With her family estate declining and her future uncertain, the young librarian and teacher Shuurei accepts the court’s offer to become the lazy emperor’s concubine and instructor in exchange for 500 gold pieces. She has no reason to turn down the offer, as the new emperor prefers the company of men (or so he likes everyone to believe). Plus, this could be the opportunity to fulfil her dream of becoming a member of the court, where the fate of the people is decided. Her innocence and focus teeter on the brink however, when her job puts her in the path of several handsome men, never mind the emperor’s stupidity.
The first impressions of The Story of Saiunkoku gave me hope of seeing another Twelve Kingdoms (still have my fingers crossed for a conclusion) with its bishounen artwork set to a vast kingdom and mystical backstory. I expected far too much. It is partially my fault, likely generated out of desperation to see more of The Twelve Kingdoms sort. So, I adjusted my expectations and saw Saiunkoku for what it is – a shoujo historical fantasy romance that pays no attention to historical realism in exchange for dreamboat men.
First off, I believe this anime conveniently ignores what a concubine actually is (we call them something very different today). It wouldn’t do to have the protagonist called a whore every scene in a show for young girls, now would it?
Changing some historical nuance isn’t a deal breaker for a show such as this, full of fantasy and no “true story” adaptation. The real issue is the complete lack of feeling that this takes place in a period gone by. This is a very “anime” anime for teenage girls with its modern humour and contemporary mannerisms. I wouldn’t call this a historical piece. I liken Saiunkoku to characters dressing up for a period piece rather and actual period piece. Whether the author wasn’t skilled enough to write a period piece or the team thought it would be too difficult for the target audience to understand, Saiunkoku isn’t a period romance.
Barring that, it does have strengths. For one, the aesthetic is lovely, suits the tone of the series, and no doubt makes the bishounen even more appealing to the audience. While this is a reverse harem, matters never descend into garbage harem territory. It also has many elements, from the intricacies of government to wider cultures and a large cast of character without dragging down proceedings. The story moves at a good pace and never feels tired. The top-level plot progress slows at times, though this is in exchange for more exploration of a subplot. I cannot impress upon you enough how surprised I am by this. Too often, such a volume of elements results in a bloated mess where everything competes for attention, nothing sticks with the audience, and you just want to drop the series.
We have plenty of politics within and without as Shuurei navigates the imperial court and all its conniving players. She faces a greater challenge than others do, being a woman in the territory of men while falling for some of them. The drama never gets heavy, yet it has enough to deliver the audience to the conclusion. It maintains the mask of shoujo romance, yet doesn’t do so at the total expense of depth.
The Story of Saiunkoku is quite good for young girls – there is a lot here for the right audience – but anyone desiring an experience that takes you back in time with a touch of fantasy will find this piece too modern.
Art – Medium
Most of the effort went into the character designs and aesthetics, which look nice, instead of animation, which needs work.
Sound – Medium
Music is the best part of The Story of Saiunkoku. I like the OP and classical Asian instrumental soundtrack. As for acting, the Japanese fine. I would avoid the dub, as a couple of characters are jarring. One kid has so much nasal on top of being a kid everyone would punch on first meeting.
Story – Medium
A girl agrees to become concubine to the new emperor in exchange for a hefty reward, but the simple proposition complicates itself when feelings get involved. While not a period piece whatsoever, The Story of Saiunkoku is a good shoujo romance.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For shoujo fans. The Story of Saiunkoku is shoujo within and without – unfortunately at the expense of historical realism. It knows its core demographic.
Great, another title to add to the list of anime that deserves completion. Why does Glass Mask get 51 episodes while Skip Beat, the superior anime of the arts, only has 25 episodes? Shameful!
Skip Beat is a romantic comedy centred on the lovable goof that is 16-year-old Kyouko. She is a diligent supporter of her childhood friend turned idol Shoutarou Fuwa, acting as a de facto housewife – away from her family – while he climbs in popularity. Little did she know that he is scum! All this time, he was taking advantage of her kindness to have a free maid that will cater to him. Kyouko swears revenge by aiming to do the one thing Shou would hate more than anything: become an idol more popular than him and work with his rival, the enigmatic Ren.
There is only one problem with her plan. She has no talents.
Kyouko is a fantastic character. I love her determined naiveté towards the entertainment industry. After a makeover from frump to fashionista, she spends her time walking around the trendy districts of Tokyo just waiting to be discovered. Love it! When that doesn’t work, she barges into a talent agency demanding to become a star. That goes nowhere fast. (A chibi devil Shou in her head taunts her after every failure.)
