Tag Archives: Intelligent

The show as a whole, often due to intelligent characters, has intellectual depth.

Death Note – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Death Note

 

Similar: Monster

Code Geass

Terror in Resonance

The Future Diary

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Psychological Mystery Thriller

Length: 37 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Great atmosphere.
  • Intelligent characters.
  • Well thought out crime drama.
  • Top-notch acting.
  • Tense, riveting music.

Negatives:

  • Part 2 throws away most of the above.

Evil is a matter of perspective. To this day, I still see debates on whether Kira’s goal was the correct one or not. Are there people who deserve to die? If so, who should have power to pass judgement and carry out the execution? Death Note is a look into a scenario where such a power is granted.

Light, or Kira, as he would later be known, finds a notebook lying on the ground at his high school. Inside are a set of rules, the first of which states, “The human whose name is written in this note shall die.” He doesn’t believe it, naturally, but he tests it on a random criminal from the news and they die. The notebook not only works, but it also allows him to specify time and method, within reason, of death. The Death Note belongs to Ryuk, a real death god from the nether plane, who finds enjoyment in Light’s action; death is mere entertainment to him.

Light has always had a superiority complex – an A-grade student who sees himself above the rabble, his higher intelligence making him a superior being. And now, with the power of death in his hands, that superior attitude turns into one of godhood as he becomes judge and executioner – there is no need for jury. The victims are the worst of the worst in the crime world, but soon his judgement becomes stricter until he is even willing to kill the innocent to remain god of death.

Seeing this spree of inexplicable deaths, the police have to uncover the truth. Yet, what can the ordinary man do against he who wields death from the darkness? Enter L, the world’s greatest detective, ready to face this most fearsome opponent. Kira versus L, a battle of the minds.

Death Note’s genius lies in how it handles the duel between these two characters. We see the drama unfold from both perspectives, detailing every stage, every thought, every reaction in these masterful plans to defeat each other. When Kira deceives L or when L baits Kira, we believe the deceit because every detail is laid out for us to see, executed in a plausible manner – no victory is achieved by chance or by the writer forcing his favourite character to win. Death Note is the sort of story where you know what epic twist is about to happen a split second before it happens; it keeps you guessing, riveted to the screen from episode to episode.

Now, take everything I said above, wrap it in a neat bundle with your hopes and dreams for the perfect anime – you wrapped it tightly? – and throw it away for part two.

At a certain point, there is a clear event to end the series on; however, the writer chose to extend the story, it seems, almost like a sequel season to make sure no loose ends of any kind remain, something that isn’t necessary. Part of the joy with many stories is leaving threads up to the imagination where possible.

In this second part, the genius in the writing is no more. Illogical manoeuvres become the norm, clues are uncovered through guesswork, leaps of logic that make no sense uncover the answer, and once intelligent characters make the stupidest mistakes. The mind games are no longer believable. Where the anime showed us smart characters before, it now has characters we are told are smart, but they aren’t fooling anyone.

It doesn’t help that most new characters are irksome rather than interesting – because eccentricity worked earlier, he thinks, “If I just add more eccentricity, it will automatically be amazing!” Wow, you snap chocolate with your teeth in dramatic fashion? How eccentric! … If I didn’t know better, I would say part two is a fan fiction sequel, a poor imitation, a sequel written by someone who thought they understood Death Note, but only looked surface deep.

All this said, the first part ends well and is self-contained enough to keep Death Note an excellent anime. You simply have to endure its ugly cousin hanging around afterwards. Part two isn’t even bad, honestly; it’s when one compares it to what came before that the impact is felt.

Art – High

I love the dark tones, the contrast lighting and shadow, the shot composition, all used to convey mood and thought. Atmosphere greatly helps in drawing the audience into Kira and L’s duel.

Sound – Very High

The acting is perfect in either language. Watching the original on first release, I doubted one could match the voices in English, but those Canadian folk did it. The music is tense, dramatic, riveting – always right in enhancing a scene.

Story – Very High

A student finds a notebook that can kill anyone by writing one’s name within. A battle of wit between self-proclaimed saviour of the world and the greatest detective. Mind games abound. Excellent, for most of the way.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. Just know the latter episodes won’t match the preceding quality. Other than that, Death Note is an easy recommendation.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeEngaging DialogueExtensive Character DevelopmentGreat MusicGreat OP or ED SequenceHoly S***Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStellar Voice ActingStrategicStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative:

Weak End

RahXephon – Anime Review

Japanese Title: RahXephon

 

Related: RahXephon: Pluralitas Concentio (alternate movie – watch series first)

RahXephon Interlude: Her and Herself/Thatness and Thereness (OVA)

Similar: Ghost in the Shell

Ergo Proxy

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Action Drama Music Mystery Romance

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Complex narrative and characters.
  • Lore rewards multiple viewings.
  • Excellent use of music and colour metaphor.
  • Superb acting.

