Can we all just agree that dreams are fucking weird? They’re one of the least understood aspects of human life, and everybody but Mike Pence has them. Their are tons of theories about what their purpose is, what they mean, and why we’re always naked in them, but to this day, nobody can pinpoint what these bizarre movies we get to watch while we’re recharging even are. Sometimes they have purpose… Back when I was in a bad relationship where I felt trapped and with no control over my life, I’d constantly dream that I was stuck on a labyrinthian waterslide that I couldn’t escape from. But they can be completely nonsensical, too. Maybe you’re fighting in a war with flamethrowers, but they suddenly turn into waterguns. Maybe you’re running from a spider that can fit through any crack. Maybe you’re beating up pedophiles, taunting serial killers, throwing horses at witches, fighting demons in the wild west, meeting people you don’t see anymore, running from a golden car like it’s a metaphor for Satan, or hell, maybe you get into a car crash but wind up in your living room, with your family ominously telling you “It’s waiting.”

For little Nemo, dreams aren’t quite like that. Every single one of his dreams is a lucid one, and he can use them to escape to big fantastical worlds, all by riding on his bed like it’s a magic carpet. One day, after seeing a parade and wanting desperately to go to the circus, Nemo drifts off and is invited to the world of Slumberland, a country governed by a kind, jovial king and his prickly little daughter, and inhabited by a whole host of wild and zany characters. Nemo is declared the King’s heir, and entrusted with protecting it from harm, but it isn’t long at all before one of these inhabitants, a chain-smoking green minstrel named Flip, tempts him into letting Slumberland get taken over by a terrifying sea of darkness, which leaves it in shambles and takes the King away to a faraway land. With the order of a whole world now at stake, there is only one chance at saving it… Joined by Flip, the princess, a wacky professor and his talking squirrel sidekick, Nemo must brave the horrors of Nightmareland to make everything right again!

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It’s World War 2, the country of Japan is in peril, and siblings Setsuko and Seita have just been orphaned by an American air strike that mortally wounded their mother. With their father away in the Navy, they’ve been forced to rely on each other, and the valiant Seita will stoop to the lowest possible level to take care of his younger sister, who’s still a very small child, and who understandably doesn’t have the strength to deal with the cruel burden that’s been placed on their young shoulders. The only spark of hope they’ve been able to find lies within the home of their aunt, who takes them in under the assumption that she’s only holding them temporarily until their mother gets out of the hospital, but is dismayed to learn she’s just taken on two new mouths for the long-haul. When the two siblings decide they’re tired of her nagging and strike out on their own, will the bond between them be enough to sustain them, or will they find out that they’ve made a fatal mistake?

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Moving away can be tough, but it doesn’t always have to be. For Satsuki and Mei, two rambunctious children living in Japan in the 1950’s, it’s an adventure, in spite of the sad circumstances that brought them to their new home. The Kusakabe family has just moved from the big city into a more rural, country-esque community, surrounded by farms and woods, but they aren’t there for the change of scenery. They’ve moved there to get closer to the hospital that their mother is staying at while she battles an unspecified long term illness. The community is warm and welcoming, their new neighbors are supportive to them, but most importantly, they have each other. While their father Tatsuo spends his day working in his room, Mei and Satsuki play with each other around their new property, searching the house for ghosts, running around the yard, and exploring all the weird and quaint wonders of their new home.

It isn’t long at all, however, before things start to get strange. Their first encounter with the supernatural was fairly innocuous, as they discover a horde of tiny black soot spirits living in the dark corners of their home, which flee into the shadows whenever the two of them enter a room. Things get even more bizarre the first time Mei is left to her own devices, and she begins to uncover creatures living near them in the woods, including the mighty Totoro, a hibernating beast nestled deep below the roots of a giant tree, who becomes fast friends with her. Described by her father as The King of the Forest, Totoro isn’t always around, but he shows up when they need him, keeping them company or helping them out, all without saying a word. They’ll need his help more than ever, however, as a vague telegram brings up the troubling news that their mother’s condition has gotten worse, and a fight between the two sisters creates a terrifying situation. Can they rely on their spirit friends once more to see them through, or have they been all alone from the beginning?

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There are two people with us at any given moment… There’s the person we currently are, who’s in charge of every decision we have to make as it comes to us, and there’s the person we remember being. This can be the person we were back in school, where we wistfully wish we’d applied ourselves harder; This can be the person we were last week, when we wish things had played out differently on that date or that big important meeting; This can be the person we were when we were much smaller, as we reflect on how that child could have ever become the adult we are now. For Taeko Okajima, that person is her fifth grade self, and it has been for a while. There was just something about that age, when she stood awkwardly on the cusp of womanhood, that she can’t help but relate to as she navigates the equally confusing path into her late twenties.

As a child growing up in Tokyo, Taeko had dreamed of visiting the countryside like most of her friends, but she didn’t have any family there, and her family didn’t really have the time or resources to uproot and vacation somewhere that they had no connection to. Now, fully grown, and with one of her older sisters married to a man from an extended farming family, Taeko has taken to using her vacations from work to visit her in-laws and work in their fields, which fills her with a satisfaction that she could never get before. This time, she’s going to be picking safflowers, a beautiful, thistle-like yellow crop that is used to make red dye and rouge. It’s not her first working trip, but with the charming Toshio picking her up, and with some of her strongest nostalgic recollections finally getting unexpected resolutions, will there be more to this vacation than she bargained for?

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Moving away can be a tough situation, especially when you’re still a child. Your parents probably have a good reason to relocate… Changes in the economy, lucrative opportunities at work, declining property values and rising crime rates… But how is that supposed to matter to you when you’re being uprooted from your routine, removed from the home you’ve grown attached to, and being forced to say goodbye to your friends? Anybody in that situation would be bummed out, and Chihiro is no exception, sulking in the back of her family car, hugging the one reminder she has of the life she’s leaving behind, a bouquet of flowers. There’s nothing she can do but pout as her family gets closer and closer to their new home, but when her well-meaning father takes a shortcut and winds up getting them lost, that sense of worry and disappointment gives way to something far more ominous.

