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Review: Kanon (2006)

Kanon: Ayu Tsukimiya

Kanon’s the second anime here that is derived initially from an Adult Dating Simulation. Unlike Ef, it is worth noting that this particular anime is completely clean. I honestly wouldn’t have known about the relationship if I didn’t look it up. Though, I suppose that harem anime do generally have a background in some game where you get to choose the girl you get to be with.

I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled into Kanon the first time, but I do know that I had to watch it with English dubs the first time around. This was actually an extremely fortunate way to experience this anime: it’s one of the few anime I’ve seen that actually gains something from using English. It’s only applicable to a small portion of the anime, though; the rest of the show felt much better in Japanese.

Note: Kanon has been produced as an anime twice. I am here reviewing the second of those anime, released in 2006 (hence the year in the main title). This is by and large considered the superior of the two productions, and is the only one I’ve concerned myself with to date.

Synopsis

Yuuichi Aizawa has returned to his cousin’s home, where he once spent his summers, after seven years away. Time has clouded his memory, yet many of the kids he once played with have grown up and still remember him. As Yuuichi remembers his past, he realizes that the tragedies of the past threaten to overwhelm his friends in the present.

Genre

A romance anime using the harem style (many girls, one guy), with comedy and drama recurring throughout.

Age Rating

Safely PG. There are of course some romantic elements, and a little bit of violence, but nothing beyond your average Disney movie. The only thing to keep in mind is that many of the defining moments in this anime are sad, which is not consistent with Disney movies.

Review

Plot Quality: 5

Kanon: Jun Kitigawa and Yuuichi Aizawa

As a general rule, the harem style of anime is really underwhelming to watch. It usually leads to one of two things. On the one hand, we have girls flinging themselves at an otherwise average guy – a bland fantasy story that doesn’t have any depth. On the other hand, some harem styles showcase a humorously weak protagonist and a bunch of empowering females: these are generally styled to be comedic, but I’m generally not amused by repeated misunderstandings and submissive, weak-willed male protagonists.

It is a great thing, therefore, that Kanon is so far outside of the general harem style. In a sense, it’s not really a harem at all: the story moves through a series of arcs, each of which places a single girl at the forefront of Yuuichi’s mind. There’s no awkward rapid-rotation dating. There’s no weak-willed protagonist getting beaten up by one girl after the next. There’s no sappy indecision of “which one will I choose?” Rather, the story and Yuuichi share their focus in an acceptable style, letting he and a single girl get to know each other better as the events of life carry on about them.

There is a flaw with this approach. Put simply, it’s not believable. Instead, the anime seems to try a bit too hard to work out the conclusions of every choice Yuuichi could make within a single anime, rather than as a series of disparate arcs (the story is continuous, and there are definite hints of girls he’s already interacted with showing up as he moves on). I found it awkward that, after doing so much and becoming so committed to one girl, Yuuichi was able to move on from her to another girl without so much as a backward glance. It’s hard to reconcile in a single story, and I feel Kanon may have been better served by running each arc as a separate “possible life” for Yuuichi.

Then again, Kanon does have a very nice overall story that builds from arc to arc. Slighted girls aside, the path set for the protagonist feels good. Each of the mysteries he unravels builds him as a character, and it’s good to see all of the windows of his life unlocked by the end of the show. Also, for their part, the girls seem exceptionally understanding of Yuuichi’s need to move on: they understand that he can help his other friends, and have the mature consideration to not monopolize his time. Realistic or not, it creates a nice segue from arc to arc.

The only remaining complaint, then, is the pacing of the story. Kanon has 24 episodes, and there honestly isn’t a lot going on in these episodes. Yuuichi is struggling to remember his past life while helping his friends in the present. This doesn’t actually consume a lot of effort, so everything feels slow. Maybe it’s just the wintry setting that makes me think it’s all iced down and slow. At the same time, unraveling the mysteries in Yuuichi’s head is actually quite fun, and completing each arc feels rewarding – the audience learns along with Yuuichi. Also, this slow pacing really gives the audience the opportunity to get a full sense of the characters – a welcome thing, given how compelling most of them are.

Character Quality: 5.5

Kanon actually has a fairly big cast. There’s Yuuichi, the girls he endeavors to help, and an additional set of secondary characters related to those girls. Much of the cast is introduced gradually, so they’re easy to track, but I can’t adequately discuss all of them here. Instead, I’ll focus on a few: Yuuichi, Ayu, and Sayuri. Most of the cast is up to the quality of these characters, but these three are perhaps the best that the show has to offer.

Yuuichi, as mentioned, is something of a mixed-bag protagonist. His emotions are definitely hard to track, as he is forced to chase after several girls in order to help each of them; He can care deeply about each girl, but can just as easily forget about them as a new goal enters his mind. This definitely makes him less than perfect, but he is quite a convincing character within each arc. He’s usually a jerk to the girls, but they (for some reason that I cannot fathom) generally respond positively to his teasing. Alongside the teasing, though, there is a genuine strength of character in Yuuichi: he goes through a lot of strife to help his friends. I think he hides his emotions behind his teasing: he’s got a big heart, but can’t accept showing it because he fears it will cost him his masculinity.

Ayu Tsukimiya, one of the many girls vying for Yuuichi’s attention, is an emotional firecracker amongst the otherwise more sedated cast (Makoto notwithstanding). This most likely leads to the audience either loving her or hating her. She’s small, energetic, and has the curious catch-phrase quirk that translates terribly into English. She’s silly and clumsy, but she has an endearing charm that is hard to deny. She’s also one of the more mysterious characters, despite her “don’t worry about the details” facade. Overall, she’s a very enjoyable companion throughout the show, bringing a sense of energy and brilliance to the Kanon’s otherwise dreary, snowy town. She comes across as more of a caricature than a character at first, but Ayu quickly develops into a truly enjoyable cast member.

Kanon: Mai Kawasumi and Sayuri Kurata

Curiously enough, my favorite member of the entire cast was one of the secondary characters: Sayuri Kurata. She doesn’t have a lot of time on screen, even during the arc relating to her best friend Mai. Nevertheless, every moment with her on the camera felt great. Sayuri is exceptionally mature, humble, and adorable in the way she worries about her close friends. She’s not without her demons, either, and the story of her past is harrowing. I suppose that I found Sayuri to be so impressive because she has coped with her past without Yuuichi’s rescue – she has the strength of character to persevere all on her own. I loved this quality about her; when joined with all of her talents and affections for those she cares about, I was genuinely surprised that she was only a support character. Sayuri easily has the makings of being a true, compelling love interest, without the savior, “knight in shining armor” cliché.

The rest of the cast falls somewhere along this continuum: some good, some great. Shiori and Mai both have rather compelling stories, while Makoto bounces between comic relief and sadness. Nayuki, Yuuichi’s cousin, is probably the most under-appreciated: she watches as Yuuichi goes from saving one girl to another, while leaving her alone time and again. The sadness of being left behind is easily visible in her character. In all, the girls do a good job of getting along despite the pains they suffer, but they all seem to need Yuuichi’s help to truly overcome their pasts. This dependency is a little odd, but not necessarily out of the ordinary. The other supporting cast, meanwhile, doesn’t leave much of an impression; Sayuri is the definite highlight, while most of the others are just fleeting images.

Visual Quality: 6

Kanon is a very pretty anime, with a style that ranges from an almost-sketched aesthetic to an almost-CG brilliance. Nothing showcases this better than the backgrounds of the show, which have surprising variation given that the show is generally taking place in a winter wonderland. The snowy outsides could become overwhelming with their bleak, continuous whiteness, but by changing the lighting and scenery regularly, the coldness is generally kept at bay. There are also some excellent visual scenes, especially those involving water. Watching a scene play out through a fountain brings a dramatic, shimmering overlay to a scene that would otherwise be relatively bland. By the end of the show, some of the scenery feels too recycled, but it is generally quite strong the first time around – seeing the beautiful architecture a second time isn’t a bad thing.

As for the character designs, Kanon suffers from the identical-face syndrome. I’m honestly never bothered by similar-looking faces, but I’ve known some people that can’t stand it. Either way, the variation in height, build, and hairstyle distinguishes all of the girls quite distinctly. Moreover, all of the girls are pretty, bringing another welcome contrast to the often-white background. Yuuichi is quite plain, but he does technically come from an unseen protagonist – his appearance as an everyman is understandable.

The animation in Kanon is quite subtle. Because there is so little in terms of action or high-adrenaline fear, there’s not a lot of opportunity to showcase elaborate animation scenes. Instead, we have the conversations between characters that come alive with slight tilts of the head, shrugged shoulders, brushes of hair, and various hand gestures. It’s never elaborate, but neither should it be – the style depends heavily on bringing the subtleties of human conversation to life in animation. While Kanon isn’t perfectly fluid throughout, the majority of the scenes – especially the most emotional, and therefore most relevant scenes – have a realism that is hard to find. The interactions of Kanon would feel very flat if they relied on dialogue alone: the incorporation of many subtle actions and reactions from every character makes them feel much more alive on the screen.

Audio Quality: 5.5

The opening track here is one of the slowest, softest intros I’ve ever heard. This isn’t a bad thing, either: the transcendent, lilting performance brings a focus to the mysterious air of recollection. I did admittedly skip it a few times, because it feels pretty long to hear with every episode, but the song itself is wonderful. The closer is more energetic and upbeat, and I found myself actively taking the break from the content of the show to listen to this song.

The insert music in Kanon is actually great. There are a few variations on the main theme, as well as many original pieces that sound great – they really help to bring the environment to life when the characters are relegated to the background. I never really remember these insert tracks, but watching they’re a definite treat to hear and remember when re-watching the series.

As for the voice acting, it’s quite solid throughout. Ayu’s seiyuu probably has the hardest job, as incorporating the verbal tic still seems improbably hard to do without being comedic. She does an admirable job, and also executes the necessary vocal range necessary for capturing the many moods and passions of her character. The other girls are likewise well-voiced; Shiori is probably the other girl to win highest marks, as listening to her conversations felt more genuine than just about everyone else (this may be more because of her character, rather than her seiyuu, but the two synchronized very well).

