Category Archives: Fantasy

The focus is on emotional conflict.

Sword Art Online – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Sword Art Online

Related: Sword Art Online 2 (sequel)

Sword Art Offline (spin-off)

 

Similar: Log Horizon

Re:Zero

Accel World

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick up Girls in a Dungeon?

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Adventure Fantasy Game Romance

Length: 25 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Strong concept.
  • Nice music.

Negatives:

  • Hacking protagonist.
  • Twitchy story structure.
  • World lacks creativity.
  • Abandons strong concept before long.
  • An ending that would make Bleach pitch a tent.
  • Poor exposition for vague rules in the game.

A long time ago, I watched .hack//Sign, the story of a player trapped in an MMO – cool premise – but the execution resulted in a dull disappointment. Over a decade later, I hear of Sword Art Online, a similar premise with a greater focus on action, and I was thrilled. This could be the anime I desired. Heh, how wrong was I?

Ten thousand players manage to get into the first fully immersive virtual reality MMO at launch; however, the game master traps them inside with no escape until someone clears all hundred floors. The problem? Death in the game means death in real life.

And that’s about as far as SAO gets before the quality declines. The first few episodes are decent despite the bland exposition on the game’s mechanics – an early warning. Each episode seems to bring a new fault to light. First, it’s the mechanics, then it’s the timeskips, where months pass between episodes, skipping over important events, – SAO seems desperate to reach the end – and then it’s the protagonist, Kirito. Within four episodes, thousands have died, the top guild has cleared half the floors, and Kirito is level seventy-eight. We never see how he accomplishes this feat, a feat they swore was impossible a couple of episodes ago. Instead, we have to endure some new character, usually a girl, fawning over how amazing Kirito is before either they die off or we never see them again. The cycle repeats several times. The character dynamics never go full harem, as nothing really happens with these girls, but it is pathetic.

Where is the drama and politics of the world? Everyone faces death, yet after a few episodes, this feels like a bunch of kids at a LAN party – and one of them is a hacker.

I swear to you, Kirito is a hacker. There is no other explanation for how he gains power and has so many abilities. Kirito is just another Goku pulling shit out of his arse, deus ex machina after deus ex machina when convenient. The action is filled with false tension, as it quickly becomes apparent that Kirito will hack his way to victory each time – not before someone dies first, of course. It would make too much sense for Kirito to open with his winning abilities, wouldn’t it? There’s overpowered and then there’s Kirito.

Let’s say you don’t mind an OP character (I have received dozens of such recommendation requests before), is SAO still worth it? No. Kirito is only one of a dozen problems. Not far into the series, a romance plot takes over, which is decent for itself, but comes at the cost of the main plot – the writer had not the skill to weave both. Go a few episodes further, they reach a ‘new game mode,’ shall we call it, and it is terrible. The death IRL mechanic is gone, the plot devolves into mindless action – even less engaging than before – and the new characters provide nothing of value. They rushed for this? The first part wasn’t irredeemable. I cannot fathom why they didn’t extend the first part to flesh out the characters and events. Maybe while they’re at it, show us from where Kirito gets all these super-secret-special-awesome abilities. Kirito also has these melodrama monologues that have nothing to do with anything, but at this point, it’s the least of SAO’s problems.

The ending is lame. A reset to all stats? Really? This is worse than Bleach’s power resets.

As an MMO fan, another irksome fault is the lack of an MMO feel. I had hopes at the start when they made the G.I.R.L. joke (Guy In Real Life). Alas, we don’t get much more than that. Yes, they have dungeons, bosses, equipment, levels, NPCs, yet they don’t feel as they would in a game, even a VR one. SAO seems constructed for a shounen demographic first, art second (ironic, considering the title). And how did no one make a “Can I have your stuff?” joke when someone dies?

With such a furore surrounding this anime, I expected something good, not the greatest, mind you, but certainly better than this. Look, Sword Art Online starts well, gradually decreases in quality, and I like several side characters and how the romance has progression to it; however, with the advent of the new game mode, the quality tanks to atrocious levels. The disappointment hurts.

Art – Medium

Good, clean art; however, most establishing shots, such as when entering a new town, are complete stills – frozen characters with interchangeable faces. An overall lack of creativity to world design and abilities; little in Sword Art Online is visually memorable. This is a game where they could have had anything they wanted – anything! Pick any MMO today (one that doesn’t suck) and it boasts greater creativity.

Sound – Medium

Good acting in both languages – a matter of preference. The music is likely the strongest aspect, which sounds fitting for a fantasy MMO.

