xxxHOLiC Kei & Shunmuki & Rou – Review

Japanese Title: xxxHOLiC Kei & Shunmuki & Rou

 

Related: xxxHOLiC (Season 1) & Movie: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (prequel)

Similar: Natsume’s Book of Friends

Bakemonogatari

Mushishi

 

Watched in: Japanese (no English dub like season 1)

Genre: Supernatural Mystery Comedy

Length: 13 episodes (Kei), 2 OVAs (Shunmuki), 2 OVAs (Rou)

 

Positives:

  • An overarching plot that season 1 lacked.
  • Expanded core cast with more backstory.
  • Reference to Akagi in xxxHOLiC Kei episode 6!

Negatives:

  • The art in Kei has lost the sharpness and style that made season 1 look unique.
  • Theme of addiction and deeper philosophies largely lost.
  • Most humour is gone.

(Note: this review assumes you have either watched xxxHOLiC season 1 or read the review. Still spoiler-free, however.)

What happened? Where did the heart of xxxHOLiC go? In its transition to xxxHOLiC Kei and the OVAs that followed (xxxHOLiC Shunmuki & xxxHOLiC Rou), the franchise lost its greatest quality: the exploration of addiction and its consequences. While I appreciate the inclusion of an on-going plot to connect the episodes, the creators overbalanced the structure and narrative, eschewing the heart of the original.

xxxHOLiC Kei picks up after season one with Watanuki still working for Yuuko to clear his curse. Cases span a few episodes per customer, allowing for more backstory, but without the depth of the life lessons, these extended cases aren’t as engaging. Much of the humour is gone in Kei, and even more so in the OVAs, replaced with rather drab gloom at times where it isn’t needed. Only Mokona, the adorable ball of fluff, brings any laughter to the scene. The constant gloomy atmosphere didn’t hold my attention like the first season. The art in Kei also lost what made xxxHOLiC visually striking. Yes, the characters have the same hyper-stretched style, but the backgrounds are blurry as though the artists used softer brush strokes and didn’t bother with the detailing stage. That unique quality is no more. Shunmuki and Rou do bring back sharpness with the jump to HD; however, there is something more…generic about the art, though the OVAs do look nice.

Not all is worse. Kei feels like a more important story to Watanuki as a character. Where in the original, Watanuki was more of a Good Samaritan helping people with their addictions; in Kei, he has a greater personal stake in the narrative. Several of the lessons learned are for his benefit rather than the customer. Similarly, in the final OVA Rou, Doumeki is a focus character. We get a chance to see past xxxHOLiC events through his eyes and his backstory. I never say no to good backstory. There are also guest appearances from CLAMP’s other franchise, Tsubasa Chronicles, in xxxHOLiC Shunmuki.

Overall, xxxHOLiC Kei & Shunmuki & Rou are certainly not bad. Fans of the original series will likely enjoy this, unless the humour and theme of addiction were the draw, as they were for me.

Art – Medium

xxxHOLiC Kei looks like someone overused the blur tool; however, the OVAs bring back the sharp quality.

Sound – Medium

Without the English track and the constant gloom, the voice work has less to offer than the original. The ending theme to xxxHOLiC Kei is catchy and adorable, though.

Story – Medium

Without the focus on addiction (the series’ namesake), consequences, and lessons learned, the heart of xxxHOLiC is diminished.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Only for those who want to see more of the characters. Be aware that the tone is more serious than the first.

(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: None

Negative: None

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xxxHOLiC & A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Review

Japanese Title: xxxHOLiC & xxxHOLiC: Manatsu no Yoru no Yume

 

Related: xxxHOLiC Kei & Rou & Shunmuki (sequel)

Similar: Natsume’s Book of Friends

Bakemonogatari

Mushishi

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Comedy Mystery

Length: 24 episodes (Season 1) & a 1 hr. movie

 

Positives:

  • The sultry and seductive Yuuko is a great character shrouded in mystery.
  • A great English voice track that brings out the protagonists’ nuances.
  • Insightful looks into life morals and philosophies regarding addiction.
  • Enjoyable and light-hearted humour.
  • A sharp art style that accentuates Yuuko’s personality and power.

Negatives:

  • Lacks direction in the episodic format without an overarching plot.
  • You have to like the CLAMP hyper-stretched art style, especially here.
  • The majority of ambient characters are no more than sketches filled white.
  • Fluctuation in character proportions breaks immersion.

(Note: The film xxxHOLiC: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is included in this review, as its qualities are the same as season 1 of xxxHOLiC.)

