Category Archives: Romance

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

Basilisk – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou

 

Similar: Ninja Scroll the Movie

Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal

Romeo x Juliet

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action Adventure Romance

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Creative powers make for strategic encounters.
  • Both ninja clans have good and evil.
  • No character feels safe.
  • Tragedy of the premise makes you feel for the characters.

Negatives:

  • Some characters don’t get the development and screen time they deserve.
  • The English voice track doesn’t work well with Japanese nouns and honorifics.

Two ninja clans have feuded for the last four-hundred years, only held at bay by a royal pact prohibiting conflict in the last few generations. In this time of tenuous peace, Gennosuke, grandson of the Kouga clan leader, and Oboro, granddaughter of the Iga clan leader, have fallen in love and their marriage is to create a binding peace between the clans. However, the current shogun decides to use the clans to determine the successor from his two sons. Each clan must select its ten best ninja to annihilate each other. The winning clan will receive the support of the shogun for the next thousand years and rule over the defeated. The pact is broken.

Basilisk is a brutal story as both sides cut each other down to the last. You quickly learn that no one is safe in this conflict; no character wears unkillable ‘plot armour.’ This creates great tension in every moment of conflict, for you never know what will happen, who will die. Basilisk makes great use of the ninja theme with every aspect shrouded in deception and brutality. Each ninja has a special power such as a spider-man who spits glue-like phlegm, and a woman can use her blood to mark the target and create a red mist she can vanish into. To reveal any more would constitute spoilers since the powers themselves are kept hidden for use as twists in the plot. I love strategic use of character abilities and talents.

The writers did a great job with the characters. Neither clan is the good or bad side. Both have characters with shades of grey, beautiful and ugly, calm and angry, kind and cruel. Having these complex characters on both sides makes it all the harder to see them die.

It is clear Basilisk drew much inspiration from Ninja Scroll the Movie with the unique ninja powers and action style. In my review of Ninja Scroll, I noted the lack of character development as a core issue. Thankfully, Basilisk uses its longer screen time to develop the characters through flashbacks and during downtime. Even then, a few characters don’t get the screen time they deserve in such a large cast.

Basilisk excels at character design, each ninja’s look based on their powers – they even have a ninja with no arms or legs. The action is suitably gory and uncensored as a man cuts off his own head. I do wish the visual style in general had more grit like Ninja Scroll the Movie and BerserkBasilisk looks too clean by comparison.

Finally, we come to the audio. Don’t use the English track. With so many archaic Japanese names and locations coupled with honorifics –dono and –sama spoken in American accents (some rather heavy, see: character Okoi), the English voice work sounds strange. If they insisted on using the honorifics with these voices, they should have use titles like ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ instead. Stick to the Japanese original with its well-matched voices to the characters.

I highly recommend Basilisk to anyone who isn’t averse to a little gore. The ninjas and their powers make for an engaging narrative of action and tragedy.

Art – High

A variety of character designs that fit their creative powers. Gore and violence worthy of the brutal premise. I would have liked more grit in the general art.

Sound – High

In Japanese, each character has the right voice, well executed. In English, however, the heavy use of Japanese words doesn’t sound right. Outside of the forgettable title tracks, the music is nice. I particularly liked what I refer to as ‘mountain monk’ music (I have no idea what it’s called) – flutes, chimes, ethereal vocals, etc.

Story – High

A tragic tale of two ninja clans willing to fight to the last warrior if it means wiping out the opposing clan. Add in the forbidden romance, and you have a great story to hear.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Can’t go wrong watching this. Basilisk manages to deliver great action coupled with complex characters in a dark tale of love and hate.

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

 

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

Positive:

Holy S***Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStrategic

Negative: None

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The Garden of Words – Review

Japanese Title: Kotonoha no Niwa

 

Related: 5 Centimetres per Second (same director)

Voices of a Distant Star (same director)

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (same director)

Similar: Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Romance

Length: 45-minute movie

 

Positives:

  • Heartbreakingly beautiful art in every aspect.
  • Rain and thunder ambience that creates an absorbing atmosphere.
  • A subtle soundtrack of piano and violin to fit the emotions.
  • The details in the animations.

Negatives:

  • Too short, making for an abrupt ending.

