Anime-Breakdown: Yuurei Sen (The Phantom Ship) (1956) Short Movie Review

Yuurei Sen in Japanese or The Phantom Ship in English is a short animated film from 1956. It’s a film both directed and written by early 20th century, Japanese silhouette animation pioneer Noburo Ofuji. Telling a simple story without dialogue in eleven minutes. It’s the definition of a visual experience with a fantastic direction creating a visually striking piece of animation despite the limitations that came with the experimental storytelling and animation style.

The short film opens with director Noburo Ofuji cutting waves out of colored cellophane. Showing first hand the method he used when creating this film. For this film, he’s inventive by the way he uses lighting, shadows, and music for capturing the purest essence of atmosphere. In one scene, on a rugged seascape combined with the low vocalizing of the choir creates a feeling of unease. Within the same scene, the shadow of a phantom ship with brightly colored background shows corpses of what appears to be a grisly aftermath of a battle at sea. The wordless chorus increases in volume and pitch as the boat magically comes back to life. With these series of images Noburo Ofuji opens the short film. From then on, the rest is a perfect culmination of animations, filming, scoring, and editing.

Ofuji usage of color creates images that strike strong in their simplicity. Everything in the foreground from characters to objects they are on or hold are dark while everything in the background is colorful. Together in sync the colorful backgrounds make simple the act of a dark figure being stabbed visceral. When inside of another ship dancers are set against a kaleidoscope a complex design pulled off successfully. In another scene, seeing the present of a white phantom ship uses an experimental technique of overlaying animated swirling lines and other shapes. These techniques make are able to make white, ghostly figures that are also transparent when interacting with the other figures. It’s an incredible scene that epitomizes best usage of silhouette animation using it to its fullest potential.

The soundtrack is composed by Kozoaburo Hirai. His score consists of choirs, strings, and percussion instruments that sound by being struck or scraped by a beater. It is powerful how foreboding of an atmosphere the score creates in a short runtime. Further increasing it gradually grows louder and becomes more menacing strengthening the impact the visuals have. How his score is used when opening the film is masterful. Never does it overtake or overshadows what occurs on screen. It’s treated an equal story tool as much as the animation.

Without a single feeling of doubt I will say Yuurei Sen/The Phantom Ship is a short film worth seeing for all lovers of animation. It’s over fifty years old, but has lost none of powerful imagery and haunting score all those years. Standing proudly over time as a testament of quality. If you have never seen silhouette animation or want to appreciate how far animation has come Yuurei Sen/The Phantom Ship is a great place to start. A masterfully made film from a pioneer of Japanese silhouette animation.



Anime-Breakdown: Watamote (Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui!) (2014) Series Review

I have no idea how to open up this review to be honest. WataMote was one of the first animes I saw in 2014 as ridiculous at that might sound. So when I first saw it most of it references with the exception of Battle Royale and Dragon Ball Z flew over my head. What drew me in was the lead character and how I find her likable. Tomoko kept me coming back despite how embarrassing the situations she got herself into were. However, a whole year has past with me now into anime alongside having found a couple of titles that influenced my standards for certain genres. Seeing WataMote is similar to seeing a friend you haven’t seen in a year; do you accept them despite never changing or you do ignore them and move on. Well aware of the consequences I still chose the former.

Mixed: A decent setup that refuses to move past the status quo

WataMote is an episodic slice of life comedy anime series that focuses on the misadventures of Tomoko Kuroki in her quest to become popular in high school. Kinda small scale popularity, but it’s what her heart’s desires. The first episode does an excellent job establishing how much of a social outcast Tomoko is and her extreme social anxiety. Managing to be entertaining despite only focusing on a single character. Within its first episode it showed there some promise to be seen in the series if it develops beyond the initial premise. Unfortunately, once past the halfway mark any hopes of that will be thrown out of the window if it’s not already.

