Thursday, February 19 2009

Katsucon 15

While I work on fleshing out a long post on the stimulus and economics, I return to a more important subject: anime!

Last weekend, I attended Katsucon 15 in Arlington, VA.  Katsucon was always the odd one out of the local anime conventions.  Anime USA has always been the small local con, and Otakon has always been the big show.  Katsucon was more about the social aspects of American Otakudom.  It's got a higher percentage of cosplayers, for one.

It also made the Washington Post this year, on the front of the style section.  Saturday morning, I was asked if I was attending the convention listed in the paper, and made the mistake of answering "yes" before reading the article.  Big mistake... the big selling point of the article was about the maid cafe being run at the con, which was not one of the attractions I visited.

I had a chance to meet two of my favorite web comic artists, Brad Guigar of Evil, Inc. and the always irrepressable Phil Foglio of Girl Genius.  I purchased autographed books from both to add to my collection.

As for the current state of anime:  Naruto fans were rarer than previous cons  Bleach is still overwhelmingly the most represented, although the Soul Eater crowd was out in force as well.  The cosplayers for Bleach, Soul Eater, and a couple of the second-tier series such as Revolutionary Girl Utena, Gurren Lagann, and Ah! My Goddess seemed to pick a more diverse cast of characters and outifts than previous cons.

Katsucon seemed to have less Western-inspired cosplayers, with the mos prominent being a handful from Team Fortress, a couple of Jokers, and a couple of V's.  That is, except for a large number of  Avatar fans, which really exist on the continuum between anime and Western characters.  There were a few notable oddities: Carmen Sandiego was spotted in the company of Waldo, the Vault Dweller came out, and there were a few characters from the upcoming Watchmen movie.  Oddly, there was a girl that didn't look to be out of high school dressed as Hunter S. Thompson from Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas. 

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Friday, October 10 2008

Great Anime: Magic Girls and Rich Boys

Continuing with my list of five recent anime series I consider to be great, I present my reasoning behind the next two series, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (including it's first sequel, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's) and Ouran High School Host Club.

Along with Mecha and Giant Robot series, the Magical Girl subgenre is a long-time staple of anime.  The long-established generic plot formula is as follows: seemingly ordinary schoolgirl has encounter with cute and fuzzy magical being that grants or unlocks magical power via a magic item that is used to save the world from the forces of darkness by fighting monsters and recovering lost magical artifacts, often with the help of similar-powered friends;   ultimately the powers of love, peace, and friendship are what see the heroine(s) through to the end.  Often, following the basic tenets of a genre leads to a derivative series indistinguishable from others like it; the greatness in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is that the series manages to redefine the genre while remaining true to the basic genre plot elements.  There have been three iterations of the series so far.  Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, taken on it's own, is good but not great, due to a slow start.  When added to it's first sequel, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's, the series becomes great.  (The third series, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Strikers, is somewhere between mediocre and good; it's a distinct enough series in setting and type that I'm not including it here.)

The Plot is where the series really ends up standing out.  The first couple of episodes of the first series are setup, and fairly standard explanation for the genre.  Nanoha runs into Yunno, the cute fuzzy mage, who tells her she's got magical power, asks for her help in recovering the lost magic jewel seeds  which can magically mutate things into monsters which might people and gives her her magic weapon, and Nanoha, the good little heroine accepts.
Nanoha proceeds to defeat some monsters and recover some lost seeds, and everything is standard for the genre.  And then, with Nanoha "battling" a giant cat, out of nowhere comes the voice of another magic weapon...  "Photon Lancer - Full Autofire"...  and we meet Fate, and nothing in the series is ever the same.

Rival opposed magical girls are not a new idea, but the execution in this series goes well and beyond what is expected; while Nanoha is clearly the heroine, it is obvious right from the start that Fate is definitely not evil.  The fights are often described as being choreographed as if for a mecha anime, with rapid midair combat.  Behind it, of course, is still the genre exemplars of "love, peace, and friendship" but the series unofficial motto is definitely "shoot first, make friends later".  Add in the Time-Space Administration Bureau (basically the magic cops), and their Magic Boy, and the fact that Nanoha's mundane friends and family notice somethings amiss and are worried, and you have a surprisingly complicated plot, with a satisfyingly emotional ending.

With the second series, Nanoha and Fate are the heroines, presented almost right from the start with a no-holds-barred fight with two superior, hostile and aggressive opponents with a nasty and painful conclusion.  Again, more of the spectacular and dramatic fights.  Again, the plot is complicated by our knowledge of the opponents motivations, which are not necessarily evil.  Big spoiler:

The Characters feel right for the series.  Nanoha begins the series in many respects as the archetypal magical girl, but there is enough depth in her relationships with her mundane friends, her family, and her enemies that she goes beyond the stereotype.  Fate always seems a little too emotionless, but she fits the role in the story.  The other supporting characters are fleshed out and likable.  One character deserves special mention, though it is a major spoiler:

The Setting is well done; Nanoha's home, school and town are fleshed out.  The Time Space Administration Bureau facilities have a very 'sufficiently advanced technology' feel, which goes with the designs for the magic weapons.  There is a major magical disruption in the course of the first series which gets rapidly forgotten despite causing significant damage, and there is a very noticeable section with a different animation style in the first two episodes, but by the latter half of the first series and throughout the second, things tend to work better.

Ouran High School Host Club is also in many ways an advanced member of an established anime genre, the Shoujo Reverse Harem genre.  (For those of you who don't speak Otaku, that means it's a show meant for girls / women, which features a girl and her collection of potential boyfriends).  I was introduced to it by a fellow early-thirtysomething male Otaku, and I quickly figured out why; it's an excellent satire of its own genre.  The screaming anime fangirls that idolize this sort of series are also one of the objects of its humor.

The Plot is a twisted take on Shaw's Pygmalion.  As Eliza Doolittle, we have Haruhi Fujioka, token commoner at the richer-than-rich Ouan Academy, who accidentally breaks a valuable vase belonging to the aforementioned Host Club, which consists of six of the richest, handsomest, and most... unique... male students at the school and whose sole purpose is entertaining the school's female population.  Haruhi is eventually drafted as a stand-in host to pay off the debt to the club, unfortunately before all of the club members are aware that Haruhi is a girl, not a boy.  The club, then, must pass off a poor girl as a rich boy so that she can pay her debt (and because at least one may be developing a crush on Haruhi, the one female immune to the club's charms).  Cue the legion of screaming fangirls.  There is no coherent series plot until near the end, but the character development in between sets up a dramatic conclusion, while the character development is well handled and evenly spaced throughout the series.
The Characters are what make the series great, in part because of their depth and because of their interactions and development.  All but one of the main characters are very much showing one face to the world of screaming fangirls and another face towards each other and us.  Haruhi is trying to play the part cast for her by the club, and at the same time, struggling to manage with the wealth and cluelessness of most of the other club members.  Tamaki Suoh, the club president, is very much the only person in the series true to himself, as the charming, outgoing, impulsive, optimistic and ultimately likable driving force behind the club and most of the subplots that make up the story.  More importantly, the story itself makes light of its own duplicity with characters as well as that of the genre as a whole.  There's a fun episode where the club's hopelessly obsessed and somewhat nutty self-proclaimed manager attempts to fit the club as the cast in her own vision of what the club members should be like, only to run straight into the vast concealed depths beneath a few of the characters.

