Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Best Anime Season Since Spring 2006

BakemonogatariSpring 2006 was the best anime season I can remember, with three anime masterpieces starting their runs: NANA, Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, and my all-time favorite, Simoun.

Now we have another season to rival it. At least through a half-dozen episodes, there are three summer 2009 shows that I could end up rating as masterpieces: Aoi Hana, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, and Bakemonogatari. (mouseover images for captions, click to enlarge)

And this is a summer season, of all things. Fewer shows debut in summer than in any other season, with spring and fall being the two major anime seasons. Summer is usually an anime down time. Not this year.

Now, there are other new shows I am also enjoying -- Spice & Wolf, Kanamemo, and Princess Lover, for example -- but they are not in the same league. Except for Koshimizu Ami's world-class voice-acting in Spice & Wolf, they are just good entertainment.

Aoi HanaThe three potential masterpieces all have something special. In Aoi Hana, it's the delicate feelings and relationships, so well matched to the watercolor backgrounds and the amazing direction and storyboarding: unhurried, but every second having a purpose, creating an aesthetic whole.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, as Vexx said in the AnimeSuki forum, is one of the most consistently adult anime I've seen. It is so adult that it can have a sullen, immature 13-year-old as its main character. The earthquake situations are fairly real, but not played for sensationalism at all. What counts are the vivid characterizations and relationships, and their continuous development.

In Bakemonogatari, Shinbou Akiyuki finally gets source material that lifts his jittery visual inventiveness to a higher plane. The jump cuts, odd angles, walls of text, and seizure-inducing repetitive backgrounds all suit the beautiful anomie of NisiOisiN's novel. And we keep getting amazing characters, especially the violent, affect-less lover, Senjougahara.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0All three of these new anime seem to me to be aesthetic wholes, with everything in them contributing to a satisfying vision.

Why do I consider the three 2006 shows masterpieces? Simoun created a unique world, gave us new feelings about gender, had characters that were vivid and real and interacted in strong ways, and had a consistent story that took its characters to new places in their lives. I particularly liked the way the plot gradually unwound at the end, so it didn't end at a high point, but only after the characters had begun to adjust to the plot's conclusion

NANA's excellence is based on the strong characters and story of the original manga by Yazawa Ai. She took two very different young women and led them through a life in Tokyo among rock stars. Each was trying to find her real life, either depending on men or firmly independent. And they discovered the problems of either approach. The anime, sometimes against the wishes of the mangaka, found ways to convert the original book into a real animated story.

Suzumiya haruhi no YuutsuSuzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, like NANA and Bakemonogatari, had an excellent written work to depend on. But the producers took great liberties and created something fresh and compelling. Re-ordering the episodes cut the ground from under viewers' feet, as did the initial movie episode. With voice and animation, they created an archetype in Haruhi. And Kyon's jaded comments tied the whole thing together. Once again, nothing was wasted in that show, everything contributed to a satisfying whole.

Since 2006, the only other show I would call a "masterpiece" is the feature-length anime by Shinkai Makoto, 5 Centimeters a Second. To me, this is a Buddhist religious film: a string of haiku exposing the sinews of the real world, and a story -- or series of stories -- showing the basic unsatisfactoriness of human life. It was high art, the best animated film I have ever seen, and one of the best films, period.

Now, to use the word "masterpiece," is probably going a bit far. Are these Hamlet or War and Peace? Perhaps not, except maybe for 5cm/sec. But they are far above the normal run of good anime, and I rated them on Anime News Network as "exquisite" masterpieces. I would rate them as high as many pop culture "masterpieces," such as Catcher in the Rye or E.T.

These shows all have a rich texture of plot, character, image, sound, idea, and emotion. The staff and cast give order to this complexity, creating real works of art.

Simounef - a tale of memories came close. It had a consistent aesthetic and interwove its stories in a way that worked. It is no accident that the music was by Tenmon, who does the music for Shinkai Makoto's shows, too.

I haven't finished the series of six Kara no Kyoukai films. It may also be a masterpiece, in part because of the way it uses Kajiura Yuki's music. The characters are vivid and consistent, in their bizarre ways. The show creates a feeling and does not let go.

The recent series of short episodes, Eve no Jikan, may be too brief to consider, but it is of a very high aesthetic level, with strong characters, a consistent tone, and a compelling science fiction background.

Honey & Clover came close for me, too. A fairly adult story with fairly adult characters interacting in emotionally affecting ways. But it petered out for me a bit along the way. That could be because I had read the original manga.

Maria-sama ga Miteru is a show I love, and it is certainly consistent in tone and has affecting characters and situations, but somehow it doesn't reach me in the deep way that the similar new show Aoi Hana does. I think the writing, direction, and animation are not quite as sharp.

What shows do you consider masterpieces, and why? I only really started watching anime in 2004, and I haven't seen that many earlier shows. Except for Ghibli. And I find that my personal taste tends to exclude shows that can be described as "shounen."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Takabe Ai -- idol/actress voices Aoi Hana's Fumi-chan

Takabe Ai Through five episodes, Aoi Hana is one of the best shows of the year: a yuri school drama beautifully animated, sensitively written and directed, and well voiced by a combination of new and experienced seiyuus.

The newest of the seiyuus is well-known swimsuit idol (see photos below), actress, and TV personality Takabe Ai 高部あい. Her tiny voice brings to life the show's tall but insecure heroine Fumi-chan.

The voice Ai-chin uses is close to her natural voice, as revealed in TV interviews. Some people on 2channel don't like it. There is a whole thread entitled: "Aoi Hana: The Main Character's Stiff Acting is Horrible 青い花 主役の棒演技がひどい".

Fortunately, there are plenty of 2channel posters who disagree, as I do. However, I do know what people are referring to: hers is not a smooth, professional seiyuu voice, with clear and controlled shifts of tone.

