Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Anime I Watched This Past Year in Review

The Most Reliable List of The Best Things

There are two ways people look at a year: either from January to December, the regular old calendar year, or as a school year starting in August and ending in June.

Being a genius who constantly reinvents the stale standards of the world around him, my concept of the 'year' is slightly different. My New Year fluctuates somewhere between March and April, because it's somewhere during that time frame that I first watched Sword Art Online and became irreversibly fascinated with the world of fiction. I can't remember the exact date (or the exact month, I guess) but that's nice because I hate deadlines and this lets me write the Year In Review whenever I damn well please.

This year, however, things are slightly different. By 'things', I am of course referring to the state of my life right now, which is comparable to a training montage where a young shounen hero is forced to power up quick by repeatedly fighting a rabid grizzly bear with his hands tied behind his back. This past August I decided on a post-graduation whim to move to the lovely Texan border town of Rio Grande City to teach high-school English, and every day since than has been a perpetual adventure in maintaining enough of my emotional stability and sanity to avoid having a complete manic breakdown. In the distant future the school year will eventually end and I will no doubt emerge battle-hardened, but in the meantime my list of priorities has been somewhat reorganized. In the past, it looked something like this:

8. Grades, I guess
7. Combat existential dread 
6. Convince my fucking ungrateful A Capella group that they've consistently underappreciated my solo voice
5. Lend my intellectual understanding towards the reviewing of anime
4. Form a thousand unique opinions about anime
3. Watch every anime
2. Find my soulmate
1. Write a book

Yes, despite my constant whining throughout my four years of college, it turns out that there are greater hardships than getting rejected by the same girl three times or having to cram for an exam. In the past seven months of dealing with cruel, vulgar teenagers in an unknown place with an unknown language and culture, I have learned the hard way that my previous life was actually set to easy mode. There were things called days off, basic respect, low expectations, and inherently supportive friends that allowed me the time to worry about stuff like 'which Hiroyuki Sawano track is most compatible with its show?' and 'what exact scenes and lines of dialogue could you trim from the Higurashi visual novel to make it more palatable to a wider audience without disrupting the emotional impact?' Now, my daily musings are closer to 'how do I balance the expectations of the students and the administration?' and 'oh God, how many more fucking 3rd periods are there before spring break?' Yes, my priority list has shifted into something more like this:

2. Combine every conceivable form of distraction and motivation to succeed in the classroom to the best of my ability while still staying sane
1. Write a book

So yeah, things have changed. I'm still me, but I'm a me that will never underappreciated the simple joys of going to Friday Night Magic or having a conversation without being referred to as a 'stupid gringo' ever again. I'm also a me that no longer feels the need to prove something by devoting myself singularly to one medium. Therefore (and this is the point of this long and winding exposition) I haven't watched nearly as much anime this year as I have in the past, and I haven't taken the stuff I've watched nearly as seriously. A lot of it I sought out specifically for the purpose of entertainment, prioritizing taking my mind off of work over artistic integrity. And you know what? I'm okay with that. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Anyways, that's enough preamble. The award ceremonies await. Let's give some anime some recognition.

Best Soundtrack

Well, song of the year goes to Perfect Time for being incomparable running fuel, but even I'm not so low as to hand out a soundtrack award just for remixing the same catchy hook in fifty different ways. The winner here is Made in Abyss, because Made in Abyss does that neat thing where its music actually compliments the story while also being appreciable out of context. Hanezeve Caradhina makes for an excellent poster child as one of the only pieces of music I can stand to listen to at 7 in the morning on the way to work, but it's backed up by plenty of atmospheric gems like Tomorrow and Underground River that help give the show the immersive mythic vibe it succeeds by. I've said before that the Made in Abyss soundtrack feels like it's actually built from the sounds of the Abyss itself, and if you listen to these pieces I'm sure you can also hear the sound of wind echoing through the caves and ancient creatures howling in an alien world.

Best Twist

Yeah so obviously there are some spoilers here. I've tried to be as vague as possible, but since I can't figure out how to make a spoiler tag on this website I'll just say that if you haven't yet seen Your Name for some reason that you should probably skip to the next category.

The thing with twists is that the literal worst place to put them is at the end of something. Why would I care about how everything is gonna change if it's about to be over? No, twists belong in the middle of a story, when you've gotten all comfy and cozy and you think you know what's happening at least for the next little while and then BAM the conflict and premise get flipped on their heads and you can't even remember what you were thinking about five minutes ago, it just feels so long ago.

Your Name  (or Kimi No Na Wa) is kinda famous at this point, and while lots of people point to the stunning Shinkai animation or catchy rock tracks that turn the movie's montages into AMVs, I think that the film's success comes down to its halfway-point shift when an innocent Freaky Friday rom-com is suddenly yet sensibly transformed into a apocalyptic time-travel epic. The stakes are raised, the curtains pulled back, and the stage lit up with the light of a falling star (or, uh, comet I guess) as Shinkai unveils his true conflict, an epic struggle across time and space to save the lives of thousands of innocent people. And yet, what's most impressive about this transformation from some kinky Parent Trap knockoff to a Doctor Who season finale is that it doesn't feel forced or stretched at all. Shinkai keeps his atmosphere, characters, and story fluidly intact: the magician's ultimate trick. What makes the twist so satisfying isn't its size, it's the way it felt like it had been there all along.

That said, this doesn't erase that scene where all the dialogue is just people yelling each other's names for 20 minutes, but hey, credit where it's due.

Best Couple

I rewatched Spice & Wolf, can I use that please? No? Okay fine, well with the knowledge that Holo and Lawrence should always be the winners here, I guess I'll hand over the award to the #2 duo.

This of course isn't to say that Araragi and Senjougahara from the Monogatari series aren't a great couple. In fact, if Holo and Lawrence are kinda what I feel like couples should be, Araragi and his crab are a lot closer to what I feel like couples actually are, something you don't see very often in fiction because the notion of a fated, all-consuming romance being something anyone can find is so very enticing. As I watched the final chapters of Monogatari unfold in Owarimonogatari Season 2 I found that there was something almost deliberately anticlimactic about their relationship that I appreciated. Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari never came back, Araragi never really overcame the awkward emotional distance that continues to persevere between them, and despite the show's demonstration that their relationship was solid it never really tried too hard to convince us that if there was a fated Monogatari duo it was Araragi and Hanekawa, a relationship that is just never going to happen because Araragi is happy with his current relationship.

So how does this make them 'Best Couple'? Well, as I said, they feel honest. Their relationship is a relationship I've had myself: something that makes me feel excited and committed, but that accepts practicality as an acceptable substitute for the mythical and is too modern to care about the concept of soulmates. As I watched their final episode unfold, I felt profoundly that since I had first started the horny abomination of a series half a decade ago I had, in some significant way, grown up.

Of course, another part of me still wishes the toothbrush episode had deleted scenes I could watch, so maybe I haven't grown up too much.

Best Laugh

Anime sucks at making comedies. Okay, so some friends of mine have argued that there's a cultural barrier that prevents me from appreciating a lot of the humor, but I laugh plenty at funny moments in shows that aren't dedicated comedies so that can't entirely be the case. Anyways, this year I dropped Gintama for the third (and hopefully final) time, further cementing my code of never turning to anime when I want a laugh.

