Category Archives: Music

The conflict and goals are based around music.

Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Beck

 

Similar: Kids on the Slope

Legend of Black Heaven

Detroit Metal City

Nana

K-On!

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Music Drama

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Dives into the struggles of musical success.
  • Creates a complete album for the story.
  • Depth of music knowledge.
  • Excellent soundtrack.

Negatives:

  • Unremarkable first act.
  • Engrish, if accurate, may be too much to handle in the Japanese track.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Beck is the story of a group of teenagers on the path for music stardom. On their journey, reality will throw all of life’s problems in the way as trials to overcome, should they ever take dreams seriously. We follow 14-year-old Koyuki and his encounter with decrepit guitarist Ryuusuke before joining his new band BECK.

I was not optimistic for Beck. Its first few episodes aren’t particularly interesting nor do they have that certain something which promises greatness further on. Take Koyuki for example, whose slant is complaining about how his life is at a dead end. He’s fourteen! This conflict hook didn’t convince me, never mind the stereotypical bullies that torment him. Even Ryuusuke, a guitarist fallen from grace having once played in a famous band, lacks a reason for sympathy. Sure, his Engrish lisp is amusing, but that doesn’t hook a viewer.

But then things start to change.

A girl enters the picture. Her relationship with Koyuki has a natural quality to it that I find refreshing, free from hype and melodrama. There’s also the crazy former Olympic swimmer turned guitarist who has to butt in and correct any swimmer with poor form. He coaches Koyuki in aquatics and music – his pet bird can only say “asshole.” Then they reference established pre-millennium rock bands – Beatles, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, The Who, Rolling Stones, etc. (the list is lengthy) – with a serious understanding of the bands as they write their own tracks, showing research on the subject matter by the writers. And once Koyuki starts playing and singing, in particular, Beck had me. Koyuki performs a song around the middle that is truly beautiful. The mid-crescendo in the plot erased the dull start. One of the greatest surprises comes from those bully stereotypes I mentioned earlier, for they evolve into complete characters by the end. This never happens.

Better yet is the second half when Koyuki gets serious about making it as a musician. He and the band struggle to book gigs, afford equipment, manage personalities and egos, all while working side jobs to pay the bills, and surviving high school on top of that. Beck leaves no corner of the music industry unilluminated from how to craft a melody to contracts to advertising and agencies – even a dip into the darker corners of music to spice the final act. Beck has the reality check that Shirobako should have had.

I love that Beck goes through an extensive arc from middle school through high school and beyond. Often with single-season coming-of-age anime, they only show a year or two of school and leave too much up in the air. To me, the result of the characters’ education is just as important as the journey that made them learn. I always feel unsatisfied when they leave the result in the ether. It’s like watching a film about someone training for a match but it fades to black just as they step onto the field for the big game (What the hell?). I am so glad Beck doesn’t torture like this.

The first half could do with a few episodes’ compression, but the second half is excellent. I experienced the passion for music in these characters.

Art – Medium

Has a distinct style with a drained colour palette that suits the underground music scene. Animation is wobbly and low FPS, but improves in the second half.

Sound – Very High

For a show about rock music, you would expect great rock music. Beck delivers. Beyond its references to rock classics, many original songs were created for the band’s journey, adapted by the actors in both Japanese and English versions. More than the music, the acting is good. In the Japanese, characters sing and speak in Engrish, which is technically correct, for they are Japanese. That said, it might become unbearable to some viewers. Ryusuke in particular has a thick accent with an Engrish lisp. On the other hand, Koyuki sounds almost native when singing English. Americans voice American characters even in the original track, but their dialogue is subpar, which the dub rewrite fixes. Japanese version: technically accurate. English version: easier on the ears. Up to you.

