Category: Reviews

Review: Usagi Drop

Based on the Eisner Award nominated manga, Usagi Drop is a beautiful anime about an adult learning how to take care of a small child. What seems like an adorable slice of life comedy slowly turns into a much richer experience as the show explores themes of sacrifice and what it means to be a parent. Daikichi, a thirty year old salesman, goes home for his Grandfather’s funeral and learns that he had a six year old daughter with an unknown woman. After overhearing the family’s plans to set Rin up for adoption he swoops in and decides to take the girl home.

The basic structure of Bunny Drop is as a slice of life show. The entertainment comes from Daikichi learning how to cope with the sudden change in his life as Rin grows and develops. The audience is carried along with Daikichi as he learns what taking care of a six year old girl requires. The problems start almost immediately when Daikichi forgets something as fundamental as signing Rin up for a nursery school. The single change, having to make sure Rin gets to and from Nursery School, forces him to complete alter his morning routine and prevents him from putting in the hours of overtime that he is used too.

The refreshing aspect of this slice of life show is that it isn’t played simply for comedy. While Usagi Drop is extremely funny it takes a realistic approach to the subject showing how a man like Daikichi’s life would change if he was suddenly tasked with taking care of a young girl. The humor of the show comes as a result of Daikichi failing to remember or realize an obvious aspect of raising a child and becoming frustrated, or as a result of Rin or one of her friends doing something cute. It’s a natural humor and is worth more because it comes from how endearing the characters are to the audience and not from a simple one off joke.

The animation and character designs of Usagi Drop are beautiful. Taken directly from Yumi Unita’s Manga they favor a more realistic approach while maintaining the anime style. Characters’ age is expressed well with the fresh faced Rin having a simple, round, cute face while Daikichi carries distinctive characteristics of age while displaying emotions subtlety, with the occasional exaggerated expression. It’s a little refreshing to see adults in anime actually take on the characteristics of age, especially in a show like Usagi Drop where the narrative is about growing up and gaining responsibility. The color palette of the show also helps with the realistic tone, choosing muted colors and even employing watercolor style art for some backgrounds and wild life.

Rin gets the most character development throughout the series, although Daikichi is a close second, mostly because she is still a young developing child. It’s fantastic to watch her go from the shy and mostly quiet little girl shown in the first episode at her father’s funeral and over time slowly grow into an intelligent, smart, and somewhat independent little person. The show does a good job of highlighting important moments in Rin’s development such as her first few moments at Nursery school where she first started making friends, her struggles with wetting the bed, getting over her fear that Daikichi will die one day die like her father did, and her ability to get herself ready for school. All of those moments are small but each one of them represents a large move forward for Rin. Even watching her skills develop as the series progresses is a treat, for example she goes from knowing how to make rice balls, to helping Daikichi with small tasks in the kitchen, and finally to cooking mostly on her own. My reaction to thinking of those moments can be summed up as an emotionally charged “D’awwww,” and unless a viewer doesn’t have a soul they’d be hard pressed not to admit the same.

The surprise of the series is how deep it would get at points. The theme of sacrifice runs through the entire series as Daikichi talks with different parents about how they dealt with the burden of parenthood. The most profound one is Daikichi’s coworker who asked to be demoted so she could spend more time with her child this goes against the classic image of the Japanese business ethic where work comes before family in almost every respect. Yumi Unita wants to challenge that notion, to rewrite that idea in the minds of the Japanese people. With Daikichi starting as the classic notion of a Japanese salary man, one who works long hours and drinks with coworkers long into the night, the idea of having to sacrifice career for family is radical, even upsetting, for his coworkers and subordinates.

The exploration of personality types and parenthood also is a constant theme that runs through the series. Again, Daikichi’s coworker displays a noble love for her child to the point of sacrificing personal goals where Rin’s own Mother disappeared from her child’s life so she could pursue a career. Various other foils pop up throughout, the most extreme being Daikichi’s sister who is getting married but laments the fact her husband wants children cause she isn’t finished having fun, while the other father’s Daikichi meets at Rin’s school wouldn’t exchange fatherhood for anything, even the fun of their youth. Yumi Unita goes through extra effort to cram in the full range of parental personalities into the show. Early I found her negative attitude towards men, because of several women who complain that their spouses do nothing to help raise the children, as her own opinion on the majority of fathers and Daikichi stood alone as the ideal man. However, further into the series she introduces men who are more involved with their children than their wives. Again, realism wins in Usagi Drop above all else as Unita goes through the trouble to explore all attitudes people have towards parenthood.

The only misstep in the series is the strong hints at a romantic relationship between Daikichi and Yukari, Rin’s friend’s mother. There is a ton of tension and clues throughout the series but at the end the audience is left knowing nothing about the progress of their relationship. Some small hint before the series ended would have been enough but hopefully that thread gets explored more fully in the manga. From what I’ve heard after the anime ends there is a nine year time jump, so the possibility of that relationship being developed beyond a crush is unlikely, which makes all the tension between the couple a tease and nothing more.

Usagi Drop is a beautiful slice of life series about a man learning to cope with suddenly having to care of a six year old girl. His struggles with the new responsibility create a wonderfully subtle and realistic sense of drama throughout, combined with some fantastic characterization of both him and Rin. Beyond the simple Slice of Life narrative is some deep commentary about Japanese life and the impact and meaning of being a parent, which takes the show from being about a cute little girl and transforms it into an exploration of personality types within parenthood. The subplot of Daikichi’s romance with another parent is sweet, but never develops anywhere profound before the end of the series. However, that is one small blemish on an otherwise perfect piece. Usagi Drop is a rare gem that many will try to imitate in the coming years but none will be able to balance the elements with the kind of precision that Yumi Unita has achieved.

Usagi Drop is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com. No excuses.

Review: Codename Sailor V Vol. 1

 

Naoko Takeuchi’s first venture into the world of Sailor Moon is the short series “Codename Sailor V.” Sailor V serves as not only prequel to Sailor Moon, but also as a first draft of what would become one of the most popular Shoujo series of all time. Minako Aino is a normal High School girl until she meets the talking cat Artemis who grants her the powers of Venus and the ability to transform into Sailor V: Defender of justice.

