Blander than Maruchan

Dear Naruto, “more” doesn’t mean “better”. Believe it!
by Bob Johnson

Team Kakashi is always high on morale.

Sometimes you don’t want to eat anything special, just a big bowl of ramen. Maybe you pop in an extra pack because you have dozens laying around. Maybe one of those generic microwave pot stickers today, too. Maybe you bought a few too many and now you feel stuck eating the same thing every day. Welcome to Naruto, the endless soup and dumplings of anime. It’s not over (nor do I think it ever will be), but I can tell you my thoughts on the entire first series.

I don’t begrudge the folks who loved this show because it aired at just the right time in their lives. But I do see this for what it is, a middle-of-the-road long-running shonen. The gag comedy has been done before. The strategy and fighting has been done before. And it’s just so … generic and all-pervasive that it became its era’s definition of stereotypical anime, much like Pokémon or DBZ had been just a few years before. I might never have watched it without 2019’s avalanche of Yang Gang memes making me feel left out. Fortunately enough, Naruto seems to be at least a cut above its progenitors on the list of “I don’t really watch anime” anime.

When it comes to the show itself – well, there’s a big difference between wanting to be the strongest and actually being the strongest. For the entire series, the character of Naruto straddles the line between these two categories. Plainly irresponsible and inexperienced, his discipline level keeps him in the first bin. Yet if he had full control of his raw power, he could very well be in the second and achieve his dream of being village chief.

Even among ninja who walk on water and run-fly spread-armed through forest canopies as an animation cost-saving measure a basic chakra ability, Naruto is special. The power of the Nine Tailed Fox deep within him can grant him supercharged powers, which he uses almost as much for pranks as for training and fights.

Along for the ride is Sakura, his perpetual un-girlfriend who expresses herself primarily through skyward right hooks, and Sasuke, a too-cool-for-you ninja at the top of the class, who has little but contempt for Naruto’s silliness, or anyone else for that matter. They are assigned to a fighting team lead by Kakashi, a teacher and senior ninja.

Bound together in more of a rivalry than friendship, they take on jobs that need a surprising amount of strategy (and civil engineering!) until sinister agents upend the safety of their hometown, succinctly called “The Village Hidden In The Leaves”. Conveniently, this is exactly at the time of their final exams for ninja school. So naturally, as the protagonists in a kids’ anime show, they wipe the floor with the invaders and send them packing in a comedy gag?

You’d think so … except, no. This is when the kids get to grow up and deal with the real world. As much as it is about the title character’s antics, the show is also about an untold history, and from this point, as the tale unfolds we see the tapestry of prior generations unravel as Naruto learns their secrets.

Naruto aims to be Fire Lord. Problem, Prince Zuko?

But even as I admit that there’s more to this show than meets the Sharingan, I still have to take it down a peg. Older folks who remember the show fondly may find it’s not exactly small-tyke stuff when Naruto’s Sexy Jutsu or Jiraiya’s penchant for hotsprings pops up. All of that is baked into the modern streaming editions; the old TV edit isn’t particularly easy to find anymore.

And of course, this show is many things but it is not in a hurry. Naruto takes 40 episodes to “get good” – in that same amount of time, you could have watched 3 whole shows instead! The full run of 220 is positively languid, many of them just filling time. I’m not even complaining about the anime-original stuff versus the manga (a topic I’ll leave to the true believers), but how it pads things out with inner dialogue, fight windups, pointless gags, and recaps. Even today when you can click ahead and watch at accelerated speed, it can get annoying to deal with.

All this filler is starting to bug me. (No offense, Shino)

If you’ve already seen it, you know what’s up, and you know the parts that deserve a skip or a rewatch. But why would you ever watch this monstrosity if you hadn’t already? First, its cultural bigness can be considered a feature rather than a bug. Wearing a Naruto shirt can get you easy street cred far and wide, even on a hiking trail in the wilds of South Dakota. Fans of better anime need much better luck sporting their colours in the wild.

But perhaps more importantly, Naruto teaches life skills. This is a place where our heroes are always digging deep for that last bit of energy and doing their best to grow and improve. There’s immeasurable value in holding to that same stick-to-it-ive attitude in one’s own life.

Maybe Look It Up:
Naruto (2002) 220 episode series
based on the manga by Masashi Kishimoto
Produced by Pierrot, Licenced by Viz

Taisho Baseball Girls is SAFE!

Mostly harmless but with an otaku bonus
by Bob Johnson

I first heard about Taisho Baseball Girls as I was working on my Sayonara, Zetsubo-Sensei review, and for whatever reason, it’s a show that continued to stick in the back of my mind. Finally, a wave of ‘not much better to do’ collided with an upcoming edition, and I figured this would be a pop fly. It was going to be awesome. I was going to crush someone’s soul with a +2 frying pan of rejection. And if someone dared to complain about me beating up a defenceless pile of moéblobs, I’d just say “We publish most Aprils! It’s Baseball Season! It was going to happen eventually!”

So imagine my shock to discover that I actually enjoyed watching this show.

Why hello Koume… Want to star in a seinen with me?

What?!

What is up with that Akiko leer? What is up with everything down to the baseball methods and stats being spot on? As it turns out, despite the name, despite the PG rating, Taisho Baseball Girls is not a glittery-saccharine, ‘let’s do our hair’ shojo. It’s a grit-and-determination, ‘let’s not tell mom and dad’ seinen.

Sure, there is yuri subtext just waiting to burst all over a fanfic writer’s keyboard. But if this was *just* about fanservice, why bother going to all the trouble of a historical piece? In 2009, the heyday of ‘X but with cute girls’ shows, you could just roll up a batch of waifus, coat them in pearl sugar, and bake them in the oven into some kind of The Sandlot ripoff (or nothing in particular) and just cash in. If that was the only goal, why even bother setting it in the 1920s?

