Category Archives: Science Fiction

Technology and civilisation have advanced beyond our current situation.

Code Geass: Re;surrection & Akito the Exiled – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Code Geass: Fukkatsu no Lelouch & Code Geass: Boukoku no Akito

 

Related: Code Geass (original timeline)

Code Geass movies (prequels – alternate timeline)

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Mecha Action Science Fiction

Length: Re;surrection: 1 hr. 52 min. movie

Akito the Exiled: 5 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good acting
  • Animation and visuals in general hold strong
  • Resurrection’s villain has an interesting power
  • Akito the Exiled gives us a different view of the war

Negatives:

  • The alternate timeline is bad fan fiction
  • Far stupider than the main series
  • Lacks weight and consequence
  • Unjustified series revival

(Request an anime for review here.)

Warning: Contains implied spoiler for Code Geass – go watch the series first if you want to avoid any spoilers!

Of all the anime franchises out there, Code Geass is amongst the last I would have picked for a revival. It has, to this day, one of the best endings in the medium. Everything wraps up in a neat, satisfying end that doesn’t need further exploration. It’s done; leave it!

Later they announced the spin-off series Akito the Exiled to mixed reviews and it was largely apart from the series proper. So, whatever. Then they start the Code Geass Movies, which I thought was a simple cash grab that repackages the series into an a set of abridged films (Gundam often does this to maintain interest between new releases). Now we come to Resurrection, the fourth film that promises to continue to story from where the series ended. I look at the poster and see Lelouch featured. If you’ve seen the series but not the movies, you will understand my confusion at his involvement. That’s when I learn the movies changed key events from the original series.

Most notable amongst the changes is the reversal of several character deaths. Pivotal moments that had a significant impact on the story and characters undone without a second thought. One would imagine this wouldn’t go down well amongst fans – surely, the meaningful consequences are one of the key factors that drew them to Code Geass. However, while researching the production of the films and the motivations behind the changes, I would see comments underneath articles of such stupidity that it hurts to be distantly associated with them as fans of the same series. Things like, “Movie so much betta cuz [character] lives and [character] don’t make stpd decicion. Like if agree.” Mastery of language isn’t a strength amongst these commenters.

In discussion with my friend about Resurrection after having watched it together, he tells me of something called “saviour fan fiction”, where fans who don’t like that their favourite character/s died will rewrite the canon to have them survive and often help/save the day. Looking further into the background of these movies, I start seeing this everywhere. Almost everyone who likes the alternate timeline does so because some character doesn’t die. They don’t care that it undermines the story, that the challenges these characters faced is what gave them depth. If not for these complex character arcs, would they have liked the characters to begin with? Whom am I kidding – these saviour dimwits can’t see beyond the superficial.

I haven’t even talked about Resurrection yet.

Resurrection starts shortly after Lelouch brings peace to the world. This time of peace isn’t beneficial to all, however, for the Kingdom of Zilkhstan’s primary trade was in weapons and who needs those anymore? Their ruler, Princess Shamna, kidnaps Nunnally of the United Federations council and uses the girl to amplify her Geass power as tries to elevate her kingdom once more. Many characters from the previous story arrive to get her back.

There are so many problems here – even ignoring the alternate timeline changes – that I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start on the premise. No kingdom, were they as powerful as purported here, would collapse to rubble if they couldn’t sell weapons anymore. One, people would still buy weapons (though not as many) and two, what of their other industries? Did everyone in the kingdom work in weapon factories?

Then we have the characters. The news ones – most of them from the kingdom – are so forgettable. There is this one scene where the crippled prince has Suzaku in chains and starts whipping him with a cat o’ nine tails like it’s some fetish. It’s so random that my friend and I burst into laughter. I couldn’t tell you what the enemy fighters are about. The only new character with a hint of complexity is the princess. As for the returning characters, they are mere silhouettes of their former selves. The greatest issue here is the sheer number of them. It feels as if Resurrection wanted to include the entire cast from the original 50-episode series. Surely, production would be smart enough to know you can’t do this in under two hours. Then you remember this is just fan service to satiate the drooling saviour fan fic writers. Of course, go ahead, cram everyone in and make sure we get plenty of framed arse shots instead of character arcs.

