Sunday, 30 October 2011

Cosplay Musings

Cosplay is one area of fandom that I'm unlikely to blog about all that much, but this weekend it feels like an appropriate topic, not because it's Halloween, but due to my own experiences. Yesterday I ventured up to the ExCel Centre for my fourth London MCM Expo, and for the second time, I was in costume. Now, before I go on, there are four things you should know about me:

1. I'm fat and while I'm comfortable with my body, I by no means like it.
2. I have very little self-confidence.
3. I'm not an exhibisionist and prefer to stay out of the spotlight.
4. I hate having my photo taken.

So considering the above, one may wonder why on earth I'd even consider going out in public dressed up as an anime character, yet back in May that's exactly what I decided to do. The initial choice to go in costume was made on the way back from the previous Expo. While on a high, myself and my best friend decided that while we loved watching the other cosplayers, we wanted in on the action and were going to go as Zoro and Sanji from One Piece respectively. I can't speak for my friend's motivations, but I personally wanted to cosplay for a few reasons. Having been surrounded by countless other fans, seeing how friendly people were and how much I felt like I belonged, I wanted to take it to the next level. I wanted to join in rather than being a simple observer. As for the specific choice of costume, I wanted to show my support for the series and my affection for Zoro.

After several months of anticipation, May rolled round, and armed with my green wig, homemade haramaki, bandana, earrings and katana, off I went to Expo and when I arrived, the sensation was bizarre. By some odd twist of fate I actually felt like I belonged more by being in costume, and by wandering around as one of my favourite characters, the whole thing felt more exciting. Additionally, I had so much fun in costume, especially when it came to fake fighting with Sanji and the One Piece cosplayer meet-up where we met others who loved the series. However, despite thoroughly enjoying it, and deciding then and there that I'd likely cosplay every time I came in future, I still felt insecure as I'm too big to be cosplaying a skinny character. I felt inadequate because I didn't really look like my character, something that wasn't helped by either the "witty" tosspot that yelled out "Oi Zoro, lose some weight!", or the fact that my best friend had the Sanji look down to a T - had the perfect build for it, and looked damn good in his costume - git.

The silly thing is, is that I think I was probably the one who was most bothered about my size. Ended up having a fairly good chat with a couple of other One Piece cosplayers and some people took my photo, though I still always felt that the only reason anyone took my photo was as an "accessory" to the awesome Sanji cosplay, rather than because I was actually a decent Zoro. But while I didn't feel good enough, it still didn't prevent me from wanting to cosplay next time, because it really was so much more fun.

Myself and my best friend as Zoro and Water 7 Sanji

My next task was to decide upon my costume for October, and this time I decided to cosplay to my size, and chose to go as Marco, the titular character from Porco Rosso and my entire cosplay experience was different.

One on the photos I had taken at the Manga UK Cosplay Photo Booth

Undoubtedly, this time around I had the ideal costume for me. having chosen a character that was closer to my actual size, any insecurity I had about being a fat version of a character instead of just the character itself was nowhere to be seen. For once, I actually thought I looked pretty decent - to the point where I willingly ventured into the Manga UK Cosplay Photo Booth to get proper photos taken (that photographer rocked - he was a Porco fan). Additionally, Ghibli cosplays seem to be few and far between, so there's generally more of a novelty factor when I see any Miyazaki creation get the cosplay treatment (I remember squeeing pretty hard at a Nausicaa cosplayer in May). From pretty much the moment I walked in, the reception I received was entirely different. As I wandered along the main hall to get to the exhibition room, I could hear many a comment along the lines of "Oh My God! Porco Rosso!", and I received multiple requests for hugs and photos and this continued inside the exhibition hall. It was so different from May as this time people genuinely wanted a photo of me in costume, I was being singled out from my friends for a photo, as opposed to being an accessory. It seemed that people were genuinely happy to see someone dressed as Porco, and two people even said that they were glad to see me as they'd never seen a Porco before - at least not in the flesh. I felt worthy of calling myself a cosplayer - especially when some random guy followed me down the hall covered in official passes and asked me to participate in a video portrait.