Story – High

A band starts in middle school and aims for stardom through to adulthood. The deep insight into rock music and the industry more than make up for the tepid first half, and is one of the few anime to portray the struggles of professional industry accurately.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for music fans. If you love rock in particular, Beck is a treat. If music isn’t your passion, Beck may still engage you with its characters, but music is the focus.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeGreat Music

Negative: None

Interstella 5555 – Anime Review

Full Title: Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem

 

Similar: Legend of Black Heaven

Bohemian Rhapsody

The Galaxy Railways

 

Watched in: N/A (99% music)

Genre: Music Science Fiction

Length: 1 hr. 7 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Daft Punk music.
  • Visually striking.
  • A complete story, despite the music focus.

Negatives:

  • The need to get from one song to another without downtime in between.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Something many anime fans don’t know about is the prevalence of anime and manga in France. After all, the word ‘anime’ is French (hence the odd pronunciation in English). In the manga industry, there’s something called the ‘French Exception,’ where a series can fail in all Western markets except France. Many avant-garde or niche manga find more success in France than in Japan itself. France also localised works much sooner than other regions for a long time. I recall seeing the final season of Dragon Ball Z on French TV while the US had only begun dubbing to English. With all this in mind, it comes as no surprise to see French music duo Daft Punk collaborate with their childhood manga hero, Leiji Matsumoto (Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999), to create Interstella 5555.

Interstella 5555 is an anime visualisation of Daft Punk’s “Discovery” album. It opens on an alien planet to a band of Smurf-looking people playing “One More Time,” until invaders kidnap the group and take them to Earth. They manage a distress signal out to space pilot Shep. Down on Earth, after receiving the Michael Jackson treatment to pass for human, the brainwashed aliens become the Crescendolls, a band destined for earthly stardom under an evil music mogul. It’s up to Shep to slap the human out of them.

There’s no dialogue beyond a foreword and any lip-sync to the music. Sound effects similarly are at a minimum. However, there is a complete story here, one I enjoyed for its oddities featuring heroes, villains, and conflicts with resolution as it plays through the album. This is simultaneously the selling point and greatest flaw.

I don’t know if it’s because I don’t like musicals (outside Disney’s ‘occasional song’ style), but the jump from one song to the next felt a tad rushed, working best when the band played on-screen or during action. I would have liked moments between songs to give the music a rest. Outside of Shep, we don’t get to know the characters well. Twenty to thirty minutes woven between songs would have been great, especially since Shep has the best parts of the story. Imagine this across all characters. Dialogue isn’t necessarily the answer – just downtime.

Most, if not all, of Interstella 5555’s appeal rests on the soundtrack. If you don’t enjoy Daft Punk, then there’s nothing for you here, whereas fans will love it. Those with no strong feelings for the band either way? 50-50.

Interstella 5555 is an hour of Daft Punk set to anime. Simple as that.

Art – High

Interstella 5555 has a very 80s colour palette and character design like Captain Harlock. The pilot’s sideburns! Gorgeous shots of space and good animation too.

Sound – High

It’s Daft Punk music throughout, with minimal sound effects and no dialogue outside the introduction. Not much else to be said.

Story – Medium

An Earth villain kidnaps an alien music group to bolster his success. While I appreciate the inclusion of a full story arc, the focus on getting from one song to the next doesn’t allow us to meet the characters fully.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it. If you’re a Daft Punk fan, then you must watch Interstella 5555 (if you haven’t already). For others, it’s worth a try. The soundtrack predicates your enjoyment.

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

Positive:

Great Music

Negative: None

Kids on the Slope – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Sakamichi no Apollon

 

Similar: Beck

Your Lie in April

Nodame Cantabile

Nana

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Music Drama Romance

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Music animations and the music itself.
  • The main trio.
  • Plenty of heart.

Negatives:

  • Some stiff writing.
  • Awkward interactions dampen drama.
  • MS Paint shading.

So, Kids on the Slope has kids in it, music, a love chain to the moon, and even a school. But where’s the skiing on the Slope they promised me? You cannot promise skiing and then deny it from me later. What do you mean this isn’t a sports anime?! Rubbish! 0 out of 10. Why was this a requested review? See you next time. (Recommend an anime for review here.)

