Category Archives: Romance

One or more romantic relationships play an important role. Not applied to tacked-on or minor romances.

Snow White with the Red Hair – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Akagami no Shirayuki-hime

 

Similar: Yona of the Dawn

The Story of Saiunkoku

The Ancient Magus’ Bride

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Drama Fantasy Romance

Length: 24 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful colours
  • Protagonist has purpose and agency
  • World feels cosy and lived in

Negatives:

  • Not enough intensity
  • Needs more romantic conflict

(Request an anime for review here.)

Of the shoujo story types, I tend to like the “ordinary girl draws the attention of an important guy (or the reverse)” type the most, especially in a fantasy setting. I like how it gives a clear coupling to the romance. I never hide my dislike for harems (inc. reverse harems) due to the lack of direction in relationship developments – doesn’t help that the characters are often atrocious. By giving me an indication of where the story intends to go, I don’t feel like I am wasting my time before things even begin. The fantasy setting is an added bonus, as it requires more effort in world building.

Snow White with the Red Hair follows a young herbalist in training called Shirayuki with shockingly red hair that draws much attention, including the unwanted infatuation of her nation’s prince. She only manages to escape life as a concubine when Prince Zen of the neighbouring country of Clarines comes to her rescue. Her new ally also opens the opportunity to become a palace herbalist. Passing the exam – and curing the prince from a poisoned apple – sets her on a path to success she could only dream of in her sheltered life.

Seeing this premise of a girl with [insert profession here] meeting [insert rich handsome guy here], I assumed her skill with herbs would be irrelevant. This is a common failing of shoujo anime and rom-com films. How often is the protagonist a journalist/architect/ad executive/author/etc. and it never plays a part in the story? You know it’s only there because it would be weird if she didn’t have a job. I assumed the same of Shirayuki. When a scoundrel kidnaps her, the expectation is that someone rescues her or she lucks her way out. To my surprise, however, she uses her knowledge to burn the right herbs together for a paralysing effect on her attacker. Alright! That’s what I want to see. She still needs some help in the end, but she did something and used her brain. I like an active protagonist with intelligence. Shirayuki endeared herself to me with that single action.

Further on, her studies and career as a herbalist continue to hold relevance throughout the story. We see her studying new mixtures, experimenting with ideas, researching plants, and taking exams. Probably my favourite element of the story. It adds depth to the world and makes her environment lived in.

The romance with Prince Zen is typical shoujo fare and works, for the most part. You do have to suspend your disbelief that a prince of the realm can have a public relationship with a commoner against little opposition, but that’s the way of the genre. They do make for a good couple and complement each other’s qualities.

Where Snow White with the Red Hair fails is in the UTTER LACK OF DWARVES! WHERE ARE THE DWARVES?! I kid, I kid. No, the problems are in the lack of escalation. Conflict starts well with Shirayuki’s sudden move to a new country, a new life, and while we do have some political, physical, and romantic conflicts afterwards, none of them hit a high-tension point. For instance, one romantic conflict arises when Zen has to “interview” a prospective wife for a royal marriage. Shirayuki isn’t bothered by this, and why would she be when nothing comes of it. When you have a cross-class romance, there should be a question of “Will they end up together despite the difference in status?”

The big finale of the series sees Shirayuki kidnapped by pirates. This is disappointing on three counts. First, it’s another kidnapping. Second, the pirate queen is a flat character unworthy of a finale. Third, this conflict doesn’t relate to the core themes of the story or offer any resonance (repeated kidnappings don’t count as resonance). It feels like a side story on the way to the next step of the main story. There is no intensity.

These failings ultimately leave me a little disappointed in how Snow White with the Red Hair turns out. I love the world, find the characters endearing, and had a great time in the first half, but when the “big” romantic, political, and physical conflicts flop like a dead fish on the cutting board, it’s difficult to maintain enthusiasm. I think continuing with the manga is in order – another season is unlikely after four years.

Art – High

A great thing about the shoujo market is a higher demand for good-looking art compared to the shounen market. If Snow White with the Red Hair was an isekai for the shounen demographic, it wouldn’t have these beautiful colours and attention to palette.

Sound – High

The acting is good and the music is nice, suited to a fantasy shoujo. Not much to say here.

Story – Medium

A herbalist in training finds the opportunity of lifetime (and a beau to match) when she catches the eye of a prince. This typical shoujo fantasy has all the right ingredients to satisfy the core, though it could do with turning the drama up a level or two.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For shoujo fans. Snow White with the Red Hair won’t be dramatic enough for general fantasy fans, but those looking for something fun with that light-hearted shoujo romance will enjoy this anime.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

ef – A Tale of Memories – Anime Review

Japanese Title: ef – A Tale of Memories.

