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Archive for the ‘Slice Of Life’ Category

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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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!

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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.

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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!

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