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Animecon 2006 - "Romance"



No, don't run. It was announced on the con homepage that, to draw the female fans (was there a lack of them before?) this con's theme would be romance. Any long-time anime watcher knows that "romance", or some sort of soppy goings-on, is inevitable anyway. The transition from manga to anime generally means tossing in some swoon material (Nephrite & Naru, anyone?) and the right way to deal with this is the same as for panty-shot humour: ignore it. On the upside, the omnipresence of romance in anime means that a con with romance as theme can show a wide range of different animes.

Of which, sadly, I would be seeing little. Despite my boast of booking at the con hotel this year, I again ended up in the overflow hotel and dependent on the shuttle service. And this while I'd planned to bring some goods to the Bring & Buy: tapes that I just never watch any more, and a few doujinshi I wanted to get rid of. The latter didn't weigh too much, but the former filled a big bag. The risk being that none of this would be sold and I'd have to carry it all back home, in the year's first heatwave. So I couldn't afford to watch round the clock and end this year's con like the cons before: feeling as if I should be carried out on a stretcher.

Unlike myself - I was cutting and pasting Bring&Buy labels even on the train to Hengelo - the con organizers had gotten their act together this year. No staff shortage through half the staff having cancelled just before the con, no late schedules; in fact the schedules were printed in colour this year, on one big page with the house rules and anime summaries. And the anime items started on time. Which meant that I came in late for most of them.

Full Metal Panic - Second Raid (not to be confused with Full Metal Alchemist, shown later) was the first filler, sorry, feature I gave a try before moving to something with a more promising description, but it was worth a watch for the comedy in the sideline. Having of course missed the beginning, I didn't know what the young man in body armour was defeating, or why he hit the books immediately on his return to the military submarine, but remarks exchanged with a tousle-haired recruit made clear he didn't want this operation to affect his marks in school. On his return to this institution, a boarding school, a girl called Chidori demands back the notes she lent him and reacts appropriately when he awkwardly admits he left them on a sub several million miles away.

Misfortune follows this earnest young man around; the antenna he builds on the school roof blasts all electronic equipment in the building (which comes in handy when he uses it as a last resort to prevent a geek from uploading naughty pics of Chidori out of revenge) and the girl herself isn't too happy about the way he follows her around and regularly deals him knuckle sandwich. He is only performing his duty, though; like the doll-like captain of the sub I first saw him emerging from, she is a "Whispered", someone who has psionically received arcane knowledge that a terrorist group would be glad to get its hands on. He is quite special himself, being the pilot of an Arbaleste, a craft that can materially manifest what its driver imagines, at the price of extreme instability. (And the military group he is part of is called "Mithril". The makers like to borrow terms from RPGs and fantasy novels.) The terrorist group receives its weapons from another terrorist group employing two bionic sisters, identical except for the position of the mole on their cheek, and led by a character (an "American"?) who covers every nuance in meaning of the word "psycho"; he orders the members of the first terrorist group killed and sways around singing "Ave Maria" while the carnage goes on. The normally emotionless sisters share a deep mutual affection and like to lather each other in the shower while standing face to face with blank expressions; they hate their employer, and it must be a matter of time before they do him in. I don't like the serious military aspect of the show, but the humour is good, and the main villain is such a diabolical idiot that one almost enjoys his little massacres.

Vampirism reaches new heights in Shakugan no Shana (Shana with the flaming eyes): what's drained is neither blood nor life force, but actual existence. Yuuji is an ordinary high school student, a phrase which guarantees that something supernatural will happen to him, and it does: everything goes red, as if he's just been encased in a giant furnace, a cross-looking girl with red eyes and red hair shows up and manifests a sword, and he gallantly tries to protect a "Rinne", a sort of siren who rewards him by reaching into his body to see what the inside of a "Mistes" is like. The redhead cleaves both with her sword, the siren changes to a doll (her real form) and flees, and the sword-wielder sets about repairing the damage and calls for a big supply of torches to make up for Guze (the vampire)'s binge. He cries out that she cut him - not that it matters, he is now hollow - and she claps him together and tells him he doesn't exist any more. He's not dead; he never lived. His existence has been eaten. In response to his insistent queries of what exactly happened, a talking crystal that she keeps with her tells her to explain what he is now, so he'll stop nagging: a Torch, a nonexistent human given a semblance of life by an inner flame which will gradually burn down and vanish; and he's shown the example of a child whose flame dies down, going up in shreds at its mother's side without anyone noticing. The sudden disappearance of the eaten would shock their surroundings, therefore, better to extend their presence and let them dwindle and fade. Yuuji suddenly sees all the Torches around him, one of them a school friend who blushingly confessed to him her crush on a classmate, and whose flame is about to go out. Determined that she should not die forgotten, he drags both of them to an arcade and does what he can to let them spend some quality time together. The red-eyed girl, a so-called Flame Haze, finds this puzzling, and is even more puzzled when he demands her name; she has no name, and considers herself as expendable as the humans targeted by her enemy. To distinguish herself from others of her class, she has a sword named Shana-something, and it is after this sword that he names her. As he is a Mistes - a Torch whose flame somehow sustains itself indefinitely - it looks as if she'll be spending more time with him, and who knows, he may persuade her of the need to cooperate with another Flame Haze, a boozing blonde carrying, instead of the crystal, a lecherous book that she punches regularly; the goodguys don't care much about each other. How different are the villains of the show: the handsome young man in white who forgives his predatory doll any failure, since he values her life above all, and the incestuous young twins who are after Shana's sword, but both concerned that the other should not even get a scratch. Shana is about to be socialized anyway, as she takes over the existence of Yuuji's vanished school friend, but for now she sits glowering in the classroom, bullying the teachers with their lack of learning.

