Tag Archives: School Life

Set in school of all stages, though high school is most common.

Hyouka – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hyouka

 

Similar: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU

Gosick

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Slice of Life Mystery

Length: 22 episodes, 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Pleasant art and animation details.

Negatives:

  • So boring.
  • No obstacles to the mysteries.
  • No reason to care.

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Imagine a mystery where characters sit around and talk about the mystery instead of facing obstacles in the pursuit of answers. Now imagine that halfway through this series, what little mystery there was dwindles to a mere ember dying out in Sherlock Holmes’s fireplace. There you have Hyouka.

Oreki is a high school student who doesn’t like to expend energy unless absolutely necessary. He joins the school’s Classic Literature Club thinking it will be an easy ride without energy required, but when the inquisitive Eru begins an investigation into a mystery connecting her uncle and the club, his plans of laziness vanish.

Damn Hyouka is boring. This mystery they speak of is so uninteresting. It involves old books and finding meaning behind a passage, uncovering the author, getting the facts of a past incident, etc. The answer, which I won’t give away, feels so unimportant and is so unremarkable that I would understand if you thought it was a minor detail before the real solution.

It’s the journey, not the destination, you say? Well, the journey is a chore of bland dialogue replacing actual investigation. Where Sherlock Holmes – an inspiration for Hyouka (apparently) – would hit the streets looking for clues and talking to unusual witnesses, Oreki and co. chat with a librarian and then return to the clubroom to talk about the rest of the case. Hyouka has no flair, no style – no tension. Nonsense slice of life punctuates the investigation, though has no effect on the monotony, making Hyouka even duller.

Having a light mystery can work – we see it all the time in one-shot sitcom episodes – but you must have great characters to hang out with for the duration. Such pieces are more about having a good time with interesting people than about solving some deep mystery. Oreki’s trait of energy conservation has no purpose to the story. It’s a gimmick and nothing more. When a protagonist has ‘the trait,’ it must mean something to the story at large. As an example, Holmes’s abrasiveness gives him the ability to ask insensitive but necessary questions of witnesses and suspects alike. Yet this abrasiveness also makes him difficult to work with. Oreki’s laziness doesn’t do anything because he completes his task anyway with no meaningful conflict. Remove his gimmick and nothing changes.

To worsen matters, the second half of Hyouka devolves into meaningless slice of life – the Sherlock Holmes motif in the second ED is an insult, at this point. Hyouka’s mysteries are so few, so uninteresting that they run out of steam halfway through the series.

Honestly, I have so little to say about Hyouka that this feels like a waste of a review. It never gave me a reason to care about any of its characters or mysteries. So what drew me to this in the first place? When I was in Takayama (a town close to Shirakawa-go of Higurashi fame) for a festival, I saw in the hotel’s window a poster for Hyouka’s Blu-ray, which is set in fictional Kamiyama based on Takayama. When an anime takes place in a real Japanese location, the locals of said location size the opportunity to attract fans for tourism. ‘Location pilgrimages’ are common among otaku – similar to how Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fans go on holidays to hunt filming locations. I was doing the reverse, interested in the fictional portrayal after visiting the real place. And as it turns out, the real place is far more engaging.

Art – High

The art is Hyouka’s best quality with its bright palette and great animation. The little movements in each scene are a nice touch.

Sound – Medium

Even top actors could not make this dry dialogue engaging. Characters talk a lot without saying much.

Story – Low

A lazy guy is roped into a literature club that seeks to uncover mysteries surrounding their clubroom and its books. Never have I seen mysteries less interesting nor so boringly told than in Hyouka.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Hyouka is so boring that I can’t see reason to recommend it.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Natsume’s Book of Friends – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Natsume Yujincho

 

Related: Natsume’s Book of Friends Season 5 (starts October 2016)

Similar: Mushishi

xxxHOLiC

Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light

Cardcaptors

My Neighbor Totoro

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Supernatural Slice of Life

Length: 52 episodes (4 seasons), 2 OVA

 

Positives:

  • More substance than most slice of life.
  • The cat sidekick.
  • Good-natured feel.

Negatives:

  • Becomes invariable after a while.