The Setting is well executed.  Of the three recent anime series featuring high schools for the rich and famous, Ouran Academy brings out the most vivid version, with the elaborate gardens, fancy architecture, and myriad details into how the very wealthy could live.  At the same time, the series often wanders far afield, into such exotic but detailed locations as the supermarket or the local shopping mall.  Of the five series listed, Ouran does spend the most time on comedy touches like exaggerated facial features, comedic lighting and backgrounds, dream sequences and looks into the character's imaginations and the omnipresent charm effects like sparkles, but the effect to me does enhance the satirical feel of the series.

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Tuesday, September 30 2008

Great Anime: Overview and a Melancholy Tale

In my last post, I regarded five recent anime series as great, and I've decided to break up my explanation of which series and why into three separate posts.  Posts two and three will probably not be completed earlier than next week;  I have a brief vacation to Washington state this weekend.

I find that on one level, greatness is impossible to explain.  A great anime just is; the pieces just fit together right.  On the other hand, there are common threads linking the five anime I think turned out the best of the recent series, and that's enough to start from.

As an arbitrary categorization, I've decided to look at three "factors": Setting, Characters and Plot.  All five series stand out in at least one of these areas, but none in all three.  I don't expect a series to be perfect, but it has to stand out in some way from the rest.  More importantly, a series can't fail in any of the three categories if it expects to be great.

Setting is the depth of the world of the series.  At a basic level, it is the detail in the world behind the characters and plot.  It is in part the artistry of the series, the use of color, scene arrangement and style to emphasize the other factors.  It's also a consistent and logical background for the world beyond what is strictly necessary for the backstory.  It can also be a sense that the story extends beyond what is seen on screen.  A good setting is one that makes the watcher believe that the story doesn't take place on a (metaphorical) sound stage, but in a living world.  For me, a great setting is one that, for all I know intellectually that the whole thing is a work of fiction, makes me emotionally want to go there and experience that.

Character is the depth of (obviously) the characters in the series.  A good character should be obvious.  The cardinal rule of characters should be that the author's intent for the character much match the audience's reactions to the character.  (Paging Jeff Goldstein: intentionalism at work!)  Some series fail because the author's visions of the characters and the ways they interact differs strongly from the ways the audience views the characters and the ways they should act.  A classic anime example of this is Love Hina: the protagonist, Keitaro, is stuck with an obviously abusive relationship with Naru because of the author's focus on his predestined relationship, while the audience mostly seems to think he should stick with Mutsumi (though he loses his frequent flier miles).  A great character should be larger than life; in most cases, this means one of two things: either the character fully personifies a standard anime archetype, or transcends the archetypes entirely.  A great character exists to some degree independent from the series from which they come.

Plot is the story elements, both the pacing and execution of individual elements in an episode and the overall story as a whole.  A good plot should be logical given the characters, at least in retrospect.  On an episodic level, the action or drama should flow smoothly.  On a series level, events should build off of each other to a dramatic climax.  A great plot goes beyond what is expected, using foreshadowing and plot themes to accentuate the story, and making action pieces that are exciting and dramatic pieces that elicit an emotional reaction.

These are all gray areas of arbitrary categorization; it's impossible to separate the character development of a good character from the plot that drives the drama, and a plot scene must reflect the setting it takes place in.

When I mentioned that I regarded The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya as a great anime, I included a caveat.  In hindsight, Otaku seem to be divided regarding the series; while it was impressive when it was first released, a number have now changed their opinions after sobering up.  While I still think it to be a great series, I think it lies perilously close to the border between Great and Mediocre (as opposed to the longer border between Great and Good).

The Setting is good enough, while not great.  It's mostly a standard Japanese high school.  The school, however, is colorful and dynamic.  The club room where much of the story takes place evolves over time to reflect the events of the story.  Unnamed students are visible and normal.  There are a variety of non-school locations used, which are not skimped on.  The second episode makes interesting use of a washed-out image to highlight Haruhi's introduction.  All in all, nothing spectacular, but all beyond the minimum.

The Plot is half of what puts the series on the border between great and mediocre.  The only reason the series-level plot doesn't completely bomb is that the episodes are not in chronological order, as the dramatic climax in the series is actually relatively early chronologically.  As it is, deficiencies in the series-level plot are made up for by the occasional excellence in the episode-level plot for a couple of the episodes.  The "Day of Sagittarius" episode is completely unconnected to the larger series plot, yet serves as a very well-written plot for pushing character development.  The school festival episode is full of little bits and pieces of plot excellence that only really show up when re-watching the episode.  Finally, the series has one of the best five-or-so minute bits of plot-animation in any recent anime.  Caution: Big Spoiler:

Several of the Characters in the series are what really make the series great.  Ironically, Haruhi Suzumiya herself is not great, and nearly relegates the series to mediocre all by herself.  She's not all that likable a character through much of the series, despite being the title character.  In a similar dynamic to Love Hina, her predestined relationship with Kyon is, at least through the series, something not desired by the audience.  The difference between Kyon and Keitaro is that at some level, Kyon seems to be fighting his destiny through his relationship with two great characters, Yuki and Mikaru.

I spoke earlier that some great characters seem to personify the standard anime archetypes.  Mikaru is, at some level, Moe incarnate.  She takes half a dozen of the stereotypical male attractors and combines them with a likable personality.

Yuki, likewise, has taken over a standard anime archetype, the quiet, seemingly emotionless one.  To some degree she's larger then life because of her absence of outward signs of personality for most of the series, which makes those occasions where some emotion is briefly visible deep down inside all the more poignant.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was a series that could have been great.  I believe it failed in its attempt toward the end of the plot.  But no one can deny that some of the characters it spawned were great archetypes and grew beyond the end of the series (in part because of aggressive  marketing on Gainax's part).  For a long time, Rei Ayanami was the archetype for the quiet, seemingly emotionless one, while Asuka Soyru-Langley was the archetype for the overly active, intimidating, pushy and loud Lucy van Pelt type.  In my opinion, Yuki has unseated Rei, while Haruhi failed to unseat Asuka from the archetype exemplar, but not for lack of trying.

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Monday, September 22 2008

The Top Five: Preview

Pete Zaitcev has an iconic representation of his favorite anime up, which challenges me to post something I've been working on for a while.  I'm not finished yet with the post, but it's a discussion of five recent anime I've enjoyed that I think will remain great in the long run.

