Review: Shiki- A Line Drawn in Blood

Synopsis: Sotoba is a small village stepped in tradition and cut-off from the outside world. One day a mysterious group of new residents arrive in the village and around the same time, a large rash of sudden deaths begin to plague the village. What is the connection between these new people and the deaths of the villagers, and can anything be done to prevent them?

The Review

I’ve never been much of a horror movie person, and even less into stories about vampires. Due to my upbringing I was never really allowed to be around much of the former growing up, and the latter tends to be targeted more towards women these days so as a straight dude they don’t hold a whole ton of appeal for me without an interesting hook. All that alongside the problems horror anime tend to have with actually being well…scary and I had plenty of reason to continually put off watching Shiki. I’d heard various degrees of praise for it over the years, and I recalled liking the first episode of it that I had actually watched way back when Funimation had done their initial simulcast of it, but my general aversion to the genre made me wary of whether or not it would be worth my time. However thanks to Aniplex’s shenanigans, Funimation’s rights to the show ended up expiring this year, so faced with the possibility of never being able to see this show again and the fact that the S.A.V.E. edition was going for dirt cheap on RightStuf, I was finally faced with no choice but to tackle my procrastination, Twenty-four episodes later, I can safely that the show was definitely one of the most memorable viewing experiences I’ve ever had for both better and worse.

For the first half of the show the show follows a pretty straightforward formula. A series of sudden deaths occurs in the small town of Sotoba, and a few of the residents including our three primary human characters, Natsuno, Dr. Ozaki and Seishin, notice that something else seems to be happening beneath the surface. Eventually these deaths are connected to existence of a race of vampires known as Shiki who drain victims of their blood until they either die permanently, or come back as a Shiki themselves. This combined with the arrival of a group of outsiders including a strange little girl named Sunako, leads to a gigantic ,mystery to discover who and who isn’t a Shiki, with a few episodes focusing on a “victim-of-the-week” before leading up to their eventual demise.

 

Compared to a lot of other horror anime I’ve seen there are two things that Shiki does particularly well in it’s earliest episodes. The first is creating a genuinely unsettling sense of atmosphere as we’re introduced to the setting of Sotoba. Horror anime often tends to suffer from a need to feel “spooky” at all times, and trying to maintain a constant level of dread often just ends up coming off as incredibly goofy instead. This show certainly isn’t immune to that effect either, but compared to similar works, it starts off a lot more grounded, and that largely works to it’s benefit. The “isolated village” is an old enough horror concept that even someone as unversed in the genre as I am knows how it works, but the show manages to make it feel real by giving Sotoba a strong enough sense of culture to feel unique while also providing it with enough modern conveniences that it doesn’t feel as though it’s completely cut off from reality. That gives the overall tone of a bit of a timeless feel, which makes the gradual appearance of the Shiki all the more disturbing as they actually do feel like an unnatural part of the show’s world, and the subsequent murders they dish out are much scarier for it.

The second key to it’s success in the first half lies in how it utilizes its massive cast of characters. Sotoba is town populated with a variety of both relateable and strange individuals and the show takes the time to make sure that the audience gets to be familiar with as many of them as possible. From Megumi who despises the town and desperately wants to escape to the city, to the overly-friendly Toru who also harbors a crush on an older woman, each of these characters have their own motivations, and for the most part, feel pretty believable. While many of these characters vary in their degree of likability, the amount of personalities on display gives the series a sense of humanity that other horror anime I’ve come across have kind of lacked, and more importantly, spending so much time with them makes their inevitable “deaths” at the hands of the Shiki hit that much harder. This naturally causes the audience to lean towards the side of humanity in this struggle, and to want to see the Shiki driven out before they fully infest the village.

However as the show heads into its second half, the story begins to undergo a gradual but significant dramatically shift. As Ozaki begins going to more extreme lengths in order to combat the threat of the Shiki, and more of the villagers become aware of what’s going on, the human characters start fighting back, and fighting in earnest. At the same time, as several of the characters we met while they were human are now Shiki, and the show takes the time to explore the motivations of Sunako, who just wants a place where she won’t be persecuted, we begin to sympathize with the Shiki and their plight to live peacefully. It all builds up to a massive reversal in which the humans become the hunters and many of the townsfolk who were kind or at least sympathetic, become vicious and cruel in the wake of exterminating the Shiki, all while convincing themselves that they’re doing this to protect themselves.

 

It’s a powerful allegory for the way in which we can “other” those we deem a threat and it’s one I honestly can’t say I was expecting. The use of supernatural creatures as a metaphor for those who fit out of societal norms is certainly nothing new, but it’s rare to see that subject tackled in such a violent way (Devilman is the closest comparison that comes to mind here) and it’s honestly pretty haunting. While society as a whole isn’t always quick to turn to extremism against those who threaten the status quo, dehumanizing those people creates situations where any degree of excessive force can be justified as something “for the greater good” and, much as in the case with this show’s conclusion, ultimately results in tragedy. It’s definitely not a very uplifting message, (and it broke me to such an extent that I didn’t even want to look another person in the eye for a good few hours after the finale) but it’s certainly a powerful one, and in light of some of the recent headlines in the news, it’s also one that sadly hasn’t lost any of its relevance. 

As should be no real surprise to anyone by this point, I went through this one watching the dub and said dub turned out to be really spectacular. I have a real fondness for dubs that manage to tackle the challenge of dealing with a large ensemble cast as opposed to following a specific group of characters and ADR Director, Mike McFarland, manages to step up to the plate and then some. There’s a ton of really stellar performances in this dub from the actors in the main cast like John Burgmeier as Seishin and David Wald as Dr. Ozaki who do an excellent job of portraying the individual moral struggles plaguing them, to R. Bruce Elliot whose work as the shopkeeper Tomio manages to make the character sound downright bone-chilling during the Shiki hunts, and made him extremely memorable for an otherwise minor character. Every performance in the show is rock solid and a lot of the acting here did a lot to sell me on the story’s eventual descent into tragedy.

Production wise on the other hand, there isn’t a whole ton that stands out here, but there also isn’t anything I’d actually complain about on that front. The animation by studio Daume is relatively consistent, if not particularly flashy, and the music is generally just serviceable with the second ending theme “Gekka Reijin” by BUCK-TICK being the only one that caught my attention. Similarly, the character designs are pretty par the course for an early 2010’s show with the only exception on that end being the excessive amount of 80’s hair that a good fifty percent of the cast seems to have, and that generally came off as more hilarious than creepy. Fortunately Tetsuro Amino’s direction on the series manages to work around these shortcomings pretty effectively and successfully combines with the sound production by Junichi Inaba to create a chilling sense of atmosphere that manages to make even the goofier bits genuinely unsettling, and actually managed to creep me out even when the vampires weren’t on screen.

So having now sat through all of Shiki, I’m now of two minds on my purchase of it. It made good use of its horror elements to tell a darker tale about human nature than would expected at first glance, and it managed to grip me ways that I really couldn’t see coming based on how the first batch of episodes went. At the same time though, while I acknowledge the material is strong, it also managed to repulse me in a way I’ve rarely experienced while watching something, and I’ve never felt quite as awful walking away after finishing a show as I did watching this. I’m glad I watched Shiki and I’ll stand by it as an excellent work of fiction but truth be told, I don’t think I’ll be be taking it off my shelf to give it another run through anytime soon.

