The isekai genre in anime is almost universally garbage, having run itself into the ground with the most low effort clones for a decade now. However, one isekai caught my eye in the spring 2021 line-up for not being an action series or featuring a teenaged protagonist.
The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent features a twenty-something office lady summoned against her will to another world to be the “saint” that will fend off the growing evil from this strange kingdom. Except, she’s not the saint. The other woman summoned with her is. The mages aren’t sure why the summon called forth two people – perhaps the dire situation requires two saints? While the prince whisks off the other woman to fulfil her destiny, Sei is free to do as she pleases and receives all the comforts the kingdom can provide. Bored with her new situation in life free of TV and the internet, she wanders into the Research Institute of Medicinal Flora and soon starts brewing potions, which turn out to be more effective than the norm. Her cooking also makes soldiers stronger. Is she the saint after all?
My initial impression of Omnipotent is a positive one. I like the older protagonist (not being an isekai rapist for once is a plus as well) and the less action-orientated premise stands out. My interest quickly wanes, sadly, as Sei meekly goes along with everything far too easily and her magical power is a nebulous gift that makes her the best at everything. I didn’t expect the title to be literal.
She makes potions the same as anyone else (never mind that she just started) yet they’re 50% stronger simply because. When she visits the mages to learn to enchant gemstones for a gift to her beau, she executes a perfect enchantment stronger than anyone at the institute could do on her first try. She proceeds to enchant a box of gems at the head mage’s request within a casual afternoon.
What bothers me more than the instant omnipotence is how irrelevant the isekai device is. Apart from her mentioning she’s bored without TV a couple of times, the fact that she’s from another world is irrelevant. Screams of lazy writing. Why not have her incorporate modern medicine and knowledge into her potions to make them stronger, à la Outlander? A notable twist could be that she is indeed no saint but her modern capabilities make her better than a saint. Weirdly, she only makes real use of each type of magic once – outside of the potions – in the series. This is a “magic spell of the week” show. That’s a first.
Beyond her abilities, I have never seen someone acclimatise so quickly and forget all connection to the modern world. There is some consternation about what would happen if everyone found out that she was a saint, probably the saint, though no conflict comes to fruition. It feels as if this is an isekai because isekai is popular, therefore you must have that tag no matter how flimsy. Omnipotent would have worked better if Sei were a gifted mage discovered by a high scholar in some remote village.
I find it tough to overstate how little effort went into the premise and the world. Sei’s power is undefined. The present day connection is meaningless. The fantasy society has no sense of lore or world building beyond the visuals and a few copy-pasted video game elements for magic. The great evil is as ill-realised as the rest, seen towards the end with a bit of action against nameless, faceless enemies.
“What are they?”
“Yes, but what kind of evil. Do you have a bestiary or something?”
“No. They evil.”
This is more of a slice of life anime though, and as such, this doesn’t turn my opinion negative. The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent is a relaxed comfort watch where everything looks lovely, where a romance with the commander matters more than the great evil. It’s a case where more effort could have made an anime I love instead of a watch, enjoy, and forget series.
Overall Quality – Low
Recommendation: For fantasy slice of life fans only. The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent is for those in need of a conflict-free, no-thought fantasy anime. For a little more oomph (woah, not too much though), I recommend Snow White with the Red Hair instead.
Full disclosure, I know nothing about Dota 2 lore. This review comes from the perspective of someone who doesn’t play the game or read any related lore. I did play the original DotA mod a decent amount and watched a few tournaments, but to be honest, I didn’t know there was any lore to the game. A one paragraph profile per character, sure, though nothing more. As such, if you are a loremaster, your experience may vary.
For those even less familiar with the material than me, Dota 2 is the standalone sequel to the original DotA mod from Warcraft 3. The mod proved more popular than Warcraft 3 itself until game studio Valve hired key developers to make a complete game, independent of Warcraft and Blizzard. The worst business move Blizzard ever made was not capitalising on DotA and they’ve since shot themselves in the foot with their StarCraft 2 and abysmal Warcraft 3 Reforged modding policy. Valve just had to change a few character and item names to avoid direct reference to trademarks, though references are still in place – the burst fire mage Lina the Slayer, based on Lina Inverse from Slayers, is still in the game, for example. Dota 2 has gone on to reach massive heights with the largest prize pools in esports history with its world championships each year, The International.
