For anime reviews this month, Chris Feldman takes a look at recent releases, Ninja Nonsense volumes 1-4 and Bleach volume 1.
Ninja Nonsense: V.1 Enter the Ninja, V.2 Psychedelic Summer, V.3 Ninjas on First, V.4 Exit the Ninja
TV series (12 episodes), 2004. Original story by Ryoichi Kog. V.1-4 three episodes/80 minutes, DVD, bilingual, $29.99. Distributor: Right Stuf.
One of the things that I miss from my student days was the freedom and flexibility that I had creatively. We were given a particular subject or emotion to deal with and from there our imaginations were the only limitation. This free flowing of ideas and creativity pushed students skills and storytelling abilities. Watching Ninja Nonsense has made me remember how awesome that time in my life was, but I will deal more with this later.
Ninja Nonsense is the story of a modern day ninja in training -- Shinobu. This is one of those few anime titles that really has something to offer to both genders. With its constant kinetic assault of jokes, puns, slap stick and perverted craziness there is definitely something for everybody. But by no means is this an anime for everyone. Put the kiddies to bed when this one is running in the DVD player. There is not a lot sex graphically depicted in the series, but there is a great deal of obvious sexual connotations and plenty detailed sound effects that actually made me blush a little. Expect some pseudo yaoi and yuri innuendo going on, which is then quickly followed by hilarity.
Production quality is very high, from the animation to sound production and throughout the story. Character models are very well developed (pun intended with this story) and their fluidity of motion is second to none. Characters seamlessly transition between what appears to be three forms. There is the main appearance, which is your basic cute, magical girl type with rosy cheeks and sticky sweet big eyes; there is the super deformed cuteness type; and, finally, there is the sexy type. Plus the character design behind Shinobus head master Onsokumaru I thought was brilliant. Rapidly switching between these character models provides Ninja Nonsense with a fair amount of its humor, and some ever so slight feelings of guilty pleasure. The overall look is very reminiscent of one of my all time favorites, R Ranma 1/2. Especially with the commercial bumpers that appear in the story breaks. But dont let the similarity fool you. This is not a Ranma 1/2 clone. In fact, this title is far from it.
While this title initially seems to be very formulaic, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, as I watched more, it really began to find its own originality. Tying into how I opened this review, I have to say that I am jealous of the good folks who produced this. I am jealous because as I watched each episode it became very apparent that the goal was to pack in as much goodness into each episode as possible. There is so much detail in this series that each episode really should be re-watched just to catch everything. Everyone from the storyboard artists through the tweeners must have had some creative input in these shows.
For instance, Shinobu wears a headband that has a smiley face on it. This face reacts to Shinobus emotions, when shes happy the face is happy, shes angry the face is angry. It's one of those little things that really illustrates the amount of effort put into the production. Even the generic background ninjas have their own personalities and reactions. One these ninjas named Sasuke even becomes a reoccurring character in the story.
Ninja Nonsense is the very kind of project that most animators would say their ideal job would be. There is always something energetic happening on screen and, sometimes, there is almost too much happening. Humor that starts out what would be considered cookie cutter for this type of anime always winds up taking an original twist. It reminded me of school when my friends and I were developing our project storylines. We would sit around in creative meetings and try to think up the most outlandish and nut ball ideas. Because of this freedom, we could to take our projects in new directions. Out in the real world where time is money some of that freedom was lost. In Ninja Nonsense, it seems, as if they got the opportunity to use that kind of freedom to really develop a truly fun anime. Even the stop-motion animation that the end titles shows loads of creativity and is fun to watch.
In volume 1 we are introduced to our heroine, Shinobu. We quickly learn that she is not your typical ninja. In fact, the only thing about her that says ninja is her bubblegum pink keikogi. She breaks into the bedroom of Kade Shiranui thinking that she is hidden by her skillful use of ninja techniques. But she is actually in plain sight to the dismay of Kade who is trying to study for her finals. Shinobu is taking her finals as well and her chosen task is to collect the underwear of certain high school girls. We are then introduced to the headmaster and head pervert, Onsokumaru. I can only describe him as a shape shifting tennis ball with wings. Later, we meet Shinobus bratty little sister, Miyabi, who also happens to be a much more talented ninja than her older sister. Background ninja, Sasuke, and the dojo gator, Devil, also make their first appearances in this volume.
The following three volumes follow Shinobu as she progresses toward graduation. What Onsokumaru has exactly prepared her with for graduation I still have no clue, but the fact that she never really learns anything doesnt stop Shinobu from believing in herself. Well, with the support of her best friend Kade, she has no problem believing in herself. Each volume is well produced with lots of nice extras such as cast interviews, linear notes, character bios, and production journal.
Another really cool extra for nerds like myself is the reversible cover art that swaps out the translated title art back to the original Japanese. Its a nice touch that is really appreciated by fans. Even the English voice acting is fairly decent and not especially irritating like so many dubs in this genre can be. Technically there are only three episodes per disk, but each episode is actually more like two smaller episodes combined into one. That means there are really six episodes to enjoy on each disk because each smaller episode has its own completed story. So for the money this is actually a pretty good deal when combined with the cool extras. Ninja Nonsense is a fun little series that is full of energy, fun, humor and fan service.
