Unpopular Opinion: Hitsugi no Chaika

I consider Hitsugi no Chaika to a pretty special show, which is remarkable because almost everything it does is just decent. Hitsugi no Chaika is a show I personally like a lot but struggle to recommend to everyone the way I would normally gladly recommend the shows I like.  There will be spoilers ahead, you have been warned.

Just to set the stage in case you haven’t seen the show, Hitsugi no Chaika takes places in a pretty generic fantasy world five years after a gigantic war.  The story follows the tale of Chaika, Tooru and Akari.  Chaika is this weird girl who refuses to speak in complete sentences, carries a big coffin, has huge eyebrows, has white hair, wears white clothes, and she claims to be the daughter of the big evil emperor that was killed in aforementioned big war.  She wants to hire Tooru and Akari as bodyguards, because she’s trying to retrieve her father’s remains, he was carved up into 6 pieces or so and each one is powerful source of magic because the emperor was the strongest mage of all time, and many obstacles stand in her way.  Tooru and Akari are saboteurs, specialists who are great at infiltration and fighting in small scale battles, who have been struggling to put food on the table in this time of peace.  So the two agree and they set out with Chaika to retrieve her father’s remains.  To do this they must fight the, I want to say the Six Heroes but that may just be some Blazblue lore leaking in, as well as the Kleeman Agency, who is responsible for making sure the post-war reconstruction goes smoothly and therefore hunts down people who could spark a conflict, and Chaika is basically at the top of their hit list.  That about sums up the show.

The thing you have to understand with Hitsugi no Chaika is that save for one thing I’ll talk about later, nothing in the show is great.  Everything in the show is decent, it’s pretty solid and it’s put together pretty well, but nothing is really note worthy.  The magic is just fired from guns or makes castles fly, which is a pretty basic way to combine magic and technology.  As someone who loves it when magic and technology exist in the same setting I found Hitsugi no Chaika’s take on tech and magic to be pretty dull, it was fine but it didn’t really excite me.  Likewise the action in the show is good but not great.  The fight choreography can get pretty interesting and a lot of cool weapons get used, I especially liked the Red Chaika’s Ivy-from-Soul-Caliber-style sword and Akari’s very compact warhammer.  The only truly great thing about the action is that because our main characters are often weaker than whatever hero they have to fight, they have to use a lot of tactics to win instead of just overpowering their opponents.  Likewise the Kleeman Agency is competent enough that they make a good match for Tooru and Akari so tactics, planning and a little luck usually win the day and raw power fails.  The only character that ever feels vaguely unbeatable is Fredrika the Dragoon, not sure why they didn’t just call her a dragon because that’s what she is, but she rarely plays a large role in any battle and her most memorable scene is where she apparently dies before a mini-me of her bursts out of her torso.  The biggest issue with the battles is that while they are well put together they never had the same kind of tension or impact that really great battles bring to the table.

Likewise the story is good but not great.  The problem with the story is that it gets much more limited and less interesting when the Blue Chaika explains that all the Chaika’s are fakes and just exist to resurrect the evil emperor.  Before this reveal Chaika’s story was very much an adventure story with a light emphasis on plot, and a lot more effort was put into fleshing out the world and characters of the story.  And I thought that was some of the best parts of the show, because I’m a huge fan of world building especially when it comes to fantasy.  The parts where we first meet the Red Chaika were also quite good, because the Red Chaika is just as in the dark about the plot to resurrect the emperor as we are.  Her first appearance comes out of nowhere and it’s actually pretty awesome, because that’s the first real sign that this story is about more than Chaika wanting to give her dad a proper burial while dealing with the Kleeman Agency.  It was also an interesting idea to see how the different Chaika’s reacted to their “father’s” death, Chaika just wanted a proper burial but Red Chaika wanted revenge and I feel this aspect of the story could have been a lot better if Blue Chaika never revealed the end game.  Because after we understand why there are different Chaikas, what their purpose is, why all of them think they are the emperor’s daughter and so on, the only new Chaika we meet is Black Chaika who just plays a master manipulator role similar to Blue Chaika’s character.  It would’ve been more interesting if Hitsugi no Chaika ended up more like that one episode of Teen Titans where Beast Boy and Star Fire end up in Raven’s mirror and meet all the different aspects of Raven’s personality, and the story had to deal with a multitude of different Chaikas.  Instead Black Chaika kills all of the other Chaikas except Chaika, Red Chaika and Blue Chaika, who dies at the end of season 1.  The only other really interesting part of the story with regards to the Chaikas is how Vivi, one of the members of the Kleeman Agency, starts to turn into a Chaika when her boss, whom she loves, is presumed dead at the end of season 1.

The final hurdle to overcome is the pacing.  Chaika season 1 is paced just fine, it had no problems whatsoever and it crammed in a respectable amount of world building, character development, plot progression and action scenes in it’s twelve episode run.  Season two however is slightly different story.  Season two feels a bit more uneven because it only has 10 episodes when it really needed a full twelve.  The transition from the final arc to the final battle is too fast, hell even the final arc seems a little too fast, it’s a battle tournament but there’s not enough noteworthy battles to make it feel fully fleshed out.  That said, I think the show did a fantastic job given it’s ten episode limit.  To the best of my memory every ten episode show I’ve seen besides Chaika season 2, ended way too abruptly in way that left me wanting more but also being pretty frustrated.  The show didn’t have to be all that good for this me to feel this way, Noucome was a decent enough comedy but it wasn’t a show I really cared about, and it’s tenth episode finale was so abrupt and off-putting that it totally turned me off to the idea of ten episode seasons period, and Blood Lad did nothing to help that impression.  Chaika season 2 did a much better job, it felt a little rushed and the final battle did not have enough tension because they had to resolve it so fast, but it was not abrupt and did not leave me feeling lost and annoyed.  I still wish we got two or three more episodes to pace the second season properly but I do tip my figurative hat to the creative staff for doing the best job with a ten episode season I’ve seen to date.

