Lack of dialogue translates to lack of context and emotion
Blame takes readers into a cyberpunk hellscape far beneath the ground – or is it a tower above ground? Who knows… All sense of direction and sanity has no point of reference in this labyrinth haunted by creatures out of Hellraiser and Warhammer 40k. Killy, seemingly the one man in this place with a functional gun, fights his way through one dangerous floor after the other in search of someone with the “Net Gene,” a genetic marker that can access the central control network of this technological wasteland.
Blame (pronounced “Blam” like a gunshot) sports minimal dialogue as its unique selling point. Art conveys most of the narrative, told in chaotic, messy lines dripping with grim cyberpunk aesthetics. I like the look of this world. I’m a big cyberpunk fan, so this should come as no surprise. The enemies look great too, drawing inspiration from several sources of which I am already a supporter. One could make a great sci-fi horror film with their kind. A notable visual irritant is the human faces, which look sketched on as the manga went to print. It’s like artists that have excellent skill at drawing people except the hands are always munted (fingers are frustrating to draw!).
Anyways, this is an atmospheric piece more than anything. The world and this environment must have a special draw to you should you want to enjoy Blame. The characters aren’t anything to boast about, so with minimal dialogue there is a singular appeal here.
In between blasting enemies with his gun, Killy does meet various characters from isolated groups trying to survive against the cybernetic monsters. Most dialogue is in these encounters. Scenes of dialogue are moments of rest in the dangerous City.
I haven’t much to say about any character in this manga, for there isn’t much too any of them. The most personality comes from the main enemy in how threatening it is. The mute story translates into muted character depth. There is plenty of background and environmental story work though little foreground and central storytelling.
Some may recommend Blame as some secret masterpiece, so daring and avant-garde in its decision to forgo most dialogue and let the world around speak for itself. However, if you step back and examine it once the feeling of reading something different has worn off, you realise there isn’t much to the story and the lack of dialogue often feels like the author didn’t know what or how to write a scene. It would have been too difficult for him. I’m not saying he couldn’t have done it, but it feels like it.
If you’ve never seen a dialogue-free story before, Blame will be a fresh experience and worth your time. It’s a quick read by virtue of the minimal dialogue. Don’t go expecting this to sit amongst the greats. This is no opening scene from Up or Clarice hunting Buffalo Bill.
Art – High
Story – Medium
Recommendation: For those after something different. Blame is from a unusual crop and won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Deca-Dence is an anime original series that hooks readers with an unusual, easy to grasp premise. The last of humanity lives on a mobile fortress called Deca-dence that roams the land in search of monsters to hunt, their blood a valuable resource. Warriors that fight these monsters are the Gears, most of them alien. Humans, for the large part, work as maintenance and hospitality crew referred to as Tankers. Tanker girl Natsume dreams of rising up to become a Gear, but the system seems stacked against her and denies her at every turn.
Little does she know that the system is in fact against her. Against all humans. Deca-dence and its adventures are actually a playground for cyborgs to fight monsters via humanoid avatars like some video game. The monster blood is worth points and extends cyborg life. High rankers receive handsome rewards. Furthermore, the whole “game” and every human within it belong to a giant corporation. This is Mortal Engines meets The Truman Show.
The reveal of the second reality with cyborgs is jarring if going in blind, as I did, for the visual styles of the two worlds are vastly different. The game world looks normal, albeit barren and grimy, whereas the cyborg world is out of a children’s morning cartoon. We don’t see the latter until episode two. I thought I had changed anime.
This is a good hook for the story and offers many questions that the audience wants answered. Who are these cyborgs? What do they really want? How did the world get this way? Is Deca-dence the only fortress? What’s with the mega corporation? Natsume is found to be a bug in the system, unaccounted for in the corporation records – but how? Will her exterminator friend delete this bug? And of course, we have the usual questions surrounding a dystopian world and its society. So many questions. So many possibilities.
