Star Wars Rebels: A Farewell to Maul

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you couldn’t already tell, this entire piece, from the title on down is a massive spoiler. If you’re not looking for major plot details about Star Wars Rebels to be revealed to you now, best to turn away. If not, enjoy!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or don’t know animation, a major event in Star Wars history happened on March 18th, 2017- the death of Maul, one-time apprentice to Palpatine. The story came full circle at last as Maul, searching to regain lost power and a sense of self, found the end of his destiny at the hands of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Indeed, his demise came on Tatooine, the place where it all started- and represented a complete narrative arc for the one-time Sith Lord.

Well, you might be asking why AniB would write about Darth Maul. Isn’t he a movie character? Not exactly. To start with, Maul’s death takes place in Star Wars Rebels (and if you haven’t checked it out, it’s well worth the watch); after he falls down the shaft in Naboo in The Phantom Menace, it is Star Wars: The Clone Wars where he reappears, and of all the major characters from the prequel era (and perhaps the franchise overall), none owe more to continued story progression via animation than Maul. While the most casual fans of Star Wars and even those who know little recognize Maul as the acrobatic, devil-horned, growling Sith Lord from 1999, there is a whole legion of people out there who also know Maul now through the voice acting of Sam Witwer and the  two animated shows he appeared in, as well as The Son of Dathomir comics. There is a far more developed tale now to Maul: of Dathomir and Nightbrothers, a Dark side cult; of the time Maul became ruler of Mandalore and Death Watch, only to be personally stopped by Darth Sidious, his old master, and now of the middle-aged man with no real identity, neither Sith nor with any allegiance owed or given. As we see Maul in Rebels, he might have been physically reconstructed, but he was as broken as the day Kenobi sliced him in half decades earlier.

 

https://www.scifinow.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Star-Wars-The-Clone-Wars-Dave-Filoni-Darth-Maul.jpg

When Maul reappeared in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, he was alive, but grotesque, driven to the point of insanity. With the help of Talzin, leader of the Nightsisters, Maul was revived and given real prosthetic legs (he had some kind of spider-like prosthetic prior to made of a mangled mess of metal.) Furthermore, for the first time Maul was given a sort of family- his apprentice, Savage Oppress (in the picture, on the left) was his brother, and Dathomir was a sort of dark home from which Maul could be supported. But one thing remained constant that clouded all this from Maul’s mind: Selfish vengeance against Kenobi. Indeed, as Maul leveraged power, eventually all the way up to the leader of Mandalore, his thirst for revenge proved to a quest doomed in failure: While he beat Obi-Wan at a duel and even killed Satine Kryze, a woman he loved, Kenobi was not broken. He continued to grow over the course of tragic events, following the path of the Jedi, eventually in time becoming the enlightened mentor of Luke Skywalker. However, Maul continued to wallow in the past and self-pity- the final insulting blow dealt when Sidious stripped him of his empire and his brother- and leaving Maul more empty than before, now defeated by both Jedi and Sith.

 

Maul reappeared in Rebels as a older man, trying to cling desperately onto past shreds of glory and delusional dreams of defeating both Jedi and Sith. To that end, he pressed his advantage in Twilight of the Apprentice when Ezra Bridger, a young Jedi Padawan (and main protagonist of the show in question) came with Ahsoka Tano and Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus came to the planet Malachor in search “of answers”; he used Bridger as a pawn to gain a powerful Sith holocron- an ancient artifact containing knowledge and secrets- and fed Dark Side ideologies to him in an attempt to start swaying him to be his apprentice. However, after several incidents that led Maul to fall further in the bad graces of the Ghost’s crew (which usually involved tricking Ezra through the Force to come to him), he was able to, with Bridger’s help, combine the Sith holocron with a Jedi one, revealing the prophecy of the Chosen One- and while both Bridger and Maul had different interpretations of what they saw, neither knew about Luke Skywalker. Maul believed it to be Kenobi, colored by his past experiences- and set out to once and for all destroy the Jedi Master.

The rest of the details do not need to recounted here, but symbolism went a long way in characterizing Maul in his dying days. On Tatooine, he is literally walking through a barren desert- symbolic of what is left for him in his life. In a revisit to Dathomir, he has a shrine to his Death Watch days, but in turn is clinging to two dead families- his Mandalore one and Nightsisters/brothers. And with Ezra he may have been thinking of Savage the whole time- the one person who Maul truly cared about, though “love” might not be the accurate term. And so when Kenobi slices him down, symbolically baiting him into the same move he used to finish Qui-Gon Ginn on Naboo, there is finally relief for him. Kenobi reveals the Chosen One exists and the decades-long rivalry is settled. Even in death though, Maul seeks the path of revenge in Kenobi’s arms (“[The Chosen One] will avenge us!”) and thus, dies.

