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Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation – Anime Review

Chinese Title: Mo Dao Zu Shi

 

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

Similar: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Twelve Kingdoms

Castlevania

 

Watched in: Chinese

Genre: Historical Action Fantasy

Length: 15 episodes

 

Positives:

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

Negatives:

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

(Request an anime for review here.)

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, back to the show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art – High

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

Sound – High

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

Story – Very High

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

Overall Quality – Very High

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

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

Positive: 

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

Negative: None

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KonoSuba: God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World! – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo!

 

Similar: No Game No Life

Ixion Saga DT

Slayers

Log Horizon

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Adventure Comedy Fantasy

Length: 20 episodes (2 seasons), 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Consistently funny characters.
  • Fun, colourful style.
  • Great parody of otherworld anime.

Negatives:

  • Weak story lacks progression.
  • World could do with greater exploration.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Kazuma is useless. Darkness is useless. Megumin is also useless. Aqua is especially useless. Everyone is useless in the world of KonoSuba! And it is great.

After an embarrassing death, high schooler Kazuma has the chance at another life in a fantasy world. A nerd’s dream come true! Unfortunately, he spawns as the worst class in the game and Aqua, the goddess that granted the new life, is a companion without talents to speak of. They soon recruit descendant from a powerful magical bloodline, arch wizard Megumin, master of explosion magic. At last, some strength to the group!

Nope. She can only cast one spell before collapsing. Well, at least they have a resilient tank in the form of paladin Darkness. She will save them! Nope. She’s has zero accuracy in combat and is a masochist that loves taking a beating from monsters – the more people that watch her sweet arse and bountiful breasts get beat the better.

KonoSuba is a refreshing change after trudging through the endless mire of isekai (otherworld) anime. This parody is better and funnier than the vast majority of titles in the genre, not to suggest there is stiff competition.

Everything works and make sense in this take on the genre, Kazuma being utter trash most of all. His team starting out at the bottom doing menial quests such as slaying killer cabbages and painting houses that barely pay enough for living expenses (note how most isekai forget expenses), just like in any MMO, makes sense. Every isekai fan believes that if they woke up in a fantasy world, they would be a powerful knight or wizard at the top of the food chain (just like how advocates for communism think they would be part of the small ruling class and not one of a billion peasants at the bottom). Who knew that being an otaku NEET doesn’t train you for life in a dangerous fantasy world? KonoSuba shows the reality of how garbage everyone would be and leans into it for great comedic effect.

The characters in particular bring this series together. They are such fun, such a riot to hang out with that they overshadow problems. I did think there was a risk of repetition at the start. For example, Darkness’s love of masochism could have quickly become her running into the fray to get smashed, we laugh at the joke and repeat next episode. However, the joke stays fresh because it isn’t about having her armour stripped off each battle. Instead, it’s about the ridiculous lengths she will go to for arousal and how much more desperate she is each time. Just when I thought it wouldn’t be funny anymore, she surprised me next episode.

The big problem with KonoSuba is the story, or lack thereof. The main goal is to defeat the Demon King, something I forgot about a few episodes in since they ignore this in favour of episodic stories. Now, these small stories work well in facilitating the characters and comedy, but they don’t progress the plot. Watching these episodes in the moment wasn’t a problem until it cares about the Demon King again, where it reminds you of how little the plot has moved. The overarching story feels like an afterthought. “Oh damn, I wrote all these great jokes but forgot the story. Quick, make something up – kill bad guy…big monster…demon…yes, demon king! All done. Phew.”

As such, if you are going to watch KonoSuba, you have to do so for the characters and humour. The world itself lacks depth, having used the generic fantasy template, and the story is just as straightforward as can be. If after you meet the whole team you don’t find it funny, then don’t proceed further.

Art – Medium

I like the colours and character designs. It’s a shame little effort went into making the environments anything but generic. If you removed characters from the shot, you wouldn’t know which anime the environment was from. The animation is strong, particularly in the spell effects that took the largest portion of the budget.

Sound – High

The acting is strong, though it may take a little getting used to Kazuma’s voice, as he sounds too old for a teen, but hey, at least it’s something different from the usual forgettable isekai protagonists. (Note: There is a dub on the way, for those interested.)

