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Animecon 2004 - "Back to School"



Another animethon, another chance to prove that I can survive on four sleep of nights an hour... Or possibly not. The location is different for every con, but hotels are favoured, and this time it was a large hotel in Almelo with arrows pointing towards the different video rooms, and maps taped to the wall beside the elevators to let the forgetful visitor know which room is on which floor. This con's theme was "Back to school"; not very encouraging. Being back at school is a recurring nightmare from which I wake with relief; school is a necessary evil, a way to keep tomorrow's criminals off the streets while they're young. Ah, but not to the Japanese. Despite the fact that school in Japan is truly hell, grownups fondly reminisce about their school days: school represents a time of innocence, of freedom and exploration, of friendships and first love. In anime, anything that looks like a child, be it alien, angel or vampire, can transfer to any school and seamlessly fit into the curriculum, never having to worry about catching up on subjects or getting bad marks; and anything that goes to school has very short school days filled with fun, followed by endless evenings in which to transform into hero outfits and save the universe. Adolescents catch more adventure and romance at high school than they will in the rest of their lives. Yes, in anime, school can be a pleasant place. Moreover, school-themed anime need not be confined to the classroom. At least some of it will involve Sailormoonish characters destined to fight Evil while posing as schoolchildren. Some of it will, inescapably, be about class losers fighting their way to the top. And a fair bit will be about innuendo and the odd panty shot and so much romantic flutterings and hesitations and beatings around the bush that I feel like snarling "Just get laid, will you?". Hopefully, most of it will contain enough humour to make all this palatable.

In my own school days, rappers avant-la-lettre Kool and the Gang, known for their syrupy love songs in the hit parades, surprised me by a bit of raunch on some radio channel which was anything but romantic, praising, among other things, the irresistability of their "supersperm". "Beg pardon," I thought, "but how can you possibly believe your genetic material is in the least attractive to the other sex?" Yet that is precisely the premise of DNA2, read: DNA squared.

It started so promisingly: a space-suited character of the type "anime babe" delivers a speech about the mission she is about to undertake, then squeals: "Sugoooooi! I sound sooo dramatic!" Switching from space to planet Earth: behold the hero of the piece, a boy with very spiky red hair, bigger eyes than most anime girls, and an unusual hangup: each time he sees - or thinks he sees - a girl's naughty bits, he has to puke. The space-suited anime babe, who thinks that her suit makes her blend right in, does a double take when this perpetually confused and gagging boy sets off the detector that is supposed to lead her to her prey: Mega Playboy. This genetic freak with his scarily attractive DNA has impregnated 100 women, each of whom produced new Mega Playboys who impregnated another 100 women each, andsoforth, leading to massive overpopulation. Two thoughts rise: (i) where did all the women come from and (ii) what happened to condoms, but both thoughts will be a moot point when space babe achieves her mission: travel back in time, find the person about to mutate into Mega Playboy and knock his naughty genes dead with a special capsule before it happens. This she explains to the boy, and then she shoots him. About to return to her own time, she learns that she took the wrong capsule. The one she used was an experimental one, likely to make his genes unstable and cause precisely the mutation she travelled back to prevent.

Oops.

He himself discovers this when the most beautiful girl in high school starts courting him to punish her cheating rich boyfriend. Her first attempts just succeed in making him puke, but whenever she cries - whenever any woman cries, for that matter - his eyes become smaller, his eyelashes extend, he gains a few inches in height and stars spangle around his head to show that Mega Playboy has awakened in all his chivalrous, charismatic glory, capable of melting every female in sight and beating up whatever monsters from the netherworld their jealous boyfriends set on him. Between transformations, he's just his insignificant self, so space babe hopes to prevent the state from becoming permanent by fixing him up with his old school friend. Unfortunately, he quite likes space babe himself, and the high school princess now has a firm crush on him... Material for endless classroom comedy, with a bit of alarming fan service tossed in now and then, like the boy's mum dressing space babe up in sexy lingerie while she's asleep - that's a different class of mother-in-law! One thing bugs me, though: being the perfect dream date, Mega Playboy not only keeps his hands to himself, but will refuse to take advantage of a lonely girl's offer. With 100 women to go, shouldn't he be getting a move on?

They're called sideburns: the few hairs growing between ear and cheekbone. Real-reality women try to fashion them into pretty curls. For real-reality men, they're beardy outgrowths. On anime characters of either sex, they can be huge. On the heroine of Angelic Layer, they're so long and thick that she ties elastics around them. In this series where the chara design is so "anime" that most profiles are almost a straight line from chin-tip to nose-tip, a simple country girl comes to the city to live with her aunt (who doesn't want to be called "aunt" because it makes her feel old) and is arrested at her arrival by the spectacle of two huge robots in combat projected on the side of a high building, watched by multitudes. Despite all odds - if one only values size - the smaller one wins, and the girl is informed that it has won many fights and that she has just been watching a sport called "Angelic Layer". Although school isn't central to the series, it does play a prominent part, because that's where she finds out how precocious and rude and boisterous city children are, at least, compared to herself. A truly naive little thing, she's stalked by a weird scientist called Dr. Icchan who appears standing on the branch of a cherry tree and then almost breaks his back jumping down, or who dangles from a pergola. Not as scary as he looks at first sight, he talks the girl into buying an "angel" herself and taking part in this sport that is all the rage. Lifeless and the size of Barbie dolls, these cybernetic wonders jump into action once they're thrown onto a table with a special force field - the "layer" - and are from then on controlled through the brainwave-transmitting helmets by their player, called "Deus". Surprise surprise, the simple girl shows a talent and almost accidentally has her angel knock opponents off the table, even when they're cheating. But there's much comedy in the series, like Icchan's unfortunate assistant who has strange punishments inflicted on him each time he makes a mistake, and it's interesting how the angels are extensions of their players' personalities, so after the first four eps I made a mental note to watch eps 5-8 that would be shown another day.

