Friday, December 2, 2016

Video Backlog: “Strike Witches: The Movie”

Publisher: Funimation (USA)
Format: Region A Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English dub and English Subtitles. Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English dub and English Subtitles.
Length: 95 minutes
Production Date: 2012
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

In 1939 a mysterious enemy called Neuroi attacked Earth, mostly centring on Europe. Suspected to be of alien origin, Earth’s armies were no match for them. However in the past humanity had always relied on witches, young women, who had magical powers and fought off monsters and demonic creatures whenever they appeared in the world. Military scientists designed Striker Units, wearable machines with propellers that in combination with the witches magical powers, helped the young women to fly. In the battles against the Neuroi, the witches soon discover that they have cores, which when fired upon destroy the Neuroi and dissolve them. The first two TV series follow the 501st Joint Fighter Wing team, where after a prolonged battle the heroine of the series, Yoshika Miyafuji, uses up all of her magical power in a climactic battle.

Two months after the battle, Yoshika has returned to her home country of Fuso and adjusting back to her old life. She surprises her childhood friend, Yamakawa Michiko (who was searching for her in the forest), by riding on a bear that she befriended as a cub. Later the pair hears the distressed cries of a puppy and discovers it fighting for life in a fast running river. Yoshika leaps onto the rocks to save it, but eventually falls in with the puppy and soon finds her self floating downstream and over a waterfall.  Lucky a witch in a Striker Unit was passing by and saves Yoshika and the puppy. She introduces herself as Hattori Shizuka and soon realises that it was Yoshika she saved, someone she idolises due to her former military career in the battle against the Neuroi. Hattori explains that she in fact was looking for Yoshika to bring her to Europe to study as a doctor.  The Helvetian Medical School, one of the most prestigious medical schools in the world, has invited Yoshika to study there. Yoshika jumps at the chance and her and Hattori board the Carrier Amagi the next day.

While Yoshika is no longer part of the military, she still wants to help around the ship. This irks Hattori to no end and scolds her for not adhering to military regulations. As their journey continues the ship hits an iceberg causing major damage to ship and badly injuring and trapping one crew member. Despite the fire and threat of an explosion, and ignoring Hattori’s commands, Yoshika bravely rescues the trapped and injured man and also manages to get the sprinkler system back in operation, putting out the fire. At their first port of call Gallia, the pair meet two old friends from the 501st; Lynette Bishop and Perrine H. Clostermann. There they spend some time with orphaned children that Perrine looks after. Hattori soon realises that because Yoshika doesn’t act like a solider, it actually helped the 501st become a better fighting force. Later the ship stops at the Rhine to help people affected by a landslide. The 501st become aware of Neuroi becoming more active in the area. Soon Yoshika finds herself in the middle of a Neuroi attack and helps evacuate a local village. Despite the fact she no longer has any magical powers, she joins in the fight alongside the 501st.

This franchise has an infamous reputation for having a bunch of young girls weaning no pants (or a skirt). However the first TV series at least didn’t really concentrate on this fact and to my surprise was quite entertaining. The second series wasn’t as nearly well written and was focused more on the fanservice side of things. Like the “KanColle” franchise, this series revolves around anthropomorphic mechanical girls, a trend that really started in the late 1980’s, but really didn’t take off in a big way until around 2005 with shows like this one and “Sky Girls”. “Strike Witches” is a little bit different to other franchises due the fact the girls are normal people and only wear boot-like mechanical devices with propellers which help them fly. For some reason which I don’t think has ever been explained, the girls also grow animal ears and tails when using their magical powers. My personal theory is that they are possessed by animal spirits which give them their powers. Or maybe they just drew them that way because it’s cute.

Anyways let’s talk about the elephant in the room; the lack of skirts and/or pants. It’s utterly absurd that Yoshika and the rest of the girls walk about in underwear or the old style Japanese school bathing suits, even when they’re no longer in the military or off duty. Let’s face it; it’s pure sexualisation of teenage girls. It serves no other purpose. Even worse with this film there are a large number of crotch shots, especially during battles as the camera passes in extremely close (literally giving the viewer a face full of crotch) as the girls zoom into frame before they take on the Neuroi. It was never this bad in the original series. The story itself is a rather dull affair. I don’t understand why the military themselves took Yoshika to the medical school. She couldn’t be advised by letter and make her way there herself? The movie is a just an excuse to string a number of battles together and bring out the extended cast for the two series, which most of their appearances don’t propel the plot along one iota. For the most part they really don’t need to be in the film at all.

From what I’ve read online there are huge number of highly accurate military machinery and references to key military personal from WWII. This is fantastic if you’re a military nut, but for the general audience it just flies right over your head.  The animation by AIC (yes they still make anime, and I bet you can’t name any of their recent shows) is pedestrian at best. It looks no better than standard TV animation from that era. It’s certainly not movie quality except for some parts of the battles. Speaking of which, the best thing I can say about this film is that the battles were very well choreographed and look quite good (gratuitous crotch shots notwithstanding). But other than that’s there’s not much to like in this film. It’s quite a disappointment. Even the personalities of most of the girls are non-existent. Almost the entire cast are softly spoken doormats. They’re very submissive and really, really dull. The exceptions are the extroverted Francesca Lucchini and Charlotte E. Yeager whose contributions to the story and film are just to make obligatory appearances.

Funimation have been really dead slow in getting this film out; nearly four years. Why they didn’t release this earlier is beyond me. I can understand a year or so hold back due to reverse importation worries, but four years is a bit of a joke. The presentation is as per usual; the video is OK, except for the horrible banding which plagues many of their discs. It’s quite noticeable in low light scenes, especially inside the ship during the fire. At least they’ve included the Japanese promotional video and trailer as extras. Funimation now seems to lump all of their previews of other titles as one long video rather than listing separate previews which you can chose to play. It’s yet another thing to add to pile of Funimation annoyances. At the very least on screen titles in the film are all Japanese, probably because Funimation weren’t supplied “clean” footage for these segments. I can only give this film 5 out of 10. While I loved the original series, I wasn’t all that fussed with the sequel TV series. But this film has finally killed the franchise for me.

Remaining Backlog: Nine TV series, two OVA series and three movies. In addition I am also waiting for the second parts of two TV series to be released before viewing them.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Anime On the Big Screen: “Your Name”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 26 November 2016
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 107 minutes
Production Date: 2016
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

It’s pretty amazing that the two highest grossing Japanese films of 2016 have made it to Australian cinemas only months after their Japanese cinema releases. First “Shin Godzilla”, which had a limited screening last month, and now “Your Name” (officially rendered as “your name.” in the official English title) which is on track to become the sixth highest grossing film in Japanese box office history (close to ¥18 billion so far). I didn’t want get involved with the Christmas shoppers, so I went to the earliest session I could. Dendy have a new website and a new online ticketing service. When I printed off my PDF ticket it said I didn’t have to go to the box office. Great, except it had no cinema number on the ticket, which meant I had to go to box office where I was given a ticket anyway… With this film being a limited release and not a one off event, as usual there were no real otaku types to be found in the audience (well except me). There was a real mix in the audience; a few young people by themselves evenly split between the sexes, a Japanese mother and her young child a couple of older Asian women. The Asian cinema goers certainly outweighed the western ones. I know it was early, but I found it a little surprising that the amount of patrons in the cinema didn’t reach double digits.

