Little Busters Season 1 Review

After being orphaned as a child, Riki Naoe shut himself out from the world. However, he was soon saved when he met a boy named Kyosuke, and was recruited into the Little Busters, a group of friends who spend their childhood fighting off evil doers and enjoying their youth. Now in high school, the close-knit group have decided to form a baseball team in order to commemorate Kyousuke’s last year before graduation. There is a problem, however; there just aren’t enough members! Now Riki himself must do what Kyosuke did all those years ago and look for new recruits for the Little Busters.

In my humble opinion, the biggest sin an anime can possibly commit is to be boring, however coming in a close second to this is when an anime has glimpses of greatness but is dragged down and marred by flaws, turning what could have been great into something lesser. Unfortunately, this is the best way to describe Little Busters, the 2012 adaption of the visual novel by Key, the company that also produced visual novels such as Clannad, and Angel Beats, which has to be one of the most frustrating series I have seen in recent memory.

What makes Little Busters so frustrating to watch it that it seems to constantly flip between really well-executed character-focused arcs and rather dull and generic Slice of Life fodder, and the gulf in quality between the two is really quite astounding, to the point where it kind of feels like two different shows happening at the same time. Whilst the more down-to-earth and lighthearted episodes aren’t necessarily bad, they are painfully average, and don’t really do anything you haven’t seen before. There are some rather unique scenarios, usually spurred on by a subplot where a member of the group receives notes promising to tell her ‘The secret of the world’ if she performs all the tasks given to her, such as to put on a puppet show for a group of kids or to save the cafeteria, but they still just generally feel like nothing special. This plotline initially feels quite important, and at first I thought it was going to be the main driving force of the series, but it ultimately goes without a resolution. Given this is the first of three seasons, however, I can forgive it, assuming that it does actually go somewhere later on.

Running in stark contrast to these episodes are the truly fantastic character-driven episodes, and it’s in these episodes where you can really see something fantastic trying to break through all the mediocrity. Unlike other shows of it’s ilk that normally only dedicate an episode to each character, Little Busters takes a good amount of time, normally about 3 or more episodes each, to really flesh out each of the highlighted characters and develop them greatly. What really signaled to me that these episodes were doing their job effectively was just how invested and attached I got to certain members of the cast, even in some instances bringing to the brink of tears. It’s incredibly rare for media to have such an effect on me, and it speaks volumes about the quality of these episodes, more so than any words I could write. One thing worth mentioning is just how dark these episodes seem to get. It caught me kind-of off-guard, but these backstories go into some fairly bleak subject matter, and given how light- hearted the general tone of the series is when not focusing on characters, it can cause a little bit of tonal whiplash going from, say, the cast having a fun sleepover to emotional and physical child abuse; however, it never feels overly jarring.

The only real downside to the great amount of focus placed on each character is that you get a lot of the cast left on the sidelines in terms of depth. At a ridiculously large 10 main characters, even 26 episodes isn’t enough to give them all attention, and when the character development for the others is so good, you can’t help but feel characters like Makoto, Kyousuke, Rin and Kurugaya get short-changed a bit. The biggest casualty is definitely the protagonist Riki, who is just about the blandest, most personality-void and dull lead character you can imagine. His sole defining trait is that he has narcolepsy, but this is never even relevant to the plot at any time and seems totally pointless. It is hinted that it has more importance than it seems, and might lead to something in the second season, but here it just feels tacked on.

Another element to Little Busters you can probably file under ‘Explained in Later Seasons’ are the supernatural occurrences. The majority of the series is based in real life, with nothing out of the ordinary, but every now and then, something supernatural will happen, with literally no explanation given. Given how rare something like that actually happens, it feels incredibly out of place given the nature of the rest of the series, and the fact that it’s never explained just exacerbates this feeling. However, once again, this will probably be tackled later on.

The amount of times I’ve had to say that something feels incomplete really paints a picture of just how unfinished Little Busters feels. This first season was definitely meant to be a launch pad, and you only get half the story. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make Season 1 alone a hard sell without its sequel, and even without seeing the second season, I definitely feel as if they were meant to be watched as a whole.

Little Busters is animated by J.C. Staff, the studio behind Toradora and Prison School, and is rather unremarkable to say the least, especially in comparison to some of their other works. There are some cute character designs courtesy of Haruko Iizuka, based on those from the Visual Novel, but other than that, there’s really not a lot here that another studio couldn’t have done just as well.  

MVM’s release of Little Busters features both an English dub and Japanese audio, and the English voice cast is just as much of mixed bag as the series itself is. There are some really great performances on display here, my favourite easily being Tiffany Grant (Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion) as Kud, who puts on an amazingly adorable Russian accent for the character, that makes her really quite endearing. I also was quite the fan of Brittany Karbowski and Tia Ballard too, as Rin and Komari respectively. The problems with the cast mostly come from the male side, with Shannon Emerick sounding positively bored and uninterested throughout the majority of the show as the lead Riki, and Greg Ayres’s gravely voice is, as always, is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

On the music side of things, Manabu Miwa, PMMK and Magome Togoshi all contribute to the soundtrack, which I was a pretty big fan of. Although there are a lot of differences generally speaking, there were many passages that reminded me of Persona 4’s soundtrack with its instrumentation, which is one of my favourite soundtracks, in terms of both games and anime, so is definitely a plus. Less good, however, are the OP and ED, ‘Little Busters~TV Version’ and ‘Alicemagic’ by Rita, as they both just come off as kind of unmemorable.

Special features on MVM’s release are the standard clean OP, ED and trailers.

In Summary

When Little Busters is good, it is really good, but when it’s not, it’s middling at best and plain boring at worst. Personally, I think the sheer quality of some of the characters make it worth sitting through the less fantastic bits, but frankly, your mileage may vary.

Title: Little Busters Season 1
Publisher: MVM Films
Genre: Slice of Life, Drama
Studio: J.C. Staff
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2012
Format: Blu-Ray and DVD
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles and English dub audio
Age rating: 12
Running time: 650 minutes

Score: 7/10

Archive: Review of Gurren Lagann Ultimate Collection

On 1st April 2007, Gurren Lagann debuted. To mark its 10th anniversary, we have republished our review of All the Anime’s Ultimate Edition boxset which was first put on sale in 2014. The series has since been re-released as a Collector’s Edition exclusive to Zavvi (details here). Sections in italics (except the top quote obviously) specifically concern the Ultimate Edition boxset.

“‘Space’, it says, ‘is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space, listen…’” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.

Past reviews of this anime, including on this website, frequently say that Gurren Lagann is not perfect. In response to this, I reference the following true story. When Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life won the 1983 Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival it was seen by the film director Henry Jaglom, who claimed that it was the best thing Python had ever done. In response Terry Gilliam said to him: “No, there’s great bits in there, but there’s crap in there as well.” Jaglom replied: “No, that’s why it’s great, because the crap is there to balance the greatness.”

This is how I feel about Gurren Lagann. OK the humour is not the most sophisticated, the plot is perhaps not that original, and the animation of one episode was so shoddy that it led to one of Gainax’s co-founders, Takami Akai, having to resign because of the way he handled the criticism. However, when you look at the way that it was made as a whole, the story that was created, the characters that were portrayed, and the sheer scale of the entire project, it all combines into what is probably one of the greatest anime of all time.

People also said at the time that you “shouldn’t believe the hype”. I didn’t believe the hype, because I was unaware of any hype. This was because Gurren Lagann was one of the very first anime I had ever watched, and when it was first shown to me back when I was in the University of Teesside Animation and Comics Society back in 2007, I had never heard of it before. I knew very little about anime at all, but when I watched it I thought: “Yes, that just sums it up. This is one of the best things I have ever seen.”

It was because of Gurren Lagann that I am became interested in anime. Without it I would not be here reviewing stuff for this website, which in turn would mean I would not be reviewing manga for MyM Magazine, which was my first regularly paid job. This was my gateway show. Of course, a single piece of work cannot sum up an entire art-form, but if you wanted to encourage people to take an interest in anime, this would be an ideal title to show.

Now I realise that at this point some people may be rather annoyed that I haven’t actually started reviewing this collection yet, so let’s start.

This “Ultimate Edition” of Gurren Lagann has been in the pipeline for some time. All the Anime announced their plans to release the series back in June 2013, and eventually said this collection of just 2,000 sets would be released in June 2014. However, several problems have meant it has not come out until four months later. This of course is a big deal, not just for the fans but for All the Anime too.

