Kuromukuro Series Review

Overview:

Kennosuke is a samurai who lived 450 years ago when ogres attacked his home and killed/kidnapped his Princess. Trapped in some sort of suspended animation, he is woken when the ‘ogres’ return and finds the world is a very different place.

Review (there’s a few spoilers):

I haven’t watched a lot of anime on Netflix, mostly because there isn’t very much available in Australia, and most of what is there is already available on other services. Still, I’ve tried a few now of the Netflix originals and for the most part found them watchable, bingeable even, but not overly remarkable. Kuromukuro doesn’t do much to buck the trend there.

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In all seriousness, I actually finished a watch of this series in very quick order and then had to go back and rewatch bits for the purpose of review. Mostly because what this story does right is keeps you wanting more at the end of each episode. Things are happening. The plot continues to drive forward. It doesn’t matter that it is predictable and gimmicky, it just keeps driving onward and you get to the end credits and you are jumping straight into the next episode because anything else just seems silly.

I was going to review season 1 and season 2 separately (given Netflix so nicely insists they are 2 different seasons and labels them as such) but given episode 13 (final episode of season 1) ended with one of the main characters getting run through with a sword and being critically injured and that’s where it ended I kind of just kept watching. Even though I knew that’s why they did and even though it annoys me when stories pull those cheap emotional stunts to make you wait for the next episode or season. This show got away with it not annoying me because all of season 2 was already sitting there but if I’d had to wait 6 or 12 months there’s a good chance I’d have never gone back to it.

So other than my petty dislike of being overtly manipulated as a viewer, what works in this show and what doesn’t? Let’s go for a plus/minus approach.

Plus +

The cast works really well. Okay, every character is actually a walking archetype at various times but they also get small moments where they get to be real humans even if only momentarily, and there are enough cast members that none of them really hang around long enough to get too painful. I liked the dynamics of Yukina’s family, I liked her group of school friends, I liked the UN office workers and researchers, and I liked the soldiers. They all just kind of did what they needed to do. Are any of these characters going to make my favourite ever list? Not a chance, they are pretty forgettable. But, within the context of the story they are in they work remarkably well.

Plus, I really enjoyed the romance element that came into it later on. It was kind of clear from the start they were going to go there, but it was actually kind of sweet when that part of the story got moving.

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Minus –

The villains are all but cape wearing, cackling clichés. And no, they aren’t quite that bad but they get close at times. Initially one of the ‘ogres’ gets killed by Ken and then they said another, single warrior against him. Then they have this weird honour thing where they can’t return if they don’t win and they like one on one battles (though using puppets to pin your enemy down apparently doesn’t count as cheating). It’s all kind of depressing because it reminds me of Beryl’s minions in the 1990’s Sailor Moon and the main villain is about as useful as Beryl really. Turns out he isn’t the actual big bad because he’s also just a cog in the works of a much grander plan. Whichever way, there wasn’t really much satisfaction to be found from overcoming these villains because they were pretty much basic plot points derived from other stories and they weren’t particularly interesting. The only ‘villain’ who gets some points is the clone of Princess Yuki and that’s only because it ties in nicely with Ken’s story and Yukina.

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Plus +

While the fights are not using the smoothest animation ever, they actually give you a feeling of speed and you feel some real concern for the pilots at times (even though it becomes obvious fairly early on that this show isn’t interested in permanently knocking off any of its main cast even when they deserve it). As a result, the fights are pretty fun to watch even once the outcome becomes inevitable.

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Minus –

How many clichés can you pack into a single show? While this show probably isn’t the worst offender ever for this, some of these just felt so unnecessarily tacked on. We had the pool scene, because high school right, and yes the transfer student who is actually a 450 year old samurai, and the school festival of course, the overlooked love interest, the cosplaying best friend, the useless female teacher (hate that one), the teenage mecha pilots, the hot springs trip, the doppelgänger, the 450 year old machine that still somehow works perfectly, the internet obsessed guy, and so on. While some of these were used well within the context of this narrative, others, as I said, felt really unnecessary and like they existed just because the writers were told to make an anime so they did. Clichés aren’t always bad, but some of these just weren’t needed.

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Plus +

I kind of like how this ends. Yeah, there’s still plenty of story out there but it really feels like they brought things to a close. Particularly given the five year time jump (which doesn’t seem like enough given the changes but we had a dialogue line of explanation on that one) which gave us insight into what everyone had done and was doing and really gave the series a sense of closure. Such a rare feeling with anime.

Minus –

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Okay, this one is a minus I don’t normally point out or worry about and most people won’t care, but I found the sub-titles to not be great on this one. I’m aware subs don’t always direct translate and the people who sub things think about the intended meaning and flow and all sorts of other things (or at least if they are good they do, some terrible subs just direct translate everything whether it makes sense in English or not). However, there were a few instances in this where I had to wonder if the sub-title was making it less clear what the intended meaning had been. My Japanese isn’t great so I usually assume that the subs are closer than what I’ve translated and the problem is on my end, but there were a few times where I actually went back and re-listened because what I was reading was definitely not conveying the idea the same way I’d heard it. Again, the problem could definitely be on my end but it was a distraction from my viewing.

Mostly, this is a lot of fun, but there’s not a lot of depth and nothing much to take away from it. If you want to watch some giant robots smash each other with samurai swords, and a vaguely moralistic message about the general nature of human beings and organisations (and if you want aliens, ogres, and nanomachines thrown into the mix) then you’ll probably have a great time watching this. If you’re wanting something that requires a bit more thinking than maybe look elsewhere. Definitely a popcorn viewing anime but not memorable.


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Blue Exorcist Season 2 Series Review

Overview:

A continuation of Blue Exorcist (reviewed here), the story picks up with pretty much everyone being scared of Rin and Yukio still stressing about everything. Someone stole the eye of the Impure King so now we’re all going to Kyoto because clearly a world threat should be handled by students and a small branch group. I reviewed this week to week so if you are interested in my episodic thoughts click here.

