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Anime-Breakdown: Watamote (Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui!) (2014) Series Review

I have no idea how to open up this review to be honest. WataMote was one of the first animes I saw in 2014 as ridiculous at that might sound. So when I first saw it most of it references with the exception of Battle Royale and Dragon Ball Z flew over my head. What drew me in was the lead character and how I find her likable. Tomoko kept me coming back despite how embarrassing the situations she got herself into were. However, a whole year has past with me now into anime alongside having found a couple of titles that influenced my standards for certain genres. Seeing WataMote is similar to seeing a friend you haven’t seen in a year; do you accept them despite never changing or you do ignore them and move on. Well aware of the consequences I still chose the former.

Mixed: A decent setup that refuses to move past the status quo

WataMote is an episodic slice of life comedy anime series that focuses on the misadventures of Tomoko Kuroki in her quest to become popular in high school. Kinda small scale popularity, but it’s what her heart’s desires. The first episode does an excellent job establishing how much of a social outcast Tomoko is and her extreme social anxiety. Managing to be entertaining despite only focusing on a single character. Within its first episode it showed there some promise to be seen in the series if it develops beyond the initial premise. Unfortunately, once past the halfway mark any hopes of that will be thrown out of the window if it’s not already.

Its main brand of humor is referential humor or Tomoko reaction in a given situation. Unfortunately referential humor does makeup for large portions of it jokes. Some referential jokes will work even without getting the reference because of Tomoko over the top reaction in the situation, but the more direct and specific ones won’t work unless you have some knowledge to what it’s referencing. Simultaneously doing referential humor correctly and incorrectly. Tomoko never gives a normal reaction making a big deal out of everything. In episode 12, she imagines squashing a cockroach will lead to the entire class clapping and cheering her name out loud. Situation that Tomoko is put into changes from episode to episode. One episode will have her spending her whole summer in her room while another focuses on her attempting to get cuter by playing otome video games. The humor never evolves from how it starts out, but the variety in situations prevent it from getting as stale as it could have gotten. Another way it changes the humor up is by introducing a supporting character for Tomoko to interact with for a short length or an entire episode. Breaking the usual formula while staying in line with its specific brand of humor.

The biggest pitfall of WataMote is it desire to return to the status quo by the end of every episode. What progress is made is unimportant in the long run like Tomoko impressing her cousin or seeing an old friend from middle school. This makes her endeavor come across as a lost cause and as a viewer makes it reluctant to want to stick around to the end. However, no matter the embarrassing situations Tomoko gets herself into, the anime isn’t mean spirited. None of the characters mistreat her in any way. At most, Tomoki Kuroki (Tomoko’s younger brother) acting like siblings is about as cruel as it gets. This is counteracted by the fact that everything that happens to her in the series is her fault. Now due to the status quo effect the fact nothing changes for Tomoko in any positive way might make it depressing.

The ending…it’s something. How to classify it as is difficult. For starter, the narrator flat out tells the viewer that “This is a story about a peculiar girl. An unpopular girl, and it really doesn’t matter” at the end of the final episode. That line is equal to a middle finger to your face. The same final scene continues with Tomoko getting the final line that hints at some possible progression on her outlook on popularity. What you’re ultimately left with is an ending where it’s the only time narrative and character progress can be made cutting the story there instead of taking risks. Playing it safe with its comfortable doing, but also tells the viewer itself it doesn’t matter if they see it.

Mixed: A great lead, but under utilize supporting cast

Watamote only character worth paying attention too is it lead Tomoko Kuroki. She’s a “down to Earth” character whose social anxiety makes her easy to relate too. Receiving most of the characterization through her many monologues developing various aspect about her personality from what she likes, her hobbies, her past, her thought process, and anything you can imagine. Like mentioned before, the series ends without progression. For as much development she receives she is too a static character who doesn’t learn nor changes. She is also a double edge sword; If you don’t like Tomoko Kuroki then the anime will fail. This also effect the supporting cast since Tomoko is the sole focus in every single episode. If you hate her then it wrote itself into a corner by offering no other character to latch onto or explore.

The supporting cast don’t receive enough characterization to stand on their own. Their only purpose is to interact with Tomoko to break up its own formula. Tomoki Kuroki whenever on screen is usually disgusted or annoyed at the sight of his big sister. Much like Tomoko, whenever Tomoki is on screen the humor lies in how he react to Tomoko. There’s no variation on how Tomoki is use within the story. Another supporting character is Yuu Naruse, a middle school friend of Tomoko who goes to a different high school. Tomoko interaction with Yuu are good times for Tomoko whenever she feeling down. It’s breather to see Tomoko speak with another person semi-sucessfully who isn’t her brother.

That about wraps up the semi-important supporting characters. Tomoki and Yuu are the only ones who receive partial screen time or play an important role in an episode in some way. Other supporting characters include Tomoko parents who don’t have many moments of good parenting. Ki is Tomoko cousin who appears in one episode than is never heard off again. There’s also certain students in Tomoko classes that are often shown, but don’t come into the picture aside from being criticize by Tomoko. Among them is a student council president who goes out of her way to cheer Tomoko up. Sadly, the series ends before it could anything with that development.

Good: A solid direction holds a small budget together

WataMote animation is done by Silver Link favoring flashiness over consistency for this anime. The animation isn’t stellar in any area, but works nonetheless. It simply looks fine with some questionable choices that fall under artistic and laziness. The opening animation is artistic showing Tomoko wanting to break free from her chains of unpopularity while the ending animation shows how she actually deals with it. Laziness comes in the form of background characters in several episodes being animated without any eyes drawn on. Some choices are questionable in execution. Episode 4 opens with Tomoko surfing on a website. Within the first couple of seconds there’s a promo displaying on the site that Tomoko is on promoting the anime adaptation of WataMote. If the character in the promo was design differently it would be a decent visual gag that broke the fourth wall, but instead what it does is break immersion. If a character that looks exactly like our lead is used in promos it begs the question why she isn’t considered popular in within the anime.

Backgrounds are simplistic reusing the limited locations alongside with Tomoko having the only notable character design. Lighting in many scenes are done with multiple hexagons or large circles inside smaller same shapes. In order to color in different shading, though even if the scene takes place at night time everything still looks bright. Some of the animation shortcoming is made up by incorporating different art styles whenever Tomoko goes on one of her rants or fantasy the animation style changes so suit her emotion. Often time nailing the exact look and style of what it’s referencing in that scene. Another positive is the animation nailed Tomoko expressions being hysterical when a joke works or when there’s a cringeworthy moment on screen.

Izumi Kitta excels in the lead role of Tomoko Kuroki in the Japanese cast. She’s fully committed to the role on all account. Delivering a natural performance as a dysfunctional high school girl while making her likable. Kitta is never too showy whenever delivering her more outrageous monologues and never over sells it during the more tender moments. Perfectly balancing the various bottled up emotion of Tomoko. The fact that Izumi Kitta was able to make a character who sometimes blames her social anxiety on other people sympathetic is a huge praise for how well she did in the role.

The English dub is done by Sentai Filmworks and the only casting choice they needed to get absolutely right was Tomoko Kuroki. Monica Rail is a talented actress, but unfortunately her performance lacks the finesse that Izumi Kitta brought to the same character. Monica Rail sounds force exaggerating her dialogue no matter if the context demanded it or not. Creating a character who instead of being socially awkward turns into a person who doesn’t know how to act human. Another downside to Monica Rail in the lead role is she does not sing in the English dub of the anime. The closing themes for a majority of the episodes has Tomoko singing the ending theme. Hearing the same character go from speaking awkwardly in English, then singing in Japanese in a charming way in several episodes is distracting. Overall, it’s not entirely a bad performance. Monica Rail has a good sense of comedic timing in her delivery. While Izumi Kitta is the better Tomoko all around Monica Rail attempt at the role is decent occasionally delivering a good laugh. If anything, it’s worth checking out at least once to listen to Monica Rail says thing like “I need to turn myself into a high school slut” that goes against the clean image of some other characters she voices.

Dialogue changes in the English dub are minor in general. Some phrases received changes so it could be more digestible for Western audiences. For example, Tomoko says in episode 5 “I’ll probably find something lewd in his room” in the English sub while in the English dub it was translated too “I’ll probablly find some porno in his room”. Dialogue changes like these don’t affect anything important. The English wording for some comedic lines loses their comedic touch upon delivering in writing and performance. In episode three, there’s a scene where Tomoko says “I-I figured I would go take a really messy shit in the bathroom or something” when talking to two guys in the rain. When Izumi Kitta delivers the line it’s comical as well as cringeworthy. When Monica Rail says “I-I just got to take a dump outside that restroom” it’s just comes off awkward. Several scenes can lose a semblance of comedy making you question if it’s a comedy at all. Finally, Sentai Filmworks felt the need to include subtitles to explain references in the English dub. Don’t know why they felt the need to do that since it won’t change if the joke itself is funny or not in execution. In both, the supporting cast get minimal usage. It’s because of this both supporting cast comes off as being equal in the voice acting department. Good performances for the limited time they receive, but not enough to make them memorable.

If you had to choose between the sub or English dub without a doubt go for the sub. Even if the comedic lines were directly translated in the English dub Izumi Kitta simply embodies the leading role far better than Monica Rail. Izumi Kitta sounds natural whereas Monica Rail is more in line of an embarrassing grandmother speaking like a teen in an effort to be hip. Also, the small fact hearing Izumi Kitta sing the closing theme gives Tomoko more charm when she optimistically sings about her social life to improve. Monical Rail doesn’t even sing when playing Tomoko which is immediately distracting in the English seeing a character speaking English singing in another language she doesn’t speak in within the anime.

The music is done by a group called Sadesper Record. Made up of composers Goro Watari (also goes by NARASAKI) and Masaki Oshima (also know as WATCHMAN) both of whom provide an OST comprised of electronic, comical, orchestrated, and hard rock music. The OST works fine in the anime series being diverse as it needs to be to complement the loner slice of life moments to the over exaggeration of Tomoko fantasies. It’s pleasant to listen too, but fail in comparison to the opening and closing themes of the series which are memorable without the company of the anime visuals. The opening theme is a hard rock song called “Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaete mo Omaera ga Warui” sung by Konomi Suzuki and Kiba of Akiba. It’s a hard rock song that fits with the anime capturing Tomoko bottle up emotion to break free.

Watamote despite being a twelve episode long anime has five different ending themes. The most use track for the ending is “Dou Kangaete mo Watashi wa Warukunai” by Izumi Kitta in episodes 1, 3, 4, 7 – 10, and 12. It’s an upbeat pop song that’s fun to listen to everytime. “Musou Renka” by Velvet.kodhy is used in episode 2 and it’s forgettable. It’s a alternative rock song with mixture of rap and hip hop splice together speeding up and slowing down it’s instrumental. Vocals that need work hitting high note and actual emotion because the singing sounds phoned in. Ironically, “Yoru no Tobari yo Sayonara” also by Velvet.kodhy in episode 5 has none of those problems. It’s a silly song with the vocalist singing in a deep voice and its done well. Going perfectly with the closing animation referencing the ending animation of Manga Nihon Musashi Banashi. Though, these two tracks aren’t memorable without the company of the anime visuals. “Sokora no Nuigurumi no Fuusen to Watashi” by Velvet.kodhy and Velvet.kodhy and μ and μ is another pleasant track used in episode 11. It has a feel good aura about it. From it two vocalist sharing a good time singing together and it’s joyous instrumentals. “Natsu Matsuri” by Utsu-P & Minatsukitoka ft. Hatsune Miku is used in episode 6. Combining foreboding piano music before going into techno sound bytes, with hard rock guitar strings, and robotic sounding autotune singing. This track is the closest the anime gets to matching the rock opening.

Personal Enjoyment: Enjoyable, but with apparent flaws

I did find the English dub inferior because Monica Rail wasn’t quite on par with voice actress Izumi Kitta. However, I did get a kick listening to Monica Rail say things I never expected to hear from her. That made the dub worth seeing even if the performance wasn’t quite to the level I wanted it to be at. Having seen this anime again in English I was able to catch more references than I was before. Not of all of them were subtle like a reference to Battle Royale and anything specifically named is hard to missed. The references I caught having seen WataMote again were Death Note, Tomoki Kuroki reading volume 8 of Arachnid in episode one, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Attack on Titan. Unfortunately, WataMote wasn’t quite as good as I remembered when I first saw it and boils down to nothing happens nor changes. It’s a static series were the potential is there to grow beyond the initial idea, but doesn’t know how to go about doing it. I still like the anime and find Tomoko Kuroki an endearing awkward character, but when the anime itself says it’s unimportant it epitomizes the down side for some slice of life animes. Good for the moment, but nothing that’ll remain with you forever.