Alas, I then found out why the heroine so markedly excels at cooking and sowing. Every ep that follows is about defeating someone, and generally someone she's afraid to fight in the first place. Opponent 1 is a tough tomboy who she doesn't want to fight, partly because her doll was damaged in the fight before and partly because she's afraid to stand up to anyone with a stronger personality than hers, and that would be most people whose names start with a letter of the alphabet. Opponent 2 is a real boy - a sad anorak, actually, he has 3 angels of the Action Man type and buys several shopping bags of accessories for them - and that has her shuddering: girls can never beat boys, and they shouldn't even attempt it, it's just not natural. She wins anyway, and like the tomboy before him, he is happy about it and shows the audience how to be a good loser and that losing isn't so bad, when the opening credits themselves harp on the importance of winning. There is an interesting moment when a woman in a wheelchair, probably the girl's mother, beats the current champion (who is (i) male (ii) a pro, unlike the anorak above) with what seems a very inferior doll: it is the first angel ever made, presumably by Icchan for this invalid, so the whole industry of moving dolls might have started as a way to experience mobility for people who can't move themselves. But the reason she gives for her victory - women are potentially invincible at this sport because they love to play with dolls and dote on them, as opposed to men - is utter bullshit. Firstly, that doesn't explain how the definitely male person sitting opposite her became a champion. Secondly, I've seen a boy who loves to play with dolls just one ep before. Thirdly, men are known to dote on their cars, but that doesn't automatically make them winners in streetcar races. Her explanation makes clear what this series really is: empowerment for shy little girls crippled by their gender role. A heroine must be invincible, but demure; and "demure" means not winning above one's station. This heroine has already beaten a tomboy and a boy; in the next ep, she'll have to beat an idol singer! How creatively will the limits of "demure" be stretched this time? I didn't stay to watch; not even for the lovable Dr. Icchan and the weird, weird penalties he imposes on his poor assistant.

Not even remotely connected with this con's theme is Kaiketsu Shoki Tanteidan, a world set in a steam-powered future, because the only resource available is coal. The hero is a young smartass detective who has his own house complete with butler. He has a steam-powered robotic aide and spikier hair than the Dragonball boys. The stuffy old man he does jobs for has a fearsomely British moustache; the animators probably thought that a world relying on steam engines might as well be foreign and anachronistic. The villains, on the other hand, wear regulation spandex. The plots are far-fetched as usual and all humour is unintentional, including the teddy bear lowered on a parachute.

Onegai Twins seems humourless at first glance, because the main character is. Attending school in daytime and working as programmer in the evenings to pay the rent for the house where he lives alone, he gets hit on by the girls at his school, the counsellor and even a boy in class who takes advantage of the fact that he left his schoolbag at home. This classmate may simply be making fun of his obvious popularity, but the females are dead serious about finding out what relationship he has with the two girls - a tough-as-nails type and a shy girl who says "nyu" and faints whenever she's surprised - who recently moved in with him. Either girl claims to be his twin sister, both showing photographs identical to the one he possesses of two small children in this house's garden, and basing their genetic kinship on the fact that he and they share that very rare physical trait: blue eyes.

Anyone who has seen any amount of anime knows what a ridiculous assertion this is.

Rather than chip in on the rent, the girls offer to do the housework. Mainly, though, they trip over each other when coming out of the shower ("nyu!") and mess up his quiet life. Why he insists that they stay when they do finally pack up to leave is beyond me. In the time between, I'm treated to the fine comedy of a dullish, long-suffering character being bounced from one hectic situation into another. Including nudity, but not in the greasy, fan-service panty shot humour way; no one is spared the slipping-towel sketch, but when it does slip, nothing shows underneath. This is the first instance I saw of nudie humour becoming more egalitarian by including the males. And that means it's actually becoming funny. Unlike the women who wobble and/or scream, anime men caught in dishabille go "Yeah, wot?" if they notice at all, and the emphasis is on the discomfiture of adjacent females, not on getting an eyeful of skin. For this effect, the men don't even have to strip naked: in Ai Yori Aoshi, the male lead just has to take off his sweatshirt.

