Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Watching Xanadu

Watching Xanadu is a sporadic, less detailed column that explores a single episode or subset of whatever I'm currently watching. Today, I want to talk about a show that it could be argued isn't even an anime at all, and is not one you'd expect me to watch at all.

I have a certain system in place. A couple years ago, I realized that instead of sitting on the couch watching TV, I could get an exercise machine and exercise whilst watching TV, which would provide numerous advantages. I originally tried a treadmill, but as Dick's Sporting Goods lived up to it's name and the machine was a complete lemon. After a rather irritating fight with the customer service assholes (although I did find it ironic that a company called 'Dicks' was staffed by assholes), I switched to a stationary bike and swore to never set foot in another of their stores again, an oath I have upheld to this day. But I digress. Anyway, I have found that I burn 200 calories in about twenty minutes with out too much strain (I am lazy, after all), which is about equal to one anime episode, and so in a week I exercise to 20 episodes of anime, and burn 4000 calories. I find the system to work quite well, and I have continued it to today.

My exercise system meshes well with another system of mine, a legacy from my college days. When I first started watching anime, there was so much to watch that I would watch half a show, start watching another, and then move on and move on to the point where I would be watching a dozen or more shows at the same time, and forgetting what had transgressed before. So I decided on a restriction, a set number of shows that I would watch (originally six, now reduced to five), and I would not start a new show before finishing one on the list. This system has served me well over the years, and by burning 20 episodes a week exercising, I can get a high enough turnover rate to sustain my voracious appetite.

This system works well, but some problems can crop up. Foremost is 'blockage', where the list fills up with bad or difficult shows that I lack the motivation to push through. I dislike exercise, so I rely on the anime distracting me from it. If the anime can not do this, then I have a problem. When my list starts to get multiple anime that are bad exercise options, then the problem becomes quite critical. And that is the current situation. My list right now consists of Urusei Yatsura, which tends to be erratic and not always a good exercise choice. Next is Hourou Musuko, a show with brilliantly designed characters and real, heart wrenching emotion, but a horribly designed plot that I have taken to fast-forwarding through, something that I can not do while on top of a bike. After that, there is another brilliant show, Onii-sama e... (also know as Brother, Dear Brother) which is a brutal story of an innocent girl slowly having her life destroyed, a deep and engaging story, but I can not watch a lot of it at one time, so it is not conductive to exercise work. And there are the Irresponsible Captain Tylor OVAs, which lack the charm and intelligence of the TV series, and drag horribly. So four of the five slots contain difficult shows. The final slot was filled with Please Twins, a show that I will be discussing at length later, but I finished that over the weekend. So I needed a new show, and I needed one that wouldn't, well, suck.

Well, I ending up picking a good one (Exercise-wise, not quality-wise). I reached into The Stack and pulled out a little show called Blade. Blade, of course, is one of the Marvel commissioned anime produced last year that aired on G4, a cable channel deep in the listings (although it matters not where G4 is, since I proudly do not have cable, or satellite for that matter). There were four such anime produced (although it could be argued that it is not an 'anime', I personally view it as an anime, but not done in the anime style, which are two completely different things), and this is the only one that I have and will watch, and that is only because I am contractually obligated to watch all anime involving vampires. I have no experience with the Blade franchise, I have never seen the movies and I know little of the character other than he was the inspiration for The Venture Brothers' Jefferson Twilight, Blackula hunter (On a completely random aside, Blackula is a underrated movie). So I walked into Blade, with the entire possibility that this show might suck, and such hard, and I would be stuck with no good exercise options for a while. Fortunately, that was not the case. In the last two days I have watched five episodes, and I am pleased so far. Blade has kept the energy high and while the fight animation is starting to degrade, the fights are still solid to watch. There are a few oddities with this series, though.
Notice: No Nose

First, noses. In the modern anime style, the nose has atrophied to the point of almost complete disappearance, especially in the case of moe artwork. In Blade, the characters have large, realistic noses, which can look awkward when paired with a bishoujo face structure. There are plenty of anime characters with noses, but these are so large and blocky it creates an almost constant, low-grade hum of wrongness with the animation. I also believe the times the characters go off model (and there have been a number) is related to the noses—it's so unlike anything else out there that I imagine it causes problems with the facial design. It's not that I think the noses themselves are bad, but it does distract from the overall animation.

Notice: Huge Honking Nose

Second, the pacing. As I said, I know next to nothing about Blade, and I imagine this is the same for a lot of the Japanese audience. So some history is necessary. But this shows spends an disproportionate amount of time on Blade's backstory. Of the five episodes I've watched, three contain multiple flashbacks to Blade's past. And it is not the amount of flashbacks that is the problem, but the content. They are completely lacking in subtlety. They are the equivalent to using a chainsaw to carve a wood statue – sure it can be done, but there are more elegant ways to approach it. A backstory is always appreciated, but we aren't tuning in to see young, emo Blade, we want to see stoic, merciless Blade. And there are plenty of these moments. But it would be nice if the flashbacks were tightened up a bit.

Thirdly, Blade now has ultimate moves. Anyone that's seen an martial arts anime, from Kenshin to Katanagatari, knows that one of the most important things for a warrior to possess is an ultimate move, which is always shown in a cutscene with calligraphed kanji splattered across the frame. This, depending on your perspective, is either really cool or really stupid. I find, if done poorly, it detracts from the seriousness of the fight, but there are occasions where it can work effectively. Blade is not one of those occasions. I can't help but to laugh at scenes like this, and I shouldn't be laughing at Blade after he sliced a werewolf in half. It feels like a unnecessary localization, like the director said, 'We need to make it more Japanese to get the otaku to watch this, lets add a ultimate weapon splash screen.” It feels like pandering, and I don't like pandering.

So, yeah, Blade is a great exercise show. The action is fast paced (excepting all the flashbacks) and the story is actually kind of good. There hasn't been any real plot holes yet, and I liked how the introduced the Japanese tie-in character. She feels integral the the story, not a extra or a token character, and I wasn't expecting that. The show is definitely unique, and I'm warming up to it. It does have a tendency to take itself too seriously, but I think it is set on a solid foundation. At my current pace, I'll finish this story by the end of the week, and after I'm done, I might miss it.


The name Watching Xanadu comes from the eponymous indie hit by Colin MacIntyre's one-man-band Mull Historical Society. If you subscribe to the theory that certain nations are hotbeds for certain types of music, like German or Finland are for metal, Sweden for Pop-punk, etc, then Scotland must be for Indie. It must have something to do with the environment there. Although, to be brutally honest, it was when an episode of Shana III name dropped Xanadu that got me thinking on this track, and I remembered this song after the fact. But, you know, that works too.

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