The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 128 – Shadow Skill

October 12, 2015 by  
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Shadow Skill 1

A few of these past columns have come about after I came across a rare series that I not heard of before until I spotted something being sold in my local second-hand comic book shop, Sub-Zero Comics of Stockton-on-Tees. These include films Wicked City (No. 96) and The Sensualist (No. 97). Here is another title that I only just stumbled across this week.

Shadow Skill (which has the unfortunate initials of SS) began as a manga by Megumu Okada in 1992, which he wrote on-and-off for various different publications until he finished in 2014. There have been a few anime adaptations of it. Starting in 1995, these include a series of original video anime (OVA), although some of the episodes where condense into a movie in English-speaking regions, then a 26-part TV series in 1998, and lastly another OVA in 2004. The anime is mainly a martial arts series set in a fantasy realm.

It is set in the kingdom of Kuldar, also referred to in some translations as Karuta. It is a land based on slavery and servitude. To avoid this people take jobs as gladiators, known as “shavals” (or “sevilles”). Out of the current 59 shavals, central character Ele Rag is the youngest and only woman in the group, using a martial art known as “Shadow Skill”. She tends to leave destruction and debt in her wake.

Ele is followed by a boy named Gau Ban of the Black Howling. Ele found Gau as an orphan four years beforehand and took him in as a brother. Gau devotes himself meanwhile to studying Ele’s Shadow Skill in the hope that he too can master it, becoming the strongest fighter in the land. Together, they and other friends they encounter over the course of the series, including the sorcerer Faury and ranger Kyuo Lyu, travel the land taking jobs to try and clear Ele’s debts, as well as master their fighting skill.

Most reviews of Shadow Skill claim that this is a series for devoted martial arts fans, whereas those who are seeking something with more meaning and character development may want to look elsewhere. It is the true that there are plenty of good action sequences, but it is also true that the plot does not seem to go anywhere that much.

Elements of martial arts films, historical events, and even modern combat sports can reportedly be seen. According to The Anime Encyclopedia: 3rd Edition by Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy: “Okada’s clan terminology creates “families” of people who aren’t really related, defining the memories of “fathers” who weren’t necessarily their biological parents. Like sumo wrestlers, clan adoption brings a new name, and like the samurai codes of old, the ignoble death of one’s master forces a period of exile while the outcast seeks revenge. It also forbids the exile to use his or her former name, so SS contains a lot of people with  very long and cumbersome handles. The man known as Screep Lohengrin of the White Running in the original manga is just plain “Louie” here, for example.”

The Anime Encyclopedia also highlights over obvious problems with Shadow Skill in terms of production, such as Gau being introduced as a mute, but not long after that he is seen speaking. In the movie version, a team of Welsh voice actors made one character speak despite the fact their mouth is clearly not moving.

This is a series therefore that has plenty of flaws. The TV series however is considered better though, being closer in plot to the original manga.

The original OVA and film of Shadow Skill is released by Manga Entertainment. The TV series was released by the now defunct label ADV Films and only second-hand copies are available.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime Extra, Part VII – Race in Anime & Manga

October 9, 2015 by  
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Racism 1

There has been a bad news story from the world of manga over the past few days. You can tell it is bad because it has been reported on the BBC. Whenever the British press report on manga, it is hardly ever in a positive way.

A right-wing female manga artist named Toshiko Hasumi recently posted on her Facebook page an artwork she had created (see above), based on a photo of a 6-year-old refugee in Lebanon, taken by Jonathan Hyams for Save the Children. It shows this girl with the following caption, which is written in Japanese and translated here: “I want to live a safe and clean life, have a gourmet meal, go out freely, wear pretty things and luxuriate. I want to live my life the way I want without a care in the world – all at the expense of someone else. I have an idea. Why don’t I become a refugee?”

When this was originally reported by the English-language news website The Japan Times on Friday 2nd October, it was stated that a petition by the website ordering Facebook to remove what they believed to be a racist image had reached nearly 4,000 signatures. By the time the BBC reported it on Thursday 8th October, it had reached over 10,000 signatures. Hasumi has since voluntarily removed that image, but remains unrepentant, claiming she was the victim of left-wing activists saying: “I don’t want European nations to be victimised and hardworking people should not suffer by those fake immigrants. The simple reason I used a girl is, if I drew an old man it wouldn’t have gained attention. I am not denying that there are real miserable refugees. I am just denying those ‘fake refugees’ pretending like victims who are acting for their own benefit by exploiting the media attention on the real poor refugees.”

This not only brings up the question about whether or not this image is racist, but also on the subjects of freedom of speech and the right to offend. Europe is no stranger when it comes to offensive cartoons. Just take the examples of the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005 which led to riots and boycotts; or the anti-religious Charlie Hebdo cartoons from January of this year which resulted 12 people being killed and 11 injured by Islamist militants in Paris.

