RWBY: Ice Queendom is a fascinatingly in-depth misfire, and a hastily put-together mess of a concept, which is a shame, because I feel like in the right hands, it could have been the kick-in-the-pants its source series desperately needed. It faltered not because the team behind it didn’t care, but for desperately lacking a level of consideration and hindsight to tell the story it wanted to tell in the best way possible while being exciting for existing fans or a good jumping in point for newcomers.
As someone who has seen all eight current seasons of the original RWBY series, my general opinion is that
despite some goofy character charm, distinctive character designs with appropriately distinct powers, rocking musical inserts, a 3D animation aesthetic that grows more professional as the years go on, and a share of incredibly kinetic action scenes (primarily in the first two seasons when its creator Monty Oum was still alive, RIP), it’s easy to look behind the curtain and see the inexperience of its writers stacking the fragile house of cards that is the series’ worldbuilding and character writing. The majority of the show’s seasons tend to focus on an excess of character factions, dead end subplots, badly conveyed worldbuilding and an incredibly questionable racism allegory with pacing that doesn’t tend to give its better ideas (such as the lead character’s grief about her lost mother) enough time to properly coalesce. It’s to the point where the RWBY Chibi spinoff series entirely about zany gags uses its cast better than the show it’s based off of. But it does have a lot of ideas, and a lot of fans that attach to some of those ideas, despite the series gaining a similar reputation to Sword Art Online among dissenters and outsiders for how amateurish writing underlies much of its production and conceptual strengths.
My hope with RWBY Ice Queendom was that this series, with the benefit of hindsight and eight seasons worth of character material to pull from, could tell a tighter, incredibly cohesive story about its four title characters, with talented 2D animators mirroring Monty Oum’s gift for dynamic, kinetic and characterful action scenes to scatter throughout. This series could epitomize the genuine appeal of RWBY’s action and character concepts separated from all of the excess junk the main show had been piling up. Remind longtime fans why they should keep caring about the series while hooking new fans. Sadly, I don’t think it accomplished either goal.
First of all, if you are a newcomer to RWBY scared off by the MMD level of animation quality, Ice Queendom starts with a three episode recap of the first season of the web series in the show’s new 2D style. It’s a conceptually basic story at the start, starring four girls (Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee, Blake Belladona and Yang Xiao Long) who are accepted into an academy to train their fighting abilities to become peacekeepers of a world overrun by ravenous monsters known as Grimm. The recap is to get everyone up to speed on where the characters were at that point in time.
I can understand this was done specifically in relation to Weiss Schnee, the series’ Snow White analog, to bring her negative character traits to the forefront. She’s haughty, selfish, domineering, has a need to appease her demanding father, feels constantly judged by her siblings, and is flagarently racist against the Faunus, a species of animal human hybrids meant to represent the oppressed races of the world (yes, really). They needed to make all of this clear in order to have substantial psychological ammo to dissect for the series’s main arc, and I think they succeeded, but there are obvious concessions made in having to cover so much content unrelated to Weiss that was happening at the same time.
To Ice Queendom’s credit, a lot of the more egregious/extra parts from the original first season are cut, such as Yang arbitrarily leaving with shadow people extras to excuse Ruby meeting other characters on her own or having to go to three separate scenes to show Blake’s and Weiss’s introductions randomly stumbling onto Ruby in an empty fountain plaza, the main four bickering in a dorm at night, to then hearing an announcement from the school’s headmaster Ozpin the next day. Scenes such as these are all consolidated in a way that makes a lot of sense, and character dialogue is generally a bit more natural throughout the recapped material. The widely hated story arc for the character of Jaune is cut almost entirely aside from introducing a new original Nightmare Grimm that comes into play later. That said, this is a case of less bad, but also less good, since this comes at the expense of the humor. There’s some jokier parts in later sections of Ice Queendom that bring in some charm, but for the first three episodes, much of what gave V1 RWBY its spirit in spite of the questionable plotting and wonky non-battle animation, is fairly excised. Despite 2D being inherently more limiting than 3D in terms of camera space, this section has a handful of strong animated moments (mostly from Hiroto Nagata) that match what Monty Oum was capable of nearly a decade ago on a program that could barely get character walk cycles right.
All of this though mostly only applies to the first two episodes. Episode 3 has to cover far too much of the original series in only a short 22 minute runtime while also planting seeds for the anime’s original story. This makes the already messy plotting the original series had of needing to spontaneously introduce two entirely new characters for the season’s final action climax even more rushed. To make up for Weiss’s lack of presence in Volume 1’s climax, they removed the entire fight. I know it sounds really really really really really really really really dumb, but trust me that this is the most likely scenario. It then leads to the episode’s closer feeling like it happened too early.
There is one other issue this manner of recap brings, which is that if you’re not already a fan of RWBY or invested in the journey that its characters have gone on for nearly a decade at this point, I have to think it would be harder to care once the original material starts and Ice Queendom has a lot of intense, high-strung emotional scenes between characters who, to you, have hardly had the time to know each other.
This can be seen right away in Episode 3 when the implied incredibly close bond between Jaune, Nora, Pyrrha and Ren is told, not shown, as an attempt to parallel Ruby and Weiss’s shown struggle to get along, but there being almost no time to show Team JNPR’s kinship prior to that moment. And this continues when the Ice Queendom plot takes center stage and you see Ruby and Weiss having these grand emotional moments regarding their relationship while Blake and Yang have their own sort of rapport hardly seen prior but given a fair amount of time in later seasons of the original show. And yes, I do think this is an issue to take with Ice Queendom because the series is presented like an alternate timeline, not a sequel like Metal Gear Solid 4 or Kingdom Hearts III which are in series with one timeline and naturally suggest by name you need a lot of knowledge going into it. As someone who’s followed the original series, I do appreciate more of what’s going on there, but to newcomers I can see them being out of the loop.
To Ice Queendom’s credit, these scenes are presented very earnestly, with Saori Hayami and the other Japanese VAs genuinely putting their best foot forward to carry whatever drama is there. FAR better than their English VAs being pulled to voice the cast with little training or direction at the start. It’s just that the foundation to care about these characters is built on long term engagement to material outside of this anime. That being said, it also doesn’t help that a lot of these payoffs are mulled by the series’s production issues.
Woefully Underpar Animation
Now, despite what I say about the original series gaining somewhat of a punching bag reputation overtime, one element that was hard to deny from the start was the appeal of Monty Oum’s action scenes. He had the ability to show these power-imbued characters as acrobats, using the 3D camera to create long uninterrupted sequences of action scenes that feel like performances, taking similar influence to what made action scenes in The Matrix trilogy so fun to watch, assisted by the metal butt rock score. After Monty’s unfortunate passing, the latter seasons of RWBY made the fights more cohesive with the story, but with a couple exceptions, they gradually lost that rhythm. Music could still hit, but many action scenes felt stiffer, more weightless, more inconsistently boarded and with more unwelcome dialogue to separate the action segments. So I hoped that this new creative team could mirror a similar spark that Oum’s action had for the original series, but unfortunately, much like with the anime adaptation of Devil May Cry, a series known for its action scenes gets an anime that barely has any worth praising.
Aside from an even stronger finish, the rest of the giant bird fight represented in Episode 2 feels far stiffer and less conveying of character than the original web series. I had hoped that the anime-exclusive action scenes would go hard considering Episode 3 cutting the first season’s entire original climax, but sadly no. COVID definitely played a huge part in preventing SHAFT from getting a vast swath of talent in person, but even still, what’s present is unfortunately lacking. Much of the anime episodes are exposition, not action scenes, and a lot of the action is limited to Ruby, Yang and Blake running away from an overpowered Weiss to little if any memorable scuffles given all of the cuts made that prevent the action from flowing well. Episodes 6 and 10 in particular are absolutely egregious examples of needing to shortcut for action scenes, doing very little to hide the replacement of the 2D characters into CGI models for certain shots, which is the same criticism I levied at SHAFT’s Assault Lily Bouquet two years ago. These models look ugly and awkward with their differing frame rates compared to the 2D characters. Inserting these between 2D shots only makes the action even less cohesive. I understand that some of the rendering issues can be fixed in a Blu-Ray release, but the scenes themselves are still stuck with the same borked action pace. This rushed schedule even affects the static dialogue scenes, with one conversation between Blake and Yang in Episode 10 cutting off Yang’s legs during a pan.
It’s not all bad. I do think some of the characters, such as Ruby, Weiss, Yang and Penny still look cute in the new art style despite other characters like Ozpin not transferring over particularly well. I like the added highlights to certain characters’ hair that were unshaded in the original series, and some of the backdrops of Weiss’s dream realm like the violet-tinged sky with her emblem pattern scattered about, the consolidated town and the mysterious interiors of Weiss’s family manor do also let the visuals shine. Lastly, Episode 11 does have the few actual free-flowing and kinetic action cuts that are original to the series synced with exciting music and in those brief moments, it gave me a sense of what the series could have been, had its structure and production woes not undermined its efforts and made the majority of scene payoffs (aside from the final one) feel hollow.
Baffling Pacing, Editing and Story Structure
In addition to the clunky battle animation, the editing of the series is often annoyingly standout when it really has no reason to be. Many episodes feature a frequent amount of hard cuts to character stills circling around a small scene, which gives the production the feeling that a lot of the shots were rushed out the door and had to be cobbled together at the last minute to fit the weekly TV episode deadline. One scene in particular of Blake sneaking her way inside a bedroom to meet up with Ruby and Yang was so badly cut together I struggled to tell what was happening. In an attempt to add some signature SHAFT flair into the mix, they use this Hulk (2003) multiple panel style where they can pan on multiple shots happening at the same time, and sadly, I can’t say its usage ever added substantially relative to its frequency, aside from the ending of Episode 5. Perhaps this is also the time to say that nearly every episode of the “Ice Queendom arc” feels the need to tag itself with a cliffhanger that often doesn’t match the exciting payoffs.
Most of the anime makes up the “Ice Queendom arc”, where Ruby, Blake and Yang travel inside of Weiss’s nightmare realm to recover her soul from a nightmare eating away at her, fighting a version of Weiss that seems to embody her worst traits in the process. Initially it seems promising that the arc slows the pace way down from the insanely rushed Episode 3, but the further in you get the more you question if it needed to be THAT slow. So much time is spent expositing about how the dream realm works, directly explaining all of the correlations Weiss is making in her head in case viewers don’t pick up on them and repeating a lot of the same motions. There’s a back and forth between characters trying to enter the town, confronting the alternate Weiss, and getting arbitrarily pushed back after badly edited action scenes with middling at best material in between. One of the exits is initially promising, with the series using side characters to genuinely set the leads on the right track to better understand their friend and become a stronger team for it. And then Jaune gets prominence. . . .
The moment I knew this series was ABSOLUTELY heading on the wrong track with this story was when the show decided to include Jaune Arc into a prominent role alongside the four girls. The writers try to justify this by saying he exists as a cloak to the Nightmare energy, but this purpose goes away after a single scene and all he actually does is open a door, drag along a sword he can barely carry and defeat a miniboss he has no connection to. He’s not exactly a loved character among fans of the original, with many thinking he’s either a bland tepid tagalong that steals screentime from other main characters, or a borderline author insert for one of the show’s writers, and Ice Queendom making him more prominent than he should be doesn’t help his case. It’s unfortunate because there was an obviously better method of handling an extra party member tagalong.