For a six-disc Blu-ray box set with an RRP of £149.99, consisting of the entire TV series, both films (never released in the UK before), the OVA “Parallel Works” (also making their UK debut), a hardback art book and various other extras, this release needed to be perfect. If they messed this up it could ruin the entire company’s future reputation. Have there been any problems – well, there have been some complaints.

In some collections, and I have to report this is true with mine, the glue used on the third Digipack tray is loose and thus it slips around the box. In my opinion this is nothing major and it is not the fault of All the Anime, but of the people who put the box together and All the Anime have made complaints to the manufacturers. Other people have complained about images freezing in Episodes 5, 7 and 10, and some talk about a skip in audio. The company has since issued this statement saying that: “we had to switch in the DVD footage as the best solution since no re-supply was possible in this case. Otherwise, you would have had 9 seconds, 13 seconds and a momentary image freeze with ongoing audio in its place. Not ideal. These are the only instances and as you can tell they are not over any crucial moments, so whilst annoying it doesn’t impact the overall viewing pleasure & quality of watching Team Gurren on your big TV.”

Some people, including on our own forums, have expressed complaints about these cock-ups, especially given how major a release this was for them. Some have been put off by All the Anime altogether; others are complimenting them about their response to the problem. For me personally, I haven’t noticed anything major that disturbs my pleasure from this collection, and I would rather have this series available on Blu-ray, in Region B, that it not be available at all.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, Gurren Lagann is set in a post-apocalyptic future, in which humanity has been driven underground, living in isolated villages. The central character, Simon (pronounced “See-mon” in Japanese), works as a digger, using his conical drill to dig holes to expand the size of the village, as well as to find his own treasure. These bits of treasure include a rather small drill-like key known as a “Core Drill”, and later on some kind of large face. Simon’s friends consist of a shades-wearing “mole-pig” creature called Boota, and a troublesome guy named Kamina. Kamina, normally seen wearing a pair of trademark pointy specs, dreams of going to the surface where he once went as a kid, but no-one else apart from Simon believes him. Things all change however when a gigantic mecha crashes through the village ceiling and chaos ensues.

Kamina starts to fight it, with Simon wanting to hide away, but then a buxom girl named Yoko comes down from the surface with a big rifle and starts firing at the mecha, which she tells the guys is known as a “Gunmen”. Simon comes to realise that the big face he has found is actually that of a small Gunmen and his Core Drill is the key to activating it. Together they use their big-faced Gunmen, which Kamina christens “Lagann” and appropriately enough for Simon it uses drills as a weapon to defeat the Gunman attacking the village. Simon also uses the Lagann to help Kamina, Boota, Yoko and himself to escape to the surface of the world, now a barren wasteland.

Simon and Kamina learn from Yoko that the humans on the surface are constantly attacked by a race of creatures known as the “Beastmen”, who serve a man known as the “Spiral King”. To fight back, Kamina steals his own Gunmen, which he names “Gurren”, and eventually comes up with the idea that Simon’s mecha should combine with his. Amazingly Kamina’s idea works, with the combined “Gurren Lagann” seemingly being stronger than anything else.

With this humanity begins to fight back against the Spiral King, with Simon and Kamina gaining more followers. These include Leeron, a camp gay mechanic from the same village as Yoko; Rossiu, an intelligent boy who originally came from a village where they worshipped an old Gunmen as a god; two young and excitable children from Rossiu’s village called Gimmy and Darry; and a group of Beastman hunters known as the Black Siblings: eldest brother Kittan and his three sisters Kiyoh, Kinon and Kiyal. Together they continue to collect more mecha and fight against the Beastmen, with their most common foe being the shark-toothed Viral of the Human Eradication Army.

As the story progresses, we encounter comedy, tragedy and love in equal measure. The mecha become bigger, as do the battles and the danger. The story itself extends over a period of years. We see the characters, Simon amongst them, growing up but still encountering even more terrible dangers, which not only threaten humanity, but the whole of the Earth.

As stated already, there are several reasons why people might be put off Gurren Lagann, whether it be errors made in this box set or the quality of the series in general. But the positives by far outweigh the negatives. The first thing to mention is the way Gurren Lagann combines so many elements. There is comedy, drama, tragedy, action, romance and science-fiction. It works a bit like the “Gurren Lagann” mecha itself, in that one genre will combine with another to make the show more powerful.

It works brilliantly, and also rather strangely. You will be watching a sequence where there is a huge battle going on, and there is fighting, chaos, carnage and death – the whole scene is full of fear and tension, and while this is all happening, little Boota is hiding away, seeking shelter from all the horror and the hurt, hiding away… in Yoko’s huge tits. You get the feeling that this is what a mecha series would be like, if it was being filmed by the Carry On team.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the sixth episode which is set in a bathhouse. For most of the episode Kamina, Simon and Gimmy constantly try to get a glimpse of the ladies who are also bathing. In this episode there is one scene in which Gimmy sticks his finger up Simon’s arsehole, another in which you see Gimmy totally naked, and in the end Yoko’s bikini flies off Barbara Windsor style.

When this episode was first broadcast in Japan it had to be cut, but the “Director’s Cut” version is all the collections. You also have the original broadcast version of the episode as one of the extras in the “Ultimate Edition”. However, I think that this is one of the best moments in the series, as this is humour that we British can relate to. I feel that it is also important to state, given recent news events [i.e. the then recently introduced UK laws on cartoon pornography], that I feel that there is nothing wrong with the “Director’s Cut”, including the depiction of the naked Gimmy, whose penis is visible in the episode and in some of the other “Ultimate Edition” exclusive features. A person should not feel pressured into thinking that just because you are seeing a picture of a naked child that this automatically makes you some sort of suspect sex offender. Everyone in the world has been seen naked by at least one person, and you cannot and should not criminalise the act of just seeing a person naked, whether they are fictional or in real-life – if you did you’d have to arrest an awful lot of midwives who had just delivered new-borns.

The second reason for why Gurren Lagann is so great are the characters. The main characters especially are brilliant for varying reasons. Simon starts off as being timid, wanting not to fight and at times wishing to return home, but as the story progresses he overcomes obstacle after obstacle. Simon matures and develops into a stronger character. Things really start to happen when Simon encounters the character of Nia, who becomes his love interest and helps Simon to overcome some of the major tragedies that has recently had to face.

Kamina is one of the best anime characters, in my personal opinion. Acting as mentor to Simon, he is the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Simon’s Luke Skywalker. However, Kamina also has the added factor of being possibly the most over-the-top character in anime. He has some of the best lines I have heard in an anime series. How can you not like a character who says things like: “Don’t believe in yourself. Believe in me! Believe in the Kamina who believes in you!” or “Reject common sense to make the impossible possible”, and, “Who the hell do you think you are? Isn’t your drill the one that will pierce the heavens, the earth, and through to tomorrow?”

There are also lots of other elements that combine to add to the greatness. While the animation in the fourth episode is admittedly poor, to the point where it cost the jobs of two staff at Gainax, elsewhere it is brilliant. The character design, the landscapes, the mecha and 3D animation neatly fit together to create a believable setting. Plus there is the soundtrack. The opening theme song, “Sorairo Days” by Shoko Nakagawa, automatically acts as a hook. The end pieces – “Underground” by High Voltage, “Happily Ever After” by Shoko Nakagawa, and “Minna no Peace” by Afromania are also fun. But probably the best is “Rap is a Man’s Soul” by Spontania. I’m not a rap fan, but even I like this. There is also “‘Libera Me’ from Hell”, a combination of rap and classical. The soundtrack should be credited to the composer Taku Iwasaki.

But the best reason by Gurren Lagann is so good is because it is so big. It starts of small, with Simon in his village with his Core Drill. But his Lagann has a big face, which combines with Kamina’s large Gurren. Later they combine with other mecha, and take on bigger enemies. Kamina has his big glasses and a massive passion for what he believes in. Yoko carries a gigantic gun and has plenty of room in her bosom to support Boota. Then the mecha themselves get bigger and bigger. They get so big it seems almost impossible to talk about their size without having to go into bold block capitals for added emphasis. The whole series is so big, brash and loud that it is the sort of show that you want to project on the biggest screen you can find and shout at those passing by to stop whatever they are doing right now and just watch this!

