Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED

After a hiatus from 1999’s Turn A Gundam, the franchise returned with Gundam SEED in 2002. I first watched the series on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block, but only ever got about fifteen episodes or so into the series. Gundam SEED is, in many ways, a reimagining of the original Mobile Suit Gundam, but is still separate enough that it doesn't feel like a straightforward reinterpretation.

The story begins with Zaft special forces stealing four of the Earth Forces’ five prototype Gundams in the neutral colony of Heliopolis. Kira Yamato, a genetically-enhanced coordinator is placed by circumstance on the opposite side of the war of his longtime friend Athrun Zala. Kira inevitably becomes the pilot of the Strike Gundam and uses it to defend his friends and the crew aboard the Earth ship the Archangel. With their mobile suits now in the hands of Zaft, the Archangel makes a run for Earth Forces’ headquarters in Alaska, with the Buster, Blitz, Duel, and Aegis Gundams in hot pursuit.

While Kira Yamato is technically the main character, the series balances the Earth Forces’ perspective pretty evenly with that of the Zaft pilots. Athrun receives a large focus and due to the time he spends working in tandem with the pilots of the other Gundams, viewers are given a pretty good impression of their attitudes and beliefs.

With the exception of the initial skirmish at Heliopolis, the first ten episodes or so are largely repetitive as Zaft attempts to stop the Archangel, who in turn escapes by the skin of their neck. It seems that the writers wished to devote more time in the early episodes to develop characters, which overall is both a success and a hindrance. By the time the action picks up, viewers already have a feel for who the majority of characters are at their core. But to achieve this, the small amount of action sequences included early follow a nearly identical pattern.

Once the action does get going, it moves at a fairly steady pace as the Archangel makes its way across the desert sands of Africa, battling the Desert Tiger Andrew Waltfeld and eventually arriving at the neutral nation of Orb before heading to Alaska. Things come to a major head following the Archangel’s departure from Orb, and the series shifts to a much more serious and dark tone for the second half of the series. There is far more action involved and the story becomes much more engaging as characters begin to question one another as well as their own individual motives for fighting on either side of the war.

Wrapped up in the overarching conflict between Zaft and the Earth Forces is the controversy of naturals vs. coordinators. Many naturals are opposed to genetic modification of fetuses, and argue that morals are what fuels them to fight against the Zaft coordinators. Zaft, on the other hand, believes that coordinators are the next phase of human advancement (some even go as far as to consider it an evolutionary phase). While the two military forces are in the forefront of this conflict, the series shows the events preceding the war and the chaos that ensued involving riots and terrorist attacks back and forth between naturals and coordinators.

The soundtrack is a bit of an homage to series from the Universal Century, as it is heavy on percussion and brass, with many tunes accompanied by piano parts. While the final product sounds quite good, the same songs – or at times, variations – are repeated over the course of the entire fifty-episode anime. The art style, on the other hand, is an impressive display for the first Gundam series to utilize full digital coloring. Some environments may not be as detailed as in some of the older OVAs or series, but almost half of Gundam SEED takes place in space, so that aspect is somewhat excusable. As for the mobile suit designs, they are largely nods to their Universal Century counterparts, with style and practicality nicely balanced. Late in the show, the appearance of the Freedom and Justice Gundams push things a little closer to series like Gundam Wing, though don’t seem nearly as out of place or ridiculous as the Forbidden, Calamity, and Raider Gundams, all three of which look as though they were rejected designs from Mobile Fighter G Gundam.

The Japanese voice acting is far superior to the English voice actors. While many of the English voice actors take a few episodes to really get a feel for their character, the ones who ultimately do the best job are secondary characters. Samuel Vincent delivers a great performance from the start as Athrun Zala, but Kira Yamato and the crew of the Archangel don’t receive quite the same treatment. Many of Kira’s friends seem over-exaggerated and corny compared to the serious nature of the Zaft pilots. Trevor Devall’s performance is one major exception, as Mu La Flaga seems the most believable out of any of the Earth Forces’ major players. Nicol Amarfi and Yzak Joule are portrayed well enough by their respective voice actors (though the latter seems to dwindle in performance a bit towards the conclusion of the series). A veteran of Gundam series, it’s no surprise that Brad Swaile (the original voice of Amuro Ray in the English dub of Mobile Suit Gundam) provides a great performance as Dearka Elsman, but the voice actor who does by far the best job is Mark Oliver as Rau Le Cruset.

