Rolling Review – Made in Abyss (05)

Thank you, Narrator Lady, for reminding us how doomed these kids are.

Episode Synopsis:

Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient–

Wait

Wait; no – that’s The Trap Door, a series of UK claymation shorts from the mid-80s about living above an uncharted cave system that regularly spat out bizarre creatures. Some of my earliest memories must be watching those old PAL tapes…

…my family is weird.

Anyway,
Riko continues to display chutzpah, knowledge, and resourcefulness as she and Reg begin traversing the second layer of The Abyss. Unfortunately, she also continues to display how her lack of training, experience, and physical capability leave her dramatically unprepared for this journey as the pair come across more denizens of the deep on their way to the Seeker Camp. A near-fatal encounter leaves Riko without her notebook, but the stress causes Reg’s “muscle” memory to reproduce the energy beam from the prologue, giving this episode its title: “Incinerator”.

Review:

Anyone else ever see that movie Predators? I know there’s a few of us out there. Did any of you think back to the scene where one of the aliens had set a trap with a dead dude and a recording before Riko and Reg put eyes on the corpse-weeper? High fives all around.

For real, though – this place is insanely dangerous. If Riko can be carried away by a creature this easily, and subjected to enough of a vertical rise in layer two for the curse to cause her to throw up and pass out in seconds, she really shouldn’t be down here. She survives, barely, thanks to Reg rediscovering one of his features, and he also saves them from the Princess-Mononoke-lookin’ inbyos.

Beyond brushes with the local wildlife, a good chunk of the episode is also spent further examining the culture of cave divers…

Riko waxes philosophic on the cyclic possibilities of the food chain in The Abyss.

… (those knorks though) and also on Riko being intensely delusional.

Oh, child. Your optimism is as bottomless as this pit, isn’t it?
(we probably are going to see that again, though)

Speaking of both cave diving culture and delusions, does Riko really think that she and Reg are just going to waltz into the Seeker Camp and everyone there is simply going to let them continue to descend? I mean, I guess she does now, since Habolg gave them some supplies and told them that she already has a personal relationship with the camp boss, but surely her plan was to stop there even before that revelation.

Shiggy’s description of the layers in episode three implies that every color of whistle corresponds directly to a maximum allowable depth. Red Whistles can’t descend into the Forest of Temptation without abandoning hope of rescue; only Black and White Whistles can go to the Goblet(s) of Giants; only White Whistles can go to the Sea of Corpses, and the label of the Capital of the Unreturned is really just a name for the depth beyond which literally no-one has ever returned (with reports from the descended seeming to suggest that a lot of ancient edifice remains intact). Presumably the transition from Blue to Moon Whistle comes with access to the Great Fault, although that distinction may not be a particularly useful one if it’s as featureless as it looks – perhaps leading to the additional administrative distinction of allowing Moon Whistles to be instructors. The map has that half-boat sticking out of the cliff, though, so there’s probably something cool down there.

Where was I… right, so Riko’s already a layer out of her depth and wants to go further, but I suppose that’s really going to depend on what she can negotiate with the Unmoveable Sovereign, or, perhaps more likely (since Ozen doesn’t seem to be thrilled with Lyza’s decision to abandon their mission and save her daughter), whether she can slip through her fingers.

Musings and observations!

I was wondering before (I think), but why didn’t Reg take his red whistle? It would make it less likely for him to be immediately identified as a threat by other cave divers (case in point: the Seeker Camp lookout).

Where did the Moon Whistle getting eaten come from? He’s pretty freshly dead. Maybe he was part of Leader’s expedition to retrieve Riko and fell – if so, maybe Leader and their remaining companion will venture into the Forest of Temptation after him, if not after Riko, and we’ll see Leader again after all.

I wonder if Ozen is at all related to the orphanage director.

