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Archive for the ‘Comics/Animation’ Category

A young girl emerges from a cocoon to find herself in an idyllic, yet enigmatic town which seems to be a sort of afterlife. She has no memories of anything before this, apart from the dream she had of falling while in the cocoon. The girl finds herself among a small community of winged beings named Haibane, who inform her that she is one of them. She is given the name Rakka, which means “falling”, as all of the Haibane are named after their cocoon dreams. Soon, she sprouts wings too, and is given a halo, which somehow hovers over her head. (Even if it does cause strands of her hair to stick up messily.) The scene where Rakka gains her wings is strangely cathartic. It’s bloody, and it’s obvious that Rakka is going through great pain, yet this is accompanied by beautiful music, with Reki, the second-eldest Haibane, staying by Rakka’s side the whole time to help and soothe her.

This scene gives you a good idea of what Haibane Renmei can be like. For the most part, it’s calm and gentle, but it’s never the sort of series to deny the existence of darker things. It’s not that the world Rakka finds herself in is a dystopia disguised as a utopia; the town genuinely is a nice place to live in. However, there are some aspects to the setting that are puzzling, and even unsettling. It is never explained what is beyond the walls of the town, or why the Haibanes can never leave. There are strange taboos they have to abide by, and while they coexist peacefully with humans, there seems to be a sort of distance between them. In some ways, it reminds me of real life, in that we are brought into a society that we did not choose to belong to, with rules and boundaries so rigidly constructed that we can never break them. The difference is that we enter that society as babies, and are brought up to take all of that for granted. The Haibane may have no memories of their past lives (if they even had past lives), but all the main characters are old enough to already have formed ideas of what is normal. The town itself is like what you’d get if you applied the idea of mukokuseki to a setting rather than to a character. It would be hard to place it within any set time period or culture; it’s the sort of vague place where you know that something isn’t right, but there are too many familiar elements to pinpoint what it is.

Haibane Renmei is the creation of Yoshitoshi ABe, one of my favourite artists thanks to his character designs and other work for Serial Experiments Lain, the greatest work of fiction ever made. (I am a little bit obsessed with Lain.) Both series have many things in common, though I’m afraid that after Serial Experiments Lain, I found Haibane Renmei slightly disappointing. ABe’s designs are beautiful, as always, but his detailed artwork doesn’t translate well to the style of animation used here. Compare the two images below:

While the animation is still nice, it looks a little flat when put next to the original artwork. The animation used in Lain wasn’t perfect either, but its use of darkness and shadows gave it more of a texture. Haibane Renmei is a far more light-hearted series, with most of it taking place during the daytime, so visually, it loses that sense of depth. And while it is slow-paced, it never quite reaches the same level of subtlety as Lain. While I mostly enjoyed its combination of slice-of-life humour and the supernatural (I found it kind of similar to Xxxholic), it sometimes resorted to anime conventions that kind of took away from its tone.

The creators of the show were apparently influenced by Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. (Which happens to be the first of his books that I read.) Half of the book took place inside the protagonist’s mind, in a walled fantasy world constructed in his dreams. The other half  takes place in a dark, slightly futuristic world that reminds me of Serial Experiments Lain. This makes me wonder if maybe the connection between the two series is more than just a stylistic or thematic one. Crows are used as a motif in both series, Rakka and Lain  are similar in both appearance and personality, while Hyoko and Midori are basically just older versions of Taro and Myu-Myu. Maybe Haibane Renmei is just an alternate reality created by Lain Iwakura. The only problem with that theory is that Alice seems to be absent from it. Reki, the older, caring character who develops a strong friendship with Rakka, is in some ways similar to Alice, but then there are other ways in which they are different, and I cannot imagine Lain wanting to exist in a world without Alice. Unless, of course, the crow is meant to be Alice.