Its main brand of humor is referential humor or Tomoko reaction in a given situation. Unfortunately referential humor does makeup for large portions of it jokes. Some referential jokes will work even without getting the reference because of Tomoko over the top reaction in the situation, but the more direct and specific ones won’t work unless you have some knowledge to what it’s referencing. Simultaneously doing referential humor correctly and incorrectly. Tomoko never gives a normal reaction making a big deal out of everything. In episode 12, she imagines squashing a cockroach will lead to the entire class clapping and cheering her name out loud. Situation that Tomoko is put into changes from episode to episode. One episode will have her spending her whole summer in her room while another focuses on her attempting to get cuter by playing otome video games. The humor never evolves from how it starts out, but the variety in situations prevent it from getting as stale as it could have gotten. Another way it changes the humor up is by introducing a supporting character for Tomoko to interact with for a short length or an entire episode. Breaking the usual formula while staying in line with its specific brand of humor.

The biggest pitfall of WataMote is it desire to return to the status quo by the end of every episode. What progress is made is unimportant in the long run like Tomoko impressing her cousin or seeing an old friend from middle school. This makes her endeavor come across as a lost cause and as a viewer makes it reluctant to want to stick around to the end. However, no matter the embarrassing situations Tomoko gets herself into, the anime isn’t mean spirited. None of the characters mistreat her in any way. At most, Tomoki Kuroki (Tomoko’s younger brother) acting like siblings is about as cruel as it gets. This is counteracted by the fact that everything that happens to her in the series is her fault. Now due to the status quo effect the fact nothing changes for Tomoko in any positive way might make it depressing.

The ending…it’s something. How to classify it as is difficult. For starter, the narrator flat out tells the viewer that “This is a story about a peculiar girl. An unpopular girl, and it really doesn’t matter” at the end of the final episode. That line is equal to a middle finger to your face. The same final scene continues with Tomoko getting the final line that hints at some possible progression on her outlook on popularity. What you’re ultimately left with is an ending where it’s the only time narrative and character progress can be made cutting the story there instead of taking risks. Playing it safe with its comfortable doing, but also tells the viewer itself it doesn’t matter if they see it.

Mixed: A great lead, but under utilize supporting cast

Watamote only character worth paying attention too is it lead Tomoko Kuroki. She’s a “down to Earth” character whose social anxiety makes her easy to relate too. Receiving most of the characterization through her many monologues developing various aspect about her personality from what she likes, her hobbies, her past, her thought process, and anything you can imagine. Like mentioned before, the series ends without progression. For as much development she receives she is too a static character who doesn’t learn nor changes. She is also a double edge sword; If you don’t like Tomoko Kuroki then the anime will fail. This also effect the supporting cast since Tomoko is the sole focus in every single episode. If you hate her then it wrote itself into a corner by offering no other character to latch onto or explore.

The supporting cast don’t receive enough characterization to stand on their own. Their only purpose is to interact with Tomoko to break up its own formula. Tomoki Kuroki whenever on screen is usually disgusted or annoyed at the sight of his big sister. Much like Tomoko, whenever Tomoki is on screen the humor lies in how he react to Tomoko. There’s no variation on how Tomoki is use within the story. Another supporting character is Yuu Naruse, a middle school friend of Tomoko who goes to a different high school. Tomoko interaction with Yuu are good times for Tomoko whenever she feeling down. It’s breather to see Tomoko speak with another person semi-sucessfully who isn’t her brother.

That about wraps up the semi-important supporting characters. Tomoki and Yuu are the only ones who receive partial screen time or play an important role in an episode in some way. Other supporting characters include Tomoko parents who don’t have many moments of good parenting. Ki is Tomoko cousin who appears in one episode than is never heard off again. There’s also certain students in Tomoko classes that are often shown, but don’t come into the picture aside from being criticize by Tomoko. Among them is a student council president who goes out of her way to cheer Tomoko up. Sadly, the series ends before it could anything with that development.

Good: A solid direction holds a small budget together

WataMote animation is done by Silver Link favoring flashiness over consistency for this anime. The animation isn’t stellar in any area, but works nonetheless. It simply looks fine with some questionable choices that fall under artistic and laziness. The opening animation is artistic showing Tomoko wanting to break free from her chains of unpopularity while the ending animation shows how she actually deals with it. Laziness comes in the form of background characters in several episodes being animated without any eyes drawn on. Some choices are questionable in execution. Episode 4 opens with Tomoko surfing on a website. Within the first couple of seconds there’s a promo displaying on the site that Tomoko is on promoting the anime adaptation of WataMote. If the character in the promo was design differently it would be a decent visual gag that broke the fourth wall, but instead what it does is break immersion. If a character that looks exactly like our lead is used in promos it begs the question why she isn’t considered popular in within the anime.

