Heil Tanya the Evil: A Masterclass in Film Sequels

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Word of warning this review will totally spoil the shit out of Youjo Senki aka Tanya the Evil, both the tv season and the recent film sequel.  If you wish to avoid spoilers don’t read it.  Also if you want to get an idea of where I’m coming from this post summarizes my thoughts on the tv season pretty well.

Man it’s good to be back.  In the off chance you read the review linked above, know that my love for this show has only increased in the time between its initial airing and the film.  It’s the perfect blend of goofiness, edge, historical accuracy and historical fiction, and it always puts a giant dumb grin on my face.

To quickly sum up my thoughts on the tv season, it was great.  The setting, an alt-universe early 20th century world with limited magic and a world war brewing was a great backdrop, especially with our main character basically walking into this by successfully arguing with God that faith is much more prevalent in hardship.  And if for some reason you’re reading this without having seen any of Youjo Senki, yes I know the premise sounds stupid beyond belief.  But as something of an expert on stupid, this show is definitely the best kind of stupid, it does not take itself seriously, at least not in how it’s presented to the audience and just runs with it’s crazy ideas.  Which makes it all the more surprising that the narrative is also able to portray how gripping and intense this war is to the characters.

Make no mistake this show, despite how OP the main character appears throughout most of the tv season, Youjo Senki presents one of the most tightrope tense war scenarios I’ve ever seen.  Because the tech is a weird blend of real world WWI & WWII, in addition to magic troops, the war plays out much more dynamically than most of our WWI that it technically is representing.  WWI was a slow war where the defense was utterly dominant because most of the generals had not adjusted their tactics to the capability of modern tech.  Hence why some WWI armies still had honest to God cavalry units, and one Russian general in particular even believed large cavalry units could not be surpassed even by tanks… let’s just say he’s still blushing from embarrassment in his grave.  WWI was a serious paradigm shift and the tv season did a really solid of job of portraying that.  Dakia was the most blatant example with the imbecilic military of this fictional Romania fighting in unit squares, not using any air power or encrypting communications.  However it proved true as well in the attack on the Orse Fjord, where the Empire used a combination of newer troop types to create tactical breakthroughs that saw the Empire crush a vital naval defense that was considered unassailable.

The tv season is peppered throughout with accurate historical details, like the horror of trench warfare, the incompetence of certain militaries and the growing pains of armies going through major new technological developments.  This holds true in the film sequel as well, in particular regarding it’s portrayal of Communist Russia.  In the film, there’s blatant party corruption, messages passed on to leadership are often falsified to appear more positive, poor or lacking equipment plagues the army, troops who run are shot by their officers and the signature “quantity has a quality all of it’s own” approach that has been a staple modern Russian armies all make an appearance.  Perhaps the most interesting detail though was that all of native Russian mage units were gulaged because of communist ideology.  This at a time when mages were proving to be vital units in the conflict as shown primarily through Tanya’s strike force and the huge impact her small, but elite, highly mobile and well armed troops have proven to be.

This leads to arguably the best part of the film, Tanya’s attack on Moska (alt-universe Moscow).  After spotting Federation (Russian) troop movements at the eastern border of the Empire, followed swiftly by a large scale attack across the eastern front, Tanya decides the best way to aid the defenders is by attacking Moska.  This would cause a panic internally, be a huge blow to morale and all but necessitate withdrawing some forces back – thus easing the pressure on the front lines.  The attack is much like the one in Dakia during the tv season, but where the raid on Dakia was a brief bombardment with some hilarity on the side, the raid on Moska is the same thing taken to the next level.  The raid is punishingly successful, because Moska has limited air defenses and no mages to counterattack Tanya’s wing (50ish man unit).  This leads to long minutes of satisfying scenes of explosions and one-sided dominance, as Tanya and Co. not only attack strategic targets but make a complete mockery of the Federation, knocking down a giant statue of Stalin, planting Empire flags all of the city, and singing patriotic music while filming their exploits.  That’s winning so hard you can’t help but laugh.

However the Federation’s incompetence and lack of mages leads to the other big draw of this film, Mary Sioux.  Mary was hinted at the very end of the tv season and boy does she make her mark in this film.  The daughter of one of Tanya’s toughest opponents from the tv season, Mary has the right blend of youthful idealism and justifiable grudges against Tanya and the Empire to be a character you can totally sympathize with.  In a relatively short span, she’s lost her country, her home and her father – and Tanya played a decisive role in this, though Mary does not know that.  What she does know however is that the Empire has to opposed for what they’ve done – which is mildly ironic considering all of the nations it subdued during the tv season attacked the Empire first but never mind – and that Tanya killed her dad and stole his machine gun, her parting gift to him; which she finds out when Tanya slams the fucker butt first into Mary’s gut.  This understandably upsets Mary and triggers an influx of divine power so massive Tanya is visibly shaken and starts firing full auto at a girl she had dead to rights in the hope of immediately destroying the threat.

In a very real sense Mary is the heart of this film and the creators knew it.  Tanya is still much the same as she was during the tv season, a twisted but intelligent person who uses her knowledge of our WWI & WWII to her and the Empire’s advantage.  She gleefully mocks her opponents, makes edgy faces and wrecks shit – at least early on.  What the second half of the film captured was something almost entirely absent from the tv season, save for the final duel with Mary’s father, Tanya and Co. being pushed to their limits or even overwhelmed.  Part of what the tv season fairly goofy, in meta sense, was just how dominant Tanya and her men were.  In the film they start off much the same way, crushing their foes, destroying important targets and laughing it up as the pwn all enemy noobs.  But Mary flips the table.  In a personal sense she far outshines any other mage, even Tanya, who is only able to beat Mary by taking advantage of Mary’s rage and lack of experience, but also in a macro-sense.  Mary’s awakening for lack of a better word is followed by a major offensive from the Federation on Tiegenhoff, an isolated but superb defensive position, that was cut off during the Federation’s large scale advance.  The local soldiers and Tanya, who reinforces the locals, have to face off against enemies who outnumber them between 4-9 to 1 and that’s just the ground troops.

