After School Nightmare – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Houkago Hokenshitsu

 

Genre: High School Supernatural Mystery Drama Romance Horror

Length: 10 volumes

 

Positives:

  • Some horror elements.
  • The concept.

Negatives:

  • The execution.
  • Uninteresting characters, despite their flaws and tragedy.
  • Drama undermines the supernatural conflict.

Who would have thought that After School Nightmare could make a love triangle involving someone with a male top half and female lower half so dull.

Students cannot graduate from this school until they find a key, competing against classmates in a nightmare realm for the mysterious object. Sounds interesting, right? Just like the love triangle, the writer couldn’t have made this more boring. In the nightmare, classmates have to “fight” (read: look menacing), which is undermined by having no impact in the real world, where everyone is chummy despite trying to kill each other yesterday.

As for characters, the melodrama is whiny rubbish. The protagonist likes a girl who likes him as a guy, but another guy likes him as a girl. The conflict goes as such: “I’m not a girl! I’m a boy! Waaaaah.” Three volumes in and it has gone nowhere. The first volume had as much happen as a single chapter of a better manga.

These characters are so shallow that I can’t even remember their individual motivations. People seem to think giving characters a trauma or a flaw makes them deep. In great writing, the use and execution of these flaws create a character’s depth, not the mechanics of the flaw. Take Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. His flaw, pride, doesn’t sound great – it isn’t tragic, he didn’t suffer some great loss, he isn’t a war victim, or anything of the sort. However, the use, the impact of his pride gives him that complexity I find lacking in After School Nightmare’s characters.

I could not wait for this manga to end.

Art – Medium

The art often looks weak. Lopsided, inconsistent faces. The horror elements do look cool, however.

Story – Low

Students must enter nightmares to fight each other if they want to graduate. A unique concept sunk by weak conflict, uninteresting characters, and cheesy drama.

Recommendation: Skip it. There must be a better love triangle of confused sexuality in manga than After School Nightmare.

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

Hyouka – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hyouka

 

Similar: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU

Gosick

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Slice of Life Mystery

Length: 22 episodes, 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Pleasant art and animation details.

Negatives:

  • So boring.
  • No obstacles to the mysteries.
  • No reason to care.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Imagine a mystery where characters sit around and talk about the mystery instead of facing obstacles in the pursuit of answers. Now imagine that halfway through this series, what little mystery there was dwindles to a mere ember dying out in Sherlock Holmes’s fireplace. There you have Hyouka.

Oreki is a high school student who doesn’t like to expend energy unless absolutely necessary. He joins the school’s Classic Literature Club thinking it will be an easy ride without energy required, but when the inquisitive Eru begins an investigation into a mystery connecting her uncle and the club, his plans of laziness vanish.

Damn Hyouka is boring. This mystery they speak of is so uninteresting. It involves old books and finding meaning behind a passage, uncovering the author, getting the facts of a past incident, etc. The answer, which I won’t give away, feels so unimportant and is so unremarkable that I would understand if you thought it was a minor detail before the real solution.

It’s the journey, not the destination, you say? Well, the journey is a chore of bland dialogue replacing actual investigation. Where Sherlock Holmes – an inspiration for Hyouka (apparently) – would hit the streets looking for clues and talking to unusual witnesses, Oreki and co. chat with a librarian and then return to the clubroom to talk about the rest of the case. Hyouka has no flair, no style – no tension. Nonsense slice of life punctuates the investigation, though has no effect on the monotony, making Hyouka even duller.

Having a light mystery can work – we see it all the time in one-shot sitcom episodes – but you must have great characters to hang out with for the duration. Such pieces are more about having a good time with interesting people than about solving some deep mystery. Oreki’s trait of energy conservation has no purpose to the story. It’s a gimmick and nothing more. When a protagonist has ‘the trait,’ it must mean something to the story at large. As an example, Holmes’s abrasiveness gives him the ability to ask insensitive but necessary questions of witnesses and suspects alike. Yet this abrasiveness also makes him difficult to work with. Oreki’s laziness doesn’t do anything because he completes his task anyway with no meaningful conflict. Remove his gimmick and nothing changes.

