Hidden Gems: Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii

Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushi or The World is Still Beautiful in English, though I think a better translation might be “Still, the World is Beautiful” or “However the World is Still Beautiful” but whatever, I’m going to call it Soredemo from now on; is a shoujo manga adaptation from the Spring 2014 anime season.  In case you don’t know much about me, I don’t like shoujo manga adaptations very much, it’s just not my genre.  However Soredemo is one of the rare exceptions that really caught my attention, and if you’re a bit iffy on the shoujo genre or love it and just want another one to watch, this is a show I would actually recommend.

Soredemo follows the story of Livius and Nike.  Livius is the king of the Sun Country, all the countries in the show are just “insert noun” Country and there’s not much detail on the setting at the global level.  Anyway the Sun Country has conquered the lion’s share of the world since Livius took over the throne and he’s considered this big intimidating figure across the world.  Nike is the fourth princess in some poor, backwater country at the ass end of the world called the Rain Country.  Rather than conquer the Rain Country, Livius allows them to remain autonomous but in return he wants one of the princesses to be his bride.  Which is where Nike comes in, she has been forced to marry Livius after, no joke, losing a game of rock-paper-scissors with her siblings.  The show doesn’t actually tell you all this when it starts, it begins with Nike arriving in the Sun Country after having deliberately avoided the Sun Country group that was supposed to escort her to the capitol of the Sun Country.  And all of this revealed later in the episode.  The first episode starts the way it does for a few important reasons, one, it establishes that Nike is from a poor country, two, that not everyone in Sun Country is happy with Livius and his decision to marry a princess from some country in the middle of nowhere, and three, that Nike is a force of nature both figuratively and literally.  Anyway moving right along.

At the end of episode 1 we finally meet Livius and he’s a child.  According to the wiki he’s 15 in the anime, though it felt like he was portrayed as even younger than that while I was watching it, in any case he is younger than Nike.  Livius looks like a younger, shorter Lelouch, albeit with more normal and rounded face instead of Lelouch’s chin-so-sharp-it-could-cut-bread and angular face.  He has some of the same personality traits as well, though Livius is a genius at basically everything, falling firmly into the anime trope of “pretty boy who’s literally the best at everything.”  However Livius does have some major flaws, he’s amazingly arrogant, and reasonably so, but more to the point he has hard time feeling things like a normal human being and by extension struggles to trust people.  In fact the reason he only wants to marry Nike because the Sun Country is dry as fuck and he wants her to summon rain for him, which is something she and all the princesses of the Rain Country can do.

Nike is a great foil to Livius though, she’s not a perfect genius but she’s by no means stupid or weak.  Where Livius is calculating and manipulative, Nike is passionate and straightforward.  Where Livius has major influence on everyone’s mind, either by way of being worshiped for his brilliance or feared for the same, Nike sways everyone’s hearts with her passion and magic.  Where Livius has worked hard to understand international politics, Nike works hard to understand the people of any given country.  The point is that the two are designed to butt heads all the time but also to help the other grow.  So Nike flatly refuses Livius’ request for rain, telling him it’s a sacred rite to summon rain and it will require some work on both their parts.  Livius is interested by this because no has seriously refused him since he took over the world and his response is to throw Nike in a dungeon in an attempt to take some of the fire out of her, Nike’s response is to use her wind/cloud/rain magic to break out immediately and sneak up on Livius with basic intent of knocking some of the arrogance out of him, but all that really happens is that Nike ends up eating Livius’ dinner.  But while this is mostly silly slice of life comedy, albeit with a more medieval and royal slant, amounts to little action it establishes that Nike and Livius are one another’s match in many ways and this will be the basic building block of their relationship going forward.

So why is this show any good?  The main characters mostly.  There are some interesting side characters but the show is mostly all about Livius and Nike and how the two end up being the right partner for the other.  Between Livius cleverness and drive, and Nike’s passion and magic the two of them can and do overcome every obstacle that comes their way, so the plot isn’t all that important.  But watching how each of the characters grow individually, and together as a couple, to overcome each obstacle is far more important and fortunately pretty damn satisfying.  Both Livius and Nike have a lot of work to do in order to well and truly fall for the other and thanks to their various trials, they put in the effort to see that work get done.  This lends a lot more weight and believability to their romance moving forward, which is something makes the show much more enjoyable.  The other important thing about the main characters is just that they are in fact good characters.  Nike is particular is very easy to like and get invested in, which is huge.  My biggest gripe with shoujo shows is not that they are about romance more so than action, it’s that I so rarely give a shit about the main characters or main girl especially.  And because I don’t give a shit about them, I find their romantic struggles boring.  Ao Haru Ride was a fine example of this problem, the main girl just bored me to tears, she had no real personality, no interesting life struggles, no nothing except for blushing and getting worked up over her childhood friend turned high school crush.  By comparison, I am a big fan of Nike as a person and so I’m interested in watching struggle, grow and fall in love, which means I’m invested in the romance.

