Category Archives: Anime Reviews

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.

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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.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

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.

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

Positive:

Strong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

Kuroko’s Basketball – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kuroko no Basket

 

Related: Kuroko’s Basketball Seasons 2 & 3 (included in review)

Similar: Haikyuu!!

Slam Dunk

Free! Iwatobi Swim Club

Prince of Tennis

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Sports

Length: 75 episodes (3 seasons), 5 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Good animation.
  • Starts well.

Negatives:

  • Can’t choose a protagonist.
  • Superpowers cheapen the matches.
  • No surprises.
  • Worse with each season.
  • Too much spectator commentary.

(Request an anime for review here.)

The hype was real for me going into Kuroko’s Basketball after the comparisons drawn to Haikyuu. Yet even with tempered expectations, this anime disappointed me. It started well…

A middle school team of basketball players once known as the “Generation of Miracles” have since gone to separate high school teams. When people talk of the team, they only mention five players, having not noticed the ‘phantom’ sixth player, Kuroko, on the court (just go with it). He gains renewed energy when Kagami, a player with great potential, joins his high school. They work together to reach the top of Japan’s inter-high championships, even if that means defeating Kuroko’s former teammates of Miracles.

At first, I thought all was well with Kuroko’s Basketball. We meet the characters in fine fashion, backstory doesn’t bog the start, the coach is funny, the first serious match is good, and the animation does the sport justice. I like the running gag of Kuroko being so inconspicuous that people often forget he’s there, similar to Hinata. The anime does stretch the plausibility of this in matches though. Even spectators act as if Kuroko was wearing an invisibility cloak this whole time. It’s a tad silly, but not a big deal. The problem lies in the writer’s inability to stop the power creep.

It starts with Kuroko’s invisibility, then onto a guy that never misses, and even to the best player being someone that never practices. Tell that to any basketball pro and they’ll laugh their arses off. One match has the entire opposing team blatantly cheat throughout to no consequences. If you’re going to have them cheat, at least make it clever so we can believe they wouldn’t be disqualified, never mind arrested. More brains needed. It fails at being cool by going beyond the realm of implausibility. And it creeps worse with each season.

By the end, one guy can make you drop the ball just by looking at you. I do not jest. He looks at a player and they lay a brick right there on court. The mysticism element in the techniques lessens their impressiveness because rather than make success come for hard work and strategy, magic hands over victory. It isn’t impressive when Superman bulldozes human linebackers to score a touchdown. A touch of the supernatural would have been fine, but here, just when I think it cannot get sillier, Kuroko’s Basketball proves me wrong.

This supernatural approach to basketball could have excelled if it didn’t take itself so seriously. When a player runs from mid-court to block the basket faster than the speed of a pass, no one questions it. At no point does anyone laugh at the ludicrous techniques on display. It feels as though the writer is desperate to legitimise his lazy approach to conveying basketball in fiction. A sprinkling of Food Wars would work wonders here.

Seasons 2 and 3 are nothing but a string of tournament matches against various teams starring one Miracle player each. Hints at good external drama from season 1 fall to the wayside. This can be engaging if the Miracle players have dimension. They don’t. Like their powers, these shounen stuffers have the ‘one trait’ that defines them, without layers to make them memorable. I can’t recall any of their names. I remember them by their colour on the rainbow. Character depth tries to step on court towards the end of each match to mediocre results, which often amounts to a complete 180 in personality. Kuroko’s Basketball has this constant sense of needing to get the next game started immediately, lest the audience lose focus on trite things like “characters” and “story.”

Kuroko’s Basketball is in such a rush that it forgets Kuroko. Oh the irony. Several-episode stretches have him as the least important character, as the next player on the rainbow takes all focus. Even Kagami becomes a shadow for too long. The airtime balance in season 3 is atrocious.

To conclude on a positive note, I must commend Kuroko’s Basketball for giving attention to the pressure that comes with being the best. Most anime, whether sports or battle, will show the strongest characters as never letting the pressure get to them, when in reality, being the best comes with a new set of pressures to which lower players cannot relate. I love this inclusion – could have been the main conflict.

Art – High

Good animation brings the games to life. The colour-coded characters are a matter of preference to the individual.

Sound – Medium

The acing is fine, but the script has issues timing player thoughts and spectator commentary. I appreciate the effort of giving a giant Senegalese player an accent – shame they made no effort with the “American” girl.

