent.  There are some lively, beautiful, and breathtaking scenes.  They hold up today about 5 years after release.  And I absolutely love these scenes due to obvious love and affection in its creation.

Yet…the same series carries some incredibly poorly animated sequences.  There is no joke when I state that there’s about 20 seconds a single frame.  Stills and characters filling the empty void with dialogue.  Older series could get away with this…but this is pushing the limits.  Actually, it crosses it when you mix in the fact that there are great numbers of cost saving animations.  Poorly rendered characters, lots of distance shots, “side mouth”, and smaller cost saving measures.  There’s in fact a sequence where’s it’s extremely obvious the animators animated a small set of cells for Yosuke and cycled sequentially, completely ignoring whatever dialogue it supposedly represents.  This begins leaning heavily on the willing suspension of disbelief.

Let’s look at the positives first.  Some sequences are incredible.  It’s unfortunate that I can’t really provide examples as they almost always occur in spoiler heavy situations.  However, I almost always note a large jump in animation quality.  Detail are quite notable and honestly feel a step above what the series provides elsewhere.

Crazy Yu

Unfortunately, the negatives are just as painful.  Character’s mouths are “just” off-screen too often, letting the animation get away with showing the character’s eyes for multiple seconds on end and animate a single frame.  Characters get placed in wide pan shots frequently to prevent having to animate mouths.  Or if they do receive animation, the mouth is incredibly small so detailed lip flapping becomes non-important.

I’m not one to typically concern myself with animation but I did notice this vast difference based on scenes.  It’s alright to have difference between scenes.  It’s not always alright to have individuals look like the same character between scenes.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Much of the soundtrack for this series comes from the original game.  It’s hard to not love the music…the Persona series is well-known for its excellent pieces, something carried through all the mediums it inhabits.  Part techno, part pop, part rap…there’s probably a little bit for everybody.  The series undoubtedly leans on carried over feelings from the game to secure this since it copies the same soundtrack this heavily.  There are new pieces and they work well…such as I’ll Face Myself – Reincarnation.  Actually, I find the new pieces fit a model of this grander stage with the use of more classic instruments such as piano and violin.  The comparison being the heavy use of guitar and synthesizer in the Persona 4 game

The anime utilizes two openings and two closings.  Kind of.  The series typically uses two openings and two closing pieces.  The opening changes a couple times…primarily, incredibly serious episodes get treated with no opening and simply a title card.  Episode endings also revolve around two piece but change for some special episodes.  Almost all the pieces are written by Persona series favourite Lotus Juice, who writes most of the series’ battle lyrics…almost all raps.  They work strangely well and it’s an interesting experience.

The first main opening is sky’s the limit and the second opening is keys plus words, performed by Shihoko Hirata.  The former is much calmer and less pressing while the latter is quite upbeat and intense.  It makes sense for this duality at some level since the series does pick up in intensity as the episodes pass.  Neither are really outstanding but the mix of that plus the animation really do reflect the concept that this series isn’t fully intended for “new” fans.  The openings outright spoil which characters are protagonists.  Which is too sad since this would be a terrific series for “evolving” opening credits.

The first closing song is Beauty of Destiny and the second is The Way of Memories.  Both are one again primarily produced by Shihoko Hirata.  I cannot claim to know the exact thought process for developing these pieces but they do not really fit the anime as they are both relatively calm pieces, the latter far much more so.  They are nice pieces to listen to but don’t do a tone for the series.

This series has pretty fantastic dubbing voices.  The names on both English and Japanese ends are well recognized and typically fit their role well.  There are some struggles with work schedules (that is to say, honeymoons) which make Troy Baker’s character suddenly shift in tone halfway through the series.  Additionally, fans of the original game will find that Chie Satonaka and Teddie have changed voices too.  There honestly is a very large carousal of changing voice actors and voice actresses for the English side of this franchise over the years and this might make the Japanese version more palatable.  But that’s not to say the cast for this anime are bad, per say.  Actually, Laura Bailey and Amanda Winn Lee both do excellent jobs in their respective roles.  I’d probably recommend you take a listen to the characters and decide for yourself.

Synergy

How this series floats itself depends purely on the episode.  One episode might use the main story to pull you in.  The next might have a nifty battle.  The next could get you laughing.  It’s very much a beginner friendly series in this sense as it offers a little to everyone but not enough of most of these traits to really dominate.  Except for the mystery.  That part is absolutely an overarching idea…it’s just that you might forget that it even exists from time to time as the episode demands a different pull.

Why to Watch

All the slagging I give Persona 4 doesn’t mean it’s bad.  It’s actually a decent recreation.  You want a compressed version of the narrative and it gives it.  It’s quicker and involves far less monster bashing than the game.  You get to focus purely on the narrative and some silly side adventures.  That’s simply it: you get to watch the mystery come forth and recede in ~10 hours what you’d take 60 hours to see in a game while involving no button pressing.

Why Not to Watch

It’s very easy to see why not if you have a Playstation 2, 3, or Vita in addition to a bit of time on your hands.  The game does a much better job telling the narrative.  The characters are more cohesive, the engagement higher, and the world building comes together much better in-game format.  Like my many comparisons to Danganronpa: The Animation, it’s a case of either needing massive, massive episode blocks (probably to a level of twice as many as given) or having a series which doesn’t quite match the game.

Finding the series might be a bit pricier than the games too as you’re looking at DVDs or a similar distributor.

Personal Enjoyment

I love the Persona franchise.  Plain and simple.  Recent editions of the franchise engage itself deeply with character psychological issues (coming to a front with the “Shadows” in Persona 4).  I re-watch Persona 4: The Animation routinely despite my issues with it.  That should tell you exactly how much I ingrain myself with the franchise.

Summary

Persona 4: The Animation presents a real conundrum.  On one hand, it represents the problems with compression of expansive games into a short ~10 hour viewing.  Even stripping away all the level grinding leaves far too much to tell in far too little time.  Some of the intriguing aspects of the series fall to the cutting room floor and the series well-known as the gold standard for character writing feels a little incomplete, living with character exaggerations.  It’s also a bit of a shameless re-creation designed to appeal to its core fans since key parts of the narrative are either left obvious from the start or skipped over with haste.  And it’s hard to recommend it because there is such an impressive alternative.

But what’s left is still decent, enjoyable, and you’ll likely leave a viewing happier than if you left the series alone.  It’s good in a world with no comparable source material and I’d still recommend watching it provided you’re either done with the game or just short on time getting into the franchise.

I guess the easy way to put it is that it’s good, but saying it’s good is a letdown when the source material is just that much better.  If you have the time and a Vita or a PS2, play the game.  If you don’t, watch the anime.

Overall Rating

Persona 4: The Animation has a 7.01/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this ranks as a solid anime.  I would personally place it as an excellent series to put on your “to watch” list and keep it in mind, despite the flaws I list above.

This series, as an obvious carryover from the game itself, scored strongest in the character section.  This means that it manages to reflect the unique characters from the game, even if they lose some of their depth.  The music also help quite well.  It’s unfortunate but the real limiting factor became the lack of episode count and cramming far too much into far too few episodes, leaving out many details which made the original game great.

Review: Ghost Stories

Honestly, just never let these guys make up their own dialogue. Things just get…strange.

Background

So…Ghost Stories.  The franchise has one of the strangest trajectories of any anime I’ve ever seen.  It comes from an older book series from Toru Tsunemitsu and recapped, well, stories about ghosts.  Simple as that.  Then the franchise spun into movies.  Family friendly horror movies.  I…don’t know what they were thinking there.  Fast forward to 2000.  The series continued into an anime aimed at children and came from fairly strong pedigree under the flag of both Pierrot and Aniplex.  Both have large franchises to their name with the former producing well-known shonen demographic anime such as Naruto and Bleach and the latter producing the Full Metal Alchemist franchise.  So we have the stage set for another franchise to come in.  But it never did.  The reasoning appears lost in time but production ended after 20 episodes.  I’d hesitate a guess that there was intention for a franchise given the episodic nature but I have no proof of that.

