Category Archives: Fantasy

The focus is on emotional conflict.

Attack on Titan Season 2 – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Shingeki no Kyojin Season 2

 

Related: Attack on Titan Season 1

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • New Titan type.
  • Some solid art and audio.

Negatives:

  • Too much CG.
  • Atrocious twists.
  • No tension.
  • Characters are still flat.

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Get your hype pants on; we are here for season 2 of Attack on Titan! Feeling all nice and comfortable? Right, now take them off and prepare for boredom as you sink further and further into the couch, until all we can see of you is two dead eyes staring at the screen. Attack on Titan Season 2 is bad.

The first problem should become obvious after you finish episode one. Where are the main characters? Where’s the main story? Instead, we follow the B team as they search for a breach in the wall that let a dozens of Titans inside. The purpose of this point of view is to give us the backstories for a few characters, which is fine in concept, but it takes near half the season and isn’t engaging.

Not that the main characters are of any interest either. Eren is still your ever-angry teen, Mikasa still has no personality to speak of (the last episode gives a glimmer – yay…), and Armin is still useless. I have yet to comprehend how Armin is supposed to fill the role of the ‘smart’ character. If he is smart, it’s because everyone else is an idiot. In a fight against the Armoured Titan, do you attack the armour or go for the exposed muscles? Go for the armour of course! Just keep slashing at that impenetrable plate until every blade breaks. You’ll get through it eventually, I’m sure. And then – I kid you not – one character has this incredible epiphany, recalling full plate knights with no armour on the back of joints to allow movement and how the Titan must have the same weakness. Did you not see the exposed muscle everywhere until now? You. Idiots.

If this series doesn’t end with humanity wiped out, I will feel cheated.

Now I must talk about the twists. The midpoint twist is one of anime’s worst. It’s the sort of twist that was thought of at the last moment, the writer running to print room to stop the presses for his last second addition. Or he planned the twist but executed it this poorly. I’m not sure which reality is worse. The story tries to explain it by flashing back to the moments of foreshadowing, yet ignores all the aspects that break the twist. And the end twist, what else can it be but a deus ex machina to crown the cake in a red bollock trying to pass for a cherry?

Oh man, don’t forget the unbelievable overuse of the flashforward narrative structure. Almost every episode starts with the characters in a dire situation before it flashes back to the present for us to wonder how they get to that situation. I hate to break it to you, writer, but this is Attack on Titan – everyone is in a dire situation at all times. It isn’t shocking to show these scenes to us. More than that, it is lazy. Lazy, the perfect word to summarise the writing this season.

The laziness should have been obvious from season 1, seen no more clearly than in the author’s misunderstanding of how big an area a 480 km radius covers. This lack of basic research comes to a head in season 2 with the main goal of finding the hole in the wall. The scouts on horseback cover a vast distance in a day or two that should take weeks. The world of Attack on Titan feels the size of a city, not the size of the large country it purports to be.

Alright, the story is garbage. What of the action, the real reason everyone attends class?

A few scenes are exciting with that same quality animation, the most interesting of which introduces the new yeti-looking Titan with intelligence above the rest. However, the action Attack on Titan is known for – Spidermaning with swords versus giants – is scarcer this time around. I don’t know if it was time or budget, but action scenes seem designed to require as little of the webslinging as possible. On the other hand, I have praised many action series that didn’t have half the spectacle of Attack on Titan. But those series used the action to develop characters, since they knew that they couldn’t rely on flashiness to engage the audience.

Attack on Titan does not do this with its characters, main or otherwise. Action development is a pacifist having to make the decision to kill someone to save another he cares about. In Attack on Titan, we know how everyone will act and how they will fight, so there’s no excitement. Mute the action and you miss nothing.

All these problems combined manage to kill Attack on Titan’s other strength – atmosphere. The increasing plot armour for important characters coupled with having a Titan on the heroes’ side means the tension is low. Yep, humanity is on the brink of extinction and the tension is still low. Just great. That oppressive feeling, the sense of impending doom, the idea that it could all end today is gone.

Art – High

Season 2 has few of the amazing action sequences from before, with more static shots and ‘left to right’ animations taking their place. There is CG everywhere now. CG horses running across CG ground, the Colossal Titan in full CG, and more CG horses stand out like ink blots on paper. The art is still good overall, but doesn’t have the impressiveness of season 1.

