Category Archives: Anime Review

Anime Review: Tales from Earthsea Anime DVD/BD Review

For many Hayao Miyazaki is synonymous with the award-winning Studio Ghibli. However, Ghibli has another director from that family: Goro Miyazaki. Tales From Earthsea was his directing debut, and I had the opportunity to review the Blu-Ray/DVD set for the film.

Cover Blurb

In the land of Earthsea, crops are dwindling, dragons have reappeared, and humanity is giving way to chaos. Journey with Lord Archmage Sparrowhawk, a master wizard, and Arren, a troubled young prince, on a tale of redemption and self-discovery as they search for the force behind the mysterious imbalance that threatens to destroy their world.

The Review

Although I’ve heard of Le Guin’s novels, I’ve never read them so Ghibli’s film is my first encounter with the Earthsea universe. Unfortunately, I can’t say it was a particularly positive experience.

It’s not that the animation was bad. Ghibli, as usual, delivers breathtaking landscapes, thrilling action, bustling urban scenes, and cozy intimate moments. And although Therru’s Song isn’t that inspiring, the overall orchestral score is pretty good. The main issue with the film is the storytelling.

It opens with dragons battling over the ocean. Shortly thereafter, we see dragon artwork, plus the packaging has a dragon prominently displayed on it. So I’m thinking the story is a fantasy epic about dragons.

It’s not.

It’s really about humankind struggling with a world imbalance, and the brief glimpse of fighting dragons is merely an indicator—like rising ocean levels—of how bad things have gotten. And the imbalance doesn’t just affect the external environment; it’s also degrading people’s magical abilities and the fabric of society as a whole.

It’s a multifaceted problem, but the film doesn’t do a very good job of presenting it. After the brief excitement of watching a possessed Prince Arren kill his father, the pace slows to a crawl as he and the mage Sparrowhawk journey across the ravaged lands of Earthsea. And while those images deliver a sense of external decay, the narrative provides little background on the inhabitants’ original mental and spiritual state. As such, when characters fuss about how far humanity has fallen, I, as a newcomer to the Earthsea world, have no idea what standard they’re using to measure it. We also never learn what Arren’s “shadow” is exactly or the significance of “true names.”

And for a complex worldwide problem, it has a surprisingly simple cause. Everything gets tied to the actions of one bad guy. So the solution boils down to “defeat the bad guy,” and while the resulting duel is visually stunning, it comes out of nowhere.

Also coming out of nowhere is the romance between Prince Arren and Therru. As someone who vacillates between a violent maniac and a paranoid emo, Arren isn’t very compelling as a main character, let alone a romantic lead. As for Therru, her burn scar aside, she has all the appeal of a hissing alley cat. She rebuffs Arren after he rescues her from slavers, and when he and Sparrowhawk get invited to stay at her guardian’s home, she threatens him with a stick. But then Arren catches her singing alone in a pasture, and suddenly, they’re besties. As a romance, I find their relationship more baffling than captivating.

Extras include an exclusive booklet, feature-length storyboards (on Blu-Ray disc only), Birth Story of the Film Soundtrack (on Blu-Ray disc only), Birth Story of Therru’s Song (on Blu-Ray disc only), NTV special (on Blu-Ray disc only), TV spots, and the original theatrical trailers.

In Summary

Tales of Earthsea has the look and sound of great Ghibli film, but the storytelling is lacking. The narrative fails to explain the complex setting adequately, the hero is difficult to relate to, and there’s no chemistry between the main couple. The film feels as if it’s trying to encompass adventure, social commentary, spirituality, and romance but winds up falling short in all aspects.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Anime Review: Princess Mononoke Anime DVD/BD Review

Most of Hayao Miyazaki’s films are not set in his native Japan, and only Princess Mononoke has a Japanese feudal era setting. While this makes it distinctly different than his other films, it also makes it my favorite of his works. I had the opportunity to review the Blu-Ray/DVD set for the film, and you can read on for the review.

Cover Blurb

Inflicted with a deadly curse, the young warrior Ashitaka heads west in search of a cure. There, he stumbles into a bitter conflict between Lady Eboshi and the proud people of Iron Town, and the enigmatic Princess Mononoke, a young girl raised by wolves, who will stop at nothing to prevent the humans from destroying her home, and the forest spirits and animal gods who live there.

The Review

Don’t let the GKIDS logo on the case fool you. Princess Mononoke is an excellent animated film but not the type of movie you’d let a five-year-old watch alone. Battles take place between animal gods and people as well as between competing human factions, and images of corpses and body parts getting shot off are frequent and extremely graphic.

