Dragon Pilots has artistic issues

Anime as a medium encompasses many unique drawing styles. As such it is not rare to occasionally see a series that looks different. Most of the time a unique art style serves to differentiate a series from its peers, at times even adding a completely new layer of complexity and sophistication. A good example would be Lucky Star, an adult-oriented show that intentionally employs a moe art style for the sake of satirizing said style (and the overall otaku movement that existed at the time). This year’s Hisone & Masotan (Dragon Pilots) also features a distinct art style. Sadly however, this is one anime in which the art style gets in the way of the show, preventing it from reaching its true potential. Since the misuse of art in anime is quite a rare occurrence I thought it would be a good idea to analyses this show to better understand how this design choice came to be used and why it has inadvertently become the shows Achilles’ heel.

Hisone & Masotan character designs were drawn by mangaka Aoki Toshinao in his signature sketchy art style. In an interview conducted prior to the series airing executive director Higuchi Shinji explained why Aoki’s design were chose to serve as the backbone for the anime. At the time Higuchi said, “Aoki san’s characters and appeal will look great in modern animation. It will look fresh. It will look pure.“
And without a doubt Dragon Pilots looks very out of the ordinary, to a fault. The biggest and most immediate issue one will encounter when watching the series is that it is impossible to discern the age of the characters. Aoki’s art style simply does not allow for a clear distinction of age. As a result it took me quite some time to discern that Hisone (the shows main character) is in fact an adult. Things become even more confusing when the other dragon pilots appear. All of them, with the exception of Morris, act like children, and yet are depicted with similar proportions to Hisone and are expected to form romantic relationships in an adult-filled airbase.

Another issue can be found in the direction of the series, and how it eventually limits the effectiveness of the art. According to its Japanese Wikipedia page Hisone & Masotan was supposed to be a comedy, but upon watching the entire series it is clear that in the second half of the series the focus shifted towards a more action-oriented drama with military elements à la Strike Witches. This shift in focus is something the sketchy character designs simply cannot handle. Aoki’s unique art style does wonders when utilized in a parody-styled manga and shines the most in the comedic portions of the show. But it proves to be too simplistic to convincingly convey deep emotions such as sorrow, sadness and jealousy. So when the show tries to add this second layer of complexity it undermines its own base, spiraling out of artistic control.

This is where I would like to note that Hisone & Masotan is not the only anime series that limited itself due to its art style. Attack on Titan, one of the most successful shows in recent years, has also suffered from the inability to convincingly show certain emotions due to the constantly horror-stricken faces all of its characters share. However, Attack on Titan manages to escape criticism because at its core it is a horror action show, and the art style it uses conveys horror very convincingly. It is here that Dragon Pilots falters. In its second half it becomes a drama drawn as a parody, a serious story depicted jokingly. This fact greatly hinders the entire show on multiple levels. The design directly hurts the story. And to be perfectly honest, the story also hurts the art style. One could make the argument that if Aoki’s art was used for a purely comedic show it could have become a cultural phenomenon. Instead it was implemented incorrectly, resulting in an interesting, albeit very much flawed, show.

Steins Gate Visual Novel Review


Okabe Rintaro is just another science-loving university student, albeit one with a chuunibyou complex. He spends his days in his makeshift lab in Akihabara, creating “evil” inventions together with his super hacker friend Daru and cosplay-loving childhood buddy Mayuri. When Okabe and Daru tries to make a phone-controlled microwave they unintentionally end up creating a time machine instead. Although they cannot physically use the microwave to go to the past they can send emails back in time. And of course they abuse the hack out of their invention and send multiple mails to the past, with various results. With the help of the genius scientist Makise Kurisu they further expend on the time machines’ powers and slowly begin to understand its inner workings. But messing with time is a dangerous undertaking and the dreadful butterfly effect soon hits Okabe with a vengeance. A terrible day unfolds in which Okabe’s world is shredded to pieces and reality becomes unbearable. There is only one way for Okabe to prevent that horrifying reality from happening – time travel to the past and redo everything and anything possible in order to find a solution.