However, I feel like the voice actors are not entirely to blame for some of their lackluster performances. Even in the Japanese version of the show, Kira Yamato comes off as one of the most bland and uninteresting characters in any Gundam series – unfortunate, considering he is the main character. Viewers are given virtually no feel for who he is outside of the fact that he is incredibly focused when inside of the Gundam’s cockpit and that he doesn’t like the idea of war from the start of the show all the way to the finish. Athrun, on the other hand, is constantly wrestling with himself over his loyalties to Zaft and his friendship with Kira. Later on, his father’s role as leader of Zaft as well as his arranged engagement to Lacus Clyne become even greater pressures. Still, he remains calm and collected for the most part, acting as a strong leader character for the team of Gundam pilots. Rau Le Cruset is initially shown to be the leader of any operations concerning the stolen Gundams, but he drifts in and out of the storyline near the middle of the series. When he makes his return near the end, he reveals a great deal of information regarding the characters and the war itself – I won’t give away any specific spoilers, but Le Cruset is one of the most effective Gundam villains ever.

Nicol, Yzak, and Dearka play second string to Athrun’s impressive piloting skills. Dearka and Yzak question Athrun’s authority on more than one occasion (the latter more out of jealousy than any other motive), while Nicol looks up to Athrun, always supporting his decisions but not to the point where he comes off as a suck-up. Kira’s friends aboard the Archangel aren’t all that developed or varied. They seem focused enough while in the midst of battle, but get real worked up over relationships and everyday occurrences. Flay Allster plays the role of Kira’s girlfriend for a short time, but in reality all she wants is for Kira to die in battle, as she blames him for not protecting her father’s ship from being destroyed by Zaft forces. Murrue Ramius, Natarle Badgiruel, and Mu La Flaga make up the command team aboard the Archangel. While their initial role in the story is largely circumstantial due to the destruction of Heliopolis and the ensuing Le Cruset team, I find it odd that the Earth Forces never reassigned a more experienced crew to helm such an important prototype vessel. Badgiruel constantly questions the authority of Ramius and makes her and La Flaga both look bad in her report to Earth command, feeling guilty only for a brief period before continuing on as she normally would. I understand this aspect is for the story’s sake, but it isn’t a very believable outcome, considering the harsh and often unforgiving nature of the Earth Forces’ chain of command.

Gundam SEED both accomplished a great deal for the Gundam franchise and fell short of its own aims. The conflict between the coordinators and naturals is constantly brought up in the story, but isn’t explored in much detail until very late in the series. The characters are either hit or miss, with few being particularly memorable. The battle sequences reuse the same animations over and over and the Gundams never seem to get a single scratch on them – at least nothing that can’t be conveniently repaired before the next episode. The second half of the show makes up for a lot of the earlier shortcomings, but it feels as if the writers actually had no idea where they wanted to go with the story until episode twenty-six. All things considered, for the time of its release and the things the creators hoped to explore and test with this series, Gundam SEED is a moderate success. However, the pacing is incredibly awkward, save for the latter half of the series, the finale doesn’t provide a lot of closure, and there are plenty of improvements that could have been made all across the board.

My rating: 7.25 (out of 10)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wii review: No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle

No More Heroes was a game that surprised many Wii owners as an M-rated slice-and-dice adventure game that actually had a decent story and kept players engaged with its vibrant visuals and varied boss battles. There were side missions to keep players entertained if they wanted to take a break from the main quest, and it made up for some of the absences in mature gaming on Nintendo’s previous system, the Gamecube. Though it wasn’t a blockbuster commercially, No More Heroes garnered enough praise from gamers to become a cult classic and thus a sequel was born. No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle hit the Wii in January of 2010 and showed some major improvements over the first title.

Travis Touchdown is back for more beam katana-based violence in the city of Santa Destroy, only this time he’ll have to face 51 opponents to reach the top ranking. While Sylvia promises Travis fame, he’s more interested in avenging the death of his friend Bishop and is ready to cut down anyone who stands in his way.

