The timelessness of Batman: The Animated Series

How often do you find that a work of animation holds up well almost 30 years after release? And not just through rose-coloured glasses. A show with quality animation, great characters and awesome voice acting bringing it all to life. A show which is timeless. Through the stories it tells and the themes these stories communicate.

 I’d wager that if we put our collective minds together we can count a few shows who still receive recognition. My pick is definitely Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS). While its initial broadcast was around 1992, it still find it a remarkable series. To start: It introduced me to superheroes and darker storytelling when I was young. Growing up in the early nineties I was exposed to a different era of animation. Anime had not made its way to my television screen and Disney was kind of the only household name. At least in my memory. I know there was animation on Cartoon Network, but either we didn’t have it on tv or my parents managed to hide it very well for me. Think of a situation where you only get to watch the “kid-friendly” cartoons. Those that are pretty merry and gentle for the maturing soul. So when you are exposed to the dark and gritty world of BTAS, it sticks. It makes an impression. But why? Why do I remember this show specifically? Even after all these years.

Empatic stories

While rewatching the show, the thing that strikes me about the characters in the episodes is that they are real characters. You can find similar people on our streets. A man who tragically lost his parents when he was young; an academic who is wronged or misjudged by his peers; or an ecologist who has rather extreme methods to reach their goal. Fortunately for us, in our reality, people don’t don masks, capes and spandex to go out and about during the night to make people suffer. But we understand their background and their reasoning for doing this. BTAS communicates clearly why people are doing what they’re doing. And does it without making concessions or by talking down to the intended audience. Something I appreciate a lot since I know people are a lot smarter than some media seem to think. 

BTAS lets us think for ourselves. Show the nuts and bolts of a character so the viewer empathises. Then, by using design and animation, create a fun story.

Flowing animation and design

The show has a very distinct look1. Batman’s iconic design of the ears sticking out from the dark background and the white eyes beaming at you. It is not realistic, but it is iconic. The show heavily relies on its iconic designs. The viewer instantly recognises Batman, Commissioner Gordon, Joker, Penguin, Harley Quinn and Catwoman. This is a strength of the medium: showing the core of the characters by simplifying the design. Simplicity is what also allows for a flowing animation style, as seen in the round lines of the characters. Which results in the series holding up relatively well as the medium changes over time.

Another place where this simplicity is very visible is in the way the show uses details. I absolutely love that shot in the opening of the batmobile. It’s so sophisticated in its simple design. Only the necessary details where you expect them to see, namely in the front of the picture. The elements in the back are, in this case, blurred because of the implied speed of the vehicle.

This technique is also used when portraying key locations for instant recognition. Below is an image of the Arkham Asylum. There is a recognition in 2-3 seconds through the framing and composition to let the viewer know where the scene takes place and the Noir Neo-Gothic Futuristic design of the world immediately immerses you in it.

This Dark Deco design transforms Gotham City from a location into a character. A dark place, where hope still glimmers in the night through the actions of our beloved caped crusader. And where the music elevates the city takes the viewer firmly by the hand to immerse them during the journey. One that each time starts with a superb opening.

Orchestral music

The opening for BTAS is iconic. And the music is a big contribution to that. Even if you have not watched the show in twenty years I think you will remember the intro. I love that this show has orchestral music. Shirley Walker’s score based on Danny Elfman’s theme of the Burton movies is certainly the powerhouse behind the curtains. For me, a good soundtrack is not noticeable when you aren’t paying attention while watching, yet it amplifies the viewing experience. I have only listened to parts of the soundtrack2 but I am paying attention and enjoying it during the episodes. 

This also makes me appreciate the music more, especially when the music starts after a period of silence. It is an instant gratification that contributes in a big way to the pleasure of watching the show.

Conclusion

Batman: The Animated Series stuck with me for multiple reasons. Realistic, emphatic stories; flowing animation and design; and a stellar soundtrack. In hindsight, I am not surprised this show had such an impact on my younger self. The use of the iconic designs is easy to understand and proven to be a foundation for my love of clear, and simple communication. Second: The great atmosphere manifested in a world drenched in darkness and balanced with music and light humour showed that there is light in the darkest of moments. And finally, the stories this show managed to tell. A 90 minute film packaged in a 22 minute episode3.

It is safe to say that Batman: The Animated Series managed to influence my younger self a lot. And I’m glad the series doesn’t disappoint 30 years after I (assumingly) watched it for the first time. It is a foundational series that I will love, revere and scrutinise for the rest of my life, like any timeless classic should be.


Sources:

  1. See the making of on Youtube: The Story of Batman The Animated Series: Heart of Batman
  2. Spotify links Albums. Volume 1; Volume 2; Volume 3; Volume 4; Volume 5; Volume 6.
  3. The episode I am the Night is an excellent example of this

Miyazaki and managing expectations

With the release of his latest film, Hayao Miyazaki again increased his legacy in the world of animation. I have a deep respect for Miyazaki. He is a man who has spent most of his life honing his craft with great success. And while there is the ongoing joke of Miyazaki retiring, I simply acknowledge the man is managing expectations. Not just for us, but also for himself.

The Boy and the Heron

The trailer for The Boy and the Heron or How do you Live caught me by surprise. I was aware that Miyazaki was working on something; but since there’s always a big announcement for a new film, I just assumed that there would be teasers and trailers months before release. While I was very wrong; I could not be more delighted. I watched the trailer on release day and it just oozes Ghibli. It looks beautiful, and the minimalist approach of the 1 minute trailer only adds to the mystery surrounding this film.

