Tools of the Imagination — Attack on Titan

Attack On Titan
Produced by Wit Studio and Production IG, released 2013, available on Crunchyroll

Spider-Man meets Ultraman, but set in the past


Attack on Titan is a newcomer to the anime scene here in the US.  It’s been making the rounds online and has been growing in popularity ever since, largely thanks to the anime’s vivid depiction of rather graphic violence.

There’s no way to avoid saying this, so here it is: Attack On Titan is really quite bad.  Fans and proponents will champion it, to be sure, but it just doesn’t help that the show suffers from crippling pacing problems and a humongous cast of truly forgettable character that all look alike.  Many fans will find themselves gravitating towards certain characters simply because they visually stand out.  All of this is a shame because the premise is a promising one.

Sometime in the future past no one knows, a set of giant stone walls were constructed for humanity by ‘the gods’ to protect them from strange gigantic humanoid monsters called ‘Titans’ that eat humans.  The show opens with a gianter-than-usual Titan appearing literally out of thin air and kicking down the gate of the outer-most wall, and then disappearing again.

Our main hero, Eren Yeager, watches his mother be eaten by a Titan and pledges to wipe them off the face of the earth by joining the multipronged defense force tasked with defending, understanding, and/or killing them, depending on which episode of the story you’re watching.

The main gimmick of the show is that the characters in the defense force swing on gas-powered grappling hooks, a la Spider-Man and his webs.  It’s a neat idea that would provide some unique action sequences if the show had any real action sequences.  Which it doesn’t.  Despite a baffling reliance on swords to take down gigantic humans, the show sports staggeringly few really engaging fight sequences and seems to spend all its energy on a few ‘movement shots’ of characters swinging between buildings.

I would expound further on the plot but after 15 episodes currently available online, there still doesn’t seem to be much of one.

 

Story – 2 out of 5
The premise of Attack On Titan is a promising one, with the origins of the Titans and the perimeter walls quite intriguing.  Likewise, there are hints of a power struggle and classism between the different populations inside each of the walls.  Also, there appears to be a power struggle between the different branches of the defense corps tasked with protecting the city, and also with the new version of the Church.  There’s also a mystery involving Eren’s father, who seems poised to have answered every question in the world before the series opens.
Regrettably, none of this gets expounded on because the show has more pacing problems than Dragon Ball Z.  When the plot is progressed, it doesn’t so much as move smoothly as lurch unevenly.  Huge periods of time will be traversed within five minutes in the middle of an episode, including days and even years passing in a matter of seconds thank to flashbacks and montages, while dozens of minutes each episode will be wasted as characters we don’t know and likely haven’t even seen anymore argue about what it means to be humans in the face of the Titans, often while the Titans are bearing down on them.  The amount of wasted time in this show is truly staggering.
Worst of all is how staggeringly nonsensical the world is.  The people of the walled cities have only permanent cannons like those you’d find in the 1600s, but they also have gas-powered grappling hooks that are light enough to be worn on the legs.  They lack any level of advanced metallurgy yet have disposable blades for their swords.  They have flowing water into and out of their walled cities, yet the cities are completely cut off from the rest of the world that is allegedly crawling with Titans.
The Titans themselves are enigmatic.  They do not need to eat or breathe, yet exist solely to devour humans.  They have unique shapes and faces and seem to smile often.  Some attempts to explain Titans are made and it seems that there’s a very interesting story behind them, but it is exposed so slowly, when the tiniest detail is shared, it’s almost always in isolation, leaving it as a non sequitur and put to the viewer to piece together the truth.  If details were shared with any regularity, it might feel more like an engaging mystery, but the drastic gaps of time between learning any detail about the Titans makes it feel more like a story editor went through after the primary writer and tried to work in something more interesting.

Art – 2 out of 5
The art is fairly awful.  Most of the characters look uniform and uninspired.  Multiple groups of characters look identical to one another.  The only reason you can spot Eren in a crowd is because he’s usually the one scowling.  Most characters are purely interchangeable (even across gender lines) and given a single characteristic or quirk in an effort to make their lack of personality less noticeable.
Worse, still, is the inconsistency of the art.  Backgrounds are all perfectly fine, but the characters are drawn with garish and distractingly heavy linework that makes them seem excessively two-dimensional.  The anatomy of the characters is often compromised by the heavy linework, which is very strange given that the Titans themselves are drawn with uncomfortable realism.  It’s as if two (or more) artists are feuding over the less talented of the two being given the better job.

