Category Archives: Mystery

An air of the unknown, a puzzle to solve…

Gosick – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gosick

 

Similar: Black Butler

The Mystic Archives of Dantalian

Heaven’s Memo Pad

Ghost Hunt

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Mystery Drama Romance

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Pretty environments.
  • Good acting.

Negatives:

  • Omnipotent detective.
  • Whiny guy and tantrum girl don’t make for great leads.

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I love how anime schools are beyond reality. Some go so grand, so outlandish that no real school would ever look like this. I think of Bakemonogatari’s school often, with its sky-scraping glass tower that serves no purpose other than great cinematography. Only anime can abuse the “rule of cool” so much for a mere school. Gosick has one such school. It’s a grand gothic and Victorian mix with an indoor botanical garden large enough to fit another school. And I love it. Not particularly relevant to this review – just thought I’d mention it!

As for the story proper, Gosick is about a 13-year-old Kazuya, who happens upon a doll-like girl around his age called Victorique de Blois in the school’s grand library. She’s an odd girl, keeping to herself and not possessing particularly keen manners, despite her prim appearance. Kazuya intrigues her, however, and she decrees that he is to be her plaything to entertain her with stories in the garden atop the school, when not joining her in solving mysteries, of course. She throws tantrums when bored, but switches on her genius when summoned for a case.

Contrary to the goth loli design, she isn’t lewded to sinful heaven like most of her archetype. Frankly, I consider this a miracle. There is a mild explanation for her petite stature in her backstory, but I think the artist just liked the look. She truly is a dress-up doll. I’m still not a fan of the type, though I do appreciate some effort went into incorporating her design into the rest of the art.

The story, for the most part, is Sherlock Holmes & Watson style crime mysteries. Now that, I love. They start with a few small cases, including a ghost ship, that last a few episodes each before it delves into a grander story about her origins and the tale of her cursed mother. More on this later.

I’m sorry to report, however, that these mysteries aren’t going to impress anyone with a modicum of experience in the genre. The major issue is Victorique’s omnipotence. She will say exactly what happened in some cases without ever going to the scene. It’s not as though she makes an educated guess, which she adjusts and confirms later on through investigation. No, she says exactly how it transpired. Furthermore, the audience can’t solve these mysteries ahead of time by catching clues. I don’t know if this was intentional by the writer to make her seem smarter or if the writer didn’t have the skill.

This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if it had something else going for it, such as strong characters you want to join in the adventure. Here too we have a problem. Kazuya is weak – too wimpy for a Watson substitute. I don’t get his personality choice. The dynamic between him and Victorique is for him to be her pet, her plaything, yet he doesn’t have a strength to counterbalance this weakness. He’s loyal and kind to her, but that just makes him a better servant. The original Watson is a good sidekick to Holmes, yes, but he also brings common sense and a clarity Holmes lacks when tunnel-visioned on a case. Watson must take charge at times. Kazuya doesn’t feel like an independent character who would exist without her.

As for Victorique, her tantrums are annoying. I assume (correctly) that it’s meant to endear her towards us and fit her child-like design. I just find it tiresome. They don’t make sense with her otherwise “mature” persona – not played as some flaw, like a mature outward façade covering a vulnerable inner core either. It comes across as an excuse to have a loli throwing tantrums because that’s what the writer likes. It doesn’t mesh.

Humour arrives in the form of her brother, who has hair that could pierce the heavens. He also works as a detective, but with his inferior skills, he often resorts to taking credit for his reclusive sister’s work. He’s a bit on the weird side for a gothic mystery, though is more memorable and focused than the other two.

Back to the story, once the opening cases are over with, the main story is more interesting, yet becomes less of a crime mystery. Gosick ends up losing its genre focus halfway through. More interesting on one hand – loses the genre on the other. It’s leans action over mystery by the end, which I take as a positive after the mediocre cases in the early game.

I want to be clear: Gosick never becomes bad. This is simply an example where once you’ve seen better, it is difficult to go backwards. I could see myself recommending this had I watched it a decade ago.