The five are:
5. Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (before I get flamed on this one, let me say in advance that this series gets a big asterisk after it in the record books).
4. Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's.
3. Ouran High School Host Club
2. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
1. Aria (all three seasons)

It's hard to compare older series, as nostalgia values for series I enjoyed back in the day inflate some series compared to current offerings.  Irresponsible Captain Tylor is one of my favorite anime of all times, but comparing it to modern series is unfair.  Even Azumanga Daioh, which is relatively recent, feels odd when compared to recent releases.

My rankings are, also, my own.  As I tell everyone that asks me what is good to watch, everyone's tastes are different.  No two Otaku will ever agree on what series are good and which stink.

I've found that in large part, I'm drawn to series that look good.  While good characters and a good story are important, I tend to emphasize visually distinctive and attractive series.  I am remarkably inept at expressing myself visually, so I tend to be in awe of studios that can use their talents to produce a visual feast.

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Tuesday, September 02 2008

Anime: Top Five's

Since everyone is doing it, my top five picks:

Top Five First Episodes:
Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha A's
Ouran High School Host Club
Soul Eater
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Top Five Final Episodes:
Irresponsible Captain Tylor
El-Hazard: The Magnificent World
Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha A's
Aria: the Origination

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Thursday, August 14 2008

Otakon 2008

As mentioned on Tuesday I have survived Otakon 2008.  As I mentioned last year, Otakon is probably the East Coast's largest anime convention, held every summer in Baltimore, Maryland.

I have been trying to figure out how to upload my photos to Pikasa, without much success.  [Update: Success!  The photo album is here.]  I was again accompanied by a friend from college that is a better photographer, and his photo album is here.  As his taste in anime is different, his taste in photos is different.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, which last year was still showing on Japanese TV, is now finished and being released in the US, so it's not surprising that there were more cosplayers from this series, and that more characters were represented.

Of the other notable series, Ouran High School Host Club and the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya are still popular.  Fate/Stay Night, Hellsing, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Sailor Moon were somewhat less represented than last year.  More importantly, Bleach, Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist were all significantly less represented than last year.  No series or game was as heavily represented this year as these series had been in previous years.

Of the series that are still airing in Japan, Soul Eater had the largest following, which is a good sign for this enjoyable series.

This year, I finally saw two Aria cosplayers, a good Minuzashi Akari and an excellent Akira Ferrari, who was not done justice by my horrible photography skills.

The convention always has a sizable percentage of video game character cosplayers and cosplayers from American TV, movies, comics and other popular culture.

As can be expected, the Joker has unseated V as the reigning anarchist terrorist fan favorite.  The Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy fans were  significantly less present than in previous years.  Phoenix Wright, Metal Gear Solid, Mario Brothers and Zelda were about as big as last year.  The big winner in video games was Team Fortress 2.  For a game of cartoonish classes rather than characters, the game attracted a large stable of cosplayers.  Spies and scouts were the most popular, but I saw well executed members of every class.

And a fun time was had by all.

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Tuesday, June 10 2008

Aria: Full Circle

It is fitting that the last episode of Aria: the Origination, "To that new beginning...", should begin with a flashback to the very beginning of the story. Mizunashi, Aria company's new trainee Pair Undine, wearing her new uniform, sits down to her first breakfast in Neo-Venezia and the beginning of her new life, with Alicia Florence, her new mentor, gazing on.
(Ironically enough, due to the changeover in production of the manga series from Aqua to Aria, which I understand is a change in production and not in story, the first episode of the actual anime takes place some time later than Akari's first day.  The actual first day is presented some time later as a flashback.  I also can't be the only one that contemplated that Alicia's interest in Akari might not seem entirely professional if some of the stills from this episode are taken out of context...)

When we last saw our protagonists, Akari had finally completed her apprenticeship and had been promoted to Prima.  Afterwards, Alicia had something important to tell her, but all we see is Akari's shocked reaction before the episode ends.  This episode, after being confronted by Alice and Aika, Akari tells them and us what's going on.  Alicia wasn't training a partner, she was training a replacement.  Alicia plans to retire, get married, and take a job at the Gondola Association.  There are surprises in anime, and there this is beyond them.  No hint of any of this until the final episode.  The intro gives us a glimpse of a lot of the significant locations in the series, plus a sense of the massive outpouring of well-wishing that accompanies Alicia's announcement.  Akari outwardly seems calm at her change of situation as she awaits the future.

But, we get the sense that under the perennially bright facade, Akari hasn't yet admitted to herself that her world is about to change.

Finally, with waterworks in full blast, she admits her sadness and fear to Alicia, who provides comfort and admits that she held off promoting Akari because she too was afraid of change.

Akari recovers by remembering how everyone has grown and changed,

and all the happy experiences she's had since she came to Aqua...

...and envisioning the wonderful future that they're all headed in to.  (Come on, Akari's got one of the biggest pairs of rose-colored glasses in anime, and it's the last episode!  Of course it's going to be sappy!)

Anyways, the whole episode is another wonderful treat.  From the wonderful scenery to the smallest details changed just for the final episode, the animators went all out.  Aria company has always had a photo of its Prima Undine on the reception desk.  As we see our first scene of Prima Akari with client, we get to see that they've put her picture on the desk in the corner of the image.

Her client is the mailman, who's name is revealed to be Anno.  He's shown up in a number of episodes.  More importantly from the standpoint of looking at this episode as the conclusion, he's the one that gave Akari her first gondola ride in Neo-Venezia and delivered her to Aria company.  Fitting that he should be Akari's first seen customer.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Finally, it's time for Alicia's retirement ceremony.

Escorted by Akira and Athena, the other two legendary Undines who trained alongside her, Alicia takes out her gondola for the last time as an Undine, with Akari and President Aria as passengers.

Waiting near the dock at San Marco Piazza are probably just about every other gondola Orange Planet and Himeya can put in the water.

Why would the other two Undine companies go to such lengths?  In addition to the fact that the companies seem to be on very friendly terms to start with, they must be ecstatic at the fact that the current reigning top Undine is retiring, and since she's taking a position with the gondola regulatory body, being on good terms with her as she leaves is probably a good thing.

A decent crowd of spectators turns out, including the Usual Suspects, Al, Akatsuki, and Woody.

Alice and Aika have good positions in the ceremony as well.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Interestingly enough, the gondola animations are one of the few places in the series where the use of CG is obvious in the animations.  It does slightly spoil the moment.

Finally, the oar is passed to the next generation.

Afterwards, Akari returns to the office, to reminisce about the past and look forward to the future, which she is now able to accept will be filled with more good memories.

We get to see the near future, with Aika and Al in a relationship, Alice continuing to grow and hold her friendships together, Athena retiring to join the opera, and Akira left to reign as the remaining great Undine of her generation.

Oh, and so as not to leave anyone out...
Alicia with glasses for the win!
Alicia and Grandma are fine, too.

