Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Shichinin no Nana

Sometimes anime is truly incredible, like a gift sent down from On High by the very gods themselves, and sometimes it's so bad that I'm amazed the fabric of the universe doesn't rend itself apart just to swallow it whole and forever spare mankind from its sight. Shichinin no Nana is somewhere in between--I can't say it's bad because there were a few moments that were funny, but I can't say it's good either because I seriously doubt I'd watch it again.

Shichinin no Nana pulled me in with an interesting premise--junior high student Suzuki Nana is studying for her entrance exams for high school, living with her inventor grandfather while her parents are working abroad in America. She has a crush on a classmate, Yuichi (no, not the pimpmaster from Kanon) who likes taking pictures, but she can't get the guts up to kokuhaku (confess her love) to him. Her supportive best friend, Hitomi, who IMHO is the best character in the series but sadly underutilized, encourages her to make chocolate for him for Valentine's Day. However, when she goes to make chocolate for him, she finds the microwave has been moved to her grandfather's lab, which is filled with useful inventions like a VCR toaster. She opens the microwave, and there's a strange crystal inside that's activated--in a blinding flash Nana is turned into seven, the original plus six copies that each have a different personality trait (easy-going, crybaby, angry, etc.). Now her grandfather's food bill's going up by seven times, not to mention they have to decide which Nana gets to go to school, and since they all have the same crush on Yuichi, they ALL want to go.

* some spoilers to follow *

There are a couple good points about the series: the animation quality isn't bad, and the original idea has a lot of potential. As much as sometimes it seems formulaic, there are a few parts where it breaks out of the mold: for example, Nana's crush, Yuichi, isn't just sitting around waiting for her to kokuhaku--he actually likes someone else. And the appearance of "Black Nana", the physical form of Nana's negative side if you will, towards the end makes for an interesting antagonist. The depiction of the life of a student desperately cramming for exams, knowing she might not make it, was very well-done too, and probably a more realistic portrayal than most anime where school is a kind of laid-back utopia. Plus Nana lives in Kyoto, which my wife and I have been lucky enough to visit a couple times now, and is easily my favorite city on Earth. The background music is also good--unique, but it fits the series well.

Then there are the bad points.

A few episodes in, it feels like the writers are already running out of ideas, and the original Nana plus the other six end up using the superhuman powers they get from the crystals, putting on "Nana Rangers" uniforms and forming their own sentai team. This is where it started going downhill for me. Hitomi, Nana's best friend and the only one who knows their secret, is an interesting character but her screentime's not all that high, and only one episode really put her in the limelight, which is kind of a waste. The "san-nin-gumi" of girls who sort-of bully Nana all talk at once, as do all seven Nanas half the time. That may not sound annoying, but believe me, it is. Yes, they're all copies of sorts of the original Nana, but the 98th time they all say the same thing in seven-fold stereo my ears start bleeding and it's hard to resist the urge to take the DVDs out and go skeet shooting with them. Yuichi also gets very little character development--he's kind of just there. The vice principal is just a walking stereotype, which makes Hitomi liking him very, very wrong. And the ending is...probably the worst ending I've seen since Maburaho.

Shichinin no Nana was licensed by Media Blasters in region 1 as "Seven of Seven" (Shichi-nin = 7 people, and nana is also "seven" in Japanese), in spite of the fact only the first two eps as I recall were ever fansubbed--but this was back in the anime boom years, and maybe they got the license really cheap. In the end, for me this just didn't live up to its potential, but your mileage may vary.

Haruhiism

It's been a while since I posted anything about Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, mainly because every other anime blog on Earth has done a million and a half posts about it since last March, the vast majority of which are better written than the incoherent ramblings I come up with. Still, it seems wrong not to review what was unquestionably my favorite anime series last year, so here goes.

It was last March when I first read about Haruhi coming out, in a thread on AnimeSuki's forums--and there were a couple things that had me counting the days until it aired from the moment I found that thread. Kyoto Animation doing it was the biggest plus in my mind, as even before Haruhi they were one of my favorite anime studios, and having done a good job with Fumoffu, Munto, and Air I was looking forward to what they'd do next. The second plus was the storyline--a girl who may be omnipotent but doesn't realize it. It just wasn't comparable to any other anime series I could think of, which is rare since usually with any given series you can say "oh yeah, it's kind of like X."