The game’s vulgar language and often sick humor fuel an otherwise cliché plot. But with each new point that unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that each new area unlocked is meant to present with a parody of some other video game, film, or anime. Travis and Sylvia constantly poke fun at the story as it progresses, sometimes subtly, other times more forward and obvious, such as when Skelter Helter’s beheaded corpse delivers a foreboding message to Travis and he explains how said event is theoretically impossible. Travis even has to sit on the toilet in order for players to save the game.

The main game is incredibly fast-paced as Travis wields his beam katana through hordes of henchmen. Depending on the combination and angle of attacks, enemies will be killed through different slashes, impalments, and suplexes. This will sometimes reward Travis with health and battery power for his beam katana. If Travis builds up a streak of kills in a short period of time, he is able to take down the remaining enemies with his tiger attack. When hit repeatedly with attacks, Travis becomes dazed momentarily, but this can be enough for nearby enemies to deal significant damage to him and can be a bit of an annoyance at first. Assuming that players are able to get the hang of the controls and learn when to dodge, this can easily be avoided.

Accessing each new chapter of the game’s story is noted with a star on the overworld map of Santa Destroy. This map/menu allows players to quickly select which area they want to visit in order to upgrade weapons, participate in side missions, or continue Travis’ quest. After visiting each are, players are returned immediately to the overworld map to determine where they wish to travel next. It’s a simple but effective menu scheme, though it removes the ability for players to freely roam the streets of Santa Destroy.

Each boss battle requires a different plan of attack from the player in order to respond to both the enemy and the surrounding environment. When taking on other fighters such as Nathan Copeland and Dr. Letz Shake, players must traverse areas that are constantly moving and calculate their moves in order to avoid a swift defeat. In this regard the game can seem a bit frustrating at times, but it is only teaching the player through a trial-and-error process. The boss fights are still as fast-paced as the levels that precede them and incorporate variation on par with the boss fights of Legend of Zelda titles. From time to time, Suda 51 decides to switch the gameplay up on players to keep thing engaging. When Travis clashes swords with an opponent, the game will sometimes enter a short motion-based section where players must react by rapidly moving their Wii-mote in a circular motion. A few boss fights include multiple opponents at one time, and one fight even has Travis piloting a giant robot. There is also a portion of the game where Travis engages in a motorcycle duel prior to one of the boss battles, and the game shifts to a top-down view. However, given the small area in which the duel takes place and the wide turns the motorcycle must take, this section becomes incredibly frustrating.

Side missions allot players both character experience and money to spend on new weaponry and clothing. Many of these side missions switch over to retro 2D arcade-style gaming, and require Travis to accomplish tasks in a limited time. Most of the side missions are straightforward and rather entertaining, though not overly complex. There are a few however, that simply become aggravating, such as the burger-grilling minigame.

Players are not limited to playing only as Travis Touchdown, as they are able to play as both Shinobu and Henry for brief periods in the main game. Shinobu is much more agile and weaker defensively. Henry, on the other hand, is more defense-based and controls almost the same as Travis. For the sake of the story, the change in perspective is a nice addition, though the temporary change doesn’t bring anything new to the game’s mechanics.

The art style is simply stunning and I think the game’s atmosphere greatly benefits from the cel-shading. The blood, while plentiful when slicing and dicing enemies, doesn’t draw too much of the focus – far too often, hack n’ slash games will try to outdo their predecessors by including unnecessary gore and buckets of blood. This game does have bodies spewing fountains of the latter but it feels oddly more artistic than disgusting. The soundtrack is simply outstanding, drawing inspiration from a great variety of sound styles. The music that accompanies the various locales around Santa Destroy is more low-key, while each major level and boss fight has its own distinct theme, often heavy on the drums, synthesizer, and electric guitar.

It’s a ridiculous game with over-the-top action and plenty of violence. Blood and dirty humor are both plentiful and the art style simply fantastic. The broad array of characters and their individual quirks keeps things entertaining from start to finish. There are some shortcomings, but it is still an impressive sequel fitting of its predecessor’s accomplishments. There are a large number of changes in Desperate Struggle, and nearly all of them make the game far more fluid and enjoyable. It certainly won’t be everyone’s bag of chips, but No More Heroes 2 is a most creative and interesting spin on a familiar genre.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Anime review: Mobile Fighter G Gundam

Following my introduction to Gundam with 08th MS Team, Cartoon Network aired Mobile Fighter G Gundam on their Toonami programming block. Some viewers felt that the series was too ridiculous in comparison to other Gundam works, both in regards to the plot and characters. However different it was from 08th MS Team and Gundam Wing, I enjoyed G Gundam, though I wasn’t exactly sold on the series right from the start.

