Kokkoku Episode 6: The Plot Thickens as the Brother Gets Thinner

Review:

A terrible post title, I know, and yet such an apt description of this episode. While there still hasn’t been anything overly amazing in terms of character development, and that is one area that continues to be a problem given I still don’t really care who comes out on top in this conflict, the mystery itself just keeps giving us a little bit more intrigue. There is still certainly the possibility that it will all amount to nothing but I’m starting to feel like we are definitely headed somewhere. Besides, the intrigue is really working.

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The first part of this episode continued the struggle from last week and to be honest they really over-played the music here. It was almost like watching a black and white Hitchcock with the way the sound went crazy during this sequence. It kind of took away a lot of the tension and drama of what was otherwise a fairly tense sequence.

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I suspect that Juri’s overall attitude to life is going to bite her sooner or later. Basically she and the grandfather did rescue her father, and her father is kind of horrible, and yet they’ve more or less ignored him and made no attempt to actually explain the situation to him. They are treating him like baggage. To the point where they miss what is probably going to end up being a significant comment about the brother maybe looking thinner after Juri expelled the spectre from him. Juri also failed to get Majima onside and didn’t even really try which just seems like a wasted opportunity.

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While my basic complaints about the lack of character development and some of the contradictions in the information presented remain, I cannot deny that I really want to know where this story is going. There’s definitely enough interesting material here and there’s a lot of potential for it to reach a reasonable conclusion. However, there’s also a lot of room for this to derail still and so I guess this one will have to be judged on the strength of its conclusion.

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Karandi James

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Kokkoku Episode 5: Motives Matter, So What Do These Characters Want?

Review:

With the exception of Majima, who laid out her motivation this week of recovering her family from stasis (which, probably shouldn’t be possible but more on that one later), I have to wonder if we know what any of these characters actually want. The family at first were trying to recover all their members from kidnappers, but since then, haven’t really seemed to be prioritising that objective. The cult guys all just seem to want to have sex or sexually harass girls in stasis, and the guys in charge want the stone but haven’t actually given us anything to go on as to what they want with it.

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Now, I know the grandfather’s version of what stasis is isn’t exactly reliable given he is just remembering stuff he’s been told, but he described it like a still frame in a movie. And even suggested leaving stasis and re-entering it in order to leave the villains behind and then rescue the other family members. But what that suggested was that being left in stasis meant that you were stuck in that frame forever. Therefore, Majima entering stasis again shouldn’t bring her in touch with her family who should in fact be stuck in a different frame. So either the grandfather’s explanation was rubbish, or the heralds jump between different frames, or the story has a major plot hole that might push this mystery beyond repair.

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The story also hasn’t fixed the issue of not actually having any characters the audience can connect to given so far they are all pretty bland, horrible, or undeveloped. At five episodes in, it really is time for the story to step it up and start filling in some of these cracks. As curious as I am about the mystery, I’m starting to wonder if the explanation will be worth it if the quality of the journey doesn’t improve.


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Karandi James

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Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens Episode 4: And With That The First Story Draws To A Close – And Then They Play Baseball

Review:

When you go into something not really knowing what to expect, you tend to get surprised by simple things. So I was pretty surprised that they didn’t stretch this saga with the mayor and his son any further but rather brought all the threads together and wrapped up this story-line in a neat little package that conveniently brought all of the characters we’d met together (and interestingly enough on a baseball team).

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Banba certainly gets to show off his moves this episode, leaving Lin with his jaw open a number of times throughout the episode. That wasn’t really surprising given it was clear that he was more than he was pretending to be, but it was cool to watch (though if you aren’t in to blood splatter this might not work out for you).

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And while it might seem overly simplistic that these characters that have been portrayed as likeable (they aren’t exactly the good guys given they are hitmen and the like) mostly end up getting exactly what they want, there was something very satisfying about watching everything come together and fall into place.

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No of course I am curious about what they are going to do for the rest of the season, though they have already introduced a new killer at the end of this episode so clearly a new story is starting. Whether they manage to make the next story as satisfying remains to be seen but so far this show has been a bundle of fun.