At the end of a lonely, suspiciously unpaved path, past a wasteland of ancient shrines, Chihiro and her family are stopped in their tracks by an old statue outside of the mouth of a tunnel. Guided through said tunnel by sheer curiosity, Chihiro’s parents wander through it, with their reluctant daughter in tow, and what they find on the other end was more than they could have possibly imagined. Thinking the structures at the other end to be an abandoned theme park, her parents find a booth of fresh food, which they almost immediately begin to chow down on, even as the whole world seems to go to hell around them. As the park’s true inhabitants begin to make their ghostly selves known, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs, and the terrified girl suddenly finds herself stranded alone at a bathhouse for wayward spirits, and if this unwitting stowaway wants to have any chance of rescuing her folks and escaping this supernatural spa of spooks and spirits, she’ll have to leave her spoiled, selfish upbringing behind and grow up fast under unforgiving circumstances.

This is only the second Studio Ghibli title that I’ve reviewed(Yes, this is the first one I’m posting…  remember, I do things weirdly), and it couldn’t be more different from the first one. To start, this film was actually directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself, and not by the recently departed Isao Takahata, and you can tell the difference from the visuals. It’s worth mentioning that in some of Ghibli’s films, the animation budget is, perhaps, much higher than it needs to be, as there isn’t always much going on in terms of action, and aside from the obligatory flying scenes, some of their work can skew heavily towards realism. In Spirited Away, however, the animation is just as fluid and lavish, but it’s being used for so much more. Studio Ghibli doesn’t really have any bad looking films, with even it’s lesser titles at least being nice to look at, but even among a filmography that’s full of beautiful artwork and vivid animation, Spirited Away still manages to be right up near the top as one of their best looking, if not THE best looking, titles ever released by the prolific studio.

In any Ghibli title, you’re going to be able to expect a very high visual standard, consisting of… At the very least… Fluid animation, graceful character movements, expressive faces, and highly detailed, immersive environments. Spirited Away has all of these, but it also adds so much more that helps it to stand out among it’s peers. The bathhouse, as well as the spirit town surrounding it, is a huge setting with no shortage of different locations to explore, and every single inch of it that we’re allowed to see is rich with detail and personality. The cast of characters, from the main ones all the way down to the hundreds of spirits inhabiting the area, are incredibly diverse, offering enough unique designs to fill out an entire here’s Waldo book, and while a ton of them were obviously pulled from Japanese mythology, they’re still drawn in such a way that the youngest of viewers probably won’t be afraid of them. They also all have their own individual mannerisms and styles of movement that must have taken an unbelievable amount of effort to nail down.

Purely in terms of aesthetic and style, Spirited Away is probably the most visually identifiable title of the Ghibli canon, which is probably why it’s lived on to become the Studio’s flagship title. It’s hard to say what it is, exactly, but once you get past the instantly recognizable creature designs of Haku, Yubaba and the Noface, Chihiro and her parents just have a certain quality that none of Miyazaki’s other human characters have. It’s like a slightly realistic look, not so much as to make them look realistic themselves, but just enough to distinguish them from more traditional-looking anime characters. Look at any other of Hayao Miyazaki’s human characters, and they most likely have the big eyes and simplistic facial structure that Chihiro and her parents were somehow able to avoid. If this was intentional, then it was an especially brilliant move, as it adds another layer of separation between Chihiro and the denizen of Yubaba’s business. I’ve seen this kind of design choice in Takahata’s work, but I can’t think of any other Miyazaki project like it.

Being that this is a Studio Ghibli production, the animation isn’t the only thing you can expect to be top notch. The music, composed by longtime Hayao Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, is amazing, the kind of whimsical full-orchestra score that you’d expect to see in a Disney or Don Bluth production. If you think I’m pulling that comparison out of my ass, then please, listen to Reprise and try to get through it without thinking of An American Tail, or any heartfelt movie moment when characters are tearfully reunited. Of course, that’s also kind of my only real problem with this soundtrack… As tearfully wonderful as it can be, it also feels a bit generic, like a lot of it’s tracks just sound like they’d be from some other movie. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great, and they do their job with the story, it’s just that when all’s said and done, it’s just a little forgettable. Even the ending credits song, Always With Me, which is a charming song with a folksy indies feel to it, was just recycled from a scrapped movie that it was originally written for.

As for the English dub, well, my thoughts there are a bit more complicated, and that’s mostly due to the fact that the sub and dub for this film are radically different creatures. It’s a very Disney-sounding dub, especially when compared to the Disney output of the early 2000’s. The adaptive trade-off can be broadly boiled down to ‘personality vs. subtlety,’ as the new version adds a bit more life to the cast, but also skews the dialogue to be a lot more accessible to the average English speaking child. For most of the cast, the acting in the dub is really good, with a couple of obvious stand-outs being Jason Marsden in the role of Haku, which he knocks out of the park despite sounding nothing like the original(and noticeably female) Japanese seiyuu, and the legendary Suzanne Pleshette playing the dual roles of Zeniba and Yubaba in a performance that’s far superior to the original. Fun fact, this isn’t actually the late Pleshette’s only anime role… She also had a small role in Trigun, believe it or not!