The Garden of Words is the latest in visual master Makoto Shinkai’s library of anime. Just like 5 Centimetres per Second, The Garden of Words more than lives up to Shinkai’s legacy of pushing art to the limits in anime.

This time we see Takao, a high school student, who skips school during the rainy season to sketch under a gazebo in a Japanese garden park, where he meets older woman Yukino. She drinks beer all day and mountains of chocolate. The two start meeting in the park regularly, knowing that the other will be there when it rains and slowly begin to talk to each other. She has problems at work to deal with while he wants to become a shoemaker, hoping to have a more fulfilling life. Though what will they do when the rainy season ends?

I can’t get the art out of my head – it’s so incredibly beautiful. To see how much attention to detail the artists put into the work is mind-blowing. There are no shortcuts here. Greens and greys dominate the colour pallet, invoking beauty and a sense of sorrow at the same time, a loneliness in pursuing what one finds precious. Everything from the rain to lightning is stunning. When the wind hits the rain…chills, my friend…chills.

The little things make this art a cut above the rest. My favourite detail is the reflective distortion for every single raindrop hitting the water. There are even things that most people wouldn’t pay attention to like clouds of different sizes and distance moving at varying speeds. Even the lightning has full animation; rather than flashing a single frame, the artists animated the growth of the lightning across the sky. Phenomenal.

The sound effects match the visuals with an orchestra of rain, thunder and wind, one of the most pleasant sounds on Earth. A few music pieces accompany the ambience to great effect. Piano plays in an agitated manner, getting faster with the rising desperation of Takao, until violin comes in for the uplifting moments. The only flaw in terms of audio is the voice work. It isn’t bad by any means – good, in fact – but the limited scope of the narrative and sombre mood doesn’t allow for much range or a variety of expressions.

The Garden of Words is very much a short story in scope; two protagonists, each with a thread, entwine their lives with one another. Takao’s brother is ancillary to Takao himself, acting as a father figure simply to avoid Takao being a lone child. If Takao were older, I believe Shinkai would have cut the brother – that’s how small a part the supporting cast plays. Shinkai is known for stripping his stories down to the bones, which is great when wanting to focus on a single topic, but does result in a limited scope. Here, the focus is on loneliness and finding comfort in an unlikely place with unexpected results. We don’t see a whirlwind of emotion, two strangers caught up in a romanticised drama woven from their desire to find comfort in the company of a stranger. No, these two are subtle in their interactions, slowly building up to heightened drama as they deal with their problems. In short, for the narrative to grip you, this focused storytelling has to be your cup of tea. Takao and Yukino will either captivate you or bore you – nothing in between.

If I had to level a complaint against The Garden of Words, it would be towards its length. The story feels like it ends much too soon. It needed at least another fifteen minutes to get the full message out – ideally, twice the total length for some in-depth exploration of the characters and their lives. (Or am I just saying that as an excuse to feel more of the atmosphere?)

The Garden of Words nails atmosphere at a master class level with its art and audio mixing, and is a must watch for any pluviophile, even if the story isn’t particularly to your tastes.

Art – Very High

One of the most beautiful pieces of art put to screen.

Sound – High

I could listen to the stormy ambiance forever. Good voice work as well.

Story – High

A heartfelt story of moving forward in life. Shame about the length.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch for 45 minutes of your life. The Garden of Words is a film for those looking to relax and listen to the sound of rain.

(Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive: 

Fluid AnimationGreat MusicStunning Art Quality

Negative: None.

Voices of a Distant Star – Review

Japanese Title: Hoshi no Koe

 

Related: 5 Centimetres per Second (same director)

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (same director)

The Garden of Words (same director)

Similar: Pale Cocoon

Gunbuster

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Romance

Length: 25 min. OVA

 

Positives:

  • The tragic narrative hits the right emotional notes with its interesting premise.
  • Beautiful environmental art, especially the grand shots of the cosmos and planets.

Negatives:

  • The use of CG for aliens and mechs looks out of place, never mind the ugly designs.
  • Character art looks unfinished.
  • Little is established. How did the girl become an elite pilot so quickly? Where are the aliens from? What does the boy actually do?
  • The voice work in English is monotone for much of the time. Japanese isn’t much better.
  • Prediction of flip phones as the standard in 2046. I jest, I jest.

