This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning.

“And thus, did my dizzying tale of adventure with Siesta begin….
Until death did us part.”

It may be difficult now, but try to think back to the opening week of this anime season. Alongside a number of rightly-hyped premiers by anime everyone kinda expected to be good, there was the comparatively obscure The Detective is Already Dead. Tantei wa mou, Shindeiru, as it’s known in its native Japanese, had, alongside heavyweights like Sonny Boy and the second season of Magia Record, one of the most promising premieres of the season. Said premiere, “Attention Passengers: Is There a Detective On Board?”, combined witty dialogue, a gonzo, very capital-A Anime set of central conceits, a truly impressive fight sequence, and one of the season’s best and, let’s be honest, simply coolest characters, the titular detective, into an entertaining stew that had a lot of potential. (Full disclosure; I may have a soft spot for “basically Sherlock Holmes, but an anime girl” as a character idea.)

The episode ran through the need-to-knows with the lightning speed and self-confidence of a pulp novel. The secret organization SPES and their army of cyborgs are threatening the world! It’s up to our hero, the legendary detective Siesta, and her straight-laced assistant Kimihiko “Kimi” Kimizuka to stop them! It opens a mile in the air during a plane hijacking and ends in a high school, our leads pulling a drug bust on a dealer in a bunny costume. Capping it all off was a wildly romantic sequence at the episode’s tail end, followed by the header quote in the closing narration to hit us with the emotional coup de grace. Our hero’s been dead the entire time! How will her heartbroken assistant carry on without her? It remains one of the year’s single best episodes, and nothing else I am about to say can or is trying to change that. Episode directors Shin’ichi Fukumoto and Marina Maki should be proud.

I bring all this up not to belabor a point, but to make it clear that, yes, there was a period of time–however brief–when people thought this might be, at the very least, one of the season’s better anime. Twelve weeks on, where its reputation is somewhere between “trainwreck” and “widely-dropped laughingstock” that can seem hard to believe, but it’s true. On one level, the answer to the question “what went wrong?” is extremely simple; none of those strengths remained present for the remainder of the series, and some dropped off earlier than others. But on another, Detective is a downright fascinating case of a show almost systematically undercutting itself at every turn. Detective started falling apart as early as its second episode, and despite some intermittent highlights throughout, it never really recovered either.

We can start by making one thing very clear. Detective‘s problems do not stem from its premise. They’re certainly not helped by it, but it is very possible to tell the story of a life in the past tense. To focus on what the bygone has left behind, to examine how the people around them move on or how they fail to move on. Detective doesn’t entirely fumble this, but it misses more often than it hits. In fact, its handling of this premise reminds me of nothing less than the largely-forgotten Blast of Tempest, which had many of the same issues for some of the same reasons. The core problem is simple; if the central character of your show is dead or otherwise MIA in the present day, she needs a very strong supporting cast. And Siesta, like that show’s Fuwa Aika, simply does not have one. She is a compelling character in search of a compelling anime. It is largely her who renders the show watchable at all, as all the other characters are so underdeveloped that she appears deep as the ocean by contrast.

Instead, she gets Kimi, who to his limited credit, does work out an entertaining straight man / weird girl dynamic with Siesta. They form a fun duo much like their archetypal ancestors (say, Kyon and Haruhi) did.

Yes that’s still Siesta in the top image. Listen, just roll with it.

There is also Nagisa, Siesta’s replacement, who is in almost every sense a much less engaging character, but who has the benefit of being the recipient of a heart transplant from none other than the late detective herself to at least arouse some mystery. The remaining characters are so thin that they are barely worth mentioning. There’s a chuuni-ish idol complete with an eyepatch (Yui Saikawa), an ambiguous foreigner with some ill-defined relationship to Siesta (Charlotte Anderson), and a mysterious child (Alicia) who turns out to secretly be the evil mastermind (Hel) in disguise / assuming another personality / something, it doesn’t really matter.

The fact that the episode where an idol pulls a revolver on the main character is one of the less interesting ones is not a great sign.

This lopsidedness of the cast ends up directly informing the episodes. As a general rule of thumb, those that center on Siesta and Kimi tend to be either genuinely good, even if only in a cheesy sort of way, or at least bad in a funny way. Those that focus on other characters are much less interesting. Sometimes they’re flat-out boring, which is a far worse crime than being ridiculous.

Beyond that, on a narrative level the show makes very little sense. The actual story is very simple, cataloging Siesta and Kimi’s attempts to take down SPES. And later, Kimi’s retirement from ‘detective’ work and eventual resumption of that same goal again, this time with Nagisa. But the show’s structure is so bizarre that it can be difficult to follow any of this. Why, for example, if the show’s central conceit is that Siesta is dead, does a huge chunk of it take place as flashback to when she was alive? These stories being told in this fashion adds nothing to the show. It makes it marginally more confusing to follow, but deliberate obfuscation is not the same as actually being interesting.

Something like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Princess Principal is aired non-chronologically because in those cases, the approach helps develop the sort of story they’re trying to tell. (In the former case, Kyon and Haruhi’s emotional arc takes precedence over the literal events of the series. In the latter case, it is to build up mystery and selectively feed the audience information.) No such thing is true of Detective‘s clumsy halfway flashback deep-dive. And the fact that they are some of the show’s better episodes feels more like a happy accident than anything deliberate. It’d feel like course correction given the widespread but misguided criticism of the premise if that were how anime production worked. But it isn’t, so what gives?

And what to make of the show’s utterly baffling organ transplant motif? Organs, namely hearts, transferring ownership comes up some three times over the course of the series, which is too often in a show this short to simply be happenstance. And let me make an aside here, folks, I’m not professionally trained as a critic, so I’m certainly guilty of occasionally missing things more properly literate sorts would pick up on. But I am a thinking human being, and it’s rare that I just come up completely empty when rattling a metaphor around in my brain. I have no idea what it could possibly mean. None of the possibilities I’ve come up with–the perseverance of love? Specifically the strength of Siesta and Kimi’s relationship? Some hamfisted ‘people close to each other should help each other’ thing? A religious symbol?–hold up to scrutiny. I am left to conclude that it is either a very malformed metaphor or it simply isn’t one at all. In the latter case, why is it in the show at all?

That may seem like a minor point, but the same lack of purpose applies to many decisions made throughout the series. Elements like Yui’s job as an idol, the very fact that the antagonists are shapeshifting cyborgs, a weird micro-plot about priceless jewelry and another about a serial killer, the entire character of Hel, the fact that Siesta has a mecha(?!) at one point, even the series’ gratuitous Spanish subtitle, and the anticipated-and-then-quickly-forgotten cameo by Hololive virtual talents Matsuri Natsuiro and Fubuki Shirakami, seem like they were made less for any real reason and more simply because, well, they’re Cool. Or they’re the sorts of things that are “supposed” to be in light novels.

English-language info is sparse, but the case appears to be that Detective is the first-ever published novel by its author, Nigojuu, which may explain some of the amateurishness here. Or, maybe it’s the other way around! Studio ENGI are not exactly a powerhouse, perhaps they butchered the material. Maybe the light novel’s defenders are right and all this somehow does make more sense in book form. Hell, maybe it’s somehow both at once.

All this said, even with its frankly many flaws in mind, I can’t really hate or even actively dislike Detective. It has too many actually-solid moments and too many bad-in-a-funny way moments to have burned its goodwill from that first episode away entirely. A harsher viewer may write such things off, but I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy a decent chunk of the show, even in spite of all its problems.

That, and there is that Detective does get one thing right. Especially towards its end. Sometimes, people we’ve known all our lives can disappear like a dream at sunrise. Sometimes too, we do not even get the chance to say goodbye. This is the sole emotional string the anime manages to play correctly, and even then it’s oddly stingy about it. But aside from Siesta’s strength as a character, it is this that saves the show from being a total loss.