Sailor V is a short manga that was published over six years and due to this it feels extremely episodic. Every chapter Sailor V reintroduces herself to the reader and catches them up with the fact that she has the power to transform. This gets tired fast when you have a Tankobon with half of the series collected. A cohesive narrative doesn’t seem to exist even though V is battling the same evil organization throughout, but the reader is never treated to information about what this organization is or knowledge of their goals. They act as a blank stand in so V has an antagonist to face. It wouldn’t be a problem to without complete information from the reader on the identity of the enemy but withholding awhat their actual goals are gives the narrative almost no sense of urgency. This group wants to suck the energy from people, that’s all the reader knows.

Obviously a manga where the main character has to reintroduce herself at the start of every chapter isn’t going to have the deepest characters. Minako is a collection of traits that she is forced to overcome to defeat her foes; those being laziness, lack of motivation to study, and easily becoming obsessed with idols. Most of the enemies of the manga being disguised as idols allow V to face this weakness and this aspect of the narrative actually makes a surprisingly bold statement about pop idol culture. Takeuchi manages to sneak in a lot of social commentary for the benefit of the young female readership. While Minako is relatable, with her general apathy towards studying and obsession with idols, when the “Dark agency” attempts to brainwash all of Japan into believing that work and studying are worthless Minako steps up and defends them. Although she might not be enthusiastic about those obligations she knows they’re important, especially after getting a snapshot of how the world works if the Dark Agency succeeded.

Sailor V has to look past the obvious and see deception before she is able to defeat her foes which sometimes causes frustration for the reader because no matter how many times she defeats “The Dark Agency” Minako still manages to fall for the majority of the agency’s obvious plans. Minako even regresses after Chapter 4, where she suspects the new idol foe before the consultation of Artemis. But those instincts seem to be gone by the next chapter, a symptom of the episodic nature of the series.

Minako doesn’t grow or change much over the course of the volume until the final chapter where some of her preconceptions are challenged when she falls in love with a punk gang leader. Minako is able to grow a little thanks to facing her first real love and comes to terms with the idea that looks can be deceiving, as it were. The gang leader’s duality contrasts the “Dark Agency” which is only painted in black and white terms.

Sailor V is far more a comedy than it is an action or romance story. The action sequences are contained in two or three pages per chapter leaving the rest of the book dedicated to character humor. Not only are Minako’s own personality flaws exploited for humor expertly but I was endeared to the poor police detective who becomes frustrated that Sailor V keeps solving his cases, or the police superintendent-general who has fallen completely in love with Sailor V. The best part of each chapter is the costume that Sailor V decides to disguise in during each story. Using her powers she can transform into anything she wants and this leads to some of the most humorous and adorable scenes in the book. My favorite of these transformations is when she decides to take the form of a “GI fighting girl” which personified her resolve at that moment. That transformation is great due to the sheer randomness of the choice, but it also represents a slight character shift, being one of the few times Minako shows serious resolve.

Ultimately Sailor V suffers from being repetitive which comes from lack of a contiguous narrative, real character development, and compelling action. The art is a step below Sailor Moon with only a few stand out images. Sailor V is best when it is being a light comedy and loses steam when the chapters move towards the conflict with “The Dark Agency.” There is enough good in Sailor V to make it a fun read but its shortfalls are obvious, especially after reading the first volume of Sailor Moon. Fans of Sailor Moon will want to read Sailor V because of how they connect and my reading of Sailor Moon was definitely enhanced by what I learned in Sailor V. But I recommend that most readers simply move on to the sequel and leave this book for the more hardcore Takeuchi fans.

Review: Kimi Ni Todoke Season 2

Kimi Ni Todoke was a hit because of its beautiful art and sweet narrative about the reclusive Sawako as she slowly broke out of her shell and learned how to make friends. The sequel picks up months after the original left off. Now accepted by her classmates, Sawako struggles with confessing to Kazehaya; the boy she loves and the person responsible for breaking her out of her shell; but can Sawako muster up the courage to tell Kazehaya how she feels?

The animation of the original Kimi Ni Todoke was beautiful working in a standard style, super deformed bits, and an amazing watercolor-esque. effect based on the covers of the manga. The sequel surprises with some far better animation than its predecessor. This is apparent because the show works in some old animation from the previous series, in the Episode 00 recap and in some brief flashbacks towards the end. The lines of the animation are crisper; perhaps due to being animated in a higher resolution; the colors are more vibrant, and the animation seems more fluid. Production I.G. clearly wanted to do the series justice and by limiting it to thirteen episodes was perhaps able to get the look they wanted.

The series picks up shortly after the original, making this review a little redundant because anyone who watched and liked the original doesn’t need to read a review to know they want to continue. The first series ended with Sawako and Kazehaya sharing an unofficial date on New Year’s but neither take any initiative to actually admit their feelings for the other. The frustrating part of Kimi Ni Todoke is that the two main characters are in love with each other, but both of them are too scared to admit it to the other out of fear of being turned down. Kazehaya fell in love with Sawako because she was quiet and shy, and never fawned over him despite him being the most popular guy in school. Sawako fell for Kazehaya because of his unbiased view of people, he doesn’t care that Sawako is weird and sheltered from the rest of the class his goal is for everyone to be able to get along.

The main draw of Kimi Ni Todoke are the characters themselves, unfortunately this acts as a double-edged sword as some romance fans will find both character’s apathy frustrating. The relationship is sweet and innocent in a fashion that is almost unrealistic. However, Kimi Ni Todoke characterized Sawako and Kazehaya carefully enough to make their innocence realistic. Sawako is such a sweet and lovable character, there is rarely a scene where I don’t want to hug her and ensure her that everything is going to be all right, but it is backed up by years of being teased and isolated from her classes. She has spent much her childhood alone and thus doesn’t know how to interact with people as a normal high school girl. It does become frustrating that the characters are so slow to make any type of forward movement. Sawako and Kazehaya fall into misunderstanding on top of misunderstanding and have to dig their away out of it. The audience is given the tiny details of their thought processes along the way, which slows the show down to a crawl and yet it hits a cord with me and sucks me into the drama. The audience gets into the heads of the characters, lives inside them, and comes out the other side still frustrated by the lack of progress in the relationship but absolutely enthralled by the level of character drama.

