Demon Lord Dante

It’s been a while since I commented on an animé so here goes. I just watched Demon Lord Dante (魔王ダンテ). Overall, this one rates below middling for fairly poor production values and a somewhat predictable story. However, don’t make your decision to watch it or not based on that simple rating.

It starts off typically slow with fairly low quality animation including enough panning stills to be noticeable but not so many that it makes the show unwatchable. My experience was further complicated by pixelation arising from the video on demand service I was watching but this was relatively minor, only causing momentary distractions during action scenes.

The first two episodes noodle around setting the stage for the action. The third episode takes a semi-unexpected twist. Then, the plot sort of noodles along for a few episodes introducing characters, dumping the protagonist into random situations, and generally following the formula for a reluctant superhero story. To this point, it’s okay as far as the story goes. I was reminded somewhat of Death Note, half expecting the main character to turn out to be the villain. I was also reminded somewhat of Paranoia Agent, expecting an indecipherable plot twist at the midpoint.

It turns out the midpoint plot twist was a little from column A and a little from column B. The protagonist does not turn out to be the villain – God does. Yes, that’s right. God is the villain. (Which, truthfully, is not spoiling anything as that becomes at least intuitively obvious early on.) The indecipherable plot twist actually turns out to ultimately make sense though it does cheapen the impact of human deaths throughout the story.

Now it’s fairly obvious that this is not headed for a fairy tale “And they all lived happily ever after” ending by about the tenth episode. (Well, it is for anyone who has watched enough animé.) But still, there is hope for at least a reasonably happen ending for the survivors up until the middle of the final episode at which point the plot takes yet another twist, one which is somewhat reminiscent of Texhnolyze with the exception that it is actually possible to figure it out without watching it eight thousand times. In this case, it could be considered a “happy” ending since our protagonist and his sister turn out to be Adam and Eve, at least after the world in which the apocalypse just happened simply vanished when they refused to fight at the end. Or maybe time rewound. It’s hard to say for sure. As endings go, however, there are much worse.

It is interesting that the story progression is somewhat similar to Saikano, though with much less emotion wringing tragedy through the latter half of the series, with most of the death being confined to anonymous or semi-anonymous extras or people the audience has come to despise. Even the end is somewhat similar, though Demon Lord Dante provides the surviving pair a lush world to live on.

I mentioned the twist ending of Texhnolyze. In fact, I would suggest that the overall quality of both series is about the same. However, Demon Lord Dante is eminently more watchable, with better pacing, clearer exposition (to the point of being painfully obvious in some places), and a world and plot that at least makes some sense in retrospect.

Like Paranoia Agent, Demon Lord Dante starts out with an obvious situation analogous to L’il Slugger. Like in Paranoia Agent, the actual culprit turns out to be less obvious fairly quickly, but still makes some sense. Unlike Paranoia Agent, the entire story doesn’t take a dive off the continuity cliff at the midpoint (though, in fairness, Paranoia Agent is a psychological thriller featuring characters of dubious sanity while Demon Lord Dante is an epic apocalypse story).

Overall, if you are able to put aside your expectations and enjoy a story despite the technical flaws in its execution (and apparent low budget), Demon Lord Dante is worth watching. On the other hand, if you get hung up on minor nits with production or are unable to accept the story on its own merits without letting your preconceptions interfere, don’t watch it. Also, if you’re looking for a shining example of the perfect animé, don’t watch it. No doubt if you are such a person, you are disappointed by just about everything you watch. And by all the powers of the universe, if you are going to pan the series, at least have the grace to watch it to its conclusion before commenting (as one commentator has) that nobody should ever watch it.

Live Action Saikano

Some time ago, I commented on watching an animé called Saikano (最終兵器彼女). I recently discovered that a live action movie was made also. I downloaded a subbed version and gave it a watch.

Obviously, the story is somewhat modified given the much shorter time in which to tell it. Even so, the major elements of the story are all present if somewhat less developed than in the series. In fact, I suspect there are a few scenes which anyone not familiar with either the animé or the manga will find somewhat puzzling. Even so, the story holds together nicely, even given that I knew how it was going to turn out. (Or at least thought I did.)

