Category Archives: Drama

The focus is on emotional conflict.

March Comes in Like a Lion – Anime Review

Japanese Title: 3-gatsu no Lion

 

Related: March Comes in Like a Lion Season 2 (release: 2017)

Similar: Your Lie in April

Ping Pong the Animation

Barakamon

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Psychological Slice of Life Drama

Length: 22 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The protagonist.
  • Portrayal of depression.
  • So many gorgeous scenes.
  • OPs and EDs.

Negatives:

  • Facial close-ups.
  • Could do with compacting.
  • The talking animals.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Depression, an all-powerful force that colours our world in bleakness. Hope doesn’t exist in this world, nor does happiness. So why do those around us seem happy? How can they be happy when there is nothing to be happy about in life? Because depression is in our heads alone. Despite what we perceive, depression doesn’t bleed beyond the confines of one’s brain. The happiness of others is safe. March Comes in Like a Lion shows us this mental phenomenon through the eyes of Rei, a 17-year-old orphan and shogi professional.

I must first commend this anime for its portrayal of depression, which is often mischaracterised as a synonym for sadness. Sadness is losing your pet to old age and moving on after a period of mourning. Depression is losing your pet to old age and seeing this as to end of everything in your life. Sadness stops at a point; depression spirals ever downwards into a pit that exploits your greatest fears and most taut emotions. This is all in your head, of course, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. When Rei is alone with no more than his mind for company, we see his descent. The loss of his family, the hatred from his adopted sister, and the lack of friends has morphed into a beast way beyond grief.

However, the moment others are around him, happiness bursts into life. The three sisters that live nearby are happy, despite their own loss, and their happiness infects him like an extended family. So what if he’s depressed? The world doesn’t stop spinning. Others don’t stop smiling. These are lessons Rei needs to learn if he is to grow out of his present state. As for friends, who says he has none? His self-proclaimed rival, Harunobu, regularly barges into his life and home to keep Rei company as his best friend – also self-proclaimed. Studio Shaft handled the balance between light and dark with deft mastery, thanks in no small part to the art, which conveys more emotion than the words.

Rei’s backstory is riveting as well. After losing his parents, his father’s friend and shogi rival takes him in to raise as a shogi professional like his own kids. However, when he surpasses those kids, the animosity reaches breaking point and he moves to his own place before the daughter can strangle him. You want to know the kicker? He didn’t even like shogi. He said what he had to. This backstory is what I would use to teach how to write conflict in a character’s past.

Where March Comes in Like a Lion falters is largely in two areas. The first is the shogi. Don’t watch this for the sport like you would Haikyuu and its brethren. The story does little to teach you the game as a newcomer, while also doing little to engage veterans. Shogi scenes serve to present mental conflicts only, which would be acceptable if there weren’t so much shogi. The best way I can put it is that the writer knows little about shogi – at least, that’s how it feels. I imagine the script read, “and then they played shogi,” for each shogi scene.

The second fault is with tangents. Several episodes abandon the protagonist and plot in favour of side characters – not particularly important ones at that either. These episodes should have waited for the OVAs, you know, the optional content that interrupts the flow of the main story. Thankfully, these faults don’t lessen my recommendation to watch at least half of the season. Oh yeah, there’s those creepy talking cats, who explain their jokes each scene. Maybe they are reason enough to skip this… No, even with Satan’s pets, March Comes in Like a Lion earns your attention.

Art – High

Studio Shaft did an incredible job with some of the scenes in March Comes in Like a Lion – the OPs and EDs are so gorgeous. The animation is a far cry from the static that was Honey and Clover. However, adherence to the mangaka’s art style has kept those dead eyes and ugly mouths, regularly highlighted by overused close ups of the faces.

Sound – High

The voice work is strong, except for those creepy cats and the little girl, who doesn’t sound like a little girl. I can see several music tracks being added to my playlist in future.

Story – High

A young man deals with depression punctuated by the happiness of those around him as he competes in shogi. Even if too long and off on a few tangents too many, March Comes in Like a Lion’s depiction of depression is top tier and balanced well by the humour.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for slice of life fans. March Comes in Like a Lion manages to convey the effects of depression in a relatable manner to those who have experienced it, and an understandable manner for those that haven’t. For this reason, it warrants at least a few episodes of your time, if not enough for the whole season. The first half is stronger than the second half.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Moonlight Mile – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Moonlight Mile: Lift Off

 

Similar: Space Brothers

Planetes

Armageddon (Hollywood movie)

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Adventure Drama

Length: 26 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Science and engineering detail.
  • Some tense dilemmas.

