The Mike Toole Show
The Last Five

by Michael Toole,

At the beginning of this year, I pointed out my resolute desire to eliminate my entire backlog of unwatched, unloved anime TV shows on DVD. I'm doing this for a few reasons. First of all, it strikes me as kind of dumb to accumulate these cartoons at a faster rate than I watch them. It's like extremely wealthy people who buy up a huge collection of sports cars, but rarely drive most of them. But instead of crappy old Ferraris and Porsches, I'm accumulating awesome anime DVDs, which are definitely better than luxury cars. Secondly, having such a quantity of unwatched animation, unplayed games, and unread books can really put a weight on your mind. I want to lighten my load. Finally and most importantly, carefully digesting my collection helps broaden my appreciation and understanding of the anime medium. After all, that's why I watched Queen's Blade!

Originally, the goal was to consume one series per week, whether it was 13, 26, or even 52 episodes. Given my hectic work schedule and already heavy viewing habits, fitting all that anime-watchin’ in was going to be a challenge. I'm proud to say that, with this approach in mind, I lasted a whole one week. Hey, I got busy! But despite the occasional gap, I've managed to dig through several series in the first two months of 2014. Let's have a good look at the last five I watched.

I didn't know anything about Canaan when I started watching it. I didn't know, for example, that it was based on a scenario by Type Moon, the Fate/Zero people. I didn't know that it sprang forth from a visual novel, either. They don't always print that stuff on the box. This left some of the background and character relationships kind of inscrutable, but my failing to dig up the original game, entitled 428: Shibuya Blockaded, doesn't seem to have affected my enjoyment of the series. It's pretty good.

If you know action movies, you know that there isn't any better time and place for a terrorist attack than a major anti-terrorism conference. This doesn't stop cub reporter Maria Osawa from hitting Shanghai for just such an event, along with her dubious mentor, Minoru Morikawa. But while touring the city ahead of the conference, Maria is reunited with Canaan, an old friend from the past, who promptly yanks her into a world of gunplay, car chases, explosions, scary biological weapons, and shadowy people with inscrutable super powers. Even Canaan, a pretty but severe-looking blonde woman, has an edge over normal people—she's got synesthesia. But her version of the condition is an extreme one; she doesn't merely perceive sounds as colors, for example. She can shape all five of her senses into a single master sense, giving her a unity of perception that lets her make impossible gunshots, dodge incoming bullets, guess her adversaries’ intentions, and hunt down people and things. She's gonna need these senses, because she's facing off against bad guys with weird powers of their own.

You can tell when an action scene is taking place in a non-action series, because it's oddly flat and static—the director and his staff are getting the job done, but not thinking carefully of how the action progresses. That's something I learned when I met the director of this series, Masahiro Ando, at Otakon Vegas. Ando, who's also directed Blast of Tempest and Sword of the Stranger, is a recognized master of action animation, and at his panel he showed off a set of storyboards and reference materials that illustrate why he's one of the best. In short, Ando carefully maps out his action scenes. A balls-out battle atop a hurtling train car isn't just storyboarded, it's made more effective when Ando also supplies his animators with carefully researched drawings of the car from every angle, plus a “map” of where the characters move during the scene in ¾ view. Other animation directors do this, of course, but Ando's approach struck me as particularly methodical. As a result of his approach, Canaan's action scenes are flashy, muscular, and absolutely first rate. At its finest moments, of which there are many, the series is high-octane, Hollywood-style action, but with aesthetics more similar to a good ol’ Ringo Lam gun opera.

But it ain't perfect. Canaan slowly comes apart at the seams in its final third, its final battle an angry confrontation with an old rival that leaves little explained. In doing research, it doesn't really sound like the game would've filled in those blanks, either. Canaan herself is also weirdly charmless—I get that she's supposed to be a trained killer, but she does the exact same wavering between solemn and hopelessly awkward that Saber does in the Fate franchise. I liked the show overall—along with Ando's reliable direction, I'd also point to writer Mari Okada, who dutifully delivers not one but two terribly doomed romances. The scenery of Shanghai, a place I've been lucky enough to visit and enjoy, looks great. But ultimately, my enjoyment of the series is colored a bit by what it lacks in plot.

Last fall, I watched The Mars Daybreak, a 2004 BONES series about life aboard a pirate submarine on a watery, terraformed Mars. The show had a few fun characters and some good action scenes, but the most compelling thing about it was probably the one character who was literally a talking dolphin in a humanoid mecha suit. But while I found the show's story forgettable enough, I was a bit taken with its aesthetic. It was bursting with bright, primary colors, sleek oceangoing mecha, and vast expanses of scenery. It's the kind of show I could envision fitting right into Cartoon Network's then-daytime Toonami block, and I find myself wondering if the show's producers didn't feel the same way. After all, both Cowboy Bebop and Wolf's Rain were capturing the cartoon-loving public's imagination late at night, so why not try for a daytime hit? That's not too far-fetched, is it?

