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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review requested by Nate Milbank.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.  

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.

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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Otaku Nate's lost worlds of Anime

Taking you to Realms unknown in the anime spectrum!

Jennifer Paetsch

I write and draw and sometimes people like it! Wow!

Fujinsei

Embrace Your Inner Otaku

The Houston Aspie Blogging Collective

We're aspies and we know it.

LMG comic updates

Find the webcomic at lmgcomic.com

nolazyway

Anime, Manga and Reviews

watchmemakestuffs

My site about cosplay

Lily Art

Where Imagination Runs Free

Classic Anime Blog

This WordPress.com site is the cat’s pajamas

The Daily Post

The Art and Craft of Blogging

The WordPress.com Blog

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.