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I kept putting this review off in the hopes I would find more within Natsume’s Book of Friends. “I’ll get to it next review. No, the one after,” I kept telling myself for three months. This time, I have to finish it. I wanted to find what it is that the fans love so dearly about this anime. I found the quality they love, but not why they love it this much.

Think of Natsume’s Book of Friends as a reverse Cardcaptor Sakura. Instead of capturing spirits like Sakura, Natsume works to release all spirits bound to the magical book he inherited from his grandmother. Until he does so, the spirits will follow him everywhere. Alongside him is a cat that claims to be an almighty spirit, yet why does he fall for every cat trap in the book? Tsk, tsk. More competent is the Okami-like wolf companion (voiced by Kakashi), who can transform into a tough high school girl.

The difficulty I have with Book of Friends is its laid back, easy-going nature. It’s too easy going, too laid back. It follows a ‘spirit of the week’ structure that feels repetitive before the first season is over. Each episode, a spirit follows Natsume, we flashback to when the grandmother bested them, they show a tragic backstory, and he gives the spirit peace. I have enjoyed many ‘of the week’ shows before, so why the difficulty here? The tone never changes. The episodic stories are always light, even when they should have intensity. Some stories are touching, yes – they’re dead, after all – but it feels so tame, so catered for children, as though afraid to cause heartache. Have light-hearted as the primary tone by all means, but some variance would keep the stupor at bay.

The best change would be to have fewer spirits, yet give each more time to develop – make some nastier, give proper arcs that twist left and right. Surprise me!

The spirit design and lore could also use work. Ninety percent of the spirits look like throwaway enemies from a generic JRPG or monster collect game. When looking at Doctor Who and all the creative monsters it comes up with (and the variance in tone), I expect more from Book of Friends in a medium that doesn’t have the limitations of live action. Now, if you’ve never seen these designs before, like the target audience, it won’t be much of a problem.

When not helping spirits, Natsume’s life consists of covering up the strange things that happen around him, inexplicable to all but himself. The overarching plot sees Natsume progress through the stages of school, which I like; however, this is far in the background. The episodic spirits take most attention.

Having light-hearted anime on occasion is a good thing – anime of any type can be a good thing – as long as it’s good. I don’t want to turn Natsume’s Book of Friends into a different anime. I want it to be a more interesting version of itself.

Art – Medium

Average if nice art that could use more animation and greater creature creativity. None of the creature’s surprised me in their design. With possibilities boundless, it’s disappointing they stuck to an unvarying design folio.

Sound – High

Good acting, especially the cat’s old man voice. I love the folk ED song from season one – listened to it every time. The music in general is nice.

Story – Medium

A boy releases the spirits from his ‘Book of Friends’ one by one so that they will leave him alone for once. A pleasant show about ‘reverse’ monster hunting each episode, but it plateaus quickly.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Those looking for an easy-going supernatural anime to watch one episode at a time will find pleasure in Natsume’s Book of Friends.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Honey and Clover – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hachimitsu to Clover

 

Related: Honey and Clover II (included in review)

Similar: Nodame Cantabile

The Pet Girl of Sakurasou

Eden of the East

Nana

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Slice of Life Comedy Drama Romance

Length: 24 episodes (season 1), 2 OVA, 12 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • The older characters and their arcs.
  • Second season.
  • Some hilarious moments.

Negatives:

  • The dull protagonist and his meandering story.
  • Minimal animation.
  • Poor exposition.
  • Unfocused structuring.

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Yuuta lives the life of a harassed art student, penny-pinching like Scrooge to survive the week on bread crusts while dealing with his eccentric roommate, Shinobu. A ray of sunshine enters his life when his art teacher brings his cousin’s daughter and talented artist, Hagumi, to class. Wait, wait! Sorry, wrong anime. Honey and Clover is actually the story of Ayumi, a pottery student with her heart set on a man obsessed with the wife of a dead man. Hang on – sorry – what’s this about Shinobu’s brother and getting back their father’s company?

Honey and Clover tries to tell too many stories. As a result, this feels like two different anime mashed together without interconnecting threads that weave them together. The stories don’t affect each other. This wouldn’t be much of problem if both anime were great, but this isn’t the case. Yuuta’s piddling romance with Hagumi, an eleven-year-old we’re told is eighteen, and his later pilgrimage to Japan’s north for self-discovery – a less funny Golden Boy – is so standard, so empty that he’s barely in the second season. The production team found him so boring that he becomes an extra in his own story! He only showed up so he wouldn’t get fined.

