Seasonal Impressions : March Comes In Like A Lion

3-Gatsu no Lion

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Now that Shaft has run out of source material to adapt from the Monogatari series, which has been their primary focus over the past half-decade, we may be safe in expecting to see them broaden their portfolio over the following seasons. This is a damn good start.

I’ve watched three episodes as of now, and so far I’ve loved almost everything about it, but what immediately pulled me into 3-Gatsu above all else was the breathtakingly visual quality. I had relatively high expectations considering the immense talent behind the production, but this unique design style and brilliant utilization of color, paired with great directing honestly blew me away. The animation mixes styles of fluid motion accompanied by a vibrant and appealing color palette, to a jarring contrast of erratically flickering black and white. The aesthetics alone would be sufficient to tell an engaging narrative; early into the first episode we are shown a scene where our protagonist is playing a game of Shōji, and without a word of dialog, or a hint of explanation, the atmosphere of the scene is turned dour and depressing. We can feel the emotional tension of the scene through the exceptional visual directing, and the expressive art style; it conveys a vague context of the situation almost entirely without the use of conventional exposition. The style pulls the viewer into the characters world through evocative design work.

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The character design’s are abnormal in a refreshing way, the exaggeration of facial expressions really leaves an impact as both a unique stylistic choice, and as a tool for establishing the emotional tone of a scene. When the characters wear their hearts on their sleeves like this, atmosphere becomes really easy to read.

The landscapes are as beautiful as everything else in the anime, but what stands out the most is how the world feels perfectly grounded by its varied and realistic set designs, each location feels like its own unique space, yet never far removed from what you would expect to see in a real city. Everything fits the tone of the scene; Akari, Hinata, and Momo, live together in a modest home shared with their grandfather. The small space packed with the energetic children and a number of pet cats make the location feel kinetic and bustling, while at the same time being cozy and inviting. Even in the sentimental scenes of the family as they mourn their deceased mother, light subtly radiates from inside the house as symbolism of the happiness in familial bonds.

The representation of lighting in 3-Gatsu is a motif in itself. The blog ‘For me, In Full Bloom‘ has an article which expands of this element of the aesthetic in far more detail than I ever could, I recommend giving it a read.

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The sound design enhances everything I’ve talked about previous. Composed by Yukari Hashimoto, known for her work creating the soundtrack and insert songs for ‘Mawaru Penguindrum‘ as well as the soundtrack from ‘Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun‘. From what I’ve heard of the soundtrack so far, It’s her work with the piano that stands out the most; highly complex pieces, each tailored perfectly to fit the mood of the scene. In addition to Hashimoto’s work, the first episode featured a yet to be named french insert song, and it was absolutely astounding. Both the opening and ending songs are preformed by Bump of Chicken, responsible for one of my favorite openings from last year ‘Hello World’ from Kekkai Sensen. Their involvement in the production is fitting, considering that previously a portion of 3-Gatsu had been loosely adapted to a music video of Bump of Chicken’s 2014 single ‘Fighter’. All that included, 3-gatsu’s soundtrack so far has been a great contribution to the aesthetic.

As of now the directing has been handled by Akiyuki Shinbo alongside fellow directors Kenjirou Okada, Midori Yoshizawa, Asano Naoyuki and Takaaki Kidokoro (so far). It’s hard to say how much Shinbo is involved in any given scene, but the staff working under him are all competent in their own right. The art director has worked on a large variety of anime adaptions that have either become cemented as classics over the years, or have at least garnered some popularity; including Lucky Star, K-on, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Akatsuki no Yona, etc. Needless to say, Seiki Tamura has extensive experience with stylistic works.

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The thematic progression of 3-Gatsu is closely intertwined with the strong cast of characters, tackling many different ideas simultaneously as Rei learns through his interactions throughout the narrative. The third episode has left me thoroughly stunned by both its nuanced approach to atmosphere, and the emotional impact of its character’s motivations. I’ve mentioned atmosphere a lot by this point, but the third episode needs praise beyond what I’ve given. Through flashback we are setup to watch a game of Shōji between the talented children Harunobu and Rei, playing in a junior competition set atop the roof of a department store. The shade of the tarp they play under offers minimal protection from the heat, The hellish temperature is conveyed so well that the scene almost feels uncomfortable to watch. The altered saturation of color makes the roof look sweltering; heat radiates around the children, both in discomfort but neither are viably losing ground in their match, but eventually Rei remarks to himself in monologue that the game is slowly but surely moving to end with him the victor. It’s Harunobu who is suffering the most in the heat, shown to be drenched in sweat as he moves uncomfortably in his seat, but Harunobu continues to struggle for an unattainable victory. Only wanting to get the kid next to him into an air conditioned room, Rei searches for the quickest way to bring him to checkmate, but as the game drags on for hours, slowly turning in his favor, Harunobu refuses to accept defeat until his last possible move. Throughout this experience Rei slowly realizes the immense arrogance of his thoughts; wanting to end the game for the sake of someone who wants to win so desperately, not taking him seriously despite giving the game literally everything he has. This flashback is paralleled perfectly through their rematch in the present, the nuanced growth in their characters becoming noticeable through the professional yet passionate game, contrasting to the heavy and depression atmosphere constructed in the previous scene. Details about Harunobu’s condition revealed in private after the match serve to deepen the already profound respect I developed for his determination in rivalry.

