Be curious, and stay that way – Hyouka Review

Produced by the legendary Kyoto Animation, heavy-weight 2012 July title Hyouka received mixed reviews despite its great voice acting and magnificent artwork. Some have raised doubts on the story, which revolves around trivial, not-terribly-abnormal events in life, but are presented with an unreserved air of mystery/detective dramas. For this apparent reason, Hyouka is actually tagged on a popular video website (I won’t tell which : ) with “Real • Approaching Science”, which is a parody reference to an infamous Chinese TV program “solving” seemingly super-natural occurrences, only to end up with annoyingly mundane explanations that runs the risk of insulting the IQ of whoever is watching. The storyline of a few episodes of Hyouka, I have to admit, does have similar effects (especially the “mystery” of the math class in ep6, quite baffling really).

However, that is not to say Hyouka has nothing to offer. As a matter of fact, Hyouka is something I would like to recommend to not just anime fans, but everybody. Aside from the superb animation (automatic quality stamp for Kyoto Animation), the story by novelist Yonezawa Honobu is a relaxing, yet thought-inspiring piece with a lingering after taste. Not a life-changing title, but a great casual watch.

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Hyouka: Youth, in which color? (その青春は、何色か?)

To fully enjoy and understand the beauty of Hyouka, it is not advisable to have a set genre bias in mind. Most mentions of the title, including the Japanese Wikipedia on the original novel+anime, throws it into the detective genre. On Kyoto Animation’s official website, however, the one-liner summary for Hyouka is miles away from the detective/mystery genre: ”Youth is neither tenderness, nor pain, alone. A bittersweet drama of youth.” (青春は、やさしくだけじゃない。痛い、だけでもない。ほろ苦い青春群像劇。) After reading about the original novel, simply titled the Kodenbu series (“Classical Literature Club series”) with Hyouka being one part of it shows that Kyoani’s one-liner contains more truth. Indeed, as a novelist focused on (and supposedly invented) the so called “everyday life mystery” (日常の謎) style, Yonezawa often build the arcs around a certain detective intrigue. The main plot itself, however, still revolves around the everyday normal (like, literally, normal) high school life of Oreki Houtaro’s crowd and never ventured into the territory of a genuine crime/mystery.

The mystery-solving (rather than “detective”) arcs in Hyouka are well thought-out, and surprisingly logic-driven and full of details. Despite the lack of cliché elements like hidden corpses, thrown-away pistol, misleading footprints or whatever fanciful murdering contraptions, I believe that any fan of the detective genre would be able to enjoy the deductive reasoning (nod nod to Sherlock Homes : ) presented in Hyouka. Bottom line, the stories observe the rules of the average detective genre well, such that all critical evidence/leads are presented to the viewers under broad daylight fair and square, and there are no inconsistencies/mystery left hanging by the conclusion of each story.

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Ed2 background with hundreds of well-known detective stories flashing by, source of inspiration for author Yonezawa?

Put aside the detective intrigues, the main arc of Hyouka is about how main character Houtaro got rid of his apathetic lifestyle (self-termed “energy preservation”), and put his talents in logical reasoning to use by solving not-terribly-important mysteries. The motivation, you ask? Well, Houtaro is mind-controlled by some kind of GEASS belonging to a certain Chitanda Eru, the lovable, somewhat simple-minded classmate of Houtaro (this is meant to be a cheap reference joke, btw). The daughter of a local agricultural zaibatsu (seriously, big time Japanese farmers could get filthy rich simply by producing “Made-in-Japan rice”, which is so very different from imported types, plus all the government subsidies), Eru is from time and time curious about things, I mean VERY curious about things and forces Houtaro to use his brain much more than he likes. The character development mainly happened on Houtaro, whose view towards life changed little by little and developed a feeling for Eru.

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Eru using her geass… … (seriously, acting cute at the right moment to the right person goes a long way, folks)

Talking about Chitanda Eru, Eru’s curious nature often lends her the flag of an “annoyer”, as is often the case for cute-oriented female anime characters. I will be cautious to make the judgement. Besides the fact that Eru’s curiosity is literally driving the story, isn’t the spirit of “wanting to know” what’s driving our daily progress? While someone who asks questions frequently might be regarded as foolish, real fools are rarely curious. On the contrary, real fools usually have answers for practically everything that they cling to with amazing stubbornness.

