Wednesday, August 21, 2013

President Dog Takes On... Fantasista Doll (Summer Anime 2013 Part 4)

Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of President Dog Takes On... Summer Anime 2013. Recently a certain prominent critic, or guy who plays the character of a critic depending on your view, took a look back at the quintessential icon of the magical girl genre of anime, Sailor Moon. Granted, it was the hacked-to-pieces English dub DIC Entertainment produced (and mostly just the first episode for some reason), but between this, the supposed remake of the former series coming this winter and the subject of today's review, Fantasista Doll, I've been in a bit of a mood to talk about this staple genre of the medium.

For those unfamiliar with the archetype genres of anime, magical girl anime tend to center around a middle-to-high school age girl who, through either an encounter with a magical being or object, is endowed with special powers which they use to fight evil and right wrongs. For such a simple premise, there have been countless variations on the basic formula, adding psychological drama, tragedy, satire, parody and more in with the original elements that make up a show of its kind, though for the most part staying lighthearted and palatable for a variety of ages. In other words it was the fluffy, ineffectual genre looked at mostly as kids' stuff. I do admit that even as a male in his mid 20s I have watched my fair share of this genre and I dare say a few of them were some of the most influential to me in getting into anime as a whole. The previously mentioned Sailor Moon was a staple of my after-school viewing from its days on Cartoon Network's Toonami block and the English version of Cardcaptor Sakura was also high on my radar during its run. 

However, a lot of the more wholesome elements flew right out the window with one show from 2011: Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I won't go too far into the details of it, as just the shock of thinking 'This is actually happening in a magical girl anime?!' is worth the price of admission, but it significantly darkened the genre into something, quite frankly, it shouldn't have been and other shows have since followed suit, leaving me to wonder the fate of the traditional magical girl anime. I'm all for expanding the boundaries of a time-worn genre, but sometimes I just want the genuine article and I don't believe there's anything wrong with making a show like that as long as it has personality and doesn't bore me to death or get me angry watching it.Referring back to the original guide from Kotaku I have been using as inspiration for my choice in this review series, there were three new series of this type: an alternate universe to the Fate/Stay Night series (I'm not familiar with the base series, so that was out), Daybreak Illusion, which looked to me like something along the Madoka Magica line of overly dark and trying to be mature in both subject matter and art style, and Fantasista Doll. Thankfully, the final of the three was just what I needed to scratch my itch, though with a slight, but not too off-course twist.

Unlike my previous entries in this series, Fantasista Doll doesn't come from a big name production studio, which in and of itself could be a blessing for the show. Instead it comes from the relatively recent Hoods Entertainment, which only has a few shows under its belt such as Mysterious Girlfriend X and few scattered OVAs, though they will be producing the upcoming BlazBlue anime in the fall, so it's certainly a group to keep an eye on for the future. For now, let's jump into their most current work.

On a stormy night we find a young girl watching a horror movie, though not really enjoying herself too much and looking pretty scared, clutching a pillow. This is our main character Uzume, who will find out much more about after the opening scene. Meanwhile, in a mysterious building, we see a figure opening a cabinet revealing a row of glowing cards with silhouettes on the faces of them. Interspersed with more of Uzume watching her movie, the figure runs and drops the cards, spilling them onto the dirty floor and giving the viewer a better look at the silhouettes, revealing the outlines of female figures on them. Now between the juxtaposed scenes here, only one is actually important to the show and it's not too hard to guess which, though the scene with Uzume running scared from the movie into the bathroom and screaming after running into her sister was pretty funny. Can't say that something similar hasn't happened to me personally, though with was never as a result of a movie. 

 Oh, these figures couldn't be anything important, could they?