The film initially follows the life of Mitsuha Miyamizu, a teenage girl in the latter years of high school. She lives in Itomori, a very small town of around 1,500 people way out in the countryside with very little for teenagers to do. She lives with her little sister and her grandmother, head of the local Shinto shrine. Both her and her little sister are shrine maidens and have to perform in a ritual every year where they make kuchikamizake, a type of sake where a person chews rice and spits it out and is left to ferment. Mitsuha finds having to do this practice publicly a little humiliating. She is also estranged from her father, Toshiki Miyamizu, the local town mayor. He left the household after a fight with Mitsuha’s grandmother after his wife died. Campaigning for re-election, he publicly humiliates Mitsuha by telling to stand up straight in front of a group of voters. Mitsuha later declares she hates her life and wishes she could be reborn as a boy in Tokyo.

At school Mitsuha’s friends explain to her that she was acting quite strangely the day before. She couldn't find her desk or locker and came to school with bed head rather than her hair usually tied up. However Mitsuha doesn’t remember any of this at all. She finds a scrawled message in her note book reading “Who are you?” which she blames one of her friends for. The next morning Mitsuha wakes up and finds herself in an unfamiliar room. She soon discovers to her horror she is in a teenage boy’s body. She pieces together enough information about his life from his father and his phone to know that his name is Taki Tachibana and the school he goes to and the names of his friends. Initially she is struck by the fact she is in Shinjuku, Tokyo, a place she has always wanted to go to, however reality soon sets in as she realises she has to pretend to be Taki, even though she believes it’s all a dream. She even manages to go to Taki’s part time job at a restaurant and somehow manages not screw up too much. There she meets Miki Okudera, a co-worker whom Mitsuha determines Taki has a crush on due to the amount of photos of her in his phone.

It soon dawns on Mitsuha and Taki that they aren’t dreaming and that both of them somehow swap into each other’s bodies almost randomly. Over the next few weeks the pair communicates with each other via writing in notebooks and on their phones. They lay down ground rules for each other so not to put a strain on family and social ties and more importantly not to embarrass each other. However Mitsuha manages to get Taki closer and closer to Miki. Eventually she sets up a date for Taki. But the date doesn’t go well for Taki. Taki later tries to call Mitsuha but the phone seems to be disconnected. No more body swaps occur either. Taki cannot fathom why this has happened and attempts to go to Mitsuha’s home town. The problem is he has no idea what the name of her town is or what prefecture it is in. Using only the detailed drawings he made he does as much research as he can and sets off for the most likely prefecture. However at Tokyo station he discovers his friend Tsukasa Fujii and Miki waiting for him. Initially he asked Tsukasa to cover for him at work and school, but Tsukasa told Miki, who agreed that Taki had been acting strangely recently so both of them decided to accompany him. Their journey takes them through a couple of prefectures, almost aimlessly wandering and asking the locals if they can recognise the town from Taki’s drawings. In a small ramen restaurant Taki soon leans the horrifying truth.

This is Makoto Shinkai’s sixth major work and his third full length feature film. I was not a fan of his faux Ghibli film “Children Who Chase Lost Voices”, but I am a big fan of all his other works. For a while there I think he was on the cusp of pigeonholing himself with his trademark twilight panoramas and tales of romantic breakups and separation (often tied up with technology of some sort). However I think with this film he has finally broken out of that mould and proven he can stand on his own two feet. This is despite the gushing western mainstream media proclaiming him as “the new Miyazaki”. Wasn’t Mamoru Hosoda “the new Miyazaki” last week? Or was that Keiichi Hara, Sunao Katabuchi or even Goro Miyazaki? Maybe none of them are. I find this talk a bit tedious and diminishing of these new director’s films.

Anyway as per Shinkai’s other film’s it does contain twilight panoramas and lost loves and forced separations in a big way. However at the core of this this film is a rather intriguing and constantly surprising story. The basic story is no different to other body sway films like Disney’s “Freaky Friday” or the tens of copies which followed that film. With its opening animation credits looking very much like the opening animation of a TV series and music by pop rock band Radwimps, it sort of sets the stage for a very mainstream family film squarely aimed at Japanese teens. About a third into the run time it changes pace, quite effortlessly and becomes darker (with Taki’s bad date with Miki foreshadowing that), and turns into a paranormal mystery. The third act changes pace again where the film turns into another teen subgenre where the teens try to save their beloved town from disaster but the town’s adults won’t listen. Naturally the teens save the day. Shinkai’s screenplay switches between the three different arcs with relative ease. I found the plot twists were quite surprising too.

Shinkai’s direction is fantastic as well. The cinematography, use of silence in dramatic scenes and editing are top notch and ratchet up the drama at the right moments. The animation, especially the special effects and use of filters in regards to light makes a number of scenes look incredibly realistic, however I still think his previous film, “Garden of Words”, has got this film beat in terms of realism and use of light. Shinkai certainly knows how to move a camera around within a “set” to maximum effect without looking like he’s showing off. Some trivia by the way; Yukari Yukino, the teacher from “Garden of Words”, has a cameo in this film.

Despite all the gushing reviews this film has being getting, I did have a few minor quibbles with it. First is the fact that Taki didn’t know the name of Mitsuha’s town which seems rather implausible. Though I completely understand that if he did know, it’d kill a lot of the plot. Second is the way Taki was able to “get in contact” with Mitsuha at the start of the third arc of the film. For whatever reason I couldn’t suspend a lot of disbelief in that. Like some reviewers I didn’t think much of the epilogue after the climax. I understand the audience would have probably hunted down and killed Shinkai if he hadn't concluded the film in the way in did, but I wish it was written a bit better. I think some scenes, especially in the last third, could have been trimmed to tighten up the film and ramp up the drama. I have seen complaints about Taki and Mitsuha “checking out their new bodies” and one review which bizarrely seemed to concentrate on this entirely.  Sure it’s a running joke, but  a really minor one. I’m not sure why people are making a fuss about it. The other aspect other reviewers harp on about are the scenes of natural disaster and making comparisons to the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. I think to a small degree Shinkai is referencing the disaster, however it’s not used as a blunt instrument in the way it was in “Shin Godzilla”. Here’s it’s more matter of fact and used to advance the plot.

