Halfway Into Spring 2013: The Good, The Great, And The Greatest

Amongst the typical lot of dross this season, there are actually three shows that I’m keeping up with weekly and regard as Quite Good.

Suisei no Gargantia

This one’s the weakest link. While really well produced, it’s not terribly complex or deep. Judging by posts on Twitter, people seem to be lauding the show’s world building–and I can see what they’re getting at–but the only thing causing me to pay some attention is the visually pleasing, pixiv-inspired background art. The characters seem to want to be loveable, but given the writer’s inability to comprehend real human actions and emotions, everyone comes off as really fake and archetypical, with no edge or original quirks. Who wrote this anyway? Oh… Urobuchi Gen? Makes sense, then. I liked his cast of sociopaths in Fate/Zero, but I assume that’s because the only characters he can write well are those who are similar to himself.

Naruko Hanaharu’s character designs are rendered well, but something is obviously lost in the transition to clean digital animation. Similarly, while the show has quite a rich look to it, with its busted up rusted ships and weird machinery, everything looks a bit too clean and clinical.

Given the character designer’s history and the show’s production values, I would rather see this as a porno, ’cause the story ain’t really much to stick around for, especially considering the fact that it’s only a thirteen episode affair, and hasn’t gotten anywhere interesting in the six episodes I have seen so far. I assumed the show was twenty-six or so when it first started, with this part being the slow build-up, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

That said, I keep watching it each week. Original anime is always a Good Thing, and even if Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is kind of simple, it’s doing the obvious things you should do with storytelling that most story-driven anime won’t even bother with period.

Shingeki no Kyojin

It’s good to see anime that goes back to what the medium was known for–you know, being not kids stuff–in the glory days of stupidly gory OVAs that populated the shelves at Blockbusters the nation over. To be fair, Shingeki no Kyojin is a TV show, so they can’t go all the way, but their heart is in the right place.

Yeah, the one of the bigger things Shingeki no Kyojin has going for it is how it’s not afraid to be relentlessly brutal. The other thing it has going for it is its serial nature: You just gotta know what happens next. Because of this I can overlook the show’s otherwise by-the-book shounen dialogue, character interactions and archetypes. While all the bits in between giants attacking and eating people are watchable, they do well by throwing in the right plot twists at the right times.

That said, given Shingeki no Kyojin‘s somewhat simple characters and strong dependence on story and shock value, I fear that the show may turn out to be one pulpy ride that’s fun while it lasts, but not one worth visiting again. The way the story develops, the way certain facts reveal themselves, and the way characters are written makes this show feel like some manga editor’s pet project. Or at least, what I imagine a manga editor’s pet project feels like. It hits all the right notes, but at the moment it feels more like eating a bunch of candy as opposed to savoring a delicious meal.

As far as visuals go, while Shingeki no Kyojin is set in a pretty typical fantasy world, its mix of influences is interesting. The traditional fantasy setting mixed with the soldiers’ more anime influenced uniform designs and machinery along with the strange designs of the giants (especially the big skinless one) gives the show a bit of a varied and refreshing look.

On the whole, Attack on Titan obviously still quite conventionally anime in a lot of respects, but it does enough original things to keep itself interesting and offbeat.

Aku no Hana

I have to say, I was skeptical of the rotoscoping at first. While it certainly did well to give the show a very specific look, I wasn’t about to jump on the rotoscoping boat after that first episode. Honestly, my first reaction was: Just make this live action.

A few further episodes and a glance at the manga completely sold me, however. The manga–its first volume, at least–has very by-the-numbers and slightly poorly drawn moe artwork, while the anime sports a distinctive graphic, fluid and realistic style. The show utilizes the real life acting to its advantage in the way it accurately portrays a wide canvas of teenage feelings through movement, be it the jerky and awkward teenage boy mannerisms of Kasuga, the bold, aggressive gestures of Nakamura, or the gentle body language and facial expressions of Saeki.

It doesn’t quite work all of the time, though: Copying some of the manga’s more abstract imagery wholesale with the show’s realistic designs ranges between the staff pushing their luck or them simply failing. There are also moments when everything is static–like normal anime–which comes off as quite distracting, seeing as everyone is moving around all over the place the rest of the time. But all said, the realistic yet abstract nature of the rotoscoping perfectly complements the realistic yet abstract nature of the story.

