Monday, 29 August 2011

Shounen Filler - The Good, The Bad, and the "Oh Dear God, No!"

One of the main problems with being a shounen anime fan (aside from the massive episode count slowly ebbing away at your existence) is suffering through the filler episodes. It's standard fare and pretty much every long-running series in this genre pads the story out with non-canon - and often pointless - filler. Having spent a lot of time watching various mainstream shounen shows, this is a subject that somewhat fascinates me, and I tend to feel quite strongly about. As such I have decided to write a mini-series of posts about filler, the purposes it serves, and how different shows approach it. In this first installment, I'll be giving a brief introduction to what filler is, as well as the pros and cons of its presence in your favourite action-packed anime.

What is "Filler"?

Simply put, "Filler" is a term to describe content that is only in the anime. This doesn't extend to the absolute tiniest of details such as a character making a joke in the TV series that wasn't in the manga, as by the sheer nature of translating from one medium to another, additions will have to be made. However, filler does have several different forms:

  1. Standalone "Comedy" Episodes:
    Many series throw in odd episodic scenarios, which place the cast in a humorous situation, in an unfamiliar role, or even an alternate reality. It could be that your favourite characters act out a well-known fairy tale, take up a sport, or simply take a break and get up to some mischief. While many of these may well raise a smile or two, they generally aren't of great quality and feel more like a waste of time than anything else. It should also be noted that there are several standalone filler episodes which are not comic in nature - several of the more recent Naruto Shippuuden "Tales of Days Past" episodes fall into this category.
  2. Filler Story Arcs:
    More often than not filler takes the form of a self-contained arc slotted into the show's central narrative. The length of these arcs varies and can range from two or three episodes up to thirty to forty. These plotlines generally have no implications upon the main story and any characters introduced will neither appear again nor ever be mentioned in the main plot.
  3. Extending Canon Content:
    There are many times when an anime will drag out certain parts of an arc to fill up episodes. This could be in the form of extending a character's journey by depicting them travelling, or simply dragging out a battle for longer than it needs to be.

The Pros:

While filler may generally be something that fans dislike or would opt out of if possible, filler can have its advantages.

  • Pacing:
    Sometimes having the odd short filler arc after the conclusion of a canon storyline can provide a short breather for the audience. Instead of jumping from one epic arc to another, a short gap can help make the events of the previous plotline sink in a bit before launchig into the next.
  • Widening the Gap with the Source Material:
    This is most likely the min reason for including filler in any anime series. With both anime and manga being released on a weekly basis, the TV series would need to work on one chapter per episode, but in many cases the content of a single chapter may not be enough to fill a full 24 minutes of anime - and that's not including double episode specials. With that and the manga taking the odd break during the course of a year (I know WSJ at the very least takes a week off for Obon), the anime will inevitably begin to catch up on the source material. As such it becomes necessary for the anime to take a break from the main plotline in order to let the manga get further ahead again.
  • Money:
    Now this one basically has nothing to do with the fans, but links in with the previous point. As filler allows time to gather up a backlog of the source material without having to put the series on hiatus, it doesn't run the risk of the anime's popularity dwindling. All the time the series airs on TV it's generating attention and therefore earning money, so you can hardly blame the non-creative business types for wanting to make the most of their investment. That being said, as fans, watching an endless sea of filler can get frustrating - especially when you want to get back to the kick-ass action!

The Cons:

  • Interrupting/Holding Up the Main Storyline:
    This is the big one. Imagine that you're watching your favourite series and the plot is getting really good. A variety of plot threads are beginning to intertwine, mysteries are unravelling, and the action is kicking off. You crave each new episode more desperately than the last until one day all that awesomeness gets tossed aside in order to show one of the secondary cast playing football. What. The. F**k?! Who honestly cares about a game of five-a-side when there's damn good storytelling to be had? This is the main downfall of filler. So often it breaks up the momentum that the series had been gathering and leaves fans frustrated with what they're given to watch instead. Not really a good idea to piss off your audience.
  • Naff Plotlines:
    No matter how hard they try, filler arcs never manage to reach the same level of storytelling as the main narrative. Some of the longer arcs may take a reasonable stab at it, but instead they often come across as boring. Meanwhile the short arcs and standalone episodes end up more like your typical male lead in a harem show - lacking in substance and wouldn't really be missed if he weren't around.
  • Poor Quality Animation:
    This isn't always the case but many times, when an anime enters a filler arc, there's a noticeable drop in animation quality - especially if the studio happens to be in the middle of producing a feature film of the same franchise. Sure, filler may not be as important as the central story, but that's still no reason to abuse the audience's eyes as well as their minds.

