Midnight in the Red Garden

Continuing my trend of reviewing anime for myself, and also overly clever blog titles. Red Garden I like for a number of reasons, foremost being that it just doesn't look like any other anime I've ever seen, or at least can remember. It is also set entirely in New York, at a fictional private high school on Roosevelt Island. This makes it an interesting study in how Japanese people percieve us, and what misconceptions they have about what high school life is like over here.

Plot Time: Two families are fighting an ancient blood feud in which they have each placed some sort of curse on the other. One family has a bad habit of developing "complications," which basically turn them into the fast agressive type of zombie after a certain age. In the females, it almost always happens well before they're able to have children, which means that the family is slowly dying. To fight them, the other family recruits young women by first killing them, then reanimating them in a "borrowed" body that develops super-hero style strength and speed.

Okay, that makes it sound a lot weirder than it is. Actually, wait, it is really weird. What keeps the story from being an exercise in absurdity are the characters and the development of the plot. All we're told for the first half of the show is that the four girls chosen to be the main characters, Rose, Rachel, Claire, and Kate, must fight these zombies whenever they are summoned if they want to continue to live, or have a chance of getting their old bodies - their old lives - back. The characters, and the way in which they each change as they develop relationships with each other, are what make this anime special. The writers took the simple yet bold step of introducing us to people that we already know from our own lives, slamming them into an impossibly strange situation, and letting them grow up in a way that is touchingly honest.

It's hard to know what more to say about it. The costumes bear mentioning, if only because they are another aspect of the series that is entirely unique. Everyone dresses with a sort of extravagance or attention to detail that you'd only see from a professional clothing designer, even the "plain" girls and guys. The only thing about the series that got on my nerves was their attempt to add musical-style numbers to the first dozen or so episodes. They are angsty and contemplative and are abandoned when the story starts to demand all of the show's time, which makes them rather superfluous in my opinion. Best to avoid them, unless you really like karoke.

The end of the series is intense, with much action and drama played out. It is incredibly satisfying to see the girls faced with a difficult choice at the end - live immortaly in the bodies they have, or go back to their old ones with no memory of the trials they faced - and actually make the hard decision. Red Garden is like nothing else out there. It is unique and lovingly crafted, and employs some novel ideas about using anime as a storytelling medium. For these reasons, I do recommend it.

Mai How It Makes Me Sad

Anime on my mind a lot, probably for the whole escapist-fantasy aspect. Also, as I have stated before many a time, writing about a series helps me to sort out exactly how I felt about it. This is important, because as with all good television / movies, you'll think and feel just a tiny bit differently about the world at the end of it, if the story touched you in any way.

Therefore, let us move into the profound disappointment that was Mai HiME. Yes, I know it's sort of old and I'm behind the times, but honestly, to keep up with every freaking anime that gets released, you'd have to make it a full time job. I have no desire to do so, and I do not necessarily pay attention to every Magical Girl High School Teen Squad show that comes across the internet.

I was surprised to find this series available for download since it came from 2004, which seats it firmly in the "old but not outdated" category. The animation and character designs are straight-up old school, where nearly every female character regardless of storyline importance has enormous breasts, giant magical mechs duke it out with extensive super-power charge up pose times, and cute doe-eyed kids glomp on everyone. One notable exception is one of the main characters, Kuga Natsuki, whom everyone says is beautiful but actually appears to be normally proportioned. Not that any of this matters to the story, but I do find it a tad annoying that animators seem incapable of drawing normal-looking women, in almost any series.

Story sum-up: Every 300 years or so, 12 Magical High School Teen Girls, or HiME's, are gathered together to duke it out in a cosmic battle so that one of them can emerge as the strongest and save the world from certain doom. You don't know this for the first half of the series, but that's the line. In fact, you spend the first season watching the girls fight monsters called Orphans. Each girl has an Element, which is their personal weapon of magical might, and a Child, basically a semi-mecha animal-like summon creature. The girls fight the monsters using their own monsters and it's all part of a plot that doesn't really matter except as a means to move along the character development, which essentially ends up uniting the girls as a squad who vow to save their school, and possibly the world.