Anyway, onto the opening sequence and along with it, the first thing that really grabbed me about this show: the theme. I have to say, I'm a bit of a sucker for choirs in opening themes for anime, even if the contribution is minor. The choir part of the opening for Sunday Without God was the only part that I enjoyed of that theme and it fits the tone of that show overall. In this theme for Fantasista Doll, it's really the hook to its chorus (and the first words of the song) that, at least in my case, gets me excited for the show to come. It's a simple as saying the name of the show, but it's effective. The song from there has a slightly harder edge than your typical upbeat magical anime, with a well-placed guitar riff mixed into its core that lifts it up back into that earworm of a chorus. I admit it's not profound music by any means, but it's just an infectious sound that sets a fun tone for a show of this type. Throw in a few nice action scenes and even what looks like a little Sailor Moon tribute at the end and it's a nicely well-rounded opening.

We start out the first episode proper with a small flashback to a young Uzume playing a card game that bears a striking resemblance to Magic: the Gathering (a personal pastime of my own) in a big tournament and landing the deciding play to win. But in the current time, our heroine has overslept in typical magical girl heroine fashion and runs to get ready and head out the door to another day of school. Of course getting dirty looks from rude businessmen and getting squished like a sardine on the train don't make for a pleasant morning either.

 Uzume, it could be a whole lot worse for a girl your age in this situation. Just grin and bear it.

However, on that train a stranger grabs Uzume's bag and pulls it back into the train cab, but we never see who or what happens to it and neither does she, so she lets it slide until she finds an odd, ornate cell phone-looking device in her bag. 

During one of her classes, the image a of a blonde haired girl appears on her notebook out of the corner of her eye and we see other girls of different colors around other parts of the classroom, though no one else can see them. Uzume thinks she's just seeing things again and goes on with the rest of her day, getting asked to join a card game club in the process by one of her classmates, citing her tournament prowess and dropping a fun, more direct reference to Magic.

 I love little nods to things like this, though it always makes me wonder what a MTG anime would be like.

Later on, as she's getting ready for a tennis game, Uzume is startled by a rattling of the locker room door and a mysterious hand trying to grab her. She dashes off in fear and hides in a closet, calling out for help. Just then, an unknown, somewhat robotic voice calls out that it could be of assistance and out of desperation, Uzume accepts, though for some reason this 'entry process' requires everything from the typical name and blood type information, to favorite foods and the age when she had her first crush. 

 But after all that, a light flashes from her pocket and the newly acquired phone device and from it a girl appears, calling Uzume her master. This is Sasara, the first of Uzume's newly acquired team of Fantasista Dolls and well... she has a little bit of an attitude problem. Of course I'd be irritated a bit as well if I was just in my skivvies for the first meeting of this kind, but that's beside the point. 

After that, another girl, dressed in the same school uniform as our heroine, enters, summons her own ninja-like doll and attacks Uzume and Sasara, the latter trying to protect against the ninja doll while Uzume tries to escape. The chase leads to the school gym where Sasara finally gets equipped to fight after teaching her master how to properly summon her dolls. Apparently inside the card collecting phone device they keep all of the clothes and equipment for the dolls in giant bullet trains. Go figure. 

Anyway, with Sasara fully equipped, we really down to business into an excellent, but short fight scene, between her and the ninja doll. Flips, dueling on top of a balance beam, flying kicks into one of those vault horse thing (I seriously don't know the proper name of it), it packs in a lot of action in a short amount of time. Uzume even gets in on the action, inadvertently, by headbutting the ninja doll out of panic. 

After defeating the girl and the ninja, Sasara explains that there are evil forces out to get her and the rest of her group of dolls and that as her master, Uzume is their only hope to keep them out of harm's way. Obviously this is a lot for a young girl to take in all at once, so she's hesitant at first and asks for more time to truly decide. Later that night, Uzume meets the other dolls under her service, though they make it kind of tough for her to take her bath, as they all want one too. One thing to keep in mind with the dolls: they aren't just holograms or digital representations of beings. When summoned they take on physical forms, though they are somewhat tethered to the summoning device of their master. However, even though they're meant to serve their master, they won't do everything on command and have a certain level of free will, such as Sasara coming out of the summoner at will and the dolls giving some resistance when Uzume wants to use them to do her homework and clean her room. 

