Posted on 22 April 2018 with categories: Anime Reviews, Reviews by SuperMario, Violet Evergarden

Violet Evergarden’s existence has surely been a public one. Acclaimed before everyone lick a taste of it (it was awarded for grand prize in the fifth Kyoto Animation Award’s novel category in 2014 – read, KyoAni awards), it goes without saying that Violet Evergarden is one of the most anticipated show of the sparse Winter 2018 season. As with my first impression, I left the show feeling a bit torn about it. On one hand, the production is top notch and when the show hits right, it sweeps you right away. On the other hand, I don’t buy much of Violet’s central conflicts and the show has a tendency to go over-soapiness and try to explain too much, which I never fond of. To be fair, Violet Evergarden has never known for its subtlety, its intend is always to pull as many punch as possible. Violet Evergarden, therefore, is at its strongest when it uses Violet as an observer, to put her as a background for characters with their own struggles have to finds ways to overcome. When she stays in the spotlight, however, the amount of predictable development and cheesy moments always overwhelm the show’s own emotions.

Let’s begin our journey with the way KyoAni adapts these Light Novels into anime form. The Light Novels start with Violet as an already established Memory Doll, and makes it ambiguous as to whether Violet is a robot or a human. Throughout many encounters with clients should we learn more about the violent pass of Violet, and her super-soldier self. To put it another way the Light Novels uses her more as a reporter with set personality. In the anime version however, KyoAni decides to shift the focus to the whole character arc of Violet. Make her vulnerable at first, and then build her character gradually. I appreciate the intention (in fact about half of their episodes are original material. Impressive), since anime medium works different than written form so it’s always a wise move to modify the content, so it’d fit with the visual medium; BUT I’m not sure if these changes improve the narrative. The thing is, Violet as a central narrative is a boring lead and she’s utterly unrelatable. She doesn’t possess any personality traits and repetitive responses get pale really, really fast.

But to build Violet the character from ground zero also means that when she changes, the changes will be massive. Violet is suppose to be a robot, at least in terms of narrative sense. Everyone regards her as a killing machine, she sees herself as someone’s royal dog, the show visualizes her as a bleeding doll, and the novel purposely frames her as a robot, anything but a human. It’s also the show’s narrative that Violet needs to learn these emotions in order to truly become a full-fledged human. There are some neat ideas behind it, namely the way she realizes the bad deeds she has done in the past. When she doesn’t realize, it’s okay to live on, but when she does, the fact that she ends many people’s lives comes back to hurt her. Relying on someone else to live (in this case, Gilbert), is as sad and unbalanced as it might get, and her own arc has to do with her coming to terms with the fact that Gilbert is no longer there for her and raise independent on her own. It comes to episode 8 and 9 which feature one huge flashback to the day Gilbert died and Violet experiencing her grieving process. While I personally feel this flashback a huge waste of time given we don’t learn anything new, it feels like a complete arc for Violet. That is the reason why the real climax in the end doesn’t do much to me since we already see her arc done in previous episodes.

Violet Evergarden’s best parts are the standalone episodes where Violet doing her jobs – reciting or writing letters for their clients. At heart, these letters represent the desire to connect between people, they represent all those raw feelings that can’t be said out loud, and Violet is in middle of its own trying to translate those feelings into written words, and learn about emotions in the process. All these little stories, from a playwright making a new children-play, to the sick mother write future letters for her daughter, to write love letters from the heirs of two nations, each of them adds more layer to the concept of ghostwriting and her job of connecting the hearts of people together and most of them give a satisfying emotion to their story. The best episodes amongst them are episode 10 (sick mother and her daughter) and episode 7 (playwright).

The production by and large is impressive with detailed character designs (it’s one rare production where all the background characters are fully portraited with their own costumes and figures), consistent animation and striking background designs. Each story where Violet performs her jobs has different kind of settings, and Violet Evergarden really gives it their own on breathing life to those places. The lighting, however, doesn’t give the show a justice here. All interior scenes feel too dark, for one thing, and the way Violet Evergarden uses their focus lenses which make the centre of focus detailed and the rest blurred) hurts the show more than support it. It’s one of the case where I consider they over-playing with post-production. Such a shame since it feels like they don’t have enough confidence to their raw production.

As for characters, it pains me to say that the supporting cast doesn’t reach their full potential either. There are many anime original characters, and most of them have their own episodes to shine. But Hodgins and Cattleya are surprisingly underdeveloped despite appear almost in all episodes. Gilbert is just a vessel for Violet’s personal growth and the appearance of Dietfried in the end doesn’t leave much impact either. There is a hint of the aftermath of postwar era, which I somewhat enjoy but I don’t feel that it reaches its full potential. And all the drama is over-blown, which kind of bang me hard in the head.

All in all, Violet Evergarden is a roller coaster of emotions, in more ways than one. It either sweeps you away with its grandeur approach, or it doesn’t (like myself). The central development is a conventional and predictable one, and the show’s best moments are the ones where they move away from Violet as the central conflict. Despite my grumpy it’s still a solid made and worth watching at least one, if only for the beautiful CG-animated mechanical hands of Violet.

Posted on with categories: A Place Further than the Universe, Anime Reviews, Reviews by SuperMario

Cute girls doing cute things is a genre that been done to death at this point. Even within this Winter 2018 we had been overloaded with big eyes fluffy face girls doing a lot of different things of interest. It takes a standout concept or a deeper narrative to make one stand out from this crowded pack. Enters Universe, an original show from Madhouse that has both of these. The show’s concept, after all, is about a group of high school girls making their trip to Antarctica, also known as the place further than the universe. Universe isn’t without its issues, the pacing in particular takes the girls way too long until they reach the destination. But to its defense this show is always more about the journey than the destination. It’s about experience life to the fullest and make friends who share the same interest in the process. The “friendship” bits can be contrived at times, but even with me (who isn’t that enthusiastic about it) realizes that the drama in this series is done quite well, as it always gives a satisfying emotional response to the conflicts it creates.

