For this month's trio of anime reviews, Chris Feldman gives us his thoughts on To Heart V.1 New Feelings, V.2 Finding Courage, Demon Prince Enma V.1 and Highlander: The Search for Vengeance.
To Heart V.1 New Feelings, V.2 Finding Courage
(2007) TV series (seven episodes). Director: Naohito Takahashi. V.1: four episodes/100 minutes; V.2: three episodes/75 minutes. DVD bilingual $19.99. Distributor: The Right Stuf International
The standard school of thought for a business model in this country is to take an idea that makes money, and wring it out until every last penny is made. It's a fairly simple formula that has some certainty of success, but in the case of pop culture that formula works exceedingly well. Anime for a long time has enjoyed its under-the-radar status for a long time, but with all the attention drawn to it by Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network and recent theatrical releases that anonymity is no longer enjoyed. Production companies have figured out that anime fans will consume as much material as they can put out fed the fandom.
The result is anime that previously wouldn't be considered for translation and release stateside, now finds its way to local video shops. This is a double edged sword because not all of these more obscure titles are really the best entertainment, and even if one possessing a superior story and animation is publish here, there is always the danger of it being ruined by the apparent need for publishers to "Americanize" it. But Right Stuf has really done fans of Shojo a favor with putting To Heart on DVD.
Studio KSS, who has brought us fan favorites such as Battle Angel, Plastic Little and Naruto, brings to life the coming of age romance drama/comedy To Heart. I have to admit that I had a hard time admitting to myself that I really liked this one. The sappy romance stories are not really my forte, but this one has a little something special about it. It is kind of difficult to encapsulate To Heart. It is not the typical high school romance anime. Rather it is the telling of the high school experiences of a core group of friends with some light romance sprinkled about.
The story revolves around two main characters, Akari, the tender and pseudo girlfriend to Hiroyuki the loveable slacker, and their best friends, Shiho, the girl who thinks the world revolves around her, and Masashi, the school soccer stud. Early on, the dynamic between Akari and Hiroyuki is laid out in simple terms. They met when they were very young while in school and they have been inseparable ever since. Their best friends came into the picture later on after they entered junior high, and, despite being separated into different classes in high school, they have still remained friends.
I guess one of the things that I feel works to help the audience really connect with the characters in To Heart is the fact that they are, well, normal. It isn't like Tenchi in Tokyo, where there are supernatural powers at work, but, rather, any one of the kids in this anime could be any random student that could be anywhere in the world. In fact, the relationship dynamics between Hiroyuki, Akari and their follow students reminded me a lot of my own high school experiences. This gives a very slice of life feeling to how the story unfolds and it is really successful in helping the viewer relate to each character.
Hiroyuki is one of my personal favorites. He fits in the slacker category, but is not the typical slacker. Hiroyuki is very much like a slacker in that he spends most of his waking energy either finding something to eat or some place for to sleep, and, if it wasn't for Akari coming to wake him every morning, he would be perpetually late to school. But, atypical to the standard slacker arc type, he shows signs of athletic prowess and when he makes a promise to someone, Hiroyuki is highly motivated to not let them down, even at the risk to his own body. Actually, Hiroyuki's commitment to his own word is probably one of his most endearing character traits. I suppose in some cases it might be even considered a fault of his, because it just makes him so dang honest and sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.
Akari isn't half bad of a friend either. She is incredibly sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, and will often put her own feelings aside for the sake of someone else's. Often, she will do this for someone she just met, and, to top it all off, she has to be the most understanding person in the world. Together, they make a bit of an odd couple, but their relationship works well enough to instill hope that one day they will get together for real.
Akari and Hiroyuki have been together so long that they become like brother and sister, but, at times, they act as if they are boyfriend and girlfriend. It is this strange relationship where most of the drama comes from. Hiroyuki's decision-making skills can best be described as someone who is perpetually bored, who always wants to be helpful and has difficulty saying no. As a result, he often finds himself in situations that he is helping out different girls. In a plotline that seems only possible in anime, Akari somehow is completely understanding of Hiroyuki spending time with other girls alone, and she even loves him more, because of his willingness to care for others. Despite Hiroyuki's apparent apathy toward his current status in life, he often takes the time to show that he is thinking of Akari regardless of the girl that he is with.
