Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Clannad (2007)

I came to Clannad principally because the second season, After Story (reviewed separately), is the highest rated show on the Anime News Network. Needless to say, user ratings should always be taken with a pinch of salt (as should any ratings), but After Story is highly rated on other sites as well. As someone with a general interest in good anime, this was enough to make me check it out, even as the character designs screamed their warnings at me.

Make no mistake: Clannad is moe. To be sure, the body designs look like adults (or teenagers) rather than children, but the facial design, particularly of the girls, is very much the big-eyed, tiny-mouthed stereotypes that most people associate with anime. This isn't the kind of thing I normally like, unless it's being spoofed (as in Lucky Star), but to get anything out of Clannad you'll have to be able to deal with it.

While we're counting potential black marks against the show, it should be said that Clannad is also a high-school romance. If you can't stomach school kids failing to communicate their feelings, this show may not be for you. And finally, the show is based on a visual novel (by Key/Visual Arts). Visual novels, for those who don't know, are basically role-playing games; they often fall into the dating-sim or erotic territory, though thankfully Clannad doesn't go there.

To summarize the list of preconceptions: Clannad is a visual novel-based moe-style high-school romance. That mixture has lead to some of the most dreadful examples of anime ever created, and would be more than enough to make some viewers avoid the series like the plague.

But the thing is, Clannad does what it does very well. While its various story arcs do have a certain feel of questing about them—solve the riddle of Fuko, make Kotomi come out of her shell and come to terms with her past, find a way to get the drama club established for Negisa—the writing introduces the various plot lines some time before they become the main focus, making the structure of the series as organic as it can be, rather than a succession of stages which need to be completed. Perhaps more importantly, there is never really any question that Tomoya will get together with Negisa; other possible romances are entirely one-sided affairs, and only really occupy two episodes late in the series (in which Toyoma is suitably flummoxed by the attention he's receiving). So Clannad avoids cheap 'Which one will he choose?' dramatics, and instead allows its two romantic leads to grow together gradually. (Three of the other romances are given room to breathe in two of the specials which accompany Clannad and After Story, but they are presented as just that: alternate romances in alternate realities).

The other thing that keeps Clannad from slipping into mediocrity (or worse) is that it has underlying theme: family. Tomoyo says in episode 18:

"When I say family, I don't necessarily mean your real family—it could be your friends instead. All that matters is that you have something like a family to support you."

From this perspective, pretty much the entire show is about family, be it Tomoya's estranged father, Negisa's crazy parents—who steal every scene they're in—or her favourite song (hell, one of the plays shown late in the series is Oedipus). Kotomi's arc is a good example: although concerned with her parents, it really involves her friends gathering around her to offer support, ultimately through actions rather than words. It ends up being far more subtle than 'Tomoya solves the problems of possible romantic partners', and Clannad should be commended for that.

Tomoya himself is a genuinely nice guy with a playful sense of humour (as is true of the series as a whole), and that helps the show considerably, not least in providing a fairly convincing reason why all these girls might be interested in him (rather than wish fulfilment of the player/viewer). And as for the girls themselves… Ryon wins the Complete Drip award, as Negisa (arguably) manages to grow a spine as the series progresses. Tomoya and Kyon, as the boisterous tsundere-types, are much more dynamic and fun. Tellingly, Kyon has to train the socially inept Kotomi in the art of delivering comebacks; so guess who is responsible for more comebacks over the course of the show? But all of them, detached as they are from their possible roles as romantic interests for Tomoya, fare better than they might have otherwise. Moe or not, Clannad is mainly focussed on friends doing things together.

(Incidental aside: Kyon and Ryon are twins, and mirror the twins Kagami and Tsukasa from Lucky Star, even down to the colour of their hair, and the fact both Complete Drips (Ryon and Tsukasa) have short hair and the tsundere types (Kyon and Kagami) have long hair. It must be a tradition, or an old charter, or something).