Probably the most significant difference between the series and the movie is the final ending. In the animé, we are given to believe the entire world has been destroyed by war with only Shuuji surviving, having been protected by Chise, and Chise apparently surviving inside Shuuji. In the movie, however, the world is not ended; rather peace negotiations are successful and the war ends, conditional on the destruction of Chise. Truthfully, that is a much more believable ending. The revised ending is very well put together, especially the final scenes where Shuuji finds the wreckage of Chise and they have a parting moment. It’s not clear, however, whether Chise somehow survived or if we are witnessing something that exists entirely in Shuuji’s mind. (Of course, that was the same in the animé, too.)

Again, I have to give points for not glorifying war and showing the destructive effects of it on people and places. Also, just before Shuuji and Chise escape from the aircraft is a particularly poignant scene. We see just how hard the decision to destroy Chise really is.

All in all, I give the Saikano movie a passing grade. In fact, if you are not one for the ultimate tragedy, the movie is a better choice than the animé since the world survives.

Earth Girl Arjuna

I just watched an animé called 地球少女アルジュナ (Earth Girl Arjuna). I found it an interesting story so I decided to review it. There are spoilers so beware.

I just watched an animé called 地球少女アルジュナ (Earth Girl Arjuna). It was an interesting story so I decided to review it. There are definite spoilers so beware.

The story opens with spectacular animation and a fairly typical set where we meet the protagonist and the initial incident that gets the story off the ground occurs. The background is set for a romance and then just a moment later, Juna, the protagonist, dies and has visions of the destruction of Earth before being resurrected by a mysterious person known as Chris. Now the idea of fighting the apocalypse is not particularly novel in any of the storytelling art forms but the setup is well executed.

I do have to admit that by the end of the first episode I was thinking, damn Chris and his sidekick Cindy are just plain idiots. They drop Juna in the middle of a meltdown crisis at a nuclear power plant and seem to expect her to somehow understand everything all at once. And then they go ahead and berate her about it. As the series continues, however, I found Cindy to be much more likable, if flawed even though I thought worse and worse of Chris’s tactics. As a matter of fact, it was not until the climax of the story in the final episode that the apparent idiotic actions of Chris can be reconciled.

In all fairness, however, I do need to point out that Juna and her boyfriend Tokio demonstrate substantial density as well. In many cases, they are practically hit over the head with a lesson before they even apprehend the fact that a lesson is even possible. That is not to say, though, that we have characters that are anywhere near as dense as Usagi in Sailor Moon, and they do learn as time passes.

Earth Girl Arjuna spends a great deal of time on character development. Indeed, that is the point of the story as we watch Juna’s progress from ordinary teenager to saviour. The way the characters respond to some hard hitting situations from broken homes and divorce through abortion and teen sexuality appear well thought out. In fact, the premise of the show allows the subjects to be dealt with even more effectively than an ordinary show would allow.

The true underlying theme, however, is that of waste and environmental damage. Actually, the correct word might be "overlying" as we are bludgeoned with the environmental message. There is no attempt at subtlety at all in the presentation of the message. It is so blatant that the show has the feel of attending a hellfire and damnation sermon. It is not the typical "men are the root of all evil" message, however, and the series gets points for that. It preaches the interconnectedness of all life, including humans. Still, I do not particularly like being hit over the head with an ideological message when I am watching a show for entertainment purposes. A little more finesse in the presentation would have made the experience better. (This may be a side effect of having slightly less story than thirteen episodes would call for, as well.)

All in all, I do have to give Earth Girl Arjuna a pass as it does not fall into the typical trap of the solution putting everything back the way it was with hardly any consequences and having everyone live happily ever after. It also gets points for maintaining a level of tension during the climax and by keeping us guessing about just what Chris’s motivations are and what the ultimate solution will be. Also, the fact that it does not shy away from showing the harsh realities that exist in a city when the infrastructure fails totally yet it does not dwell on it unnecessarily either. Even the "happily ever after" ending for Chris, Cindy, Tokio, and Juna at the end does not feel contrived or recycled as so many do. In fact, having the Raaja macguffins turn out to be part of the ecosystem, somewhat equivalent to an immune system, was an excellent means to resolve the food shortage situation.

