In this month's trio of anime reviews, Chris Feldman tells us about Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man, The Third: The Girl with the Blue Eye and Pumpkin Scissors.
(Editor's Note: Chris Feldman has been writing the anime reviews for AWM for the past year. This is his last column. We'd like to thank him for his many contributions and we wish him all the best in his future pursuits.)
Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man
2007, movie,Director: Kenji Kamiyama. 160 minutes. Bi-lingual DVD $24.98. Distributor: Manga Video
Back in 1996, Masamune Shirow's cyberpunk masterpiece Ghost in the Shell was brought to life. Influenced by works such as the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, Shirow painted a society where cyborgs and physically connecting people's minds to the Net are a part of a brave new world. Through the legendary creative eyes of Mamoru Oshii, a future world obsessed with pursuing perfection while hiding a dystopian society became a living, breathing reality. With the film's highly graphical depictions of human/Net interfaces and hyperrealistic character movements, a paradigm shift happened throughout the film community in both animation and live action. Heavily influencing movies from around the world, such as The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell has become the standard by which all futuristic cyberpunk movies will be judged. With all of the critical acclaim, financial success, and its loyal fan base, it was only a matter of time before a sequel was produced. In this case, due to the technological nature of the story, a film sequel was several years off, but thankfully a television series was produced to help tide the fans over until it could be finished. And since the television series could take place on a separate timeline than that of the film, it provided an opportunity to explore who the people are that make up section 9 and what their influences are.
In 2002 the first Stand Alone Complex was released on TV in Japan and, when word hit the shores here in the States, many a drooling fanboy eagerly awaited his chance to see the Major again. The series was literally a standalone universe compared to the movie and the manga. I guess it could be described as a hybrid of the two. The Stand Alone Complex series includes the Tachikomas from the manga and also incorporates the lofty political intrigue of the film. It is a best of both worlds type of situation. The first season was composed of individual situations (or standalone complexes) that are solved in one or two episodes, but underlying that is a larger plot following a criminal called the Laughing Man. I found this to be a fairly original and very interesting concept.
This movie is also interesting because it is an edit of all the Laughing Man content from the first season with no new content. I really like this first season of the Stand Alone Complex series because it seemed less pretentious than 2nd GIG and the sequel movie Innocence. Not that I didn't like those, but I did feel that they were a bit on the preachy side about the ideals of a utopian society. The episode content cuts together beautifully and, if no one had told me that this was assembled out of chunks of individual episodes, I would have never known. To be honest, there is so much happening in the series plot line that the Laughing Man plot gets a little lost because it is broken up throughout the series episodes. Therefore the underlying story of the Laughing Man can be a little difficult to follow for anyone who has difficulty with stringing together all those bits of subplot. In a way this movie helps the fan to understand the whole Laughing Man story without having to rewatch the first season multiple times. Then again, most anime fans will keep rewatching a season until the next one is released, so I suppose that point is moot.
What I think makes this first season's story really stand out is that it deals with a very real issue in our lives and applies it to a fictional situation. What the writers are really talking about in this story is the influence that the pharmaceutical industry can exert and the conspiracies and manipulation surrounding treatments for viruses such as HIV. In this story, due to the rise in brain augmentation, a new disease for the 21st century called cyberbrain sclerosis has begun killing more people than AIDS and smallpox. This cyberbrain sclerosis is a degenerative disease that destroys a victim's nerve conductivity inside the brain until the point where the brain literally dies inside an otherwise healthy body. The only way to know if someone is at risk of cyberbrain sclerosis is after they have had their brain augmented and they begin to show signs of the disease. There are two competing cures for this disease that have applied for approval for human testing. The first is a more traditional vaccination style of treatment and the second is a cutting-edge medical micro-machine treatment that represents the future of medical treatments. Due to the amount of money that the pharmaceutical companies and certain government officials stand to make from the micro-machine treatment, it is passed several months early. The only problem is that the treatment is only theoretical and doesn't actually work. Ironically the vaccine treatment does work, but the knowledge that this treatment can help people is suppressed for fear it will set back the development of the medical micro-machines. The Laughing Man has discovered this fact and has been attempting to expose this conspiracy, only to be labeled a criminal. Section 9 comes into contact with the Laughing Man as they investigate what seems to be an unrelated incident. But they soon find that they cannot approach the Laughing Man like any other cybercriminal because he may be their toughest opponent yet.