On top of the gory parts, the narrative is a complex one. Set in the chaotic Muromachi period, it features members of an exiled ethnic group, rival warlords, and minions of a distant emperor in addition to the forest spirits unique to this film. If you’re not familiar with the Japanese feudal era, the subtleties of the social setting and certain character motivations might be lost on even adult audiences. Ergo, the PG-13 rating.

For those mature enough to take in the film’s violent aspects, however, it is a magnificent tale. And even if it’s unclear why certain people are attacking others in the backdrop, the main conflict—that between the forest and the ironworkers—needs no explanation.

The story begins when a demon—a boar god driven mad by an iron lump that’s penetrated its body—attacks a remote Emishi village. The young warrior Ashitaka kills the demon but not before it afflicts him with a deadly curse. Ashitaka then travels west to learn the source of the demon’s malice and discovers Iron Town. An ironworks at the edge of a primeval forest, it is locked in bitter conflict with the forest’s guardian gods and San, a young girl raised by wolves.

As far as heroes go, Ashitaka is very appealing and rather pure. He doesn’t get conscience-stricken over the samurai who die at his cursed hand, but he is selfless enough to sacrifice his well-being for his village. When he encounters the Iron Town/forest conflict, he is very careful not to get caught up in it. Rather, he wants to help both sides, a stance that leaves both the forest dwellers and the ironworkers bewildered and suspicious. However, he’s not all idealistic positivity. When the great god of the forest does not heal him of his curse, he’s clearly crushed.

San is also pure but in a different way. Abandoned by her family, she feels no connection with people. Her loyalty is to the wolf tribe that adopted her and the forest that’s their home. More than any other human on the cast, she understands and mourns what’s being lost in the face of human expansion, thus her actions wind up those of a feudal-era environmental extremist.

Environmental themes have appeared in other Ghibli films, and it would have been easy to cast the inhabitants of Iron Town and their leader Lady Ebisu as the bad guys wantonly destroying their natural heritage. However, Miyazaki makes the situation much more complex. True, Lady Ebisu sees the forest as a resource to be conquered and exploited, but she’s also a person of tremendous compassion. Many ironworkers are lepers and former prostitutes whom Lady Ebisu rescued, and they are eternally grateful for the new lives she gave them in Iron Town. So although the forest is being destroyed on account of the ironworks, that same ironworks benefits the most downtrodden members of society. As such, there is no black and white in the strife swirling around Iron Town; rather there are many factions colored in various shades of gray, which is a much more realistic portrayal of conflict in the world.

In contrast, the thread of romance that runs between San and Ashitaka is simplistic. He falls in love with her at first sight despite the fact that she’s hostile and splattered with blood. Princess Mononoke is an epic action/adventure so it’s not like San and Ashitaka’s relationship is the primary driver for the narrative, but it would’ve been nice for it to have a more substantial foundation than ”You’re beautiful.”

Extras include exclusive booklet, feature-length storyboards (on Blu-Ray disc only), behind the microphone, Princess Mononoke in USA (on Blu-Ray disc only), TV spots, and the original English-, French- and Japanese-language theatrical trailers.

In Summary

A thrilling epic with sweeping landscapes and a compelling hero’s journey. At times, the socio-political forces at work are difficult to understand, and the romance between San and Ashitaka doesn’t seem to be founded on much at all. However, the mystical quality of the primeval forest and its inhabitants is marvelous, and the animation for the battle scenes are still inspire awe and excitement despite being twenty years old.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Anime Review: My Neighbor Totoro Anime DVD/BD Review

Totoro is an icon. Decades after My Neighbor Totoro’s release, Totoro goods are still popular, and he even made an appearance in Toy Story 3 (although I wish he had a speaking role). I had the opportunity to review the Blu-Ray/DVD set for the film, and you can read on for the review.

Cover Blurb

When Satsuki and her sister Mei move with their father to a new home in the countryside, they find country life is not as simple as it seems. They soon discover that the house and nearby woods are full of strange and delightful creatures, including a gigantic but gentle forest spirit called Totoro, who can only be seen by children. Totoro and his friends introduce the girls to a series of adventures, including a ride aboard the extraordinary Cat Bus, in this all-ages animated masterpiece featuring the voices of Tim Daly, Lea Salonga, and real-life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning, in one of their earliest roles.

The Review

Last month I had a holiday gathering with some old classmates. Their elementary school age kids came with them and started running riot in my non-childproofed house. In desperation, I grabbed my review copy of My Neighbor Totoro and put it in the DVD player. Within moments the kids settled down, and for the next 90 minutes, we adults were able to converse in peace.

So even after thirty years, My Neighbor Totoro hasn’t lost its ability to enchant children.

