Bitter-Suite Symphony: Suite PreCure Review

Synopsis: the magical musical world of Major Land is threatened by Mephisto, the ruler of Minor Land, when he steals the Legendary Score containing the Melody of Happiness. Before he gets a chance to transform it into the Melody of Sorrow, Major Land’s queen, Aphrodite, scatters the score’s notes and sends them to Kanon Town, back on Earth. She sends the melody’s songstress, Hummy, to Kanon Town to not only find the notes, but the Legendary PreCure as well.

Unlike Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which I’ve described before as a series about magical girls, Suite PreCure is, for all its successes and failures, a magical girl show at heart. Just a mere mention of that, combined with the fact that it’s part of a storied Pretty Cure franchise, is more than enough to convince most fans of the genre to give it a shot. Suite PreCure is a unique musical spin on the Pretty Cure magical girl concept, and incorporates musical motifs, both visually and thematically, in the most straightforward, yet effective way. Despite its great soundtrack and somewhat likeable characters, the show in itself is as average as it gets for PreCure.

Continue reading Bitter-Suite Symphony: Suite PreCure Review

Secret Santa Review: Dennou Coil Grows the Beard

According to rumours on the net, anime bloggers participate in an annual Christmas tradition known as the Secret Santa anime review exchange. Organized by Reverse Thieves, anibloggers receive anonymous anime recommendations and take a chance on a series one would otherwise not watch.

It is also said that everyone who’s been recommended a title named Dennou Coil has given the show favourable reviews and recommends the show highly.

After managing to watch the entire series during NaNoWriMo of all times, I am no different. Dennou Coil is one of my favourite shows in the genre, and one of my favourite shows that I’ve watched this year. It seemingly blends sci-fi elements with the supernatural, while maintaining a manageable blend of light and heavy storytelling, resulting in a show that’s enjoyable by many for different reasons.

Daikoku City is the centre of a popular augmented reality fad among children. Yuko moves into Daikoku and joins her grandmother’s “agency” (essentially a kid’s club) for cyberinvestigation involving the use of virtual glasses and metatags. Nothing is as it seems, as another student new to school, also named Yuko, shakes up the balance of cyberspace power in the city with her prodigious hacking skills. Little do either realize the connection that exists between the both of them; the secrets behind the kids’ beloved hobby are deeper than they could ever imagine.

I’ve actually wanted to watch this show ever since it first aired in 2007, but I’ve always had reasons to put it off. When I received my anime secret santa selections, I was provided with an initial three options of Pandora Hearts, Summer Wars, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Having already watched the last two titles, and being unable to acquire a proper batch of Pandora Hearts, I ended up mulliganing into another set of shows: Dennou Coil, Gosick, and Absolute Boy. That title showed up again after so long, so I figured to give it a shot one more time.

I originally planned to watch the show after NaNoWriMo, but the show itself turned out to be such a great source of inspiration to my writing, primarily because of its world-building. The city of Daikoku is a mix of old and new; every corner and spot is rich in metadata, and a fearsome entity known as Satchi roams around acting like an antivirus for the cyberspace interspersed throughout. The kids are mischievous, especially with each other. The digital equivalent of harmless playground wars happens in augmented reality.

The first part of the show introduces the city of Daikoku and Yuko’s cyberinvestigation club, as well as its rivals in school. The characters themselves are childlike in spirit, but are highly competent in their abilities to navigate and manipulate the AR around them.

Yuuko Okonogi is the main character, and having moved into Daikoku at the beginning of the series, she’s thrust immediately into the children’s activities. She serves as the perspective character for the audience, and learns takes in her environment along with the audience. Once her backstory is revealed and integrated into the show’s darker developments, she becomes her own intriguing person.

Fumie Hashimoto is the stand-in leader of the cyberinvestigation agency, and is a competent female foil to the agency’s rival, the immature yet cyber-skilled Daichi Sawaguchi. They bicker and quarrel throughout the show, and even with the obvious romantic undertones between them, they still exude a cute chemistry between them.

Kenichi Harakawa is the inactive, but senior member of the cyberinvestigation agency, aloof throughout due to his tragic backstory involving a close friend who was killed due to a complication and a malfunction in the Dennou network. He is a plot-driving character, but his baggage doesn’t weigh down on the show’s mood too heavily. He comes off as an enigma, which is to his benefit.

Yuuko Amasawa is the antagonist of the series, a hacker whose skills with cybermanipulation far exceeds that of her peers. She is a badass action girl, whose magic with her AR glasses and metatags is like that of a digital magical girl. She was the driving force behind my development of my NaNoWriMo character, Saki Sasaki. She is somewhat of an anti-hero, and towards the end, works to exorcise her personal demons, both psychologically and even paranormally.

The first half of the series seeks to develop the dynamics between these characters as they engage in everyday activities in school and outside of it. However, the series truly kicks into gear in episode 12 and 13, when the once-innocent antics of playing around with illegal cyber-entities (aptly known as illegals) take on a more heavy tone. In episode 12, popularly known as the “beard episode,” the kids discover colonies of illegals spawning in the cyberspace on their chins and necks. It starts off in a playful, comedic development due to the evolution of the colonies in the same manner as human society, but it gets deeper when the colonies begin to engage in inter-beard ballistic warfare, resulting in colonial extinction.

