Review: Death Note

A mid-2000’s classic finally gets a review.

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The Lowdown:

Show: Death Note

Studio/years aired: Madhouse, 2006-2007

AniB’s thoughts: Well, this review was a long time coming: an iconic anime like Death Note was unlikely to just sit on the sidelines forever, and with the announcement from Netflix a few weeks ago at the time of this writing that yet another live-action Death Note film is happening, it seemed like high time to finally sit down and go over the show. Indeed, this review had been in the planning stages for a long while, and was actually one of the first series that I had sat down and written a grading skeleton for, even before the launch of AniB Productions, but I was happy to revisit Death Note and heavily revise my original thoughts up to what’s on your screen now.

Indeed, Death Note is a favorite that has continued to remain relevant and representative of the best of anime 12 years on from its debut. The tale of Light Yagami’s initially noble sort of intentions with the Death Note turning into justified mass murder, and the battle of wits he engages in with L, the world’s greatest detective, remains as engaging and high stakes as ever upon a rewatch, and the show’s overall impression has not dimmed despite its immense popularity and the scrutiny that comes with the territory.

There are plenty of elements that made this show a huge success on a number of levels, but from a narrative point of view, it is the tension that is created and upheld, culminating in the most satisfying of manners, that really stands out. This series finds a way to build up its big parts slowly, with detail and intricacy, and then- bam! Like a spider’s web, the strike is quick and decisive, but wholly enjoyable. It may be a simple observation, but from where I can see it, this simple concept is executed so well in this particular show that’d I’d be remiss not to mention it.

For the few who have not seen the show, it is an excellent choice for both beginning and experienced anime viewers. With a gripping narrative, excellent animation that still holds up (2006 wasn’t as recently as any of us probably remember), and a cast of characters that expertly hooks you in as they develop, it’s a textbook case of the best of what Eastern animation (and in general) has to offer. Conversely, for the many who have seen this show, it is definitely worth a watch over again, and at least as far as this piece is concerned, is definitively superior to Netflix’s live-action interpretation of this series, and rightfully so, given its status as the original manga adaptation of the series.


Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D anime, with computer shading and coloring. Death Note looks terrific, from the character designs to the different sets, and the animation often is effective at conveying the mood or themes of the show. This sort of attention to detail is especially apparent in the key scenes where narrative tension is at its peak. 5/5 points.

Characterization: The characters are amazing, really, but what else can you expect when all 37 episodes are character and plot development?

Light Yagami is one of the most interesting main characters in any series, serving as the standard-bearer of the protagonist-turned villain; it’s essentially left to the viewer to decide by the end if he’s the main protagonist or antagonist. A honors high school student, Light finds the Death Note one day by chance, and intrigued by the possibilities instead of being scared away, he imprints his idealistic vision of justice on the book’s effects, which gradually and then rapidly becomes more distorted and complex as he mires himself and his life completely to the ledger of the shinigami, engrossed in the “Kira” persona he creates for himself. Brilliant as he is ruthless, the iconic lead of Death Note always provides high drama.

Opposing Light is L, the world-famous detective. Unusual in tactics and mannerisms, he shows an astounding ability to think outside the box, and his ability to think multiple steps ahead is only matched by his worthy adversary. With a strong sweet tooth and an unwavering determination to figure out who’s behind the string of unexplainable deaths, the highest-stake games imaginable unfold between the two, with unexpected turns at every corner.

(SPOILERS, for the rare soul who hasn’t seen this:)

 

Near, a boy who was from the same orphanage L originated from (and which doubles as a training ground of potential successors) takes up that mantle in the second half of the show after the time skip. Near in several ways shares similar mannerisms and a similar appearance to L, though he has white hair instead of jet-black, and and an obsession with toys compared to his predecessor’s sweet tooth. All business, Near revives the pursuit of “Kira,” putting Light on the defensive with the one possibility he failed to account for, give he’d claimed L’s title for himself.

Dueling Near for the title of succesor is his rival Mello, a boy who has remarkably different and far more mafia-style tactics in his approach to finding “Kira.”

(SPOILERS END HERE)

 

 

L, and the office he holds as the prestigious ace detective of the international community serves as a worthy adversary through the show, perhaps even to the point where they are truly the protaganists given Light’s descent into the power the Death Note gives him. Indeed, the battle of wits between Light and L is something iconic to the show.

As for the rest of the cast, there are a few important characters in a fairly concise cast, starting with the shinigami, or “god of death,” Ryuk. Only able to be seen by wielders of a Death Note, Ryuk is fairly good natured despite his appearance and is mostly interested in breaking his boredom he was experiencing in the shinigami realm. Partnered with Light, he serves as a neutral, albeit interested observer in the grandiose plans of the current Death Note wielder, and for whatever reason, has a love of red apples.

Misa Amane, or “Misa Misa” is a famous model in the Death Note universe, but had come across a Death Note of her own. In love with Kira and his work, she finds a way to cross paths with Light; the latter finds her useful for his own ambitions, but she truly loves him despite it all.

Aside from these two, the only other character really worth mentioning is Light’s father, who is a respected and renowned police chief who in an ironic twist, is tasked to head up the force searching into Kira. He’s proud of the son he thinks he knows, though the tension hangs heavy in the air with the answer to his question so nearby…

All the characters receive excellent development and importance through the story. It’s even better in context, no doubt. 5/5 points.

Story quality: This is the rare breed of animated show that has no filler (Western or Eastern). It’s straight story and character development, and to that end, what a narrative it is. The pacing is perfect as a result, and the story itself has two distinct arcs of pre- and post-time skip. Richly layered, a fascinating battle of cat and mouse, traps and queries, a chess match to the death- it is not inaccurate to say the show has it all in terms of a rich plot. Add in the wonderfully developed characters, and occasional humor to balance out what’s a fairly serious show and it’s a great mix. 5/5 points.

Themes: Most obviously Death Note deals with the ideas of life and death; the idealistic notions of people, and the easily corruptible sense of justice people may have. It also points at the folly of arrogance, and plays up the idea that when you try to play God, it leads nowhere good. Aside from that, there’s heavy mystery elements, a fair bit of violence that makes sense in the context of the show, and some ideas about how secrets can tear people apart, with far-reaching consequences. 4.5/5 points.

