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Anime Reviews: Karas & N-H-K Welcome, Hammerboy Not So Much

MPC had numerous challenges to contend with on the more action-oriented Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Alain Bielik reports on the results.

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Hammerboy is not from Japan, but from Korea. Is it a high-quality film like those that have recently come from places like Korea and China? All Hammerboy images © 2005 CharacterPlan. All rights reserved.  

Hammerboy

2005, movie. Director: Unknown. 75 minutes. DVD, bilingual $9.98. Distributor: Central Park Media.

Well, I am sad to say that I really don't know where to begin with the review of Hammerboy. Unlike most of the anime that I am given to review, Hammerboy is not from Japan. Rather it is a movie that comes from Korea. Normally this isn't a bad thing, since high-quality film and animation have been coming out of places like Korea and China. Um, Hammerboy isn't one of them. As an animator myself, I have a unique perspective into the blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to produce an animated film. So though I really hate to openly dislike something, I have to say that Hammerboy doesn't exactly deliver.

There is a dirty little secret in the animation industry that most production companies both here in the United States and in Japan feign ignorance of so as not to share credit. When an animation is created, there are two types of drawings produced from the storyboards. The first type are "key frames," which are frames that show change in motion, such as a character moving from a run-cycle to a stop. The second type (and arguably the more important) are called tweens. These in-between drawings are the drawn frames between key frames that denote the smoothness and timing of movement. So, to put things into perspective, in an average movie, a scene will last somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-30 seconds. Movie-quality animations typically run at 24-60 frames per second. Since each frame is a drawing, at 24 frames per second a 15-second scene will need 360 drawings to produce that scene. Of those 360 frames, maybe three to five frames will be key frames and the rest are all tweens. Obviously then, the process of tweening an animation is one of the greatest expenses. So in order to help make animations more profitable, the tweening process is usually contracted out to companies where the labor rate is cheaper, such as, China, Korea, and India. In recent years a lot has changed in the film industries of China, Korea, and India and they've been transformed from being simply a source of cheap labor to become producers of first-rate films.

When Hammerboy showed up in my in box, I thought that it was going to be very interesting, as it is from an emerging cutting-edge film culture. Instead I got a movie that was downright difficult to follow. Hammerboy is the story of a boy named Mangchi, who lives in a small isolated fishing village with his grandfather. Life is peaceful and simple until, late one night, a girl crash-lands her plane off the shores of Mangchi's home. This mysterious girl turns out to be the princess from a far-off kingdom who is running from the men who attacked her father, the king. After making Mangchi feel sufficiently guilty, Princess Poplar persuades him to take her to find help. On the way, they are shot down by some ruffians and are sold back to the men who attacked the princess earlier. Hammerboy finds that he has a latent great echo power inside himself, and he must train himself to defeat the conspiring Moonk, who wishes to overthrow the rule of Princess Poplar and her father.

The first thing about this movie that stands out is that it is a blatant attempt to rip off one of anime's greatest creators, Hiyao Miyazaki. The relationship between Mangchi and Poplar, all of the flying, the oppressive evil empire, an enemy that turns into an ally -- all these things are common themes in a Miyazaki film. Only here these themes are executed with all the skill of a neighborhood play written by a fifth-grader. I have no problems with homages to creators who are influences in the community, but to try to create a story by directly copying someone infuriates me.

The next problem I have is that the shot-blocking seems almost random. A camera angle will show Mangchi getting tossed into a wall and then the angle immediately following will be over-the-shoulder and a few feet behind Mangchi. That doesn't make any sense, because the first shot showed a wall, but now the camera can see through that wall. Or a character will appear to be right in front of an enemy, but then be able to escape because, in the very next shot, he will be 20 or more feet away. Huh? Did no one storyboard this movie? Visually, this makes things incredibly confusing and difficult to follow.

Unfortunately, Hammerboy falls short visually and in its storytelling.