Because this show needs ~Drama~! All-too-real drama about how “girls can’t play baseball.” Maybe you can still hear that false and mean-spirited taunt going around in more recent years, but a century ago, it was just about how Japanese society really would have reacted.

Japan’s Taisho era (1912-1926) is often remembered fondly as a time when Westernization was ongoing but hadn’t reached its endpoint, and national politics seriously flirted with actual democracy. Individuals in Japan were perhaps freer to choose their paths in the Taisho era than in the years immediately before or after, so it’s a great setting for historical fiction. (see also: Gosick)

Yet through the eyes of these aspiring young women, we can clearly see that within these rose-coloured lenses lays a paradox: though it was an age that was better for *some* people in *some* ways, it was not better for *all* – and the events of TBG clearly demonstrate how things were not always rosy. This was a time when a woman *picking her own husband* was a science fiction concept from the distant future year of 1947.

Koume and Akiko

So, perhaps counterintuitively, if you’re going to have a show about cute girls doing cute things in this era, they’re probably all going to be rebels. That leads me to the heroine of this story, Akiko. Though technically second banana, Akiko is the driving force of the show from the start. She’s from a wealthy family, but was married off and lives essentially in a gilded cage. But she does still have some friends at school, and a defiant dream to stand up for herself and the role of women outside the home. But she’s rather isolated, so she turns to her BFF to help get a band together.

Koume, though nominally the protagonist, is not all that interesting. She’s a waitress at her parents’ restaurant, serving period-accurate fusion cuisine. The only things that she truly wants are a new set of clothes, and to not to disappoint her friends. Mainly we see her reacting with alarm or stubbornness to the events around her. Only rarely does she drive things forward personally.

The remaining characters add more fun and flavour, though apart from Noe’s quest for management-quality information on the Asaka baseball team, most of the antics aren’t necessarily plot-essential.

Go Oukakai! Beat Asaka!

If you think that anything from the 2000s that moés up a clutch of anime girls is asinine, or that most forms of the training montage are mind-numbingly boring, then you’ve probably already zoned out. This is not a show for everyone, indeed, this is a show for some very specific kinds of weebs.

You’ll probably appreciate TBG if you like Japanese history, or if you’ve been known to join Hana Oshiroi in the art of keyboard-bending, and also if you enjoy the Great American Pastime. If you are a Sub purist, your fancy might also be tickled by the fact there’s no English dub at all!

Are you looking for a samurai tale with challenge letters and duels? A bittersweet tale about about how love is shortchanged by the institution of arranged marriage? A gag comedy slice of life? Something yurilicious? It’s all in the tin here – Taisho Baseball Girls provides a bit more than you’d guess at first glance.

Maybe look it up:

Taisho Baseball Girls (2009) 12 episode anime
Based on the light novels by Atsushi Kagurazaka and Sadaji Koike
Produced by J.C. Staff, Licenced by Sentai

Begging for Mjølnir

…to bring swift justice to UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie
by Bob Johnson

I like Viking Legends. I like Space Travel. And believe it or not, I like Anime! Now how exactly can you combine all those and mess it up?

This is one way to mess things up.

I cannot emphasize this enough: UGH. In ten years of writing about anime, I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the terrible shit out there. But UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie is a next-level floater. I have rarely encountered anything that so shamelessly refuses to maintain even a modicum of good taste.

The plot: Space woman crashes to Earth, space woman is forced to perform emergency medicine on dying generic anime protagonist guy, space woman loses psychic energy and de-ages into an annoying moéblob. More space women crash to Earth, regress into moéblobs, and fight each other. Rinse and repeat until you have all that, plus a busload of catgirl maids.

You don’t want to know how this happened.

So the usual thing for this type of show, is that all the seemingly young main characters do everything of interest while powered up into their mature fighting forms, becoming wise beyond their years due to magic or shinto or computer code downloaded into their brains. Valkyrie occasionally does this, but far more often decides that it will turn this convention on its head by leaving its leading ladies de-aged.

There’s no avoiding it, we do need to talk about the worst part of this show. Because on top of everything else, there’s the fact that the entire show is set at a hot spring. Now, most fanservice anime would find some reason for these women to be in their full-grown battle forms while they’re in the hot tub, so that the viewer would be caught ogling something defensible. But Valkyrie departs even from this convention. And for this well-past-borderline activity, you will need to avert your eyes and blame this bogosity on the pair of kinkos behind this work (also infamous for the notorious Kannazuki no Miko) or truck with them in a pack of flimsy excuses.

Broken Wreckage

This is why we can’t have nice things, anime industry. Anime fandom is no monolith, and no single work should ever be held against every fan, but I have seen Internet trolls point to less egregious offences in order to paint every honest anime fan as a lesser lifeform.

Spending any more time considering the existence of this show would afford it some innate merit that it does not possess. This show is bad. It’s not funny-bad, it’s not edgy-bad. It’s just bad-bad. It was troublesome even in its own time, and now it’s the broken wreckage of a bygone era, best placed straight in the bin. Don’t watch it.

This is a show that makes the dull, morose Loki: Ragnarok seem like five-star entertainment. If you’re into Vikings, watch Vinland Saga. If you’re into Space and Fanservice, watch Space Dandy. If you want a kids’ show ADV somehow managed to turn into an adult comedy, watch Ghost Stories. If you want a battle anime, watch literally anything else!!! UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie is an unredeemable case that energetically ticks every box on the FBI watchlist.

