ES: Eternal Sabbath – Manga Review

Japanese Title: ES: Eternal Sabbath

 

Genre: Supernatural Drama Science Fiction

Length: 83 chapters (8 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • An engaging plot of nature vs. nurture
  • Villain is genuinely threatening
  • Cool psychic powers

Negatives:

  • Character art is a little lopsided

Eternal Sabbath entered my radar over a decade ago through a passing recommendation, which I wouldn’t have remembered were it not for that absolute metal name. This turned out not to be a story I expected, though still a welcome one.

Eternal Sabbath is about two psychic beings born from experimentation, one of them a success, the other a failure and clone of the former, and how the difference in treatment of these two affects temperament. Akiba is the original, possessing immense mental powers to invade the minds of others, project hallucinations, and even kill with a mere thought. Isaac, the child clone, has the same power but without the maturity. He’s a test tube child, never intended for the real world until he breaks free and roams the streets with the power of a god. An unloved child is tragedy. An unloved god child is a catastrophe.

The protagonist of this story, however, is human woman by the name of Mine. She’s a neurologist brought on the case when a victim suffers an odd mental attack, seemingly all in the victim’s head yet with very real injuries. Interestingly, she’s immune to the more dangerous telepathic powers. This draws Akiba’s attention.

I want to start with Akiba. What a great character. First impressions establish him as someone with a sense of justice yet an absolute prick as well, uncaring for those around him and inconsiderate of the privacy and autonomy of others. After all, why does he need to care when he is, in essence, a higher being? He can walk into someone’s house, eat their food, rifle through their things, and leave without a trace in the owners’ minds. He isn’t cruel though. When he meets Mine, finding much of his power blocked and her calling out his behaviour, he can’t help but feel drawn to her. His arc sees him turn from a selfish individual into a caring human.

I love the subplot of his fake identity. Akiba isn’t his real name – it belonged to a man who died. “Akiba” took his place and manipulated the man’s relatives into believing he was the real Akiba who had never left. Even if it does bring them joy to see their Akiba again, it is quite cruel when you consider it. He treats them well, of course, but it’s just a cover for him. However, as Akiba grows into a real person, thanks in no small part to Mine and seeing his evil reflection in Isaac, this identity becomes more than a cover. You don’t need this subplot to tell the main story, but it enhances character and theme, as every good subplot should. It works as a perfect tracker for his change in emotion.

Similarly, Isaac takes over another child’s life. Here we have the opposite to Akiba. Isaac mistreats the parents, always acting like a spoilt child, mind controlling them to do his bidding. As Akiba improves, Isaac declines further into cruelty, psychopathy, and eventually, depravity. The closest thing he has to a friend is Yuri, a little girl from school. She too is a neglected child, though not an evil one, but her poor understanding of morality and consequences leads her to encouraging Isaac’s evil for her benefit.

Then we have Mine, a strong woman balanced by uncertainty about her role in all of this. When the case starts affecting people around her, she questions if there is something she could have done better, if she is responsible in some way as a person aware of these supernatural beings and largely immune to them. What she goes through would certainly drain the mentally toughest of people.

Eternal Sabbath is a page-turner laced with tension. Isaac is a genuine threat. It’s good to see a villain with a personality for wanton killing actually kill people indiscriminately, and it never feels forced like those villains that “shoot the dog” just to show how evil they are. His actions are always in line with his character. This doesn’t mean he is predictable, mind you, as he is complex despite his immaturity. From his perspective, he feels justified in his actions, sometime even committing what we see as evil to “help” others. Most chapters end on cliffhanger once things get going, so I have to read the next to find out what happens.

I’m glad I remembered Eternal Sabbath. It was a worthwhile read and receives my recommendation.

Art – Medium

Story – High

Recommendation: Read it. Eternal Sabbath is a simple yet tense manga that holds your attention to the end.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

K-On! – Anime Review

Japanese Title: K-On!

 

Similar: Sound! Euphonium

Lucky Star

Bang Dream

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Comedy Music Slice of Life

Length: 39 episodes (2 seasons), 2 specials, 1 movie

 

Positives:

  • Visually dynamic for a slice of life anime
  • Characters aren’t just moe
  • Fair number of laughs

Negatives:

  • The music is a little weak for a music show

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It is no secret that I’m not a fan of moe anime. Apart from usually looking hideous, they bank everything – character, plot, personality, effort – on the moe. The characters are insufferable, one-note, and what passes for humour is non-stop screeching. Oh god, the voices. They’re torture. So, what does a seemingly stereotypical moe anime with good characters, restraint on the screeching, and real humour look like? Meet K-On.

