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Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

 

Similar: March Comes in Like a Lion

Millennium Actress

Aoi Bungaku

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Drama

Length: 25 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • The Rakugo acting.
  • Strong drama and characters.
  • Alignment of art, tone, and theme.

Negatives:

  • Full performances each episode isn’t necessary.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Rakugo is a traditional Japanese style of storytelling, a mix of stand-up comedy and one-man theatre. The performer stays knelt on a cushion and depicts several characters in conversation, using only a fan and cloth as props. If you’ve ever recounted a story to friends, imitating multiple people by slightly changing your voice and shifting your head back and forth, you will have an idea of Rakugo. The stories are comical in nature, though a performer does like to throw in an occasional drama to throw off the audience.

Steeped in tradition and inflexible, Rakugo is a dying art form in the face of modern entertainment such as television. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is the story of Rakugo – how it used to be and how it struggles to keep up with the times, as told across two generations. It starts in the modern day with former yakuza member Kyoji released from prison, aspiring to perform Rakugo and turn his life around. He goes to the revered Yakumo, who had performed at the prison during Kyoji’s incarceration. The young man’s enthusiasm triggers a flood of memories in Yakumo. We flash back to his days as an apprentice and the rivalry he had with Sukeroku.

This is a classic talent versus hard work type of career story. Yakumo is the perfectionist – dedicated and hardworking despite his crippled leg. Sukeroku is his opposite – gifted, lazy, freestyling, and charismatic enough to hold the audience in his every word. I like these types of rivalries. However, the trap I often see writers fall into is showing too much favouritism to one over the other. Some will unrealistically depict natural talent as the sole ingredient to be the best, when that is obviously untrue (lazy writing, as it doesn’t take effort to show why the character is so accomplished). On the other hand, stories with hardworking protagonists will discard the power of innate talent, ignoring how much of an advantage it gives in the early and middle stages of mastery.

Rakugo strikes the perfect balance. Talent goes as far as it should and hard work accomplishes what is realistically possible. Furthermore, it depicts the cost of dedication and the trap of talent. Neither character is free of sacrifice for their approach to the art.

At first, these characters weren’t of particular interest, but they grew on my over time when I got to see how they lived and the conflict they dealt with. Yakumo puts the career, the dream above all else. I appreciate characters with conviction to be the best and not take opportunities for granted, as I have mentioned elsewhere. But what sells it is the cost that comes with this mind set. I cannot stand it when there are no consequences, no matter how noble the aspirations. Writers sometimes forget that accomplishments cost time, time that is no longer available to spend on other part of life, such as friends or hobbies.

It starts slow, though by the end of season one, it had me hooked to the drama. Season two spotlights the next generation of Rakugo storytellers with Kyoji as the lead, which, while still a good season, isn’t really necessary. The first ends in a strong place, so don’t feel compelled to watch season two for completion’s sake if already satisfied.

Enough about the characters, let’s talk of the art itself, of Rakugo. The performances are fantastic. The first episode has a complete Rakugo act on stage about a thief stealing from a conman, who is making a claim for stolen property that doesn’t exist with the police. It’s a gripping performance – not just in anime, but also by the voice actor, Tomokazu Seki. This scene will let you know if Rakugo is for you.

By contrast, episode two shows us a bad performance and it is striking. The lines fall flat, the delivery has no emotion, and no one laughs at the routine. You feel just like the audience watching this – bored. And it is perfect. A good actor intentionally acting badly is a challenging feat.

My favourite detail in the performances is the cinematography, the show don’t tell of how the scenes are shot. When a performer is making everyone laugh, the audience in the palm of his hand, we see close ups of his neck beaded with sweat, arm straining to hold the pose, and his eye twitching on the verge of losing the act at any moment. We learn so much by seeing so little. If this were a shounen anime, we would cut away to another character, the background darkened as we go into his head for a dramatic monologue explaining everything about the performance, accompanied by a shocked expression one would expect from hearing that your mother was the villain the entire time. Had Rakugo been done that way, I would have given up paying attention.

