Tokyo Ghoul – 01

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This show wasn’t on my initial Summer list, since from the admittedly very little I saw and read of it, I’d already seen it’s like before, with similarities to everything from Ao no Exorcist to True Blood. But with nothing else to watch, this first episode was to enticing to pass up, like the flesh laid out before Kaneki Ken. While it was impossible not to notice its many derivative elements, it was still a bloody fun romp.

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Many shows of this genre we’ve seen feature huge sprawling casts of various factions vying for power, but in the interests of easing us into its blood bath, the actors are thankfully kept as few as possible. There’s Ken, an utterly unremarkable bookworm of a kid with bangs that make him look ten years younger than he is, and there’s Rize, his gorgeous date, the true side of whom we see in the episode’s prologue, where she’s nude, enthusiastically gorging on flesh, and escaping a pursuer.

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With Rize, Hana-Kana gets to use both the cute/innocent and bad-ass/crazy/evil sides of her versatile voice. A ghoul—a vampire by any other name—she lures Ken somewhere secluded and attacks him with lustful vigor, totally throwing him, but not us, for a loop. He survives the assault when some steel girders fall on Rize, apparently killing her, and a doctor manages to fix him up, apparently by transplanting some of Rize’s still-intact organs.

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You can guess the rest: he becomes a ghoul himself…or rather a half-ghoul, which makes him unique (so far). Earlier in the episode he’s a bit of a tiresome pipsqueak, but watching the shadows literally close in upon him as he puts the pieces of the puzzle together, is nicely done. I particularly liked how all normal food and drink (given to him by his devoted best and only friend, Hide) now make him retch; now only human flesh will do.

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Like Haruto in Valvrave, he must choose to “resign his humanity”, although fate kind of chooses for him. When his nose leads him to a relatively kindly ghoul tucking into a fresh kill, their encounter is interrupted by Nishiki, an experienced ghoul and a heel who is ready to take over the dead Rize’s territory. He’s about to kill Nishiki when a girl named Touka shows up (Amamiya Sora in her first “tough girl” role).

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Touka was a waitress at the cafe where Ken meets Rize, and whom we imagine to be part of a more disciplined sect of ghouls than Rize or Nishiki. After dispatching the latter, she doles out some tough love to Ken, who is full-on Dr. Strangelove with his human side keeping his ghoul side from eating. Quick as a cat, she shoves the flesh right down Ken’s gullet, deciding for him that this is the way things are going to be.

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This is good, dark, twisted stuff; well-executed if not 100% (or even 50%) original. I liked how realistic, busy and richly-detailed the Tokyo backdrop appears, portraying the metropolis as one massive, seething buffet for Ken & Co. I’m hoping this episode wasn’t an anomaly in terms of either animation quality or amount of blood and gore for this show, because both were at a good level. I also appreciated that political claptrap was kept to a minimum.

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Car Cameos:

Rail Wars! – 01

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I’ll confess my relative ignorance of the particulars of the Japanese rail privatization-vs-nationalization debate, but considering the rough time the government has had in the past few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if some pro-nationalization entity tossed some cash at the relatively new studio Passione and told them to explore the question “What if the Japanese rail system was never privatized and broken up?”

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I’m not saying Rail Wars! is some kind of insidious pro-nationalization propaganda—it’s not that sophisticated. But the introductory narration goes out of its way to paint the picture of a kind of “railway utopia” that young Japanese can aspire to join and be ensued of comfortable and tranquil (if not particularly ambitious) lives. So far, the show’s characters are more interested in being part of something larger than themselves than becoming bigger than everyone else. I can relate!

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I may as well also confess my love of trains and in particular the Japanese rail system. Private or not, its efficiency and competence impressed me deeply on my travels there, and is definitely a system to take pride in, though it may not be perfect. In the world of Rail Wars!, that system is under the complete control of the government, and we see it from the wide and exuberant eyes of Japanese youths who want to share in that pride.

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Things get off to a shaky start with the dull Takayama Naoto (Fukuyama Jun) serving as a step-stool for the fiery, man-hating Sakurai Aoi (Numakura Manami) then earning her ire for possibly glancing at the comely features of Koumi Haruka (Uchida Maaya). That’s right, Zane: Yuuta and Rikka are reunited as a couple here. Rounding out the quartet is Iwaizumi Shou (Hino Satoshi), the physical, enthusiastic male sidekick.

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I’ll be blunt: there’s not much to these characters; not yet, at least, and we could do without the very lazy cliches of bouncing boobs (wear a damn sports bra for physical activity!), looking up skirts, or falling atop each other in intimate positions. But while the characters are broad and prone to cliche, together they have the makings of a highly capable public safety crew. Haruka is the brains, Aoi and Shou are the brawn (Aoi being the more precise brawn, but she can fly off the rails…pun intended.)