In the next post, I will start looking at individual anime series and how they approach and use filler.

    Friday, 26 August 2011

    Warped Anime: Popee the Performer

    I admit that I rarely particiapte in the anime discussion threads on the Anime-Planet Forums, and I generally tend to be relatively solitary when it comes to watching series. But from time to time its fun to get caught up in a whirlwind of chatter about a specific anime - especially if that show happens to be as warped as Popee the Performer.

    I initially discovered this series a few days ago after Sothis was raving about how messed up it is, and having looked at some of the screenshots from it, I couldn't help but crave seeing this nightmareish animation for myself. I want to say that the premise is simple as essentially it's 39 four-minute episodes filled with random slapstick violence, but when you look at it, Popee is anything but straightforward. First up, let's take a glimpse at the main players:

    First off is the titular character, Popee. This guy is without a doubt the creepiest of the bunch. With his violent jealous streak and clown-like rape faces, Popee will pretty much guarantee that you won't sleep well at night ever again.

    Every messed up protagonist needs a long-suffering sidekick, and this poor wolf creature is just that. Sporting a variety of masks with every facial expression under the sun, this poor sod bears the brunt of Popee's tricks and anger.

    About a third of the way in, the nightmare bunny from hell and his wolf guy companion are joined by Papi, some creepy, and decidedly gay minstrel resembling the sun. In a way this guy is probably more disturbing than Popee, especially when you see what his mustache can do...
    Basically, these three live in a circus-type place and go around performing various tricks and stunts in their own special little way. And by special I mean weird. And by weird I mean deranged. Throughout the course of the series, Popee manages to rip off his eyelids, blow air up a frog's arse, crap bullets, impale himself on a giant sword, and die in a countless number of ways. Comedy violence is certainly the order of the day, but instead of being entirely slapstick there are definite sinister overtones running throughout. The cast seem to think nothing of eating each other, exacting disproportionate revenge or coming back to haunt their "friends". This along with the oftentimes terrifying imagery certainly makes for some of the most nightmareish entertainment I've ever seen. If you thought Funny Pets was messed up, you 'aint seen nothing yet!

    Sadako has NOTHING on Popee

    I don't know what's more terrifying; Zombie Popee or the fact that there are TWO of the creepy rabbit bastards!
    The more I watched Popee the Performer the more difficult it was to decide what I actually thought of it. Even now, I can't quite decide if it's utter garbage or a work of pure genius. There's no mistaking the fact that it had me in fits of laughter with its batshit crazy sketches; but in this case, does batshit crazy actually equal quality? The answer to that is probably not. But regardless of it's artistic merit or even if the creator of this should still be allowed to freely roam the streets, Popee the Performer is certainly entertaining and, much like a can of pringles, once you pop, you can't stop!

    For me what actually made the series was reading through (and eventually participating in) the epic thread that it spawned. Seeing this collective WTF?! rapidly morph into what I can only describe as a cult (and one which I ended up subscribing to!) is one of the most hilarious things I've seen in some time! Certainly, the thread is well worth a read, even if you don't pick up the series.

    Go on, watch this late at night, I dare you!

    Thursday, 25 August 2011

    New Anime Review: Bakuman

    Time for some shameless self-promotion!

    I have just posted a new official site review over at Anime-Planet for what turned out to be one of my favourite series of the Fall 2010 season.

