Created: 21-07-2007
Last update: 30-11-2022


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AnimeCon 2007 - "Fun and (video) games"

On a totally irrelevant note: the con's hotel served Japanese dishes this year, the winners being the minced meat with sweet omelette on Friday and the salmon teriyaki on Saturday. This year's schedule came in a booklet together with house rules, shuttle service timetable and some manga drawn by Dutch artists. The weather was cooler than last year, but I had the misfortune to arrive at the onset of the Night of Hengelo, a pseudo-tropical festival which congests the streets from early afternoon, so I had to take a regular cab as all the "Treintaxi" cabs were stuck in traffic jams. I was already two hours late from wanting to make some quick prints before leaving, only to find out that neither printer worked (going through the whole rigmarole of finding the first printer's cartridge has dried up, going around town to find a new cartridge, printer won't accept cartridge, try other printer, drivers won't install, fool around a bit until drivers do install, still won't work, try same tricks on laptop, drivers install but it turns out that printer's cartridges have dried up too) and so missed the first features of the con. The room at the overflow hotel seemed ideally located - close to the stairs - but was right beside the balcony so that when I tried to nap between shows in daytime, I was kept awake by people's mobile phone conversations outside the window, not to mention the banging about of the cleaners who wanted me to piss off so they could clean the room. So I had to resort to guarana tablets: caffeine for people who don't drink coffee and don't buy the Red Bull hype, entirely safe and, as I can testify, phenomenally ineffective. But they pulled me through. Now that's off my chest, on to the anime.

The theme for this year's con was games, which, considering how much story is woven into Japanese video games and how easily they are converted into animation, makes it as flexible as last year's theme of romance. The animes I watched were, for the most part, not game-based, or they were but it didn't ruin the anime. In fact, a number would have done well under the "magic and mystery" theme of two years back. Like a title that I cried at missing, Speed Grapher, a horror series involving a deadly camera: anyone whose picture it takes, dies. Mmm, I'd gladly use that item for a group shot of the neighbours...

Utawarerumono begins with feverish visions of a beast in agony, its cat-like pupils dilated. A man with a horned iron mask stuck over the upper part of his face comes round in a simple village hut. He was found wounded by the granddaughter of the local medicine woman, and brought home to be cured. The mask apart, he looks like an ordinary human, which can't be said of the natives: it's droopy dog ears and tails for the girls, and furry elf ears for the boys. (In the course of the series, two men are dragged along by the eartip. It looks painful.) This girl, Eruruu, has a younger sister called Aruruu; they have both been named after flowers. (My inner botanist says: "...whatever.") Having no name or memories of his own, the masked man is named Hakuoro after the girls' father (presumably the girls are orphans, since they live with their grandmother) and given that man's clothes. Eruruu is propositioned to by her old crush Tuskuru, the son of the local greedy, oppressive aristocrat, and he's certainly taking after his dad. Hakuoro steps in to see him off. He vents his anger on a heap of stones that just happen to be an altar to the guardian of the forest, "Mutikapa-sama", a huge white tiger whose reaction to such sacrilege is to go to the villages, break into houses and eat the inhabitants. This continues after the altars have been restored. Hakuoro surprises himself and the villagers by saying that a god should not be so spiteful about such a matter. He becomes the village hero when he discovers the animal's weakness, organizes a hunt and gets it killed. Aruruu runs off and comes back with a small white tiger cub. Hakuoro surprises everyone and himself again by saying that all creatures are born innocent; meaning, no need to kill the small one.

But the defeat of Mutikapa is only a small step to liberation. Enter Oboro, a bandit king in a fortress whose connection with the village is the medicine woman who keeps his sickly sister alive. When the old woman is accidentally killed in a confrontation with the greedy aristocrat, villagers and bandits unite, again under Hakuoro, to storm the aristocrat's castle and kill him. As Hakuoro warns the villagers, such insubordination means they will be noticed by people in high positions, and their next enemy may be the emperor... I would have stayed to watch all eps if Eruruu hadn't been such a dweeb! She is the simpleton variety of the Anime Bimbette. After three episodes of her hemming, hawing and general bashfulness, I was ready to fling her into a ravine.

Trinity Blood: tall skinny characters with acutely triangular faces, sometimes dramatically lipsticked, in a costume drama; that has to be a shoujo horror series. The "Blood" bit in the title accurately predicts vampires, notably in the person of Gyula, Marquis of Hungary, a suitably gothic, grave-voiced character who, like his ex-wife, is also a crack at computer programming, and prefers not to drink human blood because it's too much of a nuisance to come by. But Japan has more strains of "gothic" than just the European type popularized by Edgar Allan Poe (see also "Gothic Lolita", way below). The typical Japanese gothic hero, as embodied by the main character Father Nightroad, is not black-haired and black-robed, but has light eyes, icy pale hair, possibly glasses, and a crucifix. Normally acting in a friendly, apologetic, somewhat ineffectual way, this servant of the Vatican is a Crushnik, a vampire that preys on vampires. When his inner beast awakens, his eyes turn red and his hair sweeps upwards like a white flame.

