Category Archives: Anime

SaiKano: Dark, Dank, Depressing Anime

SaikanoI was, for many, many, many years, a huge anime fan.  In fact, I was a fan before it was cool.  I started watching it in the late 70s, I ran one of the largest anime fan groups around, I had one of the biggest independent collections of anime in the U.S., etc.  However, in recent years, Japan just hasn’t been putting out much that I’m really interested in, I’m a big sci-fi fan, particularly of mecha anime, but that’s gone largely out of style and so, I just haven’t spent much time watching it like I once did.  I pick up a couple of series here and there that look interesting, virtually all of them with some sort of sci-fi bent, but it’s rare that I’ll sit down and watch one.

This week though, I had some time so I pulled out the 2002 series SaiKano, “The Last Love Song on This Little Planet”.  The description seemed somewhat interesting and I figured that at 13 episodes, I couldn’t go wrong, right?

Well, not quite.  First off, this is primarily a love story, told against a backdrop of war, not the other way around.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, I knew it going in, but it turns out that the war and death and destruction really aren’t all that important, except as a means to split the two lovers apart, and the two lovers really aren’t that exceptional to begin with.

But first, the plot, and warning, I will spoil everything.  Read on at your own peril, if such things bother you.

The story starts with childhood friends Chise and Shuji.  They are attending a high school in Hokkaido and Chise decides she wants to be Shuji’s girlfriend.  She’s small and weak and not very good at school, she’s clumsy and quiet and shy, but she likes Shuji and thinks it’s time that they dated.  He agrees, although he’s not much better, he’s not terribly social, and really, while he likes Chise as a friend, isn’t so sure about being in a relationship, he thinks it’s more trouble than it’s worth.  That said, she gives him a relationship diary, something that they’re supposed to write their feelings in and exchange back and forth every day so they get to know each other better, although Shuji is very bad about writing in it, to the great consternation of Chise and her best friend Akemi.

Of course, there’s a war going on in the background.  We never really know who is fighting or why, some people have theorized that it might be the French, after all the opening scenes are littered with French text and the fighters look suspiciously like Eurofighters, some have also said maybe the Americans, since there is a scene in a later episode where an enemy pilot speaks a line or two in English, but it’s never made clear and I suppose it doesn’t matter.  They also never say what the war is about, although in a later OVA, they do explain that somewhat.  So this unspecified war, with unspecified combatants, seems to be far-off most of the time, but occasionally, enemy bombers will come in and destroy a civilian center, as happens when Shuji and his classmates are shopping in Sapporo.  Separated from his friends, Shuji sees a glowing object destroying enemy planes and as he watches, it lands in front of him.  It’s Chise, although not the Chise he’s familiar with, this one has metallic wings and a cannon grafted to her arm.  She tells him that she’s been turned into the ultimate weapon by the military against her will and is the last hope for peace.

Of course, we never know where the weapon system comes from, I’m going to assume that it was alien for a number of reasons.  It seems too advanced, considering all of the other weapons we see in the series are pretty much modern issue.  Also, as we find out in the OVA, Chise was chosen because her body was the most compatible with the system, although there was another girl they tried first who was less compatible.  It seems a little silly to think that the military would build a massive weapons system and then attach it to the first 17-year old school girl that walked by, but hey, this is anime, you never know.

Now I’m not going to go into all of the minutia, the storyline revolves around Chise and Shuji’s growing feelings for each other while the weapon system gradually drains away Chise’s humanity.  The war is a backdrop as we see the whole world going to hell.  All of their friends are dying.  One of Shuji’s friends, Atsushi, has a crush on Akemi and joins the military to protect her.  Akemi, however, is in love with someone else.  Take and Yutari are boyfriend and girlfriend, but when Take is killed in the Sapporo attack while shopping for a present for Yutari, she declares she’ll never love again, but spends the rest of the series hating the enemy, right up until she encounters one in the woods (the aforementioned enemy pilot speaking English) and they shoot each other.  There are also massive earthquakes shaking the countryside, after one particularly nasty one, Shuji discovers that Akemi has been fatally wounded and that he was the one she was in love with.  She dies in his arms.

Shuji really isn’t a good boyfriend though, he never really wanted to be with Chise initially, but over time he grew to love her, quite the reverse of Chise, who initially loved Shuji, but over time decided that it was too dangerous for them to be together and rejected him.  Shuji met up with a former teacher’s assistant that he once had a crush on and learned that her husband, Tetsu, was in the military, in fact, he was the head of the squad that used the “Chise weapon”.  Fuyumi said that Shuji reminded her of her husband and they ended up in bed together.  Great boyfriend there.  Meanwhile, after Chise’s humanity started to wane and she was killing just as many of her own men as the enemy, Tetsu ended up the last survivor of the squad and he tried to have his way with Chise.  Actually, nobody in this show was very honorable or admirable, now that I think about it.

