Anime Spotlight: .hack//Quantum
Released by FUNimation
For genre consumers, the convenient equation for describing Quantum is .hack by way of K-On! meets Otherland. However, the results aren't quite as divisive as that might appear. If that sounds fantastic, be assured that the anime does manage to push the buttons that you're looking for. If it sounds dire, you might still find Quantum's execution far more appealing than its composition.
There are two important qualities to be aware of, stemming from the fact that Quantum is a short, three episode, original video animation (OVA). The script certainly isn't excellent. I'd ask for a stronger ending before giving the writing high marks. The well paced script does however have enough spring in its step to run with .hack's considerable baggage without being encumbered by it.
The brisk pacing is complemented by winning animation. I find it hard to believe that even a massively multiplayer online RPG enthusiast would be likely to be interested in seeing a game's raid reproduced in anime, but Quantum does manage to make a grand spectacle out of players attempting to make a team dungeon incursion. As a squad of armored characters move into a stone arena and prepare to engage the legendary dragon "One Sin," it's evocative of the style of game, while being a fast and furious fantasy set piece, utilizing the fact that is being produced in well budgeted anime to fullest.
Set in a fictional massively multiplayer online roleplaying game called The World, I've never been convinced that .hack is the sort of concept that would serve as a strong foundation on which to built an ambitious multi-media franchise. Still, though it never attracted legions of devotees, over the last decade, CyberConnect2 and Bandai have managed about 10 anime of various lengths and formats up to this year's CG .hack//The Movie, about a half dozen video game titles, some of which were comprised of multiple releases in their own right, one of which was actually a short lived online game, about a dozen manga and light novel series, plus a pair of collectable card games.
The .hack games, which I never played, launched in 2002 with .hack//Infection and the anime kicked off with .hack//Sign - which hit America in March 2003. In terms of context, this was when World of Warcraft had been announced, but a ways from actually being released; when Everquest was the MMORPG. After the Matrix, but before Reloaded. So, MMOs were known, but the domain of dedicated hardcores. Existential issues of virtual reality were familiar, but not scorched earth.
At least in terms of promotion and talent, .hack//Sign came out in the anime boom as a big series with big promise. Bee Train (Noir, Blade of the Immortal, Spider Riders) doesn't have a particularly good reputation, but at the time, the young Production I.G spin-off production house was a fresh face with good lineage. Similarly, studio founder and veteran director Koichi Mashimo is someone who had a strong track record, but whose body of work has become more debatable (Dirty Pair: Project Eden, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, later, Bee Train's "Girls with Guns" trilogy). Less diminished in general esteem are writer Kazunori Ito (Mamoru Oshii collaborator on projects including the original Ghost in the Shell movie and lots of Patlabor) , original character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Evangelion) and composer Yuki Kajiura.
With its particular landscape of canals and light color palette, set to a electronic Celtic music, Sign displayed evident effort to give The World an identity beyond basic Dungeons and Dragons. Though it neither aimed for plausibility nor shot for the moon with a breathtakingly baroque setting, it was certainly beyond what was offered by Everquest or Ultimate Online. The World wasn't and wasn't meant be interested in of itself. While it looked alright to us, for the characters of .hack, The World represented an escape from their dreary or painful lives, and we were supposed to be fascinated by the characters and their fiction, not the characters that the characters were playing and that second level of story.
This bit of recursion knots up .hack, and while it might sound a bit more confusing than it is in practice, it does serve to complicate and diffuse the series' appeal. Most of the time is spend watching avatars in The World.... which is often a keener distraction for the characters than it is the viewers. There's the real world human drama concerns that motivate the characters to spend their time in virtual adventuring, and that's often buried, but of paramount importance in the series. And, then there's the sci-fi issues, again stemming from the real world, but creating real stakes for The World, such as the danger of people going comatose or otherwise being stuck in the game.
