Avatar the Last Airbender – Review

Japanese Title: Abatā Densetsu no Shōnen An

 

Related: The Legend of Korra (sequel)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

Gundam SEED

Vision of Escaflowne

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 61 episodes (3 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Excellent, thoroughly developed characters.
  • Fluid and awesome action with magnificent spell effects.
  • Perfect pacing.
  • Great for children and adults alike.
  • Pleasant Humour.
  • Engaging story that keeps getting better, particularly in the third season.

Negatives:

  • Takes a little time to get used to characters sounding American despite none looking so, though this won’t hinder my experience.
  • Finale makes a single poor decision.

I first heard of Avatar the Last Airbender with the announcement of the film by the same name. As an introduction to the world of Avatar, the film couldn’t have gone worse. However, surrounding all this excrement was a fanbase livid at the mutilation of their beloved show. I kept hearing how amazing the show was. Now, source material is often better than adaptations, so I figured the cartoon must be better. But amazing? No, I doubted that. I have encountered many rabid fanbases in my time surrounding anime (I know that this isn’t anime, but the same audience enjoys it) and rarely do they result in something worth your time. In the end, I acquired this show for the sole purpose to educate myself when I argue that the show isn’t all that great. Instead, Avatar turned out to be…phenomenal.

Our story starts with the awakening of Aang, airbender and the next Avatar incarnation discovered frozen in an iceberg by two nomads of the Water Tribe. Aang has little time to learn the remaining three elements (Earth, Water, and Fire) before a comet passes Earth that will empower the current Fire Lord, who seeks world domination, into a being of living destruction – all the while hunted by Fire Prince Zuko.

Aang travels with waterbender Katara and her brother Sokka across the world, encountering a wide cast of characters on their many adventures. The characters are a large part of what makes this a great show. Katara, the motherly type, has to keep her brother’s antics in line. Much of the comedy comes from Sokka, who can’t waterbend like his sister and must fight with his lucky boomerang.

Aang is the weakest of the cast at the beginning; not saying he is a bad character – far from it, great in fact – he simply doesn’t hold up to the rest. He has one of those righteous personalities. You know the type: doesn’t kill people or even really harm them, no matter how evil, vegetarian because he can’t harm animals, and other pious life choices. At first, I thought this would make for great conflict considering his mission, and it does for a while, only to throw a reversal later. While Aang’s story is great, the other major characters experience more interesting story arcs that culminate in epic conclusions. If anything, that is a testament to Avatar’s quality. When the supporting cast has such fantastic arcs that the protagonist’s arc couldn’t possibly live up to them, you know you have something good.

The best character of all is Prince Zuko the firebender. Upon first meeting, he irritated with his whining about lost honour and his obsession with the Avatar. However, my opinion turned around as he developed. Before long, I realised that the writers intended for one not to like him so that his growth will mirror one’s opinion of him. Truly great writing.

Full thought went into every side character – the creators didn’t take shortcuts even for single-episode appearances. From the completely nutters, bad-joke-loving, king of Omashu to Zuko’s uncle, Iroh (voiced by legendary Mako – one of his last roles), I looked forward to each new location for the characters they will meet.

Humour is a strong element of the series. In the first season however, as an older viewer, you may find some moments a little too tailored towards the intended young audience. Thankfully, the third season’s high notes with some truly dark moments well make up for this. Prepare to laugh plenty throughout the show, especially at the hands of Sokka. If you have kids, watch it with them to earn many awesome points in their eyes, and with the show tailored towards them, the pacing is never dull, as the writers knew they could never release their attention. Every single episode captured my interest.

Action never occurs for the sake of action, so you don’t get tired of seeing the elemental powers. Take Naruto, for example, and his overused shadow clone technique that grows old because he whips it out at a whim every few minutes. Yes, it’s great when executed correctly, but could have been better with less airtime. Avatar doesn’t make that mistake.

In the end, Avatar the Last Airbender is a brilliant show. With many likable characters that experience proper development, action and visuals that fit the themes, and an overall plot that concludes with an epic finale, this is easily a must watch.

Art – Very High

Art and animation of a high quality in a colour palette suited to the elemental nature of the powers. It looks particularly great in action – water flowing across the screen as fire rages, wind slicing things apart while earth smashes the environment. Visuals’ only flaw is in the animation of the mouths, where it could have done with a few more frames to match the other smoothness.

Sound – High

Masterful acting once acclimated to the American accents in an Asian setting. Audio effects for spells are great.

Story – Very High

Only a few missteps with the protagonist and a lack of intensity in season one hurt this show’s story. Avatar will still surprise with just how good it is, the final season in particular. Hilarious, too.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Rent it, buy it, watch it. Then you can join in on the discussions as to why the movie is so damn terrible. Get the kids involved as well.

