Friday, 30 September 2011

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Friday, 16 September 2011

Naruto: Overrated or Undersold?

As probably one of the most widely known anime series to westerners, it's likely that every anime fan will have some kind of opinion on Naruto, whether they've ever seen it or not. My current musing on this phenomenon of a franchise is whether the series is overrated and not at all worth the hype or if in fact, it's undersold and it's true brilliance hidden. I have come to the conclusion that in truth it's actually a mix of the two.

What draws me to this way of thinking is the series' overwhelming popularity and the phenomenon known as the "Narutard". While popularity is generally considered a good thing (particularly in western countries that naturally don't get the wide variety of shows/merchandise) when a certain fandom gets repeatedly shoved in your face like a clown who just discovered the custard pie and doesn't know when to quit, it does more harm than good. Undoubtedly this is the case with Naruto, whose gleaming success and rabid fanbase have had two significantly negative, yet utterly contrasting effects.

First off the hype surrounding Naruto has a habit of massively overselling it. With so many people raving that it's the most awesome series ever to grace our screens, it's unlikely that any show, let alone this one, will ever manage to live up to the expectations planted in your minds. I personally love the series, and have done ever since four years ago when I marathoned through series one and the first thirty odd episodes of Shippuuden. However, even I have to admit that the anime is overrated in comparison to the impression many of the hardcore fans will give you. That being said, the manga with it's tighter pacing and concentrated plotline unhindered by filler does live up to the hype, though still not up to the Narutard levels of being the greatest story ever told.

On the other side of things, the show's popularity serves to massively undersell the story's worth. With the fandom being hurled at you every which way it can likely have the effect of making one boycott it on pure principal. When confronted with legions of people in Konoha cosplay or Akatsuki cloaks at any anime-related event and Narutards running around adding "no jutsu" and "dattebayo" to the end of everything they say, many will find their view of the franchise tainted so that they either dislike it when they do watch or immediately hate it without even giving it a chance. Sadly, to those who haven't seen or read the series, or those whose views have been tainted, one of the first things they'll think about when they hear the word "Naruto" is not the well-constructed plot, the engaging battles or the impressive characterisation, but instead the crazed fans who make you ashamed to watch the show in case someone mistakes a simple fan for a complete Narutard.

As to whether individuals consider this behemoth franchise as being overrated or undersold, well that inevitably comes down to your own experiences and mindset. Personally, I think that the negative reaction to the publicity and adultation the show receives from both the industry and fans alike overshadows what is actually a genuinely good story. Sure, the anime isn't the amazing masterpiece that some make it out to be, and I certainly worry about those who claim that "Naruto is their life", but I feel that there's been so much prejudice surrounding the fandom that those new to it don't always give it a fair chance. I've experienced this with my best friend, who eventually picked up the series after my insistence that "he'd love it". He went into it on the back of irritation with the hype, never really gave it a proper try and dropped it after eight episodes focusing on small details to the point where they became genuine hatred. A couple of years - and many "Naruto sucks!" comments - later, myself and another friend convinced him to read the manga. He then powered through to the timeskip where he has now picked up the Shippuuden anime and is really getting into it (well excluding the filler that is) and finding the main plotline genuinely impressive.

My advice to anyone out there considering picking up either the anime or manga is this: try to forget everything you think you know about Naruto. Ignore the fans that froth at the mouth with the site of every kunai and forehead protector. Ignore the people who claim it sucks without giving any justification. Don't expect a masterpiece, and don't expect a steaming pile of crap. Instead, go into it with an open mind. If you do, then you may be surprised.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Clash of the Ghibli Titans: Miyazaki vs Takahata

If any of you have seen me around on Anime-Planet or have heard the recent episode of O-Talk on Miyazaki, you'll know that I am a complete Studio Ghibli fangirl. Their films were some of the earliest anime I watched; in fact I saw Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke before I was really aware of what anime was. There are many things that I love about the Ghibli body of work, and I will likely go into that at a later date. For now, though I want to take a look at the two behemoth directors and founders of the studio, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and how their works compare.

Escapism:

When it comes to fantastical worlds, mythical beasts and magic, there is one Ghibli master, and that is Hayao Miyazaki. His philosophy on making movies is to entertain children, pure and simple, and that's exactly what he does. Part of what really nurtured my love for the studio is that in watching one of the films, I could disappear off into another world for a couple of hours and that's precisely what Miyazaki achieves. He can take you on an adventure, entertain children and make adults unleash their inner kids. When I think of my favourite Miyazaki works, they're all innocent and magical. In my mind, My Neighbour Totoro is possibly one of the best examples of this. While some may suggest otherwise, Totoro is all about the innocence of childhood and that we need not grow up too fast, but embrace the vivid colours of our imaginations. Instead of denying ourselves the possibility that magical beings exist, we should give in, clamber up on Totoro's back and fly in the sky.

