Tag Archives: Tragedy

An event shakes the character’s world apart. Often coupled with Melancholy, but not mutually inclusive.

Katanagatari – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Katanagatari

 

Similar: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Dororo

Mononoke

Samurai Jack

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Action Adventure Romance

Length: 12 episodes (double length)

 

Positives:

  • Storybook art
  • Whimsical score
  • Fairy tale stories
  • Fun main duo

Negatives:

  • Drags at times

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Katanagatari is a series of fairy tale-like stories about a woman collecting the twelve “Deviant Blades” across Edo-era Japan (unaffiliated with the Bakemonogatari series – “gatari” means “story” in Japanese, so “Sword Story” in this case). This is based on real events from history, where a Japanese ruler would declare a “sword hunt” to confiscate all swords possessed by those not native to his territory, believing it would prevent them having the means to overthrow him. Togame, strategist to the shogunate, employs the help of Shichika, current master of the Kyotouryuu style that fights barehanded and turns the body itself into a blade.

The storybook art style is immediately striking and the only selling point I needed to try this anime (several readers have since requested it). One may think it cartoonish or that this is a small children’s anime, but children would find Katanagatari unbearably dull in truth. This is for a slightly older audience and the style fits the tone.

Despite the action sounding title, dialogue is the dominant form of this anime. Each episode is double length to fit the story associated with each sword in a single uninterrupted session. While I like this idea, I don’t feel each episode justifies the extra screen time, as it does drag often for a mere 12 episodes. A variable episode length would be better – I wish all series would do this, just like the variable length of book chapters. It took me a long time to finish this series (to be fair, life keeps getting in the way too). I recommend one episode per session. However, outside of that, I can’t present any other barriers to finishing the series. Katanagatari is a good anime.

First, the main duo is tons of fun. Shichika is muscle over brains taken to an almost extreme. “I’m bad at thinking” – his words. He’s also oblivious to how to treat Togame, the woman he claims to love. He’s humorously embarrassing. By contrast, Togame is all brains and no brawn. She’s a proper lady of good upbringing, unlike this hick country fella. Yet she trips on first meeting him. She talks too much, too many big words, is carried away with her monologues, and assumes other people’s answers only to realise she misheard a minute later. A perfect contrast to Shichika.

The meeting of this art style, whimsical score, and mystical stories reminds of fairy tales, as mentioned earlier, for which you need the right mindset. Each episode is about confronting an owner of one of these swords. Naturally, they are reluctant to relinquish their powerful weapons, so a conflict ensues. Sometimes it’s a typical action scene, though often there’s more thought to it, like a moral quandary or a puzzle to solve – as seen in fairy tales.

For example, one wielder is the last swordsman in a fallen kingdom swallowed by sand. He sits in a room in the castle with his sword at the ready, capable of slashing faster than light at anyone who dares enter. If you think logically, this falls apart. How does he eat? Go to the bathroom? Why don’t they fire a cannon from outside behind him? Those aren’t questions for this type of story. In Little Red Riding Hood, you don’t worry about how the hell a wolf could ever pass for an old granny. Approach Katanagatari with that mindset and you will have a good time. I mean, one guy punches with his guns. Need I say more?

Why is it okay to ignore those questions here but not in, say, Sword Art Online 2, you may ask? No story can encompass everything, account for every possibility, or factor in every detail from reality. Would make for rather boring stories. Instead, stories choose what focus on and the style in which to deliver the message, the morality, the character study, the action – whatever. Weak stories will either execute this vision poorly or sometimes not account for something that within the logic of its world breaks the story. Sword Art Online is garbage for many reasons, but the sword versus guns problem is idiotic because if a sword is so effective and bullets are so slow, why would anyone ever choose a gun in competitive play? By the logic established within that world, no one would use a gun.

Thankfully, Katanagatari isn’t Sword Art Online.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Katanagatari is unexpected in style and execution and I recommend it taken one episode per session. Cheerio!

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

Positive:

Stunning Art Quality

Negative: None

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

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.)

Utawarerumono – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Utawarerumono

 

Related: Utawarerumono: The False Faces (sequel)

Similar: Tears to Tiara

Vision of Escaflowne

Scrapped Princess

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Drama Fantasy Science Fiction

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Sounds good on paper, I guess?

Negatives:

  • Lazy fantasy
  • Packed with anime clichés
  • No interesting characters
  • Final act twist

(Request an anime for review here.)

Utawarerumono, an anime I remember most for the long title and whose review I’ve had in the bank waiting for completion since a year ago. Two? I don’t remember. Wait… Yep, file created January 2019. I am not keen to write this review because, simply, I am not keen on this anime. Frankly, it’s boring. The clichés are numerous, the fantasy is lazy, and no character grabs my attention. You know you’re in for a rough time when even the OP doesn’t have great art or animation.

