Friday, November 23, 2012

Spirited Away

Another Miyazaki Hayao film that’s one of my favorites is Spirited Away, or Sen to Chihiro Kamikakushi.  This story is about a young girl named Chihiro who is very unhappy because her family is moving and she has been uprooted from her friends and school.  The story begins with Chihiro and her parents driving to her new home. They take a wrong turn along the way, and end up on a dead end road.  At the road’s end is a tunnel which seems to lead to an abandoned theme park.  Against Chihiro’s will her parents explore and Chihiro ends up taking an amazing adventure. 

It seems that the “theme park” is actually a small town and hot spring/bathhouse that caters to the gods.  Because Chihiro’s parents gluttonously help themselves to the gods’ food, they are turned into pigs, and Chihiro must find a way to rescue them all.  In order to do that Chihiro is befriended and helped by a boy named Haku who works for the witch named Baba-sama who owns and runs the bathhouse.  Chihiro manages to get a job working at the bathhouse, makes new friends and begins to grow up, learning to fend for herself and working to find a way to rescue her parents.  When she signs the contract to work for Baba-sama, Baba-sama steals part of her name changing her from Chihiro to Sen.  Haku helps her remember that she’s Chihiro.  He also helps her stay in the realm of the gods in the first place and helps her achieve her purpose of rescuing her parents.  Along the way Haku runs into trouble with Baba-sama’s twin sister, also a witch, and Chihiro discovers Haku is a river god himself.  She ends up rescuing him also, eventually returning his rightful name to him which was stolen from him by Baba-sama when he began working for her.

At the start of the movie, Chihiro is very near the top of the list of all time worst whiny, crybaby characters.  Through the course of the movie though she grows and changes and becomes a strong young girl.  In the end Chihiro rescues herself, her parents and Haku, and is instrumental in rescuing a strange god named No Face and an old river god.  She also changes the lives of several other characters for the better, most notably Baba-sama’s large son.

This film is about a young girl growing up, but it’s also has a lot of life lessons along the way, about accepting what life hands you and dealing with it, about supporting your friends and accepting them, even about not being a glutton.  It’s wonderful to watch and of course with Joe Hisaishi’s music, it’s wonderful to listen to.   I would honestly be hard pressed to decide which Miyazaki film is my favorite, but this one is definitely near the top.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fushigi Yuugi

I suppose I should talk about a series that was one of the first anime series I ever watched, Fushigi Yuugi.

Fushigi Yuugi follows the exploits of a middle school girl named Miaka who, along with her best friend Yui, is dragged into a feudal Chinese-type world in a magic book called “The Universe of the Four Gods”.  Miaka begins reading the book, is pulled into that universe and then must live/create the story through to the end.   The world she finds herself in is ruled by four gods who occupy the four corners of the sky, Suzaku in the south, Genbu in the north, Byakou in the west and Seiyuu in the east.  Each god is served by the seven constellations around them in the sky.   Upon entering this world, Miaka becomes the Priestess of Suzaku, and she must find her seven protectors who bear the mark of the constellations and get them to fight with her to save the world.  The first one she finds is the Ogre, Tamahome, and he helps her locate the rest.
Fushigi Yuugi is a love story between Miaka and Tamahome, but to call it just a love story is doing it an injustice.   Along with her need to locate the seven stars of Suzaku, Miaka has another major problem.  When Yui is dragged into the book world she ends up in much more dire circumstances than Miaka does.  Yui eventually ends up as Priestess of Seiyuu.  She originally tries to help Miaka, but because of jealousy and anger over their differences in circumstances, she and the seven stars of Seiyuu end up as the mortal enemies of Miaka-tachi.  The two groups end up in a head-to-head battle to gain magic objects and control the destiny of the world.

Although the plot line is relatively straight-forward in this series, the size of the cast allows for several side-stories as well as clashes between the two groups along the way.  At one point Tamahome is held captive and then enspelled to forget his love of Miaka.  Miaka’s group is infiltrated by one of Yui’s along the way.  Miaka’s brother, Keisuke, and his best friend begin trying to help Miaka by reading along in the book as they go and trying to manipulate things from the real world.  So basically the story line is rich and fun to watch – right up until they begin killing the characters off.

The biggest negative about this series is the decimation of the cast.  Yui’s group ends up with a few more left than Miaka’s does, but it’s a near thing.  And the deaths of Miaka’s group are heart-wrenching and played for all the emotion that can be derived from them.  I suppose a real middle school girl would long ago give up throughout all the tragedy they visit on her.  And Yui’s group wins the battle for the magic objects, takes over the world and continues killing off Miaka’s friends while forcing Miaka back into the real world and following her there with the battle.  In the very end, Miaka wins everything, and her life goes back to normal, entering high school, without the love of her life, Tamahome, who was a character in a book after all.

