Friday’s Feature: So You Want To Save the World?

There is a staple in stories, whatever there form, where a protagonist is called to save the world. They might be a trained soldier, some randomly strong hero, a random nobody chosen by destiny, or just someone who happened to be in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, but they are called and one way or another they answer. The different types of protagonists would each need their own post to deal with and eventually I might get around to that, but my focus today is more on the notion of saving the world itself and how this operates in stories.

While it might be argued that high stakes make for a more intense and dramatic story, you have to wonder about all the times our little blue-green planet manages to become imperilled for the sake of kicking a narrative into gear (admittedly, a lot of the stories I’ll refer to aren’t actually set on earth but whatever the planet you have to wonder how they manage to find so many world ending catastrophes to face off against). Put into context, even though individuals, cities, and countries face devastation fairly regularly, our world tends to keep on spinning and the majority of people go about their lives relatively unhindered. Whether this can continue (and scientists will tell us that is a resounding no), it has continued for a fairly long time yet we write stories full of disasters that end life as we know it.

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Some of these are cautionary tales. When overpopulation was the scary flavour of the month we had stories that looked at how we would deal with this in the future. Logan’s Run and Soylent Green both have some fairly interesting things to say about population control even if the message has largely been ignored. More recently we have had a round of environmental awareness stories with The Day After Tomorrow and its ilk attempting to scare some common sense into us by showing us just how bad things might get without action.

While these stories are awesome in their scope when showing us the problem, what they all do, and need to do, is focus on a protagonist. There may be other groups and characters addressed, but they narrow the focus to a single protagonist for the majority of the run time. Why? Because the audience needs that someone to relate to. The idea of saving the world is legitimately too big for most people so while having such a grandiose problem in the story might add to the drama, it actually makes it fairly hard to relate to. What we usually end up with is a protagonist trying to save an individual or group and as a by-product of saving them they might save the world. Even Armageddon understood this where ultimately Bruce Willis gave his life to ensure his character’s daughter would have a future. The fact that this also saved the world was almost inconsequential by that point in the story.

But let’s move away from movies in Hollywood and look at anime.

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Spring 2017 brought us WorldEnd, or the anime that asks us in its title ‘What do you do at the end of the world? Are you busy? Will you save us?’

There’s no obvious direction for these questions so as an audience you have to wonder if the show is asking you to consider your own actions if the world were coming to an end. Even more peculiarly, the story itself takes place nearly 500 years after the world essentially ended. The fact that there are ‘people’ still clinging to life on floating islands that are apparently not going to last much longer is more of a happy accident than good design and the peril is still very real. So if you were Willem, protagonist of the story, would you lend a hand or would you accept the inevitable ending that has been coming for a very long time?

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Despite having watched the show through, I still don’t really get Willem’s motivation. Early in the story he really is just drifting. He tried to save the world (or those near to him) and he failed. After waking up in the new world he realises he is completely alone because of his failure. The world he knew is already gone. Despite that, he inevitably gets drawn into the new world through Chtholly and ultimately decides to help keep her alive even though once again he’s clearly fighting a losing battle. So what should he have done?

And actually, this is where anime hits such a major snag. I’ll admit to finding a lot of anime endings unsatisfying, but that’s probably because of how conflict is set up in so many stories. How exactly do we expect the protagonist to get out of that situation or save the world? The problem facing them is massive and usually unsolvable so the narrative is faced with only a handful of options. Either the protagonist loses and is swallowed by whatever world ending force they’ve been pitted against, or against all odds they win. The first option leaves the audience a little bitter about having been made to care about a character who didn’t succeed (though I must admit I don’t mind the occasional tragic end), while the latter leaves us rolling our eyes as they pull out a magic power up, combination attack, or just break the established rules of the story in order to succeed.

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So do we just expect too much from the conflict in the first place? Does the world really need to be endangered before we understand the stakes are high?

I don’t think so. If we look at something like Food Wars, as much as I found the second season a little bit wanting, the first season was pretty engaging and the worst thing faced by any of the characters was expulsion (admittedly, most of the characters seemed to think that was a fate worse than death). This didn’t stop the audience from getting drawn in, from wanting to get behind the characters, and wanting to see them succeed. They were cooking. All that was on the line was a place at the school when there are other cooking schools and for the most part they could probably have found a job with their skills regardless. Yet because the characters believed in the conflict and the consequences, the audience were able to believe it mattered. This was high stakes viewing even though the reality is that the story didn’t endanger the world. No one needed the perfect cake to stop some alien race blowing up Tokyo to get the story going.