(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:

Extensive Character DevelopmentHilariousPositive Recommended English Voice TrackRiveting ActionStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStellar Voice Acting

Negative: None

ZOIDS New Century Zero – Review

Japanese Title: Zoids Shin Seiki/Zero

 

Related: Zoids (same setting)

Zoids Genesis (same setting)

Similar: Mobile Fighter G Gundam

IGPX Immortal Grand Prix

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 26 Episodes

 

Positives:

  • The mecha Zoids are cool in design.
  • Fights are interesting and varied, and the show doesn’t go on long enough to become repetitive.
  • The English voice work is great; the actors didn’t relax just because it was a children’s anime.
  • Plenty of enjoyable humour.

Negatives:

  • While the character and narrative depth is adequate for a battle anime, it doesn’t explore as much as it could have.
  • A couple of attack and transformation animations are reused often, though they do change the setting and angles to tone down the repetition.
  • Dumb luck and contrivance wins a couple of fights.

I first watched Zoids New Century during its release stint in English. My younger sibling was obsessed with the show, which inadvertently got me interested in the series – not that I had a choice with only one TV in the house as a teen. Watching it again a decade later for review, I wasn’t expecting much. I theorised that any positive opinion I had regarding the anime was likely nothing more than nostalgia. Battle anime aimed at a young audience don’t incite high hopes. However, it turns out that Zoids NC is a good show, far better than anticipated.

Zoids New Century is set 4000 years after the classic Zoids series, and other than the use of robot Zoids, the two series have little in common. Where the classic had an adventure narrative, New Century is closer to traditional battle anime with fights lasting an episode or two – this is one of Zoids’s strengths; the fights don’t drag on for a dozen episodes each. In its twenty-six episodes, Zoids has more battles than Dragon Ball Z does in a hundred. These battles centre on protagonist Bit Cloud, pilot of the Liger Zero, and his supporting pilots Brad the mercenary, Leena the rage machine, Jamie the timid tactician, and Doc Toros the Zoid engineer. Together, they make the Blitz Team.

The premise is simple. Teams fight against each other in sanctioned battles, usually 3 vs. 3, though it varies on occasion. Bit infiltrates the Blitz Team and steals the Liger Zero, a temperamental Zoid that refused to allow anyone to pilot it due to its stubborn and impetuous AI. After winning a battle for them, the team allows him aboard (not before Leena rages at him for taking the spotlight in the battle).

The battles have good variety with each opponent bringing their own strengths to overcome that shape the battle’s theme. While not overly strategic, each battle has good back and forth, and not the typical smash faces together until someone wins. The main flaw is that dumb luck wins a few fights early on, but this isn’t a big problem. It also helps that the characters are fun. Sure, they may not have incredible emotional depth or tortured souls, but they bring life and enthusiasm to the narrative, especially in the English voice track, and don’t have anything stupid about them.

The narrative never gets heavy handed, keeping its focus on the battles. Even when the villainous Backdraft Group comes in (similar to Team Rocket – not Jesse and James) humour remains with their focus on cheating to win, even so far as to bring in their own snarky robot judge to favour the villains. Harry Champ, a man destined to be king, is a hilarious antagonist, who keeps trying to defeat Bit with his expensive Zoids because he thinks Leena is Bit’s girlfriend, and Harry has the hots for her.

The creators knew what made for an engaging battle anime and stuck to it. While Zoids is safe, it works and is an enjoyable watch.

Art – Medium

Zoids makes great use of CG for the mechs, blending them into the standard art, one of the early examples to do so successfully, even if repeated on occasion. At first, you may notice the CG, but it doesn’t take long to fade.

Sound – High

Battle sounds and Zoid roars work well. Ocean Group (Vancouver studio known for Black Lagoon and Gundam) did a great job with a strong cast of actors that brought out their personalities much more than the Japanese had. Bit and Leena in particular have much greater range and emotion.

Story – Medium

Though safe, the characters are good enough to carry the show and bring life to the narrative.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: A good show for anyone looking to have fun with a fast-paced battle anime about dinosaur robots beating the snot out of each other.

(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 AnimationPositive Recommended English Voice Track

Negative: None

Legend of Black Heaven – Review

Japanese Title: Kachou Ouji: Hard Rock Save the Space

 

Similar: BECK

Interstella 5555

Detroit Metal City

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Music Science Fiction

Length: 13 Episodes

 

Positives:

  • Stirring rock music sung in English, even for the Japanese version.
  • Psychedelic, yet fascinating opening sequence to get you pumped.
  • Humorous use of metaphor and innuendo to convey the narrative of a guy saving the galaxy through rock and roll under the guise of a TV show.
  • Has one of the greatest anime scenes ever in the Japanese track using an American actor.

Negatives:

  • Takes half the series to make the narrative core clear.
  • Despite the great opening, the closing sequence is terrible and not in theme with the rest of the music.

