I will get back to my ongoing reviews of the original Sailor Moon seasons in the near future but I decided I needed a short break from blonde pig-tailed heroines who fight for justice. And so I found myself eyeing off this title in my review list.
I should probably admit I watched the first episode of this back when it first became available on Netflix and decided to pass. on the back of having watched Made in Abyss and Girls’ Last Tour, I wasn’t really in the mood for another anime that relied on a juxtaposition between adorable art and dark themes to hit my emotional resonance buttons so that I would ooh and ah and gush over another modern master-piece (not that Made in Abyss got all that much gushing being an incomplete story). And it isn’t that there is anything wrong with that particular ideal, it just feels like we’re getting a lot of these kinds of anime recently and to be honest the emotional payoff goes way down when you are waiting for the tragedy to strike.
Anyway, after I got over my preconceptions and comparisons to other series, I finally sat down and binged watched this anime in two sessions. That would make you think I was seriously into the story but that actually wasn’t the case. The reason I finished it during the second viewing session was I knew I would never go back and finish it if I stopped the viewing. I would find something else to watch and that would be the end of knowing what happened to the children on the Mud Whale and so I pushed forward through dialogue that never quite landed its mark and cheap emotional ploys that felt like they would have much greater weight on paper then they ever did on the screen.
What made this worse was the sequel-bait ending leaving huge chunks of the character journey and world-building as yet undone and yet I can’t really bring myself to care. We know the secret of how the Mud Whale came to be and how such a clearly flawed social structure formed and the immediate threat has been dealt with, kind of. For me, that’s enough and I certainly am not attached enough to any of the characters to care what happens next on their journey.
While this might make Children of the Whales sound dreadful, that is hardly the case. Visually it hits its mark with both character designs and the settings. At times it is remarkably beautiful and the fight sequences where characters use a mixture of weapons and magic power are usually very fluid and pretty to watch. The musical score is fairly on point and the narrative, what we get of it, is functional with no glaring issues other than the lack of an ending and unanswered questions. Yet from start to finish I was not drawn into the wonder that was the Mud Whale and those who inhabited it. As I went to draft this review I had to seriously ask myself why. Yes, the story doesn’t end, but I was disengaged long before I got to that point. What actually wasn’t working here that made me want this show to end?
The conclusion I came to was that this story feels very much like it was written by committee and tested by crowd preferences. It’s dystopian because dystopians are popular. The main character is male and an underdog. The coolest character is a bit of a rebel who ultimately wants to help his people. Female characters get cool powers but don’t ever do anything in fight sequences (trust me, it doesn’t matter how cool they seem, they don’t do anything in the fights). We have an attempted genocide of an island where the population is almost entirely made up of children because that will be dramatic. Oh, and the main character has a cool nickname. He’s known as the ‘destroyer’ because he has little control over his powers. Sounds important, but it never amounts to anything in the course of this first season.
And, the thing is, not one of those ideas is bad. Except the whole female characters being sidelined at every possible turn for no apparent reason given some of them are more trained and more powerful than the boy who seems to run through the heart of every conflict, that’s a pretty poor idea. But they are all just thrown in without any real heart behind them. Despite the circumstances of the Mud Whale, it never really feels like a real place. It’s just a setting for a fight to occur on. A location where characters are stranded. As much as the Mud Whale should feel like an actual character in this story and the setting needs to feel genuine, it never achieves that. Its a pretty play piece that has been beautifully built, but no real life has been breathed into it.
Each of the characters suffers the same fate. They have everything they need to be a real character. They have relationships and ties with others, frequently they have back stories, they have motives and desires. These characters should feel vibrant and alive, at least until they die tragically or watch others die tragically. And yet, you can’t help but feel that each one of these characters lacks any real presence outside of the script they’ve been given. While they all have character, that character feels so tightly controlled that they cease to feel real. Whether it is is Suou’s hand clenching, Ouni’s petulant desire for escape, or Sami’s hopeless love, it always feels scripted and calculated rather than genuine.
This isn’t helped by the presence of the villains who just seem like a bunch of psychos. And given they are supposed to have had their emotions eaten (and I know they come up with a bunch of babble as to why some retain emotions, but still), these characters are literally just war crazy, blood-thirsty murderers and it does nothing to aid the suspension of disbelief about the reality we are plunged into.
