Unpopular Opinion: Mobile Suit Gundam The Witch From Mercury

Mobile Suit Gundam The Witch from Mercury is something truly special. If you’re here for a spoiler free recommendation the answer is yes, go watch it, and make sure you don’t skip the prologue episode or miss the after credit scenes in some of the later episodes. And that’s coming from someone who generally dislikes mecha anime and who has never watched a single Gundam before this one. Witch from Mercury hit in the same way Arcane did, in that it was so surprisingly good I immediately started re-watching it the day after I finished it. These are the only two shows I have done that for, though granted it’s partially because I watched both during relatively slow seasons of anime. From here on there will be major spoilers, you’ve been warned.

There is, or at least was, an argument in the community for the 3 episode test – wherein you should watch at least 3 episodes before dropping a show so that you can get a proper idea of what it entailed without watching the whole thing if it didn’t capture your interest. The now former (I think) Youtuber formerly known as Digibro quite convincingly argued that you could tell in 1 episode whether or not a show would be for you. And I can’t think of a more concrete example of them being right than my recent experience with Gundam. I tried Iron Blooded Orphans and had immediate misgivings with the aesthetic style, the heavy-handed writing, the tone, and the general character of the show. I stuck it out for 3 episodes to give it a chance where I summarily dropped it because my initial read of episode 1 was spot on for me. It wasn’t that Iron Blooded Orphans was bad per se, but it certainly didn’t click with me and I didn’t have good time with it – didn’t have a bad time either mind, I was mostly ambivalent and disinterested. Witch from Mercury on the other hand had me hooked before the prologue episode was even over.

That prologue episode displayed, without revealing overmuch, that Witch from Mercury had everything I wanted as well as things I didn’t know I wanted. The character designs were more grounded, important characters had gravitas, the politics and philosophies of both sides seemed relatively well defined and realistic, the pros and cons of the tech was immediately apparent and brought to the fore in combat, the conflict was immediately grounded by the sudden deaths in a small company that had a genuine family atmosphere to it, as well as by the actual family of three that lost their dad. And then some amazing action animation hit in tandem with that Metal Gear-esque battle them, and I was in love. Anyone could tell from this episode alone that Witch from Mercury had it all. And in the middle of it still wove in some mystery and intrigue by having a four year old activate a battle mech that no one else can safely use, a feat that makes her mother stare at her in horror, before she happily blows up 3 enemy mechs with childish joy and innocence. By comparison Iron Blooded Orphans had incompetent asshole adults beating child soldiers and then running when the fighting starts, a noble lady who wants to understand child soldiers and constantly berates her own ignorance after a single episode, and Gjallarhorn fuckbois so over-designed and arrogant they walked straight out of Code Geass. Iron Blooded Orphans’ idea of tragedy was child soldiers having to undergo dangerous surgeries mostly off-screen to pilot their mechs and not even being mad about it, Witch from Mercury had a dad do a suicidal charge to make sure his wife and daughter escaped while he deliriously sings Happy Birthday for his four year old as his overuse of his Gundam starts to shatter his mind. And as extra icing on the cake, his daughter starts happily singing along with him, since it is in fact her birthday, and keeps the song going after her dad’s suddenly cuts off as his opponent rams a sword through the cockpit and kills him. These are not the same.

Witch from Mercury then flashes forward an indeterminate number of years, I say indeterminate because they don’t put a specific age on anyone and though the main cast mostly seem like teenagers, the mom from the prologue has a throwaway line to the antagonist of the prologue about 20 years since the witches, so theoretically our leading lady Suletta is 24. Though she hardly acts that way as she remains very childish even compared to her peers. The part of Witch from Mercury that will probably most put anyone unsure about it off is that it takes place in a school, like 95% of all anime. Granted the Asticassia School of Technology is very much a technical school, mostly centering around mechs, with courses for pilots, engineers, support techs and business. If you watched the prologue however, this fact should not dissuade you as Witch from Mercury already proved it has what it takes to be great. And in fact the school is a good microcosm of the setting as a whole which is one of things Witch from Mercury least explores or explains. There’s blatant bias against Earthians, as opposed to Spacians, and the feeling is mostly mutual with the Spacians having the clear upper hand in power, wealth and influence. Mechs, related tech, and how to sell them dominate business interest, which in turn dominates the school and all major political bodies. Imagine if the robber barons of American history, like Rockefeller for my non-American readers, and their monopolies all merged into one corporate group, the Benerit Group, and basically took over the government and ran everything. Though there is a distinctly un-American subordination of every CEO’s children’s’ free wills to the good of the company, mixed in with a generally ruthless hypercapitalist attitude about all interactions. And into this setting plops Suletta.

Suletta is a mix between the fish out of water and classic small town girl archetypes, though she is more childish than either such archetypes usually go for. She is a relative nobody with no guile, no aptitude for the cutthroat corporate world she’s entering and just generally wants to make friends and help her homeworld of Mercury out – granted she’s not actually from Mercury but she doesn’t appear to know that and it’s one of many signs that her mother is hiding things from her or that she maybe repressed her memories from prologue and before. I mean she could have just forgotten them especially if 20 years have passed but I still remember specific events like birthdays from my early childhood and I’m older than that so who knows. Because she’s a wholesome girl she immediately saves Miorine Rembran, who was actually in mid-escape attempt. Miorine is trying to escape both her political marriage and her very overbearing father Delling Rembran, who is president of the Benerit Group and the one who had Suletta’s space station raided and destroyed in the prologue. Not that Suletta knows any of that as she is woefully unaware of politics in general, let alone the politics of the Benerit Group specifically. She doesn’t even appear to know about the ban on Gundams, at least not by its official name, which again suggests her mom is hiding things from her – though she also explains that Mercury has such a small population it doesn’t even have any schools, so her education is sorely lacking. Anyway one things leads to another, Suletta ends up dueling Miorine’s fiancé Guel Jeturk and handily beating him because she’s got a Gundam and he doesn’t, and therefore becoming Miorine’s fiancé in turn because Miorine is literally a trophy for the school’s top duelist – a fact she is deeply angry about. By making such a splash, Suletta naturally makes a lot of enemies and captures the attention of the main four families behind the Benerit group and by extension the school, the Rembrans, Jeturks, Grassleys and Ceres.

Each of the four have their own power struggles amongst themselves and a balance which was already crumbling as the Jeturks were planning on assassinating Delling in episode 1, before Sueltta beats Guel and takes Miorine from his grasp, foiling the plan at the outset. Her mother also learns of the plan and blackmails the Jeturks into supporting her during the inquiry following the duel, as the one-sided defeat of the reigning champion obviously caused some to believe, correctly, that Suletta is using a Gundam. Both Suletta and her mom are major chaos factors in Benerit Group politics though for entirely different reasons. Suletta is a bull in a china shop, but a blindfolded bull, as she has no clue what she’s doing most of the time nor the consequences of her actions. Despite this I don’t want to paint Sueltta as an idiot because she isn’t, rather she appears to sheltered and ignorant, probably deliberately so. Her mom, who hides behind a mask, dyed hair, and the alias Lady Prospera meanwhile is a savvy operator who punches far above her corporate weight as her company is one of the smallest and least profitable in the Benerit Group. Her overall goals are more mysterious but in the short term she wants to protect Aerial, Suletta’s Gundam, so Suletta can continue using it. In addition the Ceres are undercutting the Gundam ban by developing their own Gundam in tandem with enhanced humans who can survive using one for longer – strangely when the former of these two facts are revealed the Ceres are not punished for it, though that scene has a lot going on in-universe so it can be excused somewhat for getting swept under the rug.

Speaking of Gundams and tech, Witch from Mercury centers on 2 components Permet and the GUND format. Permet is an unexplained resource that can be mined from multiple planets and presumably has something to do with data transfer as Gundam users calibrate their mech’s operating level using something called a Permet Score. The higher the score the more reactive the machine, and the more strain the pilot is under, as shown by reddish markings on their bodies and faces. The intricacies of this tech are not revealed beyond the broadest strokes, the tech is dangerous, Permet is the key resource, etc. The GUND format is biomedical tech that uses Permet to sync prosthetics with people who need them like Lady Prospera, this was then scaled up to fit a mech, hence the designation of mechs with the GUND format as Gundams. In Gundams, the GUND format allows users to better sync with their mechs for higher performance and allows for the use of drones or swarm weapons which can be finely controlled and coordinated via this tech. Gundams have a massive advantage over other mechs, as is always the case in Gundam shows, though these ones come with a huge risk attached and in the prologue the people who will become the Benerit Group already have an anti-Gundam EMP type weapon. Suletta overcoming the anti-Gundam weapon in one of her duels is probably my favorite scene in the entire show, and the revelations of her feat are then passed on to another secret group of Gundam pilots on Earth for the final conflict of the first season.