Story – Very Low

Sword Art Online is the story of a writer with a great idea he had no idea how to execute and who favoured his protagonist too much. Disappointing.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Not worth your time unless you have a desire for mindless entertainment. I cannot think of an anime that squandered its premise more than Sword Art Online – that honour used to belong to .hack//Sign, interestingly enough.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Deus Ex MachinaDissapointingHollow World BuildingHorrendous ActionMary SueMisleadingPoor Pacing

Attack on Titan – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Shingeki no Kyojin

 

Related: Attack on Titan Season 2

Attack on Titan OVA (side story)

Similar: Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

Knights of Sidonia

Tokyo Ghoul

Claymore

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Drama

Length: 25 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The sense of fear.
  • The world and atmosphere.
  • Interesting Titan lore and variety.
  • Incredible action rendered in gorgeous animation.
  • The music is great, from the opening to the tension theme.

Negatives:

  • Battle shounen tropes that slow the pace at inopportune moments.
  • Bland as raw potato protagonist.
  • Poor build-up to twists.
  • Several elements introduced and focused on long before relevance.
  • Poor job of conveying the city’s scope and distance between walls. (Creator doesn’t truly comprehend how big a 480 km radius covers.)

Attack on Titan is a story of fear. Humans live in a constant state of fear, fear of being consumed by Titans, giants that bang on the walls of humanity’s last bastion. One day, a new Colossal Titan appears and smashes through the wall, realising that fear. What an incredible premise – Pacific Rim gone medieval. With such an engaging hook, how can anyone avoid this for long?

And I must say, I am…disappointed.

AoT starts strong with the breach of the outer wall, throwing us straight into the gravity of humanity’s situation. However, after that first tense episode, the pace slows to a crawl as we watch Eren, his foster sister Mikasa, and friend Armin train to become Titan hunters. Wait, so what about the response to the breach? Eh, who cares? It’s more important that we meet a swarm of new characters that have no significance – reminiscent of Pacific Rim’s Chinese Jaeger. This would have been alright if the training weren’t so clichéd. To qualify for combat, recruits must learn to use the ‘Three-Dimensional Manoeuvrability Gear,’ a pneumatic system of firing cables to swing like Spiderman between buildings. The gear is cool. The training for it, not so much. Eren can’t balance properly and faces expulsion from the program. He trains his hardest, yet still fails, but guess what saves him in the end? His belt was faulty… Really? That’s it? The hard-arse drill instructor, a veteran, didn’t consider the fault on day one? And do you want to know why they did this? To show his skill because he maintained balance for some moments despite the fault. That’s right, in Naruto, kids face death to become true ninjas; in Full Metal Alchemist, kids risk their limbs to learn alchemy; in AoT, you have to balance on a bloody swing. Please…stop…the tension…it’s too much…oh no…

How did no one see these episodes and say, “This has no tension; we can do better.” Why not have a Titan, a small one, attack during training and Eren shows unconventional skill? And you want to know the irony of it all? Eren’s gear use is the least important of any character in the series.

This level of poor writing isn’t constant, interestingly enough. No, after the worthless training, once the action kicks in, it’s back to episode one’s quality. Tension, conflict, gruesome violence, creepy as hell manbaby Titans, deaths every few minutes, that animation as they fly around the Titans, all of it, it’s excellent. Then, of course, the drunken writer of the team wakes up to do his part again, and gives us the worst yet, episode ten. In the middle of one tense moment, we have to stop and endure a character’s inner monologue about the obviousness of the trouble they are in – for an entire episode. In a better show, this would take a couple of minutes, or better yet, the resolution would have clever back and forth with the cornered hero.

Once that episode buggers off, it’s great again. That is until the drunkard wakes up again! AoT is a violent anime set in a bleak world where children have no childhood, where the wealthy stomp on the poor even with humanity on the verge of extinction, and where courage is hard to find. Yet, despite this mature look at the world, the writers saw fit to inject trashy battle shounen tropes into the narrative. Take for example, Eren, a character who spends most of his screen time yelling about how much he wants to kill Titans; the rest of the time, he has an inner monologue stating the obvious. When a commander gives a rousing speech to rally the troops, Eren spends several minutes telling us how the commander gave a rousing speech and how determined the troops look. Thanks, Eren, we can already see that on their faces. This happens every few episodes.

There is a moment where a character is in a Titan’s mouth, holding it open, and rather than stab upwards to possibly escape, he must give some heroic speech before dinner. We expect these moments in battle anime – that’s the standard – but here, when they’re trying to convince us of the narrative’s seriousness, it doesn’t match the tone. Did they hire Toriyama or some other rubbish for a few scenes? This coupled with Eren’s stating the obvious gives the impression that the writers think the viewers are idiots – that five-year-old watching Dragon Ball Z who doesn’t know grass is green. Even when writing for a five-year-old one shouldn’t talk down to the audience.

