Category: Reviews

Review: Fractale

Blurring genre lines is one of my favorite aspects of Japanese animation. There doesn’t seem to a limit to the genre lines they’ll cross within a single show, the most common being the combination of Science Fiction and Fantasy. What we get in Fractale is a mash of maybe a dozen genres, too many to count, into a single story. But instead of the intersection points breeding interesting new ideas there is only cliché and self-reference. Fractale takes place in a far future Utopia governed by a massive data networked called Fractale. Clain, a young boy obsessed with obsolete technology, rescues a girl being pursued by terrorists. After meeting the girl Clain is tossed into an adventure that will lead him to unlock the dark secrets behind Fractale.

Fractale’s world is the strongest aspect of the show. The characters who live in Fractale are colorful, well designed avatars that can travel anywhere in the world connected by the Fractale network. Due to this ability people don’t stay in one place anymore but migrate around the country side. It is unfortunate that while Fractale is the name of the show we get to see little of the Utopian data network. Clain doesn’t use Fractale because he is a luddite obsessed with pre-fractale technology and he is tossed in with the rebels fairly early in the series which leaves almost no time spent in the wonderful world of Fractal. What little time is spent there is fantastic. It’s a world where anything is possible, where your avatar can be anything you want it to be, and the one extended sequence in a Fractale powered city was probably the most aesthetically pleasing part of the entire series.

Fractale, as an anime, feels like a jumble of genres and tropes glued together to form a single show. There is a lot to like about Fractale’s narrative and theme but it gets dragged down by clichés that I believe are brought on by Yutaka Yamamoto purposely wallowing in the tropes of the medium. In the first episode alone we get a protagonist who doesn’t fit in with the world, we get a beautiful girl who the protagonist saves, three bumbling villains, and an adorable little girl that the protagonist needs to take care of. Sure, this is happening in an interesting post-cyberpunk world but those elements have roots in anime going back to the 1980s. There is nothing interesting or original in the setup of the show.

The characters are also subject to the same derivative problems. The protagonist falls in love with Phryne, the girl he saved, almost instantly and makes it his job to protect her. That becomes the single motivating factor for all his actions in the series. While that is an anime cliché there is some realism to it because of the way Clain has been living. Realistically, this is the first young girl that Clain has ever seen and there is probably an overwhelming fear that he might not see another woman in a long time living in the middle of nowhere and refusing to take advantage of Fractale. Even so, Clain is a bit of an anomaly because while the population of the planet doesn’t seem as large as it is today, there are children inhabiting the world of Fractale and Clain’s very existence implies that his problem is odd. So the explanation doesn’t really hold water except that Hiroki Azuma, original story creator, created a character that fit perfectly into that cliché without thinking about how the vast, network connected world’s effect on human relationships. What could have been an interesting narrative jumping point is squandered for a cheap cliché.

The key problem with Fractale is the show doesn’t know what it’s about. It spends time both praising and criticizing the hyper-connected world and although the people who are obsessed with Fractale are clearly portrayed negatively the anime doesn’t seem to approve of a world without Fractale either. The audience is never really given a clear view of the average Fractale user, with exception of Clain’s parents who seem to be kind; warm people that are as worried about their son just like any parent would be. They just aren’t physically present in the same meat space as Clain, but that never stops them from sitting down to a meal with their son. So while the author seemed to side with the anti-Fractale group I saw no real signs that Fractale itself was excessively harmful to the majority of humans.

Maybe that is the key to Fractale that is being missed because of the jumbled narrative. The main story is about a group of extreme luddites batting a group of extreme technophiles. It’s unfortunate that Yamamoto limits our view of this world to the two extremes because the vast majority of people live happy, normal lives under the rule of Fractale. The ending presses this point hard, and while I don’t want to ruin it, I felt that it was atonal for what was presented to the audience on screen. The result didn’t feel like it would come from two factions who went to war with each other. Rather than take the ending as a quick conclusion to the series I prefer to think of it as Yamamoto telling the audience that any extreme, perhaps, isn’t a good idea and definitely isn’t representative of the people as a whole. I’m probably giving Yamamoto too much credit considering that none of that was given to us in the actual narrative.

While Fractale offers an interesting world with some stunning animation the show is weighed down by anime cliché and Meta elements that give the show a patched together feeling. While it attempts to reach far and build an epic storyline, it fails to reach any new ground. Fractale isn’t awful, it is just a forgettable show and the community at large, including myself, has been harsher on Fractale because of the promise Yutaka Yamamoto gave to the audience. There is a quality series here, but it’s hidden under incompetent directing and no clear narrative vision.

 

Good

  • Quality animation and in-Fractale character designs
  • The one airship battle was awesome

Bad

  • Characterization is convoluted and poorly thought out
  • No clear vision of the world, despite relaying on the world to build the narrative
  • Unclear theme or goal to the narrative.
  • Weighted down with common anime cliché and meta-elements.

Review: The World God Only Knows

 

Summary: Keima Katsuragi is an avid galge gamer known at his school as “Otamega” (a derogatory term combining the words Otaku and Megane) and on the internet a “The Capturing God.” One day he receives an e-mail offering him a contract to “capture” girls. He accepts thinking it’s a challenge and a demon from Hell named Elsie appears. She asks for his help in capturing runaway spirits that are hiding in “real” girls. He refuses stating he only likes the girls from the game. She tells him that if he refuses then both of their heads will be cut off.

Review:  The World God Only Knows is a meta-anime that, like so many modern anime, dedicates most of its time poking fun at Otakudom. The meta-anime genre has been flooded since the popularity of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and The World God Only Knows follows the same patterns of a lot of those wannabes, such as Seitokai no Ichizon, where an Otaku protagonist plays out an Otaku fantasy. Keima, an anti-social dating sim addict, does have an interesting problem laid on top of his character by being forced to interact with real life girls; which adds some charm to what would otherwise be a rehash of elements we’ve seen before. Even with the interesting set up, exploiting the stereotypes is the point of the show and stereotypes are what The World God Only Knows delivers. Keima knows how to handle the woman he encounters because they fit into dating sim molds. These interactions are humorous and work to endear characters to the audience, even the thickheaded protagonist, but the charm begins to wear off as the ironic use of stereotypes work against the show’s overall theme.

