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

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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

ES: Eternal Sabbath – Manga Review

Japanese Title: ES: Eternal Sabbath

 

Genre: Supernatural Drama Science Fiction

Length: 83 chapters (8 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • An engaging plot of nature vs. nurture
  • Villain is genuinely threatening
  • Cool psychic powers

Negatives:

  • Character art is a little lopsided

Eternal Sabbath entered my radar over a decade ago through a passing recommendation, which I wouldn’t have remembered were it not for that absolute metal name. This turned out not to be a story I expected, though still a welcome one.

Eternal Sabbath is about two psychic beings born from experimentation, one of them a success, the other a failure and clone of the former, and how the difference in treatment of these two affects temperament. Akiba is the original, possessing immense mental powers to invade the minds of others, project hallucinations, and even kill with a mere thought. Isaac, the child clone, has the same power but without the maturity. He’s a test tube child, never intended for the real world until he breaks free and roams the streets with the power of a god. An unloved child is tragedy. An unloved god child is a catastrophe.

The protagonist of this story, however, is human woman by the name of Mine. She’s a neurologist brought on the case when a victim suffers an odd mental attack, seemingly all in the victim’s head yet with very real injuries. Interestingly, she’s immune to the more dangerous telepathic powers. This draws Akiba’s attention.

I want to start with Akiba. What a great character. First impressions establish him as someone with a sense of justice yet an absolute prick as well, uncaring for those around him and inconsiderate of the privacy and autonomy of others. After all, why does he need to care when he is, in essence, a higher being? He can walk into someone’s house, eat their food, rifle through their things, and leave without a trace in the owners’ minds. He isn’t cruel though. When he meets Mine, finding much of his power blocked and her calling out his behaviour, he can’t help but feel drawn to her. His arc sees him turn from a selfish individual into a caring human.

I love the subplot of his fake identity. Akiba isn’t his real name – it belonged to a man who died. “Akiba” took his place and manipulated the man’s relatives into believing he was the real Akiba who had never left. Even if it does bring them joy to see their Akiba again, it is quite cruel when you consider it. He treats them well, of course, but it’s just a cover for him. However, as Akiba grows into a real person, thanks in no small part to Mine and seeing his evil reflection in Isaac, this identity becomes more than a cover. You don’t need this subplot to tell the main story, but it enhances character and theme, as every good subplot should. It works as a perfect tracker for his change in emotion.

Similarly, Isaac takes over another child’s life. Here we have the opposite to Akiba. Isaac mistreats the parents, always acting like a spoilt child, mind controlling them to do his bidding. As Akiba improves, Isaac declines further into cruelty, psychopathy, and eventually, depravity. The closest thing he has to a friend is Yuri, a little girl from school. She too is a neglected child, though not an evil one, but her poor understanding of morality and consequences leads her to encouraging Isaac’s evil for her benefit.

Then we have Mine, a strong woman balanced by uncertainty about her role in all of this. When the case starts affecting people around her, she questions if there is something she could have done better, if she is responsible in some way as a person aware of these supernatural beings and largely immune to them. What she goes through would certainly drain the mentally toughest of people.

Eternal Sabbath is a page-turner laced with tension. Isaac is a genuine threat. It’s good to see a villain with a personality for wanton killing actually kill people indiscriminately, and it never feels forced like those villains that “shoot the dog” just to show how evil they are. His actions are always in line with his character. This doesn’t mean he is predictable, mind you, as he is complex despite his immaturity. From his perspective, he feels justified in his actions, sometime even committing what we see as evil to “help” others. Most chapters end on cliffhanger once things get going, so I have to read the next to find out what happens.

I’m glad I remembered Eternal Sabbath. It was a worthwhile read and receives my recommendation.

Art – Medium

Story – High

Recommendation: Read it. Eternal Sabbath is a simple yet tense manga that holds your attention to the end.

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

K-On! – Anime Review

Japanese Title: K-On!

 

Similar: Sound! Euphonium

Lucky Star

Bang Dream

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Comedy Music Slice of Life

Length: 39 episodes (2 seasons), 2 specials, 1 movie

 

Positives:

  • Visually dynamic for a slice of life anime
  • Characters aren’t just moe
  • Fair number of laughs

Negatives:

  • The music is a little weak for a music show

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It is no secret that I’m not a fan of moe anime. Apart from usually looking hideous, they bank everything – character, plot, personality, effort – on the moe. The characters are insufferable, one-note, and what passes for humour is non-stop screeching. Oh god, the voices. They’re torture. So, what does a seemingly stereotypical moe anime with good characters, restraint on the screeching, and real humour look like? Meet K-On.

This anime revolves around the daily school life antics of a girls’ music club. They claim it’s a music club, but they spend more time drinking tea, eating cakes, and doing odd activities to promote the club. K-On is more a slice of life than a music anime. We have Yui the protagonist on the guitar, Mio on bass, Mugi on keyboard, and Ritsu banging the drums. A fifth joins the club later. Each girl fits one of the main archetypes of the typical “cute girls doing cute things” cast. Yui, for instance, is a clumsy airhead, which sounds clichéd. Another girl is the shy, self-conscious type yet popular with the boys. Also sounds clichéd. Their teacher is more of a child than half of her students. Sound familiar?