 

While this is but a brief summation of Maul’s journey since his debut in Phantom Menace, it is a journey best experienced watching. Witwer gives a voice and personality to the Dark Sider beyond just the acrobatic kick and signature dual-bladed saberstaff that Maul is known for; the culture and people that Maul originated from, the Zabrak is explored, and overall, the continuation of his life in animated form comes off brilliantly as a tale of what the medium can do in taking a well-known character to a new level and breath fresh life into the tale of one of the prequels’ most interesting additions to Star Wars lore. For all the terrible things he’s done, I’m not sure “rest in peace” is entirely appropriate, but it goes without saying Darth Maul will be missed.


Like what you see? Check out Star Wars Rebels and The Clone Wars if you haven’t! Leave a comment!

 

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Review: Bleach

The highly popular shonen anime has its obvious strengths and flaws.

The Lowdown:

Show: Bleach

Studio (Network)/ Years aired: Studio Pierrot(Adult Swim-Toonami)/ 2004-2012

(Minor spoilers ahead. Not anything “big-picture.”)

AniB’s thoughts: Ah, another of the “big” shonen anime from the past 15 years- the tale of Ichigo Kurosaki and his friends as they’re plunged into the battles of Soul Reapers- the shinigami of this universe- and Hollows, corrupted souls who devour others and wreak havoc. Essentially, Bleach hit the jackpot in popularity when it first started its run back in 2004; this was the era of the long-format shonen franchise especially when it came to the West, and so three shows in particular defined this idea in the wake of Dragon Ball Z’s dub that made shonen relevant on a large scale in the West: Naruto, One Piece, and this show. While Bleach was key to the era, it also would come to close a chapter too- by the time the show finally came to an end in 2012 after an exhaustive 366 episode run- enough for every day in a leap year- the anime scene had greatly changed, and while one of this blog’s favorite shows- Hunter x Hunter– was techincally an ongoing shonen, the idea was largely exhausted, save for the continuation of already established franchises (the same two already mentioned- Naruto and One Piece), and in the past year and a half, the revival of Dragon Ball with Super coming into existence.

Bleach itself is an interesting show that shows both the good and bad effects of becoming massively popular. While there are generally interesting elements in the show- such as the dynamics between the world of living, the Soul Society (where the Soul Reapers and the souls of the departed reside), and Hueco Mundo- the Land of the Hollows- the pacing and fillers represent the side that prevents it from finding its true peak form. There is in fact, some really decent character development- and a few individuals in particular (especially Kisuke Urahara) have outstanding backstory and more depth than you’d imagine. The problem is getting there. The Hueco Mundo arc of the show, as an example, lasts for around 1/3 of the entire show (including fillers), has battles that often take the span of 5-10 episodes to complete- and contains lots of said battles and long staredowns. (In that regard, Bleach got DBZ syndrome.) In fact, doing a quick calculation of canon material vs. filler (meaning anime-original content/non-manga material here, even if well done), 191 episodes can be considered “canon” to watch the entirety of Bleach– a measly 52.1% of its run time, constituting a bare majority of its episode. Of course, hardly all the extra material is terrible- the first major filler arc (Bounts) is relatively entertaining, and others will point to the Zanpankto Tales arc as another example. Regardless of the quality however, the interruptions to the main storyline can be rather jarring and unwelcome- and while this is a result again of Bleach’s popularity and the need for the manga and anime to align, it also constitutes quite a bit more tediousness to what is already a very lengthy watch.

When Bleach gets going though, it’s got some very entertaining action sequences when they finally do get to the point (such as Ichigo and Byakuya Kuchiki’s fight in the picture for this article), and the payoffs are usually decent for very long buildups. I’ll also be the first to say that I very much like the character design in this show, as it tends to reflect both personality and pleasing aesthetics into one. The mechanics of zanpakto– the special weapons usually in the form of a katana Soul Reapers wield- is also very interesting, as are the distinctions between classes of Hollows as another example of universe-building. Overall, the plot stays straightforward despite all the detours; the usual shonen tropes and power-ups are very much present, and if you’ve got the guts for a very long watch, you ultimately might enjoy Bleach very much despite its predictability at times (and I did, all things considered.) And if you’ve already watched it…I’ll just say I love the way these guys say “Bankai…”

 


Animation Quality: Modern 2-D anime. Bleach is a very comfortable show to look at; it’s got a typical style for a shone anime, good colors, and unique enough character models. Some of the action sequences are also outstanding. However, it is not particularly groundbreaking in any one aspect. 3.75/5 points.

 
Characterization: As is typical for a show of this style, Bleach has a massive cast which it juggles; for the purpose of this analysis, this section will just canvas the main characters.

Ichigo Kurosaki is the main character; noted for his bright orange hair and straightforward personality, he becomes a Soul Reaper, or shingami one fateful night after meeting Rukia Kuchiki. Driven by a powerful despite to protect those he cares about and loves at all costs, Ichigo’s the consummate description of a shonen protagonist: timely powers, generally a badass, naturally gifted and very straightforward as a character, which isn’t to say he’s bad… just fit for the role he plays.

Rukia Kuchiki serves as the Soul Reaper who initially unlocked Ichigo’s shingami powers and set in motion the events of the show. Often showing a mock callous or serious side, she also cares deeply about her friends; she becomes great friends with Ichigo and his human allies (particularly Orihime) and has a special connection with another Soul Reaper, Renji Abarai…

Speaking of Renji, he’s a hot-headed impulsive Soul Reaper not at all unlike Ichigo personality-wise. Determined and stubborn, Renji is longtime friends with Rukia, is tough as nails, and has his own goals to reach, based on events in his past and through his life.

