Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 (2012) is the first in what’s intended to be a live action series of films based on the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki and anime series which has been sold in the West as Samurai X. I watched the anime and it’s great fun, blending the usual besotted young male reaction to the feisty girl trope with some rather pleasingly represented swordplay. The plot is straightforward. About 140 years ago, there was an assassin called Battousai the Manslayer. This is the period when modern technology is directly impacting the means of war. Many still cling to the honour of the Samurai traditions, but rifles and canon are doing away with the need for “real” fighting. In the Battle of Toba-Fushimi at the end of this era, Battousai is one of the survivors on the winning side of the Bakumatsu War. As the Meiji Era begins, he becomes a wanderer, protecting the weak in atonement for all the deaths he’s caused. The question asked and answered is how many people one man with one sword can protect. As the revolution has brought new government, the samurai tradition has passed its peak. Fighting must either be ritualised in the pretence of combat using wooden replica weapons, or legalised when applied for government purposes, i.e. for policing or military purposes. As an anti-samurai measure, the Haitōrei or Sword Abolishment Act 1876, prohibited the carrying of swords in a public place.
In spirit, the film is fairly faithful to the anime, enlarging on the opening battle scene until it matches the single image of Battousai’s sword implanted in the ground which we see in the anime. With the passive acquiescence of Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi), Battousai walks away from the battlefield, leaving his sword behind. But he later returns to take up the name of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato). As the Meiji Era gets underway, Kanryuu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) is smuggling heroin and bribing the other powerbrokers. They have also recruited a group of ex-samurai to guard them including a fake Battosai named Udo Jin-e (Koji Kikkawa). This is, of course, bending the original story to fit the needs of a dramatic structure suitable for a film. When Kenshin first appears, he saves Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) when she’s about to fight Jin-e.
This is convenient. What we now have is an excuse to fight over the dojo with a fearsome adversary in place. Obviously the production of heroin depends on a place for the processing and a chemist. Kanryuu decides to appropriate the dojo of a famous school of sword fighting. The man who ran it has been killed and his daughter Kaoru Kamiya struggles to maintain it with the young Yahiko Myojin (Taketo Tanaka) in attendance. The chemist Megumi Takani (Yû Aoi) escapes from Kanryuu and needs a place to hide. Needless to say, Megumi turns up at the dojo and meets Kaoru and Kenshin.
We also meet Aritomo Yamagata (Eiji Okuda) as the Military Commander who offers Kenshin Himura a senior position in government, and Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki) turns up in jail and later does the big challenge with his oversized sword. The real question the film is asking is whether death can ever be justified in serving a larger purpose. As an assassin during the war, our hero killed because he was told the removal of these men was the route to lasting peace. Yet now the war is over and there’s something approximating peace, the killings go on. It’s just killing for a different purpose. In the current struggle for power, the identity of the individuals who die is irrelevant to the killer. It’s simply a means to the ends of Kanryuu Takeda. In a way, every death is futile because even if someone produces justifications for each death, there’s never an end to the killing. So long as there are still people alive, it’s possible to invent new reasons to kill them. All this leaves is widows to mourn and to watch while the tragedy repeats itself.
The film becomes a form of discussion about redemption and recidivism. As Kenshin Himura, the assassin has given up killing and now seeks to use his sword only in the defence of others. Udo Jin-e has remained a killer for its own sake and he seeks to provoke Kenshin into rekindling his lust for death. The irony is that ostensibly they are fighting about whether Kanryuu Takeda should be allowed to flood Japan with heroin, but the reality is that neither of them really cares about that. Jin-e simply wants more deaths, regardless of who kills or is killed. Kenshin wishes only to avoid deaths wherever possible.
Some of the fight choreography is literally entrancing. In saying this, it’s necessary to consider the purpose of the film. This is not a “martial arts” film. This is a film transposing the first ten or so episodes of an anime to the big screen in a live action format. The fight sequences therefore strike a balance between fantasy and reality. Ignoring the wirework which is now mandatory in most martial arts films, the sword fighting here is intentionally spectacular. There are two set-piece fights in the final reels which are among the best I’ve seen in years. The first features Kenshin’s katana of standard length against a shorter wakizashi. The second is a more traditional fight between blades of equal length.
