Let Them Eat Cake: ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept.

  Anime based on the manga of Ono Natsume tend to carry a very subdued mood. In contrast to the racy elegance of Ristorante Paradiso or the eerie hum of House of Five Leaves, ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. feels colorful and energetic while also carrying Ono’s characteristic stylishness.

Living in the kingdom of Dowa, an island nation consisting of 13 districts formerly at war with each other, Jean Otus works for ACCA, an organization underneath the king meant to keep the peace and mitigate corruption. Although daily life for Jean is fairly uneventful, he finds himself slowly learning about a potential conspiracy that might just undo Dowa’s peace.

ACCA is a very sleek, yet indulgent and fun show. Its characters feel like they’re cut from rare and valuable gems, with their colorful hair, fashionable clothes, and sharp silhouettes, further enhanced by the political intrigue that permeates their actions. But for every dramatic and tense moment, there are just as many emphasizing the relaxed and at times goofy attitudes of much of its cast. Seriousness and frivolity dance back and forth, with neither feeling trivialized or unwelcome.

One of the major positives of ACCA is its loving portrayal of food, particularly snacks and sweets. Throughout the series, baked goods are featured in both the background and foreground, acting variably as treats for the viewer to jealously eye, a way to highlight the differences between different regions of the island, and even as symbols of friendships that advance the narrative forward. Cakes, donuts, and even giant strawberries are among the many delectable items whose portrayals keep ACCA consistently fun and refreshing.

Aside from the food, what impresses me most about ACCA is that the series is quite unpredictable without feeling like it’s trying to constantly swerve the audience. Even Jean himself feels like a mystery at the beginning of the series, and the gradual reveal of his personality and goals is actually immensely satisfying. Motivations are kept close to each of the characters’ chests, but just enough information is given from episode to episode to keep igniting imaginations.

Of all the eclectic characters in this series, my favorite is Mauve, the director-general of ACCA who tasks Jean with trying to get to the bottom of coup d’etat rumors. Mauve’s stoic beauty and intelligence carry a kind of alluring yet intimidating air of mystery, and Jean’s own crush on her feels that much more relatable as a result.

In a way, ACCA feels like eating the world’s best strawberry shortcake. It’s smart and complex, yet also light and comforting. Its atmosphere is unique even among Ono’s works, making ACCA a success on nearly all levels.

 

Bodies Aparts, Souls Together: Your Name

An emotionally complex tale of humanity’s connection to both itself and the environment, Your Name marks Shinkai Makoto’s transformation from critically acclaimed director into social phenomenon. Breaking the box office record for animated films in Japan previously held by Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Your Name is a kind of culmination of Shinkai’s films, carrying many of its predecessors’ ideas and themes (lush background environments, adolescence, time and space) while also gearing them towards a more mainstream audience.

Your Name follows two teenagers who, one day, discover that they’ve been switching bodies without memory of doing so. Part-time waiter Taki is a resident of Tokyo, while shrine daughter Mitsuha lives in the small, rural town of Itomori. As they continue to get a very personal look at each others’ lives, the two find themselves growing closer despite being physically located on opposite sides of Japan.

Shinkai’s previous long film, Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, can be described as an attempt to make something more mainstream, even Miyazaki-esque. However, the film’s emphasis on atmosphere and scenery could not quite support the plodding narrative, leaving Children a significantly flawed work. Your Name, in contrast, ucceeds in tapping into the mainstream not only because of its thematic responses to the events of 3.11, but because he keeps the characters much more front and center compared to his previous works. In most Shinkai films, the backgrounds—especially the clouds—are so brimming with life that the environment becomes a kind of character in itself. With Your Name, however, the backgrounds are regressed just enough that Taki and Mitsuha stand at the forefront, while maintaining their signature luster or its aesthetic and narrative impact. Notably, the film does an excellent job of showing off both the cosmopolitan energy of Tokyo and the splendorous beauty of Itomori.

A few thematic concepts persist throughout the entirety of Your Name. One is “twilight,” written in Japanese in various ways but invariably consisting of the kanji for “who” and “he.” Twilight is viewed as a convergence point. Another is “threads.” According to Mitsuha’s grandmother, when their family weaves, they are copying the behavior of the gods. People can be viewed as threads that are woven, tangle up, break apart, and come together again. Mitsuha is known for the ornately tied ribbon adorning her hair, while Taki’s inability to replicate Mitsuha’s skill acts as one of the visual markers for their body switch. Multiple scenes of train stations in Tokyo draw parallels to threads, as they gather up on tracks, allow people to transfer, and then head out in separate directions. Dragons and their divine place in Japanese folklore also play a prominent role. Taki’s name means “waterfall,” which is associated with dragons, while the comet Tiamat that figures heavily in the narrative also alludes to the mythical creature.

