Baka and Test

First, a few words about the title: the full Japanese title is Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu, which translates to Idiots, Tests and Summoned Beasts. Funimation, for whatever reason, released it under the half-translated and just odd-sounding Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts. I don’t normally comment on what title a show gets released under, but pointless half translations like that annoy me. Just wanted to get that off my chest.

At Fumizuki Academy, students are divided into classes by their academic ability, based on an exam at the beginning of the school year. Those who do the best go into Class A where they have downright luxurious facilities in the classroom. Those who do a little less well go into Class B where they merely have very good facilities. Class C get nice facilities, Class D get average facilities, Class E get lousy facilities. And then we’ve got our heroes, Class F; a pack of morons who get really crappy facilities.

Akihisa holding a cushion

Our hero, complaining about his seat. Yes, it’s just that cushion.

Sounds a bit unfair, right? Well, it is, but the students can do something about it. See, the school has this AR system with digital avatars of the students that have stats based on their exam results that they can use to battle against other classes, and if the lower ranked class wins, they get to trade facilities with the higher ranked class. It still sounds a tad unfair, since combat power is determined by academic ability, but there is more to it than that. The idea behind it, apparently, is to build teamwork and other helpful skills that aren’t really reflected in exam results.

A battle

A battle in progress. Yes, that’s one of Class F with the puny score on the right there.

Anyway, our heroes. The main character is Yoshii Akihisa, the dumbest of the lot and with a special status: his avatar can interact with the physical world and he feels pain when his avatar takes a hit. The latter trait doesn’t do him any favours, but the former does prove useful.

And despite being in Class F, not all of them are actually that stupid. Shimada Minami grew up overseas and can’t read Japanese very well, and therefore does poorly on tests with the exception of maths, where the language barrier isn’t so big a deal. Sakamoto Yuuji is actually fairly bright, but very lazy. Himeji Mizuki is a genius, but was very ill on the day of the class placement exam. And then there’s others who are actually pretty dumb but nevertheless have some specialty that proves useful. Kinoshita Hideyoshi is a great actor, and looks effeminate – almost identical to his twin sister, in fact. Tsuchiya Kouta is a tremendous pervert, and an expert at surveillance. Oh, and some faceless masses too, but in story terms they’re just there to make up the numbers.

Anyway, the main plot concerns Akihisa and Class F’s plans to battle Class A so he can give Mizuki the study environment he feels she deserves. I won’t give away details, but they do make very good use of the characters’ various strengths, and a few other advantages they pick up along the way. There’s also the subplots involving personal relationships – including the inevitable love triangle with Akihisa at the center – and various other antics that high school students get up to.

Akihisa's love triangle

Akihisa’s love triangle.

There’s also a second season, but it doesn’t really do a main plot; it’s basically more of the antics and bits of backstory that didn’t make it into the first season. Still very entertaining, just not any long-term plot.

Something else I found noteworthy is that the difference between Class F and the higher ranked ones isn’t just academic, but involves their senses of ethics too. Class F are morons, but they’re honest morons; whereas some of the “better” students aren’t above cheating in the same way the ocean isn’t above the sky.

And besides all the comedy, drama and everything else, there’s a bit of interesting social commentary in there too: everyone puts an inordinate amount of importance on test results to the exclusion of everything else, but it’s the other things besides that which really produce results. And then there’s the above thing about the “good” students cheating in the pursuit of the all-important test scores.

Visually, the show does some pretty interesting things. It’s not a Shaft production, but the director has done a fair bit of work on Shaft shows, and has clearly been paying attention to Shinbo Akiyuki’s methods. It’s a very good show, well worth checking out if you’ve got any interest at all in high school comedies – and perhaps more so if you’ve grown a little tired of the average high school comedy.

K-On

I like slice-of-life shows. I like music. So let’s review a slice-of-life show about people who play music: K-on. Oh, I also like tea and cake… which is just as well, because there’s at least as much of that in K-on as there is music.

So let’s start at the start. Hirasawa Yui is a girl who just entered high school, and is looking for a club to join. She has no particularly notable skills or interests (or at least, none that translate well to club activities). She winds up deciding to check out the Light Music Club (which is where the show gets its name from; keiongakubu → keionbu → k-on), which is being resurrected by three other first year students who just need a fourth A) to make up the numbers so they’re an official club, and B) to play guitar for them. Naturally, Yui has no experience with musical instruments more meaningful or recent than playing a castanet in kindergarten. She tries to back out of it, realising that they want more from her than that, but they basically bribe her with food to stay. She’s very easily swayed that way.