Going to the real world (or going on tangent is the better word), how many of us actually raise a question when confronted with something we don’t understand, or we PERCEIVE we can’t understand. Let’s say the fiscal cliff, sure enough everyone is talking about it and are pretty excited about the issue, yet how many actually go to the length of reading about the core of the issue which is the US currency/debt system and discover the fact that such fiasco is destined to recur over and over again unless fundamental ails of the financial systems are addressed? My guess is very few, not because we don’t care – many stayed away simply considering it too complicated to be understood. Well, while many cases could indeed be daunting (much more complicated than the dodgy history of Kamiyama High’s bunkasai, which was addressed in the first couple of episodes in fast-paced drama), the truths (or the more reasonable hypotheses) are often worth the effort to find out.

And I am entirely off topic now.

In summary, Hyouka immersed us with its great art, great soundtrack, great story-telling, lovable characters and certain detective surprises under the guise of the otherwise mundane settings. It was no doubt among the most watch-worthy titles released last year: yet another addition to Kyoto Animation’s mile long winning streak.

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Just finished Hanasaku Iroha

Hanasaku Iroha (花咲くいろは, or quite literally How the Flowers Bloom)is one of the best anime series I’ve seen so far this year. Despite the plot runs a little here and there from time to time, it is still a great anime title nonetheless.

Definitely needs a review.

Somehow I feel anyone with trouble finding inspiration for their jobs should watch the anime, Hanasaku just might lend some power and make things better. It is the kind of work from which everyone could learn something.

Personally, one thing I learn from Ohana-chan is to say: I am also bonboru-ing! (僕もぼんぼりまーす!)

The two op songs of Hanasaku Iroha (both by nano.RIPE) have become my “morning transit song” (aka before work song) since about a month ago. : D

Below is an awesome magazine publication page for Hanasaku Iroha, ultra high-res.

Anime events in China: boom or bust?:

So, another anime event shall hit Beijing. The “12th International Comic Convention and 2011 Beijing Anime/Comic Week” is going to be held between 21st and 25th of October, in the near-suburb region of Shi Jing Shan, Beijing. Detailed outline of the event is to be found in this China TV report (in Chinese).

According to the outline, the event is going to cover pretty much everything from A(nime) to C(omic, i.e. Manga) to G(ame), with celeb meeting, cosplay contest, screening of anime titles and e-sport events, etc. The event is also infinitely more commercial and industry-centered, involving an exhibition on the advances of Chinese anime industry (which is very mainland-Chinese, if you know what I mean), private business meetings, and a career fair. On the fun side, the exhibition also features programs with more “neta” elements, such as the parody Chinese dubbing group for Gag Manga Biyori series who has received huge popularity among the Chinese online community.

An interesting fact is that a sponsor of the anime/manga event is the Capital Steel Group, a state owned industrial giant in a sector obviously irrelevant to anime. Well, the connection is that the event is going to be held on their land, which were heavy iron and steel industrial complex redeveloped into parks during the  “factory migration” before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Mascot of 2011 Beijing Anime/Comic Week

As a country sharing numerous cultural elements with Japan, China already is a power base for anime/manga businesses. During the one and a half decade between 1985-2000, China was mostly a consumer of anime products, and has been close to nothing on the production/publishing side. Despite the on and off tensions (both historical and political) between Chinese and Japanese nationalist sentiments, anime/manga have nevertheless found a strong fan base in the mainland market. Familiar to those who grew up in China in the late 80’s and 90’s, titles such as Doraemon and Slam Dunk enjoyed practically universal popularity and become an integral part of the generational identity. Eventually, China started to see a group of young, talented home-grown manga authors appearing in the past decade. It is growing fast.