.hack//Sign runs into trouble when Koichi Mashimo and Kazunori Ito fail to fit the complicated idea into a 26 episode anime series in a fashion likely to engage the audience throughout the series' pan. While it did have something to say about the causes and effects of creating virtual identities, substantial explorations of the characters and what compels them towards virtual lives are spread out over a dull, often unintriguing span. It took time for the series to penetrate deeply into the concept, and more problematically, the ominous notes it used to mark time weren't enough to foster any faith in its insight. Ultimately .hack//Sign has become a series that is well remembered by people interested in the subject virtual second lives and thought of as dull by most others.
While being almost a one-off, .hack//Quantum is definitely latched onto the franchise. The protagonist's avatar, Sakuya is a female version of Kite, the blue haired instance of the fast "Twin Blade" class who serves as the hero of the original .hack PlayStation 2 game. Her companions' virtual identities are a clone of Kite's companion BlackRose - a lithe girl in a revealing outfit with a large "Heavy Blade", and an androgynous version of the armored, but still very mobile "Blade Brandier" .hack stallwart Balmung.
And, in a remix of familiar .hack concepts and designs, the trio is brought into larger adventure and danger by a mysterious character called Hermit, a chibi cat boy who never leaves The World and who is able to break the game's rules.
There's certainly a variant on the element of the .hack institutional voice in Quantum. The project brought in a familiar writer with Tatsuya Hamazaki, who held similar duties on some of the lighter entries, such as .hack//Legend Of The Twilight, the cuter, more kid oriented second .hack anime/manga, as well as the manga tie-in to .hack/G.U. and its associated TV series .hack//Roots, and even thematically similar material in Digimon manga.
To an extent that the story doesn't need, Quantum is spotted with terminology and history of The World. It's as if the anime were working to keep on message with the .hack branding. This is in no way mystifying to newcomers. While Quantum includes enough expositional dialog and even characters being treated to school lecture about history of the tech background to the series, given that the concepts invoked by .hack weren't new a decade ago, there's little chance of much being foreign to any modern sci-fi fan or gamer. At the same time, it isn't intriguing either. The in game lore of .hack doesn't receive much attention in the series, but, there's little about the mess of sci-fi trouble surrounding The World that is unique or fascinating either.
The key new perspective that makes .hack//Quantum specifically .hack//Quantum is its high K-on! quotient. This is post K-On! anime the way that a lot of vaguely remembered late 90's mecha were post-Evangelion (Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure, Gasaraki, Raxephon to name a few) The players female Kite - named "Sakuya," the BlackRose - named "Mary" (or "Mary Read") and the androgynous Balmung - named "Tobias" (referred to by other players as "Tobias the Information Broker") are a trio of cute highschool girls that can't help but be reminiscent of the circle of friends from a highschool light music club who form the rock back Ho-kago Tea Time at the center of the overwhelmingly popular K-on!
The three here are cheery, extra-cute under-achiever Asumi Aida, composed and possessing plenty of perspective, something of a yamato nadesico (perfect Japanese girl) Eri Etou and effortlessly talented, able to get away with cramming at the last moment or slouch her way to victory Iori Ikuta.
Given that the anime plays out over the course of a brisk three episodes, the character types on display aren't likely to try the patience of those who have little for what have unaffectionately been referred to as "moe blobs." Over that span, Quantum doesn't ask much from its audience. You don't need to adore the cute crew or be terribly impressed by their adventures and quandaries. It's just an exercise in having some fun, and in the short time with the trio, the dynamic between them is endearing.
I wouldn't say that I'd find 12 or 24 episodes of these characters a scintillating prospect, but three episodes gives Quantum plenty of opportunity to play with the character types in an anime set within a game. Watching a squirrelly, slightly heedless girl's personality magnified by a very fast character, with her avatar moving as a sprinting, stumbling dervish certainly remains fun and funny over the course of the ninety minutes.
