Saturday, July 31, 2010

Xbox 360 review: Halo 3

It’s true that Halo 3 first hit store shelves nearly three years ago and I’ve personally owned my copy for roughly a year and a half now. With the release of Halo Reach soon approaching, however, I felt compelled to write a review on Halo 3. This review only takes into account the material shipped on the disc, and does not include technical updates from Bungie/Xbox Live or any of the multiplayer map packs.

Halo has been the flagship game franchise for Microsoft since its initial release on the original Xbox. While it isn’t aimed at as broad of an audience as many core titles released by competitors Nintendo or Sony, Halo and Halo 2 found many fans who enjoyed the mix of sci-fi first-person shooter single player campaign against the Covenant forces and the multiplayer modes that varied from Slayer, Capture the Flag, Oddball, and King of the Hill (to name a few).

When Bungie announced the release of Halo 3 they promised that the title would be both more user-friendly as well as contain a longer story mode. As Halo 2 ended with Master Chief returning to battle-engulfed Earth aboard the Forerunner Keyship (then commandeered by the Covenant forces), Halo 3 picked up directly thereafter. With the great schism within the Covenant ranks, the Elites find themselves begrudgingly allied with the humans in an attempt to stop the Prophet of Truth from reaching the Forerunner Ark and activating all of the Halo rings at once.

The story starts out with a rather basic objective in mind – Master Chief is to rendezvous with Commander Keyes so they can bring down the defenses surrounding the Covenant excavation site. Getting to this point takes a while and is meant more or less to allow gamers time to get accustomed to the new control scheme (which is surprisingly different than that of Halo 2, but still fluid and intuitive). While the environments therein are wonderfully detailed and players are able to mix things up with a wide variety of weapons and vehicles, this portion of the campaign seems to drag on for longer than necessary. Tsavo Highway is essentially a run-and-gun (or in this case, drive-and-gun) mission from start to finish and is basically a drawn-out way for Master Chief to reach his intended vector. Crow’s Nest isn’t nearly as lengthy or monotonous, but it does require player to retrace their steps on multiple occasions, making it seem like they’re running in circles until the level’s end. That said, just about every level that follows thereafter provides something new and challenging to the gameplay. The levels Cortana and The Covenant explore the polar opposites in level design, with the former being a narrow series of tunnels that focuses on close-quarters combat in large numbers and the latter being a wide open area that allows players a great deal of freedom in taking to vehicular combat. Players can complete the campaign with two people on the same console or with four via Xbox Live.

There are a number of weapons retooled for Halo 3, such as the needler (no longer dual-wieldable, but significantly stronger offensively), the sniper rifle (much less twitch-motion based but still as reliant on spot-on accuracy), and the rocket launcher (slightly weaker firepower and the lock-on tracking disabled). To make up for some of these changes, however, Bungie has included a number of new weapons. Standing in for the old needler is the Brute spiker, which is weaker and devoid of an auto lock-on but fires at a much faster rate. Taking over the tracking abilities of the rocket launcher is the missile pod, specifically designed for use against moving vehicles. In this sense, I feel that there are a number of weapons kept around that are unnecessary. In the past, the rocket launcher was primarily used for destroying vehicles and as such it has been put on the backburner by most players in favor of the more practical missile pod. The rest of the weapons see minor tweaks but overall remain the same, including the SMG, battle rifle, carbine, and the returning assault rifle. While players are only allowed to carry two of any given grenade type this time around, they are given the ability to carry four different types of grenades, including the classic fragmentation grenade, Halo’s signature plasma grenade, the spike grenade (the Brute equivalent of the plasma grenade), and the firebomb grenade.

New to Halo 3 are the various equipment pieces which serve a variety of uses. The bubble shield provides 360-degree cover for a brief time period wherever the player chooses to drop it, the deployable cover provides even less defense than the bubble shield, the regenerator replenishes a player’s health and shields, the power drain saps shields and temporarily disables motion of a vehicle, the flare blurs other players’ field of vision for a few seconds, the trip mine can be strategically placed to destroy a vehicle, the deployable gravity lift allows player to reach higher ground at their leisure, and the radar jammer does exactly as its name implies. The temporary cloaking, invincibility, and auto-turret are all exclusive to the campaign mode, while the returning multiplayer overshield and active camo equipment respond exactly the same as they did in Halo 2. The equipment is a hit-or-miss deal, with many serving useful purposes (power drain, bubble shield, gravity lift) and others backfiring on players (flare, radar jammer) or ending up as significantly less useful than their brethren (deployable cover, trip mine). They’re a nice afterthought on Bungie’s part but not overly necessary.

Most of the vehicles are the same as they were in Halo 2, though a few changes such as separating pilot and gunner on both the Wraith and Scorpion tone down the firepower granted to a single player at any given time. In response to the Covenant Banshee, the UNSC forces gain use of the Hornet, which acts more as an airborne assault platform than a VTOL fighter. As Halo 3’s focus is on Humans and Elites vs. the remaining species of the Covenant, Brute vehicles see as much of an inclusion as Brute weaponry and equipment. The Chopper is a large and speedy single-pilot vehicle focused specifically on offensive capabilities. The Prowler replaces Halo 2’s Spectre, but handles much the same with the exception of being constructed backwards from the Spectre. And though it was ultimately cut from Halo 2, the Mongoose shines through in Halo 3 as a two-person ATV used largely for speedy transport and Capture the Flag matches.

The multiplayer maps are scaled down from their Halo 2 predecessors. As unique as maps like Waterworks and Colossus were in 2004 they ended up being practical for only a handful of game types. There are still some larger maps in Halo 3, such as Valhalla and Sandtrap, but these are specifically designed for large slayer, big team battle, and capture the flag matches. The maps better fleshed out to accommodate a variety of game types include Guardian (modeled after Halo 2’s Lockout and Ascension), Construct, The Pit, and High Ground. A select few maps, including Snowbound and Isolation, show their weaknesses with some game types and weapon placement, but these are relatively minor hitches in the grand scheme of things. While the previous two titles did allow players to customize the armor colors and logo of their multiplayer characters, Halo 3 allows players to change armor variants with a collection of interchangable helmets, shoulder pieces, and chest pieces. Humans and and Elites each have their own species-specific armor permutations.

Finally, the gameplay element no one was expecting, Forge mode allows players to alter the location of weapons, equipments, and objects in each level to create custom maps. Learning the controls of Forge takes some getting used to but once players get the hang of it they can create new map layouts to their heart’s content. It’s great that Bungie picked up on the cues from modded material some community members were adding to Halo 2 and allowed players to make something all their own. After completing construction of a level, players can add it to their file share, upload it to Bungie.net, and share with friends and the rest of the Halo 3 community. The file share is also available to upload and share screenshots and short films that can be taken in Halo 3’s theater mode.

Graphically the game has its shortcomings but isn’t by any means awful. It’s interesting that Bungie went the route of fairly realistic-looking graphics, but stopped from going all the way in order to include some stylization that would distinguish it from other first-person shooters. The soundtrack is a great addition to those in the first two games, the signature styles of which were both fitting and impressive. Halo 3’s soundtrack is moving and complex, aiding the story’s events a great deal.

The characters see some notable improvements that give them more human characteristics and actually give gamers a reason to care about them, a much-needed change from Halo and Halo 2. Master Chief is still rather bland and the Arbiter’s focus left largely untouched until late in the game, but secondary characters such as Keyes, Cortana, and Sgt. Johnson see tremendous improvement. While the Prophet of Truth is the only Covenant character of any notable merit/inclusion, he is portrayed as a cunning and cold villain more than worthy of a major role in the game. The Gravemind also returns, with his creepy rhyming and wish to dominate the galaxy by means of Flood infection. While there are a few changes in the cast of voice actors, they retain a largely similar sound as in Halo 2. The only major change I noticed was in the Prophet of Truth (now voiced by Terence Stamp instead of former voice actor Michael Wincott) but this change leaves a fairly neutral imprint on the story.