Watanuki spends his days chased by spirits only he can see. One afternoon, while dealing with a particularly troublesome horde of spirits, he stumbles into a shop run by the mysterious and seductive Yuuko, a sorceress who grants wishes in exchange for payment equal to the wish – usually an object precious to the customer. In exchange for his servitude, she agrees to work on removing his curse. And so begins his servitude as her personal chef, errand boy and chore slave.

The title refers to addiction, xxxHOLiC’s theme. The ‘x’s are Japan’s version of blank spaces, just as we use ___. So the title is a multi-purpose term for addictions like alcoholic, workaholic, or even chocoholic. Despite the supernatural slant on the narrative, each case is interesting because xxxHOLiC portrays the addiction and resulting struggles in a realistic way. xxxHOLiC’s acknowledgement that people will lie and deny any problem with their addictions, and the reality that some addictions have long-lasting consequences, is the key that turned the series from something forgettable to an anime worth my time. Many customers end up in the shop without meaning to, without realising that they need help – a great metaphor for reality. Not all cases have a happy end.

The life lessons Yuuko brings to the table have actual depth rather than being “philosophical” one-liners. The shop’s first customer since Watanuki, for example, is losing the use of her arm and can’t understand why. Watanuki investigates to find that she is a serial liar, concocting falsehoods in conversations with friends and acquaintances to make herself look better in their eyes. While these lies seem innocent, the supernatural is using her addiction as an opening to infect her. Watanuki asks Yuuko why they didn’t just tell the woman to stop lying. Yuuko explains that the woman lies for her own sake and nobody else’s. It wouldn’t make a difference if told of the consequences; she would still lie, addicted to the feeling of looking good in front of others, until she experienced the consequences for herself. I appreciated this more realistic view on the problem rather than waving a magic wand to fix fundamental issues within a person’s character.

Yuuko steals the show. She is an inter-dimensional sorceress with great fashion sense, an insatiable appetite, confidence, and isn’t afraid to be seductive when needed, reminding me of Bayonetta. Actress Colleen Clinkenbeard brings her to life especially well in English with a sultriness and nuance to her voice not found in Japanese.

Another great character is Doumeki – popular, talented, good looking, better at soccer than Watanuki – a guy too aloof to be scared by spirits, which infuriates Watanuki. He has this great deadpan voice at all times (the similarity in voice for both languages is uncanny).

xxxHOLiC’s main potential turn off, outside of the CLAMP’s stretched art style (full Jack Skelington here), is the episodic format. The lack of overarching plot to the series makes the show lack direction, even if each individual episode is interesting. If you accidentally skipped a few episodes, you wouldn’t notice.

Regarding the movie, there isn’t much to say. It is essentially an extended episode with a bigger budget allowing for grander animation, more variety in environments, and a larger cast of characters. The overall quality is similar with the same strengths and weaknesses as the series. Watch it after the season for full context. xxxHOLiC is an enjoyable, fun show. It is a pleasure to watch the dynamic between the calm Yuuko and Watanuki’s hysteria.

Art – Medium

xxxHOLiC uses CLAMPS’s iconic thin art style to the extreme here. It may turn some away. Crowds could use detailing.

Sound – High

A solid Japanese track with a better English one accompanied by pleasant and mysterious instrumental music. Plenty of violin.

Story – Medium

xxxHOLiC’s supernatural angle on the exploration of addiction is interesting and unique. However, the lack of continual plot between episodes can reduce compulsion to keep watching. (Is that the show’s way of telling you not to get addicted to anime…?)

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Great for anyone who likes humour undercoated by deep morals with an air of mystery about it. Worth watching for sorceress Yuuko alone.

(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:

Positive Recommended English Voice TrackStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Elfen Lied – Review

Japanese Title: Elfen Lied

 

Similar: When They Cry

Mirai Nikki

Deadman Wonderland

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Horror Action Romance

Length: 13 episodes & 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • An unsettling atmosphere crafted by contrasting the innocence of children with hyper-violent gore.
  • Haunting opening theme and soundtrack inspired by Gregorian chant.
  • The telekinetic protagonist’s volatile nature creates plenty of tension.

Negatives:

  • The clichéd humour doesn’t ever lighten the mood, which can make the constant tension exhausting.
  • The male love interest is a weak character that serves little purpose to the core.
  • In trying to imitate the Japanese voice track too closely, the English voices sound awful despite the skilled actors. The Japanese isn’t ideal either.
  • Outside of action scenes, most animation ceases.