It saddens me to report that the setup is the high point of the series and the story only declines in quality by the episode. The ending, most of all, is weak. For this sort of world, this sort of story with these themes you can’t settle on a utopian conclusion. Since I don’t want to spoil any more, I’ll use a parallel. This ending is like making a WW2 film, but once the Nazis are defeated, there is no other conflict to resolve or logistics to deal with (such as assisting all the homeless civilians). I’m not suggesting your story has to deal with them, yet you can’t pretend they don’t exist. Solving one problem doesn’t magically fix everything.
It’s more than that, however. The answers to those aforementioned questions – what questions they do answer – are frankly predictable and too normal. Deca-Dence is a slowly deflating balloon.
The characters are quite good, Natsume being a fun underdog easy to cheer for. Even so, the story doesn’t take them to interesting places as the themes dwindle to embers.
Deca-Dence never reaches a bad point. At no stage do I think, “This is so stupid.” It’s simply…mediocre.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: Try it, though I am hesitant to suggest even that since the start is the best part of Deca-Dence and doesn’t follow through.
The Promised Neverland should be an anime that you want to go in blind for, as I did, but its great mystery comes out within the first episode, so that magic is gone. Does make it easier to talk about in review.
This story takes place in an orphanage where children await adoption while under the loving gaze of Mother Isabella. The children live a peaceful life studying, helping around the house, and playing together within the safety of the walls. One day, they receive the bittersweet news that a family has selected one among them. Two of the oldest kids run after her to return her stuffed bunny, only to find horror instead as demons drop her lifeless body into a jar. She’ll keep for later.
The orphanage turns out to be nothing more than a child farm and Isabella is the shepherd. The three smartest, Emma, Norman, and Ray, begin to plot their escape. Can they take everyone?
As alluded to in my opener, I am disappointed that The Promised Neverland reveals the truth behind the orphanage in the first episode. It could have held onto that secret for another episode or two. This isn’t a case like Death Note, where seeing the story from both sides enhances the conflict and drama. See, a major problem – really, the core problem – of this anime is the bad villains. Improving this single area would alleviate several other problems, such as the too-brief mystery, which itself isn’t automatically a problem. As I said, Death Note gives it away and it works in favour of the story. Seeing the villains’ perspectives here adds little of value.
The Promised Neverland has three villains: Isabella, Sister Krone, and the demons. The demons are a shadowy entity in the background with scant minutes of airtime across the series and don’t matter beyond the catalyst for child farming. They don’t need explanation. The two women, however, are central to the plot. Isabella is the quiet, measured, plotting type who knows more than she lets on. With each passing episode, I expect some deeper revelation to her character that will explain who she is, why she is. All we get is a few seconds of backstory that barely explain anything. She is flat. Nor do we see her cunning actions enough to become a smart antagonist.
Worse is Sister Krone (subtle name, you got there). She comes in to assist Isabella, but harbours ambitions of becoming a Mother herself. She is comically bad. The performance, both in English and Japanese, is horrendous on a level up there with Jared Leto’s Joker. I don’t blame the actors for this. No performance could save her writing. It’s so over the top and manic, meant to be frightening (akin to the Joker pretending to be a loving nun) that it elicits only laughter. Her impact on the story is negligible as well. I image later seasons will bring he back for some ungodly reason.
Speaking of, I think this story would have worked better as a single season narrative. Despite remaining engaged from start to finish, I have no motivation to watch the next season unless I hear great things from a trusted source. I get the impression that future arcs will focus on the demons and the unresolved issues at the orphanage. The demons, I don’t need an explanation; the resolution of the orphanage, I expect to find repetitive.
If a single season of 12 episodes was it, complete story start to finish, I can’t imagine we would have wasted time on Krone or had Isabella remain puddle deep (one can see they are “saving her for later”). Restrictions often increase creativity and quality because there are only so many minutes on screen, so many words on the page that when the editing starts, the weak links hit the cutting room floor. If you have any familiarity with multi-season American TV shows, you will know what it’s like to see weak content added for the sake of extending the story to a fifth, sixth, seventh season when the studio renews.