There is an episode in Vol. 2 where there is a school wide sports festival. Everyone is excited and really motivated to do well for the class, with the exception of Hiroyuki. He is dealing with some adolescent angst and right now doesn't find much meaning in competing in an inconsequential sports festival. So he decides to go for a walk to kill some time before his event. Hiroyuki winds up helping every female he runs across and they, in turn, direct their affections toward him by saying that they will cheer for him. Funny thing is that it is the opposite of what he wants. Hiroyuki doesn't want any additional pressure and just wants to do his thing and go home. When all is said and done, Hiroyuki returns back to Akari's side. The fact that Hiroyuki treats his relationship with Akari so casually, but always seems to keep her at his side, somehow manages to keep this story from going off some sappy downward spiral.
Overall production quality is nice. The original airdate for this show in Japan was back in the late '90s and so it is fairly free from any digital treatments. So there is a sort of old school feeling to the look of To Heart, but nothing about it feels dated. Character designs are well done with a fair amount variation, even amongst background characters. There is plenty of detail throughout the backgrounds that really helps to set the scenes. Desks have small bits of graffiti, little bits of paper on the ground in the courtyard. All sorts of little the details like these are fun to pick out while watching. For those out there with a really keen eye, try to spot the "Japlish" is in each episode.
Special features are in abundance on both volumes 1 and 2. First thing to notice is that the cover art is reversible to the original Japanese, which is always cool. The synopsis on the back cover still remains in English, but the text on the title art is in Japanese. The opening and ending title sequences remain intact in their original form, complete with Japanese titles. English translated credits follow at the very end of each episode. Opening and ending themes are translated both into English and romaji for those out there who are into anime karaoke. In the special features section, there are some character bios that are always nice to have. There are some really cool translation notes, which are helpful in understanding some of the humor, which can sometimes be lost in translation. And, finally my personal favorite, character designs sheets. There are plenty of different views that come complete with emoting poses and closeups.
The audio is very good quality with a lot of nice foley production. Plenty of background ambience shows that there was a nice focus on attention to detail. The opening and end themes are catchy and really fit with the tone of the show. Oddly there is an absence of background music. During montages, there is some generic music, but nothing too impressive. The Japanese language track is top notch as usual with well-timed subtitles. One funny thing Right Stuf has done with the subtitles is that they shrink the font on it when the character Serika speaks in her trademark whisper. Not a significant deal, but I thought it was fun enough to mention.
English voice acting is actually pretty good for the most part. The voice actor who plays Hiroyuki is a little monotone compared to the treatment of the Japanese voice actor, but none the acting could be considered irritating. There are some significant differences between the subtitled translation and the spoken English translation and, in certain scenes, these differences actually change the tone of how the scene plays. For instance, when Hiroyuki finishes his race the subtitled translation gives the impression that he feels a great sense of release of the pressure he felt under, but in the spoken English translation, the impression is given that Hiroyuki is just really out of shape. Now this doesn't necessarily change the plot of the episode, but it a pretty significant difference between the two.
Overall To Heart is a very solid series. It has plenty to offer for everyone. There are wonderfully approachable characters that can be easily identified with. And a story that is sweet and endearing without causing more cynical folks like me to roll their eyes. The sub-$20 price tag makes these DVDs a really good value for the money, and the fact that they are really worth re-watching really extends their value. This is a highly recommended title for anyone who enjoys shojo anime or a good coming of age story with a youthful romantic twist.
Demon Prince Enma V.1
(2007) TV series (24 episodes), 2007. Director: Mamoru Kanbe. V.1 Two episodes/ 98 minutes. Price and format: DVD Japanese only $39.99. Distributor: Honneamise
More than 30 years ago, Go Nagai (of Devilman, Mazinger Z and Cutey Honey fame) worked on a story called SATANIKUS in both manga and anime forms. It was the story of a demon in the form of a mischievous little boy named Enma that was creature born of fire. This boy left the demon world and entered into the human world to hunt down and either destroy or take back demons that have escaped. Enma is accompanied by another Demon hunter, the princess of the snow demon clan, Yukihime, and a demon shaped like a hat that is referred to as Grandpa Chapeauji that serves as a demon encyclopedia and a demon locator of sorts. SATANIKUS enjoyed a large fan following and Go Nagai often wondered about what would happen to the character of Enma after he grew up. And that is where Demon Prince Enma begins. It isn't a sequel to the original SATANIKUS, but, rather, a continuation of Enma's story. But this story told in a far more modern fashion, and with a real horror element to complement its mischievous lead character.
