Updated Impressions: Kingdom 3

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After giving Kingdom 3 a few episodes to really get in its full swing, I figured it was time to discuss my initial impressions and how closely they matched the episodes as they’ve come out. If you want to look at the first impressions before getting started, it’s linked here.

Ever since I was aware that Kingdom 3 was coming out, i.e. a few days before the new season started, I’ve been slowly re-watching the first two seasons. I’m currently in the early stages of season 2 and sadly it has already confirmed my biggest concern regarding Kingdom 3 – the audio. For starters the audio seems quieter across the board, I have no idea if this is a recording issue, a source rip issue or what but seasons 1 & 2 are significantly louder at the same computer volume, especially the soundtrack. Which leads me to major problem two, the audio balancing. The soundtrack of Kingdom 3 is so quiet that I keep forgetting it’s even there and have to re-watch episodes with extra attention given to listening for the music to even try and identify and remember it.

Because even when the tracks pick up a bit to reflect the intensity of the battles and such, they are frankly completely overpowered by the sounds of the action. A great example is the Qin charge at the start of episode 4/ end of episode 3. There is a decent, tense battle track playing during the charge but fuck me it so hard to hear over the noise generated by the damn charge.  The earlier seasons were not like this at all. The music was just as immense as the charging noises and you literally can’t miss the soundtrack regardless of what’s happening on screen. The only time Kingdom 1 & 2 are quiet is when there is no music and no action or dialogue. This is a gigantic failing because as I’ve detail over the course of multiple posts, the audio of Kingdom is what really makes the anime worth it. There is nothing in the anime you can’t get in the manga besides color (a nice touch but not essential), movement (let’s face it Kingdom’s animation is extremely inconsistent with large stretches where it looks great and equally large stretches where it some of the ugliest animation ever put to film) and sound.  And sound was where the anime shined the most. The voice-acting was amazing, the soundtrack sounded like a good approximation of period appropriate and it was epic enough to match a story with scale and scope of Kingdom – the unification of China with battles a hundred thousand strong.

Moving right along, though if you can find the focus to listen to the quite-ass soundtrack of Kingdom 3 it is in fact noticeably Sawano’ed. Now I like Sawano’s work but his predilection for electronic sound, especially for tension builds, just does not mesh with the setting and character of Kingdom at all. I’m hoping that when we get to the really big moments the music will improve somewhat but it’s honestly really disappointing that the soundtrack is so different from the earlier seasons. Kingdom 1 & 2 were so unique when it came to sound, I’ve never come across any anime that sounds like it and the music choices were so much better reflective of the story’s location and time period. Listening to the soundtrack of earlier seasons of Kingdom alternatively brings a big old smile to my face or makes my hair stand on end.  It’s iconic and gave Kingdom such a distinct character, and watching all the seasons of Kingdom simultaneously, I think that character came as a result of the love poured into Kingdom by the creative teams of the first two seasons, which had way more overlap than either team has with the new team.

Now far be it from me to claim Kingdom 3 is a cynical cash-grab, it’s nowhere near bad enough to merit that label, but I do think it’s safe to assume Sawano was chosen to do the soundtrack for Season 3 because it was seen as a “safe” move from the corporate end of productions.  That because the man is individually very popular and has a good track record, putting him on the job would make the show more marketable to people in the know.  And not to knock Sawano too much, again I love his work on other shows, but I think he made a significant mistake to let his usual style dominate the composition rather than leaning on the soundtracks of the earlier seasons – like at least use them as an inspiration or something. Maybe the soundtracks will improve as things go on but I do not have high hopes on this front.

Last but not least the voice-acting is, well I want to say abysmal but I mean abysmal compared to Kingdom 1 & 2, overall it’s more like passable.  Minor characters being voiced by different people is annoying if inevitable but far more jarring is the drop in quality by the major players – all of whom have the same voice actors.  Again no idea if this is a recording issues, source rip issue or a directing issue, but almost everyone sounds worse than before.

The calmer strategist types tend to be minimally affected if they even sound worse at all but any character with a louder, more extreme personality and character is basically fucked.  Even Xin has taken a big hit here, with his yelling sounding somehow quieter and yet more grating than it was in earlier seasons.  Huan Yi, Wan Ji, Biao Gong, Lu Buwei and newcomer Ordo all have been it very bad.  I feel like this has to at least partially come from an audio recording/balancing problem because these characters in particular sound quieter and less full than they should.  Go back to the earlier seasons and listen to Huan Yi, Wan Ji, Biao Gong or Lu Buwei for a bit and see what I mean, as for Ordo I would use Lian Po as a point of reference for what Ordo should sound like. And listening to the banter between the two main harem girls is very eye-opening, it’s like night and day between Kingdom 2 and Kingdom 3, with the new season sounding seriously inferior.  I think the director is at least partially at fault here because, looking at both the anime and the manga many of these characters have the most personality in their dialogue and mannerisms and it may just be that the new director doesn’t have the experience or vision to bring that aspect of their characters to life or recognize its value.

Luckily it’s not all doom and gloom.  Now that battles are underway and characters have cuts and sweat over their faces and arms, the characters no longer look even vaguely plastic.  Unfortunately I still think Kingdom 2 with it’s thicker outlines and more emphasis on shading and linework looks better – but Kingdom 3 is now looking very solid.  Kingdom 3’s art has its quirks, particularly how it seems to fade out lighter colors while overemphasizing darker colors but it’s at least been very consistently solid so far and there’s no sign of Kingdom 3 dropping back into the horrible CG of Kingdom 1.