Don’t Look It Up:

UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie anime (2002)
Based on the manga by Kaishaku
Destined to be an Dateline NBC special starring Chris Hansen
Produced by TNK, Licenced by Funimation

It’s you against The World

.hack// is a full immersion isekai experience twenty years ahead of its time
by Perot LeFou

The leads of .hack//Sign

The two great loves of my life have been anime and video games. I could wax on about how formative to my comprehension of ethics the Ultima series was, or that Slayers brought me to appreciate dramatic high-concepts explored mostly with irreverence. But I’m here to extol my love for something that combines both: .hack. Most US based anime fans enjoying Toonami’s offerings would know about this series. .hack//Sign showing all the hallmarks of a prototypical isekai: the setting is a massively popular MMO follows a player who has fallen into a coma and become stuck in the game.

Yet unlike quite a few other anime about playing or being trapped in MMOs or just handwaving world logic or systems as vaguely akin to a video game: this was developed to be a companion series to an actual video game series. .hack//Sign, the first anime started airing alongside the first of four game releases over two years. Less a game series and more like the multi-part discs of the same single-player RPG, released on the PlayStation 2. .hack//Infection, .hack//Mutation, .hack//Outbreak, and .hack//Quarantine, referred together as “.hack//Game”. Each disc of which each came with an OVA episode of another series .hack//Liminality. Showing IRL events concurrent to the in-universe in-game events away from the game’s VR terminals. .hack//Sign chronologically takes place first. That is between it and .hack//Game, the .hack franchise has so much media it’s easier for the sake of brevity to say I forget the precise number of prequels. However, something I can’t help but appreciate, looking back on the series after nearly two decades, is how well these first entries’ metatext about The World holds up as a theoretical videogame and MMO.

.hack//Sign is a series that follows a partially amnesiac Wavemaster Tsukasa. Who very early is shown to command a neigh indestructible unnatural looking creature “The Guardian”. Between this and other reports of Tsukasa seeming to know secrets or actively be hacking the game to have this and other powers. In short order a guild of PKers at attempt to destroy this guardian and fail. Not because Tsukasa is the most skilled player ever, or simply winning the RNG lottery to get “unkillable monster” as a character specific power, which no self-respecting game designer should ever make part of an MMO. Rather, it’s because The Guardian is no uncertain terms not part of The World as a conceived, developed or released game, and certainly was not intended for players to gain control of. Explaining how this is better justified, would be the most concise possible way to spoil the overarching plotline of .hack//Sign.

Tsukasa summons his Twilight Guardian

Yet if you were sitting across the table from me and had asked about my favorite anime: I’d be willing to do just that. That is what resonates with me, if I didn’t make this clear is exactly how well the series captures the sense of MMOs, certainly of and well after its time. A lot of .hack//Sign is dialog about philosophy. Which I know is a holding point to some entrants. However, for my part I’m focusing less on the high-concepts explored: the player mentalities ring true. I’ll try to avoid spoiling it so much, so I’ll omit names. One player in .hack//Sign is a professional with an adult son they’re trying to reconnect with who makes friends with newbies and mentors taking on a rule of a surrogate parent. Another is a shut in who purely uses The World to socialize with others, never leveling up at all despite having many equally or less-tenured powerful friends. Another is a 10 year old that loves Player Killer and griefing: but is also just entertained by the game. Said PKer becomes obsessed with Tsukasa not because he possesses an indomitable monster that can wipe out high leveled characters, but rather because Tsukasa’s able to evade being PKed. Two players start to have a romantic relationship and it combined with other ongoing social events basically destroys their player guild. Anyone out there who has played MMOs has seen some of these play out.

Yet on a more basic level the depiction of how players interact with the game are simplistically obvious, but also show cognition of game mechanics and design on part of the series creators. When players leave their VR terminals to go and talk to someone or grab a snack: their models freeze in whatever pose they were last, not pausing their game just removing any of their input. When players can’t find a friend that knows something they can’t figure out: they post to the game’s BBS about it. Though this is specifically called out in .hack//Sign: a simulated BBS is one of the cornerstones of .hack//Game, accessible after logging out of the World. This does have players inquiring about special in-game events, opportunities to meet new partymembers, but also just links to off-site news articles and people complaining about everyday things. Some players, like the Root Town dwellers in the .hack//Game want functionless collectible items and will trade items of in-game items for them.

To go further I’d say .hack captures the a believable experience of the experience of a game. In fact if you were to start the .hack franchise and go through it in release order; you would watch .hack//Sign and then play .hack//Game. You’d probably notice player-killing isn’t possible in .hack//Game. A discrepancy? Game and story segregation? No: it’s because PKing had been deemed a problem by the game designers and the ability to PK has been patched out. This isn’t the only patch: you can read the patch notes about it and other changing to incremental releases to The World. Which continues to receive patches throughout .hack//game. Another tactile point, is a realistic feeling of unreality. Looking broadly at the characters. Players have only a fixed number of classes to choose from. Secondary and lead characters of .hack//Sign and .hack//Game are Mimiru and Black Rose; both female Heavy Blade characters, the male Blademasters Bear and Orca, and even the lead male Wavemasters Tsukasa with Elk. However instead of being strikingly unique stand out characters: they’re basically palette swaps of one another. With a single accessory and coloration difference. A point of discussion in several series is that player skins are limited, with unique ones being awarded in in-game events. This is one of the many reasons hackers that make The World interesting since they use their own custom skins, the other being that they find unique accessible hidden fragments of The World to reveal and explore.

