Tag Archives: Supernatural

Contains elements beyond the means of reality and science, yet still in our world.

Castlevania – Full Series Review

Related: Castlevania Season 1 review (old)

Castlevania Season 2 review (old)

Similar: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Hellsing Ultimate

Berserk

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Action Fantasy Horror

Length: 32 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Vampire majesty
  • Faithful adaptation without getting bogged down by the source material
  • Brutally gothic in action and tone
  • Political intrigue amongst excellent villains
  • Great lore and magic

Negatives:

  • Give me more, please

(Request an anime for review here.)

With the conclusion of the fourth season, Netflix’s Castlevania comes to a great end. Rather than do a review for the final season only, I thought I would go back and cover the full series in one place, give my overall thoughts on this triumph (no need to read the other reviews either).

My astonishment at the quality of a video game to film adaptation has been the greatest surprise throughout Castlevania’s run. I’m hoping this is the turning point where adaptations are things to look forward to rather than dread, similar to when comic books became good films more often than not. Superhero film fans are spoilt for choice these days. They don’t know of the Affleck Daredevil and Elektra days. Watching a good adaptation can sometimes make you forget the bad – the atrocious – such as Far Cry (anything by Uwe Boll, honestly), Dead or Alive, and the notorious Super Mario Bros. It’s hard to stress how weird it feels to see quality when the expectation is absolute ass.

For the newcomers, Castlevania is a long-running franchise of loosely connected games about a bloodline of vampire hunters from the Belmont family battling against creatures of the night, usually led by Dracula. The Netflix series roughly follows the third game, Dracula’s Curse, though pulls from several entries and brings much of its own material to the canvas. That last point is a key to Castlevania the animation’s success. Most adaptations fail because they don’t realise that gameplay comes first in [good] video games and trying to translate this to a cinematic only experience doesn’t work. There’s a reason the “princess is in another castle” trope is a common ailment of game stories (the recent God of War, for example), yet not often seen in film. Games use it to tack on another 5-hour gameplay world before, of course, the princess is again in another castle and you have another world to explore. It’s fine to want to be faithful to the source material, but there’s no point if it makes for a garbage film. Character, theme, tone, and style matter when adapting, not the gameplay mechanics or exact plot.

In terms of story, what makes Castlevania? Vampire hunters, vampires, monsters, magic, gothic, horror, religion, and labyrinthine castles. Your story isn’t a failure if your vampire hunter doesn’t jump and whip, jump and whip, jump and whip. It’s like those movies based on FPS games, where they think that because they have a scene in first person as a guy mows down fools with a gun, they’ve nailed it.

This series understands what makes for an engaging story in the world of Castlevania.

Enough preamble already, onto the review proper! This story opens on the meeting and courtship between the human Lisa and the vampire lord himself, Dracula. He teaches her science and medicine to help the local humans, which doesn’t please the Church, who see science as heathen magic and burn her at the stake. Dracula’s fury in response knows no equal and he unleashes a horde of demons upon the nation. Hell reigns.

Trevor Belmont, the last in his line of vampire hunters, drinks his way to the end of his days unmoved by the massacres nearby. A plea from some humans wakes him from his drunken haze and he finally does what he was born to do. He soon meets the magician Sypha.

Hearing this premise and knowing the video game origin, expectations are for little more than good guy fights series of bad guys to get to big bad guy in terms of story. However, Castlevania is so much more. In fact, there is enough material just amongst the villains to make a full series. Dracula’s court consists of vampires and humans, each with their own motivations and purpose in this story. Politics plays a larger part than action does in the conflict. They aren’t evil for the sake of evil. Dracula is the most powerful being on Earth, yet the death of his wife broke him. Isaac, one of Dracula’s Forgemasters (demon constructors), is waging a war against his own kind, whereas the other Forgemaster is a tad hesitant though no less involved. Some amongst the vampire “sisters” question their existence as vampires. Are they truly to rule for all eternity? Over everyone? The nuance to these villains (are they all villains?) particularly in later seasons had me glued to the screen.

