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Toward the Terra – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Terra e… (TV)

 

Related: Terra e… (Movie – old version)

Similar: RahXephon

Gundam SEED

No. 6

Xam’d Lost Memories

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Drama Science Fiction

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Grand scope with proper closure.
  • Intriguing open.
  • The sci-fi elements make for an engaging story.

Negatives:

  • Needs stronger key villains.

(Request an anime for review here.)

In another anime with the premise of a protagonist realising his world is a lie, we have Toward the Terra. Where No. 6 setup an ordinary world for the protagonist to exit from, Terra echoes events closer to the likes of The Island or Logan’s Run with a dash of RahXephon and Battlestar Galactica.

In Jomy’s world, talented people join the elites of humanity on the day they reach adulthood. This is an exciting occasion. Who wouldn’t want their child to lead humanity to greatness? This is also a lie. The test of adulthood is actually to identify any potential “Mu” among the populace. They are an evolved race of humans possessing psychic abilities that strike fear in the government. All Mu are executed.

Jomy’s birthday takes a turn for the weird when a mouse starts talking to him telepathically at an amusement park. It’s not long before he’s on the run as one of the Mu and the lie that is his world tears at the seams. Not only is there a race of psychics that live on a ship among the clouds, their leader Soldier Blue has fallen into a coma and wants Jomy to inherit his power and the burden of leading the Mu to a brighter future.

Toward the Terra immediately differentiates itself from the pack of like-minded stories by going off in a wild direction. This story spans years and ventures to places I didn’t predict. One could watch the first episode of Terra followed by the final episode and have no idea how it got from A to Z. No character is the same by the end of this series.

The first act sets up so many questions about this world and its characters. Where did the Mu come from? How blind is the average human to reality? Did Jomy’s human parents really love him? Is it possible for Jomy to undo the brainwashing on society? Who is leading the humans? Why are they so insistent on killing the Mu that aren’t a part of their society? Unlike No. 6, which setup many question but either forgot to answer them or gave meaningless payoffs, Terra delivers some great arcs and story conclusions.

This is my kind of sci-fi anime.

That said, it doesn’t reach greatness when looked at as a whole. There are moments of greatness – the setup episodes and other key events I won’t give away – but the problems are intrusive. The one that has stuck with me since having finished Terra months ago is the switch from Jomy’s perspective to one of the human elites in training.

We follow Keith, a Spock-like character except boring and with no personality. Furthermore, we have no clear idea why the focus is on him for so many episodes (turns out, he’s a major villain – no spoiler, they should have alluded as much from the start). Even furthermore, we don’t see Jomy during this section. It all makes sense in the end, of course, yet the structure of this early second act feels so disconnected from the plot that instead of enjoying the story, I’m asking, “Why does any of this matter?” for too long. It needed a back and forth of perspectives.

Oh yes, almost forgot – Keith’s main rival at the academy is a smiley evil guy. A laughable character. No one would just stand there and take his sneering for more than a day before removing all his teeth. When at this stage of the story, I thought all the good the premise had setup was going down a black hole. Thankfully, it picks up again once Jomy re-enters the scene and Keith’s role matters – he even becomes interesting after the academy years are over. The villains in general are on the weaker side.

Several other moments also standout as blots in the story. I can’t go into detail without revealing too much (as I said, this story goes in such unexpected directions), but they are in the vein of characters doing stupid things for the sake of forced conflict.

There is also a minor annoyance where each episode starts with several minutes from the previous episode. This isn’t a “last time on Terra…” bit, but a straight repeat of scenes. Could do without it, though not a deal breaker.

In all, the good outweigh the bad with the premise being a story type I love accompanied by strong sci-fi elements. I enjoyed Toward the Terra and may even rewatch it in future.

Art – Medium

The technical quality is average, but the creativity of the sci-fi world is good old retro-futurism. Beautiful skies. There is this one character, an alien scientist with the dumbest and most out of place design, like a stick figure in a scene of elfin people. I laughed every time she came on.