Sound – Medium

Take all the music of Attack on Titan and lower the hype. You now have this soundtrack. The script hasn’t much to say.

Story – Low

Scouts investigate a breach in the wall that allowed a swarm of Titans inside human territory. An overuse of the flashforward story structure, flat characters, and twists conjured out of thin air saps all engagement for the story.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: For diehard Attack on Titan fans only. If you are a fan, you’ve already seen season 2, so my recommendation doesn’t matter. But for those unsure after the first season, this isn’t worth your time. Attack on Titan Season 2 has almost none of the qualities that made the first engaging.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Deus Ex MachinaNo Development

Revolutionary Girl Utena – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Shoujo Kakumei Utena

 

Related: Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Adolescence of Utena (alternate version)

Similar: Penguindrum

Kill la Kill

Rose of Versailles

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Fantasy Drama

Length: 39 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good imagery and world design.
  • Silhouette sisters.
  • The comedy episodes.

Negatives:

  • Overused sequences.
  • Black Rose arc.
  • The villains and their metaphors.
  • The Rose Bride is boring.
  • Too much recap.

(Request an anime for review here.)

I am hesitant to include Rose of Versailles in the ‘Similar’ section above, for it gives false expectations of Revolutionary Girl Utena. I expected Versailles in high school, but really, they share little beyond having tomboy protagonists. I am opposed to you having the same initial expectations that I had.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is a difficult anime to summarise. Not because the blurb is difficult – a tomboy called Utena fights off challengers in duels to protect the Rose Bride – rather, the blurb doesn’t convey what this anime is truly about. The story is a psychological exploration of characters through metaphors – the duels are irrelevant, for the most part, as is the Rose Bride and her ultimate purpose. This is about adolescence and the exploration of the many changes it brings to the young self.

Utena’s initial conflict revolves around her boyish dress sense (not that it should matter when the boys are more feminine than the girls) before she wins a duel against the current “owner” of the Rose Bride, a girl that gives the power to “revolutionise the world” and is unimaginably boring. After this, every day seems to bring a new challenger intent on owning the bride and her power. Here, we see one of Revolutionary Girl’s biggest problems – repetition.

Most episodes in the first two arcs go like the following: episode’s focus character has a desire taken by someone else, gets envious, the dark side seduces, convinces that getting the Rose Bride will fulfil the desire, the focus character challenges Utena, who climbs the duel tower for several minutes, they fight, and Utena wins. The stair climb looks and sounds epic and is better than any transformation sequence, but grows old after its second use out of thirty. The Black Rose Arc (two of four) is particularly egregious.

Furthermore, the duels have bad camerawork and worse choreography. None of the storyboard directors on staff knew how to do action, as evidenced by their credits. On top of using the cliché ‘two swordsmasters dash past each other, pause, one falls’ to end most duels, we never see any real fencing skill. The duels’ one strength is the setting and atmosphere, though sometimes it gets goofy. The goofiest fight has the challenger’s number one fangirl skiing (driving on two side wheels) around the arena in a convertible as more convertibles litter the area like trees. Does it mean anything? Not really – still amusing.

Episodes focused on the school diva break up this repetition with hilarious comedy, which is refreshing. She has a serious brother complex and can’t stand the idea of anyone getting his attention (little does she know…). One episode has this narcissist slowly transform into cow after wearing a cowbell she mistakes for designer jewellery. Another involves fighting a literal boxing kangaroo. I didn’t see that coming.

After the initial setup, the story doesn’t have much progression until the second half when the villains start doing something. Before then, every side character must have all of their angst laid bare, regardless of whether it’s relevant to the plot or not.

Hmm, these villains… Revolutionary Girl Utena leans on metaphor like Florida Man leans on his crutches after having his feet eaten by alligators when streaking. While half the symbolism works, the other half is symbolism for the sake of symbolism that makes no sense, which seems to be the corny villains’ primary purpose. The two main villains talk metaphorically at length while posing for a fan service softcore shoot together. At the opposite end, three women I refer to as the ‘silhouette sisters’ have a scene most episodes that twists moments from famous plays and tales to fit the narrative. Their metaphors are short, tight, and work even if you don’t get the reference.

