Free! Eternal Summer

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The Story

Two rival medley relay swimming teams, one at Iwatobi High, the other at Samezuka Academy, prepare to battle it out to reach the Nationals. Charismatic Rin is now captaining the Samezuka squad, his passion for swimming re-ignited after reconnecting with his old friends and team mates from elementary school days. But his chief inspiration, other-worldly Haru, has only ever wanted to swim ‘free’. Makoto, Haruka and Rin, all in their final year, have to face up to deciding what to do with their lives, but just as the scouts are sniffing around the swimming heats, ready to sign up the new talent, Haru suddenly loses all sense of direction. Has the pressure made him lose sight of his dream? The second years in his team, Nagisa and Rei, are at a loss to know how to help. Especially as the unexpected arrival at Samezuka of two swimming stars – surly Sousuke Yamazaki, another contemporary/rival from middle school days, and brash, irrepressable Momotarou Mikoshiba – means that Rin’s team will be very hard to beat.

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What’s the secret of Free!’s success? First and foremost, it’s a Coming of Age story, that deals with a group of young men facing up to the challenges and uncertainties of the future as the end of their high school days approaches. But it’s also very much a sports anime which deals with issues of competition, what it means to be part of a team, the difficulties of balancing school study and regular practice and the very real problems of what it means to win – or lose. Luckily, the creative team behind Free! (based on the light novel by Ohji Kouji) understood that bringing the main characters to life in a believable and relatable way was just as important as animating the swimming sequences convincingly. In fact, a realistic setting lends an extra authenticity, as the design team based the town of Iwatobi on the real town of Iwami, Tottori and even researched their locations for the trip to Australia. The script is well paced (except for one section towards the end of the final episode) resulting in a genuinely enjoyable, feel-good watch which makes the viewer really care about the characters. It’s also really well crafted when depicting the swimming, which is stunningly drawn and animated, delivering moments of transcendence when the swimmer’s consciousness seems to become one with the water. As in the first series, you almost feel as if you’re swimming alongside as you watch.

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Free! Eternal Summer is the second series about the hopes, dreams and rivalries of these young men. You don’t have to watch the first 12-episode series Free!- Iwatobi Swim Club to enjoy Eternal Summer but you’ll probably want to (it’s not yet available to buy in the UK at the moment, but it’s still streaming on Crunchyroll).

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If you’ve been put off trying this series by the vast amount of doujinshi and fanfiction it’s spawned, try to forget them and just enjoy it as a sports anime. True, there are plenty of young men in swimsuits but it’s difficult to make an anime about swimming without showing the characters in and around the pool. The attractive and distinctive character designs invite the viewer to appreciate the athletic young men just as Gou, Rin’s younger sister does, for their superb musculature!

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I loved Free! from the moment I watched the first episode of the first series. I loved the main characters as well as the supporting cast who are all distinctive and interesting: from team manager Gou, Rin’s younger sister, and her obsession with well-developed musculature, through laid-back pizza-salesman/swimming coach Sasabe, to Nitorin, Rin’s diffident kouhai.

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The US Dub

Let’s get this potentially contentious topic out of the way now. I – like most Free! fans in the West – first watched this series on Crunchyroll, subbed, with the original Japanese voice actors. And was perfectly happy with the excellent cast. Then, when Funimation brought out this dub for Eternal Summer, I read more than a few disappointed and critical comments, many focussing on the inappropriate West Coast surfer vibe that the dub script creates, especially the frequent use of ‘dude’, ‘man’ and ‘bro’. (This has been toned down in the more recent Crunchyroll US dub of Free! Iwatobi Swim Club in which the script seems more faithful to the original.) But I’m not a purist. I belong to the camp that says that hearing the dialogue in one’s native language, matched with the animation, can give just as good a viewing experience – even if a different one – as reading subtitles. I can think of several series when the US VAs and some clever rewriting (reversioning was Funimation’s term) of the script have delivered a – frankly – more enjoyable experience than the original. And such is the skill of the experienced voice actors here that the intrusive ‘man’s and ‘dude’s seem to become less noticeable as the skills of Vic Mignogna as Rin, Ian Sinclair as Sousuke, Jonny Yong Bosch as Makoto, Greg Ayres as the exuberant Nagisa and J. Michael Tatum as Rei shine through. I’m not one hundred percent happy with Todd Haberkorn in the crucial role of Haru; there’s a certain dry quality to his voice that makes him sound more snarky than otherworldly but, again, he seems to settle into the role after a while.

