Tag Archives: Detective

The protagonist or prominent character is a detective and the crime element is core to the narrative.

Paranoia Agent – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mousou Dairinin

 

Similar: Perfect Blue

Paprika

Monster

Serial Experiments Lain

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Mystery Thriller

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Unnerving.
  • Great music.
  • One wild ride.

Negatives:

  • Wacky at the expense of clarity at times.

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Finishing Paranoia Agent is a bittersweet experience for me with Satoshi Kon being one of my favourite anime directors. He was one of the few directors whose anime I could be sure to watch on his name alone. Ironically, my experience with Kon’s work started in disgust as he disturbed me for years with the psychological horror Perfect Blue. I put off watching Paranoia Agent for the longest time since it would mean I have none of his filmography left to watch. However, when a dear reader requested it, I couldn’t make any more excuses.

I can best describe Paranoia Agent as an amalgamation of all his work. It has bits of everything. The psychological unease of Perfect Blue, the mind-bending trip of Paprika, the endearing adventure of Tokyo Godfathers, and the visual storytelling of Millennium Actress are all present. To gather so many varied elements in one place and have them work together is no easy task, so how does Paranoia Agent fare?

It follows the case of Lil’ Slugger, a boy who zips around town on rollerblades beating people with a bent baseball bat. The detectives’ task seems an impossible one with the kid appearing and disappearing at what feels like random. He makes no sense.

As soon as you start Paranoia Agent, you know it is Kon’s work. That opening sequence of the cast laughing uncontrollably with soulless eyes, ethereal vocals blasting behind them, is just the right levels of insane and unnerving to set the tone (see video above if you haven’t). The plot seems to start normal enough when Lil’ Slugger attacks the creator of a beloved animal mascot, but once people question if there really was an attack – did she make it all up for attention? – a plushie of the mascot comes to life to comfort her. All in her head, of course. Simple enough to explain.

Then we move onto episode 2, where a popular kid doesn’t like that the fat kid he kept around to make himself feel better starts getting more attention than him. He wishes Lil’ Slugger would attack his “friend” so that he could save him and be hailed a hero by all. He daydreams of the applause. His wish comes true, except everyone thinks he’s the attacker. With the world turned against him, his reality distorts and life begins to melt away. Further and further we, the audience, descend into a world of madness that is difficult to describe and follow. Episode 3 enters full Perfect Blue territory that I won’t give away. Another episode has a student sneezing out his math knowledge. Literal formulas expelled from nose and mouth. And wait until you see what a kid, a middle-aged man, and a geriatric get up to.

For a while, the series feels like an anthology of short stories as it focuses on a different victim each episode. One must wait until the end for it to come together and make sense – well, for the most part. So if you feel lost along the way, don’t worry too much.

That said, Kon could have put more work into making the audience understand what is going on in the moment. I’ll use an early example. During an interrogation, a suspect believes they’re on some fantasy adventure and any questions the detective asks make no sense because they don’t fit the fantasy. The co-detective has the idea to roleplay as a party member to extract bits and pieces within the context of the fantasy world. The lead detective finds this ridiculous, of course, growing increasingly frustrated as they have to humour these delusions. However, when he reacts, it is as though he is a participant of the fantasy world, which doesn’t quite make sense, since he is a non-believer. In short, the fantasy exaggerations go too far and just cause confusion.

Instead of having him in the fantasy, cutting back to the detective should have shown him sitting there irked in boring reality while others play pretend like weirdos next to him. It feels like Kon overindulged in the fantasy element that would become central to Paprika, where it works better, two years later.

Kon truly knows how to make the audience uncomfortable at every turn. His use of creepy imagery and minimal audio makes for tension that grips to breaking point. Even the way a character animates puts one on edge. The journalist hounding the mascot artist has an ordinary enough design, but when he’s looking into the camera at the perspective character and you in the audience by extension, his every mouth movement feels as if he’s about kiss you in the most horrid manner. You want to get away from him – just like the woman does.