Backgrounds are simplistic reusing the limited locations alongside with Tomoko having the only notable character design. Lighting in many scenes are done with multiple hexagons or large circles inside smaller same shapes. In order to color in different shading, though even if the scene takes place at night time everything still looks bright. Some of the animation shortcoming is made up by incorporating different art styles whenever Tomoko goes on one of her rants or fantasy the animation style changes so suit her emotion. Often time nailing the exact look and style of what it’s referencing in that scene. Another positive is the animation nailed Tomoko expressions being hysterical when a joke works or when there’s a cringeworthy moment on screen.

Izumi Kitta excels in the lead role of Tomoko Kuroki in the Japanese cast. She’s fully committed to the role on all account. Delivering a natural performance as a dysfunctional high school girl while making her likable. Kitta is never too showy whenever delivering her more outrageous monologues and never over sells it during the more tender moments. Perfectly balancing the various bottled up emotion of Tomoko. The fact that Izumi Kitta was able to make a character who sometimes blames her social anxiety on other people sympathetic is a huge praise for how well she did in the role.

The English dub is done by Sentai Filmworks and the only casting choice they needed to get absolutely right was Tomoko Kuroki. Monica Rail is a talented actress, but unfortunately her performance lacks the finesse that Izumi Kitta brought to the same character. Monica Rail sounds force exaggerating her dialogue no matter if the context demanded it or not. Creating a character who instead of being socially awkward turns into a person who doesn’t know how to act human. Another downside to Monica Rail in the lead role is she does not sing in the English dub of the anime. The closing themes for a majority of the episodes has Tomoko singing the ending theme. Hearing the same character go from speaking awkwardly in English, then singing in Japanese in a charming way in several episodes is distracting. Overall, it’s not entirely a bad performance. Monica Rail has a good sense of comedic timing in her delivery. While Izumi Kitta is the better Tomoko all around Monica Rail attempt at the role is decent occasionally delivering a good laugh. If anything, it’s worth checking out at least once to listen to Monica Rail says thing like “I need to turn myself into a high school slut” that goes against the clean image of some other characters she voices.

Dialogue changes in the English dub are minor in general. Some phrases received changes so it could be more digestible for Western audiences. For example, Tomoko says in episode 5 “I’ll probably find something lewd in his room” in the English sub while in the English dub it was translated too “I’ll probablly find some porno in his room”. Dialogue changes like these don’t affect anything important. The English wording for some comedic lines loses their comedic touch upon delivering in writing and performance. In episode three, there’s a scene where Tomoko says “I-I figured I would go take a really messy shit in the bathroom or something” when talking to two guys in the rain. When Izumi Kitta delivers the line it’s comical as well as cringeworthy. When Monica Rail says “I-I just got to take a dump outside that restroom” it’s just comes off awkward. Several scenes can lose a semblance of comedy making you question if it’s a comedy at all. Finally, Sentai Filmworks felt the need to include subtitles to explain references in the English dub. Don’t know why they felt the need to do that since it won’t change if the joke itself is funny or not in execution. In both, the supporting cast get minimal usage. It’s because of this both supporting cast comes off as being equal in the voice acting department. Good performances for the limited time they receive, but not enough to make them memorable.

If you had to choose between the sub or English dub without a doubt go for the sub. Even if the comedic lines were directly translated in the English dub Izumi Kitta simply embodies the leading role far better than Monica Rail. Izumi Kitta sounds natural whereas Monica Rail is more in line of an embarrassing grandmother speaking like a teen in an effort to be hip. Also, the small fact hearing Izumi Kitta sing the closing theme gives Tomoko more charm when she optimistically sings about her social life to improve. Monical Rail doesn’t even sing when playing Tomoko which is immediately distracting in the English seeing a character speaking English singing in another language she doesn’t speak in within the anime.

