Kono Oto Tomare! – Spring 2019’s Competent, Underrated, Musical Beauty| Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 13-episode spring 2019 anime “Kono Oto Tomare!” or “Sounds of Life,” animated by Platinum Vision, directed by Mizuno Ryouma, and based on Amyuu Sakura’s manga of the same name.

chika mad.png


An Unexpected New Member

Underclassman Takezou Kurata had a blast last year playing the koto, a traditional Japanese string instrument, with the rest of his club mates. But now that his seniors have since graduated, Takezou will have to seek out new members to join the koto club, or else risk disbandment. Prepared for the worst, Takezou gives in to his club’s fate, when out of the blue a new member barges through the club room door. This would be a great turn of events for Takezou, if only this new member, Chika Kudou, weren’t one of his school’s most notorious bullies!

Things get even more wild for this music nerd introvert when Satowa Houzuki, a well-renowned koto player in her own right, decides to join Takezou’s shabby club. What might a pro like Satowa be doing lurking around his little club? And what could a thug like Chika want with something as culturally feminine and delicate as the koto?

As Takezou simultaneously struggles to keep his club alive and maintain the balance between these two wild souls, he slowly starts to realize that the first step to gaining his own sense of self-confidence is by making friends with people from all walks of life.

tomare chika angry.jpg

Trying to Fit Together

Kono Oto Tomare!: Sounds of Life is a school music drama series with the spirit of a shounen anime and a dash of budding romance. In many ways, it is also an underdog tale, as we root for Takezou’s dysfunctional club members’ various attempts to perform together. This especially becomes apparent when Chika’s three friends also join the club, determined to play with Chika despite not even knowing what a koto is.

In one corner we’ve got an easily frustrated Satowa trying her hardest to dumb down her wealth of knowledge and teach, and in the other we’ve got these three idiots. To top it all off, Chika’s fiery attitude makes him a pain in the rear to work with, and President Kurata doesn’t know what to do about him. It’s no wonder the club’s barely getting by!

At first, the series is about trying to mash these these conflicting personalities together to even play a single piece from beginning to end, while the last few episodes give us a preview into the world of formal competition and school rivalries. The narrative of Kono Oto Tomare! is tightly written, yet it is able to juggle all these character perspectives quite splendidly. From the talented to the talentless, we see that playing the koto isn’t even a matter of being gifted, but rather of hard work and dedication to the art. The same goes for performing as a group. You can’t just play together—you have to understand one another if you are to properly read the other’s cues, direction, and cadence.

And that’s something I thought the series did really well. We are given well-timed character backgrounds to explain these seemingly irrational behaviors, as well as motives for why they joined the club in the first place. Chika and his friends play because they owe someone else their sound; Satowa plays because she wants to make a name for herself. Even if some of these backstories come off as a bit too melodramatic (like, it feels as if y’all tear up about everything), the story is never lacking in heart.

tomare satowa heart 2.PNG

The Club’s Key Players

As a character, Takezou still has a long way to go, but certainly progresses quite a ways from his shy inward self to someone who is willing to give orders (as a good club president should). He often undermines his own musical abilities, despite having played for so long and with so many other great players. Humble, perhaps, but insecure? Definitely. The more he plays with Chika and Satowa, however, the more he is forced out of his comfort zone. And for him, that could be a good thing . . .

For Chika, this is a tale of redemption. To atone for the actions of his past, he takes up the koto with not much else than his determination and the koto his dad left behind for him. Arguably, Chika is the lead in this story, as so many of the interactions between characters are often between him and someone else. Despite his charming looks, his nasty reputation comes from his delinquent attitude and history as a rascal. This earned him few to call a true friend, but the ones he has now really are all he need.

Though she may not seem like it, Satowa is also a character wrapped in layers of insecurity and burdened by childhood scars. The prestige and honor that comes with being a member of the Houzuki school—in addition to being the family’s only daughter—led to a life of social pressures and unreasonably high expectations. Wanting nothing more than to leave that life behind and pursue music through her own virtue, Satowa takes this new life as a second chance carve a name for herself. Naturally, the chemistry between someone as talented as Satowa and a “thug” as lowly as Chika is entertaining. But perhaps their meeting is also the beginning of a loving, supportive relationship. Only time will tell.

tomare characters 2.PNG

In addition to balancing these three leads, the series also features a great cast of supporting characters that are so well-defined on their own that they might as well be leads of this story, too. I’m talking about the scheming and manipulative Hiro Kurusu who practically does a 180 to become one of the series’ most heartwarming characters (and another lady to keep Satowa company). On the con side, there’s Takanami, the club’s really irritating, piece a shit advisor. He may be a necessary evil to draw out Takezou’s confidence, but I’m sure the plot could’ve done that by other means.

And we can’t forget about Chika’s three bumbling friends! They may be idiots, but they’re not just there for comic relief. Kouta, Saneyasu, and Michitaka are honest voices for those unfamiliar with the music world, actively admitting that their fingers hurt when they play too much, that an instrument can be hella expensive, and that standing behind the curtain to go on stage might as well be like walking to one’s own doom.

A show committed to togetherness, friendship, and unity, I really like how the story never forgets about these three goons. While the pros mask their insecurities with their talent, they can tell us exactly what the koto experience feels like. As a character driven piece, it wouldn’t be the same with even just one of these key players missing.

Funimation produces an all-around exceptional dub for this high quality series. English voice actor Alejandro Saab’s Takezou is played with a higher, shakier register, and doubles nicely against Chika’s barreling, rough-and-tough voice. Damon Mills steals the spotlight as Chika, as he not only has the thug voice down pat, but also makes your cheeks blush with his tender tsundere character. Amber Lee Connors follows with an amazingly strong performance as Satowa, and it’s always fun having Josh Grelle (Kouta) and Austin Tindle (Saneyasu) around to make us laugh.

tomare competition 2.PNG

Visuals to Match the Sounds

A good series about music needs good music to back it up, and Kei Haneoka’s soundtrack blends the traditional beauty of the koto with piano rifts and modern pop sounds. The OST especially works well with some of the series’ more intense moments, but is also pleasantly there to lift everyone to their feet when the comedic scenes hit. All of the koto playing itself sounds professional, almost too good for mere high school students (and beginners at that), but it’s never enough to stick out as “impossible.”

I’m just glad that we got to hear so many solos and uncut playthroughs of, what I’d imagine to be, classical pieces for this ancient instrument. Piercing melodies, spiraling duets, precise rhythms, raw tones—it’s all there, and as a string player myself, I found it all to be incredible.

tomare satowa playing

As if this series couldn’t get any better, I’m thrilled to report that Kono Oto Tomare! is lovingly supported by bright, watercolor art and gorgeously fluid animation to match the timeless sounds of the koto. Character designs are reminiscent of this soft, glowing shoujo style: sparkling eyes, blushing cheeks, sunburst filters, the works. The koto itself is laden with pretty wood patterns and textures, complete with shiny metal pegs and gleaming strings. Really, I was floored by it all. What a gem of a show!

Special shoutout to Shouta Aoi’s cheery and uplifting OP theme, “Tone,” which features artistic imagery, vibrant pink and blue hues, and of course, well-timed visuals to Aoi’s wholesome voice.

tomare op tone 2.PNG

Practice Like You Perform

In case you couldn’t tell, I really resonated with this series. At long last, we have a music anime with animation that can actually keep up with the technicality required to play string instruments. While I could have gone for even more full, uncensored music scenes, I’m totally happy with the few all-out performances we got. Every time they strike the final chord, you just want to wave your fist triumphantly in the air like, “YEAH, they did it!!”

If I were to describe this series with one word, it’d be competent. Truly, we are blessed to get a string music anime that not only looks this great, but sounds good, too, and has a story that can more than carry itself. With a second season set to air this fall, Kono Oto Tomare! has proven itself worthy of the koto and its timeless beauty. This only goes to show that, when you practice like you perform, you’ll get the results you expect. In the case of this great music anime that perfectly balances comedy and drama, season two is the encore that Takezou, Chika, Satowa, and the others in this persevering koto club deserve!

tomare episode 12 2.PNG


The stage is a reward for all the hard work you’ve put in. That’s why you have to enjoy it as much as you can.  — Takezou Kurata


Afterword

As it stands, Kono Oto Tomare!: Sounds of Life is a “Cake” title set for the “Cafe Mocha” gold so long as the sequel is able to pick up everything this amazing first season has done so far and run with it. Given the fact that Platinum Vision has only produced a couple anime in the past and that this is Mizuno Ryouma’s directorial debut, I’m not only impressed but surprised at the quality of this work. To music fans, drama fans, or even lovers of comedy, I honestly can’t recommend this show enough!

Who else followed Kono Oto Tomare! this past spring 2019 season? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the series or this review down in the comments, as well as whether you are interested in starting it if you haven’t yet done so. Until the next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

 

Granblue Fantasy: Endless Blue Skies, But Not Enough Time to Explore Them All | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 13-episode spring 2017 anime “Granblue Fantasy The Animation,” animated by A-1 Pictures, directed by Yuuki Itou, and based on the video game series of the same name by Cygames. 

lyria jewel.png


A World of Skies and Islands

Awash with a stunning canvas of roving blues and fluffy whites is the world Granblue Fantasy is painted on, a famous franchise which has amassed a great following thanks to its many JRPG titles. While I am unfamiliar with this particular adaptation’s origins, the story still follows its titular character, a young boy named Gran, and his adventures throughout the wondrous skies that surround him. Accompanied by a talking winged lizard named Vyrn, the two embark on quests that tend to question the governing bodies of their world, such as the menacing Erste Empire and her sprawling military factions.

Alone in the forest one day, Gran stumbles upon a young girl with cerulean hair. Her name is Lyria, and she just recently happened to escape from the Empire after being subjected to sinister underground experiments on magic and the mythical. Alongside Katalina, a once-high-ranking knight of the Empire assigned to guard Lyria, Gran and the crew set out into the vast skies to escape the Empire’s treacherous plots. With ship set to starboard, Gran’s party aims to protect Lyria, as well as head for the famed land of legend mentioned in the last letter Gran received from his father: “Estalucia, Island of Stars.”

gran and lyria.jpg

I’ll be frank, the story of Granblue Fantasy The Animation is not a new one; girl is used by evil organization, boy protects her, boy meets a bunch of new allies while traveling around, yada yada. Even still, the heart of a fantasy adventure series lies in the lands we are taken to, and the variety of peoples we meet along the way—this pattern may not be a new one, but it doesn’t need to be new to be a fun watch. In that regard, this anime exceeds, but the overarching story—the hero’s main goal—is still a bit fuzzy. One moment Gran merely wants to watch over Lyria, but the next he insists on defeating (or rather purifying) these godlike mythical beasts to obtain magic crystals for . . . what was it again? I honestly can’t remember, but it’s still formulaic enough to follow along.

