A western man doesn’t know how to feel watching Clannad. It’s a seriously sappy romance that makes the most dramatic English soaps look like Rambo, yet, for all intents and purposes, the anime, manga and visual novels (interactive fiction or dating sims) are clearly aimed at an older male audience, regardless of whether there’s anything erotic about them. In a sense this completely untapped market in the West helps to give the series a deeper complexity, and honestly, once you get past the contrived stories and feminine qualities, it’s a heart tugging set of stories that never outstay their slice of life setting.
All firmly established in the first half of the season, our main character Tomoya Okazaki, a fallen student athlete turned delinquent, regains purpose when the timid but determined Nagisa Furukawa wants to revive their school’s drama club. At the beginning of these three disks, Tomoya remembers his connection to the tragedy befallen Tomoyo, and later on we see him posit the other many potential romances before him. Even though his inevitable partner is obvious, the harem like attraction the five girls have for this God-like male teenager specimen reminds us of the source material, and means there’s plenty of chances for viewers to pick hopefuls, even if they feel unexplored (not in that way!)
The stories themselves have an odd shift in terms of over versus under dramatic. For example, we follow a story about a girl who lost both parents in a plane crash when they were delivering an important scientific thesis, to winning a basketball game to ensure the survival of the hallowed drama club. A little jarring, sure, but the characters are consistent throughout, with comic relief that at the least can be awkward, and at times quite dark.
The series is undoubtedly strongest in terms of animation. Aside from the vibrant character designs and slick use of colours, certain segments depicting a child hood story of Nagisa’s (which later appears as the climactic finale performance) are an amazing blend of 3-D and cel shaded animation. There are also themes and motives to drive home a deeper meaning, from cherry trees to Tomoyo’s violin, to the more abstract like Nagisa’s love of the mascot ‘big dango family’. The latter actually appears as the ending theme, which I personally can’t watch; it’s too intense.
The best salvation comes in the extra episode “Another World: Tomoyo Chapter”, an else world episode that suggests what might’ve happened had the romantic outcome been severely different. Frankly, it’s better than the rest of the series. The heart wrenching yet simple story, the usage of symbolism and the promising conclusion show just how much more is accomplishable in 20 minutes than in twenty three episodes. No wonder it got it’s own video game spin-off.
Clannad looks the part, and is no doubt entertaining and engaging romantic fluff, but with a single minded and unsurprising outcome and story lines that don’t feel followed through to the end, it’s not the quintessential drama of Japan. For that, wait until Clannad After Story… (3 stars)
Words > Graham Ashton
Hetalia World Series – Season 3 Collection
Studio: Studio Imagin
Released by Manga Entertainment 23 July 2012 on DVD
War has broken out once again, but rather than resolving it with bombs and battles the nations of Earth use hyper energetic bishonen (pretty boys) to settle their differences, with fleeting success I might add. Though the series has rebranded itself to ‘World Series’, Hetalia has not changed its style and lack of story, opting for wild slapstick atop a thin allegory for global politics, and whilst its humble roots might hold conventional anime fans back, there’s underlying moments of inspired Interpol-related high jinks.
If you were suckered into this madness through the franchise’s first feature length outing Paint It White!, then you may feel the structure of Hetalia World Series a bit jarring. Adapted from a webcomic, each episode lasts five minutes with an ending theme that’s almost longer than the three or so sketches packed within. At this point it seems trite to complain, but surely even purist fans would agree that the DVD would flow better as a continuous stream of stories, rather than repeating what we’d see on television or online.
Also unlike the film there’s really no plot so to speak. Focus constantly shifts between different characters and countries (same thing…), with some episodes centred on a particular nation and sometimes a single escapade. The closest things to running stories you’ll find are the raising of ‘Chibi Romano’ by ‘Boss Spain’, The War of Austrian Succession as well as the introduction of new characters Turkey and Tony the Alien.
As per usual, the humour tries to separate itself from genuine satire as much as possible, despite sitting on a canon of real-life culture spanning the latter part of human history. Jokes generally boil down to general wacky behaviour, exploiting stereotypes or comically recreating landmark alliances or events. All three make for good entertainment, though the latter is strongest, though sadly also underused.