The sheer size of the offensive means that Tanya and the locals have to face a full on assault for more than 24 hrs straight, culminating in a final infantry push, accompanied by a mage wing attack aiming to crush the local General Staff and a some bombers with a large escort of fighters.  Mary is of course a major factor as well, as she has recovered from her wounds in Moska and is now the single most powerful mage on the battlefield.  And while Tanya and the Empire do win, it’s not like the wins from before, either in Moska or in the tv season.  This is not a decisive victory with lots of celebration afterwards.  This is a win by the skin of their teeth, managed only by the heroic resistance of the local troops, the quality and experience of Tanya’s men and Tanya being able to effectively tie up Mary, significantly reducing her value as a military asset.  Mary’s great weakness is that she’s still raw and emotional, she doesn’t have the maturity or experience to set her emotions aside and fight tactically.  If she had then Tanya and the Empire would have lost.  Instead consumed by her righteous rage, she engages in a tense and frenetic duel with Tanya, with both girls pulling out all the stops and in the end both take significant wounds but are unable to kill the other.

The bits where Tanya’s troops split their forces is desperate bid to destroy the bombers was also fantastic.  The major members of her wing have been made memorable during the tv season because of how vital and competent they are but this is their crowning achievement.  For once they are bereft of their commander’s dominant strength as a mage, and they have to fight their way throw a horde of fighters to bring down the few but far more important bombers.  Honestly watching the guys struggle so hard, while doing their best to show their bravado and tactical acumen was really fun and it was punctuated by some really satisfying moments, like when one of the captains charges a plane with a his ensorcelled bayonet and chops the the wing off, or when a ragged squad just barely makes it high enough to shoot down the bombers in the nick of time.  The action in this film was top tier, the best of what Youjo Senki has to offer.  It’s mastery of the fun violence early on and the tooth and nail struggle in the latter half made the film a total blast.

Just about the only thing the film lacks in comparison to the tv season are the longer tense strategy meetings, because it just doesn’t have the time to develop giant game changing strategies like the attack on Orse Fjord or the encirclement of the entire Republican army.  Instead it shows and discusses great tactics but it their just isn’t enough to time to really go all in at the strategic level (for those not all that into military history, tactical level and strategic level are totally different, tactics are the means by which you win battles while strategies are the means by which you win wars – that’s a very crude way to put it but it should get the difference in scale across).  One other mark against the film is that is one of the worst looking films I have ever seen.  It looks about the same as the tv season, maybe a little better considering the amount of detailed city environments, but considering that films are generally supposed to look way better than tv anime, it has to be said that the Youjo Senki film sets the bar pretty damn low.  Personally I didn’t mind because I like the show enough to get past the lacking visuals but I can see how it could be a major point of contention to some people.

In conclusion this film is fucking great.  It fully delivers on the best of the Youjo Senki experience from the tv season, in a short, concise package.  It has moments of levity and even comedy contrasted with long, tense battle scenes.  Mary made a phenomenal debut, bringing an largely unseen emotional intensity to the series.  Seriously I think they did great job with Mary, especially balancing the parts of her character that easy to sympathize with the contrast to her almost bestial rage and boundless hatred towards Tanya.  She was someone it was easy to get behind on the one side but easy to root against because of just how consumed by anger she was in combination with her clear advantage in power.  Plus finally having Tanya face someone who wasn’t just a challenge but an implacable and almost totally overwhelming foe really added a new dimension to Youjo Senki, and it was welcome break from the big, mostly one-sided winning streak that preceded Mary’s arrival.  If you’re a fan of Youjo Senki, this film is a must watch.  If you’ve not seen any Youjo Senki and still made it through this review, go watch it.  The show is easily a 9 in my book, not that I’m fond of numeric ratings but whatever it gives some perspective to those who like scores, and the film is at least a 9 as well.  I highly recommend them both.  See you in the next one.

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RWBY Volume 6: A Return to Form (Mostly)

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RWBY Volume 6 is a welcome step forward from the mess that was Volume 5.  Volume 5 was juggling a lot of interesting threads and unfortunately tried to tie them all together in one place, but because some of these threads are quite complicated and take a lot of time to resolve the whole season felt slow as shit.  Volume 6 is very much like Volume 4, my personal favorite among the Volumes, the destination is simple and it’s the journey which is interesting.  That being said I do think Volume 6 lags behind Volumes 3 & 4, the high water marks of the show.  There will be spoilers ahead.

I can see Volume 6 being a favorite for a lot of people.  It has not only the biggest plot twist in the entire show but the most world building of any Volume, finally addressing some of questions that have been looming over the series since at least Volume 3.  It turns out that this Remnant’s second go at life.  There are a pair of gods who created the world and all it’s inhabitants and they left Remnant behind.  Moreover humans in the past wielded far greater powers than they do now but they were ultimately wiped out because they rose up against the gods who created them.  The exceptions are Ozpin, reincarnated as Oscar Pine in Volume 4, and Salem.  The two were lovers in the days before humanity was wiped out, with Ozpin being a renowned hero called Ozam, saving the princess locked in a tower – Salem.  This fairytale romance abruptly ground to a halt when Ozpin suddenly falls ill and dies.  In her grief Salem begs the gods to resurrect him, temporarily turning one against the other, and thus begins her downward spiral.

The gods reconcile and punish her with immortality, that she might learn the error of her ways, but the lesson she takes home is that the gods are fallible.  She then uses the very immortality she was granted to convince humans far and wide to rise against the gods, thus leading to humanity’s temporary extinction.  The gods conclude this world as something of a failed experiment and leave, but before they do they leave behind 4 Relics and make Ozpin their herald, sort of.  Ozpin, who is reincarnated and will perpetually reincarnate, has been tasked with uniting humanity  and bringing about harmony, and then using the 4 Relics to call the gods back when he has made humanity worthy of the gods.

More important than this information though is the means by which it is discovered.  Namely, that Ruby, up to this point the teen who was most loyal to Ozpin, disobeys Ozpin’s desperate pleas (after they catch him lying about the Relic of Knowledge) and uses the Relic to discover the history of the past, who Ozpin and Salem are and most damning of all, the fact there is no way for Ozpin to kill Salem.

Naturally this wealth of information almost causes the entire mission to collapse.  Since the events of Volume 3 most of the teens have gotten warier and warier of Ozpin, with Raven’s bird form reveal being a sort nail in coffin for Yang and Weiss.  Ruby was the main exception and to some extent she still is.  Everyone else is about ready to call it quits.  Why should they fight a foe that they can’t kill?  Why should they have to suffer and struggle for nothing?  It’s Ruby more than anyone else who believes in continuing the mission.

