Thursday, December 25, 2014

Ho Ho Ho

Merry Christmas.
It's definitely one of the nicest days of the year. No matter how old I get I never seem to tire of this day. It's right up there with Thanksgiving. Both days are definitely a chance to be grateful and celebrate. Here's to many more for all of us.

Oh, and I've broke open that state-of-the-art Paint program just to send along some Yuletide greetings.

Feliz Navidad all.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Knights Of Sidonia Vs Attack On Titan

Anime is a strange beast indeed.

Even when Anime is accessible to the market outside of Japan there is still a good bit of strange to be found within this animal. Of course that sense of the foreign is indeed one of the most appealing aspects for the committed Anime fan. In fact, some think we should be committed for enjoying such oddities. But alas with the weird and the wonderful in Anime there is also an abundant of the beautiful too both in image and an executed moment. It's difficult to explain what appeals to an Anime fan to non-Anime fans, but our love for animation certainly responds. Not to sound strange here but it's appropriate, our viewing pleasure centers connect with it. While we are often kept destabilized by these productions and constantly attempt to decipher and make heads or tails of the stories before us, despite any frustration, we insist on returning to the wild world of Anime. Of course, many of us outside of Japan arrive at Anime with no cultural foundation, no Japanese literary background or proper understanding of the work's foundations. We simply have no frame of reference for potential source material. Yet, we truly enjoy these bizarre perspectives on science fiction and fantasy that offer us a completely unique take not often found in western science fiction. In effect, despite our cultural ignorance, we actually enjoy the foreign of it.

Robert from Robert's Anime Corner Store (popularly referred to as RACS) probably articulated this perspective best and rather succinctly in a recent newsletter. "I've heard my fair share of grumbling over the years about uninspired plots and unfinished endings, and I just want to remind everyone that we are Anime fans, and as such, the imperfect is our paradise...." There is comfort to us in anime and that's likely as simply put as it gets.

At the end of 2013 I mentioned in my year end retrospective here, as well as a post titled Animate!, my interest in two upcoming anime releases, Attack On Titan (2013) and Knights Of Sidonia (2014). The aforementioned Attack On Titan is available on Blu-Ray. The latter, as of this writing, as well as the first title, is available through Netflix. All things considered that's relatively quick access to two hot titles. Let's face it everyone is still waiting for Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo (2012). That title was released in 2012 and there is still no date set as we head into 2015. That's unconscionable to Anime fans outside of Japan. How do you expect to stem the tide of bootlegging? That is completely illegal by the way and Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic deplores it, but a reality for this tech-savvy universe we live in. The powers that be really need to do better with their licensing issues.

So, discerning between the good and bad in Anime is certainly a requirement. Of course, age and interest has a lot to do with that. 'One man's trash is another man's treasure' as they say. You need to move through the weeds of animation to really find the very good stuff - nevertheless still potentially weird. And there is plenty of good stuff out there. But Anime that focuses exclusively on whiny characters, big bosoms (a.k.a. fan service- who doesn't like a little of that?) and silly antics are really not my thing especially if the characters are young kids and there is certainly plenty of that on offering too. This is why doing your homework before expending valuable time or money is ... well, invaluable.

And to be clear, there is a load of good options for animation fans, young and old, and I'm older. I'm one of those raised and reared on hand drawing and actually enjoyed hand drawn animation. Do you remember? That was the animation that actually put Anime on the map.

Generally speaking I want a good solid story with good solid characters and there has to be a maturity about the proceedings for me or I really can't be bothered. And good solid animation figures prominently into my selection as well. I was always a big fan of certain Marvel comics as a kid particularly when John Byrne and George Perez were in the mix and at the drawing table among others. But bad artistry, and that's a relative concept mind you, has an impact on my choice.

Today, Attack On Titan and Knights Of Sidonia effectively fit the bill when it comes to titles that are the best on offering from Anime. Both clearly land themselves in the world of science fiction and both equally paint a mythology and universe that is fully realized for viewers and fans of the material. Interested in digging deeper into those worlds? Look no further than their accompanying Manga sources on which these titles were based. Much of the best in Anime yields from the fruits of those creative minds behind the Mangaverse. One really cannot discount the power of Manga. Ghost In The Shell (1995-2014), Akira (1988), Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984) and many more originated in the world of Japanese comics. Akira for example is well known for Katsuhiro Otomo's 2,200 page manga from 1982.

So which do I prefer? While I fully endorse both of these productions one easily captured my attention and captured my science fiction heart. Knights Of Sidonia was the clear winner for me. Attack On Titan is evidently the more popular release of the two, but Knights Of Sidonia was easily the more fascinating to me and firmly plants its world in outer space, whereby Attack On Titan identifies equally with a good bit of fantasy. The latter is certainly unique in its own right. Either story will no doubt mesmerize. Falling in love with either story is certainly understandable.

Both worlds are intriguing and deliver compelling stories steeped with a bit of mystery, curiosity and the questions that keep us coming back for more.

