Sunday, May 19, 2013

Anime review: "Hyouka"

Few weeks ago AnimeReactor Community Awards were finally out. Most of the anime I watch I find and pick by myself, but I always check this yearly selection in case I miss some (I usually do). For last year, "Hyouka" won in three categories: Character Development, Male Lead and Slice-of-Life. I noticed "Hyouka" before, but I looked like a typical school comedy, probably based on some dating-sim or video-game, so I decided to skip it. But winning three categories made me change my mind, especially in these few weeks without any expected anime out.

"Hyouka" had a pretty uninformative and general description. Oreki Hotarou has just entered high-school. He is almost typical boy, except for his philosophy - he is an "energy-saving boy" and his motto is: "If I don't have to do something, I won't, but if I have to, I'll do it quickly.". Meaning, he avoid any unnecessary effort and obligation, even though he is not lazy. According to his life-style, he would avoid joining any high-school clubs, because it would ask for additional effort, but he is forced by his older sister to join Classic Literature Club. There he meets Chitanda Eru, also from his year, who is a very curious and dynamic girl - his complete opposite. Later they are joined by Fukube Satoshi, Oreki's best-friend, and Ibara Mayaka, a friend from their junior-high school.

Plot of "Hyouka" stems from Chitanda's curiosity (her phrase is "I can't stop thinking about it") and Oreki's uncanny ability to connect seemingly uncorrelated facts into a theory or explanation. It turns out that Oreki is a natural born detective - when he can be coerced to leave his usual low-energy state. There is no overall plot in this anime, only a bunch of standalone episodes and three mini-arcs made of two or three episode. At the beginning, I was wondering why this anime got an award in Slice-of-Life category when it was clearly a detective anime, but toward end focus shifts more to characters and their daily life than to plot.

Also, a word of advice. This anime has a pretty slow introduction, so give it some time to really start. It you like it when it reaches Seikitani Jun arc, things go only better from that point on.

From my description, you probably understand that I liked this anime, although it doesn't sound like anything extraordinary. And this is true, this anime is not extraordinary - but it is very, very good in every aspect. There is no big story here, but each episode and few arcs are very interesting, even if you don't like detective stories (I don't, really). Characters don't stand out, especially at the beginning, but they grow more complex and life-like whole time during this show. Animation and design also don't look anything special at first glance, but as you watch it, you will realize that a major effort is put in details and that everything fits right. There is also some romance, some comedy and much of light humor. Looking back now, this anime is like normalized (in sense that both high and low extremes are flatted out) "Haruhi Suzumiya" show. And I think that fans of it will also like "Hyouka". Despite slow and unimpressive start, this show ends as one really good anime.

The show doesn't have many characters. Except four main, there are only some recurring supporting characters, but they are all made good. Again, I stress that this anime really deservedly won first place in Character Development category (as both jury and community pick). This is most evident in Oreki, who quite grows in self-confidence and gradually changes his life-style.

There are some unexpected quirks in this anime. First, you rarely see a minor getting drunk in anime (even when it is accidentally). Secondly, it is not common that boy is attracted to girl only psychically (at least at first), except in ecchi anime. It usually involves unrealistic romance (e.g. Harima and Tenma from "School Rumble").

The show has 22 episodes, and there is one OVA which is actually a normal standalone episode. As I said, visually anime doesn't look much, but quality is actually pretty high and it stays that way whole time. There is really much care put into details: clothes, furniture, surroundings... It is obvious that anime had pretty good production.

All in all, even not extraordinary, "Hyouka" is quietly great anime and I would recommend it to anybody who doesn't require action from anime their watch. It is interesting, sometimes mysterious, lively and fun all the way.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Movie reviews: "Jack Reacher" and "Iron Man 3"

This week I have watched two movies.

First I watched at my friend's place, "Jack Reacher". Before watching, I knew that it starred Tom Cruise and I didn't have any expectations from it.

After a former US sniper-specialist James Barr gets framed for murdering of 6 innocent people in broad-daylight, his only chance is Jack Reacher, an ex-military policeman and investigator. Together with his defender Helen, he tries to find how and why did Barr get framed. What they discover will endanger their lives...

"The law has limits. He does not." This writes on the movie poster and describes the movie perfectly. The movie starts as a thriller and ends as a action movie with big gun-showdown. And throughout the movie, Tom Cruise is best in anything he does: he is a brilliant investigator with photographic memory, a confident ladies-man, a skilled martial-artist and of course the impeccable marksman.

If Tom Cruise's character was replaced with a team of three or four people that shared his skills, this would be very believable movie. But even so, "Jack Reacher" is not a bad movie. It has a nice and intriguing plot that keeps you guessing what will happen next, few comic scenes and nice action. If you don't have big expectations, you could have a nice time with this film, as I did.

And this weekend I went to the movies to watch the new "Iron Man 3". I am not very versed in "Iron Man" setting, but when I learned that this movie features Mandarin, his arch-enemy, it made me have big expectations.