With one exception.

Abridged series.

Today I'm proud to declare that the finest comedy in anime this year goes to none other than Sword Art Online, as slightly modified by Something Witty Entertainment. When it comes to the funniest moment it's hard to choose between racist Asuna, Klein's enduring nickname, and the rise of Fluffles, but that is nothing more than a testimony to how great this series is. I can't wait to see what they do with Alfheim. Personally, I'm hoping they make Leafa into Kayaba and have Asuna be so annoying that Oberon kicks her out.

Best Ending

Shiki. Shiki had the best ending this year, no question about it. There's nothing quite as thrilling as when a show gets progressively better with every episode leading up to the finale, then manages to top off everything it's done before with a thrilling, numbing, and brilliant conclusion. This vampire thriller is an epic, no doubt about it, proving once again that the West should just leave the campy premises to anime.

That said, Shiki's ending is, uh, well, kind of horrifying. It constructs an incredibly tantalizing argument for a kind of self-indulgent neo-liberalism that places the entirety of meaning on one's own life and happiness. Maybe it's my own secretly deeply selfish soul that resonates so strongly with the message, or maybe it's just the way that it's presented: not as a glorified given but as a terribly broken necessity in an incredibly vicious world. More optimistically, it's likely just because I appreciate stories that take strong stances on worldviews that are morally unpopular (see Nausicaa.)

Anyways, who really cares, it's fucking awesome and I'm getting chills right now just writing about it and listening to the incredible soundtrack (Shiki was definitely #2 after Made in Abyss.) The real moral is that I've gotta rewatch this thing.

Best Visuals

All this started a while back with Sword Art Online, so I'm more than proud to be able to give it not one but two awards. While the plot continues to descend into progressively more nonsensical drivel, the visual effects are better than ever. The final fight scene in the Ordinal Scale movie was just absolutely shit-your-pants unbelievable, a dynamic action scene crisper than Lays and with more moving parts than a Rube Goldberg machine. The payoff was almost worth the 2 hours of horrible goddamn VR plot contrivances. Almost

Sword Art Online has always looked good, but this movie was on a whole other level. It honestly felt difficult to keep up with just how many flawlessly-executed fight scenes there were. I mean, every time a character opened their mouth the magic was broken, but as long as they were just yelling 'RRRAGH!' while Swordland played and the flashy-lights flashed, I could live once more in that glorious bubble back before I knew anything and Aincrad was the place of dreams.

Honestly, just watch the scene. Even if you never have any intention to follow SAO ever again, treat yourself to the future of animated action. No screenshot does it justice.

Hypest Moment

Somebody once told me that music can't control me, not to let my problems get in my head.
Then she said 'get out of here!' with her relic named Gungnir, and the next thing I knew she was dead...


Which moment, you ask? In Genki Zesshou Symphogear there are no moments, only the perpetually flow from hype to more hype. From the boss's 1v1 fistfight with an ancient superbeing to Chris's valiant stand to save the moon, everything in the first season of Symphogear was fist-pumping glory. If I had to pick one moment though, it'd probably be when Hibiki goes full rage-mode in the final fight. I've always been a sucker for rage modes, and I'm now a sucker for Hibike, and, well, watching that scene was like drinking a boot full of red bull and adrenaline extract. 

Good stuff.

Too bad it sucked after season 1. 

Best Scene

For the actual best scene just spin a roulette wheel on Anne of Green Gables, but I like to think of this category as more 'the scene that swung the show around', a pivotal moment that stood out from the rest of the show up to that point as something truly exceptional.

That scene undoubtedly comes from Re:Zero, a show I initially dropped when it was airing because it seemed little more than a well-executed grimdark power fantasy. However, when people's enthusiasm failed to die down even after the initial wave of next-season-induced amnesia I decided to go back and push myself through, something I'm very glad I decided to do. The show is thoroughly imperfect, but the final scene of episode 13 is just a total home-run from start to finish.

This scene takes the fantasy that one's problems are entirely a product of their surroundings and grinds it to dust, demonstrating that Subaru's idea that he's now a popular hero just because he switched worlds is a delusion. He still has all his toxic qualities: his tendency to idolize and dehumanize the female figures in his life, his assumption that he's constantly important, and his fake and distancing way of socializing. As long as he doesn't try to grow up, he'll end up just as miserable and alone in this world as he did in the last one.

Unfortunately the show doesn't stick to its guns all the way through, providing him with Rem, a character who, in spite of delivering cutting truths, also gives him the exact kind of unconditional love that the show before seemed to be saying he had to earn. Oh well, I guess the viewers have to be made to feel safe somehow...

Tragic undercutting flaws aside, that scene and the entire arc it spawns are the shit. Give me a whole show that good and it'd be a favorite.

Most Unforgettable Character

A long time ago, so the legend goes, a group of some thirty people got on a bus together, not knowing that their quest for paradise would soon go off the beaten path. There were any number of oddities amidst their ranks: a obsessive couple, a pair of gun fanatics, a psychic, a catgirl, and a run-down old scholar. However, not even the most eccentric of them could have prepared them for...

The Executioner

Ode to Lovepon

Once upon a midnight weary
With some thirty people near me
I began to wonder, should we truly trust our host?

All around me others stirring
(And, well, one that's oddly purring)
There are murmurs that one of the many is a ghost.

Suddenly I hear beside me
Something that I find surprising
There's a girl whose smile is both hideous and thin.

Just when I think to accuse her
For who here would think but choose her?
She points to some children and cries "Let's execute them!"

Now of course I'm laughing coldly
What's she thinking, yelling boldly?
And is that a pair of pliers? Lady, you are truly done.

But, I fear I must disclose now,
Twenty others merely asked "how?"
It was then I knew the nightmare night had only just begun.

Worst Thing I Still Finished

I must shamefully confess that this is even worse than a year ago I could've predicted. Not only did I finish the first season of The Seven Deadly Sins, but I also watched the 4-episode OVA and I started watching the second season now that it's airing. I'm going to watch the next episode today. What kind of hideous consumer have I become? And let me clarify, The Seven Deadly Sins isn't something passably bad like Katy Perry or pink wine where you can just say it's the easy option: no, this show is real trash. The main character is constantly sexually harassing his teenage companion (I mean like, he'll literally talk to her while fondling her chest), the plot is a pile of contrivances, the continuity is slowly falling apart, and even the animation is pretty garbage! So, why did I watch it? Why am I continuing to watch it? Why don't I just go actually start Haikyuu or Naruto or literally any other battle shonen if I want my fix of one-vs-one fights and power-up moments? Well, there's a very simple answer:

Most Likely to Spawn a New Fetish

Shokugeki no Soma

And of Course, the Year's Top 5!

These are the FIVE BEST ANIME I have watched this year, which means that they're guaranteed amazing because my opinion is objective and absolute. Hey, one of them was a show that just aired though! That's a good sign. The imoutos haven't won yet, dammit (wait, say what? It's got pedophile undertones? Uhh...)