Speaking of Ichigo’s human pals, there are a few, but in this case it’s referring to the aforementioned Orihime, “Chad” (whose actual name is Yastoru Sato), and Uryu.

Orhime Inoue is a kind, gentle soul who experienced great loss at a young age (both her parents and her older brother are dead.) She greatly wishes to become strong, and acquires the mysterious power  “Shun Shun Rikka,” which in turn are 6 guardian pixie..things who allow her to “reject” any phenomenon or injury.

Chad immediately upon his first appearance is noted to be an abnormally strong, big guy for his age. Half Mexican and half Japanese, he develops powers similar to that of a Hollow, which physically manifests on his arm. He’s been friends with Ichigo from a young age and always vowed to have his back…

Finally, Uryu Ishida is a Quincy-  a human who exterminates Hollows with specialized spirit energy techniques manifested usually as bows and arrows. Because of Quincies having a long-held grudge against Soul Reapers (and perhaps rightfully so, just watch the show), Uryu initially starts off as Ichigo’s fierce rival, but quickly turns into a close friend and trusted ally.

The rest of the cast is just as diverse and interesting, if not even more so (the captains of the Gotei 13 and their lieutenants could fill a whole column themselves.) I’ll give special mention to Aizen here- he’s the big bad of the show. (Regardless of whether you watched Bleach or not yet, that doesn’t give away much- and if you have, you know.) 3.5/5 points.

 

 

Story quality: Massive overarching story structure for the main plot. The non-filler material is pretty entertaining, and Aizen makes for a great main villain. The major problem with Bleach’s story-telling is the massive amount of filler (which accounts for nearly half the episodes in the show’s 366 episode run); an agonizing tendency to take its sweet time getting to, and concluding climactic showdowns in the story, and certain major plot holes, that while resolved ultimately in the manga (as the Bleach anime ended prematurely) still exist here. (SPOILER: Also, there is a strong belief Bleach should have ended with Aizen’s defeat instead of doing a timeskip in the anime, but what’s done is done.) 3/5 points.

 

 

Themes: There’s a great deal of focus on the usual tropes: Getting stronger, protecting what you believe in, surpassing your limits, sacrifice… it’s not anything really that new, but Bleach does a relatively good job with these ideas. 3.25/5 points.

 

 

Don’t insult the viewer: Filler, filler, and more filler. Seriously,  the amount of non-canon material is irksome to no end, despite the relatively good quality of some of it. Bleach also inherited DBZ syndrome for some of its battles being drawn out; and the violence was intentionally toned down (whether or not that’s a good thing is probably a personal preference.) Some really catchy tracks repeat through the show- you’ll know them when they play. 4/5 points.

 
Total Score: 17.25/25 (70%). Bleach is a typical shonen anime with some interesting characters and a curious enough story, but mostly suffered from its own massive popularity, due to the obscene amount of filler and the tedious length of certain arcs. However, if you’re looking for a long watch show and like lots of sword fights and battles with a good cast and a decent story, Bleach is a good choice.

A St. Patty’s Day Special: “Zombie Shows”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone! From four leaf clovers to corned beef, or beer, it’s a big deal in Buffalo, NY at least. As a quick aside, who else liked the Kids Choice Awards rigging it for SpongeBob yet again last weekend? 14 wins in 15 years…something’s rotten and it’s not just the fish or the network…it’s the show. Nobody beyond the age of 12 conceivably believes these judgements are reached fair and impartially; take one look through the list of “winners” and there’s a common thread that Viacom properties almost unanimously sweep the awards where they are nominated…and considering the mediocre at best quality of many of these productions, including the aforementioned sponge, it’s not that hard to figure out. It also indicates to this writer at least that Nickelodeon’s not quite ready to “give up the ghost,” so to speak, on their longest running property. Oh well…I think today’s subject ties into this issue quite nicely!

Whether or not you’ve been reading this blog regularly, I thought the holiday would provide a nice case to talk about the luckiest of shows- the ones that have become mainstays of culture due to their longevity and perceived quality. You know them- SpongeBob Squarepants, The Simpsons, South Park, even something like The Fairly Odd Parents– which have been around for well over a decade and in many cases, are headed for 20 years of new episodes if they haven’t already reached it. So that begs the question- they must still be doing something right? Well yes…and no. On one level, the entire reasons these shows still run is that they’ve become the impermeable faces of their respective networks, and from a merchandising/franchising standpoint, this trait is invaluable. They’ve become “trusted brands” of sorts, a rarefied air for an animated show to reach considering the average life span probably clocks in around a year to two. The other reason is that hand-in- hand with the first reason, they make gobs of money for their network still- but is there a point of diminishing returns? That’s what we’re going to take a look at today.