It’s a bit disappointing that the campaign isn’t as long as Bungie previously stated, but at the same time the story of Master Chief and the Human-Covenant war does wrap up nicely and avoids overstaying its welcome. The campaign levels are nicely varied and avoid the elements that made many of Halo 2’s campaign levels feel repetitious. That said, considering the time of its release and the tech available at the time, Halo 3 isn’t quite as strong as Halo 2, but it’s still one of the best games on the Xbox 360 to date. There’s a ton of replay value and even if players get sick of the online multiplayer they can go back through the campaign with skull abilities or a scored mode activated, and can even express their creative side with the inclusion of Forge mode. Halo 3 is a fitting conclusion to the Halo trilogy and - even though Bungie didn’t push the envelope as much as with the core gameplay of their previous titles - is a solid game all its own.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Anime review: Castle in the Sky

To escape both pirates and military forces following her, young Sheeta finds herself falling from an airship with a glowing blue crystal pendant in her possession. A miner by the name of Pazu happens to find Sheeta as she lands on the ground, apparently protected by mystic powers within the pendant. Pazu brings Sheeta to his small house and shows off some of his designs for airships as well as an image of the fabled Laputa, a castle literally floating in the sky. As both forces assume pursuit of Sheeta once more, she and Pazu find themselves on a path that may ultimately lead them to find the real Laptua and uncover the true nature of the crystal Sheeta carries with her.

Castle in the Sky is a difficult film to sum up without giving much away. Like many other Studio Ghibli films it relies on the sense of adventure and wonder as its major selling point. But the more the film progresses, the more viewers will realize the decent depth put into the plot and why each of the characters is so important. The initial plot is a tad cliché, but things quickly pick up in terms of originality so this only downgrades the film's quality a minimal amount.

Pazu is a kind-hearted and crafty young man who proves an invaluable ally to Sheeta. Sheeta herself is not so much a damsel in distress as she has no qualms about following dangerous paths, but because of her crystal pendant she finds herself in tight situations time and time again. The pirates are a group of goofballs, but as their nature is revealed to be much more innocent than they initially let on they become a plentiful source of good humor. At times they may come off as a tad annoying, but they are easily the most entertaining characters in the film.

The film's pacing aids the story's coherence a great deal. While the actual run time is a little over two hours in length, Castle in the Sky feels more like two and a half. That isn't to say that the film feels like it is dragging on forever, nor that the story runs in circles - quite the opposite, rather. Castle in the Sky manages to balance elements of action, suspense, comedy, and adventure all at near-perfect levels to create an enthralling tale. In short, if it seems the film is taking its time to reach a certain point, it's only for better cohesion with the rest of the story.

Overall the English voice actors do a very good job in the dub. Mark Hamill provides a calm yet eerie voice for the cold and calculating Muska. Both Sheeta and Pazu’s voice actors do excellent jobs at conveying their character’s emotions, though the latter sounds noticeably older than the character he is portraying. Dola and her sons are all portrayed by fitting voice actors, while many of the remaining characters aren’t involved in the film long enough for their actors to make a major difference one way or another.

The animation shows its age in comparison to other films by Studio Ghibli. That said, the colors are vibrant and lush, the attention to detail spectacular, and the lighting effects very solid. There are some background details lacking from time to time, usually during chase scenes or in environments meant to be dark-lit. For the time of its release though, Castle in the Sky looks quite good.

Castle in the Sky combines elements of the sci-fi and fantasy genres into one exciting adventure. It’s a film that all ages can enjoy, but it doesn’t sacrifice anything from the story for the amount of action therein. There are a few sequences where older viewers might feel inclined to point out some obvious mistakes made by the military forces or the film's interwoven messages about protecting the Earth, but Castle in the Sky is meant to spark one’s imagination. It may be one of Studio Ghibli's older works and the animation isn't exactly top-notch by today's standards, but overall Castle in the Sky has aged quite well.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Anime review: Paranoia Agent

Following the attack of Tsukiko Sagi by a bat-wielding assailant on rollerblades, police officers Keiichi Ikari and Mitsuhiro Maniwa try to track down and interview anyone who might have seen Tsukiko on the day of the incident. Before the two get far into the investigation, however, a string of similar attacks takes place in the same region of Tokyo and the case becomes a higher priority. As word of these attacks spreads around town, the populous begin calling Tsukiko's unknown attacker by the name of Lil' Slugger.

Who Lil' Slugger is and what his intentions ultimately are is the central focus of the story, and this is told from a variety of perspectives. The many different narrators are often witnesses or victims in the cases involving Lil' Slugger, though their personalities couldn't be more different. The first three episodes put the spotlight on artist Tsukiko Sagi, sleazy freelance journalist Akio Kawazu, popular school kid Yuichi Taira, and split-personality school aide/call girl Harumi Chono, and the characters only become more varied from there.

Each episode is centered around a single character or group of select characters and act as separate chapters in the overarching story. While some characters may not seem particularly important right away, each and every one plays an instrumental role in the events that unfold over the course of the series. Some characters see return appearances to weave into others' storylines and add an extra level of depth to things.

The series is difficult to classify as belonging to one specific genre. At its core, Paranoia Agent is both a psychological thriller and a police drama. Viewers are introduced to all of the characters via their real world interactions in the early episodes, but their psychological statuses are key for viewers to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Keiichi and Mitsuhiro's investigation is gradually pushed to the backburner as the series progresses and puts greater emphasis on the other characters. As each character plays a different role in the series' events, they also see the world much differently than one another. Through this, fantasy and sci-fi elements break through, as do a number of comedic moments that are quite cleverly scripted.

While the series as a whole carries a consistently dark and beautifully detailed animation style, a few episodes mix the art style up. One episode takes place within a fantasy realm and involves wild landscapes and beasts, while another delves into the psyche of one of the major characters through a peaceful watercolor-splashed environment. The soundtrack is a mixture of all sorts of sounds and it's difficult to pin a distinct style to the series. There are, however, a few notable pieces that serve as some of the main themes that recur as the story events require them to.

The English voice actors in Paranoia Agent are incredibly strong at conveying emotions and carrying the plot. Michael McConnohie and Liam O'Brien carry the majority of the show as strong as any viewer could hope for as Keiichi and Mitsuhiro respectively. Some of the supporting characters are voiced by rather well-known voice actors, with Yuichi Taira voiced by Johnny Yong Bosch (Lelouch in Code Geass), Tsukiko Sagi voiced by Michelle Ruff (Yoko Littner in Gurren Lagann), and Zebra voiced by Patrick Seitz (Raul Creed in Ergo Proxy). Others are voiced by relatively unknown voice actors, or those whose previous works include relatively low-key roles/projects. With two groups of major opposites working on the same series, potential viewers should take comfort in knowing that the entire cast does a phenomenal job.

At thirteen episodes long, Paranoia Agent doesn't overstay its welcome. It's certainly possible that the Satoshi Kon and his team could have carried the series further and it probably would have still been as enthralling as the previous episodes, but by the time the last few episodes roll around viewers will have all the necessary pieces in order to understand the conclusion. Paranoia Agent doesn't take a terribly long time to watch, tough it does require viewers to pay attention to details. Because of its mysterious nature, the series isn't exactly straightforward and requires some patience out from viewers. That said, the story rarely becomes or repetitive so things remain relatively fast-paced. The final wrap-up is a bit confusing and some minor elements are left open-ended, but the story as a whole is genuinely thought-provoking and the characters believable. All of this adds an extra level of depth and realism without sacrificing creativity - something that many other series try but ultimately fail to pull off successfully.

My rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Anime review: Axis Powers: Hetalia (season two)

Picking up directly where season one left off, Axis Powers: Hetalia season two jumps right into things and chugs along full-force for the majority of the season. The events surrounding World War II are still the core focus of the narrative, but events such as the colonization of America and the Medieval Ages see solid inclusion into the story. Some modern day events are sprinkled in between and late in the season the Chibitalia storyline returns. In season one, the main story was often followed up in most episodes with a continuing side story, such as the Chibitalia prequel and America’s storage room cleaning. In season two, the story jumps back and forth in time a fair amount, but overall it feels more fluid and fast-paced than the side stories of season one, and only on a few occasions do the events of an episode seem choppy and unrelated. One episode in particular, being episode forty-five, left me very disappointed for its lack of cohesion with the overarching story of season two as well as its blatant lack of any humor whatsoever.

The core characters retain the same personalities they carried in season one. Italy receives less and less of the spotlight as season two progresses, which is good as it allows greater emphasis on the other major characters. However, the Allies that received the greatest focus in season one become even more prominent in season two, and England, France and America overshadow China’s inclusion in a huge way. Russia, however, receives roughly the same attention as in season one. The Axis Powers are not left completely out in the cold, though. Germany steals the show early on in season two, while Japan continues showing up when necessary. There are a number of instances where the two wind up in a situation where America unknowingly becomes the butt of a joke and the two are left in a awkward position, which only fuels the hilarity in later scenes.

The other guest characters are more varied than those in season one. Some return from season one, such as Switzerland and Canada, while others, such as Belarus and Ukraine are newcomers. The guest characters that receive focus early on in season two ultimately end up more rounded and play out a more important role. Those that show up later on are generally included for the sake of a short humorous sequence that doesn’t continue on for more than an episode or two in most cases.

The same problems that popped up every once in a while during Hetalia’s first season are the same ones that hinder the second season from achieving perfection. Though the instances are fewer and farther between, when an episode stops being funny it takes an annoyingly long time to pick itself back up – not the best issue to have when each episode is slightly longer than five minutes. Season two also attempts to mix in some dumbed-down humor in an attempt to cater to a broader spectrum of viewers. Ultimately the use of the scenes are brief but will likely evoke little more than a chuckle or two out of fans who have come to know and love the series signature style of poking fun at each nation and its respective stereotypes.

The art style doesn’t receive any drastic changes from the previous season, and that’s not a bad thing. Characters still swap back and forth between their more full adult selves and their chibi counterparts for arguments and flashbacks. It might have been nice to see a bit more attention to detail in background layouts, but there isn’t much point in fixing what isn’t broken, especially when it gives the series its signature style. The soundtrack still relies on a large number of quick jingles, though a number of variations on traditional classical pieces see inclusion and greater emphasis this time around. The end credits see some alterations every so often, generally when the focus of an episode is on one of the major countries other than Italy. While there still isn’t much of an original soundtrack to speak of (which makes such an aspect of the series difficult to critique), it certainly is more prominent in season two than in season one.

The returning Japanese voice actors continue their impressive performances in season two, building off what worked best for them in season one. Overall, the new characters are portrayed well. The three Baltic steal the show during their few guest appearances, while Russia’s sisters see so little inclusion that it’s difficult to gauge whether Belarus and Ukraine’s voice actors did a good job or not.

The major problems that tripped up season one every so often are addressed to an extent, though still present enough that they provide some minor annoyances. The main characters receive a much more balanced focus, though many side characters appear only when necessary to advance the plot. The plot mixes things up nicely by looking more in-depth to the events of WWII as well as exploring more present day issues, but in doing this the story jumps around a fair amount. Everything wraps up quite nicely by the finale, and the events therein make a lot more sense than the finale of season one. Season two of Axis Powers: Hetalia isn’t quite as strong as season one, but it doesn’t fall too far off the mark

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Anime review: 009-1

In an alternate future, the Cold War has lasted for 140 years. The Eastern block and Western block constantly run intelligence and assassination missions against one another, sustaining a false peace without revealing this to the general public. 009-1, one of the West's top agents and a cyborg, is sent on a number of missions to counter the actions of the Eastern agents.

The series' major story arc is almost exclusively focused on 009-1. The story explains events from her past as well as her present day missions and in the end 009-1 is a well fleshed-out character that most viewers can understand and sympathize with. That said, each episode is delivered as a distinctly separate narrative and there is little else bridging the gaps until the last few episodes. Upon that point in the narrative, the story really picks up and certain characters and events from earlier on return for important roles.

In the same style as Cyborg 009, 009-1 gives specific roles of expertise to the various 009 agents. 009-4 is a weapons expert, hiding napalm canisters, rockets and spare pistols within her metal appendages. 009-7 is a master of disguise as well as a source of some cleverly planned humor. 009-3 has the ability to magnify her vision and pick up on far away targets. 009-1 can pick up on faint sounds and can run at impressive speeds, allowing her to dodge bullets and outmaneuver her opponents. She also hides two guns within her chest, and though the point behind this was to make her character seem both more lethal and sexy, it feels ridiculously corny and seems better fit for an Austin Powers-style parody work.

The main characters are entertaining and rounded out well-enough, even if there are only a select few of them, and the recurring characters are intriguing as well. As for the one-shot appearance characters, however, there's something left to be desired. The English dub voice actors are a mixed bag, performing either very well or rather poorly, and ultimately leave a fairly neutral effect on the series. Vic Mignona lends his talents to the character of Egg, James Grant and Gray Haddock play a convincing Number Zero and Loki respectively, and Alice Fulks carries the show very well in voicing 009-1 (aka Mylene Hoffman). Some of the Western intelligence committee members sound rather goofy, as do about half of the guest characters.

There are a few episodes that stand out as notably weaker than the rest. "Invitation from an Old Castle" feels very cheesy in a Scooby-Doo mystery style than the James Bond-inspired espionage solidified within the first few episodes. "Port" delivers a bit of a clever twist upon its conclusion, but the buildup takes a nauseatingly long amount of time, the characters see minimal development, and the events don't significantly affect the overarching story in any way.

The art style is very well done and a noticeable improvement on the groundwork laid out by Cyborg 009. There is something a bit unusual about the cartoony animation and the adult storyline, however, as the two seem to conflict. There is a decent-sized helping of vulgar language included, as well as prominent sexual overtones in regards to the 009 agent's appearance. It's obvious that creator Shotaro Ishinomori and director Naoyuki Konno wanted to make the series as flashy and fun as possible, though some episodes end on particularly darker notes than others. Similarly, the cartoony look of the characters often distracts the more serious moments in 009-1. The lighting effects are very impressive and the overall detail in the animation is better than decent, which together complement the art style quite well. The soundtrack is, like much of the rest of the series, an obvious nod to James Bond and other spy films of the 1960s and 1970s. Jazz variations carry the events along, with loud and upbeat pieces during gunfights and chase scenes while more mellow pieces accompany 009-1's musings and more intimate scenes.

009-1 may not have a great deal of depth to it, but it certainly is entertaining. The characters play off each other in clever dynamics, though many of the guest characters could have benefitted from further development. 009-1 is a quick watch at twelve episodes long and is easy enough to jump into as the major plot focus doesn't really come into play until very late in the series. The finale delivers both a few phenomenal plot twists as well as some confusing wrap-up that will undoubtedly leave some viewers unsatisfied. All in all this is an anime that provides a quick action fix, but viewers shouldn't expect a mind-blowing experience.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Axis Powers: Hetalia Funimation dub voices announced (main cast)

Following hot on the heels of their Axis Powers: Hetalia supporting cast announcements, Funimation has released the names of the voice actors portraying the series lead characters one after another this past week and a half. I must say that the accents each of these actors/actresses puts forth are both phenomenally accurate and hilarious. I mentioned in my post concerning the official supporting cast that I had a few ideas of my own for who should tackle each role, but overall Funimation has exceeded my expectations in their casting choices. So, without further ado, the list:

