Category Archives: Action

Often high in violence and fast-paced. Not necessarily gory, though can be.

Ex-Arm – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ex-Arm

 

Similar: Ghost in the Shell

Akira

Guilty Crown

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Nothing

Negatives:

  • Ugliest anime ever?
  • Incompetent script
  • The directing is terrible
  • Doesn’t even know how to use CG properly

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And so we come to the 30th review of the past 30 (+2) days. I saved the best for last. Ex-Arm is a thing of beauty, an art piece of wonder so spectacular it defies reality. Physics hold no power over Ex-Arm.

CG anime is often terrible with bad writing to match. However, the recent triumph of Beastars and Dorohedoro seemed to turn a real corner for CG in this medium. Then comes Ex-Arm to set the industry back three decades. The story behind this disaster is even worse than the resulting product itself. I don’t know where to begin with this. There are so many things wrong with the art alone that I want to say them all at once. I can’t decide which is the worst!

What about the opening scene? It actually starts with 2D animation – well, I say animation, but can you call two frames flitting back and forth as characters drag across the screen “animation”? Then they have a shot of a character surrounded by lightning as the world tears apart. The still image below is almost as animated as the video. Only the lightning moves as this guy holds the sort of pose some weeaboo would post a photo of themselves imitating on Twitter with the caption, “Cross me and the devil comes out to play,” serious about it. They are so proud of this shot. Expect to see it several dozen times across the 12 episodes. Snap cut to the opening sequence.

Now, anime openings are known for being of high quality, sometimes even deceptive of the anime’s actual quality. I think Ex-Arm’s OP may be worse than the series. The highlights are character profile shots of the typical OP, but they have no animation. A rotating 3D model of the characters shows up instead. Boy, are they proud of those models. They want you to see them in all their glory to get you excited for what is to come. That’s what an OP is for, right? We also bear witness to the fire effects, which look pasted in by a fan edit.

Once the OP ends, we establish the setting at a Japanese high school and at this point, I think they must be trolling us. They do something I never thought someone would even consider. I want you to imagine what a camera zoom looks like. The camera starts at a distance and zooms in on the subject, bringing the detail closer to the eye. Sounds accurate. What it doesn’t do is blow up the image. Ex-Arm though, in its avant-garde genius, does blow up the image as if zooming in Photoshop, to the point where you can see the pixilation. Funniest moment of the entire series! Don’t believe me? Look at the image below and keep in mind it is full HD 1080p.

The comedy doesn’t end there. Classroom interior, protagonist sitting bored at his desk in glorious CG. Enter two classmates – in 2D! I couldn’t stop laughing. Ex-Arm can’t even remain visually consistent. This isn’t the only instance either. Flat characters pop up at random throughout the series and the protagonist’s brother is 2D as well, for some reason that I’m sure is beyond the understanding of my puny brain. (The classmates stop animating halfway in the scene, by the way.)

We’re less than three minutes in and every artistic decision is the wrong one. Soon after, the first action scene enters the fray and removes any hope of value in Ex-Arm. When the police android kicks a guy in the head, it has the impact of a pillow fight. There is no recoil, no weight, no mass to anything, most noticeably in action scenes, and the woman doesn’t move that fast (I’m sure she’s meant to), yet dodges a thousand bullets out in the open. The director claims they used motion capture for Ex-Arm, but I don’t believe it. No way. This cannot be motion-captured animation. Perhaps it was, before the incompetent animators “improved” it in post.

Imagine being the poor bastard who wrote the source material seeing this result. Only something like Redo of Healer would be improved by such visuals.

Who made this atrocity, you might be wondering. This Crunchyroll original comes from new studio Visual Flight, made up of what seems like a team with little animation experience. Most come from the live action space. The director, Yoshikatsu Kimura, equated the logic that because live action is done in the real world – a 3D space – he is fit for a 3D anime. Furthermore, he brought on his usual crew from live action work, not experienced anime workers. I promise you they have never heard of animation ramping. Yes, the production committee is responsible for hiring him, but this clown made every wrong decision from start to finish. Can you believe this anime’s trailer has the line, “Declaring war against all SF (science fiction) series around the world!”?

You’d think that with a live action director, it would at least have good cinematography and directing. Perhaps it looks terrible in CG, but you can imagine how it would have looked great if done in live action. Nope, it would still be miserable. Interviews with him tell all you need to know about how doomed Ex-Arm was before it started.