It plays out rather comedically due to the personal attachment that each kid develops for their respective beard colonies; some of them even have deity-like relations and communications with their inhabitants. But when the despair of dermal war breaks out, the introspection that occurs the responses are heartfelt and appropriate for characters of their age.

In a way, the quality and development of this episode is a microcosm for the development of the series as a whole. We grow attached to these children, and are exposed to a romantically mischievous world of augmented cyberspace. But when the deeper themes and plot developments come out in the second half of the show, the emotional attachment to these characters help create an interesting contrast between the two types of moods present throughout.

It culminates into a finale that’s intensely spoileriffic, but really ties the connection between the main characters as well as form the big picture of the cyberspace in which they live. It’s a remarkable journey through a fascinating world with interesting characters who are as realistic as they are complex. I cannot recommend this show highly enough.

Final Score: 9/10 (Excellent)

For the Glory of Science! Steins;Gate Spoiler-Free Review

The scientific method is a practical approach towards learning about the world. It starts with observation of the world around the scientist, allowing him or her to take in information and create hypotheses or theories. The scientist then conducts experiments to see if certain conditions create results that support or refute his or her predictions. The experimenter then interprets the data, which leads to conclusions that serve to either strengthen the hypothesis, or to create a new one altogether. And the cycle begins anew.

In a way, plots in fiction are a lot like the method. Plot beats consist of events that a character experiences, reacts to, and makes choices based on interpretation of those events, which lead to new ones and new reactions. Steins;Gate is a science-fiction anime series whose plot embraces the scientific process as part of its plot progression, and does so in a very interesting and effective way.

Continue reading For the Glory of Science! Steins;Gate Spoiler-Free Review

Long Live the Latin Quarter! A Review of From Up On Poppy Hill

“Fair girl, do you send thoughts to the sky?”

I had the immense pleasure of being able to attend a screening of Goro Miyazaki’s sophomore piece, Kokurikozaka Kara, localized at the Toronto Film Festival as From Up On Poppy Hill. Due to the mood established by the festival itself, as well as the experience of watching this movie in a theatre, my overall impression of the film was enhanced. Watching a film at an event like TIFF is almost always worth going to. I regret being unable to watch the other anime feature, Production I.G’s A Letter to Momo.

Nonetheless, as a film itself, Poppy Hill is worth every bit of praise that it will eventually get. It brings the postwar Japan period to life through its marvellous visuals and captivating soundtrack, and marries it with a very nice coming of age romance, packed with enough melodrama and symbolism to rouse both the emotional and the intellectual. This is a movie for everyone to enjoy.

Continue reading Long Live the Latin Quarter! A Review of From Up On Poppy Hill

It’s Good to Be a Geek – My Girlfriend’s a Geek, Volume 1

 

Synopsis: Pentabu blogs about his experiences with his girlfriend, who happens to be a hardcore yaoi fangirl.

Before tackling some of the more meaty series in the Yen Press light novel catalogue, now seems like a good time as any to cover the quirkiest one.  While the prose in light novels typically fall within range of reasonably verbose to proxies of television scripts, My Girlfriend’s a Geek (Fujoshi Kanojo) takes has no qualms about cementing its place in the latter part of the spectrum.  The English publication goes as far as filling out its hundred-something by enlarging and bolding font at seemingly random intervals, making for an awkward read at first.  But after a while, the shifts create a reading style that naturally establishes a sense of comedic timing, pulled off somewhat effectively at times.

That's some pretty big font right there.

I don’t want to sound elitist or pretentious, but I hate to admit that I was really put off by the book’s presentation, especially after having experienced the joy of reading the likes of Spice and Wolf and Book Girl first.  Making the shift to Girlfriend was a bit of a process, but I gradually warmed up to the book’s premise when I read more about Pentabu and Y-ko and their somewhat dysfunctional relationship.

Either way, what kept me reading to the end was characters themselves, who, despite having very little physical description (or even accompanying illustration, which is very odd for a light novel), were very much alive and had excellent chemistry.  Part of it comes from their actual relationship as a normal guy and geeky girl, whose daily conversations are portrayed in Pentabu’s blog in a similar form as a comedy routine.

The punchlines for some of the exchanges between Pentabu and his girlfriend Y-ko often involve references to anime and otaku culture, which are pointed out in various author’s/translator’s notes, which salvaged what would otherwise be received as an unfunny joke.  Some of the references become a running gag later in the story, such as Y-ko’s pet name for Pentabu, Sebas, which is short for Sebastion, a character from Black Butler.  He has very little in common with Sebas, but Y-ko’s fujoshi goggles leads her to treat him as a real-life character surrogate, much to Pentabu’s dismay.

The bulk of the novel’s humourous charm comes not from Sebas Pentabu and Y-ko’s interaction, but rather their interactions with others.  In this first volume (2 in total), Pentabu and Y-ko are mixed in with Pentabu’s friends, Y-ko’s family, as well as Y-ko’s other fujoshi friends.  Each instance of character interaction evokes different comments from Pentabu based on the secondary characters’ reactions to Y-ko’s otaku outbursts, which range from typical shock from Pentabu’s friends, helpless indifference from Y-ko’s family, to fangirl squees from Y-ko’s friends.  Pentabu’s commentary is snarky, and at times, made even moreso due to the publication’s liberal usage of varying font sizes and effects.  Nothing says desparation like a plea to buy out a friend’s silence, spelled out in bold caps.