My expectations

The film is currently making its way to theaters around the world and for a change I’m trying not to spoil myself. Just so I can form my opinion when it eventually hits a nearby Dutch movie theater1. Like I said earlier: I have a deep respect for the creator Miyazaki and his work. He is the example of a person who has a profession that he loves and uses it with great effect to tell his stories. To that end, I want to comment on two images from the trailer that have that familiar Miyazaki feel to it and make me thrilled to see it.

The dark corridor:

A dark corridor lined with mysterious lights that illuminate the path. This reminds me of Spirited Away and Laputa (Castle in the Sky). It is the unknown and supernatural element we see so very often in Miyazaki films. I find the thought that nature will take over once we humans stop to manage a place really interesting. It also segways into the second image.

Fire spirit:

A flaming spirit next to a human. Like Howl’s Moving Castle or Ponyo, the spirits are among us. While in real life they don’t seem to have the power to manifest like in films; Miyazaki asks us to think about nature and respect it. Which is in line with his other works.

Both these images are, like I mentioned before, recognisable for people who’ve seen his other works. They are why I return to his work periodically. Not just because of nostalgia for the film or creative inspiration. But because they all refer to the greater world. One that is connected and where we are not alone. That feeling is the expectation I have when watching a Miyazaki movie. The feeling that has people revere his work and will outlast the creator when he eventually decides to retire.

Retirement (plan)

Miyazaki has been talking about retirement for about 15-20 years now. Which is not odd, considering he currently is 82 years old. The admirable passion he has for his craft is likely the driving force of his continued productivity, yet the question is how his age is impacting production. I cannot imagine how it must be as an 80+ year old creative to add another incredible film to your revered filmography. Even less so to think about a new project. Which raises the question about how physically and mentally fit Miyazaki is. 

I hope he can keep enjoying his (semi-) retirement for another few years since another seven-year production will be hard to complete. I’ve seen and heard of people who just “grow old” at a certain age. While for some it starts when they hit the age of 60, others are blessed because “deterioration” starts much, much later. There will come a time when a person just has to slow down because their body cannot work at the same pace as before. And since he’s 82, I’m not sure how age is impacting his work. I do not know his plans but I will not blame Miyazaki if he retires completely. On the other hand, I’m quite intrigued to see another Miyazaki film after this one. If he likes it or not, the world needs his stories. Perhaps now more than ever.


Notes

  1. It’s currently being shown in Amsterdam, but I simply lack the time to travel there to see it.

The importance of staying true to yourself

I always like to be surprised by a show or film. At least in a positive way. There are a lot of films and series available, so I’ve learned to be very picky with my time. I want to see a character gain an insight or share a view of life that I can use. A lesson to learn or a healthy habit to copy. Media do not always provide this, but sometimes I get lucky. Today I’ll have two series and one film that provide an insight about staying true to yourself.1

Devilman Crybaby

I got interested in Devilman Crybaby because of the Year of Yuasa video essay. His style is recognisable and the animated hyper-violence was a nice palate cleanser in between parts 1 and 2 of The Glory. In the show we follow the schoolboy named Akira Fudo. When his body becomes possessed by a demon he manages to retain his heart and kind soul, thus becoming Devilman. Over its runtime, we see Akira fight demons who have completely taken over their host body. Yet somehow, Akira manages to keep his empathy in the rapidly changing world around him. Because the show only spans 10 episodes, there are some big leaps in the main plot. Despite that, Devilman Crybaby manages to convey the difficulty of the characters to keep their humanity in the polarizing and violent world they live in.

Call me Chihiro

Call me Chihiro is probably the most slice of life film I’ve ever seen. On a surface level it looks like a couple of days from the life of the main character: former sex worker Chihiro. Yet as the film progresses, it becomes more. It shows us that we can help others by being oneself. By connecting people, handing out advice and especially being focussed on the needs of the other. Chihiro is an adorable human being, who by her natural charm is a welcome deviation of the more distant social standard we often see in real life. A film best watched when you’re not in the mood for something heavy, since the bittersweet lightheartedness is heartwarming on a cold evening.

Romantic Killer

Romantic Killer far exceeded my expectations. This romantic comedy is about high schooler Anzu. A very non-typical girl who only loves chocolate, games and cats. But when she starts her new game, a wizard pops out of her tv and takes what she loves most in life. The goal of wizard Riri is to have Anzu fall in love. Stubborn as she is, Anzu is determined to fight off any romance that comes her way. She will win back her three greatest joys in life and defeat the wizard at its own game.

The plot of Romantic Killer is as ridiculous as you would expect. The animation is great and the characters well developed. This combination gives the (physical) comedy an extra layer which makes this show a wholesome and hilarious experience. What really sells it for me is the many faces of Anzu and the great performance of her voice actor.2 It makes Anzu’s arc from a self-centered person to a kind and loving one a treat to watch.

The giving heart

All these media: Devilman Crybaby, Call me Chihiro and Romantic Killer show us what we can do if we stay true to ourselves. Akira has to make hard choices for the ones that he loves. Even when these choices lead him down a dark path, he manages to keep his human side alive. His inner demon needs to be fed, but because Akira believes in his humanity he can stay true to himself for a very long time. A sight neatly contrasted by the character Moyuru, who after a time gives in to become a full fledged demon. He cares little for others around him and eventually gives in to the pressure, seeing no suitable future for himself as an individual. He chooses to become part of the ever growing demon horde. Something that Akira and fellow Devilman Miko refuse to do until their death. Both Akira and Miko show a strong moral compass which makes them memorable as characters.

