Voices of a Distant Star – Review

Japanese Title: Hoshi no Koe

 

Related: 5 Centimetres per Second (same director)

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (same director)

The Garden of Words (same director)

Similar: Pale Cocoon

Gunbuster

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Romance

Length: 25 min. OVA

 

Positives:

  • The tragic narrative hits the right emotional notes with its interesting premise.
  • Beautiful environmental art, especially the grand shots of the cosmos and planets.

Negatives:

  • The use of CG for aliens and mechs looks out of place, never mind the ugly designs.
  • Character art looks unfinished.
  • Little is established. How did the girl become an elite pilot so quickly? Where are the aliens from? What does the boy actually do?
  • The voice work in English is monotone for much of the time. Japanese isn’t much better.
  • Prediction of flip phones as the standard in 2046. I jest, I jest.

Having recently watched Nolan’s Interstellar, I was reminded of Voices of a Distant Star, first anime feature of director Shinkai Makoto (of Garden of Words and 5 Centimetres per Second fame). Both Interstellar and Distant Star make use of time dilation to create drama with its characters. Distant Star tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who joins the space fleet in the fight against aliens, leaving her boyfriend behind on Earth with text messages as their only means of communication. The further she travels into deep space, the longer messages take to transmit – days, months, even years – and because of relativity in light speed travel, a couple of days for her is equivalent to years for him.

This story is a tragic one dealing with love separated, literally, by time and space. Distant Star is a powerful piece when it hits its emotional highs; I felt for these two characters. Unfortunately, the side story of the galactic conflict distracts from these heartstring moments. The writer needed a catalyst to launch the girl into deep space, there’s no disputing that; however, a galactic war isn’t a small plot point. It needed more time and space, so to speak, to develop into a full-fledged plot line. We get no backstory on the war, no information about the aliens, and nothing on how the girl became an elite pilot so quickly. (Aside: How is she allowed to wear her school uniform in the mech? I am guessing that it’s a metaphor for her wanting to be back with him during their school days.)

 

Shinkai could have chosen a simpler premise such as the exploration of distant stars to act as the catalyst rather than a war. This would allow more time to focus on the relationship. All we know about these characters is that they are in love. We know nothing about their interests, strength or weaknesses – who they are, really. Then again, they could have extended the runtime to explore each aspect in depth; at 25 minutes, Distant Star is too short for what it tries to achieve.

When it comes to the art, the war causes more problems. Poor CG was used for the mechs and their alien opponents, which is nothing but jarring, and it doesn’t help that their designs are awful. The cockpit view is cool though, using a lone seat with controls floating in a holographic interface.

Despite all that I have said against Voices of a Distant Star, I enjoyed my time here. The premise alone was worth a watch, and even if you don’t enjoy it, the short length means little time is wasted.

Art – Medium

Beautiful environments and lighting unfortunately tarnished by jarring CG for the hideous alien and mech designs. The character art seems to be in its draft stage.

Sound – Medium

Decent voice work in Japanese, monotone in English. I understand that when people are sad, they speak in sombre tones, but full monotone sounds dull. There are no moments of negative energy, no passion in the words. Half the music doesn’t fit the theme. Also something off about the Foley sounds at times.

Story – Medium

A tragic story of long distance love amid a galactic conflict, which results in neither aspect getting the development they deserve.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Worth 25 minutes of your time for what it does right. Voices of a Distant Star is a nice piece of anime that could have done with a longer runtime to develop the relationship and the war further.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World BuildingShallow

Mind Game – Review

Japanese Title: Mind Game

 

Similar: Paprika

The Tatami Galaxy

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Adventure Comedy

Length: 1 hr. 40 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Zany comedy.
  • A plethora of music and visual styles.
  • God, the ultimate troll.

Negatives:

  • May be too weird for most.
  • Slow to start.
  • Character animation is erratic in quality.

Random floppy wiener. Formula 1 racing. A couple having a picnic. A love letter passed on. Soccer player in a diaper chases a woman, Myon. She escapes to a bar with her friend Nishi. He is shot up the arse by the soccer player, separating soul from body. In limbo, god trolls Nishi through texts and recreates the bullet-up-the-rear moment with a wireframe model for Nishi to see over and over. God turns into a hippie. Then a literal shithead. Now a goldfish bowl with live fish. A fashion model. Nishi defies god to escape limbo back to just before his death. Renewed by his afterlife encounter, Nishi disarms the soccer player and caps him in the head. Yakuza. Car chase. Trapped on the city bridge. Giant whale erupts from the water and eats him and his friends. Now they live in its stomach.

