Tag Archives: Swords

En garde! Swashbuckling, duels, and stabbing.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Seirei no Moribito

 

Similar: The Twelve Kingdoms

Sword of the Stranger

Yona of the Dawn

Dororo

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Historical Action Adventure Fantasy

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Slick action scenes
  • Great acting in Japanese
  • Real depth to the lore and world
  • Balsa is one of anime best female protagonist’s

Negatives:

  • Environments aren’t the best

(Request an anime for review here.)

The kingdom of New Yogo is under the grip of an eternal drought believed to be caused by a water spirit living within Chagum, prince of the realm. Ancient scriptures say that the first emperor ended a drought by slaying the water spirit. The current emperor has no choice – Prince Chagum must die. In a desperate attempt to save her son, Chagum’s mother implores the spear-wielding mercenary known as Balsa to take her son and flee.

Balsa is a woman of considerable skill and great honour. What starts as an assignment to protect an inept child soon turns into a quest of a spiritual and personal nature. Chagum is the learn more about the people that funded his lavish lifestyle, while Balsa will repay an old debt and open her heart to life. These two are the core of Moribito, so I’m pleased to find depth here. Balsa in particular is a stand out as one of the best female leads in anime. She strikes a good balance of toughness and wisdom without losing identity as a woman, which plays into her almost motherly role to Chagum.

People tell us she’s a skilled warrior and the animators made sure we knew it. The action in Moribito is up close and personal, a flurry of attacks illustrated with beautiful animation. It’s sharp, weighty, to the point and doesn’t drag. I just wish there was more of it. We see a great fight early on, giving the false hope that such scenes will continue throughout the series, but it’s a half dozen at most.

Not that I’m complaining about what comes instead. There are two primary threads – Balsa and her mission to protect the prince while figuring out this water spirit (Mushishi-esque magic), and Chagum’s evolution from a useless royal to someone with a purpose. I like the scenes of him with the resourceful street rat and his friend as they roam among the people.

Moribito, like any good Japanese period piece, is steeped in “way of the warrior” mythology, deeply spiritual and philosophical. My favourite episode takes place in a swordsmith’s workshop. Balsa needs her spear fixed but must hide in the back room when the emperor’s men arrive to have their weapons fixed from the same fight. While he finishes a job, the smith tells the soldiers of the ultimate sword being one that doesn’t kill and a story of a warrior protecting a child at all costs, even when his friends have orders to kill him. Compelling.

I was surprised to learn after finishing this anime that it is an adaptation of only the first novel in a 12-part series. I say surprised because this doesn’t feel incomplete. It certainly builds a world with possibilities beyond what we see though doesn’t leave us hanging. Much appreciated.

Art – High

The action visuals are beautiful. Whoever key animated those fights did an excellent job. The character designs strikes that ideal balance of anime meets realistic with a layer of fantasy. The grander environments, however, with sweeping camera movements or long shots in use show their age. One can see this is at the threshold of CG modelling to shortcut large environments.

Sound – High

For a period piece such as this, you have to watch it in Japanese even if the English acting is fine. It sounds a little weird in any other language. Good music.

Story – High

A prince set for death to cleanse a curse plaguing his kingdom finds a second lease on life when a lone warrior woman take him under her protection. With a protagonist as engaging as Balsa and an interesting world, Moribito is an easy watch from start to finish. I do wish there was more of that action.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is something a little different that you don’t see much of anymore. There is also a live action series if that is your preference.

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

Positive:

Strong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Vinland Saga – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Vinland Saga

 

Similar: Dororo

The Heroic Legend of Arslan

Berserk

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Action Drama

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good music

Negatives:

  • No effort at historical realism
  • Empty protagonist
  • No likeable characters
  • Super powered warriors when convenient
  • Art is riddled with problems

(Request an anime for review here.)

It shouldn’t be difficult to write a story about Vikings marauding the coasts of Europe. At minimum, it shouldn’t be difficult to know that Vikings didn’t act like high school anime characters. It should be easy, yet Vinland Saga fails in nearly all possible measures.

