Tag Archives: Drama

The focus is on emotional conflict.

Bokurano – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Bokura no

 

Similar: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Fafner of the Blue Sky

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Psychological Drama Science Fiction

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Great opening song
  • Easy premise

Negatives:

  • Every male is evil
  • Every female is meek
  • The structure preceding each death lowers drama and mystery

(Request an anime for review here.)

Bokurano is an easy anime to sell with a premise such as this. A giant machine is the only thing that stands between the monsters and Earth. However, each use of the weapon requires a blood sacrifice. The life of a child. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? Alas, here we have a perfect example in the importance of character over premise.

These 15 children don’t have the qualities to make an audience care for their fates and ultimate demises. The boys – bar one – are evil, one of them even forcing himself on a girl. The first episode has one guy slap the life out of the smallest girl and no one does anything about it. “Stop it,” they say with as much energy as a sloth. He will do this again in future, many times. Are we to feel sorry that these kids will die? The girls are all meek, spineless. It takes attempted rape for one to fight back. These kids don’t make sense as friends. I don’t see the point of having 15 kids, other than to give more sacrifices for more episodes, when they are all so similar. For such a group, the logical direction would be to have a variety of personalities. Go for the sentai archetypes. That might come across as generic, but killing them off one at a time is different.

Fewer characters would also help, as it gives more time for development. The structure of Bokurano is to dedicate a couple of episodes leading up to someone’s sacrifice. We see their entire sob story in this time to make us care for the death. This structure has three problems. This first issue is that it lowers the drama and mystery when you already know who will die. The second is that two episodes isn’t enough to kill off what essentially becomes the protagonist for that short time. Two episodes is what you dedicate to the old lady in the village that helped our adventuring party before the villain kills her for information on their whereabouts. The writing also needs a more subtle hand at characterisation. And lastly, most kids disappear from the story until it nears their time to die.

I have the impression that the author had the wrong approach in thinking about this story. Instead of planning for, “Alright, I need to kill someone every second episode or so, because that’s the premise,” one should think of it free from the premise for a second (and cut down the character count). Let’s say you had a party of seven friends and your story idea was to see what it would be like to kill each off one at a time (no special mechanic to kill them), rather than the usual story of everyone surviving to the end with the power of BFF friendship. How would you plot that? Would you kill them off at equal intervals or keep the audience on their toes about who will die and when? Bokurano uses the former method.

It’s hard to describe the boredom in the face of imminent death when a story tells you everything that is yet to pass. Add in the not-so-subtle yet flat characters and I am on cruise control from start to finish. And what’s with all the rapists?

Bokurano isn’t a bad anime. This is a case where every element except for the music (love the OP song) has an obvious flaw weighing it down. Confining everything within this predictable structure just to fit the initial idea of the premise means Bokurano can never be more than average.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of Evangelion-like anime. You have to be in it for the premise, as the execution isn’t up to scratch.

(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

Kasane – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Kasane

 

Genre: Psychological Drama

Length: 126 chapters (14 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • An actually ugly protagonist
  • Compelling page-turner
  • Makes good use of the art of acting
  • Psychologically harrowing

Negatives:

  • Scarce with the subplots

This is why I like to browse manga by random. Sure, I read a lot of crap, but it’s worth it for when I discover a gem that I’ve never heard of before. I love receiving great recommendations. However, there is a different sort of excitement when you realise an art piece is great as you are consuming it. With Kasane by Daruma Matsuura, the cover of the first volume caught my eye for how weird one of the women looked. I considered it was bad art, yet the other woman looked normal. Then I read the blurb and added it to the list.

Kasane is about an ugly girl who loves to act in theatre. When I say ugly, I don’t mean ugly in the film world sense, where a shower, a comb of the hair, and a little make up could turn a girl into a knockout. Kasane is the sort of ugly that no makeover can fix. Her skull misshapen, her mouth too broad and uneven, and her eyes oversized and in the wrong place, Kasane scares people with her appearance. This ugliness is at the heart of what shapes her character and if she could simply powder it away, this story wouldn’t work (more on that later). The first hint that I was in for a great manga was seeing the author’s commitment to the ugliness. How condescending is it when Hollywood tries to pass a gorgeous actress as “the ugly one”?