Unless you checked out the included historic notes or sat down to watch this as an expert, you’ll likely be unsure whether the foppish outbursts of France or the limp wristed fanning of Austria are meant to be symbolic of wider, centuries-long relations or just melodrama. As the dub’s narrator puts it: “Is this 3rd grade or geo-political allegory? Forreals yo…”
Speaking of, one can’t help but be impressed with the work Funimation has put in both to make the series’ pace and style accessible for an English speaking audience, tweaking many a phrase and throwing in plenty of ad-libbing to boot. Occasionally something is lost in the process, but what is left is a production that stands on its own with voice actors who clearly had fun with their roles.
It can be a chore to sit through the same set of credits just minutes after you last watched them, but aside from that only your own ability to swallow Hetalia World Series’ premise, style and strangeness will hold you back from buying it. If you’re a newcomer, the previous film release might be a better gateway for you. (3 stars)
Words > Graham Ashton
Panty and Stocking with Garter belt
Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi Studio: Gainax
Released by Manga Entertainment 30 July 2012 on DVD
Having been kicked out of Heaven for bad behaviour, angels Panty (a blonde sex addict) and Stocking (a gothic looking girl who’s a sugar addict) must vanquish a host of evil spirits including Poo monsters and sperm ghosts to earn enough coins to be allowed to return home, luckily the girls are not alone as they are guided by a priest – well a black priest with an afro who’s into bondage and his dog Chuck.
The strangeness doesn’t even nearly stop there Panty and Stocking are armed to deal with the phantoms plaguing Daten City and the weaponery comes in the form of transforming clothing, Panty’s panties becomes a gun and Stocking’s stockings are a sword. Panty and Stocking with Garter belt is, unsurprisingly given its premise, loaded with foul language and adult humour but visual it resembles a Cartoon network like show such as Power Puff Girls, in a homage/parody of American cartoons, specifically some of the more adult focused “childrens” shows such as Ren and Stimpy or Cow and Chicken.
Panty and Stocking with Garter belt is non stop craziness from the opening theme to the closing credits it’s certainly unique enough to stand out from the crowd and is a must for not just anime fans, but for anyone looking for something different and maybe even fans of American animation looking to see how a Japanese studio does American style cartoons. (4 stars)
Words > Jason Potter
Spice and Wolf : Season 2
Released 6 August 2012 on DVD by Manga Entertainment
Though the manga based on Isuna Hasekura’s original novel is out, Manga Entertainment have wasted no time in appeasing fans of the first Spice and Wolf anime season who were howling for more. The fantasy epic that swaps sword fighting and spell casting for sales and business strategies continues to reap commercial and critical success, but more astounding is the tooth and claw romance that stands as its greatest aspect.
We’re eased into a new storyline with an episode concluding Lawrence and Holo’s adventures in Rubenhaigen; the bearded merchant has escaped his bankruptcy and made a hefty profit to boot, and Holo has found herself jealous of her companion’s attraction to the young blonde shepherd girl Nora (and in the process has found long harboured feelings for him). As with last season, each disk contains storylines that, whilst disparate, are not discarded when the next one comes along. Rather the spoils of these plots, whether they be monetary or character based, are frequently referenced and alluded to later on.
What does differentiate Spice and Wolf II is whilst the first series used trading and business as clever set ups to gargantuan action and chase sequences, the story here is entirely economically driven. Similarly, the number of supporting characters has upped considerably, yet all are rich and bountiful in traits and trickery. Some worth mentioning are the young Amati, a business prodigy from a noble family who takes an aggressive liking to the wolf in woman’s clothing, Diana Ruben, a seductive alchemist who’s unmatched knowledge of ancient legends suggest she may be part of one herself, and Abe, a female merchant matching Lawrence in everything but integrity.
More so than previous episodes, the fantasy elements are almost extraneous to the story, yet this isn’t a demerit. Rather, it’s the little caveats that help make the main pair so engaging; Holo is a centuries old Wolf incarnation who gets wasted on wine frequently, leaving Lawrence to the be the doting carer incessantly teased by his furry partner. The love story goes beyond the ‘will they/won’t they’ format though. Even from the start of the series we know these two long for each other, but through a myriad of metaphorical, argumentative and drunken conversations, they slowly move towards actually making a move.