The Crew Aboard the Grandcypher

As a main character, Gran is without much personality. He’s kind and strong, yet remarkably bland, and although the show tries to convince you that he’s a real stellar guy with “special powers,” Gran’s actions and words fare just as interesting as a silent protagonist’s.

Oh wait, he originally was one? *sigh* This is another reason why adapting games into anime is hard . . . and somewhat a mistake.

Image result for anime woman get stuck in the hole

Obviously, the show pins most of its character love on Lyria, and thankfully, she does seem like someone you’d want to care for. Her curiosity and blind love for the world may not be executed as well as Tale of Symphonia‘s Colette, but the idea still transfers alright. Even our dutiful knight Katalina and reliable ship’s helmsman Rackam felt like characters I would enjoy partying up with. Same goes for new recruits, like the fiery (yet ironically ice magic specialist) mage Io and Team Rocket-esque dungeon thief duo Karva and Mary. Anyone else, well, the show just doesn’t give much screen time to learn about, but I’m sure they can be just as likable if given a fairer shot.

All the while, the Empire is looming in the dark and new faces, friend and foe alike, keep poppin’ out like the skies are just one big circus tent for JRPG tropes—there were like +10 new characters in the second to last episode alone, it’s ridiculous! If Granblue Fantasy The Animation had one big problem, it was that it tried to compensate “character development” for “5 seconds of fame,” and, in the end, not one of the side characters stood out as a result (which is a real shame given how cool some of these outfits were).

granblue cast

Painting the Skies–The Magical Watercolor Touch

While I couldn’t give a damn about some of the characters thrown in at the last minute, I did have an incredible appreciation for what A-1 has done with their latest fantasy anime. Say what you will about their method of adaptation, but from their work on shows like Fractale, From the New World, Fate/Apocrypha, Sound of the Sky, so many others and most infamously, Sword Art Online, I’ve found A-1 to be one of the best animation studios where the fantasy genre is concerned. From the luscious color palettes and beautiful blends to the “old ruin aesthetic” of their utterly enchanting scenery, A-1’s always been on top of the game, and Granblue Fantasy is no exception. If anything, it’s the model, the paragon of what a high-quality fantasy production should look like.

city.PNG

But especially with Granblue, the studio preserved the original art style from the games by giving it a softer, almost watercolor appeal to the backgrounds, much like the magic they did with Grimgar. And the characters and fight scenes, agh, WOW! I believe I recall an ANN article explaining that the adaptation’s delay was due to preserving all of the characters’ outfits, armor, leathers, buckles, trinkets, etc. in the anime style, and boy did A-1 bring out all the bells and whistles for this one. Highlights, shadows, bevels, rivets, textures, blends—what can only be imagined as an animation nightmare turned out to be well-worth the extra effort!

katalina.PNG

Just watching the Grandcypher and its beautiful, colorful cast soar through the airy clouds across majestic seas of water and light took me to an entirely different land altogether. Put its spiraling architecture together with Square Enix and Cymusic native Tsutomu Narita’s epic orchestral soundtrack and you’ve really got a solid, powerful combination.

Lastly, can I mention how much of a bop the OP “GO” by BUMP OF CHICKEN and ED “Sora no Parade” by HARUHI are? Like, these songs about living the best lives we can are the total chill vibes that I LIVE for!

Image result for 그랑 블루 판타지 배경

Will We Ever Reach Estalucia?

Afraid not . . . maybe . . . ? At the end of the day, Granblue Fantasy The Animation is an absolutely gorgeous fantasy adventure anime that is hurt by its weak direction, weak antagonists, and lack of character development (and proper introduction for that matter). After its pinnacle fight scene in episode 12, one would imagine that the last episode would take us to the isle of lore where the reunion (and final showdown) would commence—WRONG. Instead, we are “treated” to a random bikini-filled beach episode with the cast of ladies that were introduced a mere episode prior. What a letdown.

But there is hope, as supposedly a second season was announced not to far back (no sure date as of yet). The anime just came out last year, after all, so I would assume that this is just the first half of the big adventure to come. Will I watch it? Of course, I’m in it for the long haul! But should you? Granblue Fantasy The Animation definitely feels like it’s more of a treat for fans of the game, but if you love magic, fantasy, and adventures as much as I do, perhaps Granblue is worth the “grand,” if not slightly frustrating, investment. It was bland, sure, but never did I really get “angry” with the show—in fact, it kinda made me want to start playing the games! Your eyes will love what they see, and your heart will yearn for the fun in-town shopping and traveling to last forever, but you may be able to guess the end long before A-1 decides to give it to us.

silloute.png

Our destinations could be totally different, but I think this is our fate. As we continue our journey, we keep meeting new people. I treasure the connections that we make—just like the one we feel with you now. — Gran


Afterword

A softer, much more light-hearted take on the fantasy genre than typical game-to-anime adaptations, I have trouble recommending Granblue Fantasy on the grounds that at this time, it is currently incomplete (the worst kind of ending IMO). Should we truly stop here, I’ll award Granblue Fantasy The Animation with the “Breads” rating and a recommendation to SKIP it unless you’re a fan of the franchise and want to see your favorite characters brought to life by A-1’s genius. If we get more, however, that value is instantly reappraised to a “Coffee,” or even higher depending on how the second half turns out. Here’s to more Gran-seeming-important, more Katalina-obsessing-over-Vyrn’s-cutness, and more pretty-artwork-for-days!

shopping.jpg

As a last minute addition, should you take up Gran and Lyria’s quest, I CAN safely recommend the English dub by Aniplex (although I still condemn their $80 releases). Both the sub and dub of Granblue Fantasy can be found on Crunchyroll for FREE, so hit it up whenever you’re next in the fantasy neighborhood! Be sure to let me know what you thought of this series, its characters, or this review down in the comments, as I’d love to know! Thanks so much for reading, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

On Love, Loneliness, & the Growing Distance Between Us | The Works of Makoto Shinkai

Have you ever had that “feeling”? You know the one—when you notice yourself suddenly skipping about here and there, flattering others in an uncharacteristically cheery way that makes them remark, “I want what they’re having!” Some call that expression—that intense feeling of deep affection, interest, or yearning—love. It’s but a simple four-letter word, and yet it can give some people enough purpose and motivation to perform wild, breathtaking feats, going to the greatest of lengths just for that shared pleasure of joy. “Love makes the world go round,” it truly does.

Such a complex and powerful emotion often finds its way into animation. Specifically, the romance genre of anime holds steady as one of the field’s experts. Its incredible variety masterfully demonstrates that love is not only sweet and tender, but can also be realistically crushing and emotionally devastating.

Image result

The latter is the kind of stories director Makoto Shinkai likes to tell. Rather than measuring up as a statistically sound series or film—that is, a rated “10/10” on various elements such as plot, pacing, characters, animation (his forte), sound etc.—Shinkai films excel at eliciting a feeling, usually on the heartache end of the emotional spectrum. To quote his latest award-winning hit, Your Name., Shinkai’s films provide, simply put, “Nothing more or less than a breathtaking view.” Each possess their own fair share of flaws, some more than others, but beyond the little plot holes lies a relatable character struggle that just might tread a path you yourself have walked.

And it’s exactly that strong resonance between one’s own experiences and Shinkai’s ill-fated cast which makes him one of the bests in the industry. Everyone wants to feel connected to others, and Shinkai depicts through his picture-perfect worlds what that connection is really like, and why it isn’t always everything that we wanted after all.

In the iconic, beautifully cruel style which solidified his films as masterworks of modern animation, Makoto Shinkai appeals to humanity’s most innate fears of rejection and loss by directing his characters through the timeless themes of love, loneliness, and the growing distance which separates people as time goes on. These lessons teach us that though life has its fair share of heartbreak, each relationship we stumble into and every opportunity we miss out on still carries the potential to live out a better tomorrow—you just have to look beyond the distance.

Image result


A comparative study and light analysis on the works of Makoto Shinkai. For each title, I will delve into the big issues or “separators” at hand, factoring in whether the story’s realism and emotions which the endings provoke somehow determine the possibilities for happiness and sadness alike. As such, SPOILERS for nearly all of his films WILL BE PRESENT. Also, these will NOT be individual reviews for each title. For those prepared to relive all of these amazing films, enjoy!

flowchart shinkai.PNG

(NONE OF THIS GORGEOUS ARTWORK BELONGS TO ME. All praise and ownership goes to Makoto Shinkai and CoMix Wave Films.)

She and Her Cat (1999)

I will always be by your side. After all, I am your cat.

Image result

Aside from the music (by Tenmon), this 4-minute short was completely created by Shinkai alone, marking the early beginnings of his budding career as not only an animator and writer, but also a director. It’s the short tale of an average Japanese girl living in an apartment told from the viewpoint of Chobi, her beloved cat. Chobi speaks formally and passionately about his owner, yet he still has this pure, unclouded perspective of a cat. Arguably his softest work yet, She and Her Cat: Their Standing Points stood out due to its innovative (and awfully cute) exploration of love.

What ultimately separates the two from “eloping” is, well, obvious—“She” is a human girl, a woman, while Chobi is a cat. It’s an unusual relationship, but that doesn’t stop the film from being so unrealistic as to the plot being “impossible.” The woman, nicknamed Kanojo by the community, faces her own hardships in the real world (including a possible love interest), and though Chobi would like to know what she does and where she goes once she closes their apartment door, he understands that her life likely isn’t all sunshine and roses—it doesn’t really concern him. All that matters to him is that she returns home at the end of a long day.

Like with all of Shinkai’s films to follow, what separates them (different species, the “language barrier”) also unites them, for through each others warm embrace—that of a cat and his owner—they find comfort and care. Simple, peaceful, heartwarming.

Voices of a Distant Star (2002)

We may be the first generation of lovers separated by time and space.

Image result

Stepping up his game, yet still working alone (aside for Tenmon’s gorgeous piano and string score), Shinkai quotes this rather aged 2002 short film as the piece which put him out in the world. Set in the near future, mankind’s ambition to explore space separates Nagamine and Noboru, a young girl and boy in junior high. As Noboru enters high school, Nagamine is sent off on an expedition into space’s infinite depths. The farther she strays away from Earth and her Noboru-kun, the longer it takes for their texts to reach one another. Minutes turn into hours, days, weeks, months, and soon—

Image result

Though inventive at its time, the 3D graphics haven’t aged all too well. But thematically, Voices of a Distant Star packs more of an emotional punch than most 12-episode series could today—and this film only clocks in at 25 minutes, including the credits! It seems as if the big separator in Voices is the physical distance, but waiting for their messages of goodwill to traverse the vast blank void that is space ushers in another factor: time. As Nagamine’s unchanging body fights on (in what I can only imagine to be early-2000 Shinkai’s mecha dream-of-a-giant robot), Noboru ages at what feels like an alarming pace. In reality, his growth rate is no different from any of ours is, but the way Shinkai conveys the rapid passage of time only accentuates our lovers’ tragedy. Is it realistic? Even as a sci-fi flick, not really. But does its bittersweet run end on an ambiguously hopeful note? Absolutely.

