Trinity Seven

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Arata Kusaga’s life changes when the sun turns black and his world (ours?)  – and his beloved cousin Hijiri – are swallowed up by the Breakdown Phenomen. Gifted with a grimoire by Hijiri, Arata sets out to find a way to undo the damage and save her. The answers lie in the Royal Biblia Academy, a school for magi with (of course) a pervy headmaster. There, Arata (who possesses the powers, it turns, out of a Demon Lord candidate) is told he must work with the Trinity Seven, nubile female mages who represent the Seven Deadly Sins. Or, to quote the official blurb, ‘seven beautiful female mages whose powers are intrinsically tied to the same sins that Arata has to master to put his world back together’. And so the mastering begins!

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A well-written harem anime can be diverting and fun to watch. Think of Nisekoi – or Love Hina – or even a classic like Oh! My Goddess.  But Trinity Seven seems to be doing its best to press all the cliché buttons without bothering too much about …well, anything, really, except getting ticks in the relevant fan service boxes as soon as possible: hero’s hand on boob? tick; girls in swimsuits at the beach? tick; his magic makes the girls’ clothes fall off? (just like Negima!) multiple ticks! (It’s probably worth noting here that the manga by Akinari Nao (art) and Kenji Saito (story) on which this anime is based is rated ‘M’ Mature by US publishers Yen Press.)

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Maybe this wouldn’t matter so much if the story had anything interesting or new to say in the mages and alchemy story realm, but it hasn’t; the magic system is pretty random, with fantasy bits and bobs thrown in together with pick n’mix from science fiction (Breakdown Phenomenon)  resulting in an odd blend of grimoires and paladins, codices, archives and demon lords. The characters’ names only serve to reinforce this impression: Lugh; Selina and Lieselotte Sherlock; Lilith. The series pootles along in this random way (dragon here! magic explosion there! more boobs!) until past the halfway mark when the plot suddenly belatedly kicks in and director Hiroshi Nishikiori (A Certain Magical Index) ups the ante. It’s well animated and looks like a fantasy but ‘looks like’ is no substitute for a decent plot and the creation of a convincing magic system, not just spouting of Latin, Greek and Hebrew names borrowed from countless other similar creations.

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One of the main irritations with harem (or reverse harem) series is that, having paraded a sequence of potential partners for the main character, just like a Visual Novel, no real commitment is ever made, so the plot and characters never move forward or develop. The series is described as a ‘fantasy romantic comedy’ but surely a romcom demands a little more of its main protagonist, in this case, Arata, who rarely seems to want more from a relationship than to grab the nearest boob.

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This impression isn’t helped in the US dub by relatively new VA Cameron Bautsch who goes for a salacious leer in the voice that enhances the jerk side of Arata’s nature; experienced VA Yoshitsugu Matsuoka (Kirito in SAO, Yukihira Soma in Food Wars) gives a much less obnoxious performance. In fact, this is one of those releases where I definitely recommend the sub over the dub, although there’s a wonderfully dry, deadpan turn by another unfamiliar (to me, anyway) VA, Christina Stroup as Arin Kannazuki, the mage who spookily resembles Arata’s missing Hijiri and persists in calling him her husband.

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Oddly enough, one redeeming feature for Trinity Seven is the interesting and unusual soundtrack, supplied by TECHNOBOYS PULCRAFT GREEN-FUND (WitchCraft Works); their main influence seems to come from the minimalist school, and maybe Thomas Newman (American Beauty). The striking OP is “Seven Doors” by ZAQ and the four (yes, four!) EDs are:

#1: BEAUTIFUL≒SENTENCE” by Magus Two

#2: “SHaVaDaVa in AMAZING♪” by YuiLevi♡

#3: “ReSTART “THE WORLD”” by TWINKle MAGIC

#4: “TRINITY×SEVENTH+HEAVEN” by Security Politti

The extras on this easily navigable Blu-ray are textless OP and EDs and four trailers for other Sentai releases (not all available on R2).

In Summary

If you’re a fan of fan service, then you probably won’t be disappointed. The music isn’t too shabby, with a strong OP and interesting selection of 5 EDs! But take away the music, the attractive character designs and the ecchi and Trinity Seven sadly seems little more than a rather ordinary and undistinguished fighting fantasy.

Title: Trinity Seven
Publisher: Manga Entertainment
Genre: Fantasy, Romantic Comedy, Ecchi, Harem
Studio: Seven Arcs Pictures
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: 15
Running time: 300 minutes

Score: 5/10

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?!”

