Film Night: The Host

Oh hey, let’s see if I can actually finish one of these posts.

After lurking a bit on reddit, I found a thread about Korean films. The Host was mentioned, and I remembered seeing it as a teenager, so I wanted to check if I still liked it. Well?

The Host is a good film.

Actually, it’s a fucking amazing one. I like it way more now than I did way back when I saw it for the first time.

This Korean monster film is one I watched as a young lad, and just found again. It’s a spectacular blend of drama, thriller, horror, comedy and all other manners of genre.

After an opening scene where an American scientist brow-beats his Korean assistant into dumping dangerous chemicals which will end up in the Han River, we start by following our primary protagonist, Gang-du, and his family (his father and his daughter), during what seems like a normal day. That’s until a huge fish-monster barrels into view and starts wreaking havoc. The scenes are harrowing and feel very real in the way that people react during a catastrophe. Some are paralysed with fear, some run, some act, etc. Seeing as it’s a monster film, naturally people die in quite awful ways.

In the opening chaos, Gang-du’s daughter is grabbed by the beast and pulled underwater, presumed dead. However, she manages to call him, and so Gang-du and his dysfunctional family get together to try to save his daughter.

The family is made up by a pretty odd mix of characters. Gang-du is quite the slow individual. He’s very lethargic and is seen as a failure by his siblings. Nam-il is the member of the family that managed to get through school. However, he’s ended up unemployed and is eager to be seen as a competent individual, especially by his family. Nam-Joo is the successful sibling, competing on a high level in archery. The father, Hie-bong is a soft old man who loves his children, especially Gang-du in an attempt to make up for his poor parenting in his younger days (such as being the cause for his son’s disabilities). Hyun-seo is Gang-du’s daughter, a headstrong little lady whose disappearance brings the family together again.

All members of the family are very good, but special mentions have got to go to Kang-ho Song (who is absolutely brilliant as the dim Gang-du, giving him so much life on the screen and playing the different aspects of his personality so well) and Hee-Bong Byun (playing the patriarch of the family, who has a heart-wrenching monologue and shows the warmth and solidity of a father who’s the balancing force of the family). The film itself is a lot more focused on the bonds between the family members than it is about the monster, so they had to be likeable and well-acted both, and the cast pulls this off. They all have their pros and cons, which culminates in a spectacular final sequence.

Credit has to go to writer-director Bong Joon Ho, who expertly flows several different genres together, often in the same scene, as he does in the film as a whole. You can go from crying to smiling at the awkward comedy to cowering in terror withing short time-spans, as the film shifts gears very quickly.

Worth mentioning is that the film has a very strong anti-authoritarian vibe. People in charge in the film are often dipshits and treat our lovable fools like garbage. There’s a very devious scene where Gang-du is played like a fiddle by a foreign person, that quickly turns very dark. Speaking of foreign, while there’s an American that is a swell bloke in the film, most of it’s English speakers are portrayed as nigh-on moustache-twirling pieces of shit. Not that I mind, but it’s clearly a theme.

Finally, some words on the monster, seeing as it’s a monster film of sorts. The humongous fish-monster is terrifying as hell when up close. The CGI is a bit wonky at times and feels like frames are left out. It’s especially ugly in the distance, but it generally animates well up close. The monster doesn’t have much in the way of motivation, and that’s just fine.

All in all, I highly recommend this terrific film for just about anyone. It ticks most boxes for anyone stepping into a cinema and so I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t give it a shot.

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Anime-time: Zankyou no Terror

Oh, hey, I watched a relatively new anime, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand

Zankyou no Terror is a good anime.

First of all, let’s begin with this, so you’re not tricked into thinking this is a show about terrorism and the morals around it. Because it isn’t. It really isn’t anything I expected when going into it.

Whether or not I recommend it, is a bit of a complicated question, but I’ll ultimately say no. There are definitely some good – even very good – parts to this story, but I just can’t recommend it. Or can I? I mean, fuck, it’s difficult, alright?

Going to deep into what the story is actually about is kind of risking spoilers, but I’ll try a spoiler-free version: Zankyou no Terror is about connectivity. Not just between two people, or about someone who’s on the outside of societal norms, but a society. Also, it’s about the Japanese climate and generational gaps, in a post-war society (even if the show has a modern setting). It’s just a shame there’s so much in the way to actually get to that. Well, technically it’s always there, but it’s just not “stated” that that’s what it’s about. Sure, us viewers have to read into things as they happen, but sometimes it can’t help to kinda lead us to what were supposed to get out of it. Eh.

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Twelve and Nine, read from the left.

 

Anyway, ZnT centres on a duo of young men, Nine and Twelve, who fashion themselves terrorists with a cause. Nine is the classic silently intelligent bad-ass you often see in anime. Twelve is another stereotype – the hyper individual, with a magnetism that pulls people to him. Initially Twelve seems to have the interesting twist of being a psychotic emotional manipulator, but that quickly goes away to reveal a pretty normal guy, minus the terrorism angle. I won’t go too much into the attacks and repercussions themselves, but I will say that the show definitely veers hard away from very serious terrorism stuff – is, I guess, how I’ll put it. They call themselves Sphinx 1 and 2, and the series starts with them stealing a nuclear device. After that, they go to record and upload videos with them forecasting bombings, and basically daring the cops to do anything about it. They challenge the police to solve puzzles related to Greek mythology. So, those of us who aren’t read up on Sophocles’ Oedipus just get to kick back and watch the story unfold.

