Blood Blockade Battlefront

Masterpiece

Blood Blockade Battlefront is a fascinating anime from the creator of the classic series Trigun.  If you’re up for it, it’s a wild ride from beginning to end.  The anime’s is a crazy blend of slice of life, action, comedy, drama, and tragedy that ends up making it truly special.  Not only that, this anime combines several different art styles to great effect.  One caution though – Blood Blockade Battlefront has an extremely fast pace and covers lots of material.  If you aren’t paying attention, close attention even, you’re bound to get left behind very, very fast.  Pay close attention – the devil’s in the details.

Purpose: Masterpiece.  What’s brilliant about the purpose is that it is both exceptionally simple and exceptionally complex at the same time.  The basic theme is what’s simple – it’s a slice of life in a crazy world.  However, the approach to accomplishing that theme is where the power of the purpose becomes clear.  I’ve never seen an anime seamlessly blend this many genres in a way that actually worked.  The most astonishing thing is that they never go below three genres in an episode.  What this ends up doing is creating a really fascinating tone for the anime that feels like the ups and downs of everyday life in this crazy place.  A single episode can convey everything from laughs to tears without it ever feeling unnatural or forced.  That’s what makes the purpose so special – transitions between the ups and downs are so smooth and organic, they can’t help but feel like everyday life.

Characters: Very Good.  Character development is done almost entirely through showing you what they’re like instead of chatting about them.  You get to learn about the various contours of the characters’ personalities by watching them act and react to different situations.  Because of this, you feel like you get a pretty good handle on who the characters are pretty early, even though you’re never really close to them.  Amusingly, your perspective is pretty much exactly aligned with the main character’s – that of a “normal” outsider.  The characters are all eccentric, even crazy, although it’s not over the top… well maybe they are over the top, sometimes.  However, they don’t feel out of place given the setting.  That’s not to say the the characters can’t be serious – much of the anime is really serious.  This shows the breadth and depth of the characters – they can act appropriately with respect to anything thrown their way.

What’s really fascinating about the characters here is that there’s a surprising absence of angst or self-doubt, especially when things get tough.  Characters make difficult decisions on how to proceed and live with the consequences of those actions.  While they may be sad or sorry at the result, they still stand by their choice, no matter how hard is is.   A final note – for the characters most explored, there’s not a happy backstory among them.

World: Masterpiece.  On the most basic level, the setting is fantasy Manhattan.  The most amazing thing is that it’s perfectly easy to swallow – all the crazy and weird things seem in character.  What’s even more amazing is that they seemed to preserve the feel of New York perfectly, seamlessly and organically incorporating the supernatural and the other into it.  The atmosphere created was that of an extremely fast-paced place where everything is happening at once.  Dangerous things, fun things, boring things, all of it.  That makes the setting come alive and take on its own character both in the unique happenings and the feel of it.

The magical elements aren’t particularly explained, but they don’t need to be.  The reason they don’t need to be is the viewer’s perspective – the outsider.  We see all these crazy and unimaginable things going on and they’re something to gawk at.  Even the “good guy” group (and all the other groups out there) are doing really fascinating, incomprehensible things.  The world is always at arm’s length and that preserves the aura of mystery and intrigue.  But that’s just it, these things feel like you could understand them if given long enough in the particular setting.  Actually, now that I think about it, the world in Blood Blockade Battlefront is the feeling you have when you visit a new city – the excitement, the wonder, the apprehension, the fear of the unknown, the potential.

Plot: Excellent.  Blood Blockade Battlefront could easily have been a 24 episode anime for how much happens in it.  What was presented was the minimum essential plot points to tell a coherent story.  That sounds like it’s a bad thing, but the execution was spectacular.  Instead of getting bogged down in unnecessary plot points, it’s like leaping from highlight to highlight, but still following a distinct story path.  For the most part, the anime is fairly episodic, so the plots are generally limited to the episode.  That’s the thing, though, everything builds on each other so that, at the end, you see how far you’ve come.  Looking back, everything served its place as a very even, well-thought out step to the ultimate conclusion.  With all that said, as the anime goes on, plot points start to span several episodes.  By the end, one plotline takes up the entirety of the story, built on what came before.