This is where things take a turn for the weird.  Most series just die at this point but not Ghost Stories.  2005 rolls around and ADV Films, against all expectations, announces they’ll translate and release Ghost Stories.  That isn’t strange enough for this story and they basically received full artistic licence to do whatever they felt with the anime, barring a few exceptions (thanks for the link Wikipedia.  It’s a good listen.).

And with that in mind…the anime becomes a pure and raw “abridged” series.   My writing isn’t entirely clear, but abridged series are a complete parody of their original material.  All officially produced through a dub.  Experiments in this field exist previously, most famously in Samurai Pizza Cats, but I can’t think of an instance where the company licensing out basically signed off on all the changes made by the dubbing organization; most translations go the other way.

As the video link above notes, this anime became a strange mix of ad-lib dialogue, anime tropes, and black humour.  All the major voice actors received writing credit for this anime primarily because the script basically didn’t exist until recording.

The basic framework of my reviews kind of fail at covering the basic concepts for reviewing Ghost Stories and I’m only reviewing the dubbed version.  Let’s try anyways though.

Story

The dubbed narrative retains the same framework as the original version of Ghost Stories.

Ten-year old Satsuki Miyanoshita is moving into a new town.  Her father, for whatever reason, decided to move back to the his wife’s home town.  Well, ex-wife I guess seeing as she died.  Anyways, the Satsuki and her younger brother Keiichirou meet the next door neighbour, a ten-year old boy.  He’s Hajime Aoyama and it turns out he attends the same school (and is in the same class) as Satsuki.  Due to a very strange and awkward occurrence with Satsuki’s family cat (Kaya), Satsuki, Keiichirou, Hajime, and his friend Leo end up heading into an abandoned schoolhouse before their first day of school.  There they meet an older student from the same school, Momoko Koigakubo, and the five proceed to explore the abandoned school.  That’s when they find ghosts.

Turns out Satsuki’s mother spent far too much time of her childhood fighting ghosts and trapping them in…things.  And these things are now getting destroyed as the town undergoes renovations.  But hope isn’t lost as she left behind a diary full of pretty pictures and a description of how she captured each ghost.  It’s through this book that they defeat their first enemy, Amanojaku, and capture him…in the body of Kaya.   Now it’s up to this intrepid group of five, and occasionally Amanojaku, to save the town from the other ghosts roaming the city as they are slowly awoken by the loss of whatever was holding them down.

I’m not sure how many cliches there are in that above paragraph but I’m far too lazy to count.

It’s quite obvious based on the open-ended nature of the narrative above but the entire nature of this series is entirely episodic; every adventure pretty much opens and closes within the span of 25 minutes and you know every villain (well, ghost) will appear and defeated within the same length of time.  You could view episodes 2 through 19 without any clue to proceed and not get confused in the narrative.  This gives the distinct impression that Ghost Stories originally came in as a filler based franchise: that they could produce an endless stream of Ghost Stories episodes with no conceivable end.

There’s not much else to discuss in narrative…so I’ll leave of this section for dialogue choices.

It’s pretty much like this.

The dialogue…well, like the image above describes, it’s dark humour.  It lives and dies off cross the concept of comment decency.  A good number of punch lines purely run off the idea that these are ten-year old children.  That piece of dialogue?  It’s actually in the dub and is certainly on the tamer side of things Hajime says.  Let’s put it this way: Mel Gibson had an infamous rant about Jewish people.  Greg Ayres, who voices Leo, expressed displeasure that production wrapped up a couple of weeks before the dubbing sessions ended since they could have referenced it during that last episode.

Not only is the humour dark but it targets everybody.  Racial humour, homosexual humour, sexual humour, religion…all it’s acceptable and utilized in the series.  And they cross the line on it several times.  It should go without saying that anybody offended by any type of humour probably wants out right away.  Ayres in that other link that there were some topics they weren’t touching…but those are pretty limited.  Almost everything’s a target.  This aspect begins taking over more and more as the series progresses.  The final 5 episodes don’t bother with a censor for swears and the script has a tonne of fun with that.

A lot of humour also exists from references to then current American culture; the dub occurred in the summer of 2005 and the anime will routinely show this.  The 2002 Hollywood movie Signs gets routine mention and references as does the Bush administration (US president in that time period) at the time.  You might be hard pressed to catch every joke if you are not acutely aware of American culture at the time.  Signs, for example, might be difficult to understand since not everyone is aware of the movie’s existence of the often mocked nature of the aliens in the movie.

There’s also a segment of the dialogue which exists to poke fun at Ghost Stories‘ cliche filled narrative.  Characters routinely point out similarities between ghosts they are facing and more common and well-known media pieces.  For example, they draw connections to The Ring and The Grudge several times.  This anime actually utilizes fourth wall breaking a great deal and characters routinely reference episodes (and at one point even their two-dimensional nature by claiming they are breaking the third wall).

I must also express a little softness to some general humour.  The concept of lull destruction exists and they utilize it often when the dubbing team adds in dialogue to screw around with the seriousness of a scene.  One scene has a ghost levitating up some stairs.  The original version treats is completely serious with nothing but music and sound effects.  The dub instead has the ghost shout “Wheeee!” as it climbs.  It’s absolutely unexpected but a great piece of humour and adds to the overall fun of the anime.

Characters

This is even harder to write that the above.  The characters are intentionally flat and they even reference any time a character actually changes in any way.  It goes along with the entire package of parodying the typical Saturday morning series.  Every character also plays off a specific quirk and exaggerate it to no end.  Hajime being perverted, Leo being Jewish, Keiichirou being completely dumb, and Momoko having an absolutely unshakable faith in anything Christian…the script throws them all together into some strange concoction of character iteration with humour spitting out the sides of it as they attempt to navigate the episode.  Satsuki is the closest thing there is in this anime to a “straight man”…the character others play their insanity off of to highlight their insanity.  She also has her eccentricities and limits to her own sanity but the most common jokes with regards to her either highlight the other characters’ nature or play off the shock factor of her being a ten-year old girl saying fairly…adult things.

Animation

The animation is…not good for lack of a better term.  It keeps fairly standard practice for the early 2000’s era but also utilized a lower budget than other anime and the effects are quite obvious.  I would have guessed the series as around 1996 to 1998 based on the animation alone.  The style is very consistent with mid-to-late 90’s animation in terms of shading and it uses a lot of distance shots and faces turning away from the screen in order to reduce the animation load.  It’s also quite obvious that they used a great deal of model work while animating as character end up in completely awkward positions throughout the anime.  The dub naturally lampshades this.

Actual line: Oh damn anime! Look what’s happened to my eyes!

There are some good moments despite the above commentary.  Later episodes got higher attention to animation and there were some moments when it even exceeded my expectations for the era.  Not only do the monsters begin taking on more horror-based appearances but they become more fluid and uncanny.  This is certainly another reason to hold out for the later episodes while watching this anime…the jokes get looser and the animation better.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

There’s very little sound.  Very little.  You got me?  I counted probably 7 or 8 pieces that they recycle throughout the anime and one of them is a simple copy of the Psycho “scare” chords.  The pieces feel very reminiscent of 90’s anime and might even remind you a bit of how other Saturday morning series utilize music.  It’s not a great mix and it wears itself thin while you walk through 20 episodes.  There’s nothing groundbreaking and honestly doesn’t assist the anime in any way.  Though it does benefit the anime a bit since the dialogue does point to the sound.

The opening is another one of those many fairly staple and cliche openings.  Grow Up by Hysterical Blue.  It’s a light pop piece which follows many traditions of younger target anime and focus on the same topics we frequent in such pieces: optimism, hope, change…simple topics and easy ones to relate to at that.

I can’t tell if it was intentional but the closing actually get better with the comedic dub.  Seriously.  It’s literally titled Sexy Sexy and it would be silly of me to not point out that the lyrics do not disappoint in the least.  I can think of few reasons for its original usage and it fits the dubbed version way better as some kind of slight shock value as a completely out-of-place piece of music.  It’s kind of catchy though and the distorted guitar chords remind me of Boney M‘s Rasputin for reasons the completely escape me.  That’s probably a good thing all things considered since it does just add to all the insanity in this song.  I wouldn’t try to dissect why this is…it makes no sense to me either.