But after some talking out their misunderstandings and filling in the gaps of the whole master/doll relationship that Sasara neglected to mention during the entry process, Uzume thanks her for coming to her defense and risking injury for her sake. This touches the dolls deeply; they had never been directly thanked for their actions by their master before, though they thank Uzume in return for allowing them to be free once more and under the guidance of a master again. Just then, she receives a phone call from a strange man named Lord Rafflesia, congratulating her for forming a bond with the dolls and tossing a bouquet of flowers to her from her bedroom window. We then see another mysterious figure, this time all in white with a cape standing on top of a telephone poll. Apparently, he is the one who bestowed upon Uzume the summoner and the dolls in hopes that she would become a great master. Plus I can't help but mention he bears a resemblance to Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon, just needing a bunch of roses to really seal the look. 

Beyond the first episode, the series the goes on to give each of Uzume's dolls a focus in the next handful of episodes respectively, which gives us time to get to know their personalities and abilities more in depth than what we ever could have in the opening episode. I personally enjoy when shows take this level of time to dedicate to character development, most notably when Soul Eater did it for each of the main groups that made up their ensemble cast, which in essence is what we have here as well.  Along with the spotlight on each doll, Uzume gets a lot of growth as a character too, starting as a bit of a scaredy-cat in the beginning but growing more and more confident as things go along, as well as getting more knowledge on the world of her dolls and others that have them. For those main reasons, I didn't want to go too much further into the show from the first episode, despite the fact it leaves this review a little shorter and less detailed than previous entries. I encourage you to go farther and look at the next five episodes if this show sounds appealing; by then the cast is much more fleshed out, the plot ongoing and the setting more three-dimensional. I will say that the dolls have a nice mix of energy and personality and are thoroughly pleasant to watch, whether just being funny, experiencing the world around them or getting into brawls with other dolls. The animation's solid once again, no real complaints on that front, but nothing too spectacular. It does get points for being so crisp from a relatively new production company (roughly 3 years old as far as I can find), but it's nothing that will set your world on fire. Echoing my sentiment on the opening, the music when noticeable is solid as well, though the ending theme may be slightly too sugary sweet for most people as well as the visuals that go with it. I can forgive that since it's a very female-heavy show in its cast and all, but it is worth giving a heads-up just in case.

Overall, if you took Cardcaptor Sakura, modernized it and threw it in a blender with a Magic: the Gathering deck, you'd probably end up with Fantasista Doll... and a very nasty, gummed up blender. I give the show a 3.5 out of 5 though it can go up closer to a 4 depending on how much of a fan of the genre you are and how deep you like to get into knowing the characters. It's not truly remarkable by any means, but it's very solid for what kind of show it is and sometimes that's all I really want in a show. Fantasista Doll airs its simulcast on Sundays at 2:30 PM on Crunchyroll. Next time, it's going to take more than a clue and your best Phoenix Wright impression to escape this school alive. President Dog Takes On... Danganropa: The Animation.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Coming Soon to President Dog Takes On...

Hello everyone, just wanted to give a heads-up to a few of the future entries of the blog coming up.

  • First of all, as I said at the end of the Sunday Without God review, the next entry in the Summer Anime 2013 series is for Fantasista Doll. Beyond that, I intend to review the shows Danganropa: The Animation and Blood Lad, though which one I tackle first has not been decided.  
  • Next, I may do an entry in the near future as a few quick hits on some of the rest of the season's offerings, depending on the amount I have to talk about each series. Not a definite idea, but possible. 
  • Finally, and most important of all, I will be doing a special entry for Otakon 2013, showing and summarizing some of the highlights of the convention. Please note this will be a much different kind of entry as it will be even more visually based than normal. That means plenty of pictures and maybe even some video, depending on time and capability. I do have responsibilities that take precedent over gathering content for this blog while I'm there, but I will do my best to put together a little special something.
Last, a note directly from me: I would love to have people spread the word about my blog and share the love and opinions expressed here with as many as I can. Please share, tweet and spread the site to anyone who could be interested! I can't get better unless people know and read what I write and I'm just one dog here.

