Le Chevalier d’Eon

Le Chevalier d’Eon is one of the hallmark anime releases of 2007 here in North America, garnering critical praise and fairly decent sales and publicity. Any decent review will note the complex plot machinations, the clever weaving of fiction with history and the fairly good art and artwork. All of which is true, and yet as I mull over the series having recently finished the last episode, I find myself strangely unmoved. I’ll try to explain why under the fold.

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Anime review – Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni

Since there’s not much on TV right now, I decided to check out some anime. I have a large back catalogue of reviews which I’ll be posting up here from time to time when things get slow, but for now let’s take a look at a new show.

In 2007, there were two shows that made a big splash in anime fandom. One is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya which has launched the career of at least one pop idol and spawned a whole series of music albums not to mention one of the most commonly re-enacted dances (almost universally poorly) at fan conventions. It really is pretty good and I recommend you check out at least the first two episodes, but it’s not the show I’m here to review today.

That show would be Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni (literally “When Cicadas Cry”). Summarizing the essence of the show is fairly easy: set in June 1983 in an isolated Japanese village, Higurashi opens on a bunch of schoolchildren living a seemingly idyllic life and playing silly games with each other (and I do mean silly). Everything seems to be set on cute overload until you realize that something really strange is going on and then the children start killing each other — quite graphically. And then it all starts over again. It’s a sort of horror anime version of Groundhog’s Day.

Higurashi has been praised as one of the few truly scary anime out there, with many fans claiming that they had a hard time sleeping in the dark after watching too many episodes. I can’t say I ever had the same reaction, but then again, I’ve watched Ichi the Killer and Oldboy without averting my eyes. I will say that when things get violent and freaky, Higurashi is riveting stuff. Paranoia, superstition and insanity combine with graphic violence very effectively, and the anime knows how to let tension and anticipation build up in the viewer rather than rushing straight into the bloodletting. Added to this is the intellectual challenge of trying to figure out just what is going on. The anime loops back on itself, telling the story multiple times over the course of its two seasons, with events differing slightly each time and more and more clues being revealed with each iteration. Be forewarned that some patience is required, though. The anime is based on a hugely popular computer game in Japan which was released in multiple “arcs.” There are four “question” arcs and four corresponding “answer” arcs, and the anime presents the four question arcs first with four episodes each. Two of the answer arcs then come at the end of the first season with the final two answer arcs presented in the second season. In other words, you’ll spend the first sixteen episodes almost completely in the dark about what’s going on and without enough information to make anything resembling an educated guess as to what’s really going on no matter how closely you’re paying attention. Contrast this with other densely plotted, anachronic anime like Boogiepop Phantom where the progress is much more linear and each episode truly adds to your comprehension. In Higurashi, the journey really is the important part, and you may be well-advised to just soak in the atmosphere and mood as you go along for the first half.

Incidentally, when you first start watching the show, you may find yourself wondering if this is really the same show I’m talking about or if it’s some other harem anime which just happens to also be called Higurashi. The first episode is pure, unadulterated cute, but hopefully you’ll be clued in by a brief, disturbing scene with a baseball bat and the fact that the opening sequence is set to rather sombre and moody music. Higurashi thrives on the contrast between its moë art style and the macabre nature of what it’s actually depicting. This is best seen in the characters themselves who look like typical large-eyed and peppy cartoons you’ve seen in countless other anime until they go berserk at which point their expressions suddenly become much more detailed and very freaky. The issue I have is not with the art style but with the rather obvious shortcuts in the animation. Any time there isn’t any actual violence or general flippiness on the screen, the animation is really rather minimalist. The framerate is pretty low, and character models can be inconsistent (and not just because they are prone to going into super deformity). It gives the whole thing a rather low budget comedy feel, and that may have been at least partially intentional since, as I said, a lot of the anime is made out to look like a harem comedy. The problem is a lot of the jokes during the non-horror parts of the anime are not that funny. It amounts to a lot of broad slapstick that’s really no better than what you’d find on Saturday morning cartoons, and you’ll often find yourself wishing the show would get on with the killing already.

But as I said, the horror bits really are pretty good. You’ll watch as the characters slowly go insane and lose control of themselves, and what’s really effective is that for the most part they are really just reacting normally to events that seem to have spun way out of control. If you bit into a rice ball and found a needle inside, you’d start getting suspicious of your neighbors too. And then there’s the poor girl whose family is ostracized by the rest of the village because of a political scuffle several years ago and who now has to endure as the village visits her parents’ sins upon her (this anime really doesn’t make villagers look very good). And even though there are a lot of threads to follow and things seem totally inexplicable at first, the explanation is actually fairly grounded and doesn’t rely too much on supernatural phenomena other than the Groundhog’s Day effect.

There’s the matter of the villain, though. To be frank, I think the writers took a rather large misstep in the way they characterized and developed him. To discuss more, though, would be to get into some minor spoilers, so click “read more” for the rest of this post. I won’t actually reveal the identity of the villain or any detailed plot points, but if you want a totally fresh experience, you may want to avoid reading further.

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