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Has strong elements to unsettle or frighten the audience.

Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation – Anime Review

Chinese Title: Mo Dao Zu Shi

 

Related: Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 2 (sequel – TBR 2019)

Similar: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Twelve Kingdoms

Castlevania

 

Watched in: Chinese

Genre: Historical Action Fantasy

Length: 15 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Great characters.
  • Gorgeous backgrounds.
  • Action looks fantastic.
  • Such lovely music.
  • Perfect finale to end the season.

Negatives:

  • Magic is a little inconsistent.
  • Jarring time skips.
  • Occasional bad CG.

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Now this is more like it! Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation gives a far better first impression to donghua (Chinese anime) than The King’s Avatar did. It still has that unrefined edge from this new market, but combining Avatar: The Last Airbender and Twelve Kingdoms with a touch of Game of Thrones still makes this a great series well worth the time of fantasy fans.

The story is set in a province of fantasy China where five clans of cultivators of magic live an uneasy peace. Of these cultivators, most peculiar is Wei Wuxian. He is the reincarnation of the legendary cultivator of demons and necromancy, one feared by all. Contrary to his infamous reputation however, Wuxian is a likeable goof known for his cheek and mischief at the monastery colloquially known as the “Wall of Rules” (for its list of 4000 rules, of course), when he should be studying with the other cultivators. Opposite him is Lan Wangji, who takes life too seriously as the perfect student that never smiles. He’s responsible for turning Wuxian into the monastery instructors more than once. Life becomes more than fun and games for Wuxian and his friends when one clan closes its iron grip around the others.

The comparison series I used above are perfect descriptors for Demonic Cultivation. We have the might of one clan against everyone else similar to Avatar. Wuxian has Aang’s playfulness amidst all the violence. The etiquette and Chinese mythology influences seen in Twelve Kingdoms have ingrained themselves within the fibres of society. The brutality of war and politics like in Game of Thrones plays its role too. And I am pleased to say this series succeeds in all these elements.

The characters, the action, the environments – god, the environments! – reassure you this is quality fantasy. I love how Wuxian controls the dead by playing unnerving music on a flute (recalls that villain from Naruto who used to control her ogres). It tells much about his character. Even the product placement works.

If I may go on a tangent, the sponsorship ads are great. How would you fit modern products in an ancient fantasy series, you ask? Well, Demonic Cultivation achieves it by taking a scene from the episode (saves on animation budget) and makes it about the product instead during the ad break. For example, the episode has a scene with a tiff between Wuxian and Wangji over something story related, while the ad takes the same tiff and makes it about the fact that Wangji is such a stick in the mud because he hasn’t eaten a Cornetto yet (“You’re not yourself when you’re hungry” type ad). They’re amusing. More like skits instead of ads.

Anyway, back to the show.

Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation is full high fantasy. The most common reason I hear for people being put off high fantasy is all the specialist terms and names you have to learn (Hobbit, Rivendell, Mordor, Nazgul, Dunedain, Numenoreans, Eldar, Vanyar, etc. for The Lord of the Rings). It’s especially important to have some sense of who’s who and what’s what when reading high fantasy, as the story isn’t fed to you like when watching a film. In the case of Demonic Cultivation, the barrier to most people reading this review comes from it being foreign fantasy, where the conventions aren’t the same as what we are used to. Once you grasp one Western high fantasy series, it’s much easier to move onto the next. But going to another language, another culture, another history, it’s almost like starting fresh.

For me, the greatest challenge was those damn names. The subtitlers – Sigmar bless them – did their best to note cultural context and meanings for name and titles, but I still had characters and relationships confused. You hear the same surname, so you think the characters are related, right? No, they aren’t. Other times have a character named one thing, only for it to be something else in another scene. Turns out, pre-20th century China had a convention called “courtesy names”, where people would receive another name upon reaching adulthood. Couple this with the fact that these names – Wei Wuxian, Wei Ying, Lan Xichen, Nie Huaisang, Yu Ziyuan, to name a few – are nothing like Western or the usual anime names and it becomes difficult to remember any names at all. (I had to look up Lan Wangji’s full name for the blurb above and he’s second billing!)