Animation – 3 out of 5
If there’s one saving grace to the show (aside from its premise), it’s that it has some very good sequences involving the swinging implements.  Once or twice per episode, there’s a really nicely animated sequence, whether it’s swinging between irrationally huge cities for a medieval society or just a Titan running.  Sadly, the animation is rarely uniform.  The swinging sequence in one episode will be vastly better in one episode compared to the next.  One episode’s Titan’s sprint will look fluid and photorealistic while the next episode’s will look jerky and uneven.  The lack of animation consistency keeps this score from being anything more than mediocre.

Characters – 1 out of 5
The characters are almost nonexistent.  Eren and Mikasa and others are put in the center of the story, but they’re given very little emotional range and narrative opportunities.  The story is clogged with unnecessary characters who exist to do nothing but be, and sometimes to not be.  Characters introduced and killed in the span of a single episode are often staggeringly one-sided and yet are still more dynamic than the main characters.  There are no really complex characters in the show; everybody is clearly good or clearly evil.  The attempt to present a complex character found well into the show’s teen-numbered episodes are laughable at best.

Acting – 2 out of 5
It feels unfair to judge the acting because the scripts are so bad.  Listening to the Japanese dub, the actors did a fine job, but what they were saying wasn’t worth listening to.

Overall – 2 out of 5
This show is bad.  It’s not overwhelmingly terrible, but it just isn’t worth sitting through.  There is a manga series that may potentially be vastly better, but the animated series of Attack On Titan feels more like a very poor rough draft than a finished product and seems amateurishly done on almost every front.  The show is still running, however, (episode 15 is the most recent episode available at the time of this writing) so perhaps it gets better.  But if the show doesn’t ‘get good’ until the late teens, that almost by definition qualifies it as a bad show.

Tools of the Imagination — Excalibur

Excalibur MK-VI
by Matchbox, released 1992

Robotech’s B-Squad

The Excalibur, also known as the Tomahawk (or the Archer for you Battletech fans out there), is a little-seen non-transformable mecha in the Robotech franchise.  While it saw very little attention from the Robotech toyline in the mid-80s, it was resurrected when Matchbox continued the Exosquad line.
Within Robotech, the Excalibur is part of a mecha series known as the Destroids.  They’re giant mecha with tremendous firepower, but without the ability to transform like their more famous and more recognizable brethren, the Veritech fighters.  Destroids play a pretty small role in the Robotech animated series, usually making only token appearances that last for a few seconds at a time.  Nevertheless, their fandom grew by leaps and bounds with the release of the Robotech RPG by Palladium books.  Since then, many an anime and mecha fan have wanted to have more than just the flimsy imported Japanese models to play with.

It’s not entirely clear how or why Robotech and Exosquad crossed paths.  As none of the Destroids (or anything involving Robotech) appear in the Exosquad show, there’s no narrative explanation for how the two were supposed to be related, aside from very vague talk in interviews about ‘crossovers’.  Going off of the general premises, the two stories take place in different universes with different timelines and different technologies, so that remains a mystery.  The fans are generally pretty okay with this because the end result was that we got some cool Destroids to play with.
Appearance – 2 out of 5
The Excalibur, like the other Destroids in the collection, is pretty unremarkable.  A total of four colors were used to paint the figure and in places were great detail was required, the paintjob falls a bit short upon inspection.  There isn’t a whole lot of texture to the figure, but there’s enough to do the job.  Where the figure does stand out is that this is a picture-perfect representation of the mecha shown in the show, the RPG, and in the occasional comic book.

Construction – 2 out of 5
The Excalibur is just shy of being cheap.  The plastic isn’t brittle but it’s hardly sturdy, nor is it particularly weighty.  The joints are very simple, while rivets and seams in the plastic are quite obvious if you look.  The joints do not have uniform strength, which is frustrating because that means one arm may stay in position while the other will fall unless held up.

Movement – 3 out of 5
It’s a little tricky to score this figure’s movement.  On the one hand, the joints have pretty simple and they generally have limited ranges of motion.  On the other hand, so did the mecha that the figure represents.  With the exception of the missing knee joints, this toy is capable of no movement that the inspiration itself was not.  And while the lack of knee joints would be a big deal, the inclusion of toe joints pretty much off-sets it.