That I'd apparently done a decent job on the costume, was recognisable and seemed to please people not only gave me more confidence in myself, but also made me feel like I was properly contributing and I felt like yesterday was the first time I'd fully experienced cosplaying.

For me, cosplay is both an inclusive and exclusive activity. Undoubtedly, cosplaying has had a personal effect on me. I have more confidence in myself, because, no matter how sad or pathetic it sounds, I felt validated yesterday. Likewise, despite my general hatred when it comes to having my photo taken, I loved having people stop to photograph me (one guy even slid across the floor to snap me when I was doing the video portrait!). But that I wasn't camera shy comes down to one simple fact: people weren't photographing me, they were photographing Porco. That is part of what I love about cosplay, you can be someone else for a day and for a few hours you become more than just yourself.

However, despite the personal effects of it, cosplaying is also a wholly inclusive act. It becomes a conversation starter between people who are dressing up from the same series, you have a laugh with similar cosplayers and get photos taken with them, which makes for a much more social occasion. Cosplay breaks down barriers between total strangers who you'd never normally even look at, let alone approach - in no other circumstance would you hug a completely random person, or ask for their photo, but on our very first trip to Expo, I hugged a Doctor Who (Tennant incarnation) cosplayer, and my best friend ran after an Amy Pond cosplayer yelling "AMY!!!!!" so that he could get her photo. Whether you dress up or just observe, cosplay creates memories, brings people together and above all else, is damn good fun.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Anime Comfort Food: Detective Conan

Despite the wealth of anime out there both old and new, whenever you venture into a new series, you never quite know what you're going to end up with. So sometimes, to break up all the trial and error of picking up new anime, it's rather nice just to settle down and watch something where you know pretty much what to expect. For me, one of those shows is Detective Conan.

At a behemoth 630+ episodes, I've still only scratched the surface and am currently less than a third of the way through. I don't marathon it, but instead I go through phases where I want to watch something safe, and this is one of my go-to anime whenever I get that urge.

The format generally remains solid and unchanging throughout. Conan goes somewhere, then shortly afterwards someone dies in mysterious or suspicious circumstances. Then the young boy somehow figures it all out and reveals all to those nearby, normally by tranquilising Kogorou and using his voice-changing bowtie to imitate him. Then the ridiculously convoluted murder method unravels in front of the culprit's eyes until they break down and confess everything. Case closed (pun half intended), the end.

What I love about Detective Conan is that each case manages to be both predictable and wholly unpredictable at the same time. On the one hand there's the inherent familiarity of certain Conan staples that despite their completely ludicrous nature still have a certain charm to them. For instance, that Kogorou miraculously manages to collapse and fall asleep in a perfect sitting position (sometimes even making a pose that presents him as being deep in thought) every. single. time. he's tranquilised is ridiculous - especially when it involves him turning round on the spot or stumbling half way across the room! But somehow, knowing that he's not going to ruin the whole plan and just flop on the floor, snore loudly, and drool a bit is comforting. Likewise, seeing each culprit give up and confess with surprising ease instead of insisting that it wasn't them is so cheesy it may as well be a pizza topping, but again is familiar and comfortable.

The predictable aspects of Detective Conan such as the ones mentioned above and the knowledge that Conan will always reveal the truth may open the series up to becoming repetitive. However, like knowing that your favourite shounen hero will always beat the bad guy, the security that offers allows you to just enjoy the ride until you get to the inevitable conclusion. This leads me nicely onto the other joy of this franchise: the variety of weird and wacky cases. How Detective Conan manages to remain so fresh for so long while relying on the same format is entirely down to the remarkable and convoluted methods that each culprit uses. I've never been one for predicting how a trick is done, but to be honest, even if I did I doubt I'd ever be able to figure out the cases in this series! I love seeing what improbable actions each culprit takes and marvelling how how downright weird, crazy, or just plain stupid their plans are. I remember one particular episode where a murder was committed with fishing wire attached to a bottle of soy sauce and thinking "what in the name of all that is holy was this person smoking when they came up with that?!" and it's that sense of jaw-dropping disbelief that keeps me watching.