And of course the story is as good as ever, dropping us right into one of the biggest events in the story without any kind of rehash of the earlier seasons was a great idea. Kingdom 3 cuts any waiting time and drops right into the big time, the largest battle in the story where the stakes are as high as they can be and the odds of victory are as slim as we’ve ever seen them.  I do somewhat miss the more frequent narration and directing tricks that slowed earlier seasons of Kingdom down for dramatic effect and build-up, but I can’t really complain with how the story has progressed thus far because this is arguably the most complex arc of the manga in terms of the sheer number of characters, soldiers, number of battles and so forth that need to happen.

Overall Kingdom 3 is looking fairly good and I will be along for the ride, it only really stumbles when you compare it to Kingdom 2.  And that is a shame but nothing about Kingdom 3 indicates that will fall apart or end up being a shit sequel like some other high-profile sequels to old properties.  Thanks for reading, see you in the next one.

Peaks & Valleys: Boku no Hero Academia

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This is exactly the kind of post that would get me a ton of backlash if not for the fact I run an obscure blog.  Not only has Boku no Hero already peaked, as someone up to date on both the anime and the manga, my interest in this IP is severely waning.  There will be spoilers ahead.

Boku no Hero has a couple serious problems which I imagine many fans have either not noticed or have overlooked because they like the show.  Fair enough I like it too, but I have to say with the battle against Gentle Criminal and La Brava over, there is basically nothing left that I find interesting in Boku no Hero.  How is this?  How did a story which was at one point so captivating become so dull so quickly?  Well there are a couple of reasons but let’s start with maybe the biggest one – Deku.  Now I like Deku, he’s a hard-working boy with a heart of gold and he wants to be the best there ever was.  But well, he’s kinda boring.  One of the inspirations for this post was NuxTaku’s video “Deku Officially Sucks” which while obviously intended to rile the fanbase of Boku no Hero, did contain some very good arguments.  Chief amongst them were the following: Deku is a character without intrigue and he’s narratively and thematically dwarfed by someone who honestly would have made a much better main character – Lemillion.

Long before I came across NuxTaku’s video I have to say one of Deku’s very first lines bugged the shit out of me – “this is the story of how I became the number 1 hero.”  It comes up before the story really even starts.  Personally I think dropping that line was a bad move because it takes away one of the biggest achievements Deku could make as character.  When I look at Deku my best point of comparison is Naruto and one of things Naruto gets on Deku by default is that it’s never framed like Naruto ever has a chance at becoming Hokage – until he beats Pain.  Sure Naruto constantly says he wants to be Hokage, but wanting something and getting it are two very different things.  For a huge chunk of Naruto, Naruto’s big talk is laughed at.  It’s considered absurd.  But once he proves himself against the worst enemy Konoha had ever faced, suddenly his claims sound a lot less stupid.

By contrast Deku outright saying he became the best before we’ve really even seen anything is a giant buzzkill.  I mean it’s not a deal-breaker or anything but it really rubbed me the wrong way and it makes Boku no Hero all about the journey, because the we already know the destination.  Now that works plenty well in other shows and it could in theory work for Boku no Hero, but Boku no Hero shoots itself in the foot yet again because we know the means by which Deku will achieve this by the end of the first episode – he has one of the world’s greatest powers handed to him on a platter.  Sure he has to train and master One for All but there really no narrative hook here.  A perfectly generic good guy is given an immense power right out the gate and the only negatives are that he isn’t ready for this power so using it beats the shit out of him.  The problem with Deku is that he already has the perfect heroic mindset so all he needs to do is gain experience and master One for All – and while this makes sense as the reason All Might gave Deku this power is because of his mindset and attitude it’s also narratively boring.  Like how many interesting fights can Deku have where his main concern is hurting himself too badly to fight on or fight another day?

As it turns out not very many.  You’ll notice in season 4 none of his big fights revolved around this problem.  And yes this is in part due to Deku creating or developing workarounds but it also shows the limits of his constricting narrative.  I’m once more reminded of Naruto.  Naruto was a kid who worked his ass off developing techniques and was given great power.  However where Deku’s power is gifted to him by his idol and it earns him nothing but respect in wider society, Naruto’s power is given to him as a desperate measure and he is widely ostracized for bearing Kurama within him.  There also a another couple of layers here.  Deku’s worst outcome in any given fight is failing to save someone or doing too much damage to himself to continue fighting.  Naruto’s worst case scenario is losing control of his power and hurting everyone around him without meaning to.  Moreover because Naruto’s power source is Kurama, he has to walk the tightrope path between drawing out Kurama’s power to master his full potential while not being overwhelmed by Kurama’s chakra and giving in to bestial rage.  Deku has no such set of consequences, his only backlash in using All for One is that he hurts himself and he has the selflessness to let that happen for the sake of saving people.

