Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Month: March 2017

3WA 2017 #13: Stellvia

This is one of the first anime I entered on the list when I started preparing for this writing project. So, why did I wait so long? It’s… complicated.

What is it?

Stellvia is a 26-episode anime series directed by Tetsuo Sato, who also helmed the much more recent Mourestu Pirates series. It, too, takes place in space and centers on a group of schoolkids. The similarities… kind of stop there, I think. Well, there is a lot of CGI for the space ships themselves. Fair enough.

Remember what early-2000s CGI looked like? Yeah.

What kind of story is it?

Years ago, something huge and terrible happened in the space around our solar system. Now, schoolkids must save the planet!

These schoolkids are taking classes on a space station, and it’s all as part of preparation for defending the Earth from an oncoming catastrophe. That’s right, there’s another something huge and terrible on its way, and this time it’ll utterly destroy our home planet… unless humanity can stop it. And we have a plan!

You start out with interpersonal drama played out while that grand scheme is in the background as the overall goal, then you move that grand scheme into the foreground as the kids find themselves closer to the front lines than they might originally have expected. And while this is mostly a fluffy and upbeat show, sometimes it goes all-out on some of the darker aspects of what living in a “do or die” situation with fierce competition for key roles in the plan can do to people.

Some schoolkids are nicer than others.

Mostly the show is about hope and unity. Think of the kind of unrelentingly upbeat mentality it would take in order to organize all of humanity to prevent a global catastrophe. What kind of people would that produce? What does it do to the younger generations? What does that do to the way humanity organizes itself, and how it shapes the training?

Why do you like it?

This is a big-idea, big-cast, Sci-Fi adventure drama. There’s a lot going on, from the fun interpersonal shenanigans to the bigger picture world-building concepts. The stakes are high and instead of doing the “a small rag-tag team of misfits saves the world” routine, they give the entire human race a role to play.

I mean, of course our rag-tag team of misfits take some of the most crucial bits of the plan to fruition, don’t get me wrong. But it’s only accomplished with the support of all of planet Earth and its space stations.

That’s kind of a neat angle, don’t you think?

What might one not like about it?

There are various things that one could find mildly off-putting, but let’s address the biggest, loudest elephant in the room: Our primary point-of-view character, Shima, is prone to whining, moping, and generally being a wet blanket. This is especially true as the pressures of the plot intensify. She’s not always terrible! She lapses into being a whiny lump quite a few times, though. The show succeeds in spite of her, in some ways, rather than because of her.

Shima, in “determined to succeed” mode.

Oh, and there’s a giant robot. Well. Not really. It’s a humanoid-shaped vehicle, but it’s not really a robot. Really. Kind of. Look, just deal with it, whatever it is.

Other thoughts about it?

This show’s kind of weird in that it’s intensely optimistic yet simultaneously very realistic about how humanity kind of goes to pieces under certain circumstances. There’s some interesting writing and world-building here.

One of the dramatic arcs in the show is a weird kind of romance/rivalry. Shima is (on a good day) one of the best (of the best of the best, sir!) but then there’s Kouta. He’s just kind of quietly competent… supremely competent. The relationship between the two, especially toward the end, gets very interesting (even though it fuels a lot of Shima’s whiny fits).

He just doesn’t SEEM all that clever, does he?

On a musical note (ha ha): We can kind of thank Stellvia for greatly boosting the career of the band Angela, who are responsible for opening, closing, and insert songs over the course of the series.

Where can I watch it?

This is the bad news, and why I kind of dreaded the write-up for this: Basically, hunt down the DVDs if you can. The company which held the licensing, Geneon, folded not long after Stellvia came out and the state of licensing for a lot of shows went into limbo. No Blu-Ray, no streaming, no nothin’. Sorry!

3WA 2017 #12: Yona of the Dawn

I’m bending my mental guidelines a bit on this one. Since it’s been a rough couple of weeks, however, I’m choosing to just say “to heck with it” and put this one up anyway, even though it’s not really a completed story. (Mind you, there’s no guarantee there will be any more seasons produced so maybe it is “done” and we just don’t know it yet.)