Detective Conan is one of the best types of anime comfort food because you know precisely what you'll get from every case, but the unique truth behind each crime keeps the brain engaged. Sure, it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I love it. In fact, it's been a long day so I think I'll grab a drink, snuggle up under a blanket, and enjoy an episode or two while I unwind.

Oi, what do you mean I'm predictable?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Two Years Later...

Warning: As much as I'm trying to keep them vague it's not always possible, so this post contains some spoiler information for Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, Fairy Tail, Usagi Drop, and Death Note. Each manga will have its own paragraph so if you don't want to risk finding anything out that you don't know, then please (time)skip ahead to the following section.

Last week, within the space of twenty-four hours, I encountered time skips in two different and wholly unreleated manga. Plus, with the One Piece anime having recently reached its own temporal leap, it fels like the time skip is the order of the day. Certainly, when it comes to mainstream shounen manga in particular, it seems that jumping ahead several months or years is becoming the thing to do and it's certainly an effective hook. Time skips offer up the chance to completely revitalise a manga or change its dynamic often following a climactic event, and as such prove to be a turning point wherever they feature.

Back in 2005, Naruto started the recent trend with the two-year leap following the events of the Sasuke Retrieval Arc. Having come to a definite conclusion it offered up the perfect chance to power-up the protagonists with each member of Team Seven walking their own paths to train. Sasuke turned his back on Konoha in order to get into the metaphorical bed with Orochimaru, Sakura - fed up of being the useless one - begins her tutelage as a medical ninja under Tsunade and Naruto heads off on his journey with Jiraiya to become stronger than ever. The skip also marks a distinct change in focus. Whereas Orochimaru plays the role of lead antagonist in the first part, the two-year jump marks the switch to when the biggest thread to the ninja world is actually Akatsuki.

In the same year, another Shounen Jump hit also hopped on the time skip bandwagon. Death Note however opted for a six year differenceto mark the beginning of a new saga. With the manga focusing on the game of cat and mouse between L and Light, L's death comes as a climactic event that in no uncertain terms ends what the whole story has been about. The mangaka then take the opportunity to skip ahead to allow the next generation to come to light. Had Near (also known as L-clone) appeared immediately after his predecessor's demise, then all the spiel about how L was the only one capable of katching Kira would have been flushed down the toilet. Likewise, it allows for Light to become more even more confident and complacent. In not being an excuse for the protagonists to simply power up, Death Note's time skip shakes up the pace by similtaneously starting from the very beginning (L-clone's investigation) and continuing the second act (Kira/Light's reign of terror).

While the leap in Death Note proves interesting in it's own way, the "powering up" time skips are what it's all about for me and both the ones in Naruto and One Piece work in essentially the same way. In both series the main characters split off (though this happens forcibly in One Piece) and undergo their own training following a distinct loss (Sasuke's departure from Konoha and the events of the battle at Marineford). By the time that the characters return from their adventures, there's a definite sense of excitement and anticipation. What will they look like now they're two years older? What new moves will they have? How much stronger are they? If done well, the events immediately after a time skip can keep you on the edge of your seat. One of the best examples of this is One Piece where Eiichiro Oda has not only timed the timeskip perfectly but also plays out the beginning of its second act with pacing so spot on that it keeps you hooked.

The two-year leap in One Piece came at the ideal time. The Straw Hats had made it half way along the Grand Line and were about to enter the New World, a sea so full of peril that it supposedly makes their adventures thus far seem like playtime. Additionally, following the Whitebeard War, a distinct singular villain has emerged, which all means that the dynamic of the plotline could shift. As for the anticipation value following the skip, that Eiichiro Oda had split up the Straw Hats some considerable time before, he now hits us with a double whammy of excitement: the gang finally reuniting plus the results of their training. Also throughout the course of the fishman island arc, Oda has only gradually revealed just how powerful the crew have become and with each teensy glimpse of Usopp's toned awesomeness or Zoro's even more deadly slashes you can't help but marvel. While Naruto brought out most of the hero's new awesomeness in one Orochimaru-targetted attack in the arc following the skip, One Piece spreads it out creating several smaller awe-inspiring moments as opposed to that one jaw-droppingly epic scene.

