Gundam

My love for the mecha anime genre is well-documented on this blog and elsewhere. And of course, Gundam is the granddaddy of the genre, such a huge franchise! Which is also why we never watched a Gundam series, because it is just frankly too ‘deep’ to just jump into without getting hopelessly lost in a sea of characters, factions and mecha.
(I’m not counting Gundam Build Fighters and its second season as ‘proper’ Gundam series, because it’s not set in the ‘Gundam universe’ but focuses on the plastic models (‘gunpla’) instead. There is the occasional nod to events in the series, but you don’t need to have that background to watch Build Fighters.)

I did watch half an episode of the original series, but I bounced off because it was really outdated in a lot of ways. One website with advice on how to ‘ease into’ Gundam states that this is the best way to know what is going on, and that not watching a series because of the outdated animation is like not playing old games because the graphics are bad. But of course it’s not just the animation that’s outdated, but also the art style and the storytelling — things were certainly different in the early 80s! And also: lots of older games get ‘remastered’ re-releases with improved graphics — so apparently there is a market for the same thing but then prettier!

We watched Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn RE:0096, a re-cut of a series of theatrical releases into a TV series — there are some odd twists and turns to make the episodes fit in the whole timeslot, and I do have the feeling that a few things were left out, but it does make it easier to ‘digest’. It’s set at the year 96 in the ‘Universal Century’, which started with the Earth Federation building massive space colonies — and with a terrorist attack on ‘Laplace’, the space colony where the ceremony for the new year reckoning was going to be held. This attack set the narrative for the conflict between the Earth Federation (the ‘earthnoids’) and the space inhabitants (the ‘spacenoids’) for control over the space colonies. Teenager Banagher gets thrown in the middle of it all when he rescues a Zeon princess and gets shoved into the cockpit of the ‘Unicorn Gundam’ by his father, the current head of a foundation that was basically blackmailing the Earth Federation for privileges based on their possession of the ‘Laplace Box’, which could upset the power balance greatly when its contents were made public.
…Yes, it’s a lot. But it all gets (kinda) explained, and I was able to look up the rest, so at the end we had an idea of what it was all about.

What I really liked was how alliances shift as the situation (both political and military) changes. A character who is out for blood in one episode might be compelled to cooperate with their former enemies in the next episode — in a way that makes sense. That’s no mean feat of storywriting, but it does add to the complexity of the story — and if you need to know the ‘in-universe background’ to understand the shift, then that’s adding an additional burden on the first-time Gundam viewer.
But: we finished it, and I might look into watching more Gundam series. With the background knowledge that we have now, we might even make sense of it!

Kakiage

I’ve been on a manga-reading spree these days. It all started out with Dungeon Meshi, which merges my interest in RPGs and dungeon delving with my interest in cooking and eating. From there, I branched out to other manga, with a specific focus on manga featuring cooking and food. One of the manga that I came across with and really liked was Isekai Izakaya Nobu, about an izakaya (a pub that also serves food) whose front door connects to a fantasy world! So their customers are inhabitants of this vaguely European-styled fantasy world (most of the ‘foreign’ terms are German inspired) that learn to appreciate Japanese cuisine. It’s a fun manga, and while I know quite a few ingredients and dishes, it’s fun to learn alongside the customers about them.
And then I found out that there is an anime made from the manga. It has a bit of a weird set-up, with the first part of every episode is an anime version of a chapter of the manga. The second part is the live-action “Nobu Plus” segment, which alternates between a cook showing how to cook the dish featured in the anime and a washed-up folk singer visiting all kinds of bars to sample the same food as was served in the anime.

One of the recipes featured was Kakiage, kind of a large tempura with smaller ingredients stuck together in batter. This inspired me, and I wanted to try it! Instead of small shrimps, I substituted smaller cubes of cooked ham, but I kept the onion and carrot.
shallow-frying kakiage
Shallow-frying the kakiage. I used a bit more egg in the batter, so it wasn’t that crispy — I will need to experiment a bit more.
draining the oil
It was more pancake-y because of the eggs, but still they fried up really good.
carreh-kakiage
We ate the kakiage with Japanese curry, with carrot, sweet potato and bell pepper as ingredients. Instead of rice we used ‘cauliflower rice’ — it’s almost as delicious as normal rice and has much fewer carbohydrates. (Though I think that was handily offset by the sheer volume of kakiage and how fat those were…)

Certainly a meal I’ll be making more often!