While the series itself is great, we need to turn our attention to the matter of this particular collection, apart from the sliding Digipack and the issues regarding freezing images. Appropriately enough, for such a big series there is plenty extras and bonus material to keep you entertained. Both the “Ultimate Edition” and the standard Blu-Ray edition contain the following extras: Yoko Goes to Gainax!, a behind-the-scenes documentary presented by Marina Inoue, the Japanese voice-actress who provides the voice of Yoko; a collection of early 3D test animation taken from the second half of the series; an animated storyboard, which features the original illustrated storyboards played over the entire 15th episode; and clean opening and closing title sequences, which include the animated music video which is used as the ending for the 16th episode (the compilation episode).

Out of these extras, my personal favourite was the 3D test animation. This is mainly because it features some ideas that did not appear in the final cut of the anime. For example there are sequences in which Nia is riding on Gurren Lagann while they are fighting some mecha that in the end she does not encounter in the anime. The only problem is that none of the written text is translated.

When it concerns the extras that are just on the “Ultimate Edition”, these are plainly obvious as soon as you open the box set. One of these is a hardback 112 page art book, containing designs of the characters, mecha and landscapes. If you are keen on your art this makes for a rather useful reference work. You also get an art card, signed by the “El Presidente” of All the Anime (and the man who has had to deal with all the complaints) Andrew Partridge, which displaying the number of your release (in my case No. 816 out of 2,000). You also get, as previously stated, the original broadcast/censored version of the sixth episode (the one in which you don’t see Gimmy sticking his finger up Simon’s bottom).

But the really big extras are two discs containing anime previously unreleased in the UK: the two Gurren Lagann films – Childhood’s End and The Lights in the Sky Are Stars – and the Parallel Works OVA collection, which are on the fourth disc along with the final episodes.

The two films mostly contain old footage from the original TV series, but also include new material that sometimes gives more background information on the series, and sometimes tries to make the series bigger than it already was. Childhood’s End tells the story up to the battle between the Four Generals of the Spiral King. The Lights in the Sky Are Stars starts briefly with the Battle of Teppelin and then tells the second half of the story.

There are plenty of differences between the two films and the original series however. In Childhood’s End you learn more on how the Spiral King came to be; the contents of several episodes are significantly abridged, mainly the encounters Simon and Kamina have with new characters (Kittan, Rossiu etc.), and rather than the Four Generals attacking separately, three of them gang up on Simon and his followers in a single, climactic battle.

In The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, which in my few is the better of the two films, you see how civilization developed quickly after the Battle of Teppelin, and significant changes to the battles that take place in space. For example, certain characters which are killed in the series remain alive in the film. This seems to be an excuse for the creators to make more mecha, even bigger and more powerful, ultimately creating the final Gunmen which so large that even entire galaxies are dwarfed by it. Given how big Gurren Lagann already is this just knocks the series sideways.

The Parallel Works are a series of short stories with no spoken dialogue, set to music from the original soundtrack. The stories vary wildly in terms of plot and animation style, and most have no relation to the original anime. Stories range to a European medieval retelling of the story with Simon as a knight rescuing a Nia maiden; a steampunk wild west setting with Viral as the hero; a nude Gimmy stealing people’s clothes by sticking fingers up people arseholes; how Kittan got his Gunmen; a surreal sequence in which Gimmy and Darry find a series of strange doors leading to alternative worlds (my personal favourite); and a story with Kiyal as a magical girl. Some of these stories are funny, some are interesting artistically, and others help build the context of the series more. Like with the other extras, the written text is not translated which is annoying in some of the stories, but for most of the xx?, it is about the animation, music and mini-stories, which are made more interesting the lack of any speech.

To sum up, I think the reason I like, and indeed love Gurren Lagann is because that not only can I not imagine a similar programme being made in this country, but I also can’t conceive of a programme being made on such a scale ever again. Simply being so big in terms of the setting, it’s impossible to think of a way that you can top that. While some parts of Gurren Lagann are arguably not original, when it comes to scale it seems to have dwarfed everything before it, and I can’t see anything topping it while maintaining a similar level of quality. It is only fitting that such a big show should get such a big box set. I forgive this series for the faults it has in it. I feel sorry for All the Anime for the problems it has faced during its production and for all the delays it has had.

It is hard to for me to write up a clear view about Gurren Lagann without getting emotional. Yes, I can understand why some people are put off by it, and all the hype that goes along with it, and many people will be angry with the fact this release is not 100% perfect. But Gurren Lagann has never been 100% perfect. Since it began people have complained about it, and people will always complain about it. I don’t think you could ever have a 100% perfect collection of Gurren Lagann. Look at the extras they might have included but didn’t: when Beez Entertainment brought out the series, they had things like the soundtrack and various patches and props that you could use for cosplay purposes like a lighting-up Core Drill. Also, what about episode commentaries or specially made documentaries about the series? The other thing you have to remember is that more Gurren Lagann stuff is always being made. A stage play of the anime has been made, so a future release might have something about that.

Of course, this was always going to be a problem – for an anime so huge it’s truly impossible to include everything good about it in one box set. I know there are issues of cost and licensing, plus for some the idea of making an even bigger collection is daft. You couldn’t do that, it’s just plain common sense. But to quote Kamina, I think we should reject common sense to make the impossible possible.

Title: Gurren Lagann: Complete Series Ultimate Box
Publisher: Anime Limited
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Mecha
Studio: Gainax
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2007
Format: Blu-Ray
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles and English dub audio
Age rating: 15
Running time: 986 minutes

Score: 10/10

Film Review: A Silent Voice

Shoya Ishida is a typical delinquent elementary school boy with a large group of friends and not a care in the world, that is until a new student– Shoko Nishimiya, who happens to be deaf – joins his class. Despite her shy and friendly nature, her presence stirs Shoya’s small world and he begins to bully her, with encouragement from his friends. When the bullying reaches its peak, and he is punished severely for it, his friends disown him and he becomes an outcast himself. Several years later, now in High School, Shoya crosses paths with Nishimiya once again and he slowly begins to reconnect with her, as well as make amends for his past actions.

The role of ‘the school bully’ is normally reserved for antagonists or side characters where they, for the most part, remain one-dimensional (mean for the sake of being mean). If they do have an arc, it’s almost always them getting called out on their behaviour usually by the protagonists, then they quickly reform from their bullying ways and the world is set to rights. However, A Silent Voice makes a bold move in making the bully the protagonist, and there’s no doubt that he is a bully; it starts off with childish lashing out at something (or in this case, someone) that he does not understand but escalates into outright horrible behaviour that makes it incredibly hard to watch. But then his world comes crashing down; he gets told off by the teachers, his friends and the rest of the school completely turn on him AND his mother has to pay a huge fine for Nishimiya’s damaged hearing aids. In a lesser movie, or a movie not set around Shoya, that would be the end of his arc, the audience would assume that he has learned his lesson and that the balance is now restored. But A Silent Voice dares to explore his character further: what happens after he’s punished for his actions? What becomes of his home life and mental state? The answer is that over the years of being exiled and living with the crushing guilt of his actions, he has become incredibly depressed, suffering from anxiety, and is suicidal. It would be easy to brush off Shoya’s plight and emotional state as ‘karma’: he deserved what he got. But A Silent Voice does not set out to do that, or attempt to take the easy route; it instead lays the groundwork and then sets off on a journey for an incredibly involving and significant film.