The music is done by a group called Sadesper Record. Made up of composers Goro Watari (also goes by NARASAKI) and Masaki Oshima (also know as WATCHMAN) both of whom provide an OST comprised of electronic, comical, orchestrated, and hard rock music. The OST works fine in the anime series being diverse as it needs to be to complement the loner slice of life moments to the over exaggeration of Tomoko fantasies. It’s pleasant to listen too, but fail in comparison to the opening and closing themes of the series which are memorable without the company of the anime visuals. The opening theme is a hard rock song called “Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaete mo Omaera ga Warui” sung by Konomi Suzuki and Kiba of Akiba. It’s a hard rock song that fits with the anime capturing Tomoko bottle up emotion to break free.

Watamote despite being a twelve episode long anime has five different ending themes. The most use track for the ending is “Dou Kangaete mo Watashi wa Warukunai” by Izumi Kitta in episodes 1, 3, 4, 7 – 10, and 12. It’s an upbeat pop song that’s fun to listen to everytime. “Musou Renka” by Velvet.kodhy is used in episode 2 and it’s forgettable. It’s a alternative rock song with mixture of rap and hip hop splice together speeding up and slowing down it’s instrumental. Vocals that need work hitting high note and actual emotion because the singing sounds phoned in. Ironically, “Yoru no Tobari yo Sayonara” also by Velvet.kodhy in episode 5 has none of those problems. It’s a silly song with the vocalist singing in a deep voice and its done well. Going perfectly with the closing animation referencing the ending animation of Manga Nihon Musashi Banashi. Though, these two tracks aren’t memorable without the company of the anime visuals. “Sokora no Nuigurumi no Fuusen to Watashi” by Velvet.kodhy and Velvet.kodhy and μ and μ is another pleasant track used in episode 11. It has a feel good aura about it. From it two vocalist sharing a good time singing together and it’s joyous instrumentals. “Natsu Matsuri” by Utsu-P & Minatsukitoka ft. Hatsune Miku is used in episode 6. Combining foreboding piano music before going into techno sound bytes, with hard rock guitar strings, and robotic sounding autotune singing. This track is the closest the anime gets to matching the rock opening.

Personal Enjoyment: Enjoyable, but with apparent flaws

I did find the English dub inferior because Monica Rail wasn’t quite on par with voice actress Izumi Kitta. However, I did get a kick listening to Monica Rail say things I never expected to hear from her. That made the dub worth seeing even if the performance wasn’t quite to the level I wanted it to be at. Having seen this anime again in English I was able to catch more references than I was before. Not of all of them were subtle like a reference to Battle Royale and anything specifically named is hard to missed. The references I caught having seen WataMote again were Death Note, Tomoki Kuroki reading volume 8 of Arachnid in episode one, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Attack on Titan. Unfortunately, WataMote wasn’t quite as good as I remembered when I first saw it and boils down to nothing happens nor changes. It’s a static series were the potential is there to grow beyond the initial idea, but doesn’t know how to go about doing it. I still like the anime and find Tomoko Kuroki an endearing awkward character, but when the anime itself says it’s unimportant it epitomizes the down side for some slice of life animes. Good for the moment, but nothing that’ll remain with you forever.

Story: 2/3

Characters: 2/3

Production: 2/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

WataMote is a fun series to see no how awkward the situations got for Tomoko. It’s not a mean spirited anime since the main character is never mistreated by others, but has the potential to get depressing when realizing it’s her own fault for not improving herself. What it does provide is a lead character whose easily relatable among those with social anxiety, some killer tunes that either make you want to rock out too or cheer you up, and a stellar performance by Izumi Kitta. This anime floats or sink on the appeal of it’s lead in a static environment. If even after reading this entire review you still don’t know to check out the anime ask yourself if you want a dynamic or static story from this premise? If you choose the former go onto something else, but if you choose the latter enjoy sharing the same awkward experiences as Tomoko that few slice of life animes will touch upon.


Anime-Breakdown: Psychic School Wars (Nerawareta Gakuen) (2012) Movie Review

Nerawareta Gakuen effortlessly weaves a story that combines romance, time travel, an impending apocalypse, and growing up into an incomprehensible mess of a film. The film is plagued with aimless direction, among other things, that prevents it from being any more than eye candy. Besides being pretty to look at there’s nothing to be gained from seeing this film that’s a chore to finish.

