Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fairy Tail Season One Anime Review

Fairy Tail Season One
Feari Teiru
Complete Collection - 8 discs
600 mins. - 24 episodes
$54.98 (2013) Blu-Ray/DVD
$54.98 (2011) Part 1-2 Blu-Ray/DVD
ISBN 704400087677
Japanese/English Audio - English Subtitles
Director - Shinji Ishihara
Studio - A-1 Pictures/Satelight

Synopsis: Lucy Heartfilia is an inexperienced celestial wizard with one goal in mind - join the Fairy Tail guild!  She ran away from home to make it big as a wizard and Fairy Tail is the guild with the most radical reputation for strong wizards.  By coincidence she meets Natsu Dragneel and his companion Happy, a flying cat, who invite her to join Fairy Tail.  Natsu is a Dragon Slayer type wizard with mastery over fire and an equally hot-blooded temperament.  When Lucy joins Fairy Tail the true adventure begins!
Lucy joins up with Fairy Tail (from left) - Natsu, Gray, Erza, and Lucy!
The famous guild is populated by a misfit crew of wizards including:
  • Natsu Dragneel is known as the Salamander and a Dragon Slayer wizard type.  He's hot-blooded, quick to act, and incredibly powerful.  Raised by the dragon Igneel, he has the physical properties of a dragon including enhanced strength, resistance to fire, eat flames to increase his power, and project flames from his body (including breathing fire).  Natsu is susceptible to a debilitating motion sickness when on moving conveyances (like trains and wagons).  Despite his rash nature he's kindhearted and can usually back up his boasts with incredible power.
  • Gray Fullbuster is an Ice Make wizard and can create powerful objects made out of ice.  He was taught magic by the powerful wizard Ur.  He is usually very serious, but has an odd habit of stripping down to his underwear almost unconsciously (likely because of his resistance to cold temperatures).  Due to their opposite types of magic Gray has a fierce rivalry with Natsu (Ice vs. Fire).  Despite their differences both wizards are fast friends and support each other when needed.  
  • Erza Scarlet is known as Titania and uses Re-Equip magic to summon various weapons/armor to suit any battle.  She is considered the most powerful female member of Fairy Tail and has a fearsome personality which keeps her other guild mates in line.  Despite her rough exterior she truly cares for her friends, but is not above smacking them around if they get out of line.  She becomes fully naked when re-equipping.
  • Lucy Heartfilia is the newest member of Fairy Tail and recruited by Natsu.  She summons celestial deities by using various Gatekeys.  She comes from a rich family and is running away from her careless life to become an adventuring wizard.  The initial deities she uses are Cancer (who appears to be a humanoid crab hairdresser), Taurus (a lecherous minotaur), Aquarius (a mermaid), and Virgo (who dresses as a maid with broken chains around her wrists).  
  • Happy the flying blue cat is also a wizard although not human.  He is Natsu's sidekick and the pair are fast friends.  He loves eating fish and can carry one person when flying.  
  • Elfman Strauss is known as Beast Arm and uses Take Over magic, specifically Beast Soul where he assumes the powers of any magical creature he has defeated.  His control is limited to transforming his right arm.  A tough guy who is always telling others to "man up" or "this is what a real man would do". 
  • Mirajane Strauss is know as Demon Woman and Elfman's older sister.  She also uses Take Over magic, but no longer uses her powers.  She works as Fairy Tail's barmaid in their guild hall, is incredibly beautiful, and very kindhearted.  
  • Cana Alberona uses Card Magic with her magical deck of cards.  She has the unique ability to consume enormous quantities of alcohol yet somehow retain a beautiful figure.  
  • Makarov Dreyar is the old master of the Fairy Tail guild and one of the Ten Wizard Saints, the most powerful wizards in the Fiore Kingdom.  His primary ability is Giant/Titan where his diminutive size is increased to massive proportions!  He is a fatherly figure who cares greatly for the members of his guild. 
Erza pulls Natsu and Gray (with Happy and Lucy tagging along) to
take on the dark guild of Eisenwald
Fairy Tail wizards are constantly looking for work and mission postings are placed on the guild hall board. The toughest missions are called S-Class and prove to be extremely treacherous.  Many missions entail battling 'dark' wizards or guilds who operate outside the influence of the sanctioned Magic Council.  Erza shows up at the guild hall to enlist the aid of Natsu and Gray on a particularly dangerous mission.  Happy and Lucy tag along to help.  