If there is one thing that I’m sure this show will be remembered for years to come, it’s the concept. Touring oversea isn’t that difficult nowadays compare to say, 20, 30 years ago, but a trip to Antarctica? Really? High school girls you say? What’s there to see in that icy place? How the hell do they get in there? Money? Lots of questions bound to come up upon hearing this premise and I’m happy to say that Universe never glosses over those issues, but instead approach them with a thoroughly research. Every stage of the trip is planned carefully, they never make light comments about high-school girls going for such harsh trip and indeed, they point out many times how extreme this trip can be. The expedition ship and the Antarctica place are so detailed that it’s easy to see the staffs made the same trip for their own research. It’s a joy to watch and know more about this little unheard place, to the point sometimes I feel this show is an advertisement for Antarctica (well, I’m sold). Moreover, a show that gives a detailed treatment to Singapore is always a plus (and I love durian!!).

What Universe also sells us is the way they frame this trip as a self-discovery, as a way to embrace the youth to their heart’s content. Mari, the show’s protagonist, is the perfect character for this trip. She worries about how she steps out of her comfort zone, and this trip makes a life-changing event, not necessary in terms of the specialty of Antarctica, but more about maturity. It also helps that the girls’ goal to reach the South Pole is much more than just “follow your own dreams”. Shirase is a girl that had her Mother disappeared in that very place, and it’s one of her resolve to go there just to be closer to her Mom. There’s also Hina who takes high school off but wants to experience something before college and most importantly, there’s Yuzuki, an idol who gets caught up with this trip and just tag along because she wants to travel with her new friends. And those make this trip a bit richer because doesn’t matter their own intention is, it’s the experience that they share together is the most important factor.

The girls make up a great central cast for us to follow. All 4 of the girls have different personalities, they have their own goals and their own backstories, and they have their own voices. Shirase, for example, is a no-nonsense but extremely unstable girl, whereas Mari is cheerful and acts like the emotional force of the group. Hina, my favorite character, has a wise (and bullying) side of her and Yuzuki somehow feels much more relatable through the way she loathes her “star” identity. Moreover, they bounce off extremely well and it’s a blast just to see the four girls interacting with each other. But most important of all, each of them has their own arc to overcome, and while some it I felt were made for the sake of creating conflict (in other words, unnatural), they always have a satisfying ending that elevate the shortcomings of the conflicts.

While the main theme is about self-discovery, I was a bit surprised to find out most of the show’s episodic conflicts are about the notion of friendships. Mari’s drama with her best friend, Megumi, for example, cuts unexpectedly but it cuts deep, mind you. Or Yuzuki’s little drama about “When will we know if we are friends” or Hina’s past issues with her secondary school friends. As a whole, I find the concentration to friendships theme a bit overplayed. Granted, their friendships in a nutshell are interesting ones. They haven’t known each other for so long and apart from this trip, they have very different lives. Yet Universe argues that as long as they share something together – be it getting seasick, eating a thousand-year-old snow corn or enjoying a view of mystical Southern light– they will always have a special place in each other’s heart.

The character designs and the production in general are in the more conservative side, but taken as a whole it fulfils its jobs nicely. There is a large amount of insert songs – most of them pretty heart-warming- so the music of Universe is solid overall. The pacing remains its biggest issue, as it takes until the end of episode 9 for the crew to finally takes their feet onto Antarctica icy ground. They could do it much better if they cut a bit of a transit section (Singapore and Australia, as well as on a ship section – another 2 episodes). Ultimately, Universe is a journey itself. It remains a feel-good show with relatable message of enjoying youth to the fullest and the girls make the most of their time on-screen. Certainly amongst the top tier of its cute girls pack.

Posted on with categories: After the Rain, Anime Reviews, Reviews by SuperMario

I suppose that most of us, even the perministic ones, enter After the Rain (Ameagari) with some reservations. After all, the premise about a crush from an 18-year-old girl to the store manager who is nearly 30 years senior raises a lot of red flags here. Yet the show handles this tricky premise with deep insight and offers us two of the more well written characters out there. Originally billed as a romantic drama, the last third of Ameagari steers away from any romantic tension to deliver something more profound. It explores the complexity of human emotion by examining the unlikely relationship between two individuals with broken dreams and how they influence each other to reach back their goals. While I’d love for the conclusion to be more impactful (the ending suggests their relationship is like… ahem… after the rain: fleeting, soft, momentary – I’d prefer for more storming here), this show remains one of the most intimate, sensitive – and ultimately – complex portrayal of bonding, and human relationship. This solid material is further elevated by the understated and strong visual storytelling, aesthetically pleasing visual presentation and color palette and one of the best soundtrack in recent years. Ameagari is pretty much excellent as a whole package.

Any decent romance story has to start with well-grounded and relatable main leads, and Ameagari offers us two characters that worth caring for. Both Tachibana and Kondou are complex characters, especially Kondou who first appears as a goofy likable old man, but through the course of its run, their personality, and their own dreams are revealed slowly. Behind their composure, there lies a huge disappointment of their current lives, and as we know them better, we learn that they have left behind the path they used to treasure the most – Tachibana with her injury that prevents her from running track again and Kondou with his passion for Japanese literature – and gradually lose the essence of who they really are, becomes a shell that has no more dream or desire (in one of the show’s most clever symbolism: he touches the shell of a cicada while speaking that lines).

Meanwhile, Ameagari follows mostly through the point of view of Tachibana. While the show’s never shy from exploring Kondou’s inner thoughts (and what poetic thoughts this guy has), we follow Tachibana mostly through visual cues: her gestures, her “sparkling moments”, the looks from her eyes. Why this difference in treatment? By giving Kondou an inner voice, we become certain that his feeling for Tachibana isn’t romantic or sexual interest, but more about how her reminds him of his own youth and his current lifeless life. For Tachibana, it’s more about fleeting first crush and the show more than nails it underlining those feelings with sensitivity of how first crush is like. As you can guess from the title, rain is the show’s motifs here, and it chronicles the progression of this romance, from gentle, quiet rains in the beginning, then “she comes like a rain” in the middle and bright in the end like a love after the rain.

