Tag Archives: Magic

Expect spellcasting. Spoon bending doesn’t count.

Castlevania – Full Series Review

Related: Castlevania Season 1 review (old)

Castlevania Season 2 review (old)

Similar: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Hellsing Ultimate

Berserk

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Action Fantasy Horror

Length: 32 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Vampire majesty
  • Faithful adaptation without getting bogged down by the source material
  • Brutally gothic in action and tone
  • Political intrigue amongst excellent villains
  • Great lore and magic

Negatives:

  • Give me more, please

(Request an anime for review here.)

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.

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

Positive:

Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Jujutsu Kaisen – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Jujutsu Kaisen

 

Similar: Naruto

Bleach

Demon Slayer

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Supernatural Action

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Slick animation for great action
  • Grotesque enemies
  • Interesting powers

Negatives:

  • Serious power creep
  • Main characters lack mystery and story

(Request an anime for review here.)

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.

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

Positive: 

Fluid AnimationGreat OP or ED Sequence

Negative: None

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic

 

Related: Magi: The Kingdom of Magic (2nd season – included in review)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

The Twelve Kingdoms

Fairy Tail

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Adventure Fantasy

Length: 50 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Arabian setting is a little different

Negatives:

  • Arabian setting is superficial
  • First year university understanding of politics and economy
  • Sleazy

(Request an anime for review here.)

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.

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

 

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Monsters, Magic, and Romance – Quick Manga Reviews

The Metamorphosis

Japanese Title: Henshin

Genre: Historical Drama

Length:  5 chapters (1 volume)

This batch of manga has a Western and horror focus, with a little romance to end things on a lighter note. We start with The Metamorphosis, a manga adaptation of Franz Kafka’s famous book of the same name about a man who finds himself transformed into a giant insect one morning. I haven’t read the book, so everything I say applies only to the manga.

The story is largely in flashbacks as the man reflects on his life and the events that led to his isolation as an insect man in his bedroom, shunned by family. As a dutiful son, he takes on all the burdens for his family after his father loses his job. He works hard and soon make decent money travelling from town-to-town selling fabrics. However, his family grows complacent under the ease of their lives now that food is always on their table. The father in particular is lazy. He’s the “back in my day” and “I could show them a thing or two” type to do nothing while reading his newspaper, ignoring the fact that he needs a job. Even the sister, who is the nicest of them, relies on the man for violin tuition money.

This is an interesting story, and while I’m sure the book is better with it’s 200 pages versus the manga’s five short chapters, I quite enjoyed it. Further research after finishing this has revealed to me that there are many interpretations of the story. And the interpretations are varied. I took it to be a harsh reflection of what it means to have others take advantage of you, take you for granted when you give everything and ask nothing in return. The moment you can no longer keep giving is when they no longer see you as useful. You are pathetic, disgusting. An insect.

If you haven’t read The Metamorphosis but want to have a simple understanding of the story, then the manga is an easy gateway. The art is suitably creepy for the insect, though a bit too simple elsewhere.

Overall Quality – Medium

Result: Found it by accident and enjoyed it.

*     *     *     *     *

H.P. Lovecraft: Various Stories

Japanese Title: Lovecraft Kessakushuu

Genre: Fantasy Horror

Length:  8 stories of varying length (1-3 volumes each)

H.P. Lovecraft is synonymous with supernatural horror. There is no greater influence on the genre. Cthulhu, monsters of the unknown, mind breaks from forbidden knowledge, and most of the things that nightmares are made of come from his works. It came as a surprise – while browsing at random – to see several of his stories adapted to manga form.

This review covers most of the Lovecraft manga (I couldn’t get my hands on a couple of them) adapted by Gou Tanabe, a Lovecraft connoisseur, including The Haunter in the Dark, The Colour Out of Space, and The Hound and Other Stories.

Another surprise is in how good these manga are. The Metamorphosis is around about the quality I expect of classic adaptations to different formats. This has been quite consistent in comic books, cartoons, and short films that I have seen of classics. Tanabe’s manga do a great job of evoking that air of insanity and general “what the hell is that” tone of Lovecraft’s short stories. The art is among the most realistic that you’ll find in manga, showing much of the story and characters emotions before one even considers the accompanying words. This is proper horror art.

I haven’t read the original versions of these stories (all of my Lovecraft experience come from works influenced by him, mostly video games), but they work perfectly for the uninitiated. At no point do I feel lost, as if there is an expectation that I already know the details of the Lovecraft universe.