When something does happen though it’s not quite as satisfying as it should be, and in general the end to this series is pretty weak, but luckily it’s far from the end for Spice and Wolf. At the time of writing there’s nothing confirmed about season three, but with twelve novels spanning beyond the TV adaptation’s plot, there’s ample material for fans to demand of. (4 Stars)
Words > Graham Ashton
Bleach Series 9 Part 2
Released by Manga Entertainment 6 August 2012 on DVD
There’s a lot of confusion in the name Bleach. Whilst it generally relates to the lead character Ichigo Kurusaki’s hair colour, when applied to the final part of season 9, it refers to white washing it from the storyline, though the wasted time fans spent watching it can’t be so easily restored. It’s strange that even in the comedic segments bookending each episode the neglected characters even joke about what’s going on. Are you laughing?
After thwarting an overzealous group of assassins, Ichigo and Rukia rush to the soul society after their target, the young princess Lurichiyo Kasumi?ji walks right into a kidnapping. After thwarting an arranged marriage, they begin to unravel the true motives, as well as the true masterminds, behind the plot to usurp the clan and the true power behind the mysterious and dangerous new blades, the Bokkouto.
As the two disparate story threads get pieced together, and the new captain of squad 3 gets directly involved in the conflict, the story plays out without an inch of unpredictability. There’s focus on many of the lesser known soul reapers within the 13 squad court guard, but aside from squabbling and play fighting, they aren’t given anything of interest to do.
Unlike the first half of the season, the episodes play out in a continuous stream of battles, some more engaging than others, but the focus always falls on the bland throwaway characters and their quickly exposited back stories, and not the plot going on around them.
There is a twist in the final few episodes, and I can honestly throw my hands up and say I didn’t see it coming. But whilst it’s a true shock, it doesn’t fit with what the series was building up to and doesn’t feel like the logical conclusion to the story (however half baked it was). Though the final fight features some impressive weapon and character design, it’s too abruptly resolved, and the characters introduced in this filler arc are given a similar resolution.
If you’ve been keeping up with the DVD releases then you have the option of skipping this uninspired and horribly introduced distraction. It’s clear sailing for the actual story now, let’s hope it makes up for this watered down Bleach experience. (2 Stars)
Words > Graham Ashton
Squid Girl Complete Series 1 Collection
Director: Tsutomu Mizushima
Released by Manga Entertainment 13 August 2012 on DVD
An invader from the sea comes ashore to enslave all of mankind for their pollution of the world’s oceans, however this invader has trouble instilling fear on the surface creatures since Squid girl resembles a twelve year old girl with tentacles for hair. After putting a hole through the wall of a small beach side restaurant in a display of her powers, she is forced to work there to pay off the damage.
Squid girl is real fish out of water (or squid out of water if you will) as she knows nothing of the human world she sought to conquer, estimating earth’s population to be about a thousand.
Squid girl’s episodes are made up of three shorter episodes and focus on her failing attempts to conquer earth such as being terrified of being eaten by inflatable whale pool toys, or being forced to use her squid ink as a food topping in the restaurant till she’s shrivels up from dehydration.
A lot of Squid Girl’s humour comes from situations like this but another huge chunk comes from the many fish puns that pepper her speech, such as calling people ‘scaredy fish’ and plotting her inkvasion of mankind.
Squid Girl’s supporting cast are very much in a supporting role with Squid Girl taking the main focus, they are however a nice mix especially when the extended cast comes in after a few episodes, including a stalker girl who finds Squid Girl cute and delights in dressing her up in various outfits, and the new worker who is the only person to actually fear squid girl much to her delight.
The visuals are cute, colourful and cheerful and the whole presentation is light hearted fun, this anime defiantly deserves a “plaice” in your collection if you buy it you’ll have a “whale” of a time I’m not “squidding” it really is a “Kraken” show I’m “hooked”. (4.5 stars)
Words > Jason Potter
Blue Exorcist Part 1
Director: Tensai Okamura
Release Date: 20 of August 2012 on DVD by Manga Entertainment
Many years ago, William Peter Blatty penned his iconic horror novel The Exorcist. He would probably never imagined the popularity of this dark tale of demonic possession and celestially outmatched priests and its screen adaptation would lead to an action series lapped up by the anime teeny bopper audience. Luckily for us all, Japan happened. It’s maybe a little unfair to compare Blue Exorcist to its most obvious reference, but with a series that borrows so frivolously, it’s not unexpected.
