Review: The Legend of Korra Book 4: Balance- Balancing Games

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Synopsis: Broken both physically and psychologically after her battle with Zaheer, Korra returns home to the Southern Water Tribe and spends the next three years recovering. In the meantime a woman named Kuvira has taken charge of the Earth Kingdom, and become a dictator bent on forcing the entire nation to her will. As Korra sets out to stop her she must rise not only to face this challenge, but herself as well

Review

The Legend of Korra has gone through a lot over the course of it’s run and its been a journey of ups and downs. Book 1 was relatively satisfying in making the show seem like a solid successor to the first series while Book 2 brought the franchise  as a whole to some of its lowest points (and lowest ratings which started a whole other slew of problems for it). Book 3 on the other hand was a full return to grace and it seemed like for the first time the series actually had the potential to outdo it’s predecessor. Unfortunately the final book doesn’t quite meet those expectations for a multitude of reasons but still manages to bring a proper end to Korra’s character arc and a relatively satisfying ending for the series a whole.

The name for this book is rather appropriate, not only because of the theme but largely because the season feels as though it’s trying to balance several things at once. On the one hand it’s got Korra’s character arc, on the other it has Kuvira’s threat and then on top of that it’s trying to give development to a slew of other characters while trying to make it all tie together. Needless to say it doesn’t handle that juggling act quite well as it gets certain aspects of it better than others and has more good ideas than knows how to execute th

Starting with the more mishandled parts of the season, is Bolin part in the season. His arc in joining and defecting from Kuvira’s army after seeing she brings more harm than good is an interesting one on paper, but for the most part it doesn’t do much to change him as a character, and if anything kind of makes him look dumb for not realizing sooner that Kuvira was a threat. Varrick getting thrown into the mix and defecting with him does make it a bit more interesting though Varrick’s reason for switching sides feels out of character for him since he’s generally been lovably amoral for the most part, and having him betray her just because she tried to kill him would have worked just as well.

Kuvira herself is also a pretty large misstep for the season as compared to previous villains she doesn’t have a lot going for her. Her motivations are largely unexplained (until the ending) making her come across as a bit one dimensional and bland. She also doesn’t represent enough of a personal threat to Korra as a character as many of her greatest feats of villainy feel to indirect to Korra’s character arc and while there are clearly supposed to be parallels between her and where Korra’s character was for most of the series, the parallels don’t intersect as much as they need to make things work.

Of course with all the bad there’s also good, and for some of the things the season can’t quite juggle there are things it does well. Bringing back Asami’s father and having the two restore their broken relationship was a nice touch and made his sacrifice at the end a touching one, even if he wasn’t in the spotlight enough for there to be much impact. Similarly, Toph’s role in the season is much appreciated as she helps Korra along her road to recovery and also mends her own broken relationships with her daughters which is a nice follow through on that arc from the previous season. Prince Wu’s character development over the season from a self absorbed jerk to a decent politician is also an interesting one though it’s a bit bumpier than some of the stronger character arcs in the season as he’s a bit overly used for humor.

The strongest part of the season is by and large the ending to Korra’s journey as a character. Her road to recovery is a tough one as she’s forced to confront her biggest fear: being powerless. Compared to Aang’s rejection of his destiny as the Avatar in the original series, Korra can only define herself as such and having that sense of power taken away from her physically does a number on her as she desperately tries to find a way to fix her health. However it’s in this powerlessness that for the first time she learns to empathize  with the perspectives of others, including some of her former enemies (which doesn’t work quite as well as the show thinks it does since Zaheer was the only villain the series who actually believed in what he was doing) and eventually confronts her fears by facing the one who took away her sense of power in the first place.

Her strengthened sense of empathy plays a large part in the final battle as rather than a large blown out duel like with Aang and Ozai, it’s by trying to understand Kuvira that she triumphs in the end as the two find their similarities and make peace. Unfortunately this confrontation occurs largely after the bulk of Korra’s character arc is already completed, and Kuvira’s characterization was too limited for most of the season as she mainly just comes across as a generically dictator(though not quite to Ozai’s Darth Siddus levels in the original)so the scene doesn’t work as well as it should thematically. It puts a nice bow on Korra’s journey as a person but most of the conflict throughout the season doesn’t quite carry the sense of scale that a series finale should and especially not compared to the grand finale for the original series.

That said the show does have a pretty notable ending, as it delivers on a sensible but pretty unexpected to actually happen pairing. Korra and Asami’s bond has been subtly built up over Books 3 & 4 and the two had some decent chemistry together compared to most of the couples the show had to offer (well with the exception of Varrick and Ju-Li but then they wrapped things up with that one) though the show actually following through on that seemed like a long shot. However the final scene between Korra and Asami more or less unambigously (there will be those who argue otherwise but the parallels between the scene and the scene confirming Aang and Katara’s romance at the end of the original are pretty much impossible to deny) pairs the two together. Whether it’s the possible start of a relationship or the cementing of one is nicely left up to interpretation but it’s definitely one of the boldest things Nick has ever done.

The Legend of Korra has had some big shoes to fill as it’s predecessor stands as one of the greatest animated shows ever made, and it’s been a hard fit as the show has struggled a lot more in terms of tone and characters due to the bulk of the series being an initially unplanned continuation(and it really showed in Book 2). For all those bumps though it’s had it’s highs as well, and has done a solid job in expanding the world of the franchise as a whole. While the show may end up being remembered more for the last three minutes of the finale than anything else, it’s earned it’s place as one of the most memorable pieces of action animation produced in the west. It’s not nearly as good as the original series as a whole, but its a solid journey and a mostly worthwhile successor.

Overall: 7.6/10

Available on Nick.com

Review: Over The Garden Wall- The Olden Days

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Synopsis:  Two brothers named Wirt and Greg end up getting lost in some mysterious woods called “The Unknown. Together with a talking bluebird named Beatrice, they search for a woman called Adele who can show them the way home while avoiding an evil entity known as “The Beast”

Review

Over the Garden Wall is the first miniseries that Cartoon Network has ever done (well depending on how you count the IGPX shorts) and it’s a pretty interesting undertaking for them. They’ve been pretty risk averse the last few years so it was questionable how they’d handle such a thing and if it would go for something ambitious or merely serviceable. Thankfully the show has gone for the latter and in the process has turned into not only the first real miniseries they’ve ever done but also one of the best things they’ve ever done.

