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En garde! Swashbuckling, duels, and stabbing.

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gankutsuou

 

Similar: Gungrave

Code Geass

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Drama Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • A thrilling story of revenge and corruption.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo is a multi-layered and fully textured (in more ways than one) character. One of the greats.
  • That creative art style, that texturing, utterly beautiful.
  • Manages to take a 19th century story and place it in the 6th millennium without feeling out of place.
  • A soundtrack fit for the style and themes.

Negatives:

  • Some CG stands out too much.

There’s always a degree of tension when adapting a famous classic, even more so when to a medium that couldn’t be more different from the source. First, you have the fans sitting in their beds, eyes glaring over the top of novels, ears twitching as they sense someone touching “their” property. At the other end, there’s Alexandre Dumas peeking out of his grave in the Pantheon of Paris. And in the middle, you have the small crew of anime artists. It’s a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Mexican standoff, each party eyeing the others, wary of disaster. Dr Seuss in the stands screams, “Don’t let ‘em do it, Lex!” waving his ‘I hate The Lorax’ flag. Thankfully, the new team came through.

High up in a private opera box, a man, his hair like rivers of cosmic ink, his skin an ethereal blue, awards a bouquet of flowers to the opera singer. The theatre gasps. Who is this count? The mysterious figure invites young Viscount Albert and his friend Baron Franz over for dinner. He doesn’t eat, though the food is superb. He plays with fate, gambling lives – Albert sets a criminal free. Illusion of choice. The naïve, idealist Albert is enthralled, frightened, by this stranger, yearning to see the galaxy, escape his confined life of arranged marriage. His handshake was cold, like ice.

Gankutsuou is the story of a man out for revenge, adapted from Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo novel. The narrative doesn’t show the betrayal like in the novel; instead, the anime opens with the first stage of the revenge, using twenty-three episodes to execute every detail of the Count’s plan. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, this adds extra layers of mystery to the plot; however, if you are familiar with the original, then fear not, as Gankutsuou has plenty of surprises in store. Everything fits to the original, yet feels fresh. They still have duels, only they fight mechs. By setting it in the distant future, the writers could incorporate several new elements like aliens instead of foreigners, some of them supernatural. The Count has a horse for a spy – need I say more?

Though we see through Albert’s perspective, the Count is without a doubt the star. He uses his unfathomable wealth, charm, and guile to play everyone like pieces on his board. The aristocrats of Paris with their decadent lifestyles, worlds of opera, flirtations, and palaces are a feast to his talents. He is a master manipulator. The way he gets into people’s heads without them realising is a delight to watch. He plays on their weakness while charming them as well so they don’t notice his ploy. Rather than outmanoeuvring them on the battlefield, he creates situations where his enemies can’t resist exposing their true natures, where people discover darkness they didn’t realise was there, and they don’t notice it was the Count who set it up.

He has a constant aura of mystery about him (as he intends, I am sure) that is both captivating and frightening. In a world of high tech cars and ships, he rides in a sleek black carriage drawn by black horses – the sort of thing Batman would have. The artists fuse high intensity orchestral pieces of heavy brass, tragic opera, theatre, and literature to create a rich world around him, both beautiful and grim. There are detailed paintings in shots that last a couple of seconds, taking more effort than entire backgrounds from other anime, all to reflect his character and those of his enemies.

A true delight is to understand the Count, or try to, at least. Which actions are manipulations and which are real emotions? Is everything he does part of the grand plan? It’s heart breaking to see a good man so consumed by revenge, as it tore me between my sense of justice for him and wish for him to find peace.

Gankutsuou is the sort of show that keeps me in anime. It reminds me that no matter how bad an anime I have seen, there will always be a few artists who can create something unique and captivating. I leave you with a quote from the Count that illustrates his complexities: “I am now no longer alone in my solitude. For I am now surrounded by the Furies, the goddesses of vengeance. In the darkness, I awaited the dawn. And once dawn came, I cursed my flesh until night fell once more. I even prayed that I would lose my sanity. But those prayers went unheeded. I even strove for death, but the Devil’s cold, pitiless hand held me back.

