The Heroic Legend of Arslan Episodes 1-2

For the spring season, I’ll be taking a page from others’ books and trying to link my ANN reviews here, if only to get more content for this blog at least. Here’s the first of the three shows I’m covering: The Heroic Legend of Arslan!

I requested this one partly just because the first episode intrigued me so much. But also because of its connection with Hiromu Arakawa. I love Arakawa’s art style but I’m kind of glad she’s not writing something like this. Her handling of tense racial and religious conflicts was dicey in the Fullmetal Alchemist manga (and done much better by the less faithful 2003 anime adaptation). I haven’t watched Legend of the Galactic Heroes yet, but I hear that Yoshiki Tanaka is good at that sort of thing. So I’m eager to see how this goes.

Read my review here.

Twelve Days of Anime #11: Vash vs. Legato, and Trigun’s Peculiar Approach to Pacifism

I’m finally writing this post, after I’ve promised it over and over. I’m finally writing this post, on one of the most emotionally-devastating parts of one of my favorite anime, at 5 am on Christmas morning because I can’t sleep. Season’s Greetings!

Once again, full-series spoilers for the Trigun anime ahead.

If you’ve talked to me about it at all, you probably know that Trigun is one of my favorite appraisals of pacifism as a philosophy in fiction, and especially in anime. On my Tumblr, I’ve posted before about how I think other series (namely Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) get pacifism wrong in comparison to Trigun by making it too easy for their heroes, always giving them a convenient out when they have to struggle to uphold their philosophies. Vash the Stampede gets no such outs. He repeatedly makes sacrifices for his “no-killing” credo, and it’s up to the audience to decide whether he’s making the right decisions or not. Other, sympathetic characters also repeatedly challenge him on this philosophy (namely Wolfwood), and make Vash wonder if it’s actually as sound as he thinks. This comes to a head in Vash’s final confrontation with Legato Bluesummers.

When I first watched through this anime, it was confusing to me how this scene fit in with Trigun’s pacifist themes. Vash really has no choice but to kill Legato here. Legato stacks the deck against him, by making it so Meryl and Milly will almost certainly die horrifically if Vash doesn’t obliterate him. I couldn’t understand why a series devoted to pacifism would put its hero in a situation where it couldn’t possibly work. And yet, Vash’s confrontation with and killing of Legato actually furthers Trigun’s more nuanced approach to the idea, an approach that makes it more salient than other shows’ takes on it.

Vash the Stampede has lived nearly 150 years without killing anyone, and it utterly destroys him when he does in this scene. It was a promise he made to Rem when she was alive, and so he feels like he’s failed her and that her spirit has finally left him for good. Yet, in the remaining episodes, Meryl’s appraisal of Vash’s values and the importance of letting people live to give them a chance at redemption—and that killing them passes judgment on their lives that no one deserved to—recommits Vash to his beliefs. It makes him realize he hasn’t failed, just because once he was backed into a corner. After this, he can go on to confront Knives without killing him, giving his brother a chance to rebuild his life. We’re left not knowing whether Knives actually does this, but true to its Christian values to the end, Trigun asks us to have faith in him. Even someone as awful as Knives has been up to this point, deserves that chance.

Vash does spend a lot of bullets wounding people, though.

Vash does spend a lot of bullets wounding people, though.

The take-away here is that Trigun approaches pacifism as a project, rather than a strict set of rules one must always adhere to or they fail. It recognizes—unlike other series like Fullmetal Alchemist—that there will be times we can’t commit to our values, that we’ll have no choice but to do something else, even something contrary to them. Yet, that doesn’t mean they’re no longer worth it. We should still try, if we can still explain why they are worth it. And Trigun certainly explains why pacifism is a worthy value system.

It gives people like Legato too much power if we let them back us into a corner and make us doubt ourselves. (And Legato certainly intended to break Vash with his dying breaths—a mind-gaming devil to the end.)

Look at this smarmy shithead.

Look at this smarmy shithead.

