Yukinari Sasaki is a lonely young boy. He’s small for his age, called puny and teased by most people he knows, and t make matters worse, he lives alone in a large, empty house. He’s always been considered something of a joke to the opposite sex, as girls are the ones who’ve done most of the teasing, and the only woman who’s ever kind of liked him is the girl next door, the tall, busty brunette beauty who’s built their bond on busting his balls for bumbling in on her bathing in the buff, Kirie Kojima. If that wasn’t bad enough, his regrettable rapport with the fairer sex has resulted in him developing a previously unknown medical condition… Whenever he’s touched by a girl, whether it’s a violent punch or a tender embrace or anything inbetween, he breaks out in hives. He is, quite literally, allergic to girls, and there’s nothing he can do about it. Rather than transfer to an all boys school or hole himself up in his house and n ever come out, he’s instead elected to go through life without complaint, dragging his feet though his own little world of depression and dejection.

That is, until he’s quite literally beaten out of that world. One day, when he’s unfortunate enough to come home and catch Kirie naked in the process of preparing to take a shower, his naughty neighbor turns nasty, delivering a powerful blow that propels him through a magical portal in the bathtub, which connects him to a strange world that I guess is supposed to be the beyond portion of Bed Bath and Beyond. He winds up in the tub of a pink-haired air-head who, through some miracle, doesn’t trigger his allergies. It turns out they’re on a planet in another dimension called Seyren, where women outnumber men at a whopping 9-1 ratio. After escaping the threat of rape from the general community, Yukinari is helped back through the portal by this strange girl, who magically goes through with him! As it turns out, dimensional travel is going to be the least of his problems when his liaison with this looney love-interest is going to turn his world upside down, one unpredictable mishap at a time.

AIC Spirits is a production company I’ve somehow never mentioned before, even though they did some of the work on Petite Princess Yucie in collaboration with Studio Gainax. They’re extremely hit-or-miss, and while I have seen quite a few impressive projects from them, the overwhelming majority of it is cheap, badly managed, and with excuses of “It’s dated” dwindling through the years. They did almost the entire Tenchi line-up, if that gives you some idea of what we’re working with. If I had to put a pin in what kind of company they are, or some kind of defining thread throughout their work… And keep in mind, this is an extreme generalization based on what little of their work I’ve seen… They tend to put more money into a project if it’s not something that’s going to be a guaranteed success. Popular name-brand shows and shows with excessive fanservice and nudity often get the shaft, while more out-of-left-field titles like Bamboo Blade, Now and Then Here and There, and Humanity has Declined get much more attention paid to them. Which side of the scale does Girls Bravo fall on? Go ahead and guess.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Girls Bravo an ugly show, but if it had a good personality to speak of, I’d try distracting you towards that. It doesn’t always look bad, but it never really looks good, either. The characters seem to be drawn to type, with the same basic characteristics you’ve come to expect from the harem genre, only exaggerated and over-the-top, almost like parodied caricatures of the classic tropes. There’s an obvious lean towards moe, with almost all the female characters sporting giant boobs and even bigger eyes, which take up more than half of their round, cartoony faces. There’s something distinctly unattractive about the way everyone’s drawn, and while I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I haven’t come had this problem so badly since Ookami-san. There isn’t a hint of inspiration in anyone’s design, and the similarities that Miharu bears to certain other magical girlfriend characters is way too distracting. Even the loli character’s little mascot alien pet, which would normally serve as a mascot in other shows, looks generic as hell here.

There are some moments that I guess were animated okay, as short bursts of inspiration are really the best thing about this title, but we’ll get to that later. I also really can’t say it’s poorly directed, as outside of certain fanservice scenes, it at least knows basic things like what to focus on and how to frame a shot. When it’s doing something weird, and dare I say at times even interesting, it’s not too bad looking. It’s almost like… No, I’ll save that for later. The fluidity of movement isn’t terrible, but it hits jarring low points whenever there’s something else happening in the episode to compensate for, like CG water or a fast paced action comedy scene or what-have-you. The nudity isn’t always forced, as it often happens when characters are bathing or changing, but it’s still very clearly designed to be sexually appealing to the viewer, which it fails at to a stunning degree. Not only does the sheer amount of it cause a dulling effect, creeping farther and farther into sensory overload, but it looks like crap, with the female characters’ breasts often looking sloppily drawn with poorly placed nipples. As far as ecchi titles go, it’s pretty pathetic in it’s delivery.

The music is, surprisingly enough, really really good. A lot of it is your standard upbeat background fare that loops while fading into the background, but even those tunes are inexplicably pleasant to listen to, upbeat and ear=wormy but with a touch of class that you won’t find anywhere else in this series. Some of the cringiest moments in the series have beautiful, inspired tracks to accompany them, such as the Tito Puente-esque romantic struggle ballad that plays when Miharu is fellating an entire shop’s worth of bananas. You wouldn’t believe how many of these tunes I wound up dancing to when I heard them out of context for the sake of this review. They range from funky South-American style orchestrations to more relaxing Japanese style tracks, to fucking classy shit with violins. It’s a shame to hear such great music being wasted on such a trite series, but if that bothers you, don’t worry, the opening actually kind of sucks. It’s generic as all hell, both in terms of visuals and sound, and it doesn’t even remotely compare to the rest of Noriyasu Agematsu’s work on the project, including the cute, bubbly head-bopper of an ending theme.

The english dub isn’t quite as good as the music, but it’s still better than it really needed to be. Michelle Ruff takes her role as Miharu to heart, and here’s another example of why I consider her to be the greatest female voice actor of all time… She actually succeeds in making Miharu likeable. This is not an easy thing to do, as Miharu is only a few steps above being classified as a child with big boobs, one of the most unfortunate tropes in anime history, but Ruff just makes her sound so damn charming with her air-headed but well meaning approach. Another stand-out is the legendary Liam O’Brien in the role of series antagonist and gropey blonde fop Fukuyama, quite possibly one of the ickiest and least likeable characters in anime history, but lordy, does he just go to town with it. He plays the character like he’s James from Pokemon, but with his libido cranked up to eleven and his sense of boundaries and moral decency cranked down to negative one, and it’s not hard to tell he’s having the time of his life with it.

It’s hard to make a sad sack like Yukinari likeable, but at the very least, Yuri Lowenthal keeps him from becoming annoying or whiny-sounding, which is the direction he could have very easily been taken. He plays him appropriately meek and depressive, but is still able to light a fragile little fire in the character’s heart when needed. Carrie Savage is cast to type in the role of Koyomi, Hunter Mackenzie Austin is okay but largely unremarkable in the role of Lisa, and then we have the two sour notes in the cast… The mysterious J Ray plays loli anklebiter Tomoka, and while I’m glad they didn’t give her a squeaky or highpitched voice, that doesn’t make the voice they DID give her any more listenable. I hate to sound mean, but I don’t really mind the fact that this reclusive actor only ever did three roles. Stephanie Sheh plays Kirie under the false name of Lulu Chiang, and good God is she awful in it. I almost don’t want to believe such a great actor could have turned in such a badly acted role. Well, I’ve said before that every great voice actor has at least one terrible role, and I guess this is hers. It’s still an okay dub over-all, though.

So… Here we are again. Here we are, talking about another harem anime. I’d really like to think that I’d be done with this genre eventually, because they’re starting to blur together in my mind at this point. And yeah, I know, I choose the anime I review, but this time not so much… I did a poll on Facebook, listing five romantic comedy anime I could review next, with Girls Bravo in there for shits and giggles, but lo an behold, it won by a landslide. I guess this is how the Republican Party must have felt with Trump, so like them, here I am committing whole-heartedly to the joke candidate. I should mention that my last poll-winner was spice and Wolf, so in a way, I trusted this group of idiots. They could have voted for Mysterious Girlfriend X, which I’ve been waiting for years to give a February slot to, and it was in fact the second place entry, but no, I had three freaking people writing in their own options instead. Stupid Facebook polling system. Well, I can’t very well jump to an alternate timeline, so we might as well get this over with.

Once you get past the terrible animation, which I have to admit is my main problem with this title, the product itself, from a writing perspective, is just kind of dull. That’s probably a weird thing to say about such a universally disliked title, but what else can I say? It’s biggest crime is that it’s generic. It borrows conventions and design aesthetics from other iconic anime, as well as from the legions of other anime like it. Right from the first episode, it’s hard to not recognize it as a half-hearted rip-off of Ah My Goddess, and that goes beyond the design of Miharu. The premise directly involves a down-trodden, spineless male character who can’t catch a break getting the perfectly loyal female companion from another world, where her sister as well as several other ladies soon also come tumbling out to visit. The difference is obviously that we actually get to see this other world, and that the relationship between them isn’t strong enough or ever seriously tested enough to be considered the main plot.

Other than that, this series is painfully generic. The magical girlfriend genre is ubiquitous enough to be called a genre in the first place, but very few titles follow in the footsteps of Chobits by actually doing anything new with it. Like I pointed out in my old Love Interests post, if the main character is male, the main girl is often the first girl, as long as the first girl isn’t a childhood friend, who has as much a chance of winning the protagonist as the Buffalo Bills do of winning the superbowl. See? Not even in contention. On top of that you have overused ideas like the precocious loli girl, the prim and proper shy girl, the sex obsessed other dude, the fists as forethought girl, and of course, the probably blonde and probably rich girl who somehow mistakenly believes through sheer coincidence that she and the main character are engaged to be married. Oh yeah, and of course, there’s a cuddly little animal/alien mascot. I guess I’m not being entirely fair here, because only three of these girls are actually interested in Yukinari, but hey, I’m only reviewing the first season. Who knows what happens after that.

There are two ways that this series manages to stand out. First of all, two of it’s characters actually manage to leave enough of an impression to defy convention and be more or less memorable. Unfortunately, you’ll remember them for all the wrong reasons. The first one is Kirie, the chick with the fists who we meet properly first. Actually, her first introduction tells you all you need to know about her character; Yukinari goes home, walks into his own damn bathroom, and catches her about to step into the shower, so she beats the shit out of him. Yeah, it’s totally his house, and it’s never explained why she has a key to it, but these things never cross her mind, because she’s too busy executing wrestling moves on people while telling them what they can do in hell. Even Naru in Love Hina had more personality than this. In terms of her character, she’s not so much a person, as she is warthog that suddenly gained the powers of human speech and limited complex thought. She is one of the two characters in this show that make me hate my life(Tomoka is a close third), and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but she’s actually the better of the two.

On the other side of the fence, we have Fukuyama, the terror of Yukinari’s school and the antithesis of his character, as he’s so perverted and girl crazy that he breaks out into hives when MEN touch him. If Kirie’s a warthog, then I guess you’d call Fukuyama the Japanese version of a squid… And yes, I mean the tentacle hentai version as well as the culinary version that tries to brainlessly wiggle down your throat. There are a lot of perverted playboys in anime, it’s kind of a thing nowadays, as every male main character must have at least one hopelessly girl-crazy friend to make them seem cool and approachable by comparison, but Fukuyama isn’t like most of these characters. The first thing we ever see him do is directly lift up Kirie’s shirt and grope her boobs right in the middle of school. He uses his wealth to create erotic opportunities for himself, constantly gets back up for more after being pummeled for his rapiness, and oh yeah, he’s a pedophile. I know he kind of redeems himself by helping Tomoka out at one point, but later when her animal companion is turned into a little girl, he abducts her and makes innuendo-laden remarks about having sex with her.

These two characters are painful enough to watch alone, but they’re even worse when they’re together. You might imagine it would be cathartic to see the punchy girl get constantly groped, or the gropey dude get constantly punched, but all together all their interactions just feel icky and uncomfortable. It feels kind of like they deserve each other, but at the same time, it also feels like the series itself deserves to not have either of them in it. The only thing I kind of liked about Fukuyama was his relationship with his sister Lisa, who’s probably the only character I liked in the whole cast. She got cast as the rich blonde girl with the marriage complex, but she actually has an interesting gimmick and backstory, and she almost makes Fukuyama likeable in the way their dynamic works. They actually feel like a pair of siblings, with neither one pining or obsessing over the other (THANK FUCKING CHRIST) and generally ignoring each other’s quirks and proclivities unless they find they have a reason to work together towards a common goal. If I didn’t hate Fukuyama himself so much, I’d probably have put them on my favorite siblings list.