The series then jumps a bit into the future one last time.  Akari is older, and has changed her hairstyle (it's a detail for the series that all three of the older characters in the series changed their hairstyles since they became Primas.)

Furthermore, she has an trainee Pair of her own, Ai, her penpal from Earth that took a gondola ride with her in the first episode of the series.  Ai stopped by to visit several times in the course of the series, so this wasn't entirely unexpected.  Still, her appearance is used to demonstrate that the Kozue Amano knew how to write the series meaningfully and beautifully, as we watch Ai, Aria company's new trainee Pair Undine, wearing her new uniform, sits down to her first breakfast in Neo-Venezia and the beginning of her new life, with Akari, her new mentor, gazing on...

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Tuesday, May 27 2008

Aria: Final Exams

In my post on episode nine, I speculated we had three big events remaining spread over four episodes of Aria: the Origination.  Now, as we start episode 12 of Aria: the Origination, "Within that Blue Sea and Wind", we still have those three events left.

The episode opens with Akari picking up a visibly depressed Aika from one of the Himeya Undin Company offices for routine practice.  When Akari finally stops her blissful "while it's lonely without Alice, we've got to be haoppy for her and do our best" speech and realizes something's wrong, Aika tearfully says that they can't practice together anymore, and the camera pans down to reveal...
... Aika's already been promoted.  As usual for her perennially good-natured personality, Akari is happy about her friend's success.

We get to see snippets of Aika's promotion exam through a flashback that plays behind the opening credits.  (One of the nice touches with Aria is that the openings have always been pure new footage tied in to the upcoming episode.)  Because most of the emotional build-up to Aika's promotion occurred in the previous episode, this isn't a massive disappointment, but there is evidence of an emotional promotion, complete with synchronized waterworks from Akira and Aika.

The scene shifts to Aria company, where after Akari recounts the days events, Alicia announces that she will hold Akari's promotion test the next day.  Of course, this means Akari can't sleep, so she eventually goes out for an Undine-style all-nighter with a midnight gondola practice.  At this point, the animators must have realized that "it's the second to last episode, and we haven't seen some of the minor reoccurring characters since episode 1!  Let's put a few in!"  So, Akatsuki the Salamander weatherman, and Woody the Sylph delivery jetbiker just happen to be out for a night's stroll.

Akatsuki was Akari's first client as an apprentice Undine, and, though a self-proclaimed Alicia fan, shows that potential anime love interest antagonism towards Akari.  Akari does happen to mention her upcoming exam.

The next day arrives, and after a rain delay, Akari's exam begins.  We get to see more impressive Neo-Venezian scenery on the exam.

It's nice to see many of the characters in the series get there bit parts in cheering for Akari, as her friendliness and sunny disposition are her unique talent as an Undine.

I think that the details in showing the people Akari has met and helped along the way makes the whole exam as emotional as Alice's, even though we've seen the same formula now three times (even if Aika's was foreshortened).  The animation here, both in the detailed scenery, such as the Rialto bridge, the colorful crowds, and the animation effects, are more pronounced than the rest of the series, as befitting one of the emotional climaxes of the series.

As expected, Akari passes the challenges before her.  As with Alice and Aika, Alicia gently takes her hand and removes her glove.

Congratulations, Akari, you've been promoted to Prima and awarded the name Aquamarine.  We have one episode left, and at the very close of this episode, Alicia announces she as something important to tell Akari, hinting at the grand finale yet to come...

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Tuesday, May 20 2008

Aria: the Beginning of the End

Episode 11 of Aria: the Origination, "On that Changing Day...", begins the closure of the series.  It's still filler, mostly, but it establishes an important detail for what lies ahead in the last two episodes.

The episode opens with some visually stunning shots of the building of the Himeya Undine company, the oldest on Aqua and the employers of Aika and Akira, along with Akira musing on some not-entirely-flattering titles as possibilities for Aika when she becomes an Undine.  Akira overhears that Alice has been promoted straight to prima, and that although Aika seems to be taking it well, the other Himeya Undines are worried for her.  It's odd for Akira, of all people, to be the last one to know, although she has difficulties with some of the other Himeya Undines.

After observing Aika on a training trip, Akira attempts to bring up the subject and is too nervous to do so.  Aika, suspecting that she's made some mistake in front of her strict instructor, is equally nervous.  The whole thing is a succession of distorted facial reactions.

Akira eventually takes Aika out for ice cream, and the two walk along, Aika oblivious to her brooding instructor.  Aika eventually accidentally raises the issue by mentioning that she had seen Alice's unprecedented promotion.

Akira, worried about whether Aika is suppressing her true feelings, confronts her student, only to find that Aika is genuinely proud and happy for Alice, and at the same time, determined to catch up to her friend.  This relieves Akira, who then taunts Aika with the list of potential names, in part as her own encouragement.  Akira also mentally acknowledges that Aika may be about ready to assume her eventual duties as heir to the management of Himeya Company.

The story then shifts to Alice, last seen trying to adjust to life as a Prima.  She is more comfortable as a Prima.  We have some time to watch her at work, as she traverses more beautiful scenes from Neo-Venezia.
Alice is beginning to appreciate the life experiences she gets interacting with her guests as a Prima Undine.  She also laments the lack of time spent with her friends.  That is, until she returns to her apartment on a rainy night... find Aika and Akari and the cats, happily eating more bananas as they wait for their friend.  Incidentally, I suspect this is another example of Athena working behind the curtain to support Alice.  The three enjoy a pizza and start to establish the same sort of friendship that Athena, Alicia and Akira show, that while they are no longer constantly together, the bonds that they have formed will remain forever.

Wonderduck has an excellent post up about his reaction to the final episode.  I echo his thoughts, in that for me a world or setting can have no higher praise than "I wish I could go there".  The visuals in this episode really exemplify what can be done with animation to craft a setting and flesh it out into a world that is real enough and yet wonderful enough that it has that attraction.  The animators really use light and shadow, water and weather effects, and layered scenery to create an illusion of reality that sucks the viewer in.  While the character development makes Aria a good series, the setting of Neo-Venezia is really what makes Aria great.

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Thursday, May 08 2008

Aria: Once in a Blue Moon

I was debating which bad music pun to use for this episode's title.

"Filler!  Filler night!  You're fighting for you life inside of filler, filler tonight!"
"I will call you Aika, and Aika, when you call me, will you call me Al?"

After a long hiatus, the 10th episode of Aria the Origination, "That Moon-Gazing Night's Excitement" was released as a fansub.  Of course, two days later RightStuf announces that it has licensed the entire series for American release, starting with Aria: the Animation this September.  Thankfully, Wonderduck has indicated that the last three fansubs are available elsewhere.

