Sugar and Spyce and All Things Nice

Release the Spyce Episode Review Title

Release the Spyce Episode 12 Review

And so no-one is actually a traitor and no-one is actually dead, and no-one is actually surprised. This toothless ending fits the tone of the show and allows everyone to be all sweet and nice and become friends and trust in others and it is an utterly flat narrative. Given the characters never really went anywhere, I was hoping the plot would eventually pick this one back up but tragically that hope went unfulfilled as this final episode wraps everything into a neat little package.

Release the Spyce Episode 12

What that means is Release the Spyce has managed to be competent. Nothing more or less. The ending defeats the bad guys, sees the heroes wrap things up, and if the story was primarily Momo’s journey (or at least that is how the series has been book-ended), then that narrative at least is brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Release the Spyce Episode 12 Momo

Still, there was a lot more potential in this series and these characters. So while what is here wasn’t particularly bad it was a little disappointing that the show could never rise to be more than what it became.

Release the Spyce Episode 12 - Villain

However, brainwashing machine go boom, the city gets a new pretty flower, and the girls all get on with their lives or with spying. Can’t really argue with it even if I wanted more.

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NENDOROID NO. 1041 RELEASE THE SPYCE: YUKI HANZOMON
NENDOROID NO. 1041 RELEASE THE SPYCE: YUKI HANZOMON

Things Are Getting Spycy As Time Runs Out

Release the Spyce Episode Review Title

Release the Spyce Episode 11 Review

For all that this anime hasn’t really gone as well as expected from its premise, I do have to compliment its sound design this week. That was actually a thing of beauty and the whole series has actually had remarkably good sound effects and a pretty awesome soundtrack. However when I’m reviewing the penultimate episode and my major compliment goes to sound design that probably spells trouble for the rest of the episode.

Release the Spyce Episode 11

Firstly, Hanzomon isn’t dead. Which I guess we all knew. And given Goe hasn’t accepted her mentor as being dead either I’m guessing she’s going to make an appearance soon. So all the dire outcomes of last week are more or less swept away. Particularly if we consider the apprentices escape in about three minutes without all that much effort because the villains are dumb enough to try torturing and breaking their spirits rather than just killing them (and they don’t even hang around to do it themselves but leave it to an underling taking any potential suspense right out of the scene).

Release the Spyce Episode 11

About the only thing that stuck from episode 10 to this one is that Mei is still working for the bad guys. Only I’m still not convinced it isn’t some kind of ruse or that she won’t change her mind again. Given they backed out of every other major plot point I’m pretty sure this isn’t the kind of story where she’s actually going to betray them and that is going to stick.

Release the Spyce Episode 11 - Brainwashing device

And therein lies the problem. Release the Spyce isn’t exciting enough or cute enough or anything enough to be the kind of story that doesn’t commit to its plot on top of that. What we’re ending up with is a fairly watered down affair that has zero tension or stakes and I’m not attached enough to the characters to just buckle in for the ride. While it isn’t bad, not even close, it has become one of the least interesting stories I followed this Autumn.

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NENDOROID NO. 1028 RELEASE THE SPYCE: MOMO MINAMOTO
NENDOROID NO. 1028 RELEASE THE SPYCE: MOMO MINAMOTO

The Disastrous Day The Mentor Character Died

Release the Spyce Episode Review Title

Release the Spyce Episode 9 Review

This week, Release the Spyce turns its attention to the driven Yuki Hanzomon as she attempts to convey to Momo the story of her mentor. I guess timing wise this makes sense given Hanzo slapped Momo last week for being rash and they never have revealed the story behind Hanzo’s scar so with only a handful of episodes to go, this one feels purposefully placed.

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The problem, I feel at least, is that we really could have skipped a whole bunch of steps between episode one and here without appreciably being any worse off. It just makes some of the episodes earlier really feel more fillery than they did while watching, and some of them felt very fillery while watching.

Release the Spyce Episode 9

I don’t really like to review by comparison, but I can’t help but feel Princess Principal took this basic idea of team of teenage female spies and did a much better job of building them up as characters while continuing to draw the main plot together.  Release the Spyce has a more modern setting but otherwise comes off as a fairly pale imitation, and that may not be what they were going for and it may not be how others see it, but that’s more or less how it has settled in for me.