G Gundam follows Domon Kasshu as he competes in the thirteenth Gundam fight on behalf of Neo-Japan for governance of the colonies. Piloting the Shining Gundam, Domon makes his way through each round by travelling around the globe and challenging competitors from various nations. Though not as much of a caring and understanding lead character as Amuro Ray, Domon channels his emotions most often in battle, utilizing his rage and frustration (or as he words it: “my love, my anger, and all of my sorrow!”) to activate Shining Gundam’s strongest attack known as the Shining Finger. Domon can come off to viewers as being cocky on more than one occasion, but he is quite the capable pilot.

Aside from Domon, the show gradually incorporates a host of other Gundam pilots as major characters. George de Sand, Chibodee Crocket, Sai Saici, and Argo Gulskii represent their respective countries of Neo-France, Neo-America, Neo-China, and Neo-Russia. Master Asia begins as Domon’s mentor, but later becomes one of his greatest enemies, joining the Dark Army of the Devil Gundam (aka Dark Gundam). Each new opponent that Domon encounters utilizes a distinctly different battle tactic, and as such the fight sequences in G Gundam rarely feel repetitive. While the show tries to sell these fights as the main focus, there are plenty of occasions where Domon and Rain Mikamura spend time exploring the locales and dealing with the trouble that sometimes follows them there. As such, viewers are given a great number of chances to learn more about the pilots. The characters, save for a few exceptions, don’t see much change over the course of the series.

While the major characters are, for the most part, enjoyable (though perhaps a bit stereotypical), most of the other combatants receive a fairly minimal inclusion in the show and viewers are therefore unable to really get much of a feel for who they are. This can be good or bad, depending on how one takes to it, as it keeps the story more focused but also limits the number of characters explored. Joining late into the series are the two recurring characters of Allenby Beardsley of Neo-Sweden and Schwartz Bruder of Neo-Germany. Both characters stick to a basic formula, with the former included to try and cause some drama in the developing relationship between Domon and Rain. Schwartz Bruder, cold and serious as he may be, proves important for the focus of the second half of the show and reveals a great deal of information to Domon regarding the Dark Army and the Devil Gundam.

The art style is full of vibrant colors, though the environments are fairly detailed and follow a significantly darker style to accommodate for the shift in the series’ mood during the second half. The soundtrack is heavy on brass, drums, and electric guitar and it follows a similar formula to those of other anime series released in the early to mid-1990s. It actually sounds pretty impressive and overall is one of the stronger and more fitting soundtracks to any Gundam series. G Gundam was one of the earlier series dubbed and the voice actors range from doing a decent job to coming off as bored and uninspired. The Japanese voice actors, on the other hand, seem to have taken the series as a less serious project than other Gundam works, as they carry out lines in an over-dramatized manner. With that in mind, I can’t really say that the Japanese voice actors did a real good job with this anime, though many would argue they did a better job than the English voice actors.

Unlike 1995’s Gundam Wing, the series sticks with the same mobile suits throughout the fifty episodes, with the exception of Shining Gundam’s replacement with Burning Gundam (aka God Gundam) and Master Asia’s Kowloon Gundam traded out for Master Gundam. The lead mobile suits of Shining, Rose, Maxter, Dragon, and Bolt Gundam are stylized to fit the mood of the show, but stick pretty close to the traditional Gundam design scheme. Other combatant's mobile suits such as Nether Gundam and Mermaid Gundam show the creativity exercised with the series, although seem rather ridiculous and impractical.