And the show delivers.  It has some genuinely sweet and heart-warming moments and one spot where it even brought a tear to mine eyes.  It’s also pretty funny in the down time between major story events, dramatic moments and romantic bits.  This is especially true because it’s not the usual high school fare, the humor has a lot more room to be a bit more unique and memorable because the setting is a bit more unique.  What’s more the show concludes nicely, it finishes a major dramatic arc, brings our couple quite firmly together and still leaves itself open to further story developments.  I think the biggest draw for me was Nike, so many shoujo manga shows have these quite, cutesy girls who get flustered over minor shit and just lack confidence and in many cases character.  Nike is a strong, fiercely independent leading lady, and while she too gets flustered over pretty minor romantic developments, she brings a lot more to the table than your typical shoujo heroine and I know that helped me enjoy this show a lot.  Overall Soredemo is a good show.  It’s makes for nice romance story, it has decent comedy, some very good dramatic moments and it’s still low key enough to feel like a refreshing break from all the hype and intensity of action shows.  And I want to reiterate, if you’re not into shoujo manga adaptations, I would encourage you to give this show a shot because it’s not like a lot of shoujo shows, so I think it makes a for a good way to ease into the genre.  But regardless of anyone’s tastes I do recommend this one and I hope some people go out there and enjoy it.  Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

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Hidden Gems: Hakkenden – Touhou Hakken Ibun

If you like spirits, ghosts, gods and demons, well this show is certainly a treat for you.  I happen to be a nearly fanatical lover of myth, legend and all forms of spiritual lore.  I adore the supernatural, the surreal and the bizarre.  And with that in mind I recommend this show to everyone who feels remotely the same.

Hakkenden – Touhou Hakken Ibun focuses mainly on a thirteen year old boy named Shino and his family/associates.  The show opens with a flashback and we see a village covered in flames as the two male leads of the show lay on the ground dying, filleted by the sword of persons unknown.  As Shino’s conscious fades a stranger asks him if he wants to live and offers him a sword… and then we cut back to the present where Shino’s playing in a river with some spirits, very much alive and missing any kind of wound or scar where the cut from the flashback ought to be.  It’s quickly established that five years have passed in since the flashback, a time during which Shino has not aged at all.  This is because of the sword given to him as he lay dying, Murasame, which as an aside is one of the more famous mythical blades in Japanese folklore.  It is explained in no uncertain terms that Murasame is monstrously powerful and many factions in the world want to control it’s power.  The story really begins when Shino’s adopted sister is kidnapped by one member of the major factions vying for Murasame’s power, and Shino and company are forced to abandon their quiet life in a backwater village and travel to the capital, though it’s unclear whether they mean Edo or Kyoto.  Which is as good a segue into the setting as I can provide.

The setting appears to be a historical replication of Japan, presumably during the industrial revolution and prior to WWII, albeit with plenty of fantasy elements in play.  It’s annoyingly unclear as to exactly when and where everything takes place.  Certain elements also make it harder to tell if this is a fictional retelling of the setting or a reasonable recreation of history with spirits tacked on.  For example the Catholic church plays a major role in the story and is the single largest faction involved, but as far as I can remember Catholicism never attained power resembling the kind they show in the anime (though it’s been a few years since I’ve learned about Japanese history in any real depth).  Anyway the setting is not overly important, the fact that the Church plays a big role is more important than any period accurate details or lack thereof.  Which brings us to the story.

The story blurs the line between episodic adventure and linear narrative.  Each arc is mostly handled as it’s own story, though characters from previous arcs do periodically get involved in new arcs.  And it’s not until much much later the various stories are threaded together into a more cohesive narrative.  This works out beautifully I feel, because each new arc has the fresh sense of adventure that good episodic shows often have and combines that with a story that does feel like it’s advancing, like it will reach a good conclusion.  Sadly after 26 episodes no final conclusion has appeared, though the main antagonists have been revealed and all the good guys have been assembled by season 2’s end.  If it ever gets a third season it would likely wrap up then, but that’s besides the point.  In each arc Shino and some of his companions have to solve some kind of spiritual problem, like demons rampaging in cities, local gods going berserk, freak occurrences, disappearances, and the like.  While Shino deals with these various issues his ultimate goal is to find these eight glowing beads which belong to the reincarnations of the Eight Dog Warriors, of which Shino is one.  This overarching task comes from the guy who gave Shino Murasame during that flashback scene the show opens with.  He so happens to come from a clan that protects a prophecy about the Eight Dog Warriors and he has issued Shino the task to find the other Eight Dog Warriors while his savior remains an important Church fixture.  Let’s move onto characters.

The characters are an interesting patchwork to say the least.  A bunch of the guys look like they jumped straight out of an otome-game and walked into an anime, though that may just be a side effect of the fantastic visuals of the show overall.  Some of the characters are powerless mortals, while the others have connections to the supernatural and have a wide array of abilities.  Hell some of the recurring characters are gods themselves, though these characters interact mostly with Shino who is by far the most deeply immersed in the supernatural out of the main cast.  Shino himself is kind of fascinating because he spends a lot of time acting like a bratty thirteen year old, some times he acts more the like eighteen year old he actually he is, and he occasionally acts with wisdom and grace far beyond his years, especially when he’s talking to major spirits or gods.  In fact one of my favorite pairings in the show is Shino and a white snake goddess, who’s the most powerful deity shown in the show.  The two have an odd chemistry because they are both monstrously powerful and the two of them experience the flow of time differently.  That’s actually one of the recurring if underlying concerns of the other characters, what will happen to Shino when he outlives all his friends and is left alone.  On the whole the characters have stupid anime quirks and they can appear shallow and archetypal, but they usually have more to them and end up being more interesting if you stick with the show. Let’s wrap this up.

