Tag Archives: Action

Often high in violence and fast-paced. Not necessarily gory, though can be.

Super Dimension Fortress Macross – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Macross

 

Related: Macross Zero (prequel)

Macross Plus (sequel)

Macross: Do You Remember Love? (alternate version)

Similar: Mobile Suit Gundam

Martian Successor Nadesico

Terra e…

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Romance Science Fiction

Length: 36 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Weaponised culture
  • A real sense of adventure through space
  • Full of unconventional ideas
  • That kissing demonstration

Negatives:

  • The art and animation has plenty of jank
  • Minmay is too annoying for a love interest

(Request an anime for review here.)

Macross, often known as Robotech in the West (more on that saga later), is a classic of mecha sci-fi anime. A cursory glance at the series paints a picture of a Gundam clone. As a fan of Gundam, I had no problem should that be the case. However, the differences are significant.

They make Macross worthwhile.

Today, we focus specifically on the first entry of this long running franchise, Super Dimension Fortress Macross (like the first Mobile Suit Gundam, they needed to change the name to differentiate from other entries). Shortly before the new millennium, an alien spaceship crash-landed on Earth. A united humanity worked for a decade to reverse-engineer this technology in anticipation of the aliens’ return. They succeed in creating SDF-1 Macross, a city sized spaceship, but its maiden voyage also alerts the Zentradi aliens out in space, bringing them back to Earth. An attempt to escape and draw alien attention goes awry and the Macross teleports deep into space, taking the nearby water and town with it.

A hasty salvage mission brings much of these surroundings – civilians included – on board the gargantuan ship. They must now make their way home while establishing a normal life inside and fighting off threats outside. Amongst the crew is Hikaru, a young pilot, and Lynn Minmay, a flighty singer and the target of his affections.

Macross’s first hook into me is the teleportation of the town alongside the ship. Bringing an entire town aboard a ship is something different indeed and is a clever way of having ordinary civilian life within a grand space journey. In long journey Gundam series – a much more serious and realistic franchise – you can’t get away with this. The most Gundam can sell to the audience is bringing a few civilians aboard the main ship, while cutting away to other characters elsewhere amongst the populace. Macross can go from dogfights in space one episode to a walk in the park next episode for the same characters. This completely changes the tone of the series. I love the cosy feel and balance offered by this dynamic. It’s more fun than Gundam. Not to suggest it lacks dramatic moments, of course.

The alien Zentradi are humanoid giants obsessed with war. Everything in their society revolves around combat. And this is where Macross’s greatest difference and best selling point compared to its peers comes into play. What starts as a war of weapons and bodies soon turns into a war of culture. Culture is humanity’s secret weapon.

One of the first major social events aboard the Macross, in an effort to create a normal life, is the Miss Macross contest. Minmay wins, which launches her off to stardom as the most famous person in Macross “city”, netting music, film, and sponsorship deals. Her music inspires the people. She will even perform live to calm everyone as war rages outside. The Zentradi intercept her broadcast and have no idea what’s going on. They’ve never heard music before. This launches infiltration missions to figure out what’s going on and perhaps capture some of this…whatever this is! The more they encounter human culture, the more bleeds out to the aliens. “I like this ‘music’ thing,” some think to themselves. “Why are we trying to destroy it again…?” A song called Lili Marleen inspired Minmay’s character, as it was popular by both the Allies and Axis during WW2.

This very much mirrors accounts of North Korean defectors. Most North Koreans would swear up and down that their country is great, superior to other countries, but they don’t know any more of the real world than what the government propaganda feeds them. However, there are leaks. South Korean TV dramas are a favourite with North Koreans, surreptitiously watched on smuggled discs with the threat of eternal labour or death hanging over their heads. In these k-dramas, they see a version of life beyond the border and begin to long for it. (I recommend Crash Landing on You on Netflix if you want a great k-drama involving North Korea.)

Needless to say, this aspect of Macross is excellent. It also leads to the most hilarious kissing scene in anime history in the third act. One of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen. Pure gold.