The characters may not be the most deep and the plot far from the serious tone of most Universal Century Gundam series. The series is pure entertainment, somewhere along the lines of incorporating Dragon Ball Z-style action into a Gundam series. Some people will dislike its lack of a political focus and others may think some of the mobile suit designs are simply outrageous. A large number of viewers will probably find the ending disjointed and a failed attempt to change to a more serious and tense storyline. As a 1996 release, G Gundam hasn’t aged quite as well as brethren series like Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, but it is still a Gundam series and as such is a higher caliber than many other mecha anime series.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Anime review: Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death and Rebirth

Following the conclusion of Neon Genesis Evangelion was the ending creator Hideaki Anno said he intended from the start, End of Evangelion. However, End of Evangelion was released in July 1997, so to tide fans over until the Summer, Anno and his team released Death and Rebirth in March. The response was not the praise that Neon Genesis Evangelion had garnered, rather it sparked even more controversy into the saga of Evangelion.

Death and Rebirth is ninety-seven minutes in length, and is split into two distinct portions. The first seventy minutes are a recap of episodes one through twenty-four of the original anime series. This portion of the film includes minimal new footage, only including sequences of the children practicing on orchestra instruments within the room seen in episodes twenty-five and twenty-six of the original series.

While it would make the most sense for Death and Rebirth to spend a balanced amount of time between recapping battles between the EVAs and Angels with the plot and character development, this is unfortunately not the case. The Angel battles receive plenty of focus, but the film jumps from one to another at a rate that is almost a chore to follow. The characters are almost entirely kicked to the curb and viewers are given an incredibly small amount of information and backstory to base their opinions off of. Even Shinji, the main character of the original series, feel severely underdeveloped.

This Death recap portion is set up in a similar fashion as episode fourteen of Neon Genesis Evangelion, “Weaving a Story”, in which SEELE provides a slideshow-style report of NERV’s encounters with the Angels thus far and review Gendo’s work with the EVAs. However, the way that Death and Rebirth handles this is without a voice actor, thus the transitions between each new segment as well as detailed descriptions of the Angels, EVAs, and characters are delivered by white text on a black background.

The Rebirth portion of the film includes the early events of End of Evangelion and caps out at twenty-seven minutes. This comes to an abrupt halt at the conclusion of Death and Rebirth, and could have been completely left out to include more footage for recap.

The art style is still good, even if there isn’t any real difference between what is used in Death and Rebirth and what was animated into the original series. The soundtrack is clean, though it fails to convey the emotions it did in the show – this is more to the fault of the story’s pacing than Shiro Sagisu’s orchestration, though.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death and Rebirth tries to compile the events of one of the most complex and multi-layered anime series ever into one hour and thirty seven-minute film. While the Rebirth portion does provide some new footage, it’s more or less to tease viewers of what is to come in End of Evangelion. The characters fall flat and are significantly underdeveloped. The psychological aspect is not particularly impactful, as it is delivered in quick and choppy segments. As impressive as the fight sequences are, they cannot carry the series alone. As far as I can tell, the only real good audience for Death and Rebirth would be viewers who want a quick refresher of the events of the original series before watching End of Evangelion. As for first-time viewers, this is one compilation film that is more of an insult than an aid to the series.

My rating: 5 (out of 10)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Anime review: MS IGLOO: The Hidden One Year War

MS IGLOO: The Hidden One Year War shows various events during the One Year War from the perspective of Oliver May, a Zeon engineer. As a non-combatant from the side that would eventually lose the war, May presents a most unusual yet intriguing perspective. He is stationed aboard the Jotunheim and tasked with overseeing tests on various weapons for Zeon. As the OVA is only three episodes in length, The Hidden One Year War focuses on specific characters for each episode, with only a few – including May, Lieutenant Commander Monique Cadillac, and Captain Martin Prochnow - becoming major recurring characters.

Each episode focuses on a separate experimental project for the Zeons, and while the series does flow together as one overarching story quite seamlessly, each story is focused enough to solidify itself as a standalone story. This works to both the series’ benefit and disadvantage, as each episode sees fitting conclusion, but the dynamics of the characters aren’t very solidified for viewers until late in the show.

The series pays some tribute to the original Mobile Suit Gundam, with May being witness to the start of Operation British and even briefly encountering Char Anzable in the midst of a major battle. The RX-79 makes a brief cameo via recorded footage from the battlefront. Little things such as these, as well as the inclusion of Zeon propaganda commercials, engages viewers greatly in the story and closely ties it to the original Mobile Suit Gundam.