To worsen matters, the second half of Hyouka devolves into meaningless slice of life – the Sherlock Holmes motif in the second ED is an insult, at this point. Hyouka’s mysteries are so few, so uninteresting that they run out of steam halfway through the series.

Honestly, I have so little to say about Hyouka that this feels like a waste of a review. It never gave me a reason to care about any of its characters or mysteries. So what drew me to this in the first place? When I was in Takayama (a town close to Shirakawa-go of Higurashi fame) for a festival, I saw in the hotel’s window a poster for Hyouka’s Blu-ray, which is set in fictional Kamiyama based on Takayama. When an anime takes place in a real Japanese location, the locals of said location size the opportunity to attract fans for tourism. ‘Location pilgrimages’ are common among otaku – similar to how Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fans go on holidays to hunt filming locations. I was doing the reverse, interested in the fictional portrayal after visiting the real place. And as it turns out, the real place is far more engaging.

Art – High

The art is Hyouka’s best quality with its bright palette and great animation. The little movements in each scene are a nice touch.

Sound – Medium

Even top actors could not make this dry dialogue engaging. Characters talk a lot without saying much.

Story – Low

A lazy guy is roped into a literature club that seeks to uncover mysteries surrounding their clubroom and its books. Never have I seen mysteries less interesting nor so boringly told than in Hyouka.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Hyouka is so boring that I can’t see reason to recommend it.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Pluto – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Pluto

 

Related: Astro Boy (tangentially related)

 

Genre: Psychological Science Fiction Mystery

Length: 8 volumes

 

Positives:

  • Masterful suspense and mystery.
  • Top quality art in every panel.
  • I can’t stop reading.
  • Complex characters.
  • Engaging commentary on AI.

Negatives:

  • Action overtakes mystery in final volume.

I have made no effort to hide my admiration of Monster, created by Naoki Urasawa, so when mucking through several disappointing manga from my ever-growing backlog, I turned to Urasawa’s work in the hope of restoring quality. It succeeded. Having only the time to read a volume a day was agony, for Pluto kept the pages turning even when I needed sleep.

Pluto is a True Detective meets Ghost in the Shell crime mystery set in a world of AI so advanced it begins to pass as human. Europol robot detective Gesicht investigates a string of robot and human deaths. Each victim has makeshift antlers impaled through the skull and all signs indicate a robot as the culprit, which shouldn’t be possible – it defies the Laws of Robotics.

From the first chapter, Pluto swathes you in mystery and suspense. Each scene makes you want to know more, see where the case will go. Urasawa knows exactly how much to give the audience to keep us hooked, yet not so little that it becomes vague and dissatisfying. The flow and rhythm of the dialogue delivers weight precisely when needed.

The key, as always in fiction, lies with the characters. No character lacks depth in Pluto. All come outfitted with full complexity, making us want to see what they will do next, how they will react to the next conflict. I cannot decide which character I thought best. Was it Gesicht trying to understand the emotional evolution of his AI? Or the music composer offended by a robot trying to understand music? Perhaps the creator of the greatest AI and what it cost to bring to life? Character after character, across the full spectrum of types, added to Pluto’s intricacy in constructing a phenomenal manga.

I cannot recommend Pluto enough. Reading manga of this quality makes it worth sifting through the muck.

Art – Very High

Full detail backgrounds, thoughtful compositions and lighting, emotive expressions, and texturing place Pluto at the top. Seeing this side by side with your average manga makes the latter look cheap.

Story – Very High

A German robot detective investigate a series of murders, seemingly committed by a robot, which goes against programming. Pluto engages from the first page and doesn’t ease until the last.