They’ve got a similar black & white thing going on with their hair

There’s a little less scenery to ogle in this episode than the last one, but everything still looks great. The monsters are drawn with more recognizable line-work than before, but they also spend a lot of time up close and personal, so it may have been necessary from a being-able-to-tell-what’s-going-on standpoint (perhaps in addition to cost and/or logistics).

The music in this show is so good you guys. It’s tonal and ominous and mmmmmm makes me happy and worried at the same time.

On the subject of being worried: the last time I saw an anime ED with people doing this:

…it, ah, didn’t end well. I will also note that the OP and ED change slightly in this episode (the OP in the ending frame, and the ED with a minor addition midway through), though what the point was in hiding the Seeker Camp inhabitants in the ED given how much it focuses on a character who is still yet-to-be-introduced is a mystery to me. Perhaps my greatest criticism of Made in Abyss so far is revealing a future group dynamic outside of the show proper (though Reg does spend an awfully long time up and about before firing the incinerator actually takes its toll).

Summary:

Made in Abyss is moving right along: we’ve covered about the same vertical distance that we did last episode ( ~1300m \ ~4400ft). It seems like we’re probably going to stay at the Seeker Camp for a little while, but if that means learning more about the history of The Abyss in some well-structured exposition and flashbacks (which, at this point, I am fully confident that this show can pull off), I am 100% all for it.


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Rolling Review – Made in Abyss (01)

Episode Synopsis:

Long ago, the city of Orth was built around a mysterious opening in the Earth. No explorer who has ever returned to the surface has seen the extent of its depths, but expeditions continue to yield valuable artifacts. Novice spelunker Riko seeks to follow in her lost mother’s footsteps, but must first rise through the ranks at her orphanage. On her first solo delve, she comes across an unconscious cybernetic boy, and proceeds to sneak him back to her home while attempting to keep him secret from the orphanage administrators.

Review:

Boy howdy, folks, I think we’ve caught ourselves another good one. This episode is a phenomenal introduction to a beautifully rendered fantasy world. Pretty much every aspect of this show struck a chord for me, so let me go down the line.

The setting is gorgeous. There’s a hint of melancholy in the air everywhere we go, from the petrified trees 100 meters down to the sleepy shots of Orth itself. One might expect a place like this to be a bustling haunt of RPG-style adventuring parties (MMO or otherwise) picking up legendary super-weapons with which to fight God or whatever, but so far there’s a much more intimate feel to the place. I was reminded of games like Terraria (where drilling through underground ecosystems and finding creepy relics is core gameplay), Risk of Rain (a game built around moving through surprisingly vertical alien landscapes, hunting for debris from your wrecked spacecraft, and shooting up the incredibly dangerous local fauna), and Cave Story (which, uhh… just play Cave Story).

The BGM is sparse so far but I’ve no complaints with it, nor with the ending theme. I’m especially intrigued by the opening theme, which seems to be in full English and has some cool sort of arrhythmic bits in it.

I’ve got something of a soft spot for puni plush character designs (pun intended), so I think the kids are adorable. The adults we meet are appropriately stylized without being excessively detailed.

Left: The man who coordinates the orphans’ excavations, referred to only as Leader
Right: The orphanage’s intimidating Director

In addition to being well-designed – and well-animated – everyone’s personalities are conveyed well and everyone is pretty likeable. The Director functions as the primary antagonist that doesn’t come from a bottomless pit, and this is due mostly to an extreme punishment once dealt to Riko and the subsequent fear of how exactly the rest of her idea of discipline is calibrated. Conversely, Riko’s childish enthusiasm is infectious, and one gets the sense that most of her associates put up with her reckless behavior because she, and they, are genuinely good people.

The show regularly tosses in bits of levity in the form of quick gags. These are especially welcome in the light of chatter that I’ve seen online suggesting that the show is fated to become a soul-crushing sob-fest, presumably to accurately adapt its source material (which I haven’t read). Unfortunate things happening to cute anime girls is not a new thing, though – nor is it something that I’m generally averse to (though it is certainly possible to overdo).