Story: 2/3

Characters: 2/3

Production: 2/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

WataMote is a fun series to see no how awkward the situations got for Tomoko. It’s not a mean spirited anime since the main character is never mistreated by others, but has the potential to get depressing when realizing it’s her own fault for not improving herself. What it does provide is a lead character whose easily relatable among those with social anxiety, some killer tunes that either make you want to rock out too or cheer you up, and a stellar performance by Izumi Kitta. This anime floats or sink on the appeal of it’s lead in a static environment. If even after reading this entire review you still don’t know to check out the anime ask yourself if you want a dynamic or static story from this premise? If you choose the former go onto something else, but if you choose the latter enjoy sharing the same awkward experiences as Tomoko that few slice of life animes will touch upon.

7/10

Anime-Breakdown: Psychic School Wars (Nerawareta Gakuen) (2012) Movie Review

Nerawareta Gakuen effortlessly weaves a story that combines romance, time travel, an impending apocalypse, and growing up into an incomprehensible mess of a film. The film is plagued with aimless direction, among other things, that prevents it from being any more than eye candy. Besides being pretty to look at there’s nothing to be gained from seeing this film that’s a chore to finish.

The premise of Nerawareta Gakuen, which translates to the cooler sounding, but very misleading English title Psychic School War starts out simple. Introducing four characters into what appears will be a romance story with light elements of sci-fi. Following four characters each of whom contain bland characteristics leading to force conflicts that could have been easily been resolved. Being dragged out in order to pad out what little story it has. If it was only focused on the romance in the story, it would have been bland if it revolved around childhood friends along with a love triangle that’s entirely one sided nor add much of a conflict between the characters. Seeing, let alone learning about the character’s relationship with one another is spread thinly in the film. Emoting a sense of boredom that plays the usual tricks (will they won’t they hook up being the main element in use) in its setup.

If it was only a sci-fi than it would have still been incomprehensible. Vague explanations are given on how time traveling works, character backstory is revealed with sparse bits of information, the apocalypse that occurred gets a quick brief mention with unanswered questions, and how psychic powers work is flimsy. Some of it is explained like how other character can unlock the ability to read other minds, but what exactly it can do is left up to the imagination. One of the most crucial elements in the film that receives muddle explanations is an hourglass shaped device that Ryouichi carries around with him which he uses in order to create more psychics. He uses this device predominantly to achieve his goal and by badly presenting it purpose it’s easy to lose sight of how he’s going to accomplish what he sets out to do.

It’s so bad at telling its story that the whole plot has to use a very weak plot point involving a school policy which prevents students from bringing cell phones to school in order to show visible progress of the central conflict. In the worst possible way it tries to use this plot point to say some sort of commentary on social interaction by having students ignore or enforce the no cell phone policy. On a dramatic level this plot point becomes exaggerated that anything serious it wanted to say is downplayed in delivery. Seeing students expresses their hatred for cell phones in an over the top presentation is unable to be enjoyable in silliness because it wants to be taken seriously. There’s no build up to steadily show its central conflict becoming larger nor provide enough visual cues that more students are becoming psychic. At most, it only shows two students becoming physic which isn’t enough to provide a glimpse at the bigger picture. Instead characters have to exposition it to each other to get important information out. Sounding unnatural in several conversations.

The characters aren’t any better. Our four main characters in the film are archetypes that get introduced and three of them remain static in their journey. Kenji Seki is a dumb teen who has bad luck and oblivious to the fact his childhood friend Natsuki Suzuura loves him. It’s reasonable why Kenji is oblivious about Natsuki feelings since in one minute Natsuki teases him, punches him, and calls the police on him. He’s an idiotic character who’s unable to process thoughts. Unable in the fact he doesn’t how to handle any situation when comforting friends. He’s simply lucks out in how problems play out. Kenji is underdeveloped, though the only one who seems to grow in the film. In some ways he matures gaining a different outlook on life. Without much of a character to explore he ends up banal like the other characters.

Natsuki Suzuura is the typical girl next door who picks on Kenji to hide her true feelings from him. The way she acts needlessly prolongs an easily solvable conflict. She even says herself if she was more direct in expressing herself she wouldn’t be going through any overblown struggles. She’s another bland character who’s made entirely unlikable by how she acts. The first time she’s seen in the film she reports Kenji to the police by lying that Kenji was going to rape her. This is also how Natsuki character is introduced in the film, which gives a bad first impression of her character. Around the 23 minute mark Natsuki slaps Kenji for a comment he made regarding loving someone without mutual feelings being returned. Natsuki up to this point has shown no sign of even liking Kenji. Within that time frame she acts like a tsundere hitting Kenji throughout the film and teases Kenji nonstop who does not like getting teased. Despite acting how Natsuki does she wonders why Kenji doesn’t love her. When the film ends she still hasn’t a change bit proving she’s the film most dense character.

Kahori Harukawa is an unimportant character. Besides one brief scene the writers prefer to keep Kahori entire character one dimensional. Her backstory is glanced over with a brief mention which ends all of her characterization with a couple of seconds. As a character she’s weak and her place in the story is unimportant. She has no conflict nor does anything to advance the story. She also falls in love with Ryouichi Kyougoku for shallow reasons. It’s explained she fell in love with him at the first sight of Ryouichi and the material reinforces that fact. There is hardly a scene of Kahori and Ryouichi getting to know each other. The only thing they know about each other for a majority of the film is they both play piano. That’s about it. Once it reaches the hour mark both characters are lovey-dovey towards each other despite only sharing one scene of actually doing anything together outside of school. This later comes to affect the final act of the film. Due a specific revelation both characters won’t be able to be together. Instead of being a strong dramatic pull in the story it’s simply just there as fluff.

The worst character in the film is Ryouichi Kyougoku who’s the popular, mysterious transfer student with a hidden agenda. Ryouichi single handedly brings down the time travel and physic aspect of the film. He’s a poorly written character, giving out his backstory unnaturally as possible and providing vague explanations on the process of time traveling and physic powers. He knows how everything works, but the audience doesn’t making any scene that has anything supernatural onscreen become convoluted. Almost as if literally making up the rules of how time traveling and physic powers work as he goes along in the story. He receives scatter characterization some of which gets dropped. In the film its mentioned Ryouichi will execute a revenge plan. What exactly it was is delivered in a throwaway line that’s easy to miss.

The animation is done by Sunrise studio and it’s virtually flawless. Director Ryosuke Nakamura eye for details is rich in every single scene of the movie. Meticulous details in the visuals from the cherry blossom petals being blown in the breeze to the gleaming rays of light shining through the classroom windows. Everything from beginning to end looks beautiful. Another outstanding feature is the use of color hues and tones to accentuate and render scenic clouds and evening skies. There usually something always moving on screen with high detail that it becomes mesmerizing. For a majority of the film it movements sticks to the ordinary with the occasional over the top short burst moments and supernatural elements when on display. No matter what’s on screen the amount of time it must have taken to animate the film is something to appreciate.

The voice acting is in general is passable, but underwhelming due to the material. Kana Kanazawa plays Kahori who I already mentioned is pointless in the story. It’s a performance that I can’t blame Kanazawa for phoney in since her character hardly changes emotion limiting options in her portrayal. Daisuke Ono, who plays Ryouichi Kyougoku has a similar problem. A big role with limited range, which again limits the voice actor abilities to portray the characters. That’s two talented voice actors who are handicapped because of the material.

Yuutaro Honjou plays Kenji Seki whose performance does allow ranged. Unlike his more experience co-stars his balance of drama and comedy generally misses the mark. When he’s meant to sound sincere it comes across as a bad rehearsal take. Sounding mundane when experiencing important life changing events. Mayu Watanabe plays Natsuki Suzuura does a good job. Unfortunately because of how her character is written she also comes across as the most annoying. Playing a tsunderes she sounds sweet one moment then flips the switch to being angry the next. That’s our four lead actors, each of whom are unable to overcome the material shortcoming. The supporting cast because of limited screen time don’t suffer the same problem. They’re fine in small roles. There’s no English dub for the film which given the sloppy delivery of the story is understandable.

The soundtrack is done by Shusei Murai and it’s repetitive. Nearly all the tracks sound sentimental working against the film. There’s hardly any variety in the music Murai composed. Becoming aggregating to listen to when most of the tracks are soft piano ballads that sound similar to one another with just a minor variation of one track. Too many tracks sound too similar to each other its entirely lazy. To paint a clearer picture on the lack of varied music the OST for the film there are 25 tracks and 22 of them are soft piano ballads. If it doesn’t feature a soft piano ballad it’ll feature a Violin another instrument Murai goes out of his way to make annoying to listen to. Hearing the soundtrack is infuriating because no effort is made to make each track sound different. Getting the suspicion that the soundtrack simply looped one song over and over again. There are only two distinctive sounding and noteworthy tracks in the film coming from artists Ryo and supercell. Like the rest of the score, the songs these two artists provide are blissful with usage of soft piano ballads. They are nice songs, even if they are forgettable immediately after they end.

Nerawareta Gakuen is a complicated mess and poorly told, but does make sense. Although this being my second time seeing the movie I wrote down notes which in the end made the story sensical. However, the information is so poorly relayed to the audience due to brief throwaway explanations that reveal very little or simply glancing over important details that are essential to understanding its story. Before reaching the one hour mark the film fails to provide characters good enough to carry a story, wanders around aimlessly without a purpose, and finally a conflict that uses convoluted plot points making it uninvolving. The remainder of the film will feel longer than it actually is. That’s not even taking into account the repetitive soundtrack becoming grating on the ears as it goes making the experience worse. Pretty to look at, no doubt, but with no substance whatsoever it makes you ponder what a waste of beautiful animation.

2/10

Anime Breakdown: Sword Art Online Extra Edition (2013) Recap Movie Review

If you have never seen Sword Art Online I recommend you stop reading at the second paragraph (discounting this passage) since I go into spoiler territory past that. Using specific examples of important events in the series to prove a point on how badly this recap movie present the material. By the second paragraph I generalize the main issues without spoiling anything specific. I might not think the series is great, but I wouldn’t dare ruin the element of surprise for anyone seeing it for the first time if they choose to do so.

The anime Sword Art Online is a fluctuating experience. The story was stupid breaking its own logic, not understanding how video game programming worked and filled with some idiotic characters, yet it was for those exact reasons I kept watching it. Part of the appeal of watching Sword Art Online is that it was always entertaining no matter what happened. Whether it was good or bad there was something to go back to. Something this recap film fails to emulate in the same way and serves to further highlights season one weaknesses while barely displaying of the strengths it had in the series.

So in order to save both fans and newcomers time this film is basically a bad recap of the first season of Sword Art Online that lasts an hour and forty minutes. In the first hour and twenty minutes there is some new footage mostly of characters sitting and talking, but pale in comparison to the usage of clips from the series first season. The remaining twenty-minute is spent on a subplot involving Kirito and the gang exploring an underwater dungeon in Alfheim Online. For fans of the series I wouldn’t recommend seeing this film for the new material since like a character said in a scene before this movie ended it is unimportant.

The way more than of half of the film is set up is like an interview. A government official, Kikuoka Seijirou, wants some dangling questions regarding the Sword Art Online and Alfheim Online incidents cleared up. Despite Kitiro expressing that he told them (the government) like a million time what happened. Within the first couple of minutes this simple exchange of dialogue expresses how pointless it is for both Kirito and anyone who seen the series to go over what happened. While Kirto talks to Kikuoka Seijirou there’s a subplot involving Asuna, Keiko, and Rika teaching Suguha how to swim. This framing device among the girls provides some character moments with them commenting on each other story on how they met Kirito. It’s not a bad framing device even if the girls remain in swimsuits for most of the non-recap clips. Compare to Kirito narrative framing which adds nothing. The girls framing device provides the rare interaction between characters in the real world.

