Xam’d: Lost Memories – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Bounen no Xamdou

 

Similar: Toward the Terra

RahXephon

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Last Exile

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Great art and animation
  • Starts strong

Negatives:

  • Characters lack personality
  • Needs more drama
  • No intrigue in the story
  • Convoluted world building

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Xam’d: Lost Memories exists for an odd reason. It was created by studio Bones and Sony for the PlayStation Network’s video download service (this was before streaming made consumption easier). As it often is with “showcase” titles, whether film or games, the visuals matter more than all else. When showing off your new service or product, you need material to catch the eye. After all, the audience won’t get to play or sit down with your content just yet (some media may get a demo, yes). It’s why console manufacturers bring out games with the best graphics for new hardware announcements. They throw in a couple of indies to appease the hardcore crowd, but the AAA games wow the masses. Xam’d, for its time, was an anime equivalent.

It triumphs in the art department with its colourful palette and fluid animation to bring its unique designs to life. This was an art showcase first, a story second. Unfortunately, and not unlike many of those AAA showcase games, there isn’t that much once you see past the visuals.

The story follows Akiyuki, a boy living on an island away from the great war raging between continents in the outside world. The peace of his life shatters when a suicide bomber detonates in his school bus. All that saves him is a mysterious injection of power from a girl. It comes at a price and transforms him into a monster.

This is a great hook – certainly grabbed me – and the monster mutation is grotesque in a non-horror sort of way. Very bubbly and deformed. The mutation makes him arm look like Popeye’s when dormant. He should get that checked out. Could burst any day now. The fantasy is bioscience meets tech infused monsters, morphing drastically into odd designs. It’s a bit Final Fantasy.

Akiyuki soon joins an airship crew, they travel around the world, inevitably getting involved in the war and other conflicts as they try to solve the power that threatens to turn him to stone. Another good element. I love stories with what I like to call the “travelling home base,” where a crew aboard some sort of vessel – boat, spaceship, walking castle – face various dangers outside as they travel, yet can always return to the safety of the home base, though occasionally the dangers breach inside. I particularly like it when the home base creates some semblance of normal life for the crew. The Star Trek franchise is brilliant at this.

Right, so we have a great hook and an ongoing element I love. What could go wrong? Nothing really goes wrong because nothing really happens. Xam’d meanders a lot and doesn’t give much plot. What it does give is also too convoluted for its own good, even in the lore and world building. Something as simple as the cause of the war is obfuscated for no reason. It reminds me of Final Fantasy XIII’s insane story. I would never dare suggest Xam’d is as convoluted – nothing is as convoluted as Final Fantasy XIII (heavens that story sucked). It isn’t good when something reminds me of it though. Too much time goes to side stories that don’t matter; you could cut them outright. Everything from the characters to the story and to the world needed more refinement, slimming down to focus on the core elements that could make Xam’d great.

You already have the visuals and good audio, but the rest is average.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For visual fans only. Sure, Xam’d: Lost Memories isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have any feature to recommend itself above others except for nice visuals.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: 

Fluid Animation

Negative: None

Horimiya – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Horimiya

 

Related: Hori-san & Miyamura-kun (old version)

Similar: His and Her Circumstances

Maid-sama

Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Comedy Romance

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Main couple has good chemistry
  • Great production values
  • Succeeds as a feel good rom-com

Negatives:

  • Too much time given to side couples
  • Conflict fizzles out quickly
  • Time skips to the ending

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Horimiya was the popular rom-com of the previous season, drawing attention for adapting a well-received manga and its beautiful character style. Behind this pleasant, easy going anime lies a bit of a kerfuffle over whether is it a good or a bad anime. Who would have thought this would be the contentious one of the season?

In the vein of His and Her Circumstances, this romantic comedy centres on a couple of teens with home lives they keep secret from school friends. Hori is beautiful, smart, and popular. She has the easy life. Miyamura is a feeble guy who keeps to himself. At home, however, Hori is the mother of the household, taking care of her brother and doing the chores, as her parents are always busy with work. Meanwhile, Miyamura is nothing like his school persona. Outside, he has several prominent piercings, tattoos, and is much more energetic than you’d guess. You wouldn’t recognise him if you passed on the street.