Art – Very High

The most unique art in anime. A kaleidoscope of texture and colour. You could take just about any screenshot from Gankutsuou and it would be a piece of art. It’s fun figuring out where you have seen that texture before. Is her hair a thumbprint? While the texturing does blend much of the CG into the scene, some of it still looks out of place when in prominence.

Sound – Very High

The voice work is great in either language; it’s a matter of preference. I preferred English for the use of French honorifics in a French setting. Strangely, they changed the French introductions from the Japanese track to English in the English track – I would have thought they would do it even better with a bilingual English actor. The count’s deep voice is suave yet menacing. Gankutsuou exhibits a fantastic soundtrack. There’s no out-of-place J-pop here, just piano, opera, harp, and a few English and French lyrical tracks. The piece used for mystery makes the heart race with excitement at the unfolding drama.

Story – Very High

This anime is excellence in storytelling with well-implemented science fiction changes to the original novel. To see the Count manipulate people in such cunning ways makes for a gripping tale.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo shows how much the anime medium can achieve when adapting a foreign literary masterpiece, maintaining the core of the source material while making it their own. From the characters to the marvellous art, every facet comes together in an unforgettable series.

(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: 

Deep NarrativeEngaging DialogueGreat MusicStrategicStrong Lead CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None.

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Black Blood Brothers – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Black Blood Brothers

 

Similar: Blood+

Hellsing Ultimate

Dance in the Vampire Bund

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Vampire Action Comedy

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • A good pitch with all the right ingredients.
  • Nice, clean art.

Negatives:

  • Despite the depth of the idea, dozens of small problems hinder the overall result.
  • The younger brother can get annoying, especially with that laugh.
  • Leaves a couple of threads open with no sequel in sight, but it isn’t a cliffhanger.
  • Several stiff action animations. Low frame rate on mouths as well.

Old vampire Jirou and his little brother Kotarou travel to Japan for the ‘Special Zone’ where humans and vampires live in peace protected by a barrier that keeps unwanted vampire bloodlines out. However, the Kowloon Children, feral vampires thought wiped out by Jirou ten years ago in the Hong Kong War, kidnap Kotarou and forces Jirou to fight once more. Mediator Mimiko is sent by the Company to babysit Jirou and make sure he doesn’t destroy too much of the city. A feral infiltrates the zone, threatening to taint all vampires within.

If you were to send this pitch to an agent, they are almost guaranteed to want to see the full story. It has the makings of an engaging tale. On the surface, Black Blood Brothers has everything you could ask for in a vampire anime: ancient bloodlines, warring factions, a handsome vampire protagonist with a broken heart, a human woman forbidden from intimacy with him, sexual undertones to vampirism, a threat to the entire vampire race, action, special powers, and even some comedy. And yet, there’s something missing, something hard to define. It’s as though every aspect is one step away from greatness. Yes, an ancient bloodline is a must, but the writers never establish their significance. The powers are cool, but the writers forget they exist in certain situations. The forbidden nature between vampire and human is tantalising, but that thread doesn’t hold throughout the series. Jirou’s lost love brings a dimension of humanity to his character, BUT we don’t see enough of his past for him to grow on the audience. “That is great, but…” summarises every point in Black Blood Brothers.

I found Black Blood Brothers an enjoyable enough anime to keep me engaged until the end of its twelve-episode run. I sorely wish that they had sat down for just one more day to brainstorm the ideas, fleshing them out into something great. Lastly, Jirou has a telekinetic ability, which he uses to fling his brother around when misbehaving, all controlled with his middle finger… Weird.

Art – Medium

The frame rate is minimal, many animation jumping between two or three frames. Even when the motion distance is larger, the frames don’t increase (same number of frames for a whisper as with yelling, for example). Flying statues during some action sequences – no signs of life even when sliced open. However, the art quality is clean and looks nice in stills.

