Tag Archives: Mystery

An air of the unknown, a puzzle to solve…

Shiki – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Shiki

 

Similar: Another

When They Cry

From the New World

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Vampire Mystery Horror

Length: 22 episodes & 2 side episodes (20.5, 21.5 – make sure to watch them.)

 

Positives:

  • A great sense of tension as people keep mysteriously dying in an isolated town.
  • Explores the dark side of humanity when given ultimate freedom or pushed to the edge.
  • Interesting, vibrant visuals mask the morbid scenario.
  • Broad range in the voice work.
  • The tinny, music box soundtrack grips the nerves.

Negatives:

  • The village priest, one of several main characters, is bland despite a significant amount of screen time.
  • Was the ending theme sung by a strangled parrot?

I’ll be honest. I had little faith in Shiki after reading the premise. I didn’t think that a vibrant anime with colourful hair could resist throwing in clichés like ‘onii-chan’ rubbish and breast grabs, ruining any chance of serious horror. I am glad to be proven wrong.

In a rural Japanese village, teenager Megumi dreams of the big city. She hates the country life full of old people gossiping all day and the lack of clothing stores. Only the European castle on the hill and the hot transfer student from the city, Natsuno, has any appeal in this dump. Megumi goes missing one day and is found collapsed in the forest, suffering from anaemia. She was last seen visiting the eccentric family that just moved into the castle in the hope of gaining their favour and luxurious lifestyle. She dies days later.

Free of Megumi’s stalker tendencies, Natsuno feels safe in leaving his window open at nights again. Yet why does he sense he’s still being watched? Why does he have nightmares of her outside his window?

Shiki takes it’s time building up the tension, tantalising, teasing the horror to come. The narrative is presented like a murder mystery case. Each character is named in text with what they do and who there are in the village, introducing the players in the story and giving a lay of the land so that you may piece everything together. The plot doesn’t rush, the writers never giving in to temptation to simply hand over the secrets, reveal the enemy. No one is safe, not even children.

It isn’t long before more people fall ill and eventually die. As the epidemic spreads, families suddenly move out of town in the dead of the night, yet they leave much of their belongings behind. Even the police are leaving, replaced by morning with people who just moved in… Despite all this, the old people, the traditionalists of the village are in denial. Only Doctor Ozaki and his team at the local clinic take the situation seriously.

Ozaki’s character arc is the strongest in Shiki. Watching him go from a simple doctor with overbearing parents into the only person who can find a cure for the epidemic is a gripping experience. With the stress mounting, he resorts to extremes. Nothing annoys me more than having a survival horror story without someone competent. Even worse is when some sanctimonious twit chastises the one guy on the team who keeps everyone alive through extreme measures – and then the terrible writers show the twit to be in the right. Not the case in Shiki; logic beats down the idiots.

The only other characters with their wits about them are a couple of kids and Natsuno, who figure out the situation and fight back. You feel for the kids trying to protect the town while people keep dying around them, and still few people believe in the danger.

At its core, Shiki is about the characters and their reactions in the face of horror and death. We have the old people in denial, the naïve underestimating the threat, the sentimental thinking it will all be fine, and the smart who keep their doors closed and weapons ready. Even among the enemy, it was a great choice to have some who are conflicted about what they are and what they must do to survive. I find it much more powerful when monsters aren’t just creatures of instinct, but have emotion and thoughts at odds with their nature.

Shiki defied all my expectations. I thought I would get a Twilight tween version of survival horror with a coat of anime paint, that groan-inducing experience that makes me feel embarrassed to even know its name. Instead, Shiki is a tense, well-paced, and character driven horror mystery that everyone should know and remember.

Art – High

Beautiful art with an ethereal glow gives a feeling of supernatural unease. The unusual eye design reminds me of interior Kaiser-Fleischer rings or bionic eyes from Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Sound – High

You can’t go wrong with either language. The voice directors pushed their actors to the edges of the emotional spectrum. Much of music is similar to music box melody and wind chime, enhancing the mystery of the narrative, plucked notes marking the time left for characters. Knows when to rely on environmental sounds like cicadas, tractors, rains, etc. instead of music for atmosphere. The opening theme with accompanying morbid visuals sets up Shiki well. The ending theme, however…just put that parrot out of its misery already!