Sound – Medium

Solid acting and the soundtrack is suitable to the anime, though you won’t remember the details.

Story – Medium

On the cusp of adulthood, a boy learns he is an alien linked to the first of his race, which makes him an enemy of society and all humanity. This grand space voyage has a lot in it that works for the most part.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For sci-fi fans. Toward the Terra’s sci-fi elements will make it a pleasure to fans of the genre, but those same elements will alienate others. And the characters aren’t strong enough to carry interest if sci-fi the premise doesn’t hook you.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

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Soul Eater – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Soul Eater

 

Related: Soul Eater NOT! (spin-off)

Similar: Blue Exorcist

Noragami

Bleach

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Comedy

Length: 51 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Creative visual design.
  • Fluid action animation.
  • Often funny.

Negatives:

  • Weak third act.
  • Narrow world building.

(Request an anime for review here.)

So, Soul Eater – this one took me a while to finish despite getting through the first 30 episodes in a week. It’s fun for the most part, but once it reaches the latter half, the increased action focus and reduced comedy coupled with stagnating development dampened my motivation. Before I explain why, let’s get on the same page with the premise.

Soul Eater is a Bleach-esque anime set in the realm of death where Shinigami train at Death Weapon Meister Academy and fight off supernatural evils. Its distinguishing characteristic is the living weapons, Demon Scythes, which switch between human and weapon form to fight for their masters. The ultimate goal of any Shinigami is to harvest 99 souls and one witch’s soul to turn their weapon into a mighty Death Scythe. The principal characters are the straight-laced Maka, wielding the scythe Soul Eater Evans, the brash Black Star contrasted by his kind weapon Tsubaki, and the OCD-riddled Death the Kid with his twin pistols Patty and Liz.

The first aspect one notices of Soul Eater is its distinct visual style. The urban anime art reminds me of the game The World Ends with You, which is a great fit to the character and world design. The drooling sun and laughing moon look like graffiti you would find in an abandoned train yard. It stands out from other battle anime.

However, in spite of this distinct looking world there is something missing from it. For a time, I could not put my finger on it, on why Soul Eater didn’t draw me in. The action is good, similar to other good battle anime, and the cast, though nothing new for the genre (except perhaps Death the Kid) is solid. You’ll likely find a favourite and enjoy the powers. So what’s missing?

The larger world is missing.

It took me far longer than I would like to admit to realise that there is nothing in this world outside of the main plot. It’s like a rail network with only one line. You can look outside the windows and see a city around you, but no trains go there and you only see story-relevant passengers on board. This city is a mere background like North Korea’s fake “Peace Village”. Soul Eater has a narrow world. You know how most fantasy anime have main characters travel to distant places and meet other cultures? Soul Eater not only doesn’t do this, but it also gives the impression that no such places exist. All of this adds up to a difficulty in finding reason to invest in this world and its characters. If you can attach to the characters otherwise, then I assume this won’t be as much of an issue for you as it was for me.

For the characters themselves, as I said, they are solid. My favourite is Death the Kid (even though the way he holds the guns with his pinkies is the stupidest thing ever). The school exam episode is hilarious. Seeing Kid’s OCD cripple him so badly that he can’t start until he writes his name perfectly on the paper had me rolling. It’s a shame the series shifts from this fun battle anime in the first half to a serious-action-only second half. Honestly, if the fun angle had persisted, I would have finished this much sooner.

The third act is the weakest section. My understanding is that this act is a wild deviation from the manga, which wasn’t finished at the time (the manga continued for four years after the anime). It shows.

The final battle in particular is one of the weakest I have seen in this genre. Off the top of my head, only something garbage from start to finish like Beet the Vandal Buster delivers a worse showdown. Soul Eater’s finale feels like the filler it is, written by someone with no investment in the manga or experience in writing. For one, it focuses on Black Star almost exclusively, who is the most “annoying shounen kid” of the cast. He’s not even the protagonist! For two, the win condition for this fight is just nonsensical. I won’t give it away, though you can watch the final episode (51) for yourself – even out of context you will see what I mean. A wet tissue of an ending.