These stories, as is most often the case with Lovecraft, involve mysterious supernatural entities, whether monster or ethereal concept, that slowly corrupt the world and its characters. My favourite of these is The Haunter in the Dark. A writer with a passion for the occult takes in interest in a gothic church he can see from his bedroom window. There are local stories about what went on in that abandoned church, yet no one is willing to speak of them. His curiosity gets the better of him and he awakens a creature from the dark. He had better hope the power doesn’t go out…

At the Mountains of Madness is the longest of the adaptations at 25 chapters and one I haven’t had a chance to read. I want to see a story that has a little more time to explore a concept in greater detail.

These manga aren’t perfect, but they are an engaging short reads late at night. Read a few or all of them, it’s up to you how deep you want to delve into madness.

Overall Quality – High

Result: I want to read more Lovecraftian works. These are a good introduction, which I recommend to anyone with a horror interest.

*     *     *     *     *

Spring Breeze Snegurochka

Japanese Title: Harukaze no Snegurochka

Genre: Historical Drama

Length:  7 chapters (1 volume)

Continuing with manga based on the West, we look at Spring Breeze Snegurochka. This time we go into Russian 1933, the Soviet Union era, where a woman in a wheelchair and the man that cares for her are in search of something within an old mansion, now controlled by the secret police. They will do anything to find the object.

The most interesting aspect of this piece is the Russian focus, a subject you don’t see much of out of Japan. It taps into many real figures from history, including Rasputin, the Russian royal family, and domestic rebels. Combined with the fictional characters, Spring Breeze makes for decent “what if” alternate history story if you have some familiarity with Russia’s past. If you don’t, the plethora of complex Russian names will go in one ear and out the other. The story is dense with characters, particularly in the latter half when the secrets unravel and people unmask themselves. There is a notable character reveal that means nothing if you don’t know who he is already.

As for the story itself, the history aspect is interesting but not so much for the main two characters. The woman’s rape into Stockholm syndrome into love (?) arc doesn’t work or make sense, not with the page time given. The man is the quiet type with no screen presence.

I don’t recommend this unless you love the subject matter.

Overall Quality – Medium

Result: Interesting to see a manga take on Russian history.

*     *     *     *     *

Cambrian

Japanese Title: Cambrian

Genre: Horror Science Fiction

Length:  28 chapters (3 volumes)

To go back to horror for moment, let’s stop at Cambrian. This is a disgusting manga. Literally. It features a biologist who believes he has created the next step of human evolution, splicing humans with marine creatures. He can now transform into an ammonite and rapes women with his tentacles (eating them is also involved) to spread his mutation. He infects a few and they infect more, creating a cult that will take humanity into the “next step.”

Yeah, no thanks. I don’t want to have barnacles covering my skin, even if it means I can rollout like Golem. Patrick maybe a hilarious cartoon character – doesn’t mean I want become a starfish. Looking like the Alien isn’t worth regeneration powers. Especially if my hair now forms into a sea biscuit. The main woman develops spiked nipples and a vajine spike for defence when aroused. I can imagine Cambrian would give nightmares to some people.

There’s a lot of sex (little of it consensual) and sexual violence (not many sample pages I can use for below). However, this isn’t a ℌệ𝔫𝔱ằ𝔦, though I’m sure it’s someone’s fetish. This is more of a sexual horror series, relying on grotesque body horror to engage the audience. This isn’t for me. Even outside of the sex and horror filling most pages, there is little in the way of character development or story. It’s frankly rather boring despite the shock value.

Overall Quality – Low

Result: Wouldn’t have bothered if I knew the result.

*     *     *     *     *

Witches

Japanese Title: Majo

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy

Length:  7 chapters (2 volumes)

Enough of the revolting. Why don’t we cheer ourselves up with a manga of magical girls meets Western literature? Dying of the plague is a welcome change.

Witches is an anthology of short stories set in the recent past of our world. Each story chronicles a girl or woman that has to deal with some injustice and she discovers a magical power along the way to help her. The issues are more in the mental realm – dealing with a bigot or some close-minded individual, for instance.

While the stories are from diverse locations and cultures, they do rather feel the same more often than not. Strip away the dressings of the art, the environment, and the personalities – boil down to core plot and character details – and you find much repetition. The dynamic of “good character is wise and smart against bad character, who is dumb and evil” is overused. Witches lacks character subtlety. Read one of these stories and you have read them all.