Story – Very High

A horror mystery done right without a reliance on jump scares. No one is safe in this rural town.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch unless you hate horror. Shiki manages to take real, human characters and break them in a tense, supernatural epidemic that exposes their true nature. The subtle, yet brutal changes in the characters make Shiki an engaging anime.

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

Positive: 

Extensive Character DevelopmentGreat OP or ED SequenceHoly S***Stellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None.

Baccano! – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Baccano!

 

Related: Durarara!! (Character crossover & same creator)

Similar: Gungrave

Fullmetal Alchemist

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Historical Supernatural Action Comedy Mystery

Length: 16 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Phenomenal English voice track with a plethora of accents.
  • An intriguing mystery woven around the supernatural.
  • A varied cast – Isaac and Miria are hilarious.
  • Well-defined period setting reminiscent of gangster films and a gory version of Murder on the Orient Express.
  • Add the jazz music, and Baccano has a great atmosphere.

Negatives:

  • The narrative structure causes confusion at several points.
  • Long shots lose more detail than they should on characters.

Baccano opens with a historian and his apprentice discussing an event centred on the Flying Pussyfoot, a US continental express train that left a bloody trail in its wake. They can’t decide on where to start or even who should be the main character in their chronicle, and for good reason, as Baccano’s nonlinear narrative jumps all over the place between perspectives and times. Add in a large cast and you can understand the difficulty in deciding how to approach the story.

Baccano takes place primarily in three locations: 1930s Chicago with tensions rising between mafia groups, New York where an alchemist looks to create the elixir of immortality, and in between the two is the Flying Pussyfoot, acting as a nexus for the many plot threads including the legend of the ‘Rail-Tracer,’ a monster said to target train passengers. Baccano’s twist on the mafia genre is the inclusion of immortals, humans who can regenerate from any damage, every drop of spilt blood vacuuming back into their body after death – to disgustingly great visual effect, I might add. This is a tale of alchemy, psychopaths, gangs, thievery and loyalty.

My favourite characters were Isaac and Miria, a thieving duo with the craziest ideas for heists. “We will steal from Earth itself by digging and taking the gold we find without asking.” Genius! They make for a hilarious couple and bring much of the humour to an otherwise dark tale. Their leaps of logic are stupid as hell and oh so funny, yet somehow unexpectedly brilliant.

It would take the whole review to list all characters and tell of their stakes in the narrative. Rest assured that each character is different, bringing their own complexities and personality to the conflict. You never know who will ally with whom, who is evil. Everyone is interconnected and it’s a thrill to see how all the threads tie together in the end.

I love seeing stories told in unusual ways, such as Memento, presented in reverse and a favourite of mine. Unfortunately, Baccano went too far with its nonlinear technique. Often, I wasn’t sure how a current scene had anything to do with the plot until it caught up to another thread. The first few episodes are the same section of time told from different perspectives; however, there is nothing at the start of the new scene to indicate the plot has jumped backwards a short way. Most films that use this repeated-from-another-perspective technique have each jump start with a common event, an explosion, for example, to tell the audience we have rewound.

Despite this attention deficit storytelling, Baccano is an anime well worth watching. Just pay attention to the scene jumps so that you don’t lose yourself, and I recommend watching Baccano twice to uncover all it has to offer. I enjoyed it even more the second time around.

Art – High

Good costume and setting design inspired by gangster period pieces. Nicely detailed backgrounds, but characters lose too much detail at a distance. Suitably gory.

Sound – Very High

One of the best English voice tracks in anime. Great to finally hear a variety of accents. Definitely recommend in English. The jazz music is great too, reminiscent of the era. Intro theme is perfect, giving a sense of the fun and craziness in the show. The accompanying visuals help to remind you of the characters as well. The most notable issue with sound isn’t even a problem; the ending theme is nice, but it doesn’t match the rest of the soundtrack with its piano ballad – reminds of a Japanese Delta Goodrem.