To its credit, to some degree Attack On Titan even feels like a contemporary satire and/or political commentary on humanity today. Eating our own as it were. It's a bit like Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (1729) mixed with the adventure of Gulliver's Travels (1726) twisted with a bit of today's bizarre.

As I experienced Attack On Titan I was torn between its compelling concepts and interesting characters and yet disappointed by the direction of the tale. It moved in a trajectory I did not anticipate and that's probably a good thing. It's undeniably a solid story with great characterization even if I have a bit of trouble buying human-looking gas giants as the series primary enemy force. The giant that looks like a science model of the human body come to life was at least more interesting and harkened back to the mutant warrior giants of Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind. I like my science fiction to look a bit less goofy if you will. That's probably judging it a bit harsh, still Attack On Titan is a relatively smart affair that is mostly unpredictable with strong character designs and development.

By comparison, Knights Of Sidonia, unlike Attack On Titan's twenty-five episodes and OVA combinations, hasn't been fleshed out (no pun intended toward Attack On Titan) quite as extensively. As of this writing there are just twelve brilliant episodes of Knights Of Sidonia. A new twelve episode second season has been commissioned for release in 2015 along with a compilation film of the first season. But Knights Of Sidonia is the kind of mature tale this mature anime fan endorses. It arrives, with Attack On Titan, to join a long legacy of the best Japan anime has to offer. Gatchaman, Space Battleship Yamato (and Star Blazers 2199), Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ergo Proxy, Ghost In The Shell and now Knights Of Sidonia hit me where it counts. Both character and story coupled with immaculate animation on both the character and mech design front just astound. In fact, whilst on the point, I much prefer the animation on Knights Of Sidonia (based on the Manga artistry of Tsutomu Nihei) over the art of Attack On Titan (the Manga artistry of Hajime Isayama). I've always been a bit of an obsessive when it comes to illustration and illustrators in comic books and the same obviously holds true for my Anime. It has to be my cup of tea to completely capture my attention.

Like Attack On Titan, why hasn't Knights Of Sidonia been more fully embraced? Knights Of Sidonia, based on the work of Tsutomu Nihei, is the resulting inspiration of the man behind dark dense, even impenetrable Manga works like Blame! (now out of print and very difficult to find) and Biomega (still available). He's even tried his hand at Marvel's Wolverine. Nihei is very much my man. The man's artistry is thoroughly engrossing and, for the first time, his vision lands squarely in a world of science fiction that is clever, imaginative yet digestible. In fact, you'll want to eat it up. Knights Of Sidonia will likely grow in acclaim as people discover it. Manga Blame! did make its way to the anime art form via a 37 minute short film, but more exciting are plans to actually incorporate the world of Blame! into an episode of the second season of Knights Of Sidonia and truly animate that vision. It sounds pretty wild fusing the mythology of two of Nihei's universes into one, but nonetheless amazing. Knights Of Sidonia certainly has a lot going for it, yet it may never reach the heights of those titans and that's a shame really. But the verdict is still out.

I did anticipate with a degree of excitement both of these Anime series. What sent me over the edge and compelled me to write was the adulation and heaps of praise offered to Attack On Titan, while a number of middling reviews regarding Knights Of Sidonia were penned. Attack On Titan was receiving all of the buzz whilst Knights Of Sidonia was clearly underappreciated. I wanted to do my small part here to rectify that. Some of the reviews I have found have been generally disappointing particularly since Knights Of Sidonia is the more preferred series for this Sci-Fi Fanatic of the two.

First, I've never been a huge fan of the articles at Japan Cinema, despite having a terrific looking blog. The site gave a fairly decent assessment of Knights Of Sidonia. Though the writer found the 3D animation to be "strange" while in the same breath concluded it to be "gorgeous." The animation is truly exceptional and makes exceptional use of the computer techniques that have long since been established since the 1990s in less effective implementations like Vandread (2000) and others. Knights Of Sidonia shines in its approach to merge 2D computer animation with 3D modeling. It's certainly more breathtaking than strange. Like the writer, who potentially raised the bar too high for himself with "high anticipation," I too was eager to see what the series offered, but unlike Japan Cinema, Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic gives Knights Of Sidonia much higher marks based on the first twelve entries. Lowlights for Japan Cinema included a "draggy backstory and unlovable figures." Despite the limited run time of these episodes there are more than enough fascinating aspects to the characters within the walls of Sidonia's interesting spaceship world. The many questions raised by the story have me riveted and I was compelled to discover what comes next for the inhabitants of this world under siege. I never found the story slow in the slightest. I won't disagree with the writer's comparison for Knights Of Sidonia to the inspired leanings of "old school mech." Perhaps that's true and there are certainly geometrically attributed mecha aspects that lend themselves to an homage to Anime's heralded past. Robot designs and an affection for a story with a strong robot element was certainly one element that drew me to the series with high hopes. I can't deny it. Think Gunbuster (1988)! Yes, I'm there. Think GundamKnights Of Sidonia certainly pays tribute to the epic alien-human wars of its rich and storied history. That's an integral part of Anime and we welcome it. But Knights Of Sidonia is perhaps a little more sophisticated or at the very least in appearance. It's also a touch darker than the classics given contemporary allowances and the hand and influence of Nihei.

