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

Review: Transformers Prime- Another Transformation

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Synopsis: For countless millennia, a war has been waged among a race of robotic lifeforms and their separate factions, the Autobots and Decepticons. The battle between the two sides led to the destruction of their home world Cybertron, and leaving them scattered throughout the cosmos. Eventualy the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime and his team made their way to Earth, but so has the leader of the Deceptions, Megatron along with his own forces. Now together with three human allies, the Autobots continue their battle against the Decepticons on Earth, and seeking a way to eventually restore their lost homeworld

The Review

So I wouldn’t exactly count myself among the biggest fans of the Transformers franchise, but I’ve generally enjoyed the incarnations of it I’ve seen. Of course having seen some of the 80’s series, the Unicron anime trilogy, Transformers Animated and *sigh* the Bayformers movies there’s only so much of the same story you can really take without hoping they can put enough of a new spin on things to make it fresh. As such when this series first came out, I wasn’t too interested in checking this out despite the level of praise it was getting since I was kind of burned out on the franchise by that point. Though now it’s been a couple of years and I’ve managed to avoid enough new Transformers stuff to be able to give this one a fairer shake. So does it actually do enough to really stand out from the other various incarnations of the story? Well the answer is both yes and no.

As I assume anyone reading this is over the age of 8 and at least has a basic idea of how the Transformers franchise works, I’ll spare going over the direct narrative details and jump straight to discussing the version of the plot in question. The fact that the basic premise of the franchise is an ongoing war is something that it’s never gotten much millage out of outside of anything directly taking place on Cybertron but this series manages to work it quite well.  There’s a bigger emphasis on how much the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons has turned into a never-ending conflict and one that’s been costly for both sides as they spend just as much time fighting over resources (specifically their “lifeblood” Energon that allows them to function) as they do trying to wipe each other out.

What’s particularly of note though, is that compared to other versions, the Autobots here kind of feel like actual war veterans, having each suffered through some form of loss, and carrying some kind of baggage. Most notably with this show’s version of Arcee suffering through PTSD in regardless to losing people close to her, and it plays a pretty big role in regards to her character arc and how she treats others. It helps to create some interesting paralells between them and their human companions, Jack, Miko and Raph who all kind of help to build off their respective robot counterparts, Arcee, Bulkhead and Bumblebee as they work through each other’s flaws. It works it better in regards to Jack and Arcee than the others since they don’t develop quite as much but it’s one of the stronger uses of the dynamic I’ve seen from the franchise.

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Even the Deceptions here are a bit more complex than usual here. Megatron is still well…Megatron but this particularly incarnation feels a bit less generic evil overlord, and gets to be a lot more pragmatic. Starscream on the other hand, is a much less effective schemer than in previous versions but in exchange gets a whole character arc devoted to whether he should just accept his fate as Megatron’s lackey. As always there’s usually quite a bit of civil war going on within their ranks and it manages to keep things interesting as Megatron has to spend just as much time keeping his subordinates in check as he does worrying about the Autobots. Something of which he actually manages to become savvy to, the further the show goes along.

It’s also very notable that compared to the other versions, this one is perhaps the most effective at making the Cybertronians feel more like living creatures and less like well…robots in regards to vunerability. When they “bleed” Energon, it really looks like their actually bleeding and when some of the characters die, the show can get pretty brutal how violent said deaths are. In fact it’s probably one of the most effective uses of robot gore I’ve seen in animation since Samurai Jack, and in a lot of ways it’s even stronger in this show since it’s less a means to get around censorship and more of way to hammer in the severity of what’s happening.

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As such, the biggest flaw of this version ultimately comes down to that it’s still generally the same story. It manages to maintain a tight Gargoyles style sense of continuity in regards to the storyline and similar writing to match as it gets pretty deep into Transformers mythos as the show goes along, but the sense of scale never changes too much from beginning to end. It’s not too crippling but for a 65 episode show it can feel a bit draggy and all the more so when it’s still occasionally subject to the usual action show cliches in regards to silliness. Also while this version does do more to make Optimus Prime a bit more interesting than in other continuities, his standardized heroic traits still come off as kind of boring and his development is kind of lacking compared to the other Autobots. Thankfully though, the tighter narrative is ultimately what proves to be it’s saving grace as even the slowest episodes usually end up tying into the larger story at play and it does manage to have a complete ending with a movie epilogue to wrap things up (well aside from the weirdly ambiguous fate of one of the villains but it’s not a major hangup) which is something I can certainly appreciate give how much actual endings are a rarity when it comes to action shows from the west.

