What a way to spend the quarantine
As emails from stores I bought T-shirts from several years ago have been politely trying frame the ongoing worldwide pandemic, massive protests against police brutality and racism being met with increased police brutality and racism, and the plain as day fact that the system is fine with hundreds of thousands of needless deaths, these are Difficult Times™. My workplace is directly tied to a college and when we went on spring break in early March, I had no idea I would be spending the next several months at home. In that time I’ve tried to stay busy and sane by cleaning, cooking, and clearing out backlogs. I’ve played a normal year’s worth of excellent video games (I can’t get the underwater dream of awkward teenage masculinity that is Final Fantasy VIII out of my head! How does Half-Life 2 still feel like a look into the future of first-person shooters 15 years after release?), watched nearly 100 movies (only 15 of which featured Godzilla), though I think most importantly, I’ve sat through some choice bad anime.
Now I don’t want to spend too much time litigating the exact rigid definitions of what makes something “good” or “bad” because not only is that impossibly broad yet specific to each example, rooted in reductive terms, more than a little boring, and part a much more complicated discussion about the merits of art and entertainment but I also know that the second I do try to lay some strict guideline, I will immediately hit myself with a number of exceptions to those rules. And then there’s the obvious “well if I’m having fun, can it really be that bad?” Let me tell you, I’ve seen Cats 5 times, so far, things can be extraordinarily terrible and also one of the best times you’ve had in a theater in recent memory. Those are not mutually exclusive concepts. So I’m going with the loose criteria that “bad” here is something that either fails to hit its intended mark, be it thematic, expressive, or otherwise, or does manage to get its point across, but its goals are themselves awful. And on a more specific, gut reaction side, did it make me put my head in my hands and involuntarily declare “oh wow, this is BAD” as I gasped for air in between laughs and/or sighs? “But why would you watch it if it’s bad?” is a question I get a lot when trying to share my love of mark missing media as if only experiencing “artistically successful” pieces is the only way to have a good time. Much in the way that going through something you’ve emotionally invested in to see where it goes next, how it develops, addresses theme, etc can be satisfying, digging into the negative qualities and why they work or not can be just as engaging.
I don’t mean this in the way that CinemaSins and the cottage industry of smirking Youtube thumbnails position themselves as above and smarter than media for cheap points (while usually loudly and accidentally announcing that they don’t actually understand the material, often intended for children) has taken over pop culture discourse in the last decade. I mean that I legitimately love to sit down and chew on interesting viewpoints and ideas, failures or otherwise. Art is, among many other things, perspective, and just because something doesn’t succeed on its execution or the core ideas are just kind of awful, doesn’t mean that there can’t be a captivating angle in there. Or maybe it just crumbles in front of your eyes, that can be its own kind of entertainment. Yes, they can be at times more taxing than quote-unquote good works but getting to know a piece of art through and through, regardless of positive or negative qualities, is what makes connecting with it so fun in the first place. Not to get too philosophical but they can also remind us that nothing is perfect and that that’s OK. There can be tangible, understandable humanity in failures and missteps. And during a period where time seems to have halted, not to mention the production of most current television and film, and my piles of untouched media disappeared, finding enjoyment in the less polished and misbegotten helped me cope. So here are five series that got me through the first few months of quarantine with a smile. I recommend most of these but I should note that spoilers abound, if that’s a deal-breaker for you.
There is a lot of Blood material out there, way more than I thought past the original 2000 short film. There are Blood novels, stageplays, live-action films, manga, and many of them are centered in the Blood-C neighborhood in particular, which is hilarious because the core piece of that puzzle hates itself and its audience to the core of its being. Using the closest thing to discernable iconography that the original film had, Blood-C again has the schoolgirl Saya dispatching monsters with her katana with gallons of spraying tomato juice and viscera. By night she coldly hunts down the never clearly defined Elder Bairns, creatures who lack any cohesive design elements and look like they were assembled from clearance Halloween store junk, and by day she goes to Generic Anime Highschool, chugging coffee at a cafe near her home, skipping down the street singing songs, and having banal conversations with her paper-thin friends about bento boxes. Blood-C is about whiplash contrasts.