Goofy episode titles aside, such as "Rot-Pus Suck Demon," there is some real freaky stuff going on here. I have seen a lot of horror anime in my life and while some of them were good and some bad, I can honestly say that Demon Prince Enma has really freaked me out the most. The directing style that Mamoru Kanbe uses is very effective in balancing the humor and fear of each story. Each of these episodes looks as if many hours were spent in just the shot planning alone. There is such a fit and polish to each one that they must really be seen to be appreciated. The first episode opens by thrusting the audience directly into the action. This fact alone is immediately unsettling, because it catches the viewers off guard. No titles, no theme music, no warning, just a girl running for her life from a mysterious thing that is following her. Credits are inter-cut within the opening action scene to keep the pacing fast, and these cuts provide a clever way to move through large chunks of the stories timeline very quickly. The girl being chased visibly tires as time moves on and slowly the creature she is being chased by is revealed. If improperly handled, an opening like this one would not only have been cheesy, but it would have been down right irritating to watch. Thankfully it is handled adeptly and really sets the tone for the rest to come.
The style of telling horror used in Demon Prince Enma is far more effective in creating tension and fear than the antiquated and overly formulaic slasher style of horror that anyone born in the past 30 years is familiar with. The slasher style typically has long periods of boredom that are interrupted by jolting the audience with something suddenly jumping into frame, punctuated with a loud sound. Back in 1980, when Friday the 13th was released, this was cutting edged and blew audiences away. Now, this style of horror filmmaking only serves to parody itself. Today's audiences are far too sophisticated to be drawn in by such tired old hack.
In contrast, Demon Prince Enma uses awkward camera angles in conjunction with odd lens choices to manipulate and distort the world around the viewer creating uneasiness. For instance, when someone is about to become a victim, the camera is placed down low, usually that person's point of view or even lower. Subconsciously this has a tendency to create fear, because the audience is forced into a place of weakness and submissiveness. Another trick that Kanbe uses to create fear is to have something move in an unnatural way. This can be a doll that seems to move from one end of a room to the other in the blink of an eye. Personally, I find life-like dolls as a whole scary to begin with, but when they suddenly move on their own in dramatic ways, it freaks me out on a whole new level. Often times camera angles, lens and movement are all combined into a seen to make what would seem almost silly appear rather frightening.
There is a scene with a young lady in the bathroom of a club looking in the mirror fixing her make-up. This all seems rather mundane at first. That is, until the stall door behind her begins repeatedly opening and violently slamming closed. At first the door is revealed through the mirror, just as if the audience were looking through the eyes of this person. Then there is a jumpcut to where the camera is positioned underneath the sink, as if it were hiding like a scared kid. The shot is angled steeply upward with a fish eyed wide-angle lens that captures the girl, the counter above the camera, the floor, ceiling and the full door opening and closing. An awesome sense of space is given, or rather lack there of in a tiny bathroom, making the scene feel very claustrophobic. Watching this take place, I thought to myself that if that were me, I would have soiled myself. The key point here is that instead of sticking to a formula, Kanbe's directing style here is more free form. Allowing the story guide how a particular scene plays out. This keeps each scene engaging and avoids the staleness of the slasher formula.
The other side of the story of Demon Prince Enma is the humor. It is lightly sprinkled throughout each episode providing much needed levity to the very dark subject. There are four main characters that the story revolves around, and like a refreshing summer breeze, the humor comes from the interactions between these main characters instead of just slapstick. As mentioned before, there is Enma, Yukihime and Grandpa Chapeauji, but this story also includes a Toad Sprite named Kapaeru. Enma is young and handsome and he knows it. Often the lecherous one, his short attention span and wandering stares more often than not, get him into trouble with Yukihime. She often punishes Enma with varying degrees of excessive violence à la Akane Tendo. Her anger is fueled by her attraction to Enma and her jealously of his treatment of other woman.
Grandpa Chapeauji, or old man as Enma prefers to refer to him, is an incredibly useful tool with his ability to smell demons; too bad he is usually asleep when he is needed the most. And, as a result, Enma often treats him as more of a tag-a-long more than a partner. Then there is Kapaeru. He is a servant of both Enma and Yukihime and he is both useful and useless all at the same time. Let me explain. Kapaeru is probably the most detailed, creative and intuitive of the group, but he is an even worse lecher than Enma is. And that would get any man in trouble. He even goes as far as to lie to girls telling them that he is cosplaying as a toad sprite, because his appearance is so ugly they wouldn't talk to him other wise.
Did I also happen to mention that he moonlights as the doorman for a bar called "Cutie College"? It's a bar where girls who work there dress up as men's fantasies like naughty nurses and school girls for their male patrons. But oddly enough despite his tendency to be distracted by the ladies, he finds major clues to help out Enma and the others. As each episode unfolds the character traits described above play off of one another in a rock paper scissors fashion to deliver a "darkish" kind of humor.