Since I know the original story and, more importantly, who everyone is, I’m in two minds as to whether this film stands up on its own. I think the introduction of Megumi Takani is a bit rushed and there’s no clear motivation given for Sanosuke Sagara to help our hero. I was also slightly disappointed we didn’t get to see Kaoru Kamiya fight properly. Indeed, the exclusion of Kaoru Kamiya and Yahiko Myojin from the rescue squad is frustrating although it would delay the set-up for the final fight in the film version of the plot. So, as someone who’s seen the anime version, I think this is an excellent way of distilling a moderately long story arc down to a manageable film length. I’m not quite so sure a newcomer would understand it all. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend this to anyone who enjoys Japanese samurai films. The politics of the time is quite well done, the fighting is only slightly gory and, overall, Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 is very entertaining.
Well, for better or worse, here comes another six-month snapshot of this site’s performance. I seem to have managed to get on to a more regular posting schedule. To be honest, I still don’t understand how the ranking system correlates with the number of hits, nor whether the improvement in the regularity of my postings is the reason for the improvement in traffic numbers. All I can say is that, in the first six months of 2012, I’m averaging 976 hits per day with the total number of hits over the lifetime of the site now standing at around 285,050. I still have no real sense of whether this is good or bad for a review site. The only consolation is that traffic numbers do seem to have been relatively stable over the last four months.
As predicted in the last report, the Dong Yi pages have taken over nine of the top ten pages on the site. I’ve become very popular in the Philippines although that’s dropping off as the final episodes are being broadcast. It seems somewhat redundant to list the top five Dong Yi pages. Suffice it to say that the average number of hits for that top five is 7,573 hits per page. In both the following lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists (excluding Dong Yi pages). So the top five of the other film/anime pages is:
These five pages have an average of 2,911 hits per page — less than half the number of hits for the top five Dong Yi pages. Obviously, I’m going to have to be more careful about selecting the content to comment on if I want traffic numbers to rise. It’s fascinating that only two of the top twenty pages relate to Western content. This increases to seven of the top thirty, ten of the top forty, and fourteen of the top fifty. I suppose I must be one of a more limited number of people writing about “foreign” material in English. As to books, here’s the current top five:
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (2)
Troika by Alastair Reynolds (1)
Songs of Love and Death edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois (3)
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder
Enormity by W G Marshall
In the last snapshot, the average for the top five books was 421 hits per page. This time, we’ve improved to 753 hits per page. I still find this rather depressing and I can only conclude that the number of sites offering ebook and other digital versions are swamping out the reviews. Why the same things doesn’t happen to the film and television content is one of life’s great unknowns. So there we have it. Another six months under my belt and a big thanks to all those who now follow the site. You’re part of the reason for the stabilisation of the daily number of hits.
Six months ago, I offered a second snapshot of this site’s performance by publishing the top five pages for both the visual and printed media. On this New Year’s Eve, I’ve decided to look back again since there does seem to have been yet another change.
For the record, the site had just over 1,500 hits in January, 9,000 hits in June, but this December is comfortably over 17,550 hits. It seems I’ve become rather more visible on the all-powerful Google rankings. What makes this somewhat fascinating is the interest in “foreign” material. I don’t consciously pick subject matter thinking this will get a lot of hits. I write about what I happen to have seen or read. My decision to write about Dong Yi, a very good Korean serial, has proved a major success with all the pages dominating the top quarter of the page counts. Indeed, there’s a chance the next top five in six months time may be all Dong Yi pages. The current top page is over 4,750 hits with the top five having 12,590 hits between them. This ignores the 36,500 hits on the Home Page which are anonymised on WordPress. The figures in brackets are the positions in the last listing.
The average page hits for the top five books has gone up from just under 200 to 421 but this remains a pale shadow of the average for the top five visual media at 2,518 hits. It says something about the way the rankings work that a review of Conan, a film based on a written work, can get three times the number of hits for Troika.
The average hits per page across the entire site is 278 which is a fairly dramatic increase from 112 hits six months ago.