Generally one can reconstruct the original English from mangled words that have clearly switched Ls and Rs, but with Melty Lancer I'm in the dark. This Engrish title is the name of the special all-female anti-terrorist police unit challenged by a new threat, the Vanessars, a criminal gang centered around the ditzy redhead Vanessa who concludes her challenge on live TV with "and all you handsome boys out there, don't forget to call me". Clearly, not the most dangerous gang around, but there is a problem: Melty Lancer was disbanded years ago. Its members, who resemble a party of adventures in an RPG in that one girl is a mage, one controls animals, one is a fierce fighter etc., almost accidentally reacquaint themselves with each other in their mission against the Vanessars and, after the gang is carried off to jail before their helpless eyes, are further humiliated by being transferred to an extremely grimy office somewhere on the bottom floor of a metropolis and assigned to menial police tasks. The disrespectful unshaven type who is now their boss has other plans with them, though, and they soon find themselves dealing with the real enemy: a profoundly professional band of DNA thieves who give the girls a hard time, and plenty of opportunity to trip over each other. Because Melty Lancer, consisting mainly of cute girls, is about as professional as Sailor Moon's troupe of miniskirted bodyguards, and the only thing funnier than the girls is the stock male sidekick who bears the brunt of their tempers and does his best to clean up the grimy workplace a little.

Con-goers who hadn't seen the whole TV series yet were warned not to watch unless they didn't mind spoilers, as Full Metal Alchemist: the Movie was said to tie up the loose ends and conclude the series. I hadn't seen any part of the series yet and knew only the rough synopsis: in an alternate reality, two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, try to bring their dead mother back to life with alchemy. Edward loses an arm and a leg, and Al loses his whole body, his spirit finding a new home in a huge, hulking coat of armour. The search is now on for Al's body, and in increasing his occult knowledge to this end, Ed becomes one of the most accomplished alchemists in town. The film starts in this alternate reality: in a lab hidden under rock on an island, a crazy inventor presents his newest invention, the atom bomb, to a famous alchemist, and when his invention is declined, drills holes in this alchemist's armour to see what living body animates it. There is none; and then the alchemist he'd really wanted to see turns up ("Brother, he made holes in me!" the suit of armour cries in a high voice) and trashes the place. The Elrics barely escape with their lives in a sinking boat, Ed yanking off Al's helmet-head for a bucket to scoop out the water.

Brutal change of scene. Ed is now in our reality, an exchange made to give Al back his body. He's a carnie, along with alternate-reality brother Alphonse the rocket-maker, who wants to build the rocket of his dreams before he dies of consumption. Even if that means accepting sponsorship from the NSDAP. Also going to the carnival is a cart of gypsy women - there's a nice scene of them singing - that includes Noah, who unlike her colleagues can really see the future. Her services are sold to an unsavoury political group, from which she runs away at first - Ed helps her hide - but to which she promises help in return for passage to a place where she will be forever safe from racial persecution. (Being clairvoyant, she knows their plan will fail anyway. Although it's not always clear how much, exactly, she knows.) Ed runs into what he thinks is an old enemy and confronts him, but the man is a rich Jew (therefore quite used to people attacking him) who likes to read novels about alternate realities and is only safe from prosecution because his wife is member of the Thule society, which tries to ingratiate itself with the Fuhrer by opening a portal to Shamballa, to somehow aid his rise to power. The rich Jew, an aspiring filmmaker, takes Ed to a castle to film a rumoured serpent. There really is a serpent, it's an old familiar from the TV series, and it's chomping on Ed and Al's dad; characters from the other side are infiltrating the nazi parti. Spears of Longinus, homunculi, and this other-reality city where Al, in his own body, fights more suits of armour commuting regularly between the two realities by infusing his soul in them, helped by a captain Roy and a mayor with a body-builder physique who can produce statues of himself - watchers of the TV show will recognize them, but the only image to stay with me is that of Gluttony, one scary homunculus. To not spoil things further, the film ends on an alternate, more fortunate ending of the Beer Hall Putsch, and the brothers are reunited in one of the two realities, Al in his own body. A pity, really, as the only reason I would have watched the show would be this great, grim suit of armour talking in a child's voice and panicking whenever he thinks he's in trouble.

And that's when I had to leave for the day, if I was to get up on time for i. breakfast and ii. the earliest show I wanted to catch on Saturday. As the shuttle only rode once in two hours that early in the morning: either one hour too early or one hour too late, I had to resort to a bus line with a stop five minutes away from the hotel, for which one has to follow and cross the kind of road that doesn't have a pavement, and scramble down a hillside. At least the temperature was still pleasantly low, unlike the afternoon heat which changed the video rooms to baking ovens where the rows of watchers fanned themselves with sheets of paper. I was even early enough to catch a bit of Arete Hime: princess is locked in tower while king collects treasures from her royal suitors, but all she wants is to see how normal people live. "Spoiled little twit doesn't know how lucky she is" was my verdict, although I was curious about this wizard who would take her to wife and rescue her from the tower in his flying machine. Wouldn't it be great if I walked in at just the right time to catch this scene. Luck was with me.

The animation was quite different from the standard big-eyes styles I'd seen yesterday, and, at the point in the story where I walked in, bathed in shadows. It's evening. Coins are being punched out of a sheet of gold; chests of treasure are taken in and stored in a cellar. The princess now being old enough to marry, the king keeps her in a tower and offers her hand to the one who brings him the most valuable magical artifact. In truth, her suitors are only interested in the throne and the king himself is just collecting treasure to sell and fill his own pockets. At the top of the tower, a dumpy girl with small black eyes, thick eyebrows and a circlet perched on a huge shock of hair, opens a secret door in the chimney and climbs down a rope. No spoilt princess, this! Cautiously, she opens each chest and takes each item out of its wrapping to examine it. Most are rejected, but when she finds a book with illustrations of flying machines, she laboriously hoists it up to her room. Here, she quickly hides it when the first suitor of the evening knocks on the shutter. He climbed up all this way out of his burning love for her (and all the land she will one day possess) and tells her of his travels to strange lands where he saw an animal whose nose was like a serpent (the princess gasps eagerly, she knows what animal he saw) and slew it (she slumps and tells him it only eats grass). Not only does she know what a elephant looks like, but as he continues his glowing tale over a game of chess, she checkmates him without difficulty. Increasingly aware how underwhelmed she is, he takes his leave. The next visitor meets a very tired stare. He gives her a rose claimed to be from darkest Africa, but identified by her as a Rosa splendiflora from the castle garden. Caught out, he claims that he wasn't lying, after all, telling the truth isn't always the best thing, for instance, if he truthfully described her face... He wisely leaves.