Now I’m sure this isn’t an issue whatsoever to Chinese locals, just as Western or Japanese high fantasy is second nature to me, yet for the uninitiated, it will take time. Stick to it because the payoff is well worth it. Even if you can just remember how characters connect and who’s superior to whom, it will work out in the end. (Little easier said than done though, with characters from the same clan looking like each other in the same uniform and same hairstyles. They love that long hair.)

While this adherence to traditional naming schemes is a positive even if it increases the barrier for entry, since it enriches the world and its lore (in fact, I wish they had applied the same complexity to the magic by laying out rules), the frequent timeskips are a definite negative.

Timeskips bookend each story arc, often leaping over what seem like important events. The most notable is when the villain clan makes their move. One episode ends, everything seemingly fine, before the next opens to the clan in near total control of the others. How the hell did that happen? Did anyone say no or did everyone surrender unconditionally? How did we get here? It isn’t implausible that this conclusion would occur, but it would be nice to see the events that led there.

These timeskips remind me of watching a TV series before the advent of DVR and video on demand/downloading. You would watch an episode, then miss a few weeks because scheduling conflicts, and when you finally catch another episode, you wonder how it got here from where it was the last time you watched. “Weren’t those two madly in love? Why are they trying to kill each other? Wait, isn’t that guy dead?”

If you go in blind, the point of the story can be confusing because it takes a few episodes to get into the real plot. I thought at first the story was about other cultivators hunting Wuxian for his use of necromancy. Turns out, they just hate him because he’s a troublemaker at school. Early episodes make up the “school years” arc.

Demonic Cultivation also doesn’t wow the audience (outside of its amazing backgrounds) these few episodes. Once the story gets going however, it grabs you and doesn’t let go until it ends on a fantastic final act. That finale has left me craving more. (Season 2 in July!)

If you haven’t tried any donghua yet, let Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation be your first. It’s a little rough and a little difficult for those foreign to Chinese fantasy like me, but don’t let that stop you enjoying this new perspective on anime.

Art – High

Picturesque backgrounds, varied environments, fluid animation, and impactful spell effects should earn an art rating of the highest tier. Unfortunately, 5% of this art is early 2000s CG monsters and buildings, and it looks bad. The CG in some important scenes looks so bad that you can’t help but wonder why they didn’t take an extra two weeks to do them normally. Some CG shots don’t even need to be there. Just cut them. A still painting to establish setting would have sufficed – the environment artists are certainly talented enough to make it beautiful. Also, supporting character faces and hairstyles could use more variety.

Sound – High

Unlike The King’s Avatar, the audio is spatial and uncompressed (characters on the right sound from the right), which is a huge improvement. The acting has a little ways to go yet. Such lovely music though! I love classical Chinese music with traditional instruments and I could listen that opening song forever.

Story – Very High

A demonic necromancer reincarnated in the body of a trickster gets up to no good against the backdrop of a brewing war between clans of magic. Great characters in a story of complex interpersonal and political conflicts makes for a great series.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Watch it. If there is the right donghua to begin with, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation is it.

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

Positive: 

Deep NarrativeFluid AnimationGreat MusicGreat OP or ED SequenceStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

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The Garden of Sinners – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kara no Kyoukai

 

Similar: Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne

Darker than Black

Ghost Hunt

Key the Metal Idol

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Supernatural Action Mystery Thriller

Length: 9 movies (35 min. to 2 hrs. each)

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful environments.
  • Fantastic soundtrack.

Negatives:

  • Dead eyes syndrome.
  • Atrocious editing and pacing.
  • No one has a personality.

(Request an anime for review here.)

The Garden of Sinners is an unusual anime series. I’m not sure if you can refer to it as a series, in the standard sense, for it is nine movies of vastly varying length – 35 minutes to 2 hours long. Furthermore, the movies aren’t connected much beyond the main characters and subject matter. It’s akin to older British detective serials like Poirot, where little of the story carries from one episode to the next, which allows the audience to join any week in the series on TV without feeling lost.