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The soundtrack (as for Season 1) comes from Tatsuya Katou (Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma) who is particularly good at ramping up excitement (and emotion) with strings set against pounding electric guitar riffs. The new Opening Theme is “Dried Up Youthful Fame” by OLDCODEX which – even if it’s not as powerful a song as “Rage On” their explosive opener for the first series – still works well to accompany the thrilling animation sequence. And, as in the first season, the male seiyuu sing the amusing Ending “FUTURE FISH” by Nobunaga Shimazaki, Tatsuhisa Suzuki, Mamoru Miyano, Tsubasa Yonaga, Daisuke Hirakawa as STYLE FIVE. They’re joined by Hosoya Yoshimasa, Kouki Miyata & Kenichi Suzumura for the Closing Song to Episode 13, “Clear Blue Departure,” a less quirky, optimistic (motivational?) song about the future which is paired with those vital ‘what happens next’ images all fans will want to see. (However, it’s worth noting that, as with many US dubs, the studio recording level must have been much lower than the original, so if you switch between the two versions, you’ll have to boost the volume for the dub. A lot.)

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There are some genuinely attractive extras here (available on both DVD and the Collectors Edition).  Frankly, I’d have bought this set for the chance to see the wickedly hilarious OVA ‘Forbidden All-Hard’ alone. Other extras include Episode 1 & 7 commentaries, web previews, Extended Card Collection, Illustration Collection, Memorial Promo Video, Promo Videos, Textless Opening Song, Textless Closing Song. (Do check out the cheeky US trailer as well, ahem.)

Anime Limited’s handsome Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray version contains 2 x Blu-ray discs, a rigid case, art cards, a 64-page booklet and stickers. There is also a DVD release.

In Summary

Free! Eternal Summer is one of the most engaging and enjoyable sports anime series out there: a must-watch for swimming fans and anyone who relishes a well-told story.

 

© Ohji Kouji/Kyoto Animation/Iwatobi High School Swimming Club ES Licensed by FUNimation® Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. is the Highest Grossing Film for 2016 in Japan!

It’s official! Your Name (Kimi no Na wa.), the latest film from director Makoto Shinkai, has now become the highest grossing film for 2016 in Japan alone. The film has not only surpassed Kyoto Animation’s latest film A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi) but also Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla (Shin Gojira), the latest live-action film in the Godzilla franchise.

Continue reading “Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. is the Highest Grossing Film for 2016 in Japan!”

Review of Assassination Classroom: Season 1, Part 2

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Ian Wolf’s Review

“The fighting in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so low.” – Henry Kissinger.

The second half of the first series of this comic show about students trying to murder their monstrous, tentacled teacher Koro-Sensei, begins with an entirely different sort of battle.

The first episode deals more with Class 3-E’s struggles with the rest of Kunugigaoka High School, with the boys in the class taking part in a match against the school’s baseball team, which is actually meant to be an exercise in humiliating the bottom class. The class are able to turn things around, but still manage to ignite the sinister wrath of the school’s fiendish principle Gakuho Asano.

After this they face a much more violent anger when a new P.E. teacher, Akira Takaoka, comes in to replace their current teacher from the Japanese MoD, Tadaomi Karasuma, who uses extreme violence in order to try and make the class bend to his will. But of all people, the small, androgynous Nagisa Shiota is able to put him in his place. This is followed up by troublemaker Ryoma Terasaka taking some money to help with an outside assassination attempt after it is discovered that one of Koro-Sensei’s major weaknesses is that he can’t swim.

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What comes next is the start of the main story of this collection. The final exams are approaching and Koro-Sensei motivates the students by saying that any student that gets the best overall score and/or the best score in each subject, beating every other student in the year, will have the right to shoot off one of his tentacles in a forthcoming assassination attempt. This puts them in direct competition with the best class in the school, Class 3-A, which includes the principal’s son and the school’s top student Gakushu Asano. As a result another bet is placed: whichever class performs best can force the other class to do whatever they want. Class 3-E want to go to a luxury resort in Okinawa normally saved for Class 3-A; whereas Class 3-A want Class 3-E want them to obey a contact agreeing to a list of incredibly harsh demands, including not holding any secrets from them – such as the fact their teacher is a monster that destroyed most of the Moon. The aftermath leads to more assassination attempts and even the students of Class 3-E having their own lives threatened.

As with the earlier episodes, what makes these episodes great is the ensemble cast. We get to know more about some of the minor students in this collection. Among them are Hinano Kurahashi, a lover of nature and collector of insects; Taiga Okajima, the class pervert who tries to kill Koro-Sensei using a massive pile of porn; quiet kids Ryunosuke Chiba and Rinka Hayami, who are class’s expert snipers; Kotaro Takebayashi, an anime lover who is good with computers; and Yuzuki Fuwa, a girl with a passion for shonen manga. The more established characters also grow more. The disturbing top-level student Karma Akabane matures more after he suffers a personal setback, while Terasaka’s attempt at assassination sees him mature more and changes his attitudes toward Koro-Sensei.

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The other great appeal of Assassination Classroom is the situations the characters find themselves in. For example, a group from the class have to infiltrate a hotel in order to help the rest of the class who suddenly fall ill. During this sequence we see Akabane torturing someone using mustard, wasabi and ghost peppers, while Nagisa ends up having to gain access to a party by dressing up as a girl.

