Category Archives: Thriller

High suspense, tension, and excitement. Is the killer under your bed?

Monster – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Monster

 

Similar: Master Keaton (same creator)

Death Note

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

Terror in Resonance

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Thriller Drama Horror Mystery

Length: 74 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Johan, one of the greatest villains in fiction.
  • Every character has nuance and depth beyond the scope.
  • Many threads woven together to create a tense, unforgettable story.
  • Art that evolves as the characters grow over time.
  • Psychological atmosphere brought to life with tense music.
  • An opening sequence that other anime could learn much from.

Negatives:

  • Some unnecessary flashbacks to scenes we just watched last episode.
  • A few episodes muddle the storytelling coherence, but it is clarified later.

Monster is a sombre, twisted look into the life of one man and the events that unfold under his influence. It takes us down into the seedy underbelly of a post-Berlin Wall 1990s Germany, where the country is shaken by the rise of a serial killer.

Our tale starts with Doctor Tenma, a genius neurosurgeon in Düsseldorf. He has it all: the rich fiancée, Eva, the prestige, and the skill. One night, a little boy comes into the emergency room, gunshot to the head, and only Tenma’s ability can save him. Nine years later, a string of murders occurs and sweeps Tenma up into the brutality. The killer is that very same boy from all those years ago, and the murders are the mere tip of his machinations. What would you do if you had saved the life of the next Hitler?

Tenma feels a personal responsibility, especially with how much attention Johan favours him with, a truly messed up connection akin to Dumbledore and Voldemort. To worsen matters, Detective Lunge is on the case and his primary suspect is Tenma, for he has gained much since the murders. Lunge is a bloodhound, hell-bent on solving the case, even at the cost of all personal feelings and livelihood – a darker Sherlock Holmes. He’s the creepy guy you want in charge of your case, but wouldn’t invite over for dinner. I like his strange quirk where he types with his fingers in the air to archive every detail to memory.

The opening sequence sets the tone for Monster without a single word or lyric. Tenma keeps looking over his shoulder at distant, ethereal voices, yet there is never anything around once he looks. He is stalked and alone on his quest for the elusive killer.

The true star of Monster is the villain, Johan, a Hannibal Lecter type. He reveals himself to us early, but for much of the narrative, he remains in the shadows, controlling the events with unparalleled skill. Importantly, his ability to manipulate countless others and their organisations is believable, most prominently when we see him play his game in person. The way Johan manages to understand people, get inside their heads is brilliant, twisted, but brilliant – only one with such little emotion and empathy would be willing to go as far as he does. Whenever Johan is in a scene, it reminds me of Game of Thrones’ Geoffrey; he creates a tension unlike any other, as if he could kill at any moment. Unlike Geoffrey, however, who is a petulant child with the bigger stick, Johan has the subtlety, the patience of a master. He is bred for perfection in appearance and intelligence, and makes full use of that fact.

Monster introduces new characters and plot threads every few episodes. First, it is murder, then serial murder, then the mafia, and just when you think they couldn’t possibly add more, Nazi topics – the perfect race, Hitler’s rise to power, etc. – enter the fold. What it means to kill. Eugenics. Child psychology. More and more, seemingly endless wealth of themes weave into the plot. You must, must dedicate your attention to Monster or you may find yourself lost in its intricate plotting. If you do pay attention, Monster will reward you with nuance and maturity in the characters and themes at a level far beyond the norm.

“I brought him back to life… That monster…I brought him back to life…”

Art – High

Monster sports a more realistic art style than most anime. In fact, one could be forgiven for assuming it is not anime due to its highly detailed depiction of 1990s Germany. The face art may be off-putting at first (those irises are really small), but I grew accustomed within a few episodes. Most impressive, to me, is how well the art conveys the characters’ emotions and personalities. Pay particular attention to Eva and Tenma – he looks like a changed man by the end.

Sound – Very High

Excellent acting is either language, yet the English takes the crown, as the foreign languages (German, Czech, etc.) sound better from the English actors; however, Johan makes the English a must – bone-chilling performance. Great music and ambient sounds like the stalking Predator bring heights of tension and drama – again, some truly creepy songs. My only auditory gripe is with the lack of German accents for many characters, not even a slight one, though they do at least incorporate German mannerisms into dialogue.

Story – Very High

Monster is a once in a decade anime. The writers masterfully wove so many character threads together, filled with a ruthless, human logic that few creators bother to incorporate into their stories. Every character is human, a part of them broken by the hardships of life. Johan is a villain I will never forget.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: I cannot emphasise how much you must watch Monster. That said, I would wait until you have developed a liking for lengthy dramas, or you may miss much of the subtlety that makes Monster unforgettable, as I had in my youth. Remember to pay attention at all times.