Overall Hakkenden – Touhou Hakken Ibun is an enjoyable show.  I should warn potential viewers that it is light on action, but action is hardly a focal point of the series.  The supernatural, character struggles and relations, and the mystery of the prophecy and who exactly killed Shino in the very beginning are far more important.  As a result  many of the characters are quite interesting, especially when their connections to the supernatural come into play.  The episodic-esque arcs are interesting and varied, obviously some are better than others but overall I can say the show rarely left me bored.  Visually the show is gorgeous with high quality animation, vibrant colors and detailed character designs.  The soundtrack will not hype anyone up like many famous anime OSTs do, but it’s full of melodic atmospheric tracks that do a great job conveying the emotion and tone of a scene and the series overall.  It is a shame that the show has not concluded, and won’t until we get a third season, if we get a third season, but what we have so far is good.  If I had to describe the show in one word it would be enchanting, between the atmospheric music, good visuals and cool spirits and folklore, this is a show I can just lose myself in.  I think this is a great show, and a must-watch if you’re a fan of spirits, folklore and the like.  I hope you enjoyed this and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

Hidden Gems: Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne

So since my last post was all about relaxing, light-hearted fun, I decided do a total 180 and bring up one of the darkest and most graphic shows I know.  Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne is one of the few anime shows I would say is made specifically for adults.  To get an understanding of where I’m coming from, here’s a brief and not at all comprehensive overview of the industry.  Most anime shows fall into one of two categories, niche shows and broad appeal shows.  Niche shows typically pander to the stereotypical otaku, banking on the kind of customer that buys tons merchandise and so on.  Broad appeal shows on the other hand try to sell dvds and children’s toys to enough people that they can recoup the costs of making the show.  But back in the day niche shows were usually not actual 12 episode shows, they were typically OVAs ranging from 1 to 6 episodes like the original Black Rock Shooter or Gunbuster.  And it was in these OVA’s that the creative and experimental works thrived, because their limited run time allowed much more creative freedom than the larger, safer shows which occupied the broad appeal space.  Rin is such an OVA, containing 6 episodes and safe is the last fucking word I’d use to describe this particular beauty.

Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne is a pretty weird series right from the outset, for starters each episode begins after a time-skip, not including the first episode obviously, and these time skips can range from a single year to decades.  Now ordinarily most shows have to stick to much shorter or infrequent time skips because too many time skips fucks with narrative coherence and pacing, as I explained in my review of SAO.  But Rin doesn’t suffer from this issue because it’s main characters are immortals, left unchanged by the passage of time even as the world rapidly evolves around them.  In fact one the things that makes Rin so interesting is watching how the immortals deal with massive changes in society, mainly because the show’s approach to the issue is atypical.  Immortals rarely get examined closely in most works of fiction, most of the time they just get cast as having been made either bored and/or insane by their long life, they tend to be characterized as though they aren’t truly a part of the world of the story.  Instead they are distinctly apart from the world of the story due to their own immutable nature, often they seem so world weary they don’t register as active participants of the world or are so broken by their long involvement with the world that they actively seek their own death or the death of the world, in sharp contrast to the rest the world which wishes to survive.  With Rin the immortals adapt.  Part of what makes Rin, the titular character not the show, as compelling and engaging as she is how she is at once a constant and also able to adapt to the point where very few individuals are aware of her immortality.  See that’s the thing with most fiction, the immortals are clearly different from the mortals and they do a poor job of hiding that difference, if they even bother to try hiding it.  With Rin we have a character that is intriguing for her unchanging presence and yet feels like she belongs regardless of the type of world she inhabits, be it 1990’s Japan or 2050’s Japan.  That’s not just an example by the way, the show in total spans roughly 60 years to the best of my memory.

But what makes Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne an adult show goes beyond it’s odd and interesting presentation and narrative.  For one thing Rin the character is an adult, as is almost every important character.  This helps add to the realism and maturity of the show as I discussed in a previous post, and while that is not necessarily hard for the younger crowd to comprehend or appreciate, generally I always found those things more rewarding once I got older and more mature.  There’s also gore, metric fuck-tons of gore.  See in Rin the immortals are not the “live forever until they are killed vis a vis elves and vampires in fantasy” immortal but rather the “no matter how many tiny pieces you turn them into they will regenerate regardless” immortal meaning the wounds inflicted on the immortals, and by extension the gore we get to see, reaches the level of straight up torture porn or can at least be met with a hearty “Holy Fucking Shit!” from viewers.  Additionally there are some pretty dark elements and characters in the show that turn the WTF factor to Evangelion levels of weird, and I mean that as both a  warning and a compliment, and who really take advantage of the immortals’ regenerative ability to dish out loads of gruesome punishment.  And Rin doesn’t censor this shit either.  This is blood and guts at a level of intensity most anime don’t match, especially since these are not the generic blood pinatas and arterial fountains of blood most edgy, gory shows go for but is instead more down to earth so we can see the organs and bones and so on that the blood pinatas conveniently hide.