- America: Eric Vale (who previously provided the voice of Trunks in Dragonball Z)
- Germany: Patrick Seitz (Raul Creed in Ergo Proxy)
- France: J. Michael Tatum (Lawrence in Spice and Wolf, Dororo in Sgt. Frog)
- Japan: Christopher Bevins (Naturon Shenron in Dragonball GT)
- Russia: Jerry Jewell (Barry the Chopper in Full Metal Alchemist, Kaworu in Evangelion 1.0: You Are [Not] Alone)
- China: Clarine Harp (Kokou and Ryuuhi in YuYu Hakusho)
- England: Scott Freeman (many background characters in series like Desert Punk, Initial D, and Soul Eater)
- Italy: Todd Haberkorn (Keroro in Sgt. Frog, Yamato Akatsuki in Suzuka)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Anime review: Paprika

Paprika begins with a look into the capabilities of the DC Mini, a device that allows users to record their dreams and enter the dreams of other DC Mini users. Paprika, the dream world alter ego of Dr. Chiba Atsuko, allows detective Toshimi Konakawa to try the device out and Konakawa becomes thoroughly intrigued with her. Following the opening credits, the film shifts focus to Kosuka Tokita, creator of the DC Mini, Atsuko, and their co-worker Torataro Shima, as the three discuss the fact that one of the DC Minis has been stolen. The DC Minis have not yet been released for production and as such there is no security mechanism in place to prevent anyone to use the device whenever they wish. The chairman of the company the three work for has already caught wind of the DC Mini’s disappearance, and so the three attempt to determine the device’s last known location and work from there.

The situation quickly becomes dire as staff members associated with the various subconscious technology at the company begin having dreams while awake and putting their lives in danger, including Dr. Shima. Atsuko, Kosuka, and another lab staff member named Morio Osanai decide to pay a visit to Kei Himuro, who worked closely with Tokita on the DC Mini and has not shown up to work in a few days. After some time, the group discovers that Himuro is trapped within his own dream, and that many who attempt to wake Himuro up using the DC Mini become trapped in the dream as well.

As the film progresses, the lines between reality and the dream world become increasingly blurred. Director Satoshi Kon intentionally plays with the characters, as well as the viewer, often tricking them into thinking they are experiencing one world while they are in fact experiencing the other. There are a few major plot twists that play out over the course of the film that cause the various characters to each play an important part in either one world or the other (or in many cases, both worlds).

Each of the characters is well-rounded and receives enough focus to either merit their inclusion as a main or secondary character. The constant switching back and forth between the real world and the dream world shows quite vividly how the external and internal characters’ personas differ. Detective Konokawa is a cool and collected spirit in the real world, yet struggles with his past in the dream world. The most distinctly split personas, however, come from Atsuko (in the real world) and Paprika (in the dream world). Atsuko is an incredibly focused and by-the-books type, often giving people the impression that she is cold-hearted. Paprika, on the other hand, is a free-spirited child-at-heart who is quick on her toes and very outgoing. Considering how character-driven the film is, it's comforting to see that everyone's story comes full-circle before the concluion, leaving no loose ends.

The situational humor that is sprinkled in here and there is incredibly clever and on one notable occasion directly references Satoshi Kon’s previous works. Overall the film’s focus is rather serious and it manages to incorporate many elements that cater to the child within. This is not a particularly new formula, but it’s not often that it is executed in a fashion that doesn’t come off as overly disturbing and creepy. That said, the film is a psychological thriller to an extent and it wouldn’t be doing its job properly if it didn’t spend some time messing with viewers’ heads (which, thankfully, it does in a perfectly rationed helping).

The pacing in Paprika is perfect. Things speed up when Paprika and Konakawa are traversing the different types of dreamscapes and slow down when dealing with more suspenseful and darker points, such as Himuro's dissapearance. The finale is a bit predictable (or at least the events that lead up to it), but considering how brilliantly scripted all the preceding events are, it’s a minor hitch in an otherwise nearly flawless story.

The animation is simply stunning, stacking up near the caliber of the Studio Ghibli films and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The use of vibrant colors and various lighting effects plays on the concept of dreams wonderfully. The character designs are nicely balanced to appear realistic enough, yet carry a cartoonish charm necessary for the film’s focus. After a while, viewers might think that they’ve seen all there is to cover in the dream world, yet Satoshi Kon keeps pushing the envelope, seemingly without even trying to, expanding on the vast array of ideas and events that encompass the dream world. The soundtrack is comprised of a very few recurring pieces and variations on these, so viewers can expect to hear similar sounds for the majority of the film. That said, the soundtrack’s complexity and variation in sound style should be commended and fits the film’s respective scenes like a glove. The English dub is surprisingly strong and there are only a few secondary characters that feel like they have some room for minor improvement. Overall, though, they’re arguably better than the original Japanese cast, with Cindy Robinson stealing the show as Paprika.

It’s not often that an anime film aimed largely at older audiences excels in every field so well. Some have even gone as far to consider Paprika much like an adult-themed Studio Ghibli film. Paprika’s ingenious story combined with the genuine sense of wonder it evokes from viewers makes it one of the best anime films, as well as one of the best psychological thrillers, I have ever seen.

My rating: 9.75 (out of 10)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Anime review: Howl's Moving Castle

Sophie is a girl who spends her days working at a hat shop. She leads a rather average life until one day she encounters the magician Howl, who is on the run from agents of the Witch of the Waste. After helping Howl get to safety, Sophie is turned into an elderly woman by the Witch of the Waste and decides to leave her home in order to try and have the curse reversed.

Eventually Sophie comes across a gigantic moving castle, cobbled together from portions of various buildings and supported by four thin legs. She enters to find it is powered by a fire demon named Calcifer who – despite his claims of greatness – is rather harmless. After meeting Calcifer and then Markl, Sophie is introduced once more to Howl who is the owner of the castle. Howl explains that the Witch of the Waste once convinced Howl to be her lover, but upon seeing her true form, Howl left. Thus, the Witch of the Waste decided that if she couldn’t have his heart then no one else could.

During her travels with Howl and his apprentice Markl, Sophie becomes the self-proclaimed housekeeper and mother figure. She spends a bit of time early on in the film cleaning up the castle and later on convinces Howl to get over a number of his temper-tantrums. A large focus of the story is put on Sophie’s romantic interest in Howl and the challenge she experiences in appearing so much older than him. As a main character, Sophie is very relatable and entertaining in subtle ways. Howl, on the other hand, is a notably weaker lead character with his immature nature. His eccentric personality does make up for this a bit, but the fact that he is absent for large portions of the film makes it difficult for viewers to grasp a firm idea of who Howl really is. Because of this, Calcifer and Markl shine through as more fully-developed characters.

Miyazaki caters to the child in everyone with whimsical elements including an enchanted scarecrow, a magical door leading to various locations, and Howl’s transformations. Some inclusions are throwbacks to some of Miyazaki’s older works, such as the giant military airships and the goop-bodied minions of the Witch of the Waste. Howl’s Moving Castle does play out as an anti-war piece and detracts the plot a small amount, but this is only touched on briefly.

There are a few plot elements that are never fully explained, such as where the black dial on the magic door actually leads to. It’s easy enough for viewers to assume that the black dial leads to Howl’s past, but this doesn’t seem to be consistent with its earlier appearances in the film. If this were meant to be left up to viewer speculation/interpretation, Miyazaki doesn’t do a very good job in expressing that, but at the same time such vagueness isn’t generally his style. It might just be my own personal nitpicking, but I feel that this, as well as few minor story bits, could have been better explained.

In contrast to the majority of the rest of the film, the conclusion is rather clumsy. After so much buildup and action, the story hits the brakes and goes back in time to explain Howl’s past, and then suddenly returns to present day where everything is hunky-dory. It’s almost as if Miyazaki had no real conclusion in mind and decided to combine portions from multiple endings he envisioned. In this regard, Howl’s Moving Castle has a notably weaker conclusion than many of the other Studio Ghibli films.