Review:

It’s shows like this that make me hesitate when someone asks me if I’m excited about an upcoming sequel. Sure, the original may have been fun (in the case of Blue Exorcist I liked the first season well enough though I wasn’t a die-hard fan), but do we really need that continuation? And more importantly, is the continuation doing anything other than giving us more of the same?

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In the case of Blue Exorcist a continuation was actually kind of needed. Rin’s grand goal of defeating Satan was nowhere near being in sight at the end of season 1. However, season 2 barely even acknowledges that such a goal ever existed. If season 2 had progressed towards this and Rin had substantially grown and we could see some sort of end point that maybe eventually he’d have a chance at succeeding at his lofty and impossible goal, then maybe this could have worked.

Instead we get a side story about the Impure King which essentially means after a brief and pathetic struggle our cast shift locations to Kyoto where we meet Suguro’s family and a whole bunch of new characters, sit around and talk for most the season, and finally get an overly extended fight sequence against a villain who has literally no agency in the story other than to be the villain. It’s an entirely filler filled story that could have been told in about an hour for all the content it actually delivers.

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And still they could have pulled this off. The strength of Blue Exorcist wasn’t in its amazing plot (it had a great premise but didn’t do a lot with that anyway) or even the amazing characters (given they are all pretty much one or two note sound bits). The strength of season 1 was its crazy energy and the simple fact that it would embrace the absurd. It was fun. Logic could fail within the story but it was just fun to watch.

Season 2 failed to understand the concept of fun and absurd. And while a more serious tone for a show that probably needed it given the subject matter also could have worked, you need to give us something to replace the fun times of season 1. Characters sitting around talking and having group meetings, or watching a character repeatedly train and fail, or watching a character mope and wallow in self doubt, or hearing yet another speech about friendship… none of these things replace fun.

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It isn’t even that season 2 is not as good as season 1. As a story it has so many issues.

Firstly, Todo, who was kind of the catalyst for the story starting with his theft remains a complete enigma at the end. He didn’t die in that fight, we know that, and yet where is he at the end? Why did he stir things into motion? What’s his fascination with Yukio? Is he coming back? We don’t know anything, and while loose ends are fine in their own way, not knowing his motivation for stealing the eye and any of the events that follow make most of what happens pretty pointless to watch.

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Secondly, while we’re on the subject of villains, the Impure King himself is basically a giant mushroom growing out of control. There’s no personality, no presence, and given how late in the game he actually shows up, he really is just a plot device. The grand fear that he might be unleashed hovering over the series and then the final boss that no one cares about. Yes, he needs to be defeated, but there’s no satisfaction in seeing him defeated because I didn’t actually care about him as a villain.

Thirdly, the minor inconsistencies in the story itself. You know the coats the kids wore to rescue Rin that made them invisible, that they wear for the rest of the battle and yet people interact with them just fine. So they only make you invisible when you want to be? Really? This whole thing really annoyed me during those final episodes. They are having a conversation but isn’t that person invisible? It just kept distracting me from the incredibly repetitive dialogue. This wasn’t the only inconsistency the story served up but it was the most distracting.

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Fourthly, Rin. Arguably the only point to this whole arc is watching him finally gain control of his flames so that maybe people will trust him (and you know he won’t get executed). However he just doesn’t care. He’s so happy-go-lucky that the threat of execution is kind of just dropped into the story by Yukio as a major downer every now and then and then we just kind of push that aside and get back to Rin being Rin. Even his final drawing of the sword and defeating the Impure King (flames finally controlled because of friendship) is kind of half-hearted. So yes, Rin grew over these 12 episodes, but not significantly enough to justify the rest of the viewing time.

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Finally, Yukio. Yukio, please go get some professional help for your issues and stop taking them out on your brother. preferably before you end up turning into a demon. Yukio is quite possibly my least favourite character in this show and this season just kind of emphasised why. Its odd, because normally I like the character who thinks about things as opposed to the characters who rush in, but Yukio is so boring and so contradictory that I just want to slap him most episodes. In his defense, he did get a few good moments in the fight against Todo but that hardly makes up for everything else.

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People who really enjoyed season 1 of this and really like the characters, may find enough here to enjoy. For everyone else, I just don’t see it as being worth the time it takes to watch. It is watchable, but there’s just not much point in it. So while I did have some fun with this, mostly I just kind of watched it. And as the season progressed and it became increasingly clear they were stretching out a very small amount of material, I became increasingly more critical of this. There are some good moments but overall I’m probably never watching this again.


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March Comes in Like a Lion Series Review

Overview:

March Comes in Like a Lion follows Rei Kiriyama a professional Shogi player despite being in highschool. Rei struggles with social interactions and sometimes just facing the day is an overwhelming challenge, however an encounter with three sisters will see some small changes in his life. You can find my episode reviews here.

Review:

There is no denying that I have absolutely loved watching March Comes in Like a Lion. For me there was an instant connection with Rei (not that I’ve gone through the same challenges or anything but I think we’ve all had those moments where we’ve wanted to run away from everything and hide). Rei’s really at the centre of everything in this show and whether you love it or not will depend entirely on how you take to him. Whether you enjoy watching him struggle and want to get behind him, whether you feel it cuts too close to home and feel uncomfortable, or whether you just don’t connect and find the proceedings fairly dull, it all comes down to that central character.

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That isn’t to say there aren’t some other very strong points to the show but with a plot that is almost non-existent this show heavily relies on the character journey to carry the story forward. Outside of Rei’s emotional journey you really just have  boy drifting through life and encountering others, occasionally getting caught up in their drama, and then drifting on to the next thing. Some of those encounters are amazing, but it doesn’t make for much of a plot.

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So what do I like about Rei?

He is at times represented quite pathetically, which isn’t the same as being a pathetic character. There are times when he gives up, when he loses his temper, when he surrenders a battle before he begins fighting. At all of those moments, everything about the show paints Rei as being pathetic. However, as a character he is magnificent to watch. This show gave me one of the best representations of a character going through depression and dealing with social anxieties that I have ever seen. Early in the series I worried that the sisters were going to be like some mystic fairy godmother and wave a wand and ‘cure’ Rei (a feat we’ve seen in so many other shows where getting a friend or a girlfriend/boyfriend suddenly changes everything). However, while they certainly give Rei an anchor to the world at times and a bright point within the darkness that surrounds him, they alone are not enough to transform him. They merely provide a catalyst for Rei realising he wants to change.