While these shows have been highly successful endeavors on many levels, longevity can eventually breed laziness, the quality of the production can slip, and to borrow a fitting term, the shows can “lose the plot” of what they originally meant to do. The Fairly Odd Parents is a pretty good example of this phenomenon. Originally part of Nickelodeon’s late 90’s incubator program Oh Yeah! cartoons, the original few seasons were fairly fresh and original, did parody really quite well and had a couple for-TV movies that were entertaining (Abra-Catastrophe!,  the first one ever for the series still holds up quite nicely.) However, by 2008 the show had hit a decade since its pilot and 7 years had passed since it had become a formal series, and so to freshen things up, Poof, the fairy baby of Cosmo and Wanda, was added to the cast in another TV movie. While this change indicated a strong inclination to “mix things up a bit,” the truth was that the show had also just started a 6th season and really would have been better off wrapping up what had been a really solid production in the early-mid 2000’s. Unfortunately, the show has continued to be dragged out by Nickelodeon along with its other anchor- SpongeBob, and now in a 10th season nearly 20 years since its first short, its age is quite obvious; it hasn’t been innovative or relevant for a long time as a show; new characters have continued to be injected to try and add new depth to a universe that was tapped out a long time ago (see Chloe- the literally Mary Sue character), and it’s even sunk to making pop culture references that are dated even by the time the episode airs. It’s a sad mess…and the textbook definition of a “zombie show.” (For the record, this isn’t an indictment of Butch Hartman, but rather that his first show has been driven into the ground because apparently there’s still profit to be made.)

Unfortunately, Nickelodeon is my guinea pig for the topic at hand, and so inevitably the discussion turns to SpongeBob. Global icon, marketing machine and cash cow all rolled into one, the sponge clearly has been a boon to the network…but in doing so, caused an over-reliance on that one franchise. Nick missed the boat on making Avatar into a bigger franchise-twice, despite critical acclaim, and this was in the midst of steadily deterorating quality from SpongeBob itself. The show has been around long enough to have distinct “eras”; the classic SpongeBob that is still referenced and memed pretty regularly is pre-2004, when the first theatrical movie of the franchise was supposed to end it. Of course, Nick wanted to have their cake and eat it too, and so the show continued on, losing its original creative director, Derek Drymon in the process. After a decade in which the show improved precious little aside from a significant upgrade in animation quality consummate with a triple A show’s budget, creator Stephen Hillenburg returned to try and drag the show out of the hole it dug itself into. Mind you, SpongeBob is still long past the point of being relevant, regardless of what the rigged KCA’s would have you believe, or the profits Nick rakes in (because it’s also the most-aired show on the network.). And SpongeBob is emblematic of Nickelodeon’s problems in moving on and establishing more new shows to take its place, as I talked about in my network decision-making piece for it. To that end I ask the following question: Is it really worth the potential millions being lost to new, exciting, vibrant shows (which are chiefly being pushed by their competitors ) to keep the sponge and Timmy Turner on life support? I don’t think so. The Loud House appears to be a great step in the right direction, but like a rejected lover, a network at some point has got to let go of the past and move on.

Finally, what about a show like South Park? Does it fall in this “zombie show” category? Yes and no. On one hand, because it’s a production designed to be a satirical commentary on issues of a given time and place, it keeps it relevant. Conversely, when you’ve been around since 1997, some episodes might come off as dated, but its format is a great strength that I’m unsure can be replicated. And what of The Simpsons, the only show still airing from the 1980’s (not counting sports productions)? Definitely a “zombie show,” but considering its cultural icon status and its first 10 years which are widely lauded…it buys you a lot of time and fame, and even a movie. The point ultimately is that these lucky shows hit the jackpot, made it big and have stuck around despite the shortcomings and sorts of flaws that comes with sustained commercial success and network hegemony. On one hand, it’s still a remarkable achievement, but on the other, a show left out too long starts to smell. And for everyone’s sake, it’s best that networks eventually wean off of them; besides, reruns exist for a reason, syndication is still quite profitable yet despite the rise of the Internet, and innovative creativity must be allowed to flourish in order for animation to find its fullest potential. Much of the time, less is more.


Like what you see? Know any other “zombie shows?” Leave a comment!

 

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”- a discussion about reboots done badly

They might look the same, but poke under the hood and you’ll find something rotten.

In some recent posts, I’ve touched on the idea of shows that haven’t aged well, but there’s also another type of show that needs to be put out to pasture, and that’s the badly done cash-grab type of reboot. In my breakdown of Disney X.D. for this decade so far,I talked about the upcoming DuckTales reboot that frankly, looks very promising. That’s one example of a re-imagining trying to do it right. Another is Hunter x Hunter, perhaps the best anime example around; it had a 1999 adaptation from Nippon Animation, which was very good, but the 2011 version is better in about every conceivable way and might just be the best anime of this decade, along with Steins;Gate. (Here’s the review.)

