The Rose Seal

Generally speaking, the Adolescence of Utena film is not the ideal way to be introduced to Utena. It throws you right into the deep end with no explanations of plot or characters, so knowledge of the series is almost a must. (Though the film does shuffle a few things around when compared to the series.) Plus, the film is highly abstract so there is little to grab on to to get your bearings.

Adolescence of Utena opening titles
Music: “Rose Is Rain – Rose Egg Rebirth Record” by J.A. Seazer

And yet, about twenty years ago, this was how I found my way into the world of Utena. I had no idea who these characters were or what was going on, but I was completely drawn in to the visuals, the music, the symbolism and metaphors. Everything changed for me after watching Adolescence of Utena, at least as far as what I came to expect from anime.

I was still a relatively new anime fan at the time, and I had never seen anything like this, which was pretty much an art film based on the primary themes of the Revolutionary Girl Utena series, which I had not seen yet. The whole series wasn’t even licensed in North America at the time! After being completely captivated by the film, I soon got the first arc on DVD, which was all that was available at the time. At last I knew who these characters were and had a more concrete idea of what was going on. A few years later, the remaining arcs were finally licensed for release in North America, and I could finally learn the whole story of Utena. Like the film, it sunk its claws into me and never let go, and once I watched the film again after seeing the whole series, everything fell into place.

In broadest terms, Revolutionary Girl Utena is about challenging the conventions of, well… everything, in order to discover yourself. There is actually quite a lot more to it, and the series goes into much more depth with many more characters to explore these themes, but the film distills it all into nearly an hour and a half of pure, concentrated symbolism. In the end, changing my perceptions of anime was not the most profound effect that Adolescence of Utena, and in turn Revolutionary Girl Utena, had on me. More importantly, I learned more about myself as well.

Utena is a series and film that I carry with myself to this day, and has become a part of me. For that, I am ever grateful to Adolescence of Utena for bringing revolution to my world.

Light and Fluffy

As you may know, many of my favorite anime series are multilayered stories with lots of depth, but I don’t limit myself to watching only titles which are often worthy of being called works of art on some level. Sometimes, I just want to watch something fun. Not to be confused with slice-of-life or ‘cute girls doing cute things’ shows (whole genres unto themselves which often cross over), shows I consider “fluff” may not have the most well-written story, or the character development may be lacking. In spite of the flaws, I still enjoy them and they are fun to watch. Entertainment is supposed to be fun, after all, and a show can be light and fun without being stupid or insulting to my intelligence.

In no particular order, here are a few examples of anime fluff which I enjoy, even if they aren’t necessarily the “best” at what they are trying to do:

The World of Narue

From the very first time I watched The World of Narue, it came across to me as Ah! My Goddess “lite” with a younger cast and a slightly different premise. Narue is an alien who comes to Earth and ends up living with a boy named Kazuto. Soon, more members of Narue’s family show up, and comedic hijinks ensue. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, but it’s done with such an honest effort, and the characters are so likeable, that I can’t help but enjoy The World of Narue. To this day, I think it’s still my favorite “fluff” series.

Leviathan -the last defense-

Leviathan is a perfect example of what I mean by “fluff”. What we have here is a fairly generic fantasy story with stock character types who are just cute enough to make it fun to watch. If the idea of dragon girls who run around doing things you’ve already seen a hundred times in other fantasy shows sounds interesting, give Leviathan a try. It won’t challenge your expectations of anime, but it will be a fun diversion. And hey… they’re dragon girls!

Engaged to the Unidentified

Engaged to the Unidentified is similar to The World of Narue in some ways, but in a role reversal, this time the girl meets an alien boy. What follows is a sci-fi twist on your typical high school series. What really elevates the show for me though is Mashiro, the little sister of Hakuya (the “unidentified” from the show’s title). She’s an absolute riot and steals the show. Again, no heavy plot or complex characters here; just something fun to watch.

Mikagura School Suite

Eruna, an otaku girl obsessed with visual novels, enrolls at Mikagura, a magical high school, with the primary intention of flirting with as many cute girls as she can… to live out her VN fantasies of course. Also, the clubs at Mikagura have a compulsory magic battle tournament where victories mean prestige and privilege on campus and in the dorms. Not knowing this, Eruna has to start at the bottom of the ladder, literally living in the hallway until she joins a club. What’s a girl to do? That ridiculous plot sold me on Mikagura School Suite, and it was worth every episode.

