Banana Fish – 12 – “Who am I?”

Ash continues his winning streak by knocking off one gang leader after another, with Arther getting more flustered as his subordinates report the losses.

Ash is also confident almost to a fault, whether it’s confronting Dino at the airport to tell him shit is ON, to meeting with the leader of a Harlem gang alone and even pulling a gun on him while completely surrounded. In both cases, Ash earns respect.

He and Eiji have also settled in to an idyllic domestic life at the fancy condo. Eiji is kept busy photographing everyone who goes in and out of the mafia property next door, as well as preparing a traditional Japanese dinner.

But while it’s all smiles and rainbows at home, Ash is spilling lots of blood on the streets, including by his own hand. While I’m sure opinions vary on its continued utility, I feel that instances in which protagonists come right out and ask themselves “Who am I?”  should be retired from drama forever.

That being said, I do enjoy the very natural chemistry and interactions between Ash and Eiji throughout the episode; they truly come off as a couple of people who care about each other a great deal despite very different backgrounds and skills.

Indeed, when they get into a fight when Ash comes home with blood on his shirt, Eiji basically has him pegged, and Ash lashes out not because Eiji is wrong about him, but because he’s right. Thankfully, they make up quickly the next day, when Eiji finds him at the library.

The Harlem gang leader (Bloody Cain) whom Ash impressed with their first meeting ends up as a go-between observer in Ash and Arthur’s full-on war, which I imagine will soon culminate in Ash and Arthur going at it mano-a-mano. In preparation for that, Ash is ready to send both Eiji and Ibe back to Japan…though one wonders if they’ll be safe there.

Meanwhile, Eiji’s photos and further research have uncovered a massive conspiracy between White House officials, congressmen, and military officers. Ash believes Banana Fish will be used to cause coups-de-etat in countries America wants kept in chaos.

As Max says, this is really big…too big, frankly. Just like Ash’s unspeakably awful past or the extent of the gang activity on Manhattan, the whole titular Banana Fish thing is just too comically huge and ungainly; it’s honestly hard to take seriously.

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Golden Kamuy – 05 – He Stole The Guts!

Tsurumi’s less personally-motivated soldiers manage to save Sugimoto from the more vengeful brothers, but it’s only a matter of time before they get to him again and finish the job. Asirpa and the Escape King Shiraishi decide to work together to spring him.

Asirpa tells Shiraishi that she believes his “immortality” is the product of him being able to look death straight in the eye and deal with it, but I still maintain there are simply spirits looking out for him; spirits that take many forms and have many faces, including her own and Mr. Slippery.

Sugimoto escapes by tricking Tsurumi and his men into thinking he’s had his guts spilled and he’s near death, and will give them the tattoos in exchange for treatment. But it doesn’t take long for the sharp-witted lieutenant to discover something amiss about the corpse his captive left behind.

Turns out Sugimoto stole the other man’s guts and passed them off as his own. Now free, a Sugimoto in far better shape  commandeers the horse-drawn sledge, while a Shiraishi in disguise burns down the 7th Division’s headquarters to keep them busy.

All in all, a neat little caper, and by the end of it, Tsurumi doesn’t even want to kill Sugimoto anymore. Why keep trying to kill an immortal man when you can just wait for him to collect the remaining tattoos, then take them?

The reunion between Sugimoto and Asirpa is understated and a bit awkward (it’s also painful for Sugimoto, who gets whacked by Asirpa’s sutu) but Shiraishi breaks the ice by suggesting they kill the horse they stole. They use the meat not just to reward Retar for his good work, but to make a sukiyaki-type dish for dinner.

That dish, for which Shiraishi enthusiastically acquires all the other necessary ingredients, includes miso, but while she makes some hilarious faces, Asirpa finally gathers the guts to taste it, and is pleasantly surprised (though she still refers to it as poop).

As Sugimoto & Co. enjoy their freedom and his horse sukiyaki,  the old samurai Hijikata Toshizou adds fellow master swordsman and former Shinsengumi Nakagura Shinpachi to his growing band of badasses, and when a gang of bandits torture his messenger, he strolls in, offers death or partnership, and the bandit leader chooses death.

Ushiyama’s casual tossing of one of the bandits into the rafters head-first was a nice bit of physical comedy that also demonstrates how tough these guys are. Then there’s old man Hijikata reloading his shotgun with one hand while wielding his katana with the other. “Numbers don’t matter, they never did”, he says, and even if he won’t be able to conquer all of Hokkaido, he’s sure as shit going to kill a lot of people trying.

