Friday, November 7, 2014

Anime Review: Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion
  • Studio: Gainax 
  • Licensor: ADV (1997-2008), Section23 Films (2009-) (USA) 
  • Network: TV Tokyo (JP) 
  • Air Dates: 4 October 1995 - 27 March 1996 (JP) 
  • Episodes: 26 
  • Director: Hideaki Anno 
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, an anime series created in 1990 by director Hideaki Anno. Five years and one (surprisingly important) bout of depression later, he produced his most famous work yet: the giant-robot saga Neon Genesis Evangelion. Evangelion is a singularity among anime. How can the same show attract so much praise and simultaneously so much scorn? How can it explore so many deep topics about the human psyche, and at the same time get merchandised up the wazoo? (If you're seriously asking that last question, then let me remind you, this is a Japanese property. They pull this kind of stunt all the time.) As for everything else, I would more than likely end up in over my head if I attempted to answer all that myself, so I suppose I should start, and hopefully finish, my knowledge quest by reviewing Neon Genesis Evangelion in the context of my own impressions of it.

The story is as follows: In the year 2000, a cataclysmic explosion in Antarctica wiped out an entire half of the world's population, an event known as Second Impact. Fifteen years later, the creatures responsible for Second Impact -- varied, mysterious beings known as Angels -- are coming to Earth once more, because... reasons. But in the intervening time, mankind, specifically the organization NERV, has developed a weapon to combat the Angels. Such weapons are giant humanoid robots known as Evangelions, or Evas for short. As the Angels advance one by one on NERV's base in Tokyo-3, it's up to the Evas and their juvenile pilots to protect the base and the secrets held therein. Failure to do so could trigger a disaster even worse than Second Impact. So, no pressure, really.

The main protagonist is a 14-year-old lad, Shinji Ikari (EN: Spike Spencer, JP: Megumi Obata). (Yeah, apparently Eva pilots need to have been born after Second Impact, because... reasons.) As the son of none other than NERV's commander Gendo Ikari (EN: Tristan McAvery, JP:Fumihiko Tachiki), Shinji is often reluctant to shoulder his responsibilities as an Eva pilot, so much so that he even attempts to run away from home. More than once. That alone is all well and good, as connoisseurs of giant-robot anime may have at one point wondered how all those teenage robot pilots would have reacted to their situation in real life. But the problem is, that's Shinji's only character trait -- well, that, and coming through in a pinch. If Shinji's too scared to pilot the Eva, then what would he rather be doing with his life? Questions like these are never answered, at least not in the canon of the original series.

Rather, Shinji's character is defined with how he reacts to the situations thrust upon him by other characters. For example, there is Rei Ayanami (EN: Amanda Winn Lee*, JP: Megumi Hayashibara). A pale, blue-haired, and very shy girl, she was Tokyo-3's designated defender just before the show starts. But when she gets introduced to us viewers, she is beaten and bandaged, wheeled out on a gurney in front of Shinji, in order to convince him to pilot the Eva in her stead. And it indeed gives him a reason to fight; whether that reason is chivalry, guilt, or a straight-up boner, I approve this moment for the sole purpose of giving Shinji at least a bit of character. Once Rei recuperates, the two become fast friends, inasmuch as Shinji is able to make friends. And while her status as an ace pilot is, at first, naught but an informed attribute, once the show picks up momentum, she more than holds her own in some rather awesome Angel fights.
The Eva/Angel fights are impressively written and animated,
especially given their intricate character designs.
Call me crazy, but my favourite parts of Neon Genesis Evangelion are what, in any other show, would be its "filler arc" -- the "monster of the day" episodes, wherein a new Angel rears its ugly head (assuming it even has a head), and our heroes at NERV must concoct and carry out some new plan of stopping it. What I love about these episodes is that they all bring something new to the table. One of these Angels splits into two halves that must be vanquished simultaneously. One of them is a giant Blue Water crystal that can only be killed by a long-range sniper shot.  One of them is a larva that must be extracted from out of a volcano. One of them is a computer virus that must be hacked out of commission. One of them takes place at sea -- and the Evas can't swim, so they must jump around on aircraft carriers. And through it all, you might even learn something about one of the characters.