Steins;Gate is very different from your typical visual novel. It takes place in a real place (Akihabara), makes references to real companies, and deals out scientific theories and facts at a frantic pace. It is a Dan Brown take on visual novel story telling. Steins Gate’s story offers a unique combination of drama, comical relief and petrifying horror. I must admit is starts off very slow. The story takes a couple of hours to really pick up and Okabe (or Hoein Kyouma if you prefer his “evil genius” name) is also a certified jerk. But as the hours went by I began to understand why this visual novel is so highly praised. When the action finally arrives it hits and hits hard. There is a certain point in which everything clicks and you enter a long and rewarding emotional roller-coaster. The terribly effective suspense audio tracks and the unforgiving horror scenes shook me badly. It has been a while since a visual medium had managed to make me care so much, or has caused me to mentally feel sadness or fear the way Steins Gate did. As the game’s episodes went by and I got to know the acting characters better I found most of them to be likable. Even Okabe, which I hated at first, grew on me once I understood the reason he acts like a chuunibyou brat all the time.

Since this is a visual novel the way you “play” the game is mostly comprised of passive reading. You do get to make decisions from time to time by sending email messages to the various lab members Okabe adds to his laboratory. The emails and responses you send, or not send, to people affect the progress of the story, although not always in predictable ways. This visual novel isn’t exactly a light reading material. You will need to invest a considerable amount of time if you were to finish Steins Gate. It took me 22 hours to get my first ending, and a total of 55 hours to get all the endings in the game. 55 hours may sound like a lot of time, but since the game has 5 different possible endings 11 hours a pop is actually pretty reasonable. The game’s art style should also be mentioned. It is beautiful and enchanting, and it makes me sad to know that the anime based on the game used a simpler art style for convenience sake.

I played the English PC version of Steins;Gate, in which the entire spoken dialog is dubbed (in Japanese) and there’s in-game trophy support. Each time a character says a key word, that word and a concise explanation about it is added to an in-game glossary. This is a fantastic solution for people not well versed in Japanese culture and 2ch forums slang. There are also images and music galleries that open up little by little as you play. The game experience is not perfect though. Steins Gate lacks the option to auto-skip scenes you already saw. Instead, you can only fast-forward them, which is tedious and a waste of time. Another big issue, which I briefly mentioned above, is that while you can change the outcome of the story by sending emails it is nearly impossible to predict the outcome of these emails. In order to get to the last (true) ending you must answer most of the emails in a specific manner – a feat almost impossible, unless you retry the game for hours on end or use a guide. That said the last chapter of the game is a must. Far from disappointing me, all the effort it took lead to an amazing and is immensely satisfying conclusion. And that really sums up my opinion on Steins;Gate. It’s a time investment and can be boring at times, but each time you reach a pivotal plot point the payoff you get for sticking around is huge. Steins Gate is the best visual novel I have played in years and definitely the best visual novel you can officially purchase in English today.

A Geek in Japan review

I was dumbstruck when I found out A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia is an encyclopedia. In this day and age the shear idea of releasing an encyclopedia in paper form makes me cringe, especially when the book at hand is based on an internet blog. However, A Geek in Japan does have a few things to offer once you go beyond this initial reaction. To start off, Garcia’s definition of geek might be different from what you think. He defines a geek as an aficionado, and a Geek in Japan is essentially an all-encompassing book about Japan. Across its 160 pages it covers all manners of Japan-related subjects: history, mannerism, work ethics, traditional culture, popular culture and more..

a geek in japan_smallThe book is broadly divided into several chapters but the actual subjects covered in each chapter may or may not be related to that chapter’s title. Seemingly unrelated subject are presented next to each other in rapid secession. For example, the history Buddha Siddhartha, a short introduction to the seven gods of fortune and the peculiar subject “why do Japanese women cover their mouths when they laugh?” can be found next to each other. Naruto appears alongside an explanation on blood groups in Japan, and so on. When I started reading this book I found this to be rather annoying, but as it turns out it’s one of a Geek in Japan’s strongest point. You can go on the net and easily find a much more detailed account on all the subjects presented here, but the sheer randomness of their order is what makes the book work. I would never have thought to check why the importance of blood types is so ingrained in Japan’s modern culture or why hay fever is such a common thing over there. But since these subjects were alongside other subjects I was reading I just kept on reading and absorbed them. As a result I learned some fascinating pieces of trivia.

Hector Garcia’s love for Japan is apparent in each page. In his remarks on daily life in Japan I found many resemblances to my own experiences in the land of the shining sun. In later chapters Garcia gives a detailed overview on daily life practices in Japan, from many different perspectives. You can read why school kids there have such a hard time, how a salary man handles himself, what is expected from house wives and how the elderly pass their time. At no point does Garcia clarify how he procured this information though. Did he really interview a retired old man to learn how Japanese spend their retirement years?
Speaking of information, the latest reference to date I could find in this book was a record of an event from 2006. And sure enough there are a couple of outdated concepts in the book that also show it might not be as up to date  as it should have be.