What stands out right away about the series is its massive homage to some of the classic cartoons of yesteryear. The artstyle feeds that aesthetic really well and it’s pretty breathtaking to behold as it gives everything a rustic old country feel that can be both beautiful and horrifying whenever the mood requires it. Everything from the creatures, to the music, and even to how the characters talk, gives off the vibe of a classic Disney film and it’s hard not to feel nostalgic when watching it.

Even a lot of the narrative style gives off this vibe, and it’s very reminiscent of old fairy tales. The story starts off in media res wth the brothers already lost with no idea how to get back home. This leads them to an encounter with a mysterious woodsman who offers to help them out while warning them of an evil beast that lurks the woods. After a slight falling out with him though, they instead end up in the care of a talking bluebird named Beatrice who offers to take them to see Adele, the Good Woman of the Woods who can show them the way home. Their journey through the Unknown brings them on several different adventures, some being creepy and some being charming with each feeding into the show’s colonial aesthetic.

Along the way Beatrice gets a bit closer to the two and reveals the  exact reason why she’s a talking bluebird. It comes at a price though since she’s had her own agenda for most of the time, which leads to a pretty shocking betrayal when it appears she’s been playing them the whole time and the good woman of the woods turns out to be not so good after all. In the meantime the show also delves a bit into what’s going on in the background between the woodsman and the beast as well as why the two are connected.

This all plays into the show’s final act where it starts laying all it’s cards on the table. While the countryside aesthetic holds a lot for the series, at it’s core it’s really about the relationship between the two brothers, and it ties into things in a big way as things take a slight step back to look at how the brothers got there in the first place. While Wirt is never a downright jerk to his younger brother Greg, he does dismiss his optimism a lot and is quick to blame him when things go south. This combined with Wirt’s own lack of confidence, leads to him taking his brother for granted, and also helped to land them in the accident that got them there. However it’s only when Wirt decides to confront the beast in order to protect his brother that everything comes to light and everyone is able to get a happy ending with the show (thankfully) being ambiguous to whether or not the whole affair was dream and/or purgatory.

Cartoon Network’s first mini series has made for a pretty interesting tale, and a pretty ambitious project on their part. The show’s classic cartoon homage makes for some fun stuff, and it also manages to tell a fairly touching story as well. While the narrative isn’t completely flawless the overall aesthetic easily up for it and the ending is pretty sweet. This may be the first true mini series the network has done but it most certainly shouldn’t be the last.

Overall: 9.3/10

Available On Demand or at CartoonNetwork.com

Review- NANA: Life, Love & Music

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Synopsis: Nana Komatsu is a young 20 year old girl , who decides to move to Tokyo to live with her boyfriend Shoji. On the train ride there, she meets Nana Ozaki, a punk rock singer who also happens to be moving to Tokyo.  Upon arrival, they both end up trying to rent out the same apartment and decide to compromise by becoming roommates. The two become close friends as they deal with the men in their lives and the inner pain they both have to overcome.

Review

The shojo genre is  one that is generally filled with ideals as romance stories are its most primary staple.  Though many shows in the genre do tackle genuine drama and struggle, most of them never stray too far from the ideal of pure and innocent relationships, not always giving into total fantasy, but rarely much further. However Nana is a show that understands that ideals and reality are two different things and breaks the mold in a sometimes painful but ultimately compelling display of this truth.

Before the show even begins to build the two girls relationship together, it first dives into each of their pasts and examines them fully. Nana Komatsu, later nicknamed Hachi, to make it easier to differentiate the two, is boy crazy, dreams of being a bride someday and tends to fall in love at first sight, which has lead her into a series of failed romances, including an affair that leaves her somewhat scarred before finally finding a real relationship in Shoji. The other Nana was abandoned as a child, and lived a life of social isolation before joining a band called Blast, and falling in love with the band’s leader, Ren before he ends up moving to Tokyo to join other band. She vows to surpass him and become a great musician in her own right, which leads her to Tokyo and ultimately becoming roommates with Hachi.

One thing that eventually becomes apparent about the show is that it revels in a lack of escapism, as compared to most other shojo series. The beginning of the story follows Hachi’s perspective on life, and initially things go pretty well for her in her attempts to be independent and become a proper adult. It doesn’t take long though, for her idealism to clash with reality and it sends her on a downward spiral as life’s situations prove much tougher than she expected as she deals with financial struggles and a tough breakup. Through it all, the one thing that remains a constant positive in her life is her relationship with Nana, and the other members of Blast as they make their march towards stardom. However as things push ahead, the more the band’s situation improves, the further isolated and empty Nana feels as she struggles to find a purpose for her life. Her pain eventually leads her into relationship that serves as her biggest wake up call, and forces her to confront both painful new reality and a relationship far below her ideals.

While Hachi attempts to come to terms her new situation, the show moves over to the perspective of the other Nana as she tries to cope with Hachi’s problems in her own way but ends up feeling betrayed as the two part ways.  As Hachi’s struggles force Nana to come to terms with some of her own, the other band members go through their own various love affairs and strained relationships with things becoming painful for everyone involved. However while the show understands that ideals and reality don’t truly mix, it also knows that the two can sometimes mingle in unexpected ways. and this fact becomes more apparent as it goes on.

Hachi’s does eventually become the bride she’s wanted to be but the journey there is harsh, and she ends up losing her ideal men to get there. Similarly, Nana and Blast’s path towards fame is also one that gets fuffiled and allows her to finally obtain a family of her own,  but it also turns out to be a path riddled with compromises in both business and in love. When everything is said and done, the two girls do eventually reconcile and find peace with themselves as life goes on for everyone, and while the ending is a bit more ambiguous about Nana’s future than it needs to be, the show manages to wrap things up satisfactorily for the most part and while no one really manages to find unabashed happiness or love, they come to understand that’s life and it must go on.