A recurring problem in stories featuring secret societies of the supernatural is homogony within the society. The Underworld films (a guilty pleasure of mine), The Mortal Instruments, and Blade are but a few examples. How many stories have you seen where all the vampires (except maybe one) or werewolves or whatever supernatural race are the same? Where they have no lives saves for waiting around to drop from above in groups when someone walks down a back alley? They may as well be the clone troopers from Attack of the Clones for all the difference between them. This cliché stems from how people imagine other cultures. They see people in their own country are as varied as the plants and animals of the world, yet everyone in a distant country is one homogenous blob of whatever stereotype they know and not just as varied. Or the writers are just lazy. Of course, one story doesn’t have room for thousands of different personalities, but variety in what characters you do have goes a long way, even the villains.

On a hero front, Trevor’s “I’m so over this” attitude combined with his family duty makes for a fitting hero, a better choice than a typical “hero” in this gothic tale, and his chemistry with Sypha brings a touch of levity. Alucard is a more unusual character. Like his father, he’s powerful yet amongst the most mentally weak after having lived a sheltered life. I love the way he talks as well. His vocal mannerisms alone inform much of his experiences and mental state. And let’s not forget the charismatic has-been Saint Germain. What is he up to?

Even the minor characters are memorable, from the religious fanatics to the sentient demons. My only complaint with the characters is that we don’t get to see more of them. I could easily do with twice as many episodes of character interactions and vampire politics.

If action is more to your taste, Castlevania is excellent there as well. Apart from a few rough cuts, the animation is great and the action never feels generic. It’s always interesting to watch and improves with each season. Gory too, as it should be for a horror series. The massacre in episode one sets the tone perfectly.

Castlevania started as an animation to which I paid no attention. Now, I love it. It has a great start with four episodes as a proof of concept followed by a second season that brings the cast to strength, and then a third season elevates it to excellence with nuance before a final season delivers an explosive action finish. This is one of the best fantasy series I’ve seen in a long time. I can only hope future video game adaptations receive even half the care and effort as Castlevania has received.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Watch it. Castlevania is a triumph of an adaptation and a fantasy series. I heartily recommend it.

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

Positive:

Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Ghost Stories – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gakkou no Kaidan

 

Similar: Ghost Hunt

Pop Team Epic

Cromartie High School

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: [Comedy] Horror Mystery

Length: 19 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The masterpiece dub

Negatives:

  • Everything else

(Request an anime for review here.)

Ghost Stories is a rubbish anime. The characters are forgettable, the horror is laughable, the mysteries put one to sleep, and the art is crap. Watch it in English, however, and Ghost Stories is a great anime. If you haven’t heard of this gem, Ghost Stories was a flop in Japan (shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with eyes and ears) and the studio said that ADV, the dubbing company, could do whatever they wanted to the show as long as they followed three rules. Don’t change names, don’t change how the ghosts die (part of the Japanese folklore), and don’t change the meaning of each episode. Other than that, fair game. And they were merciless.

What resulted was one of the most hilarious anime ever made in the style of an “abridged” parody series, before abridged anime were all the rage. Almost all dialogue was improvised, and since they record dubs one actor at a time (to match the visual timing), whoever got in the booth first for a scene, set the improv direction and the rest played off it. They just had to follow the purpose of the scene.

When told they could change anything except for the above three rules, they took that to heart. None of the original feel or tone of Ghost Stories remains in the dub, much to everyone’s delight.

The most notable change is personalities. Gone are the clichéd and bland school kids. In are the most offensive twerps since South Park. The protagonist has a mouth to make a sailor blush, a true hatred for lesbians, and is obsessed with her body. Her younger brother is retarded (literally) mumbling gibberish that gets more incomprehensible as he grows upset. Only she can decipher his speech. The love interest is a degenerate perv, while the nerd is even more stereotyped and Jewish, thus the butt of Jew jokes (like South Park). My favourite is the prim and proper girl turned into a fanatical born again Christian, calling everything a sin and reminding you every second of every day that you must find Jesus. Each line out of her mouth cracks me up.

The humour is more than offensive jokes. There are pop culture references, social commentaries, mocking of anime clichés, and meta humour on the atrocious animation quality of Ghost Stories. The mockery of the lip flaps always gets me. The animation was clearly a rush job and is perfect fodder for the actors. Lip flap matching is far superior in the improvised dub than it is in the structured original.