Storytelling: Masterpiece. The skill by which they managed to tie everything together is truly spectacular.  It’s the storytelling that made it possible to leap from plot point to plot point without being jarring.  But it’s more than that.  They managed to have the appropriate setup in all cases – sad scenes were sad, funny scenes were funny, and everything in between.  But not many anime can have these different kinds of scenes next to each other, let alone with a lightning fast pace.  It’s a testament to the skill in the storytelling that they could make those transitions at all, let alone with the appropriate impact.   Sometimes, it’s where they transition from happy to sad, sometimes silly to serious – it was truly seamless.   Not only did the scenes have powerful impact when needed, they also built a strong affection for the characters and goings-on.  In may ways, you become attached to the main cast and even the city itself.  And that’s how the storytelling truly shines – it feels like you’re being told a small part, one person’s part, in a much larger story.  But you don’t really feel left out or that something is missing, merely that there are many, many other stories to tell here.  And that’s just it.  Blood Blockade Battlefront is a wild ride, with ups and downs that it feels like it’s a slice of everyday life in a crazy place.

Pace: Masterpiece.  Don’t blink or you’re going to miss something.  It’s so jam-packed with things happening that the pace can only be described as lightning fast.  However, it’s never really too much… unless you aren’t paying close attention.  However, the managing of the pace is really interesting.  They dwell just long enough where they need to, but not a moment longer.  Actually, the pace is the best example of Jo-Ha-Kyu, the Japanese storytelling pacing style.  Each episode follows it quite well, dividing into “acts” that have a prelude, climax, and quick resolution.  The pace is built so well, that they then alter the pace to play with the mood, which is how they can manage to turn the story on a dime.  As you head into the end, the pace slows quite a bit, hitting home the seriousness and importance of the events.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Masterpiece

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is an absolutely stellar anime that is one of the strongest titles in the comedy/slice of life genre.  This is the third time I’ve watched the anime, and every time I see it, I find my evaluation of it reaffirmed.  It’s really rare to find an anime of this type that is consistently strong from beginning to end.  Part of the fun is the fact that many of the characters are twists on their genre’s archetypes.   In order to get the full experience, I’d recommend this anime to someone that is familiar with the tropes and character archetypes.  That said, if you’re new to the genre, you will still find that it’s great fun.

Purpose: Masterpiece.  This was an example of a high-risk, high-reward attempt that really paid off.  They were faced with some serious difficulties in creating this anime.  Firstly, pure comedy anime is very hard to do and can easily stagnate, many often do.  This one manages to keep everything interesting and fresh throughout, providing a good deal of depth to the characters in the process. Secondly, this anime was adapted from a 4-panel manga.  For them to pull off what they did without any hiccups is truly spectacular.  They had a clear idea of how this was supposed to work and made sure that all the elements were pulling their own weight.

Characters: Masterpiece.  You can begin with any character and describe them on several levels.  There’s the “face value” level, where they are an archetype of a character common to the genre, such as the “prince-type.”  But they’re so much more.  Everyone has a distinct personality, with strengths and weaknesses.  They think about things and react to things in a highly individualized, yet internally consistent way.  Characters reacting to other characters’ actions is the heart of this anime.  Basically, you’re having these characters’ personalities bounce off each other.  But what makes this anime exceptional is how the hilarity also serves to deepen our understanding of the characters.  This is where the anime breaks from the genre.  In general, slice of life anime are like sitcoms – it’s relatively flat, but crazy characters reacting in crazy ways to ordinary, everyday situations.   Instead, our understanding of the characters is constantly evolving while we’re laughing.

World: Excellent.  The world is always hard to spot in slice of life anime, especially ones that are in our world.  The strength of this world was that it never felt limited or constrained.   Even though lots of events happened at the school, it never felt as though we were bound to the school, like some imprisoned spirit.   Events happened in a variety of settings that presented unique opportunities to show off the characters.  What was particularly skillful about the handling of the world was that the transitions felt seamless.  Anime in this genre will often write in some sudden or random reason to change the setting like the “random date scene.”  In those cases, it acts like drawing the curtain on a stage play – it’s somewhat abrupt and it serves as a break in what’s going on.  When Nozaki-kun changed settings, it felt as though it was a part of the natural course of the story – it never felt forced.

