Joker Game

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It’s a quiet night in 1937 and a group of young men are sat around a table playing poker. When they reach the end of their game, one of the men realises the others have been cheating. Appalled, he stands up and demands to know why. The men reveal that the game they’ve really been playing is the “joker game”, in which they use subtle gestures to signal to each other and attempt to get men onside to help them win. No one can tell who is deceiving who, or who they can really trust.

Yep, this is all one handy metaphor for the eponymous opening of this anime. These are not just any men, they are spies, working covertly for “D-Agency”, a secret Japanese organisation that places them all over the world to gather intel which will help Japan gain the upper hand politically. With a world on the brink of war, this information is becoming more crucial than ever.

Don't you just love a well timed metaphor?
Don’t you just love a well timed metaphor?

Each episode of Joker Game follows the men working individually on cases. They must use their rigorous training and their wits to master tense, even life-or-death situations, gathering intel whilst ensuring no civilians come to harm or uncover their mission and true identity.

In keeping with the historical, political and spy thriller genre, the anime adopts a noir style, with a muted colour palette and angular drawn characters. Joker Game is always serious in tone, and character’s personalities are much more subtle and pared back in light of the plot. There are often no over the top facial expressions, and when there are they are of horror or maniacal evil, and used to powerful dramatic effect. Whilst the spies’ emotions would have to be relatively controlled in keeping with their training, some facial hints such as a closeup of a sweating forehead or a twitching mouth might have helped to create some added tension and invest the audience in them further.

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Joker Game produces some unhinged leers with the best of them

Unfortunately, where Joker Game often delivers in action, tension and mystery, it lets itself down with a lack of character development. Episodes focus on individual spies, and never tie them together by creating relationships to each other, or any kind of relationship to an overarching story. This means you could easily pick any episode at random to watch as they pretty much work as stand alone stories. This is fun in its own way but does limit the emotional investment and opportunity for narrative build-up.

Spying is serious business
Spying is serious business

Joker Game is definitely a plot and not character driven anime, with clever twists, turns and deductions that will have you trying to absorb every little detail in an attempt to figure out what’s going on. I really enjoyed waiting to see what shock twist or reveal would happen next, and the aspects of the early twentieth century are beautifully animated, with wonderful attention to detail. Alongside the darker colour palette and ominous musical backing this really helps to cement the spy theme. My main issue with this show is that the majority of the characters are young, dark haired men, and the simplicity of the animation style combined with the subtlety of the plot can make it more confusing to remember who is who. Joker Game plays every scene straight, but some character development alongside a larger story would have really taken this anime from decent to excellent. Nonetheless if you’re looking for a 1930s spy story, this is a sophisticated and intelligent watch.

Two feature length Joker Game animations are also due for release in July and September this year, so if you enjoyed this series you should keep a lookout for those.

 

 

 

 

 

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Orange by Ichigo Takano (Volume 2)

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Shortly after receiving a letter from her 26 year old self warning her to protect and look out for the new boy Kakeru in her class, 16 year old Naho learns that her friends also received letters from their future selves, also with the protection of Kakeru in mind.

Now that she is able to be honest and open with her friends, they band together in their motivation to help and watch over Kakeru. Having learnt that Naho’s letter contains over twice as much detail as their own, the gang insist that Naho clearly means more to Kakeru than they do, and alongside helping him they want to push Naho and Kakeru together, with a romantic ulterior motive.

Naho determines to support Kakeru every step of the way
Naho is determined to support Kakeru every step of the way

Takano ups the dramatic stakes of Orange in a way that had me increasingly gripped while reading this volume. Gradually she uncovers the full extent of Kakeru’s struggle with depression and grief, and the bond he shares with his friends and Naho in particular make it easy to root them as they work desperately to support him and offer him moments of happiness. This is all too painfully paralleled against the friends aged 26 paying tribute to Kakeru and praying that their letters somehow reached their past selves and saved him in an alternate world.

At 26, Naho and her friends
At 26, Naho and her friends hope to save Kakeru in another world

As Kakeru’s grief and depression is gradually brought to the forefront, Takano portrays a mind lost in despair and sadness with realism and ease. Kakeru’s depression is never shown to be something that is either impossible to fix or all too easy to fix. Rather, Takano emphasises the importance of emotional support as Naho and her friends continue to reach out to Kakeru in small ways, and attempt to prevent him from cutting himself off from everyone else. Takano neatly captures the nuances of what can and cannot be altered when it comes to depression – for instance, Naho attempts to avoid saying something that the letter tells her would make Kakeru lash out at her, but he lashes out anyway. This is clearly shown to be a part of his mental state at the time that could not have been changed, and reflects the complexity of depression in that sometimes kind words can help, and sometimes they can’t.