One of the few animation highlights outside of Episode 11 is a moment when a dream version of Pyrrha, a character the original series gives some parallels to Weiss, sings Mirror Mirror, Weiss’s original theme song. Her character is gorgeously animated in the scene, and Megumi Toyoguchi does a wonderful job covering the song in English. I was hoping that this meant that Pyrrha would have more of a role in the series, perhaps directly getting through to Weiss with her own feelings of being lonely despite being seen like a celebrity. But, no, despite Jaune having a widely hated mini-arc in the original show’s first season, and having plenty of time after that to interact with the main characters, Jaune gets to be a character here who does nothing and contributes nothing besides opening one door, while Pyrrha after her song is presented as a mute piece of cardboard Jaune carries around from scene to scene in a subplot that accomplishes nothing. Another character could have opened the door, and Pyrrha’s character would have benefited substantially more from interacting with the four lead girls away from Jaune to parallel Weiss’s dilemma, like they seemed to imply by giving her Weiss’s theme song. It’s choices like this obviously padded subplot that has me asking:
You needed 12 episodes for this?!
It’s unfortunate, honestly. When I first started watching Ice Queendom upon the premiere of the first three episodes, one of my earliest thoughts was that they could’ve used an additional episode of Volume 1 recap so that the events of Episode 3 could be less hastily sped through and maybe they could have actually shown a rendition of the dock battle at the Volume’s end, a major highlight of the original series’s first season. Then later, when the show actually gets to the Ice Queendom part of the story, you see just how little every episode contributes to the overall story, how many parts of the story could have been cut entirety (particularly everything involving Jaune) and how several of the repeated plot events (RBY reaching Nightmare Weiss and then getting pushed back three times over, Ruby needing to enter the dream three times, the gang entering the city over and over again by train) could have accomplished their same intended goal without needing to waste almost three hours through as simple as a choice as only having two dives into the dream world instead of three.
For the sake of Ice Queendom’s production, which, with exception to most of Episode 11, falls apart at the seams the longer you go on, the Ice Queendom portion should have been, at most, a 2 hour movie, and not a 3 hour slog where over a third of that time is either repeated content, irrelevant content or exclamation that could’ve been better left unsaid.
Perhaps giving the series fewer total episodes could have better consolidated the handful of talented animators SHAFT did manage to get so the show could consistently look better when it counted, instead of wasting talent on a song sequence that failed to connect to anything and making the majority of fights jittery messes where they don’t even try to hide their CGI model replacement. But I can only think about what could have been for so long when analyzing the product that SHAFT and Rooster Teeth put out to commemorate their long running series for me to say it just isn’t good enough.
Despite all my complaining, as someone who’s been hard on the sunk cost fallacy of RWBY’s existence, there were moments of Ice Queendom I did greatly appreciate, such as giving us more insight into Weiss’s psychological hangups at a time when she was suffering from them the most. I liked getting to see how a small Weiss looks up to her grandfather, and how Ruby feels about Weiss being pushed to an emotional breaking point. I like Sun and Penny’s use here and despite them missing the latter’s iconic catchphrase, her seiyuu does a lot to convey her character. The new OST was generally solid enough and while Jeff and Casey Lee Williams’s music from the original series is sorely missed, the vocal inserts present here capture the show’s style appropriately. It’s a conceptually solid idea, and it says something that there’s a heartwarming conclusion at the end of this messy, hastily put together brand extension that makes me genuinely feel something for these characters despite the poorly paced narratives they find themselves stuck in time and time again.
I just wish Ice Queendom could’ve been something different, instead of a hacked-out production that serves as a standard bearer for why a series constructed out of many scattered concepts to feel “anime” enough struggles to look beyond that lens and hit the same incredible highs of what it chooses to imitate.
Sep 30, 2021
Whenever you browse a seasonal chart, it’s inevitable the majority of shows will be adaptations. Manga, light novel, visual novel, video game, music CDs, etc. It’s just less of a hassle for studios to tackle media proven successful elsewhere, and these works often provide a very clear path to follow as far as where their stories are headed or what key moments should be highlighted for the maximum oomph. Anime originals don’t have that same expected trajectory. They’re closer to western cartoons, in that they mainly get made because their creator attained clout within the industry and then was given the space by a studio ... to bring their new original animated concepts to life. This creative looseness can be a strength, avoiding publications that have specific molds they want to be filled for successful products, but it can just as often be an excuse to create something that wouldn’t easily find an audience within pre-established work.
That often felt like the case when watching Sonny Boy. A show with loosely defined structure, loose animation tricks, and a loose core in trying to hit the target audience.
You see this immediately from the first episode. Main character Nagara lies on his back staring at the ceiling, downbeat and dejected, approached by a girl with a similarly moody disposition. Focus quickly shifts to other characters in their own groups. A total of 36 characters are stated to exist within the show’s school, and, apropos of nothing, everyone has some sort of superpower.
Every dynamic is suggested to be pre-established. No music plays the entire episode; the sky is often pitch black, or evenly split between blank blue and cloudy. A jarring CGI carousel appears in the middle of a gym auditorium. Main characters are suggested to exist, but their screentime is balanced out with several others arguing over some sort of dominance. It’s overwhelming for a start, but created distinctly as Episode 1, not chapters that fill in for an Episode 1. This serves as an easy way to stand out and an early indication of Shingo Natsume’s talent with using animation to create a distinct feel.
As the remaining episodes go on though, any actual intentions Sonny Boy might have become harder and harder to define. Characters hop between places in separate worlds practically instantaneously. Scenes are placed in non-chronological chunks. Infighting is shown, and then gives way for more existential comprehension of what it means to evolve and live where you are. Entire sections of exposition are stated to present subjects invisible in the moment. Some characters will have focus for entire episodes and then be discarded from relevance. Growth will be suggested through dialogue, but all the introspection is reserved for the show’s main mystery.
Amidst all of these very particular choices, the main takeaway I had was that amongst every character with some sort of grab bag superpower, two of them serve as hypothetical prophets, able to broaden new horizons and topple the domain of multiple worlds. One of them uses this power in service of trying to solve the mystery, and the other is tempted to use the power by a walking pair of boobs that serves a similar purpose to the snake in the story of Adam and Eve.
This is the most consistent plotline I could find among the show’s roughly 4 hours of runtime, because the show likes to do something new every episode, yet ardently refuses to provide an anchor for the audience to take in the info before switching to another scene. The sense I get from Sonny Boy’s plot is that it WANTS to be a coming-of-age story. The world beyond highschool could be mysterious, unknowing, and in constant flux with deadly situations making headlines every day in real life now. Sonny Boy’s main characters are primarily near the end of high school, and the show uses their powers to represent some form of change they will or have undergone. One character’s power is deliberately ironic relative to their anxiousness at what life actually has in store for them. One episode ties the thread between school and concentration camp in a similar but more subdued vein to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Twice amidst all the exposition, it’s paraphrased that having the opportunity to decide your own future, and not have it manipulated by others, is the best way to hope to make it through life.
I understand the intention for that demographic, but as I currently see Sonny Boy, much of the characterization is too loose and confusingly dolled out for any growth to be truly meaningful.
Take Nagata himself, the main character. At the start, he feels downbeat and dejected, content to lie on his ass while staring at the ceiling. He continues to be confused and depressed as the show trudges on, but the whole time I was wondering….why? What happened to make this character be so dour at the start of the story, which was conveniently left out? Midway through, it’s said that something happened to his mother, that may have caused him to kill a bird, but that doesn’t really explain anything. His main role in the show itself is to ask about their situation, complain about being used, be unable to use his power properly, or convey more exposition. His loose personality suggests he might be an audience insert character, but he doesn’t feel like he’s there to clarify anything. Even his growth feels inconsistent. Halfway through he gets incredibly enthusiastic about certain subjects, but it feels less like earned character development and more like he had to act a certain way to propel a certain episodic narrative. If this were a show like Tatami Galaxy, Nagata would feel like the centerpiece of everything, to ground events in a way the audience can understand and emphasize with his goals and ambitions in a limited cast, but the show opts to hot potato the screentime focus among several characters.
Mizuho is similar, being described as “having a moody personality and refusing to interact with others,” and shouldering the blame for a problem affecting the group, but before too long, she’s fawning over cute animals and talking about the plot in a significantly more chipper way. Once again, it’s hard to see what aspect of teenage life she’s meant to specifically relate toward when her characterization feels more in service of plot than anything else.
Characters like Cub seem fairly important at first but gradually fade from relevance. One character is basically a background character with a power given major relevance as an excuse for why they were shoved in scenes at random. Another character comes from a completely different context and has an entire episode narrating portions of their backstory, and is…..probably the most rounded one in the show because of that extensive focus. The “false prophet” loses any of their own motivation in favor of taking naps in the busty temptress’s chest. Rajdhani is probably the show’s best character, the most committed to solving the mystery angle and a fun presence in general; the dub version even has him voiced by someone with Indian heritage, but he still mainly exists as smart guy^tm
The point I’m trying to make is, given the inconsistent handling of the characters and loose definition of what constitutes character development, I think the target audience would find it difficult to connect to any of these characters in an impactful way after the show concludes.
The expected prompt from the shows’ most ardent supporters would be:
“You completely missed these tiny moments all adding up. It’s deep, actually, the characters don’t have obvious growth because they aren’t obvious archetypes! Look at all these metaphors you’re ignoring!”
Yes, this is a show where a lot of context is very blink or you’ll miss it. Every episode is more or less its own story with a distinct message. You never know what you’re gonna get and I don’t intend to spoil that here. It can be pretty fun trying to break the individual messages of episodes, but a lot of these focusing choices, which I know exist the way they are because of Sonny Boy’s anime-original status, are easy to be overshadowed by the influx of lore, as well as Natsume’s visual direction.
Sonny Boy’s at least a show that’s easy to appreciate on a stylistic level. Eguchi Hisashi, who hasn’t designed anime characters since the turn of the millennium, created a very distinctly designed cast in spite of their similarities from the head down. The way characters’ faces look avoids following the lazy expectation for modern anime art direction. Most episodes have some sort of impressive visual flex, like Episode 2 with the atmosphere established by the paper-looking blue fire, though particularly Episode 5 and Episode 8 for their specific style of animation and shading when distinguishing the mental realms. The mental twisting of many dimensions of pattered color is a particular animation highlight whenever it comes up, the bus flying through it in Episode 9 like it were The Magic School Bus’s serious YA adaptation. It does tend to shortcut with several static shots of faceless characters, but it has an especially unique choice for background characters in them being shaded like the type of “anime minimalist wallpaper” you can easily find on Google Images. There’s this scrapbook uncanniness to some of the scenes while avoiding the scrunched-up outlines often seen on characters out of focus, adding to the many wallpaper-worthy shots appearing throughout.
At times the visual direction could be dull when not much was happening on screen, when it just hard cut between cast members starring into the screen trying to comprehend the tangle of plot with music missing, but it feels like that freedom of design is what Shingo Natsume saw with this entire series.
This might sound negative, and as far as personal investment in the choices made with the runtime that exists, it is, but I implore you to check out this show if you think its distinctiveness appeals to you. What I’ve been saying about how loose and overambitious the writing feels in light of the visual pizazz is something that only could’ve come from an anime original, a longtime animator writing a script for the first time with that rawness and passion radiating forward at the extent of understanding how to meet the audience halfway. That freedom is worth cherishing. I’m grateful that shows like Sonny Boy are allowed to exist. I appreciate the light hints that the show leaves for people to ponder well after an episode ends. But in its current state, I believe the looseness of its execution precludes me from coming out as infactuated as Natsume wants me to be.
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Sep 16, 2021
Peach Boy Riverside (Anime) add
To call the anime adaptation of Peach Boy Riverside a mess would actually be an understatement. A “mess” is usually caused by accident, trying to do something well and then tripping for some reason or the other. No, the fate of this anime was sealed before an episode even aired.