I need to go from the start, where an early sign warned of the direction for which this anime headed. Thors, leader of the village and father to Thorfinn, finds a runaway slave on his land. His family tries to rehabilitate the slave, but he soon dies. Worse yet, his owners come to collect and Thors, being the honourable Viking that he is, refuses to return him even as a dead body, offering a few cows instead. He buries the slave.

I understand what the author is going for here – difficult not to – however, the execution shows a lack of thought into the time and place of this story. Thors acts like a modern day person objecting to slavery. This likely stems from the author’s inability to separate his personal feelings from the characters within the story. Some authors think it makes them noble or better people if they write moral characters, regardless of whether it fits the story. This only makes them bad writers. A great writer doesn’t just write the good guys that align with their personal morals, while all villains are everything they see as reprehensible.

This slave incident is minor, in the grand scheme, yet it is an early indicator of problems to come. In 99% of fiction, every core problem has a presence within the first chapter or two (or first episode or two, in the case of anime). It’s why author agents and publishers can reject a novel within a few pages. If characters are shallow in the finale, they will be so in the opening as well. Mistakes echo in every chapter.

The author wants you to know how noble Thors is so that when he gets into an ambush later, executed by the mercenary Askeladd at the behest of the Danish king (Thors deserted his army years ago), you buy into the idea that he would let himself die for the sake of his honour and morals. Thors challenges Askeladd to a duel and wins. It doesn’t take a genius intelligence to foresee that a sellsword driven by gold wouldn’t hold up the terms of the duel. That isn’t the problem. We run into heightened levels of stupidity when Thors, who up until now has outsmarted and outfought the entire mercenary crew singlehanded, refuses to dishonour himself and “cheat”, even though his death leaves his village without a leader, without their strongest (possibly only) fighter, and his family without a father. For honour.

I hate stupid characters. An honourable character isn’t stupid. Someone who doesn’t save themselves, not even for the sake of others, just to preserve their honour is loathsome, however.

And so, Thorfinn makes it his life’s mission to kill Askeladd. Does he turn himself into a killer so he can stab him at the first opportunity? No. Thorfinn joins Askeladd’s crew, fights for him, does his dirty work, all so he can prove himself worthy of an honourable duel to the death.

Mistakes echo in every chapter.

This stupidity compounds further when we talk fighting prowess. After a jump of some years, Thorfinn is a trained warrior, often sent in first like a scout or assassin capable to dispatching a dozen enemy soldiers with ease. There is no doubt of his deadliness. He could kill Askeladd any day now, whether in his sleep or with his back turned. That wouldn’t be honourable though.

I hate stupid characters and Thorfinn is the stupidest in the lot.

Speaking of his deadliness, Vinland Saga has a crippling issue of nonsensical character strength. Looking at this show, you would imagine we were in for a realistic Viking saga. It couldn’t further from. This first rears its nonsensical head when Thors leaps five metres into the air in the battle against Askeladd’s crew.

At first, I thought it was a minor exaggeration of strength, as was often done in folk tales of legendary warriors. However, one warrior fighting for the English can hurl boulders with the strength of a trebuchet using his bare hands. He can also mow down a half dozen soldiers with a single throw of a hand axe. It’s ridiculous.

The issue isn’t the strength (anime is no stranger to super powers). Rather, there is a problem in how it affects tone and breaks the in-story logic of the world. If a warrior were that strong, he could conquer the world. Just give him a cart of boulders and no fort stands a chance. The story avoids this pickle by conveniently forgetting that some characters are super powered when required. Thorfinn does duel Askeladd early on – after we see him massacre a squad – and one would think the kid had never held a weapon with the way he fought. Vinland Saga can’t decide if it wants to be a realistic Viking drama or a battle anime.