This anime revolves around the daily school life antics of a girls’ music club. They claim it’s a music club, but they spend more time drinking tea, eating cakes, and doing odd activities to promote the club. K-On is more a slice of life than a music anime. We have Yui the protagonist on the guitar, Mio on bass, Mugi on keyboard, and Ritsu banging the drums. A fifth joins the club later. Each girl fits one of the main archetypes of the typical “cute girls doing cute things” cast. Yui, for instance, is a clumsy airhead, which sounds clichéd. Another girl is the shy, self-conscious type yet popular with the boys. Also sounds clichéd. Their teacher is more of a child than half of her students. Sound familiar?

In fact, if I were to detail K-On in full on paper from its characters to the episodic scenarios, it would be normal for you to dismiss it as more of the same clichéd moe fare. To own a truth, though this had been on my list to watch since before my first review, I always suspected it as more of same that a hardcore fanbase overhyped to outsiders. Probably why I took so long to get to it. I was right, in a sense. K-On is more of the same, technically. However, it takes that sameness and executes it so much better than the competition that it makes me think even less of those other anime. Yes, K-On had many imitators in the years that followed, but it wasn’t an original idea either. I look at this anime and can’t pick out anything I would call different or innovative for the genre, apart from caring about more than the moe. Here we have a great example of the importance of execution over idea. I talk of this plenty in isekai reviews, where all they have going for them is that one change from other isekai, as if that alone will make for a great story. You could change nothing at the core but execute in a great way and now sentiment won’t be, “Oh, it’s just a rip-off of [other anime here].” Instead, viewers will say, “It’s like [other anime] but actually good.”

These characters are fun and the scenarios are fun, especially in season two when the series hits its stride. The humour works and has more than “it’s funny because she’s cute” as the joke. K-On is, in simple terms, fun. Who knew that having good characters with depth would make for an enjoyable experience, aye?

Huge praise must go to Kyoto Animation for applying their considerable artistic talents to the series. Nothing about K-On visually feels template. When the girls have those expected moe and anime reactions, we aren’t getting stock animation you see copied and pasted across the seasonal clones. These characters have such life and energy, such expression thanks to caring artists. Very giffable too, as I’m sure you’ve seen around the net.

One problem tangential to K-On is the ease in which it is to imitate. Imitating well is a different matter, but to create a clone (similar to how easy it is to clone Sword Art Online) takes little effort and had caused a flood on the market. If you have seen its imitators already, I can imagine them lessening your experience with K-On, for while this is better, you could feel as if you know everything about K-On before you even start. That said, should you have an inclination for the genre as an outsider, I do recommend this one. Actually, this is the only anime of the typical moe variety that I would recommend to non-core fans.

I want to be clear. You aren’t finding anything revolutionary here or the anime to change your mind on moe, but it is still a good anime regardless.

One final note – should a dub be your preference, avoid the original Animax dub. Absolutely lifeless. The Bang Zoom redub is close to the Japanese in tone and energy and a fine experience.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for “cute girls doing cute things” fans. This might appeal to those not already predisposed to the moe genre. K-On is good though still very moe.

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

Positive: 

Fluid Animation

Negative: None

Utawarerumono – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Utawarerumono

 

Related: Utawarerumono: The False Faces (sequel)

Similar: Tears to Tiara

Vision of Escaflowne

Scrapped Princess

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Drama Fantasy Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Sounds good on paper, I guess?

Negatives:

  • Lazy fantasy
  • Packed with anime clichés
  • No interesting characters
  • Final act twist

(Request an anime for review here.)

Utawarerumono, an anime I remember most for the long title and whose review I’ve had in the bank waiting for completion since a year ago. Two? I don’t remember. Wait… Yep, file created January 2019. I am not keen to write this review because, simply, I am not keen on this anime. Frankly, it’s boring. The clichés are numerous, the fantasy is lazy, and no character grabs my attention. You know you’re in for a rough time when even the OP doesn’t have great art or animation.

This anime centres on a mysterious man found in the woods. He can’t remember his past, who he is, and he wears a mask that can’t come off. A local village of animal people take him in and call him Hakuoro, curious about his lack of a furry tail or ears. Whatever he was in the past, Hakuoro becomes a leader in this village and leads a revolution against the oppressive emperor.