Using this series structure, The Garden of Sinners tells of a detective agency that takes on cases involving the supernatural – spirits, curses, and the like. The agency has three members: the sorceress Touko, able to create human-like dolls, the ordinary human Kokutou, and part-doll protagonist Shiki. She has the “Mystic Eyes of Death Perception”, a power that allows her to see a target’s “lifelines” that will kill them when cut. (That’s how they deal with the supernatural entities.)

The first movie follows a string of suicides by schoolgirls all leaping from the same skyscraper set for demolishment. On paper, this is an interesting anime, just my sort of thing. I love contemporary supernatural stories and I am a ravenous consumer of detective serials. This should be a direct feed of serotonin to my brain injected via a syringe of intriguing mystery, complex characters, fascinating mysticism, and unpredictable story. The Garden of Sinners has none of that.

The most glaring issue is that none of these characters has a personality. This should come as no surprise from the same author who brought us the worse-than-Twilight of anime that is Fate/stay night. Shiki is, by intention, an emotionally repressed person. However, once again, like a bloody broken record, I must stress that emotionally repressed does not equate to zero personality, never mind the other characters who are meant to be real people. I can’t imagine what the authors of these soulless characters think mute people must be like in real life. Do they think that mutes will have no personality because they can’t speak?

This lack of soul bleeds into the mysteries themselves. The narrative never makes an effort to have the audience care for the answers to its questions. It assumes that because it hasn’t given us an answer, we must therefore care to know the answer. I hear my neighbour arguing with her daughter in Mandarin on occasion. I’m not interested to translate what they are saying (daughter probably stays out too late). Have the police turn up to cart away a third person I never knew was there and then you have my attention.

The Garden of Sinners tries to con the audience into thinking it has an intricate plot full of hidden details and deeper meaning, when in fact, it is poor structure and storytelling. “This is really complicated – it must be good!”

To compound problems, the editing is a slog. Many shots hold for too long. It’s just a few seconds here and there, but it doesn’t feel right and adds up over time. Directors and editors don’t have to follow set rules for how long a shot should be. Breaking the rules can create an effect. One can let the camera linger for a few seconds to make the audience feel awkward. An extreme close-up, right in a character’s face as they’re talking creates extreme discomfort in the viewer as desired. However, when breaking the rules, it must be with care. Should the effect backfire, it makes the editing seem amateur, as is often the case in The Garden of Sinners. This isn’t deal breaking, but these long shots do allow us to ponder on the fact that the story and characters are empty.

The exception is the fifth movie about a double homicide that never happened. The visuals take a hit in quality, though do get more consistent, and the editing is much tighter. It feels like a different studio’s production. Despite it being nearly 2 hours long, it’s much easier to get through than the movies half its length because things are happening at pace. There is more energy, more life to it all. Doesn’t magically turn into a great movie, mind you, but it shows how much of a difference editing makes.

Before I leave you, I must touch upon the most forced product placement I have seen in anime. The first movie opens on Häagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream, drawing some equation between it and Shiki’s personality. And it returns to the ice cream again later. It is…fascinatingly shocking how blatant this advertising is. I don’t know what to make of it.

Art – High

The good old “dead eyes” syndrome studio ufotable is known for makes a return. The editing needs a lot of work, except in movie five. The animation is a mix of long stills broken up by shots of high animation, some in first person. The environments and atmospherics are beautiful.

Sound – Medium

The one and only thing I will take away from this is the soundtrack. I love the melodies and I am a sucker for ethereal vocals. As for the acting, it seems the actors were told to never have emotion in their voice, and under no circumstances are they to have any range. No talent allowed here!

Story – Low

A detective agency dealing with the supernatural investigates a series of mysterious cases. There is no adequate reason The Garden of Sinners needed to be so long and so slow, nor is there a reason to have such soulless characters.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Don’t bother. The Garden of Sinners isn’t the worst anime – rather average, all things considered – but it is certainly one of the dullest. I can’t recommend anyone waste their time. If you must, then just watch the fifth entry as a standalone movie.

