Review of DRAMAtical Murder

Aoba lives with his grandmother Tae and works part-time in a junk shop in the Old Residential District on Midorijima, an island divided in two. An entrepreneur, Toue Konzern, has converted the other part of the island into Platinum Jail, an exclusive luxury resort. Aoba and his AllMate AI pet dog, Ren, navigate their way through the various turf wars taking place on the island until they are both propelled into the dangerous online game ‘Rhyme’ set in a virtual world. This unleashes another personality buried deep within Aoba, ruthless and possessing a dangerous psionic power. Aoba’s peaceful life begins to crumble around him as sinister strangers seek him out and those closest to him go missing.  What lies buried in his past that is triggering these events – and how can he solve the mystery without harming those he holds most dear? But as Aoba and his friends are invited to enter the futuristic paradise of Platinum Jail, it becomes apparent that the answers to the mysteries in his past – and the other Aoba – can only be solved by walking into enemy territory and confronting Toue Konzern.

DRAMAtical Murder (2014) is based on a popular Japanese BL visual novel from Nitro+CHiRAL, the company famous (infamous?) for their adult-rated BL series like Lamento and togainu no chi. A lot of artistic talent goes into the creation of these games, with high-end character design and top-notch voice actors. Not surprisingly, they are very popular in Japan, inspiring cartloads of doujinshi and special cafe events and, inevitably cute and collectable merchandise! The manga that have come out based on these series have been less successful, and – like this anime TV series – they don’t portray anything of a sexual nature other than the occasional smooch. It’s also significant that DRAMAtical Murder was made before the recent phenomenal success of Yuuri!!! On Ice which, one hopes, along with the charming film Doukyusei (not yet available in the UK) will make it possible for more Slice of Life, character-based BL stories to be told well in anime and reach a wider audience. DRAMAtical Murder most definitely ain’t Slice of Life, placing itself firmly in the cyber science fiction category, allowing for the presence of AIs, virtual reality and altered minds.

So, yet another anime series based on a popular visual novel, only this time the male protagonist has the choice of several very different male partners. The main challenge is to gently tease the audience as our hero meets each of his potential love interests (could this be The One?) but – in the interests of creating a satisfying drama – the writers may well opt for a path that diverges from the one the viewer personally favours. This can result in a bland, unsatisfying storyline as nothing is ever properly resolved. Touken Ranbu, another recent series based on a popular otome game, almost imploded under the weight of characters that the writers felt duty-bound to introduce so as not to offend any fans by omitting a few. And when watching such a series, there’s always the nagging feeling that the creative team are writing solely for the existing game-playing fans. However, that isn’t really a problem here as the writers have produced a self-contained story that – after a few initial hitches – delivers the goods: it actually resolves the issues that it sets up at the beginning. And how many anime series do that?

Who is Aoba? Why does he suffer from immobilizing headaches and loss of memory? We get to learn more about him in his interactions with the various men he gets embroiled with in his search, ranging from his tattooed childhood friend Koujaku, through IT genius/hacker Noiz to strong, silent, bike-riding activist, Mink. All of the men he encounters have tragic back stories which lend them greater depth and interest as Aoba learns the truth about them. One of the deepest and most philosophical conversations occurs in Episode 4 with Clear, the mysterious gas-mask wearing, umbrella-carrying stranger who insists on calling him ‘Master’. In fact Aoba’s interactions with Clear deliver some of the most touching moments in the series as he comes to realize that Clear is probably not human… but would really like to be. Kudos to this series, as well, for the depiction of Tae, Aoba’s dynamic and feisty grandma, who knows more about the sinister goings-on in Platinum Jail than at first she is willing to share. We need more feisty grandmas!