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The third episode’s final scene adds a lot of meaning to the title, and presents the main theme of the work. The translated title of the anime is ‘March Comes In Like A Lion’, in Japanese the title is written as ‘3-Gatsu no Lion’. The ‘3-Gatsu’ part is a play on the word ‘shigatsu which means ‘march in English, and the ‘3’ is representative of the three sisters. After the sisters and their grandfather finish a ceremony to mourn the loss of their mother and grandmother, Rei has a hard time understanding why they would open themselves to pain like this, from his perspective they are opening their hearts to torn apart by a Lion of emotional pain.

Rei has been hunted down his entire life; he’s scared of facing his own Lion and has always run away from his emotions, because of this he has never been able to move beyond his past. Rei’s way of escapism since childhood has always been through Shōji, but even that has had the ironic effect of inflicting emotional pain. Every time that Rei wins a game, he is simultaneously and inevitably crushing the ambitions of the opponent sitting across from him. Being the cause of that pain is unpleasant for Rei, and as a young prodigy working his way through the ranks he rarely, if ever, loses a match.

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3-Gatsu no Lion has been a triumph of aesthetic quality, and has pushed the envelope of emotional expression through animation. Rei as a character has been given a sturdy foundation for development that intertwines with an endearing thematic message of self betterment. My expectations have not only been met, but increased, with each passing episode, and if this level of improvement continues at its current rate it may end up as my favorite anime of 2016.

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Thoughts on Erased

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‘Boku dake ga Inai machi’, shortened to simply ‘Erased’ in its English title, is the anime adaption of Kei Sanbe’s supernatural/thriller/mystery manga which had dominated the charts throughout its run in the summer season of 2016. At its peak Erased managed to reach as high as the 4th overall placement by score on MyAnimeList, while currently sitting just within the ‘Top 50’ range.

The adaptation was handled by A-1 Pictures, who have been known for their inconsistent production values. This stems not from a lack of talented individuals, but in that they work on many projects simultaneously. Thankfully for Erased, A-1 allocated many of their experienced staff members towards its production. Ultimately Erased is one is the more visually appealing works in the studio’s rather large portfolio. The great directing further contributes to the series gorgeous aesthetic, something that completely surprised me. They make great use of the setting, as well as nuanced character acting between the main duo to add to the scenes, the rather obvious visual motif of red coloring is used frequently in the establishment of dangerous or violent elements. These minute details lead to subtle improvements in the narrative.

The 29 year old protagonist, Satoru Fujinuma, is a failing manga artist currently employed as a pizza delivery guy. Satoru is an unassuming person seemingly without any exceptional qualities, hence his current state of employment. His character design is pretty boring; the standard scraggly brown hair, slender physique, etc. this design choice does emphasize how ‘normal’ his life is at a glance, but this image is quickly and intentionally flipped on its head. During a scene of Satoru out on a delivery he witnesses a traffic accident, the frame distorts and a jarring sound blares. When Satoru returns to his senses, he realizes that he has been pulled back a few minutes into the past, where he has time to intervene preventing the accident from happening, Furthurmore, this is a common occurrence for Satoru.

This ability initially has some intrigue to it, as a viewer I really enjoy when time control is well executed in anime. The implications of cause and effect are vast enough that the idea can be explored in an innumerable amount of ways, and this style of vaguely introducing the ability provided them with infinite freedom to flesh out its mechanics; What conditions must be met to trigger a loop?, What’s the extent and frequency to which Satoru can control it?, How did he come to possess this ability in the first place?, Are there consequences to using it? There were a limitless amount of ways they could have spun the idea, but they did literally nothing with it. It’s mind blowing how so much potential was cast aside here. The only time Satoru ever mentions this incredible ability of his, he always says something to the effect of “it’s something that happens sometimes before a disaster”. The ability is turned into a plot device; an unexplained contrivance which completely negates any tension the narrative attempts to establish. Anytime that Satoru messes up anything remotely important, he is returned to a convenient point without any consequences; Erased ends it’s episodes on cliffhangers in an attempt to force tension, but it’s always followed by an anti climactic payoff in the form of either a time reset, or a character appearing out of nowhere to help him out because plot convenience. The reasoning behind Satoru’s desire to intervene in the these future situations during the early episodes is never explained or justified either, they leave it to the viewer to assume he is ‘just a good person’, which isn’t preferable to providing us with set characterization. This way of writing let’s Satoru act whatever way works best for the narrative, because the audience can just ‘assume’ things about how he thinks.