Negatives:

  • Complexity leads to niche appeal.

RahXephon holds a fond place in my anime history. An image, a sound, a name, all trigger my memories of this excellent series – the chance discovery at a convention, the first purchase, the long wait between volumes, rewatching all so far in the meantime, checking new releases after school too often, cursing three episodes per DVD, such memories.

RahXephon is an oft-misrepresented series. If you have heard of it, it must be with comparisons to Evangelion, but to say they are the same displays a lack of understanding in both RahXephon and Evangelion, a look at merely the superficial – ah mah gaaaad, a kid with a giant robot against giant monsters! It’s like saying The Dark Knight and Avengers are the same because both feature superheroes. RahXephon is closer to The Matrix than anything, with touches of Inception and time compression.

Ayato lives in a world where all was destroyed by invaders save for Tokyo – billions down to twenty-three million. However, when enemy agent Haruka comes to capture him, claiming his world is a lie, Tokyo as an illusion, his life is thrown upside down. He is the key to defeating the true invaders, blue-blooded Mulians that control Tokyo, for he is an Instrumentalist able to synchronise with the god-like machine RahXephon. He finds himself in a foreign land, his friends, school, life, still trapped inside the illusion of Tokyo. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his mother leads the Mulians.

Ayato is the archetypal reluctant hero forced into war with little explanation, treated as a child despite the importance of his role for humanity. Unlike other ordinary out-of-water characters that end up dull, owing to an ordinary personality as well, Ayato has his mind pushed to the edge, his choices and trials enough to break any man.

He feels the world is against him. Of course, this isn’t true, as it would be rather dull to have a singular-minded cast. No, RahXephon’s cast is a varied gathering – the jealous, the greedy, the naïve, the mysterious, the tenacious, and the kind. Every character is interesting with shades of good and evil. Spending time with them gives the impression each has a complete backstory to call their own, even if appearing simple at first. Furthermore, this backstory isn’t offloaded onto the audience, much of it subtle, requiring close dissection to uncover. Each scene has something of significance – a passing comment here, an unusual reaction there. If you don’t notice these details, the characters still work, but those details truly bring them to life. The romance alone has enough to dissect through several viewings.

Character is so important to RahXephon that even the action is character driven, to the point where it intrudes on the physical side of action scenes. When a threat appears, the real fight is within the psychology, and not always Ayato’s, which makes for engaging conflict. However, once the mental battle is resolved, the fight ends a little too quickly, sometimes in a single attack. It would be nice to see a little more in the physical spectrum, especially with the interesting artistic design and spectacle. The enemy Dolems are constructs of living clay and named after musical notation in Italian – Allegretto, Falsetto, Fortissimo, etc. They are strange in design and power, with one Dolem able to sink entire cities into nothingness with a mere song.

The music motif is significant throughout the series, used to great effect to convey psychology, often unsettling the audience; the soundtrack itself tells a story. Music controls the machines and changes the world. Song is power.

Every element of RahXephon works in harmony to create such a deep and complex narrative, I feel it will alienate many viewers, as though The Appendices were woven into The Lord of the Rings. But like Tolkien’s work, for those who enjoy such detail, RahXephon is a rare treat. With each viewing, I find something new; I discovered three new details for this review – and that must have been my twelfth viewing, at least, of RahXephon.

Art – High

RahXephon looks great in stills with its Egyptian and Aztec aesthetic influences; however, during motion, it can get a little ‘slidey’ when RahXephon flies across the screen – his wings could do with movement. Close-ups are well animated, but long shots need more motion detail. The character and element design is creative, each construct and character telling us a story in their appearance – RahXephon is my favourite mech design. Great use of colour to build atmosphere and amplify character psyche. Gorgeous OP.

Sound – Very High

RahXephon has the best soundtrack in anime. From the ethereal opening “Hemisphere” (my most-listened to song) to the tense track “The Chariot,” RahXephon boasts a wide array of music: romantic, uplifting, mysterious, unsettling, powerful, frenetic, calming. The piano, the violin, the brass, the opera, the choir, all lend heightened emotion to the narrative. The voice acting is superb in English, the actors a perfect fit for their characters. The English script has slight tweaks that improve on the original Japanese as well.