Then there is the story. Oh man, where do I begin with the story? I think the creators took all of the animes they have ever seen or liked and tried to combine them into one movie. The result is a story that has no focus and lacks any flow whatsoever. There is the rescue-the-princess story, but then there is a great echo thing with the rivalry between Mangchi's grandfather and Moonk, but then there is the adventure/love story. At no point does the story make up its mind about where it is going. More often than not I found myself asking, "Wait, what just happened?" Honestly, it felt like plot elements were just being stuffed into the story without any thought to the plot unfolding in a coherent manner. There are even multiple montages to tell the story. So many montages that even '80s filmmakers would consider it cheesy. Plot elements will randomly appear out of nowhere without any reason. And at no point can the plot twists be derived from what happened previously in the story. It is like watching an hour-long Scooby-Doo mystery explanation. The voice-acting in Korean or English matches the story, and that is all I have to say about that.

On the bright side, the DVD is produced nicely with cover art on both sides of the slipcover to take advantage of the clear DVD case. There are also some nice special features, with English and Korean trailers and a gallery section that has lots of concept work. And the subtitles are in black-outlined yellow, so not only are they well done, but they are easy on the eyes. The sub-$10 retail price I think says a lot about this one, but it still has a value for film students. Good film students watch not only the good stuff, but the bad as well, so that they know what not to do.

Karas: The Revelation is a film of such epic scale and presence that, just like Akira, it will impact creative people all over the world.

Karas: The Revelation

2006, movie. Director: Keiichi Sato. 90 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $19.97. Distributor: Manga Video.

Back in 1988, a film called Akira was released in Japan. The following year it was brought to the States by the now-defunct Orion Pictures studio. I remember very clearly the day I saw this movie on laserdisc (that is not a typo, I did in fact say laserdisc) at a friend's house. It was a warm late-summer evening when my phone rang. On the other end was my rather excited friend telling me that I had to come over right now and see this incredible animated movie. Feeling that I had nothing better to do and that cartoons were always fun to see, I headed over. Arriving at his house, I sat down on his couch and made myself comfortable. In went the laserdisc and out went any and all preconceived notions I had about what an animated movie was supposed to be. Before my eyes, during the movie's 124 minutes, I saw the grandest, most epic and mind-blowing film I have ever seen to date. That film made a huge indelible mark on my life and raised the bar of animated films so high that the bar could no longer be seen. Akira's influence can still be seen in both animated and live-action film. Heck, my first motorcycle was even red because I loved this movie so much. Fast forward to today, or rather a few days ago, and in my in box I find this movie called Karas. I had seen the trailers and heard some of the hype, but I am one to hold my opinions until I actually see the movie. Honestly, watching this movie took me back 20 years to when I first saw Akira. Again, here is a film of such epic scale and presence that it will impact creative people all over the world, just like Akira.

Karas: The Revelation picks up immediately where the outstanding first film ended and ties up many loose ends. All Karas images © 2005/TATSUNOKO Pro/KARAS Committee. All Right Reserved.

Well, from my research it appears that Karas was originally released as a six-part OAV series. But I must say that there is conflicting information regarding this. Either way, Manga Video has decided to release Karas as two separate movies. The first one is called Karas: The Prophecy and covers OAV episodes 1-3. The second movie is called Karas: The Revelation, which covers the remaining three episodes. Interestingly enough, if in fact Karas was supposed to be a six-part OAV series, these episodes cut together beautifully, almost as if it was the original intent of Tatsunoko Productions to really create two films. Either way, there are two great films here. Karas: The Revelation picks up immediately where the first film ended. While outstanding in its own right, the first movie ended with many loose ends and a humdinger of a cliffhanger. The city is in shambles from the battle between Eko and Otoha, and the struggle for control of the city's destiny is nowhere near decided. Karas: The Revelation thankfully ties everything up and finally settles, once and for all, who really is the city's chosen protector.

