Katanagatari is a series of fairy tale-like stories about a woman collecting the twelve “Deviant Blades” across Edo-era Japan (unaffiliated with the Bakemonogatari series – “gatari” means “story” in Japanese, so “Sword Story” in this case). This is based on real events from history, where a Japanese ruler would declare a “sword hunt” to confiscate all swords possessed by those not native to his territory, believing it would prevent them having the means to overthrow him. Togame, strategist to the shogunate, employs the help of Shichika, current master of the Kyotouryuu style that fights barehanded and turns the body itself into a blade.
The storybook art style is immediately striking and the only selling point I needed to try this anime (several readers have since requested it). One may think it cartoonish or that this is a small children’s anime, but children would find Katanagatari unbearably dull in truth. This is for a slightly older audience and the style fits the tone.
Despite the action sounding title, dialogue is the dominant form of this anime. Each episode is double length to fit the story associated with each sword in a single uninterrupted session. While I like this idea, I don’t feel each episode justifies the extra screen time, as it does drag often for a mere 12 episodes. A variable episode length would be better – I wish all series would do this, just like the variable length of book chapters. It took me a long time to finish this series (to be fair, life keeps getting in the way too). I recommend one episode per session. However, outside of that, I can’t present any other barriers to finishing the series. Katanagatari is a good anime.
First, the main duo is tons of fun. Shichika is muscle over brains taken to an almost extreme. “I’m bad at thinking” – his words. He’s also oblivious to how to treat Togame, the woman he claims to love. He’s humorously embarrassing. By contrast, Togame is all brains and no brawn. She’s a proper lady of good upbringing, unlike this hick country fella. Yet she trips on first meeting him. She talks too much, too many big words, is carried away with her monologues, and assumes other people’s answers only to realise she misheard a minute later. A perfect contrast to Shichika.
The meeting of this art style, whimsical score, and mystical stories reminds of fairy tales, as mentioned earlier, for which you need the right mindset. Each episode is about confronting an owner of one of these swords. Naturally, they are reluctant to relinquish their powerful weapons, so a conflict ensues. Sometimes it’s a typical action scene, though often there’s more thought to it, like a moral quandary or a puzzle to solve – as seen in fairy tales.
For example, one wielder is the last swordsman in a fallen kingdom swallowed by sand. He sits in a room in the castle with his sword at the ready, capable of slashing faster than light at anyone who dares enter. If you think logically, this falls apart. How does he eat? Go to the bathroom? Why don’t they fire a cannon from outside behind him? Those aren’t questions for this type of story. In Little Red Riding Hood, you don’t worry about how the hell a wolf could ever pass for an old granny. Approach Katanagatari with that mindset and you will have a good time. I mean, one guy punches with his guns. Need I say more?
Why is it okay to ignore those questions here but not in, say, Sword Art Online 2, you may ask? No story can encompass everything, account for every possibility, or factor in every detail from reality. Would make for rather boring stories. Instead, stories choose what focus on and the style in which to deliver the message, the morality, the character study, the action – whatever. Weak stories will either execute this vision poorly or sometimes not account for something that within the logic of its world breaks the story. Sword Art Online is garbage for many reasons, but the sword versus guns problem is idiotic because if a sword is so effective and bullets are so slow, why would anyone ever choose a gun in competitive play? By the logic established within that world, no one would use a gun.
Thankfully, Katanagatari isn’t Sword Art Online.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: Watch it. Katanagatari is unexpected in style and execution and I recommend it taken one episode per session. Cheerio!
With the conclusion of the fourth season, Netflix’s Castlevania comes to a great end. Rather than do a review for the final season only, I thought I would go back and cover the full series in one place, give my overall thoughts on this triumph (no need to read the other reviews either).
My astonishment at the quality of a video game to film adaptation has been the greatest surprise throughout Castlevania’s run. I’m hoping this is the turning point where adaptations are things to look forward to rather than dread, similar to when comic books became good films more often than not. Superhero film fans are spoilt for choice these days. They don’t know of the Affleck Daredevil and Elektra days. Watching a good adaptation can sometimes make you forget the bad – the atrocious – such as Far Cry (anything by Uwe Boll, honestly), Dead or Alive, and the notorious Super Mario Bros. It’s hard to stress how weird it feels to see quality when the expectation is absolute ass.