The worst offender is Lelouch himself (to be fair, this is also because he’s the most important). He starts the film as a brain dead simpleton (literally) until CC restores him to health amidst this conflict – nice coincidence to have them hiding in the one village in the world where any conflict is happening. The moment he recovers, he’s back to his old self. No concerns whatsoever for how he got there to begin with after what he did to bring peace. Why do this, why even involve him if you’re going to undo everything? You could have used someone els— Oh, silly me. Of course – fan service!

They don’t even get the strategy right. Code Geass is known for smart characters and smart battles. It pits Lelouch in battles where brains matter more than brawn. Resurrection is nothing like that. Shamna has a cool power, full of potential for interesting battle scenarios. I won’t give it away, as it is the one good element of the story. All I’ll say is that it’s a power which is difficult to figure out. As such, Lelouch has to use deductive reasoning to figure out why she’s always one step ahead. It’s similar to L cracking how people are dying as if by the power of God in Death Note. Unlike that anime, where we see each step of the process, Resurrection rushes through the trial and error stage as Lelouch eliminates the possibilities.

If insistent on going through with this whole alternate timeline story, they should have at least turned this into a series. Everything is so rushed. We don’t get to know any of the new characters, the old characters only have a connection because of what we know from past stories, and the events jump from one to the next too quickly. This feels like a recap movie, not the definitive continuation of Code Geass.

Ahead of Resurrection, I thought I would check out the spin off series Code Geass: Akito the Exiled. This is part of the original timeline, taking place between seasons one and two. It is set in on the frontlines of Europe, where the Britannian Empire is invading the Europia United allied nations. We follow a secret military unit made up of people from all over Europe and Japanese street kids led by an aristocratic girl.

The first thing that jumps out to me is the accents in the dub. Set in Western Europe, they made the effort to give accents to characters from different countries, something I very much appreciate. They work – for the most part. The French accents, sadly, all use the wrong ‘r’ sound. It’s placed too far forward in the mouth (sounds more German) and makes me tick each time I hear it. An absolute minor nit-pick that most won’t matter to most – hell, most won’t even notice! – but I notice it every. damn. time.

Enough of accents. Akito the Exiled is better than I expected for a spin off series (the bar is set to low). Not to say it’s great or that it lives up to the Code Geass name. The action is engaging enough – could do with less CG – and the characters are fine, if a bit too simple. Unlike Resurrection, where the new introductions get 30 seconds of characterisation, Akito’s [almost] entirely new cast has far more depth and actual arcs. I should have mentioned Resurrection has no arcs.

I also like how it centres on a different part of the world. If you make a spin-off, it’s good to have something new. In fact, the worst aspects of the series are the tie-in elements to the original, namely the inclusion of Geass powers and the appearance of Lelouch. The powers feel tacked on and the villain’s power is a worse version of Lelouch’s Geass. He never uses it in an interesting manner. Would have been better without it.

Lelouch’s appearance is worse, as it comes across like a fan service cameo. He gets sent to take over the operation on the European front. The story sees a notable dive when he joins. I’m just asking myself the whole time why he’s there. The answer is obvious, of course – fan service – yet I still wonder.

Do I recommend either of these? Resurrection, definitely not; Akito the Exiled, maybe. The latter is decent for Code Geass fans that want to see more of the world, whereas the former undermines the value of the original. It should be offensive to any fan.

Art – High

The Code Geass continuations still look good – the movies more so than Akito the Exiled, where CG battle scenes are jarring amongst the 2D. Hard to fail here when coming off the back of the original.

Sound – Medium

There is a notable drop in script quality, though the actors still give it their all. The soundtrack, unlike the art, hasn’t maintained some level of quality. Utterly forgettable. Akito the Exiled’s writing is better.