Art – High

I wouldn’t expect a series reliant on a goth loli to put any effort in the art. Gosick has surprisingly high production values. The environments look particularly good.

Sound – High

The music is appropriately gothic and the acting is good. No notable complaints here.

Story – Medium

A boy helps a doll-like girl with her hobby of playing detective – then the cases get personal. The mysteries are good enough to hold one’s attention, but if you’ve seen better, you’ll crave something more.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For mystery beginners. Gosick is an easy enough anime to watch unless you are used to more captivating mysteries.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Le Chevalier D’Eon – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Le Chevalier D’Eon

 

Similar: Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Rose of Versailles

Trinity Blood

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Historical Supernatural Mystery

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Looks like France.
  • Animation succeeds in impactful sword strikes.

Negatives:

  • Script is inauthentic to the period.
  • So bland.

(Request an anime for review here.)

I love historical pieces. I particularly love it when anime takes a crack at it in a non-Japanese setting. Gankutsuou and The Rose of Versailles are two of my favourite anime, both based on historical France, interestingly enough (France is the favourite foreign county amongst the Japanese). Le Chevalier D’Eon, set in 18th century France during the reign of Louis XV, is another such historical anime. I saw middling reviews for this one and hoped, as I always do with anime outside the popular genres, that the reviews came down to it simply not being a fit for popular preference. While that is somewhat the case here, D’Eon still isn’t great.

Lia de Beaumont, favourite of the nobility including the king himself, floats down the river with her veins full of mercury and blood scribbles on her dead body. Her brother Charles d’Éon de Beaumont, spy and knight to the king, makes it his mission to find the truth of her death. This single murder soon unravels into a plot against France. However, the greatest twist in this tale comes from Lia herself. Her spirit, unable to crossover, returns to the living and inhabits d’Éon’s body. With her combat prowess and his espionage abilities, they plunge into a world of the dead and the treacherous.

I can best describe Le Chevalier D’Eon as a Three Musketeers tale with a dark supernatural angle instead of the usual fun swashbuckling. Many people die, blood splatters ceilings, zombies (called gargoyles here) rise from the dead, and ritual sacrifice of beautiful women is in high fashion.

The immediate issue is how this story fails to grip you from the beginning. Lia’s spirit possessing d’Éon is an interesting twist for a story that gives no indication of being anything but an authentic(ish) historical piece until that point, but the grander conspiracy isn’t clear for several episodes. It doesn’t give much reason to care. I would have started the story with the focus just on Lia’s death. Make it seem like an isolated incident personal to the protagonist, though nothing of greater import. Then, once he seems close to solving the case, he learns this is much bigger than a single death. Now we are in for a ride.

What we have is too vague. “Something is going on – can you give me more detail?”

“Nah, I don’t feel like it.”

If a writer holds back every little detail for so long, then one needs to draw in the audience with another element. And in a historical piece, the easy answer is through atmosphere and authenticity – transport the audience to 18th century France. Make us walk the bustling streets, catch the scent of a bakery around the corner and feel the chill in the air. Le Chevalier D’Eon looks like France, but doesn’t feel like it. The script in particular has no historical touches. Now, the characters haven’t come straight out of My Hero Academia or say, “That is wack, yo!” yet they don’t sound of their time.

I would go so far as to say that had they gone more authentic in every aspect, it would have inverted my opinion on the series. See, in order to convey more of the politics, society, manners, and life of 18th century France, they would need to cut scenes to make room. And what would they likely cut? The boring scenes. Only the action feels strong.

I can forgive a story not paying much attention to authenticity as long as it’s entertaining – several Robin Hood films come to mind. Sadly, that won’t apply here. The pacing is too slow, the conspiracy, even once rolling, doesn’t hold you tight like a beggar on the streets of Paris saves for a few scenes, and the characters never flourish.