This also leads to something that I wrote back in September on the issue of pornographic anime and the law (Part VI), in which I wrote: “People should be exposed to things that make them uncomfortable to challenge their perceptions.” Now this manga that I have been exposed to do makes me feel uncomfortable, and it does challenge my perceptions. While I find it offensive however, I do feel that it would be hypocritical of me to sign any petition calling for it to be censored, especially when you consider that in my pornographic anime article I wrote that I feel that some anime pornography that are illegal in Britain should be considered legal. People will disagree with me on that.

The whole problem is that the issue of freedom of speech and the right to offend is becoming so increasingly politicised. While I support some aspects of political correctness and think it is a good thing that in polite public society we should try and avoid using language and image that might offend, in private society the rules change. You would not say and do things on the street that you would do at an event that had an 18+ age limit.

Over the decades, it has seemed that censorship has moved from something that those on the right support in terms of removing things they consider to be foul-mouthed or too sexual when they are not, to something the left support in terms of removing things they consider to be racist or sexist when they are not. The problem for me is that people are now so keen to jump on the bandwagon to make themselves look like they care more than anyone else.

Take an example outside the world of cartoons and something closer to home: the Dapper Laughs controversy. People said he was sexist, they protested, they got him off the air, and his career has since been forever tarnished. Since then however, people have been trying to defend his right to offend, saying that the performer Daniel O’Reilly was the victim of elitism and was unfairly censored. Concerning this, I don’t think anyone comes out of it well. Not just O’Reilly, but those who attacked him because they are now seen as supporting censorship, and those who defend him because they are now seen as being sexist. Even worse are websites like Spiked, a site that sometimes makes the Daily Mail look like Jeremy Corbyn supporters, whose defence of Dapper Laughs at times feels like they are trying to make him into some sort of right-to-offend martyr, while seeming also wanting to left-wing comics on BBC panel shows to go away.

Personally, I think the problem with Dapper Laughs is not that he told material about rape: many other comedians have done it, and tackled the subject well. I think the problem with Dapper Laughs is simply that he was unfunny, and not good enough to have his own ITV2 show in the first place. In my view, he is simply not funny, QED.

Getting back to Toshiko Hasumi’s manga however and the subject of race, this is something that Japan, very much a mono-culture, has problems with. Out of 5,000 potential asylum seekers coming into the country last year they accepted just 11, despite the country’s declining birth rate. The country’s conservative nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made many comments downplaying Japan’s wrongdoings during World War II.

It is also rare to see non-white characters in anime in manga. When Revolutionary Girl Utena (No. 125) was broadcast in the 1990s they were complaints from racist viewers about one of the main characters being black; Magi (No. 67), a series based on the Arabian Knights depicts nearly all the characters as white despite being set in Arabia; Hetalia: Axis Powers (No. 26), a comedy set in WWII in which the characters are stereotyped personifications of nations, got so many complaints from South Korean viewers that the depiction of their country was offensive, that the series never made to TV and only got broadcast online, despite that fact South Korea only appeared in the print manga; and Toshiko Hasumi herself has frequently posted anti-Korean material on her Facebook page before she drew her refugee manga.

In terms of freedom of speech, the more I read about the more I think that it truly does not exist. When people say: “I believe in freedom of speech”, what they are really saying is: “I believe in freedom of speech – for everyone who agrees with me.” Everyone, and I do include myself in this, only believes in what they want to believe. If you are left-wing, who will only believe truly in left-wing media; if you are right-wing, you believe in right-wing media. You will shut-out what you don’t like. Politics is becoming increasingly polarised. The left and the right are becoming increasingly antagonistic and no-one wants to go in the middle because it doesn’t satisfy anyone.

I think that what Toshiko Hasumi proves is that unity is becoming unlikelier than ever. Everything is becoming more tribal, whether it is political left and right-wing groups online, pro and anti-censorship; or cultural, such as the relationship between Syrian refugees and the rest of the globe, Scotland and the UK, the North-South divide, or just rivalry with the next town. It sadly seems that conflict of all kinds is becoming increasingly likely.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 127 – A Certain Scientific Railgun

October 5, 2015 by  
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A Certain Scientific Railgun 1

A few weeks ago this column covered a series called A Certain Magical Index (No. 124), which mixtures elements of fantasy, action and religion. One of notable aspects about this anime that was brought up was that this is one of the few anime to have produced an equally successful spin-off. As it is out this week, now seems a good time to look at it.

A Certain Scientific Railgun has many similarities to its predecessor: they are both set in the same place: Academy City, a place full of schools and which is dedicating itself to improving the human mind and creating espers. Both anime are the same length in terms of the number of series, both of which had the same number of episodes. However, Railgun features science fiction and science fact rather than fantasy and religion. It is also more comedic, and some might argue even better than the original series.