Voices is arguably the first film in Shinkai’s line-up to convey this notion that perhaps the lack of realism can lead to a happy ending. Very interesting . . .

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

On those now-distant days, we made a promise we couldn’t keep.

Related image

To tackle the 1 hr. 30 min. length of this next film, Shinkai needed a team. Between his early beginnings and now in 2004, he partnered with the animation studio CoMix Wave Films. The results—The Place Promised in Our Early Days visually blew audiences away, nearly more so than with 2002’s Voices. Set near the turn of the century in an alternate reality Japan, which is split by America and the Soviet Union, young boys Hiroki and Takuya aim to fly to the top of the fantastical, unbelievably high Hokkaido Tower using an old drone. While at first a secret for just the two of them, Sayuri, a girl Hiroki and Takuya both like but would never admit to one another, discovers their secret, leading to the boys putting their project on indefinite hiatus. When Sayuri suddenly disappears from their life, however, the two come to realize that reaching the mysterious tower—the promised dream of their childhood—might be the only way to save her.

Image result

Hiroki and Takuya experience a loss of youth, of innocence, as they learn to develop their own dreams and ideologies different from their childish musings. What once united them in friendship tears them apart, and the disappearance of Sayuri and discovery of her untimely illness are what kicked off the depressing events that plague the film’s middle. To watch two friends come at each other’s throat can be painfully real to some, as we’ve all have our fair share of little spats with friends. Additionally, I’m sure we’ve all seen sickness and temptation take the life of a loved one and push them into a place beyond our reach. Thankfully, a happy reunion awaits the cast at the end, leading to the belief of how sacrifice can yield rebirth.

Once again, Shinkai writes with a science fiction mind, and although people still relate to Hiroki and Takuya, the entire premise is unrealistic, nothing more than a child’s fantasy. Can you still learn from it? Of course, but come Shinkai’s next film, reality takes a turn for the worst—the start of a tragic trend.

5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)

At what speed must I live to be able to see you again?

Image result

Here it is, Shinkai’s greatest creation (thematically, that is). I’m sure it needs no introduction, unlike his more obscure early works, but in case you forgot, it’s the story of two very close friends and classmates: Takaki Toono and Akari Shinohara. Elementary school should be a time of play and triviality, but for these two, such isn’t the case. Rather than run around on the playground, Takaki and Akari would rather read in the library, or simply chat about life’s musings. Just as they become close, however, Akari’s family plans to move. Takaki and Akari send letters to one another, but Akari only continues to move further and further away. In a final attempt to see Akari before she’s beyond his limits, Takaki sets out to reunite with her. His unlucky trek attracts a cold winter’s blizzard, delaying the series of trains to Akari’s town. But that doesn’t stop the two from finally, FINALLY meeting once again. And boy, does your heart just melt the frost away.

Equal parts faith and love, Takaki made the effort to travel out in the cold, sure, but Akari was the one who waited—the one who sat there miserable and alone with nothing to do but pray that her young love was on his way. It was proof that their love should be everlasting, but alas, that’s not the story Shinkai is trying to tell. In this first episode, it is a physical distance which separates our main couple.

Image result

A chain of short stories about their distance.

After this touching first episode, the film enters its next “story.” Time passes on. Takaki, too, moves away from his hometown to the warm regions of Tanegashima (a stark contrast to the first episode’s frigid finale). Now a high schooler, Takaki meets a new girl, and though she tries to admit her feelings to him, Takaki knows all along that his heart only belongs to one person: the woman of his past. Time and other relationships have left him traveling aimlessly. In the final episode, Takaki is old. Maybe not in the physical sense, as late 20s—early 30s is still quite young, but his spirit definitely seems lost—his heart broken from years without seeing or hearing from her.

The painful reality is that, as life would have it, she has moved on, already engaged to another man. And that’s just it—the final separator which drives these now-unrelated adults is life itself. Life is always changing, and as we continue down our own paths, we sometimes have to leave others behind.

Image result

At its core, 5 Centimeters Per Second strives to present one’s “first love,” and how difficult it is to hold onto it—so much so that it almost feels not worth experiencing at all. Takaki, by his end, is lonely, depressed, and empty. It’s a sad film, yet a brutally honest one. Shinkai’s first feature-length film in a world without giant robots or fantasy towers is painfully real, and that aspect remains what distinguishes Shinkai from today’s anime directors. By this point, Makoto Shinkai had earned the appreciation and respect of his more mature adult viewers.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011)

This is the journey to know the meaning of “goodbye.”

Image result for children who chase lost voices

Shinkai returns to the realm of fiction with this next film. Clearly inspired by the magical presentation of Studio Ghibli movies, the story follows young Asuna, an excellent student who maintains her family’s house in a rural town during her mother’s absence. Aside from spending time with nature, Asuna is alone. She finds escapism in her secret hideout up in the mountains, and frequently tunes into her old crystal radio for relaxation. One day, she unexpectedly picks up on a curious frequency: a rather melancholic melody, different from any song she had ever heard before. As if fated to meet, a mysterious boy named Shun rescues Asuna from a wild, bizarre creature, unintentionally dragging Asuna and her teacher, Mr. Morisaki, on a perilous journey to Agartha, a land long-lost to time and human presence.

Though not his smartest film by any means, Shinkai has been longing to visit this colorful, enchanting world—Agartha—for some time now. The luscious planet upon which Nagamine lands in Voices of a Distant Star; the domain where the comatose Sayuri resides in The Place Promised in Our Early Days; Takaki Toono’s realm of dreams in 5 Centimeters Per Second—each time this wondrous world reappears, it offers comfort to the characters. Not coincidentally, the design remains the same, too. From the gorgeously iconic “Shinkai clouds” to the seas of green grass and remains of old ruins, Agartha FINALLY gets the thorough fleshing-out that it has since deserved, and I’m just glad we got to go there at long last.

Image result

But Children Who Chase isn’t all sunshine and roses. Awaiting Asuna and Morisaki is an adventure rife with death, and a thorough demonstration as to what happens when man attempts to bring those passed back to life. Foolish, blind greed and a gaping sense of loss are what separate Morisaki from someone pure-hearted like Asuna. But in the same way, the journey of letting go and understanding what “goodbye” truly means allows for the film to end with an odd, lukewarm sensation of happiness. Adventure yields danger, but to those who learn their lessons, the hope to live a fulfilling life burns on. God may be a cruel teacher, but so is history.

Image result

Children Who Chase Lost Voices is far from a realistic story, and thus, the pattern of Shinkai’s fantasies ending contentedly continues. Is he trying to say that reality is just full of heartache and nothing else? Perhaps so with his next couple of films.

The Garden of Words (2013)

Before there was love, there was loneliness.

Image result

A personal favorite of mine, Shinkai’s The Garden of Words provides a 46-minute feels trip through an unusual couple’s short-lived romantic spat.

Tenmon takes a break from the music to allow talent like Daisuke Kashiwa’s immersive piano soliloquies to establish an atmosphere unlike ANY other. And the visuals—THIS is the incredible level of quality which defines Makoto Shinkai’s digital landscaping, lighting, and realism today. Visually, The Garden of Words remains the most beautiful short film I have ever seen, and it will probably hold that title for a long time to come!

Related image

On a rainy morning in Tokyo, aspiring shoemaker Takao Akizuki does what every student on a rainy day wishes they could do—he skips class to sketch designs in the city’s beautiful garden. Thinking he’d be all alone in this calm misty weather, he accidentally meets a beautiful yet reserved young woman. Her name is Yukari Yukino, and though she continues to skip out work to drink and eat chocolates in the garden, Takao takes a liking to her poetic words. To [figuratively] get her back on her feet, Takao offers to make Yukino new shoes. And thus they vow to themselves: for each day it rains, I will spend time with her/him.

More rainy days arrive, and as the two secretly convene in their garden of words—of shared acceptance and belonging—the two unknowingly start to lighten their own personal burdens just by being together. Tokyo’s rainy season may be long, but like all good things, it doesn’t last forever. As warmer days creep ahead and the chance for precipitation diminishes, Takao and Yukino’s relationship risks drying up like the rain which brought them together.

Image result

The Garden of Words paints the true vision of life’s loneliness before love intervenes. It’s the gentle story about finding solace in another, and learning to alleviate one’s personal worries through something as simple as conversation. At first, a lack of courage casts Takao and Yukino as an awkward couple. Only after Yukino is revealed to be a teacher at his school do we see the true separator at hand: the age gap, and the societal notions that place stigmas on teacher–student relationships. YUKINO KNEW THE WHOLE TIME, yet held of on saying anything for fear of judgement. And in the end, Takao yells at her, forcing her on her feet through their compelling emotional conflict.

Realistic in every sense of the word, its finale feels bittersweet, yet resolved. Separated from each other, the two resume pursuing their own personal aspirations. Though somewhat sad, in truth the ending is optimistic about the different directions Takao and Yukino take, as it was through comfort in one another’s presence which allowed them to find their way back on the path—and with a stronger, more confident “footing” this time around.

The Garden of Words rings true as the new Shinkai standard, but thematically, it revolutionized Shinkai’s game: for the first time, a realistic story does, in fact, yield a happy ending.

Someone’s Gaze (2013)

There are a lot of things you two have forgotten.

Image result

Returning to form, Makoto Shinkai cranks out another charming yet touching short (6 minutes in length) with the release of The Garden of Words. It hearkens waaay back to his beginnings, with the simple yet relatable tale of a girl and her cat. Aa-chan lives in a near-future Japan, and has recently made the big transition of living on her own following graduation and the start of a new job. With her mother working overseas as a doctor, her loving father is left behind at the apartment with the family cat, Mii-san, who happens to be very old by this point. Seeking a way to reach out to her, her father tries several times to reconnect with his distancing child, but the gap is too awkward for him to bridge. Eventually Mii-san passes away, but this sudden grief holds the power to reunite a tired daughter, a busy mother, and a lonely father.

All that emotional energy conveyed in such a short time serves to remind us as to Shinkai’s greatest strength, that is, being able to make his viewers experience heartbreak followed by hope (or hopelessness) in a matter of mere minutes. Someone’s Gaze is especially relatable, as the burnout experienced by today’s youth and the parental fear of their children growing up in today’s world both hit us hard at some point in our lives. With maturity comes opportunity, but that often involves temporarily leaving an old way of life—and the people in it—behind. In truth, familial bonds change over time, and as we grow up, it can be hard to maintain that “want” to communicate.

Like The Garden of Words, Shinkai permits for a realistic story to end optimistically hopeful, perhaps marking that the guy really is turning a new leaf from his long history of depressing, failed love stories.