The "Iron Man 3" is set after the last (and first) "The Avengers" movie. Tony Stark is without any real occupation, wasting time in his basement and suffering from anxiety attacks that are the consequence of events from "The Avengers". But now USA is threatened by a new villain, a terrorist known as Mandarin, who is somewhat connected with the group called AIM and biologist Maya Hanses, one of Stark's ex-conquests.

Well, without wading into spoilers, let's just say that Mandarin was a the same time a disappointment and hilarious surprise. My girlfriend, who had no expectations, found it (and the movie itself) great, while I was mildly dissatisfied.

The movie is fun, fun, fun with occasional action. Robert Downey Jr. really goes well with Iron Man role and is very funny in it. I also expected more focus on Iron Man suits, but the movie goes, let's say, back to the roots.

Of course, the movie is technologically ridiculous: there was something about "recalibrating the ISDN servers on van's roof". Also, the whole idea a mechanic can make and repair a suit is nonsensical, but you just have to accept it.

From some scenes at the end of the movie, it can be implied that this is the last movie in this sequence. But I just checked on Wikipedia and it says that we can expect at least one more movie with Downey Jr. as Iron Man (although it is not confirmed).

But all in all, "Iron Man 3" is a funny and exciting movie and I would recommend it to anybody who wants to enjoy an evening in nice action, humor and special effects.

Book of review: "God of Clocks" by Alan Campbell

This weekend I finished "God of Clocks" by Allan Campbell, the last book in his "Deepgate Codex" trilogy. I really liked his first book, "Scar Night" and found it very gritty and full of epic action. The second one, "Iron Angel" took the series to an unexpected expansion, making it very different from the first one, but I liked it very much also. So I had some expectation from this last one.

In last book, things weren't going were well for our main heroes (although this is maybe a wrong word). Even though they managed to save Dill from Hell's King Menoa, Menoa had used them to deliver twelve unstoppable arconites to the world of living. To thwart him, they devise a desperate plan: former Spine assassin Rachel Heal, thaumaturgist Mina Green, god places in glass body Hasp will lead arconite Dill to the God of Time Sabor, where they will attack the Heaven in hope that this will anger Ayen, mother of all creation, enough that she will destroy all arconites. At the same time, the god Cospinol and his servant John Archer, with former Mesmerist Alice Harper serving as they guide, will try to make a distraction and attack Menoa's stronghold in Hell...

At first, I had some trouble adapting to "God of Clocks" because I forgot a lot what happened at the end of its prequel, "Iron Angel". But I overcome this fast, especially because this book feel almost like a continuation of the last part of "Iron Angel": the Pandermia, the Mesmerists, Hell, arconites, war between gods... Of course, it is hard to add new elements in last book of series, but after a tremendous change between "Scar Night" and its sequel, I expected some surprise.

There are two big flaws in this book in my opinion. First is the constant action. From the page one till the end, you don't get any rest. It's action, action, action. I know that this sound strange, because action equals interesting. But you don't get any time to absorb what is happening and you are just constantly jumping from one scene to another, without really getting an attachment to plot and characters. It all leaves you tired from reading.

I admit that plot is interesting and really unpredictable, but here is the second, more important flaw: the ending. This book looks like Campbell wrote half of it and then decided that he doesn't feel like writing it any more. But since he was obligate to finish it, he wrote up the plot-line that gives ending, rearanged chapter and left everything else at cliffhanger. Sure, book had an ending, even a satisfactory one, but there is just too much question left unanswered. Too much...

Campbell's characters in last two books were superb. Here they retain most of their quality, the old ones. Several new characters are good, although not exceptional. But again, the abrupt ending leaves both heir history and future unresolved and unfinished. The bright point was reappearance of Carnival as a character, but even though she got some pages, they can be compressed to few words: anger, violence, unbending. This would be all right I she got some resolution at the end, but that nonsensical two pages just don't cut it.

All in all, "God of Clocks" was a big disappointment for me. It had a big potential, with really unique setting, great characters and very gritty and dark atmosphere. But sudden ending ruined the experience for me. Not sure if I would recommend this book even the fans of the series.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Anime review: "Hyouge Mono"

I don't really remember how or when it started, but I know that I have been eagerly waiting for this show to be subbed for months, maybe even more than a year. I always had a liking for historical-based items (be it books, movies or anime) and "Hyouge Mono" looked like one. On the other hand, I had some similar expectations from "Sengoku Basara" (which disappointed me very, very much) and even more so from "Souten Kouro" (which took a completely different direction than I expected). But "Hyouge Mono" fitted those expectations perfectly: a complex and deeply historical anime with a bunch of characters and realistic details.