Recommendation: Must read. If there is one manga yet to be adapted to anime you should read, it’s Pluto.

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

Darker Than Black – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha

 

Related: Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor (sequel – included in review)

Similar: Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom

Psycho-Pass

RahXephon

Gungrave

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Action Mystery

Length: 25 episodes (season 1), 5 OVA, 12 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Complex lore.
  • Creative powers and restrictions.
  • The comedic tangents are hilarious.
  • Character designs.

Negatives:

  • Lacks finality and answers.
  • Season 2 becomes oversimplified.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Darker than Black is an anime of malicious compliance. When I told it that it coveys lore in a vague manner, it responded with, “You don’t like my lore?” “That’s not wh—” “Fine, then I won’t give you any. If all you like is action, then that’s what I’ll give. Happy, are you!?” “…”

Before that moment in history, let’s go back to the start of Darker than Black. Ever since two gates appeared in Tokyo and Brazil, a fake sky replaced the real one and select people gained paranormal abilities at the cost of their humanity. These supernaturals known as Contractors became weapons for various governments and a group called the Syndicate. Officer Misaki has her investigatory skills put to the test when the Syndicate’s best agent, Hei the Black Reaper, is spotted in Tokyo. Hei and his associates have designs to uncover a mystery surrounding Hell’s Gate that threatens Contractors. Other Contractor division won’t let the Syndicate go unanswered either. Tokyo is a dangerous place to be.

First, I love the powers. Think of them as X-Men, but with a payment required after each use. The payment differs per character and ranges from smoking a cigarette to revealing a secret of yours to the next person you see. The cost tends to be something the Contractor hates. One Contractor, a magician, has to give away the technique to a magic trick every time he uses his illusion power. Bummer. Hei’s power is the ability to generate electricity, a favourite of mine. The writer could have merely copied the X-Men and been fine, but I appreciate the thought put into differentiating these powers by adding the payments.

Darker than Black also has artificial beings called Dolls that pass for human, but are dead inside and have scouting powers to aid their Contractor unit. Hei has one such doll with him as well as a Contractor whose power is to possess animals. Unfortunately for him, someone destroyed his human body during possession so he’s stuck as an animal for life. This makes him a tad grumpy.

Then we come to the larger world, where I find plenty interesting. I love that the police use an old woman known as the Stargazer, who can track when Contractors use powers by observing the fake stars above. Each Contractor is represented in a star – another great lore detail. Misaki has a telescope locked on Hei’s star, BK-201, which is how she knows he’s in town.

Most of the lore I have shared with you so far is presented in a decent manner. However, when it comes to the Gates, the lore behind Contractors, and even world history, Darker than Black takes serious issue with giving us this information. When it does present these aspects, it seems hesitant, as if the anime is worried about you finding out. “Does it or does it not work this way?” was a recurring question I had. This compounded with the fact that there is a lot of lore can make Darker than Black a headache for those who aren’t big fans of lore. It doesn’t help that much remains unanswered by the end, no thanks to season 2.

Here we arrive at the malicious compliance. If season 1 suffered from too much vague lore, season 2 suffers from having none whatsoever (the backstory threads are good, though). I said illuminate the lore, not eradicate it! In season 2, we follow two young siblings, one of which is a Contractor, and their escape from capture in Russia. It amounts to twelve episodes of action – good action, sure, but it no longer stands out like Darker than Black. I am particularly annoyed that Misaki is barely in season 2.

This does not lessen my recommendation for sci-fi/supernatural fans to watch the first season – likely twice to catch everything. If you worry about it being too heavy, the story occasionally diverts for some levity. The private eyes who narrates to himself noir-style and his cosplay girl assistant are the perfect change of pace. Even with several questions left unanswered, the lore we do get and the characters make Darker than Black an engaging experience.

Art – High

Darker than Black manages to have a large cast of characters, each distinct from the last, and yet doesn’t resort to lazy design techniques such as hair colour being the only distinguishing feature. The dark palette suits the story. Season 2 sees a noticeable dip in character and animation quality.