And speaking of Lisa, she actually brings me to the second thing about this series that stands out, and it actually helps it to do so in a good way… This show is really freaking weird. And I’m not saying it’s weird like most shows are weird, with a bizarre premise and string of gags and ante-upping reveals that eventually get dull, like in Hare + Guu. No, this weirdness is weird even by weirdness standards, and it actually kind of feels like genuine, non-manufactured randomness on the part of the writers. There are moments throughout the series where it feels like they just got bored with what they were writing or animating and just did random things to keep themselves entertained. None of it has any purpose, most of it is largely self contained and inconsequential, and it almost has me convinced that someone involved with this project… Or, hell, maybe everybody… were aware of the fact that the series they were making was going to be shit, so they channeled that dude who put a dick on the Little Mermaid VHS cover and just went the extra mile to make their creative child as weird as fuck.

I’ve gotta be honest, these were the moments that kept me going. These made the series interesting. I’ve seen a ton of anime hot springs episodes, but for no reason at all, the first hot spring this cast visits was dried up and full of alligators and bananas. The pathway to Fukuyama’s house is a hedge maze full of booby traps and military drones. An entire episode revolves around Miharu drinking an unlabelled liquid during science class(because she is a well endowed toddler, after all) and getting drunk off of it, which makes her spawn thousands of shadow clones that go on a hunger fueled rampage throughout the town, in a genuinely good episode that I like to call “The Nomming Dead.” It’s episodes like these that makes Girls Bravo feel like some care actually went into it on some level. It’s ironic to think, but it’s like it’s mastered the art of giving a fuck by not giving a fuck, and keep in mind, this is the kind of impression you’ll get when one of the main characters is fellating a bunch of bananas. And yeah, it actually manages to be funny from time to time, which is a welcome distraction from generic it all is.

Girls Bravo was originally available stateside from Geneon entertainment, but copies of it from that company are completely out of print, although you can find them fairly cheap on Ebay. Thankfully, it was rescued by Funimation, and is available in a much more affordable slim pack. All releases also contain the second season, which I barely remember, but I’m pretty sure it’s more of the same fare. The original manga is available stateside from Tokyopop, which of course means it’s also out of print. A visual novel for the PS2 entitled Romance 15’s is, surprise, not available stateside.

I remember watching this series when it came out ten years ago, and thinking it was one of the worst things ever. Now that I watch it again after all these years, however, it’s honestly not that bad. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s really bad, but it’s not unwatchable. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s better than a lot of later entries in the genre, like Haganai and Maken Ki. It’s not an overall enjoyable show, but as long as the two characters we discussed earlier aren’t making my life miserable, it’s just a generic, badly animated harem anime, and I’ve become kind of numb to those. Yukinari and Miharu are almost even a likeable couple, at least once in a while. There really isn’t much here to justify a recommendation, especially since it’s more like a bunch of random things that happen than anything even remotely resembling a plot… I mean, come on, even Lucky Star had more of a story than this… But it kind of is worth checking out just for the random, bizarre spots that feel almost, dare I say, inspired. At the very least I can recommend you seek out the soundtrack, even if you wind up understandably giving the series a pass. I give Girls Bravo a 3/10.

Hey guys, Naru here, and like many of you, I just finished watching the newly released trailer for the next DC Uiverse animated movie, The Judas Contract. As you may remember, when I talked about Teen Titans last year, I had a lot to say about The Judas Contract and the way the original series handled the Terra storyline, and while I don’t take any of it back, I do feel that there was a lot that I left unsaid, both in regards to the series, the storyline, and even about Teen Titans Go, weirdly enough. As it happens, I also had a spot for the month of february that was still vacant, and while I was thinking about filling it with something from my stockpile of material, the trailer for Judas gave me a much better idea… Instead, I should take advantage of this opportunity by going into my further thoughts on these subjects. This won’t be a structured review, and I really have no plan in mind for any of it, so let’s get crackin’ and see what happens.

I was fairly young when Teen Titans came out, and I had little to no history of reading comic books, so at the time, I had no idea Terra was anything but an original character made up for the cartoon. I liked her design, and thought she was kind of cute in the “Pretty blonde girl with a troubled family life” kind of way, you know, the kind of character one of the Fanning girls would be typecast as. I thought her powers were kind of cool, and I liked the idea that they were adding a new character to the series, but even then, the teenage Naru cringed over how lame and badly written the episode was. That’s not to say it was unsalvageable, and it certainly held enough iconic status to keep it interesting, but if Betrayal hadn’t made my Top Ten Worst episodes list, this one would have slid into the number 10 slot, if for no other reason than the opening segment alone, where Terra encounters the titans after kiting a giant scorpion, and Slade just randomly appears on the scene to speak to literally nobody.

I didn’t initially hate Terra. Even now, she’s never really inspired that much ire from me. I just really hated, both then and moreso now, how hipster her character was. She was written to be the early 2000’s cool girl, the mysterious chick who blows in out of nowhere, crashes on your coach, enjoys your company but never makes any long term connections, and then just leaves. I remember even then thinking “How the hell does she keep herself fed?” And while you could theorize that she sleeps around for sustenance, that would make more sense in the comic than in the cartoon. She’s with the titans too briefly to really build a relationship that makes their offer to bring her in as a team member believable, as she wasn’t the first hero friend they’d made, and the offer never really came up before. Also, how come they had a training course that seemed specifically designed for her powers? I know it wasn’t, but if they brought Aqualad in, and his first challenge was a water course, I’d like to see him try a few more challenges first.

And we all know what happens from there… Slade knows Terra in some way that’s never really explained, Slade’s defeated, and some silly misunderstanding sends her straight into his arms. I really don’t get that. If you’ve got the choice between fighting for good and fighting for evil, I could see the appeal of either side, but your choice of sides should have more influencing it than just “He talked about me behind my back!” Yeah, I got approached by The Jedi, and they seemed really cool, but one of them made a snide comment, so Execute Order 66 on their asses! Kill them all, except ironically for the one who made the comment, I’ll spare that dude, he seemed on the level! And then she runs away, not noticing that Slade’s got some kind of camera flying right alongside her. I mean, how else does his monitor have her at that angle? Whatever. It’s not the worst episode, but combine all of those issues with the show’s weird pseudo-anime sight gags, and it came pretty close to being one of them.

This would be followed by Titan Rising and Betrayal, which I’ve talked about at length, as they were respectively among my favorite and least favorite episodes. After them, we’d get the finale, where Slade and Terra’s plans went into motion, and aside from a few hiccups here and there, I thought those episodes were okay. They had a lot of ground to make up for after that piece of shit Betrayal episode, but I think they did a fine job of it. I don’t remember being too sad when Terra got frozen, although I could be wrong since it’s been over ten years since I first saw the episode, but considering they couldn’t kill anybody in a kids show, it wasn’t the worst way to take her out. Having said that, my lack of an emotional connection to Terra wasn’t the only reason that the final episode Things Change didn’t really bother me. Actually, if there was ever an episode that I wish I’d talked about at some point in my last two Teen Titans posts, it’s that one. I still don’t really love or hate the episode, but it feels like kind of an important one, or at least too important to be left undiscussed.

People get so passionate on both sides about this episode, with some claiming that it cheapens one of the most emotionally intense moment of the series for no good reason(a complaint that I would argue holds more truth with Red Star), and others claiming that logic aside, it’s the right kind of respectfully nostalgic note to hit for a beloved show that was about to end. I personally hated how Terra’s status was never confirmed or explained, and that bringing her back without making any effort to explain how was just plain lazy. That is, I DID think that, up until I read a fan theory on the episode. It stated that, much like the series itself, Terra was brought back in an incomplete way thanks to the Trigon saga. The theory goes on to state that when Trigon’s power turned the people of the world to stone, and Raven’s power turned everyone back, she may have unknowingly did so to Terra, to. Terra, like the rest of the world, was revived from stone, the difference being that she’d been petrified for so long that she’d lost her memories as a result. Actually kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

And yet, if I’m being completely honest with you guys… With 100 percent brutal sincerity, no filters, no consideration for anyone else’s feelings… I liked Terra better in Teen Titans Go. Now, that’s not an endorsement of Go… I’d never try to tell you to watch that cesspool of shit… No, you know what? This has to be said. Teen Titans Go was a good idea. Conceptually, there was nothing wrong with it. The original cartoon was great, and it can never be replicated or undone, but if you’re going to reboot it for modern times, it could never have happened in the 2010s. I’m not sure it would have been allowed to exist in today’s market, the way Cartoon Network’s going. On the other hand, a chibi style comedy show with the original voice actors reprising their roles was a great idea. The execution was bad, because the people writing it clearly don’t give a shit and can’t take criticism, and throw out the most insulting excuses to avoid putting forth any effort, but it could have been awesome. It didn’t have to suck.

There have been several Teen Titans Go segments that I liked, although I’m mostly referring to self-contained bite-size Youtube clips, and not to entire episodes. But if there have been any episodes that I was able to enjoy from start to finish, it was the Terra episodes. Well, okay, the double dating one wasn’t very good, but I’d still rather watch that over Betrayal. I’ve said before that while a Judas contract adaptation doesn’t have to be faithful, your best bet is to either write her as 100 percent hero or 100 percent villain. You can TRY to write a deep and complex arc for her character, but look at how the original cartoon fucked THAT up. I loved Titan Rising for just pretending to write her as a straight up hero, and to take things one step farther, Teen Titans Go writes her as a full villain, going all the way in with it. And here’s the best part; Since the Toddler Titans are fucking idiots, she doesn’t even have to be that threatening about it! Her character was consistent, her motives were clear, and she just over-all made sense. The connections to Slade were removed from her, but considering the tone she struck in this rendition, that’s probably for the best. She was just a mercenary who wanted to sell the Titans secrets, then she wanted revenge on them for banishing her to the dimension where they threw away their garbage. It was funny, and it worked.

So where does that leave the upcoming movie? Well, the Justice League vs. Teen Titans movie was awesome, so I have high hopes. That movie did what Batman vs. Superman failed to do… It managed to tie in a Justice League side story with one of the most intimidating and high profile villains of the main characters’ lineup, and it all gelled together with mixed to positive results. But then again, they also did The Killing joke, so it’s fair to say that Filler is not their forte. And with the lineup that the first Teen Titans movie from the DC animated Universe has set us up with, there’s gonna have to be some filler in this puppy. Now of course, that might not be the case… The Judas Contract was quite a bit longer than the Killing Joke comic, and as long as they go into Deathstroke’s backstory, they really shouldn’t be hurting for content. And more good news, it looks like he’s in it! Part of the job’s already done! But it’s the lack of Wondergirl, Kid Flash and the original robin that I find disconcerting.

See, here’s the most important thing about The Judas Contract… Timing. It happened at the perfect time. When Terra was introduced to the team, Kid flash was on his way out, Robin was transitioning to Nightwing, and Wondergirl was engaged to be married. It was a time of great change, and a major turning point for the status quo, which made her intro feel all the more natural. It’s at times like that when you WANT new characters to enter the story and fill in for the old ones. That’s why her betrayal felt like such an intense slap in the face to both readers and the cast alike. That’s not to say their removal from the story would hurt it’s over-all flow, or cut off any serious amount of screen time, but it will probably take some of the impact off of Terra’s turn. then again, since everyone who knows anything about the Titans KNOWS how treacherous she is, I doubt her betrayal is going to be a surprise for any fans anyway. Of course, it’s hard to tell what they’re going to do with her, because she’s barely in the trailer.

From what I can tell, it looks like they aged her up a bit, which could mean that they’re going ahead with making her Deathstroke’s lover girl, and they want to avoid all the ephebophilic ickines, and I’m okay with that. They might cover for the element of change that set up Terra’s character arc by having the otherwise inexplicably older Starfire and Cyborg try to move on from the team. The only Hang-up I’m having is that it feels too early. Say what you will about the new team, but we haven’t had enough time with them for Terra’s threat to really mean something to us. But then again, they pulled off Trigon, so I guess we’ll see how it goes. Either way, it’s going to be different, and different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. It’s a matter of execution, not accuracy. I liked what they did with the last movie, and for the love of God, I even liked what Teen Titans Go did with her character. If you can’t make an adaptation the same, for whatever reason, you shouldn’t force it, and you should find a new way to present the material that will work. And while they’re at it, they should make an adaptation of Hush already! I’ve waited too damn long for it!