A Geek in Japan does feature the words manga and anime prominently on the cover, so you can probably be sure it has things to say on these subjects. And sure enough you can find a myriad of small subject regarding manga and anime. But much like the rest of the book this is done in a somewhat eclectic fashion. Chapter 8, which is entitled “The world of manga & anime” only contains one page on anime. But by the time you reached this chapter you probably ran into anime subjects in other chapters, and a handful of anime subject awaits in chapter 10, that deals with television. Such is the general flow of this book, for better or worse. The book ends with two chapters about tourism in Japan. These chapters I liked the most. As expected from a book by and for Geeks Garcia gives tourism advice based on geeky themes: where to go on a gadget tour, an otaku tour, a culture tour, and so on. Again, it’s not as varied and in-depth as what you may find in a travel book, but if you are interested in a trip to Japan and want to soak up cultural information as well as travel tips a Geek in Japan might prove surprisingly effective.

So is this book a valuable in-depth knowledge bank on Japan? Probably not. Is it a hip up-to-date representation of Japan’s popular culture? Hardly. What a Geek in Japan does offer is variety – juicy pieces of Japanese trivia randomly spread across the board. It’s a coffee table book that fans of Japanese culture can casually pick up and enjoy. It might also be a good gift to buy for a friend who’s planning a trip to Japan in the near future.

You can grab your copy of a Geek in Japan on Amazon or directly from the publisher at Tuttle Publishing’s website.

Ghost in the Shell: Arise offers a refreshing change to the formula

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

I’m a big fan of Ghost in the Shell and the intellectual stimulus it injects into the anime world. The old school manga and first movie were great. Later on GITS:SAC proved to be an evolution as well as a revolution for the franchise (it predicted the creation of the Anonymous movement – a very real laughing man). The fact that in the context of this series evil can come in the form of hacktivism is in itself fascinating. Of course you can’t mention Ghost in the Shell without mentioning the iconic Major Kusanagi Motoko. I always liked the Major, but couldn’t help but notice how super-human she has grown to become. Always one step ahead of the enemy, she is invincible in both hand to hand combat and computer hacking. Rarely does she has any trouble solving a case.

But the Major wasn’t always this good at law enforcement. What if we took a step back to a time when she was still young and inexperienced?
Well, that’s exactly what Ghost in the Shell: Arise is all about. In this prequel to the franchise she is still young, whimsical and fragile. Don’t get me wrong – the Major can certainly still hold her own in a fight, but she is not as composed or competent as her future self. This leaves plenty of room for the other members of Section 9 to shine. Characters like Paz, Saito and Borma suddenly get a backstory and are more relevant than ever. If you are a fan of the franchise you will want to see Arise, if only to learn how they (and Batou, Ishikawa and Togusa of course) met the Major. And since Arise begins before the creation of the famous special unit of Section 9  it is the best possible place for newcomers to enter the world of Ghost in the Shell as well. We already got a glimpse of how refreshing, yet familiar, Arise can be when FUNimation release the first two episodes of the Arise OVA last year. One thing is certain – if you like deep and rewarding action shows this cyber police enforcement franchise should be on your radar.  Personally I can’t wait to discover more new facets about this already lush world. And I won’t have to wait for long considering the OVA’s tie-in series Ghost in the Shell Arise: Alternative Architecture starts airing next month.

The Moe Manifesto Review

Any contemporary anime viewer has, to some extent, been exposed to moe in one form or the other. Moe can be broadly defined as the feeling of affection towards fictional characters. The word can also be used to describe specific design elements that make a fictional character the object of such affection (for example: cat ears can be considered moe).
But how did moe came to be, and why did it catch on fire and became so popular in the first half of the aughts?

The moe manifestoPatrick W. Galbraith’s book The Moe Manifesto is a semi-academic attempt at answering these questions. The book is a collection of interviews conducted by Galbraith. In his attempt to better understand the nature of moe and its target audience Galbraith interviewed studio directors, manga and anime critics, artists and even a psychiatrist. The result is an interesting mix of opinions about the otaku culture topped with many eye-opening cultural facts. Despite its name, The Moe Manifesto is first and foremost a study of the otaku subculture and how it evolved to incorporate moe elements. The book does a fantastic job at explaining why otaku exist and how their essence has changed over the years. It also touches on several key Japanese cultural notions, such as why school is such an important backdrop for anime and how come adult males in Japan relate to cartoon feminin heroines. Interestingly the book doesn’t reach a definite conclusion as to what moe really is. It is rather a fragmented manifesto, one that contains an amalgamation of views on the subject taken from several perspectives.

