Saturday, May 26, 2012

Anime review: "Bakuman", second season

So, quite fast after fighting against and then succumbing to the first season, I watched the second season of "Bakuman". The good news is that third season (last one, I think) is following this fall. I am looking forward to it. Only thing I can object about it is that is was so good that I watched 20 episodes in one day (Sunday), which resulted in 4 hours of sleep that night and a very sleepy morning at work next day.

As I wrote in my review of the first season, "Bakuman" is a shounen anime flirting with seinen. This is even more notable than in first season. Mashiro "Saiko" Moritaka and Takagi Akito continue struggling to fulfill their dream of becoming the first-rate manga-ka for Shounen Jack, so Saiko can marry Miho (whom he had seen one or twice since their middle school). I know: a typical senseless shounen plot. But for some reason, it works great. In this season even their relationship become a bit more realistic (but still a far away from normal).

In the first season the duo succeeded in getting a serialization of their manga. This made their goal seem quite reachable, but it also brought one shortfall - instead their genius editor Hattori, they are now transferred to a junior editor Miura. Will the new editor be show good enough to support them? And more important, will they first manga prove to be enough to get an anime adaptation?

This biggest plot starts at the beginning, and is resolved toward the end, but there are few side-roads taken around the middle. This is a good thing, because this side plots are used to evolve the characters (I almost used the word setting, but this is a character-centered anime, setting is irrelevant), the new one and the old one. Cast is widened so much that it would be a trouble to remember everybody, if they were not so unique and unforgettable. I didn't expect such evolution of what I thought to be side-characters - there is much character development in this anime. Characters are also more mature. I think that focus of this season is removed from creation of manga toward relationship between them, although manga stay the center that everything revolves. All in all, I think that this season was composed nicely - nice pace, not too slow, but neither too fast; and always interesting.

I read some comments that anime adaptation rushes through the manga, which means that there is probably more material there. This series is completed, so I would like to read the manga original, although after the fiasco with "Black Lagoon", I am somewhat weary. I will keep this one on mind, but not for the close future. Anyway, this season takes around three or four years (in anime time)!

The humor is simply great. There are lots of gags, and it kept me smiling most of the time. But the funniest character of the series so far was Hiaimaru. And to believe that he was introduced so sinister in the first season... I think that I laughed in every scene featuring him. Otters...

There is not much to say about audio or visual side - they are mostly mediocre. I wanted to said that unique design of characters follows more from authors' (Obha Tsugumi  and Obata Takeshi) weak skill that from intention. But I then checked Wikipedia and saw that they are responsible for "Death Note", which was drawn much better, so maybe I am wrong. There are 25 episodes, again.

For conclusion, I think that it is enough to say that second season of "Bakuman" is even better than the first. A nice catch for those who like slice-of-life or comedy anime. Special recommendation for the fans of "Genshiken".

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Manga review: "Black Lagoon"

Last week I've been reading "Black Lagoon" manga. I quite liked first two season of the anime when I watched it few years ago. And I liked "Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail" few months ago. It was then when I decided to read manga.

"Black Lagoon" is a girls-with-guns action manga, one of the popular ones. Its main characters are the crew of small boat named "Black Lagoon" stationed in Roanapur - imagined city in south-east Asia, a criminal den full of criminal organizations, prostitutes, where everybody carries a gun. Despite all this violence, Roanapur has some romantic appeal, mostly thanks to the feeling the nevertheless how low all these people are, there are some things that are just not done. You know, honor between thieves (and murderers, torturers, terrorists...) - even though this notion will be broken from time to time. Crew is led by Dutch, an ex-soldier that is respected for his cool head. Benny is their specialist for hacking, communication, technical stuff and so on. And then there is Revy "Two Hands", hot-headed girls with two guns and knowledge how to use them. After some problems with their last job (they do mostly courier jobs for other organizations), they are joined by Rock (main characters), an average Japanese salary-man that gets abandoned by his company in tough situation.

