Given that I have now reviewed over a dozen movies from Studio Ghibli I figure it would be worth my time for me to put out my official reviews of the four anime series I have watched.
Spoilers will be avoided as much as possible, but it’s impossible to avoid everything, so move ahead at your own risk. Still, I did make an effort to avoid ruining the shows for new viewers.
These are my micro-reviews of “Cowboy Bebop”, “Death Note”, “Gurren Lagann”, and “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”:
1) Cowboy Bebop – Spike Spiegel, a former hitman now on the run from the Red Dragon Syndicate, teams up with former cop Jet Black to catch criminals on the spaceship Bebop. Along the way they pick up a ragtag crew of misfits, and together they come to terms with their mysterious pasts.
Review – Outstanding in every aspect, but particularly in the soundtrack, atmosphere, and rich characterizations of its leads. “Cowboy Bebop” is often called a masterpiece and is a masterpiece, with equal amounts serious drama and goofy humor, both executed expertly. The show had a strong pulpy feel with influences ranging from noir to western and everything in between. It also has the BEST OPENING EVER:
Cons: The finale is much praised but to my eye rushed; when a major character is killed (those who saw the show know who I mean) the killer should have been Vicious. When the series ousted its humor and went for pure drama it sacrificed something that I felt was one of the best parts of the show (the best episode is “Mushroom Samba”). Are these nitpicks? Yes, yes they are, but that’s what you’re going to get with a show as outstanding as “Cowboy Bebop”
Is it superversive? – Tricky. The main theme of “Cowboy Bebop” is the need to let go of the past, and the difficulty of doing so. It’s sort of a more serious take on “Lupin III”, which makes it a deconstruction in some ways. I would say that “Cowboy Bebop” exists in a world where good and evil do exist but where the lines are often blurred; the stalwart crew of the Bebop aren’t exactly white hats. So it isn’t really superversive, but it isn’t subversive or nihilistic either. It has its own particular point of view and proceeds accordingly.
Overall Score: 9 of 10
2) Death Note – Light Yagami is a highly intelligent but otherwise normal teenage boy whose life changes the day he picks up a mysterious notebook with the power to kill anybody whose name is written on the inside. Within days of finding the notebook Light commits hundreds of murders, attracting the attention of the enigmatic Interpol detective known only as L.
Review – I did a four part series on “Death Note” on this very blog, so you already know I’m a fan. “Death Note” is basically two animes. The first half of the anime is a masterpiece of pacing and plot, with one of the most compelling mental battles in all of fiction.
The second half is a big fat dud that perks up just enough at the last episode to avoid complete anti-climax…and even then the manga version of the finale is superior.
Even so, the brilliance of the first half cannot be denied. “Death Note” is the most carefully plotted show I’ve ever seen, and it keeps up a level of constant suspense and tension that would make Alfred Hitchcock blush. There are MULTIPLE iconic scenes, and Light and L can take their place alongside Holmes and Moriarty as one of the all-time great cat and mouse duos.
Is it superversive? – There is actually some debate on the subject, but in light of Near’s speech in the “Death Note” finale, I would say yes. Near rejects the idea of right and wrong being subjective to the individual and decided by the will of the strongest, and instead claims that it can be discovered through the use of reason, an objective code independent of any particular person or time. This is superversive in a very Old Testament sense – not noumenal, but superversive nonetheless.
Overall Score – 9.5 of 10 first half, 5 of 10 second half
3) Gurren Lagann – Deep in the heart of an underground city a young boy named Simon drills the tunnels needed for the people to eke out a meager existence, even while his reckless and boastful friend Kamina tells tales of a world above their world known as the Surface. While digging Simon finds a small battle robot known as Lagann, which triggers an attack from the surface world that draws Simon and Kamina into an adventure to end the reign of the Spiral King so that humans can live on the surface once more.
And then things get really crazy.
Review – “Gurren Lagann” is awesome with a side of awesome and an extra helping of awesome. It’s so awesome I had to take breaks to process the awesome. The show is very stupid, but it’s so awesome that you don’t care. JUST WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK I AM?!?
