Tag Archives: Steampunk

Where technology is powered by steam, commonly in a Victorian setting.

Last Exile – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Last Exile

 

Related: Last Exile: Fam, the Silver Wing (sequel)

Similar: Allison & Lillia

Outlaw Star

Castle in the Sky

 

Watched in: 26 episodes

Genre: Science Fiction Action Adventure

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Some interesting world and tech designs.

Negatives:

  • Lacks a compelling hook.
  • Quite boring really.
  • Could use more exploration.

(Request an anime for review here.)

I only made it through a few episodes of Last Exile in 2003, the year of its release, and I have considered moving it to my drop list ever since, though always imagined I ought to give it another chance first, until reader’s request for review made the decision for me. Was I right in my initial impression all those years ago?

Last Exile is set in a steampunk world where flight is more common than driving thanks to Claudia crystals. ‘The Guild’ dominates the skies as the only mass producer of flight engines and as such, they play arbiters between two warring nations. Sky Couriers Claus and Lavie find themselves caught up in the war when they agree to take on the job of delivering a little girl, who has more to her than initially thought.

This is a difficult review to write. How do you write for anime that has nothing to talk about?

Last Exile is unremarkable. I had trouble figuring out why this was exactly. The world is nice, though largely unexplored despite all the flying, I like the design of the ships and technology – wish they had elaborated on them more – it’s a decent looking anime too, and the acting is fine. Sure, some of the music is weird but not an issue. And then I realised the problem: the characters.

The characters are boring. Not in the traditional sense, mind you. They are boring because they are safe, the base templates for characters, like picking the default appearance in an MMO. There is nothing bad about the default character. However, there is nothing good either. They have no charm, no flair. Even the weird characters from The Guild are your safe versions of weird characters! Everything about Last Exile is safe in execution, from the characters to the conflict to the world.

You may be thinking how it is possible to be safe with a fully invented world. Simply put? Not exploring it enough. When I read the blurb about the Claus and Lavie working as Sky Couriers, I assumed world exploration would be a core component of the series. Binding them to the war was a mistake, as it ties them down. The war should have been the backdrop to the story that creates conflict for the protagonists, not the driving force. At least they go podracing in a canyon that one episode. This world has just enough lore, just enough technology, just enough locations, and just enough society to create the impression of a larger world than what we see. Last Exile is right on that line between bad and good.

Lastly, what is the obsession with chivalry? In the first battle we witness, the commanders won’t shut up about chivalry. It’s “I’ll show him chivalry” this and “Time for some chivalry” that and “My chivalry’s bigger than yours.” It’s comically stupid. I am still not sure what the goal was. Are they meant to be funny? Is it to paint them as honourable? I have no idea!

Last Exile is an anime for those who want something simple and safe. It’s unlikely to disappoint. Won’t rock your world either, though.

Art – Medium

Last Exile looks good in the mechanical designs, but the CG ships stand out on occasion without filters and effects to mask them. Why do the kids have huge hands, by the way? Odd.

Sound – Medium

The acting is fine, as is the music, though warps your mind on occasion.

Story – Medium

Two flight couriers find themselves embroiled in a sky war between two factions when they take on a job to deliver a girl. An extra shot of adrenaline, another layer of complexity, and more dimension to the conflict would have gone a long way to lifting Last Exile from the forgettable slot in which it fell.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Don’t bother. Last Exile is so middle of the road that it has nothing for or against it.

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

Positive: None

Negative: None

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Metropolis – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Metropolis

 

Similar: Akira

Ghost in the Shell

Steamboy

Casshern Sins

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Adventure Drama Science Fiction Romance

Length: 1 hr. 49 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Some truly magnificent art.
  • City design.

Negatives:

  • Character motivations and personalities aren’t interesting.
  • Art over story.
  • Plodding pace.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Metropolis adapts the 1949 manga of the same name from the creator of Astro Boy (hence the character designs), Osamu Tezuka, who based this story on a single image of the famous 1927 Metropolis silent film. As such, despite sharing a name and setting, the two versions have little in common.

The city of Metropolis rose to greatness thanks to leaps and bounds in technological advancements. Robots have replaced much of the manual labour and menial tasks. However, what should have been a utopia of man and machine, has turned into a class war. Robots are second-class citizens, attacked and destroyed by rioters on a daily basis. They cannot venture beyond their designated zones. Japanese detective Shunsaku and his nephew Kenichi arrive in town on the trail of an organ trafficking case, but the master of Metropolis, Duke Red, has plans involving a robot girl of his creation that throws them off track.

Metropolis draws you in with its city design. Life bustles and clanks along on every corner and in every alley, creating a sense of wonder and a desire to see more. But a film is about story, and it’s not long before you start to ask where this elusive feature has gone. Every character moves in every scene – it never stops to sit down and show us motion within characters. More scenes go towards showing us the world and all the fancy art techniques used than towards developing characters. Art came over story.