The staff decided to take a fairly logical flow of events from the manga, and then shuffle them around, just so the final episode could end on some sort of action climax. This butchers the show right out of the gate. It makes you wonder why certain characters are even in certain places at certain times ... without properly communicating a sense of time. Occasionally Sally, one of the two protagonists, will have an outfit change, but other than that, it makes the timeline seem jumpy and difficult to really wrap your head around, especially for weekly viewers.
If you’re a manga reader, this approach does very little, since you already know what happens in the story and can already say what goes where. Hell, the anime itself manages to both spoil the result of the final episode before it even happens and make the ending of another episode a huge ass pull because it brings in a character the audience hadn’t gotten to know yet. So, this is detrimental on both ends. I’ve seen some comparisons made to Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Baccano before the series aired, in regard to airing episodes out of the intended order from their source, but both of those series better justify this particular decision. Haruhi was mostly a slice of life comedy, with only some plot gradually thrown through the background, so the lack of consequence in the majority of runtime fit the kind of show that it was, while letting individual episodes stand out on their own. Baccano meanwhile was an incredibly fast paced show; many events of importance were happening at once and one of the three plotlines was an action setpiece on a train that was constantly evolving.
Peach Boy Riverside doesn’t have the forethought of either series. It’s tied to a fairly strict continuity of events each episode, at a pace that can be incredibly slow at points, and there’s no distinct vibe that the out of orderness adds to spice up the viewing experience, beyond learning certain things earlier than they’ll actually come up. To any new watchers, there’s nothing to gain from the way the staff aired this anime, which I will judge as such since that’s how it was released.
Jee, I’ve talked so much about the out of order timeline and its detrimental effect on enjoying the show that I’ve barely talked about the show itself yet!
So, what is this story that the staff felt was so intriguing that it needed to be told out of order to try and invest a brand new audience? A painfully generic fantasy romp that makes Akame ga Kill seem inspired by comparison, even with its folktale inspiration.
In a fantasy world that’s incredibly non-descript, half the show follows Sally, a princess with the magical power of getting hot and bothered. The other half follows Mikoto, a swordsman who seems dedicated to solving the systemic problems of the world by murdering nearly every oni he comes across, but not when one of them needs to be alive for plot reasons, or tag along with either protagonist for reasons that don’t add too much beyond more powers for the action scenes. The show likes to abuse the “pet the dog” trope for these characters, giving a determinably evil race just enough sympathy or a cute design for them to stick around, but not enough to really……understand them. It’s mostly a series of slow conversations underlying limp, weakly animated schlocky action.
Characters talk about various things, places get destroyed, but the show doesn’t do enough to get you invested in its world. It’s a very thrown together world, the kind that’s unfortunately very common in low rent fantasy stories. Every place is just a place to host plot. If each setting the characters visited had a distinct visual identity, perhaps it would better serve the out of order pacing of the anime by making it easy for viewers to remember what place was shown when, but alas. It’s not a plot to really expect much from, but at times it’s trying to say something about racism.
It’s not entirely lip service either despite not having much punch. How humans treat demihumans (or ogres) with disrespect versus how demihumans harshly react to the human characters is something that’s occasionally brought up as a drive across several episodes. This is at least pondered in Episode 7, and creates the distinct ideologies of the two protagonists.
Sally…is not a great female lead for this story. Beyond the in-poor-taste tentacle fanservice you see right from Episode 1, she’s mainly there to be incredibly ignorant of the world around her as a once sheltered princess and, again, get hot and bothered during the action scenes……………………..like once. If the first episode hooked you on the possibility of her going cuckoo for Coco Puffs in the action scenes, I hate to say it but this hardly ever happens again; one action scene later when she uses the power, she’s fairly measured. Crunchyroll at least wanted to market the series with the scene where Sally goes crazy with her special shonen power, but if you want more of that craziness, it’s missing in a show that’s already committed to being hardcore schlock. Instead, she’s mostly just shown as painfully naïve. By the third episode, which takes place a bit later in the actual timeline, she’s deciding between the guy who wants to kill all the ogres, but whom she personally knows has her best interest in mind, and a total snake who claims to be wanting the races to co-exist. She’s one of the characters hurt most by the out of order pacing, participating in action but not driving a plot that’s above the audiences’ heads.
Mikoto is at least a little better; there’s actually an episode in the season that shows us their crybaby backstory which is…………fine, probably one of the few episodes where its timeline placement doesn’t really damage the cruddy pacing of the series. Sometimes his attitude is enjoyable. Otherwise though, he alternates between being nonchalantly morbid and IMUSTKILLALLTHEOGRES much like a certain other Shonen protagonist known for yelling. His voice actress is very sweet sounding, to the point where, in combination with the wiki considering him “non-bindery”, I assumed maybe this character was a non-binary protagonist, which could’ve been fairly progressive for anime. But nope. Quite the opposite, we get an incredibly uncomfortable gender panic scene in Episode 4, where Sally is shocked at him being flatchested and then lands on top of him as she realizes further. Another episode literally ends on a joke of someone else realizing the character is a femboy. GREAT.
The rest of the cast is pretty dull: a collection of tropes with little to really contribute. There’s witches, nuns, tiny priest looking ogre girls, a boring guy who only exists to be the straight man, and a series of ogre designs which serve more as action obstacles than anything else. With exception to Mikoto and one other, there isn’t much to really care about in the limited time the anime has; most of these relationships are shown out of order at any rate.
The best character in the show is easily Frau, one of the few for whom the racism lip service idea has some kind of fruit to bear. Frau has a distinct design as a bunny schoolgirl shaped like a friend, and their loyalty to Sally is at least charming and believable in a couple of the action scenes, despite the weird worldbuilding to justify their revival mechanics not really being. Still, they’re the most distinct character in a fairly bland and boring cast.
Perhaps the best I can say visually is that there’s at least……………..some creative designs? Like the aforementioned Frau, or the giant walrus and chicken demon things from the first episode. There’s some variety in even the more generic ogre characters. The art style is passable, but you won’t find much in the way of fluid animation to come from it. Most action scenes compromise of several motion tweens moved in sequence, and the occasional big explosion. It doesn’t go nearly as ridiculously bloody as you might hope from a show like this; a Kouta Hirano anime this certainly isn’t. There’s no cost cutting CGI, which is good, at least until an ugly CGI tree in the final episode. It keeps a consistent art style in place, but these scenes don’t do enough to stand out or flow well at any rate.
Similar for the soundtrack; there’s a couple decent tunes drowned out by the dialogue, but nothing you’ll think of after this show ends. The ED though is one of the lamest I’ve ever seen visually in some time, with almost nothing going on but panning up on still shots of characters in various places; no unique personality of an animator shining through.
Peach Boy Riverside is mostly pretty trash, but not entirely from the base of it. I at least like the idea of having two protagonists with distinct ideologies regarding their world’s systemic conflict going on their separate journeys and occasionally crossing paths, even if that happens too frequently in conjunction with lackluster worldbuilding, action scenes being schlocky without being memorable and the out of order story the anime staff planned out not being very considered for narrative investment at all. You’re not gonna get much from here. If you really care about the story that much, just read the manga. But if you’re just a shonen or action fan, I’d say skip this self-inflicted mess. There’s much better options for you out there in both a building structure and bombast from action scenes.
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Mar 26, 2021
Jujutsu Kaisen (Anime) add
The thing about trends that a lot of people take for granted is that the more overstuffed a particular set of ideas are, the more likely it is to see either flipped on its head (see Shrek for fairy tale musicals) or given more offbeat renditions (see Joker or Into the Spider-Verse for superhero blockbusters). Genres being overstuffed, if anything, should encourage more experimentation and refinement.
Over the years the Shonen genre has gone through a number of these phases. From past its formative years with Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, you’ve gotten shows using the mold for massive tapestries (One Piece), those attempting to ... rewrite the genre rulebook (see Fullmetal Alchemist), shows trying to test Shonen’s capacity for being applicable in distinct scenarios (see HxH), long-form parodies of the genre, and many that wallow in it without doing anything interesting. Jujutsu Kaisen is interesting in this regard because on paper, it doesn’t seem that different from the standard genre mold, but in practice, it truly understands the appeal of the genre and what audiences want to get from it.
Jujutsu Kaisen’s first season served as a phenomenal introductory section into the story it wants to tell, presenting its plot, characters, action and tone in a way that’s easy to digest, but is simultaneously a very smart setup that stands out by committing to multiple angles. The show feels like natural selection, where Gege Akutami realizes the elements that people have grown to like in the genre and downplays those that haven’t held up as well.
It can be seen immediately with the protagonist, Yuuji Itadori. While yes, he is a teenage protagonist with the goal to protect others and become better at some special skill, a lot of the more in-your-face elements of this are downplayed. He’s not an overly hyperactive idiot, an insecure nerd or a miserable angsty sad sack, but has a good balance of characteristics, being a risk-taker at important moments, more down to earth yet still very passionate about his interests should the subject arise. Character design helps with this as he, alongside the other members of the hero cast, have taller designs that fit the “cool rebellious teen” look a la Bleach, more than the short, childish look of many Shonen heroes. The uniforms convey style during day and night with their reflective black and blue surfaces, but Yuuji still sets himself apart with the red hood adding that degree of cheeriness to the rest of the outfit. Yuuji doesn’t just feel like an archetype; he feels like a character, one given an early sense of consequence, as well as an interesting comparison to be made with the final boss tier opponent in his body as far as power ceiling goes. The idea of this “manifest double” is played up more in the first half of the show than the second, but as Yuuji grows personally, it promises to be a unique recurring element.
Jujutsu Kaisen wants to mix shonen power action, comedy, and horror ideas together into one distinct package, and all things considered it’s really cohesive.
The first half of the show is primarily dedicated to showing the ropes of the world to Yuuji, but even this basic setup is handled in some pretty fun ways. By Episode 3, they already have the main three characters banter together in an enjoyable dynamic that thankfully never turns into love triangle bollocks. A later episode has to explain how the show’s power system works, but it doesn’t have Yuuji sit in a classroom to learn about it through exposition dumps, or even white-haired mentor character Gojou talking to him about it one on one. No, Gojou’s an incredibly wholesome gadfly, so he pulls Yuuji out of movie-induced focus to actively demonstrate how Cursed Domains work against a monster who actively reacts to its use. This felt like a much more natural way to convey exposition, and even the more whiteboard exposition like the danger grade levels is conveyed with a pretty breezy, sardonic sense of humor.
It also introduces the villains in a way that, while not outstanding, worked well in pushing Yuuji to his physical and emotional limit right before the second half started. The only weird structural issue I had with the first half was some backstory for Kento Nanami. It’s spliced right in the middle of a serious fight, where the circumstances leading to it and the consequences following it were far more pertinent than this one guy’s backstory. By the end of the season, he was one of the characters who left the least impression on me.
The second half of the show makes the focus of the first half even more reasonable, whilst honing in on the aspect that grew my attention the most early on; the many students from their setting’s magic school, all wearing the same swag as hell reflective uniform. The exchange event team battle serves as a great way to introduce a lot of these characters, their powers, unique designs, and their respective dilemmas without cheating shit later as story ramps up. Almost a third of the run is spent on this, but it’s infinitely more interesting than having a tournament arc in small arena cutting to stills of audience reaction since it gets out a lot more fun character moments. Akutami understands that we, as the excitable audience, want to see some coolass superpowers from a Shonen, and he happily delivers a ton of those that get to shine in this arc, from characters like:
-Nobara, the main female girl in the series that, much like Yuuji, doesn’t feel tied to an archetype, appreciating fashion and fangirling over exciting scenes, yet not taking taunts lightly, being protective of her friends, and having a coolass power of fabricating voodoo dolls with specially sized hammers.