Twists have the same error. Rather than trust the audience and give hints early to bring it all together in that ‘no way!’ moment, we watch several episodes with no clear goal. Then we have the twist, the initiation of the twist thread, and the explanation all at once. Imagine if in The Sixth Sense we’re never told that the kid sees ghosts, and at the end, the kid suddenly says, “I see ghosts and you’re a ghost. Twist!” Sure, it’s a surprising twist, but without something to start with, the red herrings, the diversions, there’s nothing to build on, leaving no impact in the twist.

Now, even with negatives taking up the majority of this review, I found AoT to be a good anime. The Shadow of the Colossus sense of scale, the spectacle, the production value, and the overall atmosphere are well worth your time. I focus on these negatives because they aren’t isolated; I can’t say that block is bad, as in Death Note; I can’t say Monster is slow to start, but once rolling, the issues are minor. No, here, the problems, these obvious problems are peppered throughout. The obviousness is what surprises me the most. A novice editor with a single look at the script would have spotted them.

These problems would likely go unmentioned in a lesser show, overshadowed by bigger issues; however, there is nothing impressive about an Olympian placing first in a high school race. Attack on Titan has such a strong premise and it nails the positives so well that the slightest flaws becoming glaring issues.

Art – Very High

The art and scope is probably what drew most people to Attack on Titan. Animation during action sequences is phenomenal and has raised the bar for future action series. However, a few scenes are panning stills, but these last mere seconds. Excellent atmospheric lighting.

Sound – High

Attack on Titan features some of the most hype-inducing music in anime, especially that first opening (don’t know why they bothered with a second). Operatic and orchestral for the most part. Great acting in both languages; the actors convey trauma and despair particularly well, though Eren is one-note in this aspect. Needed a better script to reach a higher tier of quality.

Story – Medium

The action, world, atmosphere, all great, but such a weak script, poor structuring, flat protagonist (several other dullards besides), and kiddy tropes prevent Attack on Titan from having the engagement it could have had.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Recommended – yes, even with its flaws – because of what it does right – fear and action. Future seasons could elevate Attack on Titan to an all-time great, but as it is, a superior clone has the window to snatch the crown before coronation.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationGreat MusicGreat OP or ED SequenceHoly S***Riveting ActionStunning Art Quality

Negative:

DissapointingWeak End

Claymore – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Claymore

 

Similar: Berserk

Attack on Titan

Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Brutal action with interesting abilities and monsters.
  • Unnerving soundtrack.

Negatives:

  • Bloody hell, will someone kill that kid already?
  • Poor exposition techniques.
  • Animation shortcuts in the action.
  • Unfinished threads.

Claymore is set in a world of bloodthirsty youma and warrior women who roam the land hunting these demons. Clare is the newest and lowest ranked of these warriors called Claymores – named after the giant swords they wield. Claymores are half-youma themselves; they live in constant danger of the youma half taking control, though it always happens eventually, at which point another Claymore sister will hunt them down.

The Claymore lore is the most interesting element of this anime. Claymores follow a strict code. They have little human about them and are cold by nature, which makes it unusual when Clare picks up orphaned boy Raki on a mission after a youma ate his family. That was her first mistake. Her second mistake was not running him through in the first episode. I hate that kid. He is a whiny, useless brat, who claims to be her cook, but he only cooks once, and most ironic of all, Claymores barely need to eat. His true purpose is to question Clare’s every action and motivation as if that is any of his business. Clare should decapitate that brat and put his head on a pike as a warning to other writers on what happens when you write such a terrible character.

Clare has a relentless determination as she carves demons, each fight a challenge for any Claymore – limb dismemberment and bifurcation is a common sight here. Meanwhile, Raki, a human who can’t fight to save his life, fancies himself Clare’s saviour. I almost forgot, another Raki irritation: exposition. The plot finds contrived ways to get Raki into a conversation that exposits lore – why tell that kid anything anyway?

I like the freaky monster designs. Even the Claymores turn demonic in combat when they access their youma side to grotesquely augment strength and regenerate damage. The women don’t suffer from the Beauty Is Never Tarnished trope.

Claymore is all about action, in the end, and you can expect to find plenty throughout Clare’s adventure. She encounters many other Claymores to learn from in her quest to avenge her figurative mother, Teresa (my favourite character), defeated by a former Claymore turned full youma. Each Claymore has a specialty in how they fight and sport some cool abilities, even if the animation quality can’t always supply the illustrations they deserve.