Not only is inconsistency a problem, it also makes action less interesting. One battle has Askeladd and co hired by a French nobleman to siege the castle of a rival nobleman. The enemy has a fortified position with view of open ground in front of their castle and a river protecting their rear, guarded up and down stream. The Vikings manage to bypass this defence by hoisting their longships on their shoulders and charging full tilt from the forest into the water. They run as if these boats are as heavy as a paperweight. No one gets tired either. If all trained warriors were this strong, that castle wouldn’t have lasted a day even without Viking help. Let’s not forget to make these same Vikings weak in the next fight so we can kill some off. It would have been better to go more supernatural – incorporate powers bestowed by the Norse gods or something – and work out clever uses than to have this nonsense. Or you go grounded and use some brainpower.

When I talk of realism, I don’t mean everything has to be exactly as it was in real Viking times. I’m talking of getting the tone and feel right. The recently reviewed Dororo is more realistic than this despite having monsters and magic. I praised it for how it truly feels like a nation gripped by famine during samurai times. The way the characters act – the way the monsters and magic affect them and the world all makes sense. Everything fits together.

In Vinland Saga, nothing works. You have these stupid overpowered characters that turn weak when needed. You have a protagonist with no depth beyond his “I’m angry and will kill you” attitude 24/7. Everyone acts like a modern day anime character. The big twist of the story makes Askeladd protagonist (he should have been from the start) and introduces enough allegiance flip-flopping to make you want to hook your brain through your nose.

Is Vinland Saga the worst anime? It is the worst Viking anime, sure. I hated Vinland Saga more and more with each passing episode. I do not recommend this to anyone. If you want Viking content, go watch the History channels Vikings instead.

Art – Low

I could show you many nice still of Vinland Saga. I would however be hiding the insane amount of CG and poor implementation. The number of scenes with characters running (read: sliding) across a CG ground are too many to count. Even the OP has one. This anime almost looks great, except there is something wrong in every shot.

Sound – Medium

Thorfinn’s performance is laughable. The script is rubbish for a historical Viking show. The one redeeming quality is the great soundtrack.

Story – Low

A Viking boy swears revenge against the mercenary that killed his father. With so many stupid character and inconsistent strengths, the feeble plot is the least of the problems here.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. I don’t recommend Vinland Saga, especially to Viking fans.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World BuildingInduces Stupidity

Fairy Tail / Bleach – Quick Thoughts

Fairy Tail

Japanese Title: Fairy Tail

Genre: Action Adventure Fantasy

Length: 175 episodes

I thought I would try Fairy Tail, watch it casually while doing work to see if I was missing out on anything. This is a battle anime of a bygone era. In today’s market, after Naruto and One Piece raised the bar, audiences want an ongoing story as a framework around the fights. It also makes them care more for the characters even if on a subconscious level and gives more longevity to a series beyond the final episode. Not to say it will be a commercial failure without it – Fairy Tail lasted 175 episodes – but unless it’s Dragon Ball, it won’t be remembered in the long run. That era has sailed.

Fairy Tail’s overall goal is for protagonist Natsu to find his dragon father. However, each arc has the barest of hints at following this story. The gang will hear of some clue or someone who may know something, they follow the trail, and it leads to a completely unrelated adventure. I say adventure. This isn’t like One Piece – Natsu and company didn’t go far in the 75 episodes I watched. The arcs are the basic “enemy declares war against the Fairy Tail guild for a reason, they fight, half the villains are redeemed, and repeat” structure.

What irks me most about this fantasy is the magic system. There are no rules. Every character has a new type of magic that in most fantasy would fall under a different “school”, coupled with an extensive explanation of how their magic works mid-fight. (Why would you reveal the inner workings of your magic to an enemy?) This comes to a particularly stupid peak when a former ally has to explain his magic to a main character that already knows it, all for the sake of the audience. Tension dries up when characters can pull whatever they wish out of thin air. These wizards have exactly as many spells up their sleeves as the author needs for the fight.