Back to the narrative’s lead up; after discovering that his mother has been murdered, Satoru becomes implicated as a primary suspect in the investigation, because he ran away from the scene. There is no motive, and no evidence, the decision to run away from the police was a stupid one that only served to strengthen the case against him when he was only implicated because of a misunderstanding to begin with. This is understandable considering his state of mind at the time, but even after he calms down his thought process remains unchanged. The dramatic crux of the introductory arc involves Satoru being sent back in time to 1988 when he was eleven years old. Events lead Satoru to the realization that the murderer of his mother might be the same criminal who murdered a young girl when he was in elementary school, killed the same year Satoru is currently reliving. By preventing the death of the child he can indirectly save his mother. This establishes Satoru’s motivations, and leads us into an interesting setting. The only thing I have to question here is why Satoru is so certain that this will work, he doesn’t question that this is the singular deciding factor of future events, even though there are a lot of things he can do over the next 20 years that would protect his mother.

The unique perspective of an adult living in a child’s body is actually pretty well utilized. The biggest problem being the awkward hints of a possible romantic route for the relationship between Hinazuki and Satoru thrown in despite the obvious age difference, there wouldn’t be a way to write this without it being absurdly creepy, so it’s played off as comedic, and scraped pretty quickly. In his adult life Satoru was almost constantly alone, the only relationships in his life are with his mother, and a coworker who had taken a friendly interest in him. Whenever Satoru provides exposition as to what his life was like as a child, he always mentions that he had plenty of ‘friends’ but never formed a meaningful connection with anyone, something he came to regret as he grew up. This set a foundation of development for Satoru, he has an opportunity to improve himself layered below his primary motivation of saving his mother.

Kayo Hinazuki is the single exceptional character aside from Satoru, her character arc spans through the majority of the series early episodes considering she is the child Satoru is sent back in time to protect. Satoru has vague memories of Hinazuki from before her murder, but remarks that she was always quiet and doesn’t know much about her. While attending school, now an observant adult, he notices a bruise on Hinazuki and quickly pieces together her situation at home. His suspicions of child abuse are later reinforced by the contents of an essay written by Hinazuki found later in the episode. She’s presented to have an apathetic front covering her emotional nature, and she cuts herself off socially because she is afraid of getting hurt. Satoru and Hinazuki share some great dialog between them, and the contrast in their home lives create a really interesting character dynamic that leads into the biggest emotional outpouring in the series; Hinazuki’s realization of what a family is supposed to be like, and her experiencing it for the first time in her life. Satoru act’s under the impression that if he pushes Hinazuki’s life in a direction of stability in enough ways, while watching over her as much as he can as a child, he can make her a difficult target for abduction, and eventually end the abuse she receives from her parents.

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Outside of Satoru and Hinazuki, everyone else in this series is made of cardboard. The other children are especially poorly written, their characterization over the course of the series doesn’t even extend as far as being set within an archetype for some of them. They are vehicles in Satoru’s development and nothing else, except for a child named Kenya, whose characterization actually makes him worse. His whole character can be described as ‘the smart one who wants to be a detective’, convenient for a mystery anime. Kenya’s only relevance is to provide insightful exposition in uncovering the murderer’s identity. What makes his character ‘worse’ doesn’t lie in how minimalist his characterization was, but in that they made this 11 year old child smarter than every adult, including Satoru, in the entire series. Every character in Erased seems to act only on what Satoru tell’s them to do, they don’t even ask for specific details as to why a lot of the time. There is a point where the children help Satoru to practically kidnap Hinazuki for a three day span, they don’t know that she is being targeted by a future serial killer, he tells them nothing about the situation, but they don’t even bother to ask for a reason.

Unfortunately, Erased completely fails in the handling of its mystery element. The mystery genre is inherently difficult to write within. The author must attempt to introduce important information in a way that feels natural, while stringing these pieces together in a way that is difficult for the readers to follow, but at the same time, isn’t esoteric to the point where the conclusion feels like an ass-pull. In Erased these clues fall into Satoru’s lap without any deductive work on his part, everything Satoru learns about the killer is provided by info dumping through poorly contrived ‘chance’ encounters. I mentioned that the show has frequently used the ‘red eyes’ motif to establish dangerous elements, and to that effect it can also act as a ‘red herring’ to throw the audience off, but this is made transparent immediately when used for a character that was obviously just introduced for that purpose, or a character whose place in the narrative probably won’t lead to him to be recurring again. I’m trying to avoid spoiling key plot elements, but throughout the entire series there is only one reasonably suspicious and recurring character, and they couldn’t have made it more obvious if they tried. This character is given a variety of creepy character traits that could hardly be called subtle, and he is literally framed in the shadows through many scenes; his reveal as the killer isn’t even through deduction of the protagonist, or a mistake on his part, he outright displays himself to Satoru, and proceeds to soliloquy his intentions aloud like you would see from a cartoon villain. This character is as bland as an antagonist can get. His motivations are nonexistent; the vague reasoning they provide for him targeting Hinazuki essentially chalks everything up to insanity because the author couldn’t think of anything meaningful to give his character. Throughout the final episodes his actions completely contradict his spoken intentions, and just make no sense considering his current position; passing up opportunities under justifications that go against everything he said previously, and this happens multiple times.