    Bakuman Review by cassiesheepgirl | Anime-Planet

    Wednesday, 24 August 2011

    Crapheap of the Month: UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie

    I've watched some godawful anime in my life, but the show that sticks out most vividly in my mind as being one of the worst examples of animation I've ever seen is UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie. My main reason for actually picking up this godawful franchise was that the entries on Anime-Planet for series 2, 3 and 4 required synopses and screenshots. After seeing a quick description of the show, I figured that it couldn't be THAT horrific and might even be so bad it's funny. Sadly, I was deluding myself and suffered through thirty three episodes spanning two seasons, a couple of OVAs and a special.

    The basic premise of this franchise is that a beautiful female alien princess named Valkyrie crash lands her spaceship into a bathhouse. Unfortunately(?), she kills it's young owner, Kazuto, outright and, feeling a sense of guilt, Valkyrie gives him half of her soul in order to revive him. This has the unintended side-effect of reverting her back to a small (and obnoxious) child who now lives in the bathhouse with Kazuto. Oh, and then her catgirl maid turns up to wreak havoc, closely followed by her various sisters.

    Vapid, flat and completely lacking in the balls department, I'm pretty sure Kazuto's personality oozed out of his brain when the spaceship crushed him.

    I have many issues with this series, but one of my biggest gripes is with the abysmal male lead.

    Now it's known that most male leads in a harem show are going to be pretty pants. They tend to be bland individuals with no particular redeeming qualities; but hey, it's a harem and is naturally about the girls, what do you expect? The problem here is that Kazuto would make even the most beige harem males ashamed. The guy has ZERO personality. All he does is stand around gawking, and grinning while all kinds of stupid shit occurs around him. At least the likes of Love Hina's Keitaro bumble around a bit or get called perverts. No such luck here. If just once he'd have been caught in some compromising position, I may have had a little more interest in him. I mean, he works in a BATHHOUSE for God's sake, would it have killed him to grow a pair and have a peek?

    Ignoring the cardboard cutout of a male lead (not too hard really), the rest of the series doesn't have much to offer. While the show does have a certain amount of plot to it, most of it is pointless filler, and crap pointless filler at that. The first season in particular decides that an episode dedicated to creating a cat girl army make a much better addition to the show than actually addressing the ongoing plotline. As a result they then decide to rush through the central narrative in an insipid episode and a half. Yes folks, this is the sort of quality storytelling you can expect here

    The animation in the first season is apalling with recycled footage galore and enough clunky movement to make a lego man jealous. Luckily, the visuals do improve gradually across the seasons, but still fail to knock your socks off.

    Do you think it's too late to say that we don't want to be a part of this?

    Only two good things came from me watching UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie. It spawned my first ranty review on Anime-Planet and - like someone who has just walked into the sunlight after being trapped in a stinking portaloo for six months and realised how awesome fresh air is - I now have a much greater appreciation for GOOD anime.

    Monday, 22 August 2011

    Why Sequels Suck

    I’m sure we’ve all had it at one point or another, you’ve watched an awesome series that you thoroughly enjoyed and thought “I want MOAR!”. Then in a move that feels like all your Christmases have come at once you see the announcement that said awesome series is getting a second season. Hurrah! Praise the Gods/Spirits/Goats; finally you get that extra helping of what you’ve so desperately wanted. So why is it that most of the time instead of getting another delectable dish of steaming hot goodness, we end up with a bowl full of lukewarm dregs that’s burnt onto the bottom of the pan? Now, this isn’t to say that every single sequel out there fails on a base level, there are some that fare well, and I’ll get to them later. But why do so many successful series follow up with such sub-par sequels?

    It was while I was forcing myself to watch Maria Holic Alive this morning that I began thinking about it. I utterly adored the first series, so why am I struggling so much with the sequel? Eventually I came to the conclusion that it’s simply because the novelty has worn off. With its Shinbo-tastic visuals, Yuri themes, randomly wacky humour and sadistic protagonist Maria Holic caught the viewers’ attention, and because it was different at the time, it entertained. Now with the second series they’ve essentially just done more of the same – but with less of the luscious Mariya/Kanako interaction – and it’s wearing a bit thin. The same can be said with scores of other series that lure you in with a catchy hook only to beat the same tired formula to death with a stick.