However, after a bout of stubbornness, an agent does take pity and allows her to join as a low-level assistant, performing janitorial and porter duties to earn “the people’s love”. So committed is she to the task that she cleans the floors to a perfect polish, which has everyone slipping down the corridors.
If I haven’t made it clear already, Skip Beat is heavy on comedy to much success. Eventually she does more than clean and gets to perform before the camera, leading into the light drama of the story.
I like how it doesn’t take the Glass Mask approach of making her a prodigy overpraised by all. Her first performance is a scene doing a tea ceremony opposite Ren, something she learned from her time working at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), so it makes sense that she executes it better than the rival actress when it needs little acting on her part. And the surrounding crew don’t have their minds blown by her every gesture either, as they would in that other anime. It only becomes a little silly about over exaggeration for the final performance rehearsal of the show.
Where Skip Beat faceplants in the arts aspect is with Ren. He supposedly never does more than one take of a scene, which is stupid. For one, no director would accept this. For two, if there is one thing I can tell you about J-drama actors is that they could do with more takes. Also, Ren isn’t much of an engaging character. He’s the stoic type – “OMG! He’s so quiet and mysterious. I’m in love!” He seriously needs more expression. Perhaps that would come later in the story.
This leads to the next and most significant problem with Skip Beat. It is incomplete. And when I say incomplete, I mean barely getting started before it halts. This may be the worst case I have encountered of an incomplete good anime. At least Berserk can be taken as a series with a “villain wins” ending. For Skip Beat, it is little more than the first act in these 25 episodes and leads to all sorts of problems, not least of which is in the romance.
To no one’s surprise, the story setups up a love triangle with Shou, Kyouko, and Ren, but we never even reach that point when the triangle is official. In fact, Shou is barely in the anime after she learns of his true nature. In isolation, it’s fine – it makes sense to keep him aside while she grows closer to Ren first, but when the script stops suddenly, it’s so unsatisfying to have zero resolution on anything.
Skip Beat the manga has 43 volumes so far and is still ongoing (not on hiatus), so if you intend to get into this anime and want closure, prepare to read. So frustrating! Perhaps it could see a revival like many others chosen in recent years.
Art – Medium
The art is dated at this point. It is expressive though and sports good visual humour, which is perfect for Skip Beat.
Sound – High
Interestingly, the dub translates everything, including the songs and does it well. The songs sound as if the same people performed them in both languages with perfect fluency. The dub acting is great too. I prefer it for making Kyouko more manic and Shou goofier, leaning further into the comedic side. Of course, the Japanese works great too.
Story – Medium
A girl decides to become a mega star in revenge for being used by another star she thought was her friend. Skip Beat is funny, often unexpected, and too criminally incomplete to reach its full potential.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For those willing to read the manga afterwards. Skip Beat is tons of fun, but it’s also the mere start of the story, so prepare to get into a lengthy manga if you desire closure.
How is it that one can make an anime about acting only to end up with a Mary Sue that can’t act?
Glass Mask is a frustrating anime. It’s something different and about acting, an art form I love, so I wanted it to succeed in the same way that Nodame Cantabile did with music. I kept giving it chances to improve, but it did nothing other than disappoint me further at each stage.
We follow Maya Kitajima, a 13-year old girl with big dreams of stardom on stage and screen as she toils away as a ramen delivery worker. She loves to perform for anyone that will watch. While playing with kids in the park, a crone-like lady comes up and proclaims that Maya is the star she’s been looking for all these years! Maya rightfully screams and runs.
This is the first red flag. Never believe anyone who tells you, “I knew it from the first that they would be the best.” When a teacher finds a future star, they don’t see the greatest to have ever existed. They don’t witness perfect pitch or hear the perfect note on the piano – many can do that in a vacuum. They see something more, a quality that could take them further, whether it is determination, focus, a different take on the art, or unexpected creativity. (And remember, more stars fail than succeed.) In Glass Mask, Tsukikage instantly sees the greatest actress that will live in a 13-year-old girl with no training and no experience. Sigh…
We can forgive that as the typical exaggeration of anime. It’s common for the protagonist to have some amazing quality right away, so it’s not a death sentence.
Acting is an obsession to Maya. While out on deliveries, she often finds herself distracted by the local theatre or cinema with the latest dramas from her favourite stars. We see an early example of how far her obsession goes when she makes a bet with the bratty daughter of the ramen shop. If Maya can complete all deliveries on New Year’s Eve, the busiest night of the year, on time and by herself, the other girl will give her tickets to the latest hit play starring her favourite actress.