As an even mildly adventurous anime watcher, you expect to take a gamble on some amount of shows that end up not exactly being amazing. Detective is, by any reasonable metric, middling, rather than outright awful. But that doesn’t make it good. Which puts it in a strange nowhere-zone, both in terms of relevance and in terms of simple quality. This is another of this year’s anime that will absolutely not survive the march of history, mentioned as it will be only as a curio or a “hey, do you remember that show with….?” answer. At best, perhaps some of the staff will go on to bigger and better things. In which case it will be an amusing trivial footnote. Call it a victim of the production bubble, call it just poorly-conceived. It is impossible to imagine Detective outside of this present time and place; mid-to-late 2021 specifically. It’s a born relic.

Yet, strangely, from a certain (and I’ll admit, uncommon) point of view, that gives it its own kind of hopeless underdog charm. The show itself only just barely manages to scrap together something out of its primary theme of transience (and all else it attempts falls resoundingly flat, make no mistake), but in a meta sort of way, Detective is an ode to its own transience. Here for twelve weeks and then forgotten, as though it simply scattered into light the moment it ended. Like it was never there at all.

It’s one of the great mysteries of popular art. Sometimes something that is utterly mediocre will, just for a moment, capture the public imagination or make visible an inner light, only for that light to be snuffed out almost immediately. Such is the case with Detective‘s few true highlights. It is one of the great enigmas of our species’ collective creativity. As such, one would be tempted to ask a great problem-solver, perhaps one like Siesta herself, what to make of it.

But of course, such a thing is impossible. After all, the detective is already dead.

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All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.

Magic Planet Monthly Movies: WORDS BUBBLE UP LIKE SODA POP is Simple Summer Sweetness

This review contains spoilers for, and assumes familiarity with, the reviewed material. This is your only warning.

Like your emotions
rise above the sea

young one

The anime film industry runs over with summertime teenage romance. Nowadays, a film in this category has to be either really good or have some kind of twist to stand out. Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is in the former camp. It is conventional, but has such warmth and easygoing charm that, if you have even the slightest bit of room left in your heart for this genre, it’s impossible not to love.

The story (or rather, stories) here are extremely simple. Point the first; boy meets girl, literally. A chase sequence climaxes in a crash and an accidental phone switcheroo. Cherry, our boy, is a withdrawn haiku poet with a deserted Twitter account. Smile, our girl, is a teenage influencer who has recently become self conscious of her buck teeth. Mapping this out any further almost seems superfluous, if you’ve ever seen a film like this you can correctly guess that it all dovetails into shouted “I Like You”‘s and such. The story is a skeleton in this sort of film, not the flesh and blood.

Our second narrative is the more interesting one, involving an also-withdrawn old man who is also a haiku poet. The film neatly entwines together his story, and his love for his late wife (an also-bucktoothed singer-songwriter) with Cherry and Smile’s. But as sweet as all this is, lingering on story details risks getting stuck in the mud.

The current period of Makoto Shinkai’s filmography stands as a reference point, at least for me, here. Like those films, Words Bubble Up succeeds not because it is particularly complex or challenging, but because of its startling emotional resonance. It expertly captures sensations as disparate as the joy of first love, the fog and frustration of memory loss, the pleasures of artistic creation, and the deep futility of trying to correct an uncorrectable mistake.

Much of this comes down to the visual angle. The film’s symbolism is intricate, with every image chosen interlocking in a dozen different ways. Cherry blossoms are names and fireworks, and their leaves are buck teeth which link otherwise related characters across generations. Haikus are song lyrics. The sweetness of young love is a cola. The world is alive, so Words tells us.

On top of that? Bright, sharp coloring giving the world of the movie a look akin to informational posters and spot-the-object books. That may sound odd, even offputting, on paper, but in practice it works amazingly well, making the city it takes place in feel concrete in a way that even more “realistic” media can struggle with. It also means that Words is capable of conveying a ton of emotion through nothing more than some clever editing, or through character acting. Those whose greatest appreciation of anime stems from its core as animation will find a lot to pour over in this one.

Take Cherry, for instance. The boy’s character-as-written is solid but minimal. He likes haikus, he has a crush. But if we pay attention to his actions we can learn so much more. It’s straight-up pointed out that, in a way common to people with anxiety or processing disorders, he often keeps heavy headphones clamped over his ears to shut out unwelcome noise. As you may guess, he relies on them less over the course of the film, Smile’s companionship rendering them unnecessary.

Smile too gets a lot of attention in this regard. A moment late in the film where she’s shattered a vinyl record absolutely drips with intensity; you really feel her regret. She spends an entire night trying to glue it back together in a scene that probably lasts only a minute or two but feels three times that. All this without a single word being said.

That’s not to say the auditory component of the movie is unremarkable, though. The voice acting carries a lot of charm, with even minor characters like Beaver having distinctive tones. The soundtrack is excellent, too, and when we do finally get to hear that record (or rather, a copy) played at the story’s end, it’s a wonderfully sweet cut of folky pop.

“Sweet”, of course, is the operative word. I can think of few anime in recent memory that are so obviously fit by their titles. Of course words bubble up like soda pop; have you seen the world this movie takes place in? Like cola, I can imagine it being too sugary for some, but as summer ends, it’s the sort of refreshing treat I find myself craving.

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All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.


SPECIAL WARNING: This review contains extensive spoilers for the reviewed material, and assumes familiarity with it and the remainder of the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise.

“You’ve grown to be an adult, Shinji.”

In a very real sense, this is the end of something. Neon Genesis Evangelion has existed as a series since 1995. Long before it became a “franchise” as such, there were those original episodes and the films that followed them, most famously End of Evangelion. The Rebuild movies, always controversial, serve as a way to rewrite and redefine Evangelion, which has remained true through the rocky first, the astonishing second, and the burned-black, emotionally deadened third entries in the series. That Thrice Upon a Time, the fourth and final, will spawn mountains upon mountains of discourse is only natural. This is Eva. One can talk forever about its influences and its impact, but there is nothing else that is truly like it. Twenty-six years of history come to a stop here. Welcome to the end of an era.

Let’s start not at the beginning, but at the end.

After the harrowing of the soul that was You Can (Not) Redo, Thrice Upon a Time concludes as the only iteration of the Evangelion series to receive a wholly unambiguous happy ending. There is no room for confusion here. Shinji Ikari is all grown up, and accordingly, this movie will make you weep like a proud parent on graduation day. For a certain kind of Eva fan, this is a claim to be met with skepticism. Eva derives no small part of its immense reputation from being a truly withering under-the-microscope look at depression. But it’s important to clarify our terms here: Thrice Upon a Time does not rob Eva of that accolade, it reinforces it. After twenty-six years of spiraling, Thrice assures even those of us in the darkest pits of misery that yes, there is a way out of this. As a kind of anti-End of Evangelion, it is an open window disguised as a trap door.

Which is to say, having a happy ending and being a happy movie are two different things. Getting to that ending is quite the ride, a fact only enhanced by Thrice‘s incredible length, clocking in at two and a half hours. Improbably, it earns every second, but one could be forgiven for wondering.

After some action-focused eye candy to start things off with a bang, and which mostly stars Mari, the film refocuses on its protagonist. We open with Shinji in near-catatonic burnout. He is entirely non-verbal for the first forty minutes of the film, and the first words anyone says to him are an accusation that he is a spineless loser. When, at one point, he gets a look at Asuka’s collar, has a PTSD flashback, and vomits on the spot. This, just so you know, is what we’re dealing with here. That he manages to, in the course of only the film’s remaining 110 minutes, go from there to where he is by its finale is nothing short of astonishing. If Thrice Upon a Time did not have two and half decades of cachet to lean on here, it probably wouldn’t work.