But if Chaika is just good why do I think it’s special and why do I like it?  Well for starters shows don’t have to be great in order for me to like them.  The number one golden rule of anime is that you like any show you want.  You want to like the classics like Cowboy Bebop, or one of the big 2007 hits like Black Lagoon?  Go right ahead.  You want to like SAO, well I think it sucks, but I’m a random dude on the internet, who the hell cares what I think?  You like what you like.  You want to like something fucking stupid like Beelzebub?  More power to you.  So I like Hitsugi no Chaika.  Also I think it’s worth pointing out that Hitsugi no Chaika would be my ideal for what average anime should be.  Because if you read comments, look at MAL scores, and so on, you’ll see that a lot of people have low standards, that shows that look cool or pander to them specifically are the average no matter what kind of problems they have.  But Hitsugi no Chaika is good at everything it does, even if nothing is great, everything is good, and that should be the standard, because that’s a good standard, it’s a better standard than the one the anime community has now.  But to answer the question above more specifically, the setting is amazing.  To clarify I’m not talking about the fantasy monsters or the magic-tech combo, I’m talking about when the show takes place within the universe of the story.  Because the show takes during a transition period in the in-universe history.

Remember the events of the show occur five years after a massive war ended.  Many adults in this world have either only known war or have spent their life preparing for/fighting in war.  Tooru and Akari make great characters because that’s how they fit into this story, they spent their whole lives training to fight and fighting in the war, and now that it’s gone they are left adrift.  They have no profession they can lean on now, they aren’t craftsmen or farmers, they have no education that might net them a valuable position, like working for the Kleeman Agency, at best they can do odd jobs and provide manual labor but that will only help them scrape by, if it even nets them that much.  Tooru and Akari belong in war and even if they are upstanding enough to be law abiding citizens in this time of peace, it’s hard to imagine that they like it.  I find this setting appealing for three reasons. 1, I don’t think I’ve seen it before in anime, and if I have it certainly isn’t often.  2, I am a student of history, and seeing how people create a fictional history and watching how they create and interpret changes in their fictional history is something I find fascinating and potentially a powerful dramatic tool.  In Hitsugi no Chaika’s case I was particularly interested by how the creators tried to simulate the chaos of the aftermath of major historical events and how people and society struggle to adapt and reach stability.  3, I an just enamored by the idea of characters who feel adrift, especially in this kind of scenario when the characters are elite warriors struggling to find a purpose after the war is over.  Barring the experience in war, I feel like these characters speak to me and my experience somewhat, as a dude who feels like an outsider all the time and can’t talk to a lot of people about anime where he lives because otaku are seen as huge weirdos and not in any kind of positive or playful way.  It probably helps that I’m in a transition stage of my life as well, I landed my first full time job a few months ago and have to consider where I go from here, what kind of direction my life will take going forward, and all that kind of adult stuff.

Put simply I think the idea of when the story takes place and the kinds of characters who inhabit it, especially the differences between those with opportunity to prosper in stability like the Kleeman Agency (I actually like most of the members as individuals and I’m a big fan of the concept of the agency as a whole) and those who struggle to find a purpose in stability like Tooru and Akari, is fucking awesome.  Hitsugi no Chaika hit a niche I didn’t fully realize I had before I watched the show, that’s something special, powerful even.  And while Hitsugi no Chaika is not a great show, it did something awesome, and it gives me hope that someone will follow in Chaika’s footsteps and someday makes a great show in the same tradition, and fuck me, what I wouldn’t give to see that.  Not a lot of shows bring that out of me, no matter how great they are.  So forget what I said at the top, I can nay do recommend Hitsugi no Chaika to everyone.  Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

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Raging Rant: The Patriotism Problem

So not too long ago Gate season 2 was going around showing how awesome the JSDF was, and how they kicked ass in a fantasy world.  Then Joker Game came out this season and showed us how badass and tricky Japanese spies were back during WWII.  And with these shows airing back to back  I think it’s finally time to address one of anime’s many problems, the patriotism problem.  Now because I’m on the internet and offending people is considered a grave sin these days, let me clarify, I have nothing against being patriotic.  I’m from the US goddammit, patriotism is a big part of my cultural identity and I certainly don’t mind others who feel the same way about their home country.  The patriotism problem, at least that’s what I’m calling it, is when this patriotism bleeds into storytelling at the expense of the story.

