Summer Blues! Code Geass, Tower Of Druaga, Astro Boy

I apologize for not getting this posted yesterday, but the pollen of the world decided to give a massive headache along with an itchy nose, and I'm afraid to say that things may not get better, according to the big picture. While it has been great to watch all of this anime, my summer is starting to turn back towards worrying about school, which means finding tuition money and then spending time on homework or, in short, less time for anime. I don't know how often I'll be able to update from here on out, but I'll try to be as often as I feel I can.

At least I've got a few titles to get things started for now.

Code Geass: Lelouch Of The Rebellion (25 Episodes)

Code Geass: Lelouch Of The Rebellion R2 (25 Episodes)
Animation: *****
Story: ****
Music: ***
Overall: ****

Yes, I have finally finished all of Code Geass and, boy, is my brain tired. I remember when this series was first starting to get all of sorts of attention from all sorts of fans and I thought I'd give it a shot when it rolled around on Adult Swim's online video player and found myself ensnared in a tangle of plots that I could pull my eyes away from.

In an alternate but not too distant future, the Empire of Britannia (located primarily in North America) begins expanding its territory across the world, including Japan, taking it over completely and turning into Area 11. The people there are now called Elevens and treated as a lower caste by the Britannians. Lelouch is a Brittanian prince who is living as a high school student in Japan under the surname of Lamperouge in order to hide from potential assassinations. However, he still holds a personal grudge in his heart against whoever killed his mother in an assassination, a trauma that left Lelouch's little sister, who is “hiding” in Japan with him, blind. Lelouch figures that it's someone else within the Brittania family and vows to get revenge, but having been dumped in Japan, he feels powerless to do so.

Meanwhile, even though Japan has been a part of Brittania for 10 years, there are still resistance groups trying to fight for their Japanese heritage. They get wind of some chemical weapons are being transported and try to prevent the Empire from using them. Lelouch happens upon this act of terrorism and decides to follow up on what's going on, thinking that he can make a dent in Brittania. However, instead of finding chemical weapons, he finds an incapacitated girl in green hair and tries to take her to safety away from the terrorists violence. Along the way, he runs into Suzaku Kururugi, his childhood friend and native Japanese, fighting as a soldier for Britannia. Without having time to catch up, they try to get out of danger, but end up getting separated again, with Lelouch being caught by a platoon of soldiers. They fire, but the green-haired girl suddenly jumps in front, saving Lelouch's life. As the green lies on the ground, she suddenly starts talking about giving Lelouch “power.” Finding himself up against a wall, he accepts and is granted the power of Geass, where upon eye-to-eye contact, Lelouch can alter the will of anyone. He uses his power to escape the soldiers, by ordering them all to commit suicide, and begins to help the terrorists in their efforts against the Empire, later becoming their leader under the guise of Zero, a masked hero for justice. He begins to figure that, with his own cunning, his new power, and the terrorists' resources, he can finally topple Brittania and find out who killed his mother.

What happens from then on is a convoluted tale that warps between political intrigue, high school antics, supernatural powers, and personal anguish, as Lelouch and the others feel the weight of their new responsibilities and try to defeat their enemies and fears. The green-haired-girl, simply named as C2, returns as an immortal being capable of granting Geass power and willing to Lelouch with his rebellion as long as he fulfills his end of the contract, a detail that remains unrevealed for quite some time. Suzaku ends up climbing through the ranks of the Brittanian military, quickly ending up as a test subject for a special proto-type mech.

Oh, yeah. There's robots throughout the whole thing. All the battles are straight-up mecha army action.

Code Geass is a very ambitious story, trying to weave together so many plot threads and still make sense, and, to its credit, it mostly succeeds. While my head spun with each plot twist, each piece finds its resting place by the end of the long series and felt satisfied by the end. Things went well, even if I felt like everything was stumbling through mud from time to time.