5. Made in Abyss

I love adventure stories, and Made in Abyss gave me the best one I've watched in a long while. It takes a special combination of solid character writing and astounding control of visual space to make me actually feel like I'm in the world of a fantasy anime, which is why I quit so many five episodes in, but this one did the trick. It's nothing especially complicated, but it captures the wonder of descending into a complex and unknown ecosystem laced with magical undertones pretty much perfectly, and it got me completely hooked. The last two episodes were the real selling point though, telling a convincing personal story that got me to cry while keeping the atmosphere intact. Give me another season please and thank you.

4. A Silent Voice

I had a bit of an anime lull, but this movie brought me back from it. This just feels like an extremely good movie by any standards, something I'm proud to show friends and family alike while still also finding a lot of personal enjoyment in it. It's gorgeous, it's well-directed, it's long enough to tell a complete story with several arcs, it's got grounded characters that interact in believable ways and have real problems, and it manages to tackle themes as grim as depression and suicide without ever feeling particularly grim itself. Sure there are some side characters that probably should've just been cut from the source material, but overall this movie is a stunning accomplishment and was easily one of the highlights of my year.

  3. Karigurashi no Arrietty

I finally found my Ghibli movie. I was raised on Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, and while all of Myazaki's classics will always inform everything I know about fiction, this quiet, unassuming film might just be my favorite the studio has ever produced. It's fully committed to the sad but beautiful world of the borrowers, reveling in the simple wonder of suburban nature from an expertly-crafted unusual perspective. Arrietty is never loud, never in a rush, and never too concerned with plot. A simple movie with a perfect ending, this one is definitely a favorite.

2. Shiki

I talked about Shiki already, so I'll keep it brief. Shiki is good horror. Shiki is like if Urobuchi had helped write Code Geass. Go watch it (and stop at episode 20 to watch the two OVAs before the finale, because that's where they go chronologically and they are very important.)

1. Akage no Anne

Whaaaat I thought this was a list of the best anime I'd watched this year, not the best things created by human beings since the paleolithic era, and yes that does include stone tools. Akage no Anne (which translates roughly to God's Apology for Cancer) is a 50-episode slice-of-life show that reminds us why all anime should just be adaptations of stuff you read in high school English (wait, sorry, not all anime.) The trick to this show is that it's just really good at everything it does, weaving a concoction of bittersweet themes through a perfectly-paced character study packing enough attention to detail to make the period feel authentic without getting too bogged down in historical realism blah blah. Look, it's amazing, and if any part of you thinks "there is a potential world where I could enjoy an anime adaptation of Anne of Green Gables", guess what, this is that world, and this is your sign to go watch it. You're welcome.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Kimi no Na wa: A Long-Awaited Review

I, like countless others, have been hearing a fairly constant stream of praise and hype for Makoto Shinkai's supposed be-all-end-all of anime. I was never a huge Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood fan, but seeing a movie about teenage romance (at least, so far as I was aware at the time) surpass it handily for the #1 spot on MAL was still a bit of a shock. After that, it was record and awards out the gates for months without so much as a glimmer of the actual product.

Now, finally, I've had the chance to watch it. I went into it obviously expecting it to not be the be-all-end-all of anime, half because I find the concept ridiculous and half because anything that appeals so well to such a wide audience is unlikely to strike a very specific chord with me in particular. It's just hard to be universal and personal at the same time, and that's just dandy. Kimi no Na wa is a blockbuster and a family movie first and foremost, which is a tricky enough task in and of itself. Getting an emotional reaction out of millions of people is no easy task! So, here I am, both to try to halt the hype train a little bit and to give the movie the recognition that it very much does deserve.

Let's start with the hard truth. This isn't the greatest anime, movie, or anime movie ever made. The hype surrounding this work is borderline poisonous, and anyone who actually believes it is bound to be disappointed. Even from a technical standpoint, it isn't perfect. I appreciated the pacing of its individual scenes, but it could've afforded to add up to 20 minutes of content to the first half to better establish the status quo and a few of the characters. Almost all of the animation is creative and immersive, with spinning shots and dynamic scenes, but because of this the few deadpan scrolls present felt woefully out of place, like they belonged to a Pokemon showdown. The main characters are fundamentally likable but not especially complex, and most of the side characters feel like they exist primarily to support the movie's thematic objectives. This movie might change your life, but it definitely isn't going to change everyone's life and it isn't going to go down in the halls of film history as a masterpiece. I know many people who haven't seen it probably already suspect as much, but here's confirmation: Kimi no Na wa is remarkable, but it isn't mind-blowing. The anime community has a tendency to overreact. It happens.

There, that's out of the way. Let's move on to the positive part.

Kimi no Na wa is, I believe, an extremely important film in this day and age. In a world where the only internationally and even domestically respected anime comes from Studio Ghibli, a studio who's iconic creator Hayao Myazaki is in his twilight years no matter how many times he comes out of retirement, having a new, widely-successful film made by a new studio and a new director is fantastic. Sure, those of us deep in the rabbit hole have seen the wonderful works of Masaaki Yuasa or Satoshi Kon, but none of those ever made big enough waves worldwide to cement their creators as household names. Beyond this though, all of the aforementioned directors work(ed) in ways that oftentimes seem to differentiate themselves from what many anime viewers would consider "anime". Outside of a love for fantasy and sci-fi, few of the tropes and traits that in many ways help to define anime as a genre are found in Myazaki's films, much less Yuasa or Kon. Which brings us to my central point, and what I believe to be Kimi no Na wa's greatest triumph:

Kimi no Na wa is anime.

It's the anime you know and love (or hate with a burning passion). It's got the tropes, the character types, the insert songs, the OP, the fantasy elements, the tried-and-true rom-com elements and sex jokes and blushing and high school and little sisters and tender emotional moments. It has all the usual, but it presents them in a way that is tasteful and cohesive and well-executed, taking so much of the stuff you'd find in your 20-a-season grab-bag of anime goodies and turning it into something that you can actually sit down to watch with your family. As I briefly mentioned already, Shinkai has a sense of pacing and comedic timing that most anime either lack or sacrifice for the sake of filling an episode, and it shows. Purely on a scene-to-scene basis the movie is enjoyable to watch, because it's fast and snappy and it never points at its own jokes. Kimi no Na wa also has all the bizarre-ness of an anime storyline. What starts out as a pretty simple Freaky Friday premise evolves into something much grander and unexpected. I've always strongly believed that a great way to keep a movie engaging is for it to have two parts: the premise, or what gives the audience something to hold onto, and the turn, a half-way shift that draws a new conflict out of the original set-up and puts what's already happened into perspective. For example Howl's Moving Castle begins with Sophie getting transformed into an old lady and embarking on a journey to reverse her curse, but as the movie goes on the focus turns to the horrific war that Sophie learns is destroying her country. Kimi no Na wa does an impeccable job at implementing this technique--just when I was beginning to fall into a rhythm and started subconsciously solving the rest of the events of the movie, it pulled on a new face and kept me on my toes until the very end. It's a film that, despite its Hollywood structure and execution, isn't afraid to get its nose out of the books when it comes to the actual content. It's not just what the story is, either: the presentation is delightful, jumping forward when it chooses and filling in the details of events later for impact, a tactic that is so very anime.