In conclusion, this is one of Shinkai’s better films, albeit far more commercial than what he has done before. While squarely aimed at a family and teen market, the film has enough plot twists and drama to keep adults thoroughly entertained. The final scenes were a bit too saccharine and safe for me. I think the post climatic scenes could have been better written. A little more trimming of certain scenes wouldn’t have gone astray either. I really wish the mainstream western media would give the Miyazaki comparisons a rest and judge other Japanese directors on their own merits. It’s really good film, but maybe not the second coming as others are suggesting. 8 out of 10.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Sydney: A Piss Weak Anime Shopping Guide

Back in the 1990’s there used to be fan created guides of lists of anime shops in local areas on places like newsgroups like arts.rec.anime. Unfortunately lists like that have disappeared. If you want to find “bricks and mortar” stores locally, you have to do a bit of searching. Surprisingly this can be a slightly difficult. It amazes me that no one keeps list of stores any more. Then again if you can get it easier, cheaper and quicker from online store, why in heck would you bother with physical stores?

But after compiling lists for stores in Japanese cites, I thought it would be fun to do guides for local shops. After getting my Opal card on Thursday (which I got for a future trip so I could get from Central Station to the airport easily), on a whim I decided to go up to Sydney and attempt to compile a list of shops for my blog. Admittedly I haven’t actually been to Sydney for at least five years. These days I only go to Central Station and then on to the airport and never visit the actual city. I admit that for this particular trip to Sydney I had visions of the cool record stores and anime shops that were there in the 1990’s. My hopes would soon be dashed though. Since the Olympics, Sydney CBD looks horribly rundown. Leaving Central Station and walking along Eddy Avenue, the first thing I noticed was all the shops along the street are all closed and bordered up except one café and a 7-Eleven. There are homeless people everywhere, young foreign backpackers roaming the streets ready to exploited by local recruiters, and the city seems to be in a state of disrepair, covered in a fine layer of grime and graffiti. There’s also the ongoing construction for the tramline up George Street. And as always, it gets hot and humid, even in spring. The city looks and feels ugly and uninviting.

Unfortunately most of the stores are in the CBD. Below I’ve listed the stores of interest in alphabetical order;

Anime At Abbotsford
Main Store
Address: 318 Great North Road, Abbotsford
Phone: (02) 9712 1418
Opening Times: Everyday 9am to 6:30pm, except Sunday, closes at 5pm

CBD Store
Address: Shop 125, First Floor, Prince Centre, 8 Quay Street, Haymarket
Phone:  (02) 9281 9355
Opening Times: Everyday 10am to 6:30pm

Easily the biggest and best anime shops in Sydney. I think this shop opened in 2007 in Abbotsford (hence the name of the store). Admittedly I have never been out to the store in Abbotsford, but the city store near Chinatown is just jam packed with figures including figma, Nendoroids, S.H.Figuarts and various arcade crane game prizes. Of course there are also a ton of regular figures from manufacturers such as Good Smile and Kotobukiya. The Abbotsford shop also stocks some general pop culture items such as POP Vinyl figures. The online version of the shop stocks artbooks, however neither shop has them on display from what I’ve seen. The prices are relatively decent when compared to online shops. While it’s pretty easy to find the shop in Abbotsford, the one in the Prince Centre is a little more difficult to locate. If you go into the proper Prince Centre entrance on Quay Street, go up the escalators to the first floor, walk through the glass door on the balcony area and the shop is out I that area. The Abbotsford store also holds regular events.

AnimeWorks
Address: 259 Broadway, Glebe
Phone:  (02) 8041 3913
Opening Times: Everyday 10am to 7pm, except Saturday, closes at 5pm, Sunday, closes at 4pm

Just my luck, this shop was shut for the day when I visited. Apparently the owner went to a convention in another state for the weekend as a vendor. This part of town looks really rundown and shifty. Right next door to AnimeWorks is the most infamous “rub and tug” massage parlour in Sydney. Really not a good look or perhaps the best place to have an anime shop, but whatever… From what I could see through the windows and in their online shop, while the do have a heavy anime bent in the stock, there’s also a fairly large percentage of general pop culture items. It seems one wall is filled with POP Vinyl figures. They also stock Gundam model kits, various kinds of merchandise such as towels and key rings, plush toys, some manga, t-shirts, some cosplay items and of course figures galore. Prices seem rather reasonable and competitive.

Books Kinokuniya
Address: Shop RP2.2, Level 2, The Galeries, 500 George Street, Sydney
Phone: (02) 9262 7996
Opening Times: Everyday 10am to 7pm, except Thursday, closes at 9pm, Sunday, 11am to 6pm

The local branch of the biggest book chain in Japan. Certainly this branch isn’t as good as some of the branches in Japan, however it surprisingly does stock a lot of Japanese magazines, manga and books. When I went a few years back, I was really disappointed at the lack of artbooks. This time I was really surprised at the stock they had. They must stock at least a couple hundred different titles including four different “Love Live!” artbooks. There’s also quite a number of different weekly manga anthologies, loads and loads of manga and even a small selection of monthly anime magazines such as Animedia, Newtype, Megami and Animage. Of course the real problem is the price. It’s as if they’ve doubled the original cover price in yen and then converted it. In short, while the range is pretty damn good, it’s far easier and cheaper to order this stuff from Amazon.co.jp or elsewhere. Kinokuniya also stock manga in English (not too far from the entrance). It’s far more reasonably priced than their Japanese stock. Also the “manga cows” of times gone by don’t visit the store anymore, so it’s easier to get around.

Comic Kingdom
Address: 71 Liverpool Street, Sydney
Phone: (02) 9267 3629
Opening Times: Everyday 10am to 5:15pm, except Thursday, closes at 6:15pm, Saturday, 10am to 4:15pm, closed on Sunday

The oldest comic book store in Sydney which began back in the 1960’s I believe. I didn’t realise this shop had an infamous reputation for bad service and a “comic book guy” from “The Simpsons” type of owner. Apparently the shop was going to shut down in November last year, but here we are a year on and they’re still open. Admittedly there is little of interest for manga and anime fans; a small range of “Robotech” and “Battle of the Planets” back issue comics and various English language “hentai” manga from the late 1990’s. I think there is very little in the shop which was published in the 21st century. In terms of non-anime stuff, there are some interesting old annuals from the 1970’s and load of old sci-fi magazines from the same era and a little bit more modern down the back. I managed to snag a copy of “Fanfare” magazine from 1980 which has Captain Harlock on the cover and an 11 page article on anime by Fred Patten.