Release the Spyce Episode 9

Still, that doesn’t really review this episode and to be honest, once we got into the flash back and actually saw the girls and their old mentors parachuting in and doing spy things, it was actually really fun. There was some genuine drama around revealing how Hanzo got her scar and what happened to her mentor and it was perhaps one of the better sequences this anime has given us since its first episode.

However, as a whole, Release the Spyce hasn’t quite packed the punch I’d really have liked from it, and even looking at it from the perspective of a cute girls show where they just happen to be spies, it isn’t overly great.

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RELEASE THE SPYCE: YUKI HANZOMON
 RELEASE THE SPYCE: YUKI HANZOMON

Snakes? Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?

Release the Spyce Episode Review Title

Release the Spyce Episode 8 Review

Following the lead from the flower, the trainees and Hanzomon travel to Okinawa where they pretend to be tourists, meet up with a nearly wiped out group, and then plan and carry out an infiltration of an enemy facility. It all moves rather quickly and on the surface works beautifully. However, looking a bit closer this episode is kind of a rush, there’s limited sense behind a lot of the actions, and much like every other episode ultimately the lead doesn’t pan out and the are back to square one.

Release the Spyce Episode 8 The Team

The first issue comes with the clear laziness of the tourist moments. The girls decide to act like tourists to keep suspicion away from themselves and we are then subjected to entirely still images with panning. They aren’t even low animation scenes, they are stills, and they are definitely pandering to fan service and servicing zero narrative purpose. On top of that, they just aren’t interesting.

Then we get the introduction of the viking girl that we all know is actually going to be working for the bad guys. She’s a fairly ludicrous character walking around in her viking helmet and her fighting against Goe and then making friends and helping them out is a character arc that is delivered with break-neck speed and while it might work on paper it has almost zero emotional impact. 

Release the Spyce Episode 8 Viking Girl
I’m sure they mean ‘precisely’ and not ‘preciously’. Then again, with this show, who could tell.

Throw in a villain with trained snakes to protect him and all and all this is just one bit of silliness after another and I can’t even tell if Release the Spyce is asking me to take it seriously or not at this point. There is one more serious moment where Hanzomon realises that the time the spyce is working for her is lessening, indicating her time as a spy is nearing its end, but otherwise much of what happens here feels largely inconsequential in any kind of grand scheme. 

Release the Spyce Episode 8

Still, it isn’t as though it isn’t fun. It just doesn’t hold up when you think about it. Besides, dropping the floor out from under intruders and having them fall into a snake pit is such a classic move you just have to appreciate the audacity of anyone actually using it.

Why Does Teamwork Serve as an Excellent Story Cornerstone?

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We’ve all heard the groans, and probably groaned ourselves when an anime pulls out the power or friendship/teamwork finale and characters overcome all obstacles just by working together and recognising each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It is a little twee and a lot overdone and when done poorly, groaning is the appropriate response to a trite conclusion. 

However, and this is a big however, many fantastic and emotionally moving stories continue to embed teamwork as the central concept around which the characters and narrative develop. These are stories that move the audience and inspire. They offer little new in an already saturated field and yet they take the idea of teamwork and manage to fill the audience with a sense that what they are watching is worth it and rewarding.

So how does this work?

Haikyuu Kurusu Team

Firstly, through having a team, the anime instantly creates a cast of usually diverse characters to focus on within a confined context. If it is a sport anime like Haikyuu or the more recent Tsurune, we have a set number of participants with their own strengths and weaknesses, different levels of experience, and different attitudes. This inherently means the story gets to work on bringing these characters together to better understand one another, and conveniently help the audience get to know them as well, and it also comes with built in conflicts that make sense within the context before any external threat or problem is introduced allowing the story to feel like progress is being made even when not very much is going on in the wider narrative.

For some, this won’t appeal. They’ll feel they’ve seen these basic relationships play out before and they’ll be right. But what it does mean is that if a particular group or team happens to contain personalities and character types that appeal to the individual, the anime as a whole is instantly going to seem a whole lot more attractive.

Tsurune Episode 4 - Onogi

This is something Tsurune gets right from the beginning. While Onogi in Tsurune is a bit of a downer, I kind of see where he’s coming from and he isn’t so over the top in his spitefulness or annoyance with the other characters that he’s irredeemable. It is quite clear that in not so many episodes the boys on the team will come together even if they’ll later have a falling out. And each of the other boys in the team I quite enjoy. They aren’t larger than life characters so for some viewers they might find them too subdued or dull, but I am enjoying the calm they bring even while they each have enough individual personality and drama to bring something to the table.