All of these interesting details aside, the biggest two strengths of Witch from Mercury are the action spectacle and the characters. The amination is top notch across the board but the action scenes are where it shines the brightest. The battles are fluid, kinetic and high impact. The special effects look amazing and are accompanied by excellent sound design that gives the weapon blasts some real weight to them. The battles are a total joy to watch, and Suletta’s big moments hit all the harder as the amazing battle theme from the prologue accompanies them all. It is beyond hype when that track hits. The mech designs are good as well, 2D and animated to an amazingly high standard. You could stick them in a movie unedited and probably not tell the difference – the mech battles are some of the most impressive pieces of animation I’ve seen in a while, and boy is that saying something because we’ve been spoiled with tons of great shows in past few seasons.

The characters are the most interesting part of the show however as many are deeper than they first appear. Even Geul Jeturk who comes off as an aggressive rich asshole with an ego problem, has deeper personality traits beneath the facade and goes through probably the most punishing character arc in the show. This actually makes Miorine one of the least interesting characters, which is by no means an insult because she’s quite compelling. However she’s one of the most straightforward, she’s a driven, talented rich kid who wants to escape her controlling father but comes around to working within his system for Suletta’s sake. But the two most interesting have to be Suletta and Lady Prospera. Suletta is straightforward and seemingly simplistic, but her childish personality has some darker elements as she maintains it even after doing the most brutal kill in the entire show. She also spends the whole show saying Aerial and her grew up together, and when she overcomes the anti-Gundam weapon she’s actively talking to it and seemingly hearing whatever it’s telling her. Since the prologue Suletta has had her unusual connection with a Gundam but the mechanics of it are not explained and even as other Gundam users are revealed, Suletta reigns supreme in her connection to Aerial and/or her apparent resistance to Permet. And I for one can’t forget the way her mom stared at her in horror during the prologue even before she started blowing other mechs up. Suletta and the nature of her connection with Aerial is one of the most intriguing ideas in the show and one of the least explained, so I’m hungry for answers.

Lady Prospera is an equally mysterious character though one who appears much more villainous. She is clearly manipulating Suletta to some extent but how much and for what purpose we don’t know. The most that we can gleam on this front is that she is as interested in Suletta’s connection with Aerial as I am, and seems to be pushing her in a direction to develop that connection – as best seen when she sheds a tear as Suletta overcomes the anti-Gundam weapon. But even that moment is ambiguous and multi-faceted as while there seems to be a sinister side to Lady Prospera, she is also a proponent of the GUND format, looked up to its creator and lost her husband to said anti-Gundam weapon. So while she could have a hidden motive, which seems likely since the other Gundam users now have this knowledge in the final battle, that tear also has several compelling reasons to be a genuine expression of joy. Even more curious she seems to be actively working against other pro-GUND people from the prologue by trying to flush them out of hiding, and in the most perplexing turn yet, appears to working directly with Delling on a project relating to Gundams. This despite the fact Delling is publicly famous for being anti-Gundam and directly responsible for the death of her husband and mentor; a fact she can’t not know. Bizarrely he seems to know who she really is too since she says her real name to him and she brazenly mentions witches in his presence. Now witches are never explicitly explained but it’s implied they are women with abnormally high compatibility with or resistance to the adverse effects of the GUND format, hence Suletta being dubbed the Witch from Mercury. So far as we know though, all witches come from Earth, since Suletta and her mother are Earthians who hid away on Mercury. Why witches seem to only come from Earth is not yet explained and it is yet another mystery I’m dying to learn more about.

If the preceding mass of text didn’t convince you give this show a try, only watching clips from the show will. Witch from Mercury has my highest recommendation and I eagerly await the second season, which comes out in a few months. Do yourself a favor and watch this show. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next one.

Unpopular Opinion: Summertime Render

There are few things as disappointing as a show which comes so close to perfection, only to fumble at the 11th hour. Which sadly is how I felt finishing Summertime Render. For those who want a spoiler-free recommendation, yes you should absolutely watch this. It is a very good show, though it falls shy of great for me personally – much to my own chagrin because I thought I had stumbled on a real winner. But it is still very much worth your time, and if you’re not as picky as I am then this will be great. There will be major spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned.

I think the best way to explain Summertime Render to the modern anime audience is Re:Zero done right/actually good. It has the same kind of time loop, in the sense it’s specifically tied to the main character’s death rather than a time which repeats on its own or by the conscious choice of a time traveler. Moreover the main character, Ajiro Shinpei has a similarly low power level to the enemies he has to face even though he’s in the real world not a fantasy one. But Shinpei has none of the weaknesses that make Subaru such an unbearable character to watch. I’ll explore this comparison in more detail as we go along.

Summertime Render takes place on a small island off western Japan, in a town of only 700 inhabitants. That might sound boring but small isolated towns tend to be some of the best settings for mysteries, thrillers and even horror shows. Because of their small size and comparative isolation, these locales can be laden with all kinds of folklore, legends and the like that would be scoffed at in the big city but feel more real in the quiet hills, dense forests and hidden caves often tied to such communities. Isolated small towns are also ideal because they can be laden with details which you would still expect most of the community to know because it’s such a small and tight-knit group. Meanwhile the large number of mostly disconnected people in big cities can’t really replicate that beyond a small friend-group. The small-town folk are also likely to be more self-sufficient but more limited in the resources that they can bring to bear against whatever ails them.

Hitogashima is a perfect storm for a mystery-thriller. Despite the small size of the island, most of the population is cluttered around the coast, while the hills and forests are still undeveloped. Only the odd old building survives outside the town, like the ancient shrine to the local god, or the abandoned medical clinic from World War 2. It’s also crisscrossed by old tunnels from the same era, for protection against air raids – all but forgotten to locals since the story takes place in 2018. The tiny community is hyperaware of local happenings but also very trusting of their neighbors. And into this setting we add the Shadows. Shadows are monsters which copy the form, personality and memories of humans, before devouring and replacing them. They have super human strength and speed, can meld into the environment for unconventional movement, even change their shape and manifest simple weaponry. Their only weakness is that you can kill them by attack their true body – the shadow beneath whatever form they appear to take. And in classic thriller form, to most of the locals the Shadows are a myth, taken seriously only by the more reclusive inhabitants.

As far as comparing it to Re:Zero is concerned, it’s a bit of apples to oranges. One of Re:Zero’s greatest strengths is its setting, a fantasy world with some real depth to it. But it also comes with some isekai cliches which manifest less in the setting itself and more in how it’s treated and approached by Subaru and the inhabitants of the world. Hitogashima is a well realized setting that plays to the strengths of the genres it covers. But again as far as comparing it to Re:Zero is concerned this is less an out and out better setting and more like a setting that is taken more seriously by the story and people within it. I especially like the use of the hidden tunnels, caves and paths which are only accessible to Shadows or at low tide. Re:Zero doesn’t really have that kind of subtlety but it also has to build a lot more from scratch, so the comparison is awkward at best.

Where the comparison is not awkward though is the dialogue, which is partially a result of the different settings. Re:Zero has trash dialogue, worst of all being Subaru’s otakuisms and autistic screeching. Even when Subaru isn’t mucking things up, there is just so much flat exposition that it really takes away from the experience if the lore or plan or whatever isn’t interesting. Summertime Render doesn’t have this problem. Because Shinpei and the locals of Hitogashima are reflective of real people in a real place they don’t have a lot of wasted dialogue. Dialogue that isn’t immediately relevant to the plot still gives a lot of insight into the characters, their personalities, the culture of the island and so on. Having everyone speak with a very distinct local dialect really sells the tight-knit nature of the community. And when there is exposition it’s generally kept short and focused, it flows smoothly into concrete plans or arguments over strategy as the players piece together all the parts of the puzzle. This fact is helped along greatly by Hiruzu, probably my favorite character in the show, and the fact Shinpei is not an idiot.

One of the biggest problems I have with Subaru is that he is incredibly unobservant so much of the time and takes forever to put 2 and 2 together. It’s not that he can’t ever do it, he just takes his sweet fucking time even when dealing with info the audience can piece together very quickly. Shinpei does not have this problem. He’s very good taking in a lot of information and making sense of it, partially because he’s big into mystery/detective novels and partially because he literally has a portion of his psyche that just always stays objective. He calls this stepping back or taking a bird’s eye view, and it allows him to outwardly panic in response to major events without totally falling apart and becoming useless. Put another way, Subaru will say in one episode that he needs to maximize his information gathering before each death – and then immediately start the next episode or arc not observing shit. Shinpei meanwhile quickly realizes he needs to gather as much info as possible before dying and immediately compiles what he knows before taking big risks to gather as much new info as possible.