Dota: Dragon’s Blood brings together a handful of characters from Dota 2’s large cast of “Heroes” for an adult fantasy adventure. The protagonist is Davion the Dragon Knight, who slays dragons for a living only to have the soul of an elder dragon merge with his body during a fight with a demon. He can now transform against his will into a human-dragon hybrid monster (think the Hulk). He soon joins forces with Mirana, “princess of nothing,” to stop this demon from claiming more dragon souls. Meanwhile, the elven mage Invoker plots against the elven goddess Selemene, whose sycophantic followers wreak genocide across elven lands.
The best thing I can say immediately about Dragon’s Blood – or any game to film tie-in – is its disregard for the source material’s gameplay. Unless it’s something like Wreck it Ralph where the game is the point of the story, trying to incorporate gameplay elements in a film/series is cringe inducing (see Uwe Boll films for reference). It finally feels like Hollywood is starting to grasp how to adapt games for screen. Then again, Sony’s upcoming offerings don’t look promising, so perhaps it’s only in the animation sector.
Speaking of animation, Studio Mir (The Legend of Korra) once again makes the art form a delight to behold. The action scenes are fluid and violent, even on the horror side at times. This isn’t a series for kids. The character designs are classic high fantasy and coming from a game that requires distinct silhouettes for visibility in combat, there is variety. On a world building level, again, classic fantasy except for the elves, who are far less noble than the stereotype. Love that most of them are Australian and the actors do a good job for non-natives. It matches their society better than the typical Oxford English. The world grabs me.
However, the characters are a little lacking and this is where I wonder if my unfamiliarity with the source has an effect. I have not looked into the lore since finishing the series either – want to keep my outsider’s perspective. After all, you shouldn’t need outside material to enjoy a good adaptation. Had I been well acquainted with Davion and Mirana beforehand, would they engage me? I’m not even certain if all notable characters in Dragon’s Blood are from the game. I assume so.
Mirana is supposed to be a princess of “nothing” and yet, I don’t have the impression of a princess nor do I feel the shadow of secrets from her backstory. She’s fine though not compelling. The same is true of Davion. His personality does make him entertaining – I’ll give him that.
The more interesting characters are the antagonists Selemene and the not-as-antagonistic Invoker. Selemene is the Goddess of the Moon but more akin to a goddess of lust and obsession, as she forces her followers to pledge undying love to her. She’s psychotic about this. You want a favour from her? You had better be ready to say you love her or off with your head. It sounds mundane on paper yet she is genuinely threatening. She has a much stronger presence than the main villain consuming dragon souls (I often forgot he was in the story). Against her we have Invoker, who is a sympathetic antagonist with a personal story that drives engagement. I want more of the elven subplot over the main plot.
In all, Dota: Dragon’s Blood is certainly good enough for a relative outsider to the franchise, like myself, to find reason to watch this anime. I am looking forward to the next season and that’s worth something. Riot Games has an animated series of its own on the way for their game League of Legends, which I am much more familiar with, so it will be interesting to see how that compares.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: Try it. Even the Dota illiterate can enjoy this fantasy series.
With the conclusion of the fourth season, Netflix’s Castlevania comes to a great end. Rather than do a review for the final season only, I thought I would go back and cover the full series in one place, give my overall thoughts on this triumph (no need to read the other reviews either).
My astonishment at the quality of a video game to film adaptation has been the greatest surprise throughout Castlevania’s run. I’m hoping this is the turning point where adaptations are things to look forward to rather than dread, similar to when comic books became good films more often than not. Superhero film fans are spoilt for choice these days. They don’t know of the Affleck Daredevil and Elektra days. Watching a good adaptation can sometimes make you forget the bad – the atrocious – such as Far Cry (anything by Uwe Boll, honestly), Dead or Alive, and the notorious Super Mario Bros. It’s hard to stress how weird it feels to see quality when the expectation is absolute ass.