Title: 11Eyes - Complete Collection
Publisher: MVM Films
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Romance, Tragedy
Studio: Dogakobo
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2009
Format: DVD
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles
Age rating: 15
Running time: 325 minutes

Score: 4/10

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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Title: Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East, Series 2
Publisher: MVM Films
Genre: Fantasy, Supernatural
Studio: Studio Deen
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2013
Format: Blu-Ray and DVD (DVD version reviewed)
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles and English dub audio
Age rating: 15
Running time: 325 minutes

Score: 3/10

Karneval Volumes 4 & 5 Review

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Circus has rescued young Nai’s friend and protector Karoku from the clutches of the sinister organization Kafka at the Smokey Mansion – but to Nai’s distress, Karoku doesn’t recognize him. It seems that Kafka have been tampering with Karoku’s mind and memories, although no one at Circus is sure how to restore him. Gareki begins his new life as a student at Chronome Academy, sponsored by Captain Hirato. When Nai and Karoku manage to activate the old Circus ID bracelet, Gareki hears Nai crying out for help. Forbidden to leave the academy on pain of expulsion, Gareki finds himself suddenly transported far away. Has he been summoned by Nai – and, if so, can he find him in time before something terrible occurs? Whatever happens, his future prospects at the academy look bleak. Meanwhile, Kafka are planning revenge for Circus’s attack. Uro’s replacement, Ryuu, is determined to show utter ruthlessness to prove his worth to Kafka and orders his forces to kill everyone they encounter. A vicious battle ensues – and it’s far from certain who will emerge unscathed from this latest Varuga attack.

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Touya Mikanagi really gets into her stride here by seriously upping the ante in these volumes. The Circus combat specialists are forced to fight for their lives as they are ambushed by Varuga, leading to the summoning of ‘Silver’ Yogi, the sweet-natured combatant’s ‘other’ personality. And all the while, the hints increase as to the possible links between the biotechnology that has created the monstrous Varuga also being used in the creation of Nai.

In what begins as a typically frivolous, fun research trip to the Ancient Ocean Mermerai – where, for research purposes, the crew members are required to bathe naked in the warm waters to attract the Peranoa, native marine creatures – Yogi’s underwear goes missing. (Yes, it’s a wonderful excuse for fan service, but…) The thief turns out to be a cat. And the cat turns out to be connected to something – or someone – both sinister and sad. There’s the hint of a parallel with the underwear thief and Nai’s origins; although it’s not ever spelled out in so obvious a way, it gives the reader plenty to think about. And what begins as a farcical hunt for missing panties (no one blushes better than Yogi) turns into something far more dangerous.

As Karneval reaches its fifth volume in Yen Press’s English edition (Volumes 9-10 in the original Japanese) it raises an issue that has been intriguing and annoying me in equal measure. Some manga series which are serialized weekly/monthly manage to maintain a sense of onward momentum, pulling the reader along with the promise that the overarching plot issues set out at the beginning will be resolved and all the mysteries solved. But others dilly-dally along the way, going off down what turn out to be blind alleys and losing the narrative drive that is so important for sustaining reader involvement. I realize that this is often not just the fault of the mangaka; we see in series about the way manga is written and delivered from Monthly Girl’s Nozaki-Kun to The World’s Greatest First Love (okay, these are often emphasizing the crazy/humorous side of the process but nevertheless…) the very significant role played by editors in the final product we get to read.

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Karneval is published in Zero Sum, the magazine that has also brought us Loveless, Devils and Realist and 07-Ghost. All of these popular series have been made into anime before the manga was anyway near a conclusion – and this also seems to put the mangaka off their stride in terms of plot development (because why would you, when someone else – the anime script writer – has already finished it off for you or taken it in a different direction from the one you were intending?) Karneval’s strengths lie in its artwork and the character interactions, as young fugitives Nai and Gareki are rescued and then sheltered and educated by the eccentric and colourful crews of both ships of Circus. But the underlying mysteries are developing painfully slowly: who – or what – is Nai? Why was Gareki shipwrecked as a child from what seemed to be a sinister slave ship? Who was responsible for developing the terrifying genetically altered monsters called Varuga? Are Circus really the Good Guys? And how are all these issues related (as they most assuredly are)?

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(This cover image is taken from the French Ki-oon edition but is also used on the reverse of Volume 4 from Yen Press.)