Character designs are well done and show a good amount of reflection of each character's personality. My personal favorite is Yukihime with her cold and regal beauty. Her movements are purposeful and graceful as to be expected from a princess. Her fair skin, hair and eyes have a blue or cool tint to them reflecting her snow clan heritage. Yukihime's kimono is always smartly worn and, even when it is damaged, she is ever conscious about her appearance. She is also the most ethnic-looking character in the show with a few distinct Asian features. Everyone else has a much more western look to them, regardless of heritage. Enma, in much the same way as Yukihime, has a red or warm tint to his form and clothing as he was born of fire. Enma is pretty much the opposite of Yukihime with his lounging and tussled appearance. Kapaeru seems to have the body of a toad, the mouth of a bird and a plate for head. I honestly don't know what to think about that.
Similar effort has gone into every other appearing character. My only complaint is that one of the detectives investigating the murders has a very stereotypical anime tough cop look to him. But, in light of how awesome everything else looks that is more of nitpick really. Backgrounds are lush and detailed with a good sense of everything looking lived in. Excellent use of light and shadow really add to the atmosphere. There is some light use of 3D in each episode, but these are used sparingly probably since their production quality is weaker than the hand-drawn elements.
In the special features department there are some real treats. The DVD insert is actually a 14-page booklet. It includes character bios, character model sheets, environment layouts, credits, a two-page manga and a short story. This is pretty darn cool if you ask me. On the DVD, there is an additional 20 minutes of cast interviews from four different people. Audio is also very well done with options for the Japanese audio track in either 2.0 or 5.1 surround mixes. The subtitles have options as well with a choice of subtitled, subtitled with translated signs and off. Strangely, there is an absence of an English language track. But I am not going to lose any sleep over the fact that I could only watch this in Japanese. Background music is used sparingly, but with great effect. Since there is essentially an absence of music until the moment of tension, when the music finally plays it really adds to the intensity of the scene. There is an ending theme that is pretty rocking, but noting I feel the need to run out to look for the soundtrack.
Overall Demon Prince Enma is one very well done horror anime. If anyone is into modern Japanese horror films, they will definitely want to see it. Watching this one in the dark is a pretty intense experience that is best shared with friends or the stouthearted, if alone. There is a fair amount of blood and gore to satisfy the more hardcore fans, and with the large amount of female exposure this title is definitely not one for the kiddies. The DVDs price point is a little high, but due to its very high production value, it is warranted. So if the mood for demon slaying arises, Demon Prince Enma is the way to go.
Highlander: The Search for Vengeance
(2006) movie. Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri. 85 minutes. DVD English only $19.98. Distributor: Manga Video
In 1986, a movie called Highlander was released that told the story of a 15th century Scotsman named Connor MacLeod. MacLeod learns that he is an immortal, and that the immortals have fought through the ages because of a prophecy that states there can be only one immortal who survives. This prophecy says that when there is only one immortal left, a prize of great power will be awarded to the victor. MacLeod lives through the ages and tries to keep his head attached to his shoulders until the final battle of the immortals is fought in 1986 New York. I know that sounds silly, but trust me, it's cool.
In the original movie, the battle of the one was essentially a clash between good and evil. The evil immortals wanted to kill, because they thought that once they had the prize it would make them all-powerful. The good immortals banded together to stop the evil ones from gaining control over the prize and ending the world. Highlander became a bit of a cult hit that spawned a few sub-par sequels and a fairly decent TV series. The producers of the original movie have combined their efforts with some of the best talent in Japanese anime to reinvent the Highlander franchise.
I wasn't exactly excited when I heard that Highlander was being made into an anime after seeing the abysmal sequels to the movie. That is until I saw who was directing it, Yoshiaki Kawajiri. A few of his works may sound familiar, such as Ninja Scroll, Wicked City and the remake of Vampire Hunter D. Upon learning this I immediately perked up and became very eager to see this one. Thankfully, Kawajiri has chosen not to directly follow the Highlander lore, but rather tell a different story while still adhering to the original intent of the first movie. For example the rules are just the same, such as how that no immortals can battle on holy ground, and when an immortal losses his/her head there is a quickening.
This time around, the plot follows Colin MacLeod (yes his name is different) on his journey of vengeance. The story starts out a little different, where Colin MacLeod is a 1st century Scotsman and his beloved wife and clansman are slaughtered by another immortal named Macro. MacLeod in anger swears his revenge and chases Marco through time and rather unsuccessfully tries to kill Marco. Every imperialist nation that has ever tried to take over the world Marco has had his hand in those plans and MacLeod has been right behind him. From the Romans to the Huns and right on through to the Nazis, Marco is there and MacLeod foils his plans. The final battle takes place in 2187 New York after a hundred years of global warming and terrorism have turn the earth into a burned out husk.
