Noir: Institutionalized confidence and the aesthetic of power

I sat down to watch a little more of Noir earlier and it got me thinking again about a show that I feel has become rather criminally underrated these days.

You see, the thing this show does so well – beyond being gorgeous to look at, and gorgeous to listen to (courtesy of a stunning Yuki Kajiura soundtrack) – is a question of confidence in the two lead characters.

This most plainly manifests itself in Mireille. Blonde, achingly attractive, and always dressed to the nines, Mireille is in essence a female James Bond. There’s a kind of irony to the fact that throughout all the various antics of the series, she remains impeccably dressed in that miniskirt – why? It can hardly be the most practical of outfits.

But then – perhaps smartness, and the confidence linked with smartness, is part of the persona she portrays outwardly to the world (as well as inwardly to herself). Both her and Kirika are arguably monsters – they plow through hundreds of faceless thugs across the series without batting an eyelid. They are machines, ending lives with a single shot. Yet for Mireille, her confidence in her own abilities continues. Every time she makes a dash for it – the thought that she might die seems almost secondary – she has, in essence become institutionalized in the belief of her own survival strategy. For her, confidence is a means to continue onward, to continue avoiding the reality of her actions.

It reminded me at times of the novel Cocaine Nights by JG Ballard, which deals with some similar themes of an undercurrent of organised crime in a post-modern society. One where the police are non-existent, and policing thus falls to those able and willing to dispense it – in essence, those with that self-same institutionalized confidence and power (ie. the rich).

In the world of Noir – the activities of Mireille and Kirika continue in a space that is at once our everyday world, but also at a remove from our world. The physical space is the same, but it plays by a different set of rules. Here, disagreements are settled with a bullet, and life is cheap.

You’re left to ask yourself, who would want to live in a world like this? Or perhaps even, actively enjoy living in a world like this? Again, it comes back to that sense of institutionalization – of an activity and way of life becoming so ingrained in the persona that it becomes as natural to theme as breathing. Here, Mireille’s manner – that easy, classy confidence, that runs simultaneously to her glamorous disposition becomes part of that act. The persona she chooses to put on for both the world and herself.

Thoughts on: Negima!?

On my watch list this week was Negima!? AKA the absolutely mental Shaft version, and not the rather sweet original. I’m not too hot on which the anime community generally considers the best out of the two, but for me, it’s got to be the original, hands down.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m a massive fan of Shaft – and can totally see what they tried to do with the show, but so much of what made the original so charming is lost in the process. So I wanted to put pen to paper as it were, and jot down some pros and cons between the two.

PROS

Animation quality – Holy God does this show look incredible. OK, the DVD version I have (Manga’s Entertainment’s discs) is dog ugly in places – it looks like the original picture has been badly upscaled to fit widescreen tellies or something, because the picture is all blurry in places. But regardless, this is Shaft through and through, and it’s pretty enjoyable ticking off all the bits and bobs that clearly went on to be executed even more effectively in Madoka and Monogatari. The only bit where it falls down for me really is the ‘moving boxes’ / windows where it tries to show several elements at once on screen – this just feels cheaply done, and at odds with some of the other, more elegant visuals (AKA Evangeline’s fight with Negi in the early episodes)

Magic and cards – Did they ever try and turn the card element into an actually, physical real-world game? It seems like it was trying to set this up anyway, and while it’s executed quite poorly at times (and rushed, too) – it’s a clever concept and builds something new into the show in a fun way. The magic sequences look great too and see the show using its music to its best, too.

Chupacabra – You’ll probably either find this incredible annoying, or – like me – eventually warm to it and find it hilarious. There’s actually something quite sweet and inspiring about how dogged Asuna is about selling her ‘chupa-tees’. God bless.