Brynhildr in the Darkness

This is an odd one, as it’s really hard to categorize, and it barely qualifies for this list, but in the end, it does make it on technicalities. Brynhildr in the Darkness definitely isn’t a “light” series in the traditional sense. It starts and ends as a dark science fiction story not for the faint of heart. But outside of that general premise of the story, the middle of the series is mostly harmless (if ecchi) harem comedy. It’s a strange combination, yet I still enjoyed it. What qualifies Brynhildr for my list here are its shortcomings. The story and character development are both lacking, and I wish the series were twice as long to expand on them and fill out the series. As it is, Brynhildr in the Darkness is a series which doesn’t live up to its full potential, but I still liked it.

Kantai Collection

When I decided to give Kantai Collection a try, I was hoping for a nautical version of Strike Witches. Sadly, that was not what I got. Based on a video game with about four thousand characters (not literally, mind you), the girls of Kantai Collection are anthropomorphisms of various historical battleships. But in the series, there is very little in the way of battles at sea. It’s a group of (mostly) high-school aged girls and their daily shenanigans. And that’s about it. A few sea battles are thrown in, but they aren’t the focus of the story. Kantai Collection is fun enough, but when I wanted something with a little more to it than just schoolgirl silliness, it does fall short.

And there you have a brief tour of some of the anime series I enjoy, even if they aren’t the best in their genre. I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch more, but these are some of the standouts. (A bit of an irony, for shows that are otherwise “average”.) Some shows give it an honest effort but only do what’s necessary, others try but fall short, and others miss the mark, but what they all have in common is that I do actually enjoy them, and will surely watch them again at some point. (I’ve watched The World of Narue several times in fact, and always look forward to bringing it back for another rewatch!)

Sometimes you just have to enjoy something for what it is.

Anime Backlog – February 2022

I did this more than a year ago, but in the time since then I’ve watched a lot of anime and also added a lot more to my collection. So why not take stock and see what I’ve managed to take off this list by watching it, what I’ve added, and what I somehow still haven’t managed to watch yet! Of course anything I managed to get and then watch in between my last list and this one won’t be mentioned here. I do occasionally watch something soon after I get it without months or years passing by first.

This list only covers anime I have on disc, and does not include streaming watchlists. It also does not include unwatched blu-ray upgrades of titles I have already watched on DVD. New entries since my last list are in italics. Let’s jump right in:

  • Beyond the Boundary
  • Beyond the Boundary -I’LL BE HERE- Past
  • Beyond the Boundary -I’LL BE HERE- Future
  • Brave Witches
  • Captain Earth
  • A Certain Magical Index
  • A Certain Magical Index II
  • Eureka Seven: Good Night, Sleep Tight, Young Lovers
  • Evangelion 1.11: you are (not) alone.
  • Evangelion 2.22: you can (not) advance.
  • Evangelion 3.33: you can (not) redo.
  • The Familiar of Zero (Seasons 1-4 & OVA)
  • Ga-Rei-Zero
  • The Garden of Words
  • Giant Gorg
  • Girls und Panzer das Finale Part 2
  • Gundam Build Fighters: Battlogue
  • Gundam Build Fighters: GM’s Counterattack
  • Gundam Build Fighters Try: Island Wars
  • Hidamari Sketch x Special
  • Hidamari Sketch x Honeycomb
  • Hidamari Sketch x Sae & Hiro Graduation
  • In This Corner of the World
  • InuYasha The Movie 4: Fire on the Mystic Island
  • Kase-san and Morning Glories
  • Kodomo no Omocha
  • Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn
  • Made in Abyss: Wandering Twilight
  • Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul
  • Metropolis
  • Nana: Seven of Seven
  • Nobunaga The Fool
  • Paprika
  • Project A-ko 2, 3, and 4
  • Project A-ko The Vs.
  • Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight
  • Rental Magica
  • A Silent Voice
  • The Squid Girl
  • Steamboy
  • Tokyo Godfathers

Looks like I’ve still got plenty to keep me busy for a long time to come! There’s actually fewer titles added to this list than I was expecting, and I did cross off several as well. Some of these titles have been in my backlog for years. I have plenty to look forward to watching from my own anime library, at least.