To be sure, anime and manga were extremely marginal in China and were used to be seen as “unhealthy” for school aged population. However, the perception somehow turned 180 degrees in recent years, after the government deemed anime/comic industry a focus of the Chinese “soft power” build-up. Receiving unprecedented recognition by mainstream media, Chinese cos-ers no longer have to practice strict Otaku-ism and could take your much-loved Haruhi dance (to the tone of Hare Hare Yukai) onto bigger stages- if they wish to, of course. I mean, with the flourishing internet media in China (though heavily censored, strangely, “flourish” is still an understate for China’s internet frenzy), you could even find middle school students cosplay-ing characters from Shinban (新番, new programs)animes on their school cultural festival. Darn, during my time at school this kind of stuff was a little far off, to say the least.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is encouraging domestic anime production with huge resources input (after, this is where the business is), and rather aggressive industrial protection methods such as setting quotas for Japanese animes on air and put Chinese production at prime hours. Guess what? Chinese studio churn out works like crazy, with an allegedly 1000 RMB incentive fee for each minute longer than standard episode length (a rumor I cannot independently confirm). Like your typical Chinese products, along comes the dark side: low quality, non-innovative, rip-offs. Certain rip-off cases on Japanese anime titles are, frankly speaking, quite horrendous even by Chinese standards, such as the infamous Gao Tie Xia (High Speed Rail Hero?), which is practically a screen by screen rip-off of a 15 year old Japanese production. Considering the China High-speed Rail accident two months ago has been enough of a disaster, further negative PR is seriously not helping the Railway Ministry. Wait, did I say Railway Ministry? Yes, though they didn’t make the anime, but have indeed endorsed it. Talking about unintentional liabilities.

original below, rip off top. Even mainstream media in China expresses their frustration about this blatant act of copying

I would still recognize the upside to China’s anime industry though. These days it is no longer a rarity for Japanese animation studios to contract out works to China. If you watch carefully at EDs of Japanese anime, it is really easy  to spot Chinese illustration studios participating. Also, China sure does have its share of devoted, honest, and highly talented anime brains. The small indie anime work below by L-key, an independent studio gives us a good example. Though low on resources and limited in production techniques, those guys sure have the necessary passion to churn out some quality work that really tells the story they want to tell. Eventually, this is what’s important.

Good’ol days once more: K-on! Review

It is quite difficult to do a comprehensive review on K-on!/!! (season one and two, mentioned simply as K-on! from this point on) since the dual-season, 30+ episode classic by Kyoto Animation is a high-profile work that has been reviewed a million times already. Acknowledging this fact, this review of K-on! will focus on my own viewing experience rather than going over the criteria, and will probably be a little more “personal” than my usual writing style. After all, as a non-professional, what’s the point of making snobbish points over such a wildly popular title?

To sum up my impressions on K-on!, it is my “anime of the year”!

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Online streaming is the way to go?

This article titled Daniel Ek’s Spotify: Music’s Last Best hope from a July edition of Bloomberg Businessweek on Spotify is a real eye-opener for me. First of all, I have never heard about Spotify before, for all my ignorance on the world of online music streaming. Second, the experience of Spotify gives us a powerful example of discovering profitable business model out of what seems to be a dead end. By the way, this is usually impossible without a certain level of passion involved.

Link to the article here:

Daniel Ek’s Spotify: Music’s Last Best Hope: The Swedish streaming service, about to make its U.S. debut, may be the industry’s best shot at remaining profitable and relevant

To sum the article up, the biggest challenges to Spotify are 1. to maintain a highly reliable and stable service, which the company already do quite well; and 2. to convince people to stream/rent rather than to own, which is both critical to Spotify’s future and extremely difficult. Some of the largest markets for the music industry, namely North America and Asia, are still considerably conservative with strong “collection” mentality, as mentioned in the article. In these markets, people still love the feeling of having CDs on their shelves (as in North America), or carrying a 150GB mobile hard drive brim with illegal downloads around (as in China). Money is not the critical issue here, habit is.

On a side note, animes are actually being distributed in a very “spotify” manner in Japan: free, fast, and straight to your cell phone. Check out Niconico douga’s anime section, for example, it is really something.

The IdolM@ster EP 9, 10

Sarcasm warning, fans beware!!

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To be frank, EP9 and 10 of Idol M@ster provide little excitement and are bent on cliches. I mean, when you see two consecutive episodes in a standard-length anime each devoted to trivial detective comedy and certain dubious sports event, “filler” warning shall sound immediately…

Well, at least we can expect some non-filler episodes in the future, just look on the bright side.

EP9 features a trivial detective story starring the twins, Ami and Mami. Better start to remember names, since it's past 50% already...

The entire EP9 revolves around a certain case of pudding murder Continue reading

2ch Forum’s Anime Saimoe 2011 Round 1 E,F (repost from Anime News Network)

The interesting thing here is being an anime watcher for years, I have never really looked into “Saimoe” (“most moe” xD) vote on 2ch… And the result is that the vote has grown to such a scale and treated quite seriously by people, while being entirely oblivious to me…

It is quite an interesting grass-root anime activity with certain questionable taste (and pure akushyumi at times?!) involved. Well, doesn’t hurt to take a peek at what’s happening out there:

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