Erased tries to present a lot of creative ideas that sound interesting when put together, but there are a lot of times that it fails to bridge these ideas together in a coherent way, it often struggles with basic execution, and almost never expands on anything past the initial premise. Two characters are fleshed out and developed by the end, but most are just blank slates or act with flimsy justifications. Hinazuki aside, the characters don’t really make a lasting impression. The time reset is never explained, and it triggers under so many different situations that any reasonable first conjectures were ruled out by the end, It acts whenever it needs to push the narrative forward without cleaver writing. With its unreasonable resolution and laughable antagonist, it utterly fails as a mystery series. I can’t see myself recommending Erased for anything other than some brilliantly directed scenes throughout the show (this episode was actually done by assistant director Toshimasa Ishii where in the video he credits Tomohiko Itou, as he realizes after its release). Despite getting a fair amount of enjoyment from the series, notably in the early episodes, I don’t feel like the end product is anything above average.

5/10

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Review : Neon Genesis Evangelion

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Neon Genesis Evangelion is Hideaki Anno’s most renowned work, and is often hailed as a masterfully executed deconstruction of the mecha genre. By common definition a deconstruction aims to take apart a genre and it’s common tropes by portraying them in the most realistic way possible; seeing how they would work, and how they would fail. These works should build on the foundation of inherent flaws they uncover, and in this case, create something brilliantly subversive and unique. With the creation of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Anno took the Mech genre’s cliched idea of ‘teenagers who pilot giant robots being mankind’s last hope’ and subverted everyone’s expectations with a realistic approach focused on building psychological tension through the exploration of its characters.

Shinji ikari, is about as far away from charismatic as a character can be. As Shinji is first introduced, every definable aspect of his personality is punctuated by the abandonment of his father at a young age. Shinji needs to be useful to the people around him; but a fear of upsetting anyone he gets close to, as well as a complete lack of social skills cause him to isolate himself away from others. Shinji progresses and regresses frequently, it’s never a straight development. There are a series of highs and lows as stable influences enter and leave his life, pushing and pulling his self confidence in either direction. What’s remarkable about Shinji as a character is how perfectly he encapsulates a realistic portrayal of depression. Throughout the mid nineties Japan had been in a tough spot; the country was on the cusp of economic collapse, the population was rife with depression, and recent terror attacks had eviscerated the country’s moral, but because of a character like Shinji Ikari who resonated with such a wide demographic of people; Evangelion was propelled into the mainstream spotlight, and Shinji was serving as the audience surrogate for an entire country. Usually when a character is relatable to a large viewership they become a vehicle for wish fulfillment; it’s hard to deny that escapism sells well in this medium, but that’s the opposite of what Evangelion wants to achieve. While Shinji is constantly looking for ways to avoid his unpleasant reality, and outright runs away multiple times; eventually he has no alternative left other than to deal with his problems. The final episodes of the series actually take place inside of Shinji’s head, serving to exposit ideas as Shinji works through his conflicting thoughts. This part of the narrative is shown through the film ‘End of Evangelion’ which runs concurrently to the final arc of the main series.

Rei Ayanami is portrayed to be an emotionless doll. She has been backed into a corner of social isolation, and while this is only alluded to early on, she feels disconnected from her role as a pilot. Unlike Rei, everyone else in Evangelion has a justifiable reason to protect others; be it for family, friends, or the furthering of an ulterior motive. By comparison Rei is empty, until Shinji’s father puts himself in harm’s way for her sake; this is a prospect completely foreign to someone like her, who has seemingly never experienced compassion before. The first instance where her development becomes visible is literally shown through subverting a common trope in the medium; Shinji unintentionally falls on top of Rei with his hand on her breast, but instead of the usual comedic slap in the face, Rei say’s nothing about it. The slap comes later when she hears Shinji speak negatively towards his father.