The main difference is the lead characters. While Index focuses on the exploits of hopeless student Kamijo Toma, a student with no esper powers at all except that his right hand can stop any incoming attack, the main character in Railgun is a rival of his. Misaka Mikoto is a “Level 5” esper, one of the most powerful in Academy City. Her mental abilities allow her to control electricity. Her most famous skill is the ability to flick coins, which due to her electrical control become super-fast bullets. Thus she earned the nickname of “Railgun”.

The series also focuses on Misaka’s closest friends. One is her roommate Shirai Kuroko. She is a member of “Judgement”, the organisation which controls the peace in Academy City. She too is an esper, a Level 4 esper with the ability to teleport. However, when not protecting the city, Shirai’s main ambition is trying to make Mikoto fall in love with her. These exploits nearly always tend to backfire horribly for Shirai and just make Misaka angrier. Also with them is another employee of Judgement: a computer expert named Uiharu Kazari, instantly recognisable by the flower crown she always wears; and Uiharu’s best friend Saten Ruiko, a girl who is a Level 0 esper with no skills at all and is desperate to improve her abilities.

While many of the episodes are stand-alone stories, there are some longer-narrative tales. Most of these come from Saten’s obsession with urban legends. She learns about a device called “Level Upper”, which supposedly boosts the esper skill of anyone who uses it. Saten is desperate to get hold of it, even if this happens to be illegal to do so. Another legend concerns a woman who supposedly gets undressed in public for no logical reason. Misaka meets this woman, Kiyama Harumi, who turns out to have a certain connection with the mysterious Level Upper, which soon spreads across Academy City, affecting those listening to it in horrible ways, but perhaps not as horrible as certain earlier experiments that Harumi carried out years before.

Personally speaking, from what I have seen of both anime, I would consider myself to be one of those people who think the Railgun spin-off is better than the Index original. Do not misunderstand me: there are problems with Railgun. The soundtrack is rather dull. Both the plot and certain characters are at times badly written. For example as the character that is revealed to be the main villain who comes across as a bit too much of the typical insane-cartoony villain. There are also bits of the plot where you think: “Well, that’s convenient.” For example, one story features a huge monster let loose in a mostly deserted area, but the monster just happens to march over to a nuclear reaction which just happens to be there. Well, that’s convenient.

However, the positives outweigh the negatives. The best bit about Railgun is the humour in it, which comes from the central characters. There are recurring elements such as Misaka having an obsession with rather cute things which she finds embarrassing to admit to because of her professional image. The funniest character though is Shirai, with her repeated attempts to pull Misaka. She is a rather perverted character. One sequence sees Uiharu and Saten going through Shirai’s vast collection of underwear, ranging from fancy lingerie to all-body fishnets, all of which Shirai gives detailed excuses for. Another scene sees Shirai trying to spike Misaka’s drink with an aphrodisiac, only for Shirai to drink it herself. The comedy is wide-ranging. There is slapstick, and some pretty broad sexual humour, but then it is also balanced by sequences which reference classic films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Casablanca.

You do not need to watch Index in order to enjoy Railgun. Both can be watched separately without spoiling the other. If you prefer to go for one over the other then it is OK. If you are only going to pick one series to see however, Railgun is probably the more enjoyable of the two.

The first series of A Certain Scientific Railgun is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Animatsu.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 126 – tsuritama

September 28, 2015 by  
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tsuritama 1

There are several anime that have strange plots and settings, and some are totally surreal. This anime has a plot that is hard to imagine being made in the UK, or indeed anywhere else outside of Japan, combining two very different areas: aliens and angling.

tsuritama (with a small “T”) was a 12-part anime series released in 2012. It is notable not just for its mixture of subject matter, but also for its surreal humour. Aside from the minor details of extra-terrestrials and fishing, there is also the subject of bizarrely named ducks, mind-controlling water pistols, and unusual dances.

Yuki Sanada is a high school student who has moved with his grandmother to the island of Enoshima. Yuki has terrible problems socialising with people. Just trying to speak to strangers results in him sweating so much that in his mind he is drowning from embarrassment, while in actuality he is pulling a grotesque demonic face that makes him look angry.

Upon his first day at his new school Yuki learns he is not the only new student there. There is another new boy named Haru, who comes in wearing a peach-and-yellow polka-dot waistcoat, carrying a water pistol and a fishing rod, while balancing a fishbowl on his head and claiming to be an alien. His water pistol allows him to control whoever he soaks.

Haru pressurises Yuki into taking up fishing, both of them being guided by another student, the “Fishing Prince” Natsuki, famed for his skill. At first Natsuki is angered by the lack of devotion, but eventually Yuki and Haru put in the work and become good at angling, with Yuki finally managing to land a big one. Yuki would like to leave it at that, but then Haru decides to move into his house. Not only that, but Haru and his sister Koko now ask Yuki to try and land a gigantic fish which they claim comes from their alien planet.