I’m sure I can take this comparison deeper but I think I got the point across.  Deku is boring.  He’s nice, he’s got a good head on his shoulders and he has an immense power he has yet to master.  And that’s basically it.  Deku doesn’t have inner demons, his worst mental setback is doubting himself on occasion.  Deku’s power and lack of mastery over it has no interesting consequences, nor can the story really go all in on those consequences more a couple of times or else Deku would never be able to fight again.  There is no mystery, depth or intrigue in Deku – we know his destination and we know the means by which he reaches it, it’s just a matter of watching that story play out.  This isn’t to say Boku no Hero or even Deku himself can’t be great but Deku’s story is one with a short shelf life and I think after Gentle Criminal that shelf life has all but expired.  Deku was at his very best during his match with Todoroki during the Sports Festival.  Because that was a match wherein winning for Deku meant tearing his body apart and ultimately losing the big match that he wanted to win for the sake of getting through to Todoroki and saving Todoroki from his inner demons.  Since then Deku has been significantly less impressive with the Stain battle being the second best Deku moment in my opinion.  It’s a shame because he could have been made a lot more interesting if he was allowed to fail more often – but because almost all of Deku’s battles outside of the Sports Festival are matters of life and death, he can’t afford to lose them.  It would also help if maybe he had a different power that allowed for more narrative flexibility.

Which is were Lemillion comes in.  Lemillion and Deku have the same basic dream, attitude and story arc.  The difference is that Lemillion’s is much more compelling and he ends up in a much more interesting position.  Lemillion was a guy born with a pretty crappy powers who struggled to be more than a joke in the eyes of his peers.  But through an ultra positive attitude, dedication and a tutor that helped him master his bizarre power he rose through the ranks and was very nearly at the pinnacle.  Then when he has Overhaul on the ropes, Overhaul puts him in an impossible dilemma, save Eri and take a bullet that erases his powers for good or dodge the bullet and let Eri die.  Obviously he takes the bullet and this is by far the biggest emotional moment in his arc.  He’s inches away from achieving his goal and yet he’s forced to lose everything for the sake of his ideals, because this is a bullet he can’t afford to dodge.  And yet he doesn’t give up, he keeps fighting, he keeps smiling and he doesn’t lose hope.  Lemillion is Deku but a vastly superior version of Deku, his struggles are far greater, the sacrifices he makes significantly more costly and yet he doesn’t bend, he doesn’t break, he takes it all in stride and has hope for the future.

I’m begrudgingly reminded of Bleach’s Fullbringer arc here.  After Ichigo stopped Aizen he ended losing all of his spirit power for a time and he goes on living a normal life until a group of people show him a way that he might be able to get his power back.  Now the Fullbringer arc is to the best of my knowledge fairly widely panned and I didn’t think it wasn’t very good.  But it did attempt something extremely difficult and with tons of potential, a soft reset where someone who rises to the top suddenly crashes back down to rock bottom because they sacrificed all of their future potential for victory now (see HunterxHunter for reference).  But where Bleach didn’t really have the staying power for that I think Lemillion might have had he been the main the character of Boku no Hero.  In any event Deku could not go through this very arc, because losing his power is too great a loss to the wider world.  Another limitation on Deku’s story, and a reason why Lemillion is more interesting.

Getting away from Deku there are two other problems with Boku no Hero Academia that have crippled my interest in the story.  The size of the cast and the loss of All Might.  Now large casts aren’t inherently a problem but Boku no Hero has lost a lot of steam because many beloved or otherwise interesting characters either haven’t gotten much development or have been developed some and then sidelined to make room for more characters.  Ochako is probably the best example.  During the Sports Festival her battle with Bakugo was, and excuse the pun, the tits.  In a tournament arc with tons of interesting battles her’s was solidly in second place behind the even more phenomenal Deku versus Todoroki.  And since then what have we seen from her?  Basically nothing.  Sure she learned some martial arts and she was even present for the raid on Overhaul.  But what did she do during the raid?  Did she fight any interesting enemies?  Did she suffer serious injuries?  Did she bust out a crazy new technique she’d been working on and make an impact?  None of the above.  She’s barely in the raid.  Kirishima had a bigger part to play, and don’t get me wrong Kirishima is great, his fight was awesome and his Unbreakable form looks rad as hell but I wanted Ochako to shine too.  Worse if you read ahead the manga mostly gets away from the kids and focuses mostly on the adult heroes.

It makes sense with the worldbuilding for the kids to play a smaller role as the war against the villains ramps up but there’s a ton of moving parts and Boku no Hero Academia is all too willing to jump around and develop a ton of different characters, while leaving some of the core characters to essentially stagnate.  It makes the story less engaging because the worldbuilding is not that great.  I mean it’s not terrible and it raises some interesting questions but I’ve seen better versions elsewhere.  I even wrote about it before – here’s the link– I already argued that Tiger and Bunny and Gatchaman Crowds were better at this.  That the strength of Boku no Hero is that it has polished the basics of shounen storytelling to a mirror sheen and delivers on the fundamentals so well.  Now that it’s moving into a more complex narrative it’s starting to fall apart and become boring.

Last but not least is the question of All Might.  All Might is one of the greatest shounen characters ever written.  He’s powerful, a national symbol, a man with big dreams and equally huge responsibilities with an unflinching will and all kinds of natural charisma.  To me the ultimate peak of Boku no Hero is All Might versus All for One.  These two titanic figures with larger than life powers, archenemies who have wounded each other so badly they never returned to their top form, duking it out one last time.  The fight was one of the most simplistic I can think of and yet it was also incredibly emotional.  All for One doing everything he can to break All Might’s will and reveal the secrets he didn’t want to world to know, against All Might’s implacable spirit and his willingness to throw away the last dregs of his power in one final Smash to put his nemesis down once and for all was incredible.  And the bit at the end where All Might, a battered husk of his former self points at the camera and says “You’re next” is so fucking good.  It is not just the peak of Boku no Hero but a remarkable high point in the shouen genre, sure to go down with some of the other biggest moments in shounen storytelling.  I always tear up when I start writing about this fight because it was that good, it had that much impact.  And with All Might mostly out of the story, Boku no Hero has lost one of it’s biggest narrative hooks.  All Might was really the glue that held so much of this story together and he’s gone.

