Saturday, March 31, 2012

Taichi Tuesday: 3/27/12

 Chihayafuru Ep. 25: Moonlight, Clear and Bright

So this week we have been given the finale for Chihayafuru. So sad! ;_; But indeed we have the conclusion to a fantastic series that was never afraid to just be itself. With a cast of characters each unique to themselves and a strong story premise, Chihayafuru delivered like no other series that I viewed from the Fall season.

The episode opens with the championship match between Master Suo and a rather unknown opponent from last week. And quite thankfully it ended rather quickly, but not with a little more character progression with Suo himself. We learn that Suo is also passionate for the Japanese language and what each card evokes for an image and the feelings behind it. This is why he has a supposed 28 one-syllable cards to play with. Before the end of this scene, Yumin’s sensei takes a moment to think on how both Suo and Shinobu do not have teachers, thus leading to them never really being instructors themselves. It’s a strange but important thought that comes forth in an understandable way. It seems he is probably correct. 

After the match the entire gang seems to be a bit depressed in how excellent Shinobu and Suo are at karuta. They think, “How will we ever get to that level?” and walk home in a sullen slumber. Yet Tsutomu comes through for Chihaya once again after studying all of his notes, concluding that Chihaya herself has 20 one-syllable cards to play with. This revelation brings Chihaya to an emotional moment that she may be able to really use this as something to grow with.

Some of the final moments we have with Taichi and Arata happen to be a phone conversation between the two. They discuss the happenings of the championship match and the ways in which they can improve. But as Arata is talking his old mentor (the one who previously gave up karuta) walks in and offers a match. This is huge because now Arata has someone to play with that is on his level, someone to improve with. He was floored when his mentor entered the room.

I would say that the most beautiful scene of the final episode would be when Chihaya is standing there in the hallway and reciting her 20 one-syllable cards. She says the cards out loud in a passionate sort of way that scares away some until Kanade appears. Chihaya is passionate to learn more about the cards and she is now studying them more than ever. At the same time Kanade reveals to Chihaya that she wants to become a professional karuta card reader. Although… Kanade’s passion quickly turns sour when Chihaya reveals that she must become a Class A karuta player to become a reader. I don’t believe this is what Kanade had in mind!

The series takes its final ending in a way that softly closes the cover of a book. The club members practice in their club room. Taichi practices his swinging arm (something he was too embarrassed to do before) and Kanade takes a stab at reading the cards. A scene with the Empress and fellow school board members reveals that the karuta club’s room is in danger of being taken over by the much more popular school band. It’s decided that the karuta club must gather at least five more members or the room goes to band. And we all remember how difficult it was before for the club to gain even three members! The next semester begins with Chihaya putting up posters around the school, just as she did roughly 19 or 20 episodes ago. And, well, that is all.

The conclusion of the episode leaves the possibility for anything to happen with a new season. If we will ever see another seasons remains to be seen. It’s hard to tell just how popular Chihayafuru as an anime series really is, but from my understanding manga sales have seen a noticeable increase in sales because of the series. The following for Chihayafuru suggests the notion that this series truly deserves a sequel, hands down, and I agree with them. There is enough material in the manga series as of right now to support a full second season and then some. Why not give the sleeper hit of the season a proper sequel? There’s enough room to flesh out our characters even more.