They couldn’t even get the key visuals right. Look at this crap below, also used as the static ED:

I haven’t even covered the story yet. It follows high school student Akira, who meets with Truck-kun one day and wakes up years later as a brain inside an electronic briefcase. Inhabiting an android proxy, he fights against terrorists alongside a special police force.

The story sucks. It’s not as bad as the visuals, though it doesn’t elevate the piece an iota. The script is the worst aspect in terms of story, riddled with cliché – particularly of the fan service variety – and like the animation, has no weight. Just vapid. There are much worse anime stories out there, yet it has no positives. On an audio front, some of these voice actors are far too good for this, while others, such as the villains, deliver bad performances though it may not be their fault on such a project. Wait until you see the accompanying mouth animations.

I am baffled at Ex-Arm’s existence. Self-awareness seemed to have flown out the window in the making of this disaster.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Must be seen to be believed. Ex-Arm’s handling of CG is so incompetent that words cannot do it justice.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Atrocious PlotAwful DialogueHorrendous ActionRubbish Major CharactersUgly Artistic DesignUseless Side Cast

Jujutsu Kaisen – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Jujutsu Kaisen

 

Similar: Naruto

Bleach

Demon Slayer

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Supernatural Action

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Slick animation for great action
  • Grotesque enemies
  • Interesting powers

Negatives:

  • Serious power creep
  • Main characters lack mystery and story

(Request an anime for review here.)

As the penultimate review of the 30 Reviews in 30 Days challenge, this one for Jujutsu Kaisen is two days late, as I needed more time than I thought to ruminate on it. I can’t quite decide how good I think this is. Let’s lay out the good and the bad and see where we get.

Jujutsu Kaisen is the latest big thing in the battle shounen space, having made waves with slick animation from the studio behind the goodness of Dororo and Yuri on Ice. It follows Yuji, a high school student turned “Jujutsu sorcerer” after he eats the finger of a cursed being, granting him extraordinary power. This power does come at the cost of having the finger’s owner, Sukuna, taking residence inside him and threatening to take control at any moment. He now studies at the Tokyo Jujutsu High School to hunt for the rest of the cursed fingers and so the teachers can keep an eye on him. He teams up with the stoic Fushiguro and brash Nobara under the tutelage of Satoru Gojo.

I want to start with the good points since they caught my attention initially. First, the animation. Fantastic! What ever happened to the good old days of battle anime having the most static animation in the industry? The best of times! All kidding aside about nostalgia blindness, Jujutsu Kaisen has excellent action animation. More than fluid, the choreography draws in the viewer and shows attention to the camera work as well. On top of this, the abilities have visual variety. A signature move of Jujutsu sorcerers is the Domain Expansion, allowing them to envelop the nearby area in an environment to enhance their power. Think of it as a home turf advantage. The look of this domain will vary by character and match their personality or power type. For example, a villain who fights with lava powers and has a volcano for a head will transform the environment in a lava hell. The variety in techniques changes up the setting on a regular basis. A concern with an ordinary modern Tokyo setting for a supernatural action series is a lack of interesting settings in which to stage fights. Domain Expansion nicely solves this.

There are plenty of other great abilities too. One guy claps and swaps positions with the target, another creates dogs from the shadows, and a girl harms enemies by hammering nails into straw dolls. An old geezer even fights with an electric guitar that generates energy!

If action is your priority in battle anime, then Jiujutsu Kaisen has you covered. It would be tough to decide what would go into a “best of” highlight reel since there is so much good-looking action.

The next great element is the grotesqueness of the villains and certain abilities. Jujutsu Kaisen isn’t a horror anime, but it feature plenty of body horror. When Sukuna awakens, an extra pair of eye open on Yuji’s cheekbones and a second mouth grows on his cheek. Disgusting. And fantastic. One villain has a row of arms inside his mouth. Another grows a plant that shoots buds of biting teeth. Just about every enemy is disgusting is some way and it works! You won’t forget these freaks anytime soon.

The third notable positive is how this anime distinguishes itself from its inspirator, Naruto. The similarities are obvious – protagonist has demon inside of him that grants great power but also takes over on occasion; second main guy is from a special clan bloodline with a unique technique; the girl of the trio is the strong aggressive type; the teacher has magic eyes he keeps covered except in combat (his Domain is akin to the Sharingan’s Tsukuyomi illusion) and is goofy during downtime. That’s just a few of the similarities. However, it sounds a lot more similar on paper than in practice, as this brings more than enough of its own spin on the common elements to feel fresh. My Hero Academia, another Naruto inspired battle shounen, often just feels like Naruto in a superhero skin. With Ninjutsu Kaisen, I don’t find myself thinking, “This is just like Naruto.” Instead, I think, “Reminds me of Naruto, but I like how they did that differently.”