The main selling point of Ameagari is undoubtedly the amazing chemistry between Tachibana and Kondou. Their back-and-forth exchanges always spark with so much dynamic that every time those two together, they’re bounce to have special moments together – a praise that you won’t hear me say often, especially in anime medium. We have The Confession, The Hug, the Kiss, The Final Confrontation… These moments are the highlights of not only this season, but for my money for the entire 2018 year. They’re impactful. They’re powerful. They’re just perfect. But even in those slower moments, whenever Tachibana and Kondou are seen together, they deliver a natural and positive influence on each other.

The supporting cast help expanding the lives of our two characters, although in retrospect, they still leave a lot to be desire. Chief among them is the inclusion of Kase in one particular episode that leaves a sour taste in the mouth for most of us, but what bad is the way he reverts back to background character and we never learn much about him again. Tachibana best friend, Haruka, receives more attention in the second half and she provides a welcomed conflict to Tachibana’s current crisis, but it feels unfocused when we have a section about her and the ex-captain of the football club (it’s as important as the second copy of the second will). Kondou’s long-lost friend Chihiro, on the other hand, provides an excellent supporting role by the way he counters Kondou about his writing’s passion or reflects further to the path of life that Kondou left behind.

The visual presentation of Ameagari furthers elevate this sensitive love story and makes it a total feast to the eyes. I admit that I didn’t have a high opinion to Wit Studio, mostly because the production approach in Attack of Titan was my least favorite, but I have totally changed my mind with this subtle yet gorgeous visual styles of Ameagari. The reason I bring up Wit studio in particular is because they have their own “make-up animation” team, which is a team who apply special effects to certain important scenes and they sure did the job marvelously here with downright impressive visual palette and strong direction. The soundtracks are simply mesmerizing. They not only bring out the best emotionally from these moments, listen to them alone can transfer you right back to these certain scenes. I could totally picture Tachibana in the rain, or moment when Kondou sees himself in his teen self or the moment they hug each other. I also enjoy the way the show leaves their characters a space to breathe. There are many wordless sections just to record simple daily activities of Tachibana, like when she misses a bus, walks to the train station or when she offers a stranger to walk them with her umbrella.

In conclusion, I know the word “done right” can justify anything but Ameagari is a glaring example of a show that done right in every aspect, from its concerning romance premise, to its visual approach and the way it handles the developments of these characters. What makes it raise above everything else this last season is that, all these excellent components are all in the service of its theme. As a result Ameagari feels like a complete product with no real weakness, as the same time delivers special relationship that reminds us once again about the complexity of our own emotions.

Posted on 1 April 2018 with categories: Anime Reviews, Reviews by SuperMario

I admit that I underestimated Yuru Camp back in its first few episodes. I took it as a standard, run-on-the-mill slice of life show and I fully expected to give it 3 episodes at max before throwing it into the deep sea of forgotten anime. But as time pass, I can certainly see many good strengths about this little show and it becomes one of the show that I enjoyed the most this season. In fact, Yuru Camp’s appeal never really goes beyond its genre offering but as far as slice-of-life genre goes, it certainly offers more than enough to be a solid recommendation. Structure-wise, Yuru Camp is a show made up (mostly) of two half: one with the fluffy pink cupcake that is Nadeshiko and her camping experience with her Outclub’s members, and the other is Rin’s solo camp. Looking at each part, not only individually they are above your average cute-girls shows with distinctive, warm atmosphere and delightful chemistry from the cast, these two segments also complement each other well.

I’ll say it now, Rin’s solo not-quite-as-bizarre adventures make up for best parts of Yuru Camp. Usually, cute-girls shows elaborate the theme of happily spending time together with friends as their selling point (and as the natural way of life, apparently), and while Yuru Camp certainly has that aspect, the show also respects Rin’s little personal space. Maybe it resonates with me more than most people, but I’m always in the camp who believe that you’re truly happy when you can appreciate moments of nothingness. They’re moments when you can truly let go of all the burdens, connections of life that tie you tightly and just enjoy that exact point in time as it is. THE BEST HEALING METHOD IT IS. I get that same feeling while watching Rin sitting in her chair, late at night, totally alone, in the middle of camp site (If you want to see what I mean without bothering to watch the show, check out its ED). Rin is a loner, but she isn’t the type of loner who secretly looks for friends. She enjoys her time by herself and all little moments from her solo trip: from talking with a dog in a passing car, making conversations with other strangers, or quietly observing the place and – my favorite – finding obstacles along the way (block road, no water, etc) and managing to go through them and lastly, eating yummy foods are all rewarding in their own way and certainly make her trips a real treasure to watch. Moreover, Yuru Camp never frames her preference as being anti-social. Through the course of its run eventually Rin discovers the fun of camping together with friends, yes, but in essence she’s the same person who always enjoy camping alone. And the show and the girls all respect her little solitude space.

Outside of Rin’s solo camps, the show still has a lot to offer. All the characters are a delight to watch, Nadeshiko is a big teddy bear to hug and while you could argue their characters’ traits have been done to death, it’s the chemistry those girls share together that makes it all ticked. Their banters (and there were tons of it) feel exactly like conversations you have with your best mates, with easy-going attitude but weirdly sharp and fun at the same time. Their time spent together on the camping trips sing well too, with ahem… laidback tone and nice sceneries all around, which isn’t that surprising when the settings are mainly surround the Mount Fuji. The foods they make, contributes a huge parts to the success of this show. Just like how Rin comments about Nadeshiko: “look at her happy eating face makes the food itself looks tasty”, it’s the feeling that I get too (consider my hesitation on food-centric shows, this comes a rare recommendation). In addition, the fact that the show is set mostly in winter makes it a surprisingly appropriate show to watch this season and further makes camping-during-winter premise such a nice ring to it.