Over the course of Thrice Upon a Time, we see Shinji make sustained and–this is key here–permanent character growth for, arguably, the first time ever. His character actually changing in a sustained way, the way one’s character is supposed to change as they grow up, rather than simply shifting. Where You Can (Not) Redo seemed to bitterly mock the very idea of ever growing as a person at all, Thrice demonstrates that it’s possible with nothing more than some genuine care. Village 3, the town of survivors that Shinji, Asuka, and one of Rei’s clones are based in for the first third or so of the film, is a place where people are forced by the aftermath of the near-Third Impact disaster to work together.

It is in this environment, shepherded by two of his old friends; the now-adult Kensuke and Touji, that Shinji is finally able to make real, positive changes to himself. Village 3 shows Shinji what he does not have. His friends have become adults, started families, and, in the way that their circumstances dictate, become healthy and productive people. Shinji has none of that, and although he never says as much out loud it’s clear even early on in the film that he’s keenly aware of it.

But he’s not alone, here. Asuka stands at a distance from Village 3–as she always has from everyone–and the Clone Rei, naïve as a newborn, rapidly integrates into it, only for her to die near the film’s one-third mark. This could easily send Shinji spiraling, but the fact that she appears to die happy seems to spark something inside him, which Kensuke in particular helps nurture, and this becomes the catalyst for his growth.

It’s tempting to map out his entire emotional journey here, but a fair amount of it feels so natural that doing so could be an article unto itself. If we skip ahead to near the film’s climax where Shinji is suddenly not only able to face Gendo but do so unafraid, you could be forgiven for thinking a natural transition impossible. Yet, it simply works, there is no explanation for it beyond the built-up credibility of Shinji’s long history as a character. It makes sense because he’s Shinji.

Further in, the middle stretch or so of the film is a clash of dazzling surrealities. Massive battleships slug it out in conceptual spaces, nonce terms like The Key of Nebuchadnezzar, The Golgotha Object, and The Anti-Universe gain biblical significance fitting their names.

It’s all wonderful, and all Extremely Anime, in the genericized sense of the term that commentators like myself tend to avoid using. Explosions, giant robots and monsters, incomprehensibly vast scales of combat, and of course the plethora of proper nouns. Asuka pulls a plot-significant item out of her eye at one point, you get the idea. Rarely is this done as well as it’s done here. Somehow all of the disparate parts make perfect sense, and one would not be wrong to invoke one of Eva’s own successors in the feeling of how. There really is a bit of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann in it.

But, yes, the key thing. Shinji fights Gendo. He fights Gendo bravely and while wholly accepting himself, and this lets him question his father in a meaningful way for the first time. As the two’s bout turns from physical to conversational, Gendo reveals what we’ve all known all along. He is, beneath his monstrous acts, beneath his abuse, beneath the mad scientist and would-be godslayer, a deeply lonely man willing to go to inhumanly great lengths to see his late wife again. The most evil men tend to be simple, and Gendo is no exception. Shinji defeating Gendo is an entire generation conquering shared trauma. The sort of solidarity that is direly needed in an era as grim as ours, and the sort that means even more coming from Evangelion than it might almost any other series.

It’s prudent to take an aside here to say that the film is of course not perfect. There are faults to be found, but they’re minor and mostly on the production side. Studio Khara’s CGI-heavy, live action film-influenced visual style has always been divisive, and it will never be moreso than it is here, putting the capstone on what is far and away their most well-known series. For my money, I’d say it works in some contexts better than others. Truly disturbing and otherworldly imagery, like Asuka’s loss against Unit 13, or a bizarrely photorealistic, haunting echo of End of Evangelion‘s “floating Rei” are excellent.

In other places, especially in certain battle scenes, one can’t escape the feeling that there’s a grandiosity that these fights should have that they don’t always quite pull off. Mostly in the form of the sheer scale of the actors involved–especially the battleships–not always coming through. Still, these criticisms are easily offset by the other, aforementioned visual merits.

On a slightly more substantial level, one could argue that limiting the film’s perspective to mostly Shinji limits its impact. The death of the Clone Rei relatively early on being the example I suspect many will glom onto. But I think this is the wrong tack to take. Shinji, despite everything, has been all of us. Which is not to say he is all of us. Some folks, even some who love Evangelion dearly, have left that particularly dark phase of our mental illnesses long behind us. But we have all been “back there”, where every room is suffocating, and any activity is a distraction from our mind’s attempt to eat itself. And the fear of going “back there”, of possibly hurting yourself or worse, hurting others, is very real. Which is the exact thing that makes it so cathartic when, pushing back against twenty-six years of history, his own initial characterization, and the countless reductionist depictions of the character as a spineless wimp, Shinji wins. The Son, finally understanding his Father, vanquishes him without further struggle.

The new world he creates, as he is made able to do, is not some perfect paradise. It is a world not unlike ours, though I suspect, perhaps, a little brighter. Of course any distance between the two is a mere illusion. After such a long time clawing at one’s own soul, any daylight is welcome.

If the film’s climax seems to leave some questions unanswered, they simply don’t feel relevant. It’s Mari who pulls Shinji from his rapidly-fading sketch world into the new universe he’s created. The ending scene depicts Shinji, now an adult, living a truly, peacefully, ordinary life.

And so, the Sun shines on a world without Evangelions, and, for us, without Evangelion.

I am reminded by Thrice’s finale not so much of any other piece of Eva media, or indeed any of Gainax’s other marquee properties. Instead, my mind turns to the finale of the largely-overlooked Wish Upon The Pleiades. In that series’ finale, which marked the end of Studio Gainax’s time as a going concern as a producer of TV anime, no words are wasted on complicated, overwrought goodbyes. Instead, as here, it’s simply on to the next. The next universe, the next adventure, the next dawn, or, if you prefer, the neon genesis.

The final remarkable thing about Thrice Upon a Time is that it puts Neon Genesis Evangelion on the whole in the past, and at the same time, immortalizes it for the future. The end of an era, but the beginning of a new day. It is over, but it will be with us forever.

If you like my work, consider following me here on WordPress or on Twitter, supporting me on Ko-Fi, or checking out my other anime-related work on Anilist or for The Geek Girl Authority.

All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.

(REVIEW) The Web That Was and .hack//SIGN

This review was commissioned. That means I was paid to watch and review the series in question. You can learn about my commission policies and how to buy commissions of your own here. This review was commissioned by Rahkshi. Many thanks, as always.

This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning.

“I am not in front of a terminal.”

.hack//SIGN is what one might call a bit of a difficult anime. It actively demands your patience, and it’s a slow-burner in a way that’s rare nowadays. Hazy and dreamlike, .hack//SIGN asks a lot of questions but is never too quick to provide answers. It engages in meaningful repetition and circuitous, questioning conversations, and is generally light on action. To compare it with most other anime that use the VRMMO plot device is nonsensical, it is more of a piece with Serial Experiments Lain than with Sword Art Online.

It is also very, very of its time. Not in a good way, not in a bad way, but down to its bones, .hack//SIGN would make no sense in the present moment. The Internet as it was in 2002 and the internet now, nearly twenty years later, are incomparable. .hack‘s very premise involves a group of friends in an MMO–itself not really much like any that’s currently popular, not even World of Warcraft, which postdates it by a few years–who know little to nothing about each other’s offline lives. A standard experience at the time, but unthinkable nowadays where ones gender, sexual orientation, race, abledness, mental health, political stances, and so on are generally shared with little illusion of privacy. .hack is, thus, a time capsule.