Don’t insult the viewer: Death Note is wickedly smart, though I’d not recommend it to anyone under 15 due to the intensity of the show and the inability to grasp the most complex themes. It’s a classic of anime at this point, and a joy to watch whether you’re an experienced viewer or relatively new to the medium. 5/5 points.

Total Score: 24.5/25 (98%). A masterpiece of anime, Death Note stands tall as a titan of the genre, with brisk pacing, a gripping narrative, and brilliantly written characters. It holds a legacy that surely many anime will try to reach now and in the future.


Like what you see? Are you a big fan of Death Note? Leave a comment!

 

 

Preliminary Review: DuckTales (2017)

The rebooted action of a beloved classic gets put to the critic’s test.

Ducks, ducks and more ducks…I had no idea that my next piece would be about Disney’s clan of the birds after Daffy Duck’s character piece, but here we are, kicking off September at the time of this writing with a special preliminary review. Yes, one season is finally in  the books for the highly-anticipated reboot of DuckTales, and it’s my pleasure to finally put some numbers and analysis on this bad boy. Let’s take a dive in like Scrooge does with his money bin!

The Lowdown:

Show: DuckTales (2017)

Studio/network/years aired: Disney Television Animation, Disney X.D./Channel, 2017-

AniB’s thoughts: A year or so ago, I sat down and watched with great interest the pilot for this reboot of the beloved 90’s classic. That specific first impression can be found here. Recently though, the first season of this ‘toon wrapped up and so, the time has finally come for the first review of the show at hand, and I must say- it acquitted itself well.

I suppose any DuckTales conversation worth its salt starts with Scrooge McDuck, the famous Scottish adventurer of fame and (very, very, very) great fortune. Returning more to his comic roots in terms of design, Scrooge’s miserly pallor is lifted in the opening act of the season, and the bold, famous duck of legend is back in full here. He doesn’t appear in every episode, but he does in most and when he’s center stage, he frankly steals the show. With the death of long-time Scrooge VA Alan Young prior to the show’s debut, it’s David Tennant- better known as one of the Dr. Who’s- who steps admirably into the void left here, and truthfully does some great work as the Scottish spitfire.

One of the most prominent moves in the adaptation was the decision to overhaul Webby Vanderquack’s character and personality entirely. While both this version and the original 1989 show saw a kind girl wishing to be the “fourth triplet” with Huey, Dewey and Louie, the current incarnation has some incredible martial arts and spy training, courtesy of her grandma (more on Mrs. Beakley in a bit) but also some social aloofness and naivete stemming from her sheltered upbringing. She’s energetic and tends to get overexcited about things that catch her interest, particularly the life and history of Scrooge, who she idolizes. It’s my opinion this version of the character is equal parts charming and cute, but not too annoying, and it works.

Another welcome change was the inclusion of Donald Duck as a major supporting character in this iteration of DuckTales. In an eye for detail, Donald is regaled in his classic comics sailor’s outfit, but is also true to the most classic iterations of the character- bombastic but also highly caring of his family and friends (particularly his nephews, who he is the legal guardian of in this series.) Cast as the one-time close member of Scrooge McDuck’s entourage who accompanied him on his globe-trotting adventure, the two became estranged after a certain key incident, which incidentally thawed itself out in the pilot episode.

A number of other cast members and places prominent in the original series return as well, from a Mrs. Beakley who’s a sultry British ex-spy/super maid in this outing, to Launchpad McQuack, who remains fairly faithful to his original iterations, though perhaps a tad more dimwitted than before. Of course, this also includes Scrooge’s old rogues gallery, from the ever-vengeful Flintheart Glomgold, to the bumbling antics of the Beagle Boys.

Overall, DuckTales was always going to be evaluated largely by not only its art style (which is simply eye-catching with that comic feel), but how it decided to approach these beloved characters in a new way, and overall, it’s not a bad re-framing of the universe with a more modern polish. The more timeless characters are as you’d remember them, though the triplets got a bit of an overhaul that’s notable as well (though using all my thoughts on the characters before the character section of grading would be a waste, wouldn’t it?) Additionally, the show features a nice overarching plot and mystery that no doubt got some influence from the creative team, a number of whom previously worked on Gravity Falls, and like the latter, the show has both an episodic and story arc hybrid sort of episode style going on, with a clear forward time progression. Finally, I will say the finale was a solid cap to the built-up events of the next season and a fine way to wrap up a number of outstanding questions while keeping perhaps the biggest one perfectly intact. As the theme song goes, “life is like a hurricane here in Duckberg.” It most certainly is, and it will be one of the more intriguing questions of 2019 as to where this series goes.


Animation Quality: Modern 2-D animation, computer animated. The style of this show is done in a way that emulates classic Scrooge comics a bit, right down to the key character designs, and this influence can also be notably felt in the revamped opening for the show. It’s a style that feel different enough from the original show to feel aesthetically unique, but pleasing, but similar enough that it’s unmistakably DuckTales. A fine job all around. 5/5 points.

Characterization: The thoughts above already encapsulated a wide variety of observations on the main cast of this show, with one major exception: the triplets.

The forever gripe about Huey, Dewey and Louie had been the difficulty in differentiating them as individuals. They also all had the “Donald Duck” voice treatment in most of their iterations, meaning it was often hard to complete understand what they were saying. In a bold, but not completely unexpected move, the creative team decided to overhaul the trio a bit and give them a) design makeovers, b) actual separate voice actors, c) more defined individual personalities, and d) both a strong sense of individuality but also unbreakable brotherhood.

So, to recap: Dewey is the headstrong adventurer of the three, though lacking in common sense at times. He’s the blue t-shirt. Huey is the one who retains the classic outfit with the hat in red, and in this iteration is the smart, nerdy duck. He’s well organized and believes in facts and data, order and planning- and especially if it’s in the Junior Woodchuck manual. Finally, Louie is the cool cat, in the green hoodie and with an appreciation for the finest things in life. He’s got his Uncle Scrooge’s penchant for treasure and the riches of the world, and he’s got a bit of a clever con-man inside him too. Sometimes, the trio can be their own worst enemies, but oftentimes, they make the best team that can overcome any obstacle.

While the story and show isn’t done being written yet, the reimagined DuckTales cast has been not only satisfactory, but rather well-implemented with a charm all their own. The writers do appreciate some references now and again to the original series, so keep your eyes open for the details!

4.5/5 points.