It was only last year that One Piece skipped ahead, but hot on its heels was Bleach with it's very own leap. Unfortunately, while placed after a climactic battle and Ichigo's subsequent power loss, this time skip is the most underwhelming of the big three by quite some margin. While it has allowed eighteen months for Orihime, Chad, and Ishida to power up, this becomes slightly meaningless as Bleach always has (and seems that it always will) focus on Ichigo's ridiculously strong abilities and the constant power-ups that Kubo seems to yank out of his arse every so often. Instead, it seems that the main funtion of this skip is to make it so that Ichigo doesn't lose his powers only to suddenly regain them immediately after. It also doesn't help that the end of the arrancar saga had a very definite conclusion and the manga felt like it could have ended right there and then and everyone could go home relatively happily. So whereas the likes of Naruto and Death Note promise more and feel unfinished, making their skips more exicting, Bleach's seems to lack purpose by comparison, other than to drag out a series that probably should have been laid to rest with Ichigo's shinigami abilities.

The most recent time skip in a shounen manga - only a couple of weeks ago - is that of Fairy Tail which, following a pretty horrific event that devastates the main cast, jumps ahead seven years. Now with such an epic skip, you would be expecting something great, unfortunately I'm yet to be convinced that this was a sensible move for Mashima. With the Edolas arc and the following Tenrou Island plotline, Mashima had really found his stride and various plotlines were all weaving together. Now, with the timeskip, he's lost all that momentum and frankly, with the latest installment (chapter 255) I'm getting concerned as to how this will all turn out. This week's chapter felt rushed. Everything happens at one hundred miles an hour to the point where it feels like Mashima just wants to get this little bit of explanation out of the way and done with. At the moment it doesn't fill me with hope, but I won't write it off just yet as this is a bit of a timeskip with a difference, and the dynamic between the drastically altered and the unchanging could prove interesting.

Of course time skips aren't just limited to shounen, and one in particular that I'd like to mention is the one in Usagi Drop. This series is a perfect example of how a time skip can completely change a story. The first four volumes of Usagi Drop place strict focus on Daikichi learning how to take care of Rin. It's about his growth as an adult, his development as a parent and the dynamic between an awkward single thirty-year-old and an innocent six-year-old girl. Then suddenly, at the beginning of volume five, everything changes. Without really reaching a definitive moment beforehand, the manga jumps ahead ten years. Now, instead of being a story about a man coming to terms with sudden parenthood, the focus shifts to become more about the romantic entanglements of a teenage Rin. Now a decade-long skip would be pretty epic in most places, but in a story centring on a child it changes it 100%. Imagine if Yotsuba&! did that? Instead of being a manga about a naive and exciteable girl exploring the world, it became a tale about a hormonal teenager trying to date the school hottie. It seems wrong, right? Certainly, I enjoyed the Usagi Drop manga much less after the time skip, since it wasn't the story I'd fallen in love with - that and I still can't help but feel that the final direction it went in was just plain wrong.

Time skips can be the making or breaking of a manga and it all depends on several factors:
  • Is the time skip necessary/does it come at the right time.
  • How the mangaka handles events following the timeskip.
  • Personal preference.
While points one and two are integral, for me it's the third one that will ultimately decide whether the skip has been successful or not. I have not been enamoured with the jump in Bleach but I don't doubt that there are people out there who love it as much as I love the skips in One Piece and Naruto. Similarly, because I personally dislike the direction Usagi Drop takes after the jump, I find myself disappointed by the manga. What I'm going to find most interesting however is seeing how the Fairy Tail skip pans out since I have yet to grasp whether it's awesome or awful and at the moment my stance changes from week to week. But despite everything, I still love a good time skip, as even if there have been times where I've been disappointed, sometimes it's good to shake things up a bit.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Fall 2011: First Impressions

Warning: As I've picked up nine series this season, this post will be looooong!