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Nine and Twelve in their Sphinx getup.

 

Among the police trying to solve Sphinx’ riddles is former detective Shibazaki, who got taken off the force in the past for investigating police corruption. He’s the series’ most interesting character, in that he actually has a fully developed character. He feels like a more mature L Lawliet, without the eccentricity. He knows what man-made disasters can do to a country, and will go far to stop Sphinx’ plans.

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Shibazaki, intellectually confronting Sphinx, in a revealing moment for both sides.

Into this mess, Lisa Mashima is pulled. She’s a schoolgirl that’s bullied by the other girls and seems to generally hate life. Her mother seems incredibly  Twelve injects himself into her life, which has huge consequences on both of their lives. There is potential to the Lisa character, for sure. She could have offered another, but still parallel, viewpoint to the Sphinxes’, and help to further explore all three characters. That doesn’t really happen, though, or at least not soon enough. She plays the damsel in distress and is portrayed as being quite ridiculously useless. Her bad cooking is played for laughs, because anime stereotype. Her arc ends up in a pretty good place before the series crashes and burns at the end.

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Lisa, unwittingly pulled into a plot that could shake the foundations of the country.

The story is excellently animated. Absolutely gorgeous. The music is also a stand-out, behind which is industry veteran Yoko Kanno. One song has guest vocals from the vocalist of one of my favourite bands, Agent Fresco (whom you should definitely check out, yo). The soundtrack does its job superbly well, and adds to some very good scenes.

You know what? Fuck it, I’ll recommend it. If you can bear the really bad (“the bad”, obviously being relative to what you enjoy from your anime) of this show, there’s a story there that kinda deserves to be seen. To quote myself from earlier, because I can, “It’s just a shame there’s so much in the way to actually get to that.” Cut a couple of episodes, especially the parts with the nonsensical and oh-so-uninteresting villain that you can see a mile away after watching the first episode if you’ve seen a couple of anime series’ before (seriously, the villain and its cadre, and its actions and reactions from the local police are fucking terrible ends up being a ridiculously awful addition), and focus on the more personal and cultural story. Hell, it could have worked very well as a longer feature film at like 2 hours or so.

All in all, it’s a troubled, yet good anime that has something to say , even if its message gets a bit lost in between its sometimes crazy antics. It’s not getting a whole-hearted recommendation, but I think it’s worth checking out. At the very least, it at least tries to stand out from most other anime released today, and that’s worth something.

Why so series?: The Newsroom

The Newsroom is one of the best examples I’ve ever come across that completely subverts what you think it will be, and surprises you with its quality. See, a couple of days before watching it, I thought the show had one of the worst concepts ever. “Who the fuck would want to watch a show about producing the news?”

After seeing it, I think it’s worth watching.

The Newsroom is a good series.

It’s in fact a fabulous one.

I was randomly watching youtube-clips during the evening and came across a couple of videos with great speeches. That great Chaplin speech and then finally finding this speech. It’s the first scene of the damn series, and completely sold me on the main character, as well as the tone of the series.

Before that, I thought it was a random comedy show, about a jerk reporting the news. Like House, but the news. Boy was I wrong. The Newsroom is a brilliant and thoroughly riveting show about the news and how it should be produced and why being responsible with what you produce is so important (proven in the uneven, but very good second season). But really, I could go on for a long while, when the thing you really need to do to gauge if this show is likely for you – is browse for some more Will McAvoy segments where he’s railing on people/subjects. They don’t give you a window into all the series entails, but help you understand the tone and what the series is about.

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Don and Mac after an exhausting newscast

As the series starts, Will is doing a good job in keeping his popularity only. He’s scared of letting people know that he’s a bit of an arse in private, and mainly produces fluff TV on his newscast. A sharp contrast from when he first took over on the channels 9/11 newscast, when he was only the show’s legal counsel and had to step in when not ready at all. However, after the speech that I liked to earlier, there’s a change.

Will returns to find most of his crew leaving to the newscast the follows Will’s with its new anchor (basically Will’s protégé) and his former EP (Executive Producer – the one who feeds info to the anchor and directs the show) and thus leaving him with a skeleton crew to produce a show. His boss, Charlie, tells him that he’s hired a new EP – MacKenzie McHale. Of course there’s a catch, and the catch is that “Mac” used to be Will’s long-time girlfriend. The pair of them both anchor (bwahaha) a reborn Newsnight with a mostly new crew and new direction.

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Charlie

That’s the show, basically. Watching the successes and failures, the trials and tribulations of making a newscast: Collecting the information, checking the sources, making sure you have everything at least double-checked, writing the script, planning out the show, finding and vetting eventual guests, and so on. It’s a wonderful thrill at times, which was a pleasant surprise to myself.