But then another person enters the mix. A new student joins Yuki’s class: a 25-year-old turban-wearing Indian named Akira Agarkar Yamada, who comes in with his pet duck Tapioca. Akira becomes friendly with them, but he is actually a member of DUCK – the Defensive Universal Confidential Keepers – whose job it is to find and remove aliens from Earth, and he has his eyes on Haru. In terms of the alien fish Haru wants Yuki to catch, Yuki will have to land it quick because it is having a strange influence across Enoshima, by forcing everyone to do the same strange dance.

tsuritama is, as you can probably tell, pretty damn bonkers. If you like your surreal comedy, this is a series that you will enjoyable. If you are expecting lots of double-entendres about gasping your rod and checking your tackle, you are better off looking elsewhere. The characters are fun too. Probably the best of them is Haru: a fun-loving alien being with his mind-bending powers, strange clothes and funny habits.

However, this is not just a funny series, but also one that contains a lot of information. If you do not know anything about angling then this is a fun way to learn about it. It even takes what might be seen as rather dull plotlines about getting the right equipment or leaning how to cast your line, and makes them entertaining.

Series like tsuritama show that even the strangest subjects can be made the subject of a funny, entertaining TV show. If you are looking for an anime that is somewhat out of the ordinary, then this is one to watch.

tsuritama is released on DVD by MVM Films.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime Extra, Part VI – Pornographic Anime and the Law

September 25, 2015 by  
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This week is “Yaoi Pride Week”, an event devoted to anime’s famous homoerotic genre, organised by the Yaoi Addiction Society – possibly the only addiction society devoted to promoting the addiction. Because of this, it seems a good idea to examine the world of anime’s more pornographic works in a legal context.

This is of particular importance here in the UK, where not only are their laws outlawing “extreme pornography” and in 2009 the Coroners and Justice Act made it illegal to possess “pseudo-photographs” and other prohibited images such as drawings of underage children. The first prosecution happened to near to where I live in Teesside, where in October 2014 a man was given a nine-month suspended sentence for possession what the court considered to be explicit manga images, including some underage material.

This has sparked a long-running debate about whether drawings of underage sex are a problem, one that in Japan has been running for years. On the one hand, those who want it banned believe that pornographic drawings and cartoons should be treated just the same as photography and films, should be covered by the same laws, and anything paedophilic should be outlawed. However, those on the other side argue that to ban such drawings is an attack on freedom of speech, that no-one is actually being harmed because they are just illustrations and no-one is actually being made to perform said sexual acts, and that there is no conclusive evidence to show that such images do or do not increase the risk of sexual abuse.

In Japan, the laws on pornography are less strict than those in the UK. As has been covered before, the only real restriction is on the showing of genitalia. Other than that, everything else seems to be OK, including underage sex. This falls into two main categories: lolicon and shotacon, which in the west tends to mean anime depicting pubescent or pre-pubescent girls and boys respectively. Probably the most (in)famous example is a three-part OVA (Original Video Anime) called Boku no Pico, which was dubbed “the world’s first shotacon anime”, which also features crossdressing and gay sex. The thing is, even though this series would most likely be considered illegal in the UK, if you type “Boku no Pico” into Google the very first page includes links to where you can watch it. It should be pointed out that the series has never been released legally in any English-language territory (Region 2 UK, Region 1 USA, Region 4 Australia, etc.), but you can see the trailer on YouTube.

The big problem is human curiosity. When you know that such a series exists, and that you can easily watch it online, then you are more likely to watch it. People do not like being told what to do, and if you tell someone “you shouldn’t watch this”, then reverse psychology may well take effect. We have already covered in this column before about the time when the press and parliament were concerned about the release of the anime Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend (No. 49) which featured tentacle rape, publishing articles and giving speeches about the need to “ban this filth”, when all it did was give the anime huge publicity and boosted sales. Similarly, I know that Boku no Pico contains material that is probably illegal, but at the same time I want to judge it for myself.

This expands into lots of other areas. Take for example the issues of fan-art and slash fiction. There are many people in both Japan and elsewhere who may take the characters from one or more anime and depict them embracing romantically or in a manner that is totally pornographic. However, one or more of the characters might be underage. Common examples include the lead characters from Black Butler (No. 10), Ciel Phantomhive and Sebastian Michaelis, where Ciel is 13, while Sebastian’s age is never given – a thorny and horny problem considering that Sebastian is a demon and is possibly ageless. Another common setting is anime with male sports teams, often set in schools, such as the swimming-based Free! (No. 17) or volleyball-based Haikyu!! (No. 116).