Shinkai's directing also does something important: we've all heard that the movie is drop-dead gorgeous, and it is, but even more important than that Shinkai demonstrates why this specific story should be an anime, and not live action. His repeated emphasis on closing doors, for example, is impactful due to the extreme exaggeration of the perspective. And his use of thought bubbles above character's heads, as if in a cartoon, is a choice afforded him only because of the medium. Shinkai also maximizes his use of human expressions, something that live footage cannot replicate due to the limitations of the human face. Because we often envision ourselves hyperbolically, watching characters make faces or strike poses that are legitimately impossible actually makes sense to us. Even the music is discernibly anime; a tag-team of touching instrumentals and empowering rock songs complement all the movie's significant moments, pulling on that fundamental hunger for fantastic animation set to catchy music that drives so many anime fans. And, as I mentioned earlier, there's even an OP, a la Rebellion style. Who doesn't love a good OP? There's nothing like vague plot-hints sowed together into a colorful two-minute music video to get me excited about what I'm about to watch, and I mean that with complete sincerity. And, if you weren't convinced by all of this, the movie even has the audacity to open with a boob gag. I haven't seen a move that bold since Bakemonogatari. Fortunately it actually managed to fit right into what the story was doing and not feel remotely voyeuristic, but the fact of the matter stands: only pure, unfiltered anime would open with a girl freaking out over her chest.

So why is it so important that Kimi no Na wa is anime? Well, regardless of its actual merits, I firmly believe that this movie marks a new era for the medium. Shinkai has shown that pure, well-crafted anime can turn heads internationally, and people across the world are seeing that perhaps anime has more to offer than just Disney-dubbed Myazaki movies. I see the film as a sort of bridge, a piece of work that enamors anime fans and average people alike without sacrificing any of the things that make anime what it is. I think it's also helping to remind a lot of people why they got into anime in the first place. In an era where people keep insisting that anime is dying, seeing the fundamentals executed so well in a brand-new way has to mean something. We may not get another End of Evangelion or Ghost in the Shell for a little while, but for me at least getting to watch two hours of the medium I fell in love with prove that it can produce something that is thoroughly and completely competent and enjoyable made me quite glad, and considering Shinkai's dismissal of his own work I find myself excited to see what he'll create next. An artist who's never content with that they create can go great places.

So yeah, at the end of it all, I'd say it's well-worth the watch. The movie is a spectacle, and you're unlikely to find yourself bored even if you don't find yourself particularly emotionally impacted (like myself.) I predict it will have a significant impact on the future of anime, I give it a hearty recommendation, and I hope that because of this review at least a few more people will go into with enough sensibility to fully enjoy it.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Arrietty, Ghibli, and One Last Song

Everyone who watches anime has heard of studio Ghibli and has probably seen at least one of their many excellent movies. Some of them, like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, have even bled over into mainstream Western culture. Known for their re-occurring themes of pacifism and environmental protection and usually created to be consumable by people of all audiences, these films do a good job of giving you a sense of wonder and motivation and then making sure all the characters get a happy ending and everything ties up nicely in a fashion usually slightly more nuanced and significant than your traditional Disney movie. I grew up on many of these movies and never hesitate when I get the chance to share them, but over the years Ghibli's most famous director, Hayao Myazaki, has become less active, going in and out of retirement while other directors give a whirl at putting the industry titan's resources to use. The last Ghibli film I saw in theaters was Ponyo, which while I thought had many qualities did not resonate with me in the same way stuff like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or The Castle in the Sky did. After that I watched Wizards of Earth-sea on DVD, and, soundly disappointed, stopped feeling especially motivated to keep up with their new releases. A few new movies came out: The Wind Rises, Up on Poppy Hill, Arrietty, When Marnie Was There; I heard little about any of them, and after reading the premises I assumed they were more or less various versions of The Cat Returns: cute stories beautifully animated, but the not the heart-wrenching epics of old.

Recently I've been catching up because, well, it's Ghibli, and it's not like I'm ever gonna finish a Ghibli movie and feel like I wasted my time. The Wind Rises was a solid drama with a middling romance, When Marnie Was There was an excellent tale about abandonment and resentment hampered by a weak ending, and Arrietty... well, Arrietty was the one I had heard the least about, so I didn't even know if it was worth watching. I'd seen The Borrowers back in the day, and didn't know if having gorgeous animation was enough to make Miniature Home Alone anything more than a series of endearing, albeit not all-that-creative gags. This, however, serves as the recommendation part of the review. Watch Arrietty. Not only was it an outstanding movie, but as a long-time Ghibli fan it... well, it might actually be my favorite of their films. Sure, it doesn't have the scale or scope of something like Princess Mononoke, but I actually found it to be more effective at conveying Ghibli's core ideas than any of the countless fantastic movies that came before it.

Arrietty's core strength is simple and tragic: it's the fact that it's tired. Time and again Ghibli has produced uplifting movies capturing the very real and very overwhelming problems of the world post-industrial revolution, but these movies are all hopeful, happy renditions of these issues, stories that paint the future in an positive light. No matter how bleak the films get (and Nausicaa has a nuclear-beast detonate a genocidal attack, so they get pretty bleak) they always come back to that Hollywood conclusion where everything works out alright for all the protagonists. On top of this, they frame the issues they address as fast-paced and exciting, the culmination of epic adventures and sequences of intense action. Even adversity is full of excitement: Princess Mononoke has sword fights and people riding wolves and heroes possessed by demons. Spirited Away has dragons and radish spirits and duels with river gods. The Castle in the Sky has sky pirates and mythical robots and spells of destruction. You get the idea. The antagonists are out in the open, the heroes are presented with clear and discernible conflicts they need only find compromises and solutions to using their hot-blooded enthusiasm. But problems as large as war and climate change and environmental degradation aren't always out in the open like that, and we're certainly not at a point in history where we can pat ourselves on the back and reminisce about how we've solved them. Now, more than ever, we need people who are active in making these changes in the world, not just fantasizing about them, and what the world needs is less stories about how everything will work out alright and more stories that demand something from their audience, that don't give them the satisfaction of watching the credits roll with a sense of contentedness. I think that uneasiness is a valuable feeling to possess at times, and I know that at least personally I tend to contribute the most to our horribly broken world when I'm overwhelmed by just how much work there is to do.

Which brings us back to Arrietty. Arrietty is a movie that is fundamentally uneasy. It's creators have experienced the high of watching Everything Work Out Okay, and they've become numb to it. They're no longer able to drag out some tale in which it all wraps up alright and undercuts what the movie is actually saying. Arrietty is straight and true, and kinda, well, er, perfect. I mean, no work of art is truly perfect, but in my eyes I don't know what I would change about this film. For me, it does everything right.