What is it?

Yona of the Dawn (originally/alternatively: Akatsuki no Yona) comprises 24 aired episodes and a handful of additional (albeit generally unavailable) special additional episodes. It is based on a manga series that is being translated & released for the U.S. market.

What kind of story is it?

Love, betrayal, tragedy, revenge, and a lot of silly overpowered guys following a princess around the countryside.

Never forget who’s in charge, boys.

But seriously, it’s a feudal-era action/adventure story centered on a red-headed princess who’s forcibly ejected from her comfortable palace life and must find purpose on her own. Along the way she sort of collects a group of useful men. Most of these men are total dorks.

Okay, all of them. Even the generally pragmatic healer/scholar.

Why do you like it?

You want action? Yona has amazing action. You want comedy? Yona gathers a group of ridiculous characters and then finds hilarious ways to bounce them off one another. You want romance? Yona… kind of toys with the idea a bit, but it’s complicated. (You’ll see.)

And it all centers on a wonderfully complex leading character.

If the princess looks at you like this? Grovel, or run. Fast.

I mean, I love the dork troupe and all, but without Yona herself it would all fall apart. Her journey from helpless, useless baggage to a leader and warrior is well told. She has one helluva hole to crawl out of, emotionally speaking, and it doesn’t go smoothly all the time.

And then there’s the primary antagonist.

Yep, that’s the “villain shot” from the opening sequence.

Yeah, he’s kind of terrible but he’s not… entirely… all that evil? It’s complicated, and I don’t mean in that kind of “he’s a villain but maybe he can be saved” kind of way. Su Won has reasons, and plans, and ideals of his own. We spend part of the series getting a glimpse into his goals and values. This just makes everything a fair bit more interesting. You may not end up rooting for him but you get to understand him somewhat, at least. I like the way his part of the story is handled.

What might one not like about it?

If the term “reverse harem” makes you break out in hives, you’ll probably want to give Yona a pass. That term hardly does this story justice, mind you, but let’s not mince words, eh?

Other thoughts about it?

I like the way that the introduction at the very beginning of the series primes the viewer for the gathering of the band of warriors without really giving away much about how it happens and what it really means. The show eventually kind of loops back around to the cliffside gathering at the end.

Now that? That’s one hell of a team pose.

You start with that visual, then cut to a time before everything goes horribly awry. It’s a neat hook.

Where can I watch it?

Crunchyroll is the place to watch Yona of the Dawn.

3WA 2017 #11: Cardcaptor Sakura

I love a good heroine, and the world of animation provides a variety of archetypes to choose from: Technicians, warriors, royalty, soldiers, thieves, and so forth. One particular type is (mostly) unique to anime, which is the “magical girl.” And when you think of prominent, famous magical girls in anime you’re down to one of two really big names.

This is the one which isn’t Sailor Moon.

What is it?

Cardcaptor Sakura started life as a manga series by the artist collective known as CLAMP, then was adapted into a series spanning 70 broadcast episodes and two theatrical movies.

What kind of story is it?

Sakura, our heroine, is a perpetually upbeat, clever, athletic young lady with occasional bouts of clumsiness. One day, she accidentally sets loose a whole mess of magical cards. It’s her job to re-capture all fifty-some-odd of ’em. Oh, and she gets magic powers with which to tackle the job.

Plot MacGuffin? Clow Cards, check!

She’s aided and/or thwarted by a handful of unusual folks, such as her best friend Tomoyo who has made it her mission in life to ensure that her newly-minted magical girl bestie never has to wear the same outfit twice. Take that, Moon Princess Serenity!

Basically, in nearly every episode Sakura has to capture (or, in the latter part of the series, change) each and every lost card. Along the way she deals with family, friendship, romance, and all manner of school activities.

Non-magical but incredibly useful boon companion? Tomoyo, check!

Why do you like it?