When it finally aired, I went as far as watching episode 1 raw, in spite of my Japanese skills being more than a little sorry. While I usually hate being thrown into the middle without knowing what's going on, in Haruhi's case the amateur video of "The Adventures of Asahina Mikuru" was entertaining enough between the bad acting, mahou shoujo poses, and Kyon's narration that I couldn't wait for more.

I won't summarize the plot since I think almost everyone on Earth has seen this (and if you haven't the Wikipedia entry sums it up better than I could) but here are some of the reasons why I love this series:

- The story. It's rare to find a truly original story, but this series has originality in spades. Being original doesn't necessarily mean good--a story about a pack of baboons who fight an epic battle against sentient ham sandwiches from Neptune using the power of their love for line dancing might be original, but you couldn't pay me to watch it. The storyline of SnY, on the other hand, managed to be original and still to suck me in from the very beginning. There's nothing more subjective than if you like a story or don't, but to me SnY is what good writing is all about. The author does a really good job of creating a world with enough mysteries and unanswered questions to keep me interested, but at the same time it reveals enough as it goes along to keep it from being frustrating.

- Kyon's sarcasm. Kyon's sarcastic narration is one of the best parts of the novels and the anime--I think in practically every episode, I laughed out loud at something he said at least once.

- Haruhi. Yes, she's bossy as hell, and in real life you can easily see why people would give her a wide berth. At the same time, though, she's always interesting and fun to watch, much more so than the seemingly endless stream of demure anime girls with the mental maturity of nine-year olds. And the fact that her character does develop and become more human over the course of the series makes her a lot more likeable in my mind.

- The animation. Kyoto Animation really outdid themselves with SnY--the battle between Asakura and Nagato, the guitar performance at the concert, the dance in the ending credits--there were more than a few jaw-droppingly well animated parts of this series, as you'd expect coming from Kyoani.

- The cast--for me, whether or not I like the characters is probably the biggest factor on if I like a series or not, and while some characters I liked more than others (Mikuru's scared rabbit routine just annoyed me for the most part) overall, I loved the cast of SnY. From Yuki to Koizumi, to even the minor characters like Tsuruya, they're all very distinctive and fun to watch. They all have enough character that there's no way you could mistake one for the other, and while they have quirks (and obviously powers normal people don't) they just come across as "real" to me.

Having said all that, SnY isn't flawless--the way they aired it out of episode order didn't bother me with the first episode, but it did get annoying quickly, especially when they broke up Lone Island Syndrome. The novels jump around some too, it's true, but I'd rather that both the anime and the novels had stuck to chronological order. Especially for a series like this that has some good character development, it really suffers when the timeline keeps jumping around. Watching it through in chronological order after the TV run finished, the flow of the story really went much more smoothly, and it was easier to see the growth in the characters. The first time I watched it, the gaps as it jumps around were frustrating enough I ended up seeking out novel spoilers to fill in the blanks.

Overall, I'd put SnY in the top ten anime series I'd want with me if I was stranded on a deserted island (an island with electricity and a DVD player). The cast, the dialogue, the animation, everything hit all the right notes for me. It passed the rewatch test with flying colors, and still doesn't fail to make me laugh. SnY is just one of those series that makes me thank God/Buddha/Haruhi/etc that I'm an anime fan.

Reading through the novels on Baka-Tsuki's site has me really looking forward to the rumored second season this fall, since there's some great material that hasn't been animated yet. After the first season, I was wondering if the author would start running out of ideas, but based on what's coming up in the novels, I think the second season could be even better than the first.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Crest of the Stars

Crest of the Stars is one of those classic anime series I'd heard mentioned often, but somehow never made the time / room in my Netflix queue to actually sit down and watch it. Thanks to the relative lull of the winter anime season, I corrected that injustice recently, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun to watch Crest of the Stars was, despite being in a genre (sci-fi) that I don't normally watch much of. For me at least, it easily beats the entire winter season, and if you're looking for something to watch until the deluge of spring shows comes, I'd highly recommend it.