HobbyCo
Main Store
Address: Shop 50/53, Level 2, Queen Victoria Building, 429 - 481 George Street, Sydney
Phone: (02) 9264 4877
Opening Times: Everyday 10am to 6pm, except Thursday, closes at 9pm, Sunday, closes at 5pm

Rhodes Store
Address: Shop 60, Level 1, Rhodes Waterside Shopping Centre, Rhodes
Phone: (02) 8765 1165
Opening Times: Everyday 9am to 6pm, except Sunday, opens at 10am

MacArthur Square
Address: Shop C027, Level 1, 1 Gilchrist Drive, MacArthur Square Shopping Centre, Campbelltown
Phone: (02) 4627 5311
Opening Times: Everyday 9am to 5:30pm, except Sunday, opens at 10am

The only hobby store left in Sydney’s CBD by the looks of it. Naturally I only went to the shop in the CBD. Their main products they deal with are scale trains and model kits (a much undervalued hobby I think). I really think it’s unfortunate that practically no one outside hobby shops sell plastic model kits anymore... Anyway, the CBD HobbyCo sells just about every Bandai model kit on the market by the looks of it, including Gundam kits and a small section of Evangelion kits. In fact they had an episode of “Gundam Build Fighters” on an overhead TV playing in store. They also stock a wide range of Hasegawa’s Macross kits, a small range of Ultraman and crane game prize figures and fairly good range of figures including some “Gundam”, “Love Live!” and “Yamato 2199” figures. I’m always impressed at the amount of and type of anime related merchandise in this shop. There’s also a sizable range of Shonen Jump related figures and merchandise not far from the counter. The entrance to the CBD store has a bust of a Gundam one side and a huge Beargguy on the other. Looking at the pictures of the Rhodes store online, it seems that there isn’t much in the way of anime merchandise there.

Hondarake
Address: Suite 204, Level 2, 39 Liverpool Street, Sydney
Phone: (02) 9261 5225
Opening Times: Everyday 11am to 7pm, except Sunday, 12pm to 6pm, closed Tuesdays

To get to this second hand Japanese bookstore is an utter pain in the arse. Over the last decade or so, it’s been in several locations, however this one is the most hidden and out of the way. The only way you’d know it actually existed is its name in hiragana on its outside window, two stories up. To get there; go to the entrance of the building on Liverpool street (clearly marked “39”). Do not walk up the stairs. Walk straight through to the courtyard where on the other side where you’ll see a Japanese restaurant with taiko drums either side of its entrance. Turn around at in front of that restaurant entrance and you should see a glass elevator. Annoyingly the button is nowhere near the actual elevator (actually on the column to your right). Take the elevator to the second floor and Hondarake will be to your right. The shop’s name means “full of books”. It’s part of an obscure Japanese chain of second hand book shops, 14 in total, mostly in Kyushu but it also has branches in Aomori, Chiba and Tottori. Never heard of it? Not surprised. Why do they have a branch in Sydney? God only knows. The shop has second hand Japanese novels, magazines, a ton of manga, CDs, DVD and a few anime artbooks. There are some English subtitled and/or dubbed anime and Japanese films as well. Though I did manage to snag two “To Heart” artbooks, be warned, the range is really, really limited. The original store they had was a gold mine of anime magazines and manga (back in the early 2000’s). It does seem really piss poor now. The Japanese lady running it spoke in a mix of English and simple Japanese, which was a bit weird.

Kings Comics
Address: 310 Pitt Street, Sydney
Phone: (02) 9267 5615
Opening Times: Everyday 9am to 6pm, except Thursday, closes 8pm, weekends, 10am to 5pm

The other comic book shop in Sydney. This is very much like any comic book shop in the country; lots of Marvel and DC titles and merchandise, Walking Dead comics and merchandise Doctor Who merchandise etc., practically nothing to differentiate it from any other popular comic book store. As expected there is a fair wack of English language manga, but certainly not as well stocked as Kinokuniya. There are a couple of books on anime as well and a very limited range of figures, mostly S.H.Figuarts of popular stuff like “Sailor Moon”.

And that’s that for anime shops in Sydney. I walked through the Chinatown/Haymarket area as well as through the little arcades and was utterly surprised that all of the bootleg DVD shops had disappeared completely. I think I only saw one shop sell Chinese DVDs and Blu-rays in Market City, but you could tell it wasn’t their main business. All of the little hobby shops selling model kits had disappeared as well. I was also a little annoyed that general second hand book, CD and DVD stores had been wiped out from the CBD. I knew that the two Chinese newsagents, who stocked anime magazines and bootleg merchandise, had shut down in the mid 2000’s. Even Game Infinity had disappeared without a trace. In its place was just a blank white façade as if its existence had been wiped from everyone’s collective memory. But of course the internet has killed video stores and fandom has collectively shifted away from plastic model and garage kits to completed figures that sell for hundreds of dollars each. Though I don’t mind the stores that still exist, it was all a bit depressing really. Sure I don’t miss the horribly overpriced DVDs and shitty service of the Cartoon Gallery, but nostalgia for the 1990’s bit a little hard. Regardless I quite enjoyed my trip up to Sydney. However I don't think I'll be heading back any time soon.

I’m hoping to do post on whatever anime related shops still exist in Melbourne sometime in the future. I’m hoping to head down there sometime in mid or late 2017. I’m hoping things might be a bit better there.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Problem with Anime Feminist (And Navel Gazing Fandom as Whole)

I often admit that I no longer keep up with trends. I do have some vague idea of what is hot or not in the otaku world, but often ignore it or find I have wildly differing tastes and opinions from the mainstream. It’s only in the last couple of weeks I have discovered a fairly new trend in the western world of anime fandom; the anime fan’s feminist critique. In particular a new website called Anime Feminist created by British citizen Amelia Cook. Here’s the major problem I have with it; essentially it offers nothing new when compared with other anime blogs. The subjects on the blog are rather curious; “Scorching Ping Pong Girls”, “Keijo”, “School Days” and “Shin Godzilla” for example. It’s not that I don’t think that women wouldn’t be interested in this stuff, it’s the fact it’s being presented as “feminist” when the writing is no more insightful (or better) than your average anime blog.

The other problem I have with the site is that they have the hide to ask for cash donations (via Patreon) yet offer no better analysis than any other writer that doesn't identify as a feminist. Reading though the site and Amelia’s previous writings on the feminist geek blog site The Mary Sue and her interview at Kaoaku in regards to the Anime Feminist site, I am utterly baffled at what she hopes to achieve. For example from the Kaoaku interview;

“It’s not censorship, because we’re not asking animators in Japan to stop making anything. We’re not asking people to ban anything. We’re not asking for any rules to be put in place. What we’d like to see is more anime being created to give more options to people.”

This is just absurd. In 2016 there are nearly 170 anime TV series, over thirty anime films and dozens of OVAs released this year. If you can’t find anything you like in that amount of content, you aren’t looking very hard or maybe anime just isn’t for you. There’s also the absurdity of the Japanese anime industry, already being stretched thin due to the amount of product they are pumping out, pandering to an utterly niche pocket of fandom in the west. Economically it makes no sense and why should a product made for and targeted to a Japanese audience be tailored to a tiny subset of western fans?

Cook also states that she couldn’t find any female characters that weren’t sexualised or objectified. Not sure where she was looking, but this statement is patently untrue. Interesting female characters have existed in anime for decades. Way before the Bechdel test was invented, a lot of manga and anime were passing it with flying colours. There has been anime specifically made and targeted towards girls since the late 1960’s. How many western productions would have a character like Motoko Kusanagi (“Ghost in the Shell”)? Let’s not forget the early 1990’s where Animage’s character poll where Nausicaä and the dark skinned, short tempered vegetarian Nadia (“Nadia of the Mysterious Seas”) battled for a number of years over the number one spot.