Then, we get Eri/Mary who is smart, gets it and doesn't need to flaunt it, whose personality serves an amusing juxtaposition to her character - who wears The World's equivalent of a chainmail bikini. And, there's Iori/Todias, who is intelligent and, in contrast to Eri, enjoys being a bit of a magician, and thus gets some of the anime's really great, almost meta moments. Early on, the trio feel that they flub a dungeon incursion, angering other players and apparently failing to get their objective. Iori/Todias observes that it doesn't matter... that they had fun together, and that the memories of the adventurer were what's real, and what mattered. Asumi/Sakuya and Eri/Mary then notice that the Todias avatar is wearing a rare cloak that Iori evidentially managed to scoop up in the disastrous chaos.
More than that, the anime gets into the spirit of friends gaming together, and creates some great moments of highschool companions sharing a leisure activity - for example, a sense of inclusive fun extending from the characters to the viewer as it acknowledges that Sakuya/Asumi is not a terribly complex person and warmly works the propensity for her friends to find her amusingly predictable into the game play.
What really pushes Quantum over into "worth watching" territory is that the production animates the hell out these adventures. When anime began gaining a significant international following, fans worked out a hierarchy of production quality. At the base level was anime made for TV. The next step in per-episode budget was the direct to video OVA. Even higher onscreen budget could be seen in movies. It's important to acknowledge that this ladder has been jumbled in the last decade/decade and a half. Since then, anime has seen the advent of web animation and TV production fractured into new niches such as later night shows, while OVA's market dramatically shrank after the 90's, with a lot of what was left turning out to be cheap, short material for very dedicated fans.
The production gets into the spirit of The World. From its hub towns to the wilderness areas, it looks like a designed game. That a lot of it looks a bit borrowed, a bit reminiscent of something else plays well into the nature of an anime set in a game world. At the same time, it's all projected onto a spectacular scale. There are outstanding set pieces like a forest battle that calls to mind the prologue of Gladiator or Tobias commanding a shield wall against an onslaught of bugs, in multiple senses of the word, but, the best example is a cyclopean orrey that sets the stage for a few of the series' run and slash melee/chases. An awesome model solar system that is giant for no apparent reason does seem video gamey, but its visually interesting, and the extra motion effectively embellishes the chaotic confrontations that crop up around it. By the same token, when the game does break, as when eerie shadows figures begin hanging avatars in crows cages on some Yggdrasil-like tree, this .hack entry actually manages to be disconcerting.
Quantum has a laundry list of companies included in its production committee credits, but much of the anime was done by an outfit called Kinema Citrus, which, with Quantum director Masaki Tachibana, raised a lot of eyebrows in 2009 with the award winning anime series Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 - which in turn raise many eyebrows last year for its similarities and differences to the actual 9.0 earthquake that hit Tohoku in March. With their work here Quantum lives with the expressive motion of its characters, then it thunders when it puts those characters into grand, fantasy scale action.
It's not saying much that this is my favorite .hack. I've never seen one that nailed the concept and laid the virtual identity character as study over a compelling anime series. Given that Quantum is not as psychologically insightful as .hack has wanted to be, this doesn't exactly change that score. Not to say that that was a wrong aim, but it has been an ambition that the series hasn't realized. On the other hand, Quantum delivers classic anime "wow!"
The freedom afforded by animation contains the promise of grand spectacle, and from its arcane traps to scenes of a giant ivory cannon readied to fire on a kaiju sized golems, to a dragon simply taking flight, Quantum hits the promise of its premise and what genre anime can be. For the first time in a .hack that I've seen, watching a video game was fun. For the first time in a .hack that I've seen, watching the game break and become dangerous was exciting. Not to say that all anime should be this way, but it's nice to see one really nail simple spectacular fantasy action again.
Upcoming in Japan
Live Action Ruroini Kenshin, which hits Japanese theaters in August
This April, Kenji Nakamura (C – The Money of Soul and Possibility - Control, Ayakashi: Bake Neko and its follow-up Mononoke, Kūchū Buranko, and Hakaba Kitaro) brings his unconventional approach back to Fuji TV's noitaminA anime programming block with sci-fi fishing anime Tsuritama.