In fact, if I were to detail K-On in full on paper from its characters to the episodic scenarios, it would be normal for you to dismiss it as more of the same clichéd moe fare. To own a truth, though this had been on my list to watch since before my first review, I always suspected it as more of same that a hardcore fanbase overhyped to outsiders. Probably why I took so long to get to it. I was right, in a sense. K-On is more of the same, technically. However, it takes that sameness and executes it so much better than the competition that it makes me think even less of those other anime. Yes, K-On had many imitators in the years that followed, but it wasn’t an original idea either. I look at this anime and can’t pick out anything I would call different or innovative for the genre, apart from caring about more than the moe. Here we have a great example of the importance of execution over idea. I talk of this plenty in isekai reviews, where all they have going for them is that one change from other isekai, as if that alone will make for a great story. You could change nothing at the core but execute in a great way and now sentiment won’t be, “Oh, it’s just a rip-off of [other anime here].” Instead, viewers will say, “It’s like [other anime] but actually good.”

These characters are fun and the scenarios are fun, especially in season two when the series hits its stride. The humour works and has more than “it’s funny because she’s cute” as the joke. K-On is, in simple terms, fun. Who knew that having good characters with depth would make for an enjoyable experience, aye?

Huge praise must go to Kyoto Animation for applying their considerable artistic talents to the series. Nothing about K-On visually feels template. When the girls have those expected moe and anime reactions, we aren’t getting stock animation you see copied and pasted across the seasonal clones. These characters have such life and energy, such expression thanks to caring artists. Very giffable too, as I’m sure you’ve seen around the net.

One problem tangential to K-On is the ease in which it is to imitate. Imitating well is a different matter, but to create a clone (similar to how easy it is to clone Sword Art Online) takes little effort and had caused a flood on the market. If you have seen its imitators already, I can imagine them lessening your experience with K-On, for while this is better, you could feel as if you know everything about K-On before you even start. That said, should you have an inclination for the genre as an outsider, I do recommend this one. Actually, this is the only anime of the typical moe variety that I would recommend to non-core fans.

I want to be clear. You aren’t finding anything revolutionary here or the anime to change your mind on moe, but it is still a good anime regardless.

One final note – should a dub be your preference, avoid the original Animax dub. Absolutely lifeless. The Bang Zoom redub is close to the Japanese in tone and energy and a fine experience.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for “cute girls doing cute things” fans. This might appeal to those not already predisposed to the moe genre. K-On is good though still very moe.

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

Positive: 

Fluid Animation

Negative: None

Utawarerumono – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Utawarerumono

 

Related: Utawarerumono: The False Faces (sequel)

Similar: Tears to Tiara

Vision of Escaflowne

Scrapped Princess

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Drama Fantasy Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Sounds good on paper, I guess?

Negatives:

  • Lazy fantasy
  • Packed with anime clichés
  • No interesting characters
  • Final act twist

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Utawarerumono, an anime I remember most for the long title and whose review I’ve had in the bank waiting for completion since a year ago. Two? I don’t remember. Wait… Yep, file created January 2019. I am not keen to write this review because, simply, I am not keen on this anime. Frankly, it’s boring. The clichés are numerous, the fantasy is lazy, and no character grabs my attention. You know you’re in for a rough time when even the OP doesn’t have great art or animation.

This anime centres on a mysterious man found in the woods. He can’t remember his past, who he is, and he wears a mask that can’t come off. A local village of animal people take him in and call him Hakuoro, curious about his lack of a furry tail or ears. Whatever he was in the past, Hakuoro becomes a leader in this village and leads a revolution against the oppressive emperor.

The story isn’t immediately boring. I like a good revolution. The character designs scream laziness and their implementation are the first warning sign that little effort will go into anything. These villagers have animal tail and ears, yet are human in every other way, from behaviour to society. Their part-animal design is pointless. There’s also something I hate about Hakuoro’s one defining characteristic of wearing a mask all the time. Is try hard the phrase I’m looking for? I don’t know. Just lame. I can’t imagine anyone caring about the mystery of who’s under the mask.

Before long, the story shows similar flaws by dipping into every shounen cliché in the library. Honour at the risk of everyone’s lives, grandstanding, characters than can’t contribute on the battlefield because they aren’t main characters, and the skinny girl with a giant sword no one else can lift for some inexplicable reason are but a few examples. Some characters have supernatural abilities with no explanation of how or the limitations of said powers.

For an anime with significant time dedicated to battles in the uprising, the strategy isn’t clever. At all. Did any second thought go towards this? Don’t know.

On paper, this story sounds good – a man rises up to become emperor with the aid of a part-animal race, yet everything has such average execution and never goes beyond the obvious that it isn’t interesting. One leader is joyous and rearing to tell how he slaughtered the enemy one second, then becomes melancholic the next. That’s Utawarerumono’s attempt at conflict.