Note for the English dub: Overall, I think it’s a step down to watch the show in English. The English girls have a hard time capturing the delicacy in the voice of many of the characters: they sound too harsh. The primary exception to this rule, though, is Sayuri: her voice actress does an amazing job. Moreover, Sayuri’s character really benefits from being performed in English because her way of speaking (referring to herself in the third person) is only unusual in English. Many Japanese people refer to themselves by name, rather than a form of “I,” while doing so in English seems either conceited or silly. Sayuri’s character, meanwhile, benefits from this particular translation – her character becomes more distinct and dynamic as a result. If nothing else, viewing Mai’s arc in English may be worth the second-run.

Bottom Line: 5.5

Kanon is a warm anime for its wintry setting, offering lots of laughter and triumph with some mystery and sadness along the way. It doesn’t have much to offer outside of its genre, so action fans will probably be disappointed, but the show is still one of the finest showings within its genre. The characters are generally upbeat and endearing, the art style is often excellent, and the sounds and voices sound authentic. The plot could use a second pass to make the characters (namely Yuuichi) appear more consistent, but ignoring the feeble transitions can leave the audience with several, relatively separate stories about coming to terms with the past.

Kanon doesn’t fight to break the boundaries of its genre. Instead, it provides a compelling series of stories within the genre, with mysteries and challenges to overcome during the journey to recover Yuuichi’s memories and, with any luck, to find love with one of the girls from his past. A somewhat slow, yet enjoyable and emotional journey indeed.

Coming Soon

I’ll be returning to the military genre with Full Metal Panic next. Following that, I’m looking at Toradora!, Allison and Lillia, and probably Shakugan no Shana – check back soon!

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Review: Soukou no Strain

Here we are in February! Plenty more reviews on the way, though I’m going to start this month off with one series that isn’t exactly a blockbuster. Enjoyable, yes, but it’s not one of those anime in my classics list.

Soukou no Str.A.In. (short for Strategic Armored Infantry, hereafter referred to as Strain) was definitely one of those anime that I needed to re-watch. I first saw this series a few years ago, and haven’t touched it at all in the interim. I had pretty fond memories of it, though, so I knew it was going to need a second viewing to make sure I wasn’t suffering from Rose-Colored Glasses syndrome too much. Turns out it was partially true, but not entirely. The anime isn’t spectacular, but it’s still certainly better than abject garbage.

Synopsis

Strain: Sara Werec

Sara Werec, sister to the famous soldier Ralph Werec, enters military school in order to rejoin him. Just before her graduation, however, her school is hit by an attack – Sara’s life changes drastically in the aftermath of the sudden, devastating attack. Her journey continues to find her brother, knowing that only he can answer the questions she has.

Genre

A Science Fiction anime with some action and some drama, and lots of anthropomorphic robots.

Age Rating

This one’s probably R, too. There’s violence, which is occasionally graphic. There’s nudity and adult themes, too.

Review

Plot Quality: 4

The plot of Strain is pretty straight-forward, with 13 episodes in its one season. The story is surprisingly focused throughout the season, which in a sense is nice, but also makes the presentation feel somewhat flat. This will actually be a recurring theme for the show: its flatness.

What does that mean, exactly? In essence, the story of Strain is so linear and predictable that it feels as though the show never really tries to engage the audience with the story. It’s a very passive form of storytelling, and would have benefited greatly from some stronger, more motivated deviations from the main directive of the show. Unfortunately, the spacious time in between key action sequences or plot elements is squandered on ineffective character development.

There are a very few notable exceptions to this, and those moments in the plot are quite enjoyable. Lottie and Sara, in particular, develop a relationship over the course of the episode that sparks a few exceptional moments. Outside of these, though, there’s not a lot to look for on the plot front.

But then, if you’re watching an action, sci-fi anime to get an awesome plot out of it, I think you might be heading for a very rare crossroads. A proper audience is here to see aliens and explosions, after all, right? The action of Strain is generally quite engaging, and the battles don’t feel predictable. My one qualm with combat here is that the consequences feel lopsided: Sara’s comrades are all human, so any casualties to her side result in real losses, while her assailants operate with remote-controlled drones. I don’t understand why only one side has access to combat drones at this advanced date, but the end result is a lot of emotional stress for only one of the two armies.

All considered, the story is fun despite being flat. The action carries the show from moment to moment, and the story – however simple – serves the purpose of motivating the combat. It may not be a super-rich experience, but it is enjoyable.

Character Quality: 4

One of the tricks that Strain tries to invoke to solve the linear plot is to bind us emotionally to the characters. Time and again, we’re put alongside the soldiers of the front lines, watching the suffering of both those that are hurt or killed, and those that survive and must cope afterward. Strain’s success here is mixed. Sometimes, I felt sympathy for the characters; other times, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

Sara is the character that the show follows best, and so it is in her that we see the most emotional distress. She loses her friends and acquaintances through the war she must fight, and thus a fair bit of her development revolves around her learning to cope with the pain and guilt. I didn’t find her behavior to be particularly believable, in all, because I figured that she would have gone through most of these emotional stages before signing up to be a soldier. Not all of your comrades will come home: it’s a fact of war. Either the military was woefully understated in communicating this truth to Sara, or she completely ignored their instructors. She subsequently doesn’t become a particularly compelling protagonist until the end of the series, when she’s finally come to terms with the truth of war.

Strain: Lottie Gelh

Lottie Gelh is perhaps my favorite character on the cast, and that’s not simply a product of her being cuter than Sara. Lottie is more emotionally developed than most everyone else on her team (Jessie being the one exception), and this allows her to shine from the beginning as a character worth following. She cares deeply about everyone on her team. Despite the fact that she may lose them in a battle, she still spends as much of her time with them as she can. She’s also decisive and determined, never wallowing in doubt or guilt as our protagonist so often does. Her ability to overcome stress and keep her composure in the most dire of situations sets her apart. She’s definitely a hot-head, but she always has control of herself: as her captain states, “She, of everyone, won’t make a mistake.”

Both Lottie and Sara suffer from a tragically strong form of “brother complex.” Their brothers both joined the army, and their lives were driven entirely by the desire to join them again. I understand this to be a more common theme in Japanese culture, but it still feels awkward that their brothers wield such absolute command over their siblings when they aren’t even around. I felt this cheapened both of them a bit, especially Sara (who can hardly stop herself from talking about her brother for quite a while).

As for the rest of the cast, they are as flat as the plot. Each of Lottie’s team has a single trait associated with them (One’s a womanizer, one’s a tomboy that loves meat, one’s a diet-fashionista, and so on). The other members of the show are likewise plain characters with only a single real characteristic to define them. Given how much time these characters spend on camera, it’s a shame they are less like people and more like cardboard cut-outs for those people. Jessie warrants a mention here, as she does occasionally show just what potential she (and probably a lot of the rest of the cast) has as real, compelling characters: her ability to step up to command in Lottie’s absence is admirable. But, once Lottie returns, Jessie dutifully puts her submissive mask back on, and the audience is left wondering just how much grit the characters have.

Visual Quality: 5.5

The art for the show is broken up between hand-drawn art (or, at least, a computer approximation of such), and computer-generated graphics for the aerial robot combat. The two art styles feel different, and the bouncing back and forth between them can feel a little silly. However, there’s not a real lack of visual vibrancy on either side, so it’s never too jarring.

The CG in Strain is generally great. The motions of the robots are very fluid, from the generic Strains that Lottie and her company pilot to the elaborate beast of a Strain that Ralph Werec pilots. The colors are strong and persistent, bringing a profound sense of life to the otherwise bleak space settings. I don’t know that anything here is particularly realistic, as it’s all science fiction, but they definitely look cool. It’s just a shame that there are so few scenes that really showcase the robots well – most action is very quick, not leaving a lot of time for the pilots to really show off their skill.

When we revert from CG-style to the more common, hand-drawn style there isn’t a lot to say. The work is still pretty and bright wherever possible, keeping the engulfing darkness of space at bay, but it still feels a little flat and uninspired. The animation is smooth enough, but it’s not very detailed. THat is, most joints are not articulated, hair looks too inflexible, and blood spattered on combat victims looks like stripes of uniform-colored paint. There’s a lot of potential for detail here, but it’s left by the wayside.

Audio Quality: 5

If there is one saving grace of the audio in Strain, it is the opening song. I may just be a sucker for non-traditional drums, but I always looked forward to hearing that piece – somewhere between a lullaby, a folk song, and an action song – with every episode. It doesn’t necessarily fit the science fiction genre, but that doesn’t stop it from being awesome.

The ending track, as well as the insert tracks, are lame by comparison. I skipped the ending track after listening to it once through – it didn’t do anything for me (the monotonous background certainly didn’t help). The insert music is also average, repeated from episode to episode as the mood dictates, and forgotten as soon as the show ends. It isn’t a problem, but not an asset either.

The voice acting here isn’t worthy of many notes, either. Sara’s emotionally scarred a few times over the course of the show, but the pain and suffering seems to fade away soon enough. I would have appreciated more evolution of personality in her voice, as those kinds of losses should be affecting her for far longer than they do; one way to really bring Sara out of the flatness of the show would have been with a dynamic voice. This doesn’t happen, and I find it a shame. The other voice actors likewise don’t show much growth, staying as flat as the characters they are asked to depict.

Overall, the opening song gives the audio a lot of potential; it’s a shame that Strain doesn’t clinch the deal on the other fronts.

Bottom Line: 4.5

Strain is, as advertised, a science-fiction action series with lots of robots. There’s not a lot of depth here, and the characters don’t do much to break out of the rather planar environments in which they’re cast, but these are secondary elements. Even without amazing characters or superb audio, the story is fun and exciting. The action is great from the start: survival of the characters really rides on their performance in these battles, and we learn very early on that Strain isn’t pulling any punches with the consequences of poor performance in battle.

There is still that element of drama, too, that follows nearly all war stories. This isn’t played out as well as the action, but it’s hard to be completely unphased by the death of characters. The survivors suffer, and the audience feels a lot of that pain right alongside them. This helps to bring Strain to a level above generic action, with the repercussions of war leaving a real, lasting effect on the cast.

Overall, Strain can be a lot of fun. It’s also very genre-heavy, and therefore doesn’t generalize well. If you want some war-styled action, strife, and drama, check it out – otherwise, you may want to look elsewhere.

Coming Soon

I’m looking to tackle Kanon (2006) next. It will probably be kind of long, but fair. Full Metal Panic, Allison and Lillia, and Toradora! are all in the wings.

