TV Tuesday 5/10/22

One of many benefits gained when I cut the cable and subscribed to Netflix and Hulu was access to a very large catalog of Japanese anime. Until then I was largely at the mercy of the Cartoon Network cable channel and rented videos. While I’ve so far barely scratched the surface of the Netflix catalog, I have been steadily working my way through Hulu’s.

Recently I’ve enjoyed two there: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? and xxxHolic. The former is a fun medieval fantasy adventure series (with expected twists and unexpected depth). Saying the latter is about a beautiful hard-drinking witch who grants wishes is accurate but misses the point.

It’s a lot more interesting than that.

Which is why I enjoy Japanese anime so much. They’re almost all a lot more interesting than that — where “that” is both their individual descriptions and western storytelling in general these days.

The Japanese seem less addicted to socially correct storytelling than we’ve become. Anime, to me, seems more honest, more open, and more creative. As I’ve said many times, one of my main asks of stories is that they take me someplace new, someplace I’ve never been before. The other is don’t give me a case of the “yeah, buts” by inattention to the story and its world.

The Japanese, perhaps due to an ancient history rich in performing and physical arts, excel in attention to the detail of storytelling. Their worldbuilding is usually thoughtful and consistent. And that long history may lead to a penchant for inventing creative story arc twists.

Perhaps it’s just a willingness, both in creators and in consumers, towards something new and different over the old and well-worn. Western storytelling currently seems to favor sequels and reboots. Our trailers contain spoilers because western audiences have made it clear they want to know what they’re getting into. We seem to favor what’s familiar and mistrust the new.

[A natural inclination. Would you rather try a new restaurant or go to one you know? Would you rather vacation somewhere new or return to the same place? I see a connoisseur as someone who knows the quality of a thing (wine, cars, TV shows) and a gourmet as a connoisseur interested in new experiences or instances of that thing. The Japanese, I suspect, are story gourmets. Sadly, too many westerners aren’t even connoisseurs, just consumers.]

The Japanese obviously do have their own versions of Marvel and other franchises, but I think they put more heart and mind into it. They’re not afraid to be fresh and honest. They’re better at it.

And I really do think animation, rather than live-action, makes a world of difference when exploring the fantastic. Live-action spoon feeds us everything. Animation invokes at least some of our ability to imagine. (Book, obviously, are best at this.)

Whatever the reason, I find that Japanese anime has a very high success rate with me. That has a lot to do with being selective, though — so much so I’m likely missing ones I’d like (but also missing lots more I wouldn’t). Even so, it’s surprising how often the “cover” fails to depict the “book” (but hence the cliché). I’ve started a lot of anime uncertain it was going to appeal only to discover yet another tasty treat.

§ §

If you’re a fan of animation as an artform, xxxHolic (2006; 24 episodes) is worth seeing just for the animation style. (The title is apparently just “Holic” — the “xxx” seems to stand for ‘fill in the blank’.)

Front-to-back: The mysterious Yūko Ichihara, magical Mokona Modoki, protagonist Kimihiro Watanuki, fellow student Shizuka Dōmeki.

The distinctive animation style is based on Japanese ukiyo-e wood block prints, a style that began in the 17th century. There is also an elongation of limbs and torsos that reminds me of various graphic artists. It’s prominent enough here that some commented unfavorably about it. I rather liked it (it’s something fresh, and I thought it went well with the story).

The plot involves a high school student, Kimihiro Watanuki, who is tormented by ayakashi spirits only he can see (and feel). In the first episode apparent chance leads him to the wish-granting shop owned by Yūko Ichihara — a powerful and mysterious witch.

As is often the case with magical shops, one wanders into this place only if one has a deep wish for something — usually to overcome a perceived life obstacle blocking forward progress. Watanuki has a deep wish to be rid of the spirits that plague him.

Yūko grants wishes — will grant his — for a price of equal value. Her price for freeing Watanuki from his spirits is that he will work for her as cook and housekeeper. As time goes on, she involves him more and more in supernatural incidents.

Right-to-left: Kimihiro Watanuki, fellow student (and perceived rival) Shizuka Dōmeki, unrequited love interest Himawari Kunogi.

Hulu has only the first season, which has 24 episodes. There is a second season from 2008 with 13 episodes. And four OVAs (original video animations) plus an anime movie (2005), a live-action TV miniseries (2013), a stage play (2021), and a live-action film that came out this year.

