Category Archives: Action

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

Vision of Escaflowne – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Tenkuu no Escaflowne

 

Related: Escaflowne the Movie (alternative version of series)

Similar: Avatar – The Last Airbender

Gundam SEED

The Twelve Kingdoms

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure Romance

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Van, the [actual] protagonist, is a strong character with his head on straight.
  • The world has a great blend of magical technology and medieval roots.
  • Surprisingly deep with its character webs and backstories. Cat-women with literal luck flowing through their veins are a cool idea.
  • The mech duels have a sense of weight and power behind them.
  • A soundtrack that inspires epicness.

Negatives:

  • Hitomi, the [supposed] protagonist, doesn’t do enough considering her position in the series.
  • Certain aspects of the animation shows their age.
  • English dub sounds awkward during moments without music or effects.

When Hitomi is practicing sprint at high school one evening, a beam of light opens a portal, summoning a young warrior and a dragon on to the track. The warrior, Van, slays the dragon and teleports back to his planet of Gaea, accidentally taking Hitomi with him. Having slain a dragon, Van ascends to the throne of his kingdom, but alas, the Zaibach Empire obliterates Fanelia. They seek Van’s unique mech, Escaflowne, powered by the heart of a dragon. His country in ruins, Van must flee, bringing Hitomi with him and hopes to rebuild upon his return with allies.

Vision of Escaflowne was the first series to show me that the anime had a high level of sophistication with fantasy. Until I saw this, it was nothing but superpowers, sci-fi, or high school settings when in the real world. The universe of Escaflowne is fully realised with more depth than necessary, which is exactly what every good fantasy has – detail and more detail. We see several kingdoms of different cultures, each based on the major empires of our medieval time, fictional races such as Beastmen, and magical technology that fits in the world. The standout in lore for me is the mecha (referred to as Guymelef) with their Da-Vinci-like inner workings. They are extensions of the warrior, each movement tracked one-for-one by an exoskeleton of gears and cables. Every movement, every swing of a giant sword has weight behind it, selling the size and power behind these machines.

On their adventure, they meet a wide array of characters, most notable of which is Allen, a charming knight from the neighbouring kingdom of Asturia. Hitomi swoons at the sight of him. He may look like a ponce, but he’s a good character. He breaks the mould of his archetype by understanding that there is nothing honourable in fighting a losing battle, just stupidity. Similarly, the main villain hounding Van and crew, Dilandau, fits into the young and bloodthirsty psycho category, but his emotional dependence on the subordinates he abuses brings an extra layer to his character.

Most impressive of all though is Van. I like his indifference to Hitomi at first. A girl doesn’t instantly distract him when he has responsibilities as king. It shows a maturity uncommon in young adult anime. Hitomi has several instantaneous crushes throughout the series, which also make sense, as the greatest dilemma she has faced so far in life is getting her first kiss. Van’s care for her, at first, doesn’t extend further than owing her for warning him of danger with her power to see the future. While Van is impetuous and inexperienced as king, he has no delusions about what it means to be king and knows his responsibilities to Fanelia. It’s good to see the writer didn’t make him a high school kid that we are somehow supposed to accept is king. He is competent; I like competent characters.

Hitomi is a bit of a let-down, sadly. Her power of precognition and the fact that she operates outside of the destiny machine used by the Zaibach emperor to control the tide of battle is crucial to the plot and Van’s quest, but she doesn’t do much beyond that. She spends much of her time as an onlooker to the battles. And for the love of magic, are you seriously going to stay in a school uniform for such a dangerous journey?

Vision of Escaflowne is very much a character story with its relationship dramas, flawed personalities and tenuous alliances. Van and Hitomi must contend with fate in a war-torn world littered by death.

Art – High

The art is good, despite age, though not on the level of Trigun or Cowboy Bebop. Fight animations look great (love the PoV shots from within the cockpit) with weight behind the attacks, but smaller details, like mouth movements, are comparatively poor. Why does everyone have a nose that could spear a rhino?