Much of the symbolism tries to make you think deep thoughts (it’s sex), trying to be clever (it’s sex) at the expense of continuity and character consistency (hint: it means sex). The more obscure the sex symbolism, the worse the result unless it hits the spot. The silhouette sister work with their metaphors because they establish themselves as being a quirky Greek chorus of metaphors, consistent throughout the series. Others, like the villains, enter as one thing and exit as something unrelated for the sake of being artsy. And it doesn’t help that their metaphors are nonsensical, included to be artificially profound. If the writer weren’t possessed by allegory, he could have let the silhouette sisters carry the metaphors alone. They are superior in every way, from presentation to delivery.

Revolutionary Girl Utena has great depth half the time and total nonsense for the other half. Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad and is worth your time. I love the world design (wish we explored more of it), the silhouette sisters are a delight, and Utena is a great character.

A quick note on the movie, The Adolescence of Utena – it’s terrible. The spectacular environments and a personality for the Rose Bride cannot make up for the loss of all subtlety and a finale where Utena morphs into a racecar, participating in a race out of Redline. This ludicrous display must be seen to be believed.

Art – High

Utena has a good amount of motion for cel-drawn anime and an imaginative world. Everything is grand, designed to inspire awe and give the feel of Olympus.

Sound – Medium

The Japanese audio sounds dated and several actors need more training, while the English is weak in weight and delivery for all save a couple of characters – perfectly watchable though. The speed of speech is notably slow at times to match animation. I imagine the voice director often asked for slower retakes. The choral rock gets you pumped (shame it’s for lame duels).

Story – Medium

Tomboy Utena fights off challengers in duels to defend the Rose Bride from those who would use her power for unsavoury goals. Half great and half terrible, the metaphor-laden Revolutionary Girl Utena offers an intriguing anime in an unusual world.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: For fans of heavy metaphor and allegory. Revolutionary Girl Utena is better than the sum of its parts, but requires your patience to hit its stride and reveal its strengths.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Repetitive

Pom Poko – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko

 

Similar: My Neighbor Totoro

The Eccentric Family

Natsume’s Book of Friends

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy

Length: 1 hr. 51 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • The tanuki crack me up.
  • The art.
  • Tanuki lore.

Negatives:

  • No surprises.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Did you know that the meteoric rise in popularity of energy drinks is because of tanuki, who drink to restore energy when shapeshifted into humans? I’m onto all of you energy drink addicts. I know what you are! This is according to Pom Poko at least. But in all seriousness, stay away from me – my uncle’s twice-removed cousin’s sister’s grandfather’s son is an exterminator (and he works for Nintendo).

Pom Poko tells of the secret tanuki world. The tanuki’s habitat has faced serious deforestation while they were too busy infighting. Now on the verge of extinction, they turn to the art of shapeshifting to interfere with construction sites. Two amongst them also go on a mission to enlist the three sages for their superior skills. Interference begins with minor jump scares and faulty equipment, but as the humans persist in Tokyo’s expansion, the tanuki get more deadly.

This is one hilarious movie. The tanuki watch human TV as part of their 5-year plan to stop urban development, but end up so distracted by the TV shows that they forget all about the deforestation! I lost it. Tanuki are so notoriously lazy that the elders pretend to be asleep when needed by others. The shapeshifting also lends great comedy. I’m sure you have all seen the gif of flying tanuki using their testicle sacs as parachutes. Pom Poko has many oddities.

It’s also a great film to learn about Japanese folk lore, as the tanuki shift into various spirits from folk tales to accomplish their goal. You would have seen some of these spirits in the likes of Persona or Yokai Watch. Unfamiliarity with the plethora of spirits may turn away some viewers however, since it could come across as nonsense.

The environmental message is not heavy-handed, in true Ghibli fashion, presenting animals that benefit from both nature and technology. Instead of taking sides, it raises the notion that true evil lies in excess. The problem isn’t humans clearing some of the forest; it is clearing too much. The problem isn’t tanuki enjoy man-made creations; it is overindulging in them. In fact, the tanuki’s greatest destruction comes from infighting. Ghibli’s mastery of ‘show don’t tell’ and the adherence to never telling the audience how they should feel always impresses me.