Aside from the poor opening theme, “Jiriki Hongan Revolution” performed by some of the show’s cast, there are no real negatives in this collection. The extras in this collection are episode commentaries, textless opening and closing, previews, trailers, and the “Top 10 Moments” from the series as chosen by the English dub cast.

The first series has been great, so let’s hope All the Anime bring the second series out quickly.

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Score: 9 / 10

Akame Ga Kill! Collection 2

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It’s time for the second half of Akame Ga Kill! (Episodes 13 to 24) to arrive in UK stores on both DVD and Blu-ray. The story picks up where it left off (as it obviously should!) as Night Raid, a group of assassins who only assassinate bad people associated with a cruel regime, are coming up against the Jaegers, a group of powerful people under the direct control of the corrupt Prime Minister of previously mentioned cruel regime. Most people of both sides have special weapons known as Imperial Arms that grant them either special abilities, armour or just a really durable and powerful weapon. Sounds simple, and that’s because it is! Akame Ga Kill! does a lot of things right, but complex plot isn’t one of them.

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That being said, there is much to praise in this half. First off a lot of the Jaegers are actually very nice people who just happen to either be naive enough to think the ruling body being corrupt is just a rumour, or have accepted their role in unpleasant times as the only means to provide for their family. This adds an extra layer to one of the things I happily praised in the first collection, namely author Takahiro’s willingness to kill off characters, sometimes without fanfare, from both the good and bad camps. This view of storytelling doesn’t change in this half, let me tell you. The feeling that anyone could be killed off in any fight is a very rare feeling in this genre of manga / anime, so it’s very refreshing.

The lead characters, Tatsumi, a young man from a poor village who wound up joining Night Raid to bring down the corrupt government he was about to join, and Akame herself, a skilled assassin whose cold demeanour hides a more innocent side, play off each other well, without being an obvious straight-up romance plot. Likewise the lead antagonist (beyond greedy Prime Minister Honest… yes, the corrupt PM is called Honest…) Esdeath is a fun character to follow, being the leader of the Jaegers and an extremely powerful fighter who happens to have fallen for Tatsumi, and hardened veteran fighter and leader of Night Raid Najenda compliments her well on the “good” side. The rest of the two groups have pleasant enough characters, although I wouldn’t get attached to many of them…

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A few negatives have to be mentioned, though. For a start, a lot of new villains are introduced with big fanfare, then killed off almost immediately. It gets a bit annoying in the middle of the set; you get the feeling they’re just delaying time before the two sides clash for the big finale. The ending is a bit weird, but from what I’ve read, it’s one of those “the anime caught up to the manga so they created their own ending for the show” things (although some chapters released just recently have borne some resemblance to the end of the anime, so maybe Takahiro tipped them off a bit). Still these little things aren’t a big deal, the whole series is basically an excuse for different large-scale fights, and they are definitely fun to watch.

Collection 2 comes with the usual array of extras, clean opening and ending (in this case “Liar Mask” by Rika Mayama and “Tsuki Akari” by Amamiya respectively, for Episode 15 onwards, the prior two episodes still featuring the opening and closing of the previous set) and the rest of the “Akame ga Kill! Theatre”, which is the seemingly now compulsory comedy shorts.

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So, Akame Ga Kill! wraps up with Collection 2, and I can give it a good recommendation, though really I can’t see anyone buying Col.2 without having at least seen the first 12 episodes. If you’re looking for subtle storytelling or a twisting plot then you’ll have to look elsewhere, but if you want to see some bloody battles where you actually don’t know who will survive on either side, then this series gets a high recommendation from me.

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? Volume 6 Review

is-it-wrong-to-try-to-pick-up-girls-in-a-dungeon-volume-6The first five volumes of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in A Dungeon? (or Japanese abbreviation DanMachi as I’ll be referring to it now) have proved to be a fascinating read full of wonderful adventures. That said, I’ve been eager for a brand new adventure; something uncharted and full of surprises – in other words, something the anime didn’t adapt. Thankfully that’s what Volume 6 of the light novel series is here to do and I couldn’t be happier with the result.

This volume is set just a few days after the end of Volume 5, with Bell taking a few days off from exploring the dungeon to recover from the battle with the 18th floor boss. As tales of his adventure spread throughout Orario, it’s not long before our hero is the centre of attention, but not every adventurer is happy with the ‘Little Rookie’. As Bell, Lilly and Welf celebrate their safe return from the 18th floor battle, Bell has a run-in with members of Apollo Familia, which leads to all kinds of trouble! Conflicts between Familia are never a good thing but this time Bell’s rash judgement could cost him everything he holds dear.

