Philippe Moins travels to the Annecy Animated Film Festival and finds a lineup of out of the ordinary animation.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya V.1
(2007) OVA series. Director: Yutaka Yamamoto. V.1: four episodes/54 minutes. DVD Japanese language with English subtitles. Standard $29.98, Spec Edition $64.98. Distributor: Bandai.
In 2006, Kyoto Animation Studios created an anime based on The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya manga. Not since Keanu taught the world that there was no spoon and the architect spouted his difficult to understand drivel that there has been a story so fantastical that it somehow actually makes sense. Imagine a world where a seemingly ordinary high school girl has contained within her ADD self, the power to change or even destroy the known universe. Well in this case she would really have to be a more than ordinary high school girl if she really had the power to destroy the universe. But instead of wearing Versace and super cool sunglasses our heroine will do it by spreading excitement all over the world and tying her hair with a really cute yellow ribbon. Um... yeah I know, but give me a moment to explain here.
The plotline of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is one of the most preposterous and yet strangely absorbing I have heard in some time. So the premise is that Haruhi Suzumiya is a first-year high school student and she somehow has the power to change the universe at will to suit her whims. Those out there reading this right now that has experience dealing with 14 year olds know how frightening of a concept this could be. Haruhi on the outside seems to be the model student. With her athleticism, great grades and strikingly good looks, she could be the "it" girl of her high school. Too bad she appears to be a total nut case.
The first day of school she stands up and introduces herself to everyone by telling everyone her name, previous junior high, and the fact that she isn't interested in normal humans and she only wants to meet time travelers, aliens, or espers (people with psychic abilities). Most of the class chuckles at what they think was supposed to be a poor attempt at a joke, but everyone soon finds out that Haruhi doesn't kid around. She intentionally ostracizes herself from the rest of her classmates, often sitting alone even when there is room to sit with everyone else, ignoring people when they talk to her and quitting every club and sports team at school after joining only for a day.
As time marches on a boy who sits in front of her called by his nickname Kyon somehow manages to get Haruhi to open up. This is where the S.O.S. Brigade is formed, and I'll leave explaining what the S.O.S. stands for up to Kyon. Thanks to Kyon and his big mouth, Haruhi gets the bright idea to form her own club because all of the others are so boring. And Kyon gets to be the first member. In fact pretty much all of the members of the S.O.S. Brigade appear to have been coerced by Haruhi into joining. Only they may not be there just out of coincidence. Turns out that the members of the S.O.S Brigade that Haruhi kidnapped, I mean handpicked, appear to be espers, aliens and time travelers. These are the very people she has been looking for to make her life more interesting but she has no clue as to what they really are. It would seem that the whole universe knows of Haruhi and her power to change the universe just by thinking about it. Representatives are then sent to keep an eye on her before she has destroys everything and they become the members of the S.O.S. Brigade.
It is such an interesting concept to take a particular genre of anime that usually deals with struggles of acceptance and young love, and make it the anti-young teenage anime of sorts. The dialogue is very well written and the story telling style used is more akin to a fantasy tale with its heavy use of narration by Kyon. Actually, I feel that some of the best stuff in this series comes from the comments Kyon makes during his narrative commentary. In fact, the narration is so well written and witty that I actually continue to laugh to myself afterwards when I think back to the shows.
The story pacing is not typical either with wide swings between frenetic action and periods of total stillness. In a bit of an odd choice the very first episode is a movie that was produced by the S.O.S. Brigade. When I started watching initially I was a little confused until I caught on to what I was seeing. Man it takes a lot of talent to intentionally make something look that bad. In hind site by starting the series with that little movie the audience is given a quick glimpse into all the major players and even some the major plot twists are hidden in the dialogue. Expect a lot of lowbrow adolescent booby squeezing humor and sitcom style preposterous situations.
The look and feel of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is great. Just looking at the animations in the title sequences shows how impressive the motion studies are. There is a para para like dance that the characters do in the ending credits that must have been rotoscoped, because the characters move so well. The, how shall I say this -- sexy physics of the ladies' breasts is turned up to 11, and is rather funny in a sophomoric overly bouncy sort of way. Character models are all beautiful and the viewer is saturated with tons of eye candy. There is plenty fan fare for all tastes in each episode, and the best part is that the creators are completely upfront with the exploitive nature of showing the girls in bunny suits and French maid outfits. That's the beauty of this show's humor. The humor is upfront and unabashedly honest. That is the sort of frankness that catches people off guard and keeps the ideas fresh.