Cook’s articles for The Mary Sue expose the fact she has little understanding of the history of anime, fandom or the business behind it. In her first article in regards to fanservice in anime, (Hey Anime Fans: Stop Making Excuses for Fanservice) she states the following in regard to why anime doesn’t get much of a write up in mainstream publications;

“Here’s a thought: maybe critics would be more enthusiastic if the face of anime weren’t pro-Gamergate, anti-Ghostbusters trolls. I wonder how many people who were once neutral towards anime have developed an instinctive aversion to it, associating anime girls with anonymous entitlement?”.

Uh, what now? Well if Cook wanted to get fandom’s back up immediately, mission accomplished. There isn’t much I can really say in reply to this except that none of the people I know or follow on social media are pro-Gamergate, anti-Ghostbusters trolls. Absolutely none of them. In fact the majority are most definitely anti-gamer gate. She then justifies that paragraph by writing this;

“Here’s another thought: maybe that’s not unfair. Maybe becoming the visual of choice for misogynistic harassers is the unsurprising result of a fandom that has spent years normalizing the objectification of women”.

Uh huh. So Cook is saying that the way anime portrays women caused people to become “misogynistic harassers”. Well that’s fucking bullshit. Just straight up bullshit. Guess what Amelia? The Media Effects model is broken. There’s no evidence to show any type of fictional media does this (apparently Cook believes that anime fans are special and that society and close family and friends have no effect on them) and your comment is an absolute insult to anime fandom as whole. In a latter Mary Sue article (Moé, Misogyny and Masculinity: Anime’s Cuteness Problem–and How to Fix It), Cook takes on moe with utterly predictable results. Taking five random quotes from the book “The Moé Manifesto”, she concludes that an “undercurrent of misogyny runs through The Moé Manifesto” which is a bizarre takeaway from the book. In fact the point all the interviewees she selectively quotes from is that the men who enjoy the moe sub culture are outright rejecting Japanese mainstream ideals of masculinity and to a large degree don’t meet the criteria a lot of women set for a partner (criteria that few men actually do meet). Frustratingly she does acknowledge this point, but then sidesteps it in the next sentence. And then Cook piles on more misinterpretation of why men enjoy this material;

“Then there is the fact that moé characters are designed to appeal to adult men with the income to afford DVDs and models, but the vast majority of moé anime have teenage protagonists”.

Admittedly, this is a common misinterpretation of what is going on in these shows. The life of a salaryman (and Office Lady) in Japan is shit. Japanese corporate and public service life is pretty awful. The reason why a lot of games and anime have protagonists around the age of 14 is because a lot of people actually believe this was the best time in their life. They want to return to a simpler time in their life. Like all entertainment it’s escapism and fantasy. While I don’t doubt that a small percentage of men do have paedophilic tendencies, to paint everyone who likes this kind of entertainment as paedophiles is myopic and deliberately misunderstands what is going on with these anime and games. I find it strange and hypocritical that adults who watch “Dawson’s Creek” or “Glee” aren’t branded the same way. And then Cook conflates anime aimed at children with that which is squarely aimed at otaku;

“However, adapting certain anime to better suit these adults while still appealing to its original audience means giving children messages about what women are and should be which are rooted in deliberate unreality. This leads to some uncomfortable promotional imagery and merchandise decisions for such children’s television. […] However, it is all framed to cater to the male gaze–even if this is through the characters’ behaviors rather than their physical attributes”.

This paragraph completely shows Cook’s ignorance of how the modern anime industry works. Moe shows are almost always aimed at the otaku set and are always broadcast in the early hours of the morning. Outside of advertisements in Akihabara and specialty anime magazines, when would children actually see any promotional material for these shows? Advertisements for late night anime aren’t even broadcast on TV during afternoon or prime time, even on the TV station broadcasting late night anime. There is no merchandise manufactured or marketed from these shows top children. None at all. It’s far more likely children would see “Crayon Shin-chan”, “Sazae-san”, “Detective Conan”, Toei’s Sentai series, “Kamen Rider” or the latest “Ultraman” series. Japan is also a highly patriarchal society. Children are far more likely to receive messages about women’s place in that society from their own extended family, school and society in general.

Cook also asserts that moe is caters to the male gaze even if it’s not sexual. But moe is not really about the male gaze or necessarily sexual. For example “K-On!” not only has a sizable amount of female fans but has female staff in key roles of the show. Even if this were true, why the hell does it matter? Why are male fans not allowed media that deals with fantasy, even if it sexual? Cook also conveniently forgets moe shows are made and marketed towards female fans like “Hetielia”. But Cook’s problem is that the girls in these shows just aren’t like her;

“As a woman keen to see increased representation of female characters on screen, I find moé alienating. Moments of cutesy clumsiness or misunderstandings only believable from a five-year-old are so far away from anything I experienced as a teenage girl with female friends my age that it is impossible for me to relate to those characters. […] If we can acknowledge the genuinely positive aspects of moé while also criticizing the ways in which it contributes to a long-standing problem of female representation, perhaps we can build a more inclusive anime culture together.”

Because her experience as a teenager in the UK is exactly the same as a teenager in Japan. Seriously though, Cook can’t understand that perhaps high school culture and indeed wider society in the UK is totally different to Japan’s? Or young women in the UK may be different to young women in Japan? And again, even if the portrayals in these kinds of shows are unrealistic, what the hell does it matter? Fictional media isn’t allowed fantastical or unrealistic elements anymore? And the portrayals of boys and young men in anime and manga created for women don’t depict them in an unrealistic fashion? Cook also seems to be suggesting that outside of moe there are few representations of women, which is patently untrue.

A third article for the Mary Sue (Stop Pretending “Sexy” and “Sexualized” Mean the Same Thing) compares the portrayal of Revy in “Black Lagoon” and Yoko in “Gurren Lagann”, concluding that Yoko is heavily sexualised and Revy isn’t. This is all fine and dandy, except she omits the fact that the two shows are completely different. “Black Lagoon” is a hardboiled drama set firmly set in reality and “Gurren Lagann” is an absurdly over the top and cartoonish fantasy. She concludes that because “Gurren Lagann” was broadcast on an early morning timeslot, it was aimed at children, however there isn’t a skerrick of proof to show this. No merchandise aimed at children or anything of the sort actually exists. Cook then tries to compare the US comic, video game and animation industries to the Japanese animation industry;

“Animation, video game and comic book artists don’t have to deal with this hassle […] As artists, they can create whatever they like, with no restrictions… so of course, artists draw women with essentially the same few body types, or even exactly the same body type. This has received some backlash in the video game, comic book and western animation communities, leading to increased diversity. In anime, it is practically industry standard and vigorously defended by its fans.”

