Friday, March 29, 2013

Shinsekai Yori

I finished watching Shinsekai Yori this week and I’ve been busily trying to process it all. 

The plot line is presented in a sequence of time jumps, following 5 youngsters as they grow into adults.  Each time jump stops at a point in the characters' lives that is formative and that lends to the overall plot of the series.  The time periods covered include:  when the five are pre-teen, grade-school age; when they are in their mid-teens; and when they are young adults in their mid-20s.   Each stopping point is composed of several episodes which form a story arc and resolve the specific issue being faced at that point.  All the story arcs lead up to the last climatic arc, when the surviving two kids are young adults. 

Here’s the basic premise of the universe the story takes place in.  Humankind has evolved into people who can use mental powers, referred to as their Cantus.  Roughly 1000 years before the current series takes place, the people with mental powers are destroying the world and everyone in it, slaughtering people around them at a whim, especially those without power.  Humans are on the brink of total annihilation, and the survivors create a new society through genetic engineering and psychological behavioral feedback.  The result is that humans in the society the main characters live in now, actually cannot kill other humans or their own bodies will shut down and kill them.  They live peacefully in small villages, and they breed, raise and manage a race of smaller beasts referred to as bakanezumi (queerats), who do their farming and manual labor.  The bakanezumi are considered not very intelligent, inferior servants, and are ruthlessly killed if they commit any crimes.

So that’s the basic society in which the plot follows the growth and development of five kids, Saki, Satoru, Shun, Mamoru and Maria.  These kids form a group, grow up together and are followed through the series time jumps.   Throughout the interaction of the five kids at the various ages are two recurring themes: a questioning of rules and pushing of limits, and increased interactions with the bakanezumi over what would normally be occurring. 

It turns out that these five children were meant to be leaders of the humans in the future and so were not given the deep psychological inhibitions against questioning and exploring that are commonly given to everyone.   Because of that, they continue to question and get into trouble.  They also lose three of the five along the way.  Shun, the most powerful of the five, is lost first when he loses his ability to control his powers.  He is killed by the adults and his position in their group, as well as their memories of him is replaced.  The four remaining kids realize that the new person wasn’t always there and retain partial memories of Shun without remembering his name or face.  This causes them to question even more, and causes one of them to flee when he realizes he is the next to be killed. 

At this juncture Saki is told the truth, that she and her group were meant to be leaders and needed to be able to question, but that the society is set up such that children who show signs of being unable to control their powers, or of having personality flaws, are always culled, killed by genetically engineered cats.  This culling is in place in order to prevent the emergence of a “fiend”.   Fiends have appeared in the past, and are humans who have lost their inhibitions and simply slaughter everyone around them.  Other humans have no way to protect themselves from a fiend because of their genetically engineered inability to kill humans.

Mamoru and Maria both end up fleeing rather than being culled.  Saki and Satoru initially try to bring them back, but then lie about their deaths in order to let them go. They discover in the final arc that Maria and Mamoru did in fact die, leaving Saki and Satoru as the last of their original group.

This is the state of affairs at the final arc, when Saki and Satoru are young adults.   At this point the bakanezumi rebel and try to gain their freedom by killing all the humans.  Normally they would be unable to achieve this against humans with their powerful Cantus, but the bakanezumi have an ace in the hole and they come very close to succeeding.  Their ace is Maria and Mamoru’s child who has been raised as a bakanezumi and has mental powers and no inhibitions against killing humans.   Humans of course cannot kill this child without dying themselves.  Until Saki figures out a solution in the last episode, you actually think the bakanezumi will succeed.  And even Saki’s solution requires the help, and death, of one of the loyal bakunezumi, Kiroumaru.   So Saki and Satoru survive and end as leaders of the humans, but they also end up discovering humanity’s worst secret – that the bakanezumi were created in past centuries from the remaining humans without mental powers.   The series ends with Saki and Satoru saving several colonies of bakanezumi from total destruction at the wrath of the surviving humans, and vowing to change things in the future. 

