Planet With – 02 – Dearth of Enthusiasm

As the “Citizens’ Safety Center Special Defense Division: Grand Paladin” deals with the aftermath of losing one of their seven fighters to the enemy (which is called “Nebula”), Souya doesn’t so much as get real meat as a reward for his victory.

He lashes out at both Ginko and Sensei and skips school, then encounters Torai, the guy he just beat last night. Now lacking Photon Armor, he’s on investigation duty, but his memories of meeting Souya are fuzzy, so it’s a cordial exchange. Then another, even weirder UFO arrives.

Sensei clarifies that while he and Ginko are with Nebula, they’re with the pacifist faction that only wants to relieve humanity of the power the Photon Armor, which they’re using Souya to do (the “Sealing” faction wants to take it a step forward and actually keep humanity from ever evolving to a point where they develop such power).

Inaba Miu, the youngest member of Grand Paladin, is the star of the show, defeating the UFO after getting stuck in an illusion involving her and her friend and comrade Harumi in a judo match. But shortly after winning, Miu and Harumi are confronted by Souya and Sensei, and a 2-on-1 fight ensues.

Once Souya gets the hang of operating his “Sensei Armor”, he manages to defeat Miu and snatch away her power, but gets greedy and wants to go after Harumi too, against Sensei and Ginko’s order to withdraw. As a result, the rest of Grand Paladin show up and surround them. Could the gig be up just 2/7ths of the way into their mission?

Planet With episode two has the same shortcomings as the first: a whiny protagonist; loose-sketch supporting characters; goofy-looking anonymous UFOs. The CGI fights come with some decent SFX but are otherwise fairly standard 2018 fare. But with no strong characters or ideas to get enthusiastic about, the show feels very color-by-number so far.

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Planet With – 01 (First Impressions) – Unidentified Rooting Interest

What Planet With lacks in originality (weird mecha fighting an even weirder enemy is a tale as old as time) it makes up for in polish, panache, and, well, specificity. Kuroi Souya isn’t just one such mecha pilot; he’s an orphaned amnesiac transfer student who lives with a green-haired maid and giant purple cat-man that only eats lettuce/cabbage.

Despite the best efforts of his charming class rep (and occult research club member) Takamagahara, Souya ends up splitting off from his class when massive UFOs start appearing close to coastal cities, including his. A band of seven superheroes transform into mecha to meet the extremely bizarre object.

Souya isn’t among them. In fact, the maid (Ginko) and cat-man (“Sensei”) meet up with him and instruct him not to take out the UFO, but the seven superheroes, one of whom (Torai) manages to enter the core of the UFO. Just like a JSDF fighter pilot earlier, Torai is transported to an elaborate illusion, given the chance to save his mom who he couldn’t save in real life. He manages to break through the illusion and destroy the UFO, and the others explode with it around the world.

Before his mecha can be repaired, he’s confronted by Souya, who ends up piloting “Sensei”, who transforms into a vaguely feline mecha. Souya manages to defeat Torai’s far larger mecha and steal the source of his power; a vial filled with silver star-shaped particles. Souya laments that he may have been taken in by Ginko and Sensei in order to fight as their soldier…though at least this time, he’s won over by the promise of a meat (though not beef)-filled dinner.

And that’s where we leave things. The question is, who is the good guy here? Souya all but admits he’s the two weirdos’ weapon, while after the credits, whoever is in charge of the seven superheroes (who Torai claim are protecting the planet) hardly looks like the benevolent type.

Everything looks and sounds great in Planet With, but take away the spectacle and there’s not much to invest in here…at least not yet. As with Souya and the promise of meat, I’ll settle for spectacle for now. But meat alone isn’t a meal; hopefully some potatoes are forthcoming.

Seikaisuru Kado – 04

This week opens with a charmingly weird interaction between Shindou and the government. As the first two passengers leave Kado, he rejects the government’s request to represent Japan at the negotiation table (a role that would give him equal power to the prime minister) and even asks to be fired from all his earthly responsibilities. Everyone chuckles. Shindou has such an oddly specific need for fair play and balance.

Off at UN headquarters, the security council is pressuring Japan to turn over the Wan. In a nice anti-nationalist twist, the Japanese officials understand this view point (they agree if any other nation had Wan, they would ask the same) and would agree to the terms… except Yaha-kui zaShunina doesn’t want them to. To zaShunina, governments are a great structure for security, but they don’t eat bread, and his gift of bread is for the people who eat it: humanity at large.

