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Humankind cannot gain anything without giving something up in exchange. To obtain, something of equal or greater value must be lost. That is alchemy’s first law of equivalent exchange. As it follows, there is another law, and one that’s harshly enforced, both by humanity and by fate… No matter how skilled an alchemist may be, and no matter how much they offer up in exchange, they must never attempt to transmute a human being. Yes, it is possible to map out the chemical make-up of a human body… It’s been thoroughly explored, all the way down to the follicles on an average adult’s eyelashes… But there is nothing in existence that can be exchanged for a human soul. To most, this warning would be more than enough to strike fear into their hearts, and make them think twice about putting their lives and livelihoods on the line to bring a deceased loved one back from the grave. For every rule, however, there are people who will be tempted to break it, and to prove themselves above it.

Normally, these individuals are foolhardy, courageous, and naive, believing their abilities to surpass those of others. This is exactly the attitude that one young prodigy named Edward Elric, a child from Risembool, and the son of one of the greatest alchemists alive. With his father having disappeared from his family under mysterious circumstances, and his mother having been taken from him at the whims of a lifelong illness, he and his younger brother Alphonse attempt to resurrect their beloved mother, a venture that costs Ed a literal arm and a leg… Oh, and his brother, whose soul he saves by binding it to a suit of armor at the last minute. Looking nothing like the naive children they once were, both in body and soul, the Elric brothers burn down their house, and set out on an epic journey to restore their bodies to the flesh and redeem themselves for the sin that they’ve committed.. A task that will require the use of a Philosopher’s stone, an artifact of legend whose power is rivaled only by it’s danger… Much like alchemy itself.

Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood… Which I’m just going to call Brotherhood, from here on out… Was, unsurprisingly, an effort of Studio Bones. Bones doesn’t always give it’s productions the budgets that they deserve, but most of their titles were directed well enough to compensate for this issue. Some of them use smart editing and enchanting uses of lighting and shading to enhance the visuals, achieving mixed to positive results… I am sad to say, however, the Brotherhood is not one of them. It would be generous of me to say that even half of this anime looked good, but it really doesn’t. It does have some impressive looking visuals… There’s a lot of CGI used for special effects, and it looks competent enough. There are also times when certain shots will have fluid animation, such as most of the fight scenes and a violent riot in the settlement of Liore, but such animation doesn’t come cheap, and Brotherhood’s budget saving tactics are about as blatant as a punch to the face.

Throughout the series, there are constant key frames. For the most part, they stay on screen for two to thirteen seconds, with minimal movement happening in them aside from flapping lips and occasional shifts in posture. Sometimes, it’ll freeze on one character’s face while other characters are talking, so they don’t even have to pay for lip flaps in the first place. This isn’t something that has to be noticeable or distracting under the right direction, but here, it’s just an eyesore. The actual alchemy looks nice, as that’s where the 3D aspect comes into play, but when it’s juxtaposed against the stiff, motionless 2D key frames, the two styles mix about as well as oil and water. A good example of this in the early episodes is when Ed and Al, as children, show off their alchemy to their mom, and she’s momentarily bathed in the glow of their experiment… During which she freezes completely, and then has a minimal reaction. Motion wasn’t necessarily needed there, I mean she was just spectating, but come on, guys, try harder.

And the art, I’m afraid, isn’t much better. The character designs are fine, and they’re accurate to the manga, but they look way too polished and clean, like they don’t exist in any sort of real world. Part of this is the lack of effort in shading, but a much larger part of it is the cartoony direction of the visuals. These characters almost seem to spend more time in chibi and super-deformed mode than in actual, realistic shape, and while I’m sure that’s a huge exaggeration, it doesn’t FEEL like one. The backgrounds are detailed, but for the most part, they feel lifeless, like the characters are just walking around in life size paintings that have no real personality or depth to them. The only other problem that I feel is worth mentioning is the character’s outlines… And I’m not talking about Ed’s hair having light outlines, although that’s the best way to distinguish Brotherhood footage from ‘03 footage. I’m talking about the choppy outlines that persist throughout the series, especially whenever there’s a close-up of a character’s face. To be fair, this really only seems to be a problem on DVD releases, as it was a problem for a LOT of Funimation DVD sets back in the day. The bluray and Netflix releases don’t have this issue.

I decided when I began writing this review that I’d bring up the original 2003 adaptation as little as possible(although, realistically, I’m gonna bring it up once or twice), but when it comes to the music, I did notice what appears to be an interesting role reversal that I can’t help but comment on. The original series had a stellar soundtrack that fit the subject matter of the series to a T, and carried a lot of emotional weight with it, but on the flip side, the opening themes were just generic(but high quality) rock and pop songs that didn’t really tie into anything. They were picked because they sounded good and didn’t feel out of place. The exact opposite seems to be true for Brotherhood, because the musical score is a bit on the generic side, but more than befitting a grand Shonen-Action style epic, and the openings are where the true heart and emotion of the series can be heard. This isn’t a blanket statement, of course… There are some heartfelt tunes in Broitherhood, such as Trisha’s Lullabye, which is used as a beautiful motif throughout the series, but that’s about it.

That’s not to say the music isn’t awesome, of course. In addition to Trisha’s Lullabye and it’s hypnotic vocal track, one of my personal favorites is To Be King, the theme of the character Greed, as it’s tribal theme carries a sort of rebellious pride that suits his ambition perfectly. The openings, of course, blow anything FMA ‘03 brought to the table out of the water. They fit the story so well that some of them, most notably the first one, called Again, can even be identified as coming from the perspectives of certain characters. The animation in these openings is so good that they almost make up for the lackluster visuals that are present in the series proper. I don’t think this was intentional, but the best contribution these openings make to Brotherhood is the fact that the two best ones… The first one, Again, and the last one, Rain, just happened to be placed during the beginning and ending arcs, which were arguably the worst parts, and they managed to get a lot of necessary good will out of me.

When it comes to the English dub… Well, there’s not a lot that I can say about it, and I mean that in the best way possible. I can normally go into an English dub and say whether or not an actor was able to fit the character they were casts as, what they were able to do with it, how they interpreted the roles… I can’t do that with EITHER version of Fullmetal Alchemist, because to my ears, the actors ARE their characters, to the point that I honestly forget while watching the shows that there are even actors involved. To this day, I associate Vic Mignona with Ed Elric, and vice versa. Some of Caitlin Glass’s most diverse performances have been ruined for me because no matter how good a job she does, I can’t stop thinking “Huh… That does NOT sound like Winry.” None of the other characters have this effect on me quite as bad, but the FMA performances they did will always be lurking somewhere in the back of my mind when I hear other work by them. I feel like the reason I experience this phenomena so strongly with Ed and Winry is because of just how sincere and earnest Vic and Caitlin’s performances were.

Speaking of iconic performances, I can think of a couple of actors who were unable to reprise their roles from the first series. Dameon Clarke seemingly retired from anime voice acting two years prior to Brotherhood’s release, and was replaced by J Michael Tatum, who did a stellar job, but was unable to capture the grit and years of lonely pain that had peppered Clarke’s performance. On a much more impressive note is the role of Alphonse, who had a lot of American fans worried when they realized that original actor Aaron Dismuke was too old to go back to the role, having gone through puberty between shows. Through some kind of miracle, Funimation was able to find Maxey Whitehead, who was not only able to perfectly imitate Aaron’s younger voice, but was even able to prove herself a better actor than Dismuke, having of course had more experience than he’d had when taking on the role.

In addition, the rest of the cast is back, slipping right into their characters as though they never left. Colleen Clinkenbeard is still playing both Rose and Riza while successfully sounding like she’s actually two different people, even though one is fleshed out a lot more and the other is fleshed out less. Christopher Sabat is still the most masculine fop you’ve ever heard in what is arguably one of his best roles ever, Major Armstrong, and the scores of roles that Travis Willingham landed between shows have transformed him from a promising rookie to a veteran befitting his strong, resolved character. New characters like Lin Yao, Lan Fan and Olivier Armstrong bring a handful of new actors into the mix, and let’s be honest, no dub has ever been worsened by the addition of Todd Haberkorn, and Trina Nishimura, Stephanie Young. The only disappointing returns are from people like Laura Bailey, Chuck Huber and Sonny Strait, who’s characters have been substantially diminished between shows, and Monica Rial, whose new character May is a lot closer to her usual typecasting than her old role was. I included this in my top ten favorite dubs, and it deserves to be there.

The original Fullmetal Alchemist manga was released in 2001, by the magazine Monthly Shonen Gangan. The series was met with resounding popularity right from the start, and after only two years of it’s ten year run, the demand for an anime adaptation was overwhelming. Studio Bones took up the production, but with the manga not even a quarter of the way finished, they were left with a pretty big lemon to deal with. Fortunately, they were able to make lemonade by writing an entirely new story using the material they were given. The resulting anime was an immediate success, among fans and critics alike, winding up on more than it’s fair share of top ten lists since then. And yet, despite the fact that it was universally loved and critically acclaimed across the board, there was still heavy demand for a more faithful adaptation. Thus, in 2009, only one year away from the manga’s end, Brotherhood was born, and the fandom was elated at the idea that a more faithful adaptation of the original manga was finally being made.

Now there are tons of videos and editorials comparing the two FMA adaptations… I wrote one myself that’s been quite successful… But I’m not gonna do that today. I’m not going to review Brotherhood as a reboot, nor am I going to review it as an adaptation… To be fair, I’ve barely read any of the manga. I’m going to judge it by it’s own merits, as a stand-alone series. Unfortunately, this is going to do it more harm than good, because a good chunk of this show’s early material fucking depends on the added context. Starting with the obvious, the first episode is entirely unique to Brotherhood, and serves largely as fanservice to returning fans, as well as a baffling reintroduction to a lot of the story’s more frequent elements. The episode, I’m sad to say, is horrible, and not just in the way that it fumbled a lot of the biggest reveals and surprises of the early episodes, which were supposed to have massive story-based impacts. It also introduces one of brotherhood’s over-all biggest problems, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

With that out of the way, we’re able to start the series proper… Only I wish this were the case, but it turns out they’re not quite done getting things out of the way yet. I’m not gonna beat around the bush about this, the pacing of the first thirteen episodes or so is abysmally fast. We get to know Trisha Elric for about ten seconds before she dies(I don’t THINK that’s a spoiler), we get almost no material with Ed and Al as children, and it just feels like the writers were bumbling from one important moment to the next, looking to get the viewer up to speed on what they presumably already saw so they could get to the new material. I think I’ve heard that’s exactly what they were doing, but it’s a pitiful excuse for shoddy story telling. It was included for new fans, and rushed for returning fans, trying to please everyone and ultimately pleasing nobody. They don’t even make an attempt at suspense, atmosphere, or any kind of emotional investment, just making sure all the exposition is taken care of, violating the rules of show-don’t-tell to an absurd degree.

The pacing does fix itself once the series recap episodes are over, but by that point the damage is done, and the effects last throughout the series, even during the legitimately good parts, creating some very troublesome problems. For example, Brotherhood has a very weird attitude towards death. In the first episode, an ice and water based alchemist attacks the capital, and he murders two state alchemists in order to show off some of his powers… And these alchemists are disturbingly forgotten immediately afterwards. He’s attacked by Ed and Al, who seem completely oblivious to the fresh corpses lying less than twenty feet from them, and of COURSE this is an appropriate time for the show’s first “LOL, Ed’s so short” joke. Dude, THERE ARE DEAD BODIES RIGHT OVER THERE. They’re also worried about his Ice powers destroying the government, but I’m pretty sure those glaciers were crashing through buildings at one point, and I doubt they were evacuated.

There are four noteworthy characters that die in the first thirteen episodes… I told you about Trisha, but I’m not spoiling the others… And the execution of said scenes makes it seem like we’re supposed to care a great deal about them, but they’re given almost no screen time, and we don’t have enough time with them to build a relationship. This makes it even more uncomfortable when the series corrects it’s pacing, and winds up giving several characters boatloads of extra screen time, despite some of them having minimal impact on the story at best, and with so many of them far overstaying their welcome. I’m sorry, but the fact that Yoki got to live to the end of the series is a slap in the face to one of the most beloved characters in the franchise, whom we were expected to cry over when he died ten fucking episodes in.

And look, before I go any farther, yeah, I like this show. I enjoy watching it. It’s a little on the bulky side, at over sixty episodes, but I have fun with it. The action’s really cool, it has a lot of really imaginative ideas, and I find myself on the edge of my seat way more often than I’d ever like to admit. It’s a good show, so why am I shitting on it so much? Well, there are two reasons; First of all, everything good about it has been pounded in the dirt by now, with over 90 percent of it’s reviews giving it a ten out of ten score, so there’s really no need for me to suck it’s dick. The other reason is that the best things about it are the same things that are awesome about almost every other shonen action series out there… It’s fun, it has great action, and there are a lot of imaginative ideas, and it’s populated by a cast of likeable heroes, detestable villains and hopeful turncoats. Honestly, it has a lot of good qualities, but there’s really not a lot that I can say about them, which is why I’m focusing so hard on the things I don’t like about it.

So on that note, let’s move onto what I consider the biggest problem with Brotherhood, it’s immaturity. It just doesn’t feel like it was written by a grown-up, or anyone who really has anything important to say other than “Hey, guys, look how cool this is!” A big part of this, and possibly the element that irked me the most, is it’s use of binary morality. In Brotherhood, the good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, and the only variety in sight is when a bad guy is somehow redeemable, either by the desire to turn over a new leaf or the excuse of not being directly accountable for their actions. Yeah, the original Star Wars trilogy also had this issue, but at least Vader was a complex character with nuanced motivations. Here, the villain is a literal embodiment of evil with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and six of his seven henchman(well, Homunculi) have no motivation outside of serving him and following the sins attributed to them. It’s a story so devoutly based on the struggle between good and evil that at the end, the hero(who has kept his hands insultingly clean up to this point) has to fight the villain in a literal fistfight while his friends and allies chant his name.

And on top of that, there’s very little emotion in any of it, with the exception of any lingering feelings the viewer may have carried over from ‘03(and I’m sorry, but there are gonna be comparisons in this paragraph). There are a lot of ideas, but they’re just ideas, none of which carries any weight outside of spectacle. Seeing Gluttony’s Kirby world is cool, but I’m not gonna remember it in a week. The homunculi actually having a reason to be named after sins isn’t going to affect me like seeing them pursue their own individual goals. Knowing the country is named Amestris, and that there’s another form of alchemy called alkahestry is interesting, but it doesn’t make the world feel more immersive. I feel bad for Winry after being told her parents are dead, but not as bad as if I’d seen her crying over it as a kid. I can root for her to forgive the person who killed them by accident, because come on, it was an accident! But when the person who killed them is someone who was willfully following orders, and has been haunted by what he was forced to do ever since, well, things just get a lot less simple.