Neither the opening nor closing use any good quality of animation.  The closing in particular shows the 90’s level of closing animation laziness and just pan slowly through a larger image.

Honestly…I can’t say anything about the subbed version of this anime; my entire reasoning for watching Ghost Stories is its parody dub.  But expect a completely different anime (not necessarily better) with the subbed version.  I’ve heard another company did a serious dub of this anime so that might be worth comparing…and I might watch this anime in a serious form some day…but the viewing I had can only be completed through the dubbed version.

The voice actors themselves are very much the standard cast for ADV translations of that era: Hilary Haag, Chris Patton, Greg Ayres, Monica Rial, Luci Christian, Christine Auten…it’s very much a tour of the cast they had at the time.  The length of different voice actors for this series is immense though and it’s almost worth a tour just to see who was likely on staff in ADV at the time.  I swear all the available staff at ADV were eager to get in on the project because of the loose production style…the list of recognizable names goes on for a while.

The quality of the dub is fairly standard but shows a lot of life and enthusiasm; it’s very clear that a great deal of dialogue game through ad-lib performance and the voice actors appear to appreciate this aspect greatly.  Namely, they appear to enjoy mocking many of the tropes they as anime fans recognize through their typical assignments.  You can almost hear a small feeling of joy as they spit out a funny line they would never otherwise be allowed to say during production.  Hearing Vic Mignogna say (and I’m quoting here) “Let’s see…purple for your hair.  Can’t tell that this is a goddamn anime” is perfectly delivered and it’s very clear Mignogna really wanted to use the line.  I almost feel it’s worth the price of admission just to hear the voice actors have fun with the project.

Synergy

Everything lives and dies off the dialogue.  This is the aspect ADV could adjust and therefore the entire nature of this dub works through it.  None of the original series actually mixes well and this doesn’t change in any variety for the dub.  So the dialogue happily creates jokes out of the different parts it’s given to create a humourous experience.  The original script (and therefore the animation) creates some visual jokes but most of it still comes from the updated script.

Why Watch

There’s a very clear and obvious reason you’d want to watch Ghost Stories: you want to watch humour based anime which parodies cliche anime and doesn’t take itself seriously for more than three consecutive seconds.  You also aren’t offended easily (or can tolerate jokes similar to the western animation South Park) and laugh at such humour.  Or maybe you just want to learn about 2005 American culture.

Really, that’s the only reason to watch.

Why Not Watch

It’s actually quite simple to list reasons why you wouldn’t want to watch Ghost Stories as well since the entire series is very simple in premise: you don’t like offensive humour.  Simple as that.  If you don’t like the idea that there are jokes about Jewish people, Japanese people, sexual humour…the list goes on.  Anyways, you’re probably better off skipping if you don’t like any of the above in an offensive manner to the point where its inclusion would destroy any fun experience.

Additionally, you might not want to watch if you’re the type who insists on catching each joke and aren’t entirely familiar with USA in 2005.  I’d also then recommend you never watch Airplane! in that case.

Personal Enjoyment

This anime fell up my alley quite well.  I grew up on the dubbed version of Duel Masters.  This anime straddled the line between a serious anime about cards and a parody like Ghost Stories.  I loved this series as a child and I’ve been looking for a similar series for a long time.  Ghost Stories satisfied that itch quite well.

Summary

Boogiepop Phantom is anime set out to continue its unique narrative style in animated form.  And in that regard, it does that very well.  It uses a vignette style narrative to follow a story and connect two of its light novels.  Heavy on psychology, suspense, mystery, and character mentality sharing, it emphasizes the key points of the light novels.  Viewers interested in these points will have a great experience I believe.  Conversely, having no interest in these traits will make the anime tedious at best.

Overall Rating

Ghost Stories ended with a 5.10/10 on my spreadsheet.  Given I use 5 as average, this ranks as average.  But I think this is an example of where marking schemes fail; many of my categories failed to even qualify as relevant aspects of the series.  Character depth, effective plot, engaging villains…none of this is relevant when the entire series aims to make its viewers laugh. I feel it’s absolutely pointless to discuss ratings much as a results and instead just consider it for what it is: a series with fairly offensive humour that will be incredibly funny to some and less so to others for all the reasons listed previously.

IARP’s Results – What Can We Learn?

I’ve been holding onto this one for a while as I’ve been thinking about how to approach this subject.

The International Anime Research Project (IARP) released the results of a three fandom research project over the summer of 2014.  It analyzed three groups of individuals: anime fans, fantasy sports fans, and furries (individuals interested in the anthropomorphization…or simply put, individuals who find interest in giving animals human-like traits.  The research project also lists zoomorphization, or giving humans animal-like traits, but I think they’re fairly close and if you’re reading this definition, I think it’s unlikely this distinction would help at all). The project conducted a survey consisting of thousands of individuals to determine any relation between the three groups.

Now, as a warning before going forward, I base the rest of this article on the assumption that the findings are correct.  I would hesitate to ever state this as I don’t want to trust a single source when looking at groups.  However, this group also is one of the few to conduct studies across fan bases and I’d suggest that my commentary are purely speculative based on these limited results.

You can read the report yourself, and I actively encourage you to, but the basic results are as follows:

  • “Furries” declare themselves transgender way more often than other groups.
  • Ranking the three groups in terms of descending percentage to declare themselves heterosexual, the order is sports fans – anime fans – furries.
    • Similarly, you find an order of anime fans/furries – sports fans when it comes to asexuality, with the slash representing statistically similar results.
  • The sample populace is overwhelmingly white.  This seems to hold for all of their samples.
  • The vast majority of anime fans who participated in this survey online identify as being single.  The rate is about 78% to an approximately 50% mean for the other groups.  They also qualify as far lower in education than “sports fans”.  However is more likely an indicator of age; anime fans are much younger than the typical fan of other groups.
  • Anime fans are left-wing atheists in political terms, leaning in both these directions compared to the average.
  • Online anime fans do not greatly associate themselves as artists or writers.  In fact, the latter is lower than that of sports fans.
  • There is no structural difference between anime fan groups and other fan groups for entitlement (that is, expectation of what the creators owe them).
  • Anime fans identify themselves as slightly “nerdier” and more introverted than other fan groups.
  • Anime fans tend towards engagement in fantasy activities than other groups.  That is, activities which allow for escapism.  Playing a video game, watching a movie, and reading novels all qualify.

Anime Stereotypes – Do They Actually Hold?

So one of the first things to think about when reading these results is how society typically views anime fans; the difference between the two can reflect misconceptions.

The common stereotype I hear is the “obsessive lonely loser”.  This stereotype typically describes the fan as an individual who would not fit in ordinary society; they are socially awkward and use anime as an escape.  This is primarily the western media standpoint.  I’d even argue that there’s some sort of pride ascribed with the stereotypical fan.  An excellent post from study of anime outlines this notion very well.  I’d encourage you to read that post as well as I’m only glossing over the key details but the social spread of a meme known as “Don’t worry ma’am, we’re from the internet” in which portrays fandom as a heavily obsessive society.  That is, it generates humour from the extreme nature of cosplay when contrasted against the absolutely normal reaction (“Don’t worry” and implying this unusual activity is normal in that society).  If you’re looking for other words, it’s that the contrast in the calming reaction in the text and the absurd situation generates the idea that these fans are conducting something completely normal in their minds and that their society is extremely different from the viewer’s.  A further and more negative read could suggest that these individuals do not fit in any other society but the one shown.

This common line of thought isn’t one that sticks to anime in specific but often associates itself to any activity that society perceives as somewhat “geeky”.  I mean, if we consider the common joke lines about Star Trek fans, for instance, a societal stereotype often interacts in the same manner.  A fairly popular North American sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, utilizes this to the hilt; the usage of Star Trek references (or any other activities commonly associated with geek culture for that matter) typically utilizes as a method of negatively portraying the characters.  And, as you’d likely guess from my above comments, lumped right in there is anime (according to Google and the ensuing YouTube link):

I’d argue this stereotype isn’t exclusive to anime fans as a result.  It is a prevalent opinion though.