I specifically contrasted this with Fullmetal Alchemist, so let me explain this. In the manga and the Brotherhood anime, Edward Elric is frequently verbally challenged on his “no killing” policy, including by sympathetic characters. Yet, it’s always in practical rather than moral terms, unlike how Vash is challenged in Trigun. What’s more, Ed never actually has to make a tough choice between killing someone and saving others. Even when it appears that he will need to do so, a third option always presents himself, allowing him to keep his moral purity intact. In the first anime, Ed does actually have to make the difficult choice to kill a few times—and it results in him examining the faults of and eventually discarding his previous value system. He finds it gradually easier to kill bad people.

I’ve seen fans commend Brotherhood for its commitment to “killing is bad,” but I always thought that the convenient third options undermined it. Like a lot of Brotherhood’s thematic stuff, it’s shallow shonen morality that doesn’t hold much resonance in the complicated real world, where if you live in the violent kind of life Ed does, you will inevitably have to choose between your ideals and the best end result. I think Trigun is stronger for putting Vash in the impossible position that Legato does—and still finding a way to uphold his values after that.

Still, poor Vash. :(

Still, poor Vash. 😦

A strong philosophy such as pacifism is a life-long project. We’ll inevitably make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we’ve strayed off the path. As long as we recommit ourselves, that commitment is still there and it still matters. We are all worthy and capable of redemption.

Twelve Days of Anime #2: How Nicholas D. Wolfwood Made Me Cry

This is the first of what will likely be two or three posts about Trigun in this series. It was one of the first anime series I completed this year, and it says something that it’s still rattling around in my mind 11 months later. So if you’re a Trigun fanatic, rev up your engines—and you know there’s only one way to do that:

(Also, this is going to include a butt-ton of spoilers for the anime series, so if you haven’t seen it and you want to keep your Trigun virginity intact, you might want to skip this post.)

This blogging series is supposed to be about moments–in anime, in anime fandom—even if I kinda violated the rule with the previous post being more about a gradual realization. Anyway, as soon as I read the description, I knew that I’d be talking about the death scene for my favorite Trigun character, Nicholas D. Wolfwood. It had such an impact on me when I first saw the show that I originally planned to start this blog off with a series on character deaths in my favorite TV series, and why they worked or didn’t work. I can admit now it was just an excuse to talk about this dork:

trigun_nick0042

Along with the ending of Madoka Magica, Wolfwood’s death is the only time that anime has actually made me break down in tears. And that’s from no lack of engaging with tear-jerking anime: I made it through all of Wolf’s Rain, Penguindrum, Fullmetal Alchemist, the ending of Cowboy Bebop…all without any waterworks. What is it about Wolfwood that did it for me?

I think it’s that he didn’t want to die. And moreover, he didn’t need to die.

trigun wolfwood smoking

The smoking probably would’ve eventually killed him anyway

Oh, I’m sure people will argue with me on this, but I firmly believe this. And I’m someone who can easily admit when characters I love need to die. I think Hughes’s death in FMA is a brilliant turning point and tonal shift, and can’t see how it could have been executed any other way. I think Spike Spiegel died at the end of Cowboy Bebop and it absolutely had to happen to close off his character arc and make the point Keiko Nobumoto wanted to make. And for a non-anime example: I think Don Draper needs to kick it at the end of Mad Men for similar reasons.

Wolfwood didn’t need to die. You can say he needed to be shuffled offstage to make way for Vash’s final confrontations with Legato and Knives, but I’m sure Trigun could work him in somehow or find a way to explain his absence. Heck, it does essentially work him in, since Wolfwood’s voice in Vash’s head is what pushes him along, and his giant cross-shaped gun, the Punisher, is how Vash finally triumphs over Knives. (A phrasing I think Vash would disagree with, but whatever.) What’s more, Wolfwood knows the unnecessary nature of his death, and expresses this.