It’s after this point that Volume 6 becomes very reminiscent of Volume 4, the team finds a ruined settlement to camp in and has to deal with the whirlwind of emotions the information revealed above causes.  Qrow is by far the most interesting in this light as he was Ozpin’s most trusted agent.  He naturally feels betrayed and used like everyone else, but in addition he enters a downward spiral of self-loathing.  Because of his Semblance, the ability to passively cause bad luck to befall those around him, he felt he had no place to belong to – and that Ozpin gave him that place.  With everything revealed to be a lie, Qrow feels that he’s wasted his life and that he really doesn’t belong anywhere.  Of all present members, they got split up when the train they were on got attacked, Qrow is the closest to quitting outright, followed by Yang.  I do sort of wish the show had a moment when Yang and Qrow said, in some form or another, that Raven was right all along.  One of weaknesses of the Volume is that it doesn’t let the characters stew in their negative feelings, their doubts long enough.

Unfortunately this problem is kind of exacerbated by the coolest part of the Volume.  After the big reveal Ruby and Co. have to take shelter and find an abandoned farming settlement.  Unlike prior ruins they’ve visited, there is no evidence of violent destruction, everyone seems to have died in their beds.  It does a great job of raising the tension, and convincing everyone that they have to leave the next morning.  However, because of the as yet unknown presence of Grimm, this plan is complicated.  The fact that some of the characters feel drained enough to not want to leave is a big red flag for the viewers and for Ruby, the most active and alert member.  Feeling drained is understandable, but it’s way out of character for these guys to want to stay in a village full dead bodies, cluing us in that Grimm are the cause.  Then we meet the Apathy.

The Apathy are fucking awesome, I would rate them as the second best Grimm in the entire series.  Unlike most Grimm they don’t rely on physical power, they are slow-moving pack creatures with spindly, twisted frames and long, delicate claws who cause humans around them to become tired.  They’re fucking terrifying as there’s a horde of these things in the dark, cramped tunnels beneath the town and their massed screams can cause the Huntresses to weaken or even black out in an instant.  If not for Ruby’s silver eyes there was a very real chance of the team dying here.  And the fact the leader of the settlement deliberately led the Apathy into the tunnels, hoping to use their nature to stem complaints from workers when the farm was struggling was a great touch.  The Apathy are awesome as monsters but they’re sort of a mixed bag for the show on the whole.

They help bring out the worst in a group of characters already wracked with doubt, hopelessness and betrayal.  This where the characters reach their lowest point since Volumes 3 and 4.  Yang is basically ready to quit.  Blake and Weiss have serious doubts about what to do going forward.  Oscar is being ostracized for being the host of Ozpin and is struggling internally with the idea that may his personality may consumed by Ozpin’s.  And Qrow is drinking himself into oblivion, wallowing in his own negative feelings and letting himself sink lower than he’s ever gone before.  However because so much of these negative emotions are brought to the fore by the Apathy, as soon as the Apathy are dead and the team reunites with the rest at Argus, most of these emotions are never seen again – save for Jaune’s enraged outburst and Qrow’s lingering doubts about getting to Atlas.

It’s a damn shame because these doubts coming to ahead is one of most interesting part of the story.  This could break the mission altogether and they probably should have dedicated a lengthy episode to having the characters seriously arguing their respective positions on what to do next.  There’s even a way to resolve any disagreements in Argus, Pyrrha.  Pyrrha was a native of Argus and there is a statue in her honor in the town.  Jaune even runs into one Pyrrha’s family members, I assume thanks to the red hair and green eyes, there.  Think about it, you could spend an entire episode having everyone really going at it, arguments so passionate and positions so different that it threatens to break apart this adhoc team apart and ruin the quest before Ruby and Jaune see the statue of Pyrrha and try and refocus the quest.  “Forget about Ozpin and his bullshit, these bastards killed Pyrrha and they’re gonna pay for it,” or something to that effect, you could win most everyone over on that alone.  You could make it this heavy, emotional, dramatic and even painful episode and still resolve it – and that would be fucking amazing.  Instead the concerns are few and brief with Ruby gathering her determination, powering through and getting everyone behind her because that kind of her shtick.

The final portion of the Volume is probably the most contentious and it mainly has to do with Adam.  I think a lot of people are disappointed with Adam, or already were based on his lackluster performance in Volumes 4 & 5.  In Volume 3 he was a powerful, menacing figure – the demon in Blake’s past that she struggles to face.  Since then his character has been kind of a shambling mess, bitter, angry, power-hungry and oddly obsessed with Blake.  I can totally see why people kind of hate the direction Adam goes and to be honest as of Volume 5 he looked pretty shit.  Personally though I think he sort gets redeemed in Volume 6.

After the prior Volumes Adam will never be the mysterious, menacing badass he seemed to be in Volume 3, but I think Volume 6 does provide the details which patch up the character he has become.  From his character short and Blake’s earlier observations, Adam is someone who feels wronged and wants to vent on the world around him, to make them suffer as he did.  When he makes controversial decisions it’s usually on the basis that he feels he owed things.  He feels he deserves to be the leader of White Fang by now, so he kills the leader.  There’s also a sort cult leader vibe to much of his character, he wins over the soldiers left and right by virtue of his skill, power and rhetoric, which is what allows him to take power in the first place.  And this characteristic that best explains his obsession with Blake, that I can see many would argue ruins his character.

My best guess is that what people wanted out of Adam was to more zealot than cult leader, for him to be this aloof, menacing figure who can’t be reasoned with and who punishes and threatens Blake as he does in Volume 3 due to her being an apostate, she was believer who abandoned the cause and for a zealot there can be no greater failing than this.  What we got instead is a man who channels his bitterness and pain into dominating others, whether this be by the power of his words and deeds or by defeating them in battle.  Either way it makes him feel powerful and in control and he revels in it, at least internally.  The scene that most cements this is when he takes the mask off and you can see the brand over one eye.  If we take Blake at her word and Adam does indeed wish to inflict unto others what was inflicted upon him, the brand is a symbol of ownership, and obviously a painful one given it’s placement.  He feels the urge to brand others in his own way, not with hot iron but with fiery rhetoric.  Alternatively you could see his obsession with Blake as a sort of marker of success.  In the past Blake abandoned her father and his way of running the White Fang  to join Adam, and thus retaining her loyalty is sort of symbol that Adam and his way are superior.  Either way I feel like the brand solidifies Adam as a deeply resentful and bitter person who feels he has no other recourse but to dominate others so that he might never again feel weak, someone much less intimidating and mystifying then guy he was in Volume 3, but not a poorly crafted character.