Rin Okumura is a hapless layabout who, despite being the older paternal twin, pales in comparison to his ambitious brother Yukio. When their father in two regards, a priest and highly skilled exorcist named Shiro Fujimoto, is forced to rescue Rin from the fangs of a vicious demon, he reveals that Rin is a demon no mightier than Satan’s own son. After things turn sour, Rin vows to commit both patricide and regicide and kill the king of demons. To do this he enrols at the True Cross Academy, an exorcist school where his brother Yukio, also a gifted demon slayer, will be his teacher.
The starting episode has some of the strangest pacing you’ll ever see; after the characters are introduced and we follow Rin failing miserably to land a convenience store job, and only in the last five minutes does the demon attack occur. A huge amount is also exposited within twenty seconds, which sums up one of Blue Exorcist’s two downfalls; whilst its fight scenes are exciting and full of spectacle, the in between is uninteresting and the comedy (of which there is plenty) doesn’t always hold it over too well. It seems to lack focus, trying to establish a status quo rather than the stakes, the boundaries of Rin’s power or the scope of its world (or the one belonging to the demons).
It’s other flaw is it ticks boxes along the way in attempting to be a good supernatural series. Since Harry Potter turned blasphemous arts into an education system, many fantasy series have tried to emulate, but Blue Exorcist is ridden with even more clichés. Most characters edge only slightly out of being one-dimensional thanks to them all having that necessary tragic past, but it’s their by-the-books personalities that really keep this series from being interesting outside of the action.
Words > Graham Ashton
Dragonball Z Season 2
Director: Daisuke Nishio Studio: Toei Animation
Released by Manga Entertainment 27 August 2012 on DVD
Having barely overcome the Saiyan Prince, Vegeta Goku and friends must face his next challenge in his race to recover the Dragonballs (seven mystical balls that summon Shenron the dragon to grant any one’s wish, for those for haven’t seen the show) as they travel to planet Namek and battle new adversaries in the Ginyu Force and uber bad guy Freiza.
As said before Dragonball Z is the original anime show to many fans, inventing and refining the formula that would be used by many anime series even to this day, the visuals while dated by modern standards, still have that unmistakable Akira Toriyama style (video game enthusiasts may recognize the distinctive look in the Dragon Quest series of games and the Xbox 360 RPG Blue Dragon for which Akira Toriyama provided the art)
With 35 episodes spanning six discs (that’s over 800 minutes) it’s certainly value for money, for action fans this is a must buy, Dragonball Z is an anime legend and no collection is complete without it. (5 stars)
Words > Jason Potter
In the year 2047 the Earth suffered a massive alien attack that wiped out all human cities and they are still struggling to recover. Humanity, having finally developed a counter-attack against the alien invaders, decides it’s time to strike back as solider Hiroshi Akishima sets about trying to take the aliens down in an act of revenge for his father who was killed in the early stages of the invasion.
Planzet is a CG animated anime film, which is a risky endeavour and shouldn’t really be attempted unless you’re sure you can deliver, as a crucial part of the appeal of such films is the animation quality. If the animation is not up to scratch you’re going to lose a large part of your audience straight away, and Planzet is a mostly positive work on this front as the mechas and the scenery are amazing, at times breath-takingly so, however at times the characters faces and facial animation (especially when compared with the voice acting emanating from them) seem not quite up to the high standard set by other CG animated films such as the visually stunning Final Fantasy VII: advent children, breaking the immersion some what.
Unfortunately with a slightly clichéd storyline and less than perfect visual display there’s not a lot to recommend Planzet for only CG or sci-fi nuts need apply. (2 stars)
Words > Jason Potter
Still hungry for more new anime? well get yourself down to the BFI Southbank for a special preview screening of the brand new anime movie Tiger & Bunny: The Beginning. It’s screening on 23 September at 5.50pm, the same weekend as its Japanese release. A spin off of the successful TV show it follows a superhero and his sidekick combat a vigilante criminal On an alternative Earth, superheroes are celebrities and a high-rating TV show ranks their achievements, awarding them points until an annual King of Heroes is crowned.
You can book tickets for the screening here.