Asuka Langley Souryu is introduced eight episodes into Evangelion, these first episodes until now have all felt dour and depressing overall, but Asuka’s arrival alone is enough to completely shift the tone of the series in every aspect. her personality is comparable to a fireball; she is temperamental and vibrant. The fights which had been psychologically scarring from Shinji’s perspective earlier into the series, have now become flooded with energy, for Asuka they are a way to steal the spotlight and show off. This tone shift is not poorly executed though. Despite how frightened Shinji had been initially, recently he has gotten comfortable in his new life; he has a stable parental figure for the first time since early childhood, he has genuine friendships at his school, and he hardly even protests piloting the Evangelion anymore. By taking us to an unfamiliar environment and introducing a character who is so far removed from everything we’ve known about this world till now that she may as well be an alien here, Anno has taken us, and Shinji, far out of our comfort zone. Asuka is Shinji’s complete foil; where Shinji wants to please the people around him, Asuka wants their full admiration. She has placed herself on a pedestal high above everyone else, this is apparent in how she talks to her fellow pilots. Shinji is willing to be ordered around by the people above him, even if it takes some coercion, but with a bossy character like Asuka around who is the same age Shinji finally has an outlet to speak for himself. Asuka should be considered Shinji’s equal, yet she blatantly regards Shinji as her inferior, much to his annoyance. When the two of them are forced to share a living space together we finally see Shinji start to speak out defiantly towards someone else for the first time, and the dialogue between them results in the most fun character dynamic in the series. Even though Asuka’s characterization so far has been kinetic and vibrant, this is only her at a surface level. Asuka’s character is deeply layered, and while unbeknownst initially, she’s just as broken as Shinji. The person she shows others is a mask of superiority and confidence substantiated by her own burning insecurities.

It’s impossible to compress every idea Evangelion presents into a solitary central theme, but with the characters being such an important focus in the series, most ideas relate to the notion that characters are constantly changed by the influence of each other as well as their surrounding. Shinji is always changing because of how other characters interact with him. Misato and Shinji initially struggle to empathize with each other, describing their relationship through a metaphor of human intimacy, “The Hedgehog’s Dilemma”. They each want to develop a bond, but the closer they get the more they hurt each other in the process. Misato is Shinji’s direct superior, it’s her job to force Shinji into these situations of conflict, and he suffers for it. She wants to be a stable figure in his life, being in an almost maternal position, but her work is in direct conflict with her emotions. From Shinji’s perspective he is completely alone, surrounded by people causing him pain, but before running away he realizes that he isn’t the only one hurting. This is how many of Evangelions character dynamics are handled, with an equal mix of positive and negative influence, creating the closest thing to a character study in all of anime. There are also themes of self betterment, backed by continuous commentary against escapism. As a side note; while evangelion is rife with visual motifs and symbolism, none of the Christian elements are symbolic of anything. Despite the frequent appearance of things that reference Christianity none of them hold any symbolic meaning, Hideaki Anno maintains that it’s just an aesthetic detail.

Speaking of aesthetic details; perhaps the most important element of animation as an art form is the creative freedom it provides creators, this is true in the stylistic sense of art and design, but also in directing. Hideaki Anno is a director that knows how to lead the viewer’s eyes through a scene. When the focus is trained on a static character occupying a set portion of the frame, changing to a shot from a new perspective can be jarring if done poorly, but for slow scenes Anno maintains a visual cohesion throughout the each shot by having that characters remain in the same position of the screen. If he wants to snap your attention to where the action will occur in the following shot Anno will sometimes create a quick movement in that area of the frame, this is usually through an object in the background such as a closing door. Rather than the standard Shot/Reverse Shot between multiple characters during scenes of dialogue, Anno likes having both characters in the frame at the same time whenever possible, this can result in some unique perspective shots. Aside from camera work, with so many socially inept characters there are a lot of things that need to be conveyed through character acting; there is a high attention to detail put towards creating character nuance through subtle glances, movements, positioning, and even posture.

Evangelion’s stylistical design work is in a tier of its own. Compared to the cubic and bulky designs common of the time, Eva’s mechs are all vibrantly colored, sleekly designed, and uniquely detailed from each other. The same can be said of the character designs, they have become iconic in the anime medium, Rei Ayanami especially; it’s to the extent that it feels like every other character aimed at being doll-like and mysterious is a dead ringer for Rei. Even Nobuhiro Watsuki has said he feels like his design for Tomoe, a character in his classic work Rurouni Kenshin, ended up as an Ayanami lookalike. The animation itself is an interesting subject, there are points of key animation throughout Evangelion, notably in the nineteenth episode, that are tour de force in quality, but a large portion of the production’s budget was cut because of a recent terrorist bombing. The last six episodes were completed with bare minimum funding, but because of the brilliantly creative staff working on the project they still managed to make it work. Some of the techniques the animators had to employ could be considered impressive works of art in their own right, Yoh Yoshinari’s hand drawn animation is a perfect example.

The lineup of talent working in Studio Gainax through this time period is arguably the strongest group that the industry has ever had working under one roof, and while working under Hideaki Anno this team had created one of the most natural and emotional works to ever come out of the field of animation.