Not all of Adam’s developments are positives for me though.  For starters how the hell did he get here?  It’s implied that various members and former of Salem’s team have used info brokers to follow certain targets but Adam has not been implicated in this.  Nor has been shown having any real contact with Salem, he seems to have gone rogue and just stalked Blake.  While this feeds into his obsessive need to control her, it seems odd that he would be able to do this without anyone noticing.  Also Blake’s travel plans were literally derailed so that makes things more complicated.  The real shame was revealing that his Semblance mirrored Yang’s, partly because it was kind of lame but more so in that it leads to a lot scenes of him blocking bullets.  It would have been much better if Semblance was more along the lines of being able to infuse his attacks with concentrated aura to make them stronger at the cost of making him more vulnerable.  That would give him all kinds need to be skilled without also having a ridiculous number of my-sword-blocks-bullets moments.  I’d also bet many are unhappy with his death but I don’t really care, I think they’ve done about all that they can without making him descend into madness and also his death was something a show writer could feasibly have him survive, much like Cinder’s was.

As for the battle against Adam it honestly wasn’t that good, because again the whole I-constantly-block-bullets-with-my-sword thing is dumb and it was just a really bad example of how loosely the team at Rooster Teeth is playing with Aura.  The fact that humans have Aura is not a problem but they should put more focus on it in fights, rather than having it break whenever they deem it convenient.  Characters should be basing some of their decisions on the amount of Aura they have left, it should factor into their general planning.  The battle with the mech on the other hand, that’s what I’m talking about.  It’s a chaotic clash where multiple parties of relatively fragile combatants use mobility, numbers, and tactics to battle against a huge, sturdy and well-armed foe.  This was the kind of combat that Volume 5 sorely lacked, one where the Hunters and Huntresses take full advantage of their weapons and skills, to take on a challenge.  Barring Nora taking a super-cannon of lightning head on there was not much else they could have tried.  They use multiple distractions, aim for the shield generator, target any weakspots they can think of and in the end they still barely win.  It’s only by the grace of Ruby’s crazy brand of bravery and brains that they prevail.

Ultimately I think Volume 6 is welcome step forward from Volume 5 but not on the level of Volumes 3 & 4.  It has some excellent world-building, a great new Grimm and a good battle – but it unfortunately clips what could have been one of the most interesting threads of the entire show frustratingly short.  There really should have been a lot more emotional development going on and honestly the greatest challenge from this Volume should have internal not external.  The fight with mech was good but a battle for the heart and soul of the team, with best friends and siblings pitted against one another when faced with the mind-boggling secrets that have been kept from them and the seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead – now that’s a battle for the ages, even if weapons aren’t involved.  Volume 6 was good but not great, hopefully Volume 7 – which was being set up in the background all along – takes after Volume 3 and not Volume 5.  Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

Unpopular Opinion: Baki

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I decided to watch the 2018 release of Baki with practically no knowledge of the source material nor having seen anything beyond short snippets from earlier anime adaptations.  I tried it on a whim.  And having watched the entire thing, the first thing that comes to mind in terms of reviewing and/or recommending Baki is, well it’s complicated.  There will be spoilers.

Stepping out of my own shoes for a second, I think one could objectively argue that Baki has a very high bar for entry and not in an intellectual way.  The character designs are some of the most ridiculously over-muscled physiques in all of anime and they are NOT conventionally attractive.  That alone could be enough of turn some viewers away, but not only that, right away Baki is asking you to REALLY REALLY suspend your disbelief as the death row prisoners make their escapes in episode 1.  Two of them survive tried and true methods of execution.  One swims out from a submarine to reach the surface without taking a breath or being affected by the change in pressure.  One crawls out of a missile silo using nothing but rusty spots, seams between metal plates and his bare hands.  And one uses the martial arts equivalent of an air pump to break rocket-proof glass.  Also we are told that all the world’s nitroglycerin crystallized around the world simultaneously because of the borderline magical event known as synchronicity, which is what caused all five inmates to escape their various prisons at the same time for the same reason.

If you’re already acquainted with the source material then the sheer absurdity of Baki’s world is well known to you.  But if you jump in cold turkey, then Baki asks a lot from you right out the gate.  And that’s setting aside the fact this arc of Baki is 4 YEARS into Baki’s story.  There are a ton of established characters from prior arcs who appear in Baki 2018, and some of them have about as much screen time as our titular Baki.  In Baki’s defense it is peppered with very brief flashbacks that shed some light on who these characters are and how they came to be involved with other characters in the story.  But these flashbacks also make it clear to anyone checking out Baki 2018 that there is a considerably longer story they are missing out on.

If all that wasn’t enough, the sheer level of violence in Baki is enough to drive people away, both in terms of the damage dealt and how unrealistically people recover from the damage they take – assuming they do in fact recover.  The violence on display is even by anime standards, especially brutal.  The are no blood pinatas, people don’t just go down with slash and bloodspurt.   Here’s an example, one of the death row inmates uses a small explosive he has hidden under his skin to totally bow the face off one of the marital artists, and the show does in fact show the skinless face.  Bodies get broken and twisted, combatants get covered in vicious scars.  This a show which is not only incredibly violent but one which displays the damage done as realistically as the scenario dictates.  Long story short it can be a lot to stomach.

To make matters even worse, the narrative, if you can even call it that, is a meandering mess.  There is little in the way of structure, linear progression or even satisfying resolutions between characters.  For example one of the death row inmates is killed by Baki’s dad after fighting a character who only shows up for 5-10 minutes in the entire show.  The only battle which is resolved in a remotely traditional way, after the challenge is posed between Baki and the other top 5 martial artists against the top 5 deadliest death row inmates, is the first battle between Speck and Hanayama Kaoru.  Hell a bunch of characters get beaten multiple times by different members of the enormous cast of Baki, which seemingly calls on all of Baki’s former opponents-cum-friendly acquaintances to make an appearance.  Even the ending of Baki 2018 is literally the intro to a new tournament arc.