Yuru Camp is not without its issues, however. The cartoon tips about camping and getting the right camping materials distract the flow of the anime and I believe it’d be much better if they cut them entirely. Being a slice-of-show also mean that there’s no real character development and there’s minimum conflict whatsoever and where are the male species? It’s hard to fault the show for those, but it also means that apart from the strong atmosphere, many beautiful scenic backgrounds and delightful characters, there isn’t much else to offer. The score is pretty good as I can recall some of its score vividly and the night time in winter never look more appealing than this, so the background arts are a winner. Overall, Yuru Camp has all its ingredients for a solid slice of life show, and they pull it off. I will remember these girls’ banters, and most of all, the peace of being alone, rather fondly, but it’s also clear that people who don’t like the genre won’t have much to revel in here.

Posted on 4 January 2018 with categories: Anime Reviews, Reviews by SuperMario

In this Corner of the World (for the purpose of this review, I’ll refer it as “Corner”), is the truest slice of life drama if you ever encounter one, in that it’s a slice into an ordinary life of an ordinary girl during the War period. That speaks into the very first strength of Corner, it breathes life and it feels all too real. Suzu, our protagonist, is a normal girl who loves to draw and a bit of an airhead herself. Throughout the course of the movie, we see her grown through a passage of time, get married to a stranger in a strange town, find accustomed to the new life, new family, new hometown before the war comes in and destroys everything. Quiet, slow but melancholic and beautiful at times, Corner shines through mostly because of its restraint to go heavy-handed. They could easily go melodramatic in many moments, consider they’re dealing with war issues, one of the most brutal subject on film. Yet somehow they know that the main focus is the life of Suzu, and the terror of war ultimately is just a part of it.

Coming to Corner, I originally expected another war treatment in the veins of Graves of Fireflies or Barefoot Gen or Giovanni’s Island – a full-blown lost of innocence drama about the horrific consequences the war causes to normal citizen. I was taken by surprise by how Corner instead focuses on the ordinary life of Suzu, on her little moments of living her life, the life that she has no control over. The whole film is painted in a way that it feels like a memory, a look back to the harsh period of Japan with a tender perspective, an outlook that both bitter and sweet at the same time. In Corner, there’s no big emotional outburst in display. There’s no angsty statement to be found at the horrible injustice of war. There’s no grand decision that change the course of war. Just like in our own real life the life-changing moments happen only few times, with long in-between time we stay almost the same, Corner is more interested to focus on those in-between moments.

As Corner aims for simple approach, the character designs are decidedly simple, never stand out, which remind me greatly to the art of the old era. The cast share formal, yet natural chemistry and even her relationships with the members of her husband side, especially with her sister in law have some solid development. The tone is light-hearted and episodic – and surprisingly – good humor, but we can all feel the weight behind each fleeting moment. The light humor is what I really appreciate about this movie. As I often see it, if you can find humor even in the worst possible situation, then you can go a long way. Imagine how the father in law falls asleep in the middle of the air raid, or the members of the house nearly burst out laughing with the idea of Suzu being a spy.

In my opinion, the war section wouldn’t be that powerful without the full-of-life coming of age story about Suzu in the first half. She has a normal childhood with a small crush and some true moments of happy carefree life, she then marriages off to a guy she barely knows in a faraway land, spends her days away doing housework. Suzu is significant in a way she never stands out, or like her sister in law comments: “leading a boring life”. Yet, she is the perfect protagonist for Corner. She presents the lives of many ordinary people in that era, the lives that we can all relate to. The latter part has some quietly devastating moments but like what comes before, it becomes just a part of Suzu’s life. For me at least, I feel heartfelt how despite everything happens, Suzu and her family, and in a larger extend, the strength of normal people manage to recover and continue to live on their lives, with a smile on their faces.

In the end, I wholeheartedly recommend In this Corner of the World. Quiet, subtle, humane, true to life, and weirdly humorous and warm, Corner again is a perfect example of a work that can shake off all the flashiness to seek for something real, and simple. The result, of course, is far from “simple” and “ordinary”, the mastery that is so hard to obtain. 2016 and 2017 have been great years for anime movies and Corner stays rightly at the near top of those offerings. A marvelous achievement from studio MAPPA.

Posted on 3 January 2018 with categories: Anime Reviews, Houseki no Kuni, Reviews by SuperMario

Make no mistake, Houseki no Kuni is the most ambitious anime project of the year. Not only because it’s an entirely CG project (and make a damn good use of it, mind you), or because of its narrative scope that at once strange, grand and beauty, but also in its very conception in their production phase. Unlike normal anime products, Orange studio approached the material as early as nearly 2 full years before its initial broadcasting, and the production went through many unusual phases that took much longer time for the studio to complete. This is to say it was a rough path that they decided taking on and the result showcases how much confidence they adapt the material. This season feels much more as an introduction to an epic story and at its core Houseki serves as an coming of age story to our protagonist Phos, while exploring the insecurities of those gems towards their own roles. As I compare the manga and the anime adaptation together, I still regard the manga as a more astonishing version, but by all mean it’s not a criticism against the anime. Houseki the anime approaches the source in the best way it possibly can, both highlights the unique appeal of its gems cast, striking visual metaphoring and dynamic fights sequence that make it one of the best adaptation in my eyes: both respect the core themes that make the manga stands out, at the same time is vibrant with its own personality.