Story: Hybrid of episodic and overarching plot storytelling. As noted initially, this takes some cues from Gravity Falls in all likelihood, especially with the mystery elements, but some credit should also go to the original DuckTales, which occassionally had some mini-arcs on some of Scrooge’s outings, perhaps none more notable or memorable than the feature-length film that was the original’s pilot (and worth 5 episodes!) Within this show though, it’s a nice blend that keeps dramatic tension up nicely while furthering character development all the time, and episodes have good attention to detail of past events and prior happenings as well. Intriguing setup is in place for season 2. 4.25/5 points.

Themes: This show’s about family and the relationships people make, aside from all the adventuring, spelunking and various other (mis)adventures. It’s got a real emotional core in there though, and deals with some pretty complicated stuff within that simple premise, from the strains of being siblings to the dreams and desires of an only child to be part of that, to even an old duck’s regrets and misunderstandings causing very real pain. Don’t be fooled- this show even with its humor and the network(s) it airs on has some real weight in the characters themselves, especially when you key in on the details. It will be fascinating to see how this continues to unfold. 4/5 points.

Don’t Insult the Viewer: From the revived classic theme song, to the fast-paced action of the show, and the family-friendly presentation, it makes a good impression in this department. Some of the technology references though could get a bit dated as time goes on, but that’s a minor gripe. 4.75/5 points.

Overall: 22.5/25(90%): This may seem like a bit of a high grade for one season of a show with huge expectations, but it was a genuinely enjoyable watch that had a lot to like in its initial relaunch. It’s not a perfect show- nothing is- but it captures the essence of DuckTales supremely well and is a great show in its own right thus far, no strings attached. It’s worth checking it out sometime!

 

Review: ERASED

Murder mystery, the butterfly effect and the bonds between people = a really unique show.

The Lowdown:

Show: ERASED

Studio/years aired: A-1 Pictures, 2016

AniB’s thoughts: Once again, a recommendation was made to pick up a show, and so, laden with high expectations of a promising watch, this critic is happy to report that it was indeed an excellent watch. ERASED, or Boku dake ga Inai Machi as it is known in Japan, is a thriller of a ride, with an unusual time-travel/butterfly effect mechanic and a murder mystery that is 15 years in the making at the time the story begins.

ERASED has a character driven narrative that is matched by a superbly paced story that keeps flowing at an appreciable rate with the constantly shifting turn of events in the show. You don’t sense that a moment is wasted, something that is further reflected in Satoru- the main protagonist- as he seeks to unravel the mystery of a horrific string of murders from his childhood and discover the true killer behind them. The desperation in this case, adds to the narrative tension in a very positive way that keeps the viewer engaged in the story that unfolds.

The most unique mechanic about this show, and Satoru though, is something called “Revival,” where he is able to somehow jump back in time, but under only very specific conditions to prevent a fatal incident. According to the character, these normally had been short incidences between 1-5 minutes back, but for the main story of ERASED, Satoru is sent all the way back to 1988 as a 10 year old, which sounds conceptually crazy (and it is), but is just works. This show is probably the second or third time that any sort of time travel plot worked for me in animation, the first being Steins;Gate (which I have a review of here). What’s most curious is that upon being reverted to being a kid again, Satoru retains all of his memories and knowledge from his lived life up to the point of his Revival leap, meaning that he actually has the mind of a late 20 year old man when he makes said jump, which make for both some funny and insightful banter, plus a sleuthing mind that no normal 10 year old could hope to have.

Saying more on this mechanic or the reasons for Satoru’s large Revival jump would be tantamount to spoilers, but both his adult and kid versions play major roles in this tale. This fact is reflected in the OP’s visuals, where it opens in on a movie theater, which both the adult Satoru and his kid self enter. This theater in turn turns out to be the “film reel” of his life- and so, memories are held inside his mind like a constantly flowing movie, which is also represented visually in the show as well. In this way, he is also able to tell what changed from the original timeline or event if something shifted as a result of his actions…

The level of detail in this show is very good, as you’d hope from a solid mystery. Both real and false leads are planted for the viewer to decide on, and even if the answer for certain questions may come quickly, there is often a nagging doubt about whether one’s suspicions are right in this show up until the moment of truth for so many ideas and theories. Accompanying the intriguing setups is the cast to match, which is delved into below in the grading section, and a lot of key lines that often have mirrors in the narrative if you pay attention closely enough.

Overall, ERASED was simply flat-out enjoyable in the way a great story should be, with excellent execution, interesting characters and a story that lives up to the hype and the best of its genre. It’s a bit of a crazy ride, but this is a good crazy, and I suspect plenty of people, not just the murder mystery crowd, will love it if they haven’t seen it already. As far as I see it, this is a great representation of what modern anime can be capable of, and by extension, an adaptation.


Animation Quality: Modern 2-D animation, computer-shaded, with slight bits of 3-D thrown in. ERASED is a story that understands its medium well, and uses it in its storytelling to great effect.  4.75/5 points.

Characterization: As talked about, Satoru Fujinuma is the main protagonist of this tale. A struggling mangaka, or manga artist, his uneventful existence in the present (which is 2006 in this show) is interrupted by a series of unexpected and tragic events that reopen the wounds of a brutal crime spree that erupted around him 15 years ago. As a result, the Revival Satoru experiences is in response to try and fix those events long ago, and so alter the course of history.

Within that path for Satoru, there are several important characters between the past and present that have implications within ERASED’s storyline.

Kayo Hinazuki is one of the victims of a mysterious serial killer on the loose in 1988. Shown as a loner and an introvert, Kayo’s off-putting demeanor is actually in part the product of an abusive mother and by extension, an unstable home life. (SPOILER): She is the character young Satoru attempts to change the fate of when Revival sends him back to 1988, and in the process, attempts to give a young girl hope for a future and happiness. (She’s also the girl in the picture for this review.)

In the present, Airi Katagiri is Satoru’s co-worker at a part time job he holds at a pizza place. Bright, curious and inquisitive, she takes an interest to the introverted protagonist and ultimately proves to be a reliable friend, even believing in Satoru when no one else would as events unfolded. A high school girl with long brown hair and a slim figure, Satoru’s mom “believes he has a chance with her” though her son isn’t buying it.