Year of the Tiger

Kisa Sohma (Fruits Basket)

In the Chinese zodiac, the year of the Tiger has just begun, so it’s time to acknowledge its cutest representative. It has been many years since the last time I watched Fruits Basket, and I still haven’t seen the new version (which the above image is from), but I do remember Kisa Sohma being absolutely adorable.

Access Flash!

After having watched the SSSS.GRIDMAN animated series not once but twice, I finally got the chance to see the original series which inspired it: Gridman The Hyper Agent.

There are no spoilers in this post, but I do go into some general aspects of the series without going into great detail.

First, a bit of a warning for those interested in Gridman The Hyper Agent. The English subtitles on the official release are a bit of a mess, and that’s putting it mildly. If you can get through the series reading them for all thirty-nine episodes, as I have, you deserve a medal. That also makes it a challenge to objectively review the series, but if you can separate the translation (and I use that term loosely) from the content of the show itself, there is something worth watching here.

Another caveat is also worth offering. Those not otherwise familiar with Tokusatsu works may find themselves massively disappointed if they are expecting something like Studio TRIGGER’s SSSS.GRIDMAN. TRIGGER was allowed to play in Tsuburaya’s sandbox for the animated sequel series, but they made it their own. The original Gridman The Hyper Agent is a one-shot Tokusatsu series from 1993, and is a minor blip in the grand scheme of Tokusatsu. Gridman doesn’t have the vast lore of something like the Ultraman series, but it isn’t as over the top as the many Super Sentai shows either. It also seems to have operated on a much smaller budget than those more famous and long-running Tokusatsu franchises. Tokusatsu shows are much different in tone than TRIGGER’s anime series, so those preferring the darker intensity of SSSS.GRIDMAN should probably stick to the animated iteration of the franchise. Gridman The Hyper Agent is a much lighter series, for lack of a better term.

Those choosing to dive into Gridman’s origins after watching the anime (which was my path) will still find an entertaining series. For me, the fun part was spotting all of the elements which TRIGGER used or adapted for SSSS.GRIDMAN. It was essentially reverse Easter egg hunting. It’s very satisfying to see something in an episode and then say to yourself “Now I know where that came from!”. There were a fair number of things adapted, which will keep keen-eyed viewers busy for a while.

Then there is the story of Gridman The Hyper Agent itself. Taken on its own merits, it stands up well enough, though it does suffer from pacing issues. The acting and choreography are capable enough, and the main trio of middle-school kids are able to carry the show (along with Gridman himself, of course). I was also personally happy that the dialogue recorded during filming was used in the final cut, as opposed to the 100% ADR (dubbed) approach of most of the Super Sentai shows I’ve seen.

Gridman The Hyper Agent is a Tokusatsu series based on then-current computer technology of the early 1990s, so anyone who grew up in that time will feel right at home with the technology in the show. Naoto, Yuka, and Ippei are a trio of middle-school friends who build their own computer, which they name Junk. One day, a figure mysteriously appears in their computer, who turns out to be Gridman, a Hyper Agent sent over on a mission. There is an enemy named Kahn Digifer who, unbeknownst to Naoto’s trio or Gridman, has a lackey who is creating kaiju which are then sent out to cause mayhem and destruction. It is up to Gridman to stop the kaiju and keep the world safe.

Now that I’ve rambled on quite a bit, it’s time to address the question I’m sure many of you have… How does Gridman The Hyper Agent compare to SSSS.GRIDMAN? As alluded to above, it’s really not fair to compare the two directly since they are made in different ways for different audiences. In terms of characters, the only one who appears in both series is Gridman himself. (Well, that’s not entirely true… Keen viewers take note!) Of course the computer Junk also appears, but that’s not really a character. SSSS.GRIDMAN is a sequel to Hyper Agent, though it does also function as a reboot for TRIGGER’s take on the title. There are also some similarities in how things work in each series. Gridman still pairs with a human to power up, and some other aspects of the battles also have parallels. Gridman’s enemy is still a mysterious being who controls someone making kaiju for them to bring to life. Unfortunately, Kahn Digifer is no Alexis Kerib, and Kahn’s flunkie is no Akane Shinjo. Kahn’s ambitions are nowhere near high enough for a villain (though he has flashes of inspiration in the later parts of the series), and Kahn’s flunkie is an unlikeable sad sack with a victim complex and an inflated sense of entitlement. That said, their surface motivations do mirror Akane’s (wanting to get rid of things they don’t like), but like Kahn, they lack true villainous ambition.