So there we have it. I’m finishing the year on a high note. It will be interesting to see whether I maintain the momentum or drop back down into the doldrums. Frankly, this internet phenomenon all seems rather arbitrary and disconnected from what I do. Perhaps I should invite a publisher to send me a book for review that explains how the ranking system works and maximising performance. Not that it matters that much since I’ve not commercialised the site. I suppose setting up my own domain and trying to sell advertising would make a difference. Until then, I’ll bumble along and see what happens.
A happy and successful New Year to all who read this.
Some six months ago, I published a short piece celebrating Two Milestones. I did my best to be modest about achievements. After all, I hadn’t been trying very hard to promote the site and my postings to it had not been very consistent. But I put up the top five pages for both books and films, remarking in a neutral tone that each of the ten pages had secured more than one-hundred hits.
Six months is not a long time, but there has been a minor transformation. Having decided to share the space more equally between books and the visual arts, I have found significantly more hits for the latter. Indeed, my top page is approaching 1,500 hits with 5,458 hits spread between the top five pages.
In both lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists. For the record, Dong Yi is a marvelous historical Korean drama, the main focus of Sex Manga and Anime is the anime serial Zero no Tsukaima, and True Grit is one of only two Western entries in the top ten.
As to books, the top five is:
Troika by Alastair Reynolds
Best Horror of the Year: Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow (2)
Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine (1)
Feed by Mira Grant
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
We are only averaging just under 200 hits for these five pages, but the overall average for the book pages is slowly catching up to the films, television and anime pages. There’s hope for the printed media yet. The average per page across the site is 112 hits and, before you ask, there is one page that has stubbornly refused to collect more than 1 hit in some two years.
As a postscript, the stubborn page that had only collected one hit since being published in June, 2009 collected its second hit on August 7th 2011. Perhaps it will now develop escape velocity and rise rapidly to four, or even five, hits.
Let’s imagine a world in which supernatural powers are real. Up to this point in time, only a few people have developed these powers so it’s been possible for a small number of elite teams within an organisation calling itself Solomon, to keep them under control. The most effective approach was always elimination — simply trying to lock up someone who might have the power to knock down walls is less than practical. But, with a better understanding of genetics comes the ability to identify those who might “awaken”. If you can take them in hand before they become a danger to others, you might actually train and recruit them into your “police” force.
We are therefore into an interesting area of morality. A number of those with these powers are genuinely dangerous so their arrest or elimination is necessary for the protection of the mass of society. Yet the authorities do not wish unnecessary alarm. Governments therefore deny the existence of supernatural abilities, even concealing the “truth” from the conventional police forces. This secrecy has been agreed between world government leaders and the Roman Catholic Church since it has had the most experience in dealing with phenomena classified as possessions over the centuries. Such agreements are wonderful when negotiated by governments. Representatives are one step removed from the reality. Their motivations are also complex. Underlying it all is fear. Traditional methods of manipulation and domination only work if the mass of people can be controlled by conventional policing. If sufficient numbers of people recognise they have some degree of immunity from authority by virtue of their powers, they become a real threat. Governments could fall, to be replaced by those with the strength to insist on their right to lead.
People in power always feel they have the right to defend themselves and, of course, thereby the people they govern. So having those with the gene act as your policing agency is dangerous. What keeps them loyal? Even if you spy on them, how can you know whether they are conspiring with the “wild” talents to bring you down. How much better it would be if you could replace all these “natural” talents with super-soldiers. With the power to turn their powers on and off, you control whether they can threaten you. So there must be research into precisely how this gene works. Can its effect on the human body be replicated? This is a delicate time for all.
Witch Hunter Robin focuses on the Japanese unit of Solomon whose active members comprise Michael Lee, a hacker serving out a period of detention, but now using his skills for “good”, Haruto Sakaki who is young, inexperienced and likely to get into trouble, Miho Karasuma who is a kind of walking CSI, using her powers to interrogate objects and places to “see” who was present and what they were doing, and Yurika Dojima who is the most interesting as the true nature of her role emerges.