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And that is probably the strongest part of his character. Rei remains the agent of change regardless of the other characters who may support that change, provide a means for that change, or provide guidance on how to change. Rei is the one who chooses to move from where he is. Because of that his journey is not linear. He moves forward and back, stepping into more positive spaces before falling back down. Each time he learns and gains from the experience but it feels incredibly genuine and more importantly, if you’ve connected with him, it is heart wrenching watching him fall. You just want to reach out to him and grab his hand but you know you can’t fight the battle for him anymore than his teacher at school can or the sisters.

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The sisters themselves remain fairly nebulous to me. While they are that shining ray of hope that Rei needs, and at times they certainly kick things into gear (dragging Rei out when he’s sick to nurse him, running into him in town and bringing Nikaido over) as characters they get very little time and almost no development. The middle sister probably has the best moments when going through her first love and again when mourning her parents, but really the sisters seem more like a plot device than characters at times. That doesn’t really detract from the show but given their impact on the main character it would be nice to know more about them other than that they are nice. The cats are a nice touch though.

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Later in the series an older shogi player becomes fairly significant in Rei’s life. Shimada is probably the best developed character outside of Rei and his influence on Rei is enormous in the second half of the series. Shimada is a great character to watch and his story plays out very well and is thoroughly engaging. At first it seemed odd that he was getting so much focus, particularly as it seemed like Rei, the main character, was being sidelined, however the choice was well made and when the focus shifts back to Rei you realise just how essential seeing Shimada’s story was.

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The only other character I want to address in detail is Kyouko, Rei’s sister in the family that adopted him. She is set up as an antagonist and to be honest she is quite antagonistic, however that doesn’t appear to be her main role. Her relationship with Rei is more complicated than it first appeared and while at no point do I actually feel sorry for her, she is a horrible person, you begin to understand her actions a bit more when you realise that the father essentially forced his children to turn against each other in order to be the best. Losing out to Rei, and in so doing losing her father’s affection, seems to be the cornerstone of Kyouko’s entire character so her actions are understandable. What is less clear are Rei’s feelings for her given he clearly hates and fears her, but also seems drawn to her like a moth straight to a flame. If there was any relationship I’d like to see more of, it would be this one, because there’s a lot of unanswered questions about how Rei feels about the situation.

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Outside of the characters what makes this show an amazing watch are the visuals  and the music. Both have been chosen very well throughout to really convey the emotions on screen. While at times the visuals get a little over crowded as they hit you with a plethora of colours and symbols, for the most part they perfectly convey the feeling of the moment and really give a concrete substance to the emotions of the character.

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Okay, a few criticisms because I can’t leave this all shiny and happy. This show is slow. At times in the first half it is really, really slow. And the shogi cat song needs to disappear from existence and never be heard again. Plus, the first opening theme is significantly stronger than the second in terms of matching the tone of the show (though both ending themes are brilliant). And that’s really all I’ve got as overall criticisms.

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All and all though, if you didn’t watch this or try it while it was airing I am definitely recommending it. It won’t grab everyone but it is worth trying as if you can get into it the character journey is well worth watching. I know it is only the Winter season that has aired so far in 2017, but I know it is going to be hard for another anime to have as much impact on me this year as this one did so this is definitely a contender for my anime of the year.


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Friday’s Feature: Discussing Sequels, Prequels and Spin-Offs

When it came to movies, I was always wary of sequels growing up. It was more or less universally accepted that the sequel would be weaker than the original with a few exceptions (which of course proved the rule). I was less aware of prequels until the Star Wars franchise essentially hacked the heart out of their own series by delivering 3 very underwhelming movies that pretty much told us nothing that we hadn’t already figured out from watching the original series. Since then we’ve had plenty of other examples in movies of prequels and sequels just not quite hitting the mark.

So how does this translate to the anime watching experience?

Well it doesn’t really because anime sometimes wraps up the story in one season, but often it doesn’t. What we usually call a sequel in anime is regularly just an ongoing continuation of a story that wasn’t finished. Which means that sometimes that second part is awesome (or third, or fourth, or whatever in the case of very long running series). However, sometimes even if the story isn’t finished it feels like the characters have said everything they needed to and we’re just getting put through the motions of yet more fights and battles for the sake of it.

That said, some sequels are amazing. Higurashi’s second season is fantastic, and totally necessary if you ever want to know why everyone keeps dying in that story. Meanwhile, Black Butler 2 I probably could have done without (and Darker Than Black 2 and quite a few others). What it comes down to is while I will watch a sequel to a series I enjoyed, I always watch with the assumption that there’s a good chance it will go downhill fast, that way if they manage to pull off something decent I’m always pleasantly surprised. And I know some people are screaming Endless Eight right now which is probably another reason to be wary of some sequels.

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The occasional prequel that shows up (such as Handa-kun) doesn’t really register given how infrequent they are. Generally, any backstory that is needed is told through flashbacks and prequels just aren’t needed. That hasn’t stopped various ‘young’ insert character name stories cropping up but they aren’t exactly flooding the market (and please don’t).

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Then, we’ve also got spin-off series which are extremely hit and miss. Some manage to surpass the original where others just end up looking like a watered down imitation. A Certain Scientific Railgun is an excellent example of a spin-off that kind of left the original material in the dust. While I like A Certain Magical Index, the need to explain magic, esper abilities, and Touma’s weird ability which falls into neither category, meant the whole thing was very crowded. Also, Touma regularly faced magical villains which meant despite the show being set in a city of espers, esper abilities sat more as a background setting than a focus. Railgun deals pretty much exclusively with the espers and esper issues and as a direct result the world building is significantly stronger and the conflicts are far easier to convey and explain.