Plot: Excellent.  Plot is another hard to spot element in this genre.  Slice of life generally are on an episode-to-episode plot arc.  However, Nozaki-kun takes a different approach, exceptionally rare for this genre.  Generally speaking, plots were on a half-episode basis.  The episode level plots were also usually arranged based on theme – usually a character.  In addition, there were some overall character and couple plot arcs that took place over the course of the anime.  What’s really interesting is how all that isn’t exactly clear at the time you’re watching it.  Nozaki-kun is one of those anime where you recognize how far you’ve come by looking back.  As if they knew this ahead of time, they provide some perspective at the end that really highlights the distance traveled.

Storytelling: Masterpiece. The storytelling is exceptionally clear and clean.  They provide a solid progression and development of the characters and the story throughout.  Surprisingly, there’s very little telling going on – they don’t really tell you about the characters, they show you through their antics.   The best example is how they develop Nozaki.  It’s abundantly clear that he absolutely loves what he does.  His actions shape and mold our opinion of the character to the point that the character comes alive.

For the comedy part, the gags are varied and unique.  Many of the gags are very different from the standard slice of life stuff because in Nozaki-kun, they really enjoy playing with expectation.  This is accomplished, in part, by setting up common situations and events, but then twisting it in an unexpected way.  The viewer isn’t the only one that ends up being thrown for a loop.  The characters are often affected by these unexpected events, leading to more hilarity.

Pace: Excellent.  They covered a lot of ground in only 12 episodes.  Part of this was accomplished by the fact that the plot was in half-episode chunks.  But the real reason why the pace was so strong was the arrangement by theme.  This allowed them to keep up the momentum through the entire episode.  Since they shifted gears between episodes rather than between gags, they never lost forward momentum.  As a result, the series just flew by, but in a good way.

Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend

Masterpiece

At face value, Saekano is still one of the strongest harem/high school drama anime out there.  There’s much more to it though.  While it  certainly could be entertaining for someone relatively new to the harem genre, the more harem-type anime you’ve seen, the more you can appreciate what is done really well here.

Purpose: Masterpiece.  Simply brilliant.  There are three different things going on here – three levels of depth.  The first is its face value – a harem/ high school drama anime.  In this respect it’s extremely strong.  The whole point of the harem genre is to watch crazy personalities bounce off each other, and Saekano doesn’t disappoint.  The second level of depth is its self-aware nature – it points out, calls out, and makes fun of tropes in the genre, even as it unabashedly uses them.  The third layer of depth can be found in the Japanese name 「冴えない彼女の育てかた」, which can be translated as, “how to develop (cultivate, raise) a boring heroine.”  (NOTE: heroine appears in furigana as an alternate reading of 彼女.)  This takes the self-awareness to the next level.  The anime is an example of how to create a fascinating main heroine from a blank slate. There are many points of the anime where they are commenting on the development of the main character, but in a subtle way.  One part of the anime catches the purpose particularly well, (subtitles) “If you make the character as flat as possible, the player gets caught up when the big changes come.  All of a sudden, they’re cute.”  The scene then goes on to describe what happens after, where the “cute” fades and the player is left wondering whether it was there all along or whether he or she was just imagining it.  That is Saekano in a nutshell.  Now, this would be really great on its own, but that purpose actually applies to all the characters.

Characters: Masterpiece.  At face value, you’ve got a really strong standard harem setup.  You’ve got the standard otaku nerd/niceguy, a tsundere, the “together” girl, the unashamed flirt, and a really flat foil character.  They really play well off each other in a highly amusing fashion.  The twist on the standard genre is the introduction of the foil – she serves to ground everyone’s crazy personalities.  One other strong point at this level of depth is that the fighting creates and then adjusts the harem “pecking order” based on the events.  In other words, the girls’ perceived standing in relation to each other shifted in a convincing and logical manner.

Where this element really shines is noticing where Saekano’s purpose starts affecting the characters.  Foil aside, the other characters are relatively flat, yet faithful, use of tropes.  The general development paths of the characters are initially fairly standard, but there are events that actually change their development trajectories.  Basically, the events change the nature of the character to add a good deal of depth which, in turn, affects how they interact with the other characters.  Ultimately, they give you reasons to care about each character, so you have the ability to create “Team ____,” the character you ultimately root for.