Brotherhood is a show full of easy answers that don’t provide any sort of challenge to it’s viewer. The heroes win through virtue alone, with barely any sacrifice. Yeah, that’s right, no sacrifice, in a show whose central philosophy is that mankind must gain through sacrifice.. Minor spoilers here, but take the Philosopher’s stone for example. We find out how it;’s made, and Ed vows to find another way. He doesn’t, but a stone is still handed to him in the final act, consequence free, so he doesn’t have to make any harsh choices. There are plenty of huge moments that are immensely satisfying, like a late showdown between Colonel Mustang and the Homunculus Envy, and a pulse-pounding fight between Hawkeye and Gluttony, both of which I did highly enjoy, but it’s popcorn fare(To be fair, still better than 03’s Robo-Archer crap). The action is great on a shallow level, but the drama and comedy aren’t even that good, due mainly to what I understand to be two holdover elements from the manga.

Brotherhood fails hard at achieving both drama and comedy through it’s own aesthetic choices and sense of direction. It has horrible comedic timing with it’s super-deformed and chibi based humor, which happens way too often to ever land a joke, and to make matters worse, they’re used during scenes that are supposed to be majorly dramatic. When Ed and Al are fighting over the former risking his life to save the latter, I don’t want to see a sight gag. IU want to care. I want to feel something. That’s tonally incompetent to a disgusting level. What’s even worse is when they’re actually trying to convey drama, and they do so with no subtlety, using over-the-top facial expressions, screams, and over-acted reactions that are more funny than sappy. I’ve found Tommy Wiseau’s deliveries more touching. There’s a moment after the failed human transmutation when Ed’s trying to get his brother back where he screams “Alphonse no!” And I couldn’t stop laughing over his face’s resemblance to Wakko Warner burping opera music. This kind of thing might have worked in the manga, but anime and manga are different mediums, which is something I don’t think the people behind this show really understood.

Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood was available from Funimation Entertainment on both DVD and Bluray, but unfortunately, all versions are currently out of print. You can still watch it for free on Netflix, but if you’re looking to own the physical copy, you’re gonna have a hard time finding one at a reasonable price. The same thing goes for the 2003 series as well as it’s movie. What you CAN find in print and for a reasonable price are the Brotherhood movie, Sacred Star of Milos, and a couple of okay OVA series. There are several video games across different platforms, and while I won‘t list them all, I personally recommend PS2’s Curse of the Crimson Elixir. The original manga is available stateside from Viz media.

As I said before, I really like this anime. It’s an entertaining show. It delivers hard on action, fantasy and spectacle, but that’s pretty much all it has going for it. Throughout it’s 60+ episode run, it never really shows any signs of the masterpiece everyone likes to call it, and I’m not gonna lie, those first thirteen episodes are seriously difficult to get through. It seems to follow an ideology of virtue and righteousness overcoming adversity, and while there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that mentality… It is a positive moral, at the very least… It’s still pretty juvenile. In fact, that word pretty much sums up the series… Juvenile. It feels like it takes place in the world as Ed from the 2003 anime wished it was, where good and evil exist on opposite sides, and the whims of fate ultimately favors good people over bad. It’s not deep or complex, but neither are most of the titles in the Shonen Action genre, and those anime are successful for a reason… They’re easy to watch, they don’t ask you hard questions, and they play to your basest ideas of morality and justice. Sometimes, people need an anime like that, and this title delivers. I give Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood a 7/10.

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Inspiration can be a fickle thing. The muses may guide our hearts towards a particular passion, but they don’t always stick around to see us through it. As a child, Kousei Arima felt a natural attraction to the piano. He could play music by ear, was a gifted mimic, and had boat loads of potential to one day dominate the instrument. With the help and encouragement of a family friend, Kousei’s mom set him on his desired path, but life as a pianist was harder than he thought. Rather than playing for fun and expressing himself through music, she wanted him to be able to make a living through his music, so she went as hard on her little pianist as possible, going as far as to beat and abuse him if he underperformed or tried to play a piece in his own way. By the time the terminal illness she’d hid from him took it’s toll on her, his passion was gone, replaced with the cold, robotic delivery of one who could deliver a piece perfectly, but found no more joy in doing so. He lost his mother, along with his ability to hear the notes he was playing.

Two years later and about three feet taller(I’ll GET to that), Kousei still tinkers around with the piano, but hasn’t played it seriously, to the chagrin of all who enjoyed his work, or just hate to see him so incomplete. It’s at this point, like all down-trodden men who’ve lost their luster for life, that along comes that one girl to bring color back into his world. Her name is Kaori Miyazono, and she’s a violinist who cares nothing for rules or convention, finding childish but somehow wise joy in every aspect of life, and with this one chance meeting, Kousei finds a new muse… A capricious, cheerful beauty whose revisionist musical performances instantly connect with the crowds she plays for, and whom seems singularly obsessed with performing alongside Kousei, and helping him to relaunch the career that he’d so recently abandoned. But her dedication to helping him to overcome his tragedy hides a secret tragedy of her own, and one simple lie she told back in April will live on to define their relationship as they change each others lives through mutual inspiration.

I haven’t seen everything that’s been produced by A-1 pictures, but I honestly can’t remember seeing anything they’ve done that looked outright bad. Sure, Sword Art Online and From the New world looked a little sloppy at times, resorting to broken character models to show fluid motion at reduced costs, but if that’s the worst they can do, then they could do a lot worse. They seem to take a lot of care with their work, putting an admirable amount of effort into quality control, like letting a low budget get the better of them would be an insult to their pride or something, and if that observation is correct, then I like the way they think. I’ve noticed that they generally have a penchant for putting a lot of energy into special effects, and then using just enough budget saving tricks to compensate without going overboard or letting it become noticeable. Key frames are well drawn and pleasing to the eye, and they feature a little more than just flapping mouths, with occasional shifts in posture to keep the characters expressive.

Of course, there don’t need to be special effects in a show about musicians, right? Wrong. Not only are special textures like water given special treatment, but we often get visual representations of the emotions brought out by a piece of music, which use environmental and 3D effects to keep our attention during the sequence, especially towards the end when Kousei and Kaori are playing together in a fantasy sequence, and the camera liberally revolves around a beautifully 3D animated piano. The characters also have a lot of inner monologuing that’s shown to us in artistic fashion, reminiscent of His and Hers Circumstances, but what I found the most impressive was the actual animation of the characters playing their instruments on stage. I can’t confirm this, but I have heard from a few people that A-1 pictures used a technique similar to rotoscoping, and I feel no justification for doubting this rumor, as every movement of the performing musicians, from fingers on the keys to the way the bow’s movements perfectly matches the music of the violin.

It would be so easy to get away with having a still image on screen while only the performers arms moved, and more intense note being played offscreen while only the audience’s frozen faces of adoration are showcased, but as I said, that would be an insult to A-1. Kousei, Kaori and several others put their entire bodies into their performances, losing themselves in it, and you feel every drop of their adrenaline. Character designs are beautifully polished and easy on the eyes, with it’s only major departure from reality being that the musician characters look a little more distinctive and exuberant than non-musicians, like Kousei’s friends. Well, okay, there is one other unrealistic detail that bothered me a bit… The difference in height between 14 year old characters and themselves at 12 is fucking insane. My jaw dropped when they said that Kousei quit the piano at 12, because he was so short that when he sat on the bench his feet didn’t even touch the ground. I could have sworn he was, like, 6 or something. It’s my only real issue with the visuals, but it’s still a pretty jarring one.

The music of the series… Do I even have to say it? It’s a series about musicians, and you can’t do something like that if you don’t have the knowledge or resources to pull it off, and they seriously pulled it off. Not only is it full of classical music, you can tell the difference in the way these pieces are being played, and the music that is meant to inspire and astound people does exactly that to the audience as well as the characters. From what I gather, Yuna Shinohara, a decorated Japanese violinist who was only 21 at the time, played the music for Kaori, and her wealth of training and experience did not go to waste. I can’t find as much information on Eriko Kawachi, who played all of the piano pieces, which is unfortunate. The show’s actual soundtrack was composed by Masaru Yokoyama, and while it isn’t as memorable or powerful as the character-based performances, it’s still solid and well-orchestrated, so it’s a shame it gets overlooked in favor of the insert tunes.

The English dub was produced by Aniplex, and features a lot of newer actors from this decade, alongside a few industry veterans. I’d like to say these newcomers step up and use this show as a platform to make a name for themselves, but I’d be stretching the truth a bit, mostly on account of the many loops that Your Lie’s text throws them for. Their performances were not consistent, which is a direct result of their material not being consistent, and I don’t really think it was fair for them to be thrown into something this eclectic. For the most part, they do a fine job voicing the characters while nothing’s really happening. It’s just characters talking to each other, sounding like natural teenagers going about their lives. Where they really shine is during dramatic scenes, and ho boy are there a lot of dramatic scenes in this anime. There’s a lot of pain, insecurities, confusion, all of that fun adolescent stuff, but with a much harsher but still believable edge to it once you realize the kind of real life circumstances that they’re dealing with.

While some of these issues may be worthy of an eyeroll from the viewer… Most of the characters who are in love with Kousei fall into this category… They’re going through issues that you probably had to deal with as well, and you can scoff at it from your seat as a grown up, or laugh at how silly it is for this obvious harem to try and be something more, they’re feeling something you’ve felt at some point, whether you remember it or not, and they damn well make you feel it. The exception, where several otherwise amazing actors begin to falter… Is with the gag humor, when the characters go SD Chibi for exaggerated reactions, and I don’t think they were ready to transition the specific roles they were playing into it. Max Mittelman, for example, is one of the best voice actors to come out of the 2010’s, and even though he hasn’t been acting long, his voice control and dramatic chops have landed him plenty of leading roles. He can do comedy under the right circumstances… You’d know what these circumstances are if you’ve seen One Punch Man… But he sounds horrible during the gag jokes.

It’s even worse for Erica Lindbeck, who had a tough job playing such a nuanced character as Kaori, whose happy-go-lucky persona hides a darker interior, and she does a great job of it, but the gag scenes just make her sound like a despicable asshole. Smaller characters face the same issue, albeit on a smaller scale, but the few veterans are able to navigate the minefield a lot more skillfully, like Wendee Lee(Who, in all fairness, never has to do a gag scene), Stephanie Sheh and Carrie Keranen. They have the experience to stretch their roles beyond the appropriate tones, which comes in handy here. The adaptive script is loose, but still accurate enough, and changes the vernacular so everyone sounds more like contemporary English, without ever sacrificing the intent of the text. They make a handful of charming and character-appropriate references, like occasional nods to Charlie Brown and The Phantom of the Opera, although they also use the phrase ‘as you know’ a few too many times. They probably should have changes some of the text, as a lot of it, when translated, sounds weird coming from 14 year olds.

Okay, so, here we are again. It wasn’t too long ago that I was calling out modern anime fans for letting their emotions cloud their judgement, saying that they often give perfect scores to any anime that makes them cry. Seriously, you could give a critic a massage, a home cooked meal and the best sex of their life and you’d still be working harder for a 10/10 than most anime do. Back in 2016, I’d just uploaded my reviews of Clannad and Clannad Afterstory, and I asked social media to recommend an anime that had genuine feels… nothing manipulative, nothing manufactured, nothing too formulaic, just an anime that would touch me emotionally and make me cry with sincerity. The overwhelming answer was Your Lie in April, a show I’d been avoiding due to all of the hype. I finally gave it a watch, and did it stand up as a heartfelt masterpiece, or did it offer the same old same old? Well, to be honest,it’s a little of both. My feelings on this show were mixed the first time around, and the second viewing hasn’t changed that.

Unfortunately, Your Lie doesn’t get off to a great start. The first thing we see is a foul ball hitting our man character in the head, lying on the floor and bleeding with what has to be a serious concussion, but not only does he heal immediately, but he shares the blame for the broken window the ball flew through. That’s not just bad, that’s disturbingly bad. It sets an early precedent for him being a sad sack with no will of his own, which I guess is kind of accurate, but it also makes his closest friend look like a monster for taking advantage of it(Trust me, this feeling is only gonna get worse.) I try to move past this, but almost immediately, it becomes apparent that all three of Kousei’s friends are some of my least favorite cliches in anime history. His two primary friends are Tsubaki and Watari, and they are… Respectively… A childhood friend who’s hopelessly in love with the main character, and a girl crazy guy who exists to make the main character feel desirable in comparison. I am so sick and tired of these two archetypes being stuck in orbit around at least half of the main characters in the medium.

And Kaori’s worse, because she’s a trope that I usually don’t see in anime, and I’m not complaining about that. She’s happy-go-lucky, she’s childish, she’s an enlightened soul who’s able to see all of the simple joy in life, and she comes out of nowhere to dedicate her life to dragging the main male character out of the slumps. She is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which is to sexism what the Magical Negro trope is to racism. Granted, she deconstructs the trope a little bit, as she actually has a backstory and a reason to help Kousei, but she makes up for that small silver lining by taking the “Life begins at man” trope to a new extreme, as “Life begins AND ENDS at man.” I’ll give her this, she IS the reason I kept watching the series, as I was entranced by her violin performance in episode 2, and she made me want to keep watching so I could hear more of her work, which sounded even better when she played with Kousei. On top of that, she plays an important… Dare I say instrumental… Role in Your Lie’s deeper themes.

Your Lie in April is a story about inspiration, and it attacks this concept from every possible angle. As annoying and cliched as his friends may be, Kousei is a good character who has a great arc that deals with this theme. He begins as a child, having fun doing something that he’s gifted at, until he stops doing it for fun and starts doing it as a future career, being forced to perfect it and take it seriously by his mother, who pushes him to the point of abuse. She controls his life, making everything he does revolve around the piano, even taking away his cat and abandoning it somewhere so it can’t scratch his hands. He loses the ability to hear the notes he’s playing, and quits altogether to avoid his mother’s tyranny along with the intense pressure she put on him for not being good enough. On the surface, this is a very mature look at child abuse and the way it can have long term psychological effects on the developing mind, such as Kousei’s performance anxiety, and especially the fact that cats pose a trigger for him(And I mean the actual definition of trigger, not the bullshit internet definition), and the abuse in question is realistic, rather than cartoony or melodramatic.

Below the surface, this is a story for anyone who’s ever lost their passion for something they once loved. The idea that expressive and interpretive music is frowned upon, and only literal performances are acceptable in competition, which is enforced by both the competition committee and Kousei’s mother, gives an understandable reason for his loss of inspiration. His music was becoming routine, and pointless. I don’t think his inability to hear the notes he’s playing is realistic at all, but it’s symbolic for that loss of passion. When your work becomes routine, it becomes repetitive, and it finally becomes robotic. When your hobby becomes work, you fall out of love with it, which is why Kaori coming into his life was such a major turning point for him. She showed him that there was another way to play. She inspires him, breathing new life into his abilities, and helps him to separate his passion from the pain and sadness that he’d come to associate it with, and it changes his life in so many ways… He starts playing again, he comes out of his shell, and he even begins teaching a younger pianist… That he winds up inspiring her in return.