The story is known around the world, with ethnic variations: a bevy of supernatural maidens alights on a shore, the maidens toss off whatever gives them their power and have a swim, a passing man grabs one of these, and the maiden it belongs to - whether star girl without a basket, swan girl without feathers or selkie without sealskin - can't depart with her sisters and humbly follows the thief home to do his housework and bear his children. It's a story of abduction, rape and slavery if you think about it. Ayashi no Ceres is built on this realization. The happy sixteenth birthday of a sister and brother turns nightmare through a family attempt to kill the sister, who metamorphoses into the purple-haired "Ceres" and tries to kill her brother. Ceres is the family spirit, who reincarnates into the girl most resembling her at age sixteen in a generation-spanning attempt to recover her stolen robe so she can leave this planet. She also intends to re-punish the original abductor who has apparently reincarnated as the girl's brother, and who has clearly had a foretaste of her revenge. Initially, shocked at herself for attacking her beloved sibling, the girl only wants to be rid of her possessor, but in time she sees that Ceres may have a case, and even decides to join her in the fight against a corporate boss and relative who wants to round up all the "celestial" women in the family - which has been intermarrying for ages to conserve the psi-power gene - and use their abilities for his own ends. Too bad she and Ceres can't communicate directly, as her body can hold only one of the two at a time. Complications, complications: she is in love with Touya, an ultra-quiet type who works for the enemy because he's totally amnesiac and has been promised he'll get his memories back. In the house where she's protected by a bastard branch of the family, the boy she lives with falls in love with her, a love Ceres returns. And whatever spirit has awakened in her brother is determined to get Ceres back. The anime is based on a manga, and according to a web review of both, it's hard to keep track of all the characters and plot developments without reading the manga version. Comic relief in the anime version, at least, is the absurdly puppet-like Mrs. Q who also keeps an eye on the children, and easily gets into the corporate boss's HQ because the scan of her face is approved by the security computer at the entrance. Causing the boss to yell: "Who put that anime character into the computer??" Ehh....

Back to school and more family matters, clan matters to be precise, in Ai Yori Aoshi. Tradition dictates that a boy and a girl must get married to ensure peace in the family. Long before the wedding date, they run away. Sheer coincidence has the boy (of schoolgoing age) moving into the building belonging to the girl (who apparently doesn't need to go to school) and her severe "manager", which in this case means chaperone. They like each other very much, but on discovering each other's backgrounds, realize they can never be more than friends, or their families will reassert their hold on them. Well, what can I say... The girl doesn't even look assertive enough to make her own choices in life, and decides to make the boy's favourite dish for dinner on precisely the day his school friends drag him off to a drinking party. The boy, having to be in some club as part of his school life, is in the photography club with two geezers who think the only worthwhile shot is a panty shot, and a ditz who willingly dresses up as a playbunny to this end. The club is joined by Tina, a friend of the geezers who has been hanging out for years in America and who is consequently a loud, pushy boozer with the habit of squeezing womens' breast as greeting...? Where between Thanksgiving and Halloween did this custom make its way into the American cultural heritage? Do Japanese women routinely clap their hands over their bosoms when approached by an American female? I'd sooner clap my hands over my ears. It is Tina who drags the boy home after the drinking party and, employing the usual level of decibels, praises the lovely house and invites herself to stay. Well, those trumpet blasts of hers should keep the couple separated more effectively than the manager's bitching.

My love for anime does not mean I like Asian cinema in general. Live-action films, a number of which were included in this con's schedule, are a huge letdown simply for the fact that they show icky greasy real-reality carbon life-form humans rather than the clean, stylized pseudo-humans of anime. My reaction to what the Japanese probably consider a beautiful actress is "your skin is sallow, your eyes are small, your legs are too short, and you have nostrils!" In Azumi, a film named after its main character, I had to giggle when this character's companion, after dressing her up in girl clothes and dabbing red paint on her mouth, says that she's really quite pretty. With mucho killing and silly swishing of ninja cloaks, this was as BAD as the average Rambo/Rocky flick, and even though I'd walked in as near to the ending as possible, I was waiting and waiting and waiting for it to end. According to the synopsis, it's about a family of orphans adopted by a refugee samurai and trained harshly to prepare them for the tackling of his arch-enemy, which takes up the second half of the film. In fact, it's about ninja girl Azumi whose obligation to kill tragically prevents her from behaving like a woman; the psychopathic murderer she has sworn to defeat being a giggly man in a dress with a thick layer of make-up.

The next item in that room, for which I sat through both the above and the two representatives of the Dutch subbing company Nekotachi trying to introduce their work through alternately failing microphones, was worth the sacrifice. Said item being their current project, it was subtitled in Dutch. Wolf's Rain is about four, uhm, that's not immediately obvious. It starts with a voice-over about finding paradise and a white wolf tiredly padding through a snowy expanse until, exhausted, it flops onto its side and its eyes slowly close while snowflakes drift down. Change of scene: a train robbery, during which the male version of Little Orphan Annie is saved by the gang leader. He is saved again when the white wolf makes a second appearance and is about to rip his throat out; the leader knocks him out of the way and leads the snarling animal to a plateau where it berates him for taking a human form. Having exchanged insults, they fight. The orphan-Annie lookalike, having rushed after them to return the favour of saving his life, blinks at seeing two wolves; he shakes his head, and one of them is human again. Later, the white wolf, having received a shotgun blast from a wolf-hating sherriff whose own dog looks suspiciously wolfy, comes round in a cage to see another wolf looking at him, and the next moment it's a boy. The boy helps it escape (though not in opening the cage: this animal's teeth bend steel) and not much later, what looks like two teens are walking down a street of this cold, wind-blown city. Around this time, in a lab, a girl in a jumpsuit suspended by three chains in a tank of green liquid opens her eyes, and they are completely blood-red.