Arrietty is about a family of little people, the Borrowers from that goofy story you may have read growing up. They even call themselves as much. The Borrowers are a traditional folk: Arrietty's (the character) parents are clearly kind, capable people, but they also cling to what they know of the world and are unwilling to adapt to an expanding human race that no longer feels the need to respect or leave room for them. Arrietty herself isn't some ambitious young new wave, either. She is molded by her parents words, part of her craving to work out some sort of situation with the humans of the house, but never ever to quite put this idea into words or truly defy her veteran parents whom she holds great respect for. However, the Borrowers need to change. They're skilled at what they do, but they're also dying out. Time and time again throughout the movie they express their fear that they're the last of their kind, that they're alone in a world full of strange things. Symbolically, they exist in some strange  purgatory between nature and mankind, representing a culture tied to tradition and to the land, a culture that is seen by most humans as a source of the sort of fascination you find at a zoo. They embody the way modernization is not only stamping out countless species and destroying ecosystems, but marginalizing human voices that defy the general consensus of what progress means.

There's a sort of magic imbued into the world of Borrowers, a magic that made me feel like there was value there just beyond the individual Borrowers themselves. I feel it's worth mentioning the film's incredible art design and pacing, because it's the execution of the atmosphere that makes this tale work in the first place. Arrietty is very much concerned with non-action. It doesn't want its tale to feel epic in any way. It takes its time with everything, going through the motions of daily life for the Borrowers with excruciating detail, detail that is perfectly mesmerizing thanks to the phenomenal depiction of the time-steeped clutter of their lives. The entire society the Borrowers have constructed for themselves feels fantastical in a way that doesn't need to be disrupted or cataloged. The excitement of the world of the Borrowers comes from cats and crows and crickets and other entities that are entirely mundane for us, but take on an aura of fear and excitement for our tiny protagonists. This isn't some comedy-routine shrinkage movie depiction, though. The Borrowers avoid threats and excitement whenever possible, allowing the movie to revel in the beauty of the complex simplicity of their way of life.

The human boy, Sho, seems to understand this beauty. For him, it's not so much a matter of whether or not the Borrowers are an active part of his life: just know that they are there and thriving is enough to make him happy. He wants to see them, and to meet them, but only as they are. Others, however, feel differently. His caretaker wants to capture and display the Borrowers, going so far as to put them in jars like insects for her own amusement. She, too, is fascinated by them, but this leads her to want to find a way to domesticate them into something that is hers. She's hardly an antagonist though. In the end she's portrayed as more of a nuisance than a source of malice, and it's clear that her own actions come from thoughtlessness and misunderstanding more than anything. This is accented by Sho himself, who despite his comparative conscientiousness rips apart the Borrower's house in an attempt to 'gift' them a new kitchen, an act that does more damage than good thanks to the difference what the Borrowers actually need and what he thinks is good for them. Even he is imposing his own vision of modernity on the Borrowers, in his own way, despite being a perfectly kind, compassionate person. It doesn't matter that he's a nice guy; being a nice guy won't save the Borrower's from their fate. Taking action based on informed decisions might, though.

It's not as though the humans and Borrowers could not find a way to coexist. This becomes progressively more clear over the course of the story. If they were willing and brave enough to communicate with one another, it would be no doubt a matter of a single conversation to work out an arrangement. The offering of the dollhouse proves this, as does Arrietty's friendship with Sho. But here's the kicker, and also kind of the point: this conversation never happens. Arrietty never asks, and Sho never offers. "I wanted to protect you" says Sho, with a hopeless past-tenseness that is telling of his own outlook. Sho is sick, and is consumed by the matter of his own heart operation. While the borrowers may serve as a distraction, he seems to be of the opinion that he can't take real action until he solves his own problems, problems that may never be solved. In the meantime, while he is waiting to learn the results of his operation, the Borrowers have had enough: scared of being discovered and railroaded by their customs, they uproot their home and strike out with the hopes that they will be able to find somewhere else to settle before they help dwindle the number of their kind. Mankind pushes the magic of this world further to the margins, not because we are cruel or vicious or insensitive, but because we are unwilling to act or consider. The antagonists of Arrietty are hesitation and thoughtlessness. How are you supposed to defeat those with willpower or kindness? They aren't a witch running a bathhouse, or a ancient king summoning a robot army. Arrietty is Ghibli at its best because it doesn't cut corners or force answers. It presents a dilemma, and then it ends. The only one who gets to decide how it turns out afterwards is you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Voynich Hotel: Sunset or Sunrise?

Warning: The following is an analysis of The Voynich Hotel manga, and therefore will contain spoilers.

This past summer when I was trying to get my foot in the door and expand my manga horizons, I received a recommendation from my sister to read a little story called The Voynich Hotel. Within a couple of pages I found myself both laughing and intrigued, and I ended up blowing through the whole thing that day. This past weekend I re-read it thanks to some free time and quickly-acquired nostalgia, and it more than met the expectations my memory had set for it.

The Voynich Hotel is a story about the evolution of culture from one generation to the next, and the ways we come to coexist with the often-frightening implications of modernization, open borders and technology. It's particularly concerned with the way these modern forces impact areas that do not have the historical power or influence to maintain their own cultures and histories under the weight of colonization and imperialism. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though; The Voynich Hotel is a beautiful, heartfelt tale that frames the changing of the times and the disconnect between the past and present not as some sort of Faulknerian tragedy but as natural process that rewards open-mindedness and acceptance, though with a dash of stubbornness.

Our story takes place on the island of Blefuscu, a fictional island first mentioned in Gulliver's Travels and re-adapted for the purposes of this take into the object of Spanish Imperialism during the spread of European culture. This means that already we're set up in a place that doesn't exist: not just a made-up island for the purposes of this story, but an island that is explicitly fictional in its origin. An island that is steeped with legend and magic and mythos, complete with the story of The Three Mothers, witches who used to own the island and protected it for many years from Spanish invaders by massacring any foreigner who dared to step foot on the shore. Blefuscu is a place that wants to be set apart from the world, to exist in its own mystical time-capsule, and the attitudes of many of its inhabitants of all ages reflect that. However, times are changing in Blefuscu whether its citizens want it or not, and this causes them to lash out against the unknown and the intrusive in ways that they didn't know they were capable of. The duality of acceptance and rejection is perhaps best established in the relationship between the two sisters, Snark and Alice. Alice, the younger of the two sisters, is unwilling to confront the world: a sort of stand in for the soul-of-the-island and occasional narrator, Alice reflects the innocent unease shared by many of the older generation, but not so much held by the group of hooligans she wants to fit into. Her older sister, Snark, in an attempt to protect her sister from change and allow her to keep relying on the magic mask she uses to communicate, goes so far as to become a serial murderer known for her cruel, untraceable killings.

Snark likes to act as a sort of vigilante defender of the status quo, chasing away tourism and shutting down up-and-coming businesses with a flick of her claws, claws she notably attained from making a contract with a demon and selling her soul. In her mind, her cause is clearly noble, and her pastry shop acts as a haven for the locals. To those who love and support her cherished sister she is kind without reservations, truly acting as the force of good she strives to be and helping to make the island a better place to live.

Snark isn't the only one on Blefuscu who's ever killed outsiders though: the Three Mothers from the island's legend are still around, having suffered a noticeable dip in influence and power since they were eventually successfully overcome by the Spanish forces. This is where the story of Voynich is truly rooted: the Mothers, symbols of the island nation's legacy and tradition. Two of them, Elena and Beluna work at an old, shoddy hotel called Hotel Voynich run by (notably) a masked Spanish wrestler referred to only as 'owner', while the third sleeps underground, not yet able to traverse the modern world. Here Elena and Beluna whittle their days away preforming odd jobs and helping to keep the hotel running. Once the violent defenders of the island, they now work for a man who clearly came over from Spain and helped him to open a tourist resort to allow even more people to come infiltrate Blefuscu. Broken remnants of their past glory, missing parts and pieces, they should by all accounts be unhappy prisoners.