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This season we’ve got Sword Oratoria giving us a different view of the world from DanMachi (Is It Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?). Where Sword Oratoria concerned me even from its announcement was in the focus character. See, Railgun took the most interesting character out of Index and gave her a chance to shine. Sword Oratoria takes the least interesting character out of DanMachi and so far hasn’t done much with her. That isn’t to say it can’t pick up, but you have to wonder why we didn’t just get a continuation of DanMachi given Bell’s story wasn’t yet done.

What it means is, there’s no hard and fast rule in anime (or in movies really) as to whether a sequel, prequel, or spin-off will work or not which leaves a lot of fans wading through poor follow up seasons in the hope of stumbling across a good one.

Winter 2017 gave us a number of sequels to consider and to be honest I found them all lacking. Tales of Zestiria the X had been reasonable in season 1, but season 2 lost all focus and forward momentum before rushing to a conclusion that made very little sense to those who hadn’t played the game because so many things happened just because. It was kind of a let down even for those of us with minimal expectations of it. Iron Blooded Orphans similarly kind of faded during its second season. While it maintained a reasonable storyline, it just lacked the punch of the original. Meanwhile, Super Lovers 2 just left me wondering if the characters actually had made any headway at all and Blue  Exorcist just felt like they thought they could just throw any random villain at the characters because the audience would be happy with whatever.

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Then we got to Spring 2017 and while I’m watching the spin-off Sword Oratoria, in terms of sequels the load is heavy. My Hero Academia, Attack on Titan, The Eccentric Family and Natsume Yuujinchou are all trying to draw me back into their worlds. Natsume has the advantage in that it’s up to season 6 (and I’ll come back to Natsume in a little bit). The Eccentric Family made a strong start. Both My Hero Academia and Attack on Titan have done a reasonable job (and I’ll admit My Hero Academia seems to be getting stronger by the episode), but at this point neither has really convinced me they can surpass the first season (I’d love to be proven wrong and for both to end well).

For me, the main issue always seems to be that unlike a new series, a sequel is stuck with all the expectations of the audience and preconceived notions. We’ve watched part 1, we know these characters and this setting. It limits where the story can go but it can still be very good if there is character development to be found or more story to be told.

There are three series that I want to discuss in regards to sequels.

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Starting with Full Metal Panic, this series had a season 1 and then we got Second Raid. There’s also a filler comedy season which should be regarded in its own way (its hilarious) but I’m not discussing that here. Arguably, you can stop watching at the end of season 1. You can. Chidori realises she’s got all this stuff in her head and she uses it to save the submarine. Sousuke beats the guy he’s been wanting to beat. They celebrate and then they go back to school. Yeah, Chidori is still going to be targeted and Sousuke still knows nothing about living in the real world, but essentially, it’s a good stopping point.

So why Second Raid?

Because what does Chidori want to do now that she knows she has this knowledge in her head? Is Sousuke actually just going to play the good soldier forever? And what is their relationship? There were plenty of character points still open that had more than enough points of interest to explore and certainly more than enough villains in the world to get the plot moving again. The reason Second Raid works though is Chidori and Sousuke both get pushed to their limit. Chidori is forced to fight for her own life because Sousuke doesn’t instantly save her. He’s too busy going through his own little mental break down which is spectacular to see given everything he’s been through. And while he recovers just a little too fast, it is a mecha series and mental health was never supposed to be the main focus (it isn’t Evangelion).

However, then there’s the announcement about yet another season and the only question I had was why? While season 1 set the scene and the plot really well while introducing us to the characters and season 2 showed us the true effect of everything they’d been through on the characters, what will season 3 offer us other than either more of the same or just another random villain? As much as I love this story and these characters, I’m not convinced yet that another season is needed. Though, there also haven’t been any details about season 3 released (other than a delay) so maybe they have come up with something worth saying.

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But all of this contrasts with my view of SAO in terms of sequels. Sword Art Online was fantastic when it came out. The entire first arc, playing Sword Art Online, was good (I know some people have issues with it but it works). I loved it. Then Kirito beats the game and they all wake up. That’s great. We’re trapped in a game that can kill us and someone finally let us out. Whoo-hoo.

So why isn’t that the end of season 1?

Because some people didn’t wake up. Okay. Fine. Why not?

Technically, this could have worked as a continuation. It could have. But most people will agree that Fairy Dance is the weakest of the SAO stories. While it does tie up a loose end or 2 from SAO, it isn’t necessary. The story could have ended with them waking up and being reunited. They added an additional complication for no reason other then to force a continuation that wasn’t needed, turned a reasonably capable female character into a damsel in distress, and introduced a villain who was so immature and cartoonish in his villainy you couldn’t have taken him seriously if you tried.

Then we have GGO and the Mother Rosario arcs, both of which I kind of regard more as Spin-offs given how little in common they have with the original story at this point. More importantly, Kirito pretty much stops developing as a character (and I know some people will argue he didn’t develop in the original, but we’ll save that argument for later). Essentially, he freezes at the end of Fairy Dance. There’s nothing more to say about him. He does stuff, but he no longer changes as a result of his actions or decisions.

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The last series I want to touch on is Natsume Yuujinchou which is already 5 seasons, with season 6 getting underway. Natsume in terms of story has never really felt like it is driving toward anything. The conflict has always been Natsume dealing with how to live. That isn’t something that can be ‘solved’ or ‘overcome’ and it isn’t something that ends. And it is a conflict that continually sees the main character reflect and grow (admittedly in very slow and small steps). What that ultimately means is that despite the number of sequels, this story still doesn’t feel finished and this character is still evolving. Spending more time with him on his journey is always fun.

Basically, anime sequels (or prequels or spin-offs) all need to be considered in the light of the series they are attached to. For me if they actually are needed or are adding something of value to the character or the story then I will usually find them highly enjoyable. But if I’m just expected to swallow lack luster story telling because someone slapped a name on it I recognise, I’m going to move on.

How do you feel about sequels and prequels in anime?