On the flipside, some of the historical story details are great. Take the siblings, for example. D’Éon – or if you want his full name of Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont – was a real person and a real spy for France who disguised himself as a woman – one Lia de Beaumont. He was apparently so convincing that people had no idea he was a man for years. His life was truly fascinating. I love how this anime takes his identities and works them into the supernatural.

If only the execution were better.

Le Chevalier D’Eon will likely only draw the attention of history fans. Such fans though love the details that this anime is lacking. Go for The Rose of Versailles instead.

Art – Medium

The art would be rated higher if not for the muddy backgrounds and blurring of detail. It feels like they tried to emulate a Renaissance painter’s style by using a Photoshop filter sometimes. I’m just grateful they didn’t copy the manga’s art. Action feels good thanks to weighty animations.

Sound – Medium

The acting is good. However, the script makes little effort to sound period accurate, which is a critical factor in the success of a period piece.

Story – Medium

A knight of France takes in the spirit of his powerful sister to uncover who murdered her and reveal what secret threatens the nation. The story is in dire need of an editor to sharpen the corners and tighten the edges so that it may bring out the potential.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For history fans only. I don’t know if I would even recommend Le Chevalier D’Eon to history fans when it doesn’t feel historical enough. It may not bother you though.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Mushi-shi – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mushishi

 

Related: Mushishi –Next Passage- (sequel – included in review)

Similar: Kino’s Journey

Natsume’s Book of Friends

Mononoke

xxxHOLiC

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Historical Fantasy Mystery

Length: 46 episodes (3 seasons), 3 specials

 

Positives:

  • Perfect execution of tone and theme.
  • Varied and original stories.
  • Unpredictable mysteries.

Negatives:

  • Art is on a tight budget.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Piece of advice if you ever intend to review anime: don’t give yourself two weeks to watch an anime that you should space out over months. Not watching it while you’re on a Star Trek: TNG binge and finishing Game of Thrones (I don’t wanna talk about it) would also help. Honestly, I haven’t even finished all of Mushishi yet (few episodes and the specials to go), but the review has already been delayed and I don’t wish to do so again. And I already know what to say.

Mushishi is an excellent anime. You should all watch it.

There, done. That was worth the delay. Onto the next one!

In all seriousness, I feel I need to explain why Mushishi is a must watch, as it isn’t so obvious on the surface. I can’t imagine one could make a trailer for Mushishi that would entice many people into watching it (at least not without lying about its tone and feel). A large part of this is the art problem – getting to that in a moment – and the absence of exciting clips one could use to advertise the anime.

Mushishi is an anthology of supernatural mysteries. We follow Ginko, a Mushi Master, as he wanders Japan in pursuit of mysterious whisperings pertaining to “mushi”. These lifeforms transcend the bindings of reality. They take many forms from diseases to plants to the air itself. They are neither good nor evil. They simply are.

To ordinary citizens however, they can be the cause of strife or a great blessing. One mushi disguises itself by wearing the skin of a woman’s child. Another lives in people’s ears and “eats” the sound they’re meant to hear. This is where Ginko’s expertise comes in. As a Mushi Master, he dedicates his life to helping people affected them, yet does so without killing mushi, unlike his peers.

It helps to know, going in, what type of a series Mushishi is. If you just watch the first episode, it probably won’t grab you because it doesn’t establish a grander story or end on some hook to keep you going. I didn’t know what it was about, so it wasn’t until a few episodes in that I caught on a realised I was meant to focus on one episode at a time. Once I did, it hooked me.

The brilliance of Mushishi is in these short stories (one episode each). They tend to focus on an individual and their surrounding community affected by mushi. Each episode establishes the characters, presents the conundrum, and takes us down measured and winding path of twists to create a complete story. Every time. No episode is rushed or incomplete. Some are better than others, of course, but every episode is a full arc and an engaging one at that. This is the core brilliance of Mushishi. It makes you care for these characters and their story within minutes. Mwah, perfection.