Story – High

A brutal conflict between gangs that spans centuries. From the psychotic to the funny to the weak, the cast of characters is complex and engaging. The nonlinear narrative structure, while unique and interesting, does drop a few balls as it juggles the many plot threads.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch if you enjoy nonlinear narratives. Baccano! is an engaging, if sometimes confusing, tale of warring mafia gangs with a supernatural twist. Watch in English.

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

Positive:

Great MusicGreat OP or ED SequenceHilariousHoly S***Positive Recommended English Voice TrackStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative:

Incoherent

The Legend of Korra – Review

Related: Avatar: The Last Airbender (prequel)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 52 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Korra, as a character and through her arc, displays a rare maturity in the face of conflict.
  • A series of villains made intriguing by their flaws and motivations.
  • Gorgeous art all-round.
  • Fight choreography at the top of its game. No yelling for power.
  • A varied supporting cast, each different from the next, each with proper personalities. Also, Varrick is the best.
  • Great references to the original series without resorting to info dumps. (Cabbage Corp.!)
  • Excellent voice work, infant characters’ most surprising.
  • The inclusion of sports, political structures, advances in technology, propaganda, public services, entertainment, and the like, makes for superb world building.
  • Doesn’t feel like a re-tread of Avatar.

Negatives:

  • One mistake at the end of season one (reminiscent of Avatar’s season four’s finale error).
  • It would have been nice to see more Fire Nation.

Note: This review contains implied spoilers from prequel, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Outside of the new Star Wars film, nothing has as much pressure to live up to its prequel as The Legend of Korra, for me. As it happens, Korra is an exemplar of what a sequel should be. Nothing in Korra feels like a re-tread; the creators knew they couldn’t get away with a ‘Hollywood’ sequel cash-in.

The Legend of Korra starts seventy years after the events of Avatar, during a time of peace, as Korra, the new Avatar, moves to Republic City (think UN capitol in a 1940s Shanghai inspired setting with added zeppelins and Model-T Fords) to learn airbending from Master Tenzin, Aang’s son. However, when she arrives, the city isn’t as peaceful as it appears, for the triad gangs torment the lower echelons of the city and the ‘Equalist’ faction of humans seek to eliminate all bending from the world. Because of their power, some benders have gained higher status, looking down on non-benders. Masked leader Amon and his Equalists begin to capture benders; Amon claims he can remove their power permanently. Korra must stop him.

Like Avatar before it, Korra isn’t this basic plot. It is layered with a half-dozen plotlines woven together to create a deep and compelling narrative. While worrying about Amon, Korra has to deal with politicians trying to seize power in tragedy, master her final element of air, compete as a pro-bender (boxing with the elements in teams of three to push opponents out of the ring, backed by a great commentator) behind Tenzin’s back, shoulder Avatar responsibilities, and have a social life.

Even with this many plotlines, the narrative never feels overstuffed where each plotline tries to choke the others out. I never grew tired of a plotline because there was always another to step-up when one needed a break. I couldn’t find, and believe me I tried, any padding. Even action scenes, the most common source of padding in kids’ entertainment, are the perfect length. There is no power yelling for five episodes, no twenty-episode fights ended with a trump card that should have been used at the start, and the choreography is phenomenal – it has spoiled me. Spoiled! Korra is an intense, close-knit experience with the right amount of quiet moments to pour emotion into the narrative.

At its core, Korra is about characters. From the main to the supporting cast, every character is well thought out and has a purpose in the world. I don’t know where to begin. Aang’s hilarious grandchildren (“Those maggots will bow to me!”)? The aged original cast? The new Team Avatar with Mako’s Batarang eyebrows, Bolin’s humour and innocence, and Asami’s confidence? The other descendants? There’s too many to cover. I could write a review for each individual character, so high is their quality of design. No one feels like a quest-giver NPC waiting for the protagonist to turn up to complete the NPC’s purpose. You get the sense that they all lead lives that don’t revolve around Korra.