Bit by bit, information is imparted to the viewer: this is a bleak and distant future, the Earth a dying planet, and wolves have officially been extinct for 200 years. They have survived by fooling the humans through projecting a human mental image of themselves. The red-eyed girl, to add to the series' credibility, is a plant. Her form is real: she has been fashioned from a so-called moonflower by the Nobles, the planet's ruling caste who believe that when the moon turns red, wolves and moonflowers together will lead the way to paradise. If all this sounds incoherent and melodramatic, well, guilty on both counts, but there is a fine strand of humour woven in. In the last bit of footage shown, the wolves have been running in search of paradise for three days and are famished. They find a rotting goat carcass. Three of the four tuck in, but the fourth - the highly humanized one who used to lead a gang of train robbers - looks on in disgust: "You're going to eat that??" For recognizability, they're in human form when this goes on. They're in human form most of the time, even when there are no humans to hide from, and since I know they don't have hands or wear clothes or walk on their hind feet as this form suggests, there's a constant translation going on my head: "Okay, it looks as if he just pulled a hotdog from under his jacket, but what was he really doing? Was he carrying two hotdogs in his mouth all the time? And how did the big one manage to chuck a hamburger at the little one?"

From strange to stranger: Nekojiro Sou ("cat soup") shows two very anthropomorphic cats (but they really are cats and yes, they really do wear clothes) journeying through the underworld/afterlife to find the flower that will fully restore one of the kitties to life. It almost died of drowning, and its sibling, trying to stop Death from taking away its soul, tore the soul in half in a tugging match, so now it's half dead. The animation doesn't even attempt realism, and in view of the many dismemberment scenes and animals being eaten alive, that's just as well. Time is depicted in giant cogwheels, then reversed, with victims of a plane crash being returned to their seats. The story of the gingerbread house is retold through a scary man who fattens up the two kitties and then tries to make soup of them (hence the title) and part of the journey is spent riding through the desert on and inside a water elephant.

Not strange, just unusual: in Marmalade boy, two befriended couples have decided to divorce, so each can marry the partner from the other couple. The divorces aren't the usual messy affair; all four being firm friends and the ex's still on good terms with each other, they live together in one big happy household. The only cloud in this blue sky of remarital bliss is one of their two children, a brat called Miki who is deeply ashamed of both her real parents and her foster parents and mortified at what her friends would think if they found out. Sadly, this Miki is the series' central character. Oh, boy.

This is a "high quality soap", meaning a person can walk out and back in again an hour later and not notice any change. I had to walk out after an hour anyway, as within that time I was already thinking of painful ways to kill Miki. She half hates, half crushes on her new foster brother Yuu, a laconical individual who she calls half bitter, half sweet (hence, marmalade boy) and generally angsts about boys, her feelings (which she shares with the audience to a tiresome degree), whether other girls look more "mature" than she does (ie. they might steal boys from her) and the supposed nefarious designs of boys on her virginity. She blames her holidaying parents for leaving her alone in the house with that hormone bomb (ie. Yuu) when she's obviously being the one being hormonal, and he patiently puts up with being slapped and yelled at for any attempt to show kindness. Not that her behaviour impresses him much: when she screams at finding him undressed in the bathroom which, as always, she burst into without thinking, he drily informs her he should be the one to scream. When not being a major pain in the ass at home, she leads the idealized carefree holidayish life of the anime child at school, where, rather than enjoy the slack, she angsts some more about boys. And, oh yes, there are other characters, and there is comedy, and the animation is good, a bit like Dragonball but without the crossed eyes and silly hair, and for a change the working grownups get their share of fun and romance. With Miki hung, drawn and quartered and her head impaled on a stake to have the eyes pecked out by vultures, this series might be quite bearable.

Devil Lady is the somewhat coyly named successor of Devil Man, the monster series which was one of the first "manga" products to be released in the Netherlands and firmly established the belief that anime is all sex and tentacles. In the two episodes I saw, the "sex" was lesbian and the monsters were tentacle-less, which gets marks for originality. Jun, a fashion model, has the ability to change into a monster version of herself because she has the Beast gene. A policewoman (this really is an all-female cast) on the special unit that deals with Beasts (humans with this gene who mutate, go rampant and become a threat to society) uses Jun's ability by sicking her on any human she knows of who is about to go Beast (fight fire with fire, eh?) but lets Jun live because she can control the process and revert back to human. However, the day may come when Jun loses her humanity altogether and becomes a monster... I'm not sure that "human" and "monster" are mutually exclusive, but the story needs a goodguy. What confuses the division between good and bad, though, is that Beast-gene people seek out this model so actively that the policewoman has little tracking to do, to profess her their murderous love, and after destroying them she always feels she's let them down. Since it's supposedly the common gene that attracts one Beast to another, the lesbian love element may be coincidence (gender matters little to a multi-mouthed shark or six-eyed giant cat), but the fluffy girl that Jun shares an apartment with (and who does more to keep her "human" than the icy policewoman) is most disappointed when Jun doesn't buy them both a double bed.

