Monday, May 30, 2016

On More Stuff I Watched/Read/Whatever Between 2012 and Today

This post started in 2015, then was promptly forgotten for more than a year. But now it's back. With a vengeance. Well, with something, anyway.

There's some spoilers for stuff in here, so tread carefully. All .gifs with apology to their original shows and context (of which they are devoid here, usually for comedic value).

Noragami (Season 1)

American Gods
Through the lens of anime
(Yes, there are schoolgirls).

Moar thoughts:
Noragami is definitely a work elevated by the effort put into the details: script, music, and animation alike (it's Bones, so no surprises there). The core concept is pretty strong, and the characters are nuanced enough to be interesting. Hiyori, the wrestling-obsessed, non-divine "everyday high schooler protagonist" lead, is pretty likeable and GETS SHIT DONE most of the time, which is a major plus, especially given Yato's general apathy and Yukine's indecision. For his part, former god of calamity Yato is just obnoxious enough to be entertaining but just competent enough to see why people tolerate him, at least most of the time. Yukine rounds out the trio nicely as the voice of sanity, at least once he gets his angst in check.

Another nuanced detail of note: Like American Gods, Yato and his divine peers operate on rather different moral scales from humans, and this gives what might otherwise be a fairly run-of-the-mill shonen concept ("A high schooler and her misfit god pals fight... ghosts? Sure, ghosts.") a much-needed edge. As Yato says at one point (paraphrased): "Sin is for humans, not for gods." While the show is fairly low on horror most of the time, the inhumanity of Yato and his cohort occasionally pushes through, and raises some chilling questions in the process. What exactly are these beings that everyone is worshipping? How much are they in it for themselves versus their worshippers? And how much can humans even understand their motives, alien as they can be?

Ultimately, friendship does seem to win out most of the time, and Yato's affection for Hiyori seems genuine above and beyond her utility to him as the entirety of his worshippers. Still, every once in a while, glimpses of Yato's past speak of a different individual, a god of murder whose sword runs even to this day.

Making Yato a god rather than a human is an interesting twist on anime's tried-and-true anti-hero trying to "get out of the game," as it were, as gods tend to be rather fixed in their nature when presented in contemporary fiction. Again like American Gods, Noragami invokes the evolve-or-die nature of godhood, using it as the catalyst for a character's change (though we still don't still know much about why Yato is trying to leave his past behind, besides perhaps the fact that nobody really needs gods of calamity in this day and age).

The Devil is a Part-Timer

Mundane problems are
Way harder than ruling hell
Minimum wage blows.

Words for the word god. Thoughts for the thought throne:
I have actually rewatched this show since I wrote this post, and my enjoyment of it has only increased. The fantastic Jamie Marchi script weaves in just the right amount of adaptational silliness (Alciel, paraphrased: "It wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in home!") with naturalistic dialogue. The comedic timing, already pretty good when I don't understand the language, is only improved. While the English script doesn't exactly have Panty and Stocking's foul creativity, it balances the occasional drama, frequent silliness, and constant bickering between the characters that the show calls for excellently.

Speaking of shows with morally gray main characters in mundane circumstances most of the time, The Devil is a Part-Timer creates an interesting situation in that regard: what is the moral status of the final villain of a Dragon Quest-alike when he is put in a situation where he has no real capacity or, more importantly, motive to do evil (shift manager at a McDonalds' alike)? The question is mostly played for comedy at first, but it does get asked in earnest later, when Mao is forced to confront the reality that his actions as the demon king caused real people - people he now knows personally - to suffer. Is living a morally good life out of convenience really good? Is doing so after a life of evil acceptable?

Though Mao maintains his cool through most of it, it becomes increasingly clear that he did not hate humans so much as not view them as people. After living among them, he has developed empathy and understanding for humans he didn't have before.

But it's an interesting line of questioning that the show sticks with, even if it doesn't go deep on it: can the destined hero forgive him now that he is "better"? Should she? What is justice and what is merely revenge against a person who is no longer the same? Does the fact that Mao is not especially repentant about his past actions (except as they personally affected people he now knows) really matter?

There is some buildup, especially once it is revealed that Mao's actions resulted in the death of Emilia's father, but the show never gets to any moments of catharsis on this matter due to the interruption of existential threats to their new home that force the hero and villain to team up to save the world. It's probably a matter for later volumes of the Light Novels, and part of the reason I'd love for this show to get a follow-up. Whether Mao deserves or even wants "redemption" remains an interesting at the heart of the character, and I appreciate that the show hasn't completely excused his past deeds with some at-this-point-trite "Oh, the humans were really the evil ones, killing monsters to farm XP" nonsense like it could have. It seems to be more of a situation of evil on both sides, but Mao was pretty clearly trying to subjugate his world in darkness, even if, as they hint, it was for his people rather than purely personal ends or ego.

