Psycho-Pass 2 (2014)

Investigator Akane Tsunemori (Kana Hanazawa) heads up division one as they take on a new challenge in the shape of a mysterious figure intent on tearing society apart. Following an incident in which a fellow detective, Mizue Shisui (Marina Inoue) is kidnapped and her Dominator used to kill an Enforcer, the team uncover the villain Kamui Kirito (Ryohei Kimura), a figure who is able to keep his Hue clear while committing horrendous acts and who is recruiting others to his cause to confront the Sibyl system that controls their society. Along with the other memebers of Division One, Tsunemori faces down a sadistic foe while attempting to maintain her own unblemished character.

The first series of “Psycho-Pass” introduced us to this futuristic society where people are judged based on the colour, or Hue, of their characters, criminality being determined by a collective intelligence AI known as Sibyl. “Psycho-Pass 2” jumps straight into the action, assuming a foreknowledge of Investigators, Enforcers, Dominators, Hues, the Sibyl System, Holograms, and Drones, that are commonplace in this world. Instead Investigator Tsunemori, now more worldly wise following the preceding events, is given a new case and an intriguing mystery in the shape of Kamui. The series builds this investigation through the series, expertly introducing new clues, and delivers a series of thrilling confrontations as things progress. The script draws in elements from criminalistics, referencing Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and philosophy, with discussions on the Omnipotence Paradox, creating a show that is both entertaining and thought-provoking about both potential futures of crime prevention and our current thinking about criminality.

The noirish shadows and sharp suited investigators not only make for a stylish crime drama, but emphasise the disconnect between a world in which crime coefficients can be calculated, in black and white, but where anxieties around a more grey morality are ever present. The series blends elements of science-fiction and gothic horror, technological advancements such as holograms and drones sit alongside the often brutal explosions of gore and terrifying moments of cruelty. The story uses these elements, contrasting primeval violence with the supposedly civilising qualities of science and progress.

Many of the ideas in Psycho-Pass 2 are  carried over from the first series. The central question remains the legitimacy of the Sibyl system and its edicts on who is or is not a criminal. Again the show offers few easy answers. Despite the violence perpetrated by Kamui, there are also significant issues with the implementation of a system that applies numbers to people’s ‘criminality’. A second theme the series discusses is the notion of proxy criminality, taken to an extreme by having people unwittingly controlling deadly weapons while believing they are interacting with a harmless online game. This further highlights the problems with a society that judges only those directly involved with crime, ignoring those whose involvement is indirect, or who may unknowingly be causing harm. A fantastic follow up to the first series that delivers on all the elements that made it so enjoyable while introducing several new ideas an a complex central mystery.

The Naked Director Series 2 (2021)

Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) is on top of the world, with Sapphire Productions making money hand over fist, his staff and stars, including Rugby (Takenori Goto), Junko (Sairi Ito), Naoko (Ami Tomite), and manager Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama), are all happy with how things are going. But Muranishi is dreaming bigger; after finding out about the new technology of satellite television he dreams of having his videos distributed to every home, seeing a vision of porn ‘raining down from the sky’. Meanwhile, Detective Takei (Lily Franky) is still playing both sides of the yakuza while unfortunate Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) acts as a lackey under boss Furuya (Jun Kunimura). Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita) is coming to terms with her fame as Japan’s premier adult actress and the company is taking on a slew of new talent.

“The Naked Director Series 2” has the same energy and outrageous comedy moments as the first series, but also delves more into the darker side of the industry. We see Muranishi’s arrogant, overbearing persona both in a positive and negative light as it wins him contracts, but alienates those around him. Most poignant are the stories of Kaoru Kuroki, and to a lesser extent Naoko, who are figuring out what it means to be a porn actress and whether they can ever leave the industry. New characters include Yuri Tsunematsu’s Miyuki, whose wide-eyed innocence hides a determination to succeed, but also finds that being a porn actress may not be as glamourous as it seems. The large and impressive ensemble cast, most returning from the first series, fully embody their characters, their quirks and personalities shining through even when they are only briefly on screen. While the series again mostly sticks with Muranishi’s story, there are plenty of moments for the rest of the cast to shine.

Series 2 is directed by Masaharu Take, lead director on the first series, and Kotaro Goto.  The show is stylish from start to finish with the camera becoming a part of the action and constant creativity on display. The series also features a couple of fantasy sequences which add a little comedy to things, with Muranishi floating in space to the strains of The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The soundtrack throughout the series features some great tracks, often used ironically. The score is not always limited to songs of the 1990’s, but the songs are generally well-selected and give the series a youthful energy. The recreation of the time period through costumes and set-design is impressive, recreating the 1990’s with as much gusto as series one did the 1980’s, a nostalgic look back at a lost era of fashion.

Much of the series is about regret and making mistakes. Gone is the naivety of their early careers; the characters now fully enmeshed in the ‘business’ side of the porn industry. This sense of being jaded is highlighted perfectly by having the pornography often playing as background noise. Things which are there to excite the general public are mere wallpaper to the protagonists. As money worries, relationship issues, business deals, and more consume Muranishi and the other characters, the shimmer of the glamourous image of their business is peeled away to reveal a world as soul-crushing and difficult as any other. An incredible second act to the first series, this time around revealing many of the failings of the characters and the difficulties they go through to maintain their sense of self.