So the show has its fun for a while, but then along comes Episode 18, which I dare say is a masterpiece in a dramatic sense. Without wishing to spoil, it opens up the discussion on topics such as the use of child soldiers. And I'm like, that would have been a great thing to base a series on. But as the series gets progressively darker in these penultimate episodes, its attention span gets a little flighty. As the series wraps up, the Angels arrive in more and more insidious forms, quite a number of plot twists rear their ugly heads, and the psyches of Shinji, Rei, and Asuka get stretched to the breaking point and back again. But because they waited until this far into the series, none of these plot points get the chance to truly stick. So it turns out that Rei was one of many clones created by Gendo from his late wife, you say? That's great and all, but how does that affect the overall story? Not at all, as far as the series proper is concerned.

But it all has to lead up to something, right? I mean, sooner or later, you're gonna wonder where the Angels came from and what beef they have with us Earthlings, no? Well, ask into one hand, spit into the other, and see which fills up first. It turns out that the final two episodes eschew any sort of action, at least into the format we've grown used to, and instead focus on the internal monologue of its characters, as they contemplate their worth as humans and soldiers in the front lines against the Angels. For a total of fifty minutes. Now, if you want to give your characters their moments of introspection, that's all well and good; it shows a fair bit of smarts on your part. But this sort of scene should be a couple minutes long, not the entire runtime of your series finale! They even did this before, in Episode 20! There is a clever bit in one of these episodes where the show is temporarily re-imagined as a slice-of-life school drama, and the "congratulations" scene where Shinji finally makes a breakthrough on the causes of his mental maladies is just as rewarding for the viewer -- but only because we've wasted fifty minutes of our lives that we'll never get back.

Get used to "animation" like this throughout the final two episodes.
Before any commenters pounce upon me with a precision nerd strike, I wish to state two things for the record. One, I am at least aware of Evangelion's expanded universe, which covers not only the original TV series, but the follow-up movie End of Evangelion (which effectively serves as a replacement for the final two episodes), the reboot film series Rebuild of Evangelion, and multiple manga series, each with their own interpretations of the Eva universe. Perhaps some of the questions I asked a couple of paragraphs ago are answered in End of Evangelion, but I have not seen it as of this posting. And besides, if your show is dependent on an auxiliary movie to tie up any loose plot threads, then that's just the mark of lazy storytelling. I mean, when even the lead actor talks smack about your ending, then you have failed.

And two, I am well aware of this show's lack of budget. Despite the impressive action sequences when we get to watch an actual Eva/Angel fight, the animators managed to cut corners in every other way manageable. That's not to say the show doesn't "look" good. The designs of the sets and characters is unique, especially for the Angels and Evas, providing the show with its own cool aesthetic, and many scenes are "shot" with clever composition. But on the other hand, if you're willing to trash your liver, you could make a drinking game out of spotting how many times characters speak with their mouths conspicuously covered, or the "camera" is zoomed out so far away as to make animating lip-flaps not worth the effort. Heck, some scenes even linger on one shot with no motion taking place whatsoever, such as a rather infamous moment from one of the final episodes, which is two minutes of nothing but Shinji's Eva holding some guy in its mighty, oversized hand. And in the interest of saving you two boob-less minutes, here are some spoilers: said guy is Kaworu Nagisa, an Angel in a human's body, and the only one who's ever showed Shinji any form of unconditional appreciation throughout the series, and he gets crushed at the end of it, merely by "virtue" of being an Angel.