For the newcomers, Castlevania is a long-running franchise of loosely connected games about a bloodline of vampire hunters from the Belmont family battling against creatures of the night, usually led by Dracula. The Netflix series roughly follows the third game, Dracula’s Curse, though pulls from several entries and brings much of its own material to the canvas. That last point is a key to Castlevania the animation’s success. Most adaptations fail because they don’t realise that gameplay comes first in [good] video games and trying to translate this to a cinematic only experience doesn’t work. There’s a reason the “princess is in another castle” trope is a common ailment of game stories (the recent God of War, for example), yet not often seen in film. Games use it to tack on another 5-hour gameplay world before, of course, the princess is again in another castle and you have another world to explore. It’s fine to want to be faithful to the source material, but there’s no point if it makes for a garbage film. Character, theme, tone, and style matter when adapting, not the gameplay mechanics or exact plot.
In terms of story, what makes Castlevania? Vampire hunters, vampires, monsters, magic, gothic, horror, religion, and labyrinthine castles. Your story isn’t a failure if your vampire hunter doesn’t jump and whip, jump and whip, jump and whip. It’s like those movies based on FPS games, where they think that because they have a scene in first person as a guy mows down fools with a gun, they’ve nailed it.
This series understands what makes for an engaging story in the world of Castlevania.
Enough preamble already, onto the review proper! This story opens on the meeting and courtship between the human Lisa and the vampire lord himself, Dracula. He teaches her science and medicine to help the local humans, which doesn’t please the Church, who see science as heathen magic and burn her at the stake. Dracula’s fury in response knows no equal and he unleashes a horde of demons upon the nation. Hell reigns.
Trevor Belmont, the last in his line of vampire hunters, drinks his way to the end of his days unmoved by the massacres nearby. A plea from some humans wakes him from his drunken haze and he finally does what he was born to do. He soon meets the magician Sypha.
Hearing this premise and knowing the video game origin, expectations are for little more than good guy fights series of bad guys to get to big bad guy in terms of story. However, Castlevania is so much more. In fact, there is enough material just amongst the villains to make a full series. Dracula’s court consists of vampires and humans, each with their own motivations and purpose in this story. Politics plays a larger part than action does in the conflict. They aren’t evil for the sake of evil. Dracula is the most powerful being on Earth, yet the death of his wife broke him. Isaac, one of Dracula’s Forgemasters (demon constructors), is waging a war against his own kind, whereas the other Forgemaster is a tad hesitant though no less involved. Some amongst the vampire “sisters” question their existence as vampires. Are they truly to rule for all eternity? Over everyone? The nuance to these villains (are they all villains?) particularly in later seasons had me glued to the screen.
A recurring problem in stories featuring secret societies of the supernatural is homogony within the society. The Underworld films (a guilty pleasure of mine), The Mortal Instruments, and Blade are but a few examples. How many stories have you seen where all the vampires (except maybe one) or werewolves or whatever supernatural race are the same? Where they have no lives saves for waiting around to drop from above in groups when someone walks down a back alley? They may as well be the clone troopers from Attack of the Clones for all the difference between them. This cliché stems from how people imagine other cultures. They see people in their own country are as varied as the plants and animals of the world, yet everyone in a distant country is one homogenous blob of whatever stereotype they know and not just as varied. Or the writers are just lazy. Of course, one story doesn’t have room for thousands of different personalities, but variety in what characters you do have goes a long way, even the villains.
On a hero front, Trevor’s “I’m so over this” attitude combined with his family duty makes for a fitting hero, a better choice than a typical “hero” in this gothic tale, and his chemistry with Sypha brings a touch of levity. Alucard is a more unusual character. Like his father, he’s powerful yet amongst the most mentally weak after having lived a sheltered life. I love the way he talks as well. His vocal mannerisms alone inform much of his experiences and mental state. And let’s not forget the charismatic has-been Saint Germain. What is he up to?