Of course, as is so often the case, the whole thing is based on a manga series.

That first season is fairly episodic and, while open-ended so things can continue, does land a reasonable arc. I’m not desperate for the second season, although I’d be happy to see it.

Many of the episodes involve clients who stumble into Yūko’s shop with a wish involving escape from behavioral addictions interfering with their lives. As is not uncommon in Japanese storytelling, not all these episodes have happy endings.

I think it’s worth seeing just for the animation style, but it also scores high on my something different scale. I give it a solid Ah! rating. One of those taste treats I mentioned. I was a little uncertain going in, but I’m glad I did.

§ §

There is nothing particularly deep about Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? The goofy title alone attracted me to it. My greatest preference is the Yin-Yang mix of lightness and darkness, and that title strongly suggested storytelling lightness to me.

Left-to-right: Ryu Lion (elf), Mikoto Yamato, Lilliluka “Lilly” Arde (porter), swordsmith Welf Crozzo, hero Bell Cranel, goddess Hestia.

And, indeed, it presents as a fun medieval fantasy adventure series somewhat, I’d guess, along Dungeons & Dragons lines. (I have to guess never having played D&D. To me it suggested The Dungeons of Moria, which I have played.)

However, there is as much, if not much more, action that takes place between various characters in the “normal” world above the dungeons. And while the show starts off in the shallows, in the later seasons it swims into the deep end of the pool.

The context is that the gods who created the universe swore off most of their godly powers and descended to live among humans. One power they keep is the ability to “Bless” humans — to level up their ability rating (video game style). These humans become “Familia” — members of that god’s family. Most of these seek adventure in the dungeon levels hunting monsters, the killing of which increases skill level and leaves behind gems that can be exchanged for credit.

Goddess Hestia (left) and wannabe hero Bell Cranel (right).

The plot follows Bell Cranel a young hero wannabe and initially the only member of goddess Hestia’s Familia. (She’s kind of the runt kid-sister among the gods.) In the first episode, down in the dungeons, Cranel is almost killed by a Minotaur that escaped from a lower (much tougher) level. Ais Wallenstein, known as the Sword Princess, was chasing the fleeing Minotaur and arrives in time to save him.

Which hugely embarrasses Cranel since his plan was to become a hero adventurer so he could attract a woman like her. He’s forced to realize she’s far out of his league, but he vows to become good enough to be worthy of her attention. (He doesn’t realize that Hestia and several other female characters all have a crush on him.)

As it turns out (and I think this isn’t an uncommon theme in Japanese stories), his passion amounts to a magical skill, Realis Phrase, that enables him to progress rapidly. The first season is largely about his growth as a hero adventurer but much of the story takes place in the city above the dungeon and involves interaction between the characters.

Left-to-right: Lilly, Bell Cranel, Hestia, Welf Crozzo.

In the second season, the story matures. Hestia’s Familia has grown to include several others and, after successfully meeting and beating the challenge by another Familia, they win the other Familia’s huge mansion. Even more of the action takes place outside the dungeon and involves intrigue between the various gods.

The third season features more of the dungeons and a new aspect to the story I won’t spoil. Suffice to say it’s an interesting twist and the main source of the conflict in the season. I’ll add that, while D&D or Moria players will find the initial premise of the dungeons familiar, the show adds several new layers to that premise.

Once again Japanese anime takes something old and familiar and finds a fresh and creative way to spin it. It’s sad that we in the west so rarely hit that target, and I fear that it’s because we don’t want to. We seem to prefer the safety of commodity storytelling.

§

I found the show, especially in the first season or so, to be heavily shōnen (oriented towards teenaged boys). Visually, the female characters are buxom and shapely and many of their costumes are laughable (some of the warrior women fared better). The first season seemed worse in terms of tone — kind of a high school feel — but the later seasons were more focused on plot and action.

The goddess Hestia became the hit of the series. She’s the only character with her own Wiki page, and apparently many Japanese cosplaying women copy her distinctive costume. Even the gravity-defying blue ribbon supporting her ample bosom has gained notoriety.

Hulu has the three seasons that are out (2015, 13 episodes; 2019, 12 episodes; 2020, 12 episodes). A fourth season is apparently expected sometime this year. I don’t know if Hulu will have it, but I hope so. I give it a soft Ah! rating — a worthy diversion.