Your Name deftly juggles a variety of elements without feeling overly complex. Its story tugs at the heart but also inspires, rendering it an unforgettable film. It may very well become the defining film of an entire generation.

Harem the Origin – Kizumonogatari Part III: Reiketsu

Monogatari protagonist Araragi Koyomi is a flawed and immature yet ultimately heroic figure. A teenager influenced heavily by his hormones, Araragi is nevertheless more interested in helping the weak and not succumbing to his loins. The Kizumonogatari prequel films tell the story of Araragi’s first foray into becoming a horny savior, with Kizumonogatari Part III: Reiketsu, completing the trilogy. Reiketsu provides plenty to chew on in terms of Araragi’s relationship to the other characters (both those in the movie and seen elsewhere), particularly the uniqueness of his “harem lead” position.

In the previous two films, Tekketsu and Nekketsu, a sympathetic Araragi agreed to become the undead servant of a dismembered vampire named Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade (later known as Shinobu). With his newfound immortal abilities, Araragi retrieved Heart-Under-Blade’s defeated her attackers and restored her limbs. Along the way, he befriended two individuals: the wise, buxom classmate Hanekawa Tsubasa, and the sly occult specialist Oshino Meme. In this third film, Araragi looks forward to regaining his humanity, but upon realizing that he’s restored a powerful 500-year-old vampire and thus a significant threat to humanity, Araragi resolves to put a stop to his own master.

Given the prequel status of Kizumonogatari, there is no mystery as to the outcome of this battle: both survive, though in significantly reduced fashion compared to how they’re depicted in this trilogy. However, just exactly how they reach these states of being is one of the goals of Reiketsu, and the conclusion is a kind of denial of resolution. It’s the sort of chicanery Monogatari is known for, where the wrap-up feels both neat and dirty, and your’e not sure if you’ve had enough or you want more.

For viewers of the various TV series, Shinobu appears to go through a fairly unusual personality change, from a silent background presence to a constant companion for Araragi, residing in his shadow. The final film of the Kizumonogatari trilogy, titled Part III: Reiketsu, provides the answer in full. However, given the timing of this film it (presumably) functions differently compared to its placement in the novel series. Whereas Kizumonogatari the novel introduces the foundation of Shinobu’s personality and its gradual restoration, the Kizumonogatari films act as the missing puzzle piece that finally brings sense to an incomplete anime image.

Shinobu and Araragi’s master-servant relationship (later reversed in the TV anime when she starts to refer to him as the master) essentially positions their relationship as being impossible to replicate by any other girl. They’re bonded by something far beyond love and romance. Unlike many harem scenarios where certain characters have a clear “lead” over the others, Shinobu as the “dependent master” becomes one of many equal female partners for Araragi, alongside his eventual girlfriend Senjougahara, his first (?) friend Hanekawa, and others.

Both Heart-Under-Blade and Hanekawa feature prominently throughout the Kizumonogatari films, but it is in Reiketsu that their differences in terms of their emotional/spiritual connections to Araragi are fully highlighted. In one scene, Araragi claims that he needs to fondle Hanekawa’s breasts in order to steel himself against Heart-Under-Blade’s tremendous bosom, but as much as Araragi tries to embrace the role of the stereotypically aggressive male in Japanese pornography—and as much as Hanekawa is ready for things to escalate—it’s ultimately only an act for him. In contrast, both Heart-Under-Blade and Araragi are more than willing to engage each other physically, albeit in the form of a violent battle instead of something sexual (though the smiles might imply otherwise). One is a very human relationship (albeit filtered through an assumed “right” behavior instead of lived experience) the other built on the supernatural. It’s telling that the most exquisitely animated moments in the entire film are Hanekawa removing her bra and the battle between Araragi and Heart-Under-Blade.

In Owarimonogatari, the latest Monogatari TV anime, Hanekawa is highly suspicious of the character Oshino Ougi. In order to convince Araragi not to go along with her, Hanekawa offers Araragi a chance to fondle her breasts. Araragi agrees to listen to Hanekawa, but when asked about it, responds that his decision to go along with Hanekawa was less about the prospect of feeling her up, and more about the realization that, if Hanekawa was saying this, it meant that she was deathly serious. With Reiketsu, I now understand that this entire scene is a callback to the events of Kizumonogatari.

I’m still not sure if splitting Kizumonogatari into a trilogy was the right idea, as I don’t feel like each film quite stands on its own without assistance. At the same time, I suspect 3+ hours of full-on Nisio Isin + SHAFT would feel a bit too overwhelming. Given that the films are all relatively short, it might be ideal for marathoning.