They also make an argument that you play even better when you’re playing for other people, and while I’ve never personally agreed with that, they make a compelling case. Your own music, your own performances, are not your only legacy. The music you inspire others with is just as important, as your work also lives on through their work. They make a great point when they say that it’s hard to play the piano when you compare yourself to Beethoven, but it’s not nearly as hard when you remember that Beethoven was once just like you, a rookie trying his best to measure up to the greats who inspired HIM. It’s a shame they had to resort to a manic pixie dream girl in order to pull this off, but it’s largely forgivable, especially considering certain reveals that happen in the final episode. So yeah, this is not a shallow series. There is meat to the story, and something meaningful that you can get out of watching it. I’d be happy to say that the series was also executed well, but sadly, this is where things start to break down.

The text of the series, for example, is severely lacking. The idea of inspiration and Kousei’s character arc are well written and exactly as subtle as it needs to be, but the other subplots… The romantic ones in particular… Are annoyingly obvious, and frankly, kind of arbitrary. I mentioned Tsubaki as a ‘childhood friend’ earlier, and while this should instantly telegraph that she’ll never get her guy… They never fucking do… She does absolutely nothing else to justify her presence. Everything about her revolves around her love for Kousei and why he won’t respond to it. Every aspect of her life ties in somehow to her love for him, and since it amounts to nothing, she could have been written out in the first half of the series. I won’t go into too much detail about the other romantic subplot, or how it offers Watari his only relevance to the plot(although he does have a few moments relating to the theme), but they commit one other huge mistake… They use constant, and I mean constant, voice over narration from the characters as they explain their feelings to the audience. It’s lame, it’s tedious, and it seems to be trying it’s best to keep YOU from thinking too hard about what you’re watching, because it doesn’t want the pointless teenage melodrama to lose it’s effect.

Another huge problem is the gag humor, which feels inappropriate and out of place. It makes the heavier themes of the show harder to swallow, and not just on an aesthetic level. For example: We see Kousei sustain head injuries during two of these gags, that result in him lying on the floor and bleeding out. We also see Kaori hit him right in the crown of the head with an axe kick, driving her heel down into his skull. Now, if these instances didn’t cause any lasting damage, and the people doing it are supposed to be seen as likable, how am I supposed to feel when his mother beats him in the head with her cane? I’ve seen him shrug off shit like that before, so I don’t care. Am I supposed to feel different because of the tone of the scenes? This isn’t the fucking Looney Toons. Hell, even the Looney Toons had consistency. I can’t be expected to believe that a portion of the material shown to me doesn’t count just because the writer was making a joke. That’s disgusting. I’ve complained about Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood making this mistake, but Your Lie is just as bad.

And then you have the plot, which did not work for me at all. Like, I said the themes were strong in this series, but they suffered one major setback. Kousei’s mother physically abused him and forced him to play music the way she wanted him to, all because she thought it was in his best interest. His friends, however, do exactly the same thing. Sure, they might not take away his beloved pet, but they still harass him, assault him, chase him, break into his room and generally act like complete assholes in order to get their way. He warns that his performance might not be good, he falters due to a psychological breakdown, Kaori has Tsubaki and Watari start roundhouse kicking him, and HE apologizes. How are they any different than his mother? Because it’s supposed to be comedic? I’m not exaggerating when I say that most of the interactions he has with his friends make me cringe, with their only justifications being ‘comedy,’ and the fact that they just happened to wind up being right. So the ends justify the means.

And then you have Kaori’s entire plot, which… Okay, I’m going to try not to go into spoilers, but if you’ve seen the show, you know damn well what I’m talking about. And this is the big one, the one that makes everybody praise the show out the wazoo, so I’ll try to be gentle. At the end of episode 4, Kaori faints on stage. At that moment, even though I was trying to enjoy the series despite it’s flaws, I couldn’t help it. I knew where this was going. I said, “Oh fuck, she’s gonna (censored), isn’t she?” I am dead serious about that. The beginning of the fifth episode featured her in the hospital, and folks, I predicted everything. I knew what was going to happen to her, i knew she was keeping it secret, I knew that it was going to be kept deliberately vague all the way to the end, I knew I’d never hear her play again(outside of maybe a dream or fantasy sequence), I knew what her backstory and connection to Kousei was going to be.

Knowing this stuff in advance took a huge damper off of the emotional impact of literally any point of the show. Granted, I did make one prediction that wasn’t true. I predicted we’d never meet her parents, which I wish had turned out true, because her parents are… Brace yourself for this… They’re Nagisa’s parents from Clannad. They are literally that. They own a pastry shop, they’re wacky and over-the-top, they live in said shop, and… Well, there’s one other spoiler connection, but that, along with a painful firefly sequence, made your Lie feel TERRIBLE at foreshadowing. I found myself, in both moments, shouting at my TV screen, “Okay, I get it, she’s gonna (censored), shut the fuck up about it!” So did the big bad tragedy work on me? No, of course it didn’t. The only part I got choked up at was a late scene when a cat died at a vet’s office, because it brought up painful memories for me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something here, and it does make the experience a rewarding one, but it just couldn’t stick the landing.

Your Lie in April is available as a Rightstuf Exclusive, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the price is offensively high. Even on sale as part of the site’s holiday deals, it’ll still costed 130 dollars for each HALF of the series, down from 160 dollars regular price. Used copies on ebay go for as low as 60 dollars for each HALF, and I can not recommend you pay that much for an overrated series. You can watch it for free on Netflix, but if you absolutely need a physical copy, I’d actually go against my better judgement and recommend the Malaysian bootlegs on Ebay, which do come with a dub for a fraction of the official price. The manga is available from Kodansha comics, and volume 1 even comes with a sweet exclusive cover if you get it from Loot Crate. The live action movie is probably available stateside, but from what I’ve heard about it, I don’t care enough to check.

Your Lie in April isn’t a great anime, but it’s also not a terrible one. So, overall, is it good or bad? Well, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy the vast majority of it. I found the gag humor annoying and in bad taste, I found the comedic violence way too similar to some of the tragic material, there are too many cliches, and I caught on to some of the more important plot points way too early to fall for them. Having said that, I can’t say the experience was a bad one. The themes of Kousei’s character arc resonated very strongly with me, as someone who’s currently falling out of love with a long time hobby, and while I found his friends to be wholly unlikeable, his piano rivals were much more interesting, and I actually want to see more of him interacting with them. The final tragedy would have been a lot stronger if it hadn’t been so obvious, or if it at least had a proper explanation, and you can’t possibly deny that the audio and visual production went beyond top notch. It had a lot of problems, but honestly, it’s an okay show. It doesn’t live up to the hype, but it’s worth checking out. I’m being generous here, but I’ll give Your Lie in April a 6/10.

“This world is corrupt! In order to prevent further degeneration, the natural order must be put to right. And yet! Should the human race be unified under one rule, the ignorant masses would doubtlessly experience untold trouble adjusting to the new status quo. Revolution, though necessary, should not happen all at once, for such a thing would overwhelm the very problem it was created to solve. Nay, like the proverbial toad in hot water, the world must be conquered gradually, so the ideals of the future can have time to settle in the minds of the people. Thus, rather than aiming to conquer the entire world, or even an entire country, an act that would most assuredly be met with violent opposition and unflattering propaganda, a more prudent first step towards overall domination would be a much more reasonable goal… The conquest of a single city! Yes, this far more modest approach will allow the population to acclimate to our presence, while also giving us some very lenient room for setback. Oh, and we also don’t have much of a budget, so kindly see yourself to a part time job or something.”

These are more-or-less the words that greet new recruits of the highly ideological organization Across! While the majority of this organization remains shrouded in mystery, but we can at least indulge in some insight into the situation of the F City F Prefectural branch, which may or may not be the only one in existence, and is overseen by the ambitious and campy Lord Ilpalazzo, a man who rarely ever leaves his lofty throne while giving orders to his minions, the dysfunctional duo of Excel, a hyperactive zealot, and Hyatt, a demure beauty who would sooner spit blood on you than say hi to you. With their forces combined, along with a pet dog ans emergency food supply named Menchi, these two constant failures are at the forefront of the battle for city conquest, when they’re not battling to pay the rent and put food on the table, all while living right next door to the opposition that’s trying to stop them. As the battle heats up between the forces of Across and a brigade of underpaid civil servants, whose side will you choose? Or rather, with all the wacky and nonsensical comedy going on, will you even bother to pick one?

I’ve probably talked about JC Staff the second most out of any other animation studios, right behind Studio Gainax, and I’ve made a habit of saying that it’s visual style is inconsistent. Well, inconsistent is the word of the day here, because I’ve seen them put out a bunch of different looking anime, but I’ve never seen anything else in their library that looked like Excel Saga. This is probably because they shared production duties with another Studio, namely Studio Shaft, and to call this an unholy union would be an understatement. Shaft has always been really weird visually, and when their sensibilities are combined with the animation of a company that can’t seem to stay consistent from scene to scene, let alone from episode to episode, Excel saga is probably the strangest looking anime that I’ve ever seen. And to put that into context, I posted a review over three years ago of the series that ripped this one off, Panty and Stocking. At least in that show, the visual changes were intentional and artistic.

The animation quality here is indescribable. That’s not to say it’s good beyond words, it’s to say that I literally can’t describe it. I honestly can’t even figure out what kind of budget it had, or how it managed said budget, because the level of quality goes up and down more often than your mom making the rent money. There are scenes that flow beautifully, with graceful animation and smooth movements, and then there are moments where movement becomes stilted and stiff, with long periods of talking heads periodically interrupted by bits of movement. There are two clip shows that obviously exist for budgetary purposes… Both of them even spend a lot of time recapping the same character arc! And then there are scenes where the action is happening so fast that you’d swear it was going at a million frames per second. I can only assume the budget was so high that the studio, also high, didn’t give a shit how it was used, and the clip episodes were done more so to make up for a lack of ideas than a lack of funds.

The characters whose images were bought to life in Koshi Rikdo’s original manga have been given a massive cartoony upgrade… Or downgrade, depending on the scene… And while they don’t look too unrealistic, for the most part, they still look like anime caricatures of real people. These designs are mostly reflective of the original manga, but with the aforementioned cartoony upgrade presenting them as more polished and malleable, making them ideal for the anime’s screwball comedic style. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are much more stable and consistent, and they’ve been endowed with way more detail than they actually needed, as the director makes use of very short cuts. The lighting can at times remind you of an actual stage play, as even an episode taking place in a sewer can be more than bright and open enough for you to enjoy the action, without ruining the illusion of a claustrophobic environment. The set pieces are also incredibly diverse, as the characters venture out into an untold number of unpredictable locations, and they clearly had a lot of fun bringing them all to life.
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The music is just as bizarre as the visuals, but personally, I like it a lot better. I own a couple of CDs from this show’s soundtrack, and back when I had a car that had a CD player, I would often steal tracks from both of them if I felt like making an Instrumental mix. The music was produced by Victor Entertainment, and they get a much higher billing in the series than most music producers ever do. They totally deserve it, too, putting out a soundtrack full of instrumental and synthetic sound, which work both as standalone tunes and occasionally as parodies of the musical convention of other shows. A good example would be the bland, repetitive track it attached to a literal dating game, which was somehow able to sound good while still capturing the cringe of the harem genre. They forego the synthetic tunes completely in a later episode focusing on a rock star character, and it winds up sounding legitimately badass. I’d keep going, naming off good tracks and why I like them, but it’s probably better to just say that it’s a really diverse, really weird soundtrack.

The opening, Love/Loyalty, is also one of my favorites. The song itself sounds like something from Michael Jackson, which isn’t surprising if you’ve seen some of the director’s other works. It’s sung by The Excel Girls, a fictitious band made up of two idol singers pretending to be members of Across(They appear as characters in the series, too), and they seem to have a lot of chemistry together. The video is basically what you’d expect from an anime… The main characters being shown in different situations, with the rest of the cast getting highlighted in brief shots, only it’s done with that special brand of Excel Saga insanity. It’s skippable, but the ending theme isn’t. They being the dog character Menchi on screen to sing about how she’s resigned herself to being eaten(In barks, while a woman translates), which is amazing in it’s own right, but then you have the dub, where they stuck a lot of jokes in the credits, some of them actually being funny.

If you’ve forgotten the list I posted a few years ago of my top ten favorite English dubs, then let me get you up to speed: Excel Saga has one of the best dubs ever. Period. It was one of ADV’s attempts to translate Japanese comedy for American audiences while still retaining the spirit of the original, and since Stephen Foster wasn’t involved at any point, they pulled it off beautifully. Every performance is either good in all the right ways or bad in all the right ways, with very little room for error… For the most part. It was, I believe, almost perfect, and if you know the series well, you pretty much know what I’m referring to. Jessica Calvello, who disappeared from the business for nearly a decade before recently making a triumphant career resurgence, plays the title character of Excel, and I’m going to stake my reputation on the claim that it’s the single best performance in anime dubbing history. Her role was an extremely demanding one, but she still owned it, and I’d even argue that she did a better job than the original seiyuu.

Due to the translation differences between the two languages, the English dialogue would often be a lot longer than the source, and instead of making changes to shorten it, Calvello just ran with it, talking way faster than her Japanese counterpart without ever diminishing the quality of her performance. Even during her most rapid speeches, you could feel how devoted she was to Ilpalazzo, how enthusiastically zealous she was for Across’s cause, and how little she cared for anything else. She could portray pain and suffering even better than Brittany Karbowski can, and get this, she even spoke with a perfect Kansai accent… well, as perfect as the English language can convey. She plays it like she’s tried to get rid of it, but it’s still kinda there, and it only comes out full force when she’s shocked or emotionally overwhelmed. The amount of control she had over her voice was insane, and,well, it took it’s toll.

You’ve probably heard about this, as it’s kind of a famous story in the industry, but Jessica Calvello put so much raw energy into this role, pushing herself so far beyond the limit, that she wound up injuring her throat, and had to be replaced by Larissa Wolcott halfway through the series, and it’s a noticeable step down. Larissa didn’t do a bad job, or anything… To be fair, she did an admirable job matching the pace of Calvello’s performance, and anybody who can motormouth like that deserves recognition for it… But she just didn’t have the acting chops to measure up. It felt wrong. It was kinda like when Dan Castelanetta played the Genie… Yeah, he did a fine job, but he’s no Robin Williams. On a side note, Calvello also had a knack for Adlibbing that helped to Americanize the humor in some neat ways, which is probably why some of Excel’s dialogue gets stranger after the switch. Thankfully, there were a bunch of other really good performances that we didn’t have to lose.

