Tag Archives: Mystery

An air of the unknown, a puzzle to solve…

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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No. 6 – Anime Review

Japanese Title: No. 6

 

Similar: Ergo Proxy

Psycho-Pass

Towards the Terra

Banana Fish

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Drama Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 11 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Quality art and animation.
  • Good start.

Negatives:

  • Wheel spinning second act.
  • Protagonists lack involvement.
  • Mismatched music.

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In an odd coincidence, I have completed three anime that open with a similar premise – Toward the Terra, Xam’d: Lost Memories, and No.6. They are each about a late teen living a good life, free of worries, when an outsider tells him it’s all a lie and his life turns upside down.

In No.6, Shion lives in the sixth of humanity’s utopian cities. Everything is perfect – no poverty, no crime, no conflict. He was one of the city’s elite residents with every luxury paid for in exchange for contributing to society in an area of expertise – ecology, in Shion’s case. He lost all such privileges at 12 years old when he helped one of society’s rejects take shelter. Years later, he now oversee No.6’s trash bots.

When a disease hits the city that causes rapid aging, the authorities arrest Shion. Of course, he’s as clueless as the rest, but he dared question The Man and for that, he must die. However, the same boy from all those years back who goes by the name Nezumi, meaning “rat”, scurries to the rescue and breaks him free of society’s shackles. The adventure begins.

I love this type of opening that upends the protagonist’s world. It raises so many questions at once, generating immense conflict for the protagonist torn between the world they once knew and the new reality, and I can’t want to see it all unravel. How did society erect the façade in the first place? How does it control the populace? Why? What’s the protagonist’s involvement in its history (there is always something)? How have the Outsiders survived all this time?

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

No.6 doesn’t make an effort in any of these questions.

Damn. What a shame.

Once out of the city, marking the end of act 1, the plot just stalls like a novice driver confusing the clutch and accelerator pedals. Each episode of act 2 goes as follows: Nezumi saying he hates the city, Shion asking why, Nezumi saying he’ll tell him later, and repeat. Characters don’t take action. There are minor moments – just not enough to drive the plot forward.

The next real event is at the end of act 2, leading into act 3. It’s as though the writer set in stone that “When the characters meet this guy over here, act 3 starts.” She refused to bring this event forward and come up with something else to start act 3 when act 2 had nothing going on (or write new events to lift the drought). I see this occur a lot in Korean dramas. The studio mandates a certain number of episodes to fill the TV schedule – usually 16 1-hour episodes, yet their romantic comedies are rarely complex enough to fill 16 hours. Acts 1 and 3 have stricter lengths in a story than 2 does. A slow first act turns the audience off and they won’t return. A slow third act leaves a bad aftertaste. Therefore, the filler slumps into the second act (“will they, won’t they,” and “problem of the episode” scenarios).

Unlike those drawn out K-dramas, a fictional world with a grand conflict like No. 6 has plenty of material to tap into. Why didn’t we explore more of the city and its utopian society? The idea of each citizen focused on one specialty with everything paid for isn’t relevant after the opening. This world has but a fraction of Psycho-Pass’s depth.

Act 2 instead focuses on the main couple, which doesn’t work either. There is too much focus on Shion and Nezumi’s relationship, yet not enough because it doesn’t move anywhere during this middle section. Again, I suspect the writer refused to allow their development to progress, “Keeping the good bits for the end.” The one positive I can say about their relationship is that it isn’t a shounen ai tease. It commits.

Even when the plot does get off the recliner, our protagonists aren’t driving agents to lead the story. Their allies do more work than they do in resolving the grand conflict. It feels as if the writer had an idea for a couple but no story to accompany them, and an idea of a story but no characters to lead it. Since they were lacking each other in the technical sense, she brought them together like the final two pieces of a puzzle. She didn’t realise they weren’t meant for the same puzzle. At least not without further work.

None of the backstory mysteries involving Shion’s mother, the city’s origin, and the rebels amount to anything meaningful. The writer knew mysteries should be there to entice the audience, but didn’t go back to flesh them out and tie them to the plot in a meaningful way.

You can look to several other anime for this idea executed expertly. Start with Psycho-Pass. No. 6 isn’t a terrible anime. Though when others have already shown you how to do it right, it’s difficult not see all the problems despite any positives.

Art – High

No. 6’s strongest quality is the art, particularly the animation. Episode 9 has a Ghibli quality scene. I also like the visual contrast between the clean city and dirty slums.

Sound – Medium

The acting is good and most music works well. The OP and ED songs have no life in them and sound so weird. I’m unsure of what they are trying to convey in relation to the narrative.

Story – Low

A boy has his utopian life upended when he helps an outsider, who later helps him escape the authorities in return. A good start isn’t enough to keep one going to through a stalled second act and poorly fleshed out finale.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. With the likes of Psycho-Pass, RahXephon, and Towards the Terra, to name a few, using the same setup to greater results, there is little reason to knock at No. 6.