In the end, Shuji comes back to his home town after having tried to hide with Chise in a neighboring seaside village.  Chise left a diary for him and it asked him to go to the observation deck where they had first kissed and once he does, he finds a whole series of diaries where Chise had described her time as a weapon and the war and their relationship.  Apparently, the whole series was just a series of flashbacks of Shuji reading these diaries.  Chise arrives, her humanity almost completely gone, drawn by the last vestiges of her desire to be with Shuji and they finally make love overlooking the city.  The next morning, she tells him that things are worse than she’d let on, their village is the only one left in the whole world, she had destroyed everything and everyone else and the enemy was coming for a final assault that would destroy the world.  She offers to humanely kill everyone in the village to spare them the horror that was to come, but Shuji tells her that everyone wants to live and she should fight for them.  She does, but a tsunami floods the town and kills everyone.  Well, everyone but Shuji, who wakes up in a totally white world.  Everyone else is dead and a small part of Chise lives on in his heart, she’s saved him so they could be together.  She provides him with an illusion of the world but it’s not real.  Fade to black.

saikano2077Okay, the ending sucks.  I’ve already said several times how I want hopeful endings and this just doesn’t qualify.  The whole of humanity is dead except for this one guy who is going to slowly starve to death while he lives deluded in his own personal holodeck?  Seriously?  And maybe even worse, the ending is completely selfish.  Shuji spent his time screaming “I want to live, save me!” and Chise wanted to be with him so they just used each other.  That’s really part of the problem that runs through the entire series.  I want to believe that these characters truly cared for each other and wanted the best for each other, but in reality, it appears they were just using each other for their own emotional needs.  There’s a lot of reference to sex in this series, often at the most inopportune times.  Chise is dying, having used up all of the drugs that kept her condition under control and Shuji brings up the fact that he wishes they had done it before she died.  Seriously?

There really was no hope in this series, no matter how many times they tried to offer up some little bit of sunshine, it’s almost immediately crushed beneath the gloom and doom of impending disaster.  This becomes worse as the series goes on, as we see Shuji becoming more and more dedicated to Chise and she becomes less and less capable of returning his love.  I kept watching, hoping that something would happen, she’d win the war, she’d get changed back into a human, something… anything… that would make the ending positive but it didn’t happen.  It spiraled down into a flaming disaster that turned out horribly for everyone involved.

As for the animation, it comes from Studio Gonzo and unfortunately sucks.  Gonzo has done some decent stuff in the past, but unfortunately, this wasn’t one of them.  The voice acting was similarly problematic, especially Shuji, who spend the whole series, even when he had tears streaming down his face, begging Chise to survive, in a boring monotone.  Perhaps the one thing I hated the most, probably most surprisingly in fact, is the whole “ultimate weapon” concept.  It was just silly.  It reminded me of Loony Toons.  Chise would erupt into a mass of tentacles, she’d have missiles and bombs falling out of her skirt, all the while begging for nobody to look at her.  She had this weird scar on her chest that grew and shrank at will and it never really had any particular use except for her to angst over.  “Oh, I’m so ugly, I’m a weapon, hate me!”  And maybe that’s the biggest problem with it.  We’re supposed to care about this love story, but the war aspect got really silly, she’d fly around glowing and shooting rockets out of her butt and by the end of the series, she was so utterly and absurdly over-powered, it’s no surprise she blew up the planet and killed all of humanity.  Were we supposed to feel sorry for them?  I didn’t.  That said though, I was never bored with it, there was a lot of action and a lot of drama and the show rarely sagged, although there was a section in the middle that could have used a bit of work.  Shuji and Chise worked great when they were together, but when they were apart, their stories weren’t nearly as interesting.  Would I recommend this show?  It depends.  If you want to be depressed, sure, jump right in, but keep the local suicide prevention number handy.  If you’re looking for a good sci-fi show with some dramatic elements lumped in, no.  This is a sci-fi backdrop for an angsty teenage romance gone horribly wrong.  It wasn’t awful, it wasn’t what I was expecting or hoping for and a lot of people I’ve talked to say the same thing.  Some rave about the love story but most just shake their heads.  I have to fall into that latter camp.  I’d like to like it a lot more than I do, I know that I’d have done it differently.