Now to ease up on Subaru a bit, his supporting cast is not as helpful as Shinpei’s. Summertime Render has a small cast but each addition to the team is extremely valuable, not just for a specific scenario but throughout the story. This also means that losing them is a serious loss of manpower. Re:Zero doesn’t really do this very well. Subaru tries to work through most of a problem by himself, understandably at first and less so as the story progresses – but none of his companions are serious contributions or loses throughout because he kind of resets to working on his own as each new challenge arises. Summertime Rending has one overarching challenge so once people are on board they’re pretty much committed until they die, even if some of them dip out or are kept out of loop during certain portions of the story.

The hodge-podge team assembled over the course of Summertime Render is excellent. A good mix of power players like Shinpei, Ushio and Hizuru complemented by what local allies they have to hand like childhood friends, the old island hunter, and so on. Shinpei is the linchpin since he’s the one with the time travel power, though Ushio is a close second since she can time travel with Shinpei, and her ability to share her memories with others greatly speeds progress along with each loop – and prevents repetition of exposition. And Hizuru has a mix of personal insight, incredible deductive skills and the most raw might of the good guys. As the show goes on, even though the group remains fairly small, it feels like Shinpei has amassed a meaningful power base to challenge the Shadows and the pair of gods that lead them. It makes for a climactic battle that feels huge, with everything on the line, even if it’s really just a handful of people and Shadows involved. Sadly this is one spot where Summertime Render drops the ball though as the big climactic battle is followed not by a swift conclusion but a frankly unnecessary arc to deal with the worst character in the show, Kariki.

Summertime Render makes 3 noteworthy mistakes. 1. After the big battle Shinpei randomly makes a wholly emotional choice that leads to new complications in the plot and this pads out a story that probably should have wrapped up then and there. This is extra bad because Shinpei’s reasoning sounds like total bullshit and goes against the most important facet of his character, the ability to always look at things objectively. It feels crowbarred in because the writers still have 5-7 episodes to fill and they need a new arc to do it.

2. Kariki. Just in general this character is a huge waste of time and intrigue. Kariki is actually a 300 year old priest who keeps using Haine, the mother of the shadows to make him clones that his personality can then be transferred to. He just wants to live forever and when Haine starts fading, and this no longer is an option, he switches his goal to ending all existence so that he can say he lived forever; if you interpret forever as “the course of observable existence.” Neither of these goals are remotely interesting, and they’re only not directly contradictory if you really squint and ignore that they have completely opposite intentions. You really have to twist Kariki to make “live forever” and “destroy everything” work together and he just becomes the old man equivalent of an edgelord, who now wants the world to die with him. In the course of fleshing out and dealing with Kariki, Summertime Render really takes away the mystique and agency of the more interesting antagonist Haine, and sort of makes her not really a bad guy in the end, just a force that was exploited. This is fairly common trend in anime and while there should be room for forgiveness and redemption there’s also limits that anime just ignores time and again. It’s really annoying, not just in Summertime Render but as a general trope.

3. The whole final arc just feels like bloat. It destroys the pacing of an otherwise very tightly paced show, and feels like the show twiddling its metaphorical thumbs to squeeze out more episodes. I know anime pretty much does things in multiples of 12 or 13, but this could have easily been cut at like the 18-20 episode mark. The whole Kariki arc just feels tacked on. It’s spawned by a wildly out of character decision by the main character, that results in a sudden reversal of fortunes all to defeat a villain who was only ever interesting when we didn’t know who he was, how his powers worked or what he was after. In spelling these things out the mystery and thrill gave way to a more basic story that does not hold up to what came before. The only good part about the final arc is that there’s some strong emotional moments in the form of major losses by the goody guys, but even those are undone in the end since we do get a fully happy ending where no one died. So honestly it just shouldn’t be there, and it’s a shame that it drags down a show that until that point was fucking awesome.

Because Summertime Render gets more right than it gets wrong. Like a lot more. The first 20ish episodes of this 25 episode show, are excellent. It had dark mystery, incredible atmosphere, solid action, a complex web of character relationships, and probably the single best use of time travel as a plot device ever – as the Shinpei gradually moves forward in time with each death, rather than hard resetting to a checkpoint like Subaru does with each challenge. And having the antagonists be able to track Shinpei through time and know what he and his group tried in prior time loops makes Shinpei’s time travel a much more fragile weapon and resource than Subaru’s. Subaru is only in danger of failing a particular challenge if he loses the will to keep struggling through it. Shinpei meanwhile has to take care that he isn’t killed too often or too quickly – or he will effectively respawn to a point in time that doesn’t exist anymore and Haine wins. And he needs to be with Ushio when he dies or she can’t time travel with him, depriving the team of one of their most important players.

That was actually one of the coolest twists in the show, where after a long and successful time loop where Shinpei got a ton of important information, they begin the next loop the same way to replicate their prior successes, only the for the villains to know what happened before and set an ambush, resulting in sudden defeat and a loop cut frighteningly short. As someone who generally dislikes time travel, this was easily the most interesting interpretation and use of time travel I’ve ever seen, it takes the throne from Steins:Gate on that particular point.

Ultimately Summertime Render is a show with very high highs and a lot of them, dragged down a peg by tripping up at what should’ve been the final hour. I thoroughly enjoyed the bulk of the show, and it’s such a shame I couldn’t feel the same way at the end. The characters, details and ideas of the show were almost all winners, with just a few rough spots. I’m glad I watched it, just mildly bummed by how it handled the final stretch. See you in the next one.

Unpopular Opinion: Utawarerumono Franchise Revisited

Fuck me this was painful. Let it be known that I adore the original Utawarerumono. I’d go so far as to say it’s in my top 3 anime of all time. It remains in my estimation the most tightly paced show ever made, cramming in a huge amount content in a relatively concise package, without ever feeling rushed. Indeed, it manages a great balance of down to earth, wholesome family-building episodes alongside multiple wars of increasingly large scope. Utawarerumono 2 somewhat mirrors the same story beats but it takes more than twice as long to do it, makes a bunch of changes that I would say weaken the IP as a whole and has a conclusion so drawn out as to be genuinely frustrating to watch. There will be spoilers, you’ve been warned.

I compared the first half Utawarerumono 2 to the original a while ago. If you’re interested you can find read it here. The TLDR is that while Utawarerumono 2 part 1 was good, its weakness was that it aped the original very closely but didn’t do as good a job, and what changes and additions it made to the world either cheapened things that original made special or just didn’t make a lot of sense, or both. My critique of Utawaerumono 2 part 2 is largely the same, but the problem has exacerbated significantly, including an ending that robs and demystifies the most important character from the original show.

Utawarerumono 2 part 2 starts off strong enough. Haku has faked his own death and impersonates Oshtor, seemingly using the powers of Oshtor’s mask to deceive even his close friends to his identity. He’s also holed up in a small but defensible portion of Yamato with the poisoned and unconscious princess in tow. From here he has to rebuild the princesses’ power base by winning over the various local lords and wavering members of the 8 Pillar generals to her banner. This is the part of the story I think Utawarerumono handles best. As it mirrors many of exploits of Hakuoro from the original but with its own lore and flavor. The build up to the coming civil war and the war itself are where Utawerumono 2 part 2proceeds most smoothly. But even in this section of the story there are a few hiccups.

As with part 1, the power levels have been elevated in a way that cheapens them rather than adds to them. The action scenes of the original are much more grounded, where skill is generally most important save for Karula who is almost uniquely equipped with superhuman strength. Indeed she suffers the most of any in the original cast, save for Hakuoro himself, by tossing away her sword to the princess, Anju, who can use it without issue. Karula’s sword used to be special because it was hers, only she had the brute strength needed to use it, no one else in Tuskuru could even come close. But now Anju can pick it up no problem. She’s been granted super strength by way of being the Mikado’s daughter but um how exactly?

The Mikado is human, and while he has access to the advanced tech required to create a non-human replica of his daughter, why does this make her strong? She claims divine heritage but her father, who isn’t even really her father, is human. How does this work? While I’m on the subject how the fuck does she hold off Kuon, who fights her in disguise as the princess of Tuskuru? Kuon is the biological daughter of Hakuoro, so she’s an actual demi-goddess, hence why she can handily beat the transformed Akuruturka forms of Haku and Mikazuchi. How is a fake divine child from a not actual god in any posing a challenge to her? I can go on but I think you get the point. Certain changes made to the world by the sequels do not make sense, or at least aren’t explained enough to make sense, and they damage the property as a whole because they aren’t respecting the original so much as plundering it.