Fushigi Yuugi has a lot of the typical stereotypes that I’ve come to know in an anime series, but considering it was one of my first anime series, at the time I didn’t know how common the themes were.  Like, Japanese middle-school girl that gets dragged into another reality and must then save herself and the world around her.  Or the best-friend/best-enemy dichotomy.   Or the harem anime type.  Plus it was my first experience with the Japanese penchant for killing off characters, which I have to say was very much a shock to my system.  For all that, it’s a good series and is worth watching.  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Nodame Cantabile

If you like classical music, you should watch Nodame Cantabile.    Actually if you like music at all, you should watch this series, but if you’re a classical music buff, you REALLY should watch it. 

Nodame Cantabile is about a mismatched love affair, but it’s anything but your typical mismatched love affair.  The story follows two music students, Chiaki Shinichi and Noda Megumi (Nodame).  Chiaki is a supremely talented musician whose talent is only surpassed by his arrogance.  He plays the violin and the piano like a virtuoso, but what he dreams of becoming is an orchestra conductor.  Nodame is an extraordinarily talented musician on the piano, who doesn’t care that she’s exceptional.  Due to scars early in her life (which you don’t discover until late in the series) she plays because she enjoys it, but doesn’t take it seriously.  She improvises additions to classical pieces and otherwise goes her own way, although her talent is undeniable.  She also is almost terminally unable to take care of herself, especially when she gets obsessed with a piece of music. 

Early in the story Chiaki and Nodame meet (live next door to each other) and Chiaki takes it upon himself to keep Nodame fed and clean and basically treats her like a pet.  Nodame adores Chiaki.  The story follows their interactions as Chiaki takes on a group of misfit musicians and turns them into a decent orchestra which he directs.  He dreams of going to Paris to study.   At the same time, for Chiaki’s sake Nodame begins to take music seriously, begins studying under a strict master and enters a music competition.  Their interactions are quite fun and help make this a great series.  Nodame often drives Chiaki to distraction.

Nodame melts down at her competition, but is seen at her best by a French music instructor.  She confronts Chiaki with not understanding why it’s so important to play classical music as written, why it’s wrong to play it the way she wants for her own enjoyment.  The two of them part and Nodame leaves school to return home.  While at home Nodame comes to terms with her past and her passion for music and comes to understand  classical music as she didn’t before.  She calls Chiaki to tell him that he’s right and she’s ready to pursue a future in classical music in Paris with him.  In the meantime Chiaki has realized he doesn’t want a future without Nodame and comes to get her as she’s calling him.

This series is awesome from a lot of standpoints.  The classical music in it is wonderful and interwoven with the plot wonderfully.  The story and characters are unique so that it’s not your average love story.  The series ended up adding two more seasons following Nodame and Chiaki’s future.  While the next two seasons are good, the first season is by far my favorite.  I recommend it HIGHLY.    

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Samurai Champloo

I should have posted about Samurai Champloo before this because it’s an awesome series.   I don’t even know why I started watching it in the first place because in general I like pretty character styles, and Samurai Champloo is anything but.  But from the first episode I was hooked.   The story is good, but what hooked me was two things:  the sword fights and the perfectly ridiculous elements they interject every so often.  I do love unique anime.

The story follows three individuals, a young woman named Fuu, an upper class wandering samurai with years of sword training named Jin, and a totally unscrupulous, former pirate with no formal sword training named Mugen.  The story starts with Jin wandering into a food shop where Fuu works and Mugen is tormenting a customer, and Jin and Mugen begin fighting.  Despite all Jin’s skill, he cannot beat Mugen's random, totally wild fighting “style”.  During their battle they burn down the shop and kill the customer, who turns out to be the son of an important official.  They are tortured and sentenced to die.  Fuu helps them escape and the three end up going on Fuu’s quest.

Fuu is without family and now without a job thanks to Jin and Mugen.  Her quest is to find her father, with the catch being that she doesn’t remember anything about him other than that he smells like sunflowers.  So Mugen, Jin and Fuu wander across Japan in search of the samurai who smells like sunflowers.   That should tell you something about the series.

The quest takes the three travelers into and out of a variety of escapades, including a baseball  game, working a mine with dead zombies, dealing with religious zealots who grow marijuana, and as they begin to close in on the sunflower samurai,  nearly getting killed by a blind assassin.  Along the way, they become entangled with a bunch of different people and their causes and they face some of their own pasts.  This is one of the things that makes the series so unique and fun to watch – the randomness of a lot of it.  Plus despite the ridiculous aspects there’s often a lesson involved.  The series doesn’t take itself seriously and yet is serious in places.  Mugen and Jin, as expected of two opposites with sword skills, occasionally try to kill each other along the way.

In the end they manage to find Fuu’s father.   Multiple people are out to kill them because Fuu’s father is a Christian and the Shogunate wants them all destroyed.  Despite the odds, the three manage to survive the quest and end up going their separate ways.  Still, none of them died and they part as friends.  You end up feeling like they’ll see each other again.  I really recommend this series.  Everything about it is unique.