Another person with a strong moral compass is Chihiro. As a former sex worker she knows how to handle people. In her new life as a bento box sales person, she becomes the fascinating center of a community. Brutally honest yet never disrespectful. She is a socially binding element between people who didn’t know they needed it. While her focus on the present is an admirable trait, it eventually reveals itself to be a double edged sword. Through her it becomes clear that with a single focus on the present, a character will probably not improve their personal situation in the future.

How to never be alone

Chihiro is an empathic person, yet she chooses to give priority to others over herself. Serving a community like she does is a healthy trait until it becomes unhealthy. Chihiro leaves no room for herself to be happy. We learn little about her past and her inner life. Despite her outward and considerate demeanor, she seems to be afraid of deeper bonds. A behavior made clear by her sudden departure at the end. Chihiro is a person that will most likely feel like she’s alone in the world until she learns she’s not alone. 

A feeling that Romantic Killer’s Anzu has no notion of when her distractions are forcibly removed. Companions magically enter her life like they always were there. Initially she rejects them, defiant of the “evil” wizards plan. Yet over time she learns to enjoy their company. She matures as a character. Like Chihiro, she becomes present in social situations. But with the difference that her goal is to win back her three big loves. With that in mind she has a focus on what she wants for the future. Anzu will not allow herself to be swayed into liking a man purely because he is a man. She enjoys the company of the men in her life because they are fun to be around. Over time this reveals Anzu to be an attentive and caring young woman which naturally inspires the company she attracts to grow as people. 

Of these three people (Akira, Chihiro and Anzu) one can argue that Romantic Killer shows best how to deal with internal struggles. You never have to be alone when you share your personality with the world. Devilman Crybaby, Call me Chihiro and Romantic Killer show that if you stay true to yourself and try to live your best life you will encounter people that can and will help you. You only need to give yourself permission to be helped.


Notes

  1. Being true to yourself means you don’t worry about pleasing other people; living by someone else’s standards or rules. You don’t care what people think of you. You live as your natural self. Without compromise. No one can tell you how to be true to yourself except you.
    Source: Ethics Sage
  2. Interview with voice actor Rie Takahashi

Other sources and further reading

On Devilman Crybaby:

Masaaki Yuasa

Devilman Crybaby on My Anime List

Devilman Crybaby on Rotten Tomatoes

On Call me Chihiro:

Call me Chihiro on Rotten Tomatoes

Call me Chihiro on My Drama List

Salon review of the film: “Comfort to all”

On Romantic Killer:

Romantic Killer on My Anime List

Romantic Killer on Rotten Tomatoes

Gamerant: “Romantic Killer Is Helping Spread An Important Message”

CBR: “Fall 2022’s Romantic Killer Addresses a Serious Issue That’s Not Discussed Enough”

Violet Evergarden: Letters for the Lost

Writing is the practice of putting letters into words and sentences. To put words on paper is a way of expressing yourself to the reader. It is more permanent than speaking, for the spoken word only lives in our memory after the sound is gone while words on paper remain. It is an ancient practice that most of us learn from a young age. We use it our entire life, whether we think about it or not. Our daily writing practice may involve sending emails to our customers or colleagues; typing short messages to our friends; or writing a book. All is possible. But where are the people who write letters? Not letters to government officials or to apply for a job. But true, heartfelt letters to their loved ones. Are there even people who write letters to their loved ones or are we not able to do so anymore? These are questions that Violet Evergarden put in my mind. 

What is Violet Evergarden

Violet Evergarden is a 2018 Netflix animated series based on the similarly named Light Novel. It follows Violet Evergarden, a girl in her teens who was a child soldier until the end of the war. As Leidenschaftlich’s Soldier Maiden she was known by friend and foes alike. The young girl who protected major Gilbert Bougainvillea with her life. As a child soldier, she knew only military life. So major Gilbert’s orders were her direction, her only meaning in life.  

A life she almost gave away in the last battle. The operation to take an enemy stronghold that went completely wrong. Violet lost both her arms and her commanding officer, whom she wanted to protect. The major, mortally wounded, knew his time had come. Ever since he took Violet under his wing, he taught her important skills like reading and writing. Which she did, as Violet thought it was part of her training. She could not infer at the time that the major was slowly teaching her skills to live her own life. A skillset which he could not complete. So his last orders were simple: “Run and live. Be free.” 

The last words he spoke were: “from the bottom of my heart. I love you.”

Words she didn’t understand. With the major crushed under a building and Violet waking in the hospital bed with two metal arms the show begins. In search for the meaning of I love you.

The impact of writing

After she’s healed, Violet takes a job at a postal company where female scribes (Dolls) work as ghostwriters. In this illiterate world, the scribe is a very needed job. People have requests for written words. Be it stage plays, love letters or something else that is special. 

With every letter, we learn with Violet. We learn how to deal with loss, guilt, regret, atonement and love. As Violet’s scribe teacher explains: “An optimal Doll will be able to decipher the person’s true feelings and express it on paper.” A role which Violet makes her own, as we see that with each written word the emotionless girl learns empathy and is eventually able to express it as well.