It seems that mangaka are very much at the mercy of the popularity of their series (the magazines carry out frequent reader polls). If the series is popular, they’re encouraged to eke out the material as far as it will go. If its popularity starts to wane, editorial pressure is imposed to bring things to a swift (sometimes brutally swift) conclusion. This wreaks havoc for the mangaka in sustaining anything resembling a coherent, satisfying plot. So how well has Touka Miyanagi coped in what is (after all) her first major series (it’s been running for nine years now)? The good news is that she’s really developed as a storyteller. Karneval was full of good ideas at the start but the delivery was rather random at best. A shame, because this may have deterred some readers. But by now the story’s well underway and she’s much better at pacing the action and directing the reader to what’s really important without distracting them with fun but irrelevant stuff (like the charming rabbit and sheep crews on the two Circus ships). Well, most of the time, anyway.

The artwork is just as attractive as before and these trade paperback Yen Press editions are very handsome indeed, with the original colour splash pages and all the delightful extras (including, if you’re a seiyuu fan, the mangaka’s drawings of the cast of the drama CDs and the anime).

In Summary

If you’re looking for a fantasy steampunk manga with a likable cast of characters and an underlying mystery that needs to be solved, then Karneval is well worth your time – as long as you don’t mind the occasional meander down a plot side-street.

Score 8/10

Touya Mikanagi Yen Press 2016, translated by Su Mon Ha  OT c. 400 pages

Blast of Tempest Complete Collection

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‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

Mahiro’s younger sister Aika was murdered a year ago – and since then Mahiro has been skipping high school, bent on revenge. His classmate Yoshino (who was in a secret relationship with Aika) goes to visit her grave, only to held at gunpoint by a glamorous young woman, Fraulein Evangeline (who may be working for the government) demanding to know where Mahiro is. Mahiro comes to Yoshino’s rescue – and, just in time, the two young men escape, only to witness the horrifying effects of the Iron Plague which is turning everyone to metal. Mahiro shows Yoshino a strange wooden doll through which he’s able to communicate with a young woman mage, Hakaze Kusaribe, so powerful that her mage clan has marooned her on a desert island. She is the protector of the Tree of Genesis, and has promised to help Mahiro find Aika’s murderer, gifting him with magic talismans – if he, in turn, will help her stop her brother Samon from reviving the Tree of Exodus and bringing destruction to the world. But Samon’s clan mages wield some very powerful magic – and they will do anything to stop Mahiro and Yoshino bringing Hakaze back.

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Episode 12 ends on a note of high melodrama with the whole world at the mercy of the battle for supremacy between the Tree of Genesis and the Tree of Exodus. So the abrupt change of tone when we launch into Part 2 of the series comes as something of a surprise. Suddenly it seems as if we’re in a slice-of-life shoujo romcom with Hakaze, the Princess of Genesis, blushing like a schoolgirl over her crush on Yoshino. Hanemura, the new Mage of Exodus, is portrayed as a bit of a klutz at first – then the super sentai-style uniform he’s persuaded to adopt in his role of mage of Exodus takes us into yet another genre altogether. But, to be fair to the creative team, the second set of episodes works much better than the first – as long as you don’t ask too many questions and just sit back and enjoy the ride. This is because the plot issues are mostly resolved in the final episode (and how many anime series can you say that about?) leading to something approaching a satisfying ending.

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By far the most interesting aspect of this story is the uncomfortable ‘friendship’ between Mahiro, Aika and Yoshino; Mahiro must never know that Aika and Yoshino have been secretly going out together behind his back… because Mahiro (in spite of all his protestations) is also attracted to his sister (who is not, as it turns out, related to him by blood, so that’s all right; no incest here, folks!) And yet Yoshino is the only one who has been there for Mahiro – the arrogant, outwardly self-sufficient rich boy – since the boys were in middle grade. This potentially poisonous and complex triangular relationship is frankly rather more compelling than all the ‘end of the world’ gallimaufry.

