Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jing: King of Bandits Review

Jing: King of Bandits is a 13 episode animated series made by Studio DEEN that aired in 2002. It is based off the manga by Yuichi Kamakura.






Premise: Jing may appear to be a young boy, but his remarkable skills make him one of the most feared thieves on the planet. Along with his feathered partner Kir, Jing travels from town to town, stealing anything of value regardless of the amount of security. But when he's in a pinch, he has one more trick up his sleeve: Kir bonds with Jing's right arm to perform the effectively deadly "Kir Royale" attack. And because of all this, Jing is infamously known by many as the "King of Bandits."
 -- ANN


So, this one's a classic, albeit an obscure one (is that an oxymoron?). Jing: King of Bandits (I'll abbreviate to JKB), sometimes known as King of Bandit Jing, is a remarkably difficult anime to review. This is because how "good" it is depends entirely on how you view it. In my Hidan no Aria impression, I said that, were it a "kid's show," some kind of juvenile entertainment meant for a younger audience, then most of the show's faults would be excusable. However, that series was decidedly not meant for children, and thus the standards were higher. While that show was a pit full of the slime known as failure, how does JKB figure into all of this? Well, the same thing applies with this show. If it is indeed meant for an older (middle teens and up) audience, then it quite positively fails to meet the standards it should. On the other hand, if it is meant for younger (young teens and below) audience, then it meets and even exceeds by a little the standards it needs to. I'll discuss this in detail at the end, but for now I'll go over the basic sections.


     I guess I'll talk about the worst thing first, the art. The art in JKB is truly bad. The environment changes without explanation, objects in the foreground (crates that fall over, for example) are less than well drawn, and finally, we have this:

Where's her left foot?
This...phenomena...goes beyond the worst mistake you can make with art; it falls into the realm of sub-base level competency. It's simply baffling how they could have made such an error. I have never seen another instance of artists forgetting to include body parts, which is reasonable. Mistakes like this have no place in production value works. This mistake has been present in every different upload of the episode I have seen. Of course, I am always willing to acknowledge the fact that things like this might be due to poor quality uploads. Indeed, there are very few different versions of the show online, and this mistake could just be due to everyone using the same poor quality raw. However, I can't quite bring myself to believe that this is the case. I mean, if the upload somehow hacked off her foot, then how come we can see the window pattern where it would be? If this is in fact a problem with the show itself and not the upload (and I do believe that is the case), then this kind of thing is amazing. I have absolutely no idea how this could have happened. It's far too obvious for the creators to not have noticed, so I simply can't fathom why they left it as is. Complaining about it more won't make it go away, so I guess I should move on, but I simply had to call attention to it.
     The other main offender in the art, environment inconsistency, is also fairly painful to see. It's extremely difficult to use screencaps to demonstrate this, so I'll try to explain without the use of visual aids. Basically, environment inconsistency is when the environment (a building the characters are in, a patch of trees, or whatever other kind of physical setting the story is taking place in) is clearly established to be one way the first time we see it, then is different the next time we see it with no explanation or reason. An example of this: a character enters a straight hallway, walks down it in one direction, turns around and walks back, and the entrance he came through is replaced with a different room. This actually happens once in the show. Now, like pretty much every other visual element, this can actually be used artistically. A character's house slowly becoming darker and more decrepit with no apparent cause could, in fact, be representing that character's corruption as a person. In JKB, however, there is nothing like this. Environments change without reason or logic. This is the second worst mistake you can make in art, the first being spacial relations. These two mistakes are bad for the same reason; they're astoundingly easy for the audience to see, and they always take the viewer out of the show.
     There is something quite surprising about the art, however. Despite it's flaws, the visuals in the show are not that bad. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the character designs are 100% consistent across all facial expressions and all characters, and some of it can be attributed to the cool, mood-setting backgrounds that the show has. However, the thing that makes up for the visual flaws the most in JKB is the animation. In my El Cazador De La Bruja review, I talked about how good art can save a show from the curse of poor animation. Jing: King of Bandits is almost the opposite; its good animation saved the series from its poor art. Things move smoothly and fairly naturally, and overall the motion is quite nice. As a result, the poor art wasn't as much of a problem. I mean, sure someone's leg might look a little weird, but the movement of that leg kicking someone is well done. I mean, the animation is not particularly amazing. Much of the time, the images will just move around a still to simulate movement, an age-old trick. Still, when things are actually in motion, that motion is believable. The visuals as a whole...well, they're certainly not bad. Not great, but not bad. The solid animation and nice character designs/backgrounds make up for the flaws in the art, and the result is best described as "passing."