To talk of the characters, there isn’t too much to say. Most are solid, decent characters for their roles. If you are familiar with the casts of old Gundam series, you will see similarities, which is fine. An all-round decent cast. The only one to stand out is Minmay and I wouldn’t say for good reasons. The kinda romance between her and Hikaru isn’t engaging. First, she’s far too flaky and meek for someone like him. Young guy sees pretty girl, his brain shuts off, he “falls in love”, yes, but I don’t buy that he would keep chasing after another more mature woman shows interest. Minmay is the sort of woman that would have men leaving her every few months as her fans cry, “Are they crazy? How could they leave someone as kind, attractive, and famous as her!?”

Yet others would say, “No matter how hot she is, someone out there is sick of dealing with her shit.” Discussing the series with friends after finishing it revealed that I am not alone in my sentiments towards her. She is a divisive one. Her role in the story is great, don’t misunderstand me, but her character is irritating.

Before I leave you with my recommendation for Macross, I must talk of its release in the West and why you may have never heard of it before, despite a new release every few years. Macross first came out in English as Robotech in 1985, combing three different series and not even from the same franchise – Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA. The explanation was that one series alone was too short for American TV at the time (required 65+ episodes), so they decided to combine three and make a new story. It doesn’t end there!

 

Macross wouldn’t receive an unedited, clean release with a dub until 2006, almost 24 years after creation. Interestingly, Minmay has the same voice actress and singer in both Japanese and English. Her voice stands out amongst the Americans, though it is authentic. The distribution rights are still a nightmare. The US distributor only has rights to SDF Macross as a legal battle over the Japanese rights has circled back to throw the English rights into question. The other series, as far as I’m aware, have never had foreign release. Absolute mess!

This dub comes with the advantage of remastered audio, should Macross’s age be a turn off, and it is a good dub. The animation is a bit jank, a far cry from what the likes of Gundam was putting out at the time, though it has charm.

I thoroughly enjoyed Super Dimension Fortress Macross and I will be going onto the next series.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: For classic anime fans. It may be a little rough around the edges, yet Macross still holds up as a worthwhile anime today.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Laughing Salesman / Hayate the Combat Butler / Nichijou – Quick Review

Laughing Salesman

Japanese Title: Warau Salesman

Genre: Comedy Drama

Length: 103 episodes (half-length)

That broad smile. Those dead eyes. That deep laugh sending a chill down your spine. If you see those three traits on someone, then beware for the travelling salesman Moguro is coming for you. What does he sell? Happiness and success. It’s true! Don’t let his unnerving appearance put you off. He will deliver as promised, but he didn’t say anything about you deciding on which form that happiness and success will manifest.

Today I thought we’d look at a trio of comedies (all with requests from several readers) in the quick review format since there isn’t much to say about any individual series, as is often the case with comedy. We start with the oldest and weirdest of the lot, Laughing Salesman.

This is a series of disconnected mini-episodes, each centred on the titular salesman as he travels around Japan to help ordinary citizens in acute need of assistance. His aid has no price, but does have a “deal with the devil” slant that leaves his clients with what they asked for, technically, though perhaps they should have been careful of what they wished for. The angle of Laughing Salesman is very much towards comedy.

Moguro’s clients consist of both good, well-meaning people and the ingrates of society. The fun of the series is in seeing how he takes client expectations and twists them. To give a few examples, one episode has a guy who wants to learn to drive yet is unbelievably bad behind a wheel. After a few lessons from Moguro, he grows overconfident while drunk and takes a dump truck for a joy ride. He succeeds in driving, though how many laws does he break in the process? Someone with “grass is greener on the other side” envy gets to experience another life, only to realise it’s far worse than what they already had. Another person may wish for people to notice him, so Moguro puts him in the spotlight, hounded day and night by the press. People will certainly know him now! The episode below is the perfect introduction to Moguro and his deals.

The stories are straightforward and good in small doses. This isn’t an anime to binge.

Laughing Salesman is a fun anime from a different time. Nothing special, but decent nonetheless. Also, fun fact: the voice of Moguro did Darth Vader in Japanese. No surprise with that deep bass!

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Give the episode below a try to see if Laughing Salesman is your cup of humour. (Don’t bother with the 2017 remake.)

*     *     *     *     *

Hayate the Combat Butler

Japanese Title: Hayate no Gotoku!