Presentation

The show is animated by Japanese 3DCG veteran studio Polygon Pictures who’s best known for stuff like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Tron: Uprising and if you want to get into anime examples, Knights of Sidonia. 3DCG still isn’t something people have a lot of tolerance for, but at this point Polygon’s more or less figured out how to best work the craft and it shows. Some of the fight scenes can look absolutely stunning and the show can make good use of cinematography from time to time to really capture the feel of some of the more horrific scenes in the series. The limited scale of the series’s narrative also puts a limit on how diverse some of the backgrounds can be but as the show explores more of Cybertron and Earth, the visuals manage to take a bit of a step up. As far as the character designs go though, the human characters look pretty basic for 3DCG standards, but the Transformer designs on the other hand are a bit more varied than they’ve been in some of the other incarnations and look appropriately cool. The CG’s not the greatest thing, but it never puts too much of a strain on the show’s capabilities and when it gets to go all out, it can lead to some nice results.

Final Thoughts

So how much would I recommend Prime as a whole? Well if you’re as burned out on the franchise as I used to be then I imagine this series probably won’t do too much to change your mind since it’s differences generally don’t lie in the basic story. But if you’re interested in checking out a somewhat darker and grounded spin on said story, then this one may be right up your alley. It’s not the biggest transformation the franchise has ever pulled, but it’s one that helped to remind me part of what drew people to it in the first place.

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Overall: 7.9/10

Available for streaming on Netflix

Review: The Tatami Galaxy- 4.5 Squares of Life

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Synopsis: A young college student is trying to get a fresh start and live out a so called “rose colored school-life” by having the best college experience possible. However his attempts to build a solid social life are constantly thwarted and he’s found that he’s wasted the last two years of his life on nonsense and wishes he could do it all over again. His wish is somehow granted and he’s given the opportunity to restart his college life over and over again in attempt to finally get it right, but will he ever actually succeed?

The Review

So this show has something of a rather infamous reputation at this point. Mainly in that I’ve seen nothing but almost unanimous praise about it, and yet the streaming numbers for it were apparently so ridiculous poor that it’s never seen the light of day for a physical release here in the U.S. and Funimation themselves have outright said not to hold your breath on that one. As a result, I’ve mostly attempted to steer clear of the show since I didn’t want to experience the agony of pining over something I can’t have and having now sat through the whole thing I can confirm that instinct was pretty much on the money. Though I ultimately don’t have too much regret over the decision as the show proved to be worth it.

Right off the bat it’s not particularly hard to see why this show would be a turn off to most audiences. The first episode doesn’t really do a good job of explaining what the heck it’s actually about, the main character talks so fast it’s hard to keep up with the subtitles, and the artstyle of the show certainly isn’t what most anime fans are used to seeing to say the least. However there’s a method to the show’s madness that doesn’t quite become clear until the second episode, and if you can make it through the first episode’s barriers unscathed, there’s a pretty immediate payoff.

The basic story of the show centers around an unnamed protagonist who just wants to live out a happy “rose colored” college experience and build a successful social life. That doesn’t quite end up going as planned and he ends up spending the next two years getting wrapped up in what he feels is a disaster, wishing he could do it over. Somehow he’s granted that wish and so forms the various episodes and situations the show has to offer. The different timelines the protagonist finds himself in are all loosely connected, but a couple of things generally remain constant: he always finds himself becoming friends with a guy named Ozu who he feels constantly drags him through the muck, thus ruining his life, and he’s always acquainted with a freshman named Akashi who’s clearly interested in him, but he never has the courage to ask out.

Each of the show’s scenarios get crazier and more fun with each passing episode, and with each one a cast of recurring characters slowly begins to form ,with all of them having some sort of bizarre influence in the protagonist’s life. In all of these stories, the protagonist seems eternally doomed to fail, but while he believes that circumstances out of his control (mostly Ozu’s very existence) are to blame for his constant failures, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that the biggest obstacle to the protagonist finding happiness is the protagonist himself. While in pursuit of his dream life, he always fails to take advantage of what he has right now, and always finds an excuse to back out of taking an actual step forward. Even in the one scenario where he actually does (sort of) gain power and influence, he’s still left unsatisfied in the end because he’s lost out on what really matters.