So bored am I with Utawarerumono that when the big act three twist reveals itself, I just sigh. The twist upends everything in the plot, which sounds like it should wake me up, but when elements prior offer no engagement, it’s hard to care. Also, I don’t like when this twist type is in the third act. Not to give too much away, though using such a twist so late tends to nullify much of the build-up and work put in by earlier acts. It benefits as a first act twist to invert the protagonist’s world and throw them into the unknown, or as the mid-point turn (if well foreshadowed) to shake things up. Using it late has an effect similar to an amnesia twist, just not as bad. Utawarerumono does make it worse by having an amnesiac protagonist. Ironically, I almost forget that detail.

I’m not sure why Utawarerumono is even on my list. I can’t remember.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: For specific fantasy anime fans only. Being a fantasy fan isn’t enough to enjoy Utawarerumono. You must also be a fan of specific anime fantasy clichés.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World Building

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic

 

Related: Magi: The Kingdom of Magic (2nd season – included in review)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

The Twelve Kingdoms

Fairy Tail

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Adventure Fantasy

Length: 50 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Arabian setting is a little different

Negatives:

  • Arabian setting is superficial
  • First year university understanding of politics and economy
  • Sleazy

(Request an anime for review here.)

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic takes the typical action adventure fantasy of anime and wraps it in an Arabian skin. Before every fantasy was isekai, they were of the swords and sorcery variety, with authors taking the formula but applying one twist to make it different. Much like the many isekai skins of today, the Arabian theme here is superficial at best.

Scattered throughout the world of Magi are towers that dominate the landscape, each containing labyrinths of danger with untold treasures at the end. It is said these are the works of djinns, magical beings that grant the power of kings to those found worthy. Aladdin is a young magician in possession of a magic flute that can summon one such djinn. He teams up with Alibaba, a street rat with the daring required to delve deep into the labyrinths, and Morgiana, a slave girl turned warrior.

I said the Arabian theme is superficial because Magi still feels very Japanese. I don’t mean this is too much of an anime – that is self-evident and expected. There is little to no Arabian culture in the series beyond the aesthetics and character names. If you re-skinned the art to a Japanese setting and changed the names, you wouldn’t know it was once Magi. Even the music has little Arabian influence. It feels as though the author saw a couple of cartoon films in this setting and then set about writing the series. When using a different setting and culture, the most appealing aspect and what should be a unique selling point is how it will stand out from its peers. Ultimately, Magi feels the same as most fantasy anime from its time.

So, what about the rest of it? How does it fare as a fantasy anime?

The characters are of mixed quality. Alibaba is decent and works as the adventurous hero, though his arc and power curve flies off the tracks in the second season (more of a story issue, however). Morgiana is decent as well in the role of tough girl, as informed by her rough backstory, but with a good heart that cares for her friends.

The worst character is Aladdin. When he isn’t the stereotypical “genki” kid, he’s groping women, something that happens every second episode. I think it’s meant to be hilarious and “cute.” “Oh look, he’s grabbing my breasts. Isn’t that adorable?” says the adult woman about a child. It’s so sleazy. Doesn’t add anything either and goes out of its way to waste cels. The one time it works is in the first episode when he motorboats a fat guy’s moobs, thinking they belong to a woman. But they open with that joke, so there’s nowhere to go.

On an action front, expect the usual anime adventure fantasy. The magic system is straightforward and forgettable, though not a hindrance to the overall experience. Going back to the flimsy Arabian inspiration issue, they could have done so much more to make the magic and monsters engaging. I can’t imagine most anime fans have seen much Arabian mythology, so this would be an easy opportunity to stand out from the crowd. Think of something like Yokai Watch, which draws on an insane amount of Japanese monster lore to create its Yokai. And that’s a show for young children. If only Magi had a tenth the effort in use of lore.

Similarly, the story also follows a typical anime adventure fantasy, not that this is inherently a negative. It’s all in the execution. Unfortunately, Magi doesn’t deliver with wit and cunning. Expect some Picard facepalm-inducing moments. I’ll mention one that made not just single facepalm, but pull out the double Picard. At some point, a character abolishes a monarchy in this world in a few minutes with promises to distribute all wealth as if that will solve everything. No, this isn’t some populist ploy to cajole the citizenry into doing what he wants. The writing presents this as a genius move. Why haven’t we done this in real life? It’s so obvious! I usually find this sort of nonsense in YA fantasy with a lowborn female protagonist (she’s secretly special, of course) that has two princes chasing after her skirt. The politics and social side of Magi is far weaker than the action side.

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic is fine, but a little too stupid to appeal beyond the core. Fullmetal Alchemist was clearly an inspiration and Magi could have learned a thing or two from it.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For action fantasy fans only. Unless you have exhausted the long list of superior fantasy anime above Magi, then give this one a miss.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Anime and Manga Reviews