Genre: Action Comedy

Length: 52 episodes

You couldn’t pick this anime out of a line-up. Hayate the Combat Butler looks as generic and forgettable as you can imagine for a 2000s anime. It doesn’t give a good impression when judging by the cover, nor does the first episode help. I had watched episode one a few months ago to get an idea for the series and know where to slot it for my mood. I keep 6-12 anime going at one time, so I have a variety to watch based on what I’m feeling in the now. I found it counterproductive to force myself to finish one series before starting another. That said, if I have 12 going, it means around half are boring me to death and I should force myself a little more before I open up anything else.

To get back on track, Hayate the Combat Butler doesn’t seem to be worth anyone’s time at first glance. The story is about a poor boy, Hayate, who works as the personal butler to billionaire girl Nagi to pay off a massive debt. It’s a comedy of errors and disasters when it comes to protecting the oblivious Nagi from all the dangers in the world. No matter how bad things get, they will always get worse.

By all accounts, this shouldn’t be a good anime. Apart from the poor art, there is the standard premise and seemingly generic characters. However, the quick wit and sharp pace of the humour, which often goes meta, makes it work. I do find the overall series to be too long at 52 episodes (and there are sequels), but any given episode moves at a good clip and packs in the jokes. The meta humour garners frequent laughs from me. Characters complain about lack of screen time; someone breaks anime cliché and characters will discuss it like critics; commentary on episode structure is common or on anime tropes. References to other anime of all genres are common too. As such, this is an anime for viewers familiar with anime, especially the school comedies that one would put in the line-up previously mentioned.

The other jokes are most often about Hayate covering for Nagi or saving her life. Her arc is about relating to other kids at school, which she skips every day to play video games (who needs an education when you drown in money). She has to learn what peasants normal people do in life. However, she is terrible at everything. Can’t even make a cup of tea. Her brew is tantamount to poison, so Hayate secretly replaces it with his work to save the recipient and Nagi’s dignity. Good stuff.

I am surprised that I enjoy Hayate the Combat Butler. You wouldn’t think so if you saw my eye roll at the start.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Hayate the Combat Butler’s meta heavy humour is for seasoned anime fans. Only they could look past the art as well.

*     *     *     *     *

Nichijou – My Ordinary Life

Japanese Title: Nichijou

Genre: Comedy Slice of Life

Length: 26

Inverse to my surprise enjoyment of Hayate the Combat Butler, we have Nichijou. I had seen a couple of funny clips over the years prior to this viewing, which had put it on my to-watch list. I always intended to watch Nichijou and looked forward to it – was only a question of when. I did not laugh half as much as anticipated.

Nichijou is a slice of life comedy with three primary duos for the three humour threads. The main duo are two high school girls. Their humour is a heightened view of ordinary school situations. The second duo is a robot maid and a little girl, with the skits focusing on the domestic (later blends into school with the other girls). The final duo are from a club (student council?), an aristocratic boy and the tsundere girl that likes him. Theirs is the most violent humour as she expresses her emotions by pulling out bigger and bigger guns. Aside from them, there are a smattering of side characters with the occasional skit, such as the school principal, a meek female teacher, some kid with a Mohawk, or an army of cloned soldiers.

Skits will vary from a 15 seconds to a few minutes long. There are over 110 “Ordinary Life” skits and a dozen or so for each of the other skit types. An episode has around eight different bits. On paper, this sounds like plenty of variety and with each skit lasting a few minutes maximum, one would expect sharp, punchy jokes. I think of skit shows such as A Bit of Fry & Laurie, That Mitchell & Webb Look, or Brass Eye and how frequently they have me rolling with laughter. It’s hit after hit. Nichijou presents itself in the same vein, albeit about different subject matter. So it surprises me how often Nichijou’s skits drag for twice as long as needed – two minutes feels like eons sometimes – and how repetitive the shorter ones are.

The worst skits, no contest, centre on the robot woman and little girl. I wanted to trip over a take a stake to the roof of my mouth after watching a few of their bits. By around episode 10, I started skipping ahead when I saw them come on screen. Painfully unfunny. Their humour is about her being a robot yet no one notices and the girl being inept at everything. There are no punch lines. The joke is that these characters are “cute” and therefore anything they do is hilarious. Their eyecatch bits of scissor-paper-rock to mark the ad break is the lamest repetition of humour in the anime world.