The structure of the thirteen episode second season is around a single goal, the story of how Sawako and Kazehaya finally get together. The original series allowed some room for side characters to get a storyline and Sawako to play a supporting role but here Production I.G. focus’ is on the main story of Kimi Ni Todoke and they tell it beautifully. The slow development of Sawako and Kazehaya’s relationship match the tone and art style of the series to create a beautiful snapshot of two shy teenagers attempting to express their feelings for each other. The importance that the show gives to the confession leads to some melodrama, but it is rare that a teenage romance is without some melodramatic themes and the premise of Kimi Ni Todoke Season 2 is that the confession is the most important step for Sawako to make to further break out of her shell. It is weaved into the fabric of the series and because of that the melodrama is more forgivable that in less well-crafted narratives.

Kimi Ni Todoke has some elements which just don’t work after thirty episodes. The one-note joke of Sawako looking and acting scary has overstayed its welcome. It was an effective way of introducing Sawako to the audience as a starting point for a character which needed to progress further but it now has less to do with character development and is used for humor, which simply falls flat. There is a character type in anime, the naturally scary girl that Sawako supposedly is, that I don’t get. I’ve also seen it attempted in D. Gray Man and Ramen Fight Miki, something is lost in translation and I just don’t understand the humor. The pacing, as I’ve stated above, is also going to turn some fans away. Kimi Ni Todoke is a slow show. The romance was started in the first episode and now 38 episodes into the series the pair comes to the point of confession. It is a slow character drama and if you don’t know that going in, the pacing is going to turn you away.

Kimi Ni Todoke is an exceptional anime romance with some interesting, well written characters and an adorable narrative that follows the growth of two shy high school students. The depth in which Kimi Ni Todoke gets involved with these characters is unparalleled in any other anime romance I’ve seen. Being an intense High School drama the show does lean towards some melodrama, but it works within the context of the series. The show isn’t without its blemishes; of course; what little comedy the show has is poorly executed, most of the action in the series takes place in the character’s heads, and the relationship of the main characters progresses at a crawl. Kimi Ni Todoke’s second season picks up where the original left off and concludes the main question of the story, will Sawako and Kazehaya get together? It doesn’t disappoint.

Review: Disappearance Diary by Hideo Azuma

Disappearance Diary is a fine example of the scope of Japanese Comics. Here we have a veteran of the craft writing a tale about the lowest point in his life, a truly touching life story about a human pushed to the breaking point, how his life is destroyed, and how he puts himself back together. Disappearance Diary is an autobiographic work by the father of Loli-con, Hideo Azuma where he recounts the two times he ran away from his life; his career as a Mangaka; and his struggles with alcoholism.

Disappearance Diary is a story told in three parts. There is no initial backstory, no history on the author at the start of the book. Azuma tosses you right into the first disappearance where he excuses himself from his studio claiming to go buy some cigarettes and simply does not return. The piece starts “This manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible,” and the art work reflects that attitude. Azuma himself is a cute little character with stubby legs, ruffled hair, and a single large eye. The cute art helps soften the blow of the content, as intended, because it simply is less tragic to see a cute chibi Azuma sleeping in two inches of water than it would a photo realistic Azuma.

In the first part Azuma leaves his studio and decides to live in the woods behind an apartment building. He survives by scrounging food from the trash and picking up cigarette butts off the ground. After the police find him and return him to his wife. Three years later he runs away again, this time sleeping in parks until he takes a job with a gas company laying pipes. He works for the company, his goal being to do anything to escape from the life of a Mangaka. Then the book recounts Azuma’s Manga career as he takes job on top of job, lives a life of sleepless nights, and is almost unable to say no as editors pile more projects on top of him. The final section of the book explores Azuma’s fall into Alcoholism and his time spent in the hospital in recovery.

The title is becomes somewhat procedural because it is written in the form of a diary, Azuma goes over his journey step by step explaining the tactics he used to survive outside of civilization. The clever ways he uses the resources available to him to, for example cooking himself Ramen while avoiding the notice of a residents of a nearby apartment building, are a fascinating snapshot of homeless life. The first disappearance story is filled with his survival tactics and they are all bitter because the reader knows he is coming up with these clever tricks to avoid returning to his former life. He could simply go home and eat a warm meal, sleep in a warm bed but he chooses to sleep in snow just to maintain the feeling that he escaped from his life.

The second disappearance is similar to the first, but Azuma meets a large number of interesting characters that he establishes expertly in just a few images and off the cuff phrases. One homeless beggar has the strangest goofy expression on their face which instantly that establishes them as a character that the reader is not supposed to take seriously. In the narration Azuma describes him as “odd” and the goofy expression works to reinforce that. The simply artwork is used like that in all the small characters Azuma comes across. Azuma’s partner in the gas company was a much hated womanizer. The first panel he appears, even before Azuma tells the reader who he is, the character boldly states “Banged another woman I pulled through phone dating yesterday!” while wearing a wide, stupid grin which instantly establishes his character type and attitude. The reader immediately recognizes the world Azuma was entering as he shifts from artist to Blue collar labor.

The effectiveness of the Disappearance arcs wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if not for the inclusion of Azuma’s history as a Mangaka. I was taken aback by the way the piece began, with Azuma walking out of his studio on his first disappearance, but as the story went on I came to accept that it didn’t matter why he decided to leave his world behind as long as the audience understood that this was a deeply broken individual. The process of unfolding his career is quick but effective and explains how fast he became overwhelmed by the amount of work, and in those few pages it clicks with the audience why Azuma would just drop everything and run away. It was a beautiful moment and an exceptional way to bring the back story into the narrative, the audience immediately understands the reason Azuma ran away after knowing the story of his experiences the desperation and sadness in the first two sections hits the reader all at once and Azuma becomes an absolute tragic character.

The final piece tracks Azuma’s time spend in rehabilitation for Alcoholism. Using the same tactics he used to track his disappearances he describes the procedures though the ward expertly, he colors the people in the ward; no matter how tragic; in a cartoonish hue, and his telling of his experiences are in the same simple and cute art style in which depressing events are made less so by the lack of realism. What sets this chapter of the piece apart is that Azuma is not describing the selfish escapism of the first half of the book but he is describing his struggles with addiction. This is perhaps the lowest part of the author’s life and yet it appears on the page with cute art and a sense of humor. It is an amazing and rare accomplishment because while many artists go through drug rehab they don’t have the gall to write about it in such a light and humorous fashion. Azuma expresses to the reader how dark this part of his life was but also doesn’t shy away from making fun of himself at the same time.