The animation was incredible, not only with the vivid scenery and memorable character designs by CLAMP, but with the action and combat as well, a crucial element for mecha anime. The robots all seem to have wheels on their feet, so the battles feel like over-the-top roller derbies with guns, and somehow they made it work. The music was more of a downer. It had its moments, establishing easy-to-recognize themes when things worked or didn't work in the story, but it didn't stand out much and I felt more could have been done with it. Even the opening and ending themes were rather mediocre.

When I got a few episodes in, I gathered the sentiment that this was going to be Death Note but with mecha instead of mind games. Sunrise has had all sorts of experience with their Gundam franchise in combining a political drama with robots and so adding in this supernatural twist could make or break the series. While it stumbled around getting there, it did come together in the end, resulting in one of the most renowned series Sunrise has produced (I think it even won some awards in Japan a couple of times). In the end, my sentiment was right. Code Geass is Death Note with robots. You have webs of character relations, sudden plot twists, supernatural surprises (especially when Lelouch runs into other Geass users!), and a wealth of memorable moments that really makes this title stand out. I can now see what all of the hubbub was for and I don't regret it.

The Tower of Druaga: The Aegis Of Uruk (12 Episodes)
The Tower of Druaga: The Sword Of Uruk (12 Episodes)
Animation: ****
Story: ****
Music: ****
Overall: ****

The Tower of Druaga was an old Japanese arcade game where the heroes had to climb a 60 level tower in order to save the world. I don't think it ever made it to America, but it was quite a hit in Japan has since spawned a handful of games in the same world. In this anime series, Gonzo takes that game and turns it into a very entertaining romp through the tower and the personal struggles of those who climb it.

The story primarily revolves around Jil, a young Climber, who is sincere about getting to the top and defeating the great demon Druaga. However, the other Climbers don't want to listen because they're satisfied with how much money they can make Climbing the tower. He tries to join his older brother Neeba's group, only to be kicked out for his incompetence. He finally gets his own party, consisting of Ahmey, a female spear-wielder, Kaaya, a cheerful priestess, Melt, an eccentric mage, and Coopa, Melt's personal assistant that happens to have her own bag of tricks. They all decide to follow Jil up the tower in order to defeat the evil that lives at that top.

However, as they climb the tower, they begin to notice some of the connections between the tower and the condition of the king of the land, Gilgamesh, who supposedly defeated the tower the last time. Because it has come back and the past is slowly being revealed, the tower's true purpose becomes revealed and the heroes have to find the truth on top of it all.

While all of this is a very engaging Babylonian fantasy epic with it's own innovations (Melt's magic is swinging clubs like he's golfing, making Coopa a sort of caddy for him; it's brilliant), it is more than willing to take some time to put its tongue in its own cheek. The first episode is almost entirely a dream, spoofing itself and other action series and fantasy tropes (even going so far as a Monty Python reference and a sudden shift into Gurren Lagann mode) and not developing very much plot. Later on, the characters stumble into a series of bizarre traps that the heroes spend an entire episode walking into. They even take the time to send Jil into a life-size reenactment of the original video game, the other heroes controlling him with a joystick and buttons and having to restart every time something goes wrong. The moments of comedy brighten things significantly. Even if very little progression is made, it helps the viewers get to know the characters.

The second part of the series is much more serious, though, as things turn uglier, though it does take time to show the ski resort Melt builds within the tower. However, as it builds suspense and goes deeper into the secrets of the tower, I felt that the final showdown was rather light-weight compared to all the momentum it had been building. While I won't go into detail for the sake of those who haven't seen it, I thought there were some darker themes and heavier material into which they could have delved. Instead, they decide to pass over it and simply bring an end to everything.

