December 23, 2008

Recommended anime series - FLAG, LAST EXILE, GHOST HOUND

Three anime series, for your consideration...

FLAG (2006)

This is about a photographer documenting the lives of soldiers on the front line of a modern day war, but while resembling the warfare in Iraq, Flag avoids getting bogged down in the specifics of politics, race and religion by setting it in a fictional country and switching the rebel faction's core religion to Buddhism! Chosen because she took an iconic photo of a sacred flag during a key moment in the county's revolution, a photographer is invited to record life on various secret missions, as an international peace-keeping force tries to prevent a civil war from escalating.

What instantly drew me in was the unique narrative technique - the story is told by a journalist sifting retrospectively through her photos, video recordings and interviews. It's easy to shoot this as live action on a video camera, cheap too, but in animation it's very hard to give a realistic handheld feel, though Flag has managed it. The 3D animation for the military vehicles at times approaches
photo-reality, it's so expertly done.

Anime normally chooses far future war or fictional planets as settings for war stories. Here, the likeable but realistic characters, in hard-edged settings also made this appealing for a more adult audience. It just about fits into the anime sub-genre of 'mecha' due to the futuristic walking war machines that are eventually introduced into the story, but everything else about it could easily be set in the present.

Currently available in the US, with all 13 episodes spread over 4 DVD volumes, there is also a re-edited, alternate storyline, movie-length version available in Japan on Blu-Ray (pictured).


This series seems to have banked on Katsuhiro Otomo's epic anime movie SteamBoy being a big hit, which it wasn't. Last Exile is set in an alternate timeline where old technology is mixed with the new, resulting in aerial dogfights and Phantom Menace pod racing, in vehicles that look more like cars from the 1920's.

Gonzo animation has excelled itself with lush animation and a fast-moving story, full of dynamic action scenes. Though the characters are familiar, the imaginative sights of 19th century styled airborne battleships, anti-gravity racers, and starfish-shaped walking warplanes, all compensate.
This is available on DVD in the US and UK as single volumes or as a boxset. There are 26 episodes altogether.


A very unusual murder mystery from Japanese animation house Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell) who produced this as their 20th anniversary project. 22 episodes in all - this is only officially out on Japanese DVD so far, I'm guessing that the Hong Kong release is a bootleg.

I'd been waiting for another anime similar to the startling Serial Experiments Lain, an intelligent series where science invades reality in an almost supernatural way. After Lain, director Ryutaro Nakamura made Texhnolyze which looked great, but I couldn’t understand it at all, and gave up on it. Now he's teamed up with Lain scriptwriter Chiaki J. Konaka and Ghost in the Shell author Shirow Masamune for a murder mystery series full of mind-expanding surprises.

Three schoolboys living in a remote mountain village, each with a suppressed, traumatic event in their past, are drawn back into an old unsolved murder case. Half-memories trouble their dreams and then start triggering vivid out-of-body experiences! New abilities might actually help the boys discover what happened in their pasts, and what's still going on... Oh yes, and they start seeing giant creatures from other dimensions...

This psychological drama mixes Japanese spirituality with cutting edge scientific views of the true potential of the human brain. Partly, loosely inspired by Twin Peaks, Ghost Hound uses advanced animation techniques for the p.o.v. out-of-body flying, as well as transparent ultraviolet ghostly creatures. These flourishes, coupled with the Lain-like approach to the inner workings of mind and memory, make this a stretch to follow, but still very rewarding.

Although there are a few school scenes with the usual teen subplots of bullying, cliques, and how to deal with girls... it also has extensive scenes of presumably accurate psychoanalytic methods and lectures on the structure of the brain!

Ghost Hound feels unique - a dark often deeply scary murder-mystery, that's also a transcendental fantasy. Brave narrative twists, a little adult content, a little comic relief and the teen characters hardly spend any time in the schoolroom.

There are echoes of Lain throughout Ghost Hound, mainly because of the the alternate reality, but also the occasional obliteration of dialogue by sound effects. Dynamic animation also lifts everyday situations to the spectacular, and often attempts to portray the impossible - like thought processes, blocked memories, and other dimensions... There's a more linear narrative approach than Lain, and in places, it's even more nightmarish.

The only official DVD releases so far are in Japan, but they have no English subtitles. This is a series that I'd love to have. Sometime. Soon. Please.
But, don't ask me why it's called Ghost Hound...

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