And while speaking of the characters a bit, let’s take a look at them in general growth. Chihaya is likely the person who grew the least but it’s warranted for everything her character is. We know about her bubbly personality and sometimes-immature way of looking at things, but she did grow in learning about herself and karuta. She now has a passion for the cards and what they mean, and she completely appreciates Tsutomu’s efforts in studying the game itself. And from Nishida she has learned to study different player’s styles so that she can grow her own. But I’m not sure if she has really learned from Taichi in any specific way that improves her karuta or character, thus leading to Taichi’s realization that he can’t always be concerned with Chihaya as an individual. He very much seems to have strong feelings for Chihaya but he has shifted his efforts to himself more. Take for example the scene from a handful of episodes ago when Taichi lost the level-A qualifying match. He told Harada-sensei that he wanted to work for himself to get to class A and not have it handed to him. He is stronger than that. Kanade and Tsutomu have each grown in their own respective ways but we saw more of this earlier in the season. Kanade grew passionate with karuta because of her love for the poems and their meanings, and Tsutomu showed his passion in studying everyone’s play style to the max. In their rank match Kanade ultimately won but Tsutomu was there for her. They have grown a lot in such a short time it feels! And as for Nishida, I’m not really sure how much he’s changed. Change may not be the word to describe Nishida. Maybe instead it was self-realization that giving up on your passionate hobby isn’t the way to avoid it. In this he uses his skills to advance further beyond even Taichi, even if the match was a fluke.

Chihayafuru could have been handled differently but I don’t think it would have been as enjoyable. The series could have been more centered on the love triangle but thankfully it wasn’t. I do wish there was some closure to that but instead it was sort of phased out by the final episode. I’m sure Arata still has a thing for Chihaya and Taichi still loves Chihaya, but Chihaya is still so oblivious to it all. Maybe another season could fix this up a bit? Regardless we have an anime series that took each of its characters and gave them all the proper respect they deserved. No one was a throwaway, and to that we can applaud. A strong story, strong characters, excellent music and an ever-consistent quality in animation round out Chihayafuru to be one of my most favorite anime in a long while.

Thank you for traveling through this series with me!

-Jared Cyhowski

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review: Hoshi o Ou Kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below)

Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, or, the longer named Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below, is the famed director Makoto Shinkai’s latest work. Shinkai is famous for titles such as 5 Centimeters Per Second, Voices of a Distant Star, and The Place Promised in Our Early Days. Each of his previous major releases consist of similar themes including separation in friendship and love, while Hoshi o Ou Kodomo largely steps away from these themes. Children Who Chase Lost Voices centers on themes of life and death as Shinkai twists the narrative with a fantastical flare. Known for amazing beauty in his prior films, Shinkai has made sure to bring back his sweeping visual vistas that simply feed our hungry minds for beautiful art. But as Shinkai steps out of his comfortable realm of characters affected by distance, how does he fare in a setting that is usually touched upon by the likes of Miyazaki?

Hoshi o Ou Kodomo features a young and largely independent girl named Asuna. She is usually on her own throughout much of the day as her mother works nights and her dad passed away when she was a toddler. She has her own spot out in the woods where she collects things and stores food, high up so she can listen to a small receiver for, well, anything. The day she finally hears something a boy named Shun arrives and eventually saves her from a monster. Almost as fast as he appears, Shun is discovered dead in the river but Asuna simply can’t believe it. Around the same time she meets a new substitute teacher at her school named Mr. Morisaki, who is clearly interested in Shun and wherever he came from. Asuna meets another boy named Shin, Shun’s brother, and learns that he’s from a realm underneath the earth called Agartha. Asuna, Morisaki, and Shin each make it down to Agartha where magic exists and the power to bring people back to life awaits as the narrative continues to unfold to an epic state. And that’s all in the first act! Shinkai really wanted to flesh out the storyline, separating his newest work even further in scale from his previous films.

It’s so striking to see Shinkai attempt telling a story that is different from the projects he has done in the past. Taking his work into the genre of fantasy was always interesting from the project’s announcement. It was time for something new, and he certainly delivers on that scale. By taking Asuna, Morisaki, and Shin into an underground world, Shinkai had the ability to create whatever came to his imagination. When you go to a setting like that, you as the creator have the responsibility to do whatever you want. You can ignore physics, the laws of nature, and anything else your heart desires. But with that creative control comes a responsibility to tell a story, and I believe that Shinkai has done that successfully with his characters. Asuna struggles with the death of Shun and the short but large impact that he had on her life, and Morisaki is a man who is controlled by his own desires. Shin is conflicted with the death of his brother and the laws of Agartha. The theme of bringing back someone from the dead has been seen in countless works of the past, but Shinkai is able to tell his unique take on the event through these characters.

