We all remember our first love. It happened in high school for most of us, middle school for a few of us, and much later in life for those of us who were less fortunate. It was that shy, awkward time in our lives when our hormones were raging, our need for intimate one-on-one companionship was impossible to ignore, and after putting forth more and more effort until it felt like we were just screaming our ears off into a dark abyss, we finally managed to convince the object of our desires to invest some time in us. Well, that, or you were the one being persuaded, and you eventually gave in and relented, but either way, we finally found somebody that we could call our own… Somebody we could say was ours, to spend all of our free time with, all while people gossiped behind us about what may or may not be going on behind closed doors. For the first time, we found somebody that we wanted to do all of that mushy stuff that grossed us out when we were children with. We were finally one half of a couple. You never forget something like that.

For Mei Tachibana, first love isn’t the subject of nostalgia… It’s coming for her, and it’s coming hard. While she was used to spending time by herself, avoiding all of those phony, blood-sucking, backstabbing social circles who have burned her before. With no interest in impressing anyone, Mei retreated into the background, not wanting to attract any attention to herself… Which, ironically, attracts the attention of Yamato Kurosawa, the most attractive and infamous boy in school. Having fallen in love with her at first sight, Yamato will stop at nothing to make her his, even while admirers, a former flame, a famous model, and even his own little sister try to compete with her for his attention. She is of course attracted to him as well, but how can she let down her defenses for him, when she’s been hurt before? How can she give herself over to someone, to trust him as he trusts her, when she has no idea what his intentions are, or what a plain, ordinary girl like her can possibly offer someone as perfect as him? Oh, what’s a troubled young girl from Forks… Um, I mean, Japan, to do?

Say I Love You was animated by a company named ZEXCS, which is apparently pronounced like Zekushizu. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that name before, but they were also partially behind the production of Diabolik Lovers, so I must have. Taking a closer look at it’s history, it was apparently formed by a former JC Staff producer, and yeah, now I’m starting to put this company into context. The work that I’ve seen from JC Staff have been wildly varying in terms of quality, but I’m kind of surprised to say that in this case, we have a title that’s wildly varying in quality all by itself. Say I Love You was clearly a low budget series, as evidenced by the plethora of shots where people are frozen in the background like mannequins, stuck in time in the middle of their conversations, but it overall isn’t bad looking animation, either. Thankfully, this kind of show doesn’t need to be heavy on movement, as a lot of it’s story is told through inner monologue and long wistful stares, so the constant dips in budget don’t ever get too distracting.

Well, I say that, but the material they may have wasted a bit too much on is also present more than a few times. That’s not to say saving money for the sake of scenes that require more movement is a bad thing, but the frozen backgrounds become a bit less forgivable when you’ve got money to waste on pointless shots like animations of children running at a distance as well as other similarly blurry, shaky-cam looking shots that I’m still not sure what they were trying to do with. Like I said, though, this isn’t a genre that really needs to be told through a lot of movement,and considering how fluid the little movement it has actually is, this show actually looks slightly above average compared to others of it’s ilk. They put a lot of effort into making basic motions and interactions such as minor scuffles and walk cycles look realistic, even if characters freeze a bit too often when they’re talking to each other. Aside from the few key visual tropes of a shoujo anime, character designs skew towards realism, and while the backgrounds are adequate overall, there are brief moments where the artwork and lighting are so beautiful that you might actually forget the few nagging budget issues.

The music for the series has a very pleasant tone to it, as do most Shoujo based soundtracks, but this particular composition by Yuuji Nomi just had that little extra bit of effort and diversity behind it. Some of the tunes are a bit loopy, and can become annoying when played on endless repeat in the background of scenes where nothing’s really going on, but the ones with actual purpose and intentions behind them are kinda genius, using a number of different instruments to bring a soft, melodramatic feel to the story. From the xylophone to the violin, every note is played with the right atmospheric pace, with vibrations in all the right places to convey the wavering hearts of the cast. Unfortunately, the opening theme Friendship by Okazaki Ritsuko, is a bit more on the generic side. If you’re heard a shoujo opening song before, then you’ve heard the one, which honestly just feels like a bland version of the op from Fruits Basket. It’s not necessarily bad, per se, but you won’t miss anything by skipping it, and the same goes for the ending.

Likewise, the English dub isn’t bad, but it’s really kind of unremarkable, as it mostly just goes through the motions. Honestly, they didn’t even bother matching the lip flaps in a lot of scenes. Actors Greg Ayres and Monica Rial, who should have been breaths of fresh air in any dub they’re in, play disappointingly close to their most common typecastings, with Ayres playing the pervy girl-crazy best friend, and Monica playing the likeable, bubbly best friend. The same could be said for Andrew Love, who once again plays a somewhat dimwitted tough guy role, but since he gets misused a lot easier than those other two, I’ll just consider his playing to type a good thing. If there’s an especially sour note among the cast, it’s Leraldo Anzaldua, who I’ve never been a particular fan of, and they gave him the lead role. His approach to the character seems to almost be inspired by Robert Pattinson’s approach to Edward Cullen… Play him as you see him, even if that interpretation is a negative one, and Leraldo plays Yamato like a wet rag with all the personality and enthusiasm you’d expect if Shyamalan was directing him.

There are a few beaming lights, though… Caitlynn French does a way better job with Mei Tachibana than the role actually required, all while giving just as honest a portrayal as Leraldo gave. She plays the role as sometimes bitchy, sometimes preachy, while never becoming unlikeable in either tone, and she even made her character’s depression feel a lot more crushing than the original Japanese seiyuu did. There are some lines she had to speak in this show that were downright uncomfortable, and probably not by design, and she still did surprisingly well with them. Emily Neves was also a gem as the snooty, duplicitous Megumi, and while that’s not really a surprise as she’s always been a bit of a chameleon, you don’t really get the full effect of it until she breaks down towards the end of the series. Oh, Brittany Karbowski and Tiffany Grant also get small parts in this, and while that alone should be a selling point, they’re roles are limited, both in time and in content. I can’t really condemn the dub, as there are a few really good performances in it, but I feel like if I’m being honest, I’ve gotta recommend the sub.

You know, I’m not immune to the charms of a good shoujo anime. I really don’t think anyone is, even if they protest that fact. They’re like anime chick flicks… Sometimes, even hardcore action and gore fans need to sit down for a feel-good viewing of The Princess Bride. Likewise, I’ve yet to meet an anime fan that didn’t enjoy Princess Tutu and Ouran High School host club, and while those two shows do deliberately contain a lot of dual appeal, I don’t really mind the more stereotypically shoujo anime, either. I liked Fruits Basket. I love Ikuhara’s work. Those of you who remember my Vampire Knight review will know that I consider the first season to be a major guilty pleasure. I don’t mind the giant eyed heroines with absurdly rendered pupils and eyelashes. I don’t mind skinny bishounen makes with haircuts that are ultimately dated because they’re based on whatever’s popular at the time. I’ve got nothing against the genre or it’s tropes, so I don’t want you to think I’m biased when I say that my first time watching this series, almost exactly one year ago, I dropped it after three episodes.

Before I get intro why, let’s go over some of the more persistent problems hiding right in plain sight just beneath it’s flowery surface. Starting with the main character, Mei Taniguchi, we’re told early on that she’s not like other girls. She’s not like the gossipy girls who play social games for their own benefit, and she’s also not like the girls who alter their natural appearances to impress guys. Okay, we know what she’s not, but what is she? We know she has a tragic backstory where some rotten kids blamed her for something they did wrong, and that’s caused her to become distant and bitter even several years later, and we know that she’s honest, and occasionally has wisdom to offer people, but aside from all that, I’ve gotta be honest, she’s kind of boring. She’s a textbook Mary-sue character, who’s only real flaws are her shy nature and mistrust of others, and she doesn’t do a whole lot to solve these problems. Other people do. Hell, she rarely ever makes progressive or active choices as a protagonist.

And her boyfriend Yamato Kurosawa is even worse. This isn’t really my biggest problem with him, but his biggest problem is objectively the fact that he’s so damned inconsistent. There are a ton of examples I can bring up, but I feel like one of the most obvious is when we find out that he’s not a virgin. It’s explained to us that it’s because he’s really selfless and kind, and he slept with a girl because she made him think it would make her happy. Well, this happened in the same episode that he invited himself along on Mei’s trip to the salon to get her hair cut, but he immediately hijacked her plans in order to take her out on an abrupt date. She misses the salon, upon which he says that he likes her with long hair. Oh, NOW you have an opinion? Your pants fly off because a girl asks for your dick, and you’re totally a martyr, but when a girl thinks her hair is getting too frizzy to manage, THAT’s something you’ll voice your opposition to? When it comes to character development, actions speak louder than words, and his actions in this case just felt controlling and manipulative.

And that’s not even him at his worst. People often give him shit for kissing Mei without permission in order to get rid of her stalker… Which, while effective and somewhat excusable, feels a bit overkill. As a wise red dragon once said, never play an ace if a 2 will do. They seem to forget that in the same episode as the salon incident, towards the end, he catches her hiding and watching him, and takes the opportunity to kiss her without permission again, ultimately pinning her against a wall and kissing her into submission. If she hadn’t been receptive to that, she could have had him behind bars for sexual assault. He ditches her for hours in the middle of a date because his friend had something to give him, he went over to another girl’s house for weeks after school without telling Mei, and he doesn’t even make a habit of asking her what she wants to do until the final third of the story… Up until then, it’s always “Let’s do this,” or “You should…” I am honestly convinced that the anime adaptation skipped over some info dump about him suffering some kind of brain damage as a child, to explain the way he behaves throughout the series.

See, this isn’t just a shoujo romance series. It’s something far more insidious. It’s a self insert wish fulfillment fantasy boyfriend series. Mei isn’t supposed to be an interesting character, she’s supposed to be a blank slate for the audience and presumably the writer to imprint themselves onto, so that they can live out the experience of having a popular, handsome boy getting all up in their business. Yamato isn’t supposed to be an interesting character either, he’s supposed to be an unobtainable dreamboat who only has eyes for the main character, much to the dismay of, like, oh my god, the entire school. It’s like Twilight without the sparkling vampires, or 50 Shades of Grey without the BDSM and torture devices. Hell, the only torturing device involved was my own DVD player. Don’t get me wrong dudes are guilty of this too… We tend to get a lot of stories that depict us as badass loners who get bothered by sexy girls who fight with us but eventually succumb to our awesomeness through no real change of our own, like Steins;Gate and Sword Art Online, but Say I Love you takes this concept to a special new low, because I have a very specific person in mind who might be dreaming it up.

Just for fun, I’d like you to imagine Tomoko from Watamote… Yes, we’re really doing this… Alone in her room, bitching about the people in her life, when all of a sudden she’s like “Wouldn’t it be awesome if the most popular boy in school fell in love with me? That would show all of those losers. He’d be obsessed with me, and it would be because I’m different. I’m not like all of those back stabbing bitches, or those tramps who slather on gallons of make-up to whore themselves out to boys. He’ll fall in love with me at first sight, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I’m not easy, though, so I’d play hard to get, and he’d come at me kind of rough, but that’s okay, because we both know we’re going to be together forever! He’d even turn down a model for me… no, wait, he IS a model! Oh shit, I’d better write this down! I can make a manga out of this!” And then after two hours of brainstorming, she’s like “Ooh, and then his friend comes back, and he totally falls in love with me because we like the same theme park, and they’d totally fight over me! Oh, and we get a hotel room, and… Nope, gotta think of my demographic. nothing happens at the hotel because he respects me, and while he’s more experienced than me, none of what he’s done before me matters, because none of it involved me!”

It’s mindlessly self-indulgent right down to the fact that backstabbing classmates are used as a constant source of antagonism, as well as being basically what every named antagonists’ backstory boils down to, and no attempt is ever made to humanize them. They come close to it as part of Megumi’s backstory, when they abandon her in favor of someone she refused to invite, but even then, the abrupt decision and hive mind element to the scene make no sense. Actually, there’s a lot of occurrences in this anime that make no sense, from Mei and Yamato leaving a festival early all because they’re friends decided to go home(They seriously wouldn’t take the opportunity to be alone?), to Yamato’s creepy relationship with his sister, who he seems to act as both the parent and the crush of, to how easily Megumi comes undone over her inability to ensnare Yamato, even though she literally just decided out of the blue that she wanted to date him based on his looks. The tragic part is that she’s clearly a rip off of Ami from Toradora, who was a much better written and explored character.

Earlier in this review, I referred to the relationship between Mei and Yamato as their first love, and I did so for a specific reason… It was my attempt at gently stating that, in all likelihood, it won’t be their last. Not only are such romances doomed to fail in real life, but the one between them isn’t even based on a solid foundation. Yamato’s love for Mei was decided and settled upon based entirely on his first impression of her, and he doesn’t even bother getting to know her before imprinting on her. Outside of his good looks, I can’t see what Mei sees in him, outside of his persistence and refusal to give up on her. Their love, respectively, is superficial and circumstantial. He didn’t even open her up to other people, like she claims… Once he picked her, other people came to her out of curiosity, through no effort of his own. In their own mutually exclusive ways, these two characters don’t even know what love is, and eventually, I can’t help but get the feeling that their relationship is destined to end with tears and heartbreak, with the school’s new power couple splitting up, and honestly? I’m okay with that.

With most high school anime romances, even the bad ones, you’re given a sense of purpose in the two of them staying together… Even in a shitshow like Clannad, where I wanted Tomoya to get remarried after his wife died, he was still destined to marry Nagisa before anybody else, as their emotional codependency formed too intense a connection to break. In the Love Hina manga, we get to see over time how the spineless dumb-ass Keitaro was able to win Naru’s heart. In a good show like Toradora, you know enough about Ryuji and Taiga’s friendship and backgrounds that we know they don’t make sense with anybody else. In Say I Love You, I didn’t get a sense of any of that. If they were to break up, with Yamato dating Megumi and Mei winding up with Kai, those relationships wouldn’t necessarily last forever either, but it wouldn’t feel like some major tragedy… It would just feel like “Ah, part 2 of the story!” And yeah, with this being the worst case scenario, the series lacks any real stakes, making it kind of tedious to get through. Honestly, the final episode was a joke, with the two of them being separated by a series of phone tag related coincidences. Yawn.

Say I Love You is available from Section23 films both on Bluray and DVD, and can also be viewed on Crunchyroll. The original manga by Kanae Hazuki is available stateside from Kodansha comics, and the live action film is apparently not available in the US, but from what I’ve heard that’s not such a bad thing as even fans of the anime and manga find it soulless and bland.

Much like the shoujo genre, I really don’t have anything against melodrama, but there’s a much clearer distinction to be made with that material… Melodrama tends to work best when it’s self aware. Anime like Bento and so many shoujo titles outside of this one were written by people who knew that the stories they were writing didn’t measure up to much in terms of stakes, so they compensated by amping up the emotions, infusing character development into the plot, and using themes to add flavor to what was going on. Say I Love You tries to do this, with a breaking bracelet symbolizing a broken heart, and cats getting along when their owners do, but for the most part, it does the bare minimum, creating a bad romance between two 2-dimensional characters that has no reason or power to stand the test of time. The music and the animation are above average, and to be fair, Mei and Yamato do become a lot more tolerable of a couple in the final third when Mei starts to show a bit more initiative and Yamato starts to treat her more like a person, but I think a romance where the guy sounds ten times happier about his new kitten than about his new girlfriend leaves a lot to be desired. I give Say I Love You a 3/10.

So, let’s leave all talk about whether or not this movie was any good off the table. I saw it, I hated it, but if I’m being honest, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. It didn’t have to accurately represent the books, it just had to be good on it’s own merits. Some people say it did, some people say it didn’t, whatever. With this post, I’d like to take advantage of my knowledge of this 7 book trilogy(8 if Wind Through the Keyhole counts), which I read very recently, and compare what happened in the books to their interpretations from the movie. This is for people who’ve read the books and want to know what they’re about to get into, and it’s also for people who’ve seen the movie and want to know how literally everything that happened in it was more interesting in the source material.