The one fault of the Rakugo, as great as these performances are, is the insistence on a full routine each episode, which for the most part don’t contribute to the story outside of key moments. It would be equivalent to showing every minute of every game in a sports anime. Because of their nature, each episode is like attending the theatre yourself and you don’t want to go to the theatre 25 times in a day. As such, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju isn’t a show for binge watchers. My recommendation is to do an episode or two a day at most for maximum enjoyment.

Art – High

The characters have delightfully expressive faces that allow for vibrancy in the performances, yet without turning into a cartoony art style. I like the attention to backgrounds and textures.

Sound – Very High

All of the major actors in Rakugo are excellent, as they need to be for performances that require a dozen different voices alternating on the fly. The actors must have had a blast with these roles that didn’t just have the one voice throughout.

Story – High

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju chronicles the art of Rakugo across generations and the artists it inhabited. This methodical anime weaves art and drama that draws in the audience to satisfying results.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it, I urge you. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju has limited appeal, as evidenced by its niche success. However, give it a try – an episode is all you need – for you are missing out otherwise.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive:

Deep NarrativeStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

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ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department – Anime Review

Japanese Title: ACCA: 13-ku Kansatsu-ka

 

Similar: Kino’s Journey

House of Five Leaves

Joker Game

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Mystery Drama

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • And now for something completely different.
  • The grander plot.
  • Mauve is gorgeous.

Negatives:

  • Second acts of most episodes are dull.
  • The comic office staff are out of place.

(Request an anime for review here.)

What an unusual anime. When a dear reader requested ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department for review, I wasn’t really looking forward to it, if I can be brutally honest for a moment. A bureaucrat goes around the states of a peaceful nation to audit the peace? What…? Where’s the conflict if everything is peaceful? I had to force myself to start it for the sake of the review.

The first episode didn’t impress me beyond the visuals. We learn that the kingdom of Dowa has known peace for a century thanks to a government initiative called ACCA that cares for the needs of citizens. Rumours have started stirring, however, of a coup d’état against the king. Jean Otus of ACCA now has the job of auditing the Dowa’s 13 territories to see how peace suits them and to uncover the truth of these rumours.

The slow start and lightweight feel, for lack of a better word, to the mystery of the rumours didn’t compel me to keep watching. If not for the “peace” in the blurb, one would expect ACCA to be in the vein of Bridge of Spies and similar Cold War films, where tension holds the very fabric of reality at peace. But because Dowa is at peace and the storytelling slant is tranquil, I found myself questioning why this story needed telling. I don’t joke when I tell you that only my love for the visuals kept me going. (If I’m not feeling an anime for review, I will often take forever to get through it.)

By the second episode, I’m starting to love the opening song (I wouldn’t skip it from here on) and the protagonist Jean is growing on me. Let’s not forget Mauve, one of anime’s most gorgeous women and her role in the plot. She has a mysterious air about her and this sultry confidence that made me unsure if she truly was Jean’s ally. Then we learn of someone spying on Jean, who himself is acting like a spy in his tour of the states. The layers of spying go all the way to the top. I’m not hooked, but I’m no longer dreading it.

The problem with ACCA is the overrepresentation of daily life. I understand that this is a country at peace and peace breeds routine, monotony in society. But! They should have worked in more spying as an undercurrent to the ordinary events, extracting bits of information during chitchat, and everyone suspicious of something, all with a fun angle like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Kingsman. From the outside, it would seem like daily life, but underneath that is spy work. The existing second acts of most episode are boring. Most third acts of episodes interested me enough to keep going.

The second issue I have with ACCA relates to the territories. Each territory has a specialty – one is agriculture, another makes all the movies, and so on – yet most of them don’t feel much different and aren’t interesting, unlike Kino’s Journey where every location brought something new. It wasn’t until Jean visits the territory that lives akin to 17th century France, with electronics such as mobile phones banned, that my interest piqued. Alright, some variety!

The core of the plot also comes to light soon. As the coup builds, Jean needs to learn which side each district will fall on, should a power play occur – with the crown or the conspirators.

ACCA had slowly built my interest until the third act, where it delivers its best episodes as all the secrets come tumbling out. If anything, its story is too end-loaded and could have measured it out more to boost engagement earlier. Still, the strong finish left me with a good impression.