At last, she's alone to enjoy her book of beautiful inventions. Until Boax, the supposed wizard who sweeps her off her feet, comes scrambling in though her secret exit. And - he's a tiny little man. He was changed into a child and lost his magic. The princess doesn't know what to make of him, but is all set to escape her tower and help him get back what he lost. Clearly, flying machines and marriage will have to wait a while!

Though unexpectedly interesting, I left this series for Loki Ragnarok, in which the Norse god Loki is punished for some transgression by being cast out of Walhalla to Earth ("And you will be japanimated! Huwahahaha!") in a child's body. He opens a detective agency to at least make a living, but soon other gods make their appearance and try to assassinate him for reasons unclear. So far the synopsis. Now I happen to know a fair bit on Norse mythology - for instance, Loki was not just banished but imprisoned for life after having insulted all the gods at a banquet and killed a servant, and Ragnarok is the Scandinavian Doomsday when Odin will be swallowed by one of Loki's children - and wondered how it would be twisted around to fit a cute anime series (remember Oh! My Goddess?) and how many deities I'd still recognize.

The standard big-eyes animation style is back. I see Loki (looking like a generic anime character) expelled for something I didn't catch (latest prank went too far?) and landing on Japanese soil looking like a generic anime child character. A clock strikes twelve (noon) and Mayuka, a pink-haired generic anime female, runs off to a tower reputed to be haunted. She finds only a doll there - but it talks! How cute! Rather, how creepy, but she hugs it and takes it back with her, planning to show it on TV. A black cat who was also at the tower abducts it, and as she searches it and calls to it, she spots Loki's detective agency. Maybe they can help her? She mistakes Yamino, Loki's bespectacled assistant, for the name on the sign. Introduced to the real Loki, she pats him on the head and exclaims how cute he is until he requests his assistant to show her out. He does intend to track this doll down, though. They employ special ghost-finding dowsing rods ordered from the Internet - Yamino likes to buy this kind of junk - and find, no doll, but a water pipe which the accident-prone assistant manages to burst. Look, it's rainingggg...

After the doll episode, Mayuka drags Loki to her school to see the seven school mysteries, of which only one is a true mystery: the walking suit of armour, which tries to kill him. He's saved by a moody teenager: Thor, also in child form, his Mjöllnir transmuted to a wooden katana, sent to kill Loki but refusing to do so until he can find a valid reason. Thor has an alias and a job as restaurant cook. Heimdall, the next assassin, also appears as a child, a thick forelock covering one, it is implied, missing eye (wrong! it's Odin who has a missing eye!) and sicks a flock of birds on him for a nursed grudge. (The only link to mythology here is that in the battle of Ragnarok, Heimdall will be the one to kill Loki.) Mayuka's father is a grouchy priest who believes that spirits are superstitious nonsense. It is in Heimdall's ep that, to teach the irreverent holy man a lesson, Loki summons Audumla, the cosmic cow who licked the mist generated between the realm of ice and the realm of fire into the shape of the giant whose body became the Earth - and a fish-like Pokemon drops on his head. I believe it mews, too. What were the animators thinking.

Mayuka will continue to pester Loki: she appoints herself co-detective, which gets her in trouble with dad, and next episode has Loki and his assistant looking into their past to reconcile them in the present. In fact, this series is mainly about Mayuka's obsession with mysteries; the Scandinavian deities are just so many borrowed names. It's worth seeing what the creators of the series do with them, though. I can't wait until they trot out Mimir and Braga(1).

If the chara designs in Arete Hime were non-standard, those of Fantastic Children are minimalist. The white-haired, eternally eleven-year-olds known as the children of Béfort, are barely child-like, one of them even viciously hawk-nosed. They are looking for a girl, their only clue a crayon drawing of a boat and a crescent moon. On the train through Belgium, a group of policemen stamp past them, looking for other children: Helga and Chitto, escapees from an orphanage, caught on their umpteenth outing. At the orphanage, which seems to be somewhere in South America (what a trip the two must have made!) the fuming director tosses them straight into the detention room to write a note of apology. He has already torn up the drawings hanging in Helga's room, and rips in two the drawing she has on her: a crayon drawing of a boat and a crescent moon. Yes? Yes. How frustrating it must be for the white-haired boys to have been so close. This drawing is the only clue to a place she has to find, no matter how many excursions from the orphanage it takes. Chitto has had enough anyway and uses the confusion outside the orphanage - helicopters are scanning the forest for a supposed dangerous criminal - to escape through the window. He runs into Tohma, a youth on a motor boat who offers him a bed for the night (Tohma's parents are the easy-going kind who don't nose into their son's business) and promises to help him free his friend, for, as Tohma says, search parties outside the building means less attention to what happens inside the building. Not only does Chitto successfully cajole Helga out the same window, but the director who wants to give chase is stopped by a gun in his face: none may leave. That's it, then; he only cared about their escapades as long as he could be held responsible, and under these circumstances, they're free to go.

Tohma is suprised to see Helga: it's the same girl he saw sleeping on the hand of a huge stone statue sometime earlier. Even more surprising is the supposedly dangerous convict whom they stumble into, an old woman named Sinon who claims to be 24. The claim is corroborated by the employee card she bears. She dies before them, and grownups pack her in a body bag and impress on the children that if they cared about the woman at all, they must not tell anyone what they saw. From jungle to whitewashed house in European decor; police inspector or detective visits home to reopen case of boy who went missing at 11. The case was closed because his little sister testified that he left of his own free will. He was born with brown hair, but at the time of his appearance it had turned white. The inspector, detective or whatever shows a photo of some children: is this the missing boy? Yes, that's definitely him! Only, that photograph was taken over a century ago.