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Karandi James

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Kokkoku Episode 4: More on Stasis

Review:

We’re slowly learning more about stasis and some of how it works, but there’s a lot that is still just speculation or unknown. We do know for sure now that Juri has not only been in stasis before and that it is possible to be trapped within stasis.

Though one would assume if that happened it would be permanent because as the grandfather already pointed out even re-entering stasis doesn’t re-enter the same stasis so if the person couldn’t leave on their own the rest of the world would leave them behind. It opens up some odd questions about the heralds being people in stasis given theoretically they shouldn’t be able to move from the stasis they are in to the current stasis which makes me wonder if stasis just ceases to exist if the person controlling it leaves in which case anyone trapped there disappears? Dies? Not sure and wondering if these are questions that will ever be answered or if we’re just meant to nod sagely at the half explanations we’ve got and pretend it all makes sense.

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I genuinely don’t get what the grandfather was thinking taking a child into stasis to prolong the whole death of the dog thing or what he thought it might accomplish but I guess it was a reason for Juri to have been in stasis before.

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Anyway, the kidnappers/cult/whatever are pretty much stuck unless they can capture the stone that Juri and the grandfather have and while that doesn’t concern some, others are less thrilled about the notion of being trapped in stasis. Meanwhile, a little bit more is revealed about the heralds but not enough to actually give us an answer. Just enough to make us want to watch more to find out.

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I’m kind of enjoying this show but the characters are still a fairly weak link and it makes it hard to take the drama overly seriously.


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Karandi James

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Kokkoku Episode 3: Slow Progress

Review:

Kokkoku is a very odd show (just check out it’s opening theme) but it is the kind of odd that potentially could be quite good. That is ‘potentially’. Despite being three episodes in I’m still struggling just to remember character names and so far very few of them have any kind of distinctive personality.

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There’s clearly some kind of backstory going on between the woman with the kidnappers/killers/cultists and the family but the few glimpses we’ve gotten don’t paint much of a picture. I was also kind of hoping the kid waking up would be more of a plot development but instead it just gave us a scene of him dancing around in stasis which I somehow don’t think is going to contribute much to the overall story.

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I really do want to like this because the overall idea is pretty cool and yet so far the execution isn’t quite doing it justice. It isn’t bad, but without investing in any of the characters essentially nothing has happened in over an episode of any consequence.


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Kokkoku Episodes 1 + 2: This Is What A Bad Day Looks Like

Overview:

Juri isn’t happy with her family, her unemployed father and brother and single parent sister. She’s also not happy about her own life as she tries to pass an interview for a job. Still, everything changes when she gets a phone call telling her that her brother and nephew have been kidnapped and her grandfather uses a strange stone to stop time.

Review:

This is one of those stories where I’m going to have to watch to find out the explanation but I’m not entirely certain I’ll end up happy with the explanation. I’m already annoyed two episodes in at the number of times the grandfather has explained something and then said he isn’t sure but it was something his grandfather told him. That’s all well and good but it means the audience has been told practically nothing that we can rely on being true.

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Despite that concern, these first two episodes are kind of tense once the story kicks in and there’s a constant feeling that things are about to get worse. While the characters haven’t really had a chance to do much other by the end of the second episode we’re starting to get a feel for them.

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There’s also the added intrigue of the strange power in the stone and the family’s connection to it. I love a good intrigue and I really do want an explanation that is satisfying.

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While these first two episodes are interesting enough there’s also a lot of down time and there hasn’t really been much effort made to make you care about the characters. While the mystery itself is probably compelling enough it feels like they wasted some opportunities here. Still, I’m probably going to watch this through because I want to know what happens.


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The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria 1: I Wish I Had Seen That Coming

Overview:

Kazuki Hoshino meets transfer student, Aya Otonashi, but somehow he feels he’s met her before. That’s before she declares she’s met him thousands of time and declares war on him. Welcome to the Rejecting Classroom. Born of a wish and seemingly unescapable.

Review:

There’s a few books where just reading them becomes an experience in and of itself, and The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria is certainly one of them for me. I went in to this one totally blind (quite literally as I pre-ordered it only because it was recommended to me after buying another light novel and it was on a major sale so I didn’t even really read the blurb before it arrived). And going in blind is a really good idea so I’ll forgive you if you decide to pass on the questionable pleasure of reading my review and just go buy the book. If you want the short and completely spoiler free version of my thoughts: this was fantastic.