Houseki is a show of pure beauty. Its world building is ethereally fresh and rich, at once strange and full of mysteries yet to explore. Houseki features the world where the three races: the Lunarians who live over the Moon, the Gems who live in land and the Admirabilis who live under the sea. Underneath that surface where we follow the Gems doing their daily patrol and fight off the invaders Lunarians, the three races are hinted to be the three basic components that form the human race: the Soul, the Bone and the Flesh, respectively. Houseki is the work that is dense with Buddhism symbols, images and philosophy. This is further underlined in the way the character designs are drawn: the Moon People are identical entities, the Gems have their lower bodies almost the same, only the Gems-reflected in their hairs are vastly different and the Snails have their own distinctive, over-designed body with clear sexual traits. Speaking of the ambiguous of gender issues, Houseki might be the only series I could give a plus (+) rating for its sensitive approach to the non-gender beings, something that is rare even in today’s standard and something that speaks further to the originality of Houseki.

In order to approach the strange beauty of the Gems and the stylish dynamic of their fights, Houseki decided to go full CG – a decision that freaked out the manga fans considering the bad track of full CG shows. The computer generated might get some time to get used to, but the more Houseki displays its visual the more it reaches its new height. The characters look gorgeous in their CG models, the CG allows Houseki to experiment with many unusual shot angles and long shot tracking that really hard to pull in a traditional hand-drawn production. The sequence where Dia runs away from Shiro, for example, stands out for all the right seasons. In addition, this CG style uses its shortcomings in computer production (its lightweight movements and somewhat awkward character actings) into an asset, making the Gems feel offbeat and whimsical – the very quality that make them charming and pleasing to watch. The physical comedy, as a result, hits the mark most of the time. But not only the CG takes all the credits here, I have to praise the 2D production as well since the characters have 2D facial features that allow many subtle facial expressions. Orange studio really makes the most out of what they have, capturing the feeling of the manga using the tools of a different medium, and they pull off beautifully.

But exploring this mysterious world and its grand cast is only one of Houseki’s many concerns. This season is all about the growth of our main character, Phos, as they breaking apart, metamorphosing, and changing themselves for better or for worse. They experient some of the sharpest character development I have seen in awhile, both physically and psychologically. The more they losing parts of their body, the more useful and mature they become, the less memory they have. At the end of the day, what’s left of the original Phos? Phos certainly carries their own magnificently with their own charm and witty remarks and a natural voice acting from the talented Tomoyo Kurosawa. Moreover, Houseki underscores the identity and the insecurity of the Gems towards the own roles. Many of the gems, from Phos, Cinnabar, Dia are all struggling with their position. Those vulnerables make them so relatable and real. All other Gems of the cast have their own quirks, but they never sell themselves short. They share great natural chemistry to each other and each of them is memorable, grounded and overall a total joy to watch.

Aside from the colorful yet memorable characters, Houseki benefits from the stunning background arts that not only stand out on its own, but they fit to the narrative seamlessly. Take note how the color of the background changes according to the Gems in spotlight – a beautiful trick that both convey the aura of said character, but also is very appropriate to show the sparkling ability of those Gems. The anime visual has a lot of symmetric shots that from what I know isn’t apparent in the manga, but it’s a welcome upgrade since the techniques reflects very well the theme of Houseki. The soundtrack is another highlight that really elevate many sequences to another level, especially during the fight scenes.

But still, Houseki is much more than beautiful visuals. What I impress the most about Houseki is how they manage the overall tones of the show. Sometimes we have silly, offbeat fluffy comedy, at times it goes full on devastating that showcase a very realistic portrayal of grief; in other minutes Houseki is thrilling with monster chase, crazy Gems and dynamic fights. Strangely, all of these moments above feel really Houseki-y. It’s the show that is full of identity. Rarely I see an anime show that feel so unlike any other shows I watch out there, and manage to be so passionate on what it does, that I can let all my complaint about the show down under the kitchen sink. Unique, strange, beautiful, devastating, ambiguous, and charming all at once, Houseki is an one-of-a-kind series, and I mean it in the best possible way.

Posted on 1 January 2018 with categories: Anime Reviews, Girls' Last Tour, Reviews by SuperMario

Girls’ Last Tour falls within my favorite new trend that emerging the anime medium over the last decade: a dark moe anime. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the human race has almost extinct, our two girls wandering around the world in their kettenkrad looking for food and shelter. If it sounds a bit bleak and minimalism, rest assured that Girls’ Last Tour is at its heart a slice-of-life show about those girls having relaxing time in that world. And did I mention that those girls are real moeblobs? Their faces can go rounder and squishy, but strangely they never feel out of sync with the more realistic industrial setting. The show could be entertaining and soothing enough with just those factors, but it has more tricks under its sleeves. More often than not, Girls’ Last Tour addresses some simple philosophical issues that provides another perspective since the girls have no idea how normal society works. Moreover, while I consider the source material an already solid manga, the anime adaptation enhances this show further with a consistent visual audio production and great attention to details. It’s a beautiful and solid production all around.

I always consider a certain show a great piece of art when they know how to fuse seamlessly between two seemingly contrasting or opposite factors, because then the show can produce some unique chemistry, while at the same time balancing these extremes out – just like how yin and yang work in general. Girls’ Last Tour certainly is amongst this group. Take how the cutey designs of the girls both contrast and complement to the vast wasteland on the verge of totally destroyed. Or how despite the low-key depression of hopelessness that linger to wherever the girls go, the main theme is about how our girls find their little joy and keep moving on. I also want to stress on the small number of the living beings in contrast to the huge remains of weapons and dysfunctional machines. This show is one of the most minimalistic cast I’ve seen in anime medium, with only our two girls Chi and Yuu command the screen most of the time, and the number of people and animals they encounter along the way can be counted in two hands. For other shows it’s a recipe for disaster but in Girls’ Last Tour the girls never stay out their welcome in spite of (and I could argue because of) the vast world of nothingness. The last episode when the stream of many people appear on screen before the destruction, as a result, bring a powerful, overwhelming emotion to the table. This mastery in controlling over the general tone makes this show so relatable, sharp and grounded, despite the show is at its core a moe girls show.

