The elephant in the room whenever I’m talking about a series like Monogatari, ef, Sasami-san@Ganbaranai or, in this case, Mekakucity Actors, is the director Akiyuki Shinbo. I have tried and usually failed to address that elephant when reviewing his shows yet each one he does without sharing directing duties is indelibly stamped with his unique vision. My issue being that despite his obvious talent and corruscating view of the world, it takes an enormously strong story to match that style. Mekakucity Actors does not have that.
an obnoxious mash-up of a vocaloid and the Microsoft Word paperclip
Madoka did which is why it’s difficult not to maintain the niggling suspicion that it was so successful despite the director rather than because of him. He is consistently strong when it comes to aesthetics, with allegories and metaphors bubbling contentedly beneath the surface but with Mekaku it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. There’s the fascination with time and cogs with crooked clock towers and giant hourglasses littering the landscape and drenched in neon like a futuristic Salvador Dali. Sunsets and stained glass windows frame moody looking teenagers holding books and cocking their heads with signature aloofness.
We’re done with the portmanteaus, no more Bakemono or Nisemono, just Monogatari Second Season. It’s a bit of a misnomer really considering we’re thirty episodes deep already with ONAs scattered about like confetti and a series chronology that’s increasingly difficult to cohere into a straightforward story. Straightforwardness is not what you get with the Monogatari franchise though, which is both in its favour and to its detriment; however more than any of the previous series - the watershed Bakemonogatari, Nisemonogatari then Nekomonogatari - this is what everything has been building up to.
this isn’t just fan-service, this is Shinbo x SHAFT fanservice
Not in terms of story mind you, it’s still the dialogue-heavy, supernatural-affliction scaffolding that has driven the plot from the outset. Certainly not in terms of characters either with the return of just about every female lead barring Suruga and barely a handful of new additions, some of which are difficult to tell apart from already established cast members. No, the build up has been there to tear down and put back together, to lay bare the characters and tropes that, to a certain extent, the franchise has built around itself.
Kuchu Buranko (Trapeze, lit. Sky Swing) is like a late night bevy of cocktails: all bright colours and mind altering effects. The first three episodes are an all out assault on aesthetics, everything is awash with luminous colours and textured with polka dots or garish swathes of clashing patterns. Sometimes barely discernible from the backdrops, the characters are animated haphazardly when they are at all, often devolving into poorly filtered live-action or blatant rotoscoping and other times jerking between poses with little warning. Like its closet meretricious sibling, Gankutsuou, the visuals are only meant to allure and the real meat of the episodes is worth risking sensory overload.
Beyond the scratchy, haphazard style it often feels like a technicolour slideshow
The mostly standalone stories are about individuals who have some sort of mental affliction which is examined by the whimsical psychiatrist Ichiro Irabu who changes form between an obnoxious green rabbit with permanent facial stubble, a precocious young boy whose lab coat is several sizes too large for him and an androgynous bespectacled boy in his late teens or early twenties. Even the patients are not immune to switching states, often depicted as animals which suit their condition; topping all of this madness off is a supposedly real life psychiatrist Fukuicchi who sporadically pops out of a scene for an aside on the current disorder being explored. The series so far is raucous, visually boggling and brilliant fun to watch.
It's not a stretch to say that Paprika is the movie that Satoshi Kon has been building up to. Simply attaching his name to a film indicates its content: a trip into the human psyche where perspectives blend and questions about the nature of "self" are posed. This is no different and follows a similar formula to his other films where alternate realities begin to intrude on actual reality, eventually blurring the already indistinct line between the two. Intellectualism and introspection aside, while not a different blueprint to previous movies such as Perfect Blue or Millennium Actress, Paprika is far better paced and perhaps a lot more subtle than previous works, helped no doubt by the blindingly excellent animation from auteur favourite, Madhouse studios.
opening with a rampant and glittering circus performance, and ending with a chaotic and destructive parade
The questions Paprika asks are not new to anyone who has had a cursory glance at the philosophy and literature surrounding recent Hollywood fare, most notably The Matrix and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind among others; how it asks them is unique though. The film focuses on a device which allows a psychotherapy professional to both view and interact with a person's dreams, potentially identifying the root cause of their psychological problem and "fixing" it; this sets up a tight cast of characters ranging from an obese genius to a duplicitous therapist to a troubled police officer, all of whom take part in a technicolour journey that eventually culminates in a potentially world-altering event. The aforementioned therapist has the titular alter ego whose flippancy is only matched by her choice of attire and it is through her eyes and dives into dreamscapes that the story unfolds.