Kakeru struggles with his depression
Kakeru struggles with his depression

Kakeru’s struggle is brought to the forefront in this volume, but we also see Naho’s own journey as she realises what it means to help Kakeru, and that platitudes no matter how well meaning, aren’t always the solution. She remains a kind and sweet person, so it’s easy to feel for her happiness and pain when Kakeru lets her in or shuts her out.

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Naho comes to understand mental wellbeing is more complex than she first thought

Orange is a wonderful, emotionally resonant manga series that any romance fan should make sure to add to their collection. Tackling themes of depression and suicide in a mature and heartrending way, it offers a balanced and moving look at what it means to support someone in the throes of grief and unwaveringly be their friend.

 

Kids on the Slope

wpid-kidsontheslope_311212_205104Kaoru is constantly shifting from town to town to accommodate his father’s career working on ships, and a childhood spent with relatives indifferent to everything about him except his musical talent has left him with a reserved, standoffish personality, serious trust issues, and an anxiety problem.

Things look set to be different at his new school as he collides with the tall and tough Sentaro -a kid who has a reputation for being able to beat up anyone who crosses him. Kaoru soon discovers that Sentaro is actually a softy with a passion for drumming – jazz music in particular. Once Sentaro learns of Kaoru’s piano playing talents, the two begin to form a friendship. Kaoru challenges himself to step outside of his musical comfort zone so he can impress Sentaro and prove his worth, and gradually emerges from his introverted shell.

This anime features music, but the core of show is really about family, friendship and love. The anime opens with a classic unrequited love line. Sentaro has a childhood friend called Ritsuko who instantly captures Kaoru’s heart. But unfortunately Ritsuko only has eyes for Sentaro…who only has eyes for Yurika, and so it goes on. Yes, there’s plenty of love angsting going on, but melodrama is mostly avoided. This anime often serves up gentle humour alongside any angsting, such as one scene in which Sentaro starts venting all his frustration about his unrequited feelings on his drumming, and Kaoru doesn’t know what to do so he starts playing the piano noisily alongside him. The elements of friendship, music and family life help this anime feel like a much more balanced portrayal of adolescence, keeping it from slipping into romance melodrama territory (no glistening tears falling into the wind here).

Kaoru finds himself in a love triangle
Kaoru finds himself in a love triangle

Although the music doesn’t always take centre stage (pardon the pun), even when Kaoru and Sentaro aren’t playing, the anime often has a stylish jazzy piano soundtrack playing in the background. During the scenes in which Kaoru and Sentaro are practising or performing, their playing is often accurately animated right down to Sentaro’s speedy drumming and Kaoru’s hand and finger movements across the piano keys. This really adds realism to each musical scene and I felt like I could have been watching someone playing in real time because the replication was so accurate. This touch makes it feel as though the animators really cared about capturing the musical details, and the music doesn’t feel showy or gimmicky at any point, but an important part of each character’s lives.

This jamming session is sponsored by Yamaha...
This jamming session is sponsored by Yamaha…

The blossoming friendship and partnership between Kaoru and Sentaro is the real highlight of Kids on the Slope. Although both are quite different personalities, their love of music and difficult family backgrounds really bring them together and create a bond that can’t be broken. In one stand out scene, Kaoru plays a jazzy version of “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music, and when Sentaro begins to accompany him it turns into an all out jam session. Ritsuko observes emotionally that it is “like two princes arguing good-naturedly as they come back home”.

While Kaoru and Sentaro are engaging both individually and as a pair, Ritsuko seems to exist only to further the unrequited love line and create romantic tension, and is only brought in as a singer for a performance in the penultimate episode of the show. She’s likeable, but fits very much into the archetype of the homely and demure Japanese woman, with not a lot else to her character. This prevents a good anime from becoming a truly great one, as she gets a lot of screentime so some fleshing out of her character would have made the romantic moments more interesting too.

If you’re looking for a more realistically styled anime this is a good choice. I have mixed feelings about the static simplistic nature of the animation, on the one hand it matches the realistic setting and story of the show, but some of the more emotional moments don’t have quite as much power as they could and feel a little flatter than they could be. Your Lie in April was a music anime that really utilised visuals to evoke the emotional power of both music and love. Whilst this anime was clearly aiming for a more practical approach, it could have occasionally done to have used some similar visual pizzazz now and then for that extra “wow” factor. Even so, this is a brilliant anime, and Kaoru and Sentaro are up there with the most well realised anime characters, their dynamic really makes the show, right up to the perfect, poignant ending.