Look, Fairy Tail is an easy watch. There is value in simplicity, where you don’t have to invest yourself and pay attention to all the details, tracking the subplots of 50 characters. On the flip side of the same coin, however, I don’t care once I stop watching. (By the way, for years I thought was from the same author as One Piece for how similar the art looks, right down to the main girls having the same breast size. Even the tone is similar.)

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For battle anime fans only.

*     *     *     *     *

Bleach

Japanese Title: Bleach

Genre: Supernatural Action Adventure

Length: 366 episodes (including filler)

I wasn’t going to talk of Bleach until this new format gave me opportunity for a few brief words on this train wreck.

Bleach sucks. Plain and simple. Of all the mainstream battle anime I’ve watched over the years, this is easily the worst. It started well. Actually, the second season was good – the first is a mediocre monster-of-the-week affair.

The story follows 15-year-old Ichigo who gains the power and responsibilities of a Soul Reaper. In short, he has a magic sword and must use it to kill corrupt spirits called Hollows. The second season – and only good arc of the show – kicks off when the top Soul Reapers arrest the girl (now friend as well) that gave him power. He gathers a few other magical friends and they bust into Soul Society (heaven), ready to fight their way to her jail cell. There are several great fights along the way with some cool powers all themed around swords. It’s a great ride that ends on a strong twist cliffhanger (especially if you haven’t seen the like before). This is episode 63.

What follows is a decent into anime hell.

You think inserting the worst filler every second season is bad? Wait until you see how bad the non-filler stories are!

Bleach leans on a battle anime trope I loathe – the power reset. After each major arc, Ichigo reverts to a total scrub for some contrived reason and must endure a training arc, which I swear lasts a season each time. I stopped watching weekly during one such torture session populated by obnoxious characters.

I returned a few years ago out of intellectual curiosity once I heard the series was done for good. I had made the correct decision to quit.

That cliffhanger I mentioned at the end of the Soul Society arc doesn’t return to the forefront until the mid-200s episode count. Even if you ignore all filler as I did with the Naruto reviews, Bleach is a chore to get through. The author keeps throwing a new line of enemies for Ichigo and friends to beat in the same formulaic manner. They’ve finally beaten them all; we can finally see the big bad again? Nope! Here’s another set of bland enemies. There’s always more a powerful villain around the corner (what were they doing before this?). This isn’t a story. It’s a grind.

All the good ideas ended in Soul Society. While the ultimate twist that ends this main thread is good, in no way is it worth having your brain liquefy on the way. And the series doesn’t end there either. Bleach, taken as a whole, is a terrible waste of potential.

When I chose to watch Bleach alongside Naruto back in the day, I made a grave mistake. If only I had picked One Piece…923 episodes and counting.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Avoid it. When canon is indistinguishable from filler, you know drinking bleach is preferable.

Dororo – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Dororo

 

Similar: Demon Slayer

Mushi-shi

Sword of the Stranger

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Supernatural Action Adventure

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Brutal depiction of samurai times (even without the monsters)
  • The monsters
  • Hyakkimaru’s lore
  • Beautiful rustic art

Negatives:

  • Visuals dip in the finale

(Request an anime for review here.)

Did you watch Mushi-shi and think, “This anime is too friendly. Needs more violence and demons”? Well, do I have the anime for you!

Dororo takes Mushi-shi’s adventure of roaming rural Japan in search of the unusual, but instead of trying to understand the supernatural like Ginko would do, Hyakkimaru massacres them to the very last. He was born as a child of sacrifice. Though he should have died, missing his limbs, most organs, skin, and even a spine at birth, a prosthetics doctor found him down the river and rebuilt him to survive. Now, with each demon he slays, a part of him regrows. His single-minded focus to cleanse the land of demons and regain his body drives him down a dangerous path. Thankfully, the ever-cheerful street rat Dororo latches onto him and claims him for an older brother.