So in closing, that's what you should come to expect over the next few weeks or so and I hope everyone reading enjoys it!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

President Dog Takes On... Sunday Without God (Summer Anime 2013 Part 3)

Hello again and welcome back to President Dog Takes On... continuing my series on the anime of Summer 2013. Remember how in my introduction to this blog I stated 'be prepared to disagree with me?' I've got a feeling this is where it's all going to truly start, so I'm putting my flame shield up for this review, but first a little discussion on a specific element of creativity. Don't worry, I won't try to bore you to death, but I feel it's important to explain myself.

I've talked a lot already about potential in the first two shows I've reviewed, both good and bad and feel that, especially when it comes to first impressions, shows should always have that in mind. The amount of shows I've seen with interesting premises, characterization, settings, plot twists, and the like are more numerous to count, but only a fraction of them truly turn out to be well-executed. Often, the people creating these programs either forget to act upon good ideas when it can be beneficial or play all their cards right from the start. Committing either one of these errors makes the given show lose its impact, makes the viewer's interest wane, and thus creative potential is wasted. Granted, the possibilities of any creative piece are limited to those in charge of creating it and no one person can think of every single viable outcome the viewer could see. It's simply unreasonable to the creators to expect a completely thorough assessment of all aspects of a show's potential, though some are better than others. A show with a premise as engaging as today's subject, Sunday Without God, is another unfortunate victim of wasted potential.

As before, we'll start with the production side of things, and yet again, it's from another production studio with a deep pedigree (I swear to you, I'm not ordering these reviews like this on purpose). Madhouse is behind this one and if you haven't heard of them specifically, if you're a fan of the medium, you have certainly heard of their work. Having been around since the 1980s, they began their work on films such as Ninja Scroll and Demon City Shinjuku, but can be most attributed to a vast array of shows that could be considered iconic of their genre. Cardcaptor Sakura, Death Note, Highschool of the Dead, Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, the list goes on and on. They've also contributed some of the most classic Studio Ghibli works and provided the opening animation to my own beloved Otakon convention back in 2009, but there will be more time for me to gush over that convention in about two weeks, so expect a special entry about this year's con in the middle of August.

So what is this premise I was alluding to just a few moments ago? It goes a little something like this: In your typical fantasy styled world, God abandoned the entire world. Why is this such a big deal, you may ask? Well, it means, for a reason not completely explained, no one can give birth and no one can die, even if their body is gravely wounded or injured. The only way the supposed dead can rest is with the aid of someone known as a gravekeeper, this world's version of a priest and more prominently, a gravedigger, who uses a specially blessed shovel. Alright, outside of the lack of explanation beyond 'God left, just up and left,' it sounds pretty decent, but seriously, the Almighty didn't even call the pope and tell him He had ladies' polio or something? Anyway, I digress. That setup does seem like we'd have some medieval shovel-on-zombie head action upcoming, so let's jump into the first episode. 

We start out with both an albino looking guy in black walking into a village and a small girl who we can assume by the shovel is a gravekeeper, doing what else but digging graves. The girl is Ai, our main character and her villages' gravekeeper. I certainly like her design, from her big, sunburst looking hat to her somewhat steampunk looking outfit, she is a nicely designed character who looks like she'd be a sweet, fun little protagonist in a world as described before. The albino looking guy, however, is where this show hits its first major stumbling block. Ai and the man in black immediately have a dramatic standoff as soon as we see them meet in the town square; apparently the entire population of the village is dead and he is the one responsible.