Each girl requires a different strategy, all learned from dealing with fictional women in dating Sims. For example, in order to capture the heart of the famous singer Kanon Nakagawa to open up to him he pretended not to be interested in her music at all. While these tactics work in a game where the path to “winning” a girl’s heart needs to be mapped in a specific direction, applying these rules to the real world give the anime a bit of a shallow tone. When boiled down the strategy seems logical, once the personality of the “target” is learned there are ways to counter it in order to get her interested in him, but the concept is also cold and deeply misogynistic. Individuals will have varied responses to the show, those who accept it as a satire will take it as it is and those who do not may be deeply offended by the portrayal of women. In one respect the structure and themes of the show get a bit disgusting but early on it does establish that the narrative is a vehicle for poking fun at Dating Sims, which inherently contains dry stock female characters who fall in love with the player throughout the game. The scenes of Keima winning over his “targets” are overall harmless and even sweet, taking that meta-element as it was and accepting the rules of the world. A viewer coming to the show with no knowledge of Dating Sims or the tropes associated with the games are going to have a hard time finding any humor in the series and may be lost by the questionable way Keima thinks about women.

The stories of each individual girl had well-structured arcs and all of the girls were well developed for the genre. However, TWGOK doesn’t break any new ground, by its very nature the plots are nothing more than common themes recycled and dropped into the world of TWGOK. The format does breathe new life into them because Keima is such an uncommon romantic interest and approaches each girl in a shy yet cold, logical style. Keima’s role in this odd sadistic deal is made all the more tragic by the fact that the woman forget their relationship with him after the evil spirit is set free, making him unable to pursue the only relationships he has ever formed in real life. Unfortunately, this aspect of the character isn’t explored in depth, he has just been able to shrug off most of the encounters but there is a sad look in his eyes as he retakes his cold, hard demeanor. Keima seems to be a character that wants to grow beyond the game loving Otaku he is, he just doesn’t know how to live his life any other way.

The one character that really sours “The World God Only Knows” is Elsie, the demon who recruits Keima. She starts off as a vehicle for poking fun of stereotypes in games, namely the little sister stereotype, but what is played for light humor gets run into the ground quickly as Elsie’s worship of Keima becomes more severe and her ineptitude turns all her efforts to impress Keima into depressing failures. Her motivation should be to get the souls and return to hell as quickly as possible but she clings to Keima as if he had some real merit or ability. The worst offense is the one filler episode dedicated to Elise where she spends the entire time attempting to bake a cake for Keima but failing because of an ineptitude that the audience is supposed to find “cute.” The piece shoved everything wrong with Elise’s character and Otaku pandering anime, down the audience’s throat and left me not only annoyed but seething with rage that the episode got passed script editing.

What drags The World God Only Knows down are the one off episodes. In a 13 episodes series there are three painful filler episode and one none-arc episode that passes only because it helps establish characters. The author knows how to play with this world and the characters in the format he created for Keima’s targets, but stepping outside of that the characters lose their appeal. The jokes around Keima being a hardcore gamer work in the regular episodes because they are mixed with the rest of the narrative, but when we get two episodes dedicated to him playing games the joke is stomped to death in the first few minutes and the episode simply become a rehash of those two or three jokes repeated for twenty minutes. These episodes also allow the disgusting misogynistic nature of the series to come out, lacking the charm and quality of the official arcs.

The key to enjoying the series comes down to your own relationship to Otaku fandom. If you are a part of or familiar with Dating Sims and the culture around them you’ll probably love the in-jokes and the way the show plays with the tropes of the genre. But it brings into question the validity of a show like The World God Only Knows. Taken out of context it contains some of the most misogynistic and shallow content I’ve ever seen in an anime. It expands on the underlying problem with meta-anime in a way as to exponentially damage the medium if this show were to fall into the wrong hands. The key to the problem is how to judge the narrative of The World God Only Knows. I’ve been an anime fan for over ten years so I clearly recognize how the show is poking fun at them and in its own way the show is doing some intellectual criticism of Otaku culture. However, if I tried to show this to the average American they would either take the sweet cliché romances at face value or be offended by Keima’s attitude towards women. No one is going to wait around for someone to explain that the reason the clichés are paper thin but they are being used to poke fun at paper thin clichés. I can only end my personal indecision on The World God Only Knows by saying that it was effective at what it set out to do, use Keima and the clichés to create interesting and sweet romantic stories. If a person comes to the show not knowing that the show was parodying the tropes it used, then it would probably be unwatchable for them.

Verdict: The World God Only Knows is, at its core, a humorous meta-anime designed to poke fun at the tropes of dating Sims. By its nature it suffers from a misogynistic overtone that may turn off viewers, but it should be remembered that these elements arise because TWGOKs is criticizing their place in modern Dating Sims and the relationship the modern Otaku has with woman. Elise and the one off gag-episodes drag the quality of the series down but the main episodes offers a good mix of touching romance and humor to make The World God Only Knows an enjoyable watch for most anime fans, but incomprehensible to people unfamiliar with Otaku culture.

 

Good

  • – Stereotypical characters and plots revitalized when placed into this unique format.
  • – Some intelligent criticism of modern Otaku culture.

Bad

  • – One-off episodes drag overall quality of the series down
  • – Character of Elise crosses the line between satire and flat misogynist stereotype.
  • –  Protagonist goes through no significant growth during the series, although there is hope he will in the second season.
  • – Series lacks value for anyone not familiar with Dating Sim or overused Anime tropes.

(Summary from Animenewsnetwork.com)

Review: Squid Girl

Summary: Squid Girl has come to the land from the depths of the sea to conquer humanity for its pollution of the ocean. Unfortunately she ruins the first house she uses as an invasion base and has to work to pay for repairs. Of course, she can’t overcome the Aizawa sisters who manage the house, so who knows whether she can subjugate humankind.

Review: Nothing is more subjective than humor and humor is difficult to describe in a review, especially humor that so heavily relays on visual gags. So, while it is difficult to explain the humor and charm of Squid Girl, the show is a unique change of pace from many modern anime comedies that I have to try. The humor of Squid Girl mostly comes from exploring how a Squid’s natural abilities would manifest themselves in a human form; Spit ink; tentacles; bioluminescence; wherever those flappy things are on her head;  the concept is so bizarre and that alone creates a compelling character to follow as she attempts to fit in on the surface world. Squid Girl also has to learn all about human society from celebrating birthday parties to how to make friends. Her exploration of the human world with a general inability to conceive of and adapt to even the most basic of concepts allow the jokes to flow naturally. The concept of a Squid taking human form to come to the surface never feels contrived because it is treated straight by the characters.