Cross Road (2014)

I sought to find something great, and while it may not have been what I expected, I found something . . . or rather, someone. 

Image result

Although this latest short is actually just a 2-minute commercial for the Z-Kai cram schools, it was still directed by Shinkai, and holds that same breathtaking, picture-perfect style to boot. As college entrance examinations draw near, two students living completely different lives focus their time and energy into a correspondence education service. Juggling their studies with their already-involved daily lives, the two diligently work towards that high goal of college admission, unaware of how much they share in common. It’s a brief yet inspiring “work hard, play hard” preview into a film that I can only imagine would’ve been absolutely stunning had it received the length it deserved. Not as absurd as those 30-second Cup Noodle ads, but even just a couple minutes more would have doubled the story’s length. I suppose we don’t always get what we want; such is life.

Despite the let-down of a run time, Cross Road still manages to follow a truncated version of the Shinkai formula: two individuals in similar situations are separated by different lives, but their unexpected meeting reveals that, through hard work, the hope to overcome their challenges increases. Call this a lighthearted take on the next and final film—the realistic outcome of what possibly could have been.

Your Name. (2016)

Wherever you are in the world, I swear I will find you again—no matter what. 

Related image

Your Name. exploded onto the anime scene, continuing to break record after record until it became the highest-grossing anime film in the world (among other nominations). Funimation and Madman Entertainment’s combined efforts to license, dub, and promote the film through staggered theatrical releases maintained its hype not just for the remainder of 2016, but for most of 2017, too. Even now, anime fans who are finally getting around to watching it share their praise with the community, reviving the excitement of this rom-com drama to no end. By this point, Your Name. wasn’t just another Shinkai film—it was a moving, breathing phenomenon.

Like any high school girl born and raised in the Japanese countryside, Mitsuha Miyamizu craves the wonder and excitement of city life. Unfortunately for her, the family’s shrine needs its maiden, restricting Mitsuha to her life in the boonies. Meanwhile in the lively Tokyo, high school student Taki Tachibana labors away at his part-time job with the hopes of eventually pursuing a career in architecture.

Related image

One day, Mitsuha awakens to an unfamiliar ceiling, but the chic apartment and bright view of the city skyscrapers instantly identify as Tokyo. “This is my dream life! But wait . . . wha—I’m in a boy’s body!” Out in the countryside, Taki finds himself waking up in a similar frightening situation. A strange phenomenon swapped the two’s places, and in order to figure out the reasons for their predicament, Taki and Mitsuha live out random days in the other’s shoes, learning about the differing lifestyles, and that above all, fate works in mysterious ways. As Taki and Mitsuha desparately begin searching for the other, their actions begin to dramatically impact the course of destiny, forever altering the threads of fate which tie them together.

Related image

Your Name. almost feels like the culmination of all of Shinkai’s themes, plot points, and even character personalities that make a work, well, Makoto Shinkai’s. Enormous skies, photo-realistic cities, intense lighting, a calm atmospheric music score, themes based on things taken for granted in daily life, and lots of trains. THIS is what Shinkai represents to us now, and on that cinematographic level, Your Name. is perfection. (Also, like, Radwimps wrote the greatest insert songs to an anime EVER.)

A girl and a boy torn apart by an impossible distance, but brought together through circumstance and, of course, fate. At first, that distance is literal: Taki lives in Tokyo, while Mitsuha resides miles away living her humble country life. And part of that is the trick, the gimmick behind the landscape facade, for as soon as the big reveal of the comet Tiamat’s destruction is made, BOOM—time turns out to be the true separator here. Though Taki felt confident and sure of this feeling tugging at his heart, his confession was sadly three years too late.

Related image

And because of this he suffers. Mitsuha suffers. These star-crossed lovers save their beloved Itamori and all its kind, caring folk, BUT—as if their story weren’t painful enough—one last divider severs their last chance of reuniting: their memories of each other are lost to time. Is it a realistic element? Hardly, but it does lead to one of the most happily fulfilling endings I’ve ever experienced. Here’s why.

Makoto Shinkai’s latest film borders on tragedy. Up until this point, it was about to become the biggest heart-breaker in anime film history. But thankfully, Your Name. appreciates a sort of cosmic balance to all the good we do—Shinkai calls that seemingly magical, underlying, connecting force musubi, and we can thank it for honoring Mitsuha and Taki’s feelings for one another. By the film’s end, the two are left with just that—a subtle feeling of the all their shared struggles, surprises, happiness, sadness, inspiration, appreciation, love. . . now memories lost to a different time.

Related image

But when distance tried to physically separate them, Taki and Mitsuha took the trains;

When time placed a rift between them, dreams gave them clues to find each other;

When katewaredoki briefly cut their first meeting short, Mitsuha fought on to finish Taki’s mission;

When memories of one another’s name left their minds, love held on tightly to that lingering feeling—that’s why Taki wrote “I love you” on Mitsuha’s hand, for bridging the timeline gap at twilight involves giving up memories of the other. Names will fade, but emotions have the power to transcend time;

And when tragedy attempted to end their tale of romance and miracles, fate reconnected the strands of love to the cord of hope. Thus, Taki and Mitsuha became destined to meet again.

Separated by distance, connected by fate.

Related image

What Shinkai’s Works Have Taught Me

Have you ever felt that “feeling,” that despair of something that can’t be changed or is beyond your reach, but you still long for it anyway? I’d like to call it “love,” but Makoto Shinkai interprets such a complex emotion as “longing in solitude.” It is only through loneliness that we understand what compassion really feels like, after all.

Shinkai’s works tend to feature unusual yet somewhat realistic relationships, which more so play out as bittersweet than truly tear-jerking (save for maybe Your Name.) He covers a broad range of relationship stages, too, from the cutting of ties and moving on (5 Centimeters Per Second) to the early beginnings of expression (Garden of Words). Unlike most film writers and directors, he delves into themes like pain, longing, yearning, loneliness, and emptiness to give the audience stronger, almost more common emotions to connect with. His creative use of time laps emphasizes this distance or emotional disconnect that the characters and audience experience, and his hyper-realistic visuals never fail to immerse you in the setting he wants, be it on faraway roving fields of green, a quiet Tokyo apartment, or a rainy day in the park.

Related image

Most of all, through distance, Shinkai is able to explore the gap between two people’s feelings: why it exists, and how it is a natural part of the human experience. Life isn’t that glamorous fairy tale that Disney or Hollywood make it out to be. Instead, Shinkai tells us it can be messy, and often times painful to shoulder alone. It’s okay to fall both in love and out of it, as people are always changing. He also teaches that you can, in fact, grow as an adult; emotional maturity has nothing to do with one’s age, for even as adults we can get lost on our path. 

None of us are invulnerable to emotional struggle, grief, and even depression. But none of us are forever doomed to loneliness, either—such is why even his most realistic works end in both sadness and happiness. After studying all of his films, I can confirm that NO CORRELATION between the level of realism and whether the ending is positive or negative exists, as Shinkai doesn’t sugarcoat the reality we live in. He presents it for what it is, which has its fair share of good and bad times.

Related image

Ultimately, no amount of magic or sci-fi gimmicks can determine whether YOU chase after the ending you want, for you, too, are constantly growing and learning new things. The hope that we can always change for the better resides within us all—you simply have to decide who you want to be for yourself, and make that leap of faith over the scary distance to connect with another. While you’re at it, don’t forget to enjoy life’s little things we often take for granted.

In Makoto Shinkai’s picturesque, emotionally charged films, I found a rekindled passion for life’s hidden beauties, and so long as he continues to explore the growing distance between us and how finding solace in another can heal our emotional wounds, I’ll always look forward to his next creation.

I still don’t know what it really means to grow up. However, if I happen to meet you, one day in the future, by then, I want to become someone you can be proud to know. –Makoto Shinkai, 5 Centimeters Per Second

Related image


Afterwords

At a touch over 5,000 words, this is officially the longest post I’ve ever written, and if you read all of it, you’re my favorite person ever—I hope you learned something new! As you can tell, Makoto Shinkai’s works mean a good deal to me. Most find them repetitive, as in “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” But really, that’s not the case, as each offers a different commentary on relationships and life, even if the execution or premises feel very much the same. So instead of fighting against the argument, I wanted to write this—to leave behind my innermost thoughts and emotions on Shinkai’s films in hopes that whoever stumbles upon this in the future might feel the same way, and that I can comfort them with my musings.

Have you ever resonated with one of Makoto Shinkai’s films, be it his oldest shorts or his latest hits? If so, do you happen to have a favorite or two? I want to know! If you’re fairly new to this director, was Your Name. your introduction to Shinkai’s scenic style? You have to let me know that, too! I’ve met several new faces (including a dear friend) through Your Name.‘s theater experience (which you can read about here), and I hope that you, too, get the chance to share one of his films with a friend or even a lover.

Related image

This officially concludes my comparative study over the creative works of Makoto Shinkai. It’s been a long time coming, what with the writing process and reserving time to rewatch ALL of Shinkai’s films in order, and I’m finally glad I got to share it with you. Despite being terrifyingly long, it’s one of those posts I feel proud to have written. Please let me know any thoughts of the films or this post down in the comments, as I’d love to hear your feedback! Also, feel free to share this to any Shinkai fans you know out there!

As it happens to be on love and romance, I saved writing this post for February, so Happy Valentine’s Day, my dear readers! Whether you spend this season of love with others or save it for yourself, know that I’ll always be wishing you good health and happiness! Thank you so, so much for reading this lengthy analysis—’till next time!

With much love,

– Takuto, your host

The Ravishing, Elegant Imperfections of “Welcome to the Ballroom” | Blogmas 2017 Day 9

Hey everyone, welcome to (a very belated) day 9 of Blogmas (whoops)! This past summer, two sports anime aired simultaneously, and I decided to follow them to see which would wind out on top! Today I present a review of the show that finished airing about a week or so ago, the anime about a young boy’s experience as a ballroom dancer, and how the sport challenged and changed him for the better!

blogmasday9.PNG

The Summer of Sports: A Review of Welcome to the Ballroom


A spoiler-free review of the summer 2017 anime “Welcome to the Ballroom,” produced by Production I.G, directed by Yoshimi Itazu, based on the manga by Tomo Takeuchi. 

Entering the World of Dance

Tatara Fujita’s another one of those introverted third-year middle schoolers with no aim in life who very soon has to make the big high school decision. On one of his particularly average days, he is harassed by delinquents, only to suddenly be rescued by an imposing gentleman on a motor cycle. His name is Sengoku, an energetic professional dancer on the international level, and it is through some miscommunication on Sengoku’s part that Tatara ends up at his dance studio. There, he meets a girl from his school: Shizuku Hanaoka—the woman of his dreams—and it is partially because of both her charm and Tatara’s own desire to change himself that he enters the world of dance. The free-spirited Sengoku sees potential in young Tatara, and thus decides to show him the steps.

sengoku shine.PNG

Through his experience with dance, Tatara meets many people, friends and rivals alike, who will each challenge Tatara not only as an athlete, but as a young man coming of age. And it is through this same interaction with Tatara that other dancers feel encouraged to take steps to overcome their own issues and flaws. His feet will get plenty sore, and he’ll fall on the dance floor many, many times in practice, but Tatara keeps on going because of the enjoyment and wonder dancing brings into his otherwise goalless life.