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Why does Blast of Tempest, inspired by the Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, start with a quotation from Hamlet? And then continue (mostly) to quote from Hamlet? Well, the series is based on the manga Civilisation Blaster by Kyo Shirodaira (with art by Ren Saizaki) and Shirodaira is the author of that famously plot-twisty series Spiral.  At first the only element borrowed from The Tempest is the idea of the powerful magician cast adrift by a sibling and washed up on a desert island. But where Shakespeare’s mage is Prospero, Duke of Milan, his role of duke usurped by his villainous brother, here we have a young ‘princess’ mage, the most powerful of the Kusaribe clan, who is put in a barrel and set adrift on the ocean by her brother Samon. Later on we learn that Aika loved to quote from that play – and some (slightly clumsy) analogies come up relating to native islander/monster Caliban and his role in the play. But the parallels between the trio of brother (Mahiro), sister (Aika) and lover (Yoshino) and Laertes, Ophelia and Hamlet are quoted just as often and, arguably, are more apt. Is the outcome going to be a revenge tragedy (Hamlet) or a revenge/reconciliation (The Tempest)? At the end there is a final (and fitting) link to The Tempest… but you’ll have to watch it to discover what exactly that turns out to be.

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Another intriguing (or baffling, depending on your point of view) issue is that of the music. Michiru Oshima (FullMetal Alchemist, Patema Inverted, Hal) is responsible for the fully orchestral soundtrack. This is both a bonus (she’s an accomplished composer) and a disadvantage (there’s sometimes so much going on in the orchestral score that it overwhelms the action.) Particularly affecting is the poignant theme that accompanies the preview at the end of every episode; this is Oshima at her best. But what’s this I hear? Something rather more ‘classical’? Why, it’s the third movement from Beethoven’s piano sonata ‘The Tempest,’ orchestrated, no doubt, by Oshima herself and inserted, perhaps, to remind us of the (thus far pretty tenuous) links to Shakespeare’s play.

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The Opening Theme “Spirit Inspiration” by Nothing’s Carved in Stone is suitably loud, jangled and brash – with English lyrics.  But, for a show with such heavy emotional content (murdered sister, lost lover, family betrayal, the imminent end of the world…) what on earth is this cutesy little Ending Theme “happy endings” by Kana Hanazawa (who plays Aika) doing? It seems utterly out of place. The second Opening Theme is “Daisuki na noni (Even though I love you)” by Kylee with animation based on the attractive manga artwork by Ren Saizaki. The second Ending Theme is “Bokutachi no Uta (Our Song)” by Sako Tomohisa where the animation portrays the doomed lovers Aika and Yoshino, walking along as the seasons change.

As this release is subbed, we are treated to the original seiyuu, and very good they are, too, especially young male leads Kouki Uchiyama as Yoshino and Toshiyuki Toyonaga as Mahiro. The subtitles are so-so in quality, leaving something to be desired in the long passages of talky exposition (but then, that’s more of a complaint for the script writers who obviously forgot the old rule: ‘Show, don’t tell.’)

Extras: Textless Opening and Ending Themes; Trailers.

In Summary

Blast of Tempest is a very attractive series from a visual point of view with elegant character designs (the long hair of Fraulein Evangeline, Aika, Hakaze and her brother Samon is romantically Art Nouveau in the way it billows, and drifts in long strands across the screen). The mage duels are thrillingly orchestrated. The destructive powers of the Tree of Exodus and the Tree of Genesis are chillingly portrayed. But its strengths lie in the personal interactions of the main characters; when Hakaze tells Yoshino he should grieve properly for Aika, or when Mahiro and Yoshino are arguing, the series comes alive.

Score: 7 / 10

Anime Quick Information

  • Title: Blast of Tempest Collection Episodes 1-24
  • UK Publisher: MVM Films
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Studio: Bones
  • Type: TV series
  • Year: 2012
  • Running time: 600 minutes

Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East Series 1 Review

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Ian Wolf’s Review

“Why attack God? He may be as miserable as we are.” – Erik Satie.

If you are familiar with Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East, then probably the first thing you might know about it is that it is an adaptation of a gigantic 19th century novel series written over a period of 30 years. After that, the second thing you might know about it is that this version is based on a manga, still currently being written, by Miyuki Abe, the creator of the controversy-ridden yaoi series Super Lovers (which in my opinion people rather overreacted to, but that’s a matter for a different review).

Five years prior to the story a village was attacked. Only three children survived: 13-year-old Shino Inuzuka, Sosuke Inukawa and Hamaji. They are saved by Rio Satomi, one of the Four Sacred Beast Houses who is able to control the spirit of a large wolf, and who also works for the Imperial Church that rules the land.