With all of that in mind I hope any Boku no Hero fans reading understand why I will not really be hype for any future seasons of Boku no Hero.  All Might is a footnote, Lemillion is out of the picture.  The interesting criminals of season 4 are behind bars.  All that’s left is to explore the League of Villains and have more showdowns, with a little bit of training here and there along the way.  Boku no Hero has gotten rid of its most interesting characters and thrown much of its strong points out the window as it moves on to the next big arc.  I’m not saying it will suck necessarily, but I would be floored if any future seasons were as good as season 4, let alone the true high points of the show seasons 2 & 3.  Thanks for reading, see you in the next one.

Peaks and Valleys: Shield Hero

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I’m normally a complete package kind of guy when it comes to reviews and shows but seeing as we’re all stuck at home for a few more weeks at least I thought it would be fun to instead focus on when any particular show is at it’s best and worst and why these particular parts are the best and worst.  There will be spoilers.

I kind of already spelled this out for Shield Hero in a different review but I figured it was worth rehashing and using as the start of a new series of posts.  Shield Hero is probably one of the best examples of this because frankly it hits its peak so damn fast, it never really recovers and I can basically talk about the whole package anyway as it’s broad trends rather than individual moments which make up the peaks and valleys.  Shield Hero is at it’s absolute best in the early parts of story starting from the false rape charge laid on Naofumi and his immense struggle to make anything out of himself due to the limitations of being a Shield Hero.  Naofumi is great in these early parts for a number of reasons but chief among would be his inner struggle.  Despite the fact he buys Raphtalia as a slave and forces her into combat, many of their early scenes together show hints of the good, caring guy Naofumi is at heart – but he’s been so badly screwed by this world out the gate that he can’t fully open himself up even to her.  This is also accompanied by some of my favorite scenes, where Naofumi essentially embraces the villain label and goes full asshole towards the world that fucked him.  The early chapters (I vastly prefer the manga to the anime), were what really captivated me when I took a look at Shield Hero.

The premise was interesting enough but it was the contrasts between the kind of person Naofumi wanted to be versus the attitudes and behaviors that we needed to thrive in a hostile world were great.  And his black-pilled rage was incredibly cathartic.  Watching Naofumi make a mockery of the people and world that fucked him out the gate was so fun to indulge in.  Now these chapters are not the only narrative highs, I think both of the first 2 waves of calamity were good as well.  I do wish Naofumi had the let the guards who had rained down magic on his position when he was saving the town near the first wave get killed because it would not only be what they deserved but also a lot more moral ambiguity to a character who was already well on his way to returning to the tried and true normal hero.  And the introduction of Glass really spiced up a story that was in decline with Naofumi outshining the other Heroes so much.

Sadly it was no to be.  I’m still reading chapters of Shield Hero as they come out but I have lost most of my interest in the series.  I don’t know if the aspects of the show that lead it its valleys came from author or the publisher – but either way they are a massive missed opportunity.  The early portions of Shield Hero were some of the most high profile examples of morally ambiguous heroes since Killua from HunterxHunter.  They absolutely should have capitalized on that.  Because the aspects of Shield Hero that bring it down are many.  For starters the world is boring as fuck, a basic bitch fantasy RPG world with minimal intrigue.  The politics of that world are hamfisted as fuck, and while the some dialogue points to a world which could be large and nuanced and interesting, the politics we actually see never go beyond “Shield Hero bad or good” and betrayals for the sake of power grabbing.  The bad guys are neatly defined as are the good guys and there’s no overlap between the two, no double agents, no actors working with or between the two sides, etc.  The world is boring.  The waves are boring.  Most of the characters are boring because frankly only Naofumi and people directly around him get any development.

The only saving grace of Shield Hero early on was that it had the balls to go straight for the jugular, screwing the main character instantly and putting him a terrible position.  And then it delivered by giving us a hero who had hints of nice guy he was deep down buried beneath a mountain of justifiable distrust and rage.  Naofumi was stuck in a loop where it looked like he could never get strong, until he did something super questionable like buying a slave, a little girl, and forcing her to kill for him.  And during the first two waves, even though Naofumi has gotten strong he’s not overpowering.  The other Heroes waste the boss of the first wave while Naofumi struggles to save the nearby village, and in the second wave when the story was going downhill as Naofumi made all the other Heroes look like fools, they suddenly dropped Glass on us and showed that even at the recent height of his power, Naofumi still had a long way to go.

This is not to say there were no good parts between the waves or after the second wave.  A lot of the early emotional development between Naofumi and Raphtalia was great, though I thought the anime kind of botched it by making Raphtalia much thirstier for Naofumi as soon as Filo enters the party.  And the bits with Raphtalia getting to confront the noble who enslaved her and killed her best friend was good too.  However the story suffers from two major problems after the first wave.  Naofumi becomes the good guy too fast.  Both in his own behavior and in how the people of the kingdom come around to him, his reputation is practically already redeemed before the second wave, it just takes one last push in proving that the Church, the king and Malty are corrupt – but for all intents and purposes Naofumi has stopped being an outcast shortly after the first wave.  And because he isn’t ostracized he doesn’t really need to rage or be an asshole, he can be a generic good guy whose behavior never gets worse than making people pay him for rendering his services.  He mas no moral ambiguity whatsoever and is basically as good as the story needs him to be, he genuinely gets pretty boring and the investment and goodwill bought by the earlier chapters was all that carried me forward.