So, what do these results do?  Assuming they’re correct (something I’ll do throughout this article), it shows where the actual fans who declares themselves part of the anime fan base deviates from stereotypes.

Let’s consider the first part of the description: obsessive.  The notion that anime fans are obsessive.  This part is quite universal between different aspects of the world, that major anime fans fascinate themselves with the medium.  It’s unfortunate, but there’s no way to observe this using the data presented.  At least, in my mind.  There are certain viable routes to consider this notion, such as observing spending habits or time management, but none of the above are effectively reflected in the IARP’s results.  One question asks about the quantity of videos and DVDs the subject owns, where anime fans hold a substantial lead on other groups.  However, this absolutely expected as anime is an entertainment industry which utilizes this technology (the release even mentioning this concept).

It is quite possible to make an argument on the idea that this study would argue against the notion of anime fans as obsessive: they are not self-described writers nor artists and therefore aren’t as interested in generating media over their pass times.  However, I wouldn’t agree with this assessment as it assumes that these are the only vectors for obsession.  Just watching more and more anime, for example.  Or writing long posts about anime.  Wait a second…

Now for the second part: lonely.  This poll overwhelmingly shows that anime fans are single.  But, as mentioned above, this is likely an age issue as respondents for anime fans were by and large much younger than the other groups.  So, let’s try other variables which are less age dependant.

The major aspect that peaks my interest is the “belonging” statistic and I would argue it contradicts the assumption in this stereotype.  This value, of course, relates to how strongly the fan attaches themselves to the fan community.  This statistic is much lower than I would expect a “lonely” fan to report.  The value reports that anime fans do not feel the need to associate themselves with the community.  In fact, the biggest motivator is entertainment according to the study.  I would even further that with another idea: entertainment is a likely motivation for a lot of anime fan’s activities.  Anime fans engage in the most fantasy activities and likely engage with them as an entertainment medium.

Finally, let’s look at “loser”…the notion that anime fans have no life and are overall “messes of a human”: unhappy, bitter people who escape via anime.  The result in this study is that there’s practically no backing to this notion.  This is because, while there is a distinct trend with online anime fans bucking the trend of having statistically significant differences in self-esteem and life satisfaction (both lower than other groups), the second polled anime group, individuals from an anime convention, have no trend against other groups.  As such, it seems impossible to draw the conclusion that anime fans, as a group, are “losers”.

To summarize, I think it’s absolutely unfair for this long-held stereotype by the general of society as an accurate depiction of anime fans.

Of course, anime fans also typically hold stereotypes of other anime fans.  I won’t bother actually going into them in great detail, instead going for a simple overview, and looking for any connection to these results.

 

 

Other Points of Consideration

This comment struck me heavily.  I’ll quote it very specifically as I think it’s worth reading:

Interestingly, the online anime fans reported slightly lower life satisfaction and self-esteem scores than members of the other fan groups. Psychological research on coping, resilience, and well-being has long suggested that having a social support network – family and close friends who are there for you, is a one of the most significant predictors of well-being. In above results (#11), it was shown that online anime fans have the smallest percentage of friends who share the same interest. This may suggest that online anime fans may rely less upon the other members of the fan community for social support, whereas, for furries, convention-going anime fans, and fantasy sport fans, they may be able to draw upon the fan community for social support, leading to greater psychological well-being.

This creates some interesting implications.  Remember previously that the study rejects the notion that anime fans are stereotypical “lonely” individuals.  However, the isolation for online fans from individuals who share similar interests may be problematic.  It’s very noticeable that anime fans interviewed at conventions are quite satisfied and are no different from any other group noted.  Where this gets real interesting though is when crossed with a later graph depicting the expected disapproval levels and likelihood of discussing the topic with their fan identity.  In particular, I’d draw attention to how internet viewing anime fans vary from convention going anime fans: both have similar expected disapproval ratings yet convention going anime fans appeared more willing to discuss the topic with others and, combined with the above suggestion, might suggest correlation.  But please note: this is not causation.  It’s a phenomenon reported in this study and that’s it.  It’s an intriguing result though and would require further investigation.

There’s another stereotype about anime fans that I didn’t want to touch before because it fits better here, and that’s the notion that anime is purely only sexually driven.  I know I rag about fanservice and my typical dislike of it, but I’ll also defend anime from this criticism.  Fanservice, in my mind, is of very minimal in relation to the fan base’s mind.  Are there fans who love it and fans who might watch anime purely for that reason?  Of course.  But look hard enough and you’ll find any number of stupid things.  4% of Americans believe in Lizardmen while 5% believe Paul McCartney died in 1966.  And I think this study reflects a key here: while there are some, well, unusual individuals in the world, most anime fans aren’t terribly different compared to other fans.

Actually, that bears repeating, in case it wasn’t apparent to readers (though, who am I kidding?  Most of you are probably also yourselves): Most anime fans are pretty much normal people.  They aren’t sexual deviants interested in their “2-D Waifus” only, they aren’t pedophilic (though I guess that study never did look at that…), they aren’t social shut ins, they aren’t even the commonly stereotyped losers.  No.  They’re just normal people.

And, if nothing else, I hope people who read this study feel the same.

Despera’s Rejuvenated Hope

As is quite obvious, I’m a pretty big fan of Serial Experiments Lain.  Heck, I named the entire blog after it, right?  So I doubt anybody finds surprise in the fact that I’ve been eagerly awaiting any available news on Despera.

For background, this was only the second time that all three main producers of Lain, character designer Yoshitoshi ABe, writer Chiaki J. Konaka, and director Ryutaro Nakamura, reunited as a group.  The setting greatly calls back to their work on Serial Experiments Lain as well with character design and setting all drawing a great deal of comparison.  The anime sets itself in alternate history in 1922.  A girl named Ain lives in Tokyo.  She is a technological wizard and produces incredible electronic devices (such as early computers) despite having absolutely no experience or knowledge of electronics.

That’s Lain on the left, right? I’m pretty sure it is. Wait…her name is Ain?

The project first appeared in 2009 but went on hiatus as Nakamura’s health deteriorated in 2011.  He later passed away in 2013 from Pancreatic Cancer and the status of Despera fell into the wind.

To my great excitement, ABe announced that the project would resume with a new director.  Actually, he announced it in 2014 but major news stations (such as the one I linked to) picked up on it only recently.  I just mentioned how obviously excited I am for the project as the setting and design make it an interesting and unusual work, being alternate history and all.

But I asked myself “What will change without Nakamura?”.  His presence or lack thereof will create a different dynamic during production and my thoughts led towards the idea that his absense will change the final product.  I approached this from the motion of asking what each of these three main players provide using Serial Exepriments Lain as a base.  To directly repeat what I said above, the staff originally included character designer Yoshitoshi ABe, writer Chiaki J. Konaka, and director Ryutaro Nakamura.

ABe, as I’ve mentioned previous, has an incredibly different artwork.  You’ll likely note the eyes in his work first and foremost.  They present unusual detail of the iris in extreme closeups and that hasn’t changed based on the concept art of Despera.  In the ’90s, he utilized a large amount of two-tone eyes at a time where this was less practical.  His latest character design work to see animated production, Welcome to the H.N.K., creates spectacular shades in the eyes with a level of detail that I’d argue would rival the best production value in the industry.  I’m not sure if it’s a demand to utilize his work or if it’s just coincidence but this always pops up when he’s either the original character designer or the character designer.  Whatever the reason, I would expect nothing less if he’s in charge of character design once again.

Strange isn’t it? This seems normal today but was quite an detailed aspect at the time. Man, I feel old.

But another aspect is likely a dark design as well.  Few of ABe’s works are entirely pure and positive in nature.  Many involve unusual mystery or utilize an offsetting/disturbing juxtaposition to make them feel less than normal.  Even when he’s working on comedy, it’s a dark comedy.  The only exception to this count is NieA_7, which Wikipedia even goes as far as to suggest was only done to “cool off” from the dark world of Serial Experiments Lain (as much of the staff joined to work on NieA_7).  It’s likely, since this sounds like a production of his creation, this streak will continue.

