Saturday, April 19, 2014

Nagi no Asukara

Nagi no Asukara is a slice of life anime series, sort of.  It follows the coming of age struggles of five middle school kids, but that’s pretty much the only thing that makes it a slice of life anime.

This series is set in a universe where there are people who live underwater in the ocean.  They can do that because of substance called “Ena” that they are born with.  Ena coats the surface of their bodies, making them somewhat sparkly and allowing them to breathe underwater.  It also does cool things like absorb the moisture from their clothes when they come onto land, so that they aren’t wearing wet clothes all the time.  However, it needs water periodically, so they cannot stay up in the air indefinitely without re-wetting their ena.  Other than needing to get wet every so often the sea folk can live fine on land also, and the sea and land peoples live side by side, the land people making their livings from fishing the ocean.
The story follows five kids, a foursome of sea kids who have been together since grade school, plus a land kid.  The sea kids are Hikari, Kaname, Chisaki and Manaka and the land kid is Tsumugu, who is a new friend they make when they come to middle school on land.  The story is a fruit-basket-turnover of crushes and loves between these five.  Along the way Manaka loves Hikari and Tsumugu. Hikari loves Manaka throughout. Kaname loves Chisaki, Chisaki love Hikari and then Tsumugu, Tsumugu loves Chisaki.  On top of the angst going on between these five, two grade school kids Miuna and Sayu have crushes on Hikari and Kaname, respectively.   And things get even more twisted because of the way the major plot line proceeds.
Hikari’s older sister, Akari, loves a land man named Itaru.  This is forbidden by the sea people because a child born between a land and sea person has no ena and cannot survive in the ocean.  Thus to love a land person causes one to be exiled from the sea.  But Akari follows her heart, like a lot of sea people before her, and leaves the sea for Itaru.  Miuna is Itaru’s daughter, and his first wife, now dead, was also a sea person. 
The sea god gets angry at all the sea people that are being lost and decrees that all the sea people must get ready to hibernate in their city under the sea, for an untold number of years.  Hikari-tachi don’t want to hibernate and the five kids work with the land people to re-instate an old ceremony called Ofunehiki in order to attempt to appease the sea god.    The old ceremony offers up to the sea god a wooden replica of a woman originally sacrificed to the sea god. 
On the eve of the beginning of the sea people hibernating, the sea kids and land people hold the Ofunehiki.  Akari takes the place of the wooden doll to aid in appeasing the sea god, but the sea god awakens and disrupts the ceremony.  He takes Akari, and then when Hikari rescues her, takes Manaka in place of the wooden woman, and all the sea people enter hibernation except Chisaki, who saved Tsumugu from drowning and was left on the boat after it was all over.
Five years pass.  The sea is ice covered, the climate is cold and snow is everywhere.  Chisaki and Tsumugu are following their individual careers, Chisaki living with Tsumugu and his grandfather.  Miuna and Sayu are now middle school age.   At this point, Hikari and Kaname wake up from hibernation and haven’t aged at all.  This means Chisaki and Tsumugu are five years older, and Miuna and Sayu are now Hikari and Kaname’s age.  Miuna and Sayu now go to school with Hikaru and Kaname and still have the crushes on them.  One night Miuna falls into the sea and discovers she has ena after all and can live in the ocean.  Tsumugu during this time discovers that he also has ena, as his grandfather, like Miuna's mother, was a sea person.  With Miuna's help, Hikari and Kaname find Manaka and have to return her to the surface to save her because she loses her ena.  
They discover that when the sea god took Manaka he also took from her her emotions and ability to love.  In an attempt to recover those things for Manaka,  Hikari-tachi hold the Ofunehiki again with the help of the land people.  It looks at first as though it will end like the first Ofunehiki with Miuna replacing Manaka as the sacrifice.  But in the end the sea god learns something from the land people, and everyone lives.  The sea people wake up, the seas begin to warm up, and all the children of mixed parentage gain ena and the ability to live on both land and in the sea. 
This series is visually gorgeous, all bright colors and pretty animation style.  In addition, the music is good and the plot is definitely unique.  Even though it was often pretty emotional, I enjoyed watching it and recommend it.   

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sword of the Stranger

Today I decided to post about another movie I liked, and for a change it’s not a Miyazaki movie.   It’s a movie called Sword of the Stranger, or simply Stranger.  This movie doesn’t have any deep truths to teach, except maybe about friendship.  It’s just a good, animated, action samurai movie.  Which is probably why I like it.

This movie follows a young boy named Kotaro and his dog, Tobimaru.  They meet a wandering ronin calling himself Nanashi, which means Nameless, referring to soldiers lost in battle.   Although Kotaro is suspicious of him at first, he comes to their aid when they're cornered by two soldiers and an odd Chinese, ninja-type character.   Nanashi and Tobimaru together kill these three but Tobimaru is injured with a poisoned weapon while protecting Nanashi.  Kotaro demands that Nanashi heal Tobimaru and escort them both to a temple where they have friends and will be safe.  Nanashi’s not so sure at first, but agrees to help when Kotaro “hires” him for a costly stone which he’ll get when he finishes the job. 

Pursuing Kotaro are a group from the Ming Court in China.  They include an old shaman, several ninja-assassin-type persons and a big, burly, blond European man named Luo Lang whose only interest is finding someone strong enough to be worth fighting.  When the Chinese are betrayed and attacked by their Japanese hosts, Luo Lang defeats the entire attacking cohort.