As you can see, I do have an admiration for well done shows that fall under the definition of “reboot,” but my ire was recently drawn towards not so illustrious examples, chiefly the Powerpuff Girls ’16, which despite recapturing much of the  original series’ visual style, lacks any of the humor, charm, originality…and to boot, has a very politically driven agenda which in my book, is a cardinal sin in animation unless your show is specifically designed for political commentary (and yes, I’m talking about South Park.) If it wasn’t any clearer about the shallow motivations for bringing back a beloved IP and shoving it into the ground, there was a conscious decision not to bring back the original voice acting cast, a decision that left VA talent giant Tara Strong rather sad, and despite reports, the original creator Craig McCracken never “gave his blessing” for Cartoon Network to go ahead with it, citing that he had “understood the business reality that I had no power to stop it from being made.” McCracken’s statement actually lends credence to the thought that except in certain circumstances, any rehashing of a story years later is usually best handled by the creator who had the vision to create the show, the characters, and the world as they saw fit….or letting them truly find someone who understands what they were trying to do. As another example, I personally would be very unhappy if I wind up writing for years about animation, and one day, maybe I can’t do it anymore and a potential successor doesn’t respect the vision and goals of what was laid out initially. That would be very sad. Reboots, like anything else are a re-interpretation of a story created by someone else most of the time, and while The Powerpuff Girls is an example that’s badly done, it’s evident that if a show gets a person or a team of people who fundamentally understand that specific universe inside and out, instead of creating a hollowed out version of a beloved flick, they can take a universe to a whole new level.

It’s not that I want to keep pointing the finger at Cartoon Network, but another example of a re-imagined show gone wrong is Teen Titans Go! The show is not meant to be the in depth effort that the original beloved Teen Titans was, but it fails miserably at its stated purpose with brain-dead humor, tasteless satires of the Titans themselves, making them shallow parody characters at best to their original inspirations, and not helping its cause is the network’s continued insistence to air the show at an alarmingly high rate despite most viewers unanimously loathing  it. The reason the show continues to air- and be renewed has nothing to do with the quality, which is a shame. It has everything to do with the merchandising and toy empire that exists- which makes loads of money.

I’ve always believed that networks could have quality shows and still make tons of cash, because people love investing themselves in gripping narratives, enthralling worlds, and compelling characters. It’s also my belief that just because a show has a specific target audience, it is a great thing if it find new niches and has an unexpected group of viewers. Bad reboots and re-imaginings, therefore really upset that beautiful idea. It emphasizes a sellout to the almighty dollar over the actual audience that gives the money and the views, forgetting to understand what made a show popular and beloved in the first place, and kills off the potential of new watchers because the shows in question have earned bad reputations, and rightfully so. This isn’t to say I think The Powerpuff Girls and Teen Titans IP’s are bad- they are still phenomenal properties, but their current incarnations are more disrespectful than anything else- to the fans, to the writers forced to go through with contrived plots, and to the universes and characters themselves- who imagined offing Ms. Bellum as “offensive” in the PPG back in the day, or that the Titans would have an episode devoted to waffles of all things, complete with a hyper-annoying song? Animation is an absolutely wonderful medium to tell stories in, but I’m sad when cringe-worthy pieces exist solely for turning a profit, which is entirely different from bad shows that were greenlit and simply flopped.

I’ll end by saying that I do like reboots or different takes on a franchise when they are done well. As I mentioned already, DuckTales 2017 looks amazing, and Hunter x Hunter is perhaps the best example anywhere of a marked improvement, further preserving the vision of the creator. It’s also my belief that there is no need for a retelling of a tale if the original product was already a memorable, well loved piece on its own, but it’s also true from movies to shows, people in entertainment can’t resist going back to the well, so to speak, in order to revisit successful ideas. If they really feel the need to do so, I’m always hopefully that the retelling brings a new dimension and exciting aspects to a franchise. Animation is no different in this regard. As a note to studios… please stop expecting to cash in on old classics without any effort, and understand that if you make a great product instead, the people will come.


Like what you see? Have any reboots in animation or movies you like or dislike? Leave a comment!

Review: Ben 10

It started when an alien device did what it did…(and spawned a franchise!)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review encapsulates the original series that aired from 2005-2008. This is NOT about any of the successor shows spawned in the franchise, or the reboot of the same name that started in 2016. We’re going old school!…if you can call a show that’s the same age as Avatar: The Last Airbender that.

The Lowdown:

Show: Ben 10

Network/years aired: Cartoon Network/ 2005-2008

AniB’s thoughts: Long before Ben 10 became a ubiquitous household name type of franchise, this was the show spawned by Cartoon Network and Man of Action (the same people behind Teen Titans) that started it all. Yet another take on the classic “summer vacation” trope, the show follow the titular Ben Tennyson, his cousin Gwen and their grandpa Max on an RV road trip that ultimately delves straight into the realm of science fiction. I’ll be the first to admit that this show captured my imagination as a kid, between the alien transformations of Ben, the increasingly strange locales the show featured…and this super catchy theme song:

(It goes to about 1:05; this video also has slight variants.)