For the newcomers, Castlevania is a long-running franchise of loosely connected games about a bloodline of vampire hunters from the Belmont family battling against creatures of the night, usually led by Dracula. The Netflix series roughly follows the third game, Dracula’s Curse, though pulls from several entries and brings much of its own material to the canvas. That last point is a key to Castlevania the animation’s success. Most adaptations fail because they don’t realise that gameplay comes first in [good] video games and trying to translate this to a cinematic only experience doesn’t work. There’s a reason the “princess is in another castle” trope is a common ailment of game stories (the recent God of War, for example), yet not often seen in film. Games use it to tack on another 5-hour gameplay world before, of course, the princess is again in another castle and you have another world to explore. It’s fine to want to be faithful to the source material, but there’s no point if it makes for a garbage film. Character, theme, tone, and style matter when adapting, not the gameplay mechanics or exact plot.
In terms of story, what makes Castlevania? Vampire hunters, vampires, monsters, magic, gothic, horror, religion, and labyrinthine castles. Your story isn’t a failure if your vampire hunter doesn’t jump and whip, jump and whip, jump and whip. It’s like those movies based on FPS games, where they think that because they have a scene in first person as a guy mows down fools with a gun, they’ve nailed it.
This series understands what makes for an engaging story in the world of Castlevania.
Enough preamble already, onto the review proper! This story opens on the meeting and courtship between the human Lisa and the vampire lord himself, Dracula. He teaches her science and medicine to help the local humans, which doesn’t please the Church, who see science as heathen magic and burn her at the stake. Dracula’s fury in response knows no equal and he unleashes a horde of demons upon the nation. Hell reigns.
Trevor Belmont, the last in his line of vampire hunters, drinks his way to the end of his days unmoved by the massacres nearby. A plea from some humans wakes him from his drunken haze and he finally does what he was born to do. He soon meets the magician Sypha.
Hearing this premise and knowing the video game origin, expectations are for little more than good guy fights series of bad guys to get to big bad guy in terms of story. However, Castlevania is so much more. In fact, there is enough material just amongst the villains to make a full series. Dracula’s court consists of vampires and humans, each with their own motivations and purpose in this story. Politics plays a larger part than action does in the conflict. They aren’t evil for the sake of evil. Dracula is the most powerful being on Earth, yet the death of his wife broke him. Isaac, one of Dracula’s Forgemasters (demon constructors), is waging a war against his own kind, whereas the other Forgemaster is a tad hesitant though no less involved. Some amongst the vampire “sisters” question their existence as vampires. Are they truly to rule for all eternity? Over everyone? The nuance to these villains (are they all villains?) particularly in later seasons had me glued to the screen.
A recurring problem in stories featuring secret societies of the supernatural is homogony within the society. The Underworld films (a guilty pleasure of mine), The Mortal Instruments, and Blade are but a few examples. How many stories have you seen where all the vampires (except maybe one) or werewolves or whatever supernatural race are the same? Where they have no lives saves for waiting around to drop from above in groups when someone walks down a back alley? They may as well be the clone troopers from Attack of the Clones for all the difference between them. This cliché stems from how people imagine other cultures. They see people in their own country are as varied as the plants and animals of the world, yet everyone in a distant country is one homogenous blob of whatever stereotype they know and not just as varied. Or the writers are just lazy. Of course, one story doesn’t have room for thousands of different personalities, but variety in what characters you do have goes a long way, even the villains.
On a hero front, Trevor’s “I’m so over this” attitude combined with his family duty makes for a fitting hero, a better choice than a typical “hero” in this gothic tale, and his chemistry with Sypha brings a touch of levity. Alucard is a more unusual character. Like his father, he’s powerful yet amongst the most mentally weak after having lived a sheltered life. I love the way he talks as well. His vocal mannerisms alone inform much of his experiences and mental state. And let’s not forget the charismatic has-been Saint Germain. What is he up to?