I want to focus on the art, for a moment. It is simultaneously great and poor. On most pages, in black and white, I do not find the abundance of detail appealing. The art is too messy, the details lost in the mayhem. Rather than admire the art, I find myself looking closer and asking, “What is that supposed to be?” However, there are the occasional colour pages and suddenly it all makes sense. When you have nine different shades of green in a random pattern to create nature, it looks good. Turn it black and white and all we have are scribbles. It recalls that meme of “The teacher’s copy [of the colour image] vs. students’ copy [black and white on the exam sheet],” where you have to label an undecipherable image. I wonder if the artist did the whole original in colour.

It’s probably a matter of taste. I can image people loving the chaos of the visuals as an accompaniment to the chaotic magic. The art is certainly not generic. I would never insult it so.

Overall Quality – Medium

Result: Unusual and different.

*     *     *     *     *

Annarasumanara

Korean Title: Annarasumanara

Genre: Mystery Romance

Length:  27 chapters (3 volumes)

Keeping with the theme of magic and adding a dash of romance to the potion, let’s finish on Annarasumanara, a manhwa that blurs the boundaries of magic and reality.

We follow a high school girl going through a rough time, lost in her mind amid the pressures of succeeding at school while feeding her sister. Her dad abandoned them after failing in his career. She finds comfort in visiting a handsome magician at a nearby abandoned amusement park, rumours saying he can perform real magic. (“Annarasumanara” is the magician’s equivalent to abracadabra.)

Annarasumanara is a poignant manhwa that allows the art to do most of the talking to great effect and leaves much open to interpretation. Is any of his magic real? That was just a trick but maybe this was real… How else would you explain it? Similarly, her opinion of the magician is up in the air for much of the story. I like that this isn’t the usual instant infatuation prevalent in manhwa.

There is a subplot between the protagonist and a male classmate, the rival for the top spot in exams. He comes from big money (their house is like a palace on top of a high rise on top of a casino – hilarious metaphor) and ends up paying her to do worse on exams so that he can appear greater. A one-sided relationship develops on his part. He admires her independence, resents her love for the magician. The best part about this guy is his design. He looks like a…worm? Hard to describe – look below. All girls in school call him handsome though, which makes it even better.

I like this one. The writing isn’t spectacular, but the reliance on art over text more than makes up for it.

Overall Quality – High

Result: I recommend it alongside the Lovecraft manga of this batch.

*     *     *     *     *

Ao Haru Ride

Japanese Title: Ao Haru Ride

Genre: Romance

Length: 53 chapters (13 volumes)

Wait! One more before we go. Quick one, I promise.

Ao Haru Ride is a shoujo romance about a boy too aloof to share his feelings and girl too shy to take charge. Or is that blurb for another shoujo manga? Most certainly. This is generic shoujo. The art is indistinguishable from its peers and the characters are so inoffensive to the audience’s sensibilities that they don’t stand out in any way.

Most of my manga reading is before sleep (I have a half-finished brick of a fantasy novel by my bed, untouched in months because of manga). Let me put it simply: Ao Haru Ride is great for falling asleep.

After two or so volumes, I can’t be bothered with this. Ao Haru Ride is one of my few dropped manga. I won’t be mentioning any similar shoujo manga in future. It would be repetitive.

Overall Quality – Dropped

Result: I will confuse this for another dozen shoujo manga in future.

 

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

Oh! My Goddess – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Aa! Megami Sama!

 

Related: Oh! My Goddess (anime)

 

Genre: Comedy Fantasy Romance

Length: 308 chapters (48 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • Gorgeous character art and designs (after a few volumes)
  • Good fun
  • Starts and ends well

Negatives:

  • Art begins in an ugly state
  • Main thread goes nowhere for ~30 volumes in the middle

Oh! My Goddess (sometimes called Ah! My Goddess) was one of the first anime I loved after having seen the 5-episode OVA and movie. It would later receive another adaptation with the first season retelling the OVA and several other volumes to be more manga accurate. It was enjoyable, but still the same section of story, more or less. The second season came about and was just comedy slice of life, much to my annoyance. Season 2 felt like a waste of time. The lack of closure has bothered me ever since.

My dive into the world of manga had me thinking of incomplete anime I could conclude in the source material. Oh! My Goddess was my first candidate. It has taken a while – 308 chapters over 48 volumes – but I did it. Does it have everything I’d hoped for?

The first shock came to me with the art of chapter one. To me, Oh! My Goddess has always had characters designs in a beautiful style I cherish. However, I find the manga starts ugly. How did they get the anime designs from this? I considered the possibility of a redraw of the manga that I hadn’t heard of, but the covers for later volumes showed what I was used to. And I must say, it is impressive to see how quickly the art improves from chapter to chapter. The art is years better within a few volumes. Thank the goddess, for I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate that Belldandy with the melting face for long. Oh! My Goddess ends up with elegant characters, expressive features, and detailed backgrounds where needed. The chibis are adorable too.