However, the albino begs to differ saying all he did was get the villagers to stop moving and that actually killing them is a gravekeeper's job. Now in the context of the this show I guess that would make sense, but the aspect of this that really begins to stick in my craw personally is the conceit in his voice, which even Ai cannot accept and begins to attack him with her shovel. And then this happens...

Not cool, man. Not cool.

Yes, the guy pretty much punts a 12 year old girl. Dude, you are not doing yourself any favors in this review by any means. We then get some more explanation on how Ai became a gravekeeper after her mother's death, taking up her mantle and shovel at just the age of 7 and from them on watched over the village and dug graves for each of the people to prepare for the day she would have to lay them to rest. At least she seems to be handling the responsibility positively, so that's a plus.

 This face won't last long.

With that established we go on to the opening sequence, which, outside of the opening cathedral choir singing, is somewhat unremarkable. The song becomes a rather generic rock song, not particularly hard, accompanying various characters (some we still haven't met and won't for a while) looking depressed or emo as scenery and set pieces pass by. Hardly anything really stands out besides the initial choir at the beginning of the song...

 Some of the few parts of this opening that aren't being generic or emo. Kind of hard to find.

...and for some reason, the presence of what's basically a Volkswagen bus with Ai inside riding past the viewer near the end. It amazing how one small detail like that can throw off the time scale of an entire show and feel completely out of place (We do eventually see where the bus comes from by the time episode 4 comes, but it still throws off the overall atmosphere of the fantasy setting of the series).

Seriously, there are fossil fuels in this fantasy world?!

Back with the story again, we get another 'explanation' of the whole 'God created everything then bailed' situation, which is to be pointed out as more efficient than the tradition Bible version of the creation of the earth in the book of Genesis by taking five days instead of six, resting on day six and then, in the shows' terms, forsaking the world on the seventh. Apparently one day a giant flash of light spoke to the whole world saying that both Heaven and Hell were too full and soon the earth would be as well. 

Sounds like our divine creator wasn't a very good long-term planner, and thus people stopped dying, giving birth and basically turned into zombies when they were supposed to die naturally. To be fair, it takes about as much faith as normal religion to believe a story and setup such as this, but if this is all the show establishes for how the world works, it's a bit hard to swallow. At least we get a cute little scene with the villagers welcoming Ai back into town and giving her tons of sweets. 

From here we see that said village has pretty much adopted her, giving her a place to stay and people to look after her, since she's still a kid, even with all the pressure and responsibility she has to burden. One day, Ai finishes digging the last grave for her village and decides to go back and see if anyone else needs her help but returns to find the village abandoned. Trying to find someone, she runs into the man in black from the opening scene, quite literally, who whips out a pistol and points it at her. Once again, such a charming and rational character we have here, don't you agree? 

Only place I've seen such a reaction to running into a stranger like that is in downtown Baltimore. And not the good parts.

After he backs off and Ai introduces herself as the gravekeeper of the area, the albino man asks her, in a rather odd robotic way, if she knows of a woman name Hana. Ai can't recall anyone of that name or the type he describes, but before he leaves she asks him his name, which he introduces himself as Humpnie Humbert, the Man-Eating Toy, which happens to be the name she recalls as her father's according to what her later mother told her. The man in black denies being her father, saying he looks far too young and doesn't fit what Ai imagined her father looking like either, but Ai is still sure that the man is her father by intuition alone. However, her joy quickly turns as Humbert asks her for a favor as a gravekeeper and returns us to the opening scene, showing that everyone in the village is dead from what appears to be numerous rounds of gunfire including Ai's caretakers. The fight from said opening scene ensues and we skip ahead to Ai using those conveniently pre-dug graves she made for the villagers a bit earlier than she expected, interspersed with her grief and rage at Humbert saying that her father would never commit such a horrible act. 

Of course it doesn't help Humbert's case when he accuses Ai of not really being a gravekeeper, calling her a 'weirdo' and God an 'asshole,' and basically saying that everything Ai knew of her life was either a lie or fabrication; even his name isn't really his, he stole it from a toy. Our protagonist truly sums it up well with one short phrase... 

