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.  

There are a lot of die-hard Adult Swim fans out there, and I am actually ashamed to say that I’m not one of them. This is partially because I’ve never really watched it all that much. Sad, I know. From it’s inception to 2004, I was in high school, and I really didn’t get a chance to watch late night TV. Even when I did, and what a rare occasion that was, I didn’t really care for Adult Swim. I checked it out a few times, but even back then, the programming I was able to glimpse didn’t interest me. I seem to recall one of my major criticisms of the block being “Why is it called ADULT Swim when all of it’s content is rated TV14? nothing especially adult about that, is there? Venture bros looked stupid. Aqua Teen Hunger force looked boring. Space Ghost and Harvey Birdman were okay, but wore out their welcome really fast.

Then, starting in 2004, I got a job. I was working the night shift, from 10 PM to 7 AM, and that left very little time to get back into the programming block. I had an hour or two to kill before my shift, and I had two nights off a week, so I wound up having a lot of time on my hands to surf the internet and watch late night TV, right up until I got rid of my TV service in 2012. So from 2005 to 2012, I did have some limited access to Adult Swim, and there were a few shows I kinda liked. I found moderate amusement in Moral Orel, I loved Boondocks, and while it wasn’t really my thing, I had a huge amount of respect for Metalocalypse. I also enjoyed the occasional anime, but for the most part, the original programming on that block never stopped feeling like immature schlock meant to appeal to teenagers who thought they were breaking some imaginary law by watching something with the Adult label on it.

And before I get into the main topic for this post, I feel I should make my opinion on Robot Chicken was on, but I’d just get bored inbetween the few good jokes. I tried watching it on DVD, but I wound up turning it off and leaving the disk by the wayside after life five episode known. I tried to like it. I really did. It took the AMV Hell structure and retooled it to involve more accessible jokes based around stop-motion characters. I tried watching it when it s. It’s a great show in small doses, like when you’re just trying to watch some funny clips on youtube… Come to think of it, that’s probably the best way to watch it… And by doing this, I’ve come across a bunch of clips I still enjoy to this day, even though I’d rather not sit down and watch a full episode.

But that’s Robot Chicken. We’re here today to talk about what is by far my favorite non-anime show from the history of the Adult Swim programming block, and that show is Gary the Rat.

Oh wait, that was a Spike TV show? Okay, then my favorite is Titan Maximum!

Titan Maximum was a 2009 cartoon created to be the spiritual sequel to Robot Chicken, which felt about 70 years old at the time. Titan, on the other hand,. was something fresh and new… An american take on giant robot anime, and while it was very much written for an american audience, that’s not the only thing that set it apart from the anime it was inspired by. We’ll get to that later, but for starters, I don’t remember how I watched it. I definitely remember the advertisements on Cartoon Network, and how it looked pretty cool, but I can’t remember if I made the effort to see each episode when it aired, or if I caught what I could and watched the rest on Youtube. Either way, I did keep up with it, and I was fairly hooked on it.

Out of the things about titan Maximum that separate it from other giant robot shows, the first one you may notice is it’s not an origin story. This isn’t about the formation of the team, the rising of a group of heroes, the coming together of the group… It takes place after the story of Titan Maximum is already finished, and we’re essentially watching the part 2 of a part 1 that never happened. Much like Watchmen, and there may have been a little inspiration in that regard, Titan Maximum takes place after the dissolution and retirement of the team, and they’re brought together to fight off an old member of the team who feels he has more to offer the human race as a villain than as a hero. Yeah, I’ll be honest, I’m just now… When writing this… realizing how much like Watchmen this is. Thankfully the similarities stop there, because the show wouldn’t be nearly as funny otherwise.

Anyway, the group’s been disbanded, one member died in a tragic accident(a possible reference to Sven from Voltron), and the team went into retirement and on their merry way. Palmer, the leader of the team and overtly cocky asshole, has been living off of his celebrity status and enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle. Sasha, the sexy socialite of the group, has attempted to find a new direction in life, making a name for herself as a musical artist. Jodi, the sweetheart girl next door, is working as a martial arts instructor. Gibbs, the overlooked and underappreciated second in command, has made plans to conquer and rule the solar system, and the first part of that plan is to unleash a giant monster on Titan, the home satellite of the team. In order to save as many people as they can, Palmer, Sasha and Jodi have come out of retirement, and with the help of Palmer’s hero-worshipping little brother willy and a stone-faced fucking monkey, they manage to save the day, setting off a chain of events that will bring the world a brand new Titan Force 5!

And if my character descriptions didn’t tip you off, that’s the second thing you might notice about this show… The cast is not even close to what you’d expect for this sort of story. The most obvious of all is Palmer, who should be the most boring character of the group… The virtuous and good-hearted boyscout leader. TM kicks this trope to the curb with a leader who earned his position purely through skill, and not through force of personality. He’s kind of like a prototypical Sterling Archer, and had the show survived past season 1, we may have seen more development in that direction. His little brother is also a big departure from the norm, as the little kid of the group is normally the heart and soul of the group, but while he may be idealistic and courageous, Willie is also green as hell and constantly getting shit on by the rest of the team. Again, who knows where more development could have taken him?