ACCA’s aversion to anime tropes also helps its case. In fact, the one notable trope it does use – goofy co-workers from Jean’s home office – is an eyesore. Their comedic relief isn’t funny and doesn’t fit the tone of the show. Their inclusion was to counterbalance the drama, though the fun spy work I mention above would have been more fitting. It could have done without them.

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department isn’t going to blow you away nor is it a great anime, and yet, because it’s something different, you don’t have the feeling of “same old, same old” when watching it. I urge you to give it a chance.

Art – High

ACCA looks different yet familiar to anime. I love the colours and character designs. This anime adores animating things fluttering in the wind. It also uses small visual techniques you rarely see in anime, such as characters fading into view as the camera reverse dollies through them.

Sound – High

The OP is great and went on my playlist before I finished the series. The woman’s vocals struck me. As for the acting, it’s good in either language, so go with your default preference.

Story – Medium

An inspector from ACCA, the government department responsible for the country’s peace, travels to the 13 states after rumours of a coup d’état surface. ACCA overcomes its dull segments with an unusual concept executed through interesting characters.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it, I urge you. ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department won’t be for everyone. In fact, this little-known anime will interest very few among us, but it’s worth trying in case you are one of those few. I wouldn’t want you to miss out.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Jin-Roh

 

Similar: Akira

Ghost in the Shell

Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Drama

Length: 1 hr. 42 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Some good visual elements.
  • Lovely music.

Negatives:

  • Drab colours.
  • Metaphors are on the nose.
  • Thin on content.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Mamoru Oshii’s Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is an introspective film hinged on a metaphor of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Constable Kazuki Fuse is traumatised after witnessing a terrorist girl detonate to avoid capture amid riots in an alternate history Japan. As an officer of the panzer troopers, an armoured ground force reminiscent of the video game Killzone’s Helghast, his change in behaviour mandates retraining and puts him in the middle of the conflict between the Capital Police and ordinary police forces. During his recovery, he grows close to the sister of the very terrorist girl who died before him.

This premise of a dystopian Japan, riots everywhere, Helghast-like officers clashing with police, and suicide bombers paints an intense portrait of a film. You’re probably imagining Akira. In truth, Jin-Roh couldn’t be further from intense. This slow, methodical film set in a nation without colour, without life, wants to evoke depression inside the viewer. Once vibrant greens and reds have faded. The world feels ‘Soviet’ where the higher ups have absolute power, giving no hope to the people.

Kazuki roams with no purpose. The few glimpses of life spark during his moments with the sister, but even those are drops in the calm ocean.

I am sad to say that Jin-Roh doesn’t succeed in evoking much emotion, nor does it engage the viewer. As I opened with, the story is a metaphor for ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which Oshii handles without an ounce of subtlety, for every second scene makes a simile or draws a motif to wolves and the fairy tale. He’s so obsessed with the metaphors and motifs that he forgets to develop the characters and the world in which they live. The story never gives a sense of why anyone does their jobs or what they hope to accomplish in this world nearing anarchy.

Oshii’s masterpiece, Ghost in the Shell, has one of my favourite introspective moments in anime when Motoko Kusanagi glides through the streets of New Port City, so one would imagine that a film with more of this reflection would be a personal treat for me. What made that moment in Ghost special was its placement among scenes of intense action and intrigue. The story slowed down with a purpose. Jin-Roh is perpetually slow.

You could take almost any scene from this film and it would be interesting when seen standalone, similar to watching that scene from Ghost by itself. It’s once you realise that the film has almost nothing but this sluggishness repeated for an hour and a half that it becomes boring. It needs balance.

Rather than make me care for Kazuki’s plight, Jin-Roh had me crossing my fingers for another riot.

Art – High

The art is effective at evoking a dystopian atmosphere, but the much-muted brown palette becomes dull when it’s all there is. Characters could use more detail. Most of the animation budget went into people being riddled with bullets.

Sound – Medium

Voice work – fine. Music – lovely, tragic.