Unlike many American animated children’s films, My Neighbor Totoro has no flashy musical numbers, no talking sidekick animals, and no ridiculously goofy characters. The pace is slow, and commonplace rural scenes and activities take up much of the screen time. Yet the film sings with the beauty of nature, and it’s through the awesomeness of Japan’s forests and waters that Director Miyazaki channels the mysterious, magical quality of the totoros.

The main characters are sisters Satsuki (11) and Mei (4). They’ve moved with their father to a rickety old house in the countryside while their mother recuperates in a hospital some distance away. The two girls are thrilled with their new home, but as they explore it and the surrounding woods they soon discover the extraordinary but shy totoros, gentle forest spirits that can only be seen by children.

When a film includes magic or fantastical elements, often those elements overwhelm the narrative (think Sailor Moon or Harry Potter). However, My Neighbor Totoro has no glittery magical girls or flashy spells. The sisters encounter the totoros in the backyard and bus stop—ordinary, familiar places—and though each meeting stirs a sense of awe for their forest surroundings and its mysterious inhabitants, the children don’t become agents of that wonder themselves, nor do the totoros hijack their lives. For the most part, girls are living a normal life, adjusting to a new place where every now and then they brush up against something special.

And the encounters are quite fun. There’s a lot of child squealing/screaming, which kids probably appreciate. The furry totoros look like cute plushies (probably why totoro toys are popular even today), and their expressions are quite engaging. One of my favorite scenes is when Satsuki loans the big totoro an umbrella and he goes from baffled to absolutely thrilled with it.

The movie also has its share of drama with the uncertain health of the girls’ mother. Although it’s not the stuff of epics, any child can understand the fear of losing a parent. And when Mei gets lost trying to visit their mother’s hospital, audiences will definitely relate to Satsuki’s desperation to find her. While the totoros play their part in the drama’s resolution, it’s the human concerns and emotions that give the film its “heart” and make My Neighbor Totoro a compelling story even decades after its release.

Extras include exclusive booklet, feature-length storyboards, behind the microphone, creating My Neighbor Totoro, creating the characters, the “Totoro” experience, Producer’s Perspective: Creating Ghibli, the locations of My Neighbor Totoro, textless credits, and the original theatrical trailers. Several of these extras are subtitled excerpts of Japanese documentaries, and if you are a big Miyazaki or Ghibli Studio fan, you might want to pick up the Blu-ray/DVD set for this bonus material alone.

In Summary

My Neighbor Totoro is widely regarded a classic and rightfully so. Yes, it’s not exactly a fate-of the-world-depends-on-it roller coaster ride, but it has its own unexpected and charming surprises. Plus, the totoros—in addition to being adorably cute—brim with personality even though they can’t really talk.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Anime Review: Rose Of Versailles Part 2 Litebox DVD

Anime reviews generally feature the latest and greatest from Japan, but occasionally, we get a blast from the past. Nozomi Entertainment’s release of Rose of Versailles definitely falls into that category with a shojo title that was  considered “classic” back when I was growing up. Read on for my review of Part 2 of the litebox DVD set. (For my review of Part 1, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

The French royalty’s indulgences have taken their toll on the common folk. While nobles live in opulence, children starve in the streets. Counts and countesses attend masquerade balls, as families unable to afford medicine are forced to bury their loved ones. What were once pleas for equality are now enraged demands for radical change.

Just as the times have changed, so has Oscar’s heart. Looking to challenge herself further, Oscar leaves the Queen’s side. She enlists with the French Guards, common soldiers who put their lives on the line every night as they patrol the streets and keep the peace. However, Oscar soon finds that an anti-noble sentiment resides everywhere, even amongst the guards that grudgingly follow her orders. As the flames of revolution begin to spread, she soon finds herself torn between her loyalty to the crown and her loyalty to France itself.

The Review

In the interview included with this DVD set, the director mentions that he took over the anime halfway through the series, and there is a definite shift in these last twenty episodes of Rose of Versailles. Whereas the first half had more to do with Oscar’s relationship with Marie Antoinette and the frivolities of Versailles, the second half focuses on her relationship with Andre. Indeed, Andre, who was mostly loyal sidekick before, gets a stronger voice and a chance to air his opinion. The change in tone is also because the story leads up to the turmoil of the French Revolution. Oscar’s a noble with a noble’s perspective while Andre is in a position to understand both the old regime and the rising tide of the new era. He provides the outlet to expound the new ideas of Robespierre’s movement, which is crucial for our heroine to comprehend the desperation of the revolutionaries.

Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette becomes less an intimate associate of Oscar and more of a distant figurehead. The second half begins with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which is based on an actual incident. The Queen’s popularity plummets as a result, and shortly thereafter, Oscar’s and Marie Antoinette’s paths diverge when Oscar leaves the Royal Guards for the French Guards, a regiment of commoner roughnecks. After that, Marie Antoinette appears only occasionally, and usually for the purpose of highlighting some historic event. Marie Antoinette wasn’t too sympathetic to start with, and the final episodes portray her in a way that all but justifies her end at the guillotine.