Even the minor characters are memorable, from the religious fanatics to the sentient demons. My only complaint with the characters is that we don’t get to see more of them. I could easily do with twice as many episodes of character interactions and vampire politics.
If action is more to your taste, Castlevania is excellent there as well. Apart from a few rough cuts, the animation is great and the action never feels generic. It’s always interesting to watch and improves with each season. Gory too, as it should be for a horror series. The massacre in episode one sets the tone perfectly.
Castlevania started as an animation to which I paid no attention. Now, I love it. It has a great start with four episodes as a proof of concept followed by a second season that brings the cast to strength, and then a third season elevates it to excellence with nuance before a final season delivers an explosive action finish. This is one of the best fantasy series I’ve seen in a long time. I can only hope future video game adaptations receive even half the care and effort as Castlevania has received.
Overall Quality – Very High
Recommendation: Watch it. Castlevania is a triumph of an adaptation and a fantasy series. I heartily recommend it.
And so we come to the 30th review of the past 30 (+2) days. I saved the best for last. Ex-Arm is a thing of beauty, an art piece of wonder so spectacular it defies reality. Physics hold no power over Ex-Arm.
CG anime is often terrible with bad writing to match. However, the recent triumph of Beastars and Dorohedoro seemed to turn a real corner for CG in this medium. Then comes Ex-Arm to set the industry back three decades. The story behind this disaster is even worse than the resulting product itself. I don’t know where to begin with this. There are so many things wrong with the art alone that I want to say them all at once. I can’t decide which is the worst!
What about the opening scene? It actually starts with 2D animation – well, I say animation, but can you call two frames flitting back and forth as characters drag across the screen “animation”? Then they have a shot of a character surrounded by lightning as the world tears apart. The still image below is almost as animated as the video. Only the lightning moves as this guy holds the sort of pose some weeaboo would post a photo of themselves imitating on Twitter with the caption, “Cross me and the devil comes out to play,” serious about it. They are so proud of this shot. Expect to see it several dozen times across the 12 episodes. Snap cut to the opening sequence.
Now, anime openings are known for being of high quality, sometimes even deceptive of the anime’s actual quality. I think Ex-Arm’s OP may be worse than the series. The highlights are character profile shots of the typical OP, but they have no animation. A rotating 3D model of the characters shows up instead. Boy, are they proud of those models. They want you to see them in all their glory to get you excited for what is to come. That’s what an OP is for, right? We also bear witness to the fire effects, which look pasted in by a fan edit.
Once the OP ends, we establish the setting at a Japanese high school and at this point, I think they must be trolling us. They do something I never thought someone would even consider. I want you to imagine what a camera zoom looks like. The camera starts at a distance and zooms in on the subject, bringing the detail closer to the eye. Sounds accurate. What it doesn’t do is blow up the image. Ex-Arm though, in its avant-garde genius, does blow up the image as if zooming in Photoshop, to the point where you can see the pixilation. Funniest moment of the entire series! Don’t believe me? Look at the image below and keep in mind it is full HD 1080p.
The comedy doesn’t end there. Classroom interior, protagonist sitting bored at his desk in glorious CG. Enter two classmates – in 2D! I couldn’t stop laughing. Ex-Arm can’t even remain visually consistent. This isn’t the only instance either. Flat characters pop up at random throughout the series and the protagonist’s brother is 2D as well, for some reason that I’m sure is beyond the understanding of my puny brain. (The classmates stop animating halfway in the scene, by the way.)
We’re less than three minutes in and every artistic decision is the wrong one. Soon after, the first action scene enters the fray and removes any hope of value in Ex-Arm. When the police android kicks a guy in the head, it has the impact of a pillow fight. There is no recoil, no weight, no mass to anything, most noticeably in action scenes, and the woman doesn’t move that fast (I’m sure she’s meant to), yet dodges a thousand bullets out in the open. The director claims they used motion capture for Ex-Arm, but I don’t believe it. No way. This cannot be motion-captured animation. Perhaps it was, before the incompetent animators “improved” it in post.
Imagine being the poor bastard who wrote the source material seeing this result. Only something like Redo of Healer would be improved by such visuals.
