I just finished all the episodes that have been released so far of what has become one of my favorite animes of all time, Natsume's Book of Friends.

It's about a teenage boy who's been able to see spirits all his life called youkai, which is a Japanese kind of unseen monster, like a nature demon. They don't interact with humans all that much, who can't see them, but Natsume can. Some are friendly, some are terrible, nearly all are extremely selfish (very like the demons on SPN).

When he was younger, he didn't understand what they were or what was going on (in this way, it's got some things in common with the movie The Sixth Sense). He was always strongly reacting to things that terrified him, but since no one else could see them, he was accused of lying and trying to be strange and scare people. Orphaned at a young age, he was passed around from relative to relative, none of whom wanted him or could handle him, some of whom treated him badly.

However, when the show starts, he's living with some distant relatives who did want him and are kind, in a peaceful rural town. He's still flinchy and formal with these folks, after having been cast out so many times. He still has encounters with youkai, some of which are damaging and dangerous, and he might come home covered with leaves or dirt or scrapes, or be out all night or what-have-you, but they're patient and understanding, although they don't know about his special ability to see things.

He's also managed to make some friends at his high school. He's gotten much better at hiding it when he gets freaked out, but sometimes he still inevitably acts weird, and his friends are also nice and tolerant and understanding. Some of them even learn his secret.

The show has a marvellously consistent aesthetic and atmosphere: gentle, melancholy, beautiful, poignant. Rare is the episode that doesn't bring a tear or two to your eye by the end. The theme is generally about finding love and acceptance after being without it all one's life, how precious he finds his family and friends--both human and youkai, for he puts a lot of effort into helping youkai, who then in some cases feel compelled to return the favor, and love him in their strange way.

The "Book of Friends" is a book left him by his grandmother who could also see youkai, who challenged them to a fight or a game and, if they lost, took their name and wrote it in the book, which made them have to serve her, if called, so youkai are constantly coming to Natsume to demand their names back, and he does his best to give as many as he can.

He also has a youkai helper and protector who usually takes the form of a doll-like cat, whom they kind of jokingly call Nyanko-sensei (which translates basically as "Master Kitty-Cat"). He claims he's only there to protect him until he eats him (youkai like to threaten to eat humans, as well as smaller youkai) and takes the book for himself, making all the youkai in it his servants, but Nyanko-sensei also loves him after his fashion, despite his hard-partying ways. (... Yeah.)

We just finished watching the fifth season, and it's already been greenlighted for a sixth. It's kind of a slow-burning show to have become so popular, but it is kind of popular now--yay! I really can't recommend it enough if any of this sounds like your cup of tea.

I admit to being disappointed in the fifth season, though. The OVA was so boring it was hard to get through. Meanwhile, though throughout the series most of the episodes focus on Natsume and his friends and his adventures with youkai, every season there's been an episode or two that's money, a feels bonanza, doing a flashback to Natsume's difficult youth, or someone new learning his secret, or an outside POV, or learning more about his relationship with his new parent figures.

I expected the episode named after these parent figures to be such an episode (the penultimate episode of the fifth season), as it was to be all about how they decided to take him in. Instead, they filled the time allotted for the episode with the mother figure fretting about shopping and cooking, never revealing anything particular that wasn't already known, and not developing the parent characters at all; it was a big disappointment.

Then the final episode of the season was about the "mid-level youkai," as if we were all just dying to learn more about them, and how they found some flowers they thought Natsume would like. (!) As much as I love this show, I had to turn to my friends and say, "I think they've run out of ideas," and they had to reluctantly agree, so keep that in mind as you embark on the series, if you decide to.

To me, the series always seemed to be headed in the direction of fulfilling all this potential: for everyone to finally learn his secret, including his parent figures; for his past to be fully revealed; for him to grow and change, to become more confident and to feel more at home in his home and with everyone he knows; basically, for him to grow and change, and for his relationships to grow and change. I was greatly looking forward to it! Alas, it's beginning to look like this was not their intention with the series.

Still, what's already been made of the show is fantastic (except for, as mentioned, a rather weak fifth season), and I highly recommend it.
Lookity lookit! RWBY is one of the shows I'm currently watching at movie night! (That's what Zachary's, er ... onesie says, and Rooster Teeth is the production company.) I highly recommend the show--the music is fantastic and it's populated almost entirely by badass female characters. Interesting animation style, as well. Awesome that Jared did this! ... but why isn't Jared wearing a onesie, too?

Originally posted by [livejournal.com profile] kate_mct at Jared and Zachary Levi

For my previous February Fandom Fest entry, I wrote about the anime I love so much that I have an icon dedicated to it (my default).

This time, I'm going to write about the other anime I love so much that I made some icons dedicated to it: Darker Than Black.