So in contrast to the sparkly opulence and petty cat fights of Versailles, the second half of the series lingers in the dangerous streets of Paris and the barracks of Regiment B. In short, there’s a lot less dancing and a lot more brawling. Oscar’s commoner subordinates hate nobles, and the fact that she’s a woman makes it worse. However, Oscar being our heroine, she wins their respect and loyalty in a manner that for the most part stays true to character.

Aspects of Andre, however, do suspend belief. His unswerving love for Oscar rises to the forefront in these episodes, but it’s not enough for him to counter the twin challenges of class difference and Oscar’s obsession with Fersen. On top of all that, he starts going blind. Even so, he functions ably among the ranks of the French Guards AND keeps his growing disability a secret from Oscar. While the Versailles episodes get overdramatic with the intrigues of the court, these final episodes get overdramatic with Andre’s and Oscar’s personal angst.

Still, Oscar finishes her part well in this series. She is in the thick of it when the French Revolution erupts, taking part in the storming of the Bastille. The actual final scene, however, feels more weird than satisfying. As if needing to complete a history lesson, Rose closes with a summary of the five years following the revolution. While it seems appropriate to show what happened to the French royals, the final note is about Fersen, and his ultimate fate seems a very strange way to end this story about a heroic woman.

In Summary

Rose of Versailles reaches its dramatic end. The second half has a distinctly different tone as the setting shifts from Versailles to the discontent in Paris. Whereas the early part of the series concentrated on the problems of the bubbleheaded young Marie Antoinette, these episodes focus on Oscar’s personal turmoil in love and identity as the French Revolution draws near. While it does get overdramatic at times with characters going blind and contracting tuberculosis, these later episodes of Rose have more substance and definitely flesh Oscar out as a character.

Japanese 1.0 Language, English subtitles, interview with Director Osamu Dezaki, and promos for other Right Stuf! anime.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Anime Review: Rose Of Versailles Part 1 Litebox DVD

Anime reviews generally feature the latest and greatest from Japan, but occasionally, we get a blast from the past. Nozomi Entertainment’s release of Rose of Versailles definitely falls into that category with a shojo title that was  considered “classic” back when I was growing up.

Back Cover Blurb

General Jarjayes – so desperate for a son to preserve the family name and noble standing – names his newborn daughter “Oscar” and chooses to raise her as a boy. Fourteen years later, Oscar is a masterful duelist, marksman, and the newly appointed Commander of the French Royal Guards. Her first task: to protect Marie Antoinette, who is engaged to the French prince and future king, Louis-Auguste.

But even though the planned marriage should provide both countries with some much needed peace and prosperity, the French court is a dangerous place – and Marie’s youthful naivete makes her an easy target for those who wish to see the monarchy overthrown. Oscar soon finds herself both defending Marie’s reputation from those that seek to discredit her and protecting her life from those that wish to kill her.

The Review

General Jarjayes is a nobleman desperate for a son to carry on the family name. When his wife bears him yet another daughter, he takes matters into his own hands. Naming the newborn “Oscar,” he declares the girl his heir and raises him as a boy.

Thus begins Rose of Versailles, a shojo historical made in the late 1970s. The back cover touts the anime as “THE gold standard of ‘shojo’ anime which all anime fans must see.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to put it in the everyone-must-see-category, it certainly is a classic that forged the way for many gender bending shojo titles to follow.

Classic, of course, means that the animation is pre-digital. Thus, there are a lot of zoom in/zoom out/panning of stills, and special effects are primitive by current standards. Character designs also reflect the 1970s with waves of fluffy hair, prominent noses, long skinny legs, and super sparkly eyes with crazy long lashes. Despite the dated artwork, Rose of Versailles is a Louis XVI historical, so the story can be enjoyed as much today as it was thirty years ago.

Oscar is very much a fictional character, but many in the cast are based on actual people, most notably Marie Antoinette. Oscar and the Austrian Princess are the same age, and Oscar is appointed Commander of the Royal Guards at the same time Antoinette arrives in France to marry the Dauphin. Oscar immediately becomes Dauphine Antoinette’s favorite, and the anime follows the parallel journeys of the two women in the years before the Revolution.

In addition to providing a glimpse into and commentary on the French Court, Oscar also serves as a stark contrast to Antoinette. Both women are physically attractive, but while Antoinette is frivolous, weak, lazy, and irresponsible, Oscar is strong, courageous, and dutiful. Oscar is also fiercely loyal, and because she pledges loyalty to Antoinette, the anime does its best to make the Dauphine a sympathetic character. Unfortunately, Antoinette has history against her, and when Oscar remarks how Antoinette is “too true to her emotions” like it’s a good thing, she sounds like she’s making excuses for the airhead royal.