But I hear it as a more natural voice, and the voice of an actress. She may not be the absolute best actress in the world, but she is conveying this shy and uncertain character very well -- better than many top pro seiyuus would, I think.

Becoming a seiyuu
In interviews, Ai-chin says that people had told her that her high voice was a "seiyuu voice." In fact, she had a kind of complex about her high voice. But she had already played around with doing different voices, and asked her manager to get her an opportunity to watch some recording. Then she got an audition for this show. She was amazed when she was told she had got the role: she thought they were kidding her, at first.

Fumi-chanShe finds seiyuu work very difficult since, unlike live acting, you can't use gestures at all, and have to convey everything by voice. She had to practice a lot to get the whispering tone of Fumi's voice. To protect her voice, she has stopped going to her beloved karaoke, and wears a surgical mask when she sleeps.

The director guided her closely through episode one. But after she saw the episode, hearing both her own work and that of the others, she began to realize how many choices there were for her to make. She feels as if her understanding of voice acting broadened considerably.

Does she want to do more voice work? Yes, including possibly an animated film. But she does want to continue with live acting, too.

She was asked whether she could relate to the support Ai-chan gives her friend, despite it being a matter of loving a girl. She answered that she herself is texting back and forth to her friends all day long, and depends on their support. People around her find it quite weird, she says. And although she has had no experience of that kind of love, she now finds herself looking at other girls when she is on the train. For research.

Aoi Hana main cast: (l-r) Ishimatsu Chiemi (Sugimoto senpai), Takabe Ai (Fumi-chan), Gibu Yuuko (Ah-chan), Horie Yui (Kyouko):

From beauty queen to actress
Takabe, who will turn 21 next Sunday, came to prominence at 16 by winning the gravure (i.e., idol photo) prize in the 2004 All-Japan National Beauty Contest. She went straight into multi-member idol group Bishoujo Club 31.

In 2005, she won the grand prize in the Miss Weekly Playboy contest, put on by the Japanese magazine Playboy (no connection to the American Playboy), and her photo spreads began to proliferate through the Japanese media.

It was in 2006, at 18, that Ai-chin got her first role in a TV drama, and she has been in eleven dramas over the past three years. I'm not sure where her drama career is at: she was in more full-length dramas a couple of years ago, but she has more leading roles now, in what seem to be smaller shows.

TV personality
But she is probably best known as a TV personality, having appeared on 22 variety and interview shows. Here is her recent appearance on the late-night entertainment magazine Nabeatsu, talking about Aoi Hana:

Now that is cute. She is known for her naturalness and amusing personality, and for the slow, calm way she speaks. In the interview, she admits that at the girls' high school she went to, she did get plenty of Valentine's Day chocolates from younger girls.

She is one of the members of Bishoujo Club 31 who star in a continuing show called “100 Scenes of Love.” in which each week a girl goes on a date to a scenic spot in Japan. Her date in March of this year was with...Barack Obama. Here is one from April.

Her most recent appearance on the show was on 13 July, in a show about things not to do when you're on a date – such as looking at your date's cellphone when he goes to the washroom:

This week, she is the featured performer on the daily show “easy sports,” in which an idol runs and/or walks over several kilometers in Tokyo, providing views both of herself and of various locations in the Capital. She is running a 7.5 km course from Toneri Park to the Nishiarai Taishi temple in Adachi ward.

I first saw Ai-chin in 2008, as the star of the late-night half-hour comedy/horror drama Cosplay Shoujo Guren Onna. This is about a highly ineffectual teacher who secretly goes out at night cosplaying as Guren Onna, the “Crimson Lady."

The Crimson Lady is supposedly a figure from an urban legend, the ghost of a girl who was burned to death and appears to men at night, asking if they are the one who set her on fire, and shooting balls of flame at them. After suffering all day as a put-upon teacher, Ai-chin's character gets great satisfaction from scaring people half to death -– until real ghosts start appearing to her. Ai-chin overacts in a way that is quite familiar from other Japanese comic dramas.

Here is the first part of episode one:

She is also one of the hosts of Aoi Hana radio, along with her co-star Gibu Yuuko, who plays Fumi's close friend Ah-chan.

Ai-chin has appeared in four movies so far, and this fall will have a role in a film about Anne of Green Gables, called Looking for Anne. The film was shot in Canada, on Prince Edward Island, where the fictional Anne lived. And next year she will star in a direct-to-DVD movie called Kurenai Airin.

She has even starred in a stage play, “College of the Wind,” performed by the Caramelbox theatre troupe in Osaka and Tokyo during the summer of 2007.

Here she is from Guren Onna:

And here are shots from earlier in her career:

Here are some more recent photos:

Swimsuit idol
But Ai-chin's career is based in being a swimsuit idol. She has out two photo-books and six DVDs. Here are the covers of a couple of her DVDs:

And here are some gravure photos:

-- born 16 August 1988, in the Hachiouji district of Tokyo
-- height 165cm (5'5"); b-w-h 85-59-88cm (33-23-34 inches)
-- interests: likes running.
-- skills: swimming, calligraphy.

TV drama roles:

2006 -- 4
2007 -- 2
2008 -- 2 (one starring)
2009 -- 2 (stars in one episode)

movie roles:
2006 -- 2
2007 -- 1
2008 -- 1
2010 -- 1 (starring)

TV appearances:
2004 -- 1
2006 -- 1 (continuing to the present)
2007 -- 1 (regular)
2008 -- 12 (one regular)
2009 -- 7

official site
agency blog
interview (2007)
interview (2008)
interview (2009)
Japanese Wikipedia
Sweet Blue Radio

Anime News Network
Drama Wiki