The english dub for the series, done by Ocean Group is very solid and provides a good mix of strong performances. Kelly Sheridan delivers a good performance Hachi, making the character sound sugary sweet while also managing to give some heartwrenching delivery during some of her weaker moments. Rebecca Shoichet’s Nana sounds intitially strained during some of her comedic moments but ultimately captures the character well. The rest of the cast provides very down to earth performances that fit the nature of the well show, with some stand out roles such as Brian Drummond’s Yasu which really captures the big brother nature of the character well. The insert songs for the show aren’t dubbed which makes for some occasional dissonance, but it doesn’t effect the dub enough to seriously take away from it.

Madhouse’s production on the show is solid as their usual works, and the animation budget is consistent. The character designs are somewhat standard in terms of shojo but have a pretty good look regardless and they manage to avoid making all of the characters look too pretty. Tomoki Hasegawa’s musical score for the series provides a pretty distinct mix  of orchestral and rock tracks and the all of the opening and ending songs for the series stand out pretty well though the biggest highlight of them is the first opening “Roses” done by ANNA.

Nana is a coming of age tale for young adults and is filled with all of the heartaches and harsh realities that come with it. More than that though, it’s a story of varying degrees of love be they relationships with family, friends or lovers and how they can effect each of us. In a genre of idealized versions of love, Nana stands triumphant as a much more honest portrayal of those ideals and that’s not such a bad thing as it allows for a story that is more than capable of standing the test of time in it’s genre.

Overall: 9.8/10

Available on Hulu

Review- The Legend of Korra Book 3: Change Is Good

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Synopsis: After the battle with Unalaq and the decision to bridge together the human and spirit worlds, Spirits are causing problems in Republic City and Korra is left to take the blame. However the shift has also brought about a chance for the resurgence of the Air Nation as new airbenders have begun to pop up, and Korra decides to leave the city to search for them. Meanwhile a dangerous group of benders have escaped their imprisonment, and have their own plans for the Avatar…

Review

Though Book 1 of The Legend of Korra had initially allowed for the series to be deemed a worthy successor to the original Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 2 soured its reputation significantly. That combined with the massive ratings drop that season saw, made the future of the franchise look grim. Though while the fate of the franchise itself is in a worse state in terms  of visibility, in terms of quality, Book 3 has managed to turn things around and bring the series back to not only being a worthy successor to the first one, but also giving it the chance to potentially surpass it.

The storyline in particular, works a lot better here than in the first two books. Returning the airbenders to the world, initially feels a bit overly convenient it allows for the characters to go on a globetrotting journey, something that gave the original series it’s sense of flexibility and lets us see more of the newer Avatar World. Of course while the gang is excited at the prospect of restoring the Air Nation (Tenzin in particular), it doesn’t go over smoothly at first as many of them are unwilling to give up their current lives to embrace the philosophies of the Air Nomads which provides some interesting conflict in the earlier episodes. Though as the journey continues they do find airbenders who are willing to take up the cause (and we even get a solid side episode devoted to their training), but the real highlight of the story goes to the antagonists.

Avatar as a whole has generally been uneven in terms of compelling villains as most of them were a bit too one-dimensional.  Book 1 of Korra attempted to somewhat rectify this with Amon and the Equalists but ended up backtracking considerably with Unalaq. Book 3 on the other hand, brings us the most interesting antagonists out of the whole bunch(the Earth Queen non-withstanding) as the Red Lotus not only feel significantly more threatening, but have  relatively understandable motives. Anarchy isn’t a particularly new villain agenda in fiction but what makes it work here is that the Red Lotus genuinely believe what they’re doing is right and though the group is willing to go to extremes to achieve that agenda, the characters themselves come across as pretty human and enjoyable to watch whenever they’re on screen.

The villains aren’t the only interesting characters though, as our group of heroes get some nice development as well. Korra has been difficult to pin down as a character as her brashness is her most defintive trait and  was part of what made her almost insufferable in the first half of Book 2, but here the writers have found a much better balance, keeping some of her agressive traits while also making her  a lot more compassionate and willing to learn.  She also gets a pretty good dynamic going with Asami as the two  feel much more like actually friends (and some light subtext suggesting more than that) than in previous seasons. Bolin also gets a bit of development in terms of improving his bending skills, but the real highlight goes to Lin, whose past we get to see a lot more of, and has a lot of serious difficulty overcoming, though the payoff is heartwarming when she does. Mako on the other hand still remains largely uninteresting on his own, but he’s tolerable enough here as opposed to the previous seasons that it’s not to much of a detriment.

On top of everything else though, the season also delivers on one of, if not possibly the best season finale of the entire franchise. Though the stakes aren’t quite as high as Book 2’s the threat is still pretty large, and the final battle is a nice spectacle to behold (and for once avoided any noticeable Deus ex Machinas). The aftermath is what really drives things home though, as unlike in the previous seasons, the gang’s victory comes with repercussions including a particularly large one for Korra that will be really interesting to see unfold more later on. Things don’t end on a completely downer note though as the finale also delivers on bringing about an interesting shift for the Air Nation and the world as a whole, while also using it to help to wrap up Jinorra’s character arc from the last season in a pretty big way.

Book 3 has brought about a lot of changes for The Legend of Korra, and many in ways that were pretty unexpected. Though the fate of the franchise itself doesn’t look particularly up given Nick’s current treatment of it. there’s still a lot of potential to be had going forward depending on where exactly everything goes from here. Through it all, Book 3 has shown us one important thing for the story: Change is good.

Overall 9/10

Review- Toradora: What You Want

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Synopsis: Ryuji Takasu is a misunderstood high school student with the face of a thug, but the hobbies of a housewife. One day after school he encounters Taiga Aisaka, a girl known throughout the school for her violent temper and personality. After accidently recieving a love letter from her intended for his best friend Yuusaku Kitamura, she breaks into his apartment to get it back and ends up finding out his crush on her best friend Minori Kushieda. The two then decide to help each other out with their respective crushes and play matchmaker.

Review

High school romance stories and slice of life shows are a big staple of anime these days.  The formula is often while entertaining generally predictable and while the material can sometimes be interesting its rarely memorable. However amongst a sea of similar shows with similar goals, Toradora manages to stand out above the rest not by being  noticeably different, but by refining and polishing the many well-worn tropes of the genre.