This takes place in Yokohama (well recreated here, by the way, with the warehouses by the wharf, the downtown amusement park, and beautiful skyline). The restaurant is in the city’s Chinatown and I recognise several of her delivery destinations. I have toured Yokohama (love it!) and let me assure you that no one would be able to cover the ground she does in so little time, even if they had bike. Oh yeah, did I mention she does this on foot? In the middle of a winter night? While carrying two cabinets with several of ramen? Which, as a minor aside, means she has to return to the restaurant after every few customers. Did I forget to mention that? Before one would even consider the feasibility of her task, there is no way the owner would hinge her restaurant’s reputation on a child’s bet.
Of course, she succeeds.
Okay, perhaps we can forgive this as well. It’s the equivalent to the shounen protagonist beating the “unbeatable” trial set by a teacher to prove that they are worthy of becoming a pupil. What follows, however, is unforgivable.
Through a series of events too long to detail without being here all night, Maya becomes apprentice to the crazy crone from earlier, who turns out to be former diva and legendary actress Chigusa Tsukikage. A director wants to remake her greatest film (imagine Casablanca) with the current popular actress (Maya’s favourite). Tsukikage doesn’t believe she can live up to the role and decrees that there won’t be a remake until she trains Maya. This performance is Glass Mask’s end goal.
So, Maya moves into Tsukikage’s mansion with several other girls to practice acting day and night. And it just gets stupid from here.
First, Maya has the ability to memorise an entire play – everyone’s lines – in a single viewing and recreate it without practice. She also instantly knows how to convey any act on her first try. Glass Mask demonstrates this in one of the most laughably bad scenes in anime.
On their first night at the mansion, they have to mime eating their favourite dish after Tsukikage tricks them. Everyone is blown away – tornado picking up Dorothy’s house levels of blown away – at her imitation of slurping ramen. The way everyone reacts to everything she does is so over the top that it’s pathetic. This is a shounen for girls and her superpower is acting.
Another moronic scene has students pretending to get a bird down from atop a cupboard and back into its cage. Everyone does this normally, but for Maya that isn’t good enough. She acts as though she’s too short to reach the cupboard and this blows everyone’s minds! “Oh my god, we are so stupid! How did we not realise that a cupboard top is high up? Never mind that the exercise was about handling the bird – we should kill ourselves with shame!” They don’t actually say that, but their reactions do.
See, Maya’s defining personality trait is her need to be different, to be special from everyone else. One of her early gigs is the village idiot in a theatre comedy. Her role is comedic relief with the explicit purpose of making the audience laugh. That’s what they pay her for. The ignorant director, in his decades of experience, forgot that comedy is beneath the great Maya. She changes the script mid-act and takes over the play to give her character a tragic backstory, turning the play into a drama. Of course, the audience is in tears as they give a standing ovation.
You know what would happen to her in reality? Fired on the spot and no one wants to work with her again. Only the most gullible and acting ignorant person would fall for Glass Mask’s version of the art.
The stupid doesn’t stop there. Wait until she starts the method acting. Every one of her roles once her career kicks off is Oscar bait.
Her main rival is Ayumi, daughter of the current popular actress mentioned earlier. They compete for a variety of roles of equal pretension. One audition is to play a young Helen Keller, a woman famous for learning to read and speak despite being blind and deaf. Two of the audition judges are Ayumi’s mother and her mother’s manager. No bias, they swear.
After winning each role, Glass Mask takes a few episodes for Maya to go method while implying that if you don’t go method, you are a bad actor. In one role, she plays a bedridden girl; so of course, she goes out in the rain to get sick for the performance. Has Maya ever considered, you know, acting? Your Lie in April is far superior at dramatising the struggle to become a better artist.
In a move of divine irony, none of Maya’s performances – and her voice actress’s by extension – are any good. Not one performance manages to convince me that I am seeing a different character on screen. It’s always the narcissistic Maya. The funniest role has to be that of Wolf Girl, where she has to become a girl raised by wolves. Embarrassing.
I get the impression that the author of Glass Mask knows nothing about acting. Does the writer not know that acting is a collaborative art, where reacting to others in the scene is just as important as acting by yourself? Yet, this show acts as though the job of a performer is to slay your scene partner with sick line reads. This ain’t a rap battle. (Yes, they do have “act offs”. I am not kidding.)
