Record of Ragnarok would be the worst anime I have seen of 2021 if not for Ex-Arm. So bad is this anime that I started it before my previous eight or so reviews and couldn’t finish it until now, when forced to.
The premise of Record of Ragnarok is the decision on the fate of mankind. The gods, which comprise Norse, Hindu, Greek, Christian, and more, have decided that humanity isn’t worth keep around anymore due to all of the conflicts, so they want to wipe everyone out. However, the Valkyrie Brunhilde busts into the assembly and proposes to give the people a fighting chance in a tournament against the gods, a series of 13 one-on-one battles. The gods agree.
The structure for Record of Ragnarok is straight into a tournament arc with backstories slotted in. And here we have a core pillar of what makes this anime so terrible. Each fight follows the same routine. The two contestants step up to much fanfare and commentary (none of it useful), they fight for a minute, pause, go into one fighter’s backstory, unpause, followed by another minute of combat, pause, now time for the other fighter’s backstory, unpause, one more minute of combat. If the fight isn’t over at this point (i.e. we need to drag this out for another episode), go into backstory part two and repeat proceedings. It’s astonishing how little action there is in this action series.
Not that the action is anything to write to your parents about. Pacing issues aside, these fights have no real tension despite the humanity ending stakes because we don’t know these characters, their abilities, nor how they fight beforehand. As such, each new technique feels pulled out of thin air. Need this guy to win? Well, he has this new almighty attack. But wait, the other guy is meant to win? Well, he now has a new attack he should have just started with. Ragnarok could work if it were a proper story with character arcs, build-up, and an actual narrative. With what they have here, it would be better to do a series of two-minute animations show casing “what if” fights – Thor versus Lu Bu, Zeus versus Adam (of the Bible), and so on. Give them flashy animation with references to the lore. Short and sweet.
Animation. That reminds me. Did I mention that the backstory segments are almost entirely slideshows? You might assume this is to save the budget for the divine action. Well, you’d be wrong! The action is barely more than a slideshow outside of a few cuts. The amount of time opponents spend staring at each other is creepy.
Accompanying this flat action is the worst sideline commentary I have heard in a battle anime. It isn’t easy to make expository commentary engaging yet I wager anyone could do better than this. The dialogue in general is bottom of the sceptic tank. Episode one has Brunhilde swear. Her assistant – worst character in this shitshow – comments on the swearing and Brunhilde replies, “I said what I said.” That’s where you should drop Record of Ragnarok.
Now we arrive at the characters. I don’t care about changing these mythological beings. They can be whatever you want. However, if you are going to deviate from the common expectations, then you have more work to do to establish their new personalities, ideologies, and philosophies. As seen in the God of War games, for instance. These in Record of Ragnarok aren’t characters. They’re nothing. They may as well not base them on mythology. Aphrodite is the perfect example. The camera makes a big deal of her from the beginning – of course, you and I know the real reason for this – but she does nothing throughout. The camera keeps cutting to her and on occasion she might make a pointless comment such as, “Oh my,” or, “I like the look of him.” Worthless.
Record of Ragnarok is rubbish. No simpler way of putting it. Sure, the manga might be better, though unless the story, and structure, and characters, and combat flow are different, I can’t see it being anything more than pulp action.
Overall Quality – Very Low
Recommendation: Avoid it. The manga must surely be an improvement if the premise interests you.
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.
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!
This time in One Piece, we look at two seasons: Grand Line Inrush arc and Chopper on Winter Island arc.
The Grand Line Inrush arc takes Luffy and his crew along the Grand Line, a volatile band of water that divides the oceans and where the laws of nature take a vacation. One could be on a desert island in the morning only to hit a land of perpetual rain by evening. Monsters are a common sight in these parts. After a brief encounter with a lonely giant whale, Luffy arrives at an island of bounty hunters that want that sweet, sweet mullah on his head. This is a mere pit stop in the story to introduce us to Princess Vivi of Alabasta. She employs the talents of the Straw Hats to transport her to safety back to her country, where a rebellion threatens.
Matters become more interesting on the next island. Two giants have been stuck in a duel for 100 years, evenly matched for eternity. The giants turn out to be rather friendly. However, a dastardly organisation called Baroque Works – responsible for the troubles in Alabasta – has plans for the giants and their new friends. Agent “Mr 3” wants to turn everyone into a giant wax wedding cake. Our heroes are to remain as cake toppers for all time!