Oji was once Gabriel Tanaka of band Black Heaven, the biggest rock group around. Now he’s an office worker with a mundane life, a dull wife, and child – boring, everyday life. Enter Yuki, a voluptuous blonde and fan of Black Heaven, who gives him the opportunity of his daydreams, the chance to hold a guitar again without the glare of his wife and return to the nirvana that is rock and roll. Yuki needs him to play his perfect guitar solo to power a super weapon that can repel the oncoming alien invasion, while the world thinks the invasion is no more than a TV show.

Oji is an interesting character, varying between depression at his life and the zealous defence of his musical possessions. He hides his guitar from his wife, as she keeps trying to throw it out. Yuki and her band of undercover agents bring a nice dose of humour to Black Heaven. They go undercover to observe him, but are clearly not from Earth since they have no idea how to blend into the crowd. Black Heaven’s narrative is simple and focused on Oji’s boredom in life along with his struggle to regain his former rock star talent. The core of the plot isn’t clear until halfway through the series, so it may feel unfocused at first, but it’s worth bearing with it. It never quite explains why the ultimate weapon needs rock music to work, not that it isn’t a cool idea, but it would have been nice to have some lore on the weapon.

Black Heaven’s best aspect is the music. It has an excellent opening sequence and theme of rock ‘Cautionary Warning’ by John Sykes, sung in English even for the Japanese voice track. All of the guitar tracks are excellent; it’s clear the sound director was a fan of classic rock and knew to get a professional for the music. Each episode is titled after a famous rock song. The auditory let-down is the closing theme, a rubbish track that doesn’t fit the rest of the music – honestly, one of the worst tracks I have heard.

Legend of Black Heaven was a pleasant surprise, and is thoroughly underappreciated with a unique premise and a music angle rarely seen in anime. Lastly, there is this amazing scene:

Art – Medium

Adequate art and animation in the vein of Gundam Wing on a lower budget. Love the trippy opening art.

Sound – High

Fantastic guitar riffs and rock n’ roll along with a good Japanese voice track, but a mere average English one (outside the songs). Oji’s Japanese actor reaches a higher level of enthusiasm when he worked up, and Yuki is more seductive, whereas her English counterpart sounds a little flat.

Story – Medium

Simple plot laced with humour and a love for rock music. A bit slow to start.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: A must for lovers of rock and roll. Who knew a guitar solo could save the world.

(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:

Great MusicGreat OP or ED Sequence

Negative: None

 

Blade – Review

Japanese Title: Blade

 

Similar: Hellsing Ultimate

Blood: The Last Vampire

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Supernatural Vampire Action

Length: 12 Episodes

 

Positives:

  • Visual style is nice with decent atmospheric colouring; good screenshots, essentially.

Negatives:

  • So many action clichés: Locked swords that wouldn’t lock, simultaneous jump slash followed by silence before the damage appears on both, etc.
  • When the vampires burn in death, the fire looks photoshopped over the top, which is strange since the environmental fire looks good.
  • High action moments experience a drop in frame rate, even going so far as to have static characters merely drift across the screen.
  • The vampires are weak. A sneeze means death.
  • Despite the narrative focus on the death of Blade’s mother, we get no emotional exploration.
  • Squandered use of Blade.

An exasperated hiss, that is my reaction at the end of Blade. Madhouse did a poor job here in translating the Blade comics into anime. Blade is the fourth on Marvel’s anime slate, and after four attempts, they don’t seem to have learnt much, if anything at all. Here we have shallow narrative, noticeable animation shortcuts, and every action cliché imaginable.

Blade is on a mission to kill Deacon Frost, a regular villain from the comics, and his Japanese based ‘Existence’ organisation of vampires as vengeance for the death of his mother. From then on, the plot is as linear as can be, with no twists all the way. Blade teams up with another vampire hunter, Makoto, out for revenge for the death of her father. Together, they carve their way through hordes of vampires…with ease. Immediately, we have a problem. The vampires are weak! They die to a sneeze. Blade gets more resistance from the wind than from the vampires as he slices through. He could slash at the air for more of a challenge than these vampires. Deacon Frost and a couple of others are the only real vampiric challenge; however, they never explain why they are more powerful than the others. The story never explores anything beneath the surface. Blade finally confronts his mother’s killer? Meh, just another bad guy. What are the villains’ motivations? Eh, who cares; it’s not like depth matters. Instead, they waste time on calling out ability names.

This laziness is prevalent in every facet of Blade. The animation for instance, loses much of its frame rate during action sequences, even to the point where the animation stops altogether and the characters just slide across the screen. When Blade executes a flurry of attacks, half the time, rather than show off this fluid animation of him dancing between enemies, carving them to shreds, they chose to have still shots flash in sequence minimal detail. Only in the finale does anything interesting happen on the visual spectrum.

