Category Archives: Mystery

An air of the unknown, a puzzle to solve…

Hyouka – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hyouka

 

Similar: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU

Gosick

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Slice of Life Mystery

Length: 22 episodes, 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Pleasant art and animation details.

Negatives:

  • So boring.
  • No obstacles to the mysteries.
  • No reason to care.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Imagine a mystery where characters sit around and talk about the mystery instead of facing obstacles in the pursuit of answers. Now imagine that halfway through this series, what little mystery there was dwindles to a mere ember dying out in Sherlock Holmes’s fireplace. There you have Hyouka.

Oreki is a high school student who doesn’t like to expend energy unless absolutely necessary. He joins the school’s Classic Literature Club thinking it will be an easy ride without energy required, but when the inquisitive Eru begins an investigation into a mystery connecting her uncle and the club, his plans of laziness vanish.

Damn Hyouka is boring. This mystery they speak of is so uninteresting. It involves old books and finding meaning behind a passage, uncovering the author, getting the facts of a past incident, etc. The answer, which I won’t give away, feels so unimportant and is so unremarkable that I would understand if you thought it was a minor detail before the real solution.

It’s the journey, not the destination, you say? Well, the journey is a chore of bland dialogue replacing actual investigation. Where Sherlock Holmes – an inspiration for Hyouka (apparently) – would hit the streets looking for clues and talking to unusual witnesses, Oreki and co. chat with a librarian and then return to the clubroom to talk about the rest of the case. Hyouka has no flair, no style – no tension. Nonsense slice of life punctuates the investigation, though has no effect on the monotony, making Hyouka even duller.

Having a light mystery can work – we see it all the time in one-shot sitcom episodes – but you must have great characters to hang out with for the duration. Such pieces are more about having a good time with interesting people than about solving some deep mystery. Oreki’s trait of energy conservation has no purpose to the story. It’s a gimmick and nothing more. When a protagonist has ‘the trait,’ it must mean something to the story at large. As an example, Holmes’s abrasiveness gives him the ability to ask insensitive but necessary questions of witnesses and suspects alike. Yet this abrasiveness also makes him difficult to work with. Oreki’s laziness doesn’t do anything because he completes his task anyway with no meaningful conflict. Remove his gimmick and nothing changes.

To worsen matters, the second half of Hyouka devolves into meaningless slice of life – the Sherlock Holmes motif in the second ED is an insult, at this point. Hyouka’s mysteries are so few, so uninteresting that they run out of steam halfway through the series.

Honestly, I have so little to say about Hyouka that this feels like a waste of a review. It never gave me a reason to care about any of its characters or mysteries. So what drew me to this in the first place? When I was in Takayama (a town close to Shirakawa-go of Higurashi fame) for a festival, I saw in the hotel’s window a poster for Hyouka’s Blu-ray, which is set in fictional Kamiyama based on Takayama. When an anime takes place in a real Japanese location, the locals of said location size the opportunity to attract fans for tourism. ‘Location pilgrimages’ are common among otaku – similar to how Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fans go on holidays to hunt filming locations. I was doing the reverse, interested in the fictional portrayal after visiting the real place. And as it turns out, the real place is far more engaging.

Art – High

The art is Hyouka’s best quality with its bright palette and great animation. The little movements in each scene are a nice touch.

Sound – Medium

Even top actors could not make this dry dialogue engaging. Characters talk a lot without saying much.

Story – Low

A lazy guy is roped into a literature club that seeks to uncover mysteries surrounding their clubroom and its books. Never have I seen mysteries less interesting nor so boringly told than in Hyouka.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Hyouka is so boring that I can’t see reason to recommend it.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Darker Than Black – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha

 

Related: Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor (sequel – included in review)

Similar: Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom

Psycho-Pass

RahXephon

Gungrave

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Action Mystery

Length: 25 episodes (season 1), 5 OVA, 12 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Complex lore.
  • Creative powers and restrictions.
  • The comedic tangents are hilarious.
  • Character designs.