Strain 

Str.A.In. (short for Strategic Armored Infantry, hereafter referred to as Strain) was definitely one of those anime that I needed to re-watch. I first saw this series a few years ago, and haven’t touched it at all in the interim. I had pretty fond memories of it, though, so I knew it was going to need a second viewing to make sure I wasn’t suffering from Rose-Colored Glasses syndrome too much. Turns out it was partially true, but not entirely. The anime isn’t spectacular, but its still certainly better than abject garbage.

Synopsis

Sara Werec, sister to the famous soldier Ralph Werec, enters military school in order to rejoin him. Just before her graduation, however, her school is hit by an attack – Sara’s life changs drastically in the aftermath of the sudden, devastating attack.

Genre

A Science Fiction anime with some action and some drama, and lots of anthropomorphic robots.

Age Rating

This one’s probably R, too. There’s violence, which is occasionally graphic. There’s nudity and adult themes, too.

Review

Plot Quality:

The plot of Strain is pretty straight-forward, with 13 episodes in its one season. The story is surprisingly focused throughout the season, which in a sense is nice, but also makes the presentation feel somewhat flat. This will actually be a recurring theme for the show: its flatness.

What does that mean, exactly? In essence, the story of Strain is so linear and predictable that it feels as though the show never really tries to engage the audience with the story. It’s a very passive form of storytelling, and would have benefitted greatly from some stronger, more motivated deviations from the main directive of the show. Unfortunately, the spacious time in between key action sequences or plot elements is squandered on ineffective character development.

There are a very few notable exceptions to this, and those moments in the plot are quite enjoyable. Lottie and Sara, in particular, develop a relationship over the course of the episode that sparks a few exceptional moments. Outside of these, though, there’s not a lot to look for on the plot front.

But then, if you’re watching an action, sci-fi anime to get an awesome plot out of it, I think you might be heading for a very rare crossroads. A proper audience is here to see aliens and explosions, after all, right? The action of Strain is generally quite engaging, and the battles don’t feel predictable. My one qualm with combat here is that the consequences feel lopsided: Sara’s comrades are all human, so any casualties to her side result in real losses, while her assailants operate with remote-controlled drones. I don’t understand why only one side has access to combat drones at this advanced date, but the end result is a lot of emotional stress for only one of the two armies.

All considered, the story is fun despite being flat. The action carries the show from moment to moment, and the story – however simple – serves the purpose of motivating the combat. It may not be a super-rich experience, but it is enjoyable.

Character Quality:

One of the tricks that Strain tries to invoke to solve the linear plot is to bind us emotionally to the characters. Time and again, we’re put alongside the soldiers of the front lines, watching the suffering of both those that are hurt or killed, and those that survive and must cope afterwards. Strain’s success here is mixed. Sometimes, I felt sympathy for the characters; other times, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

Sara is the character that the show follows best, and so it is in her that we see the most emotional distress. She loses her friends and acquaintances through the war she must fight, and thus a fair bit of her development revolves around her learning to cope with the pain and guilt. I didn’t find her behavior to be particularly believable, in all, because I figured that she would have gone through most of these emotional stages before signing up to be a soldier. Not all of your comrades will come home: it’s a fact of war. Either the military was woefully understated in communicating this truth to Sara, or she completely ignored their instructions. She subsequently doesn’t become a particularly compelling protagonist until the end of the series, when she’s finally come to terms with the truth of war.

Lottie is perhaps my favorite character on the cast, and that’s not simply a product of her being cuter than Sara. Lottie is more emotionally developed than most everyone else on her team (Jessie being the one exception), and this allows her to shine from the beginning as a character worth following. She cares deeply about everyone on her team. Despite the fact that she may lose them in a battle, she still spends as much of her time with them as she can. She’s also decisive and determined, never wallowing in doubt or guilt as our protagonist so often does. Her ability to overcome stress and keep her composure in the most dire of situations sets her apart. She’s definitely a hot-head, but she always has control of herself: as her captain states, “She, of everyone, won’t make a mistake.”

Both Lottie and Sara suffer from a tragically strong form of “brother complex.” Their brothers both joined the army, and their lives were driven entirely by the desire to join them again. I understand this to be a more common theme in Japanese culture, but it still feels awkward that their brothers wield such absolute command over their siblings when they aren’t even around. I felt this cheapened both of them a bit, especially Sara (who can hardly stop herself from talking about her brother for quite a while).

As for the rest of the cast, they are as flat as the plot. Each of Lottie’s team has a single trait associated with them (One’s a womanizer, one’s a tomboy that loves meat, one’s a diet-fashionista, and so on). The other members of the show are likewise plain characters with only a single real characteristic to define them. Given how much time these characters spend on camera, it’s a shame they are less like people and more like cardboard cut-outs for those people. Jessie warrants a mention here, as she does occasionally show just what potential she (and probably a lot of the rest of the cast) has as real, compelling characters: her ability to step up to command in Lottie’s absence is admirable. But, once Lottie returns, Jessie dutifully puts her submissive mask back on, and the audience is left wondering just how much grit the characters have.

Visual Quality:

The art for the show is broken up between hand-drawn art (or, at least, a computer approximation of such), and computer-generated graphics for the aerial robot combat. The two art styles feel different, and the bouncing back and forth between them can feel a little silly. However, there’s not a real lack of visual vibrancy on either side, so it’s never too jarring.

The CG in Strain is generally great. The motions of the robots are very fluid, from the generic Strains that Lottie and her company pilot to the elaborate beast of a Strain that Ralph Werec pilots. The colors are strong and persistent, bringing a profound sense of life to the otherwise bleak space settings. I don’t know that anything here is particularly realistic, as it’s all science fiction, but they definitely look cool. It’s just a shame that there are so few scenes that really showcase the robots well – most action is very quick, not leaving a lot of time for the pilots to really show off their skill.

When we revert from CG-style to the more common, hand-drawn style there isn’t a lot to say. The work is still pretty and bright wherever possible, keeping the engulfing darkness of space at bay, but it still feels a little flat and uninspired. The animation is smooth enough, but it’s not very detailed. THat is, most joints are left unarticulated, hair looks too inflexible, and blood spattered on combat victims looks like stripes of uniform-colored paint. There’s a lot of potential for detail here, but it’s left by the wayside.

Audio Quality:

If there is one saving grace of the audio in Strain, it is the opening song. I may just be a sucker for non-traditional drums, but I always looked forward to hearing that piece – somewhere between a lullaby, a folk song, and an action song – with every episode. It doesn’t necessarily fit the science fiction genre, but that doesn’t stop it from being awesome.

The ending track, as well as the insert tracks, are lame by comparison. I skipped the ending track after listening to it once through – it didn’t do anything for me (the monotonous background certainly didn’t help). The insert music is also average, repeated from episode to episode as the mood dictates, and forgotten as soon as the show ends. It isn’t a problem, but not an asset either.

The voice acting here isn’t worthy of many notes, either. Sara’s emotionally scarred a few times over the course of the show, but the pain and suffering seems to fade away soon enough. I would have appreciated more evolution of personality in her voice, as those kinds of losses should be affecting her for far longer than they do; one way to really bring Sara out of the flatness of the show would have been with a dynamic voice. This doesn’t happen, and I find it a shame. The other voice actors likewise don’t show much growth, staying as flat as the characters they are asked to depict.

Overall, the opening song gives the audio a lot of potential; it’s a shame that Strain doesn’t clinch the deal on the other fronts.

Bottom Line:

Strain is, as advertised, a science-fiction action series with lots of robots. There’s not a lot of depth here, and the characters don’t do much to break out of the rather planar environments in which they’re cast, but these are secondary elements. Even without amazing characters or superb audio, the story is fun and exciting. The action is great from the start: survival of the characters really rides on their performance in these battles, and we learn very early on that Strain isn’t pulling any punches with the consequences of poor performance in battle.

There is still that element of drama, too, that follows nearly all war stories. This isn’t played out as well as the action, but it’s hard to be completely unphased by the death of characters. The survivors suffer, and the audience feels a lot of that pain right alongside them. This helps to bring Strain to a level above generic action, with the reprecussions of war leaving a real, lasting effect on the cast.

Overall, Strain can be a lot of fun. It’s also very genre-heavy, and therefore doesn’t generalize well. If you want some war-styled action, strife, and drama, check it out – otherwise, you may want to look elsewhere.

Coming Soon

I’m looking to tackle Kanon (2006) next. It will probably be kind of long, but fair. Full Metal Panic, Allison and Lillia, and Toradora! are all in the wings.

Review: Sola

Sola

Sola was perhaps the most surprising anime in recent memory. I didn’t go into this show expecting to have such a roller coaster of emotions and experiences be thrown at me, nor did I expect the depth of character to be so well presented. I was captivated from the first moment. Just when I thought that I had the style of the story figured out, things changed. It was wonderful, and in a certain sense I feel I might deprive the future audiences of the show of that same wonder with a review. I’ve written the review to be as spoiler-free as possible, as I always do, but perhaps this is one show where – if you’re truly interested – you should take my word for it, go watch the show, and compare notes against my review afterward.

Synopsis

Yorito Morimiya is a skygazer – not unlike a stargazer, but his fascination lies in clouds and the color palettes created by the sun at different times of day. This leads him to skip classes to watch clouds from the school roof, and to stake out sunrise pictures at four in the morning. On one such stake-out, Yorito meets a girl named Matsuri Shihou. While unexpected and almost ignorable at first, Matsuri continues to show up. Yorito soon learns that Matsuri could use his help, though the cost to his friendship with classmate Mana Ishizuki and to his relationship with his sister, Aono, could be great – far greater than he anticipates.

Genre

A romantic tragedy at its core, with elements from slice of life, mystery, action, science fiction, comedy, and drama interspersed throughout.

Age Rating

PG-13 is appropriate for this one. There is some violence, but it’s not too graphic. While there is definitely romance, there’s nothing more than kissing on screen.

Review

Plot Quality: 7

Sola: Takeshi Tsujidou

I believe that the key to enjoying Sola’s plot to the fullest is to go into this show with no strong expectations. Instead, let the show tell you the story it wants to tell and work its magic accordingly. If you can accept this mindset for the duration of the show, you will come away having a better appreciation for all the subtlety and grace found in the story. However, if you approach the story by trying to conform it to match up against the contemporaries in its genre, you will more than likely be very disappointed. There are few, if any clichés in the story, and you will miss too much of the story if you’re trying to pin the individual plot down to any of the tropes you’ve seen before. Sola is a powerful production with surprisingly little in common with any other series in its genre.