Ryuji and Taiga start out seemingly very archetypal characters and ones that are very familiar to regular viewers of the genre. Ryuji is the responsible and sarcastic nice guy while Taiga is violent and impulsive, and the two quickly form a dynamic around that with Ryuji eventually declaring that they’re the only ones who can really handle each other. As early as episode 2 though, it becomes apparent that there’s more beneath the surface for both and after a scene where they both vent out their frustrations over their bad social status, begin to make their first steps towards changing themselves.

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 Nothing like kicking a pole to shake off some of the ol’ angst

Much of the show’s first half is spent in lighthearted comedy and character introductions as Ryuji and Taiga try to push each other towards their respective love interests. Kitamura and Minori both come into their own a bit as characters during this time though Minori more so as her see initially seems to be an extreme ditz but soon shows herself to be more down to earth than expected when it comes to the things she cares about. We also get introduced to Ami Kawashima, a girl who pretends to be an airhead but in reality is snobby and self-centered, and she gains a slight attraction to Ryuji when he sees through her facade and forces her to confront herself. They all quickly form into a  group of sorts and one that helps Ryuji and Taiga to grow closer together.

The first real challenge towards their relationship though, occurs towards the end of the first half of the series when Ryuji attempts to help Taiga restore her relationship with her father. He believes his intentions are good and that it’s all in her best interest, but as he realizes how little Taiga’s father actually cares, he soon realizes he’s been pushing his own issues with his father onto her and how much she’s actually suffering. In the aftermath of the events, Ryuji and Taiga are somewhat able to bring their relationship back to normal, but he now knows just how fragile Taiga’s heart actually is and how much she attempts to cover it up.

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 If my dad ditched me like that I’d be pretty angry too

This all largely plays into the second half of the show, which begins pushing the relationships between the characters as far as it can take them. It kicks off with a bit of development for Kitamura and his implied relationship with the school’s student council president, but much of the focus is on the two leads. In the beginning of the second half, Ami whose romantic interest in Ryuji has diminished somewhat, warns him that the almost father-daughter like relationship between himself and Taiga is unhealthy and will undoubtedly end in someone being hurt. At the time he doesn’t really understand what she means by that but as he gets closer and closer towards Minori, the truth makes itself clear.

When Taiga helps Ryuji make the final step towards confessing his feelings for Minori, she soon realizes that she’s fallen in love with Ryuji herself. Though Minori has feelings for him as well she decides to turn him down after seeing Taiga break down from her realization. and leaves Ryuji heartbroken. However Taiga isn’t quite done playing matchmaker for the two, deciding to bottle up her own feelings them, and things soon spiral out of control as everyone attempts to put aside their feelings for what they think will make the other the happiest.

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 Who’ll win? My money’s on the redhead

However in the end as the characters all soon realize, only you can truly decide what makes you happy, not others and worrying over that shouldn’t stop you from going after the things that you want. Eventually Taiga does seize hold of her love for Ryuji, which he returns after his own realization, and though the two try to escape from all the problems in their lives together, they know it’s not worth the expense of losing it. Reality soon sets in for them and though the consequences are severe their love perseveres and brings everything to a satisfying conclusion. 

J.C. Staff brings a solid looking production for the series.  The animation is rarely stand out but it shines in a few instances. It’s art style is similar to many other shows of the genre but the character designs manage to avoid looking too similar to each other. The music for the series isn’t particularly memorable but the theme songs such as “Pre-Parade” by Rie Kugimiya and “Silky Heart” by Yui are pretty catchy and are likely to stick in your head well after finishing the series.

Despite being the first slice of life show dubbed in California in a long time, the English dub by Bang Zoom Entertainment is phenomenal and is a serious contender for the best of the year as each of the actors brings their A-game for the show. Erik Kimerer and Cassandra Lee do a great job as lead characters Ryuji and Taiga respectively, and cover all their hidden aspects well. Christine Marie Cabanos also delivers a surprisingly strong performance for Minori and Erika Harlacher shows off a bit more of her range as Ami. There’s no one role that particularly stands out the best but each performance is fantastic and even if you’ve already seen the show before, it’s a dub still worth checking out.

Toradora is high school romance done right, and done in a way that while not particularly fresh, easily leaves it’s mark in the genre. The struggle and development of the characters feels more real here than in similar shows, and brings everything to an emotional ending while not completely straying from the realism  of what the consequences are. It’s a masterpiece amongst it’s craft and one that will not be soon forgotten. It can’t be recommended enough.

Overall: 10/10

Available for streaming on Crunchyroll and on disc at Right Stuff 

 

Review- Hunter X Hunter Chimera Ant Arc: Of Monsters and Men

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Synopsis: Gon and Killua’s search for Ging continues and now leads them to meet Ging’s apprentice Kite who has a special connection to Gon’s childhood. Meanwhile on the far off content of NGL a mysterious species known as the Chimera Ants is rising up and their overwhelming ablities pose a threat to the entire world. As the three get involved in the chaos, Gon and Killua soon finds themselves in the most desperate battle of their lives.

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For a long time this story arc of Hunter X Hunter was considered to be the largest justification for the anime reboot. Though Madhouse managed to capture Togashi’s vision much better for the earlier arcs than the previous anime series, this was still the most anticipated material for the series to cover and justly so. Togashi provides a somewhat shocking yet natural departure from his usual formula thus far and in doing has once again proven why his storytelling is so effective.

The beginning of the Chimera Ant arc starts off in full throttle as Gon, Killua and Kite get thrust into the situation pretty quickly. The show quickly establishes that the Chimera Ants are a threat on a whole other level than the others seen thus far in the series and the stakes are far more serious than they’ve ever been. Death runs rampant as countless men, women and (as we’re given the displeasure of seeing first hand) children are caught in the slaughter and even the Hunters themselves aren’t much safer as some previously introduced characters easily fall victim to the ants in their attempt to give birth to their king. This all comes to a head when one of the king’s Royal Guards awakens and battles Kite as Gon and Killua flee upon the latter seeing how outmatched they are, leading to Kite’s death in the process.

