Category Archives: Fantasy

The focus is on emotional conflict.

Ninja Scroll the movie – Review

Japanese Title: Juubee Ninpuuchou

 

Related: Ninja Scroll: the Series (sequel)

Similar: Afro Samurai

Basilisk

Sword of the Stranger

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action

Length: 1 hr. 30 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Well-choreographed and brutal action.
  • A variety of cool ninja powers.
  • Dark visuals to match the grim narrative.

Negatives:

  • With the action focus, most characters have little to no development time.
  • Some awkward explanatory dialogue.
  • Weak music.

Jubei is a vagabond swordsman, hiring out his skills to those who can pay. One night, he helps a ninja woman in trouble. She is Kagero, the last of her ninja unit after an investigation into a mysterious plague led them to slaughter at the hands of a ninja who can turn to stone. He is known as one of the eight devils – eight ninja with extraordinary abilities. A government official looking into the matter hires Jubei to defeat these devils. Thus, Jubei and Kagero are drawn into a plot that threatens to overthrow the government.

Ninja Scroll is an action heavy film of blood, nudity, and cool abilities. The action scenes, Ninja Scroll’s focus, are the most exciting aspect with great choreography and variety in techniques. At only an hour and a half long, there isn’t time to drag out the action or have characters stare into each other’s eyes for episodes on end. Each fight in Ninja Scroll is sharp, intense and varied as Jubei faces the eight devils, all with interesting powers. One ninja can live in shadow, while another can summon snakes from anywhere – anywhere… The manner in which these powers are used is the anime’s most creative aspect. Unfortunately, outside of the action, these villains have no development; they are evil and must do evil things with cool powers.

The lack of development is an issue across the board except for Jubei and Kagero, whose motivations and personalities are explored beyond surface level. The government at the core of the plot doesn’t get any screen time to establish and why this overthrow could be so disastrous. Of course, if your interest lies solely with the action, then this won’t matter. The plot itself is constructed enough to support the action; it isn’t vague or full holes, but does lack depth.

Ninja Scroll is a good-looking film, especially when you consider its 1993 release date. If all you saw during its era was Dragon Ball Z, then Ninja Scroll’s gritty quality comes as a surprise. The artists went for a grim atmosphere throughout, shadows filling all corner of the screen. Even when the sun is out, jet-black shadows contrast with the light in every scene. The animation is good – the blood in particular, which there is plenty of. Each villain has interesting visual designs to fit their abilities. I particularly liked the snake woman with her intricate tattoos.

A great failing is the dialogue. There are several moments where a character will explain how someone died even though we just saw them die. Too much stating the obvious, as well. Jubei slashes the rock ninja, who says in a stilted manner, “A very skilful attack, but you must realise I cannot be cut.” Exposition by stating the obvious isn’t good writing. The dialogue in the latter half gets pretty rubbish at points.

Ninja Scroll stands on its great action and dark atmosphere. It’s a shame that they didn’t extend the airtime to allow for character exploration, and they could have hired a better dialogue writer.

Art – High

Ninja Scroll looks good, defying age, and is loaded with blood.

Sound – Medium

A variety of voices well executed; however, the Japanese takes the edge, as the plethora of ancient Japanese names sound odd in English – a minor gripe. The music is underused and weak overall.

Story – Medium

This is purely about action with a decent narrative structure to support it. The villains are cool in design, just not in development.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Ninja Scroll’s action coupled with dark fantasy art is well worth your time. Just don’t expect extensive character development.

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

Positive: 

Holy S***Riveting Action

Negative: 

No Development

Karas – Review

Japanese Title: KARAS

 

Similar: Zetman

Blassreiter

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy Action

Length: 6 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Dazzling visuals full of energy.
  • Intense action with great cinematography.

Negatives:

  • Too many plot lines that keep shoving each other out of the way.
  • Very little character development across the board.
  • Obvious CG on occasion.
  • Core of the narrative doesn’t become clear until the fourth episode.
  • BLOOM! Ah, my eyes!