There are heavy spoilers below, but I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’ve already finished AT LEAST the movie or the book series.

1: In the movie, Roland is black. In the book, he was white. This doesn’t really cause any problems, especially since Idris Elba does a fantastic job with the role, but it would have conflicted with one of the book’s late sub-plots, as Roland was supposed to be an alternate universe doppleganger for Stephen King himself.  Since the movie ended on a fairly conclusive note, I think we can safely say this plot point isn’t going to happen any time soon.

2: Opening line
In the movie, when Jake is waking up from a dream, we hear “The Man in Black fled across the Desert and the Gunslinger followed,” which makes no sense, and comes out of nowhere, since we have no idea who’s saying it and we never even see either of them in the desert. In the book, that line is not a psychic message, it’s from the book’s own text, and it describes exactly what the two characters are doing right at the beginning, as the Man in Black flees and Roland follows him.

3: First two books
In the movie, we start things off with the introduction of Earth Jake. In the book, he’s not introduced until book three, as he’s Roland’s third companion. In fact, there are two entire books that are skipped to get to that point, with Roland chasing Walter, going through a village on the verge of ruin, meeting an alternate version of Jake, moving through a tunnel full of mutants, sacrificing that version of Jake, walking miles across a shore line, pulling his first two companions into his world, etc.

4: Jake Chambers
In the movie, Jake is obsessed with drawing pictures of the other world, and everyone thinks he’s crazy. In the books, he keeps having visions, but he keeps them to himself, except for one poem that he writes, that his teacher mistakes for a work of genius. He leaves his home on his own accord, and never returns.

5: Jake’s parents
In the movie, Jake’s dad is dead, a heroic fire fighter, his mother is highly stressed, and his step-father is a dick. In the books, he has his original parents, and his father is a cocaine-abusing hard-ass who wants him to succeed. He actually lays off a bit towards Jake’s departure, believing all of his studying to have over-exerted him.

6: The Man in Black
In the movie, The Man in Black is a constant presence, and is actively involved n everything. In the books, he’s barely present, and only appears on rare occasions, including two different areas of Roland’s backstory. He’s also revealed to have far more names and identities than Walter O’Dim, including John Farson and Randal Flagg.

7: Eddie and Susannah
In the movie, these two flat out don’t exist. In the books, Eddie is Roland’s first companion, a drug addict in deep trouble with the mafia. His second companion, Susannah, is a wealthy black woman with a split personality and two missing legs. The two fall in love in oddly quick fashion and wind up married by book three.

8: Roland’s poisoning
In the movie, Roland is stabbed in the shoulder by the tail of a generic monster. In the books, he’s attacked in the beginning of book 2 by a giant mutant lobster who snaps off two of his fingers and one of his toes, leaving him poisoned. He has to walk for miles along the coast, slowly dying of infection, before finding his companions to help him pull through.

9: Susan
In the movie, Roland’s revenge is set forth by the murder of his father. In the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, which is my favorite of both the series and the entire King bibliography, we go back to his teenage years, where he’s patrolling a western-like town, and the interferences of The Man in Black lead to the death of his first true love, local girl Susan Delgado.

10: The Spheres
In the movie, Walter uses a glowing orb to spy on Roland. In the books, these are far more heavily fleshed out, with a few of them appearing in the story. The black one especially acts as a particular nuisance in The Calla when they find it buried beneath the town church. In his teenage years, Roland discovers the pink sphere, and after the murder of his lover, becomes obsessed with and entrapped by it.

11: The Beam
In the movie, Roland’s journey seems a bit aimless, and you wonder why he doesn’t just sit on his ass and let Walter come to him. In the book, he’s following a specific path that he calls The Beam, that only he and other Gunslingers can sense and follow.

12: Arra Champignon
In the movie, this character is a see-er who helps to decipher Jake’s visions. In the books, she’s not alive in the current timeline, having been assaulted and murdered by bandits after leaving Gilead to birth her child with her outsider husband, against Roland’s father’s wishes.

13: The Calla
In the movie, Jake and Roland spend some time at a random village that’s eventually ransacked by agents of Walter. I’m not sure what they were going for specifically, but the village is reminiscent of Calla Brynn Sturgis, or The Calla for short. It’s a farming village that the low men send soldiers called “wolves” to steal children from every generation or so, returning them as adults with their minds ruined. In an homage to Seven Samurai, the Calla hire Roland and his companions to help them defend themselves against this generation’s onslaught, which they’re able to do with only a couple of casualties. Interestingly enough, the Wolves have been designed after elements of Keystone Earth’s pop culture, and are basically robots designed to look like Dr. Doom, with Lightsabers and Sneetches as weapons.

14: Ka Tet
In the movie, Roland pairs up with Jake because he proves useful, and they develop a bond way too quickly. In the book, all of Roland’s companions… Jake included… Are companions that were chosen by destiny to be part of his ka-tet, a band of warriors that are more like a family. They are all extraordinary individuals from previously ordinary lives, and they all have Gunslinger potential.

15: Oy
Speaking of which, Jake has no animal companion in the movie. In the book, he befriends a Billy Bumbler, a wild animal native to Outworld, who has limited mimicry related speech capabilities, and names him Oy, after his parroting of the word Boy. I know this may sound kitschy, but the Bumbler actually proves himself useful and even a vicious warrior on several occasions. He even dies defeating the final villain.

16: King Arthur
In the movie, Walter tells us that Roland is descended from King Arthur, and his guns are made out of Excalibur, despite this information being completely irrelevant to the new version of the story. In the books, we’re given several hints about Roland’s lineage until it’s eventually confirmed, and none of it is expository or out of place.

17: The Rose
In the movie, there’s a rose painted on a wall at the end. In the books, the rose is an important plot point, as Jake is drawn to it in an abandoned construction lot, as it’s a direct reflection of the status of the tower. Roland and his ka-tet have to go out of their way to protect it, as killing it would destroy the tower.  There’s a long story arc about two of them going back to earth, forming a fake company called the Sombra corporation(which is also briefly referenced in the movie) and buying the lot to keep it safe.

18: Pepsi to Coke
One of the stranger changes on this list is Roland drinking a Coke on the subway. In the books, his first taste of an Earth beverage is a bottle of Pepsi, which he has an animated reaction to the overbearing sweetness of, and which somehow helps to heal him of his poisoning for a limited time. He’s also given tuna fish sandwiches, which he calls tooter fish. Oh, also, he calls sandwiches ‘Popkins.’ Just felt like adding that.

19: The Rat Man
In the movie, Walter randomly yells at someone named The Rat Man. In the books, this is likely supposed to be Gasher, a character who kidnaps Jake and takes him hostage when Roland and his companions are crossing a downed bridge, thus setting off the Lud story arc.

20: Charlie the Choo-Choo
In the movie, while Roland and Jake are traversing the ruins of an old theme park, we see a decrepit train with a happy face on it. This is likely a reference to Charlie the Choo-Choo, a children’s book character whom Jake discovers in the book, and winds up being a hint towards Blaine the Mono, an enemy they’d have to contend and put up with between books three and four.

21: Jake’s development
In the movie, Jake’s development is a joke. He gets one shooting lesson, he possesses a shine(see The Shining), and even though he’s little more than a damsel in distress in the final act, Roland proclaims him a Gunslinger. In the books, his “Shine” is actually a psychic connection that ALL members of Roland’s ka-tet share with one another, although Jake’s is stronger than anyone else’s due to his unnaturally high perception and senses. He does learn to shoot very quickly, but up until he’s suffered, matured and lost a close friend, he doesn’t start to come into his own as a Gunslinger.

22: Connections
In the movie, there are a few connections to King’s other works. We see Cujo, there’s a portal marked 1408, the Shine is mentioned, there’s a Rita Hayworth poster shown. In the book, there are connections all over the place, with a few major ones being Father Callahan from Salem’s Lot, Ted Brautigan from Hearts in Atlantis, Patrick Danville from Insomnia, etc. Even Stephen King himself is a character in the later books.  Mostly, though, connections to the Dark tower are found in other books, rather than in the Tower novels themselves.

23: Your father’s face
In the movie, we get snippets of the lore of the books, including Roland’s mantra about forgetting the face of your father, but it isn’t explained. In the books, this mantra is more of a reference to the traditions and beliefs of the Gunslingers and the line of Eld, sort of in the same line as America with it’s founding fathers. If you fail to behave in a manner that upholds and honors the traditions and teachings you were raised on, it’s said that you’ve forgotten the face of your father.

24: Walter dies
In the movie, Roland kills the Man in Black in a fateful encounter full of Hollywood bullshit. In the books, Walter isn’t even killed by a main character… He’s taken by surprise and eaten by a newly introduced villain, a human/spider hybrid named Mordred, who was recently born and is, if you excuse the spelling, HONGRY. Yep, sorry, but the Man In Black goes out like a bitch by something that a group of children could have conceivably punched and kicked to death.

25: Sequel?
A lot of this movie’s inaccuracies are blamed on the movie being a sequel to the books. This does hold a little weight, as the book series ends with Roland being forced to repeat time and begin his journey anew due to him forgetting to hold onto a crucial item from his past, but this doesn’t explain how his entire backstory seems to have been erased from the lore of the movie. The sequel excuse COULD explain the lack of Eddie and Susannah, but it can’t explain the removal of Susan Delgado from his youth. Oh, and did I mention Walter manipulated him and his father into murdering their own mother and wife, Gabriella Deschain? The fact that Roland is motivated by the murder of his father in this version completely derails the sequel excuse. Complete bullshit.

That was 25 of the differences between the movie and the book series, and I don’t think I included even half of the relevant ones. If you can think of a change that I missed, feel free to post it in the comments below! Thanks for joining me, and may you have long days and pleasant nights.

Review requested by Nate Milbank.

 

Daizoburo Edi-Ban Is a young American-born Japanese man, descended from immigrants and raised to uphold a strict sense of morality. He joins the New York city police force, precinct 34, intending nothing less than to enforce the law, punish evil, fight crime and defend the innocent. His idealistic nature is stressed to the breaking point when he finds out that his partner, whether he likes it or not, is a veteran cop named Johnny Estes, who carries two nicknames… Sleepy, probably for his chill and laid back nature when he’s off the clock, and Mad Bull, for his violent, uncontrollable nature that he slips into whenever he slips on the badge. A long time loose cannon who would rather spend his time making the rounds with every prostitute in the tri-county area than patrol his assigned area, and to whom questioning live suspects just feels like a waste of time and energy, it doesn’t take very long for Officer Estes to show his impressionable rookie partner what the inside of a rapists’ brain looks like.

But as the two cops become closer… Or, as Daizoburo slowly slips into the trappings of Stockholm Syndrome, which seems equally plausible… He begins to see the good nature of his giant burly buddy, as well as the method behind his bull-headed madness. Unfortunately, his trouble doesn’t end there, as Mad Bull’s “Shoot first and ask questions to the splattered skulls later” tactics have earned him more than a few enemeies throughout his storied career, and he’s always willing to make a few more! With this giant, over-sexed, trigger happy senior officer by his side, Daizoburo will have to deal with rapists, gangsters, drug dealers, witness protection and a serial-killer who won’t stop targeting cops, all while struggling to defend his ideals, the general population, and his precious virginity from the very person he was expecting to help him do so. Welcome to the concrete jungle, my friends, because we’ve got fun and games, so strap on your grenade jock strap and take a bite out of the big apple.

Hey, did you know there used to be a production company called Magic Bus? If so, then that makes one of us! Seriously, though, talk about obscure. If this thing isn’t owned and operated by Miss Frizzle, I’m not sure what reality is anymore. Anyway, obscure is definitely the right word for this company, who appeared in the mid eighties and put out most of their work in the nineties, including nine straight years of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. They seemingly went quiet in 2006, having produced only two shows between then and now. Mad Bull 34 was an OVA series that they released over the course of two years. It was released in the early nineties, so… Well, you can probably guess from there what kind of animation you’re in for. The visual quality of this series is so low budget that even though it’s extremely dated, I highly doubt it was even considered acceptable for it’s time. It does kind of work in it’s advantage, as the low quality does sort of add to the overall tone, making it feel more like a bootleg video of a grindhouse movie, and yeah, that is a pretty good fit.

Even considering this, however, it’s still a really ugly looking show, which is especially hard to ignore in the first episode, where it looks like the producers haven’t even begun to figure out how to use budget cuts to hide their weaknesses. They get better at it in the third and fourth episodes, or in other words the second half, but the result they achieve isn’t really as effective as they were hoping, because while it doesn’t look cheap or badly animated in those episodes, it does look very obviously like budget cuts are being used, and that is an improvement, but not a huge one. No matter what episode you’re watching, however, the budget was clearly reserved for action, as the best looking moments in the series are the gunfights, the gruesome dismemberments and exploding heads, and the admittedly fun car chases. That’s not to say any of it looks good, per se, as it’s best moments look mediocre at most, but the rest of the on-screen material… And I do mean the rest of it… Suffers to help the action to even look THAT good.

The artwork is very roughly drawn, much like the backgrounds, although they did accurately capture the shitty and decrepit feeling of most areas in New York city. Character designs, despite falling to the same issue, are inspired and distinctive, as long we’re referring to the main hero characters. The villains are much more generic and samey, as most of them could be described as stock thugs, with a few rare muscle-bound black guys and sexy femme fatales to break up the monotony. A lot of the women who appear throughout the series, most of whom are either prostitutes, victims or both, are just big boobed, long haired blonde chicks with very little variation in their appearances. The heroes, who are among the very few featured people, are kind of unforgettable, even the one who looks just like all the other blondes. One of the tricks they use to make Mad Bull and Daizoburo memorable was through their drastically different heights, with the title character towering over all he meets, and the actual main character, an obvious audience cypher and the moral center of the group, is quite possibly the shortest man in Manhattan. Oh, and there’s also a villain who wears a costume that looks like a cross between Green Goblin and a Xenomorph.

With only four 45 minute episodes under it’s belt, there really shouldn’t be a lot of music, but each episode has at least ten different tracks in it. The music was seemingly entirely produced by one man, English rock guitarist David Ross Skinner, and while it does carry an authentic New York City cop drama feel to it, the homogeny does show, as there’s actually very little variety to the music. That’s not to say any of it sounds bad, as a lot of it is actually pretty cool sounding, but there’s only so much you can get out of a soundtrack that’s comprised mostly of slow tunes for “moments,” and high tension tunes for the action. Most of the ending themes were contributed by a Korean band called Maizurah, who can sing in what sounds like pretty impeccable English, but perhaps more surprising is the fact that the ending theme of the very first episode is a song from the Godfather of soul himself, James Brown. Yeah, I’m making that sound more impressive than it is, because James Brown is all around amazing, and yet they still managed to find one of his lesser songs. I seriously think Time to Get Busy is the result of Brown completely forgetting the lyrics and just not giving a fuck.

The english dub, on the other hand, is pretty awesome. I know that’s weird to say about a dub from the nineties, especially for the dub of a low budget OVA, because these things normally sound like the worst things ever, but the actors in this title just have so much fun with what they’re given. This is especially true of Allan Wenger, a man with so many voice credits to his name since 1978 that it’s a crime wikipedia doesn’t have a page on him. His dubbing resume extends to animation from a laundry list of countries, with relatively few coming from Japan. In any case, he plays the title character as dumb, cocky and bullheaded, but at the same time with enough laid back presence and good humor to make him feel more like a lovable doofus than a psychopath with a badge. Alan Merriott has a much more pronounced anime history, and as Edi-ban, he skews a lot younger than his co-star, and he does so with a much deeper accent, which easily sells the idea that he’s just transferred into this precinct from another county. Of course, both actors do have perfect accents and pitches for their characters.

