Category Archives: Fantasy

The focus is on emotional conflict.

Castlevania – Anime Review

Related: Castlevania Season 2 (TBA)

Similar: Hellsing Ultimate

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Berserk

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 4 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Faithful to the games.
  • Looks and sounds great.
  • Deeper than expected.
  • Unflinchingly brutal.

Negatives:

  • Too early to gauge full quality.

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In the same way that game-to-film (or vice versa) adaptations bring the worst out of art, game-to-anime conversions are mind-numbing experiences that contain none of the game’s magic. When Netflix announced a Castlevania series, I didn’t even bother adding it to my ‘might, perhaps, one day if there is no more anime, eventually’ list. The series releases and the strangest comment reaches my ears… It’s good. What unspeakable pact did the creators enter into?

While not an anime, Castlevania adopts plenty from the likes of Hellsing and Vampire Hunter D in its adaptation of the game franchise of the same name. More specifically, this uses Castlevania III as a launching point with some Symphony of the Night elements.

The first episode introduces us to the human Lisa as she enters Dracula’s castle and meets the vampire lord of Wallachia himself. Rather than throw her out – or worse, drain her – he is endeared by her desire to learn science and spread such enlightenment across mankind. She doesn’t run away like the others. He teaches her chemistry to help the villagers and marriage is not far behind. However, the Church grows suspicious of her newfound curative abilities and finds heathenistic devices in her house, such as instruments of glass too thin to be of human creation. They burn her at the stake.

Oh what a grave mistake.

Dracula’s wrath unleashes a demon horde across Wallachia. The land is now a place of death. At a small inn still untouched by the horde, Trevor Belmont is drunk and getting drunker. His family of demon slayers fell from grace since their excommunication by the Church, so there’s little to do but drink these days. Even a horde of game doesn’t interest him. A human plea will soon change this.

So, the story starts like a Castlevania game, and it does well by setting the stakes as high as Dracula’s castle and giving a flawed yet likeable protagonist. Then there’s Dracula, exuding majesty and awe-inspiring power. They didn’t tone him down. I was prepared for something like the Devil May Cry anime, where the characters, especially protagonist Dante, have none of the personality that makes them enjoyable. Instead, Castlevania added more than what was to be found in the games.

These four episodes serve as the setup to a grander series. They establish Dracula, Trevor and his allies, and the subplot of the Church, which added the story depth to turn this from good to great. I hope to see the Church subplot throughout the series.

The action is no wet skeleton either. It’s gory and brutal, as it should be for the franchise, and the choreography has thought behind it. Duels are especially satisfying.

With all this praise, what’s the downside? Well, it’s hard to say at this point, as I am reviewing the start of a series. I have no complaints right now, but elements could become problems. For example, Trevor’s bravado will turn annoying if overused and he trash talks instead of fighting, like a bad villain monologue. The inside of Dracula’s castle may also have little story, with all interesting plot occurring outside under the Church’s influence. Who knows? It’s too early to say. Still, it looks right, sounds right, and feels right.

I can’t wait to see what comes next for Castlevania.

Art – High

The art feels like the games turned animated, dripping with gothic atmosphere. Some animation is jittery, but good overall.

Sound – High

The accents work well in English. The Japanese is good enough if you prefer that. Music complements the dark atmosphere.

Story – High

A son in the long line of once-noble Belmonts prepares to fight the Lord of Darkness, Dracula. Castlevania is a great start to adapting such a venerable franchise.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Unless you can’t stand gore, Castlevania’s four episodes give a good taste of whether you should look forward to more.

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

Positive:

Strong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Akame ga Kill – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Akame ga Kill!

 

Similar: Kill la Kill

The Seven Deadly Sins

Attack on Titan

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • It ends.

Negatives:

  • The characters.
  • The story.
  • The writing.
  • The art.
  • The action.

(Request an anime for review here.)

I read Akame ga Kill pitched as anime’s Game of Thrones. Either the recommender hasn’t seen Game of Thrones or hasn’t seen Akame ga Kill­. My sides will never recover.