    Of course there’s also the chance that the second series will tweak something small enough so that it doesn’t change the entire show, but just big enough to rob it of its charm – kind of like a dancing attention whore in the corner who keeps switching out increasingly inappropriate hats. For example, the second season of Natsu no Arashi essentially stays the same as its predecessor with the style of humour and visuals carrying over, but replaces the engaging time-travelling aspect with the endless – and rather dull – attempts to keep Jun’s true gender a secret from Hajime. The charm of the original becomes overwhelmed by the lacklustre focus of the sequel.

    Worst of all are the series that combine both the odd tweaks AND the over-reliance on a single gag. For me, that’s exactly why the Zero no Tsukaima franchise rapidly fell out of favour. While I found the first series captivating, and the Tsundere Louise beating “Baka Inu!” Saito at every turn had me in hysterics, each subsequent series gradually ebbed away at my infatuation. Through a combination of the beatings wearing thin and an increase in the ecchi content, I found myself utterly bored by the third installment. Now it’s at the point that while I’ll likely pick up the recently-announced fourth series so I can help fill in the info on Anime-Planet, I’m not particularly looking forward to it – but hey, I’m most of the way there now, so I may as well see it to the finish, right?

    Of course that covers those series that follow down a more humorous route, and simply re-use the same tired gag in a variety of different guises, but what about the more serious, plot-driven series?

    The main pitfall with any narrative-focused series is that the story won’t live up to expectations. The exceptions to this that I’ve encountered are adaptations of long-running manga where the series takes a break in order to allow for a build-up of more source material – such as in the case of Gintama. Alternatively, when it comes to Naruto and Shippuuden the separation of series sets up a definite break for the time skip (Naruto really should have taken a leaf out of Gintama’s book and taken a break instead of bombarding the user with nearly two years’ worth of solid filler, but I’ll leave shounen fillers for another time).

    Often, I’ve found that disappointing plotline in a sequel stems from the first series having reached a solid and definite conclusion, and after said finale, what comes next fails to meet the same standards. I personally experienced this to its fullest with Kyou Kara Maou. For a long time the first series (well two really – they aired in one run) stood at the very top of my favourites list. I loved it. I loved the fantasy, the comedy, the setting, everything about it and when I finally got to see the end I was in a wibbling mess because I’d become so immersed in its world. So when the sequel (series 3) rolled round, I couldn’t wait to see more. The new season didn’t live up to the expectations that the original had set for it. The plotline wasn’t anywhere near as interesting, and after a while, I didn’t really care what happened. Unfortunately, by this time it was too late and my affection for the original series had been tainted. The first (two) seasons now hover somewhere around 22nd on my list.

    But sadly, even when a first series leaves the narrative hanging in readiness for more, the sequel isn’t always guaranteed to meet that same standard. One example that springs to mind like a rabbit in heat is Kimi ni Todoke. The first season charmed me with the slow progression of Sawako and Kazehaya’s relationship and the ending seemed to leave us at a cruel point where we couldn’t help but demand more. Then series two rolls around and was unfortunately one of those cases where the anime tries to spread too little plot over too many episodes. As such, while the narrative isn’t inherently bad (the regression in their relationship is more forgivable in the less sluggishly-paced manga) that the anime drags it out for twelve episodes means that the “will they, won’t they” punch from the first series gets lost in a sea of “Oh come on! This is getting ridiculous, just get it together already!!!”.

    So when do sequels actually work? Well, the main instance I can think of when a sequel performs just as well as the original (or on very rare occasion, BETTER than the first) is when the franchise is a 4-Koma adaptation. When I try to think of all the second seasons out there that don’t send me spiralling into a pit of “Oh why God, why did they have to make more?!” the main ones are adaptations of four panel manga such as Hidamari Sketch and K-On! or manga that follow the in a similar sketch-like slice-of-life vein – like Chi’s Sweet Home and Minami-Ke. That these types of series don’t set out to hypnotise the audience with a wacky concept or flashy gimmicks means that there’s no novelty to wear off. Likewise, with no particular on-going plot, it’s pretty difficult to screw up the story. Similarly this also tends to be the case with other gentler, episodic stories, which is why the Natsume Yuujinchou franchise continues to be steadily successful without disappointing the fanbase.
    My advice to all of you is to pick and choose the sequels you watch, because if you’re not careful the memory of a once-favoured anime can be unceremoniously shat all over by an awful sequel. So while the likes of Maria Holic Alive may have left me with a slightly bitter aftertaste in my mouth, I’ll still be looking forward to the fall season with Shinryaku Ika Musume 2, Working 2 and particularly Bakuman 2. Perhaps I’m choosing carefully, or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment...