Overall, the Japanese know as little about Christendom as they do about the Goths, and believe that Christians are friendly, peaceful people with high moral standards and foolproof vampire-banishing skills. While all the nuns' hats make my flesh creep, it does give me satanic pleasure that the Japanese ignorance on the Catholic Church makes them depict it in ways that would have all ex-popes spinning in their graves: the pope is female, and so is Father Nightroad's immediate boss, Cardinal Catherine. (Little re-write: the pope is not in fact a woman as I first thought and Cardinal Catherine only holds her position because she's his sister; it's a man's world after all. Still, the fact that she's the de facto head of the Vatican should cause some unease in the holy rows, as should the female assassin employed by the Inquisition.) Moreover, in this archaic future where the world is divided into humans ("Terrans") and vampires ("Methuselahs"), this Cardinal and her underlings also form an underground group to bridge the gap between the two factions and preserve the brittle peace by intercepting anything that might give either side the edge. (Second little rewrite: the Methuselahs and Crushniks are not real vampires, but biologically modified humans. They have to do with experiments on Mars, hence the "real" humans being named "Terrans". Sorry, Dracula.) In the second episode, this is a little girl who carries a cat-shaped pin, hisses like a cat when angry and has the ability to affect people's minds by touching their foreheads. She doesn't know why everyone wants to kidnap and/or kill her and is just defending herself any way she can, and it takes all of Father Nightroad's psychological insight to win her confidence. He even braves his partner Tres, an android who replies with "positive" and "negative" instead of "yes" and "no", shoots his guns at odd angles with a deadpan expression, and mistakes Nightroad's diplomatic behaviour towards his young charge as insubordination which calls for elimination; or maybe he's smart enough to assume the baddy's role in a game of good cop, bad cop. It works; Tres becomes her next favourite, leaving Nightroad to move to a run-down place called the Pearl of the Danube in memory of its former glory, now a buffer zone between human and vampire territory. His cover: assisting Sister Esther. Supposedly destined to bring peace between the warring races, Esther is, for now, a red-eyed murderer. She hates Gyula for killing her foster mother; he hates all humans for killing his philantropical, charitable wife in an ambush. A third person manipulates their hatred to provoke an armed conflict with the Vatican ("thou shalt not kill" only applies when God is watching) but Nightroad does his diplomacy trick and gives a Crushnik performance. The world is saved and the enemies reconciled, one dying in the other's arms. Because vampires are not really evil, while humans, especially Christians, only need to widen their outlook a little to see that humans and not-really-vampires were meant to live in harmony. As I said, whirrrr....

Sister Princess is a title I remember from the "adult games" (ie. hentai) section of an online second-hand anime store. A generic male character ("you, the player") is whisked into another reality and a steamy hot-tub with a harem of cute little girls all claiming to be his sister. Only popping in between animes to see whether the title means a connection or is simple coincidence, I don't recall a hot tub, but the generic male character is certainly waited on hand and foot by a varied collection of doting girls. He's usually absent (running away from all that attention?) and the background is a school, nothing to do with royalty. This show is supposed to be funny (not hentai) but it couldn't bring a smile to my face. There might still be a connection, though, as some websurfing taught me that Comic Party (the sequel of which was being show at the con) was originally conceived as a hentai game, which would explain why there are so many female characters in it, and why the main character is so dull.

I looked it up: Brave Story was not based on a game but on a novel, and games were then based on the story, although from the description of the games I'd say they missed the point. It was in any case the first indubitably theme-related anime I watched. The story is: Wataru, a young boy innocent of the ways of the world, stands up for Mitsuru, a quiet white-haired boy who's being picked on by the class bullies. Mitsuru ignores everything except the papers he keeps poring over, and often visits a house said to be haunted. The bullies treat this derelict house as their property, and tie the unwelcome guest up, torture him a bit and tear up his beloved papers. Wataru, arriving on the scene to rescue him, witnesses him using a spell to both repair the damage and put the bullies out of commission forever. Then, a door opens and saying he is going to change his fate, Mitsuru passes through. Going home, Wataru witnesses something as terrible: dad has packed his suitcase and is leaving. Mum sits at a desk sighing over all the bills. She has a breakdown and is rushed to hospital. The boy runs back to the haunted house and implores the door of fate to open to him and let him put things right. It appears, and opens.