Speaking of perfect accents, the prime female character, Perrine Valley… Well, she certainly has an accent. Her stint in anime voice acting appears to be a hiccup in her primary career as a British TV actress, including appearances in a 2007 Doctor Who spin-off. This is probably the reason she’s the only British character in the entire series, a fact that’s never explained or referenced in the dialogue. She barely has a presence, reads off her lines as stiff and blandly as possible, and is completely overshadowed by the female characters who are introduced in the following two episodes. Unfortunately the dub gets a little muddled from here, partially due to the many names on it that only appear in this specific series… Which is normally a sign that fake names are being used… And while several black thugs in the series are credited under the name Wesley Powell, I think I can distinctly hear Beau Billingslea in their performances. I could be wrong, but Beau is awesome, and if these stock thugs were being played by an actual black man… Unlike the anime’s only black female character… I could see him wanting to keep his name off of it. This show can get pretty racist, after all.

In the time that I’ve been writing for this blog, if I’ve ever said anything negative about an anime you like, and you disagree with me, I respect your opinion, and would love to hear what you love about it that I don’t. Granted, when a series offends me in some special way, I may argue with you, but I will at least acknowledge that you have a point that needs making. What I can’t respect is when people defend an awful series by saying, in so many colorful ways, that it’s immune to criticism. They don’t claim that any of my points are wrong, just that they’re moot… A series can be terrible and get away with it because it was never trying to be good, or it was aiming to please an audience that I’m apparently not part of. I’ve seen this argument used in defense of titles like Gantz, Kiss X Sis, Stella Womens Academy, and an untold number of old, shock-filled OVA series, when really, the only form of media I can justifiably see that defense applying to is actual porn. With any other form of media, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go in with standards and expectations, and you’re not nit-picky for having them.

For example, a lot of people love yaoi anime, because they want to see two hot guys bang, nevermind the fact that the situations are often highly rapey and the characters are infantilized. People like yuri anime because they want to see two hot girls getting it on, nevermind the fact that neither of them feel like real people in even the shallowest of contexts. People love romance stories even when they’re sexist and abusive as all hell, with special nods to Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey and Say I Love You. Yeah, I said it. I won’t say there’s anything wrong with indulging in your guilty pleasures because the thrill you get out of it is worth all the questionable crap you have to ignore, but to defend it as a profound piece of literature or awesome despite it’s flaws when you’re just ignoring the things you don’t like is insane. Yeah, I love caviar, but if you spread it on a piece of your dog’s dried up shit, I’m not going to stuff that shit into mouth for some caviar… I’m going to say ‘No thank you, I’d like the next batch to be on a cracker, please.”

On that note, do I have a low opinion of Mad Bull 34 because of it’s excessive violence, sex and misogynistic attitude towards women? No, because I actually have a rather high tolerance for these things. I enjoy Elfen Lied and Sword Art Online, after all, despite what the mediocre scores I gave them may suggest. The reason Mad Bull 34 fails to impress me is entirely due to it’s writing, and if you’re scoffing at me for not taking it’s ridiculous and tongue in cheek nature into account, guess what, I did. There is no form of literature or entertainment, save for literal porn, that isn’t subject to the quality of its writing, and yes, that includes exploitation media. That’s not to say there’s such a thing as objective quality, or that all forms of media should be united under one unifying standard, but if I have an opinion on something, I’m going to express it in depth and in detail, with no regard for what the piece was trying to do, or who it was trying to entertain. Except with Mad Bull 34, I don’t really NEED much in the way of detail, and I’m going to prove it by going episode by episode.

The first episode, so gracefully titled “Hit and Rape,” is the story of how Edi-ban met and formed a bond with Sleepy Joe Estes, and out of the entire series, this one probably contains the most violence and sex. I don’t mind that so much… What I do mind is that the whole episode plays like a glowing, self-indulgent self-insert fanfic written by someone who wishes they could be a giant, musclebound stud. He gets flaws in later episodes, but Sleepy Joe is SUCH a Mary-Sue here. He’s the pinnacle of justice, everybody loves him, and the people who don’t are either the villains he’s inconveniencing or people who just don’t understand him. He gets to have a ton of anonymous sex with hookers for free, but none of them mind, because he’s a totally nice person who’s paying to have their STDs and rape trauma treated, even though he demonstrates early on that his form of breaking woman out of shock is to penetrate them anally. He murders criminals for bullshit reasons, following convoluted logic that the rest of the world just blindly accepts, because he is Joe, and he can do no wrong, even based on a guess so farfetched that Sherlock Holmes would pump the breaks before acting on it.

The second episode tries to be better, as it introduces a strong female character… Of course, by this show’s standards, strong means ‘not a prostitute,’ and like most female characters, she’s pretty much just there to get in trouble, get assaulted, and show the audience her tits. I honestly don’t remember much about this episode unless I really think about it… I recall the villain being more obvious than Doctor Evil, Sleepy being able to survive half a dozen bullets to the ass as well as a point blank grenade explosion to the face, and to be fair, one of the most epic moments in anime history… Sleepy Joe pulls off his pants to reveal that he’s tied a few dozen grenades to his pubes, which his partner starts to pluck and throw at a bunch of 1930’s cartoon mobsters. Honestly, that moment is probably why people remember this series at all… They sure as hell don’t come back to see Daizoburo miraculously rise from his death bed, all of his teeth suddenly intact, after a phony marriage ceremony helps him recover from what should have been a fatal beating.

I don’t want to give away too much of the last two episodes, for spoiler reasons and the like, so I’m just going to lump them together here. The third episode involves a plot between a politician and a reporter that’s so confusing, it’s honestly hard to keep up with, and our heroes get tied up in a witness protection story where everybody keeps making decisions that are stupid and contrived beyond belief, the backstory to the situation we’re dropped into is told to us and never shown, and apparently a politician can buy his way out of being positively identified by ten murder-scene rape kits, and with that much power, a lone reporter shooting her mouth off somehow poses a threat? And then you have the final episode, which started out really good, with a villain from Sleepy’s past come back to haunt him, killing more male police officers than the Russian chick from Kick-Ass 2, and it seems like the series will go out on a great note before a sudden reveal halfway through turns it into the most bafflingly awful love story since Elfen Lied. It does say something about your ability to write villains when the first one that has a remotely understandable motive gets treated like a fucking saint.

If any of this interests you, which I can understand, then you’re in luck… After twenty years of obscurity, it was rescued and released stateside on DVD in 2012 by Diskotek Media, who’ve been doing a lot of that lately. You can find it at a pretty decent price, too. Unfortunately, the original manga, which I can only imagine is superior due to that usually being the case, is not available, nor is it’s sequel, Mad Bull 2000.

I hope by this point I’ve proven to you that my problems with this title go far deeper than it’s so-called shocking content. Your sensibilities may differ, but for me, offensiveness is a matter of context, and not content, and no matter how bloody, over-sexed or misogynistic the material got, I just couldn’t muster up enough interest or investment in the story or characters to GET offended. It was so stupid and badly written that even when graphic rape was occurring on screen, I didn’t feel sorry for the victims, I didn’t feel angry at the villains, I didn’t feel disgusted by the tastes of the writer, I was just bored, staring blankly at the screen and waiting for any… Any… of it’s ridiculous shit to be as entertainingly bad as the crotch grenades were. And speaking of entertainingly bad, that’s exactly what this series is… You invite some friends over, you get drunk enough to think your reflection is picking a fight with you, and you laugh your asses off at how desperate this series is to try and make you remember it. It’s not anywhere near one of the worst anime I’ve ever seen, but I’d never recommend it to someone on the assumption that they’ll genuinely, soberly enjoy it. I give Mad Bull 34 a 3/10.

The year is 2071. Humanity has long since expanded into space, with civilization taking hold in various ways on a large selection of the different rocky bodies throughout the solar system. Luckily, we were already in the middle of this process when a hyperspace gateway near the Earth exploded, leaving the planet in ruins and virtually uninhabitable. It’s been fifty years since then, but we can still feel the effect of the disaster. Our colonies range from big, busy cities to smaller, less affluent townships that you’d swear were taken right out of the old west. Interspace travel means nothing to most folk, who were born and raised and eventually expired on the same planet, hell, maybe even in the same town. Sure, those who chose the life of a transportation or delivery pilot may see a couple of different planets, and those rich enough to travel may have seen a few different sunrises, but if you’ve been everywhere, seen every shade of civilization, felt the grass and dirt of multiple planets beneath your feet, then you’re either a criminal… Or a Bounty Hunter.

Yeah, it turns out that with so much ground to cover, the central government can’t be bothered to uphold the law in every society, nor to keep up with wanted criminals who could be hiding out on any number of worlds. Thus, we’ve seen the rise of the registered bounty hunters, people who’ve taken on the job of tracking down and apprehending those with a high enough price on their head and delivering them to the authorities. It’s a job that offers you freedom, excitement, and the right to be your own boss, provided you’re successful enough to keep food on the table. Basically, it’s a job that appeals to those who would otherwise probably be outlaws themselves, real rough-and-tumble characters who just don’t fit into normal society. This description couldn’t possibly fit anybody more than the crew of the Bebop, a moderately sized vessel owned by a retired detective, that houses an ex-gangster, a femme fatale with a gambling problem, a psychotic child prodigy, oh, and also a dog. They may sound like a crew of rejects and shady characters, but with these cowboys on your tail, you might not even live to see prison.

Cowboy Bebop was produced by Studio Sunrise, a company that’s been churning out anime since the seventies, and is still just as prolific today, with some of their more recent hits including Code Geass, Love Live, and the entire Gundam catalog. Bebop was one of their last projects in the nineties, but there are a few other notable benchmarks it holds. First of all, Bebop was the last project that several people working for the company would make before they parted ways, and formed their own studio, the incredibly popular and well-respected Studio Bones. I’m assuming this split was an amicable one, because they were able to collaborate with their former parent company to make the Cowboy Bebop movie only a few years later. So yeah, the legendary production company that began in the 2ooo’s and is able to brag about producing both versions of Fullmetal Alchemist, Soul Eater, Ouran High School host Club and Space Dandy, to name a few, and it’s greatest precursor was Bebop.

And the other benchmark? Cowboy Bebop was one of the final anime to be animated using hand-drawn cells rather than digital drawings. You would think this would be an indication of lacking visual quality, as the last efforts of one style before another takes over are usually somewhat pathetic… Just look at disco… But Cowboy Bebop is a glaring exception to that rule. Not only is it one of the best looking anime of the nineties, it holds up today as one of the best looking anime of all time. Yeah, when compared to offerings from today’s market, Bebop definitely has a very retro feel to it, but since the series was originally designed to be retro, that just makes the aesthetic all the more timeless. The animation is unbelievably fluid, with action scenes that never have to break frames to look impressive, and space battles epic enough to warrant a comparison to early Star Wars. Even when the action does slow down, and the camera does linger on a shot, the artwork is beautiful enough… And the cinematography is smart enough… That you’ll never complain about what you’re seeing.

The character designs are diverse, but human enough that everyone you meet… Aside from perhaps Ed and a certain balloon-like villain… Looks like someone that could easily be translated into real life, at least in terms of anatomy and facial structure. Their outfits are set to color palettes and styles that match their personalities while still remaining pleasing to the eye, and the backgrounds throughout are highly detailed. Episodes that take place in a western background are bright and welcoming, despite being broken down, dirty and weathered with time. Episodes with a more noir feel will take place in a tighter and darker environment, more shadowy and dangerous. Outer space is portrayed as expansive and empty, even when it’s filled with stars and debris. The use of color saturation and shading easily sells the tone and genre of any episode, and if you’re watching the newly released blu-ray version of the series, all of the show’s beauty is cranked up to eleven. And it’s not just the art style that enhances Bebop’s visual quality.

I feel like the best way to describe the music in this series would be to inform you that the musical composer of the series, Yoko Kanno, was also the inspiration for the personality and mannerisms of the character Ed, so try to imagine the kind of musical score that a film noir space western would have if it came from a wild, free-spirited genius with no respect for convention. Translation, it’s spectacular, possibly one of the best anime scores in the history of the medium. The score leans heavily towards jazz and the blues, and while the instruments that Kanno’s band The Seatbelts has available are diverse, there’s an intense focus on trombones and saxophones, which in my opinion aren’t used enough in anime. It fits perfectly in Cowboy Bebop, as the aesthetic demands a funky sounding soundtrack, but the stuff they didn’t do themselves… And thus the music that breaks from the series style… Are just as good. There’s a Steve Conte song called “Call me call me,” in one of the last episodes, that actually makes me cry, both in and out of context.

The most famous musical number from this series is probably Green Bird by Gabriela Robin, which is actually a false name for Yoko Kanno herself, which beautifully accompanies what little glimpses at Spike’s backstory we’re actually allowed to see. A certain western sounding tune named Go Go Cactus Man is also noteworthy for heralding the appearance of a literal cowboy, and amusingly enough, Spike himself reacts to this tune when it’s played. Outside of the score, the sound design is also smartly used, with smaller unreleased musical pieces hyping up the tension and suspense of episodes like Toys in the Attic, but all of that pales in comparison to the show’s opening and ending themes. Both are iconic in their own right, with Tank serving as the funky, undeniably catchy pump-up for some space-faring adventures, and the closing theme The Real Folk Blues serving as the power anthem that feels just right as the send-off to each episode, whether it was funny, serious or downright tragic.

The English dub, as I’ve said before, has become something of a measuring stick, to which all other anime dubs must compare themselves to. That’s not to say I think it’s the best dub of all time… There are still three that I think have surpassed it… But there are plenty of fans and critics who will make that claim, and it’s completely understandable why. The dub was directed by Mary Elizabeth Mcglynn, one of the most respected names in the dubbing industry, and for good reason. She also played several small roles in the cast, including the mysterious Julia and one of the more memorable villains, environmental extremist Twinkle Maria Murdock. Her adaptive script is accurate and on-point, despite slight changes to appeal to a western audiences, and I have to point this out, there are very rare occurrences where an actor will slip up and fail to match the character’s lip flaps. This barely ever happens, however, so it’s forgivable enough.

In terms of acting, all four of the main characters have become the most iconic roles of their respective actors. Steve Blum has been considered a legend in the industry thanks to his turn as Spike Spiegel, a laid back and lethargic louse who cares for nothing other than his next paycheck, except for those rare moments that he’s made to care, either due to a resurgence of his past life or due to a fleeting chance at bringing some genuine good into the world. Beau Billingslea is a highly successful man in both his personal and professional lives, and he’s also one of the only well-known black voice actors in the anime dubbing industry, thanks in no small part to his performance of Jet Black, a former detective and the cool, mature voice of reason of the Bebop crew. Wendee Lee is a bit of a hit-or-miss actor for me, as the quality of her work seems to fluctuate from project to project, but she’s at her absolute best as Faye Valentine, a character who can be confident and duplicitous one minute but then vulnerable and emotionally raw the next.

Then you have Melissa Fahn, who somehow managed to bring more insanity to the character of Ed than even the original seiyuu Aoi Tada. Her crazy ramblings also include random tangents in Japanese, which she fires off smoothly. Together, the four of them form a bizarre sort of chemistry that never quite feels like a proper family unit… They feel more like coworkers, tolerating each other and accepting each others’ eccentricities as they strive towards a common goal. That common goal, mind you, is the money to survive, something essential and vital, but also entirely impersonal. There’s no bonding between these characters, no intricate relationships, no changing each other’s paths and arcs… The characters let their guards down and show vulnerabilities, but almost never around each other, and the English cast is just as good at portraying this as the Japanese cast. Add to this the hilarious contributions by James Penrod as the raucous Cowboy Andy and Lia Sargent and Paul St. Pete as the Big Shot TV hosts Punch and Judy, I do highly recommend this dub over it’s original sub.

I’ve always said, when defining what is and isn’t anime, that there really isn’t any set of qualities that can be taken into account consistently. No matter what rule you try to follow, there will always be outrageous exceptions made. The only philosophy that really makes sense is “Anime is made in Japan.” But for the people who actually try to draw a dividing line between anime and cartoons, there are a few arguments I keep hearing about. The first is that there’s an anime style. Big heads, giant tumorous eyes, small noses, exaggerated expressions… And another popular one is that anime is non-episodic, and tells a continuous story through plot progression and cohesive arcs. People will use these arguments as an excuse to call shows like Avatar and RWBY anime, and if you bring up shows like Shin-chan and Panty and Stocking, they’ll argue that those aren’t real anime, and were designed to be more like cartoons.