Of course, there are other surprisingly big names in the cast… Michael Chilis and Lauren Holly play Chihiro’s parents(I don’t think their last name is mentioned in the movie, but I’ve found them credited as The Oginos), and I’m guessing they were instructed by the director to make them sound like ignorant yuppies, because that’s kind of how they come across, with a few minor dialogue changes and their over-all delivery. One particularly weird choice was Susan Egan as the character Lin, who sounds uncannily similar to Meg from Hercules… Which makes sense, because she also played that character. I don’t know if that’s just how she naturally talks or what, but it’s still such a strange connection. You look at Lin, you don’t think “Hey, she probably sounds like Megara!” And yet, you’ve got the same voice actress, doing the exact same performance. David Ogden Stiers, a certified Frasier and Disney legend who passed away this year, played the role of multi-armed boiler man Kamaji, and he did a much better job creating a new performance.

And that leaves us with Daveigh Chase, a somewhat forgotten child actor who had this as one of her three defining roles when she was still a child… Chihiro is one of her signature characters, along with Lilo from Lilo and Stitch and the little girl from The Ring, and I’m sad to say, any brilliance she might have shown in those other two roles is lost here. Well, okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair. She doesn’t do a terrible job, and I’m willing to give her the benefit on the doubt and chalk her performance up to bad direction, but DAMN is she hard to listen to at times. The original performance by Rumi Hiiragi, who was only slightly older than Daveigh at the time, sounds a bit too old for her role, bringing a deeper register to the character, but she also did a stellar acting job, with emotion and voice control beyond her years. Daveigh’s performance, on the other hand, is mostly full of screaming and lines that sound like they just used the first take each time, but she does sound more believably childlike, but for my money, I’ll take good acting over authenticity any day.

If you’ve only ever owned the original Disney DVD, then you won’t know anything about the adaptive script, which, ho boy, they made a ton of changes when they dubbed this title. I’ll be fair, none of the changes were so bad they had to be removed in later releases, like that disastrous mistake they made at the end of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but it still comes off a little condescending at times. It’s well intentioned enough, but it goes too far at several points. There were a lot of dialogue changes to put events in a more clear context and add more foreshadowing to the story, but adding pig noises to the scene where the Oginos have just started eating the spirit’s food was a bit ridiculous. There’s more explanation given to certain Japanese ideas, with the ‘break the seal’ bad luck curse scene being a smart and necessary example, but I don’t think kids need to be immediately told that Haku’s a dragon just because we don’t see him transforming before flying off, and the last words added to the ending come bafflingly out of nowhere. Also, it puts a lot more emphasis on a romance between Haku and Chihiro, which kind of misses the point of their relationship. It’s a fine dub, but I prefer the original Japanese.

A few years ago, I was reviewing a series called Petite Princess Yucie, where I pondered the merit of reviewing children’s media. On the one hand, yeah, kids will watch anything, but as adults, is it our job to judge the quality of the media we show them? I had a tentative answer for this question, but I’ve changed my tune a bit recently. As long as it’s subjectively safe, and doesn’t contain any harmful lessons, yeah, kids should be able to watch anything. The Magic Voyage is a piece of shit, but I still liked watching it as a kid, and I’d have bitten you if you tried to stop me. I hate Nightmare Before Christmas, but I’d still rather let a kid watch that then Coco, which advocates how noble a choice it is to give up on your hopes, dreams and personal fulfillment just because your toxic, unsupportive family arbitrarily says so. Yeah, I really hated Coco. But from that perspective, Spirited Away is a fantastic movie to show to children, as it’s full of imaginative visuals, bright colors, and it teaches a lot of important lessons, which I’ll get back to in a minute.

Having said that, even if children’s media is safe for it’s target audience, that doesn’t exempt it from criticism, as adult like to watch that kind of thing too, and I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of kids out there reading reviews. You read reviews to see that reviewer’s opinion, and in my opinion, Spirited Away is not one of Studio Ghibli’s best titles. That’s not to say it’s bad by any means, but in terms of writing, it comes up short in a lot of areas. To start, Spirited Away is severely lacking in characterizations. One of the reasons that I feel the actors for Haku, Zeniba and Yubaba did the best job is because they had the most to work with… Particularly with the old mutant biddies, both of whom sport deliciously fleshed out identities, personalities and an interesting dynamic between each other. The character of No-Face feels confusingly pointless and could have been written out with nothing really being lost(Insert Sin Cara joke here), and while Lin has a more important role in the story, I can’t say I know anything about her by the end.

The same could be said for Chihiro. She does manage to grow and develop through the story, but the change is vague, as she’s basically just tougher and slightly more wise by the ending. Aside from refusing to eat with her parents, it takes her all the way until the third act to start showing agency and making decisions, and none of those decisions are ever more complex than ‘do the right thing.’ She’s a likeable character and you do feel for her, you do want her to strive, survive and succeed, but out of all the things in this movie that might stick with you after seeing it, she’s just not one of them. Some of the dangers she gets into don’t even wind up coming back… She starts to fade away, which gets dealt with and resolved by Haku and never comes up again. She signs away her name, which she remembers again when Haku reminds her, but between those two points, I couldn’t recall her forgetting her name ever being a thing in the story. Like, okay, I guess that’s important, but where was it stated that she forgot her name at all?

Part of this weakness is probably due to Miyazaki’s writing style. I’ve heard several rumors about the conception of this story, like that it was written as a present for Miyazaki’s niece, or that Chihiro was based on someone’s daughter, and while I can’t find source information to prove these rumors, they do explain a lot, like how the story seems to be woven together from a bunch of mismatched morals and fables, and how it teaches a lot of small lessons to the viewer, and why Chihiro is such a lego brick. It feels like a story that somebody wrote so they could hide a bunch of these lessons underneath the story so a young viewer might subliminally pick up on them. As I said before, most of these lessons are good ones, and there’s really nothing wrong with teaching them, but there really doesn’t seem to be any sort of unifying theme between them, making the story feel like more of an anthology held together with a tenuous thread of a story than any sort of grand fable.