The beauty of that scene is not just its exquisite direction, and use of music (I still can’t listen to “Rakuen,” Wolfwood’s theme that was used so extensively in this scene, without getting a bit blubbery). The way Wolfwood exits the world is just so human. He tries at first for serenity, to accept the inevitability of his approaching death, and muses on how he hopes to be reincarnated in a paradise where he can “live happily, with him (Vash) and the girls.” (Finally, the Milly/Wolfwood and Vash/Wolfwood shippers are united in emotional torment!) But when he takes time to really think about that dream, and how his actions in life made it impossible, he suddenly realizes he doesn’t want to die. He wants to live and make things better! His “sins are so heavy,” but that’s because he’s full of regrets, regrets he could easily make right—if only he had a little more time. “I did not want to die this way!” he screams. And then he dies.

It’s so easy to write characters who go into death with an accepting smile on their faces, but I have to imagine that everyone is at least a little like Wolfwood when they’re about to meet their maker. Even if you’ve lived a long, full life, there have to be some things you wish you could’ve done when you’re stuck there, alone with your thoughts, knowing you’re reaching the end. And Wolfwood didn’t live that kind of life: his was short (remember, he’s only chronologically 17 in the manga, and the anime hints at this a few times, too), and filled with violence and misery. It feels brief to the audience, too, since as much screentime as Wolfwood’s had by this point, we only really got to know him and his backstory in this episode.

A lot of my favorite anime are those that establish characters and ideas in really small chunks. For example, in FMA, we learn everything we need to know about Sloth in the three minutes right before Edward kills her, and it’s one of the series’ most masterful moments. Madoka told us everything we needed to know about Homura and her many lives in the space of a single half-hour. FMA had a big cast, and Madoka had a short runtime, so it was necessary for them to push to pull this off. But Trigun didn’t need to do this; it only had a few major characters, some of whom still didn’t get any real backstory in the anime (like Legato) in spite of the series’ ample time to do so across its 26 episodes. It could’ve taken its time with Wolfwood, but it didn’t.

I think it works, because it just compounds the regrets the audience feels and represents the brief tragedy of his life. We barely knew him before he left us. He barely knew himself, only just then revealing to Vash his conflicted loyalties (“Knives is in Dmitri”) and firmly deciding to fully commit himself to his friends’ ideals. In that sense, if I were going to compare Wolfwood’s death to that of any other character in an anime I love, I would compare it to Lust’s in FMA. They were only just beginning their journeys of self-discovery when we lost them, and their deaths are full of regrets about that. But it isn’t that we’re cheated; that incomplete journey, that sentence fragment is the point. It adds to the emotional punch and realism of these stories, since this happens far too often to real people, too.

trigun wolfwood confessional

How can you not love that face? How can you not cry over it?

Trigun is ultimately not Wolfwood’s story, but the story of Vash the Stampede and Millions Knives, two godlike beings struggling to make sense of their relationships to humanity. Vash is a Christ figure, showing how such a “man” would be burdened and tried by the world if he’d lived longer than Jesus’s 33 years. Wolfwood is the key to his bond with humanity, as Trigun’s most deliciously flawed, frustrated, human character. His death is the perfect coda to that.

Mixed Feelings About Sailor Moon Crystal

sailor moon moon moon

I’ll start this off by talking about one of my favorite and least favorite corners of the Internet: Tumblr. Shortly before the first episode of Sailor Moon Crystal aired last month, a post began circulating on the social networking site warning people not to jump to negative conclusions about the series. It mentioned that new versions could only enrich a franchise, that if you dislike it the old versions will continue to exist, and that squabbling could only make the fandom less fun and welcoming for newbies. It read: “Crystal is not here to destroy your childhood.  It’s here to add to it.  Appreciate it for what it is: something new, that builds on all that came before it.  It will be different, and that’s okay.  Every version of Sailor Moon is different, and the franchise is better for it.”