Meanwhile, the closest that Takahata comes to escapism in his films is Pom Poko, with its cute Tanuki (shape-changing racoon dogs) behaving in a mischievous manner. However, that the movie is portrayed as a documentary means that some of the fantastical element is soon lost.

Winner: Miyazaki

He may have a large mouth, but wouldn't you want to snuggle up to Totoro on a cold, rainy night?

Maturity:

While Miyazaki romps home to victory in the category of escapism and fantasy, there's one clear winner when it comes to maturity in their work, and that's Takahata. That isn't to say that Miyazaki doesn't appeal to an older audience, far from it. His works are enjoyed by children, adults and the elderly alike. While the likes of My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service are more childlike in nature, some of his films do contain more mature aspects. Most noticeably these occur in his most serious works: Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. With overarching themes of environmentalism, human responsibility and war, there's plenty to make the viewers think. Additionally, Princess Mononoke is a far more violent and bloody film. Our first glimpse of San's face is seeing it covered in blood, Ashitaka frequently decapitates or permanently disables his enemies with precision archery skills, and certainly, shots such as a demonic boar's flesh melting from its bones would be enough to disturb any young viewers (though I got scared of the Skeksis emperor's death scene in The Dark Crystal when I was a kid, so maybe I'm just a wuss).

However, while Princess Mononoke may be a far more adult film - I certainly wouldn't show it to any young child - in terms of maturity, Takahata wins hands down. Certainly when I think of the most grown up Ghibli films, the top two I'd list would be Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday. In particular, Only Yesterday is a quiet masterpiece.  The film focuses on an older central character - as opposed to Miyazaki's preference for child protagonists - who is dissatisfied with life and begins to look back on her younger days. The  juxtaposition between her more demure older self and the bratty behaviour of her childhood resonates with any working adult who finds their life utterly unlike anything they'd hoped for or dreamed of as kids. And it does this with a gentle grace and beauty that may not be able to be appreciated by a younger audience. Similarly, the tragic tale in Grave of the Fireflies is better suited to an older viewer. Possibly one of the most depressing moies ever made, it tells a tale of complete hopelessness and despair where the hopes of two young children get repeatedly shoved in the mud and kicked around. It's beautiful, but utterly heartbreaking and carried out in such a way that it makes you think. It's not entertainment, more a reminder that life is not always fair and there are many strands of society that get abandoned and forgotten, especially during times of crisis.

Winner: Takahata

Quiet and understated, Only Yesterday is like a coming-of-age tale for adults.


Experimentation:

Undoubtedly, Studio Ghibli isn't at the forefront of experimental animation. Though the studio's techniques and overall quality are of a supremely high standard, they aren't known for breaking the mould; in fact there's a designated "Ghibli look" that graces their films. Miyazaki in particular has extremely recognisable character designs and has often been criticised for re-using characters across his various movies. Even outside of the visuals, Miyazaki doesn't tend to experiment with the format of his stories particularly much, and considering that he primarily aims his films at a younger audience, keeping the story in a clear and linear format is a much better idea.

On the flip side, Takahata's films are generally far more different to any of the other Ghibli works. In a visual sense there's no denying that the only Ghibli film that DOESN'T look like a Ghibli film is My Neighbours the Yamadas. In this, Takahata experiments with a looser and more watercolour-esque style that's nicely suited to the sketch-like format. And that Yamadas is essentially like a series of sketches is another factor that sets it apart from the other works. This film is basically "Ghibli does slice-of-life" and boy does it do it well. Takahata certainly takes more risks with his works in terms of format. Pom Poko is set up as a faux-documentary, Only Yesterday flips between present day and days of nostalgia to show the growth of a single woman at a pivotal point in her life, and Grave of the Fireflies is told entirely in flashback. That Takahata frequently goes against the grain is wholly impressive, especially as he manages to do it without getting too experimental and becoming "un-Ghibli".

Winner: Takahata

A complete detour from the standard "Ghibli look" but the minimalistic style of Yamadas really suits the content.