§ §

A few TV notes in closing:

I posted about Mr. Mayor, an NBC sitcom from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. I gave it two thumbs up, an Ah! rating, and recommended checking it out. Many episodes into the second season I’m far less taken with the show. To the point of asking myself why I’m still watching it. The problem for me is that it’s Idiot Clown comedy and everyone — ev-ver-ree-one — is surreally stupid. The humor not only isn’t landing but is approaching grimace territory. I withdraw my thumbs and recommendation. At best, it gets an Eh! rating, but it’s edging into Meh!

I also posted about Upload, a Greg Daniels comedy on Amazon Prime. Season two (a mere seven episodes) finally came out last March. It’s still pretty good. No sophomore slump to speak of, although I wish the season was longer. I gave it a Wow! rating, but season two just rates an Ah! As did the first season, the second ends with a cliffhanger.

And I posted about Space Force, a Greg Daniels show on Netflix. I gave it a strong Ah! rating — even said it could earn a Wow! rating over time. The problem, once again, is Idiot Clown comedy (which I see as low fruit). This one sunk to Meh!

I’ve only briefly mentioned Atlanta, the often surreal and usually brilliant show by Donald Glover. The third season is out on Hulu, and it has easily maintained its strong Wow! rating. This season is sprinkled with some standalone episodes telling unrelated stories that will break your mind just a little.

Lastly, I posted recently about Farscape, a 1999 SF TV show a friend recommended. Have now seen all four seasons and the movie (on Amazon Prime), and it all gets a loud Wow! rating. I rank the show up there with TOS, Bab5, and classic Who.

Stay holic, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

9 responses to “TV Tuesday 5/10/22

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I got so tired of thinking up post titles that I decided to take the easy way out on posts like this. And besides, Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is way too long to try to put into a blog title!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I think one benefit of anime is that the Japanese tropes are different from the American ones, so a lot of it feels fresh to us. Although I’ve reached the point where the shonen ones really grate on me. But I definitely know what you mean that what the show is usually presented to be about doesn’t give an accurate idea of what it’s really about.

    Lately I’ve been watching the most recent batch of the final season of Attack on Titan. Apparently the last season is coming out in three batches and we’ve just reached the end of the second one. I thought that show was dark before, but it was happiness and light compared to where it’s going now.

    I’ve also been watching new Legends of the Galactic heroes episodes. Although watching those once a week is a bit annoying, so now I’m letting them accumulate to binge later.

    (Both of these have been on CrunchyRoll, a service I love for their content but loathe for their terrible Roku app.)

    I also finally watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, although that’s actually American animation in the spirit of anime. Still, it was pretty good. (They’re doing a live action of it, which shows all the signs of being a disaster.)

    Have you heard they chose the new Doctor for Doctor Who? I’d never heard of him, but apparently he’s a pretty funny guy. It will be interesting.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I do think the cultural differences add a freshness, but I also think there’s a quality difference in the storytelling. More pride in their craft or something. Asian cultures also have a strong sense of aesthetics in everything they do in contrast with western more utilitarian approaches. I’ve been watching anime since the 1980s, and I feel that sense of “this is better” more keenly than ever (in part because western storytelling has, I feel, declined). That said, I might see them as more similar if I knew Japanese anime as thoroughly as I do western storytelling. The scales of experience definitely aren’t balanced. Not by a long shot.

      Shōnen can be a bit much — we’re so not the target demo on that one. It can get downright infantile. The seinen demographic fares better with me.

      Not familiar with Legend of the Galactic Heroes, but the Wiki description indicates elements I’d find appealing. Much would depend on story originality and an emotional Yin-Yang balance. I do like a good future high-tech SF tale! I’ve just started Last Exile, flying machine seinen with a strong steampunk style.

      I had always thought Avatar: The Last Airbender was a kid’s show? I thought it was one of those things people grew up watching and were into the same way we were into Star Trek? Mostly what I know about it is that Shyamalan’s live action version was widely seen as his worst (by far). And as I’ve said many times now, I really do think live action is often a mistake when it comes to fantastical storytelling.