I think I’m going to have to say that I REALLY liked this series.  I could have wished for less main character death, but the series as a whole is pretty awesome.   First of all it has an amazingly unique premise and plot line, and I really like series that are different.  This one kept me thinking and guessing and second-guessing and changing my opinion about what was happening and why.  It made me switch my perspective a number of times, which is amazing.   It also has awesome music so I hope a soundtrack is forthcoming.  And the animation style is wonderful and the characters are cool and great to follow. 

Overall it was a very unique series with awesome music.  The theme is a little dark, with humans having trapped themselves into a society which culls and kills its own children and one that cannot recognize that intelligent beasts may have “human” rights.  Still I was left with the feeling that Saki and Satoru would be working to change that society.   I recommend watching it.  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hikaru no Go

Today I thought I’d talk about Hikaru no Go.

As a general rule I don’t follow series based around sports or games, but I got hooked on Hikaru no Go, which is based around the game of Go.  The story follows a young boy named Shindou Hikaru as he is introduced to the game and then comes to realize that he wishes to pursue a career as a Go player.  His struggles to learn the game and enter the Go world are followed through the games he plays and his interactions with the other Go players.

One thing makes this series very unique.   Hikaru is haunted.   He is haunted by the ghost of a past Go master.   Fujiwara no Sai was a Go master during the Heien period and after being disgraced for cheating (which he didn’t do), he took his own life.  This has caused him to haunt Go players down through time, most recently Hikaru.   Hikaru and Sai meet when Hikaru comes across his grandfather’s old Go board.  Hikaru at first only plays Go to allow Sai to play it and has no interest in the game, but as time goes on Hikaru begins playing for himself.

In an early game Hikaru plays under Sai’s direction, he happens to play against a boy his age named Touya Akira, whose father is a Go master.  Sai beats Akira handily, and Akira, who has been playing and studying Go since he was old enough to hold the Go pieces, is devastated to be beaten by a boy who doesn’t even know how to hold the pieces.  Hikaru and Akira become rivals during the series and Hikaru is driven to become a professional Go player by his desire to catch up to and beat Akira.  He only manages to achieve this because Sai trains him and plays against Hikaru over and over. 

As Hikaru learns to play Go for himself, he allows Sai to continue playing also by playing Go online under the name of “Sai”.  Sai becomes a well-known and well-respected online player and eventually even gets to play Akira’s Go master father.

The series has an incredibly tragic part, when Sai realizes he has finally paid his karma or achieved his purpose and dissolves forever.  Hikaru is lost and devastated by Sai’s disappearance, and he spends several episodes searching for Sai and regretting not letting Sai have more chances to play, etc.  With some help from a friend, Hikaru realizes he will always have Sai with him in playing the game of Go, and he resumes playing, which he had given up.

The series follows all the Go players as they learn and struggle to become better and to win their games.  There are several side stories involved as well.   The plot line is good but the tragedy part was pretty intense for a couple of episodes.  The music is good and the characters and their interactions are very good.    This series also demonstrated for me why I download anime.  The US company putting out the DVDs on this series stopped before completing the series, leaving me with a partial DVD series.  Irritating!  So if you can find the entire series, I recommend it.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Get Backers

Another old series that I enjoyed enough to buy is Get Backers

Get Backers is a series that has a large cast, probably only second in size to Bleach, and like Bleach, essentially all the characters survive the series, which is something I really like in a series.   Get Backers follows the exploits of two young men, Amano Ginji and Midou Ban.  Ginji and Ban (G-B, Get Backers) run a barely-eking-out-an-existence company called Get Backers which is made up of the two of them.  For a fee they will find and return lost items, but business is slow enough that they often rely on the good will of a friend and owner of a small bar.  The series is composed of arcs, each of which is one of their various retrieval jobs, and which range in length from one episode to fifteen episodes.