Our hero Colin MacLeod has an interesting twist on his character compared to the first Connor MacLeod of the original movie. The original Connor MacLeod was a more conflicted person dealing with a struggle of good and evil within him. The need to do what is good and right is Connor's major motivation to fight. In the end, when he finds that his last opponent is in fact that one that killed his friend and wife centuries ago, it gives him the strength to win despite a superior foe. In the Search for Vengeance, Colin MacLeod has the singular purpose of finding and killing the immortal that destroyed the ones he loved. It is Colin's sole purpose for continuing on in life, and he will not rest until Marco has been destroyed.
Another difference that I thought was an interesting take was that both MacLeods are skilled swordsman and capable of amazing feats of strength, but the anime version of MacLeod is significantly weaker than his nemesis Marco. Every time these two battle together, MacLeod is pinned, time and time again. It is only by sheer luck that MacLeod has been allowed to keep his head attached. Another great character is MacLeod's love interest and the stories heroine, Dahlia. She is a gun, grenade, knife-toting, church-going prostitute that is the reincarnation of MacLeod's wife from the first century.
This flawed hero theme has become very popular lately, especially in superhero stories. I think the times where a hero is a shining pillar of perfection is no longer acceptable to audiences. And that to make a hero too perfect would only cause suspicion of what his real flaws may be, and run the risk of earning the audience's distrust. Having the characters' flaws right out in the open, as with Colin MacLeod, helps to make that hero far more approachable, despite the fact that normal people could never understand what it is like to be that hero.
On the production side of things, Highlander is one of the best animes I have ever seen. This one is worth picking up just for the swordfights between immortals. There is a fight between MacLeod and some dude that is carrying something between a sword and chainsaw. That battle between MacLeod and that other immortal illustrates such a raw and visceral rage that it could only be seen because words could not properly describe it. On a holy crap scale of 1 to 10, it is an 11. Characters move with such fluidity and personality that it puts Disney to shame.
Character design is really well thought out. Every character design has something in it that reflects their personality and themes are carried throughout, such as heroes' wearing long cape-like trench coats is an example of this. All of the characters are sexy with the men often shirtless with their muscles rippling, and there is not a woman who has less than a D-cup to be found anywhere in this movie. And, not to be out done by the guys, the ladies also spend a fair amount of time running around topless.
All of the special effects work for the explosions, fires and clashing steel is masterfully executed and totally believable. There is a fair amount of 3D work used in this movie, and most of it is integrated without it even being noticeable to the untrained eye, with the exception of a few scenes where things seem to rotate a bit too perfectly. Camera angles are also creatively used with unconventional blocking and movements. There is a scene in the opening where the camera does a fly over of the dilapidated New York City and reveals Marco's grand tower. While the camera is moving, it heads straight toward a partially collapsed skyscraper, but instead of bypassing the building, the camera goes straight through it, showing all the destruction inside and passing back out again.
Environments are completely packed with detail. There are cables and cracks with graffiti and all kinds of stuff happening everywhere the camera looks, plus the attention to historical detail is astounding. Roman art on the walls, Japanese period armor and Chinese architecture are just a few things to mention that shows a large amount of historical accuracy. Very cool stuff.
Extra features are something to look forward to, as well more than 20 minutes of interviews with the creators from both America and Japan. There is a six-minute montage of stillshots from production, sketches and concept art. Plus, both the theatrical and the teaser trailers for the Highlander anime are available. There is also the obligatory "also available on DVD" section featuring two new animes from Manga Video. Sadly there is no Japanese voice track as an option on this disk, but the English voice cast did do a superb job. It should satisfy even the most hardcore anime fan.
Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is an awesome new theatrical anime release from Manga Video. There is a ton of blood, gore, language and courtesy breasts that more than warrant its +18 rating. But this anime is not just about the violence; it does have a good storyline that flows smoothly. And, while the plot is more sophisticated than the average hyper violent anime, it is not so heady that it is hard to follow. Highlander: The Search for Vengeance certainly has a place in any anime collection, despite the fact that it is an American story told through an anime style of filmmaking. Pick it up and check it out to see what all the fuss is about.
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 well as a long time staff member/promoter of anime and comic conventions. In his very finite spare time he volunteers teaching animation to kids.