Letters are such a beautiful medium. Youtuber Sage Rain has an on point definition: “a letter is a message that can exist beyond the constraints of time, age or distance.” A letter can reach those who are lost. People unwilling or unable to listen to the spoken word might be reached on a deep emotional level with the right words. Words expressed by a client, written by the Doll and delivered by a mailman. That is the truth of the world in which Violet lives. All put their effort into these letters so the recipient can read the contents with honest eyes and hopefully an open mind. Violet experiences this as well in episode 9, when she herself is lost. Receiving the letter gives her the realization that receiving a letter equals receiving someone’s precious feeling. Their heart and soul. Which ultimately helps her to step into the light. To an unknown but bright future.

Letters for a loving future

Our digital age allows for convenient means to create and send written words. Watching Violet Evergarden might give the impression that our modern communication systems lack a personal touch. There is no physicality to the received letter simply because no one delivered it in person. While there is a truth in that, I would not dissuade you from writing a letter to another person. You can not know if your written words are the ones that change that person’s life.

“People have very complex and sensitive emotions. Not every one can express how they truly feel. They end up contradicting themselves or lying, which makes it difficult for me to understand what is true and what not.”

Violet Evergarden

With heart and soul

I did not get answers to the questions I asked at the start. Some are simply to farfetched to research myself. Yet I believe that there are people who still write beautiful letters and that we all are capable of writing letters with heart and soul. Even if the after war setting of Violet Evergarden may be distant, the emotional challenges on display are human and relatable to all. For we all have our own challenges in life. Should you feel lost like some of the people in Violet Evergarden, I encourage you to search for words that inspire you. It does not matter who the source is. A small quote from an unknown tv show can be as inspiring as a motivator with millions of followers. If the quote feels important to you, cherish those words. They carry the heart and soul of the writer.


Sources used

Just your easy acces Wikipedia link

Violet Evergarden on My Anime List: It’s top 100

Grab your tissues says Geoff Thew: Mother’s Basement review

Sage Rain video essay

Header image source

I collect inspiring quotes as well and you can find them here

Edgerunners: Eyes that skirt the abbyss

The abyss. The pitch black place of moral depravity where normal people do not come. For if you enter it, you are lost to humanity.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (C:E) is an exploration of the people susceptible to the call of the abyss. A show dedicated to the cyberised punks who are skirting the edge in search of money and glory. If you’re not familiar with the Cyberpunk universe, C:E does a great job of introducing you to the dystopian sci-fi of Night City in the year 2076. While the show is colorful, there is an unmistakable grittiness to the visuals on screen. The below walk through Night City shows everything you need to know.

The rest contains spoilers for Cyberpunk Edgerunners.

The people

Night City looks like a place where normal people have a hard time living. In a world run by mega corporations and streets dominated by gangs, a simple question is: where does the middle class fit?

We get a glimpse of this in the opening episode where we see Gloria. At first glance, she is an honest, hardworking woman. A single mother who works double shifts to keep herself and her son David alive. She also works for David’s education in one of the major corporations in Night City. But David’s education at Arasaka isn’t what makes him happy. Despite his good grades he doesn’t feel like they are his people. The rich boy bullies also  contribute heavily to this alienation. What David wants is a family. One that he finds on the bad side of the law. The one that his mother was trying to protect him from.

Eyes of the Lost

Stepping over the line and engaging with the outlaws and mercenaries of Night City makes you vulnerable to the call of the abyss. The abyss is not a physical place for the people of Night City. Yet it is a real place for those experiencing it. Anxiety pumped up to eleven caused by a constant input of data in the mind. It’s the reason a person cannot sleep. Not until the mind completely switches off. The individual’s sense of normalcy is reduced and they lose all empathy to resort to the one thing they know: to kill. These Lost or Cyberpsychos are identifiable by their eyes.

When we learn that Gloria was making extra money by selling hardware as a black market dealer we question her concerned eyes. Did they see the abyss? In a way Gloria was part of the ecosystem that produced Edgerunners and Cyberpsychos. So the only option she must’ve had was to be a part of the system or know that her wish for her son to have a proper life would not be realized.

Batman

In a sense Edgerunners are all like Batman. A man who has seen the abyss, walks along its edge, but refuses to give in. It requires a great mental fortitude to not jump into the dark. It is stated often in C:E that everyone who has chrome installed will fall eventually. Which makes the notion that Batman is able to remain steadfast until his elderly years even more impressive. Especially when you don’t seem to have that big of an impact on the world. When pondered, it is understandable why the allure of installing more chrome is present. David is the prime example. To make an impact, protect those you care for. Even if you become Lost while doing so.


Sources:

https://www.cyberpunk.net/en/edgerunners

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberpunk:_Edgerunners

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberpunk_(role-playing_game)

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/moral-depravity

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/abyss

Spezzaferri, Mitchell & Collins, Gary & Aguilar, Jenny & Larsen, Anne. (2017). Moral Depravity: Going Beyond Just an Attribute of Psychopathy. Journal of Forensic Psychology. 02. 10.4172/2475-319X.1000122.

The family of Gundam

A couple weeks back the official Gundam Youtube channel graciously published the prologue for the upcoming series The Witch from Mercury. The 25 minute episode gives the primer for the setting; important characters and it puts one of the main themes of the series front and center.

We’re a family

The emotional ending of the prologue indicates to the viewer that family is important in the show. We will have to wait to see if The Witch from Mercury will be a revenge story or one of finding a new family during war. But one thing is certain: family is at the heart of a Gundam show.