Meanwhile, scientists are puzzled by the Wam, which appear to have 6 distinct shapes when observed atomically, and have an adaptive charge that immediately raises or lowers voltage to the needs of any connected device. Each Wam could be used as batteries for a phone or to replace an entire power plant. And it’s green energy too, producing no CO2.

The episode comes to a close with the UN giving Japan an ultimatum that includes military action. However, Yaha-kui zaShunina seems to have a plan…

Verdict: Seikaisuru Kado employs many nice framing techniques, including reflections and looking through spaces at the people who are talking. It gives many scenes a great sense of scale, or pushes characters closer together or farther apart. The stiff animations still look silly and the ‘action’ is almost entirely talking but there’s a lot of ‘smart art’ here.

That use of space extended to the clutter in it as well. I noticed the cgi model for the military tank in episode one repurposed as a toy in the background, and a no CO2 poster hanging on the board during the green energy discussion. Lots of little details that, if you have the patience to go back to previous episodes, could tell a small story on their own.

The music is still hilariously terrible and Hanamori’s annoying whiny personality feels out of place in the thoughtful setting. Doctor Crazy too.

Seikaisuru Kado – 03

The Gist: Yaha-kui zaShunina and Shindou have their first true sit-down with the Japanese government and, zaShunina asks the event be open to the press, the world at large. From literally the smallest demonstration, the results are overwhelming for the humans across the table.

zaShunina demonstrates that he is an Anisotropic being by moving his hand through extra-dimensional space, first to slowly grab a bottle of water then to point through himself at Kado. Then he describes Kado, which is a device that allows the connection of Anisotropic and 3D space, and that one possible benefit of this is that he can provide humankind with effectively infinite electrical energy…

What really sells Seikaisuru Kado’s alien mood is the cautious and deliberately precise pace of the dialog. zaShunina understands that meaning is lost through communication — in fact he makes a point of human language intentionally leaving room for interpretation, even without the extra layers of facial expression. However, despite his cautious choice of words and objection to humanization of terms, his alien-ness ad potential confusion shine through.

His explanation of ‘why come to Japan’ using a story about bread and the sharing of plenty, as it relates to an alien concept of Unocle, which has some impact on the physiological impact of Anisotropic space, defies any precise understanding. More over, when this story leads him to offer ‘Wan,’ a multi-dimensional method of providing infinite electricity to all mankind, no one knows what to do. Of course, it didn’t help that he easily cut all power in the area to demonstrate that it could be restored with 2 little balls (which he explains are actually the same object)

Verdict: Kado provides a uniquely methodical tale that blends cautious optimism against uncertainty and dread. You could even call it existential, as it shows us a broad range of human responses to the same information and doesn’t appear to judge which of those responses if correct or ‘better.’ Even though the mad-scientist character annoys me (she feels like a contrived cartoon character and not a person) this alien situation may prove her responses are just as valid, or more, than anyone else’s.

That same pace and weirdness do hold Kado back from being exciting. There’s no action to speak of and, by design, we don’t really know any of the characters enough to grip their agendas. But the cast is generally likable, thoughtful, and the ensuing weirdness is worth you watch.

Seikaisuru Kado – 02

The Gist: 23 hours earlier, Shindou wakes up and begins to explore the news surroundings. The plane is not moving, no signals penetrate, not even light reflects beyond the windows. However, the air is clear as they all would have died by now if it were not.

Exploring further, Shindou decides to leave the plane and quite quickly makes first contact. It’s not an altogether pleasant experience, as the alien first digs through his mind, and then deconstructs his smart phone before understanding how to communicate. Even then, there are gaps in understanding.

Within those gaps, it is clear the passengers are trapped for about 30 days. While they may leave individually within shorter periods of time, their entire mass cannot, and only Shindou is valuable enough to send in advance to help communicate with the government outside.

On the surface, it appears the alien wants to advance humanity but we don’t see many details. More importantly, and interestingly, he advises humanity always think—that trying to discover if he is friend or foe at all times is the right decision moving forward.

Verdict: I dug the first contact sequence. Visuals aside, it had all the right beats, including the thought process from Shindou (not even knowing if it is an alien, a supernatural phenomena or a true god).

The alien’s message is pretty neat, too. It doesn’t rule out that he’s an enemy and it ties in nicely with the message of the show: you never know until long after the fact.

As another, totally random detail, the checklist from the plane’s officers felt grounded and felt believable. It’s a nice change from the slightly silly government big wigs we saw last week…and the eyeroll-inducing mad scientist.