Like Princess Tutu, Darker Than Black has a small but rabid fanbase, and this is because it is completely awesome. All the anime fans I know with whom I've discussed the show weren't too impressed. Criticisms I've read described it as "bad scifi," to which I say either they watched it in English (the English dub, while well-acted, is so badly written as to have changed script, characters, everything that makes the show great, rendering a wonderfully multi-dimensional show flat, so please please, watch in Japanese!), or they didn't get that there is nothing literal about anything going on; it's entirely allegory. The oracle who reads the stars in poetry might have tipped 'em off about that, but anyway, /rant.

For starters, this show on the surface couldn't be more polar opposite of Princess Tutu. Brutal, bloody (it does a fair job of living up to its name), taking place in a slightly altered modern-day reality of the seedy underbelly of Tokyo, specifically focusing on the employees of a crime syndicate (and, occasionally, the cops who try to stop them, and more commonly, competing crime syndicates or other bad guys involved in bad things), Darker Than Black is a far cry from fairy tales and ballet and romantic intrigue and Mr. Cat. Look a little beneath the surface, though, and you'll get a window into themes I guess I just have a thing for ... and that many of us have a thing for, I'd guess, because it has a lot in common with SPN, as you shall see.

The basic story is that main character Hei (all the main characters in this crime syndicate have Chinese names, and Hei, at least, poses as affable Chinese exchange student "Li") is one of many "contractors" who appeared in Tokyo after a big blast (it turns out Hei was at ground zero but survived) caused all the stars to change. The stars each now represent various contractors, which are people who now have some kind of special ability (which can usually be used as a weapon; Hei's is the power to electrocute), but have to pay for using the ability with some compulsion (some better than others; this person has to sing, that one has to dog-ear pages, but d'oh, one guy has to break his own fingers--did I mention the show is quite brutal?), hence the "contract." When a contractor uses their power, their star shines more brightly, and when they die, their star falls. (Again, people who are trying to make this show into scifi, it's a metaphor!)

Another kind of person was created along with contractors (although they're quite rare; most people stay the same as they ever were, and in fact the government tries to keep people from finding out about contractors): "dolls," who are devoid of emotional response or evident personal will or volition, and have the ability to send their spirits out via various materials (glass in one case, water in another) and thereby "clairvoyantly" see what's happening someplace. This is, naturally, another skill valuable for use by crime syndicates, who regularly hire both dolls and contractors, because people who became contractors also had a big emotional change; basically they're sociopaths, completely self-serving and more or less indifferent to the suffering of others.

But this is all just the brilliant structure that made possible the exploration of all the different facets of the scenario and the wonderful characters at the heart of the story. The first season (of two--24 episodes in the first season, and only 12 in the second--I literally cried when I realized the other discs in my S2 collection were a Blu-Ray version of what I'd already watched and I didn't have a full 24 eps to watch, because the show is THAT GOOD) is carefully constructed in pairs of episodes each dedicated to exploring one of the main characters and their backstory, or some aspect of the plot, some aspect of contractors, etc.

The writing is amazing, the characters are fantastic, the metaphors are rich and deep, the angst and feels are intense.

Gifs and more text under cut. )

... made fascinating and complex as you see a fragile relationship develop between him and beautiful, vulnerable blind doll Yin (also employed by their crime syndicate), who can only see in her clairvoyant spirit form. Female detective Kirihara relentlessly hunts ruthless contractor Hei (he wears a mask when he does his dirty work, so she's never seen his face), but considers sweet Li-kun a good friend. A hapless private investigator (and his anime-lovin assistant who gets the hots for Hei) notices Li at the scene of many of the situations he's hired to investigate, but dismisses it as mere coincidence, thinking he solved the investigation thoroughly, when--just like Sam and Dean are always doing when law enforcement think their own cops took care of it--Hei is really the one getting to the heart of it and bringing it to resolution.

This is that rare show that came up with a brilliant concept and really did everything with it, played out its every facet, all while pursuing a fascinating mystery, in both seasons (and keeping things a little mysterious by the end, because again people, the point is not the science, it's the allegory!!).

So, to sum up, it's got everything: it's dark, it's funny, it's brutal, it's tender, it's realistic, it's metaphorical, it's sexy, it's deep, it's scientific, it's spiritual, it's clever, it's silly. If you're into character and allegory and sexiness and depth, this is your show.
The February Fandom Fest put on by [livejournal.com profile] selenic76 is all about expressing your love for any fandom however you see fit (one of the hopes being that others will find a new show to love). I’ve already seen some really cool entries! (Go here to see them all, and if you’re interested in participating, sign up!)

I already do a lot of this. I gushed about Captain America: Winter Soldier here (with some incidental love for Thelma and Louise that found its way into that post), MCR here and here, Men Without Hats here, and I’ve expressed my great love for Princess Tutu countless times, including writing an SPN crossover. I love those shows/band so much, I had to make myself some usericons for them, as:

Winter Soldier: MCR:

Indeed, Princess Tutu is the source of my default usericon (see this post)! But I guess I’ve never really gone into what makes the anime so great.