A student who studies and then graduates isn’t an interesting story. A student who fails from laziness, gets his life in order, and then graduates is a story. A coming-of-age story should have more drastic character growth than your typical genre, for we change most when coming of age, whether it is at thirteen or thirty. Yuuta’s story is your generic graduation journey. The writer tried to shake things up with his feelings for Hagumi, but she isn’t an interesting character nor does the relationship matter much between these two, so it falls flat.

A core problem of Yuuta’s story is in how it’s told. I have heard people say that one of Honey and Clover’s greatest qualities is the inner monologues that tell us everything about what a character is thinking and feeling. Notice the key word in that sentence? Tell. These characters are telling us how they feel instead of showing us through actions. Look at it this way – if you muted the monologues, would you still see the same character information? If the answer is ‘no’ then the monologue was the writer’s crutch when lacking the talent to show this information. An angry character doesn’t tell us he’s angry – he punches something. A lonely character doesn’t tell us he’s lonely – he looks with sad envy at a happy couple. I’ll give you one guess as to who has most of his character told to us through inner monologue. Praising the monologue is like praising someone who treats you as an incompetent. The live-action series (Japanese version) does better with Yuuta.

Then we have Ayumi and her ‘love chain’ (it extends through a dozen people, at least, by the end though many of its members are for comedy). The man she loves is in a ‘friendzone’ of sorts with a widow, who is traumatised and has the scars that will forever remind her of the tragic loss. It’s pathetic to watch this man crave her, in the good narrative sort of way, as you think, “I would probably be the same in his shoes.” We see what a potion of love, lust, sadness, and loneliness looks like.

Ayumi is spectator to this display, just as pathetic as the rest of them (again, in a good way). She doesn’t have a monologue that treats the audience like idiots. More importantly, the characters in her story have complexity – I hate most of the men involved, which is great! I find their actions creepy or even despicable, but it works because I buy who they are and why they make these decisions. Honey and Clover is at its best in the second season when Ayumi’s arc reaches the climax. I wish they had made this anime as two separate stories. This would have improved Yuuta’s story as well with Ayumi no longer monopolising all the drama. As is, his conflict-light story seems to serve as a break from Ayumi’s drama more than to tell his story.

One element you should be aware of as a prospective viewer is Hagumi. There is no getting past the fact that she looks, sounds, and behaves like a little girl. Her story ends even creepier than I anticipated. (Notice how neither the Japanese nor the Taiwanese live-action versions of Honey and Clover hired a little girl to play Hagumi.) Even looking past this, her depth amounts to ‘be cute.’ That’s it.

To end on a happier note, I want to talk of the comedy. Honey and Clover is quite funny overall. Shinobu steals the comedic scenes. From his hijinks with his sculpture professor to his work with film director “Peter” Lucas, Shinobu is hilarious. To be honest, he feels like a superfluous character at first, but soon earns his place on the cast.

I debated at length on whether I like Honey and Clover or not. When I think of the Ayumi’s arc, I find myself recommending it. Then I remember Yuuta and I grimace – surely, I can’t recommend this, no? After much deliberation, I concluded that the second season made it worth my time, regardless. If I didn’t know better, I would say season two had a new author.

Art – Low

As with most slice of life anime, the budget wasn’t large. The art looks good in stills thanks to the style, but the motion is rigid and limited.

Sound – Medium

The opening songs sound like a drunk child screaming about their preschool woes during karaoke. Less obvious exposition for the sake of the audience would help this otherwise decent script.

Story – Medium

A group of artistic friends seek meaning and success in life. With too many stories to tell, Honey and Clover oscillates between interesting and bland characters, engaging you one episode and boring you the next. If it were just Ayumi’s story, I would give a high rating.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For slice of life with romance fans. If you aren’t willing to sit through twice as many episodes as necessary, Honey and Clover isn’t worth starting. That is unless you love slice of life and can subsist on a shallow protagonist doing ordinary things.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

From Up on Poppy Hill – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Coquelicot-zaka kara

 

Similar: Whisper of the Heart

Kids on the Slope

Watched in: Japanese, English, & French

Genre: Historical Romance

Length: 1 hr. 35 min

 

Positives:

  • Art and detail.
  • The soundtrack takes you back.