The plot of Sola is a single thread, running the course of thirteen episodes, with only minor side-stories diverting from the central plot. In this sense, the story is as simple as Rec (and simpler than everything else reviewed thus far). The presence of familiar, slice of life settings is also a common component. Thereafter, Sola ventures off on a path all its own.

Because of the diversity in the plot, there are a lot of accompanying variations in pacing. These transitions in pacing are executed quite well: the slow interludes allow for the characters’ personalities to truly shine through, while the faster sequences highlight the physical and emotional stress that the cast invariably endures. There is always a note of uncertainty and mystery in the show, as well: taking anything for granted is dangerous because – as stated before – this show puts great emphasis on striking out new territory within the genre. Nothing is guaranteed, despite the feelings of the characters, and coming to terms with those things that do transpire is a challenge to which the audience can relate with ease. This leads to a fuller experience, one that feels more genuine than so many other stories on the market that constrain themselves to common expectations.

It’s worth noting that there are some mysteries that are never fully explained or disclosed. While these might seem confusing or frustrating at first, remember that many American authors happily do the same thing. We never question the lack of explanation of vampires or orcs in science fiction, nor their powers or general strengths and weaknesses. That is, we know most of the traits involved if we’ve heard about them before, so explaining away all their detail in every novel would be superfluous work. I found a lot of the “unexplained mysteries” in Sola to be in this vein; I didn’t need to have everything explained away to fully enjoy the story.

Character Quality: 6

Sola: Matsuri Shihou

The cast is fairly limited, and this allows each character plenty of camera time. We learn a lot about each character, and they immediately present themselves as characters worth learning about. and, thankfully, this small character list means that you have the opportunity to meet these characters on a personal level, rater than staying at a distance. You’ll see them at their best and you’ll see them at their worst; every step along that spectrum is convincing.

Matsuri really takes center stage in my book. Almost instantly likable and, because of the complexities she shows, she comes across as believable, fully-developed character as well rather than a cute shell. She is decisive and dedicated, providing an empowering female protagonist without weighing her down in battle armor. Of course, Matsuri is deceptively strong – both physically and mentally – but these traits don’t define her. Indeed, she often downplays these strengths in the presence of others, and instead opts to show off her girlish yet mature charm. Matsuri is definitely something of a mystery, and the desire to learn more about her is motivation enough to keep watching all on its own.

Mana and Aono make up the other female leads, and they are both admirably portrayed. Despite both looking as though they’re textbook cases of well-known clichés, these girls are actually anything but. Mana really shows her independence on multiple occasions, shattering the dependent childhood friend scenario without hesitation. She certainly has little patience for others, but she also cares a lot about her family and Yorito. Caring about the boy, without being defined by that love, is what sets Mana up to have great success throughout the story. Aono, meanwhile, is simultaneously unpredictable and wonderful. Of course, she’s not necessarily the most likable member of the cast, but that doesn’t keep her from being written with impeccable style. Her absolute rejection of every sick girl stereotype also helps to support her as more than “just another sympathy-deserving girl.”

Yorito is another example of a refreshing male protagonist. He may not look like much at first, but he really steps up as Sola gets into gear. He’s decisive in what he wants, and rarely hesitates (each of these moments is genuine, rather than dragged for sake of time). He cares for just about everyone else on the cast, but not equally – his feelings are important, and he doesn’t spare others in an attempt to keep everyone happy. Rather, he pursues what he really wants, even when it may not be the best or most altruistic decision. While I still feel that the girls all cry out his name a little too often, it’s easy to see that there’s a lot to like in Yorito. He’s not perfect, but those imperfections really help to bring his character to life.

The rest of the notable cast is composed of Mana’s little sister, Koyori, who adheres to every adorable little sister quirk you could ask for, and the mysterious pair, Takeshi and Mayuko. All of these supporting members are as well-written as the main cast. It’s easy to see that every character gets definite attention, while those details that are left out are left out intentionally. We don’t get every piece of back-story on everyone, but it’s not really relevant – the story is that much better for focusing on the present, rather than wallowing too much in the past.

Visual Quality: 6

There’s so much to be said for the visual quality here, but “beautiful” seems to be the most applicable adjective. It’s not really abstract or stylistic, but it is definitely beautiful.

The character art is great. Matsuri is adorable from the very start, Takeshi looks as intimidating as he should, and everyone fits quite well in between. Their actions are always captured with beautiful delicacy – very few actions are not articulated. This leads to an experience that feels exceptionally fluid. From mundane arguments in the kitchen to dramatic back-and-forth of supernatural combat, the characters always appear fluid, rather than choppy. There are a very few exceptions, but they are very are rare enough to easily overlook. It brings a sense of realism to the characters.

The environmental scenery is top-notch as well. The entire palette of the sky is employed to its fullest. This highlights a lot of scenes that might otherwise seem ordinary or boring – it’s not action-centric at these times, but the visuals are beautiful. These elements really make Yorito’s hobby into a compelling distraction, rather than a dumb plot device. After all, with the skies standing out so starkly against his mundane lifestyle, it’s no surprise that he’s fascinated by that brilliance of color and motion.

The layering and lighting effects in the show are also memorable. Stained glass is a beautiful thing, and the imagery it can paint in dusty air is awesome to behold in Sola. The importance of light to the story as a whole is clear from the very start with Yorito’s skygazing obsession; the artists made sure to keep that theme alive not only in the sky itself, but also in just about every sequence – inside or outside – through these excellent lighting effects. The layering of these lighting effects and the characters is also captured with grace: the lighting looks real, rather than simply like an impressionist painting, when the character’s features are highlighted, illuminated by these shafts of light.

It’s a beautiful anime, all in all, with an artistic grace and fluidity that feels much like the very best of impressionist painting. If nothing else, this is one sure-fire way to remind yourself that the sky really is a magnificent, beautiful thing.

Audio Quality: 6

The opening track (present on all episodes after the first) is excellent, upbeat, and captivating without being over-the-top-cutesy. I looked forward to each new episode simply for the chance to hear this song again, on top of the show itself. The ending track is also great, if more somber and calming. The insert music didn’t leave a big impression on me very often, but some of the action scenes have particularly nice tracks playing in the background. The music is always reliable in Sola – it’s always good.

Just as important as the music is the sound effects, which are surprisingly prevalent in this anime. Every clattering pot, every foot fall, and every chime of a distant bell can be heard clearly and distinctly. The sound effects really add a lot to the production as a whole, bringing another reinforcement to the realism of the experience. There is a caveat, of course: because sound effects are so common, any slip between the audio and video is far more apparent here than in most anime. That is, any second-hand source files (fansubbed, for instance) have a much higher risk of being off-time and, consequently, heavily damaging the experience. Legitimate sources, however, likely won’t have this problem unless there is some source of high latency (either because of internet streaming or lossy wireless transmissions), so the experience will be as richer as it should be.

The voice acting is likewise strong, though not as ground-breaking as the script. Matsuri’s seiyuu is particularly notable for the flowing, ethereal quality that she brings to her character’s voice. Matsuri’s voice and actions have a kind of uncanny harmony, and it’s great to watch. Koyori’s seiyuu is unique, and invariably adorable – the other big highlight of the voice cast. In contrast, Aono’s seiyuu felt a little grating. While arguably fitting, the voice strikes me as coming from a stereotypical lolita or passive-sick-girl actress. Aono would have benefitted from a somewhat stronger, more confident voice.

Bottom Line: 6.5

An unexpected, mysterious marvel that even now I have trouble classifying. There are so many surprises (that are genuinely surprising), and so many shifts in pacing and mood that there’s bound to be something for everyone. Moreover, the story works in such a way that even the pacing or mood that the audience least enjoys is still, unexpectedly, a fun experience. From beginning to end, the one constant element is Sola’s unforgiving grip on your attention for the entire duration of the show. The only thing missing is a longer season, in which the audience could have seen more of the depth of character that is admittedly limited by the 13-episode structure.

Though Sola is, indeed, a romantic tragedy at heart, there is so much more to this story that I can’t do anything less than tell everyone to watch it. It’s hard to say that I love it, because the tragic elements are really hard to bear sometimes, but the production is most definitely worth watching at least once.

Coming Soon

Look for reviews of Kanon (2006), Str.A.In., and perhaps some Full Metal Panic in the near future!

Review: Darker Than Black

Darker Than Black

Darker Than Black came across my plate quite early in my anime experience. I had a hard time finishing it at first because, while each arc I watched felt awesome, I didn’t really grasp what connected one arc to the next. This was fine, though, because it left me the luxury of watching it alongside other anime. I could watch a pair of Darker Than Black episodes and be satisfied, move on to another anime, and know that Darker Than Black would still be there with another one-hour adventure when I was ready.

In retrospect, this probably isn’t a great thing in an anime. Shows really want to grab the audience and not release them until the very last scene, otherwise they can’t guarantee viewers throughout the season. But, at the same time, I found Darker Than Black to be more accessible because of its episodic nature. When a show grabs me, I have a very hard time compartmentalizing the experience until it’s done, which can lead to long, unproductive anime binges. These binges definitely have their place, and I doubt I’ll ever stop enjoying those longer, engrossing anime. But during the work week, when I really can’t afford to burn my few free hours on a single activity (anime or otherwise), shows like Darker Than Black really shine.

Synopsis

In an alternate universe, present-day society was torn asunder by a calamity ten years ago. At that time, two vast chasms consumed parts of the earth: Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Gate. Many civilians found themselves suddenly transformed: some became powerful contractors, possessing a single super-power and an associated “obsience,” or repentance activity. Others became dolls, passive mediums with seemingly no will or personality.

In this corrupted world, every country is vying for more information about the powers within the Gates. The Syndicate, one powerful organization fighting for an unknown benefactor, has assembled a new team to gather information and resources from Hell’s Gate. The interactions, successes, and failures of this “Black Reaper” team are the crux of Darker Than Black.

Genre

A dark, noir-styled action anime with mystery and intrigue aplenty.