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However, that isn’t actually me saying that I don’t want stories where the world is in peril. I think mostly what I want are stories that think about the appropriate level of danger and the appropriate way to build drama without just trying to one up the dangers other stories have introduced. More importantly, think about how they intend to solve those issues before they throw them in front of an audience. If the Spring 2017 anime season has taught viewers anything it really should have reinforced that shows live and die by how they resolve and while a deus ex machina ending is better than no resolution, it is right up there with the ‘it was only a dream’ ending. Audiences today expect more and probably deserve more.

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So you want to save the world? You think that would be nice and dramatic? Great. Now get to work figuring out the details of what exactly is the peril being faced and how it can be overcome and lay your ground work fairly precisely. It isn’t enough to throw flashing lights at the audience and tell them it is scary.

What do you think? Is the world coming to an end an overused problem? Are you tired of seeing characters pull off an impossible save just because plot demands it? Or do you love these kinds of stories and get a real thrill out of watching characters beat impossible odds? I’d love to know so leave a comment below.


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Tuesdays Top 5: Disappointments from 2016

Having covered some of the best from 2016 I kind of felt I should look at the shows that weren’t necessarily bad but ended up being disappointing before I move on to non-2016 specific lists. Actually, this was probably the hardest list to write because there were just so many shows that had so much potential and they just never delivered. My selection criteria this week was that the show still had to be functional as a show (so probably not one of my worst of the year shows) but due to execution it just hasn’t pulled off what it might have aspired to be. Some of these shows are actually pretty good as they are, but they had the potential to be better. Obviously this is a highly subjective list so feel free to list your disappointments in the comments below.

Please Note – There will be spoilers below.

Honourable mentions go to: Trickster, 91 Days and Joker Game.

Number 5: Food Wars Season 2

Okay, I already know some people are going to dislike this choice but honestly I found this second season a severe let down. Individual moments in season 2 still capture some of the fun energy of season 1 but the competition just drags on and on and to be honest I’m just not that interested in watching continuous cook offs with some of my least favourite characters from the show. It would have been great to spend more time with the support cast and more time just having character moments rather than watching an endless array of food preparation (which I know is a petty complaint given it is a show about cooking).

Number 4: The Morose Mononokean

I’ll admit, my disappointment with this show was entirely my fault. Right from the start it reminded me of Natsume but never quite captured the magic Natsume had and the comparison didn’t do this show any favours. Going forward though this show didn’t really manage to create its own identity and seemed content with being watchable rather than ever really striving for more. Key moments of tension were deliberately wasted and the characters never really got fleshed out beyond a few hints that there were other stories to be told. All and all, this show has a cool premise, is really pretty, is perfectly pleasant and watchable but is equally pretty forgettable.

Number 3: Flip Flappers

I’m surprised as well that this is only number 3 but I guess the reason this didn’t disappoint me more on reflection is because I kind of predicted from the start that unless this show managed to pull everything together it was kind of going to be pretty but not a lot else. When that ultimately happened I was still disappointed but not surprised. Flip Flappers, the early episodes, is fun, energetic and visually stunning. Unfortunately, eventually they have to try to explain why anything is happening and then they feel the need to introduce an antagonist who serves no real purpose and seems to undermine a lot of what they had built in the series. While there are definitely worse shows out there, the way this ends I just don’t see the point in watching it.

Number 2: Izetta: The Last Witch

This one took me by surprise. I really expected this to be one of the shows I would recommend from 2016 after the first 2 episodes. Unfortunately from that point forward the show continued to slide into deep mediocrity. It wouldn’t be fair to say it actually becomes bad because if you compare it to something like Big Order or Taboo Tattoo, Izetta works as a narrative, is visually appealing, and has a range of semi-interesting characters who mostly serve their function. My disappointment again comes from my own expectations on the show but these were built by the first two episodes. It promised one thing and then stripped that away and gave us a watered down version of it. Also, I really didn’t like the introduced antagonist late in the series (so it has that in common with Flip Flappers).

Number 1: Kiznaiver

I really, really wanted to like Kiznaiver. A medical experiment on students to force them to share each others’ pain sounded like a great premise for a story. And there are some really good moments in Kiznaiver but the overall narrative kind of devolves into we should all make friends kind of thing and the experiment itself is mostly nonsense and serves no real purpose. Again, this anime is perfectly watchable and some people really enjoyed it, but I just kept wanting more from it than it was willing to give and so I finished this series deeply disappointed.

Those are my 5 biggest disappointments from 2016.


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Friday’s Feature -Poor Pacing

Poor pacing isn’t a new problem by any means; ask anyone who has watched Dragon Ball Z or Bleach about battles that just don’t ever seem to end. However, both the Spring and Summer seasons in 2016 have given us new examples of shows that manage to kill interest with pacing issues so I thought I’d touch on it briefly this week.