We're now a couple of weeks into the new season of anime, and over the last couple of days, I've been having a mass watching session of the shows I've decided to pick up this time around. With this fall having been labelled the season of sequels, I've found myself highly anticipating the majority of the second series that I'm watching. While I have no intention of doing an episode-by episode report/analysis on each show, I thought it might be quite interesting to do a couple of updates on the anime I'll be watching to see how my opinion alters throughout

Bakuman 2

Number of Episodes Subbed: 2

Total Episodes Planned: 25

First Impressions: I absolutely love Bakuman, and after finishing the first series I marathoned the manga in a weekend to get up to date. So despite being way ahead plot-wise, this was still my most anticipated show of the season. Following on from where the previous series left off, Mashiro and Takagi are exicted about their manga, Detective Trap, finally getting serialised in Shounen Jack. However, with a change in editors, they are no longer working with Hattori, but instead have a rather enthusiastic, albeit inexperienced, young editor named Miura.

The first two episodes of this series seem to start out fairly slowly to be honest. Essentially, this is the re-introduction and these two episodes serve to ease you back into the world of Bakuman and its authors. It takes the manga side of things slowly, with little more happening that discussing their new contract, getting assistants, and attending the Shounen Jack new year's party, but also manages to re-ignite the romantic aspect of things with Miho having a mini-crisis. However, episode two ends on a small cliffhanger with a call coming through from their new editor to reveal the early results of where Detective Trap's debut chapter has placed in the reader survey, which is an indication of the return to the more competitive aspect of the series. I can't say that these initial episodes are gripping or jaw-droppingly awesome, but I'm not too concerned as I know where the plot will be going and that there is more to come. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing more of the other mangaka, since the serialisation of Detective Trap, for me, marks the beginning of Bakuman becoming more of an ensemble piece.

Overall Conclusion: Highly enjoyable re-introduction to the series, but the best is yet to come.

Current Rating: 4.5/5 


Number of Episodes Subbed: 1

Total Episodes Planned: 12

First Impressions: Occasionally, I pick up series purely because they sound utterly ridiculous. This season, that particular pick is Ben-To. When I read that this series is basically a battle manga based around bento lunches it sounded so crap that I decided this was one series I couldn't miss.

Having now watched the opening episode, I can safely say that it doesn't look to be a great show, by any stretch of the imagination. However, the premise of it is so freaking dumb that certain scenes had me in absolute stitches. Never before have I seen a series that makes a shop clerk placing a half price sticker on a lunchbox into such an epic and almost sinister act, and I probably never will again. It isn't rip-roaringly funny from start to finish, in fact outside of the supermarket, so far everything else has been kind of generically naff. That being said, I'll likely see this one through to the end, just to see how much more ridiculous it gets. And if the idiocy doesn't keep me giggling, then it'll simply become that crap series I force myself to finish just to make me more thankful for the good stuff.

Overall Conclusion: Generally kinda dumb and a bit on the crap side, but the "serious humour" makes me want to keep watching.

Current Rating: 3/5 

Chibi Devi!

Number of Episodes Subbed:1

Expected Total Episodes: Currently Unknown

First Impressions: To be perfectly honest, I had no idea this series existed until a friend pointed out to me that it wasn't on Anime-Planet, and I'm glad he did, because it's adorable. Essentially, it's the shoujo equivalent of Beelzebub with all the cute baby demon-ness but none of the delinquents and fights.

How much mileage this series will have currently remains to be seen. At the moment it's all fun and cute, but it does run the risk of becoming rather repetitive. Also, while Honoka is a bit of a sad case (no family or friends) I don't find her hugely endearing at the moment since she has a tendency to just give in to bullies and cry. So, again I think how she tackles the whole parenting thing could determine how well this series continues to fare.

Overall Conclusion: Adorable. Utterly adorable. Definitely looking forward to the next episode.

Current Rating: 3.5/5 


Number of Episodes Subbed: 2

Expected Total Episodes: Currently Unknown

First Impressions: I must admit, I have limited experience with anime about games, though interestingly I have the likes of Saki, Akagi and Hikaru no Go high on my want to watch list. So this season, I thought I'd try something different after hearing good things about the first couple of episodes of Chihayafuru.

I must say that so far I'm relatively impressed with it. Seems to have a decent mix of comedy, drama and competition that makes the twenty-four minutes pass fairly quickly. At the moment, however, the story has started out in flashback mode, explaining how Chihaya came to be passionate about karuta. Certainly, this is interesting enough and plays a crucial part in setting the scene, but I'm definitely looking forward to getting to the main part of the tale, which is set when she's in high school. Likewise, that the anime is about a different game to the usual, definitely sets this series apart from the crowd. I'm not quite in love with the show yet, and I'm not at that level where I'm eagerly anticipating the next episode, but I'm definitely interested in where the story goes from here.