Of course, then there’s the problem that she needs a guitar. The show gets a bit of mileage from them working to save up for it and going to buy it. And the keyboardist Kotobuki Tsumugi, whose parents own the music shop they go to (amongst many other things) convincing them to give Yui a discount…

So once they’ve got that sorted out, they can knuckle down and start practicing. Well, almost. They’ve then got to deal with other things such as the club president, the drummer Tainaka Ritsu, forgetting to file their paperwork. And the fact that they all wind up sitting around chatting, eating cake and drinking tea all the time and only occasionally remembering to get around to practicing.

The cast

The Light Music Club engaging in their typical club activities

But the most serious member, bassist Akiyama Mio, somehow manages to get their act together in time to pull off a decent performance at the school’s cultural festival. And another one at the start of their second year at the welcoming ceremony for the new first year students. It’s here that they manage to impress another guitarist, Nakano Azusa, enough to get her to join.

Performance

They do get around to playing music too

Now in many ways, Azusa is like a mini-Mio. Similar character design with the long dark hair. Plays a stringed instrument. Is the one who tries to take things seriously. In fact, that last she does more so than Mio, who’s gradually gotten drawn into the rest’s tea drinking, cake eating, mucking around ways. For a while anyway; Azusa likes the tea and cake as much as the rest of them.

Many people have criticised K-on for not being seriously enough about music and the forming of a band, but I feel that these people are missing the point in a pretty big way. It’s a slice-of-life comedy, and never pretends to be anything else, it’s just that it uses a group of people who (occasionally) play musical instruments together as the setting. A show that’s seriously about forming a band and playing music would be entertaining enough in its own right (and Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad is there if you want it), but just not as much fun.

And K-on is a lot of fun. Less so in the second season, but still plenty of fun. If I have to mention any downsides to it, it’s that for a show centred around music, most of the music isn’t actually that good. None of the opening themes are any good, the background music is so-so, and about half the songs they play during the show reach the dizzying heights of “okay”. It does have good ending themes though; when the show was first airing I set the ending theme as my mobile phone’s ringtone, and have kept it ever since – even through getting a new phone.

What makes a show like this is the characters, and it’s a good group we’ve got here. And not just the light music club members but the supporting cast too, their teacher Yamanaka Sawako especially.

Worth a look for anyone who likes things that are just plain fun.

Psycho Pass, further thoughts

Instead of doing the finishing touches on my K-On review like I should be, today I want to talk a bit more about how Psycho Pass is going, because HOLY SHIT THIS WEEK’S EPISODE.

Well, holy shit the last few episodes really, but Akane’s actions in particular in this episode just take it to another level. Also, significant spoilers here. Don’t read on if you want to watch it and be surprised.

Akane’s gone through a lot, going from the naive newbie to good cop to not quite willing to kill Makishima against the Sybil System’s judgement and now to outright threatening to kill Makishima (who the System wants alive) if she doesn’t get her way on a related matter. And the System agreeing to her demand, because it can tell she means it.

And things are looking about as peachy for the other characters too… Kogami’s gone rogue with murder on his mind, Ginoza’s been staring too long into the abyss like Kogami had before becoming an Enforcer, and Kagari’s dead. Whatever way things go from here, things are in for a pretty big shakeup and nothing’s going to be the same as it was. I don’t like to call things like this so quickly, but Psycho Pass may well be the best thing I see all year.

Madoka Magica

So, I’ve written about anime made by Shaft/Shinbo Akiyuki, and I’ve written about anime written by Urobuchi Gen. Now, to write about one they both worked on.

Previously, Shaft had only made adaptations of manga and light novels; this is their first original work. For such an occasion, with a fair bit of fanfare they assembled something of a creative dream team. Scripts by Urobuchi Gen, known for Fate/Zero, Phantom and more recently Psycho Pass. Music by Kajiura Yuki, known for Noir, .hack, Fate/Zero. Character designs by Aoki Ume, known for Hidamari Sketch. Directed by Shinbo Akiyuki, known for… a fair whack of what I’ve already reviewed, but also Hidamari Sketch, Arakawa Under the Bridge, Paniponi Dash, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, etc. And what did they all make as Shaft’s historic first original work? A magical girl show.