It’s difficult to talk about Sasha without launching into a debate that’s far more weighted and socially relevant than this show justifiably deserves   I wanna try to avoid calling her a slut, because I don’t think that’s fair… She’s an adult, adults can have as much sex as they want, get over it… But that is clearly the direction they wanted to take the character, especially with the way she’s portrayed as the yang to the yin of Jodi’s archetypal ‘good girl’ role. This dichotomy is played out really hard between the two characters, even though a lot of the jokes between them feel forced. They do have a few brief moments of bonding when they happen to be on the same page, and Sasha actually winds up defending Jodi after a wayward sexual misadventure leads to disastrous results… Although it’s clear she was defending the act itself, and not Jodi as a person, or even less her feelings.

There is more depth to these characters than meets the eye, but aside from a few glimpses at it through Sasha’s interactions with her father and Jodi’s interactions with Gibbs, most of it can only really be gleamed from their character bios on the Titan Maximum wiki. I have no idea where this site got it’s information, or even whether or not any of it’s real, but it does offer a better understanding of who the characters are and why they do the things they do, information we probably would have caught onto naturally if the powers that be had allowed it. Strangely, that also includes the monkey. The villain, Gibbs, is probably the most interesting character in the bunch, as he’s a sort of Dr. Doom type villain… someone who thinks that his iron-clad rule is not only justified, but in the best interest of the human race, and he’s no slouch, either. His plans get a bit convoluted, and as the ending of season 1 would suggest, he’s not fucking around at all. He is dead serious in both his methods and his cause, and he pursues both with nothing but pure, delicious evil.

I don’t recall where I heard this, but there was apparently an interesting story regarding the voice acting, which was originally going to see the three main male characters being cast to type. Breckin Meyer was supposed to play Gibbs, Dan Milano to play Palmer, and Seth Green to play yet another child role, Willie. They changed things up at the last minute, and the result was spectacular… Dan Milano wound up playing Willie, and putting forth a very enthusiastic and earnest Willie, Seth Green laying a Gibbs that is absolutely dripping with venom, and Breckin Meyer playing up the jock confidence of Palmer, and it couldn’t have turned out better that way. As much as I loved Rachel Leigh Cook when she was still focused on live action projects, she has proven herself to be a great voice actor, and Eden Espinosa, a stage/voice actress who also did a lot fo work on robot Chicken, is hilarious as Sasha. Some of her rants leave me laughing so hard I can’t breathe.

What you might have noticed from that list of names is that all five of them have a history of appearing in the cast of Robot chicken, and for the most part, that trend also extends to the supporting cast. Billy Dee Williams, of Empire Strikes Back fame, who often reprised that character in Robot Chicken, plays Admiral bitchface, which is the characters actual christian name, and from what I hear, some of his deliveries needed multiple takes because they were too loud and over-charged for the recording equipment. Kurtwood Smith plays a General on the Elderly community of Mercury, and Adrienne Palicki, an actual relevant TV actress, plays Clare, Gibbs’s little girl sidekick, a cute pink Assassin with a giant diamond sword-sword. Clare happens to feature in one of the more beautifully shot scenes, a moment when a team of soldiers are infiltrating Biggs’s latest hideout, and she cheerfully kills them all.

Actually, when I try to tell people how awesome this series is, that’s usually the first scene I show them. Being related to robot chicken, Titan Maximum was an extremely low budget stop motion animation, and what they were able to accomplish is pretty impressive. There are stories about the set designers using potted plants and googly eyes to create futuristic architecture… Which sounds a lot more interesting than the bland white everything-rounded architecture that exists in most futuristic media these days… And they even managed to win an Emmy for costume design. Somehow. The action is well choreographed, full of both intense and comedic fight scenes… Need I remind you this is stop-motion… And for the most part, characters move and interact like real people. I wouldn’t put it up against higher budget projects like Coraline or Kubo and the Two Strings, because I don’t think the comparison would wind up being a favorable one, but it’s still really good looking for what it is and who created it. There are times I honestly forget I’m watching puppets.

Honestly, the worst thing about it is probably the comedy. That’s not to say it’s not funny… There are moments in it that still crack me the hell up eight years later… But it’s not what I’d call a good ratio. There are a ton of awful jokes in the first episode alone, and they’re the kind that makes it hard to decide whether the writers were trying too hard or not enough at all. A lot of Sasha’s jokes about Jodi feel forced and awkward, and several jokes feel like they were better on paper than in practice, like the Jester Corps. Here’s the thing, though… Bad jokes that are short are one thing, as you can just move on to another joke before the pain can really set in, but things get even worse when a bad joke goes on for too long, and this happens a lot, even with out of place character backstories that provide no laughs, information, development or purpose. The good jokes do make up for these, but yeah, only about a third of them are even good.

The series had great ratings, it was outperforming several other shows that the Adult Swim block was airing at the time, and for the first year, DVD sales were also doing really well. It wasn’t a smash hit, it wasn’t breaking any surprising ground or converting entire demographics towards it, but for a first season, it was doing fine, and it was creating some decent buzz around where it could go in the future, so you can imagine how fans of the show felt as the season ended, and then the months just crept on and on without any notice of a second season being greenlit. Considering the final episode leaving off on a massive cliffhanger, it had to get picked up, but years later, the only real news we had was a Cartoon Network blurb saying “We’ll let you know.” There’s really no solid information about why the series never continued, but I was able to find a few people saying that Seth Green pulled the plug on it himself so he could focus on the bigger money-maker, Robot Chicken, which has unsurprisingly gone the same path as Family Guy.