The combat in the show is relatively rare, but fights always look good, and often revolve around cleverness and ingenuity on the part of the resource-starved heroes, who can't (effectively) replenish their magic on Earth. So that's definitely a point in its favor.

RWBY Season 3

Season 3 is a triumph
"Keep moving forward"

More thoughts:
It's hard to say much about RWBY season 3 without discussing the fact that it was during early production of this season that Monty Oum tragically passed away. From the "Created by Monty Oum" at the start of the OP to the emotionally charged track "Cold" the end of the season, the impact of his untimely death on the rest of the cast and crew - and therefore, the work they completed in his absence - is pretty evident.

Though it's hard to separate the content of the season from the real-world events that shaped it, it is unquestionably the darkest season of RWBY yet, and not coincidentally, the strongest.

At the risk of the rest of this post turning into a treatise on the season that concludes the opening act of RWBY (and also spoil it for a few certain someones I'm going to try to entice to catch up soon), I'll leave it there. Suffice it to say, it was masterful.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure (Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency)

Knew Jojo was weird
But nothing prepares you for
Joseph's crazy bullshit

More thoughts:
Joseph Joestar is basically what I aspire for all of my RPG characters to be now.

(That's not exactly true, but I am playing at least one templated roughly off of his personality. That wasn't supposed to happen, but lo, it did.)

Besides that, I found Phantom Blood a lot more compelling than I expected. And the accents in the dub are AMAZING.

I have cherry picked episodes of Stardust Crusaders, and I might watch it in full at some point, but it's very long. Grandpa Joseph is great, though.


Real Robots versus
Super Robot feudalism?

(A small sampling of my many) further thoughts on Aldnoah.Zero:
Aldnoah.Zero has redefined my bar for mecha TV series. Simply put, it's the mecha show I knew I wanted and the one I hadn't even imagined wanting.

One of my greatest pet peeves with many mecha shows is that very rarely do people use the resources to have to solve problems. More typically, they develop some new tool that solves the specific problem (or sometimes solves all problems) and then deploy it.

Aldnoah.Zero is a show about not having resources and making do anyway. Pitting villainous Super Robots wielded by Space Knights from Mars against a desperate Earth Federation with nothing but grunty Real Robots is an audacious move for a mecha show. Managing to both portray the Martian Kataphrakts as physics-defying terrors that are still beatable through the use of strategy and deception is an incredible balancing act, and Aldnoah.Zero pulls it off perfectly. Each new Martian Kataphrakt has some utterly devastating power ripped straight from the genre's history, and each time, the heroes are forced to find a way to get around it, nullify it, or overcome it with some clever ruse. As I have long wanted in a mecha show, pilot skill trumps technology, but even pilot skill is beaten by raw resourcefulness and ingenuity.

Also brilliantly, Aldnoah.Zero may be the only Real Robot series I have seen to date that offers (implicitly) a semi-plausible reason to build Real Robots: the Mars settlers did it because with the technology they discovered there, physics was their plaything. Their war machines could look like anything, and in fact, it was in their ruler's interest not to give any one of his knights a weapon that was *too* efficient. In contrast, the Earth Federation Forces built giant robots during the cold war between worlds, because there was a GIANT ROBOT GAP, DANGIT, and they weren't going to let those Martians get the edge on them!

Another key point in elevating it over many other mecha TV series was the quality of conflicts between the characters. Almost every major or secondary character is given a motive of some depth. Even more compelling, however, is the fact that almost all of them are presented as the hero of their own story but the villain of somebody else's. The complex webs of loyalty, enmity, and betrayal that get drawn throughout Aldnoah.Zero lead to an extremely strong cast even beyond Inaho, Asseyleum, and Slaine.

Easily the best of its year, and the strongest overall standout anime series since Fate/Zero. (Speaking of...)

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works

Everything's pretty
Unlimited Budget Works
Even with Shirou

More thoughts:
A Shirou who is actually... pretty likeable? Madness!