Negatives:

  • Disjointed storytelling.
  • Characters don’t have time to develop amidst the dilemmas.
  • Junk animation and CG.

(Request an anime for review here.)

What made me curious to watch this anime? Was it a) space, b) the engineering, c) premise, or d) sex? The answer is a), of course – I love space! Alright, I admit, it was the sex, okay. Happy? But no, in all seriousness, when I was at the Kyoto International Manga Museum, they had an exhibition spotlighting civil engineering in manga – infrastructure, architecture, development, etc. – as the Japanese take great pride in their civil engineers (when you watch them build a house in a day, you can see why [turn on captions for subtitles]). I picked up Moonlight Mile because it had an astronaut on the cover (I am serious about the loving space part), but was struck by how sexually graphic the opening scene was. If I hadn’t seen the cover first, I would have assumed this belonged in the section you wouldn’t mention to your parents. This scene is so graphic that I was curious if they got away with it in the anime adaptation. Spoiler: they don’t.

But first, the story. Two climbing buddies, Gorou from Japan and Jack “Lostman” Woodbridge from the US, make a pact atop Mount Everest to see each other in space as they look to the sky above. They soon part and set about achieving this goal in their own manner. Gorou takes the path of an engineer, while Lostman goes the air force route (two-thirds of US astronauts come from the military). Becoming an astronaut is no easy journey and each will face trials and setbacks, even more so than real astronauts, for Moonlight Mile loves to throw one disaster after another at the protagonists.

Now, you know me, I love conflict – it’s the engine of fiction – but there comes a point where you need to allow characters to grow. In fiction, scenes follow the rough pattern of action and reaction. Something happens in a scene (action) and the characters react/reflect on this action in the next scene (reaction). Moonlight Mile rarely stops for the reaction. All space movies have those disasters – oxygen leak, broken thruster, power failure, etc. – for the astronauts to solve. These moments are exciting edge-of-your-seat tense, yet if you have nothing but this, as Moonlight Mile does, the tension wanes. The characters, while decent, feel like mere nuts and bolts to this story, rather than driving agents.

The first episode is nothing but a disastrous climb up Everest to establish the characters. This should have taken a few minutes. Well, there is Gorou’s butt as well.

As for my initial curiosity, while most episodes have a sex scene, it isn’t graphic. Still certainly not for kids, though is a far cry from the manga. It also doesn’t add to character, for Gorou falls in love with a new girl faster than a shooting star. This wouldn’t be an issue if he grew from each relationship. Alas, a new girl means a clean slate of development, so what’s the point?

In regards to the engineering, Moonlight Mile succeeds in taking care to do the math and science in a disaster. I’m not a rocket scientist, so someone more qualified may find great flaws here, but Moonlight Mile doesn’t try to convince us that training oil drillers to become astronauts is easier than training astronauts to operate a drill.

Art – Low

The 2D animation is junk, whereas the 3D sees overuse for vehicles and sweeping shots. Even the ground is CG in these scenes – so distracting.

Sound – Medium

The Japanese script is a bit dry, so go with the English, which added more banter and a natural flow to the dialogue.

Story – Medium

Two friends and rivals vow to meet each other as astronauts in space. This is their journeys to meet that goal. Moonlight Mile suffocates its characters in disaster after disaster for them to resolve, giving little room to develop. At least the disasters are tense.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For space fans. Did you like Armageddon? If yes, then Moonlight Mile is the anime version. If you thought that movie needed better science, Moonlight Mile will also satisfy in that regard.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Ugly Artistic Design

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

Honey and Clover – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hachimitsu to Clover

 

Related: Honey and Clover II (included in review)

Similar: Nodame Cantabile

The Pet Girl of Sakurasou

Eden of the East

Nana

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Slice of Life Comedy Drama Romance

Length: 24 episodes (season 1), 2 OVA, 12 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • The older characters and their arcs.
  • Second season.
  • Some hilarious moments.

Negatives:

  • The dull protagonist and his meandering story.
  • Minimal animation.
  • Poor exposition.
  • Unfocused structuring.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Yuuta lives the life of a harassed art student, penny-pinching like Scrooge to survive the week on bread crusts while dealing with his eccentric roommate, Shinobu. A ray of sunshine enters his life when his art teacher brings his cousin’s daughter and talented artist, Hagumi, to class. Wait, wait! Sorry, wrong anime. Honey and Clover is actually the story of Ayumi, a pottery student with her heart set on a man obsessed with the wife of a dead man. Hang on – sorry – what’s this about Shinobu’s brother and getting back their father’s company?