Story – Medium

A teen revives in a fantasy world, but has no talents and is surrounded by others with no talent either. Characters and humour hold up this rather barebones story.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for comedy fans. KonoSuba is greater than the sum of its parts thanks to its characters and hilarious comedy. This is an easy anime to watch and recommend.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

The Garden of Sinners – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kara no Kyoukai

 

Similar: Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne

Darker than Black

Ghost Hunt

Key the Metal Idol

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Supernatural Action Mystery Thriller

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

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful environments.
  • Fantastic soundtrack.

Negatives:

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

(Request an anime for review here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art – High

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

Sound – Medium

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

Story – Low

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

Overall Quality – Medium

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

(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:

Great Music

Negative:

Poor Pacing

The Devil Is a Part-Timer – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hataraku Maou-sama!

 

Similar: The World God Only Knows

Noragami

Maoyu: Archenemy & Hero

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Comedy Romance

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Funny for a few episodes.

Negatives:

  • Initial setup is barely relevant.
  • Satan starts as a generic good guy.
  • The extra girls.

(Request an anime for review here.)

The premise of The Devil is a Part-Timer is straightforward. Satan, ruler of darkness, snuffer of light, finds himself torn from his world of magic and thrust into modern Tokyo, where he must get a part-time job at “MgRonald’s” to pay for life in the big city.

This premise also has almost nothing to do with The Devil is a Part-Timer.

One would imagine that the master of evil, as depicted in the prologue, would be, well, you know, evil. Instead, we have a generic good guy protagonist with no defining traits. Satan starts out good!

There is no point to him being the devil. I am not exaggerating when I say that he does nothing evil whatsoever. He starts as a good guy; he ends as a good guy. No arc, no development, no point. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, as plenty of stories invert the roles – angels and nuns are evil, while devils and gangsters are good. Nothing new there. But the problem by doing this in The Devil is a Part-Timer, beyond going against the setup, is that the series leads nowhere. When a protagonist starts at the end of his arc, he has nowhere to go. His story is already over, so why is he protagonist? I expected some “twist” to reveal that the prologue was a lie, that Satan had been trying to save the world and the angels were evil from the start, at least. The actual plot events, which have a little action, feel so irrelevant because there is no lasting effect.

Furthermore, this leads to stale humour. Satan runs into Emi in the first episode, one of the angels that followed through the portal hunt him down. She works in a call centre now. Predictably, she uses the good ol’ “I must stay close by to kill you when I can” excuse to hang around the guy she’s secretly falling for. It’s funny, at first. However, since he doesn’t change and she’s already friendly with him in that tsundere sort of way, the scenario doesn’t evolve to generate new humour.

Change in this series arrives in the form of more characters – Satan’s generals and the other angels. Much like Emi, these join the good guys under one low-rent roof almost immediately. The Devil is a Part-Timer becomes borderline harem. Only two girls throw themselves at Satan – Emi and his little co-worker – but the vibe and social dynamics are reminiscent of a tame harem. They don’t shift the status quo.

It is funny for a few episodes – I laughed at these fish out of water figuring out how to open a bank account and managing a budget – and it isn’t awful like most harem anime, but the lack of relevance to the setup and absence of direction wears thin before long. If you go in knowing the title matters little and want an easy comedy, requiring no effort, there might be enough for you here. And the 13-episode length isn’t demanding. It just needed more effort to be anything beyond that.

Art – Medium

The opening scenes of backstory that paint a dark fantasy picture are far better than the rest of the series, which is average.

Sound – Medium

The acting is fine. However, the fictional language akin to a mix of English and Latin makes it tough to watch in Japanese, where the actors aren’t even in the ballpark of pronunciation. I suppose, as a fictional language, you technically can’t get it wrong. It’s mostly in the first episode, so once past that, go with whichever language you prefer.

Story – Low

Ripped through a portal into modern Tokyo, Satan must find part-time work to earn a living with his general as angels and other demons seek him out. It starts funny, but the choice to make Satan a good guy immediately and to have several girls around him, turns The Devil Is a Part-Timer into a rather bland comedy.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: For anime comedy fans only. The Devil Is a Part-Timer is for fans of the “anime version” of a common premise. Its execution isn’t good enough for most.

(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:

No Development

Castlevania Season 2 – Review

Related: Castlevania Season 1

Castlevania Season 3 (TBR)

Similar: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Hellsing Ultimate

Berserk

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 8 episodes

 

Positives:

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

Negatives:

  • No Church.
  • Ends too quickly.

(Request an anime for review here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love that this outdid the first season.

Overall Quality – High

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

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