The cast then, which is mostly brilliant and many were unknown – at least to me:

Jeff Daniels pulls out some of his finest work to play Will McAvoy, in all his glorious ass-hattery and the odd caring moments. He’s a supremely clever former attorney-turned-news anchor with a razor wit. The show sees Will try to go from being a miserable bastard towards a self-improving man with ambition. It’s lovely to see him improve with the show’s (that is, the show within the series) gradually increasing quality as he learns the importance of the people around him and how it’s more important to be genuine than to pretend being someone else to be well-liked.

MacKenzie “Mac” McHale acts as the fuel initially for Will to return to form. She has a very idealised, yet realistic, view on how the news should be reported. She and Will have many arguments about how the show should be presented and reported and are both equally stubborn in supporting their own position. She was a war correspondent before the start of the series. She brings a lot of the series’ comedic relief. Played by the wonderful Emily Mortimer. (Weirdly, Mac’s supposed to be in her early thirties in the show, while Mortimer is clearly in her forties)

There’s a bunch of great supporting players as well:

  • John Gallagher as Jim Harper, Mac’s producer friend from her days in the war. Clever and sometimes abrasive, he’s a hard worker who’s instrumental in turning News Night’s fortunes around.
  • Dev Patel as Neal Sampat, who starts the show as just the editor of Will’s blog (which Will didn’t even know existed back then) and grows more confident and gains more trust from the rest of the crew.
  • Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith, the economics reporter, who gets gradually better at dealing with people from the rather cold person she starts out as. Has some incredibly hilarious scenes.
  • Sam Waterston as Charlie Skinner, who probably should be a bigger mention, but there’s so much overlap between his and Mac’s character that there’s not too much to say about just him. He’s the one that got the ball rolling for the gang’s sometimes literally quixotic quest for a better newscast. Has some absolutely banging lines.
  • Allison Pill as Maggie Jordan, the character with possibly the most growth of the show. She starts out as very meek and ends up being a very confident woman in charge of herself and some others. Similarly a great and awful character, in that she’s either randomly the solution to problems or nonsensically put in situations to fuck things up completely.
  • Thomas Sadoski as Don Keefer, Will’s former EP and a brilliant jack-ass. A very hard worker when he wants to be, and surprises his co-workers by being just as passionate about the news being reported correctly as the other crew.

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    A meeting to decide what to feature on the show

I’ve almost only been on about positives so far, but there are some negatives. Some episodes can be a bit of a slog as not every news-story is absolutely riveting.

There’s also the other negatives for me: The romantic sub-plots. I get it, okay – romance is a good source for drama and conflict, and I don’t have anything against it being on a screen. But when it takes up substantial amounts of time and thus weakening other segments, it can, and did, become a problem. One of these sub-plots that keep getting in the way is the sometimes love-triangle around Maggie.

One of my favourite things about the show is the usage of real-world news to comment on. There’s the BP oil-spill, Osama bin Laden killing, Presidential elections and so on. It makes for a much better show than if they tried fake news or concurrent news to use for the shows.

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Will and Sloan

 

 

I could go on, but I probably wouldn’t add anything more to interest you in the show, so I’ll stop here. I’ll just say that I’ve been very positively surprised by this gem of a show, and I hope you will find it as good as I did. I’m re-watching episodes when writing this, and I’m getting really excited about watching it back in a few years. Really unique and excellent television, and obviously highly recommended.

Good evening.

Film Night: Captain America: The First Avenger

Since I made my way through Agent Carter already (more on that when I can be arsed), I figured I may as well watch the first CA-film to get a bit more back-story on her. Now, I wish I hadn’t.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a bad film.

To no great surprise, mind you. I remember the film being destroyed by critics when it came out, and while i don’t usually give a shit about what critics think, they made a lot of alarm bells go off. Or rather, they confirmed what I thought the film would be like.

CA:TFA is the origin film for Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. And it’s just about as bad and patriotic as you would have imagined. It’s like Marvel got drunk and watched Pearl Harbor before deciding to make a character based on it. That said, I’m pretty sure Cap was create earlier. Sorry, my point is that the character is hilariously dated and awful.

The film chronicles Rogers’ rise from hilariously thin kid trying to sign up for the army, to being made the Captain and saving the world.

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The fated face-off between bland protagonist and bland antagonist.

Rogers is an all-round swell guy. His parents died and he’s wanting to make a difference. Clearly signing up for the army is the answer. There’s just the fact that he’s thinner than even most hardcore shut-ins and has had numerous diseases throughout his life. Nobody with common sense would admit him to be a soldier. But of course it can’t end there! So a German (so the film can get the Germans!=Nazis statement out of the way for posterity right away) scientist (played by Stanley Tucci) decided to overrule the dastardly army recruiters and signs up Rogers for an army project under the lead of the SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve, or something like that). There are some tests, which don’t amount to much considering Rogers fails them all (but hey, at least he failed them in a charming way) and still gets picked for the trial run of the super soldier project.

In an especially stupid scene, to gauge the recruits’ “guts,” Tommy Lee Jones’ army commander character throws a dummy grenade into the hard-working trainees. Everybody but Rogers runs away. Instead, Rogers tries to cover the grenade. Agent Carter (the very one who now is the lead of a TV series, yes) also appears to be heading towards the blast. This is apparently what Jones’ character was looking for. Suicidal people. Like, what the fuck, aren’t you supposed to avoid getting killed? Can you smother a grenade blast with nothing but your body? I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing, especially not possible for someone of Rogers’ small frame. But we’re here to watch a hero grow, aren’t we? So we’ll have to suck it up and check of another cliché as we are lead on.