Chi and Yuu make a great pair with their contrasting (again!) personality. Their chemistry is natural and sometimes the show explores the different mindset between Chi-chan who is academic but timid and Yuu who just like eating but quick to adapt. In one sequence for an instance, when arguing about the signs that give them directions to the destination, Chi argues that who would ignore signs that would help them to the destination, in which Yuu responses that it’ll be boring that way. Their difference in the way they approach life complement each other and bring the best out of each of them. Their bond and fondness to each other, in addition, is highlight through the completely comfortable in their close physicality and in the last episode that bond is further developed into satisfying payoff.

The worldbuilding of this series is another highlight, too. We get a hint of how the world come into destruction several times before, but it never at once come into a forefront. The city is displayed as an industrial, vast with multiple layers that the higher the level, the more advance the technology. Ancient people in that world had an advance in technology that now become long lost. Our girls travel that world without a proper knowledge about the remaining technology, and to a greater degree have absolutely no knowledge about how society works and many several topics regarding society like religion, war, home and death. These philosophical questions often pop up randomly, but they all serve the purpose of seeking a bit deeper about our own existence, our purpose in life and even what lifeform is itself. Ultimately, the answer to these questions are just as simple: the best way to die is to keep on living and enjoy little happiness in life.

While comparing the manga to this anime adaptation, I noticed in the manga, the sense of hopelessness is more apparent, thus make it a fair bit darker than the anime version. That’s not a jab against the anime at all, as I consider the production of Girls’ Last Tour a nearly flawless work. The shots are greatly composed, they know when to use natural sounds and when to let the score kicks in. The background art is always appropriate and striking. The direction, the editing make the show as natural as possible, and believe me it’s a goddamn hard job to pull. Girls’ Last Tour is just down right cinematic most of its time. Moreover, the voice acting work for the two girls are exceptional. Bravo White Fox for this wonderful adaptation where I can feel their love and their passion run right through every minute of the run.

While Girls’ Last Tour might provide no definitive ending to the girls’ last tour and sometimes might feel like nothing is really at stakes, I am myself surprise the whole trip never feel boring or repetitive, and Chi and Yuu’s chemistry is strong enough to carry the show. Depressing and comforting at the same time, Girls’ Last Tour is a rare show that produce its unique charms and distinctive tones, while always maintain its feet firmly on the ground. It’s the best of its slice of life dark moe genre and I certainly miss those girls and their kettenrad.

Posted on 28 December 2017 with categories: Anime Reviews, Reviews by SuperMario

“How many decades have passed since our drinking contest?”
“It hasn’t been that long. It was only a few hours ago, this very night!”
That gap in time perceiving plays a significant role in Night is Short. For you see, it all depends on how our perception of the surroundings and time itself can affect our lives. In Night is Short, time runs much slower for those who enjoy life and speed itself up for those who afraid to live. Come our main protagonist, a “black-haired maiden”, an unnamed red-dress girl who keeps walking on, enjoys the night and let life lead her way. She runs through a seemingly endless night and encounters many absurd events: the wedding, the drinking contest, the bookfair, the guerrilla stage theatre and the massive cold outbreak and many random plot threads crammed in together. As a narrative line, like its protagonist, Night is Short’s never content to stay in one place for too long. It’s decided messy, full of random events with colorful, exxergarate cast and very loose animation. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to consider Night is Short as a spiritual concessor of The Tatami Galaxy, so those who already love the 2010 series will have a lot to enjoy here.

One factor you should expect, and I rather consider this as the film’s most detriment factor, is that it share the same spirits with the Tatami Galaxy. Written by the same author Tomihiko Morimi (which I happened a big fan of), and the distinctive visionary of Masaaki Yuasa (which arguably the best working anime director right now), Night is Short shares the same visual style, happens in the same universe, has the same simple character designs and even uses many of the show’s previous casts. The familiar in the look, the settings and the tone make it hard not to consider them as a companion piece, or a little brother of The Tatami Galaxy. Thankfully, Night is Short does just about enough to stand out on its own. Even without the knowledge of Morimi’s previous novels (the Tatami Galaxy, the Eccentric Family), you will able to enjoy the ride since those references never distract the flow of this hectic adventure.

As you can probably guess from the works of Morimi, this magical-realism Kyoto settings never fails to bring wonders and enjoyment. Every single setting, from the interior night bar, to the night book fair, to the river at night, have a warm, distinct feel to it that make it brimming with so much life. The magical-realism feel not only limited to the remarkable settings, however, but to the whimsy, over the top characters with exaggerated movements and the randomness, directioness of all the events crammed in together. If I have a word for it, it would be “randomness in a structured way”. Interior places that seem much bigger than their external appearances, time that is warped to be much longer than it is supposed to be. Characters who self-proclaimed as the god of whatever childish thing they can think of. Various mysterious folktales about their own cultural products. Night is Short is proud and obsessed of its own magical world, and be pretty happy to flood us with those details like a mother can’t stop praising about her child.

The animation of Night is Short, as pretty much expected from the legendary Yuasa, is distinctive and expressive. His loose animation style allows characters to be very lively with smooth animation to boost. While some might argue his style can be too much to take in, and it is certainly the case here, it fits the narrative well with a clear direction (I would argue EVERY decision he made has its merits), couple with nice shot-compositions, overwhelming use of color, and breathtaking cinematography make Night is Short a top-notch, albeit a bit for acquainted taste, production of the year. Most of the movie’s charm is hidden in visual language, as Yuasa plays around, experiments visual metaphors and symbolism in large amount of scenes. One certain visual thread that caught me completely off guard, for example, is the stage musical act. Great music aside, the various plays are displayed with a strong and keen direction that furthers blown me away on how confident Yuasa approached those scenes.

