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Samurai X (review)

Impression – average, so-so, run of the mill, etc (5/10)

Winter to summer 1999 (4 OVAs) (alternate title – Samurai X: Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal)

After being saved by Seijuro, a wise hermit swordsman, he takes the young boy Shinta as his student and gives him a new name—Kenshin.  As the years pass, the boy’s resolve for justice and righteousness focuses him into a powerful warrior; a testament to his teacher’s skill.  But he’s not satisfied with simply being strong.  He wants to use the skills he’s learned to put an end to the wars that bring pain and suffering.  Against his teacher’s advice, he comes out of seclusion and dedicates his sword to Katsura, a man whose motives seem to coincide with his own.  But when a woman named Tomoe witnesses his skills, Kenshin’s life will soon become swept into confusion.

Samurai X is one of the greatest anime of all time?  Gimme a break.  Just from a technical standpoint, this anime was made in 1999 and the animation quality doesn’t hold a candle to pretty much any other anime of the late 90s or early 2000s you could name.  The third episode of the OVA is a particularly obtuse example of laziness because there are several scenes where they just overlaid the animation with live video.  Perhaps this was a vain attempt to make some kind of artistic expression, but all it did was stick out like a sore thumb and take me out of the experience just when I was starting to get emotionally attached.

It’s also full of weird little, unexplained niggles that roughen an otherwise sharp piece of work.  One of the things that constantly irked me is Kenshin’s red hair.  Why should he be the only unique character in an anime that does a very good job of depicting a truer version of Japan than most?  The origin of Kenshin’s x-shaped scar was also a big letdown.  I was left with the anticlimactic feeling of, “that’s it?”

The only really redeeming feature of this show is its writing that balances a lot of different themes ranging from historical fiction and bloody action to a little slice of life and tragic romance.  But even that isn’t really up to par.  The first episode starts out a little broken and does a poor job handling all the flashbacks.  Once that’s over, it flows nicely from a story about a self-righteous young man who wants to make the world a better place to a point where he finds that life is not as simple as he thought.  However, this philosophical revelation is spat back into our faces when Kenshin just goes right back to the war he now knows full well to be futile and contrary to his goal of ending pain and suffering.  I can’t think of a worse conclusion to an otherwise heart-felt series.

I want to make something clear.  Unlike other popular anime that I despise, I don’t think Samurai X is bad—simply highly overrated.  It’s certainly better than its main series Rurouni Kenshin—if for no other reasons than it has much better pacing, tone and voice acting.  But in a lot of ways the OVAs completely devalue Rurouni Kenshin now that I understand his past.  I feel somewhat insulted on his part that he could be depicted as such a quirky, typically carefree person in the main series after all he’s experienced.  It seems like a rather undignified treatment of Kenshin’s character.

When I go to sites like AnimeNfo, Anime News Network and My Anime List and I look at their list of the best anime, out of all the possible titles the anime community could have latched onto, I can’t see how Samurai X could be anywhere within the top 1000.  There’s just nothing to it that warrants such acclaim.

Hakuouki Reimeiroku Ep. 1

Initial impression – your average samurai

Summer 2012 (12 episodes) (more info)

My first reaction went like this—finally, an average, normal samurai anime.  But then I found out that Hakuouki is bigger than I knew and I’m jumping into something that I’m not even sure if I want to find out more about.  Characterizing an anime like this right off the bat may not sound like the praise I intend it to be, but considering that last samurai series that didn’t involve some strong supernatural elements that I can easily recall was probably Samurai Champloo, it’s no wonder I’m pleased to see a return to the basics in this age-old genre.

In what appears to be a developing theme this season, what exactly this series is going to become remains to be seen.  However, a down on his luck ronin samurai who hasn’t lost his moral compass and who’s been taken in by a shady new master sounds as good a start to a rough-and-tumble samurai story as I’ve ever heard.

The character designs aren’t anything to write home about, with most of the large number of men in this cast looking a tad effeminate with their soft faces and long, wild ponytails.  There’s no signs of any bromance, though—so I’m not worried this is some weird yaoi trap.  In fact, with most of the characters hating each other’s guts, I’m predicting something suitably masculine and gritty—even if this series has yet to reveal how it intends to handle the action that I’m expecting will be coming very soon.