(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:

Deep NarrativeEngaging DialogueExtensive Character DevelopmentGreat MusicGreat OP or ED SequenceHoly S***Phenomenal VillainPositive Recommended English Voice TrackStellar Voice ActingStrategicStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

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Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gankutsuou

 

Similar: Gungrave

Code Geass

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Drama Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • A thrilling story of revenge and corruption.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo is a multi-layered and fully textured (in more ways than one) character. One of the greats.
  • That creative art style, that texturing, utterly beautiful.
  • Manages to take a 19th century story and place it in the 6th millennium without feeling out of place.
  • A soundtrack fit for the style and themes.

Negatives:

  • Some CG stands out too much.

There’s always a degree of tension when adapting a famous classic, even more so when to a medium that couldn’t be more different from the source. First, you have the fans sitting in their beds, eyes glaring over the top of novels, ears twitching as they sense someone touching “their” property. At the other end, there’s Alexandre Dumas peeking out of his grave in the Pantheon of Paris. And in the middle, you have the small crew of anime artists. It’s a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Mexican standoff, each party eyeing the others, wary of disaster. Dr Seuss in the stands screams, “Don’t let ‘em do it, Lex!” waving his ‘I hate The Lorax’ flag. Thankfully, the new team came through.

High up in a private opera box, a man, his hair like rivers of cosmic ink, his skin an ethereal blue, awards a bouquet of flowers to the opera singer. The theatre gasps. Who is this count? The mysterious figure invites young Viscount Albert and his friend Baron Franz over for dinner. He doesn’t eat, though the food is superb. He plays with fate, gambling lives – Albert sets a criminal free. Illusion of choice. The naïve, idealist Albert is enthralled, frightened, by this stranger, yearning to see the galaxy, escape his confined life of arranged marriage. His handshake was cold, like ice.

Gankutsuou is the story of a man out for revenge, adapted from Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo novel. The narrative doesn’t show the betrayal like in the novel; instead, the anime opens with the first stage of the revenge, using twenty-three episodes to execute every detail of the Count’s plan. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, this adds extra layers of mystery to the plot; however, if you are familiar with the original, then fear not, as Gankutsuou has plenty of surprises in store. Everything fits to the original, yet feels fresh. They still have duels, only they fight mechs. By setting it in the distant future, the writers could incorporate several new elements like aliens instead of foreigners, some of them supernatural. The Count has a horse for a spy – need I say more?

Though we see through Albert’s perspective, the Count is without a doubt the star. He uses his unfathomable wealth, charm, and guile to play everyone like pieces on his board. The aristocrats of Paris with their decadent lifestyles, worlds of opera, flirtations, and palaces are a feast to his talents. He is a master manipulator. The way he gets into people’s heads without them realising is a delight to watch. He plays on their weakness while charming them as well so they don’t notice his ploy. Rather than outmanoeuvring them on the battlefield, he creates situations where his enemies can’t resist exposing their true natures, where people discover darkness they didn’t realise was there, and they don’t notice it was the Count who set it up.

He has a constant aura of mystery about him (as he intends, I am sure) that is both captivating and frightening. In a world of high tech cars and ships, he rides in a sleek black carriage drawn by black horses – the sort of thing Batman would have. The artists fuse high intensity orchestral pieces of heavy brass, tragic opera, theatre, and literature to create a rich world around him, both beautiful and grim. There are detailed paintings in shots that last a couple of seconds, taking more effort than entire backgrounds from other anime, all to reflect his character and those of his enemies.

A true delight is to understand the Count, or try to, at least. Which actions are manipulations and which are real emotions? Is everything he does part of the grand plan? It’s heart breaking to see a good man so consumed by revenge, as it tore me between my sense of justice for him and wish for him to find peace.

Gankutsuou is the sort of show that keeps me in anime. It reminds me that no matter how bad an anime I have seen, there will always be a few artists who can create something unique and captivating. I leave you with a quote from the Count that illustrates his complexities: “I am now no longer alone in my solitude. For I am now surrounded by the Furies, the goddesses of vengeance. In the darkness, I awaited the dawn. And once dawn came, I cursed my flesh until night fell once more. I even prayed that I would lose my sanity. But those prayers went unheeded. I even strove for death, but the Devil’s cold, pitiless hand held me back.

Art – Very High

The most unique art in anime. A kaleidoscope of texture and colour. You could take just about any screenshot from Gankutsuou and it would be a piece of art. It’s fun figuring out where you have seen that texture before. Is her hair a thumbprint? While the texturing does blend much of the CG into the scene, some of it still looks out of place when in prominence.

Sound – Very High

The voice work is great in either language; it’s a matter of preference. I preferred English for the use of French honorifics in a French setting. Strangely, they changed the French introductions from the Japanese track to English in the English track – I would have thought they would do it even better with a bilingual English actor. The count’s deep voice is suave yet menacing. Gankutsuou exhibits a fantastic soundtrack. There’s no out-of-place J-pop here, just piano, opera, harp, and a few English and French lyrical tracks. The piece used for mystery makes the heart race with excitement at the unfolding drama.