A year later, Telecom Animation created another submarine anime, this time entitled Tide-Line Blue. As I watched it last month, I found myself again taken with the way the series neatly fit in with a number of other late 90s/early 2000s action cartoons that ran on American TV. Were these studios really trying to copy an aesthetic, to create a formula for helping sell their wares overseas? Probably not, but I just like thinking of what it would've been like to see these shows at 6pm on weekdays.

Tide-Line Blue takes place not on Mars but on Earth, in a future time in which an environmental disaster has left 90% of the world's surface submerged, just like Waterworld. A pair of twin brothers, Keel and Teen (what are they gonna call Teen when he's an adult?!) find themselves on opposite sides of a struggle for resources; the human race has been trying to recover from the disaster, but just can't seem to cooperate. This series has some serious names behind it, like the late great Umanosuke Iida, who rescued Gundam: the 08th MS Team when its original director died, and also directed the fine Devilman and Mighty Space Miners OVAs. The show's oceangoing credibility is shored up by its other co-creator, Blue Submarine no. 6 creator Satoru Ozawa.

Unfortunately, Tide-Line Blue left me with just a few bright moments of neat-o naval warfare in a shining sea of lame, joyless bullshit. Keel and Teen are played as opposites, but are both dull and unlikeable, and there's a going lack of tension that will threaten to put you to sleep. The only character I liked was Isla, a tough but sweet teen mom who takes up with Keel on his sea trip. You can put the torpedoes on this show. One last note: the Bandai Entertainment DVD release has one of the strangest extras I've ever seen, a short video detailing the launch of a tiny scale replica of the show's submarine. You'll be amazed as you watch a handful of nerd press reporters snap photographs of a tiny model submarine zipping around a swimming pool.

Then, I finally watched Lupin the 3rd: The Woman Named Fujiko Mine from start to finish. I watched the stream in 2012, but put it on hold when Funimation announced plans to dub the series. I'm happy I waited, it gave me something good to look forward to. But how did I find the series, and its protagonist? I'll respond to that with a familiar old song:

Heathcliff, Heathcliff, no one should
terrify the neighborhood
but Heathcliff just won't be undone
stealing shit from everyone

Just replace the “Heathcliff”—specifically the driving force of Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights, who's name-checked in the opening song—with Fujiko herself, and you've got it. Just like Heathcliff, Fujiko has a sketchy past, but her all-consuming passion is for theft rather than angrily destroying the lives of everyone around her. And while the book's storied character gets back at his tormentors by using complicated social gamesmanship, Fujiko uses her wits and her raw sexuality to get what she wants.

But what does Fujiko want? At first, it seems like treasure. Later, as she flits away from good ol’ Lupin himself, takes up with Jigen and then Goemon, and attempts to seduce Inspector Zenigata, it seems like what she's really after is power over men. Later on, pursued by creepily owl-faced antagonists, Fujiko will be forced to turn inward, and start digging up old bones from the past.

Series director Sayo Yamamoto was given pretty free rein to set the tone of Fujiko Mine, and the production is blessedly different from previous Lupin the 3rd installments as a result. I love the familiarity of the Lupin franchise to death, but sometimes you need to put those old boots aside and try on something new. Yamamoto teams up with old partner Takeshi Koike (they worked on the excellent Redline predecessor Trava: Fist Planet together, not to mention Redline itself!), who as character designer endows Lupin with an intense psychotic stare, Zenigata with a weird and sometimes malevolent handsomeness, and Fujiko herself with all the curves of a classic femme fatale and the pleading eyes of a born con artist.

The Fujiko Mine team don't stray from the formula altogether—after all, Lupin still has his crazy gadgets, Goemon still has his unbeatable sword, and Fujiko still has her penchant for double-crossery. Even the show's new character, Zenigata's peculiar and fawning assistant Oscar, is a spin on the old “Zenigata's useless sidekick” running gag. When the show wrapped up, most of my friends told me the ending was kind of a letdown, but I liked it—it brought the series all the way around to the first episode in some neat and unexpected ways, and gave the Lupin gang's heroine a deservedly emphatic victory. If I had any complaints, it's that Yamamoto's visual approach—a heavily-lined look that's reminiscent of both 1940s film noir and 1960s gekiga—is a strain on your average TV show's budget, and some scenes reach too far and look a bit busted as a result. In the anime director's chair, a field institutionally dominated by men, Yamamoto's a star—this and her prior directorial work, Michiko & Hatchin, are great fun. A new Lupin the 3rd film, directed by her collaborator Koike, has just been announced—I hope she's part of the team as well.

One aside: Fujiko Mine really cemented Miyuki Sawashiro as the new voice of the heroine, not to mention other relative newcomers Daisuke Namikawa as Goemon and Koichi Yamadera as Zenigata. But Kanichi Kurita and Kiyoshi Kobayashi still returned as Lupin and Jigen. I wonder when they'll be recast?