Sound – High

Excellent soundtrack of chants and choir with the occasional light string or flute pieces. The dub is awkward during several moments without music. You can “hear” the dubbing; the voices seem to come from forefront of the screen, not the characters. It’s alright, but the Japanese spatial audio is better. Also, in Japanese you get Tomokazu Seki (Sagara in Full Metal Panic, Brandon in Gungrave) as Van, one of the best in the business.

Story – High

Van’s struggles to reclaim his kingdom with a group of allies by his side make for an engaging war story infused with fantasy. Hitomi could have stood around a little less as the protagonist.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: An easy anime to recommend. Vision of Escaflowne is a classic of anime that mixes action and romance in a world of magic technology and mysticism bound to the machine of fate.

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

Positive: 

Great Music

Negative: None.

Trigun – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Trigun

 

Related: Trigun: Badlands Rumble (movie side story, included in the review)

Similar: Cowboy Bebop

Black Lagoon

Trinity Blood

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Comedy Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes & a movie

 

Positives:

  • Hilarious for a good portion of the series.
  • Art that holds up well, despite the age. (1998!)
  • The episodic arcs have believable characters with interesting stories to tell.
  • A savage, lawless world.

Negatives:

  • Consequences of pacifism ideology don’t go far enough.
  • Narrative wimps out at the end for convenience when on the brink.
  • Lack of humour in the last third makes for a deceptive setup.

It feels like only yesterday I watched Trigun, laughing with a friend at Vash’s hysterics all those years ago. One of the first anime I watched, actually. Even back then, Trigun was considered old. Trigun comes from an era that dropped the hippie hairstyles and knew audiences could handle adult themes in a medium saturated with ‘he’s-not-really-dead’ narratives. Ironic, considering the pacifist theme in Trigun.

Vash the Stampede is the man with a sixty-billion dollar bounty on his needly-haired head, for everywhere he goes, nothing but destruction follows. He’s said to be a womaniser and the worst man ever. In reality, he’s a coward and a pacifist who feels queasy at the sight of blood. The destruction is a result of bounty hunters doing whatever it takes to claim the prize. So really, he does leave cities in rubble wherever he goes, just not by his own hand. Tailing him are Meryl and Milly, two insurance agents investigating monetary claims for damages caused by Vash. Meryl, serious about damage control, acts as a foil to Vash’s idiocy, whereas Milly provides extra muscle with the minigun she keeps stashed under her coat.

Vash’s policy is one of non-violence where possible and absolutely no killing, even to the point of stupidity. He gets by on skill and plenty of luck. With only rumours to go on, bounty hunters often miss Vash as he cowers behind the bar. Vash is so pathetic in person that no one believes he’s the human typhoon when they meet him, making for easy escapes.

For the first third of Trigun, Vash switches between charm and absolute silliness where comedy takes most of the screen time. Come the middle, we see a serious side to Vash, as bounty hunters get more dangerous and his past catches up to him. By the final third, humour has all but evaporated along with Vash’s lighter side. He still clings to his idealistic views, but has little to joke about. My problem is with the third section. Starting Trigun, one gets the impression of a hilarious action-comedy with a hint of seriousness; however, the later it goes, the drearier it gets. Blind turns in storytelling are great as long as what’s around the corner is awesome. In Trigun’s case, not so much. The narrative builds, showing the consequences of his naïve pacifism, and builds further towards Vash confronting his past, facing his choices. Until the final episode, Trigun is pulling back for that knockout out punch, but when it comes to delivery, it’s no more than a flick to the nose, Vash let off easy for convenience. No sacrifice made. No lesson learned.

That is not to say Trigun is bad, but it does suffer a lot because of an unwillingness to push a character over the edge. It makes me wish they had kept the comedy for longer since the seriousness delivered a let-down. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed Trigun’s world of bounty hunters, gunfights, and shady business.