One of the cooler, more clever moments of the show.
     Next I guess I'll talk about the sound. The sound in this is rather underplayed, and as a result any problems with it are made less serious. There are few sound effects, and most of the effects included are generic and not all that impressive. The voice acting is nothing to be amazed at, nor does it make you wince. Jing, Kir, and Postino are the only reoccurring characters (this is another mostly episodic show, although there are three multiple-part stories), and they all have pretty good VA's. Jing's voice matches his calm and composed character, and Kir's voice actually kind of sounds like the voice of a talking bird (I guess everybody can have differing opinions on just what a talking bird's voice is supposed to sound like, but I thought Kir's VA did pretty good). The other characters were all passing, neither exceptional nor poor. The most striking aspect of the sound is the music, though it too is rather underplayed. I've had a chance to listen to the music on its own, and it's quite interesting. Some of it is jazzy, but most of it falls under a genre of music that either previously never existed, or I've simply never heard its name. In any event, the music is weird. It's not nonsense music, but it's not orderly, either. The best way I can think of to describe it is something like neo-drone music done with computer sounds. That's still a pretty terrible description, but I'm afraid I can't do any better. Classification aside, the music was implemented well. It works wonderfully with the backgrounds to create a unique mood for the series, and helps raise the tension and makes things more exciting in general. It's nothing amazing, but it does its job quite well. The sound is quite underplayed as a whole, however. The music is all in the background, the sound effects are barely present, and most of the script is single lines and short responses, so the voice actors don't have much material to actually voice. The result is that the sound is pretty average. Nothing is really bad, nothing is exceptionally good, and anything that gets close is underplayed enough that it doesn't matter.

     The next thing I'll talk about is the characters. As I mentioned above, this is an episodic show, so Jing, Kir, and the mysterious Postino are the only reoccurring characters. Postino gets only a few seconds of screentime and one line of dialogue in any of the episodes he appears in, so he doesn't really count. That just leaves our two leads, Jing and Kir.

Jing (in the coat) and Kir (on his shoulder).
Jing and Kir are really a pretty nice duo. Neither of the two are especially strong characters, nor are they really very dynamic. Still, they have their good points. First up is Jing. Jing is really a pretty cool protagonist, at least for this kind of show. He takes everything in stride, he's cool and collected, he can do pretty much anything he wants to (though not without challenges), and he always seems "in control." Now, as I said, Jing is not a very three dimensional character, nor is he very dynamic. His back story is teased just a little bit, but we never find out more, so we don't really know about his past or how he became the "King of Bandits." This creates a bit of a problem. We have a thief (a profession generally looked down on) who's past we don't really know, and yet, he's our protagonist. We're supposed to like him, but everything kind of makes us want to dislike him, or at least not care about him. There are a few things that solve this problem. The first is that, over the course of the series, Jing is a fairly noble individual. I mean, he's no gentleman thief, but he doesn't kill people, he isn't shown to be especially greedy, and he treats people nicely and with respect. Most people like nice guys. Jing is a nice guy. Most people can like Jing for that reason. The second reason why Jing is okay as a protagonist is because all of the villains are worse than him. We have greedy mayors (in fact, no less than three times are greedy mayors the main villains of the show stories), oppressive rulers, thugs, and other, more "evil" bandits. By comparison, Jing is indeed someone we can get behind. And lastly, perhaps the biggest reason of all, Jing: King of Bandits isn't so much about the characters. In fact, it's not about the sounds or the visuals or the stories, either, but I'll get into this a bit later. Onto the other lead, Kir.

Love those eyebrows.
The character of Kir is unique. For one, he's a talking bird. Aside from that, though, Kir is a pretty good character. Probably the thing about him that stands out the most is that he hits on pretty much every female he encounters (99% of them human). It's weird enough to have a bird that talks and can fire laser beams when attached to someone's arm, but him being a lady killer as well just tops his character off. Like Jing, Kir is not an especially deep character. He's a little more pragmatic and outspoken than Jing, and he is also more ruled by by logic than his human partner. Overall, though, he is not drastically stronger or more skillfully created than his partner. This is not a big problem, for all of the reasons it wasn't a problem with Jing. These two may not be the best characters ever created, but they are unique to a certain extent, and they're definitely engaging enough to make decent leads. The other characters are nothing special. It is somewhat surprising how well you can understand what a character's outlook is without ever being strictly told, but beyond that there is little of note. They are not particularly strong or interesting characters; they have a purpose, which they serve. In this way, they are almost more like plot devices than actual characters, but either way they aren't terrible.

