Shelf Life
Flowers For Baudelaire

by Bamboo Dong, Aug 4th 2014

I love convention season, but it is a little exhausting. I feel like I've just barely recovered from Comic Con, and I already need to start packing for Otakon. My schedule isn't as rough as the industry folks (I don't know how they do it, but I assume the answer is Ibuprofen and alcohol), but I'm still eager for a long stretch of time where I can sit around and do nothing.

Hopefully I'll see some of you at Otakon, though! ANN has a panel at 11:15 AM on Friday in Panel 5, so if anyone is around (and awake) at that time, please stop by and say hello! If not, wave me down if you see me (I'll likely be one of the many Nonon Jakuzures floating around the convention center), as I'd love to meet you all.

Welcome to Shelf Life.

Amongst all of the entries in the long and occasionally convoluted Appleseed franchise, the latest—Appleseed Alpha, a story that tells of the early days of Deunan and Briareos and their quest to locate Olympus—is not anywhere near the worst. In fact, it's actually pretty entertaining, and more worthy to re-watch than some of the other Olympus mumbo jumbo that shows up in the franchise.

The movie, directed by Shinji Aramaki (Starship Troopers: Invasion, Space Pirate Captain Harlock) and produced by Joseph Chou (Appleseed: Ex Machina), follows Deunan and Briareos long before their run-ins with Bioroid conspiracies and terrorist plots (although the end of this film does well to tie in with the rest of the franchise by hinting at the above). Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world, amongst the empty shells of once-metropolises, the film is a lot more straight-forward and simplistic than some of the more recent properties. Rather than a tangled web of bad guys, there are basically only a few—a delightful, foul-mouthed, skinny-jeans-wearing gangster named Two Horns; an evil cyborg named Talos, and a vague hint of something worse to come.

The result is that Deunan and Briareos get most of the screen time, and while the character writing isn't exactly strong enough to give them too much depth, they do have a solid camaraderie that's pleasant to watch. We also get to watch Deunan do most of the ass-kicking and name-taking which is cranked up an extra notch in the latter half of the movie. It may not require too many brain cells to watch this film, but that's not always a bad thing. Sometimes you just want to lay back and watch some cyborgs get punched in the face, and that's okay. Appleseed Alpha, at the end of the day, is pretty fun.

However, it's not without some issues. My complaints are technical ones, and perhaps very subjective ones. There's something about the execution of Appleseed Alpha that feels very artificial. Obviously, yes, everything and everyone is computer generated, but they're rendered in a way that doesn't give them enough life. There's not enough fidgeting and shifting to make them feel real. Everything is too smooth, from the way they swing their heads to look at someone, to their robotic walk cycles. Despite the extensive motion capturing, the flaws that make humans human are somehow no longer there—fine for characters like Briareos or the strangely alluring Nyx, but awkward for Deunan and new character Iris. Their movements are too serene, their faces too placid.

Of course, it has to be said that this is only an issue because the CG is too good. During the opening scene, it took me a few seconds to realize that Deunan wasn't real, and the movie wasn't a mix of live-action and CG. I even squinted at the train car extra hard, trying to discern if the carefully eroded screws and the grimy seats were shots of the New York subway, or created digitally (it was the latter). So really, if we're just talking technical achievement, Appleseed Alpha scores big on that front. The attention to detail is great, and I appreciate that battle-tested characters like Deunan are always covered in a fine layer of dirt. The mechanism behind Two Horns' robo-mouth is amusing to watch, and in general, things look good. "Better than video cut scenes" good, even, if that's a metric we can apply. But again, hyper-realistic enough that the human characters look awkward and clunky as a result.

Appleseed Alpha is definitely more "blockbuster" than some of the more recent entries in the franchise. It's also much more pleasant to watch, and less clunky, although it does take a hit substance-wise. Still, for those who are mostly in it just to watch Deunan and Briareos muse over the injustices of society and kick robots in the face, this is a pretty safe bet.[TOP]

Next up was a series that I was absolutely dying to watch again, Flowers of Evil.

Interestingly, the thing that I felt was lacking in Appleseed Alpha—signs of real human movement, like weight-shifting and fidgeting—is what's very present in Flowers of Evil, and one of the things that I absolutely adore about its controversial animation. (It helps that the series is definitely not "pretty" in the conventional sense, and certainly doesn't have the same attention to character detail as Appleseed Alpha—more on this later.) Anyone who has seen even a few minutes of Flowers of Evil will tell you that its aesthetic is very different than what one would typically expect from anime. For the most part, the characters are not cute (although Nakamura is arguably very moe), and the animation is very clearly rotoscoped. And not in a pretty way, either, like the fluid jam sessions in Kids on the Slope, or the dancing in AKB0048.

But that's what makes the series so wildly effective. The character details in Flowers of Evil are scant enough that the movements convey more meaning than anything else. For instance, character designs largely consist of narrow eyes, the hint of nose placement, and toothy mouths. From far away, these features are barely there at all, leaving viewers to only register the way their bodies move. When characters walk down the street, they teeter and lurch, like any human who has to contend with gravity and the imperfection of the human body. Bodies recoil when others smack into them, and when long conversations are held, characters shift uncomfortably. There's a beautiful (and very lengthy) scene in episode 8 where two characters, who will rename nameless due to the possibility of spoilers, shuffle through the city streets at dawn. Their movements are imprecise and lumbering, pulled more by the sad reality of having to go home, rather than wanting to reach any particular destination. (Those who need a real-life example should try it— walk slowly from one end of the room to the other, like you're dreading a visit to the dentist. You'll lose your balance more than you think.)