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Run With The Wind on the other hand has at its centre Haiji and Kakeru who are both problematic characters in their own way early on but develop beautifully toward the end. Haiji rubbed me the wrong way right from the start, even being called a ‘master manipulator’ by me in an episode review, and yet seeing the finale and seeing how far these characters had gone was a truly moving experience. Where Run With The Wind really works is that it has ten characters in the team to develop and while some don’t get as much screen time as others, by the end of the show each one has had their moment to shine and the are thoroughly entertaining.

Run With The Wind Episode 5

Prince for best character of the season, please?

However, neither of these shows can really stand up when compared to previous sporting anime just in terms of the team dynamic. I’ll admit, I don’t watch a lot of sports anime, but when I finally gave in and watched Haikyuu I was blown away. They managed to bring in fairly flawed characters who individually would have been quite painful to endure and yet balanced the dynamic between the different cast members fairly beautifully to create a team that really made you want to get behind them.

Haikyuu

Secondly, where there is a team there is some common purpose, goal, direction. There’s something driving these people to come together and even if they don’t seem that driven in the beginning it is easy to give them an obstacle to work together to overcome. It might be simple story telling, but it works. In sports anime the goal is usually make it to some final or win some competition. Endlessly we get the ‘this is our last year’ routine, which somehow Run With The Wind managed to shove in their even though the characters are all different ages at university (thanks for that Haiji, we just needed time pressure). But outside of sports anime, we are seeing this a lot in some of our cute girls doing spy things offerings.

Izetta

I say that like it is a common genre, and it isn’t… yet. Watch this space, once anime realises it is on to a good thing we’ll see the plethora of shows following along and while that isn’t a problem, it does mean the quality of said anime will vary wildly and if the isekai genre is anything to go by, it means that those that dismiss anything that is popular or common as trash by default will definitely steer clear. Still, with Princess Principal and now Release the Spyce, cute girls doing spy things is a genre with a lot of potential and we could even throw something like Izetta into the mix, though technically they weren’t really doing spy things.

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Now I would be the first to admit I am not the biggest fan of cute girls doing cute things. But cute girls doing spy things is a different story and Princess Principal showed us beyond any doubt that the idea can work. Outside of the context, the group of girls could have been any group from any high school anime ever, and yet with the context they were given, it allowed for the plot to have some drive and a sense of urgency even as the girls went about their ‘daily’ lives (you know, infiltrating, gathering evidence, running for their lives). And while that might miss the more relaxed motifs of the general cute girls genre, for those of us who don’t actually mind the relationship dynamics but kind of feel sleepy while watching something without a clear plot, it is an excellent path to take.

Princess Principal Episode 10

Once again, the core of this is the team. Cute girl stories live or die by how the personalities bounce off one another and how relationships are formed and maintained throughout the series. While Princess Principal had the overall narrative with the Princess and the wall and lots to pay attention to, each episode was ultimately driven by the girls themselves and individually, while interesting enough, they couldn’t have carried the story. But together they were fantastic and together they could overcome obstacles in the plot that individually were insurmountable.

Release the Spyce Episode 4 Mei and Fu

Release the Spyce is more problematic because the overall plot is a lot weaker and the team dynamic is less interesting or engaging (at least that’s how I’m finding it) so while all the elements are there the execution has been a little lacking. Shame, because this bright pink spy story could have been really fun and instead I’m just kind of hoping they would focus on one aspect or another because at the moment they are juggling too many things and not really succeeding.

Lastly though, I’ll bring teamwork back to relatability. Even though many of us aren’t exactly team players by choice, in life we have to deal with others and work with them at times. We’ll butt heads, have misunderstandings, dislike someone on first meeting for some arbitrary reason, feel like someone is holding us back, or even just be the person who is holding people back just because. However, teamwork is a vital skill and it is a situation we’ve been in over and over again throughout our lives. So seeing characters forced into a situation where they need to get on with someone or work together or just play their part, all of that is something that on some level we can understand and empathise with.

Tsurune Episode 5 Minato and Onogi

So while I’ll probably not stop rolling my eyes at power of friendship/teamwork conclusions that feel unearned, I did feel it was time for me to express why teamwork isn’t a concept that should be dismissed out of hand. When used appropriately it can form the cornerstone of something well worth watching and something that can have a real impact on the viewer.