 

When Marnie Was There

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I was very eager to see what is tipped to be Studio Ghibli’s swansong, When Marnie Was There, and was fortunate enough to see the original subtitled version. Relocating the original novel’s British backdrop to Japan, the story follows Anna, a young girl who is sent to the countryside to live with some relatives as the city air is bad for her asthma. That’s her mother’s excuse, but the truth is that Anna has been acting increasingly quiet and withdrawn, and her mother hopes a stay in the countryside means she will come back “happy and healthy”.

The film’s opening is simple but powerful. We see Anna drawing at school, sat alone. She looks at a group of her female peers sat together and sadly reflects that some people are on the inside and some on the outside. Although the asthma attack she has is presented as a physical ailment, the frustrated way she snaps her pencil against her sketchbook suggests the suppression of her feelings is making her ill, and her quiet frustration instantly makes her a sympathetic character for anyone who has ever felt helpless and alone.

Anna is lonely at the movie's opening
Anna is lonely and introverted at the beginning of the film

When Anna travels to the countryside, she meets her relatives, the Oiwas. Kind and caring people, they immediately welcome Anna and encourage her to befriend another daughter of the town. Anna hesitantly attempts to fit in, but a clumsy comment hits a nerve and she runs away in distress. I would have liked to have seen even more of Marnie’s interactions with her family, as the Oiwas are a little too laid back about Anna disappearing at late hours and insulting one of the local daughters – some kind of confrontation scene would have worked well to add further tension and insight into Anna’s thoughts and feelings.

At her lowest point, Anna meets Marnie who lives at the old marsh house across the lake that has captured Anna’s attention. Anna and Marnie instantly hit it off, which is helped by Marnie’s kind gentle demeanour, and her instant honest confession that she really wants to get to know Anna. The two learn about each other’s lives, and Marnie even takes Anna to a sophisticated party at the marsh house.

Marnie becomes Anna's trusted confidante
Marnie becomes Anna’s trusted confidante

Anna is completely captivated by Marnie’s mystery and beauty, and attempts to see her whenever the tide goes down so that she can visit the marsh house. Her sketchbook, the only place she really opens up and expresses herself honestly, becomes filled with pictures of Marnie, and it is clear to see how Marnie represents freedom and safety at once for Anna.

Anna and Marnie’s relationship is really the heart of this movie, and as ever, Studio Ghibli tenderly and touchingly capture the heady excitement of a relationship that is exciting, intimate and safe all at once. Marnie and Anna go on moonlit boat rides, picnics and forest walks. They dance together, confide in each other, declare their love for each other and support each other unconditionally. To see tomboyish Anna blush in front of Marnie and sketch her like a lovestruck youth, and Marnie openly claim that their relationship is their “precious secret”, alongside all the hand holding and embracing – this is a pair that acts as much as, if not more like a couple than many of the actual couples Studio Ghibli have ever depicted before.

“This ship could never sink, right Marnie?”
Anna hoped Marnie would be as kind as her DeviantArt commenters were
Anna hoped Marnie would be as kind as her DeviantArt commenters were

Whilst Marnie is visually interesting with her stunning blonde hair, old fashioned feminine dress sense and her open kind smiles for Anna – her personality remains somewhat lacking. She giggles and flounces and doesn’t offer much depth. It’s easy to be happy that Anna has found someone to open up to after seeing the depth of her sadness, but until we get more context to Marnie’s own backstory and life, we don’t know why we’re really supposed to love her. And that context isn’t fully given until the last quarter of the movie. With such an intense, borderline romantic build up between Marnie and Anna throughout the movie, the ending, whilst poignant in its own way, may feel like a big, queerbaiting slap in the face (I’ll let you make up your own mind though).

"There, there Marnie. Queerbaiting upsets me too."
“There, there Marnie. Queerbaiting upsets me too.”

However, this is a movie about Anna’s journey and while Marnie is a little one dimensional for most of the film, it is nonetheless gripping to watch Anna’s journey from a withdrawn, depressed girl to someone actively exploring her surroundings, chasing for answers about her life and slowly opening up to the people around her. The twist ending reveals that Marnie’s love for Anna is every bit as powerful and resoundingly deep as we’re shown throughout the movie in each interaction between the girls, it just isn’t in the way you might expect. The healing journey we see Anna make from a lonely depressed girl with low self esteem, to someone gradually altogether whole again and happy is a painfully honest and moving depiction of what it means to grieve, seek love and acceptance and eventually come to terms with loss.

Anna at first is withdrawn and timid
Anna at first is withdrawn and timid…
...she begins to come out of her shell in a touching way
…but slowly she starts to come out of her shell in a touching way

When Marnie Was There is a beautiful tale about accepting and overcoming the depression and low self esteem that tragedy and loss can create, and learning to recognise and embrace the support around you. I particularly enjoyed how cleverly the film visually emphasises Anna’s movement from being someone on the outside looking in, to someone in touch with and at peace with her surroundings, with a repeated window motif. This is a touching addition to the Ghibli collection with all the beauty and emotional honesty the institution is renowned for, a definite must see for any Ghibli fan.

