Trigun: The Complete Series

5.0 out of 5 stars Space Cowboy

Trigun: The Complete Series Box Set

“Trigun” is another one of those anime that I have known about forever, but never got around to watching for some reason. At almost any manga/anime convention you are guaranteed to see at least one Vash the Stampede walking around with Nicholas D. Wolfwood carrying a giant homemade cross. When Funimation put out this boxset of the Complete Series, I figured it was finally time to sit down and see what all the fuss was about with the guy in the long red coat and his friend with the giant cross.

To no ones surprise, “Trigun” is a great series.

I really love the Space Western genre (Firefly, anyone?) and “Trigun” takes the tropes of the genre and gives it some unique twists. Sure, there are the usual drifting into a barren town and kicking out the local boss, or quick-draw contests and bank robberies, but there are also sentient plants and seedships traveling interstellar distances.

Tone-wise, the series is split almost directly in half. The first part is a screwball comedy of errors, focusing on two insurance agents Meryl and Milly, as they hung for the legendary gunfighter Vash the Stampede, known as the Human Typhoon. Vash causes enormous amounts of damage every where he goes, and the insurance company is looking to cap their loses. They fall into company with a goofy, seemingly harmless guy in a long red coat who (of course) turns out to be Vash the Stampede himself. But instead of a cold, calculating gunman Vash is a pacifist who fights only for Peach and Love and refuses to kill. They do some road tripping, moving from town to town, and pick up as a straggler the priest Nicholas D. Wolfwood who turns out to be almost as good with a gun as Vash himself.

The second half get serious, delving into the past of Vash and Nicholas, and the mysterious killer known only as Knives. Vash has a history that he has entirely forgotton, including exactly who and what he is. And it turns out that Nicholas did not join their company by accident, and tragedy moves in his wake.

I confess I like the second half better than the first. The “super killer who is really a nice guy but just misundertood” bit works for awhile, but starts to wear thin. And just when you can’t take another comedy of misunderstandings and hijinks, the true story takes over and you delve beneath the surface of the characters. That was were this anime moved from just mindless fun to something worthwhile and interesting.

I am glad I finally got around to watching “Trigun.” Great series, and this Funimation boxset is an economical way to get all 26 episodes. There isn’t much here bonus feature-wise, but that isn’t really necessary. The story is complete as it is.

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One Piece: Season Three, Third Voyage

5.0 out of 5 stars The God War

One Piece: Season Three, Third Voyage

Things get serious as the game is officially on! The God Eneru has decided to take four, and only four, with him on a journey to Fairy Vearth and has issued the order of trial by combat to decided the winner. Three teams face off against each other. Team God featuring the Priests of Eneru. Team Shandia lead by Wyper, and finally Team Straw Hat with the crew of the Going Merry. Battle Royale.

The “Season Three: Third Voyage” box set (actually Season Six by the Japanese counting) features episodes 170-182 uncut and unedited on two DVDs. Don’t expect the end to the Skypiea saga just yet, but things do get good here.

I loved every episode in this box set. It was great to see the Straw Hats going after some folks who are serious competition. They have gotten off easy for far too long, and now they are separated, isolated, and just possibly out of their league.

Every episode has a show-down match: Episode 170 has Pirate Zoro vs. Warrior Braham. Episode 171 has Pirate Luffy vs. Warrior Wyper. Episode 172 has Chopper vs Priest Gedatsu. You get the picture. The competitors are slowly whittled away as the God Eneru draws close to his endgame. Some of the battles are heart-breaking, like seeing little Chopper having to face off alone against the Ordeal of Iron with a 0% survival rate. This was the first time in the series that I thought I was seriously going to see the death of a main character.

Not that it is all dark and heavy. It wouldn’t be “One Piece” without some comedy thrown in, and there is a great bit with a giant snake and Monkey D. Luffy doing what he does best, to the detriment of all.

The final showdown of this box set is what we have all been waiting for, and it is a doozy. Episode 180 is Pirate Luffy vs God Eneru! You know you don’t want to miss that!

Sengoku Basara – Season One

5.0 out of 5 stars Over the Top Samurai Action!

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings – The Complete Series

“Basara” is one of those hard-to-translate Japanese words. It is thought to have its roots in the Sanscrit word for diamond, but the word has changed meaning over the years to something entirely different. Historically, it refers to a period of time in Medieval Japan, called the Namboku-cho period, when the Imperial court was split between the North and South courts each struggling for legitimacy. With Imperial control weakened, the common populace of Japan went topsy-turvy, rapidly developing an outrageous fashion sense full of bright fabrics and make-up and extravagant costumes normally forbidden by law. Think of the Roaring 20s with flappers or the Zoot Suits of the 1930s and 40s.