In addition to a handful of heavyweight voice acting veterans proving their ranges by playing an unbelievable number of characters… Like John Swasey, Spike Spencer, Tiffany Grant and then-newcomer Kira Vincent Davis… They even got great performances out of two of my least favorite voice actors, Mandy Clark and Mark Laskowski. Clark did an amazing job on the tragic pint-sized assassin Cossette Sara, and Laskowski’s knack for sounding stiff and hammy at the same time was a perfect fit for the goofball Iwata. It’s a lot of fun hearing Chris Patton play a rock star, as he actually got to sing the translated songs, and he fucking nails each one. It’s a shame he wasn’t in Beck. Rob Mungle uses an over-the-top latino accent to play the immigrant Pedro, and while I was never a huge fan of that character/story arc, his commitment to the character was impressive. Brett Weaver was also impossible to ignore as Nabeshin, the parodic avatar of director Shinichi Watanabe, playing him as a kind of white Richard Roundtree(his words, not mine).

Rounding out the main cast, this anime was my introduction to Monica Rial, whose portrayal of Hyatt is probably one of the best in her repertoire. Taking a step up from her Seiyuu counterpart, she incorporates the character’s anemia and weak constitution directly into her speech, as she perpetually sounds like she’s on the verge of fainting. She also has no problem at all with all of Hyatt’s… Well, let’s just say her ‘bodily malfunctions.’ Jason Douglas takes the flat-voiced, one note character of Ilpalazzo and seems to channel Maximilian Pegasus to create a more foppish, melodramatic shine that the character was so sorely missing. They really didn’t have any need to redub the character of Menchi, as she’s a freaking dog whose only lines consist of dog noises, and they could have easily just kept the Japanese performance like Pokemon did with Pikachu, but they cast Hilary Haag anyway, and her dog noises are almost as funny as Luci Christian’s duck noises. Even if you’re a hardcore sub fan, this is one exception I highly recommend you make.

If the name Shinichi Watanabe means nothing to you, it means you’ve never seen one of his anime. If you had, trust me, you’d know it. Watanabe, or “Nabeshin,” as he’s also known, is something of an auteur, as his work generally has a distinct style and personality to it that’s directly reflective of his influence on it. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, as any follower of Akiyuki Shinbou or Hayao Miyazaki will tell you, and for Nabeshin, it’s kind of both. He often gets praised for his work in the genre of anime comedy, as well as for his flare for satire and genre parody, and the results have been… Well, mixed. His work tends to consist of lightning fast pacing, rapidfire jokes, and constant references to other anime, and that’s pretty much Excel Saga in a nutshell. Granted, he’s worked as episodic and storyboarding director for a lot of other peoples’ projects, but he’s taken on very few himself, so it’s easier with him than it is with most directors to examine what it is that he’s all about.

His work, particularly in reference to Excel Saga, has garnered a reputation for being insane and random, and it’s here that I feel I have to disagree. The Excel Saga anime is not the work of a madman, or an unhinged mind. The writing on this show is in fact very calculated. With examples of genuine insanity and randomness out there, like FLCL and Rejected, Excel Saga skews closer to one of those focus-group facades of insanity and randomness, like (and I am so sorry, but you know it’s true) Invader Zim, but with an extra bit of conceit and arrogance hiding behind it. Nabeshin took the premise and characters of the manga, saw how offbeat it all was, and used it as an excuse to just not give a fuck. Yes, Excel Saga is one giant bag of fucks not being given, and by God does it show. It’s so easy just to write whatever you want, make fun of what’s popular, and do constant pop culture references… That’s why Family Guy does it. Excel Saga is, at it’s core, the true anime version of Family Guy. Moreso than Lucky Star will ever be.

And for those of you getting annoyed at me for interpreting the intentions of a creator that I’ve never met before, I’m not just talking out of my ass on this. I know that the anime wasn’t a product of actual insanity or inspiration, because I know what those things look like in a narrative… I have, after all, read the original manga. The Excel Saga manga, created by Koshi Rikdo in the 90’s, is an example of what true insanity looks like… It’s not unhinged and disconnected ramblings of randomness, it’s a genuinely batshit narrative that reads like it made perfect sense to the person writing it. Yeah, it looks bonkers from the outside looking in, but it still gives off a sense of consistence and intention. It was a grand, sweeping epic with foreshadowing, themes, depth, smart callbacks and meticulous attention to detail. It’s like if Lord of the Rings were written by a mental patient. I don’t know how Rikdo actually feels about Nabeshin getting all the popular credit for his work, I mean he DID take a couple of ideas from the anime long after the fact, but I still don’t picture him looking upon it fondly.

One of the biggest downsides to this is in terms of characterizations. Nabeshin didn’t just bastardize the original concept, he also turned almost the entire cast into one-note jokes and shallow gimmicks. There’s almost no character development in the entire series, outside of a few plot-specific changes and a few early actions taken from the manga. Aside from these, their actions are largely interchangeable. There’s not a whole lot I can say about that, as I don’t really want to give away too many spoilers about either entity(especially the manga), but there is one character I might be able to offer up… The fourth Civil Servant and later Municipal Force member, Misaki Matsuya. She starts out in the manga as a bit of a tsundere, spurning the annoying advances of Iwata, and in the anime, that’s basically where she stays… A violent and ultra-capable stick in the mud with stilted speech patterns and a no-nonsense demeanor. She even legitimately tries to kill Iwata in one episode, but can’t because her gun misfires.

In the manga, however, she gets a lot more development, and feels a lot more like an actual person. She becomes friends with her teammates, and shows at least enough compassion towards Iwata to care whether he lives or dies. Did you know she’s a hardcore gamer in her free time, and that she wanders over to her coworkers apartments to hang out if she’s feeling goofy from losing sleep to a gaming session? Did you know she forms a bond with computer geek Sumiyoshi by helping him to test out his elaborate computer set-ups? Did you know that when their boss Kabapu’s plans get out of hand, she actually attempts to leave the country to avoid getting dragged into them? No, you don’t know any of that, because Nabeshin did jack shit with her character. And she’s not a special case, either. Every single character in this series has expansive development that far outshines anything they did in the anime, and yes, I mean literally every character, from the pedophile scientist to the ill-fated dog Menchi. If I told you what was supposed to happen to Iwata down the road, you’d seriously think I was fucking with you.

And I know it’s tacky to judge an anime by comparing it to the original manga, but I’m not doing this to condemn it for being inaccurate, but as a device to show you just how lazy it is. Yes, that’s right, the Excel Saga anime isn’t crazy, it’s lazy. It takes what it needs to from the manga, and then just puts no effort into anything that it did with it. Don’t get me wrong, the music and animation clearly had a lot of love put into them, but in terms of writing and story-telling, and especially with the comedy, Nabeshin just did the easiest things he could at every turn. Breaking the fourth wall is easy. Random gag humor is easy. Parody, or at least Nabeshin’s brand of it, is easy. Justifying your show’s problems by having characters complain about them, and having meta characters talk about the production, is taking the easy way out. Having your Lupin-inspired stand-in complain about the lack of story and plot doesn’t create a story or plot. You can only wring so much of an excuse out of calling your show “Experimental” before people start to wonder what substance you’re actually experimenting with.

And I can’t just shut up and turn off my brain, and enjoy it as a goofy comedy, because about 90% of the time, I just don’t find it funny. I’ve heard people refer to it as satire… Are you kidding me? Satire has a point. Satire has logic. Satire has intentions. There is no satire in this show. The closest it gets to satire is picking a vague genre, blatantly calling out what’s wrong with it, exaggerating a few cliches and then just adding some weird shit like monkeys to the mix. The very idea of an existing internal logic is completely absent. If there’s any satire in it, and if any of the comedy in it is smart in some way, then it’s buried under culturally impenetrable Japanese references. There’s a rule in comedy that if you’re going to do a reference joke, it has to work as both a reference and a joke, so that people who don’t get the reference can still enjoy the joke. I first saw this series almost fifteen years ago, and I still don’t think I’ve seen a quarter of the anime I’d have to in order to fully enjoy the experience.

Excel Saga was originally available from ADV Films, but after they went under, this property was one of the many they wound up selling off. It’s currently available from Funimation, and while the form they’ve released it in isn’t as visually impressive as its’ previous forms, it is more affordable and easier to obtain. The original manga by Koshi Rikdo is available stateside from Viz, and while a couple of volumes were impossible to find a few years back, it’s all readily available nowadays for some decent prices. An extra episode called Going too Far serves kind oif as the true ending of the series, and it can be found on most DVD sets. A spin-off series called Puni Puni Poemy is also available, and it actually IS genuinely insane.

I feel like the reason Excel Saga is looked upon so fondly is because people generally haven’t read much of the manga. This is also probably why Nabeshin’s adaptation of Hayate the Combat Butler wasn’t as well received, because people actually cared about that manga. As for me, I’m not gonna lie and pretend that it’s a good show, but I do I have a soft spot for it. It’s mostly because of the dub, but it’s also because it was one of my formative anime. When I decided to venture beyond what was available on TV, this was one of the manga that my local library introduced me to, along with Love Hina, Chobits, and Azumanga Daioh. I can’t out and out hate it, but I do consider it to be something of a guilty pleasure, like how I occasionally might get bored, fire up Netflix and watch a Family Guy episode. It’s crap, but once in a while, crap is comforting. There’s some good here, but it’s all taken from the manga, and NOT a product of mad genius from the talentless hack who directed it. I give Excel Saga a 4/10.

When it comes to entitlement and birthright, Miho Nishizumi has a lot to be tankful for. Sorry, but I promised I’d make that joke at least once in this review, so at least it’s past us now. She hails from a family of highly trained, highly disciplined practitioners of one of their world’s most popular and prestigious forms of martial arts… Tankery. Yes, in this world, the most globally popular sport isn’t soccer, it’s full blown tank battles, and while it’s full extent is unknown, we do know that there’s a high school division that’s taught as a class, the students of which go to war with other schools in a yearly tournament. There are many nations taking part, and many different styles to contend with, but the Nishizumi family is at the top of the game. With the elegance of Wushu and the power of Krav Maga, the Nishizumi style of Tankery specializes in cold hearted dominance, seizing victory at the cost of all else, and with more than 18 tanks at their disposal, they had the force to overwhelm any opponent, even at the acceptable cost of several of their own units.

However, there is a black sheep in every flock, and the youngest daughter of the Nishizumi family… The comparatively gentle Miho… Doesn’t quite agree with the all-or-nothing approach that her family has long treasured. One day, during an important tournament battle, she abandoned her own tank to save the lives of several of her teammates whose tank had fallen into a deep river. Unfortunately, she’d been driving the flag tank, so when the parked vehicle was shot by enemy fire, her school wound up losing the tournament. Disgraced for her heroism, Miho was spurned by her family, which she repudiated in return. In order to get away from Tankery forever, she transferred to a school that didn’t have that class on it’s curriculum. Little did she know that on her first day at this new school, Tankery class would be brought back, and the student council would all but blackmail her into signing up for it. With the very life she’d been running from having caught up with her, will Miho become the leader her family never saw in her, or will history repeat itself?

Have I ever spoken about Actas before? Have I ever even heard of it before? I don’t think I have, which is understandable, because while they’ve done a ton of minor work on other studios’ projects, they really haven’t done that much on their own. From what I can tell, aside from Girls Und Panzer, the only major work they’ve done was the currently running Princess Principal, on which they shared duties with Studio 3hZ. They did Moetan and a few of what I understand are the less popular Transformers titles, but nothing else of any serious note, which is a shame, because I really like what they did with Panzer. I’ve never really had a problem with moe designs… Or ‘moe blobs,’ as they’re also sometimes called… But it’s kind of toned down here, taking a more grounded and natural approach to the big-eyed, chin-deprived features that are more closely associated with the trend. The moe design aesthetic works surprisingly well with the eponymous tank action, even if the animation doesn’t blend as smoothly as I’d like.

See, Girls Und Panzer uses a mix of traditional two-dimensional and more modern three-dimensional animation, and both work really well, at least for the most part. The slice of life aspects of the series, AKA the girls when they’re not operating heavy machinery, are done using 2D animation, and while I wouldn’t say any of it’s bad, it does feel wildly inconsistent. A great deal of it uses limited movement and smart budget saving tricks, such as selective framing and frozen talking heads, but it wouldn’t be to a distracting or noticeable degree if it wasn’t for certain other scenes that are so over-animated that they feel almost like they were done using rotoscope. The tanks in the series are almost always shown in CG, and while their movements don’t always look convincing or well integrated, they both look and move like real tanks, and the level of detail used on them is stunning. Unfortunately, while both sides of the animation are more or less adequate, they can look a bit cringey when both are moving at the same time.

You get a dose of this right in the first scene of the first episode, where we begin with a POV shot from inside one of the tanks, and we catch several glimpses of moe girls sticking their heads and whole bodies out of their respective tanks, and Good Lord does it look like an awkward combination. They just don’t move the same, and it doesn’t always look… Right. This gets better throughout the series, especially after they figure out that it looks much better to focus the camera on the girls while keeping the camera steady, negating any excess movement from the tanks so that they don’t have to move the girls with them, so it’s easy enough to get over. The character designs tend to get weirder as the cast expands, seeing how the main cast is geared towards normalcy with hairstyles that inform their personalities… The lazy girl has long thick hair, the delicate girl has lighter and fluffier black hair, the love-sick girl has hair that’s long, pampered orange locks, etc… But characters occupying the side tanks feature teams of military buffs, younger girls, girls who all look like clones of each other, so at least you can’t say they got lazy or uncreative with their moe blobs.

The soundtrack, by Shiro Hamaguchi, is mostly set to the style of military march music, and if you want a quick comparison, there’s a track called Panzer Vor that, early on, sounds eerily similar to the theme song from Disney’s Recess. There’s a lot of rolling drums at the base of the music, and it’s overlayed by a handful of different wind instruments, your standard marching band fare. There are a few exceptions, such as in regards to foreign characters, like the British tune The British Grenadiers, which acts as a reverse of a lot of the more standard tunes, as it starts with the flute and then adds in the drums. There was initially a beautifully rendered version of an old Russian folk song on the soundtrack, but because Crunchyroll couldn’t get the rights to it, they had to replace it with something else Russian sounding from the public domain bin. They went, of course, with the Pac Man theme, which didn’t even come close. Another noteworthy track is the cast being forced to sing the Goosefish song, but it’s nothing without it’s insane dance visuals. Honestly though, the most noteworthy music that the dub was able to retain is the opening theme Dreamriser, from the band Chouco, which is absolutely delightful.