There is a general lack of characterization in the book, which suits the diary style that Azuma was going for. But we never get any actual detail on which Azuma is and apart from the quick sketches mentioned above all of the side characters lack any sense of depth. The most unfortunate out come at this is the lack of information on Azuma’s wife. She is constantly in the background and becomes Azuma’s constant assistant while drawing Manga. She is a woman who put up with her husband walking out and living as a homeless person twice, watched her husband work himself nearly to death, and saw him become consumed by alcoholism. Yet, we never are given a reason why she put up with him. What made Azuma a desirable husband? Why did she love him? I continue to wonder what made her stay with Azuma after the first time he walked out, let alone through Alcoholism.

The biggest strength of the work might be how personal it is to the author. This is the story of the last ten years of his life and so while he wanted to get his experience out on the page the emotional turmoil that he and his wife went through is absent. It is impressive that despite that the piece remains a touching human story, and that proves Azuma’s skill as an artist. But the book could be so much richer if Azuma had shown how these events affected the people who love him, rather than simply showing us the events in a cold procedural manner.

Disappearance Diary is a colorful look at the darkest moments of a man’s life. It’s heavy and depressing while at the same time maintaining a light and humorous tone. It is a wonderful experience and a look at the stress that Mangaka actually have to endure. At times it can feel a little procedural, when Azuma describes the processes he used to survive or the processes of the hospital, has weak characters, and lacks a deep emotional connection. But this is a Diary; as the title suggests, so those details give a sense of realism to the story rather than slow the narrative down. The piece shows the power and flexibility of the medium and should be on the shelf of any manga fan.

Images sources: 1 2 3 4

Review: Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko

Moe comedies are a dime a dozen at this point and it’s refreshing to see one that explores some unusual themes and that offers some genuinely good character drama. Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko is the story of Makoto Niwa, a school boy who comes to live with his eccentric Aunt and cousin after his parents move overseas. He grows close to his cousin, Erio Towa, and helps her slowly break out of her shell.

Denpa comes from the Japanese for “electric wave” and is used to refer to people who act strangely or hold strange beliefs; similar to the “tin foil hat” symbol in the United States. The story is certainly full of characters who hold odd believes and act strangely, the chief among them being Makoto’s cousin Towa, who is the main focus of the narrative. Towa starts off wrapped in a futon refusing to come out and interact with the people around her. She became this way after vanishing for a few months a year or two before the narrative begins. Unable to connect with reality, she dropped out of school and lives isolated form the world. As the series goes on Towa slowly starts to open up and some information of what happened during her disappearance is unveiled. Makoto facilitates this change because he refuses to accept Towa’s current way of living and is annoyed at his aunt who ignores Towa instead of dealing with the problem.

The growth of Towa is heartbreaking as the audience slowly realizes how stunted her development has been by the disappearance. Makoto helps her open up by just interacting with her, something few have tired since her regression. As Towa becomes more familiar with her cousin she is slowly able to interact like a human being again. It’s an interesting exploration of mental illnesses like regression, disillusion, and being disconnected with reality. As Towa comes back to the world the damage done to her is apparent. The scenes where Makoto is being rough and pushy with Towa are some of the most touching of the series because in Towa’s reluctance are signs of what she has been going through as the world slipped away from her.

Of course, regression of a good catalyst for Moe and this show has it in spades. The eccentric qualities of the characters make for awkward interactions and that leads to Moe. Makoto is chased by two of his classmates, Ryuko and Maekawa, both of them representing conventional moe tropes. Ryuko is the classic energetic go-getter, small and cute character in the style of Clannad’s Nagisa and Maekawa had the old sister character vibe topped off with a layer of cosplay Otaku. While the characters are generic the interactions the girls have with Makoto are sweet, sincere, and feel extremely real for a show with Moe elements. The procedural style of the relationships give the show a dating sim adaptation feeling but the relationships themselves are more subtle and playful than the standard Key adaptation. My favorite of the “dating” scenes has Makoto going to Maekawa’s house where she tries to impress him with Cosplay, cooks him a small meal, and play Video Games together. It’s a sweet moment not standard of Moe anime.

Makoto’s Aunt Meme, she is a 40 year old who acts like a young child, is an interesting character to include in Denpa Onna. Finally, Japan has figured out how to make an adult act like a Moe character; just give her emotional baggage that causes regression! Meme’s storyline comes down to an attempt to cope with aging and her attempt to act like a child and flirting with her young nephew are ways she is desperately attempting to hold onto her youth. Denpa Onna merges the character’s narratives well in the climax of the first half of the series; a wonderful metaphor for growth and moving forward is employed as a way to examine how the characters will continue to move forward, continue to better them.

The problems with Denpa Onna become much more apparent in the second half of the series. The romance arcs move to the forefront of the story and a new Denpa is introduced, because Towa wasn’t weird enough to carry the themes of the show I suppose. This brings the focus of the show away from Towa and Meme and more on the character development of Makoto and the love triangle forming around him and, frankly, the show becomes less interesting. What started as an interesting character drama with some Moe characters that were fun to watch because of their weird ticks transitions into a generic romance with a weird Moe girl tossed in almost as an afterthought. Yashiro shows up one day on the opposite baseball team in a league Makoto joined and is dressed in a complete 1960s style space suit. Like Towa she believes she is an alien, is using something to symbolically hide herself away from the world, and needs Makoto’s help to open up the world around her. Some narrative elements from the first part of the show carry over to the second but it mostly ends up as a rehash of the Towa arc. Meme is also notably absent from the majority of the second half of the series, unfortunate because of the way her arc ended in the first half made her one of the few grounded characters of the series. She appears in one major scene which is mostly humorous and works to destroys some of the realism that Denpa Onna had tried to maintain. Yashiro, at best, distracts from both the romance story and the relationship Makoto has with Towa. I don’t know why she had to be included in the narrative, and the only reason I could think is that SHAFT believed that more Moe characters would translate to more profit.

In reality, Denpa Onna is adapted from a series of Light Novels so the first six episodes, which have a beautiful arc that ends skillfully, represent the first novel while the second half of the series adapts the second. Gluing the two together disrupts the flow, takes away from the character work accomplished in the first six episodes, and harms the overall narrative of Denpa Onna. Yashiro is annoying and jamming her into an already crowded thirteen episode series kills Denpa Onna just as it was getting rolling.