Only upon reaching the end of the anime can you receive any relief from all the madness. It’s a wild ride. Paranoia Agent isn’t as good as his more focused films, but it is still a Satoshi Kon work all the way through.

Art – High

Sporting Kon’s realistic art style and creative visuals, Paranoia Agent is a great looking anime. There is a downgrade in animation and detail compared to his movies.

Sound – High

Kon uses one of his (and my) favourite composers, Susumu Hirasawa, having worked previously on Millennium Actress and later in Paprika with him to make a damn weird OP sequence. (Hirasawa is also responsible for the superb Berserk soundtrack). Despite the great tracks, Kon allows a lack of music to unnerve the audience in key scenes.

Story – High

A rollerblading kid with a baseball bat terrorises residents, prompting an investigation by the police that takes a turn for the mental. Not all pieces quite fit together, but Paranoia Agent is a thrill ride nonetheless.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Paranoia Agent will be too weird for many, yet I still recommend it to all but the faintest of heart. Its strangeness is worth experiencing at least once.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: 

Fluid AnimationStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

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Banana Fish – Anime Review

Japanese Title: BANANA FISH

 

Similar: Rainbow

Black Lagoon

91 Days

No. 6

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Adventure Drama

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Strong protagonist.
  • Great visuals.
  • Doesn’t cringe from the subject matter.

Negatives:

  • Weak villains.
  • Humour doesn’t work.
  • Could use more brains.

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Banana Fish is an adaptation of a manga by the same name that ended 24 years ago. Once a manga reaches a certain age, it’s often deemed outdated and financially unviable. Should one receive an anime adaptation, even then it could become “old news” and have no second season in favour of a gamble at the next big hit. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see something as old as Banana Fish on the slate. And when a studio does go out of its way for an old licence, they will put the full production effort behind it, as is the case here.

The story centres on young Ash Lynx, a handsome boy adopted by New York City Mafia Don Dino Golzine, who declares that Ash should inherit his empire. The boy is ruthless, resourceful, and charismatic – all the qualities he desires in an heir (and it helps that Ash is just his type). Unfortunately for the Don, the boy is also rebellious and despises him like the devil. Ash becomes hell-bent on destroying his father and abuser, especially once suspicion arises of his involvement in the death of Ash’s brother and a mind control drug called Banana Fish. This dangerous game becomes more personal when he meets Japanese photographer Eiji, with whom he makes fast friends. Eiji has just entered a world of abuse, drugs, and death.

Ash is an interesting character and the strongest element of the story. He is a mix of violence and pain as he hates just about everything in his life, yet has these moments of intense vulnerability like a lost child that has no idea of the world. As a child, people sexually abused him, particularly in the mafia including Dino, which taught him that his most valuable asset to these monsters is his body. He’s so damaged by this, one isn’t sure if he’s actually gay or if he’s willing to use his asset to gain the upper hand. It’s messed up, but it makes for an interesting protagonist.

Banana Fish opens on a song to hype you up for the action and ends on a ballad of sadness to remind you of Ash’s pain. That is the heart of Banana Fish.

Eiji is the opposite: sweet, innocent, doesn’t know how to handle gun, and hasn’t even kissed someone. He’s the only good in Ash’s life. Nothing was free in Ash’s world, until he made a friend.

The rest of the cast is a motley crew of gangsters, street urchins, and forgotten soldiers. They work fine in their roles. Where Banana Fish fails its characters is with the villains. Not one of them is interesting or has any depth. Dino is just a creep obsessed with getting Ash to come back as his heir. His plan to accomplish this? What plan? The Chinese guy with long hair, said to be a master manipulator, only succeeds through plot convenience and his ultimate desire for death is just nonsensical. He’s more whiny cartoon child than evil genius. The rest are run-of-the-mill thugs and henchmen, as normal.