Story – Low

A mythical player from a basketball team once known as the “Generation of Miracles” takes on his former, and equally mythical, teammates in their new teams one by one. Kuroko’s Basketball amounts to a string of matches with predictable outcomes as it gives too much attention to side characters over the protagonist.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For shounen sports fans only. Kuroko’s Basketball is as generic as you can imagine for a sports anime in terms of its structure and story. The characters stepped out of every battle anime with a cast of one-note ‘specialists.’ If you love the genre, this will be your dream. Fans of real life basketball will find it hard to stomach the bad strategies and implausibility.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Shallow

Natsume’s Book of Friends – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Natsume Yujincho

 

Related: Natsume’s Book of Friends Season 5 (starts October 2016)

Similar: Mushishi

xxxHOLiC

Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light

Cardcaptors

My Neighbor Totoro

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Supernatural Slice of Life

Length: 52 episodes (4 seasons), 2 OVA

 

Positives:

  • More substance than most slice of life.
  • The cat sidekick.
  • Good-natured feel.

Negatives:

  • Becomes invariable after a while.

(Request an anime for review here.)

I kept putting this review off in the hopes I would find more within Natsume’s Book of Friends. “I’ll get to it next review. No, the one after,” I kept telling myself for three months. This time, I have to finish it. I wanted to find what it is that the fans love so dearly about this anime. I found the quality they love, but not why they love it this much.

Think of Natsume’s Book of Friends as a reverse Cardcaptor Sakura. Instead of capturing spirits like Sakura, Natsume works to release all spirits bound to the magical book he inherited from his grandmother. Until he does so, the spirits will follow him everywhere. Alongside him is a cat that claims to be an almighty spirit, yet why does he fall for every cat trap in the book? Tsk, tsk. More competent is the Okami-like wolf companion (voiced by Kakashi), who can transform into a tough high school girl.

The difficulty I have with Book of Friends is its laid back, easy-going nature. It’s too easy going, too laid back. It follows a ‘spirit of the week’ structure that feels repetitive before the first season is over. Each episode, a spirit follows Natsume, we flashback to when the grandmother bested them, they show a tragic backstory, and he gives the spirit peace. I have enjoyed many ‘of the week’ shows before, so why the difficulty here? The tone never changes. The episodic stories are always light, even when they should have intensity. Some stories are touching, yes – they’re dead, after all – but it feels so tame, so catered for children, as though afraid to cause heartache. Have light-hearted as the primary tone by all means, but some variance would keep the stupor at bay.

The best change would be to have fewer spirits, yet give each more time to develop – make some nastier, give proper arcs that twist left and right. Surprise me!

The spirit design and lore could also use work. Ninety percent of the spirits look like throwaway enemies from a generic JRPG or monster collect game. When looking at Doctor Who and all the creative monsters it comes up with (and the variance in tone), I expect more from Book of Friends in a medium that doesn’t have the limitations of live action. Now, if you’ve never seen these designs before, like the target audience, it won’t be much of a problem.

When not helping spirits, Natsume’s life consists of covering up the strange things that happen around him, inexplicable to all but himself. The overarching plot sees Natsume progress through the stages of school, which I like; however, this is far in the background. The episodic spirits take most attention.

Having light-hearted anime on occasion is a good thing – anime of any type can be a good thing – as long as it’s good. I don’t want to turn Natsume’s Book of Friends into a different anime. I want it to be a more interesting version of itself.

Art – Medium

Average if nice art that could use more animation and greater creature creativity. None of the creature’s surprised me in their design. With possibilities boundless, it’s disappointing they stuck to an unvarying design folio.

Sound – High

Good acting, especially the cat’s old man voice. I love the folk ED song from season one – listened to it every time. The music in general is nice.

Story – Medium

A boy releases the spirits from his ‘Book of Friends’ one by one so that they will leave him alone for once. A pleasant show about ‘reverse’ monster hunting each episode, but it plateaus quickly.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Those looking for an easy-going supernatural anime to watch one episode at a time will find pleasure in Natsume’s Book of Friends.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Nana – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Nana

 

Similar: Paradise Kiss

Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad

Kids on the Slope

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Music Comedy Drama Romance

Length: 47 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Instantly likeable characters, flaws and all.
  • Balance of comedy and drama.
  • Punishes mistakes.

Negatives:

  • Poor structuring at times interferes with the flow.
  • Doesn’t do the music element as strong as other music-centric anime.
  • The end.

(Request an anime for review here.)

A train delayed by snow brings two women called Nana together. One Nana has no goals in life other than to be independent, hopefully breaking away from her incessant need to fall in love with every guy she meets. The other Nana, fiercely independent, seeks stardom as a punk rock vocalist while burying the hurt she feels from her ex-boyfriend, who abandoned her for another band. Love is far from her mind.

To make things simpler, I will refer to one Nana as Hachiko (her nickname given in the show) and the other as Punk Nana. As always, the anime’s name is in italics – Nana.

These women present themselves as likeable characters right away, conveying their personalities in an authentic manner on the train. Hachiko’s bubbliness spills forth as she gives Punk Nana an earful on her amazing current boyfriend. Meanwhile, Punk Nana’s reserved nature and maturity billows off her like the smoke from her cigarette. The two may be opposites but she can’t help smiling at the endearing Hachiko. The first encounter between these two girls is a masterclass in giving the audience a feel for the characters in minutes.