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As the arc slowly makes it’s transition to the larger battle, it’s at this point that Togashi begins to reflect on character motivations and start to work out his endgame as loyalties being to shift and new characters are introduced. Killua’s character arc is given the most amount of focus during this transition though, as he is faced with being forced to abandon Gon who has been the driving force behind his character development and is also forced to overcome the fight or flight mentality that has been drilled into him growing up as it directly opposes his desire to protect Gon.

Some other characters go through changes as well as one of the Hunters, Knov who walked around with an air of confidence and professionalism towards his job was thoroughly humbled by his overwhelming fear of the Ants power while Gon’s desire to “rescue” Kite (whose ultimate fate he has yet to realize) begins to slowly take effect on his state of mind. The biggest development during this transition however is the newly born Ant King’s interactions with a human girl named Komugi and the effect she has on him. With all of his pieces set in motion Togashi initiates the final battle of the arc and suddenly everything begins to spiral in a new direction.

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As Fredric Nietzsche once said “He who fights monsters must take care lest he also becomes a monster” and while this is far from the first time this  cautionary tale has been displayed in storytelling, it is in full effect here and the reality of it is quite terrifying. Since the beginning of the series, the show has made a point that despite his seemingly pure and innocent attitude, there was something not quite right about Gon’s sense of morality. He has always judged things not necessarily on a scale of right or wrong but rather what people have done towards or for him. This mentality has led him to befriend assassins and be perfectly comfortable around serial killers if they’ve helped him in some way. Of course as several characters throughout the series have pointed out such a mentality is quite insane and thus it was only a matter of time before something set him over the edge and showed the depths of where it could lead.

Kite’s state impacts Gon in a big way as he loses his innocent nature and slowly transforms into one of the most dangerous players in the battle as he becomes more than willing to threaten and kill others to achieve his vengeance. This all comes to a head in his climatic battle against Neferpitou where he is finally forced to come to terms with the reality that Kite is dead and his hatred sets him so over the edge that he’s willing to give up  everything to destroy his enemy, appropriately transforming into a freakish humanoid monster in a rather disturbing deconstruction of the typical shonen power-up. The most bizarre irony in all of this is that Gon’s vengeance is for the most part, perfectly justified and we should by all means be rooting for him to win but the climax of the battle is so horrific that the only thing left is a feeling of despair rather than triumph despite Gon’s technical victory.

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This isn’t Togashi’s only display of humanity’s darkside though, as the battle between the Ant King and Hunter Chairman Netero also serves as proof. Netero’s final gambit for victory with the Rose Bomb puts some of the evils human science can create in full view and how we can stoop to even the most inhumane of weapons in order to achieve victory on the battlefield. In the end (as a depressing clip show drives it home for anyone who didn’t get the point) the most monstrous beings of all may in fact be humans, and we possess the capacity to commit some of the greatest atrocities imaginable.

However despite many of the implications above, Togashi isn’t out to only show the darkness of humanity but some of the gentleness as well and this is in an ironic twist, done though the perspective of the Chimera  Ants. Though they start off as largely alien, the Chimera Ants slowly come to learn of humanity over the course of the arc with many of them gaining their own sense of individuality and the various agendas that go with them. This has the biggest effect on the Chimera Ant King who through being by Komugi begins to gain respect for humanity and finds himself thrust between his nature as a ruler and his desire to embrace humanity.

As thus it’s fitting that the actual villain of the story isn’t in fact the Ant King (who’s arguably more the protagonist during this arc than Gon himself), but rather his Royal Guard, Shiapouf, who will stop at nothing to ensure that the king rejects humanity and desires to kill Komugi who attaches him to it.  Though despite various bumps and a brief look of what the King would be while completely devoid of humanity, he does eventually discard his nature as the Ant King and he spends his final moments with the one he loves, embracing humankind and leaving Shiapouf to suffer an extremely karmic defeat. The finale to the arc ultimately has several of the Ants exiting as the most human characters of the entire story and while it’s an interesting twist to be sure, it’s also extremely touching.

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While the arc is by and large full of strengths it does suffer from a few weaknesses. The pacing during the major battle of the arc slows down considerably and it makes the episodes somewhat of a hassle to watch on a weekly basis. Additionally while the massive use of narration is generally to the story’s favor as it generally provides a cold analysis of some of the events while making them seem more in real-time, it can also be a bit too intrusive at times and occasionally reiterates things viewers have likely already figured out. Lastly the impact of Kite’s death is somewhat hindered by his awkward introduction into the anime where he and Gon bond at the very beginning of the arc as opposed to in the manga where he was a major influence on Gon from the very beginning.  None of these significantly impact the arc’s effectiveness but they do prevent it from being relatively flawless.

Madhouse’s animation budget for the series has been incredibly consistent for a long running shonen title and it continues here as some of the scenes range from solid looking to downright breathtaking to behold. Yoshihisa Hirano’s musical score which was somewhat uneven in earlier arcs, steps up considerably as it beefs up the impact of several scenes and while the opening theme song Departure feels more out of place than ever in this arc the ending theme songs Nagareboshi Kirai and Hyori Ittai by Yuzu match the somber tone of the arc well. Hiroshi Koujima’s direction for the series also steps up a bit as the decision to do all of events from the major battle of the arc in chronolgical order as opposed to the somewhat erratic shifts in the manga, works very well and makes a lot of the material resonate stronger as a result.

The Chimera Ant arc is a unique departure from typical shonen conventions and is one that is ultimately welcomed as it turns several areas of that formula on it’s head. While the arc isn’t totally flawless, the impact and overall themes of the material are easily strong enough to allow these problems to be overlooked. It provides a grand allegory for the dual sided nature of humanity and reminds us once again of why Hunter X Hunter is a masterpiece of its genre.

Overall: 9.7/10

Available on Crunchyroll

Review: The Kawai Complex Guide to Manors and Hostel Behavior- My Crazy Dormmates

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Synopsis: Kazunari Usa is a high school student who just moved out of his parents’ home to live at a dormitory and wants to have a fufilling high school life with a girlfriend. He soon  meets Ritsu Kawai an somewhat introverted bookreader and quickly forms a crush on her and finds out she lives at the same dormitory he does. However he soon runs into problems when he finds out the other residents are some pretty wacky characters…

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At first glance, The Kawai Complex Guide has all the trappings of a typical harem anime. The plotline of a guy ending up a dorm with a  bunch of weird characters and hot girls is one that has been done numerous times in anime, but this show has provided a pretty interesting twist on the genre and one that feels just fresh enough to work while providing some genuine laughs.