Now, it’s easy to see posts like this as the typical fan-posturing and -gatekeeping from hyperdefensive people who are terrified by criticism of any sort. And I’m sure some people reblogged it in that spirit. But I’ve been in plenty of “fandoms” where people just automatically hated things that were different from the version they came to like, regardless of quality and without thinking very much about what bothered them about the changes. Fanboys and fangirls are notoriously afraid of change; TVTropes even has a page about this mentality, and I’ve seen it ruin fandom communities I was in from Harry Potter to Fullmetal Alchemist to Skins. And you’ve seen it, too, if you’ve ever mentioned enjoying a movie adaptation to a fan of the original book/comic/whatever, and were met by them blathering endlessly about every little thing that was different. As someone who likes having multiple versions of a story I love, and prefers good original adaptations to dull faithful ones, I thought the post was absolutely necessary – and so I re-blogged it.

Thus, I felt like it was important to set all that fanwank aside right out of the gate here. I’m not someone who came in determined to find Sailor Moon Crystal lacking. In fact, I really wanted to see this anime succeed. I am a dedicated Moonie in every version I’ve encountered it in (anime, manga, even the live-action), and I was really excited when I heard that we’d have a new series coming out. I was apprehensive about the ultra-manga-faithful character designs and Usagi’s tentacle-pasta hair, but I was still bouncing up and down with excitement, staying up until 6 am to watch the first episode of the new series. I wrote about it positively both on my article about the franchise for Bitch, and my Summer Anime blog post here. I saw some things that gave me pause, but I decided to remain optimistic, to give the series a few episodes to find its footing.

As of episode 3, though, it’s hard to maintain my optimism anymore.

This series already had some issues with visuals and direction. My friend Gabbo detailed many of its issues in her post here about Sailor Moon Crystal, while comparing it to the original anime. As she shows, the series already had many problems in the first two episodes, but “Act 3: Rei – Sailor Mars” brings a lot of them into even sharper focus.

Let’s start with some positives. I really love the backgrounds on this show. The first anime had a lot of great ones as well, but the watercolor ones here look like something out of a storybook:

Also, hi, Phobos and Deimos!

Also, hi, Phobos and Deimos! You look a lot more distinctive this time around.

But when one zooms into the individual characters, the positives dwindle. The character designs are flat, generic and, to be frank, pretty clunky. My first thought with this moment (when Usagi first meets Rei) was, “wow, they aren’t being remotely subtle about her girl-crush! Cool!” My second was (as Zac Bertschy pointed out on Twitter), “…what are those EYEBROWS?”

sailor moon crystal 3 eyebrows

Luna continues to look more like a horse in her body shape than a cat, but even characters who were doing fine in previous episodes, like Mamoru, apparently change their face shape with every scene, when it’s not falling into the generic big-eyed pointiness that this series favors for everyone:

Poor boy, you were so much cuter back in the day.

Poor boy, you were so much cuter back in the day.

Rei (Sailor Mars) fares the worst, though. Plenty have already detailed how her eyes are oddly spaced, but it’s possibly even more alarming how often she goes completely off-model – to the point where it sometimes seems like the series doesn’t have a consistent “model” for her. It’s one thing to have your characters look a little “meguca” when they’re in the background or in motion; it’s another in a still shot where they’re the focus, like in Rei’s slogan scene here:

Also, is that a Jojo pose?

Also, is that a Jojo pose?

And while the backgrounds can be impressive, the series simply lacks the impressive direction and attention to detail that characterized the original. It could be simply due to its lack of talent – the first Sailor Moon anime boasted such directors as Kunihiko Ikuhara and Junichi Sato, the masterminds behind Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu respectively – but you don’t need a genius director to just not be lazy here. And these directorial and cinematographic choices are just that: lazy, hoping the viewers will be entranced by the modernized style and ignore how sloppily it’s applied. Observe the lighting choices here, where the leaf shadows are applied so broadly as to appear unrealistic:

Even Usagi knows!

Even Usagi knows!