What started out as a simple bar-fight quickly escalates as god Apollo, who has taken an interest in Bell, declares that he won’t forgive Hestia Familia for the harm caused to one of his own. He informs Hestia that the only way to gain forgiveness is for Bell to join his Familia instead! After a swift refusal from Bell and Hestia, Apollo sets a plan into motion to force Bell to join him – including the kidnapping of Lilly and the destruction of Bell’s home!

After Bell and Hestia are chased through the streets of Orario and reach the realisation that Apollo will stop at nothing to obtain Bell, Hestia agrees for the two Familia to face one another in a war game to settle things once and for all. Outnumbered and with their back to a wall, can Hestia Familia really make it through this crisis or will Bell soon be the newest recruit of Apollo Familia?

For a volume that never once sees Bell set foot inside the dungeon, it’s certainly full of action and excitement. The first couple of chapters set up the overall arc while also tying up loose ends from the previous volume (including confirmation that Bell, thankfully, hasn’t levelled up again) but also offers the chance for some fine character development. Apollo decides to host a meeting of the gods but bends the rules so that every god can bring one member of their Familia to the party. It’s entertainment for the gods and an excuse for them to show off, but for mere humans like Bell it’s perhaps the most nervous he’s ever been! Fortunately he’s not alone in his awkwardness and it’s not long before he stumbles across Aiz, who is also feeling out of place. With some interference from Hermes, the two get the chance to dance together (as depicted on the front cover) and it is the most adorable scene I have had the chance to witness from this series.

This is a volume that focuses on Bell and Lilly more than anyone else, so I’m glad that author Fujino Omori still found some time to fit in development between Bell and Aiz. Their relationship hasn’t really progressed since previous installments but I think it’s safe to call them friends now –  and reading through their interactions is always satisfying. Bell is still terribly shy and awkward around her, while Aiz is as quiet and clueless as ever, but that actually works remarkably well for the two. If anything, I haven’t found myself wishing that they’d get over their shyness as I usually would be with other characters at this point.

I won’t say too much concerning the war game as we’re fairly far through the book when it takes place but I do want to mention how well written all of the action scenes are. It’s not the first time Bell has fought against other adventurers – as there is always someone looking to pick on our hero – but it is the first time that the battle has been notably significant to the plot. I was surprised that the action held up as well as it did, given that there are no monsters to fight, but Omori has done wonders to capture the readers’ imaginations.  

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Omori’s writing has improved a great deal from where he first started with Volume 1. I blasted through this volume in a couple of sittings, which is unusual for me with anything that isn’t a manga, and that’s purely because of how easy it was to become completely engrossed in the story. I’ve commented in the past that DanMachi is likely my favourite light novel series and I think I finally understand why it is. DanMachi always feels like I’m right in the middle of the action with Bell. Even while he was dancing with Aiz I could feel just how embarrassed the poor kid was! None of the other fantasy genre light novels I’ve read or am currently reading draw me in quite this much and the fact that DanMachi does is purely down to Omori’s abilities to create these scenes and characters.

The illustrations for this volume were also handled very well by Suzuhito Yasuda, as they usually are, but were more interesting to look over than the previous volume. My favourite image on offer is definitely that of the front cover, but there were also some nicely drawn shots of Welf that I’m fond of. Overall it seems as though Yasuda’s art is improving volume by  volume and he’s starting to have a good handle on the scenes that really deserve depicting.

It’s amazing that, for a series set around exploring a dungeon, a volume in which we never once set foot in the dungeon could be so engrossing! It’s also refreshing to read a story that the anime didn’t cover (hopefully in a Season 2 though?). Considering that we were offered some solid character development for all of Hestia Familia I can definitely say that I’m satisfied with what I’ve read. My excitement for the next volume is already building and if you’re someone like me who has loved Bell’s adventure up until now, then Volume 6 is definitely both worth your time and a fine example of the series at its best.

11Eyes – Complete Collection

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11Eyes started off life as a visual novel, released on the PC in 2008, before eventually becoming a manga, then shortly after that, this 12 episode anime series. Originally airing in 2009, is this worth tracking down after seven years? … Not really, no.

The story starts off simply enough. Two school kids get randomly sucked into a parallel version of Earth that has a permanent Red Moon that they soon dub the “Red Night”, a hellish landscape filled with monsters. They are Kakeru Satsuki, a quiet shut-in type who had a pretty bad childhood and who only really opens up to the other student: Yuka Minase, whom he met at the orphanage they grew up in. During their trips to the Red Night they eventually meet up with several other students from the same school who have special powers, including Misuzu Kusakabe, an “Onmyoji” (someone who is trained to defeat supernatural beings) who can spawn swords to use, Yukiko Hirohana, a overly friendly girl who turns into a cold-blooded killer when she takes her glasses off, and pyrokinetic Takahisa Tajima, who is the old brooding anti-hero type who slowly becomes a member of the group. Oh and Kukuri Tachibana, who looks exactly like Kakeru’s dead sister…