While it has its flaws, Haibane Renmei is still wonderful. (The final episode is especially good.) It’s also commendable for its depiction of female characters. Most of the main characters are young women, all of whom are treated as people rather than objects. Some of them are quite androgynous, but are still comfortable in their femininity. The tomboyish Kana is just as much a girl as the more traditionally feminine Hikari. In fact, it’s never even treated as an issue or anything, with the other characters seeing this as totally normal. So, while the world we are presented with does seem to be in some ways a problematic one (if I found myself there, I’d probably start to feel like everything is pointless), living there also has many positive aspects, too.

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Note: This post contains minor spoilers.

There isn’t an awful lot of variation in the clothing Lain wears, but many of the outfits that do appear in the series are pretty significant. It’s not that Lain doesn’t care about her appearance, but her style is pretty subdued, like her personality. In general, she seems to prefer cute things in soft colours, and is uncomfortable with the idea of trying on the kinds of things her friends wear to clubs. Her most iconic outfit is a bear onesie, which makes her even more adorable than she already is.

Lain’s bear suit fulfills the same function for her as Linus’ blanket does in Peanuts. While there are other Lains, her true self is quiet and vulnerable. (Though it’s stronger than she might think, as this is the aspect of her that ends up as the dominant one.) Despite hints that she isn’t fully human and the possibility that she might even be omnipotent, Lain is still a normal teenage girl with insecurities and doubts. Unlike her friends, she isn’t ready to be an adult yet. Going to Cyberia for the first time, she wears a little hat with a bear on it, because that makes her feel safer. It might not offer as much protection as the onesie, but its presence is a reassuring one.

Bearsuit

The bear motif was first suggested by Takahiro Kishida, who worked on character designs and animation for the series. This idea fit well, as the series’ writer, Chiaki Konaka and his brother Kazuya often include bears in their works. Chiaki Konaka was initially reluctant to use it, however, as bears had become such a trademark for them, until the idea of Lain using it to shield her was put forward. Lain also has a number of teddies in her mostly bare room at the beginning, though later they are overshadowed by her ever-growing (almost organic) collection of Navis (computers) and coolant systems as she becomes more obsessed with the Wired, and other sides of her emerge. She still needs the bear suit, though, and it’s useful even if she can’t wear it outside. Aside from her father, Lain’s family can be quite hostile towards her, and the onesie provides her with the safety and warmth that they don’t give her. In later episodes, when things get more confusing, the bear suit becomes needed once again. In the final episode, however, Lain’s father (or at least a vision of Lain’s father) appears, and gently explains to her that she no longer needs it any more.

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I’ve always felt  guilty about enjoying South Park. While it is funny for the most part, some of the jokes go way too far. I love black comedy, but I’ve never been a fan of offensive comedy, and whenever South Park includes something that’s genuinely offensive, I get really uncomfortable. For example, the Inception parody episode was hilarious…until it got to that particularly nasty joke about child abuse near the end. Most of the time it’s witty and insightful, but there are other times when it’s just not. So, when I found out that the latest episode was about transgender people, I didn’t know what to expect, because even if it did make some good points, the creators still might not understand the issue fully. The reviews I read were positive, though, so I decided to give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised.

The Cissy is wonderful. I usually find that South Park can be a bit heavy-handed when it comes to morals, but this episode delivered its message just as well as Breast Cancer Show Ever, another of my favourites. (Admittedly, it’s still anvilicious, but considering how little education there is on stuff like gender identity, it can be forgiven for that.)  Plot-wise, it’s similar to Le Petit Tourette, in that Cartman pretends to be part of a disadvantaged group because he thinks it will benefit him. Annoyed that the boys’ toilet is always full, he proclaims himself to be transgender so that he can use the girls’. Of course, Cartman would be the first person to mock anybody who was genuinely transgender, a fact made painfully obvious when he starts taunting Stan later on in the episode. His behaviour is a clever parody of the way some ignorant people see the transgender community, especially when it comes to the whole toilet issue, which has been blown completely out of proportion in real life. None of the girls in the show seem bothered by the idea of a transgender person using their toilet- what they have a problem with is that Cartman is using it. When Wendy gets angry with Cartman and challenges him, it’s because he’s trivialising the problems of people who truly aren’t comfortable with their assigned gender. Absolutely nobody is fooled by his act (except for Butters, which shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anybody), but not knowing how to deal with the situation, the school decides to appease him with his own “executive” toilet. However, Cartman continues to misrepresent transgender people, and things start to get confusing for Stan, who discovers that Randy is having similar problems at work.