The computer animation works well for the most part. The characters’ body motions and facial expressions show off an extra level of effort in creating a more realistic look for the series. The ships and mobile suits are well-detailed, though their motions and reactions can be clunky and ragdoll-like at times. Most of the animation issues are corrected after the first episode and things flow smoothly afterwards. Each episode receives a noticeable increase in detail in regards to both the character and mobile suit models. The action sequences are some of the best in any Gundam series, combining realistic tactics with flashy and stylish maneuvering.

Though the OVA is rather short, the almost complete absence of an original score is surprising. There are portions of The Hidden One Year War, such as the Hildolfr’s fight against EFSF-commandeered Zaku IIs, that are tense and uncertain for the characters and silence seems appropriate. When the soundtrack does accompany a scene, it is fairly quiet and low-key.

MS IGLOO: The Hidden One Year War provides a distinctly different take on events familiar to Gundam fans. It is an impressive OVA for how few episodes there are, and I can’t say I’m surprised that the creators went ahead and continued the story with Apocalypse 0079. Oliver May is one of the few major Zeon characters to set himself apart from the typical grunt pilot, let alone survive long enough to develop and seem human when compared to major players on the side of the EFSF. The Hidden One Year War will certainly make much more sense for hardcore fans of the Universal Century series, but is nonetheless a great addition to the Gundam saga.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

My 'Project Gundam'

As I am entering the latter episodes of Gundam SEED, I feel it is appropriate to publish this post. Unlike most of my recent entries, it is not a review, rather an overview of my plans for watching the remainder of Gundam series I have yet to see in their entirety.

As of today, May 16, 2010, I have completed the following series, OVAs, ONAs, and movies from the Gundam universe:

- Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team
- MS Igloo: The Hidden One Year War
- Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket
- Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory
- Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack
- Mobile Fighter G Gundam
- Mobile Suit Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz
- Turn A Gundam
- Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Astray MSV
- Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Stargazer
- Mobile Suit Gundam 00

I have no intention of watching compilation movies such as The Last Blitz of Zeon, Miller's Report, or Moonlight Butterfly. I may, however, end up watching the Zeta Gundam: A New Translation films after I complete the 1985 Zeta Gundam series to see how the two compare. The list of series, OVAs, and films I have yet to complete (or in some cases, begin watching) includes the following:

- Mobile Suit Gundam
- MS Igloo: Apocalypse 0079
- MS Igloo 2: Gravity of the Battlefront
- Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam
- Mobile Suit ZZ Gundam
- Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn
- Mobile Suit Gundam F91
- Mobile Suit Victory Gundam
- Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
- After War Gundam X
- Mobile Suit Gundam SEED
- Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny
- Mobile Suit Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer

As Gundam Unicorn will be airing its second episode this Fall and Awakening of the Trailblazer will not be out in Japan until September, those two will obviously be on hold until they are available to me. As for the rest, I'm simply going to watch them at my leisure, intermitten with other anime series. Gundam is one of my favorite anime sagas and the OVAs and films are easy enough to watch over a short time frame. The full-length series, however, take a longer time to complete. I finished Turn A Gundam at the beginning of this year, and I am currently on episode thirty of Gundam SEED. I started watching Zeta Gundam when it was hosted under YouTube's shows and I plan to pick that series back up at some point this Summer, as it was very entertaining and had a deeper plot than I initially expected. I also managed to get nine episodes into Gundam Wing, though I'm not a huge Gundam Wing fan to begin with and I opted to complete Gundam SEED for now instead. If I manage to complete all three series by the end of the year, combined with Turn A Gundam that amounts to almost two-hundred episodes of Gundam, which would knock out of the way a major portion of the task ahead of me.

I expect this project to take me at least to the end of 2011 and possibly into 2012. As more Gundam series, OVAs, and films are released I will add them to my list. As much as I love Gundam, I do plan on watching other anime as well, because I feel like I could become overloaded if all I watch is Gundam for such a long stretch of time.

There are some series I am more excited about watching than others, based on my knowledge of the plot, characters, and director. While I do plan on watching SEED Destiny, it's not exactly a series I'm greatly anticipating. I'm going to try and end my project on a higher note, most likely with Victory Gundam or the original Mobile Suit Gundam (as odd as it might be to end with the beginning).