HE IS THAT EMBARASSED, AND WE LOVE IT.

Despite all of the gripes that the narrator has about his girlfriend, he comes around to admit that he genuinely enjoys being around her, and that her peculiarities come with some very attractive quirks.  He brings up the concept of moe, and raises a very valid point that by dating someone who is genre-aware about moe, that person is very likely to exhibit characteristics of moe to gain affection.  Y-ko shows this in spades at times, and towards the latter half of the book, the geekiness of Y-ko that is already loveable becomes absolutely sexy when she starts to pull off some things that normal girls wouldn’t think to be a turn-on, such as cosplaying as a maid and greeting Pentabu with a spirited “welcome back, master!” every time he comes home.

Their resulting physical relationship is very healthy, and the envy of most who read it, but their emotional relationship is worth mentioning as well.  Not only does Pentabu accept Y-ko’s quirks at the end, he admits that he has always loved her, even when he didn’t know she was a fujoshi.

I applaud the author for being able to build up those concepts even without the aid of actual narrative prose or an actual storyline.  My Girlfriend’s a Geek reads very much like a slice of life show, which is something to consider when deciding whether or not to try this book out.

My only major gripe with this work is that despite the usage of varying font styles, it results in a waste of page space, and the actual value of the book is skewed as a result.  For approximately ten dollars, one can expect a certain amount of reading material fitting for the price, especially a trade paperback.  Due to space restrictions, it feels like I’m only reading half a book.  Perhaps it would have been wiser for Yen Press to simply put both volumes of the series into one book, and sell it for a slightly higher price than one volume alone, but significantly less than that of two volumes together.  I can’t see too many people justify their purchase of this book, which is a shame, because they’d be missing out on a charming experience.

If you have money to spend, or somehow manage to find this book at a bargain price (not too difficult online, considering its relative obscurity compared to series such as Spice and Wolf and Haruhi Suzumiya), My Girlfriend’s a Geek is a worthy purchase.  The characters are so easy to fall in love with.  Straight otaku boys will want a girlfriend like y-ko.  Straight otaku girls will want a boyfriend like Pentabu.  It’s only a matter of time before people start realizing that Geek is hot, and this book is a great example of it.

Score: 7/10

(My Girlfriend’s a Geek is published in North America by Yen Press.  Both volumes are currently available.)

Simply Delicious: “Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime” Review

Title: Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime
Author: Mizuki Nomura

Konoha Inoue is a second-year high school boy who escaped the hectic life of novel writing under the pseudonym of a 14-year-old girl named Miu Inoue. His retirement from writing is short-lived when he meets a mysterious girl named Tohko Amano, who not only loves to read books, but eat them as well. After enlisting him into the school’s defunct Literature Club, Tohko puts Konoha to the task of feeding her stories with various prompts that he is given.

In Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime, a girl from Konoha’s class named Chia approaches the literary club and asks Konoha to ghostwrite love letters to her crush for her, much to the excitement to Tohko and her literary hunger.  However, as the relationship between Chia and her crush develops, so does the mystery of her crush’s true identity, and his connection to the famous Japanese author Osamu Dazai.

The first-person narration from Konoha and his observations of the highly unorthodox Tohko draws heavy comparison to that of Kyon’s narration in the Haruhi Suzumiya light novel series.  Aside from the comedy duo dynamic where, in both cases, the male is the straight man and the female is the comic foil, the characters themselves as individuals are noticeably different, bringing different dimensions to their interaction.

Konoha’s narration is a lot less sarcastic than Kyon’s, and right from the start, Konoha’s past is brought into play.  Whereas Kyon starts off like a blank slate, Konoha’s character is well-defined, and provides an excellent starting point for development throughout the novel.  At the beginning, he’s torn between his unwilling to write because of his perception of tainted success as a novelist and the outrageous writing prompts that he is given by Tohko.  As the main mystery storyline unfolds, his past comes back to haunt him in a very creative and evocative way.

Tohko is notably more different to Haruhi than Konoha is to Kyon, in that her energy is primarily directed on books in order to fulfill her need for literature, a passion which motivates most (if not all) her actions.  Despite her often selfish behaviour, Tohko is a lot less polarizing in her actions than Haruhi, which makes her less of a jerkass and more of a space case. A focused passion combined with tendencies towards cloud cuckoolander make Tohko the more interesting and likeable character in my opinion.

Even more likeable is Tohko’s relationship with Konoha, which is that of a junior-senior pair, and it plays out well throughout the story.  There’s a healthy seeded respect between the two, as the support that they show for each other feels more natural and believable.  They are a bit more on an equal level than Holmes and Watson, but the male-female dynamic allows for some nice moments of belligerent sexual tension, amounting to a neat anime-esque spin on the detective genre.

The main action of the story is centred around Chia Takeda, who consults Konoha to write love letters under her name to her mysterious crush, leading to highly intriguing developments.  On the outside, Chia is ditzy and lovestruck, highly typical for a girl in high school.  When Tohko and Konoha discover more details about Chia’s crush, more layers behind Chia’s character are revealed.  What started off as a supposedly generic high school turned out to be the deepest character in the novel.