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Fight for Survival, Dream for the Future – Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

Gundam is a massive and unwieldy franchise. With a history spanning over four decades of anime, sequels, spin-offs, alternate universes, and more, after a while the distinctions between each Gundam series starts to blur. Each time there’s supposed to be a “unique” take on Gundam, they will often carry enough of the common tropes to be familiar, or will slowly jettison the new elements in favor of going with the tried and true. This is the perpetual challenge that Gundam faces, so it is to my surprise that not only did I enjoy the recent Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans TV series (which is not the shocking part; I love Gundam in general), but that I felt it maintained its identity and its high quality despite it being just the kind of series set up to derail itself.

Iron-Blooded Orphan (IBO) takes place in a futuristic world where battles are waged using giant robots called mobile suits. The story centers around the characters Mikazuki Augus and Orga Itsuka, two boys who belong to the bottom-most rung of society, uncharitably called “human debris,” and who at the start of the series are essentially indentured child soldiers for a mercenary group. Early on, they and their fellow human debris rebel against their masters, create their own mercenary group called “Tekkadan,” and fight to try and find a place in a world that literally calls them garbage. Along the way, they meet a number of allies, notably Kudelia Aina Bernstein, a young aristocrat from Mars with lofty ideals of justice and equality, an encounter which changes their lives.

On the surface, Mikazuki as the pilot of the Gundam Barbatos appears to be cut from a certain cloth of Gundam protagonist. As a highly skilled pilot who has fought from a very young age and whose lack of expressiveness makes him appear emotionless, Mikazuki is descended from previous characters such as Heero Yuy from Gundam W and Setsuna F. Seiei from Gundam 00. Where Mikazuki differs from the other two is how IBO highlights his connections with Orga.

Mikazuki is cold and merciless to his enemies, but within his friendship with Orga (it’s perhaps better to call them “brothers”), there’s a very unique connection. Mikazuki is not an empty shell, but he sees in Orga a strong ambition, and he essentially acts as a right arm for the sake of his long-time companion. Similar relationships exist between Mikazuki and Kudelia, as well as between Mikazuki and a long-time female friend named Atra Mixta. Other notable characters are Naze Turbine, a man who literally has a harem of women as his ship’s crew but is actually more about empowering women by giving them skills and educations, and McGillis Fareed, a high-ranking officer who shows what happens when friendship and ambition collide. These characters and relationships are among the many that collectively create a narrative where camaraderie and family persist in the face of harsh odds. IBO never abandons that sense of family, and it is crucial to understanding the role of Tekkadan in all of the conflicts that occur as the series moves towards its conclusions.

One notable aspect of IBO relative to past Gundam series is that, in spite of the series being subjected to the dreaded “split-season” approach, it remains remarkably consistent. One of the major pitfalls of many mecha anime from Studio Sunrise over the past 10 years or so is a tendency to try and improve aspects of the series based on marketing and merchandising feedback. Often times, the series end up losing much of what made them special in the process, but this never really happens with IBO.

In terms of emphasizing toy sales over story, IBO actually shows a great deal of restraint. According to series lore, Gundam Barbatos is just one of 72 different Gundams used in a previous conflict known as the “Calamity War.” In another series, especially one more focused on profits from merchandise, it’s likely we would have seen all 72 show up onscreen. However, even at the conclusion of IBO, only a handful appear. The Barbatos itself is also supposed to have a feature that allows it to integrate the weapons and abilities of other mobile suits, but the anime never really puts this front and center. Changes that occur in the Barbatos more reflect the changes and traumas that Mikazuki goes through as the series progresses.

Because IBO keeps its feet firmly planted and doesn’t fly off-track in a desperate attempt to cater to market research, Tekkadan never stops feeling like Tekkadan. No matter how powerful Mikazuki becomes, and no matter how much Tekkadan’s forces are bolstered, they never stop feeling like an underdog. The steps they take to get further are microscopic compared to the vastness of what surrounds them, especially when it comes to the realm of human society. One of the recurring aspects of IBO highlights this well. While Tekkadan gains military power, their approach to life, which is to treat themselves as a family first and a mercenary group second, often leaves them lacking and inexperienced in terms of diplomacy. On multiple occasions, success on the battlefield is contrasted with failure politically.

The story told in Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans feels like just a small slice of a vast world and history. Whether this is the end of the IBO universe or the start of something more, I come away immensely satisfied.

Fresh, Familiar, Fantastic: Granblue Fantasy Anime Early Review

I recently wrote my initial thoughts on the new Granblue Fantasy anime, which you can find on Apartment 507.

In short, I think it’s off to a great start.

[NYICFF 2017] Driven by Dreams: Ancien and the Magic Tablet / Napping Princess

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

There are few quotes in science fiction more famous than Arthur C. Clarke’s above. While the idea largely has to do with how science fiction extrapolates the possibilities that can be envisioned from scientific development, Kamiyama Kenji’s new animated film, Ancien and the Magic Tablet, plays with the notion in an interesting way, using a blend of dreams and reality to fuse technology and magic together throughout its narrative.