Sound – High

The voice work is good in both languages. Jirou’s actors convey his politeness and old-fashioned mannerisms well, yet still bring the anger when needed. Mimiko’s short fuse is entertaining to hear. Great ending theme and the rest of the tracks are decent.

Story – Medium

The story of an ancient vampire fighting neophyte feral vampires is not an uncommon plot type, though a flexible one allowing for much variation. Black Blood Brothers’ twist of involving the humans and a good degree of comedy is an enjoyable choice, though ultimately unfinished.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Black Blood Brothers had all the ingredients for a great vampire story, but it fell short by a little in every aspect. Even so, if you are looking for a short, well-paced anime to relax with, then Black Blood Brothers will appeal.

(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: None.

Negative:

Incomplete

Escaflowne the Movie – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Escaflowne

 

Related: Vision of Escaflowne (original series)

Similar: Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Romance

Length: 1 movie

 

Positives:

  • A dark and imposing atmosphere makes for a menacing Escaflowne machine.
  • Action is more brutal and gory than the original series.
  • Great soundtrack with new and returning tracks.

Negatives:

  • Minimal characterisation and character development.
  • The romance is sudden with no validity.
  • The magitech is all but gone, the best part of the lore.

Note: while this review is spoiler-free, I do recommend watching the original series before the movie.

In my previous review, I said Vision of Escaflowne was a character piece with its drama, flawed personalities and tenuous alliances. Escaflowne the Movie, on the other hand, is far from. In the process of cutting down a twenty-six-episode series to a single movie, the creators decided on sacrificing the characters in favour of the war angle.

The premise of Escaflowne is still the same. Hitomi is summoned to Gaea where she meets Van and his allies as they fight to protect the machine Escaflowne, hoping to use its power to defeat the enemy.

The greatest change is with Hitomi. She is depressed, dropped out of the track team, and doesn’t like her place in life. Her power of precognition from the series is gone, as is the theme of fate and fighting destiny; this makes her even more passive than before, if you can believe it. Replacing her future sight, is her role as the Wing Goddess, whose power coupled with the blood of a Draconian like Van gives mastery over the god of war, Escaflowne. Van starts as a war veteran, savage, gladiatorial in appearance, having already lost everything he holds dear at the hands of his brother. Van and Hitomi’s relationship is shallow, void of subtleties that made it work in the series. She is suddenly interested in him with little interaction, and he reciprocates later after a single conversation. Not exactly Pride & Prejudice, is it?

Much of the cast is back, though like Hitomi, they take a lesser role in the proceedings. Allen is still the leader of the allies from countries decimated by the Black Dragon Empire (Zaibach in the series). He doesn’t teach Van caution and battle strategy this time, losing what made him a good character – this applies to all characters really. They contribute to the war effort, but they don’t affect the character of the narrative. Dilandau is still bloodthirsty, yet without his emotional dependencies, he’s just a psycho, not a complex character. I get the impression that the writers assumed you had seen the series to fill in the character complexities for yourself.

The greatest disappointment is the replacement of magic technology with simple magic. Escaflowne is organic, powered by blood; gone are the intricate mechanics of the machines, all those whirring gears and taut cables. Yes, Escaflowne’s increased size and beating heart makes for an imposing figure, but it would have been nice if they hadn’t sacrificed so much in the process.

Forgetting comparisons to the original, Escaflowne the Movie is still a decent fantasy war film and worth a watch for fans of the series to see a different take on the world. The heavy atmosphere as the music swells during the action with Escaflowne is a sight to behold, at the very least.

Art – High

The dark visuals and less stylised characters (spearhead noses are gone) give the Escaflowne movie a more adult look. Improved animations for the smaller details. The loss of magitech reduced visual creativity and variety, however.

Sound – High

Keeps the same iconic chants while bringing several new hymns and oriental instrumental pieces to the dire setting. Awkwardness is fixed from the series’ English dub.