I do personally believe that there is some snobbery when it comes to censorship of cartoons and comic books over more “respected” art-forms such as film and literature. Take for example the novel Lolita, famous for depicting an underage sexual relationship, and from the anime term “lolicon” comes from (“Lolita complex”). This is considered one of the modern classics of literature and hugely respected, and has been adapted into a live-action film twice. The most critically acclaimed yaoi is the light novel series Ai no Kusabi (No. 37), in which one of the lead characters, Riki, is: “Almost sixteen.” When both Lolita and Ai no Kusabi were adapted for the screen, Lolita for the first time in 1962, and Ai no Kusabi’s OVA in 2012, the younger characters both had the ages rounded up to avoid controversy. In Lolita the title character went up from 12-years-old to her early teens, while the English-language subtitles state that Riki is 18 rather than 15. It seems you can get away a lot with the written word, but if you try to depicted visually this somehow makes it worse for no reason I can think of.

The major issue here is whether underage or extreme pornographic draws actually have an effect. The problem is that there has never been a conclusive study into the subject to prove whether it does or does not, and if there was people would still argue about the end result.

Personally, I am sceptical about the effects pornography has. I worry more about the everyday sexism and homophobia you see around you. People say pornography is sexist, but pornography laws are also sexist. Last December the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 banned amongst other acts in porn films “female ejaculation”, but “male ejaculation” is legal. So you can see 100 men cum all over a woman, but if that woman “squirts”, that’s apparently too far. Even worse are these awful titles like Fifty Shades of Grey which are so inaccurate in their depictions of things such as BDSM, and are worse that a lot of normal pornographic material.

I for one think that the laws on pornography in the UK are too restrictive and many should be repealed. People should be exposed to things that make them uncomfortable to challenge their perceptions. On the subject of animated and illustrated pornography I would say this: I don’t wish to be pedantic, I don’t wish to be boring, but as far as I can tell, you can’t fuck a drawing.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 125 – Revolutionary Girl Utena

September 21, 2015 by  
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Revolutionary Girl Utena 1

This week’s column returns to the genre of “magical girls”, featuring super-powered ladies battling against all kinds of evil goings on. However, as this title proves, magical girls do not necessarily have to be girly.

Revolutionary Girl Utena started as a manga, running for five volumes between 1996 and 1997. It was adapted into a TV anime, running for 39 episodes in 1997, with a film released in 1999. The series does not just feature fantastical elements, but also the romantic and the psychological. It also features other things that some people in Japan at the time thought as controversial. Perhaps this is not surprising when the central relationship in the show was interracial and between two female characters, which arguably make this series a yuri – lesbian anime.

The story begins with a girl named Utena Tenjou, whose parents died when she was very young. However, she was cheered up by handsome prince who gave a rose signet ring. As a result Utena has decided to embrace the lifestyle and behaviour of a fairy tale prince. Thus when she goes to Ohtori Academy she is the only girl in the entire school wearing a male uniform.

At the school she encounters a black girl named Anthy Himemiya, who spends most of her days growing roses in a birdcage-shaped greenhouse, and being the victim of an abusive relationship with one of the members of the school council. Utena tries to put a stop to this, but the only way she can do so is by taking part in a duel with swords, the victor being the one who can knock off a rose being worn by the competitor. She agrees, and her signet ring allows her access to a special part of the school, seemingly in another dimension, when she is able to fight and win her duel, thus winning Anthy in the process. Following this, Utena and Anthy’s relationship becomes filled with deeper meaning and love, with Utena always being challenged for control of Anthy. Thus Utena has to duel more and more, using a sword which Anthy magically summons. The School Council meanwhile are keen to win Anthy back, for they plan to use her power to “revolutionise the world”.

There are many elements as to why Revolutionary Girl Utena makes for a very watchable series. All sorts of the elements of the series are enjoyable: the characters, the plot, the music, but the main appeal is that the series is surprisingly.

Not only do you have the central character being a woman who acts masculine, but you also have the central loving relationship between two female characters, and the fact that it is between a white girl and a black girl. Now it should be pointed out that Utena was not the first magical girl series to feature such elements. Sailor Moon (No. 63), which features a team of magical girls, had two characters in a lesbian relationship, and another character has darker coloured skin than the rest of the characters, although it is never stated what race she is. The issue of race however was controversial in Utena. Surprisingly, even as late as 1997, people were ringing into the TV station broadcasting the show to make racist complaints about the fact that Anthy was black.

Another way that this series is subversive is in the transformation sequences. Most of the sequences in magical girl sequences tend to be rather flashy and sweet. In Revolutionary Girl Utena the main sequences tend to be a tad more interesting and dramatic to watch. For example, one sequence sees Utena opening a floodgate using her signet ring, which reveals a long staircase which she walks up to reach the area where the duels take place. There is a bit of magic where Anthy adds some adornments to Utena’s uniform, and Utena summons a sword from Anthy.