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Initial D’s Portrayal Of Passion

photo-1Japan has been long recognized as the birth place of drifting. Touge drifting in particular is an immensely satisfying and stylish derivative of street racing through the country’s many winding mountain passes, where through shifting the weight of a vehicle its driver is able to force the rear tires to lose traction, while still maintaining control of the resulting slide, this allows the hairpin corners to be taken at a higher speed. Immediately following our introduction to the setting, we get the sense that, for its characters, everything about this world is pivotal to their pride and desire to drive sideways; for everyone except Takumi Fujiwara.
Takumi is largely ignorant towards anything related to cars, and for the most part he has no desire to learn about them; to him they are just a way to help out his fathers business of tofu delivery, as well as a means to get from ‘point A’ to ‘point B’. While his recently licensed friends talk among themselves about the basic details of driving, and later drifting, Takumi consistently and subtly responds with remarks that show an advanced understanding, and even boredom, of the concepts they bring up. We know he has been genuine up to this point about his complete disinterest in the technicality’s of drifting, but that’s exactly what makes his understanding of it unusual, even if he cant properly put it to words. Revealed in a way which is shocking to the rest of the cast, Takumi is a highly advanced driver. Despite having only gotten his licence the previous month, his actual driving experience extends throughout the last 5 years of his life, having taken care of the morning and late night tofu delivers since the 7th grade at the request of his father; a genius street racer of the past generation. In an effort to train his son, his father places a glass of water in the cup holder telling Takumi that he can drive as fast as he wants so long as he doesn’t spill the contents of the glass, ostensibly to prevent breaking the tofu in the back of the car, but at the same time forcing him to drive smoothly. This provides the foundation for Takumi’s self taught technique; learning entirely through the feel of the car over years of experience. Takumi is an innately blank and directionless character, but he is reinforced by the idea which represents everything the show is built on; passion, albeit slow burning, Takumi changes from someone who has to be coerced into anything remotely related to street racing, into someone with a genuinely burning desire to be the best at what he does. Of course, Takumi isn’t the only interesting character in Initial D.

Bunta Fujiwara is easily one of the coolest father figures in the entire medium. I mean that not only in the sense that he is an old man who can light a cigarette in the middle of a drift, but also by the way he subtly guides Takumi from childhood into discovering the passion the defined his own youth. Bunta has a complete confidence in his sons abilitys, rarely even bothering to ask the end results, and offers unconditionally support; providing tools for growth, yet he holds out on providing the answers. He makes sure Takumi has to work hard for everything he receives in life, while still standing behind him to give a push in the right direction. This is what I found to be one of the most emotionally satisfying Father/Son relationships in Anime.

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To accurately portray Street Racing in writing is something that requires a thorough understanding of many highly complex elements; these range from driving technique and mechanics, to road conditions and there effect on vehicles. It’s because of this complexity that Initial D has a heavily reliance on expository dialog between characters to convey these details to the audience. This system works well here because the protagonist is skilled enough to be competitive, yet ignorant on specific details and technical terminology to the extent that others have to provide a complete explanation as to what is happening. For audience members like myself who went into the anime without any prior knowledge about cars, its a great form of exposition that doesn’t come off as ham-fisted.

The appeal of Initial D isn’t through the presentation of advanced thematic concepts that drown the audience in how deep and intelligent it is, it never attempt’s to explore psychological ideas, or showcase highly complex character interaction, it’s appeal is in its simplicity. All initial D wants to be is a fun and exciting show about fast cars driving downhill sideways, and it executes this brilliantly. There is never anything tangible bet on a race; only the pride and reputation of the individuals involved, but the value of that pride is conveyed well enough that when added to the element of danger involved with street racing it builds an immense feeling of tension that sucks you in. The basic structure of the races themselves can sometimes be repetitive, but many have their own unique gimmicks, pushing Takumi to develop as a driver, as well as keeping things interesting for the audience; these gimmicks range from racing with one hand duck taped to the wheel, to drifting in rainy conditions. I would say there isn’t a single boring race within the first two seasons.

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None of this is to say that Initial D is without its themes, they just aren’t so overt that they detract from what the show is trying to achieve. They sparingly appear, most often in tandem with romance; unfortunately for the first season this is its weakest aspect, coming off as needlessly melodramatic at points. In the early episodes of the first season, Itsuki, Takumi’s best friend was given a completely unnecessary and meaningless romance element, this relationship and its resulting failure felt disingenuous and forced, it had no impact in changing Itsuki’s character from a substanceless provider of comic relief; if anything this contributed to it, by introducing his irritating ‘lonely driver’ shtick. Through the romantic endeavors of Iketani, another member of Takumi’s group, we finally get a semblance of an idea as to what the show is trying to tell us, but while improved, the execution still suffers from similar flaws. Initial D finally hits the nail on the head in Second Stage, where drama has an underlying presence throughout its later half. In the final arc of the season Itsuki is actually humanized; placed in a position where I could genuinely feel sympathetic towards him, because unlike before in his previous relationship he is legitimately affected emotionally by the circumstances around him. Through comparison to Iketani’s situation, the theme is finally becomes apparent; Do everything you can to preserve what you care about, giving in to self doubt will only leave you with regrets.