The Japanese voice acting is perfect with tons of emoting and excellent matching. My hat is off to Bandai and the folks at Bang Zoom for their efforts with the English dub. Many of the voice actors are very well known and, sometimes in the past, some of the work hasn't quite stood up to the original Japanese voices. But I have to say that everyone has done an outstanding job with one exception. The voice of Mikuru Asahina is a tad on the irritating side. I understand that her character is supposed to sound bubbly and squeaky, but the job that the Japanese voice actress does isn't nearly as grating on the ears as the English version is. There is a lot of great music throughout each episode setting mood and accenting punch lines. Music styles range from J-pop, jazz, classical and a little bit of everything else to create a fair amount of variety.
Special features abound on this title that includes textless opening and ending animations, Japanese TV previews, TV commercials, a fun little making of clip for the TV commercials and a few strange shorts called the A.S.O.S. Brigade. Most of these are pretty cool, and it is a little freaky how much the Japanese voice actress for Haruhi looks just like her. I didn't much like the A.S.O.S. Brigade shorts because it felt like watching someone's home movie adventures. I guess the producers at Bandai may have wanted to parallel the movie from the first episode, but I just didn't get it.
That's OK because it's a fan film and it is an expression of their love of the series so the fact that these A.S.O.S. shorts exist at all is what is really important. There is also a special edition box set available that is really cool. The special edition comes with an awesome collectable box that is covered with art from the series and will hold all series disks, has a t-shirt iron-on of the shows logo, Haruhi's head band, a double-sided pencil board and a soundtrack CD with four songs on it. This version is a must have for any fan of the series.
This title is a little pricey, but it does contain more than the average DVD in extra features. And the fact that there is an option to get the limited edition gives the buyer a choice on how much he want to spend. From not really knowing a lot about this series to having watched this disk several times, I can honestly recommend the limited edition versions if the extra spending cash is available. This title has a lot to offer and is produced with really high production quality. It's full of humor, fan service, and plot twists to keep things interesting and despite the fact that the first disk only has four episodes on it, there is enough to keep things interesting through multiple viewings. So for those out there who are interesting in meeting some espers, time travelers, or aliens check this one out.
(2007)TV series. Director: Naoyuki Konno. V.1: four episodes/100 minutes. DVD bilingual $19.99. Distributor: ADV Films.
Anyone born in the last 20 years has not had the opportunity to know life growing up during the Cold War. In the period between the end of World War II and 1991 a different type of war was to be fought. The Cold War was to be a battle of information and technological superiority with an arms race that provided the single greatest threat to the planet's existence, while at the same time creating the most effective deterrent against a nuclear holocaust. This climate of cloak and dagger espionage that created a world filled with fear and distrust gave rise to the romantic notions of secret agents like the legendary 007 working alone to save the world.
In 1967, Shotaro Ishinomori (also known for Cyborg 009) created a manga called Zero Zero Ku-no-Ichi that reflected the worlds longing for a super agent that is always there to bring the world back from the brink of annihilation. The manga ran for three years in Shukan Manga Action and enjoyed great popularity, including a reprint years later of the original comics. Now the manga has become an anime and 009-1 has taken on an updated look and plot line.
In this incarnation of Shotaro Ishinomori's femme superspy story 009-1, the story asks the question, what if the Cold War lasted 140 years? This puts the setting of 009-1 in our somewhat near future, but without knowing the fall of the Iron Curtain. The indirect nature of the Cold War necessitated that a new type of warrior be developed who would use a whole new set of tools and weapons. This new warrior of course was the spy. A trip to the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. highlights some of the early attempts at information trafficking and spy weapons. It gives an up close view of what kinds of cool gadgets real spies use and the types of work they really did. Probably one of the most famous of all secret agents is Ian Fleming's gentlemen spy, 007 James Bond. He would use the super slick spy kit he was given to him by Q and his Englishman's charm to make the impossible mission happen. This is where our heroine Mylene comes in.
Mylene Hoffman (code name 009-1) is a leggy superspy cyborg for the Western Bloc intelligence organization. She is human but her body has been almost completely cybernetized. Visual and listening enhancements, physical increases in strength and speed, and a pair of machine guns that fire 9mm bio bullets from her bust are all part of Mylene's standard spy kit. When she gears up for a fight 009-1 has a battle suit that looks like something out of Scary Spice's closet and a ray gun the size .22cal Beretta pistol that can shoot down aircraft. She uses her feminine wiles to find out information and as a very effective distraction technique. This is also where the mature title rating becomes warranted.
It would appear that Mylene is a little more into free love than most. Mylene is a member of the all-female "Nine Number Group" in the Western Bloc intelligence organization. The group consists of 12 lovely ladies with code numbers 009-1 through 009-12, and the honor of number zero goes to their commander. Think Charlie's Angelss with 12 girls instead of three and that all the woman are beautiful cyborg death machines. Four of the 12 are introduced in this first volume and Mylene appears to be the most well rounded of the agents, while the others seem much more specialized for certain tasks like recon or disguises.