Nor does it help when the villains declare one of the Mud Whales kids to have some super special power that had never been mentioned prior and then suddenly he has some super special power. Props at least for not giving this to the main character, but still, then his nickname might have made sense.
So what I was left with was the hollow shell of an anime with a story that should work, characters who sound like they would be awesome on paper, and visually looks impressive, but ultimately it failed to reach me at all. And as the Mud Whale continues on its journey I can’t help but wonder about how much better things might have been with this idea if the story had narrowed its focus down or just really found its own sense of identity which is something I felt over and over again that this anime lacked.
What did you think of the Children of the Whales?
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With the introduction of the Sibyl System Japan finds itself at peace as those who would put the system at risk or might be a danger to others are identified by examining their mental state and passing judgement. Akane has newly been appointed as an inspector and now has the job of supervising enforcers as they hunt down latent criminals, however she soon learns that things are not as perfect as they might seem.
I have to give Psycho Pass credit for taking an idea that has been used in so many dystopian stories before and yet managing to make it feel fresh. From the first episode this country controlled by the Sibyl System feels like a plausible future even as it reaches to shock its audience and to make us start to question notions of justice. That doesn’t mean that the show is flawless by any means as there are definitely some moments where I might have wished for the narrative to have had a bit more polish, but the overall experience of watching Psycho Pass is one that is greatly entertaining.
For me the introduction Akane gets to the job, while thrilling, seems very unlikely in such a world. to plunge someone into the field (short staffed or not) without sufficient training or supervision seems like a reckless way to destroy someone’s psycho pass if something had gone more wrong than it did. Also, Akane’s knowledge of how things worked seemed too lacking at times for her to have received any training even if it was convenient for the audience to have things explained from the beginning.
Some of the cases are not quite as thrilling as others, though ultimately all of them feed into the main narrative. The issue then is that the final reveal, while it works well enough, borders a little bit on the too fantastical to really feel as satisfying as I might have wanted. Certainly, it does work and it doesn’t contradict any of the internal logic of the story, but there’s definitely a moment of incredulity when you finally get there before you can take it in.
Part of that is because the characters in this anime work very well both individually and collectively. While each presents a different view of the system and their approach to the job (whether in the role of inspector or enforcer), they still manage to build a personality beyond just being a placeholder for a view point. This makes them feel genuine and also makes what might have otherwise been an average sci-fi police story something quite special.
Kagari is the support character I ended up growing most attached to throughout the show’s run time and his role is quite interesting. Flagged by the system at a very young age he’s been detained most of his life, choosing the dangerous role of an enforcer to gain some semblance of freedom. While most of the time he doesn’t let his bitterness at this fate come through, there are one or two moments where Akane’s naivety breaks through his carefully constructed cheery persona and the resentment of one caged by an inherently flawed system comes through loud and clear.
Akane’s senior as an inspector, Ginoza presents another view of the system again. As someone with a parent that was flagged as a latent criminal, he lives with the pressure of not succumbing to the same fate while inner fears continue to eat away at him. And that fear wasn’t helped by his former partner also being flagged as a latent criminal. This makes his external personality quite cold at times even his responses to Akane’s youthful view is fairly understandable. However Ginoza presents an interesting perspective on the system as someone who fights to maintain a system even while fearing the results of being on the other side of it. While he doesn’t take the path that many citizens have of medicating to a near comatose state in order to maintain his psycho pass, he acts as a bridge for the audience of someone walking a very fine line between ‘healthy’ and ‘criminal’ in this society.
This is a line that Kougami crossed. After the death of someone who was his responsibility he recklessly pursued revenge even though it damaged his psycho pass and ultimately he ended up an enforcer. However, unlike other characters, Kougami has gained a degree of freedom in being allowed to think of his revenge and to pursue it because he’s already a criminal in the eyes of the system. He also doesn’t bother with social graces and simply acts. That said, he isn’t a simple character. Well educated and with a sharp mind, he pursues his goals with purpose and no longer has any real desire to answer to the system for his actions. While ultimately this will put him at odds with the Sibyl System, for Kougami revenge is more important as a goal and yet the enemy remains out of his reach.
Which actually leads us to the best part of Psycho Pass, and that is that it brings us a villain who is worth caring about. As the Sibyl System cannot judge him he feels excluded from society and as a result he acts out. But for the most part he does this via proxy. He sets up others who are discontent and gives them the means to act before sitting back and watching the show. Cold, manipulative, highly intelligent, and yet completely unbound by any kind of societal morals as the system has left him outside of it, he is a fascinating villain to watch in action.
Now, I should probably put a violence warning on this one. Given the first episode has a rape before they kind of blow up the perpetrator, it kind of sets the tone for the remainder of the series. I’m going to suggest that a story about law enforcement with the ability to use lethal force to neutralise targets in pursuit of a serial killer was probably never going to be overly peaceful, but there are some quite graphic moments that have a fair amount of emotional impact because of the believability of the society constructed.
However, if you are in the mood for a dystopian story with some action and gore and reasonably solid themes, Psycho Pass is definitely one to check out. It is one of those binge worthy series that just gets better with more watches.
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Neo believes that Morpheus, an elusive figure considered to be the most dangerous man alive, can answer his question — What is the Matrix? Neo is contacted by Trinity, a beautiful stranger who leads him into an underworld where he meets Morpheus. They fight a brutal battle for their lives against a cadre of viciously intelligent secret agents.
– from unknown.
In 1999, when The Matrix came out, I was a teenager and I was becoming a fan of Keanu Reaves as I had really enjoyed him in Speed, Point Break, Chain Reaction and a range of other films (though he definitely had some real misses in the 90’s) so The Matrix was more or less designed to appeal to me.
And appeal it did.
A dark and menacing future where humans had become enslave by machines but for a small group of freedom fighters who would enter The Matrix (which for a very convenient and quickly glossed over reason looked exactly like the modern world) to achieve a range of poorly defined objectives. Okay, my teenage self was not that discerning a viewer and the fight sequences coupled with the glossy leather outfits was pretty much all it took to get me on board with this one.
After the consecutive disappointments of both follow up films though, I kind of moved on and it was only recently when I had the opportunity to see this film again.
Visually, it still works. The designs chosen for the ‘real world’ compared to the simulated spaces the create for training compared to the actual matrix all fill their role and have their own kind of charm. There’s a lot of attention to small details in the sets and the spaces fill lived in (other than the training areas which are obviously supposed to feel a bit void of personality).
I didn’t really notice it as a teenager, but the sound design for this movie is horrible. I get the mix they were going for and the tone they were trying to strike but some of those sound effects just hurt the head and the thought of computers making any of those noises these days is kind of laughable. Though back in the 90’s days of dial-up internet I guess audiences were happy to swallow that because it was hard to imagine any sound more obnoxious than that one.
However, for all that this is a visual feast and there are still some really interesting ideas being thrown about, the overall storyline is plagued by attempting to be overly complex for what really amounts to a man vs machine conflict and their reasons for actually entering the matrix don’t make a lot of sense when the real conflict is occurring out in the real world (I know they throw around a lot of fast words and fancy rhetoric but ultimately none of the conflict needed to be based in the matrix so Neo’s ability to seemingly control it by the end of this first is more or less a pointless gimmick – and that is yet another reason why I should stop watching sequels).
And of course, I can’t actually avoid the main issue I found with the movie, which of course are the performances. For a film packing some real star power the performances delivered here are about as subtle and nuanced as the woman in red is in the training area. Most characters have at most 3 facial expressions and tend to wear one the majority of the film only changing to one of the other two at minor climactic moments I guess to remind us they can actually emote. While we might excuse Hugo Weaving for this, given he is playing a program, the human characters can’t possibly hope to escape from scrutiny.
Yet, for all that I’ve just kind of run the film down, the one undeniable point is that it is still fun to watch (providing the volume isn’t too loud). Scenes transition smoothly one from the next, usually with a sense of movement and purpose, and where logical leaps fail the audience a character is usually quick to swoop in with an explainer to sweep away any pesky questions you might have about what the point of something is (even if that explainer doesn’t really hold up under closer scrutiny). The fight sequences are still impressive, even if the special effects, once pretty cutting edge, are now just same old or even dated. And did I mention the number of very cool leather jackets in this film? The wardrobe alone is worth watching this film for.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this film and how you feel it has aged.
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