Having recently watched Nolan’s Interstellar, I was reminded of Voices of a Distant Star, first anime feature of director Shinkai Makoto (of Garden of Words and 5 Centimetres per Second fame). Both Interstellar and Distant Star make use of time dilation to create drama with its characters. Distant Star tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who joins the space fleet in the fight against aliens, leaving her boyfriend behind on Earth with text messages as their only means of communication. The further she travels into deep space, the longer messages take to transmit – days, months, even years – and because of relativity in light speed travel, a couple of days for her is equivalent to years for him.

This story is a tragic one dealing with love separated, literally, by time and space. Distant Star is a powerful piece when it hits its emotional highs; I felt for these two characters. Unfortunately, the side story of the galactic conflict distracts from these heartstring moments. The writer needed a catalyst to launch the girl into deep space, there’s no disputing that; however, a galactic war isn’t a small plot point. It needed more time and space, so to speak, to develop into a full-fledged plot line. We get no backstory on the war, no information about the aliens, and nothing on how the girl became an elite pilot so quickly. (Aside: How is she allowed to wear her school uniform in the mech? I am guessing that it’s a metaphor for her wanting to be back with him during their school days.)

 

Shinkai could have chosen a simpler premise such as the exploration of distant stars to act as the catalyst rather than a war. This would allow more time to focus on the relationship. All we know about these characters is that they are in love. We know nothing about their interests, strength or weaknesses – who they are, really. Then again, they could have extended the runtime to explore each aspect in depth; at 25 minutes, Distant Star is too short for what it tries to achieve.

When it comes to the art, the war causes more problems. Poor CG was used for the mechs and their alien opponents, which is nothing but jarring, and it doesn’t help that their designs are awful. The cockpit view is cool though, using a lone seat with controls floating in a holographic interface.

Despite all that I have said against Voices of a Distant Star, I enjoyed my time here. The premise alone was worth a watch, and even if you don’t enjoy it, the short length means little time is wasted.

Art – Medium

Beautiful environments and lighting unfortunately tarnished by jarring CG for the hideous alien and mech designs. The character art seems to be in its draft stage.

Sound – Medium

Decent voice work in Japanese, monotone in English. I understand that when people are sad, they speak in sombre tones, but full monotone sounds dull. There are no moments of negative energy, no passion in the words. Half the music doesn’t fit the theme. Also something off about the Foley sounds at times.

Story – Medium

A tragic story of long distance love amid a galactic conflict, which results in neither aspect getting the development they deserve.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Worth 25 minutes of your time for what it does right. Voices of a Distant Star is a nice piece of anime that could have done with a longer runtime to develop the relationship and the war further.

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

 

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World BuildingShallow

Elfen Lied – Review

Japanese Title: Elfen Lied

 

Similar: When They Cry

Mirai Nikki

Deadman Wonderland

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Horror Action Romance

Length: 13 episodes & 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • An unsettling atmosphere crafted by contrasting the innocence of children with hyper-violent gore.
  • Haunting opening theme and soundtrack inspired by Gregorian chant.
  • The telekinetic protagonist’s volatile nature creates plenty of tension.

Negatives:

  • The clichéd humour doesn’t ever lighten the mood, which can make the constant tension exhausting.
  • The male love interest is a weak character that serves little purpose to the core.
  • In trying to imitate the Japanese voice track too closely, the English voices sound awful despite the skilled actors. The Japanese isn’t ideal either.
  • Outside of action scenes, most animation ceases.

A severed arm twitching in a pool of blood. Decapitated heads sail across the room, blood sprays the walls. Screams fill the air. At the centre of the carnage, a young girl, naked. Don’t be fooled by the innocent looking girl; Elfen Lied is violent and bathed in gore, not an anime for the faint of heart.

In the world of Elfen Lied (German for ‘Elven Song’) exists a race known as Diclonius. Human in appearance other than small horns protruding from the skull, Diclonii control telekinetic arms called vectors capable of tearing people in two with a flick. Their purpose is to eliminate humanity and spawn a population of their own. Lucy, the protagonist, is one such Diclonius, who escapes from the laboratory, massacring guards and researchers on the way out. She ends up on a beach in front of Kouta, the male love interest, and his friend Yuka. Her mind traumatised by a gunshot, Lucy now lies dormant, replaced by Nyuu, an innocent alter-personality with the mental development of a child. The laboratory dispatches other Diclonii and a mercenary to hunt Lucy down.