Story – Very High

The Matrix with mechs and monsters. Deep, complex, and rewarding. Attention to lore detail far beyond the norm, possibly too far beyond.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Despite my very high praise, I can only recommend RahXephon to those who love complexity. If you are the sort to read The Lord of the Rings Appendix, then RahXephon is for you.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeEngaging DialogueExtensive Character DevelopmentGreat MusicGreat OP or ED SequencePositive Recommended English Voice TrackStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

Gungrave – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gungrave

 

Related: Gungrave (video game basis)

Similar: Berserk

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom

Texhnolyze

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Mafia Drama Action Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Deep characters and development.
  • Stylish, fast-paced action.
  • Brutal drama.
  • Top tier acting for the well-characterised dialogue.
  • Less is more.

Negatives:

  • The action focused final third could not live up to the preceding drama.

Before I begin the review, you must know of the two ways to watch Gungrave, depending on what type of story you prefer. If you start at episode one, you will witness a flash-forward before the plot rewinds to the beginning. Or, you can begin at episode two and have no idea of what is yet to come. With the first method, you will be wondering how things went so wrong; with the second method, you won’t know what goes wrong. It is up to your preference. Both are equally great, though I will write this review on the assumption that you skip episode one to avoid spoiling for method two. (All trailers spoil too much, so I settled for the opening above.)

After the murder of their friends by a rival gang, street punks Brandon and Harry join the largest crime syndicate, Millennion. Brandon seeks to get closer to Maria, the Godfather’s ward, while Harry wishes to make something of himself. Brandon is quiet, disciplined – the muscle – and loyal to a fault. He barely talks, but he projects tons of character in his manner, in the tone of his expression. Harry, on the other hand, is a leader, too charismatic for his own good, a smooth talker of great ambition and intellect.

Gungrave is the story of how these two friends climb the mafia ranks, putting character, morals, and love on the line. Gungrave’s roots in gangster films are obvious – the notion of ‘loyalty to the family’ is a recurring theme throughout. It is a blend of Scarface and The Godfather with a touch of science fiction (only anime would take such down-to-earth films and add the fantastical).

Brandon and Harry, supported by a larger cast, are the heart of Gungrave. Their character arcs are something to be studied at length for how well and believably the characters evolve by the end. It’s rare to see a story that doesn’t treat friendship as an all-binding law. I enjoy a ‘power of friendship’ story as much as the next viewer, but it’s always a pleasure to see a story that questions if friendship really is all-powerful. And Gungrave manages to convey all of this without resorting to long conversations. Most stories can only manage such depth by sitting the characters down for long dialogues to explain their motives, which is rather dull, even if insightful. Brandon’s restriction as a silent character forced the writers to express thought without word – that look in his eye, that moment’s hesitation. Gungrave conveys development through actions, choices and consequences, never resorting to extended conversations where characters tell us where they stand.

Despite the serious gangster story and unfettered violence, there are moments of well-timed humour to give the audience time to breathe. If you have seen the famous gangster films, you will know that despite the many guns, action occupies only a small amount of screen time. Guns in mafia films aren’t about delivering action, but as tools to convey character emotions. Gungrave is no different. The syndicate isn’t about killing. It’s about control and family, understating how humans work and what makes them comfortable, makes them unwilling to defy you, or better yet, work for you.

The action, when present, is excellent and doesn’t drag for episodes on end. That said, when the action does dominate the final third (also like most gangster films), it isn’t as good as preceding episodes. An unfortunate side effect of having such powerful drama come first – a real first-world [story] problem.

Gungrave still keeps me glued to the screen after several viewings for its subtlety in character and is my favourite anime. Can you believe this is based on a video game? It’s amazing that a simple action game spawned such an excellent series. If only movies could manage such adaptation quality.

Art – High

Gungrave looks great for a pre-HD anime with a Trigun and Cowboy Bebop-esque art style. The action looks fantastic and cinematography works overtime to amplify characters’ emotion.

Sound – Very High

The cast couldn’t be better for Gungrave’s Japanese track. Even with the European-dominated naming (some Engrish), I recommend sticking with Japanese. Tomokazu Seki, once again, delivers the perfect quiet character. The music consists mostly of slow jazz and solo violin. I like the lyric-less OP.