So while this anime is keeping its cards close to its chest, I can clearly see that it’s fairly different from anything else in recent years and that’s encouraging.  Whether or not I explore anything more that the Hakuouki franchise has to offer remains to be seen at this point, but being that this is a prequel, I guess it’s not the worst place to start.

Shakugan no Shana (review)

Final impression – a triumphant beginning (10/10)

Autumn 2005 to winter 2006 (24 episodes + 1 OVA) (title literal translation – Shana of Burning Eyes, English synonym – Shana the Fire-Eyed)

High school has started and Yuji Sakai is already making the most of his youth.  But on his way home one day he steps into a sealed zone that is separated from the normal flow of time.  In here, he is attacked by monsters intent on devouring this strange human who can move within their trap.  But at the last second he is saved by a beautiful girl with flaming red hair; easily overpowering his attackers.  But despite protecting him from the monsters, it turns out Yuji Sakai is already dead.  His existence was eaten by a denizen of the Crimson World some time ago and all that remains of him is a tiny spark that will soon burn out.  He decides to spend his last few days before he disappears in the company of his savior, aiding her in any way that he can before he is gone without a trace.  However, a fortunate turn of events may give him an unexpected reprieve from oblivion.

Shakugan no Shana is a spectacular story.  It starts with the initial, horrifying concept of the enemies of humanity consuming people’s very existence as energy, leaving nothing behind to remember them by.  It’s a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that is dramatically mitigated by Yuji’s ability to keep a positive attitude about the whole situation.  He never despairs and is always thinking about how he can best make use of his limited potential.  It’s a testament to the tremendous strength of character people can exhibit when cornered by the most trying circumstances.  The series expands on its intellectual, action-filled beginning and moves into a more romantic theme as the steely Shana realizes that she’s not an emotionless killing machine and her feelings for Yuji go beyond mere camaraderie.  Even the final battle is more than it superficially appears to be because the plot never misses a chance to include a thought-provoking discussion about the characters’ inner motives.  And then to top of the amazing writing is the gorgeous art style of Ito Noizi and excellent music courtesy of Mami Kawada, KOTOKO and several other bands and singers who knew just the right style to set the mood for this epic series.  In short, the first season of Shakugan no Shana struck a perfect balance between fighting, philosophy, artistic tone and romance to create an amazingly profound first season.

Black★Rock Shooter (review)

Final impression – not a second wasted (10/10)

Winter 2012 (8 episodes) (TV series)

It’s the first day of junior high school and Mato Kuroi decides she’s going to be friends with the gloomy girl who has a funny name, Yomi Takanashi.  The two soon discover they have a shared love of a children’s storybook and it looks like they’re going to get along great.  But when Yomi’s spoiled, childhood friend Kagari butts in to push them apart, Mato isn’t going to just give up accept this bleak turn of events.  She makes it her mission to liberate Yomi from Kagari’s possessive personality.  But doing so will have greater consequences than she knows.  In another world, the girls’ voiceless souls are fighting their own, very real battle with life and death on the line.  And when the results of their battles become reflected in the real world, it’s going to change the course of their lives in ways they cannot possibly anticipate.

Quality in writing is often not about a story’s content, but about how well that story is told.  Sometimes the best plot is the simplest and Black Rock Shooter tells a fabulously creative adventure about the subtleties of relationships and how the most well-meaning intentions can have unexpected, unintended consequences.  It’s a wonderful metaphor about allowing ourselves to be close enough to our friends that we can fight with them honestly and without inhibitions.  We must accept that we occasionally hurt people and that we are hurt by others; how we deal with that pain shapes our character and the ultimate fate of our relationships.  Balancing this emotional drama between real people and their actions mirrored by their duplicate selves locked in gallant combat is a poetic dichotomy flooded deeply with incredible metaphors.  Kana Hanazawa is perfect in her role as Mato Kuroi, depicting her exceptional personality and growth from naivety to strong, determined young woman.  But what’s most amazing about Black Rock Shooter is that it probably would never have existed if it wasn’t for the Vocaloid song by the same name, popularized by casual anime fans who wanted to know the story behind the music.  For something so spectacular to come out of simple fandom and not from a novel, manga or video game is truly remarkable.