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Moving to the present, the three survivors are now taking shelter in a parish church, but things are not normal by any means. Shino’s arm now harbours a living sword named Murasame, who can turn into a crow and speak with humans. Because he lives in Shino’s body, Shino is now cursed and thus doesn’t age, meaning he is now an 18-year-old trapped in the body of a 13-year-old. Sosuke meanwhile has the power to shapeshift into a wolf. The Imperial Church learns that Shino is in possession of Murasame and wants him, but he refuses to hand himself in. Thus the Imperial Church kidnaps Hamaji, leading Shino and Sosuke to travel to the Imperial Capital to find her.

While in the city they meet Rio, who asks them to complete a task. Shino and Sosuke happen to be in possession of a sacred bead each. There are eight sacred beads in the world and Rio wants Shino and Sosuke to find all the bead holders for a reason he does not fully explain. However, they agree to the task partly to keep Hamaji safe, which she is, under the protection of Rio and his assistant Kaname Osaki, who has feelings for her.

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So far Hakkenden has been OK. Part of the time the story does drag a bit, but when the action kicks in it does so in a lively way. There is plenty of blood spilt, whether it comes from sword, arrow, animal attack or demonic possession. Two of the most interesting characters are military policeman Genpachi Inuki and ex-soldier turned innkeeper Kobungo Inuta, who are also immortal demons. The plot, while at times a bit slow, does occasionally have its moments. One entertaining story follows a train passenger who is constantly accompanied by a “Snow Princess” who makes everything around him cold.

However, there is a major problem in that this story is based on a work that is so long. Currently, two series have been made of Hakkenden, but the manga is still being written. It is hard to imagine how the manga can conclude satisfactorily.

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Concerning the extras, there are two episode commentaries, and textless versions of the opening “God FATE” by Faylan and the superior ending “String of pain” by Tetsuya Kakihara.

The series is all right so far, but it is probably best to wait to see the second series before making a full and proper judgment.

Score: 6 / 10

Anime Quick Information

  • Title: Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East
  • UK Publisher: MVM Films
  • Genre: Fantasy, Supernatural
  • Studio: Studio Deen
  • Type: TV series
  • Year: 2013
  • Running time: 325 minutes

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Part 2 Review

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This review will contain spoilers for Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Part 1

With his contract to Saber ripped from him by Caster’s Rule Breaker Noble Phantasm, Shirou is now officially out of the Holy Grail War, but he refuses to let Rin continue to fight on alone. Although badly injured and not standing a chance against the other masters and servants, he tails Rin and her servant Archer to the location where their battle with Caster is taking place. Little do they know that Archer has his own agenda and a secret that will change their lives forever.

The second season of Unlimited Blade Works picks up right from where the first season left off, but despite there seemingly being no break in time between them, there are a few obvious changes in atmosphere and production. Luckily, the animation is not one of them.

Firstly; there’s a shift of focus from both Rin and Emiya, to just Emiya. Somewhere between seasons Rin has stopped being the assertive, powerful and competent mage she was introduced as; now she’s mostly a side character to make way for Shirou Emiya’s arc, which is the entire focus for this season. Despite the sudden jump in power and ability that Emiya has gained between seasons, he still remains the weakest link in the series and sadly his story development in these 13 episodes does not help.

The main conflict is this: Shirou Emiya wants to be a hero of justice, a man who saves all lives at the cost of his own without sacrificing anyone else, which is of course impossible to do as not everyone can be saved and some might not even want to be. Archer shows up as a result of these ideals taken to the extreme; he shows Emiya that the only thing that clinging to these flawed ideals will do is make him an emotionally and mentally broken man, cursing the day he was born and wishing to undo everything. Emiya is shown exactly what the fruit of his labour will bring, and how unhappy it’ll make him and those around him.

So what does Emiya do? He decides to continue holding onto these ideals just as before. Why? Because… I don’t know, he’s got nothing else better to do, apparently. I’m not saying that I did not watch what happened, I’m saying that there’s no solid reason for Emiya to continue down this path. Despite the fact that Emiya and Archer talk for three episodes straight about what the ideals are, how flawed they are, why they bring about destruction and why they must be nipped in the bud, and then again just before the final battle, Shirou decides to do what is equivalent to a child sticking his fingers inside his ears and shouting ‘la la la I can’t hear you!’ when a parent tries to tell them off. Instead of repeating the same conversation over and over we could have had Emiya pointing out a more positive outlook on Archer’s memories, focusing on those who are living instead of the hordes of corpses we keep getting shown (which horribly is mostly piles and piles of black people) or Emiya recognising that just knowing his future is enough to change things like other time-travelling narratives tend to suggest. But we get nothing; we’re not presented any decent, strong upside to Emiya continuing down his route; he comes to the conclusion that because in this very moment he feels no regrets and he still likes the idea of a hero of justice, he’ll continue on. Instead of accepting his limitations and changing his unnatural view on life into a healthy one, it falls to the people around him (mostly Rin) to help him not become the broken man he might turn into.