Overall, the plotline is pretty good. Not the most cerebral of story lines, but well written enough. There is a nice touch of retro throughout the series that is appreciated but this series is by no means dated because there is a mixture of styles working together. Even though the time line is set in the future, fashions, technology, and the music are more reminiscent of the early '70s. Even the dialogue has an ever so slight '40s Bogart noir style to it. The super human aspects of the agents help make the more cheesy action sequences easier to swallow.
For instance, in the opening episode Mylene does a spinning summersault out of a launched rocket and parachutes back down to earth through the exploding wreckage. A very Bond-esque escape that plays out to be fairly improbable. There is a nice level sophistication to each story that is highlighted by the interplay of Mylene and her adversaries. It is a little hard to describe, but I suppose it all relates to believability. The dialogue chosen combined with the delivery makes all the difference and thankfully it is superbly handled in 009-1. I also really like the treatment of Mylene's character because she is very feminine and compassionate while at the same time incredibly tough and confident. Her character is a very modern and lovable heroine.
The look and feel of 009-1 are interesting, but it took me a little getting used to. Character models are very stylized and while nicely done they seem to lend themselves more to comic book style poses rather than animation. Female agents are more Barbie doll-like in proportion with impossibly long legs with large hips and bosom. As each agent moves they do so in a posture that is sexy in a standing pose, but looks as if they would throw their backs out if they tried to move. It looks very awkward and creates a huge problem for the animators to tween the range of motion between keyframes. Unfortunately these postures are so unnatural looking that many of the motions appear strange and cheapen the high polish of this other wise outstanding title. It is also interesting that characters are either really beautiful or pretty dang ugly.
If anyone can explain the Toucan Sam nose thing that some characters have, please do. The pretty ladies provide the audience with a fare amount of fan service with their micro mini skirts and plunging necklines. But oddly there isn't much full nudity. Despite all of the love scenes and the whole machine gun bust deal there wasn't one nipple shown. Usually a mature title, such as this has plenty of nudity but 009-1 takes a different route. Another odd change is that there isn't much blood that comes out during an injury. It does appear later, after the character is motionless on the ground, but not while someone is being wounded. For example, in the second episode an attacker is killed but only shown lining on the ground in a growing pool of blood, but, later on in that same episode, someone shoots themselves in the head in full view of the camera, but there is no big splatter. Plenty of detail is used throughout the series. Outfits are well thought out and coordinate nicely, retro type cars with lots of chrome accents and plenty of variety in the backgrounds.
Sound is a treat with a well-done English dub in 5.1 surround, but a slight disappointment with the Japanese language track only recorded in 2.0 stereo. As mentioned earlier, the music has a bit of a retro flair to it. But there are also modern elements incorporated into the score. The music itself is a bit of a mixture of jazz, techno and a hybrid of the two. Not something I have really heard done well before, but here it really adds to the flavor. As far as the two different language tracks go, the Japanese is done really well and the English version holds its own against it.
One major difference is that the characters have international accents in the English language version, but didn't seem to sound that way in the Japanese version. I have to admit that I am unsure if the original intent of the artist was to have a multinational team of sexy spies, but I think that both versions work. There is a significant difference between the English spoken and subtitled translations. The difference is enough in one or two scenes to actually change the tone of the scene, but this is not significant enough to change the feel of the entire episode.
Special features are not in short supply with this DVD. ADV did a great job with the box art as always. Nice use of text and imagery. The art on the DVD itself ties into the cover art, which is always a nice touch that probably goes unnoticed by most people. The DVD insert is awesome because it is a booklet that features character bios, some model sheets, and interviews with director Naoyuki Konno and scenario writer Shinsuke Onishi. Features on the disk include clean opening and ending animations, an interview with the creative staff behind the anime, a quick history about the original manga and how it became an anime, some concept stuff about the weapons and gadgets used and the standard previews section. All in all that is a fair amount of swag to be found just on one disk.
Once again ADV has proved itself worthy of the title of hero with yet another solid title released under its banner. At almost two hours of run time, plus all the extra features packed into a $20 DVD, how can anyone go wrong with 009-1? It looks gorgeous despite a few moments of awkward character animations, and it would be at home in most any anime collection. 009-1 is a title that is a little different than what the average anime fan is used to seeing, but that just reinforces the fact that this is just not another average anime.
Gunbuster 2 V.1, 2 and 3
(2007) OVA series,. Director: Kazuya Tsurumaki. V.1: Two episodes/54 minutes, V.2: Two episodes/58 minutes, V.3: Two episodes/62 minutes. DVD Japanese language with English subtitles $39.99. Distributor: Honneamise.
How much do I love GAINAX? Let me count the ways. Too bad there isn't enough room in this review for me to mention all of the awesomeness that is GAINAX and its productions. Instead I will talk about a very cool release that Honneamise is bringing state side. The folks who brought us such anime redefining series as Neon Genesis Evangelion and FLCL have produced a direct sequel to their original Gunbuster OVA series in Gunbuster 2. The space monsters are back and now a new crew of pilots is ready to take their Buster Machines into battle to defend mankind.