Looking at the Japanese version, Ghost Stories is a total snooze fest. The structure is that of a “monster of the week” type, with a new haunting for the kids to investigate each episode and it couldn’t be more paint-by-numbers. This isn’t a case where the original is “so bad it’s good” and the dub parodies it. No, the original is mind numbing – certainly not helped by the art either. Character faces aren’t even consistent from scene to scene. I’m not convinced they had an art director on staff. What truly baffles me though is the ending theme song. I first thought it was part of the parody with lyrics like, “I miss you, I miss you. I need you, I need you. Sexy, sexy!” Lost my mind when I discovered it’s the original song. Whose idea was that!? Keeping it for the dub only makes it better.

Ghost Stories is a wild ride. Even if the humour isn’t to your taste, it’s still an interesting study for a few episodes in how it changed between versions. A few “best of” clip compilations are also available on YouTube if you don’t want to watch the full 19 episodes.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch in dub. Ghost Stories is legendary in anime circles for a reason.

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

Positive: 

Hilarious

Negative: 

Ugly Artistic Design

ES: Eternal Sabbath – Manga Review

Japanese Title: ES: Eternal Sabbath

 

Genre: Supernatural Drama Science Fiction

Length: 83 chapters (8 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • An engaging plot of nature vs. nurture
  • Villain is genuinely threatening
  • Cool psychic powers

Negatives:

  • Character art is a little lopsided

Eternal Sabbath entered my radar over a decade ago through a passing recommendation, which I wouldn’t have remembered were it not for that absolute metal name. This turned out not to be a story I expected, though still a welcome one.

Eternal Sabbath is about two psychic beings born from experimentation, one of them a success, the other a failure and clone of the former, and how the difference in treatment of these two affects temperament. Akiba is the original, possessing immense mental powers to invade the minds of others, project hallucinations, and even kill with a mere thought. Isaac, the child clone, has the same power but without the maturity. He’s a test tube child, never intended for the real world until he breaks free and roams the streets with the power of a god. An unloved child is tragedy. An unloved god child is a catastrophe.

The protagonist of this story, however, is human woman by the name of Mine. She’s a neurologist brought on the case when a victim suffers an odd mental attack, seemingly all in the victim’s head yet with very real injuries. Interestingly, she’s immune to the more dangerous telepathic powers. This draws Akiba’s attention.

I want to start with Akiba. What a great character. First impressions establish him as someone with a sense of justice yet an absolute prick as well, uncaring for those around him and inconsiderate of the privacy and autonomy of others. After all, why does he need to care when he is, in essence, a higher being? He can walk into someone’s house, eat their food, rifle through their things, and leave without a trace in the owners’ minds. He isn’t cruel though. When he meets Mine, finding much of his power blocked and her calling out his behaviour, he can’t help but feel drawn to her. His arc sees him turn from a selfish individual into a caring human.

I love the subplot of his fake identity. Akiba isn’t his real name – it belonged to a man who died. “Akiba” took his place and manipulated the man’s relatives into believing he was the real Akiba who had never left. Even if it does bring them joy to see their Akiba again, it is quite cruel when you consider it. He treats them well, of course, but it’s just a cover for him. However, as Akiba grows into a real person, thanks in no small part to Mine and seeing his evil reflection in Isaac, this identity becomes more than a cover. You don’t need this subplot to tell the main story, but it enhances character and theme, as every good subplot should. It works as a perfect tracker for his change in emotion.

Similarly, Isaac takes over another child’s life. Here we have the opposite to Akiba. Isaac mistreats the parents, always acting like a spoilt child, mind controlling them to do his bidding. As Akiba improves, Isaac declines further into cruelty, psychopathy, and eventually, depravity. The closest thing he has to a friend is Yuri, a little girl from school. She too is a neglected child, though not an evil one, but her poor understanding of morality and consequences leads her to encouraging Isaac’s evil for her benefit.

Then we have Mine, a strong woman balanced by uncertainty about her role in all of this. When the case starts affecting people around her, she questions if there is something she could have done better, if she is responsible in some way as a person aware of these supernatural beings and largely immune to them. What she goes through would certainly drain the mentally toughest of people.

