Thursday, October 13, 2011

Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya Review

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Season 1 is probably my second favorite anime of all time, just behind Evangelion, if that wasn't apparent already from my number 1 and number 2 anime girl choices.

I'm sure most fanboys/otaku/haters (I lump them all together at this point) would say I'm a bandwagon fan who likes whatever is popular.  I would take issue with this in a major way, as with both series, I just happened to stumble upon them by chance.  With Eva, I rented a single VHS from my local video store and was hooked like painkillers.  With Haruhi, my friend and I  just downloaded a random anime to watch that had started that season.  Again, hooked instantly.  I actually take pride in my ability to instantly realize when a work of fiction is going to be beloved by all (or most).  That is why I feel when people go on tares about how something is "overrated" and "only popular because they are told it is good" are talking out of their asses. 

But that is a rant for another day.

In any case, as I stated Season 1 specifically is one of my favorite series.  That is an important point, as Season 2 I do not include in that list.  The first thing that probably comes to mind when someone mentions "Haruhi Season 2" is the infamous Endless Eight story arc.  Eight episodes with the same storyline and plot but animated and voiced as if each episode was something new.  I don't think any act has ever turned a fanbase against a show so rapidly and so quickly.  And as annoying as Endless Eight was, that wasn't the main reason I didn't warm up to it.

Mostly it was about how much I didn't like Kyon anymore.  In Season 1, he is a fairly laid back guy which anyone can relate to.  He isn't a wimp or coward like many anime male leads.  He has a relatable, almost Peter Parkian (yes I just did that) aspect about him.  The Everyman.  He might complain about his life every now and again, but in the end he knows what it takes to get the girl and win the day.

After the first season I decided to read the books.  The show follows the books nearly verbatim (in a wacky order of course); With one key difference.  Kyon bitches and moans a lot more in the novels.  Nearly every other sentence is about how Haruhi is driving him up the wall.  So much so I found them hard to read after a while and stopped reading before the "Disapearance of Haruhi" novel.

When the second season got Greenlit, one surprising omission had been made to the staff. Tatsuya Ishihara was the director of the first season, and from what I can tell he was on board with Season 2 as well, however the Directing credit was actually given to Yasuhiro Takemoto.  Now I had no proof of this, but I believed what Ishihara brought to the table as Director in Season 1 was toning down Kyon's personality from the novel.  I say this because Season 2 seemed to follow the book version of Kyon to a fault.  This was my thinking all though Sesason 2, as it culminated in the worst possible outcome of Kyon nearly punching Haruhi in the face.  That scene in the book nearly killed the franchise for me, and I really hoped they would have omitted it in the show, but they didn't.

Other parts of Season 2 that left me a little cold was the absolute lack of development of some characters like Yuki Nagato, who had to endure thousands of days of Endless Eight without batting an eye.  At this point, a character who I really liked in the first season, seemed like nothing more than what she was, a lifeless alien robot.

So up until the release of "Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya", the theatrical film version of the novel, my love for the Haruhi franchise was on shaky ground.

Now that I have seen the "Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya" on glorious Blu-Ray,  I can safely say that, ladies and gentleman, Season 2, was all part of the show.  Or perhaps a better way to put it, Season 2 was a necessary evil to set up everything for the movie.

Now I don't want to shit on Season 2 too much.  It is still well written and has some really hilarious parts, but the characterization of some characters just went to a bad place.  But I see now it was intentional.

The way "Disappearance" works is sort of a reverse "It's a Wonderful Life".  After a typical day with the SOS Brigade, Kyon wakes up one day to see that Haruhi (as I'm sure you guessed from the title) has vanished.  Not only that; no one remembers her, and none of the SOS Brigade is an alien, time traveler, or esper.  In other words, his life is normal.  His life is how he has always wanted it to be: Haruhi-less.

The surprising part, given what I have just said about Season 2, is Kyon is almost instantly driven into hysterics over the absence of Haruhi.  This is what made me instantly take a liking to Kyon again.  There was never a scene of him going, "Alright! Finally the bitch is gone, now I can live my life how I want."  No, from the onset he does everything he can to bring her back, to the point of nearly ending his friendship with his two lifelong buddies when he finds out Haruhi does actually exist in some manner of speaking (although he would never admit it, Kyon is clearly a "Hos before Bros" type of guy).