Simply put, the patriotism problem is when you undermine the believability or creativity of your story to make your country look good.  For example I explained in my Surly Summary on Gate season 2, how Gate could have been a legitimately awesome show if it had incorporated some realism and tossed out the overbearing patriotism, but instead we got a silly, cartoony show that was ok at best.  As anime comes from Japan, most anime are set in Japan, and in shows which involve international politics of some kind, Code Geass is a popular example, Japan is almost universally marked out as a special place or a place with a lot of competent people.  And about 99% of the time that’s totally fine, I don’t usually get bothered by the patriotism problem.  But when it happens during that 1% it can get really fucking annoying.  Joker Game is an egregious example and one that is, sadly, likely to be popular anyway.  I’ve already seen people talking about how smart or tricky the people in Joker Game are, and how some people treat the shows as super cool for being that way.  It’s easy to see why they see it that way of course, Joker Game looks like it supposed to smarter, more mature and more interesting than a lot of anime shows by looking less like typical anime than most most anime shows.  But personally, I dropped Joker Game by episode 5 and it was a fucking struggle just to get that far.  The biggest problem I had with Joker Game is that it allows itself to get so predictable, and by extension boring, by trying so hard to be clever and patriotic at the same time.  In practical terms it means that Joker Game’s major characters don’t ever lose, they don’t fuck up, they don’t fall into despair, they don’t fail the mission, they don’t give into temptation and take a bribe, and no matter how dire their situation they always have undergone training that allows them to handle it and complete the mission.  This is fucking boring, and fucking ludicrous to boot.  The idea that there are a group of spies so capable as to be almost infallible is just bullshit.

See the problem with writing the characters this way is that it clashes with the setting.  Remember Joker Game takes place in the past on regular old earth, populated by regular flawed people.  Gate’s patriotism problem was obnoxious, but at least that show wasn’t meant to taken seriously, and it was easier to ignore.  In Joker Game the story is supposed to be serious, the individual episodes cover events grounded in real history, and the whole look of the show promotes a gritty, realistic, serious tone.  And yet this serious, realistic setting and story is full of cartoon characters.  I remember I almost dropped the show after episode 4 because in that one, the bad guy was this stupidly over the top evil guy, who had no sense of character balance or tact or anything, he was just this huge scumbag laughing it up while he confessed his crimes.  It was so corny and out of place that I was ready to drop the show, but I gave it one more episode.  Which is when the show finally fell apart, when the patriotism problem got so bad it broke the show for me.  In episode 5 one of the D-agency’s spies is captured by British intelligence, injected with a truth serum, and forced to send false information back to Japan.  By the end of the episode, he has escaped, he doesn’t give up any truly valuable intel because he has been trained to separate his information into two mental boxes the more important of which is miraculously unaffected by the truth serum, stays loyal to Japan despite having been ratted out by a Japanese diplomat and the false information he sent has been rendered moot because the spy explains that sending the message with a perfect code means something is wrong for the D-agency and they would ignore the message.  Oh the guy escapes because he was to make figure out this  incredibly obscure reference to an important scene in a book, I think it might have been Robinson Crusoe but if not it was certainly from the same genre, and he remains hidden because the Brits happened to only send the Japanese sleeper agent to search the rooms for him… What the literal fuck?  What was the point of the episode, no progress was made, it has no bearing on the war or the characters, why did we waste our time here?  I’ll tell you why, because this episode was all about showing just how fucking smart and cool these spies are.  It was all about how showing what fucking badasses these Japanese spies are and how good their training was, even when it starts becoming a bunch of nonsense.

Part of why I’m bringing the patriotism problem up is because I had high hopes for Joker Game, I stupidly judged it by it’s cover and thought “man this looks like James Bond meets Baccano, this’ll be awesome.”  But the other part is because I know, based on the comments I’ve seen already, that a bunch of people are going to fall for this bullshit writing because the premise and setting of the show are so atypical for anime, and I want people to understand, 1, just don’t fall for it, and 2, it so much easier to handle making Japan look good better, that I refuse to accept this low effort crap masquerading as clever writing.  In fact I already mentioned a show that did patriotism better, Code Geass. I’ve reviewed Code Geass before and while I think it has a lot more problems than the anime community at large gives it credit for, I think it handled the patriotism well.  In Code Geass, Japan is important because it has the majority of the world’s most valuable resource, Sakuradite I think it was.  Additionally it had a few competent people in the rebellion, even before Lelouch got involved, and Japan had more rebel forces to begin with because they had surrendered early enough that their forces weren’t totally annihilated like many other countries’ were.  By setting up Code Geass’ rebellion this way, the show made Japan look stronger and more important than most if not all other nations in the show, without loading the story down with tons of bullshit.  It made a believable scenario that worked narratively and still painted Japan in a patriotic and superior light.  That’s all it took, make Japan the main source of some new tech or valuable raw material, I mean even Black Bullet, Black-fucking-Bullet, handled the patriotism problem with more skill than Joker Game, though in fairness a large part of that show is about portraying the people and government as bad, but still it’s pretty pathetic that show written off as an AoT clone by a lot of people is better written than a show which most of those same people think is super smart.

Look, I’d think to that by now I’ve established myself as someone who gives a shit about the artistry in making anime, mostly in regards to storytelling because I don’t know jack shit about animation, and that’s what this is about really.  Including a patriotic bias in your story is an artistic choice and it’s a totally valid one.  However there is a difference between shows and stories that include patriotism without compromising their creativity and those which allow their patriotism to undermine everything that should make the story good.  Joker Game is an especially bad example but I’m worried that the patriotism problem has been getting worse or will get worse, especially if shows like Gate and Joker Game become financial successes.  Because Joker Game looks like it’s supposed to be smart, it presents itself as if the things it’s doing and saying are smart, and there are plenty or people who believe it is smart, and it’s fucking not, OK.  The writing presents basic concepts as big reveals and when it does create some interesting scenarios, it then shits all over them by just having the spies use their largely unexplained training overcome the problem with ease, pulling some new skill or ability out of their ass.  Essentially Joker Game is pulling an Ultimate Influence (if you are unfamiliar with the term I wrote about it at length here), but instead of the main villain being the all-knowing, infallible, most important influential figure in the story, instead they gave that role to Colonel Yuuki, who founded the D-agency.  The realism of the setting is undermined by cartoonish characters, laughably contrived solutions to interesting challenges and a need for the Japanese spies to always be the best so strong that forgets that this is supposed to a story about actual humans, who have actual flaws, and actually fail from time to time.  And I for one, can’t stand the idea of this being successful, because in a lot of ways this show is just as bad as the all the SAO clones that come out every season, but isn’t nearly as open about how bad it is.