This series is for people who want to watch something out of the ordinary. It takes aspects of fairy tales and anime, and twists them ever so slightly.

The TV series of Revolutionary Girl Utena is released on Region 1 DVD by RightStuf. The film is released on Region 2 DVD by MVM Films.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 124 – A Certain Magical Index

September 14, 2015 by  
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A Certain Magical Index 1

People sometimes mention the “right hand of God” when talking about religion. This week’s anime covers a series which features both religion and a rather powerful right hand, albeit a human one.

A Certain Magical Index began as a series of novels by author Kazuma Kamachi, running between 2004 and 2010, with a sequel starting the following year. The first anime series was released in in 2008, with a second series in 2010 and a film in 2013. It is notable for not just being a successful series in its own right, but also for producing an equally successful spin-off, A Certain Scientific Railgun, which has also had two TV series of the same length as the original. However, this article will concentrate just on Index.

A Certain Magical Index is set in the futuristic Academy City, a town full of schools, many of which are dedicated to developing the human mind. Espers for example exist and many of the students are training to enhance their mental powers. Kamijo Toma however is a Level 0 esper, with seemingly no powers at all with the exception of one: his right hand has the ability to stop any incoming attacks. This is very useful when coming into fights with other espers, such as the prestigious Level 5 esper Misaka Mikoto, who can control electricity. Other than this however, Toma’s life is just one long string of bad luck.

His luck gets even worse when he wakes up one day to find a young girl dangling from balcony of his flat. The girl in question is a nun from the English Puritan Church, who claims her name is Index Librorum Prohibitorum. She has been trained to remember 103,000 forbidden texts (grimoires) and is being chased because of her knowledge. Toma eventually agrees to hide her, but when he comes home from taking a remedial class he is horrified to discover Index covered in blood, after being the victim of an attack from someone claiming to be a sorcerer.

The attacker, Stiyl Magnus, can control fire using magic, but Toma’s right hand allows him to defeat Stiyl. Toma takes Index to his teacher, the child-like Komoe Tsukuyomi, for her to be healed. However, he meets another sorcerer, sword-wielding Kanzaki Kaori, who tells Toma that she and Stiyl need to wipe Index’s memory because her knowledge of all the grimoires takes up so much of her brain that she needs her mind wiping of all other things once a year. Toma calculates that this is not needed and manages to prevent Index’s memory from vanishing, but at the same time he loses his.

The rest of the series follows Toma as he looks after Index without her noticing that his memory has gone, while also encountering more sorcerers who want to use the information that Index has, as well as the more scientific residents of Academy City who have their own problems. Toma finds himself having to deal with spells gone wrong, clones, alchemists and golems, proving that his bad luck is only getting worse.

A Certain Magical Index is a series which has its ups and downs. On the plus side the action sequences are very good. There is plenty of magical goings on to keep you entertained. Sometimes the action can be a bit gruesome: one scene for example sees one of the characters having their skin shed off their body.

Although it has to be said that the actual plot does at times seem to be lacking and sometimes you might find yourself drifting off. Also, while the original Japanese voice acting is good there are problems with the English-language dub, chiefly the fact that the actress doing the voice of Index is (as they usually always are) an American who makes no attempt to do an English accent despite Index coming from England.

The main aspect however of this series is that not only is it successful in terms of the original novels and the anime adaptation, but it went on to produce a spin-off which has been just as successful. A Certain Scientific Railgun concentrates on Misaka Mikoto and her exploits, but this is a series of another article.

The first series of A Certain Magical Index is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Animatsu.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 123 – Love Live!

September 7, 2015 by  
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Love Live! 1

Japan is a country that loves its pop idols. It is home to the biggest bunch of pop idols in the world, the band AKB48 – and when I say “biggest”, I mean their band has more members than any other band in the world. It started with 48 and it now has 140 members. It is also the band that sounds most like a knocked-off assault rifle. You could imagine some arms dealer on the phone saying: “Look, I asked for two dozen cases of AK-47s, and you’ve given me a load of bubblegum pop!”

Love Live! is an anime that follows a group of wannabe idols. However, it originally began across all sorts of media. It began in 2010 as a project between gaming publication Dengeki G’s Magazine, music label Lantis, and the anime studio Sunrise. The first anime series was broadcast in 2013, with a second series in the next year and a film in June 2015. As you can gather from all the companies and from the fact it covers an group of pop idols, it is not an anime series aiming for top artistic merit. Then again, some of the 3D animation in the show make Love Live! feel that it is not aiming for anything artistic.