These two opposites attract and make for a good couple. When I discovered his bad boy secret identity, I expected him to be that clichéd shoujo romantic interest. You know the type – a troubled guy that’s just misunderstood and the main girl can “fix.” Pleasant surprise to find Miyamura to be otherwise. She’s a more typical character, though a well-executed one. They are the lynchpins of the story amid a rather large cast. One the side, we have Hori’s brother and parents, a dozen prominent classmates, many of them coupling up later, and more.

Horimiya, at its core, is a feel good rom-com to a fault. So set is it on making you feel good that at the first sign of drama, everything will speed up to get you back to the happy times. I’m not kidding. For instance, there is an early confrontation between Hori and the student council (a frankly forced scene to begin with). They accuse her of having forgotten some file. People crowd around, tensions rise, and then…it dissipates and we move on as if nothing happened. Another example is a point of jealousy later, setting up that “I’m not talking to you until I realise my mistake and look like an idiot before I come back to apologise” scenario. But no, it lasts, what, 30 seconds?

I’m not sure if this is a consequence of truncating the manga or if it’s meant to be this way. The rush to get to the ending in the final episode does make me think it’s the former. I would have to read the manga to be sure.

The side characters exacerbate the truncation. Some episodes, notably in the latter half, cut away to dedicate a significant amount of screen time to pairing up several of the schoolmates. Because there are so many for a 13-episode series, the time given feels both too long – we should spend more time with less characters – and too short to really feel invested in them. You might care about some, but all, unlikely. I’m sure this isn’t a manga problem.

Now, as a feel good anime, Horimiya works quite well. If you want to get away from those dangerous spirits in Jujutsu Kaisen, if Wonder Egg Priority is too depressing with all that suicide, or if Ex-Arm is making want to commit suicide, then Horimiya is the antidote. In fact, the rushing past drama discussed earlier might be a positive aspect to those wanting the pure goodness.

As for me, I’m up and down in places. I like the main couple and their chemistry. Her younger brother as well, good character. One of few kid brothers that isn’t annoying in this type of story. The schoolmates are my main issue alongside the rushed conflicts. With the students, I stop paying attention when they are the focus. It’s too uninteresting. Which leads into the conflict. Probably would have been better to not have it at all and go for pure comedy, akin to the superior Kaguya-sama: Love is War. Or you cut down on characters to make room for drama.

The visuals and music do most of the heavy lifting to me. Had studio CloverWorks not leant all effort into the production, Horimiya would have been one to pass by in the sea of seasonal anime. I like the uneven line work on the characters.

I’m on the positive side of the scale overall with Horimiya. However, I didn’t come from the manga. Fans are divided.

This is one of the few times where I went online to read opinions on a series shortly after finishing it. The manga is 16 volumes long. There are more volumes than episodes, yet both have the same end, with the final chapter released less than three weeks before the last episode. There is a significant time skip in the anime to make this happen. Of course, a lot was cut and manga readers aren’t happy. This wasn’t much of an issue for me, but I can relate, having experienced what they’re feeling in other anime. On the other side, anime only viewers are quite positive.

Seems to be that if you read the manga, the adaptation was disappointing and rushed. If you hadn’t read the manga, this was great and now you will go read the manga. I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t have the urge to consume the manga and I thought the anime was just fairly good.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For light-hearted romance fans. Reading the Horimiya manga seems to be the true recommendation in this case.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

Golgo 13 – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Golgo 13

 

Related: Golgo 13 (anime adaptation)

 

Genre: Historical Action Drama

Length: 200 volumes (so far)

 

Positives:

  • Each “episode” is an engaging spy thriller
  • Good use of historical events and conspiracies
  • Each story takes you to a new country with new characters, keeping it fresh

Negatives:

  • Earlier art doesn’t hold up
  • Lack of complete translation

Golgo 13 is the second bestselling manga series of all time (behind One Piece) and the longest running manga still in publication at 200 volumes so far. I didn’t know this when I started. Never even heard of Golgo 13. I thought I was doing quite well at 13 volumes ahead of this review. Turns out Golgo 13 is a big deal! It took COVID-19 to pause this series for a few months after 52 years of constant releases.