Even more egregious though is the other main factor in Shield Hero’s decline, the utter lack of competency in anyone who doesn’t like Naofumi.  By the second wave Naofumi is head and shoulders above the other heroes, and basically anyone besides boss monsters and Glass.  His party members are also quite competent and loyal and he’s more or less the ideal leader of the Heroes, he just needs have his name cleared.  Now if Shield Hero had any good sense they still could have made this work, what should have happened was that the second wave should have been a wake up call.  The other Heroes should have been smart enough to understand they had been lazy and put their noses to the grindstone so that they could attempt to surpass him.  And the persecution against Naofumi should have ramped up – not to kill him as the story actually goes, but to try and keep him down and prevent him from gaining strength.  Maybe recognize his achievements by giving him a specific task that looks like a reward but is actually a punishment.  Then if Naofumi ignores or forfeits this task the king has justification to put him in prison or something.  Like there are any number of ways to cripple Naofumi’s growth and prominence without actually trying to kill him.

But no Shield Hero’s idea of making Naofumi look good, is half Naofumi’s hard work (the good shit) and half making all of Naofumi’s enemies or even potential enemies into completely uncharismatic, unlikable, and unskilled morons (the bad shit).  In that regard scythe boy and Glass are welcome additions because they are competent foes, but both of them actually like/respect Naofumi – and it looks like they will end up working with him in the end (I would bet money on it).  By contrast the other Heroes, the king, the Church, Malty – all of them are completely nonthreatening.  They had some potential early on but they are all bark and no bite as Naofumi clowns on all of them in every conceivable way.  Naofumi is smarter, more mature, stronger.  He beats them in figuring out the plots against the kingdom, he beats the enemies they can’t and he even beats them in races where they cheat.  Again this didn’t need to spell the end of Shield Hero, if the other Heroes took these lessons to heart and made serious efforts to surpass Naofumi while still mostly being his enemy that would be good, and if any of the schemers working against Naofumi had a lick of subtlety them that would help.

I think Shield Hero peaked quite a while ago.  There will be some hype moments and maybe some good plots and character moments to come but I’m basically done with it.  The introduction of Scythe boy was good, and some of the latest plot points have potential.  But seeing how quickly the creatirs abandoned what made they great and how  they’ve made no efforts whatsoever to address its biggest problems, I have a hard time seeing how what comes next won’t just be more of the same.  I have no interest in that.  I have no interest in basic bitch fantasy RPG worlds, with basic bitch plots, factions and politics.  I have no interest in struggles where all of the antagonists go from threatening foes to total jokes.  I have no interest in watching the one competent Hero and his team swell in number to fight the threats the other Heroes obviously suck too much to fight.  I have no interest in a story whose characters have been all but milked dry of there most important character moments and haven’t meaningfully developed for like two entire arcs.  And that’s a shame because once upon a time I thought Shield Hero was one of the most interest manga I was reading, not enough to be one of the greats, not a true classic, but something that had the potential to aim for those heights.  And that manga is long gone now.  Thanks for reading, I’ll see you in the next one.

First Impressions: Kingdom 3

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Man is this about to get messy.  On the one hand as soon as I bothered to check the season charts and saw Kingdom 3 I raised my fists to the sky and cried out in manly victorious joy.   And on the other I found some things about first episode of the new season somewhat off-putting and a casual glance into the comment sections revealed that not only was hardly anyone being critical but the few who were not getting a great reception.  Fuck it, here we go.

Just to appease any naysayers and set the groundwork for anyone who hasn’t read my prior reviews of Kingdom, let me start with this: I love Kingdom.  It’s probably my favorite manga with Berserk being the only real competition and even the anime, maligned as it so often is for the so-ugly-it-hurts CG of season 1 is still in my top 5.  Any criticisms that follow do not come from a place of hate, they come from a place of passionate love for this series balanced against the cautious cynic in me who had nothing but hope for the similarly long-awaited D Gray -Man sequel only to be brutally disappointed, so much so that I’d honestly rather D Gray Man never got a sequel than get D Gray-Man Hallow.  As of episode 1, Kingdom 3 does not have any serious indicators that it will be bad or will fail, but there are some noticeable changes from Kingdom 2 – and while many in the comments sections seem to see this as a pure upgrade I am not among them.  To me Kingdom 2 was the high-water mark for the anime adaptation, and seeing how it held that position for 6 years a lot of the stylistic choices of Kingdom 2 are what I mostly strongly identify Kingdom with.  And while I’m not against change per se, I am wary whenever a long-awaited sequel comes around and starts changing things that I didn’t have a problem with or even loved.  With that in mind let’s address the most noticeable change fight off the bat shall we?

The visuals of Kingdom have long been a contentious issue.  The first season is rightly mocked for being pretty hideous, Kingdom 2 saw massive visual improvements and now Kingdom 3 is bringing a new visual style into the mix.  It’s immediately and very noticeably different from Kingdom 2 but it’s not necessarily a major downgrade – in fact many commenters think it’s an upgrade.  However the new artstyle has some bizarre quirks.  Certain colors, most noticeably the armor and clothes colors are more vivid than in earlier seasons but other colors seem faded by comparison.  For example Li Mu’s hair looks dull light brown in season 3 despite being golden-brown blonde in earlier seasons.  However it’s the skin and facial expressions which have taken the biggest hit.