The focus on action over character does lessen the impact of weak villains, since this isn’t a battle of ideologies or wits. However, the action-dominated story does dampen the initial setup with Ash’s background and his friendship with Eiji. It doesn’t stop long enough for us to absorb these characters.

To compound problems further (it’s chain of problems, at this point, one leading into the next), the action isn’t smart like Code Geass or stylised like John Wick or Mad Max: Fury Road, so I don’t feel the action alone can carry the series to greatness. People take life-threatening injuries only to stand up a minute later as if they won’t die of blood loss any moment now. Also, Ash is supposed to have an IQ of 180, yet his plans are far from genius. One hit on Dino involves standing atop a truck to take the shot while speeding past. Really, that’s your plan? Nothing in Banana Fish lends credence to his genius label. If they simply hadn’t mentioned it in that one episode, it would have been irrelevant. He’s of average intelligence with high charisma, which is perfectly fine.

My other problem with Ash is the overuse of certain tropes. For instance, I lost count the number of times he wiled his way out of captivity by seducing his captor/guard. It’s awfully convenient that every single one of them is gay and falls for the oldest trick in the book. It made sense the first time when his captor was a past abuser that still craved him. After that is pushing it. Even the humour, which is often jarringly out of place, uses this trope in a light-hearted manner.

Banana Fish has a much stronger first half than second. The first has all the tension, tough choices, harsh losses, and less to do with weak villains. It’s still a decent anime in the second half, though you have to love it for the action more than anything else. And if you make it to the end, the final scene is the best in the series.

Art – High

One of the better-looking series of the year, Banana Fish has a colourful style with plenty of detail, nice animation, and consistent quality. Distant characters lack detail though.

Sound – High

From OP to ED, main character to supporting, all the audio is great.

Story – Medium

An heir to a criminal empire rebels against the predator that raised him and finds friendship in an unexpected place. Banana Fish has a strong first half, fluctuates up and down for the rest of the way, but ends on a great moment.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For action fans. Banana Fish looks great and has plenty of action to keep the crowd busy. Not for children.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

The Garden of Sinners – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kara no Kyoukai

 

Similar: Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne

Darker than Black

Ghost Hunt

Key the Metal Idol

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Supernatural Action Mystery Thriller

Length: 9 movies (35 min. to 2 hrs. each)

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful environments.
  • Fantastic soundtrack.

Negatives:

  • Dead eyes syndrome.
  • Atrocious editing and pacing.
  • No one has a personality.

(Request an anime for review here.)

The Garden of Sinners is an unusual anime series. I’m not sure if you can refer to it as a series, in the standard sense, for it is nine movies of vastly varying length – 35 minutes to 2 hours long. Furthermore, the movies aren’t connected much beyond the main characters and subject matter. It’s akin to older British detective serials like Poirot, where little of the story carries from one episode to the next, which allows the audience to join any week in the series on TV without feeling lost.

Using this series structure, The Garden of Sinners tells of a detective agency that takes on cases involving the supernatural – spirits, curses, and the like. The agency has three members: the sorceress Touko, able to create human-like dolls, the ordinary human Kokutou, and part-doll protagonist Shiki. She has the “Mystic Eyes of Death Perception”, a power that allows her to see a target’s “lifelines” that will kill them when cut. (That’s how they deal with the supernatural entities.)

The first movie follows a string of suicides by schoolgirls all leaping from the same skyscraper set for demolishment. On paper, this is an interesting anime, just my sort of thing. I love contemporary supernatural stories and I am a ravenous consumer of detective serials. This should be a direct feed of serotonin to my brain injected via a syringe of intriguing mystery, complex characters, fascinating mysticism, and unpredictable story. The Garden of Sinners has none of that.

