Category Archives: Science Fiction

Technology and civilisation have advanced beyond our current situation.

Toward the Terra – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Terra e… (TV)

 

Related: Terra e… (Movie – old version)

Similar: RahXephon

Gundam SEED

No. 6

Xam’d Lost Memories

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Drama Science Fiction

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Grand scope with proper closure.
  • Intriguing open.
  • The sci-fi elements make for an engaging story.

Negatives:

  • Needs stronger key villains.

(Request an anime for review here.)

In another anime with the premise of a protagonist realising his world is a lie, we have Toward the Terra. Where No. 6 setup an ordinary world for the protagonist to exit from, Terra echoes events closer to the likes of The Island or Logan’s Run with a dash of RahXephon and Battlestar Galactica.

In Jomy’s world, talented people join the elites of humanity on the day they reach adulthood. This is an exciting occasion. Who wouldn’t want their child to lead humanity to greatness? This is also a lie. The test of adulthood is actually to identify any potential “Mu” among the populace. They are an evolved race of humans possessing psychic abilities that strike fear in the government. All Mu are executed.

Jomy’s birthday takes a turn for the weird when a mouse starts talking to him telepathically at an amusement park. It’s not long before he’s on the run as one of the Mu and the lie that is his world tears at the seams. Not only is there a race of psychics that live on a ship among the clouds, their leader Soldier Blue has fallen into a coma and wants Jomy to inherit his power and the burden of leading the Mu to a brighter future.

Toward the Terra immediately differentiates itself from the pack of like-minded stories by going off in a wild direction. This story spans years and ventures to places I didn’t predict. One could watch the first episode of Terra followed by the final episode and have no idea how it got from A to Z. No character is the same by the end of this series.

The first act sets up so many questions about this world and its characters. Where did the Mu come from? How blind is the average human to reality? Did Jomy’s human parents really love him? Is it possible for Jomy to undo the brainwashing on society? Who is leading the humans? Why are they so insistent on killing the Mu that aren’t a part of their society? Unlike No. 6, which setup many question but either forgot to answer them or gave meaningless payoffs, Terra delivers some great arcs and story conclusions.

This is my kind of sci-fi anime.

That said, it doesn’t reach greatness when looked at as a whole. There are moments of greatness – the setup episodes and other key events I won’t give away – but the problems are intrusive. The one that has stuck with me since having finished Terra months ago is the switch from Jomy’s perspective to one of the human elites in training.

We follow Keith, a Spock-like character except boring and with no personality. Furthermore, we have no clear idea why the focus is on him for so many episodes (turns out, he’s a major villain – no spoiler, they should have alluded as much from the start). Even furthermore, we don’t see Jomy during this section. It all makes sense in the end, of course, yet the structure of this early second act feels so disconnected from the plot that instead of enjoying the story, I’m asking, “Why does any of this matter?” for too long. It needed a back and forth of perspectives.

Oh yes, almost forgot – Keith’s main rival at the academy is a smiley evil guy. A laughable character. No one would just stand there and take his sneering for more than a day before removing all his teeth. When at this stage of the story, I thought all the good the premise had setup was going down a black hole. Thankfully, it picks up again once Jomy re-enters the scene and Keith’s role matters – he even becomes interesting after the academy years are over. The villains in general are on the weaker side.

Several other moments also standout as blots in the story. I can’t go into detail without revealing too much (as I said, this story goes in such unexpected directions), but they are in the vein of characters doing stupid things for the sake of forced conflict.

There is also a minor annoyance where each episode starts with several minutes from the previous episode. This isn’t a “last time on Terra…” bit, but a straight repeat of scenes. Could do without it, though not a deal breaker.

In all, the good outweigh the bad with the premise being a story type I love accompanied by strong sci-fi elements. I enjoyed Toward the Terra and may even rewatch it in future.

Art – Medium

The technical quality is average, but the creativity of the sci-fi world is good old retro-futurism. Beautiful skies. There is this one character, an alien scientist with the dumbest and most out of place design, like a stick figure in a scene of elfin people. I laughed every time she came on.

Sound – Medium

Solid acting and the soundtrack is suitable to the anime, though you won’t remember the details.

Story – Medium

On the cusp of adulthood, a boy learns he is an alien linked to the first of his race, which makes him an enemy of society and all humanity. This grand space voyage has a lot in it that works for the most part.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For sci-fi fans. Toward the Terra’s sci-fi elements will make it a pleasure to fans of the genre, but those same elements will alienate others. And the characters aren’t strong enough to carry interest if sci-fi the premise doesn’t hook you.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

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Battle Angel Alita – Anime Review

Japanese Title: GUNNM

 

Related: Alita: Battle Angel (live-action movie – included in review)

Similar: Ghost in the Shell

Texhnolyze

Metropolis

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 2 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good art and animation.
  • Grimy cyberpunk world.