Summary:

It may be a long way down before we reach the bottom of Made in Abyss, but it looks from here like a trip I’d like to take.

Stay positive, kids, and hope for the best – but prepare for the worst.

Next

Night on the Galactic Railroad

Episode/Series/Film Synopsis:

Giovanni lives on the outskirts of a small town, in a world where society is just beginning to industrialize. He attends what appears to be the equivalent of middle school, where several of his classmates mock him for middle school kinds of things, like the fact that his father is late from returning from his latest job in a faraway sea. Wandering on the night of a town festival, Giovanni boards a mysterious train, and is shortly joined by his only friend, Campanella. As the train traces an arc through the milky way, the boys observe slices of a wide and fantastic world, and ponder the nature of happiness.

Review:

Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to one of the most beautifully surreal films that I’ve ever experienced. Before I start getting into it, though, a little background may be in order.

Giovanni’s town seems incredibly quaint by today’s standards – its denizens get around its winding, stone pathways entirely on foot, and the only visible presence of electricity is in the lights and a single telephone. Though the movie was produced in the 1985, the story is not intentionally a period piece – it was originally published as a novel in the 1930s, after being compiled from drafts written in rural Japan somewhere around 1927 by poet and idealist Kenji Miyazawa. Kenji was tragically unappreciated in his own time, but has become one of Japan’s most enduring authors, with this story and others still in publication today. The book itself is seen in the anime Looking Up at the Half-Moon, and the concept of interstellar locomotives seems to have been a basis for several of the works of Leiji Matsumoto.

As an aside, there was a biographical anime special produced about Miyazawa in 1996 (to coincide with his hundredth birthday), which somehow managed to get released on DVD here in the states – under the title Spring and Chaos. Notably, both that feature and a recent adaptation of one of Miyazawa’s other works, The Life of Gusko Budori, carry on a trend that started with Night on the Galactic Railroad: casting the characters as anthropomorphic cats. I’m not sure that the original staff have given a concrete reason for this stylistic choice, but they actually managed to make the movie even more weird by keeping some passengers that board the train in the second half as regular humans.

Well, regular 80s anime humans

And let me tell you, the movie was plenty weird before they showed up. Maybe not so much the first act, as it serves mainly to introduce us to Giovanni’s mundane life, but, once we’re on the train, all bets are off. The places that the boys see and the people that they meet are all half-remembered-dream levels of odd. The boys roll with every twist, though – and, honestly, if you find a featureless stairway descending into the void of space while looking around a deserted station while the train is making an extended stop,

and you decide to go down that stairway,

and it ends in a deserted version of your town, which has a sign saying “Pliocene Coast” pointing to a second featureless stairway that descends into the void of space,

shoot – roll those dice again. I mean, what are the odds that you’re going to hit the bottom and walk out of a giant bone?

Pretty good, actually

Let’s back up to the sign for a moment, which was helpfully translated by the characters from “La Pliocena Marbordo”. From even before the beginning of the movie, when the title card displays “Nokto de la Galaksia Fervojo”, all on-screen text save for the names in the opening credits appears to be some sort of mangled Romance language. It is, in fact, Esperanto – a language constructed by a Polish scholar in the late 1800s in the hopes of fostering a more easily accessible world-wide community. I think of it similarly to the common tongue in Dungeons and Dragons – it probably wouldn’t be your character’s first language, but the idea is for it to be everyone’s second (having humanity as a baseline in a fantasy world distorts the analogy, but one might argue that the Anglo-sphere today is becoming that analogue). Miyazawa was exactly the kind of person to see the merit in this idea, and the filmmakers chose to animate with Esperanto in homage to his work in the language. I think the choice was more than perfect, as it adds to the movie’s halfway-real atmosphere.

Another element of the movie that contributes to its dream-like aesthetic is the background design in general. Everything has a texture to it, but looks just a little too well-defined. Walls and walking paths often seem too smooth and too uniform; trees are too sparse, and too regimented or too bulbous.