Extras – 1 out of 5
There is nothing extra to this toy.  Not a thing.  No guns light up, no missiles fire, nothing.  The closest thing to an extra is the missile pods that open to reveal tooth-like missiles that cannot fire or be removed (these opening missile pods are a feature shared with only one other Destroid figure in the line).  This is incredibly disappointing because the Robotech universe is replete with little additions that could be thrown in.  The usual things like missiles and light-up guns aside, there’s always miniature vehicles like planes or tanks that would help establish some scale.  While it might be somewhat sacrilegious to some to suggest crossing over into the realm of Battletech (which “borrowed” many mecha designs from Robotech), an option might have been to have interchangeable weaponry and armaments.

Packaging – 2 out of 5
The packaging for this toy was absolutely nothing remarkable.  The figure was covered with plastic and that’s it.  The backboard of the packaging was not unique to each figure and offered only the most basic of explanation of the story of Robotech, Exosquad, or how they were connected.  The only thing that saved the packaging from being completely uninspired was the color scheme (unique to toy packaging at the time) and the fact that the figure was protected from damage.

Overall – 2 out of 5
It seems a shame to give this toy such a low grade because it is fun to play with.  Part of that may be the Robotech fan in me talking, but part of it is the simple pleasure of having an honest-to-goodness mecha toy released to US audiences.  This isn’t a vehicle for a figure to ride in, it isn’t a sentient robot character, it’s a giant robot toy.  And part of me is overjoyed just to see that kind of presence on the toy shelves.  But at the end of the day, the Excalibur property is simply too rich to deserve such a second-rate figure.  There’s too much that could have been done with this figure that wasn’t and that’s a real shame.

Tools of the Imagination — Alec DeLeon

Exosquad Alec DeLeon
by Playmate Toys, released 1993

Exosquad: Mecha’s Unsung Hero

In a genre overrun with the newest Transformers, Robotech, and Gundam series, it’s easy to overlook some of the less-successful franchises that still managed to deliver beautiful work.  One such example is the Exosquad series which delivered some truly fantastic toys to go along with their excellent – though sadly oft-forgotten – animated series.
The Exosquad Franchise has generally been little more than a footnote in the annals of animation and mecha history.  The story is about a war between planets and between humans and their artificially-created offshoot, the Neosapiens.  The story is set in the future when Venus and Mars have been colonized with the help of powered suits called E-Frames.

The story of ExoSquad drew heavily from classic sci-fi, including the works Issac Asmov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein.  While it certainly had its stylistic and near-superheroic qualities, this series was far more rooted in real and believable science than many of its sci-fi brethren on TV in the early to mid-1990s.  Sadly, Exosquad didn’t survive past one season and has more or less disappeared from the collective consciousness.  All that remains, aside from a few VHS tapes on eBay, are some very fine toys that managed to do a whole lot right.  For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll be talking about the series’ Alec DeLeon.
Appearance – 4 out of 5
The E-Frames and the figures they came packaged with were pretty standard fare for toys of the day, though the figures were slightly smaller.  The 3” figures were about as mobile as the ubiquitous 3.5” GI Joe figures they were clearly patterned after and equally detailed, though a bit on the stylized side (read: cartoony).  The E-Frames themselves were colorful and had some noteworthy detail.

Construction – 2 out of 5
Unlike their appearance, the E-Frames and their figures were just on this side of cheaply made.  The plastic looks sturdier than it turns out to be once you’ve got the packaging open and the figures’ paintjobs often left something to be desired (paint that should stop at the joint would continue across it; etc).  Bolts, screws, and seams were quite visible on most of the toys.
It’s worth noting that the E-Frames had handles that were absent from the show (as the vehicles were completely enclosed in the show).  Getting the character to hold these handles is quite a chore and is one of the major drawbacks of these toys.

Movement – 5 out of 5
While the human characters were fairly mobile and flexible, the E-Frames were a little on the stiff side.  This would be more of a problem except that the figures can easily fit into the E-Frames and its mobility is completely unaffected.  The E-Frames, rather than have strictly linear joints for the shoulders, actually have ball joints, allowing them a great amount of arm mobility.  The leg joints are limited but with hip, knee, and ankle joints to the legs, the limited range is hardly a big deal.  As such, it is this trait that makes this combination toy really stand out against many of its peers.