The premise in brief, for anyone not familiar with the franchise: University student Keiichi accidentally calls the Goddess Helpline and the goddess Belldandy answers his call with one wish. Thinking it’s all a joke and as a “manlet” (his words) with no chance of getting a girlfriend, he wishes for someone as beautiful as Belldandy to stay by his side forever. Wish granted! Since his dorm doesn’t allow girls, he finds himself homeless with his…girlfriend? They settle in a temple and begin to go about daily life in this unexpected relationship. No one at uni can believe someone like him got a woman like her. Her two sisters, Skuld and Urd, soon join them on Earth and the pandemonium only increases.

The anime’s second season that annoyed me so much turns out to be canon. It’s not exactly the same, but content is in line with the manga. See, Oh! My Goddess the manga stops main story progression – the Keiichi-Belldandy relationship – around volume 5 and doesn’t restart until the volume 38-ish mark. That is over 30 volumes of no progress and I could it feel more acutely with each passing chapter. The issue isn’t that the “filler” is bad (I’ll get to that in a moment), but rather that we don’t seem to go anywhere. Doesn’t even have the decency to focus on the main thread for one in four volumes – would still be a bad ratio, by the way, though it would be something. It recalls when classic Naruto was in filler mode while waiting for Shippuden. A filler arc would finally end and you’d start the next episode thinking, “Are we finally done?” only to have more filler molest you.

This middle section of arcs across 30 plus volumes focuses on side characters and most are decently fun. Urd arcs will often play on her demon half with visits from other demons, included her powerful demon mother (different mother to the other two sisters). Hers are quite good. Skuld arcs, on the other hand, are more child-like and about growing up as she crushes on a human boy or relies on her gadgets to solve all problems. I didn’t find these good or bad either way. Keiichi arcs are very much university centric, especially involving the motor club, where he has to build or repair some vehicle and partake in a race. These are among the better sub-arcs as author Kosuke Fujishima’s gearhead nature spills across the pages (he has a couple of other racing-focused manga). The background art also shines in these segments.

As for Belldandy arcs, they generally involve a challenge from a heavenly visitor. Someone either wants to bring her back or just wants to toy with Keiichi. These are among the weakest arcs. For one, they are all similar. What is it with the adult male gods/demons appearing as a child to mess with her? I don’t recall a single adult male god throughout the series (turns out the one featured in the movie is non-canon). These arcs could have been the focal points for progression, but they don’t amount to more than weird magical trials. Belldandy shines in other people’s arcs (she’s my favourite character).

My favourite of the sub-arcs has the interdimensional whale. Keiichi’s motor club seniors are going away for a time and need him to look after a couple of boxes of expensive parts. A couple of boxes ends up being a garage full. Since temples don’t have garages, they store it all in lounge room, but now they can’t use the lounge! Skuld has the idea to build a device that can create a TARDIS effect – “It’s bigger on the inside.” The intention is to expand the interior of the lounge room without affecting its exterior volume. However, the device doesn’t operate as planned and expands the room to infinity. They have no idea where their things are in this space. A creature called Schrodinger’s Whale soon appears before them, and it can navigate the space with ease as a being of negative dimensions. It’s an interesting concept clearly inspired by Star Trek (they are watching The Next Generation on TV before meeting it). I like those arcs that explore a mysterious concept. But no matter how much I like these, the total absence of main plot is nothing but infuriating.

Why didn’t they make more use of Heaven as a location? There is so much one could do on another world of immortal beings that blends Norse mythology with technology. The movie had more of Heaven than the manga series did before the final arc. So much untapped potential lay wasted.

So, after all these volumes, I reached the final arc that sends Keiichi and the three goddesses into Heaven for a series of trials that will put Keiichi and Belldandy’s relationship to the ultimate test. It is a good arc, ending in a lovely conclusion, except for one moronic detail. There is a canonical explanation for the lack of relationship progression. I kid you not, magic prevented development. That has to be the worst defence put forth by any author in the history of literature. Other than that, it’s a fine end.

I got my closure. I simply wish the journey there had been better.

Art – High

Story – Medium

Recommendation: I can only recommend the Oh! My Goddess manga in full to fans of the anime that want closure. For the uninitiated to the franchise, the first season of the anime followed by the movie is the best experience, ending with volumes 39 to 48 of the manga should you want that final tie of the ribbon.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)