Tag Archives: Drama

The focus is on emotional conflict.

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.

Major – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Major

 

Related: Major 2nd (next generation series)

Similar: Cross Game

Ace of Diamond

Big Windup

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Drama Romance Sports

Length: 154 episodes (6 seasons) & 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Excellent baseball
  • Complex protagonist with a full career arc
  • Great life lessons
  • Breaks clichés

Negatives:

  • Each season has production values five years out of date
  • Season 3, ahem, fumbles the ball

(Request an anime for review here.)

In general, there are three types of sports anime. The first, and most common, is the “shounen” sports anime almost always set in high school and covers those last three years of youth (some will limit themselves to the final year to heighten the stakes with one last chance at the championship before adulthood kills). Most of the popular sports titles fall under this type, featuring the likes of Haikyu, Ace of Diamond, and Slam Dunk, and is the easiest to write but must have engaging matches to retain viewers. Second is the “drama” sports anime, where the focus is on characters and personal conflict with the sport as a backdrop. In fact, the choice of sport is interchangeable. March Comes in Like a Lion (need to review season 2) and Ping Pong the Animation are exemplars of the genre. Lastly, we have the “career” sports anime, which as the name suggests tracks the protagonist’s rise from a nobody into a star of the professional scene. This type has a balance between drama and sport. We will be looking at the third option today with the six seasons of Major.

We start this career journey in pre-school following Goro Honda, son of professional Japanese baseball player Shigeharu Honda. With his mother dead from a sudden illness a few years ago, Goro only has his father left and adores him. He idolises him as a father and a player. Just as the family is set to expand with the engagement between Shigeharu and Momoko, Goro’s pre-school teacher, his father takes a fastball to the head from American transfer, Joe Gibson. All seems fine at first, but brain injuries don’t play fair. Goro loses his second parent. His almost stepmother and ex-pre-school teacher takes him in.

Here’s the thing about Goro. He’s good at baseball. Excellent. He has baseball in his veins. Major will take us from casual games to little league to high school and onto major leagues. Rejection, failure, fear, and injury are but a few of the things he will experience along the way. There is good too – triumph, pride, satisfaction, love. When people describe Major as a career anime, they don’t exaggerate.

The brilliance of Major isn’t solely in the breadth of its story. None of this would matter if not for the execution that grips from first episode to last. The first season alone of Major is better than anything you will find in Ace of Diamond, Cross Game, or Big Windup. I don’t know which element to elaborate on first. There’s so much to talk about! I went into these four anime with no expectations and ended up with the full gamut of baseball anime.

Looking at my notes, the first point I made sure to record (other than story events) was the relationship between father and son – how real it felt, full of turmoil and love. The author understood the struggles of a working single father and the frustrations of a lonely child. The father dies early on yet is a complete character is so short a time. There’s drama without being melodramatic. Kid Goro acts like a real kid as well. When his dad thanks him in a post-match interview, Goro says to Momoko, “Hey, that’s me! He’s talking about me!” as all kids do before they learn of basic context. I love the dad advice too about never admitting that pee splashed on your pants. “Always claim it’s water from your hands.”

Then we have the teacher turned mother. She was a mother figure to him before she dated the father. She plays catch and takes him to the games to watch Dad live. So wholesome. Within a few episodes, we already have meaningful, well-developed relationships. Such a good start raises high expectations for characters in the rest of the series. It delivers.

In Cross Game, I talked of how predictable it was. Major is the opposite. From the characters to the baseball, this anime isn’t predictable. It doesn’t invert everything, of course (that would make it predictable, ironically). The subplot of Joe Gibson, the man responsible for killing Goro’s father, and Joe’s son is excellent. It occurs in later seasons, so I can’t talk about it much, but it combines family drama with high expectations to create the tensest baseball. Gah! It’s so good.

The writers use this great technique to keep the audience on their toes about who would win. You know the build up to a big moment in sports anime – the last second slam dunk, the mad dive to block a shot, the winning homerun? Usually, this tells you what is about to happen and who will win. Major mixes it up by giving both teams that inspirational build up. Both teams “deserve” to win after such emotional hype.