This veteran manga is about the titular Golgo 13, a professional assassin for hire, willing to take on any job as long at the pay is right and the deal is straight. Try to cross him or double deal and he will kill you. If the shot is possible, even by the slimmest chance, he will make the kill.

Golgo is a James Bond type with little known about his origins – what we do know could just as well be false. He’s a man of few words who keeps to himself except when there’s a job to do or a beautiful lady in his path. It’s speculated Golgo may have dozens of children around the world due to his amazing penis (their words, not mine). He harkens to an older era of spy thriller, where plot continuity and character depth weren’t expected. Each volume is a couple of standalone stories, like hour-long episodes of a TV show, often drawing on real historical events but changing them into a “what really happened” conspiracy plot. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Princess Diana’s death are but a few of the historical events that intersect with Golgo’s job.

I prefer this structure for this sort of protagonist, just like the James Bond novels. Had it been one long story, I would have grown bored around eight volumes in, as this character type doesn’t work for a continuous story, where you want to know and see him evolve over arcs. That doesn’t work here. Instead, each “episode” is an engaging spy thriller. I read one episode per sitting.

Included at the end of each volume are intel files profiling Golgo and his many exploits. It talks of his preferred clothing, including underwear, notable injuries, skills, and, my favourite, his body profile. See below for your amusement. A fun addition.

“…at any rate, an amazing penis.” Legendary line.

One weird writing device is the overuse of the ellipses. I’m not sure if this was commonplace in 60s manga – I’ve never seen it – but the author always has to make it clear when a character gives no vocal reaction. You’d think a simple lack of dialogue would suffice, but no, they must think “…” Not a real problem, though still a weird choice.

Golgo 13’s art in the early volumes is outdated by today’s standards, though it holds up well enough. The environments, particularly in the establishing shots, are full of clear detail.

While I do recommend Golgo 13, I should note the incomplete English translation. Only 13 volumes (a best of collection?) have had official translations (even less from fan translations) and I believe they aren’t in original order either, not that this matters with the independent story structure. However, 13 volumes is plenty enough to leave me satisfied. I have had my fill.

Art – Medium

Story – High

Recommendation: Read it. As the oldest manga still in publication and an all-time bestseller, Golgo 13 surely is worth a read.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

The Pet Girl of Sakurasou – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Sakura-sou no Pet na Kanojo

 

Similar: Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend

Toradora

Princess Jellyfish

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Comedy Romance Slice of Life

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Nice colours

Negatives:

  • Sleazier fan service than usual
  • Deeper moments fall flat against this tone
  • Too many obnoxious characters

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When you’ve consumed enough anime with an analytical eye (or books or movies), judging the quality of series within one episode becomes easy. It may sound unfair – “You have to finish or it doesn’t count!” If a first episode is full of problems, then expect those same problems to echo throughout the series. Core elements don’t magically go from bad to great by the end. Not to suggest they can’t get better. You might get a 10% improvement by the end or an element that isn’t working falls away, elevating the rest in the process without much change. When a story has potential for greatness, the seeds are present from the start. What about judging the ending if you only watch one episode? You won’t be able to tell how good the ending will be (though a bad series ending is often predictable), but you can judge whether the journey is worth it. Remember, the end is a fraction of the overall experience.

And so, we come to The Pet Girl of Sakurasou. Let’s go through episode one for all the markers of how this series will be.

Opening scene, protagonist Sorata looking out of the classroom window at a bright but uneventful day, indicating his boring but easy life. He then tells us as much. Unnecessary showing plus telling. Not a big deal, but I expect to see this a lot, where they will show something (should stop there), but then have someone vocalise it as if the audience can’t infer on their own. Anime does this often. Problem repeats next moment when he wakes up (pointless dream opening scene is also a red flag) with a cat’s arse on his face – not a pleasant experience – and then has to tell us how it’s not a pleasant experience, a simile for his adolescent life.