TV series (on-going), 2006. Director: Noriyuki Abe. V.1 Four episodes/100 minutes, DVD, bilingual, $29.98. Distributor: VIZ Media.
One thing that I find that the Japanese seem to do exceedingly well with their animation is story development. And Bleach is no exception to this. It is my humble opinion that the Japanese commercial creative process has everything to do with this. When a story is written its original form is not the full vision of that story. Often the goal is to have as many merchandise ties-ins as possible.
An example of this would be a manga that becomes an anime, then a game and then toys and collectables. While on the surface it seems as though the production companies are just trying to wring every dollar out of fans as possible, which, to a certain extent is true, at the same time a story has to be developed that ties all these products together. And, more importantly, it creates a bond between story and fan that will outlast the 25 minutes of viewing. This type of marketing would not be possible if the story development was at a shallow level.
Bleach started out in the weekly magazine, Shonan Jump, with the original story by Tite Kubo, and has enjoyed a great deal of popularity on TV Tokyo in Japan. VIZ Media has obtained the rights to bring the manga and TV series here to America, and, back in September, started airing on Cartoon Networks Adult Swim. Director Noriyuki Abe is no stranger to martial arts ghostbusting. Another of his more famous projects is Yu Yu Hakusho. Bleach however, is a far more mature tale that is told with a cinematic focus.
Right from the beginning it is pretty apparent that the animators at Studio Pierrot are not playing around. The opening title sequence oozes cool. Striking color palettes and fashion model character models abound in an almost Roy Lichtenstein type of style. Layers upon layers of interweaving elements and cleverly integrated credits flow in an almost constant steam across the screen. To top it off, the opening theme, Asterisk, by Orange Range, feels just about perfect.
In fact, the music plays a fairly significant roll in the coolness factor of this first volume. Everything produced in this anime is of theatrical quality and the sound is one of the highlights. Sound effects are well done and nicely layered, giving a sense of weight and solidness too the action. From footfalls on changing pavement, to the mixed sounds of wood and glass breaking, you really get the impression of someone crashing through a wall, or delivering a devastating blow with a sword.
Music throughout each episode is subtle and really helps to set mode and pacing. Without actually paying attention to the music in the background, it often goes unnoticed. And that is the way is should be. Much like how salt seasons a dish, it should enhance, not overpower the flavor. Another nice touch is that the styles of music change, but still fit the overall feeling of the episode. Its nice to hear a soundtrack that isnt afraid to mix styles of music.
The animation is top notch. Something I havent seen in a while was an action anime that really had me believing that the moves were real. After watching Bleach, I felt like that if I could just yell loud enough, I too could destroy demons. The action sequences were all adrenaline and wonderfully dynamic. So often, in shows just like this one, the action sequences are obviously recycled and create boredom. The action here, while usually limited to sword fighting, stays varied and didnt settle into a formula. Another nice touch that Bleach has is its character designs. One of the most common criticisms of anime is that the characters tend to all look the same. Bleachs characters are unique and varied enough to where all that is needed to identify a character is just their silhouette.
Volume 1 is mostly introduction to the story and the main characters. We have our hero, Ichigo Kurosaki, who is a high school student with skills in the martial arts and a strange skill to see spirits. I see dead people! Sorry, I couldnt resist. Ichigo lives with his father, Isshin, and his sisters, Karin and Yuzu. The three of them operate a small medical clinic. Ichigo has a chance meeting with a Shinigami or Soul Reaver named Rukia Kuchiki, and as a result of a fight gone wrong, Rukias powers are transferred to Ichigo.
Together they are forced to battle spirits called hollows and help spirits called wholes pass peacefully on. Ichigo is not the typical reluctant hero. In fact, he is actually a very believable character. He is all motivated to help out his own family, but when it comes to Soul Reaving on a permanent basis, he is pretty reluctant. But his redeeming quality is that despite adolescent selfishness he has a good heart and really wants to help people. Oh, well, in this case spirits. There is a good balance on action, exposition and comedy. This balance is nice to have in what could have been an oppressively heavy drama. It is pretty violent with all the maiming and decapitations, but, I think, that given the subject matter and the manner in which these spirits need to be dealt with, it is warranted.
The special features are minimal with an included sticker sheet and previews. It also includes some production art, which has character model sheets that are always nice to have. The Japanese voice acting is top notch and subtitles are nicely timed. The English dub is also available, but I cant necessarily recommend it with this title. While the voice actors do a nice job of projecting emotion with just their voices, it often feels a little forced and not always in step with the scene. They did do a nice job of matching voices to each character and that thankfully helped in making the dub watchable. Overall, I thought Bleach was outstanding and I would recommend it to anyone looking to pick up a new series.
Chris Feldman is a freelance 3D modeler and animator whose work has been featured in television, games and manufacturing. He is an active member in the pop art community as a long time staff member and promoter of anime and comic conventions, as well as a volunteer teaching animation to kids.