The music is still terrible though.

Seikaisuru Kado – 00

The Gist: The month leading up to the arrival of the alien object in episode one saw Shindou negotiating with an old factory manager over the buy out of the factory land by the government for a event hall. Except that’s not exactly what is going on, or what anyone actually wants Shindou to do. However, they don’t know that until Shindou shows them an alternative through networking and effort.

See, the bureaucrat who is pushing for the sale is just looking for a way to help the old factory owner retire with a little more money. So the hall and the purchase aren’t really the important thing here, which Shindou gets due to the length of time the project has sat in a desk drawer unrealized, and from photos around the factory owner’s office. So he researches other things the factory could do, assesses the workers’ skill, and links them to a government scientist and boom! a month later, they have a prototype for low friction plating, worth billions of yen…

Verdict: Not only does this episode flesh out the characters better, it foreshadows Shindou’s need to be part of (and value in) a greater stakes project. Without this exposure to his working style and all the people around him (including the non-mad scientist from episode one) episode one feels flat.

However, as a stand alone episode, zero only sets things up for the series. What I mean is, it doesn’t feel like a complete product on its own either. Unfortunately, I didn’t know episode zero existed so it’s going to take another episode for me to re-adjust my appreciation for the show. For now, my take on it is much improved but still cautious.

And god damn, that background music is trying way too hard :)

Seikaisuru Kado – 01 (First Impressions)

The Gist: Kojirou Shindou Cabinet Office Director-General for Policy Planning, is at Haneda Airport for a business trip… then his airplane gets absorbed by a giant glowy cube, 2 kilometers from edge to edge.

A lot of bland meetings amongst politicians ensue, featuring a so wacky it hurts female mad scientist and various attempts to ‘save’ the passengers. Despite emitting visible light, the cube emits no radiation and absorbs pretty much everything aimed at it. (RADAR and AP Tank rounds alike)

Then an alien pops out. Or a god. He says hello to humanity, Shindou standing by his side…

You should give Kado a look because it hints at an interesting core idea — that we all spend our lives never knowing what is right or the right thing to say (during a negotiation) because we aren’t gods — and then throws a god into the mix. (probably requiring a degree of negotiation of the protagonist)

Despite being fully rendered CG, it doesn’t look horrible either. Don’t get me wrong! I loved Knights of Sidonia but the color pallet was very limited and the environments were only functional because of the scifi setting. Kado manages a much broader range of color, real world environments, and items. (It just doesn’t do a great job in the animation department, I’m afraid)

You can probably skip Kado because, despite interesting potential, the first episode was very dull. Characters aren’t so much introduced as thrown in front of the viewer with a wall of text describing their role in government. Everything is stiff due to the CGI rendering. And god damn that scientist is just annoying as hell — and cliché.

Verdict: There’s no denying I’m curious who “Yaha-Kui zaShunina” is and I do enjoy the distortion effects of his technology. But that’s about it. Oddly, the music was the biggest stand out for me. Is that enough to review the show going forward?

Maybe? At least for one more episode…

Kemono Friends – 01 (First Impressions)

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Originally, I misread this as Kemo-Friends. Boy was I disappointed…

Kemono Friends is a kid friendly cell shaded show about a cat girl and a human boy learning to appreciate each other’s strengths on an adventure. Sort of. It cuts to a zoo keeper talking about the cheetah at points and has an RPG-like quality, in how cheetah refers to her attacks and that they are fighting monsters together.

If you’ve ever fiddled with 3D animation, you’ll immediately recognize some of the weird cheats KF employs in its animation. Cheetah-chan’s animations aren’t terrible per-say… more that her walk and run animations play overtop of a model that is dragged along a path with little connection to its implied movements. The result looks wrong, which only hinders the already frumpy models from working.

I could shrug this all off as being a cheap kids show but there’s something oddly sexualized about Cheetah-chan’s animations. Her panting and back-arching breathing gestures in particular feel like they were stripped out of some ready-made H. Just weird all around and oppressively dull for a full 24 minute program.

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Chi’s Sweet Home – 01 (First Impressions)

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The Gist: Chii is young Yohei’s and it’s the one month anniversary of her coming to live at his home. Yohei’s crazy parents decide to celebrate this special moment with a feast, a custom photo book, and scary clown faces.

Chii, being a kitten, doesn’t really understand what is going on and gets in trouble for losing Yokei’s marbles and inverting all the photos in her commemorative photo book. Then she goes to a park with Blackie, an older male cat that tries unsuccessfully to give her advice. Then she goes to a party and Yohei makes up with her.