While I will try to avoid massive plot spoilers for the remainder of the review, this story revolves around a mystery so pretty much anything I say is going to mean you aren’t finding things out when the story wants you to know them and it is seriously worth going in blind.

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Okay, I’ll be up front that the reason I liked this book so much was because it actually really surprised me. About half-way through I thought I had it figured out. Normally I can predict plot lines and even when I’m wrong, what happens is usually within my field of possibilities. This one started heading exactly where I thought it was going to go and then delivered a fantastic twist (and that was less than two thirds of the way through). I actually commented to someone I didn’t know what they were going to do with the rest of the book because it all seemed kind of resolved when the story managed to overturn my expectations twice more before the end without feeling stretched or forced.

Now any story can just randomly shift gear. This didn’t. Each twist, while I utterly failed to see it coming, managed to beautifully fit everything we had been told before and actually make things make more sense. Seemingly random scenes or inconsequential bits of dialogue in one time loop or another were given new significance and basically everything ultimately served a purpose. Even the most mundane of observations.

Part of this is achieved through some really clever choices with the narration and who the protagonist of the story actually is. While Hoshino narrates the lion’s share of the story, at times we shift narrators (evidenced by a different tone and style as well as the use of fonts/italics). Yet this shifting narration is used to expertly lead you down one line of thinking before pulling the rug out from under you in what was probably the best plot twist I’ve ever seen in adolescent literature.

Basically, this story works because everything has weight and there is nothing that you could cut out without the entire story falling inward on itself. So if you get annoyed early on at the girl asking about her mascara, or wonder why a certain character’s reaction might seem off, these things matter even if you don’t know why until far later in the story.

This even manages to mostly avoid the trap of most time loop stories or having us rewitnessing the same scenes over and over by having the narrator also made bored by the repetitions and when he is aware of them he acts in different ways or adds his own commentary to the scene that is vastly different to the previous iteration. Therefore, while the characters aware of the time-loop seem worn down by the endless repetitions, they never make the audience feel worn out by the same process, giving us new and different possibilities each time.

The other excellent choice is in not actually playing the loops in order. We jump forward and backwards through the sequence of time loops, each clearly labelled as the loop numbers work more or less as chapter markers, and they sequence them in order of what the audience needs to know. Some loops we get barely a sentence and others we read the entire day as it happened.

The cast in this classroom are quite interesting though with characters disappearing throughout the loops you will only have a handful that you get particularly close to or have any real need to know anything about. In case you are wondering which characters to care about, the artwork on the first few pages introduces the main group that you should focus on and these are realistically the only characters of substance as the others exist only to give the classroom a sense of reality.

This isn’t a story about growth though. This is a story about wishes. Aya Otonashi has made a wish, though it didn’t turn out exactly as expected. Someone else in the class has made a wish and it has resulted in the looping classroom. Those who remember the loops are slowly going a little crazy through the endless repetitions, and everyone else is either slowly vanishing as the loops continue or totally oblivious and going through the same basic motions again and again.

In a way, the ending kind of reminds me of Kokoro Connect. There was a lot that was fantastic about that anime, but we never did find out the nature of Heartseed and why he put them through everything (other than he could and was curious). There’s a similar feeling when we get to the end of this book. It is satisfying because even though you didn’t endure close to 30000 loops stuck in the classroom, the conclusion definitely ends that situation, but there is still so much about the boxes and the giver of the boxes that remains unknown the information given leads to so many possibilities it just kind of makes you smile at the thought.

Here’s another reason to like this book. Other than one ‘guess what colour panties’ moment, there’s almost no random fan-service sequences. I know, I couldn’t believe it either that a high school story managed to restrain itself even with a male narrator who knew at times that none of the females would remember something anyway. Yay for focus on plot and tone without shoving a random changing room sequence in for the sake of it.