Shogo Mikadono had been living a comfortable, carefree life up until high school. As the only child of the Mikadono group, a wealthy network of the Mikadono family and it’s friends and business partners, he’s been selected as the sole heir to the company and family name that his father, Kumagoro Mikadono, has dedicated his life to strengthening and expanding. Unfortunately, on the day of his ageing father’s death, when Shogo is finally given a taste of what’s written in the family patriarch’s will, it’s revealed that in order for the young heir to inherit his father’s very lucrative estate, he must undergo one final task; To enroll at a certain high school, fall in love with a dignified and agreeable classmate, and make her his fiancee, with whom he’ll be sharing untold riches on the day of their marital vows! It might not be the most romantic grounds for a proposal that anyone’s ever heard of… Still beats the idea of having to come together to repopulate the earth, when you get right down to it… But for a rich man to marry an attractive woman who’s only interested in business and money isn’t a new concept, and it certainly isn’t unheard of.

However, as is the unfortunate pattern of life, even the simplest plans must become complicated somewhere down the line. Not long after hearing about this stipulation, he’s confronted from just out of reach by a soft, reassuring voice that he won’t always be alone… That the owner of the voice is his long lost sister, who has every intention of marrying him and staying by his side forever. Wait, did I say soft and reassuring? Because I meant deeply concerning, as it turns out that his father did in fact father an illegitimate daughter who’s been separated from him since birth, and to make this revelation even more shocking is the fact that the girl with the voice is also going to his new school! Now, his attempts to pluck a bridal rose from a garden full of crazy weeds is being hampered by the fear that one of his sultry suitors may actually be his secret sister! This matrimonial minefield is made even harder to cross by the fact that with each step that moves him forward, he’s being confronted by red herrings that are only pretending to be his sister for their own ends. Can Shogo safely pick the woman of his dreams and collect his rightful inheritance, or is the only thing he’s bound to inherit a deformed child and a one way ticket to Alabama?

You know, the longer I do these reviews, the more likely I am to cross every single animation studio off of my list at some point. This time around, we’re talking about Studio Gokumi, a company that spun off from Gonzo in the early 2010’s. The name literally means Studio Group 5, which… I don’t know. I have no idea what that does, or even COULD mean on a larger scale. In any case, they haven’t done very much work, although I have seen two of their shows before, namely A Channel and Yuki Yuna is a Hero, two shows whose best qualities were their visual qualities. A Channel, like most of Gokumi’s early work, was low budget, but managed in such a way that it’s lack of funds could never hurt it in any noticeable way. Yuki Yuna, like most of Gokumi’s later work, was gorgeously animated with a lavish budget that the producers took full, appreciative advantage of. Between the two, Nakaimo is closer to A Channel, being one of the studio’s earliest projects, and it looks way better than it really needed to look, given the nature of the material.

True to form, Nakaimo looks perfectly fine. The visuals aren’t mind-blowing of world-challenging, but they’re more than serviceable enough to be above complaint. The animators were very clearly working with a tight budget, so the movement on screen is never exactly fluid, but the characters still move just as much as they need to to convey a sense of life. There are shortcuts taken, which is kind of inevitable in such a situation, as movement occasionally has to be limited to save some money, but it’s never prominent enough to bother even the most astute viewer. Not to mention, these shortcuts pay off with interest when the show DOES want to dazzle us with more impressive shots, such as one of the main characters swimming in beautifully animated water, or when they need to show us random CG effects like a can flying at someone’s head from off screen. I’ve said before that given the choice, I’d prefer a well-managed low budget over a lackadaisical high budget at least seven times out of ten, and Nakaimo easily delivers on what I wanted to see from it.

The artwork is also very pretty, with it’s only real flaw being certain shots where the background has an unnatural sort of heavenly shine to it. It doesn’t happen often, thankfully, but it’s irritating when it does. The backgrounds are fairly well drawn, and while most man-made backgrounds to have a surprising level of intricacy in their design and range of details, things like grass, trees and bushes do blur a bit when you look at them closely. The characters themselves are drawn to type, milking the most cliched archetypes of the ecchi genre dry, extending all the way to the teacher being a little girl. You’ve got the cosplaying loli, the pigtailed flat-chested tsundere, the overdressed goth-loli sweetheart girl, and of course Itsuke from Haruhi as the protagonist. It’s saving grace is that once you get past the clichés, the characters are still designed and drawn really well, although the constant blushing can get extremely annoying. The lighting and filtering effects are also utilized well, if not very often.

The soundtrack is a bit on the generic side, but it’s not bad by any means. It’s very pretty in it’s orchestration, but it’s also really repetitive, as any given track just loops around every few seconds or so. It does it’s job well enough, and you’ll hardly notice it, unless it’s doing the one thing about it that impressed me… Instead of playing off the little sister mystery as sexy or romantic, moments dealing with the mystery… AKA phone calls allegedly from the sister and certain off-color remarks tying into it… Are paired with music that actually manages to make the concept feel creepy or ominous, which is how it damn well should feel, so props for that. The opening theme, Choose Me Darling by StylipS, is your typical fast, catchy song from multiple harmonized female singers, but what makes it awesome is the percussion underneath it, which creates a pretty memorable beat. That, and i’m pretty sure a decent amount of the animation budget went into it, as it makes for a pretty awesome watch, and it goes out of it’s way to introduce the characters and several plot points that happen throughout the show.

The English dub was produced by Sentai Filmworks, and before I start doling out the praise… Of which I have plenty to go around… I’m going to have to go into some negatives, because Nakaimo’s dubbers made two huge mistakes. First of all, I was shocked to see that Steven Foster wasn’t on this dub. Yeah, he quit a while ago, but I’ve only ever seen lip-synching this bad under his direction. In his heyday, his response to the critics blasting him for his translation choices was to release dubs where he stayed true to the original Japanese right down to the letter, and stopped giving a fuck about lip flaps. These were his *better* dubs, so I’m kind of assuming the company figured out from him that they can do this to save some time and effort and still remain on peoples’ good sides. This purely speculative explanation, whether true or untrue, doesn’t excuse the final product, where characters talk while their mouths are closed and stop talking while their mouths are still open. It’s over-all a pretty sloppy job, but the other mistake is even worse.

See, there are several voice actors in the anime industry who have immediately distinctive voices. I like to bring these individuals up as… How can I put this gently… Target practice for beginner voice chasers. You don’t need much experience in voice chasing to recognize voices like Greg Ayres, Luci Christian, Monica Rial, Brittany Karbowski, J Michael Tatum or Hillary Haag, because while these are all fantastic actors, they can not disguise their voices for shit. This usually isn’t a problem, as you don’t need to be a chameleon to be a good actor, but Nakaimo presents a unique circumstance. The plot of the story revolves around finding out which member of the harem is Shogo’s little sister, and right in episode 1, we’re given a brief clip of the sister’s real, unfiltered voice. Sentai was clever enough to not credit this voice, but it uses the same actor as the eventually revealed sister character, and they used the most distinct-sounding voice actor they had. They could have used Emily Neves, who’s actually really good at disguising her voice, but nope! Even the most unseasoned of viewers can figure out the mystery as soon as the sister talks again.

For this reason and this reason alone, I almost want to recommend the Japanese track with subtitles, as the sub didn’t make this mistake, but if you did that, you’d be sacrificing what actually turns out to be a pretty awesome dub. I’ll admit that Clint Bickham is a bit awkward in the beginning, but he grows nicely into the character before long. Monica Rial and Brittany Karbowski play his two most prominent love interests, and of course, they’re more than reliable even with the worst material, which is good, because by the end of episode 1, they’ve respectively gushed to themselves over how puffy and cream-filled their boobs are and tried to badger Shogo into sticking his tongue into them through convoluted logic. I would not trust lines like this to any other actors, so thank god the director knew what material to drop in front of what actor. Most of the actors are newcomers and less-popular names, with the exception of veteran Tiffany Grant as the trio’s homeroom teacher, and while everyone does a pretty damn good job, none of them stand up enough to be brought up on the same platform as our three leads. If it wasn’t for the serious misstep I mentioned earlier, I’d tell you to skip the dub and watch it in Japanese… You know what? Screw it, just do that. Good acting isn’t worth spoilers.

Off the top of my head, I can pick out two genres and one trend that have dominated the anime landscape in recent years, earning an equal amount of ire from anything but the lowest common denominator of the anime viewing community. These genres are Harem and Moe, and the trend… One that many critics wish would just go away and die already… Is incest. Specifically little sister incest, because incest without focus apparently isn’t abrasive enough. The harem genre has been a mainstay for decades at this point, and in it’s trek through time, it’s become one of the laziest, samiest things imaginable. I mentioned earlier that the characters were drawn to type, and that’s because there are a lot of repetitive types to draw from. Moe hasn’t been around quite as long, but it’s become just as repetitive with it’s sexist characterizations and shameless melodramatic tragedy porn. These three elements are copied and pasted to death because they work… People flock to them, both here and especially in Japan, so nobody bothers changing it. That would be all well and good, if it wasn’t for the crushing feeling that people pushing out this material know damn well that they don’t have to try.

Well, this was more or less what I was expecting when I bought the series on DVD, but I was very quickly astounded to notice just how much this series DOES try. It puts forth genuine effort to be more than the some of it’s parts. If you haven’t had the mystery spoiled for you… Which means you’re probably watching the sub… It’s a shockingly good mystery, played out through a story that’s way more interesting than anybody should justifiably expect it to be. A character is introduced in episode 2 who’s supposed to be the show’s stand-in for one of the worst harem tropes imaginable, the ever insulting “Trap” character, and while I won’t tell you just what their deal is… It’ll be more satisfying that way… I can think of two reasons the character was introduced. The first I’ll get to later, but the second ultimately makes them my favorite character in the show. Instead of acting as a member of the harem, they exist to help Shogo unravel the mystery of his sister through their epic set of ninja investigation skills. This in turn adds a little more depth and attention to the plot, which can often be forgotten among the tons of fanservice.

The story has many twists and turns, and a handful of the characters do get individual arcs, which is a common enough way for a story like this to explore each member of the harem, but Nakaimo does it a little differently. While each arc ties into the fleshing out of an individual character, they also revolve around the mystery of his sister’s identity, with each one setting up what we’re supposed to believe is a new red herring for him and his gender-neutral ninja sidekick to discuss and solve. Each character with the exception of the student council president has their own backstory, their own tough circumstances, and their own reasons for getting tied into the mystery. What they don’t have, however, is individual reasons to pursue Shogo, because guess what? Half the harem don’t even really want him! Only three of the six girls compete over him, with the other three busy pursuing their own interests that he may or may not be relevant to. It’s a pretty sad commentary on the repetitive nature of the harem genre that THAT’s a breath of fresh air. Having said that, I liked these characters, underwritten as they may have been, and I genuinely cared what happened to them. Shuffle and Maken-Ki didn’t make me feel that way.

After all that praise, you’re probably expecting me to call Nakaimo a genre defying masterpiece, right? Oh God no. It may be one of the better products of it’s genre, but it’s still a product of it’s genre, and as such, it comes with a lot of the same trappings. When it comes to the writing that carries the series to it’s full run, coincidence is the rule, not the exception. It’s hard not to roll your eyes at how the different arcs incorporate themselves into the little sister theme, from a girl claiming to be his sister to promote her little sister maid cafe to the entire school thinking Shogo’s so awesome that calling him Big Brother becomes a trend. Even when the plot gets really interesting towards the climax, it doesn’t… DO… A climax, and very little is actually followed up on. Also, I should probably mention that there’s a ton of nudity in this anime. Not only that, but they go out of their way to show every female character named at some point… Well, thankfully, this excludes the little girl teacher. I generally separate nude scenes into categories of integral, incidental and forced, and while Nakaimo’s are all over the place, most of them feel forced. Hell, the other reason the gender-flip character exists is to guarantee maximum flesh output. Seriously, their excuse for casual nudism makes the chick from MGS who breathes through her skin seem legit.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re one of the special little snowflakes who gets triggered when they hear a work of fiction called ‘sexist,’ you might want to jump on over to one of my other works. “You can’t call a fictional work sexist, that’s stupid, it’s not real!” Yeah, well, there’s a reason the term pop culture has the word culture in it. The way you write people is a reflection of the way you view them, and the popularity of the work is a reflection of how accepted that mindset is. Nobody watches Coal Black without thinking “That’s racist.” On that note, there are several character constructs of the harem genre that I consider sexist, and while Nakaimo only hits a few of them, it’s still really bad. Girls holding onto a crush for well over ten years is sexist and unrealistic. Girls becoming obsessed over a boy over a misunderstanding that makes her think they’re betrothed is sexist and paints women as idiots. Girls being so thirsty for the D that they claim being a pedophile is better than being gay is… Well, I’ll give them this, at least it’s a new one. But it still ties into the harem genre’s age-old insistence that girls will obsessively want the self-insert male character, and through him, the lonely male viewer.