Trigun: Badlands Rumble

Badlands Rumble is a non-canon movie, akin to an extended episode. It follows notorious robber Gasback on a mission of revenge against his former crew for stabbing him in the back. Hundreds of bounty hunters gather in Macca City, Gasback’s next target to claim the three-hundred million reward. Vash is caught up in the affair, as always, and so are the regulars from Trigun.

Both visual and audio quality show great improvement, which is to be expected twelve years later. Even though Trigun still looks great, seeing it updated in Badlands Rumble makes a great case for remaking all art and sound in the original. As far as story goes, this won’t appeal to those who aren’t already Trigun fans. It still has the weak pacifism that castrates any lasting consequences throughout the movie.

Art – High

While the visuals look their age, they hold up because the artists put effort into the animation and Wild West style of Trigun. The remastered edition touches it up a little. Badlands Rumble shows the excellent visuals if remade.

Sound – High

Voice work is good in both languages; however, some lines in English are rushed to fit the lip flaps. A soundtrack of rock and electric guitar riffs for the action and sax solos when it relaxes. Sound effects are underwhelming, especially given the amount of gunfire. Ending theme sounds awful, like a Walkman running out of batteries or a drunkard drowning in the city fountain.

Story – High

Vash as a character is interesting, bolstered by a robust, even if at times underdeveloped, side cast. His journey fleeing from his past and his power is a mix of humorous and emotional elements. Shame the author didn’t push reality far enough.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Highly recommended to those who like emotion layered on top of action-comedy. Trigun starts hilarious before it transitions into seriousness as Vash faces the consequences of his choices, which, outside of a few stumbles, is well worth your time.

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

Positive:

Charm

Negative: 

Weak End

Baccano! – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Baccano!

 

Related: Durarara!! (Character crossover & same creator)

Similar: Gungrave

Fullmetal Alchemist

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Historical Supernatural Action Comedy Mystery

Length: 16 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Phenomenal English voice track with a plethora of accents.
  • An intriguing mystery woven around the supernatural.
  • A varied cast – Isaac and Miria are hilarious.
  • Well-defined period setting reminiscent of gangster films and a gory version of Murder on the Orient Express.
  • Add the jazz music, and Baccano has a great atmosphere.

Negatives:

  • The narrative structure causes confusion at several points.
  • Long shots lose more detail than they should on characters.

Baccano opens with a historian and his apprentice discussing an event centred on the Flying Pussyfoot, a US continental express train that left a bloody trail in its wake. They can’t decide on where to start or even who should be the main character in their chronicle, and for good reason, as Baccano’s nonlinear narrative jumps all over the place between perspectives and times. Add in a large cast and you can understand the difficulty in deciding how to approach the story.

Baccano takes place primarily in three locations: 1930s Chicago with tensions rising between mafia groups, New York where an alchemist looks to create the elixir of immortality, and in between the two is the Flying Pussyfoot, acting as a nexus for the many plot threads including the legend of the ‘Rail-Tracer,’ a monster said to target train passengers. Baccano’s twist on the mafia genre is the inclusion of immortals, humans who can regenerate from any damage, every drop of spilt blood vacuuming back into their body after death – to disgustingly great visual effect, I might add. This is a tale of alchemy, psychopaths, gangs, thievery and loyalty.

My favourite characters were Isaac and Miria, a thieving duo with the craziest ideas for heists. “We will steal from Earth itself by digging and taking the gold we find without asking.” Genius! They make for a hilarious couple and bring much of the humour to an otherwise dark tale. Their leaps of logic are stupid as hell and oh so funny, yet somehow unexpectedly brilliant.

It would take the whole review to list all characters and tell of their stakes in the narrative. Rest assured that each character is different, bringing their own complexities and personality to the conflict. You never know who will ally with whom, who is evil. Everyone is interconnected and it’s a thrill to see how all the threads tie together in the end.