The final element that really seals the deal for making me see Rin as an adult show is the sexiness.  Now I’m not just talking about sex scenes though those totally happen, I’m talking about the way Rin the character handles sexiness relative to the typical anime girl.  This is somewhat true of most girls in the show, but Rin is an adult woman who totally owns her sexiness.  While she is certainly attractive in formal business clothes, Rin doesn’t feel like she’s had sexiness transposed upon her by outside influences.  In my first Raging Rant, I spoke at length about the problems of all the busty anime girls and to a lesser extent the objectification of these female characters.  What didn’t really get a chance to talk about was how women could be sexy without being sexualized, and that’s what Rin does.  With Rin the impression I got was that while she was never hard on the eyes, she was never truly sexy until she wanted to be seen as sexy, that she had the agency to choose when she wanted get guys to pop boners and when she wanted to be taken more seriously.  Keep in mind most of the time Rin is a like a private detective type character and is more of a force to be reckoned with than a love interest to be won over.  In fact she’s the one who initiates the romantic and sexual advances rather the dudes she encounters.  But to sum this up, what this meant to me was that Rin was a compelling heroine who I appreciated as an individual, which only made her even more attractive when she did want to appear sexy.  I’m going to leave a photo (it’s the same one you’ll find from the WordPress Reader) of Rin being sexy at the bottom to see if it helps communicate my point, because in the photo to me she looks like a woman in full control of herself and her sexuality and that is a rare trait indeed.  Please let me know what you all think after seeing the photo or the show, as I’m interested in other perspectives.  Anyway time for the conclusion.

All of the stuff mentioned above comes together to tell a very memorable and unique story.  Because Rin deals with immortals the way it does, not only do its immortal characters stand out from basically any other immortal characters, at least among the myriad I’ve seen, it allows the story to be told effectively in totally different way than most stories can, see lots of time skips above.  This makes for an engaging and memorable watch because it’s so unique, and not just for anime either I’ve yet to see film or literature that lays itself out like Rin does.  This is one of my favorite things about the anime medium, it’s ability to go places other mediums can’t or won’t go.  But even among a medium as experimental as anime, very few shows get as unique and experimental as Rin.  And that does wonders to the show in my mind.  I highly recommend this show to anyone, though I encourage anyone squeamish to give it a pass, and also encourage people to wait until they are college students at least to watch because I think you will appreciate it more that way.  Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you in the next one.  Now onto that photo…

 

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Hidden Gems: Mushibugyou

Have you ever been interested in something made before you were born?  That’s sort of my thing being a History major and all.  Anyway if you look at cinema you will notice a trend in 50’s and 60’s where there are tons of cheaply made scifi movies where humans had to fight super-sized versions of everyday animals like tarantulas, ants, and so on.  Now imagine these massive bugs are attacking Edo-era Japan and viola, you have Mushibugyou.  Mushibugyou is a patently ridiculous show and a battle-shounen at that. I know I’ve done a bunch of battle-shounen  posts recently, you can see some here and here if you like the genre, but Mushibugyou is a show I think deserves some attention.  This is saying something since I originally dropped it after a handful of episodes.

Now you might be wondering why the hell I would recommend a show I myself dropped.  That’s because I found a reason to come back and it delivered.  I admit that it is a bit tough to get through in the beginning, the first 4 or 5 episodes basically just introduce the cast as they have a 1 on 1 with our main character Tsukishima Jinbei.  Jinbei himself can also get kind of annoying since he’s the typical, obnoxiously loud and stupid shounen hero.  But if you can make past these episodes the story starts to pick up, and it becomes apparent how important the Insect Ministry, the place where Jinbei works, is as well as the sheer scale of the insect problem.  I should also mention at this point that not all the enemies in this show are bugs, the early episodes are all Kaiju (big monster) Extermination Simulator – Insect Edition, but more interesting enemies lurk just beyond the obvious threat of huge man-eating bugs.  Now at this point I should probably note that I’m one of those people who will push through shows when they are a slog if I think they will get better and only drop shows I hate right away or ones that just don’t look like they will get any better.  When I dropped the show initially I never thought it was going to get better and until I found a random AMV where the show got fucking awesome, and surprise it was like 2 episodes past where I stopped watching.  Anyway what does the show have offer?

