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Archive for the ‘Supernatural’ Category

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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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.

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