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"MoonPhase Vol.1 with Box": Great, Yet Problematic, Yet Still Great

by on October 14, 2006

Moe – A Japanese slang-word used by otaku to describe something that’s cute but also quasi-sexual.

Usage: MoonPhase (originally known as Tsukuyomi Moon Phase) is moe.

Extremely moe.

From the Gothic Lolita via Lolita Complex character design to the very concept of an eternal teenager, its moetastic even. Of course, one might wonder whether anything positive would be able to come out of that. Arguably, blending the cute with the slightly sexual isn’t something American culture is really all that adverse to (Britney Spears started her career via that), but we tend to frown upon violating age-of-consent laws, to put it mildly. However, MoonPhase manages to ride a very thin line between being patently exploitive and slightly off-color, but more shockingly still, it even has a good enough mythology and story that it can carry the more blue moments. Maybe it just seems innocent in the wake of more recent releases in Japan, but MoonPhase is a funny and endearing anime, though that’s not to say it’s for everyone.

Initially, MoonPhase seems evocative of works like La Portrait de Petit Cossette: dark visuals, lonely and prophetic narration and a generally European Gothic setting (and it’s that not surprising considering that Cossette and MoonPhase shared staffers, including the director). Then the opening theme sequence fires up. As much as I love French Lounge Electronica, it’s almost jarring to have a bunch of obscure Japanese puns visualized and set to such music. Then things get back to being creepy and serious: we come upon a photographer, Kouhei, who is both gifted with the talent to photograph the supernatural, but who is otherwise completely immune to the effects of it. It sort of limits the kinds of professional jobs he can get, so he’s usually stuck shooting for Occult Magazine. We find Kouhei while he’s out on a shoot in Germany, and it’s there that he spots a mysterious girl sitting atop a castle. After a meeting with the rest of the team he works with (Hiromi, his editor and Seiji, a spiritualist and researcher), and after a somewhat fanservicey yet somber bath-scene with the mysterious girl, Kouhei and his crew go back to the castle. Kouhei manages to clumsily gain entry (something his co-workers can’t even do as they aren’t spiritually inept like Kouhei, and are thus repelled by the magical barrier surrounding the castle) and he finds the girl. It turns out that her name is Hazuki, and she happens to be from Japan as well. She immediately takes to calling Kouhei big brother and then even offers “a present” to him, which leaves Kouhei predictably flustered. Of course, when the present turns out to be an attempt at what seems to be kissing him, well, Kouhei’s caught so off guard that he pushes her away, which blows Hazuki’s game plan… of making Kouhei into her slave via sucking his blood as she’s apparently a vampire (not that Kouhei really picks up on that). After playing Kouhei like fiddle with a sob story about how he must hate her, she gets a second chance at him. Of course, that’s promptly interrupted by Vigo, the guardian that keeps her in the castle. Seiji manages to distract Vigo with some powerful magic, which gives Hazuki her third chance, but the third time is not the charm. Remember, Kouhei is spiritually dense. In fact, he’s so spiritually dense that he can’t even be affected by Vampirism, much to the dismay of Hazuki, who was hoping she’d have a slave to command around, but who instead is left with the same old goofy Kouhei. Thus, some extreme action ensues, but eventually between Seiji’s magical skills and Kouhei’s total lack of spiritual awareness, the barrier and Vigo are destroyed and Hazuki is freed, not that she sticks around for long. She seems to have disappeared. Oh well, looks like Kouhei can put it behind him and get back home to Japan right?

Sure, except that who should be waiting at home to greet him but Hazuki. Oh boy. This is made extra-difficult because it’s not really Kouhei’s house, it’s his grandfather’s house, and since his grandpa Ryuuhei is more than willing to let her stay as long as she pulls her own weight in his antiques shop and wears a headband with cat ears, she gets to stay. Needless to say, plenty of crazy antics result from this (not the least of which is Hazuki desperately trying to boss Kouhei around and failing), but there is still some solid drama and action in play as well. Initially, Hazuki and Kouhei go looking for Hazuki’s mother, something that brings back some harsh memories for Kouhei as his mother passed away when he was young. They do manage to at least find a spiritual projection of her, and Hazuki even gets a cat Haiji, who can act as a familiar and help Hazuki speak with her mother again. Everything would seem to be going fairly sweetly, except that the person who kept Hazuki imprisoned in the first place, Count Kinkel, isn’t ready to give her up yet. He sends Elfriede, a buxom blonde vampire, to try and convince Hazuki to return, and she’s free to do this by any means necessary. Can Hazuki win this battle with the help of Kouhei, or wwill she end up trapped in a castle again for the rest of eternity? I guess you’ll have to check that out for yourself.

In terms of plot and story, MoonPhase flows pretty well. It’s definitely a little bit of a bait and switch as it starts off fairly serious outside of a few light gags about Kouhei’s clumsiness, but just after the credits for the second episode come to a close, things become much more humorous because the second it’s evident that Hazuki’s attempt to make Kouhei her vampire slave failed, she goes from being mysterious and cute to being a total Asuka from Evangelion-style pain in the butt, down to screaming “baka” repeatedly and rapidly. It takes a little while for that shift to work, especially in the dub where the tweaks to the script and the overall acting don’t start bringing in much humor until episode four or five, but once it gets started, it’s pretty enjoyable. It’s also helped by the fact that the manga-ka came up with a fairly interesting vampire mythology, with the concept of the Vampire Ama – the Vampire’s Lover as his or her blood can be sucked but said person can’t become a slave – being especially fresh and intriguing. The drama’s sold pretty well too, though certain scenes almost feel cribbed from previous Shaft works, though part of that has to do with similarities between the manga source materials in play. Case in point: Shaft animated both MoonPhase and Mahoromatic, and the flashbacks in each series to the funerals attended by the respective lead males definitely feel a little too similar. However, other pieces such as Hazuki’s reunion with her mother end up working very well dramatically and really manage to build and round out the characters involved. It’s not necessarily as tight to the manga as I’d hope, and the adaptation almost suffers from the same issue the anime adaptation Chobits did (IE: focusing on the more generic elements rather than what made the manga special and worthwhile), but it’s quite enjoyable in terms of story on the whole.