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Throw in some “black knights” as antagonists and you have a pretty standard set-up for a Persona-style school life crossed with an other-dimensional fighting story here. The first few episodes, including the awakening of Kakeru and Yuka’s powers, are interesting enough, and the mysteries associated with the knights: the fact that they refer to the lead characters as “fragments” and a mysterious girl encased in crystal that they guard – are enough to sustain the series, for the most part. Sadly it all goes a bit downhill towards the latter half. So much so that I’m going to be uncharacteristically spoilery here, so…

SPOILER WARNING

Right, so the black knights are apparently the good guys who have sealed an evil witch in the crystal, and the lead characters have fragments of her power inside them that will free her if they make contact with the crystal. That’s why the knights have been attacking them as soon as they enter the dimension, which for the record is the witch trying to re-connect with her power. This is an interesting twist, if it weren’t for the fact that the lead characters kept asking them why they are there and why they attacked them. If they just said “we’re trying to stop the end of the world by preventing you coming into contact with an evil witch we have over here” that might at least give them pause for thought, rather than repeating “it doesn’t matter why we call you fragments” and then complaining that their numbers have dwindled and the end of the world is nearer due to the invaders killing them off. The knights keep it a secret to the very end as well; it’s a mage girl called Shiori Momono who actually explains it all to them.

Then it just gets worse. Yuka becomes a jealous mess for very little reason, lead characters are killed off left and right, and then some of them only happen in a future vision given to Kakeru through his special eye powers. Seriously, as Episode 12 starts it’s revealed that the entirety of Episode 11 was just a vision and didn’t actually happen… and then several characters are killed off anyway! At a guess, given that it’s based on a visual novel, Episode 11 was probably a bad ending you could end up getting in the game, so they animated it alongside the “good” one, but it wasn’t a good decision in terms of telling a good story. Oh, and as for Kakeru’s sister, that explanation is so confusing that Misuzu actually picks up a piece of chalk and tries to explain it to everyone with a diagram… in the show! It still only JUST makes sense, and I’ve watched a lot of twisty-turny sci-fi in my time…

SPOILERS END HERE

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So, there you go. Summing it up for people avoiding spoilers, the show falls off a ledge towards the end. It comes with an OVA that… is just bad. It takes the characters and transports them to a “Pink Night” instead of a red one, and in the Pink Night all their powers have turned perverted. Kakeru can see through clothes, when Yukiko takes off her glasses she becomes super sexually charged (towards other women!) and instead of swords Misuzu pulls out different… well… *sigh*, never mind, but it’s not very funny. It’s like what a 14-year-old would think is “adult” but when they reach adulthood they realise how wrong they were.

The series is split across two DVDs and there is only Japanese with English subtitles, so no dub. Intro “Arrival of Tears” by Ayane is a catchy tune, and “Sequentia” by Asriel is a good ending. In fact, the OST is actually one of the highlights of the series.

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So, should you buy 11Eyes? Well, it has some good fight scenes, not too much fanservice (apart from the OVA…) and a good soundtrack, but you’ll still be left with a rather muddled and sudden end, one that erases what was an admittedly basic first half. It’s okay. If you end up getting the series it will be something you’ll watch, then a few weeks down the line will forget you ever saw until someone mentions it, then you’ll go “Oh yeah! That one… man that ending… what was that all about?!”

Haikyu!! Volume 3

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This is the third month in a row that I’ve gotten to review the
Haikyu!! manga for the site and I’m still loving every second! Volume 3 features some notable changes to the Karasuno team but these are for the better. With the third season of the anime due to begin at the start of October this is the perfect time for some volleyball fun and I’m happy to say that the Haikyu!! manga hasn’t disappointed me yet!

Volume 3 kicks things off by introducing a new character, Yu Nishinoya, who is a second year student at Karasuno High. Usually Nishinoya plays the role of libero in the volleyball team but he’s been absent due to being suspended from school for a week (which explains why we haven’t met him yet). Nishinoya is short, which gives him a lot of movability for the role he plays and leads to great joy for Hinata when he discovers he’s an inch taller! Having Nishinoya back surely means great things for the Karasuno team, but the situation isn’t quite that simple. Karasino’s libero declares that he won’t be rejoining the club if the team’s ace won’t return too!

The ace is a position held by Asahi Azumane (another new character being introduced this volume), who left the team after an extremely difficult match that Karasuno faced before Hinata and the other first years joined. The job of the ace is to break through the opposing team’s wall of blockers and score points wherever possible, but during the match in question every move Asahi made was completely shot down. Ultimately Karasuno lost the match, which Asahi feels is all his fault rather than that of the whole team and leads him to believe that the team would be better off without him.

While Nishinoya is stubborn and refuses to officially rejoin the team, he does practise alongside Hinata, who regards him as a ‘senpai’. When Hinata and Kageyama learn about the situation with Asahi they go to introduce themselves and try to convince him to rejoin the team, which eventually leads to a passionate speech from Hinata that triggers something in Asahi’s heart. Will it be enough to bring him back to the team?