Story – Very High

This anime is excellence in storytelling with well-implemented science fiction changes to the original novel. To see the Count manipulate people in such cunning ways makes for a gripping tale.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo shows how much the anime medium can achieve when adapting a foreign literary masterpiece, maintaining the core of the source material while making it their own. From the characters to the marvellous art, every facet comes together in an unforgettable series.

(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: 

Deep NarrativeEngaging DialogueGreat MusicStrategicStrong Lead CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None.

Akagi – Review

Japanese Title: Touhai Densetsu Akagi: Yami ni Maiorita Tensai

 

Similar: Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor

One Outs

 

Genre: Gambling Sports Thriller

Watched in: Japanese

Length: 26 episodes.

 

Positives:

  • The music, character reactions, and inner thoughts combine to build good tension.
  • Comprehensive strategy alongside in-depth analysis of mahjong.
  • Interesting lead character with a sense of cunning, ruthlessness and insanity.

Negatives:

  • Limited in scope.
  • Art style may put you off.
  • Akagi’s origin story lacks realism.
  • Slow finale.

Akagi loves his mahjong like Yugi loves his children’s card games. In fact, the entire underground seems to love mahjong a whole lot. Mahjong is what makes the Yakuza go round; it takes lives, passes around exuberant amounts of money, induces insanity – it is lifeblood.

Mahjong, for the uninitiated, is a Chinese four-player game similar to most card games where the objective is to make pairs or straights of different tiles, only with more suits and pieces. You have a large hand of hidden tiles and the first to have it full of pairs and/or straights, wins the game. The key to the game is being able to read your opponent’s hand based on what they take and throw into the pond (the discard piles in the middle), and their reaction to each play. Think of it as poker, only requiring more skill and the game pieces matter.

Akagi is a thirteen-year-old mahjong prodigy who stumbles into the underground scene of gambling and obsessive mahjong playing – any conflict between gangs in this world is resolved through a round of mahjong. After a spectacular first night of play, Akagi is roped in to play for the Yakuza against various expert players. What makes Akagi stand out from the rest is that he is utterly insane. Not in the sense of a raving lunatic, no, he is fearless, thrilled by risking it all for the game – fingers, limbs and even life are gambling tokens. The more he has on the line, the greater the excitement for him. He’s an interesting character in the way he thinks, strategises and tortures his opponents through mental warfare. My only gripe with him is how he becomes professional. I don’t believe for one moment that he would be a genius at the game after five minutes of having the rules explained. They should have instead lied about him being a novice, in my opinion; it wouldn’t have made a difference to anything outside of that unconvincing origin.

As an anime, Akagi is as dramatic as they get. Every tile drawn, every play, every thought is overdramatized to the nth degree. Everyone does act as though mahjong is the creator and bringer of destruction, the answer to life, the secret to the universe. Is this a good thing? Well, think of what any sport anime would be like if they didn’t pile on the dramatic. It wouldn’t be interesting to watch, now would it? You have to like that intrinsic anime over-the-top style…and mahjong. Each game is narrated through a combination of the players’ and spectators’ thoughts and the recount of a narrator – at times it does slow to a crawl as you have to listen to every passing thought. The last few episodes are most guilty of this. They could have cut about four episodes’ worth of mindless rambling throughout the show.

Ninety-five percent of the screen time passes either playing or talking about the game. And that’s where Akagi’s major flaw lies. Normally, in a sport anime, plotlines surrounding the main narrative, therefore even if the sport isn’t your cup of tea, the overall package can hold your interest. Here, it’s nothing but mahjong, so you better love it. Yes, there are other interesting characters, most notably the opponents, ranging from the manic to the blind – each competes to see who is the most dramatic. I swear to you, winning is second to being dramatic. The strategies of each are interesting and varied, with different conditions versus each new opponent. I especially like how cheating is a part of the game, another tool for the utility belt.

Unfortunately, you will cringe in disbelief at times when luck of the draw attains a win. While it is true that luck is a part of any game in real life, here they claim that the luck was created or even ‘destined.’ It doesn’t happen often, but enough for you to notice. On the flip side, chance-heavy wins are illustrated well – i.e. it goes into the habits and psychology of characters to explain everything, even which of two pieces they would discard based on the sort of person they are.

Akagi is a good anime; however, I can only recommend it to those who enjoy and understand mahjong.

Art – Medium

The art will garner widely conflicting opinions; you will either love it or hate it – somewhere in between is improbable. Akagi looks like a woodpecker with that nose of his, the style angular and unique.

Sound – Medium

The music is good, adding to the tension and drama, and rather surprisingly, the opening theme isn’t too bad. Avoid the ending theme, however.

Story – High

Limited to mahjong matches, each one with higher stakes than the last, yet good with what it encompasses.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch for the lovers of mahjong and insane competition. Though I rate Akagi highly, I expect this anime to be of niche interest.

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

Positive:

Strategic

Negative:

Terrible Start