Story – Very High

A mafia story of power, greed, family and loyalty. Characters and development of excellent depth.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. Gungrave is an exemplar is subtle characterisation and uncensored human nature. Remember to start at episode one or two depending on your preferred story type.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentHoly S***Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Steins;Gate – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Steins;Gate

 

Related: Steins;Gate Burdened Region/Domain of Déjà vu (sequel movie)

Steins;Gate 0 (next series)

Similar: Mirai Nikki

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Erased

Qualia the Purple (manga)

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Thriller Drama

Length: 24 episodes & 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • A superb cast.
  • Complex narrative filled with twists and turns.
  • J. Michael Tatum as Okabe delivers one of anime’s best performances.
  • Great music overall.
  • Actual cinematography.
  • Surprisingly hilarious.

Negatives:

  • Unclear direction to begin with.

I had intended to save Steins;Gate until after clearing all reviews for anime I have already seen, but when a reader requests, I must get on it! (One can never be sure if they are part of The Organisation out to test me!) Having seen Steins;Gate high on multiple rankings, I thought to myself, “It’s probably good, but not that great.” (I had played the visual novel, but the writing was so padded that several hours equates to a couple of episodes and didn’t have time to complete it.) I have found that the ‘Cute Girl Metric’ often indicates the disparity between fandom versus actual quality: The more cute girls in the cast, the worse the show compared to the mouth-foaming fanboyism. (Yes, I do doubt Madoka Magica’s quality, but I am waiting to be proven wrong when I get to it.) Steins;Gate has three; three cute girls doesn’t bode well for quality. Bloody hell was I wrong! Not only are the cute girls most relevant, they have more characterisation than most anime protagonists do.

Steins;Gate tells the story of self-professed mad scientist Okabe and his team’s experimentation with time travel – think Terminator meets The Time Machine. At a speech on time travel by a rival scientist, he meets an auburn-haired girl who says he has a message for her, though they have never met. He finds her dead minutes later. As he texts his friend the news, time and space tears around him and he finds himself transported back to before the professor’s lecture, the girl alive again. His time machine worked, inadvertently. The ingredients to the time machine? A microwave and a phone…

This goofiness with the time machine’s components summarises Steins;Gate’s early, deceptive tone. The atmosphere begins light-hearted, where we meet the rest of the lab members, an eccentric bunch, indeed. One girl only communicates through text message, even when face-to-face. Daru, a tech guy, is the waifu king (“It doesn’t count if I fool around on them with a flesh and blood woman!”) and a colossal pervert, but not of the drooling variety; he prefers the subtle approach, the innuendo style – “Could you repeat that, only slower and in a whisper?” Then there is Mayuri, one of aforementioned cute girls, whose job is team morale and making cosplay. Yeah…not exactly what you think of when you hear ‘crack science team.’ Lastly, an actual scientist turns up in the form of Christina, the auburn girl who is supposed to be dead.

Together, they experiment with time travel by turning bananas to goo and sending text messages back in time. These are fun, lively characters, their eccentricities a pleasure to spend time with – they have to add ‘real name TBA’ after every mention of a wacky invention. Unfortunately, this light-hearted beginning leaves the main conflict out of sight, as if Lord of the Rings said the ring should be destroyed, but doesn’t tell us why until later. (I can’t tell you the conflict as it would mean spoiling much of the pre-conflict events.) However, soldier on and you won’t regret it; besides, the characters are so likeable that they make the wait easy.

Once the conflict is revealed, just…brilliant. Each experiment descends them further and further into chaos with global ramifications. Pay attention with this one, trust me. The narrative gets to a point where you need to juggle several plot threads at once, each similar but for a few anomalies. Steins;Gate has the sort of writer that knows what it means to build the plot, to escalate the conflict – it keeps getting better. Looking back on the many twists and foreshadowing, one can see that they took their time with planning the whole plot before a single scene was shot.

One point of note is the science jargon. Don’t be discouraged if you have no idea what quantum theory and string theory are about; it helps to have the knowledge prior, but the dialogue does a good job of explaining the essentials. If you hear some unknown science speak, just listen to Doctor Who, “…it is more like a big ball of wibbily wobbly timey wimey…stuff.”

As with all time travel, you will find holes in the plot if you think it through. “If they could go back to X time and do A, why not go back to Y time instead and do B? Etc.” That said, Steins;Gate does make an effort to plug many obvious holes with restrictions on travel distance and by use of the many-worlds interpretation as a baseline.

Steins;Gate has so much quality work that I haven’t the space for it all, such as the other aforementioned cute girls. Never mind the clever pop-culture references tailored to Japan or the West depending on the language track. Every time there is a chance for a joke, no matter how minor, they throw one in.