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Naoto is the average kid who has an above-average knowledge in the equipment and its operation, plus he’s a decent, cool-headed fellow. While less immediately evident than the others, his skills prove essential on more than one occasion, first when the quartet must get an vintage steam locomotive up to speed (COMBUSTION EFFICIENCY!), and again when purse-snatchers try to get away by train, leading to a brief but fun (and not bad-looking) Railgun/Index-style combat sequence.

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Rail Wars! mirrors the efficiency of the rail system at its core by propelling the introductory story forward with similar efficiency and confidence, getting the core team assembled, throwing diverse challenges their way and combining their skills to get the job done, if not precisely by the book. The episode also doesn’t skimp on the trains, showing us an eclectic array of machines and letting Naoto geek out.

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In the end, the “wars” in Rail Wars! aren’t about the privatization debate, but the wars within the characters themselves, over whether they have what it takes to be Japan National Railways public safety officers; the myriad challenges they’ll face in their new positions, and the competition they’ll surely have between other crews. Oh, and the occasional rumble with hoodlums.

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Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory

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Week five of Hot Summer Flashbacks drags us back to the early 90’s with Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, a 13 episode OAV set in (you guessed it!) UC 0083. For context, MSGSM is a ret-con of sorts, and attempts to show us what exactly happened between the original Mobile Suit Gundam and the first sequel: Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam. Thankfully, MSGSM does this job quite well and, while I wouldn’t recommend giving it a watch without prior Gundam experience, it’s definitely worth your time if you liked the 08th MS Team OAV that precedes it.

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On the surface, Stardust is the tale of vengeful Zeon survivors from the final battle of the One Year War run off with a nuke-loaded experimental Gundam and it’s up to a young test pilot and a rag tag force of heroes to stop them before a mega catastrophe can happen. However, since Stardust has to explain the mess that is Gundam Zeta (spoilers), it is also the story of multi-faction politics, characters who admire the ‘double cross’ and the collapse of the Federation’s moral high ground.

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Our hero is Kou Uraki, a 19 year old test pilot and mecha-phile. I use the term ‘hero’ lightly here because Kou’s motivation bounce between revenge, hate, mecha lust, girl lust and momentum more than a meaningful sense of duty or hope in a better future. I didn’t find much to like about his regular scowl, selfishness but what really spays Kou as a central character is his total lack of agency in the plot. He’s just a pilot, and not that good a pilot if I’m being honest, and his powerful Gundam is powerless against the politics going on around it.

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By comparison, Anavel Gato is far more compelling. At first he seems like a ho-hum villain with an ax to grind with the Federation. As we get to know him, and see the string of bureaucratic and/or evil Federation admirals up to no good, he won my sympathy in a way original Gundam’s Char never did. Gato also gave us a smile for shouting at Kou for being inept, and then again for shouting at Kou for earnestly thanking an enemy for lessons as if Gato were just another instructor. In short, where Kou is our proxy for feeling like an angry teenager in the Universal Century, Gato is out proxy for feeling trapped by politics and wanting to take meaningful steps to fix things.

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Unfortunately, no Gundam would be complete without an extraneous maybe-love interest female character shoved in and, while Nina Purpleton isn’t completely awful, I didn’t like her much either. Like Kou, she’s emotionally all over the map. Worse, the abrupt nature of her moods makes her complex loyalty chart less interesting and less meaningful to us.

For goodness sake! Nina is a civilian engineering stuck on a Federation battle ship, responsible for testing Gundams for a private military manufacturing company based on the moon, which is selling tech to both the Federation and Zeon in an attempt to stay neutral, and she has a hate/love relationship with the Federation pilot who flies her Gundams AND a long lost love interest in a Zeon pilot who has stolen them. This should be interesting as hell but it’s not!

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On the up side, Stardust pulls some neat twists and explains the political mess that follows in Gundam Zeta far better than Gundam Zeta does. Right or wrong, the Federation is a totalitarian fist willing to work with villains and sacrifice its own to solidify its power. Right or wrong, Zeon is the space-born’s only hope for independence and Axis (a semi-neutral post Zeon colony in the asteroid belt) is going to pick up Zeon’s torch. Right or wrong, People are willing to shift alliances to save the ones the love or even just save their own skins.

It’s also a good looking show with a solid render quality. Be it pin ups above the pilots bunks, or trash in the corner, Stardust pays close attention to the details.

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On the down side, Stardust has THE WORST MUSIC OF ALL GUNDAM EVER, I hated the protagonist and really most of the Federation cast (the pilots are bizarrely girl crazy, antagonistic and mostly just background fill), and the romantic pacing was jerky.

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In closing, I give the show credit for making its super power Gundams less powerful than the political change in the end. I also enjoyed that the story took its time to unfold and didn’t spell everything out. Still, given how many characters appear in the show, and what the show is ultimately about, I would have preferred the POV being told entirely from Zeon’s point of view. Hell, they have their own internal struggles, villains and heroes without having to focus on the bland bunch of jerk-teens we see in the federation.

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MAL Score: 7.56