That isn't to say that it doesn't delve into melodrama and sentimentality, especially at the climaxes of Fuko's and Kotomi's arcs, launching into Clannad's Sentimental Music Cue™ and Emotional Fireworks Display™. Whenever this occurred, I found myself disappointed; the show is, for the most part, too well written and structured for such heavy-handedness. These emotional 'pay-offs' seem more like cop-outs to me, as if the writers were unwilling to let the stores play out to their natural conclusions, and instead felt obliged to offer viewer an Uplifting Resolution™. In both arcs, the journey is rather better than the destination, and that may be true of the show as a whole.

Special mention should also be made of the haunting 'Girl in the dying world' sections; these are probably my favourite sections of the series. The understated images, the narration of the little robot, and the tone of loneliness they set are simply another reason why those descents into sentimentality just don't work for me.

Ultimately, Clannad is an often funny, occasionally cute, sometimes sentimental, but always leisurely high-school romance, bolstered by a surprising thematic depth. It isn't as funny as Azumanga Daioh, as clever as Haruhi, or as bizarre as Lucky Star, nor as complex (and generally different) as His and Her Circumstances. To be sure, it doesn't exactly rise above its origins, but it does largely play them down, for the most part successfully. If you're going to make a visual novel-based moe-style high-school romance, Clannad is pretty much the way to do it.

After Story is an entirely different beast, however.
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Verdict: Very good: don't miss it. Really, unless those potential black marks I mentioned at the start are just too much for you, Clannad is definitely an enjoyable watch.

[Version watched: Region 1 English dub; review also posted at MyAnimeList]

Journalism in Der Spiegel #2: The apocalypse in anime and manga

The second of two articles lambasting journalism in Der Spiegel.
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While we're on the subject of poor journalism from Der Spiegel, I'd like to point to this recent article, published in the wake of the March 11 earthquake Japan. The basic idea here is that things like anime and manga, for all their weirdness to Western audiences, have now proven themselves to be a prediction of the future.

Let's take a look at what the article has to say about this picture, which it gives (my translation) the title Tsunami-Victim in Natori: As if lifted from a manga:

There is a photograph that a photographer took after the earthquake in the town of Natori. Before the earthquake some 70,000 people lived there; today the town has been reduced to rubble. In the picture, a girl cowers at the side of a road. She's perhaps 20 years old; hair dyed red, wearing a black jacket and hugging her naked legs, it looks as if the girl is freezing and she herself is the only thing she has left to hold on to. Next to her are a pair of wine-red Wellington boots, behind her the remains of civilization. As if Godzilla had trampled through the town.

To me, this is dreadful in several ways.

First of all, in an article which claims to be about the artificially of culture, the only way it seems able to view the suffering of this girl is through the lens of popular entertainment. Saying that it looks like something out of a comic book does not suggest much empathy.

Secondly, I'm quite sure that the photo looks the way it does because of that. The photographer, or editor, wanted to create an image which made you think of manga / anime. In that sense, the fault is not entirely with Der Spiegel, although they should have noticed the implicit manipulation.

But more importantly, the argument that Japanese popular culture is a prediction of such disasters is, to put it midly, completely arse-about-face. Yes, the geographical situation of Japan leaves it particularly susceptible to natural disasters, and the Japanese have always been aware of the fragility of their existence. But those recurring images of destruction in anime and manga? They're about something far more specific that has already happened.

Yes, you've guessed it: the two atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the USA at the end of the Second World War. Such manga, anime, and movies like Godzilla are not haunted by destruction because of an apocalypse that might happen, but because of the apocalypse that already has. I find it completely unfathomable that the author of the Spiegel article does not feel it necessary to mention this: the bombs are mentioned in passing, almost like inconvenient details which to not fit into the argument of the article. To be sure, some (recent) manga and anime do specifically predict what might happen in the event of an big earthquake in Japan, such as Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 or 51 Ways to Save Her. But these are really the exceptions; works like Akira , Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, and Neon Genesis Evangelion are far more representative, and in all of those the apocalypse has already happened. Talk about a hint.