We can’t talk about excellent characters without mentioning the main kid himself, Goro. On the surface, Goro is the typical arrogant sports protagonist, which normally indicates the first of many problems (see Ace of Diamond). Goro is the arrogant ace, yes, but they don’t let him get away with bad behaviour. When his arrogance interferes with the game or affects others, people call him out and it shows how much he has to learn. Natural talent isn’t anywhere near enough. In one game with a bunch of kids, he tries to do everything and yells at his teammates for doing it wrong. He believes he’s untouchable. There’s a harsh lesson waiting for him. Baseball is a team sport and even the best player needs support. At the same time, it doesn’t go soft and say friendship will win everything.

That’s just the beginning. Major deftly evolves the character conflict at each stage of life. We aren’t dealing with the same issues in the Majors than from his time as a kid. The power curve across the six seasons is fantastic. He’s so much better than everyone else is on the first team, but as he works his way up to the Majors, the skill gap closes and competition becomes more intense. The importance of the team grows ever stronger. This constant evolution keeps games engaging. There isn’t a single boring match. Starting with Goro’s father in the professional games was a good idea, as it indicates where we are headed with the kid. It’s like the Metroid games that give you one level of Samus with a full arsenal before you lose most gear. You know what you’re in for.

One aspect that surprised me here is the changing cast each season. In your standard anime, when they introduce a team, we stick with that team to the finish. There might be an addition or subtraction here and there, though it’s in effect the same team. Season 1’s team of little guys receive full attention and development. Convention dictates that they will be staples. Nope, season 2 brings on a completely new team. His closest friend of the time soon realises that he isn’t good enough to stay in the same league as Goro. It does make sense – wouldn’t be realistic if everyone could reach the Majors. It shakes things up each season without losing progress on Goro.

The baseball industry outside of games is also far above the competition. It places a huge emphasis on player injury, from the dangers of permanent damage should you start a child too early in life to career ending injuries that crush dreams. Psychological blocks also enter the field to demonstrate how important mental state is to star athletes. Injuries, I’ve noticed, are the most neglected aspect of sports anime, which is surprising when one considers how impactful they are to real sport and all the opportunities for drama they bring.

Even training arcs are good. The writer understands that this is a good time to build characters, not repeat the same exercises a thousand times.

Other baseball areas Major explores include scholarships, scouting, trading players, tryouts, language barriers, the different tiers of teams, and so much more. This is a comprehensive dive into baseball. If you know nothing about baseball, fear not, this is the perfect anime to learn from. Prior to this baseball quartet, I had only watched a few baseball games in my life from various hotel rooms while on holiday (when you don’t speak the language in some countries, sport is all that makes sense).

I’ve heaped much praise on Major, so what’s wrong with it? Most notably? The art. If anything is keeping more people away from Major, it has to be the art. The first season released in 2004, yet wouldn’t have looked good for 1999. The final season was in 2010 – looks like it time travelled from 2004. I do like the character designs. No monkey ears is a plus. Another negative of Major is season 3, where the high school situation and team leans a little towards the unrealistic. It’s good in the end, though there was no need to go that underdog. Season 3 is certainly the weakest. All up from there, however.

If you’re looking for that “capital A” Anime type baseball and you’re concerned Major will be a bit too serious, then you have nothing to worry about. This still has the classic shounen tropes of hot heads, sideline commentary, overconfidence, etc. They simply have balance.

In a contest against the other baseball anime, Major is the instant winner. It was better than the others before Goro even played his first game.

Art – Low

Why did this have to be the worst looking of the baseball anime? At least they assigned more of the budget to pitches and hits.

Sound – High

Thank heavens they changed actors as Goro aged, unlike too many other sports anime. Great acting for the Japanese characters, though it’s a real shame they went full Engrish with the Americans, which is odd since they used real Americans for minor roles. Nothing breaks immersion more than hearing a hard ass American – with not a word of Japanese in him – speak English like a Japanese actor after one lesson.

Story – Very High

From fanatic as an infant to little league and onto the Majors, we follow one guy’s baseball journey. Major has everything you want from a baseball story – characters to cheer for, others to hate, consequential drama, a bit of romance, and excellent baseball games.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch for sports fans. Don’t let the poor art deter you from watching what might be the best sports anime.