By the end of it, Kyon goes through a near "End of Eva" type of self revelation about Haruhi and the SOS Brigade.  The whole film stands as a major piece of character development for Kyon.  The Kyon by the end of the film is completely different than the Kyon at the beginning, and in a movie that is what I look for in regards to character development.

Also, there is another character that gets a surprising amount of development and screen time, Yuki Nagato.  I don't want to spoil the plot, but she is the main female protagonist in this story and not Haruhi.  On top of that, Endless Eight makes sense, or at least WHY they put the audience through it.  They wanted us to feel a taste of what Yuki had to go through.  The frustration, and the anger, multiplied by 1,800 times.  We never see the frustration from Yuki in the TV series, but the culmination of those repeated days are very important to her character, and we see the result of it in this movie.  Does that make "Endless Eight" a good idea?  Probably not, but it does make it an interesting psychological experiment on the audience.  Again, not saying I condone it, but it is interesting.

So that is why I say Season 2 is a necessary evil.  It sets up the characters for this movie, at the cost of making a less enjoyable TV series.

That being said, to a Haruhi virgin, I believe the movie stands up pretty good on it's own legs.  It is an interesting and unique, Kurt Vonnegut-esque time travel story that also deals with alternate universes.  There is enough of Haruhi and the SOS Brigade at the beginning to understand the dynamic and relationships, and then the plot happens and the story unfolds and reaches a resolution at the end.  All in a pretty 3 Hour package.

However, I think it would probably be best to at least watch the first six episodes of Season 1 and the nearly essential episode "Bamboo Lead Rhapsody" from Season 2 (which is the best episode in Season 2 and maybe the entire series).

A question I asked myself after watching it was, how does this stand as a possible end to the Haruhi animated series?

I realize there are many more novels that continue the SOS Brigades adventures after this, but the way anime works isn't how popular TV shows and movies work in the West.  Sometimes things just end in the middle of the actual story, despite the popularity.

Adding to this problem is the fact that Haruhi's voice actress, the irreplaceable Aya Hirano, has come upon some tough times as of late.  Without going on too much of a rant, and it should be pointed out this goes slightly with my rant earlier about Otaku/fanboys/haters in that I think they are complete slime.  They would want to see a woman's career fail because of what she does on her free time.  If Kyon's voice actor,  Tomokazu Sugita, had been caught having sex with multiple women, or even multiple men, he would still be playing Kyon without hardly any backlash. 

Again, a rant for another day.

But back to my question.  If this is the end of the Haruhi series, I think it would work well as a conclusion.  Even though the Haruhi/Kyon relationship isn't fully completed, there is enough in the final scenes to let us use our imaginations on how it will end up.  Still, since Haruhi isn't even in this film all that much, and there are a few loose ends left by the end of the film, I think at least one more movie would really seal the deal for me.  But ONLY with Aya as Haruhi.  No Aya, no Haruhi, no deal.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hyperdiminsion Neptunia Impressions

First of all, sorry for the extreme lack of updates.  I have a baby on the way and just prepping for it has cut into most of my free time.  Imagine when he actually arrives.

Mostly, that little free time has been spent plowing through as many video games, manga and anime that I can before our little bundle of joy arrives.  The good news is that I now have a backlog of all things pop culture that I can give impressions on.

In the last couple of months I've played through such gaming gems as Dragon Quest V, Dragon Quest VIII, Disgaea 4, Shadows of the Damned, 3rd Birthday, Legend of Zelda OoT 3D, 9 Hours 9 Doors 9 Persons, Rayman 1 and 2, ICO, Onechanbara Wii, River City Ransom, and Half Minute Hero.  And played them all to completion.  So why out of all those great games am I choosing to discuss such a middle of the road game like Hyperdimension Neptunia?  While I intend to write about some of those games at a later time, I feel not a lot has been said, positive or negative, about Hyperdimension Neptunia and so I'm going to focus on that for a bit.
Green Heart (Xbox)... so sexy

Although I am an admitted fan of ecchi work, what actually drew me to Hyperdimension Neptunia (henceforth known as HN) was the set up.  The world of HN is based on a fantasy version of the current Game Industry and Console War.  The world is known as Gameindustri (not very subtle) and this world is ruled by three goddesses all based on the major console manufactures.  The Xbox 360 girl (Green Heart from Leanbox) has Big American Breasts, and has problems with overheating.  The Wii girl (Blue Heart from Lowee) doesn't seem much like Nintendo to me, but she is cute and perhaps a little childish.  The PS3 girl (Black Heart from Laystation) is cold and comes from a Steampunk land where corporations come before anything else.  All three of these goddesses from the different lands decide to get together and cast Neptune (the hypothetical Sega Next Gen console that never got made) into the land of commoners so she can no longer hang out with the cool kids.

