Why not Berserk?

I’ve been inspired by Martin’s post on Berserk to offer my own thoughts.

I’ve always jokingly called Berserk, “The story of the Anti-Christ and his best friend.”

That said, Berserk is the perfect show. Really, I mean it. The characters are well-crafted and not only that, they actually move the story forward. Every one of their actions leads to a reaction. The relationship between Guts and Griffith reminds me of the relationship between Brandon Heat and Harry MacDougall. They are a pair who are necessary for each other. Guts derives his self-worth from Griffith and Griffith derives his self-worth from controlling Guts.

The plot is one of the most tight I’ve seen. Even when there is a plot hammer, it’s so well-hidden and natural it just flows in like it was meant to be there. The setting is internally consistent and fitting for the tone and mood of the show. (Even if it’s a little bit bland.) The themes are well-presented.

Even the oft-complained about ending of the show neatly ties up the show if you consider the show to be about their friendship and not to be about fighting monsters. In fact, I would have problems reading the manga after watching the show because the only way the story could go from here is downhill.

In fact, I would recommend any anime viewer watch Berserk once (because I’m going to have some spoilers after this.)

So why not, huh? Why don’t I just make it my number nine and have done with it?

The answer is pretty simple. Berserk is not a show I enjoyed, it was a show I experienced. It didn’t make a mistake with its plotting or structure or character or theme. It didn’t make a mistake other than its final solution to its central question: Can a person challenge fate?

Berserk says no and it doesn’t say no in a fun, campy way of most American romantic comedies. It doesn’t even say no in the “this is why this has to happen” way Donnie Darko uses. It says no in a “the God hand will crush your petty existence” way.

It doesn’t let you off the hook. Martin is certainly right; you will like the Band of the Hawk. You will care about Casca. You will want Guts to figure out what motivates him to fight. Even if you don’t agree with him, you’ll even find yourself rooting for Griffith’s Machiavellian plots.

Then it will proceed to destroy those things, one by one, until they are lying bleeding and broken on the ground.

Because really, who’s rooting for the Ant-Christ?

 

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Why not s-CRY-ed?

To be honest I’ve liked s-CRY-ed since I first watched it when it was coming out on DVD out here.

I mean plot-wise, it really isn’t that different from most shounen style fighting shows. You have two guys, who don’t like each other; both of them are trying to get strong enough to challenge the other one in an all-out mano y mano fight. But honestly, if you watch shounen fighting shows for the plot, then you’re going to be sadly disappointed almost every time.

Because it’s the characters themselves that drew me into this show. In fact, it was how the characters were considered equally important (much like Yan Wen-li and Reinhard von Lohengramm), given equal screen time and both had compelling back stories and conflicts.

Oh yeah, and the fights were awesome.

But I never could really connect with it and it’s taken me a really long time to figure out why.

The metaphor of s-CRY-ed

The second part of the series always bugged me. You know, the part where suddenly Kazuma and Ryuho get sucked into Never Never Land and then the wacko guy from the Mainland shows up. It just seemed too inconsistent of a break in the plot. He’d spent a good fourteen episodes building this tension between these two worlds, why go and ruin it by switching up the story on the viewer?

And then I realized it. s-CRY-ed is a parable.

On the one hand, you have Kazuma, who represents the ideal of Freedom. On the other hand, you have Ryuho who represents the ideal of Security. (Now some person might say that he represents “Order” but I don’t think order and security are two different things.) Then you have Ryuho’s setting which is the reality of Security and then on the other hand you have Kazuma’s setting which is the reality of Freedom.

So the first part of the series is basically saying that: A truly free society will become an anarchic state where the strong pray on the weak. And a totally secure society will become a totalitarian state where no one can make their own decisions (and if they do then they get kicked out.) Now, I could spent a lot of time going into what each of the characters mean in this debate, but I don’t think it’s really necessary.

Because I’ve got to talk about Kyoji Mujo, the guy from the Mainland. The thing is that the first part of s-CRY-ed is really clear about what the metaphor is. I mean it’s even in the ads for the show. But the second half threw me. He didn’t have a clear-cut metaphor. And then it hit me: He’s Tyranny. Essentially he comes along takes the worst parts of Freedom and Security warps them to meet his own personal ends and then throws them back at the heroes. He differs from Freedom and Security because he only wants those things for himself and uses other people to get what he wants.