I’ve said it before, but a bad end feels worse than poor quality in any other section. Soul Eater is a lot better than the end presents to us. If you do want to watch this, I recommend switching to the manga afterwards.

Art – High

Soul Eater’s distinctive designs make it a memorable look. Also, the animation shines during action scenes.

Sound – Medium

T.M.Revolution, one of my favourite artists responsible for much of the excellent Gundam SEED soundtrack, does the first opening here – I never skipped it. The music in general is decent, as is the voice acting in both languages. The dialogue does need trimming and less shounen clichés during combat though.

Story – Medium

A group of young Shinigami battle supernatural entities to collect souls for their living weapons and to protect their city. The story follows a normal shounen structure, but is truly let down by its end.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For action fans. While a little different from the norm, Soul Eater is still a battle anime at heart so won’t extend beyond its demographic. You will need to continue with the manga for a proper end.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

The King’s Avatar – Anime Review

Chinese Title: Quanzhi Gaoshou

 

Related: The King’s Avatar Season 2 (TBR)

Similar: Log Horizon

Overlord

No Game No Life

 

Watched in: Chinese

Genre: Action Fantasy

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good character designs.
  • True to MMO vernacular and mannerisms.

Negatives:

  • Low tension since protagonist never loses.
  • Some shocking CG.
  • Acting and audio placement is sub-par.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Ye Xiu is a legend on the esports scene of the MMO game Glory. He’s a 10-year veteran, having contributed numerous guides to the game, pioneered gameplay techniques, and won several championships. However, his skills aren’t a match for the current crop and his organisation forces him to retire from the team and hand over his account.

Alone and on the street, he finds lodgings in a net café’s dusty backroom in exchange for work as a night manager, which is perfect as this gives him opportunity to hit the grind hard on Glory’s newest server. As the newly created Lord Grim, he uses his extensive knowledge and talents to achieve server first kills, soon drawing the attention of other hardcore players to the server.

If you haven’t heard or noticed already, The King’s Avatar is a Chinese anime (or “donghua”). I love MMOs and I love esports, so this is the perfect first anime for my foray into this burgeoning market.

Before I level my criticisms, I want to talk of the positives. First, the author knows his online RPGs. Unlike most isekai anime claiming to be in an MMO world, The King’s Avatar actually has the feel of a true MMO community. The social aspect is authentic from the way they talk to the rivalries that form over first dungeon kills and PvP skirmishes. I like the inclusion of competitive PvE, instead of taking the easy route of focusing only on duels. There’s good MMO humour as well, such as doing menial tasks no matter how great you are and on the overcrowding of server launches.

I also like the in game character designs. The gear looks great, though it is inaccurate for low-level armour to be so coherent, as any MMO player will tell you, but it’s understandable to make characters easily identifiable.

You will have to suspend your disbelief in how the gameplay translates to drama. The King’s Avatar places too much value on player skill at the expense of mathematical limitations found in an MMO. Because of stats, gear, and all the RPG mechanics of an MMO, skill can only get you so far. The best player in the world on a level 1 character isn’t going to solo a level 30 boss monster. The mechanics don’t allow it. It makes sense that a veteran would accomplish much on a new server, though not to such an extent. Take it as creative licencing.

Furthermore, they make a big deal about Grim’s high APM (actions per minute), which isn’t relevant to an action bar MMO since you only control one character limited by animations and cooldowns (reaction time matters more). In StarCraft, APM is of huge importance because it allows a player to micromanage every unit in their army simultaneously, while also managing economy and construction. None of that matters in an MMO. That said, it isn’t a big deal. There’s only so many ways one can “dramatise” gameplay.

Now for the real problems.