Elfen Lied is an anime of tension. It juxtaposes the young innocence of the characters with the violent nature of their telekinetic powers. How can something so small be so psychotic? Every scene with Nyuu is tense, for she could snap at any moment. A mere second of lost control and a character loses a limb or their head. A Diclonius doesn’t discriminate. Man, woman, child – all die in Elfen Lied. Elfen Lied is brutal and gory, contains child and animal abuse on physical and emotional levels. Do not watch this if you are prone to nightmares.

Nyuu/Lucy duality brings an interesting dynamic to the story. While her innocence is what keeps the power at bay, it is also her greatest weakness, as she is too naïve to control her power. It reminds of the 1931 Frankenstein film (which I highly recommend, by the way) where the monster doesn’t comprehend that actions have consequences, especially when those actions can be so destructive. Elfen Lied explores the nature of humanity, and what can come from it when a child is isolated, abused, and pushed to the limit. It accomplishes this goal rather well.

Music enhances these moments where a character’s psyche breaks and violence paints the screen. The opening is a tragic Latin opera called ‘Lilium,’ set to bizarre symbolist art inspired by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. The hymn unsettles, a warning for what is to come. Several versions of ‘Lilium’ play throughout the series and are an important role in the narrative.

Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end. Outside of the Diclonii, the rest of the characters are either underdeveloped or dull. Kouta in particular is weak. While his backstory is good and ties with Lucy’s plot line, as a character he has no purpose other than to serve as a romantic device. He is just so dull. A street lamp with a blown bulb would be more interesting. Yuka is even more useless. She is nothing more than the third point for a love triangle. The writers could have cut her from the series with no effect on the plot. The romance between her and Kouta is lame, filled with generic misunderstandings and anime romance tropes. What little humour Elfen Lied has is trite, seen in every anime teen romance – trip over each other, grabbing the breast, up-skirts, etc.

The average voice acting doesn’t help either. Even though Japan records all actors at once, here they sound stilted with no interactions off each other. The dub is even worse. Kouta’s voice actor is as deadpan as the character, and the female actors tried too hard to imitate their Japanese counterparts, resulting in these awful squeaky voices. No child sounds like that! What’s strange is that the English cast has done great work elsewhere (same team as Full Metal Panic and RahXephon, both great English tracks), but here they sound like amateurs.

Despite all Elfen Lied does wrong, I enjoyed the story. It’s a great example of using gore to enhance the narrative surrounding innocent characters.

Art – Medium

Mouth movements comprise all the animation in most non-action scenes; sometimes, even the mouth doesn’t bother, too exhausted it seems. Other than the action scenes, visual details are low. The manga creator intentionally chose a ‘moe’ artist for the anime to enhance the contrast between innocence and violence. However, this style doesn’t look the greatest, especially on Kouta. Gore and action is great.

Sound – Medium

A great Gregorian chant-inspired soundtrack and tension music brought down by an average Japanese voice track, and an even worse English one.

Story – Medium

Protagonist Lucy carries the violent narrative with her dual personas and volatile nature. Shame then that the other pieces of her love triangle are worthless.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Elfen Lied is a worthwhile anime for fans of uncensored violence. Watch in doses of three episodes at a time to avoid exhaustion from the constant tension.

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

 

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

Positive:

Great MusicGreat OP or ED SequenceHoly S***

Negative:

Useless Side Cast

Bakuman – Review

Japanese Title: Bakuman.

 

Related: Bakuman – season 2

Similar: Shirobako

Space Brothers

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Art Slice of Life

Length: 25 episodes (Season 1)

 

Positives:

  • Good pacing that details the manga creation process.
  • Real characters with ordinary problems.

Negatives:

  • Low tension reduces engagement over long sessions.
  • Doesn’t hit the needed emotional peak.
  • Romance lacks conflict.
  • Poor antagonist that never feels threatening.

For fans of manga, which I assume would be most anime fans, Bakuman is a dramatized behind-the-scenes look at the process of publication and serialisation of your favourite works.