Demon Slayer (2019)

When Tanjiro Kamado’s (Natsuki Hanae) family are brutally murdered by a demon, he is set on a path to become a demon slayer, an elite of warriors tasked with protecting the world from these creatures.  His mission is complicated by his sister, Nezuko (Akari Kito), who has been transformed into a demon. Unlike most demons, Nezuko is able to restrain herself from devouring humans, and Tanjiro hopes that his journey may lead him to a cure for her eventually. The two are joined by fellow fighters, Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono), a boy constanly on the lookout for love, and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka), a reckless swordsman who wears a boar’s head mask. Together they take on various demons, in the hopes of one day catching up with their leader Kibutsuji (Toshihiko Seki).

Based on the manga by Koyoharu Gotouge, “Demon Slayer” follows in the tradition of stories such as “Dragonball” and “One Piece”, with it’s young male protagonists on a journey of self-discovery, battling monsters, and growing stronger with each encounter. From the off the story begins with several great hooks, the murder of Tanjiro’s family, a mystery surrounding his father, and his sister’s transformation, all of which beg for resolution. As with many fantasy shows there is a lot of world-building, with the various fighting styles, Blood Demon Arts, and mythology surrounding the demons and demon slayers. Each demon they encounter comes with a unique style of fighting, which helps keep the episodes fresh as more is uncovered about their abilities. There is an often unusual blend of tones and styles throughout, with the show shifting gears rapidly from the comedic eccentricities of Zenitsu and Inosuke, to the sombre and often poignant backstories of Tanjiro and many of the demonic characters. These more wacky moments work to lighten the tone, which would be relentlessly downbeat and disturbing if we only had the melancholic quest for revenge of our protagonist, but often seem aimed at a younger audience than the show would be suitable for. This is certainly not a show for children, with brutal fights that do not hold back on the blood and gore; decapitations and dismemberment are common occurances in the life of a demon slayer.

“Demon Slayer” is set in the Taisho period and does a good job of depicting the dress and lifestyle of the time. The art and animation, in keeping with the story, consists of several styles, with stunning backgrounds and weather effects, and more cartoonishly exagerated character moments. The character designs are very much in keeping with the manga style, large eyes and expressive features, and are used to give everything a sense of energy. Despite being packed with melodramatic moments (many characters are prone to wailing and howling in anguish), the show does manage to be genuinely moving. This is helped by the epic score by Yuki Kajiura and Go Shiina. Alongside the incredible animation, the soundtrack helps build a sense of scale and tension.

“Demon Slayer” is a film about light and dark, life and death. With the transformation of Nezuko early on in the show, we are left with a difficult moral choice (familiar to fans of zombie movies): she is a demon, a flesh-eating monster, but also family. Tanjiro believes in her absolutely and will do anything to protect her, while other demon slayers want to destroy her. Throughout the show we are presented with this kind of moral dilemma, with many of the demons having tragic backstories.Tanjiro’s aversion to killing is understandable and makes him more human than many action protagonists who jump willingly into slaughter. Theological themes around the notion of good and evil abound in the show, and it is this on top of the action that makes an entertaining watch. Zenitsu and Inosuke, and later the elite Hashira demon slayers, are also good examples of flawed characters. Although they are ostensibly the heroes, they often behave irrationally, selfishly, or stupidly, creating a further sense that perhaps demons and humans are not so different after all. An incredible adventure story with dark themes, action-packed moments and a compelling cast of characters.

Jimmy (2018)

A dramatization of the early career of Jimmy Onishi, a popular comedian and painter. An early talent for baseball ends in ignominy when young Hideaki Onishi (Akiyoshi Nakao) is dropped from the high-school team. Despite being a great player his lack of intelligence leaves him unable to understand or calculate the hand signals from his coach. His underwhelming academic skills see him leaving school having failed every subject and joining the Yoshida theatre, where he is employed as a sort of gofer for the comedians. After an encounter with Sanma Akashiya (Tetsuji Tamayama), one of the theatre’s top performers, he is brought into their circle where his stupidity turns out to be a boon, making him naturally funny and an indispensable member of the cast. Jimmy has no interest in becoming a comedian, but soon finds himself on stage performing. Lacking any other discernible career options, Sanma decides this might be the best for him. His life takes a second unusual turn however when he’s asked to produce an amusingly bad painting for a television show sketch. His work ends up being highly valued and he finds himself with a new life as a painter.