The story itself is very ambitious for a light novel mystery.  It relies on two separate plotlines, one following the characters, and one that resembles that of a dark monologue written in the style of Osamu Dazai.  Dazai is a prolific modern era writer inJapanwho is famous for his eerily grim novel No Longer Human, and his tragic suicide.  The two weave in and out of each other reasonably well, mixing in references to Dazai and his novel.

When the mystery is all but solved, they finally come together in an emotional climax, punctuated by Tohka’s remarkable speech involving her love for Dazai’s books.  For a first volume, Mizuki masterfully weaves the references to Osamu Dazai in a way that does not require knowledge of the author to understand the plot, but rewards those who appreciate the author’s works (a technique she uses for subsequent volumes with other famous novels). It results in a story that is a pleasure to read for both fans of light novels as well as more sophisticated works.

There are heavy themes of suicide in the story, but are touched upon with a message of redemption and hope, integrated well into the standard package of a high school slice of life narrative to the extent that, other than the names and a few culturally indicative tropes, reads as well as any young adult fiction novel, and provides food for thought for blossoming minds without having to burden them with dragged out prose that Haruhi Suzumiya tends to have at moments throughout the series.

The writing style is evocatively descriptive, often relying on unorthodox senses such as taste when referring to the writing that Tohko eats.  It’s a distinct feature that sets Mizuki’s books from anything else I’ve read.  In the final chapter, after flipping over the last page with my thumb and forefingers, I was somewhat drawn to the page’s texture, and wondered to myself what the paper would taste like if I had Tohko’s yokai ability.

If I had such powers, Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime would compare to that of a carefully arranged platter of various delectable appetizers, including Japanese dumplings, finely aged cheese, rolled cold cuts, and miniature cocktail wieners, served in a small portion as to not spoil your appetite for the main course.  Book Girl is guaranteed to develop into an amazing series, and I for one cannot wait to sample its flavours.

Rating: 8/10

(Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is published in North America by Yen Press.  Volume two of the Book Girl series, Book Girl and the Famished Spirit is also available in stores, with volume three set to be released next month, under the title Book Girl and the Captive Fool)

Desires and Needs: Ano Hana Review

Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai

As I mentioned in my Madoka review, a well-written story requires its characters to make choices as to how they should act to set things right in their world.  Those actions stem from internal needs and external desires that are established throughout the duration of the narrative, which both need to be resolved by the same action or series of actions which occur through character choice.  Where Madoka was able to do this to great effect, Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai failed to identify this importance, resulting in a very jumbled up ending that greatly tarnished what would otherwise be a fantastic drama.

In the beginning of Ano Hana, we are presented with a well-characterized cast who each suffer from a common internal weekness and need: getting over the death of Meiko “Menma” Honma.  Growing up since Menma’s death has driven these childhood friends apart, and show clear emotional weaknesses.  Jinta “Jintan” Yadomi suffers from social withdrawal and is a Hikikomori.  Naruko “Anaru” Anjo falls in with the wrong high school crowd and is easily succombed to peer pressure.  Atsumu “Yukiatsu” Matsuyuki is mentally distraught despite his good grades, to the point of cross-dressing as Menma herself.  Tetsudo “Poppo” Hisakawa dropped out of school altogether to travel and work part-time jobs. Chiriko “Tsuruko” Tsurumi is cold and distant to everyone, even Yukiatsu, who she has unrequited feelings for.

These needs are not only psychological, but moral as well, as the actions they take in the first half of the show affect other people.  When they are brought together due to the reappearance of Menma as a ghost, they hurt each other due to their own romantic selfishness, jumbled together in a very messy love polygon.

The external desire develops when Menma appears to them, particularly Jintan, and urges the group to try and reconcile after their falling out due to Menma’s death.  Fulfillment of Menma’s wish, which starts off as a mystery, becomes the goal for the Peace Busters to achieve.  As the cast tries to accomplish this task, they gradually learn a little bit more about themselves, often at the cost of painful realizations, and hard choices.

One particular gesture that stood out in the show involved Tsuruko’s acceptance of her unresolved feelings towards Yukiatsu, and accepting Anaru as the proper replacement for Menma for Yukiatsu’s romantic interest.  As a gesture of acceptance of her new role, she cuts her beautifully long, flowing hair, into a bob of sorts.  The act was greatly understated, but the subtle symbolism came off pretty well, without being too obvious.  While this addresses her psychological need, her moral needs remain rampant.  She refuses to tell Yukiatsu her feelings, and attacks Anaru instead, hypocritically pointing out the faults in Anaru’s romantic outlook in the wake of Menma’s death.

However, amidst the actions which were somewhat few and far in between, there was a bit too much reaction.  Instead of acting on the feelings that arise from new revelations (sorting out romantic feelings and whatnot), The characters are often stuck in their emotional ruts, and desperately hope that fulfilling menma’s wish will give them the emotional closure.  While this is a reasonable development, it makes for weak storytelling, as the internal needs are never addressed for the last half of the series.

The Peace Busters are in for a rude awakening when they realize Menma’s true wish, and how everything they’ve worked was for naught.  The driving action of the story, the choice to address the external desire by building those fireworks for Menma, do nothing with regards to their emotional development.  Everything that was built up in the first 10 episodes come crumbling down in the 11th, and there’s no quick fix.