Black★Rock Shooter Ep. 1

Initial impression – a rough diamond

Winter 2012 (8 episodes) (title synonym – BRS) (more info)

And so begins the anime that was inspired by a Vocaloid song.  The first episode is showing excellence, but comes with quite an emotional roller coaster; leaving me only slightly optimistic about the tone of this series.  It would seem that with only eight episodes they’re rushing content and a slower revelation of this anime’s darker elements would have been better—allowing more time to set the mood.  That being said, there’s still an air of novelty around the concept of our inner psyches engaging in epic battles as we experience the tumultuous drama of our daily relationships.  The art style is also trying something unique with reality looking plain and somewhat unrefined; switching to a sharper and edgy theme when the action starts.  The talent of Kana Hanazawa greatly adds to the depth of the composition, which is going to be a necessity to pull off the range of feelings Mato is inevitably going to experience.  At its core, Black Rock Shooter is an experimental anime that’s breaking new ground and it’s off to a promising start.

Shakugan no Shana III (ongoing)

Impression – finally living up to its legacy

Autumn 2011 to winter 2012 (24 episodes) (more info)

For Shana fans who endured the disappointment that was season two, the third and final season started pretty rocky and didn’t look very favorable as a contender to redeem the series.  There was a lot of really confusing, unnecessary summarizing of the previous season that I’m fairly certain didn’t succeed at getting new viewers up to speed and only served to delay new content for a couple episodes.  But once that got out of the way the story really started to take off and there wasn’t any sign of the romantic quagmire that stifled season two’s first half.  Once again we get treated to the thought-provoking scenario of existence itself being a harvestable resource and the continuation of the secret war that is to determine the fate of not only lives but memories as well.  The changes that have happened in the characters’ personalities are huge and could have had disastrous consequences if they hadn’t been so carefully constructed to match the growing ambitions of the young people as they begin to find the adults they are to become.  There’s a lot of names and faces to remember as the war reaches its crescendo, but if a slow start is my only other complaint, then I’ll gladly give Shana III my seal of approval.

C3 Cube x Cursed x Curious (review)

Final impression – spectacularly human (9/10)

Autumn 2011 (12 episodes) (alternate titles – C^3 – C Cubed)

When Haruaki received a mysterious package from his father, he should have guessed it might turn into a girl.  Fear-in-Cube is a cursed torture device that has accumulated centuries of hate and death, allowing her to manifest as an intelligent being in her own right.  She was sent to live with Haruaki so that she might escape the cruel destiny that has compounded into the misery of her existence.  But that’s not going to be easy when the slightest trigger of violence can send her into a blood frenzy of flying guillotines.  On top that, she’s the target of underground organizations of all colors.  Some see her as an abomination to be destroyed while other seek out the power she possesses to use for their own misdeeds.  Either way, she’s going to have to depend on wise-beyond-his-years Haruaki to make sure she stays true on her path to rehabilitation.

When I started to brainstorm for my review for C3, my first instinct was to start with something defensive that made an effort to excuse some kind of shortcoming.  But then I realized that the brilliant composition of this anime needs no excuses to protect it from simple-minded twits who only want to focus on perceived shallowness when all they’re really seeing is the reflection of their own bias on the surface of a vast, deep ocean.  And C3 is splendidly deep.  It is a story about the human qualities of our tools—the extensions of ourselves we create in order to enhance ourselves to either our benefit or our detriment.  When we use a tool long enough we often start to apply human characteristics and personality to it as it becomes an augment of our bodies; even taking on a share of our own souls. Thus are our tools extensions of our own creative or destructive tendencies.

Yukari Tamura gives a sparkling performance as C3's heroine, Fear.

The theme of C3 is societal responsibility—we must clean up our own messes as well as the messes that happen to cross our paths rather than pass the blame or hope someone else picks up the slack.  It’s an uplifting triumph of chivalry and of people who genuinely wish to make the world a better place. Additionally, Haruaki is one of my favorite male characters in recent anime because he’s not perverted, introverted, spineless or shy around women.  The overused trope of the weak male lead finally gets tossed out and that makes me incredibly happy. Given this anime’s style, I could very easily have seen it devolve into some ecchi harem show like Mayo Chiki or Boku wa Tomodachi.  But C3 decidedly stays away from that territory and keeps things classy, even avoiding an obligatory swimsuit or onsen episode that populate so many anime that seem to lose their creative sparks halfway through.