This anime centres on a mysterious man found in the woods. He can’t remember his past, who he is, and he wears a mask that can’t come off. A local village of animal people take him in and call him Hakuoro, curious about his lack of a furry tail or ears. Whatever he was in the past, Hakuoro becomes a leader in this village and leads a revolution against the oppressive emperor.

The story isn’t immediately boring. I like a good revolution. The character designs scream laziness and their implementation are the first warning sign that little effort will go into anything. These villagers have animal tail and ears, yet are human in every other way, from behaviour to society. Their part-animal design is pointless. There’s also something I hate about Hakuoro’s one defining characteristic of wearing a mask all the time. Is try hard the phrase I’m looking for? I don’t know. Just lame. I can’t imagine anyone caring about the mystery of who’s under the mask.

Before long, the story shows similar flaws by dipping into every shounen cliché in the library. Honour at the risk of everyone’s lives, grandstanding, characters than can’t contribute on the battlefield because they aren’t main characters, and the skinny girl with a giant sword no one else can lift for some inexplicable reason are but a few examples. Some characters have supernatural abilities with no explanation of how or the limitations of said powers.

For an anime with significant time dedicated to battles in the uprising, the strategy isn’t clever. At all. Did any second thought go towards this? Don’t know.

On paper, this story sounds good – a man rises up to become emperor with the aid of a part-animal race, yet everything has such average execution and never goes beyond the obvious that it isn’t interesting. One leader is joyous and rearing to tell how he slaughtered the enemy one second, then becomes melancholic the next. That’s Utawarerumono’s attempt at conflict.

So bored am I with Utawarerumono that when the big act three twist reveals itself, I just sigh. The twist upends everything in the plot, which sounds like it should wake me up, but when elements prior offer no engagement, it’s hard to care. Also, I don’t like when this twist type is in the third act. Not to give too much away, though using such a twist so late tends to nullify much of the build-up and work put in by earlier acts. It benefits as a first act twist to invert the protagonist’s world and throw them into the unknown, or as the mid-point turn (if well foreshadowed) to shake things up. Using it late has an effect similar to an amnesia twist, just not as bad. Utawarerumono does make it worse by having an amnesiac protagonist. Ironically, I almost forget that detail.

I’m not sure why Utawarerumono is even on my list. I can’t remember.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: For specific fantasy anime fans only. Being a fantasy fan isn’t enough to enjoy Utawarerumono. You must also be a fan of specific anime fantasy clichés.

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

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World Building

Legacies and B Movies – Quick Manga Reviews

Oldman

Chinese Title: OLDMAN

Genre: Action Fantasy

Length:  22 chapters (4 volume)

My first impression of Oldman: “Is that Sean Connery?” “Is that Cate Blanchett as the queen on the key art?” “Is that Rhys Ifans as the doctor?” Apparently so. The author Sheng Chang uses real actors for reference with his characters, as if casting them in a film (and in the hopes that someone like the late Sean Connery would act in an adaptation).

Oldman is a medieval action manga with one fantasy element. The titular Oldman, imprisoned son of the queen, breaks out of jail to enact revenge on his ageless mother. On the way out, he grabs Rebecca, a once legendary warrior doomed to rot in her cell with both arms and legs severed from her body. They join a few other characters on the quest, including a doctor to construct a new set of limbs for Rebecca.

The opening volume of Oldman is excellent and shows so much promise. The conflict inherent between Oldman and the queen is obvious, but the questions garner much intrigue. How is such an old man the son of a young queen? What the hell happened to Rebecca? Who is the other girl with amnesia yet friends with Oldman? Can he do real magic or is it all trickery? Volume 1 made me binge this series in a single sitting.

Sadly, it doesn’t hold up through to the end. The middle section flakes on the detail as it sets up a decently complex two-thread plot, with the final act rushing to the finish line. There is a great story here that needs at least 10 volumes to do it justice. I can see this making for a good 26-episode anime should one flesh out the skeleton presented.

The mix of action and surprising amount of comedy layered with mystery succeeds well. However, the action physics need work. Take Rebecca’s mannequin limbs. They have built in enhancements, including explosives that create rocket-like punches. Except, these explosives would shatter her arms to splinters before anything else. It doesn’t makes sense. Also, taking a few lessons from Shadiversity on the effectiveness of arrows and full plate armour wouldn’t go amiss. Just because you use Hollywood actors for reference, doesn’t mean you should use outdated Hollywood medieval action as well.

I do wish Oldman had more time.

Overall Quality – Medium

Result: Give me a fleshed out remake.