The most glaring issue is that none of these characters has a personality. This should come as no surprise from the same author who brought us the worse-than-Twilight of anime that is Fate/stay night. Shiki is, by intention, an emotionally repressed person. However, once again, like a bloody broken record, I must stress that emotionally repressed does not equate to zero personality, never mind the other characters who are meant to be real people. I can’t imagine what the authors of these soulless characters think mute people must be like in real life. Do they think that mutes will have no personality because they can’t speak?

This lack of soul bleeds into the mysteries themselves. The narrative never makes an effort to have the audience care for the answers to its questions. It assumes that because it hasn’t given us an answer, we must therefore care to know the answer. I hear my neighbour arguing with her daughter in Mandarin on occasion. I’m not interested to translate what they are saying (daughter probably stays out too late). Have the police turn up to cart away a third person I never knew was there and then you have my attention.

The Garden of Sinners tries to con the audience into thinking it has an intricate plot full of hidden details and deeper meaning, when in fact, it is poor structure and storytelling. “This is really complicated – it must be good!”

To compound problems, the editing is a slog. Many shots hold for too long. It’s just a few seconds here and there, but it doesn’t feel right and adds up over time. Directors and editors don’t have to follow set rules for how long a shot should be. Breaking the rules can create an effect. One can let the camera linger for a few seconds to make the audience feel awkward. An extreme close-up, right in a character’s face as they’re talking creates extreme discomfort in the viewer as desired. However, when breaking the rules, it must be with care. Should the effect backfire, it makes the editing seem amateur, as is often the case in The Garden of Sinners. This isn’t deal breaking, but these long shots do allow us to ponder on the fact that the story and characters are empty.

The exception is the fifth movie about a double homicide that never happened. The visuals take a hit in quality, though do get more consistent, and the editing is much tighter. It feels like a different studio’s production. Despite it being nearly 2 hours long, it’s much easier to get through than the movies half its length because things are happening at pace. There is more energy, more life to it all. Doesn’t magically turn into a great movie, mind you, but it shows how much of a difference editing makes.

Before I leave you, I must touch upon the most forced product placement I have seen in anime. The first movie opens on Häagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream, drawing some equation between it and Shiki’s personality. And it returns to the ice cream again later. It is…fascinatingly shocking how blatant this advertising is. I don’t know what to make of it.

Art – High

The good old “dead eyes” syndrome studio ufotable is known for makes a return. The editing needs a lot of work, except in movie five. The animation is a mix of long stills broken up by shots of high animation, some in first person. The environments and atmospherics are beautiful.

Sound – Medium

The one and only thing I will take away from this is the soundtrack. I love the melodies and I am a sucker for ethereal vocals. As for the acting, it seems the actors were told to never have emotion in their voice, and under no circumstances are they to have any range. No talent allowed here!

Story – Low

A detective agency dealing with the supernatural investigates a series of mysterious cases. There is no adequate reason The Garden of Sinners needed to be so long and so slow, nor is there a reason to have such soulless characters.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Don’t bother. The Garden of Sinners isn’t the worst anime – rather average, all things considered – but it is certainly one of the dullest. I can’t recommend anyone waste their time. If you must, then just watch the fifth entry as a standalone movie.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Great Music

Negative:

Poor Pacing

Ghost Hunt – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ghost Hunt

 

Similar: Psychic Detective Yakumo

Ghost Stories

xxxHOLiC

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Comedy Horror Mystery

Length: 25 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good fun.
  • Everyone is a fraud.
  • Isn’t predictable.
  • The Australian accent.

Negatives:

  • The Australian accent.
  • Low production values.
  • Not scary at all.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Ghost Hunt looks like arse, the performances are half-arsed, and these ghost hunters couldn’t tell the difference between a gust of wind and their arses. And that’s what makes this anime fun.

For reasons that could never see justification, Mai is forced to work as the assistant to 17-year-old Kazuya, sceptical ghost hunter of the Shibuya Psychic Research Company. Their slave-master relationship begins at her school with the case of the abandoned school building, but soon goes on tour to other haunted locations in Japan. They are joined – rather coincidentally – at each site by a rock star Buddhist monk, vain Shinto priestess, TV spirit medium, and (my favourite) an Australian Catholic priest.