Overall Conclusion: It's not blowing me away at the moment, but certainly interesting enough. Looking forward to getting to the high school section.

Current Rating: 3.5/5 

Kimi to Boku

Number of Episodes Subbed: 2

Total Episodes Planned: 13

First Impressions:I knew little about this series when I started it; about all I'd heard was that it was school-based slice of life with boys instead of girls - which was more than enough to get me watching! Undoubtedly, this has had the biggest impression on me out of the brand new series this season and within a few minutes I already loved it. It's pure comedy slice of life, so in that sense not much happens. Luckily, that the show focuses on male characters for a change and often depicts memories from when they were in kindergarten gives Kimi to Boku the hooks it needs to set it apart from the crowd - well that and the random shots of cats... I still don't get them.

What I love most about this show is the dynamic between the four boys. Despite having been friends since they were tiny, they aren't overly buddy-buddy. The indifferent twins don't talk that much and tend to enjoy irritating/teasing Kaname, who in turn plays the perfect tsukommi to Yuuki and Yuuta's boke. Meanwhile, keeping the peace is Shun, who serves as resident peacemaker. While his defining trait is that he's nice, he does seem like he could become a bit on the dull side, but the contrast between him and the other three makes for some entertaining exchanges.

Overall Conclusion: Definitely my favourite of the non-sequel shows this season. can't wait for the next episode.

Current Rating: 4.5/5

Morita-san wa Mukuchi 2

Number of Episodes Subbed: 2

Total Episodes Planned: Currently Unknown

First Impressions: Series one of Morita-san, never managed to capture my imagination. But it was easy-watching and vaguely amusing at times so I stuck with it. So far this second season is more of the same. Mayu remains as silent and over-analytical as ever to the point where I want to poke her in her cold and soulless eyes, and her best friend, Miki, continues to bug the hell out of me. I also still fail to find the show that funny. I'll admit that I do find myself grinning at times, but mostly, I'm sat with a stoic face hoping for some kind of amusing punchline. If anyone enjoyed the first season, then they'll likely find this one entertaining as well. For me, however, I'm still waiting for something to click, and at the moment I doubt that'll happen.

Overall Conclusion: I'm still not at all enamoured with this series, but at only 3 minutes in length, I don't mind continuing to watch.

Current Rating: 2/5 

Shinryaku!? Ika Musume

Number of Episodes Subbed: 3

Total Episodes Planned: 12

First Impressions: I thoroughly enjoyed Shinryaku Ika Musume!'s first season so along with Bakuman 2, Working'!!, and the newest (and currently unaired) Lupin III series, I've been highly anticipating the sequel. So far, this series is giving us more of the squidtastic escapades from its predecessor and is of just as high a standard.

What I love about this franchise is that it's easy to watch, time flies by each episode and it's funny as hell. Undoubtedly, out of all the fall series, this is the one I've laughed at most, in particular, there's one part where Ika-chan joins a group of kids in their radio exercises which had me in absolute stitches - the comic timing was utterly perfect. I've definitely missed Ika-chan's antics and the first three episodes have already had some gems - Ika's interaction with Sanae's dog Alex, the jellyfish catching competition, and the revelation about the function of Squiddie's bracelets to name but a few. Now I'm just bummed that I have to wait another week for the next episode!

Overall Conclusion: Fun, hilarious, and definitely on a par with series one. Bring on the next episode de geso!

Current Rating: 4.5/5

Tamayura ~hitotose~

Number of Episodes Subbed: 2

Total Episodes Planned: 13

First Impressions: I watched the OVA a while back and found myself clock-watching for a lot of it. Not so much because I was bored but it felt like it was lasting for quite some time. Nonetheless it was a nice little OVA so I was happily prepared to pick up the TV series.