Negatives:

  • Lacks finality and answers.
  • Season 2 becomes oversimplified.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Darker than Black is an anime of malicious compliance. When I told it that it coveys lore in a vague manner, it responded with, “You don’t like my lore?” “That’s not wh—” “Fine, then I won’t give you any. If all you like is action, then that’s what I’ll give. Happy, are you!?” “…”

Before that moment in history, let’s go back to the start of Darker than Black. Ever since two gates appeared in Tokyo and Brazil, a fake sky replaced the real one and select people gained paranormal abilities at the cost of their humanity. These supernaturals known as Contractors became weapons for various governments and a group called the Syndicate. Officer Misaki has her investigatory skills put to the test when the Syndicate’s best agent, Hei the Black Reaper, is spotted in Tokyo. Hei and his associates have designs to uncover a mystery surrounding Hell’s Gate that threatens Contractors. Other Contractor division won’t let the Syndicate go unanswered either. Tokyo is a dangerous place to be.

First, I love the powers. Think of them as X-Men, but with a payment required after each use. The payment differs per character and ranges from smoking a cigarette to revealing a secret of yours to the next person you see. The cost tends to be something the Contractor hates. One Contractor, a magician, has to give away the technique to a magic trick every time he uses his illusion power. Bummer. Hei’s power is the ability to generate electricity, a favourite of mine. The writer could have merely copied the X-Men and been fine, but I appreciate the thought put into differentiating these powers by adding the payments.

Darker than Black also has artificial beings called Dolls that pass for human, but are dead inside and have scouting powers to aid their Contractor unit. Hei has one such doll with him as well as a Contractor whose power is to possess animals. Unfortunately for him, someone destroyed his human body during possession so he’s stuck as an animal for life. This makes him a tad grumpy.

Then we come to the larger world, where I find plenty interesting. I love that the police use an old woman known as the Stargazer, who can track when Contractors use powers by observing the fake stars above. Each Contractor is represented in a star – another great lore detail. Misaki has a telescope locked on Hei’s star, BK-201, which is how she knows he’s in town.

Most of the lore I have shared with you so far is presented in a decent manner. However, when it comes to the Gates, the lore behind Contractors, and even world history, Darker than Black takes serious issue with giving us this information. When it does present these aspects, it seems hesitant, as if the anime is worried about you finding out. “Does it or does it not work this way?” was a recurring question I had. This compounded with the fact that there is a lot of lore can make Darker than Black a headache for those who aren’t big fans of lore. It doesn’t help that much remains unanswered by the end, no thanks to season 2.

Here we arrive at the malicious compliance. If season 1 suffered from too much vague lore, season 2 suffers from having none whatsoever (the backstory threads are good, though). I said illuminate the lore, not eradicate it! In season 2, we follow two young siblings, one of which is a Contractor, and their escape from capture in Russia. It amounts to twelve episodes of action – good action, sure, but it no longer stands out like Darker than Black. I am particularly annoyed that Misaki is barely in season 2.

This does not lessen my recommendation for sci-fi/supernatural fans to watch the first season – likely twice to catch everything. If you worry about it being too heavy, the story occasionally diverts for some levity. The private eyes who narrates to himself noir-style and his cosplay girl assistant are the perfect change of pace. Even with several questions left unanswered, the lore we do get and the characters make Darker than Black an engaging experience.

Art – High

Darker than Black manages to have a large cast of characters, each distinct from the last, and yet doesn’t resort to lazy design techniques such as hair colour being the only distinguishing feature. The dark palette suits the story. Season 2 sees a noticeable dip in character and animation quality.

Sound – High

You can’t go wrong with either Japanese or English voices. Nice soundtrack – the main singer is bilingual and mixes English with Japanese better than most. The script could do with tighter exposition.

Story – High

Super powered humans called Contractors work jobs for the nefarious Syndicate while uncovering the mystery that threatens Contractors worldwide. Darker than Black’s super powers and interesting characters deliver a great anime, but its complexities can alienate.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for science fiction fans. Darker than Black has everything a sci-fi fan could want – lore, depth, sociology, philosophy. Non-fans (maybe even fans) will find the lack of concreteness tedious, especially since it leaves much unanswered. Season 2 is optional viewing.

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

Positive:

Strong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

School-Live! – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gakkougurashi!

 

Similar: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Higurashi: When They Cry

High School of the Dead

Perfect Blue

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Psychological Horror Mystery Slice of Life

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good contrast.
  • The opening sequence.

Negatives:

  • Moe over world building.
  • Beach episode.
  • Unexplored psychosis.

(Request an anime for review here.)

NOTE: In order to review School-Live, I must spoil an early point in the series. If you want to go in blind, do not read further.

