Tag Archives: Fantasy

Basically, Lord of the Rings, though it can also be in a modern setting.

Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Yuu Yuu Hakusho

 

Similar: Bleach

Hunter x Hunter

InuYasha

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Comedy Fantasy

Length: 112 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Fun, likeable characters
  • Good pace for a battle anime
  • Surprisingly strong dub considering age
  • Foreground artwork holds up…

Negatives:

  • …most background artwork doesn’t
  • Overuse of several battle tropes

(Request an anime for review here.)

There are many classic battle anime from the hand drawn age, few of them any good. I thought I would look at one – just one – in full to get a feel for the classic era outside of Dragon Ball Z. Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files comes the highest recommended so let’s go with that. And at a mere 112 episodes, it can’t be that hard to suffer through if the worst comes to the worst.

However, to my delight, one of Yu Yu Hakusho’s strengths is a good pace. You don’t feel its length across the four arcs as no fight drags beyond a few episodes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Yu Yu Hakusho is about a 14-year-old delinquent who dies one day saving a boy from being hit by a car, which goes against his nature. The kid baby in charge of spirit realm admin gives Yusuke a chance at revival if he can complete several tasks to prove himself as a Spirit Detective. Under the guidance of Shinigami Botan, he races against the clock to keep his spirit alive and his dead body intact. The story starts off, as most shounen do, with a series of smaller stories before it dives into longer arcs with bigger action.

Something I immediately like about Yu Yu Hakusho are these smaller stories. It avoids the tedious “monster of the week” structure found in the likes of Bleach, instead foregoing action in favour of a character focus. Early episodes are about Yusuke’s soon-to-be friendship with Kuwabara, another delinquent always hungering for a fight, who can’t handle that his rival is dead. He’s my favourite character, voiced brilliantly in the dub by Christopher Sabat (you wouldn’t know he voices Vegeta when you hear him here). Great dub, by the way. Kuwabara is such a meathead but you love him more for it.

These early episodes are the best of the show, for me. Perhaps I have seen too much shounen action – this action is good, mind you, and we’ll get there – but I like the character and humour focus of the first season, where Yusuke goes on mini capers taking care of incidents around town. The demon world is also a rather unimaginative setting (think a wasteland like any other). As such, later seasons aren’t as engaging. I suspect, however, I am in the minority for this opinion.

Yusuke also enlists the help of, begrudgingly at first, two demons when it comes to fighting the stronger denizens of the other realm. Kurama the fox spirit and manipulator of plants acts as the brains of the operation, while Hiei the fire demon born to a tribe of ice demons brings pint sized firepower. Get used to the idea of enemies becoming friends, for this writer loves the trope. As a set, the team make for a good balance of characters that don’t feel like usual archetype slots of a shounen cast.

Now to the action. Yu Yu Hakusho defies expectations of shounen action. Fights don’t last a dozen episodes – most are over in one. It knows when a fight is insignificant in the grand scheme and doesn’t drag it out. If this were Bleach or DBZ, every minor squabble would take 10 episodes at least. Here, the fight lasts long enough to have meaning and for the combatants to entertain, but then it moves on. It also mixes things up in who wins or loses. Only major fights take a few episodes, usually as the big finale for the season, and there aren’t many of these. Yes, one could tighten a few encounters, though not a major issue.

Villain designs, while dated, are entertaining at times. This anime has the most hilarious muscled villains. Muscles on top of muscles. It’s like a parody – “Oh yeah, you reckon going Super Saiyan was ridiculous? Check this out!” Straight out of botched surgeries.

Furthermore, Yu Yu Hakusho skips over training arcs. It shows a little to give the audience an idea of what Yusuke’s up to before the narrator says, “In this way, two months of training passed.” More anime should do this. The one notable training arc it doesn’t skip over in a later season has other threads woven through to avoid hitting a dead stop (rasengan training in Naruto still haunts me).

There has been a fair amount of praise from me so far, so let me temper this with criticisms, all of which revolve around the action. I despise the trope of enemies explaining how their ability work to the hero for the sake of the audience. This makes them stupid and I hate stupid. One opponent even tells of his technique before the fight. You can perhaps get away with a single enemy cocky enough to do this, not the majority, as seen here. Then we have the constant commentary from the sidelines that the hero can’t possibly win…right before they win. Lastly, it also overuses the trope of:

“You may have beaten my teammate, but he was weaker than me.”

“You may have beaten those two, but I am stronger.”

“I may be the last of my team, but the other guys were nothing compared to me.”