Some cons ago, I saw Perfect Blue, of which I described the animation as emulating a crude, heavily inked gangster comic look, although it wasn't crude in itself, and the chara design of actually depicting Asians as Asians, in total contrast to the stylized big-eyes chara design called "japanimation". The style is back in Sennen Jiyou, this time emulating the glamorous world of cinema, and tossing in a fair bit of CG in breathtaking pans of shopfront scenery and the like. A formerly rich and successful film company has gone into decline, and its biggest asset, a famous actress whose name has totally slipped my mind, has retired and now leads a quiet and secluded life with her housekeeper. She is about to be interviewed by two men, one of whom, as is revealed bit by bit, has worked in the same studio and admires her tremendously; he is sure that she'll still have the dazzling charm that made her famous. His companion, the camera man, is sceptical: she must be over sixty. His assertion seems proved when the door is opened to them by a grouchy-looking woman with a mustache.

This is the housekeeper, however, and the ex-actress is indeed as charming in her old age as she appeared on glossy magazine covers at the height of her career. She offers them tea from her own garden and is delighted to receive a keepsake she thought she'd lost: a small key on a chain. There is a story to this key: at around fifteen, she is asked to work for a film studio, but her mother, a nastily strict type, forbids it. The studio director tries to appeal to the mother's patriotism by arguing that in making films, her daughter is raising the troops' morale - there is a war on - but mother states that a woman's only role in the war effort is producing babies to make up for the losses. She sits through this rather disgusting conversation with hung head and later vents her anger by snowballing a propaganda poster, when a man cannons into her, dropping his load. He apologizes and stumbles away, and she sees he's bleeding. She points the policemen that pursue him in the wrong way, and offers him a hiding place. He in return gives her this key, telling her it's the key to the most beautiful place on earth. One day she goes to his hiding place to find him discovered and fled, and the local constable lets her know he made it safely to the train station. All she has now is his key, and an ardent desire to find him again and return it to him. But how? Well, if she became a film star and acted out their separation, then one day he might see and recognize her. That is the basis of her acting career, and what follows is a spate of films in all the different styles of Japanese cinema from samurai to space age, repeating the tired old theme of the fugitive she swears she'll find again one day. Persons from real life become actors in her recounting and, literally, reliving of these films, the interviewer slowly metamorphosing into a protector and lone gunman while the poor camera man runs after them both trying to do his job while pieces of the scenery fly around his head. Until an earthquake ends the interview and guarantees this is the last interview she'll ever have. As she lies in hospital, the now very old constable tells the interviewer that the fugitive she has searched for so long died under torture all that time ago. Her dying words to the interviewer reveal what was obvious from the start: that what kept her searching was not a real hope of finding him, but the thrill of the chase.

Showing its versatility, this same style of animation is used in Tokyo Godfathers, the story of three homeless bums who find a baby in the trash at Christmas. Best described as a symphony of coincidences, its somewhat sentimental harping on family warmth is made up for by its outright strangeness; never have I seen such realistically drawn characters face-fault so much. The family of three is not related: "dad", an old grouch who left his wife and daughter because of his gambling debts, has by way of compensation adopted an adolescent brat who ran away from her parents after assaulting them, and is dead scared they'll put her in jail, although it is obvious from her real father's reactions when they do meet, that he just wants her to come home again. "Mum" is a gay transvestite singer (he knows the songs in "The Sound of Music" off by heart and tends to sing them continuously) who has a soft spot for "dad" and sees in the baby a chance to indulge his feminine instincts. They do however set out through the snow to search the mother, while scraping together the money to keep the baby fed and warm, only the mother is not quite the person they thought... The charm of this film is its unpredictability, so I'll refrain from further spoilers. Soppy at times, it is still vastly superior to the tear-jerking feel-good movies Western cinema tends to crank out around Christmas.