It all comes to a head during a conversation with one of the other characters who tells him quite frankly that the so called “rose colored” college life he dreams of obtaining simply does not exist. The best thing he can do for himself is to just accept his life as it is, and take advantage of what he has right now. Even Ozu, who the protagonist thought was as much of a loser as he was, was actually out living it up pretty well, and it drives home just how much the protagonist has wasted his life seeking something he can’t have.

As someone who similarly wasted a good percentage of early part of their college life in the same pointless pursuit, this hit pretty close to home for me, and it’s a message that captures that particular stage in life well, as it’s definitely something we tend to go through at some point whether it be in college specifically or somewhere around that age.  Of course it takes a couple of episodes of the protagonist choosing to isolate himself if he can’t have what he wants (along with simultaneously explaining the Groundhog Day plot the audience has already mostly figured out by this point) to finally realize this, but it eventually gets through to him and it makes for a satisfying conclusion.

The show was hemmed by Maasaki Yusa, who has since gone on to be known for last year’s Ping-Pong: The Animation as well as the Food Chain episode of Adventure Time, and it shows. All of his works carry a very unique art style, that looks almost cartoon scribble levels of crude, while allowing for a solid amount of fluidity in regards to animation and taking advantage of the art through the weirdest ways imaginable. That holds pretty true here and it really helps to make a lot of the show’s comedic moments work a lot better, while also making for a really neat contrast with some of the show’s real world backgrounds to give it a really interesting sense of flavor, though it can certainly be a turn off for the uninitiated. Michiru Oshima’s soundtrack for the show however isn’t nearly as distinct though the opening  “Koinu to Ame no Bīto” by the now legendary J-Rock band, Kung Fu Generation is pretty catchy.

It’s not hard to see why The Tatami Galaxy got the amount of praise it did when it aired. The show takes advantage of it’s weird premise to make for some pretty entertaining material, and the overall theme of the show is one that speaks well to both younger and older audiences in regards to living life to the fullest with what you have. It’s also perfectly capped off at a relatively short 11 episode count which is just the right amount of time it takes for this kind of show to work before the repetition of it really starts to set in. If you can get past the somewhat incomprehensible on it’s own first episode, and the weird art style, this show’s a really winner and one that definitely deserves a lot more appreciation than what it’s gotten thus far. So I guess you can now count me among those who’ll wait until the end of time for this show to ever get released here, and will complain ever day it isn’t. You win this round Tatami Galaxy. You win.

Overall: 9/10

 

Review: Inside Out- That’s Life

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Synopsis: 11 year old Riley is a girl with a peaceful little life, and she’s defined by her core emotions of Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear, though mostly Joy. However when she has to move to a new city, her life starts to hit some roadblocks and her emotions of Joy and Sadness end up getting separated from the center of her brain alongside the core memories that make up Riley’s personality. Now Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the center of Riley’s life and restore her personality before her life completely falls apart.

The Review

So it’s no secret that Pixar’s gone through something of a rough patch for the last few years. A lot of their recent films have lost the magic that made the studio so legendary with Brave being fairly generic, Monster’s University mostly passable (though I do have something of a fondness for it) and of course Cars sequels/spinoffs up the wazoo. Needless to say the expectations surrounding this film were fairly low, but not only has it beaten them to prove itself as the best thing they’ve done in years, it’s also one of their greatest works yet.

The film both figuratively and literally takes us inside the mind of an 11-year old girl named Riley. Her life has been a fairly happy one, and one mostly defined by the emotion of Joy, who serves as the movie’s protagonist. Alongside the other core emotions of Anger, Disgust, Fear and of course Sadness, she helps in keeping Riley’s personality on track, literally going out of her way to keep sadness to a minimum by trying to keep said emotion out of her life as much as possible. After all, no one wants to be sad right?

However things in Riley’s life take an unexpected turn when she moves from her home in Minnesota to San Francisco and has to try and adjust. While the other emotions all appropriately have a negative reaction to the situation, Joy still believes she can put a brighter spin on things and tries to keep a positive outlook. It doesn’t take long for things to get worse and Joy and Sadness end up getting accidentally launched out of the core of Riley’s mind alongside the core memories that make up who she is.