Story – Medium

A special unit officer reconsiders his position in life after witnessing the suicide death of a terrorist girl amid enforcement politics. Jin-Roh’s sacrifice of everything to convey its ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ motif limits its appeal and quality.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of the slow and introspective ONLY. Seriously, if you don’t love, and I mean love, slow pieces with near-no story, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade will bore you to death.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

Scum’s Wish – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kuzu no Honkai

 

Similar: Rumbling Hearts

White Album

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Romance Drama

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful art and shot composition.

Negatives:

  • Immature view of sex, masquerading as maturity.
  • So much ‘almost sex.’
  • Boring lead.
  • Everything is a few beats slow.

(Request an anime for review here.)

You want a messed up love polygon? Hanabi is in love with her brother and teacher, but he’s interested in another teacher. Meanwhile, Hanabi’s classmate is in love with that other female teacher. To cope with the heartache of unrequited, forbidden love, Hanabi and the guy date each other for sexual and emotional comfort. They are each other’s replacements. However, another girl is in love with Hanabi, while the pretend boyfriend’s loli sister is also in love with him. Got all that? Lesbian -> Hanabi -> brother/teacher -> co-worker/teacher <- pretend boyfriend <- little sister.

Despite the messed up premise, my first thought was to question if Scum’s Wish would go far enough. The crueller the setup, the more likely an anime drama will chicken out before the end and not deliver the promise. When Scum’s Wish revealed that the brother wasn’t Hanabi’s real brother, I knew how this would end.

Scum’s Wish engaged me with its beautiful cinematography and emotional weight. Hanabi latched onto her brother and father figure, thinking they’d be together forever after the lack of a real father left her with emotional issues. It’s tragic.

Then the classmate’s little sister enters the picture, breaking the tone. She feels like a character from a trashy harem, not a tragic romance. Throw in the lesbian best friend with the hots for Hanabi, and the love polygon goes from tragic to comical. The teachers and students were enough. These extras comes across as characters meant to distract you from the shallowness of the main threads.

The ‘doesn’t go far enough’ problem is no more prevalent than in sex scenes. There’s a lot of almost sex. The artists put their all into animating each sex scene with smoothness and detail to maximise sensuality and eroticism. (Just imagine One Punch Man’s action scene animations, but for characters feeling each other up.) Yet, someone always backs out at the last moment.

Scum’s Wish was pitched to me as “the anime most mature about sex in years.” Now I don’t know what to think of the people who told me this – they were adults, too. Look, just because you censor less than a shoujo romance, it doesn’t make the sex any more mature. Almost every sex scene is “Gyaaah! Not there! Don’t look at me. Nyaaah!” They sure use the ‘one character on top of another, when the top starts crying and tears fall on the other’s face’ scene five times too many. It’s no different from any other immature relationship anime.

The villain of this story is the female teacher, surprisingly enough. She is aware of Hanabi’s desire, as well as all those who are after her, and she loves it. The teacher thrives on how much people want her – if she’s taking away someone’s crush in the process, then all the better. A unique villain, to be sure. Sadly, even she doesn’t go far enough. Her arc – hell, everyone’s arcs – resolves with the tension of wet toilet paper. Scum’s Wish simultaneously puts its characters in cruel scenarios while treating them like fragile ornaments that can’t suffer the slightest nudge, lest they break.

The fragility also weakens any emotional impact. March Comes in Like a Lion conveys emotion much more effectively, all while using a quarter of the words – silence instead of the excessive internal monologue found in Scum’s Wish.

The story has nothing beyond the relationship drama – no one feels like a real person with a life, even if a miserable one. Hanabi is worst of all. She is a passive, feeble character that rarely takes action. The plot doesn’t move forward at her behest. Someone else takes charge while she lies there going, “Gyaah! No…”

Maturity? Look elsewhere.

Art – High

The art is gorgeous, soft and elegant – I love the eyes. The shot composition is great at conveying multiple perspectives and emotions at once. Editing could be quicker. Character heights are oddly inconsistent – in the first scene, Hanabi bumps into a guy, coming up to his chin, but then two shots later, she is half a head taller than before!

Sound – Medium

Decent acting and calm music.