Natsu suffers from extreme motion-sickness while riding the train
The group becomes very close-knit and perform all sorts of missions together with varying results.  The missions include battling a dark guild who plans to assassinate the Magic Council with an cursed flute called Lullaby, stealing a book from a corrupt duke, helping villagers on an island who turn into demons at night, and stopping a secret wizard cabal from resurrecting a powerful demon with ties to Gray's past.  Between missions the Fairy Tail guild members manage to get into all sorts of trouble as Natsu challenges Erza to a fight, we learn Happy's origin, and all of the guild members magically switch bodies!  
Lucy uses a Celestial Key to summon Aquarius
Rivalries between guilds are not uncommon and Fairy Tail is besieged by the Phantom Lord guild.  Each guild is populated by powerful wizards and led by one of the Ten Wizard Saints.  The battles are fierce and stakes are high as Fairy Tail comes under fire.  Lucy's past comes back to haunt her as her friends put their lives on the line to defend the guild.
Natsu's unleashes his powerful fire magic
Pros: Good animation and backgrounds, exciting action and spectacular fights, some interesting characters and origins (Elfman's was particularly tragic), story and missions become increasingly better as the show progresses, Natsu is entertaining when he fights, nice message with emphasis on friendship and camaraderie, fan-service (for gals too since Gray is always stripping)
The origin of Happy the flying cat wizard
Cons: Blu-Ray + DVD = 8 discs total - couldn't they just offer one or the other (and for less money)?, first few episodes were not great and I almost stopped watching this series, recurring joke about Gray taking off his clothing gets old fast, Lucy is not the most interesting character, fairly standard shounen anime, Happy the flying cat is kinda silly, this show is a mashup of One Piece and Naruto, first season ends in the middle of the Phantom Lord story arc
Mirajane is the beautiful barmaid at Fairy Tail's guild hall
Mike Tells It Straight: I had heard some favorable reviews of Fairy Tail and decided to give it a shot.  Based on the popular and long-running manga of the same name by Hiro Mashima (Rave Master).  It's a major shounen series (like Naruto and Bleach) with lots of characters, adventures and sweeping story arcs.  The series started off rather bland and I almost stopped watching after the first handful of episodes.  It was just too easy for Lucy to join Fairy Tail and the first set of bad guys were pathetic (the Salamander impostor and Duke Everlue).  Happy the flying cat was pretty silly and I couldn't take him seriously.  I groaned at the thought of sitting through another lame shounen series with a million episodes.
These freaks are the Ten Wizard Saints?
I stuck with it and was relieved to find later story arcs had some decent characterization and the emergence of an overall theme of friendship.  Things got better once Erza showed up and the Galuna Island/Deliora arc kept my attention.  Natsu, Gray and Erza were all interesting characters along with some of the other members of Fairy Tail.  I particularly liked Elfman's tragic origin during the Phantom Lord arc at the end of this first season (which is actually the middle of the real first season of 48 episodes).  Lucy didn't strike me as a particularly strong character and hopefully she'll show more pluck later on.
The villagers of Galuna Island are cursed with demon parts
While I found Fairy Tail to be relatively enjoyable it was a typical shounen anime - long story arcs bookended by comedy episodes and containing successive 'power-up' episodes (as perfected by Dragon Ball Z).  The show does have mild fan-service (beautiful women/girls and even Gray stripping in every episode where he appears).  Natsu literally looks like a cross between Naruto (spiky hair) and Luffy from One Piece (open shirt).  The series is not overly dark and keeps a fairly light tone throughout with only a few emotional scenes.  It's not a mature show and suitable for younger viewers (they're the target audience after all).  I recommend the series for fans of shounen genre anime, but definitely not a mature show (i.e. latter half of Fullmetal Alchemist).  I'm looking forward to the second season (mainly because this first season ended in the middle of a story arc) and will post a review soon!
Gray is always losing his clothes!

