Category Archives: Mystery

An air of the unknown, a puzzle to solve…

Made in Abyss – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Made in Abyss

 

Similar: From the New World

Hunter x Hunter

Haibane Renmei

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Mystery Science Fiction Fantasy Adventure

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The world.
  • Final episodes.
  • Stunning artwork.

Negatives:

  • Protagonist never shuts up.
  • Forced cuteness.
  • Several episodes of padding.

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Imagine a world with a city built around a vast and seemingly endless chasm filled with monsters and treasures untold. This world is grand, gorgeous— a mysterious place that echoes silence and danger. Now imagine a shrill voice piercing that world for eternity. That is Made in Abyss.

This noise machine is Riko, a 12-year-old girl that wants to become a Cave Raider like her famous mother. She never stops talking. If another character isn’t talking, then she certainly is. The writer had her comment on everything. An energy blast out of nowhere fends off a monster about to eat her and she gives a line that someone must have saved her. No shit. She doesn’t ask, “What was that?” because it would mean less words. These ‘stating the obvious’ lines along with an inordinate amount of forced cuteness dialogue permeate the series.

Episode one does not have a moment of peace until the 20-minute mark. It lasts 18 seconds.

False enthusiasm constitutes half her character. As she searches for relics to bring back to town, she must keep telling us how enthusiastic she is while “cutely” tripping over and getting into accidents. It’s not enough that we can see enthusiasm. Oh no, she must tell us all about it. Made in Abyss desperately wants you to find Riko cute, at the expense of all else. Most of the humour falls flat because of how rammed down your throat it is. “Is she cute? I asked, is she cute!? IS SHE CUTE!?”

These characters are in this vast, mysterious world and instead of allowing the audience to take it in, the camera stays on this annoying girl. She does ease up a little later. However, various characters along the journey expositing on the Abyss replace her chirping. We almost spend more time hearing about the Abyss than exploring it, which leads to another problem with the script. The first nine episodes have three episodes’ worth of content – the first four could have fit into one episode. Unlike usual slow pacing where scenes drag on forever, Made in Abyss slots pointless scenes between events that matter. With all this excess space, why not include moments to reflect on the world and the adventure? Of course it has to be forced cuteness and pointless dialogues instead.

Riko’s descent into the Abyss begins when a Cave Raider returns to the surface with her mother’s white whistle (denotes rank) and a message that she is waiting below. Riko, who idolises her mother, answers the call and begins the journey with Reg, the robot boy that saved her with the energy blast earlier.

He is a bit of a problem in the story due to his ability to stretch his arms with ease and accuracy, which trivialises the danger of falling into the depths, and his arm cannon can obliterate the monsters that make the Abyss so dangerous. Made in Abyss still has tension, but you will realise how much easier several moments would be if the writer didn’t conveniently forget Reg’s power.

Along their journey, they face monsters and meet a variety of characters, most of which aren’t particularly interesting. One supposedly scary woman, a legend and partner to Riko’s mother, is a walking cliché of the mad woman with the low, insane voice. No one actually believes she would harm the kids, do they? Her scenario comes from a writer out of ideas for conflict during downtime.

Thankfully, characters become more interesting the further we descend into the Abyss. In fact, the whole anime is more interesting further down. The final three episodes are better than the previous 10 combined. The final episode is better than the previous 12 combined. The change in story and character quality is like a parabola, redeeming the show, though there are great elements before the final act. Most obviously, the world is fantastic, not just in the intrigue of the Abyss. The human society is fascinating because it isn’t like ours. You notice how mediocre anime in different worlds like Re:Zero still have people that feel as if they are from our world? No one acts medieval in those medieval worlds. Made in Abyss’s society is one shaped by the Abyss. There is no greater honour than being a Cave Raider that brings back the best relics. Everyone knows that once you go down you’re probably not coming back and yet it is still celebrated. Even a child descending isn’t particularly odd. It reminds of Spartan society where a warrior child is the norm, not the exception.

My favourite world building detail is that of the Curse. Reaching a certain level is a point of no return, as to ascend again would be to active the ‘Curse’, dooming any diver. The hardy can survive in the depths, assuming the increasingly powerful monsters don’t eat them. The origin and extent of the Curse is the mystery I am most eager to see answered.

Answers – Made in Abyss doesn’t give many of those and as such, its final quality is hard to determine. Most anime – any story, honestly – shows you its quality within a few episodes. That’s not to say there won’t be fluctuations, but typically, a good anime starts that way. You know it’s good from the beginning. However, for stories that hinge on the Great Mystery, the end can make or break everything. If the payoff doesn’t deliver, then all that came before has little value. Made in Abyss is one such story.

As such, my thoughts are temporary and I will write a new review after the series conclusion, to see how it all comes together. It could go either way.

Art – High

The backgrounds are stunning – out of Ghibli or Shinkai works. The animation, sadly, doesn’t stand out and the quality drops after a few episodes.

Sound – Medium

Great OP song – sounds like Seal’s ‘Kissed from a Rose’. The acting is fine, insufferable protagonist aside, but the script is at least 30% padded.

Story – Medium

An abyss of unknown depth calls to a child when her mother sends a message from the deep below. This first season of Made in Abyss sets up a mysterious world and delivers a great finale in spite of prior padding; however, everything hinges on the payoff that has yet to come. Do note that the last episode is the best, so the trajectory is upwards.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Wait for another season. Made in Abyss, as it stands, is 99% setup, the first five episodes of other shows, and while the setup is great by episode 13, if it doesn’t pay off next season, then it isn’t worth it. Few anime need a complete adaptation as much as Made in Abyss does. Knowing the modern anime industry, expect to finish with the manga. Let’s hope MIA doesn’t take on its classical meaning…

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

Positive: N/A (pending further seasons)

Negative: N/A (pending further seasons)

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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

Made in Abyss

 

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.

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

 

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World Building