The Basara fashion was officially outlawed during the Sengoku period when the lords began to re-exercise military control over the populace. But the word has survived to the modern day for any over-the-top extravagant display of excess, like in the Basara Matsuri of Nara city.

Which brings us to “Sengoku Basara.” The anime perfectly captures the feel of basara, that over-the-top extravagant display of excess, but this time imprinted over the main warlords of the Sengoku warring states period. (The irony here is that it was those same warlords who put an end to basara…).

Based on the Sengoku Basara¬†video game series, the anime brings to the battle the opposing armies of Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Oda Nobunaga, each of them vying for control of Japan. The names are about the only thing these characters have in common with the historical figures. Takeda Shingen is the “Tiger of Kai,” with a fierce red headdress and the ability to leap high into the air and come crashing down with his massive spear. He rides his horse standing on the back of the saddle. His right-hand man, Sanada Yukimura, is also a red-clad leaper with two spears capable of tossing soldiers aside like a leaf-blower plowing through dry autumn foliage.

Even with all the superpowers flying around, you might think that “Sengoku Basara” is going to stay somewhat historical. You are wrong. When Tokugawa Ieyasu brings forth his greatest general, Honda Tadakatsu, he doesn’t come riding in on a horse, but flying through a plasma-fueled jetpack and with a massive drill for an arm. At that point you know; all bets are off.

I loved “Segoku Basara.” It is that great kind of shut-off-your-brain anime that delivers action and intrigue and comedy and pathos and some really great characters. Basing the series on historical events got me huffing at first, but I realized historical accuracy is far away from the point of the series and I just told my thinking brain to shut up and had a great time.

The first few episodes are rapid-fire action, but things eventually calm down to get to some deeper personal conflict and characterization. The series has a nice balance between the quite episodes and the loud ones. And with “Samurai Basara,” the loud episodes are really, really loud.

This release from Funimation has the complete First Season, with thirteen episodes on two DVDs. Season Two brings in the one person obviously missing from “Sengoku Basara,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi. I will definitely be there for the fireworks to start.

Eden of the East: The Complete Series [DVD]

4.0 out of 5 stars Just another Careless Monday

Eden of the East: The Complete Series

“Eden of the East” (a direct translation of Japanese title “Higashi no Eden”) starts firing mysteries at you from the first frame, and never really stops even after the final episode ends. I watched this series with my wife in one bold throw: all eleven episodes back-to-back, and when we finished we both looked at each other and asked “So what just happened?”

Part spy-thriller, part-social commentary, part-surrealist love story, “East of Eden” is not an anime for those who like their story neat and clean. The animation is flawless, as is the talent involved: writer and director Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell SAC), character designs by Chika Umino (Honey and Clover) and animation by Production I.G (Kill Bill – Volume One).

Plot-wise, there is a lot packed into those eleven episodes. 21-year old Morimi Saki stands in front of the White House in Washington D.C. and throws something on the lawn. Takizawa Akira, completely naked and memory-less (ala The Bourne Identity), appears holding a gun and a cell phone. Japan suffered a missile attack that left huge wholes in the country but magically managed not to kill anyone, now know as Careless Monday. Twelve operatives, called selecaos, are involved in a game to save the world. Each is given ten billion yen (roughly 100 million dollars) and access to a “concierge” who keeps track of their purchases and can deliver any service required from cleaning up dead bodies to making the Primer Minster say “Uncle” on live TV. A group of college kids, part of the NEET generation (In Japan NEET are a slacker sub-class. The word stands for No Employment, Education or Training), have developed an application called “Eden” which is a visual search engine that does a search via cellphone on anything it sees through the camera. The smartest guy in the world is a shut-in nicknamed “Underpants.” A sexy female serial killer called the “Johnny Chopper” uses a killing method I will leave up to your imagination.

Like I said, a lot packed in.

“East of Eden” was a great show, although I didn’t love it as much as some people did. Definitely not on the same level as Monster. It was disjointed, and a lot of questions that get posed are just never answered. What did Morimi Saki throw onto the front lawn of the White House? Who is the mysterious Supporter? Did that girl really just grow wings and fly away? Who are the little white monkey people? Many of these questions are answered in the two theatrical movies that followed the series, but here they are just questions.

There is one gapping plot hole. In light of films like “The Social Network,” it is hard to imagine that these kids would invent something as amazing as the Eden software and not become instantly rich. They said they couldn’t figure out how to sell it, which I find hard to believe. They would be millionaires.

“East of Eden” was interesting to me because I recently watched another Japanese film, “Kaiji the Ultimate Gambler,” that also offers a bizarre answer to the topical social question in Japan. What do we do with all of these NEETs? It is a big issue, and when I lived in Japan you could hardly turn on the TV without hearing something about it. A whole generation of young adults who just don’t want to work, study, or do anything. A sort of country-wide malaise affecting people of a certain age. Obviously it is time for the entertainment industry to offer their response.