What a horrible message to land on, and what an awful position to put the poor girl in; Shirou can monologue all he wants in this show but nothing warrants this dim-witted attitude. If the show painted it as a terrible tragedy, it could have been a sad but effective continuation of Fate/Zero. A man’s sacrifice for the one boy he could save ends up turning him into someone just like him but worse; a man who wants to save everyone but ends up only bringing death. Sadly, the series wants us to think he’s being ‘noble’ – sorry, I’m not sold.

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The other reason these episodes differ from the first set is that, despite the first season trying very hard to tie itself with Fate/Zero whilst also maintaining the bridge for new fans to hop on by introducing new magical terms and techniques clearly, these batches of episodes give up on both entirely. They do try in the beginning with two episodes deviating from the visual novel to give backstory to Caster, and Illya has her own episode to wrap up her arc (abruptly, but it still tries) with links to the tragic end her parents had in the prequel, but from then on no attempt is made to clue the audience in on, for example, what Gilgamesh’s Ea (large black sword) is, or what makes Saber come to an emotional closure in episode 22 when all she’s done for the past few episodes is stand around and watch Emiya fight. Even the reveal of important Servants’ identities are blurted out and swiftly explained in throwaway dialogue with next to no impact; say what you want about Sailor Moon Crystal, despite most audiences knowing the Moon Princess, it at least they tried to make the reveal a big deal, given that it had a huge influence on the characters and the audience. Unlimited Blade Works, however, doesn’t feel the need to because, as many Type Moon fans would say, it was already covered in another route, which we don’t see here. Saber’s character arc was in the Fate route, so in Unlimited Blade Works she takes a back seat. This would be understandable if you were playing the video game and went through one route straight to the next but we haven’t. At best the audience knows next to nothing about her and won’t care much, at worst the Fate/Zero fans will desperately want to know why the poor girl ends up being a pawn for the Emiya family.

This is where we reach the true problem of Unlimited Blade Works; it’s not an effective adaption of Fate/Stay Night. (I’m going to deviate a bit to explain why, but bear with me…)

Adapting a story from one medium to another has been done many times over; from book to film, from comic to TV series, from video game to big screen, etc. And yet there’s no one sure way or foolproof equation for adapting from one to the other seamlessly and without error; each story and every medium has its own pros and cons to consider when adapting, and that’s without taking into consideration the fan expectations. For example, when adapting a book you have to consider its mountains of text; the detail that went into the world building, the characters’ inner monologues and descriptions of locations. For video games it’s the interactive element; how do you get around the player immersion and present the story just as effectively without a controller involved? Visual novels have a combination of these strengths and weaknesses, especially Fate/Stay Night which had three routes with their own character focus and stories to tell; there were pages and pages of dialogue and the player was experiencing it all from Shirou’s point of view.

So when adapting the story, especially from a text-heavy medium to a more visual one such as television or cinema, you have to consider the following;

Who is the adaptation being made for?

The obvious answer seems to be ‘for fans’ but that’s where a lot of more niche attempts such as Vampire Academy and the more recent Warcraft film fail to break bank, because an adaption can’t just be for a small minority. You can’t expect everyone who loved the original story to cross over to the new medium to experience it again in a new way. For example, the first Star Wars film has probably been seen by an extremely large majority worldwide; however, not every person who has watched the film has gone on to read the books, or to play a video game version of it, or to listen to the radio drama. Having an audience follow the story in the same medium (film, in this case) is a big ask in itself, but asking them to pick up a comic book would be a stretch. So despite fans wanting it to be for them, the answer is that it has to be for a general audience; the more people (whether they liked the original story or not) that come to see the new, more accessible version, the better. Aim broader and hope the fans of the original will follow suit.

How much of the story do you adapt?

Again, the temptation is to answer ‘all of it’ but sometimes it’s just not logically possible; a scene where characters think of a scheme then talk to their opponent to fish information can work wonders written down, but visually it’ll be incredibly boring. Trying to cram an entire video game backstory into one movie will only result in being incredibly rushed and making little to no sense. The Harry Potter franchise split the last book into two films to avoid this problem, while Game of Thrones is a TV series spreading each book across its own season because George RR Martin knew squeezing each book into the restricted time of a movie would be intolerable.