This should be so obvious that it doesn't need pointing out. Yet despite discussing Nausicaä, it still doesn't occur to the author of the Spiegel article. But perhaps it explains why they find Japanese culture quite so weird.

Flag: The Movie

Just finished re-watching the movie version of Flag (which seems only to be available in German-speaking countries), and it is everything that Mind Game is not. I won't pretend to be writing a full review here, as that would hardly be fair with a 100-minute edit of a 13 episode series—and I can hardly assess the edit properly until I've seen the full series. But here's a couple of observations.

Firstly, the mecha elements of the show, which some people find inappropriate. Do we really need to have piloted robots in a UN-based operation set not too far in the future? Maybe not, but the robots here resemble the Tachikomas and Uchikomas of Ghost in the Shell (minus the artificial intelligence) more than they do the giant machines of Mobile Suit Gundam or Neon Genesis Evangelion. The HAVWCs of Flag are presented as if they are plausible developments of military hardware, powerful and maneuverable, but far from indestructible. On one level, they are an attempt to imagine what the conflicts of the near future might look like; on another, they are an attempt to reclaim the whole mecha genre from impossibly huge machines piloted by whining brats.

More importantly, the first person perspective—everything is seen through a lens—is not a gimmick. Flag is about the power of the image, and in particular the photographic image; to be constantly reminded that we are watching images is completely appropriate. In a sense, Flag is coldly objective in its resemblance to a documentary, stripping away (almost) all the usual bombast and noise associated with military drama. But not only that: by showing us what is seen through the viewfinder, rather than just the final product, we're being reminded that photography and film are a process, and at the same time that there is always a person behind the lens who sees.

This representation of photography is also a reference to traditional animation, and perhaps to film itself, which is precisely about using still images to create motion, narrative and meaning. Flag is at once a tribute to the camera, the media, and the operator, both in form and content.

As you might guess, I think that Flag is considerably more subtle that the military-political thriller it appears to be on the surface. Maybe at some point I'll attempt a more comprehensive and coherent review.

Mind Game, directed by Masaaki Yuasa


Synopsis


Nishi and Myon were shy sweet-hearts at school but haven't met for some years. Nishi visits Myon and her sister Yan, who run a cafe. While there, two thugs turn up looking for Myon and Yan's father, who is in trouble with the local mafia. One of the thugs goes berserk, attacks Myon, and shoots Nishi.

His spirit leaves his body and meets a constantly shape-shifting God, who informs Nishi that he's dead. Not wanting to accept this, Nishi forces his way back to life through sheer determination, and finds himself in the cafe a few seconds before his death. This time he kills the thug, and flees with the two girls. A car chase ensues; just as capture seems inevitable, the trio drive off a suspension bridge and are swallowed by a whale.

Inside the whale they meet an old man who has been stranded there for 30 years; he helps them to survive and encourages them to make the most of the situation.

Finally, they escape.

Review

I like arty and pretentious anime as much as the anyone. I think Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose seemingly innocuous mecha beginnings give way to stream-of-consciousness psychoanalyzing, is a high-water mark. Confusing or confused, it's worth it. And I'm a huge fan of Satoshi Kon's work, all of which pushes the limits of anime. I enjoy the challenging stuff.

So when I read several fairly glowing reviews of Mind Game, I was curious. But I'm not sure if we were all watching the same film. Yes, the art and animation are spectacular, shifting between contrasting styles with grace and ease. It's certainly a visual showcase. Yet none of the reviews mention the aspects I'm going to talk about below; and I'm inclined to think that beyond the artwork, Mind Game is really just art-house by numbers. Fill in the dots between seemingly edgy elements, and you'll have a great piece of cinema. Or not.

Take the characters. Nishi is a wannabe Manga-artist. Fine. Myon wanted to be a swimmer until her breasts got in the way. Um, fine. The old man prepares gourmet dinners and talks to his friends, the dinosaurs. Whatever. And Yan wants to be a performance artist and likes nothing more that taping balloons to her chest, covering herself with paint, and throwing herself at canvas. While trapped inside a whale. Er… what?