Honey and Clover tries to tell too many stories. As a result, this feels like two different anime mashed together without interconnecting threads that weave them together. The stories don’t affect each other. This wouldn’t be much of problem if both anime were great, but this isn’t the case. Yuuta’s piddling romance with Hagumi, an eleven-year-old we’re told is eighteen, and his later pilgrimage to Japan’s north for self-discovery – a less funny Golden Boy – is so standard, so empty that he’s barely in the second season. The production team found him so boring that he becomes an extra in his own story! He only showed up so he wouldn’t get fined.

A student who studies and then graduates isn’t an interesting story. A student who fails from laziness, gets his life in order, and then graduates is a story. A coming-of-age story should have more drastic character growth than your typical genre, for we change most when coming of age, whether it is at thirteen or thirty. Yuuta’s story is your generic graduation journey. The writer tried to shake things up with his feelings for Hagumi, but she isn’t an interesting character nor does the relationship matter much between these two, so it falls flat.

A core problem of Yuuta’s story is in how it’s told. I have heard people say that one of Honey and Clover’s greatest qualities is the inner monologues that tell us everything about what a character is thinking and feeling. Notice the key word in that sentence? Tell. These characters are telling us how they feel instead of showing us through actions. Look at it this way – if you muted the monologues, would you still see the same character information? If the answer is ‘no’ then the monologue was the writer’s crutch when lacking the talent to show this information. An angry character doesn’t tell us he’s angry – he punches something. A lonely character doesn’t tell us he’s lonely – he looks with sad envy at a happy couple. I’ll give you one guess as to who has most of his character told to us through inner monologue. Praising the monologue is like praising someone who treats you as an incompetent. The live-action series (Japanese version) does better with Yuuta.

Then we have Ayumi and her ‘love chain’ (it extends through a dozen people, at least, by the end though many of its members are for comedy). The man she loves is in a ‘friendzone’ of sorts with a widow, who is traumatised and has the scars that will forever remind her of the tragic loss. It’s pathetic to watch this man crave her, in the good narrative sort of way, as you think, “I would probably be the same in his shoes.” We see what a potion of love, lust, sadness, and loneliness looks like.

Ayumi is spectator to this display, just as pathetic as the rest of them (again, in a good way). She doesn’t have a monologue that treats the audience like idiots. More importantly, the characters in her story have complexity – I hate most of the men involved, which is great! I find their actions creepy or even despicable, but it works because I buy who they are and why they make these decisions. Honey and Clover is at its best in the second season when Ayumi’s arc reaches the climax. I wish they had made this anime as two separate stories. This would have improved Yuuta’s story as well with Ayumi no longer monopolising all the drama. As is, his conflict-light story seems to serve as a break from Ayumi’s drama more than to tell his story.

One element you should be aware of as a prospective viewer is Hagumi. There is no getting past the fact that she looks, sounds, and behaves like a little girl. Her story ends even creepier than I anticipated. (Notice how neither the Japanese nor the Taiwanese live-action versions of Honey and Clover hired a little girl to play Hagumi.) Even looking past this, her depth amounts to ‘be cute.’ That’s it.

To end on a happier note, I want to talk of the comedy. Honey and Clover is quite funny overall. Shinobu steals the comedic scenes. From his hijinks with his sculpture professor to his work with film director “Peter” Lucas, Shinobu is hilarious. To be honest, he feels like a superfluous character at first, but soon earns his place on the cast.

I debated at length on whether I like Honey and Clover or not. When I think of the Ayumi’s arc, I find myself recommending it. Then I remember Yuuta and I grimace – surely, I can’t recommend this, no? After much deliberation, I concluded that the second season made it worth my time, regardless. If I didn’t know better, I would say season two had a new author.

Art – Low

As with most slice of life anime, the budget wasn’t large. The art looks good in stills thanks to the style, but the motion is rigid and limited.

Sound – Medium

The opening songs sound like a drunk child screaming about their preschool woes during karaoke. Less obvious exposition for the sake of the audience would help this otherwise decent script.

Story – Medium

A group of artistic friends seek meaning and success in life. With too many stories to tell, Honey and Clover oscillates between interesting and bland characters, engaging you one episode and boring you the next. If it were just Ayumi’s story, I would give a high rating.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For slice of life with romance fans. If you aren’t willing to sit through twice as many episodes as necessary, Honey and Clover isn’t worth starting. That is unless you love slice of life and can subsist on a shallow protagonist doing ordinary things.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Orange – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Orange

 

Related: Orange: Mirai (alternative perspective + extended ending)

Similar: Erased

AnoHana

Blue Spring Ride

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Drama Romance

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Nice colouring and animation.
  • Some sweet moments.