Or if you want the short version, SSSS.GRIDMAN is a supersized reimagining of Gridman The Hyper Agent.

Gridman The Hyper Agent is a fun, obscure Tokusatsu show which capitalizes on the then-current computer technology boon of the early 1990s. As long as you don’t go in expecting something on TRIGGER’s level, and if you can bear the barely intelligible subtitles, there’s a good show here. The pace is a bit too slow, but the main trio and Gridman are fun to watch, while Kahn Digifer’s evil ambitions are sure to cause a few puzzled looks. But most importantly, Gridman fights a kaiju in nearly every episode, and that’s the main reason to watch Gridman The Hyper Agent. Finding the connections to SSSS.GRIDMAN is a nice bonus.

Ghibli Reflections ~ Part IV: The 2010s and Beyond

As Ghibli celebrated a quarter century of bringing breathtaking animation to Japan and the world, they showed no signs of slowing down. All five films produced in the 2010s find themselves high on my list of favorites from the studio. But all was not to be smooth sailing, as a few big events punctuated the decade as it drew to a close and the 2020s began…

This is part four of a four part series.

The Borrower Arrietty

The Borrower Arrietty (2010)

This is the film which inspired me to write this series of posts. The Borrower Arrietty (retitled The Secret World of Arrietty for North America by Disney when they held the license) is one of my top favorite Ghibli films. Hayao Miyazaki personally chose Hiromasa Yonebayashi to make his directorial debut with Arrietty, and it was a resoundingly successful choice. An adaptation of the famous children’s book The Borrowers, Yonebayashi gives Arrietty a vibrant and colorful world to explore. Another impressive feat was how they captured the sense of scale perfectly. You can tell that Arrietty and her family are tiny people in the human world, and not humans in a giant world. Arrietty herself fits quite well into the Ghibli heroine mold, with a fearless and independent personality, yet not without her flaws. The soundtrack is also wonderful and fits the visuals of the film, going outside Japan and bringing in French harpist Cécile Corbel to compose the score and songs. “Arrietty’s Song” is not just one of my favorite Ghibli themes, but one of my favorite songs in general. I may be in the minority, but for me this is top shelf Ghibli.

From Up on Poppy Hill

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Goro Miyazaki may have gotten off to a rough start in his Ghibli debut, but his second film erases all doubt of his skills and the question of if he was “worthy” of being on the roster of Ghibli directors. Even the tension between Goro and Hayao had subsided by now, with Hayao providing the screenplay for this film which Goro directed. It’s also a complete turnaround for Goro, going from the pure fantasy of Earthsea to From Up on Poppy Hill which is a character drama with no fantasy elements. The result is a joy to watch and brings you fully into the characters’ stories. I have only watched it once so far, and that was a couple of years ago, so my memory of the film’s details are a bit hazy. I wish I could go into more detail, but I do remember how much I was taken in by it, and I’m definitely overdue to watch it again.

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises (2013)

The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki’s final tenth film for Ghibli, and he ends his directing career with what may be his best work. Miyazaki really was intending to retire after this film, but he just can’t put his pencil down. More on that later. The Wind Rises finds Hayao Miyazaki paying tribute to aviation once more, and also classic cinema. To the point where the film has a mono soundtrack to replicate the moviegoing experience of the early 1900s, when the film takes place. In a departure for Hayao Miyazaki, this is a pure drama with no fantasy elements. Long past the point where he needed to prove anything to anyone regarding his skill at filmmaking, Miyazaki was free to make a film that he wanted to. Ironically, he had to be convinced to make The Wind Rises by Toshio Suzuki (another of the studio’s founders), but once he began the project, he put all of his effort into it, and the results show resoundingly in the completed film. This would have been a fine swan song for the then seventy-two-year-old Hayao Miyazaki, but once again, he would come out of retirement a few years after this film to begin working on another.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

This gorgeous animated woodblock print would be Isao Takahata’s final film for Ghibli. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was released the same year as Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, though unlike in 1988, this time their films were not a double feature, but released a few months apart. However, both of their films released in this year would prove to be masterworks. Princess Kaguya is an adaptation of the famous Japanese folktale The Bamboo Cutter’s Tale. Fitting for a story of Japanese legend, Takahata animates it as if it were a moving woodblock print, with lots of visible brushwork, and sparse backgrounds. It’s an absolutely stunning film which pulls you in for its nearly two hour and twenty minute running time, making it the longest film in the Ghibli catalog. A fitting finale for a legendary animator’s career.