Where Melty Lancer is set in the future, Moeyo Ken plays in the present with nods to the past. Like their fathers before them, the three girls that make up the Shinsengumi Mobile Unit use their combat skills and priestly powers to protect Tokyo from supernatural attacks. It's a pity they operate like the Dirty Pair, meaning, they break as much as the monsters they fight. The Dirty Trio follows a formula I'm beginning to recognize: a redhead who has a short temper (don't redheads always?) and does the sword-swinging, a strict, serious greyish-haired one and a dippy purple-haired one who tries to make sure everyone gets along. Along with the standard male sidekick, this team's punching ball is a big talking cat who ends every sentence in "nya", and whose adventures include a lucky escape from the dentist. Because this is no ordinary dentist: this is one of those crazy inventors that constructs a nightmare array of drills to cure that little tooth problem. When I dropped in, the trio plus cat also had a bovine visitor who ended every sentence in "moo", and who was told that the grilled beef he enjoyed so much was fish. This poor bull-god was one of the many victims of the modern age; nobody worshipped him any more. In come the villains - a devilish-looking belle, a nasty-looking beau and a droll little man constantly brandishing cabbages - to enchant the bull-god to a raging minotaur. The goodgirls put him to sleep for both his own and the public safety and transform him to a figurine, to be revived when religious interest returns.

One gets the idea that this is every ep's formula: the bad trio calls up and aggravates a neglected diety, and the good trio appeases it. There is a reversal of roles, however, when the good trio is discharged by the police for wasting money and causing too much damage (the redhead tries to argue with them and only makes matters worse - much worse) and decide to help the baddies raise and anger a god, to let Tokyo know what they've had to deal with all this time. The entity summoned is a bleary little demon, until the redhead gives it some vitamin supplement; then it swells and turns into the patron saint of Viagra, running down the street yelling "oneesamaaa!" and licking women through windows with his huge slithery tongue. Whether this will redeem the Dirty Trio in the eyes of the law, remains to be seen... What I liked about this series was the return of the four holy beasts - Genbu, Byakko, Seiryu, Suzaku - that I knew as villains from Yu Yu Hakusho, this time as cute little puppets assisting the dippy member of the team.

In the Munto OAV, a girl who has been able to see islands in the sky ever since she was small is neither ridiculed nor packed off to the loony bin: her understanding friend says "just because I can't see them, it doesn't mean they aren't there". Her other friend is too clumsy, silly and, I suspect, mentally retarded to even think about it, but, they are surprised to hear, is going to marry Kazuya, the toughest guy in school, who can't be all bad because, I'm surprised to hear, she's a good judge of character. It must be said, she's no anime bimbette, just a somewhat brainless child who trips over her feet. Marriage could pose legal problems, as the three are around thirteen years old. But now for the interesting stuff, which is what the OAV opens with: the islands are the kingdoms of heaven and magic, seriously low on "akuto", the force that gives them life. The kingdom of heaven blames the kingdom of magic for using up this force and tries to destroy it by knocking away the seven pillars that keep it from falling down to Earth, which, as well as flattening a lot of humans, would cause its magical denizens to disappear; the animation starts with an image of a falling pillar, seen from afar by the somewhat psychic main character Yumemi. The kingdom's inhabitants - Elfquest types in "Tales of 1001 nights" clothing - try to defend their their country, but their king, Munto, who has flaming red hair and, surprise surprise, a short temper, lets himself drop head-first to Earth to find the person with the power to replenish akuto and save all three realms. Is this person really Yumemi, the little girl who complains rather whiningly to her mum that she's treated as a baby on the one hand, and has to face all these adult responsibilities on the other? It would have been better for Munto (who amusingly insists that she address him with the right honorific) if their saviour had not been a teenager who greets his every request for help with "eek I don't know who you are go away leave me alone" and only comes to her senses when the island only she can see practically drops on her head, and Munto is beginning to disappear. This fortunate event happens, appropriately, while she stands on a bridge; the real point to the story is not magical islands floating in the sky, but adolescent rites of passage. A much less irritating rite of passage being the "marriage" of featherbrain and the classroom tough: swimming across a river together, where he does most of the swimming, the cries of concerned parents, teachers and classmates who think they're committing suicide changing to cheers of encouragement once the penny drops.

Although "cute" anime usually centers on little girls, series like Loki Ragnarok show a growing awareness of the comic potential of cute little boys. In Magister Negimagi, the academically precocious Negi Springfield from Wales (who came here to finish his study in magic, age: 10) is appointed teacher to a class of girls of Yumemi's age and level of development. He is introduced by an older relative, who gives him a book of names and photographs of the pupils. One of these, he has already met: she thought he was some sort of fraud and is furious that he will be teaching her class, instead of the older teacher that she secretly has a crush on. To make this worse, a misdirected magical blast sends her skirt flying up, revealing to the world, and her secret crush, the little bear face on her panties. Even worse, when she later catches him out while trying some magic and he wants to erase her memory, he accidentally erases her panties instead! Now she really has it in for him! He doesn't like her either, and next to her photograph he adds the comment: "horrid. boo."

She is alone in her dislike of him. The class thinks he's cuuuuute! And gets nothing done in the first lesson because they're all drooling over him. (He is cute, though. He wears tiny glasses and has a much nicer character than any real ten-year-olds I've known.) They organize a welcome party for him and are considering organizing another welcome party for him tomorrow because he's so cuuuuute! Due to a shortage of rooms, and because he doesn't have his own lodgings (did the relative seriously think anyone would rent a room to a child of ten?) he will have to sleep in the only free bed in the dorm, in the same room with miss Horrid-Boo. She kicks him out, and to patch up matters with her, he makes a love potion requiring a ridiculous number of four-leaved clovers, which he stays up all night to gather. She'd asked for it herself, to win the older teacher's favour, but when it's done she gets angry at Negi and pours it down his own throat. This potion makes the drinker not lovesick but irresistible, and he has to run and hide in the library from a horde of girls who now see him as cute in a different way... Add to all that the shy girl who uses him to overcome her aversion to men and his crawling into miss Horrid-Boo's bed because he used to share a bed with his sister, and it's clear the series brims with innuendo. Not of the offensive or disturbing kind, though. And Negi is cute. He's so sweet. He works so hard. He has such teeny tiny glasses. Slowly but surely, his irritable enemy becomes his best friend, and the original comment by her photograph is crossed out and replaced with a more favourable one. Awww. If the whole series had been shown, I wouldn't have been able to prise myself off the chair.