One day, Saiko, a depressed and unambitious teen, returns to class after school’s end to retrieve a forgotten notebook, only to find it in the hands of classmate Takagi. He panics, his mind jumping to the sketches of his secret crush contained within the notebook. Takagi tells him not to look so worried; after all, it’s not as though it is a Death Note. In exchange for Takagi’s silence about the unrequited love, Saiko must join him in becoming full-fledged manga creators – Takagi as the writer, Saiko the artist. And so begins their journey on the road to publication.

This is an anime for those who read manga, preferably Shounen Jump, where Bakuman was first serialised. For anyone unfamiliar, Shounen Jump (also known as ‘Jack’) is a weekly publication in Japan with a variety of manga including Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, and many other popular works. Having your work serialised in such a magazine, and for it to be a hit with fans, is a big deal. In Bakuman, you will spot many manga – unfortunately, it all seems to be work published in Jump, which makes Bakuman look like an advertisement reel.

Following the new partnership, Takagi drags Saiko to the house of his crush, Azuki, who reveals she wants to be a voice actor and agrees to play the heroine of their series when turned into anime. Things don’t go as expected when Saiko yells out that he wants to marry her once they achieve their goals (remember, they are only fourteen at this point) and what do you know, she agrees. While this is a ridiculous setup to the relationship, it doesn’t continue in such a manner, instead walking a more subdued path for the show’s remainder; so subdued in fact, that there really is little conflict in this romance. The secondary relationship of Takagi and his girlfriend has far more screen time. In a way, you get the feeling that the romance was an afterthought to increase the number of plotlines from one to…two.

Saiko now has something to achieve. However, things aren’t as easy as imagined since voice actors become successful at a younger age than mangaka, meaning she may be gone by the time he amounts to anything. He must succeed before completion of high school. These are solid, well-rounded characters with goals like everyone else, and I appreciated that. For the most part, this show keeps the character development and interactions within the realm of realism.

Bakuman is more of a feel-good show than one that explores the emotional intensity of aiming for stardom. While, yes, it does have moments of failure, setbacks, and disappointment, it never portrays the turmoil quite as it could have and should have. Anyone who has had to go through that journey of trying to become a successful artist of any medium on talent alone – no help, no family inheritance, no connections – will tell you that it isn’t easy, that emotions run high, and at the best of times, you feel like the best you can do is tread water. I would go so far as to say that they should have included the emotional intensity of a show like Kimi Ga Nozomu Eien to capture that internal struggle. With that, Bakuman could have been one of my favourite anime.

The main antagonist offers little in the form of adversity. He is a manga prodigy, set for serialisation in his mid-teens and in competition for the same publication spots as them. My problem with this character is that we’re told he is great, never shown a reason why. He’s weird in your stereotypical young genius way, making constant sound effect noises with the behaviour of a two-year-old. Bakuman plays things too nice.

The best aspect of the show is the detail they put into the manga creation process from idea to print, the writers disguising it within an anime to prevent it feeling documentary-like. To top it off, you also get a taste of the manga they design. You aren’t just told about their work without ever seeing the results, as most career shows will do. One even hopes that some of their stories become real manga. Money & Intelligence, a one-shot set in a world where people can sell their intelligence directly into another’s mind, sounds great. I want to read it!

Bakuman is a worthwhile anime, particularly if you are a fan of manga. It doesn’t suffer from anything inherently awful, and yet never hits that greatness it could have. Still, I do recommend Bakuman to anyone who wants an enjoyable viewing experience.

Art – High

The art style is nothing special, but is neat and varied from your typical anime. Seeing them draw a variety of manga styles in one show is a treat.

Sound – Medium

Sound falls into much the same area as art: good, though not remarkable. None of the voice work is poor or irritating, except the antagonist, and the music is pleasant enough. The good opening song sounds like Japan’s version of the Backstreet Boys with that one song you thought was decent, but would never ever admit to.

Story – Medium

Better than most journey-to-career-success anime. Lacks emotional intensity.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Bakuman is more enjoyable than its individual qualities let on, in particular for those who want to see the manga creation process.

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

 

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

Positive: None

Negative:

DissapointingLacks Conflict