I understand that Utawarerumono is based on a series of games and that this maybe matches the games, since I haven’t played them, but regardless they are moments that rob beloved things from the original rather than pay homage to them. Another good example was the Avu Khamu scene. While it’s mildly interesting for Haku to give context to what they were originally designed to do, them being password controlled by the word “password” takes away from the mystique of the things. And for a cheap laugh that I doubt landed for anyone either. The worst of these scenes has to be at the end though.

The entire final arc of the show drags on way too long anyway because characters stand around and occasionally fight 1v1 instead of bringing the full power of their numbers to bear. As soon as Wosis is revealed as the main villain this really starts becoming a problem. Wosis has 0 combat experience and skill, and has 3-5 armed servants one of whom hates his guts. And she was missed opportunity by a mile, this was a character who was planted amidst Raiko’s inner-council to betray him but comes to truly care about him. Wosis even taunts her over her betrayal of Raiko after Raiko’s death. She’s perfectly placed to stab Wosis in the Mikado’s sanctuary after he finds out he’s actually a clone of a human and not the Mikado’s biological heir. And instead she just throws his taunt back in his face and is summarily stabbed by one of the other retainers. Talk about a wasted opportunity.

Still the main problem with practically every Wosis scene is that people stand around and do nothing when they could crush him and his followers in no time flat. It doesn’t make any sense, it just has to happen so Wosis can go on and on about how he’s the true heir to the Mikado and how he wants to uncover all the secrets of the world and so on. It’s asinine. Wosis isn’t even slightly compelling as a villain, his retainers have no personality besides “absurdly loyal to Wosis” except for the girl mentioned above who is killed without accomplishing anything. And because Wosis and his goons are mucking up the works, the last few episodes just drag on and on. Sometimes the information and emotional beats make the episode worth it, but it’s not enough to make up for the slog that the rest of them are.

Adding insult to injury the final few episodes steals the biggest twist from the original in a shameless move that drags the end down even further. Wosis somehow, through the original Akuruturka mask, gets the monkey paw wish granting power of the dinosaur looking god-creature of the Utawarerumono-verse. First of all, how? Second if we forget the how, what idiot thought this was a good idea? Part of what made the god-creature special is that it is a singular being with unique powers. Having a thoroughly uninteresting villain claim the same powers by way of a man-made MacGuffin is the worst possible idea you could have. Part of the mystique of the god-creature is that it was so beyond humans it literally wiped out human civilization by turning them into immortal slimes. If humans could just copy its powers why did they actively piss of Hakuoro the Iceman by killing his mate in the first place?

Spiraling ever downward, Wosis somehow copies the Hakuoro twist and turns the suffering people of the capitol into mindless, undying Creatures from the Black Lagoon, thoroughly hollowing out the story as it attempts to blindly copy the best moments of the original without any apparent understanding of what made those moments special, and padding out the run time with meaningless conflict. And in a final fuck you to the original Haku dies, Kuon becomes the black god-creature, Haku is temporarily brought back to help her regain her sanity and then he fucking replaces Hakuoro, the OG host of the god-creature, the foundation upon which so much of the Utawarerumono-verse rests, turning him into just a dude, and going around and somehow eradicating the immortal cursed forms of humans via unexplained means. Jesus Christ.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an IP I loved trample its own legacy into the ground so relentlessly. And that’s a really bizarre thing to say considering Utawarerumono 2 didn’t come out and immediately shit the bed the way something like D Gray Man Hallow did. Utawarerumono 2 got off to good start and stayed pretty quality through the bulk of the story. Sure it stumbled here and there with some strange changes to the setting but nothing egregious enough to consider the show a major downgrade. But it fumbled the last leg of its journey so hard its almost impressive. And in the light of the terrible ending stretch suddenly all those little mistakes and stumbles along the way don’t seem like oddities to brushed off but chinks taken out of the great foundation Utawarerumono 2 was gifted by its predecessor. Utawarerumono 2 has some good ideas, some welcome homages to the original and a good cast of new characters. But is also has both a crippling degree of similarity to the original narrative paired with an appalling lack of respect and/or understanding for the things that the original made special. Seeing Touka get to use the more fluid animation of the modern day to make her sword skills shine even more than the original for like 3 seconds is not worth all the damage done to the IP to get to that scene.

When I first saw that Utawarerumono, the greatest hidden gem anime I ever had the fortune to stumble upon, was getting a sequel I was cautiously optimistic but nervous given how some other high profile this-show-hasn’t-had-a-sequel-in-a-decade-or-so shows had gone. And while Utawarerumono 2 part 1 did not live up to the greatness of the original, it was good enough that I didn’t feel disappointed, and thought we were in the clear with this IP. Unfortunately I breathed a sigh of relief too soon because the part 2 was where the poison pills were. I would be lying if I said watching Utawarerumono 2 was a waste of my time, because I enjoyed most of it despite some minor misgivings. But to say Utawarerumono 2 isn’t a massive disappointment would also be lying because the final stretch burned me so badly with the creative bankruptcy on display.

I don’t know if Utawarerumono 2 was basically just adapting the game and so the mistakes it made were also mistakes made in the source material, and frankly I don’t care. I’m sitting here struggling to find put my finger on exactly how Utawarerumono 2 makes me feel. There are enough high points spread across so much of the show that I can’t condemn this outright, but the lows are so bad and so insulting to the original, which I have nothing but the utmost love and respect for, that I struggle to recommend it either. Use your own judgement I guess, or maybe just skip the ending, pretend the show ends with Raiko’s defeat. Most of the worst bits of the show come after that point. Normally I would say non-completion is akin to heresy but I don’t know if finishing this and seeing all the damage it does to lore is worth sitting through just to get an ending. It would certainly be a first for me to recommend you watch a show maybe 85-90% of the way through and skip the last 10-15%. But maybe that’s the best course to follow for anyone who came across the original Utawarerumono and was utterly captivated by it like I was. See you in the next.

Understanding Extremity – Made in Abyss: Retsujitsu no Ougonkyou

Creators and audiences of all kinds have long understood the power of situational contrast. A victory against long odds inspires more than an expected victory. An unexpected loss cuts deeper than a battle you knew you were going to lose. This is hardly unique to anime, manga, or movies either. Dark Souls is infamous for its difficulty but is so beloved because the thrill of overcoming its difficulty is a rare experience in gaming, for example. And yet while many of these ideas and tropes are well worn there are a startling number of anime that get it wrong, that go too far and inherit the dreaded moniker of “edgy.” And while edginess has it place in testing the boundaries, I daresay no show dubbed edgy has ever been thought of as one of the greats, a hallmark of the medium or a particular genre. And yet there are anime and manga that go way harder than any edgy show can stomach, but are beloved and held up as paragons of quality despite this. So how can you be extreme without blowing it? That’s what I want to discuss and there will be a lot of spoilers for a wide variety of shows, though most of them will not be recent, you’ve been warned.

The first thing you need is commitment. You can’t just be a little extreme, in whatever way you’re being extreme. For example several years ago there was a show called Nobunaga the Fool. It had an extremely stupid premise, basically mashing the Fate franchise’s Heroic Spirits idea with mecha and having the West and East literally be two different planets, battling for the future. It was dumb, but it wasn’t dumb enough. It didn’t commit hard enough, it came out with this dumb premise and just sort told a very straightforward story, using “prophecy” as a guard rail. The characters were not insane enough to match the world they were set in, and neither was the plot. And so Nobunaga the Fool sucked ass. By comparison one of the mecha shows which even non-mecha fans can widely appreciate is Gurren Lagann, which commits so hard to its own stupidity that eventually the final mecha are literally walking on galaxies in a battle that will determine the nature of sentient existence. And as dumb and over the top as that sounds when you put it in writing Gurren Lagann is by no means an immature show, where the extremity of its scenarios cheapens the story. If anything the grandiose scale of the story heightens it’s most personal moments. Kamina’s unexpected death hits both the audience and the in-universe crew like a freight train. Nia’s inevitable demise and Simon’s determination to free her from the Anti-Spirals despite the immense consequences is deeply inspiring. Gurren Lagann’s themes of heroism, sacrifice, perseverance and protecting the people you love are all the more poignant because how extreme the events of the story are in scale.