I know I’m not the only person who wants Titan Maximum to continue, and according to the DVD features, there’s at least six or seven seasons worth of material that never got explored. Will Willie ever come of age as a hero? Hey, maybe it was going to go the Gurren Lagann route, with Palmer dying, and Willie taking his place after a time skip. Maybe we’d find out what was in Sasha’s glove compartment. Maybe they’ll find a way to bring back spud, like Rick and Morty did with Phoenix Person. Maybe we could learn more about Gibbs’s mysterious connections with non-human aliens. All I know is, I really want to see where these characters go on their journeys, and what the full extent of Gibbs’s plan is. Sadly, the only thing we’re ever going to get out of it is the first season DVD, a whole bunch of empty promises, and a forgotten show that could have flourished if the right people both within and without had believed in it. There probably won’t ever be a proper continuation, but you can bet that I’ll watch it if there is.  

Well, the time has come, it’s time to talk about RWBY volume 4. I’ve promised to do it, you’ve asked me to do it, and I’ve built a tradition around reviewing these seasons, so now I have to do it. So let’s do it.

Or, you know, we could do something else. We don’t need to do anything proactive or creative. We don’t need to do anything constructive. We don’t need to talk about our feelings for something, be they positive or negative, because really, we don’t need to do anything. Let’s Just Live.

Yeah, isn’t that a great song to describe a show about heroes? Let’s just live. That’s all we need to do. Look, I know that’s not what the song’s technically about… It’s not about falling into a stasis and just staying there… But it’s the chorus of the opening theme, so those words immediately feel attached to the show, and I don’t feel they worded it very well compared to what they probably intended. They meant to convey a message of “Don’t give up, take each day as it comes, and leave our regrets behind us,” which sounds like the message of the rest of the song, but “Let’s just live” is a terrible way to summarize that. honestly, this is probably the one thing in the series that needed the show’s catchphrase “Don’t stop moving forward” more than anything else. And honestly, the song doesn’t get off to a great start either.

Most songs in the RWBY catalogue make no attempt at symbolism, with lyrics that are on-the-nose and always say exactly what they mean, making them sound lazy moreso than direct or honest, and while Let’s Just Live isn’t the worst offender this season… We’ll get to that… It gets under my skin pretty fast. The lead-up to the first chorus feels like it’s just one step above “Hey, remember last season? It was tragic, the good guys lost, now we’re all broken up!” And there are so many wonderful ways you could deliver this sentiment in metaphor. I’m no fan of purple prose, but it’s better than no prose at all. Don’t just explain shit, put some magic into it. The theme to volume 3 was able to pull this off with it’s foreshadowing. But then again, that’s probably the problem… There was nothing to foreshadow this season. Because nothing fucking happened.

Yeah, remember that scene from Clerks(Or Clerks 2, not sure), where someone described the three Lord of the Rings movies by just walking? That’s kinda how I feel about this season. Everything that happened was just another random event in a series of random events meant to draw out the transition from point A to point B. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing… this season was used more for character and story development than anything else… But the only significant thing that happens is Yang getting her new arm. Oh, by the way, spoiler alert for that sentence. Honestly, Yang’s whole arc was about overcoming the sentiment of “Let’s Just Live.” That’s exactly what she was trying to do. She just wanted to be one-armed, stay home, do chores… And just live. Volume 4 isn’t the worst of the bunch by far, it’s probably second best after volume 3, but it definitely has the worst theme song.

It’s also probably the worst in terms of story structure, if you’re watching it in film form. Rather than telling a fluid story like volume 3, or a series of arcs like volumes 1 and 2, volume 4 takes the Game of Thrones approach, doling out it’s stories in bits and pieces that deal with different characters in different places, different situations, and according to one fan theory, at different times entirely. To be fair, if you’re watching it episode-by-episode, this isn’t too bad. It works on some level. If you’re watching it on DVD or Blu-Ray, however, you’re watching a three hour movie that tells itself through constant peaks and valleys rather than three distinct acts. Hell, volume 1’s three arcs don’t work as acts either, but I’d still take what that volume did rather than a bunch of different climaxes that seem to have to struggle to outdo each other.

Yeah, remember that one powerful moment in Mulan, where the innocent joy of the team is shattered when they come upon a ruined village and the cold reality of war comes crashing down upon them? That happens three fucking times in this volume. Literally, THAT happens, minus the doll. I mean sure they had different contextual intentions, but the effect kind of wears off a little each time. It’s also hard to keep up the tension of a long, intense battle when you keep cutting away to family squabbles and fight training. Once again, it works fine if you’re just watching it episode by episode, but the movie itself is a terribly paced, exhausting experience. Volume 3 kind of had this issue, but nowhere near as bad. It really only needed to cut a couple of scenes to tidy it’s pace up, and it would have been fine. This volume, however… I’m sorry, but I honestly can’t recommend buying the physical copies. Watch it on their website, the way it was originally released, and skip the opening song each time.

Anyway, the fellowship is disbanded, and out of the six stories being told, four of them are about the main cast embarking on their own individual arcs. Yang must overcome her PTSD and accept her new arm, Blake must stop running and turn to face her problems, Weiss must deal with and forsake her family, and Ruby… Well, she does a lot of walking and fighting. I didn’t say they were all gems. But that actually provides the perfect segway into what feels most predominately like the main story… The quest of RNJR and Uncle Qrow that began at the end of volume 3. And it is certainly a quest. They travel on foot, battle enemies, move through three destroyed villages, two of which are awkwardly named Demon Lesbian and Black Lesbian… No, wait, the literal translation of yuri is lily, isn’t it? My bad. Anyway, Ruby and Jaune get a little bit of development each… We find out what’s on Jaune’s shirt, and Ruby’s resolve to never again watch someone get hurt gets brought up… But nothing really interesting happens until Ren and Nora’s backstory comes up.