What’s notable is that the show almost beyond a doubt has the highest animation production values of any of the Ben 10 iterations. The Teen Titans inspiration is clearly there in terms of style, and while it’s clearly a Western show not veering into the realm of Japanese anime, the detail as well as the story arc progression certainly resemble it. The show came in the later years of “classic Cartoon Network,” a golden period that in these years had the really amazing “CN City” bumper campaign (seriously, check them out if you’ve never seen them) and was able to stand out thanks to a fairly unique premise, the quality of the animation, and the fact that it carved its own unique niche at a moment in time when Cartoon Network was loaded with good to great shows (and obviously some bad ones, but that’s true of any network over the years.)

Another distinct factor about Ben 10 was that Ben in fact, had access to only 10 aliens for much of the show. Whether it was the design team, the marketing team, or the writers, the franchise became known for pumping out a new set of transformations for Ben to take in each iteration of the universe, but as our lovely intro above makes clear, those original 10 were the stars and remained fairly static save one major change until later in the show’s run. What was established here however (and was smart, as well as logical from a writer’s point of view), was that each alien had a distinct personality and different strengths, which mixed with Ben’s own 10-year old attitudes and ways of doing things, and due to his inexperience, the Omnitrix (the watch-like device that allowed him to transform) sometimes would lock him into a different transformation that he did not want to use…and all his changes had a time limit, with a subsequent cool-down time. The last part was more a narrative failsafe to make certain problems have a more compelling way to be solved, and one episode actually teases this when Ben find a master code to get rid of the time limit, only to have to reset the watch by the end.

At its heart, Ben 10 is a unique show that does some unexpectedly original twists on ideas normally seen in comics. There’s a secret organization (and secrets in general), otherworldly villains, unexpected twists, and of course, the hero origin story. To a 10 year old boy watching, it really did excite me…and it’s still a solid show today, if drowned out by the successful spinoffs that succeeded it. You might just want to find out “what an alien device did what it did” and go on a summer vacation that once again, breaks the trope into new territory.


Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D animation, with computer shading, some rich detail and colors and some really creative design work. Ben 10 looked fantastic in the various locales and places it spanned; the characters themselves are aesthetically pleasing and it leads to a fine effect overall. 4.5/5 points.

 

 

Characterization: Being the original series, Ben is a bit of a jokester, looking for adventure (and occasionally trouble) and is in all respects, a fairly typical 10 year old personality wise. He’s got a good heart though, and a strong sense of justice. While he loves his newfound alien powers, he’s rather impulsive and can become arrogant from time to time, a trait that often gets him in trouble.

Gwen, Ben’s cousin, has a love-hate relationship with him, but it is developed through the series to show despite acrimonious appearances, they do really care for each other. Unbeknownst to her for most of the series, Gwen also possess certain “special abilities…” though I won’t say what they are!

Grandpa Max is an amicable old man with a deep, mysterious past that compromises quite a bit of the story. Highly fond of his niece and nephew, he’s determined to have a great summer with them in his beat-up old RV, but what that entails exactly is even more than he bargained for… (Fun fact: His voice actor, Paul Eiding, is also the Colonel in the Metal Gear Solid series of video games!)

Finally, Ben’s rogue gallery is pretty good, especially his archenemy from season 1, Vilgax, and Kevin Levin (who in the franchise, actually has a much bigger role, but serves as an enemy in this series.) 3.75/5 points.

Story quality: There’s a clear story and canon, but the episodes can stand alone as well as episodic events. To that end, they usually are quite humorous, action packed affairs. The backstory is decently solid, if not convoluted, but it’s all very pleasing when it comes together. 4/5 points.

 

 

Themes: There’s notions of family, sticking together and the like, plus heroic ideas of justice, but there’s also a fairly dark sci-fi element to the whole show. It’s gripping enough, but perhaps not next level compelling in terms of themes. 3.5/5 points.

 

 

Don’t insult the viewer: Ben 10 isn’t always the easiest thing to digest from time to time due to the sometime jarring shifts in location and objectives, but stays fairly clean and inoffensive. The theme song is addictively catchy as can be, and the overall product avoids talking down to its audience.  4.5/5 points.

 

 

Total Score: 20.25/25 (81%). Ben 10 was, and still is a highly successful endeavor that spawned an entire franchise with this extremely solid first entry. Packed with action, written with some memorable characters, and featuring a diverse cast of alien creatures, this sci-fi ‘toon stayed strong.


Like what you see? Are you a fan of the Ben 10 franchise? Leave a comment!

What’s In a Character: Killua Zoldyck

Ex-assassin. Best friend of Gon Freeccs. One shockingly amazing character.

After a brief “hiatus x hiatus” from the “What’s in a Character” series, I now return with the second anime character to be included in said series- Killua Zoldyck from Hunter x Hunter. If you read the review on the 2011 anime, watched the show in general (or the ’99 version), or read the HxH manga, it’s readily apparent that Killua certainly deserves an analysis of his own. And…he’s also my favorite character in animation, so that doesn’t hurt his case either. At any rate, he’s arguably the best developed character in a show that’s full of them.

(SPOILERS AHEAD. Major parts of Hunter x Hunter will be discussed here, so turn away if you don’t want to see them!)