The plot consists of episodes that last several chapters (or episodes in the anime adaptation), and it deal mostly with members of different organizations in Roanapur: Hotel Moscow (Russian ex-soldiers), Triads, Mafia, Church of Violence, South-American Cartels, etc. Or with their targets and enemies. Of course, dynamic between crew members plays a lot of importance in this series, and especially between Revy and Rock.

This is a seinen manga with shounen realization. Meaning that while action and desing and abilities of characters are typically shounen (gunfights that destroy building, killers with chainsaws, unstoppable killer-maids...), plot and characters are seinen. There is lots of angst and emotional pain with these people. I wouldn't say that plot is very complex, but it has some clever tricks and occasional surprises that reveal nicely developed setting. The atmosphere is quite dark and there is a lot violence - quite appalling violence, sometimes.

The above description can be applied on both manga and anime. But while I really like anime, reading manga was a mistake. Not that manga is bad, but it has no advantage over anime. Anime was kept completely accurate to the manga, so there was nothing new for me to find out. What worse, I somehow mistakenly understood that manga continues the story after anime, which was not true - at this point there are only few chapters that happen after the events in anime. And anime looks 10 times better because it adds colors. The art in manga was OK, but nothing impressive, which cannot be said for anime. Also, the audio side in anime was done perfectly.

Also, the scanlations I have read were not very good - I often found the conversation confusing.

Up till now, every time I've read manga that the anime I already watched ("Berserk", "Claymore", "Gantz", "Shigurui", "Hellsing"...) was adapted from, I enjoyed it. This time this wasn't the case. So, my recommendation is that if you want to familiarize to "Black Lagoon", you should better skip the manga and go straight for anime. Anime I would recommend to everybody who likes seinen action anime, especially to those who like it dark and violent. If you watched it already, there is no reason for you to read manga.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Movie review: "The Avengers"

This weekend my girlfriend and I went to movies to watch "The Avengers". Not her first choice, but neither she was really against it. I intentionally did not want to go last weekend, hoping to avoid the biggest crowds. In the end, we were both satisfied. I have been following "The Avengers" hype for some time, although passively - I like super-hero franchises, but I am not really a fan. So I knew what to expect of the movie and it turned out I was pretty realistic in my expectations.

"The Avengers" is a movie that combines and continues several movies starring super-heroes: Iron-Man (watched both and liked), Thor (watched and liked), Captain America (didn't watch, heard it was not good), Hulk (didn't watch) and Black Widows and Hawkeye (don't have movies). It also features the agency S.H.I.E.L.D., which was mentioned and played parts in mentioned movies. The plot is pretty simple: S.H.I.E.L.D. has been tampering with some alien artifact called Teserakt and accidentally freed Loki (a villain from "Thor" movie), with a little bit of help from his new allies, Chitauri. He steals the Teserakt, abducts some scientist and agents and escapes in unknown direction with nothing good on his mind. In reaction, S.H.I.E.L.D. gathers restarts the Avengers initiative, which has a goal of centering all Earth's superheroes and ally them against common foe. They are later joined with Thor who comes to Earth to put his brother Loki to order. Considering their strength, the Avengers should not have any trouble defeating Loki, except two tinny problems: they have to find out what Loki's plan is, and they have to overcome their own differences (which are pretty big).

This movie takes after "Iron Man 2" in atmosphere - flashy, fast, lots of high-tech gadgets, much of ironic banter. As I said, it is not a plot-driven movie. Although it lasts more than two hours, it is all about characters, and some about the setting. This means that it is mostly oriented to those who like the franchises and will be able to disregard weak plot. To me, it also looked like they wanted to introduce the setting and prepare the field for the second Avengers movie or other connected movies. Characters were interesting enough, and humor was quite good and successful.

In my opinion, the only flaw of the movie was the weakness of the enemies. Loki was more of a daze and confuse mind-bending player, so it OK if he is physically week (even though he is a god). But I really expected much more from the Chitauri, considering how they were announced and referenced. Also, the ending reminded me much of "The Transformers 3" trailer I saw (didn't see the movie, yet).