Nichijou relies on moe as a substitute for character and structure. And I don’t like moe. At all.

I find the main girls to be hit or miss (more misses) and most often responsible for dragging out the joke (when there is one). They are meant to be high school girls with high school situational comedy, yet there is nothing high school about it. This is middle school material. The character designs don’t help. This is no Cromartie High School.

The aristocrat and tsundere give the best first impression. He is an over-the-top stereotype of what people think of British aristocracy. Everything is wrong – pinkies up when drinking tea, the belief that a servant holds the master’s sea biscuit when urinating, and so on – but that’s what makes it funny. Seeing the butler smoothly dress him up while he keeps walking after using the bathroom is hilarious. The tsundere finds his demeanour infuriating and reads too much into his words and actions, ending in her pulling a weapon on him. However, even their skits become repetitive because of her. Pulling out the big guns is almost the same joke every time.

The principal versus the deer (see video above) was one of clips I had seen previously and the absurdity was hilarious at the time. I added Nichijou to my list because of it. However, it is less funny in context and the reaction shots from one of the main girls weighs the scene down. It’s as if she’s explaining the joke.

Before watching any of these comedies, I would have said Nichijou is probably the best. Now though, I easily consider it the weakest. I am wavering on whether to put in the Low tier of quality, but when I am unsure like this, I er on the side that brings a series towards the middle to avoid seeming too harsh or too favourable. (A borderline High/Very High anime sits in the High tier until I am certain it should go in the top bracket. Conversely, a Low/Very Low anime will stay in Low if I am undecided.) Especially with comedy, it’s hard to rate. I suspect I will bump this down in time. (Edit: I dropped it to low in the final revision before publication, two weeks after writing the review.)

I’m not surprised Nichijou was an absolute flop in Japan. It found success in the West years later because of the internet in a manner that wasn’t prevalent in Japan at the time.

I have not met, in person, anyone that likes Nichijou, yet I have read of a fair number online that consider it sidesplitting. Although, I do wonder if they love it as much as they claim. They always share the same five or so skits…

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Watch the best bits of Nichijou online. Go for the full series if you want more.

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Deca-Dence – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Deca-Dence

 

Similar: Gurren Lagann

Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet

Zegapain

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Adventure Science Fiction

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good animation
  • The contrast between the two realities makes for something different

Negatives:

  • Story has a negative gradient of engagement
  • The end is particularly flat and convenient

(Request an anime for review here.)

Deca-Dence is an anime original series that hooks readers with an unusual, easy to grasp premise. The last of humanity lives on a mobile fortress called Deca-dence that roams the land in search of monsters to hunt, their blood a valuable resource. Warriors that fight these monsters are the Gears, most of them alien. Humans, for the large part, work as maintenance and hospitality crew referred to as Tankers. Tanker girl Natsume dreams of rising up to become a Gear, but the system seems stacked against her and denies her at every turn.

Little does she know that the system is in fact against her. Against all humans. Deca-dence and its adventures are actually a playground for cyborgs to fight monsters via humanoid avatars like some video game. The monster blood is worth points and extends cyborg life. High rankers receive handsome rewards. Furthermore, the whole “game” and every human within it belong to a giant corporation. This is Mortal Engines meets The Truman Show.

The reveal of the second reality with cyborgs is jarring if going in blind, as I did, for the visual styles of the two worlds are vastly different. The game world looks normal, albeit barren and grimy, whereas the cyborg world is out of a children’s morning cartoon. We don’t see the latter until episode two. I thought I had changed anime.

This is a good hook for the story and offers many questions that the audience wants answered. Who are these cyborgs? What do they really want? How did the world get this way? Is Deca-dence the only fortress? What’s with the mega corporation? Natsume is found to be a bug in the system, unaccounted for in the corporation records – but how? Will her exterminator friend delete this bug? And of course, we have the usual questions surrounding a dystopian world and its society. So many questions. So many possibilities.

It saddens me to report that the setup is the high point of the series and the story only declines in quality by the episode. The ending, most of all, is weak. For this sort of world, this sort of story with these themes you can’t settle on a utopian conclusion. Since I don’t want to spoil any more, I’ll use a parallel. This ending is like making a WW2 film, but once the Nazis are defeated, there is no other conflict to resolve or logistics to deal with (such as assisting all the homeless civilians). I’m not suggesting your story has to deal with them, yet you can’t pretend they don’t exist. Solving one problem doesn’t magically fix everything.