If there’s one area where this show actually did come close to impressing me, it’s with the actual little sister character. While the series begins on a note that some sexy, exploitative Imouto hijinks are about to go down, you find out by the end that while the plot line is wildly misguided, it does manage to follow a more scientific interpretation of incestuous feelings, ala the idea of Genetic Sexual Attraction. In a nutshell, it’s been more or less proven that when two blood siblings aren’t raised as siblings, they’re genetically predisposed to find each other attractive later in life, and yeah, Nakaimo does adhere to this, whether intentionally or not. Unfortunately, I don’t think the writers really know what they had with this material, because it’s an uncommon enough subject matter that it still deserves to be taken seriously, and some serious groundwork needs to be laid down before it can ever be approached with this level of ecchi kitsch. I won’t spoil how the series ends, obviously, but like with all of it’s other promising aspects, it winds up dropping this ball pretty hard. Like I said before, I do appreciate it for trying.

Nakaimo, My Sister is Among Them is available from Sentai Filmworks, and can generally be found on Blu-Ray and DVD at a very generous 30-40 dollar price range. The original light novel by Hajime Taguchi is not available stateside, and I’m kind of feeling like that’s a good thing, because it continues way longer than the anime, and some of the spoilers I’ve heard about the extended story have been pretty cringeworthy. The manga adaptation, illustrated by Mottun, is also not available stateside.

Despite it’s unfortunate history, harem anime don’t have to be bad. They can be great, just like any other genre. The difference is that all the good harem titles I can think of were high concept works that used the genre as a backdrop for a clear, ambitious plot that received most of the writer’s focus. A few good examples would be Chobits and some versions of Negima. I wouldn’t put it anywhere near the same playing field as those titles, but for what it’s worth, Nakaimo DID vastly exceed my expectations. Of course, I was expecting it to be a 1/10 piece of filth, so that’s admittedly not saying much. It tried, and at the end of the day, that alone made me develop a soft spot for it. There was some genuine effort that went into making this title stand out among it’s genre, and while that effort might have ultimately been bogged down and silenced by the trends and clichés of the genre, it still makes enough of an impact to show what the genre CAN be. I enjoyed this show, I’d watch it again, and I’d even recommend it to a few people, but I’d be a bad critic if I didn’t judge it as a whole. I give Nakaimo: My Sister is Among Them a 4/10.

Oh, and one final note…  My car situation’s gotten worse.  Like way worse.  I hate to ask this, but if you don’t mind lending a hand with this issue, I started a Gofundme page.

I’d like to highlight just how badly I need this.  Link!

They say it’s a waste to live in the past, clinging to people you once knew and dreams you’ve outgrown. To live in the moment, and make plans for your future, are the cornerstones of responsibility, and you can never truly grow until you embrace them. But what if the past IS your only hope for a future? What if the only person who ever loved you was a brief acquaintance from your childhood? What if the promise to reunite as adults, bound by a common goal that will ensure their love will one day last forever? It’s easy to find the idea of someone devoting their adult lives to such a fleeting moment of happiness laughable, at least until you meet Keitaro Urashima, a 20 year old loser with a heart of gold and a body that would put a crash test dummy out of work. As a child, he made a promise to a mysterious young girl with whom he’d shared an unexpected connection. Upon realizing that they’d probably never see each other again, they vowed to one day get into the prestigious Tokyo University, a college that they heard has the power to keep loving young couples together forever. That actually sounds kind of romantic, right?

Well, it loses some of it’s luster when Keitaro, as an adult, has decided to work around his pesky undatability by holding onto this 14 year old promise well into his early twenties, optimistically believing that the love of his life is waiting just beyond the entrance exams of Tokyo University… Exams he has no hope of passing. Yeah, his ambition would probably be an admirable trait if it didn’t involve the Japanese equivalent of an Ivy League school, and even moreso if Keitaro himself wasn’t intellectually suited for, say, a for-profit school, or a community college at the very best. Nevertheless, he tries and fails, and when he refuses to set his sights any lower than the top, his parents realize with what I can only assume was dawning horror that they’re going to be taking care of their son for the long haul, and instead decide to ship his unemployed ass to the family hotel, Hinata Inn, to study while work as the building’s new manager! What they don’t tell him, however, is that Hinata Inn has recently been transformed into a girls’ only dorm, and it’s home to a flock of ferocious females who aren’t shy about letting him know where his boundaries lie. With these tough temptresses attempting to murder him over every little misunderstanding, will Keitaro ever be able to chase his dreams, or will he be too distracted by the angry teenagers chasing him?

Love Hina is a bit of a rarity in terms of production history… It was animated by two distinctly different companies, Production IG and Studio Xebec, the differences between them being like night and day. Production IG has a reputation for showing us the best visuals that the current technology of whatever year it’s working in have to offer, and this was no less true in the year 2000. Xebec, on the other hand, is to animation what a child with a plastic steering wheel attached to it’s carseat is to driving… Except with actual control over the car. These two radically different agents mix about as well as oil and water, making it embarrassingly easy to tell who’s behind the visuals at any given time. Now, to be clear, the animation in this show is never what you’d call “good.” It clearly had a lot of budget issues to deal with, which I’ve heard is partially responsible for it’s failure to secure a second season before it got canceled. It’s passable about half the time, with good old IG doing their damnedest to not let the series look as cheap as it was, and for the most part, it kinda worked. They did what they could to limit obvious corner-cutting techniques, animating character movements and framing conversations in such a way that key frames never become too oppressive, and awkward motion isn’t too distracting.

On the other hand, we have Xebec, who did the rest of the series, and to say they didn’t handle the fickle nature of the budget as well as IG did would be a generous freaking understatement. I guess the best example of the kind of job they do would be episode 16, the Monkey King stage play. This episode doesn’t just abuse key frame, it cuts back and forth between the SAME key frames, at one early point shooting it’s main characters way out in the background, with the entire rest of the frame filled with a simple beach landscape, the tiny characters barely moving as it cuts back and forth between this frame and another slightly more interesting one. It’s eventually revealed that the reason these excessive shortcuts were taken was so Xebec could show some action scenes towards the end, which probably would have made it feel justified if it wasn’t for the fact that the action in question isn’t even all that great. It’s not terrible by any means, but even a novice animator knows that it’s not worth letting 90 percent of your anime look like crap just to save your budget for a few mediocre fight scenes.

So yeah, the worst thing you can say about the animation over-all is that it’s inconsistent, but when it’s bad, it’s painfully bad. The same can be said for the artwork, which… Like the animation… Is at best, passable. The backgrounds are serviceable enough, as while they never really feel detailed or immersive, and extras existing in the background never really move or feel lifelike, it’s never so bad that you can’t imagine characters existing and living in them. They’re fine. The characters, however, run into some serious issues here and there. While it’s not a consistent problem, I do recall several instances of characters appearing off-model, frozen in time, or having the incorrect bodily proportions. There was one particularly egregious frame towards the end where Naru’s little sister temporarily went from a normal middle school physique to an inexplicable D-cup, and that’s not even at it’s worse. Motoko, the swordswoman character, had her face altered for this adaptation in a way that makes her look almost frog-like in the early episodes. Thankfully, that’s really the only deviation from the original character designs that I noticed. Anyway, the artwork is largely fine, but any given time, you’re only one rogue pause away from seeing what can only be described as bad fanart.

But you wanna know what’s consistently awesome, unlike the visuals? The music. Love Hina has a fantastic soundtrack, with it’s only real massive downfalls being the fact that you can’t really find all the sample tracks online, and the fact that several more recognizable tunes get recycled ad nauseum throughout the series. Not that the second issue matters, because the music is good, and you’ll welcome opportunities to hear each track multiple times. Unfortunately, the best track only plays once. It’s a solemn piano piece that plays in episode 12 between the opening theme and the title reveal, and it’s a classical track called Gymnopedies by Eric Satie. The rest of the music, which has been equally difficult to match names to, is overflowing with effort and personality, from the frantic upbeat songs to the beautiful insert songs that were all sung by the cast, and especially the more soulful tunes that get used for more sad or romantic moments. Songs dealing with individual characters carry the flavor of said characters, like Motoko’s traditionally eastern sounding themes and Kaolla’s exotic ones.

The opening, Sakura Saku, could almost be considered an ode to the fast forward button, as it just feels… Fast. from the song to the visuals, it’s an incredibly fast paced op where everything seems to be trying to catch up with each other. I get the feeling that this tone matches what Xebec and IG THOUGHT they were going for with this anime, but in reality, it doesn’t really match the tone of either the original manga OR the final product. It’s like, this is the op they commissioned when they though the show they were going to create was going to be slapstick, zany antics and physical comedy all the way through. Having said that, as fast an OP as it may be, it also comes off as a bit lazy, as it recycles visuals from the show… A pet peeve of mine, if you’re wondering… And otherwise introduces the entire cast through framed faceshots, a staple of the harem genre. Honestly, it’s a pretty annoying op that I found myself skipping over and over. The ending theme is better, employing a slower and more groovy song as it slowly pans across a single still image of the main female cast on the floor covered in nothing but loose white sheets, and while it feels completely out of place, it at least pleasant in comparison. Although, yes, I skipped it just as often.

The English dub has actually achieved notoriety over how terrible it is, as I don’t think I’ve seen a single reviewer attempt to recommend it over the sub… But honestly, I don’t think it’s really all that bad. Now once again, it’s not what you’d call good, but several of the performances are at least accurate, and the ones that aren’t are the product of bad casting and direction, although even in those cases I can kind of see what the director was trying to do. To start things off on a relatively positive note, Derek Stephen Prince’s performance is more or less what I hear in my head when I read Keitaro’s dialogue in the manga, and he’s able to stretch what should be a throat destroying role to some pretty diverse places and situations. He’s a good actor, but that doesn’t really make up for how annoying Keitaro’s voice sounds both in my head and in the show. Marginally better, albeit on the same note, is Bridget Hoffman in the role of Shinobu, the shy middle schooler who had much easier role to perform. Her waify Yamato Nadeshiko pitch would be a bit too grating for the original Shinobu, but with the bulk of her character development either removed or straight up replaced, she fits the part nicely.

When I’m having a discussion about bad, mediocre or middle-of-the-road voice actors, I always manage to shock the room by bringing up the prolific Wendee Lee. Yes, she’s had her fair share of outstanding roles, but she’s also been dragged down on too many occasions by poor direction choices that she just couldn’t manage to save. In Love Hina, she plays the energetic Kaolla Su as well as Su’s older sister Amalla in a dual role where she was asked to perform with an Indian accent… Even though the character is not Indian, and the dialogue even goes as far as to blatantly STATE she’s not Indian. Of course, there wasn’t much available in the way of other options, and there really isn’t a known accent attached to her people in the manga, and to her credit, Wendee does pull it off… When playing Amalla. When her range is stretched too far by the combination of acting, using a difficult accent AND playing a hyper character, the end result is just terrible. It’s still better than Barbara Goodson’s inexplicable southern drawl that’s supposed to act as a substitute for the Kansai accent, but ‘better’ is a relative term here, because they’re both virtually unlistenable.

And if you thought my criticism of Wendee Lee was hard to take, wait until you hear Mona Marshall playing Motoko Aoyama. Good God was this an awful casting choice. I’ve criticized her before for having a little boy voice that doesn’t sound remotely male, but that’s not to say the voice sounds like a natural woman, either… And she uses that exact voice to play Motoko, the kendo-obsessed girl and my favorite character from the manga. Every single word that comes out of her mouth sounds like it’s coming from the wrong person, like she’s the sad victim of a rogue ventriloquist. Rounding out the rest of the main cast we have Julie Ann Taylor doing a fine job with Mutsumi, playing her appropriately as a klutzy airhead, and Dorothy Elias-Fahn as Naru. This is one of Fahn’s two biggest credits, alongside Meryl Stryfe from Trigun, and to say the two characters are similar… Shouting, critical nags attached at the hip to doofus heroes… Is a bit of an understatement, but since Naru isn’t as well-rounded or fully realized a character as Meryl was, there’s also the problem that she doesn’t really click with the character as fast. She enters the role as a stuck-up screaming Tsundere, but to be fair, she does settle into the role as best as she can as the series progresses… Possibly even moreso than the character really deserves. It’s a dub that takes some tolerance and getting used to, but yeah, there’s no real reason not to watch it subbed.