Shifting gears, Konaka’s works are greatly Lovecraftian and cyberpunk.  He’s even written a little for the Cthulhu Mythos (a collection of semi-connected narratives which work operate around the works of H.P. Lovecraft).  He directed Digimon Tamers and even write the 13th episode of the second season of Digimon; is appropriate named The Call of Dagoman (a play on The Call of Cthulhu, one of Lovecraft’s most famous works).  I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now but the entire episode is one long homage to that short story.  I bring this up so you kind of get an idea of what he is as a writer.  This would also be a great time to mention that his hands are almost always at the steering wheel of these types of narratives.  Narutaru, which I’ve previously reviewed, might not be the best work I’ve seen but it is a work that extremely well points towards Konaka’s interests.  But he’s also a huge fan of cyberpunk.  I mean, he did work on Lain, right?  These two are the typical front of his work.  But whatever his work, Konaka consistently deals a dark tone.  Even Digimon Tamers, which is likely his most famous work outside of Lain, can get quite dark since it deals with topics such as death.  And recall that the demographic is likely elementary aged children.

Finally, we come to the missing individual.  I’m not sure what to say about Nakamura.  His work is all over the place but they come out well from the director’s stand point.  There’s little I need to say about Lain or Kino’s Journey as they carry around a lot of sway.  One thing that does stand out there is that he almost has an artist’s eye for detail.  It almost gives me memories of Stanley Kubrick…I guess for reference, Kubrick was a photographer before a director and almost all his films had insane levels of detail.  He was a perfectionist but almost everything he did either surprised those in the industry he portrayed by showing a level of detail they didn’t expect or had revolutionary effects.  And that’s a similar sense I get from Nakamura…that every scene he does has animated purpose sometimes to fulfill an aesthetic beauty that I’m not sure many past animators can appreciate.  The selection of still frames I can recall from his prolific list of work solidify that in my mind.  In fact, further research indicates that he started as an animator.  This leaves me no doubt that some of those rare details seen in his work stem from his history, his past as an animator.

But where does that leave Despera?

I will suggest though that much of what makes Serial Experiements Lain unique likely transitions over to Despera.  ABe and Konaka also worked on Texhnolyze together, a project with similar style to Lain.  The concepts of it being a heavily dark and psychological anime will persist.  The animation quality likely holds steady and presents some extreme details in areas that it’s likely unexpected to carry depth.  I’m not sure if it’ll have the same attention to other details though.  There is no announcement on the replacement director as of yet so it’s impossible to “add on” the skills of the new director.  All I can say as of right now is that they might be hard pressed to find someone with that attention to animated detail.

But…of course, I’ll watch it anyways.

A Beginner’s Guide To Anime

I know this really isn’t my typical posting material but I thought this was interesting and useful stuff.  Hey, I’m a person who used extracurricular projects in grade school as an excuse to submit documents full of the history of anime.

I’ll keep this as more of a “what you need to know” than a true and working history of anime.

So, What IS Anime?

Well, we’re already in a bit of trouble.  “Anime” in Japan is basically an informal term for “animation” in the same way “sports fan” is short for “sports fanatic”.  So technically, if we use Japanese definitions, anime is just animation.

But I’m guessing you aren’t looking for that type of description, are you?  Well, to much of the world, anime refers to Japanese animation.  This differentiates itself from other types of animation such as those produced in Canada, USA, and Europe (often designated “Western Animation”) or China, South Korea, or the rest of Eastern Asia (“Eastern Animation”).  By definition, this basically limits anime to Japanese products.

The anime industry is quite large and operates on the order of billions of dollars (USD) per year.  It does a great deal of business within Japan but is something of a niche industry internationally.  As an example, some viewers from around the world called ex-Japanese Prime Minister Tarō Asō an otaku (more on this later).  Yet the popularity of anime doesn’t permeate as well.  Most common knowledge of anime alludes to either well-known younger audience series such as Pokemon or…well, hentai.  These two traits pronounce themselves within the common state of many cultures and is probably the only widespread exposure of anime to the world.  Further to the point, the world recognizes these aspects to such a degree that popular culture can reference such traits.

Why Does Anime Get Its Own Name?

Anime distinguishes itself from other animation groups, and therefore commonly requires distinction from other animation, because of a commonly noted difference in animation style; anime is quite often easy to separate from other animation because of a difference in artistic choice.  Again, these are extremely pronounced and leads to easy recognition in popular culture.

Previously, on Dragonball C

The most recognizable attribute of anime traditionally lies in facial features; large eyes, great attention to hair style, and decreased focus on other aspects typically herald anime.  It would come to no surprise that writers of a basic general tabletop RPG rule set called it Big Eyes, Small Mouth as that description fits much of the facial experience in a nutshell.  A major exception to both of these rules is Hiyao Miyazaki’s work, which emphasize more natural designs in both aspects.

Also, yes, this is probably a better character than the one she's based on.

Incidentally, this is not a real character…but was the first example I found. It follows typical convention.

Additionally, exaggerated expression typically associates itself with anime design.  To be honest, this is where you find most parody and recognition of anime tropes in non-anime environment.  Typical facial emotion reflects the emotion of the individual to an extreme degree; faces are blue and eyes blank when shocked or cheeks flush to a bright red when embarrassed.  TVtropes has an entire section’s worth of tropes about Japanese visual effects.  This anime aspect is absolutely iconic.  It’s probably also very easy to tell from the below images, but anime has a long streak of using non-traditional hair colours as it sees fit; it is common to use blue, green, pink, or purple hair.  Additionally, extremely unusual hair style is typical in series which focus less on realism; the character in the sequence, for example, has twin tails the size of her head.

I’ll go with…happy?

That’s certainly happy.

But character design alone isn’t where anime varies from other animation groups; anime focuses greatly on the detail of backgrounds.  When compared to other medium, anime typically reflects a high quality foreground and background.  I’d even argue that high quality frames is a hallmark of anime and it’s one of the rare mediums where compiling an all-star animation team together will reflect in an all-star animation product coming out extremely visually impressive.  I’ll stop it at that though as I think further description would only invite debate and hurt feelings by one person or another.

What Makes Anime So Popular?

This is a good question, isn’t it?  Above are reasons what makes anime different from other animated shows, but doesn’t necessarily contribute to what makes anime popular.

A major part of my reasoning is that anime taps into unexploited markets.  That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let’s just say this: it has audiences which don’t have a show otherwise.  If we focus on the Western markets for a second, a list of all animated television created by Western markets consist primarily of episodic television shows aimed at younger audiences (ex – Spongebob Squarepants) and episodic comedies that focus on older audiences (ex – The Simpsons).  Saturday morning cartoons and sitcoms, effectively.  Anime, by comparison, offers media for different audiences…so much so that there are entire loan words for the different target audiences (more on that later!).

Let’s just use the above anime as examples.  They both aim at older audiences than the typical “Saturday morning cartoon” and offers a non-comedic animated experience not found in the sitcoms; one aims for teenage viewers and the other at a mature audience.   They also contain aspects unlikely in other genres: one has an incredibly difficult to define genre (and is probably one of the top examples of a non-genre specific franchise out there) while the other is a psychological murder mystery.  Or multiple murder mystery.

Now, I can’t fully generalize; neither of my statements regarding Western animation or for anime fully describe the situation.  However, this is a terrific starting point for observing what makes anime unique at the moment.

So, I think the simple answer to read here is “because anime provides an experience they can’t find elsewhere: different combinations of demographics and genres that they cannot find in other animated media”.

Okay…where else can you find this?

What Are Anime’s Demographics and Genres?

I figure this is the obvious followup.  I’ll provide some basic descriptions below, though they hardly do any of them justice.

Common Anime Demographics

Each of the commonly used anime demographic names are directly ripped from the Japanese equivalent.  Remember that these are generalized demographics and anime tend to blur the line of which demographic they aim for.