But then you bring up Cowboy Bebop, a show that doesn’t waste it’s time with stereotypical anime expressions, doesn’t follow any alleged anime style, and for the most part, is episodic and full of filler. It’s heavily adult in it’s presentation, despite the fact that it doesn’t contain any gratuitous content… No giant boobs, no multi-episode fight scenes, no nudity or fanservice outside of a transexual dude and Faye occasionally sunbathing… No beach scenes, no hot springs episodes… Cowboy Bebop isn’t like any other anime, even the ones that have tried to copy it in the 20 years since it’s release. The idea of there being an anime style is quite frankly bullshit, as that’s a seriously reductive viewpoint on the medium, but aren’t the best anime the ones with engaging stories and involved plots? This isn’t even close to the case with Cowboy Bebop, a show that did horribly during it’s initial release in Japan, so why is it considered one of the best anime of all time? Why is it still a mainstay on American TV over a decade later?

Well, there’s actually some backstory on that. When Bebop was initially released, the studio that played it got skittish about how adult it’s content was, and wound up airing it out of order, with several episodes left out entirely. This didn’t exactly build confidence with the audience, who weren’t even allowed to see the two best episodes, Ballad of Fallen Angels and Sympathy for the Devil. Keep in mind, this occurred in a country where that piece of shit Shadow Star was able to air on a Children’s Network. It was later run in it’s entirety on a less popular network named WOWOW, but the trouble it’s first network gave it provided a special kind of challenge for the series when it came to picking up steam. Heh, kinda reminds me of another series I know that got a lot of shit from it’s network, and was aired out of nowhere and treated unfairly by people who didn’t know how to handle it… In fact, you know what? Back up a bit. This show has a lot more in common with Firefly than just it’s initial problems, and I think I can use the comparison to explain why both shows are so immensely popular despite having a short run and a disastrous debut.

There are plenty of similarities between Cowboy Bebop and Firefly, and considering the few things that the latter stole DIRECTLY from Outlaw Star, it wasn’t very likely a coincidence. Both shows feature an old, beaten down spaceship that acts as a surrogate home for a crew of misfits, surviving day to day on whatever jobs they can take in order to keep food on the table and fuel in the tank. The focus is on character more than plot, and most of the cast has extensive backstories that translate to other lives they’ve left behind, but are still haunted by. In both shows, Earth got used up, and humanity colonized the solar system, with no real aliens out there, and the territory is populated with an anachronistic array of settlements that the crew travels to and does business with. Firefly wound up being popular to this day for the same reason that Cowboy Bebop didn’t get popular until it reached the states… Because it’s a story that was designed to appeal to an American audience.

Japanese society has always been deeply rooted in tradition and conformity. It’s true that a lot of it’s art has made valiant efforts to challenge the norm, from Kill La Kill’s blatant attack on said values, and Ikuhara’s work taking every opportunity to question the patriarchy, but for an anime to be about individuals who don’t fit into society making a life for themselves without any attachments outside of their own personal interests, with no real beliefs or values outside of their need to survive, and for this to come out way back in 1997, I find it more surprising that the series EVENTUALLY became big over there. But more to the point, Cowboy Bebop was, perhaps inadvertently, designed to be successful in America, so by ripping it off, Firefly became so popular that over fifteen years later, it has it’s own line of Lootcrate merch. And yet, despite the many similarities, Cowboy Bebop is still superior to Firefly in every conceivable way, and it’s able to be so without having to try nearly as hard as Firefly did.

First off, as much as I love it, Firefly was never that great at drama. Yeah there was danger, and characters would die, but actual emotional conflict? It would pop up in small doses, but never in any engaging way. It also, like MANY series both here and in Japan, used dangling plot threads to keep you watching. There were mysteries to be solved, romantic interests to be resolved, conspiracies to unravel… When shows do this, it can be great, but it still feels like there’s a carrot dangling in front of your face, daring you to run towards it. It goes perhaps without saying that Cowboy Bebop had none of these issues. It never needs to try to grab your attention… You don’t need to worry about what’s going to happen later on in the story, because everything that’s happening is perfectly interesting on it’s own. You don’t just want to see the characters prevail, and overcome each obstacle, preserving the status quo, you want to see them overcome themselves and break the stasis they’ve surrounded themselves with in order to find whatever it is they’ve been missing.

Cowboy Bebop is about four outcasts with nowhere to go, nowhere to call home, and pasts that they can no longer return to. In a sense, they’ve given up anything they once held dear in order to just survive day to day, putting their loved ones, morals and dreams aside because even if there is something for them to go back to, which isn’t always the case, doing so would carry unimaginable consequences, so you wind up having no idea whether you want them to find closure or just move forward. Anybody who’s held a job in order to pay the bills can immediately relate to this, and yet the fact that the crew of the Bebop have taken on even more uncertainty and risk by working a job that lets them hold onto a little bit of freedom by being their own bosses still makes them so easy to idolize. You get episodes of backstory for the entire main cast save for Ed, and these episodes are by far the best of the bunch because of everything they teach us about their past lives and how they wound up in this life, and then you’ll get the one-off episodes that are somehow just as awesome on their own, with so many imaginative and complex ideas that fit perfectly into the Bebop universe. All of these episodes, in their own way, explore the dichotomy of life, death, and the purpose that each serves.

Cowboy Bebop was originally available from Bandai, both in individual cases and in a much more attractive Remix collection set, which was my copy of the series for years until Funimation bought the rights, and released it on Gorram Blu-Ray. I don’t care how much your physical copies of this series mean to you, you need to buy it on Blu-Ray. It’s a lot cheaper than the Amazon Exclusive version, although that one DOES come with a whole slew of bonus goodies. The movie, Knocking on Heaven’s door, is also available pretty cheap at most locations, and it’s also really great. The manga adaptations are also easily available stateside, although you’re best bet is to look online.

Cowboy Bebop is not just an example of how anime can break it’s own rules and still be great, nor is it just an example of how good an anime from the nineties could look. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, an example of how a character driven story doesn’t need to have a plot, especially if it’s written in such a way that the characters ARE the plot. They’re all so likeable and so interesting that there are literally no boring moments throughout the series, because everything that happens involves them or is related to them in some way. I’ve heard some people complain about the crew not landing very many bounties, but I honestly think that’s the whole point. The ship is symbolic of the status quo that so many other shows rely on. As long as they stay there, sheltered from their old lives, they can never succeed, nor can they fail. They can never really live, nor can they die. They can only tread water, surviving. That might sound comfortable for some, but for Spike Spiegel, and ultimately for the philosophy of the series, it’s better to die young than to survive without living. This work, which has become a genre unto itself, is known as Cowboy Bebop, and I give it a 10/10.  

When I was putting together a list of science fiction related posts to share with you guys this month, I remembered back to a few years ago when one of my good friends from Gaia shared some of her work with me, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  One of those fanfics, a story about the british bastard bot Wheatley trying to befriend a scorned Chell, stuck out in my mind as a really touching, very well written piece, so I asked her permission to share it with you guys today.

Second class citizen
by Roz Sawyer

Finally, after so many trials and failures and near-death experiences, he had freedom and so did she. It had really come down to the wire, too. Almost literally, even. Now that they were out and putting as much distance between themselves and the facility as they possibly could in a day, Wheatley was still wondering what had made Chell hold onto him in the end, keeping him from flying off into outer space. Hadn’t he been absolutely monstrous to her? He’d even gone as far as throwing bombs at her, hurling verbal abuse just as rapidly while staring her in the face, but here she was carrying his once-again tiny little body across the vast expanse of golden yellow vegetation, showing no sign that she would drop him anytime soon. He’d tried asking her about it as soon as they were out of the lift shaft, but she’d just given him a strange, unreadable look that left him feeling particularly unfulfilled. He’d tried asking her about that, too, but before the question was out, something shuddered in the shed behind them and the door to the shaft opened back up to make way for the unwieldy and badly singed Weighted Companion Cube that Chell now carried on her back, tied up in the entirety of her jumpsuit.

They had been walking for what felt like hours to Wheatley, who hadn’t bothered to check his internal chronometer (he’d lost most of his faith in it some time ago, before all this had happened). It must have been a long while, though, because he could hear Chell’s labored breathing and he felt the change in her step as she walked. She was holding him sideways, the front of his spherical body pointing off to her right, so it wasn’t difficult at all for him to tilt his optic up to look her in the face. She was staring straight forward, hardly blinking and wearing the same face of determination he’d grown so accustomed to seeing on her. Her mouth was open, however, and she was taking very deep breaths. Wheatley had never seen her look so tired, but then again the air out here wasn’t swimming with adrenal vapor like the air in the facility. Chell would probably tire much quicker now that they were free.

“You look exhausted, luv.” Wheatley kept his optic on Chell’s face even as she looked down at him. Eye contact was important to humans, wasn’t it? “I think you should take a little rest. There’s no extra adrenaline to breathe in around here. You’re gonna start feeling tired like a regular human now.” He paused, the light in his optic shrinking to a pinprick. “Not that there’s anything irregular about you! Not at all! No, no, you’re a perfectly ordinary human.” Another pause. “Uh, I mean that nothing’s wrong with you! Except that bit of brain damage, yeah, but that doesn’t slow you down. No, you’re brilliant anyway. You’re irregular, but in a good way. Is this making any sense?”

Chell was still breathing hard, but the look in her eyes and the little nod of her head she gave him told Wheatley that she did, in fact, understand the meaning behind his rambling. His optic light returned to normal size.

“Good, good. I’m sorry if I offended you. Again. Really sorry. Also again. Now how about you have yourself a little sit-down over there.” He waved one of his handles up and down. “I saw a clear spot off that way. You should be able to see all around you in there, so there’s no chance of anything sneaking up on us. Unless it sneaks up from underground. Then we’d really be buggered, me and you.” He’d have continued if Chell hadn’t moved one hand up from around him and rested it just above his optic. Wheatley wasn’t sure what that gesture meant, but he stopped talking and caught sight of the slightest of smiles on Chell’s face when he did. He remained silent until she had walked them into the clearing, untying the jumpsuit from around her shoulders and waist to let down the immense Companion Cube and spreading the garment out to sit on. She set Wheatley in her lap as she rested her back against the cube, letting out another deep breath as an audible sigh.

A few minutes into her rest, Chell lifted Wheatley up to set him beside her on the outspread jumpsuit while she removed her long fall boots. Wheatley kept his optic trained on all the movement, watching as Chell undid the straps and slid the skin-tight boots off. The inner parts of the boots had left nasty red lines and blotches on her skin that Wheatley couldn’t help but recoil from.

“Oh, luv, those red spots look awful. Do they hurt?”

Chell hesitated before nodding her head up and down.

“Oh, they look like they really do. Are you happy to finally get those boots off?”

Another nod.

“Yeah, it really shows.” Chell lifted her eyebrows in mild surprise as Wheatley’s voice began to quiet down, his tone uncharacteristically somber. “Was that bothering you all the time you were testing? You could’ve said something, luv. Or, well, you know, jumped up and down and waved or something to get my attention.” He let out a simulated sigh. “Never mind. Forget it. Even if you did I wouldn’t have listened.” He lifted his optic back up to look Chell in the eye, his tone returning to normal. “And that’s why now I’m taking it upon myself to make things easier for you. So, let’s see what we can do about how painful it is to walk in those boots.” He looked around in all directions with Chell as his center point. When he spoke again there was a hint of what sounded like a smirk in his voice.

“Well I see something. It’s a pretty obvious one, if you ask me.” He gestured as best he could with his optic toward the Companion Cube. “What are you carrying all that extra weight around for, luv? That cube there weighs about…oh, I dunno, thirty pounds minimum? Giant thing. I can’t see why you’re lugging it around out here. There aren’t any test chambers outside the facility.” A beat. “And that’s a good thing. Very good.” He nodded his entire body emphatically to prove his point. “I can’t even see why She would give it back to you, either. Look at the condition it’s in. What happened to it? Did it fall out of orbit or something? Did they test Aerial Faith Plates with these things? It makes sense if you think about it, but I’m not exactly in any mood to think about space for a while.” He looked back up at Chell to see a melancholy expression on her face, which he took as his cue to move back to the subject at hand. “So, luv, as I was saying, why don’t you just get rid of the bloody thing and get on with…”

Wheatley cut himself off when he saw Chell’s expression change with remarkable speed. The sad, regretful look was instantly replaced with the most vicious glare she’d given him since he had been forcibly detached from the GLaDOS chassis. Wheatley could almost imagine the look in her eyes burning through his exterior with the intensity of a hundred – no, a thousand – Thermal Discouragement Beams. He involuntarily squeaked as his approximation of a pupil shrank to an almost invisible size once again.

“Or not! Or not! That’s just fine, as well! You know what? Forget I said anything. Forget I said anything at all since we sat down here. Except the part about wanting to make things easier for you. I meant that.”

Chell just rolled her eyes, a gesture Wheatley had grown accustomed to since they had met, and leaned back against the Companion Cube with her eyes shut.

“Oh yeah, it makes a pretty good back rest, doesn’t it? Hadn’t thought of that.”

Chell put a finger to her lips, her eyelids still closed, and Wheatley silenced himself with another sigh.

They traveled for a few more days – a length of time that Wheatley could see passing with his own optic – and in all that time Wheatley could not understand Chell’s reaction to his suggestion of letting the Companion Cube go. This time when he’d asked her about it she’d huffed at him and rolled her eyes, a much more vehement non-answer than his previous questions had gotten. Since then he’d tried to distract himself with other concerns, like the lack of diversity in the scenery or the growl sound he kept hearing when Chell held him against her stomach, but his mind kept coming back to that glare. What value could that cube possibly have in this place?

It wasn’t until the evening of the third day of walking and sleeping outside (a practice that made Wheatley uneasy, what with the combination of being fully exposed to the elements and being forced to look at the moon and stars until sunrise) that the pair ran across the remains of a building. There was no telling how old it was, but its architect had had the foresight to build the roof and walls out of thin plates of steel. The windows and doors had no coverings on them, but the floor was made out of thick concrete that made the heel springs of Chell’s long fall boots click against it as Wheatley turned on his flashlight to help her get a look around.

“Well, this place has certainly seen better days,” he mused, his optic shifting around. “I wonder what it was used for. Thick floor, tough walls…I think the roof’s well waterproofed, so that’s a load off my mind.” The light from his flashlight dipped into every corner, amplifying the waning sunlight that snuck in through the windows. For a metal-lined structure, this place was very open to the air. Each window was partly framed by short walls that came out into the room within, leaving a narrow aisle down the middle lined by good-sized compartments.

Wheatley briefly shut the light off, turning his optic up to look Chell in the face. “Do you have any idea what this place was?” He paused for a beat. “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry. I always forget.” The lids of his ocular aperture moved themselves into the best smile he could manage. “Think you could write it down, luv? I don’t mind you putting me down in here.” Chell eased Wheatley to the floor before untying the limbs of her jumpsuit-pack to release the Companion Cube with a loud clunk. “There we are. Here’s a nice spot. Plenty of dust.” Wheatley turned his flashlight back on, bathing the patch of floor in white light.

Chell knelt, trying her best to fold her legs and feet in a way that didn’t make the heel springs uncomfortable, and reached out one finger to the dust. Wheatley watched intently as she formed a word for him.

Stable

“Uh…” Wheatley squinted at the word Chell had written. “Well yeah, yeah it is, but that’s not what I was asking, luv.” The shake of his optic he gave Chell nearly knocked him on his side. “When I asked what this place was, I didn’t mean for you to describe it to me. Tell me what it was used for. That’s what I’m after.”