Asking whether .hack//SIGN is “good or not” then feels irrelevant, it’s like asking whether the ruins of Babylon are “good”. They have a lot to tell us, that’s the important part.

That sense of lost history bleeds into the feel of the anime itself. .hack is a jumble of cryptic conversations, hacker lore, GeoCities pseudo-mysticism, and genuine mystery. It gives the anime a distinct feel. The excellent soundtrack, a unique combination of early aughts dance and world music, helps a lot to sell all this. As does the fact that the rare occasion where “real world” information is revealed is always treated as a major moment, and with only one exception, the few scenes that take place there are bathed in a sepia-tone static filter. Indeed, in terms of reacting to the increasing impact the internet would have on our lives, .hack is as prescient as it is of its time.

Speaking literally, .hack//SIGN is about someone who is trapped in a video game. But this plot device alone is its sole link to the VRMMO genre that it largely predates. The existential wringer that protagonist Tsukasa is put through seems unlikely to prompt the kind of “wouldn’t it be cool if-” hypothesizing that later such stories would eventually inspire. Tsukasa’s exact situation is ambiguous for most of the series; it’s clear he’s stuck in the game but not how or what exactly the ramifications are. Nor is it clear how exactly the mysterious cat-like figure and equally mysterious woman floating above a bed that the series repeatedly returns to factor in.

It does give him one hell of a penchant for (quite justified) angst, but on the whole, the series’ actual plot is very cryptic. This applies even to the end-episode previews, which employ the unique tactic of playing multiple few-second clips simultaneously to an audio background of random noise.

If this all sounds like a little much, that’s because it kind of is. I stand by my statement that the question of whether .hack is “good or bad” is mostly irrelevant, but it’s certainly not a casual watch. I’d go so far as calling it hard to follow in spots, with the show-long quest for the artifact known as the Key of The Twilight being a particular source of head-scratchers. It is all eventually explained, but that it takes so long to get there means that it’s very easy to spend much of the show wondering where this is all going. Being part of a very large franchise, only some of which has ever been available in English, does not help.

Thankfully it’s easier to pick up on less fantastical plot threads. Mimiru and Bear, who make up the other two members of Tsukasa’s “party” of a sort, provide lifelines for those seeking more straightforward character arcs. Mimuru gets Tsukasa to open up (and opens up to him in turn) throughout the series’ first half, while Bear’s strained relationship with his real-world son provides interesting, implied motive for his attempts to mentor Tsukasa. Meanwhile, the semi-antagonistic characters of B.T. and Sora spend much of the show locked in a relationship of trying to intellectually one-up each other that is, at least for me personally, maybe a little too on-point as a reflection of online social dynamics.

And on that note, while .hack’s aesthetics and subject matter remain firmly rooted in its date of origin, it’s eerily prescient in one respect. Throughout much of the series a plot thread about in-game group The Crimson Knights bubbles under, only coming to a head in its final third. The Knights, especially their collective mouthpiece Silver Knight, are a spot-on reflection of the attitudes of online authoritarians, down to Silver Knight’s angry insistence that Tsukasa is a law-breaking “illegal” rather than a victim. Toward the end of the show he eventually mellows out, but the point remains.

Subaru, the Knights’ ostensible leader, is another character who benefits from a fairly grounded relationship with Tsukasa, and her sympathy for him puts her at odds with the rest of the Knights. The two eventually grow close, and a scene in the nineteenth episode where Tsukasa comforts a crying Subaru (who, as we see in a rare cut to the real world, is crying there too), sticks in my mind as one of the show’s most genuine and emotional moments.

There’s also a dash of Gender in here, something that wasn’t super common at the time and remains rarer than it ought to be today. It’s a nice touch.

Moments like this allow .hack//SIGN to bundle together a solid core by its end. If you’re the sort that likes found family stories, .hack‘s concludes with (among many other things) one character literally offering to adopt another. You can’t get much more literally “found family” than that.

So, while parts of it are confusing and while the series is overall slow, it’s really hard to dislike this show. .hack‘s aesthetic and story beats anchor it firmly in the year of its release, but tales about groups of misfits who help each other through hard times over the internet are arguably even more relevant now than they were in 2002. What is The World but a souped-up Discord server, after all?

If you like my work, consider following me here on WordPress or on Twitter, supporting me on Ko-Fi, or checking out my other anime-related work on Anilist or for The Geek Girl Authority.

All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.



This review contains spoilers for, and assumes familiarity with, the reviewed material. This is your only warning.

“Sometimes adults seem like a different species.”

Six months that now feel like a decade ago, the first episode of Wonder Egg Priority premiered on Nippon TV. No one, least of all myself, really knew what to expect. Most pre-release scuttlebutt came from the odd title and charming character designs. (Courtesy of Saki Takahashi, and still excellent.) Some smaller amount came from its intriguing staff list and its status as an original project from CloverWorks. I don’t think anyone, really, expected the bizarre technicolor magical girl psychodrama we were given.

Many people ran to the series with an outstretched hand, myself included. When I wrote about that first episode not long after its premiere, the horizon was endless before us. Wonder Egg Priority could have been anything, and as long as you had the patience for a little bit of overt artiness, you could join the ride. And many people did! I made quite a few friends and acquaintances over the course of watching this series, some of whom are quite possibly now reading this article. A sizable amount of them now dislike, or at least are no longer fond of the series. Asking “what happened?” is the easy, but in my view incorrect, thing to do.

And for this series, which meant–and still means–so much to me personally, I do not want to take the easy way out. I have been workshopping different versions of my notes since the original twelve-episode run of the series concluded. But I wanted to wait until its finale–unlucky number 13, delayed after a truly awful production fiasco–aired to make any last calls. As I’m writing this opening trio of paragraphs, I sit in a limbo, aware of the sharply divisive reactions the ending has brought on but not having seen it myself. What will I think of it? It almost doesn’t matter, self-defeating as that may sound. The fire is out and the wizard is dead. Wonder Egg Priority seems tragically destined to exist as a footnote in popcultural memory.

But enough of that. Let’s start with the very first note I wrote, when the series had just ended its original run, over a month ago.

The world is a vampire. Those in power prey on the marginalized, who often feel helpless to escape their situation. If they do, it is often by opting out of existence entirely, either directly via suicide or indirectly via other self-destructive behaviors.

That thought out in the world, it is natural to ask what can save us. Wonder Egg Priority does not answer that question, and indeed I think the great contributor to the finale’s negative reputation is that it doesn’t actually try to. A fact I think many are finding frustrating and alienating.

The natural human impulse to seek an end to a story finds no recourse here. Wonder Egg draws on a long lineage; from Perfect Blue to Revolutionary Girl Utena, from Puella Magi Madoka Magica to Flip Flappers. But the key distinction to be made is that Wonder Egg Priority does not draw a conclusion in the same way that these works do. Utena, most dramatically among these, famously advocates rejection of and escape from oppressive systems entirely.

What is Wonder Egg‘s contribution here? Well, from this point of view, nothing. Wonder Egg Priority ends where it began, the only major change made being who protagonist Ai Ohto is seeking to find again.

Instead, it captures a strange, extremely specific feeling. The series’ final minutes billow and dissolve in the air like a dream the night after a tragedy. Was anything in Wonder Egg Priority “real” to begin with? It’s a fair question to ask, and if the answer one comes up with is “no” they might well feel cheated.

But perhaps we should back up a bit. Let us remind ourselves of the actual facts of the series, its characters and narratives.

As you know, Wonder Egg Priority is the story of Ai, a heterochromiac hikikomori. Before the series begins, her only friend Koito Nagase throws herself from her school’s rooftop, adding Wonder Egg Priority to a long list of anime from the past twenty-five years that fixate on suicide. Ai is given a chance by a pair of mysterious, magical benefactors to bring her friend back to life. The only catch? She has to purge monsters from the strange mental elseworlds of the recently-suicided, in a bizarre funhouse mirror of a typical modern magical girl setup. It’s quite the premise, bearing a passing but notable resemblance to the aforementioned Madoka Magica, but otherwise escaping easy description.