"Hyouge Mono" is set on the eve of Sengoku period in Japan, starting somewhere in last years of rule of Oda Nobunaga. In the anime we follow the important events in Japan's history for next ten years, including the wars, politics and cultural life. This is seen primary from the eyes of Furuta Sasuke, who starts as a lowly vassal to Oda Nobunaga. What differentiates Furuta from bunch of other warriors and vassals is that he is actually more of an aesthete than a warrior. But to enjoy life of an aesthete, one needs to have money. Luckily for him, aesthetes, especially those interested in the way of tea, are on the rise in this time...

Sengoku period is a very turbulent time for Japan, a time of constant warring before final unification of Japan. Of course, such times gave rise to many popular warriors and leaders, like Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu (to name the most prominent). And as such, it is a ripe pool of ideas for anime.

There are several obvious and important aspects that make this anime different from your usual one. First one is that Furuta is in no way the main character - the show doesn't actually have one. Furuta is only the means through which we follow the events, plot and other characters. He is not even an important man, especially at the beginning of the show, and he has to bend toward the will of others. In the end, he is just a conveniently placed close to important people with small influence on the events. This is a somewhat common occurrence in books (let's only mention Guy Gavriel Kay, who use it all the time), but I don't remember seeing it in anime much (maybe in few josei anime). Actually, there is even less focus of Furuta in later parts of anime.

Secondly, it cannot be said that this anime has a plot in classical sense. We are suddenly immersed in an ongoing world full of events, we follow it for some time (10 years and 39 episodes) and then we leave it without the feel on conclusion you have when some show is finished. At one time, somewhere around 25th episode, I have made a note "totally don't know where the plot is going", because I expected first part to be the introduction and second the real revelation of the story, but I was wrong.

And third, the biggest difference is the level of historical accuracy and details. In my 200+ anime that I have watched, I don't remember ever watching such anime. I can't say that I am a student of Japanese history, since most that I know about it came from common knowledge, anime, Wikipedia and articles on Internet and magazines. There is even a warning at the start of every episode that this is a work of fiction. But on the other hand, every character, important event and even things and concepts can be found on Wikipedia or other online encyclopedia. Yes, a lots of events, or better said, reasons behind events are made more dramatic or romantic (not in sense of love), but nevertheless, the amount of accurate historical details is astounding. Interesting, characters even speak with slightly archaic speech, and subtitles that I had reflected that.

Of course, the theme of anime is strange also: the Japanese tea ceremony. I never encountered this before, and I thought it to be completely fabricated. I was very surprised when I went to Wikipedia and found out that it isn't. This gives the anime a somewhat slow and serious, but at the same time funny aspect. Furuta's tea-obsession looks ridiculous from our perspective, but I see it was a serious business at the time. There is a lot of details about tea ceremonies and talk about elegance and aesthetics. If there is a message that this anime wants to convey, then it is something like: "Always do your best in everything, but never fret about it - be elegant and relaxed". This is evident for Furuta's character that is, as I said, obsessed, pretentious and overeager to become famous as aesthete, even contrary to his sincere liking of the way of tea. Later he grows much and becomes more relaxed and enjoys the tea and beauty for itself.

This brings us to another topic: characters. There is really a bunch of them and it takes time to become familiar with them (especially since lot of them change - this is war, after all). It helps if you are familiar with the Sengoku period. They change appearance, clothes, hairstyles. But more important, they really change during the anime. Furuta, Rikyu, Hashiba - at the end, they are very different people from those who they were when we met them. I even like them more in the second part of the show, when they are more mature and relaxed...

Even though "Hyouge Mono" is a serious and historical anime, there is really a lot of humor. A lots of it steam from Furuta's obsession for art pieces, and the faces he makes (I was delightful to see that Troll-face in episode 16, during the shrimp-mongering dance). Also, it is funny when someone pricks his bubble of self-importance. But it is interesting that there is some humor that is not intended toward viewer (so that we laugh at characters), but it is more the humor between the characters so the viewer can laugh with them (like when Furuta steals the tea-jar lid). On the other hand, it is easily to forget that this funny little man is actually a warrior and veteran but we are reminded of that on few occasions.

The ending was really something. It was a slow rise during few episodes to a glorious culmination - a powerful and emotional ending. It was delighted to see that mange that anime is based upon is still ongoing - which means I can hope for eventual sequel.

I was a bit disappointed by Date Masamune's appearance and mannerism, who looks like he escaped from "Sengoku Basara". On the other hand, he was very funny, and in the end did fit with the rest of characters.

Animation and colors in nothing over the top, but it is very good. Design of characters and care for details (I mention clothes and hairstyles) are on the other hand superb. As is the voice-acting.

It's been a long time since I gave some anime 10 on AniDB (I gave them all around when I was younger), but "Hyouge Mono" definitely deserves it: complex and detailed, historically based with realistic characters, no good guys, no main character, almost a slice-of-life in turbulent times - this really an unique seinen anime. Unfortunately, I don't think it will be deservedly appreciated because it will be too hard for majority of viewers. But if you consider yourself a fan of seinen or historical anime, give this a try.