Kite, the player character in .hack// video games

The World functionally has infinite gameplay content. Something the player of .hack//Game will notice early is that means random generated dungeons. The series’ characters: who are the players, who play characters in The World, will complain about the sameness of The World’s procedurally generated content. Levels are generated using collectible keywords as random seeds. Which again just makes so much sense in emulating the limits of videogames. There aren’t millions of hand-crafted levels, there are not hundreds of thousands of programmers working at ALTIMIT, the fictional company that runs The World. Less than .00002% of the accessible fields or dungeons across the five servers in .hack//Game are special. Eight themed worlds and dungeon sets, paired with a few weather effects to make about thirty stock worlds, and only a handful of curated levels. There’d be even fewer if it wasn’t for the non-intentional corruption visual landscape of worlds. More standard game-term limits of The World are of course on display in .hack//Game: you can meet players with bad ping, easily hit the level cap using exploitative or limited use items, exploit free to use Spring of Mysts to upgrade your starting equipment into maxed leveled equipment for each server in about 30 minutes from gaining control at the start of each disc.

These anime and game rewards the viewer/player’s attention to detail. As a showcase, you will notice reoccurring characters throughout the series. A unique main character from .hack//Game, and most storied character in the eventually developed franchise is among the protagonist’s team in .hack//Sign’s climactic battle without pomp or preamble. Not to keep harping on this one note: but that really feels real to me: I don’t think everyone gives their life story out on every raid. While watching the anime will let you pick up keywords for locations visited in .hack//Sign, or special ones to access in .hack//Liminality for your use in .hack//Game, usually important locations or the home to unique treasure.

Balmung comes out of nowhere

Now I’ve started onto the path of praising the franchise as a whole. I haven’t even started on any anime, manga, novel, or games including a TCG and an ARG, or really material from a series started after 2002. However, this isn’t without any faults. I had once managed to hear complaints about .hack//Sign. These monsters would say true things like “It’s just a bunch of people sitting around and talking”, and “It takes forever to get to too little good stuff”. With the action-based contemporary anime it shared its broadcast block with: I could see how someone in the wrong frame of mind could form these and other terrible conclusions. Two reasons this shouldn’t dissuade you. First the OST for .hack//Sign is my favorite of any anime series, and not something I’ve ever heard a single complaint about. Some electronic otherwise a lot of festive or sedate Celtic sounds stand out a fair bit. I’m not a huge audiophile but that OST has been on every one of my computers, MP3 players, and phones that could have it for the last 17 years and it’ll take some kind of EMP to change that. Second: anyone who now has the faintest interest doesn’t need to wait half a year for a no-longer existent once-a-week broadcast cycle. It’s on Funimation’s streaming service. The main 25 episodes are free, with another two OVAs and the totally extraneous recap episode “Evidence” as subscription-only. One could easily finish this first anime in three sittings.

Recommended listening: .hack//Sign OST

However, for .hack//Game it’s less fortunate. Bandai’s and CyberConnect2’s negligence, the second game series .hack//GU received a collected, remastered. and expanded re-release in Last Recode. .hack//Game has not. This makes recommending the game hard. One would need to track down a physical set to play it in its entirety. Which is awkward to recommend since the final title .hack//Quarantine has always been among the most expensive resale PS2 games. Ranging above $200. Once-upon-a-time it was solidly, now merely vying for the second most expensive PS2 game behind the infamous Rule of Rose. All I can say is that if you want to stop by my place: I’ll lend you my copies. If that’s too steep, and if anything I said has piqued your gaming interest in the franchise as a whole? .hack//GU Last Recode is available on digital storefronts PSN and Steam. Incidentally it’s $8 on Steam the day this will post. Unfortunately, that doesn’t pair with .hack//Sign as well. No, that has its own anime mate: .hack//Roots. Which is also a great show, but I’ll have to save exploring those in depth for another time I contribute.

Fuck yeah, look it up!

.hack// multimedia franchise
Starts with .hack//Sign (2002 anime) and .hack//Infection (2002 video game)
Overall concept and games produced by CyberConnect2, Anime produced by Bee Train
Anime licenced in North America by Funimation, Games available on PSN and Steam

The Return of Captain Tylor

A Re-Hashed Look at the Captain Tylor OVA
by Gristle McThornbody

Follow ups are usually hit-and miss. Some carry on the story of a franchise, while others tend to exist for existing’s sake. Somehow, the Tylor OVA does a little bit of both. A continuation from where the anime left off, the 10-episodes sprinkle in both plot and fluff. But, as a theme song consumer, I daresay it has a pretty good one.

The art and tone we were all used to

We join the crew of the undefeated Soyokaze several months after successful win in a no-shooting battle.High on their own confidence (except the Captain), the crew starts off in a bar, being challenged by an almost-equally drunk Aranami. Hijinks ensue. However, the crew is once again called to deal with a growing situation with the Raalgons. Like in the series, they end up captured and through sheer luck, once again escape-but not unscathed.

That’s episodes 1 and 2, and it very much kept the tone and art style of the original, a fun satire of space operas, mixed in with the Japanese trope of the bumbling, lucky, irresponsible salaryman (Tylor), but with a heart of gold.

Episodes 3 to 6  are….ok. They are vignettes of the crew while the Soyokaze is in dry dock, getting repaired from what happened to it in episode 2. It’s an interesting side quest looking into the crew’s life, but any eagle-eyed reader will notice a large tone shift coupled with a near-redesign of characters. I still wonder about the purpose of these episodes, but we get them anyway, so watch away. Yes they are all neat and cute in their own way, but if it was a longer series, it would have earned a filler or two – which sadly it didn’t.