In my Avatar review, I mentioned Aang as the weakest (yet still great) of the core characters because of his over-dorkiness in season one and righteous personality (not my favourite). Korra however, is my favourite here, followed closely by Varrick the eccentric inventor and businessman – think Ton Stark if he was completely mad. What I liked most about Korra is her strength and maturity. She doesn’t accept something because a teacher said so. She questions everything, forging her own path. Even when down, she doesn’t whine about how unfair the world is; she whines about how weak she is, how it’s her fault and not someone else’s. And then there is her season-four story arc (no spoilers, don’t worry); I never expected a kids’ show to have the capacity to go this dark. Love it.

There is little to complain about in Korra. As mentioned above, season one’s finale mistake for convenience was a bother. I know they made the decision under the assumption that Korra would only last one season, but still, nothing wrong with leaving a little damage. My biggest disappointment is the lack of Fire Nation. We get hints at, but never see, the state of the Fire Nation, and what few characters make an appearance don’t get much screen time. All that said, no complaint against Korra affected my larger enjoyment, just like in Avatar. Anything I consider “bad” about Korra is only bad by comparison to the rest of the show – the sort of bad that wouldn’t even have time for mention in a lesser art piece due to bigger issues.

Korra is how a sequel should be done. We still have the group of friends with loyalty, infighting, fear, jealousy, love, and the animal companion, but it’s different focus, advancements in society, tournament element, ordinary jobs, big city with a criminal underbelly, politicians, a different kind of enemy, and close-knit conflict, makes for a new and fresh experience. I had high hopes for The Legend of Korra, and I was not disappointed.

Art – Very High

Vibrant action sequences, fluid animation, hand-painted style backgrounds of high detail, and excellent character design. Even the use of CG blends in well. Improved the mouth animations from the first series. (I still can’t un-see the LFR for mouths in Avatar.)

Sound – Very High

The music has advanced with the new technology, using tunes for the era that inspired the Shanghai style setting. Jazz infused with Chinese touches are coupled with more traditional tracks of strings, flutes, and xylophones. Excellent voice work featuring lighter accents this time around.

Story – Very High

A tale of hardships, overcoming trauma, treachery, corruption, and loyalty. Every character is fully realised, filled with subtleties and depth rarely found in programming aimed at children.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: The Legend of Korra is a must watch adventure. This was a real page-turner; I did nothing but the essentials to survive while watching from start to finish.

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationHilariousPhenomenal VillainPositive Recommended English Voice TrackRiveting ActionStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None.

Kaiba – Review

Japanese Title: Kaiba

 

Similar: Kino’s Journey

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Weirdly creative in design.
  • A strange tale of memories and mental manipulation.

Negatives:

  • You have to love the abstract art and surreal narrative to enjoy.
  • Little music, repeats often.
  • Though the world and monsters are creative, they aren’t detailed or explained much. The weirdness simply is.
  • The child-like art makes the few promiscuous scenes creepy.

Kaiba is a man on a mission to be the best at children’s card games, and he’s going to do it with or without the rules because he’s got money! …wait, wrong anime. Actually, Seto Kaiba entering into Kaiba the anime wouldn’t be the strangest thing that happens in this show. Kaiba is a surreal trip into a world of memory manipulation expressed through abstract art that you will either love or hate.

Kaiba (hole in his chest) lives in a society where the wealthy barter and trade for memories. After death, a person’s memories are stored into a chip, whereupon it can be implanted into a new body to live again. Memories can also be deleted or added as needed – out with bad, in with happy – to improve one’s life. In essence, you could theoretically live forever. Authorities kill people on a whim, bodies turned to sludge and their memories transferred to the mainframe in wait of a new body.

Kaiba wakes up in a strange corner of society, suffering from amnesia and embarks on a journey to recover his memories, the pendant around his neck with the picture of a girl his only clue. On his journey, he encounters a variety of characters from a memory smuggler to a space sheriff. Kaiba isn’t sure which memories are real and which have been altered.

The art in Kaiba is unusual, wildly different from what people expect when they think ‘anime.’ It is inspired by old anime – very old – like Astro Boy old, and you must love this style in order to enjoy Kaiba. The abstract art matches the abstract narrative. The style and themes hold consistent throughout the series. My major complaint with the art is the child-like character design being dissonant with the events of the narrative. These characters look like infants, yet there are several promiscuous scenes that some may find disturbing (others will probably laugh). We are told that they are adults, but the character look and sound like children. Using female voice actors for almost all male characters really didn’t help with convincing the audience of character age.