30 Years Ago, Anime was Great!

30th Anniversary AnimeMy wife came across this image celebrating the 30th anniversary of a couple of anime series that hit the airwaves back in 1983.  All of the shows listed were fantastic, but it got me thinking, there was more put out in 1983 than just these!

Of course, those were just from one studio and there’s certainly more than one animation studio in Japan.  1983 was in the midst of the heyday of giant robot anime, when science fiction ruled the Japanese animated airwaves and a lot of really smart shows were coming out year after year.  This was after the Gundam revolution of 1979, when mecha became realistic tools, not the magical, spirit-infused giant samurai armor of the early to mid-70s, and before it became the wispy-thin, angsty Evangelion-esque nonsense of the 90s.  It was a great time to be an anime fan.

Therefore, I wanted to take a moment to revisit 1983 and showcase a couple of great movies and TV series that came out that year.

Armored Trooper Votoms:  Story: The original Votoms story focused on Chirico Cuvie, a special forces Armored Trooper pilot and former member of the Red Shoulder Battalion who, at the tail end of a centuries-long war, gets mysteriously transferred to a special unit which is performing espionage on his own side.  Now, on the run from the military, seen as a traitor, he seeks the truth behind the whole operation.  His focus, a beautiful young woman he was assigned to capture that holds the key to the conspiracy.

Review:  Let’s be honest, giant robots are pretty silly when you think about it.  Cool, yes, but silly and unrealistic.  Why build a huge human form to pilot around when you could be much more efficient and just make a spaceship?  If you’re going to do a human formed craft, why make it 50-feet tall?  Votoms is at least more realistic, with smaller personal powered armor instead of skyscraper-tall robots.  Votoms is more of a hard sci-fi show than most, which has made it quite durable.  They’ve been making sequels, spinoffs and side-stories for 30 years now with no real end in sight.

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Aura Battler Dunbine:  Story:  Sho Zama is a biker and a punk who suddenly finds himself in the world of Byston Well, a magical world  filled with dragons and fairies and powerful robots called Aura Battlers.  When it turns out that Sho has a powerful aura, which makes piloting one of the robots possible, he is drafted into the military forces of Drake Luft who has designs on ruling the world.  However, it soon becomes clear that Luft isn’t only after Byston Well and Sho has a decision to make.

Review:  Then you can go to the other end of the spectrum.  Dunbine takes place in an alternate fantasy universe where fairies and “magic” are real and where their giant robots are not so much technology but biology.  Dunbine is unlike a lot of other classic mecha shows in that it is anachronistic, giant robots set in a very medieval setting.  The show is a production of Yoshiyuki Tomino, the same one that created and directed Mobile Suit Gundam so you know it’s going to be well done.  It also means it’s going to be deadly to a lot of characters and Dunbine has the singular distinction of managing to kill virtually every named character in the series in the final battle.  If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary with a fun story and a lot of great action, you can’t go wrong with Dunbine.  It went on to several sequels as well.

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Barefoot Gen:   Story:  This might seem strange in the middle of a sci-fi giant robot fest, but Barefoot Gen has a solid place in anime history.  It is the autobiographical story of Keiji Nakazawa, who was 6 years old when the nuclear bomb fell on Hiroshima and destroyed his town.  He wanted the world to know what it was like living through the devastation.  A series of his short stories, “Ore wa Mita” and “Hadashi no Gen” were published in manga form and were made into a live-action film in 1975.  Mori Masaki then made them into this animated film that focused on the horrors of the bomb and the after-effects on small-town Japanese.

Review:  This may have the look of a children’s animated film, but it certainly is not, it was made for adults and is quite graphic.  Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, said of the film, “A vivid and harrowing story that will burn a radioactive crater in your memory that will never let you go.”  A highly recommended film, told from the perspective of a man who was actually there.

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Crusher Joe:  Story:  Joe and his small crew take a simple mission, transporting a cryogenically frozen heiress to a medical facility, when something goes terribly wrong, their warp drive fails mysteriously and they are held responsible when their cargo goes missing.  Space pirates have done the seemingly impossible and left the Crushers holding the bag.  Not one to take such things laying down, especially since his father runs the Crushers, Joe and crew set out to uncover the truth and regain their tarnished reputation.

Review: This originally started as a series of light novels by Haruka Takachiho, one of the founders of the animation studio, Studio Nue, responsible for such anime blockbusters as Space Battleship Yamato, Macross and, also in 1983, Orguss.  The series of 10 novels culminated in this theatrical film that tells the tale of the son of the most elite of the Crushers, Crusher Joe.  Crushers are intergalactic jack-of-all-trades, they’ll take on any legal job for the right price.  One of the most interesting elements to Crusher Joe, this is the first animated appearance of the Dirty Pair.  It was just a silly film, shown in a drive-in theater, on-screen for less than a minute, but it was so popular that it sparked multiple series, movies and specials for the disastrous duo.  Here’s the opening credits, right past the naked chick with the nipple tubes.