A Silent Voice talks about a lot of issues that many films either gloss over, sensationalise or wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. This list includes but is not limited to depression, anxiety, loneliness, suicide, self-hatred and learning to forgive yourself. A person suffering from any of these things in media such as television would typically have it communicated to audience via actively saying what they feel or suffer from, looking miserable all the time, or having a cut-away of them taking pills (shorthand for medicating whatever they’re suffering from). A Silent Voice doesn’t do any of this, but takes a more realistic and natural approach; Shoya’s depression and self-deprecation is not limited to being expressed via dialogue but also in his body language and animation techniques. Whether he’s speaking or not, we see him constantly having his head down, struggling to make eye contact with other students, being apprehensive of taking actions if it involves other people and in one scene he even slaps himself as self-punishment for saying something embarrassing. Over the course of the film we discover that it’s not just Shoya who has problems but also other members of the student body, especially Shoko Nishimiya, whom we learn deals with her life-long struggle of deafness and the stigma that comes with it by putting on a friendly but aloof front, and in turn speaks very little about how she actually feels, which is just as damaging as the way Shoya goes about it. Then there are the other side characters who have reacted or thought differently about what happened in elementary school, whether it’s via denial or choosing to move on, and so forth. The side characters don’t get the same amount of attention as Shoya or Nishimiya but how they all interact with each other, and discuss or choose to ignore the issues hovering over them all adds layers to the important themes shown in the movie. There’s no one way to cope or live with these issues, and as the movie shows different sides of them, and uncovers what creates them – or how they remain if not treated – the results are both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

In turn, the animation allows the audience to see exclusively through Shoya’s point of view by having all the students’ faces covered up with a cross; a reflection of how he sees them all as people he cannot communicate with or reach out to. It’s over the course of the film, as he begins to work through his problems, that the crosses start to come off, but like a reflection of real life where we have setback days, the crosses are sometimes slapped back on as Shoya retreats once more into his shell. There’s also a variety of other techniques: blurry images, flares, water ripples/reflections and, right at the beginning of the movie, we see a long dark tunnel with an incoherent image at the end which comes full circle in the final scenes of the film. Although a lot of these images are eventually explained and make sense over the course of the story, when they are first introduced, they’re hastily thrown in back-to-back and therefore it feels a bit of a mess. Imagery and symbolism is important and should absolutely be used but for the first half of this movie they play out more like ‘ideas the director thought up and wanted to throw in there’ rather than strategically placed elements. Even the ‘cross over the faces’ trick, which is the strongest and most frequently used animation metaphor, only comes into play about 20 minutes into the film.

If you only looked at the trailers and did minimal research before seeing the movie, you could have easily been fooled into thinking that it’s a high school romance story with the unique selling point being that it involves a deaf girl. Whilst the ‘deaf girl’ angle is definitely interesting and a hook into the movie by itself, Shoko Nishimiya’s condition is more than just a gimmick. She expresses a lot of her personality in the way she moves, smiling at others despite what they are saying about her and in the way she tries to communicate with everyone despite her limitations. What’s also charming is that she’s not portrayed as a martyr, someone that everyone needs to love and she doesn’t have (for instance) super awesome intellect or heightened senses that have come about as a result of being deaf; she’s a normal high school girl with flaws like everyone else and a lot of emotional baggage, that in a way mirrors Shoya’s struggles but she chooses to bury it as her way of coping. The time-skip also serves as an important point in her character arc as well; her being deaf and a victim of said bullying absolutely would warrant such intricate dejected feelings, but having the bullying issues resolved by the time she enters high school doesn’t mean that the mental trauma suddenly no longer exists, or that they make up solely who she is as a person. Also, having a boyfriend or your bully coming back as a better person, wanting to make it all better doesn’t make the world suddenly a better place. Real life is more complicated than that; just like having Shoya being punished for his actions doesn’t make it OK that he grows up into a suicidal wreck of a boy, or Nishimiya choosing to forgive and befriend him makes her accountable for any emotional turmoil that happens to her later on in the movie. Nothing is black and white, there are all shades of grey, especially when it comes to the issues this movie chooses to talk about.

The pacing of the film is an odd one, especially since it plays out like a romance/coming-of-age story for the majority of its run time, so when it comes to the big emotional moment between Shoya and Nishimiya you expect the film to wrap up quickly afterwards. However, it continues on for a while but not because it has to resolve multiple plot points like, say, in Your Name. It’s important to note that it’s Shoya Ishida story, it’s his emotional arc, and the problems he has don’t automatically fix themselves in a single moment. Problems such as his, as many of those who have or are suffering from depression will know, are a constant battle and sometimes there are good and bad days. So even though the final scene of the movie feels (as a movie watcher) as if it takes ages to come after the big high, it’s an important moment for the character and wraps up the core themes very nicely.

Kyoto Animation, who produced the visuals for A Silent Voice, have a ton of experience with romance-themed and especially high-school-based stories with series such as Clannad, Air and K-ON! under their belts (the K-ON! series and movie being the series that director Naoko Yamada is best known for). As mentioned earlier, they use a lot of little techniques to get Shoya’s world across to the audience but outside of that, there’s much to admire, from the bright colours and the fluid animation, to the way the school environment is drawn to look familiar, yet different. It avoids the usual pitfalls of the main cast’s desks being on the window side of the classroom, or each room in the school looking exactly the same as the previous one. It’s a well thought out and drawn environment that the story is set in with beautiful imagery for the passing seasons.

Kensuke Ushio, the score composer, doesn’t have many credits aside from Space Dandy but his minimal yet emotional score complements the tender and sensitive nature of the film’s themes. Aiko provides the ending theme ‘Koi wo Shita no wa’ which is sadly rather standard fare but musically it flows from Ushio’s work nicely. However, the movie’s opening is edited to The Who’s ‘My Generation’, which sticks out like a sore thumb against the rest of the score. Lyrically, however, it adds a whole new level of negative connotations to the song, considering that it plays over a montage of young and naive Shoyo hanging out with his friends before the events of the movie properly kick off.

A Silent Voice is an emotionally important coming-of-age tale, it tackles a lot of themes that will resonate with audiences on numerous levels with its deep, delicate examination of uncomfortable but significant feelings without falling back on familiar tropes to gain an easy ending. It’s a beautiful, thought-provoking film that shouldn’t be missed.

Title: A Silent Voice
Publisher: All the Anime/Anime Limited
Genre: Drama, Coming of Age, Romance,
Studio: Kyoto Animation
Type: Movie
Original vintage: 2016
Format: Cinema screening
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles
Age rating: 12 A
Running time: 129 minutes

Score: 9/10

Review of Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions – Heart Throb

“Paging Mr. Delusional. You’re wanted at the front desk.” – ‘Johnny Delusional’ by F.F.S.

Things are going perfectly normally for Yuta Togashi. Well, as normal as they can be when his delusional girlfriend has now moved into his flat.

Chunibyo Rikka Takanashi is still being her odd self: wearing her eye patch to cover the eye that has a gold contact lens in it, which she believes controls her magic powers; wearing Heelys; fighting with an umbrella; and supposedly being able to open train doors simply by thrusting her arm at them when the train arrives at the station. Rikka parents are away, hence the reason why she is currently living in Yuta’s place. He is looking after the flat while his parents are away working in Jakarta.

Most of the episodes in this second series are stand-alone stories, continuing to focus on the characters in the “Far Eastern Magical Napping Society – summer thereof”, including Rikka’s fellow long-haired chunibyo Sanae Dekomori; ex-chunibyo Shinka Nibutani, who is still desperately trying to escape her past; and the incredibly sleepy Kumin Tsuyuri.

Across the series we see Yuta date Rikka at an aquarium where she has fun with dolphins and makes several references to H. P. Lovecraft; Yuta end up having to dress as a magical girl after getting a lower test score than Rikka; Shinka attempt to run for Student Council President by successfully convincing Sanae that she was her chunibyo idol and Kumin challenge another school to a napping competition.

However, there is also a new addition thrown into the mix. Rikka gets a visit from a chunibyo from another school: someone claiming to be a “magical devil girl” called Sophia Ring SPS Saturn VII, although her real name is Satone Shichimiya. She was a friend of Yuta’s back in middle school. Indeed, it was she who inspired Yuta to become a chunibyo in the first place. After a rough start, Satone becomes friends with the rest of the gang, although Rikka is worried that Satone will take Yuta away from her and becomes jealous. As the story progresses, we realise that Satone does in fact still have some feelings for the boy she still refers to as “Hero”.

The second series still has plenty of the features that made the first one so enjoyable, the main one being comedy. There are plenty of comic moments in the show, mostly visual. These range from Shinka making Sanae gag by making her eat cheese, Yuta managing to pull off his magical girl look, and Kumin trying to get her friends ready for their competitive napping. There are also some funny scenes caused by anticipation. For example, there is the way that Shinka’s chances of becoming Student Council President are horrifically scuppered by Sanae, who thinks she is being helpful. Then there are some odder moments, such as when Yuta discovers that Rikka has spent all of her allowance in a few days meaning she has to survive on almost nothing for a month, which leads to Yuta disciplining her by spanking Rikka.

The artwork is also great, especially in the “battle” scenes in which Rikka and her friends believe they are in a fantasy world and are using gigantic weapons to duel. The visual aspects in these scenes are wonderful, giving it a true fantasy feel while also mocking it.

