Shelter (Porter Robinson, Madeon, Toshifumi Akai)

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I’m all about my pretty anime, so when I saw the above image while browsing Crunchyroll, and read in the description that it involved a futuristic sci-fi storyline, I was sold. I didn’t realise until clicking on it that it was actually a music video, and not a full length anime!

Six minutes long, the story follows Rin who lives in an incredible simulated world. Through a tablet device, she can draw whatever landscape she wants, and it will be beautifully rendered before her eyes. But she is sad and lonely, continually checking her tablet which reveals it has been a long time since she received any messages.

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Is a limitless world really heaven when you have no one to share it with?

Pairing a vibrant electronic dance track with the endless visual wonders that anime can achieve is a match made in heaven and they fit so well together that if I had found the video elsewhere I would have thought the music was created especially for the animation. This is a gorgeous watch – Rin is delightfully drawn, with big sparkling eyes and an equally beautifully world she moulds at her fingertips, allowing us to marvel alongside her at the northern lights, cerulean blue skies with thick fluffy white clouds and impressive cliff tops. The cherry on the cake is the more humble but still beautiful Japan she came from, shown through an emotive family montage (as well as the classic cherry blossoms).

It’s such a shame that Shelter isn’t a full length movie, because it is a triumph. At 4 million views on Youtube already, I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so! Watch it below and experience the beauty yourself:

 

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My Top Five Best Anime Ever

I have spent the last fifteen or so years of my life watching anime, so it felt like a good time to put together a short list of what I feel are the best (of what I’ve seen so far). The five I am about to discuss are not rated in any particular order of what I feel are the best, mainly because they are all quite different in style and genre, and I love them in different ways. I also decided not to include any Studio Ghibli films as I feel it goes without saying that they make up some of the very finest of Japanese animation. Here we go!

Code Geass

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What it’s about: Prince Lelouch Lamperouge has had to sit and watch as his empire Britannia has brutally conquered most of the world, including Japan, where he has been exiled. Japan has been renamed “Area 11”, and its citizens treated as second class, subject to poverty and abuse under the new regime. Lelouch sets out to seek justice and freedom for Japan and his sister Nunnally, adopting a secret disguise as “Zero” and using a strange magical power bestowed on him by a green haired witch to command anyone to do whatever he wants once. Unfortunately he has to do battle with his childhood friend Suzaku who is also seeking justice for Japan, but through legitimate means as he tries to rise through the ranks as a Britannian Knight to change the system from within.

Why it’s one of the best: Code Geass serves up a healthy portion of every core anime genre going – mecha robots, supernatural powers, politics, high school drama and romance – and most of the time it balances them all excellently. The ethics are compelling as Lelouch treads a morally grey area with his consequential approach against Suzaku’s deontology, the action is gritty and the politics are convoluted. The romances and lighter high school moments provide a nice offset to the emotional weight of the rebellion being staged as the stakes get higher and higher.

 

Ouran High School Host Club

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What it’s about: Haruhi is an honest, hardworking girl who has managed to get a scholarship to a wealthy, elite school. Her plans to keep her head down and away from the shallow, rich types are derailed when she accidentally breaks a priceless vase. The vase belongs to a host club, a group of pretty boys of all types who spend their extracurricular hours charming and entertaining the female students. They agree to let Haruhi work off her debt as a host, dressing as a boy. Of course their crazy hijinks often interfere with her studious sensibilities…

Why it’s one of the best: Ouran High School Host Club really pulls off ridiculous humour, often as a segueway into the serious, heart tugging moments. Tamaki’s brash, vain superficial charm and Haruhi’s blunt, serious nature both disguise heart-rending back stories and together they help each other learn and grow in a touching way. The show also parodies the shoujo genre as often as it embraces it which prevents things from sinking too deeply into fluffiness, and it has a lot of fun playing with gender roles and stereotypes.

 

Parasyte the Maxim

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What it’s about: Shinichi is a quiet boy living a normal life until a parasite burrows into his hand, gaining sentience and naming itself Migi. With no way out of his new situation, Shinichi finds himself agreeing to work with Migi and do battle when other parasites begin possessing humans and brutally murdering those around him.