Initial D’s soundtrack is famous for its large amount of Eurobeat tracks that serve as themes specific to an individual characters or race. For each piece the tone will vaguely mirror the general mood of the race, but all share the common trait of being very kinetic and rapidly paced; perfectly fitting the nature of Initial D. Outside of race themes there is another selection of music, but they use some particular songs way to often; the emotional songs especially were run into the ground.

The animation definitely shows its age, but that late 90’s look coupled with the unique design style has its charms. The switch to CGI for the racing scenes are surprisingly well done compared to what I expected from the Japanese in that time period.

Initial D remains to be the sole example of a well executed street racing manga. Since the release of the first chapter in 1995 it’s maintained the popularity necessary to run for 719 chapters, eventually ending in 2013. It has spawned an anime adaption divided through 5 seasons, a movie (3rd stage), and various extras; looking into other mediums there has been a variety of video game adaptions and a live action film. The manga’s author Shuuichi Shigeno would eventually become a mentor to multiple manga artist including Jyoji Morikawa, the author of Hajime no Ippo.

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Rurouni Kenshin : Ideal character development

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Characterization & Character development are two of the most fundamentally important elements in the writing of a fleshed out and humanly realistic character. Characterization being the core of a character’s personality; we can learn this directly from the thoughts and actions of the character, or indirectly when personality traits are shown through an alternative form of narration from the author. Equally important to characterization is character development, the constant change and growth in a character’s initial personality, and mentality.
In every medium of entertainment countless writers neglect this aspect, and create their characters in such a way that they put very little effort into the process of characterization. Characters created to appeal to the teenage demographic tend to be heavily idealistic one dimensional audience surrogates driven by the plot. That is to say the character in question becomes little more than the perspective from which the narrative is viewed by the audience, who then subconsciously imagine the character as being themselves placed into the story’s plot; its escapism. This method of writing is convenient because the author can have the character react to a situation in any way he wants; with no definable personality, mentality, or ambition they don’t have to act within an established way of thinking in order to avoid feeling out of character if they make a choice that conflicts with their ideals. They can be a device that acts however the author wants in order to progress the plot smoothly. This is shallow, lazy writing. It’s incomparable to a character with a strong core personality and complex internal emotions which notably manifests through their decisions and relationships. The actions of a character written this way can be understood by the reader, who should know the motivations and influences that impact the character’s decisions. This is how the character can appear human. Disappointingly the aforementioned ‘self insert protagonist’ has become popular in mainstream media as of recent years, especially in tandom with the dime-a-dozen action/fantasy plot line’s of ‘Rebelling against the corrupt government’ or ‘trapped inside a fantasy world’; these are ideas that catch the attention of the young demographic. Finally now in 2016 people are starting to tire of the premise; its been done to death, and we don’t see more than two for every new season, but there has never been a shortage of main characters created with the intent of providing wish fulfillment and a means of escapism. This translates to making the character an ‘Average teenage guy who is Intelligent, naturally skilled at everything, and can make girls flock to him without even trying’, because the casual (majority of) readers within the target demographic of ‘angsty teenage guys, who like fantasie settings’ would idolize this as a “good character”. It’s nearly impossible to write a long publishing series and not provide any substantial personality traits to the protagonist, but when the character is broken down to the base there is usually only a static archetype. Rurouni Kenshin, in contrast, is a character driven series. The plot revolves and progresses around the protagonists past and current contrasting actions, and it uses this to maintain a constant development.

To speak on Rurouni Kenshin’s characters to someone who has not read the series, some explanation into the setting and Real world history is necessary. Rurouni kenshin is set in the 11th year of Meiji period Japan, and the late years of the previous era the ‘Tokugawa period’ spanning the years 1603-1868 during which the country had been under the complete rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal military government, the head position of shogun would be passed down through members of only the Tokugawa family, and high ranking positions were granted to the many samurai households spread across the country, throughout this period of time the art of swordsmanship was at a very refined point, and various unique forms were passed from master to student. In the late years of the Shogunate’s rule unrest had grown within both samurai, and the common people. The unrest was based around the country’s isolationist policy, and resulted in the formation of the ‘Ishin Shishi’, anti-shogunate organization consisting mainly of ronin, and three prominent samurai households. This organization called for the country to return to an imperialist government. The time from 1853-1867 was known as the Bakumetsu, a time of frequent political assassinations and eventually in the final year, conflict reached its peak with the ‘Boshin war’, the civil war fought between the imperialists and the Shogunate’s ‘Shinsengumi’. By the end of the war the Imperialists had gained control of the government, notably due to the actions of four men, these four were recognized for their immense skill compared to the average swordsman, and were given the title of ‘Hitokiri’, meaning ‘manslayer’. This is explained gradually throughout volumes as it becomes relevant, but for analytical reviewing purposes it makes things easier to info dump a history lesson. This holds relevance to Rurouni kenshin not only because of when and where it is set, but also because of who the protagonist is. The protagonist is a man named Himura Kenshin, now a peaceful wanderer, but had despite his serene and gentle nature, at one time served as an instrument in the victory of the revolutionary forces; a hitokiri. Seeking to atone for the many lives he had to taken in order to end the previous era, he lays down his weapon for a Reverse-bladed sword, and vowed to never take a human life again.