With only one episode out that consists mainly of backstory, it's difficult to sum up my impressions of the series since it hasn't really gotten going yet. That being said, having seen the OVA it's interesting to see how Fuu got back into photography after her father's death and her life before moving to her new town. There's no denying that it's incredibly slow, which unfortunately makes it feel like it lasts twice as long as it actually does. Likewise Tamayura ~hitotose~ doesn't really strike you as a feel-good show, in fact with the overtheme of her father's death, there's almost a melancholia about it. I'm certainly intrigued to see where the show is going, but for now, I can't see this becoming one of my favourite series or necessarily one that I'd highly recommend to anyone.

Overall Conclusion: A sweet series but almost too slow at times. I can see this being one of those middle-of-the-road "OK" series.

Current Rating: 3/5 


Number of Episodes Subbed: 2

Total Episodes Planned: 13

First Impressions: I enjoyed the last season of Working!! immensely - despite the rather repetitive Inami-heavy direction it eventually took. It was a show that was easy to watch, didn't require much thinking, and made me laugh - a pretty damn good combination. Having watched the opening two episodes of this second season, I can safely say that you get more of the same.

After sitting and laughing my way through episodes one and two, I had that lovely realisation that I've missed this show and had semi forgotten how funny I find it. Also, much to my utter bemusement, Yamada isn't annoying me as much as she used to. I'm interested to see where this series goes, especially since the last one let itself down with the huge focus on Inami, which made the constant man-hating and subsequent punching less hilarious and more tiresome. I'd like to see it strike a good balance with the entire cast and keep the humour up, but that will remain to be seen.

Overall Conclusion: Thoroughly enjoyable and amusing, though not sure if it will last.

Current Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 8 October 2011

An Ode to Oda

Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers for both the One Piece anime and manga.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen me around the internet, that I have an unending adoration for One Piece. In truth I was somewhat late to the Straw Hat party, only starting the anime at the beginning of 2009 - nearly ten years into the anime's run and a good THIRTEEN after the manga originally started. Having denied myself the pleasure of Luffy and the crew for several years beforehand due to the crazy episode count, I finally gave in and ended up marathoning all that was available in the space of about two or three months. Night after night I immersed myself in the world of the Grand Line, laughing, cheering and crying my eyes out along the way. And when I ran out of episodes, I devoured the movies, specials and ultimately the manga. But why is it that I love this franchise so much, or more importantly, why have I continued to love it so much even two and a half years later? If I were to pin it down to one specific reason it would be this: Eiichiro Oda knows what he's doing.

It may sound like a fairly obvious observation given that he's a professional mangaka with a highly successful and long-running series in Shounen Jump, but being successful and knowing exactly what you're doing don't necessarily go hand in hand. Looking at how the story is progressing, it's clear to see that Oda has a solid idea of where he's heading. He knows in which direction he wants to go and sets his plans in motion early on, scattering odd parts through the crew's early adventures that will become useful as time goes on. For example, the Little Garden plotline may have seemed like a fluffy or almost throwaway arc used only to showcase the extremes of the Grand Line. However, the crew's encounter with the two giants, Dorry and Broggy, becomes essential in the later Enies Lobby arc and greatly contributes to their success. Had they continued their massacre of the show, quite how the infamous 4-Kids dub would have explained those events away after cutting the entire Little Garden arc, I do not know.

This definite sense of direction does Oda much credit, especially since this isn't a trait that seems to be shared by all of his peers. Oda's careful planning is in stark contrast to Tite Kubo, whose manga, Bleach, completely lacks that sense of purpose. Before the end of the arrancar saga, there appeared to be some idea of where it was all going, but considering that the Hueco Mundo arc felt like little more than a rehash of the Soul Society plotline with added arrancar, it still felt a bit haphazard. Likewise, Kubo has openly admitted that when he runs out of ideas, he adds a new character. Again this goes against Oda's style of work, where he adds characters when the story requires it and fully fleshes them out instead of tossing them aside when their shock value or interest factor has worn off. As such, One Piece proudly boasts one of the fullest casts of any shounen series and that characterisation ability makes the already impressive narrative all the more so.