Okay, so there’ll probably be some spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the series, go watch it. And really why are you still reading this anyway if you haven’t seen the series?

So how does it all play out? Well Freedom and Security get together and kick Tyranny’s ass and the world is a safe happy place for everyone else. Why? Because Freedom and Security still don’t like each other and they have to spend the rest of eternity pounding each other into the ground. But neither of them can win because they are equally important.

So the moral of the story is, “Both Freedom and Security are necessary to keep a check on tyranny and provide a safe and free environment for the rest of the human race.”

Sounds good, right?

Except if you’re me.

On the nature of the Freedom vs. Security debate and why I think s-CRY-ed is so messed up.

I think George Orwell said it best when O’Brien was talking to Winston Smith. People don’t want freedom. They want security. In fact, human history is littered with cases of people wanting to feel safe and willingly giving up their rights to do just that. All you need to do is look at the rise of Manorialism after the fall of Rome to see that people will sell themselves into slavery so that they know that those pesky Vikings aren’t going to come in and raid their land and take their stuff. In a straight fight between those two values: security wins.

But freedom is the higher value. In so many ways, freedom allows people to do things, to follow their goals, to become participants in society rather than slaves to it. But the only time people chase after freedom is when they’re afraid of losing it. And then only if they don’t have any fear that someone might do something bad to them. Because if their security gets threatened they’ll give up freedom without a second thought and they’ll even defend giving it away.

So while, I agree with the basic idea of s-CRY-ed, Goro Taniguchi misses the point. Security and freedom aren’t equal values. Freedom is the higher value. It’s what should be preserved, both because it allows people the choice to do what they want, and because it’s so unnatural for humanity. Security is a vice. It should only be indulged when it’s necessary to preserve the safety and well-being of the society.

And that’s what bothers me about s-CRY-ed.

Why not Gundam Zeta?

Normally I don’t pick on the disabled.

But some people seem to really love Gundam Zeta, so I feel compelled to point out something. This show sucks.

Okay, okay. Maybe sucks is too harsh of a word. There are things about Zeta that are interesting. The relationship between Camille Bidan and Jared is one of those things. I’ve always liked shows that have dueling characters and show both characters being right if you look at the world from their point of view.

And I’ll admit the ideas in this show are interesting. I’ve always liked the tension between Earth and the colonies. I really like the fact that because of the war with Zeon, the Earth has become a dictatorship. I like that the world has come full circle. I even like the idea of super-humans who are trying to figure out what it means to be super-human. That’s the thing about Zeta, the actual foundations for an interesting plot are there.

But really that’s the only thing good I can say about the show. Everything else is a roadmap of what not to do in a fifty-some-odd episode anime. Take the pacing for example. For the first half of the series, it seems like a race for how many characters can get killed off in two episodes or less. It starts off as, “Oooo, new artificial Newtype is introduced. Camille meets them. They fight. Artificial Newtype dies. Introduce new artificial Newtype.” In fact the only villain who seems to last any length of time is Jared, and even he gets the shit kicked out of him more times than I can count.

It gets real boring really fast. But like a masochist, I kept on getting beat around by this series. The second half has the exact opposite problem: nothing ever gets resolved. Essentially an entire crew of bad guys gets introduced and NO ONE DIES. It keeps going on until it feels like there’s an entire parade of characters who steal the spotlight from the one or two interesting villains that the show has left. And what makes it worse is that bad guys get resurrected from the dead, just because they realized that they’d chewed through them too quickly in the first half of the show.

On top of all of that, you get super-combining, amazing Gundam stuff, which honestly is a death knell for any “real robot” show. It’s not that I mind improved robots. Because I really do like them in say Code Geass. But here they all feel hokey, and even worse, they feel like they were thrown in so some toy manufacturer somewhere could make an extra buck off of the people buying model kits.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the rest of the cast of thousands. I’ll be honest, I spent most of this show hoping Char would get knocked off. Hell, I spent most of this show hoping most of the cast would get knocked off. The only character who was consistently interesting was Jared. Even Camille got a little stale towards the end.

I won’t pick on the artwork or the soundtrack because the show is old. And the fact that they’re dated doesn’t really mean that much to me. There are plenty of shows with dated soundtracks and animation that are actually good shows.