Satone’s appearance in the series brings a new element to the show, creating a love triangle between her, Rikka and Yuta, although deep down you know that the relationship between Rikka and Yuta is not going to falter. She is still a fun character, nevertheless, but I am saddened by the fact that Makoto Isshiki has seemingly taken a back seat in this series. Most of the series sees him getting new jobs and trying to win over Kumin, but in the end a guy falls in love with him. I must confess that the way that a gay guy is just plonked into the show for comic relief did make me feel uncomfortable – although not as uncomfortable as Isshiki, I admit.

Extras in this collection include an OVA episode, a selection of four-minute anime shorts called Chunibyo Lite!, and textless opening and closing. The Opening, “Voice” by Zaq, and the Closing, “Van!shment Th!s World” sung by the four main female voice actors under the name of Black Raison d’être, are both OK, but nothing truly exciting.

If you enjoyed the first series, then Heart Throb will not disappoint you.

Title: Review of Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions – Heart Throb
Publisher: Animatsu
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Studio: Kyoto Animation
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2014
Format: Blu-Ray and DVD (Blu-Ray version reviewed)
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles and English dub audio
Age rating: 12
Running time: 325 minutes

Score: 8/10

Fullmetal Alchemist Collector’s Edition Part 1

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I think it goes without saying that the original 
Fullmetal Alchemist anime is an important series for the anime industry. It paved the way for a whole new generation of people to stumble into Japanese media, and the series is still well renowned to this day. It’s also a very special series for me on a personal level as it’s one of the very first anime I ever watched – and a solid part of the reason that I decided to watch more. After all these years, does the series still live up to what I remember?

The story of Fullmetal Alchemist is based around brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, who are in search of the mysterious Philosopher’s Stone that Ed hopes will allow them to change their bodies back to normal. Edward has a prosthetic arm and leg made from automail (a sort of robotic metal substitute for limbs), while his brother Alphonse lost his whole body (his soul is now tied to a suit of armour) after the two tried to perform a forbidden act of alchemy: bringing a human back to life. Some time after that day Edward became a State Alchemist, and now he and Alphonse travel the world working for the military while seeking a way to restore what they have lost.

The first two episodes focus on introducing Ed and Al while also painting a picture of what this world is like. Anyone working for the military is considered a dog of the state and hated for it. This is largely down to a war that happened a few years before the beginning of Ed and Al’s present day story. The war and the people’s hatred toward the military comes into play later in Fullmetal Alchemist but after the introductory episodes, the series jumps back to the past to tell the story of how Ed became a State Alchemist. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, it also shows us why the brothers performed such forbidden alchemy to get themselves into this state.

fma_4The rules of alchemy in this world are fairly straightforward. In order to perform alchemy, you must first draw a Transmutation Circle and provide something of equal value to what you’re trying to create, which is in accordance with the Law of Equivalent Exchange. The only things that an alchemist is forbidden from creating are gold or humans, and anyone who tries succumbs to a fate similar to that of our young protagonists. Ed and Al believe deeply in the idea of equivalent exchange.

The brothers’ devotion to the Law of Equivalent Exchange is one thing that’s always stuck with me since originally watching the series. At heart, Fullmetal Alchemist is your typical shonen series filled with impressive battles and powerful characters, but it also has a very important story to tell about loss, growing up, and the hardships of the world. The plot pushes Ed and Al into dangerous situations, situations that question their beliefs and (at times) childish views of the world. Doing so paves the way for Fullmetal Alchemist to really impress the viewer. It toys with ideas that no other series had explored at the time, and that few have since. It’s truly remarkable in its storytelling and really connects with me on so many levels. With this set I’ve only watched the first 27 episodes of the series but already I’m completely immersed in this world once again.

fma_5One of the notable elements of the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime is that much of it was anime original content, because at the time of its airing the manga series was not yet complete. In saying that, a lot of the episodes in this first set do follow the manga quite closely, but already it’s easy to see (if you’ve read the source or watched Brotherhood) where it differs. Usually being anime original would be a bad thing – not many studios have the ability to truly carve out their own stories in a world they’re adapting – but studio BONES do a wonderful job with Fullmetal Alchemist. They do such a good job that I actually prefer the 2003 anime to the manga and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood series (although I still liked both quite a bit). It never feels disjointed or like it’s missing anything and, from what I remember, the story that BONES create for the second half is just wonderful.

On the subject of BONES, I have to point out how good the animation on offer looks. This is not an anime that was created in HD but despite that the show looks very sharp on Blu-ray. The world is full of the usual BONES style that many of us have come to know and love, and the characters make similar comedic reactions to those found in their most recent adaption, Bungo Stray Dogs. Fullmetal Alchemist just screams that it’s a BONES series and, admittedly, it is the series that made me fall in love with this studio and the way they create anime.

fma_9The soundtrack has been handled by Michiru Oshima, who has brought something really wonderful to the series. She has also worked on Snow White with the Red Hair, Blast of Tempest and provided some arrangements for the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess video game. With scores full of violins, pianos, and the odd guitar piece, Fullmetal Alchemist has something for everyone and it always blends nicely with the action on-screen. My favourite track is one titled “Brothers” and there are a few different versions of it used throughout the series, but the most memorable is a version played just on the violin. It’s a thought-provoking and truly emotional piece of music. During the 27 episodes on this set there are three opening themes and three ending themes on offer, and while I won’t name them all my favourite opening is the second OP titled “Ready Steady Go!” by L’arc~en~Ciel. The better ending is the first ED named “Inerasable Sin” by Nana Kitade.

Where voice actors are concerned, I actually find myself with a completely different opinion to my usual reviews. For Fullmetal Alchemist my favourite track is the English dub, and despite having attempted to watch the series numerous times in Japanese, my opinion hasn’t changed. To me, the series is just better dubbed. From watching the Japanese version again for the purpose of this review I can say that there certainly isn’t anything wrong with it, but I found myself quickly flipping back to the dub and ultimately I just don’t think the Japanese track works as well as the English dub does.

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For the dub, Edward is voiced by Vic Mignogna (Matt Ishida in 
Digimon Tri, Rin Matsuoka in Free!, and Zero Kiryu in Vampire Knight), who manages to put a great deal of emotion into Edward’s character. Sometimes his pitch comes off as a bit sharp, but for a young kid like Ed this works in favour of the role. Alphonse is voiced by Aaron Dismuke (Yasuchika Haninozuka in Ouran High School Host Club, Lucifer in The Devil Is a Part-Timer!) and, quite impressively, he played the role at the age of 12. Allowing a young boy to play the role of a young male character is a rarity and something that also works in Fullmetal Alchemist’s favour, because it makes the performance feel much more realistic.

This Collector’s Edition has been brought to the UK thanks to Anime Limited and marks the first time that the series has been released here on Blu-ray. It includes 27 episodes both subbed and dubbed across three Blu-ray discs and features clean openings and endings. The Collector’s Edition also comes packed with seven art cards.

Overall the first half of Fullmetal Alchemist has proven to be everything I remember. It’s a fun shonen series that also packs a lot of emotional punch and reliving these first 27 episodes all over again has been a true joy. It still remains one of my favourite series from BONES and one of my favourite series of all time. Fullmetal Alchemist is a true wonder of animation and something that everyone should take the chance to check out.

Title: Fullmetal Alchemist Collector's Edition Part 1
Publisher: Anime Limited
Genre: Shonen, Adventure, Action, Drama
Studio: Studio BONES
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2003
Format: Blu-Ray
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles and English dub audio
Age rating: 15
Running time: 675 minutes

Score: 9/10

The Tatami Galaxy Review

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One autumn evening, a college dropout stops at a ramen stand where he crosses paths with a self-proclaimed deity of matrimony. This odd encounter sends the man hurtling back through space and time to his starting days at college, giving him another chance to find the rose- coloured campus life that escaped him years before. Along with his mischievous friend Ozu, the unnamed man finds himself trapped among the endless possibilities that could change his life as he tries to grasp the opportunity that seems to dangle right in front of his eyes.

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Of the plethora of anime I’ve seen since taking up the hobby almost three years ago, The Tatami Galaxy is probably one of the strangest I’ve ever seen, and I mean that as a massive compliment. In almost every way you can think of, it seems to toss aside any and all notions of conforming to any genre norms or general conventions of anime, which makes for an incredibly refreshing show that will be unlike almost anything you’ve seen before.