And what a story, huh? As someone who hasn’t read the original, the story at this point is suitably bizarre and twisted, tapping into the kind of emotions I really want to see when anime makes second year junior high school students its protagonists. Nakamura and Kasuga are both great characters whose minds are filled with the kinds of gross ideas and confused feelings that a lot of us had (and perhaps still have) when we were younger. The events carried out in Aku no Hana are what happens when those feelings turn into reality, and for that reason the show is quite fulfilling to watch.

There are complaints about the pacing, and I can understand them. While the show certainly moves slowly, the slow pace contributes a lot to its convincingly realistic and overbearing atmosphere. I would personally like to see the show cover more than what it’s doing, but given than I’ve decided to start reading the manga, that’s not a huge deal. As a piece of art on its own, away from the original, Flowers of Evil is quite satisfying.

Bonus: I Watched The Saint Young Men Movie

I’ll just come out and say it: This was a date movie, but one I was actually slightly interested in seeing. After having heard rave reviews of the manga, I figured a movie of it would at least be decent. Thankfully, it was more than that!

Saint Young Men is a very pleasant film. As I expected, it isn’t quite laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s a charming set of stories about a delightful pair of young men who just happen to be Jesus and Buddha. The laughs are gentle, and each story’s fun quirks feel nice. I say “stories” because the film is divided into four parts–one for each season of the two men’s first year in Japan. This is a very effective and clever approach, as it gets around trying to tie everything up into one complete story, a mistake that movies based on long-running comedies tend to make. Rather than focus on story, the film does a splendid job of endearing one to the neighbors that surround the pair throughout, resulting in a decently rounded cast of characters by the time the credits roll. It goes without saying that Buddha and Jesus are portrayed nicely as a pair of goofy dudes who are just enjoying everyday life.

The film has a nice deliberately sketchy look to both the character artwork and the backgrounds, mimicking the look of the manga well. I was particularly taken by the care that went into depicting the film’s setting of Tachikawa. While not aiming for complete realism, the amount of detail in the backgrounds and funny visual asides by background characters do well to bring the setting to life, portraying it as a place that you can actually go to for yourself… because you can! The movie made me want to go to Tachikawa, so that has to count for something, right?

Anyway, it was a great film. I’d buy it.

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Event Notice: SINNERS NIGHT@Akihabara Bar Garten

Or in other words, my birthday party. I’m “Fucking Fuyro Gaijin.” If you’re in the Tokyo area drop on by if you can.

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Today’s Levitation and Roppongi Art Night

So for one reason or other I found myself at a couple of art events in the more stylish areas of Tokyo over March.

Yeah, I think it’s weird, too.

First, the more recent one: Hayashi Natsumi’s Today’s Levitation

For those not in the know, Hayashi Natsumi is an artist known on the web for her self portraits that feature her “levitating” in various different settings and situations. Her site, Yowa Yowa Camera Woman was updated quite frequently until about two years ago, when updates mysteriously stopped. As such, it wasn’t through the site that I found out about this event, but the Facebook page.

The exhibition ran between the 26th and 30th of March at a venue called the Spiral Garden in Aoyama, with a rather cheap entrance fee of 0 yen. That said, situated right in the middle of the exhibition hall is a typically Tokyo-chic restaurant–basically meaning that the menu is small and the menu items are expensive–so it’s not exactly a free date. The pot pie I ordered was good, but not quite enough to fill me up. The placement of the restaurant is quite clever, as patrons are surrounded partially by the art, making for a inspired atmosphere in which to dine. As per the name, the main area in the building is a spiral ramp that allows patrons to view artwork as they work their way up to the ever-so-cleverly located gift shop, also containing all manner of stylish, and naturally, expensive stuff.

As for the work, Hayashi’s levitating photographs have an ethereal and dreamy atmosphere about them. Hayashi herself is a uniquely beautiful woman, whose flowing hair, outfits, poses, and at times moments of playfulness make for a particularly creative body of work. Hayashi poses expertly in mid-air, in a number of beautifully shot settings, making for a collection of photos that all share a similar phantasmagoric quality. Works on display are obviously the cream of Hayashi’s crop, with the center piece featuring her airily floating trough a room where people are hard at work making women’s underwear–a piece that perfectly embodies the quirky yet beautiful nature of her work. The opposite side captures Hayashi’s naked feet as they leap off the ground. Other standout pieces feature her flying in front of a carousel, passing between two vending machines, and one poignant photo has her floating through a field with her deceased cat.

The exhibition was composed primarily of smaller framed prints punctuated by giant ones. The larger photos were blown up very cleanly, and looked great at sizes of eight to twenty feet high. There was a small gift shop with a number of goods on offer, including a thick photobook filled with even more photos of Hayashi floating in a variety of places. I ended up getting the book later at Village Vanguard, but I should have bought it at the exhibit, as it came with a nice bag, but after paying for lunch I was in no mood to spend money any further.