Having a dumb plot should not be mistaken for being badly written. Plotting is just one part of a story, most of the time not even the most important part, and it’s not as if the show didn’t know what it was doing. “Gurren Lagann” is absolutely outstanding at character development. The character of Simon at the end of the series is a natural progression of the character as seen at the beginning, even though they are completely different. And everyone’s reactions to the death of a major character are strikingly realistic.
That death midway into the first season sparked a major tonal shift in the series. Pre-death the show was balanced on the razor’s edge of parody and legitimate mech show, but post-death while the humor and absurdity remains we’re asked to take the story much more seriously. The jokes about Yoko’s assets and Leeron’s effeminacy are placed in the background, removed from front and center focus, and Yoko is treated more seriously as a character in her own right rather than as an excuse to draw a gal with a gun.
This is to the series’ benefit – both “versions” of the show are good but if it hadn’t grown it would have gotten old quick. As it happens I was having so much fun I accepted the new status quo readily, if sadly, considering which character had died.
The final two minutes are garbage. I’ll leave it to John C. Wright to explain why.
Is it superversive? – Outside of the last two minutes, absolutely.
Overall Score – 8 of 10 for 99% of it, negative infinity of 10 for the final two minutes. Seriously, read Mr. Wright’s article, it really was that bad.
4) Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – The young boys Edward and Alphonse Elric are prodigies in the field of alchemy, a form of sorcery commonly used in the country of Amestris. After their mother’s untimely death the boys commit the ultimate taboo and attempt to bring her back to life via human transmutation. The process backfires, leading to Ed losing an arm and a leg and Al losing his entire body, alive only because his brother bound his soul to a suit of armor. Determined to regain their bodies Ed passes a difficult examination to earn the rank of state alchemist, using the resources his title as Fullmetal Alchemist provides to research the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, their best lead on a method to regain their bodies.
Review – Ah, and now we’re here. I loved this show. Loved. This. Show. It is brilliant. It is amazing. It is outstanding. It is the best thing I have watched since “Justified”. It might – Might! – even be better than “Justified”. It is just. That. Good.
I don’t know what there isn’t to praise about this series. The animation? Fantastic. Character designs? Fantastic. The dub? It might be even better than the legendary “Cowboy Bebop” dub. I can’t think of a single actor who didn’t nail their role – Colonel Mustang’s voice actor in particular deserves some sort of award. The soundtrack is understated compared to the other three series but excellent regardless. The characters are complex and striking and memorable. The moral landscape of the series is complicated and nuanced but without sacrificing a recognition that good and evil exist and we are to seek the good. The action scenes are stellar.
There is so much going on. At certain points we have three separate plotlines going at once, and in 64 episodes there is almost no filler at all. Seriously, somebody actually measured it out, the show is made up of an astonishingly low 3% filler. Midseason episodes carry as much weight and have just as high stakes as season finales, and there is suspense and tension in every episode. Characters are introduced over halfway into the show’s run that end up being focal points of the climax, and we are completely invested in them. Enemies and allies shift and change their roles as the series progresses, and it is one of the only things I have ever seen where in the leadup to the finale I actually stopped and thought to myself Wow, I have no idea how this is going to end!
And man, that ending! Brilliant. Just brilliant.
As far as cons go there is this one early episode where the show obnoxiously mocks a Not-Catholic Priest, places its faith in Science!, and mocks and belittles a woman for having faith in religion. This attitude is never displayed again and the show’s relationship with God is subsequently shown to be far more nuanced, and in fact how Ed and Al and the other alchemists relate to God is a big part of the series’ thematic underpinnings. The show seems to view God in a rather Gnostic light, actually.
That’s it. That’s the only criticism. One episode displaying an attitude that never comes up again. Out of 64.
(As a side note – I have been told the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime is far more obnoxious in this regard. Having never seen it I can’t really comment except to say that that’s not the case in “Brotherhood”.)
Is it superversive? – Hell yes. To see why you need to watch it.
Overall Score – 10 of 10. A must-watch and an all-time classic.
Next up: No idea. I have a few recommendations from friends, and I suppose I’ll go from there, plus a few more Ghibli movies before I finish the retrospective.
At any rate, all four shows are highly recommended. Enjoy!