Having said all that against it though, I still can’t condemn Baki outright, at least not completely.  Keeping in mind that I have a very high tolerance for unbelievable anime bullshit so long as it’s cool, I admit that Baki strains the limits of my tolerance – especially because the whole meandering nature of the conflict.  However I can’t deny that I also found Baki incredibly captivating.  So much so that I immediately began to voraciously devour the manga as soon as I had finished watching it.

There’s a charm in the absurdity of Baki, a delightful goofiness that evolves into something fascinating in the over-the-top characters, personalities, bodies and fighting in Baki.  It feels like pro wrestling, something which is at once goofy, obviously fake and so macho that it’s cheesy, while at the same time being badass enough to draw a crowd.  The way the Baki is so willing to lean into the obviously fake parts of it’s story and just run with them is kind of endearing in it’s own way – it shows an almost naive kind of sincerity that most media can’t portray, because the creators of most media won’t let their own properties run wild with such reckless abandon.   Baki has a heart to it that most shows, no matter how much more tightly constructed they might be, just lack.

The anime also rocks one of the most aggressive and energetic OSTs that I’ve ever heard and I love it.  It makes the fights more badass, the standoffs more intense and the goofiness even goofier.

All things considered though I’m not sure I can really recommend Baki 2018 as a standalone show.  Even of you’re the kind of person who digs the violence, who can look past the so-macho-they’re-almost-grotesque character designs and is willing to ignore or even buy into the ridiculous world of Baki – there is no satisfying story in Baki 2018.  The whole conflict feels pointless, with Baki spending so much time off screen and characters from prior arcs coming in at random to curbstomp half of the death row inmates anyway.  And look, I’m all for pointlessly over-the-top action with a scant story, but Baki 2018 is too loose with it’s story.  It’s not interesting for such a direct 5v5 challenge to be so  thoroughly undercut by pre-existing characters who we haven’t spent any time with.

For Baki fans this presents no issue, they already know these other characters and are probably thrilled they made an appearance.  But Baki 2018 fails as a self-contained story arc, in fact I think it fails so hard in that department that it really mars the experience.  Which is a shame because as ludicrous and violent as the world of Baki is, I bought in to it.  I was captivated by Baki in all it’s insanity, so much so that I did go check out the source material and have considered watching the older anime adaptations.  It’s just a shame that Baki 2018’s inadequacies were part of the driving force to do so.

Ultimately I know Baki 2018 is not for everyone and I don’t really recommend it to most.  If my description of Baki 2018 sounds interesting then by all means check it out, but to me it basically serves as a hook to draw newer anime fans to the manga, the show by itself is not satisfying enough to merit being more than that.

It’s OK to be Dark & (a little) Edgy: Shield Hero Eps 2-3 Review

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In my last post about Shield Hero, my main concern was that while the anime would add valuable details that the manga glossed over, it would not lean into the darker aspects of the manga hard enough.  And this would be a shame because it was the darkness, the severity of the discrimination against Naofumi and his own bitterness and vitriol towards this world that screwed him out the gate, that made the early chapters of manga fucking awesome.  The anime is unfortunately apparently trying to be the kid friendly version of Shield Hero – and so they fucked it up.  There will be spoilers.

One of the details added to the manga almost immediately after Naofumi gets the false rape charge which is apparently triggering SJWs because they can’t just let a story be a story is that he gets these bags under his eyes which immediately make him look a hell of a lot meaner.  It gave him a perpetual glare that consistently scared Raphtalia before the two had their big bonding moment after killing the demon dog.  Most importantly though the bags which caused Naofumi to have his perpetual glare really helped sell his bitterness.  They enhanced his dialogue, when he made a threat he really did look like the kind of guy who would fucking act on it.  In the anime the only scenes that sort of get this are when the merchant tries to screw him in Ep 1, when the bandits want to mug him under the guise of joining his party in Ep 1, and when he almost lets the guards die in Ep 3.

But as important as the bags and the resulting glare are as visual enhancements of every scene it is ultimately the attitude which matters.  Can the anime tap into the core of Naofumi, the man unjustly branded a criminal and hurled out of proper society, with the dark shift in attitude such a life style entails?  The answer seems to be no.  Not only is this a problem in the current episodes and episode 4 soon to follow, it’s going to be a major problem down the line and anyone who has read the manga knows what I’m talking about.  Naofumi will eventually gain a power which is entirely birthed from his hatred of the world and the assholes who have tried to keep him down – and importantly this power is a major fucking plot point on several occasions.  Obviously the anime will give him the power in question anyway because there would be no way the story could continue without it.  But that begs the question, if this power is so vital to the story going forward shouldn’t the anime do everything in it’s power to make it seem like something Naofumi really deserves, that the darkness from whence it came seems as intense as the story can manage while hitting the right story beats?  I obviously think so, hence why I’m annoyed at the anime.

Here’s an example.  In Ep 3 just before the wave hits Naofumi and Raphtalia go and buy some better gear.  In the anime the only options for Naofumi are barbarian armor (it was called tribal armor in the manga but whatever same shit) which is ultimately what he ends up getting and plate armor.  They kind of jokingly bypass the plate armor saying it would rob Naofumi of his individuality, and settle on the barbarian armor.  In the manga the options are the barbarian armor and a set of chainmail.  Raphtalia is super pumped about getting Naofumi the chainmail before he yells “I’m not wearing that fucking thing!” or something to that effect because it’s a legitimate trigger of his.  Remember he had bought chainmail before when it was just him and Mein, and she stole it and gave it to Motoyasu the Spear Hero.  He quite reasonably has bad associations with chainmail and thus doesn’t buy it even if it’s the better armor.  This scene matters in the manga not just because it reinforces Naofumi’s bitter attitude, it plays into the next scene where the other heroes confront Naofumi when he visits the magical hourglass to see when the wave is coming.  By comparison his decision not to buy plate armor doesn’t really make sense beyond an aesthetic preference and/or a general misunderstanding of how plate armor works.  Plate armor is commonly presented as though it’s too heavy to use unless you’re big and strong but it’s not even remotely true.  You can sprint and do flips and shit in full plate armor because it’s designed to distribute the weight to hinder the wearer’s movements as little as possible.