One thing that is fixed in the movie are certain plot holes aren’t made as noticeable in the film. In the first season of Sword Art Online it was established in episode two that beta testers were passing out guide books so non-experience players can learn how to play the game. Including clearly stating a couple of months has passed and people will in real life die if they die in the game. Apparently death is not a good motivation for some players to learn how to play the game. With that bit of information left out it managed to make the whole scenario come across grimer and make the players look less idiotic in comparison to the anime series. This is later counteracted when the film has Kikuoka Seijirou asking how Kirito he survived in Sword in Art Online despite it going against the video game programming. Kirito ignores giving any sort of logical answer. Simply put, he survived death by sheer willpower.

It does this on another important occasion including the cardinal sin of not showing what happened when Kirito faces Sugou Nobuyuki in the Alfheim Online arc. Before giving a flimsy explanation one of the last thing seen is Sugou about to seemingly rape Asuna in front of Kirito. After Kayaba appears to give Kirito a motivation speech, it cuts back to Kirito talking to Kikuoka. The only explanation that’s given regarding what happened to Sogou is he self destructed. Not exactly satisfactory when it’s casually resolved like that. I could only imagine how fed up non-viewers of the series might feel when seeing that.

For some reason Shigeru Nishiyama (the film and anime series editor) thought it was a good idea to cut out certain things for no reason. Near the end of episode ten when Kirito goes over to Asuna house there’s a misunderstanding. In the scene, Asuna finishes undressing after diner mistaking Kirito intentions, thinking he wanted to have sex with her when actually he just wanted to stay the night at her place. Kirito clears up the misunderstanding which intentional or not was a hilarious moment in the anime. In the movie, once Asuna finishes undressing and tells Kirito to take off his clothes it cuts to black. Fading into the two of them sleeping together in bed. So according to this movie both Kirito and Asuna had sex.

Another mishaps by editor Shigeru Nishiyama is how he presented Yui story in the film. This piece in the movie is terribly edited together with noticeable abrupt cuts that even non viewers of the series would be able tell had content cut out. Instead of showing at least a single scene of Kirito and Asuna bonding with Yui it just immediately goes to Yui telling the viewer what she is and then possibly dying. Not even the anime was as rush in the same way when presenting this storyline. Unless you have seen the anime this moment will leave viewers confused and with so many questions that won’t get answered.

There’s also a random cut where Yui is around the same size as Kirito in Alfheim when Kirito enters Alfheim Online for the first time. Later in that moment the next cut shows Yui in pixie size. There was no point in cutting out Yui shrinking herself within the same scene which by doing so also cut out the explanation Yui gives for still being alive in the video game. Why this was cut makes no sense.

A shared element of both the film and anime series is Asuna getting the short end of characterization. Like in the anime, Asuna personality is no different from a thin piece of paper with boobs drawn on. However, it’s not presented in the same manner. The film doesn’t introduce Asuna as a capable player which in turn makes her role in the story less of an issue. Her role does not receive a downgrade in the film, which is a slight improvement to how she’s presented in the anime. Unfortunately the movie does not make a good case for Asuna being the center of Kirito affection. In the movie she’s just presented as an another girl who fallen in love with Kirito on a whim.

Suguha on the other hand is presented as having an actual relationship with Kirito. Unlike the other girls, Suguha is the only one who is shown having a conflict with Kirito and solving it with him. Suguha side of the story paints her in a better light showing the rough side of her relationship not just the good moments. Just like in the anime, Suguha is the only female character who gets any good characterization in the movie. She’s the only character in the movie who has a conflict to overcome from the beginning of the movie all the way to the end. It’s not much characterization that gets added to her, but it is far more significant than what the rest of the cast gets. Nothing.

Music while good gets replaced or amped up version from the anime series. The most noticeable is when it splices both of Kirito attempts to conquer the world tree in Alfheim Online it uses “Innocence” by Aoi Eir for those scenes. This specific track is not as effective as the original track use in the series. For the most part, the soundtrack is thankfully untouched. While not good enough to stand on its own without the help of the anime visual it works just fine in the movie as it did the series. There were times I will admit the music did get me to forget the issues I had and got me to enjoy what I was watching. Also, there were times where the editing would use a track to unintentional comedic effect. Simply cutting or fading out at a bad time. The voice work for both the Japanese and English cast is similar to the anime series. If you want more emotional performances watch it with English subtitles or if you want subtlety (and no stuttering) albeit with some underplayed characters go with the English dub. Unfortunately for both cast, it feels like rehash performances.

The last twenty minutes contains all new footage and stills without splicing any footage from the anime. It’s a simple subplot of Kirito and the gang exploring an underwater dungeon. If it wasn’t included in the film the material would have been just fine released as an OVA. The new material in the last twenty-minute is decent as a whole. As usual, despite playing an MMO and how they are actually design Kirito is able to handle any situation virtually by himself. What the new material does get right is capturing the fun experience from the series. The humor is intact and the interaction between the characters prevent things from being boring. Where it stumbles is the new material is not entirely animated. There’s some action oriented stills which would have made up for the disappointing climax at the end of the movie. Setting up what seems like would be a cool action scene, only to have an outside force and one-shot character fix everything. I can’t forget how easy it was to figure out the identity of the NPC giving the quest. Surely a better name than Nerakk for an NPC could have been more clever to hide the true identity for English speakers. Just change around a couple of letters and you can solve what the NPC actually is.

This movie is pointless offering only twenty minutes of new material, but even with that new material it is pointless. Aside from Suguha getting a small bit of new characterization nothing significant is added. Failing to condense the material of the first season of Sword Art Online and getting it to work in a movie format. The one to blame for this terrible piece of a film is not the source material since in the anime it does have good scenes that work in favor of the story, but the editing and the way the film presents them is to blame. It was sloppy, rushed, forgetting about the tiniest details like showing what happened to Sugou for a resolution. Instead of at least being a pleasant walk down memory lane it come across as a waste of time. There isn’t enough new footage to recommend to fans and it’s not a good presentation of the series for newcomers. You’re simply better off just watching the anime series or reading the light novels. No matter how they turned out, they at least will offer a complete experience unlike this film.

3/10

Anime-Breakdown: Durarara!! (2010) Series Review

Durarara!! or as I like to call it for fun DRRR!! is an interesting anime series. Putting a lot of emphasis into creating its characters and world were losing tons of time becomes a habit when watching the series. Capturing the chaos and mystery of the city in it’s version of Ikebukuro with soaring success. While the story being told is decent as a whole what makes it memorable and a great way to spend time are the characters themselves. No matter what flaws present themselves, the characters always manage to make it seem like those flaws don’t matter in the long run.

Mixed: Interesting story filled with questionable decisions

Durarara!! has a headless horseman, a girl with a demon sword that can possess people, a puppet master bent on creating chaos, gang leaders wanting gang warfare, and a person with superhuman strengths among its cast. You would think one of those characters would be the protagonist. Except that position is given to an average teen, Mikado Ryugamine, whose relevance and backstory is not given until episode eleven. Giving the other characters more than enough time to overshadow him. Despite that specific pitfall the story manages to fit in elements of teen drama without feeling inappropriate with everything else in the story. The focus on presenting Ikebukuro and Japanese youth culture through internet chat rooms, text messages, and technology in general lends itself to making the city more lively. Seeing characters talk about rumors, folklore, and their experiences make it feel like a real chaotic city. While Mikado is a weak point of interest compared to the other characters, him being in the central of the story makes sense. He is experiencing life in Ikebukuro for the first time interacting with a host of interesting characters and sometimes unknowingly being part of a bigger ordeal beyond his control. What also justifies Mikado as the lead is he’s experiencing and learning everything about Durarara!! version of Ikebukuro just like the viewer.

In every episode the narrative will rotate onto a different focused character. Shining the spotlight on the cast members when the opportunity presents itself. After the primary introduction in episode one the rest of series spends time exploring it cast. In a semi-non linear fashion it spends times on various characters each having their own conflict in a single episode like finding a kidnap friend for a single episode or looking for a missing head for the entire series. Eventually having the large cast interact with each other in various ways and form an engrossing narrative with a mystery at its heart. In the first half, the main draw is a mystery centering around the headless rider. The headless rider search of her head spans several decades trusting the viewing to piece together the information themselves. This headless rider storyline takes some unexpected directions that will keep viewers guessing on where it’ll go next.

It’s biggest strength is in telling a series of smaller stories weaving them together into a larger story. All the events shown correlate with one another in some way expertly building up to a climax. Without action, it build up is very exciting, thanks in large to wanting to see how it’ll played out once all the elements are together. The smartest choice the series made regarding its writing was being more serious than splitting half of tone balancing comedy. While it filled with fun personalities to lighten up from the darker aspects of the anime. When it times to take something seriously there’s no need to worry about transitioning between tones. Handling it expertly by having jokes every now and then, but by not at making it an equal focus like its drama.

For an anime that has a cool cast of characters how it uses them is disappointing. At times dropping characters completely from the series, though even those characters manage to have a good moment. The only time this is ever a consistent problem is with police officer Kinnosuke Kuzuhara in the second half. He’s featured in the second opening of the anime misleading viewers he has a decent size role in the second half. The fact he doesn’t do much or receive much characterization is made more noticeable because of it.

From episode thirteen and onwards it builds up is allot more rewarding than the actual resolution to the storylines. The second half of Durarara!! spends lots of time jumping back and forth between timelines where it becomes unnecessary. A linear narrative framing device would have better suited the second half. It’s constantly jumping back to earlier episodes that instead of moving the story forward take steps backwards. Halting progress in certain episodes as literally nothing has happened to progress forward. The reason it does this is because the series is bad at foreshadowing. With the exception of Masaomi Kida past, revelations on characters come out of left fields. For example, there’s a large gang called the Dollars in that no one within it knows who started the gang. Once it gets revealed who started the gang it’s seem to be there to justified following a character for long as it has. It also is a disservice to the character when he’s given a just because motivation of sorts.

Another drawback in the second half is the mystery aspect is gone when the focus is put on the three leads. What exactly is keeping Mikado, Anri, and Masaomi separated is shown to the audience as a series of misunderstanding and indecisiveness. Also, laziness on the writer part for not having the characters talk to each other because of if they did the whole ordeal would have been dealt with quickly. Having them act on assumptions throughout the second half. Compare to earlier storylines, one of which deals with a character looking for her head. Misunderstandings as a source of conflict is less interesting in comparison and executed badly when the audience is show the source before the characters discover it. Making the halt in progress more obvious when waiting patiently for it to move forward.

The ending of the series doesn’t feel conclusive leaving dangling plot threads and fate of certain characters left in the open. In no way is the ending sequel bait as some character arcs (Celty arc being the best example) have satisfying growth by the end of the series. Where it feels inconclusive are with the lead characters. Just when the viewers learn about their past there’s a desire to see how the three will interact with one another once those kept secrets are revealed to everyone. Instead of showing that it simply tidy everything up as if the secrets the lead characters kept from each other wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s a thrilling ride that ends with a whimper instead of a bang.

Good: A layered cast

The story might have a weaker second half, but the cast of characters are able to escape the same pitfall of the story. For starter, not all characters presented will have a major role or even a recurring minor role in the long run. This is made up with the writing that manages to weave together an unlikely cast of character with all sorts of different background together to compliment each other nicely. There are personalities of all types of the love-to-hate jerk Izaya Orihara, the short fuse bartender Shizuo Heiwajima, passionate Otaku Walker and Erika, and many more.

The three leads are high school students and for the duration of the first half they are overshadowed by the supporting cast. Mikado Ryugamine is the new kid with average characteristics, Masaomi Kida the best friend with a hidden past, and Anri Sonohara the bespectacled timid girl. They receive partial characterization in the series that make them good character. When the series finally goes into their past, they become more interesting than how they presented at first sight. In Durarara!! there’s always allot more to the characters than what we initially know. This partial development does backfire when they are the focus in the second half and due lazy writing it creates a force conflict between them. These characters are compelling, but how their story was told brings down what could have been another good arc.

Celty Sturluson, the Headless Rider, is a stand out in the large cast. She goes to Japan in search of her head communicating with the locals through a PDA. Throughout the series she lives with scientist Shinra Kishitani whom she shares an interesting relationship with. It develops into something romantic that, crazy as it sound, but actually sweet in execution. Both characters are playful together as well as being show being able to talk through any issue like a real couple. Whenever Celty and Shinra are on screen the writing is at it’s best.

Another memorable character is Shizuo Heiwajima. The shortfuse bartender with superhuman strength who hates to fight. His characteristic are a bit ironic since he does fight allot in the series leading being in the center of the most over the top moments in the anime. Usually tossing around any large object connected to the ground like a streetlight or vending machines like it weighs nothing. He has a rivalry with Izaya Orihara who’s also another memorable character. Leading to the two clashing heads with Shizuo using his fists and Izaya using his head in their confrontations. This leads to more great moments.