It’s more than that, however. The answers to those aforementioned questions – what questions they do answer – are frankly predictable and too normal. Deca-Dence is a slowly deflating balloon.

The characters are quite good, Natsume being a fun underdog easy to cheer for. Even so, the story doesn’t take them to interesting places as the themes dwindle to embers.

Deca-Dence never reaches a bad point. At no stage do I think, “This is so stupid.” It’s simply…mediocre.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it, though I am hesitant to suggest even that since the start is the best part of Deca-Dence and doesn’t follow through.

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

 

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Stupidity, Secrets, and Salacity – October 2020 Manga

Astra Lost in Space

Japanese Title: Kanato no Astra

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 49 chapters

As I read manga by the truckload these days, I think it best to review some of them in quickfire batches. I won’t be reviewing all that I read. These won’t be the best, most likely not even good. I simply have a little to say about them. This is a selection of my October reads.

Astra Lost in Space caught me with the cover image and title. A sci-fi story about people lost in space? That’s my kind of story. It does deliver on that promise, but I don’t remember anywhere in the contract that said it would include asinine characters and misplaced dialogue.

The story follows a group of teens sent off to space camp on another planet free of adult supervision. When they arrive on this planet, however, a sphere of light swallows them up and transports them into distant space with only an abandoned spaceship nearby (they survive the teleport by having space suits on from the previous journey). These teens must operate this ship and survive the unknown journey home.

I love this premise. It should give me that “cosy” feeling of a crew on a long journey through a harsh environment, but with a safe home base. Astra Lost in Space couldn’t be further from.

In past reviews, I’ve talked of how if you see errors in the first episode / first chapter of a story, those errors will echo through to the finale. Astra Lost in Space is a perfect example of this and one people could use as a case study. For example, the first chapter has an instance of misplaced dialogue. The instructor tells the kids, before their trip, that they will have one more student than normal with them and that their special task (every group has one) is to teach a little girl. He tells them this and then immediately, a student asks, “Hang on, didn’t you mention something about an extra member?” (paraphrasing) as if it had been said a while ago and everyone had forgotten. It’s very jarring, akin to taking censorship edits of Hollywood films in foreign countries, where they do a hard cut mid-scene spliced with dialogue a few sentences later. Except this doesn’t have the excuse! A few chapters later, a second line that doesn’t fit what came prior.

Another example of error echo is with the characters. The opening scene is of protagonist guy coming to the rescue of love interest girl. Within the same volume, after they teleport, he once again has to rescue her (just her) out in space. Is her role to remain as the rescue baggage for protagonist? Research into later volumes reveals that this is indeed the case. Her personality is dumb anime girl. Her purpose is to be rescued all of the time.

Possibly the worst moment of volume one involves the “high IQ” guy of the team. They’re on this ship, in the middle literal nowhere, with seemingly no way of getting home since none of them can pilot the thing. Except, one person does question if Mr High IQ is a pilot, no? Yes, he is. Why didn’t he say it sooner in this life or death scenario? “It was too troublesome.” Please jettison yourself from the airlock. Look, just because Shikamaru managed to pull off the lazy genius, doesn’t mean you should go copying it. The type has become such a cliché amongst bad writers.

This manga (and the inexplicable anime adaptation) is nothing but asinine characters living behind a premise to draw suckers in. Art is weak too.

Overall Quality – Dropped

Result: Dropped in one volume. Garbage.

*     *     *     *     *

A Fool and a Girl

Korean Title: Babogaewa Agassi

Genre: Fantasy Romance

Length: 35 chapters

I’ll keep this short. A Fool and a Girl is a bad ℌệ𝔫𝔱ằ𝔦 masquerading as romance. It’s about a virgin woman and a wolf boy (?) who fall into lust then into love.

This story is actually about rape. The only question is, “Who is the rapist?” Either he is the rapist for never taking “no” for an answer and forcing himself upon her, or she is the rapist for taking advantage of a guy with the mind of a three-year-old.

It tries to sell this as romantic, but it is vile. The attempts at romantic dialogue make one want to throw up.