Story – Medium

While the savage nature of Van and Gaea is an interesting take on Escaflowne, without the character arcs and drama, this story has less to offer than the series.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Watch this if you liked the series and want an alternate take. Escaflowne the Movie brings a darker, adult look to the tale of Van and Hitomi with some heavy and imposing moments.

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

Positive: 

Great Music

Negative: 

No Development

Afro Samurai – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Afro Samurai

 

Related: Afro Samurai Resurrection (sequel – included in this review)

Similar: Ninja Scroll the movie

Samurai Champloo

Shigurui: Death Frenzy

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Action

Length: 5 episodes (season 1) & movie (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Gory, stylised action complemented by bleak visuals.
  • Great and sometimes unusual voice work, particularly from Samuel L. Jackson.

Negatives:

  • Poor sound mixing muffles speech under the music.
  • Not much to the plot, even with flashbacks.
  • In particular, the anime doesn’t explain why the headbands are worth anything beyond pieces of cloth.
  • Though the action animations are great, the lip movements don’t match the words half the time.

After seeing his father decapitated for a headband, Afro trains up as a samurai to avenge his father and reclaim the number one headband. Afro Samurai is set in a feudal Japan meets futuristic Wild West world of swordfights, gunslingers, and Mexican standoffs, wind blowing through your afro. Legends say the strongest warrior and owner of the number one headband is a god and only the number two can challenge for that power. Being number two, challengers beset Afro as he works his way to the mountain of number one. He knows no love, no happiness, only the murderous violence the number two headband incites in the heart of every man after the power of number one.

Afro Samurai’s biggest draws are its over-the-top action and style. The action is in the vein of Kill Bill with its excessive gore, blood spraying in ludicrous amounts. No shot is standard, not shot is dull. The camera zooms into every unsheathing of a sword, light sparking off the blade, every cocking of a hammer, pull of a trigger.

From its desaturated colours to no-cares-given protagonist, Afro Samurai is sombre anime. The only source of humour is Afro’s chain smoking sidekick, Ninja Ninja (both voiced by Samuel L Jackson). He is the antithesis to Afro, never shutting up and a coward. He doesn’t do much beyond provide commentary to the adventure and say what Afro is really thinking. Ninja Ninja is Jackson at his silliest and quite humorous.

Afro Samurai’s bleakness doesn’t just cover its tone but also extends to its sparse plot. On his quest, Afro meets various characters from his childhood (including a Vader-type samurai with a teddy bear head), which the plot does try to inject personality into by way of flashbacks. However, these flashbacks are minimal in content and depth, and little effort is made to characterise in the present. There is also this brotherhood of monks looking to create a clone of Afro with all his skills to claim number one for themselves. While I found their Evangelical preacher of a leader amusing, the brotherhood doesn’t feel particularly relevant and could have been cut from the show with ease, but then you would have even less to populate the narrative.

What bothered me most were the headbands. They never explain why these mere pieces of cloth have any kind of power. I fail to see how you have to own a headband to be the best or challenge the best. Furthermore, if they are as powerful as they claim, can’t one simply bury the headband in the middle of a forest to stop challengers hounding you? If they don’t know you have the headband, they won’t bother challenging. Hell, if you have to have it on you to gain its power, then stuff it in your sock instead of parading around with it on your head. Misery solved.

If you can look past these logical fallacies and want an anime all about the action and blood, then Afro Samurai is for you. On the other hand, if you want more than ankle-deep characterisation and story, then skip this one.

Art – High

Afro Samurai uses a high number of key frames to bring the gruesome animation to life. Desaturated colouring enhances the bleakness of Afro’s quest. The mouth animations don’t match the words half the time – not just out of sync, but the wrong shape altogether (this anime was drawn for English).

Sound – Medium

Great voice work overpowered by the poor mixing of music, which is an even bigger shame since the music itself is decent – a mix of rap and long whistles for Mexican standoffs.