There’s also a group of four friends who are always together consisting of Kyohei, Walker, Erika, and Kyohei. Kyohei is the leader of the group, especially after all four quitting the Blue Squares. Walker and Erika are passionate Otaku and manga reader and if you’ve a large chunk of anime you will know the references all which aren’t subtle. Like in the second opening one of the manga that’s shown in their collection is Sword Art Online, there’s also a poster for the short film Cencoroll hanging outside the theater, or two characters from Baccano making cameos which are only a few references. Lastly there is Saburo, who is the driver of the group and gets mad whenever his van is wrecked. The chemistry between these characters is gold acting like actual friends acting like goofballs even in serious situations.

Good: A catchy soundtrack and a voice cast to die for make up for inconsistent animation

Animation is done by studio Brain’s Base and it’s decent. Coloring in several episodes will have large crowds of people just painted gray or black and white. This makes no sense from a production standpoint given the insane amount of time it must have taken to create Ikebukuro. The backgrounds have to take into account all the effect for neon street signs, lighting of the city at night or day time, the different material of buildings, streets have to seemingly connect to one another, and other tiny details to sell the idea of its being a living, breathing city. With that much hard work put into connecting all the backgrounds to make Ikebukuro come to life, leaving background characters gray comes across as laziness. Whenever it does anything over the top it delivers those moments spectacularly. Though, in motion some character movements (like the first fight between Izaya facial expressions when he first fights Shizuo) will have some unintentionally hilarious awkward facial expressions.

Characters design varies; if it’s an important character they are stylized though not memorable. If they are part of the background than details are spared like fully coloring them to missing some line detail on limbs. Some animation in the second half will take a noticeable dip in quality when they matter the most. In episode 17 titled “Everything Changes”, Shizuo fights a large crowd of people scraping some details like not coloring the large crowds, or rawing a giant blob instead of individuals’ bodies for a crowd. In general Durarara!! has this recurring problem with background characters lacking the same details as important character sparing details through its run. At first it comes across a neat stylistic choice and later feels like laziness.

Director Takahiro Omori makes handling a large cast seem natural. Despite some characters being under utilized Omori direction makes sure it’s never overwhelming to keep track off. While the story being told isn’t linear what events unfold in the episodes are. Omori uses a character to transit into another character to show their perspective in that specific moment or episode. No matter who he rotates the attention to he manages to have far greater success than failures in his direction.

Regardless what format you hear the audio in both cast offer a great list of voice actors. The Japanese voice cast offers Miyano Mamoru, Jun Fukuya, Miyuki Sawashiro, Hiroshi Kamiya, Daisuke Ono, Yuichi Nakamura, and the list goes on. This same rule applies to the English dub, which was produced by Bang Zoom! Entertainment and they basically gathered some of the most recognizable voice actors in anime dubbing. The English dub has a dream cast come true for anyone who watches English dubs regularly. It has the likes of Johnny Bosch Yong, Michelle Ruff, Bryce Papenbrook, Kari Wahlgren, Yuri Lowenthal, Crispin Freeman, Steve Blum, and Patrick Seitz to name a few. Quite a cast, regardless what version is heard.

Both cast have a similar issue of giving talented voice actors little material in the anime. Almost as if just gathering them up for name recognition. In the English dub, Stephanie Sheh plays Rio Kamichika who in only one episode has an important role. Her character fades away quickly after episode two. Another awesome voice actor who gets limited screen time is David Vincent who plays Seji Yagari. His performance is fine, but not varied in how to portray the character. Always having to sound concerned about his girlfriend. Cassandra Lee Morris, who plays Saki Mikajima gets to speak in very little in the anime. In the Japanese cast Keiju Fujiwara, Hochu Ostuka, Toru Okawa, Yuji Ueda, and you get the point.

The weakest link in the English dub is Darrel Guilbeau as Mikado Ryugamine. His performance is uneven and for a leading role. He easily gets overshadowed by his cast members whom deliver better performances. Darrel Guilbeau performance will take time to get used to before sounding natural in it. Toshiyuki Toyonaga who provides the Japanese voice for Mikado Ryugamine is good from the first episode. Bringing personality into an average character without sounding wooden in his portrayal of the everyguy lead. It’s a good performance that unlike Guilbeau, does not get overshadowed by his co-stars.

Kari Wahlgren has more line to deliver than Miyuki Sawashiro in the role of Celty. The way Celty talks to another character is through text on her PDA. Depending how and where you see the anime English subtitles might not appear (even on DVDs this happens) when Japanese text is displayed. This is remedied in the English dub by Kari Wahlgren reading those lines of Japanese text on her phone to the audience, though it will feel like something is missing without knowing that bit of information. Miyuki Sawashiro does equally well in portraying Celty giving her a mysterious aloof charm, warmth, and sisterly undercurrents of her character.

Bryce Papenbrook for the English dub and Mamoru Miyano in the Japanese cast both play Masaomi Kida. Aside from a couple word changes for Papenbrook dialogue (like saying boobilicous) both actors have unfettered energy and enthusiasm down. When it comes to performing the more dramatic scenes Miyano delivery is superior, though Papenbrook is not bad either.His comedic delivery is better than his dramatic voice work. Kana Kanzawa and Michelle Ruff, both play Anri with a timid low voice. Both actresses play the character similarly which, unlike the rest of the cast is difficult to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. They both do a good job in the role. Crispin Freeman and Daisuke Ono both play Shizuo Heiwajima. Freeman goes more for a perpetually rougher, grittier feel, in his portrayal contrasting Daisuke Ono’s is suave calmness into maniacal madman transitions is entertaining. Both performances portray the character differently, but both interpretations fit the character.

Johnny Yong Bosch and Hiroshi Kamiya play Izaya Orihara. Johnny Yong Bosch performance of Izaya is the definitive portrayal of Izaya. Hiroshi Kamiya is fine in the role, but Johnny Yong Bosch excessive smugness and hammy voice work serve Izaya far better. Unlike Kamiya, Johnny Yong Bosch is able to come across as a comical menace who can make you laugh and take him as a serious threat. Yuri Lowenthal and Jun Fukuyama both played Shinra Kishitani. Lowenthal performance is subtle and compose. It’s an unexpected performance with the contrast Fukuyama goes for the mad scientist route in his portrayal. Fukuyama performance is very fun in the over the top nature he acts, though Lowenthal comes across as a more likable Shinra because when he says something romantic towards Celty it sounds romantic instead of sounding insane.

There’s no wrong way to see Durarara!! since both English sub and English dub deliver the material in virtually the same way. Just a minor word or phrase changes to sound natural in their respective languages. However, the Japanese cast just barely etches out a victory as the superior audio track thanks to Toshiyuki Toyonaga in the leading role as Mikado Ryugamine. Darrel Guilbeau takes time to improve his performance before sounding natural in the role and taking a lot longer to become accustomed to hearing in a cast filled with great voice actors. Toshiyuki Toyonaga is strong from the beginning standing on his own. He provides Mikado a personality adding to the everyguy trait of Mikado. Unlike Darrel Guilbeau who starts out bland, Toshiyuki Toyonaga gets it right from episode one and is a smoother viewing experience. Whatever your preferences for viewing anime is both cast are good.

The first opening theme song, “Uragai no Yuuyake” (Sunset of Betrayal in English) by Theatre Brook is used in episode 1 – 12 is forgettable. It’s fit fine with the opening animation with light rock beats, though it’s nowhere near as memorable as it closing theme. Once the catchy R&B song with J-Pop lyrics, “Trust Me”, by Yuya Matsushita start playing in the outro it’ll be able to put anyone in good mood. The closing animation is a single image that’s pan down with color altering effects to show all the characters. Simple as it might be the track and the closing animation are oddly memorable. The fact there’s dozen of parodies of it first closing animation is a testament how memorable it is.

The second half of the anime has the opposite effect on the second opening (episode 13 – 24) and second closing tracks (episode 13 – 23). In the second half the opening track, “Complication”, by Rookiez is Punk’d is a far more memorable track building up excitement before the anime starts. It’s edgy sound combine with some vocals makes a good rock song that’s able to stand on its own even without having to see the anime. “Butterfly” by On/Off is an okay track that’s not as memorable as “Trust Me” by Yuya Matsushita. The most memorable thing about the track are it’s guitar chords at the end of the track which closes off things nicely. It’s unfortunately accompanied by an animated outro that tries to copy the closing animation of the first half, which is uncreative as it is forgettable.

The OST is composed by Makoto Yoshimori and it’s a fine soundtrack. Heavy in Jazz music it perfectly captures the mood of Ikebukuro from it thuggery environment to its more mysterious side giving off a cool and mysterious vibe. Combining Jazz with piano and violin melodies, industrial instrumental, orchestral, folklore music, and even random noises. Like inserting laughter in the middle of the track “Ikebukuro nishiguchi go mata-ro kostaten”. It’s diverse in genre and risking in composition culminating in a unique soundtrack with plenty of music of all types to offer.

Personal Enjoyment: Despite a lackluster second half I had a good time

It started out weak with it first episode doing nothing, but introducing many characters. Leading to mix feelings to how it might turn out in the long run. Episode two got rid off any and all concerns I might have had with the series. Showing it true strengths in providing an engrossing world and fantastic character moments. Another bonus for me was recognizing the character designer of the Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor series, Suzuhito Yasuda, also did the character designs for the anime in my second viewing of the series. For me personally, that added it a bit more charm to the series in being able to see more of Yasuda creations. Granted the series wasn’t smooth sailing for the entire run. Before reaching its final arc, it was starting to lose some steam which it never overcame. The ending did leave something to be desired on the story front by leaving dangling plot threads, but as a viewing experience I am completely satisfied. While the quality of the story takes a dip towards the end. The true draw of the series for me were the characters that kept me coming back episode after episode. No matter what character took focus I was more than happy to see the events unfold. Watching the series was enjoyable on so many level. Writing (and you possibly reading) this review, which turned out as long as it did not as fun.

Story: 2/3

Characters: 3/3

Production Values (animation, sound, etc.): 2/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Durarara!! is an entertaining anime where the apparent flaws don’t ever seem to matter when viewing the anime. It’s so easy to get engrossed into the large cast of realize characters and the city of Ikebukuro that losing track of time becomes common in Durarara!!. In every area it has a strong point that stands out from the story that developed layered characters down to the memorable soundtrack that will be stuck in the viewer’s head. It’s an anime that creates a world successfully that you will want to revisit it time and time again to see a different side of what makes Ikebukuro so special.

8/10

Anime-Breakdown: Darker Than Black: Ryuusei no Gemini (2009) Series Review

If “Darker Than Black” was a band than their follow up album would be considered selling out. “Ryuusei no Gemini” is nothing like the first season coming across as an entirely different anime. It panders to the audience, the action is over the top, the soundtrack is less memorable, and the direction of the entire anime is different. Not all the pieces connect properly, but it is a decent follow up to the first season of “Darker Than Black”. It never reaches the same heights of season one, but it does have its own strength that makes it worth watching including an ending that is best described as unsatisfactory.

Oh, there will be minor spoilers. While not intentional and kept vague as possible, it takes place a whole year after the first season of Darker Than Black and Darker Than Black: Gaiden four part OVA. It’s recommended you avoid this review for that purpose alone. I suggest seeing the previous season and OVA’s before reading or entirely ignoring this review.

Good: Different direction and different strengths

“Ryuusei no Gemini” from the first episode tells an overarching story. Focusing on two leading characters, Hei and Suou Pavlichenko, each with their own unique storylines. Hei story arc deals with finding Yin while Suou storyline deals more with finding answers about her family and her past. These two characters have different goals allowing the core of the main story to progress smoothly. Providing a different viewpoint from their adventure. How Hei goes about achieving his goal is vastly different to how Suou goes about reaching her goals. Suou goal is more personal vocalizing her thoughts in any situation without hesitation. Understanding how she feels throughout the entire season is plain as day. Hei is more tormented and defeated with his storyline in vein of a redemption story. Attempting to finish what he originally couldn’t because of his emotions.