The second thing you need is balance. Going back to Gurren Lagann while the conflicts and their scale were always extreme part of what grounded Gurren Lagann were the small scale, personal moments peppered throughout. The best example is when the entire Gurren Dan is captured and tries to dig their way of their prison. Everyone gives up after a bit, it’s all over, except for Simon. Simon who is deeply depressed by Kamina’s death and whose inability to cope has practically gotten him kicked out of the Gurren Dan for all intents and purposes. But sad, lonely little Simon digs. And digs. And digs. And the rest of the Gurren Dan just sit there watching, as the kid they rejected, slowly but steadily works away at the stone and eventually saves all their asses. That’s probably my favorite individual scene in Gurren Lagann and it hits so much harder than it should because it is such a small, humble moment in-between the madness of the major battles of the show. But the o’erexample has to be Berserk. Berserk is a story with so many fucked moments it makes any infamous edgefest like Elfen Leid or Mirai Nikki look like a children’s show. There’s rape, monster rape, frequent dismemberment, brutal torture, lots of death and so on. But Berserk is grounded by Guts. Guts is as brutal as the world demands he be to survive it, but he has lots of quieter, more introspective moments. He’s damaged and flawed but works through both as man and a human, he can’t slice his emotional trauma in half the way he does his monstrous foes. It’s what makes Guts so inspiring. That with all his baggage, all the danger he faces and even when godlike beings who control fate stand in his path, Guts marches on and struggles against it all sword in hand.

The third thing you need is sincerity. A lot of edgy shows suffer from a crippling problem, the edge is pure shock value. Rampant death, blood piñatas galore, over the top insanity and a perverse joy in how fucked up everything is. But oftentimes that’s all it is. Like oh shit look how nuts the yandere queen Gasai Yuno is, stabbing motherfuckers like it’s going out of style. Or look at how evil the kids are in Elfen Leid, beating a puppy to death to bully its owner Lucy. So fucked up am I right? But also so cartoony and unbelievable, impossible to get seriously emotionally invested in. Whereas you have a character like Raguyo in Kill la Kill who flushes her baby down a tube because it doesn’t have the ability to synchronize with Life Fibers the way she hoped, only to then drive that same baby insane for the express purpose of sewing Junketsu onto her flesh and binding her to serve the Life Fibers the way Raguyo does when she discovers that Ryuuko eventually developed that synchronicity with Life Fibers as she grew older. That’s way more fucked up than stabbing enemies or killing some childhood bullies that killed your dog. Raguyo doesn’t even treat Ryuuko that way out of malice, she discards her out of indifference and then attempts to enslave her when Ryuuko recaptures her interest. The same goes for the violence, it has to have more purpose than just shock value. Even that infamous scene in Higurashi where Rin repeatedly slams her neck against a knife she’s bracing against the wall to kill herself while Shion laughs manically (which is one of the most impactful pure shock value scenes) doesn’t hold a candle to the scene in Kill la Kill when Ryuuko rips Junketsu off while it’s sewn into her flesh. So much passion, attitude and character is on display as Ryuuko covers herself and the ship in her blood ripping Junketsu off heedless of the damage, because reuniting with Senketsu is worth dying for. The Higurashi scene is memorable for certain, but the Kill la Kill scene is one of my favorite scenes in all of anime, possibly my actual favorite.

With all the in mind let’s finally cover the ostensible subject of the post Made in Abyss season 2. Made in Abyss is infamously fucked up. Despite the cutesy artstyle, brutal violence, unthinkably immoral experiments and functional child sacrifice are what most in the know think of when they think Made in Abyss. And yet in the midst of all that nasty business Made in Abyss season 2 told one of the most emotionally gripping subplots of any show I can think of. And that subplot could only have ever hit like it did because of just how fucked the situation it sprang out of is. For those not aware Made in Abyss season 2 continues the present story of Rico, Reg and Nanachi but intertwines that with the story of Faputa and the residents of the Hollow village, the roots of which dwell in the distant past. Made in Abyss season 2 ends on a pretty low note. The Hollow village and all its inhabitants are wiped out in a shocking display of some of the most visceral violence ever put to animation. No one, not the nicest, most interesting or most innocent of the residents of the Hollow village are spared. It’s about as tragic an ending as you can manage without having the remaining cast commit suicide out of guilt or something. In the midst of all ruin and death there is a single conversation between Faputa and Vueko, the last remaining citizen of the Hollow village and the only one not bound to its fate. Vueko dies at the end of this conversation, one last tragedy added to the pile, but her conversation with Faputa and the ideas discussed therein were the most captivated I’ve been in a while. Not because they discuss any crazy concepts or reveal anything about the world of Made in Abyss, rather it’s about bonds and love, hardly a new theme. But it strikes such a unique note because the circumstances of the story that brings a tear to my eye as I write this.

Let’s back up a bit. The glue binding Made in Abyss season 2 together is Faputa, Vueko and the backstory of the Golden City. Which to put it bluntly is completely fucked. Vueko is part of a doomed expedition into the Abyss to find the Golden City. But she and her fellows, including an island local who helped guide them, are screwed. They can’t live here. The Sixth layer kills or mutates humans that ascend for any distance, their shelter is a cave, the great beasts of the Sixth layer are beyond their capacity to kill and they have only one source of water. This water begins infecting the whole group, giving them diarrhea, petrifying their limbs and eventually killing them. This expedition is beyond fucked and there’s nothing for it but them to slowly die as they try to find another water source or a cure to the water they have. Vueko is one of the last to succumb and during her time here she’s been the adoptive mother of Irumyuui, the islander who joined their group because she was infertile and banished from her village. The two love each other like sisters and Irumyuui tells Vueko her greatest desire, she wants to be able to have kids. And while Vueko is out of commission, the true leader of the expedition convinces Irumyuui to use a powerful relice to achieve her wish. And in typical monkey paw fashion Irumyuui starts giving birth, to inhuman babies that die within a day because they don’t have any organs to sustain life. And the expedition leader butchers the babies, using their flesh for food and the blood for water. Irumyuui meanwhile is continuously morphed in a monstrous form as she continues to give birth to non-functional babies. Eventually Irumyuui grows so large she becomes the Hollow village that most of season 2 takes place in.

The worst part about this nightmare scenario is that the expedition leader’s plan worked. The baby flesh and blood saves his people, even as the increasingly immobile Irumyuui protests as her dying children are taken from her to be butchered. Irumyuui herself eventually becomes a safe haven for the expedition, though she transforms them into Hollows and they can’t leave the confines of her evergrowing body. Vueko alone rejects this plan and deeply ashamed of her inability to stop it, her cowardice and Irumyuui’s suffering she tries to commit suicide, but she is saved against her will by the expedition leader and is trapped in Irumyuui’s core the sole resident of the living building not become a Hollow. And there she remains comforting the shadowy things within the Hollow village, the souls of Irumyuui’s murdered children given very basic form, until Rico frees her in the present.

There is however one fly in the ointment to the expedition leader’s plan, Irumyuui has more than one of the wish granting relics and after a great deal of time passes, she uses one to give birth to her first living child, Faputa. Faputa whose body is immortal and who is imbued with all of Irumyuui’s rage over her children, killed to feed the expedition. Faputa is Irumyuui’s vengeance made manifest, a creature that can’t die, has absurd strength and speed and learns frighteningly quickly. But there’s a snag there too. Faputa is born outside the Hollow village so as not to be trapped there, but she can’t get in without help. And so the stalemate persists for so long that the true nature of the Hollow village and Faputa are forgotten by all but the original survivors of the expedition. Meanwhile Irumyuui continues to grow and more people arrive over the centuries, seeking refuge from the Sixth layer. Until Reg arrives because his energy beam can damage the Hollow village and get Faputa in. And that along with other plot details too complicated to mention bring about the doom of the Hollow village.

I went into all that detail to impress on you just how fucked this story is. Forget Bondrewd butchering kids so he can avoid the full strain of ascending the Sixth layer, this is story of pair of girls who lost everything that ever mattered to them and had to live God knows how long serving a people who benefited from and either ignored or were ignorant of their plight. While Faputa lives a mostly lonely life boiling with justifiable rage for almost as long, unable to achieve her goal but unable to move on front it. As with many experienced anime fans and manga readers, I have seen some shit. But for my money the story of Irumyuui, Vueko and Faputa is probably the most fucked up thing I’ve ever sat through. But at the end of it all there’s a sort of happy ending. Not a real happy ending mind you but one that fits Made in Abyss. Faputa achieves her goal and is finally free to pursue something new with Reg, Rico and Nanachi. Irumyuui is laid to rest at long last, her exploitation and suffering finally over. And Vueko finds peace before her death, knowing that Irumyuui never blamed Vueko for all her suffering the way Vueko blamed herself for failing to prevent it. As Faputa put it “Vueko you were the only one my mother loved so much that she refused to share you with me.”

