Personal policy dictates that any story you cannot summarize in two sentences is probably not worth the trouble. I’m happy to break this rule for Darker Than Black, because while it has a story so convoluted it must have given the back-of-the-box copywriters at FUNimation total fits, it’s a grabber for that exact reason. There’s a fine line between convoluted and confusing, and they dance along that line very carefully in this series.
Darker Than Black starts ten years after some cataclysm — the opening of “the Gate” — the end result of which was the construction of a giant wall around Tokyo. (Whether to seal something in or out, it’s not clear.) Since then, people with strange new powers have appeared — “Contractors”, as they’re called — who sell their powers to the highest bidder and are feared by the powers that be worldwide. Those who come into contact with Contractors have their memories forcibly erased by the authorities — that is, those who aren’t killed by the Contractors themselves.
Contractors are a curious bunch. No two of them sport the same powers, but in every case their powers come at a cost: when they run out of energy, they must complete a sort of obsessive-compulsive personal ritual to “recharge”. Mostly it’s something innocuous, like dog-earing every single page in a book, or laying down a hundred stones in a perfect grid. Sometimes it’s a lot more than that; in a moment that struck me as a sidelong reference to Blade Runner, one Contractor has to break his own fingers in order to continue. Read more
Welcome to the best new anime series that you have probably never heard of.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is up there in the same stratosphere with Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and all other anime that not only entertain and dazzle but enlighten and illuminate.
More than anything else, Moribito is adventure on an epic scale — one of those rare shows that creates its own world and draws us into it completely. It’s an adaptation of the first book in Nahoko Uehashi’s series of novels by the same name, now being released in English and which I took a look at on my own earlier this year. The book was outstanding, and reading it only raised my anticipation for the series all the more. The series is, if anything, even better: it expands on the original in all the right ways, the way Basilisk used its source novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls as inspiration rather than a lockstep path to follow, and produced a masterpiece of its own kind too. Look at me: not even three paragraphs in and I’m already sliding into blathering fanboy gush. There’s a reason for that.
Moribito is set in the land of New Yogo, a fictional amalgam of multiple Asian cultures, mainly Japan, China and Korea, but with touches of Tibet and Thailand and Cambodia and well. A terrible drought has been devouring the whole country — and in a classic example of “show, don’t tell”, this is not dramatized in dialogue but demonstrated in the show’s masterful opening shots, where only a small island of arable land remains amidst a growing desert.
Returning to New Yogo after several years’ absence is Balsa: bodyguard-for-hire, master of the spear, and carrier of a burden of guilt and atonement that she may never fully discharge. She rescues a boy from certain death when he’s thrown off a bridge, and learns after the fact that the young fellow is Chagum, an heir to the highest throne in the land. What’s doubly surprising to her is to learn that this was no accident, but an assassination attempt — the latest of many, as the boy’s mother explains to her under the cover of night. She is prepared to pay Balsa handsomely to have him spirited out of the castle and protected for as long as it takes to have his would-be killers found and dealt with. Read more
There’s a big difference between a truly great show and one you just feel an endearing affection for. Shonen Onmyouji is by no means a ground-breaking piece of work, but darn it all if I don’t like it. It’s got a mix of elements that hits a personal sweet spot, an attractive visual style, and a compulsively watchable storyline. As Frederik Pohl once said about another movie, “It may not be Bach, but it’s certainly Offenbach”, and that’s still plenty good.
A description of the show would probably be best served by talking about the title. Most of us reading this know what shonen means (young man), but onmyouji is probably going to send most of us scurrying for the dictionary. Sometimes translated as yin-yang master, an onmyouji was the feudal Japanese version of your friendly neighborhood ghostbuster — plus astrologer, sorcerer and a few other supernaturally-inclined vocations, all rolled into one. If the term rings a distant bell or three, chances are you might have stumbled across the two live-action movies of the same name, Onmyouji I and II, also issued by Geneon before they ended up in the great Suncoast Video cut-out bin in the sky.Read more
Death Trance comes to us courtesy of the same Japanese school of glorious cinematic overkill that brought us Versus, Machine Girl, Meatball Machine and Tokyo Gore Police, and will no doubt bring us many more such examples of wretched excess in the future. Note that I’m not using “wretched excess” as a slam, but a description. It starts on a note of outlandish adventure, then ratchets the stakes up and up and up until the lid blows clean off and smacks you in the forehead.
I mentioned Versus and the rest of that list because Death Trance shares common DNA with all of them. It sports the star and fight coordinator of Versus, Tak Sakaguchi; one of the screenwriters (Yūdai Yamaguchi) also penned Versus, Machine and Versus director Ryuhei Kitamura’s deeply underrated Alive; the FX designer (Keita Amemiya) put together the grossness of Gore Police and Machine Girl; and so on. Most importantly it was, I believe, the first of many transpacific co-productions financed in part by John Sirabella of Media Blasters. It’s a happy set of collaborations all around. The movie looks and sounds terrific — Japanese filmmakers wring every yen out of what amount to fairly tiny budgets — and is great fun to watch in the sense that you can’t wait to see what bit of visceral absurdity will get thrown at us next. Read more