Story – Low

Akito the Exiled shows us the war with Britannia on the European front, while Resurrection continues the series as a new threat rises in the time of peace. Akito the Exiled isn’t an awful supplement to the series, expanding the world and giving us a new set of characters. Resurrection, however, is bad fan fiction.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Avoid the Code Geass movies, especially Resurrection. Give Akito the Exiled a try if you want more that isn’t garbage.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Disappointing

Memories – Anime Review

Japanese Title: MEMORIES

 

Similar: Ghost in the Shell

Perfect Blue

Akira

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Psychological Horror Science Fiction

Length: 1 hr. 50 min. (3 short films)

 

Positives:

  • Magnetic Rose’s atmosphere and horror
  • Stink Bomb’s dark humour
  • Beautiful, grim art

Negatives:

  • Cannon Fodder has little to it

(Request an anime for review here.)

Memories is an anthology of three short films that brings together several big talents of the anime industry. All three are based on manga works from executive producer Katsuhiro Otomo (director of Akira), however are directed by three different directors.

Magnetic Rose, first of the three, comes from director Koji Morimoto (animator of Akira, Kiki’s Delivery Service) and writer Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue). This follows a pair of engineers working for a salvage company sent to investigate a distress call from an abandoned space station. Inside, they find a residence of such opulence that it would match European palaces of old. It isn’t abandoned either. The opera singer who once lived here seems alive in the very bolts that keep this place together. Hologram or hallucination, the two men can’t differentiate as she pulls them deeper into her tragic past.

Of the three, Magnetic Rose is easily the best in all regards. Whether talking story, art, music or atmosphere, this is a level above the rest. You immediately feel the styles of Morimoto and Kon. The measured pace, the emphasis on atmosphere and emotion over dialogue, the attention to detail in all of the art, and the psychological tension are telltale signatures. I get strong Dead Space vibes. The madder things get, the more it draws me in. I love it. The only area for improvement is in giving depth to the characters. There is enough here to work, but more wouldn’t have gone awry.

The second film is Stink Bomb under the direction of Tensai Okamura (creator of Darker Than Black). This one is more of a black comedy around a horror scenario. A lab tech tries his company’s experimental cold medicine and takes a nap at work. He awakens to find everyone dead. Turns out this wasn’t cold medicine at all. He has become a living gas bomb, only he doesn’t realise this as he makes his way back to Tokyo with the secret formula.

Stink Bomb feels like it would be a perfect fit as an episode to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It’s all about the ridiculous scenario – equal parts comedy and horror – without much to the characters or the story beyond that. The more the death toll rises, the funnier it gets. The visuals are great here, particularly in the animation.

Otomo himself directs the last of these films, Cannon Fodder. This is a simple story set in a steampunk city that revolves around firing cannons in an endless war. There are cannons everywhere. Instead of skylights, buildings simply have more cannons. We follow a cannon loader as he goes about a day on the job.

While the most unique visually, Cannon Fodder is the shallowest and least interesting of the three. It’s more of a presentation for a world concept than it is a complete story. I take this an allegory on Japan’s “salary man” work life, where one is slave to the company, no matter the abuse received from higher up, living each day to work so you can pay the bills to live, stuck in this endless “war”. We even have the contrast of the child who wants to become the cannon officer (orders when to fire cannons), as children often do when idolising what their parents do for work (parents haven’t the heart to tell them of reality). An interesting concept, but not the most memorable.

Overall, I highly recommend Magnetic Rose (the worst thing about this film is reminding me that Satoshi Kon isn’t around anymore to share more of his genius with us). Try Stink Bomb if you want to continue, and then you may as well finish Cannon Fodder to complete the anthology. You might want to end on Magnetic Rose to close with the best.

Art – Very High

All three films feature a different style – Cannon Fodder especially – under the guidance of different art directors, all of which succeed in augmenting the tone of their respective stories. The animation is beautiful too.

Sound – High

The voice work is good for the most part. Standouts of the audio department are the sound design of Cannon Fodder and everything audio in Magnetic Rose, which delivers a haunting atmosphere.