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

Positive:

Great Music

Negative:

Poor Pacing

Ghost Hunt – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ghost Hunt

 

Similar: Psychic Detective Yakumo

Ghost Stories

xxxHOLiC

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Comedy Horror Mystery

Length: 25 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good fun.
  • Everyone is a fraud.
  • Isn’t predictable.
  • The Australian accent.

Negatives:

  • The Australian accent.
  • Low production values.
  • Not scary at all.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Ghost Hunt looks like arse, the performances are half-arsed, and these ghost hunters couldn’t tell the difference between a gust of wind and their arses. And that’s what makes this anime fun.

For reasons that could never see justification, Mai is forced to work as the assistant to 17-year-old Kazuya, sceptical ghost hunter of the Shibuya Psychic Research Company. Their slave-master relationship begins at her school with the case of the abandoned school building, but soon goes on tour to other haunted locations in Japan. They are joined – rather coincidentally – at each site by a rock star Buddhist monk, vain Shinto priestess, TV spirit medium, and (my favourite) an Australian Catholic priest.

The poor visuals and near absence of animation turned me off the series until the full cast of characters assembled at school. Unable to handle the bad PR of having a haunted building on campus, the principal hired someone from every religion he could think of to assist Kazuya. They are great together. I love that they each think everyone else is a fraud. It brings a good level of humour to the story, especially coupled with the inspiration taken from those fake American ghost-hunting series. A chair falls over and everyone freaks out!

However, nothing is funnier than the Catholic priest in the English dub. His accent is so bad that it transcends hilarity, so much so that I recommend watching Ghost Hunt in English. I couldn’t stop laughing every time he spoke.

The other strength of Ghost Hunt is in how they handle the mysteries. Each case takes three to four episodes, building layers to the backstory and throwing twists at the investigators. It isn’t as predictable as I anticipated. I like how Kazuya is a sceptic who doesn’t jump straight to the supernatural answer, instead checking if there is an earthly explanation for the weird occurrences first. Just when you’re sure it’s a phantom, he unveils a logical explanation or vice-versa. Furthermore, these aren’t generic urban myths you see in every horror series. The mysteries are good enough to keep you on the hook, wanting to know what happened, and the group dynamic among these hack frauds maintains decent tension and humour.

In an effort to dispel any notions that Ghost Hunt is a great series after all that praise, let us go through the problems. First, Mai isn’t a useful character. She is your typical audience stand-in – an ordinary person thrust into a paranormal world surrounded by experts (“experts”) that do all the work. Second, there is no need to waste time reintroducing the other exorcists each new case. And third, Ghost Hunt isn’t scary. At all. It could have made more effort with the horror side of being a comedy horror series.

I went in with zero expectations, which dropped further upon seeing the art and hearing the performances, but I came to embrace the goof once the cast gathered and the mysteries developed.

Art – Low

There isn’t much animation (no high detail to compensate either) and the shattering glass is so obviously CG. What else do you need to know?

Sound – Low

You have to watch this in English for the Australian accent. He does have oddities in his Japanese dialect as well, but you won’t notice them if you don’t understand Japanese. The spooky OP is effective, though I wonder if the lack of lyrics was a budget constraint (made the best of what they had, regardless).

Story – Medium

A high school girl becomes assistant to a ghost hunter to pay off a debt. With some possibly unintentional comedy and unpredictable mysteries, Ghost Hunt has enough to be good fun for cheesy horror fans.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Ghost Hunt’s slim budget and cut corners only add to the fun. This is a horror series for those who prefer mystery over gore (see Another for the gore).

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Castlevania Season 2 – Review

Related: Castlevania Season 1

Castlevania Season 3 (TBR)

Similar: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Hellsing Ultimate

Berserk

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 8 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Improves upon the strong first season.
  • Vampire political intrigue.
  • New characters.
  • Oozes atmosphere.

Negatives:

  • No Church.
  • Ends too quickly.