From the first scene, Akame ga Kill is an obnoxious anime. I fail to recall a time I hated a protagonist quicker than here. A cocky hero with forced-cool dialogue? Yeah, I hope he dies. He’s so stupid that a large-breasted girl cons him for all him money on his first day in the capitol. She just about asks for it and he hands it over. He’s that stupid. Then a noble girl happens to be passing in the next scene to take him to her estate. Why make him lose all his money if it amounts to nothing? The purpose is to acquaint him with the nobles, but it’s so clumsy that they may as well have typed the script directions on screen.

We then meet the main plot. A group of assassins called Night Raid aim to kill the sinful elite of the kingdom, chief of which is the emperor and his minister for oppressing the populace. Busty Girl is a member of Night Raid, as it happens. So that’s why she was in the useless scene earlier.

Night Raid’s signature – and by extension, Akame ga Kill’s – is gratuitous violence. It’s so meaningless, so overwrought and in a story littered with unfunny humour of poor timing that it didn’t faze me in the slightest to see a noblewoman sliced in two at the waist, her hands spiralling away from her body. Akame ga Kill has so much edge that Gillette has its engineers working around the clock to unlock its secrets. I mean, each episode is titled ‘Kill something’ – ‘Kill the Darkness,’ ‘Kill the Grudge,’ ‘Kill the Audience’s Sanity and Tolerance to Atrocious Writing.’

Episode one’s key action scene has Busty Girl comment how Hero Guy is good because he’s lasted longer than usual against Emo Girl. In reality, Emo Girl mostly stood around and when she does attack, he survives through luck. Her sword that bifurcates people like butter can’t pierce a wooden statuette in his shirt pocket when convenient. Wow, so impressive, Hero Guy. They’ll fall in love over nothing, of course.

Night Raid reveals to Hero Guy that the noble girl and her family torture commoners for amusement, including his friends whose names I can’t remember. Much like the violence, there is no build up to this revelation so it leaves no impact. It does foreshadow how shallow the villains will be, however. “Are you shocked? Are you shocked yet?” The show keeps asking. Yes, I am shocked at how someone can write a story and characters this bad. I can’t believe this is making Aldnoah.Zero look like quality.

I am unsure of the target audience for this anime. It’s too violent for children, yet too immature for adults. Hell, it’s too immature for children.

By the way, I wrote this review after watching a single episode, and with the final episode complete, I have nothing to change except to say it only becomes worse. Here are a few highlights to come:

  • The strongest villain falls in love with Hero Guy for no valid reason.
  • Emo Girl and her sister want to kill each other for edginess.
  • Fights devolve into characters playing their Trump Cards – they literally call their best abilities Trump Cards (how subtle) – creating a binary flow to fights. It also makes no sense why they don’t open with their ‘I Win’ buttons.

Akame ga Kill has no redeeming quality.

Art – Very Low

While some of the backgrounds look decent, nothing can make up for poor animation, bad choreography, generic style, and dissonant character designs. The character design is so lazy that half of them dress in everyday modern clothes in a fantasy world. The creator couldn’t be bothered to design clothes.

Sound – Very Low

Every character sounds like the typecast of their archetype in an atrocious script. The music is as forgettable and generic as the art.

Story – Very Low

A group of assassins kill the corrupt elite of the kingdom one villain at a time. With some of anime’s worst characters, shoddy action, expository dialogue, and cringe-to-the-edge, Akame ga Kill will kill your brain before the end.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Avoid it. Akame ga Kill has likely made it into the ten worst anime I have seen, and I go out of my way to watch some bad anime for the ‘so bad it’s good’ joy. Akame ga Kill cannot even boast that quality.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Atrocious PlotAwful DialogueHollow World BuildingHorrendous ActionInduces StupidityNo DevelopmentRubbish Major CharactersShallowUgly Artistic DesignUseless Side Cast

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.

(Request an anime for review here.)

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