He comes round in a soothing forest environment where a Yoda clone sizes him up (saying he is low on courage, which has already proved untrue) and gives him stats using funny birds that form living bar charts. Whee, he's in an RPG! He is pronounced a Warrior and given a sword with depressions in the hilt for the gemstones he must find. Once the collection is complete, the goddess of fate will grant him a wish. Although it's not yet too late to turn back, he is resolved to finish what he started, and is thrown into an amphitheatre - and here, computer graphics take over. I don't know why CG is used in animation, it is more fluid but also more fuzzy and opaque, and in general it looks cheap and unreal. At most it can be said to impart a computer-game feel to films that are about computer games. In this CG atmosphere, the new Warrior is attacked by statues that come alive, and escapes by jumping into the mouth of a frog statue. (The frog will play an important part in the endgame, but I'm not telling, no need to spoil the end.) This lands him in yet another scene of natural beauty: a desert, inhabited by - one has to see them to believe it - corkscrew wolves. He's saved by a giant humanoid lizard on a cart called Kee Keema (but it has to be pronounced the right way, or it's a girl's name) who, on hearing that the boy is on a gem-quest, is overjoyed to have run into a Traveller, since Travellers bring good luck. Fate brings Wataru to an eating-house where the famous cook and hostess becomes dangerously angry if the guests don't finish the food, and a circus where the equally famous catgirl trapeze artist is an accomplice in a plot to abduct the dragon-child: a big pink winged long-tailed hamster with a crest on its head, but flames do issue from its chubby snout. She feigns innocence and, suspicion falling on him, he spends the night in a prison before his innocence is proven and he's given a chance to free the abductee. Only wanting the money so she could trace her missing family and shocked to find that the other kidnappers simply wanted to kill and stuff the little dragon, she switches sides and both cat and dragon end up accompanying the young Warrior who, in reward for his valour, is given the armband of the Highlanders, loosely organized fighters for justice. This opens doors that would normally stay closed, and he continues on his quest, always reacting in the same simple, upright way that made him stand up for a bullied classmate in the first place. The other Traveller, the Mage Mitsuru, whose family background is much grimmer than Wataru's, has a correspondingly ruthless approach and does not bring quite so much luck to those he meets, in fact, he leaves a trail of destruction. Completing the quest will mean destroying a city, something Wataru can't bring himself to do... Ultimately, all ends well. Not perfectly, but well.

In Comic Party Revolution, the "comic" refers to doujinshi, not to humour, but that's not to say there isn't plenty of it. The main character who in a previous series already jeopardized his academic future by getting involved in a circle of doujinshi (fan-made comics) artists, is now stuck in that world after having flunked his exams. He is a serious and dedicated artist, but the same can't quite be said for his colleagues: when two rival artists find they've been assigned the same table at a convention, they organize a baseball match to decide which one gets to go. Since most of the cast are "types" just as in Nuku Nuku (watch out for the two eccentrics with zig-zagged stems on their glasses) just recruiting the teams is a laugh, but once they're out on the field, absurdity and anime parody rule. From one pop culture subject to another: the main character (not only the most serious but also the dullest of the group) takes an idol singer out on a date, not because they love each other, but because she needs inspiration for romantic lyrics. This is not understood by Mr. Zigzag-glasses who happens to be a rabid fan, and chases them in a dinosaur suit, trying to break them up - well, the date itself wasn't dull! Lastly, a dedicated magical-girl-show cosplayer gives up her hobby in disgust when she discovers why she's so popular with perverted fanboys. This leaves an opening for a fanatic girl who pits her friend against someone else in the next cosplay competition, prize: a shounen ai doujin to be drawn by the poor dull hero. (And anyone who knows Japanese pop culture well enough to be able to follow all this, will know what that is.) So, it's to his great relief that the retired cosplay artiste makes a dramatic comeback, kicks the perverts' asses and releases him from the obligation of having to win the competition himself.

Having decided to give Yu Yu Hakusho a second chance for its villains, which are so much bearable than its heroes (thanks to the overdramatized anime, turning the original manga's light wit to pomposity) I first heard the name "Karasu" (pronounced "karass", meaning "crow" and obviously referring to the sound the bird makes) in the Black Tournament saga and now can't hear it without thinking of tall dreamy-eyed mask-wearers with glossy black hair who create bombs out of nowhere. So I feel a bit uncomfortable to see it applied to a fair-haired, ragged-looking character with a desperate expression in Noein, a series where future interfaces with present and most characters have pronounced upper lips. Haruka is an independent-minded girl (though the big upper lip and the slightly flapper hairdo make her look like a snooty brat) just like her mother who is single and too busy following courses to be a Model Housewife. She will do things like go to the cemetery at night with a group of friends to check out a rumour of ghosts, dragging along her best friend Yuu who she thinks is spending too much time inside and not having enough fun. It is there that they first meet "Karasu", although the meeting is short. Yuu, who said he was at evening cram school because his parents are obsessed with grades, is picked up by his mother who says that from now on he'll be under supervision.