The problems continue as the stupidity levels get higher and higher.

  • A HYDRA (bad guys) spy is allowed entry to the super secret super soldier (super super super) project, and kills the lead scientist.
  • Carter snipes a guy at least fifty meters away while aiming a pistol with one hand. Probably possible, but looks dumb as shit (a real agent would have used both hands).
  • Carter inexplicably falls for Rogers, despite having only met him like twice, and only ever sharing a couple sentences with him. Not to forget, she totally gets all wet for him after the transformation. Because nothing gives a woman an orgasm like huge muscles. What I’m trying to say, is that Carter is written like you’d expect. She’s a young little foal for Cap to hug and make her his. Or something. The point is that it’s lazy, unoriginal, sexist and plain bad writing.
  • Cap decides to go on a suicide mission, because suddenly he’s an army of one. He succeeds very easily, too. Of course Carter (because, as she says later “I had faith”. IN ONE MAN AGAINST SEVERAL HUNDRED NAZIS ROCKING FUTURISTIC WEAPONRY? HOW ARE YOU AN ACTUAL AGENT?) helps him out. As does Howard Stark, because he needs the screen-time. And he’s an amazing pilot for reasons.
  • Jones’ character decides that Cap should not get reprimanded for launching a crazy mission, risking losing one of the most valuable medicinally scientific advances… ever? Yeah, just give him a pat on the back, there, bruv.
  • Natalie Dormer shows up to be eye candy and kiss the Cap.
  • All other characters are caricatured stereotypes of soldiers. One even has a huge handlebar ‘stache.
  • To test a shield, Carter just starts shooting at Rogers. Would have been quite the shame if the shield was shit, huh?
  • Rogers’ buddy falls to his death and hardly anybody gives a shit. Rogers tries to drink, because that’s the adult thing to do. Nope, he can’t get drunk. So sad. And lost in it all is the fact that we never saw the two being very friendly at all. In fact, it seemed more like the guy was being an ass to Rogers.
  • Schmidt/Red Skull is supposed to be a great scientist and so very clever, but he’s pathetically outwitted at every twist and turn. There’s no conflict.
  • Rogers spontaneously learns how to fly a plane later when he has to catch up to Red Skull. He even pulls evasive manoeuvres. I’d laugh if I wasn’t so bored.
  • Rogers states that he doesn’t want to kill Nazis in the beginning of the film, but later kills a ton with reckless abandon. He even goes out of his way to kill some that he could have just knocked out. Some violence is all of a sudden very gratuitous for some reason. Like the dude falling into the plane rotor.
  • “I got to put her in the water,” Cap says of the plane he’s aboard, it being armed with missiles and all. Then he crash-lands on a huge flat of ice. What the fuck, wouldn’t that explode the missiles? And I’m pretty sure with the velocity he’s going, the surface of the water would shred that plane.
  • (Slight spoiler) When Bucky dies, it’s painfully obvious that he’s wired up, as he straightens up and then falls over again as he’s falling. Couldn’t get a better take than that?

The acting is so-so. Chris Evans didn’t ever look comfortable in the role. He was much better in The Avengers (where he’s made to look smarter and actually competent as a leader). Hayley Atwell is wasted as a love-struck Agent Carter (very different from her strong, independent persona in her own series). Dominic Cooper exudes arrogance and charisma as Howard Stark. Well casted, but he had little to do in the film.

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Tommy Lee Jones turns up to collect a pay-check. Stanley Tucci is decent, but has very limited screen-time. Toby Jones quietly pulls out a great performance as Red Skull’s subordinate, Dr. Zola. And Hugo Weaving plays the Nazi antagonist in a suitably over-the-top creepy manner.

The actions scenes are stupid and over-choreographed. Danger never feels present, as characters are always waiting for cues as to what to do next. It’s stale, unimaginative and just plain boring.

And that’s about it. Don’t watch this film, y’all.

Manga Musings: Naruto

Holy shit, it’s finally over.

So, Naruto. One of the Big Three (joined by Bleach and One Piece), unless their status has changed. No matter, though. Anyway, I did use the word “finally,” indicating that it’s something I’ve waited for for some time now. It’s true. Somewhere along the line, the sheer length and meandering pace got me turned off of Naruto, so it was a happy moment when I noticed that it had ended, since I’d give me a reason to pick it up again. Like running, it’s easier to read when you have a goal. So, what about this ninja story, 15 years in the making?

Naruto is a good manga.

By VitalikLoL over at deviantart

This’ll have two parts – one with no to minimal spoilers, and a second, spoiler-filled part.

Having its start way back in 1999, Naruto is one of the modern successors of Dragon Ball, in theway it places its values and builds its story. Like Goku, Naruto starts out virtually alone. Naruto, though, is alone because of the fear the other villagers holds for him. You see, inside Naruto dwells a monster – A monstrous nine-tailed fox that nearly levelled the village before it was sealed into Naruto. Despite his social seclusion, Naruto has a dream: To become Hokage, recognised as the most powerful ninja in the village. And so starts the trials and tribulations of Naruto. He’s quickly placed in a team with Sakura, a girl he’s liked from a distance for a time; Sasuke, the sole surviving member in the village of the incredibly powerful ninja clan Uchiha; and Kakashi, a world-renowned ninja with an unorthodox teaching style. Together, they form Team 7 and go on missions and adventures together.