Negatives:

  • Not much story.
  • The main thread is a dud.
  • Shallow overall.

(Request an anime for review here.)

When Hayao Miyazaki neared retirement (and un-retirement every other year), it was logical for Studio Ghibli to train up a replacement, and who better than the son of your prodigy to take the reins? Thus, Gorou Miyazaki received blessing to head his own projects, the second of which was From Up on Poppy Hill.

Set in a seaside town of 1960s Japan, From Up on Poppy Hill follows high school girl Umi and her work at Coquelicot Manor, a boarding house run by her family. Her school is in turmoil as the old clubhouse faces demolition in the push for modernisation before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As Umi helps the clubs, she grows closer to one boy in particular – Shun, the cool kid fawned over by the girls – and eventually helps him find the truth about his father.

Let’s start with what I like about From Up on Poppy Hill. The atmosphere is fantastic. Old lounge music warbles as we roam the evening streets of this seaside town bathed in golden street lamps. Bikes tick past, cars rumble on, and vendors announce their wares. Can you smell the fried meats? For something completely different, we go to the school clubhouse, where dozens of clubs have carved out a niche in this ancient manor. The mechanics tinker, the chemists concoct, and the philosopher yells existentialism. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, generations of trinkets and books plaster the manor. One could get equally lost in the knowledge or in the labyrinth of junk that fills this beloved institute.

The clubhouse is the sort of place you could use as the single setting for an adventure game packed with puzzles. Professor Layton would die happy. It breaks my heart when they have to clean it up to be presentable to the committee in charge of the modernisation effort. The Ghibli magic is still here in art and sound.

When it comes to the characters and story, however, the mana pools have run dry. First, the characters: they are remarkably unremarkable – pleasant people but not compelling characters. Umi doesn’t have Sophie’s feistiness or Chihiro’s strength found in Hayao’s works. If Gorou wanted to do something different for his protagonist than his father had done, that’s fine, commendable even. Sadly, he’s removed those aforementioned defining qualities and replaced them with…not much. Shun suffers from similar problems. He’s the cool kid and kind to Umi, but nothing more. These characters aren’t bad. No, they fall under the worst designation of all – forgettable.

And so does most of the story. The main thread is the relationship between these two kids and their search for Shun’s biological father. I won’t give anything away, but let me sum it up in one word: dud. I can’t imagine how anyone saw this plotline and said, “Yes, that is engaging enough to keep everyone to the end.”

As for the second thread, saving the clubhouse, it is better than the first with its greater sense of fun and doesn’t end in a dub. However, the success of this plotline is largely attributed to the art and sound qualities I talked of earlier, not the story itself. Where characters are concerned, the quirky side characters like the philosophy club president outshine the protagonists with mere minutes of screen time. I enjoyed the ensemble cast much more than the protagonists, except for when the two go into town for shopping (thanks to the atmosphere).

This story is too simple, even by simple story standards. It has everything but story and characters, the two elements Hayao Miyazaki usually does best. From Up on Poppy Hill’s greatest use is as an antidote to recover from Grave of the Fireflies when in the middle of your Ghibli marathon.

Art – Very High

The art maintains Studio Ghibli’s high standards – the evening lights evoke great atmosphere. The design and details of the clubhouse warrant full attention.

Sound – High

I could listen to this soundtrack any time I need to relax – love it. English and French voices are fine, but the Japanese is best.

Story – Low

A girl helps a boy find his true father while saving the school clubhouse from demolition. Both of these plot lines receive surface-deep exploration and the mystery of the boy’s father is underwhelming, leaving the atmosphere to almost singlehandedly carry you through From Up on Poppy Hill.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of historical Japan. From Up on Poppy Hill’s story isn’t a reason for attendance. However, if you want to relax in an atmospheric 60s Japan with light conflict and a pleasant soundtrack, then look no further.

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

Positive:

Great Music

Negative:

Shallow

Orange – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Orange

 

Related: Orange: Mirai (alternative perspective + extended ending)

Similar: Erased

AnoHana

Blue Spring Ride

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Drama Romance

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Nice colouring and animation.
  • Some sweet moments.