Menma passes on to the next life, leaving a horrible mess behind her, and the audience sees next to nothing of the process that the surviving members take in order to improve themselves.  This choice to improve needed to be done earlier.  The actions they take to improve themselves needed to be intrinsically tied to Menma’s wish.  Their decisions needed to come at a cost, because realistic drama comes from suffering even in victory.  Certain pairings were more realistic as outcomes, but never came to fruition despite their significant developments throughout the show.

Instead, Menma’s ascencion into heaven was too sudden, and gave no closure to the issues.  It came too quickly, and too many loose ends were haphazardly tied up in heaps of tears and angst.  It’s the exact opposite of Angel Beats, where a dramatic ending came up unexpectedly out of nowhere, trying to end the show in a bang, when the fireworks weren’t even given time to set up during the series.  Ano Hana instead set up the fireworks, but seemed be unable to light the match to set them off on queue.  It was really awkward, but I personally prefer the latter over the former.

I feel it’s necessary to outline the importance of the effect of this flubbed ending on the overall quality of the show.  As Edgar Allan Poe said, “no part can be displaced without ruin to the whole.” This is even more true when it comes to plot construction, perhaps most importantly so in comparison to other characteristics of merit for an animated series, such as music, art style, animation, and direction.

I personally couldn’t find much to complain about in any of those other aspects.  The music is warm and nostalgic, and appropriately melancholic when it needs to.  The overall art style is engaging and realistic, combining well-drawn designs with reasonably good cuts and shots.  The voice acting was pretty much what you could expect from a show that demands a lot of angst.  Even the dialogue sequences in the final episode, as awkward and unnecessary as it was, was well acted, without any held back emotions.  It was the story that suffered, and the ending was the biggest culprit in being unable to bring the development of the rest of the series into full circle.

Final Score: 6.5/10 (6/10 on MAL, Fine)

Choices: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica Review (spoiler-free)

In Roger Ebert’s review of Million Dollar Baby in 2005, he states from the very first paragraph that the film is “not a boxing movie. It is a movie about a boxer.” Akiyuki Shinbo’s 2011 series, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is one in essentially the same vein. It is not as much a magical girl show than it is a show about magical girls.

This is as far as I’ll go with regards to story specifics, as it is quite clear that the series itself contains a significant amount of series-defining plot twists that would spoil the experience for first-time viewers. great stories remain great regardless of their reliance on twists for dramatic effect, and Madoka is still a finely made show in that regard.

However, the issue remains; a spoiled experience is still a spoiled experience, no matter how good or bad the show is, which is why I’ve decided to keep this review free of any sort of important specific plot details, so that it provides a reasonable basis for undecided viewers to make a choice as to whether or not they want to watch this series.

This anime, like all reasonably well-told stories, is about choices. A hero is given a call, and he makes the choice whether or not to answer it. The hero is challenged by those who share opposing beliefs, and he makes the choice whether or not to heed to their warnings, or face the consequences in confronting them head-on. And for every unexpected change in his plan as a result, the hero is presented with more choices as part of the process of ultimately reaching the goal.

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica’s greatest strength story-wise, as well its greatest weakness, lies not only within the choices that the characters make, but also within the way these choices are brought up and discussed by opposing viewpoints. Series writer Gen Urobuchi, who created Fate/Zero and the Phantom series, does a very meticulous job in establishing the personalities of the series main cast, and how they feel about the choices presented to them.

Madoka and friends: Kyouko, Sayaka, Homura, and Mami

Madoka Kaname, the titular character, is an average girl amongst average girls, brought up in a privileged household. She starts off as a blank slate, slowly taking in experiences brought upon her in the world of mahou shoujo. The choices she makes, particularly in the end, feel realistic given her experiences, and her reactions to them along the way. Aoi Yuuki (Shiki, Sora no Woto) does a fantastic job in bringing Madoka to life in such a way that gradually brings her out of her doubtful shell, into a lady who is confident in the choices that she makes.

Homura Akemi is one of the characters who directly confronts Madoka about the choices presented to her at the start of the show. A mysterious transfer student voiced by Chiwa Saito (Tsuyukomi, Last Exile), Homura is enigmatic and highly compelling, quite to the point of overshadowing Madoka as a character towards the end of the show. A dark horse performance by Chiwa, who was arguably made famous for her portrayal of Hitagi Senjogahara in Shinbo’s other excellent Shaft work, Bakemonogatari, outshines the rest of the cast, especially in her spotlight episode.

From Homura’s episode onward, the show shifts a little too much towards Homura’s decisions, rather than the ones made by Madoka. It makes her a very good character, but at the cost of Madoka herself. I found myself more drawn to Homura towards the end, and wondered if the show really should have been around her. In retrospect, I would have very much have preferred to watch Mahou Shoujo Homura Magica instead.