The art is okay for a full colour strip, though has zero creativity.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Result: Finished. Wasted my time.

*     *     *     *     *

6000: The Deep Sea of Madness

Japanese Title: 6000: The Deep Sea of Madness

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Length: 22 chapters (4 volumes)

6000: The Deep Sea of Madness is a horror manga about a group of scientists and engineers sent to a deep-sea facility to investigate a past disaster that left many dead. It’s The Thing meets Dead Space underwater.

For most of these 22 chapters, the horror is of the “was that real or my imagination” variety as the claustrophobic and isolated location begins to drive people mad. Claims of monster sightings start and the sounds of past horrors echo in the dark. I am making 6000 sound better than it is, for in truth, this is one boring horror series.

First issue, the art. It is too messy, often difficult to discern (I’m sure this was intended to emulate unknown shapes in the dark), and has the equivalent in movies of making the set and lighting so dark that you can’t see anything. When you don’t have the sound of a movie to terrify the audience in pitch-blackness, you need to compensate with horror art. A black comic panel isn’t scary!

Author Nokuto Koike had a horrible time conveying a sense of space and location. Even with pictures, we have no idea of what this place is really like. Apart from a couple of rooms, it is hard to know where anyone is in a given scene.

One could still have a good manga, albeit not a frightening one, if the story and characters were good. This story is standard for the premise and the characters have no personality. None. The one character with a hint of it is the douche manager, who is as complex as the douche manager stereotype.

Though I finished 6000: The Deep Sea of Madness (it was short), I didn’t care for it.

Overall Quality – Low

Result: Made me want to play Dead Space instead.

*     *     *     *     *

 

Ayeshah’s Secret

Chinese Title: Ayeshah’s Secret

Genre: Drama Horror

Length: 11 chapters (2 volumes)

For a different kind of horror, we have Ayeshah’s Secret, a dark take on the classic Cinderella. A girl’s father remarries to a nasty woman with three sons and as is of the fairy tale, the mother and children torment the girl, even turning her into a servant after the father dies. Where Ayeshah’s Secret differs from the norm is in what occurs after that point.

There is no fairy godmother, magical ball, or glass slipper. Ayeshah’s Secret turns into a story of murder and revenge. I’m going to have to spoil a little here to talk further, so skip to the next review below if you want to read this manhua (I don’t recommend it). So, a lawyer comes to visit soon after the father’s death with his will, which the mother reads to discover that his vast estate and fortune are to go to Ayeshah. Before the lawyer can reveal this truth, however, the mother kills him and buries him in the woods. This one act cascades into further atrocities, including the mother taking an axe to Ayeshah’s throat and burying her as well.

At this stage of the story, I am interested and eager to turn the page (I read all chapters in one sitting). The art is good, suitably creepy for this domestic horror, and the twist on Cinderella has me hooked, especially when Ayeshah stumbles back into the mansion – alive – with a wound sealing on her throat. She begins her revenge.

Then the final act arrives and everything goes down the toilet. The reveal of Ayeshah’s backstory? Absolute nonsense. The shoehorned romance? Worse than Domestic Girlfriend. The big twist? Undoes everything good about this story.

I have to talk about these points, so if you still don’t want to have the finale spoiled, skip to the next review.

Alright, the three twists are that Ayeshah is actually an identical twin; the sisters would swap places with one living in a shack by the woods and no one came back from the dead (the kinder sister did die); and that she ends up with the eldest and nastiest of the three brothers. (The mother accidentally kills the other two in trying to kill her.) The explanation for keeping the twins a secret is that it was their mother’s dying wish. It’s so stupid. This pathetic idea exists solely to setup the twist. There is no logic. This is clearly a case of someone having an idea for a twist with no clue how to set it up.

The reveal that nothing supernatural was at work is a classic twist of domestic crime (Agatha Christie used it several times), but when the reveal is this twin situation, it would have been better to keep it supernatural. And lastly, the romance, the dumbest of them all. This guy is an abusive twat without a moment of kindness for her, yet a few clichéd lines later – “We aren’t so different, you and I” and the like – she falls for him and the series ends on scenes of them living happily ever after. There isn’t even an attempt to make us believe that while we may see him for a monster, she sees him as a saviour in this messed up world she’s endured. Romantic, we are to find them. Never mind that he’s barely a character until the end.