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Anime Movie Review

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Movie - 100 minutes - 1 disc
$39.98 (2009) Blu-Ray
$29.98 (2009) w/book
$19.98 (2009)
$26.98 (2005) w/Millennium Actress
$29.99 (2004)
ISBN 678149175721
Japanese Audio - English Subtitles
English Audio (Blu-Ray only)
Director - Mamoru Oshii
Studio - Production I.G/Studio Ghibli

Synopsis: The future of humankind in the year 2032 is the progression of technology and its affect on organic life.  Scientific advances have allowed complete transference of human consciousness into prosthetic, cyborg bodies.  More commonplace is the addition of cybernetic enhancements to natural bodies.  Society has leaped forward with access to boundless information over the net and crime has followed.  Special units have been developed by the governments in an attempt to control the infinitely devious forms of cyber-crime.  Can you hack a person's soul?
Your standard black market sex doll dressed up as a geisha
Public Security Section 9 investigates the most serious cyber-crimes and has access to the most advanced technology.  They were once led by Major Motoko Kusanagi, a full-body cyborg, but she went rogue after merging with a completely artificial intelligence called The Puppet Master.  The rest of the group remains intact and continues to operate.  Batou was the Major's second in command and was very close to her when she disappeared.  He's a stoic tough-guy with a soft side as seen only by his pet basset hound.  Batou continues to search for clues to the Major's activities.
Let's just say you don't want to buy a malfunctioning sex doll
Batou's is now partnered with Togusa, the most human member of Section 9 (least artificial enhancements), who is a family man and was recruited from the police force.  The two investigate a series of gruesome murders perpetrated by life-like sex dolls.  It seems the dolls have malfunctioned and killed their masters.  Now the two Section 9 detectives must unravel the mystery behind the killer dolls.  Is it possible the artificial intelligence programmed into the dolls has gained a life of its own?  Could the Major somehow be behind the evolution of the dolls?  When a faint ghost is discovered in the most recent killer doll's body all bets are off!
Batou and partner Togusa are called in to investigate the grisly murders
Pros: Great animation, exhaustively detailed CG for the time period, lush backgrounds, focuses on Batou who was a favorite of mine from the first film and the manga, more Section 9 characters show up, presents an interesting detective case in the form of the dolls' artificial sentience, a lot for action than the first film, return of the Major (sorta)
The case runs deeper as Batou and Togusa investigate the sex dolls
Cons: Original DVD versions didn't include an English dub, English subtitles include sound effects ("helicopter approaching"), CG effects don't mesh well with regular animation and are too stiff (reminded me of a 3D video game background), Batou is a less compelling main character than the Major from the first film, too many quotes in the dialogue, action for action's sake, indulgent for the director (too much basset hound)
Batou is a complete hardass until he comes home to pamper his basset hound
Mike Tells It Straight: The first Ghost in the Shell was a classic, iconic film which helped define anime for a generation.  Oshii created a cutting edge masterpiece with international appeal and cemented himself as a major director.  The movie was so good it influenced the creators of The Matrix franchise.  Although it deviated from the original manga by a great degree GitS the movie was a standalone experience with its own philosophical and haunting voice.  A sequel was welcome news for fans everywhere and especially with Oshii at the helm again.
These sex dolls bear a striking resemblance to a certain Major
Animation technology had advanced considerably by the time the sequel was in production.  Computer graphics evolved in leaps and bounds with entire backgrounds being rendered digitally.  Even figures could be rendered, but the technology still lacked an organic feel to the human eye.  Oshii went with a combination of the two processes by digitally rendering the backgrounds with seemingly hand-drawn characters.  Western animators would fully embrace the all-digital process (Toy Story, Shrek), but Japanese animators were slower to adopt all digital and make a point to keep character renderings 2D in appearance (which I personally agree).
Batou has a difficult time buying dog food at his usual store
This film is an intense mash-up of incredibly rendered digital backgrounds with traditional ('organic') characters.  The attention to detail is ridiculous and works fairly well until we get to scenes with actual movement (like cars driving down a city street) where the differences become fairly obvious.  The combination works particularly well during the scene where Batou has a shoot out in a convenience store.  The first film was on the cutting edge of animation technology and Oshii continues this trend in the sequel.  Despite the lush backgrounds I felt the CG elements awkwardly interacted with the 2D elements at times and distracted me from the story.  In a few scenes I felt like I was watching a video game with the 2D characters moving through a poorly rendered background.