Turns around to find his face now in a girl’s arse (camera about to perform a colonoscopy of course). Tells me the fan service will be non-stop and sleazy. She wakes up and her first line, yelled with extreme energy, is, “I want to be a bride when I grow up!” Atrocious introduction to an obnoxious character. She only gets worse as the scene continues.

Less than two minutes in and this tells me about 70% of what I need to know. There will be too much telling, sleazy fan service, and bad characters. All that remains is to see the narrative drive, which I expect within a few minutes, and I could give a recommendation.

Escapes into the hall where he runs into his teacher, whose priority one the first day of school is showing off her cleavage, as stated by her. She hands him a toolbox to fix the sign out front. This is Sakura Hall, a dorm notorious for housing the problem students of this art school. Sorata’s plot goal is to get out of this hellhole of a living situation. A funny premise, to be sure, but it hinges on having great characters in the dorm for comedy and all you’ve given me so far is sleaze and a colonoscopy.

There’s another minor instance of show and tell here. A couple of girls walk past and whisper about Sakura Hall’s reputation, which is all we need. Then Sorata tells us the same information again a second later.

Predictably, the panty girl from the start throws a window open and yells to him about how hot she is naked, reinforcing my judgment of obnoxious fan service and this character. A little over three minutes in and I’ve seen more than enough. Let’s keep going though.

Now we have the character bios. Panty girl is an animator, in comes a playboy guy (anime screenwriter and high school gigolo), the teacher we’ve met, and there is a NEET programmer no one has ever seen. Sorata is an average guy amongst a bunch of freaks. I’m not a fan of rapid-fire inductions like scrolling through game profiles, as they just info dump without engagement. At least it isn’t as bad as the one in Wave! Let’s Go Surfing! and they did intersplice character moments to give a bit of personality.

After classmate introductions and more talk of Sakura Hall’s infamy, we flashback to Sorata adopting a stray cat and being forced to move to Sakura Hall since regular dorms don’t allow pets. Bit of a forced scenario set up, but alright, works for comedy. He’s had stray cats come to him ever since. This is foreshadowing for later.

Side note: the bloom is too strong and ever-present.

The teacher introduces the foil in the story. Her cousin is coming from England (prediction: she will be nothing like a British girl) and will be staying in Sakura Hall. Sorata has to pick her up from the station. He finds the girl and the first thing she says is, “What colour do you want to be?” A feeble attempt at a philosophical conversation follows (purpose: on the nose metaphor of the theme). This tells me the story will try to cram a deeper meaning in somewhere (prediction: the ending, with sudden drama) that will utterly fail in the face of the sleaze and shallow characters. Her colour is white, like the stray cat. A bad introduction via writing from a film school student’s first indie movie.

We are a little past halfway in the first episode now and I have yet to find much positive to say. The colours are nice, though marred by the overbearing bloom. A couple of funny lines as well, yet far outweighed by the unfunny ones.

Next day, he has to wake her up for school, only to find her room in a disaster state as if the FBI had rifled all her clothes for secret intel. She’s a manga artist and sleeps under the desk. She comes out from blanket to stand before him naked. Nothing has changed from that first scene when he woke up. Turns out, she’s an absolute idiot for the sake of fan service, underage nudity, and comedy. The explanation is that this is normal because the culture in England is different? Yeah, I doubt the author has ever been to England. He has to get her ready like a child. This is the pet of the title and from all that foreshadowing. I get she is supposed to be like a stray cat to care for, like his many other stray cats, but did they have to make her mentally deficient just to fulfil his fetish?

And so ends the episode.

Let’s summarise. The characters are obnoxious, the love interest is imbecilic, the humour repeated itself several times within a single episode, the “serious” dialogue is laughably bad, showing plus telling, and fan service takes priority over all else. A thick blanket of anime clichés wraps this up.

One episode was too much to know The Pet Girl of Sakurasou isn’t an anime worth watching. Yes, there are many far worse than this, but also a thousand high school anime that you could watch first. Toradora is a much better version of this anime type.