Two weeks back, a colleague wore a shirt with a text that also included ‘NEO-TOKYO’. I asked him if this was a reference to Akira, and it turns out that he hadn’t seen that movie. In fact, he didn’t know what I was talking about! So I told him Akira is an iconic anime movie, set in ‘Neo Tokyo’. I offered to loan the DVD it to him, and he was curious enough to take me up on the offer.
So when he returned the disc, I asked if he liked it. He had been very interested, and had watched the whole movie through in one sitting… I offered to loan him that other cyberpunk masterpiece, Ghost in the Shell, which he also had never heard about… And now he has the second GitS movie on loan too, and he told me that he wouldn’t mind having a movie night every Sunday evening…

So now I’m planning out the whole list of movies I’m going to loan him, and a logical sequence between the movies… It’s great when you can share your interests in such a way.

Yesterday I finished up the (free, online) course “An Introduction To Japanese Subcultures“. The course offers a perspective from a cultural criticism viewpoint, formulated by four instructors from a Japanese university who themselves partake in certain subcultures. (For instance, in the third week, the instructor is dressed in a uniform from the original Gundam series and stands in front of the life-size Gundam statue in front of Diver City in Odaiba, Tokyo.)

As you know, we consume industrial amounts of anime, and of course we know quite a bit about ‘adjacent’ fields like manga and idols. So doing this course was really interesting, for two reasons. The first reason is that I never learned the vocabulary and structures of cultural criticism, and seeing it applied to something I know was an eye-opener. The way the instructors introduced and reasoned about the subjects was a totally new experience for me. I could separate the method and vocabulary a bit from the subject matter (because I know a bit about that), which told me some things about how these kinds of criticisms are structured and conducted.
The second is that it is extremely interesting to see how the themes we encounter often are actually inter-related and what they say about Japan as a culture and the subculture that birthed those themes. For instance, reading a Freudian perspective on giant robot anime (a genre that is near and dear to my heart) was really fun and gave me a better appreciation of the depth of the themes and genres.

In other words, a lot of fun. I didn’t engage with the other participants through the discussion boards as much as I did with the previous course I did on there, but I’m quite fine with that. I didn’t feel like being a sweaty try-hard for this course — perhaps because I am wary of engaging with other weebs.

We’ve finished watching both seasons of Knights of Sidonia — five years after the first season started. Yes, it has been kicking in our to-view pile for years now, but the CGI animation and the lethality of the setting for the characters put us off — but now that we have seen it, I’m glad we did. It is really under-appreciated.

It is like a very dark version of various Macross series: the setting is a massive ‘seed ship’ built into an asteroid (presumably Sidonia), with a large city inside, as well as manufacturing and military facilities. It was launched to set up colonies throughout the galaxy (a direct parallel with Macross 7 and Frontier), and it is beset by an enemy that can’t be communicated with (also a direct parallel with Macross 7). There is focus on the personal lives (including romance!) of the pilots, and on non-combat inhabitants (though to a lesser degree). And there is even romance with a (variant of) an alien — which we also have in the original Macross and Macross 7.

But it’s more gritty (everything is scratched and dirty), the lethality of the setting is much, much higher than in Macross (pilots fall left and right, especially the newbies) and as the series progress, Sidonia falls into some kind of militaristic fascist dictatorship. The biggest difference however is in the animation. Sidonia is all CGI, with the associated jarring character animation. And with the muted colour palette the show uses, it looks really drab. This is also the main reason cited for why it doesn’t get the popularity it deserves. It’s also why it has been hanging in our backlog for so long.

I was glad we watched it, and if there’s a third season (long rumoured, but the lukewarm reception must have made the business case for that kind of iffy), I’ll be sure to watch it. If it was an RPG, I’d be sure to play it.

In 2018, we watched 54 series and ‘specials’ — mostly series though. Looking through the list, I see three series that we awarded a score of 9 out of 10. Two of those were actually aired in 2017, and they are continuation of previous series, so maybe they are disqualified? On the other hand, we only watch series when they are completed, so that means that no series from the Fall season could ever qualify.

There is Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu: Sukeroku Futatabi-hen, a continuation of a previous series, and aired in the Winter season of 2017. It is a delightful conclusion to a very interesting series about how Rakugo, the traditional story-telling, fared into the modern Japan. You do need to have seen all the previous seasons. While I recommend the whole trio of series, it’s not quite the AotY.

There is 3-gatsu no Lion 2nd Season, another continuation. Again, a superb conclusion, but again not sufficiently stand-alone.

My anime of the year 2018 is Hataraku Saibou (“Cells at Work”) which is hilarious: it shows cells having every-day ‘jobs’: the red blood cells are dressed like delivery people, carrying boxes of oxygen to other cells. A sneeze is a rocket launch, etcetera. And it’s also quite educational: I learned some things about the human immune system too! Every episode is fun and had us laughing out loud.