In season 2, which I think was when Kingdom looked the best, there’s not a lot of shadows cast on characters’ faces.  Instead they give more definition by adding extra line work, usually in form of dirt smudges and cuts.  Same goes for the bodies, you tend to see the muscles lines in Xin’s arms whereas Season 3 doesn’t have that thus far.  Season 3’s artstyle seems to be replacing linework with shadows and it’s not quite as good.  Perhaps the best example of the problems with this style are faces of Changwenjun and Changping in throne room.  Their faces are brightly lit as though they are outside or as if there’s a big torch flickering in a dark room – but neither is the case, and there are shadows all over everyone’s faces which present the suggestion of not only lighting where there isn’t any but also the of lines and shading to give the facial expressions more definition, structure and character.  However it makes them look kind of plastic when compared to the artwork of season 2, where there were fewer shadows used but colors tend to be less vivid.  Maybe this will end up working out since it seemed like less of an issue when characters were outdoors and thus would have more natural lighting but frankly I just preferred the duller and more grounded colors of Kingdom 2 and I seriously hope they bring back more line work to add detail to the faces during the course of battles and so on.  Moving on.

The pacing seems faster than before.  Maybe this will only apply to episode 1 because it needs to get so much information across so quickly but the 3rd person narration was minimal and it felt like the episode flew by.  That may continue in the long run or it may just be a quirk of this episode but earlier seasons of kingdom definitely slowed themselves down with lots of narration.  And while I can certainly see some people preferring this faster pace, I kind of liked the slow methodical rhythm of earlier seasons because it gave the show a lot of character and helped to add to the weightiness of conflicts and characters, which is frankly one of the strongest selling points of Kingdom – its ability to imbue individual characters with so much weight and history as to make them feel overwhelming.  No other anime I’ve come across has been able to generate such palpably powerful living legend type characters as Wang Yi and Lian Po.   Maybe I’m being paranoid but it could also mean this will be a much shorter season and so they have to cut down on narration and speed things up, which would be a real shame.  Sadly the issues of episode 1 only get more serious from here.

The music is barely noticeable, seriously when I was gathering my initial thoughts I realized I had no recollection of the soundtrack at all and re-watched the episode with special focus on the music, and let me tell you it was unimpressive and forgettable, so much so I actually did totally forget to pay attention to it for a few minutes in the middle which I had to go over that part again.  This is a huge issue because the massive swelling tracks from the earlier seasons were one of the main attractions of the anime over the manga.  Despite the terrible visuals of earliest episodes of Kingdom the soundtrack was immense and overpowering – it truly helped to sell the sheer scale and scope of the action taking place.  Now I like Sawano and his work but episode 1 is severely lacking on the music front and it needs attention.

It would be much better for the soundtrack to be loud, omni-present and possibly overshadowing the events on screen than for it to be quite and easily lost in the episode.  Because Kingdom is about a colossal conflict with hugely important figures of history – if anything the music needs to be so grand and epic that it would feel out of place or overdramatic in any other series, that’s the level of sound that made the Kingdom anime worth coming back to.  And frankly my biggest concern here is not that Sawano can’t perform, but that the new director and the creative staff do not see or understand the vision and design that made the prior seasons so good.  Because while all 3 seasons have different directors, seasons 1 and 2 had a lot more overlap in the creative staff – at least for the people who are listed so far.  And after the immense letdown that was D Gray Man Hallow, I’m painfully aware of how badly a new staff with a different vision can botch a great IP.

Even more off-putting to me though is the voice-acting.  While the main cast is still voiced by the same people some of there performances felt a lot weaker.  Meng Tian, Teng and Lu Buwei are most noticeable in this regard.  They all come off as much more serious than before.  Part of this was no doubt to do with the seriousness of the crisis at hand, and is therefore defensible – but the paranoid part of me is worried that this a bad call on the part of the new director.  Meng Tian and Lu Buwei both had a great deal more playfulness in their delivery in prior seasons and that is sorely missed here, especially from Meng Tian since his only lines in this episode come before the crisis unfolds.  Teng is also a huge disappointment.  Part of the charm of his character was how he sounded and behaved a kinda goofy, contrasted by his unstoppable power when he goes beast-mode.  There was none of that prior goofiness in his delivery in episode 1 and having read the manga, he will need it for future scenes and conversations.  They also switched out the voice actors of some relatively minor but frequently recurring characters, which is understandable given the time-gap and the ludicrous size of Kingdom’s cast but it’s also a disappointment because we see a lot of these characters later down the line.  Shi Shi is a good example as are Lu Wuwei and Gan Yang.

Now despite the doom and gloom predictions, I don’t think this is a massive downgrade or anything, nor is it enough to make me stop watching – I sat through season 1 so I can handle worse animation in the name of a good story.  But rather than lose myself to the hype I want to be cautiously optimistic.  The last time I was this hyped for a sequel was when D Gray-Man Hallow came out and that was a fucking tragedy, a massive downgrade on every possible front made watchable only because of the good plot.  Now Kingdom has not shit the bed already the way D Gray-Man Hallow did in its first episode but I’d rather worry and be proven wrong than charge into this uncritically and end up disappointed.