Sound – High

You can’t go wrong with either Japanese or English voices. Nice soundtrack – the main singer is bilingual and mixes English with Japanese better than most. The script could do with tighter exposition.

Story – High

Super powered humans called Contractors work jobs for the nefarious Syndicate while uncovering the mystery that threatens Contractors worldwide. Darker than Black’s super powers and interesting characters deliver a great anime, but its complexities can alienate.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for science fiction fans. Darker than Black has everything a sci-fi fan could want – lore, depth, sociology, philosophy. Non-fans (maybe even fans) will find the lack of concreteness tedious, especially since it leaves much unanswered. Season 2 is optional viewing.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive:

Strong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

Midnight Secretary – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Midnight Secretary

 

Genre: Vampire Romance

Length: 7 volumes

 

Positives:

  • Sexual energy.
  • Gets better towards the end.

Negatives:

  • Exposition dumps.
  • Lots of telling.
  • No mystery to the supernatural or the romance.
  • Dull art.

Midnight Secretary’s greatest twist was the revelation that this wasn’t the author’s first published manga. With this quality, I expected it to be a first-time author, someone in the early days of the craft still learning the elements of style and plot. Seeing all the marks of a novice writer in an author’s fourth major manga serial came as a surprise.

Midnight Secretary is a romance between a secretary and her boss, the head of a major corporation who also happens to be a vampire. Within the first few pages, as is the case for all novice writing, we find major blunders in the form of exposition dumps. Rather than allow us to get to know these character piece by juicy piece through actions and dialogue, the author has to cram their entire bios down our throats within a few pages. (See the first two images below for yourself.) Not just the bio, but the secretary also has to tell us just how much of a douche he is, something we see a page later. Why tell us when you will show anyway? An editor on her first day of work would eviscerate these amateur mistakes.

Another consequence of this bad writing is the reliance on telling not backed by action. For example, we are told the vampire is an excellent businessman, yet we never see anything to support this claim. I’m not kidding – we never see any actual business take place, despite the company being the central location for the plot.

Midnight Secretary makes no effort in mystery. It presents the boss’s peculiar lifestyle as a mystery, but she sees him biting a woman within the first chapter. It is better to have greater danger and mystery before you lay out all the cards on the table. Have her know of his vampirism, but leave him unaware of this, creating some dangerous conflict, for example. Furthermore, it’s not as though the author is in a rush to show us something exciting, for what follows is repetitive for several volumes. In this lore, vampires can only feed on the opposite sex and the more aroused the partner, the tastier the blood. When the secretary and vampire start dating (even this happens to soon), he still sleeps with other women since she can’t survive daily feeding. So, the main conflict goes: she wants to be his exclusive source of blood, he acts like a douche, they have a momentary tiff, make up, and repeat. Two volumes of redundant material could have gone to building these characters beforehand.

Once past this repetition, the writing improves significantly. I didn’t believe these characters getting together; however, if the story had started with them already together, I could believe they would stay together. Like the writing, the romance works better in later chapters. In fact, one can see the quality improve with each volume, which is why I thought it was a first timer learning as she went. Not the case, as I later learnt.

The sexuality is well done, charged with an edge of Gothic, but I don’t feel it is enough to warrant seven volumes of your time.

Art – Medium

Nice characters in low detail environments. Basic compositions and bland camera work.

Story – Low

A secretary falls in love with her vampire boss. Midnight Secretary has all the marks of vampire romance – handsome vampire, wealth, arrogance, someone she can ‘fix,’ steamy sex – but the poor execution, namely in writing, drains one’s excitement within pages.

Recommendation: Skip it. There must be a better vampire romance than Midnight Secretary out there to read instead. The novice mistakes and repetition made this a difficult manga to finish.

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

Anime and Manga Reviews