Some honourable mentions:

  • Darling in the FranXX: Basically, the second coming of Evangelion. Recommended for mecha-heads who can appreciate a bit of distopian setting;
  • Violet Evergarden: Post-war (equivalent of WW1) drama with a girl who has only known war coming to grips with civilian life.
  • Hakumei to Mikochi: Heart-warming series about a paid of mini-people making their life in a mini-world.
  • Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou: A pair of girls travel through the war-torn ruins of civilisation, probably the last two people to be alive… It’s very slow-moving and philosophical at times.
  • Houseki no Kuni: A world where people made out of gemstones live. They are regularly attacked by ethereal beings that look like Buddhist iconography. Super interesting setting.

What’s the best anime you have seen in 2018?

Anime reviews

A new quarter, so a new TV season starts in Japan. And with that come new anime series! As usual, we will be watching the first episodes of (almost) everything, and decide which ones are interesting enough to watch to completion. But I am not going to write reviews of those first episodes anymore.

In July, we were so busy with the house and all that, that I did not have time (nor even the infrastructure!) to write the reviews. It’s always a lot of work, but nobody missed them. And it’s a lot of work, something that sticks to the to-do list for a long time (even months, in some cases). The most I get out of it is that people comment along the lines of “whoa, you watch a lot of anime!” Yes, we know, thanks.

So I’m going to spare myself the trouble of collecting all the information and writing the reviews. If you want to know what we thought of a certain series, feel free to ask! And you can always check out my anime list, where you can also see which mark (1-10) we gave the series we watched to completion.

Instead of making multiple posts with a few reviews here and there, I’ve decided to collect all my first-episode reviews in a single entry, to make it easier for you to skip if you’re not interested. But it’s also easier to find my review for that one series!

Reviews of 39 first episodes

I wonder how many anime series (and especially sports anime) have a plot that could be short-circuited by a protagonist saying: “No, I am under no obligation to accept your challenge. And I will not agree to your ridiculous stakes.”

Why I like anime

A comment on my last post with anime reviews asked: “So… why do you like anime?” The more I thought about it, the more I thought the answer warranted its own entry.

Let’s say this upfront: Anime is a medium, not a genre. There are many different anime with many different subject matters and visual styles. And certainly not all anime is good: there’s a lot of mediocre and some abject bad stuff out there. But there are some real pearls to be found.
I do think that my tastes are outside of the norm for anime enthusiasts: there’s a lot of long-running series based on “battle manga”, with large fights and ever-escalating power levels. Series such as any of the Dragonball series, or Naruto or Bleach or Fairy Tail or One Piece are huge hits — and I have zero interest in them. So in this entry I’ll describe my personal preferences, which might lie outside of the norms.

I think that I like anime because of the stories that can be (and are) told in the medium. Some stories could easily be done as live-action series, but end up as an anime instead. Anime seems to be more open to experimentation, and there is an ‘accepted’ route for a manga or light novel to be made into an anime, whereas the step from those to a live-action is much larger and convoluted — there are cases where it happens, but often there is an anime in between!
Just today, we finished watching ACCA, a political intrigue about an inspector for the government in a federal kingdom of 13 territories. It’s not flashy at all, there’s very little action, no improbable machines, but the story is very gripping.
Or take Fune wo Amu, about the multi-year project to create a new dictionary. Writing a dictionary, how boring can you get? And still, it’s interesting to see how the editors go about their business, the challenges they face and the (office) tactics they use to overcome them. Again, no action.

Other stories are too fantastic to turn into a live-action series, because it features things like mecha and space battles. For those kinds of stories, anime is an ideal medium. There is of course the Macross series, which would require a mind-numbing CGI budget if it were to be combined with live-action actors, but in an anime the bar is lower: you don’t need photo-realistic renderings to integrate with cell-animated characters.
The effects and the set decorations for something like Mushishi would make it prohibitively expensive to produce in a live-action series format (though there was a live-action movie made), and it started out as a manga, thus it ends up being an anime.
Or take something like Uchouten Kazoku, about shape-shifting tanuki raccoons in Kyoto. Either you’d have to shut down the city centre to take your shots and add lots of digital effects, or you just draw everything from the comfort of your studio!

And yes, anime has a certain visual style and a certain way to tell stories, which is different from live-action series. It’s different, and for some people that causes them to not enjoy watching anime — even though they would probably enjoy the stories being told themselves. I also happen to like the visual and storytelling style, which makes it easier for me to enjoy the stories being told too.