As the two attempt to make the journey back alongside Riley’s old imaginary friend, in order to restore those key memories, things in Riley’s life gradually begin to fall apart piece by piece as the key parts of her life up till now become unsustainable. To make matters worse in the absence of Joy who’s been the defining emotion of Riley’s life up until now, the others keep making worse and worse decisions for her until they eventually decide that she should run away from home since that’s where all her happy memories lied and should be the best way to restore them. During their journey, Joy and Sadness begin to slowly bond with each other, and Joy starts to think that maybe sadness isn’t such a bad emotion after all, but as the situation worsens she abandons her since she still feels joy is all Riley really needs in her life.

When things get to their lowest point though, it’s at that moment she takes the time to realize that Sadness is indeed a necessary emotion and that it has it’s importance in Riley’s life too. Joy goes back to reunite with her and it all leads into the moment that defines the film’s core message. To resolve the whole situation, rather than Joy being what convinces Riley not to go through with running away it ends up Sadness because it’s something she’ll ultimately come to regret. This leads to Riley reconciling with her parents in an emotional breakdown, and a moment that’s defined as equally sad and happy in Riley’s memories becoming a new core memory that helps to define who she is.

At it’s core, the film understands that we aren’t just defined by our happy experiences in life. We experience sadness, frustration, disgust and various other emotions as we encounter situations throughout life. However all of these emotions define who we are and it’s important to recognize the sad times in life just as often as the happy ones because they’re what ultimately make us stronger. The ending is equally strong in that respect as while it ends on a somewhat upbeat note, it also suggests Riley will have another experience just like that one before too long because well…that’s life and you never really stop encountering those kinds of problems. It’s what you take away from the experiences that really matter.

The film’s thematic merits are strong but it also works really well as a solid piece of entertainment. The world of Riley’s mind is fun and imaginative, making it pretty neat to explore as Joy and Sadness traverse it’s various parts. In addition the movie’s humor hits just the right cord of silly enough to make kids laugh, while not overtly dumb enough to turn off adults, and a lot of the jokes are really clever and witty. Also have to give a small thumbs up for the film NOT featuring an antagonist, in an extremely rare feat for a kids’ movie. It briefly tempts it as the imaginary friend initially seems like he could be one, but the movie decides to trust that Riley’s situation is conflict enough on it’s own, and it makes the film much more close to home and personal. This movie has all the makings of a modern classic and is definitely a strong contender for one of the best, if not the best film(s) of the year. Welcome back Pixar, now please don’t go away again.

Overall: 10/10

Review: Ouran High School Host Club- Reverse Harem Charms

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Synopsis: Haruhi Fujioka is a honors student recently transferred to Ouran Academy, a school for the rich and fabulous. One day she accidentally wanders into the school’s host club, which is a group of pretty boys who spend their time serving ladies, and ends up getting indebted to them. She’s forced to join the club and also serves as a host for the girls, while the rest of the club tries to conceal her actual gender.

Review

Ouran is considered one of the classics of the mid 2000’s and the most notable pioneer in the reverse harem genre. It’s a show I’d never quite gotten around to as it’s only in recent years that I’ve taken more of an interest in shojo series, and though I tried it a couple of times in the past that barrier took a while to get past, preventing me from getting that interested in it. Though having now seen a fair share of solid shojo series and a couple of other reverse harem shows, I figured that it was about time to revisit this and give it another go.

Right off the bat, the show gives off a sense of charm that’s hard to ignore with it’s characters. Each of the guys more or less fills a certain archetype (which the show is self aware enough to frequently point out) such as main guy Tamaki being attempting to come off as a “prince”, though really being more of a goofball than anything else, while the twins Hikaru and Kaoru are whimsical trolls. Haruhi herself on the other hand comes across as a pretty down to earth heroine, though she doesn’t always play straight-man to the hi-jinks of the other characters as her general lack of concern over half the things that happen is played for laughs just as much.

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Aww, look at him! He’s so adorable…and deadly. Very deadly

Most of the episodes revolve around the club members helping out their guests with their personal problems or delving into the backstories of the club members. Some of the stories involving the guests are hilarious, others fairly touching and most being a mix between the two. Much of it is pretty standard fare for a harem series, but the show really plays up the reverse aspect of it quite a bit and plays it to the fullest. It doesn’t always knock things out of the park in terms of humor but it’s charming enough to stay fun even when it’s not at its funniest.