The anime takes an interesting perspective on this period by focusing on women and their point of view. The first five episodes covers Antoinette’s introduction to the French court and her rivalry with Louis XV’s mistress, DuBarry. Their power struggle, however, rather comes off as an amped up high school popularity contest. As Antoinette strives to establish herself as Versailles’ top female, Oscar alternates between dazzling the men and women of the French court and foiling underhanded schemes against the Dauphin and Dauphine.

The tale of Marie Antoinette wouldn’t be complete without representation from the common folk so in Episodes 6 through 10 the focus turns to the impoverished sisters Rosalie and Jeanne. The girls are opposites; Rosalie has an angelic disposition, and Jeanne is like the devil himself. Through circumstances as contrived and ironic as a Victor Hugo novel, both manage to escape Paris’ slums for the upper echelons of French society.

In Episode 11, Louis XVI ascends to the throne, and with it comes the beginnings of tension between Antoinette and Oscar. A trip to the countryside opens Oscar’s eyes to the wretched circumstances of the peasantry and their dismal opinion of the queen. Meanwhile, Antoinette falls under the sway of the conniving Madam Polignac, who fuels the queen’s reckless spending habits.

The final episodes in the collection focus on Antoinette’s obsession with the Swedish Count Fensen, with whom Oscar has also fallen in love. But while Oscar stoically keeps her feelings to herself, the slave-to-her-passions queen launches into an adulterous affair with the handsome Swede. This puts Oscar in the unenviable position of suffering unrequited love while having to shield the queen’s forbidden romance from gossip mongers.

For this anime, entertainment definitely trumps historical accuracy. As such, it takes liberties with details, but at the very least, viewers will come away familiar with the names of historical figures. Characters tend to have a very one-sided quality though. Villains, like Jeanne, DuBarry, and Duke Orleans, are steeped in evil while the good guys, like Rosalie and Oscar, are absolutely pure and noble. Marie Antoinette is in an odd category: goodhearted but too stupid to see she’s destroying her people. Probably the most well-rounded character is Andre, Oscar’s sidekick, who is neither noble nor beggar and provides much of the series’ comic relief.

Despite Rose’s flat characters and simplistic storylines (it’s amazing how easily the bad guys get away with literal murder), the glories of the French Court, Antoinette’s public and private life, and Oscar’s increasing dismay at the decline of France are still captivating. It’s a train wreck destined to end with Antoinette at the guillotine, but Oscar’s path remains uncertain. Whether the honorable soldier continues to stay loyally beside her queen or sides with the suffering people of France should make for compelling drama indeed.

In Summary

If you’re looking for a classic style anime featuring an androgynous lead, Rose of Versailles, is the way to go. Oscar is a woman who can more than hold her own as a French officer yet so stunning men and women alike fall in love with her. Improbable as this combination is, it makes for an interesting and entertaining perspective on Versailles in the days of King Louis XV and King Louis XVI.

Japanese mono, English subtitles, clean opening and closing animation, and promos for other Right Stuf! anime.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Anime Review: Non Non Biyori Complete Collection DVD

Let’s face it. Anime is thought of by many in the States as cartoons, and cartoons in the U.S. are synonymous with kids, but most anime really isn’t appropriate for a child audience. However, once in a while, I come across a series that I CAN recommend to younger viewers, and the slice of life comedy Non Non Biyori is one of them.

Back Cover Blurb

When Hotaru Ichijo transfers from a school in bustling Tokyo to a tiny school in a quiet countryside village, she should be experiencing major culture shock. After all, there are only three other girls in the school, and none of them are even in the same grade as her. But adjusting isn’t too hard for Hotaru thanks to first grader Renge and the Koshigaya sisters, Natsumi and Komari, who are in the seventh and eighth grade respectively.

Even though it takes 20 minutes by bicycle to get to the only place that sells comics and the video store is 10 train stations away, there’s something about the laid-back lifestyle that makes her feel right at ease. It’s a big change from the big city, but there are still plenty of new adventures to look forward to as Hotaru learns that home really is where the heart is.

The Review

Many anime titles categorized under “Slice of Life” are a bit of a stretch. Crunchyroll’s Slice of Life listings include Polar Bear Café and Moyashimon, neither of which falls remotely close to my definition of the genre. But even if your Slice of Life universe includes talking bears, I think we can all agree that Non Non Biyori lies safely within that category.