Pom Poko’s faults lie in the lack of surprises. Now, I don’t mean twists I predicted. There are no twists. The sequence of events and the contents of said events go exactly as you would expect, on reflection. The story never tries to throw you. So while Pom Poko is hilarious and entertaining, I find myself without a care for the story or these characters. It’s like watching a great sitcom with consistently funny scenes, but once the episode is over, you don’t care if the protagonist gets with the girl later on or succeeds at work. Still, I enjoyed my hilarious time with Pom Poko.

Art – Very High

Great as always. The environments look like Thomas Kinkade paintings (you have probably seen the puzzles of his paintings). The shapeshifting animation must have taken half the development time.

Sound – High

Good voice work. I love The Brain (Maurice LeMarche) as the narrator in English.

Story – Medium

In an effort to defend their habitat from deforestation, tanuki use shape shifting talents the scare the locals away. Though the story has no surprises, it is a lot of fun along the way.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Pom Poko’s zany humour is worth a shot. You are in for some weird times.

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

Positive:

HilariousStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Haibane Renmei – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Haibane Renmei

 

Similar: Kino’s Journey

Angel Beats!

Serial Experiments Lain

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Slice of Life Psychological Mystery Fantasy

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Nice atmosphere.

Negatives:

  • Symbolism over substance.
  • Useless cast.
  • Dull world building.
  • Thinks open-ended = depth.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Not again. Not another empty series. I feel like I am on a roll of mediocre anime (thank Nodame Cantabile for being a temporary sanctuary!). Please get me out of this Purgatory.

Speaking of Purgatory, Haibane Renmei is the story of amnesiac angels living in a walled city, trapping all but a select few in this limbo-like world. Rakka, newly born angel or Haibane, has visions of falling from the sky. As with all Haibane, the vision each sees before birth holds the answer to their purpose in life.

It takes the entire first episode for Rakka to hatch from her egg (looks like a giant veiny testicle – cannot unsee), grow her wings, and get clean. It’s like watching a twenty-minute birthing scene. Bloody hell is this a boring start. It doesn’t get better soon after either. Not until the seventhseven out of thirteen! – does the plot kick into gear.

Before then, Haibane Renmei is a test of endurance to stay awake (perhaps this is my purgatory trial). Rakka and her friends wander around the walled town of Grie doing menial jobs as we learn of the “rules” for Haibane. They can only wear second-hand clothes – why? They can’t handle money – why? They can’t touch the outer wall – why? They can only live in abandoned places – why? Rakka was born as a teenager, yet there are infant angels as well – why? They have wings that can’t do anything – why? I am watching this anime – why? Why seems to sum up Haibane Renmei. It gives a whole lot of questions and few answers in an effort to appear deep.

Symbolism replaces substance. To make matters worse, the symbolism is so obvious, so on the nose with the abundance of Christian symbols, parallels to limbo and the state of purgatory. Symbolism isn’t enough to make a great series. Just as a great twist cannot save a bad story beforehand, symbolism needs a backbone to hold it up.

In such a story, characters would be the backbone. Haibane Renmei does not have those characters. The supporting cast in particular feels like dead weight in this already thin anime. You would imagine that the first six episodes with no content could have gone to justifying these characters’ places in the story. And Rakka, she has some strength, but not enough to carry the team.

There is a reason no reputable writer would recommend an amnesiac protagonist unless you truly know what you’re doing. When a protagonist doesn’t know anything about themselves, we don’t know anything either, giving us little reason to care for them. Writers usually resolve this by giving us a flashback thread with information before the amnesia, or through a parallel thread of a third-party view on the protagonist. Unfortunately, either of these would give away Haibane Renmei’s mystery, which leaves one solution: action. Not guns and swords action, but ‘doing something’ action. This is what finally starts in episode seven, when Rakka drops the dead weights and tries to solve the mystery of Grie and her vision. I can’t say much on this, as it would give away the anime’s best element. Honestly, Haibane Renmei should have been a movie with only the second half of the series.

A greater effort into world building would not have gone amiss. In a blind rush to be as symbolic as possible, the author left his world bare, fearful that developing anything would undo the symbols. The opposite is true: a strong world creates stronger symbolism. This angel lore is so dull – I honestly can’t discern what the author was going for with them. They’re like having demons with nothing demonic about them. They only seem to be angels to hammer that symbolism harder into your nose. Could have made them fairies, mermaids, humans, whatever, and it’d lose naught.