CoS stars out slowly, with the first episode largely devoted to Jinto, a boy who lives on a planet that's about to be taken over by the Humankind Empire Abh. The Abh aren't like normal people--thanks to genetic engineering they're all beautiful, live for 200 years, have blue hair, and don't age like normal people. The Abh see themselves as "kin of the stars" and have little interest in the planets they conquer--they just want to control space itself and the "sords" (for those of you old enough to remember Buck Rogers, think stargates) that allow spaceships to travel long distances quickly. Jinto's father happens to be the president of the planet, and he makes a deal with the Abh fleet--he surrenders his planet without firing a shot in exchange for him (and by extension his son) being named Abh nobility. Fast forward to a few years later, and Jinto is preparing to go join the Abh military--before he can assume his duties as count, he has to serve in the Star Forces for ten years. As he goes to start his new life, he meets a beautiful Abh woman his age, Lafiel, who's come to pick him up to escort him to the Imperial Capital. Although at first he thinks she's an ordinary shuttle pilot, she's actually a princess, the heir to the throne of the empire, and while their cultures are completely different, they end up getting along well.

To start with the negatives, a lot of reviews criticize CoS for being slow-moving, and that's certainly true to a point--the whole first episode passes before Jinto even meets Lafiel. I like YKK and much more slow-paced series than CoS though, so this wasn't really something that bothered me. The space battles were well-animated if you're into that, but personally I could have done without the space action sequences, and been happy if the camera had just stayed focused on Lafiel and Jinto. Again, I'm not a big sci-fi fan though, so I'm doubtlessly biased there. And overall, I'd say 80% of the story in Crest of the Stars is focused on Lafiel and Jinto, which is good in my book. The only real complaint I have is the OP--the dramatic music isn't bad, but the fact it just pans over various space scenes makes this one of the few opening credits I skip over when I watch it.

On the positive side, the main reason I ordered the region 1 box set from Amazon as soon as I finished watching this comes down to Lafiel and Jinto. They've easily become one of my favorite anime couples, with Lafiel coming across as a little cold at first but deep down she's a much warmer person than she appears, and Jinto seeming laid-back but also being determined when he needs to be. The dialogue between them is really well done and comes across as really honest and real. Lafiel's trying to live up to the high expectations for her, knowing she has a long way to go and that almost everyone treats her differently because of her status. Jinto lost his adopted family of sorts when his father betrayed them and surrendered to the Abh, and now like Lafiel he's set aside as special due to his title. While at first it's Jinto who's the fish out of water, trying to come up to speed on life with the Abh and in a nice reversal of the usual pattern needing to be saved by Lafiel, later on in the series he shows he can be resourceful as well, helping Lafiel when it's her first time setting foot on solid ground. The way they learn to trust and rely on each other was really well done--it's the kind of character development that makes me thank God / Haruhi / Buddha that I'm an anime fan. They're a perfect example of the whole being stronger than the sum of its parts, and together are a great team and have good chemistry together.

While the show aired seven years ago, the animation is pretty good throughout, and the character designs, while not my favorite, aren't bad either once you get used to them. The spaceships and space battles seem very well animated to me, although since I don't watch much sci-fi anime admittedly I don't have a great frame of reference to compare them to. Crest of the Stars ran for 13 episodes, and was followed by three sequels: Banner of the Stars (13 episodes), Banner of the Stars II (12 episodes), and Banner of the Stars III (a 2 episode OVA). In region 1, Crest of the Stars and Banner of the Stars I & II are licensed and available in cheap box sets, while Banner of the Stars III is available fansubbed. I finished watching Banner of the Stars, but since it's focused on the war in space more (there are six full episodes just devoted to the climactic battle) I don't think I'll buy Banner--there are a few good Lafiel-Jinto moments in Banner, but unfortunately not quite as many as in Crest of the Stars.

If you're feeling the winter season blues, and are looking for something to re-ignite your enthusiasm for and appreciation of anime, I can't recommend Crest of the Stars highly enough. I'm still kicking myself for taking this long to get around to watching it.