But no, seriously, Kids on the Slope is a music anime set in Japan’s 1960s when relations were still a little iffy with the US. It centres on three high school students as they grow in love and life – the aforementioned slope is a street near school. We have Kaoru, the jaded honour student, Sentaro, with his devil-may-care attitude willing to do anything and then complain about how the thing he decided to do sucks (then why did you do it, Dumbo?!), and Ritsuko, daughter of the music shop owner where the boys play jazz together.

Like other coming-of-age stories, Kids on the Slope aims to explore the transition from teenager to adult through ordinary struggles that seem insurmountable to the teen mind. Kaoru needs to stop being such a mop, Sentaro had better learn some responsibility, and soon or later Ritsuko will realise a crush doesn’t define one’s life. The central conflict stems from a never-ending love chain – Kaoru likes Ritsuko, but she likes Sentaro, who in turn likes this other girl, who likes yet another guy! Music takes less space than I thought. When I saw how much effort went into animating the music, key press for key press, beat for beat, I thought it would be about them hitting it big on the music scene. It’s the hobby that brings them together and any friction in the relationships creates dissonance in the music. Characters are the focus – no complaint from me.

The writers poured heart and soul into these characters, making me feel for them. But when it comes to handling the awkwardness of teenage years, I cringed. Not in the good way. The first episode alone had almost too much to handle. Sentaro’s near obsession with Kaoru in their first hour of meeting aims for endearing, but the over friendliness comes across as creepy in a trying-too-hard-to-be-quirky way. The characters aren’t familiar enough with each other to act like this yet. On the flip side, the way the rest of the school glares at Kaoru, a guy they’ve just met this morning, and act like he’s scum isn’t believable. (Apparently his family has money…?) The mannerisms are too extreme at both ends. It’s certainly no The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in character dynamics.

Capturing teenage awkwardness is a difficult task, especially for adults long past those years. Hell, even writing it as a teenager would have challenges, for teenagers rarely notice their own awkwardness. That guy posing with a katana in his Facebook profile? Yeah, have him write a coming-of-age story and he’ll make every character praise the protagonist for how groovy his katana is.

Great teen fiction won’t be noticeably awkward when viewed by teenagers because they will think that awkwardness is normal behaviour. Handsome guy stalking plain Jane protagonist at her house? “How romantic,” sighs the teen. “Where’s that restraining order?” says the adult, unlocking the gun safe. Kids on the Slope doesn’t have the right sort of awkward. The heavy moments lose tension when the teens act not like teens, but what adults imagine of teens during their first kiss or some trauma. Think of your parents trying to get in on the latest “me-me” with their “fellow kids.” Less is more, as always.

That rant aside, Kids on the Slope is a good anime. The love tempest makes an engaging tale and taps into some oft-overlooked aspects of Japan, such as the minority Christian religion and American relations. While these don’t take a lot of screen time, they add that little extra fullness to the characters’ lives. They feel like characters plucked from reality (barring above problems). It’s strange to say a series is still good without its heavy moments; however, ‘the journey, not the destination matters’ has never been more applicable.

I could see the train wrecks in their lives coming, could see when reality would shatter their dreams, and had to watch without being able to warn them, for experiencing these hardships is what makes one come of age. They make us adults.

Art – High

Kids on the Slope demonstrates its excellent animation within minutes as Sentaro brawls with three guys on a whim, and later when playing music. Every note of music has the exact animation to match. There’s no faking it. Unfortunately, the shading technique looks straight out of an amateur’s Deviant Art profile, with a blurry mess that flattens the art.

Sound – High

I could listen to the jazz for hours – a relaxing experience. While the dub is fine, the Japanese works better in every way. The script could do with dialogue smoothing.

Story – High

A love chain set to the backdrop of jazz in a 1960s Japan high school. It has plenty of heart despite the unnatural interactions when drama hits its peaks.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it. Unless you hate high school dramas, Kids on the Slope delivers engagement throughout its twelve episodes.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationGreat Music

Negative: None

RahXephon – Anime Review

Japanese Title: RahXephon

 

Related: RahXephon: Pluralitas Concentio (alternate movie – watch series first)

RahXephon Interlude: Her and Herself/Thatness and Thereness (OVA)

Similar: Ghost in the Shell

Ergo Proxy

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Action Drama Music Mystery Romance

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Complex narrative and characters.
  • Lore rewards multiple viewings.
  • Excellent use of music and colour metaphor.
  • Superb acting.