The supporting cast plays a large role in the humor of the series, but really they exist to place Squid Girl into situations where she has to react and confront a problem in a “squidly” manner. There is Sanae who develops an obsessive crush on Squid Girl, Cindy Campbell a US researcher who believes Squid Girl to be an alien, Chizuru who is a seemingly sweet girl until made angry, and Nagisa who is employed by the cafe and becomes terrified by the invader from the sea; a fact which Squid Girl couldn’t be happier with. Each character represents a single gag and when they appear a variant of that joke immediately happens, the writing is clever and each encounter is varied enough to hide repetition. While the characters are funny on their own the real joy is when they interact with Squid Girl. Squid Girl is unable to adapt to simple concepts so when she is faced with an absolutely mad group of people she doesn’t quite know how to process it, and the show continuously tosses wild elements at each other and just how they react. The result most is bizarre confrontations that are played as charming and humorous.

The balance for Squid Girl comes from the owner of the cafe, Eiko Aizawa, who plays the straight man of the series. For the most part, she is completely unimpressed by the majority of Squid Girl’s powers and starts their relationship off by lecturing Squid Girl for putting a hole in her wall. From there Eiko introduces and explains concepts of the surface world to Squid Girl and helps her to adjust to her new environment. At best she shows mild annoyance at Squid Girl’s continued attempts to conquer the world and the insane cast of characters who come to disrupt business at the cafe in order to see Squid Girl. Eiko’s role as straight man supplies a solid anchor from which the bizarre characters can be compared to, which becomes a launching point for best humor of the series. Eiko and Squid Girl create a fantastic team.

There are moments when Squid Girl breaks out from its normal mold and creates some creative pieces of work. One short features an alternate world where Eiko finds a mini Squid Girl and keeps her as a pet. The episode contains some adorable sequences of mini-Squid Girl chasing around Eiko’s fingers and Mini-Squid Girl rolling up a tiny snowball. Mini-Squid Girl becomes a lifelong companion to Eiko in a surprisingly touching sequence that shows Squid Girl remaining the same while Eiko ages and ultimately dies, leaving behind her friend to morn her death. The short comes as a total shock and is a brief example of the potential such a loose form comedy series has. There are a few more of these off structure episodes sprinkled throughout the series and it helped to break up the format to keep things fresh, to keep the audience guessing at what the show was going to throw at them next.

The art is standard modern animation of high quality. It’s fairly generic with Squid Girl herself being a cute Moe girl and some of the lesser characters falling on cliché styles, such as the blond haired bikini wearing design for American born Cindy Campbel, but there are little bits of details that add some unique traits to the characters. Squid Girl herself has a fantastic design for a squid turned Moe girl with the tentacle hair and squid hat. Even more subtle is the slightly tanned appearance of Eiko and her sister, logical since they work on the beach all day, but Eiko’s legs have a muscular look to them which is rare to see in a medium that favors smooth limbs on idealized females and again, this is a logical trait to include in someone working on their feet all day cooking and serving customers. So while the art is attempting to appeal to the standard Otaku it isn’t without a subtle stroke of character depth.

The final episode of the series attempted to cap it off with an emotional ending as Squid Girl loses her powers and leaves the tea house. It feels artificial and contrived, even as a person who has become a huge fan of the show and fallen absolutely in love with Squid Girl I wasn’t at all emotionally moved by Squid Girl leaving because it was obvious she was going to come back. I understand the need to have a neat ending to close the series but by dedicating two thirds of an episode to such an obvious plot line the only thing they accomplished was admitting they couldn’t write an effective ending to the show. They should have stayed the course and produced two high quality shorts, as we have come to expect, instead of such an obvious ploy for closure.

Verdict: While the initial premise seemed like a set up for a silly Moe show, Squid Girl turned into an intelligent. The cast of characters, especially the excellent straight man of Eiko, kept the humor strong, if a bit repetitive, throughout the series. While the ending was a bit contrived that really doesn’t matter considering Squid Girl is just a loose collection of shorts anyway. It is hard not to like Squid Girl, the cute characters and bizarre nature of the show creates something truly unique.

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Good

– Humor is superb, the jokes utilize the characters; especially Squid Girl; exceptionally well.

– Bizarre and cute combine to create a unique experience and feel.

– Some innovative gems are hidden among the standard episodes.

Bad

– Jokes can become repetitive

– Ending is contrived only to put an end cap on the series.

(Summary from AnimeNewsNetwork.com)

Review: Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru

Summary: Arashiyama is a mystery obsessed clumsy girl who works for an old woman’s less than stellar maid cafe. The only regulars to the cafe are the other entrepreneurs from the surrounding shopping district and Sanada, one of Arashiyama’s classmates who has a crush on her. When Tatsuno, Arashiyama’s friend, is invited to the cafe and sees the poor state the cafe is in she decides to work alongside her friend and fix things up.

Review: The style of Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru, SoreMachi for short, is what stands out immediately. Animated by Shaft and directed by Akiyuki Shinbou (Bakemonogatari, Arakawa Under the Bridge) the look and feel of the show doesn’t seem to lend itself well to a Slice of Life comedy, but SoreMachi is not your standard Slice of life, while there are some shorts that focus on Arashiyama and her daily life the more interesting bits come from focus on the odd characters in the town where she lives. There is no set formula to a single episode of the show which allows the narrative to use whatever time and techniques are required to tell the story. Too make the genre even vaguer, interspersed between the normal slice of life scenes are also stories containing time travelers, aliens, and the afterlife.

The content, however, is mostly standard Slice of Life fair presented in a way that makes it appear fresh and innovative. Having no constant structure, the arts style, the masterful direction and the science fiction elements sprinkled about make the shows content seem far more aspiring than it really is. I don’t want to disparage the show in anyway, as I am a huge fan of slice of life comedies and the writing and wit of SoreMachi is unique among them but when boiled down to its core SoreMachi is a hyper-stylized, well written way of telling a story about a group of girls working at a maid cafe or a group of girls becoming obsessed with an odd vending machine. The animation style and the direction of Akiyuki Shinbou is what stand out. The direction gives ordinary scenes, such as Arashiyama sitting in class receiving extra lessons, an epic feel. The art is a bit odd, lifted entirely from Masakazu Ishiguro’s manga, and gives the characters a distinct personality the instant you look at them.