Chell sighed, punctuating it with an eye-roll. She leaned forward again, her expression miffed, and wrote another word above the first one.

Horse

“Horse?” Wheatley looked back up at Chell, trying not to shine the light directly in her face. “I don’t…”

Chell gestured rapidly back and forth between the two words with her extended finger.

“Stable horse? Horse sta- Oh!” Wheatley laughed, shaking his frame enough to threaten his stability again. “I see. You were answering the right question the whole time. Uh,” he blinked his optic quickly a few times, “well sometimes ‘stable’ is an adje-…uh…um, a word that describes things instead of…a word that is something. Don’t know why that is. Bloody confusing. I’d like to have a word with whatever sap invented the English language.” Another laugh, his voice smiling for him when he spoke again. “Have a word with him, get it? Ah, aren’t I brilliant?” He lifted his optic back up to Chell’s face and was almost elated to see that she was holding back laughter herself. She’d brought her writing hand up to her mouth to cover it up, physically keeping her silent giggles in. Wheatley smiled with his optic again. Seeing Chell look so happy, even though she was trying to hide it, roused something in him that felt strongly positive. Then the reality of their situation came back to him and Wheatley’s optic darted around the room again.

“So, this was a horse stable. Looks about right for one.” Not that Wheatley had ever actually seen a horse stable in his existence, but that was beside the point now. “A stable for horses. A…” His pupil-light shrank. “Ugh! They…they kept animals in here once! Dirty, smelly, huge animals! With fur! And fleas, quite possibly! And now I’m sitting on this floor!” A simulated gasp. “I bet they excreted all over this floor! Pick me up and clean it off, luv! Clean it off! Clean it off! Clean it off!”

Seemingly alarmed by Wheatley’s realization, Chell hopped to her feet, boots clacking against the concrete as she searched around the stable for something. Finally she returned brandishing a grease-stained off-white cloth that she shook out, scattering a thick cloud of particles that promptly flew out the nearest window as the air blew through.

Wheatley sighed in relief. “Oh, thank you, luv. Knew I could still count on you. It’ll be quick work. I could probably use a good shining-up after so long. Oi!”

Rather than use the cloth on Wheatley, Chell had dropped back to her knees and lifted the Companion Cube sideways, resting it on one edge as she wiped up the underside of it. She scrubbed at it with all the precision and care of a proud owner polishing their silver. If Wheatley had possessed a jaw, it would have hung slack at this moment.

“What are you doing, luv?! That thing’s burnt to kingdom come! A little dirt’s not gonna make it worse! Besides, it hasn’t got moving parts and I have!” Chell didn’t pause in her work at all. “Luv, can you hear me? Oh, please don’t tell me the brain damage is getting worse! Luv? Look at me, luv. Over here! Oi! Look over here!” In his agitation, Wheatley had begun to wiggle his handles, giving him the final push that sent him rolling over onto one side. “Ah! No! Nononononono! It’s all over me now! Get it off! Get it off!” He moved every part he could think of, but nothing moved enough to right him. “Aw, look what you made me do, luv! I’m all filthy now and all because you weren’t listening to me!”

Now Chell whipped her head around, giving Wheatley another glare. Immediately he went silent, his pupil tiny. His optic shifted around in his frame uneasily until Chell’s expression softened just a little and she picked him up only to set him down on a rotting crate a few feet away.

“Oh.” Wheatley looked down at his perch, any sign that he’d been smiling less than five minutes ago completely gone. “You were listening.” He kept Chell out of his line of vision, scanning the floor in front of the crate now and keeping his voice low. “Sorry about that. Again.” He sighed. He couldn’t see Chell at all, but the sound of her giving a thorough rub-down to the Companion Cube echoed all over the room. Wheatley sat in silence for half a minute until a thought popped into his mind.

“Do you need the light, luv?” Wheatley lifted his optic up so he could see Chell again. She shook her head back and forth in response. “Alright. Okay. I’ll just…be over here, then.” The noise stopped as Wheatley shut off his flashlight, for once at a loss for anything else to say. Instead he heard the clicking of Chell’s boots as she got up, walked over to him, gave the top of his body two good pats and then walked back over to the cube, apparently trying to rub off as much burnt material as she could with what tool she had.

“You’re welcome,” he said, again looking down at his crate. Chell didn’t bother to acknowledge his response and a moment later he was looking back over toward her. By now she was on the other side of the cube, arm working tirelessly to clean it up, and Wheatley puzzled at her behavior again. As far as he could see, his logic had been flawless since leaving the facility and here Chell was defying it in the utmost extremes. Perhaps it was just part of her nature to disobey authority in any form, but up until now she’d done everything right to ensure survival. Now here she was trying to clean burns off of a completely useless object when the cloth she had wouldn’t make them come out and there was someone else in the room who needed that attention more.

The idea of trust issues crossed Wheatley’s mind briefly, but he threw it out straightaway. It was true that he hadn’t done much to earn Chell’s trust back yet, but she wasn’t polishing her burnt cube because she trusted it. Was she? No, that sounded ridiculous, even to Wheatley. He looked away from Chell and the cube again to think undisturbed. He could talk while the cube could not. He could be helpful now and again and the cube only weighed Chell down. He had made Chell laugh, something that he was now counting among his greatest achievements, and the cube didn’t even have the capacity to do the same. He had heard somewhere that Weighted Companion Cubes were sentient, but they never showed it. Who was to say that was true?

A moment later and Wheatley was venturing another look in Chell’s direction only to see that she had stopped polishing the cube and was now resting her head and arms on top of it with her eyes closed. He tilted his optic to the side, this time taking care not to move himself too suddenly.

“Luv?” No answer. “Are you alright, luv?” Still no answer. “Are you still angry with me? I do mean it when I say I’m sorry, just so you know.” This time Chell made a noise, snorting loudly enough to startle Wheatley. That answered that, then. She was asleep. Wheatley dropped his voice to a whisper. “Oh. Sorry one more time, luv. You just rest now.”

He’d have left it there had one detail not caught his attention. She was asleep on the cube. It was supporting the weight of her upper body again, just like on all the rests she had taken on the walk that eventually led them here. Suddenly the pattern was clear to Wheatley and for lack of a better word to describe it, he was mystified. He narrowed his optic at the cube. What quality could that thing possibly have that made Chell care about it so much? More than him, even? Wheatley almost asked this question aloud, but he remembered that Chell was asleep just in time. Perhaps, if she wasn’t still angry with him in the morning, he’d ask her about this.

Wheatley’s own “sleep cycle” was much shorter than any human’s, so every morning he always found himself awake before Chell. This morning was no different. His ocular aperture blinked open, he took stock of where he was resting and immediately turned himself as best he could to face Chell. She was still halfway on top of the Weighted Companion Cube, a sight that put Wheatley back into the bad mood he’d been in when he went into sleep mode. He glared at the cube again, but before he could utter a word, a strange noise broke the early morning’s silence for him. It sounded like a mix of an animal growl and liquid bubbling around inside something. Wheatley’s blue iris nearly disappeared again as he shouted for Chell.

“Wake up, luv!” He began shifting around in place, his handles waving up and down frantically. “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! I think something’s in here with us and it does not sound happy. What…What if we’ve taken its territory?! Oh, I bet we did!” His optic rolled around in his frame, searching the stable for any trace of the creature. “Well that’s just bloody brilliant. Not even a week outside the facility and we get attacked by something.” Ceasing to focus on anything, Wheatley just let his optic move around aimlessly. “I can just see the look in Her smug, yellow optic. I bet She knew this would happen. I- Ah!”

Chell puffed out a sigh, now stood over Wheatley. He hadn’t even noticed her getting to her feet.

“Oh.” Wheatley stilled his optic, looking up at Chell. “It’s just you, luv. I didn’t see you there.” He looked left and right quickly, lowering his voice. “Now, no sudden moves. We don’t want to make this thing any angrier. Did you see anything over there where you were by the…” He paused, looking in the cube’s direction. “By that thing?”

Chell shook her head.

“Oh. I wonder where it is, then. It sounded like it came from o-…” Wheatley visibly stiffened his entire frame when he heard the noise again, only now it was over by him. “Aah! No! Nonononononono!” He clamped his ocular aperture shut, practically vibrating in place. “Don’t eat me! I’m made of metal!” He sat there, shaking for almost a full minute before he dared open his optic. Nothing had happened. Wheatley shifted his gaze in all directions before settling it on Chell. She’d put a hand over her stomach, her expression mildly pained.

“What happened, luv?” Before he got an answer, Wheatley heard the sound again, quieter this time. “Ah!” He watched as Chell cringed and rubbed her stomach. Wheatley quirked his optic to one side in confusion. “Is that…you making that noise?”

Chell nodded.

“Oh. Eheh…” Wheatley blinked twice, looking at the floor. He’d have blushed if he could. “I didn’t know humans made noises like that. Does it mean anything?”

Chell knelt in front of Wheatley’s crate, rubbing a word into the dust with one finger: Hungry

“Oh, I see. Was it your stomach making that noise? That is the name for it, right? ‘Stomach’?”

Chell nodded.

“Does that hurt? It sounds like it does.”

She nodded again.

Wheatley sighed. “I’m sorry, luv. Is there anything in here you can eat?”

Chell shook her head this time, writing another word: Outside

“Back out there again?” Wheatley quirked his optic to the side. “But we’ve only just got here.”

Chell shook her head, half-smiling, and pointed to herself before pointing outside.

“Okay, okay, I’ve got this.” Wheatley squinted his optic in concentration. “You…are going outside.”

Chell nodded with vigor before pointing at Wheatley and then at the floor.

“Hmm, let’s see. I am…staying here?” A pause. “Why, luv? You’re not leaving me, are you?”

Chell shook her head, then pointed to herself again and made a slow scooping gesture in toward her chest.

“You…will come back?” Wheatley’s small countenance brightened. “Is that it?”

Chell nodded.

“Ah, I see. You’ll go out looking for food and then you’ll come back here. Guess that makes sense. You’ll probably need your arms for gathering food up and it’ll be tough going ’round out there being weighed down.” Wheatley wiggled his top handle toward the cube.

Chell got to her feet, giving Wheatley another dirty look.

“What?” There was genuine confusion in Wheatley’s optic. “What is it? Was it something I said?” His only responses were a sigh and a pat just behind his upper handle. Wheatley sank into his seat a bit, watching as Chell crossed the room, picked up the Companion Cube and lugged it to a spot directly across the stable from the crate he was still sat on. Wheatley expected Chell to get back up immediately, but instead she paused, running a hand along the still-damaged top edge of the cube and smiling. The look of fondness on her face stirred something powerful in Wheatley and he made a noise not unlike a human man clearing his throat. Chell’s head immediately turned toward him.

“Well alright. Off you go.” Wheatley gestured toward the door with his optic. “Ease that pain inside you from not eating. Nobody’s holding you back.”

Chell paused only to raise an eyebrow at Wheatley before standing up, grabbing her jumpsuit up off the floor and tying the arms and legs into a sack.

“Ah, look at that. Clever girl.” Wheatley smiled up at her. “Go on now. I should be just fine right here. Unless something comes in here. Then I don’t know what.” Chell smirked and shook her head before walking out the door with her makeshift bag.

Once Chell was out of view, Wheatley trained his narrowed optic on the cube across from him. “Alright, then. Now it’s just me and you in here.” His optic shifted into more of a smug expression. “Nobody for you to hide behind.”

“Now the way I see it,” Wheatley began, raising himself up as much as he could by leaning on his lower handle, “I’m a second-class citizen compared to you. Now why do you think that is?”

The Companion Cube, understandably, said nothing.

“No idea? Really?” Wheatley’s optic narrowed again. “I doubt that. I’ve seen how she looks at you. How she takes care of you. I don’t even get a second glance.” He sighed and looked down for a moment. When he looked back up at the cube, Wheatley’s expression was more hurt than malicious. “It just doesn’t make any sense! What have you ever done for her?” A beat. “Were you one of the cubes that helped her solve the tests? Must’ve been one terrible test from the look of you. I’ll be totally honest: you look awful.”

The cube made no reply.

“In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’d been through the-…” Wheatley’s luminous pupil shrank. “…incinerator. Oh bloody hell, I heard about that experiment.” The lower lid of his ocular aperture slid up to cover his optic halfway. “Get a test subject attached to an inanimate object, then make them burn it. Now it makes sense!” He snapped his optic shut with a frustrated growl. “Rrgh! Why didn’t I think of that before? She gives you all that attention because She made her think you were her only friend.” Wheatley’s ocular aperture became a threatening slit, his voice almost a whisper. “Well I’ve got news for you, mate: you’re not. She’s got me now.” Wheatley put on the best prideful smirk a core could manage. “I’d say I make a pretty good friend, all things considered. I talk to her, I look out for her, I use my flashlight for her, I make her laugh…” His voice trailed off at the last item on his list and he chortled to himself. “Now ask yourself this, mate: what do you do for her? Now that we’re out of the facility?”

The cube said nothing.

“Exactly!” Wheatley shouted. “You just sit there and make it hard for her to do anything she needs to do! There’s no adrenaline to breathe in out here! She hasn’t got her portal gun to pick you up anymore! It’s hard work lugging you around!” He shut his ocular aperture and shook his optic from side to side. “No consideration. None at all. I bet you love all that attention she gives you. Just quietly eating it up. So to speak.”

No response.

Wheatley was practically vibrating. “Ooh, you silent types. Thinking you’re so superior. Well it’s not true!” He nearly rolled off the crate in his enthusiasm. “You’re nothing but dead weight out here, mate! A bloody great waste of space! I can be useful to her now that we’re out! Should I go down the list again?”

No answer.

“Well, should I? Ah, it’s not worth the time. It’s already pretty clear that there’s nothing you’ve ever done for her that could possibly surpass me. You haven’t done anything! This is too easy, mate! Absolutely nothing!” Wheatley almost launched into another tirade when his voice caught in his processors and his frame slowly relaxed. His optic dipped down, as did the top shutter of his ocular aperture.

“Nothing at all. You never did anything, so she could never be angry with you, either. You never said a word, you never let her down, you never turned your back on her…” Wheatley sighed again, his whole frame moving with the sound of it. “You never hurt her. Not once.” He lifted his optic to look at the cube again, his voice quiet and shaky. “Well look at that, mate. You’ve got something I haven’t.” The look in his optic was almost sheepish. “I was right before. She does trust you more than me. I suppose I don’t deserve trust. I mean, what have I really done to earn it back?”

No reply from the Companion Cube.

Wheatley’s optic narrowed again. “Well you don’t have to rub it in, mate!” He huffed out another sigh and looked away. “I suppose you’re right. I almost killed her, you know. Tried pretty hard. She got away, though.” Wheatley raised his optic, looking near proud. “Such a clever girl, she is. Always one step ahead of me. Heh, not the hardest thing to do. I can admit that now.” His gaze shifted to the floor in front of the cube. “Told her so many times she’s clever, but that’s not enough, is it? Something’s missing. What else should I be doing that I’m not? What else can I do? There’s nothing for me to plug into out here, so that’s out.” He raised his optic to the cube. “Can you think of anything?”

The cube didn’t make a sound.

Wheatley narrowed his optic once more. “Well a fat lot of good that does me, mate! Some friend you are!”

It hadn’t taken long for Chell to find something to eat. Not far from the stable was a small cluster of apple trees, probably planted to grow treats for the animals raised on the land. After eating some, Chell had filled her makeshift basket with as many red apples as it could hold, which admittedly wasn’t many, and was on her way back when she heard it. It was definitely Wheatley’s voice being carried on the light wind, but his words were distorted by distance. He sounded very upset, so Chell proceeded with caution as she approached the stable. As she got closer and peeked in one of the long windows, Chell noticed that even though Wheatley was pausing as if he expected a reply, none was coming before he carried on talking again.

“See, it’s always been my understanding that a friend’s someone who actually does something for another person. Doesn’t just sit around being useless. That’s exactly what you’re doing right now. All you really can do. I honestly don’t see why she still hasn’t figured it out yet.”

