Category Archives: Anime Reviews

Afro Samurai – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Afro Samurai

 

Related: Afro Samurai Resurrection (sequel – included in this review)

Similar: Ninja Scroll the movie

Samurai Champloo

Shigurui: Death Frenzy

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Action

Length: 5 episodes (season 1) & movie (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Gory, stylised action complemented by bleak visuals.
  • Great and sometimes unusual voice work, particularly from Samuel L. Jackson.

Negatives:

  • Poor sound mixing muffles speech under the music.
  • Not much to the plot, even with flashbacks.
  • In particular, the anime doesn’t explain why the headbands are worth anything beyond pieces of cloth.
  • Though the action animations are great, the lip movements don’t match the words half the time.

After seeing his father decapitated for a headband, Afro trains up as a samurai to avenge his father and reclaim the number one headband. Afro Samurai is set in a feudal Japan meets futuristic Wild West world of swordfights, gunslingers, and Mexican standoffs, wind blowing through your afro. Legends say the strongest warrior and owner of the number one headband is a god and only the number two can challenge for that power. Being number two, challengers beset Afro as he works his way to the mountain of number one. He knows no love, no happiness, only the murderous violence the number two headband incites in the heart of every man after the power of number one.

Afro Samurai’s biggest draws are its over-the-top action and style. The action is in the vein of Kill Bill with its excessive gore, blood spraying in ludicrous amounts. No shot is standard, not shot is dull. The camera zooms into every unsheathing of a sword, light sparking off the blade, every cocking of a hammer, pull of a trigger.

From its desaturated colours to no-cares-given protagonist, Afro Samurai is sombre anime. The only source of humour is Afro’s chain smoking sidekick, Ninja Ninja (both voiced by Samuel L Jackson). He is the antithesis to Afro, never shutting up and a coward. He doesn’t do much beyond provide commentary to the adventure and say what Afro is really thinking. Ninja Ninja is Jackson at his silliest and quite humorous.

Afro Samurai’s bleakness doesn’t just cover its tone but also extends to its sparse plot. On his quest, Afro meets various characters from his childhood (including a Vader-type samurai with a teddy bear head), which the plot does try to inject personality into by way of flashbacks. However, these flashbacks are minimal in content and depth, and little effort is made to characterise in the present. There is also this brotherhood of monks looking to create a clone of Afro with all his skills to claim number one for themselves. While I found their Evangelical preacher of a leader amusing, the brotherhood doesn’t feel particularly relevant and could have been cut from the show with ease, but then you would have even less to populate the narrative.

What bothered me most were the headbands. They never explain why these mere pieces of cloth have any kind of power. I fail to see how you have to own a headband to be the best or challenge the best. Furthermore, if they are as powerful as they claim, can’t one simply bury the headband in the middle of a forest to stop challengers hounding you? If they don’t know you have the headband, they won’t bother challenging. Hell, if you have to have it on you to gain its power, then stuff it in your sock instead of parading around with it on your head. Misery solved.

If you can look past these logical fallacies and want an anime all about the action and blood, then Afro Samurai is for you. On the other hand, if you want more than ankle-deep characterisation and story, then skip this one.

Art – High

Afro Samurai uses a high number of key frames to bring the gruesome animation to life. Desaturated colouring enhances the bleakness of Afro’s quest. The mouth animations don’t match the words half the time – not just out of sync, but the wrong shape altogether (this anime was drawn for English).

Sound – Medium

Great voice work overpowered by the poor mixing of music, which is an even bigger shame since the music itself is decent – a mix of rap and long whistles for Mexican standoffs.

Story – Medium

The flashbacks provide backstory to the characters, but in the present, the plot doesn’t involve much beyond killing a series of enemies to reach the top.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of over the top action. Afro Samurai is worth your while if you want an anime all about the action and with enough backstory to give the characters purpose, don’t expect more than that.

(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:

Fluid Animation

Negative: 

Hollow World BuildingNo Development

Advertisements

The Legend of Korra – Review

Related: Avatar: The Last Airbender (prequel)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 52 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Korra, as a character and through her arc, displays a rare maturity in the face of conflict.
  • A series of villains made intriguing by their flaws and motivations.
  • Gorgeous art all-round.
  • Fight choreography at the top of its game. No yelling for power.
  • A varied supporting cast, each different from the next, each with proper personalities. Also, Varrick is the best.
  • Great references to the original series without resorting to info dumps. (Cabbage Corp.!)
  • Excellent voice work, infant characters’ most surprising.
  • The inclusion of sports, political structures, advances in technology, propaganda, public services, entertainment, and the like, makes for superb world building.
  • Doesn’t feel like a re-tread of Avatar.