Story – High

Three short stories: engineers investigate a haunted space station in Magnetic Rose; a hapless chemist becomes walking death in Stink Bomb; a look at a day in the life of citizens living in a city all about firing cannons in Cannon Fodder. The order of appearance happens to be the descending order of quality.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch Magnetic Rose, try Stink Bomb, then finish with Cannon Fodder if you want to complete the set. Memories is also good for showing to those who aren’t usually interested in anime.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kidou Senshi Gundam: Tekketsu no Orphans

 

Similar: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED

Gurren Lagann

Rainbow

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Drama Science Fiction

Length: 50 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Great mech designs
  • Doesn’t take the subject matter lightly
  • Perfect end for this story
  • Dirty land brawls

Negatives:

  • Lack of interpersonal conflict
  • Talks down to the audience regarding characters
  • Drags in the second season with space battles

(Request an anime for review here.)

I can only go so long without watching a new Gundam series. It was a while as I waited for this one to release in a complete collection (season 2 took forever). So, was it worth the wait?

Iron-Blooded Orphans centres on a squad of child soldiers, who manage to survive an attack when their military company leaves them to die as fodder. They live on Mars, a desolate planet that relies on the benevolence of Earth. Kudelia Aina Bernstein, daughter of one of Mars’s aristocratic families, leads the plight for independence, but her naiveté comes under fire when she sees the effects of war, particularly on children, first hand. Mikazuki and his comrades of Tekkadan, led by Orga, aren’t messing around when it comes to fighting for their lives.

First, I love the premise. It’s great how Iron-Blooded Orphans goes to the lowest level, to the people at the very bottom of the ladder. Even more so, I love how it doesn’t shy away from the tough circumstances these kids would face and the harsh violence they must commit. Episode 3 illustrates this when Mikazuki executes the leader of their military organisation – and man responsible for leaving them behind – with a bullet to the head the instant he talks back. I did not expect such good sense.

The story hooks you from the start with high stakes and high conflict. I’m sold right away. So what goes wrong?

It isn’t long before you notice something off about the characters, about the way in which they interact with each other. There is a distinct lack of interpersonal conflict. One would imagine that Kudelia’s naiveté could cause much drama amongst these poor downtrodden kids. Why does this spoilt rich girl think she can save us? But nope, there are a few minor comments here and there and we move on. Surely there would be conflict between Mikazuki and Orga. No, Mikazuki never questions his leader. He follows like a dog, a passive protagonist. A love triangle starts between Mikazuki, Kudelia, and this other girl (childhood friend). Come on, there has to be conflict here, right!? At best is a slight shyness from the childhood friend. The most conflict comes from minor characters, whose names you will never remember.

Even with a plethora of external conflicts on these characters, a story also needs internals ones (often aggravated by those external forces). It’s what makes characters human, relatable, and memorable. Regardless of what I think of the rest of Iron-Blooded Orphans, this single factor alone makes me prefer other Gundam series like SEED and Origin.

This problem is no more evident and sorely needed than in the case of the “legitimate businessman” and his harem of women that ally with Tekkadan. Supposedly, he’s married to all of these women whom he claims to love equally. However, there is clearly a favourite, which one would imagine is leading towards several cases of jealousy and thus conflict. Nothing comes of this weird relationship dynamic. His purpose is to create a bridge between Tekkadan and a large yakuza-like corporation they end up working for. Give me drama!

That leads to another problem with this series: too many characters. Way, way too many characters. Tekkadan has twice as many named characters as it should. Then we have businessman and his harem, followed by several enemy organisations, each with their own cast of characters. Gundam series generally have a large cast, but this is on another level. It’s not so much the quantity (Legend of the Galactic Heroes has far more) as it is the quantity at one time. When you have so many characters fighting for screen time, everyone suffers. The phrase “wide as the ocean, deep as a puddle” applies to much of the cast (still no one as bad as Cagali). Cut it in half. Yes, half.

I believe this is the reason we have so little character conflict. Not enough time when a hundred characters need their share in the spotlight. This also explains why everyone and their grandpa has to spell out their motivations for the audience. For instance, an enemy squad captain returns after defeat to challenge Mikazuki to a duel, knowing he stands no chance against the Gundam. Once defeated and given the chance to retreat, he requests to be killed instead. Why? Well, it’s obvious, but he has to give a dramatic monologue for minutes to make sure we understand. Iron-Blooded Orphans deals in heavy themes not for small children, so why talk down to the audience like children in regards to characters? People will get it. Every character has this moment.