This all sound too weird? Well, it should. Mind Game is one crazy anime. At some point in every scene, I had to question what I was watching. The crazy train never ends. Mind Game employs a narrative in the vein of Pinocchio, only instead of wanting to become a real boy, Nishi wants to grow into a real man that would impress Myon. He goes on a wild adventure with her and another friend, pushing their sanity to the limit.

Studio 4°C (known for the Catherine video game and Berserk remake) employs its zaniest visual techniques to deliver an energetic and spontaneous film. One moment you’re looking at roughly drawn art, almost as if the artists were in a hurry (which works), and the next moment, you’re looking at a Picasso style with random live action thrown in. It keeps changing. One would think that a dozen art directors had different ideas of what the film should look like, resulting in an amalgamation of ideas. For the most part, the splicing works to keep you captivated. Mind Game is never dull; I will concede that. However, the artistic choices are great or terrible, no in-between. Interestingly, the segment that looked most normal, Astro Boy inspired, was the dullest. By far my favourite was the encounter with god the douche-bag. Just brilliant.

Art’s only problem is the erratic animation quality. In some scenes – the climax, for example, or the car chase – animation is excellent; however, there are times where it feels as though the animation runs at five frames per second. This was probably an artistic choice, but it simply doesn’t work.

The music morphs with each scene, lest it appear too normal in this loony toon. The music’s range is incredible. An unsettling, one-note wind chime tune for a scene, Disney’s Fantasia for another. How about Bahamas holiday music? Sure, why not. Again, it works great in places, not so well in others.

If you do decide to watch Mind Game, be warned that what I have described here is only the tip of the craziness. Mind Game is an eclectic piece of work that will mess with your head, which you will either love or hate. It’s a self-aware tale that bends reality to breaking point and then keeps going.

Art – Medium

A crazy mix of art styles and techniques with random real life images thrown in. The animation quality is erratic.

Sound – Medium

Sports a new style of music every scene, some zanier than others. Like the music, the voice work changes in tone with each scene to varying degrees of success.

Story – High

The Pinocchio-like story is slow to start and nothing but weird from then on, possibly too weird for some. Don’t expect logic here.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Mind Game is an incoherent anime of ever-changing visual and musical styles that fans of oddity will enjoy. To everyone else, it likely isn’t worth your time.

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

Positive: 

Holy S***

Negative: 

Terrible Start

Ninja Scroll the series – Review

Japanese Title: Juubee Ninpuuchou: Ryuuhougyoku-hen

 

Related: Ninja Scroll the movie (prequel)

Similar: Basilisk

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The villains have some interesting abilities.

Negatives:

  • A bloated cast of villains leaves no room for character development.
  • The art and animation is lacklustre and markedly worse than the movie.
  • Uninteresting plot.
  • Lacks the choreography that made the action in the movie compelling to watch.
  • Awkward dialogue and poor audio quality.
  • Electronic music doesn’t match the medieval setting.

Fourteen years after the events of the movie, Jubei is once again roped into conflict when a group of demons destroy a village, killing everyone except the priestess Shigure. Jubei fights the demons and acquires the mysterious Dragon Jewel, making him a target to the demons. The government agent Dakuan from the movie is charged with the priestess’s protection. He hires Jubei again as a bodyguard to escort her and the Dragon Jewel to safety.

These fourteen years weren’t kind to Ninja Scroll. It went from a good action anime in the movie to a snooze-fest in Ninja Scroll the series. Each episode is about fending off some new ninja with a speciality power. While the powers have some creativity to them, the characters have no depth. One major complaint I had against the film was the lack of development for most characters, stating that a little extra screen time could have served admirably. Here they have thirteen episodes to work with, and rather than develop characters, they bloat the cast with a new villain each episode.

Even Jubei is worse. It seems like they heard the one line description of Jubei’s character from the movie (easy-going vagabond ninja) and didn’t bother to look further into his character. He is now one-note. His haunted past, inner turmoil, humanity and strength, all gone.