Though the ‘moe gone dark’ genre is a congregation of mediocrity, whenever a new one releases, I can’t help but give it a shot. I try to ignore it, but it keeps nudging me, “Hey, I might be as good as Madoka Magica. You won’t know until you watch me. Eh? Eh?Yeaaaargh…alright. School-Live, show me what you got.

Four girls and a teacher find themselves trapped inside their school after a zombie outbreak. As the last survivors in the area, they hole up and do their best to make school a home, going out on excursions for supplies. School-Live’s angle to stand out lies in its protagonist, Yuki. She has no idea they live in a zombie apocalypse. The ruined school is still whole, the zombies are still her classmates, and the foraging excursions are merely class trips or ‘Tests of Courage’. Well, you’ve hooked me.

Unlike other psychosis stories where the mental breakdown is the climactic twist, School-Live reveals the secret in the first episode. It instead focuses on how the characters around Yuki deal with her psychosis. Everyone plays along with her idea that all is normal, which creates great contrast between her happy world and the tragic reality. I felt sorry for her.

And School-Live almost nails it.

Alas, we now turn to the ‘moe’ part of the ‘moe gone dark’ genre. Unlike Madoka, where moe is just the outer shell, the style, School-Live’s moe is the focus. When given the choice to show girls doing moe things or girls developing character, this anime chooses moe nine times out of ten. School-Live is the perfect example of what I mean when I say that moe ruins shows – it’s not the ugly character design or the terrible voices, but the story focus.

Imagine you are on episode 9 out of 12 and so far the series hasn’t given much in the way of backstory or world building, and instead of realising the climax is fast approaching, it gives us a beach episode. Are you serious? You haven’t shown how the world got into this state or how the zombies overcame everything Japan threw at them! If these girls kept the zombies out by stacking a few desks and if they are so slow, so easily distracted, so easily killed, how did anyone fall to them to begin with? It’s not as though these are the Nazi vampires from Hellsing Ultimate – these don’t wield rocket launchers. Zombie apocalypses are flimsy premises to begin with, but School-Live does nothing to suspend our disbelief. Instead, we get a beach episode. Yay…

Inner-character – motivations, secrets, psyche – has toe-deep exploration. Even Yuki, who is so far broken from reality, has little airtime to unravel her psychology. Give us more to believe such a mental block would occur and in this way. School-Live strays close to having this psychosis for shock value only.

The most glaring absence is the lack of development for the students-turned-zombies. When one girl has to kill a former classmate, I do not care because they were never people to begin with as far as story is concerned. They are faceless zombies included to fill the space. No one outside of the main five and one other girl have any story or personality to them. Again, cut a few moe sequences in favour of showing us life pre-outbreak.

Fans of Higurashi will also find some disappointment in how tame School-Live’s horror is. When things should go from 0 to 100 in a split second – like HigurashiSchool-Live reaches 50 before it’s distracted by more moe. I don’t recall a single scary moment. Tension, sure, plenty of that, but no real horror.

School-Live is still a decent anime. Its greatest tragedy comes from how obvious its faults are throughout the story. The manga apparently has many differences, so may be a better use of your time.

Art – Medium

The colourful palette works well contrasted with the ruined environment. Could do without the auras around the zombies – looks silly.

Sound – High

The cutesy VO, mainly for the protagonist, could have been worse for a moe anime. The cheerful OP is so damn catchy. I like how the sequence grows darker each episode, happy scenes replaced by their current state of ruination.

Story – Medium

Four schoolgirls and an airheaded teacher survive a zombie apocalypse inside their high school. School-Live’s great idea does not live up to its potential – less focus on moe next time, please.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For moe-gone-dark fans. If you love the contrast between moe girls and a dark world, then School-Live is another to add to your library. Others will likely feel disappointed by this anime’s shortcomings.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Hollow World Building

Haibane Renmei – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Haibane Renmei

 

Similar: Kino’s Journey

Angel Beats!

Serial Experiments Lain

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Slice of Life Psychological Mystery Fantasy

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Nice atmosphere.

Negatives:

  • Symbolism over substance.
  • Useless cast.
  • Dull world building.
  • Thinks open-ended = depth.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Not again. Not another empty series. I feel like I am on a roll of mediocre anime (thank Nodame Cantabile for being a temporary sanctuary!). Please get me out of this Purgatory.