From one classroom comedy to another, a classic that I assumed much overrated: Nuku Nuku, the cat remodeled into a human android, but retaining some feline habits. I was wrong. It would have been overrated if all the emphasis had been on this disingenuous purring superpowered bimbette, but she is surrounded by a shining cast that is reintroduced in every ep. Each ep opens with Crazy Scientist for Justice Kyusaku's tale of how he made his son's cat into an android to fight the evil Mishima corporation. This son, Ryonosuke, appears to say it wasn't like that as far as he remembers. In the first ep I saw, it was decided that Nuku Nuku should go to school where the other important characters are found, each introduced by little captions: the control-freak school president with her whistle, the rock singer and his friend the nihilistic prettyboy, the thick-spectacled bookworm, the rich snob, the dowsing-rod type, and I probably forgot some; and the poor teacher who is the first to get loads of scrap metal dropped on his head when Evil attacks. In this series, Evil is the president and board members of Mishima Industries, who dress like X-Men and announce their schemes for world domination with much bwahaha-ing. Like the corporation's top woman Bloody Akiko, who shows off the latest invention: a washing machine mecha that washes 60% whiter! In the face of so much evil genius, Mishima is stunned! He orders Akiko and her two pretty assistants to take it for a test ride immediately. It flies to the school where Nuku Nuku, on her very first school day in the very first lesson, has fallen asleep and is making little snoring "nuku" sounds (so that's why she's called Nuku Nuku, the pupil next to her sighs) and threatens to wash and spin-dry everyone in sight. The class would like to stampede, but the school president applies her whistle: the only way they're going to run for safety is in an orderly line! Nuku Nuku wants to fight it (isn't that why she was made?) but is afraid her classmates will hate and reject her (each in their distinctive style, of course: while swinging a whistle, playing a song, reading Tarot cards and so on) and so has to make a hard decision. The washing machine shorts out, though, through a leakage: the inside wasn't waterproof?? Nuku Nuku tosses it through the air and it lands very far away on top of its three pilots. She's the hero of the day. Back home, when father, son and android are ready for dinner, mum comes home bandaged and on crutches: had a little accident at the office... Pure hilarity every ep, whether it's about choosing a school club, being chased by a talking rocket (the Crazy Scientist doesn't want Nuku Nuku singing in the Mishima-sponsored singing contest, and does his crazy-scientist best to prevent it) or being brainwashed to buy and promote Mishima products through subliminal messages in a book of crappy poetry.

Two things to know in advance when sitting down to Mermaid Forest: firstly, mermaids in Japan are not pretty girls with fish-tails, but evil monsters after human flesh, although their own flesh is said to confer health, immortality and eternal youth when eaten. Secondly, Rumiko Takahashi is a manga artist known for "Urusei Yatsura" (Lum & company) who has drawn a number of funny short works, but also some very dark, scary and totally humourless ones. Those that were animated into Mermaid Forest belong with the latter. According to the short synopsis, a boy called Yuta has eaten mermaid flesh a long time ago and is now looking for mermaids to tell him how to get back to normal. He finds a girl called Mana who is kept captive by mermaids who are raising her as food, because, ironically, human flesh confers health, immortality and eternal youth to mermaids. He saves this girl by killing the mermaids, but oops, she ate a bit of them and now she's immortal too. At least he has a companion now, and having been locked in a hut all her life, she finds delight in the smallest things. This bit is not shown; what's shown first is an episode in the past starting when he's buried after washing up drowned on the island of a fishing tribe. He comes back to life and digs himself out; "immortality" means automatic revival after death, so small wonder he wants to be mortal again. A tribe of pirates on a neighbouring island pressures him into catching a mermaid for them. The corpse has bulbous eyes and teeth that stick forward out of its mouth, and the pirates who eat of it develop the same. It appears that immortality etc. is just one possible outcome of eating mermaid flesh, the other is turning into a monster. The only creature who can safely eat mermaid flesh is... another mermaid.

Yuta leaves to avoid causing more trouble for the fishing tribe and in the next ep, he's in the twentieth century with Mana who finds a kittycat and wants to keep it. It runs off, and in chasing it she cannons into a truck. She's carried to the doctor who lies to Yuta that she's fine and walked out when he wasn't watching her. Mana, meanwhile, lies supposedly dead in a room with a red line around her arm, which the doctor wants to cut off and transplant to a white-haired girl whose arm is bandaged. The doctor is much more surprised than Yuta would be when she does return to life, the cut on her arm healed. Since she doesn't have a clue what happened or why she's there, the doctor takes her to the house of two women - an old one, and the one with the bandaged arm - where she's offered dinner and hospitality. They guard a family secret: their father (or other ancestor) has buried a mermaid corpse in the forest on their grounds, and though the corpse has long rotted, various tinctures and powders were made from it first, in the interest of mermaid research. These remains were used by the old woman to brew a medicine for her dying older sister, with mixed succes: yes, the girl recovered and even stayed young and healthy forever, except for one arm which turned into a claw and repeated the transformation each time a new arm was grafted on, but she - it is the white-haired woman - looks much older than her normally aged sister, hobbling around on a crutch with the drawn expression of someone suffering constant pain. She hopes she will be cured of this pain by a rigorous transplant of her brain into Mana's body. Yuta has by now understood what's going on and trespasses on their property, to be attacked by a monster with huge bulbous eyes and teeth sticking outwards from its mouth. What's that, he wants to know? A dog, the white-haired girl simply says. Clearly, dogs can't safely eat mermaids either.

Wedding Peach is one of those classics, like Minky Momo and Creamy Mami, that one knows of, whether one has seen them or not. Being again between shows, I decided to give it a shot and see what the hype was about. The premise is Sailormoonish: three girls are reincarnations of something else (angels?) and have to protect the world against evil (Queen Satania?) while at the same time leading the lives of normal schoolgirls and crushing on boys. Their magical transformations are double: first into a wedding gown, then into something they can actually fight in. The soppy morality is Sailormoonish too: mum & dad have argument & mum leaves because dad forgot it was their wedding anniversary today. Wedding anniversaries are very important to a woman you know. Turns out he had a present for her all along and was waiting for the right moment to hand it over, as there were customers to attend to and you don't just toss a present like this to someone while working at the counter. So, to who are wedding anniversaries so important? The present is stolen by some evil minion and the wedding peaches set off in hot pursuit. This really is Sailor Moon, but without the comedy; even the animation is the same. I decided to leave the room for something more interesting, like watching nails rust. Since the cosplay event was taking forever, I had time for a peek at She the Ultimate Weapon OVA Saikano where the penultimate weapon, ie. Chise's predecessor and prototype who does have the right fighting spirit, has to grit her teeth while Chise whines that she doesn't want to. Chise is the bashful schoolgirl and cyborg of total annihilation who thinks she's turning into a monster, remember? Even though the recruits consider her a saving angel and paint pictures of her on their military vehicles. I still wonder at the strategists who decided to let the world's fate depend on a, sorry, mechanically enhanced spineless wimp. The prototype, though not as Super Duper as the final weapon, still packs more power than the totally un-enhanced soldiers who are still sent out to the battlefield, so there is no reason to retire her. There is certainly no reason to send her of all people to persuade the whimpering wretch to carry out yet another useless campaign. Where's a rusting nail when you need one...