Eternal Sabbath is a page-turner laced with tension. Isaac is a genuine threat. It’s good to see a villain with a personality for wanton killing actually kill people indiscriminately, and it never feels forced like those villains that “shoot the dog” just to show how evil they are. His actions are always in line with his character. This doesn’t mean he is predictable, mind you, as he is complex despite his immaturity. From his perspective, he feels justified in his actions, sometime even committing what we see as evil to “help” others. Most chapters end on cliffhanger once things get going, so I have to read the next to find out what happens.

I’m glad I remembered Eternal Sabbath. It was a worthwhile read and receives my recommendation.

Art – Medium

Story – High

Recommendation: Read it. Eternal Sabbath is a simple yet tense manga that holds your attention to the end.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

Billy Bat – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Billy Bat

 

Genre: Supernatural Drama Mystery

Length: 165 chapters (20 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • Best opening in manga
  • The parallel threads in time
  • Large cast, all of them compelling
  • Captures the feel of noir, spy thrillers, and supernatural mysteries
  • High quailty art

Negatives:

  • Nothing

Before you go any further, just read Billy Bat. This is a manga best experienced with no prior knowledge of the ride – don’t even read the blurb. Do I recommend it? Absolutely. However, should you be someone who doesn’t take a recommendation on blind faith, then read on. I won’t be spoiling anything outside of a normal review.

Billy Bat blends reality with fiction, narrative with meta, and delivers a riveting story. The first chapter (seriously, don’t read further if you want to go in blind) opens on a bat detective called Billy answering the request of a gruff dog to tail his flirtatious poodle wife, a dame with too much beauty for her own good. Little does Billy know, he isn’t the only one on the case. A grander conspiracy unfolds until…the art loses colour? The line work turns to sketches. We zoom out of Billy’s world and into a messy artist’s studio in America, where a man hunches over his drafting table as he desperately tries to conclude the latest chapter of his comic book series, Billy Bat. This artist is Kevin Yamagata.

As if his deadline wasn’t enough, two police officers come knocking and commandeer his studio for a stake out, observing a supposed Russian spy in the next building. The Red Scare is in full effect. Furthermore, one officer claims to have seen Billy Bat’s logo scratched on a wall in Japan, years before the start of the comic. How is that possible? Kevin flies to Japan to investigate. He has no idea what he’s in for.

I didn’t know what I was in for with Billy Bat. Coming from Naoki Urasawa, the mind behind Monster and Pluto, I had high expectations yet no idea what to expect. I couldn’t stop turning the pages to see what wild turn this ride would take next.

This story draws on real world conspiracies from the assassination of JFK to the moon landing, including real people from history as key characters in the tale. The conspiracies go far deeper than you know! Importantly, Urasawa doesn’t just take the events and people from history in lazy manner, doing no work for himself. The way they incorporate into the greater Billy Bat mystery is compelling. Familiarity with the true stories makes it even better, as you know what is going to happen, yet you don’t, not really, because you have to account for Billy.

The mystery is so winding that if you read the first volume then jumped to the middle of the story, you would have no idea how it got there. I haven’t even mentioned the parallel stories across time. On paper, Billy Bat may sound overwhelming with so many characters across a dozen plot threads in different timelines, but Urasawa handles this many-pieced puzzle with such deftness that it’s easy to keep up. There are only a couple of moments of confusion.

If you’re familiar with the author’s other works, you already know to what I refer. Hell, you probably aren’t reading this because you took my advice to skip this review and go for the manga. For newcomers to his work, Monster is an easier place to start, though it is much darker (and quite different) or you could go for Pluto, a shorter manga but again, quite different.

There isn’t much more I can say about Billy Bat without giving it all away. The art is top notch, of course, as expected from Urasawa. It’s a pleasure to read his work every time. Hope you enjoy this or one of his other works as much as I do.

Art – Very High

Story – Very High

Recommendation: Must read. Unless you don’t like mind-bending stories whatsoever, I see no reason not to read Billy Bat.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

Hikaru no Go – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hikaru no Go

 

Similar: Yu-Gi-Oh!

March Comes in Like a Lion

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Comedy Sports

Length: 75 episodes & 1 movie

 

Positives:

  • Go is interesting and portrayed well
  • Sai is a fun character

Negatives:

  • Low production values
  • Loses steam in the finale and remains incomplete

(Request an anime for review here.)