  • Kokodomomuke.  Approximately stands for “intended for children”.  This typically is a little younger than the above mentioned “Saturday morning cartoons”.  A commonly known example, though probably still not entirely accurate, is the Hello Kitty franchise.
  • Shonen.  Target demographic is approximately preteen to teenage boys.  Anime with this demographic in mind likely cover the majority of your anime memory as it typically encompasses the often translated anime…Pokemon, Dragonball, Naruto, One Piece…most of those anime typically fall in this range.  But that’s the lower end of the spectrum.  One of the above anime also aims for the shonen demographic.  Incidentally, the shonen demographic is also the largest demographic in the anime market.  Shonen anime typically consist of more idealistic anime, have a mix of comedy and action, and focus on topics such as internal drive and ability…though these are a generalization and hardly the rule.
  • Shojo.  Target demographic is approximately preteen to teenage girls.  Anime aiming for the shojo demographic vary a bit from the shonen and typically focus a little more on the emotional aspect and a little less on the action.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t a mix of both (bear with me for a sentence or two as I get to addressing that) but that there’s a stronger pull on the emotional side than the action.  TVtropes provides an anecdotal example: if you have two main characters who are obviously mutual love interests, a shonen demographic anime more likely ends the series with the two characters falling in love while a shojo anime may make the relationship build earlier and focus on the relationship changes and struggles.  The most common example of a shojo oriented anime is Sailor Moon, though like the examples above it deals with a younger aspect in this audience.
  • Seinen.  Target demographic is, you guessed it, adult men.  Anime for this demographic begins to branch out far and wide, no longer tying itself to the typical action and idealistic roots…though, and I sound like a broken record, it might not tie itself to those roots to begin with.  Two common directions for seinen demographic anime include a dark and edgy version of shonen demographic anime or to turn for cute escapist characters.  The idea of a less black and white morality often begins the blur between a shonen and seinen demographic anime.  The ever common “gateway anime” Attack on Titan, for example, states a shonen demographic despite being brutal.  But the direction of escapism appears much easier and presents itself in a distinctive manner.  Seinen demographic anime also aims at areas the shonen demographic didn’t ever go in terms of experimental concepts.  Anime such as Ergo Proxy, Elfen Lied, Ghost in the Shell, and this blog’s namesake Serial Experiments Lain on the darker and experimental sides while CLANNAD, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica fill the other (the last of the three going on both sides of the spectrum)
  • Josei.  Target demographic, again easy to guess, is adult women.  Like all the above, the definition is somewhat vague.  They tend towards the same path of shonen to seinen demographics and open the doors on morality and idealism.  Recent trends include focus on daily life, homoerotic themes, and a darker look at romantic aspects which shojo anime typically either ignore or gloss over quickly.  A well known josei demographic series is Loveless, as is Eden of the East to my surprise.

Common Anime Unique Genres

Below is a list of genres that tend to stay inside anime more than others.  You’ll likely find examples outside anime but they are likely less numerous.

  • Harem.  A harem anime typically focuses on a main character and a wide swathe of viable love interests.  This most typically uses a set up of a male protagonist surrounded by an incredibly large number of female characters as love interests.  It’s so commonly accepted in this role that many call a female protagonist with a large number of male love interests a “Reverse Harem” anime.  It is rarely played as a dramatic situation, though there are exceptions.  A harem anime typically uses the protagonist’s situation as comedic bait.  Because the audience typically has the same gender as the protagonist, the supporting love interests often provide fanservice (see below).
  • Magical Girl.  Magical girl anime, as the name suggests, features magical girls as main protagonists…young girls which use magic.  That’s it.  This wide open concept actually makes it open for practically any combination of demographics listed above.  The varying amounts of action against relationship against everyday life focus easily cover all the above demographics.  In fact, while many consider magical girl anime a realm only for female audiences, the most famous recent examples of magical girl anime target male audiences.  The most popular genre of magical girl anime utilize a formal similar to superheroes and have villains which the protagonist magical girl fights.
  • Mecha.  Mecha anime simply utilize mecha.  That’s a roundabout description…so let’s describe mecha.  Mecha are robots, in essence.  Mecha often divide into two categories: super robot anime and real robot anime.  The former focuses on the robot as an extension of the robot’s controller (pilot).  By comparison, real robot anime typically have mecha which are much more expendable and reproducible.  In essence, they are weapons.  This vague overview of mecha anime allows for it to slot in combination with almost any other type of genre and target any demographic…though it lends itself very well to action heavy anime.
  • Slice of Life.  Okay.  Fine.  This really isn’t anime unique but it has a strong sway in anime and a great deal of slice of life content comes from anime.  Slice of Life anime are anime which focus on…well…life.  Following along the life of a protagonist.  School settings are quite popular for this type of anime as are coming-of-age narratives.  This type typically pushes away from action-heavy sequences and focuses on interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts.  An extreme interpretation of slice of life can create entire situations without conflict at all and simply focus on the lives of the characters instead of a grand narrative.
  • Yaoi.  A subset of romance anime which focus on romance between male characters.  The typical audience for yaoi work is a female demographic with there being further distinction for male/male romance anime for male audiences.  It’s kind of hard to describe yaoi as a genre (at least in the Western definition; Japan uses the term much differently), so I might just leave at this: there is a great variety of yaoi content from stereotypical romance that you’re probably thinking about to extremely dark and disturbing material.  This would deserve its own post to describe…so just take away the basic idea of what the term means and not the implications and subtleties of the genre itself, something that’d take far too long to explain in a post introducing anime.
  • Yuri.  A subset of romance anime which focus on, you guessed it, two female characters.  Like yaoi anime, there is a tendency of female demographics more than male demographic though there are are more pronounced male demographics in certain yuri anime.  Again, please note that the twists, turns, and history of this term is far too complicated for an introductory article…so focus on it as female romance.  Wikipedia contains articles which go into far greater detail on yaoi and yuri anime.

Note that both yaoi and yuri sometimes refer to sexually explicit content when used in Western settings.

So…how many is that?

Common Anime Terms

I’ll just start by saying that there is no way this list is anywhere near “complete”, but includes terms likely required for conversation about anime.  Not all will become common language for different readers…I’d be pretty concerned about certain combinations appearing together.  You’ll also note that a lot of these are Japanese.  Please note that some of the terms either are not used in such a sense and that the definitions provided regards how this fandom uses the terminology.