Speaking of which, Sachiko Fujinuma was an ace reporter and also an ace mother for her only son. Sharp on her feet with a quick wit but also an unwavering dedication to help her son in life, she proves to be a smart, unflappable woman with big hopes for Satoru no matter what. Her ability to find the truth is something that was passed onto her son, and so for her, she notices all the little details around her, good or bad.

Also of note in the past is Kenya, Satoru’s best friend from childhood (who in the dub at least shares the same VA that did dubbed Gon Freecss and Ryuko Matoi, Erica Hernandez). He’s a smart kid who’s quick on the uptake and mature beyond his years in many aspects, though noticeably flustered if he perceives anyone to be ahead of him at something complex.

There is also the main villain of this show, but those who have seen Erased know what a spoiler that is, and those who haven’t seen it ought to discover the big bad. This individual is definitely a solid antagonist no doubt- a hitman who leaves no trace of their misdeeds if it can be helped.

Finally, there is a solid supporting cast around these characters as the show unfolds, both past and present. Everyone fits in nicely, and the character development is superb, and right at the center of the narrative. Strong characters always lend themselves to a great production, and this is very much the case in this show. 5/5 points.

Story: A strong character base lends itself to the actual narrative of ERASED, which is a thrilling case of murder mystery meets corrective time travel. Indeed, this anime blends two genre aspects together seamlessly and in doing so, creates a thoroughly engaging experience from start to finish that leaves you guessing the details at each turn and always intrigued as to what the next move and eventually the endgame shapes up to be. Truly superb. 5/5 points.

Themes: There’s a lot to unpack here, but the central theme of ERASED in a word, is “relationships.” There’s a lot placed into the worth of good family and friends, and always having someone who will be there at your side, even when the chips are down. There’s also a powerful message about having the courage and confidence of doing what is right even in the fact of fear and the uncertainty of damning failure if things go awry, and the persistence to dig into one’s own self to go beyond what they thought possible in a pressure-filled situation. 4.25/5 points.

Don’t Insult the Viewer: A show that knows how to maximize its shocking impacts when they happen. This isn’t a show that has “excesses” when it comes to its use of any sort of violence, which in turn maximizes the effect on the viewer. A lot of credit as well to a well conceived opening and ending themes and the graphics to match. 5/5 points.

Total: 23.5/25 (94%): A gripping tale that combines high drama, compelling characters, a well paced and interesting narrative, along with a good application of a difficult concept in time travel makes for an amazing show in this case. A high recommendation from this writer!


Like what you see? Are you a fan of ERASED or totally new to this series? Leave a comment!

Review: Sweetness and Lightning

A surprisingly sweet slice-of-life with a dash of warmth and a pinch of reality.

The Lowdown:

Show: Sweetness and Lightning (Amaama to Inazuma)

Studio/years aired: TMA Entertainment, 2016

AniB’s thoughts: Consider this show and its review the unexpected surprise of my year so far in animation. I wound up stumbling upon the opening song of this series, and found its distinct, upbeat and cheery demeanor infectious, so I I checked out the first episode and the rest is history. Sweetness and Lightning is quite a pleasant watch, so it’s a pleasure to share it with those who have not discovered it yet and for those who have, you may in fact share the same sentiment.

Originally a 2016 release, this show is fairly niche so I’m not holding my breath for a dub two years on, but it is an excellent representation of the “slice of life” genre. It’s not over-the top visual humor and skits like a Nichijou, or even something like Lucky Star, but instead is its own unique production, following the story of a young widowed teacher and his daughter as they navigate their lives, which in turn is given meaning by the friends they make and the cooking they learn to do over the course of this show.

One of the aspects of this show that truly stood out to me was Kōhei Inuzuka- the single father who is tasked with raising his energetic only daughter- Tsumugi- after the sudden death of his wife, something that happened off-screen and before the events of the show. Balancing his role as a loving parent and also as a teacher is a tricky balance and yet, his gentle love and kindness comes through in a way that is simply marvelous. There aren’t a lot of anime in particular that I’ve seen give a major focus to parenting or the parent(s) in general on a realistic level and this show does a wonderful job of that, putting the dynamic of father-daughter at the forefront of its storytelling narrative.

It’s rare that a SOL just feels both the right amount of cute and realistic without being cringe-worthy in even the smallest sort of way, but Sweetness and Lightning manages to do that. The cooking sessions that Kohei and his daughter take up with a student from his school- Kotori Iida- wind up being a source of both life lessons, a sweet sense of friendship, and quite a few tasty -looking dishes. Everything moves with a rhythm and beat as the narrative follows father and daughter, through both joyous highs and unexpected lows, and as a result, each episode in some ways is as delicious to watch as the foods they’re named after.

Some of the more grounded aspects of the show comes from the fact that it’s also a seinen, but for this critic at least, it enhanced the overall show’s engaging potential and made it work on a level it might have not otherwise. Also to be lauded is a lack of fanservice as the narrative focus stayed squarely on a small, but concise cast of characters and their roles in the story that unfolds. While I could go on more about the details of Sweetness and Lightning here, the rest is better saved for the grading and for one’s own experience of one tasty anime.


Animation Quality: Modern 2-D anime, computer shaded. A bright show visually, the animation pops with the narrative, and in a show that heavily features cooking as a major part of its plot, food has to look good…and it does here! Character design is simple, but believable (as you can tell from this piece’s featured picture), and for this style of show, everything is extremely appealing. 4.75/5 points.

 
Characterization: As was talked about in my thoughts, Sweetness and Lightning revolves around the father-daughter pairing of Kohei and Tsumugi Inuzuka and in particular, the latter’s quest to make his daughter happy by cooking for her delicious homemade food.
I detailed information earlier about Kohei, but he’s a kind and caring father who is described as “plain looking” by more than one observer. A math teacher at a high school, it’s interesting to see the strain of working a full time job and caring for a young child can put on one person, but he handles it well, and mostly with a smile. He’s a responsible caregiver and a loving parent.

Tsumugi is an outgoing young girl, described as “adorable” by most observers between her bright perky face and gorgeous head of hair. She is a creative child with an active imagination, is extremely fond of an in-universe magical girl show that airs on TV, turns out to have a diverse palette for food (unless it’s green bell peppers), and loves her daddy very much. She’s the beating young heart of Sweetness and Lightning, and her boundless energy is infectious.