Also do something about the creepy marriage between one of the antagonists and a child. It isn’t talked about enough by other characters. I’m not sure what they were going for here. If they want to establish that this isn’t unusual, they need to make a point of it. Just creepy.

To top it all off, I’m not a fan of the designs. I know this is personal taste, but the hairstyles are just too silly for a gritty war drama. Does anyone else think the protagonist looks like Sonic the Hedgehog? On the other hand, we have the mechs. There are awesome designs here. The main Gundam, Barbatos, a relic of an ancient war is one of my all-time favourite designs. I liked it before having even seen the series. 10 outta 10! Gundam of the year!

So far in this review, I have been quite negative – it comes from a place of love – so why did I enjoy this in the end? It is equal parts being a Gundam fan in general, the action, and the story.

The decision to have much of the action be up close and personal, mechs smashing into each other, tearing armour plate by plate instead of all the usual high tech beam weapons was an ideal match to the story’s tone. Some of the deaths, people crushed inside their cockpits, are brutal. I cannot emphasise enough how little Iron-Blooded Orphans holds back on the subject of child soldiers and war. It also gains extra points for featuring one of the only instances where a hero shoots an enemy in the head during their speech on “honour”.

Then we have the story, which stays engaging (apart from a lull in season 2) in the face of an average cast of characters. The meld of war, politics, shifting alliances, and scrappy fights had me until the end. And what an end it is. I should never have doubted the team to deliver the right ending, but this surprised me. The perfect end to this type of story.

Do I recommend Iron-Blooded Orphans? Yes, but not to Gundam newbies. This one is overloaded with specialist terms and names you’ve never heard of. It can get difficult to track who’s who when referred to by name alone. Or were they talking about an organisation? Go with Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin if you want to start with the main line series or Gundam SEED / Gundam 00 if you prefer standalone stories.

Art – High

Though I’m not a fan of the character designs, there is no denying Iron-Blooded Orphans looks great. Best of all, repeat animations aren’t an issue and the action flows smoothly. There is a visceral quality to the way Barbatos carves up enemies.

Sound – High

I like the soundtrack, but I wish it had a little more grunge to match to the down and dirty lives of these kids. The acting is better than the script, which could do with a simple 10% trim that over explains characters.

Story – High

A squad of child soldiers find themselves holding destiny in their hands before they fight for a better future. A great story with mediocre characters comes to an excellent conclusion.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it (if it isn’t your first Gundam series). Iron-Blooded Orphans is a solid series despite its flaws. However, I don’t recommend this for first-timers to the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

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.

(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: 

Disappointing

.hack//Sign – Anime Review

Japanese Title: .hack//Sign

 

Related: .hack//Legend of the Twilight (sequel)

.hack//Roots (sequel)

Similar: Log Horizon

Sword Art Online

Serial Experiments Lain

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Adventure Fantasy Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes, 2 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Top tier ethereal soundtrack

Negatives:

  • Unbelievably boring
  • Repetitive and slow
  • Poor action
  • Shallow MMO world

(Request an anime for review here.)

A decade before MMO isekai became a big deal there was .hack//Sign. If you’re wondering why the genre didn’t take off back then, let me enlighten you.

Whereas the popular isekai premise of today is to trap everyone inside an MMO, Hack Sign only traps an individual, a teenager called Tsukasa who wakes up in a dungeon with no memories and soon discovers he can’t log out. Furthermore, he begins to taste and feel this virtual world on his skin. When other adventurers hear of his predicament, some look to help him while others fear him, particularly for the Guardian artefact that protects him, able to fell players in a single strike.

So, this premise sounds intriguing, especially if it’s the first of its kind for you, right? It has mystery, a vast world, monsters, player versus player combat, and a pitiable protagonist. What could go wrong?

Never have you seen an anime more boring than Hack Sign. For a story set in a game about exploration and fighting monsters, there is very little exploration and next to no action. And what action we do see is so poorly animated that you’re grateful there isn’t more of it.