  • AMV.  Abbreviation for Animated (sometimes Anime) Music Video, a (mostly) fan production which combines mixing songs and visuals from at least one anime.  The song does not necessarily need to (and often times does not) come from any of the anime footage used.
  • Baka. “Idiot”.  Kind of.  It has different definitions, but the one you’ll probably hear it in regards to anime is for “idiot” or “stupid”.  It comes as part of anime’s character design as irritable characters often repeat the term.  Also note: some fans insert this word into their everyday lexicon because of the easy substitution for non-Japanese words.
  • Bishojo (Bishoujo).  “Pretty girl”.  There’s not much else to the term itself.  Anime warps around it though and traditions regarding this style of character are evident.  Namely, this character typically defines more as “being cute” than outright sex appeal and is younger looking, typically cutting off around 20 years old.
  • Bishonen.  “Pretty boy”.  Now this gets a little more confusing than the above definition for bishojo as the term “pretty”, if you want to stick to English terms, doesn’t really vary between the two definitions.  A bishonen character is actually quite effeminate and, like the definition above, refers to younger caracters.  Well, maybe.  The term is ambiguous since some groups define it simply as “an attractive male character”.
  • Chibi.  Literally?  It means “small” and refers to smaller and cuter characters.  That said, it’s misused enough that you should know this definition: Chibi and the art type of super-deformed often intertwine.  Super-deformed is a specific anime art style which extremely large heads compared to the rest of the body.  In anime where the super-deformed is not the normal animation, this choice typically adds a layer of comedy and lack of seriousness to the situation.
  • Dandere.  A character which is particularly shy and not really social but changes to warm and friendly under specific circumstances.
  • Dojikko.  A cute female character who is particularly clumsy.
  • Dojinshi.  Independently published or self-published works.  In the realm of anime, this typically refers to manga.  Note that since this refers to any independent publication, professional producers can add to the mix.  Works may use original characters or act as fan fiction.
  • Dub.  Short for “dubbed voices”.  The translation for the work in question comes in the form of replacing the original voices with new voice actors to speak in the audience’s native language.  There are strong rivalries and debates between the value of a dub vs sub (below).
  • Ecchi.  Approximation of the English “H”, used to represent a halfway point between standard production and hentai (below).  In other words, the product has sexually suggestive material. That’s a vague definition and encompasses anything from fairly benign material such as sexually based humour all the way up to nearly hentai.  This weird and vague definition makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish between ecchi and full-out hentai.
  • Fanservice (Fan service).  The simple definition is T&A.  The more complex one utilizes the idea of sexual humour and/or titillation.  But that still isn’t fair.  The idea of fanservice is easy enough (“servicing the fan” and giving them what they want) but it’s another nebulous concept as some consider climactic and visually gorgeous fights fanservice.  The most typical usage refers to sexual fan service though…that is, having characters in sexually amusing or titillating outfits (in fact, I’ll even use “fanservice” to mean “sexual fanservice”).  A well-known example of this is younger female characters in maid uniforms.  Alternatively, fanservice comes in the form of active choices to have a “shot” linger on attractive body parts for far longer than necessary or gratuitously show sexually attractive images (such as panties on a female character).
  • Hentai.  Approximate translation definition: perverted.  Common definition: anime, manga, and video games (with anime design) which have pornographic content.  Funny enough, the word itself is actually quite non-sexually based and you could find situations in which to use it.  From what I’ve heard too, many Japanese individuals find it quite amusing that non-Japanese speakers use the word in such a way.
  • Hikikomori.  An individual who actively chooses to isolate themselves from society.  Such individuals may exhibit extreme antisocial behaviours such as rarely leave their living quarters.  The concept is closely tied to otaku lifestyle but I wish you recognize them as two different entities.  There is currently research investigating this phenomenon in Japan as it appears primarily as a Japanese issue (though countries all over the world report cases).  Hermits might be a possible equivalent…though not really.
  • Kuudere.  A character which initially appears cold, dismissive, and cynical but has a hidden warmer and friendlier personality when approached sufficiently.  I might get into this some day but the concept of the second part of this in dandere, kuudere, tsundere, and yandere characters may exist as a development over time as oppose to being “hidden”.
  • Manga.  Simply, Japanese comics.  That’s probably the easiest way to think about it.
  • Megane.  A term for male characters who wear glasses.  This would suggest usage because there is a glasses fetish market out there.
  • Meganeko (Meganekko).  A term for female characters who wear glasses.  Again, this relates fairly closely to glasses fetishism.
  • Moe.  Oh boy.  Well, I’ve written an extensive amount on the subject and even that definition of moe might not agree to the common usage.  Let’s just say it’s that “big brother/sister” instinct drawn from an innocent, sweet, or naive young character, typically female.  It’s a strange and nebulous definition, I agree, but it’s tough to really draw a straight and narrow definition.
  • Otaku.  Literally, “you”.  That’s the actual term.  Of course, the usage shifted to something along the lines of “obsessive nerd” a while ago.  The implication of defining as “otaku” is having an obsession with a given interest, defaulting to manga or anime without further description.  The origin of the term certainly doesn’t provide much help in this regard.  I would also suggest that the term, even if it has a fairly benign origin, can carry heavily negative connotations (such as “gamer” might on Western news stations in stereotyping towards angry 12-year-olds or a fan of murder simulators)…please be careful when using it.
  • OVA.  Acronym for Original Video Animation.  Similar to “straight to DVD/video”, this refers to animation released directly without a TV or movie theatre release.
  • Sub.  Short for “subtitled”.  The original voices remain and translation the translation comes via subtitles.  Much like I mentioned above, there remains strong debate between fans of dubs and subs.
  • Tsundere.  A character which initially appears hostile, irritable, and angry but has a more approachable and friendly personality underneath.
  • Yandere.  A character which initially appears warm and friendly but has a more destructive side underneath.  This description varies a little from the other [x]dere definitions since the character reflects the friendly aspect first.  Note that the last part is intentionally ambiguous.  A common example of the destructive personality is a violently controlling personality.  If that character is a love interest, the situation may be that the individual puts so much into the relationship that they feel they must keep that relationship in their ideal bubble and will do anything, up to and including murder (for instance), to ensure that it happens.

…We done yet?

Recommended “Gateway” Anime

What follows is a brief listing of anime which present an effective introduction to anime.  You could easily treat me like a drug dealer here as I attempt to push anime into your life.

As a general pick, I find Attack on Titan as the a commonly noted modern anime.  It’s got an unusual art style for anime, is somewhat bleak, and contains some lovingly animated scenes.  I’ve yet to fully watch this anime myself to please take my recommendation of it with consideration.  The Slayers franchise is an older anime that hearkens a bit more of what you might remember as “anime”.  It features around the concepts of a typical fantasy genre but plays with comedy a great deal; the anime reaches around for different aspects of both a serious action franchise and a wacky slapstick comedy.  It’s got a little for everyone through the episodes produced in the 1990s (Slayers, Slayers Next, Slayers Try) and might only concern you if you weren’t a fan of the animation at the time.

It’s possible that you’re looking for some good old high fantasy but Slayers isn’t your type of anime.  A little more towards the female side is Magic Knight Rayearth.  It pulls a fairly serious narrative and doesn’t differentiate between comedy and action episodes nearly as much…instead using it as a drip at certain points in episodes.  Want one with a little more seriousness?  I’m not sure I’d qualify it as a great anime but try out the cliche-filled Record of Lodoss War, an anime founded on Dungeons and Dragons principles (though I guess Slayers is what happens in such a world when the players screw around with the genre’s seriousness).

Or maybe something with just lots of fights and high-octane action is what you want.  Berserk‘s high violence should sate you.  Some low fantasy violence always helps.  Or maybe Black Lagoon, where trigger happy…well…probably isn’t even enough to describe it.

The slice-of-life genre becomes quite interesting in anime.  I’d almost imminently state Haibane Renmei.  It not only provides the off kilter idea of a slice-of-life anime in an entirely unfamiliar setting but provides an incredible adventure with the characters themselves as you discover more about the world thrust upon you.  Welcome to the H.N.K.! provides a much more comedic look at the genre.  I’ll warn that it’s dark in its comedy.  Wanna break your heart instead?  Try the Clannad franchise.  Especially the finale.

Feeling a little more sci-fi?  Well, I always find mecha recommendations fun.  The Gundam franchise practically covers the entire spectrum of dramatic mecha anime.  Here, take a fan made sorter to find a Gundam anime which suits your needs.  I haven’t watched it, but others throw Code Geass‘ name into this range as well.  Need something that makes you feel like someone kicked your emotions around and threw them way?  Fine.  Watch Neon Genesis Evangelion, a dark and fairly confusing narrative.  Again though, it’s stupid dark.  Planning for something for laughs and a space opera?  Martian Successor Nadesico.  I will warn though that its comedy typically plays around expected tropes so you might miss some jokes or fun moments.  From the “not really my type of anime but worth considering” list is Tengen Toppa Gurren Laggan.  Take escalation to all new heights.

Of course, mecha do not comprise all sci-fi.  Ghost in the Shell is the iconic cyberpunk anime.  Of course, if you want one with about three pounds of introspection and much less action, have fun with Ergo Proxy.  Want to make it more impossible to understand but uniquely presented?  Well, Serial Experiments Lain works well.  Or, it confuses you the first time you watch since that’s kind of what I just implied.

It could be that you want an adventure.  Not characters, but a journey.  Well, try the apt named Kino’s Journey.  It’s about a teenager named Kino and Kino’s motorcycle as the pair travel.  Or maybe Trigun…a space western at its finest.  Speaking of space and adventures, Irresponsible Captain Tylor qualifies as a terrific addition if you’re already looking for a non-serious space opera or just love space operas at all.

Or did you want magical girls?  Well, the genre rarely plays straight these days.  A more combat oriented magical girl anime exists: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.  Make friends by beating the snot out of them in combat more reminiscent of mecha franchises than magical girls.  An extremely dark look at magical girls also exists: Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  Just be warned, twice now, that it is very dark.