"Karasu" is part of a special force where the members have bird names and an interdimensional HQ they call "Nest". They materialize in dimensions and then try to stabilize those dimensions with 3D animations; the whole series suffers badly from CG effects. This force is called "Lacrima" (tear, for anyone who's interested) and fights another called "Shangri-La" whose purpose it is to annihilate time/space (because in nirvana, there is only an endless Now?). Lacrima is looking for something called the Dragon's Torque, and it so happens - hence the ghostly apparitions - that Haruka (more CGs) is wearing it. If Karasu looks a bit wild, his teammate and rival who wants him dead has a face like a mad wooden doll, showing one almost-round eye, and the legs that unfold from his backpack when they fight make him look like an insect. He actually tries to kill the two when they decide to run away from home, end up in a cable lift and narrowly miss crashing to their deaths. Just before that, at the top of a mountain usually visited by sightseers, in the dark of the night, they have already witnessed a time rift in the form of the day's visitors appearing like ghosts, as if re-played from a recording. As the series progresses, other irregularities happen, and Haruka is addressed by a couple in a car that seems to be in the know, but the banality of daily life is not so easily disrupted. One of Haruka's friends goes into full bimbette mode and slaps her over supposedly stealing a boyfriend, while Yuu's monstrous Model Mother watches him like a prison camp guard, insists that he study non-stop and manages to completely ignore him when for once he protests. Unlike the candid, straightforward Haruka, Yuu is the quiet kind who keeps his feelings bottled up. One day, I hope, he's going to snap and kill the bitch. He's certainly going to follow another path than what she's prepared for him, because Karasu tells him he is Yuu's future self.

A precocious underage teacher who's younger than anyone in her class: I instantly I thought of Magister Negimagi (2006). But whereas Negi is kindness itself, Rebecca, the infant prodigy (fresh from America, of course) in Pani Poni Dash! is a nasty childish spoilt whiny brat. She and her class are an experiment being observed by aliens, whom one need not take too seriously. She has trouble remembering the pupils' names (so she decides that the pupils are not important enough to bother remembering their names) and comes from some awkwardly named place - "Mississippi" or "Oklahoma" or something similarly unpronouncable in Japanese, the name of which these pupils make her repeat just to punish her. So she does what she constantly does: she runs to the side of the classroom and hides behind the curtain, crying "I'm your teacher!" after which the class lures her out with candy and promises never to be say anything mean or naughty again. The characters in this series are first introduced like Pokemons or RPG characters, with stats and special powers by their names: needless to say these powers run from the absurd to the very absurd.

For the first two eps, the series seemed silly rather than funny. After a while, though, the Pythonesque humour started to kick in. This series depends on running gags. One girl in the class has low self-esteem. This starts fairly normally but ends up with her hiding in the henhouse, ghostly and suicidal. Another strange character starts out as absent-minded and ends up spaced out, taking off like a rocket during a field trip. And like the animations in the Monty Python shows, there is a rabbit doing its little silent-film comic sketches in the most unexpected places. In conclusion, this series isn't like Magister Negimagi at all. It's more like Azumanga Daioh on acid.

Walking into the middle of Makai Senki Disgea, I barely had a clue what was going on but did think that the main character, a cross little red-haired boy, looked like - for those who play BL games - Zale from Devil Prince Capriccio in a bad mood. His situation is similar: Hell ("Makai", the demon world, looking like a huge desert prone to earthquakes) is in a state of havoc after his father's death and with the help of the servant Etna, he has to reconquer it and sort things out. This particular servant doesn't want a White Soul, but otherwise matches the one I know for double-faced unreliability. Unsurprisingly, given the pagan Japanese interpretation of Christian afterworlds, a little angel stumbles in clutching an amulet that only the pure of heart (a group that includes herself) can hold without burning their hand, and sets about unlocking the goodness in his heart - a risky venture given his cranky temperament, but remember, in the Japanese world view no demon is all evil. She has already conquered the heart of the Dark Adonis, a gallant wag who gets himself in sticky situations on her behalf and is very interested in that talisman. The anime is based on its own hugely popular RPG (sadly, only for portables) known and loved for its dry wit.