Of course, the anime clearly wants us to focus on the foil, who they have to constantly remind us is the “main heroine.” The development of this character is absolutely stellar.  She starts out as completely flat and easily forgettable, and becomes someone with a tremendous amount of subtlety, depth, and power within the story. On a personal note, she is shown to be someone who is very genuine, supportive, and confident of her place in the story.  Of all the characters, her handling of the protagonist is the best.

World: Excellent.   The world is always hard to spot in harem anime.  In this context, it’s the settings where the events happen.  However, these settings are important because they can control the mood, the temperament of the characters, and guide the characters’ interactions.  For examples, compare how the characters act in the protagonist’s bedroom, to comiket, to the mall scene.   What happens is that the context tends to have an effect on the characters that can, in turn, affect how the events unfold.  Here, the settings performed that role really well.

Plot: Excellent.  Generally, harem anime plots are the funny situations involving the in-fighting.  However, in Saekano, the various situations had lasting impact on the characters.  The characters changed and developed depending on those events, which altered their interactions with each other.  The result was that the events were ever-changing – even similar plot points had different reactions depending on what had changed between the characters previously.  Thus, each character had an individualized plotline.  The character plots actually served to complement each other really well, because they would highlight something new and different about the protagonist too.  All of the characters had a good bit of growth and development in response to the events that happened.

Storytelling: Masterpiece.  This really served several purposes here – it not only tied the plot points together, it also served as solid guidance throughout the story.  They were truly masterful in handling of scene composition and focus.  For example, for the first half of the anime, (and even later) they purposefully used scene composition to de-emphasize and distract you from the main heroine.  The best example of this, and one of my favorite scenes, is in the first event at the family restaurant between the protagonist and the main heroine.  If you watch closely, you will notice how not only is she out of the frame for the most part, but there are plenty of things thrown in there to distract you from what she’s saying.  The effect was that it enforced upon the viewer the idea that the main heroine was both invisible and easily forgettable.

Another example of the stellar storytelling is how much they emphasized subtle movements – tiny details like body language and small facial expressions that conveyed a tremendous amount of information.  In order to emphasize these movements, they often would not show the character’s face so that the viewer would have no choice but to notice them.

Throughout the anime, they managed to keep a tremendous amount of playfulness and sillyness, yet at the same time leaving room for some solid drama.  A great example of the drama, and one of my other favorite scenes, was the fight in front of the old school.  That was a truly powerful scene, both in the subject matter and the raw emotion it conveyed.  We learned a tremendous amount about the characters involved in that event.  What’s more it had a very real feel to it, including its resolution – the characters didn’t really forgive each other, but came to understand more about each other.

One final note on storytelling was the excellent use of fan service as a means of character development.  The clearest example is with the cousin – you learn so much about her personality based on how she’s depicted through the fan service.  The result is that you know she’s a pretty serious, shameless flirt, but also pretty careless, and sloppy in how she goes about things.  With her, it’s a good example of the use of fan service as a storytelling device.  The other example is Episode 0.

Pace: Excellent. They managed to keep quite a strong pace up throughout.  This meant that it never seemed slow as we were always moving forward.  One of the most interesting choices that affected pace was the placement of Episode 0.  Onsen (Hot Spring) episodes are a staple of  harem anime, but usually serve as a throwaway episode and break in the action – it’s really just the characters playing around.  However, in Saekano, it was re-purposed as the pre-first episode, introducing the tone and nature of the anime.  This prevented it from breaking the pace halfway through.  Moreover, it sort of accelerated the pace by giving the viewers a roadmap of where the anime was going.  Re-watch Episode 0 after you finish the anime and it really puts both the pace and the purpose into sharp focus.

Mushi-shi

Masterpiece

An anime that is quiet by nature.  The backgrounds are absolutely beautiful – like watching a painting.  For maximum effect, Zenko, my other half, recommends you watch it on snowy or rainy days.

Purpose: Masterpiece.  This is about existence.  Broadly, it’s about people’s lives and dealing with nature and everyday mysteries.  It’s generally told in an episodic format – different stories per episode.  Each story “zooms in” on a particular situation and how it’s addressed.  Sometimes, it about human relations, sometimes it’s about personality, sometimes it’s about interacting with the world.  The order the stories are told aren’t exactly chronological, but chosen in a way that best grows and then builds upon your knowledge of the world.  This element really stands out because they always kept an eye on believable realism – everything that happened is the product of forces that we slowly come to understand though the anime.