      The 14th The Doctor is Ncuti Gatwa, a Rwandan-Scottish actor from the Netflix show, Sex Education. I’ve never seen him or that show, so no clue. After watching Legend of the Sea Devils, the “special” that came out last month, I was ruminating on how Chibnall (and to a much lesser extent, Whittaker) turned the show from my favorite TV show to one I just can’t care about. (Admittedly, it began a couple of seasons earlier with Capaldi.) That was a long way to fall. (So now there’s nowhere to go but up?)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Last Exile looks interesting. Thanks. I might need to check that one out.

        Legend of the Galactic Heroes, I’d say, balances out the emotions fairly well. It’s a tale of an interstellar war from both sides. One side is definitely easier to sympathize with, but the characters on the other side are portrayed as human, and there are good and bad people on each side. The one I’m watching is the remake. I have no idea how it compares to the original, which has an extremely high reputation, but is reputedly dated and a bit hard to find.

        It’s fair to say Avatar is a kid show, and that is excruciatingly obvious in the early episodes. But it’s a kid show in the same way that a lot of the Studio Ghibli stuff is, in that it has adult themes throughout. I’d also say it balances emotions fairly well, and the kid aspect keeps the dark portions fairly gentle. For example, (almost) no one dies on screen, although there are plenty of parts where the characters are in mortal danger.

        Yeah, while there have been enjoyable stories here or there, I generally haven’t really been happy with Doctor Who since Matt Smith’s departure. Gatwa at least seems like he might be cut from the same cloth as Tenant and Smith. Hopefully Davies can recapture the lost magic.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I like the look of Last Exile, and it’s a bit different from the usual. And it’s short enough that I don’t face a major investment in terms of having to watch tons of episodes. My ceiling these days is around 50 episodes, at least until I’ve seen as many of those as I care for. Something a bit different, well balanced, musically or visually distinctive a big plus,… and short.

        I think I’m more okay with the Capaldi era, and far less okay with the Chibnall era, than you (and many others). Almost as if, in making so many excuses about the former, the “I’ve had enough” factor during the latter has caused a stronger reaction.

        I will say I didn’t hate this most recent (Sea Devils) episode the way I have earlier ones, but there was a sense of way too little way too late. But, honestly, that Doctor-Yaz thing reads as unearned to me as did Princess Naboo and Anakin. Look back at the voltage generated by Rose, Martha, Donna, or Amy, with their various The Doctors.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I don’t think my ceiling is 50 episodes. There’s a lot of stuff out there in the 60-80 range. But I do know I’m not really interested in anything with multiple hundreds of episodes. Or at least there would have to be a major draw, something beyond mere escapism. Although I’m slightly more likely to be drawn in if there are clean distinctions between sequel series, so I don’t feel like watching the first one necessarily commits me to the entire franchise. I was fine stopping after the first Gundam and Steins;Gate series, as examples.

        I think you got it right on our respective takes of the Capaldi and Chibnall eras. I was actually bored during Sea Devils. I started surfing the web while watching it, only giving it part of my attention. I had nothing against the Doctor-Yaz thing (I do think they’ve been dropping signs over the last season, but it was among all the confused noise), but it didn’t really interest me. I’m definitely ready for the transition and to see what Gatwa has.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        For now, I’m all about smaller packages until I work through them, as you say, a major draw might pass the filter. I lean away from any long-term commitments, though. If I run out of peas and corn, I’ll start in on the steaks and cakes.

        I agree Sea Devils wasn’t very exciting. And neither is the Doctor-Yaz thing. Yeah, they dropped hints last season, but it was a forced fit to my eyes. The relationship is inexplicable. There’s no hope or foundation for a real relationship, Yaz would have to be an idiot to think so (something that was always clear to Rose, Martha, etc. — the obvious impossibility was what made it all so poignant). And then consider the target of Yaz’s interest — a version of The Doctor who behaves like an ADHD child. It’s hard to see why Yaz would be in love with The Doctor. There seems no understanding of the fundamental pathos of the relationship between The Doctor and Companions (which I think are best understood as pets The Doctor picks up — stray cats and dogs).

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        That’s funny. You realize you just described the Doctor’s relationship with the companions the way the Master (Missy) did in her conversations with Clara? Although I think you’re right that’s the way it would almost certainly be.

        I know you don’t like the storyline, but it’s kind of ironic that it eventually ends up being as true for the Master (and all Time Lords) as much as any human.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, Missy wasn’t wrong. As I’m sure you know, the theme of immortal or long-lived beings consorting with humans is pretty well-explored in science fiction. There is always a pathos to it, and previous versions of the show understood that.

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