Furthermore, it isn’t predictable. One can never be certain of the outcome of any given episode. Sometimes it’s a happy end, other times it’s a negative, and often it’s somewhere in between. The tone matches this unpredictability as well, evoking an air of the unknown – we know little of the mushi as we know little of the story’s destination. Ethereal, like the mushi, is how I describe it. Mushishi is what I wanted from Natsume’s Book of Friends.

The other thing I like is how it doesn’t use the same old Japanese myths that you see everywhere. These tales still feel like those fables you would tell around a campfire at night, yet they aren’t a repeat of what came before.

Mushishi’s one real flaw – the aspect most likely to turn people away – is the art. It isn’t impressive in any way.

How can you tell investors had little confidence in the success of a series, even one based on an award-winning manga (Kino’s Journey, anyone)? By allocating such a small art budget. When an anime has so little animation, a studio usually makes up for it with gorgeous stills of beautiful environments and detailed characters. Mushishi has none of that. It doesn’t have the surreal imagery it deserves either. When Ginko performs a ritual to cleanse a mushi or when one finally reveals its true purpose, weird things start happening (gushing silver from a kid’s eyes, for example), but the art hasn’t the strength to covey what the author is saying. The art simply isn’t vivid enough. You know the scene from Howl’s Moving Castle when the witch has her power extracted? That’s what Mushishi needs.

Thankfully, as the ponderous and ethereal anime that it is, Mushishi doesn’t need the best art to succeed and it gets a little better after the first season. (If an action series had this art, it would be dead on arrival.) Do not let the art get in the way of you watching Mushishi. I cannot recommend this anime enough.

Art – Low

There isn’t much in the way of animation nor are the still shots gorgeous to make up for it. They could have put more effort in character designs, at least – too many peasants look the same across episodes. Improves in season 2.

Sound – High

The OP is in English – interesting choice. It works in establishing tone. You can watch this in either Japanese or English (love the narrator’s voice) accompanied by a strong script, though note that only season 1 has a dub. The understated and mysterious soundtrack is great too.

Story – Very High

An expert on supernatural entities known as mushi travels around Japan investigating their wonderful and dangerous appearances. This anthology of fables is engaging from start to finish.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. Mushishi is an anime I recommend to everyone. However, I caution you against binging it. Watch a few episodes at a time and allow them to sink in before you start the next.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

Paranoia Agent – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mousou Dairinin

 

Similar: Perfect Blue

Paprika

Monster

Serial Experiments Lain

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Mystery Thriller

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Unnerving.
  • Great music.
  • One wild ride.

Negatives:

  • Wacky at the expense of clarity at times.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Finishing Paranoia Agent is a bittersweet experience for me with Satoshi Kon being one of my favourite anime directors. He was one of the few directors whose anime I could be sure to watch on his name alone. Ironically, my experience with Kon’s work started in disgust as he disturbed me for years with the psychological horror Perfect Blue. I put off watching Paranoia Agent for the longest time since it would mean I have none of his filmography left to watch. However, when a dear reader requested it, I couldn’t make any more excuses.

I can best describe Paranoia Agent as an amalgamation of all his work. It has bits of everything. The psychological unease of Perfect Blue, the mind-bending trip of Paprika, the endearing adventure of Tokyo Godfathers, and the visual storytelling of Millennium Actress are all present. To gather so many varied elements in one place and have them work together is no easy task, so how does Paranoia Agent fare?

It follows the case of Lil’ Slugger, a boy who zips around town on rollerblades beating people with a bent baseball bat. The detectives’ task seems an impossible one with the kid appearing and disappearing at what feels like random. He makes no sense.

As soon as you start Paranoia Agent, you know it is Kon’s work. That opening sequence of the cast laughing uncontrollably with soulless eyes, ethereal vocals blasting behind them, is just the right levels of insane and unnerving to set the tone (see video above if you haven’t). The plot seems to start normal enough when Lil’ Slugger attacks the creator of a beloved animal mascot, but once people question if there really was an attack – did she make it all up for attention? – a plushie of the mascot comes to life to comfort her. All in her head, of course. Simple enough to explain.