It’s kind of hard to judge the story of Naruto at first, because it’s kind of aimlessly chronicling the growth of Naruto into a more mature young man (he’s not even a teenager when the manga starts). It’s an interesting set-up for a shounen manga, considering it puts the characters in situations where they have to kill as they are just children. But the ninja world has not a care for your age, just your capability- is what I’d like to say, but good luck pushing out 700 chapters of a bleak, survivalist manga through Weekly Shounen Jump. Naruto instead falls into its oft-criticised “befriend them to death”-formula, where Naruto’s sheer perseverance and good-heartedness lights a path to victory. Maybe it sounds like I’m dissing it, but I really like it – to a point. The first part is a very strong manga, thanks to some great character work and rather brave story-telling that you don’t normally see in straight shounens.

To the characters, then. Surely the most important aspect of a long manga. Does Naruto succeed in creating memorable characters that keep you coming back? The answer is obviously yes, due to its enormous popularity, but in a very limited way. Hardly any characters except for the main quartet gets any real development, and one in the quartet itself is so poorly written it feels like an affront to manga in general.

“How’s Naruto, then? Surely the main character is well written?” Yeah, I’d say so, and I’d say that Kishimoto succeeds in having the story led by Naruto’s motivations and actions, rather than Naruto always being led around the nose. That said, he’s uncompromising in a way that is endearing at first, but becomes ridiculous naïvety as the manga grows older. Like with almost all other aspects of the story, Naruto’s growth through the story doesn’t work with the growth of the readers. Say you were 15 when Naruto started. You’re 30 now. Still, the tone of the manga and the characters have hardly moved an inch. It’s weird. I’m an adult now, but Naruto’s still a kid with training-wheels. Harsh, yes, but so was reading the final act.

A lot of that can be simply attributed to the fact that Naruto is just a young man throughout the manga, even if he does grow up, to an extent. But his growth is made nearly void at times, with other characters having become leaps and bounds more mature and responsible. While he’s still young, a lot of the focus of the manga is pointed at young ninjas having to grow up quick or die.

As far as the character itself, Naruto can be looked at quickly and have you say “he’s just another stupid, strong lead character.” Thing is, Naruto is about as far from that trope as you’ll get in shounen manga, while still being forced into its trenches. He’s brash, crude and very rash, yes, but he’s also very intelligent and compassionate. He can both plan ahead and come up with tactics in a hurry, given him being very flexible. That’s what makes it even more frustrating when Kishimoto makes him into a staunch redeemer who basically befriends people to death. Where’s the Naruto that makes tough calls for the greater good (the greater good)? He sure isn’t in this manga. Having been possessed by the Kyuubi since birth, you’d expect Naruto to be more pessimistic at least some of the time, and make some bad decisions out of old hatred. But we can’t have darker character development, can we, Kishimoto? That’s not to say that Naruto doesn’t have his share of dark moments, but I feel it’s an area that was sorely unexplored.

As for the other main characters:

Kakashi is the team leader, and the adult of the group. Having become a high-level ninja at a young age, he knows how to make tough decisions and has no great qualms about killing. As a teacher, he is strict, but loving, and comes to see his three trainees as children with time. He’s calm and collected, nearly always finding time in battle to come up with a plan to strike. He’s also obsessed with reading a certain romantic series that later becomes embraced as a running gag and story development. He’s also got a special tool – one of his eyes house a special eye (kind of hard to explain, but special eyes basically make you able to use better ninja-techniques) that allows him to easily see his opponents’ moves and intercept them with incredible speed. Being a high-level ninja, Kakashi is proficient in every sort of jutsu (technique, as in “ninjutsu” = ninja technique) around, and he seems to have virtually no weaknesses.

Sasuke is a pretty standard shounen cool-guy character. He’s handsome, calm and collected, and of course he’s incredibly talented. He’s also got a bloodline limit (aka a power limited to those who share a specific bloodline) that is ridiculously powerful, and whose evolution throughout the series becomes even more and more far-fetched. I went from initially hating Sasuke, to actually kind of accepting him, and then hating him again. What’s frustrating with Sasuke is that, like many other characters in the series, his rationale and actions are haphazardly altered to fit the story. This leads to some awful reasons for his actions and his constant switching between good and evil, which grows extremely tiresome. It’s also hilariously predictable to see where he’s going to end up, so most of his scenes become a drag.