This happens with just about every enemy team, particularly in season 2, which is a tournament arc. These tropes are fine in moderation. Yu Yu Hakusho likes to wolf them down like a kid at the desert buffet going back for fifths. This repetition hurts the series the most and contributes to times when the pace feels off. And once you notice the pattern emerge, what’s to stop you from skipping a few episodes when you’ve seen this already?

Even so, Yu Yu Hakusho is an overall success. This isn’t the battle shounen to change your mind on the genre. It’s still for that core demographic. However, if you are part of that core and are tired of modern series going on forever, look no further than Yu Yu Hakusho with its complete story at a mere 112 episodes.

Art – Medium

The art is a mixed bag. We have moments of great animation (usually the battles) and some quality backgrounds. We also have sliding animation, bland backgrounds, and streaks. Done by hand with texture is a plus.

Sound – High

With a surprisingly good dub for such an old anime, you can go with either track here. The opening song, which stays throughout the series, doesn’t seem to fit a battle anime, but it grows on you.

Story – High

A delinquent and his unlikely allies have to deal with all manner of supernatural entities on the streets and in the arena. Fun characters, good pacing, and solid action make Yu Yu Hakusho a ride to the finish.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: For classic shounen fans. Yu Yu Hakusho won’t convince those averse to battle anime to change their minds, but it is a good classic of the genre and doesn’t drag for 100s of episodes.

(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

Snow White with the Red Hair – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Akagami no Shirayuki-hime

 

Similar: Yona of the Dawn

The Story of Saiunkoku

The Ancient Magus’ Bride

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Drama Fantasy Romance

Length: 24 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful colours
  • Protagonist has purpose and agency
  • World feels cosy and lived in

Negatives:

  • Not enough intensity
  • Needs more romantic conflict

(Request an anime for review here.)

Of the shoujo story types, I tend to like the “ordinary girl draws the attention of an important guy (or the reverse)” type the most, especially in a fantasy setting. I like how it gives a clear coupling to the romance. I never hide my dislike for harems (inc. reverse harems) due to the lack of direction in relationship developments – doesn’t help that the characters are often atrocious. By giving me an indication of where the story intends to go, I don’t feel like I am wasting my time before things even begin. The fantasy setting is an added bonus, as it requires more effort in world building.

Snow White with the Red Hair follows a young herbalist in training called Shirayuki with shockingly red hair that draws much attention, including the unwanted infatuation of her nation’s prince. She only manages to escape life as a concubine when Prince Zen of the neighbouring country of Clarines comes to her rescue. Her new ally also opens the opportunity to become a palace herbalist. Passing the exam – and curing the prince from a poisoned apple – sets her on a path to success she could only dream of in her sheltered life.

Seeing this premise of a girl with [insert profession here] meeting [insert rich handsome guy here], I assumed her skill with herbs would be irrelevant. This is a common failing of shoujo anime and rom-com films. How often is the protagonist a journalist/architect/ad executive/author/etc. and it never plays a part in the story? You know it’s only there because it would be weird if she didn’t have a job. I assumed the same of Shirayuki. When a scoundrel kidnaps her, the expectation is that someone rescues her or she lucks her way out. To my surprise, however, she uses her knowledge to burn the right herbs together for a paralysing effect on her attacker. Alright! That’s what I want to see. She still needs some help in the end, but she did something and used her brain. I like an active protagonist with intelligence. Shirayuki endeared herself to me with that single action.

Further on, her studies and career as a herbalist continue to hold relevance throughout the story. We see her studying new mixtures, experimenting with ideas, researching plants, and taking exams. Probably my favourite element of the story. It adds depth to the world and makes her environment lived in.

The romance with Prince Zen is typical shoujo fare and works, for the most part. You do have to suspend your disbelief that a prince of the realm can have a public relationship with a commoner against little opposition, but that’s the way of the genre. They do make for a good couple and complement each other’s qualities.

Where Snow White with the Red Hair fails is in the UTTER LACK OF DWARVES! WHERE ARE THE DWARVES?! I kid, I kid. No, the problems are in the lack of escalation. Conflict starts well with Shirayuki’s sudden move to a new country, a new life, and while we do have some political, physical, and romantic conflicts afterwards, none of them hit a high-tension point. For instance, one romantic conflict arises when Zen has to “interview” a prospective wife for a royal marriage. Shirayuki isn’t bothered by this, and why would she be when nothing comes of it. When you have a cross-class romance, there should be a question of “Will they end up together despite the difference in status?”

The big finale of the series sees Shirayuki kidnapped by pirates. This is disappointing on three counts. First, it’s another kidnapping. Second, the pirate queen is a flat character unworthy of a finale. Third, this conflict doesn’t relate to the core themes of the story or offer any resonance (repeated kidnappings don’t count as resonance). It feels like a side story on the way to the next step of the main story. There is no intensity.

These failings ultimately leave me a little disappointed in how Snow White with the Red Hair turns out. I love the world, find the characters endearing, and had a great time in the first half, but when the “big” romantic, political, and physical conflicts flop like a dead fish on the cutting board, it’s difficult to maintain enthusiasm. I think continuing with the manga is in order – another season is unlikely after four years.

Art – High

A great thing about the shoujo market is a higher demand for good-looking art compared to the shounen market. If Snow White with the Red Hair was an isekai for the shounen demographic, it wouldn’t have these beautiful colours and attention to palette.

Sound – High

The acting is good and the music is nice, suited to a fantasy shoujo. Not much to say here.

Story – Medium

A herbalist in training finds the opportunity of lifetime (and a beau to match) when she catches the eye of a prince. This typical shoujo fantasy has all the right ingredients to satisfy the core, though it could do with turning the drama up a level or two.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For shoujo fans. Snow White with the Red Hair won’t be dramatic enough for general fantasy fans, but those looking for something fun with that light-hearted shoujo romance will enjoy this 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: None

Negative: None

The Cat Returns – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Neko no Ongaeshi

 

Related: Whisper of the Heart

Similar: Spirited Away

Howl’s Moving Castle

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Adventure Fantasy

Length: 1 hr. 15 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Cats everywhere
  • Charming adventure
  • That Ghibli animation

Negatives:

  • Not much to the story

(Request an anime for review here.)

Haru was going about her day as normal. Frantic, late for school, crushing on a boy. When she saves a cat from becoming road kill, he thanks her. No, he doesn’t nuzzle her. He thanks her. With words.

Turns out that he’s the prince of cats. His father and the other cats, so grateful of her actions, shower her with gifts. Cattails blanket her front yard the next morning, a hundred mice await in her school locker, each in a chocolate gift box, and most “generous” of all is her engagement to the cat prince. What does she mean she doesn’t want to get married to a cat? He’s a prince! Then a mysterious voice says there may be a way out.

“Go to the Cat Bureau.”

And so she takes the advice and finds the bureau, where she meets Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, a gentleman of a cat. This is where the real adventure begins.

The Cat Returns is a charming little film, a fairy tale-like adventure into a world of cats. 90% of the characters are cats. What a delightful bunch they are too. Their insistence in thanking her with gifts only a cat would like has me laughing. The mangy cat king is a riot. I particularly like the fat cat that acts as the muscle when she ventures into the cat world. Then we have the baron, all suave and confident.

Despite her insistence to the contrary, Haru finds herself drawn to the whimsy and fantasy of being a cat, especially with the dashing baron by her side. The deeper she ventures, the harder it will be to pull back, and the more out of control the cats become.

Simplicity is the name here. With similarities to Spirited Away, The Cat Returns may set false expectations. Don’t go in with that mentality. Where most Ghibli titles have crossover appeal for adults and children, The Cat Returns favours very much to the latter. This one won’t be for you if you can’t survive on whimsy and charm. Kids will get a kick out of it – the chase scene with a swarm of cats is a ride – but there isn’t much below the surface. The story follows the path you saw in the beginning, ending in a convenient resolution out of a kids’ fairy tale. Nor do any of the characters have that certain something from the Spirited Away or Moving Castle cast that could carry a narrative. They aren’t bad though.

The Cat Returns isn’t essential viewing to any but the Ghibli completionist. Watch it with your kids, if you have any.

Art – Very High

The Cat Returns has that lovely Ghibli style, though doesn’t look as good as their other films. Seeing this art, I assumed this was one of the earlier releases; however, this came out in 2002 and not the 80s. The animation carries the department. That swarm of cats is fantastic.

Sound – High

Go with the Japanese track if you can. The dub has a standard celebrity cast of good screen actors that lack the cartoon voice quality. Not animated enough. Cary Elwes, Hollywood’s most charming man, being the exception as the baron. The Japanese is much better. Adventurous music.

Story – Medium

A girl finds herself dragged into a world of cats after she saves their prince from death. This is a simple fairy tale – fun, charming, limited.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For Ghibli fans or kids. While The Cat Returns is a good film, the limited scope of the story doesn’t have the crossover for adults, as found in the studio’s biggest hits. Kids will love it.

(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:

CharmFluid Animation

Negative: None

Fairy Tail / Bleach – Quick Thoughts

Fairy Tail

Japanese Title: Fairy Tail

Genre: Action Adventure Fantasy

Length: 175 episodes

I thought I would try Fairy Tail, watch it casually while doing work to see if I was missing out on anything. This is a battle anime of a bygone era. In today’s market, after Naruto and One Piece raised the bar, audiences want an ongoing story as a framework around the fights. It also makes them care more for the characters even if on a subconscious level and gives more longevity to a series beyond the final episode. Not to say it will be a commercial failure without it – Fairy Tail lasted 175 episodes – but unless it’s Dragon Ball, it won’t be remembered in the long run. That era has sailed.

Fairy Tail’s overall goal is for protagonist Natsu to find his dragon father. However, each arc has the barest of hints at following this story. The gang will hear of some clue or someone who may know something, they follow the trail, and it leads to a completely unrelated adventure. I say adventure. This isn’t like One Piece – Natsu and company didn’t go far in the 75 episodes I watched. The arcs are the basic “enemy declares war against the Fairy Tail guild for a reason, they fight, half the villains are redeemed, and repeat” structure.

What irks me most about this fantasy is the magic system. There are no rules. Every character has a new type of magic that in most fantasy would fall under a different “school”, coupled with an extensive explanation of how their magic works mid-fight. (Why would you reveal the inner workings of your magic to an enemy?) This comes to a particularly stupid peak when a former ally has to explain his magic to a main character that already knows it, all for the sake of the audience. Tension dries up when characters can pull whatever they wish out of thin air. These wizards have exactly as many spells up their sleeves as the author needs for the fight.

Look, Fairy Tail is an easy watch. There is value in simplicity, where you don’t have to invest yourself and pay attention to all the details, tracking the subplots of 50 characters. On the flip side of the same coin, however, I don’t care once I stop watching. (By the way, for years I thought was from the same author as One Piece for how similar the art looks, right down to the main girls having the same breast size. Even the tone is similar.)

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For battle anime fans only.

*     *     *     *     *

Bleach

Japanese Title: Bleach

Genre: Supernatural Action Adventure

Length: 366 episodes (including filler)

I wasn’t going to talk of Bleach until this new format gave me opportunity for a few brief words on this train wreck.

Bleach sucks. Plain and simple. Of all the mainstream battle anime I’ve watched over the years, this is easily the worst. It started well. Actually, the second season was good – the first is a mediocre monster-of-the-week affair.

The story follows 15-year-old Ichigo who gains the power and responsibilities of a Soul Reaper. In short, he has a magic sword and must use it to kill corrupt spirits called Hollows. The second season – and only good arc of the show – kicks off when the top Soul Reapers arrest the girl (now friend as well) that gave him power. He gathers a few other magical friends and they bust into Soul Society (heaven), ready to fight their way to her jail cell. There are several great fights along the way with some cool powers all themed around swords. It’s a great ride that ends on a strong twist cliffhanger (especially if you haven’t seen the like before). This is episode 63.

What follows is a decent into anime hell.

You think inserting the worst filler every second season is bad? Wait until you see how bad the non-filler stories are!

Bleach leans on a battle anime trope I loathe – the power reset. After each major arc, Ichigo reverts to a total scrub for some contrived reason and must endure a training arc, which I swear lasts a season each time. I stopped watching weekly during one such torture session populated by obnoxious characters.

I returned a few years ago out of intellectual curiosity once I heard the series was done for good. I had made the correct decision to quit.

That cliffhanger I mentioned at the end of the Soul Society arc doesn’t return to the forefront until the mid-200s episode count. Even if you ignore all filler as I did with the Naruto reviews, Bleach is a chore to get through. The author keeps throwing a new line of enemies for Ichigo and friends to beat in the same formulaic manner. They’ve finally beaten them all; we can finally see the big bad again? Nope! Here’s another set of bland enemies. There’s always more a powerful villain around the corner (what were they doing before this?). This isn’t a story. It’s a grind.

All the good ideas ended in Soul Society. While the ultimate twist that ends this main thread is good, in no way is it worth having your brain liquefy on the way. And the series doesn’t end there either. Bleach, taken as a whole, is a terrible waste of potential.

When I chose to watch Bleach alongside Naruto back in the day, I made a grave mistake. If only I had picked One Piece…923 episodes and counting.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Avoid it. When canon is indistinguishable from filler, you know drinking bleach is preferable.

Dororo – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Dororo

 

Similar: Demon Slayer

Mushi-shi

Sword of the Stranger

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Supernatural Action Adventure

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Brutal depiction of samurai times (even without the monsters)
  • The monsters
  • Hyakkimaru’s lore
  • Beautiful rustic art

Negatives:

  • Visuals dip in the finale

(Request an anime for review here.)

Did you watch Mushi-shi and think, “This anime is too friendly. Needs more violence and demons”? Well, do I have the anime for you!

Dororo takes Mushi-shi’s adventure of roaming rural Japan in search of the unusual, but instead of trying to understand the supernatural like Ginko would do, Hyakkimaru massacres them to the very last. He was born as a child of sacrifice. Though he should have died, missing his limbs, most organs, skin, and even a spine at birth, a prosthetics doctor found him down the river and rebuilt him to survive. Now, with each demon he slays, a part of him regrows. His single-minded focus to cleanse the land of demons and regain his body drives him down a dangerous path. Thankfully, the ever-cheerful street rat Dororo latches onto him and claims him for an older brother.

The feudal world of Dororo is a harsh one. It does not romanticise the samurai era whatsoever. There was a time when a samurai’s primary goal was collecting the heads of enemies, even if it meant taking them by force from allies. After all, the survivor tells the tale. The country is in a state of desolation – Hyakkimaru’s father and lord performed the sacrifice to bring prosperity to his state. Samurai or peasant, honour is a scare resource when starvation grips the soul. Dororo’s parents were victims of a battle, an inconsequential skirmish in the grand scheme of things, fought over scraps of power. He now travels with Hyakkimaru in search of demons to slay and food to survive, all the while making the most of life.

There is so much to like about Dororo. The titular character is likeable from the very first. I love his energy and craftiness. The contrast between him and Hyakkimaru is a perfect balance between the former’s bubbly personality and the latter’s silence. The perfect foil. Hyakkimaru wouldn’t have worked as a protagonist without him. Speaking of, I love the design of Hyakkimaru with the prosthetics, blades hidden inside his arms, and the way he regrows bit by bit. When a new leg shoots out after a kill, it’s painful yet great to watch. The more he regrows, the more human he becomes and learns about the world around him. Smell and sound are a surprise. However, he becomes more obsessed with the next kill the closer he gets to completion. His arc is fantastic, culminating in a crazy scenario that I don’t even want to hint at.

Dororo gripped me from the start. If you want a prime example of how to do a first episode, watch this anime. There are no exposition dumps, no out of place humour (we all know another studio would have forced a boob grab or some such cliché), and the showing of the characters, their motivations, and the world is spot on.

Then we have the world. The watercolour environments give such a rustic, quaint feel that you wish you could roam that countryside. That is, until you face a demon, or worse, the samurai. I can imagine the Japanese tourist board setting up walking tours to visit the modern equivalent, safe from horrors of course. The charming feel to the world was a great decision, for it lulls the audience into thinking perhaps things aren’t so bad, perhaps they have found peace. Then reality hits and all goes to hell.

The variety of demons and the way they fit into this world – like a mini fairy tale each episode – is fantastic. Some are simple beasts of instinct, while others are cunning. There’s always something new over the next mountain. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the action is exciting with great animation. Doesn’t hold back on gore either.

Now, I don’t recommend this as a binge show. Much like Mushi-shi, it’s best to let it sink in every few episodes. I watched Dororo over the course of two months – hence the delay on this request – and would not have had it any other way. The episodic structure (until the final stretch) facilitates this method. Dororo gets better with each episode. Each piece of the puzzles comes together to make one of the decade’s best anime.

Art – Very High

The samurai drama visual style is a success. Plenty of animation too, but it does have to use some TV shortcuts like repeating animations. Beautiful backgrounds are an increasingly rare sight these days.

Sound – High

I almost had a serious negative about a casting choice, but it worked perfectly in the end. Acting is solid, though Hyakkimaru isn’t quite right. I like the first OP and ED, listening to them each time, but I would skip the second set.

Story – Very High

A street rat and a cursed child roam a war torn land in search of food and demons. Dororo doesn’t hold back on the realities of war, starvation, and the desperation to survive as it delivers riveting action and an engaging arc.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Watch it. Dororo is a surprise hit for me. I wouldn’t want you to miss it (unless you don’t like violence).

(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:

Fluid AnimationRiveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None