One thing I found interesting about watching this movie/edit is that the original emotional intent of the movie has changed, but for the better. I hate to say it, but I think that I actually prefer this version. I suppose that this edit may have been the original intent of the folks at Production I.G. from the beginning. I feel I can say that because the Laughing Man makes another appearance in 2nd GIG and may be a big player in future Stand Alone Complexes. In regards to the emotional content, I specifically want to mention the Tachikomas. A lot of the content telling their part of the story has been removed, which means that a lot of the character-building that exists between them, Batou, and the Major is gone. But what is left shows the childlike vulnerability of these little AI tanks. Interestingly enough, I still found the last stand of the Tachikomas believable and found their self-sacrifice pulling at the old heart strings.
As far as what the purchaser gets for their dollar, there is an interesting selection of options. This is a two-disc set, in which the first disk is the feature that contains options for either stereo or DTS 5.1 surround sound in both English and Japanese. Those who are familiar with the English voice actors that previously dubbed Ghost in the Shell will be in for a strange surprise. None of the original English voice actors returns for this movie. They are all new and slightly disorientating, as the voice actors who normally voice these characters have really settled in their characters and really help to bring out nuanced performances. These new voice actors, while not offensive to the ear, do not give the same caliber performance. On the second disc there is a rather lengthy behind-the-scenes episode featuring voice-acting recordings with the Japanese cast and interviews with the director and cast members. And an episode of Tachikoma Days is also included, which is nothing more than a silly little short featuring the loveable Tachikomas that is very enjoyable.
Since this title is really only the first season edited into a 2+ hour movie, there isn't much else to offer those who already own the first season. The Japanese language version is fully intact with the same great voice acting, music and sound effects. The English version is a little less to be desired, but it is watchable. Those who want to catch up on Stand Alone Complex after seeing 2nd GIG on Cartoon Network would really benefit from this purchase, since for the cost of a single DVD they can see the meaty part of the first season. Or the diehard fans would also like this one because they can revisit the first season in only a single sitting that wouldn't require a holiday weekend. So for its cost, special features, and the fact that an entire season fits onto a single DVD, it is worth picking up.
The Third: The Girl with the Blue Eye V.2 Tending Wounds
2007, TV series (four episodes). Director: Jun Kamiya. 100 minutes. DVD bilingual $24.99. Distributor: Nozomi Entertainment.
I am grateful to be reviewing the second volume in an anime that isn't very well-known in fandom, but has a steadily growing fan base. The Third: The Girl with the Blue Eye is a strange and lengthy title for an anime, but don't let it scare anyone away from this one. True to XEBEC's previous works, The Third takes an interesting role-reversing spin on the youth pilot mecha samurai warrior thing. Traditionally this role is filled by an angst-filled young man, but this time around the honor goes to a young and upbeat girl. Through creative use of humor, action and fan service, the story is kept interesting. As a huge fan of mecha and samurai anime, I was almost guaranteed to enjoy The Third. But at the same time I don't think that it will appeal to everyone. There is a feeling that The Third is geared a little toward the ladies with its independent, butt-kicking, very cute leading lady and her effeminate love interest. Not to say that there isn't something in store for the guys, with all the action and some light fan service; it's just that the pacing and character development is more along the lines of Revolutionary Girl Utena than Gundam.
The premise of the story is familiar. In a world in the aftermath of horrific war that turned the planet into a burnt-out desert, survivors are forced to rely on technology for their very existence. Living above the planet is a group called the Third, who are constantly monitoring the planet below and policing its inhabitants. After war ravaged the landscape, the Third decided that in order to protect those who remain, they would institute techno taboos that would limit the amount of technology people could use and thereby actively control the degree of destruction they are capable of. Of course this law does not apply to the Third, as they use incredibly advanced weaponry against those who break these taboos. The mechanics in this world are referred to as technos and, in Gestapo-like fashion, the Third will attack and detain (if they are lucky enough) these technos if they are found guilty of breaking any taboos. Enter our heroine, Honoka. She is proud to make her living as a jack-of-all-trades, but her real talents lie in the sword she is carrying. Given the name of sword dancer, Honoka has developed an almost mythical reputation out in the wasteland. Her steel easily dispatches giant spiders and can even cut the barrel off a tank. Speaking of tanks, Honoka's partner is an A.I. tank named Bogie whose main job is to watch her back while out in the field.