Evangeline – Seriously, best girl, hands down. It needs to be said, but whoever decided to dub Evangeline, Chachamaru and Negi with proper English accents was a genius, and deserves a medal, or something. It’s hilarious, and inspired, all at the same time. She steals every scene she’s in, especially the tea scenes with the teacher, as well as the face pulling face-offs with Asuna. Basically, she’s the best pint-sized vampire you’ll ever see, aside from Shinobu from Monogatari.

CONS

OP and ED themes – I haven’t seen many anime where the OP and ED themes are dubbed over into English. I’m not a big fan of it, as I think Jpop tracks re-sung in English usually come out really badly as the rhythmic differences between Japanese and English can rarely reconcile. Plus also, difference in singing ability.

Characterisation – I was tempted to put this in PROS, as some of what Shaft’s version does with the characters is rather nicely done. I know a lot of people didn’t like how they made Asuna seem more ‘stupid’ / bratty, but in a way, I quite like how they make her even more bonkers in this – she just has SO MUCH ENERGY, you sort of can’t help but be swept up in her hairbrained schemes (and seriously, is there anyone that has longer twintails than her?!)

But on a more serious note – all the romantic poignancy of the original is left by the wayside. And for someone like me – who’s totally a sucker for a harem, it doesn’t feel great. For example, the stuff that happens with Nodaka, Konoka and Yue is heartbreakingly realised in the original as the girls come to terms with their feelings, but here they’re mainly all just foils for Asuna’s schemes.

They even largely gloss over the great moral dilemma that lies at the heart of Negima!? AKA – guess what, Asuna is in love with this absolute minor of a teacher (and let’s not forget she’s in love with a bloke old enough to be her dad, too). In the original, everyone’s favourite blonde Ayaka totally blasts her down to size for this and says, hey Asuna, you realise you might be pretty messed up liking these dudes? (despite being even more obsessed with Negi than Asuna herself) – But here, it’s just played for laughs.

Plot – What plot? Ok, joking aside – the plot in Shaft’s version is pretty damn hard to follow. But then, perhaps  that’s besides the point. You’re supposed to just sit back, let Asuna and her lackeys take the ropes, and enjoy. But really, while Negima!? Is first and foremost a comedy through and through, it kind of sucks that so much of the original (which could be both incredibly poignant and deep in terms of lore) is cast aside.

Every time I sit down to watch this show, I keep thinking there’s supposed to be some deep, other level of meaning beyond the wacked out visuals. Taken to its logical conclusion, Negima!? is anime on crack – almost to Excel Saga degrees (Asuna and Excel are totally cousins right?) – it’s the drugged-up Pink Floyd album of anime, he Monty Python of anime. Heck, even the Red Dwarf of anime (wait, no, that’s Space Dandy). It’s never not entertaining, never not a visual treat. And while it drags like heck, you know that another insane chupacabra reference or visual gag is around the corner. Hence, you’re held in a constant suspense of semi mediocrity that remains at worst a firm seven out of ten.

And after all, why have one best girl when you can have thirty-one?

Now, bring on the remake where the English dub actually gives Negi a Welsh accent. Get the bloke who did Mr Drippy in Ni No Kuni to do it, and away you go.

Man would that be amazing.

“I’ll Pay You Back For That, Ten Times Over” – Gurren Lagann

I remember the first time I watched Gurren Lagann, this scene just absolutely blew me away. Up until this point, I hadn’t really got into the show. I couldn’t understand why people raved about it so much.

Then this scene happened. And then I got it.

It’s funny, because in many ways, this scene is just so shamelessly hackneyed – but maybe that’s why it works so well. The romance of it (and God, isn’t it nice to see two anime characters actually, properly ‘seal the deal’ for once instead of beating about the bush) – added to the awful tension of the audience knowing Simon’s watching, and it’s destroying him inside. It’s all just so perfect.

And then, the ‘thing’ that happens afterword happen. And it just epitomises every single ‘flag’ in every show ever. It tears your heart away, stamps on it and then throws it back in a cheap paper bag. So simple, yet so gut-wrenching – and that’s what makes Gurren Lagann so brilliant.