Even the minor characters are memorable, from the religious fanatics to the sentient demons. My only complaint with the characters is that we don’t get to see more of them. I could easily do with twice as many episodes of character interactions and vampire politics.
If action is more to your taste, Castlevania is excellent there as well. Apart from a few rough cuts, the animation is great and the action never feels generic. It’s always interesting to watch and improves with each season. Gory too, as it should be for a horror series. The massacre in episode one sets the tone perfectly.
Castlevania started as an animation to which I paid no attention. Now, I love it. It has a great start with four episodes as a proof of concept followed by a second season that brings the cast to strength, and then a third season elevates it to excellence with nuance before a final season delivers an explosive action finish. This is one of the best fantasy series I’ve seen in a long time. I can only hope future video game adaptations receive even half the care and effort as Castlevania has received.
Overall Quality – Very High
Recommendation: Watch it. Castlevania is a triumph of an adaptation and a fantasy series. I heartily recommend it.
As the penultimate review of the 30 Reviews in 30 Days challenge, this one for Jujutsu Kaisen is two days late, as I needed more time than I thought to ruminate on it. I can’t quite decide how good I think this is. Let’s lay out the good and the bad and see where we get.
Jujutsu Kaisen is the latest big thing in the battle shounen space, having made waves with slick animation from the studio behind the goodness of Dororo and Yuri on Ice. It follows Yuji, a high school student turned “Jujutsu sorcerer” after he eats the finger of a cursed being, granting him extraordinary power. This power does come at the cost of having the finger’s owner, Sukuna, taking residence inside him and threatening to take control at any moment. He now studies at the Tokyo Jujutsu High School to hunt for the rest of the cursed fingers and so the teachers can keep an eye on him. He teams up with the stoic Fushiguro and brash Nobara under the tutelage of Satoru Gojo.
I want to start with the good points since they caught my attention initially. First, the animation. Fantastic! What ever happened to the good old days of battle anime having the most static animation in the industry? The best of times! All kidding aside about nostalgia blindness, Jujutsu Kaisen has excellent action animation. More than fluid, the choreography draws in the viewer and shows attention to the camera work as well. On top of this, the abilities have visual variety. A signature move of Jujutsu sorcerers is the Domain Expansion, allowing them to envelop the nearby area in an environment to enhance their power. Think of it as a home turf advantage. The look of this domain will vary by character and match their personality or power type. For example, a villain who fights with lava powers and has a volcano for a head will transform the environment in a lava hell. The variety in techniques changes up the setting on a regular basis. A concern with an ordinary modern Tokyo setting for a supernatural action series is a lack of interesting settings in which to stage fights. Domain Expansion nicely solves this.
There are plenty of other great abilities too. One guy claps and swaps positions with the target, another creates dogs from the shadows, and a girl harms enemies by hammering nails into straw dolls. An old geezer even fights with an electric guitar that generates energy!
If action is your priority in battle anime, then Jiujutsu Kaisen has you covered. It would be tough to decide what would go into a “best of” highlight reel since there is so much good-looking action.
The next great element is the grotesqueness of the villains and certain abilities. Jujutsu Kaisen isn’t a horror anime, but it feature plenty of body horror. When Sukuna awakens, an extra pair of eye open on Yuji’s cheekbones and a second mouth grows on his cheek. Disgusting. And fantastic. One villain has a row of arms inside his mouth. Another grows a plant that shoots buds of biting teeth. Just about every enemy is disgusting is some way and it works! You won’t forget these freaks anytime soon.
The third notable positive is how this anime distinguishes itself from its inspirator, Naruto. The similarities are obvious – protagonist has demon inside of him that grants great power but also takes over on occasion; second main guy is from a special clan bloodline with a unique technique; the girl of the trio is the strong aggressive type; the teacher has magic eyes he keeps covered except in combat (his Domain is akin to the Sharingan’s Tsukuyomi illusion) and is goofy during downtime. That’s just a few of the similarities. However, it sounds a lot more similar on paper than in practice, as this brings more than enough of its own spin on the common elements to feel fresh. My Hero Academia, another Naruto inspired battle shounen, often just feels like Naruto in a superhero skin. With Ninjutsu Kaisen, I don’t find myself thinking, “This is just like Naruto.” Instead, I think, “Reminds me of Naruto, but I like how they did that differently.”