I love seeing stories told in unusual ways, such as Memento, presented in reverse and a favourite of mine. Unfortunately, Baccano went too far with its nonlinear technique. Often, I wasn’t sure how a current scene had anything to do with the plot until it caught up to another thread. The first few episodes are the same section of time told from different perspectives; however, there is nothing at the start of the new scene to indicate the plot has jumped backwards a short way. Most films that use this repeated-from-another-perspective technique have each jump start with a common event, an explosion, for example, to tell the audience we have rewound.

Despite this attention deficit storytelling, Baccano is an anime well worth watching. Just pay attention to the scene jumps so that you don’t lose yourself, and I recommend watching Baccano twice to uncover all it has to offer. I enjoyed it even more the second time around.

Art – High

Good costume and setting design inspired by gangster period pieces. Nicely detailed backgrounds, but characters lose too much detail at a distance. Suitably gory.

Sound – Very High

One of the best English voice tracks in anime. Great to finally hear a variety of accents. Definitely recommend in English. The jazz music is great too, reminiscent of the era. Intro theme is perfect, giving a sense of the fun and craziness in the show. The accompanying visuals help to remind you of the characters as well. The most notable issue with sound isn’t even a problem; the ending theme is nice, but it doesn’t match the rest of the soundtrack with its piano ballad – reminds of a Japanese Delta Goodrem.

Story – High

A brutal conflict between gangs that spans centuries. From the psychotic to the funny to the weak, the cast of characters is complex and engaging. The nonlinear narrative structure, while unique and interesting, does drop a few balls as it juggles the many plot threads.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch if you enjoy nonlinear narratives. Baccano! is an engaging, if sometimes confusing, tale of warring mafia gangs with a supernatural twist. Watch in English.

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

Positive:

Great MusicGreat OP or ED SequenceHilariousHoly S***Positive Recommended English Voice TrackStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative:

Incoherent

Afro Samurai – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Afro Samurai

 

Related: Afro Samurai Resurrection (sequel – included in this review)

Similar: Ninja Scroll the movie

Samurai Champloo

Shigurui: Death Frenzy

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Action

Length: 5 episodes (season 1) & movie (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Gory, stylised action complemented by bleak visuals.
  • Great and sometimes unusual voice work, particularly from Samuel L. Jackson.

Negatives:

  • Poor sound mixing muffles speech under the music.
  • Not much to the plot, even with flashbacks.
  • In particular, the anime doesn’t explain why the headbands are worth anything beyond pieces of cloth.
  • Though the action animations are great, the lip movements don’t match the words half the time.

After seeing his father decapitated for a headband, Afro trains up as a samurai to avenge his father and reclaim the number one headband. Afro Samurai is set in a feudal Japan meets futuristic Wild West world of swordfights, gunslingers, and Mexican standoffs, wind blowing through your afro. Legends say the strongest warrior and owner of the number one headband is a god and only the number two can challenge for that power. Being number two, challengers beset Afro as he works his way to the mountain of number one. He knows no love, no happiness, only the murderous violence the number two headband incites in the heart of every man after the power of number one.

Afro Samurai’s biggest draws are its over-the-top action and style. The action is in the vein of Kill Bill with its excessive gore, blood spraying in ludicrous amounts. No shot is standard, not shot is dull. The camera zooms into every unsheathing of a sword, light sparking off the blade, every cocking of a hammer, pull of a trigger.

From its desaturated colours to no-cares-given protagonist, Afro Samurai is sombre anime. The only source of humour is Afro’s chain smoking sidekick, Ninja Ninja (both voiced by Samuel L Jackson). He is the antithesis to Afro, never shutting up and a coward. He doesn’t do much beyond provide commentary to the adventure and say what Afro is really thinking. Ninja Ninja is Jackson at his silliest and quite humorous.