It’s just that Gundam Zeta isn’t one of those.

Why not ef- tale of memories?

Warning: I will not use the words pretentious or overrated in this post. If you’re expecting them, well I don’t know now what to tell you. But they won’t be here.

Okay, so that’s out of the way. Now I have a confession to make, I’ve always had a soft spot for a good romance. For all of their faults, I do like Paradise Kiss and Kare Kano a lot.  I’m comfortable enough admitting that and ef is a good romance show.

In fact, the parts people would complain about (the crazy artwork, the overly dramatic, heavy-handed theme) all worked in the course of the story. Now, I will say that ef didn’t really do that much that Paradise Kiss and Kare Kano didn’t already do. They essentially had the same themes of following your dreams and the perception of self versus the perception of others. In this case, the show used memories as a way of dealing with those themes (go figure the thing is called “a tale of memories.”) But unlike those shows, ef was the perfect length. It is an exceedingly rare thing when I find a twelve episode series that should be twelve episodes.

I would say that the visual symbolism for the most part worked for the show. Granted there are parts that I’m still not sure that I understand, and parts where I think the creators just ran out of money. But the symbolism is consistent with the characters and except for a couple situations isn’t completely over bearing. (The stained glass window bit got really old.)

(Spoiler Alert!)

But good lord, the pathos. This show had enough angst to power an entire emo city. Now, I realize that this is part and parcel to the entire romance genre. (What would a romance show be if the main characters didn’t whisper each others names three or four times an episode.) But there are several moments in the show where it pushed it too far. For instance, there is a scene where one of the love interests is calling this guy she was supposed to meet. Now she’s in the process of getting stood up, but we get privy to the messages she’s leaving for him.

All of the messages she’s leaving for him.

All twelve or thirteen messages she leaves for him.

One or two would have been alright. It would have been heart-rending without being over bearing. Three would have been pushing it. I could have accepted five, but after that I started thinking about fast forwarding it through the scene. Simply because it felt like a trick so that I would feel bad for the character.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Chuhiro, the girl who loses her memory every thirten hours, who is essentially a Teddy Ruxpin playing a Country-Western tape. Oh yeah, and she’s lost her eye too, because she didn’t have enough going against her. Her storyline is nothing BUT angst. Granted, it’s not bad angst. It is understandable. But the one moment in the show where she stops being the little angst-girl who could was like a breath of fresh air.

But it didn’t last long.

But enough about the angst.

Because I have to talk about a film student.

Now, I give the show credit his name didn’t come up enough for it to stick in my head, which means that his dangerously self-referential remarks only have a face to pin to it. Honestly, when I heard the line, “I want to make the film that I want to make.” I just about shot out of my seat, grabbed a copy of “In Our Time” and smacked the computer with it.  Come on SHAFT, you don’t need to tell us to go screw ourselves if we don’t like your show.

Really, we can figure that out all by ourselves.

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Agree or disagree? Leave a comment or e-mail iniksbane@gmail.com

Why I like Shakugan no Shana (even though I probably shouldn’t,)

(Okay, I’m done writing about heavy stuff for a while. I’m going to actually write about anime.)

To be fair, I thought about titling this “Why Not Shana?” but Shana isn’t a title that should be in anyone’s top ten. And it never was a contender for my number nine spot even from the point when I popped in the first disk. Or even after I saw the first episode at Otakon.

Really, there’s nothing about this series that really shines. The artwork is all right. It isn’t anything horrid, but the character designs aren’t all that surprising. And the inclusion of Willemena (or rather her maid outfit) sent shudders up my spine as soon as I saw it. The story is pretty much sucked straight out of it’s predecessors. It’s just the current spiritual sucessor to shows like 3X3 Eyes, Chrono Crusade and Blue Seed. Right down to the bombastic, big breasted, exorcist or should I say flame haze or whatever this iteration is calling it.

But all that said, I really like this show. And a lot of it has to do with Shana and Yuji Sakai. Now sure, you could toss Shana into the tsundere basket and say that she’s just another character. But I think that’s doing the show a disservice. What I actually find compelling is that the creators decided to make Shana a woman at all.

When I compare it to Blue Seed, the roles are completely reversed. The tough competent lead in that one is a guy, who treats the female lead like a obligatory nuisance. In Shana, it’s the female lead who treats the male lead as an obligatory nuisance.