Let’s start with the basics, it’s a battle-shounen so it better have decent action or it will flop.  The action is interesting because initially all of their enemies are nightmarish and huge versions of insects, so naturally they fight differently depending on the opponent with the exception of the strongest guy who can basically do whatever he wants in early episodes.  For example the tactics used when fighting a huge dragonfly are nothing like the tactics used to kill massive centipede.  Even though each character is limited to a single style of fighting, the group tactics they use to win vary greatly.  The battles also just  have good flow to them, none of them are overly long nor are they too short.  Also for the most part there are no shounen power-ups nor any long slogs where the heroes take tons of damage and win with willpower and friendship, instead injuries have to be avoided most of the time since they are fighting bugs that could kill them with a single blow, or maybe a few hits if they’re lucky.  Which brings me to my favorite part, the lethality.  There are a lot of fights where I feel exactly zero tension because both sides just launch a fucking barrage of attacks without doing much to each other, or where both sides beat the living shit out of each other and then just keep going on and on to the point where the lose the tension they began with.  In Mushibugyou because most blows are deadly enough to tear humans apart, every fight feels deadly, even the ones you know won’t be.  I mean plot armor exists and this show isn’t freakin’ Akame ga Kill but just knowing a single misstep will at bare minimum lead to horrific injuries is a good way to make fight seem like it could have consequences, thus building tension.  This doesn’t hold true for the strongest character but the story rarely focuses on him so whatever.  And speaking of the characters…

The characters are something of a mixed bag.  Most of them stick closely to common archetypes, like tsundere, the cold and brooding badass,  the guy who is easygoing but turns terrifying in battle, and so on.  And with one major exception the characters don’t have much of a backstory, though in some cases their lack of backstory is an actual point of interest, not just a missing part of their character.  What makes the characters work is that none of their personalities really overlap.  Jinbei is polite, honorable and trusting to the point of being obnoxious.  Hibachi, the tsundere, is aggressive, blunt and often rude.  Also I should note that she is nowhere near as annoying as the typical tsundere nor is she useless in battle.  Tenma is this little omyoji boy and a bit of wuss, he’s not all that engaging but he’s not annoying either.  Koikawa, a former criminal, is jovial and casual but gets swept in his emotions when pushed to it.  And Mugai is one cold, distant motherfucker.  In addition to be different in terms of personality, they all fight differently too.  Jinbei fights in the traditional samurai style albeit with some special moves.  Hibachi has a tanto, a type of long dagger, but her main weapon is various explosives.  Koikawa uses multiple swords, he fights without a formal style and just sort of charges in and massacres shit. Tenma uses these hilarious shikigami (paper familiars) that, I kid you not, slap enemies to death.  And Mugai uses this fucking ridiculous katana-ish blade that’s roughly the size of his body and has a grip as long as he is tall.  Overall the characters themselves are not the strong suit of the show but they do have surprisingly good interaction with each other and if nothing else contribute to the absolute absurdity that is the world of the show.

The world of the show is actually really done despite it’s ridiculous nature.  They really managed to make an Edo, it’s the old name for Tokyo FYI, that feels relatively historically accurate and adjusted to deal with the giant bug problem accordingly.  This is in no small part to the show’s artwork and visual design.  It struck a good balance between the outrageously colorful and vivid parts of the show, like the major characters and the bugs, and the realistic parts of the show, like the towns, topography, and Edo buildings.  The giant bugs generally look awesome or at least disgusting, the buildings are period authentic and the cast manages to have mostly period-accurate clothes that also have enough color and flair to mark them out without making them seem way out of place.  Some of the visual effects for the special attacks in the show are interesting as hell too.  Overall the visual department did its job very well.

So in summary, I would say Mushibugyou is a solid and good looking show with a ridiculous premise that it manages to make work most of the time.  This show is weakest in the early episodes, so if you don’t want to slog through mediocre beginnings to get to better arcs, you may want to skip the show.  If possible I would encourage anyone to try slogging through the early stuff if they can because the show gets so much better later on, at this point I should probably point out it has 24 episodes instead of the usual 12 in case that helps.  Anyway I don’t have much else to say so I’ll wrap up here.  Hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

Hidden Gems: Kingdom

I’m going ahead and putting this show in the Hidden Gems series because I have literally no idea how popular the anime is.  I’ve heard that the manga was quite popular but I’ve heard next to nothing about the anime, and given the relative scarcity of clips available on Youtube, I think it’s ok to consider this show as having at least been somewhat under the radar insofar as the anime is concerned.  That said, this will be a bit longer and more analytical than Hidden Gems posts typically are and there will be some minor spoilers.  Anyway, let’s begin.

Kingdom is shounen-battle anime, it’s also a history anime, set in the Warring States Period of China aka the era of the Seven Kingdoms.  It’s main characters are Xin (Shin), I’ll be doing the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese names in parentheses, Yin Zheng (Ei Sei) and He Liao Diao (Ka Ryo Ten).  Xin (Shin) is former slave who really sucked at all the jobs slaves are supposed to do, despite the fact he is a hard worker, but was really good at fighting both in terms of strength and skill.  Yin Zheng (Ei Sei) is a prince, one of several heirs to the newly-opened throne of Qin, the westernmost of the seven kingdoms.  And He Liao Diao (Ka Ryo Ten) is a bandit dressed in the ancient Chinese equivalent of a chicken suit.  The three seemingly unrelated characters form an interesting trio as they begin on a major life changing journey.