Then we move onto episode 2, where a popular kid doesn’t like that the fat kid he kept around to make himself feel better starts getting more attention than him. He wishes Lil’ Slugger would attack his “friend” so that he could save him and be hailed a hero by all. He daydreams of the applause. His wish comes true, except everyone thinks he’s the attacker. With the world turned against him, his reality distorts and life begins to melt away. Further and further we, the audience, descend into a world of madness that is difficult to describe and follow. Episode 3 enters full Perfect Blue territory that I won’t give away. Another episode has a student sneezing out his math knowledge. Literal formulas expelled from nose and mouth. And wait until you see what a kid, a middle-aged man, and a geriatric get up to.

For a while, the series feels like an anthology of short stories as it focuses on a different victim each episode. One must wait until the end for it to come together and make sense – well, for the most part. So if you feel lost along the way, don’t worry too much.

That said, Kon could have put more work into making the audience understand what is going on in the moment. I’ll use an early example. During an interrogation, a suspect believes they’re on some fantasy adventure and any questions the detective asks make no sense because they don’t fit the fantasy. The co-detective has the idea to roleplay as a party member to extract bits and pieces within the context of the fantasy world. The lead detective finds this ridiculous, of course, growing increasingly frustrated as they have to humour these delusions. However, when he reacts, it is as though he is a participant of the fantasy world, which doesn’t quite make sense, since he is a non-believer. In short, the fantasy exaggerations go too far and just cause confusion.

Instead of having him in the fantasy, cutting back to the detective should have shown him sitting there irked in boring reality while others play pretend like weirdos next to him. It feels like Kon overindulged in the fantasy element that would become central to Paprika, where it works better, two years later.

Kon truly knows how to make the audience uncomfortable at every turn. His use of creepy imagery and minimal audio makes for tension that grips to breaking point. Even the way a character animates puts one on edge. The journalist hounding the mascot artist has an ordinary enough design, but when he’s looking into the camera at the perspective character and you in the audience by extension, his every mouth movement feels as if he’s about kiss you in the most horrid manner. You want to get away from him – just like the woman does.

Only upon reaching the end of the anime can you receive any relief from all the madness. It’s a wild ride. Paranoia Agent isn’t as good as his more focused films, but it is still a Satoshi Kon work all the way through.

Art – High

Sporting Kon’s realistic art style and creative visuals, Paranoia Agent is a great looking anime. There is a downgrade in animation and detail compared to his movies.

Sound – High

Kon uses one of his (and my) favourite composers, Susumu Hirasawa, having worked previously on Millennium Actress and later in Paprika with him to make a damn weird OP sequence. (Hirasawa is also responsible for the superb Berserk soundtrack). Despite the great tracks, Kon allows a lack of music to unnerve the audience in key scenes.

Story – High

A rollerblading kid with a baseball bat terrorises residents, prompting an investigation by the police that takes a turn for the mental. Not all pieces quite fit together, but Paranoia Agent is a thrill ride nonetheless.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Paranoia Agent will be too weird for many, yet I still recommend it to all but the faintest of heart. Its strangeness is worth experiencing at least once.

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

Positive: 

Fluid AnimationStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

No. 6 – Anime Review

Japanese Title: No. 6

 

Similar: Ergo Proxy

Psycho-Pass

Towards the Terra

Banana Fish

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Drama Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 11 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Quality art and animation.
  • Good start.

Negatives:

  • Wheel spinning second act.
  • Protagonists lack involvement.
  • Mismatched music.

(Request an anime for review here.)

In an odd coincidence, I have completed three anime that open with a similar premise – Toward the Terra, Xam’d: Lost Memories, and No.6. They are each about a late teen living a good life, free of worries, when an outsider tells him it’s all a lie and his life turns upside down.

In No.6, Shion lives in the sixth of humanity’s utopian cities. Everything is perfect – no poverty, no crime, no conflict. He was one of the city’s elite residents with every luxury paid for in exchange for contributing to society in an area of expertise – ecology, in Shion’s case. He lost all such privileges at 12 years old when he helped one of society’s rejects take shelter. Years later, he now oversee No.6’s trash bots.