However, I’d love to know your thoughts on teamwork in anime and who some of your favourite anime teams are and why so please leave me a comment below.


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Karandi James


Princess Principal Series Review: These Spies Are Cute and Deadly

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Overview:

Five girls attend a prestigious school in the Kingdom of Albion (a Kingdom split in half by a wall). However, these girls are actually spies using their specific skills to complete their jobs.

Review:

Princess Principal is going to be a hard show to review really. Mostly because I loved the experience of watching it and had a lot of fun, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have its faults. The problem being, the longer you think about this show the more those faults become apparent. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in this steampunkesque spy series.

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Firstly, the characters are fantastic. They all seem pretty standard at first and their designs are excessively moe (to the point where I wasn’t actually planning on watching this show at all because one look at the character designs made me roll my eyes). But each of the five girls is given time and attention and back story over the course of the first half of the series and by the time we get back to seeing them operating as a full unit I had really fallen in love with these characters and their relationships. For all the holes I’m going to poke in the plot of this story later, I am not going to throw rocks at this main cast. They are a great team and a lot of fun to spend time with.

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Obviously Ange and the Princess get the lion’s share of development, and that’s fine because I love both of those characters. Ange’s stoic nature and her quirky references to the Black Lizard Planet just make her an enigma that you want to figure out. She’s cold as ice when needed, illustrated clearly in the first episode where she shoots a traitor, but behind the scenes she’s definitely got a softer side. Again, seen when she made sure said traitor had insurance so that his daughter would receive medical attention. The Princess begins much as you would expect a Princess playing spy to act, but as the story progresses you see there is so much more to her than the external character she has perfected playing. These two were such a delight and when you throw in Chise, Beatrice and Dorothy this becomes one of my favourite teams in an anime I’ve seen in a long time.

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Secondly, the music. Loved the opening theme to this show. It is incredibly energetic and fun. Visually it works and it does give some sense of the characters, but mostly it sets a tone for the show that it mostly lives up to even if the events aren’t quite as loud and vibrant as the opening might have you believe. Still, this is an opening I didn’t skip even once and actually went back and listened to after episodes just because it was fun to hear.

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Thirdly, the setting. Okay, steampunk Victorian era is kind of done to death but I really appreciated the setting here. For the most part technology is within the realm of plausible with only one or two contraptions that seem fantastical. Mostly, it could actually be just historical (with the usual inaccuracies) and not steampunk at all but there’s enough going on that you kind of have to put it in steampunk category. Be that as it may, the world these girls live in is rich and dynamic. It isn’t a setting that they’ve been dropped onto. There are so many different groups and factions all with their own goals and motives. Even just the random workers they encounter are all crafted to feel like real people with their own story to tell. The setting is pretty fantastic.

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Alright, so now we have to address the issue with the plot. To start with, the show is broken into cases that are shown to the audience in a non-chronological order. This means we meet the characters in the order the show wants us to and learn the information we need about the characters when we need to, but it means there is no real drive toward any kind of final goal. Each case has its own goal and mostly the case is irrelevant. What is important are the characters, how they interact, and what they learn from the experience. As a character piece, Princess Principal is superb but it comes at the expense of plot. There’s no real buy in from the audience as to whether it matters is the team succeed of not in many of these missions as we are never really clued in as to what the missions are trying to accomplish. While that isn’t such an issue early in the series, it is what leads us to a fairly ordinary ending.

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The one plot thread we do follow most of the way through the story is Project Changeling which was a plan to have Ange kill and replace the Princess. Somewhere along the line that plan included having the Princess become part of the team, though where that left Changeling was never really determined. Then, in what seems like a desperate effort to push us into a climax when there was no real overall end goal, suddenly the guy in charge of the spies is replaced and the new guy orders Ange to kill Princess. The final two episodes follow this drama to its conclusion.

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However, the wall is still there, the Princess still isn’t Queen, the old spymaster is back, the girls are for some reason in Casablanca and still carrying out missions, so the question has to be asked whether from a plot point of view this show accomplished anything? Certainly the characters have come along way and it was really fun watching them do that, but it kind of felt like the story wanted to be more than just about the power of friendship (although that may just be my own wishful thinking). Mostly, this could be resolved by giving us a second season and actually addressing the set up that this show has now that the girls have dealt with their issues and become a team.