It all begins as Robin Sena arrives as a replacement for a lost member of the team. This is her first posting to Japan even though she was born there. Her early years were spent in a convent in Italy. As a result she’s somewhat shy. Her powers, though, are potentially strong. Except something seems to be holding them back. Her “secret mission” is to investigate whether there’s any truth to the stories of a talisman that enables those with her “craft” to reach higher levels of performance. After some confusion, she’s teamed with Amon. This is a slightly Gothic romance in the making. She’s sexually repressed but potentially powerful. He’s older and obviously has an aura of danger and mystery about him. One of the first things she discovers is the Japanese use of a strange green liquid called Orbo. It appears to act as a kind of shield for those who carry it. It also absorbs the powers of witches and is used in darts to subdue “wild” witches. After a slightly slow opening in which we observe the team at work, we home in on the three key issues. What is this talisman that Robin has been tasked to find? What exactly is Orbo and where does it come from? What happens to the “wild” witches when they are taken off to the Factory?
Inside the Walled City, Robin tracks the talisman, eventually coming into possession of her full powers as a witch. In this she’s assisted and protected by Amon and a part of the fascination of the serial is watching how they move past mutual suspicion and eventually join forces. All this takes place against the background of competing research projects by both the Japanese unit and Solomon which, working with the assistance of Father Juliano Colegui — Robin’s mentor and legal guardian in Italy — has been advancing its own understanding of genetic manipulation.
So, if what you want is supernatural mayhem, this serial provides an escalating series of fights as different levels of skill are pitted against each other. In the early episodes, we see the inexperienced threats taken down quite easily. Towards the end, the professionals emerge from the shadows and we begin to see how far the craft may be able to develop. The reality of the talisman or relic is also a pleasing idea. It’s an application of the old adage that knowledge is power. In this case, it’s also empathy and understanding. Perhaps all you need, sometimes, is to be able to see the world through a new pair of spectacles. This might give you a different perspective.
But the serial is significantly more than fighting. The complexity of the relationship between Robin and Amon holds everything together as she grows into her powers. There’s uncertainty and not a little fear but, in the end, she emerges from the shell that was built around her in the convent and enters the real world of adult emotions. With that comes the confidence of someone who finally understands herself and how she relates to the world, past and present. For once, this is anime treating a female lead with respect. Indeed, none of the female characters are drawn as a sex objects. For most of the serial, all the women are demurely dressed with Robin herself almost completely covered, wearing clothes not unlike the habit you might expect a nun to wear. Except when she goes on the run, of course. Then she must grow into the role of a bicycle courier with a nifty helmet and cool shades. It makes a welcome change to see women allowed to be competent without the artists wanting to look up their skirts.
In all the good senses of the word, this is an adult serial. Today, many use “adult” to refer to the market for pornography and, in the case of much manga and anime, there’s a considerable amount of soft porn to be found (see Sex, Manga and Anime). Witch Hunter Robin does not fit into this model. It’s a story raising intelligent issues about how society relates to an individual or a subculture that is “different”. Should a people challenge their own prejudices and try to assimilate or accommodate difference in some way or, as in the Japanese reaction to outsiders, maintain a policy of excluding the different from society, if necessary, permanently. In Japanese culture, the precondition to being an ‘insider’ is to be born Japanese. A non-Japanese is Gaijin, an ‘outsider’. Robin herself is anomalous in these terms. She was born in Japan but too clearly shows European sensibilities. Even without her talents, she would be considered a foreigner to be driven away. To this extent, this serial is written for adults who like to think about social issues while watching some good fighting.
The serial was created by Hajime Yatate (the house name collectively for the creative staff at Sunrise) and Shukou Murase, and produced by Sunrise. Throughout all, the music of Taku Iwasaki is literally spellbinding. It’s one of the best scores produced for an anime and I recommend you acquire a copy. Put all this together and you have one of the better anime serials of the last decade. It’s not outstanding because it’s poorly paced. The first set of episodes are interesting, but do not advance the plot. Once the script allows us to work out who’s doing what to whom and why, it’s almost going too fast as one revelation follows quickly upon another. So redistributing the elements and restructuring them into a more coherent narrative would have produced the ideal result. Nevertheless, Witch Hunter Robin remains highly watchable and one of the better serials for those who like intelligent supernatural mayhem. As always, I’m indebted to Autumn Rain for the screen shots.