-A guy who can only speak normally in ramen ingredients, but has incredible word power with increasingly higher personal costs against opponents
-An incredibly wholesome talking panda with very versatile fighting stances
-A bratty, yet at times comically deadpan witch girl with vantage via flight
-A cool-looking bloodbender that currently gets by throwing packets but’ll inevitably have to use his own as deadly consequence.
-The adorableness incarnate that is Miwa; a super earnest girl with a simple dream and appropriately simple power that is easy to see as being friendly with others, possible reflection for the audience too.
-Two sisters, Mai and Maki, with a quick but strong burst of emotional tension established between them. They each have some sort of limit, Maki being an incredibly resolute fighter but with a weakness to not see curses without glasses, and Mai being unable to use curses without an object but being driven by heaps of vindictive spite.
-A talking Iron Man suit with a twist that pleasantly caught me off guard
-Toudou, a muscleman who’s incredibly self-centered until struck at personal interest, in which case he becomes an increasingly earnest partner with a sickass skill.
Not everyone may like all of these characters, but with their fun powers, interesting power limiters and/or distinct personalities, they nail the appeal of a shonen ensemble. The initial presentation of these abilities in a lower stakes scenario makes their introduction less intrusive on a wider plot. Plus, the majority of these personalities play well for whenever the goofier moments roll around, particularly in the post episode stingers, and episodes like #21. I’m glad the author thought beyond the overly standard elemental stuff to make the ensemble leave an impression. Only hero characters of note I didn’t go more extensively on are Megumi and Gojou. Admittedly, Megumi doesn’t leave quite as much an impression as the others, but he still has a pretty cool power over familiars and got more interesting near the end as his persona began to unravel. And Gojou is such a fun rendition of the typical mentor character, with an excellent design that’s fitting to both sides of his character, constantly holding back yet being comically curious.
Comedy doesn’t only exist for its own sake, but often as a way for Yuuji to bond with other characters in the cast, such as Nobara or Toudou. It’s given a lot of creative expressions, and for characters like Miwa, where their design presentation is intentionally at odds with their character, it feels fitting and adorable. Even Gojou’s comical overpowerdness doesn’t purely exist to be a joke by itself fitting his troll mentor personality, or an excuse for the animators to flex to a stunning degree, but an element actually considered by the show’s antagonists. Some jokes don’t land, but there’s enough characterful personality and expressiveness to them for them to not feel out of place, separate from more serious points to come.
As for the horror elements, Jujutsu Kaisen’s animation does a great job conveying the darker atmosphere when need be in the early/mid-section of the show. It really gets that a major part of horror presentation is fear of the other, and more specifically, body horror of not-quite humans, with some excellent creature design animated in off kilter ways. As Gojou states, everyone at Jujutsu Academy is a little crazy, so it makes the major characters in the show lean into these crazier designs when channeling immense power, fitting for a series around handling curses. Thus, the show has its main villain, Mahito, use body horror to startling effect when creating his monster army. While I wouldn’t call the guy particularly deep so far, the show does present a playfully devilish personality and show his capacity to manipulate others in a reasonable sense. His powers to twist the composition of both himself and those he gets close to in uncanny, distorted shapes play into the show’s theme about curse power perfectly. The show isn’t that scary, but it adds an additionally unique element for itself with these fitting and well-animated leans to body horror.
Speaking of animation, that’s most definitely a major draw into the series. Director Seong-Hu Park and his incredibly talented team of animators making bursts of exciting, visually active battle scenes when showing off the characters and their various powers. Almost every episode has a scuffle in it, several of which have some exciting camerawork to make leadups to individual actions consistently dynamic. Yes, comparing fights definitely shows that some look better than others (the sewer fights stood out the least to me), but relative to the sheer quantity of fights illustrated in the source, as well as the shonen anime landscape at large, it’s incredibly impressive and that the action was this consistent over the run. A lot of the common issues with anime fight scenes (placeholder backgrounds, motion tweens to cover up lack of movement, butt ugly CGI, long periods of chat in between blows) didn’t come up for me during the production, which really speaks to the work (or possible overwork) involved in the passion. Cursed Domains in particular get excellent scene-setting animation, and the unique way aura is depicted, with its aquamarine coloring and pseudo 3d “drawn” outline adds definably high energy to individual moves. This of course is helped by a pumping score, with Nanami’s theme, Fushigoro’s theme and Your Battle is My Battle standing out most among them. In general, while individual fights aren’t on par with ufotable’s more thinly spread action scenes, the impressive flexes from the team and strong character/tone aesthetic create a consistently visually appealing show.
Jujutsu Kaisen doesn’t feel like a massively grand vision yet, so much as an ever-evolving series of smaller elements that combine well together when taped with strong structural decisions, but this feels in line with my natural selection thesis. In its characters, its story structure, its tone, and its ease to hop into exciting powerup action the animation team flexed over, it gets what audiences want from Shonen material as a strong start to a story while removing or playing down stuff that’s been less palatable overtime. I can only hope it improves further as the characters/battle conceits become stronger and its many dynamics continue to be tested.
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Dec 26, 2020
If there’s any one anime, any one popular anime in particular, I could say is feasibly written by an AI scrolling the algorithm, it would be The Irregular at Magic High School. Why so?
Because the show does not have a spec of human emotion in it.
Ignorance is the word of the day here folks. It was fairly apparent in the first season of Mahouka, and somehow even moreso here. Every aspect in this season, from the narrative, to the soundtrack, to the characterization, to the tension, to the worldbuilding is divorced from what’s commonly viewed as respectable. It’s not quite as insultingly awful as Season ... 1, but it does repeat a lot of similar failures, and even amplifies other parts. It saddens me that out of every show in the mostly dead genre of magic high school power fantasies (except perhaps the Index franchise), THIS ONE was the breakout hit that came to spread holiday depression by amplifying all its worst traits.
To say this season has a “plot” would be massively overselling it. Things “happen”, but little lasts to any degree. An American secret agent girl named Angelina Shields drops in to stop “vampires” from draining magic from faceless NPCs in a world we’re given no reason to care about. She uses a disguise, and the show tries to build intrigue of what’ll happen to her and her rivalry with Tatsuya and Miyuki. Which might’ve been something………….unless of course you watched the film, which came out three years before this season, immediately giving away what happens to her. Oops. Oh, and then the last two episodes try very badly to make some point about discrimination with the worst racism allegory since RWBY’s White Fang.
Many fundamental problems with the core premises of Mahouka return this season (except the magic system issues that’s just ignored), and they tend to affect the new elements when it wants to branch out a bit.
The new element they want to highlight the most is Angelina. A top ranked American superspy with a secret identity, the show actually tries to give her feelings, and a goal she wants to accomplish, something seemingly foreign to Mahouka. But what’s the show’s reaction? Treat her like an absolute joke.
Most of the “comedy” revolves around her constant incompetence in her job, mostly the lazy chibi comedy that feels bafflingly out of place for how solemnly serious it wants to be. The show can’t go one episode without having Tatsuya, the All-Knowing Übermensch, snip out that she’s sus, yet the camera still focuses on her devious smirk. By Episode 4, she duels Miyuki, and is on the verge of handily losing, Miyuki seemingly portrayed like a villain. Then, for the rest of the arc, Tatsuya and Miyuki effectively do her job for her, rather than giving her the chance to actually grow or change with any renewed confidence. A show with thought or effort put into it might’ve made her seem more like a competent rival, or at least have compelling payoff for running into Tatsuya and Miyuki, but no! Can’t let anyone get anything out of Tatsuya and Miyuki, the incesty power couple of modern anime. No one wins here. Fans of her character don’t get to see her actually prove her competence or get meaningful development, and fans of Tatsuya and Miyuki don’t have some sort of rival that can in any way enhance their growth. And it makes America look stupid for having someone like her headline their team.
Not that Tatsuya and Miyuki look any better. Oh, the show tries to FOOL you into thinking there’s character development, but it’s a lie that means nothing. Miyuki is still one of anime’s most poorly written characters, with no personality besides loving her brother and being jealous of anyone else who gets near him. This could work if she was an antagonistic figure that stretched her love for her brother through drastic actions, but no, deuteragonist keeping the status quo. The show will claim there’s an arc of her losing attachment to her brother by having her monologue about it, which bears no fruit, and is partially demonstrated by the camera ogling her. After all, the chart says that fanservice sells, why not show more of the female and none of the character?!
Mahouka: We're a super serious science conspiracy anime about secret agents, political drama and magic parasites!
Also Mahouka: Let's have two separate scenes of women undressing for the camera, once for goofy comedy and once for drama with no foundation or worth that's really just fanservice anyway. Also let's give him a tagalong girl no personality whatsoever besides being another tsundere for Tatsuya with inexplicably magic hair beads.
Aniplex: Perfect! Get it into production immediately!
The ignorance never ends.
Tatsuya smiles more, but he’s only slightly more tolerable than the previous season. In Episode 5, there’s a plot involving a rogue parasite that the show tries to act like has tension, but the cast has the answer to every hitch there could be. Tatsuya admits he could've solved the problem for good, but didn't, thus prolonging the runtime. Genius. Another episode tries to act like he missed some detail about Angelina, but he gets the info he wants almost instantaneously just by phoning a few people. It’s lip service to the idea of conflict. The blatant author worship continues; a parasite powering a robot by someone’s love for him clung to him like they’re trapped in a spiderweb. Nearly everyone wants to get a Valentines gift specifically for him. Miyuki and Tatsuya spend the series feeding off everything else; ironically for a plot about stopping possessive parasites, that’s exactly what the leads are, the algorithm too ignorant to admit it.
Less than two minutes after Tatsuya loses his arm, he instantly gets it back. We can’t have TWO MINUTES of tension in this show. And don’t worry about the vampire plot; it’s solved instantaneously when the utterly unmemorable leader shows his face and can easily be put on hold for a Valentines’ Day episode, which is the only time the show has a pulse of life in it.
As if the cherry on this shit cake wasn’t placed yet, you get the last two episodes. Radical magicians forming in response to discriminatory boycotts from the ordinary humans who claim (race) superiority enact terrorist attacks against magician slavery……something never seen and of no value since all the main characters are magicians. Of course, none of them have any actual point that causes the main characters to question anything, or have the charisma of say, the villains in Die Hard. This would be like if The Hunger Games was from the perspective of the capitalists on top……………do I even need to say what’s wrong with that?
Everything else? Well, Erika’s the only returning side character allowed to have half a personality but it doesn’t matter any, and no one else even gets that much. There's a girl who looks like a China Doll that.....exists I guess? The animation is decent; nothing exceptional but without a single memorable action scene, but it fixed the first season’s color grading issue while maintaining a clean look, and the soundtrack is poorly mixed. Most of it is unmemorable dubstep techno, but Episode 9 tries to have a rap go along with it that’s super drowned out by the dialogue and action sfx. There’s so little to attach yourself to in this series.
Mahouka confuses me, it really really does. I’ve seen bad anime aplenty that set clear goals for themselves and fail at them, but I’ve hardly seen an anime be so antithetical to everything about basic storytelling. Even series like SAO can pass off as fantasy adventure stories with kernels of depth, some icky scenes and the occasional bit of earned emotion. Mahouka can’t even do THAT. It’s a bevy of mismanaged priorities and “things people like” stuck in perpetually constant status quo with protagonists that have such a foothold over everything else that they’d be perfect villains in another work. I try to imagine the visions of the creators when watching anime, and there’s nothing here. A super serious science anime with botched attempts at political drama, that’s also stuck with incest pandering, fanservice, and childish comedy. It wants to be everything at once throughout its the 4 and a half hours, and accomplishes nothing. Appeal exists in media, even bad media, but Mahouka stands as a narratively backwards empty shell only notable for its failings.
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Dec 25, 2020
“And they’re ‘rhymes wack, you hear’?”