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You may like Chii because it has a lovely Wallace & Gromit claymation’ish 3D rendering style and solid animation. The camera moves slightly within scenes and the characters move simply, but in a pleasant and believable way. The lighting is also top notch and its opening credits have a fantastic song and art style.

You may not be interested in Chii because the story is empty, saccharine fluff. Unlike Wallace & Gromit, Chii’s humor is simplistic and the ‘space’ she occupies has no hidden meaning. It’s all too clean and sanitized.

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The Verdict: at 12 minutes, Chii toes an odd line. I expect more from it than a 3-4 minute mini, but it may not have enough room to develop content like a normal 24 minute show. This first result feels like a bad children’s program, where the audience is entirely underestimated by the developer. Seriously, while it is adorable, even little children want more than cute faces and hopping around for 12 minutes.

All that said, I’m going to recommend you watch Chii. The visuals are well executed in an uncommon style and it is pleasant enough to sit through. However, I am not going to review the series going forward because I can not imagine anything interesting will ever develop in it.

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3 Reasons You Should Be Excited For Gantz:0

If you are unfamiliar with the franchise, Gantz is an unbelievably bleak sci-fi/horror tale about life, death, and morality. It’s existed as a sprawling manga, a truncated ‘first-ish arc’ anime, and alt-direction live action movies. Each of these treatments is absolutely worth your investment, and I’ll outline why below, but each also has weaknesses… Gantz:0 is poised to fix.

  1. Gantz’ story is fantastic. That said, if you read the manga, it’s absolutely clear Hiroya Oku had no idea where the story was going at first, or even at several points along the way. While enjoyable on their own, entire chunks of narrative like the Vampires and the Secret Government Conspiracy or even the human psychics feel unresolved and unrelated to what turns out to be an alien invasion story.

Gantz:0 has the distinct advantage of being scripted after the manga’s completion and, by the looks of it, hops over some of the introductory arcs (that are full of characters who die almost immediately). It looks tighter, more show-story than talk-about story.

2. Gantz’ heroes play a blend of selfishness and sacrifice off of the conventions of Japanese culture…but the individual stories can be lost amongst a massive and regularly shifting cast. The very fact that it has two heroes (Kuruno and Kato) that occasionally sit out arcs due to being dead (again) dilutes either of their stories.

Gantz:0 appears to have dropped Kuruno in order to focus on Kato, which is unexpected because Kuruno’s rise of a kill them all warrior is a more obvious choice than Kato’s rise as a compassionate keep them all alive leader to focus a movie. But if they blend those two stories together, Kato has more interesting stakes:

Where Kuruno has a love triangle/square that includes a duplicate of himself created by his frustrated Idol love interest, Kato has a younger brother with no parents to protect him — and relatives that beat him –and Kato’s love interest is single mom with her own son to protect as a love interest.

Both boys die more than once, and both grapple with the idea of not being the ‘original him’ but Kato has more at stake than ‘which girl should I tap?’ Further, without Kuruno to serve as his idealized childhood hero, Kato will have to build his own sense of heroism from scratch.

3. Gantz’ visual style is a big part of its appeal. Uko’s choice to render weapons and complex vehicles in full CG but keep the cast hand drawn brings contrast. It emphasizes how out of place humans are in the struggle.

Gantz:0 will lose some of that juxtaposition but it also clearly shines in another important way the anime and manga struggled: visual effects necessitated by the scifi weapons and gear. The teleportation effect alone is fantastic.

Now that you’ve seen the preview, what do you think?

Berserk – 01 (First Impressions)

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“Guts, known as the Black Swordsman, seeks sanctuary from the demonic forces that pursue him and his woman, and also vengeance against the man who branded him as an unholy sacrifice. Aided only by his titanic strength, skill, and sword, Guts must struggle against his bleak destiny, all the while fighting with a rage that might strip him of his humanity. Berserk is a dark and brooding story of outrageous swordplay and ominous fate, in the theme of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” —MAL

Full disclosure: I’ve never read the manga this is based on, so I came in knowing nothing. I also haven’t read Macbeth since junior high, so all I remember is that there’s a manipulative Lady in it. So forgive my ignorance and read on to learn a fresh perspective on Berserk unblemished by prior consumption of the material (at least that I remember).