The comedy writing is the heart and soul of the series. The humor plays off character personalities and antics as they interact with their surrounding town and its insane inhabitants. Long scenes of dialogue are fast flying and exciting due to the underlying theme of mystery, small conversations become over-complicated and fun by adding in an element that needs to be deduced. Even the jokes are tiny puzzles which are funnier if the viewer unravels them before the punch line is revealed. One such joke sees Arashiyama rushing to class fearing that she is late. She bursts into the classroom and is relieved because no one else is there. A keen observer can figure out the joke before the teacher reveals it because there is only one desk set out in front of him and she is, indeed, late. The science fiction elements of the series work because they are played completely straight, as these scenes are not separate from the slice of life aspects. After the few supernatural scenes the audience is left with no choice other than to believe that these supernatural elements really exist in the world of SoreMachi.

The soul of the show lies in how well the individual stories are able to come together. The stories go between the absolutely mundane to the completely insane with a few that explore some deep concepts while maintaining the series general light tone. One short feature’s Arashiyama’s younger brother being unable to sleep, so they take a walk together through the town. The piece explores how nighttime causes landscapes, environments, and even people to change. Going by the normally quiet maid cafe Arashiyama sees the characters from the shopping district up late drinking and partying with the old woman leading the festivities. The exploration of the darkened town is aided by Shaft’s excellent animation which helps turn something that is seemingly mundane into a meaningful and deep experience. The day ends with Brother and Sister sharing a bath together and growing a little closer now that he has been introduced to a completely new world.

Like many anime these days SoreMachi features a ton of Meta-humor. Instead of playing it to placate the Otaku crowd the tone is vicious. The concept itself sees the characters at a mock maid cafe; the set up itself is taking a common trope and exploiting it for humor. The world of SoreMachi is filled with familiar elements slightly twisted to make a subtle satire. For example, Arashiyama and friends even form their own girl band but instead of the standard rock set the band features a bass guitar, drums, a violin, and an accordion. SoreMachi is the generic gag anime slightly twisted in order to make fun of gag anime.

SoreMachi isn’t a perfect series; the strange format, animation style, and direction is going to turn off people looking for a light gag anime because it makes the series look far more intimidating than it really is and while I consider that a bonus I can easily see why that would cause others to panic and turn away. The long scenes of dialogue, which still work when translated on some levels, are obviously filled with puns and other elements of the Japanese language that cannot be translated to English. Reading footnotes while a joke is going on doesn’t make the joke funny, it makes the process tedious.

Verdict: SoreMachi is a visually innovative and witty slice of life anime. The animation and direction propel what would be an average comedy series into a uniquely powerful piece that appears insightful beyond its content. At the core it is a well written comedy that has a well exploited mystery theme running through most of the jokes, plus its ability to portray Science Fiction elements in a deadpan slice of life tone brings an odd twist to this extremely enjoyable show.

 

Good

Direction and Animation are above and beyond expectations

Writing is intelligent, witty, and offers some new twists to the slice of life genre

Science Fiction elements spice up the traditional slice of life formula

Bad

Some jokes do not translate into English well.

Review: Otome Yokai Zakuro

 

In an alternate history Japan wherte humans and Spirits coexist the ancient spirits aren’t happy about the movement to westernize Japanese society. In order to bring peace the Japanese military recruits a group of half spirits and forms the Ministry of Spirit Affairs in which each half-spirit is teamed up with a military officer. Zakuro, a half-spirit of enormous power and a hatred of westernization, is teamed up with Agemaki an aristocrat’s son who has a fear of spirits.

Otome Yokai Zakuro looks and feels like a generic romance with a little bit of action. The characters and relationships of the show are written honestly and believably. The supernatural element has a uniquely Japanese feel, being steeped in Japanese mythology and imagery. The spirits and half-spirit protagonists become representations of the classical Japanese way of life dressed in Yukata in contrast to their soldier partners modern military uniforms, the half-spirits weapons are even branches from a Sakura which transform into awesome knifes during combat. The meeting of the groups becomes a visual representation of the core theme of the narrative; the ancient way of life is starting to clash with the introduction of westernization.

The action of the show is hit or miss. The early fight scenes are exciting, visually interesting, and unique in the way the half-spirit’s attack. The twins, Bonbori and Hozuki, sing a sweet melody that acts as a spell against the enemy spirits while Zakuro attacks ruthlessly with a knife. The first few battle scenes are entertaining but as the series goes on they become repetitive and dull, although the Twin’s soothing melody was always a joy to hear and perhaps made up for some otherwise full fight scenes. Even more disappointing was when the human soldiers jumped into the action. Their entire contributions consist of blocking attacking spirits with a sword thrust or a dull sword battle that lacks any creative choreography.

However Otome Yokai Zakuro isn’t an action show, it is a romance and as I stated above the characters and relationships are well written and believable. At times it feels like the show may be about to relay on some cliché but the show avoids it by developing the female characters with rich back story. Unfortunately the male characters, except for Zakuro’s love interest Agemaki, are horribly underdeveloped. Riken and Ganryu fall into stereotype mode by being stoic large, dependable guy and young prodigy respectively. Where those characters come up short the rest get detailed back stories, interesting episodes dedicated to their development, and situations that test the strength of their character. My favorite example comes from the first episode; the soldiers arrive and woe the young woman including the doubtful Zakuro. Zakuro is completely taken with Agemaki because she is a young woman who had been cooped up in a monastery her entire life and he is a young aristocrat soldier. Any naive young girl would fall for the dashing soldier, but once Zakuro gets to know him a little the initial interest fades as she learns his fear of spirits and general ineptitude. Zakuro’s distrustful nature overrides her initial emotional response.