As with most of Cook’s statements on anime, this is also untrue. There most certainly isn’t some “industry standard” on how girls and women are portrayed in manga or anime. You could suggest there is more diversity in anime than in western pop culture and has been for decades (again see Nadia, the women in “Utena”, Motoko Kusanagi etc). And you have to realise in Japan there’s really isn’t much diversity around. Foreigners account for just over 1.5% of the Japanese population. There really aren’t that many overweight people either. Most of the population are pretty slim (mostly due to the local diet). The only place I saw overweight people was in the Kansai region. Naturally a creator’s surroundings are going to influence the media they make. To suggest that a foreign country’s pop culture should conform to your own western ideals is really paternalistic. It also goes against the real reasons why so many people enjoy anime; the fact that it is so different to western entertainment.

Having said all that, I don’t like fanservice much at all. A lot of it is cheap and exploitative and serves no purpose. However it is pretty easy to find shows with little to no fanservice. As I said previously, there are nearly 200 anime TV series and movies released a year, plus a back catalogue of hundreds of thousands of anime dating back to the 1960’s and even earlier. If you can’t find anything you like in that vast amount of material or if it clashes with your ideals or ideology so much you can’t watch it, perhaps anime isn’t the hobby for you.

The Anime Feminist website focuses a lot on fanservice laden shows. I am really baffled why Cook would do this as I think it entrenches false idea that there are no decent portrayals of women or anime for women. Cook also fails to comprehend that Japanese culture is different and the evolution of Japan’s pop culture was vastly different to that of the west’s, and that certain elements within subcultures might have different meanings in those in western culture. It feels as if she is determined to start a culture war that will be pointless and decisive as that shity Gamergate nonsense and will do absolutely nothing to change the portrayals of women in Japanese media, mainly because the production committees behind modern anime shows will not pander to such a minuscule demographic. If any change is to occur, it will come from within the country, not from foreign feminists.

I think we do need a site like Anime Feminist, but it has just gone down the wrong path. Why isn’t there a focus on the shows women would like? While the site did interview a black woman working as a mangaka in Japan, why not do profiles on local women working in the industry such as Sayo Yamamoto (currently directing “Yuri!!! on Ice”) and Naoko Yamada (director of the recent “A Silent Voice” currently working on “Sound! Euphonium 2”). With “Miss Hokusai” currently in US cinemas and being released on home video in the UK this month, why not do a piece on the original manga’s author Hinako Sugiura? She’s a fascinating person who came from a feminist background and led an amazing life. Cook’s site encapsulates what I don’t like about fandom today; pointless navel gazing and calling aspects of Japanese pop culture “problematic” through the myopic lens of a westerner. Certainly Japanese pop culture and sub cultures should be criticised, but with an understanding of how those cultures sit within Japanese culture as a whole and an understanding that symbolism in western context may not be the same in a Japanese or sub culture context.

Recently one of the former writers broke away from the writing circle for the site. Or more correctly was ejected from the group. It does increasingly seem that the site was created for a small circle of friends to air their own views shared views to the exclusion of other feminist voices. Seeing as the site’s name implies a certain range of topics and writing, I am really disappointed at its content up to now. The fact that most of the people funding the site are men just goes to show that it has failed to draw in the demographic it was supposed to.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Video Backlog: “Mobile Police Patlabor Reboot”

Publisher: Emotion (Bandai Visual, Japan)
Format: Region Free Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English and Japanese Subtitles
Length: 8 minutes
Production Date: 2016
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

A Bulldog type Labor rampages through a tightly packed residential area in Tokyo. The perpetrator demands better rights for Labor pilots and begins to stream his demands and his whole rampage on a local streaming website. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Force’s Special Vehicles Unit 2 (SV2) move in with their Ingram Labors but aren’t making any head way. They soon realise that the usually sluggish Bulldog Labor, used for construction work, has been modified with far superior leg parts. While the captain authorises to take down the Bulldog Labor regardless of the damage caused (over a dozen houses have been trashed even before the SV2 arrive), it’s soon apparent that they will need back up. A second Patrol Labor unit is sent via the civilian Yamanote train line. But before it arrives, the order is given to use the Revolver Cannon, something which the pilot has reservations about.

I thought Mamoru Oshii had killed off the Patlabor franchise with the lukewarmly received “The Next Generation - Patlabor - ” project. I was utterly surprised when this short was was announced back in late July. The short film was screened mid last month as part of the "Screening of Go Go Japan Anima(tor)'s Exhibition" compilation film which includes shorts from the Japan Animator Expo (aka Japan Anima(tor)'s Exhibition) series. This is a weekly series of animated shorts by various directors and was a collaboration between Hideaki Anno’s Studio Khara and telecommunications company Dwango, streaming for a limited time on Japanese streaming site Niconico. The shorts were also subbed in English. This short film is a bit of an oddity in the series as it was created specifically for the theatrical compilation and was released on home video a couple of week after. This is unusual as none of the other Japan Animator Expo shorts have been released on home video anywhere.

The staff on this Patlabor project are a who’s who of the industry; Yasuhiro Yoshiura ("Time of Eve", "Patema Inverted") was the director and did the storyboards. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Kazunori Ito (“Ghost in the Shell”, “Patlabor the movie”). Naoyuki Asano ("Mr. Osomatsu") did the character designs based off Masami Yuuki's original. Yutaka Izubuchi who did the original mechanical designs revamps them for this project. And Kenji Kawai will provided the music. There’s also some big name voice actors in the main three roles; Megumi Hayashibara (Rei in "Evangelion", Lina Inverse in "Slayers") I think plays both the female captain and the back-up guiding the Labor (not too sure about the latter, it’s a bit hard to tell) and Koichi Yamadera (Spike Spiegel in "Cowboy Bebop") plays the male Ingram Labor pilot.

Amusingly unlike the majority of the Patlabor franchise, this short is chock full of Labor action. So much so that we are never told the names of the three members of the SV2. Unlike previous entries into the series, none of the existing characters make an appearance. There seems to be a gender reversal in the team with a Captain Goto like character as a woman, the Noa Izumi type as a male and the surly Shinohara back up as a woman. The action is really well done with the Labors duking it out in very narrow spaces in between residential blocks and houses. It feels and looks very much like the first time the SV2 are called out to a disturbance in “Patlabor the movie”, sans the ending of that sequence where Ota freezes himself in the river. Yoshiura modernises the franchise by including modern items like live streaming, social media and the general public trying get shots of the incident with their phones. The other new addition I liked what the SV2 using Japan Rail lines to get to incidents. Totally makes sense in a city like Tokyo.

While the short is really fun and action packed and it’s great to see Kazunori Ito and Yutaka Izubuchi working on Patlabor stuff again (both are members of the core team who created the series, collectively known as Headgear) you do really wish it was longer and hope it’s meant as a pilot film to a new series. It’s also really hard to get a grip on any of the character’s personalities with that short runtime. I mean their names are never mentioned in the show at all. Maybe they should have just used existing characters? The other major problem with this show is how it has been released. On a Blu-ray costing ¥5,000. It’s absurd for a short which really only runs six and half minutes when you take the credits and company logos out. The BD has about 40 minutes of extras which are mainly interviews and the recording of the soundtrack (both featurettes have no English subtitles), plus two booklets, one with the script and second with the storyboards and character and mechanical design reference sheets and a CD soundtrack. Regardless, it still feels like bit of a rip off. The Amazon.co.jp reviews of the BD are full of one star reviews upset at the yen to actual content (i.e. the actual main feature) ratio.