     Before I move onto the story, there is one thing I want to discuss which is loosely tied into the characters. This thing is Jing's signature move, the Kir Royale. The problem with it is how it is implemented. For one, Jing uses it almost exclusively. The whole point of a special attack is that it's, you know, special. Actually, I wouldn't have minded, were it not for that "almost exclusively." Jing fights with his arm sword and a number of situational weapons at certain points throughout the show, especially towards the end. When Jing does this, it clearly establishes the Kir Royale as a "special attack." If it were Jing's only way of fighting, then I wouldn't care, because then it's not special. But, it clearly tries to be. Thus, the overuse of the attack makes it not special, the first problem. The second problem with it is that the power of the attack varies drastically. At one point, the attack is so weak that it can be easily stopped by nothing more than thick skin. At another point in the story, it's strong enough for the blast to fill a canyon and propel Jing and Kir up several feet into the air. This kind of inconsistent power, coupled with the attack's constant use, just kind of makes it boring to watch. Instead of thinking, "Oh yeah, Jing's gonna mess someone up with that special laser blast attack thing!," you think, "Oh, Jing's using Kir Royale again. What a surprise." I mean, this isn't a major point, but considering that the attack is used in every single episode, usually multiple times, it's just kind of annoying that the attack isn't more exciting or cool to see.

     Now then, the plot. As I've said a few times, JKB is episodic. There is no overarching plotline. What makes it different from the other episodic shows I've reviewed, however, is the fact that there are multiple-part episodes. There are two 2-part episodes and one 3-part episode, for a total of 7 (over half the series). Because of this, there are some stories that (should) have better development. Honestly, the stories are very disappointing. There's more plot convenience in an episode of Jing: King of Bandits than there is in a Tintin comic book. Character's reasons for doing things don't make sense much of the time, plot development and progression feels decidedly forced, and everything is predictable.

This is one look you'll never have on your face while you watch this show.
Really, I can't properly convey just how contrived the plot elements feel. I mean, the stories themselves aren't that terrible, and many of the premises are outright interesting. However, the execution is disappointing and less than exciting. In short, the stories are squandered. Even the multiple-part episodes, the ones which should be able to develop a story more fully, fall short of the mark. Granted, they where generally a little more connected, and the last one (the 3-parter) was actually passing in quality (though nothing exceptional), but it is too little. This area of the series could and should have been greatly improved.

     So, let's review this, uh, review. The art is bad, the animation is pretty good, the sound is average, the characters are average (or a little below average), the main character's special move is poorly used, and the stories are bad. Things don't look very good for this show. There is one thing about Jing: King of Bandits, however, that makes it "good," something that normally does not play a very large part in a show's quality. This thing is the atmosphere and mood of the show. Normally, things like atmosphere are those "little details," the ones that make a difference between a 6/10 and an 8/10, but not between a 4/10 and a 6/10. With JKB, however, that is the case. It is the show's excellent mood and style that saves it from being "just another show." It's perfectly natural for there to be living skeletons, frogmen, and bar musicians who play violin pieces on their giant mustache hairs. I mean, it's not Alice in Wonderland -- JKB is classier than that -- but it is weird, psychedelic, and even dream-like. This is what makes the show stand out. It has a specific, unique style to it, a style that determines whether or not you'll like it. There's really only one way to describe the style of this show. Imagine yourself sleepy and tired, as if you've been up for 32 hours-straight. Then imagine yourself at least halfway drunk. If you were to combine those two feelings and then watch this show like that, then everything in it would feel perfectly natural. The plot conveniences wouldn't matter, nor would the shallow characters, nor would the sometimes poor artwork. Just like Jing, you'd take everything in stride. Now imagine yourself watching the sleepy, drunk you watch that show. That's the best way I can describe watching this show. If you're doing it right, watching JKB feels like watching a dream, looking in from the outside. If you can do that, you'll enjoy this show, no problem. If you can't, well...maybe the next section can help you determine whether or not to watch it.

     We've finally reached the promised section that I mentioned at the beginning of the review, dealing with how to view this show. Whether or not JKB is a good show or a bad one is determined by it's classification.