Oh, and Qrow’s fairy tail about humanity, but let’s just gloss over that by saying it’s either heavily metaphorical, or complete horseshit. I did notice it’s similarities to the origin of Nightmare Moon, though, so I guess it’s more like ponyshit.

And honestly, their backstory is probably the highlight of the entire season. It contains shades of Attack on titan, but as I said before, rip-offs aren’t necessarily a bad thing, and Rooster Teeth has a strong history of using them well. We meet them as kids, Ren with loving parents and Nora as a street rat, and they wind up as the only survivors of a Grimm attack on their home. Ren’s power is also revealed, although not adequately explained, and they form a bond that will last a lifetime, which feeds into the final villain of the volume perfectly. Having said that, they’re ship isn’t ever directly confirmed, so my theory about Ren being gay has not been disproven yet. But like I said before, nothing big happens in this volume. I mean, at least nothing important or meaningful. The fight against the Knuckleavy Grimm is cool, and the fight earlier against Scorpion Lanister is also cool, but after all the fantastic action at the end of volume 3, it all just feels so small. The fight against Scorpion Lannister does nothing for the story but force Qrow out of hiding and turn him into a plot point, and the fight later does nothing but… well, nothing. Yeah, it feels right after Ren’s backstory, and they needed a big fight to end the volume on, but he and Nora already felt like they’d overcome the tragedy. There weren’t any lingering flaws in them that needed to be resolved by that fight.

And if I’m being perfectly honest, the way they killed that Grimm kinda made me uncomfortable. It got pinned down and slowly chopped to pieces while screaming in pain and horror. Jesus Christ, heroes! When a wild animal kills someone, you don’t torture it, you put it down humanely! And as far as I can tell, that’s exactly what the Grimm are… Wild animals, fighting us for food and the territory that we keep taking from them. I know what the Grimm did, but where’s the evidence that it… Or any of the Grimm… Are truly evil? There are those scenes in fiction where a character like Ren has the opportunity and the justification to fuck up the shit of a disgraced villain, and it is not just cliched, but damned important, that they take the high road and refuse, rather than lowering themselves to such savage cruelty. I’m honestly not sure what this says about the writers and their attitude towards good and evil, but I’ve honestly considered it a sham this entire time that we’re supposed to believe the Grimm just blindly want to kill us for no reason.

Anyway, the fights are nice, and this season needed to keep up it’s action tally, so whatever. Moving on, let’s go to Blake next. She’s running home so her friends don’t have to gewt dragged into her shit and hurt over her anymore, and the writers decided to pair her with Sun because I have no fucking clue. Did they do it so she’d have someone to interact with, and so she could explain things to him for the sake of the audience? Did they do it to tease the black sun pairing that won’t happen if the writers know what’s good for them? Did they do it to have Sun secretly hook up with Blake’s Mom off camera? Because that’s totally what’s happening in this story arc. Blake’s half cat, and her mom’s half cougar. We learn more about the White Fang through this arc, Blake develops to become a bit stronger emotionally, and her role in volume 5 looks to be something war-related. On a more confusing note, is it just me, or does Menagerie look like it was ripped right out of Final Fantasy X? I don’t know why Blake’s Dad thinks her outfit doesn’t cover up much… She’s the most conservatively dressed person on that entire damn island.

Weiss has gone home to her family, they’re assholes, wealthy society sucks, and people expressing ignorance and/or downright apathy to wars the tragedy at Beacon pisses her off. She gets grounded, disinherited, and escapes the estate with the help of her butler, who’s purpose in the story is to show off how fucking amazing J Michael Tatum is as an actor. Yes that is him. What can I say about this arc? Well, aside from Weiss growing a bit, I’m honestly worried that this whole story thread will amount to nothing. It explored the Schnee family, particularly the political leanings of the family, that both male members are complete assholes. Unless they become villains, however, the entire story will basically be pointless. Honestly, the Schnee family storyline felt so disconnected from everything that not only was I expecting Whitley to kill Weiss at the end, I was actually a little disappointed that he didn’t. I love Weiss to death, but that’s how little her arc felt like it mattered… The whole thing leading to a tragic twist at the last minute would have actually redeemed it. It would AT LEAST have given the volume an event that could match or even top the death of Pyrrha, though.

Hey, remember earlier, I said that the opening theme wasn’t the most on-the-nose song of the volume? I was referring to a song that Weiss sings, called This Life is Mine, and it’s a whole other barrel of awful. It’s a song about Weiss not wanting to be controlled by her father, which it makes painfully obvious, because of course it does. “You can’t control me… My life is mine… I’m not your pet…” Only it’s way worse than any other offender because it’s not just in the soundtrack, it’s a canon song in the story. Weiss sings it at a concert her Dad organizes. Try to wrap your head around that. Her father organizes a concert and forces her to perform for a crowd of nobles, so she sings a song about openly and explicitly defying his rules and being disobedient. Now, he seems to me like the kind of guy who takes careful control of everything. I refuse to believe he’d let her sing at the concert without at least reading her lyrics beforehand, or hell, writing her damn song for her, and there she is basically singing “Fuck you Dad” to the entire world, not hiding that message behind any subtlety, nuance or metaphor whatsoever, and he doesn’t even notice?