Ginji and Ban also have some special “skills”.  Ginji can control and use electricity and Ban can control a person’s thoughts for a short period of time, making them experience whatever he wants them to.   In addition to their gifts, both guys are pretty good in a fight, as is demonstrated repeatedly during the various arcs.   As the series proceeds, friends and acquaintances of both guys join the cast, and character interactions are really good along the way.  Most of the joining characters have special skills of their own and add to the fun.  My two favorite characters are Fuchoin Kazuki , an ally and friend of Ginji’s,  and Akabane Kuroudo, an enemy who calls himself Doctor Jackal.  Akabane is the resident bad-guy / sometimes-ally who also provides some comic relief. 
My favorite arc in the series is the long arc in the middle which is based around Mugenjou, the Limitless Fortress.  Mugenjou is a massive conglomerate of buildings that was officially abandoned during construction and became a no man’s land for criminals, misfits and various riffraff.  In reality, Mugenjou is a huge experiment being run by denizens living at the top.  The interior of Mugenjou is also a place where reality can be controlled, a space of virtual reality.  It turns out two types of people live inside Mugenjou: people who are real and able to leave Mugenjou and live in the outside world and people who are themselves virtual reality constructs and who’s existence is limited to Mugenjo.

None of this is known by Ginji and Ban at the start of the arc when they take on a job to retrieve an item (the IL) from Mugenjou.  Because Mugenjou is not easily breached, they are joined on this job by several friends and even team up with their enemy Akabane.  During the struggles in Mugenjou and in the course of this particular job, Ginji and Ban’s background is revealed.  Ginji came from Mugenjou, having no memories prior to being there.  He was raised there and became the leader of a group of powerful misfits called the Volts.  The Volts did their best to maintain some semblance of order in their part of Mugenjou.  Ban met Ginji there and convinced him to leave Mugenjou before Ginji’s increasing and increasingly uncontrollable power destroyed him and his friends.  Ginji’s friends don’t realize that’s why he left and although most of them still support him, they resent his abandonment on some level.  Part of that resentment is because unfortunately, with Ginji gone, his friends didn’t have the strength to maintain the peace and things became bad.   A large portion of the force arrayed against Ginji-Ban-tachi and their quest are former friends and ex-members of Volts.  The struggles inside Mugenjou are filled with individual battles between various characters, often characters who were at one time good friends. 

All of this comes out as Ginji-Ban-tachi are struggling to reach the item they have been sent to find.  It turns out that one of Ginji’s former friends, a boy computer genius named Makubex, has begun to realize that he’s a construct who can only survive inside Mugenjou and he gets hold of the IL,  a final piece of an atomic bomb, with the purpose of destroying Mugenjou (and himself and everyone inside it).  Makubex’s allies don’t realize his true intentions, thinking he intends using it to blackmail the outside world.  Makubex also secretly wanted to draw Ginji back into Mugenjou, wanting things to be back like they were when Volts was together and they were all friends.

Ginji and Ban and friends manage to stop Makubex and become his friends again and retrieve the item.  They also discover the existence of the people at the top of Mugenjo who are manipulating and using it for their own purposes, although being beat up from their struggles, they decide not to go after them at this time. 

This series is a lot of fun, and mostly very satisfying to watch.   At heart it’s a series about friendship and standing by your friends.  The Mugenjou arc was by far my favorite but there are other good ones too. The plot and character interactions and various side-story lines were definitely interesting enough to keep me watching, and some of the episodes are just silly fun.  It’s a fairly long series, 49 episodes, but definitely worth watching. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Star Driver

I’m still waiting for all the current anime series to end before I post about them, so today I picked another older series, although this one isn’t all that old.  Today I’m going to talk about Star Driver.

Star Driver is a mecha series.  Let's see . . . How to describe the background of this series?    The series takes place on a gorgeous tropical island which harbors a secret, an old underground base which was probably created by aliens at an undefined point in the distant past.  The base contains big, humanoid figures referred to as cybodies which can be driven by humans with the correct will to do it in the early phase, or in the later phases by humans that have inherited a symbol on their body which is passed down through families, but can be transferred to another.  