The DVD for “Eden of the East” has some extras, although not as many as the Blu-ray release. There is an interview with the director and the two main voice actors. There has been some complaints that the Oasis song that was used for the opening credits in Japan only appears on the first episode due to rights issues, but I honestly didn’t even notice. I tend to skip the opening and closing theme songs anyways, so it didn’t affect my viewing experience at all.

The subtitle track was fine. Nothing really stood out and it did a good job. One noticeable difference between the subtitle and the dub is the nickname of the computer genius who is called “underpants” in the subtitle and “panties” in the dub. Technically, “underpants” is the correct Japanese equivalent, as “panties” implies women’s underwear which is not at all the case in the Japanese language track. But some one obviously thought it was funnier.

Eden of the East: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]

5.0 out of 5 stars Great series!

Eden of the East: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]

The Series Itself:

This is the new series from Kenji Kamiyama, director of MiniPato, Ghost in the Shell SAC Complete 1st Season Collection Box Set + Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, 2nd GIG, and Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. Being a fan of all of the above, I was of course enthusiastic to see what he was working on next; especially as this is, unlike his previous efforts, is a completely new story, complete with a new universe and original characters.

I can affirm that I am not disappointed.

The basic setup is as follows:

“On November 22, 2010 ten missiles strike Japan. However, this unprecedented terrorist act, later to be called as “Careless Monday,” does not result in any apparent victims, and is soon forgotten by almost everyone. Then, 3 months later… Saki Morimi is a young woman currently in the United States of America on her graduation trip. But just when she is in front of the White House, Washington DC, she gets into trouble, and only the unexpected intervention of one of her fellow countrymen saves her. However, this man, who introduces himself as Akira Takizawa, is a complete mystery. He appears to have lost his memory. and he is stark naked, except for the gun he holds in one hand, and the mobile phone he’s holding with the other hand. A phone that is charged with 8,200,000,000 yen in digital cash.”

Essentially, the setup for the show is one giant mystery. But, as Momorou Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, Jin Roh) says- being Kenji Kamiyama, it is certain that all mysteries will be eventually revealed. The unraveling of this mystery, as well as Akria Takizawa’s memories, leads him, Saki Morimi, and her friends, into an adventure of national and international import.

It’s difficult to go into more detail without providing spoilers, so I will make no attempt to do so here. Suffice to say that if you enjoy anime, then it is likely that you will enjoy this series. If you enjoyed Ghost in the Shell TV, either or both series, then you are all but guaranteed to enjoy this series (actually, Akira’s design reminded me a lot of The Laughing Man from GITS. Personality-wise, however, he’s a complete inversion).

In the past, I have been somewhat disappointed with the gap in quality between Production IG’s efforts in cinematic releases (ex. Ghost in the Shell 2 – Innocence) and their relatively low-quality TV productions (ex. “Otogo Zoshi”). This gap is certainly not evident with Eden of the East. From the characters, to the gadgets, to the background world, everything is beautifully designed.

Startlingly, all seem to have their own style; living creatures, human and animal are animated in traditional cels, whereas gadgets and gizmos have a clear cel-shaded GCI design. The backgrounds, however, are rendered in a consciously painterly style, with obvious digital ‘brushstrokes’ breaking any attempt at direct imitation of reality. The result, however, is not an inconsistent world (I’m looking at you, Gonzo), but an oddly seamless whole, like in Miyazaki’s recent effort, Ponyo.

Of course, much of this artistry might be lost in a bad-transfer. Which leads me to my next section…

Blu-Ray Quality:

I have often said that much of the benefits of Blu-Ray vs DVD is simply lost when dealing with anime. I have long felt, and I still feel, that the DVD format almost feels tailor-made for anime: with it’s inherent support for multiple languages, and the bit-rate benefits for flat-color under the MPEG2 format. Having recently watched Moribito (as above, another Kenji Kamiyami effort with Production IG) on DVD, I can attest to being very pleased with the quality of the series on DVD, even when viewed on a 1080p capable HDTV.

Now, not having seen the DVD transfer I am not in position to make a comparison. But- if you own a Blu-Ray player, and you are planning on watching or owning this series, then you owe it yourself to watch this on Blu-Ray. As noted above, no obvious corners have been cut to bring this series to life, and this fact vibrantly appears in every frame of this program. To their credit, I have been impressed with the quality of Funimation releases in the past, and this Blu-Ray release continues their excellent track-record. From the menus, to the transfer quality, to the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio, this is truly a flawless presentation. Having seen this on BD, I cannot imagine wanting to see this series any other way.