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Genesis Climber Mospeada:  Story:  In the not too distant future, man has developed a new hydrogen-based fuel called HBT which has allowed him to colonize Mars.  In 2050, however, the alien Inbit invade the Earth and easily conquer it, wiping out the majority of humanity, leaving pockets of civilization scattered across the globe.  Small cells of freedom fighters have gathered to fight a holding action against the Inbit while other refugees have escaped in shuttles to the moon bases.  Mars, however, starts to build up the military might to try to retake the Earth and in 2080, sends an expedition to do just that.  It fails and a few survivors, along with some freedom fighters on Earth, form a rag-tag fighting force dedicated to first finding out what the Inbit want and to eventually force them off the planet.

Review:  Mospeada was turned into the third segment of  the American show Robotech but is much better watched as originally made, although of the three, Mospeada is probably the least screwed with.  The original intent of Mospeada was to focus on the seven characters heading together to Reflex Point, the main base of the Inbit.  Each had their own reasons for going but they banded together for a common cause.  It was an intentional reference to Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, a masterpiece which was redone with a western theme in The Magnificent Seven.  It’s no wonder then that Mospeada takes a lot of classic western elements and makes them it’s own.  If you listen to one of the tracks from the soundtrack, “Sasurai”, it sounds suspiciously similar to the theme music for the western show “Gunsmoke”.  In Robotech, the Invid invade Earth to protect the last place in the universe that their food source can be found.  The idea that they will evolve to fit in here is purely secondary.  In Mospeada however, evolution is the whole point, that’s what “Genesis Climber” means, the Inbit are here to evolve into a higher lifeform.  In Robotech, they create genesis pits in order to study human evolution.  In Mospeada, the pits are intended to clean up Earth’s polluted environment and by the end of the series, the planet is largely a primeval wonderland, when the Inbit leave, humanity has been left with a pristine world, free from pollution, with animals recreated that had been driven to extinction.  It’s a fun show, something to take a look at especially if you’ve only seen it as a part of Robotech.

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Super Dimension Century Orguss:  Story:  In the near future, the world is at war between two factions, fighting over the “space elevator”, a means for quickly transporting people and materials from the surface into space.  Whoever controls the space elevator will rule the world and one side decides that it’s better to destroy the elevator than to allow it to fall into enemy hands.  They launch an attack with their latest weapon, a Space/Time Oscillation Bomb.  When something goes wrong, the bomb fragments reality into five separate universes, sending pilots Kei Katsuragi and Olson D. Verne spiraling into an alternate world.  However, Kei and his friend are linked to the transdimensional rift that develops and as five universes fight against each other, Kei and Olson have to find a way to put the fragmented reality back together before everyone dies.

Review:  This is still my second favorite anime series of all time, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Immediately following their success with Macross, Tatsunoko rolled out Orguss, a second series in their Super Dimension series.   The story is deep and nuanced, it’s not just a simplistic sci-fi adventure, the characters are well developed, the story extremely convoluted, with different events happening in different worlds and the ending is honestly one of the most controversial in anime history, there are still people debating exactly what happened 30 years later.  See it.  You won’t regret it.

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Urusei Yatsura: Only You:  Story:  It starts with a flashback to a 6-year old Ataru, playing an innocent game of shadow-tag in the park with an unknown girl.  Ataru lands on her shadow and it’s revealed that the girl is an alien princess and Ataru’s act is actually a marriage proposal.  She promises to return for him someday.  Flash forward eleven years and Princess Elle returns to claim her fiance but Ataru has forgotten all about it and besides, he’s with Lum now.  However, the second he realizes that Elle is beautiful and rich, all that goes out the window and it’s a madcap battle to keep Ataru from marrying Elle, complete with huge space battles, giant monsters and a surprise reveal at the end.

Review:  In the middle of the long-running comedy series Urusei Yatsura (1981-1986), they started doing theatrical movies featuring Ataru, Lum and the gang and this was the first of those films.  Released on February 11, 1983, directed by Mamoru Oshii, who would go on to do such films as Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell, this is the movie that Urusei Yatsura creator Rumiko Takahashi says is closest to her original vision for the series.   Here’s the opening credits from the movie, with all of the wedding announcements being delivered to a shocked and generally pissed off audience.

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There’s so much good anime out there, I just might make this a yearly segment, highlighting the best of 30 years ago.