Who made this atrocity, you might be wondering. This Crunchyroll original comes from new studio Visual Flight, made up of what seems like a team with little animation experience. Most come from the live action space. The director, Yoshikatsu Kimura, equated the logic that because live action is done in the real world – a 3D space – he is fit for a 3D anime. Furthermore, he brought on his usual crew from live action work, not experienced anime workers. I promise you they have never heard of animation ramping. Yes, the production committee is responsible for hiring him, but this clown made every wrong decision from start to finish. Can you believe this anime’s trailer has the line, “Declaring war against all SF (science fiction) series around the world!”?
You’d think that with a live action director, it would at least have good cinematography and directing. Perhaps it looks terrible in CG, but you can imagine how it would have looked great if done in live action. Nope, it would still be miserable. Interviews with him tell all you need to know about how doomed Ex-Arm was before it started.
They couldn’t even get the key visuals right. Look at this crap below, also used as the static ED:
I haven’t even covered the story yet. It follows high school student Akira, who meets with Truck-kun one day and wakes up years later as a brain inside an electronic briefcase. Inhabiting an android proxy, he fights against terrorists alongside a special police force.
The story sucks. It’s not as bad as the visuals, though it doesn’t elevate the piece an iota. The script is the worst aspect in terms of story, riddled with cliché – particularly of the fan service variety – and like the animation, has no weight. Just vapid. There are much worse anime stories out there, yet it has no positives. On an audio front, some of these voice actors are far too good for this, while others, such as the villains, deliver bad performances though it may not be their fault on such a project. Wait until you see the accompanying mouth animations.
I am baffled at Ex-Arm’s existence. Self-awareness seemed to have flown out the window in the making of this disaster.
Overall Quality – Very Low
Recommendation: Must be seen to be believed. Ex-Arm’s handling of CG is so incompetent that words cannot do it justice.
As the penultimate review of the 30 Reviews in 30 Days challenge, this one for Jujutsu Kaisen is two days late, as I needed more time than I thought to ruminate on it. I can’t quite decide how good I think this is. Let’s lay out the good and the bad and see where we get.
Jujutsu Kaisen is the latest big thing in the battle shounen space, having made waves with slick animation from the studio behind the goodness of Dororo and Yuri on Ice. It follows Yuji, a high school student turned “Jujutsu sorcerer” after he eats the finger of a cursed being, granting him extraordinary power. This power does come at the cost of having the finger’s owner, Sukuna, taking residence inside him and threatening to take control at any moment. He now studies at the Tokyo Jujutsu High School to hunt for the rest of the cursed fingers and so the teachers can keep an eye on him. He teams up with the stoic Fushiguro and brash Nobara under the tutelage of Satoru Gojo.
I want to start with the good points since they caught my attention initially. First, the animation. Fantastic! What ever happened to the good old days of battle anime having the most static animation in the industry? The best of times! All kidding aside about nostalgia blindness, Jujutsu Kaisen has excellent action animation. More than fluid, the choreography draws in the viewer and shows attention to the camera work as well. On top of this, the abilities have visual variety. A signature move of Jujutsu sorcerers is the Domain Expansion, allowing them to envelop the nearby area in an environment to enhance their power. Think of it as a home turf advantage. The look of this domain will vary by character and match their personality or power type. For example, a villain who fights with lava powers and has a volcano for a head will transform the environment in a lava hell. The variety in techniques changes up the setting on a regular basis. A concern with an ordinary modern Tokyo setting for a supernatural action series is a lack of interesting settings in which to stage fights. Domain Expansion nicely solves this.
There are plenty of other great abilities too. One guy claps and swaps positions with the target, another creates dogs from the shadows, and a girl harms enemies by hammering nails into straw dolls. An old geezer even fights with an electric guitar that generates energy!
If action is your priority in battle anime, then Jiujutsu Kaisen has you covered. It would be tough to decide what would go into a “best of” highlight reel since there is so much good-looking action.