The English dub is unfortunately on the disappointing side, as Sentai Filmworks apparently decided that instead of trying to match the moefied voice of the characters… A feat that, like an accurate kansai dialect, is distinctly possible to pull off but still highly difficult… They would instead use more normal, natural sounding American teenage girl voices, most of which hit a lower register than you’d expect from a glance at the characters, and it doesn’t work as well as you’d hope. To be fair, it does start to sound a lot better after a few episodes, especially as Meg McDonald, one of Sentai’s most recent hires at the time, manages to find a connection to her character that may have something to do with the character herself growing in confidence and comfort with each passing episode. Actually, a lot of the cast of this dub are unknown names and recent(at the time) hires, including Rebekah Stevens growing into her role of the excitable tank nerd Yukari and Molly Searcy… Well, honestly being a bit miscast as the sleepy and quiet Mako, as you can just tell she’s struggling to give the character personality despite the restrictions of a lower register.

Caitlynn French was also hired around 2012-2013, but it’s arguable that she’s come a lot farther than her contemporaries since then, with plenty of notable star performances under her belt already, and even though she’s not playing the main character here, she plays around with the role of Hana, a girl trying to transition from the gentle delicacy of flower arrangement to the raw power of firing a tank cannon and finds a lot of character in this dynamic. There are a bunch of veteran actors in the cast, with recognizable voices like Monica Rial and Luci Christian popping up in the rest of the main tank class, and some incredibly talented names like Hilary Haag and Brittany Karbowski getting meatier parts as villains, but the most surprising for me was the boy-crazy Saori, and after stumping me for most of the first episode as I tried to place where I’ve heard her before, it hit me like a ton of bricks that she was played by voice acting veteran Jessica Calvello, who I honestly hadn’t heard in anything since 2003.

I mean, okay, she had like 6 or 7 jobs between 2004 and 2013, but none of them were really high profile, and now, she’s getting lead roles left and right, and deservedly so, with fan favorite performances in Attack on Titan and Maria Holic, to name a few. I’ve mentioned in other reviews how excited I was to see her coming back in a major way to the dubbing industry, and her performance in this is probably it’s biggest saving grace. The first episode does sound a little awkward all around, but she’s the only main actor whom I can confidently say was putting forth maximum effort since the beginning. That’s not to say she makes the dub sound good, however, because the deepened voices coming out of characters that are slightly grounded but still over-the-top in design is a hard thing to get used to. Hell, the perfect example of this dub’s problems is the student council president, a short girl with tsundere pigtails whose voice is way too deep for her stature. It’s kinda worth checking out at least once to see what Sentai’s newest hires of this decade are capable of, and to celebrate Calvello’s triumphant return to action, but the sub is way better.

Girls Und Panzer is what I like to call a Gimmick Anime. It’s not deep, it’s not high concept, it’s not a rip-off of anything more successful, it’s not following popular trends… It’s the kind of show(Well, manga, in this case) where the creator was able to come up with one weird, original concept and build a story, world and cast of characters around it. This may sound like a new concept for some of you, but if you think back, there have been plenty of Gimmick anime that have become successful over the years. High School of the Dead and Tiger and Bunny lit up the market back in their day, and over ten years later, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is still finding new ways to expand the universe it built off of it’s gimmick. All you really need to do is take your original idea, set it into a tried and true formula, populate it with archetypal or even subversive characters, and then find ways to market it, so that people get hooked on the new idea while being drawn in by the same old surroundings that the gimmick manages to cover up.

If that sounds cynical of me, well, that’s because more often than not, Gimmick anime don’t always work, and there are a myriad of problems they can go through. For example, the gimmick can get stale, exposing the characters as running jokes who can no longer support it, which is what happened to Dagashi Kashi, at least in my opinion. You can focus on the gimmick to the point that the series loses it’s sense of direction, which is probably how Bento wound up going off the rails with two unwatchable and thankfully skippable episodes. You can focus way too hard on marketing, which led to Strike Witches going overboard on fanservice to an unforgivable degree, or you can try to make your gimmick show more than the sum of it’s parts and fail miserably, winding up looking stupid and pretentious as a result, like Sasami-san@Ganbaranai. If your main character IS the gimmick, you run the risk of sacrificing plot, story and the rest of the cast as props to support the exploits of said character, like Squidgirl did. Or you could be like C3, and pick a gimmick that feels way too disturbingly similar to real life tragedies.

Okay, to be fair, Girls Und Panzer almost falls to that last issue, with tanks fortunately being a lot more removed from reality than lifelike toy guns and thus not nearly as uncomfortable to think about, but aside from that, it really doesn’t have any of those other problems. It fused it’s gimmick with one of the most enjoyable story structures you can pick, the ‘underdogs proving themselves in a tournament’ structure template, and in doing so, it was able to keep the story simple, hold to a consistent direction, keep it’s gimmick fresh with the increasing difficulty of each battle and the challenges both during and inbetween, and it had so much realism in the movement of the tanks and the tactical usage of terrain and strategy that they were able to get away with some otherwise ludicrous logic fallacies… Which, to be fair, was more for the sake of keeping the show from crossing the threshold from tank violence to actual human casualties. Yeah, I’ll believe a human sticking out of a tank is too small a target to hit, because a moe show like this one REALLY doesn’t need to get that dark.

Of course, being a tournament style show that only has 12 episodes, it did wind up facing one other potential problem. Using Yuri on Ice as a begrudging example… Seriously, I really wanted to like that show more than I did… It’s entirely possible for a large cast to feel underdeveloped in a story that seems to be focused more on performance performance performance, with interchangeable stock characters just kind of existing for the sake of existing, and it’s just as possible for a show like that one to carry low or even no stakes. Again, though, this is a problem that Girls Und Panzer manages to avoid. The characterization is a bit light, with no individual characters having arcs outside of the tank battles, and the few that do exist being resolved for better or worse by a simple win/loss, and honestly, none of the characters… Not even in the main five… Are particularly memorable as individuals. Even the villains, who are a lot more fun to watch, are little more than stereotypes.

Up until my second time through the series, this was my one major problem with it, but now that I’ve seen it again, the characters are developed… Enough. The main cast may not be made of definitive characters, but you know enough about them to like them and to know why they’re in the game, and what they’re getting out of it. They don’t go above and beyond, but it’s acceptable. They even change by the end, albeit in smaller and more subtle ways than some viewers will be used to. The supporting cast is largely interchangeable, but with the exception of some cosplayers towards the end, none of them feel wasted or unimportant. They even wind up getting small arcs to themselves, like when the bumbling underclassmen wind up scoring major achievements in the last fight. Besides, when you really get down to it, this isn’t a character based story… It’s mostly plot driven, and while it’s not going to break any barriers, a team of underdogs surrounded by less important but still kind of interesting stock characters while battling foreign stereotypes that still manage to pull out redeeming qualities whenever needed is a scenario that’s more than enough to support a tournament show.

In other words, Girls Und Panzer’s biggest accomplishment is in execution. The parts for the most part don’t feel like anything special or revolutionary, but when it all comes together, you wind up with an intense, energetic sports anime that’s able to use likeable characters and smart writing to create a series of truly heart-pounding fights, full of devastating twists and sudden, unexpected challenges that you can’t help but cheer every after every single one that they overcome. I will admit that I had a lot of problems with the first episode, and I found it really despicable that the student council would use such cruel and extreme tactics to force Miho to take tankery, but even that becomes forgivable about halfway through the series when you realize that there isn’t just the joy of success and the developing bond of the tankery class on the line, oh no, there are actual stakes at play here, and the more you grow to love and identify with these characters, the more you’ll want them to overcome all odds and win it all. Not bad for a show that needed two inbetween ova episodes to help us keep up with all of it’s characters.

Girls Und Panzer is available from Sentai filmworks. The inbetween episodes I just mentioned are all available on the home release. A six episode OVA series is also available from the same company, along with another OVA and the first of seven feature films, although I’ve seen none of these, so I can’t speak as to their quality. Two different manga series, Girls Und Panzer and Girls Und Panzer Little Army, are available stateside from publisher Seven Seas. There are actually a ton of different manga titles (and one game) that aren’t available stateside, along with one light novel, but I’m sure we’ll get them eventually.

Girls Und Panzer is by no means a masterpiece, but it still had every excuse in the book to not be as great as it is. Not only was it saddled with a production team that hasn’t done anything else of note until this year, it was also limited to 12 episodes and almost as many named characters as Fullmetal Alchemist had, and despite these problems, the final product is nothing short of amazing. It has some flaws, but aside from the easily excusable logic and safety issues, the only problems that hold me back from giving it a perfect score are the occasionally shakey animation and the handful of character arcs that get resolved way too easily at the end. None of these problems keep the series from being a blast from start to finish, nor do they manage to derail that overall feeling that the people working on it fully enjoyed what they were doing and believed in it with complete sincerity. I know a world where recreational tank battles have achieved world-wide popularity is a hard concept to imagine, but this series makes me believe in it one hundred freaking percent. It’s exciting, it’s smart, it’s suspenseful, and it’s honestly one of those rare titles that I’d recommend to just about anyone. I give Girls Und Panzer a 9/10.  

For as long as mankind has enjoyed the tradition of telling stories, one of the most popular and long-lasting subjects has been the story of the hero… Average, ordinary people gifted with powers and trusted with the responsibility of fighting for justice, defending those around them, and proving what the average person… AKA the reader… Can accomplish if given the chance. Usagi Tsukino, however, is not what you’d call an average or ordinary teenage girl. No, even if we don’t consider the crushing expectations of Japanese society, she’s the pinnacle of below-average. Unlike most 14 year old middle school students, Usagi doesn’t have very many hobbies or interests, and even the things she enjoys, like video games, she’s below average at. She has no ambitions, she has no real talents, she can’t cook, she’s not athletic, she hates to study, she avoids responsibility at every turn, and no matter how low you set your bar, she’s not the first person you’d expect to be granted the powers of a hero. She’s probably not even your last pick.

However, as is often the case, along came a talking cat. Baring a strange crescent moon-shaped bald spot on her forehead, this matronly feline revealed Usagi’s true calling to her… With destiny at her side, and the mysterious Queen Beryl bringing chaos to her small Japanese town, Usagi was tasked with becoming Sailor Moon, the pretty guardian of love and justice! With only her wits and a few pieces of cosmic weaponry standing between her and defeat, four other Sailor Guardians would soon join her cause. The brilliant Sailor Mercury wields the power of water. The furious Sailor Mars wields the power of fire. The strong Sailor Jupiter wields the power of lightning, and the experienced Sailor Venus, who had been acting on her own as Sailor V long before Usagi obtained her power, wields the power of… Something. Combined, they form the Sailor Guardians, and it’s up to them to battle and defeat every single threat that Queen Beryl and the Dark Kingdom throw at them in their vague quest to turn the world dark, or something, and they can only do that by finding the missing Moon Princess and returning her to the throne!

All right, folks, it’s time once again to visit the nineties, a time when animation standards had to be low enough to accommodate the technology that was available, with very few exceptions managing to break through, but trust me, Sailor Moon wasn’t one of them. This series, and every single Sailor Moon title that would follow it(as far as I know, at least) was animated by Toei, one of the most long-running and prolific companies in anime history. Their legacy stretches back to the sixties, and they’ve had some noteworthy hits such as the One Piece, Captain Harlock and Dragonball franchises, and I’ve actually discussed them before in my review of the 1975 Little Mermaid movie, but one of their biggest names is arguably Sailor Moon, a franchise that began in 1991 and continues to this day in countless variations. I’ll be perfectly honest, here… I never saw this show during it’s allegedly embarrassing run on American TV. I only saw SuperS growing up, and looking back at the OG, yeah, it really doesn’t hold up too well.

That’s not to say Sailor Moon is one of the worst looking anime I’ve ever watched, but considering the amount I have, that’s not saying much. People coming into the show blind without a lot of experience with the medium would probably call the animation awful right at first glance, and while that’s an understandable reaction, people who are used to watching older anime would more likely be able to tell that for it’s time, Sailor moon isn’t that far below average. The budget was obviously low, even by early nineties standards, but everyone stayed on model, with very rare exceptions. At it’s worst, movement can be stilted and static scenes can go on way too long, but honestly, for a magical girl show from 1991, it’s competent enough. Freezing characters who aren’t talking and reusing animation for the show’s infamous transformation sequences can also go a long way in conserving animation costs, and this is going to sound really weird… Even I don’t fully understand it… But as far as bad animation goes, this one is on the higher end of the scale.

There are two elements of the artwork that stand out to me the most. The first is the watercolor aesthetic, which… for the most part… gives the series a very soft and lighthearted feel, and the reason I say ‘for the most part’ is because that same watercolor art style is surprisingly versatile. This goes for more toned down backgrounds like the interiors of bedrooms and classrooms, where there’s enough detail to give the environment life without distracting from the character inhabiting them, but what’s even more impressive is just how dark and ominous it can get whenever we enter the realm of the Dark Kingdom, where they use just the right blend of colors to give off a sinister feeling without overdoing it. The other element that stands out is the character designs. Outside of the main cast and a handful of featured extras, the majority of the people on screen look normal enough for the Japanese setting, giving Usagi and the other Sailor Scouts the perfect backdrop to look unique against, with their assorted hair colors and alternate uniforms.

I do have a few gripes with the design conventions, of course… Since this is an old show, I can’t really get too mad at it for following old cliche trends, but I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me why old people in anime are always portrayed as little people. Do Asian people shrink with age, or something? And of course, if you’ve read my post about Astrid and Other Love Interests, you’ll be able to tell just by design which of Usagi’s two crushes she’ll actually wind up with by the end of the first episode. Not that it would have been hard to figure out otherwise. And finally you have the villains, which are every bit as crazy as the Power Rangers episodic baddies, but with the benefit of animation to explore just about every imaginable possibility. Some of them look more ridiculous than others, and I still haven’t managed to remove my palm from my face over seeing a priest turn into a boxing monster named Boxxy, but there are more than enough cool and memorable monsters to make up for it, disposable or not.

The music is a bit generic, but not in a bad way. It’s the kind of music you’d expect from a show about heroes of justice protecting the innocent, and even the tunes you have to listen to ad nauseum are at least catchy and memorable. Sailor moon’s transformation music never wore on my nerves, with it’s heart-pounding beat calling you to action. The whole orchestration is epic, even if it blends into the action way too well to be noticeable in context. Even the background music that plays in school when there’s no real action going on, which would be annoying and repetitive in most anime sounds pretty cool in this show, with a kind of jazz-like swing to it. I actually noticed that there are a lot of tracks in this show were kind of like analogues of the opening theme, either played in different ways or with different instruments, and can you blame them? With an opening theme that good, who wouldn’t want to get more use out of it? The animation for the opening gets a lot better in season two, of course, but they keep the same song.

Fun fact: I actually bought the soundtrack to Sailor Moon classic on Ebay, and not for a cheap price, just so I could have… Well, let’s avoid spoilers and just say “A certain violin track from the later episodes.” If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. It’s to die for.