Overall: 9/10

Review: Den-nou Coil- Beyond the Looking Glass

Synopsis: Yuko “Yasako” Okonogi and her sister Kyoko have just moved to Daikoku City. After arriving in the city she finds herself getting involved with a group of children who enjoy hacking via use of their “cyber glasses” as well as a mysterious girl who’s also named Yuko but is quickly referred to by everyone as “Isako”. Like most everyone her age, Yasako also enjoys using her cyber glasses, but when she finds herself getting connected to a series of strange incidents involving cyber space, she finds that there may be a lot more to the virtual world than meets the eye…

The Review

I’ve been a dedicated anime fan for some 13 odd years now, and in that timespan I’ve consumed far more shows than I’d honestly care to admit. Even with that though, there’s always been that pesky handful of beloved classics that everyone says is a must-watch, and that I keep meaning to get around to, but sadly rarely do. One of those shows happens to be the 2007 Madhouse series, Dennou Coil, which has long been a well regarded sci-fi series. For many years I pushed it to the wayside as something I’d get around to eventually, and even when Maiden Japan licensed the series back in 2016, I still wasn’t sure if I really wanted to pluck down the cash for a blind-buy. Fortunately though, Sentai happened to have a big sale a while ago, and both halves of this show were available for pretty cheap, so I finally decided to bite the bullet and give it shot. Now that I finally have, it’s time to see if this show really does live up to it’s strong reputation.

Dennou Coil’s primary objective is the exploration of how much technology (in particular virtual reality and the internet) has become integrated into our daily lives, and how much of a separation, if any, there should be between the virtual world and the real one. Given that this show was created in 2006, and by extension, well before the popularization of social media, I was a little worried that a lot of its commentary would feel dated but it actually holds up quite well. Rather than going for a direct approach in how it tackles those subjects, there’s a high level of abstraction to the way it presents technology that helps in allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions to the good and bad it presents. On the downside that approach means that its easy to lose track of those thoughts on technology in light of some of the shows other themes, such as coping with loss, but it works much more often than not, and the series manages to keep things consistent on that end.

It helps that all of that abstraction is gazed at through the lens of the show’s cast of kids. From the obnoxious, but ultimately good natured Daichi, to Fumie who often pretends to act more mature than she actually is, all of the children who make up the show’s core group of characters come off as really earnest portrayals of kids, and for the most part, that makes them all the more charming.  Centering an ambitious sci-fi narrative around a children might seem like a bit of a strange choice, but it’s one that largely works to the show’s benefit as it allows for the series to forgo any massive infodumps about how its various pieces of tech work, in favor of more natural worldbuilding that helps everything feel really alive. We learn about new information at roughly the same speed Yasako learns them from the other kids, and the way in which they all interact with the virtual world makes the series feel almost more like a hi-fantasy at times than a sci-fi with some of the hacking tools feeling more like magic than technology. It does a lot in helping to make Daikoku City feel like a fun and naturally interesting world to explore, and the sense of wonder and exaggeration that comes from how kids tend to view the world really adds to that effect.

The actual overarching story on the other hand is kind of where things are at its weakest. While many of the show’s early episodes are spent gradually easing the audience into the world of Daikoku City, it evolves into a giant mystery concerning the existence of strange virtual entities known as “Illegals” as well as the dangers of older cyberspaces, before ultimately resulting in a giant conspiracy involving several different factions. It’s perfectly functional, but it can get a little confusing as far as who’s working for who and while it does all come together in the end, I was far less invested in the plot than the characters or any of it’s larger themes. Fortunately the story does manage to tie into the latter pretty effectively and in the end, Dennou Coil’s biggest argument for what role virtual technology should have for us emotionally is that it’s basically up to the individual to decide what’s real to them and what isn’t. It’s not a particularly groundbreaking stance at this point, but it’s neutral enough that audiences can come to their own personal conclusions on that, and it works well enough to still help the series feel relevant. Those are more or less the areas a sci-fi really needs to aim at in order to age gracefully and in that respect, Dennou Coil succeeds in spades.

In addition to having aged pretty well as a sc-fi story, Dennou Coil has also aged quite well visually. The character designs by Takeshi Honda are on the cartoonish side, but in a way that lends themselves very well to animation, helping to make the kids feel expressive and energetic in a way that feels more akin to something like a Studio Ghibli movie than a TV anime production. That child-like animation is well supported by the show’s general art direction which maintains many of the muted colors and quite atmosphere that would be typically expected from a sci-fi story, but close enough in look to the character designs not to make them feel like they’re from completely different shows. Those elements combine together well, and it helps to create an effective contrast between the high energy of the kids, and the much more somber nature of the world around them. Music wise the show is a bit more lacking as the score by Tsuneyoshi Saito is solid but not particularly striking, although the opening theme “Prism” by Ayako Ikeda does a great job of helping to set the mood every episode with its quiet and haunting tone.

I decided  to with the English audio when checking out the show, and I have to admit I was really impressed with it. Houston based dubs can be kind of hit or miss for me, but everything here was very smooth. Hillary Hagg and Monica Rial both deliver excellent performances as the leads Yasako and Isako, while others such as Brittney Karbowski and Tiffany Grant do an equally strong job as Fumie and Daichi respectively, with just about everyone in the supporting cast really stepping up to bat for this show. My personal favorite of the bunch though, was Laura Chapman as Specsgranny who had me laughing just about every time she did something wacky while also being able to dial things back whenever the mood got serious. The dub’s script also really helps in setting the tone as a lot of the dialogue is handled in a way that actually feels how younger kids would talk to each other without ever getting to the point where it felt like a distraction, and it did a lot to make the performances from the cast feel more natural where they otherwise might not have. I can’t really speak for how well they compare to the Japanese cast, but if you want to watch the show in English, I imagine you’ll be very satisfied here.

So having finally watched Dennou Coil, I can safely say that it’s reputation is very well deserved. The show has a fantastic sense of atmosphere that really helps to make its sci-fi elements feel wondrous, and its filled with a cast of characters that are all generally pretty fun to hang out with. Although things get a little overly convoluted when it comes to the actual plot, it works well enough that it doesn’t harm any of the other things the series is trying to do, and it does those other things so well that those complaints are more of a nitpick if anything. Even though it’s been long enough that its views on virtual technology could have easily aged terribly, it manages to take a smart enough stance on those views that I’m confident it’ll still feel relevant even after another decade’s passed. I wasn’t really sure what to expect blind-buying this, but needless to say, I feel like I made a pretty smart purchase.

Overall: 10/10

Available for streaming on HiDive

Review: Made in Abyss- Gaze Into the Abyss

 

Synopsis: Riko is a young cave raider who dreams of exploring the depths of the giant chasm known as the Abyss like her mother did. However only being ranked as an apprentice level raider-or “Red Whistle”- means that she has a long way to go before her dream can become a reality. Her fate suddenly changes when she comes across a mysterious boy named Reg, who has a body that seems almost mechanical. Reg claims to come from the depths of the Abyss, and when Riko discovers a letter from her missing mother claiming that she’s waiting for her at the bottom, Riko and Reg embark on a journey to reach the bottom together.

The Review

Horror has always been a bit of a tricky area for anime to traverse. There’s certainly no shortage of creepy stuff in anime, and I’ve come across more than a few things that kept me up at night, but anime is such a uniquely bizarre visual medium to begin with, that most genuine attempts at horror come off as cheap shock value, or worse yet: goofy. Much like any good horror film, horror in anime only ever really works when it can catch you off guard or present something familiar in a way that feels disturbing. Very few shows have been truly successful in that respect, but last year’s Made in Abyss stands out as one of anime’s best examples of how to do horror right.