Speaking of budget cuts, one area of anime production which typically operates under such lack of resources would be foreign-language dubbing, and for some reason lack of money usually translates into lack of caring. But chronologically speaking, the English dub of Neon Genesis Evangelion (produced by ADV Films in 1997-98) may be the first truly great example of its kind. How can I make this broad claim? Let's take the case of Asuka Langley Soryu (EN: Tiffany Grant, JP: Yuko Miyamura), a hot-headed, half-German Eva pilot who first shows up a couple of episodes in. When her Japanese actress speaks German, it sounds a bit forced, like a Japanese person speaking German. But when her English actress does so, she sounds like an actual German speaking normally. (And I should know; I've taken five years of that language in high school.) That should be all I need to say in regards to how seriously ADV took their jobs, but apart from that, I can honestly say that for the most part, the performances in both the English and Japanese tracks suitably develop the personalities of their respective characters. There are a couple of side characters whose voices get under my nerves more so in English than Japanese, but they're few and far between enough that I can live with that.

If I were to compare Neon Genesis Evangelion to any other franchise, it would be the Metal Gear games -- specifically, Metal Gear Solid 2. See, when they do what they set out to do at the start, they're really good at it. It's when they let their auxiliary message take precedence over the original plot that they start to lose favour in my eyes. (Face it, you took some level of offence when you realised Raiden was nought but a surrogate for the player.) I'm not saying writers shouldn't try to incorporate more in-depth themes into their works, far from it. I'd just prefer there to be a balance between them and the plots set up within the story's own universe. For an example of this done correctly, I point you to Anno-sama's other claim to fame, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. From time to time, the heroine's words and actions reflect upon the value of life, and it's hard for the viewer's mind to stay out of the mental discussion. But that series never forgets that there's an antagonist who needs to be put down, and a protagonist who needs to do so. A little more focus have made Neon Genesis Evangelion the end-all-be-all of giant-robot anime. As it is, it's a series of worthwhile thoughts and moments that doesn't amount to much in the end. And the way it treats its loyal fans by the end of it all, building up so much suspense and shattering it with an unsatisfying ending, is certainly infuriating. But if I may counter its amateur philosophising with a life-view of my own, I still think Neon Genesis Evangelion was worth putting onto this Earth. As long as it leaves us even with nothing but those thoughts and moments, it's certainly a worthwhile product, no?

*Cast listings refer to the original series. Certain characters have been re-cast for different adaptations, such as the Rebuild movies.

+ The Eva/Angel fight scenes are beautifully animated.
+ Brilliant artistic design and scene direction.
+ The voice acting, both in Japanese and English, is some of the best to have been recorded before the new millennium.
+ It makes an effort to explore the mindsets of its characters.

- The non-action scenes suffer a severe shortfall in terms of the animation budget.
- The final two episodes take all the plot the show has built up to that point, and throw it out the window.

Acting (English): 5 Angels out of 5
Acting (Japanese): 4 Angels out of 5
Writing: 3 Angels out of 5
Animation: 3 Angels out of 5
Visual Design: 5 Angels out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Game Review: Dance Dance Revolution (PSone)

Previously on the SDP, it's been four long years, but my "Dance Dance Retrospective" mini-series has finally come to its bittersweet end. I guess there's nothing left to do now... but to do it all over again! This time, however, I'm going to review the different DDR games as I would any other work on this blog.

Dance Dance Revolution
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
  • Release: PlayStation, 2001
  • Genre: Music, 1-2 players
  • Save: Memory Card, 1 Block
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$5-15
Dance Dance Revolution is a game series that has been around for over fifteen years, and each new game to come along has brought along new content, whether in the form of new songs and/or new modes, to make each successive entry better than the last. Well, in quantifiable terms, anyway. But it had to start somewhere. For American gamers, those first impressions may have been forged in the arcades, or it may have been the first Dance Dance Revolution home game we got for the PlayStation, back in 2001. Does it still hold up today? Let's take it back to simpler times, before all the speed mods, Shock Arrows, and Justin Bieber licences, and find out!