To try and stop Cartman, Wendy pretends to be trans too. With two of his friends now claiming to have gender dysphoria, Stan is no longer sure about how he identifies himself.

The really cool thing about this episode is that it doesn’t portray transgender people as weird or attention-seeking. The only person like that is Cartman. I particularly love how it’s Stan, one of the sanest characters on the show, who starts to question his gender identity, and for a pretty good reason. Beforehand, none of this stuff probably ever occurred to him, but now, two people he knows really well have begun to use a separate toilet, and things aren’t so black and white anymore. And what’s really great is that this confusion isn’t made out to be a bad thing. It might not be fun, but by the end of the episode, Stan does seem to be a lot happier. He realises that it doesn’t matter where he chooses to do his businesses. Randy (who it turns out is actually Lorde) identifies as male, but he still prefers to use the female bathroom at work, simply because that’s where he writes his best songs. His crossdressing is used as a source of humour, but not in a mean-spirited way. The Lorde parody is affectionate (the creators constantly heap praise upon her music, which isn’t surprising considering how they’re also fans of The Cure), and Randy’s actions are shown to be harmless. A gender-neutral toilet might be a good idea, but not to separate trans from cis people. Rather, it can be used for people who are scared or uncertain, or for bigots who need to be kept away from the open-minded people who don’t really care.

One final great thing about this episode is that it’s continuing the thread of establishing a sort of continuity for series 18, with a few small references to the previous two. Thankfully, it’s done well enough to not feel like a gimmick, and I’m interested to see what will follow. Also, Butters dances in a tutu, which is something that everyone needs to see.

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I am a cat person. By this, I do not mean that I have the power to magically transform into a cat at will, because that would just be weird. What I mean is that I quite like cats. They’re cute, and I tend to have a fondness for works that feature them, such as the one I’m reviewing right now.

About a day or two ago, I found out about the director Makoto Shinkai. After looking at some of his artwork (and briefly confusing him with another film-maker), I decided to watch something of his as soon as I could. Luckily, his first film, She and Her Cat, is less than five minutes long, which suits my attention  span well. (I’m anxious to watch some of his lengthier creations, such as 5 Centimeters per Second and The Garden of Words, but now that I’m back in college it may take some time before I’m able to do so.)  She and Her Cat is a simple, sweet anime about a young woman, told from the perspective of her pet cat, who is infatuated with her. His love for her is fairly innocent, and his view of the world is pretty naive, though this is something he’s mostly unaware of. He is a well-meaning creature, though, and gently narrates to us their first year together.

While it does at some points look a little amateurish, She and Her Cat is a beautiful film, and any rough moments can be excused given that it’s Shinkai’s first release. On the whole, it’s gorgeous, with a muted aesthetic. Both the cat and his owner speak gently, and everything is coloured in soft shades of black, white and grey. I’ve mentioned before how I love stories that capture the strangeness of ordinary people doing ordinary things, and this film does so very well. The camera often lingers over mundane things, like the rooms and objects in the woman’s apartment, and makes them special and beautiful. (There is an achingly lovely depiction of a train ride through the city near the end.) I love the cat’s descriptions of how her apartment smells, and of how pretty she is just going about her everyday life; from any other perspective, that would be incredibly creepy, but here it works so well. In the final part of the film, it is winter, and the cat explains how his owner now starts each day in darkness, in a similar way to how the Earth spin through the dark. Just hearing that makes me envious of both of them.