It is the bonding of soldiers. Of people in similar situations who find support in each other.

The audience can see that the characters are just people thrown into conflict due to reasons outside of their sphere of influence. They fight to protect their home and family; their country or their beliefs. There are many reasons to take up a weapon. While some are more honorable than others, Gundam shows us that in protecting what you care for, you’ll find a new family with your battle comrades. 

For a bright future

Some of the Gundam shows really play on the family theme. Iron Blooded Orphans (IBO) made us care for the battle-scarred children that only had each other to count on. The IBO crew really found their family during the series. Which was something that Orga and Mizuki fought really hard to realize and protect. That Tekkadan became a mafia style group while realizing their dream only showed the double-edged sword that a chosen family is in times of war. You try your hardest to keep every single family member alive so they may see your envisioned future. But the reality is that people die in the process. The question will be if you can move on with your life or not. One of the truths of life is that there is no place to go back to. The past is the past and things can never be the same because things change. People change. Something that the end of IBO showed very well (spoilers).

Bring it, little Witch

I personally like the family theme. Family is important in my life. It has been a constant which I’m very grateful for. Especially since I know that so many people in the world have lost their (sense of) family because of a myriad of reasons. 

The setup done in the prologue for The Witch from Mercury has me peeked for a story that deals with these real-life problems. If done well, it can teach us as viewers how to deal with grief and even provide healing if the writers chose to incorporate it. Let’s hope the magic of The Witch from Mercury is as captivating as the prologue.

As you probably can tell I’m very much looking forward to seeing the new Gundam show. Which is a stark contrast to my feelings before watching the prologue. I’m hoping that all the emotional beats of the prologue return and that our Witch finds what she is looking for. That would really make it a satisfying viewing experience.

Bubble tells us to listen

First drafted June 11.

I hear a tractor passing on this sunny afternoon. Its heavy diesel engine echoes from the buildings in this tiny Belgium village, somewhere in the Ardennes. Other than the wind and birds, it is quiet. I’m on the annual team weekend, having just returned from a few days off with my parents. Similarly to the last couple of days, I find myself in nature. With limited city sounds or the general business of the working life my mind is in relative peace.

This subdued external input creates space. Space to think and space to listen. 

Listening to my own thoughts is something I value. Especially when it concerns my writing or my current (life) situation. Unfortunately, my agenda was filled to the brim during the last couple of weeks with all kinds of stuff. Thus limiting my time to listen and reflect. I’m sure many of you are in similar situations, where your life is teeming with so many activities that you’re not even thinking about creating a moment to breathe. Luckily Bubble (2022) sparked my drive to conciously create a moment to listen.

What is Bubble (spoilers)

Bubble is an animated feature film produced by Wit studio. It features the visually stunning post-apocalyptic version of Tokyo which was largely flooded by a mysterious event known as the “Bubble Fall”.

During the film we follow a group of teens who do dangerous parkour battles to gather supplies so they can survive. One of these teens is 19-year-old Hbiki. He is an exceptional player, yet limited because of his hearing disorder (hyperacusis).

Part of his exceptional skills come from his ability to hear a song when he focuses. It is implied only Hbiki can hear it because of his hearing sensitivity. The rhythm of the song enables Hbiki to read the ever changing terrain of Tokyo like he practiced it for years. And practice is what he needs. Because when not competing in the parkour, Hbiki tries to reach the epicenter of the bubble at Tokyo Tower which calls to him. However, he constantly fails at his attempts to reach it due to the complex gravity forces. In one attempt he nearly drowns, only to be saved by a mysterious girl he names Uta. 

He takes her back to his team home and Uta joins the team. Over the runtime of the film, Uta influences the lives of everyone around her. Not only those on the team, but also her mysterious sisters. Convince them that they can coexist with humans by simply being among them; listening and learning from them.

If you watched the film you’ll realize the basic plot is a retelling of The Little Mermaid. It even uses the book to give context to the story of Uta and Hbiki. Which is not something that I was expecting before watching this film. Regardless, the plot execution is abstract and sometimes hard to follow. Luckily the visuals are amazing and Hyroyuki Sawano’s soundtrack elevates those visuals to an even higher level. It is a shame that the plot and underdeveloped characters don’t contribute to it1.

Are you listening

I would’ve loved it if Bubble’s on screen action wasn’t limited by some of the mandatory plot or exposition. For example: It is nice to know why Tokyo is in this state, but it would also work if this was shown in the opening of the film2.

If done so, there would be more time for the viewer to spend with the characters. The time we would need to watch them grow. This can be done when the main plot is minimized to let the characters shine. We could learn more about them. Why are they (re)acting like they do? And what are these characters learning from Uta since she is someone who learns from watching and listening to others. On top of that she is a person who values that experience appropriately, as can be seen in the scene where she creates bubble figures. This is why you could argue that Bubble is a study of the human experience; although I would sooner link it to our ability to grow as people through the act of listening.

While Bubble culminates in a rather tumultuous ending, the below scene explains exactly what I mean. Through listening and watching Hbiki, Uta is able to understand him. And she is able to return that experience by singing.

She may not be able to talk, but she is able to convey her feelings. Thus showing us that she grew from someone who clung to Hbiki to someone who has a better understanding of the world3. Sadly the moment is cut short because the plot needs to happen. Which is not a criticism. It is me feeling sad that the moment ends. Especially because these moments are limited compared with the energetic action. But when viewed as a complete product, Bubble is very clear in its visual and auditory storytelling. Storytelling that touches the heart.