Zakuro is the focus of the main narrative, being the title character; and the entire story arch revolves around the circumstances of her birth. Her thread guides most of the action of the series, including the large plot twist of the series which puts the reason the Ministry of Spirit Affairs even exists into question. The twist isn’t as effective as it might have been because of lack of time given to some important pieces of information, which isn’t uncommon for a thirteen episode series. Many of the elements fail because of time constraints, serious holes open up as the series comes to a close I in an attempt to end the show neatly, for example some of the main villains changes sides with little explanation and the protagonists seem far too trusting of people who were planning to murder them minutes before.. All the threads opened throughout the series to be closed satisfactory with the one off episodes and plots that seem to exist only to develop characters all coming together in one overarching storyline. The last four episodes are one unbroken story and the elements that make the series interesting; the character relationships, the mystery surrounding Zakuro’s background, and the struggle between old and new worlds all climax in a fantastic end. The issues of time play a factor but Otome Yokai Zakuro strength lies in the main cast, and Zakuro herself, more than the storyline. The show gives plenty of time to develop at least Zakuro’s character as it brings the narrative to a close, so much so that I can forgive some of the rushed elements. So much of the narrative is geared towards wrapping up the main thread that some of the larger thematic and conceptual elements of the series also get left in the dark.

What Otome Yokai Zakuro didn’t do that I had hoped it would is really explore the aforementioned struggle between old and new. The theme goes from being in the forefront of the early episodes to be simply an undertone for the entire series without having it profoundly addressed. The message ends up being that change is good, but elements of the past should also be held onto. However, that message can’t be universal because of the early world development. The series attempts to show the romantic relationships between the half-spirits and the soldiers as proof that both worlds can live side by side but I can’t help but think the idyllic view that the show takes isn’t completely accurate.  Increased westernization was driving spirits from their ancient homes and even killing them. That thread is left unexplored favoring instead the plot surrounding the mystery of Zakuro. As the soldiers and the half-spirits find a way to coexist I can’t help but think of all the lesser spirits who are being trampled because the old world and the new world is incompatible. I think even the show didn’t know quite where to take itself. Those first few episodes were some initial step and those interesting elements of old world versus new world could have been just backstory to begin the unlikely romance of Zakuro and Agemaki. The girls themselves never make much progress towards westernization only going as far as to try some western foods. The ideas that there was a larger theme could have been placed on the series by my own expectations and were never there at all. I hope that isn’t the case and if the series is to continue those elements of this alternate universe gets the attention it deserves.

Otome Yokai Zakuro is a fantastic romance series with strong plot, world building, and characters. The overarching plot unravels a mystery based on the dynamic characters the show presents to the audience. However, even with those strong elements Otome Yokai Zakuro’s action becomes repetitive and strong thematic elements that start to develop early on become lost in the romantic story and lose their effect when the relationships between the characters attempts to be a metaphor for the old and new coexisting while the show forgets the basic set up of the narrative. The show becomes crunched for time causing a rushed, neatly tied up ending in place of something more genuine.

 

Good

  • Strong characters and story
  • Mystery utilizes the excellent character development

Bad

  • Action scenes become repetitive and boring
  • Plot loses sight of original themes
  • Obviously didn’t have enough time to develop the story they wanted too

Review: The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

As Christmas approaches SOS Brigade chief Haruhi Suzumiya announces that there will be a Christmas party in their clubroom. The brigade members prepare decorations and food for the party but several days later Kyon comes into school to find that no one remembers Haruhi or the SOS Bridage. Kyon begins to search for an answer to the mystery aided by a non-alien version of Yuki Nagato.

Kyoto did a fantastic job make the film feel theatrical. Having not seen any Haruhi in over a year, since season 2 ended plus eight months longer than the Japanese fans had to wait to see the film, I appreciated how it started by introducing each character briefly and showing off the traits that we’ve all come to love in each of them and ending, of course, on the title character herself. The first thirty minute or so, the “prologue” as Kyon himself calls it, is simply a love letter to Haruhi fans. It contains all the elements that fans swoon over. Kyon is annoyed, Haruhi is insane, Koizumi is a jerk, Yuki is strange, and Mikuru is adorable. There may be more hilarious character interactions in those first thirty minutes than in all of season 2 combined. The material felt fresh again and Kyon’s role as the only voice of reason using his trade mark sarcastic tone had me laughing throughout the entire scene. Haruhi herself was in overdrive, showing an amazing amount of energy and her dialogue couldn’t have been funnier. It was an absolute delight and a real potent way to start the film.

The majority of the film features Kyon’s attempt to understand and figure out the title event; why has Haruhi disappeared, and in doing so the audience is treated to a Kyon they’ve never seen before. Normally sarcastic, annoyed, and sometimes angry, Kyon went into a complete panic when his world was turned upside down. The aspects of his character only assumed and hinted at before came out in full force when the parts of his life he constantly complained about were taken away. In those moments the true Kyon is revealed. It was shocking and yet so obvious simultaneously. The largest change to any of the characters in the Haruhi-less world was Yuki Nagato. In a world without Haruhi she doesn’t need to be an alien observing the titular character but is transformed into a normal shy girl with emotions and feelings. The change is reasonable; Yuki retains all the traits from the alien version but instead is placed in a human context. She is still quiet and shy but actually reacts to the people and events around her instead of sitting and passively. While a drastic and shocking character change it wasn’t an unbelievable character change. It was Yuki imagined as a human girl, as simple as that.

The film’s main plot contain some serious and complex science fiction concepts wrapped up in a Moe costume, just like Haruhi should be, but everything feels like the stakes are much higher. Most of the series has to do with the danger of Haruhi finding out about her powers and running amok, the movie turns that plot in a new direction by showing a world without Haruhi. This puts Kyon finally in the driver’s seat instead of living in the shadow of the energetic Haruhi Suzumyia. Instead of the phantom threat of Haruhi destroying the world the conflict of the film comes from Kyon trying to get his life back, the life so wonderfully portrayed at the start of the film and all that can go away unless Kyon puts things right. The conflict is far more immediate than it has ever been, Kyon might lose Haruhi forever, the audience might lose Haruhi forever, and keeping her is finally something Kyon believes is worth fighting for and something the audience can get really distressed over.

The film, as exception as it is, is not without problems. Most of them come from the length. Kyoto wanted to make the Haruhi fans as happy as possible and to do that they adapted the novel practically word-for-word. The film’s runtime comes in at 163 minutes and it started to feel long by the end. Elements that work in novels such as references past events constantly, long sequences of omnipotent narration, and wrapping up the narrative with long scenes of dialogue after the action is long over slowed the film down. As a Haruhi fan I was in love with every word that came out of every character’s mouth, maybe not -Esper guy-, but as an Anime fan the film obviously needed some serious script editing to improve the flow of the film and tighten u the dialogue for maximum effect in minimum time.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is a near masterpiece. It gives Haruhi fans everything they want from a piece of the Haruhi franchise while opening up the story to a greater level of depth, science fiction concepts, and narrative. However, the films goal to appear to the hardcore fan harmed the overall quality by slowing down the pace of some scenes and making the film longer than it really needed to be.