Brave 10 Ep. 1

Final impression – unpolished and childish shounen (4/10)

Winter 2012 (12 episodes) (more info)

Brave 10 is a testament to some really bad design with incomprehensible, unbelievable personalities popping up in every new character we meet.  Saizo’s actions and words are so inconsistent that it’s unbearably annoying and Isanami’s playful, happy-go-lucky attitude is not becoming of someone who just lost every friend in the world and is now on the run in fear for her life.  The pitifully transparent foreshadowing doesn’t bode well for the writing, either. When Yukimura Sanada just comes right out and says he’s going to need ten warriors by his side before he can start fixing anything, it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to have to put up with a drawn-out, pathetically simplistic build up of gathering party members.  And considering the nature of the battles we’ve seen thus far, they’re all sure to be thimble-shallow oddballs based around some superpower theme.  Despite all this negativity I’m oozing, the action scenes are really well done and would have complimented a much better story. So if you’re looking for a shounen, action anime with samurai and ninja that’s all about spectacle, Brave 10 is the show for you.

Blue Exorcist (review)

Final impression – a blast of awesome (8/10)

Spring 2011 to summer 2011 (25 episodes) (Japanese title – Ao no Exorcist)

Rin Okumura, an orphan raised by a catholic priest, has a terrifying secret hidden in his past.  He’s actually the son of Satan.  His old man also has a secret – he’s the world’s strongest exorcist and works to keep the dark lord of hell from discerning the whereabouts of his lost son.  But few secrets this big can be kept hidden forever, as Rin accidentally uncovers the truth of his identity when he gets into a fight with a delinquent and subconciously releases a bit of his power.  Faced with the risk of being captured by Satan and dragged to hell as well as the loss of his adoptive, human father, Rin decides he’s going to use his demonic powers towards the goal of following in his old man’s footsteps.  He commits to becoming the world’s strongest exorcist in order to kill Satan with is own hands.

Blue Exorcist marks the triumphant revival of shounen anime.  With the unending, filler-saturated, steaming piles that Naruto and Bleach have become over the past several years, I’d pretty much all but given up on this subgenre.  But then Blue Exorcist arrived and helped clean things up.  It’s got action, comedy and story all in equal measures.  The cast is just the right size to provide a nice variety of roles without spreading everyone too thin; characters are likeable and their motivations are clear and concise.  I do have one complaint, and it’s that there are several “fooling around,” episodes whose existence completely ruins the flow of the plot at a few very crucial moments.  Besides that though, Blue Exorcist was a real treat to watch and I recommend it to anyone who misses the days when mainstream shounen anime were still good.

As an interesting little aside, I’m an English teacher in Japan and one of my students is named Yuuki Okumura (a coincidentally similar name to Rin’s brother, Yukio Okumura).

Working!! 2 Ep. 1

Initial impression – nicely moe, but lacking growth

Autumn 2011 (12 episodes) (more info)

When publishers decide that they’re going to denote a second season’s title with an apostrophe to make it distinct from its prequel, I think it’s high time to bring back subtitles.  I’m talking about Clannad After Story, Full Metal Panic FumoffuNaruto Shuppuuden, Final Fantasy VII Advent Children, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood.  It’s so much easier on the filing system and provides a convenient cue to quickly tell what you’re talking about in simple conversation.

Ok, now that I’ve got that off my chest, Working!! 2 picks up where season 1 left off.  Popula is still short, Inami is still afraid of men, Aoi is still a freeloader, Yachiyo is still carrying a katana, Kyouko is still a lazy manager and Takanashi is still a moe fanboy.  It’s a nice, diverse cast that is showing a lack of development, unfortunately.  Taking a moe cast out of school and putting it in a restaurant was a good enough change of pace for season 1, but now that it’s already been done, Working!! 2 needs something else to make it stand out from its own past success.  The first episode is still funny, but I’m being led to predict stagnation.  All the same, I’m hopeful that the rest of season 2 will prove me wrong.  If all else fails, I’ll get to enjoy the guilty pleasure I share with Takanashi.

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