I think that this short should have been released as one package with the other shorts from the "Screening of Go Go Japan Anima(tor)'s Exhibition" compilation film. I suspect that copyright issues may have scuttled that idea. Or maybe Bandai Visual foisted this release on Studio Khara in exchange for being able to use the Patlabor designs. I really have no idea. In conclusion it’s pretty good short film and totally blows away “The Next Generation - Patlabor - ”, but it’s far too short and pricy for my liking. 7 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Three TV series. In addition I am also waiting for the second part of one TV series to be released before viewing it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Video Backlog: “The Rolling Girls”

Publisher: Funimation (USA)
Format: Region A and B Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English dub and English Subtitles. Region 1 and 4 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English dub and English Subtitles.
Length: 12 episodes x 24 minutes
Production Date: 2015
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

A decade after the Great Tokyo War, the majority of the political and economic leaders mysteriously vanished. Japan’s prefectures became inward looking and eventually became ten separate countries. Instead of police or military, countries had vigilante squads to protect the land and sort out disputes with other countries in regard to boarders. Teenager Nozomi Moritomo is the daughter of a family who runs a local Japanese sweets store in Tokorozawa. She’s also a new member of the local vigilante group, the Hiroshi Town Propellers. Grabbing some dango for the fellow members to eat, she rushes off to a battle between two “Bests” (super powered fighters who are leaders or representatives of local vigilante groups); Maccha Green a masked anonymous hero who fights for the Propellers and Kuniko Shigyo, a hired Best from Tokyo who now fights for Higashi Murayama. Kuniko believes that Maccha Green is actually the leader of the Propellers, Masami Utoku, and is determined to unmask her. The battle continues with Maccha Green nearly loosing. However the Propellers launch their “giant robot” (actually a helium filled balloon), and the Higashi Murayama members retreat.

Later at the Propeller’s headquarters a young woman on a bike called Yukina Kosaka crashes into the front door. She tells them that she has been riding for three days in search of the Propeller’s headquarters. Mistaking her for a new recruit, the fellow members sign her up and give a staff jacket. Soon after a bus arrives to pick up the members for a surprise trip to the local amusement park. However this is a trap set up by the Higashi Murayama. After a confrontation with Kuniko at a local ramen restaurant, Masami realises that her underlings have been held hostage and hurries to the amusement park. The members including Nozomi and Yukina are being held hostage on a roller coaster ride which the Higashi Murayama have planned to derail and crash to the ground. Kuniko demands that Masami fights her. However she refuses to and says that Maccha Green will be the one to fight her. Meanwhile one of the Higashi Murayama members, Ai Hibiki, decides that what they are doing is too cruel and attempts to stop the roller coaster to save the Propeller members. Her plan is thwarted, but Maccha Green arrives to save them. The ensuring battle between her and Kuniko, which also unmasks Maccha Green as Masami, is so fierce that both Bests end up in hospital.

It is revealed that Masami hid under the Maccha Green garb so as not to influence her friend Nozomi, into fighting. However that plan has now failed. Knowing that Masami will be out of action for a long time, she decides to take a trip in answer to several letters to Maccha Green asking for help from various vigilante groups in other countries. She also wants to become stronger not rely on Masami for help and believes this trip will help her in that regard. Setting off in her bike with a side car, Yukina asks if she can join her on her bike to Tokyo. They soon spot Ai hitchhiking. Having been kicked out of the Higashi Murayama, she wants to move on from the town. In park up the road they discover a girl in gas mask on a Vespa. Her name is Chihaya. She is after the heart shaped stones that apparently give the Bests their super human strength. The four head off to their first stop, Tokyo, where the country of Always Comima now resides. However the four girls are mistaken as members of the terrorist group Dynamite Bomber and are hunted down by the local Best called Thunderoad. Meanwhile the president of Tokorozawa has sent out an agent to buy up and collect all the heart shaped stones he can find.

Wit Studio certainly has made some really interesting anime since they were founded a short four years ago. While this show was rather unfairly criticised by the majority of anime fandom, I think this is another great show by the studio. The first two episodes lull you into believing this show will be a fighting show a la “Kill la Kill”, except a lot lighter, but then it ends up as a rather fun road trip adventure. The set-up is pretty simple. Nozomi and her “gang” go to a new country to answer calls for help as per the letter sent to Maccha Green. While they don’t usually solve the problem at hand, their arrival and presence becomes the catalyst to solving the issue. Generally there are arcs of two episodes each as the girls travel from country to country. In the universe of “The Rolling Girls”, communication now seems to be really limited and the countries (formerly prefectures) really patriotic and inward looking. There are a lot of stereotypes of certain prefectures (especially Kyoto and Okayama) and at times it’s a bit too absurd and silly. However it’s always fun.

The show is brimming full of great ideas and the artwork is really colourful and fun. I especially liked the rather colourful attacks and explosions (some take the shapes of flowers) and the background art. Much of it is rather impressionistic watercolours, especially for the Kyoto and Hiroshima arcs. There’s also the music with songs from now defunct 1980’s rock/punk band The Blue Hearts. All of the songs are covers by the four lead seiyu, but they certainly do the songs justice. There’s a lot little interesting things in the show which I think a lot of reviewers have missed. For instance Chiaya is able to see other’s dreams while they are sleeping using device similar to what Maetel had in “Galaxy Express 999”. In the Kyoto arc there is a lead singer of a band called Misa Ichijo, which sounds awfully like a married name of a certain character in the original “Macross” series.

Perhaps at times there is an overabundance of ideas and it does lose it ways at times. The Always Comima arc is probably the least interesting in the series. But the criticism from fans regarding show sort of annoyed me. Accusations of it being confusing I found odd as the show pretty much explains everything; the power of the hearts, why they are being collected etc. It’s all there. Then there’s the criticism of the four leads getting sidelined and not actually doing anything. This is bunkum as well. As I said before they are the catalysts of the story in each individual arc. If there weren’t there the show wouldn’t work and they are always key players in each story. Sometimes I feel I don’t really understand anime fandom anymore. Do they think stories can only be told in one way? They just seem so closeminded to lot of ideas and concepts. If anything slightly off-kilter or left of centre is presented to them they reject it.