Magical girl wasn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for Shinbo, having previously done Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, but for the rest – especially Urobutcher – it seemed like an odd choice. But no matter, unlikelier teams have made unlikelier things well.

Madoka

Kaname Madoka. Poor girl has no idea what’s about to happen.

It all starts out relatively standard. The heroine is 14-year-old Kaname Madoka, an ordinary middle school girl with ordinary friends and a slightly out-of-the-ordinary family (a stay at home dad and a succesful career woman mother). She has a strange dream involving a girl she’s never met and some cutesy little talking critter. The next day, the girl from her dream, Akemi Homura, transfers into her class, and gives her some cryptic advice. Later, she gets a telepathic call for help from the talking critter from her dream… who’s being attacked by Homura. In the midst of this, they get pulled into the pocket dimension of an eldritch monster and then saved by a passing magical girl, Tomoe Mami. The critter, Kyubey, offers Madoka any single wish she wants granted in return for becoming a magical girl and fighting the eldritch monsters, known as witches.

Kyubey

Kyubey. Isn’t he cute?

Homura

Akemi Homura. Observant readers who have seen my Twitter avatar may have concluded that I like this character. Watch the show and find out why.

I won’t go into much detail about the events that follow, as anyone who does go on to watch this really should do so without any specific spoilers. What I will say, though, is that from the third episode onwards, things get much worse for everyone involved, and continue to get progressively worse with each episode. Magical Girl Madoka Magica effectively is to magical girl shows what Neon Genesis Evangelion is to giant robot shows.

Episode 10 has some major revelations about what’s going on (more so even than previous episodes, which had some pretty ground-shaking ones), and when you re-watch the show right from the start after having seen it, you see a lot of things in a much different light. Urobuchi Gen did some masterful work in his writing of the whole thing. And characters… what looks at first like a pretty standard set of magical girls (and normal human support cast) turns out to be anything but. They’re a seriously complex bunch.

Urobuchi has outright stated that he wants to write things that are heartwarming, but has for a long time been unable to write anything other than dark tragedy. With Madoka… he almost succeeds. It does warm the heart, but doesn’t quite manage a happy ending; bittersweet is the best we could hope for, all things considered.

Now, I mentioned Evangelion earlier in the review. Ever since it came out, so many shows tried to be the next Evangelion – mostly by doing dark, depressing robot shows and hoping for the best. But that’s the wrong approach; most of the ones that tried that tactic were forgettable at best. But Madoka Magica does it – or at least, comes far closer to it than anything else has to date. It hasn’t changed anime forever like Evangelion did, but in the post-Evangelion world, it’s basically impossible to do so. Madoka does succesfully challenge, deconstruct and reconstruct many of the familiar conventions and tropes of the magical girl genre.

I’ve made mention in other reviews of Shinbo Akiyuki’s interesting – unique, even – use of visuals. That is one of the major reasons I feel no-one else could have successfully made Madoka Magica. The art and animation for the witches and their pocket dimensions is downright deranged, and looks incredibly jarring and alien compared to the usual art and animation of the world and characters. Like with the Rebuild of Evangelion, this works very well for it. Shinbo is most typically known for his really out-there comedies, but he does horror very well too. (Occasionally both in the same show, see Tsukuyomi Moon Phase.) I almost wish he’d stick to comedy; when he does horror it hits you.

So anyway, in conclusion: Magical Girl Madoka Magica is one of the best anime I have ever seen. This is not a claim I make lightly, by the way – I like a tremendous number of titles, but few are actually this good. It won’t suit everyone’s tastes; some won’t like how dark it gets, others just don’t have the interest in magical girls. But for anyone willing to consider those two things put together, it’s brilliant.

Oreimo

There’s a certain category of anime, that I call Better Than It Has Any Right To Be. Usually, they deal with some… kinda dodgy themes or topics (or are at least very heavy on the fanservice), and often tend towards being guilty pleasures. One such show is Oreimo; short for Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai. Translated: My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute.

Yeah.

Despite the title, it’s not actually about a guy trying to get it on with a close blood relative. (I do have some standards in what I watch.) But it is about a guy who has an… unusual relationship with his little sister.