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Super Lovers Season 2 Series Review

Overview:

Super Lovers season 2 picks up with Ren and Haru pretty much where season 1 left off. Their relationship is in limbo. That said, Ren is actively becoming more aggressive in his pursuit of a relationship this season.

I reviewed Super Lovers season 2 week to week over on my patreon, however the posts are public so feel free to check out my episode thoughts here.

Review:

There’s not much to say about this show. Either you made it through season 1, in which case you would probably continue happily on to season 2, or you didn’t. Season 2 does bring some revelations to the table about the accident and the various decisions made by the parents regarding the various adoptions, but mostly its more of the same. Ren and Haru don’t communicate well, some problem ensues, both look like a hurt puppy for awhile, and then one or the other manages some gesture that gets them both back on track.

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The support cast remain more or less one note. In fact, this season they feel even more tagged on, existing only to offer the occasional commentary on the relationship or be an audience to Ren or Haru’s various crises. Even an additional cast member in the form of a cousin with a complicated relationship to the brothers (who doesn’t have a complicated relationship in this show), doesn’t do much to liven up the support cast.

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Jealousy plays a key role through most of the story. Both Ren and Haru are possessive and for me that is most problematic thing in their relationship. The age difference is a little cringey, the could be brothers but not biological is a little off-putting, the power imbalance given Ren is dependent on Haru certainly concerns me, but the possessive nature of their emotions is where the relationship really sours for me. It kind of ceases to be cute and becomes close to emotional abuse when they both try to cut off the other’s relationships outside of themselves. The only consolation here is that it isn’t one character doing to the other but both characters are acting in an equally possessive manner.

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Really, though the largest problem the series faces (not the relationship but the show) is that the plot is practically non-existent. We just kind of drift from moment to moment with these ideas strung together only by the tenuous thread of where Haru and Ren are up to in their relationship. Its like trying to plot something from someone’s Facebook relationship status and its about as coherent really. It’s got a job, fought with my ex, had a dinner party, totally in love, invited on a date,  fought with my soon to be ex, went to the beach, and so on and so forth. The story is not compelling.

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Overall, I probably could have just stopped watching this at any point. I’ll admit, I’m still a little curious about where the two characters will ultimately end up and there was nothing so unwatchably bad about this season that I actually wanted to quit, but neither was I in any rush as the next episode came out. My episode reviews ran about a week behind the release of the episode which gave me plenty of time to delay watching and find other things to do.


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Spiritpact Series Review

Overview:

After living a fairly nothing life Keika dies quite unceremoniously when he’s hit by a truck. However that isn’t the end as Tanmoku shows up and asks Keika to become his spirit shadow. After a series of narratively convenient events a contract is made and the two are joined but there’s still a whole lot of mystery going on.

I reviewed Spiritpact week to week so if you are interested in my individual episode thoughts please click here.

Review:

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Let’s get this part of the review out of the way. The first episode of this is a nearly unwatchable mess. It has the hallmarks of an absolute train wreck and the only reason I didn’t chuck this show then and there and actually am now able to review the series is because of my slight intrigue about this whole spirit shadow thing. In fact, this series along with Hand Shakers is kind of the reason my ‘They Made This’ category now exists in my weekly overview. However, I’m a sucker for ghost stories so despite thinking very little of it I moved on to episode two.

Episode two isn’t much better, but…

You knew there had to be a ‘but’ coming.

…what this show does incredibly well is each episode reveals something. Not much and at first it isn’t overly coherent (or it is just a massive information dump with little context) but it does reveal something. And even though there are points in pretty much every episode where you could pause the screen and just ask ‘Why am I watching this?’ the answer is pretty clear. Despite everything wrong with this show from a production and writing point of view it is telling a really compelling story (it just isn’t doing it well).

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And then you get to the second half of the series (this ended up only being 10 episodes so second half isn’t that far in). The biggest problems from early in the show are finally starting to sort themselves and you are getting less of the poor comedy and more of the straight up drama. By episode 9 you don’t know when it happened but you are completely caught up with these characters and the story and episode 10 delivers a satisfying conclusion.

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Does any of the emotional investment make this a better show?

Not really. It is a travesty at times. The comedy is truly hideous (and unhelped because it is accompanied by truly hideous visuals). Transitions between scenes are awkward. Characters come and go from the series around our protagonists but sometimes they’ve had so little to do early of consequence later when they return you don’t even know who they are. One character doesn’t appear early on, nor are they mentioned, but they play a fairly critical role in the second half. You spend a lot of the first three episodes asking ‘what?’ and you spend some of the time in the middle of the series wondering if they just forgot what was meant to happen next.

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I still had a great deal of fun watching this. Early on it was just to see if this could be my worst of the season. The premise was interesting enough that I’d be entertained and it would give me something to talk about. By the end I was genuinely waiting the week out just to get the next episode to find out what happened to the characters next.

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Keika is probably the character success story of the 2017 winter season really. I hated him in episode 1. I genuinely wanted his soul to disappear. By the end I was nearly in tears when his soul was in danger. I do not know why I started liking his character or caring about his fate but I know that somewhere along the line he became someone I genuinely wanted to see survive and find some happiness.

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Despite that, I won’t recommend this. If the premise intrigues you, check it out and stick it out (it’s only ten episodes). You’ll probably wind up enjoying it even if you want to howl with frustration early on. If the premise isn’t really your thing and you’ve got a watch list that continues to grow forever, the fact that it ends well probably isn’t enough incentive to sit through this.


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Haikyuu Season 1 Series Review

Overview:

Hinata just really wants to play volleyball but his middle-school doesn’t have a functioning male team so despite his efforts he only plays one game. Now at high school, he is determined to be on the team and to stay on the court. However, on day one of joining the team, he encounters Kageyama, an opponent from the one game he played and someone Hinata considers a rival. How will the two of them learn to play together?

Review (with spoilers):

I honestly did enjoy this series more than I expected I would and by around episode 15 or 16 I was very much caught up in this team’s journey as they tried to secure a place in the nationals. But when it comes to reviewing this series I am kind of torn about where it stands. It hasn’t exactly blown me away and made me want to do an instant rewatch (and to be honest I’m not sure when if ever I will rewatch this first season). At the same time I was fairly keen to jump straight into season 2 because this show had really built some momentum by the end of season 1.  So with my thoughts a bit confused I am going to go with a plus/minus approach to the review.