If you search for deep characters, you won’t find them here. If you desire a multi-layered plot, Claymore won’t deliver it to you. However, if you want brutal action accompanied by dark lore and powerful women with just enough to make an engaging tale, then look no further. Sometimes, action is enough for entertainment.

Art – Medium

Claymore has a nice, grim art style, but its battle anime budget resulted in too many animation shortcuts – repeated blur attacks, action flashes, cutaways before impact. Not as bad as the likes of Dragon Ball Z, and the action events are engaging, but a higher production could have gone a long way. Cool, sallow, hardened character designs for the Claymores (they must pluck their eyebrows a lot).

Sound – High

Good acting in either language, though, like most anime of this kind, Claymore doesn’t have the script for greatness. Love the Gothic horror metal (is that a genre?) soundtrack – ED song akin to Attack on Titan’s OP is great.

Story – Medium

Warrior women roaming the land to hunt demons; that is Claymore. Not the deepest premise, but it makes for an engaging action series. I do want to murder Raki, however. Stab him right in the face.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For action fans only. Claymore sports better fights than most action anime, so if that sounds good to you, then have at it. I watched it start to end without regret.

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

 

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

Positive:

Great Music

Negative:

Weak End

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

 

Related: Vampire Hunter D (alternative prequel)

Similar: Hellsing Ultimate

Ninja Scroll the Movie

Cowboy Bebop

Castlevania

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Gothic Vampire Action Fantasy Horror

Length: 1 hr. 37 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • That Gothic visual style.
  • The varied and interesting vampires.
  • Fantastic animation, particularly for the plethora of supernatural abilities.
  • The tragic touch.
  • Haunting soundtrack fits perfectly.

Negatives:

  • I want more.

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, one of my favourite anime. As an avid reader and painter of Warhammer Fantasy, Bloodlust is a look at what Warhammer would be like it were brought to the anime medium. This is a film dripping with style, from Gothic architecture to German classical music to fantasy lore, and I love every bit of it.

The adventure takes place in a techno-Gothic future where vampires rule the night, but their numbers are dwindling with the rise of bounty hunters after the prices on their heads. The best hunter of all is D, a rider in black with a wide-brimmed hat and a cybernetic horse, and is a dunpeal – half-vampire, half-human – for which ordinary humans fear him. He also has a demon face living in his hand that provides comedic relief to an otherwise dark tale; his snark and cowardice are entertaining. A wealthy aristocrat hires D to recover his daughter, Lady Charlotte, who was kidnapped by the vampire Meier Link, alive or dead if turned already. Also on the trail is a group of bounty hunters who drive around in a tank, hunting the undead.

The chase takes D and the hunters through graveyards, mountain passes, a monster town, and more, ultimately culminating in an epic finale reminiscent of Warhammer meets Castlevania. Bloodlust is a film that ramps up with each stage of the narrative, getting grander and more intense with each step. Where the original Vampire Hunter D had no surprises in its simple narrative, Bloodlust surprised me several times along the way, not just twists in the story, but also elements brought into play. I didn’t expect the touches of tragedy and emotion from D and Meier in a dark tale such as this. It adds an extra layer of depth that the creators could have easily ignored.

This time around, we get a few glimpses into D’s character, which not only characterises him better, but also makes him more mysterious and intriguing. In the original, he came across as some quiet guy who fights vampires and that was it; here however, the moments into his past and the prejudice he faces as a half-vampire give you something to care about, enough to make you want to learn more. Similarly, the vampire villain, Meier, is a complete character, fitting into one of my favourite character archetypes, the tragic villain. I feel it would constitute spoilers to elaborate further, suffice it to say, Meier is a cool villain with believable motivations and actions.

Another great aspect of Bloodlust is the monsters and their supernatural powers. We see giant sand rays, a werewolf with a mouth where his stomach should be, and a woman who can meld into any surface and become that substance. That’s just the start. One of the bounty hunters, a bed-ridden man, can astral project his soul to become a laser beam firing entity of doom at the cost of his health. Oh yes, the master of shadows is especially cool. Best of all however, again, is Meier with his Batman-like cape that can turn to steel, among his many gifts. Everything about him screams Gothic vampire – it’s so rare to see vampires that aren’t worthless morons like in Buffy or melodramatic saps as seen in Twilight.

Now, to avoid overhyping, I want to make it clear the Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust isn’t the greatest anime ever made. No individual part of it is bad; however, you could take each element, narrative-wise, and add more to it – even more characterisation and backstory, even more lore, even more psychology, and so on. With tempered expectations in mind, this is an easy anime for me to recommend. You don’t need to see the original, as this draws no influence from the previous. I love this anime.