There have been two English dubs for this series, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never seen the old Dic one. I’ve seen some clips of it, and if I’m being honest, none of it really inspired me to check out more. As I’ve said, my initial exposure was SuperS, and I distinctly remember the actor for Sailor Moon in that show being unlistenable, so for me, Stephanie Sheh is nothing short of a step up. I’ve gushed about her talent and range in previous reviews, but her abilities may have been a bit too good for this role, because Usagi is supposed to be an annoying and childish character more often than not, and of course, Stephanie delivers a childish and annoying performance… I’m not saying it’s not accurate, but intentional annoyance is still annoying. She does capture all of the characters positive attributes too, of course, which goes a long way in portraying the character’s growth, so props to Sheh on doing a solid job that does, occasionally, backfire in unavoidable ways.

The rest of the main female cast is rounded out by industry veterans, and while Kate Higgins and Cherami Leigh don’t have that much to do in their roles as Mercury and Venus… I’ll talk more about them later… They still do fine jobs with what they were given. Amanda C Miller hasn’t done as much anime work as her peers, as she’s only really been active since 2011, but she is fantastic as Sailor Jupiter, evoking strength, compassion and vulnerability on par with Christine Auten’s portrayal of Sakaki-san in Azumanga Daioh. She’s also not afraid to get whimsically goofy when her character gets lost in another boy-crazy fantasy. Cristina Vee is a name I always look for in a dub, and she doesn’t disappoint here with the character of Sailor Mars, which easily could have been written off as a stereotypical tsundere. Even with these names in the cast, however, my favorite performance is from Michelle Ruff as the herald of the Moon Kingdom, Luna, a talking black cat whose motherly tone conveys both the endless patience and long-suffering good humor that living with someone like Usagi would inevitably breed in someone.

Of course, Johnny Yong Bosch also plays a cat, the male named Artemis, and he does fine despite not having as much screen time. The rest of the cast is made up of both veterans and newcomers, with the most noticeable extras being Vic Mignogna as a boy with ESP, Wendee Lee as Princess Serenity’s mother, and a handful of appearances from Veronica Taylor in small roles. speaking of newcomers, Robbie Daymond had his official anime debut in this show as Mamoru Chiba, who would eventually be revealed as Tuxedo mask(If that’s a spoiler, then you’re too young to be reading my work), and he’s had a major career boom ever since, which he fully deserves. He plays both a normal sardonic teenager and a heroic boy-scout just fine, but he especially shines as a villain in the latter story arcs. That’s no easy feat, of course, when the villains of this show are being played by experienced VAs like Todd Haberkorn and Liam O’brien. The writing of the dub is also extremely faithful, from what I can gather from the subtitles, so it’s a dub I highly recommend checking out.

So, this is normally the part of the review where I’d start getting into things like the depths and themes of the writing, but Sailor Moon is a little different from the shows I’d normally tackle, as there really isn’t any depth of theme to it. Instead, I’m going to start off by addressing a very recent criticism of the series… That it exploits the sexuality of teenagers. If you haven’t seen the Nostalgia Critic’s review of the series, he talks about the ethics of using 14 year old characters for fanservice, and uses that as a platform to discuss the issue of underage sexuality in Japan. Don’t get me wrong, that IS a topic worthy of discussion, and he does a really smart job of it, but I can’t help feeling like Sailor Moon didn’t really deserve to be the focus. It’s practically a rule that in order to get deep into anime, you have to come to terms with the sight of underage characters being displayed in revealing outfits, or even less than that, sometimes full-on nude. That doesn’t mean you have to be okay with it, although it’s kind of easy to rationalize them as fictional characters drawn by the hand of an artist, or you can just get used to condemning and criticizing it. Your reaction is your own to discover and own.

Having said that, I’m sorry, I don’t get why Sailor Moon was the anime chosen to lead this discussion. Maybe it’s my asexuality talking, but I really don’t find anything sexual about this series, let alone it’s underage characters. Nothing sexual ever happens or even gets alluded to. I’ve seen a ton of anime that featured underaged nudity, from tasteless examples like Strike Witches to surprisingly tasteful examples like the last episode of B Gata H K. Okay, the transformation sequences kind of count, but they’re just featureless outlines, no more explicit than the Tempur-Pedic logo before it had it’s ass crack removed. Aside from a relatively tame beach episode, the girls never shove cleavage in our faces, and only once or twice shown bathing in G-rated fashion. I get westerners finding the sailor outfit sexy, but they’re just ordinary schoolgirl uniforms in Japan, and their actual hero-versions of those uniforms go one step further by being leotards, so even a skirt-flip like the one that freaked Doug out are no more revealing than watching a ballerina dance.

There’s a LOT worse out there in the anime world, but more to the point, there’s a lot worse in America, too. Let me just try out my cringeworthy Joker impersonation here… “When 14 year old Morty gets buck-naked, nobody panics because it’s all part of the plan. When the Simpsons movie shows us a ten year old’s uncensored penis, nobody panics, because it’s all part of the plan. But put one 14 year old girl in a sailor suit with a short skirt, then everyone starts losing their minds!” I’m really sorry if you actually imagined the voice for that. Anyway, rather than sexuality, it would make a lot more sense to use this show as a jumping-off point for a discussion about sexism, which isn’t a HUGE problem in this show, but it does exist. In a lot of cases, Tuxedo Mask does have to step in when Usagi starts to fuck up, and while I don’t think the writers intended to insult an entire gender here… They were probably just building up to the future reveals about the two, and Usagi does start to become much more confidant and self-sufficient down the line… It can get a little annoying, and understandably offensive to some viewers.

Honestly, the sexism in the series is at it’s worst when the writers seem conscious of it, and try to subvert it. The first really great episode of the series(And to be fair, there are no shortage of really great episodes) took place on an enchanted love cruise, and not only did it feature some of the best character writing for everybody present, but the girls managed to save the day all by themselves in spectacular fashion. And yet for some reason, one episode later, they aired the worst episode of the series, where they have their final encounter with Jadeite, and they actually TRIED to be non-sexist in the most blatant and on the nose way possible. Not only is the episode brain-breakably stupid(Seeing the sailor guardians running away from planes instead of turning around and taking advantage of their bulky size was pretty hilarious, IMO), but they had Jadeite call out the ineffectiveness of female heroes, despite never showing any signs of sexism, just to set out a very vocal girl power message from the heroes, who wind up rescuing Tuxedo Mask, who didn’t even need to be there in the previous episode.

And yeah, the show is really fucking stupid. It’s usually not too obvious a problem… lapses in logic in a show like this are largely forgivable… But there are exceptions. People not recognizing Usagi as Sailor Moon despite her face and hair always being the same is something you get used to really quickly, but when they do a story arc where the villains are trying overly-complicated methods to find out who she is, you start to wonder why her frisbee throwing skills and clumsy dancing are considered easier targets than literally everything going on above her neck. You do not solve problems by calling attention to them, especially problems we were already ignoring. But the biggest crime that the show’s stupidity causes is with the introduction of Sailor Mercury, who was supposed to be the smart character in the group, but then again, you need to have smart writers to write smart characters. Usagi may have grown as a character throughout the series, but the other characters were still needed to pull the series along.

Sailor Mercury has the same problem that Maka from Soul Eater had… She was brought in to be the smart character, but since the series itself wasn’t up to par on writing intelligence, we pretty much have to take their word for it. She spouts exposition, operates technology to reveal more exposition, gets good grades and studies a lot, but she doesn’t add any intelligence to the show or the dynamic of the group. Honestly, in practice, she’s more brave and self-sacrificing than smart. Rei, on the other hand, instantly makes the show better with her introduction. She’s meant to be the passionate character, and she does add some resolve to the group, and since passion conflicts with Usagi’s easy-going nature, she provides a desperately needed foil for her. She also brings perception, which is MUCH easier to write than intelligence, as her communications with spirits and ability to sense auras help the group to avoid threats and identify traps more often. She doesn’t always save the show, just look at that Jadeite episode, but she does way more good than harm.

Sailor Jupiter doesn’t really add anything specific to the group, at least not that’s obvious. She’s characterized as the Strength girl, and yeah, the group does subtly get stronger with her in it. Even if you don’t notice this, she’s a very well written and fleshed out character, much like Sailor Mars and Sailor Moon. From the research that I’ve done, her and Mars are the most popular characters out of the main five, what with Mars being mature and responsible and Jupiter being the gentle giant with a heart of gold, both having distinctly unique identities outside of the team, and also having unique relationships with Usagi, so it makes sense they’d be at the top of the list. But then you have Sailor Venus, who you THINK is going to have a major story surrounding her on account of her posing as Sailor V and technically being the first active guardian, but no, she’s just dropped into the cast and immediately absorbed into it, and I cannot for the life of me describe her in any way other than a little bit of plot relevance.

Almost everything I know about her, other than her hair color and length, and the few scant facts mentioned above, I had to get from outside sources. Apparently she’s the empathetic character and her element is Metal, none of which was ever made apparent to me in the show. Yeah, she gets developed a lot more in other media, but that’s beside the point. You can’t have that much filler and tell me you didn’t have time to make me care about one of your biggest characters. And of course, speaking of filler, we’re about to dive head first into one of my biggest problems with this series… Not how formulaic the episodes are, oh no, I can deal with that. I’m so far beyond used to that kind of thing. My problem is with the structure of the series. I don’t know this from personal research… I actually learned it from another reviewer… But apparently, the first three volumes of the manga are represented by the first 66 episodes of the anime… Which is all 46 episodes of this series plus 20 from it’s sequel series, Sailor Moon R.

I have no problem believing this, because my God do they take their sweet ass time with the story. Before I even learned this tidbit, I had formed a working hypothesis that they planned out the episode length of the series, picked out where each special event or plot development would happen, and filled the empty spaces with repetitive, formulaic filler, each stretch of episodes having it’s own basic plot idea. This is why unlike most shows, where there’d be a couple of bad episodes… Even Cowboy Bebop had one… Sailor Moon has bad STRETCHES of episodes, about three of them by my count. The first stretch began with the first episode, and ended with the introduction of Rei. The second stretch began with the final Jadeite intro and ended when Nephrite finally became interesting, and the final one happened between Venus’s introduction and when they gave up trying to figure out who Sailor Moon was. But honestly, out of 46 episodes, that’s not the majority of the series. Far from it.

If you can get over the repetition and formula, there’s a lot of good material here. While some of the characters fall flat, like Sailor Venus in particular, the rest of them are well written and fully realized. Usagi may not be as likeable as a main character and leader like Luffy, but she has just as many personality-based weaknesses that keep her from ever feeling like a Mary Sue or an over-powered badass. I loved the villains in particular… Well, at least the ones serving as Queen Beryl’s henchman. Yeah, they were definitely evil, but they were also three dimensional, with personalities and motivations of their own, as well as their own connections and relationships beyond their job. Nephrite’s story arc in particular was one of the main reasons that I was able to have such a major soft spot for this series, allowing me to forgive all of it’s obvious problems. It’s also perfectly safe for younger viewers, although the younger male demographic might not get as much out of it. I’d say at the very least it’s worth checking out.

Sailor moon is available from Viz Media. There have been various home video releases in the past, but to my knowledge, this is the first one to present the series the way it was intended, so I don’t think those ones count. There have been countless sequel series and OVA and movie spin-offs and I dare not name them all here, but they’re easy to look up. A side manga called Codename Sailor V, which carries the bulk of Sailor Venus’s character development and identity, is available stateside from Kodansha Comics. A recent remake of the original series called Sailor Moon Crystal is also available from Viz, and features the same cast, but I’ve heard it’s not as good. What a surprise, a more manga-accurate retelling of a previously successful anime isn’t as good. The live action series is NOT available stateside, but the original manga is.

Getting into this anime 25 years after it’s release, and watching with the eyes of a 31 year old man, I was expecting it to be the cringiest thing ever. I was expecting something along the lines of a ghetto super hero version of Super Gals! Which was the last anime I can remember dropping. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Even the bad stuff, of which there was a considerable amount, was campy and awkward enough that I could get a good laugh out of it. I’ll admit that I went easy on it, compared to other titles that have crossed my path, but that’s because I was having too much fun to focus on nitpicking. It could get dark and serious when it wanted, and thankfully it did so at all the right times, taking a shockingly Wolf’s-Rain-esque turn towards the end. I don’t know if I’d be willing to watch it a second time, but I’m glad I watched it once, and I’d be happy to watch the sequel series, in order to see what happens next. I am Naru the Narcissist, lazy guardian of sloth and pretension, and in the name of the moon, I give Sailor Moon a 6/10.  

Review requested by Greyam Moorcraft.
“Why hello there… I’ve been watching you for quite a while. You work so hard, balancing your responsibilities at work with your responsibilities at home… I can’t imagine having to deal with the crippling irony of spending so much time pulling overtime for extra money to support your children, only to have them complain that you’re not home enough to spend time with them. What’s that? Oh, right, I forgot. My name is Masakaki, and I’ve come here to offer you a wonderful opportunity. How would you like to have all the money you could ever need? You’d never need to work a day in your life again… Well, maybe a little, to keep up appearances. If you’d like to solve all of your problems and improve your quality of life once and for all, then come with me to the Financial District, a world where an ambitious soul such as yourself can earn as much money as you want with little effort… Oh, but of course, there’s a catch. You’ll have to succeed at the expense of your peers, putting your money up against theirs… And offering up your future as collateral. So, my new entrepreneur… What will it be?”

Now, if I were you, I would think twice before taking Masakaki’s offer, because this entrepreneurial El Dorado really isn’t what it seems at the outset. As a resident of the Financial district, a separate plane of reality whose influence on our plane is disturbingly obvious, you’ll be gambling with more than just your net worth, or even just your life. You’ll be given a small fortune right at the start, along with an asset… Your own personal battle monster to fight other entrepreneur’s battle monsters on your behalf. They’ll be the ones taking a Stand for you as you encounter a wide array of both entrepreneurs(called Entres for short) and their Assets as well. One such Entre is Yoga Kimimaro, a college student who works himself to the bone to support himself, paying for tuition and rent with his wages.He seems to have developed this weird idea that Assets are people too, and he has a hard time making decisions as he seems compelled to do the right thing, and yet he’s proven himself a force to be reckoned with. Will he be able to defend Japan against the District’s secret threat, or will this Entre receive his just desserts?

Today’s anime offering is brought to us by Tatsunoko Production, a company that’s somehow been around since the sixties without making much of an impact along the way. That’s probably an exaggeration, seeing how I’m not personally up to date on the history of Japanese pop culture, but with the exception of Speed Racer, Irresponsible Captain Tylor and the Gatchaman franchise, I haven’t heard of almost any of their properties. Maybe it’s all just too obscure for me, and for that reason I really can’t get a grasp on what their work tends to look like on average, but C is one of their more high-profile titles, even if it’s name makes it really frustrating to look up online. At the very least I’ve seen Gatchaman Crowds, so I feel like I do have some idea of what their modern works look like, and that’s a good comparison to make, as the visual aspects of Crowds were one of it’s major redeeming factors after it started to get bogged down by all of it’s deeper problems.