The art style is similar to many Studio Ghibli films before it, with a number of steam-powered vehicles and cartoony characters populating the film’s scenes. The lighting variation is phenomenal, though some of the background details seem a bit lacking at times. It might not be the most creative in terms of animation, but it’s certainly not overly weak in that regard either.

The English dub voice actors seem fitting to their respective roles for the most part, though Jean Simmons as Sophie and Christian Bale as Howl both seem to be talking too softly throughout the majority of the film. Lauren Bacall provides a fitting voice for the devious Witch of the Waste, despite the character’s minimal number of lines in the latter half of the film. Easily the best voice actor in the English dub, however, is Billy Crystal as Calcifer, whose trust issues fuel much of the comedic interaction with Sophie and the others.

There are few people who would honestly say there is such a thing as a bad Studio Ghibli film. Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantastic adventure for viewers of all ages. It does a wonderful job of balancing action with story, never letting go of viewers’ attention. That said, there are some technical issues that could have been worked out, particularly in the English dub, and the conclusion could have benefitted greatly from better cohesion.

My rating: 7.75 (out of 10)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Anime Update #2: River of Light Wine

My viewing of Gundam Wing is now complete, as is the second season of Spice and Wolf. Despite what I stated last time, I am in fact going to take a break from watching Gundam series – at least for a short while. I do plan, however, on watching Macross Frontier in its entirety. I watched the first three episodes at Jafax and was very impressed at both the beautiful art style and the variation of perspectives in narration. I also started 009-1 as I thoroughly enjoyed watching Cyborg 009 years ago and 009-1 is a fairly quick watch at only twelve episodes long.

I’m holding off on finishing Zeta Gundam until the Fall, as I plan on picking up the dvd collections when I have some more money to spend (I just spent a decent amount on the dvd box sets for Ergo Proxy, Mushi-Shi, and Samurai Champloo, as Amazon was having a sale and the prices were just too good to pass up). Death Note is also a major series that I want to watch, and I can access it basically anytime since Hulu hosts the complete series. Again, I’m going to wait until the late Summer/early Fall to begin that one. And as awesome as the first season of Full Metal Alchemist was, I don’t want to rush through the series. I’ll get to season two and Conqueror of Shamballa before the end of the year, but I’m not in any hurry at the moment. That said, I likely won’t even scratch the surface of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood until next year.

I figure that I’ll be able to finish season two of Axis Powers: Hetalia soon enough, since Funimation continues to upload episodes to YouTube at a steady rate (and my review of it will follow shortly thereafter). I’ve considered picking up where I left off and starting season two of Sgt. Frog, though – as witty and hilarious as the first season was – I’m not really feeling it right now. I’m more determined to finish Mushi-Shi as of right now (and once the dvds arrive, that’s exactly what I’ll do).

There are also a number of movies that I want to watch at some point, though I have no intention of really planning these out as much as I do with the full series due to the fact that they’re generally rather short time-wise. I’m still a bit behind the times and have not yet seen Ghost in the Shell, Akira, My Neighbor Totoro, or Paprika. There are also a handful of other series that just sound plain different and fairly interesting, such as Paranoia Agent, Eureka Seven, and Eden of the East, each of which I think merits at least a look into on my part.

As is the case with the films, there are also a number of old-school anime series I have not yet completed. The one I’ll most likely pick pack up before the end of the year is Cowboy Bebop. I got two episodes in and then just started watching other series. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy those episodes, quite the contrary – I simply kind of forgot about Cowboy Bebop amidst all the other anime I was focusing on at the time. I have been rewatching some of the Dragonball Z films for nostalgic purposes, though I can’t say that they’re the most complex plot-wise. Rurouni Kenshin is another series I missed back in the day, and though it looks very entertaining it’s also ninety-five episodes in length, so there’s no way I’m watching it without splitting the series up into chunks to view over a long-term period.

I’m not so much in an anime viewing slump as I am finished with the majority of the major series I wanted to knock out of the way this year and debating what to start next. I gave Gurren Lagann a try last year and decided it wasn’t for me, and last week I watched the first episode of When They Cry. I’ll more than likely watch another episode or two of When They Cry to get a better feel for the series, but the first episode had a lot of the same flaws that turned me off to Gundam Wing – the story is really interesting and full of suspense, but the characters are so bland and uninteresting that the viewing experience as a whole suffers. Granted, it was only a single episode, so there is plenty of opportunity for When They Cry to turn around in this sense, which I very much hope happens.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Anime review: Club-to-Death Angel Dokuro-Chan

Club-to-Death Angel Dokuro-Chan contains exactly what its name implies: an angel named Dokuro who wields a club, often used to kill Sakura, the boy allowing Dokuro to live in his home. The plot is explained early on as Dokuro time-travels to the present day in order to prevent Sakura from creating a paradise for perverts. After the first episode, Dokuro's goal is never mentioned again (or at least not for more than a brief mentioning here and there) and the focus becomes entirely on the here and now. Unfortunately, the here and now isn't particularly interesting, as it follows the exact same pattern over and over.

The humorous sequences are divided into two types. The first would be the awkward situations that Sakura often finds himself in. These are more prone to evoke genuine laughter from viewers, as they aren't overly predictable and involve some buildup from the story's events. The second and more prominent comedic sequences are drawn from Dokuro chasing Sakura down and splitting him in half, lobbing off various limbs, or causing his guts to gratuitously explode and rain down around her. All of this is then reversed by Dokuro's magical weapon, and Sakura promptly returns from the dead to reprimand her for killing him. This pattern becomes predictable by the end of the first episode, so any viewer who is paying the least bit of attention will be able to figure out when Sakura's next death will be. It's rather odd that the writers would try to combine more witty awkward humor with excessive blood and guts and not change the formula up at all from the start of the series to the finish because of how everything rolls together and just winds up being 'meh'.

The only two main characters to speak of are Dokuro and Sakura, whose dynamic follows that of a curious younger sibling constantly being scolded by her elder brother but then quickly ignoring what the brother just said. As an angel, Dokuro is fascinated by the human way of life and wants to discover as much as possible by spending time with Sakura. Sakura is too good-natured for his own good (most of the time) and winds up finding himself in many a sticky situation. Between the two of them, there's not a whole lot of complexity, though Dokuro is easily the more interesting of the two.

There are a number of recurring guest characters who show up over the course of the series, though they change very little and viewers' opinions of them will likely not change by the series' conclusion. Dokuro's sister Zakuro, another angel named Sabato, and Sakura's classmate Shizuki all see enough involvement in the show that viewers can get a grasp on what kind of characters they are, but ultimately play out as one-dimensional and only good for inclusion in specific settings.

Aside from the incredibly catchy and upbeat opening theme, there isn't much to say one way or the other about the soundtrack. Due to the fact that each episode of Dokuro-Chan is roughly half as long as an episode of just about any other given anime, the sounds aren't terribly complex or original. It's a pretty generic soundtrack that accompanies the series, though it's not exactly the most unfitting for a more low-brow comedy. The animation is quite good, and the animators get creative from time to time, changing things up with some magazine-clipping style animals and more American-style animation. These aren't prominent for much of the show, but they are interesting breaks from the animation used in the majority of the series.

Dokuro-Chan is technically split into two seasons, but there isn't much difference to speak of between season one and season two. The story is pretty bland and the characters incredibly undeveloped. This series is targeted for a specific audience and those who appreciate this kind of humor will certainly find it to be outrageously funny. As for the rest, however, there's not much else redeeming about the series.

My rating: 6 (out of 10)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Anime review: Dragonball Z - Bojack Unbound

Picking up shortly after the defeat of Cell and Goku’s death, Mr. XS Cash is hosting a fighting tournament as a multi-billion dollar birthday present for his son and convinces Hercule to take part in the final fight. Cash accepts entrants the world over to take part in the first few free-for-all rounds, and invites a few alien warriors to compete in the final matches. Needless to say, the Z fighters make short work of the other entrants, though a few of them are pitted against one another and Yamcha, Tien, and Piccolo do not make it past the semi-finals.