Age Rating

This one’s definitely in the R category. There’s plenty of violence and murder, and while generally not horror-style grotesque, it can be fairly graphic.

Review

Plot Quality: 6

The plot of Darker Than Black is more than likely the most important element in its overall presentation. This is the reason to watch this show, or to pass it up: the story. Or, more accurately, the stories.

Darker Than Black: Hei

The show is primarily broken up into a series of two-episode arcs. Each arc focuses on a different job that Hei and his associates need to take on. The assignments vary widely, from protection to theft, from investigation to assassination. The back-story that connects each arc is very minimal at first, but unlike a series like Ghost Hunt, there is a definite momentum that builds by the second half of the show.

The arcs, on their own, range from good to superb. The pacing of the arcs is good, but quickly becomes predictable – the arc lengths are all uniform, after all, so the stories have to open and wrap up in a similar style every time. That said, there is such variation in the subject matter that the audience is always seeing something new. While not every story is spectacular, this only helps to elevate those arcs that really capture the ambiance of the world, the struggles of the characters, and the energetic, desperate combat best.

One of the story’s greatest strengths, and also one of its greatest weaknesses, is its complexity. Understanding just what contractors are, what dolls are, and why they are the way they are takes a lot of work. The power struggles that are driving Hei’s superiors to give him his missions, and why other countries fight against them are rarely spelled out explicitly – the audience is left to fill in the gaps. The mysteries surrounding Hei, Yin, and Mao are also stuck in the audience’s mind at the opening of the show, while their answers come much later (if they come at all). Indeed, the audience has to do a lot of work to really grasp what is going on behind the scenes to drive the characters if they want to fully enjoy the experience.

The asset here is that, once understood, the story is that much richer. This is particularly evident on a second viewing: knowing why characters behave the way they do is satisfying. Actions that might be taken for granted on a first pass inherit new meaning when, later on, the audience realizes just what sacrifices were made for those actions. I’m sure this sounds vague and, for someone watching the show for the first time, not exactly compelling. Nevertheless, I always like a good puzzle – I like having to think some when I’m watching a show. The puzzle is most definitely there in Darker Than Black, and – contrary to most anime – knowing the puzzles actually doesn’t diminish another viewing.

Character Quality: 5

The primary characters, being contractors and dolls, don’t actually present as very appealing characters at first. They’re emotionless, calculating, logical beings that almost seem robotic. Their smiles and frowns are all feigned, acted veneers to get them to their goals. And, of course, no one is a better actor than our protagonist.

Hei is more or less the Japanese equivalent of Batman. Hei leads a double life: beyond being a syndicate contractor, he keeps up the appearances of Li Sheng Shun: college transfer student from China, now studying in Tokyo. Hei fights skillfully, employing a few tools to amplify his contractor power, but never gives the impression of being an invincible Superman. Hei tries to do what he thinks is best, though he’s constrained by higher powers to act in a certain way. Hei’s human persona can laugh and cry with the very best of the real human population, masking his real emotions from his adversaries and even his friends when necessary. All of these elements build up into a protagonist that really fits the imperfect superhero role, with all the darkness and emotional trauma present in Batman. As a bonus, Hei is able to actually able to change over the course of the show as events change him, rather than remaining impervious as traditional superheroes must.

Hei’s associates are fun, and occasionally get some real camera time to impress, but are generally relegated to the background. Mao acquires the comic relief job more often than not, which is a bit of a shame – his power could have really amplified a lot of the stories, if only he had been allowed to help. Yin always elicits a warm, fuzzy feeling, but objectively she really doesn’t bring that much to the show: she can find people, but otherwise is quite like a real doll. Much as I adored them, these characters have a fair deal more potential than they ever get to present in the story; it’s a shame they aren’t given more opportunities to shine (while they do great with the arcs dedicated to them).

On the other side of the fence, Misaki Kirihara is the police investigator assigned to bring down Hei’s team. She, too, could use more development – she is largely one-dimensional in her drive to bring evil-doers to justice. She never has the power to be a threat to a contractor, either, so she feels more like an unfortunate audience member stumbling into the show than a powerful obstacle to Hei’s objectives. This in and of itself isn’t a problem, per se, but it really leaves the audience wondering where her determination and confidence come from – she can’t go toe-to-toe with these guys, so why is she so fearless? Her underlings are as fun as Hei’s, but they are developed even less – they’re just like the oh-so-easily duped police in most modern superhero tales.

Darker Than Black: Mai Tahara

Last on our character list: the extras. For each arc, there’s a few new characters that are introduced: targets for assassination, or protection, or simply opposition in a recovery mission. So unlike most of the staples in the cast, these side characters actually get a surprising amount of development time. This shouldn’t be a big surprise, as the characters only have two episodes to convince us that they’re worth our attention. It’s in some of those top-tier arcs that the characters really succeed: the school girl whose abandonment by her father leaves her scarred and confused; the researcher whose ambitions lie in fulfilling the childhood dreams he shared with his sister; and the girl that Hei’s boss once knew, eliciting powerful emotions from the otherwise cold and caustic agent of the syndicate. The real shame here is that many of the side characters fade away at the end of every arc. Those that reappear are a treat, but many more never come back.

Visual Quality: 4

The art style of Darker Than Black is uniformly crisp – clean lines, strong definition of features, and strong expressions. However, this is probably the only major consistency amongst the animation department. Some sequences are as strongly drawn as they are fluid: every action the characters take is deliberate and visible. Other sequences seem to be using only every fourth or fifth frame. I thought that we had grown beyond using four frames to animate a character’s entire stride, yet it shows up – sometimes glaringly – time and again in this show, without real motivation. This also isn’t during action sequences (where, while the animation may also be choppy, the frenetic pace of the action demands the superhuman-appearing motion), but more mundane moments of running down the street, or eating food in a restaurant.

Then there are the slow scenes, focused on facial expressions and character interaction. These scenes highlight the other strength of the series: conveying emotions, however subtly, through the subdued characters. Frame rate isn’t relevant here, but rather accurately capturing just what a tortured expression should be for someone who doesn’t remember what torture is supposed to feel like. It’s definitely debatable, but I found the characters to be quite convincing throughout the show: what they felt, and how well they could show or mask that feeling, was always communicated well through the art.

And thus, I’m confused. The action scenes are usually excellent, showcasing chaotic and frantic combat that feels convincing every time. The character-focused scenes are likewise compelling. But then, everything in between seems to be left to the B team: if it’s not integral to the plot or needing to look awesome, the art team dramatically lowered the bar or acceptability. It’s frustrating to reconcile why these elements are left behind while other scenes get such attention – a mixed bag to be sure.

Audio Quality: 5

Darker Than Black: Mao and Yin

The music in this show is quite fun. The opener sequences are excellent, up-beat warm-ups to the action to come, while the ending sequences are beautiful send-off ballads. I remember a few of the insert songs quite well, but nothing here was really ground-breaking either. It was simply very fitting music, bringing the scenes to life in a way that the (sometimes less than stellar) art failed to do. Good stuff, all in all.

The voice acting here isn’t too impressive. Hei’s seiyuu is probably the only one really earning any points beyond the norm, as he transitions between the genial exchange student and the heartless contractor with a great, believable style. The rest of the primary cast rarely has much to say, though, and the secondary characters are in so few episodes that no one else really stands out. Of course, this doesn’t make any of it bad – it’s all consistent, and quite enjoyable – but rather hard to comment on in specific.

More good news, perhaps, is that the dubbed version feels very similar in all the right ways. Hei still has a good vocal range to capture the changes in personality, and the other cast members are mirrored quite well. If you really can’t stand (or have trouble following) subtitles, this is one anime where I can safely say you won’t lose out on the true experience by resorting to the dubbed version.

Bottom Line: 5.5

Darker than Black is definitely one of the darker anime on the market that I still feel has an appeal to everyone. It is in turns violent, intriguing, and surprising, but it is always entertaining. The characters aren’t the most memorable on the market, and the artwork could definitely use some consistency polish, but those are small potatoes as far as intrigue anime are concerned. Strong, engaging protagonists and gripping story arcs are what carry these shows; Darker Than Black delivers on both counts.

If darker superhero comics appeal to you, such as (the darker parts of) Batman or Spawn, you will definitely find a lot in common here. If you like puzzles alongside your action, and reasons for conflict rather than mindless power-up on top of power-up battle, you will find a lot to like here. And, if nothing else, the sheer variety of this show – from the arc styles to the contractors and their various repentances – will always elicit welcome surprises along the way. The growing rumbles beneath the surface are hard to understand or interpret at first, but that’s right at home with Hei: all that matters for him, after all, is the next mission. Repercussions are for someone else to handle.

Lastly, this is one anime where the Japanese voices do not significantly overpower the English voices. So, for those of you newer to anime or who hate having to read while trying to watch a show, this is one experience that will retain all of its power in English.

Coming Soon

Look for reviews of sola, Kanon (2006), and Str.A.In. coming to the site soon! I’m still contemplating movie ideas – I’m not certain the same rating metrics will do movies justice.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I first heard about Ef. Then, I heard Chihiro say, “Thirteen hours is a long time,” and suddenly I knew I’d found a winner.

I encountered this recently, when I was looking for more productions in the romance genre that had some substance to them. Too often I find myself directed to half-baked romantic comedies with far too much slapstick humor to really catch my attention. Among these, Ef was a breath of fresh air. Or rather, at least half of it was – it is, after all, two unrelated stories told in parallel. The parallel plots have led me to provide two ratings for plot and characters; the art and audio were clearly drawn from the same staff, so their ratings are identical for both stories.

As a caveat, Ef is the first anime on here that has come from an Adult Dating Simulation game. I figured that this was a good time to add in a rating system to my website, as very few anime I’ve watched have any sort of suggested rating for American viewers. It’s not a big deal in my opinion, but if you’re wondering if these are the kinds of shows you can watch with friends or family, or can recommend to your kids, these ratings can hopefully give you some guidelines. Note: these ratings are generated solely from my own perception, and therefore should be taken as guidelines at best; I will try to rate conservatively, rather than liberally, so you aren’t ever unpleasantly surprised.