The characters, in addition, make up the most out of their screen time and they are certainly the biggest strength of Night is Short. We have 10 plus characters all running around at all times, but each of them is memorable and full-of-live, and the way they keep bumping into each other make a nice chemistry across the board. Most of them are absurd and weird, but they feel like they live in the picture, have their own hearts and run wild free all for themselves and many of them are surprisingly deeper than they initially appeared at first. But by spending too much time to flesh out such a large cast, the main protagonists, namely the Black-haired maiden and the unnamed male lead have little time to develop as much as they could. I can totally get behind the maiden since she’s the spirit of the film, but the same can’t be said to the male lead as I don’t think he deserve the attention Night is Short clearly intent him to be.

In fact, like Tatami Galaxy, viewers can find themselves overwhelming most of the time. Overwhelming by the rapid-fire dialogues, overwhelming by the hectic random adventures, overwhelming by crazy animation that keep pushing the boundary, overwhelming by excessive characters that too weird and absurd to sometimes take them seriously. But all that overwhelming feeling is the point of Night is Short. The movie is an examination of pulling out the maximum of our lives, in the spirit of our black hair maiden. The seemingly random events, the coincidental meetings with new people all point to the theme that all these things might be tied by the famous red string of fate.

All in all, Night is Short is an extraordinary mess of an experience. It’s a movie that I know I will enjoy multiple times because I love absolutely everything about it: its world, its characters, its tones, its central messages. Think of the movie as a companion piece to Tatami Galaxy (instead of comparing them together). Every single second is filled with passion and attention to details, as a result it has undeniable charms and unique imagination. Night is Short is ultimately a celebration of life, living life to the fullest. Let the night continues on forever, girl.

Posted on 27 December 2017 with categories: Anime Reviews, Juuni Taisen, Reviews by SuperMario

With a battle royale concept about 12 Chinese Zodiac warriors fighting against each other for a grand wish and penned by Nisio Isin, Junni Taisen had a lot of high expectation from the anime fandom. We’re pretty much guaranteed to have colorful larger-than-life characters, creative killings, cool lines and exciting battle sequences. The involvement of Nisio suggested that the show might be a tad bit talkier, focus more on characters instead of the overall battle and it could be a deconstruction to the battle royale premise. Well, in the end, Juuni Taisen isn’t what you expect it would be, but not for good reasons. What we have instead is a half-baked story that never quite spend enough time for its cast, a plot that has too much flashback and too little present plot-progress and a production that falls apart like a mutilated zombie.

In order to understand how Juuni Taisen structured the way it was, it’s best to look into their own backstory. Juuni Taisen is an adaptation of a Light Novel that served as a prequel to an one-shot manga about granting one’s wish (my thanks to the commenter who pointed it out), as a result, with the winner pretty much known and the basic groundwork about the Zodiac Wars already established, Nisio decided to narrate the Zodiac War in the reserve-order of the Zodiac signs, as well as its death order. Which comes to straight to the first issue of Juuni Taisen, it becomes predictable that kill half the fun of the battle royale concept. “Predictable” isn’t the same as bad, I must add. But my issues lie in the fact that this tournament doesn’t need to be predictable. Unless you have a sound reason to kill the Zodiac Warriors in that order (which the show doesn’t), it makes no sense whatsoever to rely on such arrangement.

Which also comes to my second point, if viewers come to Juuni Taisen expect a spectacular, brainless action show, they will bound to be disappointed. The fight sequences are decided short and anticlimactic. The pacing doesn’t flow very well because sometimes it spends too much time on flashbacks. There is a significant chunk in the middle part where the present-day moves so little it adds nothing to advance the plot. The huge amount of flashback, its talky nature and the decision to focus on one character per episode mean that Juuni Taisen is more a character-driven piece than action-oriented.

In fact, memorable and colorful characters are Juuni Taisen’s greatest assets. They are not particular deep but they all stand out in their own ways and fit to the narrative of this show like a glove. At its best, Juuni Taisen can develop characters with heart and soul, characters who we can identify and root for. The female cast, in particular, all are developed just about enough for us to care and still want more from them. Chicken, Monkey and Tiger’s stories all have their tragic side that make them utterly relatable. At its worst, Juuni Taisen can ponder too long to the flashbacks that halt the story progression, and worse add next to nothing on what we already know about the characters (hello Snake and Dragon) or too short that we don’t have time to learn more about them (Horse’s flashback is entirely about him trying to enhance his physical body. Dog’s flashback, likewise, is all about his strategy). In the last episode when the show spends some more time to flesh out the entire cast by having Rat asked them about their wishes, it hits home again because those characters are vibrant enough to lighten up the show.

Judging Juuni Taisen in a story department, in the end I consider this story branch fairy weak and uninteresting. Since this is a story about Rat as a protagonist it comes as a given, but I would love to see the retake of other possibilities as I still believe many characters still aren’t developed to their full potential. Not only the characters, but the settings and the implication that powerful people use the Zodiac War as a real-world proxy war are under-explored. For example, the tournaments that occur every 12 years sound nice in concept but inadequate in practice, because it suggests that the tournaments only happen in one animal sign only. Running through the series I still don’t know for sure how popular the Zodiac War is to the common people. If this War is supposed to be a Warrior’s pride then the show fails to develop it properly too.

Aside from the plot progress of the current tournament, the Warriors’ flashbacks usually fall neatly into 2 extreme settings: their mundane normal lives (Monkey, Sheep, Tiger, Rat) as a way to show those Warriors as normal people, and the battlefield (Boar, Chicken, Sheep, Horse, the twins, Tiger, Bull) where it serves to underline our characters as Warriors. Juuni Taisen seems to have a cynical attitude towards the war. War does affect badly to some of our warriors, and the violence of war is sudden and cruel, but that’s the world they live in so they have to accept and make the most out of it. You see, its central message isn’t really profound, or plausible, but I suggest don’t delve too deep into that because Juuni Taisen doesn’t seriously care about it either. All the show cares is to displaying those characters with different viewpoints and attitudes about war and the violence it brings.