The artificiality of it really solidified in me the impression that this universe exists solely for the presentation of this story.

Now, I’ve done some reading on the subject (though I haven’t actually read the entire original story), and some of the excerpts that I’ve seen suggest allegories that I’m not sure made it into the film. This may partially be due to translation – it’s a little unclear in the movie subtitles what the deal is with the paleontologists that the boys find on the aforementioned Pliocene coast, but another translation I’ve seen casts them as gathering evidence to convince doubters that the fossil record is indeed millions of years old, and not the merely the work of random erosion.

What?

Miyazawa didn’t let his belief in science and progress stop him from being a man of faith, though – a conversation that didn’t make it into the film involves Giovanni and a couple of the characters who weren’t adapted as cats discussing the nature of God. Those characters are on their way to the Southern Cross, also known as the constellation Crux, which is rendered as a Christian holy site, similar to how the Northern Cross, a subset of the constellation Cygnus, is rendered earlier in the movie. Christianity is curiously prominent in Night on the Galactic Railroad, considering that Miyazawa was a devout Buddhist, but this is likely due to his interest in the work of Dominican friar Tommaso Campanella, whose family name and Christened name, Giovanni, are bestowed upon the main characters. Notably, Tommaso was a defender of Galileo, which seems to inform the scene with the paleontologists well as the astronomical setting of the story in general.

The Northern Cross.
No – really.

Thinking back, there were only a handful of stellar phenomena rendered as locations in the movie, but I’ve still got to give mention to the depiction of Albiero. Without getting too technical, Albiero appears to be a binary star system with a larger gold star and a smaller blue star. When the train passes by what one character refers to as “the observatory at Albeiro”, the boys peer out into the darkness to behold an enormous cylindrical tower rising out a contiguous mass of adobe-like structure. At the peak of the tower’s slightly curved top rotates a pair of lights – one bright gold, the other a slightly dimmer blue. The boys look in hushed awe as the mighty pillar gradually recedes into the night, slowly blinking: gold, blue, gold, blue.

[This one you’re gonna have to take my word on, since the scene is too dark to put a frame here and have anything in it be visible. It’s so cool, though, you guys – you’ve gotta see it]

I am a huge sucker for long, quiet shots like that one, and Night on the Galactic Railroad is full of them. The atmosphere of wonder in this movie is so thick I can swim through it. It may actually be a little overboard, particularly in the first act, where a friend of mine was somewhat put off by a pair of scenes with slow rises in audio intensity that sort of fizzle out. On the subject of watching with other people: be careful who you go in with – nothing makes a movie feel like an eternity (and, at just under two hours, this one is actually pretty average – it’s just slow) more than when you start wondering what everybody else is thinking, especially if you’ve already seen it (but maybe that’s just me). Theoretically, this is a children’s movie, but you may be hard-pressed to find any kids with the attention span to appreciate it.

Summary:

I would personally recommend this movie to anyone, although I suppose I should qualify that by saying that if you’re the kind of person that wants their media to get to the point, you may be better off reading the novella. There’s a sort of “greater good” morality fable near the end, if, like me, you’re really bad at reading into symbolism and subtext, and it’s prompted me to dig deeper in a way that very few other works have. It’s an amazingly rich film, and I hope you enjoy it.

 

Night on the Galactic Railroad has been graciously re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Discotek Media.
There are a few copies of Spring and Chaos kicking around on the used market, and, if you feel like braving the dub, it’s somehow still available in six 10-12 minute chunks deep within Tokyopop’s Youtube channel.

Rolling Review – Little Witch Academia (23)

Believe in me, etc., etc.

Episode Synopsis:

With Akko nowhere to be found after the protest, her classmates begin to worry. Diana calls out Ursula/Chariot, and extracts some significant context to the recent goings-on. As Ursula no longer has the nerve to face Akko, Diana proceeds to rally Lotte, Sucy, and the B crew to help track down their wayward friend.