This is a romance for the YA Twilight, Mortal Instruments crowd with the tragic protagonist meets handsome boy who is actually an abusive brute.

Overall Quality – Low

Result: Volume two takes a nosedive into awful.

*     *     *     *     *

Doctor Du Ming

Chinese Title: Yisheng du Ming

Genre: Psychological Drama

Length: 15 chapters (1 volume)

Now a manhua that never showed any promise beyond the front cover, I present to you Doctor Du Ming. Don’t be fooled by the nice cover – the art inside is ugly. The writing is even uglier.

I’m going to tell you everything that happens because one of Doctor Du Ming’s failings is lack of clarity. The first half of the series seems entirely pointless because there is no direction to the story, obfuscated by a nonsensical non-linear narrative that jumps between past and present (maybe future as well – not sure). At first, you think it’s about a doctor struggling with the pressure of work, but that’s irrelevant. It turns out to be a revenge story over the suicide of a woman this guy had a crush on. Her roommate, bribed by a group of men, left her alone to be raped. The shame circus that followed led her to suicide. (The rape is the twist used to explain his murderous actions and finally tell us what the hell is going on.)

Doctor Du Ming is too vague at the beginning and remains dull throughout that even when he kills a seemingly innocent woman, you don’t care. It also uses one of my most hated writing techniques of Eastern media: the cut away in the middle of scenes (often mid-sentence) to add artificial “mystery”.

The idea could have worked with better structure and more character development to make the audience give a gram of a damn.

Overall Quality – Low

Result: Fooled by the cover.

*     *     *     *     *

Beloved

Chinese Title: Beloved

Genre: Drama Romance

Length: 16 chapters (1 volume)

Now for another Chinese manhua – one that has good qualities.

Before I even touch on the story, I must praise the art. This long strip comic painted in gorgeous watercolours evokes a strong sense of place and emotion. It isn’t just beautiful. It amplifies the story. Shame then that the story doesn’t live up to the art.

Beloved is a story of taboo love between a 34-year-old woman and a 16-year-old girl. The older woman, a doctor, met the girl at a bar she had no place being in and didn’t know she was so young. The doctor tries to get rid of the girl and pretends it never happened, but the girl is clingy and does several stupid things to get her attention. Before long, the doctor realises she can’t get the girl out of her head and must decide what to do.

Do note that this take place in China, where the age of consent is 14 (there are no consent “brackets” either, so as long as both people are over 14 and consenting, it’s legal [there has been a recent push to up the age]). However, just because something is legal, it doesn’t make it morally acceptable (morality will vary by the individual of course), so this woman still faces a tough decision and my following opinion of the story would be the same if the girl was 20 in university and the doctor was 40.

Beloved is a drama that sits in the doctor’s head most of the time. We have many point of view shots, vivid memories of hers, and swirling thoughts as she tries to grapple with her feelings. There is a bit of humour, but this is serious drama for the most part. Additional drama stems from her former first love, who also works with her at the hospital and plays a voice of reason, in a sense.

This drama, despite being quite depressing and all about the mental, doesn’t push far enough. Too optimistic. Even though this takes place where the relationship is legal, there are many tough questions and challenges to face, which it does offer to the story, but then ends on, “It will all be okay.”

Beloved could do with more depth and exploring the dicey content on more levels. This manhua is only half way there.

Overall Quality – Medium

Result: Love the art! Story needed another few layers.

One Piece: Alabasta Arc (Season 4) – Anime Review

Related: One Piece: East Blue Arc (Season 1)

One Piece: Grand Line & Chopper Arcs (Seasons 2 & 3)

Length: 38 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Meatier story arc than before
  • Multiple layers to the conflict
  • Nami and the weather sticks
  • Good villains

Negatives:

  • Nothing really

(Request an anime for review here.)

Now this is more like it. I was told that the Alabasta arc was generally seen as the point where One Piece picks up. They were right. Being the first arc that isn’t about recruiting someone – where everything must tie into the new member – allows Alabasta episodes to broaden the scope and delve into a multi-layered cake of story.