Extras – 5 out of 5
The Exosquad toys really are remarkable because of what they came with.  Rather than just a figure or a vehicle, you got both, as well as two weapons for the figure (a pistol-sized weapon and a rifle-sized weapon), along with the assorted missiles for the E-frame.  This really was a fantastic deal because you were for all intents and purposes getting an entire playset with each figure.  On top of that, most of the E-frames had one or more little features (the Alec DeLeon model had a rotating communication disc, a detachable data terminal, and ammo belt).  All these little extras added up quickly to make these some engaging toys.

Packaging – 5 out of 5
The packaging for the ExoSquad toys were unique to each figure (making finding in the toy store which figures were available all the easier), with not only the individual’s face and E-Frame on the front, but also a character bio and mecha statistics on the back along with an overview of the story.  Inside, you had a bio card, stickers, and a guide to the toy.  The package itself was also a solid rectangle with a lifting flap that revealed the figure inside.  This really was some of the best toy packaging that’s been produced.

Overall – 5 out of 5
A superb toy that has sadly been somewhat forgotten by the industry, the Exosquad toys were really stellar and some of the best toys made in the 1990s.  These toys were really fantastic and they set a great bar for future toys to live up to (which few did).  So until the action-figure-packaged-with-a-mech industry picks up the clues, we’ll have to just remember fondly of the days when these toys graced the shelves.

Tools of the Imagination — Jetfire (Classics)

Jetfire
Produced by Hasbro, released 2007 as part of the Wave 2 of the Transformers Classics

Quite Possibly The Perfect Toy

We’re finally going to get away from the anime/cartoon reviews and begin to explore some of the OTHER tools of the imagination.  Next to playgrounds themselves, toys are probably key.  And so, we venture to the kings of toys, action figures.
To celebrate Habro’s 20th anniversary, the company began their Transformers Classics toy line as a way to connect the original line of toys with modern audiences.  This meant that all the classic characters were going to receive facelifts and even a few full-scale overhauls.  The Transformers had already gone through several incarnations since the close of the original toy line (colloquially referred to as Generation One, or G-1), but the Classics line was meant as both a re-imagining of – and tribute to – the original series.

Jetfire has been a fan favorite in the Transformers since the first incarnation in 1984.  Redrawn and named Skyfire in the animated series (allegedly due to unconfirmed legal issues stemming from use of a Valkryie toy mold from Robotech – a rival cartoon at that time), Jetfire’s tale is one that usually brings a little bit more reality to the story of transforming alien robots.  In the original series, he was saved by an old friend and Decepticon named Starscream.  Jetfire would join the evil Decepticons out of loyalty to his friend but he’d quickly find his beliefs conflicted with their goals of conquest.  By the end of the episode, he defects to the Autobots, an action that nearly costs him his life.  This tale of defection in order to preserve one’s morals is echoed in later incarnations, even up to his most recent incarnations in the 2009 live-action film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Appearance – 5 out of 5
This toy is simply beautiful.  It does a fantastic job of hearkening back to the original 1984 toy, while at the same time being its own original work.  It’s so detailed that even rubbing your fingers over its surface reveals every crevice and jut, but not in a manner that is visually distracting.  What’s especially noteworthy is just how fantastic this toy looks and feels like the original Jetfire toy.  It even transforms in a fashion similar to the original toy – evoking a sense of tactile nostalgia – but at the same, the transformation is different enough to preserve its sense of uniqueness.

Construction – 4 out of 5
Habro has a deserved reputation for making quality toys and Jetfire is no exception.  The plastic used feels solid and sturdy, but not overly heavy.  The joints don’t feel taxed under the weight of the limbs, but there is still some heft to this toy.  All the detachable pieces come off with ease, but don’t fall off and when a limb is moved in any direction, it stays there.

Movement – 5 out of 5
The original Transformers, for all their accolades, were not the best toys ever.  Many of the figures couldn’t actually move beyond the transformation from vehicle to robot and back.  Anything above the ability to rotate the arms was actually pretty remarkable.  The correction of this problem in the Classics toy line is easily one of the biggest selling points.  Jetfire is incredibly easy to pose in a wide variety of positions.  Each joint is very flexible and easy to move, yet still sturdy so that the toy doesn’t fall under its own weight.  The body moves very easily and it can flow from jet mode to robot mode without any trouble.