And the male lead, isn’t the normal milquetoast, “Oh does she love me or hate me?” character. He actually has morals and values and compassion for his fellow man. He actually does stuff (which is always a big thing for me and protagonists). He tries to understand Shana, and yes, he does try to change her. But for the most part, he remains a thoroughly interesting a compelling hero.

Topping all of that off, there was something about this series that actually elicited an emotional reaction. For instance, I was actually concerned that he might actually fade away even though I knew that there was another four disks in the series and they weren’t going to kill off the main character. I’m not sure if it had to do with killing a character off so early, or if it had to do with a well-used soundtrack. But to be honest, to get any kind of emotional reaction out of me when it comes to a series like this is like squeezing blood from a stone.

So while, it might just be more of the same. It was definitely a good “more of the same”.

Why not Now and Then, Here and There?

Sometimes there are just shows that push the boundaries of what anime can and can’t do. And I don’t mean in a technical aspect, but in a storytelling aspect.

Now and Then, Here and There is one of those shows. There are plenty of those types of shows in the history of American television – NYPD Blue comes to mind – that do things that make the average viewer squirm. They take a subject throw it in the viewer’s face and say, “Now deal with it because this is real and if you can’t deal with real then you’re living in a fantasy land.”

Now and Then, Here and There does that. It takes all the horrors of war and men and mashes it into 13 episodes. Much like El-Hazard or Escaflowne, the show follows the story of a boy named Shu who is transported far into the future into the middle of a war. Initially he’s trying to save the life of this mysterious girl named Lala-ru, but he ends up getting imprisoned, conscripted, beaten and otherwise abused. All through it, he mantains his optimism that somehow, tomorrow will be better.

This show is brutal, really brutal. It’s so brutal it makes Elfen Lied looks like corn syrup with red food coloring. It makes 24 look like a walk through Main street, USA. And that’s what makes it good. It doesn’t shy away from the violence, from what people might call the “reality of the scene”.

So why not? I like shows that take risks. I like shows that take the expected and twist it around and give me something bleak and horrible and yet hopeful. This does all of that.

Except that Shu simply falls flat. Yes, his optimism is what pulls the story along, but it feels forced, like someone in the planning stages said “Wait, if we have a character who’s dark here in this really dark world then people are going to tune out.”

And they’re right. Most reviews I’ve read have touted Shu’s optimism as one of the reasons that they kept watching. But over the course of 13 episodes it doesn’t change. He never waivers. Never has a crisis of conscience. Let’s face it, the guy gets hung outside for three days, and he doesn’t feel bitter about it. He’s given a choice between killing to stay alive and not killing, and he chooses not to kill. The guy has absolutely no moral gray area.

This doesn’t just mean I have to suspend disbelief. No I have to take it out back and shoot it in the head. Because no one who goes through what he goes through and could come out saying, “Yes give me another.”

And not only that, but he ends up just being a catalyst. Essentially because all of the other characters give into bitterness and despair, he’s the one who’s there to provide conflict. He’s the one who’s there to tell their stories. And having a main character who’s not really the main character, while an interesting device, doesn’t make for the most involving storytelling.

And no amount of blood and guts can fix that.

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Why Not Fullmetal Alchemist?

So I’ve been trying to figure out why Fullmetal Alchemist isn’t my number nine. I mean it has everything I could ever want in an anime. It has a multi-layered plot, a great cast of characters (many of whom are pretty morally gray) and an actual Western style fantasy world that doesn’t suck.

And to be fair, it’s taken me two weeks to come to an answer. It pretty much boils down to two things. First the hype. Oh god, was there hype. I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting someone yelling about how stupederrific the show was. And how I was missing out on the Second Coming by not owning it RIGHT NOW. Now I’m a contrarian by nature. If someone tells me I’m going to love something, I’m automatically skeptical. And the more they tell me I’m going to love it, the more skeptical I am.

Then I watched it. And it was good. But, something bugged me about the series and it wasn’t the ending, or rather it was the expectation of what the ending should have been. Which leads me down the twisting road to the second thing that bugs me about Fullmetal Alchemist.

Now this second part may have some spoilers. If you haven’t seen the show, I’d recommend watching it, just so you know what the hell people are talking about when they bring this series up.