In the Other World, Goku and King Kai are watching the tournament, cheering on the Z fighters. When King Kai becomes aware of Bojack’s presence on Earth, he explains to Goku that he and the other Kais sealed Bojack away ages ago. When Goku transported Cell to King Kai’s planet in order to avoid Earth’s destruction, the seal was broken and Bojack and his henchmen set free.

With Goku dead, the film manages to balance the involvement of the other characters very well. Obvious inclusions, such as Gohan, Krillin, Piccolo, and Trunks gain much of the spotlight, but Tien, Yamcha, Bulma, and Chi-Chi receive larger roles than I would have guessed. Even Oolong and Master Roshi appear to add some humor to the film.

Unlike some of the later Dragonball Z films, Bojack Unbound ties into the overarching story quite well, referencing previous events from the television series. It is easily one of the funniest works in the Dragonball Z series, borrowing some of its comedic style from the earliest episodes of Dragonball Z as well as the original Dragonball. From Krillin’s uneasiness in the tournament to Hercule’s overinflated ego, the film does a great job of not taking itself too seriously during the lighter moments.

The film’s pacing in rather fast, even for a Dragonball Z film. The first twenty minutes or so focus on the tournament and make everything seem as though it’s flowing along perfectly smoothly. Once Bojack’s minions appear, the action really picks up and keeps speeding along until the film’s conclusion. There isn’t much of a wrap-up at the finale, but such is the case with most Dragonball Z films.

The original voice actors of the television series have returned, for both the Japanese and English versions. The few new voice actors, being those portraying Bojack and his minions have a rather minimal number of lines. Bojack and Zangya are voiced well enough, though Kogu, Bido and Bujin could have used some extra attention in the English dub. This doesn’t detract the story much as their involvement is purely for combat purposes. The soundtrack basically follows the same formula as that in the television series or any other Dragonball Z film, so it’s nothing spectacular or overly complex, however fitting to each scene it might be. The animation is pretty much the same as any other work from the franchise - it might not be anything spectacular by today's standards, but for the time of its release, Bojack Unbound looks quite good.

Bojack Unbound is one of the more enjoyable and light-hearted Dragonball Z films released. It ties in very well with the main series, but viewers don’t really have to be familiar with the television series or other films to follow along. The Z fighters are very entertaining, though Bojack doesn’t exactly flesh out much as the lead villain. All in all it’s a fun film that’s a quick watch, but it doesn’t really present anything particularly new to the franchise.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Anime review: Spice and Wolf (season two)

At the conclusion of the first season of Spice and Wolf, Lawrence and Holo managed to outwit the Remerio Company and left for other business ventures, but not before aiding Nora in finding her own courage to stand up for herself and break away from her job as a shepherd. With the overarching story of season one so nicely wrapped up, I was concerned that season two would be a completely unrelated journey that would struggle to get on its feet and carry a weaker narrative narrative than that of season one. Thankfully, I was only partially correct – the events of the second season are, for the most part, unrelated to those in season one, save for the obvious continuation of Lawrence and Holo’s story. There are some notable changes from the storytelling style of season one – some for better and others for worse – but ultimately season two comes out stronger than its predecessor.

The story is notably darker this time around and the story far more serious. Nothing is spared in regards to the show's humorous segments, however, as these are particularly clever in both content and their placement in the series' events. The mythological aspects of Spice and Wolf are explored in greater detail and Lawrence’s trades become increasingly greater gambles with the potential for even greater rewards (and not just those of monetary nature).

Whereas the first season put greater emphasis on Lawrence, season two is largely centered around Holo and her past. Her travels with Lawrence have made her far more comfortable around him and she acts more mature, putting behind herself some of the childish behavior seen in season one. In this regard, Holo herself is less humorous, but the dynamic between Lawrence and Holo is genuinely entertaining and will evoke plenty of laughs from viewers. If however, some viewers found Holo’s antics is season one to be annoying, they can rest assured that her personality has changed a bit – not so much that it becomes difficult to recognize her as the same character, but enough that it becomes obvious from a very early point in season two as to how much Holo has matured.

Season two's pacing is a bit faster than season one, picking up right where the story last left viewers. Lawrence, with little information to work with, begins asking around for information about the lands to the North, in hopes of locating Holo's homeland and keeping his promise to her. However, things become sidetracked when Lawrence makes a gamble with a rich young local named Amarty, and the two essentially compete for Holo's companionship. It is during all of this that Lawrence begins to deeply question his true feelings toward Holo. Due to the more specific focuses of the plot in season two, viewers can expect to see fewer locales and environments as the backdrop for Spice and Wolf.

The side characters in season one, though few and far between, were well-rounded and usually very engaging. The side characters in season two are still enjoyable, though their development leaves something to be desired in most cases. They are generally used to tie plot elements together, and while they aren’t stereotypical or bland, per se, they aren’t fully rounded or the most well-developed. In this regard, viewers should feel relieved that the two main characters remain the only main characters over the course of the second season.

The one major exception to this, however, is a merchant by the name of Abe, who offers a partnership deal to Lawrence in fur trading. Abe is shrouded in mystery during her first few appearances, but slowly exposes who she is and what her intentions are as each episode progresses. Abe's story as a large driving force behind the second half of season two causes the pacing to slow down considerably, but this seems quite fitting to the overall darker mood of season two, as well as the intricacies and complexity of the relationship Lawrence, Abe, and Holo forge.

The soundtrack is comprised of a number of new pieces following a similar formula to those in season one. Though the use of strings and woodwinds does sound superb, there are fewer distinctly seperate pieces used in season two, so viewers are certain to hear familiar sounds over the course of the story. The animation is a significant step up from that of season one, which was impressive in and of itself. The lighting effects and attention to detail really make season two shine through and set it at the caliber of a standalone full-length movie. Part of this is likely due to the fact that there are only twelve episodes in comparison to many series capping at twenty-five or fifty. Nonetheless, the animators should be commended on a job very well done.

The Japanese voice actors make a triumphant return and convey emotions even better than in season one. Newcomers to the cast seem to flow pretty smoothly with the overall portrayal of the characters and focus of the plot. The series is, however, about Holo and Lawrence in virtually every way possible and it's comforting to see how the voice actors for these respective characters seem to 'click' with one another even more so than in season one, making their interactions more convincing.

The finale throws a major plot twist that many viewers won't see coming. With a tense buildup and emotional performances from the cast members, the finale is executed masterfully. The finale is neither sunshine-and-rainbows happy nor so depressing that it would cause fans to cry out in an uproar. Instead, the conclusion is fitting in every way possible, offering a very satisfying conclusion to Holo and Lawrence's story.

Season two improves upon most of the flaws in season one, though there were few flaws to begin with. There is a small amount of experimentation with characters and plot in season two that will likely cause a bit of controversy among viewers, but for the most part this aids Spice and Wolf’s presentation. It was a very unique story idea in season one, with Holo and Lawrence relying on wit to outdo their foes and it’s comforting to see that things feel relatively fresh in season two. It may not be as original, but season two of Spice and Wolf is more focused and delivers a more serious story without sacrificing the light-hearted elements.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Top five anime of 2010 - Spring/Summer contenders

It is now near the end of the first full week of July and I find myself looking back on the anime I completed last year as well as the series and films I have finished thus far in 2010. I plan on posting a similar “anime - year in review” as I put up this January, come 2011, as a recap of all the series I covered this year and my thoughts on each one. While I still have a fair number of series and films I would like to complete before the end of the year, I thought I’d take a moment to list the contenders that have a strong shot at making my “top five” list, being the five anime series and/or films that I enjoyed watching the most and felt like I got the most out of. These will not be finalized until the end of December, are listed in no particular order, and do not necessarily reflect the number ratings I gave them.