That Air Gear is also based on a game is obvious from the competitive element. A boy who lives with two sisters is introduced to a kind or rollerskating called Air Treck, his neighbourhood's alternative to streetcar racing and finds he has a talent for it; he can actually see and use energy lines in the air. By accident and through his own simplicity, he saves a master skater, called "the Swallow" because of the way her long pink hair separates into two tails when she's sailing through the air, from a dog-masked gang called the "Rez Bov Dogs" (reference to "Reservoir Dogs"?) and lets himself be maneuvered into a race against their leader - it comes as a shock to him that as a price for their defeat, the Dogs must give up their insignia and disband. This Swallow, who calls the boy "my little crow" (the second time I hear that name out of context) is such a manipulative bitch that the well-deserved slap in the face she gets from one of the sisters is quite satisfying. Meanwhile, the boy discovers that his skates are worn and scorched from over-use, and wants to know where he can get spare parts. Spare parts? In this neighbourhood, if you want spare parts, you race for them. And so the fun goes on.

Last con showed the live-action Nana movie, about two girls called Nana who have opposite characters, are moving in opposite directions and represent the two feminine beauty ideals of modern Japan: the foul-mouthed slut in black leather and the innocent little girl in white lace. Who knows, modern Japan may have room for more beauty ideals, but this division goes back to Kimagure Orange Road, where the girls were close friends even though they were after the same boy, and was represented at this year's con not only by the animated Nana series but by the live-action film Shimotsumana Monogatari, where Nana Black and Nana White are called Ichigo and Momoko. The Christian virgin/whore concept seems to have burrowed its way into the Japanese collective unconscious, but, as always, with a twist.

I took care not to watch any of these shows, so one might wonder why I bring it up. Well, Nana White, or any of her clones, embodies the "Lolita" ideal: women who look and act underage - in a very sweet, demure way, of course - even when they're well over eighteen. Anime characters tend to look ten years younger than they are anyway, but especially the females seem to have an arrested growth problem. Bimbette forever, yay. But what's funny is the recent trend called "Gothic Lolita". Don't we all know what "gothic" is: black eye make-up, Dracula-esque outfits if not downright studded leather SM-wear, scary music enjoyed in dark haunts; flirting with the occult side of life, the twin mysteries of sex and death. In this "gothic" scene, imagine wide-eyed little girls in Victorian-maid outfits listening to sugary J-pop while sucking on their milkshakes. Hardly gothic, is it? But the short intro for Shimotsumana Monogatari gives a hint on where the "gothic" comes in: "Among other things, enjoy the gap of Momoko's character who looks all innocent and childish on the outside, but inside, is really nobody's fool." The sweeter on the outside, the colder on the inside. And where real-reality Gothic Lolitas couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag, anime has various teddy-bear-clutching sugar dolls (I remember a parody of the type in a Dirty Pair OAV) who just happen to be deadly killers. This is the twist added to the foreign concept: never mind the whore, fear the virgin.

Although a space pirate show didn't seem fun to watch, Coyote Ragtime Show has Gothic Lolitas and more. The story starts at a futuristic Alcatraz where an infamous "coyote" - a space pirate - is ten days away from having served a sentence for... a traffic offence. There's something wrong in the prison complex. Enter bombshell cop Angelica who has made it her career to tail "Mister", as he's known, and sidekick Chelsea who may not have brains, but sure has big boobs. That's two situational stereotypes, meaning, recognizable patterns rather than people: the high-security prison and the hero(ine) plus sidekick. Convinced that he's about to escape, Angelica is one frustrated heroine since half the underworld seems to have infiltrated the prison to either aid or hinder his escape, including maffia-esque emblem Madame Marciano and her robotic, I've already said it, Gothic Lolitas who descend from pod-like vehicles in frilly dresses like so many Victorian dolls, pumping lead into anyone they meet. That makes four stereotypes. Once safely away, Mister enters a bar where the "coyotes" hang out, like some Caribbean pirate den, and a brawl ensues - fifth stereotype. Of course all these big dudes quiet down and hang their heads when the diminutive ponytailed Franka, owner of the bar, raps them on the knuckles: sixth stereotype, brawn bows to innocence. Her father was a friend of the main character and he persuades her to come with him and find her father's legacy. (She has a pendant which holds the secret to, etc... and thinks he just wants to use her to find a big stash of money. I'm going to stop counting stereotypes now.) They seek out another old aide of Franka's famous pirate dad: Bishop, a short black man with a very familiar hairstyle, leading a church service in the style of the Blues Brothers. The community loves him and brings him fresh country produce to make a meal for his guests: though mere coloured cels, the tomatoes make my mouth water. The enemy tracks them down and Bishop, who doesn't like Mister, is forced to flee with him as the church goes up in flames (in an aesthetically pleasing way). Together with the two handy assistants (handy assistants always come in twos) the ex-pirates and the robber's daughter get ready to trace the legendary pirate's steps in a very direct, personal way: he had an artificial eye which was also a camera, and they have the recording of everything he saw. For starters, and now the setting changes to the executive "salaryman" environment, he found a way to rob a fortune from a complicated bank vault that reminds one of a Rubik's cube. In all, this series is not so much a pirate show as a beautifully animated cultural journey, moving from one familiar tableau to another. One need not make a drinking game for this series: it is its own drinking game.