Review:

All too soon, the endgame is about to begin. This episode serves to wrap up the last of our major loose ends and brings us right to the very edge of the climactic confrontation with Croix. Notably, a third of the episode is a flashback that finally fills in the details of Croix and Chariot’s interactions ten years ago.

Come now, Scott – I saw this revelation coming half the show ago when the symbol wasn’t on the Blue Moon card.
(I did get served by the soccer thing, though, so I’m probably just breaking even)

Something that bugs me about the flashback is that I’m not sure exactly how to feel about the whole Dream Fuel Spirit thing. Chariot seems shocked when Croix details the process after a few shows, but the wording is so similar to what Croix said to convince Chariot to start using it in the first place that I feel like Chariot’s guilt is supposed to stem primarily from being unable to tell what exactly she was doing. That angle doesn’t really seem to be in text of the show, though – and I think the reason for that involves a dissimilarity between my culture and Japanese culture.

From my limited exposure to the latter in anime, it seems to me that it would be frowned upon if not totally unacceptable to claim any kind of extenuating circumstance that led to any end result that you were involved in. Are you an admiral who limped back to Earth in a totaled battleship after one of your captains orchestrated a noble sacrifice with his even more damaged ship to prevent the entire fleet from getting routed? Hope you’re ready sit in silence while his younger brother cusses you out as a murderer for, like, the rest of your life even though you made the best decisions you could with the information you had at the time, there was really no way he was ever going to survive contact with your dramatically superior foes, and it was his idea to heroically serve the greater good by providing an escape opportunity for as many as could take it (it’s been a while since I’ve seen Space Battleship Yamato, but I think that’s how it goes down because I remember it really bothering me how nobody ever told anyone else what happened). Similarly, did your best friend trick you into burning the magical faculties of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people? Even if you couldn’t have known that that’s what you were doing, that’s what you did, and your psychopathic associate can carry on her merry way and hold it over you whenever she wants because she didn’t actually do squat. God, how is your entire country not populated exclusively by schemers and backstabbers for lack of any disincentive to-

*ahem*

As far as Croix’s interactions with Akko, I think it’s worth remembering that her plan to brute-force the seal on the Triskelion is only going to get the chance to work if she can complete it before Akko can unlock it properly with Claiomh Solais. Surely Croix considers the odds of the dunce actually pulling it off to be pretty small, and her main priority remains completing her work without anyone suspecting her role in the recent tumult, but, if, in the course of her other activities, she had opportunity to misdirect Akko (as in the Amanda episode) or distance her from Chariot (as in the previous episode)… eh, it was worth a shot (even if some of the attempts failed, as in the episode with the tree Wagandea [side note – did Ursula say that Wagandea goes up forever? Even pre-civilization Yggdrasil was shown on a globe in space in episode 15’s history lesson – what is going ooonnn]).

Back to the present, Diana’s conversation with Akko also seemed to come right up to what I would consider to be the main point without actually saying it or even making any particular effort to imply it. The way I figure it, assuming Diana and Akko idolized Shiny Chariot equally in their youths, Diana was already being taught magic when the event occurred, and had, as the heiress of one of the most venerable witch lineages in the world, access to resources well beyond even the average witch. Akko, on the other hand, probably had no reliable information about magic and didn’t even meet another witch for ten years. A more fair comparison in ability than the two girls now might be Akko now compared to Diana as an eight-year-old.

At any rate, all of the players are now ready for the final battle (or as ready as they’re going to get).

Summary:

This episode felt a little bit obtuse to me, even if it did answer a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now (Whadjya do to the MOON, Chariot?). Most of the drama works pretty well, though, and Diana’s time in the spotlight is well spent.

Keep an eye out for Sucy’s effort to keep Lotte’s tears in her face, too – it’s classic.