(Request an anime for review here.)

We last left Trevor Belmont and his companions in the search for the means to find Dracula’s castle and slay the master of the keep. I left Castlevania with a positive impression though uncertain of whether it could hold up beyond what was, essentially, the opening to a series. Much to my surprise, yet again, Castlevania is superior to what I had anticipated by way of an interesting narrative focus.

Season 2 opens in the past with the arrest of Lisa (Dracula’s wife) by the Church for the “witchcraft” of medicine. While this is a retread, it gives us more detail and makes for a chilling first scene when you know what happens to everyone for ignoring her warning.

After this, we jump to Dracula’s war room, where his strongest vampires from across the kingdom have gathered to plot humanity’s annihilation. However – and this is where the brilliance started – he selects two humans as his generals to lead the scourge, much to the disgust of some vampires, especially one of the Vikings. Beyond their deep-seated loathing for humanity and their tactical ability, these two have the only clear heads in the army not driven by bloodthirst.

Now, at this point, it’s just a good idea (and I’ve harped on often enough about the importance of execution over ideas in past reviews). The brilliance comes in the backstory of these characters, contrasted against the vampires, and their actions going forward. They are simultaneously committing some of the most heinous atrocities against humanity while conveying sympathy. One of the two, Isaac, is Dracula’s Forgemaster. He doesn’t forge weapons, however. His speciality is bringing the dead to life, often forged into demons of great power, though he has equal inclination to revive a fallen puppy as a companion. Makes for an interesting ability.

The appointment of these two as generals leads to much unease among the vampires, many playing politics to gain power or favour with Dracula. There are whispers among the ranks about Dracula’s soundness of mind after the loss of his wife. How will vampires feed if he wipes out all humans? Carmilla the vampire queen of many legends is particularly sly and sharp of tongue. I relish the political drama she brings to the court. I did not expect politics, of all things, to be such a significant portion of the narrative and so well executed.

I haven’t talked much of Trevor and his two companions so far because they aren’t the focus this season. They have enough to do for the eight episodes as they return to Trevor’s home for blessed weapons and a means to access the castle, but the focus is truly in Dracula’s camp. It’s a bold risk to shift from the protagonist. It works. Sure, we could have more of the trio in addition to all screen time with the opposition, but that would go into overtime.

Castlevania Season 2 isn’t all blood, politics, and goodness, unfortunately. The end feels too quick. For seven episodes, we have methodical build up packed with social and political dynamics, feeding us juicy backstory and character motivations until we reach the final episode where, suddenly, so much of it wraps up with too many questions and possibilities remaining unexplored. It needs more. It gives the impression that they didn’t know episode 8 would be the last until they started work on it, realising they needed to close several threads.

I want more – more vampire society, more politics, and more lore (and bring the Church back! Tap that potential). I am grateful to know a third season is on the way. Even so, they could have gone deeper with Dracula’s arc in particular.

Still, I am far from disappointed with Castlevania Season 2. The action is as gory as before (you see someone decapitated by hanging from a bladed noose), the orchestral soundtrack is a perfect match to the atmosphere, and the acting is still quality, now with more accents from the corners of Dracula’s kingdom.

I love that this outdid the first season.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Castlevania Season 2 improves upon the first season in almost every way and now goes far enough into the story to warrant investment. If season 3 is any better, I’ll have to consider a Very High rating.

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Future Diary – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mirai Nikki

 

Similar: Deadman Wonderland

Death Note

Another

Eden of the East

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Supernatural Action Horror Thriller

Length: 26 episodes, 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Interesting premise.

Negatives:

  • No smart characters.
  • Alliance flip-flopping.
  • Inconsistent powers.
  • Yuno’s obsessiveness is weak.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Everyone knows of Mirai Nikki, or Future Diary in English, if not by name then by the yandere character of Yuno and her repeated pronouncements of “Yuki”. What I didn’t know, despite having heard of this series in 2011, was the premise of Future Diary. I always thought it was about an obsessive girl (Yuno) trying to kill the guy she loved. There is far more to the story than that, though not necessarily to its benefit.