Negatives:

  • Forgettable characters.
  • One of the weakest, most non-committal endings.
  • Needs to be smarter.

(Request an anime for review here.)

The more I think of Orange, the dumber it gets. Okay, you receive a letter from your future self warning of the death of a friend. Included are a list of events and instructions on how to save your friend. Do you: a) Read the whole letter to know what’s to come or b) Leave the letter and read each event at the last moment or better yet, after the crucial event. Now imagine you’re the future self, do you: a) Tell your past self exactly what happens or b) Keep events vague so the story isn’t spoiled. You know, I’m not convinced you care about saving your friend.

This scenario is where Naho finds herself. The letter from her future warns that the new transfer student, Kakeru, who joins her circle of friends, will die soon. The letter laments Naho’s many regrets in life, such as not playing in a school baseball game, sharing an umbrella with Kakeru… Wait, these are the crucial regrets that will save Kakeru’s life? Furthermore, the ultimate plan save to Kakeru is to get him together with Naho. It’s not that he has deep psychological issues because of his unstable mother and her suicide. No, he needs a date. The goals are so menial, so petty that despite the consequence being someone’s death, it doesn’t feel as though the story has anything at stake. Orange is a slice of life anime trying to convince us it’s a drama.

I can’t even talk of what happens during spoiler moments (‘spoiler’ is too strong a word here). There is a twist of sorts in act 2 that makes Naho’s decision not to read the whole letter seem genius. Turns out, Naho doesn’t get smarter with age.

Look, the premise is interesting, but such a timid approach isn’t viable. Compare Orange to Erased. Both feature abuse, parental problems, warnings from the future, and death as the consequence, yet feel nothing alike. Where Erased has tension, Orange worries about playing sports. Erased has its many faults and I appreciate that it’s easier to pull off this story when you have a murderer to confront, but at least it understood the weight of its consequence. The only time Orange bothers to have any weight is in the final episode. And you know what caps it off? One of those non-committal, insipid endings that doesn’t want to make the tough choices with its characters. The live-action film deviates from the source material in this one aspect, to better results, which is something.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the explanation for how the letters travelled back in time is…idiotic. This is fiction, where you can do whatever you want and you went with the science fiction equivalent of ‘pulled out of the arse’? I would show no surprise if I learnt that Orange took a day to write. No effort went into any part of this story.

I have enjoyed many mediocre or bad stories because of good characters. Orange does not have these. Naho is too dim-witted to find endearing. Apart from not reading the whole letter like a logical person, one point of “conflict” has her not understand what Kakeru means by holding out his hand. “A guy I’m dating (sorta) reaches for my hand several times. What could he possibly want? What does it mean!?” No joke, she has to consult her friends for an answer. I really hope no one’s relying on Naho to save a life…

The other friends are forgettable. I honestly forgot the nerd friend until past the mid-point, thinking he was a background filler student until then. These friends lack those moments that endear the reader to the group. The first scene that tries in episode one has them hanging out, eating bread from one friend’s family bakery. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but eating bread isn’t enough to make me love characters. They have some joke about one girl’s nickname related to a shinkansen, which they find hilarious…for some reason. Think back to your favourite group of fictional friends and how quickly you loved them. The TV show Friends is my go to example – one scene and I want to see more of them. Orange’s friends can barely fill a test tube with their chemistry.

What good is there to say of Orange? Well, it isn’t atrocious, more sigh-worthy when logic jumps out the window, and the visuals and audio are pleasant. They fit perfectly to the slice of life Orange wishes it could be. In essence, everything taken from the manga is lazy while the rest is good.

Art – High

Nice colours and a good amount of animation found here, but some of it looks strange, such as the way a couple of characters smile – coat hangers in their lips.

Sound – Medium

The voice work is good in Japanese and English, though the script doesn’t allow for much. I like the OP and ED for being different from other anime in the genre.

Story – Low

A schoolgirl receives a letter from her future self to save a friend from death. Orange is a slice of life masquerading as a drama that needed more thought before the first draft.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Orange makes no effort to recommend itself. Watch Erased if the premise entices you or the recently reviewed Your Lie in April if you want a romance about avoiding regrets.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Induces Stupidity