Now we get into the negatives.
While I said the action is great, this is more so in the moment (much owed to the animation). When you step back and look at the fights in terms of story and arcs, the quality wanes in large part to the odd power creep. There is a hint of this problem from the very first episode, before Yuji eats the finger. He already has immense strength and speed for a human. Then he grows stronger in the middle of fights after nothing more than a pep talk or a “I just need to be stronger” thought. Eh? The power curve also ramps at a random rate with little explanation behind the progression. Some characters are so powerful that they could seemingly deal with all villains alone. Spinjutsu Kaisen also does that thing where it tells you someone is a mega genius, yet has nothing to show for it, or some guy can pull of some feat so miraculous it would render all challenge meaningless if used at the start of the fight.
The second season focuses a new set of students from the sister school in Kyoto and they have a show match with the Tokyo kids, like a mini, mini Chunin exam. This is the perfect opportunity to develop characters and give a sense of power progression. Think of Naruto season one when Kakashi uses a few Sharingan techniques. This makes you wonder what else can it do and when will Sasuke learn those moves. Give us a taste of future power. Or it’s like the opening of any Metroid game, where you start with a full arsenal of equipment only to have an incident break your gear at the end of the first area. Now you have something to look forward to without being overpowered right away. Doesn’t reveal all the upcoming power though; that’s for you to discover as you progress.
In Jujutsu Kaisen, a teacher demonstrates the technique and then the character of focus learns it or develops some other power to deal with the situation too quickly. It feels as if the action writing goes, “What power would make this fight look awesome?” and then just puts it in with little thought to how he gains/masters this power. Flashy fights will only hold my interest for so long.
The sister school leads me into the other significant failing – the main characters. They simply aren’t interesting (yet?). The power creep disconnects you from them on an action level, while the personalities and backstories disconnect on a personal level. Yuji’s motivation is the death of his grandfather, who passed away peacefully but alone. He wants to avoid the same sad end. This leads him to value his friends and protect them at all costs, just like any shounen protagonist. There isn’t much beyond that.
Main characters need mystery and sub plots. Sasuke’s backstory with the Uchiha Clan or Killua’s story in HxH, are some examples. Even Bleach, when it was good for a couple of seasons, had Rukia’s relationship with Byakuya. Why is her brother of all people so adamant on imprisoning her? Fushiguro has a hint of story (in the vein of Sasuke’s), but why do they introduce it so late? As for Nobara, she doesn’t have anything. I’m sure her story will enter later – it would be madness otherwise – but you have to give something on main characters early to make the audience care. Doesn’t have to be the full saga. In fact, it’s better to hold answers back for later. Still, the more important the character, the more impactful their hook should be. It can be the little things, doled out over time. Let’s stick to the Kakashi example. He’s an important character, though not a main. How does he have the Sharingan when he isn’t of the correct bloodline? Why does he teach the kids that protecting teammates is more important than anything else, which goes against the ninja code? What is under his mask!?
On the other hand, the minor characters from the other school are far more interesting. Granted, they don’t have the pressure to grip the audience like main characters do, but I’d rather see them over the main students. Todo, a wrestler-looking dude and Itadori’s self-proclaimed best friend, is hilarious with his eccentric personality and way of judging others based on their answer to the question, “What’s kind of girls do you like?” and he has a simple though effective backstory as a delinquent too strong for his own good. And that’s just one of them.
I want to be clear that none of the characters are bad. None make me clutch my temples in frustration at yet another moronic decision. The main ones simply aren’t compelling enough to carry the series.
I know more of this review went to negatives over positives, but my overall experience with Jujutsu Kaisen is positive, on reflection. I didn’t mention the great music and quality acting either. It’s simply that I value story and characters above all and when those are your weakest elements – made more disappointing amid high production values – I become concerned. And yet, no problem is unfixable in future seasons.