The story is then about Neptune reclaiming her former glory and teaming up with other game companies and eventually as a supporting member that brings all three consoles together (isn't Sega great?)

As interesting as that plot sounds, it doesn't really play out like you might imagine it.  Everything is told Visual Novel style with very little CG or character interaction and description to really get a feel for the world.  The dialog is pretty hokey in the main story bits, and the fan service is nearly insulting to the audiences intelligence.

There are scenes where the girls are describing movers putting boxes in a truck like one might play Tetris or a random street fighter with big thighs destroying someones car.  We never actually see this.  What should be the gaming equivalent of Roger Rabbit is constrained into dialog boxes of cute girls talking about what we wish we could see.  That is where everything falls apart from a story standpoint.

That said, the jabs and critiques at the current console war can be pretty biting and clever, and its interesting to play a game on PS3 that so blatantly makes fun of Sony and their business practices (but no company is safe from ridicule in this game, even Sega).  So the story is worth plowing through for the commentary and snide remarks.

Neptune, our heroine
The other big problem with the game is that even though Neptune is the main character, the player never really feels a connection even though she is technically the player controlled character.  All interaction with the world is handled from menus.  No avatar running around an open world.  Within dungeons themselves each girl has a special ability that allows them to obtain special items or routes in the dungeons.  Neptune has a giant hammer that destroys some walls.  But that ability is rarely ever needed.  Another character called IF can find hidden treasure.  I can guarantee IF will be the main character you use in dungeons, if you want the rare items.  So from this standpoint, it makes IF seem like the lead character.

It's pretty bad when you choose not to play as a title character in a game.

Also, the game has some major pacing issues throughout.  Not just the story but the actually battles.  Battles are slow to start and slow to end.  Moves also can been slow at times.  This isn't a lag issue, but a design choice.  There is no need to have a spinning camera at the beginning of every fight.  It just slows down the action.

This might sound like the game is an outright disaster.  But I wanted to get the bad out of the way so I can focus on the good.

This game, despite all appearances has some of the most robust character building RPG mechanics I've ever seen in any RPG.   You are given a plethora of different moves that you can customize before, during and after battle that allows you to string together sets of moves into powerful combinations.  If you learn how to use your AP and move combos effectively, you can have two characters take out a boss, that is above your current level before the third character even gets to fight.  Or you can be completely murdered by the boss if you don't learn how to combo.  The fighting system is very similar to a turn based version of the Final Fantasy XIII fighting mechanic, except more streamlined, less confusing and more fun.  When I am fighting in HN, I'm having a blast.  I love pulling off moves, transforming and using customizable summons.

Something about the way Compa runs...
To compare it to a beloved franchise, the battle system is also very close to that of Xenogears.  With the chain moves, and the ability to summon a powerful robot to fight for you (in this case the Console Goddesses).

The customizable summons are the little icing on the cake for me.  Occasionally characters get "blank" summons.  You can then go into your hard drive and apply any picture and name to that summon.  What you are encouraged to do, and what I did, is use pictures that relate to the character.  So my Nippon Icchi girl can summon Plenair, Laharl and Etna.  Neptune (the Sega girl) can summon Sonic the Hedgehog, Kazuma from Yakuza and Ulala from Space Channel 5.  Nintendo girl summons sprites of Mario, Link, and Samus.  You get the idea.  Of course you can have the PS3 girl summon a giant penis if you want.  Any picture will work.  But I like to try and keep with the theme of the universe.

So who is this game for?

White Heart (Ps3 Girl)
If you like Visual Novels, hard core JRPGs, and generous amounts of fan service, then you will probably like this game quite a bit.  If your love for any of the above three categories falters in the least, then you will probably hate this game.  This game isn't for most people.

However, from what I've heard and read about the sequel (which is coming to the west), nearly every part of the first game that fails has been improved, including an on screen avatar to progress through the different worlds.

A lot has been made of the sexuality and loli characters, and a lot of reviews focus only on that instead of talking about the positive and negative the game actually offers.  I hope this review gives a more concise point by point of what makes this a good and a bad game.