Kousaka Kyousuke is an ordinary high school boy, and happy about the ordinary part. He and his little sister, Kirino, used to be pretty close, but had a falling out and haven’t really spoken to each other in a few years. Despite living in the same house. But then one day Kyousuke discovers that Kirino is secretly a big fan of anime. And porn games. Little sister-themed porn games. Though despite that, it’s still pretty clear that Kirino doesn’t harbour any desires for an improper relationship with a close blood relative either.

Kyousuke and Kirino

Kyousuke and Kirino. And Kirino’s stack of porn games. Which she keeps trying to get him to play.

 

So anyway, after having a talk with Kirino, Kyousuke decides to help her keep the secret (particularly from their strict father) and also helps her make some otaku friends so she has someone she can talk to about her hobbies. Now there’s two ways a keep-the-secret setup like this can go in fiction; going to ever more extreme and unlikely lengths to keep the secret, or the cat being let out of the bag relatively soon and sorting things out so it’s okay anyway. Fortunately Oreimo goes with the latter; the former tends to get pretty tedious after a while.

And of course it’s the strict father that finds out. It’s a minor miracle that the sorting it out part worked – Kirino got to keep all the anime and games, and in the process Kyousuke had to imply that he was going into his sister’s room to use her computer to play games about screwing little sisters. Minor miracle that Kyousuke didn’t get his arse kicked out in the street, for that matter.

From there on, the show’s closer to a slice-of-life than anything else. Kousaka family life, Kyousuke’s friends, Kirino’s friends (otaku group and normal group), and the crossover between them that occurs. The real highlight of it all is the otaku group, and in particular Kirino’s vitriolic best bud Kuroneko. Who just happens to be voiced by Hanazawa Kana. (Yeah, I’m a fanboy. I wouldn’t be here talking about anime I like if I wasn’t.) In fact, later episodes of the show are more about her and Kyousuke than Kirino.

Kuroneko

Kuroneko. She’s got a bit of a twisted personality but I love her anyway. And so does Kirino, regardless of what she says.

 

I do have something of a fondness for anime and manga about the anime and manga fandom and production, largely because they don’t tend to take themselves too seriously and poke a bit of fun at all the conventions of the medium. That, and I like fiction that gets a bit meta from time to time. Oreimo does it pretty well.

Which isn’t to say it’s the best show ever, or a flawless masterpiece. It’s one of my guilty pleasures, but amazingly (given the title) far from the guiltiest I have. It’s just a lot of fun, with a few bits that tug the heartstrings in the right way a little.

Sasami-san actually is the best thing this season

Yeah, I’m posting about Sasami-san again. I like the show, okay.

Really though, it is actually a very good show. I will admit that when I first heard about it, I was expecting the series to mostly be Sasami staying at home and observing amusing antics between her brother and the Yagami sisters – and getting involved now and then – and this would have been a reasonably amusing show.

But instead… instead, in amongst the bizarre stuff it gets up to, there is something meaningful. Even Tama, who I thought would be the weakest character in the series, has more depth to her than you’d think. Rather than have Sasami housebound for most of the series, effort goes into sorting out her issues and getting her out and about – and in fact, she doesn’t stay hikikomori for more than a couple of episodes.

And then, when we think her family situation is on the improve when the Tsukuyomi Shrine is destroyed, her mother comes back from the dead and things get worse. It’s going to be really interesting to see where this show goes.

Rebuild of Evangelion

So now that I’ve reviewed the original Evangelion, I can review the remake; the Rebuild of Evangelion series of movies. Now most of the time when something gets remade, I’m one of the first people to roll my eyes and complain about the producers milking something for every cent (or yen, as the case may be) it’s worth, and how it’s almost never for the better. But sometimes… sometimes, it is. A word of warning, I’m mentioning a hell of a lot of major spoilers here, as well as some wild speculation.

It is still Anno Hideaki at the reins, so that’s a pretty significant point in its favour. He can command a greater budget than they original had, which certainly can’t hurt the animation – as noted in my review of the TV series, they made the absolute best of what they had, but were still limited. Plus advances in animation technology and techniques offer even more possibilities. But what about those things that I say are what really matters, characters and story? Well, read on.