The animation was great. Having many characters involved for massive battles with monsters and other Climbers went well for the most part. The biggest problem I had how the CG elements didn't blend into the 2D animation as well as it could have. It stood out and seemed somewhat distracting. Gonzo has always messed around with combining 2D with 3D, but they seemed to make it work so well ten years ago with Blue Submarine No. 6. It wasn't a major bother in Tower, but it was reoccuring. The music was nice, drawing on the themes from the video game but giving them a Lord of the Rings quality by giving them an orchestral feel. The opening and ending themes weren't bad either. Also, it should be noted that I watched this series subbed, for once. It'll be interesting how the series will sound after FUNimation dubs it.

The Tower of Druaga was a fun ride, even if it lost some steam at the end. And it's still available online (Thank you, CrunchyRoll!) so go watch it. It's worth it. It even led me to a discovery. I was in my local Hastings with some money to burn and I stumbled across the PS2 game The Nightmare of Druaga. Not only was it in the used bin for only four dollars, it was still shrink-wrapped after I tore off the used-wrap Hastings puts on its used materials. I primarily picked up simply because I was watching Druaga at the time. The game happens to be a wonderfully merciless dungeon hack that I imagine I'll be playing for years to come. I've become a fan of the Druaga series and look forward to where it'll pop up in the future.

Astro Boy (23 Volumes)
Rating: ***

Osamu Tezuka's genius has gone unrecognized lately, in my opinion. Especially in America. While I'm sure that most anime and manga fans are aware that he brought those two very mediums to the heights of popularity they enjoy now, they fail to realize that he himself is a great writer and artist, full of his own impressive ideas. Maybe some time I'll talk about his Phoenix series.

I recently finished Dark Horse's run of Tezuka's breakout hit, Astro Boy. He had some success with Kimba but Astro Boy is what got everyone's attention back then and the title propelled Tezuka to be the Godfather of Manga as he is known today. However, reading it now is a bit of a challenge. The layout and narrative style haven't aged well, coming across as very wordy and thick for a simple action series. Most of the time, Astro Boy is simply caught up in an evil plot or scheme and has to beat up the bad guys in order to save the day. General old-school superhero story-telling. This leaves the reader with a heavily episodic series that rarely refers to other stories. The particular collection that Dark Horse has translated doesn't even have the volumes in any kind of chronological or narrative order. You could pick up any volume and begin reading without having to read the others before it (except for two or three that collect a newspaper run, but even then, the story would be hard to follow).

So why do I give Astro Boy 3 stars? Well, even though Tezuka had to keep the story simple and action driven to please his editors, throughout his stories he was able to delve into more complicated material, even if it was merely subtext. The story begins with a brilliant robotics scientist named Dr. Tenma. However, he was so caught up with work that he neglected his own son. When his son got into a car accident, he felt the need to turn his life around, so he coerced the robotics department to help him create a robot version of his son and succeeded. Unfortunately, Dr. Tenma grew upset that the robot couldn't grow like a normal child and abandoned it, too, going into seclusion. Sometime later, Dr. Ochanamizu found the robot's body and rebuilt him with super powers, turning him into Astro Boy, who would eventually become the poster child for the ideology that robots deserve to have rights just like the humans.

I find it interesting that Tezuka is a contemporary of Isaac Asimov and his three rules of robotics. While they have their similarities, it's interesting to see how each of them consider the possibilities of robots with progressive artificial intelligence, and that's what makes Astro Boy such a remarkable work. The out-dated elements of the story can be compensated by the speculation and vision Tezuka offers for our future.

As for what to expect in future columns, I don't know what to tell you. I was expecting Shangri-La (which is has been pretty cool) to finish with 13 episodes but it's probably going to finish in the mid-twenties now. I do have Hyakko and Eden of the East fansubs sitting on my computer that I could finish up quite quickly. There are a couple of other anime series that I could really dive into that are just sitting around.

Another possibility may not be reviews of a specific title but a focus on broader topics within anime and manga. I'm not terribly industry savvy, but I could delve a bit into that as well. I'm just not sure. You'll just have to come back and check out what I've got to say!

No comments: