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Memories – Anime Review

Japanese Title: MEMORIES

 

Similar: Ghost in the Shell

Perfect Blue

Akira

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Psychological Horror Science Fiction

Length: 1 hr. 50 min. (3 short films)

 

Positives:

  • Magnetic Rose’s atmosphere and horror
  • Stink Bomb’s dark humour
  • Beautiful, grim art

Negatives:

  • Cannon Fodder has little to it

(Request an anime for review here.)

Memories is an anthology of three short films that brings together several big talents of the anime industry. All three are based on manga works from executive producer Katsuhiro Otomo (director of Akira), however are directed by three different directors.

Magnetic Rose, first of the three, comes from director Koji Morimoto (animator of Akira, Kiki’s Delivery Service) and writer Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue). This follows a pair of engineers working for a salvage company sent to investigate a distress call from an abandoned space station. Inside, they find a residence of such opulence that it would match European palaces of old. It isn’t abandoned either. The opera singer who once lived here seems alive in the very bolts that keep this place together. Hologram or hallucination, the two men can’t differentiate as she pulls them deeper into her tragic past.

Of the three, Magnetic Rose is easily the best in all regards. Whether talking story, art, music or atmosphere, this is a level above the rest. You immediately feel the styles of Morimoto and Kon. The measured pace, the emphasis on atmosphere and emotion over dialogue, the attention to detail in all of the art, and the psychological tension are telltale signatures. I get strong Dead Space vibes. The madder things get, the more it draws me in. I love it. The only area for improvement is in giving depth to the characters. There is enough here to work, but more wouldn’t have gone awry.

The second film is Stink Bomb under the direction of Tensai Okamura (creator of Darker Than Black). This one is more of a black comedy around a horror scenario. A lab tech tries his company’s experimental cold medicine and takes a nap at work. He awakens to find everyone dead. Turns out this wasn’t cold medicine at all. He has become a living gas bomb, only he doesn’t realise this as he makes his way back to Tokyo with the secret formula.

Stink Bomb feels like it would be a perfect fit as an episode to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It’s all about the ridiculous scenario – equal parts comedy and horror – without much to the characters or the story beyond that. The more the death toll rises, the funnier it gets. The visuals are great here, particularly in the animation.

Otomo himself directs the last of these films, Cannon Fodder. This is a simple story set in a steampunk city that revolves around firing cannons in an endless war. There are cannons everywhere. Instead of skylights, buildings simply have more cannons. We follow a cannon loader as he goes about a day on the job.

While the most unique visually, Cannon Fodder is the shallowest and least interesting of the three. It’s more of a presentation for a world concept than it is a complete story. I take this an allegory on Japan’s “salary man” work life, where one is slave to the company, no matter the abuse received from higher up, living each day to work so you can pay the bills to live, stuck in this endless “war”. We even have the contrast of the child who wants to become the cannon officer (orders when to fire cannons), as children often do when idolising what their parents do for work (parents haven’t the heart to tell them of reality). An interesting concept, but not the most memorable.

Overall, I highly recommend Magnetic Rose (the worst thing about this film is reminding me that Satoshi Kon isn’t around anymore to share more of his genius with us). Try Stink Bomb if you want to continue, and then you may as well finish Cannon Fodder to complete the anthology. You might want to end on Magnetic Rose to close with the best.

Art – Very High

All three films feature a different style – Cannon Fodder especially – under the guidance of different art directors, all of which succeed in augmenting the tone of their respective stories. The animation is beautiful too.

Sound – High

The voice work is good for the most part. Standouts of the audio department are the sound design of Cannon Fodder and everything audio in Magnetic Rose, which delivers a haunting atmosphere.

Story – High

Three short stories: engineers investigate a haunted space station in Magnetic Rose; a hapless chemist becomes walking death in Stink Bomb; a look at a day in the life of citizens living in a city all about firing cannons in Cannon Fodder. The order of appearance happens to be the descending order of quality.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch Magnetic Rose, try Stink Bomb, then finish with Cannon Fodder if you want to complete the set. Memories is also good for showing to those who aren’t usually interested in anime.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kidou Senshi Gundam: Tekketsu no Orphans

 

Similar: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED

Gurren Lagann

Rainbow

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Drama Science Fiction

Length: 50 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Great mech designs
  • Doesn’t take the subject matter lightly
  • Perfect end for this story
  • Dirty land brawls

Negatives:

  • Lack of interpersonal conflict
  • Talks down to the audience regarding characters
  • Drags in the second season with space battles

(Request an anime for review here.)

I can only go so long without watching a new Gundam series. It was a while as I waited for this one to release in a complete collection (season 2 took forever). So, was it worth the wait?

Iron-Blooded Orphans centres on a squad of child soldiers, who manage to survive an attack when their military company leaves them to die as fodder. They live on Mars, a desolate planet that relies on the benevolence of Earth. Kudelia Aina Bernstein, daughter of one of Mars’s aristocratic families, leads the plight for independence, but her naiveté comes under fire when she sees the effects of war, particularly on children, first hand. Mikazuki and his comrades of Tekkadan, led by Orga, aren’t messing around when it comes to fighting for their lives.

First, I love the premise. It’s great how Iron-Blooded Orphans goes to the lowest level, to the people at the very bottom of the ladder. Even more so, I love how it doesn’t shy away from the tough circumstances these kids would face and the harsh violence they must commit. Episode 3 illustrates this when Mikazuki executes the leader of their military organisation – and man responsible for leaving them behind – with a bullet to the head the instant he talks back. I did not expect such good sense.

The story hooks you from the start with high stakes and high conflict. I’m sold right away. So what goes wrong?

It isn’t long before you notice something off about the characters, about the way in which they interact with each other. There is a distinct lack of interpersonal conflict. One would imagine that Kudelia’s naiveté could cause much drama amongst these poor downtrodden kids. Why does this spoilt rich girl think she can save us? But nope, there are a few minor comments here and there and we move on. Surely there would be conflict between Mikazuki and Orga. No, Mikazuki never questions his leader. He follows like a dog, a passive protagonist. A love triangle starts between Mikazuki, Kudelia, and this other girl (childhood friend). Come on, there has to be conflict here, right!? At best is a slight shyness from the childhood friend. The most conflict comes from minor characters, whose names you will never remember.

Even with a plethora of external conflicts on these characters, a story also needs internals ones (often aggravated by those external forces). It’s what makes characters human, relatable, and memorable. Regardless of what I think of the rest of Iron-Blooded Orphans, this single factor alone makes me prefer other Gundam series like SEED and Origin.

This problem is no more evident and sorely needed than in the case of the “legitimate businessman” and his harem of women that ally with Tekkadan. Supposedly, he’s married to all of these women whom he claims to love equally. However, there is clearly a favourite, which one would imagine is leading towards several cases of jealousy and thus conflict. Nothing comes of this weird relationship dynamic. His purpose is to create a bridge between Tekkadan and a large yakuza-like corporation they end up working for. Give me drama!

That leads to another problem with this series: too many characters. Way, way too many characters. Tekkadan has twice as many named characters as it should. Then we have businessman and his harem, followed by several enemy organisations, each with their own cast of characters. Gundam series generally have a large cast, but this is on another level. It’s not so much the quantity (Legend of the Galactic Heroes has far more) as it is the quantity at one time. When you have so many characters fighting for screen time, everyone suffers. The phrase “wide as the ocean, deep as a puddle” applies to much of the cast (still no one as bad as Cagali). Cut it in half. Yes, half.

I believe this is the reason we have so little character conflict. Not enough time when a hundred characters need their share in the spotlight. This also explains why everyone and their grandpa has to spell out their motivations for the audience. For instance, an enemy squad captain returns after defeat to challenge Mikazuki to a duel, knowing he stands no chance against the Gundam. Once defeated and given the chance to retreat, he requests to be killed instead. Why? Well, it’s obvious, but he has to give a dramatic monologue for minutes to make sure we understand. Iron-Blooded Orphans deals in heavy themes not for small children, so why talk down to the audience like children in regards to characters? People will get it. Every character has this moment.

Also do something about the creepy marriage between one of the antagonists and a child. It isn’t talked about enough by other characters. I’m not sure what they were going for here. If they want to establish that this isn’t unusual, they need to make a point of it. Just creepy.

To top it all off, I’m not a fan of the designs. I know this is personal taste, but the hairstyles are just too silly for a gritty war drama. Does anyone else think the protagonist looks like Sonic the Hedgehog? On the other hand, we have the mechs. There are awesome designs here. The main Gundam, Barbatos, a relic of an ancient war is one of my all-time favourite designs. I liked it before having even seen the series. 10 outta 10! Gundam of the year!

So far in this review, I have been quite negative – it comes from a place of love – so why did I enjoy this in the end? It is equal parts being a Gundam fan in general, the action, and the story.

The decision to have much of the action be up close and personal, mechs smashing into each other, tearing armour plate by plate instead of all the usual high tech beam weapons was an ideal match to the story’s tone. Some of the deaths, people crushed inside their cockpits, are brutal. I cannot emphasise enough how little Iron-Blooded Orphans holds back on the subject of child soldiers and war. It also gains extra points for featuring one of the only instances where a hero shoots an enemy in the head during their speech on “honour”.

Then we have the story, which stays engaging (apart from a lull in season 2) in the face of an average cast of characters. The meld of war, politics, shifting alliances, and scrappy fights had me until the end. And what an end it is. I should never have doubted the team to deliver the right ending, but this surprised me. The perfect end to this type of story.

Do I recommend Iron-Blooded Orphans? Yes, but not to Gundam newbies. This one is overloaded with specialist terms and names you’ve never heard of. It can get difficult to track who’s who when referred to by name alone. Or were they talking about an organisation? Go with Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin if you want to start with the main line series or Gundam SEED / Gundam 00 if you prefer standalone stories.

Art – High

Though I’m not a fan of the character designs, there is no denying Iron-Blooded Orphans looks great. Best of all, repeat animations aren’t an issue and the action flows smoothly. There is a visceral quality to the way Barbatos carves up enemies.

Sound – High

I like the soundtrack, but I wish it had a little more grunge to match to the down and dirty lives of these kids. The acting is better than the script, which could do with a simple 10% trim that over explains characters.

Story – High

A squad of child soldiers find themselves holding destiny in their hands before they fight for a better future. A great story with mediocre characters comes to an excellent conclusion.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it (if it isn’t your first Gundam series). Iron-Blooded Orphans is a solid series despite its flaws. However, I don’t recommend this for first-timers to the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

ef – A Tale of Memories – Anime Review

Japanese Title: ef – A Tale of Memories.

 

Related: ef: A Tale of Melodies (sequel)

Similar: Rumbling Hearts

Sola

Bakemonogatari

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Drama Romance

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Not as bad as it could be…I suppose?

Negatives:

  • Actually pretentious
  • Vomit-inducing character designs
  • No one develops
  • The dub is a special kind of awful

(Request an anime for review here.)

I was meant to review Weathering With You, but as I missed my opportunity to watch it, that will have to wait. Instead, I felt like covering something trashy – an anime I had almost forgotten I had seen.

ef – A Tale of Memories comes from studio Shaft before they were a creator of good anime. You can see hints here of what Shaft would become, particularly in their artistic styling. Thankfully, they abandoned these stories and characters for something more fun.

This story follows six characters that eventually become three couples as they overcome their obstacles along the way. The first couple is the most vanilla of the three, between an aspiring manga artist (or is it hentai?) and an energetic girl with unorthodox interests. The second couple uses the childhood friend + love triangle cliché who eventually realises she’s in love with this photographer kid instead. The third and honestly main couple of Renji and Chihiro (you’ll recognise them by his douche hair and her abhorrent eye patch) face the issue of her constant memory loss. Think 50 First Dates with moe. They work on this by writing a novel together, something she can’t forget.

Barring the third with memory loss, there is nothing too unusual about these romances. Frankly, they are as shallow as can be. However, the studio tries to distract you with “fancy” camera work and visual motifs. I commend people for trying to do something different, but everything in Tale of Memories from the quick cuts to the avant-garde shot compositions feel like difference for the sake of being different. And when they run out of ideas, we have stretches of blandness – still shots, no animation, no style. These stand out badly by contrast. To see this style don’t correctly, one need look no further than Shaft’s own Bakemonogatari.

The dialogue is like the cinematography. It alternates between artsy nonsense for the sake of it and stock dialogue that comes with Microsoft Script Writer 2006. If I haven’t made it clear yet, ef – A Tale of Memories is pretentious garbage. These characters don’t develop. They don’t grow as people discovering true love for the first time. No, they spout nonsense and confess feelings in a mire of melodrama. At least it isn’t insulting.

If you don’t like the idea of 50 First Dates gone moe teen melodrama, humour subtracted, then stay far away from ef – A Tale of Memories. I am so glad Shaft moved onto better projects.

Art – Very Low

Some shots are interesting, others are boring, but the majority are nonsense for the sake of being different. Hate the character designs. That douche’s hair! They are one step away from Clannad and one should never stray that close to cancer. Obnoxious – that is how best to describe the art overall.

Sound – Low

If you want to watch ef – A Tale of Memories, do not go with the dub. The problems range far and wide, though the worst has to be the use of honorifics. They use them, yet don’t speak like the Japanese is any other way, which makes it come across as a weeaboo fan dub. The script sounds better the less you understand the characters.

Story – Low

Three teen couples deal with circumstances that stand in the way of love. The ideas aren’t bad. A less pretentious script and presentation was needed if these couples had any chance at success, however.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. It isn’t as bad as Kanon’s romances. Still doesn’t make ef – A Tale of Memories worth a minute of your time.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Awful DialogueNo Development

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.