Eventually, she is joined by three other young girls, who form what becomes her new friend group; the playful and blunt Rikka, a former idol, the stern and serious Neiru, the young nominal head of a corporation, and the androgynous Momoe, whose gender nonconformance forms a plot point all its own.

Thematically, the topic of suicide is made mystical and ascribed a sinister, sapient character, named The Temptation of Death here. All else leads back to this, and understanding that is key to understanding the bulk of Wonder Egg Priority. The truth the main run of the show wishes to shine a spotlight on is a very simple one; people, particularly young women, are cast into idealized shapes by the world we live in. If they do not conform to them, they are punished and ostracized. Their eventual death by their own hand is seen as a tragic inevitability, rather than a preventable, active action on the part of the ostracizers. Those who survive eventually become the oppressors themselves, and the cycle repeats. (This, roughly, is what happened to the character of Frill. She is an oppressed-turned-oppressor.)

So all this in mind, what do we make of the show’s ending?

Ai and her friends, in a literal sense, solve very little. Frill, implied to be responsible for the Temptation of Death phenomenon, is not stopped. Acca and Ur-Acca, the maintainers of the entire eggs-and-elseworlds system, are not openly rebelled against, and Ai ends up back on their doorstep at the end of the show. (One might even indeed read certain things as implying that this has happened many times, and the main run of Wonder Egg Priority is just a single one of these iterations.) Even the less supernatural driving questions, such as why Koito killed herself, and whether Sawaki, Ai and Koito’s teacher, is a sexual predator, are not directly answered. Everything remains obscure. One might, not unreasonably, demand to know what the point of all this was. After all, the middle of the show seems to criticize these systems so sharply. What is the point of offering no solution, or even any obvious catharsis?

Well, rarely do I reach for the author(s) in cases like this. But Director Shin Wakabayashi offers this thought, and I find it illuminating:

On the surface it’s a curious notion, given the actual events depicted. But if considered in the proper light, it makes sense.

When Ai finds the garden in which she meets Acca and Ur-Acca in the first episode, she is distraught and directionless. When she returns in the finale, it is after much time has passed, and despite surface appearances, it is on her own terms. Note, specifically, the lack of the Acca-possessed beetle in her second arrival to the garden.

Whether or not she will succeed “this time” is not terribly relevant. She has returned to the unconquered mountain to try again. In her life, it is all she can be asked to do. The same is true of all of us in ours.

Evaluating whether Wonder Egg Priority “works”. Whether or not it “earns” its right to hash through all this difficult material and provide no definitive answers, and so on, is difficult. The series, especially its ending, is challenging and highly unconventional. I do not mean to suggest anything as pedestrian as those disappointed by the ending simply “not understanding it”, but I do think it deserves time and patience that it is not necessarily being given.

To go back to my opening remarks, I have never more in my brief career as a critic wanted to be wrong about the afterlife of an anime. Nothing would make me happier than five, ten, twenty years from now learning of some director, writer, or animator citing Wonder Egg Priority as an influence. But even if that never comes to pass, those to whom this series would speak will find it, I am confident of that much.

Even if we take Wakabayashi’s tweet as the series’ sole artistic aim, it well succeeded. Ai, Rika, Neiru, and Momoe will live forever in a certain corner of my mind for the rest of my life. As is true of all truly impactful works of fiction. If that was all the team went for, well, mission accomplished.

In these ephemeral, fleeting lives of ours, all that we can truly ask of each other is understanding. More than maybe any anime I’ve ever seen, Wonder Egg Priority understands that, if nothing else, on a deep level. In the end, it asks of us just two things; do your best, and take care of each other.

And surely, I think, we can do that.

If you like my work, consider following me on Twitter, supporting me on Ko-Fi, or checking out my other anime-related work on Anilist or for The Geek Girl Authority.

All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.

(REVIEW) Think Like a Biker – The Slowness and Sweetness of SUPER CUB

This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning.

“We’ve already decided on our destination. The farthest end of Japan our Cub can take us.”

It’s about three minutes into Super Cub‘s first episode before anyone says anything. It’s nearly twelve before any kind of background music kicks in. That alone, and the show’s locale–rural Japan, somewhere along the Chuo Line–will clue you in that Super Cub is not merely your average slice of life series. This is an iyashikei, a tone genre that focuses on producing a healing, meditative effect. Any iyashikei is a thing of note; it’s not a particularly saturated genre. A genuinely good one is a precious treasure.

I must confess though, I went into Super Cub skeptical. I’m not afraid to admit I’m something of a snob about the genre, and not always in a good way. In my defense, the very first thing I learned about Super Cub was that it was sponsored by Honda. A “Super Cub”, as both we and protagonist Koguma quickly learn, is a sort of motorbike. Models have been consistently produced for 50-some years, and as more than one character goes over, they’re widely liked and appreciated even outside of Japan itself. Super Cub riding is a hobby in its own right, and if you’re already part of the Cult of the Cub you probably won’t need more convincing to watch this anime.

But, just speaking personally, it’s Koguma herself who won me over. Super Cub has a fascinating little trick that it uses to indirectly convey her mood; the show’s color saturation is directly tied to it. When we meet her at the start of the first episode, she is visibly extremely depressed. She lives alone, apparently abandoned by her parents. With, as she puts it, no hobbies, and very little money. The colors are, for most of the episode, muted and grayed. When a generous old shop proprietor sells her the titular used scooter, the simple feeling of sitting on it literally lights her world up, and the colors bloom into full saturation. It’s a wonderful technique, and it’s one the show uses enough times to fairly call it a signature. For the still-young Studio KAI, it’s a promising visual showing.

Also of note is Reiko, to whom Koguma is extremely married.

Super Cub, like any good story about vehicles, knows that it’s not really about the vehicles. They’re about the freedom and liberation that comes with being able to go where you want with very few limits. Koguma’s story is one of a girl breaking out of her shell with the help of her new hobby, it’s a tale as old as the medium itself. And its best episodes and moments tend to reflect this. Things as mundane as trips to an unfamiliar grocery store, or, later on, an unplanned highway trip, can be magical in the right context. This understanding bleeds into the series’ very aesthetic. Both its soundtrack, which is excellent, and its tour of Japan’s vistas, most exemplified by the road trip in the final episode. It is in this context, with this understanding of its appeal, that Super Cub truly shines.

But it doesn’t always shine, unfortunately. In less impressive moments, it does have the misfortune of feeling like an ad. Which, in its defense, it sort of is. There is fun hobby talk; the sort that tells us as much about the characters as it does about what they’re discussing, and there is dull hobby talk. For Super Cub, this manifests as occasionally becoming dangerously close to replicating the feeling of loitering around an AutoZone. The line between the two is razor thin and Super Cub sometimes crosses it and back again multiple times within the span of a single conversation. It’s believable that a teenager might want to squeeze more power out of their motorbike. A teenager complaining about “environmental regulations” that lead to less powerful engines, as Reiko does at one point, is less so.

It doesn’t cut Super Cub‘s engine, thankfully, but it does occasionally make it feel more corporate than cozy, which is unfortunate. It is the show’s only real weakness, but it’s a notable one.

But, conversely, even at its comparative lowest, Super Cub is simply too odd and too thoughtful to really write off. Weird asides like the character Shii’s family of europhiles, Reiko’s attempts to conquer Mt. Fuji, and so on, prevent the shop talk from ever overtaking the core narrative. Koguma herself, too, develops into something of a snarky, playful type, at least in the presence of friends, over the course of the series. A notable progression from her status as a near-silent protagonist in the opening episodes of the show.