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Berserk definitely has its draws: a lush yet grim fantasy world full of violence both human-and-human and demon-on-human; an overpowered cursed antihero with a bad attitude and even worse effect on the lives of the innocent; decent voice acting and a great soundtrack. Some  strong elements of horror (body and otherwise), blood, and gore, though all tastefully censored.

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Those pros were not able to overcome the cons for me, at least in the first episode. The cons are pretty big: the CGI animation of characters is distractingly weird. If you know my work you know I reviewed (and loved) two seasons of Sidonia, but for some reason this style works far better in a futuristic sci-fi milieu for me.

It took me a couple of episodes to get used to Sidonia (and I never got far with Ronja), but I’m less optimistic about Berserk. It’s not so much the uncanny valley effect as the inescapable feeling that these are wooden CGI armatures moving around very awkwardly mechanically.

That suits the frenetic combat at times, but any natural movements, including mouth movements and expressions, suffer greatly, marring the overall viewing experience.

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This comes down to a question of style: Berserk’s producers for whatever reason decided not to use conventional animation, and frankly, that could well be a dealbreaker. Even if not, the naked annoying motormouth Puck would be (sorry, Puck fans out there).

I can’t immerse myself in a world that announces its “fakeness” so transparently, in a manner most anime manage to avoid. Some say more and more full CG will be the future of anime, but with some notable exceptions, I hope that’s not the case.

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Meanwhile, on Ronja…

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25 episodes of Sanzoku no Musume Ronja have rolled by and the show’s great arc has finally come to a close: Ronja and Birk are together as adopted siblings and, after a massive bear-fight style show down, so are their Fathers Mattis and Borka. The robber tribes are now one.

So… how was it?

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Ronja’s full CG style grew on me and, while I don’t particularly like the way it looks, the style was very effective at portraying a wide range of emotions and actions. Wider than most animes, actually. More importantly, the models allowed the shows lengthy mid season to stay fresh and avoid the ‘budget’ trap faced by most shows that save up for a big finale.

Speaking of the finale, Mattis and Borka’s show down was remarkably entertaining. It had all of the believable, down to earth trappings that have excited me so much with this season’s Junketsu no Maria — but it also had a great comedic range. Each landing blow brought about a wonderfully silly facial expression, yet stayed believably weighty.

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Over all, Ronja delivers an emotional tale that pushes the limits of children friendly programming. Sure, there are life lessons and I support exposing kids to a more realistic, nuanced reality, but Ronja’s multiple near deaths and seriously messed up family situation definitely gave my child nightmares.

If I didn’t have to wake up at 3 in the morning, maybe I’d call that a win win?

In any event, if you ever want a comfortable, youthful and optimistic show — with occasionally nightmare inducing moments where very young children must contemplate their own mortality — give Ronja a look.

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Sanzoku no Musume Ronja – 19

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In the ten or so episodes it’s been since I last reviewed Sanzoku no Musume Ronja, Ronja had a terrible Thanksgiving, nearly died in a skiing accident, and then a fever, single handedly kept her father’s enemies alive and then willingly became a hostage to put an end to Mattis’ war on Bourka.

She’s cried over wounded friends, screamed as her father merrily beats another child unconscious, and choked back the bile as he abuses her mother. This is one hard-core children’s program.

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Ronja is critically sincere with its subject matter, characters, and the youthfulness of its Romeo & Juliet. The children act like children, and legitimately make hard choices that children actually can, but are never shown doing in conventional television.

And in this, we come to the show’s central problem. Despite its dramatic world, Ronja really is a children’s show, and its child-perspective world view isn’t all that complex or deep from an adult perspective. However, because it is also harsh, Ronja became harder and harder to watch with my 3 year old…

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So who is this show meant for? Who’s actually watching it?

This week, after squabbling over a knife they’ve been foreshadowed to lose for a while, Ronja and Birk spend a short time apart. During this Birk, who is reasonably introspective, gathers his thoughts and realizes he cares more about Ronja than a thousand knives and that she loves him too…

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Meanwhile, Ronja witnesses a baby horse murdered by a bear and gives the foal’s mother first aide.

Kuma shock!

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Occasional CGI weirdness aside, and ignoring the meta-funniness about how terrible Ronja’s drunk holidays got, it’s a deeply quality show. But I really don’t know who this show is for?

Worse, I find it very difficult to unwrap as a reviewer. Outside of technical decisions and summaries, it’s a consistent but fairly surface level story. Maybe the consistency of the CGI helps that or maybe it makes it feel so same-same that I regularly run out of things to say?

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