Point is the anime scene is a dumb joke, the manga equivalent is genuinely important both as it’s own scene and in how it flows into the rest of the chapter.  Because following the blacksmith scene the heroes have a confrontation by the magical hourglass as Motoyasu first hits on Raphtalia before he starts to tell she won’t be safe with Naofumi because he’s a rapist.  Naofmui interrupts him and storms off with Raphtalia but the darkness again a decisive factor in how both the manga and anime turn out so differently.  In the anime even when Naofumi is giving his best glare the whole scene makes him feel impotent, which it was supposed to, but afterwards the anime cuts to a scene of Naofumi quietly grinding herbs while Raphtalia tries to ask about the rumors but Naofumi brushes her off.  In the manga Naofumi looks like he’s straight up about to attack Motoyasu, he looks berserk enough to do it if pushed any further and while ultimately he still leaves the scene feeling impotent, in the manga he storms out into the fields and when Orange Balloon demons attack he tells Raphtalia to stand back because “I really want to hit something right now” and then he proceeds to spend the entire evening punching the demons to death while swearing like a sailor at the top of his lungs to vent his rage.

Look at the difference here.  Not only does the darkness within Naofumi in the manga make each individual scene better than it’s anime equivalent but it gives the chapter a very strong buildup with each scene and the emotions they bring flowing into each other flawlessly as Naofumi, who was becoming a bit nicer as his trust in Raphtalia grew, is thrust right back down to his emotional nadir.  He’s confronted by the armor that he wore and which was later stolen from him when he was betrayed, he has to see the other heroes who hate his guts again (and Mein too because she’s Motoyasu’s companion), he’s made to feel impotent because the system is rigged against him during his confrontation with Motoyasu ,and then when his hatred and rage reach their peak Naofumi finds an outlet, weakass monsters he can spend hours beating to death, before he faces the wave the next day.  By comparison the anime scenes flow into each other from stray lines of dialogue, specifically when the blacksmith tells Naofumi about the magical hourglass and when Motoyasu mentions the rumors about Naofumi.  In the former case Naofumi obviously just goes where the blacksmith tells him to go, while in the latter Raphtalia tries to ask about the rumors Motoyasu mentioned but Naofumi won’t give her an answer.  But there is no flow of emotions, no buildup of tension, no cathartic release.  It’s just kind of flat.

Look if you think I’m being to hard on the anime or whatever, I think the anime is fine.  If it were a totally original IP I would not be complaining, and as a standalone experience the anime is decent.  I’m just annoyed because the manga is better than decent and I want the anime to be too.  I want the manga to spring to life and improve in the anime, not for the anime to be a family friendly, milquetoast version of the manga – which sad is what we seem to be getting.

Personally I think part of the problem is that Naofumi is ultimately too nice anyway, even in the manga he rarely goes harder than looking menacing and speaking of the world and inhabitants with scathing venom.  He’s not really a bad guy even when he’s mad enough to be.  Maybe the anime is toning it down because the director sees that and wants Naofumi to never seem all that dark to begin with.  But to me this feels like a marketing decision.  It feels like the producers said to tone it down, to make Naofumi a more sympathetic character, to drain the darkness as it were so that product will appeal to wider demographic and sell more blu-rays – not understanding that the darkness is not just integral to the story in an artistic sense but also that was the darkness that drew many of us in the first place.

I will probably keep watching Shield Hero but as it stands I don’t see how it will ever live up the manga so long as they keep toning it down.  And that sucks because I prefer anime to manga in a general sense.  I would rather watch a good anime than read a good manga.  But in Shield Hero’s case it looks like the manga is the way to go.  See you in the next one.

The Devil is in the Details: Ep 1 of Shield Hero vs Manga

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Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  Why the fuck am I comparing the manga adaptation of a light novel to the anime adaptation of a light novel instead of going back to the source material?  Simple, I don’t read light novels so the manga is the only other thing I have to go on.  More to the point I quite like the manga and some of the differences between how it’s chapters were handled as compared to episode 1 of the anime are noteworthy enough to mention in terms of how to write and direct scripts and their relevant scenes.  There will spoilers for episode 1 and the corresponding manga chapters only.

For those who’ve not seen the episode nor read the manga, here’s a brief explanation.  Naofumi is warped from Japan into another world via a fantasy novel he starts reading.  When arrives he finds that 3 other Japanese boys of roughly the same age range have been summoned as well to save a fantasy kingdom from the incoming wave of monsters.  All of four Japanese boys, the 4 Heroes, are locked into using a sacred weapon and in Naofumi’s case it is a tiny shield.  They are then given companions so they can go out in separate groups and level up from the coming wave.  For reasons he doesn’t know Naofumi is discriminated against very early on by the upper crust of the fantasy kingdom and he is falsely accused of rape by his only companion and is cast out in shame in short order.  From there he will have to find his own way.

The main difference between anime and manga thus far are the degrees of extremity.  The manga is much more heavy handed in regards to the condemnation of Naofumi, our titular Shield Hero.  The discrimination against him is both more blatant and the details justifying any of it are scant.  By comparison, in the anime there much more mild discrimination against him until the rape charge and most of it has some circumstantial evidence to justify itself on, like the fact the other Heroes seem more familiar with the mechanics of this world because they experienced gamers.  Likewise the manga frames Naofumi as an actual rapist whereas the anime makes his crime an attempted rape.

By and large I like that the anime added extra details.  The kingdom spying on the Heroes to find out about Naofumi’s lack of knowledge, which they then use as a pretext for not helping him is n especially good touch. But there other details which do add to the experience as well.  In the manga it is not spelled out until much later that the fantasy kingdom holds women in higher regard than men, while that is made clear in episode 1 of the anime.  This is important because it means the punishment for Naofumi is heavier and that his accuser’s claim is given more weight.  Having the guards plant a torn nightgown was also an excellent touch as it makes the overwhelming shift of everyone condemning the Shield Hero more believable.  Perhaps most important though, the anime establishes that the other Heroes not only come from different Japans (i.e. worlds/times/realities) but it showcases some of their weakness of character from the beginning without making them assholes.