But they're not. The sisters aren't unhappy, and they're not clinging to the past as some sort of bygone glory days that the present will never be able to match. The owner is not seen as a tyrant or as a conqueror: he's a nice guy, and he cares for the people he employs and all the people of the island. In fact, by the time the story has begun he's already an established part of the island's culture, feeling as naturally a piece of it as the Three Mothers or Snark. His ancestors may have fought with the Three Mothers in brutal and selfish bloodshed, but he isn't his ancestors, and rather than being at odds with one another he and the Mothers help and support one another for the well-being of everyone. This was once a tale of imperialism and oppression, but it's not anymore. Blefuscu has long since integrated its Spanish colonizers into its culture. They aren't outsiders anymore. The owner didn't take over their land and force them into working for him: they came to him voluntarily because they were tired of being at odds with the outside world and wanted to adapt and become someone new. The Mothers themselves were not afraid of change. They adopted technology, became integrated with modern media and entertainment, and in some cases went to far as to engage in MMORPGS to the terror of all.

That's not to say that that the Mothers don't have a sense of identity or pride. They do have pride, but they have the pride of reason which causes them to interfere only when the situation actually threatens the livelihood of the people living in Blefuscu. They aren't pushovers who will stand for anything.  When assassins from across the world gather to come seek out targets on Blefuscu, whether the targets be local or not the Mothers say enough, not permitting any kind of violence or persecution to unnecessarily stain their shores. When a demon erects a skyscraper hotel on top of a local donut shop and threatens to jeopardize the local economy while overrunning the island with excessive infrastructure and industrialism, the Mothers say enough. They care about is the island and everyone living on it, but they aren't obsessed with some idyllic notion of what the island is or what it's supposed to be. They accept that countless legends and traditions have intermingled over the years to create Blefuscu as it is today, and that it is the up-and-coming younger generations that should get to decide the kind of island they want to live on, not Snark's enforcing of the old ways and xenophobia. Blefuscu isn't anything-goes, and real demons will be ousted. But foreigners? Over the course of the story Elena learns to fall in love with a foreigner from Japan, expressing her excitement for connecting with his culture but not allowing that to wash away her identity as a witch. She professes to never have fallen in love before, but definitely isn't reluctant. In fact, she's excited: excited to have someone she can share and grow with, a completely different attitude than she had in the past when she unequivocally saw all foreigners as threats. Elena isn't a softie, but over the years she's become someone not all too interested in the past. She doesn't persecute outsiders anymore, but she now knows how to recognize a real demon.

The Mother's acceptance of the younger generation as the driving force for the nation's identity is reflected in the importance of the Sleuth Brigade, Alice's group of friends and the manifestation of the up-and-coming generation that has yet to really decide where they fall on the spectrum of vision for the island. Their leader's name is simply 'Leader', an unsubtle nod to his importance to the story, and it's he who struggles most with the conflict of change. 

Surrounded by a spectrum of madness ranging from his peer 'Doctor' resurrecting the third of the Mothers, Tenebrarum, to the appearance of an aptly unsettling incarnation of discomforting modern technology in the form of Andybot, an android who seems to never be out of ways to be as unsettling, incompetent and creepy as possible, Leader hasn't really figured out where he stands in regards to what he wants Blefuscu to be like when he grows up. In many ways the growth and innovation unsettle him, as seen through his distrust of Andybot and his hatred for organized public infrastructure like the police that represent a quota for structure and order demanded by the modern era. He collects rumors of modern legends, ghost stories about robot factories and powerful poisons being distributed, and he feels resentful of the way some of Blefuscu's inhabitants seem to have accepted all this and moved on. This can be seen on a personal level in his relationship with Vixen, one of the members of his brigade. Vixen is modern: she's fashionable, spunky, comfortable with sexuality, and distrustful of rumors and superstition. Throughout the series Leader rejects her advances and pushes her to the side, reluctant to accept the new-age element in his very own brigade as part of his identity. He even has heavy suspicions that Alice's sister is Snark, but is unwilling to do anything about her killing spree.

Eventually though, Leader starts to grow up and realize that it's not all as simple as he thought it was. When he gets to actually meet a couple touring on their honeymoon he can see that these aren't invaders coming to mutilate the island. In fact, they're fascinated by Blefuscu's history, respectful of its inhabitants, and there to simply enjoy the location and have a good time. So, when the newlywed husband goes missing, Leader finally makes up his mind and goes to confront Snark. Snark, for her part, finally realizes that protecting Alice might not mean stuffing a mask over her face and dismembering outsiders, and, unwilling to lash out against Leader as it would 'hurt Alice', she finally gives up and lets both Leader and the young couple live. After this, her contract is up: she's no longer needed to 'protect' the island, because the younger generation doesn't want protecting. They want to meet these newcomers and make up their mind for themselves on whether they're threats or not. Snark at this point is only muffling their voices, making it difficult for them to speak. She goes to visit Alice one last time before she dies, asking forgiveness for her attempts to enforce her own vision on Alice and the difficulties that caused. Snark, for all her sins, just wanted to protect something dear to her. She might be an antagonist, but she's not a villain: Voynich doesn't frame the desire to protect and preserve the status quo as villainy, but it does see it as naivety with cruel consequences.

Leader eventually accepts that technology isn't as useless or scary as he thought, either. When Vixen steps on a landmine, threatening to repeat an incident several years ago when a friend of his suffered a quick end at the bad end of a minefield, Andybot steps in to shield her from the blast and change the outcome of the situation. Leader acknowledges that the technology he mocked played a key hand in preventing Vixen's death, and as a result he starts to learn to respect Andybot and see him as both competent and respectable. Leader even decides he wants to be a policeman: once he sees Andybot saving lives and comes to understand what being a police officer actually means, rather than the vague, oppressive notion he had in his head, he realizes that's actually the kind of person he wants to be.

As Snark dies she tears off Alice's mask and takes it with her, forcing her younger sister to finally address the scary, impending outside world. Alice takes a look at both the island's ancient past and the intimidating forces that threaten to change its landscape forever, she comes to realize that what she's most concerned with is not some vague sense of 'other', but simply her own life and the people around her. Her heart is tied to the Sleuth Brigade, to her friends, to the people she values in her life and wants to be with and protect. The island opening up to the world at large will come with difficulties and complications no doubt, but it also brings growth and new perspectives, technology that can make life easier, and a sense of security from the threats of the past like land mines. What the future requires is nuance: everyone has their own tendencies and desires, and creating a place where Vixen's contemporary attitude towards sexuality and fashion can coexist with Doctor's love of tradition and the past, as exemplified by his enduring visits to the third Mother, Tenebrarum, is more important than securing a sense of normalcy. Elena returns to Russia to meet her mentor and her own origins, and is finally able to open up a little bit to her lover, telling him that she is a witch; that at her core, she will always hold the history of Blefuscu to be important. He turns to her with his eyepatch, matching her own, and tells her that he already knows. He long ago accepted Blefuscu tradition as part of himself, just as she accepted Japanese culture.