While the show focuses mostly on these two characters, the other magical girls are worth mentioning as well. Sayaka Miki, voiced by Eri Kitamura (Junjou Romantica, Toradora!) is passionate, emotional, and brooding. She is a great friend to Madoka, and their relationship runs deep all the way to the end of the show. Kaori Mizuhashi’s (Hidamari Sketch, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha) portrayal of blonde bombshell Mami Tomoe is limited in screen time, but her character’s charisma, confidence, and amazing magical powers makes her an instant fan-favourite. Kyouko Sakura is extreme in her beliefs, but they are well-intended. Even though her character arc is a bit too long, she earns the audience’s appreciation and fandom. She is voiced by Ai Nonaka (Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei, Clannad)

For a character-driven show, one cannot discount the most catalytic character in Madoka’s cast, the magical mascot Kyuubey. A cute-looking critter with long ears and peering eyes, Kyuubey is naturally the one who provides the choices to the girls, and discusses the choices and decisions in a seemingly straightforward way, yet the mood that surrounds him is ominous, making his various exchanges with the other characters consistently full of tension, even before and after the turning points in the story. To keep such consistency in mood is credited both to Urobuchi as well as the fantastic voice talents of Emiri Kato (Lucky Star, Candy Boy).

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is 12 episodes long, and in its original run, the last 2 episodes were delayed for ambiguous reasons, though Japan’s earthquake in Sendai and its resulting tsunamis were highly suspected as a few of them. Those who endured the wait were rewarded handsomely with an excellent ending that realistically plays out the choices that all of the girls eventually made. Given the short time between the time the final 2 episodes aired and the time this review was written (as well as others that have come up before it), it is easy to overlook the 10 episodes that preceded the show’s finale.

Structurally, the series builds up pretty well, setting itself up for a sound yet unpredictable finish. However, by Homura’s spotlight episode, the show shifts too abruptly towards around her, and the development of the second act feels all for naught. Considering how well the ending eventually turned out to be, it still primarily depended on the concepts introduced in that critical episode and not as much on the ones that preceded it.

Consequently, Shinbo could have made this show a shorter OVA akin to FLCL, revolve the story around Homura, and still keep the ending. Alternatively, the story could have downplayed the importance of that episode and change the ending to better tie-in the story’s development; I would have greatly preferred the former, as the ending was too well-done to have its potential wasted.

Despite my issues with the story’s structure, Madoka is still a fantastic production. Character designer Ume Aoki combines his quirky style from Hidamari Sketch, and combines them with Shinbo’s vision to create a very dramatic effect, especially when contrasted with the wild stylings of the monsters of the week that the girls fight in various episodes. Popular notions that the monster battle animation is akin to sequences from Zetsubo-sensei’s numerous openings are very close to truth.

One of several surreal dungeons where mahou shoujo fight monsters.

However, such sequences are few and far in between, due to the nature of the story itself. As said before, this story focuses more on the magical girls themselves, rather than the fantasy associated with the magical powers that they wield. This comes off as a letdown to fans of the genre, but even the most savvy can appreciate the approach that Shinbo takes with this series. The same cannot be said about those who are very wary of Shinbo’s signature style, which is shown in full-force throughout the production. Steer clear if you have a reasonable aversion to head tilts, full face close-ups, and copious amounts of dialogue.

The music, by Yuki Kajiura (.hack, Kara no Kyoukai) is heavy on mood and cognitive dissonance during moments of conflict and tension. ClariS’ (Ore no Imouto) OP performance is urgent, yet full of hope, despite being different from their other doujin works. Kalafina’s ED song is breathtaking and emotional, and isn’t introduced until later on in the series for maximum effect. Expect the OST and singles to sell alarmingly well.

Overall, there were a number of character and plot structure issues in Madoka Magica that ultimately prevent it from being as great as it could be; nonetheless, the show is an experience of itself for those who are intrigued to watch, an experience that I hope was not pre-emptively ruined by reading this review. In a very somewhat dry winter 2011 season with plenty of reasonably passable fare, Madoka along with Wandering Son (my personal pick for best series of that season) consistently lived up to the hype that it built for itself, week in and week out. It is one of the best shows ever done by SHAFT, and is indicative of Shinbo’s evolution and potential as a director.

Score: 8/10

Dazzling the Stage: Star Driver Review


Dazzling the stage with its cast of larger-than-life characters.

Star Driver’s television run began in the 2010 fall season with much fanfare, boasting a pedigree of individuals who worked on titles such as Revolutionary Girl Utena, FLCL, Evangelion, as well as a cast of seiyuu whose main characters graced the likes of Death Note, Code Geass, Eden of the East, Escaflowne, and Ouran Host Club. For twenty-five episodes, the show gave off an exotic aura reflective of those who worked on it, resulting in a truly unique show that, despite its major faults, rode on its over-the-top nature all the way to a finale that rewarded those who remained faithful week in and week out.

Star Driver takes place on an island known as Southern Cross, where Tsunashi Takuto (Mamoru Miyano) mysteriously appears washed up at its shores. With the help of his friends Wako Agamaki (Saori Hayami) and Sugata Shindou (Jun Fukuyama), he takes on the Glittering Crux, a secret organization of high school students bent on using humongous cyber-mechanical robots known as cybodies to take over the world. Cybodies can only fight in an alternate dimensional plane known as Zero Time, where its pilots must power up through Apprivoise, a process of cybody summoning akin to magical girl shows and the like. The Crux aims to destroy the 4 seals that keep Cybodies in their dormant state, preventing them from entering the real world.

Takuto's Cybody, Tauburn, dazzles the stage with its star swords Emeraude and Saphyr.