For a long time, I’ve been pondering how to do justice to the incredible character and development that is and defines Killua Zoldyck from Hunter x Hunter. I really didn’t want to do just a straight chronological journey through the show, lest it turned into simply a recap summary, and I also wanted to emphasize his fundamental traits that stayed the same and yet changed over the course of the show. So, we’ll start with the most fundamental aspect of Killua over the series that in turn defines the rest of his traits and fuels his character development- his friendship with Gon.

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As I wrote about in the Hunter x Hunter review, Gon and Killua share one of the best bonds of friendship in any show…largely because it has a very organic, natural way of developing in the framework of the story. To start with, there’s a natural impetus in place for such a relationship to develop in the Hunter Exam- both boys had never known anyone else their age as a friend: Gon lived on sparsely populated Whale Island, nowhere near or around other children; and Killua’s life had been the brutal upbringing of an assassin; taught and indoctrinated in the ways of the family business; there was a desire for friendship (which was shown briefly in a flashback of Canary’s in The x Zoldyck x Family), but not really a means for doing so under the vigilant eyes of his family, particularly his brother Illumi. Add in the fact that the duo are by far the youngest applicants at the Exam, and the basic framework is there to start building something special…but that alone wouldn’t be enough.

Killua’s journey is part and parcel with this friendship. He’s a level-headed, more logical and savvier-about-the-world foil to Gon’s unbridled enthusiasm and recklessness, but it’s also a symbiotic relationship. In many ways, the boys’ paths are the same and divergent simultaneously. Both share a goal to travel and get stronger. To that end, they spurn each other on to greater heights, and nowhere was this more evident than on Greed Island (as a sort of joyful, yet dangerous training ground), and far more somberly with their struggles in the Chimera Ant arc, evidenced by their struggles against Knuckle and Shoot, and later, the perfection of their hatsu, or special Nen ability. Individually though, Killua’s goal stood on finding his own path- something deviated off the track of the Zoldyck clan’s long sordid history of assassination- and while he promises to tag along in finding Gon’s dad, the elusive Ging Freeccs, the journey with his best friend really makes him evolve…and nowhere is that more evident than his courage and determination.

A major focus on Killua’s character is his spirit- which is to say, his resilience and ability to take on tasks and opponents that he could neither clearly beat or even was at a disadvantage against. While he displayed the confidence and ease in which he could dispatch an over-matched opponent in his first fight of the series (against Johannes), he was both naively arrogant and weak-willed when push came to shove in the final stage of the Exam, dismissing Pokkle but unable to stand up to Illumi. But it’s more than that- Killua reveals that all he wants is “for Gon to be my friend!” without realizing that it’s a) not something he needs to ask for and b) that Gon already considered him his best friend at that point. When Killua’s spirit melts at this point, he kills Botero in cold blood- without Gon there and an uncertain despair that overtook him, he defaulted to the only thing he’d known in his sad young life, and departed for home, certain that he had no will of his own.


 

The Zoldyck Family arc makes it quickly known why exactly Killua doesn’t like the place where he grew up- the inside of the house is more akin to a medieval castle decked out with a modern security system of the highest degree, complete with torture room; it’s isolated, being atop a mountain, and because of the numerous safeguards and obstacles that separate outsiders from the family, starting with the Testing Gate, it’s also easy to see why he had no friends until he met Gon, assassins’ training and duties aside.  But the arc also reveals more in depth Killua’s other massive insecurity- the weight of being the family heir, something he was not entirely interested in. What meeting Gon did was actually give Killua true hope for the first time that he’d be able to follow his own path, and not necessarily the way of the assassin as the family trade dictated. When word reached him that his friend had actually come to Kukuroo Mountain, his despair ebbed away, replaced by a desire and excitement to see him. Compounded with his surprising meeting with his father Silva (in the picture), he made a blood vow “to always protect his friends,” and was free to choose his path…with some family stipulations of course.

Unbeknownst to him, Illumi had planted a needle in his forehead prior to the events of the series by his Nen abilities. Due to his brother’s abilities as a Manipulator, it explained why Killua’s weak self-will during the Hunter Exam directly compounded the level of control Illumi’s influence had over him- looking more for self-preservation than anything else. When the needle is disposed of in his emotional battle against the Chimera Ant Rammot, Killua is able to rid himself of it, not just because he sensed it, but because he’d grown as a person. This growth was facilitated by the bond and shared experience of traveling with Gon, from their early travels to Heavens Arena, to assisting Kurapika in his quest against the Phantom Troupe (an endeavor Killua initially does not want anything to do with, but follows Gon’s lead), their training on Greed Island, where Biscuit Kreuger greatly strengthens them, and up through their disastrous trip into NGL with Kite, an event that severely affected Gon’s mental state and showcased a sort of concern from Killua towards a friend that would have been unprecedented when he first met Gon; at the time he was visibly surprised that Gon would help Leorio out in the first stage of the Hunter Exam by carrying his briefcase and refusing to leave him behind, not perhaps understanding the spirit of human resilience yet considering his own state…

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Killua’s unlikely encounter with Ikalgo also demonstrated major ways in which he’d changed. As an enemy combatant, Ikalgo would have been straightaway killed if this was Hunter Exam Killua, operating under the standard practices of the family business. However, Killua’s humanity grew with his spirit. The octopus Ant was saved from certain death at the jaws of his ex-allies by the young Hunter (who could have easily killed his adversary)…and as a result of his actions, Ikalgo had a change of heart and wound up saving the subject of this article after the world’s most dangerous game of darts. Trust therefore, came with an ability to open up to potential allies, starting with Gon and continuing onwards.