Japanese religion being less megalomaniacal than the Judeo-Christian traditions with their One God to Rule Them, it allows for many gods, most of which Westerners would call spirits: supernatural beings, often with their own favourite haunts, possessing some magical powers with which they can grant little requests. Therefore, it is not at all impossible to wake up one morning and discover that one has become a god. In Kamichu, this happens to a certain Yuri, an ordinary schoolgirl with a crush on some clueless schoolmate. Her friends, Mitsue and Matsuri, take the news quite well, although the class razzes her and the teacher makes her read Bible passages about, yes, the One God. She doesn't exactly manifest superpowers; she just turned into a divinity overnight. Matsuri is quite happy, because the temple where she lives has had a spot of trouble: its god Yashima has been gone for some time, and her father is retiring because he considers himself a good farmer, but a lousy priest, so the girls can have the place to themselves, and if they ever want advice on how to grow vegetables, they can ask him. Matsuri has double plans: Yuri is to become the shrine's new god (in an inauguration ceremony which deeply embarrasses her) and also to find Yashima and bring him back. Matsuri can see gods, and now that she's one of them, so can Yuri - and what dazzling, varied multitudes of them there are! Yuri has to go through a tiny wooden trapdoor to a place where only gods are allowed, while her friends wait for her under the darkening sky, slapping at mosquitos. After much asking around she does find him, banging on some gong or bell to give vent to his musical urges. Yashima is a friendly, melancholy teen who desperately wants to become a rock star, although, as his talking canine companion says, he has no talent whatsoever. At the inauguration, he briefly possesses the announcer's body to act out his fantasy. What a beautiful, imaginative beginning - I hope the rest of the series is the same.

Samurai Seven: in an anachronistic future, the end of a war has left the country divided in peasants (poor and exploited), merchants (rich exploiters) and a host of out-of-work samurai, both organic and mechanical. (The word "samurai" is used in a very wide sense to cover anything that has a sword and took part in the last war. One of the "samurai" in the show has never fought anyone and is strictly speaking an engineer.) As a number of these fighters are threatening to steal the peasants' harvest, a group of peasants goes to the "city" - a ghetto with many vertical structures and a very deep drop - to hire seven samurai to protect them. They can pay in nothing but rice, a fee which only the desperate would accept... In fact, most of the "desperate" samurai just eat the meal offered, express indignation at the terms and leave huffily with a full belly. The three prominent members of the peasant group are a beautiful and businesslike young woman, a, well, young gun with sword who thinks he can protect her, and a little girl who ends every ep with a letter expressing matters from her child's eye view, and always falls asleep so that her brush makes a long streak at the end of the sentence. Their first ally is a clumsy, impulsive robotic samurai (he has his arm slashed off in a fight at their first meeting, although being mechanical, he can simply have it repaired) who has his heart (does he have one?) in the right place: it is his impassioned speech that wins over their second ally, a serious veteran who teaches the young gun a lesson in both humility and practicality. The third is a samurai-turned-showman who challenges the same to shoot an arrow in his head, saying he can catch the arrow before it hits him (he does, but only just). The fourth is the aforementioned engineer, and while the party searches for another three, they attract a different kind of trouble: the foppish, childish son of the most powerful merchant in town has a crush on the beautiful peasant girl (even trying to abduct her, not that this deters her from her mission in the slightest) and his father, determined that the upper and lower classes should never mix, wants to have her assassinated. Highly recommended, this series! It's not animated in the farcical big-eyes style, and every character is an individual rather than just another clone with a different wig on. It's visually imaginative both in character design and in decor. And lastly, between fights, it is actually funny. And here ends today's letter... zzzzzz...

Ichigo Mashimaro ("Strawberry marshmallow") is described as "cute girls doing cute things", which, depending on one's idea of cute, can be funny or vomit-inducing. But when the narrator at the computer first pretends to be a high-school girl, then admits she's a student, then discovers she has no cigarettes and no money to buy them and decides to introduce the audience to the Treasu- um, her younger sister, it's clear what kind of cute this is. Her sister is twelve, as are her friends - a noisy redhead who often ends up tossed out on the roof, and a simpleton - and while she's looking for a part-time job for cigarette money, the sister tries to blackmail her out of money by pretending to be the other girls' hostage. She plays along for a while and somehow this ends in the simpleton dressed up as a cat girl: ears, tail, bell, and the younger one calls her older sister a pervert. Yep, this girl does have a thing about cute; when the redhead introduces her new "foreign" friend - fair hair, blue eyes, sugary dress - this sister, who has had a few beers, hugs her and practically drools over her. The foreign friend was born in Cornwall, speaks better Japanese than English but, because of a bad experience at her last school, decides to pretend to be a total foreigner; she's counting on her new friends to keep the secret, but really, what did she expect? The big sister takes a job at a fancy restaurant where she's not allowed to smoke, and where the redhead blackmails her out of free ice cream every day until the two have a food fight (with dramatic classical music rising to a climax as full plates are thrown against a window and slither down, and an unmoving customer sits while splashed with more and more food) big sis is fired, much to her relief... This is the same humour as Binzume Yousei from last con, and I was glad to, for once, have come in on time to see all eps shown from start to finish.