Good

  • Haruhi characters are at their absolute best in humor and drama
  • Reaches new narrative and conceptual highs for the series
  • Calls back on past events to link both of the past seasons with the film
  • Direction and visuals are excellent even for Kyoto Animation.

Bad

  • Scenes that work in a novel feel long on screen
  • Long scenes of dialogue and omnipotent narration slows the pace of the film

 

Review: Occult Academy

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Waldstein Academy is a high school devoted entirely to the occult. Mara Kumashiro returns after a long absence for the funeral of the principal, her father. Having seen her father’s obsession destroy her family she sets out to destroy Waldstein. But her plans are interrupted when Fumiaki Uchida, a time agent from the future, arrives to stop a world ending calamity. Bandaged[1]

Occult Academy starts off as a tool to poke fun at shows containing supernatural elements by building its  premise around a school dedicated to the occult. This becomes a vehicle to explore different types of stories involving supernatural elements from monsters to near death experiences. In fact, the entire premise of the show transcends genre in an attempt to combine science fiction and fantasy into one big super show. But all these elements don’t fit together perfectly and parts of Occult Academy seem like they don’t belong in the show at all.

The first episode is about a poltergeist haunting in place of the dead principal, the second episode is about a time traveler who returns from the future in order to prevent an alien attack, and the third episode plays out like a wacky romance anime. On paper those two plot lines sound like they couldn’t possibly fit together but the early episodes of Occult Academy enable these elements to work well together and it is fresh that a show is attempting to transcend the tropes of these genres by combing them, by weaving them together. But that pattern soon ends and Occult Academy becomes a monster of the week show where the group encounters a new occult-esque problem and go off to find its source while the main plot is completely ignored. This seems comparable to the X-Files where each episode Mulder and Scully encounter a new supernatural element and attempt to disprove it. However, the monster of the week episodes of Occult Academy have the characters doing a lot of running around and participating in cheap action sequences instead of exploring the source and mythology behind these unique creatures. I have always been a fan of stories that have been able to combine elements from different genres. Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road and the anime Scrapped Princess filled that desire but Occult Academy constantly fell short because of its silly tone but also because the show didn’t juggle its genres well. Not that all the elements of Occult Academy failed, a lot of the genre mixing was interesting and gave the show its initial shine. There was simply too many elements playing in this and no one genre was treated with proper respect. 

Maya%20upset[1] While the one off episodes hurt the overall quality of the show the characters do a good job of rescuing it. The two main characters are complex and each get plenty of time in the series for their stories to be explored and it brings a human element to the jumbled narrative. The time traveler, Fumiaki Uchida, is forced to face himself in a past where he has no utility over his life, having his physic ability exploited for profit by his mother. This adds a compelling element as Uchida has to confront his demons by literally facing his past self. Maya Kumashiro goes through a similar arc, hating everything about the occult because she believes it made her father distant she is brought into a world where the occult is revered. She slowly comes to accept her father’s work and the positive impact he had on the students of Waldstein.

The background characters act only as that, background. While they do help shape the two lead characters all the side characters lack depth. I didn’t expect them to have much of an impact on the story but they appear in every episode and never seem to grow or change along with the story. Even after being witnesses to some pretty amazing supernatural spectacles they go on as if nothing happened. I’d expect them to think about withdrawing from the school after a few of the deadly encounters with supernatural monsters but no, nothing prevents them from making it to class on time every day.Evil%20Witch[1]

While the monster of the week episodes distract from the main story it picks up in the final three episodes, which  are completely dedicated to the main plot of the show bringing the total number of plot centric episodes to six. The elements that made Occult Academy fresh and exciting in the beginning return, but with more elements and genre switches the plot becomes weighed down and overcomplicated. Occult Academy attempts to make all the monster of the week episodes connect to the main plot but it is forced with only the tiniest of hints being in the individual episodes that they are all connected to the central plot. Each episode leading to the finale introduces more twists that change the show, destroying any payoff the main storyline could have possibly had. Despite the inadequate juggling of the material I found the last episodes enjoyable because it went back to the original aspect that made Occult Academy such a huge star of the summer season, the show reinvented itself with each episode. While the narrative didn’t pay off, it certainly was entertaining. More importantly the best aspect of the show, the character arcs of Maya and Fumiaki, were brought to a satisfactory end.

The most offensive elements of the show were the pseudo science fiction that the show implemented. In a show that combined so many genre elements I’m not surprised that Occult Academy didn’t really has a solid grasp on any of them individually. But it breaks its own rules constantly as it reaches towards the sacrosanct conclusion that I could tell the writers just didn’t care about following any kind of logic. Inconsistency and illogical plot harm any story but it is especially detrimental to science fiction.

While many of the elements of Occult Academy are refreshing and the main characters have some real depth that is explored well throughout the series, the pointless monster-of-the-week episodes and haphazard main storyline drag Occult Academy down to mediocrity. Still, there is a lot to like about Occult Academy because of the innovative ways it plays with genre. I think this will serve as an example of how the mixing of genres can be interesting but still serve to undermine the quality of a story.

Good

  • Main characters and compelling and developed well
  • Innovative in the way it combines genre and plays with genre tropes

Bad

  • Monster of the week episodes don’t advance the main plot or characters.
  • Main storyline becomes weighed down and over complex
  • Ending relies on “twists” not on building a successful story arc.
  • Minor characters are flat, don’t act realistically.

 

Review: Sora No Woto

 

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Sora No Woto is a series that, from the premise, attempted to unite the two feuding cults of Anime fans by combining traditional moe elements with a serious and compelling story line. The result is a story about a young girl, Kanata, who joins the army in order to learn to play music. She is assigned to a post in the most remote part of the nation and ends up living a life of leisure in a world that has been decimated by war.

vlcsnap-2010-09-23-20h59m32s209 Although the production values of Sora No Woto are extremely high overall the show doesn’t have a single original idea. Sora No Woto is a show crafted by committee and it shows in the most obvious places. The character designs and personality types of the main cast seem to be lifted from other popular Moe shows. The main character, Kanata, looks; acts; and has the same musical affinity as K-On!’s Yui Hirasawa and the technically inclined but soft-spoken and shy Noël Kannag is, in personality and character design, an obvious rip off of Haruhi’s Yuki Nagato. There elements give the show an artificial feel and is an obvious attempt at pandering to Moe fans.