The book is a collection of works posted on her site between January 2011 and March 2011. Since it’s more or less everything that was posted on her site within that period, there are a few too many duds, and the book cuts off right when her work is getting really good. That said, there’s still a number of fine photos in this collection, and they all look really nice, especially compared to the lower resolution versions on Hayashi’s site. The best parts of the book are the photographs she shot in Taiwan, and a transcript of an interview she had there. The interview–along with the book’s forward–are both translated into English, albeit of the broken variety. That however doesn’t keep the interview from being a neat look into Hayashi’s process and why she started Today’s Levitation.

…and here’s the second thing I went to: Roppongi Art Night

On the night of March 23rd until the morning of March 24th I was wandering around Roppongi hoping to see many strange and interesting works of art as part of the annual Roppongi Art Night. However, what was presented to myself, my companion, and the leagues of attendees was less than substantial. But it’s not all the show’s fault, as there was also a lack of research on the part of myself.

While it bills itself as an all night event, it’s best to actually see what’s open until when, because there are things that close early. Also, the various display spaces are a good walk from each other, so it would have been nice to have a bit of visual continuity while going from place to place. I understand this is difficult, given these are city streets, but at least some performance art in the streets would have helped to keep the atmosphere consistent. There were a couple of pieces that utilized open lots and buildings, but they were few and far between. There was a disco laundromat that I wanted to see, but it was closed by the time I decided to check it out. It was meant to be an all-night thing, but it was cancelled early.

The theme of the event was “trip”, which was constantly reinforced by the presence of boats. The opening ceremony itself was some strange abstract performance sending off a little boat (propped up on a car) that went around the neighborhood. While it’s nice to have a theme, the event should have been more loose in its interpretation of it. While all the boats did look different enough, it got a little old by the tenth or eleventh one.

The amount of work on display in general felt a little on the low side, which is most likely because the event was split between different venues. I understand their reason for splitting the venues–lots of people come to this thing–but more works and more variety of works would have really driven home that “city of art” image that the event seemed to be aiming for. As it was it felt a touch flaccid. Similarly, there were a few artists working on pieces live, but not nearly enough to project the image of a city teeming with creativity for one special night. During the early hours of the event, the lack of content was made up for by other events taking place simultaneously, like a sakura festival, an elaborate whiskey tasting setup, and that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu exhibit. It was even discounted that night!

And this was also there…

The biggest problem with the event is that it doesn’t need to be all-night. The amount of work on display could be seen in a number of hours, and the parts that closed early didn’t leave much to see for the rest of the night. There were some live performances that continued until morning, but by the time the clock struck 3:00 am, lots of people were sprawled out on the floor sleeping.

There was however some good stuff at Roppongi Art Night. There were a fair amount of non-boat works, a few works in progress, interactive works, and performance art. Among the interactive works, there was a setup where people found themselves in a long empty hallway with one other person approaching from the opposite side, and the idea was to exchange a few words with them. I simply introduced myself to the other guy, but gave him a phony name for kicks. There was another one where participants rode a bike to generate electricity that charged an electric guitar, which was used in a performance during the event’s ending ceremony. There was one video piece that featured children in different parts of a zoo singing and dancing unenthusiastically to a haunting Russian song which captivated anyone passing by, creating quite the crowd around it. There were two bits of performance art that I caught as they roamed the halls, the first featuring a number of people, all of varying sex and race, wearing black suits and holding umbrellas. They made a number of curious formations with the umbrellas, and at the end brandished long hollowed out rods, placed them against people’s ears and whispered. The best bit of performance art–and the best thing at the whole event–was a group of women all dressed like Snow White, holding guns, and marching around militarily to the orders of their commander, also dressed like Snow White, but noticeably older. Of course, the problem with the children singing and the Snow White pieces was that they’re not originally Japanese! I personally don’t think it’s too much for the stand out pieces at a Japanese event to be Japanese-made.

The event had a nice lively atmosphere to it, so the organizers should probably think about increasing the amount of works on display for next year’s event. There should also be encouragement towards the regular attendees setting up and creating their own work during the event. These are, of course, wishes that are difficult to make into reality, but as it is, Roppongi Art Night feels a touch weak.

Further photos from the Today’s Levitation exhibition and Roppongi Art Night can be found on my Flickr here and here respectively.

Posted in Art, Books, Events, Japan, Travelogue | 4 Comments