It is hard to really put my finger on what I think of Denpa Onna because while I really liked the first arc, the interesting character development of Towa, and the emerging Romance story the anime is ultimately hampered by Hitoma Iruma shoehorning in Yashiro into an already crowded cast. Some of the best moments of the second arc are destroyed by Yashiro’s presence and the character’s development is almost nonexistent. It feels as if the writers were simply trying to out Moe himself and not even the skilled direction of Akiyuki Shinbo could help the series recover from this obvious blunder. Denpa Onna’s first arc is certainly a necessity watch for Moe fans and a lesson in using ridiculous characters in a serious narrative, but even the most diehard Moe fans will find the second half weighted down by the addition of the poorly written and unnecessary Yashiro.

Review: Princess Jellyfish

Director Takahiro Omori, perhaps most famous for his adaptations of Ryohgo Narita’s light novels, does a complete 180 and takes on the Josei title “Princess Jellyfish”. Filled with fantastic characters and a touching love story, Princess Jellyfish is an adult romance in a medium far too crowded with High School dramas. Princess Jellyfish focuses on Amamizukan, an apartment building in Tokyo filled with female Otaku. Tsukimi Kurashita has moved to the city to become an illustrator, but she is held back by a fear of social interaction and attractive people, labeled: “The Stylish.” Until a beautiful cross dressing stylish helps save a beloved Jellyfish from improper care.

Princess Jellyfish is able to balance characters between the cosmically tragic and hilariously awkward. The tenants of Amaizukan are reminiscent of the standard Otaku NEET normally seen in anime but showing them as young women is new and adds an interesting twist to the pathetic Otaku stereotype. Like most NEETs portrayed in anime the woman of Amamizukan celebrate their status as NEETs rather than work to improve their situation. The obsessions the women here aren’t the anime or computer geeks typically seen in anime, but each girl has a unique obsession that characterizes them and is the source of the humor in the show. Chieko is obsessed with traditional Japanese clothing and collects dolls; which she calls her children; Mayaya is obsessed with Romance of the Three Kingdoms and constantly makes allusions to the novels, Banba is obsessed with Trains and has rail lines and schedules memorized, and Jiji is obsessed with older men. Their obsessions are executed at the most awkward of times, fueling much of the humor in the series.

Tsukimi and Kuranosuke receive the vast majority of development in this rather short series. Tsukimi is a rather tragic character; her awkwardness during social interactions holds her back from achieving what she came to Tokyo to do, become an illustrator. She fell in a rut by living in Amamizukan with girls who are just as terrified of the outside world as she is and the group formed a bubble that they believed they could live in forever without any interference from the outside world. The first time that bubble is penetrated is when Kuranosuke forces his way into Tsukimi’s life. Kuranosuke is both the complete opposite of the residents of Amamizukan and strikingly similar, he has drive and opportunity but chooses not to pursue the opportunity given to him by his political family. He cross dresses to keep out of political life and in doing so crafts his own way in the world. These two characters are amazingly complex and the show explores their individual uncertainties and potential almost effortlessly. Their lives are weaved together by similar backgrounds but they are kept apart because of completely opposite personalities, which makes their relationship all the more complicated and interesting. Nothing bores me more than a romance between two beautiful people who fall in love, the relationship of Tsukimi and Kuranosuke has layers that keep them apart, the core of the relationship being that they are characters who carry deep emotional scars and have had difficulty relating to others.

That bubble has the potential to be popped by the government’s plan to redevelop the area into expensive apartment and office buildings. Kuranosuke, being the son of a political family, has the experience and skills necessary to lead Amaizukan into battle. This is the chief conflict in the narrative, and although it sounds like a story that has been done to death the fact that the characters defending their home are all socially inept, Otaku, NEETs adds a new element to an otherwise played out plot. The group has trouble even appearing at the town hall meeting to discuss plans for redevelopment because the beauty of the woman who is in charge of redevelopment terrifies them, on top of the general fear of appearing in public and attempting to speak in front of a large group of people.

The theme that plays out in the series is that of appearances. One’s appearance does not express who they are, but most people will be turned away by someone dressed in an unfamiliar way. So the Amamizukan girls are scared of people who care about their appearance because it’s foreign to them, but their lack of style creates yet another barrier from the world. Princess Jellyfish explores these individual barriers that people erect, but it doesn’t judge any of individual people behind them. If anything, it champions individuality and passion while at the same time criticizing allowing those passions to consume one’s life. It’s a complicated and unique character building technique. When Kuranosuke appears for the first time out of drag it is momentous, and marks the first time he symbolically admits his feelings for Tsukimi, even if he can’t bring himself to articulate it in words.

There is a subplot around Kuranosuke’s brother, Shu, who has lived his entire life following in his Father’s footsteps. He has had such a strict and ridged preparation for a life in politics that he has never even been with a woman, and when Shoko; the developer who wants to destroy Amamizukan; tries manipulate him so she can get the plan passed he doesn’t know how to respond beyond a complete mental breakdown. Again, Princess Jellyfish is playing with opposites and building romantic relationships with characters that are seemingly incompatible. Sho does things by the book and Shoko uses manipulation and sexuality to get what she wants. When the two clash, Sho ends up at a disadvantage to her sexual advances and Shoko is at a disadvantage to his odd sense of honor. The side story gives Akiko Higashimura another way to explore the themes of costuming she establishes in the Amamizukan characters except with two much more traditional characters, by societal standards. What is flamboyant and hilarious when explored with Tsukimi and Kuranosuke comes off as more subtle and sad when explored with Shu and Shoko.

Princess Jellyfish first builds complicated characters, characters that have glaring flaws ranging from the quirky to the emotionally scaring, and enjoys pairing these characters with their exact opposites creating a unique and entertaining romance. The main characters are all well developed with the side characters offering fantastic comic relief. While the main plot is cliché it allows the characters to shine brightly, and character pieces are what director Takahiro Omori does best.

Good

  • Fantastic characters
  • Interesting romantic narrative
  • Quirky side characters hilarious
  • Masterful execution of costuming theme

Bad

  • Cliché main plot

 

Princess Jellyfish is currently steaming on Hulu, Youtube, and Funimation.com.