 “Listening is an attitude of the heart, a genuine desire to be with another which both attracts and heals.” 

L. J. Isham


Notes

1. Which seems to be the consensus among reviewers

2. I want to use Laputa’s opening credits as an example because that kind of short and to the point exposition that Bubble would have benefited from. I couldn’t find it on Youtube so you have to do with an analysis on why it is so good.

3. One with rose-coloured glasses, but a better one nonetheless.

Additional sources/research

What Great Listeners Actually Do; by Zenger, J. and Folkman, J: https://hbr.org/2016/07/what-great-listeners-actually-do

There’s NO Such Thing as “Soft Skills”; Simon Sinek

Bubble (2022) Honest Review; Unleash the Ghouls

Bubble: The Beautiful Mess | Bubble Anime Movie Review; ProfessorViral

Bubble | Director Araki and Composer Sawano Reaction | Netflix Anime

Children of the Whales: A show full of contradictions

Upon the sea of sand we see an island. An island that is sailing across the sand. It is a beautiful place where people live in harmony. But things are not what they seem to be. Most of the island’s inhabitants are below the age of 30. What is this place? Who are these people? You’ll find out in Children of the Whales.

It is a nice experience when you’re positively surprised by a show. Children of the Whales (Kujira no Kora wa Sajou ni Utau) is one that did. With no prior knowledge on the show save the limited information Netflix provides this was a wild guess for me. But being in the mood for something short I gave it a try. And it was an interesting watch.

The basics

Let’s start simple since the show seems like it’s a bit overlooked1 and its overall ratings across different platforms is somewhere in the 70-75 region. The larger animation focussed Youtube channels also haven’t covered it.

Children of the Whales (CotW) is an animated show based upon the manga of the same name. The manga released in 2013; the animation produced by J.C.Staff dates from 2017.

The series follows the 12-year old boy Chakuro who is the scribe/recorder of the people of his island. The island, called the Mud Whale, is adrift on the sea of sand. The people survive by scavenging other islands that pass by them and the bit of farming that they can manage. This small society is divided in two groups: The Marked and Unmarked.

The Marked are people with magical telekinesis- like powers called Thymia. Thymia is powered by the emotions of the wielder. They people have a short lifespan and rarely reach the age of 30. The Marked make up about 98% of the Mud Whale society. The others are the Unmarked. The people without thymia. While they are the de facto minority of the society, they are the ones in charge because they have a ‘normal’ human lifespan. The story kicks off when Chakuro encounters a human on another drifting island, something that hasn’t happened since people started to record their lives on paper. Contrary to what you might expect from the opening episode of this show, some unlikely events occur and it gets quite bloody real fast.

The show is a mixed bag of mystery, adventure and some other elements in a science fantasy universe. The target audience of the manga is labeled as Shojou, but the anime doesn’t give that vibe to me. Since I don’t know how the manga differs from the anime, I can only comment on the on screen presentation. It differs from things I’ve seen recently and the sound and visuals are a big contribution to that. 

Art and sound

To start: CotW is beautiful to watch. It is a blend of 2D and CGI. Its beautiful coloring and background painting made me reminisce to Grimgar, who applied a similar technique to its benefit. 

Like Grimgar, most of the backgrounds are static which can feel a bit like cheating, but in the best kind of way. Unlike Grimgar, the backgrounds in CotW are sometimes distracting from the action in the forefront. This is (perhaps) enhanced by the chosen color palette, where the character on the forefront look less important over the bright, beautiful background. However, this artistic aspect of the show; combined with gorgeous animation brings a distinct visual beauty to the screen that I don’t see that often. It sometimes is very pretty like below example; and sometimes misses it’s mark.

In CotW, the world looks like a canvas and the sound gives it an ethereal vibe. Even if you don’t end up watching I highly recommend listening to the OST. The soundtrack adds to the mystery of the world like a good soundtrack of a horror show would. It’s complimented by a couple of J-pop songs that represent the innocence of the Mud Whalers. An innocence that they lose rather quickly after the inciting incident.

The next part contains (mild) spoilers.

Thematics and story

The story of the anime is at times difficult to follow. There are large exposition dumps which make your mind dazzle. Combined with the sometimes poorly paced buildup and resolution of events the narrative feels rushed. It is easily the worst part of the show and probably the biggest turn-off for most people. There are so many elements in place that make this world tick, intricate details that are absolutely necessary to create a full understanding of this world that a solid narrative is vital. The creators did not do a bad job, it just could’ve been done better2.

That is not to say the thematics aren’t handled well. Like the visuals, I find it a bit of a mixed bag. The strangeness of Liontari/Ryodari as a character is an obvious display of a boy turned sadist because he is the only one with full emotions in his normal surroundings. His state of mind is what happens when you are accompanied by a host of emotionless child soldiers. You do what you can to survive. I find it very fitting that the nameless soldiers are dressed like Jesters, making it even more clear how this shows puts rationale and emotions against each other. And this is just one of the thematics that are on display3.

A show of contradictions

Children of the Whales is a show full of contradictions. On the one side it has an ethereal quality to it. This is balanced by the richly flowing blood and the importance given to menial tasks like working the land. But the world looks empty with very little scenes of moving people yet it feels very rich because of its art and (implied) history. The deep thematics are front and center but the execution in the story is lacking. It boasts a large conflict in the storyworld but fails to deliver the correct buildup. Because of this there are only minor moments that the characters truly shine as dimensional, breathing people.