The last time I watched Hack Sign was all the way back in early 2003 and I didn’t realise until this rewatch for review that I had never finished it. Even with my love for MMOs, I couldn’t continue. I didn’t consciously drop it. It just faded away. I’d wager that the only reason I even made it to a few episodes from the end was the soundtrack, which I place as one of anime’s greatest. In fact, I like this soundtrack so much that I managed to finish this rewatch by passively enjoying the music.

Alright, that’s enough praise. Time for the juice.

I mentioned the lack of action earlier, so you must be wondering what fills the time instead. If I said “Nothing,” I wouldn’t be far off the mark. Most scenes are of characters just sitting around talking about Tsukasa’s predicament. Legends speak of an item called the “Key of Twilight” that can break the rules of the game and perhaps free Tsukasa. In itself, this wouldn’t be bad – I’d like to see an MMO isekai focused on socialising over action. However, when coupled with the amount of repetition, the same characters going over the same talking points, your eyes will roll back as you pass out.

A group of players roleplay as an unofficial “police” force called the Crimson Knights, led by a small woman with wings called Subaru. I really don’t get this character. All the Knights revere her, treat her like royalty combined with the respect commanded by the greatest leaders, and I don’t know why. At no point does she demonstrate great cunning, strength, power, leadership, or wisdom. Forget the story; this is Hack Sign’s greatest mystery.

Much like the circular conversations of Tsukasa’s acquaintances, the Crimson Knights scenes are repetitive to a baffling degree. Count the number of times Subaru’s top knight says that they should get rid of Tsukasa and witness how often other players offend him for not showing her enough respect. We’re just going in circles here.

Oh god, I just remembered the flashbacks! As if each scene going nowhere wasn’t bad enough, they have to replay them in the next episode! These aren’t your usual flashbacks either, glimpsing a past scene to draw attention to some detail. No, these will replay entire scenes for your brain-leaking pleasure.

Characters are the one element that can salvage a story crawling in circles. KonoSuba doesn’t really go much of anywhere, yet those characters are so fun that you could watch them for a long while. Sadly, Hack Sign doesn’t have that luxury.

Take Tsukasa, protagonist, most important of the cast – he’s anti-social, always running away, and quite the dick to everyone. Unlikable to the very end. Even with the tragic backstory. The Crimson Knights are one-note and the only real villain is a sleazy assassin searching for the Key (his real identity reveal is rather funny and exactly who you would expect if you’ve played MMOs before).

You can see the author tried to go for depth with the cast. This one character called BT (named after the Bacon Lettuce Tomato sandwich, minus the lettuce because she hates it) is part of the group helping Tsukasa, yet we see that she has ulterior motives as she uses both good and bad people, never quite sure which side she will fall on. Due to the execution, however, it has no impact. You wouldn’t want to hang out with any of these characters in an MMO.

I appreciate that the script doesn’t bog down with massive exposition and mechanic dumps (unlike Log Horizon), but Hack Sign goes too far in the other direction. There is so little substance that we have nothing left. A bit more focus and direction would help engage the audience.

Unless you want an unusual anime with great music to watch while you slowly sink into the couch, .hack//Sign isn’t for you (or me). If I knew it was so dull, why did I bother again? I wanted to see if it is as boring as I remember.

It is.

Art – Low

The character and world designs remind me of the Suikoden games, which is nice, but the animation sucks and there is so little variety for an MMO world in 26 episodes. Even the dangerous Guardian is a weak design – golden testicles floating around a bracelet, really?

Sound – Medium

Look, Hack Sign has one of the best anime soundtracks ever. I have had a few of its songs on my playlist for over 16 years. The acting is quite good as well – go for the Japanese, as this is from the era when the Japanese was usually the better track all round. Bear, for example, sounds much better with a deeper voice. However! No soundtrack or acting talent can save this mind-numbing script.

Story – Low

A kid wakes up one day as the sole player trapped in an MMO, where a magical artefact becomes his deadly guardian. One would imagine that such a premise would be full of mystery, suspense, and adventure. One would also be wrong.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Avoid it. Unless you are so intensely curious to see what the deal is with anime’s most boring series, avoid .hack//Sign.

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

Positive: 

Great Music

Negative:

Poor PacingRepetitive