And the worst part of all of this, is that despite all the work put into making these spies look like total badasses, the show is fucking boring.  The episodes follow minor, disconnected stories that contribute nothing to a larger narrative.  Because the spies pull deus ex machina-style training out of their ass every episode (as of episode 5) the conflicts of each episode are predictable and therefore anti-climactic and therefore boring.  And worst of all the spies themselves are fucking boring.  None of them has any kind of interesting story or character traits, most of them don’t even look all that different from each other.  Think about it, their training was glossed over in the beginning and then comes up only to solve whatever problem the spy is facing, their background information is censored in-universe so we know nothing about where they cam from and what experiences and people influenced their lives,none of them use their real names so I legitimately can’t remember their names because why would I bother with generic, false information, it seems to me like their are basically four different body/face/hair types at most among the eight spies so at least two always look roughly the same (which admittedly it sort of a smart move on paper but it makes for more boring characters in a visual medium), most, if not all, of the spies have no personality whatsoever and even the ones that might have some personality have no unique, distinguishing personality traits.  In short, these characters are dead on arrival, they are all so bland and unmemorable that I kind of wonder why the show bothered to make them different dudes in the first place.  If you were going to write a story about of a bunch of totally indistinguishable, bland super spies why not ditch the bunch and follow more in the James Bond/Jason Bourne model?  Just make it one incredibly competent, loyal guy (because one infallible dude is way more believable than eight), who plays a different character every episode and let us the audience figure out that each of these seemingly different characters are all the same guy in various disguises and covers.  You could even continue to keep the main guy bland if the point of his character was that he used his unremarkable features to be anyone he wanted, which in retrospect is probably what Joker Game was going for by making all the characters indistinct but because it has yet to use that indistinctness in a meaningful way I not sure what the point is.  Maybe you could even tie all these episodic mini-conflicts together as pieces of a larger conflict so that the story feels like a cohesive whole instead of a bunch of tangents, which is how it currently feels.  It bothers me because Joker Game could have been so easy to make genuinely cool, there’s plenty of cool spy movies and novels to draw ideas from, and somehow this anime still ended up terrible, and fuck is that depressing.  Then it gets worse because you know a bunch of people are praising it and will be praising it mainly because it’s different and looks smart, even though the entire thing is a load of shit. Ugh.

To conclude, patriotism is all well and good on it’s own but taken too far it can destroy even shows that look like they have tons of promise.  And to be honest overbearing patriotism of any kind generally gives me a headache, I support my country and I do think it has a lot of things Americans should be proud of/grateful for, but that doesn’t mean I feel the need to show everyone all this patriotism, or that I think everything from the US is the best.  I remember a few years ago there was a TV show called Deadliest Warrior and in one episode they predicted, based on a series of tests, that the US Navy SEALs were marginally worse than the USSR’s Spetznaz, and I remember how for days people in my area who saw the show called bullshit and were all “the SEALs are the best dude” or “if you look up badass in the dictionary you’ll find a picture of a SEAL.”  And sure, the SEALs are an elite military unit but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best in the world, if anything I would guess that Israel’s special forces are the best in the world since they probably do a lot more fighting but I’m getting off topic here.  The point is that no story should be primarily focused on promoting patriotism, that can be an element of the story for sure, but it should be focused to telling a story first and being a piece of patriotic propaganda second.  And since Joker Game fails to meet that metric, in addition to a bunch of other problems I talked about, it fucking sucks.  Maybe it will change after episode 5 but I feel confident that this show won’t do anything different or get much better as it goes.  I hope you enjoyed this little rant, and I’ll see you in the next one.

Unpopular Opinion – Double Feature: Black Lagoon & Jormungand

You know as much as I love action anime, shows that focus mostly on guns have rarely been my thing.  This is in part because anime as medium puts more focus on katanas or ridiculously over-sized swords than it does with guns, but it’s also because I prefer sword fights.  However there are a pair of gun-centric anime which I love, each for different reasons.  I’ve no doubt this comparison has already been made many times, but I think it’s worth discussing the differences between what are to my knowledge the two most high profile gun-centric anime, Black Lagoon and Jormungand.  There will be spoilers, you have been warned.

Let’s start with Black Lagoon since it’s definitely the more well known and well received of the two.  If you don’t know what Black Lagoon is all about go watch episode one right now, decide if you want marathon it or not and then come back, it’s well known enough that I don’t really want to explain it.  I will tell you what the main attractions of the show are though, some rich dark realism, and action, metric fuck-tons of action.  This makes for a great combination because it means we get to see loads of awesome violence while understanding that most of what we see can replicated in the real world.  It has a stronger connection our world and us than say Cloud’s Buster Sword, and that connection adds some additional flavor to the show, after all it goes against everything that contributes to the perception of anime as being mostly the same as western cartoons.  Anyway Black Lagoon doesn’t really have a plot, it follows a bunch of different adventures of the Lagoon Company, Rock, Revy, Dutch and Benny.  What makes Black Lagoon so memorable, in my experience is the setting and how the characters interact with it.  Black Lagoon takes place in the fictional port city of scum and villainy of Roanapur, but because of all the realistic details of the setting it feels like a real place, even if that place is a shit hole.  Unlike so many anime out there Roanapur feels like it’s full of real people, who behave like real humans that we can understand and connect with.  Sure it’s full of some ridiculous characters too and those guys are entertaining, but on the whole Roanapur is full of people we understand as people and can get invested in.  They do things we realistically do between the scenes of awesome violence.  Like getting shitfaced at the bar, tons of people around the world do that after work.