Lemme tell ya: CCS is the polar opposite of “grimdark,” and that makes me very happy. That’s not to say it’s so fluffy that it’s devoid of depth and drama, mind you. The dramatic stakes feel high enough. The show doesn’t feel the need to kill anyone off or prolong anyone’s suffering just for the sake of “grittiness,” however. And I love that.

A lot of the fun comes from seeing how our young heroes figure out how to deal with each of the cards they encounter. The solution to each challenge follows logically (more or less) from the identification of which card they’re dealing with. Often, previously-captured cards’ powers are brought into play in clever ways.

Powerful foil with potential for romantic entanglement? Syaoran, check!

When not facing magical challenges, the characters spend time hanging out, goofing off, living life and generally being adorable. And every now and then, a bit of the overarching plot thread shows up to pique the viewer’s interest.

What might one not like about it?

If you’re prone to becoming uncomfortable when characters express romantic interest toward other characters of the same gender, you’ll have a rough time watching Cardcaptor Sakura. I mean, it’s generally schoolkid-crush levels for the most part but it’s still not even remotely subtle.

Also that grimdark thing, particularly the near-total lack thereof. If you need some amount of grittiness in order to enjoy a story, this won’t work for you. In the end, this show is about the power of one girl’s unstoppable commitment to being kind and decent to everyone she possibly can. I can’t imagine how someone could find that off-putting but that may be simply a limitation of my imagination.

There are also talking animals… kind of. I know some people can’t stand that sort of thing, so you’re duly warned.

Talking magical animal familiar? KERO-CHAN, CHECK!

Other thoughts about it?

There’s a solid mid-series plot thread wrap up which leads into the second major portion of the show, with another solid ending followed by the completion of the entire story in the second movie. Yes, you really will want to watch both movies. (One takes place partway through the TV show’s timeline.)

In a lot of ways, CCS is the gold-standard magical girl show. Sailor Moon may be (slightly, arguably) better known, and unlike most magical girl shows CCS doesn’t rely on a transformation sequence (Sakura has to get into each of Tomoyo’s provided costumes the old-fashioned way), but there’s nothing better fitted to the concept of “young girl uses magic and willful determination to make the world better.” Other shows may have better music, higher production values (consider that this show was made in the late 1990s), and so forth. Still: You’re not going to get a better Platonic Ideal of “mahou shoujo” than Cardcaptor Sakura.

Of course in this new millennium we have to deconstruct the entire genre with things like Madoka Magicka, which is a stunning piece of work and seriously grimdark into the bargain. Sigh.

By the way: I freely admit that I have taken advantage of a particular element which shows up at the end of most episodes to fuel a running gag in this entry which won’t make any sense to someone who hasn’t watched the show. It’s my website and I’ll joke if I want to.

Where can I watch it?

This one’s a bit tricky.

There’s a Blu-Ray release, but the dubbing and the subtitling are both poorly regarded by most fans of the show. There’s a DVD set, but it’s spread across seventeen individually-boxed discs. (Oh, and it’s out of print, so good luck.) You might find discs of a horribly chopped down dubbed version of the show which aired on American TV called Cardcaptors which you should avoid at all costs.

My recommendation is to stream the subtitled version on Crunchyroll. Start here. You’ll thank me… in a few weeks when you get through the other 69 episodes…

3WA 2017 #10: Summer Wars

“You got your family drama in my cyberspace action-adventure story!” “You got your crazy Matrix-y adventure story in my complex, heartwarming family drama!” Two particular tastes that might not normally taste great together, and yet

What is it?

Summer Wars is an animated film which takes place, figuratively and somewhat literally, at the intersection of one family’s ongoing internal drama and the attempt by an AI in cyberspace to attack humanity’s industrial infrastructure.

Also, a cautionary tale about giving the Internet access to vital infrastructure.

What kind of story is it?

You know how it is: Boy likes girl, girl invites boy to a family gathering, boy makes fool of himself, there’s a redemption arc, and there’s a kiss at the end.