When I first watched DRAMAtical Murder weekly on Crunchyroll I was rather underwhelmed, but returning to it (some early animation quality issues resolved) I was pleasantly surprised. As science fiction, it’s not very original, but the issues it explores about identity and consciousness through Aoba, Clear and Ren are compellingly and relatably done.  DRAMAtical Murder relies on a street-smart grunge to lend it some authentic street-cred, hence the different gangs like Morphine, Dry Juice and Benishigure with their tags, allegiances, tattoos and territories. Oddly enough this gives it a slightly old-fashioned feel, as if it’s trying a little too hard to combine the gritty realism of togainu no chi with a futuristic VR gamer-vibe. However, the character designs are attractive and the comic potential of the AI AllMate pets is milked (but not too much) alternating between the cute (little blue doggie Ren with his protruding red tongue) and the distinctly eccentric Beni and Tori birds belonging to Koujaku and Mink respectively.

Music is by Yuuki Hayashi (who has recently provided some fine soundtracks for My Hero Academia, Kiznaiver, Haikyu!!) and delivers here an appropriately futuristic palette of electronic sounds and tracks (synthesized and guitar) to enhance the futuristic world of Platinum Jail and Rhyme. A nice touch is the retro game music vibe that accompanies the teasing game clues Aoba receives. Nevertheless, it’s Hayashi’s understated and subtle theme for piano and strings which underscores some of the more emotional scenes that is by far the most effective.

The Opening Theme “Slip on the Pumps” (frankly not my favourite) and main Ending Theme “Bowie Knife” are by rock band GOATBED and are notable mostly for their unintentionally funny lyrics. There are also four different Ending songs for each of the other main characters: “BY MY SIDE” by Kanako Itou (Ep. 7) for Koujaku; “Felt” by Seiji Kimura (Ep. 8) for Noiz; “Lullaby Blue” by Kanako Itou (Ep. 9) for Clear and “Soul Grace” by VERTUEUX (Ep. 10) for Mink.  These play over a sequence of luminous and attractive character stills.

A US dub script by George Manley flows more colloquially than the subtitles (although with some questionable choices) and the delivery by the voice cast is way too variable in quality. Veteran VAs like Greg Ayres as Clear and Andrew Love as Mink deliver but, disappointingly, in the crucial main role of Aoba, Gabriel Regojo just hasn’t got the range or the charm that the excellent Atsushi Kisaichi brings to the role.  I’d recommend the Japanese cast every time.

The inclusion of the unaired 30 minute OVA “Data_xx_Transitory” is a bonus that will make this Animatsu set very attractive to BL fans as it includes slightly more edgy material (and is probably what earned this set the 15 certificate in the UK). My own feeling is that it doesn’t really add that much to the story as it’s a tad repetitive (and, if it’s only taking place in Aoba’s mind, suggests a rather more masochistic personality than the one we’ve been shown throughout the episodes).

The DVDs are reviewed here – but the set on sale from Manga-Animatsu is a Blu-ray/DVD combo comprising 5 discs. The only extras are Clean Opening and Endings and four trailers.

In Summary

DRAMAtical Murder works rather well as a sci-fi mystery adventure with sympathetic main characters, luminous backgrounds and an attractive, versatile soundtrack. If you’re a BL fan, however, there’s very little to get excited about as it’s all (bar the OVA) very chaste.

Title: DRAMAtical Murder
Publisher: Manga Entertainment
Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, BL
Studio: NAZ
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2014
Format: Blu-Ray and DVD (DVD version reviewed)
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles and English dub audio
Age rating: 15
Running time: 300 minutes

Score: 7/10

Photo Kano Review

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Kazuya Maeda is a second year high school student who receives a hand- me-down camera from his father. Determined to pursue his new hobby and turn his social life around, Maeda joins the school’s Photography Club. However, new friends aren’t the only thing developing as he finds himself in a tangle of emotions with his female classmates.

One of the inherent issues when it comes to making visual novels into anime series is knowing how to go about adapting the multiple routes. In romance VNs especially, where each route has an entirely different romance, it can be tricky, since you can’t adapt them all. Or can you? Photo Kano is an anime adaptation of a 2012 dating sim developed by Dingo Inc, that attempts to solve this conundrum by simply adapting all of the routes. Whilst it isn’t the first show to attempt the omnibus format, it’s certainly a pretty rare approach, and the first anime I’ve personally seen to tackle it. Even though this method of adaptations definitely has its positives, I really don’t think it works too well.