I had high hopes for YuYu Hakusho. A boy dies, but his spirit returns in the company of two other spirits, one of them a kitsune with complicated hair. That was what I'd heard about it. On watching the first eps, I saw a character painted "bad" from the beginning - he skips school, his mother is manic-depressive-alcoholic or something, a gang of yobs keeps trying to beat him in a fight and his name is used to scare people into parting with their wallets - when he's quite obviously one of those rough-edged types with a heart of gold, as opposed to the nasty scheming teachers at the school which he rightly considers a waste of time. Typically, he dies saving a little boy from being run over by a car. In vain, he is told by the girl on a floating oar who visits his detached soul; the child was destined to survive the accident without a scratch, and so his death was a mistake. By way of compensation, he's given a chance to return to life. Having been maligned throughout his life, he's happy to stay dead and believes no one will miss him, but, as humans will, his mother who wouldn't give him the time of day when he was still around, is now beating her breast in sorrow, as are a few other characters. He's not completely convinced, but allows himself to be dragged to some higher authority anyway, and has an egg planted on him; unless he does enough good deeds to counteract its growing, it will after a period of time hatch into a dragon which will eat his soul. This kind of punishment for someone who obviously doesn't deserve any already sets me on edge, but then he has to resocialize the lead yob who always had it in for him, discovering what a splendid chap this yob really is blah blah andsoforth. This was the third series where I stopped watching halfway through and left the room in disgust. Plot, comedy, bizarre characters: it's all ketchup on the main dish of taming college boys. (1)

Parody Earth Defence Force Mao-Chan was made for everyone sick of series like Gatchaman where the fate of the world depends on a bunch of kids in spandex. This time, the world is threatened with an invasion of cute aliens, and under the motto "fight cute with cute" the heads of respectively Ground Force, Air Force and Sea Force all put forward their cute little granddaughters to deflect it. Huge amounts of money go into the construction of three special vehicles with which these primary-schoolers will tackle the enemy, a tube lowered on a parachute out of which will pop some inflatable kitty or other animal. In one episode, where the crowds are anxiously following progress on the TVs in a shop window, the animal lands right next to one of the girls. She bops it on the head with her baton, and its eyes turn to crosses to indicate that it is now out cold. She reports to the camera: "Situation under control". The crowds cheer! But it doesn't always go so smoothly. Beginning the counteroffensive is easy: the girls simply activate their transformation badges, clover leaves with happy faces that change their school uniforms to fight-cute-alien uniforms. They're at a loss as to the next step, and the following conversation ensues:
"I want to defend my country."
"I want to defend my country too."
"But I don't know how to defend my country!"
(Double wail:) "Waaaaaaahhhhh!"

Not about school, but certainly about learning: Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto tells the tale of yet another simple country girl moving to the big city, this time a magic user entering a period of apprenticeship. Rather older than the heroine of Angelic Layer, she similarly drips with bashfulness and humility, and when her attempt to thank someone by conjuring up several wads of cash inside his jacket is ill received, she spends most of the episode running after that person to apologize. In the time not spent running, she meets with her appointed tutor who, as the synopsis drily states, surprises her by not being a woman. To be exact, she thought she'd be provided with lodging, as it is of course unthinkable for her to live under the same roof with A Man. Comically, this man that she ends up living under the same roof with anyway, runs a bar/night club (oh, the depravity!) because one of the many rules of the Guild of Magic Users (two of which this girl already breaks in the first episode) is that magic users may not use their talent to enrich themselves. She is greeted at her arrival by the assistant barman who's pulled his T-shirt over his head, and then by the tutor who is not only shirtless but has a towel draped over his head, indicating that the weather is very hot. Overcome by so much nudity, she begs him to go put some clothes on! (This while the opening credits suggest they'll be making out in future eps...) And with that the series' supply of comedy is exhausted. The bar owner reveals himself a kind and thoughtful individual, tolerant of both this inadequate bumbler and the contrastingly cold overachiever (who is of course American - and what a relief to have a character that doesn't mumble apologies all day long!) he has under his care. The animation is good, the chara design of the long-faced un-cute variety, the support cast quite bearable, and the bumbling and moralizing and angsting over Rules Transgressed so damn irritating that I did feel back at school. And since that's a place I was glad to leave, I repeated that action with regard to the video room.

Speaking of lead females irritating enough to chase me off: Figure 17 was shown again, the whole run this time. I did wander in towards the end, if only to see how things ended for the spaceman. By that time he'd been joined by a comrade from space with the same metal-coils hairstyle, and they were planning how to destroy the last monster he had accidentally released. He had been supplied with new body armour, but the monster ended up almost strangling him anyway, and so it was SuperTsubasa to the rescue again. Some added info since the last time I saw the series: SuperTsubasa really does kill the monster each time, but there are several eggs hatching consecutively (wouldn't it have been fun if they'd all hatched at once?) and the reason why Tsubasa is so disliked by the village children is that they believe she looks down on them; although how they can mistake her extreme abjectness for arrogance is beyond me. And on rewatching Magical Princess Tutu (the same eps as before, disappointingly) I saw that Edel, the mechanical advisor who likes to appear out of mists, is not a pedlar but an organ grinder.

The usual situation of interesting stuff happening in three video rooms at once meant that I was too late to see anything but the extreme end of Abenobashi Mahou Shoutengai. This parodies many anime series, most of which I've never seen, but I can guess I'm watching a parody when a girl in pink dress with huge bouncing boobs is shown several times running in slow motion crying "Onisamaaaa!" A boy has been inveigled into a contest for which he must train his strength. To aid him, a stranger gives him a fighting suit that makes impressive swoosh-swoosh noises when he moves, although it doesn't actually make him stronger. He transforms into Hokuto no Ken and later does a Dragonball impression, demonstrating why balls of energy are not to be dallied with: "Kame-hame-ha! Ow! Hot-hot-hot!"

