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En garde! Swashbuckling, duels, and stabbing.

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

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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.

(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: 

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

Ninja Scroll the series – Review

Japanese Title: Juubee Ninpuuchou: Ryuuhougyoku-hen

 

Related: Ninja Scroll the movie (prequel)

Similar: Basilisk

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The villains have some interesting abilities.

Negatives:

  • A bloated cast of villains leaves no room for character development.
  • The art and animation is lacklustre and markedly worse than the movie.
  • Uninteresting plot.
  • Lacks the choreography that made the action in the movie compelling to watch.
  • Awkward dialogue and poor audio quality.
  • Electronic music doesn’t match the medieval setting.

Fourteen years after the events of the movie, Jubei is once again roped into conflict when a group of demons destroy a village, killing everyone except the priestess Shigure. Jubei fights the demons and acquires the mysterious Dragon Jewel, making him a target to the demons. The government agent Dakuan from the movie is charged with the priestess’s protection. He hires Jubei again as a bodyguard to escort her and the Dragon Jewel to safety.

These fourteen years weren’t kind to Ninja Scroll. It went from a good action anime in the movie to a snooze-fest in Ninja Scroll the series. Each episode is about fending off some new ninja with a speciality power. While the powers have some creativity to them, the characters have no depth. One major complaint I had against the film was the lack of development for most characters, stating that a little extra screen time could have served admirably. Here they have thirteen episodes to work with, and rather than develop characters, they bloat the cast with a new villain each episode.

Even Jubei is worse. It seems like they heard the one line description of Jubei’s character from the movie (easy-going vagabond ninja) and didn’t bother to look further into his character. He is now one-note. His haunted past, inner turmoil, humanity and strength, all gone.

So, the narrative and characters are bland, but what about the action, the movie’s best aspect? Surely, the action is still worthwhile, no? It isn’t, I’m afraid. Though it is the strongest part of the series, which isn’t saying much, without the choreography and animation from the movie, action scenes aren’t compelling. Every fight has that moment where Jubei slashes at the enemy, appears to do nothing, they stare at each other, and the villain even talks before being split in two. I grew bored within a two episodes.

You will be thankful for the dull action when you have to listen to poor dialogue coupled with awkward voice work, particularly in English where the audio quality fluctuates between characters. Many of the actors aren’t the same as the film and worse than their originals. Almost every English voice, some with terrible accents, sounds either bored or as if they are reading straight off the script. The mismatched music doesn’t help either. Synth and electronic music wasn’t the best choice for a medieval setting. Who thought mechanised singing was a good idea?

I’m not sure why Ninja Scroll the series needed to be. It doesn’t add anything to the movie, introduces nothing of worth, and doesn’t even manage the action that made the original entertaining.

Art – Low

So generic. Lacks the dark visual quality of the movie. Also suffers from an inconsistent frame rate. Weak gore. Shadows go missing quite often.

Sound – Low

The wrong kind of music for the theme and setting coupled with poor voice work to match the awkward dialogue.

Story – Very Low

A repetitive new-enemy-of-the-episode structure that leaves no room for character development or any meaningful plot, for that matter.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Avoid this and watch Basilisk instead. Ninja Scroll the series isn’t worth your time, even if a fan of the movie. It’s just too boring to suffer through the blandness.

(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: 

Awful DialogueDissapointingEar Grating Voice WorkNo DevelopmentRepetitiveShallowTorture MusicUseless Side Cast