The story isn’t immediately boring. I like a good revolution. The character designs scream laziness and their implementation are the first warning sign that little effort will go into anything. These villagers have animal tail and ears, yet are human in every other way, from behaviour to society. Their part-animal design is pointless. There’s also something I hate about Hakuoro’s one defining characteristic of wearing a mask all the time. Is try hard the phrase I’m looking for? I don’t know. Just lame. I can’t imagine anyone caring about the mystery of who’s under the mask.

Before long, the story shows similar flaws by dipping into every shounen cliché in the library. Honour at the risk of everyone’s lives, grandstanding, characters than can’t contribute on the battlefield because they aren’t main characters, and the skinny girl with a giant sword no one else can lift for some inexplicable reason are but a few examples. Some characters have supernatural abilities with no explanation of how or the limitations of said powers.

For an anime with significant time dedicated to battles in the uprising, the strategy isn’t clever. At all. Did any second thought go towards this? Don’t know.

On paper, this story sounds good – a man rises up to become emperor with the aid of a part-animal race, yet everything has such average execution and never goes beyond the obvious that it isn’t interesting. One leader is joyous and rearing to tell how he slaughtered the enemy one second, then becomes melancholic the next. That’s Utawarerumono’s attempt at conflict.

So bored am I with Utawarerumono that when the big act three twist reveals itself, I just sigh. The twist upends everything in the plot, which sounds like it should wake me up, but when elements prior offer no engagement, it’s hard to care. Also, I don’t like when this twist type is in the third act. Not to give too much away, though using such a twist so late tends to nullify much of the build-up and work put in by earlier acts. It benefits as a first act twist to invert the protagonist’s world and throw them into the unknown, or as the mid-point turn (if well foreshadowed) to shake things up. Using it late has an effect similar to an amnesia twist, just not as bad. Utawarerumono does make it worse by having an amnesiac protagonist. Ironically, I almost forget that detail.

I’m not sure why Utawarerumono is even on my list. I can’t remember.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: For specific fantasy anime fans only. Being a fantasy fan isn’t enough to enjoy Utawarerumono. You must also be a fan of specific anime fantasy clichés.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World Building

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic

 

Related: Magi: The Kingdom of Magic (2nd season – included in review)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

The Twelve Kingdoms

Fairy Tail

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Adventure Fantasy

Length: 50 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Arabian setting is a little different

Negatives:

  • Arabian setting is superficial
  • First year university understanding of politics and economy
  • Sleazy

(Request an anime for review here.)

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic takes the typical action adventure fantasy of anime and wraps it in an Arabian skin. Before every fantasy was isekai, they were of the swords and sorcery variety, with authors taking the formula but applying one twist to make it different. Much like the many isekai skins of today, the Arabian theme here is superficial at best.

Scattered throughout the world of Magi are towers that dominate the landscape, each containing labyrinths of danger with untold treasures at the end. It is said these are the works of djinns, magical beings that grant the power of kings to those found worthy. Aladdin is a young magician in possession of a magic flute that can summon one such djinn. He teams up with Alibaba, a street rat with the daring required to delve deep into the labyrinths, and Morgiana, a slave girl turned warrior.

I said the Arabian theme is superficial because Magi still feels very Japanese. I don’t mean this is too much of an anime – that is self-evident and expected. There is little to no Arabian culture in the series beyond the aesthetics and character names. If you re-skinned the art to a Japanese setting and changed the names, you wouldn’t know it was once Magi. Even the music has little Arabian influence. It feels as though the author saw a couple of cartoon films in this setting and then set about writing the series. When using a different setting and culture, the most appealing aspect and what should be a unique selling point is how it will stand out from its peers. Ultimately, Magi feels the same as most fantasy anime from its time.

So, what about the rest of it? How does it fare as a fantasy anime?

The characters are of mixed quality. Alibaba is decent and works as the adventurous hero, though his arc and power curve flies off the tracks in the second season (more of a story issue, however). Morgiana is decent as well in the role of tough girl, as informed by her rough backstory, but with a good heart that cares for her friends.

