Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Reverse Thieves Secret Santa 2014 - Barakamon

Following on from my viewing of Log Horizon, this year's Secret Santa pickings have turned out to be a great opportunity to watch recent shows that I'd hoped to catch but never got around to, and thus my second selection for 2014 was Barakamon.

Out of nowhere, this seemed to be a series which built an impressive amount of hype from those watching it as it aired, although in this case the hype may have done it a disservice by frequently involving the phrase "it's like Yotsuba&!"  Allow me to begin by saying that Barakamon cannot hope to occupy the same planet as Yotsuba, let alone the same strata of entertainment.

The series tells the story of a young, ambitious calligrapher named Seishuu Handa, who finds himself disgraced on account of punching an old man with a stick who also happens to be a big name in the calligraphy world himself - an attack predicated upon said old man suggesting that his work might be lacking in any real sense of self (a common theme that runs through anime as commentary on Japanese society, no doubt - see this series and the currently airing Your Lie in April).

In the wake of this attack, Handa finds himself shipped off to a remote island in the hope calming him down, offering him a period of self-reflection and, perhaps, an opportunity to discover a previously hidden side to his artistry. For Handa's part, he doesn't mind his exile so much, as surely it'll give him the peace and quiet he needs to work doggedly on his calligraphy.

Of course, this proves to be anything but the case, as Handa instead finds himself constantly bothered by overly helpful neighbours and, more frequently, a group of kids led by the loud and excitable young girl Naru. This offers countless distractions and irritations that Handa could really do without, but perhaps these distractions and his being forced into the bosom of this village's society is exactly what he needs to truly find himself.

If all of that sounds rather predictable, then... well, it is. Thankfully, Barakamon is a series more interested in the journey rather than its character development, and so any kind of narrative arc to the series can take a back seat for the kind of comedy manga adaptation fare you might expect. As these kinds of series go, Barakamon is largely pretty mediocre - it has its funny moments but they're relatively few and far between, particularly in the early running of the series which feels like it's trying way too hard to force the issue in terms of both characterisation and making its gags hit.

Thankfully the series does at least calm down, find its footing and ultimately get into the groove of what it attempts to offer, and with that new-found confidence comes more good jokes and one-liners, more enjoyable character interactions and some saccharine yet sweet moments that provide an enjoyable pay-off (even if one or two missteps arguably hijack what should have been some of the better scenes). It still isn't hilarious, nor does it have anything approaching the charm of Yotsuba (while we're making such comparisons), but it's broadly fun and feels better paced, and with some solid animation to keep it trucking the overall experience is a decent one.

Ultimately, my opinions of Barakamon could be seen as a case of "damning with faint praise" - I simply can't get excited about the series, nor can I reel off hysterical moments, because it never moved me to any great degree beyond the occasional laugh or smile. Its relatively unique setting and premise allows it to stand out from the ever-crowded pack of anime comedy, and it's certainly competent at what it does, but I suspect if you removed the "calligrapher on a remote island" angle this show would have been forgotten about no sooner had it begun.

On another day this may have been one of the better comedies on the block, but in a year which brought us Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun and Sabagebu, as well as less overt comedies like Shirobako, it's hard to give it a look-in when it comes to 2014's final reckoning.

Reverse Thieves Secret Santa 2014 - Log Horizon

This 'blog may be defunct but its writer most certainly isn't, and who would turn down the opportunity to spend their December being forced at gunpoint (okay, I may be exaggerating here) to watch anime that some random stranger thinks you might like. Probably. Maybe. Possibly. If you're really lucky. Yes, that's right, I threw my hat into the ring for the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa jamboree again this year, and this marks a brief return to the site after a six month hiatus. Heck, it is Christmas after all...

While it seems like almost everybody I know spends every single episode of Sword Art Online poised to tear it apart at the slightest misdemeanour (as well as a fair few major ones, admittedly), I've broadly found myself enjoying that series' sense of place and world-building, and of course its whole "living, breathing people trapped in a video game" scenario is clearly what led my Secret Santa to one of their selections for my perusal this year - Satelight's adaptation of light novel series Log Horizon. Given that its been recommended to me many a time before, I of course jumped at the chance to finally sit down and watch it in its entirety.

For all of my excitement, I have to confess that my first impressions of Log Horizon were... less than glowing. Visually, the series has a decently broad aesthetic and imagines its world - where 30,000 MMORPG players suddenly find themselves trapped in a very real version of Elder Tale, the game they've been engrossed in thanks to the release of a new expansion pack - rather nicely. However, the animation quality itself leaves a lot to be desired and certainly feels cheap, especially compared to the obvious budget afforded Sword Art Online. More egregious for me in its early running is that Log Horizon simply doesn't care about the origins of its premise, spending no time at all thinking up a plausible reason why people would suddenly be transported and trapped in a video game world and waving away any questions about that fact as far as it possibly can. Yes, people are upset at this jarring change in their circumstances, but that lasts for all of five minutes before everyone simply gets on with their new lives as if it was nothing unusual at all.

Thankfully, as the series progresses it becomes clear that there is method to this madness - yes, Log Horizon doesn't give a monkeys about why humans have been dropped into a video game world, but what it does care about is what happens when this occurs. In fact, it cares a great deal about this, and the show's greatest joy is watching its cast, led by the tactical genius Shiroe, come to understand the socio-economic and political impact of the descent of 30,000 new (and not to mention immortal) full-time residents of Elder Tale upon its world. At this point, the series morphs into how you'd imagine things turning out if Spice and Wolf author Isuna Hasekura wrote Sword Art Online, as the show explores the newcomers relation to the world's now-sentient NPCs known as the People of the Land, examines the impact of realising that there are opportunities beyond the mechanics everyone is used to from their time in Elder Tale as a mere game, and plenty more besides. This is blended with just enough action and set pieces along those lines to keep people on that side of the fence happy, without ever losing what is certainly a fascinating and thoughtful treatment of its subject matter.

This is all helped along greatly by the show's main cast, a growing motley crew of individuals who all bring something unique to the table yet interact in a believable way. Admittedly not all of the cast get the character development they deserve (Akatsuki, I'm looking at you), but with so much else on its plate its actually impressive how much Log Horizon manages to cram in on this level alongside its broader strokes that effect the whole world.

After that auspicious start and a fair number of episodes of doggedly trying to convince me of its cause, Log Horizon finally succeeded in winning me over to its cause. How much so, you ask? So much so that I've now caught up with and am watching its currently airing second season each week, that's how much. It might not manage to avoid all of the typical light novel tropes - Shiroe can be a self-insert character with the best of them at times, complete with a small but passionate harem that grows around him - but it still offers up perhaps the most unique take on the otherwise tired "trapped in a video game world" story I've seen, even offering a twist on the question of what happens when players die in that world. Its insistence upon viewing its concept in decidedly original ways is ultimately its biggest draw, and the fact that it manages to do so intelligently yet charmingly is why Log Horizon turned out to be very much my cup of tea... and there's nothing better than a nice cup of tea on a cold Christmas Eve, right?