Posted on 3 April 2019 with categories: Anime Reviews, Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai, Reviews by SuperWooper

Anime draws on many different media types in its endless search for properties to adapt, but manga is still the king of the bunch. And why not? It’s a distinctly Japanese art form, their main demographics have significant overlap, and manga’s panel-based layout means that some of the anime staff’s work is already done. Plenty of adaptations stick very closely to their manga counterparts (hopefully out of respect for the original), but some receive bold reinterpretations. Kaguya-sama doesn’t go quite that far, but under the guidance of director Mamoru Hatakeyama, it does manage to take on a life beyond that of its source material. Hatakeyama’s work on screwball comedies with Studio Shaft near the start of the decade gave him an eye for tricky camera positioning and outrageous character expressions. Since the show came to a conclusion several days ago, I’ve been skimming the manga and noticing the ways in which he embellished scenes by making full use of the student council room, where at least half the anime takes place. This is probably why that environment is rendered using cel-shaded 3D models, since it would allow extra freedom in deciding which angle of the room to capture.

Kaguya-sama’s move to television works to its benefit in plenty of other ways, as well. Its comic timing is terrific – I vividly remember the moment when a dump truck unloaded a towering pile of flowers directly onto Kaguya’s head. The slow, quiet manner in which the petals piled around her sold not just that scene, but a whole seven-minute segment. Things get loud when they need to, as well, with each battle of wits between Kaguya and Shirogane feeling more critical than the next. The show’s use of bright red and blue backgrounds (representing the two main characters) and urgent string accompaniments pushes their mental matches to absurd heights, only to bring them crashing down when fan favorite Fujiwara unwittingly interferes. Special mention must also be made of the series’ stellar casting, which put newcomer Aoi Koga in the lead role and reaped immense rewards as a result. Her blend of haughtiness and vulnerability made Kaguya my favorite character by a mile, but the other student council members had great actors behind them, as well. Even Ishigami, who I wasn’t originally fond of, found his stride once Ryouta Suzuki embraced the bitter, world-weary nerd at the heart of his character.

All these elements made Kaguya-sama successful as a comedy, but director Hatakeyama’s experience with drama paid off as well. Having headed up the masterful Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, he clearly knows how to frame more serious material. The two-part finale “I Can’t Hear the Fireworks,” which dug deep into Kaguya’s isolation and sorrow, is all the evidence one might require to support that claim. The moments when she reunites with her friends and realizes the depth of her affection for Shirogane are among the most heart-stopping in recent romcom history. Towering though that achievement may be, though, the blending of comedy and romance in simpler scenes also carried a kernel of drama, which was crucial in constructing a plausible on-screen relationship. Tropes like shared umbrellas and backseat bicycle rides felt more satisfying in Kaguya-sama than in other series, since Shirogane and Kaguya’s famed intellects gave way to their passion at just the right moments. Not all of these scenes were perfect – I had my reservations about a couple chapters near the end of the show’s run – but the hit-to-miss ratio favored the former by a sizable margin.

So what’s the final verdict? That’s up to each viewer to decide individually, but mine is quite positive. The comedy is clever and visually inventive, the romance is cute, and the dramatic conclusion alone is worth the price of entry. In fact, the series was so good out of the gate that my expectations went soaring for the second half, which didn’t always meet them. Still, I enjoyed my time with Kaguya-sama, and if you like shows that skillfully walk the line between silliness and sweetness, I think you will, too. It might not be on par with the Kare Kanos or Toradoras of anime, but it’s a thoughtfully-directed romantic comedy that ought to be watched by fans of the genre.

Posted on 11 February 2018 with categories: Anime Reviews, OVAs and Movies:, Reviews by Lenlo, Reviews by SuperWooper

Mary's movie poster

Wooper: Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first feature film from Studio Ponoc, which spun off from Studio Ghibli in early 2015. Given Ghibli’s towering reputation, the bar was high for this inaugural flick, which recently made its way to U.S. theaters, giving Lenlo and I a chance to see it on the big screen. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, whose previous work includes When Marie was There and The Secret World of Arrietty, selected a source novel (“The Little Broomstick”) that landed his newest film in safe, Ghibli-reminiscent territory. That choice works both for and against the movie, because while its familiar characters and motifs of magic and flight are visually arresting, many anime fans will have seen it all before. There’s hardly a single frame in this film that you couldn’t hang above your mantle, but its story never manages to generate that same impact.