Story – Low

A love polygon of ridiculous dimensions messes with the emotions of every student and teacher involved. Scum’s Wish tries to be mature about sex, but devolves into immature melodrama that stretches reason beyond intrigue.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Scum’s Wish won’t be for you unless you love sexual melodrama.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Shallow

Tomorrow’s Joe – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ashita no Joe

 

Related: Tomorrow’s Joe 2

Similar: Fighting Spirit

Rainbow

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Boxing Sports Drama

Length: 79 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Joe’s rivals, Rikiishi and Carlos.
  • Rough art aged surprisingly well.
  • Greatly improves in the second half.

Negatives:

  • Insufferable protagonist.
  • Too much of the comic relief.
  • First half is a slog.
  • Audio did not age like the art.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Joe Yabuki is a douche. A giant douche. Never has a bigger douche roamed the lands of Japan, itching for a fight. He wants trouble. Drunkard and former boxing coach Danpei witnesses Joe’s latest street brawl and sees something in his punch. Though Joe is vulgar, he has potential for greatness in the ring and he could give Danpei a reason to live again.

Tomorrow’s Joe is Japan meets the Wild West. Everything has this dusty ragged look, from the art to the characters. Joe’s whistling echoes across the windswept streets of the slum, creating a lonely and downtrodden atmosphere.

The archetype of starting as a delinquent before finding a purpose in sport/music/art is a common one. You expect the character to grow as a person over time, both in skill and temperament. Joe is in dire need of the latter. See, when I said he is a douche, I should have made it clear that I meant throughout the entire series. I’m unsure if I can think of a more unlikeable protagonist. He is a prick to everyone even when he has no reason to be, especially to those who care for him. Speaking of, it makes no sense to have a gang of children, Danpei, and many more besides to be so obsessed with him. No one would stand by him after the fifth instance of douchery, let alone the tenth. And why does no one object to little children hanging around a dangerous criminal all the time?

Shortly into the story, Joe is arrested. He has the opportunity to go free if he doesn’t act like a prick. Of course he acts like a prick. Later, after the kids and company do all they can to support his release, he again has an opportunity, but lo and behold, he’s a right arse to the judge as well. This happens every episode. He tries excessively hard to be cool – the number of face punches he takes without falling is another effort to convince you he’s cool. Even the worst protagonists must have a point of sympathy for the audience. Why would anyone want him to succeed?

The repetitive cycle of dickery results in a glacial pace for the first act, which mostly takes place in prison. Even after prison, the story is mediocre. Not until around the midpoint does it start to become interesting.

Opposite Joe, we have two great rivals and without them Tomorrow’s Joe would have little value. The first is against Rikiishi, a fellow inmate who is Joe’s opposite – upstanding, polite, and disciplined, which irks Joe to no end. Carlos from Venezuela joins the series later. When the story focuses on the rivalries – prep through to the matches themselves – Tomorrow’s Joe is at its best. Some episodes are top tier quality. An episode that will stick with me for a long time is with Rikiishi losing his water weight before the weigh-in and the loss of his mind in the process. It makes the others all the more disappointing not to have the same passion and emotional intensity.

So, Tomorrow’s Joe gets better around halfway, but asking someone to stick around for forty episodes is a bit much. If it were spectacular in the end, maybe.

Art – Medium

The rough art comes across as style rather than errors, which ages it well – fights look good. One can see the French influence in the line work and character design.

Sound – Low

The music is okay – I like the whistling – but the voice audio is bad. The higher the voice, the worse it gets. The bass is shallow while the mic breaks against a high pitch. When the little fangirl screeches, which is often, your eardrums burst.

Story – Medium

A delinquent wanderer must find disciple through boxing if he is to survive prison and the world beyond. The first half is a challenge to clear – owed in no small part to Joe being insufferable – though it’s better once the boxing gets serious.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For old anime fans only. You have to love the rustic style of Tomorrow’s Joe to make it seventy-nine episodes (more if you go for the sequel). Interestingly, a love of boxing isn’t required (unlike Fighting Spirit), as character drama takes precedence.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive:

Phenomenal Villain

Negative:

Ear Grating Voice WorkPoor Pacing