The worst character is Aladdin. When he isn’t the stereotypical “genki” kid, he’s groping women, something that happens every second episode. I think it’s meant to be hilarious and “cute.” “Oh look, he’s grabbing my breasts. Isn’t that adorable?” says the adult woman about a child. It’s so sleazy. Doesn’t add anything either and goes out of its way to waste cels. The one time it works is in the first episode when he motorboats a fat guy’s moobs, thinking they belong to a woman. But they open with that joke, so there’s nowhere to go.

On an action front, expect the usual anime adventure fantasy. The magic system is straightforward and forgettable, though not a hindrance to the overall experience. Going back to the flimsy Arabian inspiration issue, they could have done so much more to make the magic and monsters engaging. I can’t imagine most anime fans have seen much Arabian mythology, so this would be an easy opportunity to stand out from the crowd. Think of something like Yokai Watch, which draws on an insane amount of Japanese monster lore to create its Yokai. And that’s a show for young children. If only Magi had a tenth the effort in use of lore.

Similarly, the story also follows a typical anime adventure fantasy, not that this is inherently a negative. It’s all in the execution. Unfortunately, Magi doesn’t deliver with wit and cunning. Expect some Picard facepalm-inducing moments. I’ll mention one that made not just single facepalm, but pull out the double Picard. At some point, a character abolishes a monarchy in this world in a few minutes with promises to distribute all wealth as if that will solve everything. No, this isn’t some populist ploy to cajole the citizenry into doing what he wants. The writing presents this as a genius move. Why haven’t we done this in real life? It’s so obvious! I usually find this sort of nonsense in YA fantasy with a lowborn female protagonist (she’s secretly special, of course) that has two princes chasing after her skirt. The politics and social side of Magi is far weaker than the action side.

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic is fine, but a little too stupid to appeal beyond the core. Fullmetal Alchemist was clearly an inspiration and Magi could have learned a thing or two from it.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For action fantasy fans only. Unless you have exhausted the long list of superior fantasy anime above Magi, then give this one a miss.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Legacies and B Movies – Quick Manga Reviews

Oldman

Chinese Title: OLDMAN

Genre: Action Fantasy

Length:  22 chapters (4 volume)

My first impression of Oldman: “Is that Sean Connery?” “Is that Cate Blanchett as the queen on the key art?” “Is that Rhys Ifans as the doctor?” Apparently so. The author Sheng Chang uses real actors for reference with his characters, as if casting them in a film (and in the hopes that someone like the late Sean Connery would act in an adaptation).

Oldman is a medieval action manga with one fantasy element. The titular Oldman, imprisoned son of the queen, breaks out of jail to enact revenge on his ageless mother. On the way out, he grabs Rebecca, a once legendary warrior doomed to rot in her cell with both arms and legs severed from her body. They join a few other characters on the quest, including a doctor to construct a new set of limbs for Rebecca.

The opening volume of Oldman is excellent and shows so much promise. The conflict inherent between Oldman and the queen is obvious, but the questions garner much intrigue. How is such an old man the son of a young queen? What the hell happened to Rebecca? Who is the other girl with amnesia yet friends with Oldman? Can he do real magic or is it all trickery? Volume 1 made me binge this series in a single sitting.

Sadly, it doesn’t hold up through to the end. The middle section flakes on the detail as it sets up a decently complex two-thread plot, with the final act rushing to the finish line. There is a great story here that needs at least 10 volumes to do it justice. I can see this making for a good 26-episode anime should one flesh out the skeleton presented.

The mix of action and surprising amount of comedy layered with mystery succeeds well. However, the action physics need work. Take Rebecca’s mannequin limbs. They have built in enhancements, including explosives that create rocket-like punches. Except, these explosives would shatter her arms to splinters before anything else. It doesn’t makes sense. Also, taking a few lessons from Shadiversity on the effectiveness of arrows and full plate armour wouldn’t go amiss. Just because you use Hollywood actors for reference, doesn’t mean you should use outdated Hollywood medieval action as well.

I do wish Oldman had more time.

Overall Quality – Medium

Result: Give me a fleshed out remake.

*     *     *     *     *

Diamond Dust

Korean Title: Diamond Dust

Genre: Drama Music Romance

Length:  40 chapters (3 volumes)

Diamond Dust is a manhwa webtoon about a piano prodigy with strict parents and the terminally ill underground musician she falls in love with. If you are imagining the stereotypical strict Asian parents forcing their child down one career path from birth, then you’d be right. And if you imagine the romance is the usual misery lit, then you’d also be right. In essence, Diamond Dust is predictable. Yet, the merging of the two story types makes it more engaging than seeing either apart.