So, the narrative and characters are bland, but what about the action, the movie’s best aspect? Surely, the action is still worthwhile, no? It isn’t, I’m afraid. Though it is the strongest part of the series, which isn’t saying much, without the choreography and animation from the movie, action scenes aren’t compelling. Every fight has that moment where Jubei slashes at the enemy, appears to do nothing, they stare at each other, and the villain even talks before being split in two. I grew bored within a two episodes.

You will be thankful for the dull action when you have to listen to poor dialogue coupled with awkward voice work, particularly in English where the audio quality fluctuates between characters. Many of the actors aren’t the same as the film and worse than their originals. Almost every English voice, some with terrible accents, sounds either bored or as if they are reading straight off the script. The mismatched music doesn’t help either. Synth and electronic music wasn’t the best choice for a medieval setting. Who thought mechanised singing was a good idea?

I’m not sure why Ninja Scroll the series needed to be. It doesn’t add anything to the movie, introduces nothing of worth, and doesn’t even manage the action that made the original entertaining.

Art – Low

So generic. Lacks the dark visual quality of the movie. Also suffers from an inconsistent frame rate. Weak gore. Shadows go missing quite often.

Sound – Low

The wrong kind of music for the theme and setting coupled with poor voice work to match the awkward dialogue.

Story – Very Low

A repetitive new-enemy-of-the-episode structure that leaves no room for character development or any meaningful plot, for that matter.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Avoid this and watch Basilisk instead. Ninja Scroll the series isn’t worth your time, even if a fan of the movie. It’s just too boring to suffer through the blandness.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Awful DialogueDissapointingEar Grating Voice WorkNo DevelopmentRepetitiveShallowTorture MusicUseless Side Cast

Ninja Scroll the movie – Review

Japanese Title: Juubee Ninpuuchou

 

Related: Ninja Scroll: the Series (sequel)

Similar: Afro Samurai

Basilisk

Sword of the Stranger

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action

Length: 1 hr. 30 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Well-choreographed and brutal action.
  • A variety of cool ninja powers.
  • Dark visuals to match the grim narrative.

Negatives:

  • With the action focus, most characters have little to no development time.
  • Some awkward explanatory dialogue.
  • Weak music.

Jubei is a vagabond swordsman, hiring out his skills to those who can pay. One night, he helps a ninja woman in trouble. She is Kagero, the last of her ninja unit after an investigation into a mysterious plague led them to slaughter at the hands of a ninja who can turn to stone. He is known as one of the eight devils – eight ninja with extraordinary abilities. A government official looking into the matter hires Jubei to defeat these devils. Thus, Jubei and Kagero are drawn into a plot that threatens to overthrow the government.

Ninja Scroll is an action heavy film of blood, nudity, and cool abilities. The action scenes, Ninja Scroll’s focus, are the most exciting aspect with great choreography and variety in techniques. At only an hour and a half long, there isn’t time to drag out the action or have characters stare into each other’s eyes for episodes on end. Each fight in Ninja Scroll is sharp, intense and varied as Jubei faces the eight devils, all with interesting powers. One ninja can live in shadow, while another can summon snakes from anywhere – anywhere… The manner in which these powers are used is the anime’s most creative aspect. Unfortunately, outside of the action, these villains have no development; they are evil and must do evil things with cool powers.

The lack of development is an issue across the board except for Jubei and Kagero, whose motivations and personalities are explored beyond surface level. The government at the core of the plot doesn’t get any screen time to establish and why this overthrow could be so disastrous. Of course, if your interest lies solely with the action, then this won’t matter. The plot itself is constructed enough to support the action; it isn’t vague or full holes, but does lack depth.

Ninja Scroll is a good-looking film, especially when you consider its 1993 release date. If all you saw during its era was Dragon Ball Z, then Ninja Scroll’s gritty quality comes as a surprise. The artists went for a grim atmosphere throughout, shadows filling all corner of the screen. Even when the sun is out, jet-black shadows contrast with the light in every scene. The animation is good – the blood in particular, which there is plenty of. Each villain has interesting visual designs to fit their abilities. I particularly liked the snake woman with her intricate tattoos.