HypMic.......is a mess. A massive, massive mess. The dialogue is stilted, the tone bafflingly serious despite the premise, the lighting weakly considered, characterization inconsistent with numerous unearned turns, animation mediocre at best and empathetic context missing.
Yet, somehow, it manages to be a really funny time.
“So Bad It’s Good” is hard to truly quantify, since it depends on what can crack the spectrum to any particular person beyond average, everyday badness. However, most of the time, when applied to anime, it’s used to refer to something that tries to be dark and miserable but comes out as comedic instead; Assassin’s Pride, ... Mirai Nikki/Big Order, Ousama Game, Mayoiga and the early episodes of Arifureta as common go-tos. However, those shows tend to operate too much on misery to really hold any likable impressions for my part. Garzey’s Wing is a popular go-to for this category, moreso because of how absurd its entire conceit is than edge falling flat.
Hypnosis Mic, though, champions being so bad it’s good for the sheer WTF value nearly every episode. It’s almost impossible to tell how much of the show is merely being an advertisement for music CDs, and how much is the animation team trying to make some sort of grand cohesive tale out of thin air. This push pull between corporate ad and direction vision gives the show a distinct flavor of entertainment.
The core idea of the plot is that somehow, in some way, every normal weapon was banned from existing, except for microphones. An all female government is in place, which holds a rap battle tournament that four teams of three, who were once together in a group called “Dirty Dawg”, prepare to join.
Any worldbuilding required to make this all happen is borderline nonsensical. The idea of an all-female government taking power, getting normal weapons totally banned (when most people IRL can easily slip illegal marijuana) and standing being asserted by rap dominance naturally only make since by Yu-Gi Oh/Jojo logic, but that just makes things more exciting. The sheer absurdity of these facts plastered onto what’s otherwise a fairly normal setting leads to some hilariously goofy moments.
HypMic’s first eight episodes are essentially prep to get viewers to know each of the four teams, titled Buster Bros, Mad Trigger Crew, Fling Posse and Materno. Aside from Buster Bros they aren’t even in careers associated with rap, some being doctors, salarymen or military men. To get the audience to pick favorites among these Sonic Heroes, the show runners decided “let’s throw these pastel colored fujioshi avatars into deafeningly serious plots that’ll have nothing to do with anything else!” The plots tend to have a lot of threats thrown each team’s way, with the power of corny camaraderie to save the day. If nothing else, these episodes do a passable job showing why each team cares about their respective members.
But remember, weapons are banned in the world of HypMic, so how are all these conflicts solved! RAP BATTLES! Scenarios where guns and grenades would exist are replaced by microphones because that’s just how the world works and everyone completely accepts it. The sheer power of rap allows teleportation, and it’s a sight to behold.
Bank hostage situation? Rap Battle.
Yakuza caper? Rap Battle.
Mortgage scheme? Rap Battle.
Illegal drug deals? Rap Battle
Murder framing? Rap Battle.
Terrorist bombing specifically to prevent one team from participating in a rap battle? Rap Battle.
Only getting a B on my college final?! Rap Battle.
These rap battles are the only times the show gets to add flair where there generally IS none. Most scenes have no flair; the animation is choppy, the lighting poorly implemented and garishly bright enough to make you think all the available colors got used on the character designs alone. With realistic backgrounds featuring absurdly costumed characters, you get the type of wacky dissonance that can elicit a chuckle all on its own. That said, the scenes before one of these conflicts get going with flat exposition are some of the only times the show is actively boring, little but basic partnerships to pass the time. Once the conflicts get into full force and get solved with a rap at the end, then it’s a blast.
So how about the raps themselves, likely the main reason you’ve checked out this anime?
I’m happy to report that they’re absolutely wild. If you’ve watched Epic Rap Battles of History before, they provide a good sense of what to expect; killer beats with over-the-top visual effects in conjunction with mad disses. Given the language barrier, I can’t tell if the animators took influence from them, but it catches a similar vibe. At some points it’s more effects than animation, with different filters thrown about, kanji and battle effects splattering the screen during the rap. 2D characters swap into CGI and back and forth, but the timing of the rap music videos is on POINT. It’s clear this is where the most effort went, for good reason, but it contrasts greatly to everything else in the anime. Props to the translators for creating subtitles that seem to fit into rhyme scheme. It’s hard to tell how well the seiyuu ACTUALLY sing the lyrics as someone who doesn’t understand Japanese, but if I could judge, the Buster Bros have the most amount of oomph and flow to their lyrics while Materno seems like they struggle with nailing lyric flow the most. The raps slap, and when they don’t, they’re so silly it’s hard not to laugh at them.
Of course, the galaxy brained writing doesn’t stop once the division rap battles in title begin. If anything, the presentation gets even more bizarre.
There’s attempts to add some angsty spice by implying that one character was involved in what happened to another character’s sister. Of course, this drama lacks the punch it needs without proper context. Because there was no time to build that up in the 8 episodic segments before that.
Shonen battle mechanics get introduced! Now every character has specialized “traits” that only appear as they rap! Once again it’s spontaneous, poorly built up, and means nothing outside of specific scenes, but it adds to the general madcap nonsense that is this show’s existence.
At around the same time, one character rather inexplicably appears to be a twist villain, with a more sinister grin and complicit goals. Yet, before the episode is even over, they’re instantly talked out of it. It’s almost incredible how the show decides to hold off on its conflict. This is then doubled down further by having two morality turns in incredibly quick succession for events the audience never got to see, only to have neither of them mean anything soon after. You can’t make this up.
Despite all of these issues, the big conspiracy plot keeps rolling, with a repetitive background score of funky fresh beats even in the serious scenes. It’s fitting at times when things are more lowkey but only makes sillier any attempt outside of that. Like trying to understand its attempts to tell a story and remembering; we’re watching working professionals stuck in the rap circuit.
Hypnosis Mic is a respectable anomaly of confused existence and cloudy vision. In this bizarre place where it’s narratively, tonally and structurally nonsense, but it somehow works to be entertaining. What makes the show so bad it’s good for me is that I just can’t tell what they were really going for with this story, beyond an attempt to show off seiyuu vocal range to mixed effect. The characters have light chemistry with their team members, but any attempts to develop anything fall hilariously flat. Its plot goes through every spectrum of tense you can think of under a weak production that gives it no gravitas. It’s a 3/10 for serious merit, but a 7/10 for enjoyment, so 5/10 is a fair way to place it. You might not find it hilarious, or just be interested to see all of the raps out of context, yet for me it hits the perfect spectrum of unintentionally intentional comedy to make it worth something.
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Dec 24, 2020
Akudama Drive (Anime) add
When you’ve been in the anime community for long enough, you’ve likely noted the recurrent presence of “edgy anime.” Taking advantage of anime having less restrictions than western animation, there are a couple givens with these shows; a focus on dark lighting with the color red, loads of gratuitous sex/violence, characters constantly mugging the camera for their craziest face, trying desperately to suggest characters have depth by adding a surplus of angst and for bonus points, massive tonal swerves from gritty violent action to happy wacky comedy. All with a lack of tact and putting this shock value before the characters and the message. You’ve ... probably seen at least one show that’s fallen into some of these traps: Elfen Lied, Gantz, Deadman Wonderland, Another, Mirai Nikki, Akame ga Kill, most of Tokyo Ghoul’s anime, Akuma no Riddle, Ousama Game, Magical Girl Site, the list goes on. However, with every rule, there proves exceptions that can somehow make all of those elements work rather than have them sink the show’s integrity/intentional entertainment, and for the most part, Akudama Drive fits that exception.
In a dystopian future, Akudama Drive bases itself around some kind of “suicide squad”: outlaws pilfering from the dystopia. As the show goes on, you’ll get to see numerous exciting action cuts, plot twists up the wazoo, lip service to its filmic influences and moments of meaningful character interspersed between the crazy plot.
Now, if you were to look at the show from an overly critical lens who nitpicks every little detail (ex. ThatAnimeSnob, CinemaSins) you probably won’t enjoy it. There’s plenty of logical leaping and moments that put emotion before logic, but there’s still very contained pacing to its bombast. When watching Akudama Drive, I felt like it was designed specifically to be the length that it was as an original story. When need be, it’s brought forth by anarchic energy, via bikes defying the laws of physics or Doctor having instant healing capabilities that just aren’t there in real life. The show’s open mystery setups provide easy holes to enable more plot twists, whether from the conceit of the heists themselves, the Executioner’s purpose for hunting the Akudama in the first place or the puzzle of the show’s entire setting. The fact that these twists are presented with the gravitas they are is part of the appeal on a week by week basis. Understanding what the show is trying to be, rather than what ultimately inconsequential detail it missed in one scene, I think is the bigger picture. I mentioned before how it, for the most part, works to defy a lot of the pitfalls other “edgy” anime have fallen into, and it’s very much stunning the audience with the power it has in surfing those tidal waves. The amount of time to wallow in angst is limited and the post-punk style shines through all the way. Obviously, its dystopia isn’t developed to the extent of say, Psycho-Pass, but that just makes it more natural when things go hog wild.
What really helps the show as it goes on is how incredibly self-conscious every character is. Kodaka’s work on Danganronpa proved he could be adept at creating characters with instantaneously recognizable designs and personality traits, and that carries through here as Rui Komatsuzaki’s designs translated to animation. Each one has a very distinctive look that gets their outlook with high expression values. From Doctor’s more slit eyes in conjunction with her lipstick and colored hair, to Brawler’s combo of dreads and vests, Cutthroat’s almost ghostly appearance clad in white, or the ever expressive big eyes of Swindler, there’s a lot to glean from an artistic standpoint to make each character stand out.
But that self-consciousness for the most part carries to individual writing in the same way. Courier’s on the job mentality remains consistent throughout the whole series as a reflection of how he views the world against the absurdity’s of his bike, and Hoodlum’s intention to constantly play himself up with the Joker color scheme follows through with his character from beginning to end. Every character is as they are, so it doesn’t feel like depth or comedic asides are obfuscated; they're inherent. The divide between characters that have these insane superpowers and those that lack them is also capitalized on, much to my surprise. Swindler, Hoodlum and Apprentice are barely pieces in a world that moves along without them, and the show realizes that when sprouting its arcs for them while it progresses. Now, this isn’t to say this always works. Cutthroat’s relatively simple masochistic killer schtick works out when he’s paired up with equally big-headed figures, but when he’s isolated in Episode 9, it’s the closest the show ever comes to wiping out on the edge wave in punctuating the shock factor. The last two episodes do stress it a bit with the metaphors it wants to get across in a way that might seem weirdly out of place for the rest of the show’s tone, but ultimately I think its writing works out to its reason. The ultimate fates of the earnestly portrayed characters, the insane pacing and keeping the ball rolling with its plot make it rarely boring moment to moment. I wouldn’t say the insane thinktrain ever hits Baccano’s levels of intricate thought, but it’s damn solid attempt to make a 4-and-a-half-hour blockbuster narrative. The ease of immersion, constant momentum, and the impressive spectacle would help make the experience, even (or perhaps especially) for someone who may be tired of other anime and their meandering pacing problems.
Although there is a noticeable dip as the show nears its conclusion, for the most part the show’s presentation is to its benefit, which enhances the hype factor. Rarely will scenes be content with flat lighting. Ambient lighting is constant, really making the look pop compared to other anime of its ilk; particular in episodes 1, 4, 6 and 12. Even with how the distinctive color choices enhance the designs of the characters, it’s able to make the environmental lighting give scenes that extra sense of pop-rock. This does mean though that episodes like 3 and 10 with their lighter environments tend to show the weaknesses of duller lighting and CGI pedestrians in different scenes, and the TV censoring can’t show all of the violence in full display. There might be some ruminations on the nature of violence, but you won’t see it stop for the “cursed” cycle of revenge; it’s in service of that “go, go GO” manic energy. On a more positive note, the animation also borrows some techniques from the Danganronpa games to strongly distinctive effect, like the puppet skits to break up the action, and the way its locations are constituted as play sets for scene transitions. It helps make the compositions more artfully crafted than they might have been otherwise and helps establish trademarks of the style, which were ironically mostly absent in Danganronpa’s anime themselves. That playful, toybox feel to the plotting and structure is constituted with these particular transitions, as enhancements of the overall vision.