The first season of “Darker Than Black” went for capturing noir and “Ryuusei no Gemini” goes for capturing the action genre. Accomplishing this by having a major revelation or action scene occur in every episode attempting to imitate the effect of a cliffhanger to encourage the viewer to see the next episode immediately. There is rarely ever a moment of safety for the heroes wherever they go. Someone is always behind them chasing them down. Another added inclusion from the change in direction is the material is allowed to show more emotion. Characters in general across more lively in the series without the usual restrictions emotionless contractors are written in.

One noticeable difference from “Ryuusei no Gemini” from the rest of the series is the comedy plays a bigger role. Jokes are thrown into every episodes instead of spread out through out the series on special occasions. Its favorite kind of jokes involves everyone confusing Suou for her twin brother. There’s a recurring gag involving Genma Shizume making flirtatious remark at Suou unknowing to him she’s actually a girl. It’s a funny recurring joke since it doesn’t reuse it frequently and offers other forms of humor to keep it varied. Mostly from Mao who despite a change of appearance hasn’t lost his ability for spouting sarcastic remarks.

The supporting cast is larger in “Ryuusei no Gemini” getting the short end in characterization. This is very noticeable from the first episode when it decides to bring in characters from the first season only sideline them. Within the first episode, a specific character that had a big role in season one gets killed off quickly. The supporting characters that do influence the story generally don’t have much of a screen presence. Little characterization is mostly to blame resulting in a support cast to be only known for a single a trait. Mina Hazuki is a badass when she’s in combat, but the most memorable aspect about her personality is she’s a lesbian. Genma Shizume is a comedic pervert whose terrible at his job. There is not a single scene when he’s shown doing his competently on the field. Another character is Norio who first appears in episode four with a storyline hinting he would play some important role in the story. Norio is forgotten about past episode six and his time in the series is superfluous in the main story. Some other characters fade into the background because they operate behind the scenes, but never is their influence felt.

The ending is a major drawback this season because Suou whole motivation is to find answers. Her arc takes as much time to tell as Hei’s does. This gives “Ryuusei no Gemini” a whole different direction of solving mysteries so leaving unanswered questions is a negative. By the time episode twelve finishes despite every bit of information being told to the viewer what happened it won’t turn out satisfactory. Hei is the only character who could serve as the backbone for the entire anime series from beginning to end. Details of what occurred to Hei is left in the open interpretation department which is more than a disappointment given at this point Hei is a strong three dimensional character. Leaving an open ending for Hei journey unlike the rest of the cast members makes it that much more unsatisfying.

Mixed: Good Leads, Unwhelming Supporting Cast

Hei in “Ryuusei no Gemini” is at his lowest point in the franchise. Gone is the carefree side of his personality coping with his inner depression with alcohol. He’s frequently serious in nearly every scene which is a change of character for Hei. In general though, Hei doesn’t get much added to him in terms of characterization. However, he does face new conflicts to overcome this season. Hei might not be the same person he was at the start of the franchise, but is still a well written character. He’s smart in situations that require him to think on the spot to survive. Despite how he turned out he does is sympathetic towards other characters, but expresses it differently from before.

Mao goes from a wise cat to a flying squirrel who asides from giving some sarcastic remarks and comedic relief has his importance to the story minimize. No longer does Mao gather intel for Hei or his group and instead helps out the heroes directly in small ways. He’s more active on screen sometime blocking people views or being some sort of distraction. Such moments don’t appear often enough to change the fact his importance to the story is not what it use to be. In return, Mao does receive characterization when fans finally get to see how he looked in his human form. It might only last a single episode seeing his past human self for the first time is a treat for fans.

Suou Pavlichenko is a red hair, 13 year old Russian girl photographer who becomes a sniper. She plays a major role in the story seeing everything in the world of contractors for the first time, but for any viewer following this anime series in order will already know everything Suou does not. Her character will be more relatable for anyone who has not seen the world of “Darker Than Black” at this point, but adds to seeing first hand the evolution of a human turning into a contractor. She’s a decent character…Studio Bones thought otherwise in how she’s used. In 11 out 12 episodes Suou appears naked at some point or appear in some scene that provides fanservice. Yeah, one entire episode out of twelve doesn’t use Suou in some way to pander to its audience. To name a few instances in the first episode there is a (are they ever not) pointless shower scene, episode three she’s in a cabin drying wet clothes only being cover by a blanket follow by interpreted bad position, in episode four there is Suou dancing which would be fine if it weren’t how that moment was framed, in episode eight swimsuits, and can’t forget the anti-tank rifle summoning sequence (in which Suou appears naked) is always shown in its entirety every time it gets summoned. These are a couple of examples of how the anime treats her which is honestly far worse than anything Hei ever does to Suou in the anime.

Like mentioned earlier the supporting cast is larger and some get sidelined. Misaki Kirihara from season gets sideline whose involvement in the story is unneeded. Her role in this season is minimize uncovering a conspiracy behind the scene that doesn’t do add much for the story. What ultimately ends up happening to her in the aftermath of the finale is far more relevant than anything she does before it ends. Due to the length of the anime the characters don’t receive the needed attention to have their own arcs or be fleshed out beyond introduction. Which why the likes of Yoko Sawasaki, Genma Shizume, Mina Hazuki, and Michiru are kept very simplistic from start to finish. The only exceptions to this are Dr. Mikhail Pavlichenko and Shion Pavlichenko because they are connected to Suou storyline. Throughout the series, there are flashbacks that reveal important pieces of information fleshing them out from when the season begins. Once it’s over, Dr. Mikhail and Shion have more to define them unlike the rest of the cast that remains the same.

Good: Bones Studio Aces Their Animation

The animation is done by Bones Studio like the rest of the anime series. Animation in “Ryuusei no Gemini” allows Studio Bones to show off what they can do. Having a more diverse cast in age range compare to the rest of the series. There’s a fair mix of children and adults where previous entries mostly had adult characters. As usual, all characters have unique designs that can be told apart easily even if all the characters hair color were the same. In movement it moves smoothly with no hiccups regardless what’s on screen. Backgrounds once again are detailed, though this time mostly contained in industrialized cities. There’s no environment that is unique to “Ryuusei no Gemini” specifically. However, it does claim the honor of having the best action sequences in the entire series.

The action scenes have flashy effect with over the top powers use in battles. There’s no usage of 3D in these action scenes as Studio Bones spares no expense for them. Battles are flashy sporting particle effects of all kind from sparks when two melee weapons hitting each other, to an explosion with intense flames, to anti-tank rifle that pierces through concrete or metal, and whatever effects to its disposal. Episode three has a sequence where a stationed train is hit by another train causing train carts to start flying through the air. It does not use 3D in any frame of that sequence which looks great when seen. Unfortunately there isn’t another sequence in the rest of the series that tops that spectacle, but the other action scenes aren’t any less impressive because of it. Every action scene has a flashy effect unique to that specific action sequence. In one episode it has a character merging with a vehicle manipulating it for combat. Goofy sounding as that description is in execution it’s actually creative while not being a one sided battle.

Throughout my reviews for the “Darker Than Black” franchise I always suggested seeing the anime with English subtitles and this season is why. In the English dub, Suou dialogue receives the most alteration of any character changing the tone of several scenes becoming grating to listen too. Alison Viktorin who voices Suou delivers a solid performance, but some of her dialogue does her a disservice making her come across as a little brat. Another factor that prevents her performance from being decent is she doesn’t sound like a thirteen year old. That would be easy to overlook, but she has a few scenes where she has to loudly vocalize her complaints. Due to the English script changes it varies from Suou coming across sympathetic or just wanting to see Hei hit her. As much Alison Viktorin is capable in the role playing off her cast member just fine, the English script gets across something else than originally intended.

In the Japanese cast Kana Hanazawa voices Suou who sounds more like a thirteen year old. Her performance is more subtle in vocalizing Suou’s emotion. Unlike Alison Viktorin who voices the same character, Hanazawa comes across as sympathetic with her delivery of the dialogue. She makes Suou sympathetic and likable. The closer the anime gets to the ending the more range Kanazawa is allowed. Her chemistry with her co-stars is spot on especially when together Sawaki Ikuya and Hidenobu Kiuchi coming together naturally.

Hearing Kent Williams deep voice coming out of a small Momonga (fancy name for a Japanese dwarf flying squirrel) is quite odd. Like in season one, Kent Williams is spot on with his sarcastic remarks being the most hilarious in the English dub cast. Hearing such a small animal talk in such a deep sounding voice sticks out. In the Japanese cast, Sawaki Ikuya voice never becomes noticeable when playing the same character. While I prefer Kent Williams playing Mao in the series, Sawaki Ikuya has a voice that better blends into the character. Never does Ikuya voice become a distraction making it easier to become immerse with the character.

As usual (no surprise) regardless of who is heard both Hidenobu Kiuchi and Jason Liebrecht shine in their portrayal of Hei. The direction of the anime is different, but the changes does not affect how they portray their characters. Both of voice actors retain Hei characteristics managing to make the transition between seasons seem seamless. Creating a performance that works with the changes of the series. There’re no hiccups in how they portray Hei. The supporting cast in both the Japanese and English dub cast play their characters in a straightforward manner. With more comedy, it’s more difficult to distinguish any standout in the supporting cast. Doesn’t really offer much range when half the cast has to deliver comedy.

If you had to choose between sub or dub I would recommend English sub for the entire franchise and English subtitles for this season. The Japanese cast performance are consistent throughout the entire anime franchise where the English dub stumbles in important areas as it goes on. There’re also some script changes in the English dub that goes against what was originally intended to get across. The English dub isn’t bad with Kent Williams and Jason Liebrecht reprising their roles they excel in portraying. Making the English worth alone for their performances, but they are the only aspects of the English dub that remain strong in every iteration.

The soundtrack done compose by Yasushi Ishii this season which forgettable. Like in the four-part Gaiden OVA, the soundtrack is a mixture of rock tracks, techno, and lighter sounding tracks for the more personal moments in the series. None of the tracks stand out on their own without the accompany of visuals. Within the series, it works while simultaneously being forgettable. Instead of strengthening a scene, it just fades into the background. The opening theme “Tsukiakari no Michishirube” by Stereopony is a pop/rock track. Optimistic lyrics with Aimi Haraguni lack of conviction don’t go hand in hand, but is a decent opening song that works fine for the intro. In spite how the series actually is, it’s a great fit for the intro. Same goes with the ending track “From Dusk Til Dawn” by Abingdon Boys School. “From Dusk Til Dawn” is pop sounding using acoustic guitars and synthesized strings. It starts off soft going to the sounding more melodramatic when it ends.

Personal Enjoyment: More entertaining, but not as good

I was more entertained seeing “Ryuusei no Gemini” over the original season since it started with an overarching story and maintained it till completion. It also delivered on the action scenes all which never failed to be a feast for the eyes. However, it was entirely different in tone, pacing, and direction from what season one provided. Everything that made season one great was lost or downgraded in “Ryuusei no Gemini”. Season one characters get sideline, there was allot more pandering, contractors powers got over the top, and the ending wasn’t entirely satisfactory. I wasn’t expecting “Ryuusei no Gemini” to be the way it was, but at the same time I am not upset it did something different (ironically playing it safe) than rehashing itself. Instead of delivering something out of my expectations it deliver it exactly what I expected from it in the first place. For better and worse, it was still an enjoyable ride.

Anime Series Overview:

In retrospect “Darker Than Black” is an anime series that has something different to offer in each iteration. Season one contains strong writing and great characters. Taking it sweet time before it develops it main cast, but a great first season all the way through. “Darker than Black: Gaiden” four-part OVA offers the best mixture of both season containing the strong writing of season one and the great action scenes of season two. It’s also the most rushed with only four episodes to its story. “Ryuusei no Gemini” is pure entertainment that noticeably panders in order to reach a greater audience. Losing traits that made season one great and in return going in another route succeeding for different reasons. It’s not the follow up one would expect the first season to receive, but has its own strength. I have to sound like a broken record at this point writing about this series multiple times in a single month. If you read all my reviews of this anime series or just this one thank you very much.

Story: 2/3

Characters: 2/3

Production Values: 2/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Disappointment would be the defining word for this follow up season to “Darker Than Black”. It’s nothing like the first season and all the characters from season one get sideline for a new cast most of which aren’t developed the same degree of one-shot characters in the first season. It’s not quite the follow up some fans might have wanted, but it’s a decent anime through and through. All the characters story arcs get concluded, the action scenes are fast with great choreography, and ends the series on a positive note. Where Darker Than Black ended up with “Ryuusei no Gemini” will be varied when viewers reach the end, but the journey to get there was one thrilling adventure that’s worth taking.