Early on this combination of nightly gruesome duels and dull, saccharine slice of life material seems like just another assemblage of commodifying aspects to move a variety of PVC statues. Why not sell figures of Saya with glowing red eyes, covered in blood, and brandishing a sword and ones of her being a demure, clumsy shrine maiden, all that needs to be done is connect the dots into a story; Blood-C reeks of low effort commercialism. That is until you begin to realize it’s is looking you dead in the eye as it’s flatly rolling out yet another scene of Saya talking about how much she loves coffee. This staring match, daring you to keep going, only escalates until it is revealed that everything is a lie; Saya has been living in a Truman Show-style experiment where her memories have been erased and everyone in her life is an actor. This is when Blood-C becomes outright hostile towards the idea of watching it as said actors, not being able to stand that Saya is not developing as a character and who could potentially stay exactly the same for seasons on end, angrily break character and demand their money. They want out. They won’t put up with Blood-C for another minute. If you’ve continued to watch it up until this, congratulations, you, the audience member handled Blood-C for longer than most of its cast. And for rocking the boat, most of the named characters are brutally ripped apart, screaming and regretting their time spent in the show. That isn’t even the end.
The finale, not wanting to rest on previous reveals or displays of violence, becomes a full-fledged venomous spectacle. A three-ring circus of cruelty to the human emotional state and body. Oh, the bodies. Do the actors in the stageplays spit on the audience during these scenes? There is a literal shoe drop as one of Saya’s friends is torn apart. The main villain spends the entire show in a barista apron serving cake. The monsters keep trying to bring up the mystery box plot but Saya doesn’t care and if you try to engage with it and put the pieces together, all Blood-C has for you, in the end, is two middle fingers in your face. It’s like someone put Shiki, Twin Peaks: The Return, and Madoka Magica: Rebellion into the Fullmetal Alchemist transmutation circle, and out came this angry horror; I love its mean-spirited audacity. Blood-C is 5 hours long, go watch it, and don’t bother with the movie sequel, The Last Dark, it’s an overproduced bore.
Have I written too much about Yoshiyuki Tomino’s bizarre 1998 spiritual robot drama and stunning piece of disaster art? Absolutely. But I’m going to keep talking about it because Brain Powerd completely took over my mind for several weeks of my life that I cannot get back so I have to process that into something. Recently, I read Yukiru Sugisaki’s breathless four-volume manga adaptation, which kindly laid out the basic world-building in its opening pages that the show never got around to. I even learned why the Reclaimer faction was named that! It was more straight forward but because it closely followed the TV show’s progression and characterization without any major rewrites, everything is still rooted in Tomino’s weird, divorce energy outlook. So Jonathan still hates his single mom for offering a bullet for missed Christmases, Kanan’s loneliness still stems from the memory of her parents discussing aborting her, and so on. But there was something missing. The manga adaptation, which ran for more than 2 years after the show finished airing, condenses the entire 26 episode run (with some major omissions) down to 4 volumes, so where Tomino dwelled in these baffling scenes, Sugisaki hustles through them. A shame if you ask me.
Now there’s an emptiness in me left in the wake of The Brain Powerd Event. For years I’ve been slowly working my way through Tomino’s body of work, much of which is currently in print (get at it folks), with Brain Powerd as the final hurdle at the top of the mountain. It’s too much to start with, dangerous even. When a friend showed me the first episode before even seeing one of his Gundam shows, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. And while I still have a few stray entries, namely his pre-Gundam work, Heavy Metal L-Gaim, Overman King Gainer, and the desperate hope that the Reconguista in G movies go the angry, smack all the pieces off the board, and get deeply commentative about itself Evangelion 3.33 route, I think I’ve seen peak Tomino. And that makes me sad, the journey is winding down. Where do I go from here?
The Wings of Rean
Well, I just couldn’t quit the Tomino train after that, so I pulled out my set of Rean discs (still available and incredibly cheap) and had me a time. I’d seen Rean years before, but because simultaneously so much and so little happens in its 6 episodes, it is nearly impossible to remember any details afterward, so it’s almost like a brand new experience every time. The Wings of Rean is Tomino’s third and thus far last animated attempt, after Aura Battler Dunbine and Garzey’s Wing, to ingrain in an unsuspecting public that his Byston Well isekai franchise is in fact very important, about big timeless ideas, and that you should probably care about it more than that sell-out Gundam thing. Like much Tomino’s more personal work, his Byston Well stories are less recognizable from their shared setting details and more for the forceful, apprehensive, shouting manner in which they are delivered. It’s also got a bunch of rough ideas that suspiciously end up in Shoji Kawamori’s way more fun Aquarion Evol.