These touches are helped by other little details as well. The snippets of crowd conversation are helplessly banal, but they illustrate perfectly the meaningless buzz of everyday, mainstream life. When main character Takao walks by a group of girls, he overhears the senseless, "Where do you want to go?" "Oh, the usual place." It's white noise, except pulled from everyday life.

Flowers of Evil is, in essence, a push against white noise. It all starts when main character Takao Kasuga is caught smelling the gym clothes of his crush, Nanako. He hears a noise and panics, bolting from the classroom and taking the clothes with him. He's caught by his classmate Sawa Nakamura, a crude, ostracized girl who talks back to teachers and calls them names. She calls Takao a sick-minded pervert, but delights in his actions, blackmailing him into forming a "contract" with her that more and more looks like friendship. Throughout it, she forces him to do terrible things, like asking Nanako out while wearing her uniform underneath his clothes, and confessing to his sins. It's hard to watch, but made worth it when everything explodes in one cathartic moment near the middle of the series.

The series delights in making its viewers (and characters) uncomfortable. It pulls you out of the familiar and forces you into the shoes of the characters, daring you to buck against the white noise that pollutes everyday life. Even the ending theme is uncomfortable; few would be able to sit through it without feeling their pulse quicken (it's contrasted beautifully against the completely ordinary and boring opening themes).

But, a word of warning, as some familiar with the show might already know—Flowers of Evil is not an easy show to watch. It is occasionally very dull, despite the series' best intentions. Sometimes you want to push the characters along, just to make them walk faster. But it is almost always rewarded.

Sadly, the show is subtitled-only, which is a shame for those who dislike reading their anime. The upside is that the series is rarely fast-paced enough that subtitles can't be languorously consumed. The downside is that the series could've been delightfully casted—I would've loved to see Brina Palencia flex her wings as Sawa Nakamura.

In any case, if you haven't seen Flowers of Evil yet, you absolutely need to. Yes, it's slow at times, and yes, it's kind of an ugly show, but it's absolutely brilliant, and it's one of the most satisfying series to come out in a long time. Your brain will love the exercise, and your eyes will get used to it.[TOP]

Last on my plate is Collection 1 of Majestic Prince, which covers the first 12 episodes.

Majestic Prince is definitely a slow-starter. The first five or six episodes are a slog to get through, mired in stereotypes and cliches, and swimming in cheap character animation. It does get better in the last half, though, which goes to show that sometimes weekly simulcasts aren't always the best way to watch a show. I mean, if you've already paid for 12 episodes, you might as well watch them.

The series takes place at some point in the future where space travel is an everyday thing, and kids go to pilot school like it's no big deal. Unsurprisingly, there are also evil aliens lurking out in the intergalactic darkness, so our human characters are always on the ready for battle. Cue the introduction of Team Rabbits, a ragtag team of five teenagers who have also earned themselves the nickname "Fail Five," because they're so bad at what they do. Their team is made up of a few colorful characters, like manga nerd Izuru, who also really loves superheroes; stress-ridden Toshikazu; boy-crazy Tamaki; and a couple others. (Tamaki is also characterized by having large, ridiculous anime breasts, which are only a problem because they are unlike any human breasts I've ever seen before. I think if the characters' space suits didn't also have weird collars it'd be better, because she kind of looks like someone who got stuck trying to pop out of a jar.)

Anyway, what makes Team Rabbits notable is that despite their unflattering nickname, they possess something that none of the other cadets have—survival instinct. It's important, because they use a special JURIA operating system that takes advantage of said instincts.

Unfortunately, the series starts off a little bland. The characters are not really given any personalities (to their credit, their memories have been wiped), aside from generic "the stoic one!" "the bubbly one!" archetypes, and the first several episodes just have them dumped into a variety of life-or-death battle scenarios. That their commanding officers are just gambling on their ability to stay alive is a little morally dubious, but eventually our affable team starts proving their worth. (As a bit of social commentary, the second they start making waves, they're immediately turned into PR figureheads, because what's the point of being good at something if others can't make money off of you.)

It's really not until episode 7 or 8 that we start seeing some depth, both with the characters and the storyline. For the first time, we get a sense of who the evil alien bad guys really are, and we learn that things aren't as black and white as we're led to believe. We also see a lot of growth involving Team Rabbits, revealing them not only as three-dimensional characters with their own fears and worries, but also just kids. And the second we begin to see some of that weakness and bewilderment, the series becomes much better. After all, nobody really wants to see heroes that are barely real—or, for that matter, generic villains who are merely just evil for evil's sake. It's a good way to end this first chunk of episodes, and it goes a long way to turn Majestic Prince into something that is worth watching and championing.

Visually, though, the series is a mixed bag. The mecha action scenes are absolutely beautiful and exciting, and the fight choreography is amongst some of the most inventive that I've seen in a while. The downside is that the show just doesn't seem to have the money for all of the scenes in between. It's especially noticeable when the characters are just talking amongst themselves. They stand in place, frozen until it's their turn to speak. It's especially noticeable when more than one character is on the screen, because the non-talking person will just awkwardly stare into space. At one point in the first episode, Team Rabbits is asked a question; to eat up time, each character is given the chance for an over-dramatic reaction shot. Imagining this unfolding in real life is not only laughable, but absurd.

As I said, though, the upside of having all of these episodes at your disposable, without having to wait a week in between each one, is that viewers do have the luxury of marathoning the entire boxset. In my opinion, that's the best way to watch Majestic Prince. The sheer momentum of the action scenes is enough to barrel viewers through the non-essential parts and get them to the good stuff, when the series finally begins to shine. In the end, it's worth a watch.[TOP]

Alright, that's it until after Otakon. See you in Baltimore!

This week's shelves are from Ryan M. He didn't include any information about his shelves, but they speak for themselves. I'm pretty jealous at all of the Evangelion coffee cans. That's fun.

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