(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:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

Cross Game – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Cross Game

 

Similar: Major

Ace of Diamond

Big Windup

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Drama Romance Sports

Length: 50 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Scoundrel protagonist
  • Adorable main couple
  • More heart and story outside of the baseball

Negatives:

  • Monkey ears
  • Not much baseball for a baseball anime

(Request an anime for review here.)

Cross Game is a story about two families connected by business, baseball, and tragedy. Ko is son to the owner of the local sports shop and Wakaba is daughter to the owner of the batting centre. These two are as close as kittens wrapped in the same blanket. They even share a birthday. An accident sadly takes Wakaba from this world, shattering the lives of both families and many more in the tightknit community. Wakaba’s younger sister, Aoba, who was always jealous of the close bond between those two, starts to befriend him in later years as he looks to honour his friend’s memory.

Cross Game’s first impression is that of an anime for kids with those character designs and bright colours, but with the death of Wakaba in the first episode, it tells viewers that it’s being serious for a kids’ anime. I appreciate that it doesn’t talk down to the audience. It handles death with an honest reality. From there, Ko has to move on and grow up.

Characters are one of Cross Game’s strengths. I love how Ko is such a scoundrel. At one point, he pretends to be interested in forming a baseball team at his school, which he succeeds with, but it was all a ploy to have the team buy equipment from his family’s store. Then he bails on the team. However, when confronted by bullies, he has to divert and hide in the team again for protection. Awful at the game though. He’s a good character. I like the relationship between him and Aoba, keeping each other in check and making for believable kids.

The general plot jumps back and forth between the high school and childhood years. Emphasis here is more on the characters rather than the baseball, opposite to the likes of Ace of Diamond. Matches don’t drag into dozen-episode epics. So if you’re here for the baseball, Cross Game isn’t the best choice. Not bad baseball, by any means, just not much of it.

One notable flaw of Cross Game for an older audience is its predictability – not in a “the butler did it” sense, but if you ask, “What’s the most obvious thing to happen next?” you will answer correctly nine times out of ten.

This is a simple anime, good for those that want something with drama, but whoa, not too much. Some baseball as well – easy there, not too much. Perhaps this game plan of playing it so safe prevented it from reaching greater heights.

Art – Medium

The style suits the younger slant of Cross Game and it’s a unique look. However! Those monkey ears. On everyone. God damn. I don’t blame the anime artists. I blame the manga artist, who – I’d wager – didn’t know how to draw ears, let alone differentiate them in profile and portrait.

Sound – Medium

Acting is good (except from the cat, but bad animal acting in Japanese is never a surprise) and the music is that fun kids’ fare.

Story – Medium

A kid swears to become an excellent baseball player to honour his lost childhood friend. Cross Game is for kids and as such hasn’t the most complex story, but it is solid without glaring faults.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For kids. To adults, Cross Game and its predictability may not have much appeal unless you can relate on a personal level. You must tolerate monkey ears.

(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

Bang Dream / IDOLiSH7 / White Album 2 – Quick Review

Bang Dream!

Japanese Title: Bang Dream!

Genre: Music

Length: 13 episodes

I touched on the notion of creating anime to sell idol singers in Fancy Lala. As with all good ideas, someone will boil it down the laziest corporate product. Enter Bang Dream.

The story centres on Kasumi and her goal to start a band in high school. Her journey will require making friends, learning music, and putting on a show.

Bang Dream encapsulates everything that keeps me away from music anime. The predictability of the cast of characters coupled with the barely-there conflict and music indistinguishable from your average J-pop band has no appeal to me. This story and its characters is as paint-by-numbers as you can imagine. Kasumi is so “genki” to forbid you from disliking her an iota. The cat ears hair is the least sickly sweet thing about her. No one in this series has any real problems, for conflict may alienate a potential customer from buying the CDs, figures, and games. The voice actors also perform in live concerts.

The intent of Bang Dream is clearly to sell merchandise. This is a 13-episode ad. And there are more seasons.

Watching Kasumi is exhausting with her impossibly upbeat personality and squeaky lines about wanting to become a pop star. The marketing department is so desperate to have you fall in love with her that they make her brainless. She has this “Disney eyed” moment when she discovers that strumming a guitar produces sound. Furthermore, she goes from mind blown that guitars make music to smash hit professional concert in the span of a year? I mean, of course she does. The figurines and miniskirts (the camera is obsessed with the swish of skirts) are pouring out of factories by the hour. Can’t allow something as trivial as plotting and development to get in the way of merchandise.

