Judge Dave Ryan never had tingly feelings about his sister or her clearly underage online avatar, because Homey don't play that. And he doesn't have a sister.
It's the end of The World as we know it—and I feel…oddly attracted to my sister?
I love anime.
It's just thrilling to know that beneath the long and storied history, beneath the codes of honor, beneath the economic power and technical brilliance, and beneath everything else of which the Japanese culture and people can boast, there beats a heart of pure, unbridled goofiness.
I mean, what else can explain some of this stuff? Hello Kitty? Hello! Have you played some of these Playstation 2 roleplaying games that come over to our shores? And don't get me started on the whole subgenre of Virtual Girlfriend games.
Now don't get me wrong—not all anime is goofy. Some of it is dead-serious. Often waaaaaay too dead serious, but serious nonetheless. And some of it tiptoes between the two extremes. A lot of it depends on the particular target audience for that work.
Don't get me wrong on this, either—not all goofy anime is bad. The recent 800-pound gorilla of Japanimation in the U.S.—Pokémon—is extremely silly. But it's often quite good as well—it's legitimately clever at times, and although you can spot the Big Message To Be Learned coming from miles away, it doesn't quite reach the level of heavy-handedness that would bring it down.
So for the sake of discussion, let's just establish a scale of anime, shall we? We'll use goofiness/child-targeting as our benchmark. At one end—let's say, "1," we'll put Pokémon and its ilk. Far, far away in spot "10," we'll put what is arguably the Citizen Kane of dead-serious anime, Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira.
(I will now put $20 into the Bad and Lazy Critic Fund jar for describing something as "the Citizen Kane of _______.")
.hack//Legend of the Twilight is about a 3 on this scale. It's labeled as a "13 and up" program—and sure enough, it's aimed precisely at 13- to 15-year old youngsters. Fans of the .hack// (pronounced "dot hack") universe will be pleased with this new iteration in the franchise, which is free of any extraneous ties and can therefore develop its own story in whatever way it sees fit. But first, a little background…
Facts of the Case
Bandai Corporation is a big-time player in the world of anime. From the dark and sinister bowels of their 800,000-acre heavily-guarded complex in the center of Tokyo, guarded day and night by thousands of heavily-armed troops and robotic tanks that practically scream "instant death," come a seemingly endless stream of anime programs and movies. (Okay, I made up the stuff about the massive evil fortress…) Bandai, which has its tentacles in many realms of entertainment in the Far Orient, has given us such legendary anime franchises as Mobile Suit Gundam, Cowboy Bebop, and Ghost in the Shell, as well as films like The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and (natch) Cowboy Bebop: The Movie.
Well…imagine their surprise when Nintendo—a freaking playing card company!—suddenly hit the jackpot with its Pokémon franchise. The secret to the show's success? A tie-in between the animated show and a Nintendo-produced video game that parroted the "gotta catch 'em all" theme of the show. The two were intertwined, and a phenomenon was born.
At some point, someone at Bandai must have sat down and thought about this. We make video games, he/she would have thought. We also make anime. Why can't we do this? The answer, of course, was "of course we can do it; why haven't we?" Some time later, in 2002, .hack// was born.
.hack// is set in the near future, circa 2010 or so. At the core of the story is a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) called The World. The World is strikingly like contemporary MMORPGs, like Everquest or Ultima Online, in that players adopt avatars who have fantasy-based jobs like magic-user or swordsperson, and interact with an ever-changing online world in the company of hundreds or thousands of fellow players. The difference is that The World is, unlike today's games, a fully virtual-reality experience—the player uses VR goggles to play the game, enabling total immersion.
Initially, there were three phases to the .hack// attack. First, a "precursor" anime series (.hack//SIGN) introduced the .hack// universe, and told a story that set the stage for the next phase. Roughly contemporaneously, a series of four video games (".hack//Infection," ".hack//Mutation," ".hack//Outbreak," and ".hack//Quarantine") were released at three-month intervals. These were traditional roleplaying video games for the Playstation 2 in the mode of the Final Fantasy games. (The concept is actually quite unique: a single-player game that revolves around playing a fictional MMORPG.) In the game, the player took on the persona of Kite, who must discover the source of a major problem in The World that's throwing users into real-world comas. Included with each game was a DVD containing a second anime series (.hack//LIMINALITY), which complemented and fleshed out the plot of the games.
The pedigree of the .hack// project was enhanced when Bandai brought in three experienced anime veterans, director Kouichi Mashimo (Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Noir), writer Kazunori Ito (Ghost in the Shell and the Patlabor series), and character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Neon Genesis Evangelion), to create the anime. (Sadamoto's character designs were also used in the video games.)
It was successful enough. Not as successful as Pokémon, and probably not as successful as Bandai had hoped—but successful enough.
And so we now return (with an all-new creative team) to the world of .hack// via an all-new anime series subtitled "Legend of the Twilight" (or "Legend of the Twilight Bracelet," depending on who you talk to). The series, based on a manga comic series originally released in the U.S. as ".hack//dusk," takes place four years after the events in the video games and .hack//LIMINALITY. Things in The World have finally settled down following the near-disaster it faced (the subject matter of the video games), which is now referred to as "the Twilight."
A pair of 14-year-old fraternal twins, Shugo and Rena, are new to The World. Against all odds, they've just been named the two winners of a special contest. The prize? They get special "limited edition" avatars in-game—avatars representing Kite and Black Rose (who were the heroes of the .hack// video games). Apparently the twins have been physically separated by the divorce of their parents, but The World gives them a chance to spend time together, albeit virtually. However, their avatar-resemblance to two legends of The World immediately causes them to be objects of extreme curiosity for the other players.