Every once in a while, I come across an anime that on the surface looks fantastic, has an interesting premise, and oozes style, but is kicked in the crotch by the most baffling and obvious errors. Karas is one such anime.

Immediately, Karas (Japanese for ‘crow’) dazzles with its intense action as two power-armoured samurai duel among the clouds, gunfire flashing out once they transform into fighter jets before they crash into the city below. The visuals are brilliant and intense, sometimes too intense with excessive use of bloom. It burns the eyes. Karas boasts actual cinematography, often lacking in television anime. Scenes are shot from creative angles, well composited to draw you into the action. The camera shudders against shockwaves, increasing immersion. This anime is beautiful to behold.

However, once the opening action subsides, Karas loses the audience. The premise revolves around a world of demons existing out of sight in a human city. The humans were once aware of the demons’ existence, but have since forgotten and relegated the use of demons to myths and ridicule. (How did they forget?) The Karas tech-fighters exist to keep the balance between the two worlds. Eko, a former Karas, grows tired of human ignorance and raises an army of demons enhanced by his tech-magic to destroy the humans. In response, Yurine uses her own tech-magic to give Otoha the power of the Karas to fight against Eko.

None of this is clear until the halfway mark. The first three episodes largely follow Nue – a rogue demon on humanity’s side – and not the supposed protagonist Otoha. Then episode four hits, and at last, we see the narrative’s core. Nue is all but dropped for Otoha to take his place. This is the obvious problem. Karas has too many plot threads that it can’t manage. I got the impression that the story compositor thought he was plucking a guitar with how fast the scenes jump between threads. Just as a scene is about to reveal its purpose, it cuts away to anoth- no, back again- wait, a third challenger approaches! It’s irritating, particularly in the first two episodes. Two police officers investigating the murders caused by kappa (water demons) also have a meaningless plot thread. Only in the final two episodes, once several plot threads get the Falcon Punch they deserve, can we enjoy the narrative.

None of this is to say that Karas is bad. Rather, it is crippled by baffling choices. It feels as though the first half of the series was in the draft stage, structure wise. Still, Karas is a gorgeous spectacle of action.

Art – High

Karas is a dazzling display of action that blends CG with anime. The CG is noticeable (though not bad) in a few scenes without environmental filters. Wear sunglasses against the bloom.

Sound – Medium

Decent English and Japanese voice tracks with good sound effects.

Story – Medium

Karas has a good narrative to tell between demons and humans, but is unfortunately elbowed across the face by unnecessary side plots.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Watch Karas if you want spectacular sights and action. Make sure to read the full review or a synopsis beforehand so you aren’t lost in the early narrative.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative:

IncoherentUseless Side Cast

xxxHOLiC Kei & Shunmuki & Rou – Review

Japanese Title: xxxHOLiC Kei & Shunmuki & Rou

 

Related: xxxHOLiC (Season 1) & Movie: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (prequel)

Similar: Natsume’s Book of Friends

Bakemonogatari

Mushi-shi

 

Watched in: Japanese (no English dub like season 1)

Genre: Supernatural Mystery Comedy

Length: 13 episodes (Kei), 2 OVAs (Shunmuki), 2 OVAs (Rou)

 

Positives:

  • An overarching plot that season 1 lacked.
  • Expanded core cast with more backstory.
  • Reference to Akagi in xxxHOLiC Kei episode 6!

Negatives:

  • The art in Kei has lost the sharpness and style that made season 1 look unique.
  • Theme of addiction and deeper philosophies largely lost.
  • Most humour is gone.

(Note: this review assumes you have either watched xxxHOLiC season 1 or read the review. Still spoiler-free, however.)