Before I start to look more deeply at Love Hina, I should probably start by saying some things about it’s creator, Ken Akamatsu. As one of the founders of the modern harem genre, Akamatsu is a renowned mangaka whose works have been well received both critically and commercially, and his influence can be seen just about everywhere. He has seven unique titles to his name, but since Mao-chan started off as an anime, Kids Game is difficult to find and the less we say about Itsudatte My Santa the better, we’re going to focus on the way his work has evolved over the course of four of his most well known works; AI Love You, Love Hina, Negima, and UQ Holder. The first thing that I’d like to call attention to is that throughout his career, Akamatsu has had a penchant for inventive action scenes, PG-rated fanservice nudity, and deep, complex exploration of characters who seem at first glance to be nothing more than cheap tropes. Well those and all the weirdness, but the weirdness is largely unique to each title. It’s interesting to look at his body of work over the years, how it’s changed from title to title, but the most easily trackable change comes with the theory that he uses his fanservice as a crutch to keep readers interested throughout the story.

AI Love You was basically a rip-off of Ah My Goddess, with High School Keitaro in the lead role and Skuld being swapped out for a little boy. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty bad. The only thing it really has to offer is a generic slice of life story, disturbingly sexist undertones, and a lot of bare bottoms. It’s follow-up, Love Hina, had lot more effort put into it’s plot and story, with Akamatsu’s trademarked fanservice put into a more consistent context and more practical use as other elements and themes were experimented with. When Negima came around, Akamatsu didn’t even want to make a harem, wanting instead to try his hand at the shounen action genre, so he worked around his contract by using a beefed up harem as the roots and origin of such a story. Since the shounen action and magical adventures wound up being the most popular aspect of Negima, he wound up creating his most recent effort UQ Holder, a sequel to Negima and a pure shounen action series whose occasional fanservice feels more like a half-assed obligation than anything the writer’s really invested in. My point is, he’s grown as a writer, in maturity, craft, and many other areas. But Love Hina is still one of his earlier works, so you kinda have to expect an immature world-view going in.

Since Love Hina is the work that made him famous, it is the one most synonymous with his name, and it’s achieved a sort of iconic status in it’s own right, particularly as a gateway manga for a surprising number of otaku from both sides of the ocean. It’s appeal can best be explained by the way it utilizes it’s target audience, teenage boys and those who think like them. It works the best on readers who are lacking in experience with anime, manga and sex, and unless you’ve already spent your youth on it, it’s a surprisingly easy story to grow out of. Young readers are sucked in by the promise of crazy comedy, sexy antics and the bare bottoms of seven radically different female characters… But instead of just milking these impressionable young readers for cash, Love Hina introduces them to extended arcs, complex character writing, and a sense of conflict and themes that comes off as natural and never forced. For example, Keitaro and Naru aren’t just thrown together as the main prospective couple… In a house full of people who are only staying there to run away from something, they’re the only ones who are also running towards something, making them the most compelling members of the cast, and even when they’re battling against the literal force of fate, you still wind up rooting for them. There’s a lot more to this manga than just fanservice and slapstick, and it stays with you years later.

How well does the anime translate these qualities? Well, let me ask you this; after writing more than sixty anime reviews, how many times did I break the review to talk about the manga the series was based on, and why it worked? I did that here because there are tons of reviews that will tell you Love Hina doesn’t work, but I haven’t really come across any that went into detail about why. The manga works because in between every big memorable moment, there are volumes upon volumes of character development and a very specific order to the events which unfold. Because of this, it represents the best of a lot of otherwise regrettable tropes. Shinobu is the best “notice me sempai” girl, Keitaro is the best of the ‘obsessed over a childhood love’ characters, etc. Out of all the changes that the anime made, more of them being completely harmless than you might think, the absolute worst thing it did was rush the story, ignoring all of that glue and focusing solely on those big moments, and showing everything out of order. The characters are there, but the familiarity is gone. There’s no magic left in our bond with them, and with such terrible execution, nothing feels like it’s happening at the right time. This is a devastating problem for a story with so many imperfections that it needed that glue to cover up.

You can argue until the cows come home about Ken Akamatsu’s level of maturity, but he was not a stupid writer. One of the biggest complaints anyone has about the anime is how much abuse Keitaro suffers at the hands of his love interest, which is a complaint that isn’t heard nearly as often from the Manga’s readers, despite it happening about as often. This is where fanservice comes in. In the manga, almost every time Keitaro’s assaulted, it’s accompanied by either a peek at some panties or a flash of some flesh, and due to the static nature of a manga panel, the presumably 14-year-old reader has the option of lingering on the naughtiness, already perfectly framed, and then just glancing over the punch/kick/sword slash. In the anime, almost all fanservice is removed… Hell, girls don’t even enter the hot springs without towels until the halfway point! The abuse is left to it’s own devices, no distraction offered. This is why, among people who’ve only seen the anime, the character of Naru Narusegawa has the unfortunate stigma of being despised by otaku the world over.

I’ll try not to give too many examples of the disastrous changes the anime makes, at least in the interest of avoiding spoilers, but there are some that must be addressed. Keitaro lying about being a Tokyu U student is supposed to be a major plot point, one where he digs himself in deeper with each interaction, but in the anime, it’s swept under the rug soon after being brought up. Replacing the original Shinobu introductory arc with one that involves her parents feels forced and unnatural, especially since the most essential part of Keitaro’s lie was the way it affected her. There’s an incredibly important moment during a beach storyline where Keitaro is screwed by his friends into royally pissing off Naru, and it’s supposed to be a major speed bump between them that lasts three whole arcs, one of them being completely non-sensical for the sake of levity. Here, that levity arc is played first, and the initial friction arc is combined with another arc(that’s been shifted to three other characters) before being abruptly resolved under some generic fireworks. There are several new characters added, including a new romantic rival for Keitaro, Motoko’s harem of admirers, and Naru’s little sister, but none of them add anything to the story outside of writers’ conveniences.

Several new ideas, like Naru becoming an idol singer and Motoko dreaming she’s in a fantasy RPG game, are just as pointless, and often confusing in their logic. Even when the anime does something genuinely good, it’s still dragged down by mistakes that are even worse. There’s a tight focus on the mystery of who Keitaro’s promise girl is, and the love triangle that blossoms from it is handled well, unless you’re watching the episode where it’s suggested that she might have just been a haunted ball joint doll. The effect Motoko’s sister had on her life is explored thoughtfully, but we never actually meet her, so it ultimately falls flat. Kaitaro’s incest crazy sister was thankfully left out, which I’d give them major credit for if it wasn’t for the fact that A: She wound up getting her own movie and B: They wound up giving Kaolla and her siblings an incest episode that was even worse. The story wound up being incomplete because of budget issues that made it unfeasible to continue onto a second season, but if the right material had been cut, it wouldn’t have been an issue. The three movies that followed didn’t do the ending justice, rather they just animated some popular storylines that were left out. Seeing how ‘Read the manga’ type endings have affected me in the past, you can guess what my thoughts on this one are.

Love Hina was originally available from Geneon, and after they went out of business, it wound up being rescued and redistributed by Funimation. The original Geneon collections are still available online, such as the Complete collection set and the Perfect collection set, which includes the OVA episode and all three movies, or you can buy the two collections that Funimation has released… A thinpack box set with cover art that tried to make the material sexier than it actually is, and more recently an ‘Anime Classics’ collection that proves just how far they’re willing to stretch that term. The three movies can be found individually or in a box set, and while they’re technically out of print, they’re still fairly cheap online. The manga from Ken Akamatsu has been available stateside for so long that you can find the entire 14 volume set on Ebay for as low as 35 dollars, which is a deal I’d highly recommend. AI Love You is a bit trickier to find, and is thus a bit more expensive, even at only 8 volumes. A two volume light novel collection is also available stateside.

The word I feel best describes the Love Hina anime is incompetent. It does absolutely nothing right, and while it’s fairly easy to tell that it respects the source material, it’s just as obvious that it doesn’t understand the source material. The only episode that I found any enjoyment in was episode 12, which had me laughing out loud multiple times and sucked me into it’s story, with a little help from the aforementioned music. Aside from that one exception, every single episode of this turkey is tied for worst, and they all fail in such unique ways that I could have reviewed every single one of them on it’s own, had I wanted to. The comedy isn’t funny, the romance isn’t romantic, the drama has no stakes, the characters have no development, and I have the strangest feeling that they intentionally meandered throughout the entire run, thinking it was entitled to a second season that never happened, and were thus in no rush to reach any conclusion. I was willing for the longest time to give this title a few pity points, based on it’s good intentions, appropriately goofy nature and killer soundtrack, but that incest episode just sealed the deal. I give Love Hina a 1/10.  

Before we begin, here’s a trade secret:  I like to have my work done far in advance, sometimes weeks, sometimes months.  As far as this post goes, this paragraph is the only part that wasn’t written in December.  I’m writing it day of, which is normally when I’d edit my posts.  No, I’m adding this section in to acknowledge that I finally caught up with RWBY yesterday, and spoiler alert, Qrow tells a story that conflicts with what I wrote here.  It’s some story about two Gods, one in control of day and the other in control of night, and the one in control of night gets jealous, and MY LITTLE PONY RIP-OFF.  How does this figure into my theory?  I don’t freaking know, but it’s probably a heavily metaphorical story that isn’t meant to be taken literally, so whatever.  I’m not changing my theory for anything.

Here we go!

Perhaps the most amazing thing about me having a RWBY fan theory is the fact that I’ve become enough of a fan to have a theory. And this isn’t something new, either… Way back in my review of the first season, when I still thought it was steaming garbage, I did mention that something seemed fishy about the intro. They mentioned that humanity was born into a cold, uncaring world, and the race called Grimm wanted us dead for no other reason than the fact that we existed. I said, and this was years ago, mind you, that there had to be more to the situation than we were being told, and it was incredibly likely that we weren’t just an innocent party at the whims of a beast bent on driving us to extinction. We did something to deserve it. We had to have. It was the only explanation that made sense. I mean, otherwise, wouldn’t they want to keep us a live as a long-term food source? The evolutionary drive to eat when hungry is what drives the survival of all Earth’s creatures, way moreso than murderous rage.

Today, a few years later, I’ve come up with a theory that explains not only that, but several other details that have bugged me for a while. Of course, you’ll have to take this theory with a grain of salt, as it’s mostly just me firing from the hip and imagining a scenario that adds logic and reason to a series that’s based around neither, and since RWBY hasn’t really specified a lot about it’s past outside of it’s folk lore, I didn’t have much to work with. Having said all that, let’s start by going through my theorized history of Remnant.

In the not-too-distant future, Mankind realizes that a large meteor covered in strange material is heading for Earth. Hoping to guarantee the survival of the species, we take our brightest minds, including our scientists, our medical researchers, our historians, etc. The meteor hits, and we come back down to the ground a few centuries later, looking to repopulate the landscape. We quickly notice that the strange material on the meteor was a sort of dust containing magical reality-altering properties, such as the fact that the moon, which it collided with on the way to Earth, somehow hasn’t collapsed back in on itself via the force of gravity, and still exists in a field of floating shards. As far as life goes, only limited sea life has survived, so we set out to terraform and colonize what livable land is left.

We attempt to use cloning technology to turn our ancient animal DNA samples into living creatures, but we get nowhere, until a brilliant scientist has an idea; She theorizes that with the magical properties of the meteor’s dust, the process can be pulled off successfully! With the help of her assistant, she attempts to clone these animals while infusing their DNA with dust, but in doing so, she accidentily creates The Grimm. They bear the appearance of classic Earth fauna, with one distinct difference… A deep, seething hatred for their human creators. After it’s been decided that the hundreds of Grimm species are to be terminated, the scientist exposes herself to raw dust in protest, becoming a human/Grimm hybrid herself… She releases them into the wild, where mankind’s attempts to recreate native plantlife has actually flourished, and becomes the queen of her own creations: Salem. Her assistant, Ozpin, would work to uncover a way to filter dust so it can be used with much safer results.

For example, the dust gives Oz immortal life, with the power to move his soul into new bodies upon his death. This power would keep him alive long enough to try and recreate the animal kingdom again, this time using voluntary human subjects in the mix. In doing so, he creates Faunus, a race of animal-human hybrids that are treated with respect and curiosity at first, but before long are ostracized from humanity by sentiments of racism and ownership. They eventually rebel, forming their own coalition and eventually their own societies. Over the next few centuries, the history of pre-meteor Earth continues to be taught, humans and Grimm both expand to colonize the livable land, and the origins of Faunus and Grimm become lost in time, a legend and eventually a myth remembered only by Ozpin and Salem, the only survivors of the humans who came down to Earth so long ago. Over time, Dust use would become more sophisticated. People would learn strange powers from it, that would eventually get absorbed into their very DNA and to their descendants.