When a disease hits the city that causes rapid aging, the authorities arrest Shion. Of course, he’s as clueless as the rest, but he dared question The Man and for that, he must die. However, the same boy from all those years back who goes by the name Nezumi, meaning “rat”, scurries to the rescue and breaks him free of society’s shackles. The adventure begins.

I love this type of opening that upends the protagonist’s world. It raises so many questions at once, generating immense conflict for the protagonist torn between the world they once knew and the new reality, and I can’t want to see it all unravel. How did society erect the façade in the first place? How does it control the populace? Why? What’s the protagonist’s involvement in its history (there is always something)? How have the Outsiders survived all this time?

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

No.6 doesn’t make an effort in any of these questions.

Damn. What a shame.

Once out of the city, marking the end of act 1, the plot just stalls like a novice driver confusing the clutch and accelerator pedals. Each episode of act 2 goes as follows: Nezumi saying he hates the city, Shion asking why, Nezumi saying he’ll tell him later, and repeat. Characters don’t take action. There are minor moments – just not enough to drive the plot forward.

The next real event is at the end of act 2, leading into act 3. It’s as though the writer set in stone that “When the characters meet this guy over here, act 3 starts.” She refused to bring this event forward and come up with something else to start act 3 when act 2 had nothing going on (or write new events to lift the drought). I see this occur a lot in Korean dramas. The studio mandates a certain number of episodes to fill the TV schedule – usually 16 1-hour episodes, yet their romantic comedies are rarely complex enough to fill 16 hours. Acts 1 and 3 have stricter lengths in a story than 2 does. A slow first act turns the audience off and they won’t return. A slow third act leaves a bad aftertaste. Therefore, the filler slumps into the second act (“will they, won’t they,” and “problem of the episode” scenarios).

Unlike those drawn out K-dramas, a fictional world with a grand conflict like No. 6 has plenty of material to tap into. Why didn’t we explore more of the city and its utopian society? The idea of each citizen focused on one specialty with everything paid for isn’t relevant after the opening. This world has but a fraction of Psycho-Pass’s depth.

Act 2 instead focuses on the main couple, which doesn’t work either. There is too much focus on Shion and Nezumi’s relationship, yet not enough because it doesn’t move anywhere during this middle section. Again, I suspect the writer refused to allow their development to progress, “Keeping the good bits for the end.” The one positive I can say about their relationship is that it isn’t a shounen ai tease. It commits.

Even when the plot does get off the recliner, our protagonists aren’t driving agents to lead the story. Their allies do more work than they do in resolving the grand conflict. It feels as if the writer had an idea for a couple but no story to accompany them, and an idea of a story but no characters to lead it. Since they were lacking each other in the technical sense, she brought them together like the final two pieces of a puzzle. She didn’t realise they weren’t meant for the same puzzle. At least not without further work.

None of the backstory mysteries involving Shion’s mother, the city’s origin, and the rebels amount to anything meaningful. The writer knew mysteries should be there to entice the audience, but didn’t go back to flesh them out and tie them to the plot in a meaningful way.

You can look to several other anime for this idea executed expertly. Start with Psycho-Pass. No. 6 isn’t a terrible anime. Though when others have already shown you how to do it right, it’s difficult not see all the problems despite any positives.

Art – High

No. 6’s strongest quality is the art, particularly the animation. Episode 9 has a Ghibli quality scene. I also like the visual contrast between the clean city and dirty slums.

Sound – Medium

The acting is good and most music works well. The OP and ED songs have no life in them and sound so weird. I’m unsure of what they are trying to convey in relation to the narrative.

Story – Low

A boy has his utopian life upended when he helps an outsider, who later helps him escape the authorities in return. A good start isn’t enough to keep one going to through a stalled second act and poorly fleshed out finale.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. With the likes of Psycho-Pass, RahXephon, and Towards the Terra, to name a few, using the same setup to greater results, there is little reason to knock at No. 6.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None