What happened? Where did the heart of xxxHOLiC go? In its transition to xxxHOLiC Kei and the OVAs that followed (xxxHOLiC Shunmuki & xxxHOLiC Rou), the franchise lost its greatest quality: the exploration of addiction and its consequences. While I appreciate the inclusion of an on-going plot to connect the episodes, the creators overbalanced the structure and narrative, eschewing the heart of the original.

xxxHOLiC Kei picks up after season one with Watanuki still working for Yuuko to clear his curse. Cases span a few episodes per customer, allowing for more backstory, but without the depth of the life lessons, these extended cases aren’t as engaging. Much of the humour is gone in Kei, and even more so in the OVAs, replaced with rather drab gloom at times where it isn’t needed. Only Mokona, the adorable ball of fluff, brings any laughter to the scene. The constant gloomy atmosphere didn’t hold my attention like the first season. The art in Kei also lost what made xxxHOLiC visually striking. Yes, the characters have the same hyper-stretched style, but the backgrounds are blurry as though the artists used softer brush strokes and didn’t bother with the detailing stage. That unique quality is no more. Shunmuki and Rou do bring back sharpness with the jump to HD; however, there is something more…generic about the art, though the OVAs do look nice.

Not all is worse. Kei feels like a more important story to Watanuki as a character. Where in the original, Watanuki was more of a Good Samaritan helping people with their addictions; in Kei, he has a greater personal stake in the narrative. Several of the lessons learned are for his benefit rather than the customer. Similarly, in the final OVA Rou, Doumeki is a focus character. We get a chance to see past xxxHOLiC events through his eyes and his backstory. I never say no to good backstory. There are also guest appearances from CLAMP’s other franchise, Tsubasa Chronicles, in xxxHOLiC Shunmuki.

Overall, xxxHOLiC Kei & Shunmuki & Rou are certainly not bad. Fans of the original series will likely enjoy this, unless the humour and theme of addiction were the draw, as they were for me.

Art – Medium

xxxHOLiC Kei looks like someone overused the blur tool; however, the OVAs bring back the sharp quality.

Sound – Medium

Without the English track and the constant gloom, the voice work has less to offer than the original. The ending theme to xxxHOLiC Kei is catchy and adorable, though.

Story – Medium

Without the focus on addiction (the series’ namesake), consequences, and lessons learned, the heart of xxxHOLiC is diminished.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Only for those who want to see more of the characters. Be aware that the tone is more serious than the first.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

xxxHOLiC & A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Review

Japanese Title: xxxHOLiC & xxxHOLiC: Manatsu no Yoru no Yume

 

Related: xxxHOLiC Kei & Rou & Shunmuki (sequel)

Similar: Natsume’s Book of Friends

Bakemonogatari

Mushi-shi

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Comedy Mystery

Length: 24 episodes (Season 1) & a 1 hr. movie

 

Positives:

  • The sultry and seductive Yuuko is a great character shrouded in mystery.
  • A great English voice track that brings out the protagonists’ nuances.
  • Insightful looks into life morals and philosophies regarding addiction.
  • Enjoyable and light-hearted humour.
  • A sharp art style that accentuates Yuuko’s personality and power.

Negatives:

  • Lacks direction in the episodic format without an overarching plot.
  • You have to like the CLAMP hyper-stretched art style, especially here.
  • The majority of ambient characters are no more than sketches filled white.
  • Fluctuation in character proportions breaks immersion.

(Note: The film xxxHOLiC: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is included in this review, as its qualities are the same as season 1 of xxxHOLiC.)

Watanuki spends his days chased by spirits only he can see. One afternoon, while dealing with a particularly troublesome horde of spirits, he stumbles into a shop run by the mysterious and seductive Yuuko, a sorceress who grants wishes in exchange for payment equal to the wish – usually an object precious to the customer. In exchange for his servitude, she agrees to work on removing his curse. And so begins his servitude as her personal chef, errand boy and chore slave.