Blade is a dull anime and a squandered opportunity with the comic lore. Even after all said above, it still feels worse than that, worse than the sum of its parts from the disappointment at this anime.

Art – Medium

Nice style ruined by low frame rate action and so many static shots.

Sound – Low

Mere passable voice work lacking in nuance of better anime. Generic action music.

Story – Low

A bog standard action plot of a vampire hunter hunting a vampire that looks no deeper than the surface.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Read the comics instead. Wasted chance to create an alternative take on Blade mythos.

(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: Nothing

Negative:

 DissapointingHollow World BuildingNo DevelopmentShallow

Berserk – Review

Japanese Title: Kenpuu Denki Berserk

 

Related: Berserk: The Golden Age (remake)

Similar: Claymore

Gungrave

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Horror Fantasy

Length: 25 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good animation, especially considering the show’s age.
  • Guts is a great lead character that portrays a more believable muscle-bound character than most other anime.
  • English voice track is well done for the most part.
  • Properly used horror in an interesting plot.
  • ‘Forces’ music track fills one with epicness.

Negatives:

  • Incomplete, cliffhanger ending.
  • First episode is deceptive due to the incomplete ending, and the next few episodes are slow to start.
  • Opening and closing sequences will leave you horror-struck with lacklustre quality.
  • Poor use of what little music there is.

Berserk came out during a time when anime in the West was marketed towards a broader audience, even going so far as to censor elements or tone down language to reach the young demographic. Outside of films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, you had to search high and low for mature anime that wasn’t terrible. Then Berserk came along with its dark themes, unadulterated horror and violence to show us just how adult anime could be.

Berserk centres on Guts, the orphan swordsman, and Griffith, leader of a mercenary band, as they fight for their country of Midland. However, Griffith has ambitions beyond just fighting for a king; he wants to be king. Griffith’s plans test the loyalties of Guts and his mercenaries to the limit. Berserk focuses on themes of loyalty, isolation, and the fundamentals of humanity, the nature of good and evil innate with us. Be forewarned, this anime gets dark, very dark, contains nudity, plenty of violence, and gore everywhere. These aspects are not thrown in at random. No violence for the sake of violence. Gore for the sake of gore. Each use is relevant, an uncensored view of the scene.

Guts is a fantastic protagonist, a badass anti-hero, who wields a giant sword that can cut horses in half. Normally, wielding a giant sword is indicative of a terrible character, one that the creators put no thought into, especially when it comes to physics. With Guts however, he has the look and ferocity of a man who can wield such a weapon. The animators made the effort to show the heft of swinging such a heavy weapon; Guts doesn’t twirl it around like a baton as seen in other anime and games. As a character, Guts goes through a range of emotional and physical trials, exemplifying his depth. When designing a brawny character, look to Guts for the archetype done right.

Griffith too is a suitably complex character with his own strengths and weaknesses, exploring the price of ambition, but to elaborate further would constitute spoilers, so I shall stop there. The supporting cast of mercenaries is a mixed bag of quality, but they are good when it counts, Casca in particular who struggles with her identity as a women in a band of men. Villains, ranging from generals to nobles, are despicably evil, sick and twisted, some with magic elements thrown in.

There are two major narrative faults. The first episode can confuse viewers, being a flash-forward that we never return to because of the second fault, the finale. Berserk is incomplete; after an awesome adventure that keeps getting better and a horrifying finale, the series ends on a cliffhanger. It is clear they intended to have a sequel series, but never got around to it. (They did go back to the beginning again with the recent release of Berserk: The Golden Age; however, that’s a new take on the manga, so you won’t get closure on this version.)

Berserk comes highly recommended. Just don’t watch it if you can’t handle the thought of an incomplete anime. You could read the manga afterwards, however. Also, not for children – can’t stress this enough.

Art – High

You will find higher quality anime these days, of course, but Berserk’s gritty medieval style doesn’t feel dated beyond the use of action lines and slow motion to hide the occasional low frame rate.

Sound – Medium

Has one of the best tracks in anime: ‘Forces.’ Even so, the soundtrack is limited and hardly used. Many battles have no music for some reason, not for added effect. The opening and ending themes are awful, sung in terrible English and don’t fit the series – just…awful. The acting is good in either language, though I found the English suited the characters better, except for Griffith; his English actor can’t command the scene as Griffith should.

Story – High

An excellent fantasy tale of corruption and loyalty with a good cast of characters brought to a halt by a cliffhanger ending and no continuation.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for fans of dark fantasy that doesn’t shy away from the realities of battle and horror. No incomplete anime deserved a conclusion more than Berserk.

(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:

Extensive Character DevelopmentHoly S***Riveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

 

Anime and Manga Reviews