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Rolling Review – Little Witch Academia (19)


Me: So… we just had a Constanze episode back to back with an Amanda episode… does that me-
LWA: No. Diana episode.
Me: I didn’t eve-
LWA: Serious business.
Me: I was just kiddi-
LWA: Part one.
Me: …
LWA: …
Me: …Fine.

Episode Synopsis:

With the fate of her historic household threatened by her dismissive aunt, Diana drops out of Luna Nova to undergo a rite that will establish her ownership of the family assets. Unaware of the precise circumstances, Akko hitchhikes to the Cavendish estate, intending to retrieve her former classmate. While there, she gets a view of some family drama among nobles, culminating (for the purposes of this episode) with Diana confronting her aunt.

Review:

It’s not that I dislike Diana (as one might infer from my intro) – she’s a rather compelling character, it’s just that her contributions to the show tend to be heavier both in mood and in plot significance, which contrasts somewhat with the shenanigans that most of the other characters get up to. This episode in particular is dense with frustration and anxiety, with Diana herself, a pillar of the show’s character dynamic, poised to exit the mix by returning to her family’s crumbling estate.

Perhaps, though, it might be more apt to describe the episode as light on frivolity, as it doesn’t seem to have been particularly dense overall. I can only assume the staff had too much meat in this story to fit into one episode, and, in being forced to break it up, was forced to make that break at the confrontation. A couple of parts felt like padding (I do wonder if there’s going to be a payoff for the soccer riot), but we’ve still got a lot of good scenes to sink our teeth into.

Surely there’s a steak knife around here somewhere

Perhaps foremost among these is the reveal that Diana possesses the promotional Shiny Chariot card missing from Akko’s collection. Fans of the original short have probably been wondering for a while now if TV Diana has any closeted appreciation for Chariot, and this is a pretty solid yes. The context of Diana’s upbringing in this version really puts this aspect of her character in a new light, though. I can only imagine the kind of pressure put on a child of Diana’s aptitude growing into her position in high society, where respect is a carefully cultivated resource that wouldn’t allow her to hold onto anything going out of style. What could once have been interpreted as a mere guilty pleasure is probably now a childhood joy that she was forced to cast aside to try and retain what little standing her 1500-year-old lineage still possessed.

And for what? All of Diana’s sophistication and studiousness led her to the knowledge of the Grand Triskelion, only to discover that the key to changing the world was already in the hands of the least studious, least sophisticated, and least respectable witch to set foot in England for at least a decade. Such irony! But, even knowing what might have been, Diana still can’t bring herself to dislike Akko. For all of Akko’s foolishness, she has a kind and honest heart. For all of her ineptitude, she’s dauntless and persistent. And such wonders she’s already worked – with the Papilliodya butterflies and the ghost Vajarois! Surely Claiomh Solais has not chosen poorly.

And so, when Daryl and her twins put Akko down, Diana steps in. Akko may be a half-wit who routinely makes poor decisions (including, from Diana’s current perspective, the decision to follow her back to her home), but she doesn’t deserve the kind of prejudiced insults poured on her by Diana’s extended family. She’s accomplished too much for that. Diana may feel powerless to direct to Akko the recognition she deserves at Luna Nova, or regretful for not trying harder, but in her own house, Diana will stand up for her bumbling comrade.

This is a powerful line. And it’s in a complex scene, where Diana may also be reflexively trying to spite her relatives by bringing Akko in moments after making it rather clear that she wasn’t invited. It’s good to see Diana outside of the constraints of her usual social circle, where she’s not under so much pressure to act according to her persona. Here, we get to see from a new angle the intelligence and grace that really make her such a lovable character. I hope she and Akko lay the smack down on Daryl’s smug extinguishing-all-lights-in-a-room-and-fading-into-invisibility-in-the-dark-with-GLOWING-RED-EYES face.

Summary:

Similarly to how I felt about the Samhain episodes, I’m not sure this arc has quite enough material to fill two episodes flawlessly – but I’m more than willing to sit through a couple of minutes of chaff or redundancy if the material that they have as the main course keeps reaching these heights.


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