Wonder

From Slouch Stance to Swing Dance

One of the most exciting times to be alive was Welcome to the Ballroom‘s beginning. Its first six or so episodes set up a pretty strong premise, not to mention a promising standard of animation quality. From Tatara understanding how to stand up straight and correct his terrible slouch to learning the waltz’s basic box pattern, I truly felt inspired to try waltzing around my room like I used to so many years ago. You just want to see more and more of the characters and the sport they all love—it’s first several episodes are addictive! But it’s hard to maintain that same adrenaline over the course of one dance competition alone. Let me elaborate.

Over the course of 24 episodes, we only bear witness to what, three, maybe four competitions. And it is from each of these arcs that we are expected to understand that Tatara’s skills accelerate at a terrifyingly quick rate. One does not instantly become a pro by attending merely a couple competitions, though; the reality is that it takes tens, if not hundreds of events like competitions that challenge one’s entire range of skills. I know Tatara wasn’t defined as a “pro” by the end of the series, as he clearly still has much to learn, but the fact that he was able to equally rival some of the series’s known-to-be-greatest dancers felt somewhat unbelievable.

Image result

And while we’re on the subject of shounen arcs, a single dance could last two or three episodes, while a competition could span as great as nine or so episodes. What’s with that pacing? Had the competitions made shorter, we could’ve made room for more of them, which might’ve balanced the characterization better. In its defense, I imagine that my issues with the slow pacing would be way less apparent watching it now in marathon format as opposed to over the course of SIX MONTHS.

Where the series fails to be a completely smooth run here and there, it definitely makes up for it by proving to be VERY entertaining. Each episode does leave you craving to know what might happen in the next round, or perhaps to see which couples end up clashing on the dance floor. My pacing dissatisfaction wasn’t from “bad episodes” or “poor directing choices,” but rather a lack of action worthy enough to fill a whole episode (especially by the end). It’s not filler, it’s just slow-moving, and I suppose I’d rather a show take its time than push forward and leave out development.

Related image

Finding Something to be Good At: Tatara & Dance

To give him credit, Tatara Fujita does practice A LOT. He’s a hard worker, and in fact, many shots in the series focus on characters walking into the studio, only to discover a tired Tatara training through the early hours of the morn. Where he struggles with verbal teachings, Tatara is incredibly gifted at duplicating dance moves he has seen. Odds are that this is the reason why he is able to fair well against many dancers, including the experienced ones.

Either way, he struggles with communicating what he wants, and as such fails to grasp the masculine hold that a couple’s lead should possess. This translates across to his external conflict: great shyness, nervousness, and a lack of self-confidence around others. He dances in secret, embarrassed by being a male dancer, and is unable to make friends as a result, nor tell his dad about his newfound hobby. Mentally, he is fighting to “man up,” accept dance as a part of himself, and discover what dancing really means to him—this is all while chasing after Sengoku’s shadow, of course. Overall, I like Tatara, as his conflicts are not only relatable, but his efforts to respect and embrace what he truly loves are praiseworthy, too! Through an unlikely sport like dance, Tatara finds that one thing he wished he could be good at, as well as a way to express his true, repressed, artistic spirit.

Image result

Finding Kinship in Competition: Hyoudou & Gaju

As mentioned, several challengers oppose Tatara over the course of the series. Though they are mainly boys a tad older than he is, there are a couple of older men who provide valuable lessons and wisdom on the sport. Sengoku is the obvious culprit, but his lack of attention to Tatara kind of makes him a dick of a coach. He does have his own professional career to worry about, I suppose. And I do see why Tatara (and heck, everybody else) idolizes the guy: for all his goofiness and trouble with verbal instructions, Sengoku knows his stuff, and he sure is one eye-catching, dynamic dancer.

Image result

Then there’s the other leads, namely dancing prodigy Kiyoharu Hyoudou and the brash, loudmouth Gaju Akagi. On their own, Hyoudou’s seemingly perfect career is suffering from a hidden injury, and the way the show handled his behavior and mannerisms was quite realistic and well-handled. It’s always a surprising dilemma to see “the star” in trouble, but it can happen to anyone, and the road to recovery can really deter one’s once-blazing determination. Every time he appeared from the shadows and opened his smart mouth to make some stupidly detailed analysis of Tatara’s mistakes, however, I did low-key want to punch him in the face.

Related image

If Hyoudou is Tatara’s foil, then Gaju would be more like your standard, overly zealous competitor, the epiphany of dominance over one’s partner. He is the glue that holds the group together, though, and in times of relaxation and relief, it’s Gaju’s presence that brings out the casts’s nice chemistry.

Image result

Finding a Partner: Chinatsu & The Struggle to Connect

At first, the other female dancers seem like standards for Tatara’s partner(s) to reach and eventually pass, but thankfully, that’s not how Ballroom works. While I’m told the manga (which I can’t wait to read) fleshes out the female characters better, as you get read their thoughts, I found myself nonetheless enjoying Hanaoka’s untouchable nature and the cute Mako Akagi’s hidden glam (seriously, the Tenpei Cup final was EPIC, and I love Mako’s yellow dress). Even the adult females like Sengoku’s partner Chizuru or Hyoudou’s mom Coach Marisa serve more purpose than just being there for Tatara—they all feel like real people with their own attitudes, weaknesses, and ambitions.

Image result

As much as I loved Mako’s adorable yet strong-willed spirit, my favorite female character was one introduced in the show’s second half: Chinatsu, Tatara’s fiery future partner. Characterized as the polar opposite of Tatara—fierce, strong, bold, and most of all, a true leader—Chinatsu poses a lot of problems for Tatara (and frustration for the viewers, too). She’s essentially everything that he’s not, and her unwillingness to accept her own issues and work through them calmly (and fairly) with Tatara sets up a rocky, explosive relationship just waiting to burst. How Chinatsu’s existence changes EVERYTHING reminds me so much of Shinji and Asuka’s relationship from Evangelion, and it’s probably the reason why I like their dynamic so much.

Simply put, she’s everything that makes him uncomfortable, and he’s everything that challenges her very being. 

Image result

The anime’s ending tries to cap off their relationship with a sudden “everything’s gonna be ok,” but we all know that more fights and fits are bound for this couple in the future. Their animosity was just handled so well, so powerfully, and it arguably made the long second half bearable for me. The struggle to connect and find a partner is a very intimate, vital thing, and I’m glad it wasn’t underplayed.

Related image

(To avoid spoilers, obligatory shoutout to Kugimiya and his partner Idogawa, as it was their character development that made the final competition so impactful!)

A Dancing Anime Without the “Dance”

Ballroom blossoms beautifully when it’s moving. Seriously, it’s freakin’ wonderful. But fluid scenes on the dance floor are sadly few and far between, which is odd considering that a powerhouse like Production I.G is behind the helm. This was most viewers’ biggest beef with the anime adaptation, as the manga’s pages are rife with striking, expressive motion (which seems odd for paper, but just open up a volume whenever you get the chance). Way too often than what should be allowed for a sports anime, we are treated to still frame, after still frame, after still frame, which are guided by someone annoying (like Hyoudou) verbally leading us through what should have been a thrilling, visual feast! Don’t get me wrong—Every. Single. Frame. Of this anime is drop-dead gorgeous. Like, those dresses, holy shit, wow! But man, I was sighing throughout so many of the dance scenes because I just wanted to see SOMETHING move. It could literally be a ribbon or a dress sequin—JUST MOVE IT. I really hope some animation is added to the Blu-ray releases.

Related image

(As for the giraffe necks, I didn’t mind too much. They’re glaring at first, but after a few episodes you don’t even notice how wrong it is.)

Music, the Soul of Dance

Thankfully, Ballroom manages to stay somewhat engaging during these motionless shots because of its delightful soundtrack. Perhaps this is because of musician Yuuki Hayashi’s own experience as a rhythmic gymnast; the man already knows how to match tempo and tune with fancy footwork. Hayashi is a rising favorite of mine, as he knows how to perfectly time moments that should be epic with music that is absolutely epic. From moving ensembles like “Ballroom, Shakou Dance” to THE MOST UPLIFTING BEAT OF THE CENTURY, “Ganbaritai Kimochi,” how you can’t NOT feel the emotional weight? And don’t even get me started on the dance music—waltz, salsa, jazz, swing, samba, cha-cha, Charleston, Merengue—so many styles, and so much respect for each time period’s jams!!

Hayashi’s able to take a simple melody and turn it into a gorgeous, heartwarming waltz, or even a snappy, saucy tango. I was just so happy to see my favorite time signature, the waltz’s 3/4, be revived in modern anime akin to Ouran High School Host Club‘s brilliance. It’s a shame that his dance-themed tracks would be frequently swapped out for the main OST mid-dance, unlike the continuous play like in Yuri!!! On ICE, but I suppose that makes anticipating each lovely track all the more exciting. There’s a raw love for classical strings, piano, and a bit of drums for movement in Hayashi’s internationally-infused music, and that’s why I’ll always look forward to his perfect, inspiring scores.

“Tatara’s Waltz,” “Hyoudou Tango,” “Blooming On Our Way,” “Tango City,” “Viennese Waltz,” “It’s like a symphony,” “Quick Step B,” “La Cumparsita, “Las Patineurs,” “Sing, Sing, Sing . . .” HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE THIS VARIETY???

I’ve already talked way to much about the music in this anime, but on top of featuring a well-rounded soundtrack, Ballroom has TWO amazingly energetic openings that create so much HYPE! Both by UNISON SQUARE GARDEN (which I will now keep an eye out for), “10% roll, 10% romance” and “Invisible Sensation,” my favorite of the two, have made my “Current Faves” playlist. And I couldn’t forget about the first ED theme, “Maybe the next waltz” by Mikako Komatsu, which was sung, yes, AS A SWEET WALTZ. I JUST LOVE THIS ANIME’S STYLE SO MUCH!!

Dismantling the Stereotypes: The Beauty of Evolution

As a final note, Ballroom makes quick work of eliminating any frivolous or “girly” things you previously thought about ballroom dance. Its appropriate depiction as an equally sweaty, vigorous sport is eye-opening, and you can feel that all the people behind the project had a great respect for the sport. The anime is aware of this, and repeatedly nails in the idea that ballroom dance IS, indeed, very difficult. From the pain-staking accuracy of the sound that certain shoes make, to the flow and friction of suits and dresses, incredible attention was put into the sound effects to fully immerse you in the bustling dance floor atmosphere. Lastly, both the anime’s culturally diverse soundtrack and fashion sense pay ode to dance’s professional realities, culminating into an accurate depiction of dance’s heaviest hardships and most joyous pleasures alike.