It’s different, but the same

Episodes 7 and 8 is where the story starts to get re-railed and we find Lt. Commander Yamamoto in charge of an escort fleet, getting a very large cargo ship through space. Meanwhile, in the side-plot Raalgon secret agents kidnap Commander Star, to find out the genius/luck behind Tylor, signalling that the Empire is getting restless and ready to fight the UPSF.

All doesn’t go to plan, and a deafening sound with a red light comes from distant space to disable all the ships, badly damaging them, and possibly Yamamoto’s career. As growing wonderment as to “why” gnaws at his very being, we get a clear reason of why and we finally get going with the plot.

As the crew action concludes, there exists the air of “something” growing, handed to the viewer (and Yamamoto) as an all-encompassing red light that disables ships and anything else it comes across. This is a major plot point covered in episodes 9 and 10 of the series, when the now once-defeated Soyokaze gets ready for another important space journey with Tylor and the crew to fight this valiant fight, steeped in intrigue, Raalgon infighting and backstabbing and a final dual.

Blue screen of death? No, red light district… of death

It’s been 10 years since I first saw this OVA, and I still harbour very mixed feelings about it. The mentioned art-shift is something that is jarring, both visually and because of the accompanying tone shift. Transitioning from a fun satire to a hard-lined space operas -and becoming what it was making fun of- was a very rough experience. While I could see the original motivation and basic traits of the characters (Yamamoto really shined here, becoming a commander of two different ships) as we go to unfamiliar territory with Tylor the abrupt, cliffhanger ending makes the viewer want for more.

However, there isn’t more, or at least anything that’s worthwhile. What happened after the UPSF and the Raalgon got together are covered by DVD liner notes that came as an extra on the anime box set and a fluff-filled thing from 2017 that is only good for, like, 5 minutes of exposition.

Back within the bounds of the OVA, I give this a solid 4 out of 5. It’s still a solid space opera. But you didn’t watch this for a solid space opera. You wanted more satire. You’d be good with staying with and watching the anime, but if you absolutely have to, and want more Tylor in your life, give this a spin, the codicil that you probably won’t like the ending.

Maybe look It Up:
The Irresponsible Captain Tylor OVA (1994-1996)
Based on the light novels by Hitoshi Yoshioka
Produced by Daume and Studio Deen, Licenced by Right Stuf

Desert Dogfight

The Area 88 TV Series’ Story of Survival
by Punch Rockgroin

The household of my youth provided me with easy access to plenty of books on information concerning the jets of the Cold War. My dad used these for research purposes, both out of interest and the need to make sure he was staying ahead of his wargaming buddies. A steady diet of perusing the pictures of aircraft in these tomes, plus watching shows like “Wings of the Red Star” and so forth only heightened my interest in jet aircraft. The first airshow I remember was with the Thunderbirds; I could not believe how loud the jets were, but their garish paint scheme and feats of daring entranced me. I purchased Area 88 by chance back when I was in high school, having seen the jets on the cover and recently played through the “Ace Combat” games on the PlayStation 2. Surely, this was up my alley…my MiG Alley.

Area 88 takes place some time in the late 70s to early 80s and follows the unfortunate tale of Shin Kazama, once an up-and-coming airline pilot, who was backstabbed by his “friend” Satoru Kanzaki. Satoru knows Shin is engaged to the daughter of Yamato Air, so Satoru gets Shin drunk and has him sign what Shin thinks is a form to confirm he “spent the night”; in reality, it’s a contract signing him up as a mercenary for the Kingdom of Aslan. Shin then must fight for Aslan for 3 years, or earn $1.5 million in bounties to pay off the contract. Since desertion means capital punishment, Shin goes for option 2.

Cold War feelin’

The eponymous Area 88 is staffed by a number of shady characters. The local merchant is McCoy, who sells everything from planes and armament, to film and information. Shin’s best friend at Area 88 is Mickey Simon, a former US Navy pilot and Vietnam veteran who was unable to adjust to civilian life. Another staple of the base is Shinjou Makoto, a war photographer who documents the exploits of the pilots, though has an ulterior motive for being there. The base is run by Prince Saki Vashutal, who constantly sports a set of aviators and a X-shaped scar from when X delivered it to him.

The series is mostly focused on air combat, with some drama on the side. The drama provides us with the story elements, but the animation studio seemed to figure that the more interesting parts were the dogfights. Given that the aircraft are all 3D renders, this probably saved on the budget as well. When I was in high school, this was what I was primarily interested in, and the series certainly delivers. The combat is much more “Ace Combat” than “Digital Combat Simulator”, so expect a distinct lack of BVR engagements and Sidewinders that miss when they lose sight of the plot. Still, there’s plenty of explosions and high-G maneuvers to keep you entertained, and is generally not a crash-and-burn affair. The series only really strays from the combat-centric formula in the last couple episodes.

Other than Shin’s plight of knowing a former friend has stolen both his career and his girl, some background is provided on the other characters, but these are just for an episode. Some more information is provided on Mickey’s days in Vietnam, or on Shinjou’s true mission at Area 88. Many more characters seem to exist for story, as they tend to appear and die in the same episode.

I’m thinking Mickey didn’t go home for… other reasons

The fanservice is in the jets themselves. Shin pilots both an F-8 Crusader and an F-5E, while Mickey has an F-14 (possibly stolen from Iran?). Their opponents are all variety of MiGs, primarily the MiG-21 and MiG-23. The 3D models are relatively detailed, though given that this show is from 2004, the animation feels a little stiff at times.