Characters: Masterpiece.  All the characters that appear feel like real people with genuine problems, concerns, and reactions to the unusual events happening around and to them.  Most of the characters only have 1 episode that they appear in.  In those episodes, they are developed in ways that are relevant to what is going on.  Characters make real choices based on their values or beliefs and those choices have consequences.  Other characters then may have to deal with the consequences of the decisions.  Really, even on a character level, there’s a strong sense of cause and effect – of realism.

Now for the main character.   He is an exceptionally strong character, both uniquely human and a unique human.  The way that he was built was simply exemplary.  We are basically told nothing of him and have to learn about him from how he interacts with the characters and the world.  Through his interactions, he indicates a clear personality, a way of approaching and dealing with situations.  He has definite beliefs and priorities, but it wasn’t conveyed in a way that could be described as “preachy” or “pushy”.  Rather, they took on the nature of being personal beliefs based on experience.  Even within the story, he allows others to make their own decisions, regardless of his recommendations – not forcing his views on others.  That said, he is far from infallible – he makes mistakes and sometimes has poor bedside manner.  He has to make judgment calls about what to do in novel situations based on his experiences.  Really, he was built as a believable doctor in that world.  On that same theme, it’s not like he’s going from town to town and makes tons of friends on the way.  He’s almost always treated as the doctor – here to help right then, and then gone tomorrow.

World: Masterpiece.  This world is gigantic.  Everything that happens develops our knowledge of what’s going on, which in turn builds the vast world.  Certainly, the basic premise is supernatural.  However, it’s treated in such a matter of fact way that it conveys a strong sense of realism.  It’s not just random mumbo-jumbo, it’s something that we don’t yet understand that’s at work.  It has the sense that, with proper training and study, we too could understand how that world works (much like our own).  This realism really sells the world because the people living in it have to react to the goings-on.  Part of the strong world is the sense of time – no matter what happens, the world will keep on turning.  Really, what’s interesting is that everything has to make its place in the world – it’s not exactly treated as a matter of course that you will have a place.  This actually creates two different kinds of worlds.   The small “world” that people are living in – their communities, villages, and groups, and the big world that includes the knowledge of these things unseen. The interplay between the two worlds is how this anime accomplishes its purpose.

Plot: Excellent.  The plots are relatively self-contained, but generally similar.  In this anime, it isn’t a bad thing because the contours of the plot change based on the circumstances.  Different people react differently or different world forces change the path the plot takes.  These differences make the resolutions are highly individualized because the plot marks lasting changes in interaction – how people interact with each other and/or the world.

Storytelling: Masterpiece.  This anime is pretty much all well-told stories.  The overall feel is as though it were animated folk tales or ghost stories, without actually being either one.  The stories were told in such a way that emphasized the everyday quality of the events going on while still maintaining a strong sense of mystery and discovery.  Really, through the storytelling, we slowly get to see more about both people and the world.  The stories aren’t all told in the same way – sometimes they’ll change a bit of perspective or tell the story in a non-linear fashion. Even the contents within each story are highly varied.  Sometimes it’s a sweet story, sometimes bittersweet, sometimes sad, sometimes happy.  Even so, there were very few stories explicitly about the main character himself, even though he is in every episode.   The stories are all quieter – there’s the sense that even though some people’s troubles mean everything to them, there are other forces at work. The storytelling reinforces the relationships between people and the world in almost a co-dependent way.  It’s highly memorable.

Though I talked about the stories being told, the viewer is actually told almost nothing – the viewer learns through what’s going on.  Really, this is what is particularly unique about the storytelling in this anime. They develop everything through character and world interaction – what we learn isn’t exactly characters talking for our benefit.

Pace: Masterpiece.  Pace is a funny thing.  It depends entirely upon the anime.  In this case the pace was fairly slow, but not in a bad way.  It almost took on a life of its own, controlling the feel of the world and the events that happened. It reinforced the sense of quiet existence, the march of time.  In some ways, it was more of a “rural” pace, but such that the events happening were almost a matter of course and that, whatever happened, the world would continue on.  Some events happened at a quicker pace, which strongly conveyed a sense of seriousness or urgency, which increased the impact.  Really, this is a stellar example of how powerful pace can be in anime.