A worthy resolution to the story threads of Fate/Zero, though it doesn't surpass its anime predecessor/novel prequel (except in visuals), UBW is probably the best possible telling of that route of the visual novel. If you accept that premise, there isn't much I'd change, save perhaps about a half-episode spent on Shirou and Archer driving home an obvious point when, clearly, this time would have been much better spent on giving Saber's solid but slightly underplayed arc a bit more emotional catharsis or fleshing out Cu Chulainn backstory.

Actually, can I just get an anime about Cu Chulainn?

Rokka no Yuusha (Rokka: The Flower of the Seven Braves)

What they expected:
D&D. What the PCs
got: Dark Heresy.

More thoughts:
Man, this is really a good time for clever, resourceful protagonists in anime, huh?

Adlet Mayer joins the ranks of Joseph Joestar and Kaizuka Inaho in the top tier of characters who fight above their weight class using equal parts audacity and ingenuity (okay, Joseph is more like a 2:1 ratio). Ostensibly headed on a standard "suppress some demons, vanquish the demon king, etc etc" quest, Adlet and company quickly find themselves in a dramatically more f*cked up situation when eight "destined heroes" show up to a quest meant for seven. And so, they end up doubting one another and their own goal at every turn, fighting socially, physically, and mentally, and generally putting their incredible skills to use against the deadliest opponents: each other.

Of Light Novel adaptation anime, this is one of the strongest I've seen since Fate/Zero, and one of the ones I want to see completed most. Who knows if that'll pan out, but it'd be nice.

Steven Universe ("Seasons" 1-...3? 4? Where the heck are the season breaks in this show, anyway?)

Magical girls and
epic space opera shown
through slices of life?

More thoughts:
I didn't expect to love this show, but it won me over. And it didn't even have giant robots until recently! Its willingness to tackle hard topics (grief, loss, intimacy, boundaries, and betrayal) while maintaining a belief in the redeemability of people is not only admirable, it's great television.

But what brought me into the show was the earnest portrayals of interactions between people that struck me as very resonant with ones I had seen in life. Steven's relationships with his various parents all have a certain genuine ring to them. Steven's numerous parental figures are all deeply flawed people (save perhaps Garnet, though she's by no means perfect), and their love of Steven may be complicated by the various foibles and traumas that shape them, but they all do their best for him and he responds in kind. Multifaceted characters (hurr hurr gem puns) are always a boon, and in this show, the slife-of-life/crisis of the week format is used to give an incredible amount of depth to their relationships with each other. It's not a format that would serve every show well, but it sure works for this one.

Also, episodes usually revolve around an ostensibly good plan getting absurdly *out of hand* (rather than a plan being terrible from the start, which usually makes the characters involved a lot less sympathetic or believable). Small mistakes spiral out of control, and then those involved have to pick up the pieces

Star Wars: Rebels (Seasons 1)

The Star Warsiest
Star Wars to war in the stars
Since Episode IV.

Further thoughts: Greg Weisman brings his talents to the Star Wars universe alongside Dave Filoni and many others from The Clone Wars team, and it's pretty great. In terms of mimicking "feel," this work landed even closer to the Original Trilogy than The Force Awakens did, evoking the first three films with subtle cues and strong parallels rather than just crossovers and cameos (though it did have a few of those). This isn't a knock on TFA - the fact that it felt different from the OT was actually a plus in my book, as my greatest fear was that it would be too self-indulgent in regards to referencing its oft-hallowed source material.

Rebels gets away with it by low overlap of characters (especially in season 1) and settings. Evoking Yoda's training with Luke works as a dramatic point between Kanan and Ezra because Kanan knew Yoda in-universe, but there's enough of a different twist on Kanan as a teacher to make him feel like the story is his, rather than a weak rehash of an older arc.

Overall, a strong first season (of 3, apparently?). Season 2 had an excellent opening and finale, but I actually haven't watched the rest yet. Soon, perhaps.

I feel like I watched some other shows in the intervening time, but that's all I'm recalling at the moment. Perhaps I'll add to this little memory collection later!

Of course, I also did lots of other stuff in the past year. Among them, I ran that Avatar campaign, which was largely successful despite a few hiccups. I also began preparing for a third Fate/ campaign ("Fate Hard 3: Fate with a Vengeance"). Mercifully, I'm able to reset to post-Fifth Grail War for this game because of the players involved (none were in Fate/Heresy or /Crusade), so I don't need to dig up the end of the previous game and figure out where all the NPCs are (nor do I have to figure out how the heck there are even Grail Wars in the wake of that campaign). Still no Giant Robot Feudalism campaign, but Aldnoah.Zero has given me lots of ideas. Someday.

Who wants to bet if it's another year before the next post?