Rurouni Kenshin starts off mildly with really short; almost episodic styled arcs, neither of which within the first six volumes are exceptionally long or as complex as the later portions of the manga, but they are still brilliant as introductions to the world and the largely varied primary cast, each of which are provided a solid core personality, and room for eventual development. This is in itself the foundation of Kenshin’s own development as a character. As Kenshin is someone who had, due to emotionally damaging failures in his past, for the last ten years of his life chosen to abandon not just the sword, but also the idea of open relationships with other people. This part of Kenshin changes slowly, and as the number of people around him grows he accepts them as meaningful companions. Following the first six volumes, the story’s first ‘serious’ arc begins. Most notably serving to show the extent of Kenshin’s internal struggles as the events from his past resurface, and lead him to the mentality that being close to others will cause only suffering for those around him, it also establishes a dynamic which had been hinted at before, a conflict in kenshin’s sense of self. In the second volume during dialog with a minor antagonist, there was a minor change in kenshin’s mannerisms when this character mentions kenshin as ‘Hitokiri’, through some exposition from kenshin we learn of his division between the merciless and objective self of the war, and the peaceful and serene self of his childhood and present; ‘Himura Kenshin’, and ‘Hitokiri Battosai’. This is the point where we fully understand the overarching dilemma that will serve as kenshins main internal conflict for the rest of the series duration. Rurouni kenshin is built around using internal struggle to push character development, and that is not limited to kenshin’s. There is a fair amount of effort put into characterising the antagonists in a justifiable way. The narrative of Rurouni Kenshins first primary story arc revolves around the ambitions of the man who replaced kenshin after he disappeared from the revolutionary forces ten years prior, this character was Shishio Makoto. He killed without question just as Kenshin had done, but because of the number of important officials that he assassinated the revolutionaries couldn’t take the risk of someone like him leaving, as kenshin did, and potentially leaking the information to the public. Shishio was betrayed by his allies, in the attempt to silence him he had been stabbed in the back, and had his body set on fire. Shishio survived the incident, but had received severe burns and gained a hatred for his former superiors. As it was learned that he was still alive the revolutionaries had claimed Shishio a criminal and relentlessly searched the surrounding areas. As years pass he slowly amasses a following of skilled subordinates who support his ambitions to collapse the current imperial government and rebuild the country at the expense of the weak. A complete contrast to the ideals of Himura Kenshin, who struggles with the realization that shishio’s misfortune was the result of his desertion.


Watsuki Nobuhiro is a brilliant author. His ability to develop characters in ways that feel genuine is far above the average manga artist. The primary personality’s of Rurouni Kenshin are all exceptionally well done, but a fair amount of the less important characters are done in an odd way. many are just products of his whims; created by random inspiration. For all the conventionally ‘serious’ characters that exist in Rurouni Kenshin, it’s obvious he likes to experiment with quirky ideas and unique character designs just as much. There are a lot of points in the story where he will have some ‘over the top idea’ and he implements these ideas as minor characters. Regardless of how outlandish they may be, he tries to rationalize their actions and ability’s in the best way he can. The idea that Shishio’s sword caught fire was explained by it having slowly built up oils from the human skin cut by the blade over a long period of time, and the friction of hitting another sword ignited them. It never reaches a point where it could break immersion, and these little details can even make the series feel a bit more vibrant at parts. The manga not only demonstrates how characters should be developed, but also how they should interact with each other. Within the series there is a satisfying blend of lighthearted and serious dialog, neither gets in the way of the other. There is no point in Rurouni Kenshin where it will break the atmosphere of a serious or emotional scene with completely out of place and unnecessary slapstick comedy. I’ve seen many other series do this; an emotionally traumatizing event is accompanied by some form of comedic relief within that same scene. These things can completely ruin the buildup of an emotional scene when they are just thrown in despite being so obviously out of place. Nobuhiro Watsuki knows how to balance these aspects, being able to repeatedly shift the tone of the manga from without it ever coming off as jarring. 

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