I will point out there are some violent moments and moments of gore. While the story doesn’t go for blood bath there is a traffic accident that occurs in almost every loop and occasionally we get a fairly detailed description of it. There’s also some student on student stabbing as we get closer to the climax. I didn’t mind these parts of the story but I know some readers may hesitate to take them on.

Basically, The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria sets up a great mystery and goes about resolving the situation in a fairly satisfying way that will keep you guessing all the way to the end. Yes, there’s plenty of room for volume 2 (which I think is about three months away from release or something like that), but this particular story provides enough closure. Definitely worth checking out.


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Random Thoughts on Stranger Things Season 2

I should probably do an actual review on this but to be honest I’m probably not going to. The reason being that I watched about half of this, and then took a break and then watched other episodes off and on while sick and busy so didn’t really pay enough attention and to be honest I don’t feel like watching it again to review.

That doesn’t actually mean Stranger Things season 2 is bad. It actually manages to capture most of what made the first season a really enjoyable nostalgia trip without the poor video quality of 1980’s films. But I undeniably struggled with maintaining interest early in the season and ultimately just found the sequel baiting ending a little hard to swallow. While this is my favourite Netflix original story after two seasons it seems pretty clear they plan to just keep running this idea into the ground until any small speck of originality or energy the series may have had is squished completely and totally flat.

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So what was good about season 2?

The big bad was bigger and badder even if they did just kind of up the body count by killing off the extras and one character that you kind of knew early on had raised so many death flags that by the time they finally did him in you weren’t overly surprised. Still, forget what seemingly invisible enemy. Now we have an unseen threat that is widespread and getting out of control fast and when we do see the threat the word horde comes to mind.

The cast are still fantastic. Child actors who can mostly act (the exception being Will’s older brother who’s name I have once again forgotten). I think Nancy actually did a better job this season and Will’s character gets to do a lot more this time round and he is fantastic. The addition of Max to the party, contentious as some of the characters may have found that, was a really good choice and worked well and the other characters mostly maintained what they were known for in the previous season so more of the same which works well enough.

The 1980’s soundtrack, while pretty literal at times, is still amazing to listen to and this along with all the other nods to the era makes for a really fun watch. Though I’m still trying to believe that anyone would mistake ghostbusters for exterminators back in the 80’s.

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What was less good?

The set up process of this story. A year has passed and everyone is a little older and a little jaded by the events the year before and the cover up. There’s some trauma and there are some new relationships and some fairly fractured relationships but it takes three episodes to really establish all of this before anything actually happens with regards to the new story. I’ll admit, after the story started you realised how necessary most of that set up was, but it was kind of dull and a little bit painful to watch.

The Sherriff and Eleven have zero chemistry. Eleven is really sidelined for the first half of this series and her only interactions are with the Sherriff. While I get the story they were trying to establish here, he doesn’t pull enough emotional weight to really sell the anger as over-protection and she isn’t given enough time to establish herself as an actual person so basically we just see them go through the same cycle of eat and play happy families before he ‘lies’ and she has a tantrum leading to him throwing a tantrum over and again until she finally ups and leaves.

Which leads to the story with Eleven and Eight which again could be awesome but is most definitely just setting up potential future storylines and has no relevance here other than Eleven gets a bit of a power up because of Eight’s advice. And a make-over. Anyway…

How dumb are those scientists? I get bad guys being dumb and characters in stories sometimes making dumb choices but these guys have had an entire year to clean up the mess and not only have they failed, the mess got worse and they didn’t even notice. Not one actual researcher makes one actual useful contribution for the entire length of the series. How do these people keep their jobs?

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All and all, if you liked Stranger Things, Stranger Things 2 is enjoyable enough and the second half definitely steps it up. Still, I’m not so sure how many more seasons of this I’m going to be thrilled to see. I’d really like them just to resolve the issue and let Will and his friends get on with their lives at this point.


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Vatican Miracle Examiner Series Review: This Show is in Search of a Miracle

Overview:

Hiraga and Roberto are a pair of priests sent by the Vatican to investigate numerous miracles around the world. The story is broken into several mysteries that the priests investigate while also carrying around a lot of personal baggage.