This volume also introduces a potential coach for the team in the form of Keishin Ukai, who used to play for the Karasuno team while he attended the school. He’s also the grandson of the previous coach Ukai, who was famous for his brutal practises but produced a brilliant team in his time. At first Keishin isn’t interested in the role and flat-out refuses each time club advisor Takeda asks him to consider the job. However, after hearing that Karasuno will be holding a practise game with the previous coach’s old rivals, Nekoma High, he finally gives in and agrees to take a look at the team.

While this volume is packed full of new character introductions, it still finds time for some volleyball as well as more development for Hinata. After learning about the responsibilities and fame associated with being an ace, Hinata begins wishing he could be an ace as he reckons that his current role, a decoy, is extremely boring. Some harsh yet encouraging words from Kageyama hit home and convince him that, despite not having the flashiest title, he can be the very best (like no one ever was) when paired with Kageyama.

I think it’s safe to say that Haikyu!! is still a very strong shonen series. The characters introduced in this volume are all genuinely likable and have their own story to tell, as well as a reason to be on the Karasuno team. Placing the focus on Nishinoya, Asahi, and Hinata does mean that we don’t see much of the other cast, and Tanaka is notably absent for most of the volume except for the odd panel, but what’s important is that I wasn’t left feeling like it mattered. A story about a sports team is always going to have noticeable absences; it’s just common sense that a weekly series won’t feature the entire cast all of the time. However, the characters in Haikyu!! are all so interesting that even if we lose some of them for a volume, I’m just as happy with those being focused on, and mangaka Haruichi Furudate has a knack for making everything just work.

On the whole this is yet another volume that has been beautifully handled where artwork is concerned. The characters’ eyes especially are very captivating, which is interesting because the way Furudate draws eyes is very simple: they’re just ovals with pupils, highlights, and pencil lines from side to side. Furudate is so skilled at conveying such deep and powerful emotion from these simple designs that it’s breathtaking, and I really admire how much skill this must take to pull off. In the back of the volume there is a four-paged short story that is drawn completely in pencil sketches rather than being inked over, and I have to say that even for a rough extra it looks wonderful.

Character designs for this volume are also very nice because while Nishinoya, with his blond streak and very pointy hair, looks like he belongs in a shonen manga, we also have Asahi, who is more of the gentle giant of the series. While his design doesn’t exactly stand out, he’s still rather unique in appearance. There are a couple of off-model shots when characters are in the background of smaller panels, but considering the fact that this is a weekly series in Japan it’s not too unusual and I certainly wasn’t bothered by it.

Overall Haikyu!! continues to be a fantastic read and with the third season of the anime on the horizon it’s a nice way of keeping my excitement for the series intact. I don’t think I’ll ever fall out of love with Haikyu!!, but these monthly releases are making sure I definitely won’t.

Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad Review

beck-dvd Regular readers of my reviews will be familiar with the fact that I am a big music fan. I listen to a lot of different types of music, as well as play the guitar myself. It’s safe to say that music is something deeply ingrained in my life and me as a person, so I’m always really excited when an anime falls into my hands that is focused around music. The latest example of this is Anime Limited’s release of Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad (henceforth known as Beck) which I’m here to review today.

Beck is a series from 2004 based around Yukio Tanaka (better known as Koyuki), a 14-year-old teenager who doesn’t feel like he has a place in the world. After meeting 16-year-old guitarist Ryusuke Minami, thanks to Ryusuke’s dog named Beck, Koyuki is inspired to try his hand at playing the guitar and soon discovers a passion for music. Will this newfound fascination finally give him a place in the world?

As Koyuki gets better at playing the guitar, Ryusuke begins to acknowledge his talent and enthusiasm and gradually integrates him into his band, which he called Beck after his dog. Together with the other band members, Tsunemi Chiba, Yoshiyuki Taira and Yuji Sakurai, the five boys strive to hit it big in the world of music.

beck_3What the show offers is a very realistic look into what it means to learn a musical instrument and also the harsh realities of the industry. It’s something that most music anime wouldn’t normally bother dealing with because they usually have some other driving element to them (comedy, romance, fantastical plots, etc.), but for Beck being real is its bread and butter. For the most part I liked what Beck was trying to do but there are huge flaws here, too.

Connecting with this cast was not possible. I’ve been in Koyuki’s shoes, struggling to learn chords and complex scores while wondering if I’d ever be able to pull them off (“maybe I wasn’t meant to do this”, “maybe it’ll never come to me!”) but equally being overjoyed when I finally accomplished my goals. The problem is that whenever Koyuki finally worked his way past a problem, I never really cared. He’s an extremely bland character that I never grew fond of, so even though I could relate to his situation, I felt nothing. The same can be said for the band as a whole. All of the members face musical challenges throughout the show but not once did I find myself caring because all of them felt uninspired and plain. They struggle so hard and face so many problems together to actually get anywhere in this cut-throat industry but I really couldn’t stay engaged in the show at all and spent the majority of my time outright bored.

beck_7I think part of my problem rests with the fact that I’ve watched Kids on the Slope, which deals with similar issues much better. That series doesn’t involve the main character actively learning an instrument because he already plays piano, nor does the group want to go into the music industry, but there was just so much more depth and chemistry between the characters than what Beck offers. I will admit that Beck’s on-stage performances are very good but that’s the only time this cast meshed well, which is such a waste when we spend so much time with them off-stage.