Of course it’s nowhere near that simple. The girl’s merely pretending that she’s dating the boy for the sake of appeasing her family matriarchs. The boy gets involved with a rogue AI and chaos ensues. Oh, and almost half of the plot takes place in a kind of funhouse brightly-colored crazypants VR/cyberspace realm.

When you get right down to it, though, the heart of the film is its slice-of-life depictions of a big crazy sprawling (oh, also rich & influential) family. The “rogue AI trying to kill us” aspect is almost irrelevant in some ways.

Your antagonist in cyberspace: Love Machine, ladies and gentlemen.


Why do you like it?

Any time you can do a good slice-of-life family situation on film without relying too much on situations that trigger my “embarrassment squick,” I feel like you’ve done pretty well. The drama here is good, and it feels real… gritty on some levels, goofy on others. You know: Like a real family.

The family that games together, stays together…?

And then there’s the stupendously imaginative portrayal of the cyberspace elements. This movie is just plain pretty to look at, and never dull.

What might one not like about it?

There’s a lot going on in this story and if you can’t buy into both key elements (family drama, cyberspace AI) then you’ll spend at least half the time being frustrated. The huge cast can also lead to troubles keeping track of who said/did what to whom and why it matters, which can pull you out of the movie a bit. You might not be able to buy into some of the conceits required to make the cyberspace plot work, or maybe its depiction is too brightly colorful.

I urge you to try to get past these elements, of course.

A ridiculously powerful supercomputer in every home. The future!

Other thoughts about it?

Without spoiling the movie too much: It’s interesting that while the story does have a triumphant victory and a generally happy ending, the overall theme seems to be, “Life goes on regardless.” There’s a strong thread of thoughtful contemplation running through what is generally an energetic, arguably chaotic film.

Where can I watch it?

Buy the Blu-Ray release.

3WA 2017 #9: HaNaYaMaTa

The nice thing about a writing project that only a handful of people will ever read is that I’m not required to take myself too seriously. I have no dignity to lose, here. This week? That’s especially useful.

What is it?

HaNaYaMaTa is a cute, slice-of-life, sports-type 12-episode anime that started out as a manga series. The title is kind of like a portmanteau of the names of five of the main characters.

Our title characters, everyone!

What kind of story is it?

Let me sum up: Cute, because it’s a group of schoolgirls being adorable. Slice-of-life, because it’s mostly the girls being adorable & goofy rather than being caught in a high-drama thread of plotlines. Sports-type, because there’s a (slight) team competition aspect to their chosen activity, and of course our girls are the underdog newbies.

The history of anime television is littered with shows whose premise boils down to, “Let’s show schoolkids getting involved with a sport (or other group activity) that nobody else has done an anime about yet.” For HaNaYaMaTa the activity is a dance style called yosakoi.

Practice session, complete with wooden clappers.

Go ahead and Google it if you want. You don’t need in-depth knowledge about yosakoi to enjoy this show, however.

Why do you like it?

Because it’s adorable. It just is. The opening theme song is perfectly cute and bubbly, the characters are delightful, and the whole show is just a joy to behold. There is drama but it’s really low-key stuff. Not that it’s handled poorly; there are a few lovely tear-jerker beats along the way.

Sometimes you need bright colors and happy silliness, right? Right.

A heartwarming grand finale doesn’t hurt, either.

What might one not like about it?

This much cuteness isn’t for everyone, I know this. HaNaYaMaTa wouldn’t ordinarily be my kind of fare either! Different people have different lines for the boundary between “this is just too much bright-and-cheery” and “this is just right.” I don’t even remember why I checked this one out… glad I did, mind you.

Also, to be fair, the characters are all sourced from the Anime Schoolgirl Character Archetypes shelf.

Right down to our “hapless but tries hard” lead, Naru.

Other thoughts about it?

This show has one of my all-time favorite upbeat-style opening songs.

No, that’s about all I’ve got. They can’t all be complex, thought-provoking shows, can they?

Where can I watch it?

Crunchyroll has you covered, you can stream all 12 episodes for free (as of this writing).

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