Originally called Diebuster in Japan, Gunbuster 2 takes place after the original Gunbuster ended. Adolescent pilots called "Topless" command the Buster Machines again, but this time the privilege to pilot these powerful weapons comes with a catch. Topless only have a certain amount of time that they are capable of manipulating their Buster Machines. Topless have a seal on their foreheards, which holds back their power to unleash their Buster Machine. When Topless grow too old, the seal no longer stays attached and they can no longer commune with their mech. Think Logan's Run, but instead of being murdered, they lose a job. It's an interesting twist on the whole; kids are the only ones who can use mechs to save the human race genre.
The meat of the story follows Nono, a country bumpkin girlie who has a dream, however hallucinogenic-induced it may be, to leave home and become a real space pilot. In a departure from the first installment, Gunbuster 2 has a much more confident and optimistic heroine. Nono is a perky, bubbly and immensely positive. At one point she is working in a diner and Nono comes to the realization that she is literally working for less than a dollar a day. But that doesn't dampen her spirits one bit. Rather it serves to drive her motivations toward achieving her goal. Nono and her personality are probably the greatest draws that this story has.
There are other really well executed elements such as the space battles and unfortunate human loss, but nothing serves to draw the audience into the story like Nono's personality. In high school she would have been the girl who had lots of girl friends and all the boys wanted to ask out. She just has that type of honest and contagious personality that makes people want to like her even if they really don't want to. Seeing as how this is a recent GAINAX release, there is an excellent plot twist that helps to keep this title from falling into the same cookie cutter mecha anime trap. Each episode unfolds in fresh and creative ways helping to keep interest held high and making the episodes feel as if they are much shorter than 30 minutes.
Production quality of this OVA series is some of the best I have seen, and such high standards of quality in their productions have become the trademark of GAINAX. Gunbuster 2 is a veritable cornucopia of eye candy. 3D elements are textured with extremely well done cell shading and blend seamlessly together with all of the hand drawn elements. Absolutely everything that moves has specific weight to it. That means that on a single character flying through the air, every part of that character is moving and in a realistic way. Hair whips violently, collars flap and even buttons jitter. There were several instances where I backed the DVD up to re-watch the animation, because it was just that mind-blowing.
I can't even imagine how long it took to get those motion studies right. Character and mech designs are great and should hold up very well over time. They are in kind of a hybrid style for GAINAX. Little bits and pieces of every style of character design they do are all kind of mixed up into what makes up Gunbuster 2 characters list up. This is a mature title and the animators did make use of the rating. Let's just say that Nono takes the title of Topless a bit too literally. There are also some intense situations that happen, so discretion would be advised. In the spirit of Evangelion there are several psychedelic existential mind cluster scenes that just add to the whole wow factor. Detail abounds everywhere the camera looks. There are even a few props to the Otaku out there. One great example of this is when a new Buster is delivered. Look carefully and it is arriving in a clam pack similar to how an action figure would be sold in stores complete with backing and graphics. Does GAINAX know who their audience is or what?
Sound is terrific. There isn't any English language track, but that didn't bother me. The Japanese audio track in recorded in both 2.0 and 5.1 surround sound, and the surround sound channels are actually used to submerge the audience in the atmosphere of each episode. Space battles must be turned up loud on home theater systems by law. Despite the missing English language track, there is a choice of English dialogue subtitles, dialogue with signs subtitles and no subtitles. At times the screen does even appear to be a little cluttered with the dialogue and signs subtitles option selected because of all the extraneous text on the screen, but I think that stuff is cool regardless and would love to see more of it. Music is a mix of everything for classical to pop, and perfectly incorporated to enhance the drama and suspense. The opening theme music is so catchy it will immediately get caught in the mind of anyone within earshot. Spoken dialogue acting is superb and the amount of emoting that the female voice actresses are capable of is humbling.
Extra features with this disk are a little meager. Aside from the series itself, there is a little featurette of interviews with the creators. But the big money extra feature with these DVDs is the 20-page booklet that comes with all three disks. These booklets have in depth character and mecha bios, interviews, modelsheets, more detailed story explanation and funny little comics. It's the stuff that series panels are made of at an anime convention.
Gunbuster 2 is one title that should be on anyone's must have list. Even if people have never seen the first Gunbuster series there would be no problem in following this sequel, as it stands alone as its own series. Gunbuster 2 despite really appealing to the hardcore anime fan, is also approachable to the more casual anime viewer because of it high production quality and the care that went into its subtitle translation. The price tag is a little steep at $39.99 for each disk but on the bright side only three DVDs need to be purchased in order to have the entire series. So check it out man.
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.