Sex is a fact of life or, if you prefer it more direct: without sex, there is no life. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of those lucky creatures able to reproduce by parthenogenesis or one of the other less exciting methods. Then there can be lots of little yous running around without having to wait for partners to sober up enough to manage intercourse or recover from headaches. So, since we’re all genetically programmed to reproduce, we’re quite interested in the activity from a young age. That means speculating about what it’s going to be like when our bodies mature. In part, we satisfy this curiosity by watching the adults around us, and by studying images. When we finally make it into adulthood, we can access a different range of images. This either becomes sexually stimulating in its own right, or continues the process of education, showing us new things to dream about or try.
Authority figures attempt to set limits on what the images can show. There are streaks of puritanism in every culture. So, in Indonesia for example, the editor of Playboy was recently sent to jail for two years. He’s been branded a “moral terrorist” for publishing images of partly-clothed women. In other, more liberal societies, the line between the “acceptable” and pornography is drawn in different places with different consequences for those involved in distributing or possessing it. Even in the land of the First Amendment, the need to protect vulnerable children from exploitation overrides the right to publish or possess sexual images of minors.
That makes the phenomenon of both manga and anime very interesting since the way in which girls and women are drawn is often highly sexualised. This continues the traditional culture of Shunga, an erotic application of the ukiyo-e woodcut printing system. Now there are manga comics showing preteen girls engaging in sexual activity, sometimes with adults. Not much has changed over the centuries. Even more interesting is the way in which this form of depiction transfers into the real world. Fans call dressing as their heroes cosplay, and it’s common for people to meet and show off their latest creations. There’s also an increasingly brisk trade in the development of child stars or junior idols. Both prepubescent and teen girls are photographed and videoed wearing what some in the West would consider provocative clothing. There’s no actual nudity or “performance” involved, but even some Japanese government figures are beginning to worry that all this sexualised imagery of young girls may be passively encouraging paedophilia. But, despite conservative factions around the world pouring millions into research, hoping to find evidence to justify more laws to ban certain types of imagery, there’s been no success. No-one has proved a direct cause and effect between whatever is defined as “pornography” and unlawful sexual activity. People’s behaviour is shaped by their experiences while growing up in a culture, rather than by exposure to any one type of imagery.
So in most of the different genres of anime, we continue to see highly stereotyped behaviour. In this, one of the more interesting manga and anime series has been Zero no Tsukaima with the initial relationship between Louise and Saito playing out as a soft version of S&M. Louise literally treats Saito as if he was a dog, routinely beating and humiliating him. Yet Saito responds by protecting Louise and, eventually, overcomes his more general lustfulness to fall in love with her. Despite their declarations of love, nothing really changes. She remains pathologically jealous and he’s fixated by girls with big breasts. So we have episodes such as Miwaku no Joshi Furo in which the boys tunnel their way into the girls’ bathhouse to watch them “unprotected”. Similarly, in Yūwaku no Sunahama, Saito and Professor Osmond conspire to persuade the girls to wear Earth-style swimming costumes and then splash each other with water, supposedly as part of a purification ritual. Both episodes are classic voyeurism, allowing the boys and, later, the lascivious Professor, the chance to see the exposed girls. Saito, of course, gets a better view of all the girls with bigger breasts — a distraction that lands him in yet more trouble with Louise. So we share the opportunity vicariously, seeing detailed images of all the girls and their “curves” while the boys drool. When the plot is exposed in Yūwaku no Sunahama, the girls are more than happy to punish Saito with a little bondage, overpowering him and tying him to a rock.
In every way, the themes of this series pander to a whole range of different fantasies about sexual roles and the relationship between punishment, attraction and love. It also allows the artists the opportunity to show off their female creations wearing different layers of clothing and in different situations ranging from dominant warriors to tender lovers. The relationship between the intensely jealous Louise and her maid also offers Saito a “good cop, bad cop” scenario with the maid more obviously “loving” him, but being unable to do much about it because of her role. More generally, Saito’s fascination with breasts and roving eye also complicates the relationship between maid and mistress, given Louise’s lack of endowment. The popularity of the series is a testament to the scale of the market for soft BDSM and voyeurism. It also implicitly confirms that it’s socially acceptable for men to lust after young girls.