The beginning of Made in Abyss starts out simple enough, as we’re introduced to our protagonist Riko: a plucky young girl who dreams of one day exploring a giant chasm known as the Abyss, where all sorts of unknown creatures and phenomena reside. After one day receiving a letter from her missing mother saying that she’s waiting at the depths of the Abyss, and coming across a mysterious “robot boy” named Reg, Riko and Reg embark on a journey to reach the bottom, and learn more about Reg’s past along the way. On the surface, this comes off as a simple, but fun setup for a big adventure story not unlike something you’d see in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, and for the first few episodes it sticks to what you’d expect out of that formula. The first levels of the Abyss are lush and vibrant, and while the beasts that reside in them can at times be dangerous, there’s never a sense that the duo can’t overcome the danger, and the world it presents feels majestic, making the audience feel naturally inclined to want to see more of what lies beyond, much in the same way Riko does.

 

However as Riko and Reg head deeper into the Abyss’s depths and receive a startling revelation about Riko’s connection to it, a gradual, but very noticeable change begins to happen with the show’s atmosphere. The once colorful and intriguing world of the Abyss becomes dark and isolating, and the beasts that reside within become more and more dangerous as the feeling of security that initially surrounded our leads is suddenly stripped away. By the time the season heads into its final act and the duo encounters a threat far bigger than they can handle, the show pulls out all the stops in depicting just how unforgiving the Abyss truly is, including everything from the most visceral depiction of pain that I’ve ever seen in animation, to a character backstory so disturbing, that it left me with a chill in a way that almost no other anime has really managed to do.

With such a dramatic shift in tone from the season’s first episode to its finale, its easy to imagine this going off the rails pretty quick, but it manages to stay consistent and engaging from beginning to end. Even when the story begins to dip into some pretty bleak territory, it maintains the same spirit of perseverance and curiosity it began with, while also providing an infectious sense of charm in both its characters and atmosphere. While a lot of these elements are shifted more towards a horror perspective than the more adventure shonen one that it starts out with, these moments of dread always feel like a natural evolution, and the show never seems like it’s forcing its hand. All of this helps to make for a much more powerful experience than would be expected at first glance, and for a story that I’m already eager to get back to when the next season arrives.

 

As effective as the show’s storytelling is though, something like this can only ever really work when it has the right visual style to match and director Masayuki Kojima and the staff at Kinema Circus have achieved this in spades. While the character designs for most of the show’s human cast are almost purposefully cute and cartoony, the backgrounds of the Abyss feel more like something out a classic fairy-tale, going from vast and colorful, to hauntingly beautiful which allows each of its various environments to feel both fantastical, and very much lived in throughout any given scene. This same level of detail is also carried over into the designs of the creatures that live in the Abyss as each of them manage to feel like the sort of mix between wondrous and dangerous that can only ever be encountered in nature, even when the beast themselves look pretty out there. It’s all kind of magical to behold in a way, and all of this fantastic art direction is supported by an equally fantastic musical score courtesy of composer Kevin Perkin, who always manages to find the right track to fit just about any moment in the show and helps to elevate even some of its most simple scenes into effective tools for capturing its incredible atmosphere.

If there’s one negative point I’d have to give against the show, it would be its occasional moments of sexualization for its pre-pubescent leads. From my understanding, this is more an issue of the source material than anything the anime is doing intentionally, and it’s clear that the staff tried their best to tone this down as much as possible, but there’s still more than a few lingering shots and crude jokes that made me feel kind of uncomfortable. Given the show’s generally positive reception, I imagine this won’t be a deal breaker for most audiences, and its thankfully never  played up enough to outright kill the experience. Still it’s there just enough to be noticeable, and it’s kind of a shame since the show otherwise feels pretty accessible to a more general audience than typical late night anime.

It’s a rarity for anime to ever truly get horror right, but Made in Abyss really managed to pull it off. Between its likable characters and incredible sense of atmosphere, there’s a whole lot to enjoy here, and its last few episodes managed to give off a sense of dread that I’ve almost never experienced in an anime before. While its unfortunate penchant for sexualizing the kids is something I wish was gone from the show entirely, it hits hard on enough levels, that it feels almost impossible not to get swept up in all of its charm and mystique. I certainly enjoyed my time traversing the Abyss, and with another season on the horizon, I’m looking forward to the chance to dive in once again.

Overall: 8.9/10

Available for streaming on Amazon Video

Review: Devilman Crybaby- Cry For the Devil

 

Synopsis: Akira Fudo’s life is forever changed when he finds himself reunited with his childhood friend, Ryo Asuka and taken to an underground party called a Sabbath in the hopes of summoning a devil. After getting possessed by one of these devils himself, Akira finds himself with a powerful new body, but still manages to retain his human heart. Now living as a “Devilman”, Akira works with Ryo to hunt down other devils, and to keep their existence from being exposed by society at large, but can there really be such as thing as a demon with a heart?

The Review

It’s been a couple of years since Netflix first announced their intent to add their own exclusive anime to the service, and the first of these has finally arrived in the form of Devilman Crybaby. Crybaby serves as a brand new adaption of Go Nagai’s classic Devilman manga, and one brought to life through critically acclaimed director Masaaki Yuasa, who has brought us such works as The Tatami Galaxy (still waiting on a physical release there, Funimation) and Ping Pong the Animation. Go Nagai is unquestionably one of the most influential manga authors to have ever been in the industry, and Yuasa has consistently been one of the most visually creative directors I’ve seen in anime, so needless to say that I was pretty eager to check this out. What I ultimately walked away with though, was an experience that both for better and for worse, was one I certainly won’t forget.

While I’ve ever actually had the opportunity to read the original Devilman manga, much less any of Go Nagai’s works in general, I do know that he’s had an almost infamous reputation for graphic content, and it certainly shows in this series. Right out of the gate, the show is an unapologetic storm of crazy ultra violence, and equally insane sexual imagery that feels more akin to a late 90’s OVA, than a modern anime production. Whereas it would normally be expected for Yuasa to tone down some of this material to make it more palpable for modern audiences, he instead chooses to do the exact opposite. Yuasa fully embraces the overly sexual nature of Nagai’s work to the point where he actually ramps up its intensity, and the result is equal parts fascinating, and understandably overwhelming. Make no mistake: this series is about as hard of an R-rating as it gets, and its easy to see how Netflix was an ideal platform for this project, because there’s absolutely no way it would have made it onto Japanese television as is.  What keeps all of this from coming off as cheap shock value however, is that much of this imagery is framed as horrific and savage, rather than cool or stimulating, and that framing ultimately has a clear purpose, as it gradually becomes apparent that the series has quite a lot to say, underneath it all.

 

The show’s first few episodes are its most straightforward, as Akira finds himself transformed into a demon, and works with Ryo to both fight off other demons they come across, and to keep any involvement with them secret. As it progresses further though and we’re given more time to spend with the rest of the show’s cast, it begins to show an almost surprising amount of humanity. Some of it’s strongest examples come in the form of a Miko Kawamoto, a girl whose spent almost her entirely life hiding in the shadow of her friend Miki, and wants to be acknowledged by both her and the rest of the world as her own person, or a group of young rappers who are generally viewed as troublemakers based purely on their appearance. The show does it’s best to make you empathize with these characters and ends up placing a lot of importance on the power of empathy itself, arguing that underneath our individual differences, we are all capable of love, and that love should propel us to reach out and care for each other.