There might be a more tragically beautiful story about love and bonds than Made in Abyss: Retsujitsu no Ougonkyon, but I doubt it. See you in the next one.

Hidden Gems: Shokei Shoujo no Virgin Road

Are you tired of isekai yet? It’s a genre so chock full of formulaic garbage that even its noteworthy successes are somewhat stained by merely being in the category. There are so many goddamn many shitty isekai that we’ve run out of generic OP black-haired swordsmen and are starting to have the summoned/reincarnated become monsters, literal objects and even genderbenders. To say isekai is scraping the bottom of the barrel is the euphemism of the decade. However one of the only ideas in isekai that hasn’t been done to death is playing out an isekai from the perspective of the normal denizens stuck in a world where Japanese reincarnations/summons run amok. And that’s exactly what Shokei Shoujo no Virgin Road is all about. There will be spoilers, you’ve been warned.

At first glance Virgin Road starts like a typical isekai, Japanese kid gets summoned to a fantasy world where he understands everyone and they understand him, where there’s magic and limited technology, and it just so turns out he has an incredible power. Nothing. Initially since he’s cast out of the palace unlike the girl he was summoned with, he takes this to mean he has no power whatsoever as he explains to a kind young priestess from a worn-down church in the area. She then guides him to use his power and it turns out Nothing is more like anti-existence and he summons black & purple orbs that erase whatever they touch. Realization dawns as he now understands he has an incredible power, and excited, he wonders aloud what he could do with it. Then the priestess mirks his ass with a dagger she had hidden the whole time. She stares down at the body and says in a somber tone “I’m sorry, you did nothing wrong. But that power can’t be allowed in this world.” And the priestess glances in the direction of the palace – she already has her next target.

Virgin Road in concept is a lot like the isekai equivalent of Talentless Nana, which was one of the best shows in recent memory, not a small feat considering just how many good shows we’ve had coming out the last few seasons alone. In execution however, Virgin Road functions very differently. Whereas Talentless Nana was a whodunit murder mystery from the perspective of the mystery killer having to put up with all the absurd powers of the Talented in an isolated location, Virgin Road is mainly a long journey following the two MCs, Menou and Akari. This is because the second girl (Akari) mentioned in prior paragraph has a time-related power and it makes her unkillable, at least with the resources the priestess (Menou) has at hand. Also unlike Talentless Nana which is very straightforward overall but full of little twists and turns as Nana deals with the Talented, Virgin Road has a couple big narrative twists that make it more interesting than it appears. It has the some plot progression that is extremely predictable but layers much more surprising twists atop them, giving the story a great deal more flexibility than you might guess.

Tonally Virgin Road is a bit of mess, attempting to put a lot of light-hearted moments and humor in a story with a lot of backstabbing, literal and figurative, serious moral dilemmas, some very broken people and extreme violence. Overall I think that works to the shows benefit, as it’s never too brooding or depressing and the some of the light-hearted moments lend extra weight to the more fucked up shit. That beings said it also plays that balance a bit fast and loose, taking away some of the seriousness from a plot that ought to be pretty serious all things considered.

But Virgin Road is made much more digestible by its worldbuilding. It has good in-universe explanations as to why the fantasy world natives speak Japanese, how they got some more modern technology and how they adapted that tech to their magic. They also have very clear split between fantasy magic and the magic the Japanese kids they summon (Lost Ones) use. The fantasy people use mana particles in combination with various items to cast spells. Lost Ones have what’s called a Pure Concept, and manifest powers from their Concept. Lost Ones also have innately huge amounts of mana whereas the fantasy locals have a lot less, or at least a lot more variation in how much mana they have. Most relevant to story regarding magic however is how Pure Concepts expand in power with use, so Lost Ones are fated to lose control of their powers with theoretically world ending consequences, hence why Menou is part of an order tasked with putting Lost Ones down before that happens. The fantasy world also has a fractured society with 3 main castes who fight for influence amongst each other as well as wild card rebels who want to abolish the status quo, giving the story a lot of options as where it can go.

Which sadly is one of the weaknesses of Virgin Road. The story is far from complete by show’s end and while it finished the arcs it tackled throughout, a lot of the bigger questions presented by the overarching story are as yet unanswered. I hope that in this day and age when almost everything seems to get a sequel that Virgin Road follows suit, but it’s been crowded out by a lot of big names recently so I wouldn’t be surprised if it falls by the wayside. Which is a shame because I think Virgin Road has a lot of potential. Taken as it is, Virgin Road is a solid show with a lot of interesting ideas that it has not had time to explore yet. It’s like a 7/10, much as I hate using numerical scores, not a bad time but not spectacular, but it has lot interesting concepts if you’ll excuse the pun, with interesting implications – implications that could really elevate the show if a sequel comes out and we get to explore them a bit. That’s about all I can say without spoiling the show more heavily and this show is where a lot of the intrigue comes from the mysterious elements, so I don’t want to spoil them. If the main concept has caught your attention at all it’s worth watching, if for no other reason than being an isekai that finally breaks the mold in a big way. Thank you for reading, see you in the next one.

Unpopular Opinion: Cyberpunk Edgerunners

If you want you know whether you should watch this with as few spoilers as possible, the answer is almost assuredly yes. This was a good show that showcased a lot of Trigger’s strengths without being as balls to the walls as Kill la Kill. It is more than a bit crass and extremely violent, but those are the only things I can think of which would drive some people away. Assuming you can handle the story, setting and presentation this is well worth your time. From here on there will be spoilers, you’ve been warned.

It kind of kills me to say this but I have a really hard time counting this show as great rather than merely good, and almost all of the reasons why couldn’t be addressed in the show we got. I have a personal distaste for the nihilism embedded in most of the cyberpunk genre and as a show called Cyberpunk Edgerunners, this one stays true to the conventions of the genre. I also would have liked another episode or two in the season to flesh out the character relationships in a bit more depth because I think it went by a smidge too fast to really get my feelings in sync with the solid narrative and thematic elements of said relationships, let alone their outstanding visual presentation. And by sheer coincidence I marathoned what I consider a superior show in the genre a week before Edgerunners – Akudama Drive, which I reviewed most recently. None of this is to say Edgerunners is subpar by any stretch of the imagination, to anyone without my specific hangups it’s probably one of the best shows out right now. And as mentioned above Trigger absolutely played to their strengths with this one, despite it being more toned down than what I consider their best ever show Kill la Kill.

Visually Edgerunners is fantastic. The setting is alive and detailed, even if some of those details include people with VR headsets and automatic fleshlights masturbating in public. The MC’s home really feels like the lower rungs of a ruthlessly capitalist megacity in contrast to the fancy lights and skyscrapers of the city center. There’s a ton of chaos in the character designs as one might expect from a cyberpunk story but Trigger has married that to their design work beautifully, creating a cast of characters that is visually distinct and detailed but simplified to a point where they can go all in on more extreme animation and you aren’t totally overwhelmed by visual overload. The blend of human and mechanical designs really let Trigger do a lot of cool things especially when it comes to movement and action. The bloodsoaked battles of Edgerunners are a treat, with high impact, kinetic action that’s just extreme enough to make you yell “holy shit!” without being Gurren Lagann or Kill la Kill levels of over the top.

The also have some excellent cinematography with some of the VR stuff, particularly the moon scenes, the special effects like the way they treat the eyes of someone going cyberpsycho and the “lighting” of certain of scenes. It really feels like Trigger brought their A game to the table and absolutely nailed it, especially in the visual department.

Story-wise Egderunners is a kind of a mess, but a self-contained mess that functions well enough. There’s 3 basic arcs, David becoming an Edgerunner, David gaining experience as an Edgerunner and David leading the Edgerunners. The thematic thru lines of the story hold up very well, better than the actual plot which feels much more rough around the edges. The personal relationships that give the story and themes more weight are probably the best part of the story side of Edgerunners, which is a shame as I felt they needed a bit more meat to go from solid and functional to excellent. In particular the moon scenes and Lucy and David as they fall from the tower look so good as emotional moments as to outstrip the actual depth of feeling I had for the characters. I mean that as praise in the sheer power of the visual presentation but it is a minor drawback on the story front. Personally I felt more in sync with Rebecca continuing the mission and heading to Arasaka tower knowing full well David would die and that she’d probably die with him. That hit as hard as it looked, if that makes any sense, while the moon scenes looked like they were supposed to hit harder than they did, if my vague rambling description of sensation resonates with you.

