Free! Iwatobi Swim Club (Anime Series)

Free! Iwatobi Swim Club
Written by: Masahiro Yokotani
Directed by: Hiroko Utsumi
Produced: Kyoto Animation
Release Date: Began July 4, 2013--ongoing

The story of the Iwatobi Swim Club centers around 17 year old Haruka, an introverted young man who seems to be uncomfortable everywhere except in the water. He lives alone (his parents conveniently absent in typical anime fashion...the excuse this time is that they moved for work), skips school on a regular basis, and seems to be disinterested in what's happening around him, at least on the surface. 

In the past Haruka was part of a swim team, swimming (as he repeatedly tells us, only "freestyle") in races and relays. He and his three friends, annoyingly chipper and bubbly Nagisa, responsible and encouraging Mako, and competitive and determined Rin, won their middle-school relays, and then parted ways. Rin went on to train in Australia to be an Olympic swimmer, and Nagisa followed his family to another school. Leaving only Mako to tend to Haruka's swimming-related OCDs.  Haru, never interested in the idea of the "race," quit when Rin left, and Mako followed, one by one the team fell apart, and a few years later the swim club itself closed. The story opens with Nagisa transferring into the high-school Haru and Mako attend. In a fit of nostalgia (and brandishing packets of salt to ward away ghosts), the trio decides to break into their old swim club and take a trip down memory lane. While there they run, coincidentally, into Rin, who has returned to attend an private school with an elite swim team, still working towards his Olympic goals. 

Inspired by the past, Nagisa convinces Haru and Mako to join him in starting a swim club at their new high-school. and expected shirtless hi-jinx ensue as they gain an extra member in the form of neurotic, perfectionist (and poor swimmer) Rei. And with Rin's little sister as team manager the group tries their best to make a good showing at their first meet. 
Welcome to this week's episode of "catering to teen girls."
Clockwise from the top we have:
determined glasses dude, angry aggressive dude with a sensitive core, responsible big-brother-type,
cutey face bunny boy, and sullen haunted loner with secret feelings. 

This is a show I would continue. I am six episodes into the series, and in some ways this is a predictable male-harem type anime...there's a guy for every girl here. You like brooding dark and aggressive ..well, this anime has that covered. Stoic with a hidden tenderness...oh, yeah, we got that. Cute and flirty...sure. Awkward genius in glasses who happens to have an incredible body...yup. Responsible big brother type who wears his heart on his sleeve...not a problem. So, why watch it if it's so predictable? Well, hot-anime-shirtless-ridiculousness aside (I think the "swim club" choice was seriously influenced by the amount of skin the scenario offers), this is a very interesting character study. 

Haru, the main character, has an icy personalty that is a little off-putting, but his genuine passion for swimming at points borders on the metaphorical and philosophical. Despite his sometimes apathetic stance, there are hints that there are deep conflicting emotions at work in this character. Except when he is swimming (and is at his most joyous) he seems devastatingly sad. Most obviously this deep sorrow emerges in his relationship to Rin. Haru's unresolved, and contradictory, feelings of friendship, devotion, guilt, and loss become a major undercurrent to the series, at least so far. There's an interesting dynamic between Haru and Rin. The one-sided competition Rin feels keeps him motivated, but causes an widening rift between two people who seem to not only admire and respect one another, but care deeply for one another (in a heterosexual way; don't get excited yaoi-fans). Each of them clings to the friendship that they formed in the past, but each wants to move past that loss, or even through both characters say in separate situations "I want to move on." Their past, and their competition with one another, is not allowing them to do that. 

If you can't swim, you should not join a swim team.
I don't care how many sparkles are surrounding you...sparkles don't float.
(Or do they? I can't ever remember.)
Each of the characters seems to have some sadness or loss that they are attempting to move past, and as a team they may be able to mend one another's broken bits. I'm looking forward to future episodes. I can already hear (this series just began in Japan less than two months ago) the sound of fan-girls squeeing over this series. I would expect that there are fan-sites, fiction, art, etc. popping up every hour. This is the kind of anime a teen-girl would like, but...and we need a but here, it does have more than just cute/sweet situations, shirtless boys, and awkward affection. There's a story here about loss and redemption, about individual goals and our desire for collective support, and about how passion and freedom are strange bedfellows (one ties us down while the other liberates us). It's surprisingly deep stuff for an anime with an average of ten shirtless minutes per 22 minute episode AND one of the worst closing credit sequences I have ever experienced (you were warned). Other than those closing credits, I think this one is worth a watch. At the very least you'll be on the popularity bus before this turns into the next Ouran High School Host Club

Tsukoyomi: Moon Phase (Anime Series) First Impressions

Tsukoyomi: Moonphase
Based on the Manga by Keitaro Arima (Wani Books)
Directed by: Akiyuki Shinbo
Produced: Shaft Studios
Release Date: 2004-2005

I will admit that I have biases, and one of those biases is against hyperactive, annoying, and almost borderline personality disorder female characters in anime and manga. There are just too many of them. Way too many. It's a trope, I know, and I should be forgiving, but I imagine that if there is an anime universe out there then 75% of female characters under middle age are frighteningly neurotic and should be placed under heavy medication and or psychiatric care. The precious-looking, Lolita, cat-girl, vampire with multiple personalities pictured to the left is annoying. Now, granted, I am only 2 episodes into the series, but already I am acutely irritated by the mix of bossy, aggressive and bratty I'm picking up in the character of Hazuki/Luna (multiple personalities, remember?). And I'm already a little skeptical of the nature of the series as a whole because there is a LOT going on--not plot-wise perse, but just in total. There is too much going on in Moon Phase, and not all of it makes sense so far...who knows, maybe it all works itself out later?