Why it’s one of the best: Although a slow starter, Parasyte the Maxim becomes a gripping anime as Shinichi slowly physically and emotionally transforms following his fusion with Migi. Alongside compelling battle scenes in which Shinichi has to outwit monstrosities much stronger than himself, the show offers up some fascinating commentary on evolution, self preservation, and whether parasite-infected humans living peacefully in society should still be considered a threat. If you’re looking for an anime that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat and make you think as well, this is an excellent choice.

 

Space Brothers

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What it’s about: Brothers Mutta and Hibito Nanba dreamed about becoming astronauts as kids. When younger brother Hibito is about to achieve his ultimate goal of being the first Japanese astronaut on the moon, Mutta is reminded of how much he still wants to go to space and begins the long journey towards becoming an astronaut himself.

Why it’s one of the best: Currently standing at 99 episodes, Space Brothers takes its time to take the viewer on an emotional journey, with Mutta and Hibito as wonderfully nuanced central characters that feel more like real people than any other anime characters I’ve seen. The space details are accurate and true to life of what a real astronaut application and training process would be like (with NASA and JAXA both referenced), the soundtrack is wonderful, and it will probably always stand in my top five list.

 

Your Lie in April 

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What it’s about: Arima Kousei was a child prodigy on the piano until his mother died. Tormented by her death and abusive teaching strategies, Kousei became unable to hear his own playing and gave up the piano. He lived quietly in his grief, until in his teens he meets the vibrant and beautiful violinist Kaori. Kaori’s zest for life and unorthodox playing style slowly bring Kousei back into the joy of music.

Why it’s one of the best: With big shining eyes and picturesque cherry blossoms floating on the breeze, Your Lie in April is as visually as it is emotionally beautiful. The scenes in which Kousei, Kaori, and other peers compete feature the likes of Chopin, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky (although the standout for me is Kaori and Kousei’s performance of Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso which I’ll leave a link to below) and each performance is beautifully animated, really capturing the urgency, anxiety and pure in-the-moment joy of live performance. Your Lie in April wonderfully parallels the feelings Kaori and Kousei have for music to their own anxieties, hopes and dreams for life and love, and their deepening intimacy as they grow ever closer.

Patema Inverted (Sakasama no Patema)

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Many years ago, scientists decided to experiment with gravity. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t end well and a portion of society had their gravity reversed and were forced to live in another world underground. Aiga – the society left behind – labelled these people Inverts, and “sinners” and a totalitarian world was created as a result to try and prevent people from having enough original thought to create another disaster. Aiga is now a clonelike world where students are not even allowed to look out of the window and masked military police roam the land. All is overseen by the leader Izamura who embodies the worst of the anti-Invert ideals and has all the foppish dress and crazed eyes of a classic anime villain.

Patema Inverted captures a totalitarian state with eerie effect
Patema Inverted captures a totalitarian state with eerie effect

Teenager Age is weary of living in such a grey, restrictive society, but things change when he meets an Invert called Patema who has fallen into his world by mistake. Both Age and Patema quickly form a bond as she is forced to depend on him in what appears to her a topsy turvy landscape. Their bond is cemented when Age shares the loss of his father with her and Patema consoles him. Patema Inverted shows us that both Age and Patema have really developed from their experiences of pain and loss, Age quietly grieving in a suffocatingly rigid society and Patema also having lost a loved one. Both have had to deal with wanting to see a world beyond their own and having to go against the grain of their society to do so, but their experiences and emotions are never hammed up for dramatic effect and rather quietly resonate through gentle flashbacks and moving imagery.

You spin me right round baby, right round...
You spin me right round baby, right round…

Patema Inverted shows the viewer what it’s like to have your world quite literally turned upside down with continual 180 degree turns throughout to really put the viewer in the shoes of either Age or Patema who feel that they’re about to fall into the “sky” at any moment and have to place their complete trust in the other person to keep them safe. This is a movie that has fun with its sci fi elements, and the scene where Patema and Age have to flee from military police and Age realises he can effectively fly because his gravity changes when he holds Patema is exhilarating to watch. The landscapes are shown as being both terrifying and exciting at any given moment, there’s no particular bias either way, which keeps the film nicely balanced between the wonders and terrors of a world with two gravities.