Each week showcases episodic plot that centers around the Crux nominating one of its members to pilot a cybody and engage Takuto in Zero Time. The episode starts off showcasing some aspect of Takuto’s high school life, often in relation to the bad guy of the week, who also attends the same school. The events gradually reach the weekly climactic point where Zero Time is activated, and the Galactic Pretty boy dazzles the stage with his cybody Tauburn, transforming the show from a high school teen drama to hot-blooded mecha action, all within the span of a mere transformation sequence. The bad guy is gloriously defeated despite all odds, and the adventure continues on for the next week.

The formulaic approach to the weekly episodes is the biggest gripe from those who drop the show early on. Due to the extensive cast of characters from both opposing factions, the series takes a quite a few episodes to introduce everyone. The payoff requires patience, as the characters themselves are larger than life, yet don’t come into their own until the end of the show, especially those in the Glittering Crux. The Crux is even split up into its own subfactions, whose leaders get extra character development, if any.

That said, due to the huge glut of characters that need to be developed, there isn’t enough time available from the episodic format that the show allows, often highlighting only one subsection of the Crux at a time, usually at the cost of taking development away from the main trio of Takuto, Wako, and Sugata. The relationship between the three slowly builds up into a love triangle of sorts, becomes neglected at the peak of its tension, and resolves with a cop-out that doesn’t satisfy those who wish for any sort of drama or plot development.

Ultimately, the intent of Star Driver is to abandon any hint of serious storytelling, eschewing subtlety in favor of bashing in the audience’s skulls with an overwhelming amount of perverted sophistication in its presentation. The concept of a Galactic Pretty Boy is in itself a giant sign of utter camp that seeks to drive away those who wish to view the show in any sort of serious light, and welcoming those who want to escape their mundane lives and sail the galaxy every week, living vicariously through the glamour that the show provides.

Star Driver’s strength, therefore, is its ability to control itself with an abundant amount of shock value, without coming off as overly tacky. It takes its audacity seriously, requiring only the very best production value in establishing the feel-good mood that the show succeeds in delivering throughout. The show’s key animation boasts a staff responsible for such works as Cowboy Bebop, Gurren Lagann, FLCL, and both Fullmetal Alchemist series. The weekly cybody battles are fluid and dynamic, and fail to disappoint.

Relative newcomer Satoru Kousaki composes Star Driver’s instrumental background music, and has had recent success with shows such as Bakemonogatari, Fractale, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Lucky Star. He continues to build on his slowly emerging reputation as an orchestral powerhouse, providing an original score that is as majestic as the characters that grace the screen. Satoru paints a picture of the galaxy with triumphant strings and brass, and captures each required mood perfectly, contributing towards the amount of camp the show exudes. Star Driver’s insert songs, particularly Monochrome, are infectious in their respective melodies, their popularity often transcending the show itself.

The writing, though heavily juvenile, relies on its predictability to establish the maximum effect of its over-the-top style. In one glorious example episode, Takuto gets into a heated argument with his rival and friend Sugata for being aloof on his birthday. Predictably, the villain of the week captures Sugata and uses his powers to combat against Takuto in Zero Time, essentially pitting the two characters against each other in Cybody combat. In extreme fashion, Takuto and Sugata trade blows with each other, escalating towards a climactic final strike in which the two engage in a literal galactic brofist, overloading the villain’s hold on Sugata, destroying her cybody, thus saving the day once again.

Come at me, bro.

I cannot applaud Star Driver enough for its ability to keep developing its story in such a haphazard way that leaves the audience both brainless and breathless at the same time. Throughout its run, it throws more and more obstacles at Takuto for him to overcome, yet he manages to escape in the most valiant manner. The concluding episodes are the pinnacle of entertainment, throwing away any semblance of story and leaving the audience’s jaws agape with its final action sequences. It almost compares to Gurren Lagann, but sacrifices too much storytelling quality to be at an equal footing with the latter as a whole.

Regardless, the show is worth watching, if only for the sheer amount of mindless entertainment that had no parallel amongst its kin in the seasons that it aired. After finishing the series, one cannot help but feel a sort of emptiness, an emotional crash similar to that of a drug relapse. When watching Star Driver, it is advised that the show itself should be taken in with a mindset that anime isn’t always serious. It is a medium that can unlock an endless galaxy of emotions with a mere shout of Apprivoise. It is a medium can blur the lines that separate a grounded life and fabulous adventures into an adventure of life itself.

As such, the adventure of life continues.

Final score: 7/10 (Good)

Falling Flat: Fractale Series Review

There’s something telling about a series that, when I had first decided to episodically blog it in the beginning of the winter season, started off interesting and full of intrigue and potential, but fell flat enough to lose said blogging interest as soon as the sixth episode. For a person who had (not so) recently closed the doors on his main Warcraft blog to focus primarily on this anime blog, the disappointment that would lead to such inactivity leaves a very bad aftertaste in this author’s career as an aniblogger.

That said, despite the fact that Fractale failed to build upon the foundation that it laid out at the start, that very foundation still remains at the end, challenging those to look at what was given and improve upon it themselves. In essence, the series’ severe imperfections serve as an excellent teaching tool for proper storytelling at the expense of the series itself.