Onto Sakura, the most frustrating part of the main cast. Is it because Sakura is a bad character? Well, duh. Sakura is this series’ damsel in distress. That’s not to say that she’s absolutely useless, or that she doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, because she does have some good moments. But it’s all brought down due to her basically being a love-slave to Sasuke. Whether he tries to off her or is just being a standoffish douche-hat, Sakura is perpetually enamoured with him. Even as she grows up to be a (supposedly) more mature young lady, she still clings to this saddening pretence of what love’s supposed to be. The subject of love in manga/anime is almost always a source of vitriol for me, as it’s almost always written abominably bad. The Sakura-Sakuke dynamic is another one of those. At least the series’ other major (major being arguable) romantic angle, Hinata being into Naruto, has some legs to stand on (despite how rarely Hinata has any meaningful part in the plot) as she actually gives reasons for being in love with our goofy lead man. Sakura’s like a programmed woman, designed to submit herself whenever Sasuke shows up. It’s kind of a slap in the face where Sakura ends up after having been given no deeper explanation during the series’ 700 effin’ chapter run. I think ladies reading Naruto will feel insulted, and with good reason. I don’t think Kishimoto hates women, but I do think he’s clueless to how to write them.

Most of the supporting cast are what they need to be and are playing their simple roles. There’s the gutsy ones, the comedy relief ones, the cool ones, the smart ones, and so on. It’s very standard fare for shounen manga.

Finishing up with art: It’s nice. Sorry, I’m not an artist. The initial art starts out very so-so, as Kishimoto is finding his style, and moves on to be quite sleek and very pretty. The backgrounds can be quite lazy, but it’s not my biggest complaint, so no bother.

Finishing up the spoiler-free part, Naruto isn’t really something I’d recommend for anyone else but someone who wants to read a big shounen adventure. Naruto might be right up your alley, or you might absolutely hate it. I’ve learned to tolerate it, and think there are enough redeeming qualities in it (I mean, I finished 700 chapters of this saga) to warrant a passing grade. Naruto uses a lot of build-up that ends up going nowhere and/or being shafted for more “acceptable” reading. I get the reasoning, but it’s not for me any longer.

I’m looking to go more into the ninja theme with Nabari no Ou next, for what it’s worth.

Alright, lads. Spoilers are on from now. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

Naruto‘s main problem to me is the lack of a focus, as it just leads to five different plots at once. Naruto going off on his own and other characters given time as well. The second part of Naruto is the glaring example of this. After the time-skip, characters just haven’t changed in general, which makes it pretty fucking meaningless.

Most arcs after the time-skip are sooooooo looooong, and the ninja war being the biggest offender. Everybody gets a mega level-up and are epic-ing their faces off at everything moving and it’s just become so blasé at this point. The Akatsuki arc has a promising start, but loses traction very early and just spins it’s wheels until Naruto shows up to pummel it to dust, with kindness. Sigh. Technically it lasts until the end, but nobody really thought of the ending as Naruto vs Akatsuki, did they? Thought so.

Also, how many training arcs are there? Man, Naruto stood on its own legs for a while, and then went complete Dragon ball with the characters’ developments.

The final pairings are also a complete joke in some aspects. Sasuke and Sakura being married has to be the most abusive relationship ever. I’m okay with Kakashi being named Hokage, even if it didn’t seem like a role he’d ever want to have. Others are just paired together due to fan demand, which I guess works.

Like many people, I think the series lost its way somewhere after the time-skip (even if the final arc before that was hilariously bad).

Animu-time: Free!

So, I wanted a light-hearted anime to get me back into the medium after finishing my Game of Thrones-marathon. I had previously watched some of Ergo Proxy, but it felt a bit dark to hop into after GoT’s overbearing nature. I’m not sure what I expected out of it when I started watching, but

Free! is a good anime.

free_socially-wut

And there’s really not too much more to say about it. KyoAni basically made K-ON (just going by what I’ve seen and impressions, as I haven’t actually seen K-ON!)but with dudes in tight clothing and swimming.

The story of Free! is about as simple as it gets, seeing as this is a sports anime in a school setting. There’s a group of people who like a sport. The sport happens to be competitive swimming. They start a club at their school (Do Japanese people not have local or regional clubs on youth levels? It seems like there’s always in-school clubs that are the go-to places to train. Then again, maybe I’m one of the minority of people here.) They go through some stuff to be able to start the club and get members, and then it’s off to the races (literally) after a training arc. The writing is usually pretty good, and there was some intrigue about the characters’ common past, but it wasn’t executed particularly well when actually revealed and the writing in general took a nosedive from there. Not to the extent of tearing the show down, but it feels like the show is kind of treading water until the second season, and just wanted to get all the story out of the way so it could focus on the team in the future. I understand that philosophy, but I don’t agree with it. There needed to be a better mix between the story and sport, seeing as some of the scenes towards the end felt extremely redundant.

As with most sports series that aren’t hyper-specific in the mechanisms of the sport, Free! is a character-focused show. It’s got a pretty decent sized cast (7 central characters) and most are given ample screen-time. Do note that they are extremely generic for the type of series this is. If you’ve seen a sports series, you will have stumbled into more than a few of these.