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That said, pacing is as subjective as every other element in entertainment. Slow can be really good when done well and fast paced doesn’t always equal exciting. So what am I defining as poor pacing? Essentially anytime you are watching the clock instead of the episode and wondering when it’s all going to wrap up or when you feel like you just got whip lash from trying to follow all the plot changes that just got thrown at you.

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Let’s start with Flying Witch. This is supposed to a slow, slice of life. It’s character driven rather than plot driven (which is probably a good thing given in the episodes I watched other than a witch moves in with relatives who aren’t witches I didn’t really pick up much of a plot). So, slow paced is fine, right? And for some people, Flying Witch was a relaxing and enjoyable watch. For me it was fingers tapping, pausing to go get something to eat or drink, clicking over to other websites, and generally getting frustrated because none of the characters ever seemed to do anything. I get that pacing is subjective but Flying Witch was like trying to admire the formation of mountains in real time (okay, probably not the best analogy ever but I really didn’t want to go with paint drying because underneath the slowness of it there was something actually quite wonderful in Flying Witch).

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Secondly, The Asterisk War and Food Wars. Let’s take them both simultaneously because they both did more or less the same thing and both of them nearly threw me from their audience in the process. They set up a school situation with our protagonist being the underdog/fish-out-of-water and yet super strong at their respective trade. We spend most of season one in minor challenges, making friends and meeting potential rivals and it’s all kind of enjoyable fun. Then a tournament is announced and our protagonist will just happen to end up in it. Season 1 ends with the tournament just getting underway. Annoying, but sure.

Season 2 picks up with the tournament in full swing and then continues to make us watch match after match with very little diversion in between. Gone are the cute encounters between characters, a sense of a world outside of the arena, a sense of time period. Episode after episode of repetitive battles. Then the tournament ends, before the end of season 2. And instead of offering any kind of resolution to season 2, both felt the need to introduce a new challenge and then stop (although Food Wars kind of gave the second challenge an ending). It’s aggravating to the audience and you constantly wonder why you are still bothering to watch. Sure there are great characters in both and both protagonists have an ultimate goal and perhaps what they are doing will help them get there, but in the meantime we’re all just watching them go through the motions. Have we never heard of a montage to compress a period of time? Sure, the animators get to show off some impressive battle effects (either with weapons or food depending on the show) but the plot and characters stall. For most of an entire season.

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Last ones I want to touch on (but not the last to have pacing issues) are Big Order and Taboo Tattoo. These don’t know what they are doing in terms of pace. They rush over essential plot points (the few plot point there are) and then dwell on totally unnecessary things (fan service, sadistic characterisation, moping). It’s frankly a mess and neither the plot nor the characters come out of it unscathed. The sad thing is that both shows could have been reasonable even without major plot or character changes just by pacing them appropriately (they still wouldn’t have been good but they could have been far more watchable than they were).

Other shows in Spring and Summer that made me wonder about their pacing include Days, Orange, Bungou Stray Dogs, Kiznaiver and Super Lovers.

So far we’ve only seen the first half of most of the Autumn shows but I dropped Occult;Nine in episode 1 because of the pacing (and just being unable to care about where any of the introduced characters were going) and I’ve found Izetta increasingly frustrating in the way it is rushing forward over what feels like should be far more important plot points.

So now over to you. Which shows do you think suffer from pacing issues?

Food Wars Season 2 Series Review

Overview:

Yukihira Souma is back in the kitchen and battling it out to win the Autumn elections while blowing people’s clothes off with great tasting food.

I reviewed this week to week so if you are interested in individual episode thoughts click here. I’ve also reviewed season 1.

Review:

Season 2’s always have a bit of trouble. Season 1 has usually used all of the real mind-blowing ideas and the fun of getting to know the characters has passed. So how do you make a good season 2? Very few shows really succeed.

That said, Food Wars Season 2 (or the second plate) really does work hard. They continue on with a competition set up in season 1, they introduce new and zany characters to try to compensate for the fact that a large number of the original cast aren’t actually involved in the competition, they ensure there is actually some sense of challenge for our protagonist so he isn’t just zooming through the competition. All of these things really should help season 2 out.

Yet, the whole way through I just found this season lacking. It was at its best when they weren’t in the kitchen and we got to see the characters interacting, but far too much time was spent in the competition. The comedy that really sold season 1 of what is essentially a cooking show was toned down and even the visuals while tasting the food seemed subdued (or at times just so bizarre that they lacked the impact they could have had).

If you are watching this show for Yukihira, then you will get a lot of him. His character growth this season is significant compared to season 1 where he only made minimal gains as a person. However, this focus comes at the expense of every other character and to be honest, Yukihira is not one of my favourite anime characters. I find him pretty obnoxious. While it was nice to see him growing up, I just wanted something to break up his screen time and there just wasn’t anything else happening this season.