After the opening episode, we go back several years with Hachiko to her high school life of moving from one love to the next (Punk Nana receives similar flashback treatment later). Hachiko keeps falling for one guy after another, each older than her. She gives new meaning to falling in love at first sight. Guy delivers pizza – she’s in love. Guy cooks at the restaurant – it must be love. Guy breathes – love! Get a grip, Hachiko! None of these men return her attention except for a married man a decade her senior. Like the introductions, this is another case of excellent writing, for it establishes her flaw and its resulting conflict without a drawn out explanation.

Hachiko is a stupid girl, a girl that claims independence, but is entirely dependent on others, has no skills and no direction in life. She sounds like a terrible character, so why do I like her? She is authentic and the story doesn’t let her get away with anything. Her hypocrisy about independence leads to the negative turn after act 1. Her stupidity results in…well, to avoid spoilers, let’s just say I hope none of you, dear readers, makes the same mistakes she does. Her romantic view of life and love is punched in the ovaries by reality and maturity. A craving for love or rather, what she thinks is love leads her down a path of mistakes – to put it mildly. And as any great writer will tell you, the theme for your ultimate conflict works best when you start it early, giving the conflict time to resonate throughout the story until it builds from a ripple into a tidal wave that crashes over the protagonist.

Ever wonder why a story that suddenly goes dark in the finale never feels right, even if you can’t quite put your finger on the reason? It’s because it lacks that resonance. The story didn’t foreshadow properly, obfuscating its goal for the sake of shock value. Nana doesn’t make that error. Now, it never becomes dark like those other anime, but my point is that its heavy drama never comes out of nowhere, even when it barges into what we thought was a comedy episode. When a dramatic change occurs, it feels right because Nana never lied to us. It makes sense.

The relationship pacing for both Nanas and their respective boyfriends recalls His & Her Circumstances (don’t remind me of that ending! T_T) in how well they move forward, free of artificial stalling. The story does slow when needed through effective use of internal monologue in contemplative moments, which unlike Honey and Clover doesn’t tell us how the characters feel.

Due to the strong writing and fast pace, I couldn’t stop going from one episode to the next, watching 20 in my first sitting – even the terrible idea to repeat episode 1 as episode 6 didn’t stop me. However, the second act seems to double the cast overnight and both old- and new-comers must have their dedicated arcs. Like the author’s other famous work, Paradise Kiss, this doesn’t work. Side characters are side characters for a reason. You can’t make everyone lead singer. This is especially noticeable in the third act, where seemingly everyone must wrap their respective arcs before the Nanas can take their bows. The finale feels like having to shake everyone’s hand at the end of a wedding rather than riding off to the honeymoon. Between the flashbacks, repeats, and tangents, I could make a case to remove near 10 episodes’ worth of content from the total. The worst part? A random time-skip in the final episode raises several new questions with the Nanas and gives no answers. The manga is on permanent hiatus, I understand, but one has to choose such a weak end by design.

The end is similar in unconventionality to Paradise Kiss, which I liked in that anime, but Nana doesn’t guide us to that end with the thoroughness it requires. Relegating protagonists to the sidelines before the finale is not a good idea.

My other serious complaint would be with the music side of the story. After Beck, Nodame Cantabile, and Your Lie in April had such strong understanding of music and the industry, it’s a shame to see Nana offer so little. The bands don’t have many songs, there are no standout musical performances (the aforementioned three feel like nothing but standout performances at times), the concerts lack animation, and the industry insight only meets minimum requirements for fiction. The best music is in the opening and ending credits, not within the story. The sole detail of the music plot that stood out to me was its exploration of one’s fame affecting friends and family around you. I like how some react with joy, others with jealousy.

Ultimately, the characters carry Nana, especially with many being such engaging train wrecks. You can learn many lessons on what not to do in life here, which is where great drama originates.

Art – Medium

The characters have a distinct style and their animations are expressive, but that’s really it. Everything else from environments to animation is average.

Sound – High

I listened to the OP and ED most episodes. Sadly, music within the story is nowhere near the level achieved by other music anime. The voice work is great in Japanese and English, though I preferred the latter for giving Punk Nana a raspier voice.

Story – High

A fateful encounter brings two women with the same name yet opposing personalities together as they deal with love and life in Tokyo. Nana’s strong characters, complemented by punishing drama, make this anime an engaging ride despite some excess fat in the structure.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for fans of intense drama meets comedy. Though Nana is a great anime, its crazy drama and ditzy protagonist may make your head spin before you reach the end of its long runtime.

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

Positive:

Strong Lead Characters

Negative:

Weak End