Negatives:

  • One mistake at the end of season one (reminiscent of Avatar’s season four’s finale error).
  • It would have been nice to see more Fire Nation.

Note: This review contains implied spoilers from prequel, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Outside of the new Star Wars film, nothing has as much pressure to live up to its prequel as The Legend of Korra, for me. As it happens, Korra is an exemplar of what a sequel should be. Nothing in Korra feels like a re-tread; the creators knew they couldn’t get away with a ‘Hollywood’ sequel cash-in.

The Legend of Korra starts seventy years after the events of Avatar, during a time of peace, as Korra, the new Avatar, moves to Republic City (think UN capitol in a 1940s Shanghai inspired setting with added zeppelins and Model-T Fords) to learn airbending from Master Tenzin, Aang’s son. However, when she arrives, the city isn’t as peaceful as it appears, for the triad gangs torment the lower echelons of the city and the ‘Equalist’ faction of humans seek to eliminate all bending from the world. Because of their power, some benders have gained higher status, looking down on non-benders. Masked leader Amon and his Equalists begin to capture benders; Amon claims he can remove their power permanently. Korra must stop him.

Like Avatar before it, Korra isn’t this basic plot. It is layered with a half-dozen plotlines woven together to create a deep and compelling narrative. While worrying about Amon, Korra has to deal with politicians trying to seize power in tragedy, master her final element of air, compete as a pro-bender (boxing with the elements in teams of three to push opponents out of the ring, backed by a great commentator) behind Tenzin’s back, shoulder Avatar responsibilities, and have a social life.

Even with this many plotlines, the narrative never feels overstuffed where each plotline tries to choke the others out. I never grew tired of a plotline because there was always another to step-up when one needed a break. I couldn’t find, and believe me I tried, any padding. Even action scenes, the most common source of padding in kids’ entertainment, are the perfect length. There is no power yelling for five episodes, no twenty-episode fights ended with a trump card that should have been used at the start, and the choreography is phenomenal – it has spoiled me. Spoiled! Korra is an intense, close-knit experience with the right amount of quiet moments to pour emotion into the narrative.

At its core, Korra is about characters. From the main to the supporting cast, every character is well thought out and has a purpose in the world. I don’t know where to begin. Aang’s hilarious grandchildren (“Those maggots will bow to me!”)? The aged original cast? The new Team Avatar with Mako’s Batarang eyebrows, Bolin’s humour and innocence, and Asami’s confidence? The other descendants? There’s too many to cover. I could write a review for each individual character, so high is their quality of design. No one feels like a quest-giver NPC waiting for the protagonist to turn up to complete the NPC’s purpose. You get the sense that they all lead lives that don’t revolve around Korra.

In my Avatar review, I mentioned Aang as the weakest (yet still great) of the core characters because of his over-dorkiness in season one and righteous personality (not my favourite). Korra however, is my favourite here, followed closely by Varrick the eccentric inventor and businessman – think Ton Stark if he was completely mad. What I liked most about Korra is her strength and maturity. She doesn’t accept something because a teacher said so. She questions everything, forging her own path. Even when down, she doesn’t whine about how unfair the world is; she whines about how weak she is, how it’s her fault and not someone else’s. And then there is her season-four story arc (no spoilers, don’t worry); I never expected a kids’ show to have the capacity to go this dark. Love it.

There is little to complain about in Korra. As mentioned above, season one’s finale mistake for convenience was a bother. I know they made the decision under the assumption that Korra would only last one season, but still, nothing wrong with leaving a little damage. My biggest disappointment is the lack of Fire Nation. We get hints at, but never see, the state of the Fire Nation, and what few characters make an appearance don’t get much screen time. All that said, no complaint against Korra affected my larger enjoyment, just like in Avatar. Anything I consider “bad” about Korra is only bad by comparison to the rest of the show – the sort of bad that wouldn’t even have time for mention in a lesser art piece due to bigger issues.

Korra is how a sequel should be done. We still have the group of friends with loyalty, infighting, fear, jealousy, love, and the animal companion, but it’s different focus, advancements in society, tournament element, ordinary jobs, big city with a criminal underbelly, politicians, a different kind of enemy, and close-knit conflict, makes for a new and fresh experience. I had high hopes for The Legend of Korra, and I was not disappointed.

Art – Very High

Vibrant action sequences, fluid animation, hand-painted style backgrounds of high detail, and excellent character design. Even the use of CG blends in well. Improved the mouth animations from the first series. (I still can’t un-see the LFR for mouths in Avatar.)

Sound – Very High

The music has advanced with the new technology, using tunes for the era that inspired the Shanghai style setting. Jazz infused with Chinese touches are coupled with more traditional tracks of strings, flutes, and xylophones. Excellent voice work featuring lighter accents this time around.