Does the adaptation work on its own?

Imagine if The Lord of the Rings movie did not have the opening scene explaining all the different rings, why the ‘One Ring to Rule Them All’ has a special pull to it and the villain’s motivation for wanting it. Imagine if you had to read the book first before watching the first film to understand what’s going on; not only would you be incredibly confused and frustrated, but the movie trilogy would have nowhere near the amount of fans it has now. Luckily, The Lord of the Rings explains its mythology, the world and character motivations clearly, so non-book-readers can understand the story and become attached to the characters without needing prior knowledge.

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Now that all that information is laid out, let’s put these questions to Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works.

Who is the adaptation being made for?

This adaptation fails to pick an audience and stick with it. At first it was Fate/Zero fans, then it wanted newcomers, and then Fate/Stay Night fans. Aiming for everyone is fine but you have to remain consistent, which this adaptation does not. Where it matters most (the approach to the climax and the actual climax itself) it’s clear it sits firmly in the ‘fans only’ club and no one else applies. Which is a shame considering how welcoming the opening episodes were (remember the first two double-length episodes?)

How much of the story do you adapt?

Because of the nature of the three routes, adapting just the one with no additional material from the other routes would be detrimental to anyone outside of the game fans. In the Visual Novel, Fate served as an intro, Unlimited Blade Works was middle ground, and Heaven’s Feel is the final conclusion. Studio ufotable did include some anime-exclusive scenes to help connect the dots when it needed to for the side characters and villains but it does not take cues from any other route. Which is why Saber is mostly cast away and does not get a fitting continuation from her development in Fate/Zero, why Sakura disappears after episode 8 and is not seen again until the Epilogue, why Shinji gets away with his horrible actions and seems to learn nothing as a result in the end, and the less we think about Kotominei’s final unfulfilling moments the better. The 2006 Fate/Stay Night anime was flawed but at least it did try to add depth with arcs for all the characters, giving weight to the right moments and padding out the revelations (such as the connection between Rin and Sakura) to make the story more than just Shirou and Saber’s love. It didn’t always work but at least it tried to be its own story, without relying on outside knowledge to support its weight.

Does the adaptation work on its own?

The answer is a resounding no. The anime falters at deviating from the source material to make the big character reveals and emotional payoffs work. The world building is hastily explained at best or just ignored at worst; as previously mentioned most characters outside of Shirou and Rin are half baked or not developed at all, and the main conflict by itself is not deep, interesting or resolved strongly enough to carry itself through all 26 episodes.

Before we wrap up let’s throw in a few positives. The animation is still really good; it’s not as polished as the first half but it still glimmers with effort. The same can be said for the action scenes; although they rely a lot on recycled set pieces (the Unlimited Blade Works desert world and Gilgamesh’s glowing sword powers) but they’re well-choreographed regardless. The score by Hideyuki Fukasawa also packs a punch; Type Moon fans will get a kick out of the new version of Emiya’s Theme especially. The new opening theme by Aimer, ‘Brave Shine’, sounds very different to the previous opening; like an early 00s rock anthem. Kalafina return with the ending ‘Ring Your Bell’, which sounds like part 2 of ‘Believe’, using similar chords and chime sounds but with a more uplifting vibe to the song.

DVD extras are sadly restricted to clean opening, closing and promo trailers. The OVA ‘Sunny Days’ (animating the alternative ending to the original game route) is not included here.

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Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works had a great start and heritage to work from with all the right elements to make it a superb masterpiece, but instead its poor writing and rigidity in deviating from the restricted POV of the original Visual Novel shackled it before it could take off. It all looks and sounds impressive but in the end, the dialogue and main character who never learns turned the whole journey into wasted noise. It’s for fans of the original game only, I’m afraid.