Before this series, there was also a 3-episode OVA released in 1985. The plot is more or less the same, but is more focused on Shin dealing with killing people in order to survive, as well as some of the horrors he witnesses. The series and OVA deviate most greatly in the ending: The TV series gives the viewer a sense of hope at the end, while the OVA is far less certain. In the TV series, Shin suffers a setback that prevents him from leaving when he initially planned, but is convinced to fight on after hearing word on his girlfriend. In the OVA, Shin actually makes it home, but has become addicted to the adrenaline rush of combat, and finds that civilian life no longer suits him; as a result he returns to Area 88, and the OVA ends with him going into combat against ferocious odds.

The OVA’s ending, though depressing, had more of an impact on me. Shin didn’t even want to be there in the first place, but his will to get back home morphed into a desire to fight. I have to pause a bit and think about what it means to be a soldier, and how hard it can be to adjust to normal life after something as bracing as war. The TV series’ ending isn’t bad, and in some respects is still uncertain. It has a brighter outlook, with Shin’s vigor to survive and get out of Area 88 renewed, yet he must practically start over. It’s a coin toss for me as to preference.

Overall, the series is a relatively quick run at 12 episodes, and can be watched in an afternoon if so desired. If you’re a jet jockey looking for some animated fighter combat, this is one of the few gigs in town. In some ways the OVA is the better watch, since the story has more weight to it. But if you watch the OVA and want more combat, then I would recommend the TV series. As someone who loves the feeling I get in my chest when a fighter roars by with its afterburner on, I will recommend the series to any fighter jockey, virtual or otherwise.

Fuck yeah, look it up!
Area 88 (2012)
Directed by Isamu Imakake
Produced by Ryosuke Takahashi and Group TAC
Licenced in North America by ADV Films

The Moody Middle Child

Just Weird Enough to Not Be Normal
by Bolt Vanderhuge

The Kerberos Saga is the only movie trilogy I can think of that actually moves backward through time in each subsequent sequel, as well as becoming more and more grounded. While almost anything is grounded compared to the film that started it all, The Red Spectacles, the animated film that ends the trilogy, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade sharply contrasts it by being a dead serious look at the alternate history universe created by Mamoru Oshii which features a post WWII fascist Japan that was occupied by Nazi Germany, and follows the exploits of Tokyo’s Public Security Special Unit, which utilize powered armor and tote MG-42s.  Part of this contrast is because Oshii did not direct Jin-Roh, as he was busy making Ghost in the Shell at the time, but somehow, StrayDog: Kerberos Panzer Cops manages to fit between the two book-ends to this trilogy by being mostly grounded while still containing plenty of odd, shall we say, “symbolic” elements to it, which often feature red rubber balls to drive home the stray dog theme of the movie, as well as the return of the mime squad from the first movie.

Not to mention the ‘never really finished unpacking’ look of this woman’s apartment.

The story also has something of a retcon which changes the circumstances of the Kerberos’ leader’s escape from his besieged headquarters and from Japan altogether thanks to a change in government which saw the Special Unit fall out of favor afterwards.  While his two friends are referenced in dialog, Koichi Todome instead makes his helicopter flight out of the country from the roof of Kerboros HQ shortly before it is stormed, ending the siege.  The film follows one of his comrades, Inui, shortly after he has been released from prison and placed on parole.  Feeling betrayed by his former commander, he begins hunting the man, along with the help of a woman who helped Koichi hide out for a while in Taiwan, named Tang Mie.  They eventually do find the man, and this is where the film seems to derail for a bit as they live as something of a throuple for a while.

While this movie is over twenty minutes shorter than The Red Spectacles, it actually feels about an hour longer thanks to the many long sequences that mainly consist of tracking shots and moody music.  Anyone familiar with Oshii films might recognize this as something of a common feature in many of his films, which includes the most recent film of his I watched, Assault Girls.  On the plus side, this film escaped his later proclivity for using a color filter.

Eventually, everything culminates in an action-packed climax, which involves a shoot-out with our old friends, the mime squad, with some occasional oddball humor being injected into the midst of the battle.

Only slightly less weird than the first time we saw them.

In what is easily the best part of the movie, Inui systematically hunts them all down in an abandoned hotel, thwarting their planned ambush of Koichi by wearing his armored “Protect-Gear,” which is the only remaining set that was unaccounted for following the Kerboros Uprising.  However, this does result in a downer ending, which reinforces the theme which runs through all three films about how survival is only possible through following the pack, and stray dogs who are either abandoned by or abandon their master end up dying alone.  The ending then leads into the events of The Red Spectacles, but naturally never explains what the deal with that movie was, because Mamoru Oshii wants you to think about his movies, even if this tends to just lead to frustration and confusion.

If you liked the first movie, I’d definitely recommend this sequel/prequel to it, but if you only know about Jin-Roh I’d be more cautious about suggesting you watch it.  I’m not even sure if watching The Red Spectacles would be required to understand and/or enjoy this film, and I’ll fully admit that my love for them comes mainly from how weird they are, though admittedly StrayDog is a bit of a slog.  I would say, though, that if you’re a fan of Jin-Roh and are just curious about these previous two chapters in what you might not have even realized was a trilogy, that you keep in mind that these movies are very much not like Jin-Roh, so you need to adjust your expectations accordingly, by just not having any.  