Hoshi o Ou Kodomo is different from Shinkai’s previous works, reflected in not only story but technical design as well. There are fewer of the “default background image” landscapes that are found in other films, but in a way this technical merit has been softly kneaded into every frame. There are still those amazing views of the stars to behold, but I think Shinkai has found a way to blend the most gorgeous scenery of his previous films to a toned down experience. This is not a bad thing because it’s completely required for the kind of film that Hoshi o Ou Kodomo is. Previous films would play heavily with emotions that are hard to just have characters express. Feelings like love, compassion, and distance could be shown with swirling colors and massive vistas at any time. And because Shinkai is so talented we would recognize these images as something to strike our hearts in resonance. Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below follows a more linear plot that takes a theme and uses it as a plot device, and so the imagery is just more simplified and toned down.

It’s difficult not to compare Hoshi o Ou Kodomo to Shinkai’s other films because what else can you do when the young director hasn’t explored new themes before? Branching into a new direction is a risk worth taking, and I think Shinkai is completely successful in doing so. He’s keeping us on our feet with what to expect next. But for now he’s been traveling around the globe and promoting his film to audiences everywhere. Will he follow another fantasy-driven tale or craft something similar to his previous works? What if next we receive something of a period drama or maybe a war narrative? It sure is an exciting time to be a fan of Shinkai. And to think how far we’ve come in just 10 years since the release of Voices of a Distant Star. This auteur sure has enough time to expand and grow into any genre he wants.

-Jared Cyhowski

Review: A Letter to Momo

A Letter to Momo has yet to be released in Japanese theaters nationwide, and so I am quite privileged and lucky to have seen the film at this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival. A letter to Momo is Hiroyuki Okiura’s first film since Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade; a stark contrast to the simpler and brighter themes of Momo. But this is only because Jin-Roh was an adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s graphic novel series while A Letter to Momo was written by Okiura himself. He has directed a film that explores the theme of death quite heavily and delves deep to show us a struggling teenage girl’s heart. Her name is Momo, and the day her father died he left a letter in his desk that only said “Dear Momo.” Imagine if this happened to you. Wouldn’t you want to know what your parent was going to write to you just before they passed on unexpectedly?

The film opens with Momo and her mother moving to the small Japanese island of Shio. Momo’s mom grew up on the island, and so they live with the grandparents of the family. As Momo steps off the boat a drop of water accidentally hits her on the head. This water droplet and two others are actually spirits from up above, and because they landed on Momo she can see and hear them. They each have their own distinct behavior: Kawa is tall and lizard-like and has a never ending appetite, Mame who is short, tiny, and innocently playful, and the broad shouldered giant Iwa. Momo is at first terrified of these spiritual creatures, but she soon adapts to their ridiculous antics on the island.

Momo is young and seems to act her age, but at the same time she shines with moments of maturity. She is a character that adults can relate to in that she is dealing with the death of someone very special in her life. Children will see Momo as a girl who likes to have fun exploring the island and hanging out with trouble-causing spirits, likely only briefly recognizing some of the major themes in the film. The last thing Momo said to her dad was that she hated him. Kids will naturally see this differently from their parents, and so Okiura has crafted a rare film that can truly speak to an audience of different ages.

The story is strong, but the artwork and animation are even stronger. Production I.G. has done an excellent job at creating an atmosphere that is quiet and relaxing on the island. The water is beautiful, the characters are consistently drawn well, and scenes in the middle and ending of the film go through a grand amount of detail to show us a large rain storm in Japan. The film takes on a fairly natural and realistic color atmosphere that is well-adapted to the themes of death, life, forgiveness, persistence, and youth that are seen throughout A Letter to Momo.

But the best part of A Letter to Momo is how it ends. The final act reveals a number of truths to Momo and it opens her eyes to see more of the world around her. I will admit that some of the narrative may feel cliché at times, but the ending uniquely solidifies it as a film that’s not afraid to take that extra step and tell a story in whatever way it wants. Okiura could have gone for something generic but instead he aims ever so higher than that, and in effect you may shed a tear. I know this because I looked around the theater and some were teary-eyed. The emotional connection that you feel with Momo and her mother is unique and strong, and there’s no avoiding the acknowledgement of their bond.