There isn’t a lot more to say because if you haven’t watched season 1, this is all kind of irrelevant, and if you have you more or less know what to expect going in.

My recommendation: Can’t help you. If you watched season 1 and want to find out who wins the competition, you have to continue watching. If you don’t care who wins, then maybe give season 2 a miss because it isn’t bringing anything really new to the table and it isn’t as interesting as season 1 was.

 

Food Wars Season 2 Episode 13

Review:

They at least ended the next challenge before the season ended. That was nice of them. And Yukihira even learned something. Also nice. My real issue is that this episode lacked any kind of tension. Actually most of this season has. You can only threaten expulsion so many times before it ceases to feel like a consequence of any merit and in this case Yukihira wasn’t even close to failure. The fact that all the other members of the dorm returned is all but inconsequential when most of them have barely been bit characters during the season (in honesty I can’t even remember some of their names it has been so long since they’ve served any purpose). So, the episode is functional and brings things to a good resting point but that’s about all it’s doing. With the exception of an interesting visual metaphor that didn’t involve clothes blowing off.

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Food Wars is available on Crunchyroll.

Food Wars Season 2 Episode 11

Review:

Yukihira is back in the kitchen and this time he’s taking all new techniques on board. Seeing him focussed and serious about his craft reminds you of his more positive characteristics (rather than his cocky and obnoxious side). The montage of classmates in their placement kitchens was a nice break in the middle of what was essentially a Yukihira focussed episode. Shinomiya’s return was also welcome as it felt like his journey as a character hadn’t really been finalised and it was nice seeing the difference in his character from the first appearance back in season 1. Overall, this was a satisfying episode but my essential complaint of season 2 remains the same. It just isn’t as fun as season 1.

Food Wars is available on Crunchyroll.

Food Wars Episode 11

Review:

From a story point of view, this episode is more interesting. We have a new challenge with new rules in a new location and we seem to be progressing beyond just creating great food and now we’re actually focussing on practical cooking. And there in lies the problem with this episode. Erina. She so would have been fired if she pulled that attitude off in any restaurant. It does not matter how good you are. The chef should have shown her the door, causing her expulsion and thus ending any further need to deal with such an arrogant and unlikable character.

Soma was paired up with Arato (the secretary) and I really don’t like Arato as a character but I found the two of them worked well together and quite enjoyed the parts of the episode that followed these two.

I am looking forward to the next placement.

Food Wars is available on Crunchyroll.

Food Wars Episode 10

Review:

If you don’t know who won, stop reading and go watch the episode.

Is it wrong that I’m glad Akira won the election? Soma winning would have been ridiculous given the skill gap from the beginning. And then the do over. Serve your final dish in the first place. With Ryo, I just don’t like him very much as a character. Although, he and Alice do get some great moments. Her punching him in the back when he lost, him screaming at her, and then Alice storming off in a huff was one of the better moments in the episode. It was nice that Soma’s dad contacted him though I still have to question his method of parenting.

Lastly, see if we can finish the thought below.

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I know the answer the show gives us but I started laughing when this line came along because I thought of a lot of ways this could be finished off.

Anyway, Food Wars is available on Crunchyroll and after 10 episodes we have finally finished this particularly cooking competition. It was kind of starting to remind me of The Asterisk War.

Food Wars Season 2 Episode 9

Review:

Back we go to the kitchen only now the roof opens and we can see the moon. So different. And there are three people cooking. Completely different from every other match. Except that it isn’t. The show fails to raise the stakes or the tension in this finals match. More importantly, all three characters cooking are so arrogant in their opening remarks that you more  or less want all three to fail and then you wonder what would happen if all of the dishes were dreadful. Would there still be a winner? The reaction shots to eating the food were also fairly subdued compared to those we’ve seen previously. And Soma? You don’t get a do over with your dish. Serve it complete or don’t, but this after credits tag on kind of makes things even worse. With that said, I’m kind of thinking that once a winner is declared I am probably going to be even less invested in this show than I currently am. So holding out for an episode was probably a good move.

One positive: The flashback of Alice and Ryo. That was pretty awesome.

Food Wars is available on Crunchyroll.

Food Wars Season 2 Episode 8

Review:

This is the second episode this season that I have really and thoroughly enjoyed watching. Amazingly enough, the previous one was Soma’s preparation for his last match. The common theme, we don’t spend the entire episode just watching the characters cook. Soma goes to the market. We hear various opinions about fish. We brainstorm. Listen to interviews. Soma has an inspiration and we gather the troops. Things don’t work out so we start over. This is Food Wars doing what it actually does best (other than visual metaphors for food related orgasms). Giving us the characters and their interactions behind the great cooking. This is far more engaging than any of the competitive cooking and it once again got me excited for the match that will follow.

Food Wars is available on Crunchyroll.