 

The one who initiates the idea of cooking sessions is Kotori- a student at Kohei’s high school where he works, and in fact one of his students. She loves good food as a result of growing up in and around her mother’s restaurant kitchen- but feels increasingly lonely as the latter so happens to make it big as a celebrity chef. The cooking lessons therefore become a source of bonding for the Inuzukas and Kotori, which also results in the side effect of improving culinary skills… A kind if somewhat shy girl, Kotori’s idea turns out to be the glue of a nice tale.

The rest of the cast is not that big, but there are solid supporting characters, chiefly Yagi- Kohei’s long time friend who works as a barkeep and cook at a restaurant, and Shinobu, Kotori’s best friend. It’s a sweet little cast where less is definitely more, and it comes together to form a cohesive cast. 4.25/5 points.

Story: Sweetness and Lightning is a “slice of life” meaning the overarching plot is more rooted the day to day routine of the characters, and in fact, takes on a much more “episodic-style” like many Western animated shows. It is a character-driven plot that revolves around those interpersonal dynamics, and as such, the actual substance of the show is in its cast, where everything else (setting, backdrops, etc) are more or less the foundation upon which that structure is built on. To that end, it works well: a cohesive narrative that keeps its premise clear and simple but also unique at the same time, and the execution is on point. 4.25/5 points.

 

Themes:  The story of a single father raising his daughter is one of committed parenthood, of friends and food, and of growing up for young Tsumugi. It’s a show that works on different levels for different viewers and I think that’s a beautiful dynamic to have in your theming. 4/5 points.

 

Don’t Insult the Viewer: A sweet show with plenty of engaging interactions, a lack of fan-service and a family dynamic? Yes please! Add in the adorably catchy opening to this show and you’ve got a winner in terms of the intangibles. 5/5 points.

 

Overall: 22.25/25 (89%): Adapted from a manga, Sweetness and Lightning is a delightfully under-the-radar pick from 2016 that should not only find appeal with long-time anime fans, but with casual viewers as well. A warm emotional heart beats in this “slice of life,” as well as lot of really tasty meals (complete with recipes!) This pick is definitely worth a look for all ages.


Like what you see? Enjoyed Sweetness and Lightning or curious about the show? Leave a comment!

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur

July was a busy month, indeed. Despite that, a few weeks back I finally sat down and watched the final two Pixar films I hadn’t seen yet, and one of them was this film- a 2016 release that generally gets forgotten in the pile of excellent films that Pixar has produced over many years, and perhaps doubly so given that it was wedged in between a year with Inside Out (2015) and then last year’s animation standout in Coco (2017), which I also wrote about here. Let’s jump into it though!

 

The Lowdown:

Film: The Good Dinosaur

Studio/year released: Pixar, 2015

AniB’s thoughts:

What a pleasant film. As mentioned in my preface, this was one of only two Pixar films I hadn’t viewed yet (the other being Cars 3). However, I made an evening of the two and the result is the review you’re reading now.

The Good Dinosaur is a charming movie with a warm emotional heart. It’s not nearly as deep as some of Pixar’s finest films, but it still manages to hold its own between some absolutely breathtaking scenery, a very refreshing twist on the “if dinosaurs and humans coexisted” question that cinema has explored for as long as there’s been film reels, and a likable underdog in Arlo, an undersized sauropod whose story revolves around “making his mark”- in other words, growing into the dinosaur his parents think he can become and more.

It’s my prevailing thought that this film may have claimed the title of most overlooked Pixar film (over A Bug’s Life, which is a fine movie.) It’s got a nice mix of tragic and heartfelt in its narrative, and in some ways feels like a more nuanced version of Blue Sky’s Ice Age from many years back, particularly when it comes to the idea of the “road less traveled. To borrow a quote that I picked up from my undergrad work, “successful interpretation (in a story) is often like the weaving of a tapestry or [symbolized] by the arduous journey home.” Indeed, this idea is fully on display with Arlo: when he first travels away from his comfortable homestead his life is thrown into disarray and confusion, which also turns into a mission to prove his worth. Without trying to spoil too much, it’s when he’s farthest away from all he knew that he’s at his nadir, but the moment he takes his first steps back towards where he came from is the moment he really begins to grow. In that sense, this movie’s true beauty is not just the gorgeous reflection and clarity of 3-D water, or the vivid landscapes that can capture the imagination, but rather how this interesting thematic idea plays out in the animated medium, along with the true antagonist not necessarily being some certain hungry pterodactyls, but rather, a young dinosaur’s struggles along the path he takes with an unlikely new friend- Spot, a human boy.

As it stands, The Good Dinosaur makes for a fine movie night, especially as a family-friendly flick. There’s no doubt in my mind that the deeper thematic ideas will find some root with most people, while kids would love the antics of Arlo and Spot- a dynamic that works rather nicely and far more nuanced than I expected initially. While this film might never get the recognition of other Pixar fare- a safe assumption given the extraordinary stable of titles the studio has- it’s a very good movie worth a look.


Animation Quality: Pixar’s usual 3-D animation. As you’d expect, it looks superb in every sense of the word, and also typical with the studios’ films, it also incorporates that gorgeous art right into the storytelling. While the dinosaurs in the movie slant far more towards “cartoony” than “realistic” in their looks and proportions, it works well for the film. 5/5 points.

Characterization: As talked about, the main character of this tale is Arlo- a young sauropod who is the runt of the litter among his other two siblings on the farmstead his family keeps. Desperate to live up to the rest of his family and make “his mark,” Arlo’s adventure is one spring-boarded by both tragedy and fate.

His unlikely companion on that journey is “Spot”- a small human boy who in this alternate imagining of the world, acts far more like a wolf or a dog. He’s very agile, relatively fearless and is also shown to be rather caring as the movie progresses, fostering a cute, heartfelt relationship with his young dinosaur companion.

The rest of the film mostly features a supporting cast designed to frame Arlo’s journey, and they do so effectively, from his family to a couple T-Rex herders who essentially are cowboys. It works well, but ultimately the film’s main dynamic hinges on Arlo and Spot, and while simple, it comes together nicely.  3.75/5 points.

Story Quality: I’ve talked quite a bit about this already in my thoughts, but this movie’s about the journey and how one can “make their mark.” It’s relatively straightforward, especially compared to some of Pixar’s best film, but the execution of the idea is done very well and has a stronger emotional undertone than was expected. 3.75/5 points.