The East Asian game of Go has made many appearances throughout the medium of anime, yet I never had any idea what it was about. Unlike chess or shogi, where you get a sense of how the game works just by looking at the board, Go looks like a mess of black and white dots to the untrained eye. My greatest concern going into Hikaru no Go was the game itself. Being a shounen sports anime (the focus is on the sport), would I lose interest because I knew nothing about Go?

The story begins when Hikaru, a young boy, stumbles upon a Go board with a bloodstain in his grandfather’s attic. Weirdly, his friend can’t see the blood. Touching the board awakens the spirit of Sai, an ancient Go master wronged in his time by a cheater during a show match before the emperor. He only has one goal – to play Go! Unfortunately, Hikaru has no interest in the game. Fortunately, Sai is a ghost that only Hikaru sees and can pester him all day to play. Sai plays his first game in this era – by telling Hikaru what moves to make – against the Go prodigy Akira Touya of Hikaru’s age. Sai wins. From the outside, this looks as if a total novice beat the best junior player in his first game. Touya grows obsessed with this kid and the secret to his talent. Meanwhile, an interest in the game begins to blossom within Hikaru.

The first thing to draw attention with Hikaru no Go (apart from Hikaru’s ridiculous hair) if watching it today is the poor art. This is a budget kids’ anime, so you know what to expect. It’s almost enough to make non-Go enthusiasts turn off the series. Then you meet Sai. What a delightful character. As you would anticipate from a tagalong ghost sidekick, the writers played much of his character for laughs. He’d be pestering Hikaru about something only for Hikaru to shout at him, appearing to yell at the wind from a spectator’s point of view. His enthusiasm for the modern is great. His love of Go is even better. Since he can’t interact with anything, he relies on Hikaru to make the moves for him and is like a nagging child when Hikaru won’t play for him. He’s not annoying though.

Sai also plays the role of mentor, providing Hikaru – and the audience – a commentary on the game, like an analytical shoutcaster, while also teaching rules and strategies. It’s a natural way to convey such information without seeming like a stilted info dump. Other mentors enter the story to teach more about the game when Hikaru attends classes or seeks tutoring later on. All of this makes it easy for the unaware (like me) to understand the complexities of the game and follow the action. After each episode is a live action segment with a real Go teacher explaining the finer details of the sport to kids. Hikaru no Go take the game seriously.

I am a major strategy player across video and board games (one of the things I’m known for). However, I have never had much interest in chess and I assumed that Go was in the same vein. It couldn’t be more different. To give you a basic idea of Go, think of it as territory control meets 2-player Snake (the mobile game). Players each take turns placing pieces (called “stones”) with the objective of surrounding the opposing stones. Once you’ve “fenced off” a section of the board, any stones within that section are yours. The game seems so interesting to play.

It was a smart move to make the first game between Hikaru (a.k.a. Sai) and Touya, giving the audience a taste of high-level play and the depth inherent in Go. This match engages you from the start. Then the story has time to rewind Hikaru back to the basics as he learns to play without Sai’s help. That reminds me of my major concern following the Sai-Touya match. I was worried that we would have a Yu-Gi-Oh situation, where the protagonist relies on an ancient spirit to win for him. In other words, cheat. I am happy to report that Hikaru no Go does no such thing. When Sai plays, it’s clearly a Sai game against other high-level players. Hikaru, on the other hand, pairs up with players around his level. He does have the advantage of an excellent private tutor, but he wins matches on his own merit. The only times Hikaru “cheats” are against nasty opponents, such as scammers.

The story spans a few years and goes in depth with the world of Go – tournaments, ranking, practice, etiquette, and so on. Should you watch a few episodes and not find Go engaging, I recommend dropping the anime. It’s not worth it otherwise. If you stick around, you should know that Hikaru no Go is incomplete, the anime ending shortly after a significant turn and from what I hear, the manga is incomplete and shelved. It’s a shame. Regardless, I enjoyed most of my time with Hikaru no Go.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Even if you’ve never heard of go, give Hikaru no Go a shot. It is beginner friendly and the strategy makes for great duels.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Incomplete