.Hack/Sign - a bit of Web research reveals that there are several .Hack series, all revolving round an Everquest-like mod in which the characters probably sit behind computers watching blocky graphics on their screens, but are presented to the watcher as real people in a virtual world, dressed as knights and barbarians and occasionally looking up at the beep of an incoming email. One of these characters, a young mage, sees exactly what the audience sees, because one day he finds himself stuck in the game and unable to log off. What's more, he is protected by mysterious forces inside the game, notably a bodyguard which looks like someone's first attempt at 3D graphics: two connected globes. This well-meaning but volatile bodyguard gives its charge a bad reputation when, in a D&D environment where players are constantly fighting each other to gain experience points, it defends him so well that his opponents incur actual physical damage. Efforts are made - in vain, of course - to ban him from the mod and/or discover the source of his power. This source might be the mysterious Key of Twilight, or, as the mod's ultimate authority and her Crimson Knights repeat with just the right solemn intonation, "ze Key of ze Twilight", which grates on the nerves after a while. What doesn't grate on the nerves (at least, not on mine) is the Clannad-style BGM and overall calm atmosphere. Although medieval-fantasy outfits are the rule, and the young females have the saucer-round anime eyes, most other characters don't, and for fantasy outfits, the costumes are almost subdued. I walked into the middle of an episode where friends of this mage have gathered to discuss his case: a woman in a paladin-type outfit, a man in bearskin loincloth with blue body paint ("That's a first," I thought, "male anime charas wearing less than female ones") and a dippy airhead in barbarian warrior bikini. Hearing that the man's net name was "Bear", I wondered if he was supposed to be a berserker and the blue paint was meant to be woad, which two references are from two different cultural backgrounds, but the abovementioned web research reveals that various virtual locations there similarly draw on Celtic/Germanic lore. Between the soothing music and the relatively laid-back pace of the story, one would almost forget there is a plot. The plot is probably secondary, though; what this story is about is escapism, and what happens when the way back is barred. The main character, mage in the D&D mod, is (or was) an unhappy child in the grey flashbacks of his grim real-reality life, and the colourless, ethereal girl that the mysterious voice leads him towards is a comatose patient on life support. The characters of this dreamworld all have humdrum lives and identities in a modern world - who knows, the dippy warrioress may be an overworked housewife trying to get away from the kids, although her naive, spontaneous ways suggest otherwise - and becoming aware of this through techno-stuff like logfiles and incoming emails requires the same mental acrobatics as watching Wolf's Rain.

The entire run of fantasy series Juuni Kokuki was shown, and like a twit I caught only the second half of the last episode. It is worth watching both for the animation (style: Darkside Blues, ie. as long-faced and un-cute as it gets; content: pseudo-historical costume and interesting fauna) and for the, oops-spoiler, unusual ending where the ordinary, insecure schoolgirl transported into another dimension where she is of course rightful heir to the throne needing to depose the false queen, in the end chooses to stay there, rather than returning fortified to the "real world" to become an assertive yet useful member of society. Moreover, she stays, not for the sake of living the rich life and wearing pretty dresses - since being queen boils down to leading the army, her standard outfit is quite martial - but to be a useful citizen in that particular society, which badly needs a ruler. Not entirely a happy ending, therefore! The most important characters in this series are, as I understood it, the Kirin, mythological animals that can assume human shape. They choose a mortal, bond with it (the killing of one such creature results in its master's death) and, quite frankly, force a dramatic fate on it, like "you are destined to overthrow our ruler and become the new one" which, I gather from the short descriptions that went with the con's timetable, is how the whole story started. The series' atmosphere is grave, but with subtle humour: King En telling the doubt-filled young queen: "Blame your Kirin for choosing you - that's what I always do" and Kirin changing to human form behind her back to encourage and console her but, since clothes are not part of the transformation, begging her to "don't turn round just now".

This con's theme being "Back to school", Uchuu no Stellvia, about a prep school in space, is right on the bat. Collection of misfits it may be, it has some remarkably gifted pupils, especially regarding the highly popular sport "Astroball", which the slightly insane sports teacher is constantly pushing his pupils into. Woe betide the one who accidentally shows a talent for this, like the dreamy nerd-yet-underachiever who wanted to enter the computer art competition but turns out to be the only one in class capable of piloting a spaceball vessel. In one day her social position moves from lowest to highest. This briefly troubles her friend, who was next lowest in one of those schools where everyone has to excel at something, but she finds a new raison d'etre: being the champion's non-jealous ultra-supportive Best Friend. The nerd avoids the nasty side effects of all this excellence for a long while by retaining her dreaminess, while a more sophisticated older pupil, part of the Incredible Four which form the core of the school's Astroball team, replies to another pupil's taunts with "Oh, woe is me, a new talent has been discovered! I'll lose my place! There, is that what you wanted to hear?" Still, from then on, it's all about winning and the occasional pain of loss, soothed by the promise of more winning later, and so the series, only funny when it's over the top, goes down the same murky road as Angelic Layer.