Dance Dance Revolution, and indeed all of the series' home games, are fully playable with a regular controller, but to stay true to the arcade experience, are designed with a special floor-mat controller in mind. What's always bugged me about their official controllers is that there are no Square or Triangle buttons, however the American games all use Triangle to back out of menus. This was fine for the Japanese games, which instead used Circle to advance and X to back out, but apparently something got lost in translation. And it's not like there aren't PlayStation games sold abroad which use that setup; heck, even Konami's own Metal Gear Solid games do so! Fortunately, the Select button is also used to back out, but it feels weird using that button, tucked away in that upper-left corner. I am, however, thankful for a particular option unintuitively called "Dance Mode", which toggles the ability to use the four face buttons as well as the D-Pad to hit arrows.

Even in Double Mode, the game is just as playable with a controller as it is with a dance pad.
This particular DDR game runs on the same "engine" as DDR 3rdMIX. For those who neglected to take notes when reading its entry for Dance Dance Retrospective, that means all three difficulty levels (the easy "Standard", medium "Difficult", and hard "Expert") are available at any time from the start, without hiding behind any button codes. Likewise, all the songs in the game are selectable at any point during a game, as opposed to the first version in Japan which added or removed certain songs depending on whether it was your first round, second round, or otherwise. It also includes extra modes such as the Nonstop courses, sets of 4 songs each played back-to-back, the Workout mode, which records Calories burned as you play, and the multiplayer-exclusive Unison mode.

DDR's songlist is composed entirely of 26 selections from the first three Japanese games. Just shy of half of those are licenced songs, although there's nothing the average American listener would recognise, unless he or she were familiar with the DDR franchise already. The artists featured herein are all various flavours of European dance-music acts who had essentially no presence in the States until this game. If you're lucky, you'll here a familiar sample or cover version here or there -- the immortal riff from Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" is one such sample -- but that's it. And I'm not saying these are bad songs, either, but they have their own share of '90s Europop cheese. By my money, the standout tracks are the original songs made by Konami's own artists, which explore different musical genres, and generally provide a higher range of challenge in their charts.

Your choice of character doesn't matter in gameplay terms.
Upon starting a game, you have a choice of characters who will dance in the background during your game. There are quite a few of them -- 16 in all -- however, you can only select the male or female characters (8 of each) depending on whether your controller is plugged into port 1 or 2 of your PlayStation console. And even then, they don't alter the gameplay itself in any manner. Do they let you trigger different abilities to make your experience easier or more challenging? No, they're just another layer of background animation to distract you from the arrows you're supposed to be focusing on.

DDR has all the basic elements that make a Dance Dance Revolution game good, but not much on top of them. There's a certain simple charm in booting up a game and having all its content available to you at the start without even needing a Memory Card to save to, but that statement is a tad misleading because there is no content to unlock. The replay value in this game is limited to setting high scores for all the charts on all the songs, doing the same for all the nonstop courses, and perhaps starting a regular exercise program in Workout mode. While it may be a bad Dance Dance Revolution game, if only in terms of content, this introductory entry is not a bad video game.

And finally, in honour of Rerez, a YouTube gaming channel I discovered recently, I shall close out this review, and all other reviews going forward, with a list of the positive and negative qualities which stood out to me whilst playing, watching, reading, or listening to the work in question. (It's also a handy way of planning out my reviews before I start writing them.) As always, this shall be promptly followed up by the category grades and the final call. The more things change, the more they stay the same. So:

+ One of the first great examples of "exergaming" in a long time.
+ No need to unlock anything.
+ The inclusion of Beginner, Unison, Nonstop, and Workout modes.
+ Some of the step-charts have become unforgettably fun.

- A relatively small music selection, with nothing to unlock.
- Not many of the songs will be familiar to non-fans.
- Some of the music is cheesy -- "Let Them Move" especially.

Control: 5 Perfect!s out of 5
Design: 3 Perfects!s out of 5
Graphics: 3 Perfects!s out of 5
Sound: 4 Perfect!s out of 5
Value: 3 Perfect!s out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)