I'll just say it right here: Inukami is a hilarious comedy playing hard on embarrassment. The first eps really test the audience, the delinquent dog-girl Yoko regularly punishing her "master" Keita by teleporting him out of his clothes: queue green elephant-faced censoring graphic and sound of trumpeting. He is therefore often arrested for indecent exposure and by now familiar with the perverts cell shared with a transvestite, a masochist and a peeping tom. As the inukami (literally "dog gods") are bound by their code of honour to join forces with a human "master" to fight evil and injustice, Keita and Yoko are often called on to solve hauntings and mysteries; and since they're such a hopeless duo, generally the cases decent inukami won't touch. Such as tending a group of karate wrestlers in minimal underwear who have been possessed by dog spirits after stupidly knocking over a tombstone in a pet cemetery. The spirits won't leave the bodies until they find peace, so poor Keita has to pet them and take them for walks and scratch their six-pack tummies. The village near the shrine where they are kept doesn't know the story, but does get wrecked each time the "dogs" go out for a walk, so in a parody of the Nausicaa scene where a young Ohmu is suspended from hooks to provoke a war, the villagers have captured and hung up as hostage one of these "dogs" - to be exact, the one called "Stephanie". It ends with the "dogs" returning peacefully on all fours carrying Keita's unconscious body, the sun's setting rays reflecting off their bottoms. After this kind of humour follow soppier eps about the gaggle of dog-girls following a mysterious character who I've yet to see but who they all adore (reminding horribly of Sister Princess) and who, unlike the delinquent Yoko, are "good" inukami - pity she's stronger than the lot of them - and the only male inukami I've seen so far who serves Keita's venerable grandmother out of respect. Fortunately, extreme embarrassment is never far away, and most eps had the audience literally howling with laughter. There's no need to sympathize with Keita: he had it coming. What sets this comedy apart from all the other loser-adolescent-male-gets-girlfriend comedies is that this loser happens to be stuck with a girl that, in her own super-powered way, is exactly as lazy, lecherous and opportunistic as himself.

Since the con theme is "games" and I've mentioned a BL game already, why not say that Best Student Council is like an all-female version of the BL game Gakuen Heaven where a nondescript boy rolls into a boarding school for gifted children and spends his days being everyone's favourite? The "Best Student Council" is a group of students who all excel at something, and airhead Rino excels only at being sub-average, so how and why does she become their most important member? Some other members wonder about this too, but as long as she's championed by the maternally fond council president, she has nothing to worry about. Until an exam comes along which will determine whether she can even stay at the school. The council puts its differences aside to help her cram, alongside the other academic failure, a seemingly autistic girl who excels at being "American" and communicates in monosyllabic Engrish. I suppose the different, often clashing personalities in the council are funny, and Rino's talking hand-puppet is funny, but after the drama-laden ep when the swordfighter student is challenged by another swordfighter to a rematch of the fight which left her father disabled, right at the end of which dad says he didn't mind so she needn't have bothered, I hurriedly left to watch something less manipulative-emotive.

Starkly realistic animation in a dream-like, surreal setting: if I had to compare Ergo Proxy to any item from previous cons, I would say: Texhnolyze (2005), without the sex. Yet another self-contained city in yet another dystopian future. Re-l (the hyphen is intentional) is a kind of state-employed detective; too independent to be a regular policewoman, but connected to the Powers That Be through family ties. The sooty black make-up around her eyes makes her look a bit strange, but not half as strange as the "grandfather" she goes to see: a series of statues, some animal, talking with different voices. (More CG effects.) Her chauffeur and general servant is an "autoreiv" - a robot possessing artificial intelligence, a superficially human exterior, and something called "chat mode" which can fortunately be disengaged - called Iggy. Her mission: to trace an invading "Proxy", a kind of monster that is supposed to exist in the bleak, uninhabitable world surrounding the dome-city Romdeau. In her apartment, she gets a surprise visit from not one but two of these violent, deformed creatures, which the Powers That Be do everything to cover up: her old apartment is quickly rebuilt to wipe out evidence, Iggy's memory is selectively wiped and she has to report to the doctor for a sanity check. Spoilers: this doctor, who looks even younger than she is, will later become her ally in a search for truth which will, among other things, reveal the nature and importance of the creatures called Proxy. And when she is shot by infected autoreivs, the significance of the hyphen will become clear, and the focus will shift to the other main player in this piece: a man with half-closed eyes called Vincent, whose irises shine a ghostly green the few times he fully opens them.