Meanwhile, Otaku USA had difficulty "telling characters apart." But, as that same review also notes, the characters are difficult to distinguish because of the cloning concept utilized in its world as well as a strong adherence to uniform code. The same could hold true to the uniform applications in Attack On TitanOtaku USA would have preferred more individually identifiable character designs despite the fact these characters are quite true to the designs of Tsutomu Nihei. The writer for Otaku USA was generally disappointed by a number of things. For example, the writer had problems with Lala the Bear and lack of a back story. But gosh we could go after beloved Cowboy Bebop's Corgi, Ein the data dog if we were to get nit picky. Nevertheless, many of the same mysteries and questions that plagued the Otaku USA writer kept me very much engaged and curious about the show's direction. I found the writing of the series to be well-paced refusing to rush along. The writers take time to reveal new pieces of information while enjoying a moment between fits and starts of pure action. And after all there is much more to come for Knights Of Sidonia and all is hardly revealed in its first of many episodes, but plenty enough for science fiction fans to rally behind and champion its cause.

I for one consider Knights Of Sidonia to be the most interesting science fiction series in anime since perhaps Gurren Lagann (2007) (okay, with the exception of Attack On Titan). It's also one of the best looking series since to boot at least in terms of animation. And it's tough to stack up to Gainax. But what of Freedom Project (or Freedom) (2006-2008)? That's certainly a splendid moment in the run of anime science fiction but is technically considered an OVA (Original Video Animation) and not a series. What about Ergo Proxy? Yes, it's a solid series but the verdict is still out. Okay, what about Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex? One would think, but despite some highlights, GITS:SAC has a tendency to get overly talky and convoluted and the animation isn't always up to snuff. It should have been better, but is still a solid science fiction series. Alright what about Space Battleship Yamato 2199 (also known as Star Blazers 2199) (2013)? Absolutely brilliant and would stand tall next to the titles focused upon here for the blog. Sadly, Voyager Entertainment has gone completely silent after releasing just four of its intended six volumes on Blu-Ray here in the US. Can someone tell me exactly how that happens?

Sadly many of these writers and critics are giving their initial first impressions based on very limited pool of information. There are many more fascinating reveals to come. If you are a science fiction fan grab a Garde (the robot weapons piloted in Knights Of Sidonia to battle a formidable alien menace dubbed the Gauna) and join me.

Meanwhile, Attack On Titan is clearly the darling of the moment backed by a wealth of light novels, an ongoing Manga series, Anime films and a second season series in the works. There seems to be no stopping this Jack's beanstalk.

On the rise, Knights Of Sidonia is no slouch with its own remarkable ongoing Manga series, a compilation film of its own and a second series both slated for 2015. Both series have plenty to offer the more selective Anime fan to be sure.

And whilst I am fittingly over the moon for Knights Of Sidonia, the subtitled Japanese version of Attack On Titan was enjoyable enough that I broke down and finally purchased both parts on Blu-Ray complete with English dub. It certainly deserved another look. As much as I enjoy sharpening my skills as a speed reader on foreign Anime, I do appreciate the inflections by my North American brethren from time to time. Those dubs aren't always good but I'm looking forward to hearing the one for Attack On Titan in the North American flesh (pun intended).

But really bring on Knights Of Sidonia with a Limited Edition box of goodies. I'm fit to be tied with anticipation for it.

Truthfully you won't be disappointed by either series. Both are fresh and original with an endless well of creative world-building between them both. In many respects I see both Attack On Titan and Knights Of Sidonia ushering in what I hope amounts to a new resurgence of creativity within Anime and some hunger for it. Like some of the best inspired by Manga the adaptations to Anime are exquisite for both.

Attack On Titan certainly takes the lead in popularity and marketing not to mention an explosion in the collectibles market that may yet to rival the popularity of Neon Genesis Evangelion if this thing keeps up. That series lends itself well to books, endless Manga and collectibles with its wealth of great characters adorned in those Colonial, Battlestar Galactica-inspired uniforms. A live action film is set for 2015 to boot. Knights Of Sidonia anyone?

Less notable in the collectibles market, but I do have a few, are the Gardes for Knights Of Sidonia. I can only hope Knights Of Sidonia gains traction. It certainly deserves it. It's one of the best Anime I've seen in a number of years. It's source material is rich and with an exquisite Manga run still ongoing as of this writing and should provide the creators of the anime loads of options for years to come. I'll be there to support it. Knights Of Sidonia wins it for me in the end hands down, but you can't go wrong with these two epic series that fearlessly welcome intimacy of character amidst some of the epic excitement. It's refreshing. While I may see one title as slightly overrated and the other underrated, both are exceptionally well-conceived stories that will leave you mostly riveted. Much credit goes to the studio animators who manage to bring to life the work of Isayama and Nihei respectively. I'm telling you - strange stuff perhaps, but an experience brought to gorgeous, vivid life for science fiction fans and fans of the unexpected.