Aside from the sense of direction that Oda's work exudes, the veteran mangaka knows how to construct a story and make it appeal to the masses. For each individual arc he gives enough background information to fully set the scene, which helps to make the following battles all the more epic and shocking. Meanwhile he withholds key information to be revealed at a later moment for maximum shock value. For me, this is most deftly demonstrated in the Water 7/Enies Lobby saga (there WILL be massive spoilers from this point on, so if you haven't seen/read this arc please skip the next paragraph).

Without a doubt, Water 7 and Enies Lobby is, in my mind, when One Piece gets truly epic and that's entirely down to Oda's ability to plan out his story and visualise every aspect of this world. He starts by introducing you to the island of Water 7, an impressive city built on two levels and completely at the mercy of the weather. He introduces you to the Galley-La company of shipwrights and begins on one of saga's mini-arcs - that of the Going Merry's fate. Oda makes you engage with the new characters and helps to immerse you in the culture of the island, and then it all goes tits up. Oda then proceeds to throw multiple challenges in the faces of the Straw Hats to really test them. The loss of Usopp, the approaching, devastating storm, the emergence of a special government assassin group known as CP9 attempting to kill Iceburg and seemingly "recruiting" Robin, and the Straw Hats getting blamed for the attempt on Iceburg's life. Then with the knowledge that Robin in fact hasn't betrayed them, but is sacrificing herself for the safety of her crewmates, the stage is fully set for the epic fighting on Enies Lobby as Luffy et al take on the World Government itself. But even when the battle section of the saga commences, Oda still has the odd trick up his sleeve, rewarding the audience by finally revealing Robin's past, giving the cowardly Usopp some balls as the confident Sogeking, and making links with the previous Little Garden arc thus proving that their past actions have meaning and can affect their future. By doing this and still creating some of the most heart-stopping battles of the manga (the Luffy vs Lucci fight is pretty damn awesome), Oda makes his story wholly engaging. I remember when I watched this saga, I cried buckets at Luffy and Usopp's fight, felt heartbroken at Kaku's betrayal, sat on the edge of my seat at the crew battled CP-9 and laughed my arse off at Franky's "recruitment" into the Straw Hats. I couldn't wait for the next episode and watched one after the other, annoyed that I had to sleep because it meant I couldn't continue watching. And when I got to this story in the manga, I was just as excited if not moreso.

What also really makes the Water 7/Enies Lobby saga is the characterisation, another aspect where Oda excels. The mangaka fully explores his cast with each of the central players having their own pasts. Admittedly backstory isn't a new thing in shounen manga, but what Oda does that not so many others do, is he focuses on the crew's growth equally. Each character goes through their own journey and they're just as important as Luffy's since while the young captain will still be the saviour of the day, the story isn't all about him. While Bleach tends to leave its supporting mains slightly more in the background while focusing on the main hero, One Piece and to a slightly lesser extent, Naruto, plays out more as an ensemble show. In Bleach, the likes of Orihime, Chad and Ishida hide in the shadows and return powered up. Naruto fares much better, with Kishimoto showing the likes of Sakura's determination to not be left behind, Lee's incessant drive to become powerful despite his complete lack of ninjutsu skills, and Shikamaru's transition from lazy genius boy to a dependable and invaluble strategist. However, only in One Piece is the balance of power more evenly spread. While the Konoha ninjas may be strong in their own right, they still have a habit of relying on Naruto to save the day. In contrast, while some of the "weaker" Straw Hats have a tendancy to rely on others to help them, it's not purely Luffy they depend on, it's also Zoro, Sanji, Robin, Franky and Brook. But even then, each and every member of the crew is intent on becoming stronger so they can support Luffy (this is possibly also due to their own desires to achieve their dreams) as opposed to simply hoping that he'll save the day. That Oda allows more than one single hero to shine in the spotlight makes the story all the more interesting as there are infinite opportunities for growth.

As you can probably tell by now, Eiichiro Oda is the one of the mangaka I most admire. His vivid imagination allows him to create fully fleshed out and epic stories that will make you laugh, cry and cheer and you watch or read your way through them. He has managed to keep up the quality for well over a decade now, and as teh story progresses it just keeps getting better and better. Certainly the new Fishman Island arc complete with powered-up Straw Hats has me craving each new chapter, and I cannot wait to learn more about their two-years training and just what Oda has in store for us in the New World.