And then, as the show heads into its final act, and the existence of demons is exposed to humanity at large, that argument begins to shift. Hatred and discrimination quickly takes over, and while the importance of empathizing with each other remains as significant as ever, those voices of hope quickly die out in the face of overwhelming violence and cruelty. All of this ends up resulting in an ending so bleak that it’s hard not to walk away from it feeling uncomfortable, and Go Nagai’s ultimate message here seems to be that humanity will never be capable of placing love over hatred until the latter destroys us. As someone who does generally believe that the ability to love and empathize with each other can over come our baser tendencies, I certainly can’t bring myself to agree with this view point, but the presentation here is effective enough that if nothing else, I can at least respect it.

As I said before, Masaaki Yuasa, is one of the most visually inventive directors in anime and his aesthetic is all over this show, but his style can be a little polarizing to general audiences. The production by his studio Science Saru, provides a mix of 2D and flash animation, that manages to deliver on some impressive looking cuts, while combining them with  his signature flat art style, giving the series a distinctive look, that while slightly goofy at times, generally helps in selling the show’s graphic imagery. Kensuke Ushio’s soundtrack for the series is equally impressive, as its mix of orchestral and techno music gives the series a sound that matches it’s 90’s OVA aesthetic, and the decision to include a few pieces of Japanese rap, not only helps to make the show feel more unique but allows it to better express its ideas. However the real crowner for the show’s music definitely has to go to it’s opening theme, “MAN HUMAN” by Denki Groove, an instrumental piece that manages to be equal parts catchy and haunting, and never fails to set the mood for the series’ heavier moments (even if Netflix’s autoplay feature insists on making you skip it).

The english dub for the series was handled by SDI Media, and it serves as a pretty good match for the material. Despite being a couple of octaves higher than Kouki Uchiyama’s performance, Griffin Burns is a solid match for the overly empathetic Akira, while Kyle McCarley makes for an equally impressive Ryo, making every ounce of the character’s twisted attitude a delight to listen to, and allowing the two performances play off of each other pretty well. The rest of the cast is also pretty solid, with some standout performances from Doug Erholtz  as the sleazy reporter Nagasaki, and Cindy Robinson as the temptress, Silene, with the only major outliers being Dorthy Fahn as Taro, and Anne Yatco as Miki’s mother, as both sound a little too much on the stiff side.  It’s hampered down a little by some multicasting for a lot of the bit parts, but all in all,  if you’re looking to check out the show in English, you should be in for a good time.

Even with Yuasa’s general track record when it comes to interesting content, I was still pretty amazed at just how much was packed into this, and it made for one heck of a wild ride. While the show’s conclusion might have been a little too nihilistic for me, there’s no denying it’s powerful, and while I may have came in expecting mostly just violence and sex, what I walked away with was a much more human story than I could have possibly imagined. Devilman Crybaby is not an easy show to watch, both for it’s graphic content and its final moments, but it is undeniably a work of passion, and that passion shows. From it’s incredible direction, to the heavy hitting nature of the material itself, this show was quite an experience, and while it left me with a lot of mixed emotions, it’s one I’m ultimately glad I saw through to the end.

Overall: 9.5/10

Available for streaming on Netflix

 

Review: Voltron Legendary Defender Season 3- Quick on the Draw

Synopsis: Long ago the leader of the Galra race, Emperor Zarkon began his conquest of the universe, and the extermination of the Alteans. The only force capable of stopping him was a weapon known as Voltron, but it was sealed away along with the Altean princess, Allura. 10,000 years later, a group of young space pilots from Earth stumble upon one of the robot lions that form Voltron, along with Allura but soon discover that Zarkon is still alive, and has already seized control over most of the known universe. Now these pilots must become the new Paladins of Voltron and use it’s power to defeat Zarkon once and for all.

The Review

And so after a…surprisingly short hiatus Voltron: Legendary Defender is back with it’s third season. Given that the second season debuted earlier this year, I was honestly shocked to see this one coming down the pipeline so fast, and even more to learn the fourth season is already planned for later this year. All that surprise was suddenly made clear when it turned out that this season is noticeably shorter than either of the previous two, only totaling in at seven episodes, and the fourth season may end up turning out the same way. Needless to say that made things a little disappointing, and with the episode count being so low, I was able to burn through the whole thing in pretty much a single morning even while having other stuff to do. Of course, annoying as the shorter run time is, new Voltron is still new Voltron, so how it’s time to see exactly how well it stacks up to the first two seasons.

I suppose that first and foremost we should talk about the most interesting thing this season: the introduction of Prince Lotor. While I’m pretty ignorant on most things related to the original version of Voltron, I do know that he was a pretty important presence there, and was about as significant a villain as Zarkon himself. As far as this version goes, he’s certainly a welcome presence as he’s by far the most interesting antagonist the show has offered so far. Even though season two did more to flesh out the Galra as a whole, Zarkon and Haggar themselves were still pretty one-note as far as villainy goes. Lotor on the other hand is a much more charismatic figure, knowing how to stay one step ahead of the Paladins by exploiting their weaknesses, and playing both sides of the conflict to his advantage. Given the history of the people penning this show, it’s pretty easy to see him as something of a male counterpart to Princess Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but so far he seems a lot more composed and unlike Azula who was pretty loyal to her father, Lotor’s true motives remain a mystery even by the end of the season.

In comparison I’d have to say that his four female generals are kind of a bit boring, and despite being given clear character archetypes to work off of, they feel pretty interchangeable and didn’t leave much of an impression. It’s a shame since I really like the idea of them kind of functioning as a foil to the Paladins so I’m really hoping they’ll be given more to do in later seasons. On the bright side, the season’s finale does a lot to flesh out our two biggest baddies as we’re given more information on the history between Zarkon and Allura’s father as well as Haggar’s real identity. It’s an interesting bit of backstory that does quite a bit to explain Zarkon and Haggar’s origins, and while it doesn’t totally humanize them, it certainly gives them a lot more to work with than either of the previous seasons did and paints them with at least a few shades of grey (albeit very dark ones). It’s another area where I’ll be curious to see exactly where the show takes things, and I’m happy to see the show doing more with its antagonists.

Unfortunately the downsides to this season mostly come from the Paladins and it’s a shame since they’re generally the best part of the show. The best character arcs of the season involve Lance having to come to terms with the fact that he’s just not leader material and having to humbly accept Keith taking the position, as well as Allura managing to come into her own as a Paladin. However the big issue here comes down to the incredibly short time gap between Shiro’s disappearance and Keith’s taking his position, and Shiro’s official return to the team. While there was pretty much zero room to doubt that Shiro had actually died last season, (and I appreciate the show not talking down to its audience enough to think that kids would either) bringing him back into the fold so quickly feels like a waste. We do get a few episodes in the beginning dealing with Keith’s hotheaded nature being a poor match for leadership but parts of that new team dynamic coming together feel rushed, and by the time Shiro returns it doesn’t feel like the team has been without him long enough to have truly accepted Keith as their new leader. It’s possible this is intentional given that the one episode we do get with Keith and Shiro together shows a pretty clear wedge in the group’s ability to get things done but for right now it feels kind of awkward and I can’t help but think that the show would have benefited from keeping Shiro away from the group for at least half another season.