 

Related: ef: A Tale of Melodies (sequel)

Similar: Rumbling Hearts

Sola

Bakemonogatari

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Drama Romance

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Not as bad as it could be…I suppose?

Negatives:

  • Actually pretentious
  • Vomit-inducing character designs
  • No one develops
  • The dub is a special kind of awful

(Request an anime for review here.)

I was meant to review Weathering With You, but as I missed my opportunity to watch it, that will have to wait. Instead, I felt like covering something trashy – an anime I had almost forgotten I had seen.

ef – A Tale of Memories comes from studio Shaft before they were a creator of good anime. You can see hints here of what Shaft would become, particularly in their artistic styling. Thankfully, they abandoned these stories and characters for something more fun.

This story follows six characters that eventually become three couples as they overcome their obstacles along the way. The first couple is the most vanilla of the three, between an aspiring manga artist (or is it hentai?) and an energetic girl with unorthodox interests. The second couple uses the childhood friend + love triangle cliché who eventually realises she’s in love with this photographer kid instead. The third and honestly main couple of Renji and Chihiro (you’ll recognise them by his douche hair and her abhorrent eye patch) face the issue of her constant memory loss. Think 50 First Dates with moe. They work on this by writing a novel together, something she can’t forget.

Barring the third with memory loss, there is nothing too unusual about these romances. Frankly, they are as shallow as can be. However, the studio tries to distract you with “fancy” camera work and visual motifs. I commend people for trying to do something different, but everything in Tale of Memories from the quick cuts to the avant-garde shot compositions feel like difference for the sake of being different. And when they run out of ideas, we have stretches of blandness – still shots, no animation, no style. These stand out badly by contrast. To see this style don’t correctly, one need look no further than Shaft’s own Bakemonogatari.

The dialogue is like the cinematography. It alternates between artsy nonsense for the sake of it and stock dialogue that comes with Microsoft Script Writer 2006. If I haven’t made it clear yet, ef – A Tale of Memories is pretentious garbage. These characters don’t develop. They don’t grow as people discovering true love for the first time. No, they spout nonsense and confess feelings in a mire of melodrama. At least it isn’t insulting.

If you don’t like the idea of 50 First Dates gone moe teen melodrama, humour subtracted, then stay far away from ef – A Tale of Memories. I am so glad Shaft moved onto better projects.

Art – Very Low

Some shots are interesting, others are boring, but the majority are nonsense for the sake of being different. Hate the character designs. That douche’s hair! They are one step away from Clannad and one should never stray that close to cancer. Obnoxious – that is how best to describe the art overall.

Sound – Low

If you want to watch ef – A Tale of Memories, do not go with the dub. The problems range far and wide, though the worst has to be the use of honorifics. They use them, yet don’t speak like the Japanese is any other way, which makes it come across as a weeaboo fan dub. The script sounds better the less you understand the characters.

Story – Low

Three teen couples deal with circumstances that stand in the way of love. The ideas aren’t bad. A less pretentious script and presentation was needed if these couples had any chance at success, however.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. It isn’t as bad as Kanon’s romances. Still doesn’t make ef – A Tale of Memories worth a minute of your time.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Awful DialogueNo Development

Kurozuka – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kurozuka

 

Similar: Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne

Ergo Proxy

Blade of the Immortal

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Fantasy Horror Romance Science Fiction

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good acting
  • Intriguing start

Negatives:

  • Leaps to the future too soon
  • Laughing maniac villain is ineffective
  • Most interesting character isn’t in the story enough
  • Visuals show their age

(Request an anime for review here.)

It pains me – it pains me to report how disappointed I am with Kurozuka. This is my type of story. Historical fact woven into in a fantasy narrative with vampires, romance, unflinching action, and cyberpunk – what’s not to love? Maybe the fact that we are missing the middle of the story.

Kurozuka opens in feudal Japan with Minamoto no Yoshitsune (a real historical figure, also known as Kurou) and his closest ally as they flee into the mountains after the fall of Kurou’s brother, first ruling shogun of Japan. The real historical account says that he committed suicide here. Kurozuka postulates that idea of him meeting a stunning woman, Kuromitsu (based on a fable), whom he soon discovers is a vampire and rather than fight her, falls in love. He falters while defending her, but she turns him into an immortal to save his life. Thus a romance set to span over a millennium is born.

I love this setup, particularly in the presentation. It doesn’t hold back on the gore and dark fantasy. His conversion to vampire is the perfect illustration of this, where the norm would be to have him die and then wake up as a vampire or show a sanitised transformation at most. Kurozuka has him alive as a dismembered head while Kuromitsu prepares a new body for him. It’s gruesome and just right (narratively relevant in future as well). The tone of the romance is clear from the start. I am in!