Themes: Tying directly into the story portion, this is in a very real sense a coming of age tale forged through unusual and trying circumstances. It’s also a tale of the proverbial “ugly duckling” finally taking wing and figuring out how to fly, or in Arlo’s case, stand on his own four feet as he navigates his adventure. Indeed, there are some influences from other places (and a certain event is almost certainly inspired by The Lion King), but this is a film with a good strong sense of its main thrust and it drives it home well. 3.5/5 points.

Don’t Insult the Viewer: A very family-friendly film that has a good emotional heart and stellar animation as mentioned above is always a winner in the intangibles department. The music worked well enough, and it’s a clean watch without any sort of grievously objectionable material.  5/5 points.

 

Overall: 21/25 (84%): A very solid, underrated pick in Pixar’s robust stable of movies, The Good Dinosaur is a solid film that has universal appeal and solid messaging. It’s worth a quick pick as a watch option for a night.’


Like what you see? Are you a fan of The Good Dinosaur? Leave a comment!

 

Review: Noragami

The unusual story of a hobo god, his sword, and a girl.

So, it’s been a bit since I’ve gotten to write! Thanks to a summer course I’ve begun, my focus shifted away again from here, but I’m happy to report that I have some new material on the way, and this series is one of ’em. Initially released as an anime in 2014, this review covers both currently aired seasons of the show (titled “Noragami” and “Noragami Aragoto” respectively), and there’s apparently been speculation for a while about a potential 3rd season. Whatever the case may be there, the fact remains that the first two seasons exist, and that is the topic of this review!

The Lowdown:

Show: Noragami (season 1), Noragami Aragoto (season 2)

Studio/years aired: Bones, 2014 (season 1), 2015 (season 2)

AniB’s thoughts: Before I really delve into this review, a thought I’ve held onto for a while struck me again while covering this series: Man, I never quite like it when they split up seasons by different names and even different listings on your popular ranking sites (think MyAnimeList). It just makes things more confusing, in my own opinion, and while grading each season on its own is perfectly valid, for the purposes of this piece I would rather talk about the entire product as one show. So yes, Noragami  and Noragami Aragoto are simply season 1 and 2, or two anime cour as some call them.

As I mentioned in my preface, Noragami was a 2014 release (and presumably got buried under Kill la Kill hype at the time.) As an idea, it’s an interesting concept rooted in the Japanese tradition of shrines and different gods for different causes and wishes, and while this may be the case, this is hardly a religious show, but rather one of friendship, deep conflict, high stakes, and at the heart of it all is Yato- a minor deity without a shrine to call his own, with a shadowy past unexplained that slowly begins to come into focus as events unfold. Yato is an enigma at first- aloof and almost bum-like in his mannerisms; apparently quite difficult to get along with as he’s gone through a number of regalia- uncorrupted souls named by a god to be their holy weapons (more on that in the next paragraph), but as time goes on it’s revealed that he has a much more complex personality and understanding of the world around him, as well as an unsavory reputation as a “god of calamity”- meaning he is quite good at combat, if nothing else. Curiously though, he’s shown to take no pleasure when it comes to taking life, which is an odd contrast for a war god…

 

The master-regalia aspect immediately reminded me of Soul Eater’s meister-death weapon partnerships, but there are several important differences between a likely inspiration and the system employed in Noragami. For one, it is a deity in this universe that gives an un-corrupted soul a name as a bond, which is a “blessing and a curse,” as one certain character puts it, and somewhat similar to the Soul Eater relationship, both master and regalia must be perfectly in tune to perform at an optimal level. In fact, if the regalia acts out, or the master has some sort activity that makes then unclean, both can become “blighted”; a condition that left untreated will eventually kill the god and cause a regalia to transform into a phantom- corrupted spirits that take on monstrous forms, and which can only be rended by what else- a master and regalia.

There’s an interesting 3-wheel dynamic between the leads of this show in Yato, Hiyori Iki, the main female lead of the show, and Yukine, Yato’s young new Regalia. The former comes into contact with Hiyori through a certain incident that’s in the first episode of the show, and while initially she hounds Yato for a certain wish, she eventually does in fact become good friends with him, treasuring the relationship. The same goes for Yukine in relation to the other two, though how this all unfolds is the territory of spoilers. I’ll say this much: the young regalia has a pretty good character arc that unfolds for him in the context of the show. The supporting cast also plays major roles in different arcs of the show; each season has roughly two arcs in it, which develop the plot and the characters nicely.

 


Animation Quality: Modern 2-D computer-animation. As you’d expect, it looks quite good, and understandably so, given the studio (Bones). the animation certaintly helps illustrate the tension and world of the “supernatural within the ordinary” well in this show; the monstrous phantoms in particular were reminiscent  of some of the stranger, more disturbing scenes of 2018’s Devilman Crybaby, but actually worked well in the context of this show. There’s some minor fan-service mostly centered on Hiyori and another character, but it’s not terribly egregious in a way that truly detracts from the show. 4.75/5 points.

 

Characterization: As mentioned in my thoughts, there’s a triumvirate for the lead cast: Yato, the former war god-turned-attempted fortune god, Yukine, his Regalia that takes on the human form of a teenage boy, and Hiyori Iki, a teenage girl who becomes an half-ayakashi, or half spirit being upon a certain incident that this critic can’t help but think was a reference to the first episode of Yu Yu Hakusho

Yato as mentioned is a minor god, typically said to be a god of calamity in his past, but in the present, is doggedly in pursuit of his own shrine and a new reputation. While he seems outwardly narcissistic and uncaring at first, he’s shown in fact to be far more perceptive than people give credit for, and as the show unfolds, quite the opposite of those initial impressions. In particular, he grows a deep bond with Hiyori, which becomes a point of conflict given her unique status as “in-between” the human and spirit worlds, and Yukine.

The oft-mentioned regalia in this piece, Yukine takes the form of a katana when wielded by his master, known as “Sekki.” With the “Yuki” command he turns back into a teenage boy; while Yukine’s past is only surmised in a few panels, it’s implied he died of some tragic accident as a human… Yato saves his uncorrupted spirit by making him his regalia, and takes on a fatherly role that grows closer after a series of events. As a teenager, Yukine is prone to mood swings and often laments that he can’t do normal teenage things, and while this comprises a portion of his plot, it also helps explain why he befriends Hiyori Iki…

A regular, kind girl, Hiyori led a perfectly normal adolescent life until a chance encounter with Yato led to her becoming a half-human, half spirit being who could split from her body at any point, notably gaining a “tail” in the latter form, which actually signifies her link to the living world. As a result, Hiyori is able to see the gods and remember them whereas normal humans cannot, and gains some superhuman abilities in her spirit form. However, it leaves her corporeal body vulnerable, as she falls asleep as a human (which her friends believe is narcolepsy, unaware of her actual predicament.) She seeks to get rid of this status by making a wish to Yato, but later comes to treasure it as she befriends the god and his regalia, plus some others.