For the sake of thoroughness and this review, I watched the series in full and nothing changes about the quality of this series. The characters are still weak stereotypes, the fan service is still sleazy, and the few good jokes are buried under the mountain of same tired lines in every high school anime. The feeble deeper messages die under the tonal nonsense of the sleaze. My only off prediction was the dramatic ending. It wasn’t as dramatic as expected, instead mirroring the first episode with nostalgia. The end was a typical graduation moment filled with crying people (understandable). It’s clear the main couple has barely evolved.

I could apply the above analysis to the first episode of any series, whether good or bad, and highlight the markers that predict overall quality. Maybe I should do it in future with some excellent series. Sounds like a good idea.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. The Pet Girl of Sakurasou isn’t worth your time in a sea of high school anime.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

Ghost Stories – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gakkou no Kaidan

 

Similar: Ghost Hunt

Pop Team Epic

Cromartie High School

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: [Comedy] Horror Mystery

Length: 19 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The masterpiece dub

Negatives:

  • Everything else

(Request an anime for review here.)

Ghost Stories is a rubbish anime. The characters are forgettable, the horror is laughable, the mysteries put one to sleep, and the art is crap. Watch it in English, however, and Ghost Stories is a great anime. If you haven’t heard of this gem, Ghost Stories was a flop in Japan (shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with eyes and ears) and the studio said that ADV, the dubbing company, could do whatever they wanted to the show as long as they followed three rules. Don’t change names, don’t change how the ghosts die (part of the Japanese folklore), and don’t change the meaning of each episode. Other than that, fair game. And they were merciless.

What resulted was one of the most hilarious anime ever made in the style of an “abridged” parody series, before abridged anime were all the rage. Almost all dialogue was improvised, and since they record dubs one actor at a time (to match the visual timing), whoever got in the booth first for a scene, set the improv direction and the rest played off it. They just had to follow the purpose of the scene.

When told they could change anything except for the above three rules, they took that to heart. None of the original feel or tone of Ghost Stories remains in the dub, much to everyone’s delight.

The most notable change is personalities. Gone are the clichéd and bland school kids. In are the most offensive twerps since South Park. The protagonist has a mouth to make a sailor blush, a true hatred for lesbians, and is obsessed with her body. Her younger brother is retarded (literally) mumbling gibberish that gets more incomprehensible as he grows upset. Only she can decipher his speech. The love interest is a degenerate perv, while the nerd is even more stereotyped and Jewish, thus the butt of Jew jokes (like South Park). My favourite is the prim and proper girl turned into a fanatical born again Christian, calling everything a sin and reminding you every second of every day that you must find Jesus. Each line out of her mouth cracks me up.

The humour is more than offensive jokes. There are pop culture references, social commentaries, mocking of anime clichés, and meta humour on the atrocious animation quality of Ghost Stories. The mockery of the lip flaps always gets me. The animation was clearly a rush job and is perfect fodder for the actors. Lip flap matching is far superior in the improvised dub than it is in the structured original.

Looking at the Japanese version, Ghost Stories is a total snooze fest. The structure is that of a “monster of the week” type, with a new haunting for the kids to investigate each episode and it couldn’t be more paint-by-numbers. This isn’t a case where the original is “so bad it’s good” and the dub parodies it. No, the original is mind numbing – certainly not helped by the art either. Character faces aren’t even consistent from scene to scene. I’m not convinced they had an art director on staff. What truly baffles me though is the ending theme song. I first thought it was part of the parody with lyrics like, “I miss you, I miss you. I need you, I need you. Sexy, sexy!” Lost my mind when I discovered it’s the original song. Whose idea was that!? Keeping it for the dub only makes it better.

Ghost Stories is a wild ride. Even if the humour isn’t to your taste, it’s still an interesting study for a few episodes in how it changed between versions. A few “best of” clip compilations are also available on YouTube if you don’t want to watch the full 19 episodes.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch in dub. Ghost Stories is legendary in anime circles for a reason.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: 

Hilarious

Negative: 

Ugly Artistic Design

Anime and Manga Reviews