It also picks up something of a dramatic streak in its final few episodes. If the more serious turns here don’t entirely fit the series like a glove, they do reinvigorate it through its final stretch. Koguma’s broadly philosophical musings on her relationship with Shii, the series’ own use of different vehicles as metaphors for moving through life at different “speeds”, and the eventual use of Spring as both a literal coming change and a proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” all tie together wonderfully. Flaws and all, Super Cub cannot be said to have its heart anywhere but the right place.

So if it’s a rocky journey, it’s still a worthwhile one. It seems doubtful that Super Cub will ever rock anyone’s world, but it’s not trying to and doesn’t need to. All it’s trying to do is offer a small comfort in the harsh times we live in. Koguma closes the series by musing that a Cub is not some kind of magical do-it-all machine. The desire to turn an unfamiliar corner must come from within. All told, that is a pretty satisfying note for such an unassuming series to end on. And hey, if it can sell you a bike too, all the better.

If you like my work, consider following me on Twitter, supporting me on Ko-Fi, or checking out my other anime-related work on Anilist or for The Geek Girl Authority.

All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.

(REVIEW) Total System Failure in VIVY – FLOURITE EYE’S SONG

This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning.

“….Goodbye, shattered dreams….”

To evaluate art, you must first understand what it is trying to do. This is a simple maxim of modern criticism and is one applied by myself and many thousands of other writers up and down the length of the medium and beyond. It borders on a truism.

So, then, the question practically asks itself. What do you do when “what it’s trying to do” turns out to be “not very much”? This is a conundrum I struggled with throughout Vivy – Flourite Eye’s Song as it neared its conclusion. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First, the craftsmanship side of things. It’s a Wit Studio production, and looks it. Vivy joins last year’s The Great Pretender as a resoundingly stylish visual affair. The series looks and sounds great and is extremely well-directed. In particular, if all you’re looking for is a fun brain-teaser plot that you don’t intend to take too seriously, and some excellent action pieces and fun character animation, there’s enough to love here to keep you happy.

But what’s it about?

That is a surprisingly tough question.

Vivy is a sci-fi series. In a purely literal sense, it’s about AI, meaning generally androids with artificial intelligence here. It joins a long lineage of anime that tackle this topic, going back to the dawn of the medium.

Vivy herself, the title character, also called Diva, is a singing AI, whose “life mission” (all AI here get one, and only one) is to make people happy with her songs. She’s also the agent chosen by Matsumoto, a cube-shaped automaton who somewhat resembles a cubified version of Wheatley from Portal 2, for a seemingly-impossible task. A century in the future, a war will break out between AIs and humankind. The AIs will decidedly win.

Matsumoto has been sent back in time by his own creator to prevent this, and Diva essentially must help him, or else the future will be doomed. Across a baker’s dozen episodes, she does so. Vivy is the very image of a reluctant adventure protagonist. She rescues politicians, evacuates satellite-hotels as they fall out of orbit, confronts super-factories of autonomous drones, and so on. As a pure spectacle, it’s easy to make a case for Vivy.

The unfortunate, if perhaps predictable, rejoinder to that then, is that despite this Vivy still falls well short of its goal of being a truly new spin on the AI-focused part of the sci-fi genre. Unlike a lot of fiction that tackles this topic, Vivy is keenly uninterested in asking any hard questions of itself, or of its audience. No thought is given to the AIs as their own characters, except in service to their human masters. For Vivy herself the problem is slightly more abstract, but still present.

The series has what I can only call a perspective problem; while Vivy‘s literal plot is tightly-written, at least until it falls on its face in the series’ final third, the actual ideas it presents often come up short. Thinking you have something to say, and actually having such, are, after all, different things.

At the series’ two-thirds mark, it is established that Diva and Vivy are, in fact, different people. What is still often incorrectly referred to as a “split personality” situation but is more properly called plurality. We spend most of the series with Vivy, but starting at episode eight we spend a significant amount of time with Diva, too. Just an episode and a half later, at the climax of episode nine, she dies, done in by a virus that deletes her “personality construct” from the shared body.

On its own, there is nothing inherently wrong with killing a character as the take-a-bow moment to finish out a story arc. In certain genres, and in the proper context, it can work very well. When I say Vivy‘s problem is one of perspective, what I mean is that the trope as used here resoundingly doesn’t. The narrative wrings her for pathos, and when it can no longer think of a way to do that, she gets the proverbial gun to the temple.

The actual scene itself–where Diva and Vivy briefly meet for the first time as the former sings her heart out even as her code unravels by the second–is an audio-visual triumph, one might go so far as to say it’s powerful. But when the songs fade and you catch your breath, you are left with the fact that you’ve just watched a character die because the story could not see fit to let her live. It feels pointless, offensive even, with the benefit of even a few minutes of hindsight.

The scene I outline above is certainly the worst of these that punctuates Vivy, but it’s not the only one, and the series’ habit of killing characters willy-nilly for no good reason is a bad Achilles’ Heel for an anime to have. It doesn’t tank Vivy entirely, as that production aspect is still there, but it completely neuters the series as a narrative piece. It’s genuinely impressive how irrelevant to the current moment it feels in a world overrun with algorithms, deepfakes, and machine learning.

In general, the broadness of Vivy‘s view is tied directly to its success. In the rare moments when it remembers to actually humanize all of its characters, not just the ones who are literally human, it sings.

When it does not, it feels crushingly lonely in the worst way possible. It never finds a real core in any of this death and twisted metal. It’s all story beats run through with impressive, but mechanical precision. In a somewhat grim irony, given its subject matter, it feels like a facsimile of a better anime. It has no soul.

In the end, Vivy‘s narrowness is its undoing. In its final few episodes even the previously solid plot begins to unravel, and the ending escapes being worth detailed analysis. It’s a hodge-podge of garden variety time-loop nonsense, the series’ audacious but completely unearned attempt to transmute flashbacks into an AMV of itself, and finally, of course, the death of Vivy herself. I will leave the issue of whether her resurrection, with amnesia, in a post-credits scene makes this slightly better or even worse to you, the reader.

When Vivy began some naysayers made a called shot about what the problem would be; that Vivy would be a slickly produced series with nothing at all interesting to actually say. With the further note that the series lacks warmth or empathy, I’d now say those people were unfortunately correct, regardless of if they were actually foreseeing potential issues or simply guessing and being right by happenstance. The series has enough merits to avoid being a total waste of time, but conversely I cannot imagine it enduring the march of history for long. Nor does it deserve to.

It is a shame. Speaking only for myself, I go into every anime I watch with the assumption that it will become the best version of itself. That decidedly did not happen with Vivy – Flourite Eye’s Song. Perhaps, someone, someday, will extract its worthy elements and build a better AI anime out of them. But Vivy is not, and can not be, that series of the future. Only just concluded, it is already long obsolete.

If you like my work, consider following me on Twitter, supporting me on Ko-Fi, or checking out my other anime-related work on Anilist or for The Geek Girl Authority.

All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.

(REVIEW) Now That it’s Over, What Even was BACK ARROW?

This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning.

“An arrow to end God’s tyranny.”

BACK ARROW, its name proudly and pointedly stylized in all capital letters, is a gem. Not a gem in the “hidden gem” sense where it’s a fantastic show that’s underappreciated by the masses, (although certainly some might say it is that also) but a gem in the way that you might call your quirky friend who’s a little too into conspiracy theories a gem. It’s not the best show of the Spring 2021 season, and not a personal favorite (I more respect it than anything else), but it’s among the most unique. It’s also by far the one I most expect to pick up a cult following.