This story is laid out very deliberately. The narrator portion gives this anime an almost RPG feel to it. Each scene relates to the one before it and any jumps in time are described in detail by the narrator. It hurts the pacing a little, but, in its defense, narration only seems to be used when jumping between locations or similar breaks in the action. Plus, with the additional exposition, a younger audience will be able to get into this story. Dialogue is written at the standard sixth-grade level and easily followed. The Japanese language track is far superior to the English version. There are some good points in the English-language version. For instance, the character Iks speaks in an effeminate tone in the Japanese version and the English voice actor did an excellent job translating that over without making the character irritating. What I did find irritating were the inconsistencies in the pronunciations of main characters' names. Half the time it is hard to tell if people are saying Honoka or Hanukkah. Her name isn't even that hard to say, so I don't know where the confusion is. What's worse is that a lot of the English voice actors seemed to be reading their lines off cue cards. That flatness and reactive emoting of feelings is a dead giveaway to a voice actor reading their lines with their face in the script. The Japanese voice acting is delightful and with this DVD I definitely would recommend watching in Japanese. The translations seem solid and the script makes perfect sense. There are some pretty significant differences between the subtitled translation and the spoken English translation, but nothing to get too worked up over. The English narration does leave out some of the exposition, but any information omitted is either obvious or learned in a following scene.
Character designs are either cute or pretty, as in all bishounen anime. There is plenty of eye candy to go around, as I did not see one ugly person in any of the four episodes. Background characters all dress in a different way that shows their profession. Farmers dress differently than technos, bounty hunters have cybernetic implants, miners are dirty, and everyone is wearing something that seems to have a little story about who they are. There is an interesting Old West kind of feel to a lot of the technology used that seems intertwined with futuristic warfare machinery. This is an odd mix, but it is one that seems to work pretty well. The 3D models and animations rock. The 3D model for Bogie is simply awesome. Unlike a lot of 3D that is integrated with hand-drawn 2D, all of the intricate detail in Bogie's 3D model does not detract from the surrounding elements. In the action sequences, 3D is utilized to really make effects such as the heads-up display in the mecha really pop.
Special features are indeed special with this DVD. On the disk itself there are two music videos that are done really well, but do contain some spoiler material. There are also voice actor interviews with the Japanese voice actors for Honoka and Iks. Of course there are the obligatory trailers, but there is also a character bios section that comes with commentary from the Japanese voice talent. Always a personal favorite of mine is the character art gallery. There are model sheets for six different characters that include changes in clothing, as well as accessories. The DVD itself comes with reversible artwork for the cover. The second side does not feature the Japanese cover art, just alternative cover art. Inside the case is a 12-page booklet with a nice cardboard cover that has some additional character art and some poetry, no less. On a side note, one thing that was added in the DVD was a real comment card. Not just some 3x5 thing with a box to check if you liked the title or not, but a real questionnaire giving the fans an opportunity to give some constructive feedback. My suggestion is that everyone who buys this DVD fill it out. All of the cool special features show that the producers want to give fans what they have been asking for, so help them to help all of us fans by filling it out and sending it in. I know I did.
All in all, The Third is a very strong title that is worth picking up. The story has a fair amount of humor that is actually funny, and plot development is very thorough, allowing ample time to get to know each of the main characters very well. There is plenty for everyone on this DVD, and I think it is nice to see a samurai mech anime that isn't full of angst for a change.
Pumpkin Scissors Vol.1 Honor and Blood
2007, TV series (four episodes). Director: Katsuhito Akiyama. 100 minutes; DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.
There is something to be said about fully developing a storyline. A developed idea that is thoughtfully and thoroughly realized is the only time that an anime can be considered a true finished product. After all, how special would a birthday cake be if it didn't have the proper number of candles on top, or a brand new car that wasn't completely painted? I mention this only because personally I find the little things that are included or forgotten are the best indicators of how something will turn out. One of the reasons why most of the time anime is so good is that Japanese animation houses take creativity very seriously and it is always reflected in each anime produced. The opening title sequence is often left to the last phases of production and the responsibility usually falls on the less-senior animators because the show itself is a priority for the rest of the production. When I popped Pumpkin Scissors into the DVD player, I knew immediately from the opening titles that this was going to be a series that I would like because of how great the opening animation was.
I need to complain about the series name, Pumpkin Scissors. It is really the only thing that there is to complain about with this series, so no time like the present to get it out of the way. I find this title nonsensical and a rather un-researched attempt at using English. But the title is really cute and so is the main character, so I guess it works. Now that the negativity is out of the way, I'll get to the important stuff.