When Grim first starts on this new server, he’s just dunking on scrubs before other pros join. Sadly, they don’t bring a challenge. There is no tension after a few episodes once you realise he’s so much better than everyone else. It isn’t the Mary-Sue problem of “protagonist beats the supposedly unkillable enemy with a sneeze”. Rather, the best players aren’t on this server to challenge him. He’s like a League of Legends pro player smurfing on an alt account but still in Silver tier on his climb to Masters. It’s fine at first, but we never see it become more difficult. Some organised teams do join, though it isn’t clear how good they are meant to be – amateur is my impression. Even if later seasons escalate (I hope they do), it wouldn’t change how easy this season is and I would skip most episodes on a re-watch as a result. They should have made him someone fallen far from the throne determined to climb back up with tough opponents along the way. The first scene should have been him costing his team a tournament win.

The other notable problem is one found in Chinese cinema in general – poor overdubbing. Overdubbing happens when an actor’s dialogue isn’t clear, due to things like explosions in an action scene, which requires the actor the re-record the line in character during post-production. Most films need some overdubbing these days, though Hollywood has managed it so well that you can’t tell where it occurs. China, on the other hand, has to overdub so much of its dialogue, even in scenes that shouldn’t need it, and they do such a poor job that it’s not uncommon for voices to sound separate (and out of sync) from the actor on screen. The King’s Avatar doesn’t have it so bad, though you can see elements carry over. It has the feel of a janky production.

In all, The King’s Avatar didn’t give the greatest first impression of donghua. However, it was better than I expected and next week I’ll be looking at Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, which is shaping up to be far superior.

Art – Medium

The King’s Avatar is simultaneously beautiful and ugly. We have well-drawn characters, slick action, and dazzling atmospherics on one hand, yet we also have scenes with dozens of the worst CG characters tapping away on their CG keyboards in front of CG monitors in a CG net café. The environments are similar. We have gorgeous fantasy vistas mixed in with blocky CG building interiors.

Sound – Low

The acting isn’t quite refined to the level of Japan and the West when it comes to voice work for animation. Audio compression prevents the voices from following the characters. It’s as though you can hear the recording studio behind the screen.

Story – Low

A pro esports player forced to retire plots his return to the top on a new server for a fantasy MMO. The idea is an interesting one that could pay off in the end, but as far as this season goes, having an unbeatable protagonist makes for a tensionless story.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: For MMO action fans. If you’re a fan of those numerous MMO anime, The King’s Avatar will please you. I just hope it gets more challenging. I’ll likely revisit this series in future. There is also a live action drama on the way, which looks to have more of an esports focus according to the trailer.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

No. 6 – Anime Review

Japanese Title: No. 6

 

Similar: Ergo Proxy

Psycho-Pass

Towards the Terra

Banana Fish

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Drama Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 11 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Quality art and animation.
  • Good start.

Negatives:

  • Wheel spinning second act.
  • Protagonists lack involvement.
  • Mismatched music.

(Request an anime for review here.)

In an odd coincidence, I have completed three anime that open with a similar premise – Toward the Terra, Xam’d: Lost Memories, and No.6. They are each about a late teen living a good life, free of worries, when an outsider tells him it’s all a lie and his life turns upside down.

In No.6, Shion lives in the sixth of humanity’s utopian cities. Everything is perfect – no poverty, no crime, no conflict. He was one of the city’s elite residents with every luxury paid for in exchange for contributing to society in an area of expertise – ecology, in Shion’s case. He lost all such privileges at 12 years old when he helped one of society’s rejects take shelter. Years later, he now oversee No.6’s trash bots.

When a disease hits the city that causes rapid aging, the authorities arrest Shion. Of course, he’s as clueless as the rest, but he dared question The Man and for that, he must die. However, the same boy from all those years back who goes by the name Nezumi, meaning “rat”, scurries to the rescue and breaks him free of society’s shackles. The adventure begins.

I love this type of opening that upends the protagonist’s world. It raises so many questions at once, generating immense conflict for the protagonist torn between the world they once knew and the new reality, and I can’t want to see it all unravel. How did society erect the façade in the first place? How does it control the populace? Why? What’s the protagonist’s involvement in its history (there is always something)? How have the Outsiders survived all this time?

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

No.6 doesn’t make an effort in any of these questions.