Furthermore, all adults around Maya that have been in the business for years act like amateurs just to make her look better. “What is this…‘a-ku-ting’ you want me to do?” they say, drool slipping from the corner of the mouth.
Above all this, what I hate most about Maya is her false modesty. She wins an Oscar-like award as a teenager, receives a standing ovation after every performance and praise from all, but at the end, she says she isn’t that good. (I mean yes, her voice actress isn’t good, but that’s not what she meant.) What an insufferable character.
The ideas, if you list them out – girl obsessed with acting to the point of insanity, has-been starlet driven to train a protégé, showing the girl has natural skills at an impromptu audition, dedicating one’s life to the art – are all fine on paper. With the over the top execution of Glass Mask though, it takes them beyond the point of believability into laughable territory.
Art – Low
The art is more realistic (ish) than the norm for a shoujo anime. Animations need fluidity.
Sound – Low
Most performances are fine. However, having an actress with no range play a girl said to have the superhuman ability to become any character is a massive failure. The music is dull – OP, ED, BGM – all of it.
Story – Very Low
A young girl with a chameleon acting talent goes under the wing of a once great actress obsessed with raising a successor. On paper, everything sounds great. In execution, the journey is painful to endure alongside an insufferable protagonist and lessons that no actor should follow.
Overall Quality – Very Low
Recommendation: Avoid it. I don’t want people to watch Glass Mask, especially kids, and to think this is a representation of great acting. I almost gave this a Low rating, but I truly hate the lead and everything she represents.
Banana Fish is an adaptation of a manga by the same name that ended 24 years ago. Once a manga reaches a certain age, it’s often deemed outdated and financially unviable. Should one receive an anime adaptation, even then it could become “old news” and have no second season in favour of a gamble at the next big hit. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see something as old as Banana Fish on the slate. And when a studio does go out of its way for an old licence, they will put the full production effort behind it, as is the case here.
The story centres on young AshLynx, a handsome boy adopted by New York City Mafia Don DinoGolzine, who declares that Ash should inherit his empire. The boy is ruthless, resourceful, and charismatic – all the qualities he desires in an heir (and it helps that Ash is just his type). Unfortunately for the Don, the boy is also rebellious and despises him like the devil. Ash becomes hell-bent on destroying his father and abuser, especially once suspicion arises of his involvement in the death of Ash’s brother and a mind control drug called Banana Fish. This dangerous game becomes more personal when he meets Japanese photographer Eiji, with whom he makes fast friends. Eiji has just entered a world of abuse, drugs, and death.
Ash is an interesting character and the strongest element of the story. He is a mix of violence and pain as he hates just about everything in his life, yet has these moments of intense vulnerability like a lost child that has no idea of the world. As a child, people sexually abused him, particularly in the mafia including Dino, which taught him that his most valuable asset to these monsters is his body. He’s so damaged by this, one isn’t sure if he’s actually gay or if he’s willing to use his asset to gain the upper hand. It’s messed up, but it makes for an interesting protagonist.
Banana Fish opens on a song to hype you up for the action and ends on a ballad of sadness to remind you of Ash’s pain. That is the heart of Banana Fish.
Eiji is the opposite: sweet, innocent, doesn’t know how to handle gun, and hasn’t even kissed someone. He’s the only good in Ash’s life. Nothing was free in Ash’s world, until he made a friend.
The rest of the cast is a motley crew of gangsters, street urchins, and forgotten soldiers. They work fine in their roles. Where Banana Fish fails its characters is with the villains. Not one of them is interesting or has any depth. Dino is just a creep obsessed with getting Ash to come back as his heir. His plan to accomplish this? What plan? The Chinese guy with long hair, said to be a master manipulator, only succeeds through plot convenience and his ultimate desire for death is just nonsensical. He’s more whiny cartoon child than evil genius. The rest are run-of-the-mill thugs and henchmen, as normal.
The focus on action over character does lessen the impact of weak villains, since this isn’t a battle of ideologies or wits. However, the action-dominated story does dampen the initial setup with Ash’s background and his friendship with Eiji. It doesn’t stop long enough for us to absorb these characters.
To compound problems further (it’s chain of problems, at this point, one leading into the next), the action isn’t smart like Code Geass or stylised like John Wick or Mad Max: Fury Road, so I don’t feel the action alone can carry the series to greatness. People take life-threatening injuries only to stand up a minute later as if they won’t die of blood loss any moment now. Also, Ash is supposed to have an IQ of 180, yet his plans are far from genius. One hit on Dino involves standing atop a truck to take the shot while speeding past. Really, that’s your plan? Nothing in Banana Fish lends credence to his genius label. If they simply hadn’t mentioned it in that one episode, it would have been irrelevant. He’s of average intelligence with high charisma, which is perfectly fine.