The premise of Nerawareta Gakuen, which translates to the cooler sounding, but very misleading English title Psychic School War starts out simple. Introducing four characters into what appears will be a romance story with light elements of sci-fi. Following four characters each of whom contain bland characteristics leading to force conflicts that could have been easily been resolved. Being dragged out in order to pad out what little story it has. If it was only focused on the romance in the story, it would have been bland if it revolved around childhood friends along with a love triangle that’s entirely one sided nor add much of a conflict between the characters. Seeing, let alone learning about the character’s relationship with one another is spread thinly in the film. Emoting a sense of boredom that plays the usual tricks (will they won’t they hook up being the main element in use) in its setup.

If it was only a sci-fi than it would have still been incomprehensible. Vague explanations are given on how time traveling works, character backstory is revealed with sparse bits of information, the apocalypse that occurred gets a quick brief mention with unanswered questions, and how psychic powers work is flimsy. Some of it is explained like how other character can unlock the ability to read other minds, but what exactly it can do is left up to the imagination. One of the most crucial elements in the film that receives muddle explanations is an hourglass shaped device that Ryouichi carries around with him which he uses in order to create more psychics. He uses this device predominantly to achieve his goal and by badly presenting it purpose it’s easy to lose sight of how he’s going to accomplish what he sets out to do.

It’s so bad at telling its story that the whole plot has to use a very weak plot point involving a school policy which prevents students from bringing cell phones to school in order to show visible progress of the central conflict. In the worst possible way it tries to use this plot point to say some sort of commentary on social interaction by having students ignore or enforce the no cell phone policy. On a dramatic level this plot point becomes exaggerated that anything serious it wanted to say is downplayed in delivery. Seeing students expresses their hatred for cell phones in an over the top presentation is unable to be enjoyable in silliness because it wants to be taken seriously. There’s no build up to steadily show its central conflict becoming larger nor provide enough visual cues that more students are becoming psychic. At most, it only shows two students becoming physic which isn’t enough to provide a glimpse at the bigger picture. Instead characters have to exposition it to each other to get important information out. Sounding unnatural in several conversations.

The characters aren’t any better. Our four main characters in the film are archetypes that get introduced and three of them remain static in their journey. Kenji Seki is a dumb teen who has bad luck and oblivious to the fact his childhood friend Natsuki Suzuura loves him. It’s reasonable why Kenji is oblivious about Natsuki feelings since in one minute Natsuki teases him, punches him, and calls the police on him. He’s an idiotic character who’s unable to process thoughts. Unable in the fact he doesn’t how to handle any situation when comforting friends. He’s simply lucks out in how problems play out. Kenji is underdeveloped, though the only one who seems to grow in the film. In some ways he matures gaining a different outlook on life. Without much of a character to explore he ends up banal like the other characters.

Natsuki Suzuura is the typical girl next door who picks on Kenji to hide her true feelings from him. The way she acts needlessly prolongs an easily solvable conflict. She even says herself if she was more direct in expressing herself she wouldn’t be going through any overblown struggles. She’s another bland character who’s made entirely unlikable by how she acts. The first time she’s seen in the film she reports Kenji to the police by lying that Kenji was going to rape her. This is also how Natsuki character is introduced in the film, which gives a bad first impression of her character. Around the 23 minute mark Natsuki slaps Kenji for a comment he made regarding loving someone without mutual feelings being returned. Natsuki up to this point has shown no sign of even liking Kenji. Within that time frame she acts like a tsundere hitting Kenji throughout the film and teases Kenji nonstop who does not like getting teased. Despite acting how Natsuki does she wonders why Kenji doesn’t love her. When the film ends she still hasn’t a change bit proving she’s the film most dense character.

Kahori Harukawa is an unimportant character. Besides one brief scene the writers prefer to keep Kahori entire character one dimensional. Her backstory is glanced over with a brief mention which ends all of her characterization with a couple of seconds. As a character she’s weak and her place in the story is unimportant. She has no conflict nor does anything to advance the story. She also falls in love with Ryouichi Kyougoku for shallow reasons. It’s explained she fell in love with him at the first sight of Ryouichi and the material reinforces that fact. There is hardly a scene of Kahori and Ryouichi getting to know each other. The only thing they know about each other for a majority of the film is they both play piano. That’s about it. Once it reaches the hour mark both characters are lovey-dovey towards each other despite only sharing one scene of actually doing anything together outside of school. This later comes to affect the final act of the film. Due a specific revelation both characters won’t be able to be together. Instead of being a strong dramatic pull in the story it’s simply just there as fluff.