When the cybodies are driven however they are confined in a space/time warp called zero time, which freezes time in the real world and in which everything occurs dealing with the driven cybody.  The cybodies are confined and sealed this way by four shrine maidens/priestesses, the Northern Miko, Southern Miko, Eastern Miko and Western Miko.  The base and the cybodies are being run and experimented with by a secret society calling itself Glittering Star (Kiraboshi).  Kiraboshi’s main purposes are to determine how to elevate the cybodies and drivers through multiple “Phases” and to break the four shrine maiden’s seals and by doing so to release the cybodies from zero time.

That’s the background, which it took a while to figure out as they’re not forthcoming with it.  Early on they just have characters wandering around saluting each other (kiraboshi!) and driving cybodies in zero time and trying to break miko seals.

Into this background comes Tsunashi Takuto, the main character.  Takuto is an out-going and lovable high school student, and shortly after arriving on the island and even before starting school, he becomes fast friends with the two other main characters, Agemaki Wako and Shindou Sugata.  Wako is the Southern shrine maiden and she has been promised in marriage to Shindou, basically from birth.  Of course, during the series  Wako and Takuto fall for each other, even though Wako also loves Shindou, and Takuto and Shindou are best friends.  It’s the eternal triangle, but it’s actually handled without too much angst and without the two main male characters spending any time trying to kill each other.  

Takuto also has another role on the island.  He is the “Galactic Pretty Boy”, Ginga Bishonen, who drives a cybody named Tauburn.  Takuto /Tauburn are basically the cybody police force.  They work to prevent Kiraboshi from achieving its purpose, and to protect the mikos and their seals.  Thus from Takuto’s arrival and throughout the series, various members of Kiraboshi drag Takuto into zero time and attempt to kill him and destroy Tauburn.   Each time he’s dragged into zero time, so are Wako and Shindou.  Shindou also turns out to have inherited the symbol and powers of the most powerful cybody, Samehk.   He uses his abilities in aid of Takuto periodically and toward the end of the series, Shindou joins Kiraboshi. 

During the series you find out that one of Kiraboshi, their leader, is in fact Takuto's estranged father who abandoned Takuto and his mother to pursue power.  In the final battle scenes you discover in addition that he’s a megalomaniac who will sacrifice everything and everyone to  gain his primary desire, ruling all of creation.  Two of the shrine maiden seals are already broken by this point in the series and now he breaks the seal of the third priestess, the Eastern Maiden, which allows Shindou’s ginormous, powerful cybody Samehk to be released.  He then plans to use Samehk to destroy all life on earth.  Wako’s seal is all that’s stopping him from breaking zero time.  Takuto, with the help of the rest of Kiraboshi, stops his father and rescues Wako.  Takuto and Wako then realize that Shindou joined Kiraboshi in order to finally seal Samehk with Shindou inside.  Takuto refuses to let Shindou go and breaks Wako’s seal himself, releasing Samehk from zero time.  Then Takuto defeats and destroys Samehk before it can destroy the earth, and rescues his friend Shindou in the process.  So the series ends with everyone surviving, the cybodies essentially all destroyed and  Takuto, Shindou and Wako living happily ever after.  Or at least as happily as can be expected of a love triangle. 

Once again this synopsis leaves out so much.  There are a lot of amazing characters and side stories in this series and you get to know them as the series progresses.  For me the series only had one major flaw, the transformations.  I got tired of watching Takuto transform into Ginga Bishonen after awhile.  Still, the series doesn’t lose itself and its plot in favor of spotlighting the mecha, so the transformations are bearable.  The music is good, the characters and anime style are wonderful and the story line is pretty unique for a mecha series.  It’s definitely a series worth watching.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Howl's Moving Castle

Another film by Hayao Miyazaki that’s a great favorite of mine is Howl’s Moving Castle, or Hauru no Ugoku Shiro.  This movie is based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones and it’s a love story between a young woman named Sophie who is cursed by a witch and a wizard/magician named Howl.