The series, comprised of twelve 25-minute episodes, follows four girls in a countryside village over the course of a year. The story opens with fifth-grader Hotaru Ichijo’s first day at school. She recently moved from Tokyo because of her father’s job, and she’s instantly in for a culture shock. The population’s so small that the entire school body, including her, is a mere five students.

This school definitely doesn’t suffer clique struggles, not with everyone in a different grade, ranging from 1st to 9th. It’s a given that they all have to be friends, and although their temperaments vary widely, they are a close-knit group. At least the girls are. Ninth grader Suguru is the only boy and his lack of spoken lines is a running joke. He’s also brother to the two girls old enough to date so romance doesn’t really factor into this anime. As such, Non Non Biyori focuses mainly on how the girls entertain themselves out in the sticks.

So no superpowers, aliens, espionage, or fate-of-the-world-depends-on-it elements. The anime moves slowly, like My Neighbor Totoro slow. The opening segment for Episode 1 is a couple minutes of the village’s fields, mountains, flowers, and waterways sans dialogue. The depiction of this scenery is gorgeous but not much is happening. If you need explosions or magical transformation sequences to hold your attention, Non Non Biyori will likely put you to sleep. Even so, the anime holds its own charm. Most contemporary anime take place in urban or suburban settings so it offers a different aspect of Japan. Watching characters dry persimmons for eight minutes might be boring for some, but my husband and I, who have a great interest in the lives of ordinary Japanese folk, found it fascinating.

Fortunately for us foreigners (and probably many Japanese urbanites), Hotaru provides a natural way for the characters to highlight things mundane to rural folk but unusual to city dwellers. It also works the other way around. In one scene, Hotaru unintentionally outclasses her seventh grade sempai Komari on the topics of music and fashion.

Although the series starts with Hotaru’s perspective, it shifts such that all girls get a turn. The eccentric first grader Renge gives a sense of what it’s like to grow up without peers when another first grader visits for the summer and abruptly leaves. Rowdy Natsumi and diminutive Komari are sisters, and their episodes center around how members of a large country family annoy one another. The rural setting also has a definite presence as characters respond to the seasons, from partaking in spring planting to getting snowed in overnight at school.

For the most part, it’s goofy kiddie antics at a laid-back pace, which is why I’m surprised at its PG rating. There’s no swearing or violence. The closing credits show the girls in the tub together, but there’s no actual nudity. Animals don’t get carted off to the slaughterhouse like in Silver Spoon. Hotaru does have a kind of crush on Komari, which manifests as a massive Komari-plushy collection, but I’d label it more innocent adoration than yuri.

In Summary

Non Non Biyori is a slice of life comedy that provides a real taste of the country. With an entire half episode devoted to a walk to the candy store and lengthy segments devoted to mountain valley scenery, it certainly moves at a country pace. Watching five kids throw Japan’s most underwhelming cultural festival might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Non Non Biyori does possess its own flavor of simple, innocent fun.

Japanese 2.0, English subtitles, clean opening and closing animation, and promos for other Sentai Filmworks anime

First published at The Fandom Post.

Haikyu!! Anime Fangirl Gushing

While I am a cosplay enthusiast, my miserly nature strictly limits my cosplay-related purchases. However, the instant I came across Haikyu!!, which began simulcasting on Crunchyroll last spring, Karasuno High School uniforms fell into the “must have” category. And now, both my husband and I can show our spirit for the Karasuno volleyball team in our latest outfits.

Haikyu uniform

My husband is a near exact physical match for Captain Daichi, but he insisted on Kageyama’s Number 9

For those unfamiliar with Haikyu!!, it’s a sports anime centered on a high school volleyball team. The story follows two freshmen: Shoyo Hinata and Tobio Kageyama. Hinata is the eager raw talent who couldn’t truly play the sport due to the absence of a boys team at his middle school. Kageyama, on the other hand, is a seasoned and genius player, but his high-handed attitude cost him the respect of his middle school teammates and a championship victory. The two wind up at Karasuno High School, and though they start as rivals, they learn how to work with one another and, more importantly, what it means to be a team.

Although the fall anime lineup remains to be revealed, I’m fairly certain that Haikyu!! will be my favorite anime of 2014. This is fairly unusual for me since my taste leans heavily toward shojo, fantasy, and historical, and Haikyu!! is none of these. However, even if you’re not into the sports genre, even if you dislike volleyball in real life (like me), even if you’re not really into anime, give Haikyu!! a chance. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it sucks you in.

For one, the cast is immediately relatable. Whether it’s Hinata’s nerves sending him running to the bathroom or discouraged ace Asahi’s reluctance to return to the sport, you definitely get where they’re coming from.

Haikyu jersey (621x593)

My Karasuno Volleyball Team jacket!