I am immensely grateful to RightStuf for both licensing this excellent series and for licensing a number of other favorite series of mine.  One of the first series I truly enjoyed, one that remains one of my Greatest Anime after all these years, is Irresponsible Captain Tylor, one of their early releases.  I eagerly wait the first season box set release on September 30.  Preorder now!  I may end up doing an episode by episode recap once I get the DVDs.  I'm still going to finish the Origination, hopefully in the next week or so, and recap that now...

When we last left Akari and friends, Alice had been unexpectedly promoted to full Prima undine, and the pressure is getting to her at the beginning of this episode.  She's now the number one rising star Undine in all of Neo-Venezia, and that's pretty tough to live up to.

After getting caught spying on Alice with Aika, Akari invites Alice to a moon viewing party that evening to relax and eat Odongo dumplings.  This is a good excuse for the series creators to put the characters in casual clothes.
After some time has passed, and Aika and Alice have conflicted over the dumplings, Aika wonders where Al is.  Al is a Gnome, one of the other unique professions on Aqua.  The Gnomes are in charge of adjusting the planet's gravity to something approximating Earth normal.  Unfortunately, Al's appearance tends to herald the arrival of the series only use of hokey pseudo-science.  Aika has something of a crush on Al which is never properly explained.  Al, though he's small and looks young, is older than Alicia and Akira.  Aika sets off to find Al.  And then Alice notices that Maa has vanished as well.

Aika finds Al, and is giddy as a schoolgirl as she happily leads him back towards Akari and Alice.  She stops to pose on top of a well...
... but the wooden cover is rotted through, sending her falling inside.  Ever the gentleman, Al attempts to pull her out...
...but falls in himself.  Fortunately, somehow, with a city covered in canals and water, the well is somehow dry.  Where is the water table, people?

Fortunately, help soon arrives...
... but Lassie, she isn't.  Maa is referred to several times as 'she' in the translation, something I hadn't seen before.

Aika attempts to get Lassi... sorry, Maa, to get help.  So what does Maa do?

... Maa, predictably, jumps down the well.  Oddly enough, she doesn't land on all fours...
... she sticks the landing!  Perfect tens from all the judges, save the Romanian judge.

Aika, tells Maa that she is a smart Aqua cat (confirming my theories), and repeatedly attempts to send Maa back out for help, but Maa keeps jumping back in, until she finally gets the idea and heads off for help.  Or heads off somewhere...

We are then treated to the drama of two people trying not to admit their feelings for each other stuck in an embarrassing situation in tight quarters.  It's a good excuse to give us some up close character shots, well as having Aika running through the complete cartoony exaggerated emotional faces book.

Eventually, Maa brings help, which, by anime cliche law, must arrive at the most embarrassing possible moment.

With that, everyone is safe and all is well.

Some interesting things to note this episode:

President Aria finally manages to get some kind of positive reaction from President Hime.  Way to go, President Aria!  Suck in that flabby belly!

Right after Aika starts fretting about Al being late, Alice starts mischievously prodding Aika about her relationship with Al.  President Hime, who is Aika's cat for all practical purposes, can be seen mimicking Alice's expression.

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Tuesday, March 25 2008

Aria: The Kid Gloves Come Off

Aria: the Origination, Episode 9, "Enveloped in that Orange Wind..." should be studied as a textbook example of anime storytelling done right.  It both builds off the history of the series and adds enough new material to build something incredibly special.

I've always liked Akira's character because we've seen enough of her past in flashbacks during the series that we can see how she's grown.  It's been subtle, but Alice has grown as well, and this series brings it all together to see at once.  Akira's changes are obvious due to the presentation of her history as flashbacks, so we can immediately compare Akira as she was with Akira as she is.  Alice's changes have been subtle, stretched across almost 45 episodes in three incarnations of the series, such that you don't notice them until you look back.

When we first are introduced to Alice Carroll, in Episode 3 of Aria: the Animation, we see Alice's schoolmates idolize her because of her stardom as a rookie Undine recruit by Orange Planet.  Alice doesn't react well to the sudden interest, and awkwardly drives away a few that try to ask for an autograph.  This episode, then, opens with Alice's graduation from school, and we see Alice reacting rather graciously to the attention of her fellow students.

We then see Alice's journey home from school.  Alice has a habit of adopting silly challenges on her route home from school, such as trying only to step on shadows, or (in this case) doing the route backwards.  In previous episodes, she learned to accept Athena's kindness and help, and we see in this episode that she now is willing to treat Athena as a special friend.

But that's incidental to the meat of the story.  Once in her room, by the orange light of the setting sun, Athena asks Alice if she'd like to go for a picnic the next day, and Alice accepts.

The journey starts in earnest the next morning.  Athena asks if Alice wouldn't mind pretending that she was Alice's customer for the trip.  We catch Athena complementing Alice on her smile, for which Alice credits Akari's tutelage.  After all, that's why Alice sought out Akari in the first place, to learn how the perennially good-natured Akari could smile so naturally.  Alice is also complimented on her skills as a guide, to which she credits a strict senior that can only be Aika.  The journey itself is long and beautiful.  Towards the end, ascending one of the canal locks, Athena drops out of customer mode and gets Alice to admit that the one thing she is still unsure of is her singing ability, to which Athena applies some sage wisdom.  Finally, free of the lock, the pair round the canal bend to find a party waiting for them under the setting orange sunlight.

Aika, Akari, President Aria, the lock operator (actually a repeating character in the series), two gentlemen from the gondola association and the head of Orange Planet wait on the canal bank under the windmills.

This is one last joke on Alice, as Athena asks her for a final song.  But, miraculously, after crediting her tutelage from the legendary Undine known as the Siren (Athena herself), Alice sings.

There's a reaction that the animators use in Episode 11 of the original series during a flashback when Akira and Alicia first hear Athena sing.  Time slows down.  The surroundings, the people in them, everything just stops and listens to the song of the Undine eventually to be known as the Siren.  That reaction is repeated here, but instead of Akira and Alicia with the startled reactions, it's Akari and Aika.  And me.  And one more reaction...
With that expression, Alice wins.  The student has surpassed (or at least surprised) the master.

In the series so far, only Athena has actually sung on camera.  Singing (Canzone) is supposed to be a skill all Undines are trained in, but we've never actually see anyone but Athena actually sing until now.  I don't know if this is the actual voice actress or a stunt voice, but it's an excellent job.  The cuts between Alice, the reactions of the onlookers, and some brief flashbacks to important moments for Alice in the series, all serve to draw the whole thing together.

At this point, Athena congratulates Alice on behalf of the company, says that they've been waiting until she had finished school, and then gives us what we have been waiting for...
...She removes Alice's glove.   And then, on behalf of the Gondola Association...
...removes Alice's other glove.

Alice is now officially a Prima, and is the first Undine to be promoted to Prima directly from Pair.  Her honorific title is Orange Princess, after the orange glow traditionally associated with the Martian sky, and hence the source of the name Orange Planet. (I thought Mars was the red planet?  Shhh... you're ruining the mood!)