The biggest worry for me is the audio.  If all I cared about were visuals and story then I would just read the manga where Kingdom is concerned.  But the music and voice-acting in seasons 1 and 2 were so strong that I felt it was worth watching the anime as well as reading the manga – the sounds of Kingdom were the most crucial component of the anime experience and right now they are not looking so hot.  That may yet change as we get to the actual battles and hype moments but probably my biggest concern with Sawano’s music is that I don’t know if it’s the right fit for Kingdom.  I mean don’t get me wrong the man is amazing but I think his music shines the most when it’s going for the big hype moments or big emotional moments but is relatively unimpressive in between these moments.  Kingdom’s soundtrack should be powerful all the time, because frankly most of what’s going on is hype.  Sure the big duels between important characters are especially important but underselling the drama of the clashes between armies a hundred thousand strong would be a massive mistake.

That’s about all I’ve to say on the subject for now.  Hopefully I didn’t kill too much fanboy hype for Kingdom 3 and truth be told I sincerely hope future episodes prove all my concerns to be unfounded.  I’m so glad Kingdom is back, especially now that it’s tackling possibly the biggest arc of the manga.  I want this to be the best, 10/10 show of the season that beats the fuck out of me for ever doubting it.  But for now, I’ll be holding on to those doubts until I’m proven wrong.  Thanks for reading.  See you in the next one.

Seasonal Summaries: Winter 2020

bofuri 2

Now that everyone’s stuck at home due to coronavirus, I figure it’s a good a time as to start pumping out more posts since you should all have the time to read them.  With that in mind I wanted to touch on some the great shows of the previous season that I was too lazy to write a proper review for.  There will be spoilers.

 

railgun

I know every season chart now is gigantic and full of shit shows but Winter 2020 had 8 shows that I had a great time with, which makes it a pretty strong season.  Because it’s easy, I’ll start with the one that’s still going – To Aru Kagaku no Railgun 3.  Ever since I first discovered To Aru Majutsu no Index like 8 years ago I continue to love this balls-to-the-walls scifi-fantasy mashup.  But where I basically gave up on the Accelerator spin-off because he’s only great in small doses, the Misaka spin-offs have been a ton of fun and explored the world from someone more strongly rooted in the science end of this bizarre world than Touma, who is more involved with magical side.  It’s also nice to get away from some of the running gags of Index by mostly cutting Touma out of the story, and following a different close-knit group of friends.  This season of Railgun has been one of the most tense and action-packed of the 3 so far and I’m looking forward to where it will go with its 25 episodes.  All of the seasons have been consistently quality experiences and this one looks to maybe be the best of the bunch.  I especially recommend it now, since you presumably have more time to binge the 7(?) related seasons of Index, Railgun and Accelerator spin-offs.

 

JIbaku-Hounen-Hanako-kun-03-39

Moving right along probably the biggest disappointment among my 8 shows was Jibaku Shounen Hanako-San.  I love the artsyle and the color choices but I think it is unnecessarily slow by trying to be cryptic rather than address the main antagonist.  And while I enjoyed myself and was willing to let the show drag its heels, I do wish a little more had happened with regards to the inevitable Hanako vs Tsukasa clash.  The boundaries of the various School Wonders were especially interesting and I do like that show could be so playful before suddenly crashing headfirst into really dark shit but ultimately I do think putting off the main confrontation like Hanako-san did hurt the show a bit.  Still if you like the supernatural and ghost stories or are looking for an anime with especially striking/unique visuals Hanako-san might be worth your while.

 

kyokou-suiri-03-23

Kyokou Suiri was probably ranked 7th out of the eight shows I truly enjoyed this season.  One the one hand I like the supernatural elements, the bizarre characters and Iwanaga’s energetic dialogue and powerful deductive reasoning.  One the other hand, this show was really slow and basically centered around one small scale conflict.  It’s a shame because I really wanted to see these characters in a variety of settings and conflicts – maybe a contrast between scenarios where Kuro’s immortality or Iwanaga’s intellect was more useful.  But I did enjoy the ride, especially since this was a conflict where Iwanaga, who was by far the most interesting character, was at her best – using Bakemonogatari-esque logic to weave compelling a mesh of truth and lies that would undo the rumors that birthed a vicious ghost into rumors where the ghost wouldn’t exist for the purpose of erasing the ghost.  I think Kyoko Suiri is a bit guilty of trying to show off how smart it is being while not as being maybe as smart as it thinks it is but Iwanaga was a really fun character and she dominated the show especially as we went through her strategies in-depth one strategy per episode.  It’s a fun time and well worth it for anybody who likes the Monogatari franchise.

 

ishuzoku reviewers

Every season there is at least one anime you desperately hopes no one walks in on you watching and in Winter 2020 that show was Ishuzoku Reviewers.  And it was basically perfect.  It’s about a mostly consistent group of 4 guys going to whatever fantasy whorehouse strikes their fancy and reviewing their unfettered sexual deviancy for all the world to see.  You kind of have to love shows which are so unabashedly and unashamedly trashy and just give the audience what they know we want.  What really makes Ishuzoku Reviewers stand apart from other trashy fan service shows though is the detail.  The writer clearly sat down and thought about how different species would interact, what kinds of constraints or preferences they would have, etc.  The beastman guy was an especially good example since he often brought things like smell because his sense of smell was stronger than a human’s.  Honestly this show is exactly what it says on the tin and I’d be amazed if anyone reading this who would enjoy it hasn’t already seen it.  Moving on.