One thing I will say about the Karas movies is that they really should be seen together. While each has its own story, complete with three-act structure, both Prophecy and Revelation tell a single story. To really get the most out this anime masterpiece, they should really both be seen. That being said, Revelation is very well written and, even without having seen Prophecy, the movie is fully understandable. As with most well-written sequels, less time is spent on character development in order to allow greater development of plot details. So without knowledge of the previous movie, attachment to the main characters is lacking, and that is a shame because all hell breaks lose in Revelation and there is so much emotional content. However, the additional plot development comes in really handy in this second movie because there is so much going on that it would be easy to get lost if the story weren't laid out so well.

The animation in Karas: The Revelation is some of the very best, with an awesome combination of 2D and 3D elements.

The animation is some of the very best I have seen. There is an awesome combination of 2D and 3D elements used throughout the movie. Honestly, without the use of 3D, some of the more incredible elements would have either been left out or would have had been far less impressive. For instance, there are these mechanical tentacles that violently weave themselves throughout Shinjuku, forming a massive imprisoning wall. When those tentacles start ripping through buildings and people, it is one of those scenes that deserves a rewind when it is over. Then there is the 3D Karas and Demons. The outstanding character models are perfectly complemented by the equally impressive animations and particle effects. Typically, 3D characters move in a very marionette-like fashion, clumsily flailing about in some totally unnatural way. Somehow the animators found a way around this in this movie. While the Karas movies are technologically very well done, a new way of rigging hasn't been created to solve this issue. I think it's a combination of clever use of camera angles, masking with particle effects, and strategically chosen ranges of motion that make the movement so believable. Whatever tricks they used, the 3D animation is spot-on and any blemishes would only be noticed by nerds like me that pick movies apart for fun.

Sound in Karas is second-to-none. The music, sound effects and voice talent match the epic scale of the visual elements. There is a wonderful combination of orchestral and electronic elements that forms leitmotifs for the main characters. Sound effects and Foley are right on. As soon as the city starts to explode, those out there with good home theater systems will find it hard to keep from smiling. It is literally deafening, and anyone in an apartment should remember to keep the volume down. Both the English and Japanese language tracks are great. The subtitling for the Japanese language track is a little off, as parts of it read like a bootleg out of China. Following the story would be a little difficult for the newbies out there, so it is good that the dub is such high quality. There is a pretty significant change between the two language versions. In the Japanese, Eko speaks in an older tongue that is translated into Old English. Eko's speech in the English version has been updated into modern English. And I have to say that I actually agree with this change because Eko has been watching the development of man since the Edo period. And if Eko has been learning from humans all this time, I am quite certain that his speech would have changed as well. Heck, I can't spend more than two weeks visiting friends down south without coming home and using "y'all." So I think it is less believable for Eko to have not changed the way that he speaks. Other than this discrepancy, everything is right on.

Special features on Karas: The Revelation are a real treat, with a great segment on voice acting. Anyone interested in fansubing or pursuing a voice-acting career should check it out.

Special features on this disk are a real treat. There is a rather lengthy segment showing the English actors in the voiceover booth, and a great interview with the voice actress for Yurine. Anyone who is interested in fansubing or even possibly pursuing a voice-acting career should check this out because it is shot in a way that shows exactly how the voice-over recording process is done. There is a lame stills gallery. I never understand these galleries because, if I wanted to look at a still frame of the movie, I would just pause the disk. The DVD also includes the trailer for Karas: The Revelation, which isn't groundbreaking, but trailers are nice to watch every now and again. The bread and butter of the special features is the rough cut excerpt section. This little gem shows scenes from the movie in various stages of completion. There are animatics, animatics with 3D elements in them, 2D and 3D test animations; all kinds of stuff are in this section. An appreciation for the amount of work it takes to create one shot can be gleaned from watching this very cool extra. Anyone out there who wants to become an animator and is having difficulty persuading the folks that being an animator is real work should use this extra feature as evidence.