For another, the pacing is excellent. Volleyball requires a large group of people, but characters get introduced in a way that really establishes their personalities and how they connect with the rest of the team. The show also makes volleyball rules, strategies, and tactics comprehensible for the uninitiated. At times, explanations border on info dump, especially with faculty advisor Takeda-sensei referencing a “how to” guide for volleyball during practice. However, if you don’t know your wing spiker from your float serve, it’s quite helpful.

Another huge plus is that I can recommend Haikyu!! to viewers of all ages. The subtitles do include a few cuss words (though I think that’s more of a reflection of Crunchyroll’s translation choices than the content), but there are no giants eating people, no end-of-the-world devastation, no fan service. Yes, there is the one cute girl whom a third of the team is crushing on, but she is NOT a panty-flashing airhead, her breasts aren’t the size of watermelons, and she’s not a wacko sadist who can’t cook. What you get instead is an overwhelmingly positive vibe from a bunch of boys, each with his quirks, strengths, and weaknesses, as they go through ups and downs yet strive to bring out their best in the game. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I fell in love with a cast like this. Even among Karasuno’s rivals, no one is truly hateful, and several are worthy of their own fan followings.

And while Team Karasuno’s goal of winning the Nationals is what drives the plot, there’s plenty of humor to be had. Between ill-aimed balls, snarky potshots, and hilarious visual metaphors (my all-time favorite is Kageyama holding the Hinata bazooka), Haikyu!! manages to be fun and inspiring and gripping all at once. Add to that cool character designs, excellent action sequences on the court, catchy opening and closing themes, and you’ve got one gem of an anime.

So check it out! Even if you don’t have a Crunchyroll subscription, you can watch the with-commercial version for free. And perhaps you’ll find yourself joining me among the ranks of the Haikyu!! cosplayers.

Anime Review: Kids on the Slope

Kids on the Slope is part of  Crunchyroll‘s Spring 2012 simulcast lineup, and I love it. With anime, I have a weakness for musicians, romance, period pieces, and slice of life, and Kids on the Slope includes it all. So far, five episodes have aired, and I’ve watched each at least twice.

The anime is set in Kyushu during the early 1960s. Kaoru, the main character, has just moved there to live with his uncle’s family. He’s book smart and an excellent classical pianist, but he’s also an introvert and has moved so often that he’s resigned to being the outsider. He anticipates once again being marginalized in his new school, but instead meets Sentaro and Ritsuko. Through them, he discovers friendship and an unexpected passion for jazz.

Music is indeed front and center in this anime. Each episode is named after and features a particular jazz standard. The music, by the way, is produced by the amazing Yoko Kanno, who put the bebop in Cowboy Bebop and was composer for Escaflowne, my favorite anime of all time. In addition to an awesome soundtrack, the jam sessions are animated beautifully. Between me and my husband, we play six musical instruments, and it makes us cringe when the animation doesn’t match how an instrument’s played. The best I’ve seen before this was Nodame Cantible, but its instrumental animation had a CG look that clashed with the series’ overall style. With Kids on the Slope, hand placement, fingering, drum strokes, instruments – everything is accurate and blends  stylistically with the rest of the anime, making it a delight to watch.

Another thing I really appreciate is Kaoru’s transformation from classical to jazz pianist. Like him, I was also classically trained on piano, but when I hit high school, I joined the school jazz band. Same instrument, completely different ballgame. Watching his struggles reminds me of my own difficulties with improvisation and jazz chords, even though Kaoru picks it up much faster than I ever did.

In terms of romance, the main cast consists of two boys and one girl, which pretty much screams love triangle. As of Episode 4, circumstances develop such that the love triangle starts looking more like a love pentagon. While there are many funny bits (Sentaro’s efforts to ask Yurika out are laugh out loud funny), Kids on the Slope steers more in the direction of teen angst than comedy. Both boys come from troubled households which means they also bring a significant amount of baggage into any and all of their relationships.

I’m not sure what the rating for this series is, but I’d peg it as 13 and up. Sentaro’s afterschool brawls are the extent of its violence, and there’s no nudity thus far. However, the boys’ complicated family circumstances and a graphic death scene push it into the realm of non-kiddie fare. Actually, despite the youth of the main characters, I’d guess the target audience is adult females given the series’ particular pacing and introspection. It certainly got me hooked. Still, I’d invite anyone in the 13 and over crowd to give Kids on the Slope a try, if only to check out its awesome instrumental sequences.

Carl Macek’s Robotech Universe: Robotech’s past and a glimpse of the future

If you’re an anime fan who grew up in the 80s (like me!), chances are that your first exposure to anime was Robotech, a franchise which has lasted over 25 years, and yesterday, Harmony Gold held a special screening of Carl Macek’s Robotech Universe, a documentary to be released as part of Robotech: The Complete Series which goes on sale today. The event took place at Harmony Gold headquarters in Los Angeles, and in attendance were several Robotech voice actors who participated in the project, including Tony Oliver (voice of Rick Hunter).