On one level, BACK ARROW is a perfectly logical synthesis of the previous work of its two main creative minds; Gorou Taniguchi, creator and director of Code Geass on the one hand, and Kazuki Nakashima, scriptwriter of a number of Studio TRIGGER’s most famous work, notably Kill la Kill, on the other. The result, as anyone familiar with both of these things might guess, is a decidedly strange fusion. BACK ARROW is political, silly, grandiose, philosophical, and ridiculous. This puts it in the same broad thematic space as most of its “parent” anime, like the aforementioned Code Geass and Kill la Kill as well as some work in a similar vein (say, Symphogear). It’s not quite as good as any of those, but it manages to make a strong showing of things regardless.

BACK ARROW concerns the geopolitics–and eventually, the cosmology–of a world known as Lingalind. It is surrounded in its entirety by a massive wall. Were it not for the presence of mecha conjured up via magic circlets called Bind Warpers, Lingalind would be a fairly typical fantasy setting for an anime. I suspect this is deliberate, as one of BACK ARROW‘s aims is to explore the logical conclusions of such a setup. There are two main nations; Rekka and Lutoh, (respectively loosely based on China and a general mish-mash of Western Europe) as well as a number of smaller powers. The mecha are powered by a force known as Conviction, and each owner of a Bind Warper has a statement that they hold as a sort of personal code which changes their mecha’s form and what it can do. (As an example, Atlee, a green-haired sheriff girl, has a conviction of “I’ll manage somehow!”)

Do you like GIANT ROBOTS throwing DARK ORBS? BACK ARROW might be for you.

None of this is all that complex on its own. However, when BACK ARROW‘s title character, Back Arrow (a homophonic pun name on baka ero, “perverted idiot”) arrives, Superman-style, in a capsule from the sky, things quickly change. Across twenty-four episodes, Back Arrow goes on a capital-J Journey across and eventually beyond Lingalind. Along the way, he helps dramatically reshape the world’s political landscape, and eventually comes face to face with a man named Rudolph, who claims to be “God’s arbitrator”. What this means in practice is that Rudolph–a villain so deeply goofy that at one point he drinks wine with his shoulders–plans to destroy the world.

If you thought any part of that was a joke, nope! Completely, literally true.

Things go well and truly off the rails as the series enters its latter half, and if you’re the sort of person who values sheer scale above all else, BACK ARROW will be a likely anime of the year contender for you.

BACK ARROW‘s only main flaw is a sort of inarticulateness. It is fairly hard to say what the point of the series is, exactly, until its very end. Ultimately, it is the same message that almost all of Nakashima’s work imparts; no matter how great the force that holds us down, by coming together, we can overcome it. A simple message of unity in the face of any odds met that settles well with BACK ARROW‘s inherent silliness.

An acquaintance put it best, Nakashima’s main strength as a writer is “to script things that make enough sense internally even if they sound completely wild and dumb when taken out of context.” I could sit here all day and relay miniature stories of conviction particles and nested giant mecha and baby gods, but there’d be no point. These things tie together surprisingly well in the moment, but make little sense outside of them. This is the man who penned what was translated as “kick reason to the curb”, after all.

You understand by now whether or not you’d get anything out of BACK ARROW. If it is a minor work in its creators’ body thereof, that really only speaks to the strength of the competition.

I suspect in the months and years to come, those who would appreciate it will, indeed, find it. It has a magnetism to it, and like attracts like. Don’t be surprised if, five or ten years down the line, you see BACK ARROW topping a lot of “underrated anime” lists. Until then, it flies on, like an arrow in the face of an angry god.

If you like my work, consider following me on Twitter, supporting me on Ko-Fi, or checking out my other anime-related work on Anilist or for The Geek Girl Authority.

All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.


This review contains spoilers for both the original Revue Starlight anime and material original to the film. This is your only warning.

“Take it, the star you wished for.”

“They make more sense in Japan.” That’s long been the party line of the occasional North American defender of the anime recap movie. The sub-medium is much-maligned, but only rarely watched, on this side of the Pacific. An apologist will tell you that TV reruns are rare in Japan, so recap movies help cement a series’ legacy in a way analogous to what syndication–or more recently, finding a second life on streaming–does over here.

Perhaps they’re right to be defensive. The format is intriguing in its own right, and Revue Starlight: Rondo Rondo Rondo is an exceptional example. On their own, recap films present a “greatest hits” version of a TV anime. The fights, the dramatic dialogue, the moments of deep emotion, without, necessarily any of the downtime, exposition, or more minor character moments of the parent series. This also means that they’re generally pretty impossible to follow on their own. (That’s very much true of Rondo Rondo Rondo, certainly. This review, as well.) But if it’s a price paid, it’s a minor one.

But all of this is true of recap films in general. Of Rondo Rondo Rondo in particular, several things are notable. The film does not merely simplify and compress its parent series’ plot, it actually rearranges and recombines it. Splicing in new footage to these films is a common practice, but Rondo Rondo Rondo uses the technique to add a number of extra scenes, which explores the role of Daiba Nana, the mysterious 99th Class Student #15. The core story remains the same, and anything that could be said about Revue Starlight could equally be said about Rondo Rondo Rondo, but this central alteration is worth exploring.

Nana, by many’s account, is Revue Starlight‘s most interesting character. Rondo Rondo Rondo doesn’t exactly expand her role’s scope, but it does elaborate on her nature as a commentator, as the only one of the stage girls who understands the nature of the revues, and so on. More here than in the main series, Nana is Revue Starlight‘s “villain”, in as much as it has one. Her arc, laid out in more compact terms here, hits a bit harder, and the “behind the scenes tours” she gives of the other side of the revues are illuminating.

Elsewhere, the changes are more general, and on the whole are more or less a lateral move. Suggestion is traded in for explication, subtlety for drama. Rondo Rondo Rondo on the whole is more upfront about what it means, but that’s not a bad thing, given that Revue Starlight is still sometimes misunderstood.

Part of Revue Starlight‘s core is that on a basic level, the promise the Giraffe represents; eternal brilliance through artistic transcendence at any cost, is false. All art, no matter its renown, its resonance, or its craft, is transient. Likewise, the flickering flame of fame is fickle, and burns as short as it does bright. Even among those who scale the summit, no one reaches the top alone. This emphasis on transience is partly why Revue Starlight is based around theatre in the first place. It, alone among the major art forms, is infinitely transient. No play is ever performed the same exact way twice.

As a critic, a commentator on the arts, Revue Starlight is the sort of series that puts you in your place. What truly great art accomplishes, what Revue Starlight accomplishes, and what Rondo Rondo Rondo cements, is that for every rule or bit of theory written, every genre named and tagged, every character archetype analyzed and catalogued, there is always, always the possibility of shattering the glass. There is always another path.

This reflects, of course, on Nana’s own circumstance. Locked by her own fear of change into repeating her first year again and again, it is only an unpredictable outside actor that diverts her course. And within this fact, lies the second half of Revue Starlight‘s core thesis.

The paradox is this; despite its transience, art matters, so much, to all of us. Stage Girls as Revue Starlight renders them commit the “sin” of striving for transcendence, but by the actions of Aijou Karen, they’re redeemed. But Karen herself can only move to action by their help. And they, in turn, are fueled, even after they fail the auditions, by that same striving. Through transient bonds–between people, between works, and between each other–something eternal is, nonetheless, created. It’s not an exaggeration to call this one of the miracles of humanity. Rondo Rondo Rondo‘s great triumph is making it even clearer just how well Revue Starlight gets all of this.

Which brings us to the very, very end of Rondo Rondo Rondo. After the TV ending, there is an ominousness. A note that the book on which “Starlight” is based has an unknown author, flashes of uncharacteristic, violent, and disturbing alterations of the series’ own imagery–the stage girls lay dead, blood stains cape clasps and outfits, and splatters the theater floor. It’s all quite a lot!