Being novices to the game (known in the trade as "newbies"), they're in need of a lot of guidance, and a bit of friendship. They quickly attract a motley crew of companions—Mirielle, a young player who is obsessed with hunting down rare items in the game; Ohka, the required mega-hot-DDD-cup battle chick (she's also a werewolf); and Hotaru, a quiet girl who loves animals, especially her pet chocobo…err, moogle…er, grunty.
Providing some pseudo-parental guidance are loner warrior Sanjuro, and Lord Balmung, who is both a really, really good player and a low-level customer service rep.
Finally, there's a mysterious girl named Aura who doesn't exist as a player in The World per se, but she does seem to have a curious interest in the progress of Shugo and Rena.
Let the wacky hijinks begin!
A New World contains the first four 25-minute episodes (out of 12) of the Legend of the Twilight series:
• "The Legendary Hero"
• "Kite's Bracelet"
• "The Phoenix Feather"
• "Tanabata Night"
The strength of .hack//Legend of the Twilight is its use of, and knowledge of, the MMORPG. If you've ever played one of these games, you'll instantly see a lot of the details of the MMORPG experience worked into this anime. (Excepting, thankfully, the gaggle of semi-retarded 12-year-olds going around killing n00bs and shouting "UR ub3r-ghey! U suxxorzzz! l33t d00dz pwn U!11!" But I digress.) The whole concept allows, in theory, the combination of Matrix-like elements and fantasy conventions into a unique storytelling experience.
Does this iteration of .hack// deliver on that promise? Well, it's too early to tell after only a third of the story—but so far, so good. Unlike some anime, the story here actually makes some sense. They're playing a game; the game may be broken; they're constrained by the limits of the game in investigating that brokenness. I can dig that. The characters are believable (by anime standards), and while they're straight out of the stock anime/RPG playbook, at least they've got a bit of personality. The show seems determined to prevent you from losing your grip on the thread of the underlying story arc. That's both good and bad: Good, because you're not going to wind up puzzled about things. Bad, because this is done by frequent flashbacks to events from past episodes. When a show's only 25 minutes long, with 6 of that taken up by the credit music and 4 by flashbacks, you're left with precious little time to advance the story. Yet each episode stands on its own as a coherently-told, albeit short, story. I suspect that this show's freedom from having to tie in to a video game gives the writers more leeway to work with, resulting in a better overall story arc.
Stylistically, this show is closer to the Pokémon shows than to something more stylish, like, say, Cowboy Bebop. The animation is fairly simple, but not cheap-looking. There's a good variety in the settings and backgrounds used, and the color palette is bright and varied. A solid anamorphic widescreen (!) transfer generated no complaints from me.
Oddly and surprisingly, this is one of the best sounding discs I've ever heard, especially for an animated program. The English and Japanese mixes are both Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround tracks, and well-done ones at that. Great separation on the main stereo channels and the embedded surround effects, with clear and crisp sound throughout the entire disc. Plus, the opening and closing pop-rock songs are pretty catchy.
Some extras are included—the requisite textless opening and ending (so you can actually see the pretty animation) are there, as are trailers for other Bandai anime products. A trailer for the fourth installment of the .hack// video game series is included as well. The "art gallery" is just some slides with character models for a couple of the main characters—nothing to brag about. However, the "liner notes" are actually pretty useful—they contain the Japanese folk tales that are referenced in "Kite's Bracelet" and "The Phoenix Feather," which helps us figure out why certain things happen in those shows. A nice touch on Bandai's part to include this for those of us who aren't actually Japanese.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This show can get kind of creepy.
Four episodes in, and I'm already a bit disturbed by the undercurrent of incest going on here. Shugo is naturally protective of his sister, and naturally attentive to her—but he's just a bit too attracted to her Black Rose avatar. Especially since Ohka is every 14-year-old boy's…um, how should I put this…nocturnal emission, and Black Rose looks about 12, especially in a bikini.
Most of these early-teen-targeted shows—even in America—have a creepy boy character like Komiyan the Third. But Komiyan is exceptionally creepy. He dresses, and talks, like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and wishes he could have Rena's socks. Yes, you heard me—her socks. Can't he just lust for her soiled panties like a normal deviant freak? Why socks? I've just got this bizarre image of Komiyan sitting on a couch with one hand shoving Rena's socks over his own nose and mouth, the other hand…well, you know…there, saying "Mommy, baby wants to f***" while thugs beat up Shugo to the strains of a Roy Orbison tune at Dean Stockwell's whorehouse…
Finally—is the shrill, hopped-up-on-speed, grating voice talent tradition in Japanimation, which dates back at least to Speed Racer, SO ingrained in the genre that no deviation is permitted? Can't they find at least one English-speaking voiceover artist who doesn't make me want to puncture my eardrums with a Phillips-head screwdriver? Please?
.hack//Legend of the Twilight clearly isn't going to be a groundbreaking landmark in the history of anime—but it ain't half bad, if you can get around the incest stuff. It piqued my interest enough to care about where this story, and these characters, are going. Its unique premise is a refreshing change from the typical carbon-copy Teen Hero Must Fight Evil Robo-Sorcerer To Save The Universe stuff we usually see coming out of the realm of Nippon.
Suspended sentence, pending the next two volumes—but the court is favorably disposed toward a "not guilty" verdict so far…
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