Vincent works under Re-l. An ambitious member of the Secret Service who is out to block her investigations tries to use him as scapegoat for the attack in her apartment. Already semi-legal - he is one of many refugees from a neighbouring dome called "Mosque" - he becomes an outlaw due to Secret Service manipulations and the fact that he, too, attracts Proxies. He is forced to flee the dome, helped by a highly realistic android that is also infected with this virus that turns artificial intelligence into real intelligence, and makes autoreivs revolt, generally violently. The metal girl Pino, however, is a kind, innocent creature that soon makes friends with the only child in the group of outcasts living on the dome-city's outskirts to profit from its warmth. Ignored before, these people are seen as a threat now that both Vincent and Re-l have both ventured outside to talk to them, and killed off one by one until only Vincent and the childlike Pino are left to make a return journey to Mosque and find some answers to the riddles that the viewers have been continually bombarded with.

Well, well, an "older" anime chick! The cynical facial expression on the white-haired lead female Saiki Misaki in Ghost Talker's Daydream suggests that she's moving into her thirties. Which doesn't mean she can't work at a sex club - an SM club at that - or wear tight dresses that, when accidentally yanked down by her clumsy manager, reveal some very lacey underwear. But it's not all hentai comedy, no, really! This woman can see ghosts! And it's her (second, unpaid) job to send them to the spirit world. If she can be bothered. Her first assignment comes from a girl who, determined to find the truth about her older sister's supposed infanticide followed by suicide, tackles the unsavoury husband and narrowly escapes being raped, in a scene that is too drawn-out to be anything but distasteful fan service. After the S&M ghostwatcher disappoints the audience by stepping in just when it was getting interesting, the unsavoury husband runs off and the girl is left holding the talking teddy bear with the incriminating recording "and what if I killed you?". To cut a long story short: he did in fact, accidentally, kill the child and dies as the spirits of mother and child unite, by which time the show's four elements of comedy, drama, sex and horror have all been displayed, and may I add that successfully combining these elements is an art, which this show has not mastered. Next!

As Black Lagoon started at the same time as the item above, watching the first ep of the former meant missing the first ep of the latter. That means I didn't see the important first ep where a bank employee is kidnapped by a gang of pirates and left to his fate by his employer, which so disgusts him (and besides, the employer informs him that he now no longer officially exists) that he becomes the gang's fourth member. To offset the nightmare of the law-abiding citizen being annulled and forced into outlaw status, the pirates are kind easy-going types whose solidarity strongly contrasts with his previous environment: to the only woman in the gang, he describes his actual job as being pushed around by his superior. She, on the other hand, confesses with lowered voice that's she's been into the pirate racket from childhood, and she's done things too bad to even think about - there's a story here. Given the main ingredient of sensational Bond-style pursuits and romanticized robbery, though, I didn't hang around to watch more. Although there is comedy in the suit&tie criminal politely urging the target to surrender before anyone gets hurt while his teammate readies weaponry with a diabolical expression on her face, this series overdoses on violence in the way that the previous one overdoses on sex. The best thing I can say about either is that the lead females are not bimbettes.

There is one thing that makes Solty Ray worth watching, and it isn't the struggle of yet another clueless android to be a normal human girl. Judging from the eps I saw, this is a crime-fighter sitcom, featuring a master thief so conceited and eager to display her genius that she all but gives away her master plan. Posing as a waitress in the luxury pool restaurant where she hid a stolen diamond in one of the salt shakers, she becomes progressively more furious that the undercover policewomen and the android's human family came to the pool to have fun rather than unmask her. The clumsy though spectacular pursuit which culminates in a circus act and where the diamond is destroyed anyway, is less painful than the next ep's meeting with an ordinary girl who is going to teach Solty all about human friendship; that is, until the new friend is kidnapped by a big nasty who needs to be fought off using android superpowers, causing the friend to look on in horror and squeal "eeeee get away from me you're not human!!" She couldn't have guessed from the hair? Even weirder than the average anime-chara hairdo, it arches away from Solty's head like the ram's horns on Aeon Flux, and more hair sticks out from around the ears to act as antennae.