Image result

When it wants to be, the show is also very funny, using quick-witted humor and hilarious facial reactions to lighten an unnecessarily tense mood—something that we routinely find ourselves in.

Welcome to the Ballroom clearly has many strengths, but also several weaknesses. It boasts the allure of dancing, yet frequently fails put the concept into motion. It showcases how thrilling the sport can be, yet often drags out the effect nearly to the point of boredom. But above its faults, Ballroom promotes the beauty of evolution, the purity of youth, and the countless many possibilities that come with change and transformation. It’s a dramatic story of motivation, inspiration, and progress, both for its characters and the future of the sport itself. And by its end, I couldn’t help but applaud the valiant effort made to enlighten me on the world of dance and all its ravishing, graceful, and truly elegant imperfections. It’s that rare kind of show that doesn’t come around often—and one that should not be missed.

Dance’s physical and emotional expressions seem close, but they aren’t easily tied together. It can’t be considered a real expression unless you can reflect the outside knowledge and experiences you’ve gained. That’s why with an emotional dance, you can see through the dancer’s entire life. Joy and sorrow. Love and hate. A dance with a variety of emotions adds depth. Don’t you think that becomes meaningful enough to dedicate the time in your life to dance? – Coach Marisa Hyoudou

Image result


Production and pacing problems aside, Welcome to the Ballroom‘s biggest issue right now is the lack of a licensing, as Anime Strike doesn’t count for CRAP! Seriously, someone please get a hold of the polished Japanese Blu-rays, dub it if you want, and I’ll buy three. This was such a long review, my goodness, but I wanted to make sure that I covered EVERYTHING about it! If you managed to make it from beginning to end, give yourself a pat on the back, and let me know in the comments what you thought of Welcome to the Ballroom in the comments! It’s a sweet, delicious “Cake” here at the cafe!

This concludes Blogmas Day Nine of the 12 Days of Anime, as well as part 2 of “The Summer of Sports!” If you couldn’t already tell, Ballroom definitely won the match, but I do love them both! Thanks for reading, and I’ll catch you shortly with another belated post!

– Takuto, your host

Image result

Ghost in the Shell (2017) Dives Deep Enough to Prove Itself a Fascinating, Engaging Ride | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 2017 live action film “Ghost in the Shell,” produced by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks, directed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”), based on the original manga by Masamune Shirow, as well as loose ideas from the entire franchise, especially the original 1995 film of the same name.


The First of Her Kind

In a future not too far from our own, people have grown to love technology. You can bet that anyone you run into on these cold streets will sport some sort of cybernetic enhancement modded to their body: prosthetic limbs, wired inner organs, or the trending metal-encased cyberbrain. These advanced augmentations were coded to grant humans more convenient lives: quicker, safer, and less cumbersome living.

After a horrifying terrorist attack, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) transcends into the first of her kind: the stunning results of the first-ever brain transplant into a fully synthetic body. Now a cyborg soldier programmed to eliminate cyber crime, super hackers, and back-alley schemes, the Major is automatically drafted to hunt down the ultimate next-gen terrorist—one who is able to hack into people’s minds and puppet them.

Image result

Suffering from a faintly growing illness of glitching memory fragments, however, the deeper the Major dives into this case, the more intense her glitches become. As the possibility emerges that her new greatest enemy might in fact belong to her blurry past, the Major arms herself for a treacherous night journey. Nothing will stand in the way of satisfying her human curiosity, as well as the inevitable reawakening of her soul to a life that was stolen from her.

A New Story

While I’ll admit that we’re looking at the film’s weakest part—the plot—first, it’s impossible to deny that this live action reigns as one of sci-fi’s more interesting films in recent times, and holds the gold for the best live action iteration of an anime produced thus far, granted that I’ve only seen segments from most of them. What we’re looking at here with GitS (2017) is a fairly well-structured story of self-discovery followed by revenge, a typical Hollywood formula that feels relatively topical compared to the franchise’s classic 1995 film, which explored the deep values of being human, artificial sentience, and of course, the vastness of the Net.

Image result

This apparent shallowness works out because of what the film is aiming at, though; in 1995 we dove into present identity and the other weighted themes previously listed—the Major as she is existing, if you will—but in 2017, we’re instead considering how the Major would feel about her past (2nd GIG did this), and what her creation ultimately means for the future of humanity, about feeling disconnected because she lacks the background that everyone else has laid out for them. Dig too deep into the original content and you risk deviating from the main intent: a new story.

Related image

How This Live Action Holds on its Own

We take a undoubtedly cliche ride with the Major as she discovers how she came to be, and it all clicks together wonderfully and feels unique because of how huge the title is, what it means to others, and the sheer number of comparisons that can be drawn between this seemingly shallow film and its deep, thought-provoking origination. Everybody’s experience with it will be different, and that notion makes it not only thrilling to watch, but exciting to talk about.

So the film DOES in fact deliver a fresh outlook on an already well-refined series, standing out from its manga, anime, and even video game counterparts by re-imagining the Major’s previous identity, something that purposefully remained ambiguous throughout the franchise. It was a bold, completely unnecessary “prequel” adventure, but now that it’s over, I can’t help but welcome it openly with an applause. GitS is all about varying interpretations, proven true by Motoko’s complexity in 1995 and the franchise itself, which has had several makeovers. The idea of re-envisioning shouldn’t feel new, but everything from its tone, emotional pull, presentation, and core writing should. Speaking of new faces, how does ScarJo hold up as the Major?

Image result

Casting the Characters

Several races and colors collide in the astonishing multicultural world that the franchise is known for. I had no qualms with the casting before I entered the theater, and that hasn’t changed. Johansson is a white female actress playing a traditionally Asian character, but that’s in fact where most of the misunderstandings arise—Motoko Kusanagi embodies no one race, no one color, no one gender, and she probably never will. This was stated by 1995‘s director Mamoru Oshii, and for people to be throwing up their pitchforks in revolt of the supposed “whitewashing” is actually kind of pitiful. The context of the show allows for virtually ANYONE to play the Major, and given Johansson’s overly qualified resume for sci-fi action films, I’d hope people would rescind their bombastic comments.

Image result

TL;DR I thought Johansson was not only appropriate for the role, but her performance was great considering that Rupert was aiming for the more hot-headed, brash, young Major of the Arise series. I prefer this Major to the 1995 one because she arguably feels more relatable.

Image result

But just like she is in her many iterations, the Major is nothing without her Section 9 team, consisting of Chin Han as the very-human Togusa [insert comment about race being appropriate here], Takeshi Kitano as rough and intelligent Chief Aramaki (who actually speaks Japanese since English is hard for him LOL), Pilou Asbæk as the big ol’ softie Batou, and a “surprise” favorite actress of mine: Juliette Binoche as the compassionate Dr. Ouelet. To quote Guy Lodge (Variety), “A warm, wistful Binoche, brings more pathos to the role than the script strictly demands.” She makes my heart weak.

There’s a real chemistry to be felt between Dr. Ouelet and the Major, as well as between Major and Batou, and that’s something that they nailed to a tee.

Image result for ghost in the shell 2017 juliette binoche

“We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us.” – Dr. Ouelet

The World of the Future

Where its story stumbles a bit, GitS (2017) leaves your jaw dropped with its incredibly “exciting and elaborately designed future settings,” plunging you into a visually entrancing world where cyberpunk is clearly the hottest thing. My GOD, this show is everything when it comes to its unique visual style! They use a clever lighting system that projects the color palette of the original 1995 onto the vast metropolis, giving off a vibe that’s so cold and distant, yet very interconnected with the world at the same time. CG solograms (solid holograms) layered over a typical Hong Kong-like setting give the atmosphere a very futuristic edge to it that I simply crave. You can tell that a lot of love and respect was put into the film.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My favorite part of this film were the iconic shots of 1995 and Innocence that were recreated and woven into the story: the shelling sequence, building jump, deep dive, water fight, geisha attack, tank battle, and more. It’s all there, and yes, the scenes do not feel “thrown in” just for the allusions, but well-placed for the story’s flow. It’s a visual style to be praised, and its action sequences and use of practical effects (not just CG, but actual, physical props like the geisha masks, thermoptic suit, prosthetic and cybernetic enhancements, and other costumes) give us artsy people something really freakin’ cool to grasp onto. The hard work that went into replicating the world of Ghost in the Shell, largely from that of the film-loving folks of New Zealand’s Weta Workshop for prop creation and setting design, was very much appreciated.

 

The Greatest Injustice

Here it is, my biggest beef with the show and it’s NOT EVEN about the film itself. It’s about how it’s being dished out, or rather, that some of it is not. Paramount and Dreamworks refuse to offer Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe’s mind-blowing sci-fi soundtrack for sale. I understand that the movie’s box office reception was somewhat poor, but for crying out loud AT LEAST FINISH what you started. It’s a shame that a work of art, even if it’s controversial, cannot be appreciated in full just because it might not sell. These are million, probably billion, dollar corporations—it’s NOT too much to ask for by any means. There’s currently a petition going around for the soundtrack’s release (which I have signed), so hopefully we’ll see some change this way. If you value this show and artistic justice, please consider signing here!

If you stuck around for the credits, you’d have heard a remixed version of Kenji Kawai’s memorable main theme of the original film, a remix which I honestly prefer, as the drums in the second half give it a really epic feel! Again, love the throwback! All of the music adds to the gritty sci-fi tone.

Not the Last of Its Kind

It’s not very often that a sci-fi film will shift from a typical revenge mission to a cross-examination of cultures, intertwined human connections, and the irrefutable weight of family warmth. That in itself makes Ghost in the Shell (2017), despite its somewhat cliche story line, an incredibly unique experience. I’ve got nitpicks, but I’m more so thankful that I enjoyed the film beyond those glaring issues. It’s plenty entertaining, and if you look deep enough (or watch it three times like I did), you’ll surprisingly find deep, thought-provoking layers in the subtle actions of the actors.

Related image

However much you enjoyed the show, there are bound to be more live action adaptions like it in the future—for me, that’s a hopeful thing, something nice to look forward to. This may not be relevant (not to spoil the ending here), but as a half-white, half-Asian lover of science fiction and the entire Ghost in the Shell franchise, I hustled into the theater prepared with an engaged mind, and left with an unexpectedly touched heart. It’s a show about doing what you feel is right—following your ghost—even if that challenges the world you live in and the people that once trusted you.

Because sometimes, like here, you make the right decision. 