Episode One: "Big Brother, Be my Slave"

In this first creepily-titled episode viewers are introduced to Kouhei an awkward and forthright ghost-photographer (That's a job? I'd like that job!) whose job is to capture psychic photos for a popular Japanese occult magazine. He also has a total inability to see or be affected by spirits (which seems like a strange issue for a ghost-photographer to have). He is travelling in Germany with his cousin Seiji, who is a gifted psychic, and the magazine's chief writer.

Now at this point there are several things already noteworthy about this anime series: 1) it has the most annoying theme-song I have heard in a good long while, 2) the associated images with the theme-song are bizarre...I mean two rabbits trying to pound Hazuki/Luna into mochi in an attempt at "cute" bizarre. What's cute about attempted mochi-slaughter?, 3) the background art is dark and atmospheric and overall very scenic and beautiful, but the characters themselves seem to be done not only by a different animator, but in a different animation style...something doesn't mesh up between the scene and the people populating that scene, 4) there are some mighty MacGuffins up in here.
Right down in the mochi-smooshing-area (not the technical term) you can make out Hazuki/Luna's cat ears.
Those rabbits are SICK!

A MacGuffin is a term used in film and fiction. MacGuffins are objects, goals or people desired protagonist...this desire for this MacGuffin (whatever it may be) moves the plot of a story along, but there is seldom any real motivation presented FOR the desire to is merely fact, and is often left viewers we notice and accept it without much analysis of it. The classic example is from Alfred Hitchcock, who claimed that a MacGuffin in a spy story would always be the papers (what do the papers say? Who knows...that spy needs those papers.) or in a private-eye movie it could be a necklace (we need that loot, see! Why? Who's LOOT!). A MacGuffin motivates and spurs the plot, but it often becomes sort of incidental in some ways. So, say a protagonist like Hazuki/Luna desires freedom, but there's not really anything seemingly confining about her life...why does she want freedom? Well, because everyone does, right? Let's free her. Or what if her desire is to go to Japan? She lived there once (confusing spoiler), so Japan itself becomes the motivating factor...we better get her to Japan!

Save me, Big Brother...also let's make out. I only look 14, so it's okay.
(It's not's creepy.)
Okay, now that I've spoiled it for you already, I'll rewind a bit. Spiritual void Kouhei is taking pictures of a German Castle abandoned during the Black Plague, and as he is taking photos he notices a girl sitting on a parapet. The editor/writer and super-psychic Seiji get excited...they are going to that castle TONIGHT! Kouhei enters the castle alone (apparently there is some sort of psychic force-field around it that people who are not Kouhei cannot enter), and finds Hazuki/Luna who immediately tries to seduce him and starts calling him Big Brother (gross). This is when we discover that Hazuki/Luna is a) trapped by her father and his servant Vigo in the castle, and b) speaks Japanese because she lived in Japan for a while (when? the freaking castle is from the 1300s? This weird non-explanation annoys me to no end).  Kouhei is all, "sure, let's go!" but Vigo, the masked servant, stops them and gets all big-glowy, floaty-head, magic-face. Thankfully Seiji the psychic intervenes...

Where would anime be without spell battles? 

So there are lots of sutras flying, and crazy vines attacking people, and sobbing writers, and huge declarations and in the midst of all of this chaos Hazuki has a personality switch into Luna, a more sophisticated and aggressive version of herself. She bites him...surprise. And his blood looks like kool-aid...actual, non-sarcastic, surprise. He is now under her spell and is his slave...

Episode 2 "Call me Mistress"

We've already established that Kouhei has all the spiritual sensitivity of a shoe-horn, so it's no surprise to us that Luna's bite was supposed to change Kouhei into a slave, but failed. He is simply immune to supernatural-type stuff. So, Luna does what any Japanese vampire trapped in a German castle for 700 years might do...she throws a temper tantrum.
No kidding! 
Eventually Kouhei (who is really dense), understands that he has to break a crystal to destroy the barrier keeping her in the castle. So he does. She disappears and the end...


Nope, she magically reappears at his home in Japan and I am sure hijinx will ensue.

Now, I do love a good supernatural, anime, exorcism comedy, but I've decided not to continue on with this series as a result of the intense annoyance I feel towards Hazuki/Luna after only two episodes, but that doesn't mean this is an anime to write-off. The premise, despite plot holes and assumptions, is interesting. The background animation is awesome. There are plenty of modern-day, fish-out-of-water, moments that will come from Hazuki/Luna's new life in Japan. So, it could be just isn't for me.