Of course, there’s one more problem with that approach, and it’s a much worse one. Out of the lessons that this film tries to teach, you’ve got all of these important gems like ‘don’t be greedy,’ ‘be respectful,’ ‘finish what you start,’ ‘be grateful to those who help you,’ ‘good deeds will come back to you,’ and ‘if you help one person, everyone else will expect it and take advantage of you…’ Okay, I said they were mostly good, give me a break. Anyway, the problem with these lessons is that you never actually get to see anyone learn them. I’m serious. These lessons are taught directly to us, and not to any of the characters. The only lesson Chihiro actually learns is that the working world is hard, but was that ever important? I know the pig scene comes to mind, but Chihiro already knew not to steal food, and her parents had their memories of the event wiped. Most of the lessons are things a character already knows, or something completely inconsequential that only the observer will pick up on, like the lesson revolving around Yubaba and her sheltered baby.

All of this feels indicative of one other major rumor I’ve heard about the film, although this one has a bit more backing… Miyazaki is the kind of story-teller who doesn’t like to put story first. From what I’ve heard, he was still writing this movie while it was being animated and story-boarded, which is a distinct departure from the norm, but I believe it. Out of every movie of his that I’ve seen, the only one I refuse to believe was written this way was Princess Mononoke, which had a superb story. But Spirited Away feels way too underwritten in contrast, and it shows in some very weird ways. I wouldn’t go as far as calling Chihiro a Mary-Sue, but her flaws are way too simple, she never has to struggle in making her decisions, and it feels like she was just created to be a role model. There’s also a ton of small contrivances I can’t get over, like the Boiler man having an extra train ticket, or the river spirit just happening to give her an object that would wind up helping her twice, or Yubaba just happening to have taken an oath to give a job to anyone who asks.

I don’t even feel like Haku’s relation to Chihiro, which I won’t spoil as it’s supposed to be this huge revelation, really mattered in the end. It’s foreshadowed in some strangely disconnected ways, with a brief line from Haku early on being the only really connection it gets to the story, and it just kind of winds up feeling random. But hey, if you look at it as a story of a girl trying to survive in a perilous situation where both her and her parents’ lives are on the line, it’s still a fine movie. The pacing is great, the story never drags or gets boring, and the larger writing issues can be ignored by anyone who just wants to sit back, enjoy the visuals, and root for Chihiro as she struggles against all odds to save the day and get back to normal society. Also, I like how there’s no clear villain, and there’s actual nuance to the conflict. As I said before, it’s not a bad movie, in fact it’s more than competent enough to be worth your time, but I don’t think it deserves to be held up among the greats… Not among the anime film medium at large, or even among it’s Studio Ghibli peers. Could be worse, though… It could be Earthsea.

Spirited Away is available from Gkids, on both DVD and bluray formats. The original Disney DVDs are out of print, but it’s still fairly easy to find. A manga adaptation that’s mostly just a compilation of still from the movie is available from Viz Media.

If I’m being brutally honest, I’m not the biggest fan of Studio Ghibli. It’s not that I hate them or anything, and it’s not like I have any specific issue with them, it’s just that it really doesn’t appeal to me personally. I’m not really into Miyazaki’s approach to story-telling, and while I strongly prefer Takahata’s approach, it also doesn’t always work. There are only about three or four titles of theirs that I’ve come to love, two of which I’ll be reviewing this month, but as for the rest, I’m just ambivalent to them. Unfortunately, Spirited Away falls into the latter category. I respect it as a children’s movie, but I don’t really understand what people get out of it when watching it as adults. Sure, there are movies in the Ghibli canon that have a lot less plot than this one, are plotless, but they use this shortcoming to their advantage, whereas Spirited Away is all plot with little sense of character or cohesion, and that’s worse in a lot of ways. I don’t regret seeing it, I’d be happy to watch it again, but I still expected more from it. I give Spirited Away a 7/10.

Every so often, there comes an area where crime has run rampant, becoming a scourge on the innocent people who want nothing more than to live there peacefully. In places like Townsville, Gotham city, Metropolis, New York City, Tokyo and others seem to be under a curse that attracts the worst of the worst to their streets, where they build their empires, corrupt the political systems, or just rain general destruction down on the population. There are many of these locations, all of which are really better off being avoided, but one town stands out among all the others. There’s one town where the light of hope has all but flickered out, and the concentration of evil in the form of gangs, super villains and horrible monstrosities has almost become the majority. This is Jack Knife Edge Town, and yeah. with a name like that, it’s no wonder things have become so bleak. In a town like this one, the only entity that can stand in the way of the forces of evil to protect the innocent is one man… No. One cop.

That cop is none other than Inferno Cop, who is really more a mass of sentient muscles than a man in a police uniform. Oh, and did I mention that he has a flaming skull for a head? Yeah, despite looking every bit like a hellspawn himself, Inferno Cop is the one man the criminal population fears, and he’s dishing out the kind of hardcore, bloody justice that would make Sleepy Johnny Estes jealous. Having lost his family to the Southern Cross gang, Inferno Cop wants both justice and revenge, and will happily fire his inexplicably explosive bullets at any being that opposes him, even hostages on some occasions. Unfortunately for Inferno Cop, neither avenging his family nor cleaning up the streets of Jack Knife Edge Town will be as easy as shooting a bunch of gangbangers, because there’s a lot more going on here than just your average every day criminal behavior. He’s going to have to fight giant monsters, cyborgs, judges, robot dinosaurs and the forces of heaven and hell themselves to bring this story to a happy ending. It’s a mad world out there, but is he mad enough to survive it?