A Letter to Momo has only currently played at a number of festivals throughout the world, and so it is currently fairly difficult to catch a screening of it. But next month on April 22nd the film will be opening to over 300 theaters in Japan and will likely receive some form of home release after that. It’s a wonder if any American distributors would attempt to pick it up for home release or possibly even a few screenings. If the word is strong enough then maybe a company like Sony will come along and add Momo to its small collection of anime releases. Whatever may happen, I hope you find a way to watch a film that was seven years in the making.

A Letter to Momo is a unique project that is ultimately helmed by Okiura. He devoted a chunk of his life to writing the screenplay, drawing storyboards, and directing a project that comes straight from his creative mind. The narrative he has crafted will teach you about your own life and you will think about the ones you love. Maybe this was Okiura’s goal all along, to have the audience think about their families and loved ones in their lives and to be reminded that, well, our loved ones can leave us unexpectedly.

-Jared Cyhowski

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Taichi Tuesdays: 3/20/12

Chihayafuru Ep. 24: Nobody Wishes to See the Beautiful Cherry Blossoms

Next week is the final episode of Chihayafuru and it seems we have some sort of ending locked in place. The group is now together and watching the national karuta finals for the Queen and Master positions. Shinobu is playing against Yumi for the title of Queen and the current Master is playing against someone else. We really haven’t received much attention to the current Master so it’s a bit awkward that Chihayafuru is making a big deal out of him. Nonetheless this is a great moment for the guys, and ladies, to study both matches and to learn from them.

The episode starts similarly to an episode that aired weeks and weeks ago. Do you remember when Taichi had Chihaya over and he wouldn’t let her in his room? Well this time Chihaya comes over but Taichi’s mom is also there, and boy is she ever intimidating for Chihaya!

To escape the awkward tension Taichi invites Chihaya up to his room, but this time it’s Chihaya who feels weird about it. On another note, what’s up with Taichi’s mother telling Taichi that karuta isn’t worth it? I know she wants him to be the best he can at so many different things but if he loves karuta, why not go for it? Actually that brings up the idea that Taichi may not exactly love karuta, as it’s his love for Chihaya that seems to have kept him going all this time. If it weren’t for her, Taichi likely wouldn’t have started playing again.

Tsutomu, Kanade, and Nishida arrive at Taichi’s house to watch the final matches, and we learn that Shinobu has… gained a lot of weight?! Apparently! It’s kind of ridiculous and I’m not sure why this even happens in the story, but Shinobu ate a ton of ice cream to win a special collectible and themed item: the snowman mascot that Chihaya knows about as well. All the ice cream made her fat and so she’s been struggling throughout the match. It’s a bit random but I can live with it.

We learn from Shinobu’s flashback that she got into karuta because her high-expectations Grandmother needed Shinobu to find something worth doing as a child. It’s a bit weird but it makes sense to a degree. And so Shinobu eventually put her talents into karuta and that’s where she is today. Finding strength from within, Shinobu eventually defeats Yumi. This match could have gone either way if you ask me, as we have seen the rise of both players in recent episodes. It’s just interesting that things could have turned out differently altogether. Chihaya could have defeated Yumi for a chance to play against Shinobu, and there was all that story built up around Shinobu and Chihaya being rivals. Whatever happened to that? It’s likely only explored in the manga’s storyline.

The episode finishes with the current Master Suo Hisashi starting his third match with his opponent, who is someone we have never seen before. Apparently Hisashi has the ability to move so fast and with such grace that he barely touches the cards in front of him. He’s been the Master of karuta for a few years now so it’s awesome to see him in a match. The only thing is, his match started at the end of the episode. I only hope that the next and final episode of Chihayafuru doesn’t take most of the episode to go through his match. We need a resolution to the story and we need to see what happens between Chihaya and Taichi. I know that Arata obviously has a lot to do with that relationship, but he’s barely a part of the story at the end that it barely even matters. There may not be any definitive relationship status created between any of the characters, but I would enjoy seeing some form of well-done conclusion nonetheless. Only next week will tell!