The name of the series comes from Howl’s home, a movable and almost constantly moving conglomeration of parts, that from the outside looks more like a junk pile than a castle.  It turns out Howl is not only a powerful wizard, but a spoiled and temperamental boy who has spent a good part of his life running away from things.  Sophie is a young hat-maker who runs afoul of Howl’s doings when he rescues her from some pushy soldiers.   Because of that encounter, the Witch of the Waste, (yes, a wicked witch) curses Sophie to spite Howl and turns her into a 90 year old woman. 

Sophie’s character is really wonderful dealing with this change, and all the changes that follow it.  She has a no nonsense approach to life, and simply copes and handles everything life throws at her.  She’s freaked out at first, of course, but she then accepts the change and leaves home to try get on with her life.  Sophie enters the waste and comes across both an animated scarecrow who helps her out and Howl’s moving castle.  With the scarecrow’s help, she boards the castle to get warm, and finds that the fire in the fireplace is a living creature named Calcifer.  Calcifer provides the motive power for the moving castle, and much of the magic power involved in it as well.  Sophie also discovers a young boy named Markl lives there with Howl and that the door to the castle is magic and has four settings.  Opening the door on one setting leads to the waste, opening it on two of the other settings leads to two different cities and the forth setting is only used by Howl and his magic.  Sophie joins Howl’s little “family” as the house-keeper, and starts out by thoroughly cleaning the castle.   She goes about the cleaning so ruthlessly that she nearly extinguishes poor Calcifer.  She also is so thorough that she disturbs some of Howl’s potions and he goes from being a bleach blond back to his natural state of black hair.  He throws a tantrum and upsets Sophie, but once again her basic no nonsense approach surfaces and deals with the situation.

Howl, for his part, know that the old lady Sophie is the young Sophie who has been cursed by the witch and he accepts her into his castle and his odd little “family”.  Over the course of the film Sophie and Howl fall in love, and along the way he creates magic places and remodels his home for her.

One of the reasons Howl has been hiding is that the countries of the two cities his house leads to are at war.  The rulers of both countries demand that Howl aid them in their war efforts and Howl is adamantly opposed to helping either of them.  So he hides from them and from the Witch of the Waste.  Sophie discovers all this and tries to help Howl.  She goes to visit Howl’s old teacher, the kingdom’s master magician, Madam Suliman.  This doesn’t work out at all, but in the process Sophie discovers that Howl has made a pact with a demon, and is in some danger of turning into that demon because of over-use of the powers.   Howl and Sophie escape to his castle but take with them a spy in the form of Madam Suliman’s dog, and an old lady wreck that is all that remains of the Witch of the Waste after Suliman has finished with her.  These two characters become more members of Howl's "family" group.

Howl continues to try to stay clear of the war, but he is drawn into it in order to protect Sophie and the others.  During a bombing attack the castle is damaged and Sophie takes matters into her own hands to try to protect Howl too.  In the course of events Calcifer, the fire demon, is dowsed with water by Sophie when the old witch grabs him.  Since Calcifer supplies the castle's power, the remaining castle falls apart when he's dowsed and Sophie fears that she's killed him and hurt Howl.  

Sophie follows a link to the past where she sees and finally understands Howl’s and Calcifer's connection.  She sees that Calcifer is a fallen star demon and as a youth Howl captured him.  In exchange for powers from Calcifer, Howl gave Calcifer Howl’s heart.   Armed with this knowledge Sophie returns to the present to discover that Howl is hurt and staying in demon form.  They return to the single remaining floor of the castle where Markl, the witch and what’s left of Calcifer are.  Sophie releases Calcifer from the pact and returns Howl’s heart to Howl.  Calcifer flies away at first, but decides he likes Sophie and Howl and he returns and stays with them, supplying the Castle’s power.

And Sophie, Howl , Markl and Calcifer live happily ever after.

 This movie is really a very pretty love story that’s fun to watch.  The music is good, the plot is unique and they do an amazing job of getting you to see the young Sophie inside the old Sophie.   Her character really makes the film.  Overall, another Miyazaki film you absolutely should not miss.