The final scene which shows Tokio holding up a double handful of the Raaja is, perhaps, the best finalé the series could have had. His heartfelt "Itadakimasu" is right up there with Tiny Tim’s "God bless us, everyone" from A Christmas Carol.

As a final comment, I was half expecting a somewhat tragic ending, somewhat in line with Saikano but less severe. This feeling came through especially clear during episode 12 when we see the death of Japan and the suffering of the people over the course of a week and a half. In truth, it was a relief to have that turn out not to be the case. Still, it was not a happy ending either. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say the ending was hopeful and that is, when you get right down to it, more satisfying than a merely happy ending.

Angelic Layer

As something to do while copying a stack of DVDs (the data kind, of course), I watched fansubs of Angelic Layer. (That’s an animé series for those not in the know.) As happens on occasion, I feel the need to post a sort of review. Those of you who are at all concerned about spoilers maybe shouldn’t read further. In any event, here goes with the review.

The basic premise is somewhat sicence fiction. A new toy is taking the world by storm. You purchase an Angel’s Egg and create an angel. Then you join fights with other angels in a playing field called an angelic layer. And, to make things even more cool, you control your angel using a helmet and your own thoughts.

On the surface, it looks like a simple beginner gets hooked into some sort of game and we follow that beginner through a journey of self-discovery as he works his way up the rankings of the game, collecting fans and friends along the way. And, certainly, we do have that in the character of Misaki and her angel Hikaru. In fact, for the first few episodes, I was reminded of several other series including Hikaru no Go and Rockman EXE. Indeed, the similarity with Rockman is marked.

It only takes a few episodes, however, before it becomes clear that there is a much deeper story involved. We don’t have the details of the backstory dumped on us all at once either. As the story unfolds, we get clues about the backstory but it isn’t all tied together until the final few tense episodes when we find out that Misaki’s mother has Multiple Schlerosis and this was the reason she left home. We find out that she and a rather odd man who goes by the name Icchan are the creators of Angelic Layer. We find out that Misaki is really looked for her mother but is afraid she won’t measure up. We find out her mother has the same fears in reverse. It is a truly emotional moment when this particular story line comes to a conclusion in an epic angel battle and then later the summary over the closing credits of the final episode.

But Angelic Layer does not fall into the trap of concentrating on backstory over current story. The main characters are well developed and over the course of the series, we see how Misaki and Hikaru touch the hearts and minds of everyone they come in contact with from oponents in battle to classmates to family to fans. As we watch Misaki work her way through the tournament all the way to the championship match with only a single loss, and that early on, we see how the people around her react and change. But we also see how the very changes in the people around her change Misaki herself. By the end of the series, she is no more the same person she started as than any of the other characters.

Perhaps that is what makes the series so compelling. It is told as a human story about the people rather than events. While this is not all that unusual in animé, it is unusual to see such masterful storytelling and execution. It is a difficult task to write a story of such epic proportions and keep from slipping into episodic formulae and old, tired plot devices. Sure, the clichés are there, but they aren’t used quite the same way. And, even though we know what the outcome of the human story is, we still don’t know how the series will end, exactly. The story is too complex.

Overall, Angelic Layer is up there with Saikano and Full Moon wo Sagashite for emotional impact. I found myself laughing and crying with the events of the series as it progressed. During the latter half of the series at the national finals in the tournament, I might as well have been there in the stadium for how involved in the events I felt. And, in contract to Saikano but similar to Full Moon, the ending is an unambigously positive one for all involved.

The final verdict is that Angelic Layer provides emotional ups and downs with the usual comedy, clichés, and downright painful to watch moments of stupidy, but it will leave you with a sense of satisfaction with the ending. The end leaves nothing hanging; the story feels finished. And, above all, the ending is an agreeable one. I think it is safe to say that anyone who enjoys the series will agree.

So ends the somewhat incoherent review of Angelic Layer.