So, not only does Steins;Gate have an intricately woven plot with intense drama and emotion, it’s funny too. Really couldn’t ask for more. Other than greater clarity in the first few episodes, my complaints are too minor to detail. The next series has a great deal of pressure on its shoulders.

Art – High

It is great to see more anime pay attention to camera placement and shot composition these days, and Steins;Gate uses cinematography to excellent effect. I like the art style with plenty of motion – considering the dialogue heavy nature, they could have been lazy and used static pans for most scenes, which they didn’t – but I do wish it had the texturing from the visual novel.

Sound – Very High

The big guns stepped up to the microphone. Okabe’s eccentricities, Daru’s waifu-love, Mayuri’s sweetness, all fantastic, and I feel a large part of that stems from the excellent script and characterisation. I preferred the English dub, as Okabe’s actor delivers an incredible performance – he has a greater range, more subtleties, more nuance, and more crazy. Excellent music with a tense, sci-fi edge. Love the OP.

Story – Very High

A story of time travel that grows more intense with each episode. The characters make Steins;Gate enjoyable; the plot makes their lives interesting.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch, regardless of personal preference. Steins;Gate is something new, something different to the anime medium, so you can never be sure if this isn’t for you until you watch it.

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

 

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeEngaging DialogueExtensive Character DevelopmentGreat MusicHilariousPositive Recommended English Voice TrackStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Perfect Blue – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Perfect Blue

 

Similar: Paranoia Agent (same director)

Paprika (same director)

Millennium Actress (same director)

Serial Experiments Lain

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Horror Thriller

Length: 1 hr. 20. min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Tense, psychological narrative.
  • Great use of music to enhance the tension further.
  • Brilliant editing.
  • Disturbing to powerful effect.

Negatives:

  • Could have been a little longer. Act 2 jumps to Act 3 too quickly.

Perfect Blue is the first in Satoshi Kon’s line-up of films, and what a directorial debut it is. It tells the story of a woman pushed to the edge of her wits under the fanaticism of celebrity worship culture, taking the audience to increasingly disturbing places.

Mima is a pop star in an idol group, but after moderate success, she wishes to try something new, reach greater heights as an actress. However, her more rabid fans don’t take kindly to her change in direction. It isn’t long before the dead calls start. Then the threatening faxes (only in Japan would it be fax instead of email) and creepy letters. An online blog chronicles her every action, even impersonating her.

For the longest time, whenever I hear of a fan stalking a celebrity, Perfect Blue is what I think of. The feel of the show starts quite tame, by design, but one can always sense that unease, that certain something which indicates there is more below the surface. And sure enough, it isn’t long before Mima’s mind begins to break. She gets cast in a sexually charged crime drama, blurring the lines between reality and psychosis. Each scene seems somehow more disturbing that the last. Truly, if you are one who dislikes disturbing films such as A Clockwork Orange and Silence of the Lambs, this anime isn’t for you.

As the scenes grow more disturbing, so too does the editing; Kon, as a genius of editing, knows exactly when to cut the camera for maximum effect, his transitions on a skill level few directors can match. In several scenes, the narrative and music builds and builds, leading us to the scene’s zenith, but just before it reaches that point, Kon suddenly cuts to the next scene, yanking us in a different direction. This isn’t like a jump scare. Rather, it’s a shock to the emotions, yet well crafted that it doesn’t lose the audience. Each edit blurs reality further and further.

After I bought all that the store had of the anime Orphen, I had enough credit left for one more DVD and didn’t want just one DVD of another series, so I bought Perfect Blue, the one anime film they stocked. I was a fourteen maybe fifteen-year-old kid and I had no idea what I was getting into. With its sexual and violent nature reliant on psychology instead of gratuitous shock, Perfect Blue disturbed me and I couldn’t appreciate how good it was until years later. Now, I see it as one of the all-time greats.

Art – High

Though Perfect Blue doesn’t have the vibrancy of Kon’s later works, it is excellently animated and rendered. The editing is outstanding, an exemplar in how editing makes a difference to storytelling.

Sound – High

Great acting in Japanese. The English is decent, but not great. Some lines sound stilted – the actors recorded one at a time can be noticeable and the depth of voice placement in the scene is off at times. Little music outside of the idols’ pop tracks, unless in times of tension. The transition from silence to sudden, Hitchcock-like music is jarring in the right way.

Story – Very High

A commentary on celebrity obsession as an idol faces the worst her career has to offer. Tense, disturbing, excellent.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch unless you don’t enjoy being disturbed. Also make sure to check out Kon’s other anime films, Paprika and Millennium Actress.

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

 

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationHoly S***Phenomenal VillainStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None