Well, guys, it’s Studio Trigger time again. I talked about this company a few years ago in what turned out to be one of my favorite reviews from my collection, Kill La Kill. That and Inferno Cop are their first two titles, and also regretfully the only works from them that I’ve actually seen. I’ll eventually see Darling in the Franxx when it’s finished airing, how could I resist with the amount of controversy surrounding it, but for now, all I really know about them is their origin. Studio Trigger was established by former Gainax employees, including director Hiroyuki Imaishi, and information about their first official title… Titled Inferno Cop, if you haven’t guessed by now… has been hard to come by. I read in an interview that they were hired by a youtube channel to create a short length anime series, and after a few concepts fell flat, they eventually settled on an idea they thought nobody has heard of before… A cop who’s on fire and slays evil. That explains the show’s low budget, but there was another detail mentioned that I’m a bit more curious about.

Further down in the interview, Hiromi Wakabayashi states that the basic idea behind Inferno Cop was to put in as little effort or time as possible, and that each episode had to be completed in under two hours. I’ve tried to find some explanation on who mandated this, what circumstances dictated it, or any kind of reason why this was the rule, but in lieu of an explanation, I’ll instead say that Trigger responded to these limitations in a surprisingly inspired way. The animation in this series is a strange combination of high-definition sprites and stock visual effects like fire, explosions and blood spurts. I know people like to say that shows like Robot Chicken are just guys playing with star wars toys, but stop motion animation of any kind is a lot of hard work compared to that image. Well, that same difference in effort exists in Inferno cop, with their on screen motions looking like someone cropped an image and is moving it with his cursor compared to actual frame-by-frame animation.

Does that mean it doesn’t look good? Hell no. As relatively easy as it probably was to animate, Inferno cop looks awesome. Kill La Kill would occasionally move a character like they did in this show, and it was usually pretty funny, but seeing it done non-stop throughout the series is kind of a unique experience. It’s especially ridiculous when you see just how gritty, detailed and edgy the designs are, from the run-down, crumbled aesthetic of Jack Knife Edge Town to the masculine, testosterone-laden character designs that look like they were taken out of a vintage western comic book, being used in such a rudimentary way, there’s something about it that just works. The time and budget restrictions also lead to a lot of the characters having repeated templates and poses, with simple artistic and fashion-related changes distinguishing between the characters. Yet, somehow, it never looks cheap. Yeah, the characters are just still images being moved around(which looks hilarious in the racing episode), but there’s so much happening on screen at any given time that the effect is lost.

Well, that works just fine for the animation, but I’d like to think the music got a little more TLC from the producers, because it’s pretty awesome. There are several episodes that include commercials for the Inferno Cop soundtrack right in their run-time, and I would really like to snag a copy of it, because this show’s music is fucking tight. The music is a hard, fast blend of rock and techno, and I don’t air-guitar very often(or ever, really), but these tracks make it pretty tempting, especially with background tunes like Hell Dillinger and Chaser. There are some cool gimmick tracks like the Egypt-inspired Desert City, the ominous Theme of Southern Cross, and the swanky, swinging OZOMBIEDESUKA, but the real gems of the soundtrack are the vocal tracks. The song Die Hollen Polizei serves as both the intro and closing of the show, and it’s also used constantly as an insert song, which would be annoying if it wasn’t so awesome. My personal favorite, though, is Grue Elise von mir, a bona fide rock ballad that gets used for any ‘sad’ or ‘touching moment in the series, even though they’re kind of hard to take seriously.

Inferno cop never got picked up for an American release, which is a huge shame because I know that Funimation would knock it right out of the park, but they did manage to cast an actor for Inferno himself when his character made a cameo in another anime, Space Patrol Luluco. Christopher Sabat wound up being perfect for the role, as anybody could have predicted, but he hasn’t been able to touch the main series, unfortunately. The original Japanese voice actor was Junichi Goto, a newbie at the time who brought a tough and grisly-voiced performance that makes it sound like he was trying to channel Segata Sanshiro. He’s pretty damn good, as far as my English-speaking ears can tell. The rest of the cast was basically just a handful of guys doing hastily improvised voices, and they’re cast so repetitively that… I swear to God this is true… In the credits in the final episode, they actually fast forward through the cast listing, even though they still list every single character, important or not, meticulously crediting each role.

When I was first exposed to Inferno Cop, I really didn’t have any interest in it. I honestly didn’t even know it was anime… I thought it was Russian, or something. I knew made a brief appearance as an okay joke in an AMV Hell movie, and it made another brief appearance in a terrible reanimated clip in a Ponies the Anthology installment, but aside from those glimpses, I spent five years never having any reason to check it out… That is, until April of this year, when I volunteered at my local anime convention. They had me doing a bunch of odd jobs, but my last one was acting as host and head-counter for a couple of showings, the first among them being Inferno Cop(which got a two hour slot despite being an hour long with Fact Files). Having to watch it in a crowded room full of adults whose IDs I had to check, and being part of a group viewing experience, I’ll admit, I got sucked in. I was able to embrace the ridiculousness of it, warts and all, and it wound up being one of the highlights of the con for me.

Having said that, Inferno Cop is stupid. Like, it’s really stupid, a show full of randomness, logical inconsistencies, problematic elements, and an almost impressive number of cliches and deus ex machinas. If you’ve read my reviews up until this point, this would seriously not seem like something I’d ever be into. I mean, how can I have the gall to gush about this series when I very recently called Excel Saga lazy? And no, I’m not going to backpedal on anything I’ve said in the past, nor am I going to make up some bullshit about this show having depth, or some underappreciated metaphors or social commentary. Inferno Cop is exactly what it looks like from a cursory glance: It’s stupid nonsense full of bad writing and juvenile sensibilities. I’m not gonna deny the fact that just about every element that went into this series is something I’ve shat on other shows for doing in the past, so why am I being so much nicer to this one?