Now, that sounded kind of cool, didn’t it? Screw you, I liked it. But yeah, here’s the evidence I have to support my theory.

1: In the first episode of season 2, Ruby makes direct references to Lincoln, Nixon and King Jr, which would only be possible if the people of Remnant were aware of American political history. This points to our universes being directly connected.

2: Throughout the series, I can’t remember seeing any live animals aside from Grimm, and crows that we know people can turn into. However, Grimm are obviously based on Earth animals.

3: There’s a swordfish and chickens on the table in the food fight scenes, but they’re likely fake, as the chickens are tough enough to be used as boxing gloves, and the swordfish is as stiff as a board and hasn’t been cooked, prepared or eaten, meaning that it’s likely a decorative centerpiece.

4: The other exception is Ruby’s dog Zwei, but since he’s able to freely shapeshift and survive a lengthy trip in a tube without food and water, it’s unlikely that he’s a natural pooch. He’s more likely a biological weapon, engineered to look like a dog.

5: The natural evolution of Faunus makes no sense. There’s no Darwinian advantage to people developing normal human bodies, complemented by random animal parts. This is especially true for horns and antlers, which if used at all, would likely break the user’s neck.

6: At the very least, there’s evidence of man controlling the ecosystem and plantlife. This comes in the from of The Forest of Forever Fall, whose name implies that it’s a wooded area that experiences autumn all year long. This could not possibly have happened naturally, as it implies the trees are constantly growing new leaves just to immediately drop them to the forest floor. Likely, this ecosystem is artificially sustained to keep tree sap, and thus maple syrup, in season all year long.

7: You could site the Grimm’s beef with mankind as a result of Salem mind-controlling them, but if that were the case, the mammoth ones wouldn’t be so docile.

If you’ve ever found yourself waking up on the sidewalk, struggling for consciousness and aching with intense physical pain all over your body, there’s a decent chance you need to go seek help, from both a doctor and an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. But for You Satou, a slightly more perverted than average teenage boy, this advice really doesn’t apply. Yeah, he did find himself waking up face down in the pavement at the center of a crowd of worried onlookers, with a strange girl from his school babbling incoherently about some epic fight that he can’t remember, but instead of a hangover and the deep shame that comes with it, all You Satou can feel is an empty stomach demanding food, an empty wallet demanding cheap food, and an empty head demanding answers. To make matters worse, this all happens while he living all alone in a strange town, staying away from his family in the dormitories of his high school, living on a strict budget, and his only clue comes from a mysterious white haired girl who gives him one simple warning; Stay away from the Supermarket.

Of course, budget wins out over brains, and he finds himself once again visiting the grounds of his unexplained injury, and he happens to get there right when the owner is about to place half-off stickers on Ben-To boxes full of fresh food that didn’t get purchased that day. Satou charges in, stomach roaring, youthful enthusiasm pounding away inside of him… Only to get dragged into a world of culinary combat as the lingering loiterers around the market explode into an all out war over the discounted food. The rabbit hole only goes deeper from there, as he suffers yet another defeat at the hands of Sen Yarizui, the white haired warrior, who takes him and his other new friend Oshiroi under her belt to become better Ben-To brawlers. If they ever want to stand a chance of landing budget friendly food to dine on, they’ll have to train, improve their fighting skills, and learn the intricate philosophies of Wolves, Dogs and Laurel Wreathes, but most importantly of all, they’ll have to have the hunger for victory. With wars breaking out between guarded territories, ambitions rising all around them, and a series of increasingly bizarre circumstances unfolding around them, will Satou have the stomach to survive in this game, or is he destined to lose his lunch?

If you’ve ever heard the name David Productions before, it’s probably because you watched the 2012 adaptation of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Aside from that, and to a lesser extent Ben-To, they really haven’t had any big hits. They formed in 2008, and spent a year or two offering production assistance to a couple of big name shows, namely Code Geass, Soul Eater and Black butler, before finally branching out on their own in 2009, releasing some obscure titles. They finally broke ground in 2011, releasing Level E and Ben-To, a couple of generally well-received but NOT popularly known titles. It was born from the minds of some former employees of Studio Gonzo, and much like it’s year-mate, Ben-To feels like some of Gonzo’s better looking titles, and I’m not just talking about a specific genre here. Gonzo’s visual style varies from show to show, with fast animation in it’s light hearted action shows, intense focus and gritty detail in it’s more hardcore action titles, and just enough smart camera work to make even the most mundane of slice-of-life shows feel lively and engaging. Ben-To is all three of these achievements stuffed tightly in a half-priced supermarket bento box.

To start, the slice-of-life scenes take place primarily in a school, and if not that, then at least primarily around students. The day-time and in-class segments look on the surface like they could exist in pretty much any anime that shares a similar setting, with clean and sharp=looking exteriors and a bunch of uniquely designed background characters occasionally reacting to the quirkier crowd that makes up the main cast. To be clear, there isn’t quite as much background movement as you might find in a Kyoto Animation title, such as the first season of Haruhi, but it’s more than enough to keep the rest of the country’s population from looking like a bunch of cardboard cut-outs, and furthermore, it sells the idea that there IS a world outside of the main cast. Scenes taking place in Sen’s club-room or near and inside the supermarket aren’t nearly as bright or sterile, but in a possibly ingenious move, they feel darker in a warm, inclusive kind of way… When you’re watching the main cast interacting with each other and other patrons, it feels like you’re among friends and equals away from the conformity of everyday life.

Secondly, the light-hearted action animation had a lot of money poured into making it look as smooth and kinetic as possible, despite the questionable material it wound up being used for. Satou is the butt of a lot of physical comedy, both funny and non, and despite being a completely different character in both personality and disposition, the kind of things he lives through could easily be compared to that of Keitaro from Love Hina. He’s not even the unluckiest character in the show(we’ll get to that), but misfortune follows him wherever he goes, and the show’s obviously generous budget captures it all in sometimes excruciating detail. Speaking of detail, some of the more intense action scenes are so vividly animated that they could almost be confused for clips from Hellsing Ultimate, particularly because of the use of shading. Ridiculous premise aside, there are moments in this puppy that are meant to be taken dead serious, and they probably would have fallen flat without such intricate visual direction. These two action-oriented animation styles make for a beautiful combination during supermarket brawls, and while a few shots are recycled, it happens scarcely enough that you’d have to watch the series multiple times to notice.

The character designs are fairly standard and archetypal, but not lazy in any way. Satou looks like your typical anime hero with an average face, messy brown hair and no other real distinguishing features. Yarizui looks like your typical cold-hearted girl, ala Rei Ayanami, with the short white hair and everything. Oshiroi looks like your typical Fujoshi/Manga-artist character, complete with mousy demeanor, pony-tail and glasses. Ayame, Satou’s cousin, looks like your typical sexually-forward character, with long blonde hair and a generously proportioned rack. The rest of the cast isn’t as obvious as these four, but they’re still designs you’ve seen before, and it’s not hard to draw the connections, which would be annoying if each character wasn’t branded with a ‘nom de guerre’ that blatantly calls out their specific archetype. I won’t spoil what name Satou eventually gets, but the fact that the cold-hearted Yarizui is referred to as an “Ice witch” should be a proper example of why these designs were picked. Other than that, it’s up to the characters themselves to shine beyond their rather ordinary looks, which they do.

When it comes to the music, I’m working with a bit of a handicap here, so you’ll just have to bear with me on this. I usually look up OST tracks on youtube during the writing process, but I can’t do that with Ben-To, because I can’t for the life of me FIND any ost tracks to listen to. It’s bad enough that the series’ title is a difficult one to search effectively, I swear to God I’m getting more results about actual Bento food than I am for the series itself, but I can’t even find the soundtrack on amazon or Ebay, and rewatching it twice in one month just to listen for background music sounds like overkill, but after a quick rewatch of the first two episodes, I’ve noticed that it doesn’t actually have much of a soundtrack. Most anime have a set list of tunes that can play either in short bursts or on repeat for longer scenes, but the music in Ben-to is never just there to be there. If there’s no music needed, or if we’re just listening to dialogue, there’s little to no music present. When music is needed to complement a certain tone or emotion, one of many vastly different short-length tunes will play for the exact purpose, and disappear the minute it’s no longer needed.

The opening theme, LIVE FOR LIFE by Aimi, is awesome, and a perfect fit for the series by all standards. The song is upbeat and intense, the visuals synchronize with it perfectly, and it features some stellar animation. I never thought the simple shot of characters walking around in a supermarket, passing in front of the camera as they move between aisles, could be so much fun to watch. The characters are given proper introductions, and at a few points are even given a small bit of depth, if you’re paying attention. Some outstanding fight animation is also featured, and the transitions between shots are just gorgeous. The ending theme, like most for this type of show, is a lot calmer and with a much more steady pace. It takes place at the end of the day, with all fights behind us, and nothing ahead but the solemn rendezvous afterwards. It’s a nice tune with a soft ambiance, and the visuals offer a heartfelt look at what Yarizui’s new club members, the pups she’s taken under her wing, truly mean to her, and how they’ve changed her life with the implication that she’s transitioning from student to master herself.

The English dub is a Funimation effort, and it was made by exactly the right people, with John Burgmeier directing, and the ever-thoughtful Monica Rial working on the scripts. I’ve praised Monica’s writing several times before, but with Ben-to, I think she;’s added another feat to her list; She can do a Jamie Marchi script WAY better than Jamie Marchi can. No, I’m not just attacking Marchi for shits and giggles, let me explain… Marchi likes to pack cheeky comedy shows like this one full of slang, double-talk and quirky innuendo, taking every possible opportunity to make the characters say something outrageous. Monica does the same thing in this dub, except with the slang toned down and allocated to specifically the characters who might use them, outrageous dialogue used sparingly so as to enhance the effect and not drive the audience into sensory overload, and innuendo divided up among the characters with the dirtiest minds. Oshiroi, when she’s fired up about her boys-love novel, takes on the brunt of this, and Felecia Angelle has so much fun with the material. The fact that nobody else in the cast gets to say the insane, perverted things she does is not lost on her, which is probably why the passion in the character’s voice always feels so natural.

Austin Tindle and Trina Nishimura play the main characters, Satou and Yarizui, but it’s kind of difficult to talk about their performances without also bringing up the kind of development they go through, and it’s not really time for that yet. To put it in broad terms, they both start off sounding like pretty much what you’d expect from their character designs, but just as much development awaiting them as their is their characters. Satou is a character who grows thro9ughout the series, finding passion and strength, and while Austin /tindle may play him as a normal male student most of the time, he’s more than capable of getting fired up whenever his character does. Yarizui seems cold and untouchable at first, but as we learn more about her, she becomes a lot more vulnerable and relatable, both to Satou and the Audience, and Trina is able to deliver on this depth in spades. Tia Ballard plays the ACTUALLY cold hearted character, a far cry from the roles she’s more famous for. She plays the menacing class representative Ume Shiraume, and as demanded, she plays the role like a cold-blooded killer, speaking plainly and as needed, with volumes of venom injected into her words, making the character feel like a legitimate threat. That’s not all I could say by a long shot, there are a ton of Funimation actors who show up in both large and small roles, and… They’re great. They’re all really great. I recommend this dub, although if you’d prefer, the sub’s just as good.

So, there’s a good chance that, by the end of my plot description alone, you’ve already decided whether or not you’re going to ever watch this anime. I’ll be perfectly honest with you guys, it’s pretty fucking out there. This is a show that basically combines the worst of black Friday with a literal interpretation of The Hunger Games. People beat the shit out of each other in the middle of a super market… No, not even a supermarket, a convenience store, three pumps away from being a gas station… for half-price boxes of leftover food. They don’t do this spontaneously, either. Oh no, this is their lifestyle. It is taken with complete sincerity, Satou nearly gets his head knocked off at one point for questioning it, and at no point does anyone compare the money they’re saving when they win a bento to the possible cost of hospitalization. There is actual drama at play here, with more than just hunger on the line. It’s a matter of pride and respect. I will never be able to hear someone dismiss this series based on it’s plot without completely understanding why. But among people who’ve actually watched it, and fully experienced it, Ben-To is a very well-regarded and even respected title. How is that possible with such a ludicrous premise?