Lenlo: Agreed. Mary and the Witch’s Flower managed to trick me with its Ghibli-esque style a few times. However that also means the comparisons to Ghibli are inevitable. It’s a perfect example of the limits of beautiful animation without a good story to back it up. It’s the classic “little girl finds magical land, saves it from some evil and is home in time for dinner”. I was never surprised by it and often let down. My biggest problem with it however was the criminal use of its characters. Flanagan and Great-Aunt Charlotte are underused and feel more like Director ‘Deus Ex Machina’ plot devices rather than real characters.

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Posted on 28 December 2017 with categories: Anime Reviews, Ballroom e Youkoso, Finished Series: Sports, Reviews by SuperWooper

In the weeks leading up to the summer 2017 season, Ballroom e Youkoso was one of the most buzzed-about new series. Produced by the Production I.G. team responsible for the smash hit Haikyuu!!, and set to air on Amazon’s brand new Anime Strike service, the series had no shortage of promotion or hype behind it. All that remained was for the creative staff to carefully transfer Takeuchi Tomo’s manga to the small screen, and they mostly succeeded – at least, in conveying its individual images and moments. But sports anime have evolved beyond an upper limit of simple panel-by-panel adaptations, and in the end, Ballroom didn’t manage to keep pace with its contemporaries. While its characters deserve some praise, both for their designs and their personalities, the series is limited by shounen clichés, haphazard progression, and an inadequate sense of movement during dance competitions.

The show’s lead character is one Fujita Tatara, whose general listlessness is gradually transformed into passion after he accidentally discovers ballroom dance. Tatara’s timid nature stands in stark contrast to the more dominant personalities he encounters throughout the series, and the show makes good use of that difference to portray Tatara’s personal growth in tandem with his improvement as a dancer. Though he is initially intimidated by rival characters both aloof and hotheaded, he learns from and ultimately befriends them as the series goes along. His relationships with three girls, all of whom serve as his dancing partner for some length of time, are even more central to Ballroom’s formula. Tatara struggles with the traditional notion of male-dominated performances, and aims to cooperate with his partners as best he can. There might have been some interesting social commentary to be had here, but the show smothered that potential during its second half by pushing the idea that its protagonist ought to become a perfect leader, but never satisfactorily explaining what that meant or how to do it.

Despite some muddled goal-setting, Ballroom’s characters are fun to spend time with, and worth learning about in detail. The show frequently explores performance anxiety, feelings of inferiority and stagnation, and even digs into the dark personal lives of its cast once or twice. But more common than these positive tendencies are competition-interrupting flashbacks and clunky comments from nameless observers, which become more common and more frustrating the longer the show goes on. Even Tatara’s biggest rival, an unflappable genius by the name of Hyodo Kiyoharu, begins seeing into the heads of other dancers by the show’s end, describing exactly what they’re feeling and perfectly evaluating their performances as a stand-in for the writers. This may have been necessary, however, in light of the show’s most glaring issue – for a show about ballroom dance, there isn’t nearly enough dancing to be found.

Many of the show’s problems intensify in its second half, but its poor dance animation is more noticeable in the early episodes. Even with an eventual uptick in the number of prolonged choreographed sequences, however, the damage is done at the start, with plenty of panning stills, reaction shots, CG dancers, and speed lines instead of honest-to-goodness dancing. Audience members aren’t given a proper introduction to the sport in motion, so we have to fall back on snippets of verbal speculation about whose stamina is giving out, or whether Tatara has finally learned how to execute a proper hold. This robs several key scenes of the impact they deserve, though others are bolstered by Ballroom’s frequent use of visual metaphor during competitions. If you cut your teeth on sports anime from the 90’s or early 2000’s, these techniques may not be too bothersome, but fans of newer titles in the genre may find the lack of dynamic movement disappointing.

This aspect of the show does improve as the series draws to a close, but there’s a trade-off to be made. Several characters are marginalized to make room for a brash newcomer, and her transition from manga to anime is less than seamless. The series also succumbs to a shounen tradition with which most anime fans will be quite familiar, though for the sake of potential viewers I won’t get too specific. Still, Ballroom ends well, and my original affection for the show did return for the final episode, so there’s reason to hang in there if you’re already halfway done. There’s little hope for a season 2, based on the lack of remaining source material, but if you’re reading this in the future and a sequel has emerged, you may be wondering whether the original is worth your time. My advice: if you’re a fan of sports anime, sample three episodes and see how you like it. Otherwise, give this one a pass.

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