Traditions change, cultures collide, and the future is as exciting as it is frightening. That Voynich manages to exemplify this in as concise, entertaining, and stylish a fashion as it does is a staggering triumph. The Voynich Hotel is a surreal and gripping experience from start to finish, functioning almost as well as a romantic comedy as it does an argument for the ethics of change in long-rooted cultures. It's really something beautiful.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Shiki: A Thought Dump Upon Finishing

Can anime do horror, and do it well?

Look, the unfortunate truth is that anime isn't a medium well-suited to horror. It feels fundamentally detached from reality and therefore struggles to legitimately frighten/shock its audience in a way that makes them feel like they are right there in the thick of the terror. But, as Halloween came around this year, I was suddenly struck by the desire to watch something creepy, sinister and animated leading up to the day the spirits make mischief. So, on a whim, i heeded the recommendations of several of my trusted peers and ordered a $20 S.A.V.E copy of all twenty-four episodes of Shiki (with OVAs integrated in where they belong) and then watched the whole thing.

Guys, Shiki is a good show. It's also seriously fucking frightening. Not because vampires are scary, or because it figures out how to get the jump on you. In fact, if anything Shiki almost immediately digs itself even further into the anime/horror hole of incompatibility by making all of its character designs reminiscent of flamboyant Pokemon villains. We've all seen this before: shows like Vampire Knight and Rosario + Vampire are infamous for taking the concept of Nosferatu and strangling them into unrecognizable angst-filled cosplaying teens. At first, this kinda seems like what we're getting into again; the first character to turn vampire is pretty much the single most-anime character to ever exist, with her dismissive love-interest set up to be the dark, brooding morally-conflicted young male blah blah blah. cynical as I am, it's possible I would've put this show down after one or two episodes if it weren't for the recommendations and the fact that I had already spent money on it and didn't want to admit to making a bad investment.

I'm very glad I didn't. Today I'm here to tell you that Shiki is a shaky, spastic production with a slow and questionable start, and that in spite of this it is well worth your time to push past those early episodes and finish it, not only because the second half is gold but also because in retrospect those early episodes become a lot better.

This isn't to say that the first half of Shiki is in any way a drag. The show begins by quickly establishing an unusually large cast of characters, trying to capture the essence of the entire village as swiftly as possible. As the episodes go on more and more characters are introduced while the show attempts to keep up with the original cast at the same time. The result can feel a bit unfocused: we're not given much of a reason to care about many of these characters at first, so we're left with an abnormally sized cast and very little emotional connection to it. However, the early iteration of the show is perpetually fun, and what it lacks in individual investment it makes up for in bombast, drama,  one-liners, and over-the-top side characters that succeed at holding your attention if not your heart. Shiki is a very entertaining show, but if you're in a hurry to get to the action and bypass all the early stages it will only frustrate you. I feel the show works best when you take each scene as it comes and appreciate it for what it is, then experience the payoff naturally when it comes. To help along the way Shiki is littered with compelling shots and a bizarre array of visual styles ranging from watercolor to shakycam that oftentimes prevent it from becoming stale when it's meddling in otherwise typical horror beats. On top of this, the soundtrack is impeccable, holding the atmosphere together against the odds of the character's increasingly impossible hairstyles.

As the show goes on we come to garner an incredible understanding of the village as a whole, and also of the various philosophies and ideologies that run through its veins. There are long-asserted village values, there are the ways those are actually implemented, there are the ways newcomers and outsiders react to them, there are the ways the younger generations react to them, and there are a variety of different priorities held even by the village's various elders and leaders. Perhaps the most relevant of these splits is the fault line running between the village priest and the village doctor, two well-respected patriarchal heads who become aware of the impending threat of vampires and, while attempting to understand the impact of the night-dwellers, continue to reach different conclusions on the solution/best course of action. More of this can be seen though in the rifts that form between parents and their frustrated and antsy children, causing families to turn in on themselves even as they try to stay together on the same side of the veil of death. This really feels like a whole village reacting to change in lots of little ways that add up to a more significant shift in atmosphere. Shiki takes its damn time laying down the pieces, but once it puts everything into place it certainly knows what to do with it.

But I guess that still doesn't really answer the question of why Shiki is scary.

Well, it's not the vampires, and it's not the psychopath lurking within us all or any of that nonsense: I'm afraid that what a lot of people are going to get out of this show is that "humans are the real monsters" or some other pseudo-intellectual overdone garbage, which is just kind of redundant at this point. What's scary is that humans aren't monsters. They're just humans. They all live complicated lives, they all have different goals and dreams and vested interests and financial and personal situations. They all have different morals, too: different ideas of what's right and wrong, what's good and evil, what the noble choice is and what the damning one is. What's scary is that if you put a bunch of humans in a situation where those differing ideals come into conflict it can bring about unspeakable tragedy without any of them really making choices that they feel are 'wrong'. Shiki isn't a nightmare brought about by a 'kill or be killed' situation, it's a nightmare brought about by people from different generations, backgrounds and lifestyles refusing to cooperate, communicate, or attempt to understand one another. Shiki is modernism versus tradition, science versus superstition, and community versus individuality. Very few of these people or vampires are especially evil, twisted beings. Most of them have just been abandoned by their concepts of God, left to figure out for themselves what the right thing to do is. Shiki's characters try to simplify and simplify to make things easier on themselves, and the result is, in a word, horror. Shiki is the first anime I've seen that manages to do horror, and do it well.

Shiki won't have you covering your eyes or quivering in your seat, but when the ashes have settled it's definitely scary. It's the kind of scary you may have to mull over, to dwell on, think about, question, worry over, and inevitably try to find solutions to. It's the kind of scary that keeps you up at night wracked with anxiety over whether or not you're living your life the right way or not. It's the kind of scary that makes you ask whether or not there is a God watching over us. Shiki is definitely a thinkpiece, meaning I would recommend you watch it with a critical mind, and perhaps a friend or two to argue ideologies with. You might have a pretty adamant interpretation of who's right and who's wrong, but if you watch it with someone else you might find that maybe, scarily enough, that's just your interpretation.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Kino's Journey: Review

The World is Not Beautiful -- Therefore, it is

Kino's Journey is sort of a difficult show to talk about as a whole. It's extraordinarily episodic, following the traveler Kino and her motorad (basically a motorcycle with a consciousness) as they visit a vast array of countries (which are actually cities) in an often-surreal fable-esque steampunk world. Each place they visit is fairly unique in not only its culture but the ideas the show chooses to explore, meaning that there's little unifying the show as a whole outside of the aesthetics and Kino's own personal journey. Luckily, Kino's personal journey is a pretty big deal, but if you're looking for any sort of overarching plot or climactic finale this might not be the show for you. 

So why should you watch Kino's Journey?