Review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Director Akiyuki Shinbo and writer Gen Urobuchi tackle magical girl tropes with Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a dark take on a magical girl genre. The magical creature Kyubey has the power to grant any wish a young girl could want but exchange those girls must become Puella Magi, Magical Girls, and fight against the evil witches who threaten to corrupt innocent people. Homura Akemi, a new transfer student, tries to prevent Madoka from accepting the offer while Kuebey insists that Madoka will become the most powerful Magical Girl who ever lived.

Gen Urobuchi decides to take the tropes of magical girl and turn them on their head. He takes a genre that is essentially wish fulfillment for young girls and imbues it with a universal truth: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Nothing comes for free, especially magical powers. Using that simple idea Urobuchi is able to create a story filled with mystery and intrigue as we watch characters struggle with the decision to accept Kyubey’s offer, wonder at the origin and goals of Homura Akemi, and attempt to decode Kyubey’s true motivation for creating magical girls and fighting the witches. Simply adding uncertainty and withholding information in the Magical Girl formula expands and twists it from the normally positive atmosphere about girls gaining magical powers into a dark and creepy world where evil lurks just around the corner.

Urobuchi’s script is enhanced by the direction of veteran Akiyuki Shinbo and the art direction of Kunihiko Inaba. They are able to craft a world that is dark and terrifying, taking advantage of Shino’s signature use of shadows and silhouettes, yet the characters retain an adorable and innocent look. The look of the show as the atmosphere grows darker has the feeling of a modern Card Captor Sakura being tossed into the world of Bakemonogatari. The contrast is both visually interesting and tonally disturbing.

Shinbo brings his use of cutout animation, which he used briefly in Bakemonogatari, into Madoka Magica to create the witches. The style is effective in making the witches, and the witches’ spaces look extraterrestrial. Art of the cut up scenes are made up of twisted symbols of adolescence, the witches themselves appearing as misshapen toys or decorated with lollipops and mints. The design and style of the witches make some of the most interesting and unique bits of animation that I have ever seen. Those sequences alone make Madoka an important piece of work, Shinbo has already shown a desire to push the limits of modern computer aided animation in Bakemonogatari and SoreMachi but he has pushed far beyond that by using this cut out style so effectively. This could be the largest stylistic innovation in Japanese animation since the industry switched to computer animation.

Madoka’s characters are, in essence, the generic magical girl characters but again, like the entire show, the tropes are twisted slightly to create a darker more serious version of the standard Magical Girl show. Sayaka’s character arc fits in with a standard supporting cast but the emotional trauma associated with the characters makes that role and her effect on Madoka more emotionally profound than expected. Homura Akemi appears as a standard silent girl, but she has secrets that drive the character and entire narrative forward. Even Madoka’s mentor Mami, who plays the supporting elder magical girl role, has a tragic past which makes all her actions laced with a slight taste of bitterness.

However, Madoka herself escapes the corruption of the show; she is the perfect magical girl heroin displaying untainted kindness and selflessness. Madoka Magica spends time with Madoka’s family and develops her background, giving her an idealized family life suited to the characteristics of a Magical Girl heroin. The best element of Madoka’s development is her mother as a strong female role model. Madoka’s mother is a career woman, where her father is a stay at home dad, and she has the dedication and motivation normally associated with Japanese business men. In a show about exceptional young girls it is fitting to have the woman in Madoka’s life also be exceptional. It’s a shame that young girls aren’t the target demographic for the show because Madoka and her mother are both powerful female role models, which are too rare in anime.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s goal of deception hurts the beginning of the series. The first two episodes feel like an extremely beautiful magical girl show. Even with the early hints of more sinister goals under the adorable face of Kyubey the show doesn’t really show its true colors until the third episode. Viewers who watched the first episode and didn’t see any reason to continue can’t be blamed, there just isn’t any compelling reason to move beyond it accept for Shinbo’s direction and art. Towards the end of the show, as things begin to be revealed to the audience, there is a heavy amount of expository dialogue, the majority which is glanced over too quickly. The show crams a ton of key information into one or two scenes that, in a longer series, could have been expressed more effectively. Even so, those are two minor blemishes on an otherwise monumental accomplishment.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica breaks new ground visually with its unique cutup art style. The narrative takes the tropes expected from standard magical girl show and twists them to create something that has the feeling of magical girl but dark, filled with intrigue, and holds the audience in suspense till the last moments. The characters are only slight improvements on the standard tropes, the show getting off to a slow start, and the long scene of expository dialogue are only minor setbacks in what turns out to be an incredible experience.

Good

  • Incredible visual achievement
  • Strong female characters
  • Character designs on top of cut out animation is effectively disturbing
  • Characters tropes are reinvigorated by a shift in tone
  • Compelling narrative

Bad

  • Slow to start
  • Long scenes of expository dialogue

Review: Wandering Son

In Japanese Animation, there is no more played out genre than the High School drama. While most become comedies or sentimental romances Wandering Son turns away from the cliché and captures an element of adolescence that is rarely explored in the medium: gender identity. While initially turned off by the show’s premise it was quickly apparent that Wandering Son didn’t have any agenda to force on the audience but rather it wanted to show characters exploring gender in a genuine, realistic way and it accomplished its goal with style. Shuicihi Nitori is a boy who wants to be a girl, and Yoshino Takatsuki, a girl who wants to be a boy. The story picks up with the two entering middle-school and shortly after Nitori’s confession of love was turned down by Takatsuki.

The first episode is impressive in the way the narrative establishes relationships with minimal effort. The interactions of the characters define a base from which the audience needs to understand the relationships, and the relationships of the show are complex so any help is appreciated. An early scene has Nitori’s sister sliding him an extra piece of shrimp at dinner as a silent way to make up for a fight that morning, the subtle gesture feels like a natural way an elder sister would make up with her younger, weird brother. She is too proud to say anything but loves him too much to have him stay mad at her. The show is sprinkled with beautiful moments like this which make the relationships in the show a joy to watch develop.