    Saturday, 20 August 2011

    Hiro Mashima: A Cross Between Oda and Kubo?

    This evening I was having a conversation with Patches comparing various shounen manga and we got onto the subject of Hiro Mashima, the mangaka of Fairy Tail. This led to an interesting discussion about how we feel Mashima is somewhat of a cross between Eiichiro Oda (One Piece) and Tite Kubo (Bleach) in terms of both art and storytelling.

    Much like Kubo, Mashima's narratives are thinner than some of its shounen brethren, but focuses more on getting to the nitty gritty fighting. Since most of Fairy Tail's arcs are shorter than those of say, One Piece or Naruto, it's not too surprising that the storyline isn't as epic as the two aforementioned series. Don't get me wrong, both Kubo and Mashima build their stories fairly well, but they don't weave such intricate plotlines that really pull you in and give the final clashes that massive, shounentastic impact. While his method of storytelling appears to be more Kubo-like, Mashima adopts several Oda-like qualities to make his plotlines more entertaining. The main similarity between the two is the comedy element. Both Fairy Tail and One Piece share a very similar style of humour, with wacky and almost silly humour that can at times border on the slapstick. Likewise, Patches makes a good point when he says that while the battles share a similar level of importance to Kubo's works, the Fairy Tail wizards have such varied and distinctly recognisable abilities that they are much closer to the various Devil Fruit powers in One Piece than the Zanpakutou in Bleach.

    The similarities however do not stop at the story. When it comes to artwork, there's no doubt that Mashima's visual language is more akin to that of Oda's One Piece, especially when it comes to some of the wackier character designs (think Wally and Hot Eye). On the flip side, Mashima's art is very bold and the dynamic battles throughout have slightly more of a Bleach vibe to them - though with more comprehensive imagery and fewer action lines of doom, Mashima's fights are generally easier to follow than Kubo's.

    Maybe it's unfair tolook at a single mangaka's work and inherently compare him to others, but when you've read and seen a certain amount of work, it's hard to stop yourself. Likewise, all artists and authors will take inspiration from existing works that they admire to the point where noted similarities can be spotted (the resemblance between Fairy Tail's Kageyama and Naruto's Shikamaru both physically and in their abilities still amazes me to this day). Mashima certainly seems to have taken on board a lot of Oda's strong points such as the comedy and visuals as well as Kubo's dynamic battles. Sadly, he also seems to have gravitated towards less-developed plotlines in the same way that Kubo has, though thankfully by going for shorter arcs, he manages to avoid the pitfall of boring the audience with a string of battles centring around one simple and underdeveloped plotpoint. Let's hope he just doesn't pick up any of Kubo's other bad habits...

    Friday, 19 August 2011

    Hello and Welcome!

    Hello and welcome to my newly established anime and manga blog.

    I've decided to set this up in an attempt to actually record the various random musings I have about anything and everything to do with anime, manga and Japanese culture. Hopefully it'll be of some interest, and if not, well at least I'll have something to look back on in a few years and wonder what the heck I was thinking!

    So what can you expect to see from me? Well, there will likely be plenty of posts about shounen - a genre that I particularly love, thoughts about Miyazaki, Takahata and Studio Ghibli in general, links to my latest reviews on Anime-Planet (I will not be hosting any of my reviews on here - though I may take it into my mind to post odd snippets of "reviews that never made it") and hopefully a reasonable amount on Japanese youkai (hopefully complete with images, if I can get them finished). Outside of that, it could be anything.

    Anyway, I've rambled enough for this installment so I shall leave it there. If you've made it this far, thank you for reading!