7/10

Anime-Breakdown: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha Gaiden (2010) OVA Review

The first season of “Darker Than Black” left the exact fate of two of its central cast in an ambiguous state. This four part OVA continues the story past the first season finale while serving as the transition into the new direction second two would take in Ryuusei no Gemini. This OVA combines the strength of both season into a nice package telling a compelling story, interesting leading characters, and great action scenes.

Good: Fills the gap between seasons 1 & 2

This four part OVA can be summarized as a “couple on the run” sort of story. Hei and Yin are trying to survive daily lifewhile escaping from an organization called “The Syndicate” that is hunting them down. There is more to the story than that outline. Primarily showing the growth of Hei and Yin bond and learning why everyone wants Yin. Despite that description the tender moments Hei and Yin share together won’t come across as romantic. How it plays out is more tragic with events appearing to be much bigger than everyone within the series thinks. In just four episodes it takes a relatively small conflict progressively giving it a grander scale in every passing episode. Forcing Hei to challenge himself mentally if the greater good is more important than personal desire. The fact that this isn’t Hei first time making a decision around the same scale practically serves as an essential character moment for understanding his change in personality in season two Ryuusei no Gemini.

While short Gaiden does hint on some things to come in season two. For starter, there are brief instances of over the top powers being shown. One example being a contractor that can cause explosions by blowing bubbles. Such powers aren’t a highlighted issue because they don’t stay on screen for a long time. However, they provide the best moments of animation. In particular, the fourth episode, which is the climax of this whole story and allot things blow up literally and narratively.

Another reason to watch this OVA for fans is it will fill in the gap between season one and season two. If you go straight into Ryuusei no Gemini, there will be plot points that won’t be addressed. In particular, how Yin got in the positioned she did and why Hei personality changed drastically from the last time he was seen. Also it’s a transition from the old noir direction into the more action oriented direction in Ryuusei no Gemini in each episode. Its start like season one with a noir beginning and ending with Ryuusei no Gemini more action oriented direction.

A negative to the “Darker Than Black: Gaiden” OVA are the one-shot characters. A trait that didn’t carry over from the main series was characterization for supporting characters. So the supporting cast feel like tools to move the story forward. This can be forgiven because of the length of Gaiden. It is noticeably rushed in certain scenes. In the first episode, Hei is ambushed at a hotel he’s staying at by two contractors and it just cuts to another scene in the middle of that fight. While it’s not important in the story it is telling, a detail like that can’t be left to the viewer imagination to fill in especially considering what sort of ability that specific contractor has. In the final OVA things end with a hook leading into the second season instead of being self contained. The final scene in Gaiden can be summed up with the word destiny. It’s just a matter of time before it actually occurs because no matter how much the anime wants to stray off from that path it’s written in destiny.

Mixed: Only two characters get developed

The focus of this four part OVA is on Hei and Yin relationship growing more intimate with one another. Building on two already established becoming more individuals. Given their roles a greater sense of importance once episode 3 and 4 come around with a huge revelation. By the end of Gaiden Hei becomes a more dynamic character. Changing drastically by the end of Gaiden with it being shown with a simple visual that gets across how the following events impacted him. Yin might say little in four episodes, but it’s the simplicity of her words that has lots of meaning.

Aside from Hei and Yin the OVA doesn’t focus on any other character. Most of the supporting cast will leave something to be desired especially Mina Hazuki and Youko Sawasaki both of whom are in season two. Showing up with little explanation and no bearing on the story. If it’s not Hei or Yin, then there is nothing more to the character once they get shown.

Good: Receives the same treatment as the main series

Bones Studio is once again behind the anime series and the production values remain high. The backgrounds are diverse jumping from the industrialized cityscape, to a small tropical island, and a couple more location in its short run. Backgrounds are detailed like in the first season with distinguishable character designs for the entire cast. It does have a few notable design choices that are purely for fan service, though are not on screen for a very long time. Episode two contains the most fanservice out of all the episodes with the character Xiao Jie (whose is name not mentioned in the Gaiden’s OVA) stripping clothing as part of her payment for using her powers. Beyond that example, there’s no other fanservice moment in the same degree.

One area the four part OVA improve on from the first season are the action scenes. Like in the first season, the action scenes are restrained in how flashy they are portrayed for three episodes. In the fourth episodes it ditches the restraints it gives itself going for an explosive climax. The major upgrade in the OVA is the choreography for the action sequences are quicker. Utilizing all sorts of framing technique to capture the quick movement. They are animated smoothly displaying Bones Studio at the top of their game in these action sequences. Whenever Hei dodges any sort of projectile attacks his movement never takes any notable shortcut in the animation. The staging of them also improved thank to Hei having to think on the fly more quickly in his combat situations and no dialogue interruption during these action scenes to disrupt the flow.

Voice acting from both the Japanese and English cast remains good. Once again the English dub script remains as faithful as possible to the original Japanese script. The changes that are made are barely noticeable in the story it is telling regardless what version is seen. In both the Japanese cast and English dub voice actors reprise their previous role. Hidenobu Kiuchi and Jason Liebrecht provide the voice for Hei. Just like in season one, both actors deliver great performances of a seemingly emotionless character without coming across wooden. To both actors benefits the material allows them more range interacting with their co-stars in situations places Hei out of his element. Easily these two actors are the standout in this four OVA. Brina Palencia and Misato Fukuen both voice Yin. Both actresses do a fine job, but aren’t given much material to build on their performances that feel like a rehash portrayal.

As for choosing how to see Gaiden it’s a tie for voice work. Gaiden does not offer time to have a recurring character and allow them time to grow. Unless you’re a big fan of Tetsuya Iwanaga for the Japanese cast or Johnny Yong Bosch for the English dub playing Calude the only other character with a big enough role to take notice off. Simply go with personal preferences since nothing is lost in either version.

In the music department, it has a similar soundtrack to Ryuusei no Gemini going more for a thriller vibe. Offering a mixture of rock tracks, techno, and lighter sounding tracks for the more personal moments in the series. The melancholy ending theme “Can You Fly” by Yasushi Ishii is played in every episode. It’s the only noteworthy track in the music department. While in general the soundtrack works “Can You Fly” by Yasushi Ishii is the only memorable track that remains with you after you finish the series.

Personal Enjoyment:

After spending an entire twenty-four episode season with Hei and Yin I’ve very much appreciated how this four part OVA told an arching story and added upon two already developed characters. Unlike the first season, I immediately got hook into this four part OVA and all it took was one stellar opening action sequence. Thankfully it also had the same quality writing and storytelling that made the first season such a great anime.

Story: 2/3

Characters: 2/3

Production Values: 3/3

Personal: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

“Darker Than Black: Gaiden” combines the strong writing of season one with the upgraded action scenes of season two. It’s a must watch for any fan to make clearer sense of Ryuusei no Gemini ending and for anyone who wants to continue watching the rest the “Darker Than Black” series without getting lost in the story. Gaiden combines the best elements of both seasons even if it lasts under two hours.

8/10

Anime-Breakdown: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha Special (2008) OVA Review

Darker Than Black first season finale is nothing I would call spectacular, but the way it ended was fitting. Treating its own finale like another storyline instead of a spectacle which would have been out place in the series. This OVA doesn’t add anything more to the mythos or expand on anything in the main series. Hence, the length of this review being relatively short and to the point. This OVA instead decides to leave a good final impression on season one with a comedic episode.

The OVA takes place in a nonspecific timeline in Darker Than Black. It’s basically a comedic side story about Hei and the police looking for a stolen item with a police agent who writes fan fiction unintentionally getting thrown into the mix. It’s a simple story to keep track off. Due to the fate of a certain character a fan of the series can immediately tell it takes place before the finale of season. The comedy is built around three things; love, some sort of association with the season of spring (allergies, mating seasons for cats), and character reactions to a situation. With knowledge buildup on the cast it makes the following events hilarious. However, it’s all rather convenience how all the events are tied together within the special.

Bones Studio gives this OVA the same treatment they give the first season. Looking and sounding like an an episode in the main series. Background are drawn in detail and the animation is smooth. The voice acting from the Japanese cast and English dub cast are on par with the main series. Music remains the same with the second opening and closing songs in place. If you enjoyed the comedic episodes in Darker Than Black than this is a fun diversion.

Like stated in the opening paragraphs it doesn’t add anything or show what occurred after the finale. Let alone offer an explanation on events after the finale. It’s not essential to see this OVA, but if you it do it’ll be a good final reminder that Darker Than Black was also a fun series to see whenever it wasn’t serious.

8/10

Anime-Breakdown: Darker than Black: Kuro no Keiyakusha (2007) Series Review

What format is best for telling a story of an anime series; a narrative format that’s episodic or a format that has a continuing story from beginning to end? It honestly depends on who or what story is trying to be told if any at all. While episodic is easier to get into since the format can be better use for just entertainment. Thus you can eliminate the need of continuity, making it favorable for anyone to just jump into the series at any point. An overarching story on the other hand can build up to a greater or more disappointing outcome depending on the execution since it requires commitment. “Darker Than Black” combines both formats in its narrative will which lead to commitment issues. Thanks to it’s careful execution in combining both types of story formats you have a first half that does a great job of world building and a second half that has an overarching story that remains engrossing to the end.

Good: Strong Writing

Darker Than Black uses a two episode format to tell its stories. Allowing side characters to receive enough development to them feel like characters part of a bigger story instead of coming across as unimportant one shot characters. Thanks to this format it offers a host of well thought out characters and storylines on a variety of themes. Each contributing to either fleshing the setting or further developing a recurring character. No matter the screen time of certain side characters, their contribution feels like they added a piece of lore to the series. The atmosphere excels due to its extensive world building in the first half. Not only does the world fill unique, but by the end of the series it’ll feel like a real place even if it belongs in the realm of fiction.

For an anime that is mostly serious it knows when to have fun. The few comedic episodes in the anime don’t affect the overall plot, but are nice a diversion to lighten the mood. These episodes inclusions make the series a bit enjoyable preventing from being a downer all the time. Generally though it has the well written dialogue to keep it afloat all throughout and engaging conversation among the characters as well.

A downside to the two episode format is it will take half way before the main cast gets developed. In turn, this makes sticking with the anime a risk versus reward deal. Making it more dangerous is the fact that it doesn’t have an overarching story until it reaches the second half either. So the first half focuses on Hei taking on jobs for a shady organization called “The Syndicate”. Being more in line of an episodic anime generally not connecting story arcs. This will make it difficult to want to commit to the anime since the main cast is the only guaranteed returning characters while every supporting character is not guaranteed to return. The main cast will remain underdeveloped before reaching the halfway mark. There’s no way around this issue other than having complete faith in the anime. If you’re unable to attach yourself to anything in the anime before the main cast are developed in the second half, then staying committed to the series is a task on itself.

Once it starts developing an overarching story in the second half everything falls further into place. The stakes become bigger, the main cast get developed, and answers on some of the series biggest dangling questions get answered. For example, “The Syndicate” motives and goal are revealed in the second half after being mentioned heavily in the first half. There’s also the start of an overarching story that instead of creating more action goes for giving Hei a greater mental obstacle to overcome. Building it up nicely before reaching the finale and feeling the weight Hei has to shoulder.

The reaction towards the finale of “Darker Than Black” will draw mix reaction. It doesn’t end with a bang making it fit more with the rest of the series. However, not everything will be answered. It’s appropriate for some questions to remain unanswered since the characters themselves don’t know all of them either. It’s more in line of capturing a noir mystery so some dangling questions will be forgivable. One thing is certain about the finale is it does close the story up and ties up all loose ends. Completely understanding everything after it ends that’s a whole other matter.

Good: A Cool Cast

Hei is the protagonist of the series and for more than half of the anime his past is kept secretive. Unfortunately revealing anything about him should be a consider a spoiler. Learning about Hei and seeing his backstory developed is a major part of the story. His personality can throw viewers off since the series does take its time giving background towards contractor and explain why they are emotionless. Hei is written in such a way that part of his character is difficult to read because of it. He fills the quota to be an emotionless contractor, but shows emotion in everyday life with sarcastic remarks when he interacts with other in the cast. He’s an intriguing mystery within the story and as a character becomes fully realize.