Psycho-Pass (Season 1)

Masterpiece

The creator of Psycho-Pass, Gen Urobuchi, is known for having a distinctive dark style.  He did the script and series composition for Puella Magi Madoka Magica and he authored the Fate/Zero light novels.  He personally wrote the scripts in this anime as well.

Purpose: Masterpiece.  This was exceptionally done.  It displayed a huge degree of delicacy and intelligence in the goal for this anime.  In sum, the anime is a discussion between the creator and the viewer about very deep concepts such as human nature, the role of society, and the nature of the law.   Everything in the anime helped develop different perspectives and worldviews that were then presented to the viewer for evaluation to see which one appealed the most.  On a bit more of a technical side, the anime paid a great deal of attention to where they were going through the way it was structured.  The first handful of episodes don’t do terribly much with the characters – the characters are mostly serving to expand the world at the early point.  Once the world was firmly developed, then the anime starts using the characters to display varied insights and opinions as to the world that developed, but in a intelligent way.  The way they handled the overall path was exceptional.

Characters: Masterpiece.  The characters were also exceptional in a couple of senses.  First, they were all strong, unique, and distinctive characters on their own.  They were developed in a way that gave them a great deal of life and personality.  Second, and this is where they really shined, was their use as a vehicle to discuss the world with the viewer.  The characters all had unique perspectives on the world based on their past and experiences.  Basically, the characters represented a different worldview.  However, they weren’t simple view “priests,” where they loudly proclaimed that view to convert others to their side.  Rather, the views were almost represented as the personal views of the character – a person’s perspective on the world and events happening.  The views for several characters developed, grew, and even changed based on the events that happened, giving both life to the character and credibility to the view they represented.  Thus, character conflicts (as often happens in real life), stemmed from a difference in opinion – a difference in how they viewed the world.

World: Excellent. Highly interesting in itself, the world is also part of the dialogue between the creator and the viewer.  The setting borrows quite a bit from western works, both film and literature.  The world is set as a utopia/dystopia, similar to what you’d find in Minority Report, with strong influence from Philip K. Dick’s novels.  The world has a great deal of character and, itself, represents a certain viewpoint.  It’s through the character interactions with the world that it really hones, refines, and polishes their worldviews.

Plot: Excellent. There were two kinds of plot present here – the world plot, and plots involving the characters.  The world’s plot involved what the characters were doing within the world.  These were the plot points that progressed us through the story.  The second set of plot points, the character plot points, served to refine the characters within the world.  They both worked well together since they played off each other, representing a constant evolution of both world and character.  One thing I usually find commendable is when there is a difficult or painful plot point that has lasting impact.  By that I mean, the plot point itself is strong but also that the story doesn’t pull the punch.  When characters are forced to deal with really impactful plot points like that, it leaves an impression because it usually marks a very large contour in the path of a particular character or event.  I really appreciated what they did here.

Storytelling: Masterpiece.  They way they managed to interweave the two different kinds of plot was exceptional.  It was essentially seamless storytelling that wove the plot points together in a way that would either work off each other or use each other as steps to raise both to the next level.  In addition, it was the storytelling that added a tremendous amount of power to scenes, making a great deal very memorable.  Most memorable, perhaps, was the handling of the plot lines that tested a character.  Now, tests of characters are exceptionally difficult to do in a believable manner because they require that the storytelling convey the appropriate information necessary to develop a deep character.  Then they have tell the story in a way that conveys the true nature and depth of the challenge to the substance, the essence of the character.  In accomplishing that,  they have to make sure the challenge itself is presented in a powerful manner to represent a genuine threat to the character they have built.  Finally, they have to manage the dramatic tension to really strike those points home.  There were two such scenes that were attempted and successfully accomplished.  Brilliantly done.

Pace:  Excellent.  The pace did a lot of heavy lifting here, so was relatively unnoticeable.  It managed to convey an astounding amount of information, yet keep it in a relatively digestible manner.  You weren’t overwhelmed with information, yet the pace ensured that a tremendous amount of depth was accomplished.  The depth was built in a way that wasn’t rushed  and gave you what you needed to know, when you need to know it.