“I mean, the character is living a really unique experience. She is a human brain inside an entirely machinate body. She is very brave to take a risk and give up everything she knows, everything that’s ever made her comfortable to discover the truth, to follow this calling. And at the end of the film really makes a huge sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. That, to me, was what was the major draw.” – Scarlett Johansson on the Major’s character

Final Assessment:

+ It’s A LOT better than I thought it would be for an anime live action; it only gets better the more I sit and think about it

+ Homages to the original material and the rest of the franchise are worked in fantastically

+ Visuals easily rival those of high-dollar action films; cool and damp futuristic atmosphere is established with excellent lighting; stylish designs and neat aesthetic all around; a very immersive world

+ Props, costumes, etc. layered beautifully with limited special effects for maximum potential; practical, physical props engineered perfectly

Ghost in the Shell is all about varying interpretations and new ideas, to which this is no exception; multicultural and multiracial world embraced

+ A fine movie if you ignore all the pointlessly controversial backlash nonsense, and this is coming from a hardcore fan of the original

– Story remains weakest part; revolves around somewhat predictable plot twists; boring antagonist; fails to explore Kuze’s Net and the world that could potentially await

– Major’s “strandy” hair can be a bit bothersome at times

– No official soundtrack release as of yet


Ghost in the Shell (2017) may not be an anime, but I’ll still welcome it here at the cafe as a “Cake,” a film that’s shy of master status but certainly worth watching for GitS or plain-old sci-fi fans in general! Despite it being an unfairly received film, I had the time of my life witnessing my Ghost in the Shell journey come to an end. It’d been a long time since I was that happy to see a film in theaters, and I’ll be coming out with a second post chronicling my loose thoughts on its reception, controversy, and the theater experience, so stay tuned for that!

I’m happy and proud to call this one of my favorite sci-fi live action movies of all time! PLEASE, let me know your thoughts on the film! Also, had you been familiar with parts of the franchise prior to, or did you dive in blind? I may be a bit of an optimist, but I enjoy hearing all sides. If you enjoyed the review, let me know with a “like” or a comment! Until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

ghost header

For the Team – Free! & My Swim Story | OWLS “Team”

Chances are that if you were linked here from another blogger pal, then you might be new. To those first-timers, “Hi, I’m Takuto, welcome to my anime cafe!” As part of the OWLS blog tour’s  sixth monthly topic, “Team,” I decided to incorporate what would have been a “Cafe Talk” about my high school swimming experience, along with my thoughts on the anime Free! into one big post over sticking with a team to the end.

While the prompt was more intended as dedication to “Pride Month” and all of those who support the LGBT & Queer communities both in real life and in anime, the generosity and flexibility, as well as the promoted creativity that OWLS is known for, allows me to bend this topic back to its home nature: companionship found in teamwork. Thanks Lyn for the prompt!

haru


A brief discussion on the 12-episode summer 2013 anime “Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club,” and its 13-episode summer 2014 sequel “Free! – Eternal Summer,” both produced by Kyoto Animation, directed by Hiroko Utsumi, based on the original story by Kouji Ooji.

“After High School, You’re Ordinary”

This was what Haruka Nanase was told long ago and, nearing the end of his own high school experience, Haru is still unsure of what to make of his future. Swimming as early as elementary school and winning races and a tournament with his childhood relay mates—all boys with very much girlish names—Makoto, Nagisa, and Rin, Haru has always loved the water. When they all went their separate ways for middle school, Haru dropped swimming entirely. Now he’s about to enter the real world, all dried up for a life of normalcy.

Image result

That is—until the boys reunite in high school. Only desiring to race Haru after all these years, however, Rin could care less about the old team being together—he only wants to find out that HE is indeed the better, faster, stronger swimmer.

Without Rin, the three boys form a new Iwatobi High School Swim Team, and it turns out that their first challenge is not training and practicing hard, but actually recruiting a fourth member so that their relay can face off against Rin’s team later in the season! Eventually, these boys, bound by friendship, the spirit of competition, and the love of the sport, will discover what swimming in a relay means to each of them!

Image result for free iwatobi swim club haru and rin race

And Just Like That, We’re Off the Blocks! 

Free!, like a well-trained athlete, balances episodes of training and technique with bits of fun, slice-of-life ventures and some emotional turmoil inbound. By using races and competitions as peaks of interest (and a way to execute the boys’ hard work), everything flows smoothly and as such makes time fly by. By the end of the two seasons, all relationships and story developments feel comfortably resolved—and that’s all I can ask of most adapted works these days!

Image result for free eternal summer ending

If it’s not apparent to you yet, the boys of Free! are very beloved by its fans in the community, and for good reasons, too. They all have such great . . . chemistry, and truly, they’re more than just friends—they’re family, the kind that look out for each other before themselves, as well as value each others’ strengths and weaknesses alike. Each so unique and diverse, they all have their own personal demons, but rather than facing them alone, they fight each battle as a team, causing their bonds to develop even further. I’d dare say that Free!’s characters form one of the most heartwarming squads out there; if not the best, they’re at least favorites of mine!

Name a Better-Looking Sports Anime. I Dare You.

Looking back, Free! was the first Kyoto Animation show to leave its signature mark on my viewing experience, and boy is it delicious. Not the muscles, well, maybe the muscles. I’m talking about the water—to quote Haru, it’s as if it’s ~alive~. Their attention to how water actually flows in real life is incredible. You could almost call it “liquid smooth.” KyoAni has a splendid color palette, which is bright, airy, and cheerful, not to mention that their eye for the cool, modern aesthetic is top-notch. Color and tone values help to distinguish between scenes of comedy and rivalry. I almost feel as if I’m cleansed when I watch this show, if that makes any sense at all.

swim.gif

swim2

Image result for free iwatobi swim club swimming gif

But the boys, oh yes, they are youthful, breathtaking creatures with beautiful physiques. I said it. No regrets.

The seaside OST also provides a flowing atmosphere from scene to scene, specifically those “go out and do something wonderful” tracks like “Rhythm of Port Town” and “Revelry of Student.” What the show’s probably known for music-wise is its energetic openings “Rage On” and “Dried Up Youthful Fame” by the wild OLDCODEX. And then there’s that ending “SPLASH FREE” by STYLE FIVE, a group composed of the five lead seiyuus (loudly sings 50% OFF ver).

For the Team: My High School Swim Club Story

My 8th grade summer ushered in a whole new set of problems: high school was right around the corner, and I was a) waaaay out of shape and b) wanted to fit in. So I was just like anyone else, right?

That’s when I told myself to do a sport—my first one ever—that no matter what happened or how bad I looked, I’d do it just for the sake of doing it. I was considering track for pole-vaulting since a close guy friend of mine did it. Then I looked at tennis.

Tennis couldn’t be that bad, right?

Then summer got real hot. Like, sure, it was 90+ degrees each day, but, early on during my anime experience when I was unfamiliar with simulcasts, I ran into a 30 sec trailer for something hot.

Really hot.

It was other peoples’ phrasing, not mine!

But there was NO WAY I’d “wear a speedo.” Heck, I didn’t even know if my high school had a boys swim team. So I rummaged the yearbooks and did a little online looking and sure enough, there it was.

As the summer drummed on, Free! kept calling me back to YouTube each week where someone would upload the episodes. Not the best streaming service, but I didn’t mind. Anyway, the way their club started off so small and so closely knit, and then the fact that they were STUNNING to look at—I had to do swimming, I just had to.

Season one ended leaving me in high spirits and hopeful that whatever came that coming winter (cause that’s when swim season was here), I’d be more than ready.

Flash forward, the school announcements read off an early interest meeting for the sport. I was overly nervous, of course, but I showed up, and just like a lost freshman EVERYONE knew each other already. Like 20 guys that all were buds with each other. I was already lost, and ready to give up.

Then the first practice came, oh god, the first practice. I received swimming lessons from a countryside town growing up, and so I thought I was a champ at it. But in fact I sucked. Really bad, hahaha!

The next practice came and five or so of the team didn’t show up.

They quit. Each with their own excuses.

What.

There were so few members on the team that we were all considered “varsity” swimmers, so at least that was neat. Little ol’ me was varsity as a freshman!

I somehow finished that year improving times meet after meet with the other first years. But my eyes never stopped wandering off to our lane four relay. Coincidentally, or perhaps by fate, there were four of them: one for each of the strokes, one for each of the boys in Free!

Image result

I wanted to be like them. So I worked my ass off at morning practices and afternoon practices day after day after day.

I was even awarded the “Most-Improved” on the team! Still got the medal displayed in my room.

Then they all graduated. Except for one, since he was a junior, but yeah, they all had left me. They left the team, leaderless.

My sophomore and junior years ushered in new issues. New coaches, new members joining then quickly dropping for all the same things, but the core members of the team never left, and now they’re some of my greatest “upperclassmen” friends. Facing the facts, the others just couldn’t take the heat of practice.

But I could, and I did.

Related image

Senior year came. Three other seniors joined me, but then those same three quit the very next day. By the end we were eight strong, but became eight of the closest guys you could ever imagine. We were all swimming Free!.

But there was this one freshman in particular. He was good. Very good. Like crazy good enough to make State qualification times in our first meet.

*gulp*

Then there was me, who had actually peaked his junior year and suffered all season with a young hot-headed coach who didn’t even know what “mercy” meant.

I suddenly felt unqualified. Alone, if you will. Days grew longer, my body grew more tired, and yet my times never improved.

I even remember crying myself to sleep one night, swearing to myself that I’d quit at practice the next day. “Who even needed to say they swam for four years during high school?? It’s not like I’d remember any of it a decade later!!”

Image result

But then I thought about me—myself, that scared little guy who, during his freshman year, witnessed several of his upperclassmen leave the lanes for good. If it weren’t for those four boys, our A-Team relay, I probably would have—

I WOULD HAVE QUIT A LONG TIME AGO.

That’s when it hit me: I wasn’t staying there for me anymore. Heck, I didn’t need swimming, or an in-shape body anymore—it’s senior year.

But what kind of message would that have sent to them, their families, this community, that a team of only freshmen and sophomores were left senior-less after they all quit??

Nope. I was there for them. For the team that never left me when I was a first year.

For the team. 

So I whipped myself back into shape, my psyche ready for any challenges that came my way, because I wasn’t swimming for my own times anymore—it was for the relay, for the team!

Related image

This past spring, we finished seven strong with one of our guys leaving us due to his parents moving away. But we never forgot him, and we never forgot about us.

And it was that fleeting member who got us to compete at State. Relay times are generally left permanently for the team, which is why, when he left, we met consideration time. It was just a few aching days after that we found out that our qualifying time got us in.

We stayed overnight in a fancy hotel, exploring the town together with our coaches, shopping, laughing, making those kinds of memories.

The kinds you’ll never forget.

And then we swam at state. That one really good freshman OF COURSE placed in the top ten. Our relay . . .

We didn’t make it to the second day, hahaha! But we were lucky enough to even be there in the first place, right?