Enough seriousness though.  Do you just want to laugh at comedy?  Something of a complete and raw sketch comedy anime, probably closest to the zero continuity of Western animated sitcoms?  Well, I’d say Galaxy Angel comes close.  Want even less sense (if that were even possible)?  Try the high-energy Excel Saga, an anime where continuity itself is a character.  I’m not sure it’s for everyone but the anime never takes itself seriously for a second and doesn’t even attempt to retain any sense of holding to its source material or to the laws of the universe itself.  And, while I’ve never found it my cup of tea, Gintama counts as famous comedy.

Or maybe you just want to, instead of having any of the above, just watch the “moe” characters do cute things?  K-On! famously defined this area…actually, come to think about it, that’s actually probably all you need to look at here.

Maybe you just want to defy genres period?  Go with Cowboy Bebop.  Just do it.  The Haruhi Suzumiya franchise also blends so many genres together…you’ll just get lost trying to keep track.

Hideaki Anno And The Commercial Future

A recent comment by Hideaki Anno popped up in the news.  Now, this has also caused a slight amount of discussion.  I’ve copied it below if you don’t want to open a new link:

The Japanese animation industry has hit a dead end — it will be tough to escape unless we can make animation without commercial considerations. It may even be too late.

I haven’t seen a direct link to his comments so I’ll address the quote above.  I’m not sure whether or not a later interview addresses the exact same topics (as I note the difference between him stating it’s a dead-end in the quote above and how he refers to anime as breaking towards a recession in the second interview).

So, What Does It Mean?

As I read the quote, a major issue is the broad strokes that Anno speaks in.  I’m not sure if it’s as broad in the original quote as I haven’t seen it but I think it’s key to note how general Anno speaks.  It’s very, and I mean extremely, easy to get lost within the specifics of that sentence.  Pinning down the source of the frustration or the specific notion he speaks to is difficult and tenuous at best.  Anno, as I think most of us know, is a man with a great number of concerns and the one he highlights in his words is a steep task.  Deciphering meaning from such words is subjective at best I think.

My first question is what a “dead-end” represents.  Is it the end of the line?  A withdrawal from a peak?  A recession?  Or is it even about money and size of industry?  That’s a fairly blanket statement and the interpretation, while not a significant aspect to the quote, helps frame the rest of the statement.

The major aspect I’d focus on is whether the concern Anno raises is one of industry size or of commercial creativity.  I feel these are the two major possibilities when describing loss in terms of “dead ends”.  I would also feel though that the former is automatically removed because of the fact that Anno is encouraging anime without commercial consideration.  So, the first aspect is that he’s speaking of a creative dead-end.  Easy enough.

But that leads to an even larger question: what does the dead-end represent?  Is it a catastrophic failure or one of minor loss?  Of course, it’s fair to even question the relevance of such a question, but I’ve added it for completeness’ sake.

The interpretation I see is one of fear.  I think it’s fair to think of Anno as an artist first and foremost.  He’s a man who seemingly lashes out against fans, hates parts of the culture they attach to, and even take shots at some of them in his own productions.  Though he has made his peace with the otaku culture in recent years, he never really appears a fan of it or enjoys it himself…just that he doesn’t bitterly hate it.  The tone of his words combine with this ambivalence to create a real cynical look on Anno still…that he’s still only halfway attached to the field.

Attaching the analysis of his first few words and I think the statement is a very strong and pronounced concern with anime; Anno sees them heading for a cliff and is pressing for immediate action.  The statement at the end, that “it may even be too late”, reinforces that notion.

Personally, this comments here strikes reminiscent of many artistic individuals who look to develop and create new mediums.  The type of individual which never stays around after there is no new artistic merit left (well, in their opinion anyways.  I have different opinions regarding artistic form and originality that I may put in writing one day).  And I think this is consistent with Anno.  This is a man who does not work on a great number of projects and seemingly deliberately pushes everything he has a hand in different directions.  Or at least a more postmodern one.  Heck, I struggle to think of an anime he’s involved in which doesn’t use some bizarre surreal imagery at some point.

Moving on though.  This leads to the second, and probably more difficult to read, question: what are the “commercial considerations” to forgo?  What exactly is he warning about that threatens to suck the anime industry dry of the artistic merit?

And I think this is where knowing Anno’s background comes to assist the understanding.  He and Miyazaki, as I’ve noted previously, are seeming brothers-in-arms in regards to moe character design and their avid hate of it.  It’s unlikely, in my mind, that the statement and the seemingly significant presence of moe characters in modern and current anime remain unconnected.

Of course, this is only one possibility.  As I noted before, there is a further interview where he states that anime’s own success created an industry which is unsustainable economically.  This would stifle show quality and damage the further interest in anime until, in sports terms, it undergoes a full rebuild where it drops into obscurity, re-positions itself into a respectable medium once again, and comes back with a vengeance.

I’d personally be inclined to believe this second interpretation of the two I theorized.  It’s not secret that anime is struggling in the economics.  Salary is pretty much nothing and hours are insane so many of the claims Anno points at check out in a general sense.  The economics just don’t make sense for the animators.  You’re basically in a world where you’re doing your work because you like to do it for far too many hours for far too little money.  You can only expand so far until overworked individuals say enough and you lose talent at a painful rate.

(Side note: It’s actually kind of funny that one of the titles in an articles that I linked to in that Miyazaki article is “The freefall of Japan’s anime industry” given how I reference it in an a post about Anno’s concern with an industry ready to freefall)

And if we read more from this second interview, then Anno’s primarily concerned with non-standard anime production dropping.  I’ll quote a specific aspect that I think highlights his sentiments perfectly:

The lack of staff and finances has gotten to the point that people recognize they won’t be able to keep working as they are now. It’s not the kind of leisurely atmosphere that Japan needs to make animation. We can’t make animation at this scale without economic stability. When you’re working as hard as you can just to feed yourself, you can’t get joy out of your work. You’re more focused on your next meal. That’s the real problem.

[…]

I get the impression that the contemporary Japanese animation industry is running solely on the remaining fuel of the past’s enthusiasm towards animation. We need to be more flexible with our ideas, and think about how we can continue to make work that’s compelling. That’s what my project with Kawakami-san is all about. (source)

I feel a summary of Anno’s argument is: Anime is currently at a state where pursuit of maximum profits in conjunction with the current working conditions of anime employees will strain the network of employees beyond the breaking point of quality.  Anime’s production value will drop and result in uninteresting creations which will drive away fans.  This will create a dead end in anime and force a drop in the anime industry.

Such a statement follows each of the interpretations of Anno’s comments above and is consistent with his later comments.

But…Is It True?

This, of course, leads to the million dollar question which is lovingly listed above anyways.  Is anime heading down a spiral?  There are two moving parts to this question: the industry’s sustainability and the anime quality.

We first must look at sustainability.  There are two ways to observe this.  One is the company profits and the other is industry talent.  Company profits are likely consistent.  I’m not privy to much company information but I do not see many doors closing.  Sustainability at a corporate level, at least from what I’ve seen, is viable.  But what about for each employee?  I think this gets a bit more sketchy.  Anime industry, as I’ve always mentioned, is one of love.  I don’t think losing individuals is the issue.

The question boils down to the quality of anime as more projects come into production.  A helpful user once tracked anime by year.

Following a similar process, here are the data points I added for TV series for 2012 to 2014:

– 2012: 160 TV series
– 2013: 185 TV series
– 2014: 198 TV series

So there’s absolutely no question that we’re hitting unprecedented levels of new anime in production annually.  But the statistic we’re concerned about is employees per project.  And this is a point where I’m stuck.  I can’t find the number of anime employees by year.  And I think this is a major issue.  Since the start of that graph, the anime industry has undoubtedly grown and therefore there will be more employees to work with.  It’s not like there is a drop from 100 employees per project in 1996 to 25 in 2012.

But let’s say for the sake of hypothetical debate that it is true and that industry does not hire employees to keep the number of employees per project constant.  Is this impacting quality?

Well, I think this is a subjective question.  I certainly haven’t seen the unusual and interesting anime from before but I’m hardly a good source and I don’t think my familiarity with all modern anime is strong enough to make a real statement about changes today.

But what are your thoughts?  Are we heading towards an abyss and inevitable decline?  Or is this just the concerns of a man who might not have anything to concern himself with?