Once again, a frustrated teen is caught between the familiar Upper Earth and the goings-on of the spiritual realm where aura energy grants fantastical powers. Even though 2 of the 3 works in the setting have wings growing out of teens’ feet as the main signifier of “holy warrior” status in a world where flight is not that big of a deal thanks to robots, magic, naturally occurring wings, and airships, you just roll with it. Because there’s no sense getting hung up on that when most scenes are a firehose of proper nouns, way too many characters, and constantly shifting motivations all seemingly purposefully designed to knock you over every few minutes. If all of this sounds like Tomino’s usually aggressive Dutch angle approach to storytelling, it’s because it is, only this time on fast forward. The opening 10 minutes may, in fact, be the upsettingly dense stretch storytelling the man has every accomplished/committed, crushing all of his worst tendencies into an obtuse diamond, and in the lengthy interviews in the packed in booklets, he confidently rationalizes each and every choice made. Following along with these interviews, concept art, and storyboards as you go is essential to getting the complete Rean experience and I cannot recommend them enough. Rean will never truly make sense, but like Tomino’s fiction, the bizarre viewpoints and left turn tangents are worth the ride.
Weiss Kreuz has been sort of a fascination to me for a while, but in the Before Times, there were always enough other things going on to keep me from taking the dumpster dive. But now that time has ceased to mean anything and I’m digging deep into media I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, I could finally experience the adventures of the four emotionally tortured, marketably attractive assassins that run a flower shop as a cover. And what luck, the long out of print DVDs are still hanging out in the grey market, almost like their owners want nothing more to do with them, for less than they would cost if the show had been rescued. Renaissance Josei has a great breakdown of where Weiss Kreuz came from (short version: hyper cynical vanity project) and at no point does it ever manage to disguise, much less elevate, itself beyond its naked original intent. I was disappointed that not once does one of the protagonists use their florist job to infiltrate a bad guy hideout only to pull an entire katana out of a bouquet of roses but Weiss Kreuz found a way to make it up to me by being an even worse of a production than I could have imagined.
Weiss Kreuz by no means looks good or could really even be considered to be “working” in its first half, which has the Weiss gang taking on various criminal outfits up to all kinds of nefarious things like forcing debtors into mortal combat and calling it chess, running multiple kidnapping rings, supplying one specific vending machine with energy drinks that make you explode (or melt, the show is rarely too hung up on consistency), and other plots that evoke more than a few of Chargeman Ken‘s Juralian schemes. Episodes run out of gas long before the credits, there’s a strong “making it up as we go along” sense to the minute to minute plotting, and it overall looks like junk, even as it confidently asserts how cool and sexy everything is supposed to be. The boys investigate crimes that barely make sense or get tossed aside with no resolution (what happened to the spine stealing yogis? I need to know), each member of the team has a strained, very angsty backstory to be slowly dolled out, and it’s all delivered with a very serious business attitude, which makes the whole effort oftentimes hilarious. Tokyo is unintentionally framed as a hell hole of crime, where you might not even make it to the local flower shop alive to ogle the hot guys working behind the counter. Tragedy rarely strikes just once in Weiss Kreuz, especially if the person happens to be a woman. Organ stolen? They’ll be back in a couple of days to pull you off the street for the rest. Girlfriend get murdered? Not so fast, she’s still alive and now evil. And then there’s Omi’s backstory, which just won’t quit with the soap opera antics (and that’s why he’s my best Weiss Kreuz boy).
But it’s in the second cour where the show begins to really fall apart in front of your eyes. It always gave the clear impression of held together with masking tape and running against almost missed deadlines but even that gives way to knowing in your bones that the animators screamed “oh god, oh fuck” whenever a storyboard called for a car to crash through a wall or fight scene with more than a few frames to happen across multiple shots. Anime is of course primarily a limited animation affair and it doesn’t take too long to pick up on the stable of shorthand techniques often used to depict action or stylistic flourishes that dress up restricted resources. There was however no preparing me for just how busted Weiss Kreuz could get. It’s nice to know that putting up a self-assured front while plainly being a shambling mess isn’t limited to just my everyday life.