Well for starters, Kino herself. Kino is one of my all-time favorite characters as well as what I'd consider to be one of the most impressive anime has to offer. She's not just a window through which we observe the show's various scenarios, she's a fluid and growing personality stumbling to find her way in the world. There's a fascinating conflict lying at the heart of her character: from the beginning, Kino seeks to be a non-factor, an impartial observer absorbing her surroundings without affecting them, devoid of categorizing traits such as gender or ego. Her fashion is dull and unassuming, her intentions soft-spoken, her words few. She refers to herself only as 'Kino', a name that functions more as a title, and will correct anyone who addresses her otherwise. 

However, as the show makes clear from its early episodes, Kino is inescapably human and inescapably part of the world she seeks to play bystander in. Try as she might to discard them, she possesses everything from ingrained survival instincts and opinions to base emotions and distinctive mannerisms. Kino is not a non-factor, and she slowly starts to learn the folly of pretending that when she steps through the gates of a country she can avoid having any kind of impact. When alone in the snowy woods with a group of starving men and some unassuming rabbits that can serve as food she aspires to play moral arbiter, but when her own life is put on the line she abandons her efforts to weigh the scales without hesitation to protect herself. This is a conflict we see time and again: the clash between Kino's idealistic armchair philosophy and her innate craving to survive and continue her journey. At times like these Kino is forced to admit that she places value on herself, and it is only in acknowledging her own significance that she can get a little closer to figuring out why she's traveling in the first place.

Sometimes this is taken further though. Sometimes, Kino not only partakes in the struggle to survive, she goes so far as to take actions to impose her own worldview upon her surroundings. Her formula is to stay three days and never interfere. But when circumstances are perfect, when she makes a close friend in a welcoming place or when she watches as thousands of unfortunate lower-class citizens are turned into oppressed labor for the sake of a tyrant and his aristocratic 1%, then she becomes moved or frustrated to the point where she breaks her own rules, asking to stay for more than three days or taking measures to change the tyranny she witnesses. In these instances she isn't even consciously making exceptions for herself, she's just acting in the way she feels is right. It's usually only afterwards that Kino reflects on her internal contradictions and tries to understand where they come from, prompted by questions from Hermes. Desire? Righteousness? Perhaps she's just not strong enough of a person to follow her own code. But she does try to learn, later answering 'because I'm not a God' when asked why she didn't step in to save a man she knew was going to be killed. All of this is part of her exhausting struggle to comprehend her complicated journey, each new conflict forcing her to think about just what kind of person she is.

Kino's struggle to understand her own journey reflects perhaps the biggest question the show poses: why do people do what they do? The world is full of sorrow and separation, loneliness and despair, death, sadism and suffering. Even if you can push past this and acknowledge that 'the world is not beautiful, therefore it is', then you're still left with the question of why you go on. Kino's first and foremost advice for traveling is 'try not to get yourself killed', which underscores how much of a role her own survival instincts play in the continuation of her travels. Obviously life is about the journey not the destination, but what's the point of the journey in the first place? The experiences you gain? The emotions you feel? Time and again Kino seeks to justify her own endless quest, discerning her own motivations whether they be the inspiration found in birds or the desire to see joy. But time and again she can't find an absolute reason. So she listens, and learns, and grows, and maybe she can't understand life but at least she's trying to make the most of it. Maybe that's the answer. Maybe not. The show does a splendid job at discussing meaning, succeeding in that it gives you plenty to think about without trying to simplify something as immense and simultaneously personal into some sort of solution.

Asides from Kino herself, the show offers a plethora of impressive vignettes that are often fascinating enough in their own rights. Ranging from critiques of religious zeal to human innovation, the show takes common philosophical conundrums and social problems a step further than usual, adding a layer of complexity to its fables perfect for generating discussion. It's honestly an excellent show to watch in a group, since the lack of an over-arching plot makes it so that each episode can be discussed individually, and the show's conflicts are inherently divisive enough to breed argument. Some episodes don't rely on Kino at all, such as the City of Books which is just a staggering accomplishment in itself managing to delve into the mind-melting relationship between author, reader, and critic, as well as the line between reality and fiction in a mere twenty minutes of downright creepy madness. The show does take the time to add some additional texture to Kino's timeline as well, with some of the best episodes being the ones that explore her past and put her entire journey into perspective. Kino's journey isn't something that would benefit well from a conclusive ending; lives rarely have conclusive endings after all, but all lives have beginnings and as a dear friend of mine once said, 'the best part of the story is the backstory'. As I mentioned before, the show does have a unifying aesthetic that helps to bring the widely varied stories at least some sense of relatedness, with almost every background being depicted using dulled earthy colors on a textured canvas, a choice that makes it really feel as though you're flipping through the pages of a storybook. The music is equally fitting: rarely standing out, but always helping to bring the world of the show together with its slow and sleepy vibe.

All that said, this is a review, and the show is not perfect. It will entirely depend on the viewer whether the one-note exposition characters work for you or not, because while they adeptly capture the feel of a fairy tale they also rarely speak like humans. This is even stranger when contrasted against Kino and Hermes who are both textured individuals, leading to some conversations that feel as if they're between a human and a robot (which to be fair is sometimes intentional). The writing is far from consistent, its highs almost always being Kino's understated mumbling and its lows taking the form of unbelievable monologues from characters that seem to lack a personality. In addition, while the visuals are distinct and rich with style, the actual art and animation are in all honesty kind of garbage with very little interesting direction to help keep the screen engaging. The show's sense of space is kind of out of whack, with most of its cities seeming to have been fitted onto the landscape rather than built out of it. Not all episodes are as strong, either. While the show is mostly consistent, there are one or two episodes I feel lukewarm about in that they're too hamfisted or just downright not that interesting. This usually happens when the episodes get broken up into parts, giving the show less time to focus on one story and resulting in stuff like 'democracy is flawed' which is frankly obvious and uninsightful. I could also pick on the order of the episodes. While this may be an entirely personal thing, I honestly feel as though the show would have had a stronger impact as a whole if it had rearranged some of its stories. It'd be unwise to mess with them now seeing as that would make piecing together Kino's character more difficult, but I do wish the creators had thought more about the timeline of the show. Just because it's episodic doesn't mean some vignettes don't complement each other better than others. 

Overall though, Kino's Journey is damn good stuff. Not only is it unique among anime, it's well done even for what it is. Kino is an incredible character driven by universally relevant philosophical conflicts and layered with distinctive personality that makes her feel like an individual independent of the show's thematic adventures. Despite its often tragic scenarios there's a slow-burning smoothness to the production that makes it feel sleepy and bittersweet and, I've found, sometimes even soothing. In between the emotionally sterile calmness are occasional moments of great catharsis that may manage to get a tear or two out of the more jaded viewer, which I think many will agree is a treasured ability. There's plenty to think about along the way with Kino's Journey, and between its poignancy and its 'food-for-thought' value (also known in some circles as '2deep4u') I give it a hearty and wholesome recommendation. Even if vignettes aren't your thing, I would still say give the first one or two episodes a try. You don't have to binge it; it's the kind of thing that's nice to watch once a week for twenty minutes after a long day just to put things into perspective. Kino's Journey is good stuff.

Arbitrary Score: 8/10
Recommendation Level: Check it out to see if it's your thing, because if it is you'll love it.