Congratulations to Alice Carroll, the Orange Princess!

Of course, not to be outdone, Maa takes this opportunity to strike at his hated foe...

Random thoughts after the break.

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Monday, March 17 2008

Aria: The Undine Suspects

Now that the convention is finished, I've finished my post on Aria: Episode 8 "Within that precious person's memories...".  I've also managed to hold off watching Episode 9 until after I get this finished.

Episode 8 is Alice vs. Athena, as opposed to Episode 6, which was Alice vs. Alicia.  As Alicia won the last round of mind games, Alice is stuck in a battle of wits with the notoriously dopey Athena...

The episode opens with Alice discussing going on a picnic with Athena.  This gets Akari and Aika excited, as the 'picnic' excuse is normally used a cover for the promotion test to Single, which for Alice is long overdue.  The excitement of the pair fades when Alice mentions that she's the one who came up with the picnic idea.  (I'm still curious as to what code of Omerta the Undines have that the whole 'picnic on Hope Hill / single promotion test' hasn't been exposed yet.)

Alice returns to the apartment she shares with Athena at the lavish Orange Planet citadel, where she makes elaborate trip plans and prepares lunch, during which it is revealed that President Maa likes to eat bananas (see previous post).  It's a pleasure to see her genuinely happy for once, and the fun of the character is that we've seen her ability to express emotions has developed as the series has progressed.  She returns from taking the least fan-servicey bath in anime history (unless you're an ankle fetishist) to find Athena asleep.  Alice leaves a copy of her itinerary for Athena.

Alice wakes up to find Athena gone on what was supposed to be her day off.  She broods angrily in her room until Athena returns unexpectedly and out of breath.

Athena apologizes for the sudden call to duty, and Alice makes a half-hearted attempt to accept the apology before stalking off angrily.  Athena attempts to follow, but fate... or President Maa... intervenes.

President Maa... in the Bedroom... with the Banana Peel.

A frantic call to Aria company ensues, and Akari and Alicia arrive to find a distraught Alice and a seemingly normal Athena, and not a normal-for-Athena Athena, but a coordinated, quick-witted, alert Athena.  The downside of the new Athena is that she's also lost her memory.

Athena's memory slowly returns as Alice spends the day trying to prod Athena's memory back into shape.  Athena eventually remembers everything but Alice, which saddens Alice to no end.

Athena asks Alice what kind of a mentor she had been, and a sobbing Alice is forced to admit that she likes Athena.  Then Alicia intervenes, forcing Athena to give up her trick;  she'd been faking the amnesia to get Alice to open up.

Poor Alice.  This is the second time she's been completely outwitted in the past three episodes.

The fake Amnesia plot is pretty standard fare, but Athena's ability to turn off the clumsiness and dull-wittedness she normally displays is rather impressive.  She claims that it takes most of her attention to act normal, of course, but it's tempting to compare the usual Athena to Verbal Kint, Keven Spacey's character from The Usual Suspects.

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Thursday, March 13 2008

Aria: Maa

I'm still working on the Episode 8 post for Aria.  Preparing for the second convention in as many weekends has taken a lot out of me.

While Episode 8 largely covers Athena and Alice, we do get to see a fair bit of Maa.  I'm even more convinced that Maa isn't an ordinary Earth cat.  I'm not saying he's absolutely a Mars cat, but whatever he is he has monkey and piranha genes in him.  How else can he eat five whole bananas that are larger than he is?  And whatever he is, he's smart enough to peel them first.  Perhaps President Aria is right to be scared of Maa's attempts to eat him;  one of these days Maa may very well succeed.

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Monday, March 10 2008

Aria: Bonus Artwork III

Everyone's favorite Undines.

Wonderduck has a long post up which ponders the inner workings of the world of Aria.

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Wednesday, March 05 2008

Aria: Bonus Artwork II

For your viewing pleasure, another bonus Aria artwork.  This is just about the complete cast of reoccurring characters in the series at around the end of Aria: the Natural except Ai.

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Tuesday, March 04 2008

Aria: Bonus Artwork

Today's bonus Aria artwork. This is obviously an Origination promo piece, as Atora, Anzu, and Ayumi are visible off to the left. It also has Akino, the glassblower apprentice from Aria: the Natural (season 2), Ai, Akatsuki, Woody, the postman and the cafe manager. Maa-kun has acquired a small Orange Planet tie.

Look closely at the hands of the foreground Undines. Notice anything interesting?

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Thursday, February 28 2008

Aria: Ice Cream and History

I had intended to do a separate post for each additional Aria episode, but family emergencies and computer accidents have conspired to force me to summarize episodes 6 and 7 of Aria: the Origination in a single post.

Episode Six, "In that Wonderful Extracurricular Lesson...", follows the pattern of episodes four and five in spotlighting particular characters, in this case the unlikely pairing of Alicia and Alice.

The plot of this episode is rather forgettable and seems very contrived.  It opens with Alice and Athena running in to Akari and Aika in the market, with Alice herding Athena to offset Athena's natural clumsiness and absent-mindedness.  Afterwards, Alice buys Athena ice cream, which Athena proceeds to drop on the ground.  To cheer up her mentor, Alice then buys Athena a slice of pizza.  The story then cuts to Alice, Akari and Aika practicing.  Alice, curious to know about what kind of a mentor Alicia is, asks Akari how much Alicia scolds her when she makes a mistake.  Akari replies that Alicia never does scold her.  So Alice is determined to watch Akari and see if Alicia ever scolds Akari, and we are treated to a couple scenes of Alice getting caught spying on the two Aria Company Undines.  Alice, a bit put out at being unable to catch Alicia getting angry, is then seen pondering how to proceed, even to the point of considering sabotaging Akari in the hopes of having Alicia react.  To this end, Alice stops at a cafe and purchases a sundae.  But when she looks up...
...Alicia is there, and joins Alice at her table.  (I don't know what's up with President Aria's outfits this episode.  I'm not sure I want to know...)

After an awkward (for Alice) series of greetings, Alicia gets to the point.  She's noticed that Alice is spying on her, and wants to know what the young Undine wants.  Alice confesses, and Alicia explains that she prefers to use positive reinforcement as a motivational tool, and uses President Aria (struck dumb by his headgear) to demonstrate.  After a long and somewhat awkward conversation, Alice has some understanding as to the way Alicia thinks its best to motivate people (and cats).

The problem is that the whole sequence seems out of place.  Alicia trains all three trainee Undines, and so Alice has first hand experience with her teaching style.  Alice should know that Alicia has no reason to be a strict instructor when she has the Demon Instructor, Akira, to play "Bad Prima" to her "Good Prima".

The episode does, however, shed some new light on Alicia and Alice, which was the whole point, but the conclusion leaves me wondering whether that light is entirely good.  Alicia's positive training method puts her "Sweetness and Light" quotient to the point where it's giving me cavities.  However, her showing up out of the blue to question Alice and the sheer mental anguish she puts Alice through before she asks about the recent spying indicates not only that she has some intelligence under the "My, my..." facade but suggests some degree of cunning.  She doesn't need to scold Alice;  her mere presence does it for her.