The evening began with opening remarks from Harmony Gold Chairman Frank Agrama, a fiery senior gentleman, who shared his memories of working with Macek, who passed away suddenly in 2010. At Agrama’s request, the audience honored the late Robotech producer with a round of applause, which, according to Agrama, Macek would have much preferred to a moment of silence.

Keith Maxwell, the director of Robotech Universe, then spoke briefly about the film. In his remarks, he mentions that Robotech Universe was originally intended to be a podcast series. However, after shooting the interviews, they decided to knit all the material into a single entity – not unlike the way Macek combined the three anime that turned into Robotech.

The documentary itself, comprised of old footage, photographs, and interviews with scenes from Robotech interspersed throughout, lasts approximately thirty minutes. It opens with an acknowledgment to Macek and explains how Robotech Universe was originally supposed to be spearheaded by Macek as part of Robotech’s 25th Anniversary, but with Macek’s untimely death, the project turned into a tribute to both Robotech and Macek. The film then delves into the origins of Robotech and what American media culture was like at the time Macek got his idea to cobble together three anime to get them on the air in the United States.

What follows are predominantly first-hand accounts of those who worked on the project. The majority of interviewees are voice actors, and they tell about their experiences working with Macek, who had a hand in just about all aspects of the production. They also share stories about their mad production schedules and their thoughts about the characters they played.

The documentary then moves on to the series’ commercial success; the projects that followed, including Robotech Shadow Chronicles; and of course, future plans for Robotech. While plans for a live action Robotech film have been in the works for some time, Harmony Gold has another project, initiated by Macek, that is a little more retro. Apparently, they have unused footage of Yellow Dancer/Lancer from the New Generation arc, and their intent is to edit it and put it out to the fans. Sure, it’s 80-style animation, and there’s no release date yet, but for the die-hard Robotech fan, it’s something exciting to look forward to.

First posted at The Fandom Post.

Anime Review: Usagi Drop

So an anime I’ve recently watched is Usagi Drop. Crunchyroll categorizes it as “slice of life,” a genre my husband and I enjoy, so we decided to give it a try. We ended up watching half the available episodes the first night and watching the remaining half the next.

Here’s the basic premise: Daikichi, a 30-year-old salaryman, goes to his grandfather’s funeral and unexpectedly finds himself with custody of Rin, his grandfather’s 6-year-old illegitimate daughter (yup, she’s his aunt).

Usagi Drop is unusual in many respects. Unlike the vast majority of series which center on adolescence and young adult life, the main characters are a middle-aged man and a little girl. In addition, it really is a slice of life. Anime in that genre tend to have either extremely quirky characters (like Honey and Clover) or end up supremely boring (like Ocean Waves), but with Usagi Drop, you can actually envision a family challenged by their particular quandaries. Daikichi and Rin are utterly relatable, and my husband and I were completely invested in them by the end of the first episode.

So there are no superhuman powers or end-of-the-world plot lines, but Usagi Drop’s themes about family and belonging are compelling in their own way. Daikichi must make the abrupt transition from bachelorhood to a single father role, and Rin grapples with fears of abandonment and death in the wake of her father’s passing. Maybe it’s because Daikichi’s so close to my own age and life stage, but his brand of quiet, gentle strength really appeals to me.

I can’t think of a whole lot of anime comparable to Usagi Drop. The closest I can come up with is the manga Aishiteruze Baby, but in that series, the primary caregiver of the abandoned child is a high school Casanova, which makes it more fantasy and less slice of life to me. Not to say Usagi doesn’t have its own less than believable components, most of which are connected to Rin’s mother. For one, I can’t fathom the woman and Daikichi’s grandfather in an intimate relationship. For another, compared to all the stories I’ve heard about child abandonment, her reasons for stepping out of Rin’s life are lame, frankly.

Fortunately, Rin’s mother doesn’t dominate the entire series, and the focus generally stays on Rin’s place within the extended family and the parallel struggles of Rin’s friend Kouki and his divorced mother. And just to be clear, there’s nothing perverted about Rin and Daikichi’s relationship. NOTHING. The worst that the series offers up in terms of language and violence is kindergarten naughtiness from Kouki. (I can’t say the same about the manga though. I haven’t looked it up yet, but a friend tells me that it’s very different from the anime.)

So if you’re looking for a contemporary anime about family and the noble side of the human spirit, give Usagi Drop a try. As far as content goes, I’d probably rate it “All Ages” if it weren’t for the discussions about Rin’s parentage.