Yang’s story is okay. It was pretty much as predicted. Rooster Teeth knew we were all expecting her to get a robot limb, so they didn’t bother making a reveal out of it, which was smart. We see her out of bed, moping around the house and trying to do chores, and her development up until she puts on the arm is purely emotional, although I admit it goes by kind of fast. Personally, I was hoping this story arc would feature her having picked up a drinking problem, as she has a family history of alcoholism and emotional damage that she might need the bottle to numb. I feel like that would have made her story so much more interesting than it wound up being. What we got feels kind of cheap and empty, but once the arm is on, she actually gets some better development relating to her fighting style and her similarities to her mother. That’s really all I can say about her arc… I don’t think she got all that much screen time, did she? The other two arcs are ive at the evil lair, which served little purpose other than to introduce some new villains while keeping Cinder in the story and explaining what happened to Ozpin. And speaking of Ozpin, his consciousness floats to new bodies when he dies. He’s now taking over a little grouch named Oscar.

So to summarize… It doesn’t work as a film, because the structure and pacing are shit. Virtually nothing happens, and it basically amounts to a transitional volume, POSSIBLY setting up the upcoming fifth volume, assuming THAT volume isn’t a transitional volume meant to set up volume 6. It was awkward, it’s been heavily divisive, and I thought it was pretty damn good. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as great as volume 3 was, but at least it’s retained the character writing and smart dialogue that that volume introduced. Yeah, the structure’s terrible, but looking at it another way, it was also hugely experimental. The structure of volume 3 was a major departure from the structure of the previous seasons, and it wound up paying off immensely, so you can’t blame Rooster Teeth for looking at a volume where everyone’s been split up and taking it in a Game of Thrones style direction. It didn’t really pay off, but honestly, with what they were doing, I can’t think of a better way that they could have done it. I just think they could have done it exactly the way they did, only better.

And if there’s one thing that’s improved dramatically since volume 3, it’s the visual quality, which is saying a lot, because volume 3 ITSELF was a huge step up in visual quality. The animation in volume 4 is so amazing that there are some moments where if you’re not looking carefully, you’d swear it was stop-motion animated. This is partially due to just how intricate the lighting and shading is in comparison with the previous work, and just how much realism it adds to every texture, especially to people, and even more especially to their hair. That’s not to say there aren’t a few animation errors… An extra’s shadow walks out of sink with him at one point, and there’s a particularly embarrassing moment early on where Jaune attempts to sheath his sword, but it winds up attached like a magnet to the back of his wrist instead for one brief shot. It’s more errors than volume 3 had, but WAY less than volumes two and three had.

I feel like, if this volume were a movie, it would be Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1. There’s not a lot going on, and a good chunk of it wouldn’t have mattered if left on the cutting room floor, but there’s just so much character development and good writing in it that I can mostly forgive it’s rather lackluster execution. It’s biggest problem, I feel, is the lack of surprises, twists, or big moments. For the first three volumes, particularly at the end of volume 3, there were so many moments that I enjoyed watching peoples’ reactions to. I haven’t watched any reactions from volume 4, mainly because there just aren’t any moments that feel like they carry that special RWBY magic. Even at it’s worst, this series has always been known for it’s energy, and I don’t feel any of that here. No… I take that back. I do sort of feel that magic in Ren and Nora’s backstory. I guess I could watch some reactions of that. But you know, this review’s gone on a bit too long, so I’m just going to say that yeah, this volume was pretty good. It’s lacking in some areas, it’s awesome in some areas, it’s kind of a mixed bag, but as far as RWBY’s offerings go, it’s still on the better end of the scale. I give Volume 4 a 6/10.

Hey guys, I just wanted to take a second and explain what’s going on this week…  Normally, I like to have my work done way in advance, I’ve told you that before, but I do my editing the day off.  I get home Saturday morning, bring up whatever post I have planned for that weekend, and I give it a thorough once-over before publishing it.  Unfortunately, I’m very, very sick this week, so I don’t really have the stamina or focus to do an editing job on a long project.  Instead, I’m going to post a song parody that I wrote back in 2014, and I hope you can enjoy that while I work on getting better so I can provide you with a good review next week, which may or may not be RWBY volume 4.  It’s honestly still up in the air at this point.

In any case, if you enjoy today’s post, I’ve done two other song parodies, which I’ll link below.

Brotherhood
A Parody of Wreckingball by Miley Cyrus

I watched, I tried, to find out why
They said, that it was the best
The art was bland it’s pace was bad
I must get this off my chest

Don’t you ever say I’m set in my ways
No, I tried to be fair.
It will never be as good as ‘03
It can’t even compare

I’m not a fan of Brotherhood
I sat through every episode
But I guess I understand the hype
Cause the end was much more.. Happy
So what, it’s happy?

The writing sucked it was too blunt
There was, nothing underneath
It made me yell “Show and don’t tell”
I can’t take it seriously

Don’t you ever say I’m set in my ways
No, I tried to be fair.
It will never be as good as ‘03
It can’t even compare

I’m not a fan of Brotherhood
I sat through every episode
But I guess I understand the hype
Cause the end was much more.. Happy

I’m not saying that it was bad…
But they say it’s a masterpiece
I mean I guess it was pretty good
But it’s softer and it’s not very deep
No it’s not very deep

The sight gags were all poorly timed
They didn’t have the same effect
They used them on the heavy scenes
And all the drama thus was wrecked
The new cast mates were kind of cool
I just don’t believe in Ed and Win
Or how the plot just let him win

Don’t you ever say I’m set in my ways
No, I tried to be fair.