While Alice learns the value of kindness and positive reinforcement, her more glaring character flaw is highlighted and left unresolved this episode.  It seems natural to Alice that Alicia should scold Akari when she makes a mistake, after all, Akira scolds Aika and she (Alice) scolds Athena.  Of course, Alicia and Akira are Prima Undines, and as such are supposed to be the trainers (whatever method of training they use) but Athena is also a Prima, and Alice is supposed to be the trainee.  Alice, technically, isn't even a Single, she's still in the lowest level, that of the Pair.  And there's the crux of the problem;  Alice is a naturally gifted gondoleer.  She's significantly better than Akari or Aika, and we've seen in episode four that other Singles on the verge of becoming Prima regard Akari as highly skilled.  Her low status is probably a combination of her age, status as a school student, and the fact that her mentor is absent minded.  (And Athena is still incredibly absent minded;  if Alicia is probably a direct descendant of Belldandy, Athena is probably a direct descendant of Ayumu Kasuga.  Athena needs someone with some skill at day to day living to keep her on track.)  Alice's personality has warmed up some over the course of the series, but she still needs to learn a little humility.

Episode six is pretty high quality, graphics-wise.  The crowd scenes in the beginning in the marketplace have more depth of motion than most of the previous episodes, and the buildings all throughout this episode look pretty good.  Due to the lack of action, however, there are few good screenshots.

Episode seven, "During that Slow Moving Time..." has probably been the best episode of the series so far, and is a special treat for fans of the series.  The colors are often lush and vibrant, and the world is full of little details to discover.

We open with Akari and Alicia going to visit a retired Aria Undine that was once a mentor to Alicia.  She fell in love with a fisherman she met as a tour guide and married him, moved away from Neo-Venezia and had a son.

Anna, shown here with her son Ahito, spends some time reminiscing about her time as an Undine (her husband's name is Albert, in keeping with the theme).  Anna isn't the only Undine we are introduced to this episode.  After a surprise encounter, we are introduced via a flashback to Akino.

Akino was a popular but overworked Himeya Undine who learned a lesson about patience and the need for a new look at life from a stray cat.

This encounter caused her to step back a bit and make a decision which has ended up forming the basis for the world we see in the series.

As one can probably guess, we've seen Akino before.  Here's how she looks in the present of the series:

She's referred to in the series as Grandmother, the legendary Undine that founded Aria company.  The Undines in episode four compliment Akari by saying "I guess we can't expect anything less from an employee of the Aria Company that Grandmother founded."
The scenes showing the founding of Aria company are a treat, but leave a few questions unanswered.  Akino encounters the young President Aria sitting along an empty stretch of wharf, staring out at the empty sea, day after day.  The big question is, what exactly was he staring out after?
The Undines of Aria company: Anna, Akino, Alicia and Akari.

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Thursday, February 21 2008

Aria: Memories, Cats and Inconsistancies

I'm lately burned out on politics, so an episodic play by play of Aria: the Origination is the best I can do at the moment.  But it's a worthy task to assume.

Episode 5, "That keepsake clover...", is primarily a character expose for Aika and Akira, but it does that job well.  Akira is definitely the most well defined of the three mentors, and this look into her inner insecurities and the similar insecurities that haunt Aika, is well done.

The episode opens with our three students out on a routine training.  In any other series, that opener would be good for some catastrophe, but in this case it's just another demonstration by Athena and Alicia as to just how good they are.  Athena gets to put her voice to use this time, and basically shuts down the market momentarily as everyone stops and listens to her.  It's a trick we've seen before, but it's always a pleasure.  Alicia, meanwhile, repeats her precise boat maneuvering to gracefully catch a wind blown hat, to the applause of the crowd.

It's amazing the degree to which the animators have made the Undines seem like a combination of figure skaters and martial artists when they're handling an oar in other than a routine manner.  It was visible in episode 4 when it briefly looked as if Akari and Anzu were going to break out into a demonstration of staff fighting to impress the onlookers as they readied the oars.

The three students comment that Alicia and Athena have natural talents, which causes Aika to immediately wonder at what talents Akira, her mentor, has.  Although Aika idolizes Alicia and is overtly antagonistic with Akira, we've seen in the first season that Aika deeply respects Akira as well, to the point of taking it personally when other Himeya Undines badmouth Akira.  Matters aren't helped much when Alice and Akari show off their own talents in afternoon practice.  Alice is almost as good at her technique with the boat as Alicia, demonstrating both masterful parallel parking skills and high speed back alley rowing.  (I wonder where they came up with the idea that Alicia's talent is her oar technique;  I thought her special talent was just that she's completely amazing, so much so that she probably has Haruka Minami as an ancestor).  Akari, meanwhile, has adapted to Neo-Venezia with much the same unique talent that Carrot Ironfounderson shows towards Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.  She knows everyone, everyone knows her, and she's friends with everyone.  And of course this depresses Aika even more.
Aika returns to the Himeya offices / apartments to run into Akira in full cleaning mode, and is drafted to assist her mentor.  Her slight depression deepens considerably when one of Akira's photo albums is investigated to reveal a photo taken immediately after Athena was promoted to Prima.  It shows Alicia as Prima, Athena as Prima, and Akira still with the single glove of the Single (apprentice) level.

The book details are amusing, if difficult to make out, as in one shot an angry Akira is clearly depicted with the cartoony face the series uses for exaggerated emotions.

With the picture, Aika immediately questions Athena about how she felt about being overshadowed by two peers with natural talents.  This triggers the expected moral-laden "when I was in your shoes" story from Akira in the form of an extended flashback.

It's interesting to see yet another side of Akira's past, as she slips into depression at being normal.  And yet a surprise encounter by a bed of clovers teaches her a lesson that she's then able to pass on to Aika.  And who is the surprise teacher?

The surprise teacher that gives Akira a lesson in self-confidence and self-worth is none other than a much younger Aika.  Story told, all becomes right in Neo-Venezia and everything is back to normal.

A few other observations on the episode below the fold:

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Tuesday, February 12 2008

The A's Have It

Right now, there is only one anime series for which I'm waiting impatiently for each fansub release: Aria the Origination.  It's rather odd, in that Aria is the most relaxed series I've ever seen, and it seems almost criminal to be impatient with it.  The four episodes currently released have all been very good, and two have been nearly perfect.