On a technical standpoint the show looks as sharp as ever, in terms of both action sequences and mecha design and there’s a few cool sequences mixed in here. However the shorter timestamp for this season means that there aren’t as many opportunities for it to show that stuff off, and what we get isn’t nearly enough to compensate. As a plus though, I can at least say that out of all of the character designs I’ve seen for the show thus far, Lotor’s is definitely the one that feels the most “anime” inspired and I’m always happy to see the show get closer to that general aesthetic since that’s clearly what it’s aiming

As a whole a lot of what feels off about this season partially comes down to how short it is, and even with the significance its supposed finale offers, it’s pretty hard to escape the feeling that this is merely half a season that was divided because someone at Netflix thought it was a good idea. I doubt it ended up affecting much in terms of actual content, but it does make things here feel kind of incomplete even with the big cliffhangers the last two seasons ended on. There’s enough solid material sprinkled through this season to work, and the weaker parts don’t yet feel like they’ll be enough to hinder the show’s current momentum, but I’m really hoping that season four will feel a bit more balanced that what we ended up getting this time around.

Overall: 7.9/10

Available on Netflix

Review: The Vision of Escaflowne- A Heavenly Vision

Synopsis: Teenage-girl Hitomi is known by her friends for her incredibly accurate fortune-telling skills and is in love with her school’s track team star, Amano. After finding out that he’s moving away soon, Hitomi decides to confess her feelings but gets interrupted when a boy named Van appears from a portal of light, and ends up taking her to strange world called Gaia. Now stuck in Gaia, Hitomi soon finds herself wrapped in a conflict between the powerful Empire of Zaibach and the mysterious giant mech known as Escaflowne, and her fortune telling skills may just prove to be the only key to controlling the latter

The Review

I’ve been watching anime in some capacity ever since I was a little kid growing up in the late 90’s/early 00’s and I’ve been into the hardcore anime scene for well over a decade now. In that time I’ve consumed a lot of anime both new and old, but despite the amount of stuff I’ve seen there’s always been one series that I somehow never managed to get around to: Escaflowne. It wasn’t necessarily for any lack of interest. I’ve heard pretty nothing about good things about it, and it’s been long held up by anime fandom as a beloved classic, but between the weird things I’ve heard about the Fox Kids dub, and the lack of a convenient means to watch it, it remained in my backlog for a long time. Thankfully Funi’s recent re-release and subsequent streaming of the show finally gave me an excuse to sit down and watch it, and it turned out to be quite an interesting experience.

Right out of the gate it’s pretty easy to see why the show has managed to stand the test of time for the last two decades. Fantasy is a pretty common genre for anime, and fantasy with shojo trappings even more so, but the show’s execution is so solid that if it had came out today in the exact same style, you’d never be able to detect even a hint of age to it. The series’s basic premise is a simple one as the story of a girl being transported to another world has been done dozens of times before, but the writing is sharp enough to keep things from ever feeling rote and it stays pretty consistent. Things progress at a very comfortable pace, giving the series ample time to develop both it’s world and it’s characters, and while some of it’s lore can get a little convoluted at times it’s never too difficult to follow and everything about the show’s atmosphere is so well-crafted that’s really easy to get sucked in.

It helps that the show has a cast of very familiar, but ultimately likable characters. Hitomi is a great heroine and one who’s really easy to root for as her strong sense of empathy serves as the show’s core. Van on the other hand is the standard angry prince who’s usually at the center of these kinds of shojo stories but the show does a great job of making his character understandable, and keeps him grounded enough to avoid making those traits unbearable. The best of the bunch though, is Allan who rounds out the show’s primary love triangle as the knightly prince archetype, but is slowly revealed to have the most complicated past of the show’s primary cast, and seeing him have to come to terms with a lot of it is an interesting story all on it’s own. The cast as a whole is fleshed out pretty well, and the story does a fantastic job of giving all of them clear motivations behind their actions, making them all pretty compelling, if not always original.

The show also looks surprisingly gorgeous in spite of it’s age. 90’s animation can be something of a mixed bag in terms of consistent visual quality, but this was definitely one of the stronger productions of the era as the character designs and animation are both pretty impressive in their own right, and work together to give the show a nearly timeless look that holds up really well under the high-definition remaster that was provided for the new release. It also has some fantastic music, with the show’s score having been composed by Hajime Mizoguichi alongside the legendary Yoko Kanno of Cowboy Bebop fame, and while I’m not used to hearing purely orchestral music from the latter, it certainly works here, and feels as though it’s aged as gracefully as the rest of the production. Yoko Kanno also lent her talents to scoring the show’s opening theme “No Need for Promises” with the vocals provided by Hitomi’s Japanese actress, Maaya Sakamoto making for a combination that serves as one of the best anime openings I’ve ever heard, and one that never gets tiring to listen to.

If there’s one thing that was a little strange to me, it’s that for how well structured it is, the show generally doesn’t evolve too much past being a genre thing. The last few episodes toss around a few vague ideas about humans overcoming destiny through willpower, and whether or not humanity’s ability to love is enough to triumph over our base desires for conflict, but these concepts are crammed in so tightly that it doesn’t really feel like they go enough of anywhere to proclaim them as the show’s primary themes. Ultimately though, this is more an issue of me having figured the show would be a lot more profound given it’s reputation rather than an actual complaint. I found myself enjoying the story from beginning to end regardless and it’s not really something that I’d seriously hold against the series since it does pretty much everything else it sets out to, so this is more of a nitpick than anything.

I decided to watch the series through Funimation’s new dub, since I was curious to see how it turned out given all the controversy with their release, and I was really blown away with how it sounded. Sonny Strait’s return to voice directing in the last couple of years got off to a pretty rocky start but this is easily some of the best work I’ve seen from him. Caitlin Glass’s Hitomi does a great job of making the character feel endearing, and I was equally impressed with Aaron Dismuke’s Van as he plays the role of the angry teenager pretty well and it makes for one of the best performances I’ve heard from him since he hit puberty after the original Fullmetal Alchemist dub. I was also pretty enamored with Vic Migongia’s performance as Volken despite the controversy concerning the casting choice, and while I haven’t seen the JP track or the old Ocean dub to compare it to, it’s distinct enough from a lot of his past work to leave a lasting impression, and it did a lot to sell me on the character. Out of the entire cast though, my hat definitely goes off to Sonny Strait himself as Allan as it’s a role that’s vastly different from the wackier characters that he usually plays and he plays it to perfection, giving off a level of grace and maturity that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever heard from him. I was kind of worried that the dub might end up sounding a bit too modern given how a lot of Funimation’s recent dubs have turned out, but everything from the performances to the script meshes perfectly with the show’s atmosphere, and it definitely feels like a lot of love was poured into it.

So having finally gotten around to Escaflowne, I can say that it was both more and less than what I thought it would be. I came into the series expecting something a lot meatier than a basic genre story, but the execution and visual aesthetics of it were so strong that by the time I walked away from the show, I hardly cared and it was an enjoyable experience from start to finish. There isn’t really anything about Escaflowne that stands out from the stuff that’s come after it, but just about everything in it has aged gracefully, which really speaks to how timeless of a series it is, and with that going for it, I have no doubt that it’ll continue to stand the test of time for many years to come.

Overall: 9/10

Review: Voltron Legendary Defender Season 2- Building on Success

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Synopsis: Long ago the leader of the Galra race, Emperor Zarkon began his conquest of the universe, and the extermination of the Alteans. The only force capable of stopping him was a weapon known as Voltron, but it was sealed away along with the Altean princess, Allura. 10,000 years later, a group of young space pilots from Earth stumble upon one of the robot lions that form Voltron, along with Allura but soon discover that Zarkon is still alive, and has already seized control over most of the known universe. Now these pilots must become the new Paladins of Voltron and use it’s power to defeat Zarkon once and for all.