Damn. What a shame.

Once out of the city, marking the end of act 1, the plot just stalls like a novice driver confusing the clutch and accelerator pedals. Each episode of act 2 goes as follows: Nezumi saying he hates the city, Shion asking why, Nezumi saying he’ll tell him later, and repeat. Characters don’t take action. There are minor moments – just not enough to drive the plot forward.

The next real event is at the end of act 2, leading into act 3. It’s as though the writer set in stone that “When the characters meet this guy over here, act 3 starts.” She refused to bring this event forward and come up with something else to start act 3 when act 2 had nothing going on (or write new events to lift the drought). I see this occur a lot in Korean dramas. The studio mandates a certain number of episodes to fill the TV schedule – usually 16 1-hour episodes, yet their romantic comedies are rarely complex enough to fill 16 hours. Acts 1 and 3 have stricter lengths in a story than 2 does. A slow first act turns the audience off and they won’t return. A slow third act leaves a bad aftertaste. Therefore, the filler slumps into the second act (“will they, won’t they,” and “problem of the episode” scenarios).

Unlike those drawn out K-dramas, a fictional world with a grand conflict like No. 6 has plenty of material to tap into. Why didn’t we explore more of the city and its utopian society? The idea of each citizen focused on one specialty with everything paid for isn’t relevant after the opening. This world has but a fraction of Psycho-Pass’s depth.

Act 2 instead focuses on the main couple, which doesn’t work either. There is too much focus on Shion and Nezumi’s relationship, yet not enough because it doesn’t move anywhere during this middle section. Again, I suspect the writer refused to allow their development to progress, “Keeping the good bits for the end.” The one positive I can say about their relationship is that it isn’t a shounen ai tease. It commits.

Even when the plot does get off the recliner, our protagonists aren’t driving agents to lead the story. Their allies do more work than they do in resolving the grand conflict. It feels as if the writer had an idea for a couple but no story to accompany them, and an idea of a story but no characters to lead it. Since they were lacking each other in the technical sense, she brought them together like the final two pieces of a puzzle. She didn’t realise they weren’t meant for the same puzzle. At least not without further work.

None of the backstory mysteries involving Shion’s mother, the city’s origin, and the rebels amount to anything meaningful. The writer knew mysteries should be there to entice the audience, but didn’t go back to flesh them out and tie them to the plot in a meaningful way.

You can look to several other anime for this idea executed expertly. Start with Psycho-Pass. No. 6 isn’t a terrible anime. Though when others have already shown you how to do it right, it’s difficult not see all the problems despite any positives.

Art – High

No. 6’s strongest quality is the art, particularly the animation. Episode 9 has a Ghibli quality scene. I also like the visual contrast between the clean city and dirty slums.

Sound – Medium

The acting is good and most music works well. The OP and ED songs have no life in them and sound so weird. I’m unsure of what they are trying to convey in relation to the narrative.

Story – Low

A boy has his utopian life upended when he helps an outsider, who later helps him escape the authorities in return. A good start isn’t enough to keep one going to through a stalled second act and poorly fleshed out finale.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. With the likes of Psycho-Pass, RahXephon, and Towards the Terra, to name a few, using the same setup to greater results, there is little reason to knock at No. 6.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Banana Fish – Anime Review

Japanese Title: BANANA FISH

 

Similar: Rainbow

Black Lagoon

91 Days

No. 6

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Adventure Drama

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Strong protagonist.
  • Great visuals.
  • Doesn’t cringe from the subject matter.

Negatives:

  • Weak villains.
  • Humour doesn’t work.
  • Could use more brains.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Banana Fish is an adaptation of a manga by the same name that ended 24 years ago. Once a manga reaches a certain age, it’s often deemed outdated and financially unviable. Should one receive an anime adaptation, even then it could become “old news” and have no second season in favour of a gamble at the next big hit. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see something as old as Banana Fish on the slate. And when a studio does go out of its way for an old licence, they will put the full production effort behind it, as is the case here.