Sadly the narrative of Zero no Tsukaima is a rather thin fantasy based on magic, elves and dragons. There’s not really enough substance to make it worth watching unless you are more into the imagery. This is not to say that manga and anime have not managed more sophisticated stories with the same sexualised approach. The big-breasted Seras Victoria in Hellsing fights alongside the vampire Alucard to keep Britain safe, while Witch Hunter Robin keeps Japan safe from the more dangerous people around her. Although the imagery is slightly less obvious, the theme of strong but vulnerable women fighting and finding love seems one of the primary reasons for the success of these series.
In all this, it’s fascinating to see a new ordinance in Tokyo which “bans” the sale of any manga showing violence or sexual content that would fall foul of the national criminal code. An empty political gesture since the penal code self-evidently already applies in Toyko. All it lacks is the will to enforce it. Move outside Japan and there have been prosecutions for distributing the more explicit manga. Yet Amazon continues to sell the books of photographs and DVDs showing young girls in scanty clothes and not quite provocative poses. I watch with interest to see how long this trade continues before adverse comments are made or legal action is taken.
The animes Burst Angel or Bakuretsu Tenshi is produced by the usually reliable Gonzo, directed by Koichi Ohata and written by Fumihiko Shimo. This is essentially science fiction, set at least fifty years into the future and featuring two interlocking story arcs. The first is the battle for Tokyo which will determine the fate of Japan. The second is the personal story of Jo, a biologically engineered soldier who has escaped her training camp without losing her enthusiasm for fighting.
The primary battle is between RAPT (the Recently Armed Police Task Force), a renegade military outfit that aims to take over the country, and a dissident faction of the White Orchid Clan (Bai Lan) led by Sei. Acting on the advice of her grandfather, she recruits a team, including Jo, to fight for truth, justice and the Japanese way. The other members of the team are Amy, a teenage hacker, Meg an orphan who occasionally uses a really big gun, and Leo Jinno who maintains the fighting machines used by Jo. When they rescue Kyohei Tachibana, he’s immediately bullied into becoming the team’s chef. He pays the same penalty as the other recruits. If you’re talented, you get an immediate battlefield commission into the team.
This serial allows me to start talking about one of the classic themes in anime: that of the armoured suit. In most military science fiction, we have what you would describe as traditional technology. Human drivers relate to the technology in much the same way as soldiers do in today’s tanks, i.e. they sit there and drive the vehicle to its maximum mechanical potential. One of the clichés of submarine dramas is that moment when the captain orders the helmsman to take the sub below its design depth. The crew sweat, the seams groan, the odd rivet pops and a pipe is suddenly likely to burst, allowing a spurt of sea water or a cloud of steam to emerge. But the old rust bucket hangs together and, as the sub manoeuvres at previously unexplored depths to escape the hunting ships above, the Captain smiles and remarks that engineers always build in redundancy.
Well suits like Django exploit the psychic ability of the drivers in a direct symbiotic link. Here, the driver becomes the suit, instinctively relating to the mechanical body and able to inject bursts of “adrenalin” into the mere metal to make it go way beyond its design specifications. For these purposes, the suits are designed with an interface that picks up and amplifies the intellectual and emotional power of the driver. Since Jo has been designed as a supersoldier, her abilities enable the suit to become extraordinary. More importantly, Jo is continuing to accept and grow into her powers. Her development is encouraged by the constant need to rescue Meg — she’s the clichéd damsel in distress along the literal lines of Pauline in the old silent films — always in peril and tied up by villains. The relationship between Jo and Meg is faintly homoerotic, which makes Jo highly motivated to rescue Meg.