Starting again on Sunday morning, the apparently RPG-inspired Fate/Stay night was a slight disappointment. Did the animation suck? It was very standard, but, not one bit. Did the plot suck? Well, there were certain parallels with Shakugan no Shana in that a philosophical area was being explored, only this time it wasn't the nature and perception of existence, but the tenability of pacifism. Did the characters suck? See the point before. When anime series start to wax philosophical, I'm quick to pick up the weak points: faulty premises, pseudo-contradictions. I'd have to watch more of the series to judge properly, but did I really want to watch more?

To start at the beginning. There's this high school boy who's about to fix something (a radiator?) for the class president. He asks to be left alone for this fiddly job, and here's why: rather than screwing the contraption open, he magically traces and repairs the defect. This boy is a friendly type who will always fix things for people and clean up after them. He is an orphan, found in the remains of a burnt-out town by a wizard who raised him as his own, except that he didn't pass on his magical learning, since the boy didn't seem to have a use for it and magic only screws things up. (Except when used to fix radiators and the like - that is the boy's own meagre magical ability.) At the same school, there's a girl - a high school queen, child of rich magic-users, also orphaned - who, with her servant Archer, hops over rooftops at night looking for rivals, like the serial killer who's been on the news, who announces himself as Lancer, and who they identify, through his magical spearing technique, as the mythical Irish hero Cuculainn ("Culan's dog"). That's another one confirmed, all cards have been drawn now except one, whose appearance they still await: Sabre, the most powerful servant of all.

What Mister Nice Guy has to do with this becomes apparent when i. a coldly giggly girl in a fur hat walks past him saying he'd better learn to summon soon, or he'll die, and ii. marks appear on his wrist. Unknowingly, he has summoned, yes, bingo. "Sabre" is a cold girl with a sword who obeys him because she is nominally his servant, but who considers him a nuisance and doesn't want him to get in the way when she's fighting. Oh, and did I mention Mister Nice Guy gets bossed about by two girls, one of whom has a real crush on him, the other a responsible elder sister figure? They'll be so happy to see him with a pretty young thing, even if her demeanour is as sharp and steely as her sword. Although she stays by his side only to bodyguard him, preferring to stand by in the adjacent room while he's having dinner, he invites her to their communal meal anyway because he feels better treating her as a friend. He clearly doesn't realize what these servants are, and as we, the audience, don't either, this info is relayed to us through him by Archer and his mistress: there is a battle on for the Holy Grail. This battle is between the servants who, however, need a "master" so they can manifest themselves in this world. In return, the master can give them orders and take part in the battle. Since the masters are only vulnerable humans, however, it is understood that the servants fight and the masters give orders from the sidelines. The Grail only wants to belong to a worthy victor and has twice been won by someone unworthy, its latest owner having been the psycho who burned down the main character's home town. However, a master can't renounce the battle either, or the servant will kill it, possibly hoping to be re-summoned by someone with more fighting spirit. The servants, reincarnations of heroes from ancient history, use nicknames to hide their true natures and abilities, which is stupid as their identity is generally guessed in the ep in which they appear, and their nickname can be horribly unsuitable: the Greek Hercules, using intelligence as much as strength to carry out his twelve tasks, as the club-swinging "Berserker"?? But now Mister Nice Guy is in a tight spot. He doesn't want anyone to get hurt, but backing out won't help with that, as one master is sending its servant on a killing spree and another is the nasty little brother of a school friend, who wants to upgrade his servant by having it suck the souls of pupils. He will have to defeat those two, at least, to keep them from grabbing the holy treasure and causing another disaster. And that means he'll have to use v-i-o-l-e-n-c-e. Or rather, his servant will. But since she can't manifest herself properly through her master's pitiful magic powers and, more importantly, because she's a gurrrll, he insists on fighting in her stead. This isn't doing her a favour, as, instead of Sabre regenerating from her master's power, he is draining her power to recover from predictably serious wounds, and she spends most of the time sleeping to recuperate. Archer's annoyance is understandable when he bites at the story's hero how much longer he will cling to his pacifist illusions. But Archer's mistress, who at one point has attacked the main character herself for his stupidity in not keeping his servant by his side, will team up with him to find and defeat the masters who are using dirty tricks. And that, she promises, is when the alliance will end. No doubt, all the ruthless characters will be back in touch with their Humanity when that happens and the series will have an angstful, soppy happy end. I just pity Sabre, who, like Shana, is about to be socialized by a character who, though not truly bad, is too obviously the person the audience is supposed to sympathize with. It's interesting that she follows the knight's code of honour; wouldn't it be fun if she was really Lancelot.

The Akane Maniax OAV is plain, unpretentious comedy. For the watchers of Nadesico: Gai is not dead. He has been reincarnated as a senior high school pupil, flying hair, ribbon tied round forehead, who will become the best (what was it? baseball?) player in school (imaginary battle with villains follows). At this introductory speech, the class frowns: summer is past, the season for that sport is over. Ah, there will be a next summer! No, there won't, this is his last school year. He acks: one little setback he hadn't thought of. He is then addressed by the class representative, a girl called Akane. Cupid blasts a nuclear missile through his heart and he pops the question to her there and then. She is Not Amused.

What follows is the efforts of pseudo-Gai - he's even drawn in that bold seventies giant mecha show style, as opposed to the other charas - to win Akane, assisted by one of the teachers who has a huge set of boobs and shows them off in a semi-transparent top. What's shown is first how he imagines her help - a section of roof slides off and out comes a huge suit of robo armour, in the same horrible colours as in said seventies shows - and then follows her actual advice. Her accessories make her quite the top female in school, as the boob contests with a flatter colleague show, but when it comes to matters of love, there's only so much she can do. And he does tend to make a twit out of himself, joining the swimming club and then almost drowning, because he can't swim. Besides, Akane has been through a little tragedy of her own that he doesn't know about... The ending is a little unexpected, but not completely unpredictable.

In Kannaduki no Miko, Chikane is the high school star; rich, cool, refined, excelling in all classes and with a body that makes most girls jealous. (The significance of this will become clear later.) Himeko is a bashful little nobody with Sailor Venus hair (bow included) whose best friends are her cheery athletic roommate and, but that's a secret: Chikane. She lives at school, having no home of her own (later flashbacks will show why not, and why she's so unassertive) and visits Chikane in a secluded rose garden, where she's invited for a party on their communal birthday. Later, Souma, a handsome young man slated by the school to be Chikane's perfect partner, as he shares most of her qualities, asks Himeko for a date on her birthday. Himeko feels very uncomfortable with this, as she doesn't want to snub him, yet wants above all things to be with her secret friend on that most special of days... The dilemma becomes a moot point when, on the fateful day, they are attacked by two persons in body armour, one of them turning on his partner when he sees that Himeko has been hurt. Yes, it's Souma. Time to reveal what fate ties them together.