I’m not a fan of Brotherhood
I sat through every episode
But I guess I understand the hype
Cause the end was much more.. Happy

I’m not saying that it was bad…
But they say it’s a masterpiece
I mean I guess it was pretty good
But it’s immature and not very deep
No it’s not very deep

Now please… Please don’t hate me!

 

Let It Go: The Elfen Lied version
The God of Your World(Death Note)

Once upon a time, there were two young women who couldn’t be more different. Despite the fact that they were both teenagers going to the same high school in Saitama prefecture, Japan, almost nothing about them was similar. Konata Izumi, a petit bluenette with the attitude of a slacker, and Kagami Hiiragi, a responsible honor student with little tolerance for nonsense. One of them comes from a single parent home, the other from a large and closely knit family. One of them devotes her entire life to distractions with little time set aside for academics, the other devotes her entire life to academics with little time set aside for distractions. One of them is rooted in the present, the other one keeping a healthy eye on the future. Ordinarily, two people as drastically different as these two would go their whole lives without crossing paths, but against all odds, Konata became close friends with Kagami’s little sister, having daringly saved her life from a foreigner who was trying to ask her for directions to a thrashable car. And thus, these two individuals who should have never met, met.

Yeah, yeah, I know that’s a reference for a different show, but I’m never going to review that show, so I figured I’d use it here. Anyway, the fact that Tsukasa and Konata are in a different class than Kagami leads to the latter being drawn into the former’s world, avoiding what could have otherwise been a major power struggle. She already knew her younger sister Tsukasa, the soft spoken, clumsy and air-headed girl who often depends on her slightly older twin to get by, and while these three make up a troublesome trio all their own, a fourth girl joins their group… The smart, well-mannered and mature(in more ways than one) Miyuki Takara, who Konata and Tsukasa like to bring their cultural questions to. Together, these four unique high schoolers form a friendship that will last them a lifetime, as they share their joys, their frustrations, their lives and their dreams with one another… Or just constantly mess with each other and ask inane questions about candy. Honestly, it could go either way. But maybe, just maybe, they can band together to answer one important question; How DO you eat a chocolate coronet?

I’ve talked about Kyoto Animation quite a few times before, but if you’re worried about me saying the same things I said before, don’t be. I know they have a consistent style, and while it’s evolved over the years, most titles they release do look more or less like they could exist in the same universe. There are a few exceptions to this rule, and while one of them is the far more popular Nichijou, the first departure they made from featuring relatively normal human anatomy was Lucky Star, which is quite possibly one of the most extreme examples of anime where absurdly large “Moe blob” heads are stacked on top of smaller bodies. Well, you know, if you don’t count chibi shows. In any case, the fact that it’s so different from their usual output is probably due to the fact that they chose to produce it as a supplement to their previous smash hit, Haruhi Suzumiya. The two titles are mainly related through fanhood, as Haruhi Suzumiya is a popular series in the Lucky Star universe, and one of the main characters(Konata) is obsessed with it. Sgt. Frog is also big in it, but hey, they took what they could get.

In any case, when I talk about low budget anime using it’s money wisely to look just as good as a more expensive show, you’d have a hard time finding a better example than Lucky Star. It may be one of the black sheep of the Kyo-Ani family due to it’s somewhat cartoony style, but that translates incredibly well to budget-cutting techniques. Background characters are usually frozen and covered in blue paint-bucket filling as they loiter in the background, a move that would feel cheap and lame in any show with characters who are too weak to distract you from them, so it’s worth noting that for at least three-fourths of the time, you’ll barely notice them. The dialogue heavy nature of the series also gives the animators a perfect excuse to hold on a key frame while the characters talk to each other. There are a lot of high school anime that do this, and I can see where it might wear on the patience of most viewers, most examples of this are anime that are inconsistent, suffer from occasional quality drops, and feature movement scenes that look out of place among the rest of the material.

What separates Lucky Star from this lot? Well, the money that the animators saved with their budget saving techniques is put to exquisite use. Every single movement in this series, at least from featured characters, employs just enough movement to capture and portray the mood, intent and gravity of the shot that it’s in, no more, no less. Because of this, every single movement, from huge reaction shots to the smallest wave, features the exact same level of fluidity, unless of course the style has to change for the sake of a parody sequence, such as the “Legendary Girl A” material. Rather than waste their time and resources on weird angles and filters to keep you amused during long bouts of talking, Kyo-Ani decided to cut the bullshit and make the dialogue quirky and entertaining enough so that the slow, heavily conservative animation wouldn’t bother you… To mixed results, I’m afraid to say, but we’ll get to that later. I’d also like to say that whenever they do execute a parody from another series, the animation style they switch to is normally fairly accurate. The moefication of the characters may be a sticking point for some, but I think it was handled rather well.