“Vision” is what I see in Akudama Drive; a “drive” to perpetuate hype cycles through its wildly self-conscious characters and insane yarn of plot. Its brief 12-episode length helps to alleviate potential tiredness of the style, while its art design and characterization create a strongly distinct feel to spot it within a crowd. Akudama Drive isn’t a show that’ll blow you away with its characterization or satisfy the logical brain of putting everything together in insane theory charts. But it will present the type of exploitation and temptation-fueled balance of style and substance you won’t get outside the medium, and on that level, I can say, you done good.
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Sep 19, 2020
(Note: This review covers both seasons of SAO War of Underworld, and also contains spoilers for Samurai Jack Season 5)
The end of the nine volume “epic” Alicization, the end of SAO’s original web novel, and the last of the cringe phase origin. While SAO rants have been done to death on the problematic issues, including from me, I want to structure this review in a slightly different way. War of the Underworld positions itself as the end all be all of everything the series has culminated towards for nearly a decade, and it has the presentation to potentially make it an impressive achievement, but not ... without bizarrely problematic writing being a near constant, even by SAO standards. It has its moments, but it still has enthusiastic high schooler writing, equivalent to a runner having more than enough energy and support to run a full marathon, but choosing to bump into every person, car, sign and small animal on their way to the finish line.
With that in mind I want to qualitatively explain how the show’s faults affect its story from three perspectives: the heroes, the villains, and the presentation.
If there’s one thing I can give War of the Underworld credit for, it’s that on principle, the cast on the hero side is the largest it’s ever been in the series, and they were even willing to kill off several characters for dramatic stakes. This works well for the named characters.
The War of Underworld seasons consist of large-scale battles between the heroes and villains for virtual dominance. Nearly every character in the series is brought back for what feels like one last hurrah, in an almost Endgame-esque fashion. So, if there’s any alive character a fan may have liked from an earlier season, they’ll get to see them battle for a bit in this season, which is a nice, if basic way to pay off fans’ investment in the series. In particular, Klein has some small, but nonetheless genuine heartwarming moments. A brief almost self-contained story is one of the season’s highlights, mostly contained in the episode Sword and Fist. This story features Sheyta, a character taught to believe her power was a hindrance to ever form meaningful bonds, and her relationship with a more hotheaded, laid-back character on the other side of the war with the opposite personality. It’s nothing exceptional by the standards of most anime, but for being in an SAO story, it’s surprisingly alright and has some nice animation to back it up.
On the downside, the show really wants to cultivate emotion with all of these characters, and many of these moments wind up ringing hollow because of their lack of focus. This isn’t to say they all suck. Asuna finally seeing Kirito again within the system is gratifyingly heartfelt, and any sacrifices on the hero side actually feel well-earned and theoretically interesting ways to have Alice grow as a person. Bercouli in particular has a surprisingly good arc of protecting Alice to the very end. His fight against the main villain’s first form is gorgeously animated, scored and resolved in a way only he was capable of doing. These moments in Episode 2 provide a genuine standout in for cast. But unfortunately, the rest of the series mostly flubs its emotional payoffs.
For instance, at one point when defending her leader from an attack, one of Fanatio’s guards faces a brutal attack head on as their body gets torn to bloody pieces, and the audience is asked to care when they die from it. The previous season had the perfect opportunity to show Fanatio’s rapport with her guards during her introduction, but that was deemed unimportant in favor of needless exposition. It wastes half an episode trying to invest us in Renly, an Integrity Knight whom we only just know knew existed, and to be entirely irrelevant past this brief episode. The show tries to get weirdly sentimental about Alice killing random mooks with a spirit bomb, insisting they all have souls and that killing them is losing life, but with how little agency most of them have, it doesn’t land at all.
The most desperate plea of emotional hollowness comes in Episode 11 of the first season. The speech is well-acted by Takagaki Ayahi and Sarah Williams, scored and animated, but what’s actually being said feels like hogwash. The writing in that scene is so sloppy and full of exposition that's only now relevant. What? You mean it WASN’T mentioned, let alone shown, how the school for SAO survivors was treating them poorly prior to Lisbeth mentioning it like it was always a thing? Who knew? God forbid we create an actual reason for all these background characters to care about throwing their Avatars away for a conflict that they have nothing to gain from.
And then there’s Kirito.........
Because of the events of last season, he’s spent most of this season wheelchaired around in a vegetive coma state. How exactly is Kirito in a double coma? Barely explained. But his state leads to a lot of very eyebrow-raising moments, like having entire scenes where characters do nothing but praise him, rolling him onto the battlefield where he could potentially be in danger or having a.............................................slumber party where four female characters all sleep together in a tent around his barely functioning body. Characters like Sinon and Leafa don’t even see him this season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t shut up about him or randomly inherit his clutch survival tools. Leafa in particular gets it incredibly tastelessly, constantly calling Kirito big brother over and over again (despite her initial arc being to shine on her own and get over her feelings for him) and doing nothing for the plot besides being killing a villain who had every reason to die earlier. But that’s not before Leafa gets raped by said villain in a scene shot like tentacle hentai for tasteless shock value! Because Kawahara just had put that in somehow and then it had to be animated with such gratuity.
Near the end of the story, this is an actual dialogue.
Lisbeth: I love Kirito, after all!
Silica: So do I!
SAO’s harem antics and wish fulfillment have been inherent to the series, but they’ve never dropped all pretenses to this degree before in something that was actively trying to be grandiose and gory.
In previous arcs, Kirito had moments where he does stuff through ridiculous means because main character, but there’s enough driving motivation and the occasional arc, like his character arc in the first season of learning to be accepting to others, which was an idea, or the brief intentions to draw on his PTSD in Phantom Bullet. However, in this arc specifically, nothing progresses because Kirito isn’t active. Sure, characters appear and disappear, form armies in different places, or gain new forms, but the plot is still at a stalemate for 15+ episodes. And since everyone, even the Integrity Knights, talk about the off chance of Kirito coming into the fray to be all awesome, the self-importance is inflated to the nth degree, because it's all about Kirito's return. When elements start to move, it’s because they want Kirito back. War of the Underworld actively made him the black hole that sucks all the important stuff into and leaves little left for anyone. I mentioned earlier how Bercouli got a decent arc, but even then, his development is sidelined by events like the aforementioned slumber party, or Vassago trying to tip Kirito into waking up because he’s “the only one who can defeat him” and all that.
The predictable result is that by the end, Kirito is going to godmode back to life and defeat Gabriel Miller, the main arc villain. This, by itself, is not bad, but the show majorly missed out on an opportunity to make this feel earned by exploring Kirito’s doubts, mentally. Samurai Jack Season 5 for instance, I think did this really well. We actually get to see Jack’s shattered, worry-worn state in action, while we also are shown in his mind, a twisted version of his previous self tormenting him, until Jack eventually overcame his past character (with the help of Ashi) to become the character fans knew and loved from the original four seasons, complete with his original sword. This occurs over multiple episodes and it felt like a genuine triumph.
With Kirito, it takes 17 episodes into the arc to finally see his thoughts, and less than half of one to resolve them.
As cliche as it would’ve been, imagine visages of Sachi, Asuna and Eugeo mocking him for his perpetual inability to protect those surrounding him from dying, and his propensity for constantly throwing himself into danger again and again with every new arc. Like he has this need to be some sort of paragon. Kirito overcoming those visages, and learning he’s more than what he gives, could actually be seen as a powerful character moment, worthy of people being excited for his return, and something to speak out against Gabe having learned this. But, no. In his headspace, Kirito, despite seemingly hating everything he went through, is validated for everything without it being by his own decision, and despite being in a double coma in a virtual system, the power of friendship prevails.
Nothing important can happen or be resolved until Kirito returns, yet there isn’t anywhere close to enough time spent with him to make these moments feel earned in any way. You could lose at least half of the episodes in the first cour and most episodes of the second half and lose nothing. Did Eiji really need to stand up to Vassago just to lose and reset the status quo, when that time could’ve been spent better elaborating on Kirito’s mental trauma? No, I don’t think it did. Did we need to waste half an episode building up Renly? Not really. Did trying to bring politics into the mix with Chinese, Korean and US players pitted against Japanese heroes really mean something in the longrun? Not enough. Even the Sword and Fist story, which works decently well as a stand-alone tale, contributes nothing in the long run and wastes time that could’ve been spent either elaborating on Kirito’s mental state or building greater connection between him and the villains.
This even causes moments that could’ve been other characters’ time to shine to fall entirely in Kirito’s lap. War of Underworld actually does a decent job giving Alice animosity with the main villain, Gabriel Miller. After all, it was because of his invasion that her apprentice Eldrie had to sacrifice himself, and he drove Bercouli to what was effectively a suicide just so Gabe could have another form on standby. There's an actual dramatic investment there.
I mentioned in my previous SAO review that Alice was heading in the right direction for a female lead in SAO and that it was nice to see her stand up after learning her trust in supposed nobility was a lie. In this season, all she does is wheel Kirito around a bit, kill a bunch of mooks, sleep next to Kirito, get captured by Gabe for a bit, and then make her way to the tower like the plot device she is with no resistance because of an arbitrary time limit. So, Kirito defeats Gabe without her help, and she has no final words on the matter. Really spitting on all that potential there.
Similarly, poor Asuna. She arrives into the world with a Goddess level power set, tries to help her side best she can, gets depowered through an offscreen time-jump, and just when through force of will and compassion she eviscerates Vassago in another ASTOUNDING cut of animation.......he gets to live just as strong while Asuna is near death. Like seriously? How much better would it be if she finally got a W against a major villain to prove herself as Kirito’s strong and capable battle partner, rather than being someone who needs her boyfriend to clean up for her? Or if Vassago, who constantly talked about wanting to finish things with Kirito, never got that chance because Kirito surrounded himself with people who care for him, rather than just people he could hold power over? They didn’t do that for, what? A fight that was passable at best? Where the fight animation is comparatively mediocre, and Kirito just wins by pulling numerous powers out of his ass to do whatever he wants because plot? This once again proves any stand against major antagonists by someone other than Kirito is pointless because plot. After all, who else besides Kirito can dual-wield, do the Gainax pose while flying through the air between two dragon wings, or straight up steal Goku’s Spirit Bomb?
The heroes in this conflict have a couple standout moments, and it’s nice to see so many characters return, but nearly all of their previous effort evaporates once Kirito, the longest living person in human history, enters. No, killing random mooks/noob players and nothing else does not feel like it makes a difference in the grand scheme. But don’t worry, the villains will be waaaaaaaay better, right?
If a story is only as good as its villains, then the score for the Story number here on MAL would enter the negatives. It’s no secret Sword Art Online hasn’t written very good villains; the series has become a standard-bearer for bad anime villains. With two exceptions that had vague characterization, they’re basically all the same character; some asshole who makes creepy faces at the camera, has obsessively rapey thoughts, and spends all their screentime making sure viewers know they’re as unambiguously evil as possible. Unfortunately, War of Underworld only worsens this aspect. There are four villains that hold plot prominence in War of Underworld, and none of them are written well for a variety of reasons.