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I recommend checking this show out. It may not be for you but there is a lot of fun to be had here. It manages to balance its cute moments with some far darker tones and for the most part gets the balance right.

If you’ve seen Princess Principal I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


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Karandi James


Princess Principal Episode 12: Everyone Wants To Go To Casablanca

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Review – Some Spoilers:

It is no surprise that Ange returns this episode, though the sheer length of time it takes her to come to that decision and act is a little questionable. Once she’s in motion though it is hard to imagine she was ever going to fail.

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This episode takes us back to the feeling we had back in episode 1. Things are moving along at a good clip with car chases, gun battles, a plot to kill the Queen, and Ange desperate to save her friend. It is good fun even while the show hits some of its darker moments.

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I still feel Zelda’s character would have worked better in this final arc if we’d met her earlier and had a bit more time to care about her character. Instead she comes off as a fairly ordinary villain which makes the reveal about who she is really working for seem a little last minute rather than intriguing. Also, her grand escape sequence would be cooler if I cared about her or if we knew there was going to be a second season for her to return in.

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But what really shines this episode are the main characters as they reunite and save the day before heading off to Casablanca… Wait, didn’t Princess reject that idea? Why did they end up there. Just one of many questions to be asked about the ending of this show given the various groups and plots still exist, the issues in the Kingdom haven’t been resolved, the Princess still isn’t going to become Queen, and I’m not sure the spies actually accomplished anything of significance. How can a show be so fun and yet so full of holes?

Anyway, I will get around to a full series review of this show, but in the meantime, go listen to the theme song again because that can have you smiling for half a day.


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Princess Principal Episode 11: Another Fine Mess

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Review:

This episode was everything you could have wanted from Princess Principal after the bombshell ending to episode 10. Ange stayed true to who she has been and attempted to throw off pursuers and then run-away with the Princess. Princess however also stayed true to who she had become and pretty much told Ange she should run off by herself.

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This is kind of fantastic not because it was unexpected (because by this point it wasn’t), but because of how well this series has built up the relationship between these two characters. They are both hurt by the outcome of this confrontation and it isn’t just that they drew some tears, the audience is feeling the pain of this encounter.

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That said, the rest of the episode was pretty ordinary in terms of setting up for a final. It is functional but not exceptional and the introduction of Zelda at this late stage didn’t help things along. Still, looking forward to where this goes next.


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Princess Principal Episode 10: A Brief Reunion

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Review:

This episode definitely went for a darker tone and spent a great deal of time setting up a situation just to make it hurt when it got to the inevitable end of the line. That isn’t to say it wasn’t a great watch. Predictability isn’t a problem so long as the journey is worth the time and this one certainly was with some truly excellent characterisation of the team adding to the weight of the emotional feels that they dumped on us in the latter half of the episode.

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While Chise and Princess are pretty much sidelined for the episode, Dorothy, Ange and Beatrice more than make up for it by providing some charming moments as well as some dark spy shenanigans.

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That said, the close of this case isn’t for the faint of heart because while there are certainly more graphic scenes in other anime, there’s something particularly tragic about this episode. And in case that ending wasn’t bad enough they set up what may actually be a conflict for the end of the season (maybe).

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Now I want the next episode because Ange’s next move is going to be interesting regardless of her choice.


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Princess Principal Episode 9: East Meets West

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Review:

We kind of knew it had to come along, an episode that focusses on the fact that Chise is actually Japanese and that there are different cultural expectations. Fortunately, this episode elicits more laughs than groans and actually manages to make for some great character moments even while it plays on some fairly obvious cultural clichés.

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Of course, Chise is the focus of this episode and the narrator, bringing her unique view of the other characters to the forefront as well as highlighting the dynamics of the group. And again, this could have felt really trite and it is definitely a nod to the strength of the writing that this episode pulls it off and makes you feel you’ve gained a greater understanding of all the members of the team through this episode.

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Still, the bully triggering the duel was a fairly clunky plot device, even if it was ultimately well used. As he isn’t a character we’ve ever seen before or one we are likely to see again, there was little emotional investment and you kind of knew that he was more or less a fly to be swatted (though it was still pretty satisfying when Chise landed that hit – despite the fact that I now want to know what her ribbon is made out of).

Overall, a fairly good episode in what has been a pretty great watch this season.


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