The plodding pace of the first act is manageable thanks to the world, though once in the second act and the pace is still like gears grinding together, it becomes difficult to pay attention. The heroes are your standard good guys, which is obviously not ideal, yet I believe the true problem lies with the antagonists. The Duke is your typical Big Boss Villain atop the Tower, residing in the background for the most part (why does he look like a cockatoo?). The other is his adopted son, Rock. He goes after the robot girl, intent on destroying her out of jealousy. The Duke lost his daughter and would rather create an artificial replacement over accepting Rock. His daddy issues aren’t interesting because they lack a foundation to make us care or see them as a problem. We have a few brief interactions between father and son that serve to advance plot, not deepen character. One could say the same for much of the cast. They are tools to the story, nothing more.

The third act finally gets it together to give us action atop the highest skyscraper, which makes for a spectacular and tense set piece. Emotion and character enter the spotlight as the truth behind the robot girl comes out. The Duke reached for the sun in his beloved city and it went beyond his control. He constructed his tower too high and it fell so far. You may notice this as an adaptation of the Tower of Babel, and you’d be right – Metropolis outright states this. Some subtlety would be nice.

I love art as much as anyone does, but story is more important. Metropolis has plenty of the former and mere morsels of the latter.

Art – Very High

Tezuka’s Astro Boy character art of Popeye biceps and effeminate curls on everyone has never looked good to me. It doesn’t hold up, nor does the once spectacular CG for several scenes. I was going to give the art a High rating, until the finale blew me away. It’s magnificent.

Sound – Medium

The acting is fine in either language, while the music is serviceable. The finale song is the only standout.

Story – Low

A detective and his nephew become involved in the plight of a robot girl amidst a technologically advanced city. Metropolis put nine out of ten energy cells into the art, leaving a blinking check engine light for the characters and plot.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For art fans. Metropolis is an engaging time if great art alone can sustain your enjoyment.

(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:

Stunning Art Quality

Negative:

No Development

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Koutetsujou no Kabaneri

 

Similar: Attack on Titan

Parasyte -the maxim-

Seraph of the End: Vampire Reign

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good art and environmental lighting.
  • Steampunk feudal Japan.

Negatives:

  • Almost everything is clichéd in execution.
  • Idiot plot.
  • No meaningful threats.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress starts at full steam ahead with an intense scene of an armoured train under attack by undead Corpses. One soldier detonates his own heart after a Corpse bites him in front of his comrades.

Once the train arrives in the safety of the city walls for some downtime, the problems come hard and fast. For example, the exposition. Every crewmember has to strip for inspection of bites from Corpses, as they would infect the whole city if gone unchecked. Despite seeing this before us, Ikoma and his sidekick explain this to each other as if they’ve never seen it before, which is a clumsy way of telling the audience. Why do writers keep writing themselves into bad exposition when the visuals do the job?

What follows is a tedious scene for conflict when soldiers shoot an innocent man under suspicion of infection. Its purpose is to give Ikoma a moment to grandstand and play the hero. The problem is that there was no threat and the situation would have resolved by inspection, which they were just doing! An actual threat would serve better – say, a stowaway Corpse.

I pushed this clumsiness aside in the hope that once past introductions and back to the action, Kabaneri would become good again. This hope is dashed with the introduction of Mumei, a cutesy princess-looking girl that feels out of place. She not the right sort of ray-of-sunshine-in-a-grim-world character. To worsen matters, she can kick off a Corpse’s head with her bladed shoe in one swipe. I thought that was ridiculous until episode two had her parkouring through the streets, felling Corpses like zombies out of Left 4 Dead. Why is humanity afraid when one person can take on hundreds? She also has that annoying “I guess I’m strong, whatever…” trait to make her insufferable. The revelation behind her ability is that she’s half Corpse – a Kabaneri. This transformation also occurs to Ikoma.

All the danger presented in the opening scene with Corpses stronger than humans? Gone. Tension? Evaporated.

Not even a train full of Corpses crashing through the city gate can revive the dead intensity. You would imagine that the potential conflict of mistrust from having two Kabaneri on your train of human survivors would be great, but you’d be wrong. The commander locks them up, which is a good start, yet this confinement resolves itself with little effort. Instead, the story focuses on some useless old people that want to stop the train for a funeral for the city’s fallen. Never mind that Corpses are on their trail and that they don’t have enough food to reach the next city at full steam. What is this, a population of idiots?

Everyone foams at the mouth to kill the Kabaneri, but two seconds later, when Mumei kills a Corpse amongst them, they bray for her blood because the Corpse was pregnant, despite the foetus being tainted already. Make up your minds! That’s when I understood this plot: Conflict only exists in this world because the people are all idiots.

The story has no point of redemption. Yes, they introduce stronger undead and a human villain, but no audience would care when it’s all so generic. It’s not clichéd in the right way – it’s not the cliché people pay for when buying a Harlequin Romance. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress cobbles together every mistake that comes from the predictable. You can predict the bad conflict and weak scenarios it will present.