Ultimately, Kaiba is a difficult anime to discuss without going into spoiler territory. If you love the surreal or just want to watch one of the stranger shows out there, then Kaiba is for you. One episode is all you need to decide if it’s worth your while or not.

Art – Medium

Weird abstract art that you must love to enjoy this anime. I would personally never use it.

Sound – Medium

A serviceable voice track accompanied by slow, psychedelic music. Most tracks consist of 10-15 second clips that loop endlessly to create a song. It feels as if each track makes an appearance every episode, which gives an air of…cheapness.

Story – Medium

A strange tale of a boy searching for his lost memory, which succeeds at its core, though the world at large, the lore is left unexplored.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Only for those who love the weird and surreal. One could either love or hate Kaiba within a single episode.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Paprika – Review

Japanese Title: Paprika

 

Similar: Mind Game

Serial Experiments Lain

Paranoia Agent

Perfect Blue

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Horror Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 90-minute movie

 

Positives:

  • Mind-bendingly crazy dream sequences rendered in gorgeous, detailed art.
  • Keeps you guessing on what is reality and what is a dream until the end.
  • Zany music to match the wacky visuals.

Negatives:

  • A few questions left with vague answers.

Have you ever seen the 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder? You remember that scene where Wonka takes everyone on a boat ride through a psychedelic tunnel? Paprika is a feature length version of that. The dreams are surreal, music weird, characters loopy, and it’s all great. Paprika is the last in director Satoshi Kon’s anime films – Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers. If you have seen his other works, you know what kind of mind-bending and psychology to expect.

Researchers have created a device that allows therapists to enter a patient’s dreams to find the source of anxiety or neurosis. One such therapist uses her red-haired alter ego known as Paprika to explore the dream world. However, when a device is stolen and patients’ dreams start grafting onto the minds of therapists, dreams become indistinguishable from reality. Paprika must navigate the dream world to figure out how it started and who is responsible.

Though this may sound similar to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, they are far from alike outside of the common narrative device – dreams. Where Inception is grounded in the reality of oneirology (study of dreams) to craft a thrilling heist film, Paprika uses the imagination side of dreams where anything and everything can happen free of oneirology. Inception had strange things happen, certainly, but nothing truly weird. Paprika on the other hand, is nothing but weird. There is a parade of fridges, frogs, lucky cats, anatomy mannequins, the Statue of Liberty, Buddha, and whatever else they thought of, all in honour of a loony old man whose body fat absorbs baby dolls. Need I say more? In Paprika, the dreams have no rules, no boundaries, no logic. They are insane and tons of fun.

Paprika requires that you pay attention, particularly to the scene transitions, or you may miss crucial information that establishes what is dream versus what isn’t and risk losing the plot. Unfortunately, even with focus, some of the important questions remain unanswered. However, that doesn’t interfere with the overall enjoyment of the film.

The art does a brilliant job of bringing the craziness to the screen, accompanied by equally weird, yet good, music in a cacophony of electronic sounds and ever-fluctuating vocals. The artists didn’t skimp on animation. Several scenes have so much animation at once that you need to watch them several times through in order to catch everything.

If you enjoyed Inception, but thought it was too realistic and needed a few more talking guitars and nightmare fuel, then I recommend Paprika. Just don’t expect the same sort of narrative as Inception. That would only lead to disappointment.

Art – Very High

A crazy world of dreams filled with imagination brought out by surreal art.

Sound – High

Both Japanese and English voice tracks are great, though the Japanese has the edge. Paprika’s voice in English may grate on you from its ‘squirreliness.’ Love the psychedelic music.

Story – High

A fun story of insanity that breaks the mind with a smattering of horror thrown in.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Paprika is a must watch, even with a few narrative faults. Prepare to dive into some bloody weird dreams.

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

Positive:

Holy S***Stunning Art Quality

Negative: None