Another note- please be aware that my review is based upon watching this series in the original Japanese with subtitles. If you have issues with the dub version, then I am sorry to hear that. I suggest that you try the original Japanese with subs in this case; after all, this is what the animators saw as the finished version of the show.

Bottom Line:

If you enjoy anime, foreign film, and/or challenging sci-fi, this is at the very least a ‘rent’ recommendation. If you are a fan of seminal anime shows like “Ghost in the Shell,” “Akira,” and “Evangellion,” feel free to upgrade yourself to the ‘buy’ category. You will not be disappointed.

Highly recommended

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Part 2

5.0 out of 5 stars The Homunculi Unleashed

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Part 2

Part Two of “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood” is what the fans have been waiting for. This is finally the point where the original “Fullmetal Alchemist” parted company with the manga and went off on its own story, but here with “Brotherhood” there is the chance to do it right.

“Brotherhood” was a pretty bold experiment. The first Fullmetal Alchemist anime out-paced the manga, and had to invent new storylines and resolutions separate from Hiromu Arakawa’s intentions. This in not unheard of in Japan. The same thing happened to Negima! which leads to a drastically different storyline in the manga and the anime. But with “Brotherhood” they decided to go back and re-make the series from the beginning, produced by studio Bones with new directors, character designs and overall look while keeping the story in-line with what was going on in the manga.

Part 1 of “Brotherhood” was good, but a little too rushed. They were basically covering ground that had already been covered in the first anime, and it isn’t until Part Two that the story gets to break free and develop according to plan. It shows in the quality and attention to character development in Part Two.

Part Two contains episodes 14-26, covering volumes 8 through 13 of the manga. There is too much going on here to give a full synopsis, but there are plenty of surprises in story for the Elrics as they encounter foreigners from a distant country who use alkahestry, an alternate form of the more familiar alchemy used by the brothers, and more secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone are revealed. The highlights of Part 2 are in episode 19, when the power of the homunculi Lust is finally unleashed for an action-packed showdown with Roy Mustang, and the heartbreaking episode 20, where Edward discovers some harsh truths about his transmuting the souls of the dead.

I don’t know if you have to choose, but I am enjoying “Brotherhood” more than the original “Fullmetal Alchemist” anime. The stories are deeper and more complex, and the animation style is more luscious and colorful.

If you haven’t given “Brotherhood” a shot, here is where it really shows itself to be more than a re-do of “Fullmetal Alchemist.” Give it a try!

Hetalia: Axis Powers – The Complete First Season

 

4.0 out of 5 stars Useless Italy – The Anime

Hetalia: Axis Powers – The Complete First Season

Combine the wacky history of the old the old Warner Bros cartoon “Histeria!” with the Japanese “Moe” aesthetic, and there you have “Hetalia.” Creator Hidekazu Himaruya got the idea for the comic when he was studying abroad in New York, and stumbled on a web page full of ethnic jokes. He thought that might make a good basis for a comic, but instead of being spiteful with the ethnic stereotypes Hidekazu went “moe.” Each country gets their own little costume and country personification, with some adventures and little bits of random history thrown in.

“Hetalia” (meaning “Useless Italy,” being a portmanteau between the word for “useless” (“hetare”) and “Italy” (“Italia.”)) originated as a webcomic, before being bound as a manga, and now finally makes the leap to animation. True to its webcomic origins, “Hetalia” doesn’t have an ongoing plot but is more of a series of gags each about five minutes long and that constitutes and episode. This means you get twenty-six episodes on this DVD set, but don’t be fooled into thinking that is some kind of bargin. Most of the gags here are taken directly from the comic, so if you have read them manga then be prepared to see the same jokes and skits animated.

I gave the manga a rating of “Good, but not Great” and that is pretty much how I feel about the anime as well. What works in the manga works here. What doesn’t work in the manga still doesn’t work here. This is funny, light humor with an ethnic/historical twist, and is good to watch for fun but doesn’t have much going for it beyond that.

One of the things that annoyed me about this DVD set is that even though each episode is roughly five minutes long, you still get the whole intro and outro theme songs. Keep the remote at hand because unless you are truly dedicated you will probably be skipping the theme songs ever five minutes.

Another thing that you will need your remote for is the pause button. Just like the manga, “Hetalia” the anime throws up little explanatory factoids every now and then to explain the historical humor, but these blip on and off pretty fast. Its like Pop-up Video but without the screen time. This was much more effective in the manga when your eyes weren’t racing to keep up with the pace of the anime.

I think the less you know about history the more you will love “Hetalia.” If you already know most of the ins and outs of WWII, then just shut off your brain and enjoy the show, otherwise the errors will drive you mad. If you don’t even know what “Axis Powers” means and the words “Tripartite Pact” leave you scratching your head, then this might inspire you to looks some things up and learn more about one of the most important events in human history. You know…in a cute, chibi style.

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