Then episode 3 leaps a thousand years into a dystopian cyberpunk future with Kurou having no idea how he got there. A chance encounter has him join the resistance to combat the Red Imperial Army sporting the same emblem as the clan that tried to kill him and Kuromitsu all those generations ago. The resistance promises they can help him find the one person he knows.

And here is where you lose me.

The setup promises a twisted romance through the ages, Kurou and Kuromitsu forever entwined in a love story painted in blood and guts. I wouldn’t be wrong in expecting to see these two appearing in various eras throughout history, perpetuating the unhealthy cycle of their relationship, one of those affairs where the best decision would be to end it now, in a moment of happiness, but they can’t help themselves from trying again, slaves to their love.

Instead, the story plants itself in the future city with extensive use of flashbacks to dole out bits of the past, of the “middle” of the story for us to figure out. This does not succeed. At all.

The structure is disjointed as all hell. When we flashback, we aren’t sure of which period we are in half the time. This is intentional, as revealed later. Worst of all, the idea of having an amnesiac Kurou on a quest to find Kuromitsu removes her, the most interesting character, from much of the story and turns him into a blank slate. I’ve said it many times: be careful of using amnesia as a plot device. The two most important characters have the least agency. The resistance fighters feel more important to the day-to-day of the story and the main villain, a Joker-like laughing maniac, grates one’s nerves within a single scene. (I would be remiss in mentioning that the horror goes down as the sci-fi goes up too.)

So, why structure the story in such a manner? It is all for the twist that reveals why he has amnesia, why he doesn’t wake up in the future beside her and why the Red Army wants him. The writer sacrificed everything to deliver such a mediocre twist. Worse yet, the twist is a fine piece of vampire lore that could have created plenty of great conflict along the way, if we could have seen it throughout time. I can’t wrap my brain around the insistence upon nailing this twist. It just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t want to give it away, in case you do watch Kurozuka, so allow me to craft an example instead. Imagine if you took Code Geass, as is, but you hid the fact that Lelouch had the power of mind control (don’t worry, Kurozuka’s twist isn’t mind control). You therefore removed any scene that shows his power because it would give away the twist. Sure, it’s an interesting reveal that he was mind controlling people all along (only once per person as well, to further the twist), but at what cost? You’ve now removed most of the compelling scenes and conflict, all because you wanted a big surprise.

Kurozuka is this hypothetical version of Code Geass. It has the components for a fantastic story. I can point to several elements I love, yet leaves much to be desired once brought together. Forget the twist. I want their relationship. Give me their turmoil, damn it!

I am more positive than negative over Kurozuka, though this has much to do with it being the type of story and aesthetic that I like. The ideas and possibilities that made me ponder interesting questions captivated me more than the product itself. As such, if you aren’t into vampires or cyberpunk, it is unlikely to work for you in the face of its structural and character issues.

Art – Medium

In its heyday, Kurozuka would have looked great. Age hasn’t been kind, ironically, as certain animation techniques and elements like CG blood do not hold up. The visual tone, however, is still strong in conveying atmosphere and several action scenes have great animation.

Sound – Medium

I like that they kept the kabuki narration in Japanese even for the English dub – not the sort of thing that works in another language. The acting is good, probably the strongest element of the entire production. The soundtrack is an intense electro death metal collection that, though not to my taste, is a perfect fit to the cyberpunk tragedy when you think about it.

Story – Medium

A samurai falls in love with a vampire woman, sparking a romance destined to last over a thousand years. A brilliant start filled with promises of a dark romance through the ages soon falters with a leap to the future, all in favour of an unsatisfying twist.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For dystopian fans only. I was going to suggest trying Kurozuka, but as the opening few episodes are deceptive to the overall experience, I can’t do so. The paranormal dystopian aspect is the draw.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Disappointing

Kaguya-sama: Love is War – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai: Tensai-tachi no Renai Zunousen

 

Related: Kaguya-sama: Love is War season 2

Similar: Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Maid-sama

Skilled Teaser Takagi

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Romance Comedy

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • All characters are great fun
  • Visual creativity makes paying attention worthwhile
  • Defies genre norms
  • Top tier opening song and sequence

Negatives:

  • Lacks a strong finish, even for a season

(Request an anime for review here.)

Kaguya-sama Love is War is the perfect antidote anime to watch after Naruto’s Great Ninja War. What an uplifting show. Contrary to the violent title, Love is War fills one with joy at the comedic antics of these lovers in denial. It follows two students so competitive in nature that neither is willing to make the first move in their relationship, a relationship they aren’t even aware of.

He, Miyuki, is of a poor background and notoriously stingy, but is also the top student in school and holds the position of council president. She, Kaguya, is of a family so wealthy that it rains money on their estate and she’s an excellent student, though still second to him. They are the perfect couple. Everyone knows it except for them.