Fans of Jimmy Onishi will find a lot to enjoy in seeing how this unlikely star made his way onto television. It is hard to know exactly what is true and false as the drama is somewhere between a sitcom and a biopic, with many scenes played for laughs (usually at Jimmy’s expense). The show was produced by Sanma Akashiya, with the roles played by actors. Jimmy, played by Akiyoshi Nakao, often appears more like a caricature, cartoonishly idiotic and devoid of self-awareness. The same is true of Mr. Okure (Seiji Rokaku), while other characters, including Sanma are portrayed with more depth. Through the silliness the show manages to be genuinely moving at times, particularly in the heart-to-hearts between Sanma and Jimmy when he tells him about being bullied, or when Sanma is giving him life and career advice. It is clear that their relationship is something special and this is also apparent when the real people appear on screen. Each episode is bookended by a short conversation between Sanma and Jimmy. Being honest, these sections are usually funnier than the show itself, stripped of the clowning of the actors. It is more amusing to hear them tell these stories (I guess that’s to be expected given they are practiced comedians) than to watch the parody version of the show. They usually explain how close to reality the episodes are and you can feel the warmth between them. Overall, an enjoyable comi-drama detailing the unexpected and incredible rise to stardom of an unwitting and often unwilling buffoon.

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)

In the year 2015, a group of teenagers are called upon to save the world from a predicted apocalypse known as Third Impact. “Evangelion” throws us straight into the action with a decimated Tokyo under attack from a huge flying alien called an Angel. Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata) is picked up by Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi) and whisked away to NERV headquarters, where he meets his estranged father Gendo (Fumihiko Tachiki). Shinji his told that he must pilot a giant humanoid robot and fight the Angel to protect humanity. Along with two other pilots, the mysterious Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara) and the fiery Asuka Langley Soryu (Yuko Miyamura), Shinji is tasked with bringing down the Angels who continue to attack the NERV. The reason for these persistent attacks becomes apparent later as NERV and the shadowy Seele organisation begin discussing plans for the Human Instrumentality Project.

Writer and director Hideaki Anno will forever be remembered for this series, which changed the expectations for what anime could be. “Neon Genesis Evangelion” brings together incredible action with a story that is driven by its characters. While the impressive battles between Angels and Evas provide excitement and ramp up the tension, the real draw is the interpersonal relationships; Shinji must navigate a complex emotional environment, dealing with his father’s rejection, and the burden placed on him by Misato and others at NERV. As the show progresses the line between the external struggle against the Angels and Shinji’s internal angst becomes increasingly blurred. Shinji’s greatest enemy is his own sense of impotence and crushing anxiety, about being unable to live up to expectations and connect with others. The show alludes to Christian theology, but in a way that doesn’t require much foreknowledge of it. The supercomputers are named for the Magi, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior; there are the Angels, mentions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Spear of Longinus, Adam as a progenitor of human life, and numerous shots of crucifixes. However, at heart the show is deeply rooted in mankind’s war to overcome the darker aspects of its own nature; to understand why we feel pain and help us accept our own mortality and inadequacy.

Every major character in “Evangelion” is given an interesting back story, full of mystery and tragedy, often interconnected to the others. A parental death, unrequited love, and themes of hurt stemming from human interaction are prominent themes. Most of the characters are suffering because of the actions of others, or their inability to deal with their own situation or accept it. Gendo Ikari is a prime example of the sort of grey character the show excels at. A terrible father, we later come to learn of his own tragedy, and his absolute belief in what he is doing to protect humanity and force its evolution to what he believes is a more perfect state. While he may not be likeable, by the end of the series we at least understand better why he behaves as he does. Misato Katsuragi is another fantastic example, perfectly encapsulating the idea that people wear masks depending on their situation; her heavy drinking, raucous, childlike persona at home is entirely absent when in the role of commander at NERV. Characters like Akagi (Yuriko Yamaguchi), whose backstory is only revealed late in the series, also offer an incredible depth to the drama, in creating a believable world full of well realised characters. “Evangelion” is heavily influenced by anime and films that have gone before, both kaiju and war films in particular, and features the knockabout comedy of sitcom style shows alongside the serious ‘command centre’ moments. In drawing on these elements the show appears on the surface to be only an incredibly well done animation, with all the elements (quirky characters, robot-alien battles, high-school heroes) that typify this genre. But the story it is trying to tell, one of universal and timeless significance is what sets it apart, taking in psychology, philosophy and theology in a bold narrative that tackles major questions about humanity’s future.

The ending of Evangelion received much criticism when it was first broadcast. The final two episodes seem to be a departure from what has gone before. They take place inside Shinji’s head as the Human Instrumentality Project is underway, and deal with a concept that is incredibly difficult to portray. However, if you have followed the essential themes of the show, these final two episodes are a powerful denouement as we see Shinji deal with the central dilemma he has been facing since the first episode. In short, the Human Instrumentality Project intends to merge all human conscience into a single entity. This is a concept that is hard to conceptualize and even harder to depict. While stories about the show running out of budget may be to blame for what we get in these final two episodes, they should not be shrugged off as a failure or in any way a poor end to the show. In fact, they offer something that very few anime ever attempt. If the show is about discovering what is in other people’s hearts, then this finale delivers exactly that for our protagonist. All boundaries are brought down, there is no shame, no fear, no anxiety, no prospect of suffering or war. It is a utopian vision… in a way. Shinji comes to realise that the only person he has control over is himself; and that he has the power to change his entire world by deciding how he engages with it.