Sunday, November 23, 2008

Anime review: Scrapped Princess (including a rather lengthy aside about Hayao Miyazaki)

Now, the first question that might pop in to someone who has looked in on this blog before is, what is a blog that has been almost exclusively about politics for the last eight months doing writing about a Japanese anime? Isn’t that sort of far-afield from politics, not to mention rather adolescent, especially for a blogger who posting name is “zeppo”, rather inferring someone in the 50+ age group (which would be a correct inference, but not by that much)?

Well, I do like to do a number of different things with this blog, for no other reason than to keep myself interested. Many well-established bloggers seem to do this as well. Steve Benen at Washington Monthly just posted this.

As you've probably noticed, plenty of political bloggers occasionally tackle unrelated subjects. Yglesias writes about basketball; Ezra writes about cooking; Drum writes about cats, football, and his unusual computer problems. And what do I do when I'm not obsessing over the political news of the day? I'm obsessing over the science fiction news of the day (TV, movies, comics, video games, you name it).

So, a post about a Japanese anime on what is primarily a political blog isn’t that unusual, really.

O.K, I am into anime. I admit it. At least, certain ones. Big deal. I like to try to keep myself from getting stale and try new things now and then. Plus, I have never really fully grown up anyway. And finally, I need some pure escapism in my life. Work isn’t doing it for me and the world situation is pretty depressing, when you get right down to it. I need a relief valve.

I really became aware of Japanese animation when I started watching the works of Hayao Miyazaki, the brilliant animator. His films are, in my estimation, vastly superior than anything Disney ever put out. The storylines and characters in his films are significantly more interesting than anything ever put out by Disney, including Pixar. The plots are complex, the characters are definitively not two-dimensional, and the soundtracks are incredible. Spirited Away remains one of my favorite films. Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Porco Rosso are also incredible films that I would recommend without a moment of hesitation. The imagination behind these films, and the amount of detail in the sets and characters are truly astounding. I would recommend anything by Miyazaki or his studio, Studio Ghibli. The DVD’s, although kind of pricey, would make a great Christmas gift for some family with kids. Yeah, the kids could be the excuse for the gift, but I bet the parents would be hooked as well.

Given my enthusiasm for Miyazaki, I suppose it wasn’t that much of a leap for me to start sampling Japanese anime, as well as some other feature length films. I am fortunate in that my television cable provider has a free On Demand section that is pretty well stocked. There are a couple of places that have anime content. I was just poking around one weekend and stumbled across them. I found a few that I liked, mostly for the off the wall humor. There are many others I have watched an episode or two that don’t interest me at all. Many anime series seem overly pretentious and very superficial. I think it is obvious who the target audience for those is. But then I found Scrapped Princess. Luckily, I caught the first episode before On Demand rotated it out for the next installments. (I am very glad that this On Demand section exists and most of this stuff is free. I certainly wouldn’t have spent a lot of money with this type of experimentation. If I don’t like something, the only thing I have lost is a few minutes of my life.)

I initially got hooked on Scrapped Princess because the quality of the artwork is fantastic. It’s not quite to the same level as Miyazaki, but it is very close. The amount of detail in the background scenery is fantastic, and some are only shown for several seconds before the story moves on. The voice actors for the English version are very good. The depth and range of emotion they exhibit really bring their animated characters to life. I found the second and third episodes were full of some very funny bits, which is always guaranteed to catch my attention. But by the time the story got really rolling, I was really taken by the incredibly interesting and compelling storyline and the depth of the characters. Now, for those who are not fans of anime, you might be saying, “Come on. Depth of characters in a cartoon?” Yeah, really, there is. Trust me on that one.

I am not going to say a lot about the actual anime itself. Here are some things Wiki has to say about it.

Scrapped Princess is notable for high quality animation, its music, which is composed by Masumi Itō, and its themes. It begins as high fantasy and then quickly mixes into varying degrees of post-apocalyptic and science fiction elements through the application of Clarke's third law. The atmosphere has undertones of sadness, though many of the characters and situations are superficially light-hearted.

The story takes place in a fantasy world and revolves around a 15-year-old girl, Pacifica Casull, who is a girl child born in a set of twins into the royal family of the kingdom Leinwan and then abandoned. The 5111th Grendel Prophecy predicts that she is the "poison that will destroy the world" before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday. As a consequence, she is dropped off a cliff as an infant. Believed to be dead, no one realizes her continued existence until after Pacifica is already 15 years old.

Pacifica is rescued by a court wizard and adopted by the commoner Casull family. Her foster siblings-Shannon, a loner swordsman, and Raquel, a motherly magician-became her protectors. Both siblings are extremely powerful, and more often than not they easily break out of whatever difficult situation they face.

Her siblings travel with her throughout most of the story, protecting her from the numerous attempts on her life by people who fear the outcome of the prophecy, should she survive. Both siblings' skills see constant use. By contrast, Pacifica is a mostly typical fifteen-year-old, and her inability to defend herself is a recurring source of self-doubt for her. As the series progresses, the truth about the prophecy slowly comes to light, and even as the more of the truth is revealed, more questions arise. Pacifica must discover her hidden destiny, even as powerful beings that are not human who are supposedly the gods of this world - continuously fight against each other, over her fate, seeking to either protect or destroy her. It turns out that Pacifica is not in fact "a poison who will destroy the world" in that sense...but in fact mankind's last hope, and all part of a plan. A plan that was set in motion a long, long time ago by not primitive humans but highly intelligent and advanced ones, at that. Can destiny be written beforehand? The answer lies deep in the past, five thousand years ago during the Genesis Wars...