The next morning, Sugimoto’s skewer wounds have healed nicely, but he’s falling behind Asirpa in the deep snow. Then they come across a special vine that will not only slake their thirst (though they get a bit selfish in who gets to drink from it) but material to make snowshoes that will greatly increase his mobility.

In another part of the woods, Tanigaki has found Tetsuzou Nihei, a legendary hunter who uses a single-bullet rifle and no spare rounds between his fingers, because “if you have five bullets (like the soldiers), it makes you believe you get five chances.”

Tanigaki wishes to work with Tetsuzou to hunt down that giant white Ezo wolf. Sugimoto, Asirpa, and Shiraishi better not let their guards down.

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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HaruChika – 03

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Haruta and Chika’s lame love triangle continues to be an ongoing problem with HaruChika. If it were a classmate they both loved, male or female, that would be one thing; the fact their object of affection is a teacher all but eliminates the possibility of anything actually going anywhere. It doesn’t help that said teacher is a walking snooze-fest. I simply ain’t buying what either the show or its two title leads are selling.

But hey, at least that triangle is only a peripheral element of the story. This week, the show once again focuses on a new character, Sei Maren, who doesn’t get off to a stirring start with an opening line like “Where is the step I should take to move forward?” Whoa there, Proust.

He also has a whole built-in story, with a Life Box he opens sometimes to stoke his angst! Haru, Chika, and Miyoko encounter him in drama club, looking lost (and not at all good at drama, as the leader Nagoe admits frankly).

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So this Sei guy has a personal problem, and people are worried about him (particularly Miyoko, randomly). So what does Haruta do? Write a play that will “make everyone happy.” Only Nagoe rips it up, and the drama club and brass band get into a little exchange of unfriendly words, resulting in a challenge that will be settled on the stage.

The subsequent dramatic “exit game”, in which Haru, Chika, and Miyoko square off against Nagoe, Sei, and their star actress Yaeko (who does a fair impression of Princess Mononoke), is actually the niftiest part of the episode. It has all six “actors” essentially straddling two different worlds, gradually adding to the complexity of their setting and situation in order to get one of their opponents’ actors to exit stage right.

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Of course, it ain’t perfect. Haruta shows yet another skill he’s good at – acting and improvisation, as well as being nigh telepathic about Sei’s personal concerns, not helping his annoying Gary Stu status. Many of his lines in the exit game are a little too on the nose, to the point of being cruel to Sei. But more than what he knows and probably shouldn’t, it’s just deeply troubling how meddling this guy is!

He’s such a busybody, interfering in others’ lives and being as coy and dramatic about it as he can, in this case literally. They also somehow stole Sei’s Life Box from the closet in his room! WTF? (Note: I don’t want to hear a rational explanation for this; it’s just silly.) And Sei’s feelings about abandonment are far too easily quelled by Haruta and Nagoe’s intrusive charade.

As for Miyoko’s apparent feelings for the guy, well, she must see something I don’t, which is to say she sees…something, period.

Haruta also didn’t have to keep Chika in the dark…but of course he did, because he’s a jerk! So when Chika kicks him and sends him careening to the earth, it’s highly satisfying. I LOL’d. It’s like she’s kicking the little twerp not just for her own sake, or for Sei’s, but for all of us.

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Attack on Titan – 04

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I’ll say this about these first episodes of AoT: it does not dick around. Two more years pass during which Eren, Mikasa, Armin, and a large group of fellow young cadets are hardened and trained, and graduation nears. As the drill sergeant observes them training in the woods he helpfully lays out the strengths and weaknesses of each recruit.

Armin lacks strength, but he’s got a sharp mind; Eren isn’t spectacular at any one thing, but he learns quickly, works hard, and no one is more driven. Mikasa is perfect at everything; a once-in-a-generation all-round talent. But you know what? That’s fine with me, because she’s so damn modest and unassuming about that ability.

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What I also like is that Mikasa isn’t just tough for a girl, she’s the toughest cadet, period, and there are other tough girls too, like the food-obsessed Sasha and aloof Annie Lockhart. The latter teaches both Eren and Braun a lesson with combat skills her father taught her, but isn’t taking any of this seriously, as the whole idea of those who are the most talented at killing Titans get to serve furthest away from them, in the interior Military Police.

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Indeed the top ten cadets in the class of 218 have the option of reporting straight to the Military Police, where they may theoretically live out their lives in relative peace and safety. Mikasa graduates top in the class, while Eren finishes a surprising fifth, with Armin placing outside the top ten.

Eren will have none of the military police; he’s joining the Scout Regiment, where he can take the fight directly to the Titans who took his mother and home. Armin and Mikasa decide to join him in turn, with Mikasa convinced he’ll die a quick death without her by his side. Protective? Sure, but he is her family.