From where Chell was standing, it appeared that Wheatley was talking to himself. She raised an eyebrow at the sight of it, wondering if some circuit in him had finally fried from the stress.

“Could be the brain damage, yeah, but I doubt it.” Wheatley shook his optic side to side. “That never really held her back. She can’t say a word, but she doesn’t need to. She’s not actually silent, if that makes any sense.”

Chell moved around the building, headed for the door. The window cutouts were high off the ground, but on occasion she’d peek through them on her way by, her face barely reaching over the edge.

“She can write out words for me. I’m still working on my reading, but I’ve gotten pretty good. Gestures. She’s got gestures with her hands and arms. Sometimes I know what those mean. Working on that, too. And her face.” Wheatley’s optic smiled. “Lovely face, she has. So many different expressions. It’s not all that hard to know what she’s thinking most of the time. I wouldn’t exactly call that ‘silent.’ Would you?”

Chell watched as Wheatley’s optic dipped down and in front of him and she almost snorted with laughter. She had moved around the side of the building enough to see that Wheatley was not talking to himself, but to the Weighted Companion Cube sat across from him where she had left it. Chell kept her free hand clamped hard over her mouth, holding in the faintest chortle as she kept listening.

“Yeah, knew you wouldn’t say anything. I’m onto you.” Wheatley narrowed his optic to a slit. “I can see right through your little game now. If she figures out that your so-called ‘friendship’ was just part of an experiment, out the door you go. You don’t like the sound of that, eh mate?” The slit of Wheatley’s optic seemed more like a smirk now. “Well how about I just tell her? I think she deserves the truth. That’s what a real friend would say. I tell her the truth about you and boom! I’m not a second-class citizen anymore! It’s perfect! Got anything to say to that, mate? Anything at all?”

For what seemed like the hundredth time, the Companion Cube said nothing.

“Ah, come on!” Wheatley’s voice came out in a growl that made Chell take a step back from the doorway, jostling the apples in her jumpsuit basket. “We’ve been at this for about an hour now! I think. Could be less. Either way, you haven’t answered me the whole time! If you had any brains in there you’d drop the act by now! It’s…it’s like talking to a wall! I’ve had better conversations with test chamber paneling than you! What is this?!” Wheatley flung his gaze to the ceiling, seemingly in disbelief. “Oh, where is she? She should be back by now. Hope she found food.” His voice quieted and he settled down against the crate again, sighing. “Maybe I should just keep quiet about that experiment thing. Don’t want to make her sad. Never want to see that particular look on her face again.”

Chell leaned into the door a bit, unaware that an apple was shifting on the pile.

Wheatley continued, his optic pointed at the floor. “That wouldn’t exactly be helpful, would it? I promised I’d do everything I could to make things easier for her. What have I done so far to keep that promise?” He sighed again, shutting his optic completely. “Maybe I’m just not worth it. I can’t even do that much to get her to trust me again. Friends are supposed to keep promises, right?” Wheatley blinked his optic open just in time to see a bright red apple roll into his line of vision. “What?” He stared at it for a moment before looking up to the side that the apple had rolled from.

Chell stood in the doorway, body stiff and the slightest hint of a blush on her cheeks.

“There you are, luv!” Wheatley did his best to smile sincerely. “I see you found some food. Nicely done.” He paused, his expression turning to one of fear as his pupil shrank. “Er, how long have you been standing there?”

The laughter Chell had been restraining came loose all at once and she nearly dropped the apples as soundless giggles shook her body.

“Er…” Wheatley’s optic darted left and right, his bottom shutter raised. Finally it rested on Chell and Wheatley started to laugh along with her. It began as forced, uncertain laughs that finally grew into an honest chuckle, making Wheatley shut his optic fully as his frame wiggled with mirth. “Funny thing, laughing. Literally funny. Just hearing you do it is enough to make me do it, too. Why is that?”

Getting out the last of her giggles, Chell walked into the stable and set her apples down on the floor between Wheatley and the cube. She crouched down to be at optic level with Wheatley, resting her palm on the top of his shaking frame to still him. Wheatley’s optic snapped open as soon as he felt the light pressure and he stared right into Chell’s eyes.

“You haven’t answered my question yet, luv. Did you hear everything I said?”

Chell raised one hand, palm facing the floor, and moved it in a see-saw motion from side to side.

“So…hmm.” Wheatley stared at her hand as he thought. “Some of it?”

Chell nodded.

“Ah, I got it right!” Wheatley smiled, but it faded quickly as the implications hit him. “Well then how much of it did you hear?” He paused. “Forget I asked that.”

Chell just smiled at him, reaching her free hand to the floor and writing in the dust: Experiment?

“Ah.” Wheatley looked away off to one side. “So you did hear that part. I…I don’t know if I’m meant to tell you, luv.”

Chell stroked the side of Wheatley’s frame with her fingertips, giving him a questioning look.

Wheatley looked her in the eye, his resolve visibly crumbling. “I…Er…Oh, luv.” He looked down at the edge of the crate he was on. “There isn’t any good way to say this. You’ve been…programmed.”

Chell raised an eyebrow, the tiniest bit of acid in her eyes.

“Well not by me!” Wheatley’s blue pupil changed to a tiny speck again. “By Her! She had this experiment – or the old scientists did, I don’t know which – where a test subject is given an object to carry around and get attached to. Then, once they start to feel something toward it, they’re meant to…to incinerate it.” His pupil returned to normal and he sighed. “That’s what She did to you. Got you attached to that thing there.” He looked over Chell’s shoulder at the cube. “You’re carrying it around everywhere and taking care of it because of Her.”

Chell turned her head to stare at the Companion Cube, one hand still on Wheatley’s frame. She was perfectly still, but Wheatley could feel her hand move off him and onto the edge of the crate.

“I’m sorry, luv.” If Chell didn’t know any better, she’d have sworn Wheatley was about to cry. “So sorry. I mean, I couldn’t have stopped Her then, but I’m sorry.”

Chell turned back around, her face unreadable.

Wheatley’s bottom shutter was raised again, adding to the effect of his voice. “Have I upset you, luv? I have, haven’t I? I didn’t want to tell you, but you made me and…No.” He clamped his optic shut. “No, no, no. Not your fault. Not at all. Not mine, either.” The shutters opened again very slowly. “It’s Her. All Her. Everything about Her is so evil. Even her body is evil! You saw what it did!” A pause. “No, I won’t bring that up.”

For a moment it seemed that the expression on Chell’s face was one of distress, but her next move made Wheatley question that assessment. She got off her feet, putting herself in an almost cross-legged position, and took Wheatley off the crate to set him in her lap. Chell held him sideways and tilted up so his optic was easily visible.

“What?” Wheatley barely had the word out before he felt Chell’s hand on him again. Now she was petting him, her entire palm moving from behind his top handle toward the plug on his back. When he looked up, Chell was smiling at him. “What’s this now? Not that it isn’t nice, but why are you doing it?” Chell’s smile only grew a little and slowly Wheatley felt himself relax. “You…you wanted me to calm down? Was that it? Well, I think it worked.”

Still smiling, Chell took off her boots and crossed her legs, leaning Wheatley on one knee to face her.
“So you’re not upset?”

Chell rolled her lower lip between her teeth for a second before making her “so-so” gesture again.

“Somewhat upset?”

Chell nodded.

Wheatley looked down and sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Chell thought a moment before pointing at Wheatley and shaking her head.

“Hmm, there’s a new one.” Wheatley looked back up at Chell’s face. “Not upset with me?”

Chell nodded, smiling.

Wheatley wiggled his handles with glee. “Ah! I’m getting pretty good at this.” His optic smiled. “I’m glad you’re not upset with me. Don’t think I really have to tell you that.” His expression became more serious as he continued. “You’ve got every reason to be upset with me, though. I was positively beastly to you. Why would you take someone like that along with you?” He paused. “And why didn’t you give me that answer the first time I asked?”

Chell gave him a perplexed look before her eyes practically lit with realization. Wheatley watched her furrow her brow, obviously thinking very hard.

The anticipation was grating on Wheatley. “Come to think of it, there are a few things about what happened that didn’t make sense. Once you escaped and got to my lair…” he clamped his optic shut again. “Her lair. Her lair. Sorry.” He looked up at Chell’s face again. “Once you got there, you didn’t do a single thing I said, which was good. That was very, very good. At least, you didn’t until the very last second. I told you to hold onto me and you did, even though She tried to force you to let go.” His optic shutters shifted into another smile. “Oh She tried to push me out into space, but you applied that grip and pulled me back in. And it didn’t stop there!” His optic went wide again. “You protected me from Her! You were losing consciousness, but you moved around me to keep her claws away. She tried to talk you into handing me over, but you wouldn’t have it.” The next word out of Wheatley was almost whispered. “Why?”

Still pensive, Chell dipped her head down to look Wheatley in the optic.

“Why’d you do it, luv? Was it because it’d make Her angry? It did. Good plan.” Wheatley looked down at Chell’s opposite leg from the knee he was resting on. “I can’t really think of another reason.”

It was then that something clicked in Chell’s mind. She turned sideways, reaching over beside her to pluck an apple from the stack she had brought back. Wheatley didn’t know what to think when Chell suddenly held it right up to his optic.

“Um, okay.” He scrutinized the fruit in front of him. “I know you’re trying to tell me something here, but what is it?”

Chell tilted Wheatley’s frame backward so he was looking at her, then locked her own eyes on the apple in her other hand.

“Er, right.” Wheatley tilted his optic at a strange angle to look at the object again. “It’s…an apple.”

Chell smiled and nodded her head with vigor.

“That’s it? That’s what you were trying to tell me?” Wheatley looked back up. “What’s that got to do with…” As Wheatley’s voice trailed off, the bottom shutter of his optic slowly began to rise up until his ocular aperture was half-closed. “Oh. ‘Apple.’ That’s the word I tried to get you to say when I got you out of cryosleep.”

Chell nodded again.

“You remember that, luv?”

Chell’s smile grew and it almost looked like she was laughing as she nodded a third time.

Wheatley’s voice remained hushed. “So, all those things we did before I took over the facility? You still remember all that?”

This time Chell lifted him up to face her at eye level and Wheatley was met with the biggest grin he’d ever seen. Before he could get a good look at it, Chell lowered her arms again, bringing his frame in close to her body. Pressed against her torso, Wheatley felt more than saw both of Chell’s arms wrapping around him.

“Luv, what are…what is this?” Wheatley moved his optic from side to side, causing Chell to wiggle in place. “Is this a hug, luv?”

Chell gently patted the top of his frame.

Wheatley smiled, the movement of his optic and handles making Chell squirm again. “I’ve never had a hug before. It’s nice.” He closed his optic, savoring the moment, but only a second later he felt Chell’s arms loosen and he found himself sitting on her knee again. Wheatley opened his optic slowly to find Chell looking right at him, a shy smile on her face. “So, guess that answers my question.”

Chell’s smile widened as she half-giggled.

“That’s really it, luv?” Wheatley tilted his optic sideways, shutters each down a little in a way that made him look vaguely owlish. “All those things I did before? Doesn’t seem like enough to me. Yes, I did all those helpful things for you so we could escape, but I tried to kill you. You do remember that, don’t you?”

Chell nodded very sternly.

“Alright, good.” Wheatley tilted his optic back upright. “It’s good you remember. Not good that I tried.” His lower shutter rose again. “I really am sorry about all that, luv. I can’t even quite remember why I did it. Well, I do remember why, but now it doesn’t make sense. First I want you to help me escape and then I stop wanting to leave.”

Chell patted Wheatley’s frame, looking off into nothing for a moment before she smiled again. Reaching out her other hand, she wrote something in the dust: Free

“Er, yes.” Wheatley tilted his optic again. “That’s true.”

Chell moved her hand, first finger extended, between the word and Wheatley.

“Me? I’m free? Well yes, I just said that. You and me both.”

Chell smiled as she shook her head, pausing for only a second before leaning forward, her chest nudging against Wheatley’s top handle as she wrote something else, much longer this time. When she sat up, Wheatley had to turn his optic to read it: Her body is evil

“Her body is…Oh!” Wheatley’s optic snapped back around to look up at Chell. “You got me out of Her body! Is that it?”

Chell’s nod was slow as she sat up, but she was smiling.

“Ha!” The single laugh was accompanied by Wheatley’s optic popping out of his frame for a second, his handles parting to allow it. “I got it! How many times is that now?” His optic rolled over. “Oh, I’m a master. An absolute genius at this.” His gaze turned to the Companion Cube beside Chell. “See that? In your face!” When Chell turned her head to look, Wheatley made a coughing noise and looked away. “Er…yeah. I know it’s not going to answer. Figured that out by now.” Again Chell’s body shook with laughter and Wheatley smiled at the wobbling sensation he felt as her leg moved underneath him. “Laugh all you want, luv. It’s lovely when you do.”

Once Chell had control of herself again she paused, just staring at Wheatley for a moment before picking him back up and setting him down on top of the Companion Cube.

“What?” Wheatley looked down at the cube through his bottom handle. “What was that for?” His question was met with a sweet grin from Chell. “I don’t think I understand this one, luv. Hmm.” He looked upward in though, his optic tilted to the side very slightly within his frame. “Oh! Wait…no.” He blinked. “Ah! I think I’ve got it! Mm, no. No, that doesn’t make any sense, either.” As he continued, Chell picked one of her apples back up and bit into it, smiling as she sat and watched Wheatley’s mind work.

When the sun set that evening, a cold wind picked up, blowing through the unshielded stable windows and forcing Chell to put her jumpsuit back on, zipped up to the top. Wheatley, who had finally run out of ideas about what Chell’s latest gesture had meant, pushed his frame up with his handle to watch her.

“Did I ever tell you that jumpsuit looks good on you?” Chell’s head turned abruptly and Wheatley nearly fell backwards in surprise at her speed. “Um, it does. Not just saying that. It fits you very well.” He nodded his optic, smiling.

The look on Chell’s face softened, her eyes opening up wider as she smiled.

“Oh, what an interesting face you’re making.” Wheatley watched Chell turn a bit red in the cheeks as he opened his optic up fully to get the best view. “I think I like that face.”

Chell sat down to put her boots back on, her eyes never leaving Wheatley’s optic. When she was finished, she moved Wheatley over on the cube’s surface to make room for her folded arms and chin. She only broke eye contact when she yawned, covering her mouth with one hand.

“Okay, that’s…” Wheatley narrowed his optic again, “…fatigue? Are you tired?”

Chell nodded slowly.

“Well go to sleep, then, luv. You don’t have to wait for me to say something.” Wheatley shook his optic. “I’m not in charge of you. Do whatever you want. Well, as long as you don’t want to hurt yourself. Or me. Yeah, that wouldn’t be good. How about this? Do whatever you want as long as neither of us get hurt.” He nodded, smiling. “That sounds much better. But still, I’m not in charge of you. I really wish you wouldn’t, but if something did come up where you had to- Oh!” Chell had moved her hand across the top of the cube, hooking her fingers around Wheatley’s lower handle. “Um…” He stared at her momentarily, his pupil noticeably smaller, before cautiously raising his handle up, gently holding Chell’s fingers against his frame. When she smiled in approval, Wheatley returned it.

“Am I bothering you, luv?”

Chell looked off to one side for a moment before wiggling her head side-to-side.

“Is that a yes? Uh, even if it isn’t, I’ll be quiet now. Oh, and I’ll keep the light out of your face.” Wheatley shut his optic. “Better?” He cracked his shutters open an inch to watch as Chell nodded and set her head back down on her free arm. “Good, good.” He shut his optic again. “Goodnight, luv.”