Synopsis

Ef: Miyako Miyamura

Side A (Hiro Arc): Hiro Hirono is a high school student that is also employed as a manga (Japanese comic book) artist. Because of this dual commitment, he often misses school and just barely manages to make his deadlines at work. On Christmas, he meets Miyako Miyamura – an energetic, mischievous young girl that drags Hiro on an adventure for the evening. As Miyako’s presence in Hiro’s life increases, Hiro’s academic-minded friend Kei Shindou finds herself in a losing battle to keep her friend from failing out of school.

Side B (Renji Arc): Renji Asou is also a high school student, trying to figure out his future. He usually goes to an abandoned train station to think about his future, and one day meets a young girl – Chihiro Shindou. While both Renji and Chihiro are exceptionally shy around one another, their shared interest in the train station’s solitude, as well as the future, keep them coming back to meet one another.

Genre

A pair of romance stories woven back to back, despite having almost nothing in common with one another; there are many dramatic elements, with surprisingly few comical moments for an anime of this genre.

Age Rating

Conservatively, R. There are many adult themes throughout the anime, both tragic and romantic. There is nothing explicit, but there is partial nudity.

Review

Plot Quality: 4 | 6

Hiro Arc: 4

This story is almost, almost skippable. It sets itself up as a standard love triangle, and plods steadily through executing a mediocre back-and-forth between the two girls until its conclusion. There are no huge surprises, not amazing plot twists, and little else to redeem this plot from being a standard-issue romance story. This doesn’t make it bad, but it’s not like there aren’t dozens of other romance tales that are better crafted, containing more intrigue or comedy or something that actually captures the audience’s attention.

Why do I say to not skip this, then? It’s not for the ties to the other story – I’m dead serious when I say the stories are unrelated. The two stories follow the adventures of the twins, Kei and Chihiro, but aside from occasional text messages to one another, the two are completely isolated from one another. The stories are likewise isolated, so whatever good or bad happens in Renji’s arc does nothing to impact Hiro’s arc.

Ef: Kyosuke Tsutsumi

No, the reason to keep with Hiro’s Arc is twofold. First, the use of phone conversations. The conversations over the phone in this story are amazingly performed, compared to the otherwise mediocre plot, and they add a depth that actually sets this story apart from the other mediocrity in the genre. Second, the side plot involving Kyosuke Tsutsumi’s journey for the “perfect shot.” It falters late in the series, but the initial motivations behind Kyosuke are a refreshing way to perceive the world, as well as objectives in life. Had Kyosuke had the focus of this arc, rather than Hiro, I believe there may have actually been a far more engaging (if less romantic) story to be told.

Renji Arc: 6

In a sense, this story is almost more clichéd than Hiro’s. Renji and Chihiro meet, and he quickly learns that Chihiro is sick. The subsequent emotional journey that the two characters take together is fairly predictable, yet it’s executed brilliantly. The writing is amazing, the presentation of the plot’s twists and turns is powerful, and the characters’ emotions feel consistent and real throughout the story.

Unlike so many other romance stories, Renji’s arc feels as if it has been stripped of every possible diversion or filler story – there’s only the faintest skeleton of a background. There are no best friends for long, aimless journeys through town. There’s little family shown – only what’s necessary to convince the audience that Renji and Chihiro aren’t living in a complete vacuum. Once the audience knows that, these external elements are virtually ignored in favor of the two protagonists. What’s left, therefore, is a remarkably poignant and remarkably focused examination of the emotions of and interactions between two characters. While many anime introduce you to characters and let you meet them at a distance, Renji’s arc places the audience directly in the middle of things – everything that Renji and Chihiro feel, the audience feels with them.

Additionally, I am a storyteller (as my banner hints). The incorporation of storytelling and writing alongside this plot was bonus points in my book. By using this tool in the story, Renji and Chihiro are given moments when they aren’t directly under the spotlight. At the same time, though, the stories are things that they create, so the feelings and hopes of the characters are still at the forefront of the plot; only the medium by which those feelings and hopes are presented has changed. The storytelling works as a wonderful companion piece to the interactions between Renji and Chihiro.

Character Quality: 4 | 6.5

Hiro Arc: 4

These characters are almost uniformly as lackluster as the plot itself. As I’ve said, the characters make or break the experience for me, and these characters really have a lot of ground left to cover to live up to my expectations.

Miyako is perhaps the brightest star in this dim constellation, and rightfully so. Miyako has a back story that steps outside of traditional “childhood friend” motivations, and she’s stronger for it. Her mischievous personality takes some warming up to, but she generally grows to be more and more likeable as the story continues. She is still too cowardly and insufficient as a character, though, and only sometimes felt like a believable character rather than a caricature. Still, she makes a valiant effort to break the clichéd mold that her story is stuck in.

Kei, meanwhile, followed a virtual downward spiral over the course of the arc. She begins as a fairly respectable, energetic character trying to be a role model for Hiro. But then her emotions take over and drive her to do one reckless, irresponsible thing after another. Her perception throughout the story is far too binary, too black and white to let her approve of anything that isn’t within her extremely narrow perception of “acceptable.” As a consequence for this naive, awkward world view, she does very poorly at garnering sympathy for the losses she suffers – her increasingly desperate and disrespectful behavior damages her character more than anyone or anything else.

Hiro, between these two girls, is uniformly unimpressive. He’s as undecided about women as he is about everything, and that indecision is supposed to be a serious, important aspect of his compelling character. Problem is, indecision that drags on for weeks of the plot is ridiculous hyperbole; the character loses all believability. His indecision is rather a plot tool used to extend the story, and essentially give both girls the opportunity to impress him. He’s artistic, which is kinda cool, but it doesn’t actually do anything to enhance the story or his character. No attribute can forgive his spinelessness throughout his story.

The support characters here are okay, though minimal. Again, Kyosuke is the highlight. If he had been given a more meaningful role, he could have done a lot of good to keep this story compelling. So unlike the other characters, his searching feels rational. It also doesn’t stymie his life in indecision like Hiro, but rather motivates him to look harder for that “perfect scene.”

Renji Arc: 6.5

As stated before, this plot is almost uniformly a character sketch. We don’t have any big action scenes, or comedic diversions to carry us along. The survival of this story rests almost entirely on the characters. I’m happy to report, therefore, that these characters do everything in their power to live up to that expectation, and exceed it time and again.

Renji is, more or less, exactly who I want to be when I grow up. Occasional immaturity moments aside, his character is as inherently virtuous and motivated as the very best of protagonists. He’s at once determined, dedicated, and decisive. As soon he knows what he wants, he does everything in his power to make it happen. He is also imperfect, fallible: he screws up, and his inexperience causes him a fair few problems. He also isn’t omniscient, either, and the ruminations on his future provide a feeling of incompleteness in his personality. These failures and incompletions are perfectly at home in Renji, however – they don’t feel pasted on or forced, but rather completely natural hesitations and mistakes that anyone growing up and falling in love for the first time is bound to make. They’re endearing, if anything, and really help to paint Renji as a dynamic, human character rather than an idealized protagonist.

Ef: Chihiro Shindou

Chihiro takes the sick girl cliché and gives it a sound beating. She’s definitely timid, with an aversion to people and a politeness that feels generic at first. However, once she opens herself up to Renji, we finally get to see that she is, in fact, a real girl who wears a mask to protect others as much as herself. She laughs, she cries, and she sympathizes with everyone around her in a way that demonstrates her thoroughly selfless nature. She also demonstrates some remarkable intelligence and resilience, as she has found ways to live a normal life in spite of being sick. She claims the audience’s attention at once, and this is hardly a product of sympathy for her sickness. Instead, they feel a genuine empathy for this girl trying to take care of everyone else, at the cost of her own feelings. Chihiro wins the hearts of her acquaintances in spite of her sickness, rather than because of it, and her audience is likewise won.

The side characters in this story are exceptionally minimal, with hardly more than a name and a face. Yuu the church-keeper is perhaps the one exception, as he provides advice for Renji and Chihiro, often against his will. His own character is hardly explained, though, so it’s hard to think of him as little more than an advisory sounding board. He holds the role well, but there’s not much more to say for him (or the rest of the cast, for that matter). But, again, these characters are minimal for a reason – Renji and Chihiro are the focus of the story, and this unprecedented minimalist approach to background elements is an exceptional tool for enhancing that focus.

Visual Quality: 6.5

The art of both arcs is similar, and thus both are well-deserving of the score. For a series that doesn’t play too heavily on the chords of action or suspense, the art didn’t need to be anywhere near top-notch; plain character images and interactions would have been sufficient in theory. But then, Ef does try to break out of being merely sufficient on a lot of fronts and, with the artistic vision, succeeds quite excellently.

Ef: Otowa School

The first key here is the variation in style. From traditional character images to intricately detailed environmental images to stark, black-and-white cuts of scenery, there’s an exceptional range of art to be seen throughout the story. These varied images sometimes allow the stories to convey messages that the characters cannot fathom putting into words, and other times give the audience the exact emotional punctuation that a voice alone cannot convey. There are several exceptional scenes that stand out above the rest, and surprisingly the very best are found in Hiro’s Arc. Renji’s Arc is right behind, however, with artistry that only gets more powerful and emotionally charged as the plot proceeds.

The second element is the character styles themselves. With so few characters, each is given very distinct, and very detailed attention. This particular strength is fairly common among dating simulations that are converted over, but is nonetheless a great asset to such character-driven stories. The girls are all very cute without being overstated or oversexualized (as many might fear from a dating simulation). The boys are quite strong artistically, too, though Renji’s hairstyle (while fine and strangely endearing on him) is one aspect of him I don’t want to emulate.

As for the adult art elements, they’re really subdued. Sure, the girl underneath that blanket is technically not wearing anything, but she’s not showing it off to anyone either. sex always takes place off camera, so I really mean that there’s just hints of adult themes – they’re never at the forefront as they might have been in the game. So, in this sense, the show is relatively “all-ages” friendly, but I’ll leave my conservative rating in place to let you draw your own conclusions.

Audio Quality: 5

Again, the music style for both stories is fairly uniform. The opening theme actually doesn’t appear until the third episode (for plot reasons), but it’s amazing once it does. It inspires a Kingdom Hearts aesthetic, which felt surprisingly appropriate for Renji’s Arc in particular. The imagery associated with the opening is also excellent, and its minor variations over the course of the anime speak volumes. Definitely the highlight of the show’s audio.