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Plus +

It’s a sports anime that makes the sport exciting. I don’t say that lightly. I hate watching sport. The only sports I have ever actively sought out to watch on TV are figure skating and gymnastics (because they are pretty). And unlike a lot of other sports, I’ve barely played volleyball and found it to be a fairly dull sport (mostly because I stank at it and really don’t like sports where people pelt balls at you). So when I say that this show makes volleyball look fun and inviting as well as fairly complex with actual strategies, know that this show had to work hard to get me to shift my view on this sport. The games are undeniably the best part of watching the show, though that’s only because they link the games so intensely with character development. Just watching a sport by itself, no matter how well animated, would never interest me. But watching characters evolve from one serve to the next as they learn from experiences and from others around them and watching them continually re-evaluate their situation and try to progress is really fun and it is where Haikyuu absolutely nailed its execution.

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Minus –

While I’ll be more specific about particular points later on, literally everything off the court was weaker than the games. The pace of episodes stagnated when they weren’t being pushed forward by the next ball and the characters were never as alive or as interesting when they were off the court. The write up on AnimeLab about this anime actually describes it as a slice-of-life sports anime and that’s probably the best genre description for it. But the slice-of-life aspects aren’t particularly strong. They aren’t terrible or unwatchable or dull (and I’ve certainly described other slice-of-life anime with those words) but compared to the sports side of this anime they don’t hold their weight. It makes the viewing experience a little unbalanced.

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Plus +

The support cast are fantastic. While a lot of the attention, particularly early in the anime, is on Hinata and Kageyama, the other characters slowly but surely make their presence felt and each of them contribute something fairly invaluable to both the team and the viewing experience. I really like Tsukishima for his sarcasm and cynical attitude but Sugawara all the way through manages to be that quiet supporter and just when they need him the most he really delivers. The opponents are also for the most part well characterised. Probably my biggest complaint their would go to Oikawa from the final game. Given how much screen time he had, including flash-backs, he still didn’t really become anything more than a prop. Just another opponent there to push the team forward. Still, with such a large cast of characters, plus coaches, opponents, and spectators, this show has done a marvellous job with the vast majority.

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Minus –

Hinata is just not that interesting. When the story focusses on Hinata himself, you are forced to realise that underneath peppy energy and an absolutely fierce desire to improve and to win, there’s almost nothing else of substance. When every other character, even the ones who initial seem one-note, are delivering fairly nuanced performances, having a protagonist of sorts who is mostly just a standard cut out shonen protagonist (only playing volleyball and not waving a sword around) kind of lets things down from time to time. Hinata gets more interesting when he’s observing others, but when the focus is him it all just feels pretty basic. Of course, we do get to enjoy some Hinata speak where he kind of mangles onomatopoeia into his descriptions of game play. It’s amusing enough but after awhile you have to start wondering just how old he is meant to sound.

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Plus +

While early on we had the win that really shouldn’t have happened given how inexperienced the team was, this show didn’t pull a last minute reprieve and victory just to end the season on a high note. Yet it also didn’t depress the viewer (though the characters are another story). It gave us some incredible character growth and something to look forward to, so I was pretty satisfied with that loss as I felt any other ending to the tournament would probably have just felt like plot armour anyway.

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Minus –

This one is probably petty and is definitely totally subjective, but I really didn’t think much of the soundtrack. It works well enough but it is also pretty forgettable. Given how exciting some moments are and how dramatic the games get, it feels like we could have had something really memorable and amazing and instead we kind of got generic, this will do, kind of music. As I said, it is a petty complaint given there is nothing actually wrong with the music, but I’d struggle the day after an episode to even remember what the OP sounded like let alone any particular music from an episode.

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I’m actually really glad I tried this (it had certainly been recommended to me enough). Again, I’m not certain what rewatch value this will have long term because honestly it feels like once I’ve gone through this journey with the characters that will be enough. But for an anime that combines two genres I’m not made-keen on it is an impressive and highly entertaining watch.

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I know there are a lot of Haikyuu fans out there (and thanks for following my very late watch of this series). Let me know your favourite moments or characters or why you love this show. Or, if you didn’t like it, I’d love to know what didn’t work for you.


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Kobato Series Review

Overview:

This one is kind of hard to explain without spoilers but I will avoid the major revelations as much as possible. Essentially we are following Kobato who has limited memories but has arrived in the town with Ioryogi (who looks like a stuffed toy) and she has a mission. Essentially she has to fill a jar with shiny things and she does this by healing the hearts of those around her. Later we learn there is a time limit as to how long she can take to fill it the jar. Meanwhile, Kobato gets a job at a childcare/kindergarten and slowly grows closer to the children and the others working there. This anime also got a spot on my Top 5 Christmas Focussed Episodes list.

Review:

This anime is all about sweetness and light and breaking your heart so if that isn’t appealing you should probably move on. While there is a supernatural element at play this anime all boils down to human emotions and experiencing them and learning from them. While most episodes fall into the Kobato finds someone who has a problem and by the end she’s solved said problem and left them smiling, the ongoing story of Kobato’s quest to have an unnamed wish fulfilled is never forgotten as Ioryogi steadily works to keep both Kobato and the audience on track with what the real story is supposed to be.

And that’s probably how Kobato gets away with being so ridiculously sweet early on. There isn’t much happening in the story in the first half. She gets a job, she meets people, she says naive things, she sings a lot, and she occasionally manages to help out in situations. If that was all there was to this story, some people would still enjoy it as a nice slice of life. But between Ioryogi and Fujimoto we realise not everything in this anime is sweetness and light.