The poor visuals and near absence of animation turned me off the series until the full cast of characters assembled at school. Unable to handle the bad PR of having a haunted building on campus, the principal hired someone from every religion he could think of to assist Kazuya. They are great together. I love that they each think everyone else is a fraud. It brings a good level of humour to the story, especially coupled with the inspiration taken from those fake American ghost-hunting series. A chair falls over and everyone freaks out!

However, nothing is funnier than the Catholic priest in the English dub. His accent is so bad that it transcends hilarity, so much so that I recommend watching Ghost Hunt in English. I couldn’t stop laughing every time he spoke.

The other strength of Ghost Hunt is in how they handle the mysteries. Each case takes three to four episodes, building layers to the backstory and throwing twists at the investigators. It isn’t as predictable as I anticipated. I like how Kazuya is a sceptic who doesn’t jump straight to the supernatural answer, instead checking if there is an earthly explanation for the weird occurrences first. Just when you’re sure it’s a phantom, he unveils a logical explanation or vice-versa. Furthermore, these aren’t generic urban myths you see in every horror series. The mysteries are good enough to keep you on the hook, wanting to know what happened, and the group dynamic among these hack frauds maintains decent tension and humour.

In an effort to dispel any notions that Ghost Hunt is a great series after all that praise, let us go through the problems. First, Mai isn’t a useful character. She is your typical audience stand-in – an ordinary person thrust into a paranormal world surrounded by experts (“experts”) that do all the work. Second, there is no need to waste time reintroducing the other exorcists each new case. And third, Ghost Hunt isn’t scary. At all. It could have made more effort with the horror side of being a comedy horror series.

I went in with zero expectations, which dropped further upon seeing the art and hearing the performances, but I came to embrace the goof once the cast gathered and the mysteries developed.

Art – Low

There isn’t much animation (no high detail to compensate either) and the shattering glass is so obviously CG. What else do you need to know?

Sound – Low

You have to watch this in English for the Australian accent. He does have oddities in his Japanese dialect as well, but you won’t notice them if you don’t understand Japanese. The spooky OP is effective, though I wonder if the lack of lyrics was a budget constraint (made the best of what they had, regardless).

Story – Medium

A high school girl becomes assistant to a ghost hunter to pay off a debt. With some possibly unintentional comedy and unpredictable mysteries, Ghost Hunt has enough to be good fun for cheesy horror fans.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Ghost Hunt’s slim budget and cut corners only add to the fun. This is a horror series for those who prefer mystery over gore (see Another for the gore).

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

Real Drive – Anime Review

Japanese Title: RD Sennou Chousashitsu

 

Similar: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Serial Experiments Lain

Time of Eve

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good music.

Negatives:

  • The teens.
  • Jarring sexiness.
  • Lacks world building.
  • The virtual world isn’t interesting.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Masamune Shirow of Ghost in the Shell fame steps up into a lead production role to bring us Real Drive, a science fiction series that brings exploration of the human creature to a younger audience.

I never would have known that this came from Shirow had I not glimpsed his name in the credits on Wikipedia when doing background research. Real Drive feels like someone tried to imitate Shirow without understanding what makes Ghost in the Shell, or more specifically, Stand Alone Complex so good.

We find ourselves in 2061 AD when a virtual network called “the Metal” has linked human consciousness on a global scale. However, security leaks and data breaches have begun to affect people’s minds beyond the virtual and into the real world. The young Minamo finds herself at the forefront of the investigation after she pulls Masamichi back from a failed dive into the Metal. She is to work alongside her brother Souta, the android Holon, and other investigators to find solutions.

Shirow’s first mistake was Minamo. I haven’t seen Ghost Hound, Shirow’s young adult horror anime, so I don’t know if he succeeded there, but he doesn’t seem to know how to write using or for teenagers.