Then, through a series of brilliant plot devices and twists, they are forced to fight each other to the death. And it's not necessarily their own deaths, no, because in order to use their powers at all they must put the person who is most dear to them on the line. If a girl loses, their loved one dies, which ends up fucking with basically everyone on a very raw emotional level. This is the most brilliant part of the series, in my opinion, the idea that to use your powers to save the world you must willingly sacrifice the one person you love most. In some cases, this actually means that they must sacrifice each other, or themselves. In others, it's their first love, sometimes a person that they never really admitted they loved until it was too late for them to hear it. This results in a series of events that is powerful and emotionally devastating, as our lead heroine Mai has everything in this world she cares about methodically torn away from her.

It shows us how true love can so easily be turned into hate. It shows us how obsession and love are quite different, but easy to mistake for one another. It shows us that our time really is short on this earth, and that to make the most of it we must understand our own feelings and make our love known, no matter the risk to ourselves. And it shows us that the greatest love, in the end, is truly that which allows us to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of another.

All of this is brilliant and perfect until, in another series of twists, everything is soft-reset and everyone who had died comes back and the school (which has taken quite a beating with all the magical fighting going on) is rebuilt and the world is saved without any long-term consequences at all. Thus my sadness at a cheap deus ex machina finale that forced a truly heart-wrenching series to say to it's audience, essentially, "Wow that was all super crazy. Hey let's forget about it and go get ice cream because the world is such a happy place!" I can't go into the details without making this post super-long, but suffice it to say, it saddened me. All the growth and pain and love and death Mai lives through goes for naught, all the characters who found themselves and found it in their hearts to give themselves up to death willingly for the sake of mankind are brought back. The series treats itself like a bad dream, and we see no consequences spill from an apocalyptic battle for the fate of the world.



Pittsburgh II

So what does all this bleating have to do with, say, Iraq? It matters because the utter dependency on cars we have fostered makes us, in turn, dependent on the fuel that runs the cars. That fuel no longer really comes from America, Mexico's biggest field (Cantarell) is depleting so rapidly that we might as well treat it as empty, constant disruptions in the Middle East and Africa have made production there static or declining, and the remaining nations that export (Russia, China, etc) are seeing such growth in internal demand that they can no longer export nearly what they used to.

So, really, we're glimpsing more than just the tip of the iceberg that I fully expect to sink our current civilisation. There are whole groups of geologists and oil men running through the streets screaming that we need to find a new way of doing things right goddamn now which does not involve using natural gas to turn tar and corn into crappy gasoline substitutes. Their warnings of a dire storm will go unheeded until said storm is flooding the streets and people realise too late that using a bucket to bail yourself out of a river just doesn't work.

Wow, is it just me or is that a really slick metaphor? It probably is just me. Dammit.

Right, Iraq. Raise your hand if you think we'd have even bothered if they didn't have one of the largest remaining untapped oil fields anywhere on the planet. And if you do raise your hand, you're a fucking moron and I don't want your eyeballs polluting my journal anymore. Not since we've had it proven for years now that there were no WMD and no links to Al-Qaida and that the faulty intelligence was almost entirely the result of Dick Cheney's stovepiping questionable reports straight past all the people who knew what they were doing and into the Prez's waiting arms.

We are there because an epic cadre of neoconservatives saw their chance to secure all that oil using the false pretense of spreading democracy. You think Cheney gives one tiny fuck about democracy, where his former company would have to compete with other contractors to provide reconstruction services in that ruined wasteland? There's a reason Halliburton was given a golden wheelbarrow full of our retirement savings, kids, and it ain't because they won a bidding process.

All of this falls back to the way we live our lives. Our food is trucked over thousands of miles of asphalt in plastic packages from mechanised preparation factories that are fed chemically-raised crops, every step of which requires an enormous amount of fossile fuels. Our computers are full of parts made in energy-intensive processes that spill chemicals into the countryside, and they run on electricity that sucks down even more fossile fuels. Most of our housing is arranged such that you literally cannot walk anywhere. Our way of life, even compared to Europeans who suffer no real loss of comfort in comparison to ourselves, is so horrifically wasteful that the only way to sustain it is to burn the collected energy of millions of years of sunlight, absorbed and compacted into plants and animals that have decayed over millenia into oil.

And that source of ancient sunlight is beginning to run dry. Once it is gone, or too expensive to use, we will have to find another way to live, because no amount of "alternative" fuels or energy sources will ever compare to the energy density, portability, and safety of oil. It is not thermodynamically possible.

Welcome to the future. Power up.