- Ergo Proxy – The combination of a cyberpunk setting and art style with a deeply psycho-analytical story makes for a thought-provoking experience. There is plenty of action woven in and an interesting cast of characters who play off each other brilliantly. The series requires a fair amount of interpretation on the viewers’ part, but the end result is that Ergo Proxy is far more engaging than most other adult-themed anime.

- Turn A Gundam – Perhaps the most unorthodox of all Gundam series, Turn A Gundam combines early 20th century technology and lifestyle with the space-faring mecha Gundam fans have come to know and love. The story carries a hopeful focus and the characters are very well-rounded, feeling far more complex than those in series like Gundam Wing or Gundam SEED. The soundtrack is beautiful, the animation solid, and the story at perfect pacing and devoid of cliché solutions.

- Samurai Champloo – Following the style of Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo mixes Edo-period samurai traditions with hip-hop music and urban style. Jin, Mugen, and Fuu play off one another as a wildly entertaining lead cast who have very little in common from the start, and this only fuels the irony of the predicaments they often find themselves in. Though some episodes are better connected than others, the series comes to a satisfying conclusion. Viewers will likely find it difficult to find a similar series that can stack up to the entertaining story and well-written dialogue that Samurai Champloo has.

- Full Metal Alchemist – Easily one of the most popular anime of all time, Full Metal Alchemist follows brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric in their quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone and return their bodies to normal, following a botched attempt to bring their mother back from the grave. The variety of locales and broad cast of characters the Elric brothers come across keeps the story interesting, while their notably different personalities fuel the show’s humorous sequences. The story becomes darker and more complex as things progress, but the pacing is nearly perfect and only on a few rare instances do plot elements seem out of place.

- Axis Powers: Hetalia – Portraying each country as a single stereotype of its populous may offend some people, but Axis Powers: Hetalia is a no-holds barred anime that gives a unique comedic perspective on the events surrounding WWII. With an incredibly quirky cast and fantastic voice actors to boot, the series really stands out as one of the more impressive web-based series, as well as comedy anime, released to date.

- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time – A film that disguises itself as a more mainstream teen drama, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a surprisingly well-scripted and beautifully animated sci-fi adventure. The story centers around Makoto as she tries to help herself and her friends avoid mishaps and unfortunate events in life. Makoto soon realizes, however, that to achieve a better end result, a tradeoff must be made and others may wind up suffering as a result. The dialogue is largely aimed at the teen audience, but the story is something that viewers of almost any age can thoroughly enjoy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing

Years after it aired on Cartoon Network's Toonami block, I decided to give Gundam Wing a second chance, as I didn't really get into the series back then. I was never particularly fond of the combination of Victorian-style clothing and architecture with space-bound mecha, but at the same time I figured it was a minor annoyance and more of my own personal nitpicking at the series. The further I got into watching Gundam Wing, however, the more and more I realized that the Gundam series are split into two seperate story types for a reason. Those who are fans of the Universal Century series follow it due to its more realistic scenarios and continuous story from varying viewpoints. Most Universal Century series are, at worst, considered to be 'decent' and, at best, considered to be 'great'. Not every one of the Universal Century series is going to be ranked as highly as others, but there are very few Universal Century series that Gundam fans would generally consider to be 'bad'. The Alternate Universe series, on the other hand, vary greatly and are meant to cater to a wide variety of viewing tastes. They are not directly connected, by neither creative staff nor plot and characters, and this variations boils up more opinions (and often harsher criticism).

Gundam Wing carries a very ‘spy vs. spy’ feel about it, with the Gundam pilots acting against Treize’s regime and the Oz forces on behalf of organizations within the colonies’ populations. The Romefeller Foundation acts as the governing organization for both Oz and Treize with their immense wealth and prestige, yet it becomes obvious early on that Treize and Romefeller have a difference in ideals. The threat of the Gundams shakes things up for Oz and the Romfeller foundation, and the Gundams become a prize of sorts in order to assure the stability of the plans of the various factions that are ultimately caught up in the conflict.

The lead characters are elite pilots selected by the colonies due to their combat capabilities and their focus on the battlefield. While it makes sense that each of the five pilots should be quick to react in a tight situation, as well as have a great deal of intel on enemy units and the like, they often tend to jump to conclusions without much evidence between their claims and the subsequent actions taken. Interestingly enough, this only works to their disadvantage on a small number of occasions over the course of the show, but following gut instinct isn’t a particularly practical way to go about the events of the series and ends up making the story more and more predictable as things progress.

The characters of Gundam Wing are a mixed bag, with the antagonists more often than not being more interesting than the protagonists. Granted, Treize Khusrenada and Zechs Marquise make for the most intriguing antagonists as both higher-ups in the system as well as Gundam pilots. Treize is an unorthodox leader for Oz with his own ideals about what humanity should be fighting for, and these contradict much of what the Romefeller Foundation wants. His cleverly laid-out plans over the course of the series almost always ensure that Treize is on top and he completely avoids being a cliché villain – in fact, to call him a villain isn’t entirely accurate. Zechs is one of Treize’s closest friends and allies at the start of the series, while focusing on the future of his former home of the pacifistic Sanc Kingdom. Zechs aligns himself with a number of factions over the course of the series and finds the Gundam pilots to be both his enemies and allies as things progress. Treize’s other close ally and underling is the ever-cruel Lady Une who keeps her troops in line with her cold-hearted attitude. She believes the Gundams to be a severe threat to Oz early on, but later on she develops a split-personality and preaches peace to the colonies. These two personalities greatly conflict with one another and lead many of her troops and contacts to become incredibly confused with regards to her intent for the colonies.

There is pratically no information revealed to the viewers about the five main characters of Wufei Chang, Trowa Barton, Heero Yuy, Quatre Winner, and Duo Maxwell. In fact, secondary characters such as Noin Lucrezia, Relena Peacecraft, and Sally Po lead more interesting narratives. This, combined with the fact that the English dub voice actors deliver a strikingly minimal amount of emotion makes it difficult for viewers to associate with or enjoy the characters. The only three characters in the series that are performed well by their English dub voice actors are Quatre (voiced by Brad Swaile who voiced Amuro Ray in the original Mobile Suit Gundam), Duo (voiced by Scott McNeil), and Noin (voiced by Saffron Henderson). Many of the actors provide voices for Oz soldiers and characters who make brief appearances, so viewers can expect to hear Quatre, Heero, Trowa, and Zechs’ voices from a multitude of minor characters. Gundam Wing was one of the first Gundam series to receive an English dub and as such a certain amount of leniency should be allotted in regards to the voice acting. Even so, Gundam Wing is easily the weakest dubbed Gundam series, as well as one of the weakest dub of any anime series, that I have seen to date. In contrast, the original Japanese voice actors put forth ridiculous emotions that make the characters seem more fit for a soap opera or teen drama series, removing practically any believability from that part of the viewing experience.

If there is any single character that proves to be the most frustrating, it would easily be Heero Yuy. Quatre is the most level-headed, Duo brings some flair and humor to the battlefield, Wufei is calm and collected, and Trowa is a master of deception, so one would think that there would be some unique characteristic given to sum up Heero Yuy. However, he shows absolutely no emotion over the course of the entire series and it’s difficult to tell if he even cares about anyone but himself, as he willingly teams up with the other Gundam pilots but points out their shortcomings and failures when things go wrong. Heero tells many people over the course of the series that he must kill them in order to complete his mission, but very rarely does he actually go through with it. What Heero says he intends to do and what he believes in conflict on multiple occasions with what he actually does. It’s true that Heero is probably the most perfect soldier out of the five Gundam pilots, but he’s so uninteresting that it almost becomes a chore to watch any scene involving Heero, due his lack of emotion and unexplained background.

There is a nauseating amount of monologuing that goes on over the course of the series. Some characters, such as Treize and Zechs, actually carry across ideas that are well-thought-out and could be put into practical application to either alter the path of the war or aid the world after its conclusion. But when the Gundam Pilots or Lady Une monologue, they try to make simple ideas far more complex than they need to be and manage to drag out a single sentence into multiple paragraphs of spoken lines.