At the end of the day CotW has everything in place to ask a meaningful question. Something like “Would you give up your powers for a longer life?” or “What sacrifice would you make for a life full of emotions?” 

Sadly, the narrative execution in CotW leaves much to be desired and is a clear detriment to the beautiful animation and sound that make this world a place you as the viewer would want to visit. So while I was positively surprised, I would give you a big “caution before you watch”. It surely is something that you don’t see everyday, and in the animated space it surely is something special.


  1. Note that this is speculation from my side, and totally not backed by research.
  2. Instead of the info dump on what Marked and Unmarked are by voiceover, they could’ve opted to have Suou or Taisha read it out loud as a check on Chakuro’s work. Work that they assigned to him. Another example would be Masoh’s arc and his relationship with the others (like Kuchiba). I would’ve preferred it if he were presented as someone the children look up to. And because of this, his strained relationship with the ruling powers of the island. Even if he just wants to help everybody.
  3. Think of: ruling minority/handling of power; elders keeping secrets from their children; discrimination; what it means to have a supportive family/community; saying your goodbye/realitionship with death; living a short and predestined life; dealing with disturbances in your community; can you be judged for event/crimes of your ancestors; the visually implied angelic nature of Neri and Aima.

The mark of the 1998 Anime Space Westerns part 4: an experience by itself

The last few months I’ve been giving a small insight into my experience watching Trigun, Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop. While every one of these shows has elements of a space western in it, all three shows provide a slightly different take on the genre. So there is no necessity to compare these shows with each other. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll focus on genre and the overall viewing experience now that I’ve had the time to distance myself from these shows.

Genre

When I think of western as a genre I mostly think of the dusty, desert frontier with gunmen riding into the sunset. And I really blame Sergio Leone for that. This image isn’t really created anymore, but I’m happy that elements of the western genre can be found in many other media. And how could it not be, our current culture of Sci-Fi-Fantasy adaptations creates a playground for elements from all genres to be combined. So naturally we find our westerns there as well.

Trigun

Of the three shows Trigun looks visually the most like a western. It shows survival in a desert and brings many worldbuilding elements we associate with the old west. Think of hoarding water, wanted posters and train robberies. You name it and Trigun delivers.

But while it delivers the experience closest to a western, it is also the anime that I personally liked the least. As mentioned by BennettTheSage in his video on Trigun, the anime’s appeal is directly related to the main character. And this is where I have a disconnect with the show. I do think Vash is an interesting character. But I personally need a bit more than a unique protagonist. I want Vash to have more meaningful interactions with the world to keep me interested. Trigun delivers some interesting opponents, but with the lacking narrative the complete package isn’t capable of holding my attention. 

Like I mentioned in my blog, it was in fact the only show where I was actively questioning if I should continue to watch. For me Trigun is mostly a slow paced “new town, same problems” kind of a show, and I don’t find that interesting enough. Especially if the big selling point of the show isn’t capable of holding my attention, even though I tried very hard to find something akin to my taste in the show1.

Outlaw Star

It has been a while since I’ve watched something like Outlaw Star. By that I mean a self-conscious, fun, episodic show. The science fantasy of this universe is great but I am still convinced that there is a lot of unused potential. Even though I am aware that the main plot just serves as a the initial catalyst to start of the series.

The shows imagination of what strange species and places are out there are on par with Star Wars, and I find it a pity that we did not see more Tao magic in action. What gives this show it’s stickiness is the sense of grand adventure. That there are worlds to explore without limit. Something the other two shows don’t really have in them. In Outlaw Star, space is still a dangerous frontier and I find it a pity that there isn’t more adventure to it.

Cowboy Bebop

I’ll be short since you’ll probably know what comes next if you read my piece last month. Cowboy Bebop is a mix of hommages and tropes, exerted to the fullest. That might be the most accurate description I can give. It’s not just the characters or the storyworld. It is the combination of elements packed in a beautiful wrapper of sound and imagery. And every time I watch it it gets me. Not just the western or noir elements. It’s the complete package. Especially episodes like Ballad of Fallen Angels or Jupiter Jazz are a treat to watch. I’m not really sure how these will look and feel when experienced in live action.

Remake

I have no doubt that most of the people involved in the remake of Cowboy Bebop have the best intention to make it as good as they can. But I do question the need of doing one in the first place. My personal ruleset for doing a remake would be: 

1. Is the original story still worthwhile to tell. 

2. Has the animation aged poorly? 

3. Are the technical advancements in the medium improved enough to warrant one?

4. What does it add to the (tv) medium to do this remake?

Obviously the answer to question 1 would be yes. From my perspective the answer to 2 and 3 would be no. Even when considering that a live-action adaptation is something different than an animated remake, all three of the shows mentioned here don’t need a remake when purely looked at the visual quality. The nineties animation might be a bit dated, but it sure is not bad2.

Which leaves us with question 4. The only reason I see for doing a remake is that it shines light on a great product that should receive (more) recognition. 

Because this adaptation is in a different medium than animation, it doesn’t add anything to said medium. And based on the released opening credits I’m not sure what this show will add to the medium of (streaming) television. At this moment we are a month away from the Netflix release and the only thing we can do is wait. If the remake can capture the essence or the viewing experience of the original it will most likely receive less negative critique than when it doesn’t. We can only tell after the fact.