When they graduate, Eren gives a speech rejecting the notion the Titans cannot be beaten, and that there’s value in fighting them even at the cost of his life, as continuing to fight them will allow them to gather more and more intel about their foe, so that one day, future forces might be able to bring them down for good. He doesn’t want to die, but he can’t sit back and do nothing.

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The speech clearly moves a few of his fellow top tenners like Conny and Sasha, who join him in the Scout Regiment. When they arrive in Trost district along Wall Rose, they’re welcomed by an optimistic crowd; it’s been five years since the Colossal Titan attacked, and there hasn’t been any advancement by the enemy. In that time, the collective wounds have healed a little, and both hope and dignity are in the air.

…Then, on Eren’s first day atop the wall maintaining the cannon, the Colossal Titan returns, and the lighthearted mood is replaced by terror and despair. Man…Not particularly forgiving to its human populace, this show. Yet Eren doesn’t freeze in fear. He and his comrades are scattered off the wall, but he uses his ODM gear to get back to the battlements and face his nemesis down.

He’s not scared, he’s pissed, and his time has come to finally attempt what he’s wanted to do since he saw his mother get eaten. I have no earthly idea how he expects to take the behemoth on, who will help him, and who won’t survive the imminent battle, but I’m damned eager to find out on all counts.

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Attack on Titan – 03

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Two years after the Titan attack destroyed their home, Eren, Mikasa and Armin begin boot camp, and their drill sergeant suffers no foolishness, especially from one Sasha Blouse, who just can’t help scarfing down a hot potato while he’s talking (the tension of the exchange is highly amusing, showing off Titan’s sense of humor even in such bleak setting. (The sergeant also thinks Armin Arlert is a dumb name.)

It’s a common strategy: strip the cadets down and then build them back up, in their case, into Titan-killing soldiers. As the sergeant walks down the line, we learn how the recruits are from all over, and have enlisted for many different reasons. Many don’t cut it and leave to work the fields on the first day. Others will wash out later. I liked how the sergeant knew from the look of the cadets who’d already gone through the wringer.

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Eren is eager to get through training so he can start kicking Titanic ass on the front lines, but he hits a snag: the omni-directional mobility gear all soldiers need to master. In short, he sucks at it. He has all the motivation and determination in the world, but appears to lack the aptitude. This is a huge setback for his life goals, and you can see in his haunted expression at dinner that he fears failure and his own weakness far more than any Titan.

This episode also presents the opportunity to spread out beyond our core trio to several interesting supporting characters, some of whom may well end up in the same unit as Eren. The aforementioned Sasha is a bit one note in her relentless pursuit of food, but Jean Kirstein’s honesty about wanting to join the military police so he can serve in the safe(r) interior provides a welcome contrast to Eren’s puffed-chest gung-ho act.

Even better though, Jean and Eren don’t just come to blows over the disagreement. A bell rings, and the two make up, perhaps aware that fighting each other is a waste of time. Then there’s Reiner Braun, who like Eren & Co. is one of the few cadets who has seen the Titans firsthand; in other words, who have seen hell.

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But the undisputed rockstar of this episode, and of the show so far, at least for me, is Mikasa Ackerman. We learn a little more about her intensely close, co-dependent bond with Eren; neither of them want to ever be apart from the other; both feed off of one another’s unique energy. She aces the OGM, makes someone fall in love with her just by walking past, looks awesome no matter what her length of hair is, and even owns Sasha by not surrendering her bread.

She also rejoices when Eren finally gets the OGM right (turns out he had a defective belt, but even managed to balance properly on that, proving he’s more than capable). But she’s also the only one who doesn’t see self-satisfaction in Eren’s face. She sees relief that he doesn’t have to leave her.

Not that he would have to: had he failed, she would have gone with him to the fields; Armin too, probably. Because if there’s one thing that’s working out for these three kids in this dastardly post-apocalyptic fiasco of a world, its the three of them sticking together.

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Kill la Kill – 07

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When students start starting obscure new clubs to go after Ryuuko, she forms a Fight Club, naming Mako president when she sees the level of paperwork involved. As Ryuuko piles up victories, the club rises in stature according to Satsuki’s merit-based system, and Mako’s family moves from the slums to the middle-class neighborhood and eventually, to their own manor and the lap of super-luxury. The Mankanshokus start to drift apart.