The first episode, "Upon the Spring Wind That'll Soon be Here" is the textbook example of a recap episode.  It gives all the major characters some screen time, getting us used to their obvious quirks and reminding us that the author has a thing for names that start with A.  It also sets up what seems like the dominant theme of this series, the eventual promotion of our three trainee Undines to Prima, but does so in the guise of reintroducing us to their mentors through an example of their extraordinary skills.  Alicia's stunt is not visually dramatic but is emotionally dramatic, giving her a "Sweeteness and Light" quotient almost at the level of Belldandy from Ah My Goddess.  Akira proves that she's got some well-concealed thorns, and I'm not talking about those heels, and she manages to let the best of tomboy that was shine through with the lady that is.

Finally, Athena manages to demonstrate that Wisdom and Intelligence are not necessarily the same thing, in her creative handling of a small problem.
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The third series looks visually more impressive than the previous two series.  The backgrounds are richer, and the city of neo-Venezia seems more alive.  On watching it for the second time, I noticed that tt is something of a Potemkin visage, as the backdrops that seem alive are largely set pieces.  The bystanders are largely stationary, with occasionally one being animated in a simple action.  It's only in the process of looking for screen captures that I actually noticed the deception, however.  On first watching it I was enthralled with the pretty world.

Episode two, "That smiling customer...", reintroduces us to Neo-Venezia again, as Akari takes a special client on a tour of the city, giving the animators a chance to draw some of the more visually impressive bits of the city.  The resolution to the episode is a bit of a downer of my opinion, but offset by the spectacularly illustrated gardens.

Another detail I notices as I was rewatching the series is the use of computer animation for the water effects.  While the backgrounds are still, the water, visible in nearly every shot, is almost constantly moving, which helps to give the illusion of life to the world.

The third episode, "Those feelings you put in..." is the weakest of the four currently out.  It centers on Akari's permanent set of rose colored glasses and the architecture of Neo-Venezia and of Venice.  I'm curious to try to match up some of the buildings in the anime with their real-world counterparts and see how they match up.  I was surprised that I could spot the details visible in San Marko's Piazza in Aria the OVA:  Arietta (and again in this episode) in looking at Venice's San Marko's Piazza in Google Earth.

Another detail noticeable in several places throughout all the series is the use of reasonable looking Italian (in that it looks like Italian to someone like me that's not similar with the language) for most of the flavor text.  It's first visible in the first series in the episode where Alice is introduced, but it crops up several places in the new series, most noticeably where President Aria is reading his morning newspaper.

The fourth episode, "Those who aim for that tomorrow...", is a spectacular bit of character development.  Akari spends the day working with three new characters, all other apprentice undines, named Atora, Anzu and Ayumi, all of whom have been pondering and worrying about their future as Undines.  It gives another hint about the series theme of the promotion test for the title of Prima Undine.  Despite being introduced this episode, all three characters are fully fleshed out, with defined personalities and quirks.  The episode uses their interactions with Akari to give us some insight into their world and their lives, and the final character drama in the episode is surprising and emotional, gives us a new look at characters only introduced this episode, and lets Akari's eternal optimism shine through to advance the overall plot.  Part of getting to know the characters is watching them work, and it's to the series overall credit that Akari is not always the center of attention throughout their day.

One other thing to note in this episode.  We've been introduced to three Undine companies, Aria Company (Akari and Alicia, with blue trim), Himeya Company (Aika and Akira, with red trim) and Orange Planet (Alice and Athena, with yellow trim).  Almost exclusively, whenever you see a random Undine in a shot of Neo-Venezia, they're in Himeya red or Orange Planet yellow (as Aria company only has two employees, both named, there are no random Aria undines).  My recollection is that at one point in the second series, we see a random Undine in green trim in one of the opening credits, but I've never been able to find it again.  I experienced a momentary pleasure at looking at the crowd of apprentice Undines in this episode to see both green and purple uniformed Undines, only to be disappointed when our team consisted of Akari, two Orange Planet Undines, and a Himeya Undine.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

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Monday, October 29 2007

Aria and Character Development

I'm in a bit of an anime rut.  None of the new series have fully captured my attention (though Minami-ke is coming close).  However, my stock of patience is not up to paint more little metal bits and I haven't made it to the store to purchase Portal the Orange Box.  So I've gone back through the collection and am re-watching the better parts of Aria, and I've even managed to find a fansub of the recent OVA, Arietta.

One of the things I've both loved and hated about animation is trying to describe it in terms familiar to American TV viewers.  I love it because it's a constant reminder of what I like about anime in the first place: it's different.  While a lot of anime seems to build off of other anime in terms of genres and conventions, it's still not to difficult to find something unusual yet still fascinating.  I hate it, of course, because I then have difficulty explaining to anyone outside that little circle exactly what it is I'm watching.

Aria is especially difficult to describe.  It's science-fiction, although the science-fiction is merely detail, and if you're looking for a science-fiction show, this almost certainly isn't what you expected.  It's got its fair share of lighthearted comedy.  It's got some fantasy hidden here and there.  Above all, it's a slice of life story (if you can call it a story).  It's not what I thought I would enjoy.  It's got no real plot, although the episodes are sequential and often build off of one another; it's essentially 40 filler episodes.  It's got no real action;  almost all the drama is of the relationship kind.  Aria is a story of the day to day life of three young women who are apprentice tour guides in a rebuilt city of Venice on a terraformed Mars that's now 90% water, and what the series has is character development, often low key, but still character development.

One of my pet peeves about anime and TV in general is character development.  I like to see characters and relationships progress over time.  Be it in relationships or combat, the characters must learn and experience and grow to be fully human.  A lot of anime, including some classics, loses this key point.  The cast of Ranma 1/2 will always be stuck in the same complicated web of relationships.  It's somewhat futile to watch them, as we're back to the same relationship status quo as we were at the beginning of the series.  Sgt. Sousuke Sagara will always be a military blockhead cluelessly circling Kaname.  Tenchi Masaki is eternally stuck between his harem of suitors.

The other thing Aria has going for it is that the world of Aqua and the city of Neo-Venezia are fully fleshed out.  In part, it's because it's a tranquil setting done at a slow pace, and the animators can afford to use a still background for most of the image.  But still, the animators have found the time to include unique locations in just about every episode, and the seasonal effects in some of the episodes are well done (though there are about two fall episodes in the 40 total).  With the extra detail added to Aria the OVA: Arietta, it is an absolute delight to watch.  There's enough color to draw the eye in general terms and enough detail that it's impossible to take in the detail in each shot.

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One of the things that always got me about playing a computer game, especially some of the more recent ones, is seeing the same environments reused over and over.  It's another abandoned warehouse with stacks of boxes and barrels.  It's another wrecked castle.  It's another power station with mysterious tubes of lava.  What was worse was pencil and paper RPG GMs that insisted on reusing the exact same tropes over and over again; with a pencil and paper RPG, the art budget is limitless.  Animation has a fixed budget, and I know certain studios have a habit of overspending, but some animation studios frequently miss opportunities to make their worlds come alive.

Further thoughts about character development below the break.  Some spoilers about character backstory, if you can consider anything in this series to be important enough to be kept secret.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 04 PM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
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