Being so short, She and Her Cat is definitely worth watching, and its brevity works for the most part in its favour. However, I think it might have worked better if it had been a little longer- perhaps fifteen, or even twenty minutes could have worked. I don ‘t mean that Shinkai should have added more plot or dialogue or anything; I just think that the sparseness of the two would have been more effective if they’d had more time to sink in, and more room so as to come across as less rushed. Still, it’s a lovely film as it is.

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A Softer World is a little bit different from the previous comics I’ve looked at here. Rather than being hand-drawn, it’s a combination of photography and text, much like Italian fumetti or photonovels. It’s also unique in that it doesn’t really have any main characters or plot. Instead, a disembodied voice narrates over pictures vaguely related to the subject at hand. While bemusing, it’s often quite funny, though it takes a while to get used to.

A Softer World is a webcomic with a tight-lipped sense of humour. Horne and Comeau both seem to be fans of bathos, dark comedy, morbidity and sarcasm, as all are to be found in the strip. In some ways, it’s similar to the cartoons of Edward Gorey, as well as the Lemony Snicket books, but with the macabre elements toned down. Its title is an accurate one, as despite its cold grimness, many of the jokes are delivered gently. It reminds me of the mockumentary or in-universe camera sitcoms that have become popular in the last few years, as it uses a combination of vagueness and awkwardness to create a sense of slight discomfort. You’re never quite sure what the narrators are trying to say, and you kind of get the joke, but it’s still not that clear. This uneasiness adds to the humour, rather than taking away from it. A Softer World relies a lot on anti-climactic third panels and subverted punchlines, and they often contain an extra hidden joke if you hover your cursor over the strip.

The comic is written by Comeau and the pictures are taken by Horne. While it’s mostly well-written and pleasant to look at, it does sometimes come across as a little bit too trendy, and while they seem like lovely people, I don’t agree with how they put down other types of comics. On the strip’s website, they describe it as “in the tradition of George Simenon’s ‘romans durs’ (or ‘hard novels’) and not in the lesser traditions of comics like Peanuts or anything else not French.” As always, it’s hard to tell how serious they’re being, I hope they’re not. It’s unfair to dismiss the work of other artists like that, and “lesser” isn’t a word I’d associate with Peanuts in comparison to anything. Still, I’m sure they aren’t too serious about that- as Winnie-the-Pooh would say, it’s hard to tell with webcomics.

 

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“This is vengeance, and so I am to ferry you to hell.”

After finishing Hell Girl, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Even when I was halfway through, I found myself missing it. Fiction is what keeps me going, and when a story I love is over, I always feel kind of sad. It’s true that I can return to it whenever I want, but it’s not the same. I miss having something new to look forward to. Anime and manga often has this effect on me. I don’t know why, but there’s some quality to it that makes me kind of melancholy. I hope that I never become too old and cranky for anime. It gives me a feeling that nothing else can. By that, I don’t mean to say that it’s better than any other art forms; they’re all equal to me. (Or rather, they’re impossible to measure against one another.) All I mean is that it’s unique.

Hell Girl is haunting. Though it never goes as deep as Serial Experiments Lain (which has become the ultimate work of fiction in  my mind), they do share a lot of elements and themes. Even their protagonists are similar. Ai Enma, like Lain, is silent and self-contained. She seems emotionless, but her personality is not as still as it appears on the surface. She is a supernatural being for the modern age. Ai has no problem with using technology, and the series mixes the creepiness of the internet with the eeriness of ghost stories beautifully. Even Ai’s outfit shows this; despite being centuries old, she wears a school uniform, something associated with modern times. One of the reasons why Hell Correspondence, the website used to contact Ai, is such a scary concept is that it sounds exactly like one of those urban legends you come across from time to time. Hell Girl understands what makes stories like that so chilling and effective. In some ways they’re clichéd (Hell Correspondence can only be accessed at midnight) and over-the-top, but that adds to their atmosphere. It’s almost like they’re confirming why these horror tropes are used so often- because, according to such stories, they happen in real life. The thing about urban legends is that they should be laughable. They’re absurd, after all, and any sensible adult can assure you that they’re not real. But, they still scare us, because of how extreme they are, and because there’s the slightest sliver of a possibility that they might be true after all. (Being the sort of person who worries constantly about every little thing, they terrify me, though I can assure any other sensitive people reading this that they’re all completely false.)