Well, there are two things Inferno Cop does right, and they’re both pretty important. For the first thing, let’s take a look at Magical Play, a show I was distinctly disappointed with, despite it being every bit as weird as Inferno. It was appropriately weird and full of batshit crazy ideas, and it created an unpredictable environment where anything could happen in it’s world of fluffy nonsense. Despite having all of this going for it, it got boring real fast due to a lack of direction and a tone that was always shifting in confusing ways. Are we here to see the girls getting into weird dream-like situations, or are we here to see a backstory, plot and earnest attempts at feels? Unlike Magical Play, Inferno Cop is whole-heartedly committed, making for a sense of consistency in the execution. It knows you’re just there to see what crazy thing it’s going to do next, so it never tries to be serious, it never tries to make you feel(it kind of makes fun of you for it, honestly), and it never loses focus of what it’s doing, tying it’s most entertaining element directly into it’s vague and highly forgiving plot threads.

And for the second thing it does right… I’ll be honest, this one feel like the more important one of the two, even though Magical Play actually did kind of nail it. There are several shows based on random lunacy that I just wasn’t able to stay interested in… I’m talking titles like Excel Saga, Hayate the Combat Butler, and Hare + Guu. Yeah, they were great at first, full of wild and exciting comedy that felt brazenly and defiantly weird, but as time went on, they just sort of lost their momentum. Once you’ve seen a little girl eating everything in sight, transporting them to an alternate Kirby-style stomach dimension, there’s really nowhere to go from there. Comedy styles can be overused, at which point they become predictable, after which they became dull. The worst part of Excel Saga was the part where you realized all it was doing was lazily parodying a bunch of genres with by-the-book observations and padding them out with weirdness. And Hayate jumped the shark so often that it just made people miss the manga.

But this leads me to the biggest thing Inferno Cop does right… It’s short. The biggest weakness of random nonsense comedy is that it has a shockingly poor shelf-life. The longer it goes on, the more exposed it gets, and the clearer people are able to see the method behind the madness. It’s not impossible to keep this kind of comedy effective for lengthy stretches, but you have to be working extra hard to keep the comedy fresh by reinventing it and taking it in new directions, like Baka and Test was so good at doing. This is why I’m not really on board with the new FLCL reboot… 6 episode FLCL was perfect FLCL. Inferno cop is only an hour long, and that’s WITH the fact files segments, which I actually feel are a necessary part of the experience. It’s because Inferno cop is so short that it never lags, and it’s able to jump from plot point to plot point like an anime speed-run without ever feeling overwhelming, and all the things it does that WOULD be ran into the ground by a longer run-time, like all the cliches, deus ex machinas and on-point Evangelion references, are able to leave a fond impression on us by only happening once or twice each. And on top of that, it actually manages to have a pretty satisfying conclusion.

Inferno Cop is available on Crunchyroll. It hasn’t been released on any form of physical media that I know of, not even a freaking Malaysian bootleg, but it damn well should. There’s also a series of in-between segments that I mentioned earlier, called Fact Files, which gives deliberately pointless information about what you just saw, and it’s totally worth your time. A second season has recently been announced, but hasn’t aired yet.

As much fun as it is to watch Inferno Cop, and as highly as I do recommend checking it out, it’s obviously going to run into a glass ceiling with me. It’s a good show that’s a blast to see, especially with other people, but there’s still so many more enriching anime titles out there, titles that a lot more time, effort and thought put into them, that I’ll always recommend first. I think the best way to describe the experience of watching this show would be that it’s like seeing two really close friends with similar tastes and interests just try to create a narrative on the fly, making constant attempts to one-up each other and make each other laugh, and even if you don’t get the story they’re coming up with, you feel like pointing out all of it’s problems would just be mean. Like, “why does a world-wide cruise have to be dirt cheap for Inferno Cop to ride it when he just won a million yen?” And the answer is “Shut up, we’re playing with giant robot dinosaurs now!” It’s no masterpiece, not even close, really, but it’s an experience I highly recommend having at least once. I give Inferno Cop a 7/10.

That’s right, I’m back, with one of the long time staples of this blog… A full-volume review of the newest incarnation of Rooster Teeth’s attempt at making their own anime! As usual, I’m not going into this with any real sense of structure, just gonna make it all up as I go. Before I begin, however, there are a few points I want to address.

1: There have been two RWBY manga released in Japan, and while I’m not gonna review them, I thought I’d give my thoughts on them here. The first one is mostly a retelling of the trailers, and it’s okay. There’s nothing really new or interesting about it, but it does it’s job, and I guess it’s worth a read. The other one is the first in an anthology series, and it’s awesome. It’s a slice of life featuring the main cast in different situations, and while nearly all of the art styles are easier on the eyes than the previous manga’s, the stories are also a lot more entertaining. That one I’d definitely recommend.

2: This new DVD/Bluray release is vastly different from the previous releases. This time, you can’t watch the volume as a film, you have to watch it episodically, with every single op and ed sequence preserved. They’re also unskippable, unless you’re really diligent about fast-forwarding. This does work in some ways, as I was speculating before how certain scenes would fare without episode breaks, but it also makes it a lot more difficult to judge the pacing of the volume… Something I suspect they took advantage of.

3: Remember a year ago, when I posted an editorial about how Rooster Teeth likes to steal things from anime? Well, to add to that, I’ve got a new one for you. Think about the relationship between Ozpin and Oscar: An ancient being is reincarnated into the mind of a small child, who acts as his avatar, can communicate with him, and can sometimes switch consciousnesses? It’s like Yugioh! It’s almost exactly like the bond between Yugi and the Pharaoh! If they didn’t steal this idea, then it’s a mighty big coincidence.

Anyway, getting back to the volume itself, it stands out in another way; It really doesn’t have a beginning. There’s really no inciting incident, there’s no strong opening to define the events that will follow… It feels like a continuation of the previous volume, which it is, but it feels more like a second half than a part 2. Which is strange, because volume 4 definitely had a definitive ending.

Much like volume four, this story is told through several different plotlines, each one featuring a different set of characters who only really interact between said lines once in a while. These plotlines start off with Weiss on an airship, Yang looking for Raven, Salem’s Lot plotting, RNJR and Qrow at Haven, and finally, there’s the menagerie storyline, featuring Blake, her family, Sun, and Ilia. Adam also gets some scenes, and Raven basically just exists in other peoples’ storylines.