Chell’s smile lingered even as she closed her eyes, still sat up and leaned over the Companion Cube. Right as she did, she gave Wheatley’s lower handle a light squeeze and the top of the cube a light pat. So what if GLaDOS’s influence had been the initial reason why she loved the Companion Cube so much? It didn’t hurt her to care for it and even though she was free, the cube was still useful to her. It was like…what was that thing called? A teddy bear? The term echoed around in Chell’s head as if it were in a foreign language. She didn’t dwell on it, though. The thought was replaced by the image of Wheatley’s futile argument with the cube. Chell grinned, eyes still closed. Perhaps her bitterness had gotten to her before, but she was beyond it now. It had been her intention to escape with Wheatley from the moment he had first proposed the idea to her in the Relaxation Center. Like everything else, she had had to accomplish this at all costs. Her theory about the GLaDOS chassis had been right and Wheatley had more or less returned to himself after he was separated from it.

Chell relaxed her face and sighed, moving her head to get more comfortable as she felt herself drift. The top edge of the Companion Cube wasn’t an ideal place to sleep, but this way she could be near both of her friends at once. The last thought she had before falling asleep was that if she could help it, no one would feel like a second-class citizen again.

The year is 4999 AD. A very long time ago, the planet was knocked off of it’s axis by a devastating event that left mankind teetering on the brink of extinction, and the full nature of which has been lost to history. In their efforts to rebuild society from the ground up, mankind has decided to abandon war and instead settle their differences through athletic competition. This may sound like the Olympics to you, but the nature of their Great Competition is almost nothing like the gladiatorial events that we know today. For just over 1000 years, young women from all over the world have been flocking to a special school in Antarctica, to train and compete against each other, with the the top three students from each year being sent to the University Satellite! But that’s not all, because over the millennia, mankind has finally expanded into outer space, and every single planet(including some of their moons) sending their own athletes to compete at the Satellite! This intense, harrowing tournament will separate the tough from the timid, the hardcore from the soft, and the naturals from the dreamers as the best and the strongest athletes from the entire universe will battle it out for the title of Cosmo Beauty!

One of these young hopefuls is Akari Kanzaki, who… Let’s just face it, is completely hopeless. She’s slow, fragile, and is just as clueless as to what she’s doing at the Antarctic training site as we are. Being the daughter of Tomoe Midoh, the greatest Cosmo Beauty in the history of the Great competition, she has the genetic make-up that any other competitor would kill for, but her athletic abilities, and her attitude towards training, make her long-lasting lock on last place feel even more painful to watch. While some of her fellow students may have a soft spot for the doe-eyed lump, others see her as an insult to everything they’ve dedicated their lives towards, and aren’t shy about letting her know it. But could the apathetic Akari be more than meets the eye? Could her exterior, which is about as threatening as a rag doll, be hiding an untapped well of talent that’s just begging to be discovered? And even going beyond that, is there some darker truth hiding behind the Great competition itself? As the competition heats up, and the champs rise above the chumps, the 1003’rd Cosmo Beauty may turn out to be the most important one of all.

For Battle Athletes victory, we return to AIC, or Anime International company, only this time we’re looking at one of their earliest works, which came out in the late nineties. The series will be 20 years old this October, and as such, it looks extremely dated. This was a time when the moe style was nowhere to be seen, anime had to work harder to look good regardless of budget, and character designs ranged from cartoony to realistic, while rarely ever straying away from believable human anatomy. Artwork was a lot less polished, and physiques were exaggerated a lot more than they are today. For the time it came out in, Battle Athletes victory looks really good… When it wants to. The animation in this title is heavily inconsistent, and it works for the most part. For athletic competitions that can’t be written off with cheap budget saving tricks(And a few of them definitely are), the animation can be straight up gorgeous. I’ve heard it said that one of the most difficult things to animate is character’s legs when they’re walking and running, and yeah, I’ve seen enough failed attempts to understand this.

A lot of work goes into the simple visual of feet hitting and pressing back off of the ground, which is why a lot of animation tends to focus on above the feet, if they’re not just resorting to bouncing the image of the character’s face. In spite of this, I’m not exaggerating when I say that Battle Athletes Victory makes running animation look easy. They can pull it off at any speed, from fast running that doesn’t give you time to analyze it, to slow-motion running that perfectly captures every single movement of the body to the point that I have to wonder just how much live action research they must have done beforehand. A lot of money clearly got poured into these scenes, because most of the other sports featured in this show aren’t really as impressive. That’s not to say they look bad, but there’s a lot of close-ups, a lot of short bursts of action, and occasionally even repeated animation cycles that are meant to give the illusion of physical activity, and thanks to some smart editing, it almost always works. About half of the action in this series is running, of course, so it’s still an impressive looking series.

Well, for the most part, at least. The budget gets spread too thin at times, and when they run into trouble with it, the quality just abruptly tanks. There are sequences, and a couple of entire episodes, that look less like a high budget show from the late nineties and more like a low budget show from the early nineties. A lot of the material between competitions is just characters talking, interacting and having the camera freeze on them during internal monologues, and this does worlds of good for the budget, but at it’s worst, even scenes like those wind up looking like ass. The character designs, while imaginative, don’t follow the most attractive color palette, making the artwork look kinda grungy at times, and since the characters are mostly designed to carry realistic human anatomy, there are only a few of them that can get away with deformed anime expressions… Some of the more serious characters, such as Akari’s rival Jessie, just look terrifying when attempting to do the same. The color saturation and use of lighting are beautiful, but there are too many instances where the artwork looks rough, and over-all unfinished.

The music, while pretty repetitive, is unbelievable. As with any good sports-related media, the story has a deeply emotional feel to it, and the music composed by Yoshikazu Suo was clearly designed to augment these emotions. Some of the happier moments between competitions will be played alongside the upbeat “There’s no Point Unless You Goal,” actual competition will be accompanied by the intense pounding beat of Battle Program, and for those more devastating and heart-breaking moments… Of which there is a surprising amount… We’ll get the violin track Adagio of Despair. Character themes were very thoughtfully put together and instantly reminiscent of the characters they’re attached to… Even when that’s primarily because they’re based on the races of extremely stereotypical characters, which I’m going to get to in a minute… But the highlight is Wings, the opening to the series, and easily one of my favorite of all time. Joyful and inspirational, and full of imagery that gives each character a fair dose of screen time while throwing in subtle hints about the series. Too bad you only get to see it once per disk… No, I’m not kidding. The same can be said for the sweet Honeybee, the closing theme.

The English dub is a bit hit or miss, but I still prefer it over the Japanese by a great deal, even if the writers made a few embarrassing mistakes in it, such as mistakenly writing a flashback scene as a current scene, or having Akari say another character’s name before actually learning it. I can kind of imagine mistakes like those happening in the old days, but it would be unheard of today. Hey, at least they didn’t try to crowbar in any pointless references to obscure current events, am I right? Anyway, the cast is full of Geneon actors from the late nineties, including the legendary Lia Sargent as the main character Akari, whom she plays very straightforward, innocent and full of heart, even as she grows from a spoiled and co-dependent slacker into a stronger, more confidant idealist, constantly changing while still sounding like the same person at heart. Wendee Lee plays the gruff Osakan native Itchino, in what’s probably one of my favorite roles of hers, as she balances the characters softer and tougher sides fluidly. Steve Blum also gets a small role as the University Satellite headmaster, Grant Oldman, although it’s not a very demanding role, his presence is still appreciated.

Bridget Hoffman pulls double duty as both the Chinese stereotype character Ling Pha, which she performs in a comedically exaggerated accent, and then in a much more dignified role as Anna, who… Like one of her more recent characters… Is a sweet, diminutive girl with a dark, potentially dangerous side that’s hiding beneath the surface. As a treat to any Trigun fans that happen to be reading this, Dorothy Elias-Fahn plays Kris Christopher, a strange but strong-willed girl who has a deep, unrequited crush on Akari. So it’s basically the Milly and Meryl pairing you thought would never happen. Also, as an interesting for Ghost in the Shell fans, two different Motoko Kusanagi actors… Mary Elizabeth McGlynn from the anime and Mimi Woods from the video game, play characters that never actually meet or speak to each other. They’re both good, but McGlynn is phenomenal at how she plays an emotionless character who finds emotion through competition. Julie Maddalena probably had the only bad performance, but I don’t really blame her, because she was playing an annoying and entirely problematic character, so she was probably doing the best she could with what she was given. Finally, we get Jamieson Price, and as much as I’d like to go into detail about why he’s so amazing in this, his character is unfortunately mired in spoilers.

So if you haven’t realized by now, this show is really freaking weird. It’s possibly even one of the weirdest anime I’ve ever seen. There are a ton of strange anime out there that just shove weirdness into your face until it hits diminishing returns and becomes passé, such as Hare + Guu and Excel Saga, but with victory, the weirdness is paced in a way that it can keep consistently shocking you, as each strange detail that gets added to the story makes it’s impact and then settles neatly into the reality of the series’ universe, becoming commonplace for both the viewer and the characters… Until the next kooky detail comes along. So what if one of the main characters has a pet cow that’s allowed to live in her dorm with her? That’s just Gyuube, don’t mind her. So what if an alien turns a girl into a car? those aliens are just like that. So what if one of the show’s only male characters needs a constant supply of chocolate to survive? So what if some characters have unexplained jewels embedded in the foreheads, while other girls don’t? This series takes place in a strange world, with a strange premise, and it seems to revel in the idea of completely ignoring your expectations.

To it’s credit, though, it’s not like it tries to trick you into letting your guard down for it. Victory lets you know right off the bat how weird it’s going to be right from the first shot of episode 1, where the athletes at the Antarctica Training Center are in the middle of an important assessment test, racing while pulling gigantic rolling weights behind them. They’re not just pulling these multi-ton items behind them unhindered, however… They’re moving over rough terrain, avoiding booby traps, and even using their weights as weapons against each other. The results are of course catastrophic, as them main character(Whose been in dead last nearly the entire race) accidentally launches into the air and takes out a media reporter’s hot air balloon. And if that’s not enough, right in the second episode, there’s a biking competition where the contestants are riding on a roller-coaster track, which is designed not only to go up and down, around curves and loop-de-loop like a real roller coaster, but which can even be moved and rearranged DURING THE RACE from a control room overlooking the action.

If you can get through episode 2 without picking up on the fact that this series will leave no shark unjumped, you must have been fiddling with your phone the entire time. Not everything got the sci-fi treatment, of course… We get more normal sports like racing, soccer, tennis and the like. But when it came to making up weird sports, this series goes balls to the wall with it’s level of creativity and imagination. Like a game of pool where the balls are huge, and you have to break them by bowling. Or zero-gravity lacrosse that adds several new dimensions to the game. Then there’s my personal favorite, when they play air hockey, but the puck is as big as a dinner plate, and it’s literally hovering in mid-air, begging you to sing the Crossfire commercial theme. There are others, of course, but in most of these events, the human limit is constantly being pushed and broken, even before we see runners that can accelerate fast enough to create shock waves, and there’s seemingly no rule against injuring your opponent in the middle of battle, as people being taken out with grueling injuries is seen as little other than an elimination.

I’d normally be tearing apart a show like this over how ridiculous it is, how little sense it makes, and how almost none of it could feasibly happen in the real world, even in a dystopian future. Hell, there ARE some plot details I can’t get over, but that’s just the thing… They’re plot details, not connected to the weird pieces of sports logic throughout the series. What ultimately saves this show from being too stupid to excuse is just how sincere it all is. Yeah, the featured sporting events may be ridiculously beyond human capabilities, but to it’s credit, the athletes performing them are constantly TRAINING themselves beyond human capabilities, and the final story arc gives us an actual solid reason(albeit still just as ridiculous) for why they need to train to surpass conceivable human limits. It never feels like their abilities are undeserved, either… The characters train their asses off, and even when you don’t get to see them do so, you can easily tell from their attitudes what their approach is to training as well as just how serious they are about it. Those that don’t are considered ‘naturals,’ and are treated as anomalies.

So, ultimately, what saves this series from being laughable is it’s mastery over character writing. Every single character who gets even a mild level of importance is given a distinct arc, full of development and memorable moments. Akari easily gets the most of it, because in a way that’s almost reminiscent of Goku, every time she breaks into a new level of ability, there’s another major lesson she has to learn, and another serious challenge for her to overcome, and they all seem to make sense, despite rarely being predictable and once or twice relying on some shaky logic. I went into some detail about this in my review of Gunbuster last year, but throughout the course of the story, Akari is forced to evolve and grow as a character, from a whiny, spoiled little doll to a fierce competitor who can shave significant time off of her running speed just by reading a tip in a book. She has to overcome limits and challenges that are really more psychological than physical, and she’s not the only one. Everyone in this show has demons they have to deal with in order to grow and develop.

There’s a lot of ways to bring depth to your writing, and one of those ways is to have your story be about something. It can be a theme, it can be an idea, but it has to be consistent. Battle Athletes victory is a story about Truth. I don’t mean abstractly, like learning how not to lie, I mean deep, complex truth. The truths we hide from others, the truths we hide from ourselves, and even the truths that get buried throughout history. I said before that there’s a lot of character development in this series, but more specifically, every character has a hidden truth… Sometimes multiple… They they need to uncover within themselves in order to grow. An emotionless girl who’s been trained to be an athletic machine will be forced to realize that the only thing she truly cares about is beating her rival. A prideful overachiever will be devastated to realize there’s another plane of greatness she’ll never be able to reach. The goofball will realize just how much winning the competition meant to her, when she no longer has food or friends around to comfort her. You may train your best friend, only to be forced to acknowledge how much being better than them means to you when she starts to close in on you. Hell, the most dishonest character in the cast, Ling Pha, is arguably the only one who never really develops.

But the most important truth in the series, to me, is the one that rang true to me a few years ago. I’ve seen this series multiple times, and one of those rewatches happened when I was having trouble at work. I was slowing down, not really giving it my all, and after a while of it, I got called into the office. They asked me what was wrong, why I wasn’t producing results, and I said I didn’t know, claiming that I was busting my ass… Words I almost choked on, because even I knew they were bullshit. This all changed when I realized that I was doing the same thing Akari was doing. Whenever I was faced with a task that looked too difficult, I’d automatically accept that it was impossible, and I’d use that excuse to not try. I didn’t have a friend like Itchan to wake me up to this fact, but it was true, I was sabotaging myself, making excuses for failures that hadn’t happened yet. As soon as I realized this, I put a stop to it. I decided that no job was impossible, no matter how unreasonable. Ever since that day, I’ve never given up, I’ve never made excuses for myself, and I’ve continued to be employed as a result. It’s easy for a story to teach life lessons to kids, but when you can change the life and outlook of an adult viewer, there’s something special there.

Having said that, this series isn’t perfect. It has some flaws, and they go deep. There are constant logical derps… The true nature of the character Eric might have you pulling your hair out… But it’s biggest problem is it’s over-use of harmful and insulting stereotypes. The Russian girl is an emotionless machine, the Chinese girl is a dishonest cheater who’s always trying to sell stuff to people, the lesbian is a predatory lech who pays no regard to consent or mutual attraction(think the black girl from Pitch Perfect but not quite as bad), and the black girl… Holy shit, the black girl. Yeah, there’s a character here who’s from Africa, and her character is so racist that even Paula Dean would be insulted. She’s likeable, don’t get me wrong, but if this were an American cartoon, it would be one of the Censored 11. She runs around on all fours, uses her nose like a blood hound, is a “Natural runner,” and there’s an entire episode dedicated to her running around school in a tribal uniform, worshipping a totem god and painting everyone’s faces. There’s also a lot of lame jokes, such as the gimmick of a trio of hijackers, and… Okay, honestly, the whole episode that began the University Satellite arc kinda sucked.

It’s second biggest problem, right behind the racism issue, is the availability of the series. I mean, the lack thereof. Battle Athletes victory was available from Pioneer, which would eventually become Geneon, which would eventually go out of business. It’s been out of print for almost 20 years, and I can’t find any information about anybody trying to rescue it. If that’s not bad enough, the DVDs that it’s actually available on are pieces of shit, dated in all the worst ways. First of all, as I mentioned before, you only get the opening once per disk. That’s because it uses Dragonball Z’s marathon feature, only it’s not a feature, you don’t have a choice. Opening, three to four back-to-back episodes, closing. And the dubbers plastered white text over the opening instead of trying to avoid blocking the visuals. You can find these DVDs for fairly cheap online, and if you’re trying to get all 8 of them, you may even get lucky with a fifty dollar bundle on Ebay. The original OVA is also available stateside, but the manga is not. but seriously, if you’re reading this and actually have the right connections, PLEASE get this series rereleased. Discotek’s been into that kind of thing lately.