Negatives:

  • Complexity leads to niche appeal.

RahXephon holds a fond place in my anime history. An image, a sound, a name, all trigger my memories of this excellent series – the chance discovery at a convention, the first purchase, the long wait between volumes, rewatching all so far in the meantime, checking new releases after school too often, cursing three episodes per DVD, such memories.

RahXephon is an oft-misrepresented series. If you have heard of it, it must be with comparisons to Evangelion, but to say they are the same displays a lack of understanding in both RahXephon and Evangelion, a look at merely the superficial – ah mah gaaaad, a kid with a giant robot against giant monsters! It’s like saying The Dark Knight and Avengers are the same because both feature superheroes. RahXephon is closer to The Matrix than anything, with touches of Inception and time compression.

Ayato lives in a world where all was destroyed by invaders save for Tokyo – billions down to twenty-three million. However, when enemy agent Haruka comes to capture him, claiming his world is a lie, Tokyo as an illusion, his life is thrown upside down. He is the key to defeating the true invaders, blue-blooded Mulians that control Tokyo, for he is an Instrumentalist able to synchronise with the god-like machine RahXephon. He finds himself in a foreign land, his friends, school, life, still trapped inside the illusion of Tokyo. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his mother leads the Mulians.

Ayato is the archetypal reluctant hero forced into war with little explanation, treated as a child despite the importance of his role for humanity. Unlike other ordinary out-of-water characters that end up dull, owing to an ordinary personality as well, Ayato has his mind pushed to the edge, his choices and trials enough to break any man.

He feels the world is against him. Of course, this isn’t true, as it would be rather dull to have a singular-minded cast. No, RahXephon’s cast is a varied gathering – the jealous, the greedy, the naïve, the mysterious, the tenacious, and the kind. Every character is interesting with shades of good and evil. Spending time with them gives the impression each has a complete backstory to call their own, even if appearing simple at first. Furthermore, this backstory isn’t offloaded onto the audience, much of it subtle, requiring close dissection to uncover. Each scene has something of significance – a passing comment here, an unusual reaction there. If you don’t notice these details, the characters still work, but those details truly bring them to life. The romance alone has enough to dissect through several viewings.

Character is so important to RahXephon that even the action is character driven, to the point where it intrudes on the physical side of action scenes. When a threat appears, the real fight is within the psychology, and not always Ayato’s, which makes for engaging conflict. However, once the mental battle is resolved, the fight ends a little too quickly, sometimes in a single attack. It would be nice to see a little more in the physical spectrum, especially with the interesting artistic design and spectacle. The enemy Dolems are constructs of living clay and named after musical notation in Italian – Allegretto, Falsetto, Fortissimo, etc. They are strange in design and power, with one Dolem able to sink entire cities into nothingness with a mere song.

The music motif is significant throughout the series, used to great effect to convey psychology, often unsettling the audience; the soundtrack itself tells a story. Music controls the machines and changes the world. Song is power.

Every element of RahXephon works in harmony to create such a deep and complex narrative, I feel it will alienate many viewers, as though The Appendices were woven into The Lord of the Rings. But like Tolkien’s work, for those who enjoy such detail, RahXephon is a rare treat. With each viewing, I find something new; I discovered three new details for this review – and that must have been my twelfth viewing, at least, of RahXephon.

Art – High

RahXephon looks great in stills with its Egyptian and Aztec aesthetic influences; however, during motion, it can get a little ‘slidey’ when RahXephon flies across the screen – his wings could do with movement. Close-ups are well animated, but long shots need more motion detail. The character and element design is creative, each construct and character telling us a story in their appearance – RahXephon is my favourite mech design. Great use of colour to build atmosphere and amplify character psyche. Gorgeous OP.