Well, first of all, you can say whatever you want about that premise… It’s insane, it’s ridiculous, it doesn’t make any sense… But it is dead fucking serious, and it never wastes any time questioning or second guessing itself. If it did either of those things, it wouldn’t have as much time to explore every single possibility that it’s premise might allow, branching itself out to cover just about every detail that it can, and fleshing them out in ways that make sense because it MAKES them make sense. It builds upon the idea of brawlers beating each other up for cheap food by figuring out why they fight, what their philosophies are, what the rules are, what kinds of people break those rules, how the brawlers interact before and after each fight, what turf wars might look like, even going as far as figuring out ways that different convenience store items, from chopsticks to shopping baskets, might be used for in combat. If you have a question about the world of bento brawling, and it’s not about the realism or practicality of the situation, it’s probably answered at some point in the series. I, for one, felt a whole new sense of depth when it was revealed that some brawlers retire from fighting and move on to take more neutral roles in the community, even though their pasts might come back to torment them.

It’s all part of the sincerity of the series. It knows what it should be, but refuses to be anything other than what it wants to be… A combination of melodramatic black comedy and straight forward shounen action. For those of you who don’t know what melodrama is… Which is understandable, as it’s one of those words people hear all the time without ever really looking up… It’s the story-line equivalent of making a mountain out of a molehill, and it’s not the easiest thing to pull off successfully. In order for the audience to take the material seriously, you have to take the audience seriously. You can’t blow something out of proportion and hope they won’t notice. It’s possible to get them swept up in the emotion of the story, but once they start thinking about it, they start to realize that the stakes aren’t nearly as high as they thought. Yeah, people love Angel Beats, but eventually, they start to wisen up and pick away at the show’s many plotholes and deeper issues. That’s why the melancholic element has to be up front and straightforward. If it’s the central conflict, any question about it can be answered with a hearty “Yeah, so what?” By using that element as an obvious foundation to the story, and building from there in terms of themes and characters, the added depth gives people a much better experience upon further viewings.

As for the nature of that depth, it’s surprisingly thorough. When we meet Satou, he makes a point to inform us that he’s lived an ordinary, boring life that’s been devoid of purpose or direction. He initially enters the bento brawls as a curiosity because he’s attracted to Yarizui in both the traditional sense, the way any boy his age might pursue a girl, but also in a deeper sense. He doesn’t just want her, although he does, he wants what she has… A passion, a purpose, something to dedicate his life to. He begins tio pursue both, and as he progresses, they both slowly become a part of him. He develops as a fighter, discovering the pride of a wolf and the reward of sportsmanship, all as he gradually becomes adopted into the community of like-minded fighters. He learns what the sweet taste of accomplishment is like, and almost immediately afterwards, he learns that an undeserved victory doesn’t come anywhere close to it. This is all as he comes closer and closer to Yarizui, who’s going through an arc of her own, although it’s not as obvious. I won’t go into too much detail about where their journeys take them, but they are definitely in a different place than they were at the beginning of the series, both as individuals and together.

There are a lot of other colorful characters supporting the story, including Satou’s boisterous cousin Shaga and her friend Asebi(who I am begging to see as the main character of her own show), and while this may seem like a weird thing to praise, Satou’s relationship with classmate Hana Oshiroi is like nothing else I’ve ever seen in an anime. The two of them clearly hit it off and have chemistry, but there isn’t a drop of romance between them. They form a charming dynamic right off the bat, and while Oshiroi openly objectifies him and bases her boys’ love novel on his exploits, they still wind up feeling like platonic friends on equal footing, which is a refreshing change in a genre full of forced and unwarranted affections. Unfortunately, Oshiroi also offers a segue into this show’s weaknesses, which run almost as deep as it’s themes. She doesn’t come into the story unencumbered, she comes packaged with a psychotic lesbian stalker who attempts to control her life and beat the crap out of anyone who comes close to her, male or female. This is already bad, as she’s yet another entry into the anime medium’s collection of predatory queers, an insulting stereotype that it can’t let go of, but she takes it to much worse levels.

She’s not so bad at first. Her relationship to Oshiroi is ambiguous in the early episodes, and her beatings on Satou are even kind of funny… moreso than Naru’s from Love Hina by a long shot. However, as her methods get more and more severe, any humor they could have had gets lost not only in predictability, but in the story’s refusal to ever have her suffer consequences or comeuppance for her actions. She strips Satou naked in class, makes death threats, appears out of nowhere just because the writers need her as a crutch, and in the thankfully rare moments when she’s interacting with other female characters like Shaga or Oshiroi herself, the scenes play out in extremely rapey fashion, which I swear to God isn’t even supposed to be funny, but sexy. Yeah, I get the appeal of the whole girl-on-girl thing, but what kind of broken, depraved mind finds rape of any kind sexy? Sure, Oshiroi writes about Satou in such situations, but there’s a big difference between a character indulging in that kind of fantasy and the assumption that the audience will feel the same.

Even leaving aside the sexually questionable material… Which I didn’t even scratch the surface of, believe me… Ben-to is at it’s best when it’s following it’s plot, and the material on the side is okay at best, cringeworthy at worst. Yeah, I don’t mind seeing Satou running through the school yard in his underwear to save his clothes from the incinerator… It’s not funny, but it’s a short enough sequence to not damage the story at all… But when an unfunny joke drags on, it REALLY drags on. There are two episodes in this series, episodes 8 and 9, which are ungodly terrible. They don’t have anything to do with the bento brawling plot, which is probably their first mistake, and the actual laughs they offer are few and far between. In the first one, Satou winds up in the hospital over an antic that should have offered a huge development in his relationship with Yarizui, but winds up getting quickly forgotten so two new characters can be introduced through some insultingly stupid interactions with him. Episode 9 spends a lot of it’s time on Oshiroi and Shiraume, which is just uncomfortable. Thankfully, both of these episodes are skippable, as the only question you’d really have if you skipped from episode 7 to 10 is “Why did Satou wind up in the hospital?” Unfortunately, as a reviewer, I don’t have that liberty.

Ben-to is available from Funimation. It’s not available cheap however, and it’s only available as a DVD/Bluray combo pack, so unless you’re able to snag it from a Rightstuf or from someone on Ebay who’s looking to recoup their money by getting rid of half the collection, you’ll have a hard time finding it for less than forty dollars. The original light novel by Kaito Shibano that ran for 15 volumes between 2008 and 2014 is not available stateside, and neither are the five… count them, FIVE… single volume spin-off manga, which is a shame, because the one called “Road to Witch” sounds like it might offer some backstory for the character of Yarizui, which I’m definitely interested in seeing. Here’s hoping they translate it and release it in the future!

Ben-To is a fun series that works on multiple levels, but unfortunately fails on a few equally important levels. I’ll admit that the search for purpose in one’s life isn’t that hard a theme to write, but it’s done so well here that it still feels admirable as a result. When it’s sticking to it’s plot, it offers an experience that’s pleasing to people looking for a fun action series as well as viewers who are looking for something deeper to enjoy. This dual appeal wears off whenever the story loses focus for an extended period of time, with it’s attempts at delivering fanservice coming off as a desperate, tone-deaf attempt to find some new identity outside of the premise and plot that drew people into it in the first place. Thankfully this doesn’t distract from what’s otherwise a smart, well written action/comedy full of interesting, memorable characters, and the worst of it is contained within two easily skippable episodes. I know I’m not the only one who would have liked to see more backstory involving the other bento brawlers, such as the nameless three and The Wizard, who we’re told has a history with Yarizui, and the two wasted episodes could have easily delivered on both. It’s still a pretty awesome show, but I can’t help feeling that it could have been, and deserves to have been, so much better. All in all, this is one action series that should have had the pulp beaten out of it. I give Ben-To a 7/10.

The Lifestream is the name we call the living flow of energy that courses throughout the planet. It flows through every living thing, from the tiniest ant to the tallest tree, and even through people like you and me. When a person is born, they come from the Lifestream… And when people die, their souls return to it. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the Lifestream can also be harvested. The Shinra Company, the people who first discovered this, found a way to convert it into Mako energy. It powered our technology, lit our lights, and made our lives comfortable, but at a heinous price… The planet only had a finite amount of Lifestream to offer, and we were draining it dry, slowly killing it for our own benefit. Fearing for the future of humanity, a small group of heroes banded together to stand up to Shinra, which inadvertently drew them into a much larger conflict involving Shinra’s shadier practices… A former soldier, Sephiroth, the unholy result of an infusion of both Mako and the cells of an ancient alien, soon entered the conflict.

The battles they waged, the journey they endured, and the consequences they faced would become the material of legend… But in the end, it was the planet itself that saved us from extinction, stopping the advance of a giant meteor mere inches before it could make contact with the ground. Maybe it was their failure that angered it… Maybe it was our arrogance. Maybe it was the fact that our so-called heroes actually stopped Shinra from trying to destroy the meteor to save us. Whatever the reason, a new disease was born shortly after their story ended… It’s called Geostigma, and while it’s exact nature is unclear, it’s related in some genetic way to the ancient alien, Jenova. It’s claimed many lives so far… Men, women, and children have been wasting away while this strange flesh consuming disease spread across their bodies faster than any illness ever known to us. The future of our species, once believed to be saved, is more uncertain than it ever has been. With new threats coming seemingly out of nowhere, will our heroes, now scattered to the wind, be able to unite in time to stop the revival of Sephiroth and cure Geostigma? Or is the time of man truly coming to an end?

Unlike most anime, this movie wasn’t actually made by any known anime production company… It was animated by Square Enix, the owners of the Final Fantasy games, which of course get more and more visually impressive with each release(over-all quality notwithstanding). It’s also probably the best looking CG anime I’ve ever seen, which wouldn’t be saying much if it wasn’t for the fact that it was animated in 2005, and even the most recent CG anime releases… such as Oblivion Island and Knights of Sidonia… Look like creepy, frozen-faced marionette garbage. It’s really easy to attribute visual quality in animation to budget, but then you have to look at films like the Berserk Golden Age Trilogy, which had gobs of money to spare, but was so poorly directed that they almost appeared to be over-animated. I don’t know off-hand whether or not Advent Children had a budget that was comparable to the Berserk movies, but it looks infinitely better. It’s insane to think this movie is twelve years old, with just how wonderfully articulate and expressive the character’s faces are. They even look believably Japanese, a surprising rarity in the anime medium.

The film’s visual quality gets even more impressive when you remove the comparison to the anime medium, however, because I’m not even kidding when I say that it’s visual production quality puts Pixar to shame. Remember Wall-E, the movie where a little robot roams all alone through a deserted planet full of garbage and debris? The ruins of Midgar alone take this idea to an extreme, as you can make out each and every piece of garbage and twisted scrap metal in stunning detail, sometimes even in shots that only last a few seconds. Every single piece of fabric moves accurately in regard to it’s make-up, from wool to leather, the framing is nothing short of professional, and this is probably the only animated entity I’ve ever seen where everybody’s hair looks and moves like actual hair. Considering how the popular company Rooster Teeth has huge problems with character’s hair clipping into them, and even Disney has to simplify hair design just to make ends meet, this is one aspect of animation where Advent Children is ahead of a time that hasn’t even happened yet. The backgrounds and depth of field are breath taking, the combat is fast and easy to follow(at least in the Complete edition), and the characters move so fluidly that it’s not hard to forget you’re watching motion capture and not real people. Even Rogue One, a movie released a few short months ago, had trouble making CG people look this good.

As for the music, do I even have to say anything? Advent Children’s music was composed by the same man who’s name was attached to every Final Fantasy game so far save for Thirteen, with many of the tracks from the original seventh game brought back, some of which have been given kick-ass theatrical enhancements. Yeah, Nobuo Uematsu accomplished a lot under the heavy limits of video game soundtracks at the time FF7 came out, but with a full orchestra at his disposal, I can’t help but imagine that the tunes in this movie were what was going through his mind when he was composing the original, simpler versions. If nothing else, this movie is worth watching just for the new and enhanced versions of One Winged Angel and J-E-N-O-V-A. Several older tunes like the Main Theme, Tifa’s Theme and the immortal Aerith’s theme have been brought back in a more respectful manner, which they deserve, with their only real changes being in pace and instrumentation. Several new tracks have also been created, and while pretty much all of it is awesome enough to listen to both in and out of context, a few stand-outs include For the Reunion, Divinity II, Those Who Fight Further, and Black Water.