First, yeah, I know, worst name for a show ever. I couldn’t help but tease my (quite macho) anime-lovin’ buddy when I saw it on his shelf. He laughed sheepishly, but said, “It’s actually a good show.” He has excellent taste, so I suggested we watch it, and the rest is history.

At first, you’ll think you know where it’s going. Well ... kinda, because this is an anime that makes perfect sense upon viewing but is hard to describe without sounding like you’re dropping acid. So, here’s the acid-drenched version: A duck falls in love with a prince who practices ballet at her lake. The storyteller from whose story the prince escaped offers the duck the chance to play a tragic but important part in the story, and of course she jumps at the chance to be near her prince, and to be human ... but if she ever confesses her love, she’ll turn into a speck of light and vanish, so there’s all the delicious angst of her getting to be close and yet so far.

The whole town has come to revolve around the story the storyteller (his name is Drosselmeyer--it takes place in Germany) is manifesting in the real world, which he can do because his authorial power was so great in life that it continues beyond the grave. (I see a lot of metaphors for God and the human condition in that aspect of the show, as Drosselmeyer literally uses people as puppets, manipulates events and calls it “fate,” rages when anyone revolts and exercises free will, and lives “behind the curtain” where the gears of reality are at his command.) Countless moments of genius are sprinkled throughout the show regarding authorial power and choice, which I think writers might appreciate, so if you write fanfic, this might be just your cup of tea.

It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s more of a ballet, using famous ballets and classical pieces to tell the story, from Swan Lake to the Nutcracker and everything in between. (One of the joys of the show is hearing the EXCELLENT orchestral performances of all these classical pieces. I’m picky about this kind of thing, and truly, I can’t imagine better versions of any of these beloved classics.) One of many strokes of genius in this show is that it’s “staged” like a ballet. Crows figure heavily into the story, but usually they’re human male and female figures performing ballet with giant crow’s-head masks. Spotlights appear on the performers, like so:

cut for gif )
Meanwhile, Duck, the prince, and the other main characters study ballet at an old, venerable school, so it has all the fun and drama and romantic intrigue of a high-school anime, too.

It DOES also have a strong fairy-tale quality--the prince’s name is Mytho, and there are numerous animal characters--as if the creator tapped into something deep and archetypal that lives deep in our collective unconscious. Strange and unpredictable and modern, it at the same time nevertheless feels classic. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of all the layers, metaphors, and meanings in this thing.

Finally, I love this anime because I feel like it tells a story I lived, with parallel characters and events transpiring obviously very differently from in the show, but on a fundamental level, it resonates for me profoundly ... yet nothing about this anime suggests it’s a common story, so I doubt anyone else in the world (except the amazing woman who created it) feels the same. As you can imagine, I’m grateful to have a show to reflect that experience for me and help me understand and analyze it.

Princess Tutu seems to have been strongly influenced by another great anime, Revolutionary Girl Utena, which is a good deal more popular than Princess Tutu, so if you saw and liked that one, you’re likely to like Princess Tutu, as well.

I often suggest watching an anime in Japanese, but in this case, the English dub is so carefully done and so energetic and inspired, I recommend the English. Besides, if you don’t watch it in English, then you’ll never see TJP’s performance of Mr. Cat, and I pity anyone who doesn’t get to experience that in their lifetime. ;-)

Here is an amazing fanvid I found while looking for clips to gif (good Tutu gifs are hard to come by, I’m finding). For your reference, Duck/Princess Tutu is the redhead, and the prince has white hair. (The show most enjoyably ships all pairings, including the other two main characters, both dark-haired.) I’m not sure if any measure of the show’s true glory will come across to anyone not already familiar with it, but many of the themes and visuals I’ve described are present in this vid, and it’s a fantastic song, as well. SPN covered “The Red Shoes”; well, so did Princess Tutu, and you get a sense for that theme in the vid, too.
How was everyone’s Christmas?

Mine was pretty good, at least once we came home from the family gathering, which was pretty depressing. I had a good at-home Christmas with s_c afterward, though.

But these last couple of days have been like Christmas redux, inasmuch as [livejournal.com profile] indiachick wrote a typically brilliant, gloriously long story for [livejournal.com profile] tricycleman (I’m still only two-thirds done because I’m savoring it), and I got an Always Keep Fighting shirt from [livejournal.com profile] blackrabbit42 (!!!), along with an adorable card hand-drawn by her son. :-) AND, I get to hang out and watch SPN with some local SPN-fan friends this weekend.

I got a hand-me-down, fancy version of an anime I’ve wanted for a long, looong time yesterday (YES!). We even finally braved IKEA to buy some picture ledges so I have someplace to simultaneously store and display my paintings. I’ve never been there before, and now I see what everyone’s talking about: we knew exactly what we wanted and headed right for it, and there was still no way around walking a mile and being there an hour. :-\

I’m worried about my teeth and some family stupidity that may get ugly before long. Things are hanging over me, but for right now, everything’s pretty beautiful. Fingers crossed, knock on wood.

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