When Mako sees how their newfound wealth is corrupting the family, she resigns from the club. Satsuki awards Mako a two-star goku uniform and orders her to fight Ryuuko. Mako obliges, beating Ryuuko to a pulp, but at the last moment pulls back the killing blow, aiming for the ground instead. She and her family beg Ryuuko for forgiveness, and they return to the slums. Satsuki admits to her elites that she allowed Ryuuko’s club so she could identify which weak teams to purge in the next elections.

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Every time the Mankanshoku’s appear on the screen, it’s like shotgunning a can of the late, lamented SURGE cola; they’re a jolt of energy and a ton of fun to watch as they go about their lives, a veritable tornado of love-tinged activity that Ryuuko’s very much glad she’s in the middle of, after a lonely childhood. It’s even better when we watch them inspect their new middle-class digs with mirthful amazement; thanks to Ryuuko, their quality of life has improved. And mind you, they’re not gaming Satsuki’s system; they’re playing by the rules…and winning.

But then Ryuuko wins more; Mako gets shrewder and more ambitious; the family moves to an opulent mansion and everyone has separate evening plans, and the family cohesion Ryuko treasured melts away in a cauldron of avarice. Now Ryuuko eats alone again. And there is never enough champagne or Godiva chocolate. Mako is, to borrow a Gainax title, Aiming for the Top!, so when Ryuuko gets in the way, she’s threatening Mako’s status and her family’s, and becomes the enemy. It’s an audacious turn of events—Ryuuko forced to fight her best friend, who happily dons a bad-ass two-star goku and goes to town.

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But the situation is made perfectly plausible by all that preceded it. Whether you’re born into wealth or have it heaped upon you like Mako’s family, it can very easily make you its slave. That’s what Satsuki was hoping for: another family ensnared in her system built upon greed and obedience through fear of losing it all. She didn’t get that, but the system still stands, and even worse, thanks to Ryuuko and Mako, Satsuki knows exactly what to do to make the forces protecting that system even stronger. So while Ryuuko and the Mankanshokus are cool again, Ryuuko’s future trials are only going to get tougher.

Like Mako’s family (briefly), this episode had it all. It grabbed and held our interest. It made Ryuuko the architect of her own near-downfall through a seemingly harmless choice. It rocketed us along with the family during their meteoric rise, not skimping on the details of the ritzier life they gain. It slowed them way down when they grew rich and stuffy. Perhaps most impressive was Mako’s transformation from kooky comic relief sidekick to serious foe who doesn’t hesitate to turn on Ryuuko despite all they’d been through. It was a veritable windfall of magnificence, and our favorite Kill la Kill to date.


Rating: 9 (Superior)

RABUJOI World Heritage List

Kill la Kill – 04

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Sirens blare at 4AM, the morning of “No-Late Day”, when the academy’s no-stars must cross a murderous gauntlet of obstacles and arrive at school on time to avoid being expelled. Mako’s mom washed Senketsu so Ryuuko has to go in her pajamas. She and Mako come across their classmate Ogure Maiko, who accompanies them on their journey, but once Guts arrives with Senketsu, she reveals she’s the Disciplinary Committee Head of Trap Development, and was planning all along to steal the kamui. She dons Senketsu, but can’t move because he’s so starchy, and Ryuuko beats her. With only minutes left before first period, Ryuuko dons Senketsu and commandeers a luxury tram and launches them into the classroom just in time to say “present.”

If Golden Time tweaks and embellishes certain scenarios of its subject matter – in its case college life – but Kill la Kill is in an entirely different galaxy in this regard. The Student Council President is a brutal dictator with a cadre of deranged subordinates, and the social structure typical of high school is amplified into a strict caste system that applies to life as well as school. Because Ryuuko has no family save Mako’s, she’s at the bottom with them, which means those on top will throw everything they have at them in order to assert their power. Thus even a commute to school is suddenly becomes a bitter, epic struggle for survival, and scores of no-stars fall before getting anywhere close to school, to the point that the defeated partake in “pseudo-homeroom”; a fabulous concept!

The proud, determined Ryuuko is more than game, even if initially, she doesn’t have Senketsu to help her out. She lucked out with the sweet, loyal Mako, but she let her guard down in placing her trust in Maiko, and almost loses Senketsu. In just one of the countless demonstrations of this series’ clever storytelling, it’s because Mako’s mom laundered him that Maiko is unable to follow through on her grand plan. We were fools to believe anything resembling a lull or slow-down would follow Ryuuko and Satsuki’s battle. Satsuki may have been absent, the entire “No-Late Day” ritual is a product of her cruel, oppressive leadership, a system Ryuuko will hopefully crush, one Disciplinary Committee head at a time.

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Rating: 8 
(Great)