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Anime review: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

I’m generally not a fan of dark fantasy anime series, due to their tendency to go overboard with blood and gore and sacrifice plot and character development. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust handles things quite differently from this traditional formula, without removing the darker elements from the story. Though I am not familiar with the series’ works outside of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, the film does a great job as solidifying itself as a stand-alone piece.

The film begins with a human, Charlotte, being taken from her home by a carriage in the middle of the night. D is hired to return Charlotte from her alleged kidnapper, a vampire known as Baron Meier Link, who is deeply in love with Charlotte. To hinder D, Meier employs three monsters to guard Charlotte and the carriage during the daytime as he is unable to enter the sunlight. Though Meier tries to avoid violence unless provoked, his guards are much more prone to begin a brawl. While Meier and Charlotte are key players in the events of the film and more complex of characters than they initially let on, the other three members of the troupe are stereotypical henchmen who do little more than cackle and fight when their mission is threatened.

A short while into his chase D encounters a group of humans after the same bounty. All but one of these hunters uses traditional weaponry to fight Meier and his cohorts, as well as any zombies they encounter as they travel through a rather desolate world. The fifth member is bed-ridden and frail, though he is able to use astral projection on rare occasions, so long as his body can handle the strain. Though these hunters are separate from D, they follow him in hopes that he might ally himself with them. For the most part, these hunters are either played as stereotypes or not given enough involvement to develop as characters, which is both good and bad. They do not detract the story, allowing greater focus on Leila, D, and Meier, but there is plenty of potential that could have been expanded upon.

Leila, the sole female of the group, lost her parents to vampires many years ago. While she is initially concerned with the bounty for the return of Charlotte, she becomes sidetracked in chasing down D, as he is a dunpeal (half-vampire). The two aid each other on multiple occasions and are the two most prominent characters in the film.

As a dunpeal, D is constantly questioning his existence and the rationale of his parents. This plays into what he believes Charlotte and Meier’s fates should ultimately be. His situation as a half-breed makes his views of the world around him understandable, but his lack of emotional expression can make D seem boring at times. Thankfully, he has Left Hand, a parasite who – as his name implies – lives within D’s left hand. Left Hand provides information on the places D visits and helps him in tracking Meier through treacherous terrain. He has a sarcastic sense of humor, and while his involvement over the course of the film is minimal, he provides a good amount of comic relief to an otherwise dark and serious story.

The art of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is very intricate and relies heavily on varying shades of green, brown, and red. Though a large portion of the film’s events take place at night, there are a few select scenes that occur midday by a lake filled with ruins of a building and the glistening sands of a vast desert. These provide a much-needed break from the overall bleak atmosphere of the film and somewhat fill a role as metaphors for Leila and D’s thoughts. There are a large number of fight sequences, though the blood isn’t excessive and the gory elements kept to a minimum, coming into play appropriately near the end of the film. The soundtrack is impressive, relying heavily on string instruments to create haunting melodies at calm points in the film and bringing in brass and drums for the more intense segments. Some viewers may find the opera-esque vocal pieces later in the film to be a bit repetitive and perhaps even annoying, as fitting as they may be. As far as English voice actors are concerned, the cast does a good job overall in portraying their respective characters. No one seems out of place in this regard, though they certainly aren’t going to win any awards for their contributions.

The story is a little confusing at the start of the film, giving viewers little information to base things off of. After the first thirty minutes or so, the focus begins to take shape and the story moves at a pace that is neither too fast nor too slow. The climax of the film is something that I think few viewers will see coming, but will find overall appropriate and enjoyable. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust's story comes full-circle and provides a satisfying conclusion to an hour and forty-minute film.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team

Like many Americans, my first introduction to Gundam came in the early 2000s via Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. When a friend of mine first told me about Gundam Wing, it was late in the series. With the plot being difficult for me to follow at the point and my general dislike of the style of Gundam Wing, I ignored it (though nowadays I’ve warmed up to the series more). When Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team aired, however, I started from episode one and was almost immediately hooked. The battles were gritty and intense and I felt as if there was something about this series that made it special, that broke it away from the rest of Toonami’s shows. Perhaps it was due to the fact that 08th MS Team was one of the edgier shows that ran in Toonami’s heyday (re-watching the series in unedited format proved to me that it wasn’t exactly intended for the preteen audience). One thing is for certain – 08th MS Team is the single Gundam series that got me hooked on the franchise and is still one of my favorite anime series today.