The point is that Black Lagoon’s setting is both atypical for anime and incredibly alive, and therefore easy to get immersed in.  This in turn allows to get more invested the characters, because their stories, backgrounds and personalities are something we perceive as more real than say, any random tsundere from any light novel adaptation.  I think this is why the characters are so memorable and so beloved by the anime community, Revy for example has  one the most widely accepted icons of kick ass women in anime for years now.  Another part of what makes Black Lagoon memorable is how flawed it’s world and characters are.  I’ve been saying that Black Lagoon uses realism and if there’s one facet of realism it banks on, it’s the use of flaws.  In storytelling tradition of realism, making characters flawed is an important part of making the characters nuanced and believable to the audience.  And Black Lagoon excels at this, the main characters are basically mercenaries for hire, they’re willing to take on assassination jobs, become pirates to raid and steal from ships, and aid people running from the law or the mob.  And all of the important side characters have the same kind of baggage, Balalaika is former Soviet soldier turned Russian mob boss, Chang is a former gunslinger turned Triad boss, Roberta is a former terrorist working as a maid for a mob boss, and the local church is run by nuns who sell drugs and weapons.  And all of this is interesting and it makes for great contrast when we get the male lead Rock.  Rock is a former businessman without any kind of violent background or criminal record, he ends up joining the Lagoon Company because his company was willing to make him a sacrificial pawn to cover some of it’s bad business.  But makes Rock great is how he just finds a place for himself, he struggles early on, but as the story goes he gets increasingly comfortable in Roanapur and his business skills and education make him sought after by major side characters like Balalaika.  And watching a pretty normal dude find a niche in a city overflowing with crime and violence is really interesting, and it’s not something I can say I’ve seen often, if ever, outside of Black Lagoon.

The last thing I want to mention is that because Black Lagoon does such a good job of pulling you into it’s world, it helps suspend your disbelief when the more insane shit goes down.  If anything the insane stuff is made exponentially more awesome because it comes out of nowhere and explodes into this realistic world.  Most of my favorite parts of Black Lagoon were the Roberta episodes and Roberta’s Blood Trail OVA, because Roberta’s action scenes are fucking madness, she’s jokingly described as a Terminator, but she makes Arnold look pretty tame in comparison.  I mean there’s a scene where she bites through a sword like Saitama did in One Punch Man, but she’s a regular human being not an insanely powerful superhero, which makes that scene fucking badass.  Anyway Black Lagoon is really good, if for some reason you haven’t watched it yet, go do so.  Now onto Jormungand.

Jormungand is decidedly less realistic than Black Lagoon and generally just not as awesome during it’s action scenes, which has led the majority of the anime community to describe it as worse than Black Lagoon.  And I, ever vigilant in my battle against the common consensus, think that is true and false at the same time.  I’ll explain in more detail in a minute, but for now a brief overview of the show.  Jormungand follows the adventures of an arms dealer and her bodyguards, from the perspective of her newest recruit a child soldier named Jonah.  It does have an overarching plot unlike Black Lagoon but that isn’t communicated very well in season one, which mostly looks like a string of short, disconnected adventures.  Jormungand is pretty much willing to do away with realism right out the gate, just looking at the main character’s character designs, Jonah is basically a child version of Scar from FMAB, with white hair, red eyes and dark skin, while his boss Koko Hekmatyar looks like a ghost with her stark white skin and hair, complete with blue eyes.  Everyone else has pretty natural hair, skin and eye colors though.  Also Jonah deflects a missile with a grenade explosion Halo-style in the first episode,  so bye bye realism.  Before I really dig deep into this series I think the what really sets it apart from Black Lagoon is a core feature of it’s design, Jormungand is meant to be fun.  Where Black Lagoon drew you into it’s dark and gritty world, Jormungand is pretty clearly meant to be taken far less seriously.  It never reaches the level so stupid it’s awesome, or even just plain stupid, but it feels like the main characters are almost like video game protagonists gunning down hordes of nameless goons in a world full of more realistic people.  At least as far as the combat goes.  While the combat is fun, ridiculous enough to be awesome but not quite ridiculous enough to be cartoony, the characters are actually pretty well realized.

I feel like Jormungand sort of mimics what Cowboy Bebop did only to a far lesser degree.  In Jormungand you just kind of have an understanding that these characters have fully fleshed out backstories, philosophies and lives outside of their work on screen.  Some characters, mostly Jonah, do get screen time to expose or discuss their backstories and philosophies.  But even with no or very basic information about the characters it’s pretty to get a sense for who they are and what they do or what they’ve been through.  In the second half of episode one the main characters meet random rival arms dealer A and totally waste him by the end.  The man has like only two scene’s where he’s in control of the scene and his backstory is just, “he’s an arms dealer working in Europe, probably used to be in intelligence.”  But because of how they handle this guy you get a pretty good idea of who he is and what he’s about even though he’s a got a few minutes of screen time and less than 10 seconds of background exposition.  It also does a really good job establishing the fact that Koko is far more intelligent and dangerous than she appears at first glance, and that her guards might be following her more for her genuine competence as an arms dealer and a leader than for her money.  While I admit I’d be hard pressed to call Jormungand’s characters as good as those in Black Lagoon, I think Jormungand does a better job communicating character information quickly, which is important because it has a larger cast, and I think it makes for better adversaries.