While I’m making comparisons, there is also the Fuuka manga series (which has been confirmed to be receiving an anime adaptation) that suitably handles a very similar idea to Beck. In Fuuka the main character, like Koyuki, doesn’t really have a place in the world but he meets a girl named Fuuka and is inspired to start playing the bass. Thanks to that, he joins a band with Fuuka and some friends and they try to make it in the music industry. Even without animation and actual music to back it up I find Fuuka much better than Beck. This is largely down to the fact that the characters are simply that much more interesting. I really like them! Whereas with Beck I’m almost certainly not going to be remembering anyone.

beck_6Some blame for my dislike of the anime also stems from the animation. The series is handled by Madhouse and overall doesn’t look too bad for its time. However, characters are often off-model if shown at a distance and the show has a very annoying habit of lingering on shots that are obviously there for symbolism but don’t actually work. That said, the show does make some good usage of CG when instruments are being played, resulting in a realistic effect. It’s definitely convincing to watch and makes me happy to see because I can always understand the chords that Koyuki is going for. Unfortunately the CG combined with the age of the series, as well as the way it was produced for DVD back when originally released in the US, means that there is a recurring visual issue with the opening song. It’s not a massive issue but the opening can look mildly pixelated at times around the characters, making it quite off-putting. Thankfully this problem is limited to the opening as the ending and series itself all seem fine.   

Of course this is a series based around music and in that regard Beck hasn’t done too badly. The series is musically centered around covers of famous songs (especially from English bands like The Beatles) and these do sound rather good. I’m a big fan of bands who heavily indulge in guitar driven tracks, and so the rock music Beck played always felt right to me. There isn’t a great deal of original music on offer but what there is tends to be memorable enough. It has a good groove to it and as the series progresses you can tell it has been built around the idea of displaying how much Koyuki has grown as a guitarist.

The opening for the series is ‘Hit in the USA’ by the band Beat Crusaders, who also provide the the second ending theme titled ‘Moon on the Water’ – a song that Koyuki learns and occasionally plays throughout the show. The tracks are usually sung completely in English and have a proper pop-punk feel to them that has obviously been inspired by western music and fits with the tone of Beck. The ending used for most of the episodes – only changing for the final two or three – is ‘Above The Clouds’ by Meister (currently going by the name The Brilliant Green). It appears that Meister have also been heavily influenced by English music, most notably The Beatles.

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I’d like to say that the voice actors for the series are notable but unfortunately, both in the dub and original Japanese, they really aren’t. In the original Japanese track the majority of the cast are swapped out when the characters are required to sing, which generally isn’t too disruptive but makes it difficult to truly become attached to any of the actors. The English dub certainly isn’t groundbreaking either but it does the job. It also loses a few points purely because so much of Beck revolves around the fact Ryusuke and others can speak the English language, so in scenes where Koyuki (being Japanese) is meant to be feeling a bit lost listening to them it just doesn’t work as well. However, the dub doesn’t change voice actors for the singing, so that’s a point in its favour.

This release comes to the UK thanks to Anime Limited, and it is worth noting that this is the first time the series has been released in a complete form in the UK. The previous release of Beck stopped at episode 18. This release is DVD only due to the fact that the blu-ray master for the series just wasn’t that good and from what I’ve seen of the DVD I’m inclined to agree that Anime Limited made the right idea skipping it. This set contains the full 26 episodes with their dub and original Japanese audio. The only extras to speak of are clean opening and ending themes.

The biggest problem I am left with concerning Beck is that it took real effort to push through it. I genuinely love music and yet I have not been this bored with an anime in a really long time. I don’t usually like saying this kind of thing, but I think Beck was probably a better series back in 2004 than it is today because the likes of Kids on the Slope have aired since. It’s down-to-earth and very realistic which certainly works, but with no chemistry between the cast I just don’t care about what’s going on – especially not for 26 episodes. I really wish I was sitting here writing something else but sadly, as it stands, I am struggling to recommend Beck. Perhaps the best I can do is recommend checking out the series on FunimationNow before purchasing.

Review of Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East, Series 2

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Ian Wolf’s Review

“There are poisons that blind you, and poisons that open your eyes.” – August Strindberg.

Continuing on from where the previous collection ends, our heroes Shino Inuzuka (trapped in a never-aging 13-year-old body) and Sosuke Inukawa (who can shapeshift into a dog) are still tracking down the holders of the eight beads.