The closing themes are all pretty enjoyable, ranging from poignant to almost cute and comforting. They are good for closing up each sequence, transitioning the audience out of the show. Insert music is nowhere near as strong as the visuals they accompany, but they are still good. Forgettable, too, though – you won’t be scanning back through the anime to listen to the music again.

The voice acting is solid, but nothing exceptional. Renji and Chihiro’s seiyuu both go through quite a variety of emotions, and they tackle all of those extremes well. Mikayo’s seiyuu actually earns the highest marks in my book, as there are a few scenes that are carried by her voice alone. So counter to the general mediocrity of Hiro’s Arc, Miyako fully succeeds in bringing those scenes to heights that far exceed expectations.

Bottom Line: 5.5

Ef: Renji Asou

It’s hard to know how to weight this diverse anime with a single score. On the one hand, there’s an exceptionally strong plot, art, and reasonable audio to support it. On the other hand, there’s a stale and generic plot and some characters that actually disappoint the audience the longer they’re on screen. Also, there’s virtually nothing here for action enthusiasts, comedy fans, or mystery lovers. This is a romance story, start to finish, and has to stand on that attribute alone.

But then, Renji and Chihiro are above and beyond just about every romantic couple you will ever encounter. Their story is one that cannot be missed by any fans of romantic adventures. Miyako also offers a heartfelt, emotionally touching performance that slowly grasps the audience and only gets stronger as Hiro’s Arc reaches its climactic resolution. These are things that could really define the genre, insofar as pure romance is concerned.

Ef is not for everyone, and its narrow genre should highlight that on its own. However, among the genre there are few other anime that can boast the strength of character and the artistic mastery evident throughout Renji’s Arc. Hiro’s Arc is something of a letdown when compared so closely (as this anime inevitably does by playing both stories in parallel), but is also a far cry from being garbage. Taken as a whole, Ef is definitely worth the attention of every romance fan on the market, and may well have the power to touch the icy heart of the most hard-core action fan.

Coming Soon

Darker Than Black is coming up next, with plans for Kanon (2006), sola, and (if I decide to tackle anime movies, rather than just TV series) Princess Mononoke in the batter’s box.

Aside – Chihiro’s Sickness Explained (Minor Spoiler):

Chihiro reveals the exact nature of her illness by the end of the second episode, so it’s not exactly a game-changing revelation, but I wanted to place a proper alert here for people who really don’t want to know specifics before experiencing the story.

However, I studied neuroscience in college, so Chihiro’s sickness caught my attention at once. Chihiro suffers from a form of anterograde amnesia, a disability that incapacitates her long-term memory since the time of the accident at age twelve.

This is a real disability, and is actually by far the more common form of amnesia when looking at amnesia patients. The other form of amnesia – where the person remembers nothing prior to the accident – is known as retrograde amnesia and (outside of very temporary cases from severe trauma) is far more rare. Retrograde amnesia is also heavily overplayed in romantic stories, offering characters freebie “second chances” when they otherwise wouldn’t deserve them. Chihiro’s anterograde amnesia, meanwhile, doesn’t ever offer these second chances. It feels like a genuine disability instead, and she remains fully cognizant of the trouble she can cause for others as a consequence.

Also, consistent with real world cases, Chihiro has solid recollections of her life prior to that accident. All of those long-term memories are already stored, and can be recalled at will. Only those events since the accident are lost when they pass from her short-term memory.

Chihiro’s particular malady is a mild case of anterograde amnesia, as short-term memory is generally far shorter than the thirteen hours she has before her memories fade. I take this as artistic licence, and I don’t think it cheapens her disability at all. In fact, that long duration often causes her as much suffering as it does solace. For those hoping for Chihiro’s safe recovery, anterograde amnesia caused by injury do not (as far as current case studies have shown) recover over time. Darling and resilient through she is, her happiness in life will never come from a victory over her amnesia.

Review: Ghost Hunt

Ghost Hunt: Full Cast

This was one of the first anime I watched seriously after starting college. I talk about Digimon, Escaflowne, and Outlaw Star when I talk about my “gateway drugs” into anime, but in a sense Ghost Hunt was actually the anime to really get me involved. Ghost Hunt showed me an entirely different genre of anime from anything I had experienced: something dark, but not gory; something mysterious, without being overbearing or remaining unexplained forever. There’s a lot to like in Ghost Hunt, and it still holds up as one of the best series I’ve had the opportunity to watch.

Synopsis

Mai Taniyama is a high school student with a penchant for ghost stories. She and her friends spend afternoons trying to scare each other with their twisted stories. When Kazuya Shibuya stumbles in upon one such gathering, Mai’s friends admire him almost instantly. It turns out that Kazuya is a ghost hunter, tackling the very kind of stories Mai tells. Mai accidentally damages some of Kazuya’s equipment the next day, and she suddenly finds herself forced into indentured servitude – she has to help Kazuya solve his investigations!

Genre

While not strictly horror, there are definitely terrifying stories and startling scenes scattered throughout this mystery-and-thriller combo.

Age Rating

Conservatively, PG 13. There’s some violence, and plenty of creepy moments, but nothing graphic or disturbing enough for me to shun away the teenage audience.

Review

Plot Quality: 6

The primary plot of Ghost Hunt is divided into eight arcs, each of which spans a handful of episodes. Each arc is quite distinct in design and feel, ranging from light and almost heartwarming to dark, heavy, and downright scary. Connections between the arcs are consistent, yet minimal – each arc could almost be viewed in a vacuum without losing anything. This means we don’t get a whole lot of back-story on the characters, nor do they change too dramatically over the course of the anime – outside of Mai, that is. Her growth over the course of the anime is marked, and perhaps the lone counter to viewing arcs out-of-order. Either way, perhaps it’s comforting to know that the primary events of a given arc aren’t going to linger and mess with the plot down the road.

While not uniformly amazing, each arc has its own charm. Many of the arcs grip the audience strongly, and many contain surprising twists and turns. These arcs really work an amatuer sleuth’s brain for the duration of the mystery, and only occasionally would I predict the solution to a problem before the characters grasped it. A small part of this likely comes about because the problems are paranormal in nature, so the range of possibilities is quite vast (and hard for someone not versed in the lingo to predict). Nevertheless, the characters do a great job of interpreting their experiences so that the audience can follow along without a degree in parapsychology.

As for the fear factor, I think that my more hardcore friends would probably find this to be lukewarm in intensity. The stories are never terribly graphic, it’s true, but I still feel that the presentation style still carries a good sense of thriller timing. More than once I found myself gasping for breath, especially in the later arcs. While there’s nothing here that would make me declare, “Brown Trousers Time,” I felt the suspense and danger were expertly presented. As such, I still have a hard time recommending this anime to my sister despite knowing how well she could relate to Mai.

Character Quality: 6

Ghost Hunt: Mai Taniyama

For mystery and horror genres to really work, the characters need to feel both familiar and vulnerable. Distant characters won’t earn the audience’s empathy, so whatever horrors they experience won’t touch us. Overly durable characters never leave us worrying too much: “they’ll get out of it,” we say with a roll of our eyes, because we know they’re strong. Ghost Hunt knows both of these traits are paramount to good character design in its genre, and Mai has them in spades.

Mai makes a wonderful protagonist for Ghost Hunt, and this is in large part because of her emotions. Mai brings the much-needed empathetic lynchpin to each of the arcs. As we don’t have time enough to really meet and sympathize with the victims Kazuya sets out to help, we learn to feel for them through Mai. She weeps for the lost souls they encounter, and despairs for those left alive and how they have to suffer on without their loved ones. She adamantly defends the rights of everyone, her sense of justice steadfastly refusing some of the harsher truths that seem inevitable. All of these emotions make the world around her feel like a world worth caring about. Just as she can’t abandon her friends or those in trouble, the audience quickly finds that they can’t abandon Mai – she’s pure, dedicated, and endlessly caring. Thanks to her, the audience genuinely cares about Kazuya’s cases as more than cold, aloof searches for the truth.

Beyond her empathy, Mai also brings familiarity and vulnerability to the table. She really is a teenager, and this fact serves as both asset and hindrance as she works with Kazuya. But at the same time, she’s not the traditional screaming girl from a Hollywood slasher flick; Mai has some serious grit, making her more than helpless while still less than perfect. It’s hard to find fault with such an honest character, especially when her growing maturity over the course of the show demonstrates how she’s getting stronger because of her experiences. In all, Mai brings an unwavering heart to the entire series, from her childish fighting to her heart-felt sorrow to her growing strength and self-confidence. She is presented excellently.

Kazuya, the apparently stoic and brilliant counterpart to Mai, is also strongly performed. He’s no spectacle, but he delivers exactly the kind of personality you expect: he’s cold, he’s efficient, he puts solving the case above just about everything else, and he always seems to get the job done in the end. He doesn’t do much to win the audience’s sympathy, but he is nonetheless well portrayed. I wish he had been a little less reticent, as he seems to have a lot of character that we never get to see. But, as he would say, the case is all that matters – his background is inconsequential. He also consistently demonstrates that he does, in fact, have what it takes to be the leader of his research team. Despite what the other adults say, Kazuya does a great job with his work, and his determination and decisiveness really shine through when he’s at the helm.

The supporting cast is something of a mixed bag, though the performances are generally strong. The weakest performance, I feel, is from Ayako the shrine maiden. As the theoretically strongest of the female characters, Ayako does little to impress with her training (and is ridiculed for it). Comic relief aside, I was disappointed that Ayako wasn’t built to be more empowering. Masako the seer is likewise underwhelming: aside from providing a rival for Mai in certain situations, Masako usually plays the role of guide to the rest of the staff. Thank goodness for Mai’s strength as a character – these girls would not be able to carry their gender in Ghost Hunt without her.

The supporting boys, meanwhile, are uniformly strong. Houshou the monk comes out of the gate with a smirk, offering a strong counterpoint to Naru’s clinical approach, as well as a certain father-type figure for Mai while she’s at work. John the priest, while initially teased for his age and inexperience, is probably the strongest of Naru’s assistants when it comes to combating the forces of the paranormal – his role is often cut out, coincidentally, to remove that powerful “security blanket” from the cases. And Lin, Naru’s only full-time assistant before Mai enters the picture, often occupies the background. He comes across as even more emotionless than Naru, and while we do get a few encouraging glimpses into his personality, he spends most of his time quietly assisting Naru, making sure everything in the investigation goes ahead smoothly.