Ioryogi knows a lot more about what is going on with Kobato and the wish than he is intent on letting on. At times the audience are given some insight into what those secrets are as Ioryogi occasionally leaves Kobato’s side to visit his ‘friends’ and we learn about his past. As you would expect from CLAMP, this backstory is full of magic and lore and while we never learn all of the details, the picture it paints is pretty vivid (and part of me wonders why we didn’t get to see that story instead, though perhaps the imagining of what happened is greater than the viewing would be).  This darker side to the story lets us know early on we’re dealing with a tragic tale and it gives us just enough to really cut through that sickly sweet tone that Kobato herself keeps throwing off.

The other reason this show doesn’t become overly adorable is Fujimoto. He is a very angry young man and of course bullies Kobato fairly mercilessly for being useless (which given she has no memories and other than singing can’t really do anything is probably a fair call). Of course Fujimoto is actually a great guy under it all and Kobato is going to become infatuated, hence the Christmas episode with the potential love triangle, but Fujimoto injects some very much needed rancour into what the early episodes.

For fans of Tsubasa Chronicles there’s also a small cameo from some of our favourite inter-dimensional travellers during one of the episodes.

Other points of interest include Kobato’s outfits. She has one outfit for each season so it is very easy to keep track of time and how long she’s been there and how long she has left. The time limit is literally the only thing driving any sense of haste in this story as Kobato herself is completely unable to really care about time passing. As Ioryogi becomes desperate, Kobato all but throws off her duty to fill the jar to go on a personal mission to save Fujimoto and at that point most of the pieces of the puzzle as to what is going on click but the final revelations in the last couple of episodes will still break your heart and then slowly help you piece it back together.

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There’s an array of interesting side and supporting characters and some of these add much needed humour and human interactions. The whole kindergarten getting shut down storyline is necessary though seems really dragged out at times and yet still manages to turn itself around into something sweet.

That’s really the recurring theme. Things don’t really end they just get new and different beginnings. It fits with the overall tone of the anime and makes the ending a little easier to take. And it’s a theme that is interwoven through almost every plot and subplot in this story so there is a cohesion to this show that is fairly rare in anime.

Anyway, this isn’t fast moving, it isn’t overly exciting, and the emotions it hits you with are clearly telegraphed from a mile away but it is very effective and it is some good entertainment for when you just want the world to be a little bit nicer (first half) or when you’d like a good cry (second half). I would recommend this anime but I know that it won’t be for everyone and Kobato as a blank slate protagonist (particularly in the early episodes) is certainly not going to win everyone’s hearts no matter how sweet she is.

If you’ve watch Kobato let me know what you thought of it.


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Tokyo Ghoul Series Review

Overview:

Kaneki Ken is probably the single unluckiest character to be scripted in recent history (and there are a lot of unlucky anime characters). He’s a nice, shy guy who likes reading books and the girl he likes who also likes the same author has finally spoken to him. They go on a date, she tries to kill him, but he’s ‘saved’ when they are both crushed in an ‘accident’. Only, a pesky doctor decides he can save Kaneki by doing an organ transplant, from the killer date who it turns out was a ghoul. Thus begins Kaneki’s new and wondrous life as a half-ghoul thing who has no clue about how the world really works.

Review:

Straight out I am going to tell you that this review is limited to the first series. I’ll get to the mess that is season 2 at some other stage.

With that said, I finished season 1 in a single marathon sitting unintentionally because I just couldn’t stop. I really loved this. Not that it isn’t without its flaws (even season 1 has a number of glaring issues if you stop and think about them) but because this show was kind of built to appeal to the b-grade horror/action junkie hiding inside me that just wants to have a good time while watching something that’s just a bit dark but a lot of fun. Tokyo Ghoul is not the kind of trainwreck that Highschool of the Dead managed to be, but it certainly is going to appeal to a similar audience unless you were watching Highschool of the Dead for the physics defying breasts in which case you’ll probably be out of luck here.

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So, we’ll just go with a straight plus/minus format because for everything I loved in this series, there’s definitely a few little bumps that need to be addressed.

Plus +

Kaneki Ken is a great protagonist in season 1. Initially clueless and relatively powerless, thrust into a complicated world, gradually becoming award and finding his limitations, and yet seeking to help before having any hopes that he might be helpful dashed utterly horribly. You really feel for Kaneki. He got dealt an incredibly unfair hand and yet after his initially absolute despair he starts to climb his way out of it. The road isn’t smooth and he doesn’t always make the right choices but he consistently learns from his mistakes and continues to push forward. What I really admire about Kaneki as a character is that even though he talks with others and tries to change their way of thinking when they are clearly prejudiced against certain ideas is that he never takes the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ approach that so many protagonists might. Part of this is to do with his much gentler personality than so many shonen protagonists and part of this is he’s a more logical thinker and one who has to process everything before he can act (though that is also a weakness of his). Plus, Kaneki is a bookworm and to be honest I’d like him as a character just for that trait.

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Minus –

While Tokyo Ghoul does have an excellent character journey laid out for Kaneki this season, the plot is a little… Okay, they had a good concept. Cool premise now where’s the story? We leap between threats and conflicts as Kaneki’s world view expands but there’s really no overall antagonist or conflict driving this forward. And even Kaneki doesn’t really have a goal other than learning to live with himself. Which could have been an admirable focus around which to build a character driven plot but Tokyo Ghoul is more of an action/horror and Kaneki’s personal journey is clearly a side-note. In the space of 12 episodes we have a fight between two ghouls that is upsetting the power balance in the city, Kaneki’s conflict with his friend Hide and the ghoul at his university, the gourmet crazy guy, the doves, and a group of ghouls who have decided to declare war who seem to come out of nowhere toward the end even though technically they are foreshadowed earlier in the story they don’t really have significance until suddenly they are there. All of this makes it kind of messy. Fast paced and with limited down time, but messy.

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Plus +

The fight sequences in this anime are great. Mostly this is because of the unique take on ghouls that this anime has other then just being flesh eaters. Ghouls have Kagune which take on different forms but essentially come out of their backs and work as an offensive or defensive weapon depending on the type and they allow for some pretty cool effects during the fights. Not to mention the ghouls’ skin can’t be cut by your standard knife so the government agents (doves) use weapons fashioned from these Kagune to hunt the ghouls. It’s a creepy plot point and makes the doves even more loathesome at times.