Afro Samurai’s bleakness doesn’t just cover its tone but also extends to its sparse plot. On his quest, Afro meets various characters from his childhood (including a Vader-type samurai with a teddy bear head), which the plot does try to inject personality into by way of flashbacks. However, these flashbacks are minimal in content and depth, and little effort is made to characterise in the present. There is also this brotherhood of monks looking to create a clone of Afro with all his skills to claim number one for themselves. While I found their Evangelical preacher of a leader amusing, the brotherhood doesn’t feel particularly relevant and could have been cut from the show with ease, but then you would have even less to populate the narrative.

What bothered me most were the headbands. They never explain why these mere pieces of cloth have any kind of power. I fail to see how you have to own a headband to be the best or challenge the best. Furthermore, if they are as powerful as they claim, can’t one simply bury the headband in the middle of a forest to stop challengers hounding you? If they don’t know you have the headband, they won’t bother challenging. Hell, if you have to have it on you to gain its power, then stuff it in your sock instead of parading around with it on your head. Misery solved.

If you can look past these logical fallacies and want an anime all about the action and blood, then Afro Samurai is for you. On the other hand, if you want more than ankle-deep characterisation and story, then skip this one.

Art – High

Afro Samurai uses a high number of key frames to bring the gruesome animation to life. Desaturated colouring enhances the bleakness of Afro’s quest. The mouth animations don’t match the words half the time – not just out of sync, but the wrong shape altogether (this anime was drawn for English).

Sound – Medium

Great voice work overpowered by the poor mixing of music, which is an even bigger shame since the music itself is decent – a mix of rap and long whistles for Mexican standoffs.

Story – Medium

The flashbacks provide backstory to the characters, but in the present, the plot doesn’t involve much beyond killing a series of enemies to reach the top.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of over the top action. Afro Samurai is worth your while if you want an anime all about the action and with enough backstory to give the characters purpose, don’t expect more than that.

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

Positive:

Fluid Animation

Negative: 

Hollow World BuildingNo Development

The Legend of Korra – Review

Related: Avatar: The Last Airbender (prequel)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 52 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Korra, as a character and through her arc, displays a rare maturity in the face of conflict.
  • A series of villains made intriguing by their flaws and motivations.
  • Gorgeous art all-round.
  • Fight choreography at the top of its game. No yelling for power.
  • A varied supporting cast, each different from the next, each with proper personalities. Also, Varrick is the best.
  • Great references to the original series without resorting to info dumps. (Cabbage Corp.!)
  • Excellent voice work, infant characters’ most surprising.
  • The inclusion of sports, political structures, advances in technology, propaganda, public services, entertainment, and the like, makes for superb world building.
  • Doesn’t feel like a re-tread of Avatar.

Negatives:

  • One mistake at the end of season one (reminiscent of Avatar’s season four’s finale error).
  • It would have been nice to see more Fire Nation.

Note: This review contains implied spoilers from prequel, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Outside of the new Star Wars film, nothing has as much pressure to live up to its prequel as The Legend of Korra, for me. As it happens, Korra is an exemplar of what a sequel should be. Nothing in Korra feels like a re-tread; the creators knew they couldn’t get away with a ‘Hollywood’ sequel cash-in.

The Legend of Korra starts seventy years after the events of Avatar, during a time of peace, as Korra, the new Avatar, moves to Republic City (think UN capitol in a 1940s Shanghai inspired setting with added zeppelins and Model-T Fords) to learn airbending from Master Tenzin, Aang’s son. However, when she arrives, the city isn’t as peaceful as it appears, for the triad gangs torment the lower echelons of the city and the ‘Equalist’ faction of humans seek to eliminate all bending from the world. Because of their power, some benders have gained higher status, looking down on non-benders. Masked leader Amon and his Equalists begin to capture benders; Amon claims he can remove their power permanently. Korra must stop him.