Now before I go into what the show has to offer, I’m going to give you guys the bad news first as it were.  The reason I think the anime went under the radar was that it is ugly as hell, it is heavily reliant on CG and it’s not particularly good CG.  I don’t like attributing a show’s quality to budget alone, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything scream “low budget” like Kingdom outside of Trigger’s Inferno Cop and Ninja Slayer.  Additionally the first 3 or so episodes are probably the most boring in terms of story, it just keeps the status quo going for the most part, and it has the most repetitive dialogue within the series as far as I can remember.  Moreover, the show remains CG-heavy for all of season 1, though admittedly it begins to use some decent looking traditional animation as early as episode 4 of 39.  So I think it’s pretty easy to see why most people who might have been interested dropped this show back when it started airing.  But more to the point, with all of this stacked against it, why in the world am I putting this in series of posts about shows I recommend?

Because despite the stiff limitations placed upon this series, it has managed to deliver in all the ways I had ever hoped it would.  Let’s start with the action.  Action is the bread and butter of the battle-shounen genre, if you can’t do good action in a battle-shounen you are utterly fucked.  And Kingdom, despite the ugly CG, has good action.  Admittedly the CG makes it harder to look at, but there is a lot more to action than just the visual presentation.  Kingdom nails basically all of the non-visual elements, dramatic timing and battle noises in particular.  And even given the ugly CG, I thought Kingdom was able to craft some cool and memorable fights that made the most of what visuals they had.  I mean they still weren’t pretty, but they were imaginative and dramatic, and overall I’d say they really did a good job of drawing me into a show that my eyes usually encouraged me to stop watching.  The action was also a bit more grounded than is typical of shounen-battle shows.  Sure some characters will display inhuman feats of strength and speed, or if you’re Xin (Shin) jump height, but aside from that people behave more like real people.  There aren’t really any nakama power-ups or dudes taking endless beatings and then coming out on top.  In Kingdom if you take a hit it will adversely affect your performance, even the strongest characters start suffering from any damage they take, their attacks get slower, weaker, sloppier, or any combination thereof.  And people take days to recover from any serious wound, if they’re important they might shrug off minor wounds but for the most part the important people avoid taking wounds rather than powering their way through a fight after racking up tons of damage like how Naruto, Bleach or Fairy Tail characters do.  There are still over the top moments and some scenes which stick pretty strongly to battle-shounen tropes, but the action is usually toned down to a more realistic level.  Which brings me to my next point.

Kingdom is a realistic show both in the literal and literary sense.  To clarify this a bit I’m bringing in another history battle-shounen for comparison, Sengoku Basara.  You don’t even have to look past Sengoku Basara’s cover art to figure out it is in no way a realistic portrayal of Japan’s Sengoku Jidai.  It’s action is outrageously over the top, it’s not even remotely within the realm of human ability.  Likewise the characters are less nuanced and look suitably ridiculous, because realism was not something Sengoku Basara was ever going for.  For Kingdom realism is given more consideration.  For example, back in the day kings had to be wary of powerful nobles because nobles had their own private armies and if their armies were better and bigger than the king’s they could try and take the throne.  That’s an extreme and blunt example but Kingdom has this sort of thing, two of the most dangerous characters within royal court are one of the major ministers and the kingdom’s most legendary general.  Both characters have the potential to stand against Yin Zheng (Ei Sei) and either undermine or usurp his rule.  This principal also extends to the nuance in the characters.  Sure Xin (Shin) is the typical loud, strong and stupid shounen hero, but he’s also a slave and he can better connect with, and therefore lead more effectively, his fellow soldiers because even if he outclasses them in terms of ability he knows what it’s like to be a peasant thrown into a war.  He also isn’t actually stupid, so much as he doesn’t know a lot, because being a former slave doesn’t exactly help you get an education, and he doesn’t have a head for grasping situations of a certain scale.  This applies to a lot of real people, some people are great at managing massive companies with legions of employees, others at better at running a mom-and-pop store.  This is not to say there are no fantastical elements or characters, just that they are fewer and farther between.  In fact the main conceit Kingdom wants you to buy into is that major generals are capable of superhuman feats, both physical and mental, because of the weight of their command and the experience it took to get it.  Which is a conceit I’m more than willing to buy into because it’s type of military romanticism, which I like, and the show really knows how to employ the conceit for the purposes of drama.  It may not be totally realistic, but it sure as hell isn’t a weakness for the show.

Next up sound.  What Kingdom lacks in the visual department it makes up for in the audio.  I already mentioned above that the battle noises are fantastic, as you meet more characters you can often tell who is fighting just by the sounds their weapons make and that is not an easy thing to do.  The voice acting is spectacular, Ying Zheng (Ei Sei) reminds me of Lelouch, Xin (Shin) is the loud shounen hero but the voice actor does a really good job of selling the character to me because he communicates Xin’s (Shin’s) passion very well and has a surprisingly good range so that Xin (Shin) isn’t always sounding the same in every fucking scene.  One of the major characters is voiced by the same guy who did the Deep Sea King from One Punch Man and by god that man did a phenomenal job.  And last but certainly not least is the soundtrack.  The soundtrack is full of grand, sweeping tracks made to give the story the feel of an epic.  And importantly the music fits the time period of the show very well, the epic pieces have an Oriental character to them that separates them from the works of more popular composers of epic tracks like Yuki Kajiura and Hiroyuki Sawano, which generally are more Western in terms of instruments used and composition style.  Seriously this soundtrack is to die for.