What to make of this, in light of everything else? A more definitive answer must wait for the release of the film that serves as a proper sequel to Revue Starlight (and to Rondo Rondo Rondo). But for now? Only the reaffirmation that nothing is truly ever settled. Revue Starlight has never seemed to be the sort of series that is comfortable tying things up neatly. Not when there is drama yet to be had, not when there are stories left untold.

The show, as they say, must go on.

If you like my work, consider following me on Twitter, supporting me on Ko-Fi, or checking out my other anime-related work on Anilist or for The Geek Girl Authority.

All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.

(REVIEW) A Mage, a Barrel, and a BLAST OF TEMPEST

This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning.

“We are merely Caliban.”

Full disclosure, we’ve got a bit of a frustrating one today.

I have rarely ever in my limited time as a commentator on anime as a medium written two full-length “reviews” for a single series. I’ve certainly never done it for a show I don’t much care for. Yet, here we are, and here is Blast of Tempest, staring me down like an evil twin in the mirror. Let’s get started.

Very loosely inspired by William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, Blast of Tempest falls within the zeitgeist that was the late ’00s / early ’10s urban fantasy anime tradition, a world quite far from its inspiration. Like many such anime, it is a stew of proper nouns and half-sensical plot developments. Also like a lot of them, it is very silly.

Our premise is founded upon the murder of a girl, one Fuwa Aika, and her brother Mahiro’s quest to avenge her death. From this humble beginning sprawls out what quickly becomes a rather convoluted story. Which eventually comes to involve Yoshino, Mahiro’s friend and (unbenknownst to him) Aika’s boyfriend, a sorceress named Hakaze stranded on an island hundreds of miles away, the acting head of Hakaze’s family, a pair of god-like trees that embody creation and destruction called the trees of Genesis and Exodus respectively, and quite a few more things. Furthermore, Blast of Tempest loves its flashbacks, used to establish characterization post-hoc, especially in Aika’s case.

At its best, Blast of Tempest is content to show you dangerous, motivated people quoting Shakespeare at each other while they run rhetorical circles around, physically fight, or blast magic at each other. This mode, where Blast of Tempest manages to present a flashy, devil-may-care attitude about itself, is where we find the few places where it truly shines. The specific mixture of the flowery Shakespeare quotations, the magic technobabble involved in many of the show’s plot points, the wide swings and consequent misses at commentary on the nature of free will, and the wowee-zowee magic fights combine to make the best parts of the series a kind of low-stakes fun, even if one gets the sense even early on that it’s trying to be more than that.

Near the end of the first cour there is a stunning run of episodes (from about episode 9 to the middle of episode 12), where Blast of Tempest is reduced to three characters smugly proposing thought experiments to each other while the Japanese armed forces assault a mansion protected by a magic barrier. That this run then caps with Hakaze teleporting two years into the future while leaving her skeleton behind in order to avoid creating a time paradox, an action a friend of mine called “reverse-telefragging”, is the icing on the cake. It’s ridiculous on its face, but it’s entertaining, a maxim that describes most of Blast of Tempest‘s high points.

Unfortunate, then, that those high points are as scattershot as they are, and that the show’s first half has the lion’s share of them.

A theory I have about anime like this is that the twelve-episode format actually works wonders for them. It condenses all the stuff of the series–the proper noun soup, silly plot twists, oddball worldbuilding, in-over-its-head themes, etc.–down into a single cour, which is easily kept up with over the course of a season or binge-watched afterward in a few nights. At absolute worst, it’s at least digestible. Here is the problem with Blast of Tempest in this regard; it’s twice that length, at 24 episodes long.

On paper, that doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but Blast of Tempest is an unintentional study on the practical difference between about five hours of footage and about ten. After the end of episode 12, Blast of Tempest effectively runs short on plot, and its previously tight pacing starts to crumble. Half of its main conflict (that between Hakaze and her brother who is controlling her family in her stead) is resolved. Because there are still twelve more episodes to fill, the show must then stretch out the remaining mystery (who exactly killed Aika) for longer than it can reasonably sustain. One plot point must now do the work previously done by two.

Under this duress, its flaws transform from things that can be written off as inconsequential into damaging weaknesses that are fairly serious. The slow, ponderous pace the series adopts from roughly episode 13 to episode 18 is nearly unforgivable. Nothing working in the tonal space Blast of Tempest does survives at such a slow speed. Less because the question of who killed Aika isn’t interesting (it is!), but more because it takes quite a while to actually get to that. A good third of the show’s episodes are filled with narrative pillow stuffing like romance subplots and the non-arcs of characters like Megumu, whose defining trait is that a girl he likes dumped him.

Why does this guy exist?

It does eventually recover, regaining a decent bit of its flashy spirit in its final five or so episodes (things get even messier than before when time travel goes from a one-off and one-way plot device to a recurring element). And it’s not like this kind of middle-third slump is rare in anime like this, but this an uncommonly rough example.

There is another problem as well. Aika herself, as discussed at length elsewhere, stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast in terms of character complexity, despite being dead for the whole series. Aika is established as a sharp thinker with a nonetheless carefree spirit, who subscribes to a peculiar sort of fatalism that doesn’t quite match her actual actions.

Her own musings are the only time Blast of Tempest‘s commentary on the nature of free will even approaches being thought-provoking, and in a better series Aika would be the main character. Ironically, pining for Aika’s full, developed character over the much simpler ones who make up the rest of the cast is, in a way, a reflection of Blast of Tempest‘s own plot. But even if this were intentional, it wouldn’t be to the show’s benefit. Writing an excellent character and then throwing them away isn’t impressive or deep, it’s just frustrating.

“Frustrating”, to go back to that opening sentence, is the operative word here in general. The closest Blast of Tempest gets to having any kind of real point is Mahiro’s declaration in the final episode that “in this crazy-ass world, there’s no point in playing the blame game.” A pithy chestnut that ducks the question of who is really ‘responsible’ for Aika’s death and is generally unsatisfying. It’s a decent enough idea when applied to the real world, but good advice does not necessarily make for good television.

In the final episode, in her second-to-last appearance in the series, Aika dismisses an unnamed book as “dull” and lacking in “inner light”. It’s cheap and honestly a little mean to say that the same could be said to apply to Blast of Tempest itself, but that doesn’t make it wrong. The series’ Shakespeare fixation is, in a meta sort of way, its own undoing. Anime can absolutely achieve the transcendence Aika alludes to in that conversation and that the series clearly strives for. It did so before Blast of Tempest, and would do so again after it. But Blast of Tempest itself just isn’t in that conversation.

I must, of course, turn the lens back on myself here. I have, even very recently, given anime much less ambitious than Blast of Tempest a pass for succeeding at the far more modest aim of simply being entertaining. Worse still, Blast of Tempest even is entertaining at times! But shooting for the moon is a double-edged sword. Blast of Tempest feels like it is trying so, so hard to shoulder an amount of thematic heft that it just cannot lift. I have a begrudging respect for its sheer effort, but the unfortunate fact of the matter is that enough of it is just straight-up dull that, a few specific aspects aside, I can’t muster up anything more than that. A flaw that is, admittedly, perhaps as much with myself as the show. But let no one ever accuse me of not giving it every chance I could think to.

And so Blast of Tempest remains. Unsatisfying, inconclusive, and trying way too hard. It reaches, but it knows not for what. In this way, perhaps Blast of Tempest, like the Caliban of Aika’s metaphor, is all of us.

If you like my work, consider following me on Twitter, supporting me on Ko-Fi, or checking out my other anime-related work on Anilist or for The Geek Girl Authority.

All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.