My concerns going forward are the lack of mystery, in both story and main characters, and power creep with everyone already so powerful. I want to keep watching Blingjutsu Kaisen, but I do not want a Bleach situation where it’s one fight after the other and Domain Expansions go down the route of Bankai – “Oh look, the new ability is an even bigger Bankai. How exciting…” Don’t disappoint me.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: A must watch for battle anime fans. The core demographic will almost certainly love Jujutsu Kaisen, while others may find that a lack of mystery dampens long-term engagement.
Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic takes the typical action adventure fantasy of anime and wraps it in an Arabian skin. Before every fantasy was isekai, they were of the swords and sorcery variety, with authors taking the formula but applying one twist to make it different. Much like the many isekai skins of today, the Arabian theme here is superficial at best.
Scattered throughout the world of Magi are towers that dominate the landscape, each containing labyrinths of danger with untold treasures at the end. It is said these are the works of djinns, magical beings that grant the power of kings to those found worthy. Aladdin is a young magician in possession of a magic flute that can summon one such djinn. He teams up with Alibaba, a street rat with the daring required to delve deep into the labyrinths, and Morgiana, a slave girl turned warrior.
I said the Arabian theme is superficial because Magi still feels very Japanese. I don’t mean this is too much of an anime – that is self-evident and expected. There is little to no Arabian culture in the series beyond the aesthetics and character names. If you re-skinned the art to a Japanese setting and changed the names, you wouldn’t know it was once Magi. Even the music has little Arabian influence. It feels as though the author saw a couple of cartoon films in this setting and then set about writing the series. When using a different setting and culture, the most appealing aspect and what should be a unique selling point is how it will stand out from its peers. Ultimately, Magi feels the same as most fantasy anime from its time.
So, what about the rest of it? How does it fare as a fantasy anime?
The characters are of mixed quality. Alibaba is decent and works as the adventurous hero, though his arc and power curve flies off the tracks in the second season (more of a story issue, however). Morgiana is decent as well in the role of tough girl, as informed by her rough backstory, but with a good heart that cares for her friends.
The worst character is Aladdin. When he isn’t the stereotypical “genki” kid, he’s groping women, something that happens every second episode. I think it’s meant to be hilarious and “cute.” “Oh look, he’s grabbing my breasts. Isn’t that adorable?” says the adult woman about a child. It’s so sleazy. Doesn’t add anything either and goes out of its way to waste cels. The one time it works is in the first episode when he motorboats a fat guy’s moobs, thinking they belong to a woman. But they open with that joke, so there’s nowhere to go.
On an action front, expect the usual anime adventure fantasy. The magic system is straightforward and forgettable, though not a hindrance to the overall experience. Going back to the flimsy Arabian inspiration issue, they could have done so much more to make the magic and monsters engaging. I can’t imagine most anime fans have seen much Arabian mythology, so this would be an easy opportunity to stand out from the crowd. Think of something like Yokai Watch, which draws on an insane amount of Japanese monster lore to create its Yokai. And that’s a show for young children. If only Magi had a tenth the effort in use of lore.
Similarly, the story also follows a typical anime adventure fantasy, not that this is inherently a negative. It’s all in the execution. Unfortunately, Magi doesn’t deliver with wit and cunning. Expect some Picard facepalm-inducing moments. I’ll mention one that made not just single facepalm, but pull out the double Picard. At some point, a character abolishes a monarchy in this world in a few minutes with promises to distribute all wealth as if that will solve everything. No, this isn’t some populist ploy to cajole the citizenry into doing what he wants. The writing presents this as a genius move. Why haven’t we done this in real life? It’s so obvious! I usually find this sort of nonsense in YA fantasy with a lowborn female protagonist (she’s secretly special, of course) that has two princes chasing after her skirt. The politics and social side of Magi is far weaker than the action side.
Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic is fine, but a little too stupid to appeal beyond the core. Fullmetal Alchemist was clearly an inspiration and Magi could have learned a thing or two from it.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For action fantasy fans only. Unless you have exhausted the long list of superior fantasy anime above Magi, then give this one a miss.