-Jared Cyhowski

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Two Questions, Interesting Answers.

In February I attended my first New York City Anime Group meet-up. A good number of fans come together from all walks of life to converse on whatever subject is brought up. One of the event’s highlights was meeting someone named Hiroko from Nagano Prefecture, Japan. She was the only person there from Japan so I knew if I had any questions about the culture that this would be a great opportunity. I asked two main questions:

1. I asked about how foreigners are treated in Japan, and how often she sees tourists.

2. I asked how the Japanese perception of anime fandom in Japan differs from that of America, bringing up conventions and the term "otaku.”

The tourist answer was interesting because I opened the question in regards to how it's known that some Japanese simply turn the other way while some are extremely helpful and open. It turns out that this is true to some degree, as mentioned in response by a South Korean girl who was also there. The Korean girl has visited Japan a few times herself and mentioned that it can be difficult asking questions. It seems she implied she herself fit in because she is Asian, but if she spoke any English some people would "run away". I believe this implies that, as in any social setting, some people are helpful and some are not. Hiroko stated that not many Japanese people speak English too well, and so this is clearly troubling to the language gap.

In response to my rather in-depth question about the Japanese perception of anime fandom in both Japan and America, the response I received was very interesting and revealing to some sort. I wanted to state how the American fandom can be very loud and over the top, but instead I mentioned conventions and cosplay. Hiroko stated the obvious about how there are always conventions happening in Japan as well. But then the answer somehow shifted to that of otaku in Japan. I know I was the one who brought up the term and how it was used differently in America, but the response was different from what I expected. From what I understand, in Hiroko's opinion, Akihabara has become so famous that real, die-hard otaku tend to avoid the area because of tourism and how the atmosphere has shifted to more popularity. She mentioned how they now go to quieter settings, but she wasn't too sure about where they go to check out new merchandise and such. Admittedly she had never been to Akihabara herself, and this is only what she has heard. This is a very interesting concept to take hold of and I wonder if the novelty of Akihabara has actually changed over time.

Again, we must remember that there was indeed a language barrier between Hiroko and I, and that it was sometimes rather difficult to fully understand her responses. But this is the best understanding from what I could gather in her answers and I hope I have been able to share some sort of knowledge with you!

-Jared Cyhowski

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Taichi Tuesdays: 3/13/12

Chihayafuru Ep. 23: The Night is Nearly Past

Episode 23 of Chihyafuru finally takes the series back to its roots of being a young love title. I enjoy this format more because I like the whole teenage romance anime scene. But when I think about it, I don’t think Chihayafuru would have been as good if it was centered around the romance and emotional elements. The karuta episodes helped to spread the story apart, although I would have preferred if the series had a few more teenage romance episodes to develop Arata’s character a bit more.

Taichi was there to comfort Chihaya after she lost her match with Yumi, and he reveals to himself that he truly loves her. Such is the expression on his face in the image above. A bit later in the episode we return to the school setting and learn that Chihaya has a boy who likes her and is trying to get her attention. Taichi takes the initiative to block the boy on her cell phone and Kanade finally realizes that he has feelings for Chihaya. It’s comical for her to point out the rest of the karuta club are just a bunch of nincompoops.

Arata also lost his qualifying match to play against the current Master, and he’s now trying to get his former mentor to play at the karuta society again. I believe Arata is learning that some people lose interest in hobbies and passions, and karuta is no different. Arata will likely eventually find someone worth playing in his karuta society, and if not, maybe he will turn to Taichi or Nishida?