To get the two minor ones out of the way, Dee E El is just there to be the requisite femme fatale/baroness character for the villains and little else. She has an eye-catching design, but like most of the other female characters in SAO, gets sexualized incredibly hard with ahoge faces, groping herself and at least one shot of her ass. For how little she actually does, it seemed fair enough to kill her when her tactics backfire on her but nope, she needed to inexplicably come back, sport tentacles and graphically rape Leafa for tasteless shock value. It’s as if the anime screenwriters weren’t sure viewers thought she was evil enough yet, so she got brought back solely for hollow shock value.
Yanai’s villainy is both hilarious and sad. He’s set up like a twist villain with incredibly poor foreshadowing, introduced and named out of nowhere in an episode to accompany an important character doing a plot-important task, before revealing himself at the next episode’s end. If the anime writers wanted to build up the shock value, they could’ve just had him be there with other scientists from the start and create conflict behind the scenes, but nope. The concept of his character, a programmer who took the form of the tentacle monster back in Season 1 to get Asuna all entangled, before becoming a virtual simp for Quinella, is so utterly dumb on principle I can’t imagine what Kawahara was thinking when writing him into this plot. But hey, how the narrative deals with him makes for great comedy. Still though, why?
Then there’s the dastardly duo: Vassago and Gabriel Miller. To start with, the story barely implies how these two even know each other. How did they even meet in the first place? And no, I don’t care if the light novel answers. I’m judging the anime on its own merits. These two seem like they took some sort of bet for who could be more evil by the end of the run.
Vassago has technically been built up since Episode 6 of Season 1, the former leader of Laughing Coffin and the one who as we find out, knowingly caused the PTSD incident that caused Kirito pain in Season 2. But what’s his deal? Oh, he has a hate boner with Kirito and is super obsessed with him, and entirely gets to realize that even despite losing. Yup, that’s it, more Kirito obsession. Plus, his backstory, which the anime presents as a choppily edited mess. Oftentimes, villain backstories tend to feel like either needlessly contrived excuses or too simple to buy into. However, somehow this is the worst of both worlds. There’s numerous leaps in logic and missing information to make how he became who he is needlessly irrational and confusing. Was he a soldier? Assassin for hire? School shooter? Anime viewers have no idea. The anime also widely overestimates his charisma. When convincing gamers from multiple countries that the Japanese heroes are villainous hackers, everyone instantly believes him, except for two people. This way Vassago can both piss of the heroes and make people from other countries look dumb in the process. He eats up the lion’s share of villain screentime in the second half, occasionally having fun chewing the scenery, but really just rubbing in viewers’ faces how flat he is, with random abilities to be a wall that only Kirito can break.
Finally, there’s Gabriel Miller, somehow both the most and least important character in the story. He’s introduced with some bravado as the next big bad guy, having murdered an adorable girl as a child, taking control over the massive army, and repeatedly worfing Sinon. Perhaps there was some intention to make him a cold calculating sociopath as opposed to the wilder antagonists of previous seasons, but it backfires when the anime plays his expressions just as over-the-top as any other villain. Making him be hired by AMERICA also baffles. This heartless, irredeemable bastard was deemed the one America wanted to use for understanding mysterious technology? Really though, the most rookie mistake made was just how little attention he got proportional to his role in the story.
He feels so poorly developed that by the final battle, there’s no connection between Gabe and Kirito other than taking opposite sides of the plot. Creating some sort of connection between a hero and their ultimate villain is basic writing 101, and even something previous arcs did. Kirito and Kayaba were foils to each other. Kirito and Sugou fought over Asuna. Kirito and Death Gun fought for Sinon and the (supposed) end to the legacy of Laughing Coffin. Kirito and Quinella had at least an attempt at some personal stakes such as Eugeo dying and avenging the Integrity Knights. Hell, even Vassago at least was built up since Aincrad and had history with Kirito despite it all being next to worthless in the end. But Kirito and Gabe? Nothing. His importance to the narrative ultimately just marks the guy as a footnote. The animators and sound designers do a great job giving the battle spectacle, but any substance is either straight up not there, or pulled with no buildup.
To try and make these two seem threatening, the show opts to give them random arbitrary powers to pull out of their asses whenever they need to be a threat. Things like mass mind control, shadow cloning, force choking, or weapons that gain power from surrounding death frequently get pulled out of nowhere for the sake of false tension. This stuff isn’t even from the god-level accounts the system left open for them to obtain because plot contrivances; this is from GunGale Online accounts, where the abilities they use could not have existed. It’s annoying because these abilities tend to be used as an excuse for why no character has any chance against them without similar asspull powers. This is a problem Kirito and Asuna have as well, but it’s far worse when referring to Gabe and Vassago. It makes the establishment of a magic system, called Incarnation, seem pretentious, since all it really amounts to is the major characters pulling abilities out of nowhere to assert dominance and win fights. A major part of what makes action scenes, or tournament arcs enjoyable to people is thinking about what the combatants are capable of. War of Underworld actively denies that pleasure, particularly in the second half.
What possibly makes this worse is that, as flat as these villains are, there was some potential present to make the focus on them more interesting. When they first enter the Underworld, they have a conflict of control with two characters that served as more civil leaders for the various armies. Seeing Gabe and Vassago navigate their way through the system to eventually overthrow them might’ve felt cruelly cathartic. But, nah, they die instantly just to show how evil the main villains are, and the evil army is mostly just drama fodder for one-dimensional bad guys.
This refers to both the production value behind the show, and how the show itself choses to provide the audience a lens into its world.
Visually, the show for the most part looks great, and while Swordland is still overused, the soundtrack can still hit at the right moments, like in Episode 2's battle, or A Tender Feeling at the end of Episode 9. Nearly every episode has some sakuga in it, and after mentioning how a lot of the battles in Alicization Part 1 didn’t seem to have as much passion as earlier parts, it was generally added back in Alicization Part 2, regardless of whether or not the writing supported it. The first half of War of Underworld does have some pretty dodgy CGI for ground battles, but that’s mostly done away with in Part 2. Bercouli’s battle against Gabe and Asuna’s battle against Vassago in particular have some astounding animation cuts. However, the sense of place conveyed with the animation when it comes to the war aspect is pretty poor. There’s no sense about what distance either side of the battle is from each other at any given point during almost the entire series. The Dark Territory is a whole lot of nothing scenery-wise: flat red canyon as far as the eye can see. Sure, they’ll be a crevice or a forest here or there, but they only exist as places for characters to walk through, not actual landmarks. Something as simple as giving either side forts would’ve done so much for stakes and establishment. In many war stories, or stories in general, the heroes managing to overtake a villain stronghold (or defend their own stronghold) after a desperate fight can be incredibly cathartic, and likewise, the villains managing to destroy or take over a hero base can be an effective moment of drama or tragedy. War of Underworld doesn’t concern itself with either possibility, instead thinking the best solution is to cut back and forth between numerous characters in numerous battle spots and camps that don’t have any relation to each other. Even something like showing a map of character locations during commercial breaks could’ve added. So much more gravitas could’ve been there if the anime illustrated where everyone is compared to everyone else.
The series also could’ve benefitted from better editing. Jumps to the real world events can sometimes feel arbitrary, and editing in the battles themselves can be confusing at times (in one scene, the protagonist side will have a massive advantage against the clueless enemy, but in the next, they’re burned out and near death with no proper transition). When certain elements that are more pertinent to the story are sidelined, you’re left with Vassago’s confusing mess of a backstory and Kirito’s nightmare not having the time and space in the narrative it warranted for being so ultimately important.
One improvement over the previous series is that the Star Wars prequel level exposition that tried to convey the show’s idea of “hey, digital souls are people too and they matter” has been reduced, but the utilization of the theme in the narrative too often undermines drama. Kirito thinking about Eugeo’s spirit once is fine, but it’s so comically overdone that it feels like a video game quick time event. Yuuki, who didn’t die within Underworld, pops out to provide Asuna with worlds of encouragement or bits of exposition because Asuna merely keeping her in mind wouldn’t be enough. And the most side-splitting scene in the season occurs when a virtual spirit manages to power a real-world robot to complete a task through strength of will alone. Really undermines the realness of digital souls when they have powers well above the plot.
Sword Art Online’s position is tragically precarious, or at least, the original SAO on its journey from web novel to light novel to anime. In light of everything it inspired within the industry, it cloaks itself in higher ambitions and always has strong production value on its belt, but it keeps stepping on rake after rake when it comes to the writing.
Sometimes this season was enjoyable for the wrong reasons based on just how consistently the stupid decisions keep piling up in contrast to the production value, and how much of a teaching tool the series can be for up-and-coming writers. If you’re a fan of the series that can accept every dumb decision for the sake of seeing your favorite characters, you may be satisfied in some places and let down in others. For everyone else, it’s a well-produced but stupendously frustrating bellyflop that gets incredibly close to realizing something, only to fall short over and over again. At the very least, with Progressive as the next project, when SAO returns it’ll be closer to what everyone wanted out of it to begin with, and create ponderings for a timeline where it was the first big break for the anime.
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Mar 28, 2020
Kyokou Suiri (Anime) add
In/Spectre is the type of series that tests the notion “how far are you willing to stretch a good idea?”
Conceptually, this is a brilliant idea for a story and overall, I think the execution is at least good. While so many mystery stories, anime or otherwise, tend to focus on purely the truth, characters getting to the bottom of how events actually happened, never have I seen creating a convincing LIE to factor into that. A lot of ins and outs are explored in the show’s attempt to qualify this point, so it keeps a unique source of engagement in a way unlike many ... other shows of its type. The focus on one larger tale rather than many smaller stories also has the perk of trying to explore the types of angles other supernatural mysteries don’t have time for, in terms of implications. But it’s worth exploring the vibe of this series regardless.
In/Spectre has a very odd start, one that had me baffled as to what kind of show it was going for. It featured characters talking super seriously about serious events, but also mentioning a crush in the same breath and seeming to end out on an action scene. From Episode 1 I had no idea what In/Spectre was trying to be. Comedy? Drama? Romance? Supernatural? It’s a weird mix of all of those types, but Episode 2 seemed to plant things slightly more. Trying to explain and dissect a whole scenario in a mere 22 minutes with relation to supernatural elements devoid of emotion wasn’t very interesting with how little there was too it, better positioned the series as a Monogatari-lite, a mystery series involving supernatural phenomenon and their impact on the real world.
To its credit, the show is one of the better examples to follow up the genre. Unlike Rascal Dreams of Bunny Girl Senpai, it doesn’t get scared partway through the “subversiveness”, scurrying back to the comfort zone of LN anime clichés and cheap emotional manipulation. In/Spectre never feels cloying or dishonest, with even the supernatural elements fitting naturally into the setting, but it can drag its heels a lot with the emotionally distant first two episodes and trying to go through every minutia of a point for 9 episodes straight.
The writer of In/Spectre, Kyō Shirodaira, also wrote Blast of Tempest which received an anime about 8 years ago. That anime featured very high stakes, almost apocalypse level, yet still decided to have all that anarchy in the background while four characters discussed various topics for 5 episodes straight! The intention was earnest, but the tone and stakes of the series didn’t complement that style of writing at all.
In this show’s case, the stakes are lower, so the use of dialogue fits more. Its characters are few, but their archetypes and interactions do something to keep investment with what’s going on. Kotoko is really the star of the show, a cute “slightly older than she looks” girl with worldly knowledge from her spirit background. Her time is often spent explaining various different points, so investment can waver on her, but the comedy bits featuring her are welcome. They take advantage of some light little jokes and the animation can give her some adorably different facial expressions, and that dorky innocuousness is shown well through both her seiyuu and her English voice with newcomer Lizzie Freeman. Kuro appears as though he could be the standard boring “self-insert” protagonist but he isn’t around in prominent enough to really hurt the show for it. It takes a rare approach; an approach I haven’t seen since Kaze no Stigma, where that type of character appears as relevant but with seemingly his own motives and origins in mind. His OPness isn’t used to doubt the power of those around him, but more to effectively gauge the strength the imaginary ghost gets from belief. There’s that same issue of detachment you could view in a lot of the series, but his status doesn’t hurt the series like other MCs he could be related to since it isn’t forcing you to like him.