Some of Nanashi’s history comes out during the movie in the form of nightmares that he’s plagued with.  It runs out he has vowed to never draw his sword again, and although he managed to kill the first Chinese assassin without drawing it, he struggles to meet that vow, especially when he accidentally runs into Luo Lang.  He’s saved from drawing his sword that time because Luo Lang has places to be.

The basic plot here is that Kotaro was an orphan raised in a monastery who was to be sold to the Ming Dynasty.  It is believed that Kotaro’s blood can be used to create an immortal elixir to keep the Chinese Emperor alive forever.  A monk helped Kotaro escape to Japan before being sold.  Kotaro is trying to get back to this friend at a temple, and the Chinese are trying to recover him in time for the ceremony.  The ceremony must be held at a specific time of the year, at a specific location and using a large, wooden structure which the Chinese are just finishing and preparing for the rites.

Nanashi delivers Kotaro and Tobimaru to the temple as agreed, receives the costly stone which is in fact pretty worthless, and rides away.  Kotaro’s friend then turns him over to the Chinese in order to save his own life.   The local Japanese Lord Akaike meanwhile attacks in an attempt to take Kotaro away from the Chinese to hold him for ransom, and is himself captured by the Chinese.   Nanashi returns to the temple when he sees that a battle is occurring there and discovers that Tobimaru has been tied up and Kotaro has been given to the Chinese.  Akaike’s chief shogun with vassals and Nanashi with Tobimaru both try to reach the Chinese fortress before the ceremony, shogun-tachi riding hard and Nanashi-Tobimaru cutting across country.  

The shogun-tachi make it there first and in the ensuing battle clear out a lot of the Chinese forces.  Nanashi makes it later, but in time.  He breaks his vow, drawing his sword to protect and save Kotaro.  He kills the two final Chinese assassins and then takes on Luo Lang.  Nanashi and Luo Lang battle all across the compound, Luo Lang even killing his own shaman when he interferes in their battle.  Eventually both men’s swords shatter and they stab each other at the same time with the remaining shards.  Nanashi is saved by the stone which Kotaro paid him with, so eventually Nanashi wins, although he takes bad wounds in the process.

In the end, the creators of this movie  pretty much let you decide for yourself whether Nanashi survives.   The movie ends with Kotaro riding away, Nanashi on the horse behind him and Tobimaru following.  Nanashi is leaving a pretty major blood trail, so I suspect he may not survive that wound, however, they don’t end it with him obviously dying, so I can enjoy my delusion that he lives happily ever after.  So the movie has a good plot line, great action, decent characters, good music and the good guys live.  I highly recommend it.    

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Darker Than Black

I really liked Darker Than Black – at least the first season of it.  So I’m going to focus this post on the original Darker Than Black season.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic time when a strange spatial accident has opened two “gates”, Heaven’s Gate in South America and Hells’ Gate in Tokyo, and altered the sky, replacing the known stars with a different star pattern.  The Gates are cordoned off by massive walls and are inaccessible to the public.  The spatial anomaly that opened them also introduced new, phenomenal powers to certain individuals who form “contracts” in exchange for the power.  These “Contractors” have specialized supernatural powers, but are no longer considered quite human.  In exchange for their powers, they seem to lose human feelings and also whenever they use their power, they must perform a ritualized, compulsive “punishment” which is part of their contract.  For example, chain smoking, eating a certain food or performing a meaningless task are all compulsions of the various Contractors.   Also each Contractor is somehow linked to a specific star in the new sky, which reacts when that Contractor uses his or her powers.  So the Contractors are also referred to by their star Messier catalog number.  Most of the Contractors are employed as assassins or agents for some government or shadowy conglomerate. 

This series follows the exploits of a man named Hei.  Hei is a Contractor, number BK-201.  In fact, he may be the original Contractor.  When he’s in Contractor mode he wears a mask and is known as the Black Reaper.  He is accompanied in his tasks by a cat named Mao who is a body-switching contractor who lost his original body, and a young girl named Yin who is actually a Doll, a non-human construct used for various purposes. 

The series follows Hei through a string of tasks for his employers, as well as through his interactions with everyday people, so it's set up as a series of mini-arcs.   Along the way the background is established.  Several arcs deal with the premise that Dolls can have human feelings and deserve a chance to live a life.  One of the deeper plots is that the spatial accident which made Hei a Contractor and created Contractors in general, also resulted in the death, or at least the disappearance of Hei’s sister, Pai, who he is semi-looking for throughout the series. 

As the series goes along, Hei-tachi begin to act against the wishes of their employer organization, The Syndicate.   Late in the series, the Contractors discover that the Syndicate is attempting to close Heavens’ Gate as a way of destroying all the Contractors.  Hei and the majority of the other Contractors band together and mount an attack on Heaven’s Gate to stop it being closed.  The story ends with only Hei and Yin actually managing to make it all the way to the Gate itself, and once there Hei must make a decision for all Contractors – close the Gate and end Contractors or keep it open and let them continue.  He leaves it open. 

This is where the first 26 episode season ends.  There is also a second season of 12 episodes and four OVA episodes that cover events that occur between the two seasons, but I liked the first season best. Hei is a likable character, and much too human to be a Contractor.  He always goes with his own sense of right and wrong rather than what he’s told to do by his employers, which is why he’s often in trouble.  Plus the series music is done by Yoko Kanno who is my favorite composer.   It’s definitely worth watching.