The CG work in this film is incredible.  This particular parade scene is crazy!
Oshii makes a real case for animation as high level art with this film.  The story is an obvious progression of his viewpoint on society and technology's potential for change, but I felt his execution and particularly the script was a bit too much.  It's a long movie and has quite a few drawn out scenes.  The dialogue was rife with literary quotes which stifled any natural feel to the character interactions.  Try talking in quotes all day and see how long people take you seriously.
Batou and Togusa follow up a lead with an unsavory hacker
With the Major out of the way at the end of the first film, Oshii would shift focus to fan-favorite character Batou and explore deeper into the consequences of limitless advances to technology.  The stage was set for a repeat performance of the first film's success.  Even the composer returned for the sequel.  It was a no brainer, right?
Oshii has mastered the fish eye lens
Batou's personality in the movies is much different than in the manga and Standalone Complex television series where he's a bit of a clown, but Oshii makes him a stoic hardass.  He's just not as compelling or deep of an individual as the Major.  The DVD released by Dreamworks had no English dub which cut it off from a majority of fans of the first film.  Unless you're into foreign films with subtitles then the pre-2009 Innocence releases were not aimed at you.  Thank goodness someone finally added a dub to the Blu-Ray release.
Batou has commando training and he gets to use it!
Dreamworks even pissed off the hardcore anime fans who hate dubs by making the subtitles closed captioned = including sound effects.  My favorite is the very first subtitle in the movie - ("helicopter approaching").  Despite its flaws I thought GitS 2 was a beautifully rendered movie and the story was mildly compelling.  It dragged on forever with those damn quotes, but I got what Oshii was trying to say. Check out this movie if you liked the first film and want to see where Oshii's vision goes.  Definitely get the Blu-Ray version with English dub and crisper visuals.  Standalone Complex is much more interesting and I recommend watching both television series if you haven't already (they were both run on Cartoon Network several times).
Is that the Major?  Is she behind the malfunctioning sex dolls?

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Welcome to the N.H.K. Anime Review

Welcome to the N-H-K
N.H.K. ni Yokoso
Complete Collection - 6 discs
600 mins. - 24 episodes
$29.98 (2010) S.A.V.E.
$69.98 (2009)
$59.98 (2008) Parts 1-2/ea.
$39.98 (2007) Vol. 2 w/artbox
$29.98 (2007-08) Vol. 1-6/ea.
ISBN 704400096662
Japanese/English Audio - English Subtitles
Director - Yusuke Yamamoto
Studio - Gonzo