The viewing experience

While all of these 3 shows have a big “made in the nineties” stamp on them, they all are vastly different from each other. And while I have my preferences, each show had some aspects that I enjoyed. Overall the viewing experience was good and I did not regret it. Should you find yourself in a situation where you do not know what to watch, know that 1998 saw the release of 3 great animated shows. They might not all be as easily identified as westerns, but if you look closely, you will find that each of the protagonists are dealing with their own frontier.


Notes

  1. Perhaps this review from Glass Reflection may be your selling point to watch it.
  2. Disclaimer: This could be my nineties nostalgia speaking

The mark of the 1998 Anime space westerns part 3: Cowboy Bebop

Much has already been said and written about Cowboy Bebop. The characters, story and storyworld have been put under a magnifying glass by countless people. With the Netflix remake coming soon the influence of the show cannot be denied. Even 13 years after its debut many people remain fascinated by a show which, according to some, stands alone in the medium. I’m not here to discuss that. Instead I want to focus on what I think gives this show its stickiness: Atmosphere. This is the third part in my series on the 1998 space western anime. You can find part one on Trigun here and part two on Outlaw star here.

3, 2, 1 let’s jam!

The atmosphere of Cowboy Bebop

From the first episode it’s clear that this is a strange world. The unfamiliar scenes of spaceships travelling through hyperspace gates are blended with the familiarity of bar shootouts and smoking, lots of smoking. It might not be very far fetched to say that the smoke is the connecting tissue between the show’s western and noir elements with the science fiction part of it. Rickety space crafts are piloted by (smoking) gangsters and other dirty characters. In fact, the whole world seems to be filled with less than honest people. 

In this world we find Spike, Jet and Faye1. A strange group of bounty hunters or cowboys who hunt criminals of all shapes and sizes to claim the reward money. At first sight they seem to be on the good side of the law, but all of these characters are deeply flawed with a dark past. And while some are stuck in their past, others seem to just ignore it.

The portrayal of these characters, especially in combination with the close up shots, give us a picture of a world that is unfair. A world where the characters are disconnected, simply because they believe they cannot influence it anymore. They feel powerless and always return to the one place or mental state that they feel comfortable with. The Bebop itself is a relic that supports this notion. A ship that feels as lived in and looks like it’s flying on the fumes of the last earned reward. Much of the world is shown this way: dirty and gray. Especially in the episodes where we explore a bit of the characters history it looks like humanity is trying very hard to just sustain itself, rather than moving forward.

It’s Noir

This thick layer of Film Noir is all over Cowboy Bebop. The Britannica says this about the genre:  “Classic images of noir included rain-soaked streets in the early morning hours; street lamps with shimmering halos; flashing neon signs on seedy taverns, diners, and apartment buildings; and endless streams of cigarette smoke wafting in and out of shadows.”

This is the world of Cowboy Bebop in a nutshell. And it’s not just the images on screen, but also the music that empowers this feeling that the show is trying to convey to the viewer. While listened to out of context the OST might give you just the notion that it’s just blues or jazz, but combined with the imagery it creates a feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia of an imaginary time long ago when the world was perhaps a more depressing place to live in. A world where characters make selfish decisions for their own benefit and nothing that lasts comes from it. 

Watching Cowboy Bebop is a good experience

Due to time constraints over the last few weeks rewatching the entire show to write a blog was a bit of a scary prospect for me. I already knew the episodes well enough to just start writing. And I probably would have been able to write an interesting piece in this anime western series, even if I wasn’t able to find a specific hook to start with.

But that notion left me as soon as the opening credits rolled on episode one. I could not suppress a big grin, knowing that watching the whole thing would be a good experience. I created time in my schedule to watch the entire series and wasn’t disappointed. The world and characters remain interesting; the shots feel important; and the music completes the bittersweet package. 

Though I am heavily biased when it comes to this show, I continually find that there’s something special with it. For me it is the combination of genre elements; the use of the animated medium and the nostalgic feeling of a time when I was younger. A time when the outside world seemed less detached then it is now. Perhaps that is a reason to watch the show. To remind yourself of that feeling and to realise that things aren’t as bad as they might seem. Because for all the detachment and somberness shown on screen, the music of this show shines a light of hope on the world that is sorely needed.

Should you watch it?

Somewhere on the background images of the commercial bumpers it says: “it’s not a kind of space opera; it’s a sort of space jazz.”

I believ that this is how you should approach this show. See it as a sort of jazz. Sometimes it’s slow and methodical and a few minutes later it’s a high energy dance. You alone can decide if this is for you, but you’ll never know if you like it if you haven’t tried. After rewatching this show, I can only conclude that Cowboy Bebop remains a staple in the medium. A character show where the characters don’t seem to progress that much over it’s 26 episode run. And that’s fine, given how contradictory it sounds. I also believe it was a good decision of the creators to end it. Sometimes it is just better to stop with a great project to let it live. Especially for Cowboy Bebop, since its ending allowed it to breathe amongst the community. And we now know the result of this decision. Cowboy Bebop remains a show that fascinates people like myself for many years to come.

Next month in the final part of this series I will put all previous parts together. And also comment on the value of doing a remake. Because I believe that there are valuable comments to make. See you then, space cowboy.


1. I’m not denying that Edward and Ein aren’t part of the crew. They play a different role in the show.