So, I have vehement criticisms, yet I stay engaged to the end – why? Well, the main characters, primarily. Emma, Norman, and Ray work great. Upon first seeing their designs, I predicted their roles and arcs in the story (the energetic yet naïve one, the clever yet emotionless one, and the emo yet ruthless one, respectively). They surprise me though. Yes, they are the archetypes I predicted, but they aren’t the stereotypes I expected. Emma is naïve and idealistic, saying she would even take snitches when they escape (they suspect some kids feed information to Isabella), which is a truly dumb idea when many lives are on the line. However, she also displays moments of brilliance in both mind and heart. Remember, these three kids are supposed to be the smartest. Unlike most anime with “genius” characters that are actually dumb as bricks and only win because the author says so, these three show real brains (not in the way the demons would prefer, of course). It helps that they aren’t pitched as reality altering geniuses.
My favourite element of this story is seeing the kids figure it all out. How does Isabella know where they are at all times? Who is snitching on them? Is someone snitching? How can they escape with kids who still pick their noses and eat it? Why do the demons want them and what determines the next “adopted” child? How do they train for escape with Isabella surveying their every move? Seeing them work through this systematically is most engaging. It would have been that much better if the villains were equally engaging obstacles to the goal though.
The Promised Neverland, in the face my criticisms, receives my easy recommendation. The core of the story and its characters are sound, pulling you from one episode to the next with fast pacing and clever cliffhangers. You will want to watch just one more episode.
Art – High
The art is good, notably in animation. The demon designs are freaky, though the world itself could do with more creativity.
Sound – High
You can go with either language here. The music infuses a creepy atmosphere and I like the OP song – will probably add it to my playlist.
Story – High
A group of orphans realise that the promised land of a family is a one-way trip down a demon’s gullet in reality and the orphanage is a farm. Other than revealing the mystery too soon, The Promised Neverland delivers a tense thriller that captures your attention to the end.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: Watch it. The Promised Neverland is an easy recommendation from me to anyone unless child abuse in any form is too much for you.
It pains me – it pains me to report how disappointed I am with Kurozuka. This is my type of story. Historical fact woven into in a fantasy narrative with vampires, romance, unflinching action, and cyberpunk – what’s not to love? Maybe the fact that we are missing the middle of the story.
Kurozuka opens in feudal Japan with Minamoto no Yoshitsune (a real historical figure, also known as Kurou) and his closest ally as they flee into the mountains after the fall of Kurou’s brother, first ruling shogun of Japan. The real historical account says that he committed suicide here. Kurozuka postulates that idea of him meeting a stunning woman, Kuromitsu (based on a fable), whom he soon discovers is a vampire and rather than fight her, falls in love. He falters while defending her, but she turns him into an immortal to save his life. Thus a romance set to span over a millennium is born.
I love this setup, particularly in the presentation. It doesn’t hold back on the gore and dark fantasy. His conversion to vampire is the perfect illustration of this, where the norm would be to have him die and then wake up as a vampire or show a sanitised transformation at most. Kurozuka has him alive as a dismembered head while Kuromitsu prepares a new body for him. It’s gruesome and just right (narratively relevant in future as well). The tone of the romance is clear from the start. I am in!
Then episode 3 leaps a thousand years into a dystopian cyberpunk future with Kurou having no idea how he got there. A chance encounter has him join the resistance to combat the Red Imperial Army sporting the same emblem as the clan that tried to kill him and Kuromitsu all those generations ago. The resistance promises they can help him find the one person he knows.
And here is where you lose me.
The setup promises a twisted romance through the ages, Kurou and Kuromitsu forever entwined in a love story painted in blood and guts. I wouldn’t be wrong in expecting to see these two appearing in various eras throughout history, perpetuating the unhealthy cycle of their relationship, one of those affairs where the best decision would be to end it now, in a moment of happiness, but they can’t help themselves from trying again, slaves to their love.