Negatives:

  • Severely clipped version of the full story.
  • Little connection with the characters.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Having seen the recent Hollywood release of Alita: Battle Angel in cinema and received a reader request, I thought it fitting to visit the anime version of Battle Angel Alita. This will be a combined review of sorts for the anime and movie.

Based on the nine-volume manga Gunnm from the 90s, this franchise is a classic of sci-fi. It follows Dr Ido and the cyborg Alita (or “Gally”) he reconstructed from a severed head found in the scrapyard. With no memory of her origins, Alita explores this cyberpunk city of bounty hunters and criminals as she learns to live and love.

Two episodes for nine volumes of content? It should come as no surprise to you when I say that Battle Angel Alita is an emaciated anime adaptation. Even if we ignore the manga for the moment and look at this on its own merits, there are notable issues. The story hops from key scene to key scene without the “in between” scenes where the non-crucial moments happen, yet these in betweens are often what bring a story to life and make us connect to characters.

I find this most notable in the first act, where Alita awakens with a new body and familiarises herself with the world around her. In the movie, we stay with her as she learns to control her body, wanders the city and makes friends. This is effective at endearing us to her so that when the action and suffering starts, we care about what happens to her. In the anime however, she wakes up and has no adjustment period. It skips over the first act character development. Furthermore, the movie’s take ingrains within us that she is a cyborg, whereas anime Alita just feels like a regular girl, which is rather important as a core theme is an exploration of what it means to be human.

The anime’s real focus is on the action and main events from the first half of the manga (the movie covers almost the same portion of story, though expanded upon). And when it comes to action, the anime delivers gory goodness. There are several brutal scenes.

Surprisingly, the movie doesn’t tone the violence down as much as one would imagine. Tearing the arms off a machine gets you a lower age rating than if they were flesh, so there’s plenty of brutality to go around. There is even one scene involving a severed head that is more unsettling in the movie than in the anime. I am surprised by some of the things they got away with.

The main plot events are similar across the manga, anime, and movie. The manga will of course have the most detail, but the movie isn’t short on story. It doesn’t feel like a time lapse of a longer story, unlike much of the anime.

I enjoy the story of Alita: Battle Angel. It has an endearing protagonist, some nasty villains, good exploration of theme, and a few turns I didn’t expect it to take. I greatly appreciate a story that claims it lives in a brutal world and delivers on that promise by making characters vulnerable at all times.

Something interesting I learnt after the fact was that the character of Chiren was a creation for the anime, which the movie took and expanded upon further. She is Dr Ido’s ex-wife (works as a cyberphysician like him) and a villain willing to do whatever it takes to return to the city in the sky for the elite. She is a good addition in giving more to Ido’s personal story. And she’s involved in two of the most disturbing scenes in the movie, which I won’t give away here.

A significant element of the movie and manga that is absent in the anime is the fictional sport of motorball. Imagine high-speed rollerblade racing mixed with basketball where anything goes, including shattering opponents to pieces. As long as your head survives, you can comeback back next time. Alita discovers an early passion for the sport thanks to the film’s love interest and it continues to play an important role throughout. The movie brings the visceral sport to life.

Lastly, I want to talk of the visuals. All three versions look great. Though the film version has more colour and visual variety, all versions paint a harsh world full of details. I am a huge cyberpunk fan and setting alone can often make or break my interest. The setting was the best of all elements in the movie for me. It’s rich with life and society. One gets a sense of how people would live in such a place, of how things work in this world. The bounty hunters (called “hunter-warriors”) in particular are great representations of the city with their rough personalities, rough morals, and equally rough cyborg bodies. They also generate good action in all mediums.

As for Alita herself in the movie, you will immediately notice how strange she looks with her large anime eyes. Interestingly, the director didn’t do this to make her look more anime-like. If that were the case, why was no one else given that look? It was a conscious decision to have Alita in full CG that gives an uncanny valley effect to remind the audience that she isn’t human. For myself, the eyes didn’t bother me after a while. What gets me is her smile. I don’t know why, but every time she smiles, it hits me with the uncanny valley. Whether you like the look or not, it does succeed in that regard, so don’t let it put you off watching the movie if the premise interests you.

So, to summarise: the manga is the fullest and most in depth version, while the movie is a good experience that doesn’t feel incomplete (barring the future sequel). The anime, unfortunately, is only worth watching after you have gone through one of the other versions, for it will lack any emotional weight otherwise. The anime is good supplementary material when you can fill in the gaps.

Overall Quality (for the anime) – Medium

Recommendation: Read the manga or watch the movie instead. While Battle Angel Alita is a nice looking OVA, the clipped story and lack of character moments makes it more of an ad for the manga. The live action film is also a better alternative for those who don’t want to read nine volumes.