As it happens, this is one of the rare anime that I’ve seen in their entirety in both languages, and for the most part, I can say that Bang Zoom managed to represent the original Japanese acting faithfully. Wendee Lee is a bit of a departure from Aya Hirano’s Konata, mainly because… As I mentioned in my Haruhi review… She doesn’t have quite the range of Aya-chan. Thankfully, she does much better with this character than she did with Haruhi, employing a sort of rolling rasp to imitate Konata’s gruff, good-humored delivery. This unfortunately doesn’t always work, such as when she sounds excited or needs to raise her voice, at which points she sounds so much like Haruhi that it’s honestly distracting. Still, the rasp is different from Aya’s performance, but it suits the character just as well. Karen Strassman, on the other hand, is spot on with her version of Aya Endo’s character, Miyuki Takara. It’s not identical, but it’s a very close ringer for the polite, aristocratic-sounding character.

Michelle Ruff is something of a chameleon(in a good way), and can play a wide roange of characters, so it might be a shock to your system if you hear her in bleach or Haruhi, and then see her listed in the credits under Tsukasa, the younger Hiiragi twin, a space cadet with an overly soft, shy sounding voice. She doesn’t sound as child-like as Kaori Fukuhara did, which is probably for the better, because her dialogue mainly alternates between innocent musings and woe-is-me whining, and it would have sounded annoying in English had Ruff not aged it up a bit. Out of all the main cast, however, Kari Wahlgren probably had the hardest job with Kagami, a tsundere-type of character whose vocal patterns and inflections don’t really exist stateside. Not only that, but Kagami is probably the most nuanced and complicated character in the cast, and while Emiri Kato was amazing in her native language, Kari knocks it out of the park by playing it down to earth, but with a more snarky, confident edge.

Rebecca Forstadt gets a heart-warming cameo that I won’t dare spoil, Bridget Hoffman is hilarious as Miyuki’s dependent mother, and Kate Higgins plays a quirky teacher that Luci Christian would be proud of. Hynden Walch is unrecognizeable as Konata’s cousin, and among her friends, Michelle ruff puts her talents to work playing double duty, the prolific Philese Sampler plays a small role, and Patericia Ja Lee… Well, she’s probably the only sour note in the group, keeping her performance as close to the Japanese as possible, when she really… Really… Shouldn’t have. But my favorite has to be Stephanie Sheh in the role of Akira Kogami, one of the two hosts of the episode ending segment Lucky Channel, and while I’ve preached the gospel about her character range before, she puts it on full display here, playing a character who’s sugar and spice personified. She flip-flops between a sweet, happy-go-lucky idol and a crude, bitter behind the scenes personality who, despite being 14, has seen it all and won’t take any shit from anybody. I personally recommend the dub, but you can’t go wrong with either choice.

There’s a certain brand of comedy anime… Which I believe was popularized by Azumanga Daioh… That takes the slice of life concept and moves it into the confines of a Japanese high school, so the viewer can observe the daily lives of a group of friends as they interact and develop both as individuals and as a group. Not only does this brand bank on the childhood nostalgia of older viewers, but it also leans heavily on the strong personalities of it’s characters to deliver jokes, humorous situations, and the occasional heartfelt moment. This brand gets criticized for being plotless, but is that really fair? Is a plot really necessary for a comedy, or can it stand on it’s own just by being funny? It’s true that most American TV, both animated and live action, is devoid of overarching plots, as they’re most often carried by strong writing and strong characters, but they still have individual episode plots. For more than a quarter of it’s run, Lucky Star doesn’t even have that. So, are the characters and comedy strong enough to overcome this disadvantage, like they were in Azumanga Daioh?

I’ll admit, the show doesn’t get off to a great start. It’s never been made clear why Yutaka Yamamoto was fired as series director after the first four episodes… Especially since he was the person who created the viral dance sequences that made the ending theme of Haruhi and the opening theme of Lucky Star so explosive… But rumors and speculation have been made that it was his approach to the series was far too close to the manga, adapting the small, four panel comics one after another, leaving little room for interesting stories and forward momentum. Personally, I didn’t entirely mind these episodes, as long as Kagami and/or Konata were on screen. The four main characters have a very strong dynamic made up of several smaller connections and interactions, such as Konata perving over Miyuki’s moe potential, Kagami and Tsukasa being polar opposites, Tsukasa and Miyuki… You know what? No. Those two alone just don’t amount to anything noteworthy. They need the other two characters to function.

Right in the early stages of the series, Lucky Star goes out of it’s way to show what happens when Tsukasa and Miyuki are left to their own devices, having a conversation so banal and fraught with unutilized set-ups that Kagami, sick in bed for a surprisingly unrelated reason, is begging one of them to just reach the punchline already. They need Konata to exploit their quirks, or Kagami to call them out, or it’s ultimately like leaving jokes on the table. That’s not to say Konata and Kagami don’t need the other two… They’re fairly versatile characters, and different interactions can bring that out in them… And Tsukasa can be fairly funny on her own, what with her constant airheaded mistakes… But the series is at it’s absolute best when Konata and Kagami are working off of each other. There’s a reason I based my plot synopsis off of their differences, and it’s not JUST the fact that I had to think of a gimmick just to give this show a plot synopsis in the first place. Out of the four supposed main characters, those two carry the series.