What's next? The Skull Man, that's what! Even though I'm a fan of the original creator of The Skull Man, Shotaro Ishinomori, I took a miss on this 2007 series at first—I'd already read the manga from Tokyopop and had mixed feelings about it. I liked the character, but found his story and circumstances boring. Eventually, The Skull Man came out on DVD here in North America, and given its budget, low-key release (subtitled-only, and missing the awesome OP animation from the Japanese version due to the involvement of band Tokio—thanks for nothing, Johnny Kitagawa!), it's easy to forget that this is from Bones and Yutaka Izubuchi, a rare talent who came up the ranks as a designer rather than an animator or writer.

Just like the original, The Skull Man takes place in a dirty old town menaced by shape-shifting monsters and a mysterious man with a skull-like mask. But Izubuchi has taken major liberties with the story, mostly to its benefit—the perspective shifts away from the dark title character to struggling photojournalist Hayato Mikogami, who arrives in town to hunt down the juicy story behind the Skull Man murders. He soon discovers the town's dark past, and while the Skull Man is fighting a great evil, he's doing it by systematically hunting down and murdering all those involved.

Rather than being an action series, this version of The Skull Man is a murder mystery, one that unravels slowly and satisfyingly over its episodes. There are a handful of really good action scenes, but the show mostly concerns itself with Mikogami quizzing rattled townspeople, sparring with a weird religious cult, and fearlessly confronting the masked killer when he finds him. It all works up to a genuinely shocking ending, one that ties up with some of Ishinomori's other works in a delightfully unexpected way.

Here's where my running “hey, where the hell is a copy of Galaxy Angel Rune volume 4?” joke comes to an end. Despite not really liking the show, I managed to snag the first three discs for a total of $10, shipped, so I felt weirdly obligated to complete the set. Also, I have the entire rest of the Galaxy Angel anime franchise, because it's cute and funny and totally awesome. So really: how hard was it gonna be to get that last disc? And how bad could watching Galaxy Angel Rune be?

Turns out both were pretty trying. I never actually located Galaxy Angel Rune volume 4 myself, I just was lucky enough to have an old friend who had connections to Bandai Visual and was able to scare me up a screener disc. It's not a pristine retail copy (the disc itself is stamped with “SCREENER” on the hub) but I don't mind. But if you're still looking, good luck, man! As for the quality of Galaxy Angel Rune? Oh my god, it's horrible!

I think part of the issue is that Galaxy Angel Rune is from an entirely new studio and creative staff, rather than the folks at Madhouse who made the original. The animation isn't as good, but more than that, the characters are dull and irritating. The main Angel brigade member this time around consists of Apricot Sakuraba, who has her sister Milfeulle's cutie-pie looks, but absolutely nothing else to make her interesting. There's a catgirl named Nano-Nano Pudding, who says “nano da” at the end of everything. The subtitles make no attempt to translate or address this, which is probably for the best. Like, how do you translate that, anyway? There's Lily, a tomboyish tough girl, and Anise, a tomboyish tough girl with a different haircut, and the gentle and innocent Kahlua, who sometimes turns into the mischievous and sultry Tequila, exactly like Lunch from Dragonball, except the joke is used so rarely you'll forget about it and be confused when it happens next.

There's also Princess Natsume, who only occasionally appears, and Kuken, a wacky drag queen character with a perpetual five oclock shadow who just goes CRAZY for handsome men!! Man, am I the only one getting tired of this hoary old stereotype? They did it in Gargantia last year and it was kind of off-putting. Out of the entire thirteen episodes, only one is even kind of funny; the rest are just dull. Not hilariously awful, not mind-bendingly bad, just… dull. That's worse, isn't it? Things improve slightly when the original cast appears for a cameo, but they bail after about ten minutes, because they probably realize they're in a bad show. Rune isn't bad enough to burn up all the good will engendered by the original show's 79 episodes, but it's really bad. Don't buy the cheap early discs, or you'll end up me, wandering the earth in search of the final disc of a series you don't really want!

So, that's what I've been watching lately. I've also been reading Moyoco Anno's Insufficient Direction, the somewhat-true tales of life in the household of a popular josei manga artist and her world-renowned anime director husband, Hideaki Anno. It's a fun read, and I'm kind of taken aback at how much my marriage resembles the gentle, cartoonish depiction in Anno's book. I mean man, I've had the exact same “alright, if you're not watching these DVDs, can you get them out of the living room please” conversation with my wife. Unlike Anno, I don't measure things in Kamen Riders, though. That'd be silly. (I measure them in Cyborg 009s. Or would that be Cyborgs 009?) In any case, it seems like both Mr. Anno and myself have a lot of DVDs.

So, fess up: maybe not on DVD, but what are the last five TV anime shows you watched, in full? Do you have time for TV anime these days? If so, how do you make that time, because I could use some advice in that area!

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