Both of the Karas movies are awesome. They are a visual tour de force that doesn't let up for a second. Action, drama, and eye candy are all in abundance in this title. This second movie really completes the story of Karas and it's well worth the price of admission to pick it up. In all seriousness, both of these movies should be in any serious anime collector's library because they will be the movies that will be copied for the next 20 years.

Welcome to the N-H-K explores a strange and interesting segment of the Japanese population known as NEETs.

Welcome to the N-H-K, Vol.1: 1st Conspiracy

2006, TV series (four episodes). Director: Yusuke Yamamoto. 100 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.

What do J.F.K., cigarettes, and Roswell, New Mexico all have in common? They are all great conspiracies that remain a mystery due to misinformation, fabricated or lost evidence, and the simple fact that certain "people" don't want anyone to find out the truth. I am not a huge conspiracy theorist, but personally I don't like the way my computer looks at me sometimes. In fact, what if everyone's computer weren't just a tool to work with or a toy to play with? What if in fact every time a computer logged onto the Internet there was someone, somewhere, not only monitoring what people see, but actually manipulating the data to keep people addicted to using their computers? Think about it: all those websites that remember credit card numbers, secured email that doesn't require a login on the same computer, Windows Vista! All kidding aside, Gonzo studios fired up the conspiracy machine and cranked out a title humorously exploring the idea that the media want the entire world to sit at home all day in front of their computers.

Now, one thing I would like to point out about this title is that the trailer is a little misleading. Honestly, I thought Welcome to the N-H-K was going to be a slapstick comedy of a dude struggling with his Internet addiction. Well, it isn't. So I was a little disorientated because I was expecting something totally different, but, after I started to get the idea behind this series, it became pretty interesting. Welcome to the N-H-K is an exploration of a strange segment of the Japanese population known as NEETs. The acronym stands for "Not engaged in Employment Education or Training." Making matters a little more confusing is the fact that NEETs are a special subsection of Hikikomori, or people who shut themselves in. The NEET in this story is Tatsuhiro Sato. On the surface he seems to be a fairly normal guy. In high school, he wasn't the toughest of dudes, but he was a decent student and had friends. Then, when Sato moved on to college, something changed. As he walked to school one day, Sato felt that everyone was talking about him and they knew his secrets. Then he turned around, ran all the way back home, and hasn't come out of his apartment during the day since. Fast forward almost three years later and Sato is still locking himself in his small apartment, afraid to go outside. A college dropout with no job, Sato sleeps almost 16 hours a day and fills his time by smoking, drinking, and staring at the ceiling.

Although Sato's troubles are self-generated, it's nearly impossible not to feel sorry for him while watching N-H-K. All Welcome to the N-H-K images © 2006 Kadokawa Shoten/Welcome to the N-H-K Partners.

After the first two episodes, I don't think it is possible to feel anything but sorry for Sato. It's weird because all Sato's troubles are self-generated and if he just would live his life, things would get better. I suppose that is the kicker about social disorders. Emotional hurdles can be more crippling than any physical barriers. So one day it occurs to Sato that he is trapped in a real conspiracy. For some reason, the television station N-H-K has plans to turn everyone into otaku by showing more and more addictive anime. Somehow Sato deduces that N-H-K stands for Nippon (Japan) Hikikomori (social withdrawal) Kyokai (Association), and thereby proves his conspiracy theory. In reality it shows that Sato has really hit rock bottom. All hope is not lost for Sato, as a beautiful angel has decided to save him from, well, himself. While he's deep in thought about his involuntary involvement in the N-H-K conspiracy, a mysterious girl named Misaki Nakahara randomly shows up at his doorstep. True to his hikikomori ways, Sato is deathly afraid of what others may think of him and he can't seem to speak truthfully to Misaki for fear that she would think he is a weirdo. But somehow Sato is oblivious to the fact that all the lies he uses to protect himself make him look like a weirdo anyway. Well, good thing for Sato that Misaki already thinks he is a major weirdo and, despite that fact, she wants to help him. And so, with Misaki's help, Sato begins his recovery from Hikkiomori. All Sato has to do is actually admit to someone besides himself that he has a problem, and possibly create a hentai game with an old high school friend. Yeah, I know things aren't looking good for Sato.