More generally, all the prepubescent and adolescent girls are drawn in the usual sexualised way, emphasising breasts and pudenda. We are even given the usual more revealing scene in a swimming pool where breasts and curves can be more lovingly explored. Obviously, the anime is aimed at men with a taste for younger girls wearing as little clothing as decently possible. When another female supersoldier from the same training establishment appears, the competition with Jo fuels even faster development. Their resumption of hostilities is presented in a directly genre-bending sequence where Jo appears to be transported back in time and, as fantasy, must relate to an enigmatic samurai trying to defend his village from a dragon. Except, of course, the dragon proves to be another suit like Django. The result is that Jo becomes the ultimate fighting machine when paired with an upgraded Django.
What lifts the sfnal elements out of the routine is the political and urban fantasy context for the fighting. The trigger for the militarisation of Japanese cities has been its Americanisation in one specific respect. As a culture that values some of the traditions of its samurai warrior past, the decision to allow the ordinary Japanese citizen to carry a gun has had a profound effect. Once the genie is out of the bottle, the use of violence has gone beyond epidemic proportions and has necessitated the introduction of specialist policing units to cope. Hence the formation of RAPT and its association with the mainstream White Orchid Clan. This pairing gives enough muscle to impose a form of martial law on the major cities. Criminals, both individual and in gangs, are simply shot down. The urban fantasy element is the appearance of strange creatures, somewhat zombie-like in behaviour, with glowing brains. This is actually better than it sounds and feeds back into the emergence of new technologies capable of controlling and, if necessary, eliminating humans.
This is not so much an original or groundbreaking anime as one doing all the basics reasonably well. Jo’s slow growth from manufactured soldier to human being is handled well. It’s not unlike Orson Scott Card’s seminal series of novels describing Ender Wiggin as he goes through Battle School and then tries to atone for his destruction of the Formics. The problem comes at the end when the linkage between Jo’s development and the creation of the shining brains is fudged. At a slightly different level, Kyohei grows into his role as catering officer for the troops — once actually getting into the action with Jo. The two male roles are significant. Kyohei is a desperately inexperienced adolescent and frequently embarrassed by girls, but he manages the rite of passage with increasing confidence. Leo Jinno may be the ultimate mechanic but, socially, he acts like a spoilt child, perpetually throwing tantrums when Jo damages his latest toys. The fighting is interesting, particularly as the new creatures emerge, first from the tunnels of the underground and then from the skies. Eventually, the real confrontation is one between the human symbiote and the shining brains in their machines. Both are, in a sense, new species fighting for the right to survive. Darwin would have been proud of the ideas as circumstance and direct intervention lead to the evolution of new lifeforms which then compete.
Overall, Burst Angel is just about worth watching through to the end.
Thanks are due to Autumn Rain for the screenshots.
This is a seventy-four episode anime serial available under the Japanese name Monsutā or Monster and, in every respect, it’s one of the most interesting animes ever made. Based on the manga by Naoki Urasawa, it was animated by Madhouse Studios, directed by Masayuki Kojima, with the script written by Tatsuhiko Urahata.
The story is somewhat unusual in that it’s an essentially naturalistic crime story set in contemporary Germany with occasional trips across the border to Prague or Vienna. Although other animes like Hellsing are set outside Japan, they are mostly fantasy or science fiction. There are natural dramas like Prince of Tennis, Skip Beat, etc. but they are all set in Japan. This is one of the few opportunities to see modern Europe through Japanese eyes. As a preliminary thought we need to dispose of the obvious anomaly. The “hero” is Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a brilliant Japanese surgeon working in Düsseldorf. There are relatively few Japanese people in Germany, Austria or the Czech Republic. Even if we choose to see him as not specifically Japanese and more generically Asian, he’s never perceived as standing out or being distinctive in any way. He’s able to pass unnoticed whether in a crowd or walking along an otherwise empty street. This is, of course, a necessary plot device to allow a Japanese hero to prevail in establishing his innocence when accused of crimes in a foreign land. But it’s an odd decision. In reality, such a man would be noticed as different, particularly when opening his mouth to speak. Thus, either the writers believe a Temna figure could be on the run and not be detected, or they don’t care whether the story is realistic in this respect. It should be said that, otherwise, the story is remarkably accurate.