The next great element is the grotesqueness of the villains and certain abilities. Jujutsu Kaisen isn’t a horror anime, but it feature plenty of body horror. When Sukuna awakens, an extra pair of eye open on Yuji’s cheekbones and a second mouth grows on his cheek. Disgusting. And fantastic. One villain has a row of arms inside his mouth. Another grows a plant that shoots buds of biting teeth. Just about every enemy is disgusting is some way and it works! You won’t forget these freaks anytime soon.
The third notable positive is how this anime distinguishes itself from its inspirator, Naruto. The similarities are obvious – protagonist has demon inside of him that grants great power but also takes over on occasion; second main guy is from a special clan bloodline with a unique technique; the girl of the trio is the strong aggressive type; the teacher has magic eyes he keeps covered except in combat (his Domain is akin to the Sharingan’s Tsukuyomi illusion) and is goofy during downtime. That’s just a few of the similarities. However, it sounds a lot more similar on paper than in practice, as this brings more than enough of its own spin on the common elements to feel fresh. My Hero Academia, another Naruto inspired battle shounen, often just feels like Naruto in a superhero skin. With Ninjutsu Kaisen, I don’t find myself thinking, “This is just like Naruto.” Instead, I think, “Reminds me of Naruto, but I like how they did that differently.”
Now we get into the negatives.
While I said the action is great, this is more so in the moment (much owed to the animation). When you step back and look at the fights in terms of story and arcs, the quality wanes in large part to the odd power creep. There is a hint of this problem from the very first episode, before Yuji eats the finger. He already has immense strength and speed for a human. Then he grows stronger in the middle of fights after nothing more than a pep talk or a “I just need to be stronger” thought. Eh? The power curve also ramps at a random rate with little explanation behind the progression. Some characters are so powerful that they could seemingly deal with all villains alone. Spinjutsu Kaisen also does that thing where it tells you someone is a mega genius, yet has nothing to show for it, or some guy can pull of some feat so miraculous it would render all challenge meaningless if used at the start of the fight.
The second season focuses a new set of students from the sister school in Kyoto and they have a show match with the Tokyo kids, like a mini, mini Chunin exam. This is the perfect opportunity to develop characters and give a sense of power progression. Think of Naruto season one when Kakashi uses a few Sharingan techniques. This makes you wonder what else can it do and when will Sasuke learn those moves. Give us a taste of future power. Or it’s like the opening of any Metroid game, where you start with a full arsenal of equipment only to have an incident break your gear at the end of the first area. Now you have something to look forward to without being overpowered right away. Doesn’t reveal all the upcoming power though; that’s for you to discover as you progress.
In Jujutsu Kaisen, a teacher demonstrates the technique and then the character of focus learns it or develops some other power to deal with the situation too quickly. It feels as if the action writing goes, “What power would make this fight look awesome?” and then just puts it in with little thought to how he gains/masters this power. Flashy fights will only hold my interest for so long.
The sister school leads me into the other significant failing – the main characters. They simply aren’t interesting (yet?). The power creep disconnects you from them on an action level, while the personalities and backstories disconnect on a personal level. Yuji’s motivation is the death of his grandfather, who passed away peacefully but alone. He wants to avoid the same sad end. This leads him to value his friends and protect them at all costs, just like any shounen protagonist. There isn’t much beyond that.
Main characters need mystery and sub plots. Sasuke’s backstory with the Uchiha Clan or Killua’s story in HxH, are some examples. Even Bleach, when it was good for a couple of seasons, had Rukia’s relationship with Byakuya. Why is her brother of all people so adamant on imprisoning her? Fushiguro has a hint of story (in the vein of Sasuke’s), but why do they introduce it so late? As for Nobara, she doesn’t have anything. I’m sure her story will enter later – it would be madness otherwise – but you have to give something on main characters early to make the audience care. Doesn’t have to be the full saga. In fact, it’s better to hold answers back for later. Still, the more important the character, the more impactful their hook should be. It can be the little things, doled out over time. Let’s stick to the Kakashi example. He’s an important character, though not a main. How does he have the Sharingan when he isn’t of the correct bloodline? Why does he teach the kids that protecting teammates is more important than anything else, which goes against the ninja code? What is under his mask!?