Speaking of Purgatory, Haibane Renmei is the story of amnesiac angels living in a walled city, trapping all but a select few in this limbo-like world. Rakka, newly born angel or Haibane, has visions of falling from the sky. As with all Haibane, the vision each sees before birth holds the answer to their purpose in life.

It takes the entire first episode for Rakka to hatch from her egg (looks like a giant veiny testicle – cannot unsee), grow her wings, and get clean. It’s like watching a twenty-minute birthing scene. Bloody hell is this a boring start. It doesn’t get better soon after either. Not until the seventhseven out of thirteen! – does the plot kick into gear.

Before then, Haibane Renmei is a test of endurance to stay awake (perhaps this is my purgatory trial). Rakka and her friends wander around the walled town of Grie doing menial jobs as we learn of the “rules” for Haibane. They can only wear second-hand clothes – why? They can’t handle money – why? They can’t touch the outer wall – why? They can only live in abandoned places – why? Rakka was born as a teenager, yet there are infant angels as well – why? They have wings that can’t do anything – why? I am watching this anime – why? Why seems to sum up Haibane Renmei. It gives a whole lot of questions and few answers in an effort to appear deep.

Symbolism replaces substance. To make matters worse, the symbolism is so obvious, so on the nose with the abundance of Christian symbols, parallels to limbo and the state of purgatory. Symbolism isn’t enough to make a great series. Just as a great twist cannot save a bad story beforehand, symbolism needs a backbone to hold it up.

In such a story, characters would be the backbone. Haibane Renmei does not have those characters. The supporting cast in particular feels like dead weight in this already thin anime. You would imagine that the first six episodes with no content could have gone to justifying these characters’ places in the story. And Rakka, she has some strength, but not enough to carry the team.

There is a reason no reputable writer would recommend an amnesiac protagonist unless you truly know what you’re doing. When a protagonist doesn’t know anything about themselves, we don’t know anything either, giving us little reason to care for them. Writers usually resolve this by giving us a flashback thread with information before the amnesia, or through a parallel thread of a third-party view on the protagonist. Unfortunately, either of these would give away Haibane Renmei’s mystery, which leaves one solution: action. Not guns and swords action, but ‘doing something’ action. This is what finally starts in episode seven, when Rakka drops the dead weights and tries to solve the mystery of Grie and her vision. I can’t say much on this, as it would give away the anime’s best element. Honestly, Haibane Renmei should have been a movie with only the second half of the series.

A greater effort into world building would not have gone amiss. In a blind rush to be as symbolic as possible, the author left his world bare, fearful that developing anything would undo the symbols. The opposite is true: a strong world creates stronger symbolism. This angel lore is so dull – I honestly can’t discern what the author was going for with them. They’re like having demons with nothing demonic about them. They only seem to be angels to hammer that symbolism harder into your nose. Could have made them fairies, mermaids, humans, whatever, and it’d lose naught.

Despite Haibane Renmei’s few good elements, I am so glad this is over. I know this series has a small but hardcore fanbase, but this wasn’t for me.

Art – Medium

The visuals look nice technically, but they are all so boring, forgettable.

Sound – Medium

Average VO in both languages. This script has little to say. With so little going on, the ordinary dialogue needs to stand out with sharp wit or insight. The soundtrack is effective.

Story – Low

An angel tries to solve the mystery of her walled town and the vision in her head. Haibane Renmei prioritises symbolism over its plot and characters to subpar success.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Try it. If you like slow ‘up in the air’ stories, Haibane Renmei will be your soulmate.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World Building

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu

 

Related: The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (sequel – included in review)

The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan (spin-off)

Similar: Angel Beats!

Lucky Star

Hyouka

Kokoro Connect

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Comedy Mystery Romance Science Fiction Slice of Life (varies between arcs)

Length: 14 episodes (season 1 – 2006), 14 episodes (season 2 – 2009), 2 hr. 42 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Great variety of stories.
  • Funny moments.
  • Natural acting.

Negatives:

  • Mary-Sue protagonist with no consequences.
  • With no development, it gets repetitive.
  • Groundhog Day Summer arc is terrible.
  • Unnecessarily convoluted storytelling at times.
  • Dated and poorly aged.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Note: Seasons 1 & 2 have the same name with different years attached (2006 & 2009), but on rerelease were combined into a single 28-episode show.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is not what I expected. I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t an anime emulating The Matrix, Sherlock Holmes, Groundhog Day, and more.