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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

Tiger & Bunny – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Tiger & Bunny

 

Similar: My Hero Academia

S-CRY-ed

Darker than Black

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Action Comedy

Length: 25 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Fun premise.
  • Late act 2.
  • More below the surface.

Negatives:

  • Sticks to “heroes doing hero things” for too long.
  • Finale fizzles out.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Now for a completely different take on superheroes, Tiger & Bunny is here! To succeed as a superhero in the city of Stern Bild City, a hero needs sponsors. After all, who’s going to pay for all the damage from a battle? The channel Hero TV follows these superheroes on the streets as they fight crime, everything filmed and performed with an eye for entertainment and, above all, a responsibility to the sponsors. You thought superhero work was about catching bad guys? Amateur.

This is a brilliant premise (and a clever way to insert the anime’s sponsors into the series). If you think about it, should a superhero ever exist in the real world, sponsors would be on their doorstep within the hour. Can you imagine how much Coca Cola would pay to have the superhero take a sip of Coke after a successful arrest broadcast to the world?

Our principal corporate patsy in this case is Kotetsu a.k.a. Wild Tiger, a has-been hero that fails to score arrests for points on Hero TV, outstripped by the popular heroes such as the flying Sky High and the young idol Blue Rose (sponsored by Pepsi). The Wild Tiger trading card is worthless. He can’t even give it away! He hits rock bottom when a larger corporation buys out his contract and pairs him with the newer, shinier hero model sponsored by Amazon and Bandai in Barnaby, who has the same power as Tiger – five minutes of super strength and speed. Together, they are Tiger & Bunny (named by Kotetsu).

This anime immediately reminded of a favourite old movie of mine called Mystery Men, which spoofed superheroes to an extreme degree. One hero’s superpower was the ability to shovel very well. The strongest hero was Captain Amazing, plastered with sponsor patches like an F1 driver. There is a strong Western influence in Tiger & Bunny, including a Joker and Harley Quinn-like villain duo.

When Tiger is about to catch a criminal fleeing aboard the monorail, Hero TV’s showrunner tells him to hold off on the capture as they must cut to commercial on a cliffhanger. Tiger & Bunny had me from that moment. As evident by the premise, this is a fun anime. I love the makeup of the world with its reality TV obsession and the un-super superheroes.

Tiger & Bunny does do more than comedy by expanding the major characters. Kotetsu is trying to balance hero life with his responsibilities as the single father to a daughter, who doesn’t know of his alter ego. He makes promises he can’t keep. It goes into lives of washed up heroes, saviours fallen from grace. What happens in retirement? What if forced to retire? Blue Rose, on the other hand, hates doing hero work when she just wishes to be a singer.

The most conflict goes to Barnaby, though. Despite outward appearances of a young hero on top of life, the death of his parents during childhood torments him to this day. His thread, which properly kicks in during the second half, is the best of the series. Until the midpoint, episodes are just “heroes doing hero things” without much story. Fun, sure, but lacking depth. Barnaby’s story and the villain he confronts elevated the anime.

It’s a shame then that the quality slouches back to basic hero vs. villain for the finale. Tiger & Bunny doesn’t quite grab all of its potential and run with it. Greatest fumble of all is the handling of the vigilante Lunatic that incinerates heroes and villains alike he deems unworthy. He comes into the story early on and makes several appearances that both aid and hinder the protagonists, but by the end, his story arc goes unexplored except for his origin story. You could suppose that they saved him for a sequel series, if meant for anything at all, yet even so, you can’t bring in such a significant element and seemingly forget about him by the end. It would be akin to forgetting Two-Face’s story in The Dark Knight. I need a little more of that conflict sauce. Give it to me!

Despite the fumbles, I had a blast with Tiger & Bunny and I can easily recommend it to anyone. The premise alone is worth your time. Let’s hope My Hero Academia, which I am watching at a snail’s pace, is at least half as inventive as this anime.

Art – Medium

The glitzy metropolis design is a pleasure, as are the sponsor-plastered heroes. CG for several of the armoured characters isn’t as bad as it could have been.

Sound – Medium

The acting is strong in Japanese and English. They managed to capture the goofiness of the heroes in this weird world quite well. The music, however, isn’t “superhero” enough. It doesn’t have the fanfare you would expect (WWE wrestlers get it right).

Story – Medium

In a world of superheroes sponsored by big corporations for profits, a has-been hero finds himself paired with the new, handsome hero to perform for the crowd while catching criminals. The fun concept of Tiger & Bunny elevates it above a generic superhero anime.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Tiger & Bunny has such a wacky idea that even if you have grown tired of superhero stories, this could refresh your interest. Do note that most episodes have an after credit scene that is necessary viewing to avoid small confusion.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive: None

Negative: None