 My thoughts exactly.

Humbert then says that if Ai was actually a gravekeeper she'd be unemotional, bear no ill will towards others or desire to attack others, which she clearly is not, being on the verge of both rage and tears. Honestly, you try keeping a straight face after being told everything you know is wrong by the guy who just killed everyone you held dear. Not exactly a walk in the park.

After the reveal of another gravekeeper coming out of the shadows, that's the end of the episode. Needless to say, not really the most riveting start to a new show. The ending technically starts over the last minute of the show with the end credits and music starting to roll just as Ai world begins to crumble, which just feels distasteful and doesn't give the ending a fair amount of respect, even with the state of confusion the show has crafted. The song itself is a slow, melancholic piece that get paired with another shot of the overall cast, just panning from top to bottom, once again succeeding in being very generic. 

 Again, not cool. The scene's already screwed up emotionally, at least go with it without covering it up with the ending music.

As for the characters, I think my attitude towards 'Humpnie Humbert' came through over the course of explaining things, but let me sum it up: he's a douche. Aloof, cruel, and clearly has no ounce of compassion, especially towards Ai. The punt and the gun drawing moment speak enough towards that. Ai, on the other hand, definitely gets some sympathy for basically having her life and dreams crushed and being a young, sweet looking girl with a ton of baggage on her shoulders. More focus on her and much less involving the dick in the black jacket would go a long way in making this show better. And just because I dislike this character this much, small spoiler incoming: Humbert really is Ai's father, was immortal up until the end where much to my delight, he finally gets killed at the end of the third episode. Good riddance to you for keeping the plot from getting started for three whole episodes. It's truly bad where in a scene when said character is captured by a marauding gang that I'm actually hoping that the gang finally puts and end to him and only gets worse when in the end they story wants us to sympathize with him and his plight of being immortal. Sorry, the only one I'm sympathizing with is the little girl you've threatened, traumatized and nearly killed, not to mention destroying her entire world and mindset. We do eventually meet a few more permanent characters by that third episode though: Yuri, a childhood friend of Humbert who sought revenge on him for destroying his wife after she had turned undead, and Scar, the silent, emotionless gravekeeper we briefly saw at the end of the first episode. After the events of episode 3 the show finally starts going as it should and could possibly get back to that potential version of the show, but at this point it's beginning to lose my personal interest. Considering most brand new shows from Japan work on a 12 to 13 episodes run to start, this show basically wasted its first quarter doing nothing but setting up a motive for Ai to begin her adventure, something that could've been done much quicker, easier and without the aggravation of such a terrible character fueling it.

One other point I have to bring up is the art style of this show, one aspect in particular. As you can see from the screen shots I've scattered throughout this review, the show has an aesthetic where it constantly appears to be either sunrise or sunset from the use of light, colors and shadows. At first, it's a nice visual touch, especially on the more expansive shots of scenery, but after a while it begins to get grating. Even the scenes where it's night or when it tries to be bright daylight, there's a constant annoying lens flare coming from any possible reflective surface and it grows distracting very quickly. It lessens how crisp the animation and art in general should look, despite a high amount of ambition clearly put into the art itself.

Overall, Sunday Without God has a good idea and a good show buried in it somewhere, but it appears to be trapped under a lack of motivation in its pacing, stylish yet distracting artwork, an extremely crippling main cast member and a plot and lore with far more questions than answers. I can only give this show a 2.5 out of 5, the extra half a point going toward holding out some semblance of hope that the show can pull itself up to the lofty expectations something with such a high-minded plot would set for itself. If you truly want to see what all my fussing is about, Sunday Without God is simulcast of Tuesday afternoons on Crunchyroll. Next time, we take a look at a show that has, at least in my mind, revitalized a classic anime genre from the depths of its attempts to be something it's not. Suit up, shuffle up, and watch out for traps. President Dog Takes On... Fantasista Doll.