In most of their interactions, those two are the dominant forces… Konata making references and shocking people with her weird reactions, Kagami making sarcastic remarks and brutally biting observations… And it’s rare for anyone else to dominate them in an interaction, but they meet their matches in each other. The bickering that takes place between them is easily one of the highlights of the series, as you can’t always tell who’s going to come out on top of each encounter, most of which just end in stalemates. While Miyuki is probably the weakest of the four, they still come together to form the foundation of the series. Actually, they’re more of a trunk, as the comedic strength of Lucky Star feels like something of a tree. Together, they’re strong, sturdy, and have a great dynamic based on the chemistry that they have with one another. The reason I’m comparing them to a tree is that, when you talk about the rest of the cast, it does start to create a weakening effect, just like how a tree becomes more difficult to climb the higher up it spreads.

When the cast starts branching out, we get a group of supporting characters for the main cast to work off of outside of each other. Miyuki gets some support from her mother, an entitled slob who appears to take advantage of her brainy and responsible daughter in some cases, which is really when she’s at her best. Kagami and Tsukasa have their family for support, including their mother AND father(Both of whom are alive… weird, right?) as well as their four older sisters, their conflict with whom helps to develop their characters as well as highlight the special bond that they, the twins, have with one another. Konata, and I don’t think her bevy of fans realize this, has THREE characters supporting mainly her, including her pervy father to explain her upbringing, her cousin in law enforcement to highlight the illegal sorts of activities that her upbringing has led her to, and the homeroom teacher, who attempts to drag her kicking and screaming back to reality when she tries to escape to a game. She gets her shots in on all three of them, but it still goes to show just how dependent she is on the rest of the cast.

The branches of the support characters are strong enough to do just that, but they become significantly weaker when you move to the next group, the underclassmen, a group of younger characters who start to appear in the second half of the series, when even the comedy between the main four is strting to get tired and predictable. Unfortunately, these characters aren’t strong enough to hold a story for very long, with only one of them… Konata’s cousin, Yutaka… Being even slightly above one-dimensional. This group of friends is more stereotype than people, which is sad, because the characters on the lower branches do, to their credit, feel like fleshed out and complex characters, at least to a point. Yutaka’s friends, however, are direct archetypes, and Yu herself doesn’t even DO anything with her quirk, being the sickly girl. Her friends include the pervy mangaka, the ignorant foreigner, the boyish breast-envy girl… And that’s it, and the story seems to give them far more credit than screentime, as they play a major role in the ending. Also appearing at the ending climax are friends from Kagami’s class, poised not as branches but as sub-branches that aren’t strong enough to hold a freaking apple.

So in terms of characters, the comedy does get weaker as the show goes on, but that won’t matter if they grow and move through important events and situations, right? Well, yes, there are a few. There are a few moments that take the cast out of their comfort zone to explore them in new ways. In a later episode, with the main four taking a field trip together, contains a bunch of great moments in it, like Tsukasa being attacked by deer, Kagami getting a love letter, and Konata cheering her up afterwards. The episode soon after, where Konata’s family gets a secret visit, is surprisingly poignant. Some of the best episodes include the beach episode, the Comiket episode, the Christmas episode, Konata’s birthday… Episodes where something noteworthy actually happens, instead of just a chain of jokes and gags, and that’s setting a pretty low bar. There’s no point in getting invested in any of the characters, because unlike Azumanga Daioh, they have no arcs, and their futures beyond high school are left completely unresolved. Yeah, there are some enjoyable moments, and good jokes here and there, But I was never bored watching it… Even if I am in the minority.

I am part of a very specific demographic that this show caters to… I was an otaku in the mid-2000s. That’s it. That’s why I can enjoy it, while most new visitors can’t. find it anything but boring. People who enjoy it the most are the ones who watched it when it came out, or in the few years immediately following, but if you came into it after 2010, it probably comes off as one of the most dated anime you’ve ever seen. That’s not to say you won’t find the characters interesting, the casual tone relaxing, or element of friendship welcoming, but you’re watching anime that was created to be a reflection of it’s time, in it’s time, and a lot of what it chose to represent isn’t relevant today, unfortunately meaning that it hasn’t aged well. It relied on gimmicks and otaku pandering rather than story-telling and real emotion, and that fact along with it’s moe design kept it from having any chance of being as timeless as that other slice of life show I keep bringing up. It gets a lot better after episode 4, but it just doesn’t stand the test of time.

Lucky Star was originally available from Bandai Entertainment, and the DVD sets from then are still available online in both individual, limited edition and complete collection formats, although the DVDs that were produced by Funimation after they rescued the series are far more affordable. The OVA is available on DVD, but it’s also included in the Funimation release, and I think you already know how much I love it. It’s the same series, but with much more fluid and well written stories. The original manga is available stateside from Viz Media. Beyond that, there are a ton of light novels, mangas and games that are NOT available stateside.

Calling Lucky Star an acquired taste is probably being a bit too generous… It’s one of the most esoteric series I’ve ever seen, as it seems deliberately designed to appeal to a small demographic, which I happen to be a part of, and even I think the series is overrated. It’s appeal is small, but it’s still precious to the people in it’s demographic, and I still enjoy it as well, even at it’s worst moments. I love the main cast, and there’s a lot about them that I find relatable. Does that mean I’d recommend it to a high number of people? No, but if you know someone who was an anime fan during the previous decade, or if you know someone who plays a lot of online games, or if you just know someone who has a mischievous sense of humor, this might be a good title to suggest to them. To anyone else, tread with caution, because the phrase ‘culturally impenetrable’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s worth checking out, but if you’re not into it by the fifth episode, try out Azumanga Daioh or Nichijou instead. Otherwise, this adorkable title has just enough going for it to make up for it’s weaknesses. I give Lucky Star a 6/10.  

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