 

There’s a good supporting cast here with varying levels of importance, from Bishamon, the supreme god of war who holds a long-time grudge against Yato, to Tenjin, the god of learning who has an extensive shrine and who a former regalia of the latter’s went to; and Kofku and Daigoku, a god/regalia pairing who while eccentric, are friendly with Yato and take kindly to Yukine and Hiyori as well as allies. 3.75/5 points.

 

Story: The story revolves mostly around Yato and everyone else’s storyline sort of fits in neatly around that dynamic. It’s a bit complicated to explain, but it makes sense in context when you’re watching the show. This show is heavily character-driven, meaning the plots here are largely driven by character action as opposed to some other force, but it works overall, with each arc’s story demonstrating good tension and engaging climactic moments. It’s overall very good. 3.75/5 points.

 

Themes: There’s some heavily existential type questions in this show tied into the existence of one’s being, their place in the world, and perhaps also the concept of free will. How such topics are explored is part and parcel with the subject material of the show, which answers these questions in different ways and through different character arcs. It’s a very human sort of look into the deepest sort of fear we tend to experience, despite the supernatural and fictional settings/characters juxtaposed against the backdrop of modern Japan. 4/5 points.

 

Don’t Insult the Viewer: There is definitely a lot of intensity in Noragami, from phantom slaying to very high stakes battles and all sorts of unusual problems. The show also features two absolute bangers for OPs, which are pretty catchy. Overall, a good presentation. 4.25/5 points.

 

Overall: 20.5/25 (82%): An interesting adaptation with a heavy Japanese cultural influence driving its story, Norgami delivers a solid, character driven narrative with plenty of emotional highs and lows, and a good balance between lighter, comedic moments and far more serious ones. It’s worth a look, and it remains to be seen if a third season is released (which if so, I’ll be sure to revisit this series!)


Like what you see? Enjoyed Noragami or are you curious? Leave a comment!

 

Movie Review: Incredibles 2

The long awaited sequel is here at last. Does it live up to its name?

As promised, here is AniB Productions’ review of Incredibles 2! In a first, there’s going to be a spoiler-free section…and some spoiler thoughts as well, along with the usual grading format.

The Lowdown:

Film: Incredibles 2

Studio/year released: Pixar, 2018

AniB’s thoughts:

The 13 and a half year wait is finally over. Yes, today (at the time of this writing) was the day Incredibles 2 finally turned from fiction into reality and audiences jumped back into the world of heroes right where they left off back in 2004, with John Ratzenberger’s Underminer announcing his “war on peace and happiness!” In a twist though, the movie is opened up with government agent Rick Dicker in the same questioning room from Jack-Jack Attack with Tony Ryndinger, Violet’s new boyfriend as he describes the beginning of the attack and the shock of finding out Violet was in fact, a superhero…and off we went.

Since this is the non-spoiler section, it won’t be entirely easy to dish out the juicer details of the film, but there are some things that can be confirmed without doing so, such as the return of the jazzy Incredibles motif courtesy of Michael Giancchino, or that Jack-Jack inevitably plays a bigger role in this film, hardly a surprise given his relatively minor casting in the original film. However, the more pressing question that anyone’s dying to ask is “was it worth the wait?” To that, the answer is a pretty clear “yes,” with a lively action plot, more than a little influence from classic Bond adventures, fluid fight sequences with all the beauty you’d expect a Pixar film to have, and a rousing climax. It is in a word, “super”- and worth the investment into a theater trip when the rest of the cinema is (or was, if you read this weeks or years after the fact) lacking at the time of its release any sort of rousing alternative….until Jurassic World’s sequel hits theaters next weekend, but that’s another story entirely.

(Skip ahead to grading if you don’t want spoilers.)


Okay, so now it’s time to discuss the little nuances and details of a long-awaited film that exceeded expectations.

First off, picking up where they left off was probably a good decision now that I’ve seen the film, though I would have liked to see more of the Underminer after the frenetic opening sequence. He’s still digging his tunnels underneath Municiberg for all we know (and he’s one ugly mole for sure.) This part of the movie was as action packed as you’d expect (and hope), and a useful framing for introducing the wealthy businessman who’d push to revive the supers via a comprehensive plan- which he wanted Elastigirl to spearhead, much to the chagrin of Mr. Incredible.

I’m sure you all want to hear about Dash, Violet and Jack-Jack, the Parr children. I’m happy to report that the expanded roles they get in this film are in equal parts charming, funny, and serious. Violet receives an interesting subplot after Tony’s mind is wiped by Dicker at the beginning of the film, and true to her development from the prior film, she’s a lot more outgoing from the get-go, and isn’t afraid to voice her displeasure when things go south. She also has much better command over her powers, and definitely gets to do some cool things with her force fields in particular. Dash is the only one of the original VA cast that was replaced between the first two films (Huck Milner stepped in for Spencer Fox, who simply got much older in that time frame), but you’d never be able to tell the difference as on screen, he’s still the same confident, slightly cocky kid you’d come to expect. In this film, he gets a running gag of pressing the wrong buttons on control panels of very high-tech things…which actually pans out with the unexpected and fun return of the Incredimobile after the discovery that Bob still had the remote to the car.

The single biggest change in this film though, had to be the emergence of Jack-Jack as a major factor in the film. As you might expect, the youngest Parr’s role often was fairly comedic, but the humor visually worked, particularly the fight with the raccoon as a good example. Jack-Jack also wound up being a major source of Bob’s headaches in parenting while Helen was away- but also a source of joy as he was the first to discover the baby had powers (as no one actually realized in the first film that Syndrome’s defeat was directly caused by Jack-Jack’s manifestation of abilities, or anything about the events of Jack-Jack Attack. In another clever nod, when Edna Mode is later tasked with babysitting him from a weary, sleepless Bob, she finds that Mozart stimulates his powers, indeed confirming that the Mozart that the babysitter Kari talked about over the phone to Helen in The Incredibles was in fact the initial trigger for Jack-Jack, and a sneaky reference for those who knew the film assiduously.