 

Eizouken

Eizouken was my sleeper hit of the season.  I initially overlooked it because while other critics I watch/read praised it, I’ve never really felt the need to delve into anime about making anime.  Then I saw Kamamori scenes and I marathoned half the show in an afternoon.  This show has a ton of heart and character, with a strong central cast who really capture the different aspects of creatives very well.  There Asakusa the director and concept artist, Mizusaki the key animator and Kanamori the best character who represents the production staff with her cutthroat, money-focused attitude.  Her backstory episode was one of the favorite parts of the show, where gives the store she’s working at a massive boost with her marketing schemes.  But Asakusa really carries the show with her detail-oriented, and highly creative brain and a passionate love the medium that makes anime seem almost magical as it brings her various visions to life.  Definitely a great time for any creative and/or anime fan.  Seriously if you love anime you owe it to yourself to give this show a watch.

 

Somali-and-The-Forest-Spirit-ep6-3-5

I don’t know if I would rate this next show 4th out the eight but the so-cute-it-hurts adventure of Somali to Mori no Kami-sama was one of the most heartwarming shows I’ve seen in a long time, despite the fact one of the core points of the plot is that Somali was a slave and humanity has been nearly genocided by the other creatures which inhabit this world.  That said most of the show follows the travels and father-daughter relationship of a Golem who’s reaching the end of his lifespan and the human child Somali.  It’s mostly cute and fun and despite being  a heartwarming tale of family and adventure it has the most unique and vibrant fantasy setting I’ve seen in ages.  No RPG game-based bullshit here, this is a bonafide fantasy world and my god is it a joy for a fantasy fan to see.  The world is strange and colorful, full of beastfolk and other mythical creatures of every imaginable stripe living in bizarre and exotic locations.  The artwork is absolutely stunning, especially when it comes to the fantasy backgrounds and cities.  Truly this is a must watch for fantasy fans.

 

ID Invaded

ID:Invaded is great.  The way it just hits the ground running, going all in on it’s special tech and giving you the details you need to understand what’s going without stopping for exposition dumps was quite impressive.  Moreover this was the first high concept show in a while to really stay consistently good.  I know a lot of people were hyped about Babylon and Kado the Right Answer before it, but while those shows started strong they both failed miserably as the story went along.  ID:Invaded makes no such errors, rather than trying to be really, extra intelligent it keeps itself more simple and more grounded and delivers on one of the best shows of the season.  This is first time since Psycho-Pass that I felt anime really nailed something in the near-future scifi genre.  It strongly reminded me of the Minority Report though with much stronger characters.  Narihisago in particular was a great lead, especially when we get the contrast between Narihisago and his brilliant detective counterpart Sakaido – though Hondomachi was quite good as well.  It’s a great show with the same kind of mainstream appeal as a Psycho-Pass, thoroughly worth the time it takes to watch it.

 

dorohedoro

 

Dorohedoro was another surprise this season.  See when it was first announced I was hearing rumblings about how good the manga was and “oh no are they gonna fuck this up?” so I binged the manga.  And when episode 1 and its CG rolled around I was skeptical to say the least.  But the sheer insanity that is Dorohedoro could not be held back even by CG.  The team behind this did a great job making the backgrounds highly-detailed and lived in like the manga and the vocal performances were amazing.  Seriously if the visual style is enough to give you some pause before watching the vocal performances make it absolutely worth watching.  Noi and Ebisu in particular are amazing and the baseball episode halfway through the show was the best baseball episode in anime history and I will fucking fight anyone who says otherwise.  The creative staff really knocked this one out of the park, powering through this strange story to keep us on our toes.  To quote one Youtube comment that I thought captured the appeal of Dorohedoro “how did they make this show manage to be so brutal and so wholesome at the same time?”  I was once a doubter back in episodes 1 and 2 but I have seen the light and I’m really glad I did because this turned out to be a ton of fun.  Shocking!

 

bofuri 1

However, as there is in every season, there can only be one best show.  And in Winter 2020 that was Bofuri aka Maple’s Bizarre Video Game Adventure.  As sick to death of RPG worlds and OP gamers as I am, nothing could have prepared for much fun I was going to have with the chaos and cuteness of Bofuri.  Maple is basically a perfect character.  Her strength comes from her being such a colossal airhead and such a noob gamer that she has no common sense when it comes to video games and therefore is free to throw convention out the window.  Like in the character creation, rather than make a balanced character build, she throws everything into health and defense.  Or when she loses her weapons in the hydra fight but gains immunity to its damage and then proceeds to nom the hydra to death.  It’s incredible because her character is given the freedom to be both innocently devious in a way the hardcore types consider cheap or to be as happy go lucky as she wants only have things randomly work out in her favor.  For example she had no idea if the Psychokinesis skill would in fact allow her to fly her giant turtle pet and thus make up for her naturally slow movement speed.  Or when she soaks the giant wool covering she gets from Wooly in poison to prevent people from hurting her because she’s immune to poison – and most damage – and hardly anyone else is.  Because Maple’s a happy-go-lucky airhead and the game she’s playing is so reactive to the player experience, she is essentially free to gather an ungodly messy and powerful set of skills.  Which is why by shows end she can summon a poison hydra, turn into an angel, equip a Gundam armor set and last but not least summon Xenomorphs and become Xenomorph queen.  It’s hilarious, cute and fun and there’s a bit during the first major game event where someone runs up and tries to bash her heap open with a mace and it just bounces off with Bonk noise while Maple just turns her head with an innocent little “Huh?” noise and it perfectly encapsulates the appeal of this utterly ridiculous show.  I mean I do like the other characters too but Maple carries this one big time and that’s ok because she’s amazing.  This is a must watch, some of the most fun I’ve had in quite some time.