I can imagine that if you like the music, then none of this bothers you. Fans probably know this is an ad – they just like seeing the characters on screen and realised through animation. I don’t fit in that group, so this is far from what I’m after.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: For fans of the band only.

*     *     *     *     *

IDOLiSH7

Japanese Title: IDOLiSH7

Genre: Music

Length: 17 episodes

Similar to Bang Dream, the purpose of Idolish7 is to sell music and the rhythm game from whence it came. The game was first with a manga series commissioned shortly after, followed by more manga, another game, and the anime a few years later, which will be our subject today.

At first impression, Idolish7 seems to be like Bang Dream, a soulless corporate product to flog more merch across the waiting palms of fan girls. Early episodes introduce us to the seven guys of the group and their new young manager, Tsumugi, on her first managerial assignment. The first point of conflict is that four of them must go. This is an audition for a three-man group, like that of their rival company. However, Tsumugi convinces the president of the agency (and her father) that the group works best as a seven-man unit because of the power of friendship, teamwork, and all that jazz pop. With this resolved, I assume that’s as complex a plot that we are going to get. A concert for a theatre of thousands is on the cards.

To my surprise, their first concert is a commercial failure. You can count the members of the audience on two hands. Alright, no instant success. That’s good. Tsumugi’s optimism and go-getter personality is also a plus (she would become my favourite character – great design too).

Unlike Bang Dream dealing with amateurs, these guys are already professional – they can sing and dance, no problem – so the writer can’t rely on the usual plot of learning the skill with the goal of winning in the final showdown. Instead, focus shifts to the challenges of the idol industry and its crushing competitiveness. These are handsome guys (the anime makes no secret of it) with several talents. It should be a breeze. But in the idol industry, nothing is good enough.

These guys have to start by handing out flyers, hand selling music, and just hitting the streets to entice potential fans. We learn about the guys a little, each one coded by hair colour, of course. The series is quite decent.

Then around the halfway point, the story ups the tempo. We have drama – both internal from the pressure to succeed and external from rival group Trigger – meltdowns, dark pasts, and even plagiarism. The cylinders are firing! It’s no Beck, but it’s a ton better than Bang Dream. The plagiarism plot is solid.

In case you’re wondering, the group Trigger had no association with Studio Trigger. That was until Studio Trigger made a music video for Trigger in collaboration with Bandai Namco. I wonder if that was the writer’s intention all along. Hmm…excuse me while I name a character Maaya Sakamoto in my very real anime.

If only Studio Trigger animated the whole series. And here we come to the negatives, of which there are two notable ones. The first is the inconsistent visual quality. We have unrefined edges, such as the crowds repeating one stiff motion during performances, and some truly lousy CG animation for the guys when they dance. I can’t decide which is worse: the constant flipping between 2D (close ups) and CG (sweeping long shots) or the fact that they don’t look like the same people. The character models aren’t of the highest quality. The rigging is certainly not up to par. When they raise their arms in the air, as they often do for a routine, one can’t help but notice the lack of armpits. It’s a smooth pack of flesh from pectoral to lateral muscle. So distracting.

The other issue is the oversized cast. This first season is 17 episodes, yet has introduced the cast of a 52-episode anime. Seven guys for Idolish7, three for Trigger, other idol groups, their managers, production staff, key fans, and more populate this world. It’s too much. This is an unfortunate side effect of the source material, where I’m sure the longer game works better with the larger cast. If I were to edit this, as an original anime, I would cut the main group to four members. Some of these guys become lost in the crowd and could do with merging personalities. Why four? One of Trigger’s three members is brother to one from Idolish7. I would create a point of conflict centred on the Idolish7 brother’s insecurity in the shadow of his brother. Are the other three carrying him? If Trigger only has three, then is he of any use as the “fourth wheel” on Idolish4? The growth would come from the realisation that they can do more as four, which Trigger can’t compete with.

Anyways, the cast is too big. I don’t remember much about most of these characters, though to a fan of the franchise, it’s probably common to know everything about them, right down to their shoe size.