One thing that stands out right away about the show is that besides Ritsu and Usa himself, all of the other characters that live at the dorm are full grown adults or at the very least college age, immediately blowing away the chances of the other girls becoming a part of his would-be harem. Instead of relying on typical harem hijinks or completely off the wall material, much of the comedy in the show instead revolves around the adult characters dealing with relationship issues or Usa failing to woo Ritsu while the other girls actively thwart his attempts or coax him into screwing up for giggles. It puts a unique spin on some of the more typical romantic comedy situations and while it doesn’t always hit the right mark it manages to provide some pretty solid laughs more often than not.

Part of what makes the show so effective is how it manages to make its characters fall into specific archetypes for good laughs but manages to provide enough depth or spin to them to avoid making them completely one dimensional. Usa mostly carries the traits of the typical “only sane man” in a regular comedy series but his crush on Ritsu is given enough levels of exaggeration to give him his own quirks and avoid making him bland. His roommate Shiro is a unashamed masochist but he’s also pretty inventive and can occasionally be insightful. Ritsu starts out as being seemingly extremely introverted, but later turns out to be perfectly capable of interacting with people though she mostly chooses not to do so. These traits help carry the show and each of the main characters is given a decent amount of exploration.

While the romance between Usa and Ritsu is one of the major parts of the show, the lives of the characters as related to their personalities also plays a large role. The japanese title of the show is called Bokura Wa Minna Kawaisou which  has a double meaning that translates to “We Are All Pitiful” and the show runs on that in spades as some of the characters’s social lives are pretty troubled. Mayumi who is a 30 year-old christmas cake(and provides the majority of the show’s surprisingly limited fanservice) is normally displayed as having incredibly bad luck with men by always managing to consistently land horrible guys and its usually the  butt of a joke while her self esteem is occasionally called into question. Ritsu’s semi-introverted nature is also explored a bit her ability to keep friends is usually hampered as a result of it and her ability to function in heavy social settings is also fairly limited.

Even Usa is eventually revealed to have some issues own as his constant association with bizarre characters has made him a bit of a social outcast in his own right and while he deals with it fairly well it does lead to a couple of harsh moments. These issues are played for laughs just as much as they are for drama as the characters frequently poke fun at each others’ problems but through it all they do care for each other somewhat and when the chips are down they’ll stand up for each other.

If the show has one real weakness, it would ironically be the romance between Usa and Ritsu. While the development between the two is fairly cute, its somewhat hindered by Usa’s obsession being borderline stalker-ish at times and while that aspect is pretty much always played for laughs it can occasionally hinder things enough to kill the chemistry between the two. Sayaka  who is college student generally portrayed as a man-eater also lacking any weaknesses for most of the show’s run is also a bit of a hindrance is it slightly ruins the character balance in terms who gets poked fun at.

Animation studio, Brain’s Base delivers a fairly average animation budget for the series as is typical of a comedy and so nothing really stands out in that particular area but the character designs are pretty nice and the art style looks good overall with a somewhat unique vibe to it. Akito Matsuda’s music for the show is also fairly standard and both the opening “Itsuka no, Iku Tsuka no Kimi to no Sekai” and ending theme “My Sweet Shelter” are decent songs but fairly forgettable though My Sweet Shelter is the catchier of the two.

The Kawai Complex Guide is ultimately a fresh take on the “crazy dormitory” genre and provides a pretty unique spin on some well worn romantic comedy tropes. The show’s character dynamics aren’t completely flawless but it’s generally funny enough to mask them. It’s one the smartest anime comedies we’ve seen in a while and well on it’s way to be one of the best this year.

Overall: 8/10

Avaialble on Crunchyroll and Hulu

Review: Wreck-It-Ralph- It’s Not So Bad Being Bad

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Synopsis:  In an arcade where video game characters are sentient and have lives outside their games, Wreck-It-Ralph is  the villain of the game Fix-It-Felix who doesn’t get any respect for doing his job and is treated like an outcast by the NPCs of his game world. Wanting to change his life and become a “good guy” Ralph sets out to become a hero in other game worlds and ends up meeting a “glitch” named Penelope who is also an outcast, and together the two set out change their respective situations.

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Disney Animated canon is always interesting to watch and the formula for each of their films usually manages to delight and deliver on solid storytelling and innocent childhood wonder. Of course as with any formula there are times where it gets a bit repetitive and needs to be shaken up every now and then. Wreck-It-Ralph is pretty true to the magic formula but it does enough things differently to leave it’s own mark for better or worse.  The film does some pretty neat things with it’s premise as a lot of classic video game characters make cameos and a few classic video game tropes are played with or used in a way that would make sense if used by actual people.

Of course cool premise aside,  the real heart and soul of the film lies in it’s protagonist Ralph and his journey as a character.  His job as his game world’s villain is a pretty important job but he’s frequently treated like dirt by most of his coworkers (and the fact that the backstory of the game involved part of his home being demolished to make theirs doesn’t help things) and while he gets along with Felix himself fairly well, the latter doesn’t really understand his situation. Thus it’s only natural that he would want to live life on the other side of things as the good guy and he sets out to accomplish that. In doing so he encounters Penelope who much like him is an outcast in her own world and though the two clash at first they soon relate to one another and in a nice subversion of the usual obligatory Disney romance between lead characters, form a sibling like bond (though the age difference is likely what spared us this time around) and the two get a nice dynamic going on between them.

As the film goes on Ralph is eventually presented with the chance to get what he wants but at the expense of Penelope’s dreams, even if he’s convinced it’s for her own good at the time. So when he does finally get his reward he realizes that it wasn’t worth the people he had to let down to get there. As the film head towards its climax he acknowledges that in the end he can only really be himself and even if he has to continue playing the role of the bad guy, so long as there’s someone out there who accepts him he’ll be fine in the end and he does eventually get the respect that he deserves.