The Review

At this point it more or less goes without saying that the first season of Voltron: Legendary Defender was a massive success. It managed to pull off the extremely difficult task of being both appealing to the nostalgia of the old fans while, creating a lot of new ones, and it’s brought the franchise the most amount of buzz and popularity it’s seen since the 80’s with the original series. Of course with all that success also comes the risk of things potentially falling apart at the seams, and given how badly the staff’s previous series The Legend of Korra ended up imploding on itself, I have to admit I was bit afraid of this potentially suffering the same fate. So with all that on it’s plate, does this season do a great job of living up to the first?

Fortunately the answer is a resounding, yes. The season kicks off, pretty much exactly where the last one ended, and despite the roughly 6-month gap, it feels like the show never really left. The strong mix of action and comedy that made a lot of the show’s first season work is still in full effect here, and the chemistry between the paladins remains as strong as ever. None of this should be too surprising since, production-wise, this second season was originally meant to just be the back half of the first, but I’ve seen plenty of similarly produced shows where that approach backfired, so I’m glad to say that this series is still as fun as ever.

Of course, while the second season manages to maintain pretty much all of what made the first work, it also manages to throw in a few welcome improvements. One of my biggest issues with the first season, was the Galra felt a little too one-note as antagonists, and were vastly in need of some fleshing out to keep from come across as too generic. This is largely addressed here in the form of introducing a rebel Galra cell working against the empire, which helps to add some much needed shades of grey to the overall conflict, while giving the second season a slightly heavier tone than the first. It also helps in making the stakes of the season a lot higher, as much of it is spent building up to a big confrontation with Zarkon himself. Although while it’s obviously way too early in the show’s run for that to actually go as planned, it manages to throw in a few good curve-balls (especially regarding the fate of a certain character), and the season finale is about as wonderfully climatic as giant robot shows get.

Though while this story stuff is all well and good, the real appeal of Voltron lies in it’s fun characters, and this season manages to outshine the first in that area too. As much as the first season did a great job of making all of the Paladins endearing, Keith in particular felt like a bit too much of a blank slate for his supposed importance to the story, especially given that he’s known as the protagonist in all the other franchise incarnations. Thankfully he’s given a lot more to work with here, and a fair chunk of the season is spent both exploring his origins, and setting him up for a future leadership role, helping to turn his character around significantly. Allura also benefits from a bit more focus as her hatred for the Galra clashes pretty heavily with the need for an alliance with the Galra rebels, and both Allura and Keith’s respective character arcs end up tying pretty heavily into the season’s larger conflicts.

The animation, also manages to step things up from the first season as the animators from Studio Mir continue to go all out in their homage to the “sakuga” style of Japanese animation. There’s a ton of really fantastic action sequences sprinkled throughout the season, making for some surprisingly intense fights, and the 3DCG for the robots still does a great job of mixing well with the show’s 2D animation, for some solid mecha battles. The final showdown of the season in particular is really something to behold, and stands as some of the best action choreography I’ve seen from the mecha genre in quite a while.

There was a lot for Voltron’s second season to live up to, and I’m happy to report that this one managed to be even stronger than the first. Everything from the stakes, to the character writing is doubled down here, and it all results in a fun ride from start to finish. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a few hiccups, as much like the first season the comedy can some times be hit or miss, and it does occasionally cut a bit too much into the serious aspects, but for the most part these are minor gripes, and nothing that’s really manages to slow down the show’s momentum. All in all, the second season does pretty much exactly what it needs to in terms of building on the first, while sticking to what made it work, and given that it more or less ends on the same type of obnoxious cliffhanger, I’m certainly going to be on the lookout for a third.

Overall: 8.9/10

Review: Gundam Build Fighters- Building A Better Toy Show

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Synopsis:  In the future, Mobile Suit Gundam has taken the world by storm, and building small models of them called Gunpla and having them fight each other has become everyone’s favorite past time. Sei Iori is skilled at making Gunpla and dreams of competing in the Gunpla World Tournament but his skills as a fighter leave much to be desired. However when he has an encounter with a mysterious boy named Reiji, he finds that Reiji has an incredible natural talent for Gunpla battles, and together the two of them decide to compete on the world stage.

Review

Mobile Suit Gundam has long stood at the top of the mecha genre, and almost every incarnation of the franchise has enjoyed massive success due to it’s compelling depictions of space-faring war dramas. At the same time though, it’s success has also been partially due to the fact that it’s robot designs are really cool, and it’s sold countless numbers of plastic model kits throughout the decades. Given all that, there’s been a few attempts to cater the franchise more directly towards kids in order to sell more kits, but they’ve generally proved unsuccessful and this show’s predecessor, Gundam AGE stands as the most infamous example, having been a commercial failure the likes of which the franchise had never seen before. So needless to say that when Sunrise announced yet another attempt to market Gundam towards kids as it’s next project, audiences were pretty skeptical, but where others before it had failed, Gundam Build Fighters managed to succeed.

So what exactly is it that makes Build Fighters work? Well first and foremost it’s in the fact that it’s extremely honest about what it is. Whereas Gundam AGE tried to have it’s cake and eat it too by attempting to have both the serious war drama aspects of the other Gundam incarnations, and enough kid-appeal to sell toys, Build Fighters drops any and all pretenses of seriousness by opting to be a more straightforward kid’s show. It knows exactly who it’s for and runs with it, quickly establishing itself as a shonen-style tournament series, equipped with a fun cast of characters and a solid dynamic between the lead characters, Sei and Reiji, that feels extremely reminiscent of Yugi and Yami Yugi from Yu-Gi-Oh as the two use their individual talents and opposing personalities to strengthen each other. Of course that means the series is chock-full of the kind of goofiness you’d expect from that kind of thing, and sometimes gets a little too out there for it’s own good (looking at you Gunpla mafia guy) but it knows where to draw the line and even manages to avoid falling into the trap of trying to tell a “serious” story with it’s absurd premise rather in favor of focusing primarily on the toys it’s trying to sell.

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This actually leads into another one of the show’s larger strengths in that it’s genuinely dedicated towards having a good time. Around the beginning of the series, one of the characters asks how anyone can be expected to take a battle involving toys seriously, and it feels like a question that the show is almost asking itself, as the attempts by similar series to do so are usually what turns people off to them.  However it responds in earnest by saying that the characters can take it seriously because it’s a fun game to them, and that sense of spirit becomes the show’s core mantra. It goes almost out of it’s way to show how passionate the characters are about what they’re doing and it’s kind of refreshing to see something like this enforcing the importance of having fun without having to resort to the awkward attempts at fantasy that shows of this genre so often rely on. In fact, the show displays a surprisingly negative stance towards taking this stuff too seriously, and it helps that rather than having some evil overlord caricature for it’s villain like a lot of similar kid shows, the bad guy here’s just a greedy jerk who wants to keep making money off of selling toys (way to bite the hand that feeds you guys). This bit of self-awareness  isn’t exactly unique, but it does give the series a bit of an edge, and it’s a stance I wouldn’t mind seeing toy shows take more often.