First we’ll go with story. In the first movie, things play out mostly the same way they do in the TV series. There are differences; some very subtle and minor, some more significant. The most notable difference is right at the end, where we see Kaworu (aka Tabris, the last Angel from the TV series) awakening on the moon and muttering to himself. More on the significance of that later.

In the second movie, things start off quite differently, with the appearance of a new character, Mari, her (short-lived) Evangelion, and an Angel battle that never occurred in the TV series. Things get somewhat back to familiar territory with Asuka’s arrival, though with some key differences there – for example, she doesn’t rope Shinji into helping defeat the Angel attacking her Eva; she does it solo. A few Angel battles get skipped over, and a couple are familiar but play out differently.

Before I get any further, I need to talk about the world of Rebuild of Evangelion. As we’re only partway through the series, much is uncertain, so a lot of what I’m about to say is speculation. Based on some hints in the first two movies, there is a theory that Rebuild isn’t just a re-telling of the Evangelion TV series, but a sequel to it too. If this is the case, it is likely that the Second Impact event in the Rebuild world was actually the Third Impact event in the original one, and the world was rebuilt, guided by Shinji. If that’s the case, it would follow that it’s a better world for Shinji and the people he cares about – and it is, but in small ways.

Some differences that support this theory: Rei shows more personality early on, and is even shown to be proactive about interpersonal relationships. Asuka doesn’t seem to be pursuing the doomed crush she had on Kaji in the TV series, and gets along better with Shinji. Shinji isn’t kept in the dark as much; he’s shown the dead Angel in Nerv’s basement much sooner – and for that matter, it’s more widely known that it’s Lillith and not Adam – and is told the identity of Eva Unit 03’s test pilot before the activation test happens. His friend Touji’s little sister recovers from her injuries, and Touji himself doesn’t become a pilot and get mangled (though there is a bit of a downside to that last one). Asuka isn’t the one to be dealt the crushing defeat by the Angel that trashes Nerv. Heck, even the more lighthearted bits get a bit more romantic comedy-like; complete with borrowing background music from His and Her Circumstances, the romantic comedy that Gainax and Anno made after Evangelion.

Even the newcomer Mari fits into this theory. It’s been observed that she appears to be a collection of character traits that also appear in the other members of the main cast. I speculate that she’s some kind of by-product of humanity having previously been merged into one being; bits of other people stuck together and given human form. This probably explains why she’s so screwed up and everyone else is slightly less screwed up than before; she’s the more screwed up bits of them rolled together. Not to mention she has some abilities a bit beyond the “normal” Evangelion pilot – different from what Kaworu displayed, but abilities beyond nonetheless.

Comparison image #1

Exhibit A. Someone else put in the effort on the image; I’m just posting it.

Comparison image #2

Exhibit B. Also not made by me.

Or maybe Anno’s just thrown in entire schools of red herrings. Either possibility is easily plausible.

So what has the Rebuild done for the art and animation? Improved it greatly; everything looks much better than it did before. The Angels, though, deserve special mention here. They’re much more complex, and very clearly 3D CGI, as opposed to the hand-sketched digitally painted everything else. Usually, when you get a mix of traditional and CGI like this, the effect is a bit jarring; the CGI always looks ever so slightly out of place. It is the case here, but it works for it and strikes me as being deliberate; it serves to show just how alien the Angels are in appearance, how out of place they really are in the world. Oh, and the other thing it’s done for it? Added blood. Lots more blood. The bodies of the Angels, once killed, basically transmute into blood. I’m not sure yet if that’s supposed to mean something, or if Anno’s just doing it for the sake of how it looks.

Another thing of note is that there are scenes showing Tokyo-3 as a living, breathing city that people really live in – something that we never really got the feeling of in the TV series, though it was said that people were living there. So they’ve gotten better at the old writing adage of “show, don’t tell.”

So far, it’s striking a good balance between the familiar path of the TV series story and things being changed. And not just that, but starting with smaller differences early on and building up to larger ones. And the changes mostly don’t feel like change for the sake of change, but changes with some point behind them… even if we haven’t figured out what the point is yet. And I’m seriously impatient to see more, so it’s clearly doing something right.

So in conclusion, if you’ve seen the Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series, it’s well worth seeing the Rebuild. If you’ve been living under a rock on Mars for a decade or two and haven’t seen the TV series, it’s also well worth seeing the Rebuild.