One of the big draws of Black Lagoon is that there aren’t really villains, almost everyone’s a scumbag or a criminal and combat is less about good vs evil and more about seeing who’s more intelligent and competent.  That’s part of what made Roberta so interesting, she was at least as good if not better than Revy.  But for the most part I felt like the adversaries in Black Lagoon were a bit weak.  Outside of Roberta, the vampire twins, and Ginji the yakuza swordsman most of Black Lagoon’s adversaries were bit players that created believably violent scenarios but ultimately looked weak and dumb when compared to the Lagoon Company.  By comparison I think Jormungand does a better job of making the various adversaries feel more threatening and/or interesting even if they don’t amount to anything.  Both shows have a lot of one-off adversaries and neither has the run time to give them extensive backstories.  Both shows also make them believable people but in Black Lagoon they usually don’t communicate as much information about the adversaries even if the adversaries seem like they arise naturally from the setting, so the adversaries come off, quite believably, as those on the stupid end of the intelligence scale, a life of crime is not a great education after all.  By comparison Jormungand features career soldiers, intelligence officers, and arms dealers, people who generally have a good education, discipline and/or critical thinking skills and practical battle experience.  I think what really clinches it for me, is that I felt like Jormungand’s characters were in more danger more often and that the conflicts are usually multi-layered.  In Black Lagoon every conflict is almost entirely physical with maybe some detective work done beforehand, and there’s nothing wrong with that, I’d say Black Lagoon has better action scenes overall than Jormungand, but in Jormungand there’s usually battles going on in tandem with business/mental/legal conflicts.

I think this is part of what Jormungand fun, in addition to the more lighthearted tone of the show Jormungand has this sort of A Team “I love it when a plan comes together” thing going on.  In episode one for example, some of Koko’s bodyguards kill the snipers guarding rival arms dealer A, meanwhile Koko is in his office keeping him distracted and overconfident, while two of her other bodyguards get the military to void the contract they had with rival arms dealer A.  It feels a bit cartoony as the plan neatly ties up all the loose ends in this in-your-face sequence but it’s fun, and to be honest this is handled much better in later episodes where it feels more badass than cartoony.   In a similar vein Jormungand is just funnier.  It puts more time and effort into having some comedic scenes in between the action, and it doesn’t feel out of place because the show is never all that serious or dark.  Anyway I feel like I going in circles here so let’s wrap this up.

I agree with the community consensus in that Black Lagoon is better, at least from an objective standpoint.  I think Black Lagoon, with’s its rich, dark, gritty tapestry of realism is the better written show.  I also think the fight scenes are better animated most of the time.  There’s a reason that Black Lagoon is so renowned, it truly is a great experience and in case you haven’t seen it and aren’t getting the message GO WATCH BLACK LAGOON.  That said, I have always found Jormungand to be the more re-watchable of the two.  It probably has to do with the fact that Jormungand is fun and upbeat relative to Black Lagoon which leans more heavy and grim in comparison.  Don’t get me wrong I love Black Lagoon but it’s not the kind of show I can watch over and over, it’s just a bit too dark for that.  Moreover I kind of have to be in the mood to re-watch it, I should note that on my first viewing I didn’t have this problem, and I can’t just sit down a marathon it because I can only be in the mood for dark and gritty stuff so long before I need a break.  But with Jormungand I feel like I can pick up whenever the hell I want and feel comfortable just getting one episode in or bingeing the whole thing.  This is a hard thing to describe because on the one hand, I know Black Lagoon is better written, better animated, and more interesting, but on the other hand I just love how, user-friendly I guess is the best term, Jormungand is.  Also Jormungand has better music and that adds to the experience when you watch the show.  So yea after rambling my way through this post the final verdict is, Black Lagoon is objectively better, Jormungand is much easier to watch.  I enjoy both shows and if action is your thing, especially modern military-esque action, I highly recommend both shows.  If you’re looking for comparisons Black Lagoon is sort of like Gangsta meets Cowboy Bebop, except way fucking better than Gangsta and a cut above Cowboy Bebop in my book.  Jormungand is a bit closer to something like Gate mixed with Call of Duty, though Jormungand is definitely more serious and significantly better written than Gate, contains no fantasy elements, and doesn’t suffer from a storytelling problem I’ve taken to calling the Patriotism Problem (which I’m writing my post about and it should be done shortly; it’s done now and you can find it here).

I hope you all enjoyed this post and I’ll see you in the next one.

Understanding the Genre: Harem Hoedown

Ah the harem genre, famously considered the worst genre in all of anime.  Or is it?  Well yes and no, while a lot of people like to lump all harem shows together I tend to take a different view.  As someone who has watched more harem shows than I probably should have, I think it’s time to fight against some of the common conceptions of the harem genre, and I’ll include reverse-harems too.  There will be scattered spoilers, you have been warned.