So Kingdom has a lot going for it, but I think one of the more interesting things about the show is that you can literally see that it does something right between seasons 1 and 2.  I mentioned that season 1 was heavily reliant on bad CG.  Season 2 on the other hand has hardly any CG, it uses almost entirely traditional animation and really good animation at that.  As I said above I think it’s foolish to attribute quality solely or even majorly to budget, but to see Kingdom show such a drastic improvement in visual quality one season later tells me that it was a financial success and had more budget to work when season 2 rolled around.  This is a first for me, I’ve never seen a show make such huge leap in visual presentation, I’ve never seen a show where you almost see it’s financial success story from season 1 to season 2.  It’s just one of those things that makes the show a treat, it makes it worth slogging through the ugly CG so you can bask in awesome traditional animation.  Anyway, I highly recommend this show especially for those of you enjoy shounen battle and/or history anime.  And that about wraps this up.  Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it and I will see you in the next one.

 

Hidden Gems: Utawarerumono

I was originally going to post this much earlier, and try to give everyone who takes my recommendation to heart plenty of time to watch this one before the sequel comes out with the 2015 Fall season.  However I had a couple of awards, challenges and Surly Summaries to write, so now I’m going to settle for posting this on October 1st.  If you wanted to know my opinion on this one, I highly recommend it.  If that’s all you wanted to see, feel free to get started on the show because this post is going to be a bit different from the normal Hidden Gems.  I’m going to tell you what I think about the series and it’s various aspects but I’m going to do it by telling a story, specifically my story about my experience with the show.  Anyway, let’s begin.

If you know about this show already, congratulations you’re doing better than I did before I watched it.  I first found Utawarerumono thanks to a 5ish second clip in some random AMV on Youtube.  When I looked the show up I was greeted by a barren comments section, literally there were no comments and I’d never heard of this show before.  I almost dropped it then and there without giving it a chance.  But I decided to go ahead and try it anyway.  It was one of my better decisions as an anime fan.  I loved the show, I really enjoyed myself and that was that.  But I’d never have told you back then this was a show you had to watch.  I mean I had a good time but I also went in with very low expectations, so I’d always figured it was just good.  Then I took a few years off and re-watched it, going in with much higher expectations and a more critical mindset.  And I noticed things.  Like how awful the CG was, granted this show aired in 2006 I think, but luckily the CG was very brief and rarely used.  I also noticed that damn did this show blow my expectations out of the water, again.  That was when I knew I’d really found something special with this show.  So what is Utawarerumono about and what does it have to offer?

Utawarerumono follows the journey of Hakuoro, though this is not his true name.  His tale begins in a small rural village that looks like it came straight from the Edo-period Japan or even earlier save for one major exception, everyone in this village has some kind of animal ears (kemonomimi) and some even have tails.  Also people ride on big green velociraptor-things.  Hakuoro wakes with no memory of who, what or where he is.  He’s also been badly injured and is currently being tended to by Tuskuru, the village healer and her granddaughter Eruuruu.  Hakuoro also has a mask that covers about half of his face that can’t be removed.  No doubt that sounds like it would be slow and boring to some of you, and you would be right, for about 1 or 2 episodes.  But despite its humble beginnings, Utawarerumono picks up the pace very quickly and becomes much larger than its early episodes would let on.  One of Utawarerumono’s many strengths is good management of time.  During the slower episodes there’s always plenty of things going on or at bare minimum, information and detail for us to drink in.  There’s also plenty of action, the first episode might have you believe otherwise but there are a lot of battles in this show complete with their accompanying gore.  More importantly perhaps, it knows both when to slow down and when it’s time to kick into high gear.  In other words we have plenty of breaks between the action or major story developments but the breaks are kept short and concise enough to keep us from getting bored.  This keeps the story moving along smoothly and allows the show to bring out an impressive amount of story within its 26 episodes.  Seriously, very few shows get as much done as Utawarerumono and even fewer can do it without feeling rushed.  However I’d say the two greatest things about the show are its characters and their relations to each other.

Utawarerumono has an impressively large cast and manages to keep just about everyone interesting.  The characters are all memorable, even the ones who aren’t particularly interesting, because we spend a lot of time with them both in action and at rest, and the designs are varied enough that everyone is easy to identify.   More importantly though this show mixes things up a little by making the huge cast act like one giant family.  That probably doesn’t sound like a big deal with the all the shounen, friendship is power, type shows out there but Utawarerumono has very different character in comparison.  If I had to give it a simple description, I’d say it’s more realistic than its shounen equivalent.  Everyone has a bit more nuance and depth, both in their backgrounds and their relationships.  It makes the whole thing feel more believable and more mature where the shounen friendship-fests are more childish.  A lot of what makes Utawarerumono work is the characters, it has an interesting mix of military types, non-combatants, youths and adults.  What’s more many of the characters come from different races and have totally different life experiences.  But they always come together, both in times of crisis and in times of peace and happiness.  You get to see the kids grow, the young adults mature and the adults themselves really come into their own as they guide the rest and each other through the complicated mess of life.  That may not sound very special but it’s a rare thing in my experience to see all three things happen in a single show, though all the teenage only casts don’t help.  The narrative has plenty of twists and turns and it’s always interesting to see how the cast thinks differently before acting together, since they have a useful combination of brains, brawn and skill between them when they all work together.