Yuki has a cellphone diary that tells him the future, forewarning him of the many possible eventualities from his competitors in the battle royale. However, it doesn’t reveal his future unless tied to someone else. He teams up with his stalker Yuno, who also possesses a “future diary”, except hers only reports on Yuki’s status every ten minutes. When paired with his diary, it makes her the perfect guardian in this battle. What is the prize for victory? Godhood.

I was disappointed when they introduced the battle royale angle. I had hoped for a smaller scale story with the duo avoiding one fatality after the other, delaying the inevitable, akin to The Time Machine and Steins;Gate. The battle royale turned this into generic shounen horror, pointless ecchi included. Not that it couldn’t have succeeded, but the writer evidently could not handle the complexity of a story with so many possible outcomes and 12 time altering powers to track. Each diary is different and creates a 12-pointed rock-paper-scissors game.

Juggling all of these elements is Future Diary’s greatest failing. For one, the diaries for each character conveniently don’t forewarn of something or don’t function as they should when the plot needs a character to die. Comparing to the similar Death Note, the rules there are set and don’t waver, which makes it all the smarter when one player outsmarts the other. Bending the rules when convenient makes the audience lose trust in the author.

This also extends to the inherent supernatural abilities of some characters. A character can have the strength to break out of a bind one moment, and then be rendered useless the next in a similar situation. I’m not even sure if they are meant to have superpowers, but some characters defy human boundaries of ability.

Future Diary also has an overreliance on crazy over smarts. None of these contestants are smart. Instead, just about everyone is “lol I’m a crazy psycho, aren’t I interesting?” There’s little variety in the showdowns against the various competitors, lasting 2-3 episodes a kill, and it makes much of it feel like padding. Future Diary is like taking the Batman versus Joker story but with 11 different Jokers and one of them is on Batman’s side (sort of). The more copies of “the psycho” you include, the more it dilutes the strength of the individual. I thought that the battle royale direction would be about producing a variety of opponents with some clever trick to besting them. The only real difference between them is their diary’s ability, which even then isn’t that varied.

Then we have the allegiance switching every other episode. “You know these two allies? Let’s have them fight each other next episode.” “But, sir, that doesn’t make sen—” “Who cares – it will surprise the audience!” It reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, where Jack Sparrow and company flip-flopped allegiances every few minutes because the producers heard the audience liked Jack’s triple cross in the first movie. Future Diary does the same to generate dumb conflict.

Lastly, we come to the main couple, the one thing that gave Future Diary any popularity. Yuno’s obsession with Yuki doesn’t work for me. I don’t buy into her reason for being so possessive of him, even once the story provides an explanation later on. The best psychotic characters, as unhinged as they are, have a well-defined reason for their behaviour that we can understand, from their perspective, without agreeing with them. Yuno is just psychotic because that’s what the story needed.

And Yuki? You won’t remember him before the series is over.

I was rather bored with Future Diary for the most part. It doesn’t have that quality reminiscent of bad horror, where you can enjoy the silliness of the violence regardless of story quality (a bad story likely enhances the experience). The deaths needed to be more ridiculous like in Another, an anime that I didn’t find great either but had advantage of over the top deaths. It’s strange that Future Diary, so full of psychos, has such tame kills. I guess being generic shounen horror will do that to you.

Art – Medium

The visuals are rather good, though needs more atmosphere for this type of series. Scenes don’t feel as frightening as they should as a result.

Sound – Low

The Japanese and English acting is roughly the same. English Yuno is less annoying, but you may want her more psychotic Japanese counterpart. Regardless of language track, the writing sucks.

Story – Low

A boy with a mobile phone that tells the future enters a battle royale against others with similar devices, as a psycho chick protects him against everything except herself. Future Diary’s good idea crumbles under bad writing, incoherent storytelling, and shallow characters.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Future Diary is too much of a mess for me to recommend and the deaths aren’t inventive or ridiculous enough to enjoy with friends.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Incoherent