Score: 5/10

Anime Quick Information

Director: Takahiro Miura
Number of discs: 3
Classification: 15
Studio: MVM
Release Date: 25 Jul. 2016
Run Time: 312 minutes

Yona of the Dawn Part 1 Review

Yona of the Dawn Part 1 (Eps 1-12)

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“Upon her sixteenth birthday, the cheerful Princess Yona intended to tell her doting father of her love for Su Won, but her life was turned upside down after witnessing the man she loves cruelly assassinating her father. Heartbroken by this painful betrayal, Princess Yona fled the palace with her loyal servant Hak. Now, she will take up the sword and the bow on a quest to gain new allies and protect her beloved people. “

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Yona of the Dawn is a good old-fashioned (but none the worse for it) fantasy adventure-quest in which the betrayed heroine, forced to flee for her life, seeks out the descendants of the four legendary dragon warriors who once made a sacred vow to protect her ancestor. It’s also a coming-of-age story as Princess Yona, having led a sheltered existence in her father’s palace, has to learn how to survive on the run and in the wild. And, because it’s based on an ongoing shoujo manga by Mizuho Kusanagi, there’s a central triangle of childhood friends: Yona, Hak of the Wind Tribe and Lord Su-Won, Yona’s cousin. Or is it more of a reverse harem as the doughty 16-year-old princess gradually acquires more handsome young men in her entourage?

Everything about this anime series has a traditional feel to it, from the character designs (faithful to the original manga) through the stirring orchestral score by Kunihiko Ryo. And yet it has a certain charm, good humour and narrative flair that keeps you watching. Yona makes for a likable, sympathetic heroine and her struggles to learn to become stronger and adapt to life on the run are very relatable. General Hak (aka the Lightning Beast) is the stern, gruff-natured (but loyal and warm-hearted) bodyguard that most heroines would yearn to have at their side – although he’s constantly teasing Yona (a clever tactic as this distracts her from feeling sorry for herself, even when they’re in desperate danger.) But by the end of Part 1, the quest is only half underway and it’s by no means certain that Yona will achieve her aims, find all four dragon warriors and regain her kingdom.

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I first watched this series when it streamed in 2014 on Crunchyroll and genuinely enjoyed following it from week to week. So how does it stand up to a second viewing – and does the addition of a US dub do it justice? And what makes it stand out from other similar series?

Thanks to a tight script and slick direction from Kazuhiro Yoneda, the pacing of the story is good; even though the quest proper doesn’t get underway until Episode 8, it never slackens, letting us get to know Yona and Hak better as they flee the treachery at court and face life on the run together. Comedy chibi moments lighten the tension and show us a different side of the main characters. And the legend of the Four Dragon Warriors is irresistible; even though the Kingdom of Kohka (based on Korea?) never existed, Mizuho Kusanagi has crafted a story that has all the atmosphere and appeal of an authentic historical adventure. Although Su-Won’s treachery – and Yona’s feelings about his act of betrayal – is not explained here, he is not portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. There are hints at complex motivations for his actions which will be further explored in Part 2.

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The US dub has Monica Rial as the heroine with excellent support from Christopher R. Sabat as Hak and Micah Solusod as the duplicitous Su-Won. At times Monica Rial veers into the shrill and strident, especially when Yona is being teased by Hak, compared with Chiwa Saito (Homura in Puella Magi Madoka Magica) who makes a more convincing sixteen-year-old heroine. Chris Sabat easily matches Tomoaki Maeno (Tenga in Kiznaiver) as snarky yet charismatic bodyguard Son Hak. The US dub script works well on the whole, with only a few jarring moments (“Hey, you guys!” doesn’t sit well with me in a fantasy context.)

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The opening for the episodes is unusual (these days) in that it’s an orchestral piece, “Akatsuki no Yona”, which showcases the atmospheric pentatonic theme Kunihiko Ryo has created for the central character. This opening was so widely liked that when the second set of episodes aired, many fans were disappointed to hear it had been replaced with a more conventional opening song. The mysterious animation here shows the legend of the dragons, whose relevance is explained later on, before a montage of moments from Yona’s imminent flight. The ending song “Yoru” is a rather undistinguished sentimental ballad from vistlip.

This BD/DVD combo release is the first Funimation series to be officially issued in the UK on R2 by Anime Limited. Extras include commentaries on Episodes 4 and 8, Promotional Videos (TV Spots, BD/DVD trailers, Promo videos), Textless Opening and Closing title sequences. The edition reviewed here is the Blu-ray which delivers excellent picture quality and sound, as well as easy navigation.

In Summary

With epic battles, nail-biting cliff-hangers, dragon warriors and sympathetic, relatable main characters, Yona of the Dawn is one of the most enjoyable fantasy anime to be released in long while. I’m looking forward to Part 2!

Score 8/10

Classification: 15
Studio: Funimation
DVD Release Date: 25 July 2016
Run Time: 300 minutes

Sword Art Online II – Part 4 Review

Sword Art Online cover

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