The most instantly apparent way that Tatami Galaxy sets itself apart from every other show is with its visual style. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the director of this series, Masaaki Yuasa, who has made a name for himself with other visually unique anime such as Ping Pong the Animation and Kaiba, and The Tatami Galaxy is definitely no exception. This show in an absolute assault on the eyes, using a whole array of bright, vibrant colours and textures that can often change from scene to scene, and a lot of the time even from shot to shot, occasionally incorporating elements of photography and video. It’s very hard to describe, and it really has to be seen in motion before you can get a good grasp of what it’s like, but, needless to say, it looks superb. I always love it when an anime tries to do something different with its art style, something that stands out from the crowd of somewhat samey-looking anime that are around nowadays. As much as I do love some good old fashioned moe, it’s nice to see something new, and it’s certainly something I’d like to see more of. The visuals here are plain mesmerizing and I could probably recommend it purely on the strength of the animation and art alone. The wonderful animation is provided by one of my personal favourite studios, Madhouse, who have produced anime such as Yuasa’s other work, Kaiba, as well as other popular series such as Death Note and Hunter x Hunter. This certainly ranks among the most unusual work I’ve seen from them; however, in terms of animation alone, it’s probably the best. Anime Limited’s release is the first time this show has been available on Blu-ray outside of Japan, and it really benefits from being in HD, where the bright colours can really pop. I honestly can’t imagine DVD doing this show justice, so it’s great to see it finally make its way on Blu-ray in the West.

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The strange, surreal visual aesthetics of The Tatami Galaxy are paired with an equally bizarre story. The general premise of the show is that at the start of the episode, the unnamed protagonist will arrive at college in his first year, and pick a club, with the hopes that it will lead him to meeting a raven-haired maiden and falling in love, but it all goes wrong by the end, and time rewinds for a fresh start at the beginning of the next episode, with the protagonist having no memories of the previous episode, barring some brief recollections. Although the majority of the episodes work as stand-alone stories, they all intertwine nicely with one another, and it’s not uncommon to see events from previous episodes crop up, albeit in slightly different ways, due to the differences in the timeline. As I said before, the stories in the episodes themselves are just as unique and odd as the animation that they’re paired with. What I really like about each episode is how the absurdity isn’t constant, as, if it had been, it probably would have gotten quite tiring. Instead, most episodes begin with the protagonist joining a seemingly mundane club, but by the end of the episode, he winds up in some utterly crazy situation, such as falling in love with a doll, fighting in a ‘proxy-proxy’ prank war or hijacking a blimp. These stories alone would be entertaining enough, but when paired with the Yuasa’s direction and Madhouse’s visuals, they’re elevated into something truly riveting, and you won’t want to tear your eyes away from the screen. It’s just so full of energy and it makes for incredibly fun viewing. Despite the fact that The Tatami Galaxy is a crazy and fun show on the surface, you can’t help but feel there is a darker, more cynical message underneath it all; that no matter what your choices are in life, you end up in the same position regardless. We constantly see the protagonist starting over and over again from the start of his college life, yet no matter what club he joins, he never achieves his goal. Despite this, there is a slightly more uplifting message towards the end of the show that gives some greater depth to everything, and it certainly gives the audience something to think about.

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At the centre of all this madness is our cast of characters, who are also pretty great. The nameless protagonist is kind of a likable loser, and serves as our guide through the weird and surreal environment. It’s nice to have a grounded character to attach yourself to among all the craziness and I think his presence is a major factor in making the show work. In the last two episodes he also undergoes some fantastic and satisfying character growth that nicely caps off the series. Ozu, the fiendish-looking best friend of the protagonist who, in the words of the show, seems to exist to make the protagonist’s life a living hell, is probably the most fun character in the series and adds a bit of mystery to the proceedings, which has a great payoff at the end.  The only weak character, in my opinion, is Akashi, the primary love interest of the protagonist, whose sparse appearances and lack of any real memorable character traits make for an incredibly forgettable character. As well as the main cast, The Tatami Galaxy also features a small but very memorable bunch of side characters, my favourite probably being the personification of the protagonist’s libido, the gun-toting, sex-mad cowboy Johnny, who always had me laughing without fail.  

Anime Limited’s release of The Tatami Galaxy is Japanese audio only with English subtitles only, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. Not that the Japanese audio track is bad in any way, far from it; every voice actor here does an absolutely terrific job. The nameless protagonist is voiced by Shintaro Asanuma, who has supplied his voice to a myriad of different anime, such as Accel World, Assassination Classroom, Ace of Diamond and Tokyo Ghoul, and is brilliant in his role here, as is Hiroyuki Yoshino as the devilish Ozu. The only downside to the Japanese audio track is the speed at which everyone talks. After watching the first episode, I was convinced I was going to have to watch the entire thing at half speed. Everyone was talking so fast, and because I was so focused on trying and failing to read the subtitles at the speed they were going, I also ended up missing some of the visuals. Thankfully, this did get better after the first episode, becoming much more manageable, but there were still odd moments here and there where I totally missed something because the voice actors spoke faster than my brain could process the subtitles. This isn’t a problem that I think could be fixed, and is certainly not a fault with Anime Limited’s release, it’s just that this was clearly designed for native speakers of the language who don’t have to read along. It is mildly distracting, but I definitely don’t think it takes away from the show, and, as it goes on, you do kind-of get used to it. If anything, it adds to the rewatch value!

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The score for The Tatami Galaxy is provided by Michiru Oshima, who has also worked on the music for other anime such as Little Witch Academia, Fullmetal Alchemist and Patema Inverted, and she produces a wonderful, piano-centric soundtrack that oddly enough really fits well with all the weirdness on screen. I can only imagine how hard it was to score a show like this, so the fact The Tatami Galaxy has such a fantastic soundtrack is really is a testament to Oshima’s talents. The opening is performed by one of my favourite bands as far as anime openings are concerned, Asian Kung-fu Generation. They never fail at producing incredibly catchy rock songs, and have performed openings for shows such as Fullmetal Alchemist, ERASED and Bleach. “Maigo Inu to Ame no Beat” is no different, and is an unforgettable and upbeat tune that I loved instantly.  

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Anime Limited’s release of The Tatami Galaxy includes quite a few nice extras on the disc, including Japanese commercials and promos for the show, as well as an interview with the man behind the series composition, Makoto Ueda, on top of the usual clean Opening and Ending you expect. In terms of physical extras, the Limited Edition set includes a set of four art cards and an artbook, all contained in a premium collector’s box. It’s really a gorgeous set, and one that this show very much deserves.  

In Summary

The Tatami Galaxy is an absolute must for almost any anime fan. Its unique and mesmerizing visuals and off-the-wall yet deep story and an entertaining cast of characters make this show a breath of fresh air, and one I can’t recommend enough.

Title: The Tatami Galaxy
Publisher: Anime Limited
Genre: Slice of Life, Romance,
Studio: Madhouse
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2010
Format: Blu-Ray
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles
Age rating: 12
Running time: 275 minutes

Score: 9/10

Review of Haibane Renmei

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“When you were here before
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry

You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I wish I was special
You’re so very special”

– “Creep” by Radiohead

Fantasy series Haibane Renmei (Charcoal Feather Federation) is one of the few anime series to be adapted from a dojinshi (fan work) manga. In fact, the anime superseded the original strip which was never completed.

The anime follows a group of beings called “Haibane”, angel-like people with small feathered wings who have halos made for them. We meet the main character while she is having a dream about falling from the sky. She then wakes up inside a giant cocoon, which she breaks and frees herself from. As it is custom for Haibane to be named after the events that occur in the dream before they hatch, this Haibane is named Rakka, meaning “Fallen”.

Rakka is welcomed by more Haibane, who live in the abandoned “Old Home” school inside the walled city of Glie. These other Haibane are Reki, an artist who also acts as a teacher to child Haibane; Hikari, who works as a baker; the mechanically-minded Kana; librarian Nemu who is the oldest of the group; and Kuu, an outgoing Haibane who is the youngest of the central gang.

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Rakka then learns more about the area around her and about her species: the Haibane have no idea as to who or what created them; they are forbidden to leave Glie, or even to touch the city walls; all of their clothes are second-hand; they have no money so transactions are made using special notebooks that are given to them by someone called “The Communicator”, a masked individual who is the only one who can talk to the Toga, the only group who enter and leave Glie, and even then they only communicate via sign language. Although the Haibane are a different species, the humans of Glie treat them well.

