Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Baccano Review

Baccano! Review
or This Reviewer Embraces the Fact that there is no Main Character

Baccano! is a show which has taken parts of the anime community by storm, while simultaneously remaining relatively unknown to the larger whole. The series is frenetic and has more energy than perhaps any other anime. Each scene, while displayed with no heed for chronology, is nonetheless structured to introduce questions and answer them little by little, even if the answer is chronologically first. This is an interesting and ingenious structural choice, and also is in many ways responsible for the series' undeniable style. Baccano! does a good job of offering a little something for most everybody, without watering any of it down.

Baccano! is a show that defies description. Generally speaking, it's about a number of people and a spattering of events which are connected, sometimes loosely and sometimes directly. More specifically, it is itself a story about these things and about stories in general. It, in some ways, comes close to breaking the fourth wall with its acknowledgment of the place of human subjectivity in any story. The framing of the series with the exchanges between Carole and the Vice-Director put the entire show in this context, and the re-telling of specific events from multiple perspectives provide examples as basis for the overall framework.

Baccano!'s placement in the American prohibition era and embracing of this setting lends it a taste of the exotic. Even to American audiences, a unique take on the prohibition era such as this one seems foreign and wild, despite the familiarity of many of the places represented. Anyone who has ever seen a mafia movie feels at home, and yet at the same time it is made foreign to us. Unlike many other series which utilize a unique setting or particular aesthetic, Baccano!'s use of its setting, its powerful aesthetic, does not come off as heavy-handed. Baccano! oozes style without ever feeling the need to shove it in your face, allowing for someone to not connect with the aesthetic yet still enjoy the series overall.

The animation in Baccano! is definitely a strong point, even though it is a little rough around the edges. Stationary art in the series is certainly good, but nothing especially worth noting. In motion, though, the style of the series comes to realization with its somewhat flashy, rough animation style. Colors are bright and vibrant, matching the characters' flair and the feel of the setting. Despite some remarkably over the top designs, everything meshes very well within the series, and there is nothing which visually feels out of place, even the occasional CGI section.

Sound plays a unique role in Baccano! in reinforcing and bringing to life its setting. In this, through the use of primarily jazz and swing tracks with unique twists, the soundtrack is remarkably successful, lending a credibility to the endeavor without being vestigial or overbearing. The soundtrack is solid even without considering the above, and is definitely good enough to warrant listening to on its own. Within the series, it never really takes center stage—aside from the dramatic string piece that closes each episode—but instead achieves a healthy balance with the other aspects of the show, unlike many series with strong, aesthetically-driven soundtracks, such as Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo. While not as strong on its own as those two, it does a better job of navigating its place within the overall work.

The voice-acting in Baccano! is unique in the anime world. It features few, if any, big name seiyuu, and, possibly as a result, is superbly cast. It is common for big name seiyuu to be included in a project for publicity and increased viewership, even where their voice does not fit the character, or where the show must be altered to accommodate the actor. In Baccano!, though, each voice actor fits their character extraordinarily well, and their performances overall are definitely solid, naturally bolstered by clever writing and a supporting soundtrack. As far as stand out performances, I must point out the seiyuu of Isaac and Miria, who managed to make what could have been very irritating characters enjoyable and fantastically entertaining. Ladd Russo's voice actor is also remarkably good, making a character who sounded simple and uninspired in description great in practice. As far as main characters are concerned, it is difficult to pinpoint a weak link, and the supporting cast is solid, if not as exemplary.

It is difficult to speak much on that plot of Baccano! without spoiling the mystery and the fun of it all, so I'll be brief and general. Baccano!'s plot is an evolving mystery which fills out completely the 13 episodes it inhabits. There is no idle time in Baccano!, and each scene fits very well into an overall picture. While this frenetic pace is paramount to the impressiveness of the series and to further its very postmodern style, at times it can be somewhat jarring. This, of course, is most likely intentional, considering the mindset of the rest of the series, but it does irk some, especially those less interested or familiar with postmodern literature. The plot itself is fairly straightforward if laid out chronologically, but the way it is presented makes it somewhat extraordinary. It does a better job of engaging the viewer in the plot, making them an active participant, than perhaps any other series I have seen.

If I had to point out a primary flaw of Baccano!, it would be the voluminous cast which limits the characterization of each. Each character is a larger than life, highly-stylized figure, but as a general rule there is little more to them than that. There is some nuance to each, but it is only in the relationships between the characters that they achieve depth, keeping this from becoming a crippling weakness. Even so, the aesthetically-charged character design is worth noting, differentiating each character powerfully from the others even in keeping with period attire—or at least a stylized, egalitarian version of it.

Baccano! takes everything you know about anime and shows you that there is another way, all the while engaging you with a flashy mystery full of action and suspense. Flush with style and ripe with content, Baccano! manages to give the audience a little bit of everything, without feeling rushed or particularly shallow, although its biggest weakness is the lack of complexity in its characters and plot. It offers unforgettable characters, powerful aesthetics, and a great soundtrack to frame a frenetic narrative which challenges notions of narratives themselves. The series challenges you as a viewer, interpreter, and active participant.

Final Score: 9/10

Strawberry Panic Review

Strawberry Panic Review
or girls maccin' on girls maccin' on girls

Let me start by saying this: “If you are a fan of series about girls maccin' on girls because there are girls maccin' on girls in them, you will almost undoubtedly love Strawberry Panic.” However, if the presence of girls making doe eyes at each other and blushing constantly does not sound like the primary component of a good series, or the only necessary ones, then you might want to think twice about viewing this particular shoujo ai series. Strawberry Panic does have its share of positive traits, albeit a very small share, but it's main draw is simply that it features pretty anime girls making googly eyes—and other significantly less tame things—at each other for 26 episodes.