The story centres on young Ash Lynx, a handsome boy adopted by New York City Mafia Don Dino Golzine, who declares that Ash should inherit his empire. The boy is ruthless, resourceful, and charismatic – all the qualities he desires in an heir (and it helps that Ash is just his type). Unfortunately for the Don, the boy is also rebellious and despises him like the devil. Ash becomes hell-bent on destroying his father and abuser, especially once suspicion arises of his involvement in the death of Ash’s brother and a mind control drug called Banana Fish. This dangerous game becomes more personal when he meets Japanese photographer Eiji, with whom he makes fast friends. Eiji has just entered a world of abuse, drugs, and death.

Ash is an interesting character and the strongest element of the story. He is a mix of violence and pain as he hates just about everything in his life, yet has these moments of intense vulnerability like a lost child that has no idea of the world. As a child, people sexually abused him, particularly in the mafia including Dino, which taught him that his most valuable asset to these monsters is his body. He’s so damaged by this, one isn’t sure if he’s actually gay or if he’s willing to use his asset to gain the upper hand. It’s messed up, but it makes for an interesting protagonist.

Banana Fish opens on a song to hype you up for the action and ends on a ballad of sadness to remind you of Ash’s pain. That is the heart of Banana Fish.

Eiji is the opposite: sweet, innocent, doesn’t know how to handle gun, and hasn’t even kissed someone. He’s the only good in Ash’s life. Nothing was free in Ash’s world, until he made a friend.

The rest of the cast is a motley crew of gangsters, street urchins, and forgotten soldiers. They work fine in their roles. Where Banana Fish fails its characters is with the villains. Not one of them is interesting or has any depth. Dino is just a creep obsessed with getting Ash to come back as his heir. His plan to accomplish this? What plan? The Chinese guy with long hair, said to be a master manipulator, only succeeds through plot convenience and his ultimate desire for death is just nonsensical. He’s more whiny cartoon child than evil genius. The rest are run-of-the-mill thugs and henchmen, as normal.

The focus on action over character does lessen the impact of weak villains, since this isn’t a battle of ideologies or wits. However, the action-dominated story does dampen the initial setup with Ash’s background and his friendship with Eiji. It doesn’t stop long enough for us to absorb these characters.

To compound problems further (it’s chain of problems, at this point, one leading into the next), the action isn’t smart like Code Geass or stylised like John Wick or Mad Max: Fury Road, so I don’t feel the action alone can carry the series to greatness. People take life-threatening injuries only to stand up a minute later as if they won’t die of blood loss any moment now. Also, Ash is supposed to have an IQ of 180, yet his plans are far from genius. One hit on Dino involves standing atop a truck to take the shot while speeding past. Really, that’s your plan? Nothing in Banana Fish lends credence to his genius label. If they simply hadn’t mentioned it in that one episode, it would have been irrelevant. He’s of average intelligence with high charisma, which is perfectly fine.

My other problem with Ash is the overuse of certain tropes. For instance, I lost count the number of times he wiled his way out of captivity by seducing his captor/guard. It’s awfully convenient that every single one of them is gay and falls for the oldest trick in the book. It made sense the first time when his captor was a past abuser that still craved him. After that is pushing it. Even the humour, which is often jarringly out of place, uses this trope in a light-hearted manner.

Banana Fish has a much stronger first half than second. The first has all the tension, tough choices, harsh losses, and less to do with weak villains. It’s still a decent anime in the second half, though you have to love it for the action more than anything else. And if you make it to the end, the final scene is the best in the series.

Art – High

One of the better-looking series of the year, Banana Fish has a colourful style with plenty of detail, nice animation, and consistent quality. Distant characters lack detail though.

Sound – High

From OP to ED, main character to supporting, all the audio is great.

Story – Medium

An heir to a criminal empire rebels against the predator that raised him and finds friendship in an unexpected place. Banana Fish has a strong first half, fluctuates up and down for the rest of the way, but ends on a great moment.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For action fans. Banana Fish looks great and has plenty of action to keep the crowd busy. Not for children.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None