When our splits (individual times) were captured by our coaches and the timing mats, my own time came in:

I swam a 24-some-second 50-yard freestyle in our relay. That is, to date, the fastest I had ever swam, and I nearly cried. We were all yelling and screaming and cheering so loud that we nearly lost our voices, but we didn’t care at that point, cause we all for the most part had swam our best when it mattered most, and ya know,

That means the world to a Team Captain.

Image result

Like Free! tries to tell us, you can be the best swimmer or the worst swimmer, but if you don’t work together as a team, you’ll never win what truly matters: friendship, companionship, brotherhood—they’re all synonymous at this point.

We go about our lives thinking and acting like we have to carry our own weight, and to an extent, that’s true. But like a relay, everything we do is ultimately for the team, for some group, tangible or not, that is bonded together through incredible triumphs, pitfalls, or just good memories.

And if you find yourself losing passion with something, or are stuck with a team that frankly isn’t filled with the most wonderful of people, then BE that wonderful person for the team. Do what I did and work your butt off, sweat your tears away, and devote everything you’ve got just to say that YOU never left them when it mattered most.

Cause ultimately, you, too, are part of a team, their team, and you should do things just like that:

Image result


 This was a very long post (laughs) and I apologize, but there’s a lot to be said about Takuto here. A lot indeed. And if you read it all, from beginning until now, I can’t honestly thank you enough! Free! may be male fanservice to everyone’s eye, but to me, it’s a beautiful and inspirational coming-of-age story filled with compassion and teamwork that inspired me to take on a seemingly impossible journey—impossible alone, that is. It’s about growing up and finding out who you really want to be, about dedication, self-motivation, and life after graduation. Through Free! I made friends and fell in love with a sport. But more than that I made memories to last a lifetime, and those are irreplaceable.

As such, both seasons of Free! are awarded solid “Caffe Mochas” ratings, and should be watched on Crunchyroll or Funimation’s sites for FREE (hah) at one’s earliest convenience. That is, only if you’re craving something really hot.

Image result

This concludes my June 5th (now 6th, apologies) entry in the OWLS “Team” blog tour. Being the first one to kick off a tour of this magnitude is quite a heavy weight, but hopefully I did a decent job, and now we can carry that together, right? Please tune in to Remy Fool (The Lily Garden) as he discusses the poor perception of male crossdressers in Japanese media this Monday, June 12th.

To all the guys I swam with throughout my four years, from the team that inspired me to the one that I, myself, hopefully inspired, thank you for all of the laughs and the memories—this one’s for you. Stay silly my guys. 

And to you, my favorite readers, an even greater thanks! Until next time, this has been

– Takuto, once a team captain, now just another blogger

Rei

 

Shiki: The Frightening Science of Vampires | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 22-episode summer 2010 anime “Shiki,” produced by Daume, based on the novel by Fuyumi Ono.

How would you feel about being given a second chance at life? Was there work you left behind unfinished that just needed a few more final touches? What about reuniting with a loved one from your past life? An opportunity like this rivals that of winning the lottery–a dream fulfilled, is it not?

Now, what if you were forced to return to this wretched earth, strained out of the dead to continue maintaining your fragile body at the expense of friends and family? You’d be a burdensome leech, a selfish and disgusting virus which feeds off of the innocent and the ignorant alike just to preserve your own rotting corpse. If you could kill people without consequence, would it be easier to do? Would you feel more inclined to repeat your actions?

Shiki presents us with both scenarios of life for the undead, but its grim tone and somber character stories have us believing that life after death is truly and rightfully morbid.

Image result for shiki screenshots

Welcome to Sotoba – Population: Fear, Hysteria, and Death

This tale of madness descending is set in a remote rural village isolated from “modern” society. (We’re talking a town with traditional wooden Japanese houses and only one clinic to visit in case of emergency.) From the get-go, we already know that what will happen in the village will stay in the village. At first the atmosphere is cheery, starting us off through the eyes of hot n’ dangerous teen Megumi, a girl who feels like an outcast among the villagers because of her fashionable and trendy fantasies of city life (quite relatable, might I add). She lusts after a transfer student by the name of Natsuno who would be, as anyone could guess, charming yet mysterious “boyfriend material.”

Image result for shiki screenshots

But much of her young life changes when an enormous castle-sized mansion is built almost overnight–the extravagant yet seemingly-elusive Kirishiki family has moved into that vacant lot high in the mountains. They are reserved and elegant divas of the night, but what terror, if any, lies beyond their walled stronghold on the hill?

Image result for shiki kirishiki

And exactly like clockwork, strange disease and paranoia begin seeping through the cracks of these closed-off country minds. Villagers grow pale and unresponsive, only to pass away within days of their diagnosis! All of this perplexes our [arguably the] main character, the good doctor Toshio, and his battle against these unseen and mystical forces quickly causes his ironclad rationale to teeter on the edge of self-destruction.

Themes! Themes for all!

The story is loaded with conflicts of the individual vs. culture and society that would make any philosopher or English teacher quiver in delight. If you continue to dissect its characters apart, you’ll notice a healthy amount of psychoanalysis to be done. There’s also the very nature of these vampiric beasts that’ll surely give you goosebumps if you’re just in it for the action. All things considered, Shiki’s premise is well-crafted and cleverly presented through its many different viewpoints. The anime tries to handle the scenario through every set of eyes possible, and actually does a fair job at it.

Image result

Watching Occupation Shaping Perception

If this show is trying to preach one lesson to its viewers, it’s that OCCUPATION SHAPES PERCEPTION. First we have Toshio the Rational who wields science and logic as his guiding torch. His hands-on experience and repeated failure with his patients shape his view on how the village should act. Given this firsthand account of horror, the trauma is enough to eventually shake his mental stability. “Empty your hearts. In order to kill these demons we have to become demons.”

Image result for shiki toshio

Then there’s Muroi the Romantic writer and priest who believes through feelings that these demons are just like us. Even now, they only have special requirements to live. His benevolent approach leaves him without any clue as to how to fight a back, however, for his inexperience and urge to document the case rather than seek justice cause him to remain sane but forever alone.

Image result for shiki seishin

And finally we have Natsuno and Megumi, both Angsty Lovers who embody mixes of the doc and the junior monk. They remain rational and understanding of all that takes place, but their struggle against striving for the lives they desire to live under supernatural circumstances leads them to consequence. All of the villagers, save for these four, are static characters designed to move the plot forward and advance growth in our leads.

Image result for shiki screenshots

A Damn Good English Dub

A fair point is that I fell in love with the English dub voices before I did the characters, so props to FUNimation for that win–especially to Tia Ballard as Megumi, holy crap! Also, while there are a dozen characters that I loved (and a dozen that I hated), my heart goes out to nurse Yasuyo (yay for more Wendy Powell!), the busty, compassionate sweetheart clad in fishnet-leggings. What a frickin’ saint she is!

Image result for shiki yasuyo

Image result for shiki yasuyo

Relying on Story Horror Rather than Visual Horror

Onto the animation side, studio Daume actually did a very decent job. Several excellent cinematic shots and moldy/bold color choices were used to convey the eerie atmosphere. But I did have a few problems. As much as I took great pleasure in the Shiki black ombre eyes, too many different kinds of eye styles made me really dislike the ugly, small-pupil look that was overused on “insane” characters. Also, what’s up with that hair shaping? Natsuno’s nasty cut reminded me of the salad leaves I was munching on! (Yes, I did tweet about this).

I’m sure you’ve heard Shiki’s main theme “Shi-Ki” in one of your “emotional anime music 2 hours” compilation videos. But don’t just stop there! Check out the melodramatic tracks I left below which utilize a haunting choir, chimes, bass drums, a soothing macabre orchestra to create the illusion of nightmares stalking the shadows. They are a bit overused, but hey, you get so consumed by the atmosphere that repetition doesn’t matter. Composer Yasuharu Takanashi (Log Horizon, Oda Nobuna, Fairy Tale, Sailor Moon Crystal) remains one of my favorites, for he always does such phenomenal job in mashing together atmosphere and action.

“Day and Night”

“Eau de Vie”

“Pendulum”

Also, the second opening, “Calendula Requiem” by kanon x kanon totally rocked the house. Just look at those visuals–and the song, ooh the song!

Why is it Popular? Fresh Spin on a Legendary Concept

Shiki is praised for its ability to tell the same story through every character viewpoint possible; you get attached to individuals from both sides, which is quite a wonderful thing given the premise. It’s a nice rational approach to an ancient, typically fantasy or magical subject–The Science of Vampires, if you will. It presents us with a very well-thought-out tale of morality vs. rationality, never taking the easy way out to show its claims.

Image result

In a world where monsters and humans alike are pitted against each other, fear, especially of abandonment, consumes all who let it. Common people who are unwilling to let go of pre-existing notions are the ones that get left behind. It sounds harsh, but in this brutal and vicious cycle everyone except the sane ultimately lose. What draws the line between superstition and simply being afraid is how disturbingly far people will go to preserve their own “sanity.” It’s only after the smoke clears, however, that humans realize the error in their ways, and that any God has long since abandoned them . . . or at least some believe.

Image result for shiki church

Final Thoughts

Anyone can die at any time; no one is safe/excluded from the elements listed above, which is also why I really enjoyed Shiki. Fear of uncertainty through the supernatural catches us off guard, in that fear CAN and WILL strike at any time. The use of gory sound effects and beautifully ghastly music help to establish that fearful tone. Shiki may not have visually scared me, but its raw content sure was creepy, gruesome, and more interesting than any Hollywood horror film.

“This is what a world ruled by order looks like. Those who accept order can live together peacefully, protected from the unknown safe in their belief that all is as it should be. But when something happens to threaten this orderly existence, they will fight to the very death. By eliminating the threat, they hope to preserve the fabric of their lives–the order that holds their entire world together. And so they realize what a fragile world it is.” – Seishin Muroi

Final Assessment

+ Frequent tonal shifts, led by the many viewpoints, leave strong and vastly different impressions from beginning to end

+ Death can strike anyone, anytime

+ True fear and creepiness created by the supernatural STORY ITSELF, not necessarily the visuals (never takes the easy way out)

+ Wonderfully presented themes of morality between individuals, culture, and society, and how people are only as safe as their surroundings make them feel

+ Nailed the village horror atmosphere with frightful perfection; intricately woven web of characters and interactions between them and setting

– Eye and hair designs on some characters just looked dumb

– Fantastic and complementing soundtrack, but some tracks are a bit overused

Image result

What a Halloween break well-spent, no? Well, if anything could be said, it’s that those Japanese need real doors, not the paper-thin stuff you can hear through the walls, yikes! What did you think of this anime? It’s another “Caffe Mocha” over here! Were you completely freaked out or more invested in its thought-provoking messages? Let me know in the comments so we can talk about this beloved title! I’m so happy I got to finally watch this very peculiar classic. Until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

Extravagant Divas of the Night, the Kirishikis