The series was directed by Kotomi Deai who has also directed the latter series of “Natsume's Book of Friends” and second season of “Silver Spoon”. Yes, another female director with a female character designer, tanu (“Flip Flappers”) providing all the designs. I think it’s great that there’s a lot more women in key roles in anime series now days. Certainly the direction is very good and the show just looks so vibrant and colourful. Perhaps the girls might have been portrayed quite differently with a male director and character designer. I note that there is no fanservice at all to speak of. Funimation’s set is on par with their other DVD/BD combos. They replace as much Japanese text as they can get away with in the opening and closing credits and as per usual there is at least some banding in the video which is pretty disappointing. I must admit it’s not as bad as some of their previous releases. Generally I find little to none in Sentai’s releases, yet I see a fair wack of fans ripping into Sentai for being “cheap”. Whatever. One of the things which frustrates me about recent Funimation releases is their insistence of subbing the songs on the textless opening and closing animation, then blocking the option to turn off the subs. It’s really, really annoying and makes a mockery of the fact they’re including creditless opening and closing animations.

Summing up, “The Rolling Girls” is a far more engaging and fun series than most of the professional and fan reviews make it out to be. I concede some of it doesn’t work, however more often than not it does. I think it's a real shame that series like this one will end up lost and forgotten in a couple years time. 7 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Three TV series. In addition I am also waiting for the second part of one TV series to be released before viewing it.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Video Backlog: “Girl Friend Beta”

Publisher: Madman Entertainment (Australia)
Format: Region 4 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Length: 12 episodes x 24 minutes
Production Date: 2014
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

Kokomi Shiina is a second year high school student in a Tokyo high school. In the rhythmic gymnastics club, she feels that she is gaining weight, mostly due to her mother feeding her up for an upcoming competition. She resolves to go on a diet but seems to be failing. She asks various friends for ideas on how she could lose weight and the exercise club ends up helping her get the kilograms off. However her friends reward her and the club with melon bread which undoes all the hard work. Later Kokomi enquires about how her friends, the hyper Erena Mochizuki and literally bookish Fumio Murakami became best buddies. Erena tells her the story of the first meeting. Spotting Fumio in the library, she starts snapping away with her camera (as Erena is the in photography club). Erena wants Fumio to be her model for an upcoming photography competition; however Fumio is not keen on the idea. However Erena is quite persistent (though in a playful way) and keeps taking candid photos of her whenever she can. Eventually Fumio can’t take anymore and politely asks Erena to stop bothering her. But Fumio has regrets and eventually she agrees to Erena’s request.

A box of kittens is found by one of the students a brought to school. Akane Sakura of the broadcasting committee takes it on herself to find homes for the five little cats. While five girls put up their hands to takes them, most of their parents place conditions to take them in their homes; mainly they get better grades at school. It is decided everyone should study together at some’s house. That someone turns out to be Isuzu Shiranui, a reserved second year student. When the girls arrive at her family home, they are surprised to discover a very traditional looking Japanese home with Isuzu waring a kimono. As the afternoon flows into the evening, no real studying is actually getting done. A 10 minute visit to a convenience store for snacks ends up being more than half an hour. Eventually night turns into early morning light with scant study actually done, but friendships made and strengthened.

A crisis occurs within the school when the cafeteria staff end up stranded on a trip and unable to return. Student council president Kanata Amatsu decides that the student council should run the cafeteria. Though the other member’s voice objections to this, the ditzy and almost unstoppable Kanata forges ahead with her boundless enthusiasm. Though Kanata gets in the way and often manages to cause more trouble than solve problems, somehow the first day of operations is a success. However word spreads amongst the students and the customer numbers double the following day. Members of the cooking club and indeed anyone at all who can cook are recruited to help out. However Kanata ends up being a spanner in the works by recommending dishes to customers that aren’t even on the menu.

This series is unsurprisingly based on a dating simulator from a few years back. Essentially the aim of the game is to date one of the over 100 girls in the game. It was a free online game, but of course required payment for sections of the game or events. While the original game did have more than a hundred characters, this anime adaptation pares back the characters to just under 50. The series is episodic and has some pretty bog standard scenarios for this type of show with various characters having to deal with weight issues, getting ready for the school festival, working part time at a café, dealing with hardships at school etc. It’s a show that you couldn’t exactly say breaks any new ground.

While at times I did feel it was little bit slow going, for most of its length it’s reasonably fun. Though the promotional artwork highlights five characters, the stories don’t always focus on those five. A large number of side characters flow in and out of storylines with relative ease. While a lot of them aren’t really fleshed out character wise, I’d say more the most part they aren’t clichéd or are shallow and have no personality.  There are some really interesting stories in the series such as the one where the shy Tomo Oshii has to be an emcee for a school beauty contest and her friends rally around to help and support her. Another fun story has quiet writer Natsume Mahiro writing a novel for fun since primary school. A friend reads her incomplete novel, and though thinks it’s a bit bizarre, is intrigued by the story so much she encourages her to complete it. However Natsume has writer’s block. Eventually the story gets distributed around the school and Natsume is overwhelmed with fans begging her to complete it.

There are some really silly stories as well. French exchange student Chloe Lemaire can be a bit grating at times. She’s butt of jokes for the screenwriters as she constantly misinterprets Japanese culture and gets sayings mixed up. You know the usual “these gaijin know nothing” attitude. Apart from the very, very dodgy French Chloe speaks, there’s also one episode when her father misinterprets Japanese New Year celebrations as dangerous and decides to take her back to France. Of course the other girls sort everything out and explain everything to the dumb gaijin, but it’s an episode which was pretty bloody silly.

While the scenarios, setting and story for the most part seem firmly rooted in reality, there are some really weird fantastical elements to the show. For example Miss Monochrome who is an android (and also had her own short spin off TV series) and Ishida Isuki who loves ammonites. However most of these elements are in the background of the series.  Like many of these types of series, men are an endangered species. Even though the school is co-ed, most of the male characters are background characters. Some of the latter episodes there isn’t a male to be seen or heard. You could probably count all the lines in the show spoken by men on one hand and have would have a couple of fingers left over.

This is the only commercial English language release of this series anywhere in the world as far as I’m aware. While it is an Australian release and coded for region 4, the video is indeed NTSC, not PAL. Another curious thing with this release, and a lot of the more recent subtitle only anime Madman has put out on DVD is that is hard subbed. While the disc seems to indicate that there is a subtitle track (that curiously can’t be switched off), it’s patently obvious that the subtitles are matted onto the video. They are far too sharp, clear and occasionally too multi-coloured to be “soft” DVD subtitles. Remember when dopes on the Anime News Network forum called sub only DVDs “fansubs on DVD”? Well I suspect this set is “streams on DVD”. I’m really not too sure but it seems that with many of their recent sub only releases they’ve just slapped the streaming video from their streaming service, Animelab, on to DVD. It just seems rather lazy, cheap and nasty. Concluding, “Girl Friend Beta” really isn’t anything new in the genre. It’s relatively fun and is quite amusing at times. It’s a pleasant way to fill up a couple of evenings. Unfortunately it’ll probably be forgotten by fans in a few years’ time.  6.5 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: One movie, one OVA, four TV series. In addition I am also waiting for the second part of one TV series to be released before viewing it.