As for the English dub… Ho boy, I may have to dilly dally on this one. See what I did there? Sorry. Well, I guess I should start on a positive note, Reno’s interpretation is outstanding. They hired Quentin Flynn for the role, which was probably a spot of type casting thanks to his previous ginger character, Axl from Kingdom Hearts. He plays the star of the Turks as a cocky goofball, and a well-meaning screw-up with ironic charm to spare. I’m not sure if this counts as a spoiler, because everybody knows going in that this character was going to show up sooner or later, but Sephiroth is also really well done, as George Newbern plays him from the perspective of the only character he ever interacts with, Cloud. This calls for him to be calm and condescending, with a flow of diabolic affection that’s just barely contained by his assured demeanor, and George nails it, while Lance Bass sits in a corner somewhere feeling lonely and unloved. I wish I could say anything as positive about Crispin Freeman, but the undisputed God of deep voices goes wasted in the role of Rude, whose knack for saying very little has carried over from the game.

There are a couple of other performances that are decent, such as Steve Blum as Vincent and Steve Staley as Kadaj, and the child actors are surprisingly okay, but everyone else is crap. I really wanna be nice to Steve Burton and Rachel Leigh Cook and say that they could have been good if their roles as the main characters Cloud and Tifa hadn’t been written so terribly, and it should have taken far, far better actors to play them as more than just a whiny emo and a nagging fishwife, but even taking those circumstances into account, it just doesn’t sound like either of them brought their A-Game. Cook just sounds confused by the incoherent lines of love interest dialogue she was given, which is kind of fair considering how badly translated a lot of her material was, and Burton just sounds like he found one particular pitch to speak from and started holding onto it as a safe place that he never strayed too far from. Also, I’m probably the only person who actually liked Mandy Moore’s performance as Aerith in Kingdom Hearts 1, and the woman they replaced her with… Mena Suvari… Is just as terrible here as she was in Kingdom Hearts 2. It’s not like she had a difficult role, either.

I’m not sure whether to blame writing or acting for the rest of the problems, like Beau Billingslea quoting Mr. T in the role of Barret, Greg Ellis playing Cait Sith with a Scottish accent, or Wally Wingert playing Rufus Shinra like he just got a fresh enema, but holy crap, Christy Carlson Romano is horrible as Yuffie. What happened there? She was outstanding as Kim Possible, and was even impressive playing this same character in the Kingdom Hearts games. I’m going to have to call out the writing and translation team once again, because the way this dub is written is just bafflingly terrible. It sounds like human speech for the most part, but the awkward pauses the characters make when delivering their lines to try and match the lip flaps look nowhere near natural. Several lines were changed from the original DVD release in the complete edition, but being the geniuses that they are, they didn’t change the three… Count them, three… Utterances of the phrase “Dilly-Dally, Shilly-Shally,” which is a phrase so widely maligned that people won’t even make a meme out of it, even though pretty much anyone who hears it instantly remembers exactly where it came from. I’d recommend the sub over the dub, but if I’m being completely honest, only the original release had the original Japanese dialogue included in a subtitle track, and the tracks in the complete edition are just word for word transcriptions of the dub. Well, at least the Japanese version isn’t as bad with the lip-synching.

There are spoilers beyond this point, for both the game and the movie.

Now, before I start talking about whether or not this film works, I’m going to have to discuss what it was about the original game that worked so well, because in the end, the game is what this movie was trying to be… It was trying to capture lightning in a bottle all over again with a retread of one of the most successful game in history. A lot of people call Final Fantasy 7 needlessly complicated, incoherent and full of emo pandering, but you know what? I call bullshit on all charges. Sure, if you’re looking at the big picture all at once, Final Fantasy 7 can appear to be uninviting and poorly thought out, but when you’re actually playing it, experiencing it beat for beat with patience and a lot of time to spare, this game had a surprisingly simple story that never piled on too much information at once and never really needed to give you time to catch up with it. Sure, there were a few things that didn’t make sense until really far in, and understanding the history of Jenova and the Cetra takes way too much outside studying and Al Bhed usage, but the information you WERE given was smartly executed.

The story and plot were also very generously paced, particularly in regard to the world-building, the nature of the planet Gaia, and Cloud’s character arc. Yeah, I know he has a reputation for being emo, but that was actually a very small part of his journey. He started out the game as kind of a cocky asshole, but over time… Especially after meeting Aerith… He grew and opened up, connecting with his new friends and finding a strength he didn’t know he had. He eventually spiraled into depression when he realized that the very memories that gave him confidence were all lies, but he came out of it, replacing the false strength that pushed people away with a new strength that drew them closer, turning him into a true leader and, ironically, a true Soldier. You didn’t need to know very much about Sephiroth’s origins, Jenova’s origins or the Cetra to know exactly where you were supposed to be or what your next objective was, which was all you, Cloud, needed to know at any given time.

I haven’t experienced all of the different sequels, prequels and spin-offs of this game, but one thing the ones I have been through all have in common is that they break away from Cloud’s story, expanding on details that never needed to be expanded upon, like Zack’s backstory and the history of Jenova, elements that had originally stayed peacefully in the background, but now with more attention on them, they expose more and more inconsistencies and incoherent details that probably should have stayed buried under the story of the silent protagonist. This game never needed an expanded lore, and now that it has one, it’s just become over-complicated. Advent Children focuses on the story of Cloud, which is generally the right way to go, but their version of what made the game work so well seems to be “Emo hero fighting white-haired bishie villain over top of an environmental message.” They delivered on that premise, which is unfortunate, because the game ended in such a way that none of that really sounds viable for a sequel. And I’m sorry, but it really isn’t.

So how did they start the movie with an emo Cloud, after all the development that he went through in the game? They decided to focus on an aspect of Cloud’s character that the game never did; They made him feel guilty about letting Aerith die. Yes, when we meet Cloud, he’s retreated from most human contact, taken a job as a delivery boy, and refuses to help anyone because he failed to do so… Once. There are several reasons this doesn’t work, the first one being that newcomers to the franchise have no idea who Aerith even is, let alone what she means to Cloud and how she died. Even veterans will likely not care, as Aerith’s death is one of the most relentlessly over-exposed moments in Final Fantasy history, and oh yeah, there’s one other thing… Cloud never blamed himself for her death. In the game, he blamed Sephiroth, and he understood what her sacrifice was. Any regret he had over it was defined by the reveal that he wasn’t a real soldier, and that he’s not as capable as he thought he was. So the first selling point of this movie falls flat, because a brooding self-hating Cloud is a false Cloud who can only exist by retconning all of his upwards development.

But what about Sephiroth? You can’t make a Final Fantasy 7 movie without the most iconic villain in video game history, can you? But bringing him back abruptly would just feel like a cheap ass-pull. Advent children decides to have it’s cake and eat it too by saving Sephiroth’s revival for the climax of the movie, giving it the necessary build-up, but satiating the fans by giving Cloud three NEW androgynous white-haired villains to fight… Sephiroth’s clones, Huey, Dewey and Louis. Yes, I know that’s not their real names, but I refuse to spend this entire review typing out the name “Yazoo.” There’s some depth to these characters, as they respectively represent Sephiroth’s ambition, strength and charm, and they’re pretty cool in a fight, but everything else about them is confusing and convoluted. Where did they come from? Did Hojo create them? Were they ordinary babies splashed with Mako, like the ooze and the Ninja Turtles? How do they know about Cloud? How do they even know about Sephiroth? And then you have their plan… Give me a minute.

So, their plan is to find Jenova’s severed head, but the Turks get to it first. How did either side find it? Nobody knows. They can apparently track her to the middle of nowhere, but can’t tell when she’s three feet in front of them. They follow the Shinra to Midgar, and decide the head must be hidden under a huge monument to the people lost two years ago, even though the timelines aren’t even remotely close. They kidnap children, take them to a mystic land of white trees, and brainwash them to be servants… Why? So they can stand in a very loose circle around the monument while Dewey and Louis search in broad daylight. Hell, the kids attract more attention to them than waiting until night and searching in silence would have, and this wide child-gate doesn’t even keep out Rude and Reno. Would using Cloud’s stolen materia to summon Bahamut to search the monument at night have been smarter? Yes, yes it would.

They tried to implement depth by exploring the theme of forgiveness, but since Cloud’s quest to have a dead girl and himself both extend him the olive branch feels untrue and hollow, let’s explore the more important forgiveness-seekers, The Turks. After all, it’s their drive to be forgiven by the world that sets the plot in motion, right? Hell no. First of all, what they’re looking for is vindication, proof that they didn’t cause the geostigma outbreak. What they should be asking forgiveness for is murdering millions of people by collapsing Sector seven, but that horrible, depraved act isn’t actually mentioned in this film outside of a Blu-Ray only look at Denzel’s backstory in a special feature. But speaking of Denzel, and leaving the ‘theme of forgiveness’ crap behind, this is one of the few things about the movie that kind of works… The Geostigma.

In the Complete Edition, you finally get the full lowdown on what this outbreak really is, since it was all cut from the original DVD for time and pacing. I think. After the planet saved humanity from Meteor, the Lifestream somehow became mixed with Jenova cells, thus resulting in the spread of her genetic material to millions of people. It’s a disease that’s killing millions, and it acts very nicely as a ticking time bomb for the movie, as well as an excuse to show Cloud hallucinating about Aerith. Sure, there are a FEW hiccups in the plotline, like the discovery that Cloud has been researching for a cure, despite the fact that he really doesn’t seem like the scientific type, and the eventual conclusion to this plot line is so happy and inspirational, you’ll get so many feels that you won’t even realize the disturbing implication that Aerith’s spirit was basically letting millions of people die while she waited for Cloud to get his groove back to disperse the cure. Yeah. It’s not set in stone that that’s what happens, but come on, the cure was water hiding under the flower garden in her church, just waiting to get blown up in battle. And Aerith is acknowledged as being attached to the water, probably because she died of drowning after Cloud lowered her subconscious, paralyzed body into a lake(thanks, Game Theory!).

So Advent Children fails at recapturing the magic of the game, it fails at doing it’s main cast justice, it fails at thematic writing, and it fails to put together a flowing narrative. Does it do anything right on the surface? Does it work as a popcorn-munching action movie, or even as pure fanservice? Well, yes, it actually does those things. As I mentioned in the animation portion, the fight scenes throughout this film are outstanding, highly imaginative and beautifully directed clashes that are all memorable in their own way, and have stood the test of time as major inspirations on CG animation. The battle of Bahamut Sin was likely a huge influence on the Nevermore fight in the first season of RWBY, which was also the point that convinced a lot of people to not drop the series. And speaking of the Bahamut fight, this movie features appearances from all your favorite Final Fantasy 7 characters, all crowbarred into the movie with about as much purpose and grace as the cast of Street Fighter 2: The Animated movie, so yeah, not a very high bar there. Still, if you’re looking to see your favorite game’s characters in a CG movie that gives them all at least a few seconds to shine(before pissing you off with some stupid Shera flyby scene) then yeah, at least it has that to offer.

Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children is available on DVD at most retailers that sell used media, as well as new and very cheap on both Amazon and Ebay.  The Complete Edition is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures home Entertainment for a surprisingly low price. The soundtrack CD can be purchased through Amazon, along with several other renditions on the home video release. The original game is difficult to find online for an affordable price unless you’re willing to take a chance on a lesser quality used copy on Ebay, so if you don’t mind an alternative recommendation, I would highly suggest Final Fantasy 9, which I consider to be the actual best game in the franchise thus far, and it’s brand new on Amazon for only fifteen dollars. If you’re dead set on a brand new copy of VII, happy hunting.

When I bought the complete edition of this movie, I did so with the expectation that it would present me with a more complete story and a more easy to understand plot. As it turns out, the anime-style Denzel backstory in the special features was far more revealing to me than the extra footage was. I don’t think I saw a single new scene that wasn’t better off left on the cutting room floor. They wrecked the pacing, turning a confusing fast movie into a slightly less confusing boring movie, and if I’m starting to sound like I prefer the original to the Complete Edition, well, I do. Whatever complaints I may have had about that headache-machine, this version is decidedly worse, as it’s two hour run-time threatened to put me to sleep. I won’t say it’s not worth watching… Hell, I won’t say it’s not worth owning, as it’s visual and sound qualities are far too outstanding and innovative to not include it in your collection, but the only reason I’d recommend this version over the original is because of the kind of justice that the Blu-Ray format does to it. All the same, it’s still a pretentious piece of forced fanservice, and those of you who have the ability to turn your brains off probably should. I give Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children a 5/10, and the Complete Edition a 4/10.

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