Instead, the story plants itself in the future city with extensive use of flashbacks to dole out bits of the past, of the “middle” of the story for us to figure out. This does not succeed. At all.
The structure is disjointed as all hell. When we flashback, we aren’t sure of which period we are in half the time. This is intentional, as revealed later. Worst of all, the idea of having an amnesiac Kurou on a quest to find Kuromitsu removes her, the most interesting character, from much of the story and turns him into a blank slate. I’ve said it many times: be careful of using amnesia as a plot device. The two most important characters have the least agency. The resistance fighters feel more important to the day-to-day of the story and the main villain, a Joker-like laughing maniac, grates one’s nerves within a single scene. (I would be remiss in mentioning that the horror goes down as the sci-fi goes up too.)
So, why structure the story in such a manner? It is all for the twist that reveals why he has amnesia, why he doesn’t wake up in the future beside her and why the Red Army wants him. The writer sacrificed everything to deliver such a mediocre twist. Worse yet, the twist is a fine piece of vampire lore that could have created plenty of great conflict along the way, if we could have seen it throughout time. I can’t wrap my brain around the insistence upon nailing this twist. It just doesn’t make sense.
I don’t want to give it away, in case you do watch Kurozuka, so allow me to craft an example instead. Imagine if you took Code Geass, as is, but you hid the fact that Lelouch had the power of mind control (don’t worry, Kurozuka’s twist isn’t mind control). You therefore removed any scene that shows his power because it would give away the twist. Sure, it’s an interesting reveal that he was mind controlling people all along (only once per person as well, to further the twist), but at what cost? You’ve now removed most of the compelling scenes and conflict, all because you wanted a big surprise.
Kurozuka is this hypothetical version of Code Geass. It has the components for a fantastic story. I can point to several elements I love, yet leaves much to be desired once brought together. Forget the twist. I want their relationship. Give me their turmoil, damn it!
I am more positive than negative over Kurozuka, though this has much to do with it being the type of story and aesthetic that I like. The ideas and possibilities that made me ponder interesting questions captivated me more than the product itself. As such, if you aren’t into vampires or cyberpunk, it is unlikely to work for you in the face of its structural and character issues.
Art – Medium
In its heyday, Kurozuka would have looked great. Age hasn’t been kind, ironically, as certain animation techniques and elements like CG blood do not hold up. The visual tone, however, is still strong in conveying atmosphere and several action scenes have great animation.
Sound – Medium
I like that they kept the kabuki narration in Japanese even for the English dub – not the sort of thing that works in another language. The acting is good, probably the strongest element of the entire production. The soundtrack is an intense electro death metal collection that, though not to my taste, is a perfect fit to the cyberpunk tragedy when you think about it.
Story – Medium
A samurai falls in love with a vampire woman, sparking a romance destined to last over a thousand years. A brilliant start filled with promises of a dark romance through the ages soon falters with a leap to the future, all in favour of an unsatisfying twist.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For dystopian fans only. I was going to suggest trying Kurozuka, but as the opening few episodes are deceptive to the overall experience, I can’t do so. The paranormal dystopian aspect is the draw.
Having seen the recent Hollywood release of Alita: Battle Angel in cinema and received a reader request, I thought it fitting to visit the anime version of Battle Angel Alita. This will be a combined review of sorts for the anime and movie.
Based on the nine-volume manga Gunnm from the 90s, this franchise is a classic of sci-fi. It follows Dr Ido and the cyborg Alita (or “Gally”) he reconstructed from a severed head found in the scrapyard. With no memory of her origins, Alita explores this cyberpunk city of bounty hunters and criminals as she learns to live and love.
Two episodes for nine volumes of content? It should come as no surprise to you when I say that Battle Angel Alita is an emaciated anime adaptation. Even if we ignore the manga for the moment and look at this on its own merits, there are notable issues. The story hops from key scene to key scene without the “in between” scenes where the non-crucial moments happen, yet these in betweens are often what bring a story to life and make us connect to characters.