What an unusual power. Similar to Gaara’s sand tomb, it’s a terrifying ability to imagine as it would suffocate you to death. One Piece, of course, tempers it with humour. These quirky villains are a riot. The guy literally has his hair styled into a 3 with the end lit like a candle!
The story gets a little more serious in the Chopper on Winter Island arc, where the team need to find a witch to cure Nami’s illness. The island, as the arc title would indicate, is in perpetual winter. And what is synonymous with winter? Reindeer. The witch’s small reindeer assistant is Chopper. Of all the character backstories so far, I like his the most. He was assistant to a crazy doctor reminiscent of a good Rick from Rick & Morty until his death, wish unfulfilled. It’s a touching story of regret, powerlessness, and ambition. He becomes the Straw Hats’ doctor after they help him fulfil his old teacher’s dying wish. This cute reindeer is the show’s mascot. Just don’t make him angry. You won’t like him when he’s angry. I want to see more of him, though I hope he isn’t relegated to mere comedy relief.
One Piece’s adventurous feel continues to be its greatest asset, aided by a good pace on a micro level wherein no story lasts too long. However, we still seem to be in the introduction stage. On a macro level, these 92 episodes haven’t gone far in the grand scheme and I wonder how long it will take a real plot to develop.
There isn’t much more to say about these seasons. They continue in much the same vein as what came before. See you in the next season.
Quality so far – Medium (still)
Current Thoughts: I like the addition of Hulk the Reindeer to the team. It is also great to see the continued feel of adventure with the locations and cultures. Two giants stuck in an eternal battle – why not? An island covered in snow in the middle of the ocean? Let’s do it.
Never has the saying “better late than never” been more applicable to my anime viewing timeline. At over 900 episodes as of this writing, One Piece has reached proportions that seem impossible to tackle (read all about my recurring nightmare here, in One Piece and the Curse of the Backlog). However, I shall take this one episode at a time and finally conquer the seas! (Or until I no longer find it entertaining. Whichever comes first.)
For those of you marooned on an island in the South Pacific since 1999, One Piece follows the adventures of Luffy, a boy with ambitions of becoming king of the pirates and who has the power to stretch his body like Mr Fantastic. First, he needs a crew if he means to survive all that the ocean and other pirates have to throw at him. Much of this first season is travelling to various locations, where he meets and recruits crewmates. Among them, we have Zoro the three-sword pirate, Sanji the chef, Nami the cartographer, and Usopp the best pirate to have ever lived.
I had tried One Piece many years ago – a few times, in fact, but had given up within an episode or two. Revisiting it now hasn’t changed my mind on those opening few. They give a terrible first impression. What is with the shouting? Of the approximately 190 lines of dialogue in the first episodes, over 100 are shouted – that doesn’t even include the action/reaction yells and one-word screams. Some pink-haired kid yells just about every line he has! Yelling for dialogue is a trait of cartoons for little kids, as it holds their attention better. This coupled with Luffy’s laissez-faire attitude to the most dangerous situations (more on him later) makes One Piece feels so bloody juvenile. Is this for five-year-olds? Thankfully, this only holds true for the first few episodes. Once they reach the Usopp recruitment story (starts episode nine), the tone jumps up two age demographics.
I think back to the start of Naruto, which also had a weak few episodes. Who can forget the second episode where Naruto hangs out with that brat Konohamaru? However, Naruto was clever enough to include the scene when a teacher betrays him and shows him how life isn’t friendly or fair. This is a promise from the author that despite the juvenile tone of the early episodes, this isn’t a “happy go lucky” anime. One Piece needed that moment.
It’s obvious One Piece isn’t for small children with all the guns, alcohol, and smoking, which leads me into an aside about the original 4Kids dub, having gone down in infamy. I watched the new Funimation dub, which is unedited and matches the original Japanese, but I also looked into the 4Kids atrocity that removed blood, replaced all the guns with…something, swapped Sanji’s cigarette for a lollipop, skipped entire episodes, and cut the alcohol, amongst many other changes. This was their most censored import. Why bother bringing it over at all if they’re going to change everything, you ask? As I’ve discovered, the decision makers at 4Kids did not watch One Piece before acquiring the licence. It was a package deal with other anime, likely for a younger audience than One Piece. So when it came time to dub it, they realised it didn’t fit their target demographic and thus began the massacre. Funimation, thankfully, took over the project years later and undid all of the changes to release it remastered in HD.