The mobile suit designs are very creative and combine more stylized elements of previous series like ZZ Gundam and G Gundam with more practical weaponry and capabilities such as those in Stardust Memory and Zeta Gundam. The transforming capabilities of the Wing Gundam and Wing Zero Gundam are obvious nods to the Zeta Gundam, but do so with such fluidity and sleek designs that it’s clear how the designers wanted to stylize the mobile suits.

The art style is a bit lacking in comparison to other series from the mid-1990s. It isn’t downright terrible, but character animations are stiff and objects in the foreground are often less detailed than the backgrounds that accompany them, so a number of improvements could have been made. Thankfully, the number of repeated animated sequences is kept to a minimum. Battles between mobile suits do tend to follow similar patterns from time to time, however, particularly when combating the unmanned mobile dolls. The soundtrack that accompanies the series is effective, though not particularly original or complex. It is comprised almost exclusively of keyboard and synthesizer parts, and pieces are repeated many times over the course of the series though, so viewers can expect to be hearing the same sounds time and time again.

Gundam Wing delivers a solid story with many small yet effective plot twists that flow very smoothly with the overarching plot. The fact that the story is told from various viewpoints makes for a more engaging viewing experience. Unfortunately, the coupling of this with such an uninteresting cast of characters makes some episodes seem like more of a chore than others and Gundam Wing as a whole is a notably weaker series than most others in the Gundam franchise. The final six or seven episodes really turn things around as the animation improves a bit, the major characters become more complex and distinct from one another, the story becomes even darker and more intriguing – heck, even the English voice actors seem to finally get a grasp on giving their characters believable levels of emotion (Heero Yuy included). But this all comes into play so late in the series, making the viewing experience overall more than just a bit frustrating. I understand the important role Gundam Wing played in getting many Western viewers interested in both the Gundam franchise as well as anime as a whole, but if you haven’t yet seen Gundam Wing you’d probably be better off skipping it unless you’re a die-hard Gundam fan.

My rating: 6.75 (out of 10)

Axis Powers: Hetalia Funimation dub voices announced (supporting cast)

Funimation has started announcing some of the cast members associated with the English dub of Axis Powers: Hetalia. Below is a video of the supporting cast anoouncements. I'll admit I'm a bit surprised that Vic Mignona and Chris Sabat are playing supporting roles - I really expected Vic to voice Italy and Chris to voice Germany, but their respective roles as Greece and the Roman Empire aren't bad fits by any means. I'll be sure to add more posts as Funimation announces the remainder of the English dub cast.

Check out the video to see Funimation's supporting cast voice actors.

Just for fun, I thought I'd share my ideas for lead character voice actors:

- America - Todd Haberkorn
- England - Greg Ayres
- China - Samuel Vincent
- France - Tony Oliver
- Russia - Chris Patton
- Germany - Dameon Clarke or Michael McConnohie
- Japan - Liam O'Brien

And as for Italy, well, to be honest, aside from Vic Mignona I really can't think of anyone off the top of my head that would be a fantastic fit for the character. That's not to say that I'm at all doubting Funimation's eventually announcement, but there's no one person poppoing into my head at this moment that makes me think "that's Ialy!" We'll find out soon enough who is to play the lead cast of characters, and if nothing else we only have to wait until September for the first season to see a U.S. dvd release.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Anime review: Suzuka

The anime adaptation of Suzuka covers only about one-third of the entire manga series. Whether this was done deliberately to avoid the more adult themes explored later in the manga or if there were plans to continue the anime that never fell through is unclear. However, this review is about the anime as a separate work from the manga, as personally disappointed as I am that the anime did not continue the story.

The series follows Yamato Akitsuki as he moves to Tokyo to attend high school. He lives in an apartment complex owned by his aunt and has his rent paid for in exchange for his janitorial services. One day Akitsuki notices a girl practicing the high jump after school and becomes intrigued with her. He discovers her name to be Asahina Suzuka and shortly thereafter realizes that she lives in the same apartment complex. Smitten with Suzuka, Akitsuki decides to join the track and field team. However, Honoka, a girl from Akitsuki’s past, has feelings towards him that she has been harboring ever since they were young. Determined to overcome her shyness, she joins the track team as well, acting as the team’s towel/water girl.

Early on, the series sets up this love triangle that causes much of the drama to unfold, allowing for the characters to develop along the way. All in all, this works fairly well, though there are times when the series has to back-track for a while to explain events, such as Honoka and Akitsuki’s first meeting and Suzuka’s middle school track career.

As Akitsuki becomes more and more interested in Suzuka he tries to work up the courage to ask her out, and Suzuka asks him to go to with her to an amusement park, more out of coincidence than anything else. At the end of the day Akitsuki asks Suzuka to become his girlfriend and is quickly rejected. What follows is Akitsuki’s attempts to get back on good terms with Suzuka but also his confusion between the two girls when Honoka expresses her feelings towards Akitsuki.

Surprisingly enough for a teen drama, the characters are quite well-rounded. Akitsuki is both determined to win Suzuka’s heart, but also stubborn and easily manipulated by his classmate and ‘friend’ Yashunobu. Yashunobu is the kind of character who comes across as a sleazy player, thinking of himself as a ladies’ man and constantly trying to impress his peers. He doesn’t always think things through before acting, though he tends to present himself as mature and collected in front of adults. Honoka is the shy nice girl who wants to be with Akitsuki in hopes of improving her self-esteem, and although things don’t always work out to her advantage she tries her hardest to look on the bright side of things and inevitably does find confidence in herself by the end of the series. Suzuka’s story is left shrouded in mystery until later in the series, though viewers can gather early on that she is a very determined individual and that she wants to avoid entering a relationship with Akitsuki. The reasoning behind this, however, isn’t explored for a while and becomes one of the more interesting and creative plot devices. Finally, Miki is one of Suzuka’s best friends and a sprinter on the track team. She is full of energy and sympathizes with both Suzuka and Akitsuki even when the two are thinking differently. Miki is constantly at odds with Yashunobu, calling immature time and time again for his various schemes to supposedly help Akitsuki in his romantic endeavors.

There are a notably small number of characters in the series to begin with, and aside from the main characters there are a handful of secondary characters, with everyone else left as rather undeveloped tertiary characters. Aunt Ayano and Akitsuki’s cousin Miho show up from time to time, more or less to show how Akitsuki and Suzuka’s relationship confuses other characters over the course of the series, and once to reprimand Akitsuki for an act he makes late in the series. Yukka is another girl living in the apartment complex, attending college and often seen drunk. She attempts to provide Akitsuki with advice but usually ends up leaving his apartment a mess. Viewers will likely find Yukka’s inclusion either a good source of comic relief or just plain annoying.

The soundtrack is quite impressive for a relatively low-key anime project. Many pieces put emphasis on piano and string parts to create a smoothly flowing and genuinely moving soundtrack. There are pieces that create a tense atmosphere, particularly during the track competitions, that change the mood up but fit in perfectly with the rest of the soundtrack. Many pieces are reprises of the series’ main theme, but still diverse and separate enough that they don’t become overly redundant. All in all the soundtrack isn’t particularly complex but it is very fitting to the series’ events. The art style uses the current standard digital coloring techniques and overall looks quite good – that’s not to say that the series is going to win any awards in the animation department, but everything is very clean looking and consistent. The English voice actors portray their characters with overall solid performances. There are a few voice actors who sound out of place from time to time, but none of this jolts the story off focus at all.

The story is neither overly complex nor strikingly original. There are some interesting techniques used to keep the plot entertaining and the characters are very well developed. Whether viewers are familiar with the manga or not, the ending comes across as incredibly sudden and is one of the show’s prominent weak points. Overall, however, the story is solid and gives some different twists on an age-old formula.

My rating: 7.75 (out of 10)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...