At first, Rakka gets to know more about her friends, working alongside them in different jobs and learning more about the environment around her, but things change when one of their group disappears. Rakka learns that Haibane can leave the world by taking the “Day of Flight”, when they have overcome the various trials their time in Glie has put them through and can leave the city skywards, never to return.

This is normally the fate of all the Haibane, but Rakka comes to learn that one of her main group cannot do this. There are some Haibane who have no memory of their dream inside the cocoon, and thus are born with black feathers on their wings, a sign that they are “Sin-bound”. This particular Haibane needs to remember their dream; otherwise it is impossible for them to have the Day of Flight. Rakka also discovers that some of her feathers are turning black. Could it be that she too is somehow Sin-bound?

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The main appeal of Haibane Renmei is that it clearly stands out against most of the anime releases we tend to get in the UK. This is a rather slow-moving and for the most-part genteel drama. The music alone is enough to suggest that, with the opening theme being a quiet instrumental piece. That is not to say that it is dull. There is still a fair bit of excitement in some scenes. There is the moment when Rakka’s wings hatch, which is a pretty grisly sight. There is also a big sequence in which Rakka falls down a well and injures herself. She is later saved by the Communicator, but also later gets into more trouble. You might find yourself wandering off at the odd occasion that might be a bit too slow, but overall the pacing is fine.

You will also find plenty of stuff to keep you entertaining on the DVDs as there are plenty of extras. These include textless opening and closing, trailers, commercials, various art galleries, a special version of the ending and an interview with the creators of the show.

In terms of a downside, it would be that because the original story was left unfinished we have no idea of what the true end is. However, the original creator, Yoshitoshi Abe, deliberately has elements of the story that were meant to be left for the viewer to interpret themselves. What was the exact meaning of Rakka’s falling dream, for example?

If you are getting a bit worn out by the usual anime releases you see, Haibane Renmei might make for a nice change of tone for you.

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Title: Haibane Renmei
Publisher: MVM Films
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Studio: Radix
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2002
Format: DVD
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles and English dub audio
Age rating: 12
Running time: 325 minutes

Score: 7/10

Your Name

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Mitsuha Miyamizu is a young girl living in the countryside, desperate to escape her mundane village life and experience the wonders of Tokyo. Her wildest dreams seem to come true when she suddenly wakes up in a Tokyo apartment inside a boy’s body – a boy who just happens to have the ideal busy life with school, friends, a love interest and waiter job. When she goes to school the next morning, she discovers from her friends’ reactions that it was not a dream at all, whilst she was off parading around Tokyo, a boy by the name of Taki Tachibana was inside her body back at her village, interacting with her friends and family. Shocked by the sudden turn of events with seemingly no way of stopping the random body-switching days, the pair establish a few ground rules to cope with the sudden change and as they begin to learn more about each other, a drastic event threatens to tear them apart forever.

Director and writer Makoto Shinkai has been hailed as the ‘new Miyazaki’ in many publications and reviews, especially of late since Your Name topped the Japanese box office just 28 days after release, becoming the highest grossing non-Studio Ghibli and non-series- related anime film to earn over 10 billion yen. With the Western world’s limited scope for comparison when it comes to Japanese animation directors and Makoto Shinkai being a Ghibli fan himself, it’s easy to put two and two together. But what has struck a chord with Japanese audiences in Your Name? And is the ‘new Miyakazki’ tag warranted? Mr Shinkai already has a variety of films under his belt, as well as novels and manga. From the fantasy- driven Journey to Agartha to the more down-to-earth stories such as Garden of Words, there’s no doubt that he’s a talented storyteller, with Your Name not only exhibiting many elements of his previous works but creating a whole new heart-warming tale in the process for a new generation of anime fans.

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At the core of this tale is the tried and tested ‘body switching’ trope which is a common device in fiction from literature to TV to films, the latter’s most famous example being Freaky Friday, where a mother and daughter swap bodies for a certain amount of time. It’s often played for comedic effect with the actors involved hamming up their physical and/or voice performance to convince the audience of the change, and by the end of the experience it’s the age-old lesson of ‘walking a mile in each other’s shoes’ to understand each other better. Your Name is ripe for such hilarious comedy as it’s a boy and girl swapping bodies but Makoto Shinkai avoids a lot of the trappings and recycled morals, instead creating something new and innovative. That’s not to say it avoids comical beats entirely, both protagonists are incredibly curious about their ‘new’ anatomy when they wake up in the opposite sex’s body, and whilst there is a recurring gag of Taki being very aware of his new cleavage, he doesn’t perve over it as other anime have done before. The comedy comes from a more natural and relatable place; for example, when Mitsuha is in the male body she’s completely comfortable talking with the older female Miki and oblivious to the change in dynamic between the pair, whilst Taki has to deal with the sudden new attention he’s getting from her and the brunt of the jealous male co-workers as a result. Another shake-up of the trope is the time the pair exchange bodies; a lot of body swapping stories have the infected pair stay in their respective forms until they learn their lessons, whereas in Your Name it happens at random intervals. Not only does this prevent the body swaps from becoming boring but allows for the characters to experience the aftermath of the previous day (with entertaining results) and appreciate the time they have in their own skins. Then when they suddenly wake up elsewhere, picking up pieces of someone else’s life for better or for worse serves as a perfect catalyst for some very emotional and tension filled scenes in the second half. Also, because the first switch happens whilst they’re sleeping, they naturally think it’s a dream and act spontaneously, believing that there will be no consequences for their actions. When the sequential swaps occur, they change how they handle their situation and work together as they go along. It’s a very humane approach to an overdone plot device.

Most body swapping stories avoid officially explaining how the actual process works; Your Name is no exception, starting the film with the very first time it happens and failing to  explain it later on, even when more fantasy elements come into play during the story. But among the likes of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the lack of scientific explanation does not detract from the enjoyment of the film; it’s an emotional journey that brings the audience into the concept and keeps them there, especially a third of the way in, when the first twist occurs. To avoid as few spoilers as possible: emotionally it hits you, as if a piano has been dropped on you, very suddenly and unexpectedly (considering the light-hearted lead-up) and in a lesser movie it would be unwarranted or too abrupt to carry forward, but this comes hand-in-hand with the change in focus of protagonist. The first third of the movie is mostly from Mitsuha’s point of view; a scenario born from a wish she makes on a whim as part of an expressive outburst, so as a result we see her having the time of her life in Tokyo and not thinking about the long term plans. Then it switches to Taki, who didn’t ask for the change and takes longer to accept his new weird situation. However, he’s more mature and it’s his desire to learn about the body he inhabits that brings the movie to a grounded space when he discovers more than he bargained for. The last third switches between the two and blends the two moods together, resulting in a rollercoaster ride of many emotionally charged highs and sudden stops for quiet moments that will pull on the audience’s heart strings for a glorious finale. The continuous up-and-down emotional spikes in the final act may have been stretched too far once or twice (the film runs to 107 minutes) but it’s to help wrap up the last elements of the story, rather than force another flood of tears from the audience. Building that heart-pulling connection however comes naturally, due to the protagonists; the two teens are very relatable in different ways because of her enthusiasm and his curiosity. They react naturally to an unnatural situation, and you want them to succeed in finding themselves and each other, as well as laugh along when the moment calls for it.

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Animation is provided by CoMix wave Studios, who have produced most of Makoto’s work so Your Name looks very similar to his previous films. Although visually it’s not as striking as Garden of Words, the animation for the lead characters is where it excels; the body switches are revealed through body language and facial expressions before a single word is spoken. From the small hand gestures to big reactions; it’s the little details here and there that really bring the whole premise and emotional core of the story together.

Japanese rock band Radwimps provide the score with mixed results; although the actual score is delightful that ranges from low key, to playful, to heart-breaking when the movie switches gears, the vocal tracks are more of a distraction than an addition to the experience. The songs themselves aren’t bad but feel shoehorned into the film, as if the band were promoting an album rather than the movie. This is especially true of the opening track which plays over a mini-trailer edited opening that’s more like a music video than part of the film.

Your Name is a delightful movie, gorgeously animated, that takes a wacky, unbelievable concept and shapes it into a genuinely thoughtful story, filled with relatable characters and emotional highs. It’s one not to be missed when it arrives in cinemas.