Strawberry Panic is full of beautiful stills in smooth, pastel colors. The backdrops are wonderfully rendered and the character art is equally impressive. The trouble begins when those characters begin to move and interact with each other. As a series of loosely animated still images Strawberry Panic fares pretty well, and it usually manages to stick to its guns. However, the series does make a number of ill-advised decisions to break from its formula, when it should have simply polished up what it did have, instead of allowing some of the most important aspects of the series to atrophy in a disappointing display of what happens when good animators—or at the very least good artists—decide to get lazy. In a show so focused around drama and interaction between characters, the lack of expressive facial animations and the extensive shortcuts taken with reactions is mysterious, and, frankly, inexcusable. The tennis match late in the series also was a foolish animation decision, along with being a ridiculous and nearly worthless event on all sides, likely costing significant amount of money and not delivering even a remotely positive effect. In fact, it stands as one of the worst animated sports sequences I have seen in my entire time watching anime.

Also questionable is Strawberry Panic's reliance on an interesting all-or-nothing sort of fanservice, which features very few low angle shots or panty shots in general, instead inundating the viewer with essentially still images of two girls—usually in advanced stages of undress—entwined, accompanied by either slow camera zooms and pans or the constant gasping and cooing of the two girls anime fans are likely to know only too well. A lot of people are into that sort of thing, but it serves no purpose in the series. It does not enhance the romantic elements in any way, and because the fact that the entire school is comprised mostly of lesbians is taken for granted, it has no bearing on themes of sexuality it might otherwise have. If you're into that sort of thing:great, but if that does nothing or even little for you then you aren't very likely to enjoy most of the Strawberry Panic experience, as the entire series hinges on these exchanges to some degree.

As far as audio is concerned, Strawberry Panic is an unimpressive, but ultimately positive, experience. Though the classical score speaks nothing of any ingenuity of any sort, it does nothing to take away from the series and is tolerable at establishing the mood. During the googly-eyed make-out sequences, though, the absence of much noise aside from the dull soundtrack is supremely noticeable, especially when they don't even bother to throw in some sighs and gasps. Variety would have served the soundtrack very well as well, as the same tracks are repeated time and time again. This is fairly common in anime, but it is more noticeable in Strawberry Panic because of the frequency of periods where the music is the only noise.

The voice-acting is similarly vanilla. Most of the cast performs passably, but there aren't any real standouts, and the overall product is mediocre, at best, when it comes to the voice-acting. It isn't likely to stand out as especially bad, but neither will it remain in your mind as a paragon of any kind. I will say, though, that the actors perform admirably in many of the spots towards the end of the show, somehow lessening the idiotic melodrama of the latter events of the series. Much of the mediocrity of the voice-acting is also likely, in part, due to poor writing, which is most certainly present in full force.

This brings me to the plot, which begins normally and pleasantly enough, but which quickly transforms into a monster of a melodramatic mess. Splitting across multiple storylines like a soap opera on crack—with delightfully fewer pregnancies and deaths—Strawberry Panic tries to cram as much drama into as few episodes as possible at every turn, only to suddenly retreat back into a feel good slice of life vibe that carries it to the next dramatic event. These events are sometimes tame events blown horribly out of proportion and sometimes massively ridiculous affairs that actually come off as humorous. By the end of the series it feels as if they were simply proving to the world that they weren't done throwing drama into this sucker. I am still amazed how a series with such a languid pace overall can feel so rushed at the end. Final episodes in anime tend to be jam-packed, but the entirety of the last six or seven episodes is like a triathlon of bullshit. I kept waiting for it to pull back into safe territory, but Strawberry Panic was content to plunge headfirst into mediocrity and keep digging for the very bottom. It didn't quite reach, but it was one hell of an effort.

All in all, Strawberry Panic is a series targeted at a very specific audience, to the detriment of any who watch who does not count themselves as a strong proponent of moe, not as a device but simply for the sake of itself. The series was built around moe, all aspects pointing centrally to accentuate it. The problem is, unlike some moe series which have other things to offer those less interested, Strawberry Panic has very little beyond the moe. The character design and art are good enough, so if moe is something you're really into, Strawberry Panic might very well be a good pick. All others, though, should stay away, as this series was not designed with the general viewer in mind.

Final Score: 3/10

Monday, February 4, 2008

This is where the Futakoi Alternative review was going to go...

So, I recently started watching Futakoi Alternative, which is a little-known spinoff of the little-known harem Futakoi, and I had been planning to have a review for it up, but Futakoi Alternative defies all my attempts to adequately describe it at the moment. Futakoi was basically utter trash, an overplayed concept whose central gimmick adds no depth to speak of, in fact even managing to remove depth from an already chronically shallow genre. However, Futakoi Alternative is like nothing else out there. It manages to be part action, romance, and comedy while at the same time maintaining strength on all fronts. While the plot gets more and more ridiculous as the series goes along, there is a great deal of real, meaty drama in the interplay of the great cast of characters. In actuality, Futakoi Alternative is more romantic and features more emotional drama than Futakoi, which ostensibly focused solely on those things, and manages to mix in a unique brand of humor that constantly surprises and delights.

If you read this, I emphatically suggest watching Futakoi Alternative, and I'll try to solidify my thoughts on the series with another few watch-throughs, hopefully finally arriving at a review that can do the series justice.