Like Avatar before it, Korra isn’t this basic plot. It is layered with a half-dozen plotlines woven together to create a deep and compelling narrative. While worrying about Amon, Korra has to deal with politicians trying to seize power in tragedy, master her final element of air, compete as a pro-bender (boxing with the elements in teams of three to push opponents out of the ring, backed by a great commentator) behind Tenzin’s back, shoulder Avatar responsibilities, and have a social life.

Even with this many plotlines, the narrative never feels overstuffed where each plotline tries to choke the others out. I never grew tired of a plotline because there was always another to step-up when one needed a break. I couldn’t find, and believe me I tried, any padding. Even action scenes, the most common source of padding in kids’ entertainment, are the perfect length. There is no power yelling for five episodes, no twenty-episode fights ended with a trump card that should have been used at the start, and the choreography is phenomenal – it has spoiled me. Spoiled! Korra is an intense, close-knit experience with the right amount of quiet moments to pour emotion into the narrative.

At its core, Korra is about characters. From the main to the supporting cast, every character is well thought out and has a purpose in the world. I don’t know where to begin. Aang’s hilarious grandchildren (“Those maggots will bow to me!”)? The aged original cast? The new Team Avatar with Mako’s Batarang eyebrows, Bolin’s humour and innocence, and Asami’s confidence? The other descendants? There’s too many to cover. I could write a review for each individual character, so high is their quality of design. No one feels like a quest-giver NPC waiting for the protagonist to turn up to complete the NPC’s purpose. You get the sense that they all lead lives that don’t revolve around Korra.

In my Avatar review, I mentioned Aang as the weakest (yet still great) of the core characters because of his over-dorkiness in season one and righteous personality (not my favourite). Korra however, is my favourite here, followed closely by Varrick the eccentric inventor and businessman – think Ton Stark if he was completely mad. What I liked most about Korra is her strength and maturity. She doesn’t accept something because a teacher said so. She questions everything, forging her own path. Even when down, she doesn’t whine about how unfair the world is; she whines about how weak she is, how it’s her fault and not someone else’s. And then there is her season-four story arc (no spoilers, don’t worry); I never expected a kids’ show to have the capacity to go this dark. Love it.

There is little to complain about in Korra. As mentioned above, season one’s finale mistake for convenience was a bother. I know they made the decision under the assumption that Korra would only last one season, but still, nothing wrong with leaving a little damage. My biggest disappointment is the lack of Fire Nation. We get hints at, but never see, the state of the Fire Nation, and what few characters make an appearance don’t get much screen time. All that said, no complaint against Korra affected my larger enjoyment, just like in Avatar. Anything I consider “bad” about Korra is only bad by comparison to the rest of the show – the sort of bad that wouldn’t even have time for mention in a lesser art piece due to bigger issues.

Korra is how a sequel should be done. We still have the group of friends with loyalty, infighting, fear, jealousy, love, and the animal companion, but it’s different focus, advancements in society, tournament element, ordinary jobs, big city with a criminal underbelly, politicians, a different kind of enemy, and close-knit conflict, makes for a new and fresh experience. I had high hopes for The Legend of Korra, and I was not disappointed.

Art – Very High

Vibrant action sequences, fluid animation, hand-painted style backgrounds of high detail, and excellent character design. Even the use of CG blends in well. Improved the mouth animations from the first series. (I still can’t un-see the LFR for mouths in Avatar.)

Sound – Very High

The music has advanced with the new technology, using tunes for the era that inspired the Shanghai style setting. Jazz infused with Chinese touches are coupled with more traditional tracks of strings, flutes, and xylophones. Excellent voice work featuring lighter accents this time around.

Story – Very High

A tale of hardships, overcoming trauma, treachery, corruption, and loyalty. Every character is fully realised, filled with subtleties and depth rarely found in programming aimed at children.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: The Legend of Korra is a must watch adventure. This was a real page-turner; I did nothing but the essentials to survive while watching from start to finish.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationHilariousPhenomenal VillainPositive Recommended English Voice TrackRiveting ActionStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None.