Synopsis: Tatsuhiro Sato dropped out of college and now seldomly leaves his apartment.  He spends time on his computer, watches anime, and reads manga.  His parents support him from overseas and he hasn't had a job in years.  Sato is a NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and is slowly turning into a hikikomori (a person who doesn't leave their home for many months). He's a total recluse and has developed a conspiracy theory that the Nihon Hikikomori Kyokai (NHK) is purposely causing people to become hikikomori for their own nefarious ends.
Sato is a complete slob and has sequestered himself in his apartment
Despite Sato's best efforts he still comes in contact with people that want to pull him out of his hikikomori state.  An odd girl, Misaki Nakahara, takes an interest in him and claims she has developed a program to cure him of being a hikikomori.  She convinces him to sign a contract for the program and he tries to downplay his recluse lifestyle.  He discovers his next door neighbor (who keeps bumping the incessant theme song for Puru Puru Pururin 24-7) is actually a former high school classmate,  Kaoru Yamazaki, who Sato rescued from some bullies.  The bullies later kicked Sato's ass.
Sato's neighbor Yamazaki is a complete otaku and animation student
Yamazaki is an animation student and Sato ends up working on an erotic computer game to prove to Misaki that he's actually working on something.  Sato drives Yamazaki crazy because he gets distracted so easily (like spending an entire night downloading porn for 'reference material').  Yamazaki is a hardcore otaku and introduces Sato to all of the standard material - manga, doujinshi, erotic manga/doujinshi, erotic computer games, massively multiplayer online role-playing games, and anime.  Yamazaki wants to unveil their game at Summer Comiket to impress his classmates and especially the cute girl, Nanako, who he has a major crush on.
Sato is approached by this cute girl named Misaki.  Huh!?
We learn about Sato's past before he was a hikikomori when he runs into another old classmate, Hitomi Kashiwa.  She appears to be a successful government worker, but learn her life is less than perfect.  She's the one who first introduced Sato to the idea of a big conspiracy working behind the scenes to manipulate people's lives.  When these two get together anything can happen and it puts Sato's relationship with his friends (and his very life) in jeopardy.
Sato spends an entire night looking up online porn, ahem,
'researching' for the gal-game he's writing for Yamazaki
Misaki and Sato meet every night to work on her curriculum and he is a semi-willing student.  Why is a cute girl like her spending time with an obvious loser like Sato?  Misaki's past is a mystery and contrasts greatly with her innocent demeanor.  Is she part of the NHK conspiracy?  What happens when Sato's parents finally pull the plug on his solitary lifestyle?  Can he possibly shed his hikikomori ways and rejoin society?  Why bother?
Sato becomes obsessed with playing an online RPG game after
meeting a cute cat girl who partners with him
Pros: Explores a lot of interesting themes relevant to the Japanese and society in general - hikikomori, NEETS, otaku culture, pyramid schemes, online gaming, and internet suicide pacts (yeah, that one was unexpected), Gonzo does some decent animation, good opening/ending theme songs (although ending theme is a bit frenetic)
Sato dreams he has an affair with former senpai Hitomi
Cons: Sato has a weak character and can be pretty mean to Misaki, the little NHK conspiracy goblins are kind of lame, no real resolution to the story at the end, this series is actually kind of depressing as it progresses
Hey, why are those people holding hands and walking toward a cliff?
Mike Tells It Straight: Welcome to the N.H.K. was completely unexpected and fairly interesting.  I was expecting something completely different after seeing the DVD covers and preview.  These prominently featured scantily clad women and manic comedy, but the show was a lot deeper.  The subject matter is slowly unveiled from beneath the comedy and concerns deep psychological problems among the main characters.  Each one has something they are dealing with like Sato being a hikikomori, Misaki's past, Hitomi's desperation, and Yamazaki's avoidance of responsibility with childish pursuits.  What I thought was going to be a satirical comedy (like Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, although that had a serious side as well) ended up being a serious show.
Misaki pretends to be Sato's girlfriend in front of his Mom, but
is he really falling for her?
Don't get me wrong, it has a lot of comedy elements and Sato/Yamazaki are complete spastics.  As the story progresses however and we really get to know the characters and their pasts it becomes clear this is not merely a comedy.  Sato has removed himself from regular society and gets nervous in crowded places.  He doesn't quite fit in with regular people and is easily influenced.  It's fun to watch him cycle through addictions to anime, erotic computer games, online porn, and get caught in the web of a pyramid scheme.  He's truly pathetic and the viewer can enjoy watching his prat falls with the smug certainty that they would never fall prey to these petty traps.  NHK was originally a light novel and then a manga series with a decidedly mature tone to it.  The anime is a much more toned down version than the manga, but I wouldn't mind checking out the manga some time.
Misaki and Yamazaki try to save Sato from a pyramid scheme
I enjoyed the slice-of-life aspect of the show and learning about Japanese culture.  That part of anime is always fascinating to me because it differs greatly from American culture.  The concept of a hikikomori sounds exotic until you consider how many shut-ins and adults still live with their parents.  This show veers off in some strange directions (like the internet suicide pact thing) which kind of lost me for a minute.  It's character-driven and we learn about a group of dysfunctional young adults who have generally lost their way in society.  Each must overcome their own personal obstacles and it gets a little depressing.  I generally recommend this show, but you need to know what you're getting into first (and it has some instances of mature subject matter).  Although I laughed out loud at many parts (the cat girl from the MMORPG is hilarious), it's not just comedy and fan-service you'll be watching.  Be ready for some serious subject matter by the end.
Welcome to the N-H-K!
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