1

When it comes down to it, Photo Kano is just far too short to really pull it off. At only thirteen episodes long, including four episodes of initial set-up, it leaves each girl with only one episode each, with the exception of Niimi who gets two. This means that the entirety of a VN story route, which I assume took hours in the game, is crammed into just a single 22 minute episode. Whilst all possible romances are explored, they’re done in a very rushed manner. I can’t help but feel if the show had stuck to just adapting a single route really well, whilst also exploring some parts of the other routes, namely the character development, it might have worked a bit better. With that in mind, the episodes themselves are about as good as you could expect a romance could be in such a short amount of time, although it’s still nothing special.

Another issue I took with Photo Kano, was with the titular photography element. I’ll admit, this is probably more of a personal issue than an objective one, but I thought the use of photography throughout the series was downright creepy. Maeda almost exclusively takes pictures of his female friends in states of undress and provocative poses, and the show has multiple sequences sprinkled throughout where it’s literally just sexy posing. The whole photography thing largely just feels like an excuse for Maeda, and by proxy the audience, to ogle these girls and it’s just inherently made me feel a little uneasy. I imagine all the provocative posing and such might be a selling point for some, but it’s not really what I look for when I’m watching an anime, and it comes across as more of a distraction than anything else.

2

Paired with the amount of general ecchi content in Photo Kano is a fair bit of ecchi comedy, and, for me at least, it just fell flat. It’s the same trite and overdone comedy you instantly imagine when you think of ecchi comedies, with people accidentally grabbing boobs or having a girl’s crotch land on the protagonist’s face. I’ll admit, I don’t really like that kind of humour, but even if you do, there’s nothing original here that you haven’t seen a million times before.

Character-wise, Photo Kano is right in the middle of the road. Characters do receive depth and development in their respective episodes, and whilst I think that this development would have worked far better if spread across a few episodes as opposed to one, they’re all reasonably fleshed out. Where I take issue with this series, is the fact that they’re generally quite forgettable. Even after watching it just hours ago, I genuinely struggle to recall all the girls and their stories. A large reason for this is that, after the episode where they’re the focus, the characters just disappear, being relegated to the background, with some not even appearing any more at all. Maybe if they showed up more often outside of their dedicated episode, they’d make more of an impression. As for the protagonist, Maeda, he’s also very bland, erring on the side of unlikable, especially after he uses his photographs to blackmail one of the girls he’s trying to court.

3

Perhaps the most disappointing element to me has to be in the animation. Not because it’s bad (I’ve seen worse before) but because of the pedigree of the studio behind it. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I’m a huge fan of Madhouse, and they always seem to deliver anime with distinct looks, but Photo Kano might be their worst show in terms of animation. It’s just generally quite bland-looking, as if almost any other studio could have made it. As I say, not bad, but Madhouse is capable of so much more than what’s on display here.

In all areas of sound, Photo Kano is also just kind of bland. MVM’s release only contains Japanese voices, and all across the board everyone is about average, with no standout or lacklustre performances. Mina Kubota’s soundtrack is probably about what you’d expect for a romance anime, and complements the confession scenes nicely, even if it’s nothing amazing. The OP and ED are probably the biggest offenders when it comes to blandness, so much so, in fact, you’ll probably forget them the instant after you’ve heard them.

4

Bonus features are the usual; a clean opening, a clean closing and some trailers.

In Summary

Photo Kano, aside from its out-of-the-ordinary approach to adaptation, is just really quite forgettable. It has the odd good moment, but anything positive is dragged down by the frantic pacing, bland characters and pandering fanservice. 

Title: Photo Kano The Complete Series
Publisher: MVM Films
Genre: Romance, Ecchi, Comedy
Studio: Madhouse
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2013
Format: Blu-Ray and DVD (DVD version reviewed)
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles
Age rating: 15
Running time: 312 minutes

Score: 5/10