A severed arm twitching in a pool of blood. Decapitated heads sail across the room, blood sprays the walls. Screams fill the air. At the centre of the carnage, a young girl, naked. Don’t be fooled by the innocent looking girl; Elfen Lied is violent and bathed in gore, not an anime for the faint of heart.

In the world of Elfen Lied (German for ‘Elven Song’) exists a race known as Diclonius. Human in appearance other than small horns protruding from the skull, Diclonii control telekinetic arms called vectors capable of tearing people in two with a flick. Their purpose is to eliminate humanity and spawn a population of their own. Lucy, the protagonist, is one such Diclonius, who escapes from the laboratory, massacring guards and researchers on the way out. She ends up on a beach in front of Kouta, the male love interest, and his friend Yuka. Her mind traumatised by a gunshot, Lucy now lies dormant, replaced by Nyuu, an innocent alter-personality with the mental development of a child. The laboratory dispatches other Diclonii and a mercenary to hunt Lucy down.

Elfen Lied is an anime of tension. It juxtaposes the young innocence of the characters with the violent nature of their telekinetic powers. How can something so small be so psychotic? Every scene with Nyuu is tense, for she could snap at any moment. A mere second of lost control and a character loses a limb or their head. A Diclonius doesn’t discriminate. Man, woman, child – all die in Elfen Lied. Elfen Lied is brutal and gory, contains child and animal abuse on physical and emotional levels. Do not watch this if you are prone to nightmares.

Nyuu/Lucy duality brings an interesting dynamic to the story. While her innocence is what keeps the power at bay, it is also her greatest weakness, as she is too naïve to control her power. It reminds of the 1931 Frankenstein film (which I highly recommend, by the way) where the monster doesn’t comprehend that actions have consequences, especially when those actions can be so destructive. Elfen Lied explores the nature of humanity, and what can come from it when a child is isolated, abused, and pushed to the limit. It accomplishes this goal rather well.

Music enhances these moments where a character’s psyche breaks and violence paints the screen. The opening is a tragic Latin opera called ‘Lilium,’ set to bizarre symbolist art inspired by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. The hymn unsettles, a warning for what is to come. Several versions of ‘Lilium’ play throughout the series and are an important role in the narrative.

Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end. Outside of the Diclonii, the rest of the characters are either underdeveloped or dull. Kouta in particular is weak. While his backstory is good and ties with Lucy’s plot line, as a character he has no purpose other than to serve as a romantic device. He is just so dull. A street lamp with a blown bulb would be more interesting. Yuka is even more useless. She is nothing more than the third point for a love triangle. The writers could have cut her from the series with no effect on the plot. The romance between her and Kouta is lame, filled with generic misunderstandings and anime romance tropes. What little humour Elfen Lied has is trite, seen in every anime teen romance – trip over each other, grabbing the breast, up-skirts, etc.

The average voice acting doesn’t help either. Even though Japan records all actors at once, here they sound stilted with no interactions off each other. The dub is even worse. Kouta’s voice actor is as deadpan as the character, and the female actors tried too hard to imitate their Japanese counterparts, resulting in these awful squeaky voices. No child sounds like that! What’s strange is that the English cast has done great work elsewhere (same team as Full Metal Panic and RahXephon, both great English tracks), but here they sound like amateurs.

Despite all Elfen Lied does wrong, I enjoyed the story. It’s a great example of using gore to enhance the narrative surrounding innocent characters.

Art – Medium

Mouth movements comprise all the animation in most non-action scenes; sometimes, even the mouth doesn’t bother, too exhausted it seems. Other than the action scenes, visual details are low. The manga creator intentionally chose a ‘moe’ artist for the anime to enhance the contrast between innocence and violence. However, this style doesn’t look the greatest, especially on Kouta. Gore and action is great.

Sound – Medium

A great Gregorian chant-inspired soundtrack and tension music brought down by an average Japanese voice track, and an even worse English one.

Story – Medium

Protagonist Lucy carries the violent narrative with her dual personas and volatile nature. Shame then that the other pieces of her love triangle are worthless.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Elfen Lied is a worthwhile anime for fans of uncensored violence. Watch in doses of three episodes at a time to avoid exhaustion from the constant tension.

(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 SequenceHoly S***

Negative:

Useless Side Cast

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.
  • The English voice work is great.
  • Plenty of humour.

Negatives:

  • Doesn’t explore character and narrative as much as it could have.
  • A couple of reused attack and transformation animations.
  • Dumb luck and contrivance wins some 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:

Positive Recommended English Voice Track

Negative: None

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