Story – Medium

The flashbacks provide backstory to the characters, but in the present, the plot doesn’t involve much beyond killing a series of enemies to reach the top.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of over the top action. Afro Samurai is worth your while if you want an anime all about the action and with enough backstory to give the characters purpose, don’t expect more than that.

(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:

Fluid Animation

Negative: 

Hollow World BuildingNo Development

Basilisk – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou

 

Similar: Ninja Scroll the Movie

Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal

Romeo x Juliet

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action Adventure Romance

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Creative powers make for strategic encounters.
  • Both ninja clans have good and evil.
  • No character feels safe.
  • Tragedy of the premise makes you feel for the characters.

Negatives:

  • With such a large cast, some characters don’t get the development and screen time they deserve.
  • The English voice track doesn’t work well with so many Japanese nouns and honorifics read in heavy American accents.

Two ninja clans have feuded for the last four-hundred years, only held at bay by a royal pact prohibiting conflict in the last few generations. In this time of tenuous peace, Gennosuke, grandson of the Kouga clan leader, and Oboro, granddaughter of the Iga clan leader, have fallen in love and their marriage is to create a binding peace between the clans. However, the current shogun decides to use the clans to determine the successor from his two sons. Each clan must select its ten best ninja to annihilate each other. The winning clan will receive the support of the shogun for the next thousand years and rule over the defeated. The pact is broken.

Basilisk is a brutal story as both sides cut each other down to the last. You quickly learn that no one is safe in this conflict; no character wears unkillable ‘plot armour.’ This creates great tension in every moment of conflict, for you never know what will happen, who will die. Basilisk makes great use of the ninja theme with every aspect shrouded in deception and brutality. Each ninja has a special power such as a spider-man who spits glue-like phlegm, and a woman can use her blood to mark the target and create a red mist she can vanish into. To reveal any more would constitute spoilers since the powers themselves are kept hidden for use as twists in the plot. I love strategic use of character abilities and talents.

The writers did a great job with the characters. Neither clan is the good or bad side. Both have characters with shades of grey, beautiful and ugly, calm and angry, kind and cruel. Having these complex characters on both sides makes it all the harder to see them die.

It is clear Basilisk drew much inspiration from Ninja Scroll the Movie with the unique ninja powers and action style. In my review of Ninja Scroll, I noted the lack of character development as a core issue. Thankfully, Basilisk uses its longer screen time to develop the characters through flashbacks and during downtime. Even then, a few characters don’t get the screen time they deserve in such a large cast.

Basilisk excels at character design, each ninja’s look based on their powers – they even have a ninja with no arms or legs. The action is suitably gory and uncensored as a man cuts off his own head. I do wish the visual style in general had more grit like Ninja Scroll the Movie and BerserkBasilisk looks too clean by comparison.

Finally, we come to the audio. Don’t use the English track. With so many archaic Japanese names and locations coupled with honorifics –dono and –sama spoken in American accents (some rather heavy, see: character Okoi), the English voice work sounds strange. If they insisted on using the honorifics with these voices, they should have use titles like ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ instead. Stick to the Japanese original with its well-matched voices to the characters.

I highly recommend Basilisk to anyone who isn’t averse to a little gore. The ninjas and their powers make for an engaging narrative of action and tragedy.

Art – High

A variety of character designs that fit their creative powers. Gore and violence worthy of the brutal premise. I would have liked more grit in the general art.

Sound – High

In Japanese, each character has the right voice, well executed. In English, however, the heavy use of Japanese words doesn’t sound right. Outside of the forgettable title tracks, the music is nice. I particularly liked what I refer to as ‘mountain monk’ music (I have no idea what it’s called) – flutes, chimes, ethereal vocals, etc.

Story – High

A tragic tale of two ninja clans willing to fight to the last warrior if it means wiping out the opposing clan. Add in the forbidden romance, and you have a great story to hear.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Can’t go wrong watching this. Basilisk manages to deliver great action coupled with complex characters in a dark tale of love and hate.

(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:

Holy S***Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStrategic

Negative: None