Among these people are Daikaku Inumura, a maker of dolls, who has designed a doll which to Shino looks disturbingly like the woman who in the past tried to murder him; and Shinobu Inue, a boy who at age 12 was spirited away and hasn’t aged in 10 years, making him 22. Shino also continues to battle against Ao, Sosuke’s ‘shadow’ who has taken Sosuke’s bead. This culminates with all eight bead holders finally uniting.

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As well as this, Shino ends up teaching some children and becomes friendly with a blind girl name Kaho, looks after a cat spirit, and has a re-encounter with Dosetsu Inuyama, the man followed constantly by a god-like snow spirit. Dosetsu is looking for his long-lost sister, who could well be a close friend of Shino’s.

Overall, this series has felt a bit lacklustre. There have been some interesting moments, mainly comedic ones such as the relationship between Dosetsu and the snow goddess, but overall there is nothing in the show that sustained enough interest to make it worth watching.

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The main problem is that this anime is an adaption of a manga that is still being written, which in turn is a loose adaptation of an epic 19th-century novel that is over 100 volumes long. The anime does finish slightly open-endedly, indicating that there could be plans to write more. Knowing that is enough to indicate that the story is not going to told in full and that you are going to be sold short in at least one respect.

The series thus feels rather disappointing and not worth the effort. The only real benefit of the Hakkenden anime is that it makes you want to read the original novel it is based on. The only problem is that it hasn’t been released in English, although the are reportedly plans to do so.

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Naruto Spin-off: Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals – Collection 1

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When Bleach ended its TV run in March 2012, I was sad. When I found out that a cute chibi spin-off of Naruto was replacing it, I was annoyed and confused. Now several years later, that previously mentioned spin-off has made its way to DVD in the UK via Manga Entertainment. Naruto Spin-off! Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals is basically those silly light-hearted omake segments that are normally at the end of TV anime, stretched to a whole series of 51 episodes, the first 26 of which can be found here.

The main focus of the episodes, as you’d imagine, is lovable ninjitsu-less Rock Lee, plus his close associates Neji, Tenten and master Guy, with plenty of cameos and stories based around other members of the large cast, from Naruto himself to villains like Orochimaru. Each episode is two mini-stories, and so I can’t really give an overview of the series beyond that. There are obvious gags for the age group here, failed love gestures, sneaking a peak at girls in the communal baths, toilet humour and slapstick, plus some pretty standard storylines, like the old body swap hijinks, mishearing that you’re going to die soon and doing silly things before finding out you’re fine, beach-based episode, evil impersonator, school and homework-based worries and many more.

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While a lot of the humour is basic, there are a few gags aimed at Naruto fans only, characters acting out of character for the hell of it, or little asides to the camera. While you could watch the show without prior knowledge of the main Naruto universe, it certainly helps. I was informed that the English dub had been altered in order to make the comedy more approachable, which makes sense, similar shows have done so previously. I watched two episodes in English but with the Japanese subtitle track on, and really it seems to amount to a few pop culture references (which given this is a light-hearted spin-off, I’ll ignore that fact that they’re “breaking the fourth wall” and all that) and a few changing of food or folklore. It’s fine, and actually can be a bit funnier, especially as some English voice actors have got good comic timing, specifically Vic Mignogna’s Orochimaru (bonus points for having him and Kabuto use the old “we’re blasting off again!” Team Rocket line from Pokemon!)

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The soundtrack is all very cartoony and light-hearted, as you’d imagine, and the opening (“”Give Lee Give Lee Rock Lee” by Animetal USA) is cheerful and catchy, while the two endings for this set (“Twinkle Twinkle” by Secret and “Go! Go! Here We Go! Rock Lee” by Shiritsu Ebisu Chugaku) are also obnoxiously catchy. The extras here are just the old trailers and clean opening and endings.

So, Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals… this is a hard one to rate. Firstly it’s not as bad as I remembered, maybe I was just bitter over Bleach’s cancellation, but it’s still not great. Maybe in small doses, like its old weekly slot, it might be easier to take, but watching multiple episodes in a row makes the often immature jokes start to grate. I don’t want to rag on the show for being aimed at an audience younger than me, though, which is what makes this difficult to judge.

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I’d say if you’re a Naruto completionist, then get it, give it a watch through (over a long period of time) and then put it on your shelf. If you’re a younger fan of the show, but don’t have to buy everything, get it cheap and you’ll get a laugh out of it or ignore it completely without worry. I do have to say though that it’s currently retailing at over £30 everywhere, so I’d definitely wait for a price drop, no matter which category you fit in, at the end of the day it’s just a collection of comedy shorts. Anyone else, especially those who have no interest in Naruto, avoid it. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but seriously, I grew tired of it very quickly and got the in-jokes; I can only imagine what the show would be like when you don’t even have that!