This is all meant to be psychedelic and avant-garde, I suppose. Subtle it isn't. For example: Nishi tells Myon a story about space explorers for whom the only source of food on the planet they were stranded on was alien excrement. But then it turns out that the space explorers were actually on a cell in Myon's body, and they grew larger until being flushed out of her system. You can imagine the details, I'm sure. This charming tale has the inexplicable effect of seducing Myon; I can only suppose that her eyes were so clouded with love that saw in it the unrestrained imagination of her beau, and that the story was meant to have the same effect on the viewer. Personally, I just thought it was tasteless.

Duly seduced, Myon and Nishi have sex. Fortunately, there isn't any nudity, as their bodies dissolve into a kaleidoscope of lines, colours and images. Unfortunately, this sequence resembles nothing so much as a 1969 sketch by Monty Python: trains entering tunnels and then crashing, waves lashing against the shore, that sort of thing. Only in the sketch, we ultimately pan away to reveal an inept guy playing the film to his increasingly frustrated girlfriend. See, the Python sketch is a parody. Which says a lot for the sequence in Mind Game.

It's as if the whole thing is trying too hard to be different, to be absurd, to be psychedelic. Towards the end all four of the main cast pool their resources to escape, rowing as hard as they can through the water-filled stomach of the whale—until their boat is broken. With only the momentum to carry them forward, they use whatever comes their way as leverage to propel them forwards: bits of wood... fish... a fly... Onwards they run, as the whale swallows successively large objects: a ship, an airplane (which explodes behind them), an office block, which Nishi has to navigate his way through, leaping over tables and through windows…

Then finally we see a almost identical stream of images to those which opened the movie, only with slight differences; so whereas at the start Myon caught her foot in the door of an underground train, now she doesn't. This is art-house by numbers again: repeat the same four minutes of footage with minor changes and in so doing give 'meaning' to the changes. What it actually means is not actually the issue; the fact that it's meaningful is all that's important.

In the end, Mind Game is a hodgepodge of highbrow and lowbrow; of comments about breast size and toilet jokes combined with literary references and pseudo-symbolism. Perhaps it wants to exploit the contrast in a kind of cinematic magical realism; but in my view it fails completely. Nothing represents the film better than Yan's paint dancing: it wants to be art, but it's mired in vulgarity.

Bought, watched, and offered for sale on amazon marketplace before I'd even finished it.
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Verdict: Weak; I wish I'd done something better with my time. It's merits are few and far between.

(Review also available at MyAnimeList; cover image taken from there).

International Anime

Just finished listening to the English language commentary to Appleseed Ex Machina, which is in many ways more interesting than the movie itself. There's a great deal of discussion about the traditional approach of anime, the movement towards computer-generated imagery (CGI), and the increasing acceptance of anime in America. Appleseed Ex Machina is the most Americanised anime I've ever seen, so it's no surprise that its creators think that the future of anime lies in the catering for the American market—standard set-pieces, familiar scenarios, psuedo-realism, and high-testosterone action. None of which is to deny that there have always been examples of anime with these qualities: but the speakers on the commentary regard them as being essential to the future of anime. The relative failure of Paprika and Metropolis on the American market is mentioned, and one speaker expresses his regret that they didn't contain the kind of things which the 'average' movie-goer expects, as that undoubtedly contributed to their failure.

Now, I enjoyed Appleseed Ex Machina for what it was—a dumb action movie. And in my opinion, Paprika is not Satoshi Kon's best work, and Metropolis is not the best thing which Katsuhiro Otomo has been involved with. But both are worth a hundred thousand of Appleseed Ex Machina. Why? Because neither are anything like your average Hollywood movie. Saying that either should have included more set-pieces is, frankly, like complaining that Solaris didn't have any gun battles, or Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? didn't have enough clowns. That simply isn't what they were trying to do.