The film’s message ultimate message about being yourself even when the world at large won’t acknowledge you is a strong one and is by far its best point. It helps to provide a really nice parallel between Ralph and the main villain Turbo where both want to be acknowledged but where Ralph isn’t willingly to step over the people that matter to him to get there, Turbo will lie, cheat and murder in order to stay in the spotlight which is what ultimately destroys him (and in a  surprisingly gruesome manner by Disney film standards). The film also deserves praise for using Fix-It-Felix’s character fairly well by not making him antagonistic as would be typically expected and the movie’s side plot about him trying to track down Ralph on his journey does eventually lead to him getting to see the world from Ralph’s perspective and helping him get the acknowledgement he deserves for his job.

However while the film does many positive subversions and gets its theme down right it does suffer from a few problems. The romance between Felix and another character Callahan while somewhat funny is incredibly forced and it takes away from some of the time that could have been spent further highlighting Felix’s need to see what Ralph’s life is like on a regular basis. Additionally the film is also occasionally bogged down with some toilet bowl humor that feels like it didn’t need to be there and keeps the film from being as adult as it could have been despite having a fairly mature theme. (though the slight jab at Call of Duty was much appreciated).

Wreck-It-Ralph is a solid entry in the Disney animated canon universe  and while it doesn’t quite spin the formula in the way it could have it does enough things differently and well enough that it can be easily forgiven. The film reminds us that in the end there’s no one we should rather be than ourselves and even if we may not always get appreciation for that if we can live with who we are, we’ll be okay in the end.

Overall: 8/10

Review: Persona 3 The Movie #1: Spring of Birth- New Beginnings

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Synopsis: The Dark Hour is a time between midnight and the next day where creatures known as Shadows prowl and attack humans who are awake during it. Makoto Yuki is a new transfer student at Gekkokan High and after transferring to the school he awakens to a mysterious power known as Persona and together with his classmates who are part of a group called SEES must battle against the  shadows in order to unlock the truth behind the Dark Hour and a tower known as Tartarus which only appears during it.

Review

I’m a huge fan of the Persona franchise and the original Persona 3 game was the first thing that got me into it. Needless to say that I was glad to hear it was finally getting an animated adaption though I was a bit worried about it first due to being helmed by Seiji Kishi, the infamous director of Persona 4: The Animation which was a pretty mediocre adaptation of the original game and he’s since gone on to do lackluster adaptions of other game franchises before returning to Persona.  However despite my low expectations, Persona 3’s first movie has risen to the challenge of combating Kishi’s mediocrity and has a shot at being a proper adaptation of the game that started it all for me.

In comparison to Persona 4 which balances out it’s darker elements with lightheartedness and fun, Persona 3 is a much more somber story and the movie captures that tone successfully as opposed to the more erratic nature of the Persona 4 anime.  The film covers up to the third of the shadow boss fights from the game and maintains it’s dark tone throughout as we’re introduced to the setting and the story takes it’s first steps in unraveling the mysteries surrounding the Dark Hour.

Like with Persona 4’s adaptation the film does do several events differently from the game but it’s mostly for the better as it allows the story and character introductions to flow a bit better in this format and it expands on some of the plot points briefly touched on in the game. Some of the game elements are also integrated fairly well as the Velvet Room system from the games woven into the storyline much like with Persona 4’s anime but it feels less tacked on and helps to drive things further. The film does suffer from some pacing issues due to how much its adapting and the scene transition can be a bit annoying for those not familiar with the game, but everything is meshed together well for the most part and negative elements aren’t too distracting.

One of the major focuses of the film is on Makoto Yuki’s development and its given the attention it needed. Much like Yu Narukami from Persona 4, Makoto is a bit of a “blank slate” protagonist like in the original game but where Yu was given a somewhat outgoing personality, Makoto is much more reserved and apathetic, being seemingly uncaring towards others, somewhat robotic and unnerved by death but as the film progresses we see that there’s a bit more to him below the surface as he takes his first steps towards bonding with his new comrades and by the end it’s apparent that he cares a bit more than he lets on.

The film also takes some steps in developing the other SEES members as well as it puts some focus on class-clown Junpei’s  rivalry with Makoto and how they slowly start to become friends. Similarly,  Fuuka, who is one of the support members of the team, is given a fairly big role in the first movie as her struggles with bullying is expanded on a bit and in some ways is handled better than it was in the original game.

On the technical side of things the film looks very solid animation wise and the big battles look as good as they’re  supposed to. The character designs are also adapted pretty well from the games and though the art is somewhat forgettable during the daytime scenes as the Dark Hour scenarios look fantastic. The film also features most of the soundtrack from the game and it’s very much appreciated as it’s an excellent musical score and it helps to pump up a lot of the larger battles.

In spite of the odds Persona 3’s first film is the kind of adaptation the game deserved. There’s still plenty of room for the future films to falter but for now it’s looking like smooth sailing and hopefully the upcoming adaptation of Persona 4 Golden will take some cues from this one.

Overall 8.6/10

Review: Ergo Proxy- “Me, Myself and I”

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Description: In a futuristic world almost barren of life, mankind is confined to mechanized domed cities where A.I.’s control all aspects of life. In this world, humans are no longer born, they are manufactured in a production line; and alongside them live androids known as autoreivs. Within one of these domed sanctuaries named Romdeau lives Re-l Mayer, one of a few citizens who aren’t entirely prevented from thinking. Her grandfather’s prominent position and the affection of the scientist Daedalus have left her more free will than is normally allowed, but Re-l has started to question the sanctity of the city and the citizens’ perfect way of life. With mysterious beings known as proxies causing havoc and a man named Vincent causing great influence on her life, Re-l must travel outside of the city to find the answers she seeks and discover the mystery behind “the awakening”.

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Review

Helmed by Dai Sato the writer of Eureka Seven and Manglobe who brought us shows like Samurai Champloo and most recently Samurai Flamenco, Ergo Proxy is very much a show with it’s own ego. It constantly scoffs at the viewer, doing things in it’s own way and demanding your full attention in order to even begin to comprehend it. The air of pretentiousness that surrounds it is almost enough to push you away at first as you wonder how you could even begin to resonate with such a self-absorbed show. However the further along you go with the show the more you begin to see that that the show’s ego has it’s own meaning to it and that you have to face it head on to get anywhere with it.