All in all, "The Avengers" is a standard super-hero movie multiple several times (considering all the big-name super-heroes). If you like such movies, you will love it. Even if you don't, the movie has a bit of everything to offer: humor, action, Scarlett Johansson for guys, Chris Hemsworth for girls... Just don't expect some plot-heavy intelligent drama, and you will not be disappointed - because this is THE super-hero movie.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Anime review: "Fate/Zero"

As I said, I am taking little break from reading and the first anime I watched is "Fate/Zero". I have watched anime called "Fate/Stay Night" few years ago, which was a good but unexceptional fantasy/action anime revolving around some contemporary fight for the Holy Grail, with seven human Masters and seven mythical heroic Servants. So when last year "Fate/Zero" went out, with the same theme and same characters (at least some of them), I thought it was just an alternative version with better graphics, and decided that there is no reason for watching it. But as usually, good rates on AniDB and several good reviews, combined with a lack of tempting new anime made me change my mind.

First thing, I am a bit confused about the relationship between "Fate/Zero" and "Fate/Stay Night". What is certain is that they are set in the same setting. As I said at the beginning, they share a lot of plot and characters (who have same names, but are different), so I would be more inclined to the idea of this being an alternative version, as I thought first. But AniDB states that "Fate/Zero" is a prequel to "Fate/Stay Night". And if we consider that happens in this anime, this could even may be true. Of course, if we consider that fact that I watched "Fate/Stay Night" several years ago, I could be completely off.

And what happens is in this anime is: nothing! First episode is actually a double one and it is blatantly an info-dump, where the setting is explained and main characters are introduced. The rest of the episode servers only to build-up characters, their motives and the setting. For example, we have one episode dedicated to a completely minor character. Considering this is a fighting anime (Masters and Servants FIGHT against other in BATTLE for the Holy Grail), there are exactly three real fights: two ended in a draw and one was done so fast that you are left wondering what just happened (especially in context what happened in second episode).

My best guess is that "Fate/Zero" is a prequel, but that next year there will be a new "Fate/Stay" that will keep with this continuity. This is a good place to mention that next season of "Fate/Zero" is playing right now, called just "Fate/Zero (2012)".

But never mind that: this is a pretty good for anime where nothing conclusive happens and that ends in a cliffhanger. And that is established with unbelievably great atmosphere: dark and violent. Also, combination of grittiness and shounen chivalry somehow works great. I would really like to see what an adult and really gritty version would look like (probably something like "Kara no Kyoukai", a really SUPERB anime sharing this setting with nonlinear plot; if you watch it and like it, consider watching "Denpa Teki na Kanojo"). We have a lot of darker tones - most of the important stuff happens in the dark. Also, background sounds and music are very good and effective.

Characters are the other half of the reason why this anime is so good. They are all mysterious and surprisingly deep. Yes, they are stereotypical shounen character, but this is more a show about them than one about the battle for the Holy Grail. They are definitely more developed that in "Fate/Stay Night". Well, except Gilgamesh: he was intolerable prick then and he is one now (or vice versa). But even him I liked more in F/Z that in F/S. There is much more minor characters and what is even more better: not one of the main characters is an unaware high-school student. They are almost all mature people with their own histories.

About technical stuff, nothing less than you would except from modern action hit anime: great visuals with a touch too much CGI. And as I said, sounds and background music are very good (and I usually don't notice this stuff). There are 13 episodes; first is a double one and one last half again as others.