The series revolves around the girls at Otonokizaka Academy. Pupil Honoka Kosaka loves the school, but is shocked to find that the school is not getting enough pupils and therefore may shut down. Honoka learns that another school has been attracting members because three of its members have formed their own musical idol band. Inspired by this, she forms her own band, getting her two best friends Kotori Minami and Umi Sonoda to join her. Due to problems with the school council their first gig only attracts a tiny number of people, but it is enough to encourage them to greater things.

Eventually, by taking suggestions from around the school the band names itself μ’s, pronounced “muse”, named after the artistic goddesses in Greek mythology. Other girls soon join the band: pianist Maki Nishikino, tomboyish Rin Hoshizora, idol loving Hanayo Koizumi, and president of the school’s Idol Research Club Nico Yazawa. The school council, consisting of somewhat snobbish president Eli Ayase and bosom-grabbing tarot-reading vice-president Nozomi Tojo, also and up having a hand in the group. As the series progresses the band attempt to enter the “Love Live!” idol contest, in order to attract more people to the school and keep it open.

In terms of positives of the series, the music itself is enjoyable. OK it is not the most profound music around but it is still fun to listen. The comedy is nice too, and I am also very fond of the band’s name of μ’s – that’s an Anglo-Greek pun created by the Japanese. That is a trilingual pun, and you do not see that every day.

However, there is much in this series to dislike. For starters, while the music is nice, the 3D animation used in the dance sequences is clunky and detracts from it. The plot is also rather dull at times, while the concept is rather unbelievable: bunch of schools set up an idol band to save their school just happen to learn that there is school idol competition, which is convenient. Plus if you buy the British DVD release you will find that there only a few extras and that it is only available in Japanese, with no English dub available.

The biggest problem with this series is the lack of artistic merit. It does feel like it has been written by committee. It does not feel as good as other musical anime such as K-On! (No. 28), which is not only funnier and better animated, but is also more successful in terms of its music. While Love Live! has reached No. 2 in the charts several times, K-On! has managed to get to No. 1.

There is also one other more trivial problem: every time I say Love Live! for some stupid reason I keep wanting to say it to the tune of “Park Life” by Blur. I have no idea why, but it keeps happening, and chances are it will happen to you now that you have read this.

The first series of Love Live! is out now on DVD from MVM Films.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 122 – Kiki’s Delivery Service

August 31, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Kiki's Delivery Service 1

As with last week, we look at another Studio Ghibli film being aired this week on Channel 4. Another one by Hayao Miyazaki as it happens.

Based on a 1985 novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono, Kiki’s Delivery Service was released in 1989, and was one of Studio Ghibli’s most successful films. It was the highest grossing film that year in Japan, and it created a wonderful and charming lead character, who is described in The Anime Encyclopedia: Second Edition by Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy as, “a character who deserves to be the patron saint of freelancers, students and motorcycle messengers.”

Set in a seemingly fictionalised European-like land (most likely Sweden given some of written language displayed and the fact that Miyazaki had visited Stockholm in 1971), Kiki’s Delivery Service follows the story of thirteen-year-old Kiki, a girl who is training to be a witch. It is tradition that when a witch turns this age that she should leave home for a year to study further afield. Thus she travels on her flying broomstick with her talking black cat Jiji to find somewhere to live and work. She visits the port town of Koriko, but gets into trouble when flying under a low bridge and causes a traffic accident. During this confusion she meets a boy named Tombo, who admires Kiki’s flying ability, but she has little interest in him.

Kiki struggles to find somewhere to stay, but luck comes her way when a local baker named Osono learns that a customer has left a baby’s dummy in her shop. Kiki uses her flying skills to deliver the dummy to its rightful owner. Osono therefore offers her shelter, and Kiki decides that as her one and only good witchcraft skill is flying that she should put it to good use by setting up a flying delivery service.

The story then sees her trying to make deliveries, slowly becoming friends with Tombo, and witnesses Kiki’s transition from childhood to adolescence, and the consequences of this, which are both happy and sad.

The main theme of Kiki’s Delivery Service appears to be growing up. It is about a child who tries to make her own way in the world, leaving the family home and setting up her own business. The only difference is that she has magical powers. The film is very sweet and heart-warming. In terms of Miyazaki’s pervious out-put before this period, it would be most akin to My Neighbour Totoro (No. 39), in that it also has a main female lead and also has no central villain. Kiki might sometimes have snooty customers, but that are not really bad people.

Another interesting aspect is film is the subject of flight. You come to realise that flying is something that occurs throughout Miyazaki’s work. His father was the director of a company that made rudders for Zero fighter aircraft during World War II, and this seems to have stuck a cord. Before Kiki there was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (No. 38), where the title character’s main transport is a special form of jet-powered glider. Last week we looked at Laputa: Castle in the Sky (No. 121) which features all kinds of strange airships. Later on Miyazaki made a film called Porco Rosso, in which the lead character is a former Word War I Italian fighter-ace who due to a curse is transformed into an anthropomorphic pig, and then his last film, The Wind Rises (No. 73) was a fantasy biography of the man who designed the Zero, the fighter plane Miyazaki’s father helped to provide parts for.