Much like Crowds, C tries out a blend of two-dimensional and three-dimensional animation and art styles, The traditional animation is your standard fare… It’s a little above average, the animation is just smooth enough to please the eye with clever editing to act as a crutch whenever it can’t. There’s a lot of attention to detail in the characters’ movements, and while I couldn’t really point to any of it being flashy, it carries a very subtle level of quality. Tatsunoko clearly know how to utilize shadows, and they seem to have a gleeful time proving it with a lot of smart lighting choices. As for the 3D animation, it’s really going to come down to a matter of personal preference. I’ve heard some people say that CG animation in anime is really jarring, and it makes the characters look really creepy, but personally, I love it. I loved it in the dancing scenes in Love Live, and I especially love it here.

Specifically, the divide between 2D and 3D animation is drawn very deliberately, to highlight the differences between the real world and the financial district. When we see Masakaki talking to someone to entice them into signing over their futures, you can immediately tell that he’s not of this world due to the uncanny valley effect of his animation. It’s a little stilted, but that just adds to the effect. It’s also a little inconsistent, but not to a majorly noticeable or bothersome degree. There are some shots in the Financial district that look a little odd, but for the most part, the visual effects in this alternate world are stunning, like the slow pixelated dissolves and the digitized action sequences. Don’t get me wrong, the backgrounds and set pieces in the real world are highly detailed, but the interior of the District is immaculate and brimming with creative design, even though I personally didn’t see any big drops in quality to compensate for it. I haven’t seen very many shows that offered such a seemless blend of the two styles, which is pretty impressive considering this show came out in 2011.

The music, composed by Taku Iwasaki, is a bit hard to pin down, and from what I’ve heard, that’s pretty common for his work. That’s not to say C has a bad score, but it can get pretty distracting when you have techno effects in a track that also includes a greek choir. The worst part is probably when he tried to emulate his previous success with the soundtack to Gurren Lagann by including English rap tracks… Yes, actual English… But even though it doesn’t sound like it has any translation issues, it still sounds pretty bad. The opening, Matryoshka by Nico Touches the Walls, is a lot simpler and easy to listen to, although that doesn’t necessarily make it the best track in the series. Is’ a traditional J-rock track with beautiful visuals that depict not only the plot and characters of the series, but the importance of currency throughout the history of humanity and our culture. The closing theme, RPG by School food Punishment (Seriously, how do they come up with these band names?), is more true to form for the series, even though the visuals are a bit bland.

The English dub was produced by Funimation, and since it had a good writer on staff, the apt Monica rial, it’s a pretty damn strong one. Brina Palencia and Todd Haberkorn don’t have that much to do in the main roles of Yoga and Mashu, as they really don’t have to tweak their voices or anything strange like that, with the exception of all the voice effects for battle that they had to do. For the rest of the show, they keep to a grounded and subtle register, and it isn’t until the stakes are raised in the second half of the series that they really have to do anything dramatic, and of course, being seasoned veterans, they’re more than prepared for this. They’re likeable and speak naturally for the remainder, so I really don’t have any complaints about either of them. Far more impressive is J Michael Tatum, playing a veteran entre with a dark past motivating him to some mysterious goal. We get the standard Tatum performance, that sly, smooth voice that’s almost enchanting enough to make an exposition dump sound palatable, but there’s also a barely disguised sense of malice and righteous vengeance lying under the surface.

Much like Brina and Todd, Cherami Leigh doesn’t have much to do, but she’s still perfectly likeable as Yoga’s initial love interest, and while you won’t be expecting much from her, there are dark turns she has to take towards the end, and Cherami portrays it all flawlessly. Monica rial does her Monica Rial thing, and it is of course nice as usual, and Sonny Straight has a lot of fun sliding into the slithery shoes of Takedazaki, a bat-shit crazy information exchange broker. The star of the dub is… Well… Fuck, I really don’t want to talk about this guy again, but it’s Scott Freeman. I remember praising this actor before in Yamada’s first time(the DVD of which he actually autographed for me at a convention), and I’m sure I’ve mentioned him in some other reviews I don’t feel like looking up, but all of that was BEFORE he got arrested for possession of child porn, a charge he plead guilty to. It pains me to say this(but not as much as the fact that I actually shook his hand), but he put on an undeniably solid performance as the otherworldly Masakaki, playing him as a sort of joker-esque fop. Yeah, if you don’t want to have to face the moral dilemma of enjoying the work of a pedophile, stick to the sub. Otherwise, the dub is pretty awesome.

If you’ve heard of this anime, who’s full name is actually C: Money of Soul and Possibility Control(even though Edgy Digimon would have been easier to google), you’re probably aware that it doesn’t have the best reputation. That’s one of the reasons I was wary to try it out, until it was requested by a friend of mine in a roleplay group. Honestly, though, I thought it got off to a pretty good start. It doesn’t take long to realize that this is a concept anime, one that’s built around a central idea, and to it’s credit, that concept is pretty strong. In an alternate plane of existence, specially selected people are given fighting avatars and are able to take control of a secret economy that directly effects that of the real world by letting them both win and lose massive amounts of what might be the world’s most well-disguised counterfeit money. There are a lot of rules that go along with this game, as well as a lot of details, conditions and repercussions, and I had a lot of fun learning about all of it. If you’re going to explain a concept in a story, it’s best to have a cypher character to stand in for the audience, and this was done pretty well.

You can draw a lot of metaphors out of this concept, although I doubt very much of it was intentional. The stock market comparison isn’t a subtle one, but it’s still pretty smart and insightful with how it’s used. You could also draw out an allegory for the temptation of magical solutions over hard work, but if I’m being honest, Key the Metal Idol did this way better, and that was just in a single scene. If you were to REALLY stretch it, you could also draw some comparisons to bitcoin, but that would mostly be for fun, as I highly doubt they had that in mind. It’s not dripping with depth, but it has just enough substance to make the concept feel appealing, and of course all of the action and fight scenes don’t hurt either. The details we’re given about this world are given out at a nice, pleasant pace, even as the series goes to some darker places than you were expecting, and several of the assumptions you’d been making about this world and it’s rules turn out to be disturbingly incorrect. When you first get a glimpse of what happens when someone’s collateral future gets taken away from them is crushing to say the least.

Well, it SHOULD have been crushing, but the lack of impact you’ll feel over it is almost as disquieting as the lack of impact the characters feel about it. The major drawback from focusing so much time and story on the inner workings of the Financial district turned out to be a distinct lack of emotional resonance, part of which is the show’s underwhelming characterizations. The most obvious example of this is the main character Yoga, whose usage as a cypher never really evolves into anything else other than good-guy boy scout who wants to do the right thing. The only interesting element of his character is his frugality, as he takes every opportunity to save his money in order to invest in his future, but this element fades after only a few episodes. His asset is even worse, as she pretty much plays the egregious female role of love-interest-doggy, her entire character revolving around growing more trusting and bonded with Yoga over time, which is a common archetype in anime, but it’s particularly awful here.

Much like Asuna from SAO, whom I also compared to a dog, Mashu’s only defining characteristic is her relationship with a more important male character, but it’s even worse here because she also took a dose of magical girlfriend fluid to the arm. “Master, what is food? What is taste? What’s a kiss? Master, I think I love you!” Yeah, they tried to do a romantic sub-plot for these two, and it’s about as painful as the tsundere vibes between Rika and Renamon would have been if they’d been fully realized and not just hinted at. Yoga does nothing to earn Mashu’s feelings other than bring her a cup of instant noodles, because apparently it’s SO weird for Entres to be nice to their assets. Not only is the evidence for this really weak, but hey, not everyone has an Asset that looks like a half-naked teenage girl. Nobody’s flirting with their ogre and giant wolf Assets, but that doesn’t make you a hero for having a sexy demon to talk to. Oh, and I don’t want to spend much time on this, but the reveal involving her and Yoga’s Dad goes absolutely nowhere.

“Oh,” but I hear you say, “what about Soichiro Mikuni?” Well, what about him? Everything about him, from his motive to his plan, was fucking stupid. We’re given his backstory in the worst possible way, as he dumps a ton of exposition on us, talking to literally us to explain everything, which is lazy and unimaginative at best. I get that his father was being a dick, and that the nature of his dickishness COULD give somebody a cynical attitude towards the economy, but his story honestly feels weakened by the fact that his sister doesn’t actually die… She’s just in a coma, but Mikuni’s attitude is so vengeful it’s like he already lost her. You would think that with all the money he’s making in the district he’d be happy just to use it to keep her on life support and in the best conditions possible in hopes that she’d wake up someday, but no, that’s not what he’s doing at all. Get this: The last thing she said before going into her coma was that she wished this moment could last forever, so his idea is to destroy the future and stop time. Except no, that’s not how time works. Tomorrow is still tomorrow, and shouldn’t sacrificing decades of your future work against the idea of your sister waking up?

Okay, I don’t recall if that’s exactly if that’s how everything went down. I did finish this show way back in… Three fucking days ago. All things considered, I’m surprised I remember as much as I do. You can’t really blame me, though, as this anime goes completely off the rails about halfway through, raising it’s stakes to unbelievable levels that you will literally not believe. Yeah, someone losing their future might make their children disappear, or ruin their friends’ lives, but as an economical crisis begins to loom in the last few episodes, people begin dropping like flies, disappearing into digital nothingness. Their ties to the futures of different Entres pretty much turns them into vaporware. I found a lot of this hard to follow, so it might be my fault for not being smart enough to piece everything together… I’m no economics expert, after all, and a lot of the more important details about the Financial District are left intentionally vague, but there was something that happened towards the end that makes me think I’m not actually mistaken.

For a while, I was planning to look up a detailed explanation of how everything worked, how the ending was built up, what was happening with the money, etc. It couldn’t all be superfluous made-up bullshit, could it? But then I realized that yes, yes it fucking could. Not only do people and buildings start getting erased from reality, but also ENTIRE LAND MASSES. We see a few island countries getting erased from the map… Nothing that exists in our world, of course… But the logic of this is just mind-boggling. So the Financial District was able to alter the geography of the planet? How? Did it add water to fill in the voids left by the land it took? Did the sea levels change? Did the entire history of those land masses dating all the way back to Pangaea get rewritten? Did the prehistoric creatures that roamed them get erased from the fossil record, also erasing anything they evolved into? And hey, why not take away any land-locked countries? Didn’t want to stretch the suspension of disbelief too far?

C: Money of Soul and Possibility control is available from Funimation. You can watch it for free on their website, as well as for a decent price on Amazon as part of the S.A.V.E. collection.

I’d just like to take a moment to once again emphasize that this show did get off to a fairly good start. I could tell right from the beginning that it wasn’t destined for greatness, but it was at least interesting when it wasn’t trying to do anything other than provide a Digimon rip-off with a cool backdrop. Unfortunately, it’s ambition far outpaced it’s brain. It’s biggest problem is easily the fact that it wanted you to think, but it was way better off if you didn’t. The laws of cause and effect are thrown out the window in favor of increased stakes, and if that’s not bad enough, I haven’t seen a main character that was this disconnected from the tragedy they were supposed to prevent since Evangelion. It’s a nice enough looking show, and I did enjoy it for a little while, but at only 11 episodes, I feel like things could have been set up and developed to the point where I could have actually cared about it. As it is, it’s pretty bad, but it’s a unique enough idea that I can understand why people still remember it six years later. It’s just too bad that it lost control of the positive qualities it had. I give C: money of Soul and Possibility Control a 4/10.  

It’s summertime in Japan! No more pencils, no more books, no more senseis dirty looks… This is especially true for seventh grader Mirai Onozawa, who’s elected not to take any summer classes, and as a result, she gets to have the whole vacation to herself! Unfortunately, her parents aren’t so lucky, and they still have to spend that time working, meaning that there are no plans for the Onozawa family to take a fun trip this year, like several of Mirai’s classmates are. Her newfound freedom comes back to bite her in the ass when her mother assigns her to take her little brother, first grader Yuuki Onozawa, to a robot exhibition in Odaiba, which he’s been looking forward to attending for months up until then. Poor Mirai trudges her way to Odaiba, carrying her little brother in tow while lamenting just how lame her life is, and while she does manage to have a little bit of fun there, she’s all to happy to get out of there when it’s finally time to leave and go home. She lets her brother go off unsupervised to use the bathroom and pick up some drinks, and she waits outside for him, tweeting about how much she wants the world to just break apart.

No sooner does she post this message than the legendary city of Tokyo is hit by a massive magnitude 8.0 earthquake, shaking the convention center to it’s foundation and causing a catastrophic amount of death and destruction to the city. By hanging onto the guard rail outside of the center, Mirai is able to safely get a clear birds eye view of the damage, but her brother is still inside! With the help of gold-hearted motorcyclist and struggling single mother Mari, Mirai finds Yuuki, and the three of them get out just in time as as the first of many aftershocks hits. They’re out of the convention center, but they’re not out of the woods yet, as they’re still miles away from home, blocked off by seemingly endless destruction. Together, the three of them must traverse the ruins of a great city, encountering people who have lost everything as they strive to hold onto what little they have left, but with danger at every corner, aftershocks striking when they least expect it, and no means of contacting home, do they even stand a chance?

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 was produced by Studio Bones, and it was a pretty solid effort. I honestly don’t have anything to complain about with the animation here. There’s a lot of walking and talking which really doesn’t require that much money to keep up in terms of quality, and the extra money clearly got poured into the heavier action scenes and a few very beautiful art pieces, none of which last nearly long enough to truly appreciate their eye candy potential. There are a few moments that feel a bit undercut, like they had to go cheap to compensate for a more complicated visual down the line, but they’re few and far between, and they never really last long enough to matter. The bulk of the budget was most likely spent on the earthquake itself, which often looks so viscerally realistic that you could swear you were actually there, trying to survive it alongside our young heroes. The running animations, along with all of the practical effects like rubble falling, dust flying through the air and people bracing themselves against each impact lend the series a truly harrowing feel.

I’ve never been to Tokyo, and I don’t know much about it’s geography or infrastructure, so I can’t really speak as to how accurately it’s portrayed in this series, but the level of detail in the architecture is breathtaking. It’s almost a shame to see these buildings collapse and crumble, because it feels like they put a ton of time and effort into drawing them as intricately as they did. They took great strides to make everything look as realistic as possible, so not only are the buildings themselves thoroughly designed, but the destruction as well is truly awe inspiring, creating an appropriately post-apocalyptic mood that I normally only see in video games that actually DO take place in a post apocalyptic setting. There were parts where characters would be poking around inside of a building, and I was half-expecting a zombie or even a Clicker to pop out. This makes the sense of devastation and isolation feel real, bringing a heart-pounding level of immersion to the ravaged wasteland that Tokyo’s become.