For everything I’ve said here though, the real key factor towards Build Fighters winning formula comes down to the fact that it makes Gunpla battles look pretty darn cool. We’ve all dreamed that the toy robots we’d smash into each other as kids, were could really duke it out someday, and this show brings that childhood fantasy to life in the most over-the-top way possible. Director Kenji Nagasaki and his team of staff (who would later bring us the My Hero Academia anime adaption) really know how to bring out the best in action sequences, and each of the show’s fight scenes are a spectacle to behold as it holds absolutely nothing back in making them as energetic as possible. Adding to the effect is Yuuki Hayashi’s musical score, which carries just as much impact as the fights themselves and many of the show’s tracks really help to boost it’s sense of flair (not to mention the series also has the ever reliable J-rock band, BACK-ON handling it’s opening theme songs and bringing their A-game for both). The overall visual presentation here is so fantastic that I can honestly say I’d totally play Gunpla Battle if it were a real thing, and for something that effectively exists to sell toys, that’s about the highest level of praise you can give it.

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RightStuf has recently put out a release of the series courtesy of their partnership with Sunrise, which includes both a Blu-Ray and DVD release. I bought the latter and it’s a fairly standard set that include a few basic extras such as clean opening and ending animation,  and the original Japanese commercials. Out of these the most interesting one is an extra called “Battle Selection” which serves as a nice little compilation of the show’s best robot action highlights. It’s also worth nothing that the release does also technically include the dub, but it’s an Animax Asia dub rather than one done in the US and the quality is so poor that I couldn’t really recommend watching it outside of mild curiosity. Still, it’s nice to have at least and the release is a pretty good bargain for the amount of episodes it contains so if you enjoyed the series, I’d recommend picking it up.

So in the end, Gundam Build Fighters succeeds by doing the one thing a lot of other similar shows ironically don’t: trying it’s darndest to make you think that what it’s selling is the coolest thing ever. This sense of passion might not make it totally immune to some of the same goofiness as things like it, but it’s certainly infectious, and it’s hard not to get caught up in it’s high level of energy, and even higher-level presentation, as the robot fights alone are almost enough to sell the show. It might be a blatant toy commercial, but it’s certainly a good one, and for that reason if nothing else, it’s definitely something worth checking out.

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Overall: 8.5/10

Available for streaming on Youtube. Available for purchase from RightStuf

 

Review: Voltron Legendary Defender Season 1- Forming A New Legend + Site Update

So bit of a quick update. As you can no doubt see by the last time I actually posted something here, I haven’t been too consistent in doing so, and I’ve been spending more of my time writing for The Fandom Post. I do want to try to stay consistent with this though, so for now my personal goal is to try and have at least two or three posts on here every month. This is the first thing for this month obviously, and I plan on trying to have the second done before Saturday. We’ll see how long I can manage to keep this up for, but I plan on trying a couple of different things so hopefully it all pans out. Anyway onto the review.

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Synopsis: Long ago the leader of the Galra race, Emperor Zarkon began his conquest of the universe, and the extermination of the Alteans. The only force capable of stopping him was a weapon known as Voltron, but it was sealed away along with the Altean princess, Allura. 10,000 years later, a group of young space pilots from Earth stumble upon one of the robot lions that form Voltron, along with Allura but soon discover that Zarkon is still alive, and has already seized control over most of the known universe. Now these pilots must become the new Paladins of Voltron and use it’s power to defeat Zarkon once and for all.

 

The Review

Giant robots have long been a staple of nerd culture, and when it comes to Americans who grew up in the 80’s they’re associated with one name: Voltron. Speaking as someone who grew up in the late 90’s/early 00’s, my only experience with the original series is through vague memories of the reruns that aired on Toonami when I was five or so, but I do know there’s been many an attempt over the years to reignite the franchise. These include shortly lived series like Voltron: The Third Dimension, and the more recent Voltron Force, but pretty much all of them have ended in failure. Now it’s time for yet another contender to step up to the plate, but Voltron: Legendary Defender just might be the one that finally lives up to the challenge.

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Reboots tend to suffer from the awkward experience of trying to both capitalize on a new audience while not totally isolating an already existing one, and usually end up losing on one of the two in the process. However rather than leaning too much one way or the other, Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra alumni Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos stated in interviews that their approach was to create the show they fondly remembered, rather than the one they actually grew up watching. It’s a particularly bold statement because the original Voltron was an Americanized mash-up of two separate mecha anime, Dairugger XV and Beast King Go Lion (with the latter being where it drew the most material from), and has been admitted as not making much sense on it’s own, despite the show’s legacy.  Obviously this show is a lot more coherent, but rather than rejecting what came before it, Legendary Defender instead pays homage to both the Voltron of yore and the original Go Lion in particular (Shiro and the Galra retain their original names from Go Lion, and the character designs are retooled directly from that version) while also using the showrunners’ previous experience to make a fun sci-fi fantasy romp, that’s filled with a solid combination of action, humor and occasional 80’s mecha camp. The result is an experience that both old and new audiences can enjoy, and a production that was clearly a labor of love.

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The show’s first season runs 11 episodes and manages to cover a decent amount of ground in that time, but it mostly just gives the sense that things are only beginning. While the 70-minute pilot suffers a bit from having to do a lot of things at once, the later episodes find a balance between building up the show’s universe, and maintaining enough of a constant pace that it never feels like it’s cooling down. In fact, the series takes advantage of Netflix’s “binge-streaming” model to create a heavy sense of continuity, and one that feels a lot more in line with how anime is formatted, than the structure normally seen in U.S. TV seasons. Many of the episodes run directly off each other, and even the small handful of standalone episodes end up tying into the season’s overarching story pretty quickly. This helps to make it incredibly easy to burn through in one or two sittings, but also comes with the unfortunate effect of making the season’s final episode feel a bit frustrating, as there’s no real attempt to conclude anything, so hopefully a second season won’t take too long to surface.

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Though while the show is strongly supported by it’s format, it also benefits heavily from its strong core cast of characters. All of the Voltron Paladins prove to be easily likable, and while they feel a bit archetypal in the beginning, they’re gradually fleshed out over the season’s run. Shiro in particular seemed like the super dependable leader who’s usually set up to be a sacrificial lamb (and still may be) but has enough of his own issues to feel like a real character, and the team’s “smart guy” Pidge has pretty good character arc, ultimately becoming the most endearing member of the group so far. Even Princess Allura manages to avoid merely being a damsel-in-distress, and at times feels like the real head of the team, rather than Shiro. Ironically, if there’s anyone who sort of falls into the background, it would be Keith, who despite being the protagonist of the original Voltron, doesn’t really have much to work with aside from his attitude problems, and occasional banter with Lance. The Galra are also pretty one-note as far as villains go, but the show drops some strong hints about that there’s more to both Keith and Zarkon that meets the eye, so I’m certainly open to seeing where the show takes them going forward.

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Normally I don’t talk too much animation when it comes to western stuff since the intent generally leans towards making something consistent as opposed to how stylized anime can get, but in this case it’s worth mentioning. Studio Mir’s work on The Legend of Korra was pretty solid, and their aesthetics have only improved, with a few of the show’s best action scenes feeling reminiscent of the Japanese “sakuga” style of animation as the animators show off some unique visual flair. Equally notable, is the production’s work in effectively blending together it’s 2D and 3DCG elements, as the latter manages to avoid feeling out of place, and even Voltron itself feels at home with the rest of show’s visuals. My only real complaint would be that the character designs aren’t quite as sharp as the ones featured in Avatar and Korra, but the show more than makes up for it making the characters as expressive as possible, and it helps to add to a lot of the humor.