The title refers to addiction, xxxHOLiC’s theme. The ‘x’s are Japan’s version of blank spaces, just as we use ___. So the title is a multi-purpose term for addictions like alcoholic, workaholic, or even chocoholic. Despite the supernatural slant on the narrative, each case is interesting because xxxHOLiC portrays the addiction and resulting struggles in a realistic way. xxxHOLiC’s acknowledgement that people will lie and deny any problem with their addictions, and the reality that some addictions have long-lasting consequences, is the key that turned the series from something forgettable to an anime worth my time. Many customers end up in the shop without meaning to, without realising that they need help – a great metaphor for reality. Not all cases have a happy end.

The life lessons Yuuko brings to the table have actual depth rather than being “philosophical” one-liners. The shop’s first customer since Watanuki, for example, is losing the use of her arm and can’t understand why. Watanuki investigates to find that she is a serial liar, concocting falsehoods in conversations with friends and acquaintances to make herself look better in their eyes. While these lies seem innocent, the supernatural is using her addiction as an opening to infect her. Watanuki asks Yuuko why they didn’t just tell the woman to stop lying. Yuuko explains that the woman lies for her own sake and nobody else’s. It wouldn’t make a difference if told of the consequences; she would still lie, addicted to the feeling of looking good in front of others, until she experienced the consequences for herself. I appreciated this more realistic view on the problem rather than waving a magic wand to fix fundamental issues within a person’s character.

Yuuko steals the show. She is an inter-dimensional sorceress with great fashion sense, an insatiable appetite, confidence, and isn’t afraid to be seductive when needed, reminding me of Bayonetta. Actress Colleen Clinkenbeard brings her to life especially well in English with a sultriness and nuance to her voice not found in Japanese.

Another great character is Doumeki – popular, talented, good looking, better at soccer than Watanuki – a guy too aloof to be scared by spirits, which infuriates Watanuki. He has this great deadpan voice at all times (the similarity in voice for both languages is uncanny).

xxxHOLiC’s main potential turn off, outside of the CLAMP’s stretched art style (full Jack Skelington here), is the episodic format. The lack of overarching plot to the series makes the show lack direction, even if each individual episode is interesting. If you accidentally skipped a few episodes, you wouldn’t notice.

Regarding the movie, there isn’t much to say. It is essentially an extended episode with a bigger budget allowing for grander animation, more variety in environments, and a larger cast of characters. The overall quality is similar with the same strengths and weaknesses as the series. Watch it after the season for full context. xxxHOLiC is an enjoyable, fun show. It is a pleasure to watch the dynamic between the calm Yuuko and Watanuki’s hysteria.

Art – Medium

xxxHOLiC uses CLAMPS’s iconic thin art style to the extreme here. It may turn some away. Crowds could use detailing.

Sound – High

A solid Japanese track with a better English one accompanied by pleasant and mysterious instrumental music. Plenty of violin.

Story – Medium

xxxHOLiC’s supernatural angle on the exploration of addiction is interesting and unique. However, the lack of continual plot between episodes can reduce compulsion to keep watching. (Is that the show’s way of telling you not to get addicted to anime…?)

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Great for anyone who likes humour undercoated by deep morals with an air of mystery about it. Worth watching for sorceress Yuuko alone.

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

Positive:

Positive Recommended English Voice TrackStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Avatar the Last Airbender – Review

Japanese Title: Abatā Densetsu no Shōnen An

 

Related: The Legend of Korra (sequel)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

Gundam SEED

Vision of Escaflowne

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 61 episodes (3 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Excellent, thoroughly developed characters.
  • Fluid and awesome action with magnificent spell effects.
  • Perfect pacing.
  • Great for children and adults alike.
  • Pleasant Humour.
  • Engaging story that keeps getting better, particularly in the third season.

Negatives:

  • Takes a little time to get used to characters sounding American despite none looking so, though this won’t hinder my experience.
  • Finale makes a single poor decision.

I first heard of Avatar the Last Airbender with the announcement of the film by the same name. As an introduction to the world of Avatar, the film couldn’t have gone worse. However, surrounding all this excrement was a fanbase livid at the mutilation of their beloved show. I kept hearing how amazing the show was. Now, source material is often better than adaptations, so I figured the cartoon must be better. But amazing? No, I doubted that. I have encountered many rabid fanbases in my time surrounding anime (I know that this isn’t anime, but the same audience enjoys it) and rarely do they result in something worth your time. In the end, I acquired this show for the sole purpose to educate myself when I argue that the show isn’t all that great. Instead, Avatar turned out to be…phenomenal.