It’s not often that you hear about an anime changing someone’s life. They can turn you off from violence, help you to overcome prejudices, change your attitude towards your own life, make you appreciate your loved ones in new ways… Battle Athletes victory is a series that literally, tangibly changed my life, and I’m pretty sure I’d have lost my job and a significant portion of my livelihood without it. I won’t BS you by calling it a masterpiece, that’s not true… The visual quality is inconsistent, the logic isn’t always sound, it’s only black character is too much like Rob Schneider from The Animal, but if you’re able to get past all of that, this series is beautiful. It’s full of heart, has an undeniable passion for athletics and competition, and it’s always finding new ways to make you cry, without having to rely on any cliché modern day tragedy porn. There’s nothing manipulative about it, just genuine emotion and sincere sportsmanship. The sci-fi elements are also a blast, and while the final stretch may have jumped the shark a little too far… Even I’ll admit that… It’s very rarely unenjoyable, even then. It’s an obscure title, but it’s well worth the effort it’ll take to find it. I give Battle Athletes Victory an 8/10.  

It seems that love can come from the strangest places. Even on a version of Earth where technology has advanced to the point where alien integration has become commonplace, the phrase “Strange places” should still not be taken lightly. This is how it was for Kazuto, the owner of his family’s struggling bathhouse, who was minding his own business one day, both literally and figuratively, when calamity struck. A spaceship, driven by a runaway bride from another planet, crash-landed through his roof, killing him. The pilot, Princess Valkyrie of the Valhalla royal family, was stricken with grief by what she’d done, so she offered half of her soul to bring him back to life. This simple act of kindness brought new life to the young man’s heart, in more ways than one. The loss of half of her soul may have turned Valkyrie into a child, but the bond between them still continued to grow, to the point where the two of them became very much in love… And it was a love strong enough to overcome every obstacle the scorned Royal Family could throw at them.

Having put what they thought was the worst of it behind them, Kazuto and Valkyrie have settled back down into their relatively normal everyday lives, running the bathhouse, dealing with all sorts of alien nonsense, and generally stagnating in a passionless, vaguely defined relationship. Whatever floats their boat, I guess. But strange things have been happening around them, beginning with the appearance of The Key of time, a weapon tied directly to the dark history of Valhalla, followed up by the appearance of Chorus, the weirdest member of the Royal family, and most importantly by the appearance of Valkyrie Ghost, a mysterious black-clad woman who bears a striking resemblance to Kazuto’s child bride. Calling him her “Phantom Lover,” Valkyrie Ghost seemingly intends to separate Valkyrie and Kazuto from the life they’ve settled into, but for what purpose? What does she want with the Key of Time? How much does Chorus know about her? As it turns out, these elements and more share a surprising connection in the continued adventures of Valkyrie and friends!

Yes, we’re revisiting UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie again, which of course means we’re revisiting it’s animation studio, Media Factory Inc, who shared it’s duties with a smaller studio, TNK, who also collaborated with them on High School DXD, but managed such lovely projects as School Days by themselves. The animation was abysmal in the first season, and while I can’t say the budget has improved since then, the direction definitely has. The first season was directed by Shigeru Ueda, who’s had a ton of backstage experience, but has only acted as the main director on a handful of titles, including Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne, the swimsuit OVA from Senran Kagura, and the final two episodes of Key the Metal Idol, one of which you’ll remember I called virtually unwatchable. Ironically, I can’t find any information on second season director Nobuhiro Takagi outside of a handful of single to dual episode storyboard jobs, and yet he was handed the director’s job in Valkyrie 2, and he did a much better job with it than Ueda did.

Keep in mind, I’m not saying the series looks good. That’s probably a bridge too far. It does show vast improvement compared to it’s predecessor, but that doesn’t really feel like a hard thing to accomplish. Takagi employed a lot of money saving techniques, the majority of which are immediately apparent to even the greenest of anime viewers. He limits unnecessary movements through clever framing, he spent nearly an entire episode on characters standing on stage and singing while the camera panned up a still shot of them while only their mouths move, and while there may have been one magical girl transformation scene per episode in season 1, they can happen multiple times an episode in season 2… Especially because there are at least four different transformation sequences, and I kid you not, one of them… Introduced in episode 9… Is used almost half a dozen times in that one episode. It’s annoying to see these sequences over and over again, and it’s transparent as all hell, but it does a great job at saving money, so the rest of the series doesn’t have to look like ass.

Animation is still stilted, there are of course a lot of lengthy key frames, and I’ll even admit that there are several uses of one of my least favorite budget saving tactics, bouncing the top half of a character’s body up and down to convey that they’re walking, but it does save enough money for the series to feature movement whenever it needs to, especially during the action scenes. Remember, there’s a villain this season, and while the fight scenes she gets involved in are passable at best, that’s still far better than anyone could have expected material from this franchise to look. More impressive still is the art direction, which, unlike the animation, is more than just relatively good, it’s actually, genuinely good. No more inconsistent anatomies, no more faces going off model, everyone looks fine, the lighting is well thought out, and the backgrounds… Particularly when they leave the normal world to travel to alternate dimensions and eventually outer space… Are gorgeous, and often capture the exact moods they feel like they’re supposed to.

What helps the mood of the series even more is the music, which is another noteworthy improvement over season 1. While that season was mostly silly, weird and melodramatic, Season 2 dives into a much deeper well of emotions, including fear, sadness, loneliness and actual romance, among others. In order to convey this, the orchestration takes a much more epic tone, although you wouldn’t know it from the opening. I wasn’t a fan of the first season opening, but the new one is just generic and boring. The song is okay, Meguriai by Melocure, but the video just feels like a dull slog trying to get itself over with. There’s about eleven seconds of it panning sideways on a still image of a bathhouse changing room, and of course, every relevant character gets their profile shot. These problems are thankfully made up for by the show’s insert song, Princess of December, a beautifully written song that’s performed just as well by Megumi Ogata, and it does more than just stop hearts… It’s one of the many elements of the series that foreshadows the larger plot that culminates in the later episodes.

The English dub has also stepped up, but if I’m being honest, the biggest influence on this change isn’t a change in voice direction or acting, it’s in the quality of the characters, and the way this specific move has changed what was expected of the actors. The exception to this is sadly Greg Ayres, who still feels wasted in the boring, milquetoast role of Kazuto, perhaps the least interesting main character in anime history, but the change in writing has been a godsend for Kira Vincent Davis, who plays three different versions of the female lead, Valkyrie. She plays the child version of Valkyrie with the same voice as before, but the character herself is way less annoying, and almost never makes any creepy pedophilic innuendoes, a welcome change. Valkyrie herself shows up a little more often, and is given a better array of situations to act on, rather than just being a love-struck Captain Planet like before. The addition of Valkyrie Ghost, however, is what truly allows her undeniable talent to shine, as the dynamic between Valkyrie and her sinister doppleganger adds layers of complexity to both performances.

The list of characters who’ve improved for the benefit of their actors is expansive. Miss Sanada is still obsessed with Valkyrie, but to nowhere as creepy or cruel a degree, giving Christine Auten reason to play her more likably, with a bit more care and purpose in her voice. Akina spends the majority of her dialogue in ways that are related to the plot and her relationship with Hydra, so she no longer has to play the thirsty forlorn bitch, which was clearly refreshing for her. Rika’s not as uptight or miserly as she used to be, making even Monica Rial’s weird choice of delivery a lot easier to listen to. Nancy Novotny is still the perfect actor for Hydra, writing changes be damned, and thankfully for Hillary Haag, the character of Laine gets a lot more depth this season, especially with the addition of Kimberly Prause, who plays her estranged high school chum Chorus as weird and dorky, yet oddly serious, even when dropping ridiculous anime references. It’s also worth mentioning that the adaptive writer Kyle Jones took a loose approach to the dialogue, but unlike certain other ADV names, his changes were mostly for the better, and they only really stuck out a few times, like a strange Tyra Banks reference that’s more dated than anything. Over-all, it’s a pretty solid dub.

If you remember my review of the first season of this series, you may remember me having a less than favorable opinion of it. In no unclear terms, I called it the pedophilic rip-off of Ah! My Goddess, an assertion that I still stand by. Well, okay, it wasn’t JUST that… It was, at the most basic level, a fanservice show that failed miserably at both having fans and providing them service. To put it bluntly, people who watch anime for fanservice don’t have the highest of standards. Give them boobs and sexual situations, and they’ll put up with lazy art, terrible animation, horrible implications and God knows what else just to have another anime in their spank bank. UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie, despite taking place at a bathhouse and thus having what should have been unlimited access to exposed skin, was a complete flop. That’s how bad this series was at fanservice, whatever their problem with it was. There are good ways and bad ways to deliver fanservice, and while it’s surprisingly complicated, Valkyrie was distinctly part of the latter.

In order to fix this problem, director Nobuhiro Takagi apparently made the unorthodox decision to scale back the fanservice, a decision that’s not always the best idea. There are many anime that needed that kind of content as a crutch, and wound up suffering without it… Love Hina and Negima! come to mind… But there are also some that would be better off with less skin and panties, like Valkyrie Drive Mermaid and Strike Witches. The second season of Valkyrie, subtitled December Nocturne, falls right into the latter category. Aside from a handful of recycled and weirdly framed bathhouse scenes in the first two episodes, there’s almost no fanservice throughout the rest of the series. There’s no panty shots to speak of outside of one of the new transformation sequences(which is otherwise entirely clothed), the pedophilia has been wittled down to one admittedly painful child abduction gag, and while there are scenes taking place in the bathhouse, they rarely feel exploitative beyond their involvement in the plot.

Unfortunately, the premise of the series hasn’t changed. Everything still revolves around Kazuto and Valkyrie, and when you get right down to it, they barely have the basic qualifications to be considered characters. Every character around them is more interesting than they are. The relationship they have is still completely uneventful, boring and passionless, and yet we’re supposed to be afraid that they might get broken up. They never express their feelings for each other through actions or gestures, and while I get that you can partially blame that on one of them spending most of her time as a child, the farthest they go when she’s an adult is looking longingly into each other’s eyes, and that happens like twice this season. Even if their situation never changes, and Valkyrie never goes back to being an adult full time, they’re supposed to want it to happen, so that *I* have a reason to want it to happen. It’s been two seasons, and they both seem content with having a love they can never physically express, and while I guess there’s some chaste virtue to that, they don’t even struggle with it. It’s a non-issue. It’s a huge problem, and it makes up the core of the series.

Having said that, December Nocturne has two huge advantages over the first season. The first is the character of Chorus, who is introduced in episode 2 and adds a brand new dimension of comedy to the franchise. Her introductory episode tells you everything you need to know about her, as she pretends to be a dying robot, and damn does she commit to this act, driving the main cast to desperate action only to casually move onto her next act after supposedly dying in front of them. She’s a unique character who lives in her own world and follows her own logic, with little regard for anyone else, appealing to both otakus and people on the autism spectrum(I can attest to both) in genuine ways that I rarely ever see. One of boring old Valkyrie’s best moments is when she’s trying in vain to save Chorus, and if that’s not amazing enough, she actually winds up making the previously annoying Laine likeable, too. They even get their own backstory episode taking place in school, although that episode DOES feature homophobic overtones that don’t show up anywhere else. Seriously, explain to me how Laine used to have a massive crush on Valkyrie, but now only has eyes for Kazuto.

The other advantage is the plot. And I’m not just saying “It’s good because it has a plot,” I mean it has a GOOD plot, and one that it actually takes seriously. To be clear, this is not a deep series, nor is it original or smart. Where it shines is in it’s sincerity and execution. There is no ulterior motive to the writing. It isn’t trying to arouse the viewer, or waste as much time as possible on filler, or pretending to be more mature than it is. Good writing and execution can make even the shallowest of material engaging, and that’s exactly what December Nocturne does. Every single episode, regardless of how stupid or cliched it may look at the start, winds up doing something relevant to the plot, and even aside from that, each episode winds up doing something engaging and thoughtful. The budget saving episode where everyone enters a karaoke contest, for example, seems at the beginning like it’s going to be simple and straightforward. You see most of the cast sing, there are sub-plots floating around about the prizes, there are good laughs to be had, and it’s an okay episode by harem standards.

But then, in one of the best and most emotionally provocative moments in the series, Valkyrie ghost shows up at the end, not only making you feel genuinely sorry for Val, but establishing an important detail about the relationship between the two of them and the Phantom Lover. There’s a hot springs episode, which is common in most anime and absurdly common in this particular genre, and while it’s pretty sterile in terms of nudity, you spend most of the episode with the cast lost on a snowy mountain, with the music and art direction establishing a tone that tricks you into thinking any one of them could die at any moment… Especially when, once again, Valkyrie ghost enters the equation. There’s an episode where the main cast gets turned into children, which is normally the worst idea any harem anime can pursue, but aside from the aforementioned child abduction scene(which was legitimately despicable), but we also get a beautiful story of one of the less-represented princesses getting to explore a romance and rediscover her youth. Akina’s love for Kazuto got down-played this season, but when we learn about a special power she and Hydra have, we’re given a somber look into the feelings she still has for him.

And then we have the ultimate plot, which is revealed towards the end of the series. It’s a great idea, and it gets pulled off with a lot of heart and emotion, falling back on set-ups and call-backs that you probably never thought would again be relevant, but… How can I say this… It uses the wrong kind of foreshadowing. It does an okay job as is, and you can tell that they had everything planned from the start, and it all builds up to a satisfying pay-off, but if there are huge secrets underneath the surface of Valhalla’s history, then THAT is the material that needs to be established. They needed to drop hints about the Royal Family not being what they seem, and even if they did turn out to be completely innocent, the characters need to have some form of doubt so that we, as the audience, can feel it just the same. I love Valkyrie ghost, she’s one of my favorite anime villains, but I needed more than her to keep me guessing. Things should have been happening from multiple angles to keep the characters guessing, and I really feel that a tighter focus on the mystery from these angles could have helped the series to reach the level of sophistication that they skirted so close to. It might be one of the biggest seasonal improvements I’ve seen, but it could have been so much more.

UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie 2: A December nocturne was originally available from ADV Films, before being rescued and redistributed by Section23. Like the first season, it was initially released stateside in 30 dollar 4-episode DVDs, but have become much more affordable overtime. The ADV Thinpack release, for example, can be found for as little as four dollars, depending on your timing. A two-pack featuring both seasons 1 and 2 can be found relatively cheap online, but it unfortunately wasn’t picked up by Funimation like seasons 3 and 4 were, so your success level may vary. You can, however, watch the entire series on Amazon video. The original manga by Kaishaku has not been released stateside.

I haven’t seen a sequel put this much effort into fixing the problems of it’s predecessor since Cinderella 3. does it have problems? Of course it does, look at the franchise it’s in. It was meant to have problems. That’s why the quality of the series tanked right back down to insufferable levels in season 3. But this season was different, as it had a director that tried, and put extra effort into making something awful into something watchable. I’m not saying it was great, nor do I think it would have been fair to expect greatness from it, but I was honestly surprised at just how good it managed to be. It was bogged down by a few unavoidable details, such as the idiotic premise and the bare bones budget, and it still wound up being really stupid on the whole, but by adding a well-thought-out comedic character and an awesome villain that presented a legitimate threat and a sympathetic backstory that didn’t take anything away from said threat, and by committing to writing even the most hare-brained situations with heart and substance, December nocturne was a lot of fun, and it’s a series that I’d recommend even to people who haven’t seen the first season. I give UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie 2: A December Nocturne a 5/10.  

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