However the show is also pretty  good with how it handles some of its drama. Specifically, the club member backstories as each of them has their own hurdles to deal with and being in the club has helped them to broaden their horizons and open up more thanks to Tamaki’s influence. Not all of them are handled that seriously, but a couple of them such as the story behind the twins can be genuinely heartwarming . Despite being the main character, Haruhi’s background isn’t focused on quite as much as the others, but even she is slowly shown to progress from being incredibly straight-laced to learning how to get more enjoyment out of life, which is a theme the show puts a lot of emphasis on.

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Someone just give these two a hug

Interestingly though, what doesn’t get quite as much emphasis on the other hand is the actual romance aspect of the series. Or at the very least not in the way that would usually be expected. A couple of the club members such as Tamaki and Hikaru are shown to be interested in Haruhi over the course of the series (especially Tamaki, who’s fawning over her is constantly used as a joke), but the attraction is generally looked at from their perspective rather than Haruhi’s which is a bit odd for a shojo series. In fact, Haruhi more or less never shows any serious romantic interest in any of the guys (except Tamaki…maybe) and generally doesn’t like to put much emphasis on her gender which is kind of refreshing.

Haruhi herself is actually one of the strongest aspects of the show in that respect, although it does make a couple of missteps to undermine her somewhat. The beach episode where she’s berated by the other club members for stepping in to save a couple of girls from some thugs since she’s a girl as well, comes across as a bit sexist. While it’s obviously meant to demonstrate that she’s not invincible, and her fear of thunderstorms which is introduced in the same episode reinforces that fact, it puts an unnecessary emphasis on her gender that otherwise didn’t really need to be there, and it felt as though the show could have found another way to emphasize that point without taking away that’s generally an incredibly strong example of a heroine. Thankfully it’s the one and only time the show ever brings it up but it’s something that feels unusually problematic for what the show otherwise does with her.

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And just where were YOU when she needed help? Huh, Tamaki?

However, more so than romance related to her, the relationship the show instead decides to focus on the most is the group as a whole. All of the group members have their own problems and the glue that holds them together as people are the other club members, specifically Tamaki. They give off the illusion of a hilarious, but also somewhat broken, dysfunctional family more than anything else although, as the show goes on and how they view each other changes, some of the characters do notice that the illusion’s in danger of being shattered. Unfortunately things wrap up before it can show the end results of that aspect, but it does end on a high note as it highlights the importance of that bond, and how much personal freedom they’ve gained because of it.

BONES, who’s been well known for gorgeous looking shows such as Fullmetal Alchemist and Soul Eater, handled the animation for this series, and it mostly shows as it’s a consistent looking production, although far from their greatest. The character designs are pretty typical for shojo and look a bit dated as a result but the show is generally nice to look it. However the music for the series is mostly forgettable and is hindered by Funimation’s decision to do english covers for the opening theme “Sakura Kiss” and the ending theme “Shissou” as both are pretty badly performed and to the point of being downright skippable.

Funimation’s dub for the series on the other hand is a solid effort, as normally expected of their work in those days. Catlin Glass does a great job of making Haruhi sound androgynous and Vic Mignogna delivers on a spectacularly hammy performance as Tamaki, which has gone on to be one of his most iconic anime roles next to Edward Eric in Fullmetal Alchemist. None of the performances are particularly stand out but all of them are well handled and a lot of fun to watch. Interestingly this show is one of the few instances of a Funimation dub using japanese honorifics and they blend in well for the most part, though the script being so literal occasionally leads to a few jokes being lost in translation though not enough to take away from the dub entirely.

Ouran is one of the most iconic shojo series out there and the most heavily referenced when it comes to any mention of reverse harem stuff. It’s easy to see why the show is so beloved as the characters are pretty fun, and the show itself is a pretty solid comedy. It hasn’t aged perfectly as the designs are a bit dated as well as a couple of view points, but where the show excels it excels well as it’s an entertaining ride, and has the right amount of depth to it to keep it from being forgettable. It’s not a flawless show by any means, but it’s stood the test of time as a classic for good reason, and it’s definitely something worth looking back on.

ouran

Overall: 8.3/10

Available on Hulu, Netflix & Funimation.com