*     *     *     *     *

Diamond Dust

Korean Title: Diamond Dust

Genre: Drama Music Romance

Length:  40 chapters (3 volumes)

Diamond Dust is a manhwa webtoon about a piano prodigy with strict parents and the terminally ill underground musician she falls in love with. If you are imagining the stereotypical strict Asian parents forcing their child down one career path from birth, then you’d be right. And if you imagine the romance is the usual misery lit, then you’d also be right. In essence, Diamond Dust is predictable. Yet, the merging of the two story types makes it more engaging than seeing either apart.

The piano career side features a father that resents everyone in his family without prodigious talent (the mother is just as bad). He forces the girl to practice piano 12 hours a day, bans socialising, and freaks out at the slightest action that could endanger her golden hands. The parents are truly nasty, but in that believable sense where you see they believe that they’re doing what’s best for their daughter. She does find massive success until she (obviously) has a breakdown after one too many high-pressure performances. Her fingers cramp up. She cannot play.

Warmth and comfort arrive in the form of a young musician trying to make it in a struggling band. A tumour is pressing into his brain, affecting his memory and ability to concentrate. The romance follows all the beats you expect. She rebels against the parents, his conditions strains the relationship, the parents try to keep him away from her, and so on. Diamond Dust does this well. Don’t expect any surprises.

One last thing I want to note is the design of the two main characters. They suffer from same-face syndrome (until the cancer progresses), which makes them look like siblings – not something you want from a romantic couple. If not for the different hairstyles, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart in close ups.

Overall Quality – Medium

Result: Not bad. Wasn’t disappointed.

*     *     *     *     *

Kyouko

Japanese Title: Kyouko

Genre: Action Drama

Length:  14 chapters (2 volumes)

If you know anything about B movies (low budget, non-artsy films), you will be familiar with the hack director’s number one plot device for conflict and motivating the protagonist – rape. There is so much rape. More specifically, the filmmakers don’t understand the crime and no one cares after it happens. They use it like a villain randomly shooting a puppy to show how evil he is.

Kyouko (aka The Accident) is one such example. The protagonist, a woman, is gang raped in the first chapter as her boyfriend watches on, helpless. An American soldier happens to pass by and rescues her. Rather than show any signs of trauma at the experience, she dumps the boyfriend and is ready to jump this American’s bones right away. Then someone assassinates him. Her quest for revenge turns into action schlock with dumb conspiracies.

Another manga I read after Kyouko that fit the mould is Mephisto. That protagonist is a rapist, serial killer, and bathes in the intestines of children and we are supposed to sympathise with him? Ha!

Overall Quality – Very Low

Result: Truly a B movie in manga form.

*     *     *     *     *

Cradle of Monsters

Japanese Title: Mouryou no Yurikago

Genre: Action Horror

Length:  41 chapters (6 volumes)

Continuing with the B movie inspirations, we have Cradle of Monsters, a horror manga that blends The Poseidon Adventure with The Walking Dead and a low budget. After a cruise ship capsizes in the middle of the ocean, everything goes to hell as most of the passengers turn into zombies and many of the remaining living become murderers. Amongst this chaos are a few survivors, most of them teenagers from the same school on a trip.

This is not a good manga. Quickly you will notice how the fan service takes priority and how irritating it is. While people are dying, the primary concern of the artist is to have a panty shot or for the writing to mention how a character isn’t wearing panties. Half of the deaths mention this, I swear. The ultimate fan service in Cradle of Monsters (or so the author believes) is the frequent golden showers before or at the moment of death. This guy has a serious fetish.

Should you look past the fan service, there isn’t much on offer anyway. To say the characters are one-dimensional would be to give them too many dimensions. Everyone in this story is evil except for maybe three people. I find it so dull when a disaster story makes everyone incomprehensibly evil. Apart from being unrealistic, it’s also predictable. Furthermore, there are so few survivors. It isn’t as if this situation has been raging for months while the infection spreads. Maybe, what, a few hours have passed since the incident and only 20 or so people are alive out of everyone on a massive cruise liner? The author is clearly lazy.

This story wasn’t planned out either. Characters will teleport around the ship for dramatic ambushes, surprise reveals, and last second rescues. It makes no sense how they catch up or get ahead of the main group when navigation is so limited. Again, lazy.

Character backstories also suffer under the lack of forethought. Many characters have a backstory that suddenly reveals a talent they just so happen to need to get out of a situation. “I never mentioned this before, but in the past I studied this thing, so I can use it to clear this obstacle for us.” I believe they call this an “ass pull” in the business. Happens over and over.

And finally, this horror manga isn’t scary. The art is quite bad, so turns supposed frightening moments into comedy, which combined with the above-mentioned issues makes for a yawn-inducing experience.

Overall Quality – Low

Result: That’s going to be a no from me on the golden showers.

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