"Hey Age, wanna try a Spiderman kiss?"
“Hey Age, wanna try a Spiderman kiss?”

The rest of the visuals are also a treat, with incredible attention to light and shadow details during key moments. The music is also excellent, often taking on a pared back mechanical sound but producing more emotional music when required to match up with more intense scenes. I really enjoyed the constant symmetry between the characters from two worlds, and the mirroring of a cold technological state with a mechanical organic one. It’s a shame there wasn’t time for more world building when both worlds were so interesting but it’s possible the four episode series tackles this.

With great visuals, a complementary soundtrack and a fantastic sci fi story, Patema Inverted is definitely one to watch if you’re looking for a great sci fi anime film.

 

 

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.

Brynhildr in the Darkness (Gokukoku no Brynhildr)

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When Murakami loses his beloved childhood friend Kuroneko in a freak accident, he dedicates his life to proving what she always claimed to be true – that aliens exist. Years later, a mysterious girl called Kuroha who looks just like her transfers to his school. When she saves his life with unusual powers, Murakami finds himself caught up in something bigger and more dangerous than he could have ever anticipated.

Kuroha reveals herself to be a witch who has escaped from a laboratory and dangerous organisation, along with other witches who have scattered and fled around the area. Each witch has a metal implant in the back of her neck containing three buttons, one which inhibits the witch’s unique powers, another which causes instant death and a third which causes a fate worse than death which neither Kuroha or any other witch has ever witnessed.

Gotta love a witch who coordinates her uniform with her futuristic helmet
Gotta love a witch who coordinates her school uniform with her futuristic helmet

Murakami soon finds himself helping not just Kuroha but other escaped witches as well. Although they aren’t the most well rounded in character development, their struggle against a brutal shadowy enemy is compelling, and their ties to their creation remain ever present as each witch has to take a pill every day to stay alive or a horrific and grisly death awaits them. Since making their escape from the lab, pills are scarce and hard to get hold of, and the awareness the witches have of their own mortality adds to their urgency to get to the bottom of their origins.

To begin with, Brynhildr in the Darkness could almost pass as a fluffy anime with its clean, innocent animation style and light fanservice-y moments. While Murakami is surrounded by cute girls, his grief for Kureneko and unshakeable hope that Kuroha could be her means that he remains indifferent and oblivious to the other witches, but Brynhildr in the Darkness keeps those cleavage shots coming anyway. As this show does slow down for lighter moments between the plot progression it is disappointing that Brynhildr in the Darkness often falls back on boob jokes, fanservice and other excuses to have the girls half naked when more in depth characterisation could have better added to the show’s emotional impact.

Out of context anime quote, anyone?
Out of context anime quote, anyone?

However, the witches aren’t completely one dimensional. One example of this is pink haired witch Kazumi, for whom the lingering threat of mortality has her focused on her wish to lose her virginity. The object of her affections of course, is sole male in the harem, Murakami. This provides an extremely convenient love triangle as Murakami only has eyes for Kuroha and remains largely indifferent to Kazumi’s seduction attempts.

The cliche nature of this plot thread is softened by Kazumi’s easy likeability as a character – although she’s brash, her attempts to seem cocky and inappropriate are a cover for her vulnerability and fear of losing her life before she’s really lived. This theme is reflected in the other witches, who amid their struggle for freedom also find themselves thinking about what living really means, as opposed to just surviving.

Kazumi might have been sick during sex ed week...
Kazumi might have been sick during sex ed week…

Brynhildr in the Darkness is a slow mover, and shoehorns fanservice into episodes in the most ridiculous of ways, and some of the backing soundtrack doesn’t seem to fit the more dramatic moments (jazzy piano, anyone?). From the promotional images I had expected it to be more serious and sci fi heavy in tone, but if you have the patience to stick with its slow build up, there are some genuinely funny and heart-rending scenes along the way as our characters learn how much they can truly lose in a staggering battle to be free. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more of that and less of the over the top anime silliness.