Extras – 5 out of 5
The toy comes with a detachable backpack, two detachable arm rockets, a laser weapon (that separates into two for dual-wielding), and even a detachable helmet (allowing the toy to resemble both the character from the animated series AND the original toy at the same time).  The arm rockets fire missiles (with about two or three feet range, making them strong enough to fly nicely but not strong enough to put out somebody’s eye) and the backpack has spring-mounted gunpods that can be angled in the robot mode.  This means the already fun-to-play-with jet has a plethora of additions that provides a whole new level of playability.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
The packaging that Jetfire comes in is pretty average.  There’re no built-in diorama, though the packaging graphics are pretty nice.  There’s a brief character bio that includes the usual Transformers statistics (ranking things like speed, power, and rank, on a scale of one through ten), but there’s little else of note.  Inside, you’re treated to a rather frustrating maze of twisty-ties that keep the toy securely in place, and instructions on transformation.  In other words, the usual fare.

Overall – 5 out of 5
This really is an excellent toy; one of the best I’ve ever seen.  It’s well-made and sturdy, it’s easy to play with and comes with a lot of little extras, it’s very detailed, and it invokes the memory of its earlier incarnations while still being unique in its own right.  Classics Jetfire is probably one of the best toys Hasbro has ever made, and that is really saying something.

Tools of the Imagination — Ulysses 31

Ulysses 31
Produced by DiC Entertainment, released 1981, available on YouTube

Classic Literature IN SPAAAAAAAAACE

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, classic literature was BIG in Japan, especially in anime.  The World Masterpiece Theater was a big success in Japan and abroad.  Likewise, In the Beginning: The Bible Stories was broadcast in most every country.  As such, it was only natural that other studios would follow suit, trolling through classic literature, until somebody arrived at the story of Ulysses.

Now, Ulysses 31 is not the first time anime will look to Greek Myth for inspiration.  But this version of the Odyssey is set in the 31st Century, with all the robots, laser swords, and other trappings you might expect from such a tale.

Ulysses is on his way back home in his magnificent space ship when his son gets abducted by the Cyclops, which is a giant robot because why wouldn’t it be.  Ulysses destroys the cyclops, freeing his son and his new found friend Yumi, but doing so engenders the wrath of the gods (for some reason), who curse Ulysses’ crew to a lifeless (and strangely floating) sleep until Ulysses can find Hades and return home to earth.

The next 24 episodes are ‘planet of the week’ adventures, where each planet is a new problem, a new scenario, and some new way the Gods try to mess with Ulysses.  He always comes out ahead, of course, until he finally arrives at Hades in the final episode and (spoiler alert) arrives safely home.

Story – 3 out of 5
Nothing worth writing home about.  The tale of Ulysses is a fine story, don’t get me wrong, but this depiction of Ulysses is a little flat and uninspired.  Some episodes are really good (the episode with Sisyphus is especially moving), while others are pretty trite.  There are no truly outstanding episodes, but nothing that glaringly disrupts the feel of the show, either.

Art – 4 out of 5
The art is pretty good for the era.  It clearly takes its cues from some more famous anime series (the lion helmets Ulysses and Telemachus wear are especially familiar-looking), but is overall quite good.  Ulysses and his crew maintain a pretty consistent set of powers, ships, looks, and their villains can be quite unique-looking.

Animation – 3 out of 5
The animation is a little uninspired, but on the good side.  Fights are a little disappointing with usually repeated movements again and again, but it’s a far cry better than many of its peers (I’m looking at you, He-Man).

Characters – 2 out of 5
The characters are almost nonexistent.  Ulysses in this series is barely given any depth and what humanity he has comes from his voice actor.  The same is true for Yumi and Telemachus.  The characters they visit from planet to planet have more character, and even then, they’re often flat one-dimensional sorts.  A few outstanding characters exist (again, Sisyphus), but they’re rare.

Acting – 2 out of 5
I listened to the American dub and it was pretty poor.  The actors tried and did okay, but the technology and demands of the time just made it too stiff.

Overall – 3 out of 5
This one is pretty decent, but will really only appeal to animation buffs, classic literature buffs, or those really jonesing for some 1980s-era anime.  It’s okay, but its niche appeal was small back when it first aired and that’s almost certainly dwindled since then.  Still, if you’re in the market for a fun reimagining of a classic character, give it a try.