Let’s start by dialing the clock back to the mid and late 2000’s and talking about what harem shows used to be, and then how they compare to what they are now.  Back in the day all harem shows were ecchi, romcoms.  They had one guy, lots of girls and usually it would take the entire show for the guy to decide which girl he wanted, and the ending would be when the couple got together.  There are plenty of exceptions of course, perhaps most famously To Love-Ru, where the guy never does end up picking his best girl.  But the one of the most notable differences between harem shows then and harem shows now is the main guy.  In the mid and late 2000’s the main guy was almost uniformly a wimpy, useless nice guy.  The only major exception that comes to mind is Zero no Tsukaima, which more closely resembles a lot of modern harem shows but we’ll get to that later.  The point is that the majority of harem anime in the mid to late 2000’s followed a pretty strict formula, they were all ecchi romcoms, they almost all had useless wimpy male leads, and they were split 50-50 or 60-40 between shows where the guy ended up with a girl and shows where the guy doesn’t end up with one.  So what’s the difference between harem shows then and harem shows now?

The biggest difference is that modern harem shows have very clearly split into two different sub-genres.  For the sake of convenience I’ll be calling them the “light novel harem” and the “new harem.”  Contrary to it’s name I don’t mean any harem adapted from a light novel when I say light novel harem, instead I’m talking about the kinds of harem shows that are copy pasted in so many fucking light novel shows.  Back in my Raging Rant about male power fantasy-based SAO clones, I said that a lot of the worst harem shows come from these kinds of light novel adaptations.  Part that has to do with how terrible these light novel are in general but I’ve gone into detail about that before.  The point is that the light novel harem shows closely resemble Zero no Tsukaima, where the girls fell for the male lead one after the other and the male lead had this special power that made him the strongest fighter in the show.  There are however two major differences between most light novel harems and Zero no Tsukaima, one, that light novel harems usually aren’t as funny because they put less emphasis on comedy and more on action, and, two, that most light novel harem leads usually don’t end up picking any of the girls because they care more about pandering and fanservice than actually making a romance story that works out.  I mean Zero no Tsukaima had plenty of fanservice, and usually better fanservice than the modern light novel harem at that, but it a least still told an actual romance story by the end.  Light novel harem shows suck at telling stories because they just want to appeal to male power fantasy and make easy money off stupid teenagers who have no idea how to distinguish quality shows from shows which pander to them specifically.  Anyway, moving onto the new harem.

New harem shows more closely follow the typical harem structure from the mid to late 2000’s.  Monster Musume for example pretty clearly falls into the traditional harem model.  However there are some noticeable differences, mainly that new harem shows are getting a hell of a lot better than their traditional counterparts.  Monster Musume is a pretty popular harem show that people love, and I love it too, but I think’s a pretty humble example of what new harem shows are capable of.  Setting aside the obvious visual upgrades new harems have, I think the writing has started getting better.  In Monster Musume the girls had slightly more complex characters than their traditional counterparts, for example.  But for my money the best new harem shows are Akatsuki no Yona (told you I’d get to reverse-harems) and Date A Live.  Akatsuki no Yona in particular flies in the face of all the negative stereotypes of the harem/reverse harem genre.  It had minimal fanservice or manservice, it had a gripping narrative, it had some kick ass action scenes, it built a believeable fantasy world and it had great characters.  It was a reverse harem that was actually one of the best written shows of it’s season and just one of the better written anime shows in general.  Akatsuki no Yona proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that harem/reverse harem shows can be genuinely good, while still being harem/reverse harem shows.

Date A Live on the other hand was not nearly as good as Akatsuki no Yona but it’s still a good show despite sticking much closer to, ecchi, romcom, fanservice romps that harem shows are known for.  I think Date A Live strikes a good balance as a show which is still clearly in the tradition of the older harem shows, but also is improving that old formula.  There’s definitely fanservice scenes and old nods to the typical gags of traditional harem shows, like the guy or girl walking in on the other in bath, but while that stuff is usually annoying I forgive it in Date A Live based on the fact it serves the plot.  Yes Date A Live has a plot, and no it’s not like Nisekoi or something where the plot is truly threadbare and the real point of the show is just to have fanservice.  In Date A Live all of the relevant girls are Spirits and each of them has the potential to do, or has already done, tons of damage to the world either by killing humans willingly or by the disasters they cause just by coming to Earth.  The main guy, Shido seems to fall into the archetype of wimpy, useless nice guy, he is only useful to the story because he can seal the Spirit’s powers, which he can only do after dating them and kissing them.  Trust me, it makes for a better story than I’m making it sound. However in season 2, the plot advances quite a bit, new enemies appear on the horizon, there is suddenly a lot more potential for darker and more serious episodes to come, and Shido actually levels up his own powers and goes full on badass near the end.  In addition to a plot and characters that are actually going somewhere, Date A Live brings some interesting technology, superpowers and action to the table, though the animation of these scenes is pretty uneven, with some looking great and others looking like they skimped on the animation to save money.  The Spirits have incredible designs though.  When I look at Date A Live I see a show that takes the old style of harem show and gives it a boost, it builds on the foundation, bringing new kinds of scenes and storytelling to the harem formula while still retaining some of the more enjoyable aspects older ecchi romcom shows had to offer, to make a show that objectively is only decent but something I love nonetheless.