The Straw Hats and Princess Vivi arrive at their destination, the kingdom of Alabasta, which is in turmoil from three factions amid a drought – the royal army, the rebels, and the sinister Baroque Works. The situation is bad when the crew arrives. They only become worse by the hour.

Alabasta is the largest dominion in the series so far with multiple territories on the one island. The king of Alabasta (Vivi’s father) is under fire for “stealing” rain from other islands by using a substance called Dance Powder that forces clouds above to rain early. Naturally, this means that those clouds will no longer rain further along the journey. In a desert region, there can be no higher crime than stealing the lifeblood of the people. Did you know that this is based on a real technique called cloud seeding? Scientists can “sow” special particles into clouds to make them rain sooner, often to increase rain in water catchment areas or to weaken incoming storms. Not as effective as the magical Dance Powder, though.

Where to start with great points of this season? The villains. I like the Baroque leader, Crocodile, and his ability – great fights versus Luffy. What an interesting coincidence that the authors for One Piece and Naruto had the idea for a sand-powered villain at the same time, yet luckily made them quite different. As cool as Crocodile is, no villain is better than the shapeshifting ballerina, Mr 2 Bon Clay. I love this crazy dude. Every minute he is on screen is a delight. He’s funny, has an interesting ability, and you never know what he’s thinking. I want to see more of this guy.

As for best fight of the season – no, best fight of all seasons so far, it has to go to Nami versus Ms Doublefinger. As Nami has no special power, she consults fellow power-free pirate, Usopp, for a weapon to match Baroque Works. (Good idea to address their “normal” status, by the way.) Usopp provides her with a staff that breaks into three segments, each capable of various weather based abilities. It is so goofy that I love it. This fight keeps growing sillier and sillier to the point where I have my head in my hands in disbelief at what they will do next. This is One Piece action to me. And as someone who values time more than anything else, I appreciate the brevity of these fights.

On the good guys team, Vivi has more opportunities for development and works well as a “guest” character. The appearance of Luffy’s brother Ace was a surprise. Funny story: I have seen Ace many times before, often featured in display cases of Akihabara figure stores. Thing is, I thought that was older Luffy. One Piece has been going for so long that I figured the characters aged, like in Naruto, at a certain point and this guy was Luffy Shippuden. He was a good addition to the story for adding a little more to Luffy, though he didn’t stay long enough. He doesn’t feel relevant yet. I look forward to his return.

Can’t forget Smoker, one of my favourites, whom I never say no to see more of. It is a good idea to have players in the game with direct conflict to Luffy, increasing personal tension. You don’t want the protagonist’s sole motivation to be helping others – one of Bleach’s many flaws after a few seasons. If the protagonist is only around because there are random bad guys to fight, the audience loses connection.

We’ve had good characters and good fights before, so those alone wouldn’t make Alabasta great. The layers and effort in a more complex story place this season well above previous ones. This feels like the first season where the author could flex some storytelling, now that introductions are out of the way. Crocodile’s plan is interesting, with many moving parts that involve the whole kingdom and every character, coated in a nice layer of politics, justifying the time spent on developing an entirely new society. It makes everything feel relevant. No filler. These 38 episodes could almost be a standalone anime.

In fact, I would use this season as the selling point for those hesitant to start One Piece. Rewind a bit and begin at the island where they meet Vivi and go from there. After Alabasta, which ends on a satisfying cut off, then there is investment to sit through over 60 episodes of backstory and introduction. If someone isn’t feeling it after watching Alabasta, then I can’t imagine any other season would sell them on One Piece. This has everything that represents One Piece. However, if someone quits after the third arc in a row about a pirate’s tragic backstory, I can understand. I don’t know if Eiichiro Oda planned the story so far before he began, but it doesn’t feel like it. This needs a bit of a restructure. Shifting most of the backstory arcs to later on helps with more than flow and pacing. It increases mystery. Naruto does character mystery so much better. At this point in One Piece, I don’t have an urge to learn more about the main six. I want to see them do great new things, yes, but who they are, where they come from, ghosts of the past, etc. hold no interest over me. That could change. Oda could retcon in new past mysteries that were “totally planned from the beginning”. It can work.

In short, loved this season. Should have come sooner in the series.

Quality so far – High

Current thoughts: This is easily the best season of One Piece so far. I hope for more of these deeper arcs. See you in the next one!