 

 

Space Brothers

One small step for the Japanese…you know the rest

When Mutta Nanba unexpectedly loses his job, he returns home to his parents. Whilst he is there, his younger brother Hibito gets in touch, reminding him of a promise they made to each other as kids to become astronauts. Hibito is on his way to fulfilling his part of the promise, already a trained astronaut and awaiting his first outer space assignment to be the first Japanese astronaut on the moon. Mutta remembers his promise as a child to outdo Hibito and go to Mars, and decides he will begin the process towards becoming an astronaut himself.

Based on the long running manga by Chuya Koyama, Space Brothers is 99 episodes long, as it follows Mutta’s long journey towards fulfilling his dream with painstaking accuracy and attention to detail. For starters, the show refers to NASA and JAXA, rather than making up fictional space agencies. The astronaut application process shown is also extremely accurate to real life, with Mutta taking part in exams, interviews, official and unofficial tests all designed to intensely scrutinise his suitability for working in outer space. I found this makes the anime hugely enjoyable in its own right. Even if you don’t have an interest in space, being able to watch the entire process and see the kinds of tests that are assigned – some simple, some amusingly clever – is a fascinating insight into what it really takes to prove you can become an astronaut.

However, what really stands Space Brothers out as a classic anime is the combination of this scientific testing process with complex, fallible human characters. Mutta has dreamed of being an astronaut since he was just a wide eyed kid going to talks to see astronauts he admired. But everyone else applying alongside him wants it just as much. Mutta’s perfect blend of a serious passion for his goal, and a slight daftness when it comes to social situations makes him easily relatable, and it’s easy to connect with the other characters through his relationships with them.

Sometimes silly, always earnest...it's hard not to like Mutta
Sometimes silly, always earnest…it’s hard not to like Mutta

Space Brothers details the terrifying and awe inspiring process of following your dreams, and all the fear, heartache and excitement that goes with it, whilst keeping its characters grounded and emotionally honest. This is a must see anime for anyone, especially if you’re a space fan.

Blue Drop: Tenshitachi no Gikyoku

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One fateful day, Mari Wakatake is sent away to Kaio Academy by her grandmother, who is slowly dying and can no longer homeschool Mari. Mari is very upset to leave her grandmother and does not want to go, but a chance encounter with a beautiful dark haired girl surrounded by birds distracts her.

Mari meets this unusual girl, named Hagino Senkoji, at Kaio Academy. They get off to a confusing start when Hagino tries to strangle Mari. It soon emerges Hagino has a secret identity as a commander of an alien ship, known as Commander Evaril to her crew. The alien race are known as the Arume and consist entirely of women.

My main issue with this anime was that for the majority of it, it wasn’t clear where it was going. Logically, Hagino’s alter ego as an alien spaceship commander would seem pretty important, right? But even though Mari uncovers the extraterrestrial elements fairly early on, the plotline is largely put on the backburner during which time the show focuses on happenings at the school. While I appreciate them not wanting to give away the juicy bits too soon, it was incredulous that Mari would find out a girl her age is commanding an alien spaceship and not really ask any questions.

The alien race have pretty names like Tsubael

The show also falls under the shoujo ai genre. Shoujo ai means “girl’s love” and depicts romantic relationships and attraction between women. This is hinted at between the schoolgirls with the occasional blush and romantic moment such as a ferris wheel ride or an embrace. On Hagino’s ship we are also shown of a romance between two female officers, one of whom has died, leaving the other to mourn. In a way, even the small moments between the women in Blue Drop are rendered more significant as we see so few male characters. Blue Drop inhabits an almost entirely female world.

For a while it will not seem clear where Blue Drop is going, and the random story detours may frustrate some. But if you have the patience, it will reward you when it begins to tie some of the threads together. A strong sci fi anime does not always need many complex ideas, sometimes focusing on just a few can allow the emotion and message to shine through, and Blue Drop demonstrates this well, once it becomes clearer where everything falls.

Blue Drop moves to a moving conclusion and comes to beautifully portray love and goodness across human and alienkind. With a beautiful animation style and soundtrack and understated characterisation, this has the makings of a classic sci fi anime. I may need to watch it again to make a bit more sense of it, but I certainly enjoyed the ride.

If you are looking for a sci fi anime with a focus on female characters, and lesbian romance throughout, give Blue Drop a go.