The rebooting of a franchise as mixed as Voltron is by no means an easy feat, but so far it seems like the staff has managed to pull it off. Between the fun characters and the impressive work on the production, there’s plenty to enjoy here, and the showrunners have clearly poured a lot of time and heart into making a series with the potential to carry the franchise well into the future. Time will tell if this ends up making the kind of splash the other reboots failed to, but for now it’s looking like after years of dormancy, Voltron may finally have the chance to rise again.

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Overall: 8.6/10

Available for streaming on Netflix

Review: Fullmetal Alchemist- Without Equal

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Synopsis: Alchemy is the science of analyzing, deconstructing and reconstructing matter and the Alchemists who use it follow the principle of Equivalent Exchange: that in order to obtain something of equal value must be lost. However when two young Alchemists, Edward and Alphonse Elric lose their mother, they attempt to bend the laws of alchemy in order to bring her back and in exchange for their failure, Ed loses his arm and leg while Al loses his entire body with his soul trapped inside a suit of armor. Determined to get back the bodies they lost the boys decide to join the military and  seek out the mythical Philosopher’s Stone that has the ability to perform Alchemy without any price, but the journey they undertake proves there’s far more to both Equivalent Exchange and the stone than they realize.

Review

Waifus. Ramen. Fullmetal Alchemist. Outside of the stuff that’s been outright ingrained into pop-culture here like Dragonball Z and Naruto, there are very few anime that have left as big an impact as Fullmetal Alchemist. My own personal history with the show, however is a tad complicated. When I was in middle school this was the show everyone I knew talked about, but airing late Saturday nights, and my parents being strict about what I watched made me more or less miss the boat on it. By the time I actually got around to the series, I was in my 2nd or 3rd year of highschool, and since that was mainly thing to do back then, I checked out the manga first through a combination of old volumes my friends had and of course online scans. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and despite hearing that the anime version was incredibly different I was still pretty eager to check it out.

The result proved to me worth my while as I adored the anime’s storyline (the movie not so much) and found it just as compelling as the manga material I’d read. Of course, I had read the manga first, and so as time passed I became more and more invested in that version, and by the time the manga faithful anime reboot Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood came out, I’d almost completely lost myself to it. Still despite the heated debates on the internet over which version was better, I maintained some love for the first anime series and vowed I would get around to revisiting it eventually. Now years later with this version of the show out on Blu-Ray I finally got the chance, and the experience is just as powerful to me as it was then, if not more so.

While it’s inevitable to draw some level of comparison to the Brotherhood/manga storyline, personally I’ve never seen much point in it, and having revisited this version I feel more strongly about that than ever. Though it’s certainly true the two follow a somewhat similar storyline up to a certain point, it was evident from the get-go that the first anime had it’s own plans in mind, and both the director and writer have said as much. In fact, it began making some pretty significant deviations from the source material extremely early on in order to ease into it better and while similar events happen, it’s often for completely different reasons.. As such the overarching result ends in two very distinct shows, each with extremely different characterization, themes and concepts that make them unmistakably distinguishable from one another with the only real similarity between them being that they share the same title.

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So what exactly is it about this version of the story that makes it such a beloved classic? Well to sum it up quickly it would be that it’s an incredibly human drama as opposed to the ultra consistent action-adventure of the Brotherhood/manga story. Anime is well known for it’s use of dramatic elements, and even the original material has more than it’s fair share of it, but there’s something about the way it handles those portions of the story that make it really stand out. There’s always an understandable driving force behind the actions of every character, and even some of the monstrous people in the story carry a few shades of grey. It can be incredibly cynical in it’s view of human nature, but just as often it’s great at displaying an abundance of kindness and forgiveness in regards to the actions the characters face on their long journey. All of it staying relatively composed and keeping it’s drama grounded enough to carry a realistic sense of weight behind everything(well aside from the anomaly that is Robo-Archer but the less said about that the better).

Everyone from the military men like Roy Mustang and Armstrong to the villains like Greed and Dante prove to be compelling and it’s easy to get swept up in each of their stories. However while there’s a lot of great characters and relationships explored, none are as powerful as the bond between Ed and Al. The connection between them is one of constant self-sacrifice and the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to save each other makes for a relationship than can be equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking as the struggles they endure in order to achieve that goal gradually becomes harsher. Edward’s cynical nature, and Al’s childlike optimism also help to further serve the great dynamic between them as both speak to how the show examines human nature as both points of view are given some level of validation and it makes the journey the two take all the more interesting as their outlooks are drastically changed. In the end, both are forced to realize that the world they live in is far more complicated than either was willing to give credit for, but while not everything equals out, there’s still some value to be had maintaining the belief that we can still get our share of value out of life, and it’s a message that speaks to the show as a whole.

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Of course while the human core of the show is what ultimately carries it, it’s drama is far from it’s only strength. The show also also encompasses a pretty strong fantasy setting, and though the route this version goes with it differs pretty significantly from the source material, it’s still pretty unique. Alchemy in this show is neat, and there’s a lot of careful detail put into it as the show uses it to encompass various ideas on religion and philosophy, all while using it to further strengthen the show’s human elements rather than deter from them, and it makes for lore that’s actually interesting rather than distracting. It’s also got more than it’s fair share of cool action and while it can’t really outdo the Brotherhood/manga material in that department, there’s still plenty enough to make it pretty solid on that front, and it’s the near perfect combination of all these elements that makes it such an incredible show.

It also certainly helps that the show is a great looking production. While it can’t quite compare to other high-profile Studio BONES productions, and especially Brotherhood, it’s still an incredibly polished looking series, and despite being an early digipaint series, the show still holds up well visually and the upscale for the Blu Rays is solid. It holds up just as well music-wise with Michiru Oshima’s soundtrack for the series delivering on a bevy of memorable tracks and most of the opening and ending themes chosen for the series are great too with songs like Kesenai Tsumi by Nana Kitade and Rewrite by Asian-Kung Fu Generation still sounding as fantastic as ever. 

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Can’t really talk about the show without also mentioning the dub too, as next to YuYu Hakusho it’s the one largely responsible for creating Funimation’s reputation as one of the best in the business. While I’ve rewatched certain portions of Brotherhood enough times to be used to the sound of that dub regarding the characters, this one still holds up extremely well and even the roles like Scott McNeal as Hohenheim and Dameon Clarke as Scar, whose Brotherhood replacements delivered on some pretty strong work, I found myself warming up to again very quickly and are still really great performances. Vic Mignonia’s Edward Elric still sounds as iconic as ever and Aaron Dismuke’s Alphonse still really manages to capture the essence of a little boy (and the fact that he was one at the time certainly helps) with the rest of the cast sounding nearly pitch-perfect all across the board aside from one or two minor characters. 

All in all, I can’t say I was too surprised at the fact that this version of Fullmetal Alchemist still held up for me, but I was taken aback at just how much it resonated with me. Everything from how the show handles it’s characters and themes, to it’s presentation are still remarkable and it’s the rare kind of package that delivers on a little bit of everything, with none of it being compromised. It’s easy to see why this show is still so highly regarded, and while it may get looked over by some fans in favor of it’s shiner and more manga friendly counterpart Brotherhood, it’s still more than worth taking a look at. Fullmetal Alchemist may not have given the same experience as the original story but in exchange we ended up with one of the strongest anime ever made, and for me that’s a more than equivalent.

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Overall: 10/10

Available for streaming on Funimation, Hulu and Netflix. Blu Rays available through Right Stuf and Amazon