International Appeal:

When you look at the setting and content of both directors’ works, they vary significantly. Specifically, Takahata's films are inherently Japanese; they’re all set in a realistic Japan and focus on Japanese culture and history. His animations play out almost like an ode to his homeland, celebrating the richness the country has to offer. Unfortunately, by making his films very Japan-heavy, this reduces the international appeal of his works as a certain knowledge of the culture is required to fully appreciate the movies. A prime example of this is his 1994 offering, Pom Poko. Set around the housing development of Tama Hills (which, incidentally, is a real place), the film looks at many of Japan’s mythology and youkai (demons). While it is possible to enjoy the cute little film about raccoons causing michief, one can only fully appreciate how impressive the anime is if you are familiar with the youkai and fairy tales found within. On a personal note, when I first saw the film I wasn't bowled over by it, but after learning more about youkai and Japanese fairytales, I watched it again, and I soon became enamoured with it.

Conversely, Miyazaki’s movies are mainly set in either a western environment (Porco Rosso - Italy, Howl's Moving Castle - industrial revolution Anglo-European realm, Kiki's Delivery Service - a Germanic-style town) or in a fantastical Japan - think Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Using a more familiar setting, westerners unfamiliar with anime can easily find their footing and enjoy the tale to it’s fullest. Likewise by taking a more fantastical approach to his work, even when his films are set in his homeland, knowledge of the culture isn’t necessary. Ignoring the setting however, Miyazaki's more light-hearted and entertaining approach (obviously I'm not including Princesss Mononoke or Nausicaa here) makes for better family viewing and while Takahata's films are brilliant in their own right, they exude a sense of maturity that would be less likely to engage casual viewers.

Winner: Miyazaki


Miyazaki's use of European architecture helps western audiences find their feet.


When it comes to making a judgement about which of these two directing legends is best, it's beyond difficult. Ultimately, the only judgement anyone can make is purely personal. For me, as much as I love the understated grace of Takahata's works, my adoration of Miyazaki's fantastical tales of Totoro, dragon spirits, flying pigs and wizards wins out.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Shounen Filler: One Piece

Having already looked at both Naruto and Bleach, the next post in my mini-series on shounen filler will be focusing on the final of Jump's "Big Three": One Piece. In stark contrast to it's brethren, One Piece's primary method of padding it's anime out isn't to rely one anime-only arcs - though it does use them, but more on that later - but instead it extends upon the original content. For instance, some final battles can end up being longer than need be, while others that are semi glossed-over in the manga receive more of the spotlight. When you're marathoning it and get caught up in the action, this doesn't prove to be too noticeable, although, week-by-week is a different story.

What is, however, more glaringly obvious is when the anime drags out certain activities that DON'T have that engaging wow factor that keeps you glued to the screen until you completely lose all feeling in your butt cheeks. In particular there are two noticeably painful filler parts that feel far too drawn out for their own good and they occur in the Arabasta and Foxy arcs.


1. Arabasta:

So you have a group of pirates who have set sail to an island with a desert-like climate, which they have to traverse in order to further the plot. What better way to pad out the story than to have seemingly endless episodes of the gang trudging through the sand and meeting with its various inhabitants. Unfortunately, extending the crew's experience in the harsh desert terrain ended up somewhat dull. So, while in truth there were only about six or seven of these episodes, it felt like so much more, and what is simply a means to an end in the manga, becomes a mini saga in the anime. Shame as the Arabasta narrative is otherwise pretty damn good!

Are we there yet? No? Bugger.


I'm 99.9% sure that Foxy used his "Slow Slow" Devil Fruit powers to drag out his arc.

2. Foxy:

I'm not going to lie, the Davy Back Fight is One Piece's weakest arc by quite some margin. With a contemptible antagonist that you just want to punch for being so annoying and a somewhat weak (at least by Oda's standards) contest premise, I generally found myself willing the storyline to end. The entire plot felt like filler before any padding were even added, so imagine my dismay when I discovered that the anime had actually dragged this story out by adding in a whole second game. In the manga there is one single game of the Davy Back Fight consisting of three rounds. In the anime there are TWO three-round matches. Please, just kill me now. Or better yet, do away with Foxy!


On a more positive note, some of this canon material extension actually works to the show's advantage. For instance in the recent episodes, a reasonable amount of airtime has been given to the individual antics of Luffy's crew following their separation. In the manga this material takes the form of title page illustrations and the occasional mention in the main chapters. Fleshing out these little snippets proves rather satisfying as we get to learn more of the other's escapades, and their experiences (which become pivotal in their development) have a more solid grounding that the viewers can relate to.