The characters are about as realistic in proportion as Bones characters can possibly get, with the only real fantasy element being the giant eyes of all the children in the story. Aside from that, characters are believably proportioned, with heads the appropriate size in comparison to their bodies, uniformly dark colored hair and normal, almost boring looking clothing. They do look a bit cartoony when juxtaposed against the more realistic backgrounds, but that’s a nitpick. The lighting changes noticeably to match the time of day, at times hitting a beautiful twilight glow, and there are certain moments where the color mix is just exquisite. A few of these scenes are strongly tied to some heavy spoilers, but the one example I think I can give you is when Mirai, Mari and Yuuki stop by a shelter, they sit by the edge of a small pool, and the reflection on the surface is a blend of colors that Mirai compares to stained glass windows, and she is not even slightly exaggerating. It’s very good looking show all around, but you might want to watch this particular scene a few times through.

I don’t really have a lot to say for Koh Otani’s musical score. It blends into the show so well that you barely notice it unless you’re deliberately listening to it, and when I play it out of context, it just comes off as a little generic… Not bad by any means, just the same kind of score that I’ve heard in a million other anime. My personal disconnect with the material might be why I have such a hard time feeling any emotional impact from his work on this project, and if so, I guess that’s on me. It does it’s job. I had a very similar reaction to the opening theme, Kimi no Uta by Abingdon Boys School… Weird name for a band, unless it’s actually a music class that’s responsible for this song… Played over what I’m assuming were production sketches from the developmental stages of the series. Once again, it’s fine, but doesn’t really stand out in any way. I actually strongly preferred the ending theme, M/Elody by Shion Tsuji, which had a really Indie feel to it, even though it’s visuals were just photographs of Mirai and Yuuki walking.

The English dub is a little on the mediocre side, too. That’s not to say it’s bad, I mean, I actually think Luci Christian pulled off an exceptionally strong performance as Mirai, all things considered. The character does very little but complain and act like a sourpuss for the majority of the series, and Luci’s grounded, subtle performance made her sound like a long suffering teen who thinks she’s over the world, even though she clearly cares about her family, and she managed to bring a deep sadness to the character whenever she needed to. Tiffany Grant played the younger Yuuki, and while she proved she could be just as unrecognizable in a child role as Christine Auten has in the past, she didn’t have much to work with out of unrestrained happy-go-lucky loudness and the occasional crying. I’ve never found Shelley Callene Black to be the strongest emoter… Unless she’s playing a really strong or cold role, I’ve always found sort of a wall of insincerity in her way… So I think I would have enjoyed better casting in her role as Mari. Greg Ayres and Brittany Karbowski also pop up here and there, playing extras and one-shot characters, but they’re hit and miss.

So here’s the thing. There are a lot of things we anime fans have in common in the way we judge anime, and there are a lot of values and standards that most of us share, but if there’s one that I’ve found to stand out in particular, it’s that we all seem to love a good tear jerker. I always see people giving exuberantly high ratings to any anime that gives them that incurable emotional illness, “The Feels.” If an anime makes you cry, it’s an instant masterpiece, regardless of whatever problems it may have had throughout. I know I’m not the only person who’s noticed this, because there are a lot of anime that have taken advantage of it to compensate for other major issues in their stories, effectively using shameless tragedy porn to grab people by the hearts and string them along for an easy 10/10 score that’s pretty much guaranteed to them, and if you complain about the logical or ethical fallacies that people have missed or just straight up ignored, they criticize you for nitpicking, saying you’ve gotta watch the series with your heart and not your head, or that you’re thinking too much, just turn your brain off and have a good time.

The backlash for some of these titles can be devastating, like for people who saw through the epic romance of Sword Art Online, but for most shows, emotional manipulation can lead to large and highly defensive fanbases. Clannad makes them cry, so who cares about the blatant harem aspects, or the fact that it all centers around a reprehensible deadbeat asshole? Who cares about the fact that the characters whose deaths you’re crying over are written so badly that you feel worse for the person losing them than you do for them in the first place? Who cares if stories like Angel Beats and Steins Gate don’t make any sense, and are full of game breaking plot holes? It’s the feels, damn it, the feeeeeeells! Which is why, when I get around to watching a show that’s been touted as heart breaking and emotionally powerful, I normally approach with caution, lest I be tempted and eventually let down by another predictable, cliched title that confuses tragedy with drama. So where does Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 fall in my rankings?

Well, unfortunately, talking about the lauded ‘big tragic twist’ at the end of this series is gonna take us to some heavy places, so let’s instead start by talking about something more basic, the story and characters. This series is about three people trying to survive a natural disaster, and pretty much nothing else. There’s no real depth, there’s no real message, it’s just a straight journey through the devastated town to get back home. That’s not necessarily a bad thing… I mean, I loved homeward Bound as a kid… There’s really nothing wrong with a simple or shallow story, and it does have a strong concept, even if it’s not really trying to say anything with it. Even the worst concept can be carried by great characters, so let’s see who we’re working with on THAT front. We only have three major characters, with plenty of other named roles popping in an out of the story before being ultimately forgotten, and since those main roles consist of two children who we presumably wouldn’t want to see die and an adult risking her life and chances to make it back home just to watch over them, we could easily form a serious bond with our survivors.

Our main character is of course the tween-aged Mirai, with her little brother Yuuki serving as costar, and they’re total opposites as far as one being extremely positive and the other one being extremely negative, and the story treats them both like crap because of it. Mirai is the negative one, and she is constantly getting shit dumped on her as a result. She’s sour, she’s poutty, she’s ungrateful, and it feels like she’s constantly getting punished for it. A note to any aspiring writers out there… If you don’t like your main character either, then either develop them or make them likeable, don’t splatter hot food on them. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but the most development or nuance she gets is that she occasionally shows concern for people, which, congratulations, you’ve just surpassed the bare minimum of not being a sociopath. You’ve proven you can stop bitching long enough to cry and worry about people, that doesn’t give you a free pass to be the less interesting version of Grumpy Cat.

And then you have her little brother, the happy go lucky Yuuki, who takes things to the other extreme, being positive and acting upbeat for at least 95 percent of his screen time. In fact… Wait, how mean do I want to get with this? Screw it, no holding back now. He has all the personality and emotional range of a puppy. The only thing about him that makes him even remotely relatable beyond the bare idea of childhood is his love of robots, but aside from that, he’s more of a McGuffin than a character. I can’t really talk about my biggest problems with him without giving away some very heavy spoilers, so instead, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to spend the rest of the review just calling him Mirai’s puppy, just to see if it ever becomes a problem. Mirai has a puppy that she took to Tokyo for some reason, it walks around making unimportant barking noises, feeling way too joyful for the situation, worrying about his other humans that he hasn’t seen in a while, and constantly running off and causing trouble. He’s a fucking puppy.

And then you have Mari, who… honestly, I really wanted to like her. She’s saintly, mature, responsible, she takes two children into her care without a thought for her own well being… But I can’t, mainly because I don’t believe her. No, I’m not calling her a liar, I just don’t believe in the existence of a person like her. I don’t think I’m stretching things too far when I call her a Mary-Sue, and if you think I am then PLEASE, tell me what her flaws are. Even if you can believe in her as a person, and that she basically adopted Mirai and Yuuki for their trip home, why stop at them? Why form this three person group, and then just stop there? What makes those two kids so special that she doesn’t want to invite anyone else to join? They meet other people on their journey. They meet other CHILDREN on their journey, but no, it’s the three quakesketeers, because the idea of a single mother joining forces with two unaccompanied minors in a fight for survival is more marketable, I guess. And yes, I seriously wish they’d added more people to their group, because obviously their dynamic as it is does not work for me.

If there was ever an anime that badly needed a larger cast, it was this one. Rather than just three characters and a bunch of small cameos from other people, I kinda thought we’d get a much stronger exploration of the earthquake and it’s devastation if the series were more of an anthology piece, switching back and forth between different characters whose paths would occasionally converge. I’ll admit that I cared a little about Mari getting home to her daughter and mother, but when it came to Mirai and her puppy(See? I told you I’d do it), I honestly found myself wondering what it was that made them so much more important than anyone else, while I couldn’t stop thinking about the elderly couple who lost their grandkids, or the woman with a stuck stroller, or Mari’s scavenger friend. Mirai gets depressed over her inability to talk to or console her friend Megu, so how about just letting her do it? It might have actually been interesting to see. And of course there’s Kenta, the boy Mirai’s age which obviously means he’ll briefly serve as a love interest. I could have seen more of his exploits, although like the others, we never see him again after his appearance, meaning he might as well have died offscreen.

And as far as the story goes, all I can really say is that stuff happens. The earthquake itself is probably the only thing that’s ever foreshadowed(Aside from the tragic twist, which we’ll get to in a minute), and the rest of the anime is just the three main characters either moving in one direction or resting, all while being shaken by aftershocks so plot-specific that they honestly wound up being predictable more often than not. Even my first time through, I called about half of them a second or two before they happened. That’s not to say that there aren’t some scary moments, or that I never felt my pulse race, but even the most terrifying moment, the collapse of a certain monument that’s been featured in a ton of anime before, is ruined in retrospect by the realization that Mirai and her puppy clearly graduated from the Prometheus School of Running Away from Things. It’s a story about survival at it’s core, and while the characters are weak, it does at least manage to tell a story about survival, which is just about the least that was required of it.

So, the story is bland, it doesn’t live up to it’s potential, and the characters we’re supposed to be rooting for are less interesting than the one shot characters we never see again. If there’s anything that can save this anime, it’s the big tragic twist that everyone and their mothers praise the gospel about, right? It’s that element to the story that makes it emotionally powerful, heartbreaking, and a true masterpiece of anime tragedy, right? Well, okay, let’s examine this, and I’ll try to do so with as little spoilers as possible. I will admit that yes, the tragedy is set up really well. The catalyst is subtle, most people either won’t notice it or will just forget it over the course of the next few episodes, and there are just enough clues that I can safely say that someone on the writers team was at least trying to respect the viewer’s intelligence. As the clues get bigger, that unsettling feeling of dread creeps in, and the big reveal is built up, and when it’s finally time to lift the curtain, the other shoe drops… or does it? DUN DUN DUN!!!

Yeah, I’ll be honest, I was actually feeling very forgiving of this anime right up until they tried to make a plot twist out of it. They made so many bad decisions surrounding it, at least from my perspective, that I’m honestly not sure how to start, or how to even broach the subject. I guess I could start with the fact that they made a twist out of it in the first place, adding a layer of smugness to it that kinda takes away from the sting of it. I can’t really get emotional over it, because I can’t stop seeing the faces of the writers, saying “Hah hah! You didn’t see that coming, did you? Look at how smart we are! We totally got you, didn’t we? We made you think it didn’t happen, but it totally did! You fell for it, didn’t you?!” Honestly, no, I didn’t fall for it. Even my first time through, I saw through their act right from the start, because I’m not an idiot. I’ve seen this exact plot twist before, and I’ve seen it done so much better. Shyamalan did it better with The 6’th Sense, Goosebumps did it better with The Ghost Next Door, Scrubs did it better with Brendan fucking Frasier, and From the New World did it so well that the reveal hit me like a punch to the gut.

If burying the tragedy under a plot twist doesn’t telegraph to you just how manufactured this tragedy actually is, well, this part’s going to be REALLY hard to talk about without spoiling anything, so instead of talking about it directly, I’m going to talk about some heavy spoilers from Clannad Afterstory and the Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. In both of these shows, the emotional highlight involves the death of very young children, but while one is considered an enduring masterpiece by audiences and critics alike, the other is considered by at least half the people who view it as shameless tragedy porn. Keeping this in mind, what separates the emotionally manipulative from the genuinely poignant? Well, in Clannad, the characters we lose… Both Nagisa and Ushio… Aren’t characters we’re supposed to identify with. We identify with Tomoya, so when he loses these characters, we’re supposed to feel their loss through him, and that’s just about the least dignified reason to kill off a character… A death where they aren’t even the focal point. To make matters worse, she just died so she could be brought back to life, like Brian Griffin. Thanks for nothing.

To be fair, Setsuko’s death in Grave of the Fireflies is also in service of another character, her older brother, but the point isn’t to make you sympathize with him, nor is it to draw cheap tears just because it wants to. They’re not trying to make us feel bad for him, so we’ll ignore all of his flaws… We know her death is his fault, we know HIS death is his fault, and it carried a powerful message that Japanese youths at the time needed to hear. This isn’t a fireflies review, and I’ll let you do your own research about the Japanese crime wave of the late eighties and the bubble economy that wound up popping, but suffice to say, Setsuko and Seita didn’t just die because people remember tear jerkers… There was an actual point to it. There was no point to the tragedy in Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. There was nothing in that story that warranted a sad ending. A story has to earn a tragic ending when it’s characters are struggling against fate, but they ultimately fail due to their own flaws and the harshness of reality.

The tragic ending in 8.0 ultimately comes across as false because the characters, and by extension the story, never earn it. They don’t struggle, they don’t grow, they don’t have arcs, and the constant bad luck getting thrown their way often just feels like pointless cruelty from the writers, who have nobody but themselves to blame for writing a story that features little more thought than moving game pieces from point A to point B. It feels like a drama or action series, right up until it swings into Tragedy territory because it damn well wants to, and the fact that it has to hide under a hallucination gimmick so ridiculous that the hallucination has to tell the person having it that they’re a hallucination, we’ve officially entered territory so pathetic that I honestly would have taken a ‘ghost’ reveal more seriously. So did this big, tragic twist tug at my heart strings? No, but I’d be lying if I said I felt nothing throughout the series. It had it’s moments, and while I found that oh-so-celebrated twist to be pointlessly cruel, I did get a little choked up at certain scenes that took place AFTER the reveal was over. Like I said, it at least did the basics of a survival story competently enough.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 is available from Maiden Japan, a child company of Sentai Filmworks. It can also be viewed on Hulu.

Despite my griping earlier, I don’t hate this show. It’s tolerable enough, even if I take some serious issues with it’s writing and it’s pathetic attempt at an undeserved sad ending. Do I think it should have had a happy ending? Well, it might not be as popular if it had gone that route, but it would have at least felt more true to itself. Of course it would have had to consist of much greater character writing to support this change, and for those of you who think I’m asking too much of a show whose cast is mostly comprised of children, I could point you towards plenty of titles that featured well written and interesting child characters… There’s Lilo and Stitch, pretty much every incarnation of Fullmetal Alchemist, the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies… Actually, you know what’s the perfect example of this? If you want to watch a series about two young siblings, one positive and one negative, facing danger and uncertainty as they try to make their way home, but both of them are fleshed out and have definitive personalities, check out Over the Garden Wall. For now, though, I give Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 a 5.0/10.

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