Negatives:

  • Forgettable characters.
  • One of the weakest, most non-committal endings.
  • Needs to be smarter.

(Request an anime for review here.)

The more I think of Orange, the dumber it gets. Okay, you receive a letter from your future self warning of the death of a friend. Included are a list of events and instructions on how to save your friend. Do you: a) Read the whole letter to know what’s to come or b) Leave the letter and read each event at the last moment or better yet, after the crucial event. Now imagine you’re the future self, do you: a) Tell your past self exactly what happens or b) Keep events vague so the story isn’t spoiled. You know, I’m not convinced you care about saving your friend.

This scenario is where Naho finds herself. The letter from her future warns that the new transfer student, Kakeru, who joins her circle of friends, will die soon. The letter laments Naho’s many regrets in life, such as not playing in a school baseball game, sharing an umbrella with Kakeru… Wait, these are the crucial regrets that will save Kakeru’s life? Furthermore, the ultimate plan save to Kakeru is to get him together with Naho. It’s not that he has deep psychological issues because of his unstable mother and her suicide. No, he needs a date. The goals are so menial, so petty that despite the consequence being someone’s death, it doesn’t feel as though the story has anything at stake. Orange is a slice of life anime trying to convince us it’s a drama.

I can’t even talk of what happens during spoiler moments (‘spoiler’ is too strong a word here). There is a twist of sorts in act 2 that makes Naho’s decision not to read the whole letter seem genius. Turns out, Naho doesn’t get smarter with age.

Look, the premise is interesting, but such a timid approach isn’t viable. Compare Orange to Erased. Both feature abuse, parental problems, warnings from the future, and death as the consequence, yet feel nothing alike. Where Erased has tension, Orange worries about playing sports. Erased has its many faults and I appreciate that it’s easier to pull off this story when you have a murderer to confront, but at least it understood the weight of its consequence. The only time Orange bothers to have any weight is in the final episode. And you know what caps it off? One of those non-committal, insipid endings that doesn’t want to make the tough choices with its characters. The live-action film deviates from the source material in this one aspect, to better results, which is something.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the explanation for how the letters travelled back in time is…idiotic. This is fiction, where you can do whatever you want and you went with the science fiction equivalent of ‘pulled out of the arse’? I would show no surprise if I learnt that Orange took a day to write. No effort went into any part of this story.

I have enjoyed many mediocre or bad stories because of good characters. Orange does not have these. Naho is too dim-witted to find endearing. Apart from not reading the whole letter like a logical person, one point of “conflict” has her not understand what Kakeru means by holding out his hand. “A guy I’m dating (sorta) reaches for my hand several times. What could he possibly want? What does it mean!?” No joke, she has to consult her friends for an answer. I really hope no one’s relying on Naho to save a life…

The other friends are forgettable. I honestly forgot the nerd friend until past the mid-point, thinking he was a background filler student until then. These friends lack those moments that endear the reader to the group. The first scene that tries in episode one has them hanging out, eating bread from one friend’s family bakery. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but eating bread isn’t enough to make me love characters. They have some joke about one girl’s nickname related to a shinkansen, which they find hilarious…for some reason. Think back to your favourite group of fictional friends and how quickly you loved them. The TV show Friends is my go to example – one scene and I want to see more of them. Orange’s friends can barely fill a test tube with their chemistry.

What good is there to say of Orange? Well, it isn’t atrocious, more sigh-worthy when logic jumps out the window, and the visuals and audio are pleasant. They fit perfectly to the slice of life Orange wishes it could be. In essence, everything taken from the manga is lazy while the rest is good.

Art – High

Nice colours and a good amount of animation found here, but some of it looks strange, such as the way a couple of characters smile – coat hangers in their lips.

Sound – Medium

The voice work is good in Japanese and English, though the script doesn’t allow for much. I like the OP and ED for being different from other anime in the genre.

Story – Low

A schoolgirl receives a letter from her future self to save a friend from death. Orange is a slice of life masquerading as a drama that needed more thought before the first draft.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Orange makes no effort to recommend itself. Watch Erased if the premise entices you or the recently reviewed Your Lie in April if you want a romance about avoiding regrets.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Induces Stupidity