My other problem with Ash is the overuse of certain tropes. For instance, I lost count the number of times he wiled his way out of captivity by seducing his captor/guard. It’s awfully convenient that every single one of them is gay and falls for the oldest trick in the book. It made sense the first time when his captor was a past abuser that still craved him. After that is pushing it. Even the humour, which is often jarringly out of place, uses this trope in a light-hearted manner.
Banana Fish has a much stronger first half than second. The first has all the tension, tough choices, harsh losses, and less to do with weak villains. It’s still a decent anime in the second half, though you have to love it for the action more than anything else. And if you make it to the end, the final scene is the best in the series.
Art – High
One of the better-looking series of the year, Banana Fish has a colourful style with plenty of detail, nice animation, and consistent quality. Distant characters lack detail though.
Sound – High
From OP to ED, main character to supporting, all the audio is great.
Story – Medium
An heir to a criminal empire rebels against the predator that raised him and finds friendship in an unexpected place. Banana Fish has a strong first half, fluctuates up and down for the rest of the way, but ends on a great moment.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For action fans. Banana Fish looks great and has plenty of action to keep the crowd busy. Not for children.
Ghost Hunt looks like arse, the performances are half-arsed, and these ghost hunters couldn’t tell the difference between a gust of wind and their arses. And that’s what makes this anime fun.
For reasons that could never see justification, Mai is forced to work as the assistant to 17-year-old Kazuya, sceptical ghost hunter of the Shibuya Psychic Research Company. Their slave-master relationship begins at her school with the case of the abandoned school building, but soon goes on tour to other haunted locations in Japan. They are joined – rather coincidentally – at each site by a rock star Buddhist monk, vain Shinto priestess, TV spirit medium, and (my favourite) an Australian Catholic priest.
The poor visuals and near absence of animation turned me off the series until the full cast of characters assembled at school. Unable to handle the bad PR of having a haunted building on campus, the principal hired someone from every religion he could think of to assist Kazuya. They are great together. I love that they each think everyone else is a fraud. It brings a good level of humour to the story, especially coupled with the inspiration taken from those fake American ghost-hunting series. A chair falls over and everyone freaks out!
However, nothing is funnier than the Catholic priest in the English dub. His accent is so bad that it transcends hilarity, so much so that I recommend watching Ghost Hunt in English. I couldn’t stop laughing every time he spoke.
The other strength of Ghost Hunt is in how they handle the mysteries. Each case takes three to four episodes, building layers to the backstory and throwing twists at the investigators. It isn’t as predictable as I anticipated. I like how Kazuya is a sceptic who doesn’t jump straight to the supernatural answer, instead checking if there is an earthly explanation for the weird occurrences first. Just when you’re sure it’s a phantom, he unveils a logical explanation or vice-versa. Furthermore, these aren’t generic urban myths you see in every horror series. The mysteries are good enough to keep you on the hook, wanting to know what happened, and the group dynamic among these hack frauds maintains decent tension and humour.
In an effort to dispel any notions that Ghost Hunt is a great series after all that praise, let us go through the problems. First, Mai isn’t a useful character. She is your typical audience stand-in – an ordinary person thrust into a paranormal world surrounded by experts (“experts”) that do all the work. Second, there is no need to waste time reintroducing the other exorcists each new case. And third, Ghost Hunt isn’t scary. At all. It could have made more effort with the horror side of being a comedy horror series.
I went in with zero expectations, which dropped further upon seeing the art and hearing the performances, but I came to embrace the goof once the cast gathered and the mysteries developed.
Art – Low
There isn’t much animation (no high detail to compensate either) and the shattering glass is so obviously CG. What else do you need to know?
Sound – Low
You have to watch this in English for the Australian accent. He does have oddities in his Japanese dialect as well, but you won’t notice them if you don’t understand Japanese. The spooky OP is effective, though I wonder if the lack of lyrics was a budget constraint (made the best of what they had, regardless).
Story – Medium
A high school girl becomes assistant to a ghost hunter to pay off a debt. With some possibly unintentional comedy and unpredictable mysteries, Ghost Hunt has enough to be good fun for cheesy horror fans.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: Try it. Ghost Hunt’s slim budget and cut corners only add to the fun. This is a horror series for those who prefer mystery over gore (see Another for the gore).