Our story starts with the awakening of Aang, airbender and the next Avatar incarnation discovered frozen in an iceberg by two nomads of the Water Tribe. Aang has little time to learn the remaining three elements (Earth, Water, and Fire) before a comet passes Earth that will empower the current Fire Lord, who seeks world domination, into a being of living destruction – all the while hunted by Fire Prince Zuko.

Aang travels with waterbender Katara and her brother Sokka across the world, encountering a wide cast of characters on their many adventures. The characters are a large part of what makes this a great show. Katara, the motherly type, has to keep her brother’s antics in line. Much of the comedy comes from Sokka, who can’t waterbend like his sister and must fight with his lucky boomerang.

Aang is the weakest of the cast at the beginning; not saying he is a bad character – far from it, great in fact – he simply doesn’t hold up to the rest. He has one of those righteous personalities. You know the type: doesn’t kill people or even really harm them, no matter how evil, vegetarian because he can’t harm animals, and other pious life choices. At first, I thought this would make for great conflict considering his mission, and it does for a while, only to throw a reversal later. While Aang’s story is great, the other major characters experience more interesting story arcs that culminate in epic conclusions. If anything, that is a testament to Avatar’s quality. When the supporting cast has such fantastic arcs that the protagonist’s arc couldn’t possibly live up to them, you know you have something good.

The best character of all is Prince Zuko the firebender. Upon first meeting, he irritated with his whining about lost honour and his obsession with the Avatar. However, my opinion turned around as he developed. Before long, I realised that the writers intended for one not to like him so that his growth will mirror one’s opinion of him. Truly great writing.

Full thought went into every side character – the creators didn’t take shortcuts even for single-episode appearances. From the completely nutters, bad-joke-loving, king of Omashu to Zuko’s uncle, Iroh (voiced by legendary Mako – one of his last roles), I looked forward to each new location for the characters they will meet.

Humour is a strong element of the series. In the first season however, as an older viewer, you may find some moments a little too tailored towards the intended young audience. Thankfully, the third season’s high notes with some truly dark moments well make up for this. Prepare to laugh plenty throughout the show, especially at the hands of Sokka. If you have kids, watch it with them to earn many awesome points in their eyes, and with the show tailored towards them, the pacing is never dull, as the writers knew they could never release their attention. Every single episode captured my interest.

Action never occurs for the sake of action, so you don’t get tired of seeing the elemental powers. Take Naruto, for example, and his overused shadow clone technique that grows old because he whips it out at a whim every few minutes. Yes, it’s great when executed correctly, but could have been better with less airtime. Avatar doesn’t make that mistake.

In the end, Avatar the Last Airbender is a brilliant show. With many likable characters that experience proper development, action and visuals that fit the themes, and an overall plot that concludes with an epic finale, this is easily a must watch.

Art – Very High

Art and animation of a high quality in a colour palette suited to the elemental nature of the powers. It looks particularly great in action – water flowing across the screen as fire rages, wind slicing things apart while earth smashes the environment. Visuals’ only flaw is in the animation of the mouths, where it could have done with a few more frames to match the other smoothness.

Sound – High

Masterful acting once acclimated to the American accents in an Asian setting. Audio effects for spells are great.

Story – Very High

Only a few missteps with the protagonist and a lack of intensity in season one hurt this show’s story. Avatar will still surprise with just how good it is, the final season in particular. Hilarious, too.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Rent it, buy it, watch it. Then you can join in on the discussions as to why the movie is so damn terrible. Get the kids involved as well.

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

Positive:

Extensive Character DevelopmentHilariousPositive Recommended English Voice TrackRiveting ActionStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStellar Voice Acting

Negative: None