Sound – Very High

RahXephon has the best soundtrack in anime. From the ethereal opening “Hemisphere” (my most-listened to song) to the tense track “The Chariot,” RahXephon boasts a wide array of music: romantic, uplifting, mysterious, unsettling, powerful, frenetic, calming. The piano, the violin, the brass, the opera, the choir, all lend heightened emotion to the narrative. The voice acting is superb in English, the actors a perfect fit for their characters. The English script has slight tweaks that improve on the original Japanese as well.

Story – Very High

The Matrix with mechs and monsters. Deep, complex, and rewarding. Attention to lore detail far beyond the norm, possibly too far beyond.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Despite my very high praise, I can only recommend RahXephon to those who love complexity. If you are the sort to read The Lord of the Rings Appendix, then RahXephon is for you.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeEngaging DialogueExtensive Character DevelopmentGreat MusicGreat OP or ED SequencePositive Recommended English Voice TrackStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

Legend of Black Heaven – Review

Japanese Title: Kachou Ouji: Hard Rock Save the Space

 

Similar: BECK

Interstella 5555

Detroit Metal City

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Music Science Fiction

Length: 13 Episodes

 

Positives:

  • Stirring rock music sung in English, even for the Japanese version.
  • Psychedelic, yet fascinating opening sequence to get you pumped.
  • Humorous use of metaphor and innuendo to convey the narrative of a guy saving the galaxy through rock and roll under the guise of a TV show.
  • Has one of the greatest anime scenes ever in the Japanese track using an American actor.

Negatives:

  • Takes half the series to make the narrative core clear.
  • Despite the great opening, the closing sequence is terrible and not in theme with the rest of the music.

Oji was once Gabriel Tanaka of band Black Heaven, the biggest rock group around. Now he’s an office worker with a mundane life, a dull wife, and child – boring, everyday life. Enter Yuki, a voluptuous blonde and fan of Black Heaven, who gives him the opportunity of his daydreams, the chance to hold a guitar again without the glare of his wife and return to the nirvana that is rock and roll. Yuki needs him to play his perfect guitar solo to power a super weapon that can repel the oncoming alien invasion, while the world thinks the invasion is no more than a TV show.

Oji is an interesting character, varying between depression at his life and the zealous defence of his musical possessions. He hides his guitar from his wife, as she keeps trying to throw it out. Yuki and her band of undercover agents bring a nice dose of humour to Black Heaven. They go undercover to observe him, but are clearly not from Earth since they have no idea how to blend into the crowd. Black Heaven’s narrative is simple and focused on Oji’s boredom in life along with his struggle to regain his former rock star talent. The core of the plot isn’t clear until halfway through the series, so it may feel unfocused at first, but it’s worth bearing with it. It never quite explains why the ultimate weapon needs rock music to work, not that it isn’t a cool idea, but it would have been nice to have some lore on the weapon.

Black Heaven’s best aspect is the music. It has an excellent opening sequence and theme of rock ‘Cautionary Warning’ by John Sykes, sung in English even for the Japanese voice track. All of the guitar tracks are excellent; it’s clear the sound director was a fan of classic rock and knew to get a professional for the music. Each episode is titled after a famous rock song. The auditory let-down is the closing theme, a rubbish track that doesn’t fit the rest of the music – honestly, one of the worst tracks I have heard.

Legend of Black Heaven was a pleasant surprise, and is thoroughly underappreciated with a unique premise and a music angle rarely seen in anime. Lastly, there is this amazing scene:

Art – Medium

Adequate art and animation in the vein of Gundam Wing on a lower budget. Love the trippy opening art.

Sound – High

Fantastic guitar riffs and rock n’ roll along with a good Japanese voice track, but a mere average English one (outside the songs). Oji’s Japanese actor reaches a higher level of enthusiasm when he worked up, and Yuki is more seductive, whereas her English counterpart sounds a little flat.

Story – Medium

Simple plot laced with humour and a love for rock music. A bit slow to start.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: A must for lovers of rock and roll. Who knew a guitar solo could save the world.

(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 MusicGreat OP or ED Sequence

Negative: None