Outside of any plot-stretching, One Piece does occasionally throw in the odd short filler arc, normally only lasting around five episodes. Like most anime-only fluff, they may not be the greatest tales, but in the case of One Piece these short interludes actually provide a nice change of pace, especially when they follow a particularly long arc. For example, while not a masterclass in storytelling, the escapades on Marine Base G-8 proved a light-hearted and entertaining diversion after the epic battle on Skypeia. Adding to this "cool down" effect, the series often throws in odd standalone episodes such as in the post Enies Lobby episodes where we witness the antics of the crew before they leave Water 7 and head off on their next adventure. Much like in Naruto and Bleach many of these odd episodes are somewhat throwaway and not always to the high standard you're used to. While Zoro babysitting for a bunch of young kids and Sanji having a cook-off with an old drunken chef may be amusing in themselves, they hardly leave much of a lasting impression and to be honest if they weren't there, I really wouldn't miss them.

Of course other anime-only arcs don't fare so well. In particular the short storyline relating to the release of the Strong World  movie didn't exactly bowl me over, especially since the series "did a Bleach" and dumped this fluff slap bang in the middle of the awesome Impel Down arc. Even though it only lasted for four episodes, sombrero-clad pirates are a poor substitute for an engaging and quirky prison break with twists and turns aplenty. Likewise, during the Enies Lobby arc, the series wastes several episodes on semi-pointless and wholle irritating recaps (yes, plural) as well as the inclusion of several "Oyabin Luffy" specials. While the original TV special was entertaining as a one-off these subsequent additions wore thin exceptionally quickly. When it comes to any filler arcs though, no matter how entertaining a diversion they tend to be, by sheer nature of being placed after the climax of an impressive and engaging plotline, they're all going to seem somewhat tame, or even just plain crap by comparison.

You mean I have to do three more episodes of this crap?

Certainly, while by no means perfect in execution, out of the big three shounen fanchises, One Piece deals with filler much more capably than either Bleach or Naruto. Building on existing material, the series lays extra groundwork for its already impressive plots that mostly - but not always - enhance the tale. By doing this they then generally leave any side stories for specials and movies where they belong and let the main narrative speak for itself.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Shounen Filler: Naruto

Having already looked at how Bleach uses and abuses filler, I thought I'd continue my series on shounen series and their love of padding out the narrative by taking a look at another of the big three: Naruto. Having been split into two separate series (Naruto and Shippuuden) both parts of the franchise treat their anime-only episodes differently, so I will look at them individually.

Naruto:

Ah the original series documenting Naruto's escapades before the two year timeskip. Predominantly, Naruto uses short filler arcs lasting up to a maximum of five episodes as well as the odd standalone comedy episode (for example the episode where Naruto tries to see what lies beneath Kakashi's mask). However, what this series is infamous for is lumping over 90% of its anime-only content together in one solid 85-episode run after the Sasuke Retrieval arc. This series essentially does the same thing that Bleach is currently doing and simply delays the timeskip by showing Naruto on a series of short missions before he heads off on his training with Jiraiya.

The one good thing about this approach is that, in bunching the filler together in one solid block, it's very easy to skip. As soon as the main action finishes and you see Naruto getting sent off on some mundane assignment, you can happily run for your (curry of) life and move straight on to Shippuuden should you so desire. However, as easy as that may be, it doesn't change the fact that for the best part of TWO YEARS, Naruto pissed off its fanbase with bland filler, something that even Bleach with it's long-ass anime-only plotlines hasn't attempted - yet.

Naruto Shippuuden:

Unlike its predecessor, Naruto Shippuuden, treats filler in a manner more akin to Bleach in that it tends to err more towards longer filler arcs - though each one averages out at a little over half the length of the latter's. To Shippuuden's credit, while each arc individually annoys the viewer by interrupting the awesome plotline (seriously, well done Kishimoto on a jaw-dropping narrative), the anime-only content at least works around the central story. Instead of just coming up with some lame plotline set in the Tea Country or whatever, Shippuuden offers up a semi-lame story depicting a narrative-relevant sidestory - such as showing the capture of the "Three Tails". While this still can't fully excuse the padding, it's nice that they actually attempt to do something more meaningful with their extra content and the result isn't completely horrific.