When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There (2014)

Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s second Ghibli film is another favorite of mine. It is a character drama with a few interesting elements to it that are best seen for yourself so you can enjoy how the story unfolds, too. When Marnie Was There is another of the many Ghibli films based on books, and I have since gotten the original novel this is based on, but I have yet to read it. Like many Ghibli films, this one is about a girl trying to figure out her place in the world. Yonebayashi creates a calm and peaceful world for Anna to inhabit as she meets the enigmatic Marnie and tries to understand what brings them together. The themes explored in the film through Anna are some that will be relatable for many, so that may give some an extra connection to the film as they watch Anna’s story. When Marnie Was There contains another of my favorite ending credit songs: “Fine on the Outside” by Priscilla Ahn. Like “Arrietty’s Song”, not only is it one of my favorite Ghibli themes, but it’s also a favorite song of mine in general. Yonebayashi knows how to pick them! When Marnie Was There would be Ghibli’s final film, sending the studio out on a surprisingly low-key note.

…Or would it be?

Endings and Beginnings

Now is a good time for an intermission, since that is also what happened at Studio Ghibli around this time.

In 2014, Ghibli and POLYGON co-produced the cel-shaded CG anime series Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, directed by Goro Miyazaki.

After When Marnie Was There, and with Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement finally official for real this time (though it wouldn’t last, once again), Studio Ghibli announced that they were closing up shop. With Ghibli closing its doors, Yonebayashi went to the fledgling Studio Ponoc along with other Ghibli alumni and directed their first film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, released in 2017.

In April of 2018, Ghibli founder member Isao Takahata passed away.

And yet, in spring of 2017 Studio Ghibli would rise from the ashes as Hayao Miyazaki had begun working on another new film. Goro Miyazaki was also working on a new film, and it would see Ghibli doing something they had never done before…

Earwig and the Witch

Earwig and the Witch (2020)

Ghibli makes its return in an unexpected way: with their first computer-animated feature film. They had always steadfastly stuck with traditional cel-based animation, only using minimal CG to supplement certain scenes as the technology became available. With Goro Miyazaki’s Earwig and the Witch, Ghibli’s familiar character designs make the jump to 3D. Goro had some familiarity with working in a 3D medium as he directed the studio’s co-production of the Ronja television series a few years earlier. Ghibli didn’t do the actual animation that time, but now it was Ghibli’s turn to give it a try. The results actually work pretty well, too, with everything having the proper Ghibli “look” to it. It won’t be mistaken for PIXAR animation, but that isn’t what Goro was going for. As for the story of the film itself, Earwig and the Witch is based on an unfinished novel by Diana Wynne Jones, who also wrote Howl’s Moving Castle. Unfortunately, the unfinished nature of the source material leaks into the film adaptation, as it’s a rather short film with a fairly quick ending. It may be one of the weaker stories as far as Ghibli films go, but for me Earwig’s feisty attitude makes up for much of that, which still makes this a fun film to watch. The soundtrack is also worth noting, as it’s based heavily on late 1960s or early 1970s British rock music! Drums, electric guitars, and organ all give the film a distinct sound. Earwig and the Witch may not be the grand return of Ghibli that some were hoping for, but it’s still worth a look.

…and that brings us to now. Earwig and the Witch will soon have its theatrical debut in Japan, delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, having premiered on television last year instead. The theatrical release features some new scenes, so we’ll have to see if North America gets a re-release of the film with those new scenes in it. Hayao Miyazaki continues working on his next film, How Do You Live?, with a tentative release date set for 2023. Now aged eighty, one wonders if this will be his final work. As long as he has the desire to create, I don’t think anyone would say no to a new Hayao Miyazaki film. With the return of Studio Ghibli, what will the 2020s hold?

Looking back at their body of work, Studio Ghibli has earned its place in animation history. Their production values and animation style also give their films impressive longevity, as even the films from the 1980s and 1990s don’t feel dated at all when watching them today. The synthesized soundtracks of Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky may date those particular films a bit, but other than that, it’s hard to tell that they are more than thirty-five years old.

So ends my journey through the film works of Studio Ghibli. I tried to cover each film from a few different angles, showing not just where they fall in Ghibli’s own history, but also my own thoughts on them. It was fun and challenging to write about so many different kinds of films, and I hope you enjoyed my perspective on them.