Maybe Check It Out
StrayDog: Kerberos Panzer Cops (1991)
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Distributed by Shochiku Company, Limited

Two Scoops of Wave Motion Gun

Space Battleship Yamato 2202: Warriors of Love brings more battles, more beef
by Bob Johnson

In many ways, Space Battleship Yamato is Japan’s answer to Star Trek.  Though anime and the space age have gone together since the dawn of the industry (i.e., Astro Boy) – the 1974 Yamato series was a landmark that solidified science fiction anime into a cultural force and famously influenced the art team for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

As the 2010s, the age of the remake and the simuldub, dragged on, it was inevitable that the Yamato would rise again.  Yet, every year between 2013 and 2017, Space Battleship Yamato 2199 was the go-to example of “Why isn’t there a dub for this?” — a major franchise that should have been snapped up for a licence above any number of moéshit school life clones.  But that didn’t happen, at least, not right away.  What do we have to thank for the dub?  Why, the second season of the remake – Space Battleship Yamato 2202: Warriors of Love.  When this follow-on was announced, Funimation finally fired up the wave motion cannon, dubbing both shows in back-to-back releases in 2017 and 2018.

A new adventure awaits the Yamato

In the year 2202, things are looking up for humanity. But even though Earth’s oceans are restored, and the planet has deployed a fleet of ships with the latest in wave-motion technology, a new threat appears in the form of Gatlantis, an evil empire with a deadly space fleet, threatening the far-off world of Telezart. Ordered to stay home by the powers that be, but haunted by strange dreams, the crew of the Yamato mutinies and takes her out for a new season of adventures in space, fighting for galactic love and peace.

Constantly threading the needle between a rapacious enemy on one side, and an Earth government on the brink of fascism on the other, Yamato‘s crew is often called upon to set the example. By necessity, they are required to compromise their high moral values, but in the end, still manage to save the galaxy without sacrificing all of their integrity.

Lt. Klaus Keyman (left) and Todo Katsuragi – Yamato outsiders with questionable motives.

The death of Captain Okita looms over the crew, leaving Kodai to command the Yamato. Whereas Okita was ever the chessmaster, ensuring the enemy fell into his plot, Kodai is decent enough in the Captain’s chair, but lacks confidence. Kodai also has relationship issues, particularly with Yuki. Actually, nearly *everyone* has interpersonal drama in this anime, most notably Lieutenant Keyman, a Garmilan pilot constantly getting into intrigues, and Kasturagi, a medtech who slips aboard Yamato and increasingly plays the role of femme fatale. How will they bring peace to the galaxy if they can’t get along with each other? Well, saving each others’ skins in battle goes a long way to rebuilding trust.

Would you care for some drama in a can, sir?

If you’ve never seen Space Battleship Yamato, it’s high time you saw 2199: it’s a well paced gauntlet run, where nearly every moment is desperate and vital to the future of humanity. 2202, while also quite solid, backs the stakes off a little. It lets other heroes take a bit of the limelight, and frees up the Yamato to dart back and forth between hotspots in a larger war. Both seasons deal with existential issues, not solely of survival in the face of the enemy, but also how to go about fighting, and what is and is not worth fighting for.

I will have to disagree with anyone who claims that the second go was able to wholly recapture the epic grandeur that was Space Battleship Yamato 2199 – but in all fairness, that is an *extremely* high metric.  Space Battleship Yamato 2202, despite all of its spaghetti-wall character drama and sudden plot twists, is well within the halls of truly awesome anime.

Fuck Yeah, Look It Up:
Space Battleship Yamato 2202 (aka Star Blazers 2202)
Original concept by Yoshinobu Nishizaki and Leiji Matsumoto
Produced by Xebec, Licenced by Funimation

A Fistful of ’80s

Or, How I Learned to Just Embrace the Corn
by Bolt Vanderhuge

In spite of being something akin to an old classic, I feel like Fist of the North Star tends to get forgotten by modern audiences, or just mocked by them if they are made aware of it.  Yet if one can overlook the poor animation quality, visual inconsistencies, and simplistic plot, it really is a strangely watchable show.

First, though, you should be aware of the fact that you have essentially two options, as I’m highlighting both a movie released in 1986 and a series which aired from 1984-1987, which were both produced by the same creative staff.  The series was pretty obviously made for a younger crowd, and is toned down accordingly, often through the use of silhouette or recoloring blood to either black or white for the gorier scenes, while the movie revels in goriness, being sure to show you as much of the insides of the victims of the various styles of martial arts (referred to as fists) used by protagonist Kenshiro and a few other characters he comes across on his journey to rescue his fiancé.  Ironically, there’s a lot more random nudity in the series than there is in the movie.

Nudity has no place in my gory movie

In any case, this is a post-apocalyptic story, set in the ruins of a nuclear holocaust that has claimed most of humanity and left the entire planet a ruin.  The movie leave the nature of this apocalypse something of a mystery, but the series explicitly spells it out and even shows it a few times in flashback.  While most of what remains of humanity has fallen into anarchy and lives off what they can salvage from the remains of civilization (and is very much inspired by Mad Max), there are still martial art masters keeping their traditions alive.  Most of them, such as the titular “Fist of the North Star,” are seen as so powerful that there can be only one legitimate practitioner of them at a time.  Kenshiro is but one of three adopted sons of the master of the Fist of the North Star, and undergoes trials with them so the master can decide which to choose as heir to his Fist.  He ends up going with Kenshiro, and this ends up making the others rather upset.  One of them just takes what he has learned so far and kills the master before leaving on a quest to take over the world so he can bring order to the chaos.  As it happens, Kenshiro was set to marry a woman named Yuria, and is best friends with the man who has learned the Fist of the Southern Cross, Shin, at this time, and his other jealous brother decides to screw him over by convincing Shin that Yuria would be better off with him.  So the first part of both the movie and the series consists of Shin betraying Kenshiro and almost killing him in order to get him to give Yuria up, giving him the signature Big Dipper scar on his chest in the process, with Kenshiro seeking to rescue Yuria and take revenge on Shin after he has recovered.  This then ultimately culminates in a conflict with his oldest adoptive brother, Ken-Oh/Roah, and him never quite getting Yuria back.