One of the weaker parts of manga was that the other Heroes, who otherwise lacked any apparent flaws, were so condescending to Naofumi from the beginning, it did make his hate more justified but all the same it was almost cartoony in just how heavy handed it was.   By contrast in the anime the other Heroes have more entitled attitudes, as later manga chapters would detail, right from the beginning but they are not total dicks to Naofumi until the false rape charge.  They might tease him a little because he was stuck with the shield or doesn’t have as strong a grasp on RPG mechanics but on the whole they treat him as one of the guys.  And while that obviously shifts when they believe the quite believable – in the anime – rape charge, it does make the other Heroes stronger characters, with more nuance, adaptability and true to life behaviors and attitudes.

That said I vastly prefer the extremity of Naofumi’s response in the manga.  In the anime he gets pissed and wants to leave, and when the fantasy king explains that he can’t until the 4 Heroes defeat all the waves, he says ‘fine I’ll fight the waves on my own/my own way.’  In the manga his hatred of the fantasy kingdom post-rape accusation is much more pronounced, he says to himself ‘this world can burn for all I care’ and laughs when he finds out that the other Heroes are stuck with him before storming off to do things his own way.  I felt that Naofumi’s reaction in the manga was way more appropriate considering the false rape claim and the fact that word of his crime was spread throughout the kingdom.  Moreover the way the manga leans so hard into his anger and bitterness, in his dialogue, attitude and in the artwork, was what really caught my attention.

There are also a few edits which baffle me.  The worst is that when Naofumi first wakes up he looks like he fell asleep playing a goddamn MMORPG, whose mechanics he is later shown to have virtually no grasp of.  In the manga he described himself as an otaku who didn’t play games and his exposure to this world was from a book while the other Heroes were sucked via their respective games.  This is super important especially in the anime which bases a number of it’s best changes on the conceit that Naofumi didn’t know things the other Heroes did, in this case RPG mechanics.  Given that, why in the fuck would ANYONE ok a scene where he’s playing any kind of game at all, let alone one which looks the part of an RPG or MMORPG?  Setting that blunder aside I thought the merchant scenes were clumsy.  In the anime Naofumi sells worthless monster drops to a merchant who tries to screw him, pulls his own fast one on the merchant and then sells healing herbs without a problem.  In the manga they forgo the monster drops and have Naofumi sell the herbs to the merchants who tries to screw him before Naofumi pulls his fast one on the shady merchant.  It just seems so much more elegant in the manga and more efficient as well.

All told I think Shield Hero got off to a strong start with mostly good changes from the manga, though I worry the anime will not lean into Naofumi’s bitterness and rage hard enough if episode 1 is anything to go by.  I do hope I’m wrong on that count though. Thank you for reading and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

Unpopular Opinion – Anime of the Year Edition: Zombieland Saga

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One of the things I believe most attracts to people to anime is the novelty and surprise factor of it all.  There are anime about subjects, both the incredibly mundane and the brainbustingly highbrow, which traditional films and TV wouldn’t touch with a Colossal Titan-sized pole.  Now obviously surprise and novelty are not bywords for success, there are plenty of nasty surprises after all, but when a surprise hit comes along, it hits all the harder and is all the more memorable for it.  And in that regard, I do believe Zombieland Saga takes the crown.  Not for this season, nor even this year like you might infer from the title.  Ever.  I have never been pleasantly surprised harder by any piece of media than I was by Zombieland Saga.  And boy did that pay out for the show’s favor in spades.

Keep in mind I know full well that Boku no Hero Academia had one of the greatest shounen battles of all time this year with All Might vs All for One.  I cried during that shit, I felt like I could’ve been one of the in-universe spectators watching the live battle on the news, tearing up and almost chanting.  I think that All Might is one of the best crafted characters of his archetype in anime history, if not the best.  I was more invested in All Might during his major battles than Isaac-fucking-Netero during his big showdown during HunterxHunter’s Chimera Ant arc, and the final battle with One for All was the greatest battle of the year by far.  Not because it was complicated or well animated or what have you – but because it was the most emotionally impactful battle, scene even, since… fuck me I don’t think I’ve been that emotionally invested in an anime scene since the death of Ouki (Wang Yi) from Kingdom – and I’m a fucking Kingdom fanatic.

But even with Boku no Hero Academia’s biggest moment to consider, I can wholeheartedly say Zombieland Saga won me over.  No other show this year has made me laugh, smile or get pumped like Zombieland Saga has and I swear to God Japan, if you don’t make another season like the ending hinted at I will petition Trump to nuke you all over again.  I am that fucking hype for this shit.

So what’s going on here?  – Spoilers, Come On!!! – Obviously surprise factor alone could not do this.  Certainly the fact that this show exploded onto the scene from so out of left field was in it’s favor but there’s more going on here.  I think many others will join me in saying they got hooked on this show despite the fact none of them watch or like idol shows.  Fuck I pretty much despise normal idol crap and I know I’m not alone in this.  Making the idols into zombies should not be enough to get us past that, and while it did ultimately take more than that, let it be said the creators maximized the shit out of the zombie factor right from the get go.

Sakura’s sudden death after her cheerful morning scene was a pretty attention grabbing way to get the show started but climaxing with death metal idols doing neck-breaking headbanging bashed down any walls of skepticism that still remained and powered it’s way right into my heart.  They had me.   That is some use of shock factor so good it should go down in a textbook somewhere.  More surprising still were the character stories and innovative concerts that were to come.

But before we get there we have to look at what the legacy of that initial shock factor was that serves to contrast with the aforementioned character stories – they made this show fun as shit.  Zombieland Saga’s ability to be so brimming with life and energy is more than mildly ironic considering the zombie protagonists, but more importantly it meant I was never bored.  Long before the character stories came in to make their fucking fantastic mark on the show, the energy and wild abandon of the show kept me hooked until the creators brought out the big guns.  This is best exemplified by the legendary Yamada Tae, followed closely by Kotaro, the idol manager-cum-necromancer apparently.  Even though we never really get to their character stories, just a hint for Kotaro, the energy of their movements/actions and speeches respectively do a lot to keep what would otherwise by a drab morning meeting, random conversation or activity fun and/or hilarious.  Fuck even during the more somber part of Sakura’s arc over the last two episodes Tae in particular was fucking amazing.  There was clearly a lot of heart put into these characters and they deliver for the show.