Your Name will be screened as part of BFI’s London Film Festival 14th – 16th October. In cinemas across the UK from November 24th.

Title: Your Name
Publisher: Anime Limited
Genre: Coming of Age, Drama, Teen,
Studio: CoMix Wave Studios
Type: Movie
Original vintage: 2016
Format: Cinema screening
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles
Running time: 107 minutes

Score: 9/10

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin III – Dawn of Rebellion Review

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Ian Wolf’s Review

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” – Albert Camus

The third episode in the OVA series detailing the events prior to the original Mobile Suit Gundam series begins to show how one of anime’s greatest antagonists began to develop a more ruthless streak to his nature.

This instalment begins with a short summary of the events of the past two episodes. When the second episode ended Casval and Artesia Deikun, now living under the names Edouard and Sayla Mass, had learned of the death of their mother. The two have gone their separate ways, with Sayla remaining at her home and Edouard leaving Texas Colony in the company of Char Aznable, a man who looks almost identical to him. The only difference is the colour of their eyes.

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The duo are leaving Texas Colony to begin military training in Loum. On the way to the spaceship taking them there Edouard spots that people are spying on him, while Char is stopped at customs for carrying an antique gun. Edouard convinces Char to swap clothes with him to avoid his problem, meaning that it would be Edouard who misses the flight while Char can board. However, Edouard correctly predicts that Zabi allies are up to something: the spaceship explodes, killing Char, who the allies of Zabi believe wrongly to be Edouard. Edouard meanwhile takes up his friend’s identity, dons a pair of shades to disguise his eyes – claiming that his sight has been affected by cosmic rays – and begins his new life as “Char Aznable”.

Edouard, or Char as we should probably now call him, excels in his class to the annoyance of one classmate, Garma Zabi, heir to the Zabi throne and whose importance is clear to all; he clearly stands out in the class because of his purple hair which he keeps messing around with. However, the two do eventually become close after Char helps Garma during an exercise. Later on, an Earth Federation ship crashes into Zeon, sparking more riots and demands of independence from Earth. Char uses this as a chance to increase his power by getting Garma and their fellow cadets to launch an attack on a Federation Barracks.

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Among the positives of this episode are that we get to grips with the Char Aznable that most Gundam fans will now recognise. We see him wearing his trademark visor with the overhead strap for the first time. We also see some of the events which lead to the increasing tensions between Zeon and Earth. The end of the episode even features a segment concerning Amuro. In terms of negative points, we see very little of Sayla and some of the animation is of dubious quality. For example, when Char flicks away a flunky of Garma’s, the character seems to not move at all, and instead the other man is just shrunk to indicate how far backwards he has travelled.

However, as with the previous collections distributed by Anime Limited, the most impressive thing about this set is the amount of bonus material you get (although most of it is in Japanese). On the discs there is an audio commentary, trailers and video of the debut screening of the second episode. Elsewhere you also get the wonderfully illustrated presentation case, a book covering the storyboards, another book covering the cel art, a third booklet covering the episode, and one thing that was not mentioned when the OVA was released: a clipping of the actual film reel, containing four cels of footage from the episode (in my case it depicted Dozle). It is wonderful that we are able to get such impressive collector’s editions these days.

Score: 8 / 10

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Anime Quick Information

  • Title: Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin III – Dawn of Rebellion
  • UK Publisher: Bandai Visual Japan via Anime Limited
  • Genre: Action, Drama, Mecha, Military, Sci-fi
  • Studio: Sunrise
  • Type: OVA
  • Year: 2015
  • Running time: 68 minutes

Sword Art Online II – Part 4 Review

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Ian Wolf’s Review

Warning: may contain spoilers.

“One must have a heart of stone not to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” – Oscar Wilde

The end of the second TV series of Sword Art Online is one that certainly tries to get your tears flowing. Whether it does all depends on how sentimental you are.

With Asuna the main character in the “Mother’s Rosario” arc, the first episode of this arc sees her new friend Yukki introducing her to the Sleeping Knights guild. The guild is planning to disband in a few months, but before they depart they want to get their name on the Monument of Swordsmen, a black stone which back in the bad days of SAO listed the players and which ones had died. Now it lists the names of the first people to defeat the bosses on each level.

The problem is that they want to get the names of all six guild members on the monument, and the only way they can do it is to defeat the monster without the help of any other guilds. Asuna decides to assist them. After they leave for the night, Asuna finds herself forcefully disconnected by her mother, who is still annoyed by the amount of time she is playing her games and wants her to change schools. Asuna’s deadline for dealing with all her issues is coming up fast.

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Back in SAO, Asuna and the Sleeping Knights begin their mission and on the way there she spots members of another guild devoted to beating boss monsters. The Sleeping Knights fail at their first attempt, but Asuna correctly deduces that the other guild was spying on them and preparing to defeat the monster before them. They quickly return to the battle site, only to discover more guild members waiting for them. Yukki begins attacking them when the other guild’s reinforcments arrive. Luckily for Asuna, help arrives in the shape of Kirito and Yui who block their path, while Klein attacks from the rear. This gives Asuna time for her and friends to enter the boss room and complete their mission, but during the battle something odd happens: Yukki refers to Asuna as her “Big Sister”. Yukki does this again at the Monument of Swordsmen, and when Asuna points this out to her, Yukki logs off and runs away.

With Kirito’s help, Asuna finds out where Yukki is in real life: she is in hospital, attached to a “Medicuboid”, a medical full-dive machine. When Asuna sees Yukki in the real world, she comes to understand why the guild is disbanding: the guild members all met in a virtual hospice and Yukki herself is estimated to have three months to live as she is dying from AIDS. With this revelation Asuna tries to give Yukki the best time possible before she passes away, and Yukki in turn provides Asuna with the motivation she needs to confront her mother.

This main feature of this collection is the character of Yukki and the revelation that she has AIDS. It is a big shock to see an anime dealing with such a heavy subject – possibly the most frightening disease in the world. Not surprisingly, Yukki does die of her illness in the last episode, leading to a particularly notable final scene. Back in the virtual world Yukki gives Asuna her Original Sword Skill, the “Mother’s Rosario” in the arc title, and as she dies the rest of the Sleeping Knights, then Kirito and his friends, and then all the other players in the game turn up to pay their respects as Yukki passes away.

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Now, there are two ways you can look at this scene. You can be saddened and moved to tears as Yukki dies, leaving behind both her old and her new friends, and marvel at the huge and noble crowd that pays their respects to her, including other players she had defeated in the game; or, you can think that this is incredibly melodramatic and oversentimental.

Reki Kawahara, the original author of the books, is frequently criticised for being a poor writer. For example, if there is a baddie in Sword Art Online, they tend to always be the vilest person imaginable with no redeeming features, and often come across as borderline rapists. In the case of a dying character Kawahara not only gives the character an incurable illness, but the scariest illness in the world. In the UK, you cannot think of AIDS without thinking of John Hurt voicing an advert in which the word “AIDS” is carved into what looks like a gravestone.

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Plus, while it is arguably commendable that Kawahara is highlighting AIDS, the massive crowd near the end somewhat ruins it. When she is dying with Asuna it is sad; when her guild mate arrives it is sadder; when Kirito and his friends turn up you reach your emotional breaking point; when just about every other player in the game turns up you think: “Oh my God, it’s amazing to see so many people pay their respe… hang on… this is way too much!” This is the equivalent of Little Nell’s death scene being attended by every single customer The Old Curiosity Shop ever had. If Little Nell’s death made Oscar Wilde laugh, Yukki’s death would have had him rolling on the floor, wetting himself in hysterics.

In terms of extras, you have the guide book, textless opening and closing, web previews, and two Sword Art Offline previews.

Overall, the first half of this series has been good, but the endings of both the first arc and this final arc were frustrating. The good bits are balanced out by the bad. This is not the end of the series however. There is still one game written about in the novels that has yet to be adapted: UnderWorld, an AI simulation where time flows differently to that of the real world. Plus there is a fifth game that doesn’t appear in the books. This is Ordinal Scale, the subject of the forthcoming Sword Art Online movie to be released next year.

Score: 6 / 10

Anime Quick Information

  • Title: Sword Art Online II – Part 4
  • UK Publisher: Anime Ltd.
  • Genre: Action, Death Game, Drama, Fantasy, Sci-fi
  • Studio: A-1 Pictures
  • Type: TV series
  • Year: 2014
  • Running time: 120 minutes