No matter which version of this story you decide to watch, you are going to be bombarded by cheesy ’80s action goodness combined with all the anime clichés you can think of.  The series does tell a much more coherent story than the movie, and actually adds more than one dimension to the main antagonists, but it does really draw the story out and take its time to get to the point, but it makes up for this by being strangely watchable, with just enough interesting points to keep one watching.  The movie is basically just a massive dose of the good ol’ ultra-violent – the product of a style that has become a thing of the past, much to my disappointment.  The downside to both versions is that it involves a couple of kids joining up with Kenshiro, essentially to become audience proxies so that things can be explained to them.  But as with most child characters, they tend to be rather annoying and get used to generate melodrama thanks to their stupidity.  One of them, Lynn, is like a moéblob even though that trope had yet to be a thing, and is so clingy she would give Overly Attached Girlfriend a run for her money.

Strictly speaking, I would not call this a “good” show per se, as Kenshiro really epitomizes the Gary Stu trope, and the story is quite simplistic, but it is still a lot of fun to watch Kenshiro’s arms blur as he pushes his enemies’ secret pressure points to make them all explode, and even does crazy things like beat up a WWII Panzer tank, so I’d still recommend it to fans of the ’80s action genre.

Fuck Yeah! Look It Up:
Fist of the North Star [Hokuto no Ken] 109 episode anime (1984), and film (1987)
Based on the manga by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara
Produced by Toei, Licenced by Discotek

This Is Fine


I paused my doomscroll for Japan Sinks 2020
by Bob Johnson

As Howard Mohr taught us, it could always be worse more often than it could be better.  I know we’re running out of fingers and covid toes to count how 2020 has taken the reality of our global civilization and placed it into a blender that is decidedly not filled with ice cubes and strawberries… Wouldn’t it be cathartic if we could go back to disasters that affected just one country?

Well, slamming like an oversized asteroid onto Netflix this past July 9 was “Japan Sinks 2020”, a little ditty about 100 million people being flipped casually into the dead slate Pacific.  We follow the story of the Mutoh family as they attempt to do the best they can, each starting from a familiar place in the routine of modern life – an aircraft on final approach, a construction scaffold, a locker room, a schoolyard.  Then the earthquake drops, and we go instantly from slice-of-life to slice-of-death.  Moving forward from here will take luck and grit.

The show is cut and paced for Netflix.  That means some liberties taken with episode runtimes – most of the 10 eps running longer than 22 minutes – and cliffhangers at virtually all the episode ends, some bending the plot more than others.  Fortunately, the subject matter itself provides decent cover for these relatively minor issues.  Survival is not a perfect science, after all.  Given infinite time and resources, we’d all make better calls.  But even the smartest, most experienced people make mistakes when they’re in a rush and underequipped.

Some disaster epics try to shoehorn in some romance; best hold your breath on that.  A touch of “senpai notice me” is there, if only to demonstrate its fragility and futility in the worst of times.  But disaster can also encourage an unhealthy, devil-may-care, time-pressured attitude toward relationships, adding further trauma for the show to explore.

While it breaks the mould in many respects, it still has fun expressing its creativity, and isn’t shy about taking a brief tangent for a bit of comic relief.  The show achieves its ‘peak anime’ moment during one of these denouements: a rap battle for the honour of Japan at a hot spring that is also a beach.

Spoiler Alert: Yes, there is a Hot Springs Episode.

Artwise?  Colour is used effectively to set the mood; vibrant and bright in hopeful times, subdued and dark when there’s danger or pessimism.  The drawing style can get a rough-in at times, but it’s never jarring given the sketchy nature of the situations our heroes find themselves in.

The varied locales are notable given the road trip nature of the show.  There’s familiar sights to anime fans, like Mount Fuji, or shrines for Shinto or Buddhism, but the show goes to lengths to get it right for everything from seaport docks, to lonely mountainside gas stations, to the utopian commune of Shan City.

The voice acting is sufficient, though you’ll perhaps notice more Canadian accent here than Kansai accent.  While Netflix may lack the bench needed to copy the idiosyncratic localization tactics of anime’s familiar Texas-based dubhouses, they make up for it in volume, expanding the limits of what’s possible for dubs and subs beyond English, but also Spanish, French, and others, as well as the holy grail for the true weeaboo: subtitles *IN JAPANESE*.

Refined otaku can study the full and original text.

Japan Sinks 2020 is a fine addition to the Japanese tradition of tokusatsu disaster film, using the imagined disaster to pierce the solicitous, anachronistic exceptionalism of the hermit kingdom and challenge it to actually internalize the racial and international harmony that Japan always says it wants to see in the world at large.  When even terra firma is impermanent, what remains to cling to, except for each other?

The show also says, with more than a wink to Justy Ueki Tylor, that Luck is the most important factor in surviving a disaster so large it destroys everything about you and your way of life.

If your stomach turns at the thought of being saved by the YouTube Generation with their selfies and drones and paragliding and pet robots, then you might not see the finale as particularly happy or heroic.  Still, we are left convinced that Japan, in whatever form it has taken after this terrible crisis, is still a notable cultural force.  Even diminished, it can still be remembered in its former glory, and aspire to hang in there in the new age.

Between this and Keep your hands off Eizouken!, 2020 is officially the year of Science Saru.  I can’t say that it is the most uplifting content for these challenging times.  But it does manage to stick the landing.

Maybe Look It Up:
Japan Sinks 2020 (2020) 10 episode Original Net Animation
Based on the novel Japan Sinks by Sakyo Komatsu
Produced by Science Saru, Licenced by Netflix