So for conclusion, although "Fate/Zero" share maybe too much with "Fate/Stay Night", if you like fighting anime, or dark fantasy is a pick for you (even more so if you didn't watch the latter). Not best out there, but good enough that I will watch the second season.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Book review: "A Dance with Dragons" by George R. R. Martin

Well, I finally finished reading "A Dance with Dragons", right after read the first four books in "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R. R. Martin. I can say that this book and series really wear me out. Since I had a lot of work while reading these books, my sleep and college tasks were suffering; I am quite thankful that I can finally get a good night sleep. Since the last book in "The Wheel of Time" series is coming out sometime after New Year, I was planning to a reread of complete series before it. But I don't think I will be capable of doing that, except if I somehow found myself with few weeks of free time - which is not very probable. So I will probably read only last three books (from "Knife of Dreams" onward). And now, I will be taking a few weeks hiatus of reading. I will watch few anime, maybe read some manga. After this complaints, let me just say that aDwD is a terrific book! Although, when I look back at first three books, I would have never guessed where the events will take us.

Without getting into spoilers (well, I expect that you have read first four books), this book focus on what we expected (since Martin announced it in "A Feast for Crows"): the events of the Wall and those around Daenerys. There is more, actually. First part of the book revolves exclusively around the Wall and the East, focusing on characters like Jon, Daenerys and Tyrion (as we expected it), but also on some new and some old characters that were a surprise to me. And in second part, characters from "A Feast for Crows" reemerge, meaning that the time span of this book reaches after aFfC.

As I said, there will be no spoilers. I liked the plot really much, mostly because it was quite surprising: fast in few places I would expect it to linger longer, while slow in parts that I didn't see lasting more than a chapter or two. This is a long book, almost as "A Storm of Swords", so there is a lot happening. I would say that there is more of the Norths in first parts, while the second is focused on East, especially toward the end. Tyrion's parts were most surprising for me. For some reason, at the beginning I decided that one thing "must" happen to him, so every chapter that this didn't happen in was infuriating to me (but in good way, somehow). Daenerys' POV was also unexpected - I didn't expect her to develop in such way and she felt almost like a stranger to me. But ending brought her to a more familiar track. And Jon's part... Well, somehow his part was most linear, expected and predictable. Not in any way bad, but familiar enough to lull you in. But don't become too relaxed, because you are in for biggest shock and cliffhanger in this complete series so far!!! I this was anybody else, I would have an inkling what is following, but since this is Martin, anything (and really, anything) is possible. Well, I have few theories of my own...

My strongest impression about this book is that it is not a book that will give you fun. Oh, this is a great book, beautifully written, complex and intelligent, no doubt about it. But it is really no fun - it left me weary and tired, and in serious doubt of humanity (as collection of humans) and humanity (a human trait) of George R. R. Martin. "The Riftwar Cycle", by Feist, is my favorite example of books that are not really so good, but are immensely enjoyable and you can have a lot of fun with them. "Malazan Book of the Fallen" is completely different, a big, ultra-complex series full of philosophy and suffering - but it is also an optimistic, enjoyable and funny. "A Dance with Dragons" is neither: it is dark, violent, stark and bloody. I thought that Abercrombie and Morgan are gritty, but Martin surpassed them both. Again, make no mistake, this is a great book. But when you encounter a fun chapter (these mostly involve Tyrion), be glad because of it, because you are in a long read until the next one. I don't think there is a more than few characters for which you can say that their situation improved in this book (I can remember only two): for big majority this book saw them downgraded, killed or jumping from pan to fire.

Another thing I noticed was how East was developed here. Until now, each book would give some of the details (aGoT dothraki, aCoK Quarth, aSoS Slaver's Bay), but this is a first time that we have such encompassed description. Also, I got a feeling that with these parts Martin approached some more common fantasy tropes. Well, at least was my feeling in the beginning, later all my predictions broke on the crags of Martin's imagination. Anyway, setting in the series got a lot broader than before.

I would now write how this book is not really a complete entity, but rather just a part of the big story, but Jo Walton said it better here. Also, I really can't see how Martin plans to finish it in two books.

So in conclusion, I can say that "A Dance with Dragons" brought ASoIaF back to greatness (contrary to "A Feast for Crows") and that is one superb book, although I don't think it will be one of my favorite ones. And remember one thing: from now on, I wouldn't put anything off for conclusion of this series, including the unhappy ending. I can just imagine Martin doing this to us, with laughter and dry-washing hands (just joking).