That being said I would lying if I said the character stories didn’t play a big role.  Setting aside the fact that Tae never truly awakens and Yugiri is from such a far removed point in time – 200+ years if memory serves – that her story never gets told, the differences between the girls and the eras they died in really came to the fore in a way that obviously made them clash at first but makes them all the more endearing in the aftermath.  Saki is a particularly interesting case because she is the most vocal opponent of the whole idol project from the outset given her background as a biker gang leader.  I thought they had more or less nailed her character in episode 2 during the spontaneous rap battle she had with Sakura but fuck me did they really bring on the heat with the biker gang episode.  Her saving her best friend’s daughter by replicating the same stunt that actually killed her in 97 was ballsy as fuck and it was really heartwarming stuff.  Same goes for Lily’s episode where he is able to mend the emotional wounds of his hulking dad from beyond the grave, it wasn’t quite so ballsy but damn was it a feels train.

The most contentious of these stories is undoubtedly Sakura’s as the tone is far more serious and there’s a lot of nothing happening because the main conceit is that Sakura feels like putting in effort is pointless due the fact whenever she did she would reach the top only to have a random accident ruin things.  As much as I can see people not liking this one, since it’s all about everyone else trying to motivate Sakura and the extremes of her bad luck are so played up it’s almost comical, I really liked her arc.  Them going in whole hog on the bad luck probably should have made it all seem fake and goofy but I felt that it lent enough weight to her depression, for lack of a better word, to make it totally worth it.  Over the span of  two episodes Sakura manages to be depressed and somber despite all the efforts of everyone around her to encourage her, and I fucking felt for her.  The idea of putting your all into something only to fail due to circumstances beyond your control, it bites, and while I’m sure everyone’s experienced something like that at least once in their life Sakura’s obsession with this idea, with how she believes it defines her life, with her o’er example being her sudden death on the way to her idol audition – it justified all of it to me.  And fuck me did it make that last concert lit.  With Sakura being all shaky in the first part, the venue collapsing due to the heavy snowfall and then her triumphant return, pushing ahead with a song all about rising up and never giving in – 10/10, would buy all the fucking glow sticks in the world to see that live.

Still I do believe the crowning moment of series goes to the Ai and Junko arc, and of course the lighting concert.  Setting the concert aside for a second I really like the base concept of Ai and Junko’s conflict.  This is the arc where the age difference, i.e. how long ago they died, really comes into play.  Both of these girls were idols before their deaths but they were idols in eras 20-30 years apart and because of that they have very different attitudes.  Junko does not like the way modern idols operate, in her time being an idol was a classier gig and there was a much more pronounced gap between idols and their fans.  She has trouble squaring the current idol world with her own career and the lessons learned therein.  Ai on the other hand can’t really bring herself to sympathize because she has a sort of ‘that’s just part of being successful attitude’ and refuses to compromise.  The ironic bit then is that when the concert goes down and Ai is barely able to perform due to the lightning and her crippling fear of it – she died by being struck by lightning at an outdoor concert – it’s the loftier standards that Junko holds herself to which save the stumbling performance and get Ai back in the game so to speak.

Now let’s talk about the lightning concert.  It’s a work of genius and I honestly think the thought process had to start from the song.  Keeping in mind this is conjecture, follow me down this train of thought.  Say an anime studio wants as many cost cutting measures as they feel they can get away with, as they often do, and someone says, “What if we remix one of the songs, that should be cheaper than recording another original one?”  Then someone asks:  “How can we do that in a way that makes sense in the story?”  And then a mad genius goes – “What if we let them get struck by lightning to give their voices electronic effects?”  And then the team runs with it and creates a character story based on the lightning strike, so the character can overcome their fear of lightning, the team can remix the song without issue and the show can have the most lit idol concert in human history.  I don’t know if that’s what happened but fuck I really want that to be true because it would make the whole sequence even better for me.

Anyway that’s enough of me drooling over Zombieland Saga.  I expect that for many it won’t be king of the season let alone king of year.  But I say fuck you Goblin Slayer, fuck you Rascal Doesn’t Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai – I like you but you’ve been topped.  And yes, in advance I cordially say, with no malice, spite, ill intent or seriousness, fuck all of you who disagree – I’m having way too much fun right now and so long as I have Zombieland Saga there’s nothing you can do to stop me.  It is in fact the show the anime community needs and the one we deserve!  Happy 2018 and I’ll see you in the next one – whenever that is.

Hidden Gems: Binbougami ga!

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Binbougami ga, or Good Luck Girl (which for the record is one of the worst translations on a title I’ve ever seen) in English,  is a great fucking time.   I must say as a comedy anime connoisseur (lol whut amiright), Binbougami ga is among the best that comedy anime has to offer.

The premise is as follows, in a certain city there is a girl with an impossible amount of good luck.  She’s smart, athletic, rich, well endowed and all the boys love her.  Her name is Sakura Ichiko and she also the troublesome passive ability to unknowingly and unintentionally steal the good luck of those around her and add it to her already outrageous levels of good luck.  For this reason a poverty goddess is sent to drain her of all her good fortune and shut this luck draining ability down.  When confronted about this however Ichiko is not willing to give up her good fortune and hilarity ensues.

Premise aside what Binbougami ga brings to the table is well, basically everything.  The voice acting is superb, the characters are fun, memorable and more complex, or at least serious, than they first appear as are their underlying character arcs.  There are loads of Gintama-style references to other anime sprinkled throughout Binbougami ga.  The delivery of the gags is excellent and there is a surprising amount of action since Binbougami ga has a distinct battle-comedy slant to it’s overall makeup though this is more pronounced in the manga.  Perhaps most striking of all though is how few still frames there are.  There is very little sitting/standing around and talking and even though all the relevant characters go to high school like 99% of all other anime, they spend very little time in the classroom or at the school in general.

The show is almost frenetic, between it’s genuine action scenes and rapid transitions from joke to joke, and I mean that in the best possible sense of that word.  It’s exciting really because it felt a lot like Kill la Kill, in the sense that things were always moving, but the visuals never really seemed to take a hit despite that.  It even does a great job of adapting the manga pretty faithfully while making great edits where required.

I would abso-fucking-lutely recommend this to anyone and everyone, in fact I genuinely think anyone who doesn’t see it missing out on a truly great comedy.  No joke, I would give this a 10/10 because it is perfect for what it is trying to do.  See y’all next time.