Wandering Son takes its time, it is slow and methodical, yet doesn’t waste a second of screen time without a character making a choice that will affect the relationships around him. In the middle of the show there is even a play staged which takes on the classic device of a play within a play. The play serves as a way for the gender confused characters to act out their desires, not in private but to show it to the world and not be judged negatively by their peers. Appearance plays a lot into the central theme of the show, and the way one appears to their peers is defining to kids at their age. This theme is why I think there is a powerful story about any adolescence discovering themselves and not just transgenderism, as it has been labeled. The eccentric Chizuru comes to school on the first day in a boy’s uniform and that simple act shocks the children, which makes Chizuru instantly popular. For Nitori and Takatsuki, what Chizuru did was more meaningful than a ploy to standout they saw in her what they always wanted to do; to ignore social rules and dress how they wanted. Costumes and gender roles are intertwined and displayed in Wandering Son in a beautiful way which comments on social standards as well as individual emotional states.

While much of the series can be understood with no prior knowledge of the Wandering Son manga the story the Anime tells takes place right in the middle of the series after an intense arc. Episodes 2 and 3 are spent resolving a conflict that happened off screen and thus has no meaning to the new audience coming into the anime. While the art of Wandering Son is unique, the water color style and muted colors match the innocent tone of the show perfectly, the character designs don’t help matters much, the majority of characters look alike with slight changes in hairstyles. This problem is made even worse by the fact that there are so many transgendered characters that don’t carry any distinctive physical gender characteristics.

Some characters are never properly introduced, the show relays on its story telling in order for the audience to understand character relationships but because of the number of characters that breaks down. It isn’t until the show fills in some detail with flashbacks that certain character’s relationships with Nitori are apparent. This goes back to the problem with episodes 2 and 3 and with the fact that this series is an incomplete snapshot of a much larger story. The anime stays true to the source material but that implies a lot of prior knowledge of the characters, the relationships, and the events which happened previously. One character’s, a transgendered woman who serves as a mentor for Nitori, role in the narrative is never explained. She appears and acts friendly to the much younger Nitori, gives him advice, and they say a friendly farewell. It isn’t until later in the story when she is introduced to Anna that her connection to Nitori is explained.

The problems of episodes two and three almost entirely disappear as the show steps into its own arc. Even so, the anime feels more like fan service for the readers of the manga than a standalone show. It baffles me that they wouldn’t want to try to animate the entire manga line. The only explanation is that they had 11 episodes to work with, wanted to get the pacing right, and thus picked the most interesting part of the story to animate. So while I’m now extremely interested in reading the Wandering Son manga, the anime is an incomplete experience. It still is worth watching to get a taste of the fantastic characterization and writing that Takako Shimura is capable of, and to see the feat that Ei Aoki accomplished in matching the art and animation to the tone of the show. However, in order to get the full experience of Wandering Son the Manga is a far better choice.

Good

  • Characterization feels natural
  • Well constructed narrative that uses classic tropes, such as a play within a play
  • Use of costume metaphor throughout the series is a treat to watch unfold.
  • Art and Animation match the tone of the show perfectly

Bad

  • The audience is dropped into a story already in progress
  • Some characters roles and relationship not fully explained, previous knowledge assumed
  • Episodes 2 and 3, and some other bits throughout, are spent resolve a conflict that happened before the show started

Review: Level E

 

Level E is a welcome throw back to the art style of 90s anime, not surprising considering the manga the show is based on were written in the 90s, but it is refreshing to see Pierrot decided to completely jump into the show and give it a look that matches Yoshihiro Togashi’s art, as opposed to updating it. This quirk visually sets the show apart and the style of humor goes above and beyond what we’re used to in anime comedy. Level E takes place on earth where thousands of aliens come and go as they please. Powerful planets that would otherwise be at war have a mutual understanding to keep the peace while on Earth. The Prince of Dogra crash lands on Earth and ends up with Amnesia. He seeks shelter at the apartment of a high school baseball star.

Level E has no central narrative but is a collection of short stories that use the same characters. The original manga was only sixteen captures collected in three volumes, so I can only assume that the anime covers the original material plus some. The goal of the show seems to keep one step ahead by using unreliable and deceptive characters who run circles around each and the audience. Expectations are toyed with for humor and when the show succeeds in fooling you it’s a hilarious and memorable experience that can never be replicated in repeated viewings.

The characters of Level E are all well done but limited by the fact that this is a comedy. Most of the characters, especially Kraft the Prince’s bodyguard, are forced to play a straight man to the Prince’s insane antics, but roles aren’t fixed. Yukitaka, the high school baseball star, plays a straight man; a slapstick partner; and the target of one of the Princes pranks all in one. The supporting characters range from the bland and flat; such as the love struct character who falls for an alien Queen; to the complex and interesting; like Yukitaka’s girlfriend who shows an amazing amount of resourcefulness during the various crisis’ the Prince puts them through.

There is no recognizable formula behind the series, it simply flows and does what it wants to narratively at any given time. At times it tells a serious story about intergalactic politics and at others the Prince amuses himself by tormenting some elementary school kids. While the Prince has a talent for tormenting characters and tossing them into hilariously dangerous situations the real chemistry of the series comes between Yukitaka and the Prince. The show is best when the pair is together and able to play off each other. During the majority of the series the Prince is able to run amok without an equal to counter his confidence and lack of empathy, Yukitaka is a balancing element that keeps the Prince in check. The Prince without Yukitaka is enjoyable but quickly falls from charming to cruel and unwieldy. Yukitaka makes the Prince’s antics seem like the pranks of a small child as opposed to a cruel practical joker with the resources of a powerful interstellar empire at his command. The final two episodes are especially good because of the shows ability to trick the audience. Suddenly, the practical jokes of the Prince disappear and he has to deal with actual terrorists. Tossing a serious plot into a comedy show can often be irreparably damaging but Level E manages to slowly slip into it and crafts an exciting and suspenseful ending.

The longest and most involved arc features the aforementioned elementary school kids and it’s where Level E’s age appears as a double edged sword. The references and jokes are all fifteen years old and while I appreciated them someone ten years my junior might not. The Prince gives a group of elementary school boys Super Sentai uniforms, toys from an alien world, and refuses to remove their ability to transform until they solve a series of puzzles. Ultimately that leads them to an “RPG planet” where tropes of classic 16-bit Japanese Role Playing games and fantasy novels are lampooned. Being a large fan of those games and having grown up on Power Rangers (Sentai’s American counterpart) I was rolling with laughter and drunk with nostalgia during those episodes. How those episodes will fall on a younger audience, which constitutes the majority of the fandom, I can’t say. Those games and Power Rangers still exist so perhaps the jokes have more of a transcendent quality than I’m giving them credit.