Pumpkin Scissors is a new series from the awesome folks at Gonzo Studios who gave the world Hellsing and Samurai 7. The story takes place in a European-type setting after a great world war. It is one of those alternative world-type settings. Instead of the Axis and Allied powers, the two sides are the Empire and Republic. After a war between the Empire and the Republic that seems to have been fought to a stalemate for a number of years, a sudden ceasefire was called. Now, in peace time, the Empire has begun to rebuild its infrastructure, but sadly the conditions for the people have not improved over the wartime conditions. The social order has organized itself into a noble and commoner class. Unfortunately, this difference in class seems to cause more problems than it actually solves. In order to aid the commoners in their plight, the army has created Section III, the Pumpkin Scissors Squad, to provide aid. As a part of the Intelligence Division, Pumpkin Scissors' first job is to gather intelligence on any reported suffering and then act accordingly to rectify the situation. Well, actually their job is really to just collect information the army needs to assess the reported situation and then decide what to do about the incident, but thanks to Alice, the Pumpkin Scissors leader, Section III sees a lot more action than they should.
Funny thing about Alice is that she is a member of the noble class and thinks that she can use her social position while in the army to make life better for everyone. In reality she suffers from the same delusions that all nobles do. Her headstrong ways and lofty idealism put her and her subordinates in situations that aren't necessarily the most advantageous. Well, let me be frank, she puts them in situations of violence that they don't need to be in. Luckily for Alice (a second lieutenant) she has a great team behind her. At home base the Pumpkin Scissors team is headed by the ever-wise Captain Hunks. Assisting him is Sergeant Major Stecchin and her dog, who has a penchant for biting people on the head, Private First Class Mercury. In the field the Second Lieutenant is assisted by Warrant Officers Martis and Ordelo. And then there is the most Bad A** mamba jamba that has ever walked the earth -- well, the earth in the anime world, that is -- Corporal Randel Oland. The Corporal wasn't always a member of the Pumpkin Scissors team. He is a veteran of the war and, after the ceasefire, Oland tried to find some peace for himself while moving from place to place. As if by destiny, Oland's travels brought him into contact with Alice and her team. In their first meeting, Oland showed his incredible fighting ability.
Physically, Oland is intimidating. He towers over man and woman alike. He is easily 6'8", if not taller, with a sculpted body that weighs easily around 280 lbs. Think Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson with a slightly leaner frame. He is covered in scars from head to toe and that includes his face. Initially Oland has a very gentle demeanor and comes off as a little slow in the logic department. Often sensitive and thoughtful of his teammates, it is hard to believe what Oland is capable of on the battlefield. During the war he was a member of a secret division called the 901 ATT. On his waist Oland carries a lantern with his old division's call sign above it that when opened emits a mysterious blue wispy light. That light is a beacon of death for anyone in a tank. The ATT in Oland's division call sign stands for Anti-Tank Troopers. He is a one-man tank-killing machine. Only Oland isn't a machine, he is a man who is capable of taking out a tank with a single shot 13mm handgun. I know that it sounds a little ridiculous, but trust me, when it happens on screen it is totally believable. After the first episode, I would not want to pick a fight with Oland.
Format is fairly standard. Each episode is cut together well and each episode is kind of a little vignette telling a small story about who Section III meets. The artwork is very nice, with plenty of variety of character design and, thankfully, not every female has the same figure. Battle sequences are inspiring, to say the least. So far each battle is done in the anime stylized way, but, instead of the typical cliché of huge raining volleys of shells with explosions filling the screen with smoke and fire, a far cooler approach is taken. While, yes, there are fancy explosions and special effects during the battles, what the folks at Gonzo did was to change the frantic pacing of the typical anime battle and slowed it down, way down. I know that sounds bad, but what makes it cool is that slowed pacing matches the slow and methodical movements of Oland's attack. The enemy will begin to panic and race around to counter Oland's attacks, but at no time does Oland ever rush or hurry. When he opens that lantern, Oland becomes a force that is unstoppable. It is like watching a slow mudslide take out an entire street. That sort of deliberate timing really adds to the intensity of a scene.
If anyone out there buys anime DVDs just for the special features, then they won't be happy with this one because there are none. I shouldn't say that, actually, because there are clean opening and ending animations, but that's really about it. The previews that come on the disk are the same exact previews that they have been putting on every DVD. Let's be honest, anime fans don't buy anime for the special features. They buy them because they want to watch some cool anime. Don't get me wrong, having nice special features adds great value to the purchase and enhances the experience for the fan, but they are not the driving force behind the decision to buy. After all, the VHS (anyone else besides me remember those?) market sustained the anime fans for years and there were no special features at all, aside from the rare art card, translation notes, or small folding poster that may have been stuffed into the jacket. But Pumpkin Scissors doesn't need any fancy bells and whistles because it is one great anime. Check it out, even if the name is a little funny.
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.