However, in volume four, things were a lot more organized and consistent. The four main characters got their own storylines, while the bad guys and Qrow just kinda meandered while waiting to jump into them. Those main storylines didn’t all have action, but they were all actively moving forward and accomplishing important points for the narrative. In this volume, however, things aren’t really that well planned out. While Yang and Weiss’s storylines are moving forward, the rest of them are just kinda meandering, waiting for a cue to start picking up. This results in a good portion of the first half of this volume just feeling like a complete drag, with tone that’s all over the place, cuts between storylines that don’t gel with each other, and a ton of material that was clearly written in to keep it’s respective storyline relevant, but ultimately just winds up feeling like the kind of material that could have been left on the cutting room floor.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain about this volume featuring a lot of ‘show don’t tell’ moments, and while I agree to an extent, I don’t think it’s quite as bad as they make it out to be. I mean, not quite as bad, but it’s still a problem. There are so many scenes where people explain things, and not all of them are badly written, but the sheer amount of them definitely over-shadows the ones that work. I thought the exposition scenes involving Oscar/Ozpin and Raven were handled really well, if perhaps a bit too wordy, and a little stuffed. The showdown between Adam and Sienna, on the other hand, could have been executed in half the time with a few small rewrites, and nothing would have been lost in translation.  Seriously, every other line, they were saying something that was just there to explain their relationship and history to the audience, and that all could have been skipped if they’d found a way to work Sienna into the story organically in volume 4. The same could be said for Ghira Belladonna’s entire speech early on, which accomplished nothing, and could have been held offscreen with only a few snippets of dialogue afterward about how it went and what he was trying to say.

Honestly, Blake’s whole spiel about her friends embodying certain words felt like a complete waste of time in retrospect, unless they were just trying to set something up in the future, or lay the clues for her being mildly autistic or something. We didn’t need to see Qrow looking for huntsmen, we didn’t need to see Blake and Sun looking for signatures, we could have easily just heard about those sequences in a few short snippets of dialogue while achieving the same effect. Hell, maybe then we could have had time to see something more interesting, like a stylized look at Raven and Qrow as youths, or some of Oz’s forms throughout the years, something to spice up the dialogue a bit.

And speaking of the dialogue, the other problem with this volume being so dialogue heavy is one that I found to be much more of a hindrance; The tone. From what I saw, there are very few scenes that contain more than one note. Most scenes are either light-hearted, action-heavy or dour, with little crossover inbetween. There are exceptions, mostly revolving around Raven and Vernal, but aside from that, there are some long conversations that needed some form of nuance to them. I mean, you can do small amounts of comic relief without pulling a Jar Jar, were you aware of that? When Blake and Ilia are angsting back and forth, could one of them maybe crack a joke or throw an insult?  Ilia’s only mode up until her redemption is “I have to do this,” even though when you take her backstory into account, she’d be perfectly justified in being a little more personally invested in the White Fang’s activities.

Or how about this; Does every single episode have to stop dead so somebody can make a speech? It’s annoying, and they rarely ever say anything we don’t already know. I don’t need to hear Ren gushing to know how important the main cast is to each other, or how much they’ve all grown. Ghira’s speech to the faunus just winds up cheapening the much more powerful and important speech his daughter gives later on. Ruby and Oscar’s heart-to-heart didn’t feel set up at all, and Oscar’s blow-up at her felt like it came right out of nowhere, and that’s WITH an understanding of his circumstances. Yang’s sudden meltdown over Blake is exactly that… It’s sudden, with her showing no signs that she’d even been thinking about Blake throughout all of volume four and five up until that moment, and it ends with the matter being resolved clearly and swept under the rug, when I really could have used some ambiguity leading up to their reunion.

The best moments in this stretch of the volume are the moments when storylines converge, making the over-all story feel less congested. Weiss converges with Yang, the two of them converge with RNJR, Raven converges the villains with RNJR, etcetera. When moments like this happen, the story gets tighter, and the focus of the writing gets a lot clearer. This eventually does streamline the story, and thank God, because things get a LOT better in the second half.

As the stories converge, and characters who were just kind of fucking around finally start to move into place, the importance of most of what we’ve seen so far becomes clear… And yes, I’m saying most because there was a lot of pulp this volume… But the final four episodes are glorious, full of action, high stakes, well deserved call backs and pay-offs, and a near-death tease that shook the world more than the ending of Infinity War(Don’t lie, you scoff now in hindsight, but when it first aired, you were worried and uncertain).

But I don’t feel like I can really talk about the ending without first talking about the message of this volume. Yes, there’s a message, and they lay it on pretty heavy throughout. It’s not a specific message, though, and I’ll admit upfront that it’s a bit on the generic side… It’s a message about doing the right thing, and holding the right values. It’s kind of all over the place in terms of what that means, but it’s still remarkably consistent. When you write a story with a moral message, it’s incredibly easy to fuck it up, either by coming off as too preachy, accidentally being hypocritical(How ya doin’, Deadpool 2?), or not backing up your point convincingly. Surprisingly, for all this volume does wrong, RWBY doesn’t fall into any of these traps.

Take, for example, the Faunus situation. We’ll ignore for now how little sense their oppression makes(although that’s been an issue since volume 1), and instead look at how the issue is being dealt with. Adam is working from a state of anger, and as Blake notes, spite. He wants to conquer the oppressors and oppress them right back, and he’s willing to go to any lengths to achieve this, even if means knowingly exaggerating the human threat by creating false-flag situations to drum up his peoples’ support. Blake wants to take the high road, to unite humans with faunus by saving them and protecting them, and purging the harmful individuals from their own ranks.