Story – Very High

A tale of hardships, overcoming trauma, treachery, corruption, and loyalty. Every character is fully realised, filled with subtleties and depth rarely found in programming aimed at children.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: The Legend of Korra is a must watch adventure. This was a real page-turner; I did nothing but the essentials to survive while watching from start to finish.

(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 NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationHilariousPhenomenal VillainPositive Recommended English Voice TrackRiveting ActionStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None.

Please Teacher! – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Onegai Teacher

 

Related: Please Twins! (Same setting)

Similar: Midori Days

Waiting in the Summer

To-LOVE-Ru

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Romance Comedy

Length: 12 episodes & 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Several genuinely funny moments.
  • The teacher is a fun character with her kind heart, ditziness, and jealousy.
  • Tsutaetai Koto ga Arunda’ is a gorgeous piano track.
  • Looks surprisingly polished considering the low budget narrative.

Negatives:

  • Suffers from several anime romantic comedy clichés, especially the ‘interrupted kiss’ a dozen times.
  • The most contrived twist occurs in the final third to force “meaningful” drama before the conclusion.
  • The teacher’s family is irritating, her sister in particular, for the few episodes they are in.

I really wanted to like Please Teacher more than I do. It could have either been a great piece of socially commentary or death-by-laughter hilarious and charming – or both. Unfortunately, it didn’t even come within the horizon of what I wished. And no, it isn’t because of the student-teacher relationship premise; that premise is Please Teacher’s most interesting aspect. In the real world, a student-teacher relationship isn’t alright because it’s a breach of trust and abuse of power (even if of consenting age, as in the case of Please Teacher). In the real world, there also isn’t a disease that comatoses people at random, halting the ageing process while unconscious. However, in fiction, you are free to explore ‘what if.’

What if your teacher was an alien? What if you have to pretend to be in a relationship with her to cover up the fact that she is an alien from your family? Then what if you have to marry her to cover up the fact that you are in an illicit relationship with your teacher from the principal, saving her job, which is a cover up for the fact that she is an alien? (Breathe!) It’s an interesting scenario, and the one of Please Teacher.

Kei is a fifteen-year-old (in appearance) high school student who witnesses the teleportation of a beautiful alien woman with pink hair to his town’s lake. I say in appearance because he is eighteen, but suffers from an affliction that causes blackouts referred to as ‘stand stills,’ one lasting three years, throughout which he didn’t age a day. The morning after the alien arrival, he is shocked to see that she is his new schoolteacher, Ms Kazami. Furthermore, she moves in next door to him. After a series of mishaps involving her TARDIS-like alien complex, resulting in a compromising situation between the two, Kei lies to his uncle about them being in a relationship with her. Kei’s uncle goes along with it (he has the hots for the voluptuous teacher despite his wife standing over his shoulder), and is the funniest character in the series.

Matters escalate further, when the school principal finds Kei and Ms Kazami locked in the sports equipment room. The uncle comes up with the genius idea that they are married, saving her job and his place in school (true age revealed to address the legality). She is a charming character.

Much of the humour comes from them hiding the relationship, especially from Kei’s school friends, and his awkward inexperience with women. Make no mistake; there are plenty of risqué moments and clever sexual innuendos, but nothing explicit. Though Please Teacher isn’t gasping-for-air hilarious, it still has a good number of gags, most of which are in the first half and the OVA (the funniest episode). Past the halfway mark, the humour declines to make room for “drama.”

This drama is utter rubbish. There is the most contrived twist with Kei in the final third attempting to bring depth the narrative. To call it a twist is generous. I won’t spoil it, but if it were spoiled, you would be dumbfounded by its stupidity. One would think that the greatest opportunity for drama in a student-teacher relationship is the illicit nature or at least the age difference. Nope, nothing to do with the relationship at all. Pathetic. I am all for drama, but this… And it came at the expense of all humour. At least the funny OVA that follows afterwards set the record straight.

In the end, Please Teacher is an enjoyable show outside of the final third’s swan dive into arse gravy. The dynamic between Kei and Ms Kazami is fun to watch as they hide their relationship. Recommended for an easy viewing experience.

Art – High

Sports surprisingly polished art and character design considering the easy-money narrative. Doesn’t feel cheap.

Sound – Medium

Good voice work in both languages and one particularly great piano piece. The rest of the music is bland.

Story – Medium

A pleasant and fun story about a boy forced to marry his teacher…until the final third that decapitates the humour for terrible drama.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. If you want something fun to watch with an interesting premise and a good amount of polish, then Please Teacher is for you. Also, you must be able to look past the student-teacher relationship.

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

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions)

Positive: None.

Negative: 

ShallowWeak End

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

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.