Going into the end of the episode provides a look on the different Christmas parties that are happening for Chihaya, Taichi, Tsutomo, Kanade, and Nishida. Chihaya is gawked at because of her natural beauty, Taichi is tricked into being the only boy invited to a karaoke party, Nishida goes bowling, Kanade goes to a restaurant, and Tsutomu attends the same event Chihaya does. The ending is special because Chihaya wants to be with the rest of the group that night instead of at the party with her class. When Tsutomu points out that he feelings resemble an acknowledgement of family, she calls Arata. It’s difficult to tell whether she called him because she has true feelings for him or if she called because she is so close to him as a friend. It’s kind of tough to tell, but the very last moments signify that she has confidence in the result of her phone call. You can tell by her facial expression and the stride in her walk. At the same time she may be thinking of Taichi, finally realizing how much he loves her. Who knows, I mean it is Chihaya we are talking about!

I believe there are only two more episodes of this wonderful series left to air. I wish there was more, but all good things must come to an end. Hey, that’s two more episodes where you never know what could happen! In seven days we’ll know more!

-Jared Cyhowski

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Taichi Tuesdays: 3/6/12

Chihayafuru Ep. 22: Just As My Beauty Has Faded

The most recent episodes of Chihayafuru were fun and exciting, but they don’t necessarily show a lead in to the final episodes and that is where we are now. Actually, taking a step back and looking at the series as a whole details a unique structure for the series. Near the beginning we were given a large amount of karuta based around the characters while now it’s characters based around karuta. This is fine because of the high quality in storytelling, but I do ultimately miss the relationship building and casual slice of life feel to the series. What this means, as pointed out by someone on, is that the series can basically only go two ways from here. The first being a more karuta-based ending with the characters rooting for Arata in the finals and the second being a story that concludes with relationships examined and set for the finale. That means we learn if Chihaya has feelings for any of the two guys and if Tsutomo and Kanade learn of their feelings for one another. Somewhere in the backdrop would be Arata playing karuta and learning his own feelings, while in parallel dealing more with his past. I would like to see the latter but I feel like we will get a combination of these elements in the next final episodes.

Episode 22 takes a look at Chihaya’s match against the former Queen of karuta, a Yamamoto Yumi. We learn that Yumi isn’t very passionate anymore for karuta due to the fact that she lost her title to Wakamiya Shinobu. Thus her attitude is dry and boring for a high-level karuta player, as compared to Chihaya’s bursting confidence in the match.

But that’s what becomes Chihaya’s ultimate downfall. Her confidence in that Yumi has “given up” gives her a slight advantage in the match, grabbing a lead in the number of cards she has taken. Not only is the tension high because of the match, but the heat in the room they are playing in is so hot that it’s uncomfortable to even watch. Taichi, Tsutomu, Kanade, and Nishida are all watching outside where it’s warm, but not as hot as inside the room. Because Nishida, Tsutomu, and Kanade each became members of the karuta society that Yumi is from, they feel conflicted for who to root for. In my opinion it’s clear that deep down they are rooting for Chihaya.

Chihaya is ahead until her karuta coach opens a window and tells her to find her own style of karuta. This pushes her to play with a new and annoying style of questioning every single card that Chihaya tries to take. Say if Yumi’s finger touches the card first but Chihaya swipes it away, it’s still Yumi’s card and she would argue for it. This really took Chihaya off guard and it seems she didn’t know what to do about it.

Yumi’s stubbornness distracted Chihaya until she cracked, and Yumi eventually became the underdog winner of the match. At the end of each karuta match the players usually thank one another for playing, but Chihaya was silent in her loss. I think she was shocked that she lost so easily after losing her own confidence. She may have realized during the match that she should have been more sensible to the fact she was playing against a former Queen, but it didn’t save her from losing.

Now that Chihaya is out of the qualifiers for playing with Shinobu there’s no telling what the meaning behind her character will be in the final episodes. Taichi didn’t make it either so he can’t face Arata. It goes to show the story in Chihayafuru could have really taken a different direction with what we would expect, but because it didn’t do those things we are left guessing what will happen. It’s a commendable effort on the series’ writers, and it’s so rare to constantly be off guard with what to expect next. Either way it’s been a fun ride.

-Jared Cyhowski