I hate all the young characters in Real Drive. Their inclusion makes no sense in this, let alone having one as protagonist. She barely has anything to do with the Metal, which is the core of the story. When Minamo hangs out with her friends, usually at a dessert café, it feels included because “you need to have that in a young adult anime or it won’t be relatable,” said Shirow, not knowing what he’s talking about. Her brother would have made for a better protagonist. He is a young counterpart to the old Masamichi, is a lead diver for the Metal, has the romantic subplot, and has a justified presence.

Also, what is with the “sexiness” at random moments? You have the usual panty shots – bad panty shots aren’t a surprise anymore, so whatever – alongside weirdly timed instances of characters trying to act sexy. For example, when an old woman is in agony, possibly dying, during episode one, her granddaughter/assistant (?) makes sure to pose cutely with her arse in the air. “Old woman is dying, so let’s focus on the teen arse and have her turn like she’s in lingerie commercial,” said someone during production. “Get on it stat!”

Wait, it gets weirder. When the chairwoman of this Artificial Island video calls the investigation team, she presents herself as though she’s ready to ask Leo to draw her like one of his French girls. Why? What tone were they going for? Is there some hidden satire I’m missing? Shirow had a fair amount of eroticism in his Ghost in the Shell manga, and it’s adaptation weren’t shy either, so perhaps he felt obligated to have some erotic element in Real Drive. It doesn’t work here – more funny than sexy.

Next, we come to Shirow’s other big mistake, the virtual world itself. The Metal is incredibly boring. Remember Luke Skywalker floating in the batca tank in The Empire Strikes Back? Ever held your breath inside a swimming pool? Well then, you’ve experienced all the Metal has to offer. It isn’t engaging to watch people floating in water occasionally attacked by bubbles (!) as a substitute for action. Why didn’t he use marine life as proxies for viruses and data breaches? A monstrous, digitally warped shark is more frightening than bubbles. At most, we get some graphics in the environment and corruption on a character’s wetsuit. Do you know why Hollywood makes hacking sequences with effects, progress bars, and furious typing? Because real hacking is reading a bunch of text, which isn’t engaging.

I can’t wrap my mind around the notion that no one at production saw the Metal and pointed out that it‘s a load of nothing. The best scene in Real Drive is the very first, set in the past when a dive turns catastrophic. There is real action. After that, dives are mind numbing.

The vagueness of the overall plot compounds this dullness. For many episodes, Real Drive is about solving virtual problems with no concrete goal. You can’t have a non-episodic crime series and say it’s just about solving crimes. You need to be more specific. Which crime? Is the goal to ultimately catch the Seattle Reaper? Shirow already knows this – Stand Alone Complex is about catching the Laughing Man – so I’m surprised at the fault here. This gives the impression that he had an idea – “I want a series about solving virtual crimes” – but didn’t flesh it out, get at the core of his idea. I doubt Real Drive would have received the green light had it not had the name “Masamune Shirow” attached.

Art – Medium

What is with the doughy women? Every female character has extra dough packed on, even those that are said to be thin. I suspect that the artist has a fetish for “thicc” women, as the android Holon, designed to have the ideal female physique, is definitely for those who want to get down with the thiccness. The world has a lovely design akin to a futuristic paradise island, but the virtual side is plain water.

Sound – Medium

The music boasts a great orchestral soundtrack. However, the sound mixing is horrendous at times. In episode two, a scene of Minamo whining to her brother about breakfast has building tension music from the likes of Fantasia. Fire the mixer. The acting is fine.

Story – Low

A team of investigators dive into a global consciousness known as the Metal to resolve problems of this virtual world. The Metal is dull, the teenagers are superfluous, the sexiness makes no sense, and the plot offers little reason to keep watching Real Drive.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Don’t bother. Real Drive is a poor man’s Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex…made by the same man.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None