Starting with the very premise of the show itself, Fractale seeks to show the audience a world where humans depend on the titular system, living off the sustenance Fractale provides at the cost of segregation and independence of individuals from each other, bringing the family unit to obselesence. The story introduces Clain, a boy who questions the nature of Fractale, and finds his home and family in the characters he meets, particularly Phryne, Nessa, and the Lost Millennium resistance group.

By pitting him in an awe-inspiring scenic world reminiscent of romantic Ireland, Fractale sets the stage for a journey into adolescence, and the moral choice between coerced provision and fulfillment through cooperation and sacrifice. However, the main character never gets to make this decision for himself. Clain spends the entire series confused by the greyness of the situation presented to him: the extremist Lost Millennium rebellion struggling against the tyrannical brainwashing of the Church of Fractale. Neither side is good, and the indecision from Clain’s limited point of view stalls the progression of the overall conflict against Fractale. The viewer expects that Fractale is the worse of the two evils, and its downfall would fit Clain’s character change more suitably; however, Clain takes forever to realize this, and when he does, the audience is tired of his beating around the bush, and the impact of his revelation is severely lessened to the point of inconsequence.

And that’s only the internal conflict that the Clain faces throughout the story. The primary character development comes from his external relationship with Nessa and Phryne, the keys to the slowly ailing Fractale system. The development of this particular character triangle initially attempts to run concurrent to the primary conflict between Lost Millennium and Fractale for additional effect. However, the triangle itself develops too slowly, resolves too soon, and becomes utterly incomprehensible at the end.

Structurally, a horrendously weak second act paved the way for a very tired conclusion, despite a relatively well-paced pair of final episodes. Series writer Hiroki Azuma shows familiarity with structure and theme as is his forte as a literary critic, but his lack of experience with actual story writing shows. He makes many mistakes with regards to telling instead of showing, and his characters are too factional, and don’t relate to each other at all. They all preach different sides of the argument without actually attacking each other in any severe way. Character deaths in this series are few and wasted. Side character appearances provide opportunity for development of primary characters, but serve to further their own agenda despite their limited screen time, resulting in wasted episodes.

The show is not without its redeeming features. The pseudo-scientific open setting is like that of a futuristic Ireland, and its art is vast and breathtaking. The music is inspirational at times, though others may portray moods that may or may not have been intentional, considering the saturation of needlessly awkward moments between characters, primarily involving Clain. The ending theme is a rendition of Down by the Sally Gardens, a haunting melody sung by Hitomi Azuma, varying between English and Japanese. The Japanese lyrics are awkwardly placed with the melody, due to the multisyllabic nature of the language in relation to English. It results in a sort of rhythmic dissonance that comes off as awkward. Coincidentally, the inferior Japanese version is used in the same episodes that span the lacklustre second act, switching back to English when the show picks up again.

Voice acting was solid overall, with notable performances from Shintaro Asanuma and Kana Hanazawa, who play the Sunda and Nessa, respectively. Sunda is a stern leader who does not mince words. Asanuma plays off his prior experience as the energetically verbose watashi from the Tatami Galaxy, and makes every syllable count. His command of the language is persuasive, that despite the poorly aligned morality of his character and affiliates, he is a strong leader, and preaches his convictions better than the rest of the cast, even if they do come off as preachy.

Nessa is a digital doppel, naïve and childlike. Despite lacking much depth in the screenplay, Kana Hanazawa reduces the flatness of Nessa’s character with lively dialogue, playful intonation, and the right mix of endearment (to Clain and Phryne) and annoyance (to everyone else in Lost Millennium, save for the children). Kana’s character gets little opportunity to react in extremities, but she brings out different dimensions through Nessa’s non-doppel human form, who appears in episodes 4 and 8. This faux-Nessa is the polar opposite of the cheerful energetic original that we associate with, and Kana really brings out that distinction. In the few brief moments where real-Nessa shows variance in emotions, particularly in reaction to developments surrounding Clain and Phryne, Kana does an acceptable job without being too over-the-top, as she is known to do with some of her her one-dimensionally written moe characters. Nessa barely escapes this, which is a feat in itself, given the dialogue that was provided.

The need to examine the motivations behind producing such a show as Fractale cannot be helped; even Scamp’s MAL analysis focuses solely on it as the main criticism behind the show’s mediocrity. I argue that the motivation of many, particularly due to the hubris of director Yutaka Yamamoto. His assertion that Fractale would save the anime industry stirred ire in a subsection of the fanbase. Whether it was interpreted as hubris or as a direct slam at the community, there were many reasons to oppose the show, invoking a stubborn bias against the show from the get-go.

I admit to turning a blind eye to Yamakan’s outspokenness at all, giving Fractale the benefit of the doubt. I don’t regret it, because even without the bias against Yamakan, Fractale still turned out as a disappointment, and the resulting humiliation of the show’s director after failing to live up to his words is a sad sight; those with such biases revel in it. Regardless, schadenfreude does nothing to help the industry, and I can only hope that Yamamoto bounces back and tries to contribute in a meaningful, yet still outspoken way.

Fractale was a learning tool for both those who wish to further understand the nuances of story development and structure, as well as the individuals who worked on the show. I expect better in the future, and hope that the mistakes made in Fractale will not be repeated.

Score: 5/10 (Average)