Art – Very High

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust has one of best art styles in all animation. The Gothic architecture shrouded in a dark atmosphere is wondrous and the character design, especially the vampires, perfection. The animation is great as well; the opening scene where the vampire drains all life as he passes through town to kidnap Charlotte is an excellent showcase for the artists’ skill. This art makes me hungry for more anime in this style. A Warhammer Fantasy series using this Gothic goodness would comatose me from amazement.

Sound – High

The Foley sounds are great – what a difference it makes compared to the original. Also improved is the voice work in both languages. You can’t go wrong with either track. However, the strongest audio element is the music. As with the German influenced Gothic architecture, the music borrows from famous German and Austrian classical composers to weave a haunting soundtrack that enhances the tension and horror.

Story – High

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust brings several surprises to its narrative of a half-vampire hunting a vampire to recover a human lady. The small touches of tragedy and emotion elevate this beyond a straightforward action anime. Love the vampires and their lore.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must-watch for gothic fantasy fans. What more can I say about Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust? I love this film’s sense of style, its action, its tragedy, its atmosphere, and its lore.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationGreat MusicHoly S***Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Vampire Hunter D – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Vampire Hunter D

 

Related: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (alternative sequel)

Similar: Hellsing Ultimate

Blood: The Last Vampire

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Vampire Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 1 hr. 20 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Gross and creepy monsters.
  • Some decent action.

Negatives:

  • Age is noticeable with tinny Foley audio and cheap art techniques.
  • Other than D and the villain, the character design is rather hilarious. The countess kills me every time.
  • Several moments of cringe worthy dialogue. (“Prepare yourself for death” – a henchman.)
  • Voice work is atrocious in English, passable in Japanese.

In the distant, dark future, monsters have taken over the land, forcing humanity to live in confined communities like medieval times. Count Magnus Lee, giant and vampire, rules one such town. One day, he decides to capture Doris, a local girl with an unnaturally short skirt, after a dinosaur eats her cybernetic horse, wanting her for his next wife. Now cursed by the vampire, Doris hires wandering vampire hunter D to free her from the count’s grasp.

Vampire Hunter D’s age is immediately apparent. Even if you ignore the 80s character design, the poor sound effects and animation shortcuts keep reminding you this anime is three decades old. You have to be able to look past this if you want to have a chance of enjoying Vampire Hunter D. If not, skip this one.

With that in mind, this is a decent anime. D has to fight his way through a variety of monsters, maggoty, many-eyed, tentacle, wormy, monsters in the count’s techno-Gothic castle. There’s also the talking demon face that lives in D’s hand, which is rather creepy, I’ll admit, even more so than the spider launcher. D cuts one monster in two and his guts pop out like a piñata – the gore is nice, except when the blood spray is more comical than Monty Python.

These action moments are the most enjoyable of Vampire Hunter D, which are unfortunately distracted from by Doris’s scenes. She is useless against the count, let alone his minions, so her conflict centres on sexual advances from the mayor’s sleazy son, and getting attacked by the vampire’s henchmen, including one of the most hilariously designed characters in anime history – Countess Ramika, the vampire’s daughter. One could make a case for UN membership with such mass. Even when she talks, it’s hilarious; Doris will speak at a regular volume, to which Ramika replies in spastic, wild bursts, peppered with random laughs for the most innocuous dialogue. Her tone is so wildly out of place, I actually found it entertaining.

Even with all its dated flaws, Vampire Hunter D was an enjoyable experience for the monster slaying and action, even if brief. Then again, this film isn’t long, so you don’t have to endure the problems for long. That dome could block out the sun…

Art – Medium

Vampire Hunter D hasn’t aged well in the visual department. I like the dark style, but the use of background streaks, comical blood spray, and 80s character design does hurt the eyes. And the countess’s forehead… Still slays me.

Sound – Low

The sound effects are often bad; you can hear the Foley artist at work in his studio. Sounds like a 16-bit game. The voice acting is passable at best in Japanese and awful in English. Of all audio elements, the music is the best and adds to the dark atmosphere.

Story – Medium

Vampire Hunter D has a simple story of a vampire hunter tasked with killing a vampire count. The core of the adventure – D fighting through the count’s traps, monsters, and goons – is good, but all outside of this is weak, particularly the girl’s scenes.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Vampire Hunter D’s age makes it a difficult anime to recommend today. If you can look past that, this is a decent film. Or you could watch the excellent Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

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

 

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Useless Side Cast