The rest of the main from talking cat Mao who gathers information, to the unable to get drunk when drinking handler Huang, and emotionless medium doll Yin are handled in the same way in their characterization. Like Hei, these main characters don’t get developed until later on in the series. When they are develop the two episode format allows room for in depth characterization. Setting up the character conflict in that episode and then following up by revealing bits of their themselves once the main cast reach closer towards a solution. Seeing them interact with one another never goes smoothly. Since they have varied personalities the chemistry between the characters can be both hilarious and captivating at the same time.

Half of the supporting cast tend to be done with after a single story arc. Once the story or job is finished that supporting characters will likely not be seen again. One of the few recurring supporting character is private eye detective Gai Kurusawa and his young manga obsessed assistant Kiko Kayanuma. The majority of the comedy revolve around these two characters. Gai Kurusawa is the closest the anime has to an exaggerated character. Reacting to his situation in over the top ways for a comedic effect. His interaction with Kiko usually revolve being desperate to accept any job for cash to arguing about the methods in getting cases solved. Episodes revolving around Gai Kurusawa and Kiko Kayanuma are easily entertaining with humor that hit due to their personalities and chemistry.

Though the setting of the story is in Japan the cast is composed of characters from other parts of the world. It’s not racial diversity just for the sake of it, but rather more of story tool to get across how big of a crisis it could escalate too. The CIA are involved, MI6 Agents are involved, underground organization “The Syndicate”, and the organization Evening Primrose that attempt to obtain peaceful coexistence between contractors and humans are involved. That’s quite the batch of organizations to keep track off and the same applies to the characters that work in them. Fortunately each organization is given a different objective for their goals and how they operate varied from one another. What this does is create different viewpoints within the setting on how the matter of contractors should be resolved. Giving several viewpoints on the matter as it grows into a bigger issue for everyone.

Good: Capturing the Intended Mood Perfectly

The animation is handled by studio Bones. While not impressive in the least on the visual side or in movement the style is a good fit for the anime. Character designs don’t have any exaggerated features and the environments are kept down to Earth as much as possible. Backgrounds are detailed with careful lighting that helps create the noir feel the series goes for. Everything is portrayed with some level of realism, including the contractors powers. Whenever a contractor uses their power the animation withholds from creating an excessive visual effect. Action scenes don’t feature any flashy particle effect that draws attention to a contractor power. So everything meshes together for a unify look even when the more exaggerated element of the story are on screen.

This also holds true for the action scenes which aren’t a drawing factor for the anime. Usually the action scenes are slow with the already mentioned restrained on flashy effects when a power is in used. In general, most of the action scenes have simple choreography that gets interrupted by conversations or is just slow in execution. Not counting the second opening. There are a few action scenes that combines contractors full abilities with the restraint display of powers, but unless Hei opponent Wei the action is underwhelming. CGI is used rarely, but questionable since it’s primarily used on cars which aren’t used for any elaborate scene. Cars simply go from one point to the next. Thankfully it does not stick out enough to become an issue since it’s only use from far shots. If anything can get annoying is seeing product placement for Pizza Hut in the background.

Voice acting from both the Japanese and English dub cast are terrific. In both versions the low key and restrained performances give off that noir feel the anime goes for. Unfortunately in both versions, some cast members aren’t allowed much ranged because part of the cast play the emotionless contractors. However, they are not stiff performances. The voice actors walk a thin line of coming across sounding wooden that they never cross. Most notably the most balance and perfected portrayal fall under Hidenobu Kiuchi in Japanese and Jason Liebrecht for the English dub both of whom voice Hei. Regardless what language you hear Hei speak both voice actor performances are tailored for this character. Neither are a dead giveaway in their delivery always surrounding Hei in this mysterious aura. His character is very difficult read, thanks to the voice talent, even delivery their jokes in a careful manner. Both actors are able to be funny while staying in character despite how little emotion they display in general.

Ikuya Sawaki in the Japanese cast and Kent William in the English both voice Mao. These two actors’ voices give off vastly different vibes in their portrayal of Mao. Sawaki sounds more natural like a friendly person with many connections, while William deeper sounding voice makes him sound wiser. William older sounding voice shines when he delivers sarcastic remarks. In the English dubbed Kent William is an easy standout and my favorite actor in this season.

One area where the English dub surpasses the Japanese cast are the accents for foreign characters. The Japanese cast in general don’t even come close in copying accents for foreign characters. In the English dub Troy Baker voices November 11, a clearly British character terrifically. Adding to an already accurate portrayal he fits the sophisticated character just fine.

The only major differences between both version is the comedy. Depending on what version you see the humor will be written for that specific culture in mind. Aside from that the English script remains as faithful as possible. While there’s the obvious dialogue changes there are episodes where the story changes are less subtle. There’s some episodes where certain plot points are beaten over the head. It’s not damaging to the point that it’s a complete turn off as it, though the material won’t always match the quality of the original in the English script.

If you had to choose how to see the anime I would say watch the series subbed since the Japanese cast is consistent throughout the whole series. While the English dub in season one is the clear victor due to the voice actors more accurate portrayal of foreign characters. However, in season two some casting choices end up backfiring as the script changes are notably different making some of the English voice cast come across as annoying. The English dubbed has a better cast for the first season, but the Japanese cast is consistently good all the way. If it’s short term English dub, but in the long run go with the English subbed.

The soundtrack is filled with good music. It’s diverse in genre from rock ballads, to cool jazz, and to slower more calming sounding tracks. The two opening tracks can come across as misleading when representing the mood and pace of the series. “Howling” by Abingdon Boys School for the first 14 episodes and “Kakusei Heroism” by An Cafe is used in episode 15 and onwards (minus episode 24) for the remainder of the series. Both opening theme makes “Darker Than Black” come across as a quick pace action series. While not accurate in presenting the series the two opening songs are fine for the anime. “Tsukiakari” by Rie Fu is a slow and melancholic track. It’s the ending theme for the first 14 episodes with a more emotional feel to it unlike the opening themes. Rie Fu soothing vocals are in harmony with the soft piano ballad. The second ending theme is “Dreams” by the band High And Mighty Color. “Dreams” is more upbeat than the first ending theme in it’s serenity.

Personal Enjoyment: More than thrilled I stuck with it

It took me fourteen episodes before I was actually able to enjoy watching Darker Than Black. Everything is kept deliberately secretive so I found it difficult to care about my main cast in the first half of the series when they weren’t developed. Eventually in the second half I started to care about them on episode 13 & 14 both of which focused on Yin. It was with these two episodes that my skepticism were gone since it made me feel that much closer to the main cast. I was convinced with these two episodes that this anime has something else to keep me coming back beside the first closing theme “Tsuki Akari” by Rie Fu. Thank goodness too for those two episodes because episode 15 the ending theme changed. Episode 15 and onward the whole development of the main cast made the strong writing that much better in subsequent episodes. It just took a while to get into it.

Calculating Points:

Story: 3/3

Characters: 3/3

Technical (Animation, Soundtrack, Voice acting, etc.): 2/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Darker Than Black is not a series that will immediately hook you from the get go. The pacing is slow with it two episode structure taking half-way before developing a main story, but over time the strong writing, and great characters become far more memorable for it. Thanks to it two episode format for storytelling even side characters get fleshed out. Creating a fully realize world with diverse and complicated characters. It’s a difficult anime to fully get into, but the payoff it worth it if you trust it and stick with it through the end.

Anime-Breakdown: Cat Soup (Nekojiru-so) (2003) Review

Cat Soup or Nekojiru-sou in its Japanese title is a lot stranger than its own name makes it out to be. It can be best described if you gave a loony philosopher, who just happened to love cats, some drugs this short film would probably be the result of what they see in their high. A series of abstract ideas presented in such a bizarre manner while seemingly nonsensical is alluring in its strange nature. It is very difficult to make any sense of it or confirm it means anything, but that’s part of what makes this short film have such a strong impression in such a small amount of time.

The story is basically about two cat siblings with Nyako, the brother, searching for some way to resurrect, Nyatta, his dead sister. The opening minutes of the short film are about as direct it’ll get. Beyond that point, it becomes a journey into the abstract. Filled with a visit to the circus involving seeing a magic act of a woman getting completely chopped into pieces, discovering an elephant made out of water in a desert, and the ocean becoming completely frozen to name few odd things you’ll see. As odd some of these descriptions are, they do get across simple ideas. For example, when the cat siblings visit the circus Nyako firmly believes he can fully resurrect his dead sister after seeing a circus act performing a seemingly impossible act. It is a simple moment that is straight to the point.

Virtually non-existent dialogue, the story is told in a way that the few lines of dialogue aren’t needed to understand the story. It’s a risky decision, but pays off to give off the vibe of being in a strange dream. Nothing is given a direct explanation when going from one event to the next. Instead of stopping in one area to explain the significance of a scene, it goes straight to the next odd scene. Its story is quite simple to get behind, but whether or not it has any meaning is never confirmed within the work itself.

It’s a single OVA meaning the protagonist motivation is kept at a basic level. Being more than enough to follow Nyako on his journey. His simplicity makes him appealing and immediately thoughtful. Simply seeing his parents’ negligence towards him and his sister in the household says allot about the bond he has with his family. With that said the story is essentially what you see is all you get. Allowing the viewer to form their own interpretation on everything that unfolded.

The supporting cast is filled mostly with anthropomorphic animals with some humans. Whenever a human character is on screen, it usually leads to trouble. They’re only given one purpose which is entirely fine since it’s going for more showing than actually telling. The only true negative to the characters is there is not much to analyze or sink into. All the characters are straightforward without ever diverting from their set path.

On the animation side J.C. Staff succeeds in creating a dreamlike feeling. Anathanpromorbic animals are given simple design that makes them look cute to greatly contrast against the cruel action. Humans are drawn like humans, though they don’t appear much in the OVA and often use a blank expression. It has a muted color palette that seems off visually making it seem as if life has been taken out of it. Emphasizing the whole surreal nature of the world where all the oddities belong can belong together. By design, it at times looks hand drawn and at one point even begins to look like a kid’s coloring book. Whatever J.C. Staff used to color their images in this OVA it looks as natural as coloring by hands instead of a computer.

There’s virtually no voice acting in the OVA. When there is dialogue it’s presented through a speech bubble that adds more to the dreamlike feeling than adding to the story. In the sound department stuff like footsteps, water flowing, ticking clocks, squeaky toys, and a dozen other effects make up the sound department. The music is split between sounding light hearted and welcoming which soon become interrupted by eerie static like noises. It fits the OVA perfectly giving an eerie, unsettling atmosphere in the darker scenes. It can also be sweet when in use during scenes where nothing out of the ordinary happens to simply show the cat siblings taking care of one another. The closing credits uses the most editing with a music box to close the OVA. Combining both childlike wonder and an eerie presence by looping the music box in at random moment.

On the DVD there’s an audio commentary track that is not exactly helpful to say the least. Director Tatsuo Sato explains that many of the scenes do not have an underlying meaning or if there was one, he forgot what it was. Admitting he had no intention in mind when putting the film together. So pretty much you make of what you see.

It was an oddity about half an hour long so even if I did dislike it the short length would be a saving grace. I like seeing strange stuff no matter how weird it gets. I’m just in shocked J.C. Staff actually made something I would call smart. In general, J.C. Staff doesn’t come across as a studio to take risks or stray off from their comfort zone with anime that are heavy on the slice of life elements or attempting to duplicate their previous success with a Shakugan no Shana clone. This short film doesn’t change my views on the studio as anything other than being average, but it has earned them more of my respect by creating something out of their comfort zone.

Cat Soup/Nekojiru-sou is like a collection of episodic shorts splice together into a 32 minute OVA with any true meaning to it left with no answer from what the material provides. It’s a short film with virtually non-existing dialogue that’s reliant on visuals alone by combining cute, simple designed characters in bizarrely dark situations to tell its story. This OVA is very much a visual experience that’s intriguing for the creativity it display in a short length. Watch it for the visuals and creativity, leave with your own meaning.

That concludes the review portion of this review. The remainder is simply a paragraph on my interpretation of the OVA. After that, it’s five paragraphs of what I learned about Chiyomi Hashiguchi, the mangaka of Nekojiru-sou. MAL has their own biography on the mangaka, but it was rather short so I wrote what I gather. With that written, continue if you like.