The feudal world of Dororo is a harsh one. It does not romanticise the samurai era whatsoever. There was a time when a samurai’s primary goal was collecting the heads of enemies, even if it meant taking them by force from allies. After all, the survivor tells the tale. The country is in a state of desolation – Hyakkimaru’s father and lord performed the sacrifice to bring prosperity to his state. Samurai or peasant, honour is a scare resource when starvation grips the soul. Dororo’s parents were victims of a battle, an inconsequential skirmish in the grand scheme of things, fought over scraps of power. He now travels with Hyakkimaru in search of demons to slay and food to survive, all the while making the most of life.

There is so much to like about Dororo. The titular character is likeable from the very first. I love his energy and craftiness. The contrast between him and Hyakkimaru is a perfect balance between the former’s bubbly personality and the latter’s silence. The perfect foil. Hyakkimaru wouldn’t have worked as a protagonist without him. Speaking of, I love the design of Hyakkimaru with the prosthetics, blades hidden inside his arms, and the way he regrows bit by bit. When a new leg shoots out after a kill, it’s painful yet great to watch. The more he regrows, the more human he becomes and learns about the world around him. Smell and sound are a surprise. However, he becomes more obsessed with the next kill the closer he gets to completion. His arc is fantastic, culminating in a crazy scenario that I don’t even want to hint at.

Dororo gripped me from the start. If you want a prime example of how to do a first episode, watch this anime. There are no exposition dumps, no out of place humour (we all know another studio would have forced a boob grab or some such cliché), and the showing of the characters, their motivations, and the world is spot on.

Then we have the world. The watercolour environments give such a rustic, quaint feel that you wish you could roam that countryside. That is, until you face a demon, or worse, the samurai. I can imagine the Japanese tourist board setting up walking tours to visit the modern equivalent, safe from horrors of course. The charming feel to the world was a great decision, for it lulls the audience into thinking perhaps things aren’t so bad, perhaps they have found peace. Then reality hits and all goes to hell.

The variety of demons and the way they fit into this world – like a mini fairy tale each episode – is fantastic. Some are simple beasts of instinct, while others are cunning. There’s always something new over the next mountain. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the action is exciting with great animation. Doesn’t hold back on gore either.

Now, I don’t recommend this as a binge show. Much like Mushi-shi, it’s best to let it sink in every few episodes. I watched Dororo over the course of two months – hence the delay on this request – and would not have had it any other way. The episodic structure (until the final stretch) facilitates this method. Dororo gets better with each episode. Each piece of the puzzles comes together to make one of the decade’s best anime.

Art – Very High

The samurai drama visual style is a success. Plenty of animation too, but it does have to use some TV shortcuts like repeating animations. Beautiful backgrounds are an increasingly rare sight these days.

Sound – High

I almost had a serious negative about a casting choice, but it worked perfectly in the end. Acting is solid, though Hyakkimaru isn’t quite right. I like the first OP and ED, listening to them each time, but I would skip the second set.

Story – Very High

A street rat and a cursed child roam a war torn land in search of food and demons. Dororo doesn’t hold back on the realities of war, starvation, and the desperation to survive as it delivers riveting action and an engaging arc.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Watch it. Dororo is a surprise hit for me. I wouldn’t want you to miss it (unless you don’t like violence).

(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:

Fluid AnimationRiveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Attack on Titan: Season 3 – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Shingeki no Kyojin Season 3

 

Related: Attack on Titan: Season 1

Attack on Titan: Season 2

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 22 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Finally some human drama
  • First half delivers good action
  • Less Eren

Negatives:

  • Stories from previous seasons don’t carry over well
  • CG titans
  • Baseball titan
  • Continued lack of thought to the details

(Request an anime for review here.)

Here we go, back for another season of Attack on Titan. After the poor showing of Attack on Titan: Season 2, I was done with this series, but a reader requested I return for the third season, as it had improved – or so the claim went. I go into this willing to give it a chance.