As far as the story goes, I have to say that Welcome to the N-H-K has to be one of the most honest I think I have ever heard. Sato's friend Yamazaki seems to scream out loud with unabashed candor what every male otaku feels. The fans that will get the most out of this series will be the hardcore fanboys/girls out there. The story's charm will be lost on those who are new to fandom and whose experience with anime consists of pretty much whatever is shown on Adult Swim. But for those who have made annual pilgrimages to anime conventions, could be driving a better car if they didn't spend so much cash on anime-related merchandise, and who have had better relationships with characters in hentai games than in real life, this series may produce an epiphany. The honesty about Otaku lifestyle, and the types of people caught up in it, is where the great majority of the humor comes from. There are so many funny little references that I don't even know where to begin, but those who have ever found their checking account overdrawn after a trip to the local anime retailer will be the ones who find this show laugh-out-loud funny. In these first four episodes, the plot doesn't progress very far, but there is some very solid character development. I can see so many fans that I have met over the years (and some of myself) in Sato that you can't help but feel for the guy.

The visual style of Welcome to the N-H-K takes a few chances by playing with camera speeds, odd lens choices, and using crazy dream-like visual sequences.

The visual style of Welcome to the N-H-K takes a few chances by playing with camera speeds, odd lens choices, and using crazy dream-like visual sequences. Things don't get as crazy as the last television episode of Evangelion, but there is a definite flair to the look of the show. It isn't often that animators will spend time animating the flaring out of nose hairs for some crazy upward angle with an extreme close-up shot. If someone can explain the phallic sprites that appear to Sato in his dreams, please feel free to do so. Some of the best scenes visually are when Misaki is standing there holding her umbrella in a classic anime style with slow-motion Sakura blossoms blowing by, juxtaposed with some incredible goofball spasm physical comedy. Character models are nicely varied and creatively different, with obvious attention to detail on all the ladies. While there is no real graphically explicit sexual content, there is a ton of implied sexual situations and images that are either blurred or are cut off just before "the moment."

Sound is most impressive all around. Both the Japanese and English language tracks are done incredibly well. Usually listening to these kinds of comedies with the English track is an experiment in masochism, but to my pleasant surprise it was rather enjoyable. Some of the minor characters have the typical poor vocalization, but all of the English voice actors for the main characters do an excellent job of emoting and expression. The music is great. The opening theme will be a karaoke favorite and the ending theme is Japanese punk goodness. Throughout each episode, thoughtful background music is strategically placed to reinforce the mood of the scene. The music is perfectly composed and really helps to pull the viewer into the story.

Sound is most impressive all around in N-H-K. Both the Japanese and English language tracks are done incredibly well.

Extra features are a little sparse, but watchable. There are clean opening and ending animations to aid those in the anime karaoke set. DVD credits and previews are par for the course, so nothing too spectacular there. But there is a section labeled "Conspiracy Handbook 101." It is a group of definitions to help explain some of the more important terms used in this series to the uninitiated in anime fandom. Not the most entertaining thing, but it is nice when there are additions like these on a DVD to help those who don't live in Japan to understand a particular section of Japanese pop culture.

There is plenty to see and plenty to talk about for everybody in Welcome to the N-H-K. It is priced in the average range for an anime, and there is even an art box available for those fans interested in collecting the entire six- volume series. I think that Welcome to the N-H-K is the sort of title that will appeal to all types of anime fans, but the people who would get the most out of it are the recovering hardcore fans. Who knows, maybe Welcome to the N-H-K will turn out to be one of those titles that helps the viewer to learn a little something about themselves.

Chris Feldman is a freelance 3D modeler and animator whose work has been featured in television, games and manufacturing. He is an active member of 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.

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