Graphinica studio is mostly known as a CG anime studio, and with Juuni Taisen as their first full hand drawn project, it does hint us something about the production values of this show. For the first few episodes, the production was solid with some dynamic fight sequences, but as the show goes on it starts to fall apart with off-model characters, clunky animation and overall unattractive aesthetic. The character designs, on the other spectrum, is so outrageously ridiculous and over the top they stand out as one of the most memorable feature in the series. I would never forget a character with stripper suit, a bunny tail and a high heel. As a whole, Juuni Taisen is decidedly not an action campy show it allures people to be, and that’s not often for its benefits. But still, I would recommend Juuni Taisen to other viewers, since it can provide many deliciously striking sequences, memorable dialogues with its memorable cast. You will have a delicious – if a bit uneven – time, just don’t expect a full-blown action show or a solid show with deep message.

Posted on 3 October 2017 with categories: Anime Reviews, Classroom of the Elite, Reviews by SuperMario

Here’s a perfect example of a Light Novel adaptation schlock that has some interesting concept but terrible presentation. Youkoso usually starts the episode with a thought-provoking philosophical quote, and then (in one episode in particular) they followed up with a boob shot. It sums up exactly how I feel about this show. In service for some few good twists, Youkoso sacrifices too many things: the new rules that only pop up in convenient of the plot, the character developments (aside from Ayanokouji) that somehow become lesser and more one-note than they first appeared, the pacing which is slow and dull at times and finally, the questionable alteration regarding the source material from Lerche. All that and I even put aside some silly plot threads like the class spending 10 minutes arguing whether or not they should purchase a portable toilet (which will never address again, mind you), or another 10 minutes bickering about the panty thief (dear boys and girls, do you realize it’s just a piece of cloth?). I will address each and every issue down below so readers, fasten your seatbelt for a wide ride now.

The first issue of Yousoko is how the show conveniently bend the rules they themselves established in the service of advancing the plot. For all the complaints, the very concept of Youkoso: the point system where points can buy everything, and the classes are sorted based by certain merits, not solely academic ability and the classes fight each other to move up rank are something I can get behind. There are many implications on how to buy points for the class’s own advantages (even to the point of buy off the exam’s points); but in the end of the day, I still struggle to know how the hell they can get more points in normal circumstances? The rules are so vague and only in a convenient time they add new conditions that we never heard before. For example, apparently everyone can track other students using GPS on the school-provided phone if they know their number? That bit never explained before and up until Sakura nearly get raped that… voilà. Hero saves the day using the GPS!! Then the security camera is supposed to be everywhere, but then in the most crucial incident there were none around. The same thing happens in the Island arc as Youkoso added some new conditions that change the game completely. For example, “The class that have leader identified will lose all the bonus points”. Suddenly Survival of the Fittest test become Finding the Leaders test because all that matters in the end is guessing the right Leaders and avoid being guessed by other classes.

The cast of Youkoso never behave like real people, and most of them are neither relatable or even likable. In addition to their ridiculous character designs, most of the time they’re lousy, over the top (Tarzan anyone? Or Sparkling Nerriot dude) that it’s hard to take them seriously. Ayanokouji, however, hold his ground firmly and it’s fun to guess what he’s scheming to support his class or even what exactly is inside his head. The other members of class-D, especially the girls, have rather shallow developments that somehow end up being one-note. Sakura, for example, after her involvement with class-C – class-D dispute, just hanging around and have no real role (also, the way she’s treated in that arc was terrible). The same can be said for Kushida who kind of disappear in the last arc. Most terrible treatment is Horikita, from independent no-nonsense girl become a vulnerable girl with brother complex to become a weak girl who says mean things that end up being used by both sides – the enemy and her own side. The main cast, consist of Ayanokouji, Horikita and Kushida had some chemistry in the beginning that reminded me of the cast in SNAFU, but that chemistry soon vanishes into thin air that it feels like they don’t live together in the same universe.

The uneven pacing is another glaring issue that relevant from the very first episode. It takes too long for Youkoso to get into the main hook, and then drags out again until the final twist. The first arc had that issues, but most glaringly was the Island arc where Youkoso stayed too long on the luxury cruise, expanded its theme on the first day then wasted the 4 whole days for almost nothing. In addition, the fan-service is excessive and poorly done because it has no reason to be there in the first place. Some might argue that gazing too long into Kushida’s boobs is a foreshadowing of Kushida “blackmailed” Ayanokouji, but I disagree. Some might argue that the fan-service in the pool episode serves its purpose. While I partly agree, the very next episode when the students enjoy their luxury life on the cruise, it serves no purpose whatsoever.

Lastly, the anime changes some major parts from the novel that makes very little sense. Well, I’m all for anime taking its artistic liberty from the source, and I’m here to judge the anime version and not how faithful it adapts the source material, but Lerche screws up the changes so bad that I can’t help but noticing it. The most controversial choice from the anime version is the decision to put Horikita as the main lead. In the novel she isn’t considered as one and believe it or not, the one (they say) that takes the main spot is Karuizawa (remember her? No? I know, right?). Then Lerche decides to adapt a pool episode which happened much later in the novel, the decision that was received negatively even amongst Yousoko’s novel fans. In general practice, the anime cut down too many interactions between the supporting casts that sometimes it’s just jarring (and they use that time for the class bickering about panty thief… Here I go again!). Most notable case is when Ichinose from class B asks Ayanokouji to be her fake boyfriend, while in the anime they just met once before. Or Hirata who doesn’t have much speaking lines up until the Island arc, despite in the novel he is the voice of reason for Class-D.

I have no more energy to keep babbling about its negatives, so I’ll sum it up here. Youkoso is a failure, it falls below the line and even receives a minus point for its horrendous treatment to the female cast. The writing is weak as the show tries to sound smart but end up being pretentious. The characters are too over the top to be taken seriously and they alter the rules they themselves established for some plot convenience. I don’t hate it despite all those flaws because I still found some parts enjoyable, but I’ll be the first to admit that I have better things to do rather than spend more time on it.

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