Earth Federation pilot Shiro Amada has been assigned to lead the 08th Mobile Suit Team, which is comprised of misfits who aren’t exactly keen on one another from the start. Karen is the toughest of the bunch and often critiques her squad-mates. Sanders is paranoid that he carries a curse which will bring about the death of the rest of the squad, but tries to remain as focused as he can when on the battlefield. Eledore and Michel provide support from the Hovertruck. Eledore is a dreamer who wants to be a songwriter after the war ends, while Michel is a hopeless romantic constantly writing love letters to his girlfriend who still lives aboard one of the space colonies.

As their tour of duty carries on, the team encounters many friends and foes. Kiki and the guerillas in a nearby village support the Federation in driving the Zeon patrols away from their home. Shiro personally develops a relationship with Aina Sahalin the test pilot for the Apsalus and a daughter of Zeon nobility, as the two continuously encounter each other over the course of the series. As the two become lovers from opposite sides of the war, this aspect of the series draws a great deal of inspiration from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. During the final battle of the series, Shiro finds himself facing Norris Packard, a veteran Zeon pilot whose mobile suit of choice is a customized Gouf. While the fight sequences throughout 08th MS Team are executed beautifully, this particular fight is the cream of the crop, combining carefully laid out tactics with a plethora of questions looming in Shiro’s mind about the war and the future.

08th MS Team separates itself from most other Universal Century series through its depiction of the One Year War. As the series starts late in the war, things are becoming more and more desperate for the Zeonic forces. The pressure of constructing the Apsalus gnaws at Ginias Sahalin, Aina’s elder brother, and he slowly loses his grip on sanity. While Shiro questions the causes and outcomes of the war, the Earth Federation chain of command becomes increasingly suspicious of him and presumes him to be a spy, asking his squad members to take drastic action should he disobey their orders in any way. While Karen and Sanders don’t want to ignore orders from their superior officers, they trust Shiro a great deal and this makes for a tense atmosphere during the latter portion of the series.

Unlike the original Mobile Suit Gundam, 08th MS Team focuses almost exclusively on ground combat. The 08th MS Team is granted use of the RX-79 Gundam, mass-produced after the schematics of Amuro Ray’s RX-78. The RX-79 is a much stronger mobile suit than the typical grunt GM, but is not invincible, as evidenced when the team encounters Zeon forces in battle. The series’ combat sequences are tense but carefully planned out. Shiro calculates the possible outcomes before beginning a mission, as he greatly values the lives of his pilots.

While the most intense and entertaining episodes are saved for the second portion of the series, 08th MS Team does a great job with its pacing. There is a practically perfect balance in action and plot development throughout and some minor story climaxes spike before the the two-part finale of "The Shuddering Mountain". The final episode of the OVA (which was never aired in the US on Cartoon Network) feels a little disjointed at first. It isn't exactly the resolution most viewers will be expecting, but it is very much appropriate given the context of the series. Even if viewers aren't overly thrilled by episode twelve, it is seperate enough from the main story that it won't ruin 08th MS Team for them.

Though it was an early dub, the English voice actors do a great job of portraying their characters to a point where it becomes almost interchangeable with their Japanese counterparts. The soundtrack is much more fitting and inspired than most Gundam soundtracks, but it still isn’t quite at the level of superb. The art style utilizes a more realistic look, with greens and browns for the backdrops of the jungle and desert environments. The mobile suits are incredibly detailed down to the tiniest inner mechanics. Everything is given a weathered look, emphasizing the impact of the One Year War and the pilots' time spent on the frontlines. Thankfully there is no filler content, and while the pacing of the episodes may make them feel longer than they actually are at times, this is a good thing as it allows all the events to settle in and make an impact on viewers.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team is certainly one of the more adult Gundam series to date, and this could be a make-or-break aspect for viewers. The impact of the One Year War is ever-present over the course of the series and the logic posed by the characters much deeper and more meaningful than in many other Gundam series. The characters are very believable and while some viewers might not enjoy each diverse personality equally, it is those differences that allow the characters to play off one another so fluidly.

My rating: 9.75 (out of 10)
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