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A Certain Magical Index – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Toaru Majutsu no Index

 

Related: A Certain Scientific Railgun (spin-off – included in review)

Similar: Strike the Blood

Guilty Crown

Shakugan no Shana

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Action Science Fiction

Length: 48 episodes (Index – 2 seasons), 48 episodes (Railgun – 2 seasons), 4 OVA, 1 movie

 

Positives:

  • Nothing.

Negatives:

  • Won’t shut up about character names.
  • Talks more about abilities rather than using them.
  • Insufferable characters.
  • Moronic through and through.
  • Almost all dialogue is useless.

(Request an anime for review here.)

So close. So close! We were this close to peak stupidity. We have idiotic characters, some of anime’s tropes at their worst, and fantasy mechanics so lazy that you could shuffle a fantasy/sci-fi deck and pick at random to create something better.

A Certain Magical Index is set in Academy City, a place where magic meets science and most citizens have a supernatural power. Kamijou is unique among the populace, for his ability cancels out the abilities of others. He doesn’t need it though since he keeps his nose out of trouble. This easy life changes when a nun girl called Index Librorum Prohibitorum containing over 100,000 magical texts in her brain comes under his protection. A powerful organisation of psychics would love to crack that skull of hers and see what knowledge comes tumbling out.

The first issue the author should have nixed in the planning phase was Kamijou’s tension nullifying ability – sorry, I meant his ability to nullify others. The most powerful enemies throw everything they have at him and he flicks them away as if it’s nothing. What’s the point? Nullifying characters aren’t new and have worked in other fiction. Usually, the character has to hold onto the enemy to nullify their power, thus limiting the range and giving a counter (throw him off), or the nullification puts them on even footing but the character still has to win a standard sword fight (a.k.a. No Items, Fox Only, Final Destination). For Kamijou, it’s a free win. So again I ask, what’s the point?

Needless to say, the action sucks.

Then we come to the characters, each of which are insufferable from the first meeting. Where to start? The eight-year-old girl we’re supposed to believe is a 30-year-old teacher? The 25-year-old guy we’re supposed to believe is 14? The character who thinks being able to tell the time without a clock is the coolest skill ever? Or each character’s obsession with secret names? Every fight, half the dialogue is about their stupid names, as if anyone would care. If it revealed some secret identity or twist that changed the flow of battle, sure, but it doesn’t.

What I said about the 8-year-old looking teacher and the middle-aged teen is serious, by the way. Index takes anime tropes and cranks them up to the max unironically. It’s possible the author was trying to be ironic, but I suspect he just copied from all other supernatural high school anime like a hack. Wouldn’t it be cool if allies fought each other for no discernible reason?

Oh yeah, I haven’t talked about Kamijou himself. There’s nothing to say. He’s the generic “nice guy” protagonist of this genre. Meanwhile, Index is a typical moe genki girl that should have taken a shotgun to the jaw in episode 1.

The worst aspect of Index has to be the dialogue, which is almost entirely exposition to explain the awful mechanics and lore of this world. We aren’t watching a story. We are hearing the author read aloud his world-building diary (a bad world build at that) instead.

There is so much useless dialogue. It doesn’t get any worse than when it introduces the Misaka clones that talk in the third person with dialogue tags. Not only is it overused, but also makes no sense. And just when you think the clones are finally gone, one returns as a naked loli – still narrating in the third person – with the added twist of saying her name twice each line. Yay! (If ISIS ever takes me, all they need to break me is her dialogue on repeat.) And she has clones!

The audience has no reason to care about anything. Characters talk and talk instead of having personalities and development. They even talk about their abilities more than they use them! Not that it really matters. The abilities are unimaginative and as mentioned previously, don’t affect the protagonist.

Yet with all that said, this isn’t as bad as it could be. The abilities look alright and I’ve seen worse animation. The pacing is fine as well. I wish they had put more effort into making A Certain Magical Index so bad it’s good. It’s just bad.

In the end, I only have one question. How in hell did this garbage get multiple seasons and spin-offs?

Art – Low

The character designs are among the worst in anime. The spell effects are alright though and the animation could be worse.

Sound – Very Low

This awful script has padding, not characters. There is so much dumb here that it will leave you speechless.

Story – Very Low

One super powered teen in a city of many must protect a walking library from a villainous organisation. No one could save this story.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Avoid it. Unless you want to walk into the den of stupidity, avoid A Certain Magical Index and all its spin-offs at all costs.

(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: 

Awful DialogueHollow World BuildingHorrendous ActionInduces StupidityNo DevelopmentRubbish Major CharactersUseless Side Cast

No. 6 – Anime Review

Japanese Title: No. 6

 

Similar: Ergo Proxy

Psycho-Pass

Towards the Terra

Banana Fish

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Drama Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 11 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Quality art and animation.
  • Good start.