As the title implies, it centres on a girl called Haruhi Suzumiya, whose centre of the universe is herself. Everything and everyone is about her. To combat her boredom, she forces classmates to join her club, the Suzumiya Haruhi’s S.O.S. Brigade. She wants a varied collection of characters for the club – the moe one, the quiet, the energetic, the transfer student, etc. Principally, she recruits the dulcet Kyon, perspective character and sarcastic narrator of the series, who enjoys observing her odd behaviour in school.

She changes hairstyle and club every day to stave off boredom. People talk about her like a live piece of entertainment to humorous results. She’s easy to ask out for a date if you like her, but there’s the catch that she’s a wacko and will want someone new next time. Her dream date is a supernatural being “because that way, life’s more interesting.” Coincidentally, an alien, a time traveller, and an esper soon join the club, all focused on her.

Melancholy is a medley of genres, trying something new each arc to fluctuating results. The first arc is The Matrix (Haruhi is Neo), then the second turns Holmesian, followed by an extended arc of Groundhog Day, and so on. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is an arc done in a single movie. The themes range from losing yourself in dreams to being careful what you wish for and the consequences of lethargy.

The storytelling is a bit disjointed, especially in the Matrix arc. You have to bear a few episodes each arc before the story bothers explaining where it’s going. The setups play coy with the story’s purpose and waste our time until it gets to the point. While it makes sense after the explanation, it doesn’t excuse the convoluted structure. The cores and resolutions manage to stay solid in the face of these poor setups.

None of the above applies to the third arc, “Endless Eight.” Using a Groundhog Day concept, the characters repeat the same block of time (two weeks) during the summer holidays, where only one character knows of the repetition. Now, I love Groundhog Day, but this was terrible. It repeats the same scenes for – I kid you not – eight episodes. No, it doesn’t tackle them from different angles, it doesn’t put a spin on each version, nor does it share new information each time. Genuinely, it’s the same thing every episode except the cameras change positions. There’s a little difference in the second episode, when the loop becomes clear, and a little in episode eight to resolve the arc. And get this, the resolution sucks. Arse! On second thought, skip it – ‘tis a silly arc.

The other problem is Haruhi. As mentioned earlier, she does whatever she wants and everything in this world does revolve around her. That in itself isn’t a problem. How it’s handled, how other characters react to her is a problem. Every obstacle to these characters stems from her petulance. She’s a bitch – sure, funny at times, but a horrible person nonetheless. She treats the moe girl like a slave, going so far as to impose sexual assault on her several times. And no one does anything about it. Where’s the punch line to these jokes?

Kyon, with his polar opposite personality, should have been a foil to Haruhi’s antics, maybe slapped her a few times against her selfish nature. Alas, he does whatever she wants. He almost punches some sense in her, but the forgettable other guy in the group stops him and defends her. It would have been much funnier if even a single character stood in opposition to her. Because everything goes her way, we see the joke or drama coming.

People will tell you Melancholy is a deep anime with complex messages – it isn’t. Only one who has seen or read little would have their minds blown by these basic (though still fun) takes on iconic plot types. See/read The Matrix, Sherlock, Poirot, Groundhog Day, and other inspirators for depth.

If you are coming to this a decade after release, like me, then you will have already seen everything that was considered fresh in Melancholy a hundred times in the medium – and done better. Haruhi hasn’t aged well. As such, you need to go into the historical anime mindset. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya does execute the elements well enough, overall.

Art – Medium

The art is a tad generic with many static shots and erratic camera work. Haruhi’s face is so generic she is almost unrecognisable with a different hairstyle. Still, the art is clean and sharp.

Sound – High

Both voice tracks are equally good. Crispin Freeman as Kyon sounds like Alucard gone sarcastic in high school.

Story – Medium

A high school club led by a self-centred girl partake in a variety of extraordinary adventures involving aliens, time travel, and murder. Quality fluctuates between arcs – the earlier ones better than the latter – and the characters could do with developing spines.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya has importance in anime for popularising several tropes, but aged poorly in the face of contemporaries. If interested, the first arc of six episodes is a good indicator of the whole series.

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

Positive:

Stellar Voice Acting

Negative:

Mary SueRepetitive