People fight off the undead from fortress trains in a steampunk feudal Japan – sounds awesome, right? I’m not the only one who thinks so, yes? How do you make this so uninteresting? If not great, such a premise should guarantee an entertaining anime, at least, and yet, they didn’t even manage that.

Art – High

Wit Studios’ art style is immediately recognisable, as shared by Attack on Titan. Though Kabaneri doesn’t have all the flash of that anime, it is more consistent in quality, particularly when it comes to the CG. The art evokes strong atmosphere.

Sound – Medium

The music may not be to everyone’s taste, combining orchestral with electronic, which I enjoyed. The voice work is fine, but serves shallows dialogue and characters.

Story – Low

In a steampunk feudal Japan, humanity fights off Corpses from the safety of their mobile rail fortresses. After an intense start, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress derails into a story and characters with no thought beyond the clichés.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress should be great on the premise alone, but its execution is so predictable and banal that you’ll feel like you’ve seen it before.

(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: 

Induces Stupidity

Howl’s Moving Castle – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Howl no Ugoku Shiro

 

Similar: Spirited Away

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Steampunk Fantasy Adventure Romance

Length: 1 hr. 57 min.

 

Positives:

  • Howl’s castle.
  • Charming world and characters.
  • Plenty of humour.
  • Attention to visual detail.
  • Enchanting.

Negatives:

  • Finale could have taken a moment or two longer.

There was once a time when I was unaware of Studio Ghibli. Times were darker then, the teenage years. It was a late night at a friend’s house after hours of mahjong that he decided to play Howl’s Moving Castle. I was enchanted. Where had this Japanese Disney been all my life? Howl’s Moving Castle drew me in with its vibrant, detailed world of wizards, curses, and the best house in fiction.

Sophie works as a simple hatter until, by chance, she meets the enigmatic wizard Howl, who literally sweeps her off her feet. Jealous of Sophie’s meeting with Howl, the vain Witch of the Waste curses Sophie into old age. Sophie must find Howl to lift the curse and climbs aboard his castle as it roams the grassy hills.

Seeing the castle alone was the price of entry. It is a ramshackle place, a bit silly (not as silly as Camelot, of course) in all the right ways. The front door has a special lock, which when turned, opens up to different places in the world. Howl, despite his prodigious skill, lives akin to a messy child with junk everywhere – likely has never seen a dustpan across its surfaces. Sophie takes it upon herself to clean the place, get everything prim and proper, scolding Howl in the process. Howl’s Moving Castle is very reminiscent of Mary Poppins, right down to the music, if you gave her magic side to Howl and her discipline to Sophie.

Sophie makes for an unlikely protagonist and a feisty old lady. She doesn’t take the curse lying down; hell, she doesn’t accept nonsense from anybody, evil witch or handsome wizard. I like her. A favourite moment of mine is when she bosses Calcifer, the fire demon that powers the castle from the hearth, around as she whirls through the castle in a storm of broom and dust.

Apprentice to Howl is Markl, a young boy with magic of his own. Like most Ghibli films, he plays the stand-in for the younger audience and conveys their innocent outlook on the world. Ghibli, as always, gave extra attention to character mannerisms, making them feel alive. When granny Sophie’s neck cricks or her back breaks, you feel the excessive effort and pain. There is so much charm packed into every detail.

The plot takes place against the backdrop of a war and every wizard must answer the call of duty. Howl despises the king and his royal sorcerer who wants to catch him, hence the need for his mobile castle. Howl’s aversion to conflict isn’t as much out of noble intentions as it is his child-like manner. He is spoilt, obsessed with his appearance, prone to sulking, and unable to take responsibility – explains the state of his abode. He’s no Gandalf, but is a great character.

The story’s one flaw is in the conclusion. A few extra minutes to explain the end ending further would have worked wonders, and a minor twist, of sorts, comes out of nowhere. Its sudden nature is more humorous than anything.

Howl’s Moving Castle sparked my interest in Studio Ghibli and it’s easy to see why. This film has it all: witches, wizards, a magic castle, monsters, a sentient scarecrow, and a cheeky dog. I loved every moment of this enchanting film.

Art – Very High

Gorgeous. The colour, the world, the design, all feels magical. The castle’s animation alone would take more time than most anime seasons. I have to pause every shot to admire the detail.

Sound – Very High

The Japanese is good, but I found the dub superior. The characters had more energy in English, Calcifer in particular, performed by a memorable Billy Crystal, whereas the Japanese Calcifer is rather forgettable. Only Christian Bale falters as Howl in English, though he is grumpier, which suits the character. Charming Mary Poppins music.

Story – High

A woman cursed by a witch seeks a wizard in his moving castle. Enchanting, imaginative, and fun throughout.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch for the whole family. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away are the best films to start you journey in the wonderful worlds of Studio Ghibli.

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

 

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

Positive: 

CharmFluid AnimationHilariousPositive Recommended English Voice TrackStrong Lead CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None