Granted, the moments of awkward pacing might be an issue of the visual supervision, which is definitely a little inconsistent. Certain scenes, such as Hazuki’s attempts to bite Kouhei are excellently storyboarded and then rendered beautifully in terms of animation and compositing. In fact when MoonPhase looks good, it almost looks like a theatrical production, especially since it is presented in widescreen. However, there are a few scenes that look particularly mediocre, especially since it’s contrasted with other scenes that look perfect. Beyond that, there are a few glaring cheats in the backgrounds and stills used in the first episode as they seem to either be poorly hand-traced photos if not photos just run through a Photoshop filter, and while it’s not horrible, it’s not good either. On the whole, the visual direction is good, but compared to other Shaft works and other works from director Akiyuki Shinbo (namely La Portrait de Petit Cossette as it’s so close in terms of subject matter), it’s clearly not the best work the studio or the director is capable of. To be fair it’s still ahead of at least 70 percent of what gets put out, but it’s not the finest they’ve done.

On that note, the same can be said of FUNimation’s handling of MoonPhase. To be fair, a lot of their work on this title is great. For starters, the DVD features 8 points of access per episode, two video tracks and a few bonuses like a creditless opening and ending and character biographies (basically, FUNimation’s usual extras). The packaging is very good as well – the box included with the volume 1 with box version of the release is quite sturdy and features very nice art. The include is a great postcard holder book, which is welcome as each volume of the series (including volume 1) comes with postcards featuring fantastic art of Hazuki. It has a booklet with background information like interviews and character design sketches, and even the cover art for the DVD case is great: it features silver ink or leafing for certain text elements, giving it an elegant look. In fact, outside of the series with limited edition boxes like FullMetal Alchemist and Trinity Blood, it’s probably some of FUNimation’s best work to date in that regard.

If only I could say that about the dub and subtitles. Now, allow me start by noting that neither the dub nor the sub are bad for US industry standards. The dub is basically listenable, and the subs are essentially accurate, but normally FUNimation manages to deliver a cut above everyone else, and I just cannot say that this time. The dub script is a mixed bag, choosing to localize or even randomly change some elements (IE: Mile Airways become Mile High Airways in the dub, even though it’s not at all a lip-sync issue considering it’s mentioned in a public announcement over an airport’s speakers), while pieces of Japanese language like “neko mimi” (cat ears) and “itadakimasu” (an expression said prior to eating) are in the dub. I can see where some degree of tweaking would be needed for lip-sync and where some more might be needed because it’s a comedy and to make comedy flow in English is a different issue to Japanese, but the writing here just felt scatter shot compared to series like Desert Punk, where the rewrites were focused and driven towards keeping and even boosting the comedy in English, or compared to Gunslinger Girl where the writing was focused around keeping as tight to the original source as possible while ensuring that none of the drama was lost. The only obvious or clear effect any of the changes in the MoonPhase dub script had was that certain points that were implied previously get so spelled out in the dub that at points it’s distracting. The subtitles have a few questionable translations as well (“dotard” is something I’d expect out of a fansub), but nothing really damaging or problematic; it’s just not as perfect as I’d expect from FUNimation.

The same can also be said of the dub performance. Monica Rial takes a little while to get into her role as Hazuki, which is made even more apparent by the fact the other VAs seem to hit their marks pretty much from the start. Even then, it never seems to best the Japanese performances, at least on this volume, and again, while it is still great work for the US industry; it’s not what I expect from FUNimation, especially on shorter series. It usually takes FUNimation a little time to warm up on the longer series (as they themselves have admitted on commentaries), but normally when they have 26 episodes or less, they deliver from the start because they know it’s critical. That just can’t be said about MoonPhase – the dub does not begin to truly work until around episodes four and five.

I also have to question the TVPG rating as the fanservice scenes with Hazuki, though not explicit, are still over what I’d consider simple “Parental Guidance.” I mean, it’s evident from FUNimation’s online push for the series that they are trying to re-target this series towards a more female audience (and that’s actually a solid business idea as Gothic Lolita culture is growing quite quickly in the US as prêt-à-porter GothLoli fashion has even started to turn up in chains like Hot Topic), but the fact is they run a risk by pushing MoonPhase with something less an TV14 because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s striding a very thin line because it’s so moe. I certainly wouldn’t recommend the title as something parent could watch with their kids at the very least, but TVPG implies that. Additionally, unless it takes some dramatic liberties with the source manga, there is potentially content on the horizon that if for thematic reasons alone is not TVPG. Considering how stringent FUNimation has otherwise been with its ratings (opting to boost the ratings on other titles with thematic issues like Gunslinger Girl,) the leniency here is unexpected. It’s not a rating Evangelion 12-and-up level gaffe, but it’s still odd.

On the whole, MoonPhase volume 1 is pretty good. It’s definitely above the industry average visually and aurally, and it’s excellently presented in terms of packaging. However, this is one FUNimation title that you might want to rent first before buying, even if you’re already into the series, because it might not be what you expect at points, at least from FUNimation. If you’re uninitiated in terms of GothLoli and moe culture, it’s definitely something you have to try before you buy, as it’s a bit of an acquired taste. That said though, speaking as person who has done GothLoli photo shoots with friends, I really enjoyed MoonPhase on the whole and I cannot wait for the next volume, regardless of the imperfections.

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