So what’s going on here?  If the harem genre is so famous for being bad, and many harem shows are still quite terrible, how can it be improving too?  There’s a couple reasons.  One, the harem genre has acquired a bad name for several reasons.  A lot of the older harem shows suffered from being so similar to each other, as well as just being badly written.  Because back in the day, harem shows were the cheaply produced, easy money makers of the anime industry.  And because of all the bad harem shows of the past, the genre has gotten a bad reputation.  However, in the past few years traditional harem shows have stopped being the cheap, easy money makers of the anime industry, that role has been passed onto to light novel adaptations like the Asterisk War or the current season’s Hundred.  And as noted above, a lot of shitty light novels have a harem in their template.  You see harem shows still are the cheap, easy money makers of the anime industry, but now it’s the light novel harems that fill that role.  This might seem like I’m splitting hairs here but there is an important take away from all of this, yes light novel harems are perpetuating the idea that harem shows are the garbage bin of anime, but the same is not true of new harem shows.  This isn’t to say new harem shows can’t be bad, the current season’s Netoge no Yome wa Onnanoko ja Nai to Omotta is a fine example of a terrible new harem show, though I think has more to with the fact that the main premise is dated back to the mid and late 2000’s like a traditional harem show more than anything else.  But if you pay attention to you might notice that new harem shows have been getting a pretty good reception compared to their light novel counterparts.  Akatsuki no Yona, Monster Musume, Yamada-kun and the 7 Witches, Outbreak Company and even Nisekoi, which is never going anywhere and is therefore boring, got a lot of positive attention in the anime community.  Hell if my memory is working correctly Nisekoi wasn’t viewed in a particularly negative light until the shitty second season, or maybe after it became common knowledge that the manga was going nowhere fast.

The point I’m trying to make here is that as the harem genre evolves, the old reputation the genre is stuck with is not helpful anymore.  Sure there are still shitty harem shows, and if you never found any of the calling cards of the genre appealing you probably still won’t find much on offer (though Akatsuki no Yona proves there is in fact things on offer for those who aren’t into fanservice), however I think it’s time for the anime community at large to stop writing off the harem genre entirely as it has been wont to do for years now.  If you still really want to shit on harem shows, then shit on the bad ones, don’t lump the good and bad together and declare them equally terrible.  In a similar fashion I think now is a good time for people who have been wary about the genre, either because of it’s reputation or prior experience, to consider giving the new harem shows a shot.  Because there are genuinely good shows out there, shows which bring interesting things to the table.  In my experience, new harem shows can actually be rather creative, funny, interesting and refreshing.  Back when Monster Musume was wrapping up that’s how I described the show, refreshing, and while at the time I was comparing it to all the older harem shows I’d seen, I have since started looking at it on a larger scale.  Harem shows used to feel so stale and boring and generic because it was the safe bet, so many of them were made the same way, because that’s what the audience kept buying.  Now the audience is buying tons of shitty light novel adaptations.  Now for the first time in about a decade, harem shows have the freedom to try and be something new, to push the boundaries of what the genre is capable of and create a new identity for itself.  For the first time in a decade, harem shows can cast off so much of the baggage that has been weighing the genre down.  If the genre itself has shed the baggage why should we the audience be held back by the same baggage?

If anything, we should be paying more attention to harem shows more than ever.  It’s not often that we get to see major cultural shifts in any medium, getting to see where new harem shows will end up is interesting by itself.  But I think it’s also a chance improve the standards of the harem genre.  For now shitty light novel adaptations have the spotlight when it comes to audiences making money, but that will pass, probably in a few years.  You can make money off generic copy-pastes of popular anime but that’s basically just capitalizing on a fad and fads are by their very nature temporary, and mindless fanboys will eat up a lot of shitty anime but even they get tired of eating shit eventually.  Alternatively the fanbase might just outgrow the fad as they get older, and if the rest of the communtiy gives the fad a bad reputation, it might be poisoned for incoming fans and its success will vanish; you know, like what happened to the harem genre.  But if we the anime community support good new harem shows like Monster Musume and Akatsuki no Yona, and stop supporting shows like the current season’s Netoge no Yome wa Onnanoko ja Nai to Omotta, then maybe, just maybe, we can force creators of harem shows to raise the bar.  Because new harems have the ability to be less niche than their counterparts.  All harem shows are niche shows to some extent but light novel harems and traditional harems are specifically designed to tap what is considered the largest customer base for anime, teenage boys (or in the case of reverse harems, teenage girls), and to not worry about appealing to anyone else.  New harem shows can still appeal to the same audience, but without the same kind of backing that the light novel harems have from the business side of the industry, and based on how much more frequently light novel harems are made compared to new harems I would say light novel harems have a quite a bit more backing, new harem shows should be more open to trying to grab new audiences in order to stay successful.  This is part of why I think new harem shows are improving, they have to if they want to survive, they can’t just stick to the same tired trends or even exploit the popular new trends and reach the same success that light novel harems do.

By upping their game and appealing to another crowd, and I hate the reverse harem genre but I love Akatsuki no Yona so it is quite doable, new harem shows have a chance to reinvent the harem genre, or at least to officiate the birth of a different type of harem show, one without the bad reputation the harem genre has.  And as far as I’m concerned I think new harem shows are succeeding in this endeavor insofar as they are upping their game; obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this.  So weird as this may sound out of context, I think harem shows are going to be worth paying attention beyond a personal want for fanservice and/or the desire for fap material.  It will probably take a long time for the harem genre to lose it’s bad reputation or for the genre to get split into separate categories on an official, community-wide basis, however there are good shows in the genre coming out now, and their success or failure will have a hand in determining the kind of stories, gags, fanservice and culture of future harem shows.  Now is the time to show support for the good harem shows, be they new harems or light novel harems, because as much as I shit on light novel harems there are a couple I have enjoyed, but this especially applies to new harem shows because light novel harems are super popular regardless of quality at the moment.  Right now new harems are showing more creativity and artistry than a lot of light novel adaptations across all genres, and that creativity and artistry deserves to be celebrated and deserves to succeed.  So I ask you, out there on the internet, to kindly consider paying more attention to the harem genre and giving support to the shows which you feel deserve it.  Thank you for reading and I do hope you enjoyed it, see you in the next one.