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Witch Hunter Robin

June 1, 2011 3 comments

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.

Robin looking for better focus

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.

Miho Karasuma trying out as a field operative

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.

Haruto Sakaki is young and ambitious

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?

Amon wondering whether he should try for the role of Rochester in Jane Eyre

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.

Michael Lee using computers to shed light on the mystery

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.

Yurika Dōjima for once looking as though she might be working

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, manga and anime

March 19, 2011 1 comment

In Zero no Tsukaima, Tiffania worries about how much will show

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.

Saito is given instruction on "appropriate" behaviour

 

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.

Alucard and Seras Victoria

 

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.

Robin and her fellow hunter go undercover

 

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.

 

Follow this link for a full review of either Witch Hunter Robin or Hellsing.

 

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