Sailor Moon Crystal‘s story may be just as engaging as that of the original – if it keeps following the excellent manga – but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired, and could make or break this series that can already be experienced in so many other forms. Toei just doesn’t seem like they’re bringing the budget and/or talent necessary for this project, which is a shame for something as heavily-anticipated as this series was.

Overall, it’s interesting to compare Sailor Moon Crystal with another “manga-faithful” reboot of a classic anime series: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I’ve never been particularly fond of FMA:B, though a lot of that lies with my finding the manga story far less compelling than the one in the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime – which takes a much sharper departure from its source material than the original Sailor Moon anime did. (FMA 03’s degree of departure is closer to what the Sailor Moon live-action series did with that first season arc’s plot, but that’s a story for another post.) With Sailor Moon, I had less reservations, since I like the first anime and the manga’s stories about equally at this point. I was excited to see the manga version of the story get an anime adaptation, with its much darker plot and greater protagonist-focus giving it the potential to pull in a different audience to one of my favorite anime franchises.

But I’m finding a lot of the same problems I did in FMA:B.

And in both FMA:B and SMC, the key to most issues is the manga-faithfulness. FMA:B struggled to adapt 109 manga chapters to 64 episodes, and that includes some truly sloppy pacing, especially in its beginning and end. But even then, it keeps so much manga material it could have easily left on the cutting room floor, that it fails to give the proper time to the essentials (as with the Ishval flashback episode). Worse, its visual adaptation is almost panel-by-panel, to a degree that shows serious ignorance for what works in animation vs. print comics. This is most evident in its comedic moments, where it repeats the same SD visual gags from the manga as literally as possible – but while they worked there, they’re just over-the-top and corny in anime. The first anime succeeded by rendering these same jokes with more subtlety.

But SMC’s issues here, at least as far as visuals, are far, far worse. FMA:B had a manga-inspired art style and character designs, but it did adapt them with an awareness for how things work differently in a three-dimensional plane. (It helped that Hiromu Arakawa’s more rounded, cartoonish character designs work better for this task, anyway.) SMC’s characters hew so close to its manga art style, though, that this goes right out the window. Gabbo puts it well in her aforementioned post:

Naoko Takeuchi is a great artist, and one her art’s most distinctive features is that she draws eyes to look like they exist on a flat plane. She doesn’t account for the curvature of the face, just changing the direction that the eyes are curved in order to indicate which way a character is facing, and it looks great in 2D. However, this choice doesn’t translate well into animation, where character models will often need to turn around or shake their heads or make other onscreen shifts in perspective. It just isn’t easy to transition one facial shot to another in a way that looks recognizably human.

 

The Senshi in the manga...

The Senshi in the manga…

sellamun crystal

…and the new anime. Can you spot the similarities?

To SMC’s credit, it does seem willing to deviate from the manga plot as necessary to make the anime plot more engaging, unlike FMA:B. But it does this by hewing closer to what the first anime already did differently, as in Ami’s episode – which is basically the same exact story as her introduction in the first anime, with some technology updates (a haunted CD-ROM instead of a haunted floppy disk!) and taking into account Usagi’s different characterization here (kinder and more cooperative, instead of competitive and argumentative).  It isn’t much of an argument for SMC being able to stand alone, as its own work separate from the first anime and the manga.

Those differences, though, do at least make SMC a curio worth observing for those who are already invested in the other Sailor Moon canons, and anyone interested in the art of adaptation. I, for one, like that Rei’s episode shows more signs of the manga version of her characterization and relationship with Usagi, even though I prefer her anime incarnation. (Competitive, snarky Rei was my first fictional crush and basically my role model as a sassy little girl, okay?) Both the cooperation emphasized in the manga/Crystal story and the spiritedness/assertiveness emphasized in Usagi and Rei’s first-anime characterizations, are valid approaches to empowering and mentoring young girls through entertainment. I’m glad that the latest generation of little girls, who might be put-off by the ’90s flavor of the original anime, have a new version of the story that they can call their own.

But for anyone other than youngsters and diehards, this series still leaves a lot to be desired.