While Kiki’s Delivery Service is a very nice film, it must be said that not everyone was fond of it. There were complaints from conservative Christian groups in the USA who were concerned that this was a film aimed at children where the lead character was a witch. One group, the Concerned Women of America, demanded that people boycotted Disney, the company who released the film in the States, claiming the company was promoting witchcraft. This is of course nonsense.

However, the Americans do provide the saddest element of this fim. In the English language dub, the voice of Jiji the cat was provided by Phil Hartman, famous for his role in The Simpsons, who improvised some lines in the movie. It was his last film role before he was fatally shot in 1998. The English-language dub of the film is thus dedicated to his memory.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Studio Canal. The English-language dub is on Film4 on Tuesday 1st September at 16.20.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 121 – Laputa: Castle in the Sky

August 24, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Laputa Castle in the Sky 1

Over the course of summer Film4 have been and are currently screening the films of Studio Ghibli, so it feels right to have look at some of their films that this column has yet to cover.

While Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (No. 38) is often seen unofficially as the first Ghibli film because it was so similar in style to the studio’s output, the first feature film to actually be released by Studio Ghibli proper was the 1986 fantasy film Castle in the Sky, released in the UK and Australia as Laputa: Castle in the Sky. It was directed by future Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki, and deals with themes common in his work, in particular the issue of pacifism. Also, this film has a rather surprising British influence, beyond the obvious one in the title concerning the floating island in Gulliver’s Travels.

The film begins with an orphan girl named Sheeta who is on board a gigantic airship which is attacked by pirates lead by the old woman pirate named Dola. While trying to escape by climbing outside, she slips and it seems she will fall to her death. However she is wearing a magic crystal necklace which slows her descent to a gentle floating. She falls into a small mining village where she is spotted by another orphan, a boy named Pazu. Pazu takes Sheeta into his home, where he talks about his late father who once photographed the legendary floating island of Laputa. Most people believed his father lied, but Pazu plans to fly to Laputa himself one day to prove his father right.

Soon however Sheeta is chased by Dola’s pirates again, and later by the army, both of whom want her crystal necklace. After just managing to escape down a mine thanks to the power of the crystal again, Sheeta and Pazu learn from an old man that the crystal comes from Laputa, as it is used to make the island float. Upon leaving the mine Sheeta reveals to Pazu that her real name is “Lusheeta Toel Ul Laputa”, and that she is the last living descendent of the native Laputans. However, soon after she reveals this the army arrive and capture them both. Muska, a villainous government agent, allows Pazu to go free when Sheeta agrees to work for him, ordering her to use her crystal to find Laputa, and to the possibility of operating an old robot from the floating island.

As a result, Pazu ends up having to work with Dola’s pirates in order to rescue Sheeta, while Sheeta discovers the power of the crystal by accident, unleashing the power the ancient robot in the process, which turns out to have destructive powers. Thus it is a race against time as Pazu attempts to free Sheeta and prevent Muska from gaining horrific military might, as everyone rushes to find Laputa itself.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky will be remembered as the true starting block for Studio Ghibli – their first feature film, the one that started the most famous anime studio of them all. However, there are other elements of interest. Miyazaki’s idea had been around for a long time. While some of the elements of the original idea formed this movie, others found their way into other anime such as Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (No. 112). You can spot little connections in the animation. For example, the role of Dola and her pirates in the film is much like that of Grandis and her henchmen in Nadia, in that they start off as baddies but then join the forces of good later on. Also, the pirates in the film briefly wear similar outfits to Grandis’s henchmen, of white suits and hats.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky also has some interesting British connections. Aside from the relationship between this film and Gulliver’s Travels, there was also a strange connection with British political events. In 1984, two years before the film was released, Miyazaki travelled to Wales, and witnessed first-hand the Miner’s Strike that was occurring at the time. He admired the strikers, and the houses in Pazu’s village are based on the appearance of houses that Miyazaki came across during his time in country. It is strange to think that Welsh miners were part of the inspiration for a Japanese animated film.

This however is probably not the strangest fact about the film. This accolade goes to a rather bizarre record. At a key moment in the film one of the characters says the word “blasé”, and it is now a tradition in Japan when the film is televised to tweet the word at the exact time it is uttered. As a result, at 11:21:50pm on 2nd August 2013, 143,199 Twitter users all tweeted the word “blasé”, breaking the world record the number of tweets sent in a single second. Impressive to some, but I just think “meh”.

This is a film with Welsh roots, quirky online followings, and helped to establish the most famous anime studio of all. It is a film deserving of your time.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Studio Canal. It is being televised in English on Film4 on Monday 24th August at 12.45.

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