Mind-candy series Brigadoon has it all: big mutant monsters, humanoid robots, sitcom humour and a poor orphan who's picked on at school. Glancing at the timetable to see what was playing at this hour and deciding I might as well stay where I was because there was nothing I was particularly keen to see, I walked right into the scene of the orphan being bullied by a group of girls for being (financially) poor. The (physically) weak classmate who stands up for her, then gets picked on for being rich; there's no pleasing these girls, is there? Their nonsensical pro-bullying arguments are as unrealistic and unconvincing as the shading used in the animation style, which is lighter towards the edges, instead of darker. This does create the impression of constant bright sunlight, giving a cheery feel to the whole. And what is this whole: the orphan is adopted and collectively raised by the inhabitants of the run-down apartment block where she lives, and which include a dear old granny and three identical puppet-faced women who, in an extremely silly scene, move a visiting teacher to tears (in two big waterfalls) with their devotion and inspire her to better teacherdom. Considered a little strange by those around them, the apartment people take a tolerant approach to strangeness themselves, and are not at all upset at their charge bringing home a huge blue robot with the usual oddly constructed rocket-blaster feet (which turn out to be ticklish) and a touchingly "human" expression, who in addition folds up into a neat little capsule when not in use. "Blue Melan" is the name of this knight in shining high-tech armour who rescues her with equal ease from exaggeratedly gross monsters (check out the water monster's mouth) and school bullies who want to cut her hair off, although he's a bit stiff and inexperienced in the interpersonal skills department, as fighter robots tend to be. The animation is fairly nondescript: big-eyes small-nose anime with a number of caricatures thrown in. The series has about the same level, and appeal, as Sailor Moon and other schoolgirl series: a diminutive lovable heroine, a bigbrotherly helper/lover figure, and a monster du jour defeated at the cost of great material damage which somehow never leads to legal prosecution, all played against small personal tragedies and snugness of Home, with little lessons at the way. Such as, that even robots should wipe their feet after coming in from the rain, and that discouraging bullies by chasing them through the school building firing rounds of ammo at every corner - the reason for the teacher's later home visit - is overkill.

Trying-to-have-it-all series L/R attempts to pair comedy with action and the occasional teardrop, and, in the comedy department, it succeeds. The opening credits introduce a 007-like special agent zipping down a lady's dress, his scruffier partner in trenchcoat (stock question: "Which one of you is L, and which one is R?") and their pretty secretary who tends to spray them with water or drop things on them. With this pretty female backup, it's a two-person A-Team, the smooth lady-killer bleach job and the eternally smoking backup man carrying out missions for some monarch that they rightly consider a bit dotty, but heck, it's a living. In the first ep, they're onto a museum director who sells off national treasures by having him sell the fake piece "Mermaid's Foot" (claiming at the end that mermaids can't have feet, which proves they are no readers of Hans Christian Andersen) which, in readiness for the transaction, is hidden in a square box in the very round bosom of the deadly beauty accompanying the art thief. It turns out that most roles in this little piece performed to catch the thief red-handed - including that of chauffeur and corpse - are played by the scruffy partner, the master of disguises. He has no need for those in the next ep, where a mission to recover some jewels from a highly protected fortress before the thieves get there is in fact a test where they're pitted against other deadly duos to see which one deserves the lucrative contract of yet another employer - notable rivals being the team of young'uns who have always admired L/R and the elderly husband-wife team who want one last big catch before retirement.

The flaw of this series would be that the humour is wacky, but the towards-realistic chara design is quite serious. This becomes unpleasantly clear when the teardrop factor is introduced in the next ep, where girls of a certain age are rounded up around the country to find "the real princess" (ran off as a baby?) and the L/R duo, who apparently didn't score the lucrative contract after all because they're still working for the dotty king, are assigned to escort back home yet another fake. This simple, honest girl had a noble reason to pass herself off as princess: Ivory Island, where she lives, is too economically challenged to restore the now rotten and teetering clock/lighthouse structure known as the Ivory Tower (always good for a snigger) to its former glory. She wears a small replica of it around her neck, and ends up singing in the town square to collect money for its restoration, apparently believing - as the L/R boys clearly do - that even if she collects a sum large enough for that purpose, her saintly humility will somehow protect her from being mugged. The most laughable - as opposed to funny - moment of that ep is where, on the train journey home, an obnoxious rich industrial and his heel-licking secretary are loudly disparaging "that stinking backwater" Ivory Island, while stormclouds gather over this girl's head. At last, she can stand it no longer, marches over to them, plants her fists on the table and delivers the following verbal bombshell: "Yes, it is poor. Yes, it is a backwater. But please don't speak ill of Ivory Island and its inhabitants!" Spoken like a true Japanese girl - that'll teach 'em! No wonder Lina Foulmouth, sorry, Inverse is so popular.



Footnote:

1. By now I have the whole series on DVD and most of the manga. The manga is much better, being witty and subversive. The only good thing about the anime is that it gives more character development to the villains; the heroes' characters suffer considerably.



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