However, the world these characters are dropped into is vibrant and quickly becomes the most compelling vlcsnap-2010-09-23-20h59m20s89 aspect of the show. These is a mystery fueled by allusions to a great war along with obvious clues that this seemingly fantasy world the characters inhabit is, in fact, our own. The force that drives the show forward is the question, “What happened?” and that question is explored as these characters interact with the world around them. Unfortunately this element comes to work against them before the end as information given at the start of the show is proven completely false by the finale. The rules of the world shift by the end of the show in order to give the show an ending climax, a lazy tactic that harms the absolute best element of Sora no Woto.

vlcsnap-2010-09-23-21h02m04s145 Even with all these problems there still is a ton of good writing and exploration of philosophy in the series. In fact, Episode 7 represents some of the best animation and storytelling to come out of Japan during the winter season. Those few good episodes are just over shadowed by the inane mindless episodes in between the building plot. The tone of the show shifts from dark and fatalistic to light and pointless from one episode to the next and the show is only good when it is exploring the darker aspects of this world. Again, this is due to Sora No Woto’s attempt to appeal to a massive audience by playing up its cute characters and Moe aimlessness. I don’t want this review to turn into Moe bashing because I do enjoy Moe when it is done right. However, Sora No Woto does it completely wrong. They play up the cuteness and flightiness of the characters in the middle of a story with real danger and serious consequences. That isn’t how Moe is supposed to work and it undermines the realism that is done well in half the episodes.

As a viewer I felt myself drifting away from the series during the episodes that featured the vlcsnap-2010-09-23-21h02m56s207 characters in slice of life moments. There was an episode about Kanata having to wait near a phone for headquarters to call and needing to go to the bathroom for the majority of the wait. Another featured the characters wondering aimlessly through a grassy field on a “training” exercise. Of course, that focused less on anything military and more on how they managed to learn how to fish. I would have much preferred more images of the rich world than either of those pointless adventures. A three second long frame of a half destroyed Japanese class room in the second episode had more substance than both of those episodes combined.

While Sora No Woto has the skeleton of a good show behind it the Moe aesthetic grafted onto it takes away from the serious and deep philosophical moments the show attempts to achieve. Sora No Woto works best when it is at its darkest but, unfortunately, those moments are rare and interspersed into a finely crafted marketing tool directed at Moe fans.

Good

  • – Finely crafted setting that adds to the plot in a passive way.
  • – Brief moments of brilliance when the action, characters, and theme of the show are allowed advance.

Bad

  • – Moe characters feel like carbon copies of characters from other popular Moe shows.
  • – Nonsense “K-On!” esq episodes harm the flow and tone of the series.
  • – Inconsistent character and world development, mismanaged plot.

 

Review: Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance

 

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Picking up where the first film left off the angels are laying an aggressive offensive against the forces of Nerv. In order to make Nerv’s defenses more powerful the Japanese branch receives ace Pilot Asuka Langley Shikinami. But with each Angel attack draining the resources of the planet three Evangelions may not be enough to stop the angels from their ultimate goal, Earth’s total destruction.

Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion is an iconic anime series that shook the entire world when it was released back in 1995. Now, fifteen years later, Evangelion’s modern reboot has the potential of doing exactly the same thing. But can this condensed version of the classic series stand up to the hype?

eva_2-22_008 I avoided reviewing Evangelion 1.11 because there wasn’t much to say about the movie except that it was the same material with much better animation and being a massive Evangelion fan I felt my review would have been biased. But being that this film takes Evangelion and attempts to reinvent it I felt more comfortable approaching it as a new entity. 

After watching the first movie I came into this one believing that I wasn’t going to see much new material. I’ve been hearing the fact that this movie strays drastically away from the original since it opened in Japan last year. But, when compared to the first Evangelion movie, changing anything could be considered a “massive change.”

eva_2-22_062That isn’t the case. Where the first film’s beginning is a shot for shot remake of the television series to capture the feeling that this is Evangelion, You Can (Not) Advance starts off with completely new material as if to tell the audience that this experience is going to be something completely new. That opening scene showed so much new that it blew any thought in my mind that this film would simply be a remake of the television series. The HD animation is stunning, it takes place in a different NERV base with a never-before-seen commander, it features a new Evangelion unit using a combat mode never before seen, it introduces Mari Illustrious Makinami the film’s new character, and it features a fight with a redesigned Angel. There was no better way they could have started the film.

eva_2-22_066 The film constantly moves back and forth between classic scenes and new material which shows how much Anno has improved as a director and animator over the past fifteen years. The new scenes serve to shake up and reinvent the classic story. One scene in the movie shows the beginning of the day in Tokyo-3 and presents the city as a fusion of nature and technology. With only thirty seconds of animation he shows the city that was awe-inspiring in You Are (Not) Alone as a place that people take for granted, a place where people live out their lives normally. Those beautiful scenes of daily life and the stunningly animated and choreographed battle scenes make Evangelion 2.22 a visual treat.

The largest improvement in You Can (Not) Advance from You Are (Not) Alone is the pacing. The first Evangelion remake at times felt like a chopped up rehash of the original. Anno was able to get rid of that feeling by not only altering the story but by creating new enemies, the addition of the new character, and other visual elements that enabled this film to distance itself from the source material but still maintain the core elements of the original.

The biggest challenge in taking ten episodes of a television series and turning it into a two hour movie are eva_2-22_140 the characters. It was hard to believe the Anno could fit the entire story into the film and develop the characters as well as he did in the original. But again Anno proves his ability by deeply fleshing out the characters with a subtle grace that the original lacked. In fact, some of the choices he made in the film helped to understand the characters much better. The television series relied on a slow reveal to develop the characters and establish their flaws. Due to the limitation of time Anno leaves the character flaws out in the open instead of covering them up and digging for them. Because of that fact the film enables the audience to identify and sympathize  with the characters far more than the original series did. The unfortunate result of this is that the minor characters of the series are ignored left to serve only as background imagery and noise. The friendships Shinji developed in the first film are shown briefly but never eva_2-22_132in any real depth. The audience is left to take those relationships as static fact as characters they came to know in the first film simply hang around uselessly.