Despite Haibane Renmei’s few good elements, I am so glad this is over. I know this series has a small but hardcore fanbase, but this wasn’t for me.

Art – Medium

The visuals look nice technically, but they are all so boring, forgettable.

Sound – Medium

Average VO in both languages. This script has little to say. With so little going on, the ordinary dialogue needs to stand out with sharp wit or insight. The soundtrack is effective.

Story – Low

An angel tries to solve the mystery of her walled town and the vision in her head. Haibane Renmei prioritises symbolism over its plot and characters to subpar success.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Try it. If you like slow ‘up in the air’ stories, Haibane Renmei will be your soulmate.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World Building

Children Who Chase Lost Voices – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo

 

Similar: Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Princess Mononoke

Spirited Away

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

Brave Story

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Adventure Fantasy Romance

Length: 1 hr. 56 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Gorgeous art.
  • Creative environments and creatures.

Negatives:

  • No foundations.
  • Never gets going.
  • Flimsy ideological conflicts.

(Request an anime for review here.)

After watching Your Name in the cinema recently, I went back to Makoto Shinkai’s previous feature-length film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, to complete the collection. With his ability to distil human emotion into the magic of animation, it comes as a surprise to receive such a dull story and ultimately disappointing film from him.

Asuna hears strange sounds and unearthly music on her crystal radio. In her eagerness to decipher these phenomena, she stumbles into an adventure of monsters, a handsome stranger, and a lost civilisation. A school professor shows her how to reach the magical land underground.

This premise sounds very Indiana Jones, yes? Well, to best summarise Lost Voices, imagine Indiana Jones without any of the charm, wit, and action that made those films great – more importantly, fun. For a story with so many magical elements, Lost Voices has no magic to it.

I want to step back to the start for a moment. We open on Asuna in her ordinary life – as is expected for the genre – doing ordinary activities like eating food and cleaning the house, but we don’t see much of a hint at the magic in her future. In these ‘ordinary person thrust into supernatural world’ stories, great writers will include out-of-place details to draw the eye and foreshadow what’s to come, even if the character doesn’t notice. The best example of this is in Harry Potter’s first chapter.

Harry’s uncle Vernon Dursley is off to work for another ordinary day – Rowling even emphasises how ordinary the day should be in the opening line: ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’ However, after only a paragraph cementing their normality, the hints of extraordinary begin to drop – the never-mentioned Potter relatives, an owl in broad daylight, odd people in robes, more owls, a stranger mentioning a Potter boy, yet more owls, etc. We, the audience, stand in the realm of ordinary with Vernon yet catch glimpses of the extraordinary realm to come. This technique prevents boring the audience in the first chapter.

Shinkai did not employ this technique well.

The only real oddities in Lost Voices’ opening are the noises on the crystal radio, though since they have no meaning for some time and are distant to the protagonist, they aren’t enough to grip you. My attention faded before even reaching the Inciting Incident.

Most shocking of faults is with the…romance, if you could call it that, between Asuna and the mysterious stranger that saves her from a monster attack (not as exciting as it sounds). If there’s one aspect Shinkai knows how to do it is emotion. And yet, here we have a girl fall instantly in love – not a crush or fling – with this stranger and would do anything for him with nary a conversation between them. Did I miss a scene that established the relationship? The setup is so weak that I spent thirty minutes trying to figure out if a romance was the intention. Even with later developments, it has zero impact.

So the first act is boring, the romance is as empty as the Bebop’s bank account, which leaves us with the adventure of no charm or fun. Children Who Chase Lost Voices settles itself comfortably in the worst category of all: boring. We need characters and story to engage us below the pretty surface. This anime is better left unplundered.

 

Art – Very High

Gorgeous art and animation from Makoto Shinkai, as usual – those colours!

Sound – High

The acting is good, but better in Japanese for some characters. Pleasant music.

Story – Medium

A girl hears the sounds of a strange creature from below and investigates the legend of a lost civilisation. Lacking foundation, Children Who Chase Lost Voices gives little reason for engagement in its rather standard adventure narrative.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Don’t bother. Children Who Chase Lost Voices is gorgeous to look at, certainly, but the story is too uninteresting to be worth seeing over other anime of similar premise. I would recommend worse yet more engaging anime before this.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None