What starts as a heated rivalry, where both parties do everything in their power to force the other side to make the first move in any minor dispute, soon turns into a stubborn romance. These two lock horns more than competing bighorn rams. Remember that thing you used to do as a kid where you and another kid are holding something, and you refuse to let go because it means you lose. Lose what exactly? Nothing. Letting go first means you lose, and losing is unacceptable. These two are like that about everything. And I love them for it.

I had low expectations going into Love is War. A high school rom-com about a couple that refuses to communicate? Conflict created by a lack of communication in romance is one of the worst tropes. However, taking that trope to a comical extreme morphs the conflict from eye gouging stupidity to sidesplitting hilarity.

One episode has them arguing over where the council should go for an excursion: beach or mountains. He insists on the camping in the mountains – much more romantic (the astronomic wordplay in his fantasy of how she will finally break and confess is priceless). She insists on the beach – he will see her in a swimsuit and confess immediately! Back and forth, back and forth they go, refusing to budge. Then he’s reminded of bugs, something he can’t stand, and is about to change sides when Fujiwara, student council secretary, airily mentions that if they are to go to the beach, she will need a new swimsuit since she has grown in the last year. This reminds Kaguya of her own flat chest – of course Miyuki will fall for those bouncing fun bags! Change of plan: Kaguya is now pro-mountain! They swap sides and the stalemate continues.

It’s just great. Every episode had me laughing. Furthermore, the structure of having three scenarios per episode keeps the pace moving at a clip where no joke drags. If this had been adapted a decade ago, they would have stretched a scene per episode and killed the humour. This is the ideal format.

Speaking of Fujiwara earlier, she is another defiance of the genre. Well before a dear reader requested Love is War for review, I had seen memes about this character as well as her ending dance. Didn’t know which anime she came from. My impression was of that overly cutesy but actually annoying side character from every high school anime. Turns out the fan content didn’t do her justice. To my surprise, she is a fun lovable character within that archetype. She’s the version done correctly. The side story where a ramen snob takes her for some ramen normie because of her ditzy countenance is perfect. Never has eating ramen been such serious business. I loved her within one episode.

I can say as much about any of the main trio. On paper, they are the clichés you have seen many times before, yet they are almost the opposite of one’s expectations in practice.

A key ingredient in making this simple premise work so well is the relatability of the characters’ personal conflicts. He has many jokes related to being poor; she has plenty related to a rich and sheltered upbringing. For instance, she had such a sanitised childhood that children’s slang for penis, like “wiener”, has her rolling on the floor as the most vulgar thing she’s ever heard. I used to be like that (I wasn’t rich – just raised in a different society), though one wouldn’t know it looking at me now. As outlandish as these scenes are, there is a relatable core to each of them. You can witness their turmoil and say, “That’s like me!” or “I have a friend like that.” These characters have genuine weaknesses that work to the theme and fun conflict of the narrative.

Love is War is an anime type of anime but doesn’t simply throw whatever random nonsense at you in the hopes that something sticks, relying on you going, “It’s random, but that’s just crazy Japan, I guess, so it must be genius.”

If I have to give you a flaw in this series, it would be the ending. It near falls into that trap seen in 90% of anime romantic comedies. The serious final episode. You know what I’m talking about. The series so far has been comedy every minute of the way untroubled by serious drama, but then as if to inject depth (which it never needs), the comedy loses all humour in favour of drama that tries to make you feel something. Most anime comedies that avoid this do so by having no ending at all. Not ideal either. Love is War, thankfully, doesn’t go full drama. Episode 12 is still funny. But it breaks structure for a dramatic narrative that doesn’t even pay off. It offers no progression, as it needs to keep the battle going. A bloody fake out. We end on the weakest episode.

There is another season on the way in 2020, which, if it is the end, hopefully delivers a better conclusion. There is every chance that this next season could bump Kaguya-sama Love is War to my highest rating tier. I find plenty to love here. The characters, including the supporting cast, the humour, the romance, the conflict, and the visual flair are all so much fun!

Art – High

On premise, this sort of anime would sport bland visuals, as seen in My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. Having no fantastical elements often results in a series with nothing worth looking at. Love is War is the opposite. It employs creative visual compositions and techniques to keep your eyes on the screen.

Sound – Very High

Fantastic script. Fantastic acting. The main three in particular play so well off each other. Love the narrator too. They even managed to hire someone who can speak good French to play a French character. Miracle! And as if that wasn’t enough, Love is War has quite likely my favourite opening song of 2019.

Story – High

Two students that like each other refuse to be the first to admit their feelings. A fun ride throughout that only lacks a strong finish, which the next season may fix.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Kaguya-sama: Love is War is so much fun that I would hate for you to miss out.

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

Positive: 

CharmGreat OP or ED SequenceHilariousStellar Voice Acting

Negative: None

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.

(Request an anime for review here.)

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.

(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: None