The show opens up with a pretty typical cyberpunk/dystopian setting as we’re abruptly thrown headlong into the story through the eyes of our heroine Re-l, an officer who shows a pretty clear disgust for the way the society she lives in currently is and finds herself bored with it. On a mission she discovers the existance of a bizarre looking monster and begins delving into the mystery surrounding it and its seemingly insignificant immigrant known as Vincent Law. The conspiracy surrounding the two drives much of the main storyline as we slowly discover the truth behind the dystopia, the existance of more of these monsters which are later revealed to be god-like beings known as Proxies and of course the ultimate fate of mankind in a world they ravaged  and attempted to abandon. It has a pretty solid, if overly complex sci-fi narrative and is fairly interesting on just that aspect alone despite how maddening the last few episodes get.

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Everything’s gone cuckoo

However despite how things may initially appear, most of the show’s insane sci-fi plot is merely a pretext for what it’s really trying to convey and the show really isn’t as concerned with it as it first wants you to believe it is. In fact, a lot of the backstory for the series is presented to us in a hilarious but bizarre quiz show episode just to get it out of the way(and it’s even conveniently broadcast in a way so every important character sees it and is up to date on what’s happening). So then if not a complex sci-fi plot, then what is a show so wrapped up in it’s own ego ultimately trying to say? The answer is almost unsurprisingly fitting.

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Yeah…this show gets weird

Beneath the layers and layers of pretext, the core of the show lies within the examination of the human ego and our sense of “self” in the world at large and it does so through several stages and characters.

The first stage looks at how self absorbed we can be within our own egos and how it can affect the way we view the world around us. This is primarily done through Re-l who spends much of the series as being privileged, extremely self centered and driven solely by her own desires, often manipulating others or distancing herself from them, deeming them not worth the effort to understand if they don’t immediately serve her ends. However this affects her ability to really comprehend the actions taken by others and it’s during a situation where her ego and drive serves no real purpose in getting her where she wants to go that she finally beings to see that the world doesn’t revolve around her and lets the feelings of others in

The second stage involves how we see ourselves through others and how that gives our sense of ego purpose. This is done through two of the characters Daedelus and Iggy through their relationships with Re-l, who both see as the center of their world. Daedelus starts off as being helpful and in love with Re-l but the further the story goes the more apparent it is that his “love” for her is a crazed obsession and little more than a way for him to project his sense of “self” onto her and he says as much later on. For Iggy when he sees how little he matters to Re-l in proportion to how much she defines his existence he loses it and his mind fluctuates back and forth between the self he wants Re-l to see him as and the self that the despises her for ignoring him. For both it ends in a mental (and physical just to make sure the point is driven in) death and it’s fairly disturbing.

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Please don’t hate me

The third stage examines the suppression of the ego and it’s looked at through the characters Pino and Raul. Pino is an A.I. with a soul and it allows her to evolve bit by bit over the course of the show and she values the emotions she obtains even though the world in the series intitally considers it a defect for an A.I. to have it’s own will. Raul on the other hand is a prideful and scheming character but ultimately one who wants to be in full command over his own ego and exert his will on the world despite some of the consequences that may bring. However when both realize that neitheris really as special as they believed and isn’t in full control of who they are, Raul’s pride drives him to the brink while  Pino’s evolution allows her to accept who she is despite that fact.

The final and largest stage is of course accepting one’s self and one’s purpose.  This is  done through the true protagonist of the series Vincent who is constantly at odds with who he is, having  his true self suppressed and hidden in an attempt to be free of his struggles and imperfections, the dystopian setting being an almost literal metaphor of this Though much like how none of us can escape who we are as people, Vincent also can’t really run away from who he is either despite  his many subconscious attempts. As the series progresses and he comes closer and closer to confronting who he is his character design becomes notably more distinct and defined, signifying his evolution as a person.

Appropriately, the final boss Vincent must confront at the end of the series isn’t one of the other proxies (whose purpose is general to serve as various metaphors for Vincent taking a step further in facing himself) but quite literally himself, and though he’s offered a final opportunity to walk away from it all, he finally realizes that even though life is painful and there are problems we don’t always want to deal with, you have to face up to who you are in order to truly value the people and things that come with it. The series ends with him fully embracing who he is and though from a narrative standpoint it may not feel completely satisfying, thematically speaking it’s an extremely appropriate choice.

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“I am a shadow the true se-” Oh wait never mind.

Done at the now mostly defunct New Generation Pictures, the dub for the series is extremely well done. The leads bring out the best in it as  Liam O’ Brien brings his A-game to Vincent Law’s character and fully captures the tale of a man dealing with his internal struggles. Karen Thompson also brings a strong performance for Re-l, capturing the right amount of arrogance and slyness for when she’s being manipulative. The supporting characters  all bring good performances as well though the most notable would be Yuri Lowenthal as Daedelus who manages to make the character sound appropriately creepy.

Animation-wise the series looks pretty consistent having a pretty solid action budget and mostly avoiding looking off model despite how the art style looks. The art itself looks very distinct and somewhat gritty as the human characters are designed as real world looking as possible and this also carries over to some of the A.I. designs a bit which can make them look a bit creepy. It’s grittiness also helps  define the setting a bit more as the barren wastelands of the mostly destroyed world look incredibly so and the dystopian cyberpunk city looks almost isolated at times which feels appropriate. The soundtrack for the show is also pretty good having an extremely memorable opening theme in “Kiri” by Monoral which is sung in pretty good english and whose lyrics  match the theme of the show pretty well though the instrumental ending theme “Fellow Citizens” is pretty forgettable.

Ergo Proxy is a show with a lot on it’s mind and interesting ideas sitting below the surface. Though it’s not perfect narratively it does a remarkably solid job in what it wants to convey and it’s themes are pretty thought provoking. It can be a bit of a pain to sit through at first given how utterly egotistical the show can be at first about what it is, but it’s a rewarding experience in the long run. If you want to see something that makes you think a bit it’s worth checking out.

Overall: 8.5/10

Available on Hulu, Funimation.com