Kasane is the daughter of a celebrated late actress for both her acting talent and beauty. Her mother left behind a tube of lipstick with instructions that she should apply it and kiss that which she desires. Should Kasane wear the lipstick and kiss another person, they will swap faces and voices for some hours. After a few tastes of what it is to be beautiful, Kasane meets stage actress Nina, a woman with little talent, a lot of pressure to succeed, and stunning beauty (no one gave her the part because she could act). She also suffers from Sleeping Beauty syndrome (can randomly sleep for months on end). So, she makes a deal with Kasane.

“Swap with me when I need to perform and you will live out your dream of a being beautiful actress. In exchange, I get the credit.”

This seems a match made in heaven. However, pretence can never match the real thing, and both women simmer with dark thoughts about the other, especially where it concerns a man they love. The face swap doesn’t require both people to be awake either.

The destructive dependence between these two makes for gripping drama.

The story spirals and the drama rises. I couldn’t stop turning the pages well into the AMs. Kasane starts strong with a brilliant premise that I thought could last a few volumes, so I grew concerned when I saw that it was in fact 14 volumes. You know me, I hate padding and stories that drag. Just when Kasane seems to have run its course, the author adds another layer, and then another. Her mother’s past comes to the fore. Twisted actions perpetuate more twisted behaviour, continuing the cycle of pain, desperation, and loneliness. Other characters become embroiled in this twisted secret and I had to force myself to stop each night.

The best writing has to be Kasane herself. She is both villain and tragic heroine of this tale. I feel both sorry for her and disgusted by her actions. Matsuura presents this deep character with a complex psychology and leaves it to us to agree or disagree with her.

The one area for improvement is in subplots. Kasane’s subplots bar one are quite bare. More subplots wouldn’t have gone amiss either, such as involving law enforcement and the wider world of acting. The story is a little too insular. That said, the main thread is excellent.

One other positive I want to touch on is the use of acting to reinforce the theme of one’s outward appearance contrasted with the inner self. The story wouldn’t have worked near as well to the theme if this centred on something other than acting. They could have had much the same story with an office job, but then you weaken the theme. Matsuura certainly knows a thing a two about acting, incorporating it neatly into Kasane’s plight (whenever an anime/manga involves acting, I fear another Glass Mask).

In the afterword of later volumes, there is mention of a Japanese film adaptation, so once done reading the series, I gave it a gander with one question in mind, “How will they pull off Kasane herself?” The film builds up to the face reveal (Kasane has lank black hair over her face all the time like in the manga) and I nearly died of disappointment. They went full “movie ugly”. The actress has pretty eyes, a perfect jawline, delicate cheekbones, and sculpted lips. A Joker-like scar from the corner of her mouth and up her cheek is all the ugliness she possesses. How are we to believe that Kasane could have such mental damage over her appearance (remember, she repulses everyone) when a bit of theatre makeup could cover a single scar? It undermines the essence that makes this a story. They should have hired the makeup artist from The Elephant Man. An anime adaptation with exaggerated art – preferably directed by Masaaki Yuasa – could do Kasane justice.

Art – High

Story – High

Recommendation: Read it. This tragic page-turner of a psychological drama is a hidden gem I recommend to all (except children).

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

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

Laughing Salesman

Japanese Title: Warau Salesman

Genre: Comedy Drama

Length: 103 episodes (half-length)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Quality – Medium

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

*     *     *     *     *

Hayate the Combat Butler

Japanese Title: Hayate no Gotoku!

Genre: Action Comedy

Length: 52 episodes

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Quality – Medium

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

*     *     *     *     *

Nichijou – My Ordinary Life

Japanese Title: Nichijou

Genre: Comedy Slice of Life

Length: 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Quality – Low

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

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

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

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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.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None