Childish? You decide.
If you treat it as a "kid's show," then it is actually pretty exceptional, dealing with (relatively) serious matters at least somewhat intelligently, while mixing in a cool setting and nice atmosphere. To start, let's look at why this series wouldn't be a kid's show. The first thing is, of course, Kir's constant hitting on girls. One could argue that this means the show is geared towards those that enjoy love/raunchy stories, i.e. not children. However, the entire concept of a bird flirting with a human girl is rather absurd in and of itself. The sheer physical barriers of the involved parties makes it not only prevent it from being offensive, but in fact enhances the weirdness of the series. The thing that really determines whether or not this is a kid's show, though, is the amount of death in it. There is absolutely nothing that even comes close to touching the graphic content of Baccano!, but a number of people (two, specifically) do die in this anime. That is one thing that must be made clear; Jing: King of Bandits is not a children's show by western standards. In western culture's cartoons, people don't die, ever. The only possible exception is if they die in a large explosion (I've always wondered why explosions make death okay. And I'm looking at you too, Macgyver). In Japanese culture, however, things are a little different. One thing that has stood out to me is the fact that the Japanese don't really have language censorship in their cartoons. Swear words are perfectly acceptable for broadcasting, at least from what I've been able to tell. Really, this should all make sense. The Japanese have turned all animated works into an art form, as opposed to western cultures that are usually limited to just movies. So it should hardly be a surprise that Japanese “cartoons” have higher thresholds for what is and isn't objectionable (because they are used to dealing with more serious material in the first place). This all leaves us with one question left, then. Is death acceptable in a kid's show? The answer to this question determines whether or not JKB is good. If the answer is yes, then the series is good, even great. It's got a nice duo in the lead, atmosphere, mood, wackiness, style, and occasionally deals with (again, relatively) heavy topics. If the answer is no, however, then JKB is not a kid's show, and is therefore not good. It simply doesn't meet the standards of “grown-up” anime. Me personally? I believe that despite the few deaths, Jing: King of Bandits is a kid's show. The fact is that, while we are shown some death, we are never really shown killing. And there's also the fact that most 8 year-olds have probably watched at least one PG-13 action flick with killing and death in it, and I doubt that anyone would feel that is overly inappropriate material to be viewing. Really, there's nothing offensive or graphic about this show, so I'm going to have to say its geared towards younger audiences. Of course, if you're going into this show hoping for a good story, dynamics characters, or cohesion, then you'll be disappointed either way.

     Jing: King of Bandits is a glorious mess of one-liners (I didn't actually mention this during the review, but I would say that approximately 97% of Jing's lines are one-liners), plot convenience, weird settings, and psychedelic atmosphere. Still, the series can be fun to watch, especially if you're in the right mindset, and the mood and style are quite unique.
     Plot/Story: The stories in JKB are one of the weakest things about it. Things don't really follow logical reasoning, character motivations don't make sense much of the time, and unlikely convenience abounds. Still, the stories themselves are fairly interesting (at least, most of the time), and if you're watching this in a dream-like state as you should be, then logical reasoning doesn't really matter.
     Characters: The characters in this series are also a little below average. Jing and Kir are effective enough, but the rest of the characters are rather shallow and often feel like they exist just so that the plot can advance. That said, they do have a certain wackiness that makes them more likable, and they aren't particularly weak. Overall, the characters aren't great, but they are nearly average.
     Sound: Weak sound effects are balanced out by strong music, and the voice acting was average. Not much to talk about here; the sound is passing.
     Visuals: Consistently bad artwork from a technical standpoint (I can't include the cropped foot, because I don't know for certain that it was a problem with the show), and sometimes non-static objects are less than good looking. That said, the character designs are nice not only in their appearance, but also in their consistency, and the backgrounds are usually pretty good. The real strong proponent for the visuals in JKB, however, is the animation. Movement is shown quite well in the show, and despite the low-budget feel of the series, the animation is of good quality.

Overall: Were I to rate Jing: King of Bandits by the same standards I would rate something like Mushishi, then it would be something like a 3/10 (if I used numeric ratings). However, were I to rate it with the same standards I would rate something like, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then I would give it a 6/10. If you like weird, wacky atmospheres and settings, interesting premises, and uniqueness, then you may enjoy JKB. Conversely, if you're looking for well-developed characters, plot cohesion, or eye candy, you should probably avoid this series.

(Here's a review of the Seventh Heaven OVA series for further reading)

Any suggestions/requests for my next reviews? Post a comment!

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