Hideaki Anno has done something that is rarely pulled off well in media. He has taken his original property and updated it to modern version while keeping the spirit of the original alive. Not only that, but he improved on his creation as well by eliminating non-crucial elements of the plot to build a tighter, more well-crafted story with powerful characters, and breath-taking animation. This film is an improvement of an already classic piece of Japanese animation.

Good

  • Main characters are well deeply developed, especially in comparison to the source material.
  • Animation is breath-taking. Everything from battle scenes to the elements of daily life are well crafted pieces of art.
  • Pacing is much improved from the original Evangelion film, which at times could feel like a chopped up re-hash of the television series.

Bad

  • Minor characters are almost entirely ignored, even characters that played a large role in You Are (Not) Alone.

 

Screenshots captured by http://autaku.com/

The Crunchyroll Review, Part 3: Alternative viewing methods and Conclusion

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In Part 1 I went over the details of the content offerings that Crunchyroll provides and in Part 2 I evaluated the technical details of the Crunchyroll website. This part looks at Cruncyroll from the perspective of a service and how that service can be used when separated from a computer.

The problem with using the internet as a source of video content is that we lose the big screen experience we are used to in our living rooms. In some ways internet video is a regression because it involves smaller screens, uncomfortable chairs, and in most cases the impossibility to watch in large groups. So how can Crunchyroll be brought from the internet to a television? Read on!

Alternative Viewing Methods

The main problem with streaming media is how difficult it has been getting the content onto a television. Youtube and Netflix have made huge efforts to try and get on living room set top boxes but most of the large players in the space have been slow to find an easy way getting content on to a larger screen. Crunchyroll is no different. Low powered hardware has trouble displaying the streaming videos on a large screen so my First generation MacBook wasn’t able to output the picture properly. The PlayStation 3 could play the SD content but any of the other size produced an unwatchable frame rate.

Boxee

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The only current solution to getting Crunchyroll on a television is to build, or buy, a Home Theater PC and Boxee%202[1] install boxee. While you could just navigate to the website Boxee offers a much better “lean back” user interface designed for use with just a wireless keyboard or a Windows Media Center remote. However, building a HTPC is still an extra expense and I’d much prefer Crunchyroll to partner with Sony, Microsoft, Roku, or any of the many set top box manufacturers and make access to their content cheaper and easier. Until then Boxee is a fantastic, if expensive, solution to the problem. D-Link is developing a special box designed specifically for Boxee and when that comes out it’ll be much easier and cheaper to implement a Boxee system.

The one problem with Boxee is there is no setting to adjust the resolution on Cruncyroll content so you are stuck using the 480P resolution. Again, I hope that in future updates this imitation will disappear or Cruncyroll will grow more intelligent and sense how fast the users internet connection is in order to automatically display the optimal resolution.

iOS

Crunchyroll also has Apps for the iOS devices, iPhone; iPod Touch; and iPad, which enables users to stream IMG_0052[1] onto those devices. I reviewed the iPhone App when it came out in January but since then the updates have eliminated a few of the problems that the original had, the biggest being that the App will resume exactly where you left off when the user receives a Phone call. But some of the problems are still there including the heavy amount of Ads and the limitation that prevents streaming over the 3G cellular data network. The iPad app is very similar to the iPhone app except with a much better designed interface and, of course, the larger screen.

The problem with both of the Apps, especially the iPad version, is that they are prone to crashing before, during, or after the ad is displayed. Simply signing up for a premium membership causes the problem to magically go away! Crunchyroll has made a conscious decision to give users without the premium membership a poor user experience because of the bad implementation of the pre-roll ads. That is a silly decision from a business perspective because those users who try the App without the premium account and have a bad experience probably won’t pay to upgrade. It’s a shame too because both of the apps, when ads are disabled, are fantastic streaming services for the platform. The one annoying bug I experienced on the iPad was its IMG_0088[1]tendency to stop streaming. I don’t know what causes it, maybe stopping the video or losing connection to wifi for a second, but it simply doesn’t resume downloading after the event and I was forced to exit the video, reload  it, and return to the position where the video stopped. Not a terrible bug, but annoying. IMG_0087[1]

The iPad offers a similar UI to the Cruncyroll website as opposed to the condensed version on the iPhone application.  Browsing through the shows is a treat when paired with the detailed art Crunchyroll provides. It is a shame that these applications are unusable without the premium account and I hope Crunchyroll is moving to fix the bug in future updates but until then anyone with an iOS device that they plan to watch anime on should get a premium account and experience the Crunchyroll streaming Applications.

Conclusion

Crunchyroll offers the best content in the streaming anime world at the highest quality possible. However, it is limited by the technology they use to power the site. The front page is a mess, the video player is far inferior to the competition, and there is currently no easy way to view the content on a large TV. However, the site is being constantly improved. As I wrote above, in the month I’ve had with Crunchyroll most of the major bugs or UI problems I found were patched away. I have confidence that the company will push forward and continue to refine their product because I’ve seen it, because I’ve become frustrated by having to change parts of this review to reflect the newest version of the site.

Would I recommend Crunchyroll? Well, I’m sorry to say that it is conditional. If you are the type of person who watches all their anime on a computer than there is no reason why you shouldn’t have a Crunchyroll premium subscription. However, if you are used to watching DVDs on a large television there is no reason why you should sacrifice the screen size and comfort in order to experience Crunchyroll. But being willing to invest in a HTPC or the upcoming D-Link Boxee Box will enable you to do both and I highly recommend giving that idea at least a thorough investigation. After my time with Crunchyroll I definitely want to build my own HTPC and experience the HD content in the size that HD content was meant to be displayed in. Finally, if you ever intend to watch Crunchyroll on an iOS device than there is no questioning that you should have a premium membership because the Apps simply will not function correctly without one.

Good:

  • High Definition option for newer shows
  • Simulcasts available only hours after aired in Japan
  • Simulcast countdowns and calendars keep you informed of new show arrivals
  • Excellent streaming experience on iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad
  • Constantly being updated and improved
  • Automated “Watching” list allows user to keep track of where they are in shows
  • Boxee offers a fantastic “lean back” UI for Cunrchyroll content

Bad:

  • Chaotic front page overwhelms rather than informs
  • iOS Apps are frustrating without premium membership
  • Outdated video player causes several minor annoyances during use
  • No simple way to view content on a television

 

Header image via Anime Vice