I find this most notable in the first act, where Alita awakens with a new body and familiarises herself with the world around her. In the movie, we stay with her as she learns to control her body, wanders the city and makes friends. This is effective at endearing us to her so that when the action and suffering starts, we care about what happens to her. In the anime however, she wakes up and has no adjustment period. It skips over the first act character development. Furthermore, the movie’s take ingrains within us that she is a cyborg, whereas anime Alita just feels like a regular girl, which is rather important as a core theme is an exploration of what it means to be human.
The anime’s real focus is on the action and main events from the first half of the manga (the movie covers almost the same portion of story, though expanded upon). And when it comes to action, the anime delivers gory goodness. There are several brutal scenes.
Surprisingly, the movie doesn’t tone the violence down as much as one would imagine. Tearing the arms off a machine gets you a lower age rating than if they were flesh, so there’s plenty of brutality to go around. There is even one scene involving a severed head that is more unsettling in the movie than in the anime. I am surprised by some of the things they got away with.
The main plot events are similar across the manga, anime, and movie. The manga will of course have the most detail, but the movie isn’t short on story. It doesn’t feel like a time lapse of a longer story, unlike much of the anime.
I enjoy the story of Alita: Battle Angel. It has an endearing protagonist, some nasty villains, good exploration of theme, and a few turns I didn’t expect it to take. I greatly appreciate a story that claims it lives in a brutal world and delivers on that promise by making characters vulnerable at all times.
Something interesting I learnt after the fact was that the character of Chiren was a creation for the anime, which the movie took and expanded upon further. She is Dr Ido’s ex-wife (works as a cyberphysician like him) and a villain willing to do whatever it takes to return to the city in the sky for the elite. She is a good addition in giving more to Ido’s personal story. And she’s involved in two of the most disturbing scenes in the movie, which I won’t give away here.
A significant element of the movie and manga that is absent in the anime is the fictional sport of motorball. Imagine high-speed rollerblade racing mixed with basketball where anything goes, including shattering opponents to pieces. As long as your head survives, you can comeback back next time. Alita discovers an early passion for the sport thanks to the film’s love interest and it continues to play an important role throughout. The movie brings the visceral sport to life.
Lastly, I want to talk of the visuals. All three versions look great. Though the film version has more colour and visual variety, all versions paint a harsh world full of details. I am a huge cyberpunk fan and setting alone can often make or break my interest. The setting was the best of all elements in the movie for me. It’s rich with life and society. One gets a sense of how people would live in such a place, of how things work in this world. The bounty hunters (called “hunter-warriors”) in particular are great representations of the city with their rough personalities, rough morals, and equally rough cyborg bodies. They also generate good action in all mediums.
As for Alita herself in the movie, you will immediately notice how strange she looks with her large anime eyes. Interestingly, the director didn’t do this to make her look more anime-like. If that were the case, why was no one else given that look? It was a conscious decision to have Alita in full CG that gives an uncanny valley effect to remind the audience that she isn’t human. For myself, the eyes didn’t bother me after a while. What gets me is her smile. I don’t know why, but every time she smiles, it hits me with the uncanny valley. Whether you like the look or not, it does succeed in that regard, so don’t let it put you off watching the movie if the premise interests you.
So, to summarise: the manga is the fullest and most in depth version, while the movie is a good experience that doesn’t feel incomplete (barring the future sequel). The anime, unfortunately, is only worth watching after you have gone through one of the other versions, for it will lack any emotional weight otherwise. The anime is good supplementary material when you can fill in the gaps.
Overall Quality (for the anime) – Medium
Recommendation: Read the manga or watch the movie instead. While Battle Angel Alita is a nice looking OVA, the clipped story and lack of character moments makes it more of an ad for the manga. The live action film is also a better alternative for those who don’t want to read nine volumes.