On the other hand, the minor characters from the other school are far more interesting. Granted, they don’t have the pressure to grip the audience like main characters do, but I’d rather see them over the main students. Todo, a wrestler-looking dude and Itadori’s self-proclaimed best friend, is hilarious with his eccentric personality and way of judging others based on their answer to the question, “What’s kind of girls do you like?” and he has a simple though effective backstory as a delinquent too strong for his own good. And that’s just one of them.
I want to be clear that none of the characters are bad. None make me clutch my temples in frustration at yet another moronic decision. The main ones simply aren’t compelling enough to carry the series.
I know more of this review went to negatives over positives, but my overall experience with Jujutsu Kaisen is positive, on reflection. I didn’t mention the great music and quality acting either. It’s simply that I value story and characters above all and when those are your weakest elements – made more disappointing amid high production values – I become concerned. And yet, no problem is unfixable in future seasons.
My concerns going forward are the lack of mystery, in both story and main characters, and power creep with everyone already so powerful. I want to keep watching Blingjutsu Kaisen, but I do not want a Bleach situation where it’s one fight after the other and Domain Expansions go down the route of Bankai – “Oh look, the new ability is an even bigger Bankai. How exciting…” Don’t disappoint me.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: A must watch for battle anime fans. The core demographic will almost certainly love Jujutsu Kaisen, while others may find that a lack of mystery dampens long-term engagement.
Xam’d: Lost Memories exists for an odd reason. It was created by studio Bones and Sony for the PlayStation Network’s video download service (this was before streaming made consumption easier). As it often is with “showcase” titles, whether film or games, the visuals matter more than all else. When showing off your new service or product, you need material to catch the eye. After all, the audience won’t get to play or sit down with your content just yet (some media may get a demo, yes). It’s why console manufacturers bring out games with the best graphics for new hardware announcements. They throw in a couple of indies to appease the hardcore crowd, but the AAA games wow the masses. Xam’d, for its time, was an anime equivalent.
It triumphs in the art department with its colourful palette and fluid animation to bring its unique designs to life. This was an art showcase first, a story second. Unfortunately, and not unlike many of those AAA showcase games, there isn’t that much once you see past the visuals.
The story follows Akiyuki, a boy living on an island away from the great war raging between continents in the outside world. The peace of his life shatters when a suicide bomber detonates in his school bus. All that saves him is a mysterious injection of power from a girl. It comes at a price and transforms him into a monster.
This is a great hook – certainly grabbed me – and the monster mutation is grotesque in a non-horror sort of way. Very bubbly and deformed. The mutation makes him arm look like Popeye’s when dormant. He should get that checked out. Could burst any day now. The fantasy is bioscience meets tech infused monsters, morphing drastically into odd designs. It’s a bit Final Fantasy.
Akiyuki soon joins an airship crew, they travel around the world, inevitably getting involved in the war and other conflicts as they try to solve the power that threatens to turn him to stone. Another good element. I love stories with what I like to call the “travelling home base,” where a crew aboard some sort of vessel – boat, spaceship, walking castle – face various dangers outside as they travel, yet can always return to the safety of the home base, though occasionally the dangers breach inside. I particularly like it when the home base creates some semblance of normal life for the crew. The Star Trek franchise is brilliant at this.
Right, so we have a great hook and an ongoing element I love. What could go wrong? Nothing really goes wrong because nothing really happens. Xam’d meanders a lot and doesn’t give much plot. What it does give is also too convoluted for its own good, even in the lore and world building. Something as simple as the cause of the war is obfuscated for no reason. It reminds me of Final Fantasy XIII’s insane story. I would never dare suggest Xam’d is as convoluted – nothing is as convoluted as Final Fantasy XIII (heavens that story sucked). It isn’t good when something reminds me of it though. Too much time goes to side stories that don’t matter; you could cut them outright. Everything from the characters to the story and to the world needed more refinement, slimming down to focus on the core elements that could make Xam’d great.
You already have the visuals and good audio, but the rest is average.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For visual fans only. Sure, Xam’d: Lost Memories isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have any feature to recommend itself above others except for nice visuals.