Overall if you want a story that really stands out from the crowd, full of well developed characters, rich environments and plenty of action, Utawarerumono has got what you need.  It has a little bit of everything, plus excellent pacing, and it just makes for a great experience.  It just feels more mature and complete than so many other shows.  And so without further ado I demand you all to watch this show, in fact I command you to marathon it right now so you’re ready for the upcoming sequel.  Thank you for reading, hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Hidden Gems: Shin Sekai Yori

You know I have spent hours trying to come up with something special or clever to say for an intro, but since nothing I came up with was doing this show justice, I’ll go with honesty.  I fucking love this show and whole heartedly recommend, nay demand that everyone watch it.  So what does this little known show have going in its favor for me to be so adamant that you watch it?

Let’s begin with the premise.  Our story begins in a small village inhabited by humans who all have psychic powers.  But while the village looks like it came from the ancient past we the viewers are clued in by the first few minutes that this village came about well after the collapse of the modern world.  So we are in a post apocalyptic setting.  Our story follows a group of five psychic tweens.  And here’s where I deviate from the norm because this show has essentially two premises going on at the same time.  Each arc deals with a major conflict but there is also a persistent secondary conflict going on over the entire run time of the show.  This second conflict is the struggle between the new generation and the former, because one of the few things made abundantly clear early on is that something is wrong with this society of psychics.  People go missing, there are rumors of mythical cat beasts that hunt down bad children, and there is a frightening lack of information and transparency.  This is a story where the people our young heroes should be able to trust most, their parents and teachers, are the people who are hiding things from them.

This is one of the things that I thought made Shin Sekai Yori so special.  In an interesting twist we the audience walk into the series with a better understanding of the setting than the kids we experience the story through, but we only know the big picture, the details are hidden from us as well.  So naturally finding these details is a major part of the story.  This is where Shin Sekai Yori really comes into its own, it controls the flow of information very very well.  It never reveals too much too quickly, even when it appears to be doing just that.  The other aspect of this that makes the show so good is that the details are horrifying.  It’s a show that taunts you, giving you all kinds of incentives to seek out answers to all your questions, then when it decides to answer some of them the answers are creepy enough to drive you away from ever seeking more, before the story demands that you seek more answers once again.  It’s a vicious and even perverse cycle that rewards and punishes curiosity simultaneously, and then does all it can to provoke our curiosity.  But this gets into a different strength of the show.

Shin Sekai Yori is eerie.  It doesn’t try to scare you but it constantly feels creepy.  I’ve never had a show or movie that make my hairs stand on end as often as this show did.  And the eeriness is everywhere.  The music is full of children singing in haunting unison.  The art style is at its strongest when it’s dealing with the dark, the twisted and the wrong.  The art style even changes on occasion to a more expressive style to communicate the horror certain stories are meant to teach.  And to add to it all there are frequent and unexplained disappearances, in a society of adults of who punish harshly and never explain anything beyond the basic rules.  And this only gets muddier and murkier as the main characters discover new information, information that brings with it at least as many questions as it does answers, and the answers we have tend to be deeply unsettling.  I’ll say it again, this show is eerie.  The atmosphere is one of confusion and distrust.  But more than that everything we see just feels wrong somehow.  At some fundamental level that we have a hard time consciously explaining, this place and many of the people in it just feel wrong.

Now the level of atmosphere this show has is something to make it worth a watch on its own, but the atmosphere is just one large part of the eerie package.  Shin Sekai Yori is just plain good at storytelling and more importantly given its propensity for the strange, really good at unusual storytelling.  For example each major arc occurs at a different point in the main characters’ lives, which allows us to see how this world and society changes them as they mature.  Likewise the time gaps play into the persistent secondary conflict as the young people we follow make their way into adulthood, and learn more about what being an adult in this society entails.  But at its core this is story that pulls you in.  Every arc begins a little slow but the episodes get progressively faster and faster, and you want to race to the climax of the arc.  And like I mentioned before the show does a great job with how it dispenses information.  It never dispenses too much but it always gives enough answers to encourage further digging.  And all of this stuff comes together in a series that I consider to be very compelling and very unique, which is a combination I don’t get to see often enough.  Anyway I really have nothing further to add so I can avoid giving out spoilers.  I truly do recommend this show quite highly, my gushing praise alone does not properly convey how much esteem I hold this particular show in.  If an atmospheric mystery thriller sounds like something you would enjoy or if you’re looking to try something  a little bit more on the fringes of the anime medium, I strongly encourage you to watch Shin Sekai Yori.  Hopefully you all enjoyed this and I’ll see you in the next one.