Speaking of the characters though, not only are their designs strong, I feel like they’re all very well done even if most of them aren’t especially complex. Rebecca is obviously the true best girl just for her amazing force of personality, even if Lucy is more traditionally beautiful and a more devoted friend than she pretends to let on. But all of the main Edgerunners crew make their mark with Kiwi and Falco being the least interesting mostly by way of emotional maturity in a story and setting that thrive more in emotional adolescence. David is a particularly interesting case as characters go since he has a strong emotional and thematic arc but has very little in the way of his own goals, adopting the goals of others along the way.

The last thing to mention really is the ending. It’s very bittersweet, probably more bitter than sweet. And I think this is one of the main reasons Edgerunners stopped just shy of great. In conjunction with rapid pace that skipped by the character relationships a tad too fast for my liking the ending made the struggle feel very nearly pointless. It spoke to the nihilism which is baked into so many cyberpunk shows in a way that fit the genre very well but didn’t fit me so much. In Edgerunners there’s not much a victory to be had despite the immense cost it took to get even that much. And to some that maybe makes it all the stronger as an ending. But since it so closely parallels the ending of Akudama Drive but that show had a bit more of a victory and placed a more optimistic emphasis on the bonds between people, it really undercut Edgerunner’s ending a bit for me personally.

And that’s basically where things stand. Edgerunners is a very good show that plays to Trigger’s strengths and pays great respect to an IP I frankly have minimal exposure to, in a genre I’m generally pre-disposed to dislike. It’s to my own misfortune that I happened to re-watch what I consider a superior genre contemporary so recently. Because Akudama Drive and Cyberpunk Edgerunners really mirror each other a lot in style, substance, tone, theme and even plot. So if Edgerunners sounds up your alley, or if you already saw it and enjoyed it, you really should give Akudama Drive a try. See you in the next one.

Hidden Gems: Akudama Drive

If you want to know whether or not you should watch this show without any spoilers then the answer is a resounding yes. It has excellent visuals, a brisk pace, a simple enough story, plenty of action and some surprising thematic depth despite its more ridiculous trappings. It’s extremely easy to marathon and I highly recommend you do so. From here on there will be significant spoilers – you’ve been warned.

Akudama Drive is probably one of the most satisfying shows to watch in the current year. It’s an absurdist cyberpunk action show with a very simple plot but an exceptionally well realized and delivered theme: Irrational humanity can’t be stopped, not even with rampant propaganda, violent tyranny or pure rational science. Given the events of recent years this theme hits especially hard, probably a lot harder than it would have had the world not dealt with consequences of Covid and the resultant government power grabs and overreaches. Generally speaking I dislike bringing outside influences and allegory and the like into reviews – but in Akudama drive I think you can see a caricature of the last several years brought to life, albeit less in the plot of the show as in the setting and subtext.

The two biggest things holding Akudama Drive back would be the general overblown nature of the show and the comically overzealous censorship. Akudama Drive definitely plays by the stupid but fun rules of storytelling with minimal concern for realism – I personally enjoy that a lot but for those who don’t perhaps Akudama Drive isn’t your cup of tea. The censorship is hilariously bad though, the most noticeable flaw of the show by far. Like if you ever saw the terrible first season of Terraformars, it’s that level of censorship – decapitated heads are totally blacked out or huge streaks of black obscure severed limbs and so on. And there’s more of this than you might think because Akudama Drive is a very violent show with tons of action that would be brutal if the show had a more serious tone.

But if you can get past the censorship and revel in the fun the show’s tone is trying to evoke you’re in for a great time. Visually Akudama Drive is nuts, with frenetic action scenes that clearly have a ton of care poured into them. My favorite is the fight in the hotel in episode 2 or 3 where the holographic water texture on the floor reacts in real time to both the placement and intensity of the impacts during the fight. It looks insanely good. In addition the team really went all in on bringing a chaotically vibrant cyberpunk world to life, with loads of detail in the backgrounds, near-future vehicles and light displays to really make it pop. Cyberpunk is usually not a favorite of mine because of the aesthetic chaos on display but Akudama Drive really nails it without totally overdoing it, allowing for cast with a lot of distinct personal styles without indulging in visual overload. As if that wasn’t enough each of the main cast gets a stylized intro with a Red Line kind of look (forgot the name of that animation technique) complete with their name (main crime/occupation) and criminal sentence length.

The show really hits the ground running too, lots of action and brief character intros right out the gate with a huge cash reward to get the main cast all in one place before the true plot is revealed. A Mission Impossible style heist against the greatest of all the powers that be. If that all sounds like a bit too much the future episodes have truly great pacing, keeping the story moving at a fast clip while also weaving in exposition dumps via propaganda shorts in between action set pieces. The result is a show that holds just enough of it’s cards to create a light mystery without leaving you feeling like it’s just stringing you along for a big reveal. You also never feel as though the show is wasting your time, generally things are always in motion outside of the occasional strategy meeting and the propaganda shorts providing some of required information and setup.

Despite the fast pace and bending of realism for the sake of simplicity and rule of cool, the setting is one of surprising strong points of the show. As already mentioned the visual design of the setting is very good and helps it come to life, but it’s the inhabitants that make the thematic underpinnings of the story come to fruition. Generally there’s 3 main groups, Akudama – criminals of any kind and severity, the authorities – of which there are 3 major branches and the civilians – who need no explanation. Outside of the main cast the Akudama aren’t really addressed.

The authorities have by far the most detail with the supreme branch being the more hi-tech overlords from Kanto, who dominate Kansai – where the bulk of the show takes place – after having beaten them in a war far enough in the past that most civilians revere Kanto. There’s also the Executioners and the Kansai police. The police pretty much function like ours in the real world with one important distinction – barring direct orders from Kanto, the police are ones who can designate civilians as Akudama. Executioners are the government’s hitmen with the only check on their power being that they can only execute people with an Akudama designation, which only the other branches of power can provide. This may seem like a tedious detail but it’s the perhaps the single most important detail as it’s the fulcrum behind not only a major incident in the plot but pivotal to the end of the show.

The civilians get very little detail spelled out but the broad strokes are easy enough, they’re the people complying with the overbearing dystopian government. Until they aren’t. They’re the people who believe the propaganda and abide the authorities. Until they don’t. They’re the people who want law, order and safety. Until the former come at the expense of the latter. The civilians are where the thematic core of Akudama Drive lies and they who bring about the bigger ending, only tangentially related to the actual plot of the show. Fitting then that single most important character in the show comes from their ranks. Swindler.

Swindler is a civilian with a sort of generically good disposition and moral compass. She believes in basic, good things. She’s not particularly smart, strong, skilled or anything. Nor is she dull, stupid or clumsy. She’s about as average as anyone in her setting could be. At best she’s more compassionate than most people and mentally quick on her feet. But she gets roped into the heist plot mostly by being in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reason. By dint of her cosmically bad luck she becomes one of the 8 most wanted Akudama in all Kansai, and in a genuinely amazing bit of narrative work she becomes worthy of that label by show’s end.

As her name suggests Swindler’s main power is the power of bullshitting her way through things until she in fact becomes the real deal. Forced into an absurd scenario she muddles through her part in it as best she can. Eventually discovering some of the secrets of the world she calls home and the powers which rule it. And she grows. With every setback or obstacle she finds a way to rise to the occasion, granted she’s usually getting carried by her ludicrous companions and their more tangible talents, but she finds a little way to make a difference. Until when the moment comes and she has no companions to rely on, she’s developed enough to fight her way out of a scenario that would have killed her had she still been the civilian she started as. What really marks the turning point in Swindler’s story though is the point at which she stops resisting the authorities of world out of temporary necessity and starts doing it out of righteous indignation.

In the early portion of Akudama Drive, Swindler is a victim of her circumstances. Brought into a plot she wants nothing to do with but unable to escape, having her civilian life eternally ruined in the process. But once Swindler comes around to resisting the government and embracing her Akudama self she’s the one controlling the circumstances. She uses her personal drive, the high power government propaganda and huge bounty on her head to rile the people, subvert the authorities, bend her companions to her whims and eventually bring the system crashing down. She’s the heart of the show, and her arc is what turned a show which seemed like nothing but dumb scifi action into a truly incredible show.

The ending of Akudama Drive is not a happy one. Lots of people die. Chaos triumphs over order. The future is anything but certain. But it is a both an extremely cathartic and strikingly poignant ending. It’s a potent reminder of not just the limits of authority and the power of the people, but also of how little sway our rational side has over our emotional side. And it cements the powerful narrative turn the show took as it progressed from something surface level with a bit of heart into something surprisingly deep with a bit of soul.