The worst character in the film is Ryouichi Kyougoku who’s the popular, mysterious transfer student with a hidden agenda. Ryouichi single handedly brings down the time travel and physic aspect of the film. He’s a poorly written character, giving out his backstory unnaturally as possible and providing vague explanations on the process of time traveling and physic powers. He knows how everything works, but the audience doesn’t making any scene that has anything supernatural onscreen become convoluted. Almost as if literally making up the rules of how time traveling and physic powers work as he goes along in the story. He receives scatter characterization some of which gets dropped. In the film its mentioned Ryouichi will execute a revenge plan. What exactly it was is delivered in a throwaway line that’s easy to miss.

The animation is done by Sunrise studio and it’s virtually flawless. Director Ryosuke Nakamura eye for details is rich in every single scene of the movie. Meticulous details in the visuals from the cherry blossom petals being blown in the breeze to the gleaming rays of light shining through the classroom windows. Everything from beginning to end looks beautiful. Another outstanding feature is the use of color hues and tones to accentuate and render scenic clouds and evening skies. There usually something always moving on screen with high detail that it becomes mesmerizing. For a majority of the film it movements sticks to the ordinary with the occasional over the top short burst moments and supernatural elements when on display. No matter what’s on screen the amount of time it must have taken to animate the film is something to appreciate.

The voice acting is in general is passable, but underwhelming due to the material. Kana Kanazawa plays Kahori who I already mentioned is pointless in the story. It’s a performance that I can’t blame Kanazawa for phoney in since her character hardly changes emotion limiting options in her portrayal. Daisuke Ono, who plays Ryouichi Kyougoku has a similar problem. A big role with limited range, which again limits the voice actor abilities to portray the characters. That’s two talented voice actors who are handicapped because of the material.

Yuutaro Honjou plays Kenji Seki whose performance does allow ranged. Unlike his more experience co-stars his balance of drama and comedy generally misses the mark. When he’s meant to sound sincere it comes across as a bad rehearsal take. Sounding mundane when experiencing important life changing events. Mayu Watanabe plays Natsuki Suzuura does a good job. Unfortunately because of how her character is written she also comes across as the most annoying. Playing a tsunderes she sounds sweet one moment then flips the switch to being angry the next. That’s our four lead actors, each of whom are unable to overcome the material shortcoming. The supporting cast because of limited screen time don’t suffer the same problem. They’re fine in small roles. There’s no English dub for the film which given the sloppy delivery of the story is understandable.

The soundtrack is done by Shusei Murai and it’s repetitive. Nearly all the tracks sound sentimental working against the film. There’s hardly any variety in the music Murai composed. Becoming aggregating to listen to when most of the tracks are soft piano ballads that sound similar to one another with just a minor variation of one track. Too many tracks sound too similar to each other its entirely lazy. To paint a clearer picture on the lack of varied music the OST for the film there are 25 tracks and 22 of them are soft piano ballads. If it doesn’t feature a soft piano ballad it’ll feature a Violin another instrument Murai goes out of his way to make annoying to listen to. Hearing the soundtrack is infuriating because no effort is made to make each track sound different. Getting the suspicion that the soundtrack simply looped one song over and over again. There are only two distinctive sounding and noteworthy tracks in the film coming from artists Ryo and supercell. Like the rest of the score, the songs these two artists provide are blissful with usage of soft piano ballads. They are nice songs, even if they are forgettable immediately after they end.

Nerawareta Gakuen is a complicated mess and poorly told, but does make sense. Although this being my second time seeing the movie I wrote down notes which in the end made the story sensical. However, the information is so poorly relayed to the audience due to brief throwaway explanations that reveal very little or simply glancing over important details that are essential to understanding its story. Before reaching the one hour mark the film fails to provide characters good enough to carry a story, wanders around aimlessly without a purpose, and finally a conflict that uses convoluted plot points making it uninvolving. The remainder of the film will feel longer than it actually is. That’s not even taking into account the repetitive soundtrack becoming grating on the ears as it goes making the experience worse. Pretty to look at, no doubt, but with no substance whatsoever it makes you ponder what a waste of beautiful animation.