When Killua unveils his ultimate hatsu technique- Godspeed, on Youpi, a Chimera Ant Royal Guard who was far stronger than himself, it is a sobering reminder of how much his spirit and skills had grown. It’s true that Killua was a prodigy- able to learn combat skills and perfect them at a far quicker rate than normal; and that his brutal upbringing gave him an advantage in other ways, but it was his journey with Gon that allowed him to find his own unique attributes…and stare down opponents that weren’t a sure-fire victory. It’s true that the removal of the needle was key, but Killua continued to grow from that point…his reasons for fighting ultimately transitioned to be very selfless by the end of the series, as he fought to protect those he cared about without question- chiefly Gon, and then Alluka.


 

While all the above served as an analysis of Killua’s character progression, he’s just a superbly crafted individual by fictional standards. I love how he has a playful, mischievous side that can come out just as easily as his ingrained killer instinct; that he has a friendship that is not only organic, but unfolds naturally as a key part of his development and of the storyline itself, and that despite being a prodigy in his enormously skilled (and twisted) family, he’s a flawed individual with much room to grow. At the end of the series, he’s a kinder, compassionate kid who’s unnaturally jacked for 14 years old (seriously, non-stop training will do that) and a commitment to the people he really cares about, all while carving his own adventure, shared with Gon (and then Alluka). Finally, he’s just really aesthetically pleasing from a character design standpoint. If anyone embodies what “being a Hunter” is about on this show, in terms of discovery and wonder, it might just be Killua Zoldyck.


“BAKA!”

Just skip to 0:35 for the best part…but the whole thing is comedy gold. Nee hee…


Like what you see? For the record, Killua’s my favorite anime character. Leave a comment!

The Return of Samurai Jack

After 13 years, the samurai wielding a magical sword is back.

He’s backSamurai Jack. Wa-cha!

13 years since Cartoon Network aired what everyone believed was the end of Samurai Jack, a 5th and final season of the beloved series will finally start airing on Saturday night (3/9/17, for posterity’s sake.) Much has been made of this triumphant return by plenty of people across the internet, and the trailers and teasers dropped by Adult Swim (where the series has shifted to for this relaunch) suggest not only the potential for a very fulfilling conclusion, but a far gritter, darker Jack than we’re used to. For once, darker might actually be better. Let me explain…

The original seasons of Samurai Jack were lauded for a variety of reasons, including its unique animation style, narrative and pacing, and that by Cartoon Network standards (even now), it was a rather dark show. However, the network still had certain restraints that handcuffed the show in certain ways: blood could not be visibly shed, language was toned down a bit, and so on. With the new season comes new ideas, and with the shift to Adult Swim, there’s new rules. Chiefly, a 50 year time skip has happened, and narratively speaking, I’d be miffed if this wasn’t the case. Considering the real-world wait for this final season was in fact over a decade, it seems like a nod to the fans of the original production that Jack has grown with us in age- but what exactly went down in the dystopia that is Aku’s world creates a whole new set of questions and intriguing possibilities. As a result, the conscious shift to an older audience really has the potential to unleash the old samurai in ways we’ve never seen before.

For the record, this isn’t just speculation. The sneak peak already showed off some of what we can expect, including the return of the beetle drones as a callback to Jack’s first major battle in the future all those years ago:

While the video alone draws most of the conclusions you’ll need to see, it’s evident that the traditional samurai, immaculately robed in white, has embraced a fusion of his past and present realities. (How he arrived there will probably be far more telling.) It’s nearly unfathomable to imagine Jack on a motorcycle back in the day, when he traveled everywhere on foot, or using modern high-tech weaponry. I suspect he took a page from his old pal the Scotsman on fusion of old and new combat styles…and who coincidentally will be showing up at some point.

There’s plenty more that can be said about Samurai Jack coming back into the lives of many with its first new episode in such a long time, but it also could serve to introduce Jack to a whole new generation that never really knew the original series. Such an idea is very exciting as a way of extolling the potential and unique medium animation offers to tell a story. As for me, I anxiously I await Greg Baldwin’s voice work as Aku, “the shapeshifting master of darkness,” as Mako’s work was iconic. Inevitably he and “the foolish samurai” will have their fated final showdown. Whether that is in the past where Jack is from, or the future where he has had most of his shared history with Aku, remains to be seen…

No matter what you think, the return of Samurai Jack is one of the decade’s more surprising stories in animation; an unexpected twist to a series long thought to be finished, and an ode to quality shows that attracted solid fanbases of many different kinds of people. It’s a ride I’m ready to take…gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack! Wa-cha!


Like what you see? Eager to see Samurai Jack in action once more? Leave a comment!