Digi Charat Nyo!: a cute flying saucer crashes on earth and out come some supercute kitty-girls with three bells, one on the neck and one under either ear, and a floating yellow ball whose face is upside-down. (In the crash, it lands in the eyes-above-mouth position, and groans about being the wrong way up.) The floating ball is called "Gema" and ends each sentence in "gema". The kitty-girls end every sentence in "nyo". The white kitty with narrow eyes is princess Digi Charat, from a planet where three bells are the normal thing to wear (even for ninja types, which is good for some visual comedy in the opening/ending credits) and the brown wide-eyed one, Cappucino, is either a relative or a servant. They're called Digiko and Puchiko for short, and it soon becomes obvious that Puchiko is the smarter and more sensible one: having split up in their search for civilization, they try to contact each other, or rather Digiko digs into her kitty bag for magical implements and finds a mobile phone, dials a number and gets online quizzes; rather than remembering her original aim of finding Puchiko, Digiko tackles one riddle after another like an obsessed player at a gambling machine. One ep shows Digiko's homeworld, and the reason why she was sent to Earth: the bills for all the damage she did while being "naughty" were piling up too high. As one servant responded to the princess' educational outing as proposed by the queen: "If Digiko went to another world, I'd be worried! About the persons she'd be with, that is!" The two get what they deserve: Puchiko is taken in by an elderly couple running a confectionery shop, while Digiko ends up with two brothers running a toy shop, the older brother being a crazy scientist type who is constantly inventing new toys. Add to this the magical-girl parody Usada who transforms into "Rabi-en-Rose", and what the audience gets is supercute slapstick comedy, the not-so-nice Digiko picking on the poor older brother and saying with a straight face to anyone who wants to listen that she's a princess from another planet.

Judging from the description, Saiunkoku Monogatari has the same comic potential as Inukami; poor girl from rich family fallen on hard times has to pose as new emperor's wife to prevent people ousting the emperor and taking over power; the problem being, this emperor is not only a slacker but prefers the company of men! The series starts in the expectedly wacky way when a girl in historical costume playing a string instrument balanced on her hip is dragged away from her new job for an important appointment. She cries out in despair because she's only been able to play for one hour and now she won't get paid and she was so looking forward to eating white rice tonight and now it would be barley again, with that little line running down the kernel saying "I'm not rice!!!" Her reaction to the offer of playing empress and getting the emperor to shape up, is that with so much money, she'll be able to eat white rice every day! That popular image of people with dollar signs in their eyes - replace the dollar signs with bales of rice and you've got the picture.

However, that's where the hilarity ends, to make room for something more subtle. The setting already makes clear that this girl isn't motivated primarily by greed. She lives with her father, who is not only an impoverished noble but a librarian or documentalist, at any rate, a learned man, and an adopted older brother who is the typical silver-haired bishounen complete with selfless attitude. As well as gorging herself on white rice, she envisions being able to restore their tumbledown mansion. The emperor initially stays invisible, her only company in the imperial abode being the maids, the emperor's tutor and the head of the civil service (who is becoming increasingly enraged that he never meets the person he's supposed to serve) but when he does approach her, posing as an official - not that she's fooled - she asks him to take this message to the emperor, that she only wants to meet the emperor if he's prepared to shoulder his responsibilites, starting with attending the tutor's classes on law and government. The emperor, in appearance much like her adopted older brother but with a different shade of hair, agrees to this and decides to seek out this tutor only to find the man already waiting for him ("I came to the palace to investigate rumours of someone using my name") alongside the head of the civil service ("I am so pleased to finally meet your highness"). He learns much faster than expected from the spoilt, rich brat he's said to be, and his supposed preference for men isn't exactly borne out by his habit of fondly embracing his "wife" when asleep. Bit by bit, backgrounds are revealed. The reason why the girl's family is currently so poor, and why she agreed to reform the emperor, is that in a famine under the previous emperor's rule of mismanagement, her family gave all they could to sustain the poor while other rich families closed their doors. And the reason why this emperor is so quiet, timid and withdrawn is that, as the youngest of six imperial heirs, he was literally kicked around by the competition, his only friends being a slightly older brother and the librarian who always dressed his cuts - the father of, guess who. He only pretends to be gay to avoid situations that could lead to more abused heirs. Once sufficiently educated to assume his ruling position, he snatches away a goblet of poisoned wine presented to her at a banquet, and drinks it himself to prevent scandals: he knows how the court works. One could say he is Macchiavelli without the malice; an oriental version of I, Claudius, playing the harmless fool to survive court intrigues. What was shown at the con broke off just as it was getting interesting: when will the new emperor's enemies reveal themselves, and what are the odds of the girl's adopted family member being his long-lost brother?

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