I just found the character of Pacifica very sympathetic. It’s not every 15 year old that could put up with constantly being on the run from people trying to kill them, and being constantly told that they are an abomination and should have been destroyed at birth. That could do some pretty serious damage to a person’s psyche, for real. But throughout all, she remains an exuberant, moody, tempermental teenager. What started out to be a standard mythical kingdom “sword and sorcery” storyline has taken a decidedly interesting turn into the realm of futuristic, post-apocalyptic science fiction, where science, magic, technology and biology are not individual things but are all blended together. I also think some very interesting statements are being made about organized religion and the structure upon which societies are founded. There is a multi-layered plot with multi-dimensional characters.

Another thing I liked about this anime is something I find attractive in some of my favorite films. Unlike American cinema and television, Japanese cinema, and this anime in particular, doesn’t always spend a lot of time filling the audience in with the backstory and getting everyone up to speed before they feel they can go on with the current story. I can always tell the “exposition” part of any plot, and I find it rather annoying. This anime just jumps in with both feet what could have easily been the middle of the storyline. It tells the audience, “Here we go, and it’s your job to keep up with what is going on here.” Truthfully, I had to watch these episodes several times before I really understood all the underlying story lines and themes. I rather like that. It makes you use your imagination and thought processes to figure out what is going on. It involves the audience, rather than making them passive spectators.

I readily admit that, to really become a fan of anime, you really need to overcome a few obstacles. First, as I stated above, you really need to find the right one. All anime are not created equal. Then, there is this thing that Japanese have for their animated female characters to have really big, creepy eyes and overly large breasts. Some of the characters have really irritating voices, as you can tell they are adults speaking with children’s voices. Like I said, irritating. It actually took some time for me to get over those things. And finally, you need to be able to admit to yourself that animation can be interesting on a level at much higher levels than your average Bugs Bunny/Road Runner cartoon. Animation, both of the television series and feature films, can have very interesting, compelling storylines, if they are given a chance.

I would highly recommend Scrapped Princess to anyone already into anime, but also anyone who is interested in trying something new, or just looking for a good Christmas gift for that family with some older kids in it.

Photo from here.

UPDATE: I have finished watching the entire series of twenty-four episodes. I’m still taking it all in and trying to figure out a few things. I don’t want to insert any spoilers here, in case anyone reading this hasn’t seen or completely finished the anime.

The plot certainly had a fair share of twists and turns, many of which I didn’t see coming. It kept jumping around from a Medieval sword and sorcery yarn to a post-apocalyptic science fiction story, and then back again. One interesting thing about Japanese animation in general (at least as far as the ones I have seen) is that the bad guys are never truly evil and the good guys are not always knights in shining armor. The characters are usually multi-layered and are always conflicted as some point in time. That tendency certainly makes for a more interesting story, but it also can throw the viewer a curveball now and then. Characters you might have believed were part of the good guys turn out to do some pretty horrible things. Characters you are certain are evil turn out to have some really interesting reasons behind their actions. Some terrible things happened to some very nice people. The next to last episode really shocked me, actually. I was beginning to feel rather betrayed and upset that I had invested all this time in watching this series and then THAT happened. But everything changed, once again, in the last episode, and I ended up feeling better.

All in all, the story was very compelling but full of some pretty big holes, if you start to think about it. But then, this is an anime, after all. If you can’t use your artistic license in an anime, then you are never going to be able to use it. And Japanese animation certainly doesn’t use the standard Hollywood formulaic recipe for their stories. Even a film like Wall-E, which I enjoyed a great deal, turned out to be pretty predictable in the end. Wall-E wasn’t going to stay a vegetable robot without character forever. He was going to return to his usual loveable robotic self eventually. Wall-E and Eve were going to get together in the end. The humans were going to come back to Earth. The “evil” computer onboard the spaceship was not going to win out. It was a very nice, funny story that actually had a message contained in it. But I thought it was still rather formulaic and predictable. Scrapped Princess was anything but.

There was one very interesting animation technique that I noticed they used that I haven’t ever seen before. The animation is multi-level, of course, which gives the illusion of depth to an otherwise two-dimensional picture. But the director of Scrapped Princess chose to mimic an optical aspect of live action film. Because camera lenses cannot focus on every object in their field of view, the cameraperson has to chose what object he is focusing on during each shot. If he focuses on objects rather close to the camera, then objects in the background are going to be slightly out of focus. Likewise, if he chooses to focus on an object in the distance, objects closer to the camera will be slightly blurred. The animators of Scrapped Princess put that aspect of optics and lenses, which is actually not always that beneficial, into the animation. Additionally, the synthetic “focal length” is changed occasionally, such that the focus of the picture changes from a character speaking in the background to a character speaking in the foreground. I have never seen that in an animation before. It is just one more aspect of Scrapped Princess that makes it very interesting to watch.

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