And then there’s also the element of nastiness to them. Urban myths are mostly directed at young people. They focus on young people’s problems, on how petty young people can be to one another, and on what could happen when such pettiness is taken too far. In Hell Girl, people (usually teenagers) summon Ai Enma when they want their tormentor banished to hell. However, doing this means that they too will end up in hell, though only after they die. Many of the characters who choose to do this are otherwise sweet people who end up forced into horrible situations that seem impossible to escape from. I usually don’t like social commentary, but I have to applaud this series for showing that bullying is a disgusting, petty thing to do, and can easily ruin somebody’s life. The media often depicts it as something harmless, but as Hell Girl shows, it really isn’t. I found the first episode difficult to watch because it reminded me too much of my own experiences in school.

The main focus of Hell Girl isn’t really horror, though. Again like Lain, there’s a strong feeling of urban alienation to it, and a sort of melancholy. Its opening and ending themes are both mellow pop songs, and it contains as much slice-of-life elements as it does supernatural. Hell Girl is actually quite beautiful, with some gorgeous artwork. Despite her job, Ai always maintains a calm silence that comes across as more poignant than creepy, and her three assistants are almost like a family to her. The moments when they act like normal people, or show their concern  for one another aren’t done for comic relief, but are genuine and make their characters more believable. It’s actually quite touching, and is one of the reasons I feel so fondly for this series. (Though there was one moment in episode two where Wanyuudo and Ichimoku cruelly taunted one of their clients that made me extremely uneasy.)

It’s true that Hell Girl does have a lot of mediocre episodes, though. The exposition was often quite clunky, and the premise was worn a little too thin. A good few episodes were rather…episodic, and there were times when the characters didn’t act like real people would. However, I still couldn’t stop watching, because Ai herself is just so fascinating. I love her monotone, the mystery that surrounds her, and the eerie scenes where she calmly ferries a new soul to hell. Luckily, around episode eight, a plot begins to develop, rather than focusing on individual stories, and we get to learn more about her, as well as see some variations on the usual formula. The final three episodes were extremely heart-wrenching, and Ai’s back-story will not disappoint you. I can’t wait until I have the chance to see series two and three. Until then, I will have to be patient.

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 “With this comic I am pretending I am making a comic strip for a newspaper in the early 20th century.”

-Ryan Armand

It’s only recently that I’ve started reading webcomics. I used to think that there weren’t many good ones out there, but luckily I’ve been proven wrong. (Beforehand, I just wasn’t looking hard enough.) Hopefully, they’ll be able to fill the gap left by the decline of newspaper strips. Webcomics allow artists a lot more space, something that their newspaper counterparts no longer have. Some strips from the papers have even moved online. Ryan Armand’s minus (no capital letters) didn’t start out that way, but it’s drawn to look as if it could have. minus takes inspiration from classic print comics such as Little Nemo, and is painted on large paper with plenty of colours, like a Sunday strip, but simply told. It’s one of my favourite comics in any medium. minus is done in the same vein as Calvin and Hobbes and Cul de Sac, looking at the strange and whimsical elements of childhood without being too sentimental or twee.

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The titular minus is a young girl who might easily be omnipotent. She’s quiet, and keeps mostly to herself, apart from her one human friend and a few ghosts. While cute, her morality is a dark enough shade of grey, and the comic has enough hints of darkness to keep it from turning saccharine. The strip is otherwise pretty light, though, in tone and style as well as colours, but it’s all blended perfectly naturally, and always with a tint of poignancy. Some of my favourites include numbers 54, 116, 117, 99, 1011 , 36, and the final one (it contains spoilers), 130. Really, though, all of them are worth reading. I went through the whole thing in one afternoon.

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