The anime adaptation of Chūya Koyama's award winning manga Space Bros. (Uchū Kyōdai)
There's also a live action adaptation.
The first character promo for Gainax's (Gurren Lagann, Panty and Stocking) adaptation of Shonen Jump manga Medaka Box introduces the titular Medaka Kurokami - a student council president whose suggestion box initiates all sorts of comedy action. Aki Toyosaki (K-on's Yui) voices the character. The promo also offers a preview of Minami Kuribayashi's theme song "Happy Crazy Box."
Toyosaki performs the ending theme, "Ohanabatake ni Tsuretette.
2012's "Super Sentai" show (the source material for Power Rangers) is Tokumei Sentai Gobusters, but there's also a second string of heroes coming for adult audiences... the Hikōnin Sentai Akibaranger (Unofficial Task Force Akihabara Rangers).
The show, which features the tagline—“Good little kids shouldn’t stay up late to watch this!”—has a staff that includes director Ryuta Tazaki (Kamen Rider Agito, Ryuki & Faiz), director/character designer Keiichi Satou (Karas, Tiger & Bunny), writer Naruhisa Arakawa (Kamen Rider Kuuga, Spice and Wolf, Steel Angel Kurumi), and composer Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, Eden of the East). It will debut on Japanese TV in April with previews on March 31 and April 1 at Bellesalle in Akihibahara.
Thew new Lupin III series will be titled Lupin III - Mine Fujiko to iu Onna (The Woman Named Fujiko Mine). Staff will include Sayo Yamamoto as director, Takeshi Koike (Redline) as animation director and character designer while Mari Okada is scripting
The animated adaptation of Masashi Tanaka's award-winning, wordless manga Gon will run startomg April 2nd.
Sunrise, the folks behind Gundam and Code Geass, have teamed with director Seiji Mizushima (Un-Go, Fullmetal Alchemist) and the voices of J-pop quartet Sphere for this spring's original anime series Natsuiro Kiseki.
Manga author Rei Hiroe has recently blogged that he is currently planning on bringing back action manga Black Lagoon after its prolonged hiatus. A return date has been penciled in, which Hiroe admits is making him nervous. "Though I'm dying to draw, I'm scared to actually draw it. If it were not this hard, I wouldn't have had to take as long as two years off."
The violent series follows a young Japanese businessman who finds himself living and working with a group of American mercenaries in the criminal underworld of the fictional pirate port Roanapur, Thailand. The manga is released in North America, while the anime, previously released by Geneon, is currently licensed by FUNimation.
Hiroe also posted a Black Lagoon-based interpretation of the Thai flooding.
New and Upcoming in North America
Bandai Namco Games has launched a new webcomic venture called ShiftyLook. About.com:manga reports that ShiftyLook will challenge comics creators to come up with new stories on old Bandai Namco arcade games. These stories would be posted online, and be available to read for free at shiftylook.com. They also plan to leverage these new stories into other ventures that may include "mobile games, web animation, hobby products and various forms of related merchandise."
This announcement was accompanied by the debut of their first title (of three that will debut when the site launches in March): Sky Kid, by Udon Entertainment vets and comics pros Jim Zub (Skullkickers, Makeshift Miracle) and Jeffrey 'Chamba' Cruz (Random Veus, Street Fighter).
Bandai Namco will be kicking off their promos for ShiftyLook at Wondercon 2012, at the Anaheim Convention Center with a panel on Saturday, March 17 at 2:30 - 3:30 pm in room 208AB. There's also a launch party planned later that night at 7:00 pm at the Hilton Anaheim Hotel in the Avalon A/B ballrooms. See their Facebook page and on their Twitter feed, @ShiftyLook for more.
Avatar: The Last Airbender co-creator Bryan Konietzko has taken to his Tumblr blog to clear up some of the confusion and worry about when his follow-up, The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra, is actually going to hit Nickelodeon and why the planned time frame has been shifted around.