Now we get into the negatives.

While I said the action is great, this is more so in the moment (much owed to the animation). When you step back and look at the fights in terms of story and arcs, the quality wanes in large part to the odd power creep. There is a hint of this problem from the very first episode, before Yuji eats the finger. He already has immense strength and speed for a human. Then he grows stronger in the middle of fights after nothing more than a pep talk or a “I just need to be stronger” thought. Eh? The power curve also ramps at a random rate with little explanation behind the progression. Some characters are so powerful that they could seemingly deal with all villains alone. Spinjutsu Kaisen also does that thing where it tells you someone is a mega genius, yet has nothing to show for it, or some guy can pull of some feat so miraculous it would render all challenge meaningless if used at the start of the fight.

The second season focuses a new set of students from the sister school in Kyoto and they have a show match with the Tokyo kids, like a mini, mini Chunin exam. This is the perfect opportunity to develop characters and give a sense of power progression. Think of Naruto season one when Kakashi uses a few Sharingan techniques. This makes you wonder what else can it do and when will Sasuke learn those moves. Give us a taste of future power. Or it’s like the opening of any Metroid game, where you start with a full arsenal of equipment only to have an incident break your gear at the end of the first area. Now you have something to look forward to without being overpowered right away. Doesn’t reveal all the upcoming power though; that’s for you to discover as you progress.

In Jujutsu Kaisen, a teacher demonstrates the technique and then the character of focus learns it or develops some other power to deal with the situation too quickly. It feels as if the action writing goes, “What power would make this fight look awesome?” and then just puts it in with little thought to how he gains/masters this power. Flashy fights will only hold my interest for so long.

The sister school leads me into the other significant failing – the main characters. They simply aren’t interesting (yet?). The power creep disconnects you from them on an action level, while the personalities and backstories disconnect on a personal level. Yuji’s motivation is the death of his grandfather, who passed away peacefully but alone. He wants to avoid the same sad end. This leads him to value his friends and protect them at all costs, just like any shounen protagonist. There isn’t much beyond that.

Main characters need mystery and sub plots. Sasuke’s backstory with the Uchiha Clan or Killua’s story in HxH, are some examples. Even Bleach, when it was good for a couple of seasons, had Rukia’s relationship with Byakuya. Why is her brother of all people so adamant on imprisoning her? Fushiguro has a hint of story (in the vein of Sasuke’s), but why do they introduce it so late? As for Nobara, she doesn’t have anything. I’m sure her story will enter later – it would be madness otherwise – but you have to give something on main characters early to make the audience care. Doesn’t have to be the full saga. In fact, it’s better to hold answers back for later. Still, the more important the character, the more impactful their hook should be. It can be the little things, doled out over time. Let’s stick to the Kakashi example. He’s an important character, though not a main. How does he have the Sharingan when he isn’t of the correct bloodline? Why does he teach the kids that protecting teammates is more important than anything else, which goes against the ninja code? What is under his mask!?

On the other hand, the minor characters from the other school are far more interesting. Granted, they don’t have the pressure to grip the audience like main characters do, but I’d rather see them over the main students. Todo, a wrestler-looking dude and Itadori’s self-proclaimed best friend, is hilarious with his eccentric personality and way of judging others based on their answer to the question, “What’s kind of girls do you like?” and he has a simple though effective backstory as a delinquent too strong for his own good. And that’s just one of them.

I want to be clear that none of the characters are bad. None make me clutch my temples in frustration at yet another moronic decision. The main ones simply aren’t compelling enough to carry the series.

I know more of this review went to negatives over positives, but my overall experience with Jujutsu Kaisen is positive, on reflection. I didn’t mention the great music and quality acting either. It’s simply that I value story and characters above all and when those are your weakest elements – made more disappointing amid high production values – I become concerned. And yet, no problem is unfixable in future seasons.

My concerns going forward are the lack of mystery, in both story and main characters, and power creep with everyone already so powerful. I want to keep watching Blingjutsu Kaisen, but I do not want a Bleach situation where it’s one fight after the other and Domain Expansions go down the route of Bankai – “Oh look, the new ability is an even bigger Bankai. How exciting…” Don’t disappoint me.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch for battle anime fans. The core demographic will almost certainly love Jujutsu Kaisen, while others may find that a lack of mystery dampens long-term engagement.

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

Positive: 

Fluid AnimationGreat OP or ED Sequence

Negative: None

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

(Request an anime for review here.)

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

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

(Request an anime for review here.)

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