As cultural anthropologists, let’s make a short list of the more powerful observations. At a personal level, all brilliant young surgeons are groomed for leadership as shown, i.e. they give their research to the current heads of department and so earn the right of succession. Equally, the daughter of the hospital’s director, Eva Heinemann, stalks Temna and has him lined up as her husband and the next director of the hospital. She’s wonderfully self-absorbed and only towards the end does she come to terms with her character flaws. More generally, the theme of Neo-Nazism is surprisingly well-developed. In the real world, German reunification brought many disaffected people from East Germany into the ranks of the West’s right wing. As in the anime, there have been racist arson attacks on accommodation occupied by immigrants. Linking this with an Aryan programme to breed new leaders is particularly fascinating. Petr Čapek represents the old guard, determined to put a new Hitler in place, while General Wolfe represents the establishment’s traditional opposition to a dictatorship. The dynamics of how this flows through the organisation including such characters as The Baby creates great dramatic tension.
The anime speculates on the qualities required for such a Neo-Nazi leader and how might one establish an environment in which such qualities could be encouraged and developed. As the story develops, the initial work of Franz Bonaparta, reinforced by the events in Kinderheim 511, demonstrates a methodology based on depersonalisation, encouraging essentially sociopathic behaviour that diminishes the respect for human life. In this, we have a willingness to kill individuals without compunction and to cause death on a wider scale just as one might stamp on a line of ants on the ground. The results are variations on schizophrenia, bipolar or multiple personality disorder, all of which are portrayed with quite stunning virtuosity in characters like Grimmer and Roberto.
Thus, when we come to the titular monster, Johan, we find him experimenting with death both in others and through situations in which he knows he could also die. Indeed, ironically, the eugenics programme has actually produced the ultimate anarchist, acting with complete disregard to whether he himself survives. Johan’s triumph, should we wish to describe it so, is to produce in Temna a similar disregard for his own life. At the end, the two can stand face-to-face, ignoring the slaughter around them as if they were standing on an empty windswept plain. At this point, nothing else matters apart from this transcendent moment in which they share mutual understanding.
All of which brings us to the complexity of the triangular relationship between Johan, his twin sister Anna/Nina, and Tenma. Initially out of gratitude, Johan kills for Tenma. Subsequently, he contrives to create a Tenma in his own image. Tenma gets into trouble because of his stubborn desire to do what he thinks right and then must fight to remember who he is no matter what Johan may do to manipulate him. As Anna/Nina, the twin is an innocent. Her amnesia is total. But when her world is dismantled by Johan, she must also fight to remember who she is and to resist the programming she received from Bonaparta. In this, she relies on the redoubtable Rudy Gillen and Julius Reichwein for counselling and treatment. They also team up with Fritz Vardemann to become Tenma’s greatest allies in the legitimate world.
Finally, every good crime story deserves a brilliant detective. In the creation of Inspector Heinrich Runge we have a obsessive man whose skills of empathy are unsurpassed. Able to put himself in the position of the criminal, he analyses the scene of a serious crime and profiles the personality of the perpetrator. Combine this with an eidetic memory and you have a man driven to find the truth. At first, he believes Tenma has two quite separate personalities: one the caring surgeon, the other a cold-blooded killer called Johan. Except, slowly, he begins to see this may not be the right way to interpret the evidence.
It’s remarkable to be able to write that this is a serialised story that grips the viewer from start to finish. I remind you this is seventy-four episodes, adding in the ads, each of about 30 minutes. There are moments of elation, of humour, of tragedy. There’s despair and heroism, love and hate. All human life is on display. And at the end, it says something profound about society and individuals within it. Perhaps, as a group, there are tendencies to paranoia and madness. Yet, if there are a few strong personalities, there’s always a chance some can be saved. The sad thing is that some of the strong may have to sacrifice themselves knowing as they die, that those they save will not thank them. Perhaps, at the end, that’s the true meaning of a state of mind we call nobility — a willingness to consider the interests of the many before the self.
No matter what your opinion of anime as a medium, you should look past the form and revel in the magnificence of the message. This is a tour-de force, fiction elevated to literal and metaphorical art.
My thanks to Feathered Angel at http://anime.akichigo.org/monster/ for the screen shots.