If I were a fan of the game or other material, I would be happy with this. I’d want more, of course, as most fans do, but this wouldn’t give me the impression that the company is just taking advantage of me to swipe a quick buck.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For J-pop fans. Even if you aren’t a fan of the group, there is enough of a story and plot here to interest the J-pop crowd in general.

*     *     *     *     *

White Album 2

Japanese Title: White Album 2

Genre: Drama Music Romance

Length: 13 episodes

Now for a different type of music anime, we have the music drama, where music is the centrepiece but drama is the story. In White Album 2, we follow Kitahara on his mission to revive the ailing music club ahead of the school festival. He hears an angelic voice coming from the school roof, finding it belongs to the kind Setsuna. Along with her and the aloof Touma, a piano prodigy that keeps everyone at room’s length, the trio works hard to put on a good show at the festival. Along the way, Kitahara needs to learn that it takes dedication and hard work – something Touma has no shortage of – to master the language of music, while he will teach Touma that it’s worth having friends, that it’s worth letting people in. Setsuna will also need to emerge from her shell and show her true self as more than just the popular girl outlined by everyone in school.

On a surface level, the story is about practicing music and going about the anime school life. However, underlying these fun youthful months is a brewing love triangle of melodrama. By being the one to crack their emotional armours, Kitahara draws the attention and feelings of both girls and neither is sure what the other wants him too or if he likes them, for that matter.

Quick aside. This isn’t a sequel despite the 2 in the title. It’s merely set in the same world as White Album and covers some of its songs. To confuse matters further, should you be interested in the source material, White Album 2 is its own trilogy of visual novels (if the character designs didn’t it away). No, there is no reference to The Beatles’ White Album, which is surprising (let me know, should this not be the case).

Music is only a focus of White Album for the first half of the series until the big performance at the school festival, marking the midpoint rather than the finale, as one would expect. A definite coupling occurs as well around this time, which I didn’t expect either. In a scenario like this this, especially one adapted from a multi-choice visual novel, you predict it to leave things vague as to not upset anyone in the “waifu wars” or to make the “one true pairing” clear from the start to commit to in act three. So when there’s a commitment halfway, my drama sensors tingle and ask, “How is this all going to go wrong?” The protagonist does look similar to the guy from School Days

White Album proceeds down an interesting road by rewinding time and showing us the perspective of the “other girl”, as if this were a visual novel with two equally valid romantic candidates. Quite often in romance VNs, once the player commits to the one love interest, the rest of the prospects suddenly act as though there was never anything between the MC and them. The story pretends that the choice made by the player was the plan all along. There was never any doubt of this coupling. So it’s interesting to see this second perspective and it extracts sorrow for the other girl. Her emotions tug at my heartstrings.

It’s a shame they choked on the final verse. After all this building, all this emotional turmoil, all this drama, the best this story can deliver is an unsatisfactory ending without commitment to one direction and it makes all three characters look like bad people. Flawed characters are good, mistakes are good, but you need to nail that high note if you want to audience to walk away a worthwhile impression. I know the story continues in the next visual novel, yet this would still be a bad ending to the first book of a trilogy.

It wasn’t half-bad until then.

Do I recommend it? The music is nice and most to my taste of the three anime featured here. The drama, however, is heavy on the melodrama side of the scale and thus is likely to depress or tire those not into all the crying, dramatic hugs, and Dutch angles.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For melodrama fans only.

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

 

p.s. These “Quick Reviews” are becoming far from quick.

Fancy Lala – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mahou no Stage Fancy Lala

 

Related: Fashion Lala: The Story of the Harbor Light (spin-off)

Similar: Magical Angel Creamy Mami

Searching for the Full Moon

Kodocha

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Comedy Drama Music

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Holds up well
  • Good lessons for little girls
  • Music is good in both English and Japanese
  • Doesn’t fall into formulaic magical girl episodes

Negatives:

  • Not cautious enough about a lone girl in the entertainment business

(Request an anime for review here.)

You probably haven’t heard of Fancy Lala – I hadn’t until this came in as a review request – and for good reason. If I gave you these two pieces of information, what does that tell you: “magical girl anime” and “1998”? Yes, it matches Fancy Lala, but also matches a titan of the genre, Cardcaptor Sakura. They didn’t just release in the same year. They came out in the same week. And Cardcaptor Sakura eclipsed the anime we will be looking at today.