Earth Maiden Arjuna
Arjuna was easily the worst show I’ve subjected myself to in a long while. Nearly every one of its thirteen episodes is a Very Special one where the topic of the week is yelled directly at the audience by characters who may as well all just be writer/director Shoji Kawamori, in his TV directing debut, with a megaphone. Arjuna wastes little time in establishing that it is primarily supposed to be an instructive experience and that the magical girl story is merely a loose framework to attach its ideas. Long monologues about the evils of pesticides, cell phones, math class, industrial agriculture, and more take up much of the runtime of each episode, and lucky for me, the DVDs have the director’s cut versions, which just in case the delivery wasn’t didactic enough already, add up to 6 minutes of additional screeds. Now at least initially, Arjuna has good, pressing points and its anger feels justified if a bit corny. Nearly 20 years after airing, many of the issues have only intensified. Natural ecosystems around the world have been destroyed or permanently disrupted for the sake of modern convenience and economy. Modern society can be a horribly insular and isolating place to be. And we’re staring down drastic worldwide environmental change in our lifetimes.
It’s that Arjuna delivers all of this from a turn of the millennium, New Age “buy some overpriced candles and crystals” affectation that admonishes over providing constructive criticism. Even more frustratingly, most of its scorn falls on individuals and not the large corporations and governments that we know are the true driving forces behind much of the world’s troubles. Its voice is harsh and judgemental, and when Japan faces destruction in the final episodes, smugly chastising with a “told ya so” sting on every new detail of the tragedy. Chris, Juna’s supposed mentor in learning to harness her growing powers, fully embodies Arjuna‘s attitudes. Harsh and distant, all he offers a perpetually confused Juna is “you sure are dumb for not immediately understanding all this stuff that is clearly overwhelming you, such a shame.” This is a show that puts a lot of energy into depicting its central teenaged figures as awkward young people becoming aware of the broader world for the first time, which just makes Juna’s frustration and lack of a helping hand feel even more purposefully cruel. Then Arjuna just keeps going deeper into fringe beliefs, bad faith arguments, and point-blank declaring outright dangerous stances. “Modern medicine is bad because it wasn’t very safe 200 years ago during the Industrial Revolution” is at the best of times a terrible argument but when wearing a mask to prevent the spread of a global pandemic, the bare minimum towards our fellow human beings, is a hotly debated political topic, I wanted to throw my TV out the window. And during the interviews on the DVDs, Kawamori makes it even clearer that this isn’t character perspective, these are beliefs he held during production. He also makes sure to note the rigorous research and interviewing process that went into the preproduction not long after endorsing a test to determine which food has the best healing properties, which is unsurprisingly a scam.
Of all shows of less than stellar quality I watched recently, Arjuna was easily the most sincere and most angering. Blood-C was mad and swung for the fences though, without any greater commentary, Tomino’s gender politics are rough but mercifully buried under wonky character writing and disordered delivery, and Weiss Kreuz almost charmingly overreached beyond its means. Arjuna had me yelling “CITATION NEEDED” with nearly every scene, and I’m not even touching the unairable baby episode that ignores silly things like declining infant mortality rates over the last century in favor of communing with spirits. A shame too that there’s the story of a girl maturing past her friends and the painfully true to life tension that comes from that hiding beneath all the dreary lectures. Similar to Rean, it was actually a fairly ambitious production, using new digital animation tools, CGI, and surround sound, but like Tomino’s OVA, it was done at a resolution that does not lend itself to modern displays and ends up looking muddy and out of focus much of the time. I can understand the anger that clearly drives Arjuna, and even to a point, embracing beliefs that make this spiraling world make more sense. Things have only gotten worse since it aired, but the headspace of Arjuna, drowning in a holier-than-thou self-hatred and looking to easy answers that ignore the realities of the world, isn’t the way.
I didn’t approach any of these believing I was in for a masterpiece, they all have existing reputations that were what drew me to them in the first place. But I gave each the benefit of the doubt and listened to them on their own terms, which while not the end-all, is I think an important part of the experience. And was it ever a good ride during some dark times. There’s always the fear going in that it’s just going to be a boring watch in the moment and the second you finish, there’s going to be nothing but a void of the time spent. But I can safely say that each of these wonderfully abrasive and tragically executed series has left a mark, mostly in spite of themselves, that I won’t soon forget.