As a warning, while I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, the fact that this film is full of surprises only five minutes in means I can’t avoid talking about at least a few of the twists.

Ancien and the Magic Tablet begins with the story of a princess of a kingdom, Ancien, who is trapped in a cage above the royal castle. Her kingdom, known as Heartland, is ruled by her wise father, who is responsible for spreading the use of automobiles throughout their land. The reason Ancien is locked away is because she has a mysterious power to bring inanimate objects to life, including dolls and cars, an ability that would turn all of Heartland upside down.

…Except that it’s all a dream and the actual story is about a girl named Morikawa Kokone, a perpetually sleepy Japanese high schooler living in Okuyama Prefecture in the “far flung” future year of 2020—shortly before the Tokyo Olympics. Living with her widowed father, who works as a mechanic and programs self-driving car AI for the elderly residents of their town, Kokone learns that her father (or rather his computer tablet) holds valuable secrets worth a lot to some very important people. Kokone ends up on an adventure to Tokyo to get to the bottom of all this, all while she keeps having dreams about Ancien and Heartland—a world based on stories her father told her as a child—that mysteriously play out in reality as well.

One of the main thrusts of Ancien and the Magic Tablet (known in Japan as Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari, or “Napping Princess: The Story of the Unknown Me”) is a treatise on the benefits of self-driving cars. Ancien and her tablet are overt parallels to the AI technology that Kokone’s father possesses, and it’s portrayed largely in terms of its benefits. In regards to this stance, the film impresses me because it doesn’t try to remain neutral or passive in terms of the beliefs it’s trying to convey on such a controversial topic.

Given the writer and director Kamiyama’s previous works (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Eden of the East), a certain level of love and faith in technology is expected. While Ancien could do more to address the repercussions self-driving cars could have on the global economy, I don’t hold it against the movie too much because it does emphasize certain benefits that don’t come up as often. For example, it can be argued that self-driving cars aren’t only about taking away control, they can be about ensuring safety because of loss of control or disability. A more nuanced approach would’ve been interesting in its own way, but I can live without it at least for one film.

Going back to Arthur C. Clarke, the dream world of Ancien, particularly the “magic tablet’s” ability to “bring things to life,” are basically a fairy tale metaphor for real-world technology. However, because the events in Ancien’s and Kokone’s sides of the story mirror each other and even seem to influence each other, it’s an ongoing mystery as to how the two narratives are related. Is it somehow possible that Kokone is tapping into an alternate reality? The film keeps you wondering right until the very end, and the ultimate explanation for the relationship between Ancien and Kokone’s worlds is actually very satisfying and makes absolute sense.

Ancien and the Magic Tablet feels like the start of a conversation rather than a definitive conclusion. I hope we continue to see its themes in future animated films.

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You’ve Finished Kemono Friends! What Next?

So you’ve watched the last episode Kemono Friends, and found it to be an excellent conclusion to a surprisingly good anime. Its portrayal of friendship and its exploration of defines humanity has left you with lots of laughs and maybe a couple of tears. Now you’re looking for more, and you find that the studio behind Kemono Friends, YAOYOROZU, only has one other anime to its name. Its title is confusing and maybe even a little difficult to pronounce. Should you watch it? Is it as good as Kemono Friends?

The answer is yes, yes, YES.

Tesagure! Bukatsumono does not take place in a mysterious zoo/amusement park. Its characters are not animal-human hybrids. What it does have in common with Kemono Friends, however, is a keen sense of humor that uses both excellent timing and a kind of anti-timing to great effect. To begin to get an idea of what this show is all about, I recommend watching the opening with subtitles on:

Perpetually tongue-in-cheek, the self-aware and often aimless Tesagure! Bukatsumono revolves around four girls in the same club, whose main activity is trying to imagine what other clubs are like. As they all talk through their preconceived notions and try to make up their own “new and improved” versions of other school clubs, their answers become increasingly absurd, providing much of the humor of the series. The title of the anime roughly translates to “Let’s Find a Club!”

You might notice that something feels a little different about those “new and improved” suggestions that the girls of Tesagure! Bukatsumono make. The reason is that those sections are not scripted—they’re actually improv. The back-and-forth between the characters/actors is genuine, and any gaffes are kept in. If you enjoyed the next-episode previews of Kemono Friends with the penguin idol group PPP (or even their dedicated episode), Tesagure! Bukatsumono is that times ten.

Currently on Crunchyroll, each episode is roughly 13 minutes. Much like Kemono Friends, you’ll know if you enjoy the series after one or two episodes.

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