  1. Haru is the resident sports fanatic. The twist on this in Free! is that he’s kind of indifferent when it comes to actually competing (though I assume it will change in the future, since I just found out there’s a sequel airing right now), and just wants to be in the water – so much that he tends to soak in his bathtub when he’s not in school. From what I can tell, he lives alone, or at least very independently. Only time he shows some actual motivation is when his rival is involved. Always swims freestyle (front crawl), which is where the title stems from.
  2. And that rival is Rin. A member for what seemed like a short time of the same swimming club as Haru when they were kids (they’re currently 17), he later left for Australia to chase his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer, which he chases to fulfil it for his father, who never got to reach it. While acting hostile and/or indifferent to Haru and the rest, he’s clearly no antagonist and still wants something from them, but whether that’s just competitive rivalry or friendship is yet to be seen. Said to be very good at butterfly stroke, but is shown to be proficient at others as well.
  3. Makoto is the reliable guy, and obviously also team captain (with Haru taking the supposedly superfluous position of vice-captain), keeping the group together. He’s got a deep-rooted problem that makes his life in the swimming club a bit odd when it’s time for a training camp of just vacation – he’s afraid of the ocean. I’ll get more into that later. Swims backstroke for the club.
  4. Nagisa is the energy bunny and relentless optimist of the group. He also fulfils what I suppose is the moe-role, but for guys (I’m sure there’s even a fucking term for it). Breaststroke-specialist (heh) for the club.
  5. Rei is the guy they picked up to fill final spot on the team. He’s the brains of the squad, and only joins after thinking that Haru’s swimming looks beautiful (he only likes beautiful things, apparently, so the clichés won’t stop on the Rei-train any time soon). However, as he joins the club, a problem of his might throw a spanner in the works – he can’t swim. This is used for comic relief until it’s not funny, but to the series’ credit, they do get away from it rather quickly after.
  6. To the sort of expendable charters then. First is Gou (but she likes to be called Kou), the younger sister of Rin. She steps into the position of club manager to help the club initially get started and is the one to plan training sessions and the like. She’s pretty obsessed with muscles, which is used to some comedic effect at times.
  7. And finally there’s Miss Ame, the class’ home-room teacher, and then club advisor (you basically need one to be legitimate, is my understanding after my years of watching anime). It’s hinted she’s had a job that’s related to swimsuits, and it’s strongly hinted that is was as a swimsuit model.

The cast is pretty alright, but it’s, as said earlier, very generic. The gimmick that brings the boys together is that they all have girly names, and Gou has a manly one. All the characters have a role to play, and it’s made more important than them actually having characters (even though they clearly do, but they’re moulded to fit the part).

Free!’s strength is probably how damned easy it is to watch. It’s incredibly easy-going, even in it’s few serious scenes and you can follow the story (the little there is to be followed anyhow) with ease. You could probably watch without subs and still have a good idea about what’s going on. I suppose that’s actually a pretty big achievement in itself, now that I think about it.

Adding to the delight of watching is the absolutely superb animation. The character designs are excellent and very well animated. I think they mix normal animation and CG during some of the in-water scenes, but I could be mistaken. In any case, it’s gorgeous. It’s easily the best animated show in Kyoani’s portfolio.

Voice acting is good in general, although some of the actors kind of flub the emotional dialogue at times, just reverting to the normal style of voice-cracking screaming/shouting, or just not sounding like they care.

There is some fan-service in the series, but to discuss it I would have to bring up gender roles and sexuality in media in general, which would be tedious and stuff. It’s very bearable, and you might in fact like it.

In closing, if you like watching good-looking anime boys do things, you’ll enjoy the series. If you enjoy sports stories, you’ll enjoy this. Free! is an amalgamation of the two and does its thing very by-the-book, so you get what’s on the cover. It’s good, but not more, and that’s okay.

Animu-time: Jormungand: Perfect Order

NOTICE: Hi. What you’re reading is an old review from when I was using a different template. It was kind of ugly, so I switched. If I make a mention of spoilers going to be blacked out, they won’t be. Sorry. It’s just so long ago I wrote this and it’s a bother to go back and edit it extensively. Sorry if you get spoiled, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t put any major spoilers in anything without giving big warnings about it first. Cheers.

Jormungand: PO is a good anime

Jormungand_PO-openingep

Well, of course this was coming next. The crazy hijinks and bold plans with Koko and company continue in the sequel to Jormungand. How does the second coming of Jormungand fare? I’m here to tell you that it’s better this time around. How do you improve Jormungand’s formula, you ask? You make it more focused. Spoilers for the first season finale below.

So, Koko and her friends are still roaming the world and everything is swell. Oh wait, no it’s not. The story takes place right after the end of the previous one. R is a double agent who is spying on Koko for the CIA; Hex, a woman from Kokos past, is here for blood; All this while Operation Undershaft is trying to figure out what the hell Koko is trying to do. So let’s look at the formula set for the previous season and see it it still is in place here.

  1. The crew arrives.
  2. Stuff goes awry and they need a way out / need to out-think their opponents / straight up kill dudes.
  3. Mission completed and on to next arc.

Yep. Although this time around the arcs are longer and more focused on storytelling rather than outmanoeuvring and killing enemies.

Here’s a run-down on the cast if you need to freshen your memory.

  • Koko Hekmatyar: Arms dealer, handling business mainly in Europe and Africa. Very charismatic and beautiful. Usually very energetic and behaving sometimes like a child, she has a ruthless interior and on multiple occasions called a monster.
    Although usually cool with a smile on her lips...

    Although usually cool with a smile on her lips…

    Koko has one of the most intimidating glares in anime.

    Koko has one of the most intimidating glares in anime.

  • Jonah: Child soldier. His parents were killed in an air-strike and he became a child soldier shortly after. Has a strong hate for weapons, but still works for Koko, often serving as her bodyguard.