Fancy Lala is about a third-grade girl with an imagination larger than life. Miho has a chance meeting with two little fairies (more like dragons) who give her a magical pen and notebook. Anything she draws in the notebook becomes real. Furthermore, the pen can transform her into the blue-haired teen Lala from her sketches. It isn’t long before an agent discovers her, convincing Lala to become a model and singer. Thus, Fancy Lala is born.

The first thing that strikes me about Miho is what she considers “cool”. Get this, right, she has the power to create any clothes she wants. Anything. So what does she draw? A transparent raincoat. Except it’s not even a raincoat. It’s a plastic wrap. Then we have her stage name, Fancy Lala, of all names. And I love it. I love how nonsensical her imagination is. This is what a nine-year-old would come up with. The brilliance of Miho is that she feels and thinks like a little girl, not what an adult says a little girl is like. I remember this one kid from primary school who said that if he were a billionaire, he would have a McDonalds at his house so he could eat there every day. That was the grandest thing he could think of. Miho captures that child mentality.

There isn’t as much fanfare as you would expect when she discovers the power. She’s rather casual about it, though I suppose transformation magic isn’t far out of the ordinary for a kid full of imagination.

The episode to episode story reminds very much of Clark Kent/Superman from the Lois & Clark TV series, except with modelling and school drama instead of dastardly villains. Lala has a photo shoot today, but oh no, Miho has to do something with her school friends at the same time! There’s plenty of transforming back and forth, Miho pretending to have arrived just as Lala left, and all that fun secret identity stuff. She notices how differently people treat Lala from Miho. The story strikes a good balance between real Miho plot and the Lala work plot. While she’s trying to make it as a model and then as a singer, she also has school events, family conundrums, and personal issues.

The one real gripe I have against Fancy Lala is how it handles the entertainment industry. Now, I know this a cartoon for little girls and not Perfect Blue; however, no one questions why a teenager never has her parents with her at any photo shoot, film set, or performance. You don’t want to teach kids to go into entertainment alone. The closest thing we have is an agent that tries to force her to work for him, from whom she flees, but then the woman she does join is also a stranger. She could be a trafficker for all Lala knows.

Apart from that, this anime has many great lessons to teach young girls. It explores the power of imagination, but tempers it with reality, talks about divorce, emphasises the importance of hard work and becoming someone people rely on, to name a few. When I first started Fancy Lala, it reminded me of Searching for the Full Moon, a similar anime I had seen long ago (in that, a girl with cancer can transform into a teen singer). Turns out it was inspired by Fancy Lala. This reminiscence was not a positive, for Full Moon was atrocious and taught some horrible life lessons. I expected to have much the same here – wish away your troubles, hard work doesn’t matter, and all that idiocy. Thankfully, Fancy Lala proved me wrong before long.

As a brief side note, Fancy Lala itself took from another series, as is the case with all art, called Creamy Mami, the anime that invented the idea of using an anime to promote idol singers. Fancy Lala’s twist was adding an actual story and drama.

Is it fair that Cardcaptor Sakura pushed this anime into obscurity? No, not in the slightest. Fancy Lala is the better anime. I like Cardcaptors well enough, but this not only avoids a formulaic structure each episode, the characters have more depth and the life lessons are far stronger. Fancy Lala has an ending I would not expect of the magical girl genre. It is a poignant end that leaves the audience with the best message of the series, while instilling inspiration and joy.

Art – Medium

The art is notably aged, but it holds up well and cel animation always has that textured beauty to it.

Sound – Medium

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn – considering the genre – that a first timer, an idol with a short-lived career after the series, voices Miho/Lala. Her acting is alright, better than one would expect. She’s here for the singing talent. The OP screams ‘90s magical anime. The dub actress is similar, whereby her musical ability is stronger than her acting. She’s fine in that regard as well. They did a good job translating the songs.

Story – High

A little girl finds a magic pen that transforms her into a teenager, soon becoming a model and singer. Packed with good lessons, escapist fun, and some nice music, Fancy Lala is a strong offering from the magical girl genre.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: For young girls. I like Fancy Lala. Do I recommend it? Not quite. Not unless it’s to a child or an adult who has fond memories of being the sort of child who would have loved this anime, ready for a comfort trip back in time.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None