All this being said, the most recent block of filler (the one after the cumulation of the Pain arc) has deviated somewhat from this and has become more a collection of standalone episodes depicting the "Tales of Days Past". This is sadly where the quality really plummets down the toilet. While some of the episodes - such as those showing Iruka's past and Kakashi becoming the leader of Team 7 actually prove quite interesting, it doesn't take long for the "comedy" episodes to rear their ugly, deformed heads. With gems such as Naruto chasing around a ninja ostrich and Sasuke fighting a giant cat to complete his "paw encyclopedia", it's a wonder that the viewer doesn't end up completely comatose after five minutes.

Yeah, I think we were all about as impressed with that as you were, Kotetsu.

It remains to be seen how the filler situation in Shippuuden will continue. I can, however, say with some confidence that if the crappy "comedy" episodes stick around, then any vague good that the earlier plot-relevant filler arcs did, will soon be overshadowed by the poor quality fluff currently halting the main narrative's progression.

Uhh... Thanks Gai, but you can keep them. And take the fluffy filler with you.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Shounen Filler: Bleach

In the second of my series of posts on shounen filler, I am beginning to look at individual series and how they make use of filler; and what better place to start than Bleach, one of the "Big Three" and the show that originally inspired me to write about this topic in the first place.

So what type of filler does Bleach use and how does it incorporate it into the story? The majority of the time, the series employs the use of long filler arcs to hold up the story for months at a time - yes, MONTHS.  A year and a half ago, when I was bored and had little to do, I worked out the number of filler episodes (conisting of standalone eps and full arcs only) for each of the big three and the average length of these non-canon arcs, the results of which were fairly interesting to say the least. I conducted my mini study on the 3rd March 2010 and here is what I found:

A year+ later and there have been a further 37 filler episodes in Bleach raising the percentage to 43%! The shortest of the three series, but the highest rate of non-canon episodes. On top of this, Bleach also wins in the filler length fight:


So not only does Bleach have more filler, but when you hit a non-canon arc, be prepared to be stuck there for at least 6 months! On top of this, Bleach has abysmal timing when it comes to adding in this padding. With the exception of the Bount arc (which nicely slotted into place after the Soul Society plotline) and the current run of filler (yay for slightly altering the end of the Arrancar arc to accomodate more fluff), the series has a habit of just chucking it's anime-only plotlines in any old place. I'll never forget the first time I felt utterly abused by this habit.It was right in the middle of the Hueco Mundo battles. The action was engaging, I was excited, and by the end of episode 168, a whole bunch of the cast were in mortal peril, laying possibly dead on the ground and I couldn't wait for the next installment. Then came episode 169 which suddenly flipped and everyone was back at Karakura High having the time of their lives. WHAT. THE. LIVING. HELL?! Talk about a way to piss on your own fireworks and kill the momentum that had built up. That is not a good way to treat your audience, at least attempt to find a more natural break in which to dump your filler.

Additionally the actual quality of these filler arcs isn't exactly top notch. I remember watching the Bount plotline and becoming very bored - and in comparison to the beginning of the Lurichiyo stuff, seemed like a masterclass of storytelling. Likewise the Zanpakutou arc started off with an interesting concept and ended up dragging it out for far too long, to the point where it got a bit dull and I stopped caring. Finally, as if to add insult to injury, the animation quality - particularly when it comes to bodily proportions in the Zanpakutou arc - is horrific. For such a high profile show to have such sub par visuals - even during filler - is unacceptable. Way to dump on your audience, Bleach, way to dump.

Ken-chan, why has my head shrunk?

I dunno, but I think it's catching.

Besides, I'd worry more about the weight you've put on in the last few minutes.

Does my squishy face lok like I care?

Outside of the behemoth filler arcs, Bleach often heads down the route of standalone "comedy" episodes. These in particular are awful. Just awful. With content such as Arabian Nights-esque parodies, Hitsugaya playing football and Shinigami film festivals, the quality bar isn't exactly high. Individually they may have their comic merits (except for Hitsugaya the football player - that was just BAD) and are easy to throw on and watch while brain dead (or drunk). Likewise they may have been more tolerable if they didn't interrupt the main plotline so damn much.

I personally consider Bleach to be a shining example of filler gone bad. Fluff arcs that make up nearly half of the total anime and last for far too long being unforgivably chucked in during the middle of an awesome plotline is not the way to go. Had it not been for the excessive filler bitch-slapping me round the face when I just want to watch the next fight, this show would have stayed higher up my list. Instead, the Bleach anime has dug it's own grave, but with so much padding, at least it'll be nice and comfortable when it finally lays to rest.