    Jonah. Shows more understanding than expected from a child.

    Jonah. Shows more understanding than expected from a child.

  • Lehm: Ex-Delta Force operator. Used to be active in Somalia. Second in command of Koko’s crew. Veteran mercenary who takes charge when armed conflict arises. Used to work for Koko’s father. Very versatile in weapon use, ranging from long-distance sniping to close quarters combat.
    Lehm in action, sniping suckas from a car.

    Lehm in action, sniping suckas from a car.

  • Valmet: Ex-Major serving for UN forces in Africa. Her unit got slaughtered by Chen Guoming and she lost an eye in the attack. Since then, she suffers from anxiety whenever she sets foot in Africa. Very proficient with knives and pistols.

    Valmet, close combat specialist with a crush on Koko.

    Valmet, close combat specialist with a crush on Koko.

Then there are the rest of the cast, that aren’t given much other than support roles most of the time. Technically only Koko and Jonah are the only real main characters, but Valmet and Lehm are given much more time on screen than the other side characters, so they got images as well.

  • Mao: One of the regular grunts of the group. Was discharged after a training exercise went awry. Picked up by shortly after. The only one of the group to have a family (as in wife + kids). He lied to them in order to leave. Teaches science to Jonah between missions.
  • R: Former Italian intelligence officer. Revealed in the last episode of the former season to be a mole for the CIA.

    Had to give R a picture due to his awesomeness in the opening arc.

    Had to give R a picture due to his awesomeness in the opening arc.

  • Ugo: Former Mafia driver and enforcer. Spared by Koko when his family was destroyed. A behemoth of a man, he possesses immense strength. The crew’s driver when needing a getaway.
  • Lutz: Former police sniper, part of a counter-terrorist unit. Very hesitant to kill young targets.
  • Tojo: Previous Japanese black-ops operative, working in places like Cuba. In charge of teaching Jonah maths between missions.
  • Wilee: Former explosives expert and ex-lieutenant of the 20th Engineer Brigade of the XVIII Airborne Corps of the US Army. Assigned to give Jonah English lessons between missions. Is the only member aside Koko to be black-listed by the FBI.

The perils of having a huge cast like this is apparent in the second season, just as it was in the first one, but the show does a good job at dealing out screen-time this time around and you quickly get a good vibe where everyone’s at. It’s still the same colourful cast with no subs, so if you liked them in the first season, there’s more goodness here. The opening arc, dealing with R being a double agent and Hex coming after Koko is without a doubt the series’ strongest, with some strong, emotional moments. It sets up a season that is in its entirety better than its predecessor. The stakes are raised for Koko and her compatriots. Nobody’s safe in this crazy world.

The second season takes a step back from the group dynamic at times and focuses solely on Jonah and Koko. They’re interesting contrasts. Koko is the daughter of a shipping magnate and presumably had a very peaceful, or at least pampered life as she grew up. Jonah meanwhile, grew up in a war-zone and had his parents blown up by a bomber, coincidentally sold by Koko’s brother, Kasper. Jonah hates weapons with all his being, and Koko sells them for a living. The two make a fantastic leading duo and represent the tension and morals towards the end of a magnificent series.

The morality of the characters are brought froward into the centre this time around, and when Koko reveals her master plan that she’s been working on for a long time, it’s surprising it wasn’t brought up earlier. I can understand the reason why it’s hidden for so long, but I don’t agree with the choice. It would have been interesting to have it in the open for longer and see how it affected the supporting characters.

So, the story. It’s better, considering there’s actually a story this time. From the first episode to the last, every episode is connected to Koko’s goal, which is revealed a bit into the season. The series sheds its episodic skin, and so the arcs are more focused and character-driven, much to my joy.

The art is just as clean and well-done as it was in the first series. Maybe even better. Some backdrops are absolutely stunning. The character design is much like the first series, although a bit more realistic in general this time around, when it comes to the supporting cast of revolving antagonists/partners.

The voice acting and soundtrack of the series is way better than the first season. Actors have more opportunities to get heated here and some excellent dramatic episodes bring out the best of all. The music is still top-notch, and the opening song especially is fantastic.

The theme and pacing are still the same in this second serving of Koko’s adventures. The more story-focused approach leads to a better balanced product, with the episodes being better structured and the tone being a bit darker. With it, my pleas for the show to have less comedy are answered, as the show did turn towards the more serious in this venture, and the show is better off without the forced comedic elements.

The antagonists and threatening forces this time around are more realistic and grim. There’s not a crazy villain with ridiculous fighting techniques. It’s guns vs guns and tactics + strategy in a wild dance of death.

Enjoyment-wise, Jormungand: PO lands a step above its former series with more thrilling planning; cooler action; better humour; and tear-inducing, heart-wrenching drama. Once again with a Jormungand series, the variance is its strength, balancing several genres and giving them good time. It’s one of those series’ where you finish one episode and keep watching. Not because there’s a crazy cliffhanger, but because the atmosphere, characterisation and execution of the series is so fantastic that you can help wanting to spend more time in Koko’s mad world. Jormungand: Perfect Order is a rare gem to find in today’s anime world, a show with an identity so unique and fresh you can’t help but be swept away by its charm.