 

The single biggest aspect that set apart The Incredibles from its sequel was the villain. I detailed a bit in The Incredibles review about why Syndrome was exactly an amazing villain that lifted the whole movie, and I’m not sure I can say entirely the same about Screenslaver. In context, she was a pretty neat villain idea- a hypnotist puppetmaster who was also a communications genius that decided to hijack monitors and use special goggles as mind-control devices, and one embittered by personal tragedy and blame- but there was never quite the same emotional heft to her character that Syndrome built in relation to Mr. Incredible-the spurned fanboy turned supervillain with an island base of his own creation to boot. I also will add I had zero problems with the woman being the villain here, or in any movie that actually does it, and I was also happy with Elastigirl’s expanded role in this film doing “hero work” as we actually got only some tantalizing glimpses of her in action during the original film (and not much at all solo.) Likewise, in building on the first film’s “your family is your greatest adventure” lesson for Mr. Incredible, he takes much more of a front and center role in learning to be a better dad, although this fails miserably for a while as he winds up getting a total lack of sleep as well…

 

Overall, this was a very good film, in fact, even excellent. Is it as good as the first? Not quite, but it’s close, and after years of waiting, it proved to be a worthy followup. It’s a funnier film than the original, but in return sacrificed some of its heavier emotional weight, but the end product remained the same in the most basic sense: a seriously entertaining film.


Animation Quality: The latest offering from Pixar is always eye candy, and Incredibles 2 was no exception. The action sequences in particular stood out as fluid and lively, and the colors popped off the screen with a vividness that was wonderful. 5/5 points.

Characterization:
You probably already know and love the Incredibles family, but the major difference this time around is that Helen takes center stage, while Bob plays more of the deuteragonist role this time, but in a way that both supports their characters well instead of awkwardly.

Mrs. Incredible, real name Helen Parr, is Bob’s wife and the former pro hero Elastagirl, noted for her incredible stretching powers and elastic limbs that allowed her to contort her body into almost any shape and develop a unique melee style of combat. In retirement though, she’s a devoted mother and wife who wants the best for Bob and for her kids, who can be a handful between teenage Violet, Dash, and the youngest Parr, baby Jack-Jack. She secretly misses being a hero, but she’s equally as willing to live in the role of a stay at home mother as she is Elastigirl. In her words, “she’s flexible.” That mantra is put to the test when a wealthy telecommunications tycoon pegs her ahead of her husband and Frozone to lead a comeback of the supers- meaning that while she gets to revive the Elastagirl mantle, she’s forced to leave the kids with Bob, who between his glory days dreams and usual status as breadwinner until recently, wasn’t cast into that role.

 

Mr. Incredible, real name Bob Parr, is a man who still pines for the glory days of his youthful prime as a hero before the government decided to push the idea of a hero society underground. Reinvigorated by the defeat of Syndrome, things go awry when the attempt to stop the Underminer turns sour and Rick Dicker shuts down the experimental program to bring supers back, deflating him until a new offer comes in…and Elastigirl takes center stage. And so, instead of being “the man” this time around, Bob’s challenge is to be a good dad while also dealing with the general jealousy of not being “Mr. Incredible” all the time. Bob, despite his shortcomings, is a good family man, husband and father, and his best interests at heart intersect in his mind with what’s good for his family. When he actually takes to the fight though, he’s blessed with the power of super strength and enhanced agility/reflexes, his power on the battlefield is no joke.

This go-around, Violet and Jack-Jack play a much larger role, while Dash plays more of an important supporting role. There’s a subplot with Violet in her role that unfolds as a clever mix of the age-old angsty teen and the issues of being a super that conflicts with having a normal social life. These issues Violet works through in the film, along with showing off some pretty impressive uses of her force field abilities this time around, along with invisibility.

Jack-Jack’s role I talked about at length in the spoiler section, but for the non-spoiler people, he does in fact get a much larger role in this film. You won’t have to wait until end of the movie this time to get some significant action for the baby of the family.

Dash mostly plays a supporting role, but still has some genuinely funny moments and things he’d only do that sometimes work…and sometimes don’t work at all. The change in voice actors also went off seamlessly. Sadly, he doesn’t get quite as cool a sequence as “100-Mile Dash” from the first film, but he’s still a fun character.

Frozone and Edna reprise their roles as well. I’m happy to report Frozone gets a larger role in this film, particularly when it comes to actively battling, and Edna still gets her moments, so don’t worry about it.

I’m not going to mention much about the new characters here for spoiler reasons, but they definitely give a much different feel to this film than the first. They also work well within the context of the story. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know who I’m referring to. 4.5/5 points.

Story:
The plot from the first film about super being illegal rears its ugly head again as the main issue at the center of the film, and it’s within that context that a comeback attempt for heroes is spearheaded by a certain new character and his influence. In the mix of that is another family tale that unfolds. There’s a clever inspiration from Bond films that you can feel in this movie, along with the obvious silver-age superhero influence, and a touch of modernity that creates a clash of the cutting edge against the old-school, and like the first movie, technology plays a big role, though it’s not via giant hero-killing robots this time. 4.5/5 points.

Themes: The family aspect of the Incredibles remains intact, along with the fine balance of superhero work that created issues for Mr. Incredible in the first film and now Elastagirl. It’s still really well done, though perhaps not with the same level of depth as the first film, and while the main villain is good, that individual might lack some of the extra personal depth of a “Syndrome” though the conviction is certainly there. 4/5 points.

Don’t Insult the Viewer: Michael Giancchino’s score once again is wonderful, reprising the jazzy themes that helped carry the original film, albeit with new flairs and leimotifs. This film is a fun ride throughout, and is briskly paced, balancing storytelling with action in a way that makes for an entertaining end product. 5/5 points.

Overall: 23/25 (92%): It was always going to be a daunting task to live up to the original Incredibles film, which is no doubt a modern animated classic at this point. However, this film managed enormous expectations with flying colors, and viewed purely on its own merits, it’s an excellent adventure that preserves the family-flavored brand of superhero-ing that The Incredibles is known for, creating another worthy adventure for all ages to enjoy.