Review:

After the first mystery in this anime finished, I moved it very firmly into the ‘They Made This’ category. It was so over the top and full of every potential cliché you could fling at the Catholic Church, and it was like the writers were having a competition to see who could pack the most stupid idea into the story. The Hitler Clone remains my personal low point, though the pedophile comes a close second.

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And yet I continued watching. Partly this is because I have a thing for episodic supernatural stories with lead characters that are a little more stoic (Ghost Hunt and the like) and partly this was because, in spite of its silliness, at its core Vatican Miracle Examiner seemed to  want to be taken seriously. So I gave the show some more time.

What I gained from this is that each mystery after, while still excessively over packed with events, characters and ideas, seemed a little more solid and grounded. It was as though that desperate plea for attention of the first arc had gotten the sillier notions out of the way and done and the story started to find its feet. We also slowly got closer to the two priests at the centre of the story who at first seemed fairly generic and replaceable.

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Now the argument that it gets better later is a trickier one, because you do have to sit through some of that awful writing and pacing but by the second last mystery, I have to admit I was pretty into this story even if there were still a number of issue. And the last episode really nailed the tone I’d been searching for throughout the whole series. I don’t know that I can recommend a show on a final episode, particularly when the episode in question doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’ve seen the lead up to it and built up some relationship with these characters, but that last episode was exactly what I started watching this show to see.

Kind of a shame it took 11 episodes to get there.

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There’s also the issue of Lauren, who seems like an interesting character but remains strictly side-lined. I’d have loved to see him more involved in the story and in some of the cases. Yet the story has ended with little to nothing being done with his set up. Julia as well kind of remains a loose end that serves a valuable purpose but without news of any kind of sequel it just leaves us without any sense of closure on his story.

I do have to discuss the appearance of this show though. It is very brown. Like, really and incredibly dull to look at. Plus a lot of scenes happen at night or in dimly lit rooms with an excess of shadows. They were really working on a particular atmosphere but with the writing not quite holding up its end, mostly it just looks dull. Which is a shame, because aesthetically it could have worked quite well.

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The opening theme is also ridiculously intense for the pretty low key tone of the show. Really, you would think you were going to watch something where the priests are kicking in doors every episode and banishing demons back to hell after watching that opening. If I recall correctly, in the entire series the priests attempt one exorcism and then realise the kid isn’t possessed but drugged (honest mistake that one).

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Basically I am not recommending this anime. I ultimately enjoyed the final episodes and to be honest, I’ll probably rewatch it at some point because this is still very much the type of show I like rewatching (I know, I’m weird), but it isn’t objectively very good and even from a pop-corn entertainment point of view there’s better out there.


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Death Note Series Review: Not Quite Cat and Mouse

Overview:

I seriously can’t believe I hadn’t reviewed this anime already. I was probably holding it off for a special occasion and the lead up to Halloween works for me. Plus, having watched the Netflix movie recently the anime was on my mind so I rewatched the first half of it again so now seems a good time to write this. What is it about? Light, typical high school genius, finds a notebook that claims that if you write someone’s name in it that person will die. Of course he tries it and then he thinks he can change the world by wiping out all the criminals. Enter L, the detective who is going to hunt down the killer that leaves no evidence. I examined the relationship between Light and L in a feature on conflict a fair while back but here’s the link if you are interested.

By the way, this review has spoilers. Big ones. Just warning you.

Review:

Just have to say straight out that I love Death Note. This was one of the titles that really hooked me as an adult anime viewer and is part of the reason I became such a fan of anime. That isn’t to say the series is perfect or that I don’t have issues with it, but in terms of showing me that anime could be more than magical girls or giant robots, Death Note perfectly hit the spot and made me start looking further afield for shows to watch and I haven’t really looked back since.

I’ll start with the main criticism I have of the show and then I’ll get to gushing about how amazing it is.

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The major criticism of Death Note is the story. It is incredibly juvenile when you sit back and actually look at the plot without the atmosphere and tone making it look far more sophisticated than it is. Teenage boy gets a book that can kill people and decides he wants to play god. Other teenage boy  wants to prove he’s the best detective in the world by solving the unsolvable. Fight, fight, fight (admittedly, this is a mental battle but it is on par with anything you would see in most shounen stories) and then one of the two is defeated.