Raging Rant – RWBY Ice Queendom: Glorified Weiss Fanfic

I was always a little concerned by the title Ice Queendom, but I wasn’t prepared for just how shit this is. The worst part is that a new arc of a Grimm that preys on the negative emotions of the characters feels very true to the original show, and in concept it’s the perfect Grimm to attack Weiss with especially in the early arcs of RWBY. But fuck me this is worst possible execution I’ve ever seen, at this point it’s not even trying to hide the fact that the creators have got hard-ons for Weiss, and just paid lip-service to the rest of the IP.

They rushed through the entire first volume of RWBY in 3 episodes, littered it with the best action animation that has yet graced this trash pile of a show and then started their own original arc – the Nightmare arc. And it would’ve been a good replacement for the shitty Jaune bully arc from the original show, if it had lasted roughly the same length. But the Nightmare arc is currently 6 episodes deep and will probably go the full 9, or take 8 to resolve and the final episode can be bonding and aftermath. It’s garbage. It’s written completely backwards, we sped through the set up so fast that few if any of the emotional hooks needed to make this arc work are there, and now they’re backloading them in by adding more and more details to Weiss’ dreamworld. And credit where it’s due the dreamworld has a lot of fun details that say a lot about Weiss and how she thinks but you can only keep showing the same location, statues, holograms, robots, shadows and bat brother so many times before it gets stale even with additional info. And the dreamworld, and the whole Nightmare arc, have long overstayed their welcome.

I was pretty irritated with where it ended up last week, now I hate it utterly. I’ll still probably finish it for spite if nothing else but Ice Queendom is dead to me at this point. I take back everything I said about this being an interesting development in the IP. It’s not. It’s the retarded fanfic of some weebs who think Weiss is best girl. And if it had stayed on fanfic boards that wouldn’t have been an issue, people can like what they like and stick new ideas and arcs on existing properties as they so desire. But for this to be a full blown production, and one that led with such a strong showing, only to shift gears to a slow, tedious arc that will end up double or triple the length it needs to be, is a huge fucking insult to a fandom that has been burning out for years.

Ice Queendom started with some the best looking action animation of the year and a commitment to original story. Sure it rushed through those parts awfully fast but at least they nailed the bits they absolutely had to and paid some respect to the IP. But talk about a fucking bait and switch ever since.

The Nightmare arc while great in concept and many of its tangible details is ass. The action is terrible, the animation lack luster and cg heavy, the story a bloated, painful grind. There was no reason it had to be this way. All you had to do to fix this was balance it out more, go a bit slower and fill in more details about Weiss, her emotions, her troubled relations with her family, or teammates before the Nightmare arc and then work through the Nightmare arc a bit quicker. Instead I feel like we got the anime equivalent of a video game with a super polished demo and a totally broken game – an anime Aliens Colonial Marines if you will.

And I hate it. I hate that I was wrong, that this isn’t going to help redeem RWBY as an IP after Rooster Teeth’s various fuckups. I hate that the first 3 episodes got my hopes up and that the rest has quashed them. I hate seeing an IP that for all its silliness had a lot of heart and soul, and eventually built up itself up enough gain serious traction and respect for a time, come crashing down. RWBY was looking bleak before Ice Queendom, now it’s got one more straw added to camel’s back. Rant over, see you in the next one.

Not that it’s actually over and I saw how they butchered the food fight, which is one of my favorite scenes from the original RWBY I’m downgrading this to a 0/10. Absolute trash, can’t even stick the easy landings right.

Unpopular Opinion: RWBY Ice Queendom

There will be spoilers, you’ve been warned.

This one is weird, but maybe a good weird. Episode 1 of Ice Queendom covers the entirety of RWBY season 1 and part of season 2 sans the infamously terrible bully arc, replaced with a new original arc featuring a new Huntress and Grimm – the Nightmare, which enters people’s dreams and uses their negative emotions and Aura to grow. As you might have guessed by the amount of content being squeezed into 1 hour long episode, a lot of stuff is outright missing or has been quickly glossed over and the pacing feels very modern Star Wars movie, ultra-choppy with tons of jumps and cuts all over the place.

In addition some characters personalities have changed to a degree or are just more simplified due to the rapid pace of the show, Weiss and Blake overcoming there fairly deep-set problems with each other so quickly definitely made that moment lose a lot of its emotional impact. To be honest while the story is just functional enough to understand without having seen Rooster Teeth’s RWBY, it is missing a lot of details. Granted a lot of season 1’s details were very rough around the edges but the raw speed of this Queendom episode means a lot is being left off the table or changed to make it fit better. Ruby is much more naturally outgoing and Yang lost a lot of her punk attitude, but the rest of the characters are largely unchanged even if they don’t express their personalities or personal issues with quite the same depth due to the lack of time.

There are some positive changes however. The original arc replacing the bully arc is a welcome change and the way Queendom handles Penny is hilarious. The most obvious improvement though is in the visuals and voice-acting. There are some serious heavy hitters in voice casting and the change to traditional animation is great. Even better the action animation is fan-fucking-tastic with only the big Grimm battle in the entrance exam looking a bit rough.

Most notably the action scenes from Weiss and Blake’s character intros looked good, but at long last Ruby is back on her throne baby. Her first fight against Torchwood and his goons, while extremely brief looks fucking amazing, easily the best animation in the episode hands down. God have I missed the days when Ruby personally kicked ass, so glad to see them brought back to life in gorgeous animation.

Now it’s not all sunshine and rainbows sadly, aside from the brutally fast pacing, the animators clearly could not keep up the sheer level of fight quality for every fight, so they just skipped over Penny’s first fight against Torchwood and the White Fang – as in the fight started and cuts straight to the end without showing us anything. In theory it could be an artistic choice on the director’s part to try and hide Penny’s full power until the upcoming tournament, but the cynic in me is thinking it was a cut made for the sake of animators. And fair enough those guys are probably overworked as is, I just have to hope going forward that they don’t cut too many fights or the trade off of having what fights we do see look amazing will sour a bit.

Overall this is potentially a very exciting development for RWBY as an IP. It has its problems to be sure, but the level of polish displayed in the voice acting and most of the fight scenes is an absolute joy to any fan of the series. If you’re one of the people who was a fan of RWBY and dropped it, or are just barely clinging onto your interest in the show, you owe it to yourself to watch this. I mean this sincerely as someone who fell in love with RWBY as of volume 3 and has been struggling to maintain interest for some time now: if RWBY ever meant anything to you, give this a look, it might be the spark of hope RWBY needs. See you in the next one.

First Impressions – Kingdom 4

As I am duty-bound to do with each new season of Kingdom, I want to give my thoughts now that we’re five episodes deep into Kingdom 4 – which I believe will cover what is possibly my favorite arc in the entire manga. There will be spoilers, you’ve been warned.

This is already a massive improvement over season 3. The voice acting feels much closer to that of the original 2 seasons, though we haven’t seen some of most egregious offenders from season 3 to judge if season 4 has been a proper return to form. But it has noticeably improved. More broadly all the audio has gotten a lot better. There hasn’t been enough serious combat for me to tell but I think the battle noises have improved to some degree, though not to the extent of the original 2 seasons. The music is now much louder, still quiet compared to the first 2 seasons but I no longer need to strain to hear it – in fact I notice it at all times once again.

I’m still not thrilled by the ost changes, as much as I love Sawano’s work in many other shows, it’s a bad fit for Kingdom specifically, it has not incorporated any elements of the old osts – to it’s own detriment in my book – and this ost feels like Sawano phoning it in, in comparison to say his other work. Kingdom 3 or 4 has no tracks with anything approaching the stopping or staying power of any of Sawano’s work on Attack on Titan, nor other projects like Kabaneri. And I’m sure anyone who has followed all my reviews of Kingdom (assuming such people exist) are tired of the old man complaining that he wants the old soundtrack back. Too bad, I cannot stress enough that audio was what made the Kingdom anime special despite its glaringly obvious flaws and a worthwhile alternative to manga – and that original more period appropriate soundtrack was an integral part of that experience which season 3 failed to capture.

On the plus side this means even modest improvements on the audio front have drastically improved the experience of watching Kingdom again. I was expecting this to be a slog the way the tail end of season 3 was. But aside from a couple moments that linger just a bit too long a bit often, Kingdom 4 has been good. And of course it retains, nay improves on the visual style that made any Kingdom fans hopeful about season 3.

I still haven’t seen any visual flair per se – its still very moving manga and they haven’t included some of the perspective tricks the first 2 seasons would use, like super-sizing a character to convey the weight of their presence, which I probably would have done in their shoes in two scenes so far. But minor nitpicks aside I’m optimistic for the future of the Kingdom anime, and that’s one hell of a step up from season 3.