A great failing is the dialogue. There are several moments where a character will explain how someone died even though we just saw them die. Too much stating the obvious, as well. Jubei slashes the rock ninja, who says in a stilted manner, “A very skilful attack, but you must realise I cannot be cut.” Exposition by stating the obvious isn’t good writing. The dialogue in the latter half gets pretty rubbish at points.

Ninja Scroll stands on its great action and dark atmosphere. It’s a shame that they didn’t extend the airtime to allow for character exploration, and they could have hired a better dialogue writer.

Art – High

Ninja Scroll looks good, defying age, and is loaded with blood.

Sound – Medium

A variety of voices well executed; however, the Japanese takes the edge, as the plethora of ancient Japanese names sound odd in English – a minor gripe. The music is underused and weak overall.

Story – Medium

This is purely about action with a decent narrative structure to support it. The villains are cool in design, just not in development.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Ninja Scroll’s action coupled with dark fantasy art is well worth your time. Just don’t expect extensive character development.

(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***Riveting Action

Negative: 

No Development

Tokyo Godfathers – Review

Japanese Title: Tokyo Godfathers

 

Related: Paprika (same director)

Perfect Blue (same director)

Millennium Actress (same director)

Similar: Kurenai

Tekkon Kinkreet

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Comedy Drama

Length: 1 hr. 32 min.  movie

 

Positives:

  • A heart-warming Christmas story.
  • The protagonists are a fun trio.
  • A good amount of humour balances the heavy drama moments.

Negatives:

  • Too many of the narrative events and twists are convenient coincidences.
  • Lacks Satoshi Kon’s signature psychological style.

Tokyo Godfathers is the third of director Satoshi Kon’s anime films, a film unlike the rest of his portfolio. It is a touching Christmas story centred on a homeless trio – an alcoholic, a runaway, and a transvestite – who find a baby abandoned in a rubbish tip. With a key found by the infant as their clue, they set off through Tokyo to find her parents.

On the journey, the trio must confront their pasts, the lives they abandoned and ran away from. Baby Kiyoko acts as a catalyst to bring the trio back to reality. They are an unlikely group, always at each other’s throats, bickering and insulting one another; however, rather than hostility, you get a sense of family from them. They support each other as if they are all they have in the world while they sift through people’s trash to survive. The alcoholic lost his daughter to illness, followed by his wife who couldn’t take it any more after he was barred from professional cycling for fraud. This abandoned baby girl reminds him of his own. How can someone abandon a baby when others lose theirs to illness? The transvestite too has an emotional connection to the baby. He is the most attached of the trio, as the baby makes him feel like a mother.

While Tokyo Godfathers has a unique premise and tells an interesting overall story, it does suffer from one big problem – coincidence. Many of the events or twists occur due to coincidence. When in trouble, they coincidentally stumble into an acquaintance that can aid them. When the trail runs cold, they coincidentally find a precise clue that points them in the right direction. And so on. It wouldn’t be a problem if there were a couple of small coincidences – after all, life has coincidences – but here, every turning point is coupled with coincidence. There is a huge web of connections by the end in Tokyo, a city of 13 million, mind you. To be fair, some of them are hilarious such as the half dozen people named Kiyoko (the baby’s name). Tokyo Godfathers does a great job of balancing humour with drama. The banter among the trio is great.

Another point of note: if you are a fan of Satoshi Kon, Tokyo Godfathers may disappoint you, as it is nothing like his other work. It lacks the psychology and mind-bending found in his anime. Of course, if that doesn’t bother you, then it won’t matter.

Tokyo Godfathers is a good film with its unique setup and a mix of humour and drama that ultimately handicaps itself through convenience and coincidence. The dynamic between the homeless trio and their personal trials are worth the price of admission alone.

Art – High

Though not as creative as Paprika or as unsettling as Perfect Blue, the art still boasts high detail and solid character design. Only the ending credits crawl gets weird when the Tokyo skyline dances. Comes out of nowhere, actually…

Sound – High

The voice work for the protagonists is great. I appreciate the inclusion of actual Spanish for the Spanish characters.

Story – Medium

A unique story of a homeless trio trying to return an abandoned baby to its parents. Unfortunately crippled by overuse of coincidence to drive the narrative from point to point.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A good Christmas film I can recommend to most. Avoid if you don’t like an overuse of coincidences to push the plot forward conveniently.

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

Positive:

Stellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

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