The art of the series is a welcome throwback to the mid-1990s. Lifted whole cloth from Togashi’s manga it offers a welcome break from the dozens of Moe shows that appear each season. The character designs are simple but varied enough so no two characters look the same, the dead eyed Dicksonians and their godfather like leader bare far different characteristics from humans and other aliens who have decided to inhabit the earth making it simple to deduce which faction a person belongs to with a quick glance. The aliens mostly look exactly like humans, which is exploited for visual humor where the show plays with audience expectations on how aliens should appear. You’ll be greeted with a monstrous insect alien only to have it unzip itself and reveal a normal looking human being.

Level E is a welcome throw back to the 1990s and offers some hilarious character humor, parody of some classic Japanese Pop culture, and a narrative that plays with the audience. It is unique in its ability to switch back and forth between serious Science Fiction and humor seamlessly. However, the humor is dependent on knowledge of tropes from Super Sentai (Power Rangers) and classic Fantasy JRPGs, which may go over the head of young anime fans. The Prince, as a character, is significantly weaker when not paired with Yukitaka, which unfortunately is the majority of the show. Even with its failings, Level E is must watch for long time Anime and Science Fiction fans.

Good

  • Throw back to 1990s art style
  • Effectively fools the audience several times
  • Humor is fast paced and a welcome change from the standard anime comedy
  • Prince and Yukitaka make a great comedy team

Bad

  • Younger anime fans may miss many of the references
  • Humor is weaker when Prince is separated from Yukitaka, which is most of the series
  • Most characters lack depth

Review: Bakuman, Season 1

 

The man who created the smash hit Death Note, Tsugumi Ohba, shifts from the supernatural genre to take on a more realistic approach to Shonen. Ohba writes much closer to home by creating a story about a team of young men who are trying to become Mangaka and, ultimately, have their manga turned into an Anime. The product is both an entertaining look into the workings of the Japanese Manga industry and the attempt to apply the Death Note narrative structure to a seemingly mundane subject.

It’s hard not to compare Bakuman to Death Note, Ohba has a narrative style that commands the attention of the audience and adds suspense with surprising regularity. One could claim that the idea itself is what really kept people interested in Death Note, but now that Ohba has applied that style to the rather mundane story of two kids writing comics and made it just as intense as Death Note, so clearly he has unlocked a structure and pacing that simply works. The impact of cliffhangers is such an important and difficult aspect in serialized content and yet Bakuman is able to create a compelling stopping point nearly every episode with story lines like “will they meet their dead line” or “What will happen when they meet with the manga editor.”

Certainly some credit should be given to director Kenichi Kasai for translating those elements so effectively to animation but the perfection of the Shonen style lies with Ohba. Each new challenge that Mashiro and Takagi has the same feeling that Bleach or Dragon Ball would have except instead of an epic fight scene we get scenes of two guys drawing. That is the true beauty of Bakuman; it is an elegant story that takes the audience on a ride through an artist’s life while they try to get a foot in the door at the big manga publishers and it feels as exciting as a Shonen action show. The energy and drive of the main characters are inspiring, one will find it hard not to buy in to the suspense at each turn from the sheer fact that you want to see these characters succeed.

Bakuman’s characters are the vehicle which audience sees the world. An exceptional narrative trick that Bakuman achieves is to present the world through the eyes of the main characters including their own personal misconceptions and bias’. Eiji Niizuma, a genius mangaka who becomes the youngest person ever serialized, is perceived as a rival for most of the series, a hurdle that Mashiro needs to overcome. However, once Mashiro spends a good amount of time with Niizuma he comes to realize that his rival is not superhuman but just another young artist with failings of his own. At that point the concept of the “rival” in Bakuman changes and the artists that Mashiro has met at that point become comrades, able to exchange information and help each other improve. The true rival is the self, honing and refining ones craft is the way one will win in this world and the concept of the prodigy Mangaka is dismissed, at least in the first season.

The characters also work as an audience stand in, as they learn about the process of creating manga so does the audience. Again, entering the world of Manga publishing feels extremely Shonen but instead of a fantasy world what the audience is getting is a detailed look into the world of manga publishing. I’m glad that Ohba decided to frame the story this way because while manga fans in Japan might know how the big magazines work I find myself learning a ton by watching Mashiro and Tagaki go through the process. The fact that Shonen “Jack” relies on reader’s questionnaires is, for example, a specific detail of Manga publishing that is just second nature to a Japanese manga fan yet I had no idea such a thing existed, and of course didn’t realize that questionnaires can make or break a mangaka. Bakuman treats them with the life or death gravity that any young artist would feel when awaiting rejection.

With so much good in Bakuman it is disappointing to say that what Bakuman does wrong almost distracts from the quality. The romance between Mashiro and Miho is laughably bad, so unrealistically bad. It’s designed to fit into the world of Bakuman where success as a Mangaka should lead to all rewards. One of those rewards is love, and while this does fit into the Shonen structure there is a sense of realism to Bakuman that makes it feel icky at the same time. In Bleach, Ichigo having to become a better fighter to rescue Rukia feels right, but having Mashiro’s success as a Mangaka deliver the girl of his dreams into his arms feels cheap, misogynistic, and crushes the realism of the show. The portrayal of women in the show as a whole is weird, as I’ve written about previously all accusations of misogyny are for good reason. There is a general sense that men have their goals and women are required to support them, because they can’t fully understand men’s dreams. It’s repulsive.

Even with the romance souring a good third of the show there is still a lot to like about Bakuman. The application of the Death Note formula to the mundane story of two upcoming Mangaka is exceptional. Ohba has made his own life, in the eyes of Anime and Manga fans, a roller coaster of disappointment and joy. I’ve also learned more about how the comics publishing industry in Japan works from watching this one show than in ten years of being an Anime fan. Any fan of Japanese animation, especially Shonen, will love Bakuman as long as they can get passed the uglier elements of the narrative.

Good

  • Well placed cliffhangers keep the audience eager to watch
  • The audience learns about how Manga publishing in Japan really works.
  • Mangaka as Shonen heroes structure is brilliant.

Bad

  • Overbearingly negative attitude towards women
  • Romance in Bakuman is, at best, childish