And while that is pretty basic, it is incredibly rewarding to watch, only the story doesn’t finish there. They then introduce some new antagonists for the protagonist to face off against and mostly duplicate the steps from the first half, only with less enthusiasm and atmosphere, in what appears to be a desperate attempt to stretch content and not let the series rest.

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For all that Death Note is quite clever in some of the things it does, the plot is not one of them. At its core it is an incredibly obvious make the audience question what they would do in a situation type story. And once we establish that Light is not a very stable person given he rationalises the deaths of thousands fairly quickly (which could be a statement about a lack of emotional intelligence in geniuses but mostly just comes off as unhinged), it is clear that despite being the protagonist, Light is the villain of the story, responsible for far more deaths than any of the criminals he consigns to death.

There are also issues with some of the twists in the story as they attempt to make it look like excellent planning and genius skill level on behalf of Light and L, but the anime continuously falls back on coincidence to keep things moving. What if Misa hadn’t visited Light at the university when L stole her phone and then she was arrested? What if Light hadn’t just run into Naomi on her way to the police station? What if Rem hadn’t acted to keep Misa safe? There are so many moments where things happen by chance but the characters act as if they were all factored in. Though that is a problem any time a character is supposed to be a genius. Most writers aren’t so even if they try to think about what a genius might do in a situation it usually comes off pretty contrived.

So now that I’m done tearing the plot apart, why do I love this show so much?

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The challenge between Light and L is amazing. Okay, I know I said earlier it is pretty standard shounen affair with both declaring themselves to be the face of justice and becoming entirely fixated on defeating the other, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great to watch. Despite the moments where these characters seem to slip up in their thinking, it is fun watching both characters try to find the tiniest chink in the other’s armour. Their natural attraction to one another, as someone who is thinking on their level, adds and extra dimension to the challenge, and even at the silliest moment (the fist fight while hand-cuffed still annoys me) these two characters are at their best when facing one another head on.

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I also just love Light as a protagonist. He’s so much fun to pick at and analyse. Did the book and the power make him crazy or was he always that way and the book gave him opportunity? There are arguments you can make both ways and evidence for both. I particularly love the scene with Naomi as Light is genuinely forced to think on his feet to deal with an unforseen situation. This is not the overly confident, maniacal laughing Light from the latter part of the series, but is the student still finding his way and looking carefully at all the angles and trying to find the best solution to his ‘problem’. That Naomi pushes him nearly to the brink before he succeeds is wonderful and there’s a real sense of tension in the entire exchange. My heart honestly fell a little when I realised Light had come out on top. I’d kind of hoped Naomi would find a way to be the first step to Light’s demise.

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Naturally Ryuk is another big draw to the show. His observations about humans and his general disinterest in the overall situation is quite entertaining. I would have liked him to have had a more active role at times given sometimes he seemed willing to help Light and other times he seemed obstinate for the sake of it. But still, as a Death God with no actual loyalty to Light, he was a pretty well done character.

I guess I should bring Misa up. She is kind of a necessary character for the plot to get going given without her mistakes they may never have gotten close to figuring out what was going on. Otherwise, most of her interactions in the story are pretty forgettable.

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The overall atmosphere and tone of the anime are wonderful. I love the use of symbolism and colour, even if it is in your face obvious most of the time (back to that idea of being a little juvenile). It just works beautifully at building tension and suspense. Also drama. How they manage to make a kid writing in a note book that intense is one of the absolute mysteries of the show.

The first opening theme is also fantastic. The second one however… well it isn’t a total train wreck is probably the nicest thing I’m going to say about that screaming drone with eye-hurting visuals. Of course, the second opening kind of coincides with where I usually stop watching because to be honest, after L leaves the story there is little real appeal in this show anymore. The end is worth watching the first time so you know how it ends, but rewatches allow you to just stop and not have to deal with the Mello and Near fiasco.

And that makes Death Note truly unique in that it is an anime I absolutely recommend even while admitting I don’t rewatch the end of it very often because it isn’t very good. That first half is pretty compelling and well worth trying if you’ve never given it a go.


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