Did you like Studio Ghibli’s latest release? Let me know in the comments!

Psychic School Wars (Nerawareta Gakuen)

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You’d be forgiven for seeing the title Psychic School Wars and picturing a no-holds-barred action anime. But that’s really not what it is at all. A more accurate title might be Psychic Romance, as this anime is really about love, feelings and romance, with a bit of science fiction thrown in for good measure.

Seki is a simple, messy haired boy with a crush on class rep Kahori. Unfortunately for him, she’s rather taken a shine to the attractive, mysterious new student to their class, Ryoichi. Ryoichi has a real talent for playing Debussy on the piano…and for manipulating people psychically, which he plans to use to gradually bring the entire school under his control.

Other than his using this to make one of the female classmates his psychic servant, we don’t see much of him using his psychic powers to begin with. Instead we see the story focus on the love triangle between Seki, Kahori, and Natsu – Seki’s childhood friend. When Seki embarrasses himself in front of Kahori by leaving his fly open during a conversation with her, Natsu jokingly nicknames him “Mr. Open Fly”. She later reveals in an inner monologue that she’s been alongside Seki her whole life, and is not only literally the girl next door to him, but also figuratively as he remains oblivious to her deep love for him. We see a beautiful flashback of her memories of their time together as kids watching the fireworks together at a festival. The abstract nature of the memory and her romantic feelings are beautifully evoked with a plethora of watercolour effects.

Natsu recalls her precious childhood memories with Seki
Natsu recalls her precious childhood memories with Seki

Yes, as you might have guessed by now, the the shining strength of Psychic School Wars is the breathtaking visuals. Alongside the constant picturesque stream of cherry blossoms, dappled light effects and starry night skies, even the minutiae of day to day life is rendered with exquisite attention to detail such as the fluttering of a paper plane, or the flicking of pages in a notebook.

Personally, we think this anime could have done with more cherry blossoms
Fateful meeting? Check. Outrageous amount of cherry blossoms? Check.

This anime often goes out of its way to create a feast for the eyes, with characters needlessly blowing bubbles outside a rural shrine or riding a glass elevator overlooking a sunset over the ocean (yes, really) just to create dazzling scenes for the viewer. It’s hard not to want to screen grab every moment for posterity, the only downside being that sometimes the scenery porn moments can overwhelm and distract from what’s actually going on. Every moment is a spectacle, which is glorious but also means that the moments that are meant to really be a spectacle have slightly less impact.

How to look pretty while you pine after your crush: an anime 101
How to look pretty while you pine after your crush: an anime 101

Alongside the romance, the anime opens with and repeatedly refers to an ongoing storyline about a debate within the school regarding banning mobile phones. Whilst this seems to be completely irrelevant at first it does eventually play into the larger picture of Ryoichi’s manipulation to a degree, and echoes the ongoing theme of the anime about forms of communication in relationships. The discussion of modern technology as an alienating device is nicely contrasted with Natsu’s memories of communicating with Seki through tin cans and string as a child, and the repeated emphasis on love as being the reaching for a connection is honestly moving. That said and done, the mobile phone discussion quotient is still much, much higher than it really needed to be.

Psychic School Wars takes its time to really get to the heart of the characters, and their connection with each other. When it does, the portrayals of teen love and friendship are genuine and touching in an understated way. The constant presence of dreamy colour palettes and sweet music often reduce the effect of the otherworldly elements of the story, and even goofy comedy can occasionally interrupt any building romantic or supernatural tension. This isn’t a problem if you enjoy the romantic and emotional elements of anime, but when the psychic elements come into play it isn’t always clear who has been manipulated and whether we’re supposed to consider Ryoichi a friend or foe.

Don't hate the psychic player, hate the psychic game
Don’t hate the psychic player, hate the psychic game

The main downside to this anime is that a lot of the psychic elements feel vague and confusing. Just when the story picks things up, it sets them aside to move back to the romance, and sometimes the movement between serious and silly, or sci fi and sappy is strange and jarring and doesn’t quite gel. There are a lot of elements that just aren’t developed in the right way, which is frustrating and confusing.

Psychic powers and romantic angst...but they still managed to fit a beach scene in
Psychic powers and romantic angst…but they still managed to fit a beach scene in

Even if Psychic School Wars isn’t your cup of tea story-wise, if you’re looking for a pretty anime this one is a visual feast. Sometimes it feels sappy and saccharine, but there are enough touching and powerful moments to pack an emotional punch and make this worth your time. Just…don’t expect it to fully make sense.