So much is obvious enough to anyone who isn't viewing such things from a commercial perspective, but the discussion got me thinking about something else. One of the most important things to realise about anime is, as one speaker suggests, that it isn't a genre: it's a media. That is, it's a way of creating cinematic footage which spans every possible genre—from children's programmes to drama to ultra-porn. And that freedom from the Western prejudice that animation is for kids is one of the reasons that anime is so refreshing, and why movies like Spirited Away work on so many levels—because it isn't a kid's movie with jokes thrown in to keep the adults happy (the sort of thing Dreamworks seems to specialise in). It's a movie. Period.

Oh, and Miyazaki is a genius. There's that too ;-)

The problem is that it's only one of the reasons. It may be true, but if you reduce anime to a media and nothing else then you run the risk of killing everything else that makes anime different. If anime is merely a media, then it can be produced anywhere, by anybody. But anime is also Japanese cinema, and you can no more transplant that than you can French cinema. Sure, you can try and imitate what you think are the characteristics, but you'll never be able to truly create such movies from outside of the tradition itself. And the moment you start catering for a different kind of audience, and trying to second-guess their expectations, you end up with something that is neither great anime (even if it has great animation) nor the blockbuster you're hoping for. It'll be to weird for Joe Sixpack and to bland for the fans.

Just look at my post from a couple of days ago. The German dub feels it necessary for the main characters to declare their love for each other at the end of the movie. The original Japanese has them merely say that they will wait for each other. Why? Because we simple Europeans need closure. We're not capable of reading between the lines. Or take Spirited Away. In the Japanese version, Chihiro spends most of the movie trying to remember where she knows her friend Haku from, because it's buried deep in her memory. She surprises herself when, as she tries to aid a wounded dragon, she calls it Haku. And her final remembrance of their previous meeting it essential to the conclusion. But in the English version she recognises Haku to be a dragon in human form almost from the start. An entire layer of the story is clipped out for no other reason than that it would be too subtle and too difficult for children to understand.

We expect everything to be straightforward, neatly packaged, and satisfactorily explained. We like our male heroes gung-ho, and our gun-toting women to still be feminine. In Appleseed Ex Machina, when Deunan is trying on a new suit of armour, Briareos asks how she likes it—in the Japanese version at least. In English, he comments that he'd be wearing it if it wasn't pink. It might be minor, and it might be nit-picking, but something which wasn't worthy of comment in the original becomes an excuse for macho stereotypes in the dub.

It is necessary, but not sufficient, to realise that anime is not a genre. Anime is many other things besides. And no matter how well-meaning its proponents, if they try to make it adapt to the American market, they risk stripping it of all the characteristics which attracted us foreigners to it in the first place.
I don't think I'm capable, to tell you the truth, of making a commercial record, because it wouldn't be very good. It would fall between two stools. It wouldn't be me and it wouldn't be really commercial. It would be a pile of glutinous crap in the middle.
—Richard Thompson.

The art of translation

Been watching the excellent The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which I could only get hold of in German since it hasn't yet been properly released on the English market. I don't understand the original Japanese (needless to say) but I did notice a bizarre discrepancy between the dub and the subtitles in the final climatic scene. Be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Here's the subtitled version, along with approximate translations:

Chiaki: Ich warte in der Zukunft. (I'll be waiting in the future.)
Matoko: Ich komme sofort. Ich laufe dahin! (I'll come immediately. I'm on my way.)

And the dubbed version:

Chiaki: Ich warte in der Zukuft. (I'll be waiting in the future.)
Matoko: Ich komme bestimmt. Ich liebe Dich! (I'll be there. I love you!)
Chiaki: Ich Dich auch. (I love you too.)

Gah. What on earth possessed them to add that to the end? I might not know any Japanese, but I do know that Chiaki did not say anything at the point where the German dub added the final line. This sort of thing is almost insulting, as if we're are too dumb to get the idea without it being laid out on a plate for us.

Mind you, maybe it's a German thing. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's last movie, correctly called A Very Long Engagement, hit the German cinemas as Mathilde—A Big Love. So I guess the movie got off lightly. At least it didn't end up being called A Love That Transcends Time or something similarly crass.

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