There’s also Saki Yumihara, who works acceptably well as a straight girl to bounce off both of them, respectfully passing the Bechdel test extremely often when she tries to help Kotoko with a point or attempt to validate her: actual chemistry. Again, nothing special but the anime doesn’t necessarily do wrong with her either. Lastly there’s Karin Nanase, the source of the debate and origin of the ghost driving the conflict. Some might call her busty and striper-like appearance lazy fanservice, but it actually works pretty well for the conceptual plot. Her alluring appearance better helps draw attention to the rumors that create her in the first place and exploits the public perception on sexuality versus identity that clouds a lot of the debating.
The worst character in this show is the Internet itself. Really, it’s an uphill battle when trying to portray the Internet in any way without being laughed out. Although there proves a human force to subvert the idea of a strawman (someone who exists specifically to make points proven wrong) by actually being correct, to counteract the wrongness Kotoko is trying to present, any additional nods to the internet are purely to create strawmen for the show’s chat forum debating. Perhaps one could argue that the Internet not ever agreeing on any particular point is a major reason why the conflict has to drag for over 3 hours, but it’s still a slippery slope I don’t think the show ever quite manages.
As for the presentation, it’s acceptable if bland. The show features a lot of washed out beiges and blues for the aesthetic, with the occasional purple focus when Nanase’s spirit appears and a brief showing of a comment web space which looks worse than Ghost in the Shell SAC nearly two decades earlier. But to be fair, it’s not an action show, so lack of visual polish isn’t as insulting as other series. There’s some fun faces for the brief bits of comedy featured but otherwise it doesn’t speak for much visually. Same for the audio, although the ED is actually pretty fun despite the lack of animation.
It’s truly rare you get an anime series nowadays where the storyline is actually the BEST part of an anime, but here we are. With the unremarkable audiovisuals and simple characters that grow into decency mainly through dialogue interactions, the plot is what will really carry the anime and make or break it. It’ll inevitably captivate some with the thorough exploration and turn off others for how uncompromising it is. For my part, even with a certain suspension of disbelief regarding the show’s portrayal of the internet that never REALLY agrees on anything, it was still decent entertainment that benefited from its lower stakes setting, unique premise and earnest character take. But where do you really take things from here? Would the next season also be about mysteries like this, or would it veer in a more action or comedy focused direction? What supernatural elements would factor into anything further? Would it even try to feel emotional? The odd genre mix of In/Spectre made for a decent watch that stood out among the crowd, but not one that’ll last beyond interest of its unique story premise.
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Mar 28, 2020
An underappreciated factor when looking at any individual anime series is the nature of its source material, provided it has one. Original anime (like the original Madoka series) are practically guaranteed to have a beginning, middle and end, but when based on a source, there’s certain elements that become byproduct by the source’s nature.
When anime are produced based on ongoing manga, one can exact lingering focus on iconic shots and a tendency to go on and on as long as it takes. Light Novel adaptations tend to feature basic protagonists bereft of the thought focused complexity their written works offer. Videogame based anime often have ... very specific factors emblematic of their origin, and of those adaptations, an increasingly common source of anime recently are gatcha games: free to play games tailored to get people to dump money to gamble for character growth and collection. For the sake of providing business revenue, these work fine, however scummy they are, but what happens when transferring that mentality to a non-interactive medium where quick story is the most important?
That‘s the main issue with Magia Record. Despite the admirable effort from the artists and Yūki Kajira, Magia Record’s characters and plot structure are held back very far, likely by how a TV series must accept its mobile game design mentality. Rather than be allowed to freely express like its main series counterpart, it winds up feeling substance-less, focus-less and ironically, far closer to a traditional Magic Girl series.
Because of the nature of this show, I’ll judge the series by two angles, one as its own story, and one as a companion to the Madoka franchise it proclaims itself a side story of:
As its own story:
The first episode seems to establish the plot focus about this girl named Iroha Tamaki, who happens to have Madoka’s color palette. As a magical girl fighting mysterious creatures, she’s trying to find her sister named Ui: supposedly the reason why she became a magical girl in the first place, but whom no one else remembers. It also introduces a girl named Kuroe, seemingly a friend of Iroha’s who already made her wish to become a magical girl, but the circumstances didn’t last. Strong start, but rather than go any further with Kuroe, she is quickly removed from the series to spend the next two episodes on a hastily rushed conflict between two new characters the audience is given no time to care about.
This leads to Magia Record’s greatest sin as its own plot: focus. The show has a severe issue with understanding what deserves attention. Rather than having a central drive that every element works towards, the series instead focuses on several smaller stories that are both underdeveloped and have little to no lasting payoff. Top this off with an overabundance of character designs, likely present to convince players of the gatcha game to grind for them, and you have a series with only the thinnest connective tissue.
See, Episodes 2-3 start and resolve the conflict of two characters. Episodes 4-5 introduce another character in a place that seems relevant but is quickly forgotten after. Episodes 6-7 focus on yet another character’s conflict to create and resolve. Episodes 8 to about halfway through Episode 10 do the same for another character who becomes irrelevant immediately following. During this time, over 10 other supposedly significant characters are introduced claiming to have a reason for existing and not getting to do anything beyond stating exposition. Episode 11 is purely an excuse to bring characters to a location, while Episode 12 explains the magical girl system of the series. Not showing by example, telling how the magical girl system works.
In all this time, there is zero progression on Iroha’s goal to find her sister, which keeps her as a one-note character who has nothing else to define her or drive her drama: a puppet to tour through various disconnected plots without anything interesting learnt about her in the slightest. Heck, we don’t even get to know what her relationship to Ui WAS like in order to flesh her out some. This causes the series as a whole to effectively have a non-plot: with no active villain, clear solution or ticking clock.
Suppose you could argue the Wings of Magius fills the villain role, essentially a magical girl Illuminati, but they function more as a recurrent obstacle than an active villainous force, with new members being introduced left and right, a confusing morality position and no real intricate planning. In episode 11, one of its members even cutely panics when questioned.
To make matters worse is the effect on the pacing and character interactions this non-urgency has. The arcs don’t have enough time to simmer before the next one immediately follows, and more characters bloat the cast. Even if characters like Sana and Felicia had any interesting character moments or traits during their arcs, they are quickly forgotten by the time their arc ends with no further advancement, which leads to very boring character interactions between Iroha and her friend group separating the arcs. The only recurring character who acts consistently different enough from the rest is Yachiyo as the group’s senior. She has her own conflict regarding a friend that joined the Wings of Magius but it’s forcibly restrained by the show’s lack of focus. I never got the sense that her plot had development or follow-through when it’s scattered in bits and pieces across other soon to be irrelevant plots.
Going into the series as its own thing, the first cour presents it as a visually-stylized and musically strong, but basic, segmented, plotless and unfocused series where nothing is given the impact it deserves. Then there’s how it compares to the original show.
As a spinoff of Madoka Magica:
When it comes to how it compares to the near decade old series it spun off from, it’s even less effective. On a positive note, it does retain a lot of the artistry from the original. The characters all look cute and have colorful outfits with several nice little details. Certain episodes have the occasional cool cinematic shot, Kamihama City is often painted orange by the sunset and while the Witch Realms aren’t as specially themed as those presented in the original, the otherworldly stylization around them is retained, particularly in episodes 5 and 7. Similarly, Yuki Kajira does a competent job with the soundtrack. It again, isn’t nearly as memorable as that of the original series for me, but it did a good job adding epicness to certain combat encounters when the writing can’t.
Other than that though, the similarities feel skin deep. While Madoka Magica felt like a harrowing character story told through the lens of the common magical girl setup, Magia Record IS the common magical girl setup with only the occasional lasting dark drama moment.
While the original show avoided the chance to make the common Magical Girl squad by creating personal conflict rifts between prospective members that grew and changed, this show forms its core team almost immediately and forms it arc by arc in a similar way to any standard Magical Girl show, but without the standout traits for each member. Light conflicts never affect the ties that bind. Hell, Magia Record’s introduction of Dopples muddies the well-established nature of the Witches, since Iroha’s soul gem goes dark to become one, only to have the process quickly reversed.
There are a lot of things you can say about how well the original show pulled off what it did, but one element that can’t be denied was its focus. In its 12-episode run, it was able to properly pace itself so that the storyline and theme evolution moved along at a steady clip. The main cast was kept small; characters only got focus when it was important in the long-term and character action correlated with the show’s themes. When Sayaka’s arc took focus, it had significant focus over several episodes with a resolution that filtered out several dramatic twists by showing them to us by Episode 8. These same twists are shown in Magia Record Episode 12, with the panache of an elementary school lecture divorced from any and all interesting drama. Almost appropriate that the episode was titled “Why is this so unbearable?”
Somehow, Magia Record even managed to bungle some of the elements I took issue with in the original series. To some, Madoka was a bland character without much personality or presence herself. But you could argue the simpleness of Madoka’s character was intentional, since the plot challenged her all loving heroine ideals. There was a clear sense that all the conflicts and gut punches shaped her decision making as the “main” character up until the story’s conclusion. She could’ve been uncertain or insecure or “whiny” but those played off of her established character.
Iroha has none of those things. She’s a bit more assertive than Madoka was but nothing about her character or way of thinking changes in the series. She maintains the same sense of non-personality the entire series, never having any interesting character development, never changing her goal, never making meaningful choices, etc. Madoka carries herself in the story because of her flaws; Iroha is purely carried by separated scenarios.
Then there’s the worldbuilding. The small scope of the original series was something I was initially critical of since it implied the Magical Girl system was a constant worldwide, but we only saw one city. Magia Record does conceptually improve with new worldbuilding points, like a Magical Girl Hall of Justice of sorts in Kamihama and the Wings of Magius, but even then, they’re not really fleshed out beyond existing. Characters from this secret base get the paltriest amount of screen time and character depth in the series.
Last but not least, the original Madoka series was 12 episodes and it managed to tell a complete story within that time. This show ends desperate for a second season even while spending ¾ of this season on events that don’t matter to anything in the long run besides showing off blandly undeveloped character designs. The final episode tops it out by desperately overloading itself with fanservice that'll only make sense with the original in mind in a desperate plee to get OG series fans to stick around.
While flaws in the actual narrative could fall on the video game’s writers, the way it’s presented makes it feel like it was limited by being a mobile game in ways not adaptable for its strengths. Go full stop quantity over quality with the characters, since they’re just ways for people to sink money into upgrading and collecting them. Make the plot scenarios separated so they can support short-burst gameplay with grinds in between. And throw in characters from the original series like Mami and Kyoko regardless of how well they actually fit to heighten appeal.
I’m tempted to give the show a higher score on the basis of its animation talent (maybe so without Episode 12). Shaft’s directors are likely trying the best they can, but you can get the animation experience by watching good AMVs on the series. And honestly, out of other shows where the stellar animation quality far, far outweighs the writing on display, like Guilty Crown and Demon Slayer, at least those had consistent story tracks to make the animation highs meaningful in context despite their narrative fumbles. This didn’t have that. All this needed to do was bank off the goodwill of the franchise’s prior success and put talented artists on the project to be a success, regardless of how much effort actually went into this being a structured TV series. Magia Record on its own is a bland and very unfocused Magical Girl series and practically a lesser knockoff of the original Madoka Magica. I am very disappointed with how this series turned out, as it feels like even at this stage, the story could have been more substantial.
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