The piano career side features a father that resents everyone in his family without prodigious talent (the mother is just as bad). He forces the girl to practice piano 12 hours a day, bans socialising, and freaks out at the slightest action that could endanger her golden hands. The parents are truly nasty, but in that believable sense where you see they believe that they’re doing what’s best for their daughter. She does find massive success until she (obviously) has a breakdown after one too many high-pressure performances. Her fingers cramp up. She cannot play.

Warmth and comfort arrive in the form of a young musician trying to make it in a struggling band. A tumour is pressing into his brain, affecting his memory and ability to concentrate. The romance follows all the beats you expect. She rebels against the parents, his conditions strains the relationship, the parents try to keep him away from her, and so on. Diamond Dust does this well. Don’t expect any surprises.

One last thing I want to note is the design of the two main characters. They suffer from same-face syndrome (until the cancer progresses), which makes them look like siblings – not something you want from a romantic couple. If not for the different hairstyles, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart in close ups.

Overall Quality – Medium

Result: Not bad. Wasn’t disappointed.

*     *     *     *     *

Kyouko

Japanese Title: Kyouko

Genre: Action Drama

Length:  14 chapters (2 volumes)

If you know anything about B movies (low budget, non-artsy films), you will be familiar with the hack director’s number one plot device for conflict and motivating the protagonist – rape. There is so much rape. More specifically, the filmmakers don’t understand the crime and no one cares after it happens. They use it like a villain randomly shooting a puppy to show how evil he is.

Kyouko (aka The Accident) is one such example. The protagonist, a woman, is gang raped in the first chapter as her boyfriend watches on, helpless. An American soldier happens to pass by and rescues her. Rather than show any signs of trauma at the experience, she dumps the boyfriend and is ready to jump this American’s bones right away. Then someone assassinates him. Her quest for revenge turns into action schlock with dumb conspiracies.

Another manga I read after Kyouko that fit the mould is Mephisto. That protagonist is a rapist, serial killer, and bathes in the intestines of children and we are supposed to sympathise with him? Ha!

Overall Quality – Very Low

Result: Truly a B movie in manga form.

*     *     *     *     *

Cradle of Monsters

Japanese Title: Mouryou no Yurikago

Genre: Action Horror

Length:  41 chapters (6 volumes)

Continuing with the B movie inspirations, we have Cradle of Monsters, a horror manga that blends The Poseidon Adventure with The Walking Dead and a low budget. After a cruise ship capsizes in the middle of the ocean, everything goes to hell as most of the passengers turn into zombies and many of the remaining living become murderers. Amongst this chaos are a few survivors, most of them teenagers from the same school on a trip.

This is not a good manga. Quickly you will notice how the fan service takes priority and how irritating it is. While people are dying, the primary concern of the artist is to have a panty shot or for the writing to mention how a character isn’t wearing panties. Half of the deaths mention this, I swear. The ultimate fan service in Cradle of Monsters (or so the author believes) is the frequent golden showers before or at the moment of death. This guy has a serious fetish.

Should you look past the fan service, there isn’t much on offer anyway. To say the characters are one-dimensional would be to give them too many dimensions. Everyone in this story is evil except for maybe three people. I find it so dull when a disaster story makes everyone incomprehensibly evil. Apart from being unrealistic, it’s also predictable. Furthermore, there are so few survivors. It isn’t as if this situation has been raging for months while the infection spreads. Maybe, what, a few hours have passed since the incident and only 20 or so people are alive out of everyone on a massive cruise liner? The author is clearly lazy.

This story wasn’t planned out either. Characters will teleport around the ship for dramatic ambushes, surprise reveals, and last second rescues. It makes no sense how they catch up or get ahead of the main group when navigation is so limited. Again, lazy.

Character backstories also suffer under the lack of forethought. Many characters have a backstory that suddenly reveals a talent they just so happen to need to get out of a situation. “I never mentioned this before, but in the past I studied this thing, so I can use it to clear this obstacle for us.” I believe they call this an “ass pull” in the business. Happens over and over.

And finally, this horror manga isn’t scary. The art is quite bad, so turns supposed frightening moments into comedy, which combined with the above-mentioned issues makes for a yawn-inducing experience.

Overall Quality – Low

Result: That’s going to be a no from me on the golden showers.

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Anime and Manga Reviews