Souma is the adopted child of the family of priests and stepbrother to Chikane and her equally cool and composed older brother. Also, he is one of the Orochi ("eight necks") of Evil, which means that every so often his eyes glow red and he feels a compulsion to grow body armour and go on a rampage. As one of the Orochi, he must help destroy the duo who have the power to seal Evil away: the priestesses of sun and moon, who happen to be Himeko and Chikane. As her brother puts it: the person to suffer most from this situation is Souma himself.

For Himeko, life seems to take a turn for the worse and then reverse, as her cheery friend (in hospital with a broken leg, no more athletics for a while) makes it clear she's not welcome any more, while Chikane's family takes her in on the pretext that, given her important role in the fight against Evil, she needs priestly training. I say "pretext" because, although she certainly needs to get her act together, it's clear from the first stolen kiss and subsequent repentance that Chikane has... feelings for Himeko. Feelings which she stifles, encouraging her friend to go out with Souma and offering her a special dress from her own wardrobe, even though it has to be altered because of their different figures. It's not often that an anime heroine has a smaller than average chest, and the maid, anime's Mrs Danvers who dotes on Chikane and consequently hates Himeko, takes her measurements and writes down "flat as a board!!"

But Himeko has worse enemies to worry about, or, does she really? The Orochi include a lout and his big sister who bullies him, a doujinshika who's always shown at the drawing board and rejects a mission because she's close to a deadline, a nurse-kitty-girl who thinks that being evil is funnnn! And of course Souma and the ringleader, a stereotypical pretty villain with lots of mane who pardons Souma's lapses from Evil because he has an... interest in him. As if the love triangle around Himeko wasn't awkward enough. Watching this show with increasing amusement, I wondered how many yaoi/yuri doujinshi would come out of it.

Between this and the last show I'd planned to watch (and a little heartache for all the shows missed), a short look at Desert Punk: Sunabozu: in a desolate future where the world is one big desert, a bounty hunter called Sunabozu is nicknamed "sand demon" because he seems unkillable. He is targeted by another bounty hunter who wants the fame of having killed the sand demon, but is accused by his female accomplice of being too nice. He is, or he would have shot the target at the first chance, not issued one threat after another. This girl (who unlike the guys doesn't wear a gas mask) pretends to be a victim and steals Sunabozu's bag, but didn't know about the explosives it contained, and so ruins her partner's scheme. After his defeat, she runs after Sunabozu instead, wanting to become his apprentice so she'll become the strongest woman in the desert, even if she has to grow Super Boobs! A comedy that didn't catch my fancy: deserts don't appeal to me when the temperature in the video room is around 30 degrees Celsius.

Generally, all anime characters are drawn alike, so when some anime chara says of another (male) chara that he looks like a girl, my tired reaction is "yeah, I'll take your word for it". In Kashimashi, the shy, nature-loving Hazumu looks like a pony, because his hair hangs over his eyes. He's supposed to look like a girl, though, and is not upset when a girl called Yasuna mistakes him for one, because people often do. He has a soft spot for this girl, who he once showed a super spot in the forest to collect burdock sprouts, and is urged to confess to her by his two best friends: yet another redhead with a temper, and a crop-haired lout who promises to cheer him up (with a pile of comics from his own hentai collection, although the poor boy doesn't know that) if he's rejected. He is, and runs off to the forest to nurse his broken heart in a quiet spot. Hey, a shooting star. He wishes for a loving relationship. It's still there. He repeats his wish and also wishes for pork chops for dinner tonight, and to be more manly. That wish is about to be granted in reverse, as the "shooting star", an alien spaceship, crashes right into him. It was an accident, so he's restored from his remains, and big vidscreens pop up all over the place to apologize for smashing a human in an accident and announce that he's been completely healed, but, yet another accident, with a sex change (makes sense, if they just doubled the X chromosome) and, possibly as a corollary to the aliens' claim that they have studied mankind, the request follows to treat this gendermorphed casualty with respect. Gosh, they've studied the social position of women in Japan?

Now gender-bending can be a funny comment on gender roles in the Ranma style, or a nauseating subscription to them. I regret to say this series starts out like the latter. Miz Redhead first doesn't accept that her ex-male friend is OK with being a girl and then sets up to teach him to be one; turns out he wasn't half as feminine as he thought he was, and obviously she doesn't do half the things she tells him to. I certainly don't like the change: the hair has made way to two huge innocent eyes, and the formerly pleasantly quiet voice has been transformed to a squeak - if the aliens changed him to an anime bimbette, they may well apologize! Despite the baby face, the new she has bra size 70C, pretty big for a young girl and yes, the redhead catches onto this too and we're all ready for another boob contest. It's only after she has to rescue him-now-her from a bunch of reporters (something the aliens might have thought of before they decided to broadcast the happy news around on big vidscreens) that it becomes clear to her that, no, changing one's body doesn't change one's personality. And all this only relieved by the comedy of a 35-year-old teacher (at least she's always crying how she devoted her 35 years to education instead of getting married) who, in her efforts to rescue pupils, invariably falls upside-down in pits, and Hazumu's own ineffective parents. It feels rather cheap that this should happen to such a "destined to be a girl" person; a more interesting turn of events would have been to make the same thing happen to the cropped-haired very-manly friend, who would either have died of shame or, like the lecherous schoolboy he is, spent evenings in front of the mirror gaping at his new body.

And that was the end of another con, which I left unusually well-rested - which was just as well, as a big bag of unsold tapes was waiting to be lugged home.



Footnote:

1. That doesn't happen, but Loki's famous three children do make an appearance - in disguise, of course - and one of them is even present from the very first episode. Which one? Clue: Yamino wears glasses. Spectacles = cobra (for which one Dutch name literally translates to "spectacles-snake") = ???



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