Negatives:

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

(Request an anime for review here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn. What a shame.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art – High

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

Sound – Medium

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

Story – Low

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

Overall Quality – Low

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

(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

Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kidou Senshi Gundam 0080: Pocket no Naka no Sensou

 

Related: Mobile Suit Gundam (prequel)

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Mecha Science Fiction Drama

Length: 6 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Moral greyness.
  • Great self-contained story with a satisfying end.
  • Quality animation without sacrificing visual detail.

Negatives:

  • Doesn’t start strong.

(Request an anime for review here.)

If there are two things you can rely on with this franchise, it’s that a Gundam will be the centre of all attention and there will be an annoying kid. Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket manages to defy expectations by omitting the latter.

10-year-old Alfred lives on a neutral colony in space, where little much happens with the war between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon rampaging in distant locations. Nevertheless, Alfred has a keen interest in the war, particularly in relation to the mobile suits. Excitement strikes when a skirmish bursts into the colony and a Zaku mobile suit crash lands in the woods nearby. Alfred befriends the pilot Bernie. In exchange for learning all about the war and mobile suits, Alfred provides local knowledge of the land to locate a secret Gundam developed by the Federation in the colony. What starts as a naïve child looking for adventure, will soon turn dire when destruction of the entire colony isn’t beyond reason if it means stopping the Gundam.

The first episode does little to capture your attention. The peaceful start focused on Alfred’s mundane life arguing with friends at school about mobile suits and playing light gun games at home isn’t interesting. It makes you wonder what the aim of the story is. No good stuff mentioned above starts until the final scene of the episode. Setting the scene and ordinary life is worthwhile before upheaval, but it didn’t need to take so long. And it isn’t until episode 3 when we near the mid-point that matters kick into gear and the tension has weight.

Bernie is part of cell embedded in the colony disguised as service workers while they search for the Gundam. It’s interesting how one can’t quite decide on whether they are villains looking to attack the colony, made more difficult by the fact that the Gundam’s pilot is a friend of Alfred’s (unbeknownst to anyone), or heroes acting in preemptive self-defence. This moral greyness is a large contributor to War in the Pocket’s engagement.

Gundam stood out at the time as a shounen anime by, apart from putting effort in the functionality of its mechs, enforcing consequences on its characters. Shounen of the era rarely had death. Whether it was through a dragon ball wish or returning from the dead without explanation, people rarely died. It was too violent for children. Gundam, on the other hand, knew that war had casualties and that a bullet to the head meant death. This realistic approach is well present in War in the Pocket and makes it satisfying. The conflict is meaningful because the consequences matter.

My greatest disappointment with this short series is the lack of screen time for the woman next door, Christina. It’s evident that as the pilot of the Gundam Bernie and Alfred are searching for, she is to generate conflict for the two. A crush/friend is one of the enemy, which will give them pause once unveiled. Because she doesn’t have much screen time, we don’t feel this moment of revelation as strongly as the writer intends. That said, this thread isn’t core to the story, so it doesn’t collapse the house.

The core is Bernie and Alfred. Like the greyness of the infiltration cel, Bernie and Alfred’s friendship also has nuance to it. Is Bernie truly friends with Alfred or just taking advantage of some dumb kid? This thread plays out well.

To top it off, Alfred isn’t annoying like the usual Gundam brats. Yes, he does start annoying, particularly when interacting with some girl at school, but kids are like that. Be around kids for a few hours and they are bound to do something annoying – you know, kids being kids (I used to teach them). What makes Gundam kids so insufferable is that they are never not annoying while also contributing nothing to the story. Alfred becomes endearing over time and proves his purpose in the story. And for that, this anime receives my praise.

War in the Pocket is an unrelated side story of the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Apart from the general war from the original, nothing really carries over to here. This is a short story apart from the main conflict of the Gundam universe, which one can enjoy without prior knowledge of the franchise. As such, I would recommend this series to those who have an interest in Gundam yet feel daunted by its scale (for a modern recommendation with easy access, look to Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin).

Art – High

War in the Pocket uses a more realistic art style to draw in an older audience. It succeeds in having quality animation throughout the series without sacrificing character and environmental detail.

Sound – Medium

The music is that classic old anime style. As for the acting, stick to the Japanese since the dub is so-so at best.

Story – High

A boy helps a mobile suit pilot uncover the secret of the Gundam project on his space colony. What starts as an unlikely pairing between a rather annoying mobile suit otaku and a pilot ends up as a satisfying Gundam short story.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it. For Gundam fans, this is an easy recommendation. For non-Gundam fans, War in the Pocket is ideal if you are looking for a taste of the franchise, as it requires no prior knowledge.

(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