The Garden of Words: Kotonoha No Wiwa (Anime Film)

Written by: Makoto Shinkai
Produced: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: May 31, 2013

The Garden of Words is a sad film full of sad characters whose sadness has left them immobilized and isolated from others. The main character, Akizuki, is a 15-year old boy whose life is in shambles--his parents are divorcing, his older brother (the sole stable figure in his life) is moving out of their apartment to live with a new girlfriend, and he will soon be on his own. His dream is to design and make shoes, but as a student living alone he is struggling to make ends meet with a part time job, and is unsure of his future...the tuition and materials for the vocational school he wants to attend are beyond his means. The only respite from the constant worry he seems to feel are the walks in the park he takes on mornings when it's raining.

Right away what I notice about this film is the slowness of its pacing, and the beautiful animation. The story moves slow, and the juxtaposed scenery between the hustle and bustle of city live and the oasis of the city gardens seems to be a character in its own rights. The animation is remarkable, from the strange angles and perspective it uses to tell the story, to the fantastically minute details the animators choose to focus on. Thankfully, since this is a story whose plot begins to depend on rain, the illustrations of water and rainfall are stunningly gorgeous.

Hello indeed! This screen capture is beautiful, but it doesn't do credit to the water in motion in this film. 
Scenes inside of Akizuki's cramped apartment as he works by lamplight are equally gorgeous, and show his dedication to his goals. This is a very Japanese film in terms of its philosophy of work and dedication, and stoicism in the face of increasing goals. Akizuki is a very straightforward, practical, character, but his dedication to his pursuits leave him little time for much else. He speaks infrequently and considers his words.

Akizuki's drawings of shoes.
He is often seen stealing moments to draw and design. 
The only bit of time he does seem to take for himself are on those rainy mornings. As the film starts we are made aware of Akizuki's habits and love of the rain. We see him wandering through an otherwise empty garden under his umbrella...skipping his classes until it lets up. On his wanderings he runs into a young woman sitting beneath a shelter. The share the space in silence as the rain pours...together, yet isolated. As she leaves she recites a classical tanka "A faint clap of thunder/clouded skies/perhaps rain comes/If so, will you stay here with me?" These are the only words exchanged and they part ways.
The gazebo.

Silence is an overwhelming theme in this film. Both characters are introspective and speak infrequently. In fact, as their rainy-day habits becomes a routine during the rainy season (both meeting in the morning at the same gazebo) they never even exchange names. Amid the silence their actions and hesitation becomes important, and slowly each learns more about the other's life...including their strengths and weaknesses. Each feels the keenness of loneliness, isolated from others by desire and circumstance--each is hiding in the shadow of the rain and shaded shelter from their worries. In their day-to-day lives each of them is frozen in a way...unable to move forward because they fear failure, or that their obstacles are too big to overcome. The woman (Yukini...we know her name before Akizuki does) seems especially broken, although by what we do not know until the end.

Sunshower in Tokyo
During a stretch of sunny days their routine is broken and they drift apart feeling the pain of their separation. Although this is not, necessarily, a romance, there is something very sweet and tragic about the way these two characters are drawn to each other when they keep everyone else at arm's length. While they are apart he works and in his spare time begins to construct a pair of shoes to help her want to move ahead in her life. She stagnates. Both reflect on their futures and ambitions. Both fear failure.

Just wait another 10 years, I don't feel any smarter than when I was 9. 
When the school year begins again he runs into her in the school hallway--apparently she left school after unbiased rumors of a teacher-student affair were created by a few bad apples. She was sitting in the gazebo every day trying to find the courage to return to her place in the literature classroom. He had heard nothing of the rumors, but confronted the students who accused her to defend her honor.

Later he finds her crying at the gazebo, and she is shocked at what he's done. Thunder peals in the distance and he gives the answering Tanka to the one she recited when they first met: "A faint clap of thunder/even if rain comes not/ I'll stay here/ together with you."

Together they seem to find a happiness with one another, borne of the encouragement each provides. But each knows that the feelings of love and respect they have for one another are impossible. In order to move forward as individuals they must leave behind the one person who seems to give them strength. Although that person will forever be a silent motivation to them.

This is a sad story. 
All in all this story is a little precious and predictable at points, but it still feels genuine in its portrayal of two damaged, awkward and isolated souls trying to find something to keep them focused. I appreciate that there is no feel good ending to this story, that they each move on to fulfill the roles they must despite their relationship. I appreciate too that this doesn't feel inappropriate to me, despite their differences in age and their situation. Normally I get pretty nauseous at teacher-student relationships of any sort, but this is in no way a sexual relationship, nor is it necessarily a romantic one (despite what the characters themselves might think) this is about love, but the kind of love that moves us forward...a deep friendship, and sense of responsibility...the way our souls (yeah, yeah) are tied for a time to someone elses though we often don't know how: platonic, fraternal, parental...whatever it is.

Just be sure to keep watching until the credits are over. (hint hint)