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Minus –

Early on, Tokyo Ghoul, would have you believe it is going to look seriously at the idea of discrimination by having Kaneki straddling the gap between human and ghouls. This plot point gets thrown out the window very early and other than the doves, there are almost no human characters of consequence. The one character who desperately needed more development and screen time, Hide – Kaneki’s apparently only human friend from before he became a ghoul, kind of vanishes for large chunks at a time and so any serious dialogue about similarities and differences kind of gets shuffled away as does Kaneki’s overall conflict at being a ghoul. By the end of the first half Kaneki is entirely caught up in various conflicts that the ghouls are facing and his own nature and the conflict that this had brought is almost entirely shelved. That doesn’t mean his character growth stops, it just goes in a very different direction compared to where it seemed to be going.

Plus +

The character designs are really interesting. Each character is quite distinct to look at (the ghouls have unique Kagune but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to visually differentiating the cast). Their mannerism, clothing, speech, and everything about the characters makes them feel like distinct entities even if some of these are a little one dimensional. The colours and fashion choices are great and really enhance the viewing experience as well as they contrast sharply with the fairly dark tone most of this anime seems to be draped in.

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Minus –

Alright, I really loved this season, but it ends on an absolute cliff hanger and while it is an awesomely cool scene leaving the show hanging there was really cruel. I’m not going into the what happened but if you are squeamish about torture let’s just say Tokyo Ghoul is not the anime for you and leave it at that.

Plus +

And to end on a positive note, the theme song is amazing. While it doesn’t have the uplifting warmth of History Maker from Yuri On Ice, given the nature of the show that would be absurd, what it does have is an absolute tone of despair and loss of identity. It perfectly plunges you into Kaneki’s mindset and prepares you for the sad tale you are watching. There is just enough hope in the opening to make you think things will get better and to not crush your soul but just the song itself is a moving experience.

While there are certainly elements of this show that could be improved, pretty much if you like dark anime, a bit of action or a bit of horror, you will love this viewing experience. It moves quickly, has great characters, some excellent fight sequences, and just enough moments of gore and pain to really hit home for the horror fans. It may not be for everyone but if you know you like that kind of thing and you haven’t checked it out, it is well worth your time, even with the non-ending that season 1 delivers.

If you’ve seen Tokyo Ghoul I’d love to know your thoughts and I will get to season 2 at some point but I’m going to be a whole lot harsher on that one.


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Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom Series Review

Overview:

A young man from Japan wakes up without memories and finds himself thrust into a world of assassins and betrayal. He’s a puppet for an organisation known as Inferno and he exists only to kill. However, he might not want to stay a puppet forever and as he grows closer to Ein, another of Inferno’s assassins, he’ll begin to think of a different future.

Review:

Phantom is one of those series that is really fun to watch and you get drawn into the story and the intrigue but when you think about it after all the plot holes that you kind of saw at the time just become more and more apparent. That said, this isn’t a story that wants you to look closely at it. It’s a story that wants you to journey with the characters to their end point and it wants to shock you along the way.

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Fair warning, shocks in this series come in the form of nudity, sexual encounters, murder (obviously), torture, brain washing, and the young age of certain characters and the situations they find themselves in. If you can stomach that (and while it isn’t overly gratuitous it is at times confronting) then you’ll probably have a blast watching the boy named Zwei become the best assassin ever before trying to get away and reclaim an actual life.

The story very much follows Zwei (and we do learn his real name but given even the character realises he’s gone too far down the road to return to that life this revelation doesn’t really change the fact that he has become Zwei whether he did it willingly or not). We meet him after he’s had his memories stripped and he is forced to endure a fairly harsh training regime to become an assassin. While he doesn’t strike the audience as particularly formidable early on, you realise he’s accelerating through the training sequence quite quickly and when we get the flashback to find out how he came to be in Inferno’s hands at all you realise why the crazy guy keeps carrying on about natural talent. (Yes, crazy guy has a name and no I don’t remember it.)

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But as much as the story follows this action and Zwei’s transformation, it also builds some intrigue and solid character relationships. That’s probably the strength of this series is it manages to balance some very cool action with those slower character building moments and it gives us a sense of the world Zwei has found himself in but never tries to info-dump on us. Mostly because everyone is pretty keen on keeping Zwei in the dark so it isn’t as though he knows much about what is going on or why.

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Once we progress to carrying out missions, we see Ein and Zwei and the clear difference between them. Ein is undoubtably a killing machine but while Zwei is talented he never has the outright blankness of personality that afflicts Ein. Nor is he technically all that rebellious and it is the intrigues within Inferno and the manipulation of some of its members that ultimately tip Zwei’s hand.

What I like is that Zwei tries numerous times to get out of this life he finds himself in, and to help remove Ein from it, but they continuously get drawn back in. It is only during the later stages of the series that a break is made and fortunately that bit of boredom (and probably the weakest moment of the series given we end up in a Japanese school setting which serves no real purpose other than anime and its ongoing obsession with Japanese schools) only lasts a short period of time.

Cal’s arrival in the story in the later half is both confronting and a brilliant move for the story. Zwei has been in the organisation for a long period of time when he takes Cal on and ends up doing much the same thing to her that was done to him before he abandons her. This leads to a major confrontation between them later, though the actual confrontation sounds better in theory than the delivery of it.

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And this is probably the major criticism of Phantom. It has a really solid first half but the second half with Cal and the running away to Japan and other events is decidedly weaker. It doesn’t help that many of the main players introduced in the first half are no longer in the story or have taken on new roles. This is where we start seeing major plot holes and start seeing the cracks in the characters and the reality that have been constructed.

Most likely, this won’t ruin your viewing experience but it does change a series from being a must watch to just being a good time with a few bumps along the road. That said if you like something a bit dark and assassination sounds like a nice plot device then definitely jump into this series. I had a lot of fun with it though I’ll admit it is far from perfect.

If you’ve seen Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom, let me know your thoughts.


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