Attack on Titan: Season 3 starts well with beautiful animation and a focus on human versus human conflict. The titans became an uninteresting part of the series since it turned out every character and their mum is secretly a titan. Eren as a titan is still the greatest mistake this series made. You don’t think the author would do the same again, would he? Would he? It has also become evident which characters have plot armour, removing much of the tension that Attack on Titan executed well in the first season. These problems persist in season 3.

However, this season does improve in several ways. As I mentioned, the human conflict is good between the scouts – largely composed of the lower class – and the ruling class at the heart of civilisation. There should have been more such conflicts from the beginning of the anime. The most captivating element in any monster story is how characters react to each other, not the monster. Attack on Titan in general lacks complexity. Look no further than the one note cast of characters, especially Mikasa. I thought she would find relevance by now.

Ironically, the best action comes not against the titans but between humans, all of it in the first half of the season. The animation is great, the settings are creative and lend themselves well to the web swinging, and it’s different from earlier seasons. As for the titan action, it’s okay overall. The fight with the crawler titan has good atmosphere. A massive battle against a few special titans eats up most of the latter half of the season, which does drag from lack of story and two glaring flaws. First is the Bigfoot Titan and his baseball puns while pelting boulders. Just why? Imagine if Gollum started going on about fidget spinners in The Lord of the Rings. The second is the decision to have the Colossal Titan made entirely in CG – it never looks good (the crawler has the advantage of being in the dark).

In fact, we see a significant drop in visual quality during the second half. Static pans with only mouth movements become more common, highflying action is rare (characters hanging from walls or on roofs is popular), and we have less key frames throughout. The first half looks great, much better than season 2, only for the second half to slash the budget. One has to wonder either if a different team did the work or if they realised that fans would watch regardless. Attack on Titan is popular enough to draw a crowd on a shoestring production.

The “Part 1” and “Part 2” structure of this season brings another problem to mind: the disconnect in story between seasons. Think back to seasons 1 and 2 and how little most of their events matter to season 3. Even with this season, the two halves aren’t all that connected. There is no sense of planning for the overarching story, as though the author thought of it one season at a time. The internal conflict within the human city of Part 1? Irrelevant to Part 2. What happened in season 2 again? I’d say 10% matters from season to season. This simultaneously makes each season feel like filler and relevant content.

Every good story employs resonance to build and build the narrative, incorporating past elements with the new to reinforce themes and events. Attack on Titan lacks resonance. When an earlier setup does receive an answer, I imagine the editor had to remind the author the night before.

Lastly, we come to the details. In my season 2 review, I talked of how the author hadn’t grasped the size of the human territory within the walls and the travel time required. It gets worse. We have characters travelling vast distances in a fraction of the time it should take. People come to the rescue at the last second (see plot armour earlier) despite being on the other side of the battlefield a minute ago. You can get away with this to some extent, but repeat offences wear thin. On a scale of one to Game of Thrones season 7, Attack on Titan is an eight for poor travel logistics.

Then we have simple stupidity. The ruling class wants to disband the scouts, the one group able to slay titans. How moronic are they? While evading the police, the scouts have the idea of hiding Eren in a crowd of 100 scouts by pulling their hoods up while flying around. Hoods wouldn’t stay up – bet you the writer has never worn one. Not a big deal, but it’s one of many instance where no thought went into the idea. No one instance is atrocious, yet they add up over time. Another that comes to mind is the torture scene. The mad scientist woman is the interrogator, but because she is comedic relief, the scene is laughable rather than frightening.

Contrary to my plethora of criticisms, I am more positive than negative towards Attack on Titan: Season 3, mostly because of the first half and its visual plus audio quality (great new OPs). It’s easy for the action to sweep you up.

Still, season 3 has not increased the likelihood that I will watch the conclusion. There are no mysteries left for me to care about. Season 3 revealed the origins of the titans to lacklustre results (would have been better with no explanation and no attention drawn to the idea of a backstory whatsoever). The studio has announced the fourth and final season is to release in 2020.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For Attack on Titan fans only. While an improvement over season 2, Attack on Titan: Season 3 isn’t worth it for those that already quit.

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