Bonus Passage: My Interpretation on the film (SPOILERS, SPOILERS HERE)

Based on my opinion and what I gathered. Nyako is sister is dead. Living alone with his drunkard father and mother who did not care. Nyatta was the only one who he had and he chased a miracle to rescue her. Catching god of death himself, Nyako took half of her soul, returning it back. However, she was not whole. He tried to find the other part half, and there is where the deeper part starts. The main idea of this anime is nobody can decide the lives of the others which can be seen in every person they have met. Old hag who made people from spare parts, being patched up herself. Guy who killed others, getting his again. Merciless, selfish circus which destroyed the whole world in the end and in the end Nyako never saw that his desires were actually selfish and that he opposed the God, who showed him how easily he can manipulate time and that only something like God can bring life back. When Nyako in the end saved his sister, because he was mortal it brought a total disorder to the Universe, literally canceling everything, making it vanish. This anime also brings up a topics like natural order, and that we all are part of the circle which is life and death. And that it’s nobody’s fault, that’s just how it is. In the end, God is just laid back dude who eats watermelons and sometimes turns back the time when he drops it down. Or in plain English, it’s likely represent the mangaka husband trying everything he can to save his wife by projecting his feelings onto the characters he and his wife created.

Condense Information I gather about the mangaka:

Chiyomi Hashiguchi, or Nekojiru by her pseudonymous pen name, was the author of a manga called “Nekojiru Udon” published in Garo magazine. “Nekojiru Udon” were based around her own bizarre dream experiences. In Hashiguchi diary (going by reproduced scrawls) reveals a very a fascination with communication breakdown and bodily malfunction, objectively noting every unpleasantry from vomiting dogs to accident victims.

With only the book, “Jusatsu Sarecgatta Boku” (some direct passages from the book), by Yoshiaki Yoshinaga to go on for information my knowledge on Chiyomi Hashiguchi is dense. According to those who knew Chiyomi Hashiguchi personally found her to be somewhat plain and misunderstood, but also unpredictable, mysterious and seemingly fragile if not for shadowy side of her internal personality which she expressed so vividly in her manga. According to the book Chiyomi was diagnosed with manic depressions as well in several occasions being heard saying “I’m not afraid of death”.

At the peak of her popularity in 1997-98, her once relaxed working atmosphere was no more as she had to produce large quantities of work which was out of character. Further reading reveals Chiyomi and her husband, Hajime Yamano (the artist of the manga) didn’t turn down a single offer for work meeting deadline after deadline. At this point in the book, it says many of the scenes depicted in “Nekojiru” were a blend of Chiyomi dreams and what she saw in real life. It’s rather unclear on the details of how to separate what were part of her dream and what she actually saw since she couldn’t separate it herself.

Overworked, she began to drink heavily from being overworked. It stopped being fun for Chiyomi to do her work and now was only a matter of making the deadline. Eventually Chiyomi had run out of ideas, but she had deadlines to meet, and did the best she could manage. She had a strong sense of responsibility, and always found a way of come through in the end. More than once, she found herself cornered by several deadlines and had to push herself to the brink of collapse to finish everything. Having was trying to commit suicide in the past, Nekojiru had written wills on a number of occasions. Her last extant will dated from several years prior. She committed suicide on May 10, in 1998 with the cause of her suicide unknown. The accounts of how it affected her friends were also in the book.

After some research on Chiyomi Hashiguchi doing a simple review wasn’t satisfactory for me. As depressing as it might have been reading the book knowing her tragic end I couldn’t find bring it in me to leave out what I learned about her. The book goes into detail about how she was as a person from accounts from those who her whereas I simply condensed the information I read. In turn, after learning all of this it has made me look at the short OVA in a different way. It’s depressing reading about Chiyomi Hashiguchi and what happened to her, but this OVA is proof she has not been forgotten which in a way makes me happy about its creation no matter what feeling the viewer will have after watching it.

8/10

Anime-Breakdown: Berserk (1997) Series Review

Fantasy, for me, is the least accessible genre. Be it books, movies, anime, or anything fantasy has rarely been an interesting genre to me. Sometime breaking its own establish rules when in a corner or the fantastic ideas far outweigh the actual quality of the story. However, I’ve managed to get into fantasy stories like “The Once and Future King”, “The Hobbit”, “The Alchemist”, and “Gormenghast” which I like allot. I like a good story and great characters regardless what genre it belongs too. Berserk writing leaves a far greater impression than it’s violent, bloody content.

Good: An Absorbing, Fantastically Told Story

This is the kind anime that is deliberately slow paced, progressing leisurely to make everything in the story flow naturally. While you might not always have confidence in Berserk methods when telling a story. The anime is always confident in the direction it’s headed in. Never does Berserk wander off to tell a single side story that has no relevance. It’s singled minded in its goal, ensuring every event serves a purpose. Whether it’s either to display the change in a character with a simple expression or allow viewers to ponder about the cost of ambition, the value of living, and many other topics.

One of the best aspect about the writing is how it uses small details to full use. Character development is also done in similar fashion. Providing an initial impression of a character, then through the course of the series witnessing a gradual change to a character. For example, it’s not until episode 4 where Guts finally receives some backstory providing insight on what turned him into the stoic, tough, simple minded fighter he has become. In later episodes, how he interacts with other characters says allot about Guts progressing as a character.

From a story perspective, seeing the first episode drives home the “man having no control over his own will” theme. Seeing the end results first and solely focusing the road that led to it. It’s because of the first episode that it becomes difficult to know when the breaking point for Guts will be shown. Despite the first episode introducing some fantasy elements, for a majority of its run it characters treat stuff like magic and mystical creatures as myths. The story sparsely uses fantasy element for a more realistic feel. This one element makes the world more relatable. Whenever a mythical creature or object of the sort is shown there’s a new emphasis on mystery and horror behind it. Seeing a creature that shares a quality of a demon becomes as or more threatening than menacing general on a battlefield.

The one fatal flaw that can’t be overlooked is the ending of the anime. It’s a non-ending that will leave some questions unanswered. However, those unanswered questions are not important to the story it is telling. It completes the story it was telling while at the same time leaving it open for another season that never came. It will leave viewers with mixed feelings when face with the closing credits when it reaches the finale, but the post credit sequence that’s seemingly insignificant by itself will guide your feelings towards the anime.

Good: Simple Characters With Plenty of Depths

Berserk second biggest strength are the characters. Guts, the protagonist of the series, is simpleminded when we first meet him. Guts, like the story, is simple to grasp and comprehend. He’s a stoic, battle-hardened fighter wandering aimlessly through everyday existence. As he progresses on his journey the more complex he becomes as a character. Suddenly there’s layers of depths to Guts simple words about his only pleasure in life being swinging his sword in battles. In some ways he speaks the truth about himself, but also when spoken we know there’s more to them than he’s leading on. How he views the world, how he become to value his life, and fuels him in his fight become clear. Best of all, every change he goes through is seen.

In contrast to the seemingly invincible like appearance of Guts is the more angelic presented Griffith. By only his appearance with his long white hair, armor the shines brightly on the battlefield, and a welcoming personality in such cruel time makes Griffith character immediately appealing. He’s smart, slick, and a natural leader without a doubt of hesitation in his action.

Another stand out in the series is Casca. She’s the only prominent female character in the anime and also one of the most interesting characters. What makes her outstanding is due to the setting of the story she has to overcome more than soldiers on the battlefield. Casca has to stand against the role society believes she should have and prove gender doesn’t define greatness. There’s more to Casca than just going against the label given to her by her time, but also what defines her as a person. Her struggle to follow her own path is explored in several episodes making her more than a woman going against expectations of her time.

With three well developed characters it becomes more interesting when the web of relationship becomes more complex. Seeing the characters interact with each other becomes as engaging as seeing a battle unfold. Characters have varied personalities preventing the anime from being serious all the time. No matter the position of a character the anime will give them a motivation that does more simply make them a straightforward villain or hero. Berserk knows when there’s more shades to a character the more they can get tackle, but also knows the proper usage of characters that are simply meant to be good or evil.

Good: Production values overcome budget limitations

In the animation department Berserk is impressive. For a series entirely hand drawn the raw appearances of movement further helps Berserk. During the action the scenes the raw appearance adds to its depiction showing the ugliness and raw nature of war. Characters come in all shapes and sizes offering distinct looks. Sharp lines are given to armor emphasizing the weight and thickness. This also applies to weapons every time a sword pierces through a piece of armor of flesh it can be felt.

Another plus from the animation are the subtractive colors blending together. There are certain scenes in Berserk, where the darken effects of subtractive coloring make certain scenes visually powerful. In particular, episode 6 which mostly takes place inside of a castle where the only source of light are from torches. When Guts faces a against the rumored Zodd the Immortal his appearance is demon like and is painted in the same color as blood. In the few instances where Zodd gets blood on him the contrast between Zodd imposing figure the blood of the soldiers he killed is distinct. Giving Zodd appearance an appropriately unearthly presence.

There are visible examples throughout the series when you can tell Berserk is on a limited budget. No other method than still images are used more frequently. The still images are detailed and vividly drawn. Sometime use as an effect to get across the true power behind an attack or the emotion between two characters. There usage makes for some powerful imagery when required, but are also used in some battle sequences since the amount of soldiers on a field are generally in large numbers. The bigger the scope of a battle the more likely still images will be used. For dialogue scenes it’s usage is more frequent, though sometime the slow movement goes hand in hand with the anime pacing.

Voice acting is a bit trickier to discuss. In Japanese, the cast of voice actors is filled with great actors, but some miscast roles. One strong point the Japanese voice cast has over the English cast is, Toshiyuki Morikawa, is a perfect realization of Griffith whereas Kevin T Collins is some time off with some monotone delivery. Kevin T Collins is still great in the role of Griffith nonetheless. In comparison with the English cast is just as good being emotionally driven and having good comedic delivery in the few instances where comedy is present, but is clunky in some line delivery which in turn makes it feel more natural. An advantage the English dub has is casting is better done with each actor better fitting their roles.

If you have to choose, I will recommend the English dub for two reasons aside from the fantastic voice cast. One is the story is set during the middle ages. Hearing characters speak in English is more fitting than hearing Japanese which can be distracting. Visually you can see the characters, clothing, armor, and the environment is not reflected towards Japanese culture. Second reason is the cast members from the English dub do reprise their roles for Berserk: The Golden Age Arc theatrical films. This guarantees the voice actors you like or hate will appear in the films as well. Being a welcome reunion as oppose to the Japanese voice cast, which are entirely different from the anime series and the theatrical films. If you’re planning to see everything in the Berserk franchise go for the dub, but if you’re only planning to see the anime then pick what better suit your preferences

The soundtrack of Berserk is composed by Susumu Hirasawa and the series frequently reuses great tracks. It’s favorite of choice is “Gatsu” used in the anime most important moments and “Behelit” for any occasion it feels like. Hirasawa score is a mixture of pounding medieval instrument and passionate folk singing are powerful in a collection of well orchestrated music. Perfectly fitting the anime setting, while great, there isn’t variety as it reuses tracks frequently. Prepare to hear “Behelit” and “Gatsu” for over ten episodes. The English J-rock opening theme of the anime, “Tell Me Why” by Penpals feels out of place with the anime. While the lyrics do reflect the central conflict of Guts it doesn’t fit due to its more modern feel compared to the other pieces of music that sound like they belong with the period Berserk is set in. The closing theme “Waiting So Long” by Silver Fins is a more proper fit with the series more in line with the rest of the other tracks.

Personal Enjoyment: It became so engaging time flew by fast

Berserk is not a series I can say I enjoyed. For it’s rare moments of humor there’s a dozen dismembered bodies and dark themes that overshadow those laughs. Instead, I’ll say Berserk was engaging from beginning to end. To the point it rivaled my favorite anime (Death Note) in absorbing me into its story. It introduced me to a fantastic cast of characters and fully realized world that served as a gateway to read the manga. While the ending did leave me wanting more what I got was far more satisfactory than I expected it to be.

Possible Complaints (If you just skip the entire review to vote):
Music reused frequently
Deliberately slow pacing
Supporting cast not receiving much development
The ending, but a post credit sequence prevents it from being as bad as it could have been
Hand drawn animation looks dated compared to digital animation

Calculating Points:

Story: 3/3

Characters: 3/3

Technical (music, voice acting, animation, etc.): 3/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Berserk is supplied with plenty blood and gore, but the true strength of the anime is it writing. Providing an engrossing story and engaging characters that remain strong from beginning to end. Leaving a far greater impression from the story it told over the violent and dark content it has. What more can you ask for from an anime that’ll leave you wanting more.

10/10