This HD re-release was a fantastic idea. When I thought back to One Piece’s art style before this viewing, all I could remember was those giant mouths. I still hate them of course (they add to the screaming as well). However, outside of this pet peeve, One Piece’s art holds up well because of the textured environments and the character designs. Imagine if it had gone for the standard style of the day with those flat colours, two-tone shading/lighting, and shallow backgrounds. It wouldn’t have aged well at all! As for the character designs, I find some great examples here. I love the fish people from the octopus guy to the sawfish captain. The fat pirate queen in episode one and her look later in the season (plus her perfect skin power) has me laughing. Best design award has to go to Captain Smoker, a marine in pursuit of Luffy who smokes not one but two cigars at all times and has belts of cigars strapped across his massive biceps and chest. Bloody hilarious! More than having good individual designs, there is strong cohesion for such a large cast.
By contrast, I find audio to be One Piece’s weakest department. The original Japanese performances are a mixed bag, as is often the case in battle shounen, while the dub is quite good (the new one). The lack of great music so far most surprises me. I think back to how many iconic tracks Naruto already had by this point, though that is probably a genre exception. For many battle anime, the OPs are all people remember, sometimes just the songs created by the dub studio such as Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z.
As for story, I am mixed so far. It is better than my past impressions had led me to believe, there is no doubt here. This is very much a romanticised view of pirates and is rather tame, despite all of the “not safe 4Kids” content. Almost all story arcs so far have been about recruiting someone to Luffy’s crew and/or giving us their backstory. We have Zoro the edgelord with a sword in his mouth (I don’t like this design) who kept losing to a girl, Nami and the death of her mother at the hands of the fishmen she works for, Usopp the greatest pirate to have sailed the four seas and his tissue of lies, and so on. These are fine stories, some better (Nami) than others (Zoro). However, when I think of what Naruto and Bleach have accomplished by the 60-episode mark, they far outshine One Piece. Naruto has completed the Zabuza arc and is mid-chunin exam, while Bleach is at the climax of the Soul Society Arc. That said, anyone who has seen Bleach would tell you that one good arc doesn’t make for a great anime. One Piece has plenty more to show off, so I hope it delivers something great.
I don’t mean to say an anime such as this needs to turn dark right away as Naruto did. What I want is depth. Even if it’s just a few promises of what is to come. The biggest disappointment has to be Luffy. Battle protagonists are rarely the most interesting of the cast since they have little flexibility in demographic marketing, yet even by those standards, Luffy is a thumbs down from me at the moment. I hate how he doesn’t care about anything or how he laughs at every predicament. In a more serious setting, they would all be dead because of him. Not to keep drawing comparisons to Naruto, but when the orange ninja laughs and brushes off dangerous situations, there are consequences. Most of all, I hate how half of Luffy’s dialogue is yelling about how he’s going to be “king of the pirates”. We get it!
The action is quite good. Standard shounen content on the positive side of the scale. It doesn’t have the flashiness of Bleach or the strategy of Naruto or the brisk pacing in Yu Yu Hakusho. However, it doesn’t have any glaring problems either. One Piece hasn’t had the action drag for ages (Bleach, Naruto) or power reset (Bleach) or repeated some trope to death (there is always a bigger fish in Yu Yu Hakusho). I will want something more soon though or I’ll stop paying attention when a fight starts.
To end on a positive, I want to discuss One Piece’s greatest promise for the future of the series – the world. There is such variety and limitless possibilities for a world where you can sail to a new island, meet a new culture, a new species of person. It reminds me of a simpler classic Star Trek (one of my favourite franchises) and that is always a plus. I love the restaurant ship that roams the seas to feed one and all in a scrumptious experience. There are rules (“more what you’d call guidelines”) that vary by location. One gets a strong sense of character and personality at each destination. When the crew gets on that ship and hits the open blue, I want to see what island they will discover next. One Piece delivers a true feeling of adventure.
Quality so far – Medium
Current thoughts: The early episodes don’t give a good first impression, but once the longer story begins, One Piece stretches it’s creativity to give a good opening season with promises of so much more adventure. Luffy needs to grow up and do something. See you in the next season.