The Moe Manifesto is at its best when Galbraith interviews producers and critics. The former provide us with a rare insight into the creation and marketing process of anime series, while the latter dissect the components that make the final products so endearing to the moe-loving crowd. The book’s weakest interviews are arguably those conducted with artists. They tend to be a summary of the artist’s career and current work, and contribute very little to defining moe. Although Galbraith cherry-picked key artists and voice actors for this book they all inadvertently end up saying they don’t consider their creations as moe. This might be a result of a cultural barrier Galbraith was unable to surpass (artists which are too humble to take credit for their creative endeavors while speaking with an outsider). Another gripe I have with this book is its excessive use of images. The pages are filled to the brim with manga, anime, figures and game images. Some pages have a ratio of two images per one text paragraph. Since most of the interviews in this book are insightful and informative it’s a pity they are not spread across a greater number of pages and are surrounded by unyielding amounts of images.

The book offers a wide variety of opinions on the notion of moe. Some view moe as a visual fad while others think of it as a successful marketing strategy. A couple even consider it the result of a socially malfunctioning postmodern Japan. Galbraith has notably decided to provide us with a positive outlook on moe, so don’t expect any moe-bashing or references to the negative effects moe had on the anime industry. That said there are two specific interviews (with Honda Toru and Azuma Hiroki) that tackle the obsessive and socially-harming aspects of the otaku mentality.
The origins of moe in manga are also discussed at length throughout the book and many references to dojinshi (manga produced by amateurs, or without the backup of a relevant manga company) are made. This is a great addition since dojinshi are rarely referenced in Western manga literature. Unfortunately Galbraith repeatedly (and erroneously) refers to dojinshi as “fanzines”, which shows he is not familiar with that specific subject matter.

While The Moe Manifesto is not as robust or as definitive as I would have liked it to be it still is an entertaining read. Since it is comprised almost entirely of interviews it’s a great resource for people in the academia wishing to conduct research on the otaku demography. But even if you aren’t out looking for research materials, but are generally interested in the creative process behind the making of anime and manga, The Moe Manifesto might teach you a thing or two.

You can buy The Moe Manifesto on amazon or via Tuttle Publishing’s website.

A first look at Death Parade

Death Parade

In 2012 we were graced with a unique short film called Death Billiards, which aired as part of the Young Animator Training project. With its captivating otherworldly feel, grim atmosphere and cryptic plot, Death Billiards left me satisfied but also hungry for more. Now in 2015 comes Death Parade, an entire series based on that spectacular film.

Death Parade revolves around an eerie bar named Quin Decim. Visitors often arrive at the bar, always in pairs and always with a certain degree of memory loss. Some don’t remember who they are or what they were doing recently. All of them, without exception, have no idea how they ended up at the bar. They are then forced to participate in a randomly picked game, the result of which will have a resounding effect on their lives. Without spoiling too much, the participants gradually begin to piece together memories from their past while playing the game, eventually reaching a point in which their lives are turned upside down. By the end of the episode these people leave the bar and are then replaced with a new couple in the next episode.This means that every episode brings with it a set of new people, new stories, and new revelations. It also means each episode relies heavily on its characters. And while the film made great use of its characters, the TV series starts out rather slowly. The first episode showcases a couple with weak backstories and does so in an overly melodramatic fashion that does anything but entertain.

Death Parade does grow strong with every passing episode though. The second episode delves into the lives of those who work in Quin Decim, adding some much need meat on this series’ bones. We then move on to two well-executed episodes that do the film justice. In time I began to notice that unlike its predecessor Death Parade also has a playful side to it. The reoccurring characters are colorful and distinguished. There’s a funky chemistry between the bartender and his assistant and an energetic opening theme to shake the gloom away. While the film kept me on my toes with shocking surprises the TV series made me lean back and enjoy the small pleasures of life (or death, depending on how you look at it). Death Parade’s ability to keep its grim tones at bay and pepper them with clever doses of fun when needed keeps the overall story from degrading into the realm of the occult. It’s a promising start for this out of the ordinary seinen show.

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