Visual Quality: 5

The art style here is fairly uniform throughout the anime, and while sometimes very detailed and beautiful, it is best described as “matte.” There’s not a lot of gloss, and the muted colors bring a certain eeriness to the scenery that other, prettier anime would lose. Mai’s cute style is one of the few exceptions, but even she has a certain roughness around her edges that makes her appear as though she genuinely belongs: her heavier clothes and heavy sneakers accentuate her inner tomboy. The rest of the cast is likewise resolute in design, everyone looking like they’re ready to solve a mystery professionally, rather than showcase themselves as eye candy for the audience.

Ghost Hunt: Ghouls

The concept of drawing fear-inspiring images is a tricky one, and I find that Ghost Hunt actually does pretty admirably with this. From creepy ghouls and spirits to the rooms themselves that are possessed, everything is accurately yet tastefully presented. The characters’ suffering in these terrifying sequences is also believable, without resorting to either over-the-top screaming or eye-rolling lack of commitment to the emotion. Being paralyzed by fear is a very real experience, and it’s comforting to see these subtleties brought to life in the characters.

This anime also contains a fair bit of chibi-styled filler. It’s not exactly at home alongside the ghouls, or even the other dramatic revelations at the end of each arc, but it does exactly what it’s intended to do: break up the seriousness of the mood and instead inject a bit of light, entertaining conversation or fighting.

Audio Quality: 6 (5 in English)

The opening and ending themes are almost instantly skippable. They’re both instrumental performances, and neither showcases any animation from the actual show – no character models, locations, or even spirits. That isn’t to say that the music isn’t good; on the contrary, it fits the eerie, suspenseful mood of Ghost Hunt perfectly. But then, I had a hard time convincing myself that I needed to set the mood when I was in the middle of an arc; they just felt like they were slowing down the experience.

The insert music is likewise well-selected. It won’t catch in your head or anything, but it’s expertly timed and adds another layer to the experience on-screen, be it cute, suspenseful, or horrifying.

The original voice acting, by and large, is great too. Mai’s seiyuu is excellent – the softness of her voice really allows for her to match Mai’s drawn emotions to a T. She can be vehemently angry when it’s called for, but the sorrow and compassion that is so much more common to her experience is something I feel only her voice can accurately capture. Kazuya’s sharp, hard-line seiyuu likewise keeps the character uniformly crisp and robotic throughout the series. The supporting cast is also voiced very well, despite the weaknesses inherent in some of them. Fast-paced bickering matches feel particularly tight, far more real than some dragging conversations I’ve seen in other anime.

The English voice actors, meanwhile, lose a lot of what I find makes these characters so powerful. Mai’s voice actor focuses far more on the tomboy aspects of Mai, bringing an edginess and power to her voice that just sounds a bit out of place. Conversely, Kazuya’s English voice is actually soft; it sounds like he’s really struggling to argue back against anyone. Given the proclivity that Mai and Kazuya have for arguing with one another, this shift in vocal power disconnects from the direction of both the script and the art style. While the supporting cast is respectable in English, the confusion of the dynamic between Mai and Kazuya in English is a little frustrating.

Bottom Line: 6.2

Ghost Hunt was and, after a second viewing, continues to be one of my favorite anime regardless of genre. It doesn’t take any truly dangerous risks (Because, as I said before, every arc is fairly isolated, so the main characters won’t be dead at the end of an arc, nor will anyone be dramatically changed by certain events), but I was never bothered by this. Ghost Hunt is a mystery first, with horror as a secondary concern. The mysteries are solved in their entirety, which demonstrates a true grasp of screenwriting – there’s no plot holes or gaps left behind that leave the conclusions feeling hollow, faked, or rushed for the sake of time.

The horror in Ghost Hunt doesn’t claim lives permanently, but saying “Don’t worry, no one’s gonna die” has been used as a false comfort against fear for as long as I can remember. I was definitely scared by lots of events in the various arcs of Ghost Hunt. After all, only the main cast has any guarantee of surviving through to the end – the terrors befalling the supporting cast are very real, sometimes lethal, terrors.

And what would those secondary characters’ plights be without a reason to care for them? Mai performs brilliantly throughout this anime, connecting the audience to the many victims she and Kazuya endeavor to save. Thanks to her consistent, heart-felt performance, the triumphs of her team feel real and valuable, while the moments when they are too late feel genuinely sad and terrifying.

Strong mysteries. Some scary scenes, getting steadily more intense as the series progresses. A brilliant, familiar and vulnerable leading lady, with a supporting cast that is mostly strong. And a few asides that range from comedic to romantic. Ghost Hunt isn’t exactly anime nirvana, but I find that it’s pretty close. From beginning to end, I was entranced – sometimes terrified, sometimes sighing with relief, and sometimes laughing at my own silliness – but always entranced.

 

Coming Soon

Look for reviews of Ef – a Tale of Memories, Darker Than Black, sola, and maybe even Kanon (2006) in the near future!

Review: Rec

Rec: Aka Onda

For me, I need to have seen an anime quite recently to give it a proper, objective review. Too much time spent apart from a show often leads me to romanticize those parts that I liked the most, while forgetting those parts that left me underwhelmed. So, to start things off, I’ll open with a very short, yet impressive anime that I finished just days ago: Rec.

Synopsis

Fumihiko Matsumaru works doggedly on advertising projects that, unfortunately, nowhere. When he finally gets a break in his personal life, scoring a date with his co-worker Tanaka, he gets stood up. Wallowing outside of the movie theater, alone, Fumihiko meets another girl – Aka Onda. She offers to accompany Fumihiko for the evening, leading to an unexpected and lasting connection that neither of them anticipated.

Genre

A fairly straight-forward romantic comedy with endearing characters and surprising clout for its short duration.

Age Rating

PG-13. It’s got all the standard themes of a romance, including some adult themes and mildly lecherous behavior on the part of Fumihiko, but nothing ever comes of it on-screen.

Review

Plot Quality: 5

The story of Rec isn’t exactly trying to break ground or anything. Rather, it aims to connect with its audience by going directly to those things to which we can so easily relate. Being stood up on a date? Yeah, we’ve been there. Trouble getting noticed at work? Yep, happens to all of us. The plot is mundane and every-day, but I feel that’s a lot of the charm. Rec tells a story that’s relatable, that could happen anywhere, and that could happen to anyone.

That isn’t to say that the plot of Rec is entirely forgettable, either. There are a few key moments that last far beyond the end of the show. In particular, those first moments of genuine recognition for Aka’s voice are quite touching – again, because it’s such a relatable feeling. That first time you achieve success in your field, such that someone you don’t know recognizes it? That’s a great feeling.

Character Quality: 6

Rec: Fumihiko Mastumaru

This is probably the strongest point of the show. Characters can really make or break a show for me, independent of genre or plot. If the characters aren’t up to par, the entire performance generally falls flat for me. Thankfully, Rec follows up the relatable plot with instantly relatable characters.

Fumihiko is a little more depressed than most at first, but his growth from that starting point is great. He presents himself as a reliable person quite quickly, but he’s also not perfect. He definitely takes criticism personally, and his learning to handle that criticism in a more professional manner is again instantly relatable. He’s an everyman, and one of the truest presentations of that term that I’ve seen in a long time.

Aka is an instant favorite among female protagonists. She’s bright and sunny, without being too overbearing or too passive. She’s a character that’s guided by morals and values without being completely defined by them. Despite being the younger of the two protagonists, Aka clearly seems to be the more mature of the couple in many senses: her growth over the course of the show is almost entirely in her career, rather than in her personality. This is all to the good, though: Aka’s performance starts as an excellent, believable character and remains strong throughout the trials she has to endure.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, does little to impress. Fumihiko’s initial date is shuffled off quite quickly, and the other actors on the scene don’t get much, if any, development time. Given the strict time restrictions of the show, though, I have a hard time complaining here: anything spent on these secondaries would have taken away from Aka and Fumihiko, and that would have been a crime.

Visual Quality: 4

Rec does not boast particularly impressive visuals. Fumihiko, in particular, seems to suffer from a lack of inspiration in his design. He’s designed to be an everyman, but his look is almost too generic – he really looks like he was taken from the crowd of extras that get only a fraction of the animation effort. Aka’s pretty and emotive, which is great, but she seems a little lost among a crowd of less impressive characters.

The backgrounds are likewise simple. They don’t look sketchy or forgotten, but they’re certainly not meant to take any focus. The characters invariably hold center stage in Rec’s artwork department, with Aka in the spotlight.

Audio Quality: 5

The characters of Rec come alive in large part because of their voice actors. It comes as no surprise, then, that the seiyuu for Aka and Fumihiko are both great. Again, Aka’s voice left the strongest impression – meta-voice acting aside, Aka’s struggles and triumphs truly come to life because of her voice actor’s dedication to the role.

The opening theme is mildly catchy and quite cute. There is no ending theme to the episodes. Background music is just that: in the background. I didn’t find myself particularly impressed by the musical score as a result, but it never felt invasive or overdrawn, either. In a sense, it’s another way in which Rec really pares down the focus to its primary couple.

Bottom Line: 5.5

Rec was a surprise, and a pleasant one at that. I generally avoid short anime because I feel that the characters can’t possibly be engaging, or if they are that they’ll disappear far too quickly. I’m glad I made an exception for Rec. Despite its brevity, I genuinely enjoyed my time with Aka and Fumihiko. The pacing from episode to episode was gentle, yet engaging – I didn’t want to stop the show at any point. On the contrary, I feel that our time together passed all too quickly.

That brevity is, in a sense, the weakest point of Rec as well. When the final episode concluded, I couldn’t help but whine to myself: why didn’t it continue on for longer? This hails back to my second reason for avoiding short anime – the time I get to spend in that world is so short, it almost feels interrupted before I can truly experience it. Nevertheless, Rec does very well with the short time it has.

If you’re in the market for a romantic comedy and short on time, Rec is definitely a good choice. It doesn’t shatter any boundaries in the genre, but the uncanny strength of its protagonists and the ease with which the audience can relate to them are certain to charm.

Coming Soon

As this is only the first review, there’s certain to be many more reviews on the way. In the near future, you can expect reviews of Ghost Hunt, Darker Than Black, and Ef – A tale of Memories coming your way!