For my money, one of the greatest quotes in anime, ever.

Thoughts on: Clannad

It’s been over a year since I first watched Clannad, but finally I’ve picked up Afterstory, and within just a couple of hours of immersing myself in the show’s world again, all the memories of why Clannad is so special came flooding back.

I suppose the best way of summing up Clannad to someone who has had no prior knowledge of it (without going into the story or anything) is to focus on the emotion of it all – because really, if anything, emotion lies at the heart of this show.

Let’s say for a second you cast your mind back to a time you feel real nostalgia for. That golden-tinged, but ever slightly so melancholic nostalgia. That’s Clannad. Distant memories of school days and endless grey skies. The smell of the pavement just after a rain shower. That’s Clannad. The bittersweet tug of your first memories of romance. A world that will always exist just beyond your finger tips. That’s also Clannad.

Don’t let the cutsey, moe look put you off – Clannad is a deep, deep show. It deals with loss and heartache and romance in a way few other anime I’ve seen manage. Yes, the characters are achingly cute, but there’s real sadness behind those supersized eyes. Yes, this might be another ‘oh, best girl didn’t win’ show – but then, if you think about it, isn’t that just the case in real life. The best girl/guy never wins, do they?

It’s a mature show too – just to give you an example, within the first few episodes of After Story, the main character lies to his best friend and says that he’s slept with his best friend’s kid sister, just to try and shock him out of a rut he’s got himself stuck in. They then proceed to beat seven shades of shit out of each-other. And all that while best friend is pretending to go out with main character’s girlfriend’s mother (who best friend thinks is actually her sister). Pretty fucked up, right?

But it’s the tension in moments like this which will keep you coming back for more. Don’t be fooled into thinking Clannad is slow paced – it’s approach to slice of life is one that comes with all the messy, intricacies and screw-ups of everyday life. It’s a world where we see high school kids blossom into adults, and work their way through all the angst that burns inside us when we’re teens.

Back to that nostalgia for a moment – Clannad might have been broadcast in 2007, but for some reason it always reminds me so much of the 90s – maybe because that’s when I grew up. It just captures that precise sense of loss and unnatainability so very well. This is a world you thought you knew, that you thought you could remember so well – but that with each passing day is slipping further and further out of your reach as it fades into the past.

The soundtrack helps a great deal in that regard too. I could go into so much detail about the plethora of incredible songs on the soundtrack (the Dango theme of course, and also the amazingly euphoric OP theme from the first season) – but for me, it all comes back to Snow Field, and the melodic synth hook that forms the heart of it. This theme returns for the most part almost every episode, always accompanied by some of the most poignant scenes in the show. And every time it absolutely breaks my heart because again, it is so enfused by sheer loss and nostalgia. As a music fan, it contains – for me – some of my favourite records of the early to mid 90s. Stuff like the Pet Shop Boys’ Being Boring or Duran Duran’s Ordinary World. Hopefully you can get the link between them – the link I feel, anyway. I always found it quaint too that for a show called Clannad (aka, ‘that’ famous Irish group) – Snow Field does actually sound like some of the mystical stuff you could probably pick up on a new age CD.

Is there anything else that immediately springs to mind when I think of Clannad – in terms of other anime, that is? Haruhi Suzumiya, obviously – being also directed by Kyoto Animation, it’s a no brainer in terms of sheer visual style. But a lot of the emotional tugs and feelings hit home in the same way. And perhaps, more recently – Your Lie In April, again for the real emotional punches and wistful sense of longing.

I could go on about why this show triggers such strong emotions for me – but suffice to say, if you haven’t seen Clannad, go see it. Don’t be put off by the art style. Heck, After Story is rated 8.8 on IMDB, and ranked the 3rd greatest anime of all time on Anime News Network. And if that doesn’t convince you – nothing will.

I’ll leave you with Snow Field – hopefully it makes you feel even a fraction of why this show is so special.