On Edward Elric

So, it all starts with the fact that I read a lot of fantasy novels. I’ve read all of the new classics and some of the old classics, and in general there are a lot of similarities between the classic shounen hero and the classic fantasy hero. Basically, your classic fantasy hero is usually a young person, who has either some extraordinary power or destiny which will alter the course of the world as we know it. For example, Frodo has the ring which he must destroy to save Middle Earth. Another example would be Arthur and pulling the sword from the stone.

Basically Edward Elric by all accounts appears to be another case of young hero/big destiny. He’s got all the traits, he’s idealistic, he can perform alchemy without a circle and all the powers that be want him to dance to their tune or want to kill him, whichever is more convenient. In fact, he goes through all the steps of the classic epic fantasy. He finds out the secrets of the world, after being involved in major battles and ends up taking on the big evil of the world.

And wins… kind of.

Wait. That’s not right. Middle Earth was saved. Sure Frodo had to leave but that was an afterthought. The long history of classic fantasy heroes like Shea Ohmsford, Garion, Pug, Erik von Darkmoor, etc never ended up losing. Sure things might get dark for them, but could you imagine Luke Skywalker getting banished from the galaxy at the end of Star Wars? Of course not.

So, there has to be something else going on there. Why would Edward just get banished at the end? It had to be on purpose. Why else would a very well constructed story risk losing the viewer at the end? Then it dawned on me. Edward Elric isn’t a classic hero at all. He’s a tragic hero. And when I say tragic hero, I mean in the Greek sense.

Something that always bugged me about the series was that in cast of morally gray characters ranging from Mustang to Scar, why were the only morally pure characters Ed and Al? Sure they’d attempted a human transmutation, but it wasn’t out of an act of malice or greed, but an act of love. Now if Ed was a classic fantasy hero, it’d make sense because he would be the moral pole everyone would flock to.

But as a tragic character, that same idealism turns into his fatal flaw. He didn’t just attempt human transmutation out of love, but out of a belief that he could make things right. And again, even after being punished for his hubris, he sets out to make things right by finding the Philosopher’s Stone. When he finds out that his search is being manipulated, he sets out to make the world right. And ends up losing his brother in the process. And in a final act of hubris, he makes one final attempt to set things right and ends up banishing himself from the world entirely.

So while ostensibly his quest is for the Philosopher’s Stone, really his quest is to find a way to set things right.

On the nature of Fullmetal Alchemist

All of that lays the foundation for what my real problem with the series is because in the end Fullmetal Alchemist is social commentary. And fantasy has a long history of good social commentary. The parallels are pretty obvious. Alchemy is science. The State is America. Ishbal and Lior are the Middle East.

So the question becomes what does Fullmetal Alchemist say, in this case, about what is wrong with the world. The quest starts with alchemy. Now the series pretty quickly dismisses alchemy itself as bad. It’s merely a tool it can be used for good or evil. It’s how people decide to use it. So does the root of the world’s suffering simply come from the darkness of man’s heart. Well sort of, but it goes deeper than that.

The biggest type of suffering there is in Fullmetal-land comes from war. So of goes our intrepid hero, like Antigone to her brother, he must find the cause of war. At first, he questions the soldiers, finding out that while they did commit the acts they were under orders to do so. And they did not feel any joy in following those orders.

So down the rabbit hole we go. If it isn’t the soldiers that cause the problems, then it has to be the government. After all it is they people in charge sent those troops. But the government is controlled by soulless puppets who serve another master. So who’s in control of the government? Why someone with a different agenda entirely. In fact, it seems the root of the war is someone who wants to accumulate more power for herself.

Now we get to the crux of the matter. After all this searching and all this digging, what do I get at the end of it all. That people in power have an agenda that isn’t in the nation’s best interest? What the hell? With all the gray, all the multiple layers I have to peel away to get at the center, I find a truism that sounds like it came from a Ralph Nader ad.

Not only that, but the central message is: Sure you can challenge the powers that be, but you’ll end up with nothing but pain and loneliness.

That’s what bugs me about Fullmetal Alchemist. That behind all the smoke and mirrors, what we get is a blanket theme that has no gray in it.

And another one for the pile.

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Agree or disagree? Leave a comment or e-mail iniksbane@gmail.com.