Realistically, either one of these approaches can work, but RWBY creates a scenario where Adam’s tactics backfire, people see him for what he is, and he winds up alone, with only his bull-headed anger left to rely on, and THAT gets him a thorough ass-kicking from Blake until he flees and tries and abandons the people whose loyalty he never saw as more than means to an end.

Raven is perhaps an even better example of this, as she’s shifty, dishonest, and fights for nothing other than her own survival, and her motives carrying a subtle echo of some of Roman Torchwik’s last words… If you can’t beat someone, don’t fight them. She doesn’t quite join the side she perceives to be stronger, but she does manipulate them to get the edge, sacrificing other people… People she was close to… Along the way, and hell, even Cinder makes a quip about her becoming a monster by killing the former Spring Maiden. Speaking of which, all of her scheming, all of her plotting and backstabbing, and all it leads her to is possibly the single greatest individual scene from the franchise thus far… A final confrontation with Yang, who gives her such a thorough verbal beatdown, calling her out on her bullshit in such a way that she actually convinces her to flee, and it all feels natural. None of it feels like part of a forced message, which is how messages are supposed to be delivered.

You don’t want to be a coward, or to act out of fear. History doesn’t look kindly on Benedict Arnolds, and neither does RWBY. You can run from your fears, or you can ally yourself with them, but they will catch up to you, and they will destroy you. It happened to Lionheart, it happened to Torchwik, and it could happen to you. You don’t want to act out of selfishness, because at the end, all you’ll have left is yourself, just like what happened to Raven.

The same thing could be said for acting out of anger or hate, though, and while there’s Adam to consider, Hazel is perhaps a more interesting case, as his hatred comes from a desire for revenge. He’s allied himself with Salem, not out of loyalty or a desire for power, but to get a chance to achieve satisfaction over the death of his sister. It doesn’t make logical sense to blame Ozpin for a decision that his sister made, but certain emotions know no logic… It’s not hard to assume that he felt powerless over losing her, and Ozpin is the only possible target for his frustrations. Of course, revenge is a self-destructive motivator, as shown by the harm he does to his body in pursuit of it, and the fact that he’s allied himself with killers to achieve it. There’s a reason that Blake’s storyline included a statement about forgiveness.

So what values does volume 5 promote? Well, once again, there’s forgiveness, as they showed with Ilia. Former enemies can become important allies if given the chance. It can also help you to find the sense of peace and purpose that eluded Hazel. Speaking of Hazel, there’s also selflessness, and the willingness to sacrifice yourself for the goodwill of others, which his sister fell to. But maybe the most strongly portrayed value is courage… This is kind of a basic idea, as I remember learning it from a freaking Mary Kate and Ashley movie when I was little, but true courage is when you’re afraid, and you don’t know if you’ll succeed, but you do the right thing anyway, as Yang said while verbally decimating her mother.

Of course, now it’s time for me to get on my soap box… This is all relevant to real life. Some of the worst experiences people can have are at the hand of other people acting in fear. We want to build a wall between nations because we’re afraid of losing our jobs. We separate children from their parents because we’re afraid of our laws looking weak. We ban travel from other countries because we’re afraid one or two of them might hurt us. We do any number of insane and horrible things, from discriminating against queer people to performing genital mutilation on children, because we’re afraid of what our respective Gods might do to us if we don’t. We refuse to stand up to dangerously unqualified leaders because it might weaken our political parties.

And that’s just fear.  Entire wars have been fought just for revenge, costing outrageous amounts of money and far moire lives than whatever incidents sparked those wars in the first place.  We hurt others for the sake of our own interests, and while never specifically calling any of it out, Rooster Teeth used this volume to make a statement about it. In doing so, it arguably accomplished more than any other volume has to date.

Anyway, getting back to the fun stuff, the animation is still great. There are a few shots and angles that I found questionable, and there are a few background shots where extras are just standing around blandly, but those are minor complaints compared to where RWBY came from. I’ve heard people complain about the fight scenes being awful, but I never really felt that either. They’re certainly different, with no flashy spectacle fights going on, but these things went away for something I consider much better; Story-telling. In this volume, and also in volume 4, the fight scenes are used to tell stories. There aren’t any of Monty’s trademarked ‘rule of cool’ fights, where everything just feels like extended animation demos, but there’s actual plot and story going on.

This allows them to focus on things that were missing from the action of the first two volumes, and which the third volume brilliantly transitioned into having… Suspense, stakes, and drama. As far as visual issues, I’ve heard people saying something about characters teleporting, but when you consider the most popular action sequence was a food fight where Nora launched Yang through the roof at an angle and she fell down straight in a location completely different from the direction she’d been launched in, I’m willing to accept a minor flub or two in a fight scene that feels ambitious and engaging. I’ve also heard complaints that Ruby doesn’t develop this volume, but she got a ton of development in volumes 3 and 4, and not every character has to develop in every volume.

Although the fact that she hasn’t asked Ozpin about her Silver eye powers is, I will agree, fucking stupid.

Once again, as much as I love about this volume, it doesn’t go down as easy with the poor way the first half was executed. Yeah, everything comes together more-or-less perfectly in the second half, but for a 3+ hour volume that’s made a fucking 4 hour volume by the inclusion of all the openings and closings, those first two hours can be tough to get through whenever it’s meandering or wasting time, which is far too often. The dialogue, again, needs a lot of work, as it’s not unsalvageable, but it can’t continue to be like this going into volume 6.

I know it may look like I’m being really hard on this volume, but the fact that I’m giving it these kinds of criticisms is a sign of how far along it’s come. In the first two volumes, I complained about the things that stopped RWBY from being good. In volume 5, I’m complaining about the things that are stopping it from being great. I believe it can achieve the greatness that it had in volume 3 again, even if this just wasn’t the right time for it. I give RWBY volume 5 a 7/10.

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